Storytelling is an alchemical practice, capable of creating metaphysical infinites within finite restrictions. A closed book may have a front and back cover, but its contents are limitless. It can unlock a boundless imaginative spirit in a single reader. It can be shared the world over. Its story continues past its beginning and end in all directions.Read More
A high tolerance for ambiguity is necessary in the study of alchemy, just as it’s needed to appreciate the many levels of The Neverending Story. Seemingly incompatible disciplines like magic and science can share a home and inform each other’s development as Engywook and Urgl do. Likewise, the occult tradition of hermeticism can inform the development of harder disciplines like medicine, toxicology, and chemistry.Read More
A Companion piece to Episode 102: Avengers Assemble
Written by Laurel Hostak
Contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame
It’s been a few weeks since the 22-film Infinity Saga of the Marvel Cinematic Universe came to a close with Avengers: Endgame. We saw beloved characters fall in battle and saw others choose new paths for themselves. It’s a story about passing the baton—or shield, or crown—to the next generation; about peaceful and harmonious transition; about rest and healing after a lifetime’s worth of battle. In this blog, fresh from a second watch, I’d love to explore some of the powerful symbolism of the film beyond what we were able to cover in our recent wrap-up podcast.
Something I was struck by in this film—though it’s absolutely a key symbolic element of many Marvel movies, and pretty much movies in general—was the emphasis on hands. Endgame happens in the shadow of a snap of gauntleted fingers, and its characters’ central objective is to undo that gesture by reassembling the infinity stones and performing their own.
The set-up sequence, taking place a few weeks A.T. (After Thanos), sees several Avengers suit up and follow the cosmic signature to the Mad Titan’s garden planet—and Thor swiftly slices off Thanos’ gauntlet hand (and then his head). It’s a clever callback not only to Thanos’ Infinity War taunt that Thor “should’ve gone for the head,” but also to fans’ cries during the wait between movies. “Why didn’t Doctor Strange cut off Thanos’ arm the way he did with the minion in act one using his portal magic?” It also hearkens to the oft-used loss-of-limb trope (I’m looking at you, Star Wars!) What’s interesting about this instance of a loss of hand/arm is its departure from the typical implications of the pattern. Normally, when a character loses a hand, it’s a symbolic emasculation—whenever you hear me say “symbolic emasculation” on any episode of the Midnight Myth Podcast, you’re encouraged to take a drink—but this didn’t strike me as the intent of Thor’s action here. I’ll come back to this a little later.
To understand the symbolism of literal hands and hand imagery (including gloves and the like) within Endgame, we have to get a little more abstract first. There’s a concept in leadership studies—whether in health, management, religion, or education—that there are three active guides to human existence: Head, Heart, and Hands. The essence of this concept is that people are motivated by a cognitive domain (invoking intellect, logic, and reason), an affective domain (the realm of emotion), and the psychomotor (the realm of physical action). Some people are naturally drawn to one sphere over another. Think of someone close to you. When faced with a choice or a problem that needs solving, is their instinct to reason with it? Do they focus on the emotional impact? Do they act swiftly or forcefully?
These same spheres also offer an intriguing look inside character—especially in ensembles populated with archetypal figures. They can help us round out a group of individuals and create conflict as well as strength in diverse opinions. Turning an eye to the Avengers, these spheres can help us identify each character’s added value to the team, as well as the weaknesses that need to be balanced by the rest of the group.
Iron Man, Tony Stark, is a classic “head.” Quick to remind the others of his genius, Tony’s problem-solving instinct bends toward reason and logic. Think of some of the major conflicts he faces. The vision of his friends and fellow Avengers dead in some kind of calamity; the prospect of signing the Sokovia Accords and accepting government oversight—he reaches conclusions to these dilemmas through rigorous thought. He weighs pros and cons to come up with what he believes to be the most rational solution. Big threat to humanity and the Avengers? Create a special intelligence to protect the earth. Avengers doing damage in the pursuit of saving lives? Put ‘em in check and get the red out of their ledger. While sometimes his solutions colossally fail, it’s often because his over-rationalizing mind shuts out emotional arguments. And this isn’t to say that Tony is exclusively logic-motivated. He makes an emotional sacrifice in the Battle of New York. He arrives at his conclusion about the Sokovia Accords based on an encounter with a grieving mother. He chooses to join the “Time Heist” in Endgame after first refusing, content to remain with his wife and daughter (whom he loves 3000). But his prime motivator is his cognitive sphere; it’s where he is most confident.
Other heads on the Marvel roster include Bruce Banner—while he struggles to control one particular emotion in his relationship to the Hulk, his ultimate comfort zone is in reason and intellect. We get a version of Professor Hulk in Endgame, which nicely illustrates the ultimate self he’s worked so hard to cultivate. He’s softspoken, thoughtful, cautious, and big and green. Rocket Raccoon also qualifies as a “head” in this context. He’s the first to poke holes in the logic of an argument and the last to volunteer for combat. He prizes being the only “non-moron” of the Guardians, but his tough exterior marks a deep tenderness for his leafy co-pilot.
Captain America is easily the “heart” of the Avengers. As the representative of romantic American ideals, he’s the most old-fashioned (literally) of any of the characters. This manifests in his notions about traditional courtship as much as in his relationship to heroism. Steve Rogers is guided by an internal compass of right and wrong. He relies on a moral system that often manifests through emotional intelligence. If something doesn’t “feel right” to Steve, like the Sokovia Accords, then in his mind it probably isn’t right. Instead of pragmatic solutions, he gravitates toward idealistic ones, which sometimes results in other characters calling him naïve. But it’s important not to internalize a hierarchy between “heads” and “hearts.” Logic is not necessarily more desirable or more fruitful than emotion. Cap’s reliance on the feeling or the human impact of a decision is part of what makes him aspirational—and part of why he and Tony balance each other out so perfectly as leaders. There’s tremendous conflict, of course, but these characters recommit to their strengths through each other’s opposition; they become better versions of themselves for their friendship.
Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff is the other major “heart” of the Avengers. This is fully realized in Endgame as she, a trained assassin suffering from survivor’s guilt, pushes herself beyond reasonable expectations in order to keep her surrogate family together. She maintains a shred of hope that her friend Clint—now on a murderous rampage—can be saved. She offers up her life in exchange for his, for all of those lives Thanos exterminated.
I’ll also throw Hawkeye into this category, though he’s harder to pin down given the pretty big swings in his character and absence from some of the major film moments. But as his wife, Laura, reminds us, his humility (and humanity) are deeply needed by the mess of a team the Avengers have become.
The Incredible Hulk is, unlike his altered Banner, a “hand.” He is defined by action, by force. Though rooted in anger, Hulk’s actions aren’t exacted in clarity of that emotion, and they’re certainly divorced from logic or thought.
This is also where I’ll return to Thor. He’s an emotional being, but he’s also a literal god. His symbol and totem weapon is the hammer, an extension of the hand. A tool for construction and destruction. Later, he’ll assume the axe Stormbreaker, another weapon characterized by its dual creative/destructive nature. Through these tools, Thor harnesses the power of the natural world in thunder. Energy flows through him. He is action, motor function, coordination personified. He calls himself the “strongest Avenger,” and he’s not too far off the mark. Think, too, of how he influences these tools. He extends an open hand, and Mjolnir/Stormbreaker zoom into it. He is symbolized by both tools and gestures. Mjolnir is, furthermore, a litmus test for “worthiness;” only those who meet this condition may wield it.
When we look deeper into the symbolism of these three spheres within the MCU, we start to see gestures and the significance of hands repeat and compound. The Snappening of Infinity War is the most obvious, but it’s a frequent motif that brings an interesting dimension to the idea of superheroism. We think of Doctor Strange, a man who injures his hands in a horrible car accident and thus can no longer perform delicate surgeries. The loss of his dexterity is identity-dissolving for Strange, until he’s able to transform that pain into something new. Connecting with the source of ancient sorcery, he unlocks the power of his mind and his emotional center. He gains an inner sense of right and wrong.
In Infinity War and Endgame, characters are routinely tested through gesture. Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff must use her powers—which emit a telekinetic energy from her hands—in the destruction of her lover to destroy the mind stone. The Hand destroys the Head in opposition to the Heart. Wanda’s efforts prove futile because Head, Heart, and Hand are out of sync. Similarly, the Titan team (Guardians minus Rocket, Peter Parker, Tony Stark) attempt to overpower Thanos by controlling his mind (Mantis/Dr. Strange), and physically challenging him (Spider-Man/Drax), but they fail because of Peter Quill’s over-indulgence in emotional pain. Once again, Head, Heart, and Hand refuse to coalesce, and the effort falls apart. In Endgame, a determined Nebula burns the synthetic flesh off her hand when reaching for the power stone, but soon comes under threat from her past self when their incompatible cognitive and affective networks become entangled.
Thor is perhaps the best example of all; in Infinity War, he succeeds in formulating the best possible plan to defeat Thanos (Head), puts his body on the line to forge a new hand-weapon (HAND), but fails in the execution because a thirst for revenge causes him to savor the killing blow for too long (HEART). He doesn’t, as Thanos remarks, go “for the head,” but for the satisfaction of seeing Thanos’ pain and shame. He goes for the heart. In Endgame, he gets a second chance, but he rashly finishes off the hand and the head when it’s worth nothing. The stones are gone, and Thor has failed this test now twice.
If this disarray, both internal to the characters and external (as in, manifested within the Avengers’ team dynamic), is responsible for their failure, then how can these characters achieve the success of reversing Thanos’ damage? What makes Thanos unbeatable in Infinity War is the confidence that he has united his cognitive, affective, and psychomotor spheres. He is functioning equally between Head (though it’s mad, he genuinely believes his extermination plan is the logical solution to the universe’s greatest problems), Hand (he has collected the infinity stones by proving his physical might), and Heart (he has established, at least to himself and the Stonekeeper, that his plan is more emotionally valuable than Gamora’s life, AND he expresses a need for gratitude from the universe).
Contrary to Thanos’ inner harmony is the disconnected mess of the Avengers and their allies. Torn apart by the Head-Heart conflict of Civil War, they lie in tatters across the galaxy. Individual characters are disproportionately drawn into their comfort spheres, acting out of pure emotion, cold logic, or thoughtless action; teams suffer from a lack of communication between the spheres. Head-driven Tony, heart-driven Steve, and hand-driven Thor can’t win on three different battlefronts—they have to stand together. And internally, each needs to reconcile his own cognitive, affective, and psychomotor guides.
THIS is what Avengers was always about—putting together a team. And if said team, or its individual components, are in disharmony, there’s little hope for lasting success. While ripe for conflict, the myriad strengths of Iron Man, Cap, Thor, Black Widow, the Hulk, and Hawkeye are meant to elevate them, to bring balance (just not the Thanos kind of balance). And this is how they are able to finally defeat him. Iron Man, Cap, and Thor meet Thanos on the battlefield together. And while their greatest individual strengths shine, they each step out of their comfort zones do rely on new spheres of power. Cap wields the weapon of the hand, Mjolnir, and Thor exclaims “I knew it!” with glee and pride—from the heart. Perhaps most importantly, Tony unites the three spheres, proving his inner harmony and completed character arc. He leads from his head, consulting Doctor Strange in the formulation of a complex gambit; from his heart, showing unbridled affection for Peter Parker and volunteering for a true self-sacrifice; and from the hand, wielding the infinity stones in a gauntlet of his own making at great personal cost.
Superheroes are, by nature, beings of power, force, and combat. They are hands. But successful superheroes tap into the energy behind action or violence. They access moral systems, or plan mind-bending time heists. The individual superhero is only as effective as their spirit is harmonious. Over the past decade, we’ve watched this heroes grow from self-absorbed playboys or naive soldiers to capable leaders who are finally ready to be a team. In Endgame, the characters finally celebrate each other’s strengths, bolster each other’s deficiencies, and insist that no one meet this fight alone. The central three (Iron Man/Cap/Thor) lead by example; the outer circle and the next generation take it even further. Sorcerers create magic shields to protect their fellow fighters. Valkyrie catches Spider-Man and helps him ferry the gauntlet. The WOMEN OF MARVEL assemble in a beautiful visualization of empowerment and trust. No one is alone.
Likewise, no one dies alone. Tony Stark, as we shared in our Avengers podcast, gets the classic “good death,” surrounded by family and loved ones. Though it’s untimely, it’s full of grace and gratitude. As Pepper says, he can rest now.
A Companion Piece to The Wheel of Ka Episode 3
Written by Derek Jones
In 2019 American politics, two political parties are engaged in a drop-down fight for supremacy. With control over the White House and Senate, team Republican has the upper hand, while team Democrat holds the House. Both sides are engaged in a game-ified political dog fight to limit the power and popularity of the other; with the main event, the 2020 presidential election, casting a shadow over all. Regardless of whether they are seeking a Congressional seat or residence in the White House, Democrats are competing with each other in a cacophony of voices all trying to answer one fundamental question: “How can the Democrats regain power?” Indeed, a liberal can’t log into twitter without seeing dozens of think pieces, impressions, and quick takes on which candidate(s) will have the greatest odds at unseating the Republican hold on Washington (in the interest of transparency and disclosure, I am a member of the Democratic Party).
I can’t help but wonder what the first three books of the Dark Tower can teach us about our own politics. In particular, I seek to understand what Roland and the remaining few pockets of civilization in Mid-World mean when they state, “the world has moved on.” The phrase holds an ominous weight, as my intuition guides me to seeing the cross roads of the 2020 election, and as those who compete for the highest offices in American Government, as being able to shape the world in profound ways. Will they use the power to help the world move on? Is this a good thing or is this destructive? In particular, I’ll draw on some loose historical examples to understand better what is meant when a world has moved on. I do hope to gain some personal clarity around what Democrats should or could do—but I must admit to you all now: I do not have the answers. Just as Roland’s quest for the Dark Tower is murky, marked with uncertainty and doubt, so is this blog.
Starting with Mid-World, Stephen King gives us several signs that there was once a vibrant civilization before the time of Roland in the “Great Old Ones”. The “Great Old Ones” have left behind the artifacts of a once technologically advanced civilization, with music, culture, and politics which echo 20th-21st century America. Out of the ashes of the “Great Old Ones” comes the world of Gilead, the nation Roland grew up in, learned to shoot, to fight, and to defend his nation in a civil war against the rebel John Farson, aka, “The Good Man”. A war which Roland and his fellow Gunslingers loose, ending the nation of Gilead and leaving behind the empty deserts and the isolated towns of the first three books. From the prospective of Roland and the “Great Old Ones”, to say the world has moved on feels like a euphemism for the world has, in part, been destroyed. The phrase connotes a personal connection to this destruction. The world has moved on from Roland and he is not a part of, nor truly connected to, what the world has become. In other words, the world has moved on and left Roland behind. In this respect, the world moved on is an ending of sorts.
Does King mean to imply the world has completely ended? Mostly no. Although the Dark Tower is part post-apocalyptic, the apocalypse happened in the time of the “Great Old Ones” and Gilead rose from the ashes. Gilead was what the “Great Old Ones” world became after they moved on. And to Roland’s pain and dishonor, he was unable to keep Gilead from tearing itself apart, piece by piece till humanity is near extinct .
I’d like to take a quick look at two historical eras which highlight the destructive nature of a world moved on. Before I do this, I’d like to draw special attention to the philosophical context my academic and leisurely studies of history have produced. As I have grappled with the primary and secondary sources from various periods and eras, I have concluded that human history is long, complex, and even the greatest professional historians (which I am not) have disagreements interpreting evidence and facts. However, one general historical lesson about human civilization can be gained from studying everything from Mesopotamia to World World II: human civilization always stands on the precipice of its downfall.
Specifically, in the mid 5th century CE, the Roman Empire was split in two parts, the West (which is modern day western Europe) and the East (which held large territories from modern day Greece, the Middle East, and North Africa). Due to a long list of reasons scholars are still debating today, the western half of the Empire struggled to police its borders, and various tribes of Germanic military leaders carved up the western Roman Empire for themselves. As Rome fell in the West, so did the language, cultural, education and technological achievement of Rome, plunging the west into a dark age.
In 18th century France, the French people lived under a system of government called absolute monarchy. The King ruled without checks or balances and the French people were growing increasingly enraged at their monarch due to the lack of food, opportunity, and liberty. This boiled over when a group of angry Parisians stormed the Bastille and formed a revolutionary congress. King Louis the XVI attempted to work with the new congress while secretly plotting to have the Austrian Empire invade the country, kill the congress, and restore his supreme authority. When the King’s treachery was discovered, the French revolution decisively put Louis on the chopping block, ending the King’s life while shifting the absolute monarchical politics of Europe forever.
In both the late Western Roman Empire and the French Revolution, the world was about to face destructive change, change that alters the fundamental character of the world to come after, for better or worse. In the podcast, Steve speaks elegantly that the “Great Old Ones” are a metaphor for contemporary America; a society at the height of technological, economic, and artistic achievement on the precipice of its downfall. A downfall which would lead to Gilead; a dark age, where paper is more valuable then metal and few pockets of civilization stand. The institutions of the “Great Old Ones” that created units of knowledge and experience to be passed from one generation to the next, are gone and with it all the markers of advance civilization—such as the roads, trade, commerce, government, the list goes on and on—have disappeared from Roland’s world.
I have no way of knowing if America is at a similar cross road to the western Roman Empire, the French monarchy of the 18th century, or the “Great Old Ones” of Mid-World. But in its own way, the 2020 election feels as important as any event I’ve read in a history book. However, it is instructive to return to a question Steve and I ask ourselves in the podcast: “What does the Tower mean?” For the purposes of this blog, I’d like to say the Dark Tower is power and from this metaphor we can read the 2020 election as the quest for the Dark Tower. The Republicans are fighting to win, leaving many Democratic voters to urge the candidates to roll up their sleeves and start fighting fire with fire. In other words, what is the virtue in taking a moral high road if taking this road leaves one outside the boundaries of the Tower? If the Republicans will take stolen digital material and use it on the campaign trail, shouldn’t the Democrats likewise follow suit? If the Republicans will coordinate their messaging with a major news organization to spread disinformation, should the Democrats slander their opponents with similar ferocity divorced from evidence based reasoning?
I wonder what Roland would do. Roland is a consequentialist, meaning he judges the moral “rightness” or “wrongness” of an action based off of the consequences of said action (see the first Wheel of Ka Blog for more). In keeping with understanding the Tower as a metaphor for power, what will Roland do when he gets to the Tower? At the point of Book III, we readers do not have this answer, but it is highly suggested his aim is to use the Tower to reverse the world which has moved on— to make the world unmoved on. As a consequentialist, anything he does to this end is justifiable, even killing a child he loves and thinks of as a son. After all, when he gets to the Tower, he will use the power of the Tower to fix the world. From this lens, it would makes sense for Democrats to act as political Gunslingers, ready to decisively do what needs to be done to wrestle the White House away from the Republicans. Why should the Democrats be the one party of honesty and integrity when the other is in a zero sum win-at-all-costs political fight for supremacy? In short, many on the left are urging Democrats to fight like Roland.
I have no idea if the 2020 Democratic candidates should or should not surrender the moral high ground on their path to political power, but I have serious reservations. Democrats must ask themselves, what are they fighting for? Are they fighting to return to a world before the rise of Donald Trump?
If I could leap into the pages of the Dark Tower and tell Roland something, history buff to warrior, I’d say “once the world has moved on it never moves back.” The forces of destructive change that ends one civilization giving way to another, cannot be undone. No matter the power— once a world has moved on— it cannot move back. If Roland reaches the Tower and if he can heal the damage done to his world, then he will have done demonstrable good for many. But the world of Gunslingers has fallen and it will not return. For example, many tried to reclaim the title of Western Roman Emperor after the Empire’s collapse in the 5th century CE, including a new Franco/Germanic power called The Holy Roman Empire. However, the new Empire was Roman in name alone. And in the French Revolution, a young upstart Corsican military leader weaponized the rhetoric of the revolution and crowned himself the first Emperor of France. The general was Napoleon, who would spread the principles of the French Revolution at the point of a musket all over Europe. While there is a historical line from the fall of Rome, to the foundation of the Holy Roman Empire, to the French revolution culminating in the rise and fall of Napoleon, at no point could any individual with power return the world to where it was before it moved on.
