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.)

Advertisements

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.

The Importance of a Foundation for Your Fictional World

Okay, I’m going to go on a rant here. I’ve been away for a while, and something’s happened that’s really ticked me off. Before I start, I just want to say there’s only one person who’s the target of this rant: Tom Austin. Now, you may have no idea who he is, but it doesn’t matter, because I’m going to tell you.

I’m ranting about myself.

My wife is a big help. We talk about my stories and the world I’m making, and she’s offered some really great ideas. There are entire plotlines that wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for her. At least half of the world of Yma has come not just from bouncing ideas off of her, but getting more in return.

Last night, we got to talking about the draft I’ve finished, and she brought up some confusion she had about the world. It was a fair thing to have happen, because, now that I’ve talk to her about it, I realize that I wasn’t clear about what the world was.

I’m writing a blog about world building where one of the first rules is making sure it’s cohesive, and you know what I do?

Break that rule.

See? It can happen to anyone!

You see, I had a lot of ideas about what I wanted the world to be, but I couldn’t quite decide which ideas to run with. Now that it’s actually been a few years since I first conceived of the world, I can’t even remember what the initial inspirations were, and that’s partially because I made it such a clusterfluff that there ended up being a bunch of nonsensical nonsense that made no sense.

When you’re forging a universe, especially it’s really a multiverse, make dead sure that you have a single foundation to work with. If you have just one universe, then make sure that the races you have, if you have more than one, make sense and work together in their origins and natures. If you have two universes that can interact, make sure that you start with the nature of the connection. Are they parallel universes? Is one higher than the other? Did one come from the other? Were they created by the same deities/interdimensional aliens/spaghetti monsters? What is the foundation?

Pick one.

Don’t just take creation myths from different mythologies and try to shove everything into the same bird. I mean, I’ve heard that Turducken is tasty, but including Nordic, Greek, and Japanese creation myths all in the same world would be like mixing pork, lamb, and tofu, and shoving them all in a pie. Sure, they’re all great on their own, but only one should be used in lieu of the others.

Fortunately, I didn’t go that far in screwing up my world, but I did make it rather nonsensical. Something else to consider is that, if you have to use an analogy to describe the metaphysical nature of your world, use one analogy. This is where I went wrong. I had two separate analogies that each showed the multiverse in conflicting ways, and yet I insisted that they both worked together. If you need to have studied the ancient philosophers to understand the cosmology of a fantasy novel, the fantasy novel is too complicated.CartogQuotePhilosophers

That said, I don’t need to throw out my entire story or my entire world. That would be going too far. I do however, need to rework it. Instead of viewing it like a bread that’s been burned so badly it can’t be eaten, think of a broken fantasy world as being more like a motorcycle that’s been broken. Sure, there are parts that need to be replaced, maybe even be remade in a chop shop, but it can be fixed. It may not be like it was when it was started, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be better. Just don’t go adding a bunch of extraneous things on it.

When you’re making your world, pick a theme and go with it. Work with it. Build off it, but make sure that, if you include other themes in the story as well, that they work with the main. If the point is to make a clusterfluff and get your readers to wonder what the heck you were on when you were writing it, then go with it, but only make sure that the mind screw you make is intentional.

I’m certain that’s why I’ve had so much trouble writing, and so much trouble working on the blog, because my own world was an unintentional mind screw. Sure, I understood it, but just because a crazy man understands his insane world, that doesn’t mean he’s not insane.

Dragons: From Primordial Chaos to Fantasy Cliché

Okay, before you rage quit or try to punch me through the internet, I’m not saying that dragons are cliché. I’m saying that they can be cliché. After all, anything can be cliché if it’s done improperly. The thing about dragons is that there are so many different ways to include them in a story, a game, or a fictional science manual. Yes, I said a fictional science manual; I’ll get to that later.

The characters Bowen and Draco from the 1996 film "Dragonheart"

The characters Bowen and Draco from the 1996 film “Dragonheart”

Let’s start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to…never mind. The beginning, as in Creation. In the creation story of the Babylonians, the primordial dragon Tiamat represents the salt water, while her husband Apsu represents the fresh water. When Apsu is killed by the gods, who are led by Marduk, Tiamat is understandably ticked off. She responds, of course, by trying to kill the gods, and therefore everything in the universe that is not her. You see, as the salt water, thereby being the ocean, Tiamat represents chaos incarnate. When Marduk kills her, he forms the world out of her corpse (a fairly common trope in creation myths). Meanwhile, all the demons, evil spirits, and monsters are born out of her. So, by that, Tiamat is chaos, the formation of the earth, but the mother of all dragons. Daenerys Targaryen, eat your heart out.

