Making Myth

April 30, 2016

Creating Pagan Myth Part One

Filed under: Intro to Myth Making,Theory — Tags: , — Myth Maker @ 9:17 pm

What type of myth do we choose to tell?


In the European mythic tradition, there are two basic types of myth. There is the Iliad and there is Le Morte d’Arthur. The difference between the two types of myths is that in one Achilles kills Hector with savage glee and in the other Sir Lancelot does his best to not kill Sir Gawain.

Of course, the important thing is not what Sir Lancelot and Achilles do, but why they do it. The tragedy of Sir Lancelot is that his final fight is not necessary because Sir Lancelot and Sir Gawain serve the same God. Their fight is the result of the sins of men and in the grave that comes after they will be reconciled. On the other hand, the tragedy of Achilles is that the fight is necessary because the gods themselves struggle against one another. And if even the gods cannot find peace, what hope does man have to challenge the fates that drive him to war?

This division between a tragedy based on “sin” and a tragedy based on “fate” goes beyond Morte d’Arthur and the Iliad respectively. Western European myth can be divided between “Catholic” myths that have a fundamentally moral universe and the “Pagan” myths that have a fundamentally amoral universe. This key dividing line between myths exists even in the myths of our own day.

To see how this division plays out in modern times, one has to only compare Star Wars to The Watchmen. In the Star Wars the line between good and evil is clear. And if you do morally bad things in the Star Wars universe then bad things will happen regardless of the circumstances. In The Watchmen good and bad is vary dubious concept and the “heroes” wind up being complicit in mass murder on the grounds that it is the best that can be done for an amoral humanity. In short, Star Wars is a “Catholic” myth whereas The Watchmen is a “Pagan” myth.

It is the nature of the moral order that defines the difference between a “Catholic” myth and a “Pagan” myth. If there is a moral order that brings about consistent results it is “Catholic” myth. If there is no moral order and nothing practical to distinguish between the various moral choices then it is a “Pagan” myth.

The key point to note is that the difference between “Catholic” myth and “Pagan” myth does not revolve around the existence of one God vs. many gods. If you create a myth set atheistic world that conforms to the Whig view of history in which all good people will eventually come around to the same set of values, then you have created a “Catholic” myth. If you create a myth with only one God but he is an indifferent God who does not care what men do, then you have created a “Pagan” myth.

April 28, 2016

Creating a Believable World Part 3

Filed under: Intro to Myth Making,Theory — Tags: — Myth Maker @ 9:14 pm

Creating a Believable World Part 1

Creating a Believable World Part 2

Striving for Character Consistency in a Mythical World

If you are young British girl who happens to be magically transported into another world, it can be very handy to find out that that a faun is really just a timid British man in a costume. It can make getting over the culture shock so much easier. But for the rest of us, this state of affairs can leave something to be desired.

If we should meet a faun, we would expect that a creature that looked so different from us would be different in other ways as well. We would expect it to have different values and beliefs then a 21st century human. If we were familiar with Greek myth, we might expect it to have some kind of magical powers. We might wonder if it knew any gods. We might even be afraid of it. But above all else most people who are drawn to myth would be disappointed to discover that a faun was no different than an average human male from where we came from.

Yet all too often, myth creators populate there worlds with creatures and characters who look different but don’t act different. We find elves that are immortal and have maturity of twenty something humans. We find barbarians who have the cultural sensitivities of a modern urban city dweller. And perhaps worst of all, we find dragons who want to live as willing slaves to scantily clad young females instead of eating them like a proper dragon would.

These things owe a large part of their existence to the very human desire for wish fulfillment. Nobody thinks that large, powerful, ancient, and intelligent creatures are going to want spend their lives transporting weaker, younger, and decidedly less intelligent humans on their backs. Furthermore this is not what the archetypical dragons would do. But some people decided that if riding horses was cool, riding dragons would be cooler.

To people who deliberately design their characters around wish fulfillment there is not much to say. We can note that artistically speaking, wish fulfillment in myth is no different than porn. There will always be a market for it and that market will always be saturated because any fool can do it. And even those who consume it most voraciously will find it forgettable. It will pass through their minds like refined sugar through the body. Exciting for a brief moment in time but it leaves nothing lasting.

