This is the third post in my series about mythology (myth, legends, and fairytales) and the bible. In the first post, I explained my interest and intentions for the series. I briefly laid out some of my theoretical underpinnings for how I understand myth. In the second post, I took a longer look at my theoretical assumptions about the nature of both myth and the bible. As I pointed out last week, I will not be reading the bible or any of the stories from the bible in their historical or scientific contexts. Instead, my goal is to talk about the way the stories can function for 21st century American Christians—that is, as fairytales.
As promised last week, I will today examine the story of Samson (my favorite bible story growing up) according to Tolkien’s fairytale cannons.
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When I was a child, my mother frequently read bible stories to us from The New Illustrated Children’s Bible published in 1970. To the left is a picture of the cover. I am still working on getting my hands on a copy so I can show you pictures of the inside (I’ve put in a request through the inter-library loan system, so we’ll see). It may not be obvious why this matters, but I am certain that it does.
I suppose that if we are going to entertain the thought that bible stories function as fairytales for some people, then the form in which the child first encounters the story is relatively important. While—and I will argue this here in a minute—I am certain that the grown-up version in the bible contains the necessary elements of fairytales, the fact that we have separated the bible off into “stories” and put them in books that function as collections of stories (much like Grimm’s Fairytales) indicates our acceptance of them as fairytale-esque. Moreover, as a child, I never really thought about the story of Samson in terms all that different from The Sword and the Stone (my favorite Disney movie) or Power Rangers. I wanted to have super strength like Samson and magic like Merlin and an awesome robot t-rex like Jason.
In any case, the form in which most modern American children hear bible stories—whether from a book of them like I did or just in Sunday school—is a reductive form of the original that truncates big words and concepts so that children can understand. In this, the presentation of bible stories is closely aligned with fairytales.
(I grant that Tolkien comes out vehemently against viewing fairytales as just for children. I concede the point—in which case bible stories are good for adults as well!)
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If you read the story of Samson (Judges 13-16), you will notice that it fits loosely into the overarching narrative of the book of Judges. Actually, Samson isn’t a whole lot like the judges who came before him since he wasn’t a very good guy and spent most of his time trying to kill people (though this is partly the point of the story—explaining how Israel headed downhill and why they needed a monarchy). In any case, Samson has a definite beginning and a definite ending and the story takes place in a definite location. In this, the original seems more like a legend than a fairytale. The legend of Samson, we might call it.
But think about the way a modern American child might hear the story. Or, really, think about the way a modern American adult might hear the story.
Even if the story of Samson functioned as a legend for ancient Israel (remember, a legend helps explain why the status quo is the status quo and it typically makes use of human heroes, taking place in recognizable location) and helped explain the origins of the monarchy or the enmity with the Philistines, it is not a legend for our culture. Most definitely not. It is an accident of history (or providence, you choose) that we have maintained written record of an ancient Near Eastern culture thousands of years removed from ours. While you may have encountered Gilgamesh in school, your mom probably didn’t read you legends about him before you went to bed each night. So, we have preserved stories like the legend of Samson for religious reasons, but we don’t exactly know what to do with them.
Because they don’t function as legends for us. We may try to make them history, but mostly we make them fairytales. Imagine reading (or hearing) the story of Samson as a child (yes, I have fairytale-ized it):
Once upon a time in a land far away called Israel, there was a man named Samson. When he was just a baby, his parents promised God (apparently an invisible wizard of some kind) that they would raise him to never cut his hair. This was to pay God back for Samson’s mother getting pregnant in the first place.
After Samson grew up, he decided he wanted a wife. The problem was, though, that she was a Philistine (a bad group of people if there ever was one). His parents tried to talk him out of it, but he insisted. On his way to get his wife, God gave him magical strength enough (since his hair was so long) to rip a lion in half and eat the honey it had inside it (ewww) . . .
I’m not going to finish out the story, but you get my point: for a modern American child, this story is not qualitatively different from The Sword in the Stone. Moreover, I think we can find Tolkien’s fairytale cannons in the story.
As I wrote in the first post in this series, Tolkien’s cannons are the following:
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 madeImago 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.
This first cannon is easily met. The scientific facts don’t seem to apply all of the time. Samson possesses supernatural strength, and this strength is arbitrarily tied to the length of his hair. He is able to rip lions in half, kill thousands of people with the jawbone of an ass, and pull an entire temple to the ground. Moreover, to the child, the land in which this takes place is the magical land of Israel (or as I grew up calling it, the bible land), the same place that other magical stories take place (Jonah, Noah, and Elijah, to name just a few). Moreover, the “once upon a time”-ness gives it the feeling of fantasy (I grew up calling this the bible times). Thus, the story of Samson takes place in “bible times” in the “bible land”—clearly fantasy.
This is also clearly met by the story of Samson. The meat of the story is Samson’s struggle against the Philistines. In the last third of the story, he falls for Delilah. After she figures out the secret of his strength, cuts his hair, and has him arrested and tied up by the Philistines, Samson finally experiences recovery. Gaining clarity and praying to God, his magical strength is returned to him. He is able to accomplish more in his final breath than he was during the entirety of his life.
This cannon is about the reader/hearer, not about the characters in the story. For Tolkien—and this is connected to the fourth cannon—fairytales are about escaping death. That is, the reader/hearer is entranced by the fantastic world of the fairytale—she escapes from the doldrums of life into a place where there is magic. This clearly takes place in the Samson story. Pulled in by tales of a man with magic strength who rips lions in half and fights people using a jawbone, the hearer/reader is excited to join in the adventure. The story captures the imagination.
In traditional fairytales, this is the part of the story where Hansel and Gretel shove the witch into the oven. It is the sudden, joyful turn of the story: all will work out in the end. In the story of Samson, the eucatastrophe is not a traditional one in that the main character dies, but it occurs nonetheless when Samson accomplishes his task by being given the strength to pull the temple down on the celebrating Philistines. That this is a joyful and not tragic occurrence is evidenced by the fact that his family buried him with honor among his ancestors. He had done what he wanted to do: he had overcome his limitations. Tragedy would have had Samson die an ignominious death at the hands of the Philistines.
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Next week, I will use Bettelheim (who reads fairytales as a psychoanalyst) to take a look at the Jonah story to see what, if anything, the story has to say about our psyches.