Millennial Mythmaking: Essays on the Power of Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature, Films and Games. John Perlich & David Whitt, eds. Jefferson: McFarland & Company Inc., 2010. x + 202 pp. $39.95. ISBN 978-0-7864-4562-2.
Reviewed by Priscilla Hobbs
[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 29.1/2 (#111/112) (2010): 180–83.]
I am a graduate student of mythology, and a book whose titles include the phrases “Millennial Mythmaking” and “The Power of Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature, Films and Games” invokes for me a fair amount of curiosity and expectation. Joseph Campbell declared in his interview with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, that there is no point in mythologizing any component of contemporary culture because there is too much change in the mythic landscape (qtd in Perlich and Whitt 194). To understand the goal the editors have for this volume, it is essential to understand what “mythology” is. Following Campbell’s theories, “mythology” is here used as the stories and rituals of humanity that operate on a fundamental, archetypal level, driving us while simultaneously being driven by us. “Mythology” is not the stories of ancient polytheistic peoples to be studied in literature classes, nor is it a compendium of fantasies or untruths, but something deeper that operates throughout all facets of culture.
The editors, John Perlich and David Whitt, declare from the outset of the volume that they hope to offer a new exploration of contemporary culture and mythology, and how the two are interrelated. They make the assumption that the reader is already familiar with Campbell, the Campbellian definition of mythology, and the model of the monomyth. Derived from James Joyce, Campbell uses the monomyth to describe what he considers the “prime myth,” associated with the archetypal hero’s journey, which he outlined in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Since its publication, Hero has come under scrutiny for its validity to the entire spectrum of human myth while simultaneously becoming the dominant model for literary analysis and story writing. Approaching the essays in Millennial Mythmaking does not require familiarity with Hero, but it does help with understanding the positions of the authors as they approach their respective mythologies. Furthermore, as a teaching tool, Millennial Mythmaking is suited best for late beginner to late intermediate students of myth, but it can also serve as an introductory segue between popular culture and mythological studies.
There are three sections to the book, each including three essays aligned to the section’s theme. Part one, “Contrasting Colors” attempts to present Campbell’s theories through the mode of comparison and contrast. All three essays are successful in achieving the comparison they are trying to make, but the portions focused on Campbell are forced and a distraction that pulls the reader’s attention away from the author’s insight. Although Campbell’s theories are based on cross-cultural comparison, conscious comparison/contrast that places the story over the theory does not do his theories justice. The section title is also misleading since only one essay discusses color: the first essay, “Sorting Heroic Choices: Green and Red in the Harry Potter Septology” (Kirstin Cronn-Mills and Jessica Samens), which looks closely at red and green imagery in the Harry Potter mythos. Both colors are essential to Harry’s growth as a hero—and to the continued marketing of the series—and the most prominent examples appear at crucial intervals when Harry needs to make an adventure-changing choice. The strength of this article is its analysis of the binaries of red versus green, and not Campbell’s monomyth, which really distracts from the rest of the essay.
Similarly, the exploration of the Wicked Witch of the West in the second essay, “The Complexity of Evil in Modern Mythology: The Evolution of the Wicked Witch of the West” (Jason Edwards and Brian Klosa), looks at how this figure has changed from the original movie release of The Wizard of Oz to the modern book and theater phenomenon, Wicked. This essay shows that, through the re-visioning of this character from villain to ambiguous hero, the issue of good versus evil in modern mythology has also undergone an ambiguous transformation, meaning that the traditional delineations between the two are not really black and white. In keeping with the theme of comparison, the last essay in the section, “Polysemous Myth: Incongruity in Planet of the Apes” (Richard Besel and Reneé Smith Besel), explores the polysemous, or multi-faced, theme that has emerged as a popular model in myth and literature, creating hero stories where the hero is not the loner of Campbell’s model but, rather, is assisted by very close friends without whom he or she would fail in the quest. This is reflected in the two Planet of the Apes films. Both the 1968 and 2001 versions tell the story that is relevant to their respective time by highlighting pressing contemporary issues.
The second part, “New Champions,” utilizes the monomyth more successfully than the essays in the previous section, but seeks to propose a new model for female heroes. The three figures explored in this section are Chihiro, hero of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, Madame Sousa, hero of the French animated film The Triplets of Belleville, and Ofelia, hero of Guillermo del Toro’s fairy tale Pan’s Labyrinth. All three female heroes go on a journey of their own epic proportions, which translates nicely to analysis under the monomyth model. As a point of criticism, all three authors observe that the analysis Campbell offers overlooks females, and that they do not undergo the same journey as males; however, all three essays analyze the stories under the same paradigm, still suggesting that a female has to undergo the male journey in order to have a comparable hero’s journey pointing to an archetypal nature of Campbell’s assertions. As a point of strength, “The Odyssey of Madame Sousa: A Heroine’s Quest in The Triplets of Belleville” (David Whitt) not only compares the journey of Madame Sousa with Homer’s journey of Odysseus, amplifying the mythic narrative, but also elaborates an atypical heroine: an elderly woman. Throughout mythology, the elderly are expected to have already traveled the journey and that it is the goal of the young. Similarly, women are expected to live a different paradigm, leaving the journey aspect to the men. The fact that Madame Sousa is an elderly woman speaks to the contemporary situation in the West, where the age limits are higher than ever before with older people holding jobs well past “retirement” age.
Finally, the essays in part three, “No Boundaries,” explore the relationship between everyday life and technology, and how this relationship shapes our approach to contemporary mythology. The first of these essays, “Actors and Their Mythic Heroes: from the Doctor to Captain Kirk” (Djoymi Baker) considers the relationship between actors and the television characters they portray to suggest that, in the age of television, they are remembered for their previous roles as much as their new, thus inviting the two characters to meld together. Specifically, the author looks at Heroes and the intergenerational history is creates for itself with Star Trek and Dr. Who. The other two essays regard cyborg myths. “Running Free in Angelina Jolie’s Virtual Body: The Myth of the New Frontier and Gender Liberation in Second Life” (Ellen Gorsevski) discusses the cultural myths created and communicated through the virtual community Second Life, especially as to how these myths pertain to women. It points out that the mythic paradigm of cyber space is similar to that of Manifest Destiny in the Old West, in which men are the heroes and conquerors and women are supplementary to their journey. This is further exacerbated by the gender bias in the information technology community. “So Where Do I Go From Here? Ghost in the Shell and Imagining Cyborg Mythology for the New Millennium” (Jay Scott Chipman) utilizes the Japanese manga/anime of the same name to explore cyborg myths and their impact on the imagination. The author posits a cyborg’s “creature-journey” (in lieu of a hero’s journey) of liberation from the confines of human control and transformation into another being, independent and self-actualized. Cyborg myths are meant to help us cope with the rapid changes in technology and our own merger with it.
In conclusion, the editors hope that this book conveys that myth is essential and is found everywhere an individual deems relevant, and demonstrate this by looking at select artifacts of contemporary popular culture. From this perspective, they are a success, which makes this volume valuable to the discourse of mythological and fantasy literature studies. However, for the serious mythologist, this volume falls short. While the discourse is valuable, several of the sources chosen are too dated, some being nearly ten years old. Some of them still maintain a popular following today, but others have already exited the scene, thus distancing the reader from the ultimate goal of the book. Finally, the title suggests to me that the book should be about the myths of the Millennials, the generation that came of age around the turn of the century; yet, many of the myths expressed in this book are the myths of the generation just before the millennium.