The timidity of the child or the savage is entirely reasonable; they are alarmed at this world, because this world is a very alarming place. They dislike being alone because it is verily and indeed an awful idea to be alone. Barbarians fear the unknown for the same reason that Agnostics worship it – because it is a fact. Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.
Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.
G.K. Chesterton, “The Red Angel”, Tremendous Trifles, 1909.
December 18, 2014
August 13, 2014
Jack Schafer on the cyclical nature of the news and an explanation for certain story types growing into mythic form:
Has some wise guy flipped a switch and thrown the news into summer reruns?
Everywhere you look in your news feed is a story you’ve seen before. In northern Iraq, conquering jihadists have the Kurds calling on the United States for more help. North Korea is again stating its desire to nuke the White House. A virulent contagion abroad has Americans worrying when it will break out on our shores. And, in a rerun of a rerun, a Gaza war of tunnels, rockets, invasions, ceasefires, withdrawals, broken ceasefires, and shuttle diplomacy is claiming a record harvest of headlines.
But the periodicity of the news has another cause, as press scholar Jack Lule discovered more than a decade ago in his book Daily News, Eternal Stories. Lule proposed that the news was less a pure journalistic creation than it was the modern expression of ancient myths.
Like many all-encompassing formulas, Lule’s reduction of news into myth suffers by attempting to explain too much. But after reading his book, you can’t help but notice how many front-page stories collapse into the seven master myths he assembles (which will sound familiar to anybody who has brushed up against Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces): the victim, a casualty of randomness or a villain; the scapegoat, who is punished for straying outside the social order; the hero, who smites evil; the good mother, who “offers maternal comfort and protection”; the trickster, the rogue who disturbs the social order; the other world, typically foreign countries; and the flood, or any other disaster.
Few, if any, journalists would confess to consciously calling myths to convey the news, perhaps in part because so few of them are aware of the mythic thrust of their work. Instead, the ancient outlines express themselves spontaneously in copy, as reporters, who are usually voluminous readers, seek to infuse higher meaning to the disparate facts they’ve collected in their notebooks, even if they’re covering something as prosaic as a funeral or a legislative battle.
Few readers would confess to myth-seeking in their media choices, yet Lule makes the undeniable case that audiences prefer news when it is fashioned into something more eternal than pure information. Lule writes:
Newspaper sales, magazine circulation, television news ratings, and website traffic all surge during dramatic and sensational events: schoolyard killings, royal weddings, hurricanes, assassinations, airline crashes, and inaugurations. What are people seeking? They’re not going to use these stories to vote for a candidate. They want compelling dramas. They want satisfying stories that speak to them of history and fate and the fragility of life. They want myth.
May 20, 2014
Charles Stross doesn’t typically write stories with traditional hero characters, and he explains why, before digging deeper into the likely origins of the stereotype:
I will confess that I find it difficult to write fictional heroes with a straight face. After all, we are all the heroes of our internal narrative (even those of us who others see as villains: nobody wakes up in the morning, twirls their moustache, and thinks, how can I most effectively act to further the cause of EVIL™ today?). And people who might consider themselves virtuous or heroic within their own framework, may be villains when seen from the outside: it’s a common vice of fascists (who seem addicted to heroic imagery — it’s a very romantic form of political poison, after all, the appeal to the clean and manly virtue of cold steel in subordination to the will of the State), and also of paternalist authoritarians.
[…] it seems pretty damn clear that the superhero archetypes hail back to the polytheistic religions of yore, to the Greek, Roman, Norse, and Egyptian pantheons and their litany of family feuds and bad-tempered bickering. (And is it just me or are half the biggest plots in
superheropre-monotheist mythology the punch-line to the God-Father (or occasionally one of his more troublesome sons) failing to keep his cock to himself, and the other half due to a jealous squabble between goddesses that escalates into a nuclear grudge-fest until suddenly Trojan Wars break out?)
We have this in common with our 5000-years-dead ancestors: we’re human beings, and our neural architecture hasn’t changed that much since the development of language and culture (unless you believe Julian Jaynes — and I don’t). We still have the same repertoire of emotional reactions. We still have a dismaying tendency to think it’s all about us, for any value of “it” you care to choose. We fall for a whole slew of common cognitive biases, including a complex of interacting heuristics that make us highly vulnerable to supernatural beliefs and religions. (The intentional stance per Dennett means we ascribe actions to intentionality; confirmation bias leads us to assume intentionality to natural events because this is something that’s been bred into us throughout the many millions of years of predator/prey arms races that weeded out those of our ancestors who weren’t fast enough to correlate signs such as lion prints at the nearby watering hole with other signs like Cousin Ugg going missing and realize there was a connection. So our ancestors looked on as lightning zapped another unfortunate Cousin Ugg, felt instinctively that there had to be a reason, and decided there was a Lightning God somewhere and he’d gotten mad at our tribe.)
We have other biases. We look at people with good skin and bilaterally symmetrical features (traits indicative of good health) and we see them as beautiful (hey, again: we’re the end product of endless generations of organisms that did best when they forged reproductive partnerships with other organisms that were in good health), so obviously they’ve been blessed by the gods. And the gods bless those who are virtuous, because virtue (by definition) is what the gods bless you for. So beauty comes to be equated with good; and this plays itself out in our fictions, where our heroes and favoured protagonists are mostly handsome or pretty and the villains are ugly as sin …
July 18, 2013
We open to an orgy in a god’s sex cave.
Tannhauser, a bard in the Germanic middle ages, is the boy-toy of Venus, eternal goddess of hot sex that you thought would be totally worth all her baggage but in the long run isn’t. Remember the wisdom of the bros: even if he or she is literally an unearthly gorgeous sex god, somewhere there is someone who is sick of putting up with his or her bullshit.
