Thursday, March 27, 2014

ALLEY TRAMPING

I decided to reread Roger Zelazny's DAMNATION ALLEY prior to re-screening the film. It's a good basic action-opus, which takes place in a post-apocalyptic world following a nuclear strike. The hero-- whom some would call an antihero-- is enlisted to perform a dangerous task: Hell Tanner, an extraordinary good driver, is enjoined to drive from the "nation of California" across the perilous territory of Damnation Alley in order to take a vaccine to plague-ridden Boston.  He does so initially not out of any noble motives, but because he's been locked away for his commission of violent crimes, for which California authorities are prepared to pardon him, as long as he completes his task to their satisfaction.




The plot of DAMNATION ALLEY boasts no innovations: Hell is sent on his task with other specialized cars from the authorities, cars that are supposed to keep watch on him and make sure he performs the task. Zelazny gets rid of the accompanying cars before the first third of the novel ends, and though one of Hell's guards ends up riding in the hero's car for a short time, he too gets unloaded fairly quickly.  None of the characters Hell meets along the way have any great impact on his life, any more than the menaces he fights off,  be they human raiders or mutant snake-monsters.  Zelazny's aim in minimizing plot-complications is to give his readers a character story of a hero who resists the standard notions of heroism.

Hell Tanner, in keeping with his exotic name, is supposed to be the last of the real-life motorcycle-riding club the Hell's Angels.  In the edition I read, the name is never used outright, probably to avoid copyright infringement.  He disdains authority and has committed a number of crimes, though one can't always be sure whether or not the authorities are veracious on all accounts.  The novel begins with Hell trying to flee the law to avoid his commitment, and he only goes through with it because the law-enforcers stick with him for the first few miles.  However, Zelazny isn't simply glorifying the type of antihero that became fashionable in the 1960s.  Although Hell is a son of a bitch, he begins to have a very unsentimental appreciation for the magnitude of his task, perhaps showing some influence from Greg, the one driver who ends up sticking with him for a while. While Greg sleeps and Hell drives, Hell thinks:

Nobody had ever asked him to do anything important before, and he hoped that nobody ever would again. Now, though, he was taken by the feeling that he could do it. He wanted to do it. Damnation Alley lay all about him, burning, fuming, shaking, and if he could not run it, then half the world would die, and the chances would be doubled that one day all the world would be part of the Alley.

Hell Tanner may not be a standard heroic type, but these are not the motivations of an antihero; he's just a very nasty, selfish hero.  Without giving away too much, Hell succeeds in his quest, but still manages to give society the middle finger.

The novel is a good quick read, but beyond the unusual take on a SF-hero, there's not much to recommend it. Zelazny occasionally cuts away from Hell's journey to show the suffering people in Boston, and I suspect these sections were added just to expand the original novella to novel-length. I for one skipped them and felt that I missed nothing.



Tuesday, March 18, 2014

MIRACLE MILES

"Many believers want nothing more than to witness a miracle to justify their faith in God. But there are others who have lost their faith after seeing too many miracles."-- line spoken by main character Ivan Isaacs in the 1998 Korean manhwa PRIEST, Volume 4, Min-Woo Hyung.




The above utterance has a very specific meaning in this Korean "horror-western," whose protagonist is a priest who has accepted the help of a demon in order to battle another demon.  As I've not finished the PRIEST series, I can't say how assiduously this idea of "too many miracles" is pursued throughout the narrative.  I can only say that in Volume 4, the idea is not pursued in depth.

What interests me, though, is the dynamic suggested by the phrase "too many miracles." With the exception of "intellectual religions" not rooted in everyday life, such as Deism, most religions depend on some sort of miracle that supplies the evidence of things not seen, be it a specific entity (gods, demons, et al) or a general principle (Buddhist enlightenment).

Mircea Eliade illuminated this dynamic in his book PATTERNS OF COMPARATIVE RELIGION, where he asserts that every hierophany (manifestation of something sacred) is inevitably also a "kratophany," a manifestation of power.  The latter manifestation can be something that demonstrates a holy figure's ability to step outside the normative laws of mortal life, as in John 20:24-29 of the King James Bible, which details the appearance of Christ before "doubting Thomas." However, even religions that do not depend on the question of "faith" as greatly as does Christianity require miracles to demonstrate that the religion is more than mere opinion. In some versions of the illumination of Buddha, his contemplation beneath the Bodhi-tree becomes a matter of cosmic consequence in that legions of demons attempt-- and fail-- to distract him.



However, "too many miracles" could become as onerous as "too few." Thus in PATTERNS Eliade observes that kratophanies "emphasize the extent to which the manifestation of the sacred intrudes on the order of things." To pursue the idea eludicated by the manhwa-author, one might speculate that if one did exist in a world of "too many miracles," that the "faith" one might lose would not so much be faith in "higher powers," but rather faith in "the natural order of things," which might come to seem nothing but a meaningless illusion.  That many religions have advanced this conceit, often to compete with the common-sense view of the order of things, is no coincidence, and the idea points to the ambivalence Eliade senses in the sacred, since it threatens to undo the comfortable aspects of the profane world in which mere mortals dwell.

Monday, March 17, 2014

SHIKI TSUKAI VOL. 1: REVIEW



While I plan to read further in the series simply because the art is pleasing, there's nothing original in this manga.  There's an "everyman" young hero who's being trained in an arcane mystical discipline, and there's a beautiful young comrade who helps him while not being very shy about taking off her clothes at embarrassing moments.  There are scheming villains and an overbearing, comedy-relief instructor (the brunette at the far left, above). 

Only two things make SHIKI TSUKAI moderately interesting.  First, the author builds his system of  magic around the Japanese seasonal system, resulting in panels like this one:




Although Japan has no shortage of routine space operas and martial arts epics, SHIKI is noteworthy for elucidating the differences between Japan's traditional calendar and the adoption of the Gregorian standard.  It's too early to tell if manga-creator To-Ru Zekuu will develop this into a consistent fantasy-mythology or not.

The other point of interest is that SHIKI TSUKAI is one of many manga that flirts with Oedipal issues, albeit in a very distanced manner. Hero Akira Kizuki lives with his mother and father, but his father's gone part of the time and the first thing we learn of his mother is that she looks too young to have a high-school age child.  In addition, the aforementioned comedy-relief instructor flirts with Akira outrageously, probably with no serious intent.  But it caused me to wonder about the etiology of the manga fascination with the "older-woman/younger-man" trope.  While I'm not an expert regarding manga, it seems to me that it's been on the rise in the past two decades.  It doesn't always eventuate in a romance as such, as seen in HAPPY LESSON (1999-2002), and I suspect that the trope's role in SHIKI TSUKAI is incidental in nature.  In comparison I've only rarely observed the trope in American comic books belonging to the adventure-genre, or even in works of comedy.  Film and television media have used the trope much more in respect to comedy, but in American adventure-stories overall, the most popular trope might be "older-man/younger-woman."

Saturday, March 15, 2014

NEUROMANCER: THOUGHTS

Though I reread NEUROMANCER recently, I don't feel moved to give it a "review" as such. 



The book deserves the credit it receives for having effectively launched the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction.  It's also generally well written, though I can't say as much for William Gibson's early short story "Johnny Mnemonic," which introduced one of NEUROMANCER's major characters, the bodyguard "Molly Millions." Both the short story and NEUROMANCER-- the first in Gibson's "Sprawl trilogy" series-- take place in a near-future demimonde where criminality is common and no one seems to have a "regular job."

NEUROMANCER's plot is one reason I prefer not to review the book, as I found it hard to fathom. It seemed complicated for the sake of complication, as opposed to being complex, like an earlier book dealing with a version of "cyber-technology," Samuel R. Delany's NOVA.  I found the characters flat and uninvolving, though I give Gibson full credit for trying to avoid the sort of characters that have been overused in the genre-- the innocent everyman, for example. NEUROMANCER's protagonist is a drug addict and a low-level thief who becomes important only when he gets involved with a burgeoning artificial intelligence and those who seek to prevent the AI from thriving.

What I did appreciate about NEUROMANCER, though, was that in contrast to many naïve heroes, Gibson's protagonist casually accepts the corruption around him, and at no point does the plot suggest that anything will change radically.  And nothing shows this better than this meditation by viewpoint character Case:

Power, in Case's world, meant corporate power. The zaibatsus, the multinationals, that shaped the course of human history, has transcended old barriers. Viewed as organisms, they had attained a kind of immortality.

And a little later:

Case had always taken it for granted that the real bosses, the kingpins in a given industry, would be both more and less than people... He'd always imagined it as a gradual and willing accommodation of the machine, the system the parent organism. It was the root of street coll, too, the knowing posture that implied connection, invisible lines up to hidden levels of influence. 

Someday I may read the other two novels in the Sprawl trilogy to see if Gibson managed to show people more of this intriguing Machiavellian world, or if he just repeated the same idea over and over.