Should the Democrats fight like Roland, with no holds barred and no quarter shown? I don’t know. I am not sure I know what the Democrats are fighting for yet, and I fear Americans are collectively deaf to the new America we are living in. After all, many of the great and terrible leaders in history are morally similarly to Roland, using power to achieve ends at any cost. However, it is important to note, even Roland wonders what acquiring the Dark Tower at the cost of his soul would mean:
I have no idea who will be the president in January 2021, but I am certain that person will have to pay hell to get there. I am equally unsure if America is at the precipice of its downfall, just as the “Great Old Ones” or Gilead were. But I do know I yearn for a leader who sees the world as it is, has a vision on how to improve it with a plan on how to execute, and who refuses to own hell to see their vision come to fruition. I want to see a leader who knows and articulates that once and if America moves on, it will never return.
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A companion piece to Episode 101: Who Is Iron Man?
Written by Laurel Hostak
This week on the Midnight Myth Podcast, Derek and I developed a sweeping character study of the Avenger at the forefront of a media empire that’s now steeped in the lives of so many culture consumers. We discussed the character’s deep roots in Greek mythology, Homer’s account of the Trojan War known as The Iliad, and some of the massive questions that arise when telling the story of a hero immersed in modern warfare.
In this blog, I’d love to draw attention to some of the other literary, mythic, and spiritual references at play in the character arc (reactor). Primarily, I’ll focus on its roots in both Jewish and Christian tradition.
Iron Man (2008)
Our big-screen introduction to Tony Stark came in 2008 with the first film in the now-enormous Marvel Cinematic Universe. The undeniably inspired choice to cast Robert Downey Jr. in the role, along with a tight script and smart direction from Jon Favreau made Iron Man a hit. But the film also reveled in the wealth of comic book mythology to which it had access, and the creators made deliberate choices to include subconsciously recognizable motifs from some of the most widely known stories ever told: those in the religious texts of Judaism and Christianity. In doing so, Iron Man cast the long redemption arc of its titular hero in the light of a powerful narrative tradition.
In the opening sequence of Iron Man, the heir to major weapons manufacturer Stark Industries is in Afghanistan—an instant touchstone for an audience now weary from years of seemingly never-ending conflict in the Middle East—testing his newest weapon: the Jericho missile. The name of the missile clearly evokes the Book of Joshua, the sixth book in the Hebrew Bible. The story goes that in the conquest of Canaan, the first battle that Joshua and his Israelite army’s first battle was the Battle of Jericho. According to Joshua 6:1-27, the Israelites surrounded the walled city of Jericho and blew their trumpets until the walls fell. The battle is also memorably recorded in the African American spiritual ‘Joshua fit the Battle of Jericho.’
This signals a few things to us. First, we’re in a story about war, conquest, and consequence. The real city of Jericho lies in modern-day Palestinian Territories along the West Bank of the Jordan River—an area with a history of violence and conflict between nations. The mythic history of Jericho’s walls falling at the sound of trumpets offers a picture of warfare that’s more creative than destructive, that’s poeticized to mask the horrors of actual warfare. Someone who interprets that narrative literally is in a similar position to Tony Stark in this moment (and a lot of us who don’t live in war-torn countries and can afford some distance from conflict); blissfully unaware of the terrible cost of waging war. What happens next, after testing the missile and taking delight in his own godlike power of destruction, is Tony’s complete loss of control as his convoy is ambushed and he’s kidnapped by Ten Rings, a terrorist group.
It’s significant that Tony begins his journey here, with his first tactile experience of violent conflict and a near-death experience, because it’s the catalyst for a changed perspective. Tony is held imprisoned in a cave by Ten Rings, and during his captivity forms a bond with another prisoner, Yinsen, a doctor who has developed a new technology known as an arc reactor. That technology becomes the foundation for a mechanized exoskeleton that will give Tony the power to escape the cave. He’ll emerge like another character of Biblical tradition, this time from the New Testament: Lazarus of Bethany. Lazarus was the subject of one of Jesus’ miracles in the Gospel of John, raising the man from his tomb after four days dead. Notably, Yinsen lays down his life to allow Tony to complete the suit and escape. This introduces Tony to the significance of self-sacrifice, which will pay off much further along in his character journey.
Another major reference we can’t ignore arrives in the film’s central antagonist, Obadiah Stane. A staple of the Iron Man comics and the first to don the armor of Iron Monger, Obadiah is the business partner of now-deceased Howard Stark. His reasons for turning against the organization are understandable (though very very not cool); after years of hard work and sacrifice, Tony Stark returns to the fold and threatens his position of power. Let’s not forget that during the awards ceremony, Tony is referred to as the ‘Prodigal Son,’ a character from a New Testament parable about family, forgiveness, and humility. (Of course, in Iron Man 3, Tony will say “the prodigal son returns” himself, referring to one of his suits. But we’ll get to that in a minute.)
Back to Obadiah. It’s the most overtly Biblical name in the story, and the likely antecedent is an interesting connection. The Talmud describes a minor prophet named Obadiah, a rich man who was, in the rabbinic tradition, also the servant of Ahab. Ahab was the seventh king of Israel, and he’s depicted as a godless, wicked ruler in religious texts. He also has a slight connection with the Battle of Jericho, in that Joshua’s curses upon any rebuilding of the city came to fruition under Ahab’s reign. The prophet Obadiah winds up running out of money; he’s given too much to the poor prophets in his care. Finally, he’s forced to borrow money from Ahab’s son.
So beyond the names, you can see a clear parallel between Obadiah Stane and the prophet. Both work in the shadow of a powerful though morally compromised individual—Ahab as the wicked ruler, Howard Stark as a complicated man with a bloody legacy. Both then have to answer to the son of that individual, a development that feels desperate, shameful, or humiliating. The major difference is that the prophet Obadiah is regarded as a blessed person, a saint in many Christian churches. The man who dons the Iron Monger suit can hardly be called saintlike, but within the construct of the story, perhaps he thinks he is. Obadiah views Tony’s rapid ascension, which comes with seemingly no effort on his part, as an injustice. Obadiah believes he has earned the right to power and control of Stark Industries. The reversal here highlights, like the disconnect between the fabled Battle of Jericho and the realities of warfare, the tension between our expectations of reward and the realities of oligarchy and capitalism. The prophet Obadiah maintains his faith and righteousness in the face of great injustice and under the rule of a godless king. Obadiah Stane, a casualty of a complex and inherently unjust system, turns that injustice into fuel for anger, entitlement, and revenge.
Tony, the Creator
The tale of Tony Stark is one of pride to humility, of self-absorption to self-sacrifice. He is empowered by the sacrifice of Yinsen, moved by witnessing the destruction he and his organization have wrought, and finally initiated into a fellowship that prizes justice. It’s a long journey from the convoy to the Battle of New York (and beyond) because it takes work to forge a man who will willingly give up his life for other. And it’s not a straight line. Tony faces trials along the way; some are external forces or inevitable consequences thrown upon him, and others are natural outgrowths of this intensely creative and proud character.
In this week’s podcast, we spoke briefly about Tony’s desire to create life, which manifests mosts clearly in Avengers: Age of Ultron, but this track originates much sooner. Once you remove Tony’s original purpose: weapons manufacturing, he turns to an alternative. This becomes the perpetual creation, recreation, and modification of the Iron Man suit and the refinement of his arc reactor technology. For Tony, creation is a form of survival, as evidenced by his time in the cave and his recognition of weaknesses in the suit’s performance in the field, but it also satisfies a ceaseless curiosity in him. In Iron Man 3, we’ll see the newest lineup of modified or specialized armor, and he’ll develop the technology to operate the suits remotely. That technology will begin to enforce Tony’s disengagement or disassociation from the armor, and in Spider-Man: Homecoming, it embodies an “absent father” motif. Near the climax of Iron Man 3, as one disobedient suit of armor reappears in the nick of time, Tony remarks, “The prodigal son returns.”
These developments, culminating in the creation of Ultron, a sentient android meant to establish a new order of peace, cast Tony in the light of Prometheus or Dr. Frankenstein: lower beings struck with the inspiration of gods and the hubris to actualize that inspiration. The Jewish myth best associated with this aspect of Tony’s character is the legend of the Golem. As I described on the podcast this week, the Prague Golem was an anthropomorphic figure made from clay by the 16th Rabbi Loew and animated through religious ritual. He was created to defend the Jewish ghetto in the wake of anti-semitic attacks and the blood libel. But as these stories of man stepping into the shoes of gods often go, the Golem—who, like a construct of iron, cannot reason—becomes impossible to control and must be neutralized. It’s a motif we see in the Hulk’s stories, though he more closely mirror another Gothic novel in Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, so it’s natural that Tony’s partner in creating Ultron would be Bruce Banner.
Part of Tony’s ultimate journey, beyond becoming someone who would conceivably guide a nuclear missile through a wormhole to save the world, is the reconciliation of his intellectual superiority with a sense of justice. That superiority—the knowledge that he is smarter than everyone else in the room—makes him a genuinely enjoyable character to watch, but it’s also the engine behind his desire to create life, and thus precipitates major violent consequences. Once again, he’s a mirror for us—particularly Americans. I don’t at all care to argue against advancements in technology or the pursuit of new breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, but especially in the context of warfare, with which the Iron Man franchise is concerned, the absolute power of creation and destruction lies in the hands of a few individuals. Tony has come a long way to admit that the Avengers need oversight in Captain America: Civil War.
As we near the release of the long-awaited Avengers: Endgame, I’m interested in how Tony’s creative impulse will face off with Thanos’ destructive impulse (Thanos’ name references Greek mythology’s Thanatos, the personification of death. Appropes.) Will Tony, who has made Christlike sacrifices on now numerous occasions, find a way to truly transcend his superiority complex? If he survives the next movie, can he embrace his creative impulse without instinctively overreaching? As we hope to teach the Thanoses of the world that the unilateral power of destruction should not be held by any individual, will Tony have to learn the same lesson for the inverse? And can he learn it without losing a part of himself?
A companion piece to the Wheel of Ka: Episodes 1 & 2, written by Derek Jones
If you’ve listened to episodes one and two of The Wheel of Ka, the podcast about Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, you heard cohost Steve ask a very pointed and complex question. He asked “what is the deal with Roland, the hero of both books, and morality?” In other words, is Roland moral and if so, how can the readers understand his ethical choices? Steve and I intended to dive deep into this subject, but ran out of time. Hence, I’m devoting this piece to understanding Roland and morality to answer the questions: what ethical philosophies does Roland represent, argue for, and what do they mean for the narrative? Furthermore, how can reflecting on Roland as a moral agent impact us readers in our world? These questions have serious implications for the novels to come and could possibly have even more serious implications to the readers after our journey on the path of beam is complete.
First, moral conflict is often at the heart of many great stories. Creating two morally opposing characters, one who the audience is supposed empathize with and one the audience is supposed to find distasteful, is at the heart of most popular and iconic narratives. Consider one specific example, Marvel’s Captain America: Winder Solider, the second Captain America movie featuring the character Steve Rogers as an agent of the covert spy organization SHEILD. Early in the story, SHIELD’s leader Nick Fury, shows Captain America a fleet of technologically advanced flying battleships that have the capability to neutralize any threat anywhere in the world at any time. Captain America, a solider who has killed people, is disgusted as he explains, “We [Him and other soldiers in WW2] compromised, sometimes in ways that made it hard to sleep at night, but we did it so people can be free.” This statement establishes a moral rule the character follows, killing humans—and by extension war— is fundamentally wrong. However, fighting wars so that people can be free is the one exception. All methods of using violence can only be morally tolerable if the violence is used in defense of liberty. Therefore, any and all combat waged must be done to ensure civilians live in a free world. Steve Rogers’ moral code was established in the first installment of Captain America, in which he fights and defeats Hydra, who seek to seize authoritarian control over the entire planet. Captain America doesn’t like nor want to kill people, but he must suspend his antipathy for killing to defend freedom even if it means he can’t sleep at night.
The flying battleships violate this principle, as they seek to eliminate threats before they can amass enough power to become dangerous. If the ships sense someone is about to become a super villain, SHIELD targets the up-and-coming villain and assassinates him/her. The ships are aggressive death machines, unthinking, uncompromising and most importantly, contrary to Captain’s free society he cares so deeply for. This conflict is exacerbated when Captain learns Hydra was not defeated at all and is alive and well, plotting to take control over SHIELD’s warships and use them to massacre all individuals who would not submit to Hydra’s rule. To Hydra, violence is a means to end freedom, creating a stark moral conflict between the hero and the villain.
Captain has a moral rule whereby violence is fundamentally wrong unless used to defend freedom, and Hydra views violence as means to control and kill people with cold, cruel, mathematically precision. The movie becomes a conflict over who is correct, what is the proper way for technologically advanced societies to use violence? The moral conflict is at the heart of the narrative.
Captain America practices a type of moral philosophy called deontology, or rule-based ethics. To explain this, its first necessary to understand why people have been debating morality for thousands of years. The question at the heart of all moral philosophy is, “how can humans live a good and happy life?” To one who practices deontological morality (to which there are several different facets and forms), the good life comes from following moral rules, which cannot be broken under any circumstances. Most of our heroes in popular culture follow a similar deontological path, fighting for and not compromising moral rules. It makes sense to give one’s hero a moral rule they cannot break, then have the situation or antagonist challenge them to break this rule creating moral conflict at the heart of the story. The audience will watch in suspense wondering, will Captain America finally become a ruthless killer? Will Superman snap and become the dictator of the world? Will Batman finally murder the Joker?
And what of Roland, the last and lonely gunslinger in a world that has moved on? I would argue Roland is the exception in that there is no moral rule he would not break in books one and two. Roland learned right and wrong from his childhood tutor Cort. Cort teaches his boys that the world is cruel, trust no one, be ready to kill anyone at any time, and violence is the pathway toward manhood (and by extension, power). When Roland graduated from his training, he defeated Cort in combat and earned the right to carry guns. Roland has learned these lessons well as he slaughters the entire town of Tull, killing men woman, and children without hesitation or mercy in book one. In book two he does not hesitate to hop into the minds of others and take control over their bodies without consent. He has no problems drawing the innocent Eddie and Odetta/Detta into his quest knowing they will likely die. And lastly and perhaps most abhorrently, he allows the child Jake, whom he has taken under his protection—a child whom Roland claims to love—to die so he can get one small step closer to the Dark Tower. It is no wonder after two books of Roland’s deeds, we readers cannot help but ask: is Roland a moral character?
Deontological ethics is one attempt to answer the question of how humans can live a good and happy life. One the other end of the philosophical spectrum is consequentialism. A consequentialist does not care about moral rules. Rather, consequentialism asks what the result of any particular action was. Did the action hurt people? Did it help people? If so, how many were hurt vs how many were helped? It is the end result of a person or persons' actions which matter and hence, it is the end results which should be judged moral or immoral.
Morality and Ethics in American Military History
In trying to understand consequentialism, I’d like to pick an example from US History, the American Civil War. In March of 1864 President Abraham Lincoln promoted Ulysses S. Grant to the rank of lieutenant-general, making him the third person ever to have the title. This gave Grant the supreme authority over all Union troops and officers. The strategic job of winning the war now had Grant at the helm, and he would answer only to Lincoln. To put it simply, Grant realized the Union had more men and more resources but was still struggling to turn the tide and subdue the Secessionists. To put an end to the war Grant adapted new military tactics which would permanently change the nature of warfare. Prior to the Civil War, there were a two strategic objectives which would bring about the end of a war. The first, if an army could capture the enemies capital, the enemy would in-effect be conquered and have no reason to fight and would sue for peace admitting they had been bested. A good example of this is when the Crusading forces sacked and took Jerusalem, ending the first Crusade. The second was to capture or completely destroy the enemy’s army; with no army there would be no one to fight the war, ending the conflict. Furthermore, prior to the American Civil War, warfare was a seasonal activity whereby armies would gather winter quarters to refit and resupply only to resume combat after the frigid months of winter passed. These tactical traditions were problematic for the Union cause. During winter Grant and the Union army were in enemy territory, making it difficulty to refit and resupply. Southerners weren’t hospitable to a Northern army camping out in their backyards, whereas the Confederates were home and had a population who were happy to feed and house their soldiers during the winter months. The Confederates could more easily refit and resupply during the winter months, and if a Confederate army was captured, they could wait it out till winter, evading the Northerners all the while mustering new forces. Furthermore, the capital of the Confederate States was so new that capturing it would likely mean little to nothing given that the Confederates could wait it out till winter, resupply and find a new seat of government. In light of these obstacles to victory, Grant made the tactical decision to fight year round. If his army found itself short of food, clothing, money, etc., he simply took it from the Southern civilians. After all, either he would have these supplies or his enemies. Furthermore, to break the Confederacy, Grant needed to break the peoples’ will to fight. Hence, Union forces burned farms, villages, and Southern cities, displacing many and leading, both directly and indirectly, to civilian casualties. Years later, historians would call Grant’s strategy “total war” in that it wages war year round and will punish civilians who aid the enemy. This strategy would prove to be successful, as Grant accepted the surrender of the South on April 9th 1865, less than a year after Grant’s appointment as the supreme Union commander.
Grant understood, as all great military leaders do, that a deontological view of morality does not win wars. If Grant stuck to the standard tactical “rules” of warfare, the Confederacy may have triumphed. Rather, Grant made a decision based off of the consequences of his orders. Weighing the splintering of the United States of America into two nations and the continuation of slavery, Grant made a consequentialist moral decision: winning the war was worth the price paid in destruction and carnage. To consequentialist moral philosophy, Grant did much harm to win the Civil War but by doing this harm he did a greater good.
Turning back to the last Gunslinger and the question of his moral makeup through books one and two, it is clear Roland does not fit the bill of deontological moral philosophy. Does he follow consequentialism? Let us examine his terrible moral choice to let Jake die in book one. Roland is under the mountains being chased by slow mutants and he is confronted with a terrible dilemma. He can either save Jake from plummeting to his death or escape the mountains and confront the man in black. Roland chooses the latter, and Jake tragically dies twice in one book. Prior to this moment, both Roland and Jake know it’s coming. Roland holds no pretense that he would protect Jake over this quest for the Tower and Jake intuitively realizes Roland will put the Tower over Jake’s life. In fact, nearly every decision Roland makes, good, bad and ugly, can be understood as Roland accepting his decisions are moral if—and only if—they assist him on his quest. Roland is waging a strategy of total war on his quest to the Tower. Jake, the inhabitants of Tull, Eddie and Odetta are strategic pieces, which will aid him along his quest and will be sacrificed if needed.
The question which follows, is the Tower worth it? Is sacrificing so much and so many innocents worth Roland getting to the Tower? Through book one and two, we readers know very little of the Tower other than it sits at the heart of the multiverse. Consider the fact that Roland’s world has ended. Civilization has collapsed and even the laws of nature are slipping as time and spacial dimensions no longer function as they used to. Roland does not want to possess the Tower simply to posses it. Rather, we get the sense Roland wants to repair the damage done to his world and the Tower is how he can achieve it. With the world ending, with the laws of physics upended, with the man in black, a vicious magician who plants insidious psychological traps on his path, Roland has decided getting to the Tower is a greater good then all the harm he inflicts. Whether or not his choices will prove fruitful, whether he will cause more good than harm on his quest, whether the Tower will justify his actions, remains to be seen in book one and two. But under the lens of consequentialist philosophy and considering the example of General Grant, we cannot dismiss Roland’s choices as immoral. Rather, he has a complex and well established moral code that mixes in the tough lessons of military training, years of battle, civilizations collapsing, and consequentialist morality.
