Evolving Myths

Last week I attempted to break into ILLiad. (There is a joke about a Trojan Horse here, I’m sure.) ILLiad is the Interlibrary Loan system that you didn’t take advantage of in college, and as I was scouring the Internet for a bootleg password, I wondered, “What is the nerdiest crime someone has been arrested for?”

I didn’t break any laws (because I couldn’t find any passwords) and luckily UC Berkeley’s auxiliary library (miles away from campus, in a lost little nook between highway 580 and the Bay) had what I needed—Volume IV of the 1973 Tamkang Review, which has a two-part series “The Evolution of the Legend of the White Serpent”—and they weren’t picky about my non-student status (which was swell of them). There is a thrill in the hunt for buried dramaturgical treasure.

Years ago, I wrote my undergraduate thesis about the evolution of Sir Gawain in the Arthurian romances leading up to the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, theorizing why the anonymous poet would choose a knight known as a playboy to be his hero of faith and virtue. And here I am, working on a freelance article about how a Chinese story traced back to a collection of  classical T’ang Dynasty tales evolved into (among other 20th- and 21st-century forms) Madame White Snake, the American opera that just won the Pulitzer. English majors: there is hope!

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