Gate Guardians and Shape Changers
By John Jarvis.
A number of writers have asked me to explain more about these two concepts — Gate Guardians and Shape Changers — which are discussed in StoryCraftNet and in the StoryCraft software. For a good example, let’s look at Star Wars.
A Gate Guardian impedes the Hero from performing his or her task. The stepparents at the beginning of the Star Wars trilogy are good examples of Gate Guardians. They did not want Luke to move from his ordinary existence, the general purpose of the Gate Guardian.
For when Luke goes to fix up R2D2 and sees the partial message from the Princess, he naturally wants to learn more. But he is held back by his stepparents. The Gate Guardians are always an outside influence.
Gate Guardians, though, need not necessarily be in the beginning world of the Hero; in fact, they need not even be human. The Death Star, for example, is a perfect example of a non-human Gate Guardian. So too is the ship that Luke and Han are on that won’t move at the speed of light when needed. Another example, this time human, is the Empire’s soldiers.
Did I hear someone saying Darth Vadar is a Gate Guardian too? Well, yes and no.
Mr. Vader is a Gate Guardian in the sense that he is an obstacle to Luke. Yet he is also something far more important: a Shape Changer. A Shape Changer is a person who introduces the story’s moral element, and often its theme. Since this element is almost always introduced as a challenge, though, it is assigned to the Antagonist, not the Hero. Indeed, one might say that in Theme-Category stories, the Antagonist is always a Shape Changer. What then, you may ask, is such a being? A Shape Changer is anyone, or anything, that moves the Hero from a lower plain to a higher one. For example, in the Empire Strikes Back Luke learns that Vadar is his father. Luke must now wrestle with a far deeper, more fundamental — more internal — problem than merely saving the Princess or even just saving the universe from destruction by the Empire. He is suddenly confronted with the problem of Oedipus: do I kill my own father? And is this necessary to live?
In The Return Of The Jedi, we find the writers answering in a resounding “No” — one can live without such a death, be it internal of external. In short, an affirmative would have allied Luke with the dark side forever. Indeed, Vader says over and over, “You don’t know the power of the dark side.” At first, I took this statement at face value and was getting rather tired of hearing it. Then I began to think: if the writers mean this in a mythological sense, then it expresses a far more profound truth: very few of us are able to overcome the dark side; we all, in a sense, kill our father or our mother in order to live. That Luke doesn’t commit this all-too-human “crime” places Star Wars among crucifixion myths, wherein the “dark side” is cured not by killing the parent but by resigning one’s own ego to save the light.
The important point to us as writers, however, is not what Star Wars is philosophically; the important point is that the film introduces the moral element — the theme — in the form of the Antagonist. Thus the Antagonist should never be seen as a block in Theme-Category stories, but simply as a dark Hero!
In Action-Category stories, however, the thrust is much different. There, we are not invited to a morality play, but to a play that simply promises us entertainment; and thus the Antagonist is merely a Gate Guardian and the Hero a superhero, such as a great detective, “searcher for the truth,” etc. We can easily see how Star Wars might have slipped into this Category. Indeed, it would be squarely in Action if it were not for the depth of Vadar. And so we come to the artistic truth that if it weren’t for complex Antagonists, we would not have a complex story, no matter the actions of the Hero
Through a Glass Darkly
Preach the WORD – Part II
By Gary Kriss.
Last month, in homage to the title of this column, I talked about the power of words in St. Paul. This month I’d like to focus on the tradition that formed Paul when he was still Saul and that, undoubtedly, shaped his way with words. In short, I’d like to tap into Paul s power source.
First, a little language lesson: In Old Testament Hebrew, dabar means word. And if we’re talking power, then dabar is definitely high octane, loaded with all kinds of linguistic additives. For example, dabar also means an action. Indeed, in some biblical references, it’s unclear as to how dabar should be translated since “word” and “action” seem synonymous.
Now, since we re being biblical, let’s list one of the fundamental commandments — perhaps the fundamental commandment — of writing: “show, don’t tell” or, put another way, “act, don t recount.” Countless generations of writers, real and would-be, have been taught that “saying” and “doing” are two distinct things. It s a convenient, often productive approach. But if one heeds the Old Testament — a worthy goal even for non-writers — it’s an approach which should be taken with some salt — less than Lot, but more than a grain.
Words, the Old Testament tells us, don t have potency; they are potency. Go back, for example, to the first Five Books of Moses, the Pentateuch, especially in the wonderful Everett Fox translation which manages to convey, in English, all the flavor and meaning of the original language. This is a translation that begs to be read aloud so that the raw strength of the words can be heard and appreciated. These are not wimpy words. They have muscle. They get things done. After listening to them, you can appreciate why words and actions are, in the Old Testament, inseparable.