But there are many myth creators who don’t deliberately set out to write wish fulfillment (or at least, not have that be the sole purpose of their story). Yet all too often they wind up with a bunch of people in faux medieval clothing who think and act just like modern humans.

A large part of this problem is immune to easy fixes. If the talent is lacking to imagine different beings, no amount of lectures is going to fix that. And if the education to understand that it is possible to have different values and ways of thinking is lacking then it is beyond the scope of a blog post to rectify that. But there is one thing that all myth creators can do regardless of talent and education. And that is believe in their worlds and have their characters act as if those worlds are real.

For example, it does not take a lot of talent or a deep understanding of moral philosophy to say “hey, I have created a world that has powerful necromancers in it. So what would I do if I lived in a world with powerful necromancers?” At the bare minimum, it would seem that in such a world it would be routine to burn the dead. One would think that the risk of granny being raised up from the grave to chaw on her former offspring would deeply bother people no matter how remote the risk might be.

But it seems that even this basic level of consistency is too much to expect from some myth creators. Huge disconnects between the nature of the world in a myth and how the people in the world act are the norm and not the exception. It is hard to escape the feeling that most myth creators never take the basic step of believing in their own worlds. They never enter into the world in their imaginations as being real and so they never notice the obvious inconsistencies.

What all myth creators should do regardless of talent or education is place themselves in their world. They should see the world through the eyes of the soldiers watching their battle lines being torn up by strange magic. They should sit in the seat of the evil wizard and think about what they would do if they had all that power and no morals. They should struggle to make a living in a world where the special (magic users, immortals, or whatever) have huge advantages. If myth creators do these things it will go a long ways towards making the world of their myth seem alive regardless of their other shortcomings.

April 26, 2016

Creating a Believable World Part Two

Filed under: Intro to Myth Making,Theory — Tags: — Myth Maker @ 6:34 pm

Creating a Believable World Part One is here

Striving for physical consistency in a mythical realm

Why is it a problem if an evil wizard live in castles just like those built by the real life Catholic crusaders in the Middle East? We can restate this problem by saying “why is it a problem if a magical Harry Potter learns magic at a normal school?” In both cases the answer is the same. The architecture should reflect the powers and nature of the “special” that inhabits it.

But although it is obvious to many why that is the case with Harry Potter, they fail to understand why that is so with the evil wizard. To many people a castle is an exotic location in a medieval time period. They reason that since a wizard is a creature of power from a medieval time period then an evil wizard would naturally make his home in a medieval seat of power. If a myth creator is feeling like being especially “realistic” they will research how real castles look and functioned so as to get all the little details right. But many myth creators seem to feel that if it has walls and towers and a keep then a generic castle is good enough for their audience.

And this belief has some basis in fact. Few people will read a story and think “this castle really does not fit with what we know of this evil wizard.” But even fewer people reading a story with an evil wizard in a typical castle will remember either the castle or the wizard for long. They might not know anything about castles, but they can feel when a character and setting do not reinforce each other.

Therefore a good myth creator will not create castle for his evil wizard by copying historical castles. Instead a myth creator will think about what a historical castle represents. The myth creator will note that castles represent fear. When fear was not present, nobility built palaces and not castles. Castles also represent the technological ability of the time. A Norman motte-and-bailey is very different from the later Norman castles. And lastly, castles represent the culture and values of those that built them. A Norman castle looks very different from a Japanese castle and has different spaces in it (perhaps a large chapel in the Norman castle and an ornate tea room in the Japanese castle).

With the above thoughts is mind, a good myth creator will then create the castle for his evil wizard by asking “What is the evil wizard afraid of? What does the technology of my world allow (taking special care to keep in mind the special powers of the evil wizard)? And how do I represent values and culture of my evil wizard?” By asking these questions, a myth creator will create a castle that is far more memorable and believable then if he had tried to use either a “realistic” or a “generic” castle.

