The Canon: The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth and Drama. By Lord Raglan

May 21, 2009

Lord Raglan (1885-1964) was a self-taught anthropologist and folklorist. For him, religion means ritual, not belief, but he brings together myth with ritual in his key book, The Hero (1936).

The "myth-ritualist" theory maintains that all myths are tied to rituals, although not vice versa. Raglan develops the classic expression of the theory first presented in J.G. Frazer's The Golden Bough.

For Frazer, myth provides the script for ritual, but he conflates two versions of the scheme. In one version the king is a mere human being and simply plays the role of the god of vegetation, the chief god. The annual ritualistic enactment of the death and rebirth of the god magically causes the rebirth of the deity and the crops.

In the other version of the ritual the king is himself divine, the god resides in him, and he is actually killed and replaced at the first sign of weakness or at the end of a short term. The soul of the god is thereby transferred to the new king. No magic is involved.

Adopting Frazer's second version of the ritual, Raglan ventures beyond him to equate the king with the hero. In his first version Frazer presents a simple pattern for the myth of the god: the deity dies and is reborn. Raglan, by contrast, works out a detailed, 22-step pattern for the myth of the hero.

He does more: he links myth with ritual. In Frazer's second version the ritual enacted is not the myth of the death and rebirth of a god but the sheer transfer of the god's soul from one king to another. There is really no myth at all. Raglan reconnects myth to ritual: for him, the heart of hero myths is not the attainment of the throne but the loss of it. The myth thereby matches the Frazerian ritual of the removal of the king.

The myth that Raglan links to ritual is not that of a god but that of a hero - some legendary figure whose selflessness real kings are expected to emulate. Kings are saviours.

Of all Raglan's chosen examples, the one that best fits his argument is Oedipus, who is exiled to end the plague on Thebes. A biblical hero who would fit almost as well is King Saul. Unlike the scornfully anti-Christian Frazer, Raglan never mentions the case of Jesus. A modern example would be King Edward VIII, the heart of whose life was his abdication.

Raglan does for Frazer's great theory what Otto Rank (The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, 1909) and Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1949) do for Sigmund Freud's and C.G. Jung's theories. He deciphers a common plot to hero myths and uses that plot to determine the origin and function of myth.

His focus on plot makes his theory literary as well as anthropological, and he also roots drama in myth. His book brims with ideas about myth, ritual, literature and government.

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