Jul 31, 2007

Generational Myths

Found this interesting observation at Duck of Minerva;

For members of generation X like myself, Star Wars is one of the constitutive myths of our childhoods. The Force, lightsaber duels, the Millennium Falcon, "I am your father," "he's my brother," "I've got a bad feeling about this," and so on . . . this is what we grew up with.

...For members of the next generation, the "millennial" generation, I'd wager that a principal constitutive myth is the Harry Potter series.

For many old fogies like me, born shortly after mid-century, coming into adolescence around 1970, the central cultural myth was J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

This got me thinking about how, if indeed these mythic structures define their generations, how they might differ. Part of the difference lies in the medium, which another boomer idol, Marshall McLuhan said "is the message." Lord of the Rings was a book (at least back then, it was only a book), Star Wars was a movie series and Harry Potter is really both (starting as a book but being translated to film very quickly) This in itself may say something about the three generations. Let's consider the three central myths (and all three are quite mythic in tone and content) according to how several key elements are dealt with. It might give a glimpse into future social history to see what the emerging generation resonates with compared to those that have gone before.

One of the most striking differences between the three mythologies is in their attitude toward technology. While Tolkien has a decidedly negative attitude toward machinery, calling it "orcish," he shows great love and respect for handicrafts and artwork. While Saruman, the evil wizard, builds huge ugly noisy machine-works at Isengard, the hobbits live in a rustic idyll and make things that are homely and useful; pleasant if not beautiful. The elves and dwarves make objects of great beauty. The comparison also shows in the races of men. The clean-living folk of Rohan, even their kings, live in wooden halls. The men of Gondor, whose near downfall comes about in part through arrogance and pride, pile up massive cities of stone.

There is no such nuanced attitude in the Star Wars universe. The series manifests an abiding fascination with technology, and a faith that it can work near-miracles (faster than light travel, artificial intelligence, etc.) Many of the most striking visual sequences in the films involve battles between space-ships; technological artifacts as eye candy. Both the good and the evil sides make use of these technologies, so in that way they are seen as value-neutral.

The Harry Potter books have another, and quite curious, attitude from either of the older myths. To the wizards of Rowling's world (with the eccentric exception of Arthur Weasely) muggle technology is neither an object of fear nor of fascination. It is generally just ignored as beneath notice. One of the characters dismisses our technology as "those gadgets muggles make because they can't do magic." There is, it is true, a whole alternate wizard technology of flying broomsticks, animated portraits and the like but none of this is strictly speaking technological in the usual sense. These things are not animated by a clever contrivance of their internal parts, but by an infusion of magical power. It may be significant that in the Potter world, only the goblins, rather nasty creatures, seem to actually make things in the ordinary way. When Hermione knits socks and hats for the Elves by hand, the others regard her as slightly dotty.


If we define spirituality as seeking the numinous and/or the transcendent, and religion as the organized and institutionalized manifestation of that seeking, we can see some degree of spirituality in all three myths, but a striking lack of religion.

This lack of a formal religion is especially odd in Tolkien, and has been pointed out by his critics. Tolkien himself was a rather conservative Catholic, but there seems to be no mention of any religions in Middle Earth. There is no temple in Minas Tirith that we hear of, nor priests anywhere. However, Frodo does call out to the Valar (gods) in moments of peril; "O Elbereth! Githoniel!" and Denethor in his madness makes mention of the "heathen kings of old." (Presumably the Gondor of the Third Age was not heathen, what then was it?)

The spiritual aspect of Middle Earth is alluded to in LOTR but we need to go to the Silmarillion to see it clearly. Tolkien's religious vision was monotheistic; all things emanating from the creator Eru Illuvatar. His manifestation in the earth was primarily through light, particularly the light of the two sacred trees that once stood in Aman. The light of these trees is reflected in the eyes of the High Elves. It may be that Tolkien felt that in his world the numinous was readily manifest through the Elves particularly, and that an organized religion would be superfluous.

There is certainly a metaphorical transcendence in Tolkien's world; passage to the Uttermost West as taken by Frodo and several other characters at the end of the book. The longing of the Elves for the West is a poignant allusion to the spiritual longing for transcendence, which sometimes feels like heart-break. "This shore and the other shore" is a symbol often found in Buddhist literature as well.

Much has been made of the spiritual side of Star Wars, in particular the numerous references to the Force. I think too much has been made of this, just as too little attention has been given to the spiritual aspect of Tolkien. The Force may be a quasi-religious concept, borrowed somewhat from Taoism but coloured by Manicheanism (the good and the dark sides) but it is hard to see much of the really numinous about it, much less transcendence. The Force is an integral part of the weave of this world, it is not separate or other. If the Force is a religion, it is a religion without any transcendence. It is really physics rather than metaphysics and Lucas' universe is more materialist than either of the other two myths.

