Friday, March 18, 2016
MYTHCOMICS: "THE GOLDEN FLEECING" (UNCLE SCROOGE #12, 1955)
In my essay GRAND ALLUSIONS I set down some of my criteria as to why mythicity was not related to an artist's penchant for simply loading various references to archaic myth within the story. I gave a definition of "null-myth" that no longer applies in my more current essays: "an empty allusion to something that the author thinks will grab the reader's attention." The earlier isn't entirely without relevance to the definition founded in the concept of consummation, but it doesn't take in all those forms of "null-myths" that may make no actual allusions but still manage to drain any symbolic potential from the narrative via confused or inadequate depiction.
In the earlier essay I came down on Jack Kirby's ETERNALS for simply making empty allusions. Yet it's quite possible to "empty" a given myth-concept of its original content and yet "fill" it with a new content. (Kenosis and plerosis, all in one operation.)
Carl Barks' 1955 retelling of the "Golden Fleece" narrative manages to perform this operation. Because "The Golden Fleecing" is a humorous comic-book story aimed at young readers, it's a given that Barks had to leave out huge chunks of the best-known version of the story, the ARGONAUTICA of Apollonius Rhodius. Barks does include copious references to characters like Jason, Medea, and some of the Argonauts who sailed with Jason. But it's a given that the artist can't possibly allude to the more adult aspects of the Jason-tale. The principal elements Barks borrows are the Fleece itself (which may or may not have been woven from the wool of a golden ram), a sleepless dragon who guards the Fleece, and a gang of half-woman, half-bird "harpies."
Indeed, the very name of the harpies carried an unexpected adult connotation: according to the commentary in Fantagraphics' reprint of this story, some Disney editor forbade Barks from using the classical name of the bird-monster, because the word was slang for "prostitute" in some cultures. Barks was forced to change the name of his bird-women to "Larkies." But in classical myth, the harpies had an even more dire significance: they seem to have been death-spirits that "snatched" up people (their name is often translated as "snatchers") or, alternately, stole food from mortals and caused them to starve to death. In the ARGONAUTICA the harpies are not directly concerned with the Fleece: Jason and his men seek out the soothsayer Phineas for his counsel, but they can only get his aid if they dispel the harpies, who keep Phineas in a state of near-starvation by befouling whatever food he tries to eat.
Uncle Scrooge's motives for seeking out the legendary Golden Fleece are necessarily not as noble as those of Jason. He's sitting around his vault one day, when he takes it into his head that he ought to have a new "loafer coat" like those worn by "other rich men." But because Scrooge is the incarnation of Scottish stinginess, he doesn't just indulge in the usual rich man's pursuit of "conspicuous consumption." Rather than buying an expensive coat at a retail store, Scrooge decides that he wants a coat of gold, made from one of his many golden bars. His tailor informs him that a coat made from metallic gold would not be practical, but he puts into Scrooge's head the classical idea of the Golden Fleece.
Scrooge regards the legends of Jason as quaint old stories. Fortuitously enough, a mysterious Arab named Ali waylays him, telling him that he Ali can lead Scrooge to the Golden Fleece itself, and as proof, Ali displays a small hunk of golden wool. Donald and his nephews are suspicious of Ali and his burnoose-cloaked brethren, but Scrooge is caught up in the fantasy of becoming a "modern Jason," and agrees to go with the Arabs all the way to fabled Colchis in their ship, explicitly modeled upon the example of the antique Argo. As the ship embarks, one of the Arabs catches Donald spying and snatches him up. Once the ship is under way, the Arabs cast off their burnooses and reveal to both Donald and Scrooge their true natures: they are not brothers but sisters, and they are all the half-bird, half-woman beings called "Larkies." At the same time, Donald's nephews give chase with their own resources, aided in part by the Junior Woodchucks' Guidebook, a "reservoir of inexhaustible knowledge" (the 1950s answer to the modern Internet tablet).
In no narrative time at all, the ship reaches "the Valley of the Mists" in Colchis, where the Larkies make their home, not far from the ancient temple where the sleepless dragon guards the Fleece. Donald and Scrooge are imprisoned in a bird's nest atop a tall pinnacle, and only then do they find out why the Larkies wanted Scrooge. He was meant to serve as a "taster" in a cooking-contest designed to determine which of the Larkies will become the new queen, and now that Donald has been brought along for good measure, he too must perform the same task.
One of the Larkies makes a secret deal with the Ducks: if they will give her dish the thumbs-up, she'll give them the knowledge they need to capture the Fleece (in effect, she serves the function of Phineas the seer in the epic of Apollonius). However, once the Ducks are gone, the Larkie gets the idea that her sisters won't like the tasters having escaped, so she overtakes the Ducks and gives them some bad info that will lead to their re-capture. The Larkies overtake the Ducks before they can enter the temple of the Fleece, but fortunately, the nephews also show up and drive away the bird-women. The five Ducks are then able to enter the temple, and though they still have the sleepless dragon to deal with, the nephews cleverly manage to use the Fleece itself to lull the dragon to sleep.
In the end, the Ducks all manage to return to Duckburg, and Scrooge has the Golden Fleece woven into the coat he so desired. But it proves useless to him, because the new coat is "the coldest contraption" he's ever worn. To make a very bad pun, "All that glitters proves to be cold."
I've skipped over a lot of Barks' characteristic details, which add far more verisimilitude to the Ducks' adventures that one usually found in children's comics-tales. But there are a couple of psychological myths here of deeper import.
One is the myth of the folly of desire. Scrooge's desire for easy profit is, as in many Barks stories, the motor that makes the story run, as he drags Donald and the nephews into perilous adventures. I'll forego the ultraliberal cant about Scrooge being the epitome of capitalism and imperialism. The Larkies are just as driven as he by foolish egotism, and one can hardly call them either capitalists or imperialists. In fact, while Scrooge does play treasure-seeker in foreign lands many times, which at first glance might *seem* to conform to the outline of the demonic imperialist, it's worth noting that this time the foreigners come looking for Scrooge. who just happened to be "the first sucker to fall for our Golden Fleece story." In other words, they use the allure of their ancient legends to play the modern capitalist for a fool, and while Barks clearly means for us to laugh at Scrooge's stinginess and rashness, the Larkies are certainly not innocent victims of modernity.
The other myth concerns the association of the Larkies, and their Greek progenitors, with ordure and foulness. The humor behind the "tasting-contest" rests on the absurdity that all the Larkies can make are nauseating foods that the Ducks can hardly stand to eat. The original Harpies had nothing to do with bad cooking, of course, but Barks has very cleverly taken from the epic poem the bird-women's association with bad food. Whereas in the poem Phineas' food is made bad because the Harpies (presumably) shit on it, the Larkies are monsters of feminine pride, taking pride in their awful cooking and demanding that helpless males choke it down to stroke the Larkies' egos. Significantly, Barks also wrings humor out of their defeat. The nephews try to divert the Larkies with fireworks, and then, rather than actually shoot rockets at "ladies," the nephews scare the Larkies away with-- mice, carried into the air by balloons. I've raised objections on other occasions to the old "ladies are all scared of mice" schtick, but it's hard to see the routing of the Larkies as any sort of assault against feminine courage.
In closing I'll note that a few of Barks' efforts to provide verisimilitude come close to being "cosmological myths" in their own right, though they're nothing I care to analyze at this time.