How well the mythic backdrop of a fictional setting is handled can make the difference between producing a completely transitory and forgettable cultural product and something that’s transcendent and moving. Unarguably for fantasy fiction, but even in the realm of science fiction and alt-history stories, the metaphysical framework that obtains is pivotal and therefore essential to think through ahead of time to avoid creating an epistemological cartoon.
From The Force to The Weave, the treatment of the ineffable in non-mundane fictional settings adds a nitrous boost to a tale, giving it spritz of special sauce that settings devoid of a any gripping ontological framework just don’t have.
It seems to me that the demands of commerce have created a genre of pulp fantasy and sci-fi novels based on popular films or roleplaying game settings that seem to make no effort whatever to grapple with anything deeper than a cartoon adventure story.
Even Robert E Howard’s Conan was making a proto-Nietzschean statement with his scolding of rough and uncaring northern war gods. I’m not sure what sort of statement Drizzt is making.
I place the blame on the pervasiveness of ultra-materialism amongst the secular public on cultural forces at work at the base level of the ‘consumer’. The uncompromising and largely humorless atheism of the Dawkins/Hitchens variety is the default reality tunnel for most educated white collar types and their progeny who consume this kind of nerdy fiction most ardently. Sure there’s a sizeable contingent of ostensibly educated people who adhere to things like christianity, but they’re generally downright hostile to the themes and tropes of fantasy and science fiction which respectively evoke pre and post-christian eras. They’ve got their own sections at the chain bookshops and Amazon.com.
Most any time I try to strike up a discussion about magick, teleology, psychedelic memes and myth-time with fellow fans of fantasy, I’m greeted with blank stares. Well, you’re not actually supposed to believe in any of this stuff. It’s just a comic book story.
Jack Kirby made up comic book stories too. And they are packed to overflowing with primal meta-myths, symbolism that would impress Jung and oblique mystery school metaphorical madness. Pearls before swine? Wouldn’t be the first time. The Odyssey is arguably one of the first sword and sorcery epics. Neolithic Natufian shaman, Egyptians and the Sumerians did the kitchen prep. But the Greeks really did the cooking. The Odyssey is full of esotericism. But it also lies at the crucial delineation between ages that Homer takes pains to point out. Cleverness and guile are tools Odysseus employs without compunction in contradistinction to Achilles or Herakles who go mano-a-mano with a foe.
So as westerners are we compelled to keep circling this mythic event horizon in an endless OCD re-iteration of that moment when simply grappling with the bear as a means to overcome and absorb the animal’s essence gives way to ‘let’s set a trap for it and have a rock drop on its head while we’re over there across the valley’?
It’s not like myth is not well understood in the west. And it’s not like we don’t have a hoary tradition of esotericism, occult practice and arcane conspiracies. But the invention of totalitarian Christianity lashed together with neoplatonist doctrine as a state cult to shore up the stumbling Roman Empire also opened the door wide to a world view that only matter existed. To the point where they had to invent dark matter to make their fishy formulae work out right.
And what’s this doing in terms of shaping the mythos of the 21st century? Thinking about a good current example that crosses the science fiction/fantasy genre threshold, The Force is a good case study.
In the summer of 1977, The Force was about as real as anything. Everyone wanted to appropriate it. Analysis past and present routinely sites Joseph Campbell’s work and various strains of eastern mysticism (Dao, anyone?) as the main influences on The Force as a mythic construct. The way Obi Wan and Darth Vader speak of it, not to mention those around them commenting on it are in terms of reverence, awe and the reactionary fear of the skepdick whose reductionism is being challenged.
Good work, George Lucas? Not so fast.
Here’s the key quote from the Wikipedia article:
One of the audio sources Lipsett sampled for 21-87 was a conversation between artificial intelligence pioneer Warren S. McCulloch and Roman Kroitor, a cinematographer who went on to develop IMAX. In the face of McCulloch’s arguments that living beings are nothing but highly complex machines, Kroitor insists that there is something more: “Many people feel that in the contemplation of nature and in communication with other living things, they become aware of some kind of force, or something, behind this apparent mask which we see in front of us, and they call it God.” When asked if this was the source of “the Force,” Lucas confirms that his use of the term in Star Wars was “an echo of that phrase in 21-87.” The idea behind it, however, was universal: “Similar phrases have been used extensively by many different people for the last 13,000 years to describe the ‘life force,'” he says.
So then, after a long period of it being sufficient to think of “The Force” as a Mystery along the lines of Mithraic mysteries, or the Egyptian mysteries – a pivotal and unknowable essence, the second batch of Star Wars films now wholly under George Lucas’ control quickly introduced what was for me the ultimate fanboy buzzkill: The “midi-chlorians” an intelligent microorganism that either gave people the force or not. Note I’m not using upper case anymore.
It’s no surprise that just at this historical moment, Cartesian reductionism (the need to explain and categorize everything because reality is just a mechanism after all) began to assert itself in an understandable reaction to the belligerent intervention of theist Christian fundamentalists in social affairs in the United States in particular.
It’s hard to argue with the need for a strong countervailing force in the face of a corporate funded (research where the Campus Crusade For Christ came from- just as one example) totalitarian ideology seeking to overturn a century of popular struggle for civil rights of all sorts and replace it with a world of calvinist toil under the stern rule of Wealth Creators.
Educated, reasonable people have good reason to fear irrational bullshit lately, fair to say. But let’s not do that baby/bathwater thing. There are a lot of known unknowns out there and picking them up and enjoying the way the light plays off the crystalline structure of the weird, the mythic, the poetic isn’t going to a priori turn you into a simpering submissive Jeezo-Groveller. I always get the impression that when I bring these topics up in roleplaying settings that people mistake my interest in Ayahuasca trips, Faerie and the Hollow Earth theory with an uncritical belief in every off the wall notion that stems from these and other esoteric subjects. I’m with Robert Anton Wilson in maintaining that a humorous and light hearted skepticism – especially of every lie I’ve written here – is better than skepticism as substitute for religion- that is an excuse to stop thinking and follow rituals laid down by others.
So lighten up ye secular gentlefolk. If you are so reality based, why are you reading about and playing the roles of orcs, dragons and klingons? Fair stories had a meaning. And you don’t need to believe in space brothers, elves or unseen magical energy fields to grok the meaning.