In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, the Star Wars world has the closest thing to an organized religion in the quasi-monastic Jedi Order. But the battles of the Jedi are entirely of and for this world, and they do not seek any "further shore."

Harry Potter's world has little of overt spirituality, and avoids any religious allusions at all. Nevertheless, what the Zen people call the "Great Matter" of life and death is a major theme running throughout the series. The post-mortem state is deliberately left mysterious. When Harry has his near death experience at the climax of the last book, Dumbledore meets him in the anteroom of the after-life and tells him he has the choice to go back, or to go on. When Harry asks what he means by "going on" Dumbledore just shrugs and says, "going on." Likewise Sirius's death is portrayed as falling through a veiled doorway.

This side of death, however, there is no real transcendence in Potter's world. On the other hand, there is a clear sense of distinction between the ordinary (muggle) world and the magical realm of the wizards. This concept of a magical realm invisible to us, but at the same time penetrating our world with occasional visitations both ways, is more shamanic than anything else. While the transcendent is almost (but not quite) missing, Rowling's world is full of the numinous.


Turning now to the question of the politics underlying the three myths, we again find marked differences. When asked about his politics, Tolkien once described himself as an "Anarcho-Monarchist." The anarchist side shows itself in the rustic utopia of the Shire, which doesn't seem to have any real government at all (the Mayor being a mostly honorific post, and the Shire-Reeves being a tiny border patrol) and yet they seem to get along quite happily.

The monarchist side is evident in the major theme of the return of the rightful king. The king's right comes from his blood-line, particularly the infusion of Elvish and even Valar (divine) blood in Aragorn. Tolkien's politics is an odd synthesis totally out of harmony with any of the major trends of his own time, or ours. It is essentially an idealized medieval view. (Another close analogue, but one of which Tolkien probably knew nothing, would be the Buddhist ideal of the Wheel-Turning Monarch who rules by righteousness not by force.)

Certainly Tolkien was viscerally opposed to any kind of totalitarianism (one or another form of which seduced so many of his generation) as can be clearly seen in the "Scouring of the Shire," his most overtly political chapter. (Unfortunately missing from the film version.)

The Star War series is the most political of the three myths. The whole story is essentially a political one, the struggle for freedom against tyranny. In the prequel movies the politics even seems to allude to contemporary events, with Palpatine standing in for Bush, although Lucas denies that was his intention.

The politics in Star Wars has a very American flavour, with the ideal being a free republic. There is a strong valuation of the rugged individual against the overbearing collectivist Empire.

However, it also needs to be said that the politics in Star Wars are not really consistent or even coherent. The struggle for the republic includes a princess, and the robots being portrayed as autonomous, conscious and sensitive, represent a kind of slavery.

The politics in Harry Potter is not so overt but there is a constant theme of anti-authoritarianism running throughout the series. The Ministry of Magic is portrayed mostly in a negative light as ineffectual at best, compromised at worst. The only authority figure in the whole series who is portrayed positively is Dumbledore, and he actually does very little governing and even winks at the students' transgressions of the rules.

There is even a strong positive valuation of rebellion, as in the constant mischief of the Weasley twins, and even more powerfully in the student revolt of Dumbledore's Army against the strict regime of Headmistress Umbridge. Certainly Harry Potter, the hero of the books, is constantly in trouble of one sort or another with the wizarding powers-that-be. It could also be noted that in the prologue to Half Blood Prince, the muggle prime-minister is characterized in a rather comic way. But beyond this negative portrayal of authority, Rowling gives no hint as to what might be a desirable political arrangement. And how are the Ministers of Magic selected anyway? Politics in Potter's world is mostly an irrelevance, an annoyance whenever it imposes itself on everyday life.


Considering next how the three myths deal with that very human preoccupation, love and sexuality. Turning first to Tolkien, there is little to say because he mostly avoids the topic. In the whole trilogy you can count the love stories on one hand; Sam and Rosie, the Aragorn-Arwen-Eowyn triangle, Eowyen and Faramir and Gimli's distant admiration of Galadriel. All of these are treated very cursorily, and with the exception of the first, in a very formal and courtly manner. (Of course I'm speaking of the books here, not the movies)

There is more passion in Star Wars with the Luke-Leia-Hans triangle and even incest (albeit unwitting) with Luke and Leia being siblings. Nevertheless, the love stories remain a minor theme taking second place to the action of galactic war and the machinations of the various factions.

