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Jonathan Young Believes Children's Stories are Relevant to Adult Lives

by Tom Kisken/Ventura Star Staff writer

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The "Little Engine That Could" had it wrong. In addition to chanting, "I think I can, I think I can," the locomotive should have asked itself whether the extra mileage was worth the stress.

Jonathan Young, who trained with famed mythologist Joseph Campbell, earns his living by turning children's stories inside out. He dissects the most common, shopworn fables and finds symbolism that makes the tales relevant to adults today.

When the Santa Barbara psychologist hears about the engine chug-chug-chugging its way up a mountain, he wonders about workaholism.

"It seems to suggest that the maximum effort is always the best, instead of describing what the optimal would be, that is, a more balanced life," Young said. At some point he should say, "Is this enough yet?"

The founding curator of the Joseph Campbell Archives and Library in Carpinteria, Young will unwrap his thought on timeless stories Saturday and Sunday at the Church of Religious Science's Center for Positive Living in Ventura.

He'll talk about how "Cinderella" is a story of rebirth and finding your true nobility. The cruel stepmother and sadistic stepsiblings represent self-doubt. It is as if people go through life with imaginary characters perched on their shoulders -- some yanking at the strings of insecurity and others rallying us to believe any goal is attainable.

If the participants are anything like Margaret Broughton, who heard Young wax mythical in Santa Paula, they'll eat it up.

Broughton, 72, and a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church, was so inspired by Young she visited the library afterward and checked out "Cinderella."

There was so much he covered that I didn't get in the original story," she said. "For the first time, I could connect. I saw myself as Cinderella, the stepmother and the stepsisters."

There are skeptics.

Walter Crane, Frog Prince Revealed

Young maintains "Little Red Riding Hood" can be viewed, in part, as a caution against addiction. The little girl felt an urge to pick flowers on the way to grandmother's house. If she had been able to conquer the compulsion, maybe the wolf wouldn't have feasted on Granny.

Try that one out on Judy Fickes Shapiro, owner of Adventures For Kids bookstore in Ventura. She groans.

Shapiro may not buy the theory of an addict-in-hiding, but she agrees with Young that fairy tales are timeless tales and can be used on occasion as guides to living.

And if the Santa Barbara psychologist sees obsessive compulsive behavior in what Shapiro views as a story about avoiding unsavory wolves, that's fine.

That's his take on it," she said. "Maybe it tells you more about him than it does about the story.

Walter Crane, The Frog Prince

Beating his Drum

Young speaks with his hands, molding the air into thoughts. He loves to talk about finding a spiritual missing in life and said his ex-wife quipped that living with him was like going to church seven days a week.

He watches"Ally McBeal," beats on drums in men's movement conferences and likes to roller-skate.

His impressions on workaholism come from experience. He once juggled jobs as professor at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, Mythological Studies Department Chair and Curator of the Joseph Campbell Archives.

Now, he leads seminars for psychologists on how mythical stories can be used in therapy. On weekends, he's a traveling bard who goes from conference to conference, telling and exploring timeless stories.

"I'm following my bliss," he said with a smile, using a phrase Campbell favored.

Maxfield Parrish, the Enchanted Prince

Young already was studying mythology when he heard Campbell in a weeklong seminar in 1981. But the 78-year-old scholar explored myths as no one else did. He searched for links between different belief systems, including Islamic stories and American Indian folklore. He used his knowledge of literature and Jungian psychology to find hidden nuances in myths, Bible stories and Asian legends.

Campbell, who died in 1987, became almost a cult figure after interviews with Bill Moyers on public television. He was a pioneer whose thoughts were linked to the "Star Wars" trilogy and author Robert Bly's work on the men's movement.

Young spent three years assisting Campbell at his seminars.

"He gave me back the sense of illumination I had in my childhood faith," Young said. "Some of that sense of the magnificence of life and its significance came back in his teaching."

Like his mentor, Young uses myths and stories to help people sense the meaning in their lives. If you can detect the symbolism in, say, "Hansel and Gretel," you'll find similar meanings in everyday existence.

It's a way to find out your reason for being. Young calls in re-enchantment.

We are not supporting players in someone else's story," he said. "Each person is the star of a grand theatrical production that is their life story."

Going Overboard

Young calls Alice in Wonderland a way of learning the importance of fantasy. In "Hansel and Gretel," as in many stories, the forest is synonymous with danger. It's a place, he said, "that seeks to swallow you up."

"The Princess and the Frog King" often is told as a story of a princess two turns a frog into royalty with the power of her kiss. Wrong. Young said the original story tells of a young woman's betrayal of her father's wishes by refusing to repay a frog for a great service with her love. She becomes enranged and hurls the amphibian against a wall. Only then is it transformed into a handsome young king.

They live happily ever after.

"It's a lot like contemporary relationships," Young said. "Many important issues are worked out through argument and conflict."

The Wizard of OZ is another of Young's favorites. The wicked witch and flying monkeys represent our inner fears. The wizard symbolizes the phonies and frauds encountered every day.

The journey to OZ is a quest for what we all want -- wisdom, courage, compassion and a sense of home.

Young said he has learned to spot cynics. If so, he may know Julie Albright. She's the children's librarian at Ojai Library and loves fairy tales. But she's not sure the stories were intended to be peeled like an onion. What you see, she said, may be what you get.

"I'm afraid that people who take children's books and try to get these deeper, darker meanings are just going a little bit overboard," she said.

Young acknowledged he and other mythologists find meanings that an author may never have intended. That doesn't mean the symbolism isn't there.

In "Cinderella", "Rapunzel", and countless others, the imagery is too thick to ignore. All Young does is find ways of using the stories as tools to ignite the imagination.

"I think one of the biggest challenges in an industrial culture is boredom. We're compulsively practical," he said. Mythical stories "give daily life vitality and color... It just makes life so exciting."

© The Star (Ventura, California), Tuesday 27 October 1998