Continue reading

Humans: The Original Fantasy Race

Harry Dresden

Paul Blackthorne as Harry Dresden, a human wizard from Jim Butcher’s “The Dresden Files”

Okay, you’re probably thinking, “Wait, what? Humans aren’t a fantasy race! That’s, like, elves, and dwarves, and dragons, and stuff.”

Yes, but, if you think about it, humans really are a fantasy race. After all, how many fantasy novels have you read that haven’t had humans? Okay, that’s not really the best answer, but seriously, the humans in fantasy stories are often fairly unlike the humans in the real world, and if you consider the genre of science fiction, it’s sometimes even more apparent. Take the world of Harry Potter, for example. You essentially have two races, or rather, two sub-races. You have wizards and witches, who are born with the ability to work magic, so much so that they need to learn how to control it or else be a danger, and you have Muggles, who have so little magical ability that they may as well not even try.

As far as Harry Potter witchcraft goes, we’re all Muggles. We can’t wave wands and say words that send another person flying through the air, or turn teacups into toads. The wizards of the world J.K. Rowling created are a different breed of human, with a genetic difference that makes them…something else.

In Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth, it’s even more apparent. The Numenoreans are considered one of the races of Man, that is, humans, but they live more than two centuries on average. Really, they’re descended from both elves and humans, and so they’re a sort of half-elf with a human heritage. The point is that they’re considered to be human, and yet they’re different from humans.

Here’s an example from science fiction. On Doctor Who, the characters often go into the future, so far into the future that humans aren’t really humans anymore. They evolve, change, and become something else. Likewise, on Enterprise, the prequel series to the Star Trek franchise, the character of Daniels is asked, “Are you human?” His response? “More or less.”

Yes, even Voldemort is human. No, really!

Yes, even Voldemort is human. No, really!

Why do we even use humans in these stories? For science fiction and contemporary fiction, it makes sense, because we’re writing about our world, this world, where we already know humans to exist. When we write about other planets, or other universes, why would there be humans? I think it’s because we need someone to relate to. That’s why portal fiction, which involves a character from our world entering another world, exists. The other world may not have humans, but the human character is someone we can understand.

If you’re not writing portal fiction, though, but writing about a world separate and apart, why use humans? Like I said, someone we can understand. We know human psychology, more or less, and we know human physiology. We have a basis to work from in describing and comprehending the world of the story.

That said, I still hold that humans can be considered a fantasy race. In a fantasy story, we can make them whatever we want, change the entire species according to our whims like some cold, capricious god of literary madness. If you change them too much, of course, then they won’t be humans anymore, but suppose you want to give everyone some kind of magical ability. It shouldn’t be too hard to justify it.

It can also be tied in with the creation myth. In my world of the Three Realms, humans are descended from the Ancient Race, an original race of people created by Ilahar for the middle realm of Yma. When the lesser gods rebelled, they took many of the Ancients and corrupted them, turning them into other races, including elves and orcs. Some of the Ancients fled, however, and went deep underground, eventually being changed by proximity to arcane forces deep within the planet. They shrank in size, lost almost all magical ability, and became so short-lived that they could barely even reach a century. In short, they became humans.

That’s just one example that you could use. Perhaps you have a plant-god who grew the world out of the primordial soil, and humans were the sprouts that grew from it, giving them a deep connection to the ground. Perhaps you have a pair of warring gods who slew each other, and humans rose from the blood that spilled onto the ground, and so you have a warlike world where the natural inclination of humanity is to kill and destroy. (Shocking, right?)

World myths are full of the creation of Man, and each one shows how they view humanity and the world around them. What are your humans like, and where do they come from?

Orcs: The Irredeemable Race?

Most of the magical races found in fantasy literature have been around in some form or another for thousands of years. Both elves and dwarves stretch back to pre-Christian Northern Europe, found in the lósalfar and svartalfar of the Nordic mythos. There is another race, however, that has become as much as staple of fantasy literature as elves and dwarves: orcs.

Although the term “orc” was first applied to the evil, corrupted race invented by J.R.R. Tolkien, they were based on goblins, which date back almost as far as the svartalfar that would eventually morph into dwarves. A medieval concept, the word “goblin” means “demon.” It shares an etymology with a similar being known as a kobold and with the metal cobalt. Cobalt was known as a demon metal because alchemists thought it was useless. As a corrupted, evil race, however, goblins and orcs became what they are today primarily thanks to Tolkien’s stories.

