After exploring ancient, Eastern, and Western mythology and religion up until the approximate time of the Dark Ages, Joseph Campbell’s final volume of his Masks of God series deals with the “modern” world. As societies became increasingly mobile and fluid, the social purpose of religion and myth (transmission of local cultural “rules” to each generation, and the acceptance of those rules) fades in importance. Now what?
Creative Mythology explores what happens as cultures begin to intermingle, how local symbols are repurposed for new reasons in new places. He uses the lens of epic poetry to show us the heretic Christian ideas of Tristan & Isolde, the heavily pagan roots of Beowulf, and the Islamic influence on Dante’s Divine Comedy (which was super interesting to me, since I took a class on just this work in college, and to the best of my recollection, this never came up). He moves into the modern world by dissecting some of the works of Thomas Mann and James Joyce (Finnegan’s Wake, Ulysses, and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). Portrait was something I read several years ago that I enjoyed not at all and remembered precious little of, and after reading about it here, I’m not sure I want to read Ulysses even though it’s a “classic” because it sounds very tiresome. Campbell wraps up his review by discussing the Holy Grail mythologies in the Knights of the Round Table/Arthurian legends (this section is very very long), and then concludes by reflecting back on the functions of mythologies, and how they have and do work (or not, as the case may be).
I’m not going to lie…I’m very glad to be done with this series. It was very informative, but only sporadically interesting. Do I feel much better versed in world religion and mythology? Yes. Would my life have been just as lovely without it? Absolutely.