REVIEW: HARPIST IN THE WIND

I finally found time to finish re-reading the last book in Patricia A. McKillip's "Hed trilogy," the first two parts having been reviewed here and here




I'm sure that I could have found time before this, of course, given that almost a year has passed-- that is, if I really wanted to.  But time and time again, I found myself not wanting to return to McKillip's fantasy-world, which as I noted before, was too often marred by soundalike characters and tedious journeys that had all the thrills of watching someone else's home movies.

HARPIST, though, is a little better, and may be the principal reason I remembered liking the trilogy from my initial reading over 20 years ago.  The first book is devoted to setting up the hero Morgon, and the second to establishing his intended consort Raederle. Both of them encounter various supporting characters, but none of them proved memorable, and so they accomplished little beyond marking time.  However, HARPIST for the most part deals with both the passion and the tensions between the two nobles, and for that reason is much more successful than the first parts.

There's still a major problem in that the motivations of the villains-- a wizard with a long Welsh-inspired name that I choose not to type out, and a race of shapechanging creatures-- are inadequately clarified.  But in the battles of Morgon and Raederle, McKillip finally plays to her strengths: the invocation of wild faerie magics.  Tanith Lee she's not, but she has some fine moments:

The sun came out abruptly for a few moments before it drifted into night. Light glanced across the land, out of silver veins of rivers, and lakes dropped like small coin on the green earth.

For charity's sake I'll assume a typesetting error turned "coins" into "coin."

So, thanks to some strong passages in the third book, the re-read was not entirely a waste of time.  But for some time it did seem like the road to McKillip's world went ever on, and on, and on...

REVIEW: THE DRUID STONE (1967)



I first read THE DRUID STONE twenty or thirty years ago, and recalled it only as a rousing sword-and-sorcery throwaway.  Though the name on the cover is "Simon Majors" (as in the legendary occult seer "Simon Magus,") experts agree that the actual author was Gardner F. Fox, better known in this century for his comic book works (JUSTICE LEAGUE in particular) than for his novels.

Even in my younger days I recognized that Fox's novels were almost without exception simple and derivative, though in general they made for a good quick read.  THE DRUID STONE, though, isn't even good trash.  On the spine it reads "occult," and the first third of the book concerns a psychic experiment by three occult experts.  But it quickly veers into into sword-and-sorcery territory, as one of the three finds himself-- viewpoint character Brian Creoghan-- in a sorcerous world, "Dis" by name, and that he inhabits the body of a mighty-thewed warrior, given the unfortunate name of "Kalgorrn."  Both Brian and his alter ego are boring and their mutual struggle to save the world of Dis lacks the visual flourishes Fox often brought to his prose fiction.

For historians of paperback fiction DRUID STONE's only significance is that it was among the earliest original paperbacks that tried to capitalize on the Lancer Books reprints of Robert E. Howard's "Conan the Barbarian" stories; reprints which were key to the revival of Howard's reputation and Conan's rise to iconic prominence.  Since "sword and sorcery" had not yet become established, DRUID STONE was marketed as an "occult thriller."  The early part of the novel presents something of a Cook's Tour of exotic locales, as Brian reminisces on his encounters with Mau Maus, Tuaregs, "ju ju priests of Kunasi," and "Dyaks of Borneo."  But most of this is just trivia, with one exception. At one point Brian remembers having a piece of art made for him "in Hong Kong by a one-eyed brute with the fingers of a Praxiteles."  While Fox was a great originator of comic-book myths-- his Golden Age "Hawkman" for instance-- in his prose fiction this seems to be the main outlet he found for his considerable myth-knowledge: taking the essentials of, in this

THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1898): THOUGHTS

I'd reread Wells' classic  WAR OF THE WORLDS within the last 3-4 years, and I remain impressed with its dark vision of Earth being "colonized" by superior powers, much in the way primitive Earth-tribes were victimized by advanced weapons.

I gave the novel a quick glance-through this week with one idea in mind: how much does Wells focus on the sheer spectacle of the Martian invasion, in contradistinction to the two famous film adaptations from 1953 and 2005 respectively.

The answer is pretty much as I expected: not very much.  Wells depicts a few scenes in which the Earth military retaliates against the Martian tripods, but the dominant mood is one of a hopeless struggle.  The key scene in this regard is when an ironsides-style ship manages to ram one of the tripods, which is clearly meant to be 1898's version of a "Yeah" moment.  But the ship is blasted the next moment by another Martian machine, thus rendering the victory futile.

It's significant that even after the Martians are accidentally defeated by Earth germs (an ending so well known as to deserve no spoilers) the tone of Wells' final words in the novel is relentlessly dark, in line with the literary form Northrop Frye calls the *irony.*


"Dim and wonderful is the vision I have conjured up in my mind of
life spreading slowly from this little seed bed of the solar system
throughout the inanimate vastness of sidereal space.  But that is a
remote dream.  It may be, on the other hand, that the destruction of
the Martians is only a reprieve.  To them, and not to us, perhaps, is
the future ordained.

I must confess the stress and danger of the time have left an
abiding sense of doubt and insecurity in my mind.  I sit in my study
writing by lamplight, and suddenly I see again the healing valley
below set with writhing flames, and feel the house behind and about me
empty and desolate.  I go out into the Byfleet Road, and vehicles pass
me, a butcher boy in a cart, a cabful of visitors, a workman on a
bicycle, children going to school, and suddenly they become vague and
unreal, and I hurry again with the artilleryman through the hot,
brooding silence.  Of a night I see the black powder darkening the
silent streets, and the contorted bodies shrouded in that layer; they
rise upon me tattered and dog-bitten.  They gibber and grow fiercer,
paler, uglier, mad distortions of humanity at last, and I wake, cold
and wretched, in the darkness of the night.

I go to London and see the busy multitudes in Fleet Street and the
Strand, and it comes across my mind that they are but the ghosts of
the past, haunting the streets that I have seen silent and wretched,
going to and fro, phantasms in a dead city, the mockery of life in a
galvanised body.  And strange, too, it is to stand on Primrose Hill,
as I did but a day before writing this last chapter, to see the great
province of houses, dim and blue through the haze of the smoke and
mist, vanishing at last into the vague lower sky, to see the people
walking to and fro among the flower beds on the hill, to see the
sight-seers about the Martian machine that stands there still, to hear
the tumult of playing children, and to recall the time when I saw it
all bright and clear-cut, hard and silent, under the dawn of that last
great day. . . .

And strangest of all is it to hold my wife's hand again, and to think
that I have counted her, and that she has counted me, among the dead."

THE ILLEARTH WAR: THOUGHTS

I had read the first six books in the CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT some time ago, and recently considered trying to work through the last four books in the series.  To refamiliarize myself with the series, I reread the first two books in the series, LORD FOUL'S BANE and THE ILLEARTH WAR, but then got distracted by other reading-demands and tabled that idea.

What still impresses me about Donaldson's epic-- spoilers ahead for anyone who doesn't want to see endings discussed-- is that both his central character and his story have something of an "anti-Tolkien" tone to them. 

To be sure, Tolkien's "Middle-Earth" is almost completely cut off from anything resembling the modern world, while the Covenant books involve a modern Earthman voyaging to a magical land.  In this the CHRONICLES show a greater resemblance to C.S. Lewis' Narnia book than to LORD OF THE RINGERS, or even to Joy Chant's RED MOON AND BLACK MOUNTAIN.  At a convention I happened to ask Donaldson if he'd read RED MOON, and he said that he had.

But to pursue the RINGS connection anyway-- Tolkien's cosmos, far more than Narnia, appeals because it transmits the view of a pristine pre-industrial world.  Donaldson also gives the reader such a world, called simply "the Land."   However, the presence of outsider Thomas Covenant immediately calls its perfection into question by introducing an outsider who doubts the Land's veracity, because Covenant is a leper who constantly fears losing control of his own senses and/or sanity.




Book 2, THE ILLEARTH WAR, is particularly interesting with respect to one of the Land's characters, High Lord Elena.  Her magic nominally protects the Land from the satanic influence of the story's villain Lord Foul, but she has a psychological weakness one won't find in Tolkien and Lewis.  Without going into too many details, Elena was the offspring of Covenant, who united-- under less than ideal circumstances-- with Lena, a woman of the Land.  The long absence of her father results in what a psychologist might call an "overvaluation" of the father, so that when Covenant returns, she falls in love with him.  Happily, Covenant does not reciprocate, but Elena's father-complex crops up at the climax.  She uses her vast magical powers to revive the spirit of one of the Land's foremost defenders, Lord Kevin, intending to pit against Lord Foul's forces.  Instead, this "father-spirit" proves utterly unable to overcome the evildoers, and instead is turned against Elena, killing her.