Now, I have to admit something; the idea of an entire fully evil race make me uncomfortable. It’s how many governments portray their very human enemies to make it okay to kill them. I realize that orcs aren’t human, but even if they are entirely evil, it’s kind of lazy writing to leave it at that. Why are they all evil? Why are there no redeeming features? What are they anyway? Is there even any individuality? Here are the ways that different authors and companies, starting with J.R.R. Tolkien, have treated the subject:

An orc from the film version of "Lord of the Rings"

An orc from the film version of “Lord of the Rings”

Tolkien

When Tolkien wrote his stories about Middle Earth and the earlier age in Beleriand, he wrote the orcs, not as a redeemable, noble barbarian race, but as demons. The very name orc means “demon.” Tolkien’s orcs were originally elves who had been captured, tortured, and corrupted by the power of Morgoth, the Satan figure of the world. That said, they were entirely evil, broken, bestial, and monstrous. They had cities, as evident in the Goblintown of The Hobbit. (Tolkien’s goblins were really just smaller orcs.) If you’re going to be including a race of purely evil, irredeemable monsters, then giving them corrupted, almost demonic souls would seem the way to go. Just know that Tolkien did it first. (That’s not saying much, since he did most things in modern fantasy first.)

A half-orc barbarian from Dungeons and Dragons

A half-orc barbarian from Dungeons and Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons has never been known for deep philosophy, but they have been known for repeating things from legend, myth, and…well, Tolkien in ways that brought fantasy to the late-Twentieth Century mind. In D&D, the evil nature of orcs, or much else for that matter, isn’t explained beyond worshipping evil gods, but that’s understandable. The point really is to just kill them and loot their still-warm corpses. My point is that D&D, and other roleplaying games, for that matter, doesn’t need to explain why they’re evil. It’s basically pulp adventure.

That said, they do have half-orcs, brutal characters best suited to being barbarians that can, at least, be redeemed through being player characters, or PCs.

An orc from Blizzard's "World of Warcraft"

An orc from Blizzard’s “World of Warcraft”

Blizzard

With D&D’s inclusion of a semi-redeemable orcish, or half-orcish, character type, Blizzard went a step further. In their Warcraft series, players can take on the role of the orcs. While they are, indeed, the enemies of humans, this means that orcs are seen in a more sympathetic light. They’re still brutal, harsh, and often barbaric, but they resemble more the humanized half-orc of Dungeons and Dragons than the demonic, corrupted orcs of Tolkien.

Originally an agrarian race from another dimension, orcs were enslaved and corrupted by demons and really did become what Tolkien envisioned. However, by the time that World of Warcraft takes place, they’ve been freed and are now little more than a race of proud, sometimes noble barbarians with a dark and violent past. In other words, just another world culture.

Paolini

Then there’s another way of going about writing your orcs, goblins, or other villain race. I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s essentially making them an irredeemable evil, but not trying to explain why. At least in Dungeons and Dragons, they were tribal groups that worshiped evil, violent gods. In Eragon, Christopher Paolini included the Urgals. Yes, he’s totally not ripping of Tolkien, because they’re not orcs; they’re Urgals. Right, whatever. They’re a race of baby-skewering (no, really) evil people whose existence is never really explained. Never explained, that’s my point. They’re just there to be hated, feared, and killed, kind of like the barbarian hordes of racially insensitive movies from the 1940s and 1950s.

Okay, you know what? I realize that I’ll be seen as being silly. They’re not human, so make them whatever you want. Just do it right. If you just say, “They’re evil,” and actually tell us why, that’s fine, great. But if you don’t give an explanation, it’s just lazy. When you make a world, especially when there are racial issues (even non-human racial issues) at play, then you need to be able to explain everything that you decide on.

Know your world, and know why it is the way it is, especially why your enemy races are the way they are. No one likes a flat character, and the culture is a character in itself.

 

On a related side note: I’ll be starting a series of blog posts about the steps to take in creating a race and culture of your own, and, for a bit of variety, since most seem to focus on human cultures, I’ll be dealing with an orcish nation from my world, perhaps, even throw in some short stories about them.

Smiths and Short People: The Origin of Dwarves

So, I talked about elves a few weeks back. What about dwarves? Come on now, do you really think I would forget our short, beer-guzzling, bearded, Germano-Scottish (seriously, why do they always sound Scottish?) metal smiths friends? They’re as much a staple of modern fantasy literature as elves, and with good reason, too, because they played as large a part in Tolkien’s mythos as the elves did. The rivalry, even animosity, between dwarves and elves is epic in Middle Earth, and has moved into other works more recently, although it sometimes is little more than simple mockery while drinking. Why is it like that, and where did they come from?