It must be admitted that the difference between a generic and a believable castle is hard to understand in the abstract. It is like trying to understand the sound not heard by listing to the silence. It might help to compare the difference between Moria in the Lord of the Rings and the goblin caves found in the Hobbit. Both places were created by the same author. Both involve underground tunnels and caverns inhabited by dangerous creatures. But one was generic and one was believable.

The goblin caves in the Hobbit are “generic.” Mr. Tolkien did not put a lot of thought into them and they don’t stand out from any other goblin cave anyone else might create. There is no details about the goblin cave other than it was a system of tunnels that had goblins in it. On the other hand, Moria was created with a lot of thought and so Moria has come to personify what a fantasy dungeon should be.

Because Mr. Tolkien thought through the implications of Moria, he created such details as underground defensive bridges, wells inside guard rooms, and a reason for why such things came to be abandoned by their creators. And these details did not spring up randomly or by copying something to make it “realistic”. Rather they sprang up from Tolkien’s efforts to make Moria physically consistent with the character of the dwarves and the threats they faced in the world they lived in.

Good myth makers can sometimes get away with a “generic” goblin cave if the other elements of their myth are good enough. That makes less talented myth makers think that all that is needed is a “generic” goblin cave. As a result, most myths are set in forgettable worlds and in turn are forgettable themselves. Only the best writers can get away with being generic and even they can only get away with it in small doses.

April 23, 2016

Creating a Believable World Part One

Filed under: Intro to Myth Making,Theory — Tags: — Myth Maker @ 9:50 pm

Creating a Believable World

If you are going to make a mythic story as we have defined it, you are going to have extra burdens as a world creator. You have to consider how the mythic elements change the physical reality of the world that you are creating. And perhaps more importantly, you have to consider how the mythical elements change how people in your world think and act.

But many myth creators seem to think the opposite. They think the inherent unreality of myth mean that they have less of a burden when it comes to making a world. After all, if it is all make believe, then why can’t I make the world anyway I want? This kind of altitude will destroy the effectiveness of myth. More than any other kind of fiction, myth requires a believable world.

For example, imagine “Harry Potter” being set in school built and operated like a normal school. Envision Mr. Potter walking down broad hallways well lit with florescent lights. Imagine him answering his teachers while setting in chair made of plastic and metal attached to a desk made of the same. Imagine him flying on a broom stick over the roof of a modern school. He could doge and weave around all the HVAC equipment typically found up there.

Such a series of books would have a setting that was not believable. The setting would be at odds with the characters. You would not expect magical humans to be normal or to have a normal school. What you would expect is something like Hogwarts. The believability of Harry Potter depends on Hogwarts being weird and wonderful and having lots of magical things about it.

For this reason, the character of Hogwarts is more important to the success of “Harry Potter” then the character of Harry Potter. Shorn of Hogwarts, Harry Potter is nothing. But any number of different heroes/heroines could have successfully shined in a setting like Hogwarts.

The importance of Hogwarts is something that Harry Potter has in common with all myth. In every myth, the success of the mythical elements rests or falls on the strength of the world that is created. You can’t have the “special” without a world that supports them. Gods need a Mount Olympus, the elves need Lothlórien, King Author needs Camelot. The characters without the setting would not be believable. And a myth must be believable in order to be successful.

But what does this word “believable” mean? It clearly does not mean “in accord with commonly accepted scientific principles.” That definition would rule out the core of what myth is. In myth, believability and realism are not synonymous. A created mythical world can be more realistic and less believable at the same time. There are many myth creators who have created worlds that were more realistic then that created by J.R.R Tolkien but were still less believable and so less successful.

Why is this so? How is it that authors who have created worlds with detailed political structures, well thought out economies, and logical magic systems lose out in believability contest to a world like Middle Earth were we know next to nothing about its politics, economics, or how the magic works?

To answer this question you need only think about the difference between reading about a foreign country in a book and actually going to visit one. In reading about a country, you are going to find out all about its politics and economics compare to other countries politics and economics. If you go to the country instead, you are going to be experiencing different values, customs, dress, and architecture long before you get around to understanding the politics and economics of the place. More importantly, everything in a foreign country is clearly interrelated. In other words, different values and different forms of dress and architecture go hand in hand.

