Monday, December 13, 2010

The White Rabbit and the Call To Adventure

Today I wanted to talk about something that has eluded me for a long time, something I have been following and trying to understand for quite some time now – the White Rabbit!

Okay, I haven’t literally been following him, and it’s not so much him that I am trying to understand; I am trying to understand the deeper meaning of Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories – Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and Alice Through The Looking Glass. They seem to be children’s stories, and yet I feel that they must be so much more than that, and isn’t that how it is with all “children’s” stories – they appear to be simple and straightforward and yet underneath they are so much more than what they seem? Putting it in those words, it’s almost as if the children’s stores are the White Rabbit – they appear to be simple, common, and un-noteworthy and yet to the trained eye there are clues that there is something waiting to be discovered beneath the surface!

I’d like to discuss here, my theories about the significance of the White Rabbit in this particular story, and compare him to similar figures in other stories. To begin with, I will start by discussing just who the White Rabbit is in what Joseph Campbell would call, the Monomyth.

Perhaps I should take a detour here and define the Monomyth. The most basic way I can explain the Monomyth, is this:

Think of the Monomyth as the skeleton that every story has in common. If you took every story ever written and stripped it down to its most basic elements and compared them, you would see that each story is actually the same story, just retold with a new spin. Kind of like how The Wiz is the African American version of The Wizard of Oz, and how Star Wars is actually a science fiction version of Lord Of the Rings. The bare bones of every story, and thus the elements they all have in common make up the Monomyth.

For further information on the Monomyth, visit the following Wikipedia page:

or read some of the works discussed on the page by Joseph Campbell such as The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Reading about Jungian archetypes will help too!

So now that we have that out of the way, I would like to draw your attention to an important part of the Monomyth, and that is the “call to adventure.” This is summed up on the Wikipedia page as the following:

“The hero starts off in a mundane situation of normality from which some information is received that acts as a call to head off into the unknown.”

In other words, for Joseph Campbell, the call to adventure in all stories has the following:

- hero going about his or her usual business / daily routine
- hero experiencing boredom in that routine
- hero receives information from elsewhere
- information sparks curiosity in outside world of unknown
- discovering unknown seems better than current boredom
- curiosity drives hero to leave current boring situation

This describes exactly what Alice experienced in Chapter 1: Down The Rabbit Hole! The opening paragraph shows our hero Alice in a very mundane situation:

“Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, `and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice `without pictures or conversation?'

So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.” (Alice In Wonderland page 1-2)

Let’s take a break and look at what corresponds to Campbell’s call to adventure so far:

- hero going about his or her usual business / daily routine ...... check!
- hero experiencing boredom in that routine ................................ check!

Let’s continue:

“There was nothing so VERY remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so VERY much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, `Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!' (when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural); but when the Rabbit actually TOOK A WATCH OUT OF ITS WAISTCOAT- POCKET, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.

In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.” (Alice In Wonderland page 2)

Now let’s see if this fulfills any of the other characteristics of the call to adventure on our list:

- hero receives information from elsewhere .......................................... check!
- information sparks curiosity in outside world of unknown ............. check!
- discovering unknown seems better than current boredom .............. check!
- curiosity drives hero to leave current boring situation ...................... check!

So, we can definitely see that what Alice experiences in Down the Rabbit Hole corresponds to what Campbell calls the call to adventure, and likewise, the White Rabbit corresponds to what Campbell calls the “herald” or the character who calls the hero to adventure.

It may appear that the White Rabbit is not literally calling Alice to follow him – in fact, he appears completely oblivious to the fact that he has sparked her curiosity! But let’s look at what exactly a herald is. A herald can literally mean:

- A messenger, especially one bringing important news
- A harbinger, giving signs of things to come

Keeping these things in mind, let’s look at what Campbell actually says about the herald:

"The herald or announcer of the adventure, therefore, is often dark, loathly, or terrifying, judged evil by the world; yet if one could follow, the way would be opened through the walls of day into the dark where the jewels glow. Or the herald is a beast (as in the fairy tale), representative of the repressed instinctual fecundity within ourselves, or again a veiled mysterious figure – the unknown." (The Hero With A Thousand Faces - page 53)

The White Rabbit is definitely a fairy tale beast, but also a mysterious figure who represents the unknown, and this is what it is about him that draws Alice away from her mundane world – the indication that people and things are different elsewhere and that there is a whole different world yet to be discovered!