Tannhauser and Venus are shacked up at Venus’ place, which with typical German lyricism is called “Venusburg.” Tannhauser and Venus are lounging in bed. They’re watching a dance/orgy/cage match among Naiads, Sirens, the Three Graces, fauns, satyrs, nymphs, Baccchantes, and cupids. No, really. I could quote the libretto I just linked, but even the description of this is abusively long. Wagner could have just said “enter the entire Monster Manual, which humps.”
That’s the ballet. There’s no dialogue, and it’s not Wagner’s best music, though it’s not terrible. It does, however, answer the question “can an orgy be tedious?”
Ken White, “Popehat Goes To The Opera: Tannhauser”, Popehat, 2013-07-17
July 8, 2013
In sp!ked, Brendan O’Neill discusses the unlikely comeback of “fate”:
Fate is making a comeback. The idea that a human being’s fortunes are shaped by forces beyond his control is returning, zombie-like, from the graveyard of bad historical ideas. The notion that a man’s character and destiny are determined for him rather than by him is back in fashion, after 500-odd years of having been criticised and ridiculed by humanist thinkers.
Of course, we’re far too sophisticated these days actually to use the f-word, fate. We don’t talk about a god called Fortuna, as the Romans did, believing that this blind, mysterious creature decided people’s fates with the spin of a wheel. Unlike long-gone Norse communities we don’t believe in goddesses called Norns, who would attend the birth of every child to determine his or her future. No, today we use scientific terms to argue that people’s fortunes are determined by higher powers than their little, insignificant selves.
We use and abuse neuroscience to claim certain people are ‘born this way’. We claim evolutionary psychology explains why people behave and think the way they do. We use phrases like ‘weather of mass destruction’, in place of ‘gods’, to push the idea that mankind is a little thing battered by awesome, destiny-determining forces. Fate has been brought back from the dead and she’s been dolled up in pseudoscientific rags.
[. . .]
It’s hard to overstate what a radical idea this was at the tailend of the Dark Ages. It’s this idea that gives rise to the concept of free will, to the concept of personality even. And it was an idea carried through to the Enlightenment and on to the humanist liberalism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the words of the greatest liberal, John Stuart Mill, it is incumbent upon the individual to never ‘let the world, or his portion of it, choose his plan of life for him’.
But today, in our downbeat era that bears a bit of a passing resemblance to the Dark Ages, we’re turning the clock back on this idea. We’re rewinding the historic breakthroughs of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and we’re breathing life back into the fantasy of fate. Ours is an era jampacked with deterministic theories, claims that human beings are like amoeba in a Petri dish being prodded and shaped by various forces. But the new determinism isn’t religious or supernatural, as it was in the pre-Enlightened era — it’s scientific determinism, or rather pseudo-scientific determinism.
December 30, 2012
In the Telegraph, Adam Sisman reviews a book by Hugh Trevor-Roper (an old article from 2008, but still of interest):
Trevor-Roper was repelled by Scottish nationalism’s appeal to atavistic tribal loyalties. He knew that historical myth, however innocently concocted, could have unforeseen, even pernicious, consequence; the romantic fantasies of Goethe and Wagner had fired the imagination of the Nazis.
Trevor-Roper believed that ‘the whole history of Scotland has been coloured by myth’, and he took it upon himself to address some of these myths in this book, largely written in the 1970s, but set aside while still in draft. His former pupil, Jeremy Cater, has skilfully edited the text and has added a useful foreword.
The Invention of Scotland identifies three overlapping myths that have shaped the self-image of that proud nation.
The first is the political myth of the ancient Scottish constitution: that pre-medieval Scotland had been governed by a form of limited monarchy. Time after time this anachronistic notion has been torpedoed; but after a while it has always resurfaced. To this day, the Declaration of Arbroath is brandished by patriotic Scotsmen as their equivalent of the American Declaration of Independence, albeit written in the 14th century.
[. . .]
The third myth is that of traditional Scots dress, which Trevor-Roper shows to have been got up, largely for commercial purposes, in the 19th century.
The kilt was devised by a Lancashire industrialist as a convenient form of dress for his Scottish employees; while the clan-based differentiation of the tartans was the invention of two brothers calling themselves the Sobieski Stuarts, who in 1842 published their Vestiarium Scoticum, an elaborate work of imagination which served as a pattern-book for tartan manufacturers.
[. . .]
A chapter entitled ‘The Coming of the Kilt’ traces what Trevor-Roper calls ‘the Highland takeover of Scotland’. In the 19th century ‘the apparatus of Celtic tribalism’ would be assumed by the Scots aristocracy, ‘those whose ancestors regarded Highland dress as the badge of barbarism, and shuddered at the squeal of the bagpipe’. The apotheosis of this tendency would come when George IV paraded in Edinburgh wearing a kilt of ‘Stuart tartan': disguising himself, snorted Macaulay, ‘in what, before the Union, was considered by nine Scotchmen out of 10 as the dress of a thief’.
June 6, 2012
You have to put a bit more thought into how you name your spaceships, people of the future!
Dear People of the Future,
Congratulations! If you’re reading this, you’ve just received a state-of-the-art spacecraft, and you’re probably about to take it on an extremely dangerous mission. Your journey may even concern the safety and continued survival of the human race.
But don’t worry! I’m betting your new ride is pretty sick. It’s probably got a warp drive and maybe a solar sail and lots of other technology I couldn’t even begin to understand.
At this point, you’re probably wondering: What should I name my spacecraft?
H/T to John Turner for the link.