It is only when we come to Harry Potter that erotic relationships between the characters become a major theme. (After the first few books, of course, when the characters reach an appropriate age) It is one of the strengths of Rowling's writing that she portrays realistically and sensitively the adolescents angst of coming to terms with sexual desire. Harry's first date is a disaster (wasn't everyone's?), Ron and Hermione find each other with painful slowness and many detours, Ginny's hopeless crush on Harry finds fulfilment at last. It is all very real, and a very important part of the appeal of the books. The dominant tone is certainly not courtly like in Tolkien, nor even passionate as in Star Wars, but anxiety ridden and problematic.


The treatment of Gender Roles shows a gradual evolution through the three myths, paralleling what was going on in society. Tolkien's Middle Earth is very much a man's world (or perhaps we should say a male world to avoid offending the elves and dwarves!) There are very few female characters at all, and the only really strong ones are Galadriel and Eowyn, and the latter chafed at being restricted to a "woman's place." (We ought, I suppose, add Shelob to the list!) The only time a woman, Eowyn, does any fighting it is by disguising herself as a man. Women are not unsympathetically portrayed in Tolkien, they're mostly just not portrayed at all. It is not surprising that for the film version the role of Arwen, a very sketchy character in the books, was greatly enhanced.

Star Wars, too, is a mostly male adventure with the very important exception, of course, of Princess Leia. (And in the prequels, Padme Amidala.) Princess Leia does play a more autonomous and dynamic role than any of Tolkien's women, but she is greatly outnumbered.

It is only when we come to the Harry Potter world that we see something approaching a gender equality. There are many strongly defined, and powerful, witches in the series; Hermione, Tonks, McGonagall, Luna to name just a few, and also some on the side of evil such as Bellatrix. Nevertheless, even here, the three most powerful characters; Harry, Dumbledore and Voldemort are all wizards.


The attitudes toward Nature in the three myths is markedly different. Tolkien has the most empathy with the natural world, and he lavishes a great deal of descriptive prose on the varied landscapes the hobbits pass through. He, like his hobbits, obviously had a great affection and affinity for the natural world, the earth and the vegetation that grows on it. His most sympathetic characters, the hobbits and the elves, are those closest to nature. The most beautiful place on Middle Earth is not the stone city of MInas Tirith but the Golden Wood of Lothlorien. Most of the story takes place out of doors.

Likewise, the foulest deed of his evil characters is the way that they destroy the environment. Orcs are described as "hacking and hewing" and Mordor is of course a polluted waste-land. The revolt of the Ents against Saruman depicts the wrath of nature against human spoilage. It is also not with out importance that Sam, whom Tolkien himself called "the true hero of the book" was a gardener by trade.

The depiction of nature in Star Wars on the other hand is almost entirely either absent or negative. Most of the action takes place in the artificial and antiseptic environment of space-ships or technologically sophisticated buildings, and the planets the characters visit seem mostly to be either barren deserts or hostile volcanic worlds. The one healthy and natural eco-system portrayed, the forest world of the Ewoks, serves mostly as a backdrop for an action sequence involving flying motorcycles darting among the trees. This is a universe of men and machines, with nature playing very little part.

Harry Potter falls somewhere in the middle. Most of the story takes place indoors, but an important secondary locale is the Forbidden Forest and the students of Hogwarts are never too far from the weather, with the ceiling of the great hall magically reflecting the sky outside. Rowling also pays some attention to the changing seasons, and the major character of Hagrid is pretty close to the earth.


Just to touch briefly on a few more points of comparison;

Violence is a factor in all three myths, sword or light-saber or death-dealing wand but interestingly enough, in all three the protaganist saves the world by at one point abstaining from harm. Frodo spares Smeagol, Luke Skywalker refuses to kill Darth Vader when he learns his true identity and Harry Potter destroys the last horocrux by letting Voldemort curse him.

If we could define the highest ideals of each myth, for LOTR it would be peace and domesticity in a rightly ordered world (very Canadian that, "Peace Order and Good Government" when Aragorn comes back!) In Star Wars it would be Freedom. In Harry Potter it would be the values of friendship and family; loyalty, devotion, sharing and self-sacrifice.

Evil in all three myths is in some manner faceless. Sauron was portrayed as a disembodied eye for the movies, but in the books not even that much is shown. He remains hidden throughout. Darth Vader was of course masked and Voldemort is described as being rather hideously featureless; a slit for a nose and eyes like a snake. He is also in a sense nameless; "He Who Must Not Be Named."

