Hit or Myth: In Search of Modern Classics
I began work on this paper with a clear goal: showing that Don Rosas comic series, The Life and Times of Uncle $crooge McDuck, fulfilled all the requirements of classic myth, and that, indeed, it is one. But in hindsight I see that this pursuit was doomed from the beginning. I am now prepared to state emphatically that no modern story can attain the status of myth. Let me take you on an abbreviated version of the heroic quest that led me to this conjecture.
* * *
Once upon a time (this century, the eighties) there was a civil engineer, Don Rosa, who owned a successful construction company, founded by his grandfather. Like many of his generation (early boomer), he grew up reading Disneys Uncle $crooge comic books, being especially impressed with the works of Carl Barks, $crooges creator. These stories, written in the fifties and sixties, are generally adventurous fantasies, scrupulously researched in terms of locations and history. Unfortunately, Carl Barks retired in 1966, and, by the mid-seventies, no more Duck comics were being created or published in the United States.
Then one fateful day in 1986 Don Rosa went into a bookstore and discovered that Uncle $crooge comics had been resurrected and were being published again. "The moment I saw that, I realized it was what I'd been waiting for, almost subconsciously," Rosa says (Söderbaum). He immediately called the editor. "I told him I was the only American who was born to write and draw Uncle $crooge comics, and it was my manifest destiny; there was nothing he could do about it." The next day he began work on his first Uncle $crooge story, "Son of the Sun," a tale about the ancient Incas and the temple of Manco Capac, for which he won a Harvey (the comic worlds equivalent of an Oscar) (Söderbaum).
Suddenly all Rosas spare time was taken up creating new Duck stories. He closed the family business in order to draw full time. After a few years he conceived the idea of writing a series of historical comics about the early years of Uncle $crooges life, which he titled The Life and Times of Uncle $crooge McDuck. Rosa and his fans abbreviated this as Lo$ for short. Originally designed as a twelve-part series, it has grown into (so far) a seventeen-part saga that just keeps expanding (Elliot).
Rosas work became the new standard for Uncle $crooge and the other Disney Duck characters: Donald and his nephews, Daisy, and a host of villains and peripheral characters. Through some unfortunate decisions on the part of the various publishers and copyright holders, the financial viability of the United States comic series was destroyed (this is a research paper in itself). In Europe, 40 million people regularly read $crooge comic books (Elliot). In some countries it is almost a tradition that when newlyweds become expectant parents, they will subscribe to Uncle $crooge comics, in order to have something to read to their child. Unfortunately Rosas stories are not published in any language he himself speaks, a fact which saddens him considerably (Söderbaum). But the brilliance of Lo$ is undeniable.
* * *
In order to prove that these imaginative stories about a tightwad duck are myth, I reasoned that first I needed to nail down exactly what the definition of myth is. Accordingly, I went to my old standby: Websters Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. I found that myth is defined as: "a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon." But this is discouragingly vague. While I might be able to do something with "world view of a people, "usually" and "ostensibly" are hardly definitive words.
I decided to consult the experts on myth. Surely, given the amount of scholarly effort that has been expended on the subject, someone has formulated a good, working definition of myth. The obvious choice, the most well known name in mythology, is Joseph Campbell, familiar to many of us from the series of PBS interviews with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth. Here is an individual who seems to have spent his entire life talking about myths and their importance. However, my search of his major works (The Hero with a Thousand Faces, The Masks of God, and Myths to Live By) provided only more frustration. Campbell talked about myths, recounted myths, and deconstructed myths. He delineated the four functions of myth: mystical, cosmological, sociological, and pedagogical. He described the six stages of that icon of myth, the heroic quest (readiness, confrontation/reconciliation, obstacles, the goal, the helper, and transformation). But, to my knowledge, never did he define myth. The closest he got to it was more of a clever side-step than a definition: "The basic theme of mythology is that the visible world is supported and sustained by an invisible world" (Resources).
I reasoned that if Campbell didnt define myth, it must be because someone who predates him had done so in such a decisive manner that no further definition was necessary. Claude Lévi-Strauss , a Professor of Social Anthropology at Collège de France in Paris, was a well-known expert on myths and mythology. He said, "[M]yth is a category of our thought which . . . attempts to explain natural phenomena, products of oral literature, philosophical speculations, and cases where linguistic processes emerged to full consciousness" (10). Again, we are talking about vagueness of nearly mythic proportions. What, exactly, does this quote mean? Doesnt nearly everything fit into this "definition" somewhere? I simply couldnt see that it would accomplish much to describe Lo$ by this yardstick. Enfolding $crooge into a definition seemed either ridiculously easy or pointless, by virtue of the vagueness of the definitions available.
I tried to cheat. I decided to create my own definition of myth in this same manner: by not defining it, just stating the characteristics of myth, and finding that the works of Don Rosa do, in fact, fulfill these functions. I completed a very nice rough draft which did just that. But it left a sour taste in my mouth. I felt as if my thesis was, "See, it looks like a duck, it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck. Its just got to be a duck." It took some serious introspection to locate the source of my discomfort. This is best described as the voice inside me that responded, "Fine. But it still doesnt feel like a duck."
So I was left with a dissatisfied sort of grumpiness about my thesis, and the suspicion that Rosas masterwork is not myth. I began to examine other modern tales, checking them against the criteria established for myth, and then against my gut feeling about them. I thought this process would quickly reveal some flaw in my thinking and take me, in triumph, to the proof of my thesis. Once again, my heroic quest was thwarted.
The first work I considered is the poem "Jabberwocky," by Lewis Carroll. I picked it because it has such an obvious heroic quest: a young man, having been warned of a terrifying monster, enters a dangerous wilderness and slays the beast, returning to the adulation of his father. Despite the use of nonsense words the meaning of the poem shines clearly through, presenting us with numerous of Campbells criteria for heroes and archetypes. Surely this is a classical myth, in the tightest meaning of the word.