Tolkien never really considered the elves to be traditional elves, and really, they weren’t. They were a race that he created and named “elves.” In a letter to Milton Waldman (which can be found in the front of some editions of The Silmarillion, he even says that he calls them elves “misleadingly.” The concept of Tolkien’s dwarves as, well, dwarves, is similar. Yes, they’re dwarves because they’re short, but where do they come from? No, I don’t mean where underground, or are they made of rock, or are there female dwarves, but where in our psyche do they originate?

Svartalfar and dokkalfar

Originally, there was nothing in the description of what we know as dwarves being short. In fact, they weren’t even called dwarves. They were either dark elves or black elves. The term dókkalfar, meaning “black elves” is the rarer of the two, and indicates that they were associated with the night, darkness, and dangerous intent. It doesn’t indicate whether it was their skin that was black, or their hair, but they were definitely the more dangerous of the two kinds of elves, the other being the lósalfar, or “light elves.”

The second term, svartalfar, means “dark elves.” Like dókkalfar, they stand in contrast with the light elves, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are evil. It was the dark elves who forged Thor’s hammer Mjölnir and Freyr’s magic ship that could carry all the gods yet be folded into a pocket. They were masters of smithing, and yet they were also dangerous in that you didn’t want to cross them or try to cheat them.

Two dwarves from a 19th century edition of the Poetic Edda. (courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Two dwarves from a 19th century edition of the Poetic Edda. (courtesy of Wikipedia.)

It was also a pair of dark elves who found a cursed treasure and turned against each other. One of the brothers, Fafnir, turned himself into a dragon, and his brother Regin got Sigúrd to try to kill the dragon and steal the gold. Once Fafnir was dead, Sigúrd learned that Regin was planning to betray him and killed him first. Yes, the famous Fafnir the dragon, partial inspiration for Tolkien’s Smaug, was actually a dwarf.

The Shrinking of the Dwerrow

Another term that has been used for dwarves, and in fact the term that eventually became the word dwarf, dvergar. Also seen as “dwarrow” or “dwarrow”, it doesn’t so much indicate their height, but rather that they live underground. Where Man is the race that lives above the surface of the earth, the Dvergar live below it, and so are the masters of the earth. It makes sense then, that they would be seen as master smiths and craftsmen, so where did the idea that they were short come from? It’s possible that it’s a result of artists portraying them in humorous ways, like how garden gnomes look like fat little Santas with pointy hats, and shortness was seen as a distinct mark of something to be mocked. Tyrion Lannister would certainly understand that sentiment.

That said, the dvergar aren’t human, and they never were. Human dwarves are people with congenital issues that make then naturally shorter. Fantasy dwarves, the svartalfar and dvergar, are races separate from humans, and whether they were originally seen as shorter, taller, or the same height as us is really dependent on how we view the masters of the earth below our feet.

The Children of Aüle

John Rhys Davies as Gimli, son of Gloin, from Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings."

John Rhys Davies as Gimli, son of Gloin, from Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.”

When Tolkien first created his elves and dwarves, the dwarves were distinctly evil enemies, even going so far as to hire orcish mercenaries against the elves. This can be found in the earliest stories recorded in The Book of Lost Tales, and it should be noted that, even if it is considered part of the canon, these are stories told from the perspective of the elves. That said, it’s a good example of the way that perception of the dwarves has changed. Even Tolkien changed his own perception of them as he wrote.

In the final version that we have in The Silmarillion, compiled by his son and editing partner Christopher Tolkien, the dwarves were created by Aüle, the Valar (a kind of god subordinate to the creator, Ilúvatar). Aüle had become impatient for the birth of the Children of Ilúvatar (elves and humans), and so he crafted seven figures of his own race. Ilúvatar called him out on it, and when Aüle moved to destroy his creation, the dwarves shrank from him, indicating that they were truly alive. In response, Ilúvatar allowed the dwarves to live, so long as they were put to sleep until the elves and humans came to being. As a result, they ended up a sort of adopted race among the Children of Ilúvatar.

This story shows how in depth Tolkien went to make the race something new that had not been seen before. This is not the svartalfar of Germano-Nordic myth. Tolkienian dwarves are…well, just that. Tolkienian. They’re a modern fantasy race that has become something everyone knows and identifies as being a part of traditional fantasy, and they’re not even a hundred years old.

