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May 07 2006

Adventures on the Hellmouth: BtVS S2 and S6. Here's an interesting essay that uses Campbell's "Hero's Journey" to critique Buffy S2 and (unusually) S6.

I'm not sure I'm entirely sold on Campbell as an analytical tool - it's a little too sloppy, you can make it fit pretty much anything - but it's an interesting take on the two seasons. It's particularly interesting on the structure of S6, which nobody has talked about that much, perhaps because it's hard to get a grip on.

Thanks for posting this. I always love reading essays about BtVS. I always pair season 2 and 6 in my mind.
Gak. Just after I've tried (again) and failed (again) to come to terms with Joseph Campbell. Now I suppose that I need to go and read this.

The thing that bugs me about Joseph Campbell is that he lays heroism out on a dissecting board. He can tell you anything about heroes except what it feels like to be one. To me, that's the territory that Joss owns, putting the hero's thoughts and feelings inside us as the hero goes about his or her journey. Heroism sucks. Just ask Buffy.

Also, it strikes me that subdividing the Buffyverse into a single-character focus isn't an effective way to understand the totality of what Joss created. This is the issue I'm immersing myself in as I'm working on my presentation for the Slayage conference later this month.

Part of what I'm working on is using carnival theory to understand Buffy. Carnival theory, as described by Mikhail Bakhtin, is about the relationship of street carnivals and the official cultures that carnivals mock. The core of carnival theory is based on carnivals up through about the time of the Renaissance, which is about the time that carnivals began to migrate into literature, and also when carnivals began to be regarded as “low” culture. Carnivals are rowdy, parodic, crude, irreverent, and at the same time, deeply connected to all the institutions and ideas that they mock. Carnival stories include their heroes and fools, but to quote Bakhtin,

Carnivalistic legends in general are profoundly different from traditional heroicizing epic legends: carnivalistic legends debase the hero and bring him down to earth, they make him familiar, bring him close, humanize him; ambivalent carnival laughter burns away all that is stilted and stiff, but in no way destroys the heroic core of the image.

That’s awfully close to my understanding of BtVS and AtS. Think “Don Quixote” if you want an example.

Another part of what I'm working on for the same paper is about polyphonic narrative structure and dialogism. Again, this is based on Bakhtin. The core idea, based on Bakhtin's analysis of Dostoevsky, is that there are multiple simultaneous narratives ongoing in the Buffyverse, and that none of the narratives represent Joss himself. More than that, the real story is in the dialogs between these characters; these dialogs shape the characters ideas and lives. In other words, you can't get Buffy the greatest Slayer without her affair with Angel; you can't get Angel the champion without his being killed by Buffy.

Beyond that, each character is self-aware and self-directing. As Angel tells Faith, it's all about choices, but the characters must determine for themselves what their choices are, and make their own decisions. In this sense, it is not up to Joss to tell them what to do. They have to be free to fail.

It looks like my Slayage paper is just a first step into this area. This could be a dissertation; it's certainly too much for a 20 minute presentation. As lbowman says, there's not enough out there on season 6, and I think that carnival theory and dialogism will be good tools to work with in developing some further analysis of seasons 5-7 of Buffy, and for much of Angel as well.

[ edited by MissKittysMom on 2006-05-08 00:44 ]
MissKitty, I would love to read your paper when it's finished.

I've read a lot of fascinating essays on 6, mostly on Livejournal or Tea at the Ford and always enjoy different interpretations of the season. Despite the fact it was more "real" than the other seasons, there was still as much metaphor present as any of the other years. You could write an entire book just about OMWF or Dead Things.
I'm looking forward to your presentation, MissKittysMom!!! I enjoyed reading the essay at the link above. So... everyone views their favorite works through their favorite lenses. It's the way of things.

I prefer your take on the Buffyverse, however. It's a school of thought I'm not familiar with yet. I find all this carnivalism wildly appealing. I'll be attending your presentation!!!
I don't know, April, I don't find cannibalism at all appealing...Oh, carnivalism, OK, that seems really cool.
MissKittysMom, I also look forward to hearing your paper. I've done a little reading on Bakhtin and the carnivalesque (although not as much as you clearly have), and I am fascinated by your take on BtVS.

As for Joseph Campbell -- I absolutely love your statement: "He can tell you anything about heroes except what it feels like to be one." I think this can be taken as an apt metaphor for most of what he wrote.
MissKittysMom- I take it you have read some of the other papers on Bakhtin and the concept of Carnival as posted on Slayage- some of this is fascinating reading. I should note that Campbell is not responsible for teh Hero's Journey; all he has done is codify what is already present in myth around the world. I do not read him as "dissecting" heroism; I read him as finding the commonality in all myth, and this is not the same thing. When you begin to explore cultural mythology, what you find are elements shared by all, and all Campbell did was describe those commonalities.

