A couple days ago my friend Lori Patrick sent me the following excerpt of a Bill Moyers interview with Maurice Sendak, Caldecott winning author of the childrens’ classic, Where The Wild Things Are.
Bill Moyers (to Sendak): My friend Joseph Campbell once told me long before I met you that one of the great moments in literature is this scene in WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE: “And when he came to the place where the wild things are, they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws till Max said, ‘Be still’ and tamed them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once. And they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all and made him king of all wild things.”
Joseph Campbell went and got that and read it to me. And he said, “That is a great moment because it’s only when a man tames his own demons that he becomes the king of himself if not of the world.” And he said that was a great moment in literature.
I have long been a fan of Where The Wild Things Are— must have read it to my boys a hundred times when they were little. They loved it too, though at the time none of us knew exactly why we loved it. I have also learned a great deal from reading and listening to Joseph Campbell, author of Hero With a Thousand Faces, a book that every writer should read. Joe Campbell spent his life comparing religions and mythologies from all over the world, and in the process gained a broad understanding of why we tell stories and what we get out of them. He looked at everything with a wide angle lens and a keen eye for metaphor, and over the years he came to understand that all religions and myths have something in common: They all aim to teach us something about ourselves. What I found most profound in Joe Campbell’s discoveries is that the things our stories teach us (whether you’re talking Nepalese Buddhist or European Catholic or Lakota Sioux) are the same things. The same metaphors can be found in nearly all religions. We’re all trying to solve the same puzzle.
The single most instructive and fundamental thing I ever heard the man say was about the guardians at the gates of Eden, put there by God to keep man from getting back in and eating from the Tree of Life— from achieving immortality.
Now, Genesis doesn’t say there were specifically two cherubim guarding the gates, but the noun is plural and everybody seems to think there were only two. Joseph Campbell said this particular metaphor is common among world religions, that a lot of them share a similar story involving two guardians that the fallen (alienated, exiled, carnal) man has to overcome in order to reach the Tree of Life (immortality, transcendence, enlightenment, fulfillment etc.) And he said that in all the world’s mythologies those two formidable entities always represented the same things: Fear and desire.
Boiled down to its essence, what a man has to overcome in order to be who he was meant to be is always the same for every man. Fear and desire. And these two obstacles are not out there— they’re in here.
This idea, when I finally saw it, clicked into place for me like the central piece of Joseph Campbell’s puzzle. It just rang true, and somehow, on some level, I think we all know it. I think it’s embedded in the star stuff we’re made of, imprinted on our DNA, and deep down we all recognize that what separates us from being who we’re capable of being is the petty (and sometimes not so petty) fears and desires that come from the distinctly temporal and materialist perspective of this mortal flesh. Desire can make you marry a jerk. It can make you fat. It can make you borrow money to buy things you don’t need and can’t afford. Fear can make you spend your whole life working at a job you hate instead of running a risky charter-boat service out of Key West and writing poetry in your spare time. It can also make you stay married to the jerk.
Advertising people understand this. Pay attention sometime to the advertisements on TV. Every one of them is blatantly preying on either your fears or your desires.
As a storyteller, this is a valuable tool. I’ve tried to focus on what my characters want, and what they’re afraid of. When you build characters around those two questions people are going to identify with them because everybody struggles with fear and desire.
Usually it takes terrible trials for a character to overcome, to rise above his own fear and desire, but when he does it’s the stuff of legend and it makes a great story. Always has, always will. It’s incredibly difficult to pull off, but it’s possible.
Timshel— thou mayest.
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