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Campbell-Influenced Shrink Counts on Folklore's Faces

An Interview with Jonathan Young, Psychologist and Storyteller

by Dan Ord, Missoula Independent

There are those whose life stories seem to exemplify their lives.

Such is the case with Jonathan Young, a psychologist, archivist for Joseph Campbell and adherent to the theories of psychologist Carl Jung-who believed that there are global myths which could tell us things about our lives, no matter what the age or condition of society.

For Young, it would seem the exposure to such a teacher story teller as Campbell, who in the last years of his life became renowned for influencing filmmaker George Lucas' Star Wars trilogy, led to his own interest in telling stories, which in turn reflected not just his interest in the narrative tradition, but his curiosity about how our lives and the tales we tell are connected.

This week, Young-who visits Missoula on Monday, Sept. 29-told the Independent, "Joe Campbell completely changed my thoughts on life and the universe. Through him, I rediscovered a purpose. Working on his archives was a dream come true. I got to see how his mind worked."

With Campbell's passing in 1987, Young says, the major areas of his vast work broke down into a variety of topics. Young himself picked the fairy tales and their meaning as an area of study when the master scholar died.

It was a choice, he says, begin to bring forth some sacred stories of his own. This year, Young edited a book called a href="">SAGA: Best New Writings on Mythology, which includes work by such diverse and well-known authors as African-American novelist Toni Morrison, the recently deceased beat poet Allen Ginsberg, Jungian psychologist James Hillman and his student Thomas Moore, author of the best-selling book Care of the Soul.

"My last main project at Pacifica (Graduate Institute)," Young recently told the British press, "was to start a Department of Mythological Studies. After that was completed, I left to do what I really want to do which is go out and tell stories just like Joe did."

Young explains that the way stories-fairy tales as well as myths or television comedies, for that matter- work is to provide a map of sorts to where people have been and where they can go. Morals, he maintains, are just one of the byproducts which can help us to divine the meaning of any given tale.

In the introduction to Saga, Young states that when someone is lost on the path of life a fairy tale or myth can provide insight. "Stories can keep us company through long nights," he writes, "and sometimes give courage to carry on in the face of difficulties, both obvious and unseen.... Just as the great sorcerer Merlin counseled the knights and ladies of the court, we can receive the assistance of the sages as handed down in great teaching stories."

During his talk with the Independent, Young said that the role of stories hasn't changed much over time, even in the face of rapid technological advances. He apparently has adopted the computer and its attendant trappings as a useful tool for the dissemination of information, referring curious reporters and others to his homepage on the World Wide Web-and notes that Campbell too, in the last year of his life, used television to spread his ideas.

Arthur Rackham, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

Young says that the key to understanding fairy tales is not to fit them with contemporary concerns, but to look for underlying, universal meanings. Young strongly believes in Jung's idea of the Monomyth, an overarching concept which connects forkloric traditions, such as creation myths, as manifestations of common psychological concerns around the world.

But for Young, whose current tour takes him through Canada's British Columbia and a variety of climes in the Pacific Northwest, the need for stories is not just an esoteric, self-help approach to life's problems.

Rather, he says, fairy tales and the like can unlock a spiritual, historic code which can assist in solving the world's crises.

As part of his current series of engagements, including Missoula, Young says, he has been focusing on tales that deal with the forest. His home in California, he explains, has only the barest remnant woods, and the need to understand the dark, confusing wilderness is one of not just spiritual, but physical, necessity.

"It's such a rich vein, this place where I'm working," Young says. "I've been focusing on several stories that speak of our being lost in the dark forest, such as Robin Hood and Little Red Riding Hood."

"I'm coming to a place now that's rich with forest, and it's so apparent the forest is bigger than we are -- we really are lost in it in many ways. But one of the constant themes of these stories is their awareness of the wonder of nature."

Young goes on to say that talking animals and plants in many fairy tales represent a sort of life force. They tend, he says, to break down the wall civilized people have used to keep nature at an arm's length. The environmental ethic, he concludes, is deeply ingrained in these stories, and by recognizing this separation, humanity can not just resolve emotional conflicts, but correct the practices which threaten to destroy the source of much knowledge.

September 25, 1997