Moral philosophy is complex, and I do not have the answer to the question of how to live a good and happy life. While General Grant was the winning general of the American Civil War, he also earned the nickname "the Butcher,” a moniker given to him by both soldiers he commanded and enemies he vanquished. Even Roland ponders in The Drawing of the Three if winning the Tower at the expense of his soul is a worthwhile bargain. Furthermore, great events that shape the world around them are often shaped by those who did much harm to secure greater good. Perhaps Roland’s quest will prove to be worth any and all actions, perhaps the consequence of allowing Jake to die will justify his sacrifice. However, trying to understand Roland necessitates understanding his choices as part of a consequentialist moral system that puts securing the Tower, and mayhap saving the multiverse, as a greater good and worthy of all evils he commits along the way.
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Spoilers for Parts I & II of the Netflix Series ‘The OA’
This week, the long-awaited second season of Netflix’s mind-bending sci-fi/fantasy/magic realism series The OA dropped, and the ending has fans more dumbstruck than ever. Whatever your feelings on the final scenes—or some of the shocking developments of season 2—are, the series continues to flex its unabashed originality, taking some of the most ambitious storytelling risks on television in years.
While season 2 leans more heavily into its sci-fi elements than supernatural ones, the Brit Marling & Zal Batmanglij series remains grounded in potent unconscious imagery and myth. Freshly arrived in a new dimension, the OA/Prairie Johnson’s consciousness lands in the body of Nina Azorova, with whom she shares a birth name and childhood—but whose experience differs entirely from hers after one key moment. In the dimension OA remembers, she had her first near death experience (NDE) when the school bus she was riding crashes, falling into a body of water. She returned from the NDE blind, lost her father at a young age, was adopted by the Johnsons, was held captive by Hap, etc… In the dimension she now inhabits, young Nina never boarded the bus the day of the accident. She had more time with her father, became wealthy and independent, and now dates a Silicon Valley tech mogul. While OA explores her new dimension, season 2 juxtaposes her journey with the boys (and BBA) she left behind and private investigator Karim Washington’s search for the missing Michelle Vu. Sprinkle in some fellow travelers, a sinister dream study, an addictive puzzle game, and a psychic octopus, and you have a deep well of symbolism that builds on the previous installment—adding clarity at times, muddying the waters further at others.
At the center of so many head-spinning plot intricacies is the relationship triangle of OA, Hap, and Homer (in our new surroundings Nina, Dr. Percy, and Dr. Roberts). OA’s jump across dimensions is propelled by her almost magnetic pull toward Homer, a soulmate of sorts. But as another traveler, Elodie, divulges late in the series, it’s not just Homer she’s drawn to, but Hap. Their meetings echo across dimensions as all significant relationships do. These three are locked in an eternal web of desire, attraction, revulsion, dependence… It’s cosmic—the multiverse conspires to bring these three together to enact and reenact the infinite struggle.
The cosmic eternal struggle evokes mythic themes. It brings to mind the cosmology of Norse mythology, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and countless mythological and theological traditions. Gods or forces of good and evil wrestle throughout eternity, one defeating the other before it rises again to continue the fight. As universally as this theme may resonate, within the world of The OA the myth that hits closest to home is the eternal battle between two Slavic deities: Perun and Veles.
A Mythic Struggle
Pagan Slavs worshipped a Pantheon of deities similar to the ancient Greeks or Norse cultures. The most familiar Slavic deity to most of us today would probably be Czernobog (he’s the terrifying winged figure in Disney’s Fantasia, the Night on Bald Mountain segment that traumatized a generation of children; he also appears in the Starz series American Gods based on the novel by Neil Gaiman).
But a large subset of Slavic mythology concerns the cyclical battles between Perun and Veles, two opposing forces in the Pantheon. Perun is a supreme god of thunder, lightning, the skies, fertility, and oak trees. His closest equivalent in Greek mythology would be Zeus, and in Norse mythology he corresponds to Odin and Thor. Best known for wielding an axe, Perun is also associated with weaponry made of stone or metal, and is often depicted with an eagle. Veles, on the other hand, is a more earthbound god who represents the forests and water as well as the underworld. If we have to link him with other traditions, we might equate him in some ways to Hades, in others to Poseidon, and in others to tricksters like Hermes or Loki. He’s associated with a host of animals, primarily bears, but is also known as the Lord of All Wolves.
Also like the Norse and various other ancient cultures, Slavic cosmology imagined the known universe as a ‘world tree.’ At its apex, an eagle spreads its wings, representing the skies and the god Perun. At its base, a great serpent is curled around the roots, representing a metamorphosed version of Veles. Etymological evidence suggests that the word or name ‘Veles’ became associated with dragons, serpents, and devils; Veles himself takes the form of a dragon in some myths.
One version of the enduring myth of the conflict between Perun and Veles begins with the serpent Veles stealing something from Perun (cattle, a wife, or a child). Perun chases the snake around the earth, striking his lightning bolts at the ground and causing Veles to hide. Perun usually succeeds, banishing Veles back to the bottom of the world tree or killing him—only to eventually come back to life and restart the cycle. In other versions of the myth, their struggle is borne out over and over amid great storms, accounting for changing climate conditions in Slavic countries.
Pagan Slavs were eventually Christianized thanks to the efforts of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, but most tribes felt a natural resistance to let go of their native religions and gods, so many traditions were absorbed or transformed by Christianity to ease the transition. The cosmic battle between Perun and Veles—order and chaos, sky-god and trickster-serpent—was organically absorbed by the epic Christian opposition between god and the devil. But as seamlessly as that fits, it’s important to recognize that pagan Slavs didn’t view Perun as the “good guy” and Veles as the “bad guy.” Veles wasn’t an inherently evil figure or demon but one among a pantheon of deities worshipped by many of the same people. They were two sides of one coin.
So what does this have to do with The OA? Take a look at the symbol of Perun:
This six-sided symbol is a visual cue that crops up repeatedly in The OA. It’s reminiscent of the underground prison OA and her friends are trapped in, the fish tank in Homer’s NDE (and season 2’s clinic), the eerie location of the mystical Khatun from OA’s first NDE, the floor tiles in the Nob Hill house… this list goes on.
Throughout the series, the recurring polygons frequently appear as manifestations of captivity, capture, or enclosure. We are reminded of OA’s childhood nightmares of being trapped in an aquarium. Years later she’ll be a living science experiment, separated from the world by glass. When she jumps at the end of season 1, she arrives in a new dimension that once again conspires toward her imprisonment by Hap, this time in the Treasure Island clinic.
Now let’s look at the symbol of Perun’s mortal enemy, Veles.
Rotate the symbol upside down and you have the letter A inside the letter O. OA.
If that’s not sparking your tin foil hat, let’s also look at OA’s choice of wardrobe.
One reading of OA’s decision to bring home the iconic wolf hoodie is its visual similarity to a sweatshirt Homer wore in the cell, and this is probably the in-universe reason she’s drawn to it. But remember when we called Veles ‘Lord of All Wolves?’ Bring together the symbol, the Russian origins, the affinity for the wolf, the NDEs as visits to an ‘underworld,’ and the frequent imagery of OA’s submersion in water, and we have a powerful case for OA as a representation or reincarnation of the god Veles. We even have a herpetology lesson and a line of dialogue in season 1 in which she references ‘shedding her skin,’ aligning with the other potent identifier of Veles as serpent/dragon. When making the parallel between the post-Christian Veles and the snake in the garden of Eden, we must also think of another image of Satan in Lucifer, one of the ‘original angels.’
We can recontextualize the series with the mythic weight of two primordial gods—OA and Hap (note the Percy/Perun linguistic similarities). The universe conspires to bring them together, despite OA’s escape attempts, which echo the myth of the chase. She can jump to new universes and still fall right into his lap. He can defeat or overpower her, but she always comes back, always resurrects. Hap imprisons. OA unlocks. Through intimate opposition and intertwined destinies, these two characters reshape one another constantly. The otherworldly lightness of OA’s presence frequently saves Hap from the ultimate evil he flirts with, unlocking an unexpected softness within him—cruel and cold as he is, the intricate sensitivities and deeply held desires of the character keep him on the edge. And OA, though we view her as a force of light, complicates her morality when she’s in Hap’s orbit. Like the two gods battling over the order of the universe, neither can be painted as fully good or fully evil. Rather we have the struggle of one character to preserve the power he’s always had, and the other finding a means of upsetting that power through her own agency. It’s not a retelling of this ancient myth—it is the ancient myth. Perun and Veles toil still, locked in a never-ending struggle across time, space, and planes of existence. Are the movements the remnants of an ancient ritual, evolving through time like the subjects do? Is there a path to escape for either character, or is an acknowledgement of their cyclical destiny and harmonious dedication to its continuance the best redemption we can hope for? How does Homer, the object of much of Hap and OA’s battle for control, complicate or uphold the mythic standards?
In a series as thematically rich as The OA, it’s nearly impossible to acknowledge every mythic influence, especially since many of the conclusions you can make are formed from a complex and interconnected web of cultures. Khatun is an interesting figure to use as an example, because her name is Arabic, and she wears something akin to a traditional sari, but the braille markings on her face correspond to lines of German poetry by the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Later in the series she reappears as a Baba Yaga-type of figure, ice-fishing in a little hut and possessing the power of flight. She’s a tapestry, a patchwork quilt of culture and cosmologies.
For those who have puzzled over whether OA’s stories are true or simply a trauma coping mechanism, and for those who have painstakingly pieced together lines of dialogue, images, and references in the hopes of identifying the ‘correct’ way to interpret the series, perhaps this patchwork quilt is the best comfort to be found. We can acknowledge the dreamlike surrealism of our memories and our histories, reach for mythologized versions of ourselves across planes of reality, dance with death and our subconscious desires… Like the myths of disparate cultures blend and influence one another, our realities and our truths are flexible, ever-changing. As the tech mogul Pierre Ruskin puts it when describing the sea change mankind experienced when we first saw images of the earth from space, we’re in need of an overview, something akin to the new perspective gained by the few who’ve returned from the other side.
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A companion piece to Episode 96: They See Me R’hlling, written by Laurel Hostak
This week on the Midnight Myth Podcast, Derek and I released another Game of Thrones character study. This time, our subject was the enigmatic Red Woman, Melisandre. In our conversations, we explored such subjects as religion in George R.R. Martin’s story world, historical and literary context for the character, and mythological influences in crafting her. In this blog, I’m going to spend some time expanding on the third topic, from the French tales of the fairy Melusine to the numerous variant stories of monstrous or animal brides and violation of trust.
Melusine of Avalon
Melisandre’s most obvious namesake is Melusine, a French mythological figure whose definitive literary incarnation is a compilation of tales by Jean D'Arras from the 14th century, but her origins may date back to pre-Christian folklore. In early stories, she’s associated with water, and often with water sprites, mermaids, sirens, or the Welsh morgens.
In D’Arras’ version, Le Roman de Mélusine, our girl is the daughter of a fairy and raised in Avalon (intersecting lightly with Arthurian legend). Her mother, the fairy Pressyne, is discovered at the edge of a forest by the Scottish king Elynas, a mortal man. She agrees to marry Elynas under the condition that he must never enter her chamber when she is birthing her children. As the characters associated with rash promises in folklore are wont to do, Elynas violates his taboo, and Pressyne flees with her daughters to Avalon. When Melusine becomes curious and presses her mother to explain what her father had done, the revelation of his betrayal enrages the girl. Melusine seeks revenge, locking Elynas in a mountain to die. As punishment for this act, Pressyne curses her daughter to take the form of a serpent or a two-tailed mermaid from the waist down every Saturday.
Here the tale begins to repeat itself when Raymond (or Raymondin), a French count, meets Melusine in a forest and asks for her hand. Melusine accepts on the condition that he never enter her chamber on a Saturday (and thus never see her monstrous form). He, like Elynas before him, can't resist peeking, and he sees her lower half transformed into a serpent. Melusine forgives him, but later he refers to her as a serpent in front of the court. Melusine instantly turns into a winged dragon and flies away, never to be seen by her husband again.
There are a few things we can pick apart here. The backstory about Pressyne and Elynas includes our first conditional courtship, and it’s oddly specific. He must never enter her chamber while she is giving birth. Alarm bells should be going off here. Calling for privacy during childbirth isn’t surprising—after all, it wasn’t common for men of the Western world to witness their partners’ delivery until the late 20th century. But calling it out as a direct parallel to the later revelation of Melusine’s literal monstrosity signals some deeply-rooted fears about labor and the woman’s body. An Oxford University study interviewed men about their experiences after witnessing childbirth or Caesarian sections, and found that in one of the most striking cases, a father was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. (sidenote, while I deeeeeeply want to cry #masculinitysofragile, I’m going to refrain and offer some sympathy given the lack of counseling and medical support available for sufferers of PTSD, whatever the cause may be). It comes with the territory when we understand such concepts as the monstrous feminine and abjection (horror derived from bodily fluids; “casting off of…”), which posit that the horror genre in particular manifests its female-bodied monsters in ways that are distinctly feminine. More succinctly, women are gross and that is scary. Or that’s the idea that’s at play in this myth, and it’s a powerful psychological instinct to break. It persists. The second season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel saw Midge dragged offstage for uttering the vulgar word “pregnant.” Women are still made to feel uncomfortable publicly discussing menstruation, or being seen carrying tampons. Think of the infamous “blue liquid” in sanitary napkin commercials to stand in for blood. In that last sentence, I instinctively used a euphemism for maxi pad because it’s so deeply ingrained in me to stay quiet on the subject.
So the woman’s childbed is equated with monstrosity, and it’s something to be kept extremely private, even from her husband. His witnessing of the birth of their third child is a betrayal worthy of abandonment—because once he’s seen it, how will Pressyne ever regain the “mystery?” The episode will later be echoed by Melusine’s condition for marriage, an attempt to keep private a malformation from the waist down and a theretofore secretly dual nature. Her tail evokes such seductive and dangerous mythological images as the serpent in the Garden of Eden, the siren, and the Starbucks logo. But Melusine’s secret—and her mother’s desire for privacy in childbirth—doesn’t need to be taken as literally as an expression of the monstrous feminine, though it’s extremely worthwhile to confront our reactions to the female body. The conditions also externalize Pressyne and Melusine’s respective “otherness.” Both are of fairy origin and therefore susceptible to vilification by human society, and Melusine bears a physical otherness that could greatly disturb those who witnessed it at court. They each take on intense privacy and isolation as protection from discrimination or abuse. Both, after trust is violated, choose self-abjection or self-banishment. Perhaps the work of repairing reputations, relationships, and trust is too daunting for these outsider women—or it’s a self-preserving instinct that allows them to escape being dealt the same sentence by the community or loved one.
Animal Brides, Husbands, and Similar Tales
Even if you’re mostly unfamiliar with Melusine’s tragic story, you probably recognized some of the hallmarks from other folklore and fairy tales. The Supernatural or Enchanted Wife (Husband) or Other Relative is a robust category of the Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) Classification of Folk Tales. The ATU—first developed by Finnish folklorist Antti Aarne in the early 20th century, revised and expanded by American folklorist Stith Thompson in 1928 and 1961 and then by German folklorist Hans-Jörg Uther in the 2000s—is a sort of Dewey Decimal System for Indo-European folk stories. There are such tale types as “The Lean Dog Prefers Liberty to Abundant Food and a Chain,” “The Talking Bed-Legs,” and “The devil loses a soul that was promised him.” Each revision of the ATU became increasingly immense and increasingly granular in codifying a multi-cultural system of storytelling. Enchanted Wife… is itself a subset of Tales of Magic, and contains such tale types as “The Animal Bride,” “The Frog King,” and “The Sleeping Beauty.” It’s adjacent to the loathly lady archetype as well. Each of those tale types contains multitudes of individual stories from around the world. A quick jaunt through the various categories serves to bring home the concept of universality and the remarkable recurrence of theme and structure across cultures.
Melusine resonates deeply with tales of selkies—the seal maiden who would marry a mortal man if he stole her seal pelt—from the Faroe Islands and the Crane Wife of Japanese folklore. In the latter, we have the same violation of trust motif: a man marries a woman who is in fact a disguised crane; she makes their household prosperous by weaving a brocade from her feathers, but when her husband spies on her in the spinning room, plucking bloody feathers from her skin, she leaves him. This structural element is not limited to men violating women’s trust, however. Though there may be a comparatively higher volume of supernatural bride stories, the violation of trust motif seems ever-present in the reversed-gender variations. Think East of the Sun and West of the Moon, the Norwegian fairy tale (ATU 425A, “The Search for the Lost Husband”), in which a young woman marries a white bear who takes the form of a handsome prince at night—though she can’t see him in the dark. Succumbing to her mother’s insistence that he must in fact be a hideous troll to hide his face from her, the young woman brings a candle into their shared bed, spills a few drops of wax, and poof! He takes off, betrayed by her lack of faith, and the young woman must to perform near-impossible tasks to prove to the white bear’s wicked stepmother that they should be reunited.
If that sounds a lot like the Greek myth of Cupid & Psyche, it’s because it is! It’s a near-perfect retelling with a bear standing in for Love. It also bears (pun intended) similarities to Beauty and the Beast (its own tale type within …Lost Husband given the wealth of variations! ATU 425C), which also shares its central conceit with Cupid & Psyche, though scholars at Durham University and NOVA in Lisbon date its origins to around 4,000 years ago.
Something I find curious in comparing these tales of such similar structure is that Cupid and its derivatives or variants that feature supernatural husbands are “happily ever after” tales. The woman is forgiven for violations of trust, judgment, and shallowness, and she learns the hard-won lesson to have faith in her husband. The couple overcomes a broken promise, and the woman is rewarded for learning to love a beast, or for undertaking torturous labors to win back her husband. Supernatural wives rarely fare so well. Once the rash promise is broken, Pressyne flees. Melusine tries to make it work, but once her serpent half has been seen, her marriage is all but over. The crane wife takes flight the moment she’s beheld in bird form. The selkie, who never stopped longing for the sea, jumps at the chance to retake her seal skin. Few fairy tale husbands search the earth or commit to prolonged penance in order to atone for the betrayal. The story ends with a heartbroken husband and a wife returning to the wilderness whence she came.
The animal or supernatural bride is the perfect embodiment of the “unknowable woman,” whose mystery is part of her allure. She is a precursor to our least welcome visitor, the manic pixie dream girl, who is desired precisely because she seems impossible to grasp. She affirms the necessity of secrecy in a relationship not because individuals are entitled to privacy, but because knowledge is—like Adam & Eve once learned—destructive. Once her mystery is exposed as ordinary or perceived as repulsive to the husband, his trauma becomes the central downfall of the woman. She must take off to spare him further shame. The most tragic element of Melusine-esque tales is the woman’s self-imposed isolation and later exile, literally or symbolically born out of a desire to “keep the mystery alive.” It’s internalized fear akin to “if I fart in front of my partner they will no longer find me attractive,” and an insidious double-standard. Raymond proves the point when he and Melusine attempt to move past his violation, but he can’t hold back his disgust for long.
Hot take: Let’s try not to be disgusted by the female body. The act of bearing witness to the natural processes of the body—and while these folk and fairy tales of course explore cishet relationships where the partners are confronted with a body that is mysterious or unfamiliar to their own, this goes for other kinds of relationships as well—is a cornerstone of intimacy. And until we’re able to move on from stigma and shame surrounding these natural processes, whether specific to the female body (menstruation, childbirth) or universally experienced and universally erased ones associated with illness and aging, intimacy remains obstructed. Let’s let go of the need of mystery. Let’s turn on the light, unlock the door, and let knowledge in.
