For the past several Thursdays—which is the day, on the blog, that I share something academic—I have posted rehashings of papers I have written for my classes. I don’t particularly enjoy this sort of blogging because there is no unifying theme. Yet, I am compelled by my New Year’s resolution to blog every day. For the three days a week that I provide original content (Thankful Tuesday, Meditation Saturday, and From the Classroom), Tuesday and Saturdays seem to hold continuity while Thursdays have been haphazard.
Thus, beginning today, I am starting a new series on the blog. I am not sure how many posts this series will have, but I expect it to go for several weeks. The title of the series is “Myths, Legends, Fairy Tales, and the Bible: reading scripture as mythology.”
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As you may know from my previous posts on the subject, I am taking a course on mythology this semester. The way the class is structured is interesting. We have spent the first three weeks looking at theory. The rest of the semester a different student in the class will lead each week’s discussion, assign the readings, and otherwise focus the class (as an aside, during my week, we will be looking at incest motifs in mythology—including Tolkien’s Children of Hurin).
We had a brief discussion in class last week—after reading Joseph Campbell—about reading the Bible as mythology. One of the things we focused on was the way we whitewash some of the bible stories in order to make them appropriate for children. Thus, with the story of Noah, the focus is on happy animals and rainbows and is not on the fact that God drowned all of humanity and all of the animals. We connected this to Tolkien’s admonition, in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” that fairy tales shouldn’t be whitewashed. We also connected this to Bettelheim’s argument that whitewashing gruesome fairy tales deprives children of the ability to sublimate their fears, a necessary psychological function.
In other contexts, I have had conversations with people in which they and I have lamented the fact that our churches divorce the stories in the bible from their literary and historical contexts in order to have material for Sunday morning children’s church. I have been of the opinion that such separation reduces parables, pericopes, asides, stories, and other literary units to mere fairy tales or fables with a moral at the end. I want to, with this series, begin tracking that opinion back. My question for this series is this: should we treat certain “bible stories” as fairy tales?
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Here are some caveats I want to offer before I go any further.
First: I do not plan to spend time exploring the historical/scientific veracity of the bible. That, for my purposes, is neither here nor there. I simply don’t care. Personally, I doubt a lot of stuff that the bible describes—especially in the Old Testament—happened exactly as it says, but I think it is possible, though maybe more difficult, to read the bible mythologically even if you think it is totally factual.
Second: Though I consider my Thursday posts to be more academic than the rest of the week, these posts are still blog posts and thus remain informal. I will use this series to muse, ask questions, propose, retract, etc. Thus, I intend the tone to be conversational—like we were in a classroom. This means, among other things, that I can change my mind.
Third: Nevertheless, I am in graduate school. I intend to spend my life in the academy. I would be lying if I did not say that I was looking down the road to using the material, ideas, or substance here produced for a formal, academic piece, whether a journal article or conference presentation.
I will now set the stage for a sustained discussion of bible stories next week.
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Generally speaking, myths are large stories of cosmic proportions. They explain the reason the world, humanity, fire, or any other thing integral to human life exists. They are about gods and goddesses. Legends tend to be more regional. They explain how a city was founded, or why that particular mountain is where it is. Legends frequently involve human heroes. Fairy tales are local stories, particular to certain villages or towns. Unlike myths and legends, though, they tend to refrain from naming a recognizable place. Rather, they take place “once upon a time” or “in a land far away.” They feature unnamed characters or, if they are named, they have generic names. For instance, Hansel and Gretel may sound odd to us, but they were as common to Germany and Austria as Jack and Jill once were for us. Fairy tales serve a different purpose than myths (cosmic explanation, history of origins) or legends (cultural explanations, political justifications). They are about how the ordinary person, frequently a child, overcomes a difficult obstacle.
Now, of course, these delineations are not perfectly neat, but they serve their purpose. Fairy tales, legends, and myths can all interact with each other and function in relation to each other. The result is a mythology. Thus, for example, The Hobbit is a fairy tale that fits comfortably in the legend of The Lord of the Rings which, itself, is a footnote in the grand Tolkien mythos, most holistically found in The Silmarillion.
My working hypothesis is that much of the bible works this way—with fairy tales fitting into legends that fit into myth. My guiding theoretical underpinnings will include Tolkien’s article “On Fairy Stories,” the work of Joseph Campbell, and the work of Bettelheim.
Next week, I will discuss Tolkien’s requirements for fairy tales and their relationship to the bible. Briefly, the four are 1) Fantasy. The story must take place in a world where the observed, scientific facts of our world don’t hold sway all of the time. For Tolkien, creating a fantasy world is about the act of sub-creation, a way in which people demonstrate the way they are made Imago Dei. 2) Recovery. The main character(s) regain clear sight at the end, having struggled with doubt and darkness. 3) Escape. The story must allow the reader to enter the fantasy world—to escape from the doldrums of modern life. At its deepest level, fairy tales are about escaping death. 4) Eucatastrophe. Tolkien coined this word. By it, he means the good catastrophe. That is, contrary to tragedy, there must be a sudden, joyful turn. The result is a happy ending. Tolkien maintains that this is the most central part of the fairy tale.