It is that feeling of going to a new place that Tolkien is most concerned with imparting to his readers. In order to create this feeling, Tolkien puts a great amount of effort into making the values and architecture his world mesh seamlessly. So the very first pages of The Hobbit are devoted to introducing the values of a hobbit and their architecture as an expression of those values. In a similar manner, elves have their own values and architecture and the dwarves have their own values and architecture. Everywhere you go in Middle Earth, you find that Tolkien is more concerned with internal consistency between the values of the place he is portraying and its appearance then he is with being consistent with external political/social realities of how humans in similar technological periods behaved.

By contrast, many myth creators who strive for realism are taking “realistic” things and slap them together without regard to internal consistency. You have lovingly detail late medieval political structures in a world populated with people whose values and outlook are indistinguishable from 21 century humans. You have powerful mages who can shape the elements living in castles indistinguishable from those that would be built by crusaders in the Middle East. These authors often times seem oblivious to how they are destroying the believability of their mythic elements by their efforts to make things more “realistic”.

A mythic world that is “believable” is a world that seems to exist on its own terms and for its own reasons. And unbelievable world is one that does not seem to exist on its own terms and for its own reasons. What separates “mythic” world creation from “normal storytelling” world creation is that a “mythic” world has to conform to its mythic elements where as a normal story needs to conform to our understanding of reality.

So if consistency is more important than realism in a “mythic” world, how do we go about insuring that we make our mythical world “consistent?” In part of the answer to this question depends on the world being created and so cannot be answered in a general fashion. But there does seem to be two general types of errors that aspiring myth makers make. The first is that they fail to consider how the mythic elements affect the physical realm of their world and the second is that they fail to consider how the how the mythic elements effect how people believe and act. We shall consider both of these problems in more detail.

April 18, 2016

Respecting Mythic Archetypes Part 3

Filed under: Intro to Myth Making,Theory — Tags: — Myth Maker @ 8:59 pm

Respecting Mythic Archetypes Part 1

Respecting Mythic Archetypes Part 2

Using the appropriate Archetypes

Many myth creators have a problem. They look around and see that everyone around them is creating myth using archetypes founded in European culture and so they think something along the lines of “I will be different, I will use archetypes found in Chinese culture instead.” And so they go on to tell the same basic type of stories that everyone else is telling except they are using “Chinese’s” archetypes instead. What generally happens is that a few critics rave about what a breath a fresh air “not being in the standard late medieval European setting is” and few people read the book. Meanwhile, someone who uses all the standard European mythical archetypes but sets the myth in a modern day school setting is making publishing history.

The thing that a lot of myth creators don’t seem to understand is that the archetypes are the language, not the story. Changing the archetypes to tell the same old story is like a white man putting on black face and trying to pass himself off as African American so that he can tell his story from a “different perspective”. You can’t disguise the fact that you are telling your culture’s story just by changing the archetypes you use. If you want to look to a foreign culture for inspiration you would be better served trying to reproduce a foreign myth into familiar archetypes rather than trying to tell a familiar myth using foreign archetypes.

An example of cross culture pollination done right would be the making of the Magnificent Seven based off of The Seven Samurai. Neither movie was really myth as we have defined it. Nonetheless, it is a good example of how familiar archetypes are necessary to make what is basically the same story more accessible.

You could argue that The Seven Samurai was the better movie, but even had it been cast in English few in America would have watched it because of the unfamiliar archetypes. By contrast The Magnificent Seven was very popular in spite of being largely the same story retold. Substituting cowboys for samurai and changing the setting enabled a story from a different culture to be accessible to an English speaking audience. In other words, the thing that enabled the same story to find new life in a different culture is the use of an archetypical language suited to the audience that it was trying to reach.

To be sure, it took a lot of skill to get the “translation” right. The Magnificent Seven could easily have been a bad movie if the director and script writers had lacked talent. But the key point that the Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven illustrates is that the story is separate from the archetypes. The key challenge for a myth creator is to use archetypes that will best communicate the story they want to tell. And that will almost invariably mean using archetypes that are already familiar to audiences that they want to reach.

