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Fabio Henao Caviedes

Dr. Michael J Brisbois

English 103 - Introduction to Literature

05 of April 2018

Literature, Myth and Human Condition: An analysis on Eliot’s The Wasteland and Van

Camp’s Children of the Sundance.

The study of mythology, its relationship with literature, and the nature of the human

psyche has troubled academics over decades. From Taylor in the 19th century, through

Jung and Freud in the 20th, to more contemporary and scientific approaches such as

phylogenetics. Later on, Northrop Frye further problematized the discussion by adding a

precursory relation between literature and myth. This short essay will discuss the use that

literature gives to myths and its effectiveness. Resting on Frye’s ideas of the relation

between literature and myths, as well as the psychoanalytic and phylogenetic theory of

myths, and by applying this lens to T.S Elliot’s The Wasteland and Richard Van Camp’s

Children of the Sundance, this essay will develop the argument that literature makes use

of myths in the form of conventions and allegories, to achieve universality and resonate

with human condition.

Northrop Frye’s argument states that myths preceded and act as precursors of

literature. Frye ties the appearance of myths to the development of human language,

distinguishing three different levels of language consciousness that problematize human

existence and give rise to the humanization of nature (Frye 4). Furthermore, this reflection

of humanity in the outside world later gives rise to stories through the means of
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imagination, these stories will become conventional in the world of literature (Frye 25).

Amongst these conventions are the story of the jilted lover, the journey of self-discovery,

the unrequited love, the love triangle, the coming of age, and many more. All of these

conventions are put to use in various myths that, through the means of imagination,

portray human condition and manage to resonate with all the individuals of the species.

Later on, myths the give rise to literature, which in its turn, makes use of the same

conventional stories. For example, T.S Eliot’s The Wasteland relies heavily on the journey

of discovery, the same can be said of Richard Van Camp ‘s Children of the Sundance,

and other literary works. By means of these conventions literature manages to resonate

with the deeper layers of human condition, becoming universal to the species.

However, conventions are not the only usage that literature has found in myths to

connect and express human experience, they also heavily rely on allegories. In the same

way that conventions represent the myth’s story structure, allegories relate to its contents

and characters. If one is to analyze a myth such as Perseus’s myth, the conventional

structure would that of a “journey story”. However, an allegory extracted from this myth

could be borrowing of a character of an object in the myth to use as a symbol in a work

of literature. Elliot’s The Wasteland deliberately makes use of various allegories, as can

be seen from this extract:

15 A rat crept softly through the vegetation

16 Dragging its slimy belly on the bank

17 While I was fishing in the dull canal

18 On a winter evening round behind the gashouse

19 Musing upon the king my brother's wreck


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20 And on the king my father's death before him

21 White bodies naked on the low damp ground

(Eliot)

On this passage Elliot refers to Arthurian legend, by making use of the symbol of

the Fisher King. This particular case of usage of myths by literature cannot be examined

as the borrowing of conventions, but as the usage of content present in myths. In other

words, Elliot is using a symbol, an allegory. The effectiveness in the usage of allegories

has been studied over decades by numerous schools of thought.

Psychology has dealt with problematizing the role of myths in the subconscious for

decades now, renown theorist such as Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud tried to tackle this

issue on their respective time. According to Main et al., both Freud and Jung agree that

“… the subject matter of myth is the human mind, which projects, but thereby falsely

projects, itself on to the physical world” (Main, Bahun, and Burnett 107).Furthermore, both

Jung and Freud argue that myths are closely related to an “unconscious state of mind”

(Main, Bahun, and Burnett 107) and their main reason for existence is to help this

“unconscious state of mind” find itself in the outside world. Though both schools of

psychology agree in the existence of this deeper layer of consciousness, Freud advocates

that myths help relate the individual to its outside world, whilst Jung argues that myths

are a tool for self cultivation (Main, Bahun, and Burnett 107) . Whichever the case, both

psychoanalysts state that myths relate to a subconscious layer that is common through

the species, which explains the usage of allegories and symbols borrowed from myths

and later put to usage in literature. These perspectives have been refined as more
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scientific attempts have been carried to understand the existence of myths in the human

condition.

A more contemporary school of though on the spread and universality of myths

argues that these conventions have a common ancestor that developed simultaneously

with the human species. The phylogenetic approach to myths argues for a common

geographical location in which most of the conventional stories of myths originated. Later,

through migration, these conventions spread from Africa to the rest of continents. As

history went by, further migrations modified some histories giving rise to different myths

that share the same theme. These explains why common events appear in myths from

different cultures, such as the flood, it also accounts for some events that seem exclusive

to a geographical location. According to, Julien D'Huy various myth present statistical

similarities when analyzed in contrast to the geographical migrations that took place and

the cultures that perpetuated the myth. D’Huy proceeds to analyze a set of conventional

stories to determine why they became universal (d'Huy 05 Apr 2018). This theory does

not delegitimize either Frye, Jung or Freud’s arguments, on the contrary it further

strengthens the notion that myths share a direct connection to humanity, and that

literature’s usage of this tools, whether intentional or nor, manages to resonate a string

that is closely connected to human condition. Elliot developed a method around it, the

mythical method.