I try to avoid analyzing characters too much in terms of sociological developments of the period, since I believe that it's generally wrong to see fiction as a direct representation of those developments.  But I do think that the 1970s, when Donaldson wrote and published these books, was dominantly a time when many of the cultural narratives had broken down, whether as a result of the counterculture or the Vietnam War or what have you.  This concluding scene in ILLEARTH WAR, whatever it meant to Donaldson in terms of his overarching theme, suggests to me an eroison of the idea of a stable savior-figure-- specifically, that of a benign father-figure who rides in and conquers the bad guys.   However, without my having read the entire ten-book series, this is at best a rough hypothesis.

THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU; THOUGHTS

I recently reread Wells' 1896 book THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU, which many know best from its three major film adaptations, as well as about two dozen knockoff horror-films, mostly from the Philippines.



What I found most interesting is that in Chapter 14, that little old beast-maker Moreau relates his theory of human morality to the viewpoint character:

"Very much indeed of what we call moral education is such an artificial modification and perversion of instinct; pugnacity is trained into courageous self-sacrifice, and suppressed sexuality into religious emotiom."

What interests me is that this sounds like the standard Freudian theory of sublimation; of repressing normal instincts in order to become a member of an ordered society.  Yet though Freud had published some papers by 1896, he certainly was not the household word he had become in the early 20th century.  Freud's first major book, INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS, was not published until 1899.

Since I don't think of Wells himself as a particularly original philosopher, it's arguable that he was transmitting then-current empirical thoughts about the sublimation of instincts.  I'm not sufficiently versed in the philosophies of the 18th and 19th centuries, though, so I don't know to whom Wells might have been indebted for this idea of "suppressed sexuality."  But of course today, everyone thinks of the idea as having been articulated by Sigmund Freud.

Slightly later in this chapter, Wells relates that his animal-men, though they show signs of regressing to brute status, also show more positive signs.  "There is a kind of upward striving in them, part vanity, part waste sexual emotion, part waste curiosity."  I must assume that this materialistic outlook-- which views the so-called "higher emotions" as evolving from lower ones-- also probably stemmed from currents in empirical thought at the time, though of course one can probably find evidence of it as far back as the Cynics of Classical Greece.

On an unrelated note, in the book Moreau is undone-- and killed-- by one of his most involved experiments.  A puma, subjected to Moreau's transformation experiments, breaks free and in the ensuing melee kills Moreau even as Moreau slays the beast-- which happens to be a female, his own "Bride of Frankenstein."  Various film adaptations, particularly the 1932 ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, put forth the idea of Moreau attempting to mate a "panther-woman" to a male visitor.  No element of miscegenation arises in the novel, but it's an interesting correspondence that the creature who kills Moreau is a panther-like female.

ELECTRA COMPLICATIONS




Though I'm trying not to recycle an inordinate number of my fantasy-film reviews on this blog, I want to examine in greater depth the concepts suggested by this passage from my review of the 2012 SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN:


Apparently Magnus' wife does die naturally, but following that event, Ravenna uses her sorcery to stage a fake attack on herself, so that Magnus can come to her rescue and be ensorcelled by Ravenna's charms.  This duplicity leads to the film's strongest scene, when Magnus attempts to celebrate his wedding-night with his new wife.  Ravenna, after immobilizing Magnus with her power, rants about her previous abuse: "I was ruined by a king like you once... I replaced his queen-- an old woman..."  "Ruin" here implies rape, albeit one presumably sanctioned by a forced marriage.  We don't know what happened to Ravenna's original abuser, but she's clearly chosen to vent her rage on a surrogate, slaying Magnus with a (phallic?) knife, after which she takes over the kingdom with her own forces, commanded by her now-grown brother Finn. 

I wrote this in part to point out how the screenwriters had chosen to rewrite the traditional folktale of Snow White with an eye to feminist politics.  But this is not to say such feminine-based concerns don't have valid roots with the traditional Snow White folklore-stories.  Indeed, when I heard the Queen's justification for taking over Magnus' kingdom, I thought that in effect the writers had managed to invoke two archetypes of the "persecuted maiden" and to play them off one another: what I'll call "the Maiden Persecuted by Hera" and "the Maiden Persecuted by Zeus."

The original Snow White story does not dwell on any deep motivations for the Queen.  The tale is concerned only with the persecution of the maiden Snow by her stepmother, who is explicitly jealous of the younger woman's beauty.  She is thus covalent with at least one aspect of the Greek goddess Hera, who in modern times is best known for jealously persecuting either the lovers of her husband Zeus or the fruits of his amours with other women. 

As Ravenna recites her litany of injuries, though, the film's screenwriters evoke the opposing trope of the maiden pursued and persecuted by a powerful, quasi-paternal figure, a la the Greek father-god Zeus.  The best known exemplar of this trope is the folktale known as "Donkey Skin," though the tale's basic structure appears in as many variant forms as the structure of Snow White does. The princess who comes to be known as "Donkey Skin" duplicates the trope of the young woman who is as beautiful or more so than an older rival.  However in this case, the rival is her own mother, now deceased, who perversely tells her husband not to marry another woman unless that woman is as beautiful as the aforesaid mother.  This pledge leads the king to covet his own daughter as a wife. Most versions enable the princess to escape this fate and to be married to an age-appropriate suitor.  Some versions allow the king to prosper with another wife, others cause him to be killed for his wickedness.

Ravenna's story seems a bit like "Donkey Skin with an unhappy ending." Because Ravenna is in the narrative position of the antagonist, viewers of HUNTSMAN do not know much about the circumstances of her "ruination," her mastery of occult powers, etc. Aside from what Ravenna tells the audience while killing Magnus, there's just one other scene that directly expounds on Ravenna's history.  In a scene occuring much later in the story, the audience sees Ravenna in her childhood.  She is in the company of her mother in what appears to be a humble village, and the mother is placing on young Ravenna a spell that will give the power to manipulate men by enhancing her natural beauty with enchantment.  The main function of the scene is to reveal Ravenna's sorcerous weakness, so that the heroine may kill her later.  In addition, Ravenna's mother takes this step because she already anticipates a raid on the village by soldiers who are going to take Ravenna away to be the bride of their master.  A younger version of Ravenna's brother Finn is present when the mother casts the spell.  There is the suggestion that the village will be razed even though the villagers don't resist the soldiers, and the scene ends with Ravenna being carried away.  If Finn is not taken along with Ravenna to the unknown king's castle, he presumably survives in some other manner, since he's alive and well at the time when Ravenna takes over Magnus' kingdom.

What's interesting about this scene is the conspicuous absence of the father of Ravenna and Finn.  One presumes that they had a sire of some sort, who is either dead or otherwise unavailable.  But the resonance of Ravenna's words in the murder-scene suggest that symbolically, outside the actual diegesis of the film, it is the unidentified monarch who is father to them both.

Recall that the basic oppositions of Ravenna's monologue duplicates the basic structure of the "Donkey Skin" story.  The king's old wife does not perish naturally, but is put away by the king because she has committed the unforgiveable act of growing old.  This trope does appear in some traditional tales, though natural death seems to be the preferred method to place the persecuted maiden in danger, whether from a lascivious father or a jealous stepmother.  It is arguable that the very nebulousness of Ravenna's unknown ravager leads one to associate him with the absent father-figure; the sire whom no one sees.



The queen's brother Finn seems to have no basis in any traditional "Snow White" or "Donkey Skin" tale.  In the film Finn serves as Ravenna's enforcer, leading her men to hunt down Snow White and to fight with her protector, the Huntsman.  The screenplay does not explicitly state that there has been some incestuous hanky-panky between the queen and her brother, but certain lines-- as when Finn tells Ravenna that he has given her "my all"-- were effective enough that dozens of online reviews of the film have "read" the characters' relationship as incestuous.  I agree with this, but I would extend it to imagine that their relationship might have its origin in the recapitulation of Ravenna's ruination by her "symbolic father."  If Ravenna had been depicted as the actual, rather than the symbolic, daughter of her ravager, one would expect her to show Freudian ambivalence to him: both loving him as her parent and hating him for his crime.  Finn may be "read" as the helpless male sibling who allows his sister's rape to take place, onto whom Ravenna projects the love that the father betrays.  And yet the love Ravenna and Finn share has also been tainted by the father's rape of Ravenna, with the result that their relationship also devolves into incest-- though this is the least of their crimes.

The unknown monarch may or may not pay for his crime; the film tells us nothing of him save what Ravenna says about him.  The audience never knows in what way Ravenna thinks Snow's father Magnus is similar to the nameless king.  In the traditional "Snow White" tale, one may read the father's willingness to remarry after his wife's natural death as a loose betrayal, and it seems likely that the screenwriters were drawing a symbolic connection between this level of betrayal-- which would only seem so to Magnus' daughter, though she never objects to Magnus' remarriage in the film proper-- and the more overt form of betrayal seen in "Donkey Skin," wherein a father oversteps his bounds by seducing his daughter, with or without having "put away" her mother.