A quick look at the popular myth of our day will bear this out. Harry Potter became successful because it took a lot of old European mythical archetypes and set them in an environment that children all over the world were familiar with (school). The original Star Wars trilogy broke new ground by combining magic with star ships. But it did so by making reference thematically and visually to everything from the Roman Emperor/Senate, knights and princesses, Cowboy movies, Nazis, and countless other culturally relevant archetypes.

In other words, the pros innovate by making the old more familiar to modern audiences while at the same time making them feel like they are going someplace new. The less talented make it so that you have to wade through an thicket of alien imagery only for you to find out that you are in the same old story that has been told a thousand times.

April 17, 2016

Respecting Mythic Archetypes Part 2

Filed under: Intro to Myth Making,Theory — Tags: — Myth Maker @ 5:37 pm

Respecting Mythic Archetypes Part I can be found here

Respecting the Meaning Of An Archetype

We hate stereotypes. Fantasy elves are stereotypically beautiful, tall, intelligent, nature lovers, long lived or immortal, and endowed with magical powers. So we are going to make an elf that is stupid, short, ugly, hates nature, can’t do magic, and short lived so that we can combat stereotypes.

The irrationality of the above logic is obvious. If you don’t want elves in your story, don’t put elves in your story. Making something into the complete opposite of what an elf typically means and calling it an elf is not combating stereotypes, it is making something black and calling it orange and thinking you have accomplished something clever.

Most of the time, myth creators are not as obvious as the above example when they are misusing archetypes (although some come awful close). A more typically example would be the outrage that George Lucas inspired by trying to asset that Han Solo did not shoot first.

The outrage cries of “Han shot first” do not come about because people are concerned that it is irrational to let someone who is pointing a gun at you shoot first. If rationality was the primary concern, Star Wars would have no fans at all. And the issue is not about Mr. Lucas changing things after the fact. J.R Tolkien was able to change things in The Hobbit after the fact without fans frothing at the mouth.

The real issue is that Han Solo is an example of an archetype with a long history. Mythic stories involving outlaws who reluctantly make good have a history going back at least to the Middle Ages. As soon as you see how Han Solo is dressed, you know (if you have been exposed to any American television at all) that that he is being set up as the archetypical “outlaw”. This is further driven home by the social environment we first meet him in and the people he does business with. To say that he would not shoot first is to say that he is a boy scout. To try to say that he is a boy scout after trying to paint him as an outlaw is the same things as painting something black and calling it orange.

Star Wars was not trying to be realistic, but it was trying to use a long standing mythic language to tell a story. George Lucas’s problem is that he wants to make use of a mythic language without acknowledging that every language comes with its own rules. He fell into the common trap of myth creators in thinking that because it is not real, the creator can do whatever he wants. But to think that you can use the language and completely ignore the rules is to make yourself look like a babbling idiot.

This is not to say that everyone must slavishly follow some written code that tells you how to deal with mythic archetypes any more than poets have to follow the rules of grammar. There have always been many different takes on the same mythical archetype even back in the “good old days”.

But there is a big difference between writing a story about peaceful, flower loving, Zen practicing orcs that are being slaughtered by humans and writing a story about how a hyper masculine warrior orc is trying to rescue his hyper masculine warrior race from the control of demons. One story is simply misusing an archetype that already has an established history. The other story is using the monstrous and savage nature of arctypical orcs to talk about masculinity by means of metaphors made real.

In a successful story an archetype’s historical use serves to advance and deepened the story the author wants to tell. In an unsuccessful story, the archetype historical usage is baggage that must be overcome for an author to tell the story they want to tell. The further you depart from the historical use of an archetype the more you are turning assets into baggage.

April 15, 2016

Respecting Mythic Archetypes Part One

Filed under: Intro to Myth Making,Theory — Tags: — Myth Maker @ 9:25 pm

Respecting Mythic Archetypes

When Thor was made a comic book hero by Marvel Comics, it was tip of the hat to obvious. The modern world might be separated from the Old Norse by a different world view but still we have a fondness for writing about heroic super beings fighting scary monsters. We are still a myth making people. And just as anthropologists tell us that our forefathers reused and borrowed elements of their myths from even earlier times so we to set our myths upon a mountain of archetypes that have been given to us by our ancestors.

