Campbell: “And in doing that you save the world. I mean you do. The influence of a vital person vitalizes, there’s no doubt about it. The world is a wasteland . . .The thing is to bring it to life. And the way to bring it to life is to find, in your own case, where your life is and be alive yourself it seems to me.”—The Power of Myth.
How do you bring the world to life? How do you bring yourself to life? One way, Campbell suggests, is by following your bliss, “find where [your bliss] is and don’t be afraid to follow it.” In his well-known interviews with Bill Moyers, documented in the book and the film The Power of Myth, Campbell speaks about living your life mythologically, as if you were the hero of your own adventure. Living mythologically, Campbell explains, puts you in accord with the vicissitudes of life. Thinking of yourself as a hero and your life as an adventure lends you bravery in the face of adversity, gives meaning to the challenges and pain you encounter.
But there are dangers to be faced living this way. You must battle the dragon. What is the dragon? Campbell explains,
“You have fears and things, this is the dragon…the real dragon is in you.”
What is it specifically? Your ego. When Moyers asks what the ego is, Campbell explains,
“What I want, what I believe, what I can do, what I think I love and all that. What I regard as the aim of my life and so forth. It might be too small. It might be that which pins you down. And if it’s simply that of doing what the environment tells you to do it certainly is pinning you down. And so the environment is your dragon as it reflects within yourself….If you think ‘oh gee I couldn’t do that,’ you know, that’s your dragon locking you in.”
To find your bliss, your true calling, to become truly alive and bring the world to life, you must face your fear and defeat this inner dragon.
But what does it look like to defeat the dragon? Where can we find an example of how to live mythologically? One beautiful vision of the hero’s journey to defeat the dragon and follow his bliss can be found in one of my favorite movies: The Secret of Kells.
The stunningly animated film tells the inspiring story of a young monk standing up to his uncle and coming to terms with himself and his work as an artist. The animation is styled after the famous Book of Kells, possibly the apotheosis of insular illumination (the style of illumination popular in the British Isles during the early medieval period).
With its complex geometric shapes and patterns inspired by the natural world, the original Book of Kells is quite possibly one of the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts ever created.
But visually sumptuous as the film may be, it is also ripe with symbolism and mythological themes. The film follows what Campbell describes as a common theme in Celtic mythology: the hero follows an animal who leads him into the woods where the animal transfigures into the queen of the forest.
This role is filled by the character Aisling who helps the young hero Brandon along his journey and teaches him about the mysteries of the forest.
Brandon’s journey to defeat the dragon and follow his true calling (to become a master illuminator) takes place on two planes in the film. Brandon must stand up to his tyrannical uncle, the Abbot of Kells, who represents the kind of life one lives when one surrenders the fears symbolized by the dragon. Obsessed with building a wall to protect the abbey from the threat of invasion by the Vikings, the abbot represents fear of the unknown.
In order to retrieve the special berries needed for making ink, Brandon must journey into the forest, defying his uncle’s orders to stay within the abbey’s walls. In defying his uncle, Brandon defeats the type of dragon that is, as Campbell describes, his environment reflected within himself.
Once in the forest, Brandon must face another more literal and more deeply symbolic dragon. To become a true master illuminator, Brandon must retrieve the legendary Eye of Crom, a crystal eye belonging to the dark one, Crom Cruach. Brandon battles this underwater dragon in a beautifully stark scene. The location of Brandon’s struggle with Crom in the water (as opposed to on land) intensifies the scene’s mythological and psychological significance.
In reading myths psychologically (which we must do to understand how the stories pertain to our own lives) Campbell says,
“Water is the unconscious. The creature in the water would be the dynamism of the unconscious, which is dangerous and powerful and has to be controlled by consciousness. The first stage in the hero’s adventure is leaving the realm of light, which he controls and knows about, and moving toward the threshold. It’s at the threshold where the monster of the abyss comes to meet him. And then there are two or three results. One, the hero is cut to pieces and descends into the abyss in fragments to be resurrected. Or, he may kill the dragon power as Siegfried does when he kills the dragon. But then he tastes the dragon’s blood. That is to say he has to assimilate that power. And when Siegfried has killed the dragon and tasted the blood, he hears the song of nature. He has transcended his humanity, you know, and re-associated himself with the powers of nature, which are the powers of our life from which our mind removes us.”
As Siegfried hears the song of nature after he tastes the dragon’s blood, with Crom’s crystal eye Brandon is given a special kind of vision enabling him to study the intricate patterns of the natural world, which inform and inspire the imagery of the book that “will turn darkness into light.”
It is a beautiful message and metaphorical guide for the way we must approach our own lives if we hope to free ourselves from the dragon. In defeating the dragon, overcoming your fear and coming into closer contact with nature, you gain the ability to create work capable of turning darkness into light-whatever that darkness is for you. As Aisling says at the beginning of the film, “I have seen suffering in the darkness. Yet, I have seen beauty thrive in the most fragile of places. I have seen the book. The book that turned darkness into light”
The book that turns darkness into light is your work, your mission, your quest. We all must make the journey. We are all called, the question is: will you listen? Will you listen to what you are called to do and “follow your bliss” as Campbell advises? Or will you stay locked in the tower of fear, obsessively building walls to defend yourself against that wild and unknown world? If Campbell is right and we bring the world to life by following our bliss, more than just your own fate rests on which call you listen to. Beauty can thrive despite the darkness. But you must choose to follow it.