But again, the gut check fails to confirm this status. It just isnt a myth. It simply doesnt feel like one. Why not? What is that necessary something thats missing? After much thought I finally decided it is too small and too silly to constitute a myth. It lacks substance. And it isnt serious. Its frivolous.
Once again, convinced Id plumbed the depths of the concept, I confidently strode out into the wilderness, prepared to slay this beast. I decided if background, depth, and solemnity are a necessary part of myth, Id go for the Holy Grail of detail. Id take the deepest, most serious modern story I could think of and measure it against my new yardstick. I thought of a perfect candidate: J. R. R. Tolkiens The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkiens classic is complete in the three books (one-half of which is an index with additional information), but is also supported by two other complete works, a "prequel" titled The Hobbit, and a prehistory, The Silmarillion. There is certainly no lack of depth here. And while portions of the tale are hilarious, it is definitely a serious work, executed in exquisite detail.
But again my feelings betrayed me. It just doesnt seem right. It is clearly a masterpiece, it is complete, and it fulfills all of Campbells criteria, but it just doesnt feel like a myth, in the realm of the classics. I couldnt exactly say why, but my gut kept telling me, "Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!" I was reminded of the Supreme Court Justice who said he couldnt define pornography, but he knew it when he saw it. Once more I retreated and considered what to do next.
Finally I decided to examine tales I knew were myths, the ones all scholars agree are classic examples of myth. There are Homers works, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Homer, a blind Greek poet, didnt write them. He simply was the best of his time at reciting the epics, which were long narrative poems handed down in an oral tradition. Thankfully, someone decided to write them down, and now we have them as Greek myths. (Fiero 73)
I next considered some Native American myths, a large body of works, ranging from tales of the creation to accounts which, by our standards, are bizarre and incomprehensible. I began to reflect on, in particular, "The Winnebago Trickster Cycle." In this long narrative one section recounts a seemingly ridiculous scatological tale in which the Trickster experiences diarrhea of truly "mythical" proportions. Trickster experiences the bowel movement to end all bowel movements: "Down he fell, down into the dung. In fact, he disappeared in it, and it was only with very great difficulty that he was able to get out of it. . .The pack he was carrying on his back was covered with dung, as was also the box containing his penis." (Baym 64) This is hardly serious material. If your three-year-old told you this story you would call it "potty talk." But from the unimpeachable source of an indigenous people, it is a classified by the experts as myth.
Another curious Native tale finally brought the dawn. In the Sauk myth, "The Painted Turtle," we find the lead character is named Jesus, "sent to earth to teach everyone how to do good, and the right way to live." (How 156) One can imagine this hero might have had a different name two hundred years earlier. This is somehow troubling to the modern reader. We say, "This story is all well and good, but what is the original story? How did the real myth go?"
At last, light began to dawn in my befuddled head. I considered my own works of fiction: short stories that Id worked on for months, even years. Are they done? Some of them are, but only because Im too sick of them to give them any more energy. (Actually, Im sure Ill work on them again. They just havent quite percolated enough.) Robert Frost, the poet, changed his poems throughout his life. This is the seventh attempt Ive made at this essay. Many great artists, Masters, painted over their early work, or parts of a particular painting, unsatisfied with their original. Do we go to them and say, "Fine, but what is the original? What does the real painting look like?" Would we scrape off the top layer of the Mona Lisa to find the "original"? The very idea is ridiculous. So why would we do this with a myth? I believe the answer has to do with the difference between literate and preliterate societies.
Because we are a literate society, we can write things down and look at them later. Members of a preliterate society do not enjoy that option. This inability to make an external record is probably responsible for both poetry and music, as they are aids to memory, mnemonic devices, which make easier the memorization of long stories. But, at some point, someone came along and wrote down Homers poems. Someone wrote down the Native American tales. Someone wrote down Sophocles plays, the Rig Veda, the African creation stories, and all the other tales which we readily accept as "classic myths." Still, they all existed before they were written down as a story.
Lewis Carroll created "Jabberwocky," and perhaps he got the idea from some other story he had read or heard. Certainly it is likely that he copied the form of the heroic quest from something else, or from that archetype, but the story was his. Tolkien, a student of ancient languages, obviously borrowed extensively from them, but the particular story recounted in his works is his and none others. And Don Rosa, although he relied heavily on the works of Carl Barks, made up the saga he recounts in The Life and Times of Uncle $crooge McDuck. It is his story, and no one elses. In each case, there is no oral tradition from which these stories are drawn.
Classic myths are like photographs. They depict something that no longer exists, just like a photograph. Yes, you can take another snapshot of the Washington Monument or your Aunt Trudy, but never again can you capture that moment. An anonymous Greek scribe wrote down Homers Iliad, locking it into a position it had spent years or centuries aligning itself into. It didnt suddenly jump into existence. It wasnt made up. Instead, it evolved, through multiple authors and incarnations. It grew in a way no story can in a literate society.
So, back I went, to my original premise. Is Rosas The Life and Times of Uncle $crooge McDuck a myth? In the sense that all stories we tell are myth, yes, as are The Lord of the Rings, "Jabberwocky," and episodes of Friends. In the classic sense of myth, no. While it fulfills most of Campbells criteria, presents classic archetypes, and follows the heros quest, it is not, and never can be, a myth, in the sense of the classics. It is a story, a fable, great entertainment, and a lot of fun. But it is not a myth. It is a story made up by one individual, who wrote it down, and illustrated it, however brilliantly. It is, in the end, just a comic book.
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