Allegory: C.S. Lewis and Gun Kata

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen Equilibrium with Christian Bale, you might want to watch that before reading this.

I’m not a big fan of allegory. I see the point of it as a teaching tool, but as a storytelling device, I think it fails, and here’s why. In allegory, the point of the story isn’t necessarily the story itself, but the meaning that is behind the story. I realize that there are themes in everything; you can’t get away from them. Unfortunately, allegory goes beyond themes, because it requires that everything, or almost everything, has a thematic analogue. Take The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for example. Aslan is Jesus Christ. The gifts of Father Christmas are the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Edmund Pevensie is both Judas Iscariot and the proxy for the grace of God. I could go through the entire book and describe how it’s the Christian Gospel story retold. The Magician’s Nephew is about creation, even including a Garden of Eden scene. The Last Battle is essentially The Book of Revelation.

It's a beloved children's book, so I'm not going to rag on Narnia too much.

It’s a beloved children’s book, so I’m not going to rag on Narnia too much.

But that’s all fine, because C.S. Lewis was writing both for children in those books and to spread the Christian message. He was an unabashed apologist, especially if you look at the rest of his writing. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is an even more obvious allegory, with the names being blatant descriptions of what they were supposed to be.

Allegory is great for devotional books, but for a storytelling and world building device, not so much. When you make a story an allegory, you’re not making a world of your own, you’re taking another world, even if it’s this world, and putting it into yours. If you’re honest about it being allegory, that’s fine, but at least be honest about it.

Notice how they look like scary-but-badass agents, all decked out in black?

Notice how they look like scary-but-badass agents, all decked out in black?

In the Kurt Wimmer movie Equilibrium, we’re treated to a flashy albeit logically impossible martial art called Gun Kata, where the users are able to predict and dodge bullets by using a set of exact movements, and they just have to remain standing still. In itself, that would serve for a nice two hours or so where I don’t have to think and just watch the fight scenes. The problem with it is that it also uses a dystopian environment as a direct allegory of the filmmaker’s apparent view that religion is evil.

Oh, look! He's wearing white. He must be a good guy now!

Oh, look! He’s wearing white. He must be a good guy now!

In the first scene, John Preston, played by Christian Bale, and his partner Errol Partridge, played by Sean Bean, confiscate books and artwork, simply because those cause emotion. You see, in the world of the movie, emotions are banned and suppressed with a drug called Prozium. A problem occurs when Preston finds Partridge reading a book of poem and legally executes him…because the sentence for emotion is death. This starts a chain of events where Preston starts questioning the law against emotion and rebelling against the totalitarian regime.

Now, where’s the allegory in that? You see, Preston is a cleric. In the movie, that means he’s trained in Gun Kata and able to dodge bullets (without superpowers, mind) and use the gun as the perfect weapon. If he was just a I’d have no problem, but he’s essentially a priest, and the law enforcement agency is the Grammaton Clerics, who are governed by the Tetragrammaton Council. Now, if you didn’t know, Tetragrammaton is from the Greek for “four letters” and is another name for the Judeo-Christian God, based the unpronounceable name of God, YHWH.

There’s at least one point where Preston does some fancy hand movements that mimic the letters in a scene just before going into a fight.
The rest of the movie pretty much hammers home the message. The execution is reminiscent of medieval robes and done by fire. Everything artistic, literary, and musical is banned. There’s even a Big Brother character known as “The Father” who is later revealed to have died years before. Now, if that’s not a stand-in for Nietzsche idea of “God is dead”, then I must be thinking of another Nietzsche. The message is basically slammed in your face, with absolutely no subtlety to it. If it had been more subtle, the message might have been more effective, but the scene where Preston is killing other clerics because the gun-priests want to kill a puppy was just silly.

Even in a good allegory, the message should line up with reality, and although the movie was definitely anti-religion, the points it was making just don’t add up. If Kurt Wimmer had wanted to say that religion removes individuality, which is apparently what he was going for, then there were more subtle ways to do it than saying religion removes emotion. Also, insinuating that priests were puppy-killers who shoot their friends in the face was a bit much too.

