Modern Mythology


Those of you who have been regular readers for some time will know of my interest in Westerns. I have read a certain amount of non-fiction on the topic, just as I have read about the history and politics of ancient Greece. Yet, it is not the resurrection of the facts about the long-dead as much as the cultural artefacts they left behind that is my main interest. Aristotle, whom I find myself referring to often, said that “poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular”. I have a thesis which is largely in support of this amazing claim.

This is not my first attempt to come to grips with the Western. Nor, I suspect, shall it be my last. It seems as though the time of the Western has passed, of the Top 10 westerns, only one was made after the 1960s; and that was made by a man who earned his name in the Spaghetti Westerns which make up a disproportionate number of the top 10. It seems like Sergio Leone got the formula pretty much right.

My own initial experience was not with his work, but with those limp-wristed moral tales favoured by John Wayne. Some did have some bite; his version of The Alamo changed my understanding of the hero forever. The brave souls who died for an idea of freedom, truth and the like, were a far cry from the suave but ultimately invincible Bond. Their deaths set them apart, because they were human, their heroism tempered by their humanity.

It wasn’t until this year that I realised why the Iliad seemed so familiar when I first read it, back at high school: its context is that of the Alamo – a group of staunch defenders, fighting for what they believe in against a superior army… but this just doesn’t stand up to a close-comparison. There are too many differences. I’ll get back to that in a moment, but a momentary digression:

This is not only not the first time I’ve talked about westerns, but it’s not the first time I’ve talked about the Iliad either. Achilleus is the biggest martial bad-ass ever, his mastery of the battlefield is unquestioned – he was defeated by Apollo himself, giving flight to Paris’ arrows. We can tell he is the greatest because he defeated Hektor – the most viable alternative, for as Achilleus puts it at the start of his epic sulk:

a yearning for Achilleus will strike Achaea’s sons and all your armies! But then, Atrides, harrowed as you will be, nothing you do can save you – not when your hordes of fighters drop and die, cut down by the hands of man-killing Hektor! Achilleus, Iliad, 1.282

Eloquently, this is Achilleus building up the reputation and status of his great rival; a reputation bolstered as in Achilleus’ absence, Hektor cuts a swathe through the Greek armies. A very close reading of the text actually renders Hektor somewhat less fearsome than this, but the dramatic convention of Homer leaves no doubt as to his status. As Hektor’s status is built up, so is the status of the man who kills him.

And so, I return, to a lone gunman, entering a town under threat from a gang of rough men, the sort who will stop at nothing, whose morals are as creased and worn as their hats and clothes. Land-pirates, raiding at will, risking their lives to plunder other men. But who are these other men? The western will be at great pains to show you their infamous deeds, their iron control, their cat-like reflexes. They could be a John Herod in The Quick and the Dead; or an Indio in For A Few Dollars More. The role of the hero is to defeat the villain; and in the process to demonstrate their own arête/virtu. The Iliad stands not only at the head of western literature, but of Westerns. The structure of the work, building up one hero, so that they may be defeated by another, is the classical mode of the western.

If I have a motto though, it’s that ”if you’re a genius, the rules don’t apply”, and some of the greater Westerns go that way. There is no sense in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid of this adversarial definition of character – their heroism comes from an accumulation of more generic glory. Unforgiven works by subverting the stature of Bill Munny’s foe, Bill Daggett, stripping the hero of his kleos, and transforming the epic into a more human story.

So where have the Westerns gone? Handily resolving this question, as well as my earlier speculation on the place of mythology in the modern world, is the answer: Comics. Also, action movies. Comic book characters are defined by their nemeses, in some cases these are almost as recognisable as the heroes themselves. Is Batman really more famous than the Joker? More likely it was the infamy and notoriety of his enemies which catapulted Batman to his status as the most ubiquitous super hero. Superman is defined by Lex Luthor, Professor X by Magneto… is it a coincidence that obscure heroes like the Green Hornet are only famous in comparison to their foes? Even James Bond, transformed into a boiler-plate action hero by the movies, has a nemesis whose defeat defined his career in the books.

