The Hero Journey

This blog often rests on questions of the power of story and how story is architected. A few posts have dwelt on the role of the protagonist as avatar of our dreams and the power of stories to assist in deep self undersanding. Stories have a way of walking us through crisis to catharsis in a way that is restorative to our soul.

A narrative pattern that underpins many great stories has been identified by anthropologist and literary historians as The Hero’s Journey. Articulated best the American scholar Joseph Campbell in his work, Hero with 1000 Faces, the Hero Journey can be identified within most great drama, storytelling, myth, religious ritual, and psychological development.

It describes the typical adventure of the archetype known as The Hero, the person who goes out and achieves great deeds on behalf of the group, tribe, or civilization. By following The Hero, the avatar, the individual lives, dies and is redeemed to the tribe, a new person.

heor journey

Its stages are:

  • THE ORDINARY WORLD.  The hero, uneasy, uncomfortable or unaware, is introduced sympathetically so the audience can identify with the situation or dilemma.  The hero is shown against a background of environment, heredity, and personal history.  Some kind of polarity in the hero’s life is pulling in different directions and causing stress.

hero journey

  • THE CALL TO ADVENTURE.  Something shakes up the situation, either from external pressures or from something rising up from deep within, so the hero must face the beginnings of change.

call to adventure

  • REFUSAL OF THE CALL.  The hero feels the fear of the unknown and tries to turn away from the adventure, however briefly.  Alternately, another character may express the uncertainty and danger ahead.

refusal of the call

  • MEETING WITH THE MENTOR.  The hero comes across a seasoned traveler of the worlds who gives him or her training, equipment, or advice that will help on the journey.  Or the hero reaches within to a source of courage and wisdom.

meeting of a mentor

  • CROSSING THE THRESHOLD.  At the end of Act One, the hero commits to leaving the Ordinary World and entering a new region or condition with unfamiliar rules and values.

hobbit

  • TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES.  The hero is tested and sorts out allegiances in the Special World.

never ending story

  • APPROACH.  The hero and newfound allies prepare for the major challenge in the Special world.

luke and yoda

  • THE ORDEAL.  Near the middle of the story, the hero enters a central space in the Special World and confronts death or faces his or her greatest fear.  Out of the moment of death comes a new life.

you shall not pass

  • THE REWARD.  The hero takes possession of the treasure won by facing death.  There may be celebration, but there is also danger of losing the treasure again.

end of epidsode 1

  • THE ROAD BACK.  About three-fourths of the way through the story, the hero is driven to complete the adventure, leaving the Special World to be sure the treasure is brought home.  Often a chase scene signals the urgency and danger of the mission.

finale harry

  • THE RESURRECTION.  At the climax, the hero is severely tested once more on the threshold of home.  He or she is purified by a last sacrifice, another moment of death and rebirth, but on a higher and more complete level.  By the hero’s action, the polarities that were in conflict at the beginning are finally resolved.

frodo

  • RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR.  The hero returns home or continues the journey, bearing some element of the treasure that has the power to transform the world as the hero has been transformed.

hero journey

 So when questioned why you enjoy story so much or whether reading is wasting your time, simply reply that you are working on your emotional, psychological, spiritual, social and even physical health.

More stories please !

Former Things – The Taxidermy of Polly Morgan

It’s an exciting day for Bear Skin Blog.  It’s the day of the first ever guest blog. Damien has been a reader and follower of Bear Skin for some months, offering feedback and suggestions which have led to this guest post. He introduces himself in his own words:

Damien Shalley is a highly caffeinated and totally overworked researcher for the Australian government. His artistic tastes lean toward the esoteric. His record collection includes Dean Martin and The Cramps. He is thinking about buying a sphynx cat and calling it “Geoff.” He lives near a store that sells three hundred varieties of cheese.

If you are a reader and follower and have your own article to share please submit to jennifer@bearskin.org.

Questions, comments and feedback always welcome.

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 Former Things – The Taxidermy of Polly Morgan – by Damien Shalley

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Death: the ultimate negative.  No matter how magnificent one’s life was, death destroys it.  Prince or pauper, all men are equal when their memory fades.  Is it possible to salvage something from death?  Christian tradition tells us that faith in God will result in salvation.  But a sceptical, rational world isn’t always willing to accept this point of view.  That’s why the works of English taxidermist and art world sensation Polly Morgan are so intriguing.  Morgan creates unique pieces which seem to suggest that rebirth and resurrection are a true possibility, not simply the wish-fulfilment fantasy of deluded souls.
Polly-Morgan-3

Many people possess preconceived notions about taxidermy, due in large part to traditional manifestations of the process as represented by three primary examples.

  1. The preservation of beloved pets;
  2. Hunting trophies;
  3. Anthropomorphic dioramas of animals engaged in human activities.