Notice something else when you read the Old Testament. The stories are being told, not shown, yet they still grab our attention and totally seize our imagination. Part of it is good plotting, of course. But the other part — the larger part — is the power of the words. See for yourself. Turn to Genesis where words created the world. Now that’s power! Turn next to Psalms and read how words direct nature. Pretty good, huh? Want more? Go over to Ezekiel and see how words can cause even dry bones to come to life. Case closed.
The Old Testament is a work filled with drama and passion. It puts any of today’s best-selling potboilers to shame. But beyond its religious dimension for those who believe, it succeeds as a literary work, even for those who don t believe, because it’s a work of and for storytellers. Storytelling is writing s deep archetype. And, in turn, myth is storytelling’s deep archetype. Myth. Storytelling. Writing. All three have always relied on words. But not just words. Words plus. Words that are also actions. Words carefully considered so that, when employed, they blur the distinction between showing and telling. Or, to put it more succinctly, dabar.
Paul knew this. It was his heritage. He knew it and he used it. And so can we — if we remember that we’re not simply wordsmiths. No, we’re more than that, just like the words we use. It’s the something extra that makes us writers.
Now, because dabar teaches us that words are also actions, read the rest of this issue of Story & Myth, then switch over to your word processor and follow Paul’s injunction to Timothy: Preach the Word!
On Incorporating Mythology Into Fantasy
By Robert Marks.
In a lecture to the University of St. Andrews in 1939, a professor of Middle English stated that “Fantasy has also an essential drawback: it is difficult to achieve.” The professor was named John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, and he would later be known for writing THE LORD OF THE RINGS. His words ring true even today.
Mythical fantasy is one of the faster growing genres today. It was first popularized by Tolkien in the 1950s, and today includes such successful writers as Robert Jordan, Dennis L. McKiernan, Tad Williams, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Terry Goodkind, with more writers trying to join them all the time. The problem is how to write mythical fantasy; it is deceptively difficult.
We are going to examine how mythical fantasy incorporates the mythology into the fiction and why it is vital that this occurs (besides the obvious answer that “it wouldn’t be mythical fantasy otherwise”). To begin, we’ll need to define what mythical fantasy is.
In his lecture ON FAIRY STORIES, Tolkien defines fantasy as being “with images of things that are not only ‘not actually present’, but which are indeed not to be found in our primary world at all, or are generally believed not to be found there.” This is the realm of the imagination, but fantasy in general can include not just mythical fantasy but all creative fiction, since “things” refers also to events. For example, Tom Clancy’s THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER involves events, which are not actually real; there certainly is not a Captain Ramius, and all the events around him must occur in the imagination. The characters are interacting in a world which is similar to our own, but also very different in vital ways. Hence, it is a form of fantasy.
The type of fantasy to which we refer is separate from this. Certainly, we find Clancy’s novels exciting, but there is a lack of wonder about Clancy’s world. While his characters achieve remarkable things, they do so in a world that is entirely explained. Yet in books such as LORD OF THE RINGS, there is a natural wonder about the world where the events are taking place. This wonder, as we shall see, can be ascribed to magic, either directly or indirectly, and it is a necessity for successful mythical fantasy.
Mythical fantasy has one pre-eminent responsibility: to restore the wonder of the scientifically explained world to the reader’s mind. For that reason, proper mythical fantasy requires, firstly, mythology. And since this charge cannot be achieved unless the work of fiction is believable, such fantasy must also have, secondarily, a good dose of reality.
It is the inclusion of reality that makes the suspension of disbelief possible. Any truly successful work must have it, as Tolkien acknowledges in his lecture. All published fantasy worlds have basic laws of physics, which are inviolate: if one drops a rock, the rock always falls down, unless acted upon by an outside force. When these laws are not present, the work of fantasy has drifted entirely to the imagination, and the reader finds it unbelievable. For the same reason, characters in mythical fantasy must act realistically. Readers rarely tolerate any stories–whether fantasy or not–in which, for instance, a dunce is able to solve a problem that requires great intelligence.
In a completely realistic world, though, there is no wonder. As we’ve already suggested, perhaps the major appeal of mythical fantasy is that it puts back into the world the magical wonder that science has taken out of it. It is, indeed, a prime responsibility of any fantasy writer to restore this wonder to the reader. And the fantasy writer’s ideal tool for the job is mythology.
