Campbell examines ways of determining the history of folk tales, and the way in which they preserve history. As he so aptly puts it: ‘Every story — every motif, in fact — has had its adventurous career.’ He speaks of the traffic into Europe from the Islamic world in the Middle Ages. Some of those tales had already travelled from India. The Arthurian romance blossomed at a time when Celtic legends met those Islamic stories head on. Wonderful plots were embroidered with magical Celtic notions of fairyland. And there is something magical indeed in the realization that we have inherited stories across hundreds and even thousands of years.
The same stories have served many masters, exemplifying differing moral traits in different times, in accordance with the beliefs of the teller. As Campbell says, a story ‘changes like a chameleon; puts on the colors of its background; lives and shapes itself to the requirements of the moment.’ And tales can take on a power of their own — Campbell footnotes the accidental Christian canonisation of the Buddha, because of a ‘garbled story from the East’. For several centuries, the Feastday of Saints Barlaam and Josaphat was celebrated; until nineteenth century folklorists showed that good Catholics were actually honouring the Buddha.
Folk tales have been eagerly adopted by many great storytellers, including Boccaccio and Chaucer. Shakespeare too was a borrower from existing tales. In the nineteenth century, the publication of folk tales also inspired new works. For instance, both Wagner and Mann revisited the tale of Tristan and Isolde.
There are several ways of assessing the meaning of a folk tale. Euhemerus noted that soon after his contemporary’s death, Alexander the Great began to appear as a demi-god in legends. Consequently, he put forward the idea ‘that the gods are only great mortals, deified.’ The theory that myths exaggerate real events is therefore called ‘Euhemerism’.
Max Müller and the Indo-Germanic philologists ‘believed that myths were originally sentimental descriptions of nature’. So, nature is seen as a metaphor of human events. They pointed out that Indo-European nouns are either masculine or feminine, so personifying nature; but the original meanings of such terms are often lost. For example, when the sun is called Kephalos (or ‘head’), it is turned into a reference to a human youth, and the bride of the sun becomes the fading dew, Prokris. These names come to be taken as references to real figures, and myth transforms to legend: poetic metaphor is seen as historical reality.
Another view sees myths deriving from a terror of ghosts, and an attempt to propitiate and despatch them. Followers of this idea have believed that‘The roots of myth and ritual went down to the black subsoil of the grave-cult and the fear of death.’
The sociologist Emile Durkheim argued that a superexcitation (‘surexcitation’) was experienced at popular gatherings, and an infectious power felt by the participants, and that this power was ascribed to the emblem of the people — its totem. This totem would then infect whatever was associated with it, bringing into being a system of beliefs and practices, which were in turn made sacred by contact, and so bound the community together. So heightened feelings are transferred into some emblem of the people who experience them, and that emblem believed capable of emanating the same feelings. Campbell applauds Durkheim’s theory because ‘it represented religion not as a morbid exaggeration, false hypothesis, or unenlightened fear, but as a truth emotionally experienced, the truth of the relationship of the individual to the group.’ (Anton Mesmer and his followers attributed the distribution of ‘magnetic fluid’ from charged objects, and altered states have readily been induced simply through belief in an object’s power.)
Campbell turns to his own view regarding the significance of dream in the production of the web of folklore, and the residue within tales of the archetypes of human behaviour: ‘Mythology is psychology, misread as cosmology, history and biography.’ And myth is ‘a picture language ... the native speech of dream.’
The great storytellers were ‘not bad scientists making misstatements about the weather, or neurotics reading dreams into the stars, but masters of the human spirit teaching a wisdom of death and life. And the thesaurus of the myth-motifs was their vocabulary. They brooded on the state and way of man, and through their broodings came to wisdom; then teaching, with the aid of the picture-language of myth, they worked changes on the patterns of their inherited iconographies.’ And here we come to the crux of the matter: ‘The Way of the individual is the microcosmic reiteration of the Way of the All and of each.’ So, the tales come vividly to life, invested with import for each new generation, a plastic material capable of transforming — shape-changing, as it were — to inform whoever is captivated by them. The myths are a repository of human wisdom that have evaded the iconoclasts and the burners of books.
Campbell explains, ‘The tale survives ... not simply as a quaint relic of days childlike in belief. Its world of magic is symptomatic of fevers deeply burning in the psyche: permanent presences, desires, fears, ideals, potentialities that have glowed in the nerves, hummed in the blood, baffled the senses since the beginning.’