To Gygax and Beyond

A dwarf from Dungeons and Dragons 3.5

A dwarf from Dungeons and Dragons 3.5

Although the modern fantasy dwarves were first conceived in the trenches of WWI, they are still the descendents of the earlier mythic races of svartalves, dvergar, and other underground inhabitants. Even so, there are other fantasy races that are descendents of them. When Gary Gigax created Dungeons and Dragons, he took Tolkien’s races and gave a new spin to them. Dwarves became an almost generic beered-up, bearded up, angry-short-man with an axe, and yet, it gave room for other writers to work.

Blizzard, in their Warcraft series and online game World of Warcraft, have created as extensive a history for their dwarves as Tolkien did, having them be created by the Titans, who made a proto-race known as Troggs, whom players have to fight in the early levels of the MMO. Not only that, but there are even larger, stronger, and almost titanic proto-dwarves who live in the center of the earth.

Games Workshop’s battle game series Warhammer, particularly the science fiction game Warhammer 40K has what I think is a really interesting take on dwarves. Space dwarves. Yes, dwarves in space. They’ve taken fantasy races, including elves, the undead, orcs, and dwarves, and sent them off into space, 40,000 years into the future.

It leaves me to wonder how another writer might take the dwarven trope and turn it into their own work. It could be something new that hasn’t been seen, or an examination of what is already there. Either way, the stories that can be told are yours. Dwarves are no longer relegated to being a people in diaspora, as Tolkien wrote them; they have entered the modern mythology that encompasses all that is fantasy, and even science fiction.

Clarke’s Third Rule: Applying Science Fiction Mechanics

I tend to write more fantasy than science fiction, mostly because I don’t have enough of a technical mind to explain everything. Of course, that also means that my magic systems won’t be at the same level as Brandon Sanderson’s, but that’s a different blog post altogether. As far as science fiction goes, I feel a little guilty trying to do it. You see, I have ideas for stories, but I don’t know how to make it work without technobabble, and yet I also don’t want to just shrug and say, “What’s the big deal? It works.”

Let me explain. I have one world, or one set of worlds, that is, since they’re canonically linked, that includes the concept of time travel. I’ll deal with time travel and its ramifications in a different post, but what I have here is a distant future with technology that is so advanced humans have stopped being humans for the most part, but have split into various post-human races. Two of these groups end up getting sent back to the far distant past and continue to war against each other, thereby creating two alien empires across the galaxy. By the time that Earth comes around to what we are, there has been intervention by both groups, resulting in individuals with extraordinary powers from the alien technology. In addition, whenever time travel happens, that is to say, whenever someone arrives in the past, then the laws of physics change temporarily as the universe rewrites itself, and anyone caught in the vicinity is altered, mutated, often given strange abilities. Yes, I just explained the premise of a superhero world.

Arthur C. Clarke, writer of (obviously) Clarke's Three Laws.

Arthur C. Clarke, writer of (obviously) Clarke’s Three Laws.

You see, I didn’t just want to say, “Oh, they have powers. Why not?” or “They’re just evolved mutants.” I wanted some origin to them, as well as the ability to explain futuristic technology in today’s society. To that end, I decided to actually bring the futuristic technology to the present day, but in the end, even the tech, which can change what we know of as the laws of physics, is so advanced it seems magical, as per Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Rule.

Clarke’s Third Rule of scientific prediction states, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” What this means is that, if we are presented with a technology that uses scientific understanding that is beyond us, then it would look like something that breaks the laws of physics. For example, if you show a pistol to someone in Ancient Sumer, they would have trouble believing that such a small thing can kill a man from such a distance as you claim, yet if they were to see you do it, then they would think it akin to the divine power over life and death. Computers, with their hidden components that rely on electrical impulses, would seem to be strange machines to someone in the time of Archimedes. Sure, given enough time and backward engineering, someone like Archimedes might be able to figure out how to build a computer, a Tesla coil, or a motion sensor camera, but to most people of the time, it would seem to be magical, even divine.’

That said, if someone from a distant future, or from a distant and highly advanced alien culture, were to approach us today with a technology that uses an understanding of the universe that we don’t have, then it would seem to break the laws of physics. In an age where we’re beginning to understand quantum mechanics and physicists theorize the existence of more dimensions than our viewable three, there is still the possibility that there are things about the universe that we won’t understand for thousands of years.

Currently, most scientific understanding scoffs at the idea of ESP, clairvoyance, or other psychic phenomena, but it’s almost a standard in science fiction. What if there is some technology that would allow humans to tap into a currently unknown portion of the brain that would access those abilities? To some, it would seem like magic, but to those who accept Clarke’s Third Rule, it would be, well, sufficiently advanced technology. That said, I want to add a few rules of my own:

  1. Gaps in scientific understanding can be passed off in a story as sufficiently advanced technology.
  2. Whoever cites Clarke’s Third Rule as an explanation should explain it before being allowed to continue.
  3. Whoever cites Clarke’s Third Rule to justify technobabble should just put down the mouse and step away slowly from the keyboard.

