As an avid reader of anything “King Arthur,” I was excited to read this collection and discovered in it a scholarly approach to the tales through the unique eyes of Joseph Campbell. For all those passionate about Arthurian legend and the Quest for the Holy Grail, this is a worthy addition to your library.
A Talk with Evans Lansing Smith, editor of Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth by Joseph Campbell
ABOUT THE AUTHOR AND EDITOR
Joseph Campbell (1904–1987) is widely credited with bringing mythology to a mass audience through his books Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth.
Editor Evans Lansing Smith is the chair of mythological studies at the Pacifica Graduate Institute. He lives in Santa Barbara, CA.
- How did you first become interested in Joseph Campbell?
After graduating from Williams College, and returning home to Baltimore, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I only knew that I was not interested in pursuing the various paths of my friends and classmates. I didn’t want to be a lawyer, an insurance, salesman, a banker, or a doctor. I only knew that I had a strong interest in art, literature, and spirituality. So I decided to enroll in a Creative Writing program offered by Antioch International, and spent two years in Dublin and London working on a novel and a group of poems. During that time I had a couple of very powerful dreams, which I wrote poems about, and shared with the group. One of them came down the hall one morning with a book in her hand for me to read. It was The Hero With a Thousand Faces, which I devoured, and then moved on to Creative Mythology (Masks of God, Volume 4).
- What did you find of importance in those books?
All through college I had essentially been interested in Modernist literature and painting—D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Picasso, and all the rest of the great figures of the 20th century. I knew next to nothing about the splendid cultures of the High Middle Ages, nor much more about the mythologies of the Ancient Mediterranean and Near East. So when I read Campbell, I got the education I had missed in college, and came to have better understanding of complex interrelationships between literature, art, music, philosophy, architecture and etc. of the Middle Ages. He was a kind of Renaissance figure for me, interested in all kinds of things, and moving way beyond the boundaries of the narrow fields of specialization that seem to dominate the academic circles of today.
- How did your relationship with Joseph Campbell continue?
At the end of the two years working on the novel in London, I was not eager to go back home to Baltimore, and still wasn’t sure what to do when I did. So when the same girl who had introduced me to The Hero With a Thousand Faces came down the hall again one morning, this time with a brochure about a trip to Northern France to study the legends of the Grail and the Middle Ages, guided by Joseph Campbell, I signed up immediately. Next thing I knew I was sitting on a bus beside him, on the road to Rouen, Normandy, Mt. San Michelle, Carnac, the Loire Valley, Chartres at twilight, and on up to Paris, where we had begun our trip—a complete and marvelous hero journey cycle! The next year I had the great good fortune to repeat the experience, this time in Egypt, floating down the Nile on a boat called the S.S. Osiris, immersed in all the mysteries of the ancient world
- What did you find most useful in his work for your own?
After returning to the United States, and finally having to answer the question about what to do with my life, I decided to drive across the country and enroll in the Ph.D. program in Claremont California. While working my way through the literature curriculum, and moving towards the dissertation, I had to find a way to synthesize my interest in mythological studies and literature. Campbell’s model of the hero journey cycle gave me a kind of skeleton key to both, one which I could simply apply to both my writing and teaching. During this time, I found out that he was coming frequently to offer week-long lectures at the Casa Maria on Montecito, and others in San Francisco, so I was able to continue my education with him, alongside my graduate studies. Then when I read James Hillman’s book, The Dream and the Underworld, I knew I had the specific version of the hero journey cycle that I needed for my work—the myth of the descent to the underworld, probably the most important of all myths for the Modernist writers I was interested in.
- How and when did you begin work in the Campbell Collection?
After getting my Ph.D. I taught two years in Switzerland, another two in Annapolis, and then started a long 20 year stretch at Midwestern State University in Texas. Towards the end of that time, I began doing extra adjunct teaching in the Mythological Studies Program at Pacifica Graduate Institute. Located on the grounds of Pacifica is the Opus Archive & Library, which house the Joseph Campbell & Marija Gimbutas Library. One day in the library, surrounded by all of his books, I found a typescript of his Master’s Thesis for Columbia, called “The Dolorous Stroke,” a study of an important motif in the Grail Romances: the wound that creates the Waste Land. It was not a theme that I had heard Campbell speak much of during his many lectures, nor was it a theme I found much on in his published books. And so was born, in 2005, the idea of publishing the thesis.