Basically, the problem I see with allegory, especially with how Wimmer handled it in Equilibrium, is that it hurts the final product if it’s too obvious. Equilibrium could have been a popcorn movie about a Big Brother regime that removes individuality and focuses on illogical but supremely fun to watch martial arts. If the allegory had been toned down or made more oblique, then I probably wouldn’t have noticed it and thought, “Hey, that was a fun movie.” As it was, the obvious shout-outs to the intended theme was a little jarring.
If you’re going to try to put a message in your book, movie, or other sort of media, do try to make it a little less obvious and jarring. Let your audience focus on the story rather than the message.

I’ll talk about allegory, themes, and messages in stories in later posts, but what books or movies do you think had allegorical themes that were a bit too obvious?

(Correction: A previous version of this post stated “There are a few times when the seal of the Tetragrammaton Clerics actually shows the letters YHWH.” This is based on a faulty memory of the movie. Sorry about that.)

Gods and Heroes: How Myths Tell What We Value

Zeus, king of the Olympians and god of the sky. The ancient Greeks are now known to have painted the statues in bright colors.  He wouldn't have looked this...marbled.

Zeus, king of the Olympians and god of the sky. The ancient Greeks are now known to have painted the statues in bright colors. He wouldn’t have looked this…marbled.

When we look at mythology, we often see stories that are either interesting or make us do a double-take because they’re so freaking weird, at least to us.  When people hear the stories about Zeus and how he seduced a bunch of women by taking different forms, including a shower of gold and a swan (yes, a swan), we can sometimes just scratch our heads and wonder if the Greeks were toasting to Dionysus a bit too much. At the same time, we can also see what they were thinking simply by looking at the stories that we now call mythology.

What the sexual exploits of Zeus and the other Olympians reveal most is their view of heroes as divine. People were created by the gods, and so the greater people, who would automatically be our people, would actually have divine heritage. After all, people with divine heritage have a right to enslave people who aren’t divine, right? Yes, the Greeks had a lot of slaves, even the noble, democratic Athenians. The point is that many believed that, in order to have the right of rule, they had to have divine heritage, so their original king or patriarchal founder had to have a divine father, usually the king of the gods, Zeus.

The incident with the shower of gold was how Perseus was born. King Acrisius of Argos had received a prophecy that his grandson would kill him. To prevent it, Acrisius locked his daughter Danae in a tower, so she could never have a child. After all, if she was in a tower, she couldn’t get with anyone. Because he was such a horny beast, Zeus entered the room in a shower of gold and…well, Perseus was born nine months later. With the prophecy hanging over his head, Acrisius locked them both in a coffin and put them in the ocean. To make a long story short, they both survived and Perseus grew up to kill Medusa and kill a sea monster to save the princess Andromeda and her entire kingdom.

Oh, and Perseus then kills Acrisius with a discus by accident while competing in some games. By accident. Yeah, you can’t escape fate.

Myth is the story that holds the truth;That’s really what the shower of gold incident is about. It’s not about Zeus loving the freaky (which he does), but about how you can’t outwit fate. The fact that the main part of the story is a hero who ultimately becomes the founder of an entire people means that, to the Greeks, he must have a divine father, and so the strangeness of his birth is really all a part of that.

When reading myths, we need to consider what they’re really trying to say. They’re not just simple stories for children, and many are most certainly not for children. In his most famous work The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell outlined the Monomyth that supposedly works through all myth. It has some merit, but not every religion or mythos stacks up to Campbell’s work. Another mythologist is Sir James George Frazer, who wrote The Golden Bough in 1890. Both men attempted to bring all the mythologies of the world under one primary mythos, but it simply doesn’t work.

Different cultures value different things, and so different mythologies will invariably reveal different values.  We’re all human, yes, but we all have different ideas, dreams, and  goals. The story I tell cannot be the same story that you tell, simply because we have different spins on life, different points of view. Even if you have two cultures that value honor, family, and respect, they’re going to interpret those values in different ways.

