The great theme of all story-telling---and Joseph Campbell wasn't the first to notice---is the human life-cycle. Whether it's a story about a young girl growing up, or of a young man finding a mate, or of a newlywed dealing with hostile in-laws, or of a child dealing with a parent's jealousy, or of anyone confronting sickness, old age, and death, the fairy-tales of every culture encode that culture's collective experience about the passage of the human personality through time. And some of the most popular stories in world literature are those that deal with the theme I'm calling "Young Man Seeks His Fortune."
Here's the standard scenario: a young man somewhere between puberty and full adulthood takes leave of his (often widowed) mother and, armed only with her blessing and a few ancestral gew-gaws inherited from his (usually vanished) father sets out in search of . . . well, the story-tellers are usually a bit coy about his goal. No sooner has our Young Man taken a dozen steps out the door, however, than he finds himself in a forest. A deep forest. A dark forest. A mysterious forest that professional mythographers writing for Parabola magazine would have us believe is a stand-in for the collective unconscious, but which an audience in, say, 25,000 BC Ethiopia---lacking a copy of The Portable Jung---would probably have thought was something more obvious. Namely, that universal non-archetype: The Bush.
A scary place, The Bush. It must be: otherwise, why does our Young Man need a sword? And if not a sword, some other ancestral gew-gaw from the long-and-pointy department. With the help of his Long Pointy Thing the Young Man penetrates into the farthest recesses of the deep, dark, scary Bush. And having reached the deepest, the darkest, the very scariest nook/corner/cranny/recess of The Bush, what does our stalwart Young Man discover?
(Cue voice of Goofy) Gorsh! It's . . . a lady!
And such a lady! Drop-dead gorgeous, of course. Tall, well-proportioned, pale . . . not a lot of sunlight in your typical deep, dark forest. Long hair, natch---unless she's from the Kalahari, or the Young Man is a young lesbian looking for the butch of her dreams. And why not? Fairy-tales can take place in the 21st century . . . and maybe they had butch-dyke goddesses back in 25,000 BC Ethiopia, too. Venus of Willendorf, anyone? At any rate, the story makes it perfectly plain the Mysterious Lady---or whatever we call her---can be any fill-in-the-blank sex-object you wish. The point isn't what she looks like (or even her gender), but where the story is leading us. And it isn't down the road paved with good intentions. Or maybe it is.
For it's inevitable (the story assures us) that something wonderful will happen: our Young Man is going to fall in love with the Lady of the Deep, Dark Wood. But to win even the finest love, as we all know, is a struggle. For the hand of his beloved, our Young Man must do battle. And Tolkien's young man? The Lady of his dreams is no ordinary Mysterious Lady. And he's no ordinary Young Man. And the Lord of the Rings is no ordinary fairy-tale. For Tolkien's young man isn't quite following the traditional fairy-tale script. Among other things, it appears he's brought along reinforcements. . . .
(to be continued)