If you enjoyed reading, check out its companion podcast episode and some my sources and inspiration. All images are affiliate links, meaning if you purchase the item, a percentage goes to the Midnight Myth. Thanks for your support!
A companion piece to episode 95: The Once and Future King, written by Laurel Hostak
The Blades of King Arthur: The Sword in the Stone, Excalibur
You know the story of Arthur and his legendary sword. An orphan boy is raised by Sir Ector and serves as squire to his adopted brother Kay. His youth is perfectly ordinary, until the day he accompanies Kay to a tourney and loses his brother’s sword just before he’s about to ride into combat. On this day, in desperation to replace the sword, Arthur instinctively pulls a sword from a stone, and the course of his life—and his nation’s—changes forever.
The sword he draws from the stone is more than a weapon for combat or tournaments. It’s the very symbol of sovereignty that guarantees the boy’s royal destiny. This child will become the greatest king of Britain. He will welcome a golden age. He will ignite the hearts and minds of mankind for centuries to come.
The sword in the stone is one of the most unique and enduring symbols in the Arthurian legend—which says a lot, given the story is sweeping, epic, and littered with magical and significant objects. In contemporary adaptations of the legend, this sword is called Excalibur, though the preponderance of Arthurian texts from the Middle Ages will affirm that Arthur has two magical swords. He pulls one from the stone, and is later given Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake. Whether to avoid confusion or to enhance narrative cohesion, Hollywood and modern writers have overwhelmingly chosen to combine the two blades, and thus combine the concepts of powerful bloodline and military might.
Despite the sword in the stone’s imprint on the collective consciousness and association with Arthur’s upbringing, it’s Excalibur that’s first introduced to the legend. It appears under the Celtic name Caledfwlch in the Welsh prose tale Culhwch and Olwen (collected in the Mabinogion in the 12th century). In the same century it will materialize in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s blockbuster Latin treatment of the legend in his Historia Regum Brittaniae—or History of the Kings of Britain—as Caliburnus. The French tradition will give us the name Escalibor, and our friend Chretien de Troyes describes the sword by its ability to cut through steel and iron. Interestingly, it’s French writer Robert de Boron, who is best known for his continuation of Chretien’s unfinished Perceval, the Story of the Grail, who will introduce the sword in the stone motif for the first time in his poem Merlin.
Excalibur has several recognizable attributes that appear in multiple sources. In addition to its uncanny ability to cut through just about any material, it’s also blindingly bright. As Sir Thomas Malory writes in his landmark Le Morte D’Arthur, "thenne he drewe his swerd Excalibur, but it was so breyght in his enemyes eyen that it gaf light lyke thirty torchys." Perhaps most importantly, the scabbard bestowed on Arthur along with the sword stops the bearer from losing blood in battle. In Malory, Arthur’s half-sister Morgan le Fay will steal the scabbard from him, allowing Mordred to deal the death-blow upon him in the field.
The Sword of Gryffindor
Spoilers for the Harry Potter series
Swords of power don’t originate in the Arthurian legend—in fact, we see them in Norse and Greek mythology, folklore surrounding Julius Caesar and Ancient Rome, and even the Bible, in which a cherub wielding a flaming sword prevents Adam and Eve from returning to the Garden of Eden. But it’s impossible to overstate the importance of Arthur’s legacy on Western storytelling tradition, and I’d like to spend some time examining the intersection of these particular magical objects with contemporary popular culture. If you have any familiarity with the books or movies of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, you’ve probably made the connection at some point between the sword in the stone and the sword of Gryffindor.
Much like the sword Arthur pulls from the stone in a churchyard—the one that can only be retrieved by the true king/heir to Uther Pendragon—the latter sword manifests only to a worthy Gryffindor. In a time of need, it materializes inside the Sorting Hat. This happens twice during the series as we witness it, appearing first to Harry as he’s confronting a Basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets, and later to Neville Longbottom during the final battle against Voldemort and his Death Eaters. In both instances, the sword is used to defeat a snake or serpent-like beast who is the servant of Voldemort and symbol of Slytherin house. Voldemort is the heir of Slytherin, a literal descendant of the Hogwarts co-founder’s line, and his life is tied to the snake’s in both cases, making the sword instrumental in severing his own lifeline. What’s interesting about this double-appearance of the sword to different characters, though, is that it suggests a slight departure from the hereditary or divinely-ordained nature inherent in the medieval tradition. Rather than choosing a king, a sovereign who is the offspring of the royal line, the sword chooses a champion who becomes a symbolic heir of Gryffindor. That hero then defeats a literal heir of Slytherin. The Harry Potter series repeatedly affirms the presence of free will and choice in its universe, so this more egalitarian expression of the sword in the stone motif brings home the idea that anyone can become a great hero.
Harry Potter, like the Arthurian legend, is densely populated with magical objects. From the Remembrall and the Golden Snitch to the Goblet of Fire and the Deathly Hallows themselves, Rowling is hyper-aware of the lengthy folkloric tradition each of her objects alludes to. And Rowling is clearly interested in the magical mysteries of Arthur. Not only does she give us the obvious connections between legendary swords, but her most prestigious wizarding characters signify their adeptness by their rank in the “Order of Merlin.” With that, she unequivocally tells the reader that the legends of Merlin, Arthur, and his knights are real in this story universe. But regardless of historicity in- or out-of-universe, the symbolic link is powerful. Let’s not forget that Harry will eventually marry Ginevra “Ginny” Weasley, whose first name is a derivative of “Guinevere.”
There’s a third appearance of Gryffindor’s sword, chronologically in between the two Sorting Hat revelations, in which it reveals itself to an on-the-lam Harry at the bottom of a pond. Placed there by Severus Snape, it gives Harry his first fighting chance at destroying horcruxes and eventually defeating the Dark Lord. At once, the image of the sword glowing at the bottom of a pool of water evokes not just the bestowal of Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake, but the appearance of the grail to Perceval. The Holy Grail has additional analogs in Harry Potter in the form of the Goblet of Fire, the Triwizard Cup, and the Hufflepuff goblet that serves as a horcrux—or truly, any hallowed object that is the subject of a long and arduous quest. Turning to the Deathly Hallows—the Resurrection Stone, the Invisibility Cloak, and the Elder Wand—we have further Arthurian links. The unbeatable wand echoes Excalibur as the weapon of choice for wizards, the cloak denotes the magical scabbard, and the stone once again corresponds to the grail or to Arthur’s rumored healing and rebirth on the Isle of Avalon.
Narsil, the Sword That Was Broken
Spoilers for the Lord of the Rings series
In Malory’s text, the sword in the stone that grants Arthur his divine right as king doesn’t last long. In his first battle, Arthur breaks the sword and use seek a replacement. Merlin leads him to the Lady of the Lake, and she gives him both the sword and its enchanted scabbard. This motif of the shattered sword symbolizes the end of Arthur’s childhood and initiation into a new phase—for himself and for his people. We’ll see the shattered sword image recur time and again in contemporary fantasy literature, most notably in J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings saga.
It’s Narsil, the sword of King Elendil used against Sauron during the War of the Last Alliance, that fulfills the motif. Its name refers to “red and white flame,” symbolizing the Sun and Moon—the “chief heavenly lights, as enemies of darkness.” In battle against the Dark Lord Sauron, Narsil shatters, and Elendil’s son Isildur picks up the shards to cut the Ring of Power from Sauron’s hand. The broken sword and the severing of digits conjure up some pretty blatant phallic references, and these events serve to bring the Second Age of Middle Earth to a close—mankind steps out of its “childhood” into adulthood.
In the Third Age, when we join the story in the Lord of the Rings books, Narsil remains in pieces, waiting for Isildur’s heir to reclaim and reforge it. That heir will arrive in the form of Aragorn, an extraordinarily Arthur-like figure who is destined to usher in a new golden age for the race of men. The blade will be reforged, and Aragorn will give it the name Anduril, the Flame of the West. Its name, like its parent blade, hearkens to celestial phenomena by using an elvish word for sunset. The sun is just dawning on mankind, but setting on the enchantments, magic, elves, sorcerers of the land… those will depart as a new age is born.
It’s just as Robert de Boron wrote in his Merlin:
Lightbringer, the Red Sword of Heroes
Spoilers for HBO’s Game of Thrones
And while we’re talking about contemporary fantasy and legendary swords, perhaps the pop culture property that gives us the largest bounty is George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and the television adaptation Game of Thrones. Every major house in Westeros seems to have a powerful sword associated with its history and lineage. Valyrian steel blades are passed from fathers to sons as symbolic of nobility and pedigree, and some carry mysterious and magical myths. Take Dawn, for example, the ancestral sword of House Dayne, forged from the heart of a fallen star and whose bearer is known as the “Sword of the Morning.” Or Heartsbane, the sword of House Tarly, which Samwell steals from its mantle at Horn Hill to affirm his worth.
But there’s perhaps no sword so significant in the story world as the mythical Lightbringer. The sword of Azor Ahai (also sometimes called the prince that was promised), Lightbringer was the weapon that brought an end to the Long Night—a winter that lasted a generation thousands of years before the events of Game. The legend goes that Azor Ahai, a great hero prophesied to fight the Great Other (a devil-like figure in the religion of the Lord of Light), labored for thirty days and nights to forge a hero’s sword. When he went to temper it, however, the sword shattered as soon as it touched the water. So back to the smithy he went, this time laboring for fifty days and nights. Azor Ahai captured a lion and drove the new sword into its heart to temper it; still the blade shattered. The third time, he labored for one hundred days and nights, and, with a heavy heart, summoned his wife Nissa Nissa. To temper the blade, he drove his sword into Nissa Nissa’s heart, and her soul combined with the sword, setting it aflame. This sword would be used to defeat the Others/White Walkers and bring an end to the darkness of winter.
Let’s quickly look back at the quote I shared earlier from Malory’s Morte D’Arthur:
Lightbringer, like Excalibur, and to an extent Narsil and Anduril, confronts the carrier’s enemies with a blinding light. And just as King Arthur led his society out of a dark age and into a golden one, Azor Ahai issues in summer after a long winter. The sword—as an extension and symbol of the bearer’s power—becomes inextricably tied to the victory of good over evil, light over dark. Numerous theories exist in the ASOIAF fandom about Lightbringer’s literal or metaphorical origins in the story world. Some say the sword Dawn is Lightbringer, and others claim it’s simply the mantle of the Night’s Watch, or the resurgence of dragons in the world. But always, it’s tied to a great hero and the banishment of a dark age, something we’ve come to associate with Arthur and his knights.
Of course, the prophecy in play in the books and television show now is that of Azor Ahai’s rebirth. And here’s where the Arthurian connection truly solidifies. At the end of Le Morte D’Arthur, as in Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Vulgate Cycle, Arthur and his son/nephew Mordred meet on the battlefield and mortally wound one another. Arthur bids one of his knights (either Griflet or Bedivere, depending on the version you’re reading) to cast Excalibur into a body of water. Thus the fair time of Arthur’s reign comes to a close, presumably to be resurrected when a new, worthy ruler steps into focus. Arthur, dying, is ferried off by Morgan le Fay to Avalon, where legend has it his wounds are healed, and he lives on—waiting to rise again in his nation’s hour of need. He is the Once and Future King. It smacks of Biblical resurrection, of course, but also of various national heroes and kings from across cultures. St. Wenceslas lies sleeping under Mt. Blanik in Bohemia, and will awaken when he is most needed to claim the sword of Bruncvik and deliver his country. Finn McCool will rise again to deliver the Irish people, and Holger the Dane will awaken to save Denmark. Even Charlemagne—the bearer of another legendary ancestral sword—will return one day and fulfill his heroic destiny. From the countless examples of this mythological motif, Azor Ahai emerges as an eternal promise.
Lightbringer, Narsil, Gryffindor, and Excalibur are lost to us now, but they wait for a worthy hero to come along, retrieve it, and usher in a new golden age.
If you enjoyed this blog, check out some of my sources and inspiration! All images are affiliate links, so if you purchase the item, a percentage will go to the podcast. Thank you for your support!
Hi Everybody! Derek here. Back in October 2017 I had the honor of being a guest lecturer at Moore College in Philadelphia for a rewatch and discussion panel of Batman the Animated Series (which ran from 1992 - 1995). My topic was to analyze the two part episode “The Demon’s Quest”. I examined the episode using the lens of Orientalism, which I talked about in Midnight Myth Episode 94B: Its Dull You Twit. Now, up on the website for your reading pleasure, is my lecture:
Hello and good afternoon. My name is Derek Jones and I’m excited be here at Moore College, speaking about Batman the Animated Series. Just to give you a little context as to who I am, I have a degree in history from Temple University, and I am the co-founder and co-host of the Midnight Myth Podcast, where our mission is to understand the historical and philosophical context of storytelling as it pertains to everything from the Epic of Gilgamesh to modern Hollywood cinema. (And if you don’t mind a shameless plug, you should really listen to it on iTunes or Stitcher)
The subject of my lecture is going to center around a two part episode in season three, the Demon’s Quest, in which Batman is confronted with Ra’s Al Ghul’s twisted scheme involving kidnapping, false identities, wedding proposals, and let’s not forget, genocide on a mass scale. I intend to argue that the Demon’s Quest stands thematically apart from the series, in that it delves into the murky waters of orientalism. To really understand this, it is important that we dissect what the consistent themes of the series are, in order to highlight how these episodes stand apart, while juxtaposing the themes of the Demon’s Quest next to orientalism.
First, the show has one consistent thematic element— duality. Equal and opposite forces are constantly being placed against one another to highlight the moral sameness and otherness in each character, situation, person, monster, and criminal enterprise. Batman himself is a representation of two diametrically opposed selves- the crime fighting Batman vs the billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne. Batman’s villains challenge and rival Batman’s crime fighting virtue, in the name of vengeance (such as Mr Freeze, who wants to avenge the death of his wife) or madness (such as the Joker who wishes to see nothing but the city burn while Batman watches). Gotham city is often portrayed as two cities, where the wealth and privilege of Bruce Wayne’s billionaire life sits adjacent to the dark underbelly of a city so corrupt it produces fiends and monsters such as Killer Croc and Scarecrow. Structural societal units, such as police forces and charitable organizations, are often counter-balanced with crime syndicates who rival (and often surpass) the police, while the site of charitable causes often become the scene of violence.
At first watch, the Demon’s Quest subverts this theme. Gotham city, and it's corrupt urban culture, is the prime catalyst for nearly every hero and villain in the show, save for Ra’s Al Ghul. Free from being formed via the city of Gotham, Ra’s is free from the standard Gotham-esk hero/villain paradigm every other character is trapped in. Consider that Ra’s Al Ghul knows Batman’s true identity and does not want to destroy Batman, rather marry his daughter to him so that Batman can be come his male heir. To orchestrate the marriage, Ra’s fakes a kidnapping of his daughter while kidnapping Robin, to test the detective prowess of Batman. When Batman quickly sees through the facade and solves the mystery, Ra’s is proud, realizing that his daughter’s love is well placed. Even Ra’s’ genocidal plan to kill millions of humans stands apart from the typical evil motivations of other Batman villains. Ra’s is not looking for wealth, power, or destruction for destruction’s sake. Rather, he wants to restore the natural balance of the world, upending the capitalist destruction of Earth’s ecosystem. His evil plot stems from a more noble motivation, aimed at preserving the planet from deforestation and global warming. In other words, Ra’s has a noble cause, with noble intentions, that leads to a mad solution.
So, in the Demon’s Quest, did the writers abandon duality completely? Well, no. If Batman and his allies and enemies where all formed by Gotham, what forms Ra’s? It is not an easy question to answer, as we learn he has had an unusually long life, due to regular baths in the mystical youth rejuvenating Lazarus pits (more on them later). Clearly, Ra’s is non-western in origin. His bases are in Calcutta, India, Malaysia, home of the Himalaya mountains, and lastly the Sahara desert in North Africa. In this way, Ra’s and his international criminal assassins guild, represent the non-Western side to the Batman. Ra’s is the oriental Batman.
Ok, let’s back up bit, and try to understand what is meant by the term “Orientalism”. Like in most social sciences, to understand Orientalism, we must first travel back to Ancient Greece and coining of the term “history”. In the 5th Century BCE, Ancient Greece was a collection of city states, Athens and Sparta being the two largest and most influential. Greece was not a nation at this time, rather a group of independent powers who mostly, spoke the same language. Across the Aegean Sea and to the north was the much larger and powerful Persian Empire. The Persians twice attempted to conquer Greece and twice they were repelled. The first invasion force was lead by the Emperor Darius. Darius’s son Xerxes tried to conquer Greece and he also failed. Both times the Greeks were out numbered, loosely united, and both times the Greeks won hard fought, but decisive victories against the foreign invaders. At this time people were not very big on writing down events that happened to record them unless they were triumphs. Since the Persians lost both wars, there is no Persian record of what happened. However, a Greek by the name of Herodotus thought it would be prudent to record the events of these two wars. He called them “The Histories” which in ancient Greek meant “The Inquires” and was the first person to treat the events of the past as a subject of investigation. History was born from Herodotus wanting to know why and what caused these wars. Prior to Herodotus, history was record via poetry and song meant to be recited and free from inquiry and investigation into causes and consequences. In his analysis of the Persian Wars, Herodotus coined a very interesting new word, “Barbarian” (“βάρβαρος” in Ancient Greek). There is a ton of scholarship around Herodotus’s Histories and summarily, the word Barbarian. The literal translation into English means, “foreign” or sometimes translated as “non-native speaking”. By casting the Persians as foreign, Herodotus links their non-Greek-ness to their defeat and the word Barbarian takes on a new meaning: savage, simple, and inferior. Herodotus’s characterization starts the demarcation of the “us” vs “them” and The Persian Wars, as he came to call them, as a war where civilization itself hung in the balance. In short, Herodotus was the first in a long line of intellectuals to create the western world via creating the non-west.
As we flash forward to the Modern era (the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries), the West carved vast sums of the planet into Empires under the mission to civilize the barbarians. Also, the Ottoman Empire collapsed in the early 20th Century, leaving a power vacuum in what we now call the Middle East. Out of the imperial Western system, Orientalism was born. Orientalism was one of the academic wings to Western Imperialism. Simply put, the Orientalist was a person who studied of the lands conquered— or was set to be conquered— by the French, British, Dutch, Germans, and so on. For a long time this school of thinking was considered to be the pinnacle scholarship around the Near East and the Far East. In 1978, at the tail end of the Western Imperial dominion over the planet, a scholar, historian, and awesome dude named Edward Said published “Orientalism”, a comprehensive work detailing the historical influence of power over scholarship designed to relegate the Orient as an inferior land of backwards people. Today, Said’s work turned the word Orient, Oriental, and Orientalism from standard day to day vernacular, to problematic and loaded deregulatory terms. Let’s look at a quote:
Said reminds us that the stereotypers implicitly benefit from the stereotype. That huge populations of human beings where placed into neatly contained ideological boxes, making conquest, in both literal and rhetorical forms, easier to morally accept. Said argued that the demarcation of West vs. East is imaginary, a collective correction imposed upon reality, and not a reflection of reality. Orientalism was not an honest academic study, it did not elevate dialogue around the complexities of the human condition. Rather, Orientalism served to benefit the Western collective academic discourse.
Where does this fit with Batman and Ra’s? When we first see Ra’s, he is dressed in dramatized clothing and wearing a mask that resembles the Egyptian god Anubis, signaling to the audience that he is both villain and foreign. He has a man servant, Ubu, who’s very presence displays Ra’s as a commander of powerful men who is respected in distinctly non-Western ways. Furthermore, Ra’s arranges all the events of the first episode to enforce his non-western patriarchal system, where Ra’s work with the League of Assassins can only continue if he marries his daughter, who is incapable of inheriting his property, to a worthy male.
