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A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake: Unlocking James Joyce's Masterwork Hardcover – May 10, 2005

4.5 out of 5 stars 27 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“Campbell and Robinson deserve a citation from the Republic of Letters for having succeeded in bringing out their Skeleton Key at this time....The chance to be among the first to explore the wonders of Finnegans Wake is one of the few great intellectual and aesthetic treats that these last bad years have yielded.”
Edmund Wilson, The New Yorker

“Joyce has found in Mr. Campbell and Mr. Robinson the ideal readers who approach his book with piety, passion, and intelligence, and who have devoted several years to fashioning the key that will open its treasures.”
Max Lerner, The New York Times

"The key that will open [Finnegans Wake's] treasures." — The New York Times
--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

About the Author

Perhaps most responsible for bringing mythology to a mass audience, Joseph Campbell’s works rank among the classics in mythology and literature: Hero with a Thousand Faces, the four-volume The Masks of God, The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, and many others. Among his many awards, Campbell received the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Contribution to Creative Literature and the 1985 Medal of Honor for Literature from the National Arts Club. A past president of the American Society for the Study of Religion, Campbell was professor emeritus at Sarah Lawrence College in New York until his death in 1987.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: New World Library; 2nd edition (May 10, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1577314050
  • ISBN-13: 978-1577314059
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.9 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,026,320 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Library Binding
First, please accept my disclaimer for this review: I have been a fan of Joseph Campbell for many years. The objectivity may be lacking, therefore, in this assessment - freely admitted, and accept my apologies.

Campbell spent ~4 years, if memory serves, on this book. He said he finally had to get away from the Wake because everything he read started to sound as though it was from the Wake.

Having been an avid reader of Joyce for many years, Campbell's Key is to my mind THE definitive work on the Wake. Anyone can criticize another's work, and perhaps it is unreasonable to expect a critic to be as brilliant as the victim of his wiseacreing, but to my mind criticisms of this beautiful and inspired work are rather worthless.

The Key is always my primary reference for the Wake. Annotations (Roland McHugh) is just a phone book of references; the Key is first-rate scholarship. Infallibility is not a requirement for brilliance, assuming there is merit to criticism of this work.

But as Joseph Campbell would say, don't buy a book because it is said to be important; buy it because it "catches" you. Campbell's grasp of the Wake is a wonderful help to appreciating the Wake in less than a lifetime.

See also Joseph Campbell on James Joyce; Wings of Art.
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Format: Paperback
One of the first books written about the Wake, A Skeleton Key has been largely supplanted by the wealth of Wakean research done since its 1944 publishing date, but its value as a seminal text is undisputed, and many -- including me! -- still find it a very useful guide. It opens with a beautiful introduction by Campbell, then explains the purpose of the text, moving on to a synopsis of the overall story. After that, it breaks down FW page by page, stripping the text of much of its obscurity and serving up possible interpretations via footnotes and bracketed commentary. In this way Campbell and Robinson more or less retell the Wake, "prosifying" the text in an attempt to make it more comprehensible to the lay reader. While this is certainly helpful, it must be said that this technique can come across as being a bit dry, and is certainly no substitute for the breathtaking immersion in Joyce's scintillating river of prose! Additionally, many of Joyce's meanings were overlooked by Campbell and Robinson, and a few of their interpretations have long since been "overturned" by more recent and intensive scholarship. Because of all this, A Skeleton Key has lost some of the polished glow of its initial reception, and some Joyceans have gone so far as to call it almost completely tarnished, finding it occasionally more misleading than helpful. Although there may be some truth to that, I still enjoy this book, and I find its mythopoetic angle -- this is that Joseph Campbell, after all -- uniquely refreshing, and some of his mythological insights possess a brilliance that has rarely been matched. Still, however, it is no substitute for the text itself, but for a work written only a few years after Finnegans Wake was published, A Skeleton Key is a pretty amazing accomplishment!Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake: Unlocking James Joyce's MasterworkThe beauty of this edition is that it includes an *index*! In fact, it's the 2006 winner of the H.W. Wilson Award for excellence in indexing from the American Society of Indexers. With this accomplished index, not only is Campbell's work more accessible, the text of Finnegan's Wake is made more so, as well. Don't read either without this edition.
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Format: Hardcover
Unfortunately, as wonderful and well-intentioned a work as this is, the interests of the authors (as well as their disinterests and their blindspots) make this introduction to James Joyce's brilliant Finnegans Wake a hindrance to newcomers to the Joyce work more than a help, unless the newcomer can allow themselves to see around the doors that this Skeleton Key unlocks.

Let's get this straight out in the air: Finnegans Wake is not overly concerned with "the hero's journey" or the "myth with a thousand masks." It is, at its heart, the love story of a mountain and a river. Beyond that, it's about family dynamics, human history, entertainment history, and the joys and traumas of individual life, in a broad sense and in very specific ways.

A Skeleton Key chooses, via its authors, to see Finnegans Wake pared down to the elements that have something to do with monomyth, with a universal humanity or culture, and even there, only with its most serious components. Finnegans Wake is a serious work, this is true, but it is often most serious about being really completely hilarious or rushing along into pure romanticism. For whatever reasons, the authors of this text, have chosen to completely downplay or outright ignore the more ribald aspects of the novel, either the humorous or the simply enthusiastic. They choose to see the puns and parodies that are quilted together to comprise much of the novel, as a scholarly effort, and nothing more. The rendering of Ireland as excited genitalia is not allowed entertainment value, nor are lines such as "[A] hot fellow in his night, may the mouther of guard have mastic on him!
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