"Every myth is driven by the obsessive need to solve a paradox that cannot be solved."
~ Wendy Doniger, in the Foreword to Myth and Meaning: Cracking the Code of Culture by Claude Levi-Strauss (emphasis in original)
Okay. So I've been reading a lot of cultural anthropology lately, particularly the mid-20th century structuralists. If you're a writer who came up in the era of the Disney memo and its aftermath, you've already been exposed to a subset of these ideas. Chris Voegler's book, The Hero's Journey, was basically a recodification of Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces in screenwriting terms. I think technically Campbell would be classified a comparative mythologist rather than a true structuralist, but I think nobody would dispute that his work was related to what came later from the structuralists. Certainly, they were all looking for commonalities among groups of folkloric stories.
In any case, if you've read Voegler or Campbell, you've been exposed to one collective myth analysis. What I've been reading lately are similar studies about other kinds of collective myths -- that is, myths other than the hero's quest. Not all the work of the comparative mythologists and structuralists is relevant to writers, but some of it is. Levi-Strauss's studies of Pan-American myths have been particularly fascinating to me (especially the stuff on twinning and untwinning -- whoa dayumn), and Vladimir Propp's work on Russian folk tales has been a thought-provoking read. Highly recommended if you're interested in that sort of thing.
For something like the past ten years, I've been quietly proposing my own theory that genre romance novels are, at their core, an attempt to recast the woman's sociobiological paradox into a pleasant and easily digested story type with a guaranteed positive outcome. And Alicia has been saying for quite some time that romance novels are folkloric in nature. We didn't pull these ideas out of thin air -- for my part, I was strongly influenced by, again, an anthropological study I read some years ago, which I can no longer cite because I can't find it. (But why is it always the anthropologists who are making these bells chime?) The study was either commissioned or produced by a Harvard professor, and it made for fascinating reading. I wish I could tell you more than that, but all I ever had was a paper copy of the study and only heaven knows where I put it. I may have lost it in a move a few years ago.
In any case, the paper addressed the two sociobiological functions of both genders and how that has influenced gender roles. The female's two functions are to get pregnant and to feed the young. The male's are to inseminate females and to fight off predators.
It's that grouping, or that division of roles, if you prefer, that causes a paradox. The female needs a male to get pregnant, of course, but she also expects him to fight off predators. Except that sometimes the male himself is a predator. So she needs to bring a potential predator close in order to keep other potential predators away. The trick for the female is to find a man who is willing to fight others but not willing to fight her. She has to trigger his protective instincts rather than his battle instincts.
In romance novels, the hero almost never starts off as perfect hero material. He's an unreachable lone wolf, or a brooding wounded heart, or a charming rogue who's delightful to be around but can't be trusted in an emergency. The heroine recognizes this in him, this initial tendency in him to have traits that might not make him such a perfect partner. And she also generally recognizes traits in him that would make him a worthy partner, things like strength and size and power. The journey of the romance novel is one in which the heroine develops trust, the hero develops protectiveness, and both of them develop mutual love and passion.
We retell this story over and over in genre romance novels and other formats because it's an important myth. I don't mean "myth" in the sense of something that doesn't exist -- in fact, happy marriages and good partnerships do exist, and plenty of them. I mean "myth" in the anthropological sense of a story that is part of a cultural tradition or heritage. These are stories that contain a deeper meaning, something almost primal. These are stories that help us understand the world and our parts in it. For female readers of romance novels, these may be stories that help us understand the almost instinctive ways we identify and come to love good men.
In any case, all of this is just to say that I really got a kick out of the Doniger quote, and now you all know why. fwiw.