Good crit lit, though- time to bring in Roland Barthes and add his theories to your mix, especially if you are going to bring in polyphony in narrative structure.
My other description of Joseph Campbell is that he is the museum curator of dead heroes. I really don't like him!

Yes, palehorse, I've been reading a lot of Bakhtin, nearly 300 pages in the last few months. He's tough to read because he packs so much into his words. Five to ten pages and my mind is reeling with so many ideas that I can't focus for a while.

Fortunately I've indulged in enough Russian culture and history over the years that I have a pretty good context for Bakhtin. I didn't have that context for carnivals, though, so I've also been reading Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel. Now that was culture shock! But one of the Bakhtin books I've been reading is his Rabelais and His World, so I needed at least a passing familiarity with Rabelais.

The other Bakhtin I've been reading is Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. I'd planned to catch up on Dostoevsky, whom I haven't read in a long time, but I simply ran out of time for that. (That's where lots of exposure to other Russian literature pulled me through. Especially Bulgakov; his The Master and Margarita should appeal to many Joss-fans.)
Dana5140, no time for Barthes, unfortunately, either in preparation or in presentation. That's why I say this is a dissertation-sized subject, not a conference paper. The most I'll be able to do is introduce Bakhtin's ideas and draw out his relevance for studying Joss Whedon.

Independent of Joss, what would be interesting would be to trace the divergence between Russian artistic theory and Western theory, after the Russian Revolution. Comparing Bakhtin to (post-)structuralism would be fun.

As for Joseph Campbell, I'm just being catty. He stays way too shallow and academic for my taste, and just seems terribly removed from the actual concept of heroism. Unlike Bakhtin, who was exiled (along with most of his followers) and still managed to complete a number of works that eventually got published.
MissKittysMom, what about the fact that Joss cites Campbell, and apparently deliberately incorporated the monomyth into Buffy? Can't each character be on the hero's path? To various heroic and comic effects?
I found that interesting. I had never heard anyone compare season 2 to season 6 before. I have to admit, the guy made season 6 sound a lot better than it was, imo.

I find the notion that a soulless demon "loved" Buffy unconditionally to be a little out there but all in all, interesting read.

MissKittyMom...I am interested in hearing your thoughts as well.
Before I read the paper (which I intend to when I get the chance), I want to add on the (perhaps) odd choices of seasons two and six: I've always seen these two seasons as very similar to one another, especially in the finales. After I watched "Grave" for the first time, I spent a while picking apart the similarities, and there is a wonderful symmetry. These are the seasons in which Buffy has a sexual relationship with a vampire (albeit very briefly in season two), and the seasons that end with a fight with a "good guy" turned evil (Angelus/Dark Willow). And these are also the two seasons that end with a vampire's soul restored to him, and him (as a result) screaming in agony. Plus, a Sarah McLaughlin song as a capper. And there are smaller bits: Giles is tortured in both; Xander explicitly tells Willow "I love you" for the first time in "Becoming, Part 2," which pays off in "Grave," Willow performs her first major spell in season two, and feels somewhat taken over by the powerful magic as she does it.

I think the similarities are at least partly deliberate--unless I'm forgetting, those ARE the only two uses of a Sarah McLaughlin song--and have a bit of a "full circle" feel to them; the differences between the two are illuminating in the way season six is much closer to adulthood. The villain is a good guy in both, but Willow doesn't turn evil because of the loss of her soul; and Buffy's relationship with a vampire is much more morally ambiguous in S6. But there's also a lot of forward movement: Buffy ends season two leaving town, completely alone, and ends season six with her sister, accepting the community, and Xander--"kick his ass" boy--unexpectedly saving the day.
Maybe I'm really an old Fuddy Duddy but the entire series run seemed pretty adult themed to me. Although season 6 was obviously more depressed.

Nice run down William...btw.
Just jumping off what WilliamTheB was saying, you could argue that in both seasons 2 and 6, the good character who became bad did so because of the catastrophic vulnerability of being in love...
Or one could take the opposite side of the street. Seeing one transform in season 2 from a moment of perfect happiness, while the other in season 6 makes the change from a moment of total despair. This would suggest a polar opposite effect.
I think it really is all in the perspective.
Or you could see both events as a kind of dark 'call to adventure' for Angel and Willow respectively. I use this example to highlight one of my and others (as mentioned above by MissKittysMom) issues with the hero's journey in that you usually have one hero's story with the other characters being there as some aspect of that (i.e. to help/hinder or otherwise interact with the hero). But how many times have we heard actors (especially 'verse actors) or writers talk about how every character sees themselves as the hero of their own story ? I'd say any good ensemble show is going to have multiple interacting hero journeys so in this sense I think it's a slightly limited perspective (which 'carnival theory' seems to address though i've only just heard of it ;).

