The Comedy of Terrors: Reading Myth with Marina Warner

The Comedy of Terrors:

Reading Myth with Marina Warner

Poetry Nation Review 128 (July/August 1999), pp 52-5

Laurence Coupe


When Marina Warner began writing about myth, in the mid-seventies, the term ‘myth critic’ was a term of abuse. It meant that one was probably an unthinking admirer of Carl Jung, and was given to unsubstantiated generalisations about primordial narrative patterns and about archetypal images such as the ‘great mother’ and the ‘wise old man’. This nonchalant approach was in the process of being replaced by aggressive new methods derived from structural linguistics. A leading influence was Roland Barthes, author of the recently translated Mythologies. The title, of course, was meant to be provocative; the point was that when Barthes used the word ‘mythology’ he really meant ‘ideology’. Thus, instead of musing upon rites of passage and quests for the Grail, one should be rigorously exposing the way advertisements, magazine covers and sporting events deluded their consumers, persuading them that what was artificial was perfectly natural, that the way things were was the way they had always been.

Early on schooled in structuralism, which had taught her to see everything from table manners to religious rituals as the phonemes of a cultural grammar, Warner knew Barthes’s Mythologies thoroughly.  But, without going over to the other extreme, the Jungian game of ‘spot the archetype’, she avoided the stance of abrasive confidence with which ‘semiological’ analysis , interrogating the ‘production’ of meanings by ‘sign-systems’, emptied myths of all mystery.  Indeed, we can trace her development as a successful overcoming of the anxiety of Barthes’s influence.  In her early work she invokes him in the manner of a disciple; in her later work, though he is still being acknowledged, she clearly finds his equation of ‘mythology’ and ‘ideology’ inadequate.  Perhaps we are now in a position to see that her contribution to the interpretation of myths is by far the more valuable: in going beyond his narrow agenda, she opens up their infinite potential.

Even in one of her earliest books, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson, 1976), we can see Warner refusing merely to ‘expose’ a set of stories or symbols.  While enlisting Barthes in her repudiation of  ‘the eternally feminine’, she may be seen even here to be prevented by her fascination with Catholic iconography from offering a reductive reading of Christian mythology.  Indeed, it is precisely in developing her historical approach that she demonstrates the residual power of the female image.  She celebrates what we might call ‘the everchanging feminine’.  Thus, she moves with ease from Inanna, the Mesopotamian goddess of fertility, to the ‘beloved’ in the Song of Songs, to the ‘bride’ of the Book of Revelation, to the worshipped lady of Troubadour poetry, and so to Dante’s Beatrice.  The unifying factor is the Virgin Mary herself, who is either anticipated by, or anticipates, each of these figures.  Indeed, Warner is able to make such transitions in the spirit of the Christian witness itself, with its dynamic structuring in relation to previous scriptures.  For it is clear that her concern with time, with the interaction of past and present, derives from her own early Catholicism.  A good deal of Alone of All Her Sex focuses on Mary as ‘the second Eve’.  Though she does not use the term, what she is addressing is the principle of ‘typology’, whereby the ‘type’ (Adam, Eve) is temporally related to the ‘antitype’ (Jesus, Mary). As she explains in her interview with Nicholas Tredell:

The New Testament is the book, the Old Testament is the prefiguration of the book, there is an Old Covenant and a New Covenant, and the New Covenant exists as not just a continuum but as a recapitulation in an actual form of the promise of the past. (Conversations with Critics, Carcanet, 1995, p. 246).