Ra’s is everything Batman is and is not. They both are rich, powerful, able to operate outside and above social institutions while waging personal crusades on the evils they believe are corrupting society. Consider the effect of the Lazarus Pit. In the Gospel of John, Lazarus of Bethany is resurrected by Jesus Christ. The naming of Ra’s youth rejuvenating pit Lazarus, plays on the sacred role of resurrection in Western theology and turns it on its head by making it a tool of non-Western unnatural power. In order to villainize Ra’s, to keep him an opposite of Batman, to cue to the young audience that Ra’s is evil, he becomes Orientalized— corrupting the sanctity of Batman-ness into Batman’s Eastern rival.
So what does this all matter?
In truth, maybe it doesn’t. After all, this show was for children and who cares if the writers draw upon ancient cultural stereotypes to craft one of Batman’s rogues? After all, there are worse examples or Orientalism (looking at you Synder’s 300). I also love this two part episode, as it interwove Batman’s detective prowess with an Indian Jones style adventure. Ra’s Al Ghoul is a fully fleshed out, complex villain, running head first into Batman who Batman must defeat or suffer a genocide of biblical proportions. However, I would argue that examining the cultural biases, power relationships, and their historical significance is a worth while endeavor. Learning how we Westerners craft stereotypes around others tells us volumes of insights about ourselves. It forces us to confront our imperial history and challenges the racism implicit in the rhetoric of Orientalism. I believe that if a show such as Batman the Animated series can be guilty of an Orientalist ideology, then we all can be. Unchecked, unexamined, and undeterred, attitudes of Orientalism can lead us to a dangerous and dark place, such as the words of ex-President George W Bush:
And if you’d like to hear an oreinlatist attitude expressed less eloquently…
If you like what you read, check out some of our sources! All images are Amazon affiliate links, so if you purchase through them, a percentage will go to the podcast. Thank you for your support!
A companion piece to Episode 94A: Locksley (on Robin Hood), written by Laurel Hostak
This week on the Midnight Myth Podcast, Derek and I brought you part one of a two-episode series on the legendary outlaw of Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood. We found, while recording, that the thousand-year history of the character was far too much to stuff into a single episode—and after recording two parts, I still feel like there’s much to say. This blog post will address some fun and fascinating elements of the legend and its modern adaptations that didn’t quite fit in our arguments. Enjoy.
I. On Disney’s Robin Hood
This week, you’ll hear an in-depth analysis of the 1991 Kevin Reynolds movie, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, starring Kevin Costner. We chose it as our modern adaptation focal point because it demonstrates a dedication to the progressive spirit of the legend while existing as a snapshot of a particular moment in time that demands our scrutiny. But to focus on this adaptation, we had to skip over the immensely popular Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn movies, as well as the 1973 Walt Disney animated version.
The Walt Disney film (1973) famously depicts the beloved legendary characters as anthropomorphic animals. Robin Hood is a fox, because Walt Disney himself had an interest in the medieval fables about Reynard the Fox.
Reynard is an interesting character who appears in Dutch, English, and French allegory as a trickster figure, dating back to the 12th century. The works are typically thought of as parodies of popular medieval literature, like those of courtly love and chivalry (like the works of Chretien de Troyes, whom we discussed at length in our Jorah Mormont podcast!), while also satirizing religious and political institutions. While we wouldn’t necessarily call the Robin Hood ballads satire, he shares with Reynard a disdain for corrupt religious or political authority as well as an early role as a pseudo-trickster of the forest. (For more thoughts on the trickster role, read on to the section on Lincoln green!)
Coincidentally enough, the 12th century also becomes relevant to the Robin Hood legend when Joseph Ritson publishes a new edition of the medieval ballads Robin Hood: A collection of all the Ancient Poems Songs and Ballads now extant, relative to that celebrated Outlaw. In the 18th century compilation, Ritson argues for for Robin Hood's historical placement in the 12th century and therefore during the reign of Richard the Lionheart. Ritson’s work lays the foundation for Robin Hood’s association with the crusades.
So it’s conceivable (and likely, as Robin Hood almost certainly found popularity in an oral tradition prior to his literary debut in the 14th century), that the two legends may have encountered or influenced one another as they evolved. In the 12th century, Britain and the European continent are still culturally and linguistically linked in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest, and while Robin’s narrative remains localized, the Reynard allegory hops across the pond and back, accumulating adaptations in numerous European countries throughout the millennium. There's another loose connection between the two: the Roman de Renart (the French version of Reynard's cycle) contains an early recording of "Robin" being used as a diminutive of the name "Robert."
Fast-forwarding to the 20th century, during the production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Walt Disney begins developing a concept for an animated version of the Reynard fables. The concept got stuck in the development pipeline, however, because Disney was concerned that the Reynard story would be too violent and morally problematic for younger audiences. But Reynard kept coming back. At one point, the studio considered featuring Reynard’s fables as stories told by the pirate Long John Silver in a version of Treasure Island. Later, there were talks of a Chanticleer and Reynard film, featuring Edmond Rostand’s rooster character. They even went so far as to draft character concepts for Reynard, Chanticleer, and several of the key characters from Reynard’s story cycles. This idea was scrapped in favor of an animated adaptation of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King titled The Sword in the Stone.
In the 70’s (after Walt Disney’s death), when the studio was searching for a classic tale to base its next animated feature on, animator Ken Anderson’s suggestion of taking on the Robin Hood legend was met with enthusiasm. The concept went through a few iterations (including the possibility of setting it in the Deep South as a means of recapturing the spirit of Song of the South in 1946… weird flex but okay). The final decision was to maintain the “merry old England” of the legend as a landscape, but to include a cast of anthropomorphic characters.
The title character, as we know, took the shape of a fox, a la Reynard. And here’s where the parallels get interesting. In the Roman de Renart, the fox travels to the court of the cruel King Leo—a lion—to answer on charges brought against him by his archrival Ysengrim the wolf. There’s also a cat named Tybalt, whom Shakespeare used as inspiration for the hotheaded Capulet in Romeo & Juliet, sometimes called “Prince of Cats” (see our recent episode on Romeo & Juliet, gotta love how everything comes together on the Midnight Myth.) In the assigning of roles to characters of the Robin Hood legend, subsequently, we have the cowardly Prince John realized as a lion and Robin’s recurring nemesis the Sheriff of Nottingham take the form of a wolf. Though I can’t find a conscious acknowledgement by Anderson and his team of animators to mirror the Reynard cycle, and instead find descriptions of “stereotypes” as the basis for the final character concepts—the sly fox, the villainous wolf, the cowardly lion—we must admit that the resemblance is notable. And given Disney’s history with Reynard and the widespread influence of the tales, the stereotypes they’re referring to are ones the fables helped to create.
II. On Robin Hood’s favorite color: Lincoln Green
Let’s pivot slightly to another aspect of Robin Hood we didn’t quite have time for on this week’s episode. As we stated on the podcast, Derek and I didn’t feel especially compelled to debate the historicity of a Robin Hood figure—whether or not he is a real historical outlaw doesn’t significantly affect our analysis of the legend’s legacy, and there’s a whole cottage industry around declaring to have the definitive answer in a published work. The legend certainly has earlier origins than the ballads, and whether those origins are purely folklore or an amalgamated view of a real person is far from a closed case, and we are not the people to solve that query. However, there’s one theory about the origins that I think is worth bringing up here, and that’s the idea that the Robin Hood figure evolved from fairy stories.
I’m not here to claim that this theory is the answer, but let’s walk down the forest path a little bit. The two compelling arguments for this theory are 1) that Robin Hood ‘haunts’ Sherwood Forest like a kind of genius loci or trickster-protector, and 2) that Robin wears green.
So let’s break this down one section at a time, starting with Robin’s primary forest locale. It’s no secret that forests have played a mysterious and enchanting role in our mythology and folklore since the ancient world. In ancient mythology, they’re inhabited by gods and nature spirits. In medieval Romance, they’re the backdrop for grand quests, with comely maidesns or enigmatic hermits hiding behind every bush. In fairy tales, they’e the location of witches, big bad wolves, ghosts, and goblins. One such goblin-type is the ever-popular Puck, or Robin Goodfellow.
The most famous depiction of Puck is, of course, the character in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the play, he’s the mostly-benevolent but mischievous emissary of Oberon who takes intense pleasure in bringing chaos upon the humans who stumble into his forest domain. In folklore, he’s probably derived from the Welsh pwca, and is sometimes called hobgoblin. Puck is at times depicted as a frightening, devilish creature. The “Robin Goodfellow” character is first named in the 16th century, by turns as a kind of brownie or domestic sprite who will do household tasks in exchange for milk or cream, and as a less savory spirit who misleads travelers and gets them lost. And wouldn’t you know, it’s good old Bill Shakespeare who brings Robin Goodfellow and Puck together definitively in a tricksy, yet ultimately good-natured fairy.
The connection between Goodfellow and Hood isn’t ironclad, but the two Robins have similarities. For one, they aren’t kind to travelers. Just as Goodfellow will spin the weary traveler around, Robin Hood will shake down anyone who dares cross his forest path. Puck has shapeshifting ability in some lore, and Robin Hood is a master of disguise. Of course, we have to note the similarities in their names, but since the Robin Hood ballads predate Shakespeare and later Robin Goodfellow stories, it’s Goodfellow whose name would have to be influenced by Hood.
The second tic in the Robin-Hood-is-a-fairy column is his trademark color. In the folklore of the British isles, especially, green is a color most associated with fairies and spirits. It makes sense, as green would be the color of choice for sprites to blend in with the dense forests and lush natural landscapes of England and the “Emerald Isle.” The fact that Robin wears green has led some scholars to believe he evolves from the tradition of these fairy stories.
But Robin Hood doesn’t just wear green. He wears Lincoln green. It’s a very specific shade (#195905 to be exact). And its name comes from Lincoln, an English cloth town that boomed with production during the high Middle Ages—at the same time as the early Robin Hood ballads are published. Lincoln was known for producing high quality cloth in two colors: scarlet and green. And while we have that very specific hex code for the shade today, the name “Lincoln green” referred more to the quality of cloth than a consistent color. According to English poet Michael Drayton, "Lincoln anciently dyed the best green in England." In 16th century literature, we have numerous references to Lincoln green as a high-quality cloth worn by foresters. There’s our man Robin Hood, who dons it, a woodsman in Edmund Spenser’s high Romance The Faery Queene, and even Chaucer notes its quality in The Friar’s Tale.
By my measure, this understanding of Robin Hood’s fashion choices does less to confirm the fairy theory and more to affirm the political and class implications of the legend. Robin, who will later be identified as a banished aristocrat, wears only the highest quality fabric in a shade that helps him blend in with the surroundings. Surely the trickster figures of Puck and Reynard are alive in his anti-authority tendencies, but the journey to link them is winding, and tends to get us turned around a few times—led astray by Robin Goodfellow.
What’s endlessly exciting to me in the search for the “perfect” story is the way in which we as humans—consciously or unconsciously—repeat ourselves. How we come back to theme and variation. How the precise color of a hero’s tunic fires off signals that reach into our oldest fairy stories. How a 20th century animator might unwittingly reunite two medieval figures who weren’t too far from one another in the first place. How we return to one character again and again for a thousand years, iterating and embellishing along the way, because he speaks to something universal. Even as we change, even as he changes, something in his story remains constant and ever-alluring. None of our stories are told in a vacuum, and as we trace the myriad threads that connect them, we learn so much about what connects humanity.
If you enjoyed some of the insights in this blog, check out my sources. Images are Amazon affiliate links, meaning if you buy the item through this link, the podcast will get a small percentage. Thank you for your support!
A companion piece to Episode 92: The Bear and The Maiden Fair, written by Laurel Hostak
Spoilers for Game of Thrones, all seasons
This week on the Midnight Myth Podcast, Derek and I conducted yet another character study from the HBO mega-hit Game of Thrones and George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. This time, we took a seemingly lesser character—Ser Jorah Mormont—and subjected his character arc to the same scrutiny as we’ve previously applied to point-of-view characters like Daenerys and Tyrion.
The key lens for understanding Jorah was an exploration of knighthood—particularly, the historical and literary code of honor known as chivalry. I’d recommend listening to the episode, as we lay out some of the significant tenets of chivalry, as well as its depiction in art and poetry—particularly in the Arthurian legend. Jorah’s relationship to the seemingly impossible standards of the spoils of knighthood makes up much of the tension and tragedy of his character. In this piece, I want to explore some of the other important parallels to the Arthurian legend in general, and to chivalry’s great literary champion, Chretien de Troyes, in particular.
Chretien was a 12th century French poet, known for the creation of the Arthurian romance, which became a standard strain of the legend. For some context, he begins writing his great Arthurian works some time around 1160, about 25 years after Geoffrey of Monmouth writes his Historia Regum Brittanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), a pseudo historical work that gave King Arthur’s story its widespread popularity and many of its most integral elements. Chretien, writing for wealthy patrons in France, introduces some key details as well: namely the quest for the grail, the expanded and exaggerated role of courtly love, and, of course, Lancelot. From our perspective, it’s almost impossible to imagine the Arthurian legend without these fundamentals.
An important motif that shows up in Chretien and subsequently throughout treatments of King Arthur is Le Bel Inconnu or The Fair Unknown. The motif concerns a boy (usually) raised away from court or civilization, and therefore brought up without knowledge of his own noble blood. The boy goes to court and makes an impression, but must prove himself worthy through a series of trials before being accepted by the court. Chretien’s Perceval, Le Conte du Graal represents this trope: Perceval is raised by his mother in the forests of Wales, but longs for adventure and thus sets out to the court of King Arthur. He is oblivious to the fact that he is the son of a worthy knight. Once at court, he surprises everyone by defeating a knight who threatened the King. From here, the poem employs an entrelacement technique to weave Perceval’s adventures with a simultaneous quest by Gawain. After a series of trials, King Arthur asks Perceval to join his court. Both stories were left unfinished in 1191, though many writers have taken up the heavy task of attempting to finish the work.
What’s important to note about this appearance of The Fair Unknown theme is the conclusion that in these stories, nature will always overcome nurture. Brought up far away from the court, Perceval believes himself of common heritage, but the nobility of his bloodline can’t be erased. He has a natural disposition toward adventure, and no amount of sheltering or misinformation will keep him from embarking on heroic quests. The Fair Unknown archetype crystallizes in the story of Guinglain (written c. 1185-1190, right around the same time as Chretien is composing Perceval). Guinglain’s origins are familiar and rustic, but we soon learn he’s actually the son of Gawain, and therefore related to Arthur himself. Relation to Gawain becomes a central pattern to Fair Unknown stories. Guinglain is literally knighted in court under the name Sir Le Bel Inconnu. Sir The Fair Unknown. We’ll later get Wigalois in the 13th century, an adaptation of Guinglain’s narrative that further emphasizes the title knight’s relationship to his newly identified father Gawain. There are even Lancelot and Tristan texts that incorporate the motif into the characters’ origins. In contemporary fantasy, we get a corollary in the character of Harry Potter, as the Boy Who Lived grows up away from (and ignorant of) the Wizarding World in which he’s famous, yet magic manifests naturally through him. Late in the Harry Potter series, we’ll learn that he happens to be descended from an old and noble magical family, the Peverells, who are themselves immortalized in wizard folklore.
Of course, the most famous fair unknown of Arthuriana is Arthur himself. He’s born of the High King Uther Pendragon, disguised as Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall, and his wife, the Lady Igraine. So, technically a bastard, but heir to Uther’s throne nonetheless, though Malory declares him legitimate by Uther’s later marriage to Igraine in his seminal Morte d’Arthur. But he’s not raised by either—Merlin has him fostered by Sir Ector, not revealing the baby’s royal parentage. Yet Arthur pulls the sword from the stone. It’s his destiny to become the legendary king.
So, is this reminding you of anyone?
If you said Jon Snow, you’re either paying attention or you read the title of this post. Well done either way.
Jon Snow grows up in Winterfell, believing himself the bastard son of Lord Eddard Stark and a Southern woman he met on campaign with Robert Baratheon. In a scene between Ned and Robert, we learn that the woman’s name is Wylla, though it’s unclear whether Jon has ever learned her name, and Ned refuses to give up any details on her. In Season Five, Selyse Baratheon dismisses Jon as the son of a prostitute. So, even with the blood of a Stark running through his veins, Jon is perceived as a bastard and nothing more. His last name, Snow, he shares with any bastard born in the North. The name matters.
It’s not until Season Six that a long-running fan theory (see R+L=J) is confirmed, and as we await the premiere of Season Eight this coming Spring, Jon has yet to discover his true lineage and true name: Aegon Targaryen. Seven seasons of character development have unfolded with Jon Snow as an archetypical fair unknown. Circumstances have most certainly slowed down his star, yet it continues to rise as he’s elevated to positions like Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch and, oh, The King in the North, in spite of his name.
What’s the significance of the name reveal? Let’s begin with the name we know our hero by. ‘Jon’ is a fairly common name, with variants in almost every language. In Hebrew and Germanic languages, it means ‘Jehovah has been gracious; has shown favor.' Since the 19th century, the name ‘John Doe’ has been in use by courts and law enforcement when the true name of a man is unknown. The last name ‘Snow’ connotes the cold, white, pristine substance. Fair, like Snow White, whose own story isn’t far from The Fair Unknown in itself. We might as well dub him Sir Le Bel Inconnu, and it would jive nicely with the recurring “You know nothing, Jon Snow” refrain.
Now let’s look at the name Lyanna and Rhaegar intended to bestow on their son. ‘Aegon’ is the name of the conquering king of Westeros, who rode dragons into battle and was the first of his dynasty to sit on the Iron Throne. ‘Targaryen’ is the dynasty, and the house that flies banners illustrated with dragons. Know who else flew dragon banners? Uther Pendragon, whose name translates to ‘Chief-Dragon.’ So in this double-whammy, we can connect Jon Snow to Arthur, son of Uther, and to an inescapable royal destiny. This fair unknown would be king.
Through the naming convention and parallels to the Arthurian legend, Martin and the show’s creators are signaling heavily at the endgame. The Iron Throne is Jon’s destiny, just as the throne of Britain was Arthur’s. Yet Martin rarely makes his conclusions easy, and takes delight in subverting expectations. He takes inspiration from literary sources ancient, medieval, and casts them into the flaming, unpredictable chaos of reality. He throws history into the fighting pits with them. So I’m interested in how Jon Snow subverts his fair unknown predecessors.
“There’s power in you. You resist it, that’s your problem. Embrace it,” Melisandre tells Jon in Season Five. It’s a true insight. Jon is, like Arthur before him, a strong and sensitive leader capable of inspiring people to fight for him. In Westeros, that’s the most valuable kind of power one can wield. Yet Jon is reluctant to accept laud. He’s resistant to power when it’s laid at his feet. This makes him remarkably different from other power players in the game, including his Targaryen relative Daenerys, whose mostly benevolent rise has seen her accumulate and consolidate power. In this way, Jon is embracing ‘Stark-ness’ more than anyone who carries the name.
The decision to join the Night’s Watch, the refusal to take absolute power or to join the war for the throne of Westeros—Jon’s choices stand in direct opposition to the typical fair unknown narrative, and thus break apart its ultimate conclusion. If nature is to overcome nurture, Jon should have ventured to King’s Landing seasons ago, his Targaryen blood boiling. He should have longed for glory. Instead, Jon becomes humbler and more reluctant as his arc bends. He spends the first few seasons traveling further and further North—physically moving away from his throne—and doesn’t venture South of Castle Black until he’s literally killed and resurrected, and his next stop is to defend the Stark family home of Winterfell. His subsequent journey to Dragonstone is only undertaken as a means to defend the North from White Walkers.