When you strip back the trappings of setting, the stylistic and dialectic differences between works, the medium in which they are conveyed, and the gaudy idolatry of character-worship… you are left to assign each work to a genre, to put like with like, on terms of structural purity. The Western discards its dusty trails and horses, its Texan patios and the cellulose on which it was pioneered; you are left with the study of a man without a name. He is brave, but not moral, he is strong, but not merciful. His life is defined by the death of his twin, and the appeal lies in the resolution of conflict: not in favour of right, but prowess.

Got round to signing up for KapCon today. My first since ’98. I’m running a horror game called Be Home By Dark which is just a really preliminary sketch at this point, but based on an idea I’ve been kicking around for a month or two.

Still looking for 2 players for my Pulp Gothic game. It will be modern-gothic in setting, with some horror elements, and a vein of action. Saturday sometime is seeming like the most plausible time.

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5 Responses to Modern Mythology

  1. jenni_talula says:

    woop! Register for Kapcon! Thanks for reminding me!

    also Heroes defined by villains..do you think that’s also true for Sherlock Holmes and Moriaty?

    • Anonymous says:

      Mostly not. Sherlock Holmes would be still be an icon if Moriarty had never been introduced. Remember that Conan Doyle introduced Moriarty only because Holmes had become too popular and he wanted to kill him off so as to break free of the authorial equivalent of typecasting. After he was forced to bring Holmes back, Moriarty hardly got another mention.

      So why only “mostly” not? Because the very fact that you’re asking the question shows how the hero-versus-villain thing captures the imagination. In the Holmes *myth*, Moriarty has assumed a vastly greater importance than he ever did in the text, to the point where Moriarty can be referenced without reference to Holmes. But I’d argue that it’s Moriarty who has been defined by his relationship to Holmes, not vice versa.

      Random other heroes who raise the same question:

      Doctor Who. Defined by the Master? No. By the Daleks? Up to a point, but still no cigar. Yes, critical discussion in the playgrounds of the 60s was dominated by putting a cardboard box over one’s head and going “Exterminate,” but when the BBC revived the series last year, did the headlines say, “Daleks to return to TV”? In fact the legal issue about whether the new series would be allowed to feature the Daleks gives us a real-world case study of Mash’s point: the reaction to the Nation estate’s refusal to allow use of the Daleks was (a) that’s a bit unsporting, if the Doctor is allowed to come back, the Daleks should be allowed another pop at him, yay Daleks and boo hiss to the Nation estate, but at the same time (b) it’s not the end of the world, it’s still Doctor Who even without the Daleks, yay Doctor. I’d interpret that as the hero being of modern mythic proportions, and the villain being defined by — and acquiring mythic status through — its hero.

      Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Hardboiled and western have something in common I think — the loner, the hero who wears a taciturn and cynical veneer, the ready and brutal violence. Can you name any of Sam Spade’s villains? After racking my brains I remembered Brigid O’Shaugnessy; the only other name that sprang to mind was Sidney Greenstreet, but I’m pretty sure he was the actor rather than the character. Heck, I remembered the name of Spade’s partner before his enemies, and he dies offstage before the beginning of “The Maltese Falcon.”

      In general I think the whole “heroes defined by villains” thing is an artefact of the Age of Short Attention Spans. If Professor X is inextricably linked in the popular imagination with Magneto, it’s because Magneto was promoted as the villain in the most recent and most heavily promoted commercial venture involving Professor X. If the next movie involves a different villain but is equally successful, Magneto is forgotten. Quick, which villain defines Spiderman? Which villain defines the Hulk?

      Not that the boot is always on the hero’s foot. Quick, which hero “defines” the villainous Fu Manchu? Is Dracula really “defined by” Van Helsing?

      Mythic heroes can exist without mythic villains and vice versa. Conversely, quite ordinary villains can acquire a name for themselves if their hero is mythic enough, and again vice versa. If one character is truly inspired, it doesn’t take two to tango.

      Cheers,
      Ivan

      • mashugenah says:

        I hadn’t really intended to universally sweep all characters into the “must have nemesis” box. In fact, I think there’s a strong case to be made that only those heroes whose virtues are generic need a villain. Batman, for all his appeal, is no Shadow – I think in large part he needs those colourful villains to bring life to what is otherwise a fairly boilerplate revenge-motiff. Some incarnations of Batman are more memorable than others, I must admit.