As she further explains, this is the principle behind much of her own fiction.  She mentions Indigo, which is informed by ‘the sense that we re-enact what was prefigured, that, without it being deterministic, there’s some sort of divine plan, that the structures repeat’ (p. 247).  Here she is using ‘divine plan’ figuratively, but with the deference that is due to Christianity’s ambitious attempt to read history as a narrative of redemption.  Thus, though Indigo is a reworking of The Tempest rather than the Testament, the idea that myths gain resonance in time, through imaginative reworking, is a lesson learnt from scripture, with its dimensions of prefiguration and fulfilment, foreshadowing and realisation.  Interestingly, Warner’s volume of short stories Mermaids in the Basement is essentially an audacious series of  ‘antitypes’, with the tales of the fall, of the flood, of the encounter of Susannah with the elders, and of the visit of Solomon by the Queen of Sheba, amongst others, acquiring new life in the contemporary world.  If the original idea was that the Christian scriptures were the completion of earlier ones, Warner implies that the best stories are those which never exhaust their promises.  In effect, what she is about is the secularisation of the scriptural pattern, in such a way that the closure of ‘typology’ is translated into the endless possibility of transformation.

The initial idea that myth extends itself in history, through the power of the imagination, has itself been explicitly addressed in her last three critical works.  These might be thought of as comprising a ‘trilogy’: one which so powerfully demonstrates her capacity for reading and rereading, telling and retelling, that one hesitates to categorise it as ‘non-fiction’.  It deals with the themes of monstrosity and fear, and it indicates how these might be accommodated in a vital, open-ended narrative of understanding. The latest of the three volumes has already been widely and favourably reviewed – though in the process it has been treated very much as a ‘one-off’.  Here we might redress the balance by relating it to the rest of the ‘trilogy’.

The first volume, Managing Monsters: Six Myths of Our Time (Vintage, 1994), is the transcription of the ‘Reith Lectures’ broadcast the same year.  It attempts to move between the areas of mythography (interpretation of myth), literary criticism (revaluation of classic texts) and cultural studies (description of  popular entertainment).  The six lectures deal respectively with demonic females, with aggressive males, with childhood innocence, with the  ‘wilderness’, with primitive ‘savagery’ and with nationalism.  Once again, Barthes is acknowledged, but here the reservations are explicit: while his work may amount to an ‘exposure’ of myth, ‘as he reveals how it works to conceal political motives and secretly circulate ideology through society’, her ‘own view is less pessimistic…’ (pp xiii-xiv).  For the ‘process of clarification’ can ‘give rise to newly told stories, can sew and weave and knit different patterns into the social fabric, and ‘this is a continuous process for everyone to take part in’ (p xiv).  Her main title is explained by etymology: she traces the word ‘monster’ back to two Latin words, one of which means ‘show’ and the other of which means ‘warn’.  Thus: ‘a myth shows something, it’s a story spoken to a purpose, it issues a warning’ (p 19).  Her account of  ‘six myths of our time’ demonstrates that we are in danger of ‘managing monsters’ only in the crude terms of the violent film or video game: that is, by slaying them – in which process we are effectively destroying the richness of our own inner lives, and so destroying ourselves.  She advocates a more subtle, traditional approach to the monstrous other: negotiation, sympathy, understanding.  We need to maintain constant vigilance in the face of imaginative corruption, and we need to attain a deeper knowledge of the sources from which contemporary myths are constructed.

Though, or perhaps because, Warner is a great advocate of cinema as a ‘realm of enchantment’, she is sharply critical of  films that never get beyond stereotypes.  Hence in her first lecture, she shrewdly parallels the fact that the rampaging dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are female with the demonisation of the single mother in the tabloid press.  But she is not only concerned to make contemporary connections: she traces the figure of the ‘monstrous mother’ back through the realms of ‘classic’ literature, to Euripides’s verse tragedy Medea.  The ‘she-monster’ is not a static image: Warner searches her out within different times and places, between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art.  If our culture seems content with cliche, we need to reconsider our tradition, seeking elements in it which might help us go against the current grain.  For Euripides, in depicting Medea as the child-killer, also threw down a challenge: how are we to view extreme female aberration?  Warner answers by widening the context and considering different shifts of emphasis in its retelling.  Thus, she rediscovers the beguiling attraction of the creature celebrated in Keat’s poem ‘Lamia’; she notes how the fifteenth-century poet Christine de Pizan stresses Medea’s beauty and her powers of enchantment, remarking only in passing on her final state of ‘despondency’.  This extended answer culminates in her own unsettling reading of Plath’s ‘Edge’ and ‘Lady Lazarus’, poems inspired by the Medea story, in which ‘transgressive appetites’ are defiantly associated with the poet’s ‘own powers of verbal enchantment’ (p 10).  By putting the ‘she-monster’ in this endlessly intriguing perspective, Warner reveals the poverty of  ‘blockbuster’ and tabloid stereotypes far more persuasively than a ‘semiological’ reading might achieve.

