While not in vogue, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces still gets tossed around in creative writing programs. A casual reader of myth probably has a copy on a shelf somewhere since Campbell’s theories are a favorite of filmmakers and the book pops up in shows like The X-Files.
For most of my young writing life, writers and professors told me to read Campbell, so I did, scribbling angry margin notes about his sexism. Throughout his work, Campbell tried to create a mega-myth that all stories fed into. His mythological trope of the Hero’s Journey was part of that overarching mythology. Writers like his theory because it corresponds so well with literature—the Hero’s Journey is repeated in often male-driven stories (it is Hero after all) throughout the literary cannon, especially in classical stories such as the Odyssey.
I put Campbell back on the shelf feeling angry and tricked. Here was just another guy writing about heroes and excluding women to side roles or plot points on the Hero’s Journey. This voice didn’t belong in my work.
No professor or Ivory Tower guardian recommended Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. I’d read a quote from the book on Tumblr and found a copy while rummaging in a used bookstore. The older woman at the checkout had tapped the tall, thick paperback and said, “This is a really important book.”
Estés eschews classical mythology for folklore and indigenous stories. For the first time, I read analysis of Baba Yaga, of Blue Beard, of Skeleton Woman. Like Campbell, Estés examined the structure of these stories, but not by confining them to one, large mega-myth like the Hero’s Journey, but by connecting these stories to different aspects of womanhood. She breathes fresh life into the tales by reminding the reader that these stories are still alive in women, to take strength from them. Part psychological self-help book, part analysis, part art, Estés demonstrates story and magic cannot be separated from life.
One of my favorite parts of the book was her chapter on Baba Yaga, a name I knew but without a story to connect with. In the tale, the young girl Vasalisa is sent by her evil stepmother and stepsisters to ask for some coals from the witch in the woods to light their hearth. The Baba Yaga requires Vasalisa to complete several tasks, which she does successfully with the help of a magic doll. Then, the Baba Yaga sends the girl home with a flaming skull on a stick, which is of course scary to a young girl, but the skull reassures her on the way home. In typical folklore style, the fiery skull kills the stepmother and stepsisters by burning them alive.
Estés interprets the fiery skull as a woman’s fierce intuition, exposing those people and voices that could or are harming. It also illuminates beauty.
Sometimes as a reader, writer, and woman, I’ve felt lost. The voices swirling around me in the media, in the bookstore, bleeding into my own work feel wrong, and my gut pulls somewhere else, often in a weirder and wilder direction. With a shuddering breath, I hold my fiery skull high and face the stories I feel the need to tell. As Estés writes, “It is worse to stay where one does not belong at all than to wander about lost for a while.”