The cosmology in Tolkien is very medieval; all things emanating in ordered layers from the divine in an orderly chain of being. In Star Wars, the cosmology is modern; scientific and even materialist. In the Harry Potter books it is a dualism of the ordinary world and the magical, numinous other realm of the wizards and witches.


In some ways Tolkien seems an odd choice for a generation stereotyped as radical, self-indulgent and anti-authoritarian. In revolt against the claustrophobic world of the fifties, the children of the sixties ended up idealizing hobbit holes! Primarily I think the appeal was the return of an ancient mythic vision to the sterile landscape of the "Leave it to Beaver" world. It was a time when people wanted to break out of rigid structures, and a quest into Wilderland hit just the right note.

Even Tolkien's somewhat reactionary political vision resonated at some level. It was a generation in revolt against modernity, and "back to the land" is really a deeply conservative impulse.

Tolkien, too, could be called a romantic (in the nineteenth century sense) and there was a strongly romantic or anti-classical bent to hippie sensibilities in everything from clothing styles to spiritual seeking.

It is not hard to see Star Wars in Generation X. They are the ones who can't go out the door without an iPod jammed into their ear, who carry cell-phones everywhere, who make computer hacking into high art. Politically too, they tend toward libertarianism, the Republic against the Empire. Reagan in the 'eighties used allusions to Star Wars quite often; the Soviet Union as Evil Empire.

The Star Wars stories were not romantic in the same was as were Tolkien's tales, but didn't really represent a reversion to classicism either. There's something of the Heroic Age about them; a tone akin in some ways to the Illiad. The heroic individual at centre stage. There was certainly something individualistic about 'eighties culture, even if it seldom arose to heroism. It was, like Star Wars, also quite materialistic.

What of the Potter kids? It is too early to know for sure, but some guesses might be ventured from the tone of the books. If they develop into adults still resonating with this myth the culture of the twenty-teens may be marked by a strong emphasis on family and friendship bonds, a more balanced approach to technology and a seeking for the magic around the next bend.


glenn fitzgerald said...

I just read the piece---and considered it worthwhile enough to read twice and then thrice.

I'll wait a day for some of the very excellently made points to sink in, and then venture some comment, perhaps.

I found, "Generational Myths," a very entertaining and informative read. It's just too bad that the blog doesn't abound with more examples of quality content such as what I usually find here.

Glenn Fitzgerald

Thunder Bay

Glenn Fitzgerald.

glenn fitzgerald said...

I goofed my sentence in the previous post. I said:

" It's just too bad that the blog doesn't abound with more examples of quality content such as what I usually find here."

I meant to write:

"It's just too bad that the blogosphere doesn't abound with more examples of quality content such as what I usually find here."

glenn fitzgerald said...

Anyway, really really good work Punnadhammo!

Glenn Fitzgerald

Joe Clement said...

A good supplement to this, particularly in the sub-discussion on Star Wars, is an article Slavoj Zizek wrote for In These Times: Revenge of Gloabal Fianance.

What's most interesting is that for as much as I've been able to find, it summarizes more or less Zizek's attitude about Buddhism. I am still in the process of developing a more nuanced engagement with Zizek's theories via the buddha-dhamma.

glenn fitzgerald said...

Thanks for the link to Revenge of Gloabal Fianance, Joe.

Glenn Fitzgerald

Anonymous said...

:-) Arthur Weasley...

Ajahn Punnadhammo said...

You're right! Silly mistake, I've changed it to "Arthur" in the text.

MoE said...

A very interesting and well thought-out post!

thartist said...

Interesting post as well. One thing to note is that everybody that "writes" these myths are part of a generation of some sort, thus revealing their generational perspective when writing. But I would not get these writers confused with the message, as each writer has his/her own agenda to writing such myths. One reason, which I hope is the most important, is to sell and to sell well.

One must not forget the amount of marketing that goes into making such myths niche enough for people to actualy get off their butts to go purchase a book or a ticket. Millions of dollars go into the positioning of such myths into today's youth.

I have had a hand in www.generationalprofiles.com. A tool that pretty much mimics Hollywood's market place reports on generational tendencies(i.e. what people will see, watch, read, and then go watch again). Take the profile, see what generation you truly align with, adn then invite others to see how they align with you. What you should see, what I saw at least, is the close association we have with each other and how marketing could act as the bond which connects us all together.

So what is the most important myth ? The myth as portrayed in the subject matter ? Or the myth that makes the subject matter myth ?

Lotus_in_the_hills said...

Is the Aggañña Sutta a myth? And can we make a movie out of it? With lightsabers?