Now to justify Tom Austin’s Not-Pretentious-At-All (no really) Rules for Applying Clarke’s Third Rule.

Rule 1: Gaps in scientific understanding can be passed off in a story as sufficiently advanced technology.

We can’t know the future or what technologies will come from it. As early as the 1200s, Friar Roger Bacon, also known as Doctor Mirabilis (Latin for “Wonderful Teacher”) predicted flying machines and horseless carriages. Five hundred years ago, Leonardo da Vinci actually designed a few flying machines. Five hundred years from now, we might be able to predict what would be possible. Eight hundred years, it might be a little more wild. What about stories that take place thousands of years in the future? We can’t know what technologies are going to be around in the year 20,000, no matter how much we’d like to predict. Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the ensuing sequels show how far technology can go with Hal 9000. Heck, even Star Trek, famous for the writer’s bane that is technobabbleshowed it the first full movie, where we saw how the Voyager space probe turned into a sentient godlike being known as V-Ger.

(The movie’s been out since the 80’s. It’s as much a spoiler as knowing that Vader is Luke’s father.)

Basically, if you want to write a science fiction story, like I’m doing with my superhero world, but you don’t want to have to write out the wild, unexplainable stuff, go for the copout and say that it’s “sufficiently advanced technology.”

Rule 2: Whoever cites Clarke’s Third Rule as an explanation should explain it before being allowed to continue.

2001: A Space Odyssey, possibly Clarke's most famous work.

2001: A Space Odyssey, possibly Clarke’s most famous work.

Okay, here’s the kicker. You can’t just throw it out there and say, “Oh, but Clarke said…” No, I’m sorry. It doesn’t work like that. In what way is the tech advanced? What is the field that we’re talking about more advance than we currently understand it? You see, there are a few areas of the world that are fairly well understood. Sure, there are things that scientists are always needing to learn, but the mechanics of them is pretty much down. Biology, chemistry, and Newtonian physics. It’s when you get to the deeper stuff that you can start playing around with things.

I realize I’m not a scientist, and I’ll probably tick a few of them off with this, but here are some ideas. Subatomic physics are pretty well understood by scientists, but even so, they’re still learning about them, and that’s actually how they consider the possibility of more dimensions. Atoms might disappear and reappear somewhere else. Yes, they can teleport atoms, but only atoms at the moment.

Another thing to consider is the theoretical concepts that haven’t yet been shown to be verifiable, such as the existence of wormholes. Some may think it’s an outdated and cliché concept, but I think there is some validity to including it in a science fiction story…if it’s done right.

You see, I’m not saying just make up some kind of unknown quantity such as dilithium, even though that’s exactly what I did when I came up with the Østergard Singularity Drive to provide near infinite power and gravity to a starship. I’m saying that using Clarke’s Third Rule is a copout, but it’s a copout that you can use if you know how to properly b-s it.

Rule 3: Whoever cites Clarke’s Third Rule to justify technobabble should just put down the mouse and step away slowly from the keyboard.

Hal 9000, the super-intelligent computer from "2001: A Space Odyssey".

Hal 9000, the super-intelligent computer from “2001: A Space Odyssey”.

Okay, I take back a bit of what I said. No, not really. I want to clarify. Using Clarke’s Third Rule to explain why your tech isn’t comprehended today can be done right if you know how to properly b-s it. Technobabble is not doing it right. Trying to sound all scientific in order to convince your audience that you know what you’re talking about doesn’t work. Here’s a case where this is done right: Battlestar: Galactica. In the remake, they didn’t use technobabble. In fact, they made a point of avoiding it. FTL worked. We didn’t need to know why. AI was sentient and could communicate over light years. We didn’t need to know why. It was a technology on a level that most people today cannot understand. Given enough time and enough genius, someone today could possibly reverse engineer it (if it was an actual, real thing, that is), but most people would see it as magic.

Really, you don’t need to lean on technobabble to solve the day. Let your characters do that. If you think that falling back of sufficiently advanced technology is too much of a hand wave, then go ahead and write your hard science fiction. Enjoy. I’m going to stick to saying my superheroes can fly because of technology from the distant future.

Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia”: Part 3

I’m a few days later than I had intended, but I’m finishing up my series on “Mythopoeia”, the poem that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to convince C.S. Lewis (who was an atheist at the time) of the validity, even necessity of the creation of modern myth, as Tolkien is so famous for doing with Middle Earth.

“Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate
that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;
that seek no parley, and in guarded room,
though small and bate, upon a clumsy loom
weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
hoped and believed in under Shadow’s sway.”

In repeating “blessed are…” three times, Tolkien mimics the Beatitudes, where Jesus uses the same phrase a number of times in his Sermon on the Mount. Myth-makers are not simply fantasists, but heroes, however timid they may be in life, who are opposing evil by the very act of mythopoeia.

“Blessed are the men of Noah’s race that build
their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,
and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith,
a rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.”

Again, Tolkien includes his Christian background by comparing the myth-makers to Noah, who built his ark to save humanity from the flood that destroyed the world. In this, myth-making is more than escapism from the world, but escapism to save the world.

Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).
Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,
and those that hear them yet may yet beware.
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have tuned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen.

Here Tolkien expressed his general disdain for modern life, calling the modern focus on “economic bliss” a drug, comparing it both to the lotus eaters and the memory erasing Circe, both found in The Odyssey. Myth is not something that we find in history, but something deeper and wider than what has actually been or what is physically real. It is deep and real, and the fact that it is not “organized delight” makes it a personal thing for the “legend-makers with their rhyme” who are then able to come more closer to however they understand the Divine Truth.

I would that I might with the minstrels sing
and stir the unseen with a throbbing string.
I would be with the mariners of the deep
that cut their slender planks on mountains steep
and voyage upon a vague and wandering quest,
for some have passed beyond the fabled West.
I would with the beleaguered fools be told,
that keep an inner fastness where their gold,
impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
to mint in image blurred of distant king,
or in fantastic banners weave the sheen
heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.

Tolkien is declaring, not just his desire to read myth, but to make it. The minstrels who sing the songs that stir our emotions and the mariners who bring back stories of a distant world, of sirens and harpies, Cyclopes and dog-head men: these are what inspires him. We who are called fools for caring so much about an unseen world, hiding away our hearts from the cold, regimented world; we are the myth-makers.

I will not walk with your progressive apes,
erect and sapient. Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends
if by God’s mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve the same
unfruitful course with changing of a name.
I will not treat your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker’s art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.

This is one of my favorite passages of all time. “I will not walk with your progressive ape, erect and sapient. Before them gapes the dark abyss to which their progress tends…” Tolkien is going all out in blasting the progressive ideals that leave myth behind. Where are we going, and why should blind progression be automatically better? If the names we give things are the only way we know them, where is the meaning to our live? Why should a crow be only a crow, and not be Huginn and Muninn? Why should a mushroom be only a mushroom, and not a spot where the Fair Folk dance? When will we realize that the removal of Myth from our lives yields us to the Iron Crown, which Tolkien ascribed to Morgoth, the original Dark Lord?

In Paradise perchance the eye may stray
from gazing upon everlasting Day
to see the day illumined, and renew
from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.
Then looking on the Blessed Land ’twill see
that all is as it is, and yet made free:
Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,
garden nor gardener, children nor their toys.
Evil it will not see, for evil lies
not in God’s picture but in crooked eyes,
not in the source but in malicious choice,
and not in sound but in the tuneless voice.
In Paradise they look no more awry;
and though they make anew, they make no lie.
Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.

And now we come to the ultimate purpose of Myth. Paradise, the ultimate Divine Truth. There are monsters and evil things in myth, yes, but they only show us what is in this world, the monsters that we must confront, the villains that we must defeat. Perseus slew Medusa and turned her on the king who set him up for death. Theseus slew the Minotaur with the help so needed to him. Odysseus opposed a god and lived to retake his home. Cú Chulainn stood against his foes to be remembered as a mighty hero.

When all is said and done, Myth inspires us to reach beyond what we are. It’s more than just a man’s story, as women in myth are also strong, crafty, and as brave as the men they face. Deirdre, Rhiannon, and Arianrhod had troubles, but they still continued. Myth allows us to see beyond this world, beyond the cold rocks and hard bark of the trees to see the gnomes and dryads that dwell within our hearts. Through those, we can come closer to the Paradise that we seek. Tolkien was a Christian, and so his Divine Truth was the Judeo-Christian Paradise. Whether you seek Elysium, Valhalla, or Tir Na Nog, myth is the path your soul takes you to the Transcendent Divine.

If you seek none of those, but rather seek to better understand yourself, myth-making is the perfect way to that. Truth is more than what we are told; it is what is. By myth-making, we become the bards, the poets, the minstrels, and the mariners. We become Taliesin, Merlin, and Tiresias. World creation can be so much more than creating a setting for a game or a story; it can be the creation of a myth, a living, breathing world.