A lot can—and will—happen in Season Eight, so there’s no knowing where Jon will go. But there’s an argument to be made that Jon’s ‘Stark-ness’ will keep him off the throne, assuming he survives. Ned hated sitting on it, even as Hand of the King, and it’s likely Jon will never treasure the thought of ruling the Seven Kingdoms. He might make a good king. But he’s got to want it to take it, and right now he’s pledged to a Targaryen who wants it more. In Jon’s case, nurture overcomes nature. His greatest moral model is, and always will be, Ned Stark—a fact he proved when refusing to bend the knee to Cersei. Jon may be a fair unknown, but most likely, he’ll stay unknown. My bet is he won’t reveal his true name in favor of the one that marks him a bastard. Ice and fire are at battle within him, and he’ll choose ice. He’ll choose Snow.
What do you think? Let us know on Twitter.
If you enjoyed some of the insights in this blog, check out my sources. I highly recommend this lecture from The Great Courses, King Arthur: History and Legend, Chretien de Troyes’ Arthurian Romances, and Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. Book images are Amazon affiliate links, meaning if you buy the book or the lecture, the podcast will get a small percentage. Thank you for your support!
Some thoughts, from co-host Laurel Hostak
It's okay to have mixed emotions about the Buffy the Vampire Slayer reboot. Joss Whedon does too. So do I. I'm working through it.
I came to Buffy as a 10-year old kid obsessed with magic and the supernatural, wishing I lived in a world where mystical creatures, witches, and monsters lurked around every corner. My Hogwarts letter was on its way, it was just a little held up in the owl post. Throughout my adolescence, I lived my private magical life alongside Buffy, Willow, Xander, Giles, and the rest of the Scoobies. I looked to them for strength, for the courage to be different, to feel self-love as a young person. Buffy and Willow, in particular, were my heroes. Buffy--the Chosen One, who longed for a normal life and yet carried the weight of the world without punishing others for her pain--taught me responsibility, generosity, and the chutzpah to speak truth to power. Willow--teased and victimized in high school, who built herself up to become the most powerful person on the show--taught me to live without fear of judgment, and to allow myself to feel my feelings fluidly, not dogmatically.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was revolutionary in its treatment of women characters. It's clear from episode one that Buffy is not a scream queen. When faced with danger, she scissor-kicks the big bad and sticks the landing with solid quippage. We're introduced to several powerful women throughout the series: straight shooter Cordelia, witchy Willow, techno-Pagan Jenny Calendar, vengeance demon Anya, Buffy's fellow slayers Kendra and Faith, Tara, Glory, JOYCE... Each representing a different facet of a woman's strength.
A pivotal moment in the series comes during season two, during which Buffy must face off against a vicious foe, Angel. A few episodes prior, Angel was Buffy's boyfriend. A vampire with a soul, in love with the slayer. Buffy lost her virginity to him. In the act, by achieving true happiness, Angel lost the soul with which he'd been cursed. Back to his vampy ways, he goes after everyone Buffy cares about, torturing and killing her friends before coming for her. In the season finale, Becoming, Part Two, the two go tete-a-tete. Angel disarms Buffy and corners her. He taunts her. No friends, no weapons, what does she have left?
Buffy closes her eyes.
She takes a breath.
She taps into some ancient slayer energy, digs deep within for her own strength, and opens her eyes.
"Me," she says.
As a young girl, that moment was life-changing. It still is. Buffy asserts, with no sense of ironic detachment, that she is enough. It's a message more young people could stand to hear.
I think it's important to call out Buffy the Vampire Slayer's relationship to sex, too. In a coming-of-age story, whether fraught with monsters and demons or not, it's vital to address sexual awakening in the characters. And with a powerful woman as the lead character, it was crucial to be extremely intentional with Buffy's sex life. The series didn't always get it totally right. Early episodes weren't terribly sex-positive (I mean, Angel literally lost his soul), but given network restrictions and Puritanical tv audiences, it's pretty remarkable that the show was able to tackle the subject head-on. Not to mention Joyce and Giles' caring responses to Buffy's experience, which could be used in parenting classes. But as we watch Buffy's relationships evolve, we also witness her relationship to sex evolve. She likes it, she gets it when she wants it, and she doesn't get slut-shamed for it. In later seasons, Buffy even explores her changing appetites with Spike, and though her emotional state isn't the healthiest, there's no shame in openly addressing her sexual fantasies. It's later in season 6 that the series confronts sexual assault and trauma honestly.
Buffy was revolutionary, too, in its depiction of queer relationships on screen. The relationship between Willow and Tara was unlike anything that had been done before. A genuine romantic relationship between two women grew naturally over several seasons. We watched two women fall in love, find domestic happiness, fight, reunite, and kiss onscreen. After Tara's death, Willow's relationship with Kennedy gave us the first lesbian sex scene on network television. (Unless you count all of Willow and Tara's steamy spell casting sessions!)
It's been 21 years since the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer aired on the WB. In those two-plus decades, television owes a major debt to the series and the ground it broke. Continuing series like Supernatural and Riverdale are obvious successors in tone and subject matter, but Buffy's influence is felt in any drama or comedy that addresses coming-of-age, power, sex, love, and trauma.
So do we really need a Buffy reboot?
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was, as I’ve said, revolutionary in 97. But as I rattle off the elements of Buffy that changed the game, I find myself frequently qualifying my own arguments. I just finished up another full series rewatch. I've been through it at least a dozen times, but this go-around, I watched with my fiancé and co-host of the Midnight Myth Podcast, Derek. As someone who didn't watch in the 90s, Derek had a surprising amount of criticism for the series I love.
Some of that criticism has to do with production value. Because of course 20 years later the stunts, cheap CGI and early visual effects aren't still going to impress. And the show was known and loved for its campiness, so that’s all forgiveable, if a little cringe-worthy at times. But there are more substantial critiques to be found--
For one, the show seriously lacks racial diversity. The few non-white characters involved are generally second or third tier, and don't last long (a la Kendra). The issue is lampshaded at times, like when Mr. Trick in season three reminds us that it's "Strictly a Caucasian Persuasion here in the 'Dale," but rarely acted upon. It wasn't cool in '97, and it's not cool now. Looking back, it's all well and good to see a white woman fight back at the forces of darkness. Especially in the wake of #MeToo and #TimesUp, that's inspiring. But in 2018, when most of the country is just beginning to wake up to the reality that's plagued POC for generations, the fact that black bodies are abused and devalued, isn't it fucking exciting to imagine a black Buffy? Staking vamps and smashing the patriarchy and demanding a better world and changing the rules?
Derek also held my feet to the fire a little bit about Spike. "How do you feel," he asked, mid-season 7, "watching Buffy go back to her abuser?" I pulled out my excuses about how it's different because Spike has a soul now and it's all complicated by the supernatural mojo and he went to the ends of the earth to achieve this redemption arc and blah blah blah... But here's the deal. It's not that different from reality. Abusers don't typically endure rounds of ritual combat to win back the trust of the abused, but you will hear people like me make stubborn, bullshit excuses for abusers because we don't want to believe the truth. Because they apologized. Because it wasn't that bad. Until we remember that behind the 'importance' of preserving a man's reputation, there's a woman's very real pain. Don’t we expect more from the Buffyverse when it comes to stories of sexual violence? Don’t we deserve more?
Last year, Wonder Woman came out in theaters. It was the first female-led superhero movie in more than a decade, and the first directed by a woman. And it was great. The Amazons training on Themiscyra, Diana's emergence from the trench to take the fire, the sincere assertion of love as the most powerful force. It wasn't the most feminist movie ever made, but it was groundbreaking in 2017, leaving many women in tears at the sheer excitement of seeing Diana onscreen. How is this possible? If shows like Buffy laid the groundwork for women superheroes twenty years ago, why did it take us this long to get a relatively tame Wonder Woman? A Wonder Woman that can’t go beyond mild innuendo in addressing the comic books’ covert lesbian narratives? Why is it so hard for producers (and audiences) to see women's stories, POC’s stories, and queer stories as worth telling?
The work that Buffy the Vampire Slayer did cannot be understated. It will always be my favorite show of all time. Always. I wouldn't be who I am without it, and I know a lot of people who feel the same way. But I can't turn a blind eye to its shortcomings, and though I'll defend the show as progressive for its time, the criticisms stand. We can do better. When I first heard about the reboot, I got upset. Why ruin something so special? Why try to recapture lightning in a bottle? But god, I really don't want to be that guy. The "You ruined my childhood" guy. My childhood is fine. You can't take it away from me. And no television reboot, or Star Wars sequel, or Harry Potter spin-off can change what the originals meant to us. I would love for Hollywood and television producers to greenlight more original content, tell new stories, and give us new perspectives. But I also co-host a podcast that continually illustrates that no story is really new, and that there is tremendous value in revisiting characters, themes, and moments that are meaningful to us. That nostalgia can sometimes act as a springboard to greater innovation. Buffy's story was revolutionary for my generation, and it deserves to be revolutionary for the next. I don't get to claim ownership over that story. Neither does Sarah Michelle Gellar, or Joss Whedon for that matter. Guys, the reboot might actually be AMAZING.
The glimpses we got of slayer lore in the original series showed us that the first slayer was an African woman, chained up by the men of her village and violated by a demon's essence to imbue her with supernatural abilities. And one girl in all the world has lived briefly and died with that same trauma in every generation since. Until Buffy, who changed the rules. She stood up to the men who controlled her and broke those chains. She embraced community, and shared her power with all the girls who chose to help carry it. She forged an intersectional community to fuck up the forces of evil.
It's okay to have mixed emotions about the Buffy reboot.
But don't we need her now more than ever?
This was written in September of 2016. Derek was invited to speak at a lecture series around Battle Star Galactica and these in the first season. He choose to speak about military decision making and the nature of power. It was written before the Presidential Election where Donald Trump defeated Hilary Clinton.
Good evening everyone, my name is Derek Jones and I am excited to be here and talk with you about one of my all time favorite shows, Battle Star Galactica. To begin with, I should probably tell you I have absolutely no professional credentials to justify me being here. I work in IT management, and I do consider myself a life long nerd/geek/dude who likes Sci-Fi and fantasy a little more than any 35 year old man probably should. I have no experience in TV, film, or videography and I don't have a creative bone in my body. What I do have, is a degree in history, one of my great passions in life, and a close friendship with Beth, who invited me here today. I'm going to be talking about BSG season one.
So where to begin? There's a lot of scholarship around season one of BSG. And despite my insufferable lack of credentials, I do think season one of BSG is a masterpiece. It has interwoven astounding special effects into a compelling narrative that touches on themes such as the nature of consciousness, what constitutes political power, sexual and gender identity, attacks of horrific terrorism, war, espionage, and I could go on and on. In so many ways, season one is a mirror into modern American political, social, and judicial life-- that is, if we were all in space ships. Just like the Lords of Kolbol, our current American problems are unlike the vastness of space. We do not live, act, breath, decide, and ultimately die, in a vacuum. As Martin Luther King Jr said, "We are not makers of history. We are made by history."
I'm here to point out and discuss how BSG draws from American history, to which season one gives us many opportunities to explore. In particular, I'm going to draw parallels to the American Revolutionary War. To me, this comparison was obvious. When war broke out in Massachusetts in 1775, the odds were stacked against the rebels. The British Empire was the strongest military force on the planet. The small group of colonial militia needed to band together to survive, least their way of life would be annihilated and the great, albeit imperfect, American experiment would have been over before it began. The comparison is not a perfect metaphor, and it will have rhetorical and argumentative holes. My aim here is not to say that season one and the American Revolution are synonymous. Rather, I hope to inspire people to see that American narratives-- whether they are shows, movies, or political positions-- are intertwined with her history, and that having a rich appreciation of how we were, will tell us volumes of who we are.
Let's get right to it. I'd like to start over two thousand years ago, back in Ancient Rome. Rome was a young Republic, growing into a vast power that was already reshaping the mediterranean. Rome soon found itself at odds with the North African neighbor Carthage. Carthage was home to one of histories most famous generals, Hannibal. Most of us know something about Hannibal, we probably know he's a general, he fought Rome, he liked elephants a lot, wasn't too keen on mountains and crossing them, but got it done somehow. What most of us may not know, is how he was defeated. (You might be asking yourself, how is the pertinent, but stick with me, I promise it will become clear.) Defeating Hannibal came down to one guy, Quintus Fabius Maximus. See, after Hannibal somehow got his elephant riding army over the Alps, the Romans sent a large force to engage and destroy him. Well, turns out fighting an army that has war elephants was a lot harder than the Romans thought, and this force was destroyed, nearly to a man. Rome was in a panic. It had lost nearly all its fighting force to Hannibal, and it seemed that the entirety of Rome was on the eve of it's demise. Imagine if ISIS wasn't off in the middle east, but in Georgia, and they just destroyed America's army and you'll start to understand the fear the Romans where living under. So what do they do? they appoint Quintus Fabius Maximus as the dictator of Rome and give him full sweeping legal and military power to combat the invading Carthaginians at all costs. So what does Fabius do? He musters as many soldiers as quick as possible. He marches to the field of battle and realizes that it would be stupid to attack an army that is riding on elephants. So he just doesn't. He maneuvers around the army, like a long horrific dance. He only allows his army to engage in battle if he is 100% certain he'll win, and never commits his full force. He realizes that time is on his side, not his enemies. Hannibal's elephants were expensive and difficult to maintain. His soldiers also needed food and shelter. The Roman's were on their turf and Fabius realized that if he could just keep his army together long enough, eventually the Romans would train, equip, and muster a superior force. To make a long story short, Carthage does not defeat Rome. Rome wins the war and goes on to become one of the greatest empires of human history. The strategy of exhausting the enemy through attrition and mobility became known as Fabian military tactics.
So I bet your thinking,"Great, thanks for the lesson about Rome, I thought you were talking about BSG and American history?" Well, here comes my comparison. You know who know all about Fabian military tactics? George Washington. I could stand up here all day and talk about George Washington, luckily for you guys, that isn't gonna happen today. To put it simply, he was obsessed with military glory. This was pointed out by one of Washington's biographers, Joseph J Ellis. Letter after letter, war council after war council, Washington wanted to meet the British on the field and with musket, bayonet, gun powder, and cannon ball. Early in the war, Washington makes such a stand in New York City. The year was 1776, the Americans had been at war with the British since fighting broke out in 1775, and the Declaration of Independence had recently been signed. The British sent Lord Howe with a major force of both men and ships to put down the rebellion. Washington had caught the British unprepared at Boston the previous year, forcing the British to retreat. Washington's next maneuver was to dig in at New York City, knowing it's strategic importance. Washington also guessed that the British would want to take it from the rebels. The British fleet sailed up the Hudson river and landed their troops with such ferocity and ease, the rebel forces took flight, causing General Washington to exclaim, "Are these the men with which I am to defend America?"
General Washington envisioned a New York battle where his men would muster under fire and deal such damage to the British that there army would be destroyed, ending the war after only one year of fighting. However, Washington was out manned nearly 2 to 1 and had no navy to speak of. His naïveté lead to several blunders-- blunders that lost lives and nearly destroyed the cause of American freedom. Luckily, narrowly, Washington escaped New York City with a semblance of an army, and the British were to hold New York under their control for the duration of the war. However, Washington had read his history, and he knew the lessons of Qunitus Fabius Maximus. Like Fabius, time was on his side. If he could keep his army together, he would instill a will to keep the fight in the American people and gain the respect of European powers, namely France. Washington, the founder of our country, put aside his selfish visions of grand battle and implemented Fabian military tactics. The war for independence would not be won quickly, nor would the cost of victory be minimal. Five years later, an American and French force gave Washington the victory he so envisioned, and thus our republic was born.
I see this struggle in Commander Adama in season one of BSG. Adama was a relic of a bygone age, a man of war in a time of peace. Instantaneously, he is thrust back into war, as the Cylons unleash a nuclear holocaust in the 12 colonies of Kolbol. In an odd way, Adama is comfortable in this scenario. We hardly see him mourn or lament the loss of 12 planets full of billions of people. Instead, he goes directly into command. And his first, primary, and only objective is to bring the fight to the Cylons. His determination and military make up will not permit submission to the enemy, and he will fight at all costs. Similar to Washington, he envisions a grand battle where either the humans or the Cylons are destroyed. I find this attitude to be very relatable. Like Washington, one doesn't rise to a high rank in military office without some internal identity as a solider. And what makes a solider successful? Bravery, fortitude, discipline, strategy, and ultimately, killing your enemy or die trying. Thankfully for the show, newly appointed President Rosalyn quickly and demonstrably displays the flaw in Adama's quest for glory or death. She is a civilian, with no training, background or knowledge in interstellar combat. However, she is thrust into a position of prominence and importance, only to butt heads with a great military commander. Like Washington, Adama has antipathy for running from the enemy. But, thanks to Rosalyn, he soon realizes that his military objectives have to adapt or he, and the fleet he commands, will die.
So what does Adama do? I would argue, he switches his military strategy away from direct combat with the enemy in favor of Fabian tactics. His job is to outlast the Cylon empire, to keep his fighting force intact, and to only engage the enemy when in the most favorable terms. This strategic shift is essential to the survival of the fleet, which is tantamount to the survival of humanity. And, I hope you don't mind some spoilers, his strategy ultimately proves successful as he leads humanity to the lost 13th colony of Kolbol, Earth.
I'm not sure if the comparison to Washington and Adama is intentional or subconscious. I have no way of knowing if the writers of the show knew about the Battle of New York or Fabian military tactics, or if they knew George Washington was obsessed with a great military victory. I would argue that what's significant is that our history naturally manifests itself into the cultural archetype of what a great military leader should be. In order for us, fans of the show, to view Adama as a great leader and one of the central hero's of the narrative, he has to be Washington-like.
Why does any of this matter? While it may seem like a cool imaginative exercise to argue that Washington and Adama bare a similar personality make up, and military decision quality, it may also seem kind of pointless. This brings me to the theme that is at the center of BSG (at least season one and two) and the American Revolution. The question at hand is, what is power? Where does it come from? Does power manifest form military might, or does it derive from the consent of the governed? This conflict is laid out in season one, as the question who controls the fleet arises. Does Adama outrank Rosalyn or vice versa? Do the articles of colonization, the constitution of the colonial government, even exist after the planets are destroyed? These fundamental questions bare a similarity to some of questions asked by 18th century political philosophers, statesmen, and farmers. Why should 13 colonies submit to a parliamentary monarchy that did not advocate or represents the interests of said colonies? But more importantly, as we look at our history and BSG, it is important to remember that we should be asking the similar questions today. We can not pretend that the fate of the fleet, just like the fate of the American Revolution, was a forgone conclusion. The choice that Adama made, to submit to civilian authority and abandon his quest for military glory, was as significant and impactful to the show as Washington's decisions were in the War for Independence. To put it more simply, it matters who's in charge. It matters who wields power when the chaos and unpredictability of life intercedes into human affairs. As I reflect on the mountain of history books I have read and this wonderful show, I am reminded that we have the honor of choosing who will be the most powerful person in the world for the next four years. The nature of that power, and the person who yields it, can and will shape our planet for years to come. We can ill afford an apathetic attitude to the awesome responsibility we have. I know that at times we may feel like we are adrift in the vacuum of cold space, like the fleet under Adama's control. But as we grapple with the difficult decisions we face going forward, I can't imagine what it would have been like to be Washington or Adama. To face complete and total deduction on a daily basis, and to make mistakes that cost lives, but have perseverance to overcome them and lead people to freedom. Our future is as uncertain as the colonial fleet's was at the end of season one. I do not know about you, but I am excited.
Thank you to Vox Populi for having me, thank you Beth for asking me to come here, and thank you to everyone that came and listened.
Seatbelts, friends, we're talking climate change. If you heard our Jurassic Park episode a few months back, you probably already know that I'm pretty passionate about the issue, and that I look for climate change narratives everywhere. But it's no secret that the human race faces an existential crisis--one much larger and higher stakes than the one I'm grappling with since realizing I actually liked DC's Justice League...