However, Campbell was producing a work of comparative mythology not entertainment so I guess it wasn't particularly important for him to reproduce the 'feeling of being a hero'. He was helping us understand the commonalities of hero stories around the world and through history not to empathise or identify with the heroes themselves.

Interesting essay nonetheless though I take issue with a few points. In OMWF for instance, it isn't the 'weight of responsibility' that stops Buffy from killing herself, it's just Spike with his reminder that life isn't always a bed of roses but we still have to get on with it. And, given this, Sweet wouldn't seem to fall under supernatural aid, in fact I might even put him down as a threshold guardian if we have to put him down as anything (which brings me to another issue I have with the hero's journey approach i.e. that sometimes people are a bit too slavish to it - not every role in the journey is present in every heroic arc but there's often a tendancy to shoe-horn one in anyway - though clearly this isn't Campbell's fault).

Also, at the end of season 6, surely there is 'a return' when Buffy symbolically crawls out of her grave (significantly, with Dawn's help) ? The idea being that she has still effectively been dead for the entire season (just 'going through the motions') and is only now coming back to life (so that the return isn't to death but from it).

Other than that quite a good read (if maybe a bit heavy for a Monday morning, can't we have another Joss 'impressionist' link to balance it off ? ;-)
As a final word on Joseph Campbell, I'm not interested in comparative mythology. I'm interested in what makes Buffy Summers tick. The Hero With One Face. The reluctant hero. The hero whose life is destroyed by her heroism, and who has to go on living in the midst of that wreckage. I'm interested in the hero's soul.

WilliamTheB, interesting comparison of the S2 and S6 finales. Thanks!
I agree that Campbell isn't all that interesting for analyzing Buffy, or much of anything else. My problem with him is that he basically notices patterns (usually a pattern that we're all already pretty much aware of), and then points them out everywhere. That doesn't really say much about WHY the hero story is appealing, or what it tells us about ourselves.

Bakhtin and the carnivalesque, on the other hand, sounds like a promising entryway for understanding Buffy, although my understanding of Bakhtin (which is fairly limited) suggests that it would really only apply to the more comic elements of the show. "The Zeppo" would be a good example of the carnivalesque, methinks -- a carnivalesque take on the show itself, actually.

[ edited by Septimus on 2006-05-08 15:31 ]
Septimus, my approach to Buffy and carnival will be to take on the whole series as a carnival. I've done a lot of the mapping of carnival characteristics to Buffyverse foundations in my head, and over the next week I need to get those down on paper. Carnival does not necessarily mean comic; it also deals with parody, doubling, death and rebirth, participation (which will run on two levels, both inside Buffy and fan participation in Buffy creation through the online interactions with the writers), and more.

Rhonda Wilcox has already done a carnival analysis of "The Zeppo" in her newest book, "Why Buffy Matters." It's an interesting analysis, but as you might guess, I think it's way too narrow in scope. Also, its take on carnival focuses on the dead guys doing their parody of a wild night out, and that's not completely a Bakhtinian carnival, which should focus more on life.

Actually, as much fun as carnival theory is, I'm more interested in using dialogism to get inside the core of the Buffyverse. It's even less familiar to most people than carnival, but it will help explore why the chracters are so fascinating to us, and how they had so much room to grow and evolve as the show matured.
how many times have we heard actors (especially 'verse actors) or writers talk about how every character sees themselves as the hero of their own story ?

Saje, just caught this on a re-read of the thread. This is the essence of polyphonic narrative, and leads directly into dialogism, because it's the interaction between these characters that helps shape both character and their journeys.
MissKittysMom, I haven't thought much about Bakhtin since my graduate school days 10 years ago. What I do recall from my exposure to Rabelais and His World are some of the more grotesque images from Gargantua and Pantagruel and the regenerative function of carnival. If I'm remembering this correctly, my class ended up viewing the medieval carnival as an ulimately conservative tool for reinforcing the dominance of the ruling class, as in, keeping the oppressed rabble in line by allowing them to periodically "vent" before returning to their miserable lives. I'm curious if you see a conservative dimension to carnival, and if so, how that applies to the Buffy series.
Mmm, yeah MissKittysMom, that sounds interesting. At first glance it seems so obvious, you're amazed no-one thought of it before him (like most good ideas I guess ;). If a text is going to have any kind of truth to it then characters have to be reacting to each other and basing their actions on past events or things that have been said to them in the past (even things they're telling themselves internally).

Much as i'm sceptical of applying ideas like this to the real world, I think it's fairly widely accepted that even the perception of events, colours etc. is altered by the expectations of the observer (i.e. the 'story' they're telling themselves about the way the world works) so it makes even more sense for this to apply to fictional worlds. Meaning comes from context which changes over time (I guess part of the point of scientific formalisms is to remove or at least standardise the context so that the true meaning can be seen).

