From Girl to Goddess
Reviewed by Hugh H. Davis
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:7 (#348) in July 2011.]
When I was working on my thesis, my advisor gave me advice which still resonates strongly with me today, when he noted, “I’ve never read an academic book I wished were longer.” His hint was for this would-be scholar, fond of lengthy analysis and verbose discussion, to aim for brevity, but it also caused me to realize how often academic texts can, in fact, push the boundaries of suitable length. However, while reading From Girl to Goddess: The Heroine’s Journey through Myth and Legend, I thought I had found the book to serve as exception to my advisor’s rule. Frankel’s book is so enthusiastically written, so thoroughly researched, and so articulately argued that it leaves the reader anticipating each subsequent chapter, enjoying each exemplary tale, and longing for further discussion.
Like Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces, the book most naturally evoked by this text, Frankel’s volume is a journey through years of myth, legend, and literature, analyzing and considering permutations and variations through different texts. Just as reading Campbell sets in motion a series of associations and allusions, moments of recognition by the reader of other examples which fit the archetypes which form the hero’s journey, reading Frankel sets in motion its own series of moments of inspiration, providing for readers a parallel framework for the heroine’s journey. Throughout the reading, the analysis evokes memories of further texts and stories, as Frankel outlines that framework, revealing the durability of this archetypal journey. From Girl to Goddess shares a clear heritage with Campbell’s seminal text, but the danger in noting that comparison is to suggest this is simply a feminine-sided approach to Campbellian myth. In fact, Frankel’s very point is that the stories she is writing about should not be discussed reductively by forcing them into Campbell’s patterns. While the similarities of the journeys are clear, their natures differ significantly enough that this text should be seen not as merely a companion which covers the “other side of the story.” Frankel does not attempt to challenge Campbellian notions but to augment them with further discussion which prompts (re)evaluation of many varied texts. Frankel’s book stands well alongside Campbell’s as an intelligent and insightful consideration of fantastic literature and legend which invites the reader constantly to rethink past readings. That invitation leaves the reader asking for more, hoping for further opportunities to consider and reconsider heroines from myth and legend.
Frankel has actually created three books in one, and therein lies the text’s greatest strength. On one level, From Girl to Goddess is an anthology of stories, a collection of tales highlighting the different elements of the heroine’s journey. While her examples in the introduction are from well-known, primarily-Western stories, using familiar fairy tales to draw in the reader, Frankel casts her literary nets wide, using stories from around the world, further illustrating the universality of the archetype and thoroughly demonstrating the potential both for the journey itself as an archetype and the framework of the journey she is discussing. While the first stories presented at length are Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Wild Swans” and the German story of “Brünnhild and the Ring of the Nibelung,” two pillars of Western literature and folklore, Frankel turns quickly to tales of Vietnamese (“Tam and Cam”), Samoan (“Hina, the Fairy Voyager”), and Mayan (“Ix Chel”) origin. The approach turns this book into a global tour of myths and legends, with the reader given the opportunity to enjoy this sampling of international folklore, a sampling which leaves readers left excited about continuing and completing.
On a second level, From Girl to Goddess is an insightful collection of analytical essays, discussing the stories in the anthology. This analysis forms the core of Frankel’s book; while reading and encountering the stories is a treat in itself, Frankel’s intelligent and articulate discussion helps make this that rare academic book which could be longer—her analysis is clear, and she writes with an enthusiasm for the works that spills over to the reader. On a third level, From Girl to Goddess is a Jungian reader, considering the role of anima in myths and legends of heroines. These discussions, found at the end of sections of analysis, provide a clear use of theory (without falling into the trap of being too jargon-laden for the average reader), unveiling a solid application of Jungian concepts in a specific-but-differing-from-the-norm realm of study. On all three of these levels, Frankel’s writing is direct and effective, rewarding readers with a trio of books bound in one volume, each inviting further readings and reconsiderations, and each begging to be made longer.
I vividly remember the first time as a child I encountered Greek myths. Having found them in one book at school, I came home telling about them, and my father took down a copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, leaving me to read and discover, and I remember the excitement I felt as I discovered patterns and commonalities among myths. Valerie Frankel’s From Girl to Goddess is filled with the same sort of excitement, as she finds, rediscovers, and traces such archetypes throughout a myriad of texts. As her introduction reveals, these patterns may be found in many works beyond myth and legend, and her gift to readers is to leave those patterns to be discovered with further readings. Frankel’s work could well claim a place as a key text for analysis of archetype and the heroine, but it would still need to be longer.