It's interesting that both Ravenna's mother and Snow's mother conjure with the image of the traditional tale's "three drops of blood," which is usually applied only as a signifier of Snow White's charmed beauty.  By extending this motif to the queen in her childhood as well as to Snow, the writers suggest that the function of women's charms and beauty is one that all women potentially have at their command, and that it is-- or can be used-- to counter male acquisitiveness and/or aggression.  The screenplay isn't quite intelligent enough to distinguish the specific moral reasons as to why Ravenna's sorcerous charms are evil while Snow's natural charms are good. The script does portray Ravenna as tyrannizing women as much or more than her male victims, and conjures somewhat with the Arthurian motif of the "waste land" to demonstrate that Ravenna has been too tainted by her misfortune to make a decent ruler.  The most one can say is that in some manner the power invoked by both mothers is one that can be turned to good or evil, a familiar trope supported by the elucidation of Ravenna's weakness.  On one hand, if Ravenna devours Snow White's heart-- rather than simply having it torn out to kill Snow, as in the traditional tale-- she can be immortal and beyond any of the ravages of time.  On the other, Snow's blood-- depending on the film's somewhat confusing plot-circumstances-- can and does slay the evil queen.  Since the whole film leads up to the battle of Magnus' natural daughter and his ilicit second wife, one might say that the main point of the film is to validate the very aspect of life which Ravenna refuses to accept-- the ability of the young to overthrow the elder generation.  In this familiar equation, the sole comfort of the elders who watch the film is that their representative in HUNTSMAN gets all the best lines and the most evocative scenes in the story.


ADDENDA: I meant to add that Ravenna gets one definite proof of Snow's ability to replace her, as she Ravenna replaced the "old woman" of the backstory.  Early in the film, Snow is able to escape her jail because Ravenna's brother Finn has been watching her mature for some time.  He confronts her in her cell, trying to talk her into yielding to him, and she breaks free by wounding him.  Though the action of Snow getting free could have taken place with any random guardsman, there's a special irony that even Ravenna's brother-- with whom she shares some special bond-- is lured by Snow's charms.  To be sure, when Ravenna upbraids Finn, her dialogue doesn't communicate the sense of a jealous rage toward an incestuous lover.

"WHAT WE HAVE TO DO" VS. "WHAT WE WANT TO DO"

I've only made it halfway through Marina Warner's NO GO THE BOGEYMAN, whose first few chapters I talked about here.  The book's theme seems rather sprawling, and she's been accused of simply accreting loads and loads of data and dumping it into a thematically disorganized book.  I won't have an opinion on that until I've reached the end, but I'll say that even IF I find it true to some extent, I credit Warner with having gone the extra mile in her researches.  I'm particularly impressed with the detail she applies to the Classical and medieval figure of "Gryllus," a latter-day elaboration to Homer. The name applies to a sailor from the ship of Odysseus who, after being enchanted into beast-status by Circe, refuses the chance to become a man again and stays behind on Circe's isle, sort of a precursor to the animal-men of Wells' ISLAND OF DR MOREAU.  I'd never heard of this figure and was quite interested to learn how long the name survived into other times and climes.

I have noticed that much of Warner's analysis hinges upon the concept of folklore as "apotropaic magic." In my previous Warner-essay I concentrated upon the example of "dangerous lullabies," which may have an analogous function.  The parent singing them conjures up horrible fates for the innocent child (being stolen by marauders, falling from the top of a tree).  Is this a means of exorcising the parent's own hostilities toward the child, or of keeping away potential real horrors by imagining unreal spectres?

Whichever option one chooses, it should be a given that all such mythopoeic responses evolve out of subconscious, rather than conscious, impulses. No mother singing a dangerous lullaby is likely to have thought out, "Now I will sing this song to ward off evil."  The songs as Warner reports them seem too inchoate, too ambivalent, to be the product of rational cognition.  So it would seem that such impulses-- to sing baleful songs, or to erect baleful figures like the "sheela-na-gig" of Ireland-- are things that humans do because they feel that they "have to do" them.

I have reservations about seeing humankind in this light alone, however, as myrmidons guided by their impulses.  It may be impossible, or even undesireable, that humankind would ever throw a spotlight on*everything* the subconscious contains, but surely within the history of folklore that Warner surveys, there is some *conscious* intent as well; some sense of embracing the magical and mysterious because it's what "we want to do. But only once in the section of the book I've read does this impulse come up, and it's in the relatively late writings of Michelangelo on the subject of the grotesque-- which really deserves exploration in a separate essay.

REVIEW: HEIR OF SEA AND FIRE

In my review of Patricia McKillip's THE RIDDLE MASTER OF HED, I wrote:
RIDDLE-MASTER is a solid effort, though on many occasions it feels too transparently like what it is, a setup-novel for the next two parts—which, my memory tells me, read much better. 

 


I finally slogged my way through the middle book in McKillip's trilogy, and by my choice of words it should be apparent that I didn't get a sense that the "middle book" read better than the first part.

Where the first book left off by stranding protagonist Morgon in the midst of a moderately interesting supernatural mystery, the second proceeds to keep Morgon off stage for most of the story, focusing instead on his betrothed, a woman named Raederle.  Raederle ('readerly," as in "reading riddles"?)  is frequently mentioned in RIDDLE MASTER, but never appears "on stage."  She spends most of the novel searching for Morgon and trying to learn more about the conspiracy in which he's become involved.

The most ennervating aspect of HEIR is that it communicates little beyond a sense of marking time.  Raederle is potentially a good character, but her quest to find Morgon is dull, dull, dull, too often filling up time with long scenes of how the heroine and her allies get from one place to another.  There are a few bright spots as Raederle attempts to come to terms with her burgeoning magical talents-- which she inherits from a race of wizardly shapechangers, more or less her opponents in the story.  Occasionally McKillip's poetic talents blossom, but all too often, she goes for the easy simile or metaphor.

What hurts the travel-sequences most is that old writer's enemy: the Curse of Character Sound-Alike. I've struggled with this problem not a little myself.  Still, I don't think most of McKillip's supporting characters were worked out to give them strong enough personalities.  Thus even those characters with very different backgrounds from the heroine's fail to be distinct in any other way.

Since I probably read the trilogy round about the early 1980s, my negative reaction may show a change in my own tastes regarding writing styles and characterizations.  Be that as it may, I almost don't want to reread the final book, despite my good memories of it.  But I'll probably do so, if only to reach a sense of completion on this subject.

THERE'S NO IDYLL IN IDEOLOGY

Though I sometimes explore gender issues in my film-criticism, I wasn't moved to do so in my review of OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL. 

However, such was not the case with some contemporary reviewers, as can be seen in this Film.com review.  In this review Elisabeth Rappe takes issue with the Sam Raimi flick, arguing that GREAT AND POWERFUL is a "major step back" from the Oz books of originator L. Frank Baum.  Rappe says of Baum:

Though Baum brushed off claims that Oz was at all political, he made a decided choice to make women front and center of the series. They’re princesses, ordinary farmgirls, witches (both good and bad), rag dolls, generals, pastry chefs, and problem-solving faeries. They have adventures, lead search parties, rescue one another, solve difficulties, and challenge the Nome King in combat.
 
She contrasts this to the Raimi take on Oz:

 With such a rich tapestry on and off the Oz page, it’s depressing that 2013 finds our return to Oz burdened with a reluctant hero (the dominant kind in the 21st century), and not one of Baum’s plucky young heroines. In a bitter reversal of Baum’s stories, “Great and Powerful” casts the women as the sidekicks, standing by to aid the Wizard should he need it. No longer instigators of action, the witches Glinda, Theodora, and Evanora now clasp their hands at arrival, thrilled the prophesied hero has arrived (“Aren’t you the great man we’ve been waiting for?” asks Theodora, voice trembling. Actually, all the female dialogue seems to be on the wobbly verge of tears). 
 
As my review should make clear, the movie in question has far more problems with it than gender issues.  I don't think Rappe's ideological argument is adequate: it's tantamount to saying that ideology must inform even our wildest fantasies.  Though I don't think Raimi's film is very good, I think it fails because of a lack of imagination first and foremost.  It may be argued that he shouldn't have aided in the concoction of a script that goes against the originator's sensibilities, but in the world of mainstream Hollywood, fidelity to an original writer is neither probable nor necessarily feasible.  His "gender issues" may just come down to his having nothing memorable to say about feminine empowerment in this particular film-- though of course elsewhere in his career he did wield a certain amount of positive effect in producing the fantasy teleseries XENA WARRIOR PRINCESS.

On the other hand, I also came across a comment on another forum in which one viewer of the film expressed complete distaste with making any interpretations of fantasy-entertainment.  For this viewer, any interpretation spoiled the experience.

I wouldn't go quite that far either.  As viewers of any entertainment-- or even creators of same-- we can't avoid some ideological extrapolations.  It's part and parcel of identifying ourselves with our limited situations in life.  However, ideology as such should never be a motive force in the making of fiction, fantastic or otherwise.  In the end the desire for ideological conformity creates more problems than it ever solves.