Mythology is a remarkable type of literature, with stories often thousands of years old. These stories have some distinguishing features: first, there are Heroes that have either semi-divine origins or accomplish impossible things. An ordinary man cannot kill Grendel, yet Beowulf kills him with his bare hands; similarly, in Irish mythology, Bran is able to find the mythical island of Manannan, which is hidden from mortal eyes.
Second, there is an element of magic that infuses the entire tale, either directly or indirectly. This magic can take the form of divine interference, as in the VOLSUNGA SAGA, or it can be indirectly infused into the world through a spell or a creature, such as the Dragon in BEOWULF.
In his introduction to VOYAGE OF THE FOX RIDER, Dennis L. McKiernan wrote of the mythical creatures such as Elves and Faeries that “the world is a sadder place without them.” This is undeniably true. The masterful fantasy author restores such creatures to their proper place in the imagination of the reader.
Some might argue that a fantasy story can be fantasy without having any mythological components, but I disagree. Robert Jordan’s books, for example, have much that is original; yet the magic contained in his books is undeniably mythical. Magic lies at the root of mythology, it is what makes mythology special. Any fantasy novel that uses magic for storytelling, which it must by nature do, is therefore using, in at least the narrow sense, mythology.
How, though, does one successfully inject mythology into one’s writing? Somehow the author must adopt a mythology that is recognizable and traditional while, at the same time, wondrous and new. To do so, the author needs to borrow some basic mythological theme that readers can identify with and adapt it to his own story, with a generous mix of reality to give the work credence. Without a proper blend of the mythology and reality, the work fails as mythic fantasy. Ideally, the writer must first present the familiar-sounding mythology, and then temper it with reality contained in the world that the author creates.
At the time of the writing of this article, there is a debate going on within the SF Internet newsgroup over whether Terry Goodkind’s books are good fantasy. Goodkind is writing proper mythic fantasy. There is the required element of reality, and there is also a mythical backdrop. The problem, though, with Goodkind’s writings, which is easily attributed to the fact that he is a new writer and merely needs to gain more experience, is that the mix of reality and myth is at times inconsistent and that the myth is often unfamiliar. The reader sees the mythical aspects of Goodkind’s world, but cannot identify with them. Many of his ideas, such as that of the Mord-Sith, are entirely new to most readers, and, more important, alien to them.
The reader, then, of mythical fantasy requires a mythology that is both new and familiar. For this reason, one cannot simply transplant a mythology into one’s writings, it must be adapted. Even Tolkien adapted the Nordic sagas he used for LORD OF THE RINGS; his goal was to tell a new story, not retell an old myth. How well it is adapted will determine the success of any mythical fantasy.
To successfully adapt mythology, therefore, fantasies must include enough of the original saga or myth for readers to “recognize” it. For instance, if one wants to adapt the Irish mythologies of the Tuatha de Danaan (Elves), the Elves cannot suddenly have a complete change in ideology and form, which would warp the mythology beyond recognition. Rather, small alterations in the myths themselves or alterations in the context of the myths will effectively bring newness to the story while preserving the sense of familiarity with the mythology.
At the end of Dennis L. McKiernan’s book, VOYAGE OF THE FOX RIDER, an island filled with mages is destroyed by a massive tidal wave caused by black magic. This is an obvious adaptation of the Atlantis myth from Plato, but the context and small details have been changed. The island is still one of great knowledge, but its destruction is to aid an evil God in the War of the Ban. In addition, the inhabitants of the island are called, not Atlanteans, but Pysks, Magicians, and “Hidden Ones; and there is the possibility that many of the Magicians escape. The mythology is familiar to the reader, but also altered so that it is partially original.
In my own book, DEMON’S VENGEANCE, I used as part of the background the war between the Sidhe (Elves) and the Formorians in Irish mythology. I changed several aspects of the war, however. Where the war was fought over territory in Irish myth, the war in my book is a war of annihilation. The mythology is still recognizable, but I have given a new hard edge to it. Tolkien also used this mythology, but in his works (LORD OF THE RINGS and THE SILMARILLION) the war is fought between Morgoth and the Elves over three jewels, called the Silmarils.
Once the mythological background is established, the author’s task lies in telling the story. The background itself will affect the story — adding a harder or softer edge at times — and bring the world to life. This incorporation of mythology and reality can be a daunting task, and one requiring a great deal of research (I am still collecting books on mythology for my writings). In the end, however, it is a rewarding task for both the reader and the author, as the mythology restores a sense of wonder to our world, if only for a brief moment.