In the same year as Managing Monsters there appeared an even more spacious survey of traditional narrative: From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers (Chatto & Windus, 1994).  This is the second volume of her recent ‘trilogy’.  Here we have, to balance her reservations about Barthes, Warner’s most explicit repudiation of Jung’s archetypal approach: it ignores, we are told, the historical production, reception and reinvigoration of stories.  But interestingly, she also queries the still-dominant assumptions of Freud’s psychoanalysis: if you take every tale to be told from the point of view of the child, you ignore the circumstances of the adult telling.  Hence the subtitle.  According to Warner, these stories emerged out of domestic and economic anxiety.  She surmises that the old women who narrated what came to be known as ‘fairy tales’ felt themselves threatened, either as nurses who might easily be dismissed or as relatives superfluous to family arrangements. Thus, following the ‘social model’ rather than the psychoanalytic, we can say that the telling of the tale was an attempt to present themselves in a good light, as old crones who turned out to be ‘fairy godmothers’, and to present the females who had domestic power in a bad light, as ‘wicked stepmothers’.  This kind of insight perfectly illustrates the power of Warner’s documentation to unsettle received assumptions and indicate future directions for reinterpreting and retelling stories.

As for her main title, it may serve as a reminder that, if we are to think of Warner as a myth critic, she is one who understands that stucturalism and other attempts to abstract the elements of myth according to a linguistic model need to give way to a truly historical approach.  That is, it is insufficient, as does Barthes, to invoke ‘History’ with a capital ‘H’ as the repressed content of each and every myth.  She really does want to follow the trajectory from ‘beast’ to ‘blonde’; she really does want to be historical rather than to gesture rhetorically towards that dimension.  Her clue to the labyrinth of time is the story of ‘Beauty and the Beast’, which she traces back to the tale of Psyche and Cupid, as recounted by the Roman poet Apuleius.  The young girl for whom it spells disaster to apprehend the terrible, bestial nature of her lover is a motif which may be located throughout literature and popular entertainment.  In many traditional versions, the idea is that the male may be civilised by the love of a good woman; in this century, we have witnessed a growing sympathy with the very wildness of the beast, as in the film of King Kong (‘It was Beauty who killed the Beast’) and in Disney’s commendably, if opportunistically, liberal version of the fairy tale itself.  Nor should it be forgotten that the very idea of the threatening ‘stepmother’ (synonymous for many years with ‘mother-in-law’) goes back to Apuleius: it is Venus, Cupid’s mother, who punishes Psyche for her audacity in seeking to look upon his body.  Warner does not forget such things, and it is this erudition which makes the culmination of her argument, focusing on the ‘blonde’, so compelling.  This figure, this variation upon the ‘beauty’, has its origin in Proserpina, goddess of the shining harvest, and may be traced through the beatific vision of the Virgin Mary, through conventional illustrations of a fair-haired Cinderella in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to the sex symbol of the Hollywood era.