If we examine some images of the White Rabbit, we see more evidence of his role as a herald who calls the hero to adventure. For example, when we first meet the White Rabbit, he is dressed in very human attire and looking at his watch – a sort of prop that he has become known for carrying. The first words that Alice hears him speak are a declaration that he is shall be late if he does not hurry ...

it is very likely that Alice not only wondered what he would be late for, and whether it was something very important, but also if it was not something she would feel sorry for missing.
To me, the White Rabbit appearing in this way, passing Alice by is a reminder that time is passing us by ...

... and that if we do not heed the warning that it is getting later and later, we will soon find our lives have passed us by. In this sense, the White Rabbit could represent time passing us by, but also life passing us by. If this is the case, the White Rabbit is certainly a messenger, and certainly brings signs of things to come. He acts as a Memento Mori - a reminder that one day we will all die.

To illustrate my point, I would like to compare this appearance of the White Rabbit to another famous character who has given us just the same warning:

Anyone who has ever seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off would probably agree that the title character is all about the call to adventure, and knows that he literally lures his friends away from their mundane routine high school day by convincing them to skip class for a day and go out on the town! Ferris knows that life moves pretty fast, and he doesn’t want his friends to miss it either. Though Ferris is the hero of his story, he too is the herald!

You can see in the following clip that Ferris literally calls his friend Cameron Frye to adventure – although he calls him on the phone, I’m sure you get the picture. Cameron demonstrates what often happens initially when the call is received – "the refusal of the call."

Not all stories involve a refusal, however, and from the paragraph quotes above we can see that Alice certainly didn’t refuse. But I showed this clip of one herald physically calling another person to adventure to explain how I see another image of the White Rabbit.

Though the White Rabbit was not trying to call Alice to follow him in the first place, and Alice has already accepted the adventure at this point in the story, this illustration of the White Rabbit blowing a horn actually appears to be a call. It is as if he is blowing the horn to call us or get our attention and holding out the scroll to indicate that he has a message for us. For this reason, I think this image visually indicates that the White Rabbit is a sort of herald, a messenger, perhaps giving signs of things to come.

Joseph Campbell has more to say about the herald who calls the hero to adventure:

“Whether dream or myth, in these adventures there is an atmosphere of irresistible fascination about the figure that appears suddenly as guide, marking a new period, a new stage, in the biography. That which has to be faced, and is somehow profoundly familiar to the unconscious – though unknown, surprising, and even frightening to the conscious personality – makes itself known ...” (The Hero With A Thousand Faces page 55)

I found this to be a very enlightening quote. The herald is often something very intriguing, irresistible, and enigmatic. After all, look at this picture of the White Rabbit ... isn’t he mysterious? Don’t you just want to follow him into the dark ... wherever he might be going?

So, while a big point I’m trying to make is that the White Rabbit and many other figures like him in literature act as a herald calling the hero to adventure, I want to put forth some more theories as to what I think this means. As I stated above, I think the herald in this case can often be a Memento Mori – a reminder that life is short and time is constantly moving forward. The White Rabbit may be a more obvious Memento Mori as he actually carries a watch, but perhaps there are similar less obvious heralds who remind us that the clock is ticking ...

Remember this handsome devil from Peter Pan? This is the crocodile who chased Captain Hook ever since he swallowed his severed hand. Hook’s arch-enemy Peter Pan cut off his hand in a duel and threw it to the crocodile, who liked the taste of Hook’s hand so much that he followed him ever since, “licking his lips” for the rest of him! Luckily, this croc swallowed, of all things, a clock! So, even though Hook is terrified of the crocodile, he is warned every time he hears the ticking of the clock that the crocodile is approaching.

It’s interesting isn’t it? Like the White Rabbit who carries a watch in his coat pocket, the crocodile sort of carries a clock in his belly, except that we see the White Rabbit’s watch and can only hear the crocodile’s clock. The message is still the same. Since the ticking accompanies the approach of the crock, when Hook hears the ticking he literally fears his own time running out and death approaching! As with the White Rabbit, the ticking clock is again a reminder that life is short and will one day end, and yet Hook doesn’t take this as a sign, or a message to act. Instead it paralyzes him with fear and drives him to seek revenge against someone who, coincidentally, will never have to experience the feeling of aging and life passing him by. It seems Hook misunderstands that his mortality and aging are reasons to live, but thinks instead that these are reasons to be angry and takes out his anger on the young who have more time.

