Seminar Dates and Locations      Articles      Joseph Campbell      Site Map      Search

Margaret Macdonald, 'O Ye, All Ye That Walk in the Willowwood', 1903'

SAGA: Best New Writings on Mythology, Jonathan Young

The Round Table Review

by Gerard A. Voit

Having to absorb so much conflicting data from the media, the Internet, and the very environment in which we live, most of us struggle to maintain balance. That one might come upon some touchstone or talisman to illuminate a path, to give the insight needed to move forward, is a seductive thought. Does this all too common need explain the flourishing interest in mythology and ritual? Can timeless wisdom infuse modern lives with prudence, energy and diversion? Jonathan Young, editor of SAGA Best New Writings on Mythology, (White Cloud Press, 1996) enables us to reflect on this possibility.

His work is reminiscent of the astronomer who seeks out timeless points of light throughout the universe, wanting to know what they have to tell us about our origins, about what brought us to where we are now, about where we may be headed. Young's stars are eighteen leading teachers of mythology and symbolism. Each provides an article, a poem, or an interview with the potential to radiate, as he says, "hidden wisdom about the journey of the soul." Their thinking embraces a broad spectrum-from an "attraction to the concrete, to the tangible stuff of Earth" to "the rarefied realms of spirit," which Marion Woodman, in her entry, identifies with the feminine principles respectively.

One easily relates to the realm of the undying Arthurian spirit in John Matthews' return to the Grail legend, "In Search of Wonder." He does not envision that spirit as distant or atrophied, rather, "...we are all carriers of that spirit, and by seeking the inner reality of the Grail behind the symbols and stories, we are taking part in an ongoing work without which all we hold most dear would long ago have perished." Matthews also sees the Grail essence "linked to the idea of service." Thus, while infused with questing spirit, the trader is challenged to take it into the present reality. The only problem with that is discovering how to get tuned in, not only to what is happening here and now, but to how we feel about what is happening.

A response to that question is found in "On Pilgrimage, An Interview with Jean Shinoda Bolen." Sensitive to life issues of change and boredom, Bolen asserts that it is not enough just to be present, when only our body is there, "the more we adapt to being just partially there, the more we really lose touch with what is vital." She warns against losing touch with the awe and wonder of the child, with the idealism and sensitivity of the adolescent. They are needed qualities which are to be integrated within the adult. How to do that and to hold the opposites? Our decision-making process is complex, and Bolen sees no all-around solutions, no pat methods of accessing the archetype of the self. She believes it takes wisdom and work, therapy is one path, prayer, meditation and solitude are others. The essential need is to connect with the self. She says, "When we pray, 'Thy will be done,' I think we are asking to do and learn what we came for. Let me be who my highest self could be. Let me be on a soul path." We are encouraged to search out the soul path within personal experience, within the events of our daily life. Most of the writings in SAGA orbit around these two constellations, spirit and daily experience.

Some contributors look to the lives of contemporaries, others look to the past. Patricia Reis is among the former in writing about "Psycho Erotica: Pursuing the Perverse with Madonna." She refracts the light emanating from a modern star of music and the movies. What image is Madonna trying to project? Reis pursues this question and wonders, "Does she have the depth of knowledge to know what she is evoking?" On the other hand, Christine Downing goes deep into the past in "Revisiting the Myth of Demeter and Persephone," and from it envisions a post-patriarchal world which requires us "to take on the earth's perspective." Do these reflections on the lives of others, as well as the personal interviews, suggest that soul path is to be found in the footsteps of others? David Miller furnishes the best answer to that question in a quote from the Zen poet Basho: "I do not seek to follow in the footsteps of men of old: I seek the things they sought." What they sought may then be assimilated into our own myth.

Thomas Moore explores that possibility in "Developing a Mythic Sensibility." He notes that our own myth is not so much the story we tell ourselves but that which we live, "...myth is the story we tell when our mouths are shut." His mythic vision is not bounded by the intellect's predilection to interpret every event using the tools of modern science. It dares to express that universe "...where the laws of imagination have dominance." Herein is the essential message of SAGA, to pay vigorous attention to the inner life, to expand the mind and imagination while staying attuned to reality and to how we feel about it.

If there are fallow periods along the way, when the clouds cover our own heavens, it would be worthwhile revisiting this book and to savor its language. As Toni Morrison says in "Language Alone Protects"*, "The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual, imagined, and possible lives of its speakers, readers, writers. Although its poise is sometimes in displacing experience, it is not a substitute for it. It arcs toward the place where meaning may lie."

*Nobel Lecture, 1993