Two cultures have thunder gods. One of these is the king of the gods, and he wields his lightning to rain down torment on the heads of his enemies, regularly sending them to horrible fates in the underworld should they offend him all while fathering heroes and kings. The second of the thunder gods is a protector of mankind. He has a notorious appetite, able to devour an entire cow on his own, and yet he is also a god of fertile lands, as thunder brings rain. These two gods are Zeus and Thor, and the differences show how thunder and lightning are viewed according to the two cultures, as well as how they view their gods. The Olympians don’t really care about humans, not as a whole, at least. On the other hand, the Aesir and Vanir, the gods of the Norse, are the protectors of Midgard, hemming it in with mountains to protect it from Nifleheim, Muspelheim, and Jotunheim.

Apply these myths to a fictional world, and we can reveal what the cultures we make value  by the gods they worship. Apply them today, and we can see how people tend to be the same way.

If I worship a god who is harsh, unforgiving, and openly willing to torment people for the slightest of infractions, I would most likely show those same characteristics, or I might even worship that god because I’m already like that. On the other hand, if I worship a god who is forgiving, loving, and willing to teach people, then those are the characteristics I would show. A monotheist would most likely believe that there is only one truth as epitomized by their god. A polytheist might believe that there are many ways of looking at the world, as there are many gods with many domains and personalities. The second is how I see the world.

When we’re making myths, whether in a story or an actual religion, we need to be mindful of what values we’re telling, because myth is more than just stories, and it is definitely more than lies. Myth is the story that holds the truth; deeper than allegory, it contains a truth that can only be witnessed within the fiction.

Oh, and about the Zeus-becomes-swan incident…Leda was the mother of Helen of Troy, Clytemnestra (who later murdered her husband Agamemnon), and the divine twins Castor and Pollux (we know them today as the constellation Gemini). Zeus approached her as a swan, and she ended up having four children later that year…by laying eggs.

Okay, so sometimes, the myths are just freaking strange.

New Year, New Start

It’s been just over four months since I’ve posted last, and I’m here to fix that. Before, I was talking about all sorts of different general world building topics, and that was great. I still want to do that, but I need to start over. Four months is a long time to be away from the internet and social media. After four months, I may as well have been a slumbering giant hidden away in the deep hills for centuries. That’s how fast the internet moves.

The main reason I’ve been away is that I’ve been dealing with a lot of personal issues, mostly health related. You see, I have some mental health problems. I’m not diagnosed, but I’m dead certain that I’m bipolar. I can write 10,000 words in a single day and then be so depressed I want to scream for the next week. I can do a thousand or two thousand words steady for three to four months and then crash into a major depressive episode as soon as I’m about to finish the first draft. It makes being steady, stable, and generally functional quite difficult. Writing has always been the way that I am the most stable with this problem, but it’s hard to keep up when the bipolar switches, as I call it when my mood suddenly changes, can happen on the flip of a dime multiple times a day.

Why am I bringing this up in a public setting on a blog about world building? Simple. It’s my blog. It’s my writing, my world building, and my work. Just as when you create your world and write your stories, the issues that you face will go into that. The fears, desires, hopes, and dreams will go into your writing. In a way, my elves are actually inspired by my manic episodes. When I’m manic, I don’t want to sleep. I hate the idea of sleep. I wish to high heaven that I didn’t have to sleep. So I made my elves not have to sleep more than once every five days. I also have so many things that I want to do with my life, so many grand goals that I feel I can’t accomplish in the time allotted to us humans, so I made them live hundreds of years.

Yes, my elves were inspired by my manic fits, and so my own mental health issues, my own problems that keep me from working have been worked into my writing and world building. I realized, though, that my elves were becoming too much of a wish-fulfillment race. They were too perfect, so I gave them the heritage of being descended from gods who are so dark and brutal that they can also be consider demons. There’s more to the dark, brutal heritage of my elves, but I don’t want to spoil Wrath of the Fallen, the novel I’m planning to publish before long.

Essentially, I am going to be coming back, but things are going to be a bit different around here. I won’t just be talking about general world building, but rather about the myth making that goes into it. Culture, art, and society are all founded on shared beliefs, whether they’re moral beliefs, worldview ideas of how the world itself works, or ritual as seen in holidays or religious rites. So, I know I don’t have much to say right now, but here I am.