So perhaps for Captain Hook, the crocodile could play the role of the herald, calling him to adventure and to live. And Campbell did say that the herald “is often dark, loathly, or terrifying, judged evil by the world ..." He too acts as a Memento Mori, but while the White Rabbit may be a Memento Mori that represents life and life passing by, perhaps the crocodile represents the opposite – the approach of death.

That said, I think the more obvious herald in Peter Pan is Peter Pan himself! Visually, he is a counterpart to the crocodile in that the crocodile is green and Peter is the only other character who wears green. Peter wears green because he is dressed in leaves, perhaps representing his close ties with nature, while the crocodile is an animal and thus a part of nature. We may be tempted to think of the crocodile as evil in comparison to Peter, but both do seem to be allies against Captain Hook, and I do think there is a very iconic scene in which Peter too becomes associated with a clock:

I think Peter Pan as a herald is a good example of another aspect of the call to adventure that the White Rabbit – and even Ferris Bueller – represent. This is the call to be "open to experience".

According to good old Wikipedia, Openness To Experience is one of five major domains used to describe human personality, and consists of "active imagination, aesthetic sensitivity, attentiveness to inner feelings, preference for variety, and intellectual curiosity.”

An active imagination ...?
Curiosity ...?
A preference for variety ...?

Weren’t these the traits that Alice had? Were they not also the traits that Wendy had?

Wikipedia explains further that “people who score low on openness are considered to be closed to experience. They tend to be conventional and traditional in their outlook and behavior. They prefer familiar routines to new experiences, and generally have a narrower range of interests.”

Preferring familiar routines? I’m sorry, but this is just not what the call to adventure is all about! Something tells me that people who are “closed to experience” don’t see White Rabbits go by or ask their mothers to leave their nursery windows open so that a strange boy can come back!

Maybe that's what's so important about keeping the nursery window open in the first place ... maybe it isn't really the nursery window we are keeping open, but our hearts and minds! Peter could only enter the nursery windows that were open, and so perhaps to keep the window open, is to keep your mind and heart open to adventure so that when the herald arrives, he knows that you are one of the very few who are ready or can even recognise the oportunity for adventure in the first place!

The open window, is the sign welcoming invitation that you will let him in so that he can show you all sorts of new possibilities ...

According to Wikipedia, there are 6 elements of openness to experience:

1.Fantasy - the tendency toward a vivid imagination and fantasy life.
2.Aesthetics - the tendency to appreciate art, music, and poetry.
3.Feelings - being receptive to inner emotional states and valuing emotional experience.
4.Actions - the inclination to try new activities, visit new places, and try new foods.
5.Ideas - the tendency to be intellectually curious and open to new ideas.
6.Values - the readiness to re-examine traditional social, religious, and political values.

Openness corelates to creativity, and interestingly, "there are social and political implications to this personality trait. People who are highly open to experience tend to be politically liberal and tolerant of diversity. As a consequence, they are generally more open to different cultures and lifestyles. They are lower in ethnocentrism and right-wing authoritarianism."

I think the above excerpts from Wikipedia allow us to see a common bond between the people who get called to adventure – or at least the people who accept the call without refusing. They are all people who are open to being called, of experiencing a new world with new rules, and maybe getting to experience another society or culture! Furthermore, they are all able to imagine that such unique places may exist, and more importantly, are not arrogant enough to assume that their world is better than anything that may differ from it!

Another great demonstration of how being open to experience is necessary in order for the herald to call the hero to adventure is in the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man. I realize that many are convinced that Mr. Tambourine Man is simply about a drug, either marijuana or LSD, and that perhaps the Tambourine Man is the drug itself, or the drug dealer! But I have another theory, and I’m sticking to it:

The Tambourine Man is the White Rabbit, Peter Pan, the herald whom the hero must follow in order to leave the mundane, routine world, and the invitation to play a song corresponds to keeping the nursery window open! It is the indication by the hero that the hero is open to experience, and thus ready to accept the herald’s call to leave. Still not convinced? Look at the following lyrics:

Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin’ ship
My senses have been stripped, my hands can’t feel to grip
My toes too numb to step
Wait only for my boot heels to be wanderin’
I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade
Into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way
I promise to go under it

Of course these are only some of the lyrics. The rest of the lyrics can practically tell an adventure story! While some think the words “take me on a trip,” “senses have been stripped,” and “smoke rings of my mind” indicate that the song is about a drug-induced hallucination, I would like to point out that the Wikipedia page about the Monomyth states that Bob Dylan is one of many artists influenced by the Monomyth – therefore, though the page does not cite this specific work by Dylan, I think it makes perfect sense for listeners to hear this song as an indication of openness to experience and a call to adventure.

