The Epic Hero. (Books Reviews: Theory)

By Griffiths, Alan | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, September 2002 | Go to article overview

The Epic Hero. (Books Reviews: Theory)


Griffiths, Alan, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


MILLER, DEAN A. The epic hero. xiv, 501 pp., bibliogr. London, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2000. [pounds sterling]40.50 (cloth)

The laconic title suggests that the nowadays almost obligatory subtitle (Reading gender and difference in ...) would for once have been genuinely useful. If the author had supplied one, it might have read: Berserkers and borderers in the sagas of Greeks, Celts, Narts, Norsemen and other dispersed members of the Indo-European community; for this is a book whose 500 pages find no cause to mention Gilgamesh -- a book entitled The epic hero which ignores Gilgamesh! -- and in which even Semitic heroes and heroines like Aqat, Deborah, Samson, and Gideon are air-brushed out of existence.

In fact Miller's project is to corral and classify what he characteristically calls 'characterological' motifs from the Eurasian tradition only: the Homeric poems; Icelandic sagas; the Nibelungenlied; epics from Persia, Armenia, and the Caucasus (hence the Ossetian Narts); Welsh, Irish, and Arthurian material; the chansons de geste; the Byzantine Digenid; and so on. All these were produced by cultures which belonged to the same linguistic family, and it is a reasonable hypothesis that narrative features too may have been transmitted down the branches of the stemma. But how to digest and interpret this welter of material? Occasional nods are made in the direction of Freud and Levi-Strauss, and Jung receives more frequent and respectful attention; but Miller makes no bones about his guiding hermeneutic principle: 'The more or less constant premise of this study has been that the particular phenomenon of heroism under discussion is in the main controlled, or at least influenced, by what Georges Dumezil called t he Indo-European ideologie.' In other words, The Three Functions, according to which characters are assigned to the caste-categories of royal-priestly, warrior, or productive, each with its associated markers like colour (white, red, and green respectively -- 'A white knight is no knight at all', says Miller). Trifunctionalism may at one stage have been a useful heuristic tool to get some kind of purchase on a vast, unruly mass of material, but in the hands of unskilled operators it becomes a kind of crude pipe-wrench employed to bludgeon the data into submission. Dumezil himself allowed that the Sovereignty function might be split into two modes, so that warriors themselves could be seen as belonging to either the 'Odin' or the 'Thor' type; his followers, greatly daring, have even added a Fourth Function. Miller buys this package, which seems now to have ossified into a sterile hermetic system like alchemy, in its entirety. …

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