EVIL EYEFULS

I'm currently reading Marina Warner's NO GO THE BOGEYMAN, which covers a wide variety of what might be called "cannibal ogre" myths.  Some of them appear in actual myths, as with the tale of Polyphemus in Homer's ODYSSEY, or Kronos' devouring of his children.  Some deal with literal folktale ogres, while others deal with human beings who act like ogres, such as the evil stepmother in the Grimms' recounting of "The Juniper Tree" and Titus Andronicus in Shakespeare's play of that name.

Many though not all of Warner's examples deal with hostilties between the generations, so in the first chapter she deviates from the cannibalism theme to address the question of "dangerous lullabies." (The book's subtitle reads: "Scaring, Lulling, and Making Mock.")  Surprisingly, she does not reference in this chapter what may be the famous one:

Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetop,
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle and all.

Rather, in Chapter 1 she concentrates on lullabies that include what notorious psychologist Frederic Wertham termed the "injury to the eye motif."

Bluebeards,. ogres and child-snatches are close cousins to other wandering and hungry spirits, spirits that nurses-- and mothers and fathers-- have invoked to scare, cajole, or bully children into obedience and quiet...The most notorious of night visitors, the Sandman, comes through the window and throws sand in wakeful children's eyes. (Warner p. 31).
 
And a page later:

 There is an echo of this horrific fantasy in an anonymous German lullaby of peculiar shivery menace. Bird feathers appear, logically connected at first to the baby's eiderdown or duvet, but they slip into metaphor and evoke the child as a nestling in danger of being blinded:
Close your little eyes, my child,
For outside blows a terrible wind,
If the child won't sleep at all
Blow it will right into his bed,
Blow everyone of the feathers out
And end by blowing his eyes out!
 

As I don't believe that I was exposed to this "injury-to-the-eyes" lullabies, I have to wonder about their efficacy.  I would think that if I had heard any of them, they would have made me more rather than less wakeful.  I suppose the basic idea is that if the song can get the kids to shut their eyes, instead of looking around with the customary energy of the young child, then nature will take over.

I note with interest a version from Japan that may or may not be a literary creation, from the humor anime HAPPY LESSON.   Going by the presumably accurate English translation-- and without getting too much into the specifics of the story's concept-- the scene I reference involves a maternal figure singing a very "dangerous lullaby" to a son-figure.
Go to sleep, go to sleep,
Hurry up and go to sleep,
If you don't sleep
I'll dig your eyeballs out with my fingers!

The comic result is that the "son" hearing this song is utterly unable to sleep that night.

As I don't know too much more about Japanese folklore than what I've seen in manga/anime, it's certainly possible that this sinister song has no basis in real Japanese lullabies.  Just the fact that the "parental figure" herself threatens the "child" sounds less normal than the practice of evoking a bugbear who will be responsible for attacking the too-wakeful child.

On the other hand, the anime-song may rewrite a real lullaby, much in the same way Lewis Carroll rewrote popular Victorian verses like "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star."

My reading of further chapters will probably disclose other observations Warner makes on "lulling."

MYTHIC DREAMS

I've always found it a source of aggravation that I rarely have mythic dreams of the kind H.P. Lovecraft describes in his old letters.  Most of the dreams I can remember are depressingly bland remixes of everyday life, with only mild if any symbolism.

For instance, some time after I retired from my job at the end of 2010, I dreamed of my place of work as a desolate shell, which had been (so far as I reasoned in the dream) temporarily closed down so that massive work could be done on the plumbing, or something like that. That's practically Freud 101: "I'm not there now, so that means that they can't go on without me!" Eh, big deal.

Recently I did have an interesting animal-dream, which are a rarity for me.  I dreamed of a battle in which a colossal red shark was repeatedly battered into defeat and death by an equally colossal white whale. 

Immediately the logical assumption would be: "white whale= Moby Dick." Red sharks, however, don't have any major representatives in folklore or literature that I can think of, so I immediately thought of the tale of the White Dragon and the Red Dragon, as recounted in this entry for Wikipedia:

The tale is taken up by Nennius in the Historia Brittonum. The dragons remain at Dinas Emrys for centuries until King Vortigern tries to build a castle there. Every night the castle walls and foundations are demolished by unseen forces. Vortigern consults his advisers, who tell him to find a boy with no natural father, and sacrifice him. Vortigern finds such a boy (who is later, in some tellings, to become Merlin) who is supposed to be the wisest wizard ever to live. On hearing that he is to be put to death to end the demolition of the walls, the boy is dismissive of the advice, and tells the king about the two dragons. Vortigern excavates the hill, freeing the dragons. They continue their fight and the red dragon finally defeats the white dragon. The boy tells Vortigern that the white dragon symbolises the Saxons and that the red dragon symbolises the people of Vortigern. If Vortigern is accepted to have lived in the 5th century, then these people are the British whom the Saxons failed to subdue and who became the Welsh.
 
I'm certainly more than a little aware of this curious myth, and have occasionally seen it given abstruse magical or alchemical interpretations. However, I don't know any reason why I would have had that British myth, or concerns relating to that British myth, on my mind recently, aside from having finished reading T.H. White's BOOK OF MERLYN about a month ago.

One minor point of interest is that in my dream, the white behemoth defeats the red one.  But that detail may indeed be drawn from the fact that Melville's novel MOBY DICK is one of the few literary works I consider to possess the same complexity as real, "unauthored" myth-cycles.

Of  course, Moby Dick has been run through the mill of pop culture as well, and I'd be lying if I claimed that I was not aware of some of these instances, such as this Hanna-Barbera superhero-flavored cetacean from the 1960s:



Still, I will say that the white whale in my dream didn't resemble this cuddly fellow in any way whatsoever.  It's possible that my subconscious mind correlated both sharks and whales as some sort of "dragons of the deep." But the color symbolism doesn't seem to add up into anything, unless I was to go really far afield, into the domain of Tantric symbolism, where "the red" and "the white" connote femininity and masculinity respectively.  But that too seems to lead to no particular revelations, unless I cared to delve into the tedium of Freud 101 once again.

RACE, TO THE FUTURE

When one submits one's work to critique by other writers, it can be interesting to see what sort of prism the reviewers may look though.

My Big Long Fantasy-Project-- long both in physical terms and in terms of how long I've worked on it-- falls more or less into the category of the "post-apocalyptic" novel.  A catastrophe destroys the infrastructure of civilization and reduces humankind down to numbers with which a writer can deal more easily.  Five hundred years after the cataclysm, the bigger cities still harbor a polyglot of peoples from different cultures. Of the novel's four central heroes, two are Caucasian.  The other two are respectively two different types of "Indians"-- that is, one is descended from the subcontinent of India while the other is what is now most often called a "Native American."

At one point, during a critique of a selection of the novel, one critiquer-- I'll call her "Shirley"-- came up with an angle on the reading that assailed the basic logic of the novel rather than the selection as such.

Shirley's argument was that in our own era, we are currently witnessing (or think that we are witnessing) a much greater interfusion of what were once theoretically separate races than has ever been the case before, due to the breakdown of taboos against racial mingling.

Therefore, in Shirley's view, the cataclysm would have only furthered this trend. She suggested that five hundred years in our future, cataclysm or no cataclysm, there would be no people who looked exactly as we do today.  My recollection is that she felt everyone would look more or less "coffee-colored."

I will mention, in the interests of disclosure, that Shirley was a Caucasian who had married a Hispanic man, and that they did not have children. This circumstance, indeed, would have been the logical culmination of her views of enhanced racial intermingling.  To be sure, "Hispanic" is not a race at all, and isn't even a unified ethnicity (if there is such a thing).  However, historically the taboos against cultural intermingling have taken the same forms as those restricting racial intermingling.  Wikipedia comments:

Paradoxically, it is common for [Hispanics] to be stereotyped as being exclusively non-white due merely to their Spanish-speaking country of origin, regardless of whether their ancestry is European or not.
 
Now, Shirley may well prove to be right as to what WILL happen in the far future, though of course neither she nor I will ever know what transpires five hundred years hence.  But that's not my concern here.

My concern is: Even if a modern writer believes that the current divisions of race and ethnicity will not survive five more centuries-- does he want to alter everything he writes to fit that belief?

I don't think so.  A novel of the future has to take care not to perpetuate the people of the future as being little more than modern-day figures given futuristic dress.  If a STAR TREK episode features a person who's supposed to be a descendant of Earth's Native Americans in Captain Kirk's time, the episode's writer should acknowledge some process by which that descendant managed to hold onto his particular subculture-- perhaps positing, as has often been done, a planet colonized only by a particular race or ethnicity.

