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.

Religion: You can’t avoid it, but you can make it what you want.

Okay, so, last night, I put up a blog about religion. Specifically, about the different ways that deity or deities can be viewed within religion. It was more of an overview than anything, and I’m certain that there’s more to say on the subject. Now I want to go into the why. Why should you bother including religion in your constructed world? You may be an atheist and nonreligious, or even opposed to religion. You may be religious and not want to include anything that doesn’t mirror your own. These are both valid concerns. Really, they’re the same concern .

Why would you include a sociocultural point of reference in your fictional world that disagrees with the real world?

That’s the concern.

If that’s the case, then why are you making a fictional world to begin with? You’re creating a fictional world, but making a world is making everything that would be in a world. Religion is a part of the world as much as settlements and towns, even if it’s organized  irreligion. If you don’t want to make a religion, go the Gene Roddenberry route and make humanity “evolve past religion”, but even in Star Trek, the Prime Directive is treated religiously as the guide to all things good. Breaking the Prime Directive is treated in the same way as blasphemy. If you want to make only your religion, then make it allegory.

My point is that, when you’re making a full-fleshed and believable world, you need to take it seriously and to not take it seriously. It’s not this world, so you shouldn’t be so serious about copying this world. At the same time, if it’s supposed to be two or three hundred years into the future, you should consider using religions that exist, but consider that things will change. I have one religion in a science fiction world I’m developing that doesn’t appear until the early twenty-first century, because do we really believe that no new religions will form?

Here are a few questions to ask yourself when creating a religion for a science fiction story:

  1. Is your bias getting in the way? Are you removing religion from your world because you want it removed, or because you sincerely believe that will die out on its own?

    Take Joss Whedon’s Firefly as an example. Whedon isn’t religious, and he certainly isn’t Christian, but he still had the presence of mind to include multiple forms of Christianity five centuries into the future. That’s a case of someone, who may not agree with a religion, understanding that the religion won’t simply go away.

  1. Are there sects or denominations that seem to be merging in their ideas? What new ideas might come out of what’s already here? In what way would a charismatic leadership be able to form a new religion out of what’s here?

    When creating a new world, whether a future world or a fantasy world, it’s a good idea to research the topics you’re using. I don’t mean to become a doctoral student on everything, but to at least have a passing knowledge of religion, society, culture, and the rest of the building blocks of the world. Religion forms through theology as much as it does through the charisma of teachers, and the social surroundings play a major part in it. Look into how other religions and sects formed through history and what was going on around them, what might have led people to that.

  1. Think of what new changes would happen in society that would prompt an entirely new religion? How would the religious react to terraforming planets, mining asteroids, or simply living in space?

    Might there be a religion formed around faster-than-light travel, or perhaps about opposing FTL? Might a religion believe that terraforming, or making an uninhabitable planet inhabitable, is the highest form of worship? Might a religion react to the vastness of space by becoming a cold warrior race that worships the entropic nature of the universe?

When you’re making a religion for fantasy, you might ask yourself these.

  1. Does my bias get in the way?

    It’s a bit more forgivable to allow religious bias in fantasy, since you’re making the world up from scratch and not reinventing the real world. Also, fantasy has been used for religious allegory for centuries. At one point, John Bunyon wrote about giants and monsters in Pilgrim’s Progress, and in the last hundred years, C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman have added to the debate with Lewis’s Christian series The Chronicles of Narnia and Pullman’s atheist series His Dark Materials.

    I’ll just say this. If you have religious bias in writing your fantasy, make sure that it’s intentional. There’s little that’s worse than an unintentional bias.

  1. What is the actual cosmology of the world and how would people react to that?

    The nature of religion is still important, but knowing if there really are gods and goddesses, angels and demons, or other spirits out there, would really help to know how religion would be affected. Do the deities take part in the world? Do they physically order the world and form the religion? People can get it wrong, easily. A fantasy world doesn’t require the presence of deity, simply the presence of magic.