Most audiences and critics don't care for this one. It's sitting at a cringe-worthy 41% on Rotten Tomatoes (hey, that's up 5% from the last time I checked?), and reviews have been pretty painful to read across the board. Full disclosure, I am a Zack Snyder hater. Like, I straight up hate that guy's movies. And I carry such disdain for Batman v Superman that I went into this movie (against my will, mind you) excited to hate it. But I didn't. I thought it was really pretty good. The story was clear and compelling, and I felt the writers were strategic and smart about how they chose to sketch in the new characters so that they fit this big ensemble piece with maximum emotional bang for your buck. But if you didn't feel the way I did, if you threw tomatoes at the screen, good for you--this is not a review, and I respect and validate your experience. I'm just here to point out a few observations that left me in a pretty good place about this movie.
Justice League, against all odds, delivers a rather well-articulated critique of humanity's response to our existential crisis--the threat of a changing climate. As Bruce Wayne so poetically puts it, mankind likes to act like the "doomsday clock has a snooze button." (It's two and a half minutes to midnight, by the way.)
The major rallying threat of Justice League is Steppenwolf, a very tall, ironclad demon (god? demigod? I don't know, put me in my place, DC bros) who's homesick for the hellscape of his origin, and who yearns to turn Earth, and any other pesky world he might encounter, into a blazing inferno. That nightmarish imagery mirrors our own fears about our planet's future, unbearably hot and uninhabitable. Join that with several references to rising sea levels, the existence of "mother boxes" (like Mother Nature, get it?), and constant questioning of techonology's role in human progress, and you've got yourself a man vs nature conflict structure, albeit an allegorical one.
Here in the real world, the President of the United States just withdrew from the historic Paris Agreement--a non-binding, universally agreed upon as not-good-enough-but-at-least-it's-something, global initiative to reduce carbon emissions--to send a message that market deregulation is more important than safeguarding our planet and our future. That today is more important than tomorrow. Here in the real world, we may not be facing alien insects and hellbound titans, but we are facing devastating natural disasters, and we stand on the brink of global disaster if we don't act immediately, and by some measures it may already be too late to undo the damage we've done. What's abundantly clear to climate activists and scientists, though, is that in an era of heightened division and political tribalism, half the battle is in convincing the immovable fossil fuel lobby/religious right/rabble of climate change-deniers to join the fight.
This is where superheroes come in. Yay! Here's a fun thought experiment for those of us who sometimes find ourselves completely paralyzed by the overwhelming anxiety and despair of a superobject like climate change: what would the Justice League do if faced with this problem? (Also, what would the Avengers do? I'm all up for this being the new Marvel vs DC standoff, which team of heroes would be better at saving the earth from itself?!) And that thought experiment is part of what grounds this movie. It's about "getting the band back together" to fight a global disaster--one that closely parallels the one we currently face. Superman is dead, the world is divided, and we can't move forward until we come together. Right now. Over me.
In this experiment, we have to view each Justice League character as an archetype or a certain player in this worldwide game. Let's break it down!
Aquaman! In touch with the ocean and blue collar folk, Arthur Curry makes a surprising splash as the everyday climate change denier. Even though he would literally be the first to know if sea levels rose (or if the water suddenly started boiling, as Bruce suggests), Aquaman insists that wouldn't bother him. He reminds us of the coastal fisherman who, in the face of overwhelming evidence, can maintain skepticism to avoid giving any political ground. And yet we cannot win without Aquaman, or the fisherman. We need the intimate knowledge of aquatic ecosystems and the firsthand experiential data. We need that guy to recognize what's at stake, and get in the game, or we'll drown.
Batman! His superpower is that he's rich. Okay, he's also a master sleuth, but most of Batman's material advantages lie in his access to resources, and Bruce Wayne's advantage lies in his influence over institutions. It's no shocker that the Dark Knight represents the powerful aristocracy that holds so much sway over the body politic. As the head of a major corporation and a noted philanthropist, Bruce has serious capital. He literally buys a bank. And while Bruce shares leadership in this film with Diana, his is the guiding voice that reminds us again and again of our responsibility to our world. Now, this is only a fraction of Batman's appeal, but it's so inspiring to see a rich white power broker pursue nobler aspirations than controlling the fossil fuel industry. Love you Bats.
Flash! Ezra Miller's performance is certainly a standout in Justice League. He provides welcome levity, but also acts as an audience stand-in and brings a lot of heart to Barry Allen. He's a millennial. He's awkward and antisocial, but also charming and vulnerable. He's whipsmart, he's dedicated to vindicating his dad, he watches Rick & Morty, and he's in the market for some human connection. Us millennials are so socially isolated by our snapchats and our hashtags ya know. Barry is also afraid to get in there and fight. Until now the work has been hypothetical and bubble-bound, like so many of our personal crusades. The battles waged on Facebook and Twitter aren't always meaningless, but they're rarely more meaningful than IRL activism. At the very least, social media movements need to transcend the medium and reach outside the screen. Likewise, it's only when Barry bursts his bubble and is introduced to a team of powerful individuals--who elevate his abilities--that he's able to make a significant impact.
Cyborg! Victor Stone is literally a man merged with technology, so it's fairly obvious that he represents the role of science and technology in facing this global threat of climate change. But Justice League introduces an internal conflict early on. Victor struggles with his existence and his place in the universe. He’s supposed to be dead, and his survival is the result of unnatural, unwanted tampering by his scientist father. Victor and Barry refer to themselves as “the accidents” of the group. In the fight to reverse the effects of climate change, technology plays an undeniably important part. Scientists and innovators have dedicated countless hours to researching methods and applications for clean energy and waste reduction. But too many—fossil fuel companies and individuals alike—place starry-eyed hope in the idea of a tech fix, a magic solution just around the corner. In reality, there is no basket to put all our eggs in. Solving this problem will take work. It will take energy from both man and machine. Cyborg epitomizes the marriage of technology and humanity while serving us the inherent tension of that union.
Wonder Woman! My favorite of the Leaguers, Diana takes on a leadership role alongside Bruce in this flick. While dedicated to love and justice, she’s also still in the shadows as a hero. She’s still paralyzed by the pain of losing her loved one, overwhelmed by the task at hand, and reluctant to allow Bruce to bring her out of the darkness. I identify her as the beaten down environmentalist, and I relate to her pretty hard in this context. All my passion and blogging often feel like a scream into the void, and I’m so shut down by the seemingly hopeless situation that it can be difficult and painful to look directly at it.
And then there’s Superman. He’s largely absent (dead) from this film, existing as a memory or a shadow over the characters and their actions. With him gone, we have “a world without hope.” Journalists can’t figure out what to say, rural moms sell their houses, and bigots taunt minorities in the streets with no repercussions. I found him a little harder to pin down in this metaphor, but I’ve settled on pairing him with political leadership, both symbolic and literal. His removal from the world sends the message to the rest of the universe that Earth is undefended from alien attacks—much like Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement signals businesses and foreign governments that our priorities no longer include carbon reduction, aka it’s a free-for-all for pollution and pipelines. And Superman’s return—the return of strong, positive leadership—restores balance and inspires others to keep fighting.
By bringing all of these individuals together, we create a team that has a chance. Each character faces tremendous internal conflict that hinders their ability to face a major challenge, superpowers or not. And in the context of this allegory, I’m more interested in the human side of the characters than their super-side (which I think gives points to the movie for development!) We’re in the same spot with our challenge. Slacktivists can’t fix it alone. Neither can rich white guys or a decent president. But in the final battle, each and every presence is ESSENTIAL. With one cog missing, this machine fails. Maybe that’s our answer too.
We should also look at the significance of the final battle’s location: Chernobyl. The whole of humanity is at stake in this fight, but most urgently, the Justice League is responsible for the lives of a few civilians left in the abandoned nuclear disaster site. We are reminded that those hit first and worst by Steppenwolf’s terror—and by the effects of climate change—are those who contributed least to the causes, and those too vulnerable to defend themselves. Consider the small country of Nauru, an island in the South Pacific that’s been plundered for resources, used as a dumping ground for refugees, and bombed over the generations. WIth a total GDP of only $160 million and no major carbon contributions, Nauru could literally sink in the coming years, turning its 10,000 into desperate climate refugees. An entire country could sink.
It’s because of the Chernobyl detail that I think Justice League advocates for something more than an end to dangerous divisiveness. That’s an important part, of course. Never underestimate the impact of a super simple message like “tribalism isn’t so helpful, come together y’all.” But I think there’s a subtle globalist message hanging out right beneath the rallying cry. Justice League, as I see it, urges us to not only join forces with other sectors, countries, sides, but to work proactively. Pro-activism. To advocate for those who don’t have the resources or political power to do it themselves, even if that means putting our necks on the line for a country that’s not Murica. The fate of humanity just might depend on it.
A companion piece to Episode 35: The Podcast We Deserve, written by Laurel Hostak
As a writer, I am more inspired by place than anything else. The ability to describe the atmosphere of a location, smell the smells, hear the music or simply the bustle of the street, physically experience the climate-- these are the first tools I reach for when crafting a story.
In my personal experience, the place my mind goes first when searching for inspirational locations is Prague, Czech Republic. It was always a dream of mine to visit the motherland, and when I finally made it there, the city was more than I could have imagined. It's the kind of place that sings so powerfully in my heart that I can't help but try to capture it. The city is old and the streets are cobbled. There are monuments from various centuries and architectural movements stacked on top of one another, creating a hodge-podge of history from block to block, rather than a unifying style like Paris' 19th Century limestone buildings. You can feel the layers of myth and legend in the stone bridges, in the gleaming, and in the Gothic and Baroque towers piercing the sky. The city rises and falls along the Vltava. Every hour, it becomes an echo chamber of clattering church bells. For me, Prague is a place of character, spirit and timelessness. It absorbs the stories within its limits, they seep into the stone. It breathes, it comforts, and it frightens. The atmosphere is thick and palpable. That's what I need as a writer--to be surrounded by the story. And that is how other stories do a number on me. That's how Batman does a number on me.
In each expression of the Caped Crusader, his city of Gotham figuratively and literally looms large. The "episodes" is Batman's adventures take place in the shadow of tall buildings, beneath forced perspective that reminds us of our smallness and helplessness. It accentuates the divide between the rich and the poor, the have's and the have not's. It creates the underbelly of corruption and indulgence that oppresses the poor crime-ridden communities as it festers below the decadent upper classes. It's a tale of two cities that echoes the split in Bruce Wayne/Batman's own consciousness. It's Batman's head, inside out.
We owe a great deal of Gotham's lasting aesthetic to Tim Burton's movies as well as the subsequent Batman: The Animated Series, which evolved in continuity with the former. The combination of 1920's and 1930's Art Deco style with film noir visuals and a haunting nod to the gothic (listen to episode 35 for lots more on gothic genre influences on the Batman universe!), reinforces the dichotomies of Gotham's heroes and villains. We are reminded that one can be motivated by justice and good intentions and still feel compelled to achieve those ends by perpetuating a cycle of violence. That it's possible to be a billionaire philanthropist seemingly well-adjusted businessman and still wrestle with personal demons or post-traumatic stress. That the idea of reconciling all of the conflicting impulses that create our day-to-day existences is cumbersome at best.
Batman is one of the best-drawn characters in contemporary culture precisely because every comic, series, or movie wrestles head-on with this duality, with the "two cities" that struggle inside all of us. Even in a universe where all-powerful men can fall to earth and others can resurrect indefinitely by bathing in "Lazarus pits," this treatment of character strikes me as more realistic than most. Batman shows us that the divides between all binaries are blurrier than we like to think. Good and evil, light and dark, strength and fear, justice and revenge. Gotham is instrumental, as an expressionistic landscape, in bringing these themes to the surface.
I start with location as a writer because of how it can express character on a visual and emotional level. Because of how it affects me, even from a simple establishing shot. Every shot of Gotham in all its menace and opulence reminds us that we never know what lurks in the shadows or around the corner. This is true of the Burton world, the animated series, and even of stories like the Dark Knight Returns and the Nolan films, which serve to ground Gotham in more recognizable geography. But it's impossible to imagine these stories taking place in real world New York, or Hoboken, or LA. Even in the handful of time Batman adventures stray from Gotham, we know he brings it with him. To rephrase an old cliche, you can take the Bat out of Gotham, but you can't take Gotham out of Batman.
Batman is always timely and always timeless. His relationship to Gotham, in any iteration, is key to understanding him, because he is both a product and producer of Gotham. He was formed by its decadence and corruption, and he also feeds that decadence and corruption. He is literally, for better or worse, the hero Gotham deserves—and we can identify with that as Americans because we are a product of our own complex national or local histories and we continue to make our future while more ignorant of that than cognizant. The Dark Knight Returns has a huge place in that legacy because in making a darker, grittier Batman for the flashy excesses of the 80s, it grounded much of the action in specific real-world conflict and fear. So contemporary Batman feels personal because it took those cues, and turned Gotham into our world, our world into Gotham.
A companion piece to Episode 20: Dark and Full of Terrors. Written by Laurel Hostak.
This week, on the Midnight Myth Podcast, Derek and I dove into a case study of the one and only Stannis Baratheon from George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series (and the HBO tv show Game of Thrones). You probably heard me call Stannis a POS multiple times-- and I stand by it. He's one of the most irredeemable garbage humans on that show, but he's different from the Joffrey or Ramsay archetype: a petulant sociopathic man-child with a born tendency toward grotesque violence. He's as close to a classic tragic hero as we get in Game of Thrones, with a close second being Jon Snow. We explored this a lot on this week's show, drawing parallels to some of the most immortal characters in tragedy (Agamemnon, Macbeth) and in Western history (Constantine). We compared beats of those narratives, and saw how closely the prince-who-was-promised lines up with those.
But Martin and the GoT showrunners have a lot more going on than aping classic tragedy. So I want to look closer at something Derek said on this episode-- that Game of Thrones often takes us to the place where classic tragedy meets existentialism. Sexy! Let's go!
What is existentialism? Here's the basic definition: a philosophical theory or approach that emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will. We'll get back to that.
I'm primarily going to look at Jean-Paul Sartre, a leading existential thinker of the 20th Century. One of his most prominent ideas was that human beings are "condemned to be free." By this, he implies that there is no creator, no master plan for our existence or predestined outcome for our time on earth. We are responsible for what we do--the noble and the ignoble, the fair and the unjust. Human beings cannot blame outside forces for their existence or their actions. We are "condemned" because there is no heavenly father figure guiding us in the right direction or the wrong. Free will means the onus is on us. All puns intended there. Zing!
From here, we can imply another component of existentialism from Sartre, that "existence precedes essence." It's similar to the above point, but a step further. Essence, in this equation, amounts to meaning or purpose. If a thing's essence precedes its existence, then it was brought into being to serve a distinct purpose. Like someone creating a paper cutter. The creator says "I need a thing to cut paper," and from this essence, the paper cutter is born. Human beings, according to Sartre, are the reverse. Here we are. We exist. And no matter how many religions or philosophies take on the big question of "why?", existentialism will always drive home the futility of this question. We were not formed by a creator out of a desire to serve a purpose on earth. We got here, and now we're on our own in the search for a deeper meaning. Existence is a given, so now what? In some ways, it's a liberating idea, to know that we have the power to shape our own essence, to forge meaning in our own lives. But it's also scary--and that's why Sartre says we're "condemned to be free." Because if you look close enough, you can slip into nihilism. Our existence is meaningless.
So where does tragedy enter the picture? As a genre of drama or storytelling, tragedy has a simple definition: a play dealing with tragic events and having an unhappy ending, especially one concerning the downfall of the main character. Key point: downfall. Aristotelian plot mapping gives us a tragic structure that looks a bit like the outline of a mountain. It goes up, and then it goes down. It follows the path of the tragic hero, who arises to a great height, then tumbles back down in disgrace, usually due to a "tragic flaw," an incredibly specific character weakness that directly leads to their fall. More often than not, this flaw is hubris, which manifests as excessive pride in defiance of the gods in Greek tragedy.
Hubris, I think, is the heart of the genre. All of our famed tragic heroes from Greece to Elizabethan England suffer in some way from a lack of sufficient respect for the power of the gods or the reigning ontology (see my blog post Outrageous Fortune for more!). They frequently subscribe to an overabundance of human pride, sometimes equating themselves with divine figures or believing themselves immune to divine will. Oedipus' downfall is a direct result of his attempt to escape the fate ordained for him by the gods. Macbeth's downfall is a result of his ascent and destruction of the social ladder put in place by god. Agamemnon, in the story we related this week, is struck down for killing a stag sacred to the goddess Artemis. Tragedy becomes an exercise in man's futility in the face of the divine or other cosmic or natural forces. The very nature of tragedy implies the existence of gods or a greater power, the wrath of which is to be avoided. Tragedy is predicated on a belief system that, unlike existentialism, is somewhat shackling. We have no control over our actions or destinies; we live at the mercy of larger forces. And if we have no control, why even continue our search for the essence?
It strikes me as I write this that both sides of this coin seem, at times, to teeter on the edge of nihilism. How classic tragedy and religion seem as much of a scream into the void as Sartre's play No Exit. If you follow each to its furthest conclusion, it's hard not to arrive at "everything is meaningless."
But here, right at the edge of meaninglessness, lies Stannis Baratheon.
Made in the image of Agamemnon and the archetypal tragic hero, is the reluctant man who would be king. Bolstered by a vague prophecy and a priestess of the Lord of Light, Stannis leads an army of supporters of his claim. We watch as Melisandre demands greater and greater sacrifices in the name of the god from whom she receives her power. We watch Stannis take on more and more difficult challenges and pay higher prices in the quest for a title he might never have pursued without the spur of others. Stannis hits every milestone you would expect from a Greek tragedy on his long climb to the top and his swift fall from grace. And yes, there are gods and supernatural forces at attention. But when Stannis, backed into a corner and given a way forward into battle, sacrifices his daughter, Shireen, to Rhllor, divine fortune does little to secure victory. In fact, Rhllor melting the snow and clearing a path to Winterfell is inconsequential. Half of his men up and leave because they've witnessed an atrocious act and can no longer march under morally bereft banners. It's not defiance of the will of god that dooms Stannis, but defiance of the laws of man.
If we had to ascribe a tragic flaw to Stannis, we'd probably land on something more complex than hubris. In fact Stannis is the opposite of tragic heroes whose pride gets the best of them. Even if he's conflicted, he obeys the will of the god who has named him the future king. The problem is that he is a cocktail of moral hypocrisies, with no consistency in his understanding of right and wrong, the greater good or the higher morality. He speaks in moral absolutes that often directly contradict each other, sometimes in the same breath, always serving to justify his actions in the moment. He is existence before essence personified. Make the decision, then look for the meaning--even if that requires some ethical gymnastics, to which Stannis is no stranger.
At times, I think Game of Thrones plays up these dualities and conflicts between tragedy and existentialism to point to another school of thought: Absurdism. This philosophy refers to the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any. As Stannis lies dying, we have to assume he reflects on the actions that led him here, and we have to assume he feels regret. What was it all for? What did he achieve by hurting so many? What meaning has he found in this existence? This has a greater pattern in the show. How many times did you, as a viewer, become attached to a character or a house, only to witness its ultimate destruction? What was the greater purpose of Ned, or Robb, or Oberyn? And did Martin, as we like to jest, simply kill them off to shock or damage us?
As viewers of this universe, we have the unique privilege of observing the many intricacies of Westeros and its characters. We get to zoom out and see the patterns. We watch the ignoble deaths and humiliations. We still search for meaning in the narrative (we're only human), but we've begun to recognize it as a Sisyphean task. We are coming face to face with the fact that there is no cosmic force that governs or steers this ship. That men are messy and make poor decisions and often die before their arc is complete. There isn't always catharsis. Like reality, it's absurd. It's a joke.