Now, I can always assume that my cataclysm has the same effect, preventing the sort of cultural intermingling Shirley advocated, perhaps causing pockets of ethnic concentration, so that the passage of centuries makes no difference. But that bit of logic-chopping is of secondary importance to me. 

Logic is secondary in my scenario because it's *thematically* important to my novel that various characters should still recapitulate the ethnic forms with which we are familiar.  And this is as true for my two "white" characters as for the "nonwhite" ones, even though only one of the former pair has an identifiable cultural origin (British). 

I don't have anything against a writer who might choose to describe a fictional evolution of humankind into the "coffee-colored" status.  But for me, the images of East Indian, Britisher, and Native American all carry strong symbolic freight, and can be profitably used to comment not on the real future-- which none of us today will know-- but on the present, on the ways in which we moderns create our cultural myths.  To recapitulate our cultural heritage in a futuristic context is to gain a greater understanding of how our cultures work today.

To repeat what comics-writer Don McGregor adroitly said of cultural heritage:

"People use [heritage] to feel a level of superiority, when it was MEANT to give them...Identity!"


MYTHINKINGS PT. 7

In Part 6 I wrote:

But if one continues to define the "myth-essence" in terms of inspiring "excessive or quasi-religious awe or admiration," then I would say that it appears irrespective of overt fantasy-material.

My use of the word "define" overstates the case a little, since by the end of that essay I'm not depending *solely* on an affective demonstration to define the essentialist version of myth.  What I asserted there might be considered a combination of affective and cognitive factors:



 I think that we are closer to the essence of myth when we regard it as a continuous elaboration of symbolic interactions; Yeats' "endless inter-marrying family." 
 
The symbolic juxtapositions of myth and literature often if not always have both cognitive associations (recapitulating what we think about nature, life and death, our own societies et al) as well as having an emotional appeal intrinsic to storytelling and probably language itself.  But like the humans who formulate them, no symbol is an island.  The "family" of myths continually "inter-marry" because it's the nature of human beings to think in terms of larger-than-life symbols, which are inevitably defined by a process of opposition.  Thus the Greeks pictured Ares ("War") cohabiting with Aphrodite ("Love") in spite of the fact that they ruled over radically opposed departments of divinity.

Oppositions seems integral to the therory of structuralist ethnographer Claude Levi-Strauss, who made his own attempt to deduce common ground between "myths" (in the functionalist sense), folktales, and literature in general.  In the 1980 anthology LITERARY CRITICISM AND MYTH, contributor Patricia Carden asserted that Levi-Strauss took exception to the tendency of some folklorists to see "tales" developing in a dependent relationship to "myths."

[Levi-Strauss] proposes the following model: the tale does not succeed the myth in time but is part of a total system of oral literature.  In this system the tale is related to the myth as a complementary satellite.  The tales deal with the same substance as myth but in a different fashion, being constructed on weaker oppositions of a local, social, or moral character, while the myth is constructed on cosmic oppositions.
 
I've had some problems with Levi-Strauss's structuralism in part, and I would not agree that his characterization of tales having "weaker oppositions" applies across the board.  Nevertheless, I agree that on the average "religious myths" are much more symbolically elaborated than tales are, probably because the former are seen as responsible for asserting the ways in which human rituals can renew or even sustain the world, or some part of the world.

Philosopher Susanne Langer goes even further than Levi-Strauss in preferring the "cosmic" nature of myths to the "nonsense" of tales:

"..the psychological basis of this remarkable form of nonsense (the fairy tale] lies in the fact that the story is a fabrication out of subjective symbols, not out of observed folkways and nature-ways [in contrast to "myth," with which Langer contrasts fairy tales]."-- Susannne Langer, PHILOSOPHY IN A NEW KEY, p. 173.
 
As different as these two scholars were, it's interesting to see them concur that myths are stronger and/or more cosmic than tales in terms of their symbolic interactions-- though I personally would favor "more complex" over either term.

Thus, when I try to see a "myth-essence" in literary works that do not promote any strict religious content-- be it Milton's PARADISE LOST or SUPERMAN-- I find that it shows itself most in this form of "symbolic complexity."  I don't assert that such a definition occurs to anyone else who uses "myth" to mean something other than a literal religious story.  But I believe that the "essence" communicates itself to the highbrow and the hoi polloi with equal facility.



MYTHINKINGS PT. 6

“It is the charm of mythic narrative that it cannot tell one thing without telling a hundred others. The symbols are an endless inter-marrying family. They give life to what, stated in general terms, appears only a cold truism, by hinting how the apparent simplicity of the statement is due to an artificial isolation of a fragment, which, in its natural place, is connected with all the infinity of truths by living fibres.”-- William Butler Yeats.
Though in Part 5 I allowed that there were attractions to Joseph Campbell's "supernormal stimuli" theory of myth, it didn't offer a sufficient basis for an "essentialist" definition of myth.  If anything Campbell's theory would seem to be more applicable to the general concept of "fantasy," as a way of potentially explaining why human beings are widely (though not universally) attracted to images that go beyond the boundaries of consensual experience.

Myths as defined in the functionalist sense almost always contain fantasy.  Myths belonging to the ritual or religious category impart a sacramental quality to either the world as a whole or some aspect of the creative whole (the Hindu rituals relating to the Soma-drink, for example).  To achieve that sacramental quality, myths dominantly invoke larger-than-life fantasy-creations like Campbell's angels, gods, and dragons in order to explain how sacred presences gave rise to the world or to some part of the world.

However, an essentialist idea of myth would not necessarily be limited to overt fantasies.  If the "myth-essence" can appear in literature as well as in religious myths, must we believe that it appears only in overtly fantastic literary works?

By this standard, the only works of a poet like the above-cited William Butler Yeats that would possess the "myth-essence" would be those that seem to depict worlds of fantasy, ranging from early works like the narrative poem "The Wanderings of Oisin" to somewhat more metaphorical fantasy-worlds like those of "Sailing to Byzantium" or "The Second Coming."

But if one continues to define the "myth-essence" in terms of inspiring "excessive or quasi-religious awe or admiration," then I would say that it appears irrespective of overt fantasy-material.  Here's an example of Yeats finding mythic import in the drab facts of life, in his "Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop."


 'But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.'  

I think that we are closer to the essence of myth when we regard it as a continuous elaboration of symbolic interactions; Yeats' "endless inter-marrying family."  As such, this symbolic complexity can appear not only in religious myths, but also in folktales and fairytales, in literary works like the poems of Yeats, and even in popular culture.  At times this complexity may even explain why some pop-cultural works succeed with their audience over several generations, much as popular folktales like "Red Riding Hood" succeed thanks to the symbolic issues they address.

MYTHINKINGS, PT. 5

Once more, that useful Wiktionary definiton of "myth:"

a person or thing held in excessive or quasi-religious awe or admiration based on popular legend
 
I've connected the idea of an "essentialist" defintion of myth-- one that can extend across the whole of art, religion and literature-- with this state of "awe or admiration."  But the definition by itself is vague.  As individuals we're all aware of physical experiences (like food) or emotional ties (as with family) that can make us "happy."  But how do we explain the emotion of being awestruck, which is often much less focused on immediate gratification?

Joseph Campbell, borrowing from ethology, explained mankind's capacity for awe with the concept of the "supernormal stimulus."  In PRIMITIVE MYTHOLOGY he writes:


A suggestive analogy is to be seen in the case of the grayling moth, which prefers darker mates to those actually offered by its present species. For if human art can offer to a moth the supernormal sign stimulus to which it responds more eagerly than to the normal offerings of life, it can surely supply supernormal stimuli, also to the IRMs [Innate Releasing Mechanisms] of man and not only spontaneously, in dream and nightmare, but even more brilliantly in the contrived folktales, fairy tales, mythological landscapes, over- and underworlds, temples and cathedrals, pagodas and gardens, dragons, angels, gods, and guardians of popular and religious art. It is true, of course, that the culturally developed formulations of these wonders have required in many cases centuries, even milleniums, to complete. But it is true also . . . that there is a kind of support for the reception of such images in the deja vu of the partially self-shaped and self-shaping mind.
 
Here Campbell is attempting to ground mankind's tendencies to "mythify" experience as an instinctive faculty.  The idea is certainly preferable to the tendency of positivist intellectuals to dismiss myth and fantasy as delusions.  However, it's hard to speak of myth as purely instinctual in nature, given that it results from mankind attempting to move beyond the range of affects that are normally pleasurable, such as eating good foods or consorting with one's family.  Even many of ethology's examples of animals transcending their instinctive programming result from experiments conceived by man, a symbol-using animal species, and performed upon creatures who do not (so far as we can tell) live within a symbolic universe.

On top of that, Campbell's list is a disorganized hodgepodge.  Are all "pagodas and gardens" capable of exciting the supernormal stimulus, or do only some of them qualify as "wonders?"  If it's only some rather than all, then what sets the special pagodas and gardens apart from the others?

