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Thursday, November 05, 2015
A Talk with Evans Lansing Smith, editor of ROMANCE OF THE GRAIL by Joseph Campbell
Throughout his life, Joseph Campbell was deeply engaged in the study of the Grail Quests and Arthurian legends of the European Middle Ages. In Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth, editor Evans Lansing Smith collects Campbell’s writings and lectures on Arthurian legends, including his never-before-published master’s thesis on Arthurian myth, “A Study of the Dolorous Stroke.” These writings capture the incredible stories of figures such as Merlin, Gawain, and Tristan and Iseult and explore the larger patterns and meanings revealed in these myths. Calling the Arthurian romances the world’s first “secular mythology,” Campbell found metaphors in them for human stages of growth, development, and psychology. His infectious delight in his discoveries makes this volume essential for anyone intrigued by the stories we tell — and the stories behind them.

We hope you’ll enjoy this short interview with editor Evans Lansing Smith about Romance of the Grail


How did you first become interested in Joseph Campbell?

After graduating from Williams College and returning home to Baltimore, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I only knew that I was not interested in pursuing the various paths of my friends and classmates; I didn’t want to be a lawyer, an insurance salesman, a banker, or a doctor. I knew I had a strong interest in art, literature, and spirituality, so I decided to enroll in a creative writing program offered by Antioch International, and spent two years in Dublin and London working on a novel and a group of poems. During that time I had a couple of very powerful dreams, which I wrote poems about and shared with my peers. One of them came down the hall one morning with a book in her hand for me to read. It was The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which I devoured, and then I moved on to Creative Mythology (The Masks of God, volume 4).

What did you find of importance in those books?

All through college I had essentially been interested in modernist literature and painting — D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Picasso, and all the rest of the great figures of the 20th century. I knew next to nothing about the splendid cultures of the High Middle Ages or the mythologies of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East. So when I read Campbell, I got the education I had missed in college and developed better understanding of complex interrelationships between literature, art, music, philosophy, architecture, etc., of the Middle Ages. Campbell was a Renaissance figure for me, interested in all kinds of things and moving way beyond the boundaries of the narrow fields of specialization that seem to dominate the academic circles of today.

How did your relationship with Joseph Campbell continue?

At the end of my two years working on the novel in London, I was not eager to go back home to Baltimore and still wasn’t sure what to do when I did. So when the same girl who had introduced me to The Hero with a Thousand Faces came down the hall again one morning, this time with a brochure about a trip to northern France to study the legends of the Grail and the Middle Ages, guided by Joseph Campbell, I signed up immediately. Next thing I knew, I was sitting on a bus beside him, on the road to Rouen, Normandy, Mont Saint-Michel, Carnac, the Loire Valley, Chartres at twilight, and on up to Paris, where we had begun our trip — a complete and marvelous hero journey cycle! The next year I had the great fortune to repeat the experience, this time in Egypt, floating down the Nile on a boat called the SS Osiris, immersed in all the mysteries of the ancient world.

What did you find most useful in his work for your own?

After returning to the United States, and finally having to answer the question of what to do with my life, I decided to drive across the country and enroll in a PhD program in Claremont, California. While working my way through the literature curriculum and moving toward the dissertation, I had to find a way to synthesize my interest in mythological studies and literature. Campbell’s model of the hero journey cycle gave me a kind of skeleton key to both, one that I could simply apply to both my writing and my teaching. During this time, I found out that he was coming frequently to offer weeklong lectures at the Casa de Maria in Santa Barbara, and others in San Francisco, so I was able to continue my education with him, alongside my graduate studies. Then when I read James Hillman’s book The Dream and the Underworld, I knew I had the specific version of the hero journey cycle that I needed for my work — the myth of the descent to the underworld, probably the most important of all myths for the modernist writers I was interested in.

How and when did you begin work on the Campbell Collection?

After getting my PhD I taught for two years in Switzerland and another two in Annapolis, and then started a long, 20-year stretch at Midwestern State University in Texas. Toward the end of that time, I began doing extra adjunct teaching in the Mythological Studies program at Pacifica Graduate Institute. Located on the grounds of Pacifica is the Opus Archive and Library, which houses the Joseph Campbell and Marija Gimbutas Library. One day in the library, surrounded by all his books, I found a typescript of his master’s thesis for Columbia, called “A Study of the Dolorous Stroke,” his examination of an important motif in the Grail romances: the wound that creates the Waste Land. It was not a theme that I had heard Campbell speak much of during his many lectures, nor was it a theme I found much on in his published books. And so was born, in 2005, the idea of publishing the thesis.