In some ways, Game of Thrones is little more than a comedy.
For more on Existentialism, read Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness.
For more on Absurdism, read Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus.
Am I Elite?
I’m a 35 year old college educated white, straight male that lives in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. I think it’s super important for me to start this blog with the social constructions by which I am bound to and identify with. Here are some of the things I do with my time: For starters I work in retail and make a decent lower middle class income with a team I enjoy being around. I live with my girlfriend, who works in the arts, part-time, and supplements her income with a part time retail gig (yes, this is how we met). Our combined household income isn't much but it’s enough for us. Together, we rent a small three bedroom row home in South Philadelphia. Our neighborhood is diverse, made of families, a few druggies, and some people that mostly keep to themselves. We have a kitten and we are about to adopt our second (because let’s face it having one doesn’t cut it). All in all, I have a really nice life that I’ve worked hard for, and I am very much looking forward to the future as I contemplate my next steps in life. Despite having worked hard, I acknowledge that there are millions of Americans working hard, yet can not make ends meet.
I think it’s also super important to say, I’ve fucked up a lot. As a young man, I made sure to rebel against my loving and warm home by being a self-indulgent short sited arrogant ass clown that made a long list of mistakes. The very parents, who I so arrogantly rebelled against, shielded me from doing any permanent harm to myself. I mentioned these mistakes because it highlights my privilege. Being in the mainstream has cushioned my mistakes and given me ample opportunities to course correct and live a nice life. I am conscious of the many people who aren’t me, who don’t get second, third and fourth chances, who sometimes don’t even get a chance. I’ve never been in those shoes, so it would be a lie to say I am truly empathic to their struggle, but I am a good listener and my digital and literal door is always open to good people.
If I am to answer the question, “Am I elite?” I have to examine myself through the prism of the social construct. Like all of us, I am also trapped in the cliche and mundane that defines us. On one hand, I’ve lived a privilege life and yet on the other, I feel so very far removed from the wealthy and powerful.
I recently wrote a blog on my website about Lord of the Rings and tribalism. The blog made me think about the media and the cultural impact of the 2016 presidential election. It think it is safe to say that many really smart people got the election completely wrong. Right up till election day, everyone, and I mean everyone, believed Donald Trump didn’t stand a chance. Even Trump seemed to believe that the polls sealed his defeat as certain as the sun rising from the east and setting in the west. Otherwise, why did he have no transition plans in place? Take a moment and look at the pictures of Trump as his victory was announced. I think those photos encapsulate the way many people felt, dumbstruck. The media coverage post election night 2016 made one thing apparently clear:
Smart people don’t like to be wrong.
In the face of getting the entire election incorrect, media experts, political scientist, professional pollsters, scrambled to explain what went wrong. To examine this, exit polls where being utilized the find who voted for Trump, didn’t vote for Clinton, or simply stayed home. In the wake of this data, people ceased to be people, we become subcategories. America became a product of socioeconomic geographical blah blah blah. Depending on where you lived, how you earned your income, if you went to college or not, your gender, your race, you fit neatly into the baffling puzzle media pundits and social scientists alike were piecing together. That puzzle? “How did Trump get elected?” Hearing myself being lumped into a category got me thinking, am I this category? I do live on the east coast, so I can’t argue against the geography. I have already acknowledge that privilege is part of my successes in life. I have a degree, a massive collection of books I’ve read cover to cover, I go to the theater on a regular basis, I like adventure travel, I’m an atheist, I have a beard and long hair, and oh my god, I am the costal elite!
However, slowing myself down, I thought it would be prudent to discover where this term came from, and how it came to encapsulate the white professional urban class. Good luck finding out who coined the term, because I couldn’t. Scratching the surface of the internet lead to digging deep into forums and websites, hopeful of finding who first used the term “costal elite” and why. While it is hard to find where this term came from, it’s everywhere and it’s an insult. Those who throw this term around with frequency and fervor utilize it in the rhetoric of othering. Rhetorical othering occurs when one person (or a group of persons) utilize language to draw a metaphoric boundary between large populations of people. It involves arguing why there is a “we” and a “them”. For example, any nation that prepares to go to war, has to make a rhetorical argument of othering. The aggressor needs to make a case that their enemy is an “other” one that can only be stopped by killing them. Popes did this during the Crusades, changing the laws of Catholicism to grant spiritual immunity to knights that killed Muslims— making Medieval Muslims the other, whose existence was outside of the commandment “Thou Shall Not Kill”. “Costal elite” is the rhetorical sword that draws the line on the battlefield where on one side is the “real” America, rural, tough, Christian, and proud. On the other side are the elites, agnostics/atheists, New York Times reading (no surprise I read it everyday) latte drinking, Wall Street trading elites, who are out of touch and look down at the “real” America. Trump realized that there was already a line in the sand, and he ratcheted the rhetoric up several notches. He exploited the current debate around a binary America (rural vs urban), and said that he would finally win this battle by breaking the perceived stranglehold costal elites had on American political discourse and media.
Sailing the sea of rhetorical arguments creating a binary America can often feel depressing. If I am this costal elite, I don’t want to be. Like many Philadelphians, I am originally from a small rural town. If someone works with their hands, or in a field, and if they forget to wear sun screen maybe they get a sun burn on the back of their neck, I don’t want to assume, de facto, that they are ignorant and racist. On the same token, if a rural American sees me in Starbucks sipping a mocha reading the New York Times on my MacBook, I don’t want them thinking I’m a snob. And what really is at stake here are two different classes of America, the working and the professional. But why are we at odds to begin with? My latte comes from a complex business infrastructure that involves farmers, truck drivers, and baristas. For my life to function, I need rural America. Surely there are differences between us, but our interconnection and interdependence is real, both economically and culturally. So why all the cultural antipathy? To answer that question, one needs to ask another, more pertinent question: who benefits from our cultural antipathy?
The answer: many people. Rhetorical othering, historical, is not engaged in sincerely. I would argue that Pope Urban II, who called on Western Europe to Crusade against Jerusalem, knew that war was diametrically opposed to Christian theology. He also knew that calling for a crusade would be bloody, costly, and that thousands of Christians— whom God commanded him to protect— would meet their demise. But the prize of adding Jerusalem into his sphere of influence was worth the cost. To justify this battle, he deemed a Holy Crusade, whereby killing a Muslim was not killing at all. It was a holy act praised by God. The common solider who marched from France to Jerusalem and bled on the battlefield needed the rhetorical othering to justify his action. Today, the beneficiary of creating a rhetorical class battle between workers and professionals is a billion dollar business, involving websites, podcasts, books, television, speeches, etc. A small group of powerful people, motivated to enrich themselves, wield the sword of rhetorical othering and line their pockets with cash. Do me a favor, google how much Ann Coulter is worth. Then, google how much Rush Limbaugh is worth. And finally, google how much Rupert Murdoch is worth.
Now, let’s ask, who really is “elite”?
On a Quest For a Tribe: A Companion Piece to Episode 9 and 9B of The Midnight Myth Podcast
What is it about us and tribes?
When I say "us" I mean humans, people, society writ large. According to Merriam-Webster, tribalism is defined by “tribal consciousness and loyalty; especially the exaltation of the tribe over other groups.” In simple terms, any time we think “our team is better than your team” we are engaging in some form of tribalism. Sometimes I wonder if the paradigms of tribalism are inherent in humanity, like a ghost in our genetic make up that whispers, "it's us and them, never forget that." We encounter this in every aspect of our lives. We, humans, siphon off the world and delineate between the collective and the other. I can remember a time when a coworker of a different ethnicity humorously reminded me that I was an outsider to them, despite literally being on the same team. Have you ever been to a major sporting event in a sports town? Ever see a fan of the local sports team booing the rival fan who gloats when his/her team wins? Right or wrong, it is normal and never feels out of place when one reminds another of their tribe. In other words, we all know what tribe we are on at all times, our tribes constitute the partition between what walls "us" and "them" into "we" and "other".
The question around tribalism came to me while doing research for the companion blog to episode 9 and 9B of The Midnight Myth podcast. I was doing some reading about the history of Rohan. In case you aren't familiar with Rohan, it's a major kingdom in JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings saga. The people of Rohan live in the grassy plains between the Shire, home of the Hobbits, and Mordor, home of Sauron, Orcs and pretty much all things evil. If you want to get an appreciation of JRR Tolkien, google the history of something, anything, in his books. The amount of literature, depth, and density to his world is staggering. Every ruler of Rohan, where they came from, what they did, and why they did it, was documented by Tolkien as if it were the genealogy of a real place. The reason for this depth of history makes sense. It brings Rohan and the Rohirrim (which I learned means "people of Rohan") to life. The saga of King Theodan of Rohan is part of a longer saga, in which Theodan is simply the recent installment. Rohan matters because people, albeit imaginary people, lived and died within its borders for thousands of years establishing an identity that is Rohan. The people have long blond hair, fair skin, and have used the grassy fields to master horse ridding. This has made them formidable warriors and a force to be reckoned with in Middle Earth.
While reading this history, I started reflecting about the world and saga of Lord of the Rings. It was clear that Tolkien organized this world into tribes. Different types of races lived in different areas which took on different traits, and all tribes were inherently mistrusting of the other tribes. Dwarves dislike Elves and Elves don't trust Men, and the Men of Gondor look down on the Men of Rohan, and all pretty much don't care or have forgotten about Hobbits. I think Tolkien is telling us something about ourselves when he created a world so divided. It reflected the world he knew, a world in which mechanization and nationalism brought about the largest wars in the history of humanity. In World War I & II, humanity was forced to tear down the partitions between us and unite, only to kill each other in more horrible ways. Fear of destruction united us, however, only to become better at war. In World War II, the Allied and Axis forces were capable of being one, of truly overcoming our tribal nature, to become a bigger, more capable killing tribe.
The choices of the Allied and Axis powers of World War II are mimicked by the main powers of Middle Earth. Faced with the resurgence of Sauron, Mordor looms to be the power of the world. Mordor can only rule Middle Earth if all the other races are destroyed or enslaved. The inhabitants of Middle Earth are faced with the choice, they can tear down their tribal nature and unite to face off against this threat or join the threat and assist in ending the free kingdoms. Sitting out and letting other tribes deal with Mordor is not an option. Every race of Middle Earth is represented, either by sending delegates to decide the fate of the one ring of power or by sending their armies into the fight. The heroes create a Fellowship, a symbol of multi-racial politics working out their cultural antagonism to protect the world from evil. From this symbolic unity, Dwarves can become best friends with Elves, the people of Rohan can come to the aid of the people or Gondor, and Hobbits, the forgotten people, can save the world.
But this unity is not pan-Middle-Earth. It is not a unity of ideals, nor is it a world order based on principle. It is a reflection of-- and part and parcel of-- tribalism. Why is it so easy for Aaragorn, Gimlie, and Legolas to massacre Orcs? More importantly, why is it so easy for the audience to cheer this violence on? The rise of Sauron forces Middle Earth into two tribes, those with Mordor and those against. The Orcs are the manifestation of othering, a race outside the good races, one whose very existence embodies the rise of evil. Consequently, the life of an Orc is worth less than the life of all the heroic races. I am not trying to say that the audience of the Lord of the Rings should be more sympathetic to the Orcs. To the contrary, the Orcs have to be evil for the narrative to work and we must believe them to be. But it is the precise tribal nature implicit in all of us that allows us to view the Orcs as bad. If we were to sympathize with Orcs, the entire structure of the story melts like a ring of power in the under belly of Mount Doom.
Does Lord of the Rings reinforce tribalism? I'm not so certain. I think Tolkien was holding up a mirror and using his vast insight into the human condition to create a counter factual reality. In Tolkien's world, evil is easy to spot, but every bit as difficult to overcome. I think that fellowship, a true break between the behavior that seeks to divide humans, is as difficult in Tolkien's world as it is in our own. It takes extraordinary circumstances for a Dwarf and an Elf to become best friends. But it can happen. For example, look at the civil rights movement in American history. People banded together, despite their tribes and in a time of relative peace, to end laws that discriminated people on the basis of race. Our tribal nature isn't a ghost in our genetic make up. We are not forced to live our lives in constant reminder of who we are at the expense of the other. And if we all overcome our tribal nature, we can keep our own symbolic Mordor at bay.
A companion piece to Episode 8: Destiny's Child. Written by Laurel Hostak.
"Men at some time are masters of their fates./The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/But in ourselves, that we are underlings." Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare
It’s time to play Wheel! O! Fortuna!
If you think that doesn't sound as fun and high stakes as buying a vowel, think again. This week on the Midnight Myth Podcast, Derek and I looked at stories dealing with prophecy, fate, and free will. Starting with the Ancient Greeks and Oedipus, heading through to Shakespeare's Macbeth and concluding with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, we traced the evolution of destiny in storytelling as worldviews changed. We published this episode and blog around the infamous "ides of March," so a spooky feeling about fate and superstition is hanging in the wintry air. But on this blog post I wanted to look a little closer at some of the popular ontological concepts that influence these stories--namely The Rota Fortunae (Wheel of Fortune) and the Great Chain of Being.
Picture a wagon wheel, if you will. (I’ll also throw you a bone with this picture…)
There are countlessdepictions of the Wheel of Fortune, but some themes recur that give us some clarity. Often the Roman goddess Fortuna herself is shown, usually painted blind to illustrate her capriciousness and instability. She is the spinner who may lift up some men whilst catapulting others into despair, seemingly without order or agenda. In these pictures, we also see men, women, and sometimes anthropomorphic beasts caught in the spokes or riding the wheel upward or downward. There is typically a figure poised atop the wheel, in the position of greatest prosperity. This might be a king. And he may look happy now, at the height of his reign, but as we all know, what goes up must come down. The apex of the wheel is full with the potential for sudden decline.
The Rota Fortunae is prevalent in Ancient and Medieval philosophy, always referring to the wicked and unpredictable Fate, who might one day be your ally, and the next might spell your doom, all with the random spin of a wheel. In Ancient thought, Fortune is one with chance. This is the kind of philosophy that governs the universe Oedipus lives in. The nature of tragedy is that fall from grace. A character must, as we explored a few weeks ago, rise to some height and then hit rock bottom. Oedipus, who upon hearing the Oracle’s prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, took pains to subvert his destiny. He made what he thought was a decision to break free from Fortune’s wheel, and in doing so, spun it faster toward its purported ends. What the wheel represents to us is a lack of control over our own lives and destinies, the idea that we cannot claim ownership or responsibility over the way our lives turn out. We are all spokes on an ever-spinning disc that knows no morals, manners, or empathy. Oedipus’ story, as we know, teaches us fear and worship. We must never underestimate the power of the gods, and anyone so proud as to attempt to escape their will only exacerbates his situation.
Fortune and her wheel appear frequently in Medieval and Renaissance art, becoming absorbed, like many traditions, into Christian tradition. Fortuna is a common motif in the Medieval series of dramatic poems Carmina Burana (you’ve heard O, Fortuna from the Orff arrangement in a million movie trailers.) She figures heavily in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, some Arthurian romances including Malory’s Morte D’Arthur and many of the plays of Shakespeare. Henry V, King Lear, Hamlet, and more all curse or plead with Fortune to spin her wheel kindly. But the world in which Shakespeare wrote was governed by an opposing ontology.
In Elizabethan England, individuals subscribed to an idea called The Great Chain of Being, the internal hierarchy of every being in existence. The Great Chain, along with many Christian institutions (like the Eucharist, Corpus Christi, and the Holy Trinity) is based on the idea of correspondences. In the same way that the Ancient medical tradition of balancing the four humors corresponded to the four elements/four seasons/four ages of man, the links in the Great Chain of Being show patterns that interpolate and extrapolate to each other. The chain is pictured below:
At the top is God, then the angels, then demons (who are fallen angels, like Lucifer). Then we see the internal hierarchy of man, and below that is a hierarchy of beasts with lions at the top and serpents at the bottom (they just can’t shake that association with the Garden of Eden, can they?). The lowest links in the chain are plants and minerals, each with their own hierarchies. The determination of one’s place in the chain refers to the ratio of matter and spirit in that creature. So God and the angels are all spirit, no matter. Beasts, plants, and minerals are all matter and no spirit. Man is poised in the precarious position of being both matter and spirit. They are capable of the divine search for knowledge, truth, love, understanding, and reason… and yet they also succumb to fleshly desires, sins like lust, gluttony, and sloth. Man must balance the matter and spirit within himself to remain healthy, and must maintain his position in the hierarchy to avoid disorder in the world.
The preservation of this order in the chain was a useful political and religious tool in Elizabethan England, encouraging peasants and lower aristocrats to remain content with their lot, and in Machiavellian fashion, encouraged rulers to maintain power by any means necessary. After all, a king was ordained by God, and was a mortal stand-in for God in the chain. All links in the chain serve God, and any disorder in the hierarchy of man causes similar disorders in heaven and in the animal kingdom. Thus, it was in one’s best interest to stay in line. When Macbeth and Lady M take the life of Duncan as a guest in their home, they not only commit a mortal sin, they defy the chain, and subsequently, God. Their restless ambition manifests as tremors in the cosmos, and we hear thunder and rain. The night of the murder, we are told that an owl has killed a falcon, and that Duncan’s horses broke free from their stables and went wild—the natural world echoing the disorder and chaos in the chain of man.
When a story lives under the governance of the Great Chain of Being, the impact of a tragic fall is compounded by the introduction of choice. Macbeth’s choices to kill his king, assume the throne, and brutalize women and children, are not excused by the fact that he is in some ways under the influence of the witches’ premonitions. Though Macbeth may think himself guided by Fate, he does terrible things to achieve the prophecy’s ends. By disrupting the order of his world, he sets off a reaction that must, according to the rules set forth, result in his downfall. The microcosm, the little world of Scotland (and of Macbeth’s mind) falls into chaos. The macrocosm, the world of the heavens, crashes and bangs until the destructive agent is removed. We see the same things in Hamlet, King Lear, and the Tempest. Disorder on earth leads to chaos in the mind and in the skies.
It’s funny, when you remove the governing ontology from the Oedipus and Macbeth equation, how similar those two stories are. A good man hears a prophecy, jumps into action, kills a king, becomes king, and falls from grace. But Oedipus doesn’t fit in the world of the Great Chain, and Macbeth, I’d argue, could never just be a spoke in the Wheel of Fortune. It’s a fascinating meditation on the nature of tragedy, and the distinctiveness of the two characters. One remains pure in the face of terror and despair, and one succumbs to mortal sin and greed with the smallest encouragement. Macbeth’s is a tragedy of his own making, rather than the random and natural turn of events.
Yet we might say that Oedipus and Macbeth commit the same sin—the defiance of the will of the higher power. Oedipus attempts to escape the prophecy of the oracle of Apollo. Macbeth slays the stand-in for God on earth and throws the chain into disorder. Men are unmade, as tragic characters often are, by pride. By thinking they can outrun the gods.
There's so much more I could say (and has been said) about these two stories and the metaphysics that govern them. But I’ll leave you with a little Easter Egg I can’t get enough of:
Upon arriving at Thebes, Oedipus discovered that the city was held at the mercy of the Sphinx, and only one who could answer its riddle would set the place free. The riddle: "What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening?" Oedipus famously answered “man, who crawls in infancy, walks upright in his youth, and carries a walking stick in old age.” Those ages of man, I think, are masterfully illustrated in the cycle of Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear (and sometimes the Tempest), but that’s another story for another day. This beautifully simple riddle, concerned with the natural order and progression of life, illustrates a sort of bird’s eye view, a broad understanding. A pattern you could only recognize by looking down from on high. Any man who could answer with this perspective must have a similar vantage point…
The Wheel of Fortune, an enduring symbol, shows up again as the tenth trump card in most tarot decks. Here is a picture of how it’s drawn:
The creature at the top? A sphinx.