Joss Whedon and The Power of Myth

I read Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth years before the first Buffy episode aired on TV.  I’d just begun reading about the origins of religion and was struggling with learning that the gospels were not as historically accurate as I’d been taught.  Intellectually, I grasped Campbell’s message that just because the stories or myths we are told did not literally happen does not take away their value.  (I’m very roughly paraphrasing.  It’s been a long time since I read it.)  But my many disagreements with the Catholic Church, including over its treatment of women, left me less ready to find the underlying meaning in the stories.  And my only other association with what I considered myths were books of Greek and Roman myths I’d read in high school.  I enjoyed them, but didn’t see much to emulate there or much that would help me in life, other than the lesson that the gods will mess with you whenever they can out of sheer caprice or to forward their own interests.  Years later, a cousin gave me a book of myths geared toward women (Women Who Run With the Wolves).  But those stories did not speak to me.  I found them a little too abstract and purposefully deep.  Plus, very much an urban dweller, I found it difficult to relate to some of the tales, which seemed to have little connection to my day to day life.

Then came Buffy.  At first, the mythological aspects didn’t really hit me.  Obviously, I knew they were there – a chosen one, the only girl in the world to fight the demons and save the world.  But I’ve always liked stories with a great deal on the line, often with ordinary people in extraordinary and even supernatural experiences.  That’s what I enjoy reading and writing.  Still, the first couple years I watched Buffy I didn’t think much about that.  I was working full time and attending law school in the evenings.  All I knew was for 45 minutes once a week – when Chicago’s WGN didn’t pre-empt the show for a Cubs game – I escaped to another world.

I rewatched the series on DVD and listened to the commentaries, and I thought more about the themes, even as I still loved mix of humor and horror, quips and authentic emotion.  When my 11-year-old niece died of a brain tumor, for many weeks I woke during the dead of night.  Unable to sleep, I watched Buffy episodes until I fell asleep on the couch.   I did the same years later when my parents were killed by an intoxicated driver.  It brought me the comfort.  I liked the main characters.  I knew what would happen at the end of each episode.  And the series offered some meaning in a chaotic world.  Not the meaning that some type of God would make everything right when so clearly it wasn’t.  But the meaning that there are things worth living for and fighting for, no matter how much is out of our control, how much suffering there is in the world, or how senseless evil seems.

Buffy’s themes (and later Angel’s and Firefly’s) particularly struck a chord for me because I am not religious, yet I feel that doing good in the world and doing the right thing is important, even essential, to life.  Before Joss’s shows, I couldn’t quite articulate the source of what was right without religion. 

In the series, Buffy is told she’s the chosen one, but there’s no threat or promise of hell or heaven to induce her to act.  She can choose not to slay.  And in the end of Season 1, she does.  In the face of a prophecy that she will die if she goes underground to stop an evil vampire – the Master – from rising, she quits.   

After she decides this, her best girlfriend Willow walks into a schoolroom where vampires killed students she knew, smearing blood all over.  Willow says something like, “It felt like it was their world, not ours.”  Buffy tells her friend not to worry.  Buffy then goes to meet the Master.  He kills her, but her friends revive her, and she ultimately vanquishes him.  Nothing required Buffy to take up the mantle of protector again, but she didn’t want to live in the world that would otherwise belong to the vampires and monsters, didn’t want to abandon her friends when there was any chance, however slight, she could change things. 

The next season, Buffy fears her efforts are fruitless when her mother points out that no matter how many vampires Buffy slays, more always appear.  She doesn’t have a master plan, she can’t stop the evil.  Are they running out of vampires? Joyce asks.  Buffy’s partner in the fight, Angel, tells a depressed Buffy that they don’t fight because they’ll win.  They fight because there are things worth fighting for.

To me, this seems to be the only answer.  In our world, there will be fatal brain tumors, racism, drunk drivers killing themselves and others.  There will be lesser and yet still painful things to live with – loss of love, struggles with (or without) money, career obstacles.  We fight not because we know we’ll win, not because this world will ever be perfect, but because there are things worth fighting for.  People we love, causes that matter, small ways we can make the world a little bit better, or at least try to.  As Spike says in the Buffy musical – life isn’t bliss, life is just this, it’s living.  And, like Buffy, even if something or someone else tells us there’s no point, we can act in ways designed to create the world we want to live in.
Lisa M. Lilly
Author of The Awakening  ($2.99)
Will Tara Spencer’s mysterious pregnancy bring the world its first female messiah?  Or trigger the Apocalypse?