Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 795
Giles Goat-Boy came from what John Barth called the Ur-Myth, or the myth of the hero, that he read about in The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Drama, and Myth by Fitzroy Richard Somerset, fourth baron (1956) and The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949) by Joseph Campbell. Giles Goat-Boy follows Campbell’s description of the pattern of the mythic hero. Giles’s journey parallels those of the heroes Campbell treats, including Odysseus, Aeneas, and Jesus. The mythic hero’s adventure includes a humble birth or infancy that belies the hero’s great origins, a journey to the underworld, and a triumphant return.
George’s comic adventures parody the hero’s quest and satirize many prominent people and events of the twentieth century. Max, for example, is partially modeled on Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer. A character called Lucius “Lucky” Rexford is largely modeled on John F. Kennedy; Campus Riot II is modeled on World War II; the Quiet Riot, on the Cold War; and New Tammany College, on the United States. Barth combines topical satire and allusion with perhaps the most universal story known to humanity—the hero’s journey—to produce a book of epic proportions.
In addition to the story itself, Giles Goat-Boy employs metafictional devices reminiscent of earlier works by Barth. A “Publisher’s Disclaimer” by the “Editor-in-Chief,” for example, contains statements by four editors arguing whether the book should be published. Included also are a “Cover-Letter to the Editors and publisher” by “This regenerate Seeker after Answers, J.B.,” a “Posttape,” a “Postscript to the Posttape,” and a “footnote to the Postscript to the Posttape”—all by Barth himself, in which he creates the fiction that Barth is an editor of a manuscript given to him by one Giles [,] Stoker, son of George Giles and Anastasia, but that parts of the manuscript got mixed with one of Barth’s own. The manuscript causes him, the frame story goes, to give up his career as a writer to pursue the truths in it. The manuscript itself may or may not have been put on tape by WESCAC. The Posttape tends to contradict everything toward which the manuscript points, the Postscript to the Posttape questions all that the Posttape says, and the Footnote casts doubt on the authenticity of the Postscript. The art of fiction humbly emulates the life of academe.
Barth plays numerous other jokes on the reader. For example, the play about Taliped Decanus is a highly comical retelling of the story of Oedipus. Taliped, like Oedipus, means “swollen-footed” or “club-footed,” and decanus means “dean,” the university-world equivalent of rex, or king. George Giles’s life in many ways parallels and parodies Oedipus’s life. Barth often uses names jokingly. Giles is the name of the seventh century patron saint of cripples; George Giles limps because his foot was damaged when, as an infant, he was put in the booklift. Bocksfuss means goat’s foot, again referring to George’s limp. Eblis Eierkopf means devilish egghead. He eats eggs, is bald, and is thoroughly committed to science, to the exclusion of human values. Unlike Max, he feels no remorse at having pushed the EAT button. Peter Greene becomes the Gilesian parody of Saint Peter; he is the anything-but-saintly founder of the Gilesian church. Maurice Stoker, as his last name implies, is a Satan figure. Once, when George enters the library, he finds a woman reading a book that probably is Giles Goat-Boy; she seems to be up to the exact place at which George finds her reading.
In addition to the book’s humor, there is an element of seriousness: George is a definite hero. When faced with a dilemma, such as the one he encounters at the fork in the road, he unhesitatingly creates a third choice by making his own path between the two forks. He achieves his destiny to “Pass All Fail All.” Like the typical hero, he snatches victory from the jaws of defeat, but the victory is ambiguous and may not be a victory at all. Like Jesus and other saviors, he descends into the nether regions, achieves a victory there, rises from the land of the dead, and works what at least seem to be miracles. Critics interpret his three descents into WESCAC’s belly as involving George’s visions, first of diversity (a Western concept), second of unity (an Eastern view), and, finally, of the interdependence of opposites (a synthesis). In the end, George leaves a disputed legacy further complicated by disputes between his disciples. Thus, Giles Goat-Boy is a parody of the New Testament, recounting the life of what may or may not be the Grand Tutor of New Tammany College who came to campus to show students the way to Commencement Gate.