Tell us about the archives and the process that led to this book on the Grail.

My first job — and it took many years — was simply to compile an annotated bibliography of Campbell’s collection of books about the Middle Ages (which is one small part of a very large library). I found many fascinating items in the underlinings and marginalia of those books, which provided insight into the way Campbell became the great scholar of world mythology that he was — going well beyond the mythologies of the Middle Ages. And then there were the files of his lectures, letters, and research notes. My next task was to sort through all the boxes devoted to the Middle Ages and the Grail mythologies and catalog them in some way. My goodness, what a treasure trove! I was deeply impressed by the breadth of his interests, and, perhaps more importantly, by their depth: an extraordinary, encyclopedic, and detailed awareness of all aspects of the culture and their relevance to the Grail romances.

What do you consider to be the value of the Campbell Collection?

You can see how wrong so many of the critics of the post-Campbell, post–Northrop Frye, post-Jungian generation have been, in their accusations that Campbell was a universalist with no concern for the specifics of a particular cultural mythology. He seemed to know so much more than any of them about the anthropological, social, and political orders expressed in the myths, and their psychological and spiritual roots. As I said, both the breadth and the depth of his scholarship deeply impressed me in the years I spent working at his beautiful, simple wooden desk in the archives.

How did you select the materials presented in Romance of the Grail?

After approaching Robert Walter, president of the Joseph Campbell Foundation, and its board members with the idea of publishing the master’s thesis, I was asked to provide a broader context for “the Dolorous Stroke,” situating it in relation to Campbell’s lifelong interest in the Grail romances, on which I had heard him speak so beautifully on many occasions in many different places: Brittany, the forests of Brocéliande, the Nile, New York at the Open Eye Theater, San Francisco at the Jung Institute, and at what would become Pacifica Graduate Institute. So with the help of Robert Walter, David Kudler, and Safron Rossi, I combed carefully through audio recordings, lecture notes, and outtakes from the files to find the best versions of the stories and the most illuminating commentaries on them that would elucidate his unique approach.

What theme distinguishes your approach to those materials?

When Joseph Campbell left New York in the 1920s after completing “A Study of the Dolorous Stroke,” he brought along with him the ideas of his mentor Roger Sherman Loomis, whose basic assumption was that the Grail romances had emerged from the pre-Christian, pre-Roman mythologies of the Celtic worlds of northern Europe, in Brittany, Wales, and Ireland. By the time Campbell got to Munich, after a year in Paris, that notion was exploded. The whole thrust of the German scholarship on the poetry of the Middle Ages had shifted eastward. It was much more engaged with studies on the influence of Persian, Arabic, and Indian mythologies on the Grail romances than of the Celtic world of northern Europe. So by the time Campbell got back to New York, and before his epic journey across the continent to Big Sur, he had been reborn, so to speak, as the great comparative scholar of world mythology, richly informed by the great spiritual reservoirs of the Near and Far East. 

What do you hope people will take away from the book?

I know they will be as deeply engaged — and, indeed, as mesmerized as I was — with the power, grace, and fun with which Campbell retells the stories of the knights so central to the Grail romances: Yvain, Lancelot, Parzival, Gawain, Tristan, and others. As an Irishman, Campbell came from a long lineage of oral tradition, so that he was able in a couple of hours to convey more of the complexity and spiritual depth of those stories than many have been able to in long books on the subject. In his lectures, you don’t just get the stories, plus the amazing quantities of information about them — you get a direct and profound experience of their essential wisdom. In addition, I hope that people will come away with a deeper understanding and appreciation of his originality and scholarship than they might previously have had. Finally, I hope readers will have a glimpse of the evolution of Campbell’s “fire in the mind” that shed so much light on the world we live in and that inspired so many of us to follow our own ways when everyone around us was saying, “Don’t go there!”


Joseph Campbell (1904–1987) is widely credited with bringing mythology to a mass audience through his books The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth

Editor Evans Lansing Smith is the chair of Mythological Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute. He lives in Santa Barbara, California.

Based on the book Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth by Joseph Campbell, copyright © 2015 by Joseph Campbell Foundation






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