‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,’ said Joan Didion. Scheherazade told her husband stories in order that she might live, thus turning herself into what Maria Tatar calls ‘a storytelling transvaluation machine’. Having been cuckolded by his first wife, Sultan Shahryar resolved to marry a fresh virgin every day and enjoy with his bride a single night of pleasure before having her executed the following morning. Volunteering as his next victim, Scheherazade read all the works of all the poets and all the legends of all the antique races and monarchs. She then told the sultan a story so long and compelling that he begged her to finish it the following night. One thousand and one nights later, Shahryar’s misogyny was cured and he had learned the power of stories.
The Heroine with 1,001 Faces is written as a corrective to Joseph Campbell’s comparative mythology The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), a book once so revered that it was used by Hollywood directors as a guide to archetypal plot structures. ‘Nowhere does the rigidity of archetypal thinking emerge more clearly’, writes Tatar, a professor of folklore at Harvard, ‘than in the binary model of the male and female principal as it surfaced in Campbell’s study.’ While Campbell describes the hero as ‘the initiator into society and the meaning of life’, the woman’s purpose, he believes, is to be the hero’s mother, muse or protectress.
Our ur-narratives, Tatar shows, return again and again to the abuse and silencing of women, and the heroines she selects in myths, fairy tales, novels, television series, news stories and films use storytelling to ‘rescue, restore, or fix things’. Starting with Philomela, who was raped and had her tongue cut out, Tatar reminds us that contemporary Philomelas are everywhere, only today we cut out their tongues with confidentiality agreements and by creating situations, as Ronan Farrow said of Harvey Weinstein, in which a woman’s silence will benefit her more than speaking out ever could. It is no coincidence that Jane Eyre picked up her copy of The Thousand and One Nights after telling her guardian, Mrs Reed, that ‘the very thought of you makes me sick’, because Jane and Scheherazade, says Tatar, ‘are linked … through tale-telling and the transmission of stories’.
Tatar has read at least as much as Scheherazade but lacks her narrative powers. This is because she employs words and phrases like ‘triggering’, ‘toxic masculinity’ and ‘safe spaces’, whose sole power is to suck the air from the sentences in which they appear. The Heroine with 1,001 Faces is aimed at a generation that has, Tatar assumes, no feel for symbolism and is able to relate only to those stories that speak to their own opinions or experiences. The pomegranate seed given to Persephone by Hades is therefore described as ‘a diabolically clever version of a date rape drug’, an analogy that instantly reduces the magnificent vegetation myth to a dingy tale about Rohypnol.
Scheherazade, Tatar suggests, was an eighth-century progenitor of the #MeToo movement, which also generated 1,001 stories in response to social injustice. The Thousand and One Nights is what Jorge Luis Borges calls ‘an infinite book’ and the narrative potential of Twitter and other social media platforms, argues Tatar, is equally infinite. She refers to the case of Chanel Miller, who was sexually assaulted on the campus of Stanford University in 2015. Under the pseudonym Emily Doe, Miller published her victim impact statement on BuzzFeed: ‘You don’t know me,’ she told her assailant, ‘but you’ve been inside me.’ Her account of the attack was read by eleven million people in the first few days.
Tatar notes the number of heroines who are also writers: Jo March in Little Women, Hannah Horvath in Girls, Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City. Those women who do not tell stories tend to weave because weaving is a metaphor for storytelling. Think of Philomela, weaving the story of her rape into a tapestry, or the weaving contest between Arachne and Athena, in which Arachne depicts Zeus as a bull abducting Europa, as an eagle pursing Asterie and as a swan raping Leda, or of Charlotte the barn spider in Charlotte’s Web, weaving into her web the words ‘Some Pig’ in order to save the life of her friend Wilbur. When we talk about weaving plots, spinning stories, fabricating tales or telling yarns, Tatar suggests, the implication is that the story is not to be trusted. In other words, it is a story told by a woman.
Heroines ‘speak out’, but they also have the qualities of ‘curiosity’ and ‘attentive care … triggered by openness to the world’. Tatar discusses the various versions of Eve and Pandora and connects these early seekers after knowledge to Nancy Drew, Miss Marple and other female detectives. She singles out as agents of justice and harbingers of change Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman, and Lisbeth Salander, aka the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
The book I returned to hungrily after feeding on the ultimately thin gruel of The Heroine with 1,001 Faces was not The Hero with a Thousand Faces but Camille Paglia’s incendiary Sexual Personae (1990). Paglia covers similar terrain, also looking for the transgressive figures in mythology and popular culture, but she champions sexual power and the binary models of the male and female principal. Here she is, laying out her manifesto:
I see sex and nature as brutal pagan forces. My stress on the truth in sexual stereotypes and on the biologic basis of sex differences is sure to cause controversy. I reaffirm and celebrate women’s ancient mystery and glamour. I see the mother as an overwhelming force who condemns men to lifelong sexual anxiety, from which they escape through rationalism and physical achievement.
Paglia’s kick-ass style is what Tatar lacks. Sexual Personae, Paglia said, was ‘intended to please no one and to offend everyone’, but Tatar wants to please everyone under thirty-five and offend no one. The irony, in a book that celebrates women who speak out, is that Paglia’s contribution is not mentioned once. She is as silent as Philomela.