Myth-oh!-logies of Re-turning: or, Finnegan’s Awake Again
I should probably warn you about bad puns and purple prose inbound this week. This month’s theme is Return and Campbell spent a lot of time thinking about this topic, specifically in his analysis of James Joyce’s masterpiece (or monsterpiece, depending on who you are) Finnegans Wake.
The title itself is a crazy pun in a book littered/lit-raptured with crazy grammars/grimoires, designed to insure/assure that the text cannot be read/red as historical/hysterical or literal/light-aerial truth/tooth, but only as alley-gorical or myth-oh!-logical.
Some context: the novel begins with the second half of a sentence, the first half of which is the last sentence in the book and so, literally/lit-airily in this book/case, the book ends at the beginning and begins at the end. The book bookends itself.
You can see where we’re headed.
In the conclusion to his A Skeleton Key to Finnegan’s Wake, Campbell reflects on the experience of reading this book:
Like a millrace it sweeps down and out of sight, to strike again the paddle wheel of revolving time. As the dark torrent disappears from view, we are left standing on the bank, bewildered, yet strangely refreshed by the passage of these miraculous waters. (p. 355)
I mention all this as a skeleton key to the topic more closely at hand: the turning of the year, the re-turning of light at the Solstice, and how our own lives can turn and/but never really re-turn in a widening gyre. Frankly, Campbell’s description looks like a pretty accurate historical/hysterical chronicle/carbuncle of the last few/phew! plague-filled years—although I’m not sure anyone is feeling refreshed yet.
The primary pun is already present in the title of the book. It is the Irish hero, Finn, coming again/egan. What Joyce has in mind here, Campbell believes, is that as the world cycles through its stages of renaissance, decadence, and slime, resurrection awaits: brooding intently at the end, waiting to start the whole mess over again—after the wake and burial.
In this case, as is the case with every funereal wake, the battlefield mess is a place set aside for supper. That means resurrection is both the Last Supper and breakfast and bookends the paddling wheel of time.
Getting back to whacky re-turns, breakfast makes me think about the greatest breakfast of my life: a saffron cinnamon roll–infused, hot chocolate–saturated vision of a candle-lit goddess familiar to most children of Scandinavian descent: Santa Lucia Day. On Santa Lucia Day across Scandinavia, the oldest daughter or woman of the house, crowned with candles and wearing a white angelic gown, wakes everyone in the house with the aforementioned breakfast. It’s magical. I can still see the glow of candles in my room. The smell of hot chocolate and cardamom woke me up. And then: Mmmmmmmmmsaffroncinnamonbuns. How’s that for a great way, a great ritual, to remind children that the light will always return to the world?
You can see the previous paragraph is heavily metaphorical as well as nostalgic.
So what’s the re-turn part again?
Santa Lucia is another one of those religious observances mapped into the astronomical cycles of the year—and into the seasons of our lives. Santa Lucia Day, December 13th, ostensibly celebrates an early saint who received divine protection of her virginity but, more meadowphorically and lighterally, she is a little light (Latin: Lucius -> Lucy) and happens to be the Little Light that precedes and hints at the re-turning Big Light celebrated at the Solstice. It turns out that while days begin to get longer again after the Winter Solstice, sunrise and sunset don’t move at the same pace. While the sun keeps rising later until December 21st or so, the sun stops setting earlier about a week before the solstice. Astronomically that correlates with December 13th, Santa Lucia Day.
Scandinavians are good at celebrating the return of light to the world since they live in a place where there is a considerable amount of darkness and Santa Lucia is a great metaphor for the re-turn to a brighter world out of the darkness of our trials, travails, and the difficult initiations that turn us on the lathe of life.
So where does all this strike the paddle wheel of our revolving lives?
T.S. Eliot put it this way in his poem Little Gidding:
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start. (Eliot sec. V)
Although he may have been Gidding around.
The Winter Solstice is a great time of year to muse about the illegible stones and paddle wheels on life’s way. The Big Wheel turns and one stage of life transitions into the next. We’ve lived through plague and division and unwelcome tribal schism, but we’re promised the light will return. That’s the good news in the burning travel log of Yuletide. Still, we have to be careful about the illegibility in a stony life. A moment of grammatical clarity, like the icy clarity of a deep December night when the starlight makes a twinkling tinkling sound as it strikes the pines, can be handy here.
To turn is never to re–turn. To turn again never re-turns us to where we started.
I watched the V’s of geese go by and gather for their migration on Barton Pond this week, just as I did last year—but a year of plague has called up different geese, created in me a different goose-watcher, and of Barton Pond a different epitaph. Will the hero return to the work of a hero carrying the boon of their trials?
Santa Lucia Day is a good day to go walk in the woods, find the tree, listen to the starlight land, and light a candle to mark another turning of the wheel. Oh, and hot chocolate. That might summer-ize the season.
Thanks for musing along.
Sign up for our popular weekly taste of myth and its relevance today along with occasional news and special offers from JCF!