Star Trek, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings all resonate with people so strongly that the people who love them are more than fans, but almost religious devotees. It’s because they did more than just create a world. They created a myth.

Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia”: Part 2

J.R.R. Tolkien, 1916

J.R.R. Tolkien in 1916, when he first created Middle Earth in the trenches of WWI.

In my last post, I discussed the first part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia”, which was written to C.S. Lewis when he had been dismissive of myth and escapist fantasy as “wish-fulfillment.” In the poem, named after a term Tolkien coined with uses the Greek roots “mythos” and “poeia” to mean “myth-making”, Tolkien not only defends, but celebrates the concept of myth as something real, alive, and vital to human existence. In the section I’m going to discuss here, Tolkien defends it as our divine right.

“Yet trees are not ‘trees’, until so named and seen
and never were so named, till those had been
who speech’s involuted breath unfurled,
faint echo and dim picture of the world,
but neither record nor a photograph,
being divination, judgement, and a laugh
response of those that felt astir within
by deep monition movements that were kin
to life and death of trees, of beasts, of stars:
free captives undermining shadowy bars,
digging the foreknown from experience
and panning the vein of spirit out of sense.”

“Yes trees are not ‘trees’, until so named and seen…” This phrase fairly well sums up the layers of meaning that I discussed in my previous entry in this series. Trees exist without us, and without the mythic layers we add in our understanding, but all that we know about them and all that we feel about them requires us to name them. Naming is a decidedly mythic thing to do, and is a part of many myths and religions as a thing that is given to gods and heroes.

“Great powers they slowly brought out of themselves
and looking backward they beheld the elves
that wrought on cunning forges in the mind,
and light and dark on secret looms entwined.”

And of course, because it’s Tolkien, there are going to be elves. Elves are the archetype of a mythic race for many, masters of poetry and the forging of great things. Even as we now consider dwarves to be master craftsmen today, that honor was once given to elves. In fact, what we know of as fantasy dwarves, with thanks due to Tolkien, evolved out of the svartalfr of Nordic lore, a name that means “dark elf.”

As for the rest of this portion, Tolkien is saying that mythmakers created their myths out of looking backward in time and culture. An ancient time, now lost to empirical understanding, is a place of legend, emotion, and myth. There may be some imagination built in, but imagination has its place, and when it’s honest, it makes the story more real, thus making it mythic.

“He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-pattemed; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.”

Tolkien doesn’t just ask the question, “Can we know of something without imagining mythically?” He flat out gives the answer: no, we can’t. To Tolkien, nothing exists and nothing is seen except through the mythic, legendary, and poetic meaning that we give to it. Yes, stars exist, and we can see the burning balls of gas far above us, but without a frame of reference, what is it that we see but specks of light? Myth is the frame of reference by which we see.

“The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.

And here Tolkien exhibits three ideals. First, is his Christian worldview, in that he believes that “the only Wise” is a singular, male deity, and that “gods and their houses out of dark and light” are creations of Man. At the same time, he believes that, in the second point I want to mention and unlike many who have spoken and written through the centuries within Christianity, that mankind is “not wholly lost nor wholly changed.” No matter our origin, whether you are a Christian, atheist, or pagan, there is no denying the creative power of humanity, which is the third point I want to bring up here. We have the creative power, and not only that, but it is our right to do so, to create fill “the crannies of the world” with elves, goblins, and other beings, to be like Theseus and Cadmus in sowing the seed of the dragon’s teeth.

Yes! ‘wish-fulfilment dreams’ we spin to cheat
our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!
Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream,
or some things fair and others ugly deem?
All wishes are not idle, nor in vain
fulfilment we devise — for pain is pain,
not for itself to be desired, but ill;
or else to strive or to subdue the will
alike were graceless; and of Evil this
alone is deadly certain: Evil is.

As if in answer to a previous accusation by Lewis, Tolkien admits to creating dreams of wish fulfillment and avoid harsh reality. In this stanza, he admits to and celebrates the fact that myth, particularly myth creation, is escapist by nature. In the end, he answers why it must be, because “of Evil this alone is deadly certain: Evil is.”

The very fact that there is such a thing as evil gives us the need to do something about it, and often, we feel powerless in the face of it. Mythopoeia, or the creation of myths, is just that. In our escapism, we can create the ideal, and by creating the ideal heroes, we give them monsters to fight. Our heroes are the ideal, and the monsters we create are the embodiment of evil.