Campbell is perhaps on more solid ground speaking of specific mythological creations like "mythological landscapes," dragons, angels, and gods.  But of course one can object that not every single human responds to these "sign stimuli."  Even within polytheistic cultures like that of Greece, it should go without saying that a worshipper of Dionysus did not necessarily esteem Dionysus' opposite number Apollo.

So though instinctive drives may play a role, we're clearly dealing with a phenomenon which may be grounded in subconscious impulses but which has been channeled by conscious symbolic manipulation.  I'm reminded of Jung's careful distinction in PSYCHOLOGICAL TYPES, where he notes that although the archetypes of the collective unconscious may be considered *homogeneous,* in that they can appear in any human culture, the conscious minds of all humans are *heterogeneous,* meaning that they can transform the archetypes into endless culturally determined variations-- none of which are automatically able to inspire every single subject with awe or admiration.  Campbell, it seems, was not quite so careful in considering how the emotions associated with myth are promulgated.

More to come.

MYTHINKINGS PT. 4

To address the context of the quote cited at the end of Part 3:

“They’re very important, these comic book movies, because they’re our modern myths.”—Bryan Singer, SUPERMAN RETURNS: THE COMPLETE SHOOTING SCRIPT.
 
It goes without saying that when Singer made this statement, he certainly didn't mean it in any functionalist sense.  Not even the most jaded Hollywood hypester would claim that a fictional character like Superman had ever served any of the purposes of myth cited by Joseph Fontenrose, such as citing the precedent for a festival or a ritual.

It would be easy to dismiss this statement and many like it as simple hype.  It's quite possible that if Singer was honest about what he meant about the "importance" of a "comic book movie," it might have come down to persuading more people to go see SUPERMAN RETURNS.

And yet, why should the most manipulative entertainer make such a claim?  Why not simply claim that the movie's going to be entertaining?  What emotions does Singer hope to inculcate, by reading Superman as "myth?"

Similar statements evolve even in the absence of specific pecuniary motives.  By the time Ursula LeGuin wrote her 1976 essay MYTH AND ARCHETYPE IN SCIENCE FICTION, she was reacting to an attempt by science fiction's defenders to promote science fiction as a "modern mythology." 

I won't go into LeGuin's take on the matter in detail.  I'll confine myself to stating that I disagree with the logic of her verdict, since her definition of myth reduces down to "the literary myths that I happen to like." In logical terms this is no better than "the stuff Mister Comic Book Film Director is trying to promote."  LeGuin does offer something of an affirmation of the question as to whether literary creations can be myths, though, and seems to do so as an expression of her own philosophy, not because such a definition helps her promote her own work.

I've yet to find a dictionary definition that satisfactorily takes in this contemporary application of the word "myth" to literary productions. The only definition that comes close appears in Wiktionary:

A person or thing held in excessive or quasi-religious awe or admiration based on popular legend
 
Even so, this definition seems predicated on the sense that the persons experiencing this "quasi-religious awe" are responding to a "person or thing" in the real world.  The person or thing may have had its original qualities amped up thanks to the "legend-izing" process, the same process that *may* have made a 5th-century Romano-British military leader into King Arthur.

Literary fiction, be it high or low, is never thought to have had any existential reality, be it Tarzan (whom LeGuin regards as a "true myth") or Superman (whom she disdainfully terms a "submyth.")
Still, the process seems analogous.  Despite the fact that the readers of Superman and Tarzan know that the characters were never real, the term "myth" is clearly applied to them as approbation.

But why, if the characters are just made-up figures out of some writer's imagination?

It would seem to me conclusive that in this "essentialist" sense, myth is used to denote an "excessive or quasi-religious awe or admiration."

Further, this "awe or admiration," in order to be fit the sense of being essential to both literature and religion, would also have to extend into all those those constructs that are supposed to possess some existential reality, be it Milton's God or England's Arthur. 

More on this later.

MYTHINKINGS PT. 3

As it happens Shannon Knight's comment here coincide with what I'm getting at in defining the "essentialist" meaning of the word "myth."

Shannon says, in part:

It's frustrating to read a myth theory and figure it could just as well apply to an episode of a TV series as to an ancient myth.
 
I will agree with her this far: no FORMAL theory of myth should make myth inseparable from literature.  The two forms are very different in terms of the ways they function in societies, and the separation of functions seems to apply in every human society, regardless of occasional overlappings.  For instance, if one could prove that some Christian religious beliefs had been influenced by the poet Milton seeking to "justify the ways of God to man," that would be one such overlap.  But it wouldn't change the fact that the orthodox belief professed by members of a religion would not be covalent with the quasi-beliefs readers derive from literary products.
But what does the overlap mean?  Why can literature influence religion, and vice versa?  Obviously both are, at least to the non-believer, constructs which constitute the symbolic universes of our societies. 

The meaning, I believe, can be found in keeping separate a formal and functional definition from myth from an essentialist one, much as the common dictionary will show more than one definition for the word "myth."

An example of a strongly functionalist definition is found in PYTHON, Joseph Fontenrose's massive 1959 study of the Apollo-Python myth and many if not all of its cognates in other cultures.  In his  introduction Fontenrose makes clear that he defines myths principally as:


that kind of story which purports to tell of the occasion on which some religious institution, a cult or certain of its rites or festivals, had its beginning, and of the divine acts which set the precedent for the traditional acts performed in the cult.
 
Fontenrose separates this type of "traditional tale" from that of the legend and the folktale, though he admits that on occasion his text "will use the term myth or mythology... to include them too."  I suspect Fontenrose makes that association because he makes occasional reference to legends and folktales to support his conclusions, since he admits that mythic materials sometimes "cross over" to appear in what he would consider non-mythic sources.

Fontenrose's strict definition of myth would certainly not include any concept of "myth" appearing in modern literary works, however, such as one reads in this quote:


“They’re very important, these comic book movies, because they’re our modern myths."

More on the context of this quote in Part 4.

MYTHINKINGS, PT. 2

Here's another remark I made on Shannon Knight's blog that I felt I should expand upon:


“Myth” is a many-sided affair, but there are some consistencies. For one thing, “myth” can be defined in a purely literary context– as stories told only in support of religious concepts– or in a more essential sense, as something that extends throughout many forms, which is the way I take it that Lucente uses his term.
 
Shannon mentioned that she thought an all-inclusive definition of myth was untenable, given that one can usually find inconsistencies that challenge the exclusivity of any single definition.

As I write this I think back on all the books on mythology I've read, and of them all, I think that the one that did the best job of covering as many permutations of this elusive term as possible is MYTHOGRAPHY, a 2000 work by religious-studies scholar William G. Doty, currently a professor at the University of Alabama.




That said, I must admit that it's been awhile since I reread it. I've seen some criticisms on Amazon alleging that Doty's non-academic style proved obfuscatory to his theme.  I'll consider giving the book a re-reading, but at the very least, I recall that Doty admirably covers the historical connotations of the word "myth" in philosophy, literature and the social sciences.

Doty, however, is principally dealing with myths in what I've elsewhere called the "functionalist" sense.  In my quote above I probably should have said a "purely religious context," rather than a literary one, because a functionalist is concerned with viewing myths that specifically support religious concepts or tropes.  To the best of my recollection I think I said "literary" because I was thinking of the way modern myth/folklore studies follow the principles of literary taxonomy, judging this or that story to be a "myth" if it functions in one manner, a "legend" if it follows another function, and so on.

The second definition of "myth," though-- what I called its "essential sense"-- would by its very nature cross all of these taxonomic boundaries.  It would have to have to possess some nature that could appear in many different types of story, regardless of the differences that allow scholars to separate them taxonomically.

Having set up that much of the problem, I'll defer talking more about this "essentialist" definition until Part 3 of this series.

MYTHINKINGS PT. 1

In a response to Shannon Knight's post on "Labeling Science Fiction and Fantasy," I wrote:

I came across a remark in a lit-crit book, THE NARRATIVE OF REALISM AND MYTH, where author Greg Lucente argued that “myth” described worlds where time and space could be transcended, while “realism” described worlds where they could not be transcended. I’ve always felt that formula could have application to SF and fantasy, but others’ mileage may vary.
 
Lucente's use of the term "myth" in this lit-crit book is highly idiosyncratic-- possibly even more so than my own, which I'll get to later.  I wouldn't use "myth" this way myself, but I think that he's onto something by saying that's a mental distinction on the way readers think about time and space, specifically with regard to the differences in science fiction and fantasy.

It's beyond question that both genres are grounded in producing a wide spectrum of marvelous effects, many of which go far beyond the perimeter of known science.  Some practitioners of science fiction don't hold with venturing into that "terra incognita;" allegedly at one point in his life, the late L. Sprague de Camp vowed that he wouldn't write any space-opera stories because he didn't believe in the real-world possibility of "hyperspace" and similar devices.