From the Norse alone we have inherited the elves, dwarves, and many other things. But it is more than just names for non-human creatures that have come down through time to us. We have inherited the idea of “quests”, character types like evil wizards and beautiful princess, magical objects, and many other countless things. These things all form the archetypes that we use to create myth.

In creating myth, archetypes serve as a type of language by which mythmakers can communicate. In theory, one could create a perfectly good myth without relying on previously used archetypes just as in theory, one could create a perfectly good story in a made up language. But in practices a story in a made up language will never get very far because few people will take the effort to understand it. In the same manner if you create myth without relying on previously established archetypes, most people are not going to take the time to learn your world. That is why a successful myth relies on long established archetypes.

Since we have equated archetypes with languages, the rules governing their use should be obvious. First, be respectful of the original meaning of archetypes and don’t try to change it anymore then you would try to change the meaning of words. Second, use the appropriate archetypes for your audience for the same reasons that you would not try to tell a story in Chinese to an English speaking audiences. But even though these rules seem obvious, many aspiring myth makers don’t seem to understand them. Therefore we shall explore them in greater detail.

April 13, 2016

How shall we make Myth morally complex? Part Four

Filed under: Intro to Myth Making,Theory — Tags: — Myth Maker @ 7:11 pm

Part 1 is here.

Part 2 is here.

Part 3 is here.

Straw Targets

Most of us are familiar with the straw man fallacy. You set up an argument that your opponent is not really making and then act as if refuting it is refuting your opponent. It is common for creators of morally simple mythic tales to do something similar that we shall call setting up a straw target. A straw target in mythic world is any moral idea has no real basis in the world that the myth creator is making.

For example, let us image that communism is imported into a mythic world with no real poverty and no robber barons who work politics for their own benefit. In this world, communist are nothing more than a group of losers who hate successful people and want to take away freedoms. What does this accomplish?

By creating communists in a world that lacks the things that historically caused communism to be popular, the myth creator is creating a straw target. Of course it is easy to make fun of communism in such a context. But it also makes the story morally simple because the real rise of communism took place in the context of failed and corrupt states. By removing that supporting complexity a mythic writer turns a real moral issue into a straw target.

Of course, few myth creators import Karl Marx wholesale into their mythic worlds so that they can make fun of him. But it is quite common for creators of morally simple mythic worlds to make mistakes similar to one describe above. The following example is how a straw target is more typically set up (and is taken from a real mythic tale that shall remain nameless to protect the guilty)

Imagine a world where at least half of all positions of authority are occupied by females. Imagine that in this world there is a mix of fantasy races (humans, elves, dwarves, trolls, etc). In this situation, there is a military unit that is 50% female. A female 8ft troll is appointed to be new NCO in this unit. She overhears one of the human males in her new unit joking that she is like a mountain; “Beautiful but dangerous to climb.” Feeling insecure about the sexual innuendo and thinking that she needs to prove herself she beats up the much smaller and weaker man to such an extent that he has to be in the hospital for over a week to recover.

The absurdity of this is obvious. If an 8ft male had beat up a small female over a remark like that it would be so bizarre that it would not even make a good villain. If an 8ft male troll had beat up another human male over a remark like that it would most likely be used as evidence that the troll was homophobic. The only thing you can do to make sense of the story is to ignore the fact that she is 8ft tall and superhumanly strong, ignore the fact that she lives in a world where female command is common place, and ignore the fact that she is an NCO (which is an experienced soldier who normally has already “proved” themselves). Then you might be able to understand why she might react the way she did.

The problem this author had/has is that they want to create a world in which they can have it both ways. They want to explore the vulnerability of being female in traditionally male environments and at the same time explore a world where there are no traditional male environments or height/strength differences between the genders. And while you can successfully accomplish either one of those goals in myth, you can’t try to accomplish both of them without creating straw targets.