Morgan subverted the conventions of all three and delivered genuine artfulness in her pieces, due in part to her professional skill and in equal part to her thematic constructs or “point of view”.  Her vivid and groundbreaking work – apparently inspired initially by her inability to find a suitable piece of taxidermy to decorate her flat with – caused a genuine sensation in the art world, the effects of which continue to reverberate.

The rebirth of doomed creatures into something beautiful and elegant has many parallels with spiritual concepts of resurrection.

Former_Things

One such piece is “Morning”, a robin impacting a pane of glass but retaining its physical form and essence.   It has been noted by more than one observer that the scenario depicted by Morgan is not at all what happens when a robin crashes into a window pane.  That is exactly the point.  Morgan has presented something that suggests “breaking through” in a magnificent, glorious, ethereal way.  And in a nutshell, that may well be the precise point of Morgan’s work.

sunny side up

Morgan’s ability to bestow dignity upon creatures that have died in ugly circumstances is a hallmark of her work.  Evocative and uncanny, her artistry seemingly possesses the power to instil new life into empty shells.  Cynics argue that this is purely superficial, but Morgan is genuinely capable of recreating the essence of a creature in her work – and instilling a sense of wonder into audiences.

Fox and Chandelier

There is something very positive in her imagery.  Morgan’s “Fox and Chandelier “ bestows a quiet dignity and peaceful reverence upon a creature whose existence was unceremoniously obliterated.  A viewer of her work was quoted by as saying that the beauty of her “corpses” somehow transcends death to demonstrate the beauty of the animal…in life”.  This seems to be her motivation, so indeed she may be regarded as a success regardless of her “art world pop star” status and elevated public profile.

carrion callchicks emerging from coffon

Morgan famously created “Carrion Call” featuring chicks breaking free from a coffin.  Something universally associated with death becomes a vestibule or birthing place new life.  Morgan said of this piece “Coffins are fairly egg-shaped. It’s a symbol of life triumphing, emerging from death.” [Eyre. H, (2010) Polly Morgan: Death Becomes Her, The Evening Standard].  Her reference to this work as an example of life emerging from death might be soundly criticised as counter intuitive.  Is she not in fact depicting death springing from death?  No, she is not.  She has spent her entire professional life drawing upon death to create something hopeful – transcendental – and her ultimate motivation is positive.  Life will ultimately triumph over all obstacles – even death.

Anthropologists often describe Western culture as death denying.  It is indeed quite uncommon for most people to see a deceased person in our society, or to engage with the often unpleasant realities of death.  Even departed loved ones are regularly farewelled without family members viewing the deceased.  We are interested in – some might say obsessed by – success, achievement, material wealth and the achievement of power.  But to some degree at least, these pursuits are ultimately hollow.  On an individual or personal level, they are all rendered void by our ultimate demise.  We “pass away” – die – and all is lost.

Morgan_Raw

Morgan puts all this before us too.  She does not soft sell death, nor does she promote a sentimental approach to the stark reality of extinction.  Death is often ugly, and many of her works present this ugliness in a very confronting manner.

morg_p

Prior to her studies at Queen Mary College, London, Morgan struggled with the death of one her best friends from an accidental heroin overdose.  She viewed the body – the lifeless shell of a previously vibrant young woman with whom she had recently holidayed, laughed and loved.   Does this represent the genesis of her fascination – some might say determination – to rescue something positive from death?  Not according to Morgan herself, who is a resolutely practical woman unimpressed with psychological interpretations of her work and disinterested in self-analysis.   “It was upsetting mainly because it didn’t look like her: that’s not her. It’s surreal. Very hard for a human being to get their head around.” [Eyre. H, (2010) Polly Morgan: Death Becomes Her, The Evening Standard].  It is very possible that this sad event did subconsciously inspire her artistic endeavours at least in some way, and it is certainly a pointer to where much of her work would lead.  Morgan goes to great lengths to create beautifully realistic taxidermy which captures the quintessential beauty her subjects possessed in life.

   polly-morgan_r6POLLY-MORGAN-IMAGE

Morgan has also previously spoken of her country upbringing in the Cotswolds, where she was regularly exposed to the realities of the natural world through her participation in agricultural life.  She observed the cycle of existence first-hand – both the confronting and the beautiful –.and developed a sensibility capable of recognising both the tragic and the redemptive.

    Polly_Morgan1p.morgan

Morgan herself represents “life” in all its fullness.  She is young, attractive, intelligent, articulate, accomplished.  The juxtaposition of her beauty with the morbid subject matter of her work may well be part of her appeal.  She fits the “acceptable” pop culture celebrity model.  She is very much a member of the current coterie of English art stars, alongside Damien Hirst, Peter Blake and Banksy. (Banksy invited her to exhibit in his Santa’s Ghetto gallery in 2006).  When the world’s most famous purveyor of street art thinks your work is worthy, you really have “arrived”.  She is unpretentious but self-assured, and her work possesses a strong ethical foundation.  She utilises only pre-deceased creatures – nothing is killed for her work.  She frequently uses donations from vets and pet owners as source material for her artworks.  Morgan has been quoted as saying that “…killing something and trying to make it look alive again is not a very natural thing to do.”  [Collinge, M. (2010)  Polly Morgan’s Wings of Desire, The Guardian].  Her underlying commitment to the ethical use of her animal subjects seems to inform her inherent confidence in her work, and also represents an effective repudiation of critics who might argue that her art is morbid or ghoulish.

   Morgan_BWMorgan P

In recent times, Morgan’s work has become more expansive.  Her pieces are larger and some of the intimacy of her earlier work is – perhaps – missing.  This could reflect an artist’s response to the challenges of career evolution.  One cannot stand still in the art world, nor be a “one-trick pony”.  A rise in the popularity of taxidermy after Morgan’s well-publicised career success may have something to with this as well – there is nothing more pressing than the need for differentiation when one is facing persistent competition.  Regardless, Morgan does not appear to have lost sight of the essence of art, and even if she is no longer subverting conventions to quite the same degree, her work retains the power to inspire.

Flying Machine 2flying machinemorgan

 

It is often said that where there’s life, there’s hope.  Polly Morgan’s amazingly evocative work suggests that – perhaps – where there’s hope, there’s life.

Polly Morgan Exhibitions

Morgan-Coffin ChicksPolly-Morgan-Wings-of-Desire_Maniamorgan-lives.

Reading the Bible as Literature

In an earlier post, I essayed about how meaning in the Book of Job can be excavated by understanding the genre as a form of late 2nd and 3rd century BC  satire. This literary understanding of Job should shake few orthodox believers since few scholars posit that Job has much historical merit. Even Calvin did not put any historical weight to Job rather stating that Job was a literary piece.

This begs the question, what can be gained by reading the Bible as literature? And what can be lost?

tower of babel

Much of the bitter debates between science and faith stem from a scientific reading, or attempt thereof, of Genesis 1-3. Problems, arise from placing historical merit to genres such as apocalyptic [Daniel, Revelation]. Literary-critical readings of the ancient texts have attempted to excavate and construction process of each text, assembling fragments of early texts and detecting seam-lines between these and newer segments, seeking to map the hand of later editors or ‘redactors’.

Is there merit in assuming that for scripture to be credible, it must have poured in one sitting into the mind of the author and transcriber and onto a scroll, much like Muhammed’s reception of the Qu’ran in a cave centuries ago? Does the hand of editors, the assemblage of various genres and the combination of historical events with literary and theological meaning undermine the merit of scripture, infallibility, inerrancy and so forth? What are the implications of  genre [generic?] readings of scripture?

The heart of such questions comes down to this – do the above questions, undermine the truth of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, the cornerstone of Christian beliefs? If the earlier passages are various forms of methaphor, simile, parable, fable, legend and poetry – can we put any historical, scientific and factual weight into the existence of Jesus and the value of his teaching?

Jesus myth

C. S. Lewis wrote extensively about myth and the gospels, owning that the  crucifixion, while being a historical event [Cornelius Tacitus in his Annals, xv. 44: Christus … was executed at the hands of the procurator Pontious Pilate], this doesn’t preclude its subsequent mythologization. But neither does it negate its historicity. The accounts of Jesus life and deaths assert that  is that the ressurection was a specific historical event in which humanity finally gains a fulfillment of its ancient desire for eternity:

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens — at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.

Myth became fact, essay published in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, C. S. Lewis, Walter Hooper (Editor), Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Reprint edition (October 1994; original copyright 1970 by the Trustees of the Estate of C. S. Lewis). 

Lewis essentially surmises, that all the ancient poets, artistcs and mystics, dreamed of a solution to the human dilemma, and painted word pictures to express this resolution. When Christ lived and died, he simply fulfilled these predictions, in historical time. This is the truest case of characters walking out of dream into history, out of narrative and into time.

jesusresurrection_2

JRR Tolkien says as much,  stating that  the difference between the ‘fairy-story’ (or for Lewis, ‘mythic’) elements of the Gospels and other fairy-stories,  is that the Christian story ‘has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfilment of Creation’ (‘On Fairy-stories’, 62). In a letter to Christopher his son,  he clarified:

Of course I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only a fairy-story; but I do mean very strongly that they do tell a fairy-story: the greatest. Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story. But since the author of it is the supreme Artist and the Author of Reality, this one was also made . . . to be true on the Primary Plane. (Letters, 100–101)

The glory of the gospel story therefore is that it is the ‘true’ myth, myth become fact, fairy-story incarnate in primary reality. As Tolkien concluded in his essay, ‘this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused’ (‘On Fairy-stories’, 63).

And so, with tender reading, the Bible yields much to the reader and love of both myth and history.