According to Freer, Elliot himself “defined the mythical method as manipulating a

continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity” (Freer 357). Furthermore,

Freer argues that this method was heavily influential throughout the development of The

Wasteland. “The Wasteland, published in 1922, is famous for using the ‘mythical method’
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as a poetic method to create a complex web of oblique allusions and cross-cultural

correspondences” (Freer 357). As has been theorized before, myths relate to a common

subconscious that seems to transcend cultural barriers, whether by human nature or by

migration process. Eliot willingly exploits this particularity of humanity to dote his poem of

universality, this can be seen in throughout The Wasteland by means of conventions,

themes of the story that are have been carried from mythology:

31 Twit twit twit

32 Jug jug jug jug jug jug

33 So rudely forc'd.

34 Tereu

35 Unreal City

36 Under the brown fog of a winter noon

37 Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant

38 Unshaven, with a pocket full of currants

39 C.i.f. London: documents at sight,

40 Asked me in demotic French

41 To luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel

42 Followed by a weekend at the Metropole.

(Eliot)

These lines of the poem reflect the human condition of desire, of thirst in the

meaning of desire. The same desire that overcomes Phaethon into riding his father’s

carriage around the ocean, before catching fire and dying by Zeus’ hand and that can be
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found in different mythological tales. This use of conventions extracted from myths can

be seen to a less or more obvious extent.

In Richard Van Camp’s Children of the Sundance, the protagonist undergoes an

internal journey of discovery that, later in the story, is reflected by a physical journey. This

resonates with the ideas posted by Freud and Jung in which myths are an expression of

the subconscious. The convention borrowed from myths in the case of Van Camp’s story

is not the final journey in which Clarence embarks at the end of it, but the journey that

takes place in his mind throughout the story. According to Freud, myths are an internal

construct, which he exemplifies by using the images of hell given in Doctor Faust by

Marlowe:

“Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed

In any one self place, for where we are is hell

And where hell is, there must we ever be.”

(Main, Bahun, and Burnett 101)

Hell is described as a state of mind, rather than a place (Main, Bahun, and Burnett

101). The same way as in Van Camp’s Children of the Sundance, the journey is a state

of mind, later represented by an actual journey:

“I walked out into the blowing wind and never felt better. It was off to the drum

dance for me. Brutus would be there and I'd give him the biggest hug, my mom the biggest

kiss and my dad and I would have tea later after Mom went to bed. This storm was

nothing.” (Van Camp 63).


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By this point the protagonist, Clarence, has already undergone the mythical

convention of journey of discovery. The physical journey he is about to undergo acts like

a symbol of a myth already fulfilled. This fulfillment is completed by the final sentence of

the Van Camp’s tale “This storm was nothing” (Van Camp 63), by this point the

protagonist has had a discovery, and epiphany, and therefore, finished his journey.

Different from Van Camp’s approach, that seems to rely on the convention of

journey, Elliot tends to be much more direct and deliberate on the usage of mythological

contents. This is better display by his usage of allegories, but also appears in conventions,

The Wasteland works as a journey, Elliot guides the reader through different cultures and

places in his attempt to reconcile modernity.

Both Elliot and Van Camp rely on the usage of myths for conventions and

allegories. The case of Elliot tends to be more upfront, with allegories aplenty. Meanwhile,

Van Camp’s approach is more tacit, and conventional. Both of them exemplify the usage

of myths in literature and why it is effective to this day. As can be drawn from

psychological approaches and corroborated by a more statistical and phylogenetical point

of view, Frye’s idea of myths naturally evolving from human condition and preceding

literature is correct. Therefore, the usage of myths in literature is due mainly to the way

they resonate with the underlaying layers of human experience. Literature employs myths

by means of conventions and allegories, in an effort to decipher and problematize what

dies it mean to be human.


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Works Cited

d'Huy, Julien. "Analyzing how Stories Change in the Retelling Down through the

Generations Sheds Light on the History of Human Migration Going as Far Back as

the Paleolithic Period." Scientific American 315.6 (2017).

Eliot, T. S. (T. Collected Poems 1909-1962. London: Faber and Faber, 1974.

Freer, Scott. "The Mythical Method: Eliot’s 'the Waste Land' and a Canterbury Tale

(1944)." Historical Journal of Film, Radio & Television 27.3 (2007): 357.

Frye, Northrop. The Educated Imagination. Toronto: CBC Canadian Publications, 1974.

Main, Roderick, Sanja Bahun, and Leon Burnett. Myth, Literature, and the Unconscious.

London: Karnac Books, 2013.

Van Camp, Richard. "Children of the Sundance." Godless but Loyal to Heaven. 1st ed. 1

Vol. Enfield & Wizenty, 2013. 43.