- Tell me about the archives and the process that lead to this book on the Grail?
My first job—and it took many years—was simply to compile an annotated bibliography of Campbell’s collection of books about the Middle Ages (which is one small part of a very large library). I found many fascinating items in the underlinings and marginalia of those books, which provided insight into the way Campbell became the great scholar of world mythology that he was—going well beyond the mythologies of the Middle Ages. And then there were the files of his lectures, letters and research notes. It was my next task to sort through all of the boxes devoted to the Middle Ages and the Grail mythologies, and catalogue them in some way. My goodness what a treasure trove! I was deeply impressed by the breadth of his interests, and, perhaps more importantly by its depth: an extraordinary encyclopedic and detailed awareness of all aspects of the culture, and their relevance to the Grail Romances.
- What do you consider to be the value of the Campbell Collection?
You can see how wrong so many of the critics of the post-Campbell, post-Northrop Frye, post-Jungian generation were, in their accusations that Campbell was a universalist with no concern for the specifics of a particular cultural mythology. He seemed to know so much more than any of them do about the anthropology, social, and political orders expressed in the myths, and their psychological and spiritual roots. As I said, it was both the breadth and the depth of his scholarship that so deeply impressed me in the years spent working on his beautiful, simple wooden desk in the archives.
- How did you select the materials presented in the book?
After approaching Bob Walter, President of the Joseph Campbell Foundation, and its Board members, with the idea of publishing the M.A. Thesis, I was asked to provide a broader context for “The Dolorous Stroke,” situating it in relation to Campbell’s lifelong interest in the Grail Romances, on which I had heard him speak so beautifully on so many occasions in so many different places: Brittany, the forests of Broceliande, the Nile, New York at the Open Eye, San Francisco at the Jung Institute, and here at what would become Pacifica Graduate Institute. So with the help of Bob, David Kudler, Safron Rossi, I combed carefully through audio recordings, lecture notes, and outtakes from the files, to find the best versions of the stories, and the most illuminating commentaries on them, that would elucidate his unique approach.
- What theme distinguishes your approach to those materials?
When Joseph Campbell left New York in the 1920s, after completing “The Dolorous Stroke,” he inevitably brought along with him the ideas of his mentor, Roger Sherman Loomis, whose basic assumption was that the Grail Romances emerged from the pre-Christian, pre-Roman mythologies of the Celtic worlds of Northern Europe, in Brittany, Wales, and Ireland. By the time Campbell got to Munich, after a year in Paris, that notion was exploded. The whole thrust of the German scholarship on the poetry of the Middle Ages had shifted eastwards. It was much more engaged with studies on the influence of Persian, Arabic, and Indian mythologies on the Grail Romances than on the Celtic world of Northern Europe. So by the time Campbell got back to New York, and before his epic journey across the continent to Big Sur, he had been reborn, so to speak, as the great comparative scholar of world mythology that he became, richly informed by the great spiritual reservoirs of the Near and Far East.
- What do you hope people will take away from the book?
I know they will be as deeply engaged with, and indeed as mesmerized as I was, by the power, grace, and fun with which Campbell retells the stories of the knights so central to the Grail Romances: Yvain, Lancelot, Parzival, Gawain, Tristan, and others. As an Irishman, Campbell came from a long lineage of oral tradition, so that he was able in a couple of hours to convey more of the complexity and spiritual depth of those stories than many have been able to expound in long books on the subject. In his lectures, you don’t just get the story, plus the amazing quantities of information about them—you get a direct and profound experience of their essential wisdom. In addition, I hope that people will come away with a deeper understanding and appreciation of his originality and scholarship than they might previously have had. Finally, I hope that the readers will have a glimpse of the evolution of that “Fire in the Mind” that shed so much light on the world we live in, and which inspired so many of us to follow our own ways, when everyone around us was saying: “Don’t go there!”
Romance of the Grail by Joseph Campbell
Edited and Introduced by Evans Lansing Smith
October 21, 2015 • Mythology • Hardcover • 320 pages
Price: $24.95 • ISBN 978-1-60868-324-6