The last verses of this song struck me as very interesting, and reminded me of another adventure story I know. The verse is as follows:

Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow

While references to a windy beach, haunted trees, a diamond sky, and a sea and waves could easily remind me again of Alice’s Wonderland and Peter’s Neverland it reminded me of another mysterious land – a mysterious island to be specific, complete with foggy ruins and smoke rings ...

Yes, of course I am talking about the mysterious island of ABC’s LOST! While this show begins as a show about the survivors of a plane crash who land on a strange island and must learn to survive and get along with each other, it turns into a story about each character sorting out their baggage. Perhaps this is why we literally see characters sorting through the plane’s luggage in one of the first episodes!

In another of the very first episodes, we see that one of the main characters experiences a vision – a vision of someone in his life who has recently died.

This episode is appropriately entitled The White Rabbit, and when Dr. Jack Shepherd confesses to seeing and following a vision of his recently deceased father to a man named John, John replies, “You’re chasing the White Rabbit!”

At first Jack is confused by this statement, so John asks him if he is familiar with the Alice stories. Coincidentally, Jack replies that his father used to read him the Alice stories when he was a child. Now it would appear that his father is the White Rabbit, and Jack is Alice in a bizarre Wonderland.

This picture is very similar to the picture of the White Rabbit with his back turned to us, but walking on into the dark in such a way that the viewer feels compelled to follow!

SPOILER ALERT for those who have not seen LOST and plan to. For those who have seen all 6 seasons of LOST or do not care to have secrets revealed, by all means, read ahead!

Those of you who have seen all 6 seasons of LOST know that Dr. Jack Shepherd had a relative on the island with him who, unbeknownst to him, happened to be his half sister, sharing the same father. So, it would seem that, since Jack’s father appeared to him, he might just appear to his other child as well ... and he did! Claire Littleton is Jack Shepherd’s half sister, and with her long blond hair and youthful appearance, doesn’t she just remind you of Alice?

It makes sense that he would appear to her, driving the point home that he is the White Rabbit on this show – or at least one of many, for there are many heroes who each experience a call from a herald unique to them. Nevertheless, it makes sense that someone referred to as a White Rabbit would appear to someone so Alice-like while she was asleep. And wouldn’t you know it? She disappears after she sees him!

Again, those of you who have seen all 6 seasons of LOST know why Christian Shepherd has appeared to his son Jack and daughter Claire - because he isn’t Christian Shepherd ... he’s the smoke monster in disguise!

Yes, this supposedly human man is actually a manifestation of the mysterious devil-like villain that inhabits the island. Most of the survivors of Oceanic 815 and other inhabitants of the island have witnessed this creature, whom most refer to as "the monster". It usually appears as a cloud of black smoke that shoots around the island at will, often in a slithering manner like a snake and making what another character referred to as a “ticka ticka sound.”

So, keeping this in mind, can the apparition of Christian Shepherd, or the Smoke Monster in disguise, count as a White Rabbit, a herald calling the characters to adventure? After all, devout viewers can see that this creature is evil and has actually murdered other characters. Certainly he cannot be the same as the White Rabbit can he?

My answer to this? Yes and No. No, he is not the same as the White Rabbit. The White Rabbit was not evil, even if his appearance to Alice may have caused her to have an accident and fall down a large hole into a sort of underworld ... If anything, the villain in Wonderland might be the Queen of Hearts, although Alice seems to experience many other threats from various other characters ... but the White Rabbit doesn’t seem to be one of them. So what’s going on here?

Well, the Smoke Monster is not the same as the White Rabbit in that his only role is the herald during the call to adventure – the Smoke Monster also plays the role of the villain. This is sort of the opposite of how Ferris Bueller played the role of both the herald and the hero – Smoky here is both the herald and the villain. The White Rabbit is only the herald. So I think what's important here is that the herald is not always a good guy, and can serve more than one function, play more than one role, even if that role is the villain. If it is the villain, this does not mean he should not be followed. Often the villains can be the one to draw the hero into the adventure and the hero returns home better for having gone on his/her journey!