  1. Are there any more questions I need to ask?

    Okay, I realize that this one is a copout. I didn’t have a third question for the fantasy section, so I just added this one. Still, it’s important to never stop asking questions. Was there something I missed? Was there something I could have done better? If you have a story set down already that delineates your world, then it’s canonized. But even then, it’s not that you don’t have to change it; it’s that you can’t. I’m not saying never write your story out, but never stop trying to figure out if there’s more you can do, maybe in later stories in that world.

World Building: Why Bother?

I had been planning on moving on from posts about language to other aspects of world building, but I really think I need to address something. Why do we world build? Why bother making up a fictional planet, or a fictional timeline, or a fictional country? What’s the point? Yes, writing fantasy needs that, but are there other reasons to create worlds? Is it just a personal exercise that doesn’t have any meaning? Does any of it even matter?

Well, I just want to say that, yes, world building does matter and that there are a number of reasons to do it. One obvious reason is to create a believable world for a story or game design. You don’t want your readers to lose suspension of disbelief because you included something (or left something out) that was important, like actually having space to grow food for your massive city in the middle of the wasteland. Even in writing fiction, though, there are different reasons to make a world however you make it.

1) Writing for a story.

When you’re building a fantasy or science fiction world for a story, then the story is the goal, but the world is essential. There needs to be rules that dictate the magic or technology, even if you don’t get into them in the story. In a world where anything can happen, nothing ever happens. There’s no drama, no conflict, and no reason to care about the characters. At the same time, if you focus so much on developing the world, it’s easy to forget about the characters, and about their part in the world. The story is a microcosm of the universe that you’re creating, even if it’s just about two people in a room. The only part of the world that matters for the story is the part that affects it. If you have a distant nation a thousand miles from where your story takes place, why are you focusing on that unless it plays a part in the plot?

2) Writing for a role playing game.

Like world building for a story, you need to create as much, and no more, than is needed for what you’re doing. It takes time and effort to create a culture, and focusing too much time on cultures that your players will never reach, whether because they’re too far or simply back story, takes away time that you could have spent working on the world that actually affects the game. Now, that’s not to say that you shouldn’t make the world bigger, grander, and more realized than you would for, say, a novel about a single small kingdom. Players can mess with the plan that a DM has for the game. All they have to do is say, “We’re boarding this ship to sail to Kharzan.” A good DM has the player’s enjoyment in mind, and so, if you players want to go to Kharzan, you’d better have Kharzan ready for them.

3) Making a point.

Okay, here’s where it gets interesting. Some writers craft their stories around making a point. In fact, I really think that most writers do that, even if they don’t mean to. A good story needs a good theme, and the stronger that theme, the more it’s going to permeate the world of your story. I’d argue that, if you have a point to make, let it happen naturally. Make your world to represent how you see the real world. J.R.R. Tolkien hated technology, and so in his grand mythos of the ancient Middle Earth, technology and metal machines were inherently evil, used only by the powers of Morgoth and Sauron. On the other hand, George R.R. Martin’s world doesn’t even touch on the subject, because that’s not the point he’s making. A Song of Ice and Fire is less about mythologizing a lost past and more about deconstructing the chivalric mythos. While I would argue that his books are actually more brutal than the majority of the real medieval history, it does make the point that he is going for.

A more blunt example of world building for making a point is found in dystopian science fiction. The theme of government over-control, which is common to the genre, lends itself to a certain kind of world. If you want to talk about the need for freedom or independence, creating a world that shows the dangers of lacking either of those is a fairly simply way to go. At the same time, when you write to make a point, make sure that not everything in your world is allegorical, or else you end up clobbering the reader with too much. Having everything you mention lead toward the goal makes it very clear that it’s more of a treatise than a story, but if you make the world more naturally, craft it so that you’re telling a story rather than preaching a sermon, you have more of a chance of drawing the reader in.

4) Just to have fun.

Now, not everyone wants to build a world for stories or games. Some of us just like making up fictional worlds and seeing what we can do with them. As far as that goes, it’s a very personal hobby that holds value just in that fact. Research what interests you and craft the world as you see fit. It’s your world and it’s your hobby. Just have fun with it.

 

Next post—Genres of World Building: Fantasy, Science Fiction, and More.