Deadly Powers: Animal Predators and the Mythic Imagination. Paul A. Trout. Prometheus Books, 2011, 325 pp., $26.
Reviewed by Emily E. Auger
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:11 (#352) in November 2011.]
Paul A. Trout, now retired, was an associate professor of English at Montana State University. His Deadly Powers: Animal Predators and the Mythic Imagination is an argument that animal predators and the fear they engendered in humans inspired the prehistoric development of narrative, particularly myth and ritual. Deadly Powers itself was inspired by Joseph Campbell, the much published and widely read author who believed that the myths of different cultures form the parts of a single monomyth. Unlike Campbell, however, Trout remains focused on predators and fear in relation to cultural development. He draws on anthropology, archaeology, philosophy, psychology, and studies of religion, myth, folklore, literature, and art in support of his theory and makes extensive use of ethnographic comparisons between the documented aspects of the traditional ways of life and storytelling arts of aboriginal peoples and the lesser known aspects of Paleolithic life and art.
Chapter one of Deadly Powers presents the book’s essential argument regarding predators and fear in relation to life and culture. Chapter two de-scribes the various predators that threatened Paleolithic humans on the ground, in the water, and from the air. Some of these animals continue to endanger people’s lives today. Chapter three is about fear and the triggers of fear: the predator’s eyes, gaping mouth, and teeth; their sounds, signs, and menacing motions; and the darkness that obscures their presence. It also addresses the survival instincts that fear arouses. Chapter four, “Performing the Predator,” considers mimetic storytelling and its role in human survival. Chapters five, six, and seven relate storytelling to myth by the ways in which predators facilitated the development of the “myth-making mind,” by the appearance of the predator as a “mythic monster,” and by the understanding of the predator as a god. The anthropomorphized predator is shown as “kin, friend, protector, and benefactor” in chapter eight and chapter nine shows how predators thus became “exemplar[s] and object[s] of envy.” Chapter ten is a concluding statement, which, like the opening chapter, cites various contemporary films as continuations of the narrative traditions that began with ancient predators.
Deadly Powers may be productively read in conjunction with Allen A. Debus’s Prehistoric Monsters: The Real and Imagined Creatures of the Past That We Love to Fear (2010), in which literary and filmic monsters are discussed in relation to prehistoric fossils. More interesting, however, is a comparison with Charles De Paolo’s Human Prehistory in Fiction (2003). De Paolo, also a professor of English, discusses the problem of authenticity in fictional representations of prehistory in works by H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Bur-roughs, Lester Del Rey, William Golding, Arthur C. Clarke, Jean Auel, and J. H. Rosny-Aîné. His closing chapter analyzes the critique of the authenticity of some of these works offered by anthropologists and he notes that prehistoric humans have become a kind of cultural “Other” in fiction. Trout shares the anthropologists’ interest in authenticity. As for the Other, Trout’s concern is with what is central and paramount and yet largely ignored, even by Joseph Camp-bell and reputable scholars of prehistory. De Paolo retraces the significant factors influencing each of his exemplary narratives. Trout’s goal is comparable, but his emphasis on prehistory requires different methods of analysis and, rather than addressing a multiplicity of factors in relation to a selection of specific narratives, he aims to show the overwhelming significance of a single factor on the development of narra-tive itself.
Deadly Powers is a clearly written, carefully organized, and well-documented argument about fear as the principal reason narrative became part of what it means to be human. While it may—necessarily—fall short of absolute proof and ethnographic comparisons always provoke argument and controversy, it is a worthwhile read for any author or scholar concerned with the origins of prehistoric culture and the continuities of that culture in the present day.