        The Doctor is a very good example of this: his enemies can largely be monster-of-the-week because his characteristics are quirky and lively in their own right. Conversely, I find Sherlock Holmes to be an especially bland individual, despite some memorable character flaws.

        Yet, since by-and-large my discussion was aimed at Homer, there’s one obvious hero not defined by his nemesis, except as originator of his story: Odysseus. He’s remembered and celebrated for his trickery, and for his journey; Poseidon imparts no more flavour to him than any god would have who opposed him. Odysseus’ nemesis is, in fact, generic.

        There is also the matter of the character’s perspective. Westerns are explicitly adversarial by nature – the hero defines himself in opposition to his particular nemesis. No interpretation is needed on the part of the viewer, other than to recognise what is obvious to the character himself. Batman, in many versions of his story, thinks of himself as the opposite of the Joker. Spiderman’s concerns are far more introspective and universal – he worries about Villains, not a villain in particular. Just so with the Doctor, but again, opposite to Holmes, who is heard to lament “I am bored – if only there were a Moriarty to liven things up!”

        There is a natural affinity between the Noir detectives and Westerns, but I tend to think that they have two different emphases. Noir is about exposition – understanding what the situation is. In Westerns, there is not usually much ambiguity, merely a balancing of alternate courses of action. I think Comic books have a more even split between the two.

    • Anonymous says:

      Mostly not. Sherlock Holmes would be still be an icon if Moriarty had never been introduced. Remember that Conan Doyle introduced Moriarty only because Holmes had become too popular and he wanted to kill him off so as to break free of the authorial equivalent of typecasting. After he was forced to bring Holmes back, Moriarty hardly got another mention.

      So why only “mostly” not? Because the very fact that you’re asking the question shows how the hero-versus-villain thing captures the imagination. In the Holmes *myth*, Moriarty has assumed a vastly greater importance than he ever did in the text, to the point where Moriarty can be referenced without reference to Holmes. But I’d argue that it’s Moriarty who has been defined by his relationship to Holmes, not vice versa.

      Random other heroes who raise the same question:

      Doctor Who. Defined by the Master? No. By the Daleks? Up to a point, but still no cigar. Yes, critical discussion in the playgrounds of the 60s was dominated by putting a cardboard box over one’s head and going “Exterminate,” but when the BBC revived the series last year, did the headlines say, “Daleks to return to TV”? In fact the legal issue about whether the new series would be allowed to feature the Daleks gives us a real-world case study of Mash’s point: the reaction to the Nation estate’s refusal to allow use of the Daleks was (a) that’s a bit unsporting, if the Doctor is allowed to come back, the Daleks should be allowed another pop at him, yay Daleks and boo hiss to the Nation estate, but at the same time (b) it’s not the end of the world, it’s still Doctor Who even without the Daleks, yay Doctor. I’d interpret that as the hero being of modern mythic proportions, and the villain being defined by — and acquiring mythic status through — its hero.

      Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Hardboiled and western have something in common I think — the loner, the hero who wears a taciturn and cynical veneer, the ready and brutal violence. Can you name any of Sam Spade’s villains? After racking my brains I remembered Brigid O’Shaugnessy; the only other name that sprang to mind was Sidney Greenstreet, but I’m pretty sure he was the actor rather than the character. Heck, I remembered the name of Spade’s partner before his enemies, and he dies offstage before the beginning of “The Maltese Falcon.”

      In general I think the whole “heroes defined by villains” thing is an artefact of the Age of Short Attention Spans. If Professor X is inextricably linked in the popular imagination with Magneto, it’s because Magneto was promoted as the villain in the most recent and most heavily promoted commercial venture involving Professor X. If the next movie involves a different villain but is equally successful, Magneto is forgotten. Quick, which villain defines Spiderman? Which villain defines the Hulk?

      Not that the boot is always on the hero’s foot. Quick, which hero “defines” the villainous Fu Manchu? Is Dracula really “defined by” Van Helsing?

      Mythic heroes can exist without mythic villains and vice versa. Conversely, quite ordinary villains can acquire a name for themselves if their hero is mythic enough, and again vice versa. If one character is truly inspired, it doesn’t take two to tango.

      Cheers,
      Ivan

    • mashugenah says:

      My short answer is a qualified yes. 🙂

      The qualification is more-or-less as Ivan set out; that Moriarty does not actually feature very much in the original material. 🙂

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