But this is not the end of her thesis: she wants to orient the history back to the implications of the ‘teller’.  In an absorbing account of various works, from Ovid’s and Homer’s poems to Shakespeare’s plays, and so to Angela Carter’s fiction and Jane Campion’s cinema, she poses the central question: who is allowed to speak?  Taking as her cue the ancient Sibyl who was respected for the oracular powers of her tongue, she shows how gradually the status of female speech was demeaned and denied, culminating in, at best, the mistrust of ‘gossips’ and, at worst, the burning of witches.  Only by knowing our myths and knowing our history can we understand what this really means; but as one might expect, it is literary and other arts which can ensure that we do.  Warner explores the character of the silenced woman, most dramatically represented by Ovid’s Philomela (whose tongue is cut out by the rapist King Tereus, to prevent her reporting his assault) and by Shakespeare’s Cordelia (who is asked an impossible question by her foolish father, and suffers for replying ‘Nothing’).  Literature functions by the dialectic of speech and silence; but with female silence having deepened over the centuries, Warner’s thesis is only complete when she can affirm once again the right to liberating speech.  Hence her celebration of Carter’s conscious recovery of verbal magic.  In particular, she notes with approval the ‘growing presence of humour’ in the latter’s fiction, which signals her defiant hold on ‘heroic optimism’ – ‘the mood she singled out as characteristic of a happy ending, whatever the odds’ (p 197).  Inspired by Carter, Warner is able to conclude her book by affirming that, if fairy tales represent wishful thinking, then we need to learn to respond more fully to their ‘creative enchantments’: ‘The faculty of wonder, like curiosity, can make things happen; it is time for wishful thinking to have its due’ (p 418).

If the second book in the recent ‘trilogy’ moves from the ‘beast’ to the ‘blonde’ to the power of ‘wonder’, then the third book moves back again, beyond the ‘beast’ to the very source of ‘horror’.  No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling and Making Mock (Chatto & Windus,1998) examines the process by which the ogre or demon is created from the depths of the psyche, then projected, then credited with an independent existence; but her ultimate interest is in how it might then be ‘managed’ (to use an earlier concept) by the imagination.  The book is divided into three sections, corresponding to the terms of the subtitle.  Part I deals with the convention of summoning the bogeyman, the ogre, the demon.  Part II deals with the means by which fear has been dispelled, notably through song, as with the ‘lullaby’.  Part III deals with the device of laughing off the power of the bogeyman.  In each case, a play of positive and negative impulses is involved.  Firstly, to invoke the terror of the ogre or demon is also to assume the power that goes with invocation.  Secondly, traditional lullabies may aim to sooth away distress and encourage sleep, but they seem only to work by first vividly depicting the threat of death, embodied in such frightening figures as the wolf,  the ‘Sandman’ (originally sinister) and King Herod. Thirdly, there is a sense of release from fear that comes with laughter, but unfortunately the desire to ‘mock’ ogres has all too often been confused with the impulse to demonise members of another race.  To say Warner’s case is a complex one would be an understatement, particularly as it is sustained over 430 pages of detailed exemplification and elaboration.

Particularly memorable is her account of Kronos devouring his children, a story which is seen as prefiguring the surprisingly pervasive motifs in our culture of cannibalism and infanticide. She reads it against the grain, of course, so that it comes to express, in the first instance, male jealousy of the female capacity for childbirth, and, in the second instance, parental anxiety about what children represent – the passing of time, the succession of generations, the fact that birth leads to death.  Equally arresting is her speculation that, if the ogre may be traced to diverse sources, then etymology suggests that one of these might be Hades, lord of the underworld (his  Roman name being ‘Orcus’). In time, his realm was identified with the Christian hell, and so it was with Christianity that ogres came to occupy a realm of pure evil: Warner is particularly astute about the way cannibalism, that most horrific image of the obliteration of the self, featured in representations of damnation, notably Dante’s.  But she shows, too, how Catholic countries have always maintained the means to deal with the devil, many of its festivals not only incorporating impersonations of demons but also allowing the demonic energy full sway in the midst of the festivities.  We should, then, continue to bear in mind the implications of Warner’s earlier title, Managing Monsters: Warner’s point is not simply to register the impact of terrifying figures, from the Cyclops to Hannibal Lecter (though she does that most vividly), but to argue, in line with Vico, that what human beings have made is what human beings can understand.

Late on in No Go the Bogeyman, Warner remarks: ‘A theme of this book has been a contradiction at the heart of human responses to fear: the processes by which people seek to undo enemy power simultaneously makes it visible.  In other words, the drive to define and delimit “home”, to name and circumscribe the abode and the milieu to which one belongs and where one feels safe, leads to naming and defining things – and people – out there beyond the fence on the other side of the perimeter wire’ (p. 328).  If, then, we cannot help but define home by abroad, self by other,  rationality by irrationality, safety by peril, we are still obliged to understand what is involved.  Warner muses on the meaning of Goya’s sketch ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters’: it might imply that monsters rush in when reason is off its guard; or it might imply that reason’s own dreams are full of monsters, that the rational person is potentially irrational.  Hailing Goya as the father of ‘the grotesque’, Warner argues that art is at its richest when it forgets neither of these possibilities.

But if one image of art, one myth, lingers in the mind after closing this book, it is that of Circe. To appreciate her importance, Warner goes back to Homer, of course, but also to Ovid’s understanding that nature may be explained by the principle of metamorphosis, whereby ‘everything changes’ but ‘nothing dies’.  She contrasts this sense of fluidity and diversity with the official Christian doctrine of the uniqueness of the individual, embodied soul.  Despite the widespread influence of this doctrine, there has been within Christendom a residual, recurrent urge towards the loss of self, the escape from identity, the finding of an alternative point of view – as in the magical transformations of the fairy tale.  It is here that the ambiguity of Homer’s Circe, as presented in the Odyssey, becomes apparent.  On the one hand she is demonic, depriving men of their dignity and turning them into beasts.  On the other hand, she is famed as a wise woman whose power to charm is inseparable from the magic of her language.  Warner, pondering this dual role, wishes to celebrate the capacity of the sorceress to cross the boundaries of humanity and animality, duty and pleasure, heroism and effeminacy, chastity and sensuality.  She refers to Plutarch’s speculation that one of Odysseus’ crew, called ‘Gryllus’, decides to eschew the chance to return to human form and to conventional standards of male behaviour, preferring the world of fantasy, even at the cost of lost dignity.  She concludes: ‘Circe presides over Gryllus’ choice: behind the elective beast, a doubled comic mirror of humanity, stands the feared and even derided witch, herself a figure of art, with her song, her voice, her sway over mutations, combinations and metamorphoses that can challenge thought and make settled values twist and turn’ (pp 282-3).  It is that word ‘comic’ which needs stressing, for Warner is claiming that ‘Circe is comic in the true sense: she can be read as a denial of the importance of being earnest.  She occupies the area where humour overlaps with amusement, not jokes.  …  [She] claims lightness as a good’ (pp 263-4).

It is significant that, in a book which documents the variety of male ogres which have haunted the collective imagination, it is a female character who simultaneously represents, comprehends and transcends the threat of monstrosity.  For this is Warner’s point: metamorphosis, which challenges our sense of identity and which shows us we have monsters within, is the very process which can save us from ourselves.  It is a lesson understood by the various writers she enlists in her cause. True, Spenser’s puritanical resistance to Circean charms has been influential; but when Milton imagines a son for Circe, he cannot help but convey his residual imaginative sympathy for the world of Comus, as is evident in the intense lyricism of the language (‘Wherefore did Nature pour her bounties forth…?’).  Moreover, by the time we get to James Joyce, whose reputation owes so much to his love of verbal magic, Circe’s is a tale to be retold with undisguised relish. But perhaps it is only in our own time, the age of the ‘late grotesque’, that we can fully appreciate the charms of Circe.  Warner’s hope seems to be that we will ‘manage’ the monster, will accommodate the beast, will know the bogeyman, only when we have become, like Circe, ‘comic in the true sense’.  Her final chapter on, of all things, the humour inspired by fruit, reminds us that the laughter that resorts to stereotype, as with the racism of so many jokes about bananas, is not the laughter that liberates.  Her own work, erudite but always elegant, engaging and entertaining, shows us what that might involve.

Laurence Coupe

Further reading:
Laurence Coupe, Marina Warner (Tavistock: Northcote House, 2006)