De Camp and his "camp" are certainly in the minority, though.  For most practitioners of science fiction, it doesn't really matter whether or not mankind ever discovers a method of scientifically transcending the boundaries of time and space and so building galactic empires.  Devices like "hyperspace" are tools by which authors can tell stories, whether they're wild adventure-epics like STAR WARS or relatively realistic dramas like Joe Haldeman's THE FOREVER WAR.



Nevertheless, though the majority of SF-writers perforce make up their technologies, their alien life-forms, etc., out of whole cloth, they don't entirely toss out the basic notion of science fiction, which is that scientific innovation proceeds out of incremental advancements in technological knowledge.  No matter many SF-miracles a given writer may pull out of his hat, the general expectation for the genre is that space and time cannot really be transcended, only circumvented.  Indeed, as heady as STAR WARS is, with its infusions of quasi-magic and mysticism, one of the original film's charms is that the characters exist in a world where machines get old and break down-- which is the very reason Luke Skywalker's uncle needs to buy a pair of new droids.

Now, fantasy is much less unified in its appeal than science fiction, and even the type I usually address here-- the "otherworldly fantasy"-- is divided into at least two major types, the "nonsense fantasies" of Lewis Carroll and similar authors, and the "mythic fantasies" of Tolkien, Lewis, Howard and many others.  Putting aside the first type as irrelevant to this discussion, I would say that mythic fantasies usually (though not inevitably) endeavor to reproduce a mythology of magic and/or sorcery.  This mythology is usually the source of the fantasy-author's miracle-making "devices."  In rare instances some authors will introduce something comparable to the miracle-technology of straight science fiction, as when Lin Carter mixes Burroughsian technology with sorcerers in a work like THE WIZARD OF LEMURIA, his initial "Thongor" novel. 



Not all mythic fantasies appeal to magical beings like Lewis' "Aslan" or Tolkien's "Valar." Nevertheless, writers who invoke miracles of magic and sorcery usually have to posit some source for their sorcerers' powers, and the default position is that the sorcerers earn or acquire powers from gods, demons, faeries, or comparable beings.

Such beings may not always be immune to the ravages of time and space, as we see in Neil Gaiman's AMERICAN GODS.  Nevertheless, the dominant trend in mythic fantasy is one of "essence precedes existence"-- in other words, that a being like Aslan exists independently of the mundane realities he inhabits. 




In Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea novels, LeGuin's protagonist repeatedly stresses that the nature of magic is essentially one of "uncreating," or at least reordering, the nature of the created universe.  This takes the exact opposite philosophical position from that of science fiction, which is more along the line of "existence precedes essence."

More in Part 2.

TOLKIEN'S "ON FAIRY STORIES": A DELVING, PT. 6

Tolkien's next consideration is "origins."  Here he finally breaks down and uses the term "folklore" as a wider phylum that embraces his more restrictive category of "fairy stories."  However, he never defines this term adequately, either in his own terms or in those of some respected academic.  He also makes his first references to the academic concept of "myth," and for the same essential purpose:" to show that academics have attempted to restrict the raw material of both subjects too neatly.  But while Tolkien's invocation of folklore studies are too general, his invocation of myth-studies are both overly specific and overly limiting. 

Tolkien is entirely opposed to the folklorists' tendency to lump all tales together on the basis of shared patterns.  He names off several disparate tales that have been so confounded; for convenience, I'll use just one: the supposed identity of both "Eros and Psyche" and "Beauty and the Beast."  Tolkien asserts that the reductive approach steamrolls over important differences in the stories for the sake of stressing only the similarities.

There's some justice in this. While "Eros" and "Beauty" certainly share some important story-motifs, there's no doubt that the stories are very different in plot, character and theme. 

On the other hand, Tolkien goes a little too far later, when he claims that there's a similar gulf separating the RED RIDING HOOD of Charles Perrault (which has an unhappy ending, where the wolf simply eats Red) from later versions with happier denouements.  That the endings are different, and that they have an altering effect on the theme, one cannot doubt.  But in contrast to the "Eros/Beauty" pairing, these are more like variations on a common theme.  The fact that each tale-teller surely meant to represent his version of RRH as "the" version actually reinforces the position of the folklorists.  Disparate versions of a given folktale simply do not have the creative standing Tolkien applies to tales that simply share a few major motifs.

As if to dodge objections by academics steeped in their professional specialities, Tolkien confesses that he is too "unlearned" to dwell on the matter of origins. He merely provides a sketch of the methods by which traditional stories have been propagated: (1) "independent evolution," aka "invention," (2) "diffusion," and (3) "inheritance."  Tolkien broadly implies that scholars focus too much on the latter methods, all the better to defer what he considers the key consideration:


Of these three invention is the most important and fundamental, and so (not surprisingly) also the most mysterious. To an inventor, that is to a storymaker, the other two must in the end lead back. Diffusion (borrowing in space) whether of an artefact or a story, only refers the problem of origin elsewhere. At the centre of the supposed diffusion there is a place where once an inventor lived. Similarly with inheritance (borrowing in time): in this way we arrive at last only at an ancestral inventor. While if we believe that sometimes there occurred the independent striking out of similar ideas and themes or devices, we simply multiply the ancestral inventor but do not in that way the more clearly understand his gift.

 
Tolkien, having marginalized the contributions of the folklorists, immediately turns to the complementary academic theorists of myth-- or one of them, at least.



Philology has been dethroned from the high place it once had in this court of inquiry. Max Müller's view of mythology as a “disease of language” can be abandoned without regret. Mythology is not a disease at all, though it may like all human things become diseased. You might as well say that thinking is a disease of the mind.
 
 I certainly agree with these assertions.  Not only is Muller's theory worthless today, save as an indicator of early patterns in myth-analysis, the bloom was off that particular rose in 1939 as well.

However, what Tolkien omits in his quick dismissal of Muller is that the whole point of Muller's "disease of language" theory was to assert that myths originated because men had personified natural forces.  From Wikipedia:


For Müller, the culture of the Vedic peoples represented a form of nature worship, an idea clearly influenced by Romanticism. He saw the gods of the Rig-Veda as active forces of nature, only partly personified as imagined supernatural persons. From this claim Müller derived his theory that mythology is 'a disease of language'. By this he meant that myth transforms concepts into beings and stories. In Müller's view 'gods' began as words constructed in order to express abstract ideas, but were transformed into imagined personalities. Thus the Indo-European father-god appears under various names: Zeus, Jupiter, Dyaus Pita. For Müller all these names can be traced to the word 'Dyaus', which he understands to imply 'shining' or 'radiance'. This leads to the terms 'deva', 'deus', 'theos' as generic terms for a god, and to the names 'Zeus' and 'Jupiter' (derived from deus-pater). In this way a metaphor becomes personified and ossified. This aspect of Müller's thinking closely resembled the later ideas of Nietzsche


Tolkien, having said that Muller is yesterday's news, roundly contradicts himself by writing as if the only then-extant theory of mythology was the theory of "gods-as-incarnate-natural-forces"-- which is to imply that Muller was the dominant scholarly influence in myth-studies after all.  It's certainly possible that Tolkien may have been thinking of authors who advocated the "nature myth" theory without endorsing "the disease of lanugage," but he does not name any such authors.

One need not be an expert on the academic myth-studies scene of the period to know that non-nature-centered theories of myth existed. My own source is Ernst Cassirer's book MYTHICAL THOUGHT, which attests to such theories dating back to the late 1800s.  To be sure, Cassirer's 1925 book was not translated into an English edition until 1953, long after Tolkien penned this essay.  Still, it's one thing for an author to modestly claim that he is "unlearned," perhaps with the strategy of convincing readers that he really is not.  It's another thing for an author to give ample evidence that he hasn't done his homework.

 Even though Tolkien is manifestly incorrect to assume that all mythographers were guilty of (say) understanding "Thorr" as nothing but a nature-myth, he makes this generalization to support a greater point: that even myth-characters possess a characterization essential to their narrative nature; that Thorr can't simply be reduced to his allegorical aspects. 

As it happens, in many respects Tolkien's focus on the interrelatonship of language and stories very much resembles the German idealism of Cassirer.


The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar. The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both.
 
 In other words, the ability to parcel out aspects of the creative order also carries with it the power to imagine transgressions of that order.  Though not until near the essay's end does Tolkien unfold the majority of his Christian concerns, one can certainly find mentions of them here, as when he alludes to "fallen man" in paragraph 28.  Thus for Tolkien man's ability to transgress the natural order can be turned to good or to evil.

 When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter's power—upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man's face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm.
 
 However, this mental capacity also gives man the power, as I mentioned in Part 2, to "imitate God" in a good way-- perhaps extending even to the Catholic miracle of transubstantiation.  It's in this section that Tolkien first links the idea of Faerie to this creative ability.

 Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.
 
The remainder of the "Origins" section largely repeats Tolkien's anti-reductionist stance with variations.  Therefore in my next essay I'll proceed to his next heading, entitled "Children."