And this is a common problem in all morally simple stories. You have fictional people believing things that have no basis in the fictional world solely so that the story creator can preach. The only way you can have moral complex stories is to have morally opposing ideas that are well grounded in the fictional universe in which the story is set.

April 9, 2016

How shall we make Myth morally complex? Part 3

Filed under: Intro to Myth Making,Theory — Tags: — Myth Maker @ 10:22 pm


Part 1 is here

Part 2 is here

No Cost Morality

The Boy Scout gets the girl, destroy the bad guy, and lives happily ever after. You would be a fool to be anyone else. Why not make the moral choices that get you whatever you want? The Boy Scout might sniffle and cry about how many good friends he lost during the struggle to get to the happily ever after, but the loss of his friends will never be from moral choices that he made. Instead all the pain and suffering is directly attributable to the evil choices that others made.

Now the normal complaint about “Boy Scout” stories is that real life is not that simple. But a bigger problem is that morality is not that cheap. Often, the right moral choice does seem obvious. But often times when the “right” moral choice seems most clear to us is also when it is most costly.

There is an old story about draw bridge operator who knows a train is coming at the same time he sees a child playing in the gears of draw bridge mechanism. Saving the train seems to him to be obviously the right thing to do but it is not costless. And it is this cost that makes lowering the draw bridge morally complex in spite of the fact that is clear to the draw bridge operator what he has to do.

Real moral complexity does not come from people not knowing what is right and wrong. If you don’t know what is right or wrong what difference do your choices make? Any choice has an equal chance of being right or wrong. What makes thing morally complex is facing a choice where things that we value are incompatible. We don’t want to kill a child but we can’t let everyone on a train die. We don’t want to kill our brother, but the revolutionary movement he is part of is going to result in chaos and millions of people dying if it is not stopped. We don’t want to kill our sister, but she is fighting for an oppressive government in the name of preserving order.

Cost is what defines moral complexity. A morally complex myth makes it clear that doing the “right” thing is intrinsically costly because we can’t do all the “right” things that we would like to do. Often times, the “right” things that we would like to do are incompatible with each other (like justice and mercy). If we could act in support of everything that we valued, we would have no moral dilemmas.

April 7, 2016

How shall we make Myth morally complex? Part 2

Filed under: Intro to Myth Making,Theory — Tags: — Myth Maker @ 8:18 pm

Part One can be found here.

Disqualifying the moral opposition

If we have a bishop seeking to impose theocratic rule, he must be a pedophile. At the very least, he must be shown to be a gross hypocrite in some fashion or other. It is only our hero who is consistent in his beliefs. The same thing goes if our antagonist is a capitalist, communist, believer in “might makes right”, or whatever moral idea we might choose to vilify. It is not enough that our antagonist be wrong, he must also be a hypocrite.

If our bishop is an incorruptible man who practices what he preaches and is surrounded by loyal follower who love and respect him for what he is then it makes it that much more complicated for our hero to fight against him. The moral dilemmas are harder if the man is wrong but not a hypocrite. It is much harder to butcher off honest believers then it is to butcher off cynical hypocritical opportunists.

We hate such complications. So we make things simpler on ourselves. We conjure up images of Hitler, Stalin, and the Spanish inquisition to justify our moral simplicity. We willfully forget that the Finns fought on the side of Hitler and Churchill fought on the side of Stalin. Or we remember these things and cynically decided that there is no moral order and it doesn’t really make any difference what you do as long as you win.

But a painting that is all black is the only thing that has a simpler color scheme then painting that is done in black and white. Saying that everyone is equally amoral is the only thing that is simpler than saying that there are good guys and bad guys. Complexity comes when the moral ideas that you feel are wrong are held by people who are no more hypocritical then you are.

That is not to say that the righteous hero has no place in myth. Myth is for distilling abstract ideas into concrete realities. But to achieve moral complexity the antagonist of our hero must be equally pure. Our nature loving “good” Witch must be pursued by a Paladin who is as brave and pure as he is convinced that Witches must be wiped off the face of the earth. If we want our story to be morally complex the resolution to their conflict must be as tragic as it is heroic. We should not feel triumphant at the death of the Paladin even if that is how the story has to end.

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress