What about the heroine's journey?

In Hollywood not so long ago, it was sort of an insider tip that to be successful as a screenwriter you needed a working knowledge of Jo...


In Hollywood not so long ago, it was sort of an insider tip that to be successful as a screenwriter you needed a working knowledge of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero With a Thousand Faces”.

In this 1949 book, Campbell exposes the ideas and symbols underlying myths around the world, including the Hero’s Journey, the basic plot that propels the stories of Jesus, the Buddha, Moses and Ulysses. In the hands of George Lucas, who turned to Campbell as a guide for what made a hero, Luke Skywalker was added to this pantheon.

As for women, however, Campbell, who died in 1987, was a little more limited. There were no adventures, battles or triumphant returns for them. The place of women in these founding myths, he once insisted, writing about the muses, was threefold: “one, to give us life; two, to be the one who receives us in death; and three, to inspire our spiritual and poetic realization.

Campbell’s ideas have spread through culture for decades, especially after a series animated by Bill Moyers in 1988 – but he has long called for a feminist response. It would be difficult to find a more suitable person to provide one than Maria Tatar, the Harvard professor who is one of the world’s foremost folklore scholars.

Her new book, “The Heroine of 1001 Faces”, released this month from Liveright, is a response to Campbell, though she is careful not to portray it as an assault. “Even though my title suggests I’m writing a counter-narrative, or maybe an attack on it, I see it more as a sequel,” Tatar said in a video interview from his home in Cambridge, Mass.

She stirs up what JRR Tolkien has called the “cauldron of history” in search of the girls and women, some silenced and others forgotten, some from the Iliad and others from Netflix, who live in Campbell’s blind spot. The reader goes from Arachne’s battle with Athena to the escape of Bluebeard’s trickster wife to Pippi Longstocking and Nancy Drew and even Carrie Bradshaw typing on her laptop.

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It was a book, Tatar said, that she had written her entire life, but it took Covid-19’s first single year of isolation to provide the focus to bring it all together.

“It was such an adventure for me at such a dark time for everyone,” she said. “It was also during the long winter nights at the height of the pandemic. It kept me alive. That’s what stories do, after all.

The first woman at Harvard to rise through the ranks of assistant professor to a permanent position in 1978, Tatar, trained as a specialist in German literature, fell into the study of children’s books and fairy tales almost by accident. As a mother in the 1980s, reading these stories to her own children and discovering their strangeness and violence, she came up with the idea of ​​writing about them and eventually teaching them. The first class she tried it on was successful, and she got her new specialization. She has since annotated many volumes of folklore, including those of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen.

When the #MeToo movement arrived, it made her look back on all the stories she had taught and see, like she had never done before, the need to speak up for women – to find the heroines. “The silence part was only half of it, as women found ways to express themselves,” she said. “It was enough to recognize the instruments they were using.

Her Harvard colleague, Henry Louis Gates Jr., who worked with her on the 2017 book, “African-American tales annotated“Congratulated Tatar for” having supplemented Campbell on the genre “in the same way as the cultural critic Albert Murray began to fill Campbell on the run (Murray’s 1973 book, “The Hero and the Blues,” was part of that effort).

“She’s not a demolition expert,” Gates said of Tatar. “It would never occur to him to undertake a Campbell review in a hostile manner.” For her, it’s an elaboration. But this elaboration is a major overhaul of our understanding of the representation of women in mythology and storytelling more broadly. “

Tatar began by examining the classical myths at the center of Western civilization. In the background of the hero’s journey were women with little capacity for action, like Penelope waiting for Ulysses. What would it be like to see these stories from their perspective, as writers like Margaret Atwood in “The Penelope”Do now? Suddenly, mortal women who have been “seduced” by the gods, such as Leda or Europe, appear as victims of sexual violence and not as women who choose to flirt with swans and bulls.

But the Tatars then moved on to folk tales, oral traditions firmly in the domain of women, even if they were often recorded for posterity by men. These tales, with their lessons on how to cross a menacing wolf or the cruelty of fate, offered heroines full of cunning and quick thinking. Although they never received Greek mythological status, these stories contained moral principles intended for women and girls on how to live.

At the end of this research, Tatar finally landed in modern culture, immersing herself – at one point she began to quote Britney Spears to me – and began to tease the distinct qualities that made a heroine. She wasn’t interested in engaging in concrete archetypes or a certain set of numbered stages in the journey of a heroine like Campbell. But looking at characters like Jo March, Miss Marple or Lisbeth Salander allowed him to achieve certain traits: curiosity, empathy, desire for justice or fairness.

Tatar realized that she had a hard time understanding what it meant to be a heroine since she was a girl from the Chicago suburbs while reading the Wonder Woman comics. She was 5 when her family emigrated from Hungary to the United States after WWII, and she felt marked as a ‘displaced person’, remembering her panic that she might be deported. if it did not signal a change of address.

The public library was her refuge, she said, “the only place where you could really be alone and get over some of the discomfort you felt at being in a place where the tongue didn’t come.” not naturally and the culture was unfamiliar. “

A memory stuck to Tatar since his adolescence. Taking a college entrance exam in a room with a hundred other students, she had an hour to write on the question “What is the hero?” She froze. “I remember so clearly holding on to that moment, because, you know, I could pronounce the names of Achilles, Hercules and Ulysses,” she said. “But I couldn’t understand what was so heroic about them.”

Beyond the fact that they were “natural killers,” she said, and that they were fighting for immortality, she couldn’t find anything to write about other than that they were brave. “I was so embarrassed about it,” she said. “It was a cliché. But I couldn’t understand what was so exceptional about them, what they had done that was positive. “

In the introduction to her book, Tatar also stages the kind of speech that characterizes the characters she writes about. The story involved his thesis committee and a professor who almost torpedoed his doctorate there. defense. A year earlier, he had tried to corner her in his office. ‘it was not locked’). Her advisor defended her, but when he later asked her if she had a history with the professor, she couldn’t bring herself to say what had happened. Like many others, she writes, I have been silent.

Tatar declined to name the professor, in the book and in the conversation, but said he was no longer in the faculty. “I am citing the experience less to indict and to show how easily women could derail back then,” she later added in an email, “as well as to suggest that there had to be have a lot of women who actually went off the rails. “

Even though on the surface there is something calm and peaceful about her presence, her book and her argument are fierce. As another Harvard colleague, literary scholar Elaine Scarry, put it, this is a typical juxtaposition with Tatar.

“She’s so calm and wise, almost like a pearl,” said Scarry, “and then she tackles these stories that contain such disturbing subjects. It’s like Vermeer meets Grimm.

The whole pandemic of watching Netflix (although it was limited to an hour a day) has also made Tatar wonder if the binary she is developing – a heroine to match the hero – could be a necessary but already outdated exercise. in a culture that is evolving rapidly, and fortunately, she thinks, towards the blurring of those distinctions.

“One of the things that history tells us is that things keep evolving and changing,” she said, “that history is dead if you don’t change it. won’t be relevant, it won’t be convincing, if you don’t keep doing something new with it.

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