LOST has a lot of references to Alice In Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass, and there are many other characters who seem to play the same role as Alice, being led, and characters who play the same role as the White Rabbit, doing the leading. But another story to which LOST is similar is the previously mentioned Peter Pan. A mysterious island that characters have to fly to? And again, notice how the slithering Smoke Monster happens to make a ticking noise ... similar to a certain crocodile on another island!

Lastly, to prove my point about how the herald can often be a villain – or at least be vilified by those who misinterpret the story – I would like to point out how similar the island on LOST actually is to the Garden of Eden, and the Smoke Monster to the serpent.

First, recall how difficult the island is to find and how it is protected by Jacob – humans were actually banished from the Garden of Eden and it was then guarded by the angel Uriel. The Smoke Monster who often leads others is a slithering creature who claims that Jacob’s rules are not really making a difference or protecting anyone or anything. The serpent similarly reveals to Eve that God’s forbidding the fruit of knowledge is actually meant to keep them ignorant and powerless, which would trap them in the garden and keep them from gaining knowledge. A character named Desmond experiences a similar state of imprisonment for a reason he is eventually tempted to test. Like Adam and Eve, he too must suffer the consequences afterwards.

I think the similarities between the serpent and the Smoke Monster demonstrate that the serpent too is another herald, a White Rabbit, who literally tempts another to break a rule out of pure curiosity. And what is the result? Some might say punishment, and fall from grace ... Really? A fall from grace? That sounds very shameful, and yet Alice didn’t seem to feel ashamed after falling down the rabbit hole...? Wasn’t that a similar fall? It took place in a sort of garden and she was led by an animal ... a talking one for that matter! This depiction of the story is interesting because the serpent is very human, and there is an owl perched on the tree ... owls often symbolize wisdom! Owls were one of the symbols of Athena, the goddess of Wisdom. When you put it in these terms, the fruit of knowledge seems like more of a gift than a curse.

Let’s be realistic here! A hero never accepts a quest from a herald without eventually gaining something, even if the herald is actually the villain! And what do the heroes usually gain? Knowledge! Look at this depiction of Eve with the serpent beneath the Tree of Knowledge - doesn't it look like she knows something you don't? Maybe like she's smarter than you ...?

This said, I’d like to propose a new way of seeing the banishment from the Garden of Eden – not as due to the breaking of a rule or a terrible crime, of disobeying God or being tempted by an evil, devilish serpent – but as the reception of knowledge, wisdom, and logic that comes with adulthood. Eventually, we all reach puberty (eat the fruit), become more aware of our bodies (realize we are naked), and it’s probably around this time that most of us start questioning our parents’ rules (that if we eat the fruit we will die). Disobeying them can have negative consequences (pain during labour) – any decision can. But we can also learn that we are old enough to make our own decisions and solve any problems (nudity) that result from them! Once we can solve our own problems and use the resources around us to do so, we have reached maturity, and no longer need the security and safety of our parents’ house (Garden of Eden).
This is not a bad thing. It appears to be a rejection, and it appears that certain consequences such as pain during labour are an actual punishment. But what if they are just some of the things we can expect to happen now that we are grown up? What if they are just some more problems that we might encounter that require some experimentation with the earth’s natural resources in order to be solved?
If we think about it in these terms, it’s almost as if eating the fruit of knowledge represents the first scientific discovery, and thus leads to the first invention – clothing! Looking at it this way, I just can’t see the serpent as the bad guy. To view the serpent as the villain would mean to always view the herald as the villain, and the whole adventure of discovery and openness to experience as evil! If we all view things this way, we will never fall down rabbit holes, go on adventures, learn things we didn't know about the world, learn things we didn't know about ourselves, and come back as better, wiser people! Maybe this is what is so intriguing about the White Rabbit, and all of the heralds in every story ... they all remind us of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, and they all make us wonder if they can really be trusted. But maybe that's just because the herald is always something or someone that seems so small and unimportant and it feels strange that something so small can be responsible for something so big - for having such a big effect on someone else's life ...

1 comment:

  1. What a fantastic article. I really enjoyed reading it, thankyou :o)