How you'd go about actually showing all the contributions from and relationships between each 'voice' in the narrative flow is a bit beyond me though. Sounds complicated ;).
"Much as i'm sceptical of applying ideas like this to the real world, I think it's fairly widely accepted that even the perception of events, colours etc. is altered by the expectations of the observer"

Which is why I suggested Barthes. :-)

I am also heartened to see Tara's role acknowledged, as Buffy's confessor, which fits in with my concept of Tara as a representation of the Boddhisattva Tara, compassionate savioress of the world and protector of woman.

MissKittysMom, I would recommend you read the JetWolf epsiode "The Wren" for a storyline that places you firmly in the context of Carnival. It is available at and it is a masterful piece of writing- you may not feel that a fanfic is germane here, but I do suggest taking a glance at it.
viewing the medieval carnival as an ulimately conservative tool for reinforcing the dominance of the ruling class, as in, keeping the oppressed rabble in line

I'd call that a radical interpretation of the text.

Carnival was never much more than tolerated by officialdom. Unofficially, lots of church officials participated. (Rabelais was a friar and a priest.)

How you'd go about actually showing all the contributions from and relationships between each 'voice' in the narrative flow is a bit beyond me though.

Hey, Saje, I'm not giving away the store before my presentation!

The episodes I'll be drawing on for examples include "Fool For Love", "Conversations With Dead People", and "Reprise".

ETA: I should mention that those episodes are for dialogism, not carnival. Carnival eps will include WTTH/Harvest, Graduation Day, Chosen, and maybe a couple more, plus focus on death/rebirth and parody examples.

Also, Saje, I'm not really going for "observer effects." Carnival and dialogism are about participation.

[ edited by MissKittysMom on 2006-05-08 19:21 ]
viewing the medieval carnival as an ulimately conservative tool for reinforcing the dominance of the ruling class, as in, keeping the oppressed rabble in line by allowing them to periodically "vent" before returning to their miserable lives.

Actually, this is an aspect of the general discourse on the carnivalesque inspired by Bakhtin, but also colored by the writings on social hierarchies, class identities, and "transgressions" by Peter Stallybrass and Allon White and others. I have seen this class-based safety-valve/ritual-only inversion issue discussed, although it has been long enough ago that I cannot remember a specific citation. However, Stallybrass and White, for example, do see in Bakhtin an allowance for the interpenetration of the exalted and the base, to unfix any rigid binarism and to allow for political change.
One thing to keep in mind is that carnivals predate any historical religion or government. So the carnival itself is a threat to a newer "established order", and most established orders have coped by incorporating existing carnivals, local mythology, or whatever will help the new religion or government be accepted. But the carnival is still an outside influence and will always be viewed with official suspicion.

As for class issues, my guiding principle is to tread carefully and stay completely away from anything that's not blindingly obvious. There is simply too much politicization around these issues to take anything as given. This is especially true with Bakhtin who, for all his brilliance and originality, spent his intellectually formative years under Lenin's post-revolutionary Russia. To publish, or even to avoid prison, he had to give some recognition to "class struggle" as defined by the Communist Party. So the question with Marxist references and discussion of class issues in any of Bakhtin's writing is what's authentic and relevant, what's biased due to Bakhtin's background, and what's put in just to make a text politically acceptable for publication. It's never an easy question to answer.

It didn't do Bakhtin much good, either; he was exiled to Kazakhstan, and all but one of his circle of associates were likewise exiled or imprisoned. Rabelais and His World was suppressed for 35 years, for all that it does (or doesn't) say about class-based issues. What is remarkable, once you're sensitized to this problem, is just how subversive Bakhtin's work really was in 20th century Russia, even though it's about obscure medieval French literature and culture. It's also about laughing at official culture and encouraging the entire population to join in the mockery. To the Soviet Union, that was unacceptable, and no addition of "class struggle" issues was ever going to make it palatable.
WilliamB, great rundown of the similarities.

I've always believed Willow and Spike are the most similar characters on the show. In 2 and 6, we see what they will do in the name of love, both some good stuff and some really, really bad things. Willow and Spike have both expressed the sentiment of being nothing without the one they love and we often got a sense of their desperation when something went awry in their relationships.
MissKittysMom, is your paper going to be published on the Slayage site after the conference? I wanted so badly to attend, but just could not manage it. And I would love to read your paper. I really do have other things on my mind besides Spike's shorts. . . .

Anyway, good luck with the paper & presentation!
Selected papers from the conference will be published. So I don't know whether it will be published or not.

I would appreciate having a few peer reviewers, though. I hope to have the first draft finished this weekend. Anyone who is interested, please email me.

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