The thing that makes mythology and folklore so intriguing and endearing is the storyteller and how that person presents, emphasizes and sets forth a story with precision and interesting articulation, an emphasis on the critical words, and a sense of humour to give a semblance of realism to the characters. Joseph Campbell (1904 – 1987) was one of the best.
Joseph John Campbell was born March 26, 1904, in White Plains, New York. He was born into an upper middle class Roman Catholic family. At a young age, Joseph became thoroughly fascinated with the Native American culture and their myths and legends. It was his father who first took him to see some Native American artifacts at the American Museum Of Natural History in New York. Just seeing the artifacts was not enough for Joseph. It was not long before he was very knowledgeable on the Native American society and mythology. Campbell's lifelong passion for mythology sprang from this interest. Lecturing and sharing these stories with others was a natural talent for him.
After Campbell graduated from Canterbury School in Connecticut in 1921, he attended Dartmouth College where his main interest lay in humanities. He received a B.A. in English literature in 1925 and his M.A. in Medieval literature in 1927 from Columbia University. While at Columbia University, he received a fellowship to study in Europe. He studied Old French and Sanskrit at the University of Paris in France and the University of Munich in Germany. He mastered both the French and German languages with just a few months of study with dedicated determination and remained fluent in both languages his whole life.
While in Europe, Campbell was very much influenced by and interested in the writings of James Joyce and the period of the Lost Generation, which was a time of tremendous intellectual and artistic innovation. Campbell related that Joyce was a great influence on him. He was so impressed that within Joyce he found that same type of living in a realm of fantasy, which is very Irish, and which is also found within the Arthurian romances. He found that in Joyce and he found it within himself.
Campbell found a strong interest when in Europe in not only James Joyce, but Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Jiddu Krishmamurti. In Krishmamurti he found a personal friendship which inspired his lifelong interest in Hindu philosophy and mythology. He also found a love for modern art in the paintings of Paul Klee and Pablo Picasso.
After returning from Europe, Campbell entered a life of independent studies when his advisors at Columbia did not approve of his wish to study Sanskrit and Modern Art along with Medieval literature. From 1929 - 1934, he paced himself intensively in independent study and his schedule was strict. He was relentless with himself. He read for three hours out of every four. He studied only where his personal interests led him, his only advisor being himself. Campbell spent one year in California to continue in studies. During that time he met and became friends with writer John Steinbeck.
In 1934, Campbell was offered a position as professor at Sarah Lawrence College (through the efforts of his former Columbia advisor W.W. Laurence). Campbell married one of his former students, dancer and dance instructor Jean Erdman, in 1938. He retired from Sarah Lawrence College in 1972, after having taught there for 38 years. Joseph Campbell died at the age of 83 on October 30, 1987, at his home in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Several years ago, I was browsing in a bookstore and came across some tapes by Joseph Campbell. It is a three cassette set on Transformations Of Myth Through Time. This set includes the final lecture series with a fascinating journey into the Arthurian legends of courtly love and the quest for the Holy Grail. Within this series, Campbell relates these ancient myths to the modern Western viewpoint on marriage. Our virtues, loyalties, dedications and personal heroisms can be found in the Arthurian legends of long ago - when matters of the heart became issues of life and death. It is of the individual quest to find that deep love within us all.
I was so pleased with these tapes that I listened to them over and over, never tiring of the stories or Campbell's voice. It seemed as if he was right there in the room with me and I felt like a child, being comforted, with his soothing tones and expressive dialogue. Listening to the stories, I would close my eyes and, because of Campbell's manner of relating the incidents in them, I could see in my mind these legendary characters of the twelfth century come alive. I could see Tristan reaching for Isolde, or Lancelot in all his glory, trying to hide his pain for the love of Guinevere. The way Campbell related ancient myths to modern day thoughts, morals and principles was profound. The way he brought the heroes of times past to me was enchanting.
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