The Ship of Ishtar, part five

Tuesday , 31, January 2017 26 Comments

The most popular fantasy hero today is not Tarzan or John Carter. It’s not Superman or Batman. It’s not even Conan or Elric. No, the most popular fantasy hero of today is probably some video game character like Mario. That’s just how it is, really. And he may not be the most popular one of all right now. Maybe there are other properties that rake in more money, I don’t know. The only reason I even know who he is is because he’s everywhere. He was in the arcades. His cartridge came with that classic 8-bit Nintendo machine. He has a never-ending franchise of games. But even more than that, people just complain about him. A lot. All the time. He really is the last vestige of the bad old days when heroes expected to get the girl in the end, so he’s gradually morphed into some kind of weird Emmanuel Goldstein that people publicly flog in order to signal their bona fides. With slam poetry if need be.

Whatever impulse it is that underlies this hysteria is a major cause behind the near absence of heroism in the wider culture. What little bit that manages to creep past the commissars is decidedly dumbed down. It’s not Star Wars that is the root cause of this per se. It’s the incredible financial success of that franchise combined with George Lucas’s desire to be taken seriously that is the problem. People bought the idea that the original movie was some kind of middle brow exercise in recapitulating Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. And then somehow the thing metastasized into the way that everybody assumed fantasy was meant to be done.

I don’t buy it. And maybe Joseph Campbell was onto something, I don’t know. But the way his model is expressed today, I have to say… it doesn’t really jive with the classic stories I’ve read. This is never more obvious than when older tales are updated for blockbuster movies and then have to be reconciled to the theory.

Just as one example of that, today’s storytellers are absolutely hung up on the “refusal of the call” segment. The plot The Lord of the Rings is very nearly devoid of that sort of thing. Even a casual reading of the work reveals that the key emotional beat for majority of characters is the moment that they choose to show mercy to Gollum even though the wretched creature does not deserve it. The filmmakers don’t seem to grasp this at all, however. And the characters of Aragorn and Faramir waste valuable screen time acting out some hack’s idea of how the story should go rather than having the sense to give us the characters as J. R. R. Tolkien conceived them.

Every time storytellers pull this stunt today, the results is either a flat incoherency or else merely uninspiring, unlikable characters. The latter is the most striking thing about A. Merritt’s handling of that particular beat within The Ship of Ishtar. He has this character that inadvertently bounces in and out of an “Elfland”, often an inopportune moments. The first time this really happens, it is “the honey musk” of the kisses an insanely beautiful immortal that lures the hero back into adventure and danger. The second time, it’s this:

And suddenly all Kenton’s mind awoke. Awoke and was filled with shame, with burning longing, despair.

What would Sigurd think of him when he awakened and found him gone–Sigurd with whom he had sworn blood brothership? What would Gigi think–Gigi, who had made vow for vow with him; and trusting him, had broken his chains?

A frenzy shook him. He must get back! Get back before Sigurd or Gigi knew that he was no longer on the ship.

A healthy desire for a beautiful woman makes the hero normal, human, and relatable. But it’s honor and a loyalty that make him likable as a character. And people following the Joseph Campbell script by rote are incapable of writing heroes like this one. Because he never actually refuses the call himself. No, guys like this would be mortified if the people that were close to them might even for a second think them capable of doing such a thing.

And do guys like this think that going on some big time adventure entitles them to time favors to the princess types they ostensibly do all this stuff for…? Surprisingly the answer is… not at all.

“Sharane!” he breathed. Her soft arms wreathed his neck. “My lord–I pray you forgiveness,” she sighed. “I pray you forgiveness! Yet how could I have known–when first you lay upon the deck and seemed afraid and fled? I loved you! Yet how could I have known how mighty a lord you are?”

Her fragrance shook him; the softness of her against his breath closed his throat.

“Sharane!” he murmured. “Sharane!”

His lips sought hers and clung; mad wine of life raced through his veins; in the sweet fire of her mouth memory of all save this moment was burned away.

“I–give myself–to you!” she sighed.

He remembered…

“You give nothing, Sharane,” he answered her. “I–take!” He lifted her in his arms; he strode through the rosy cabin’s door; shut it with thrust of foot and hurled down its bar.

Sigurd, Trygg’s son, came and sat at the threshold of the rosy cabin. He polished the black priest’s sword, chanting low some ancient bridal lay.

That’s how weddings were done by The Lord of Fantasy. And yes, it does get better:

One dove and then another fluttered down from the balcony of the little blossoming trees. The Viking watched them, still chanting. Quick after the first dropped others, twain upon twain. They cooed and bent inquisitive heads; they billed and murmured. They formed a half ring before the cabin’s closed door.

The white-breasted doves–red-beaked, vermilion-footed; the murmuring, the wooing, the caressing doves–they set their snowy seal upon the way to Kenton and Sharane.

The doves of Ishtar wedded them!

That’s right. This isn’t just some brutish hulk that’s going to storm off with a kicking, half-naked wench under his arm. This wedding is endorsed by the Goddess of Love from the Babylonian pantheon.

You know, I’d tell Mario that he really needs to step up his game. But I’m not sure he could even conceive that something like this might be on the table…!

26 Comments
  • deuce says:

    Good to see this series of posts continuing!

    Campbell’s monomyth does fit a wide number of myths across cultures. I certainly don’t think it’s useless. It tends to work best when looking at an entire saga, not individual tales within one.

    One can argue that Kenton’s “refusal” came at this early juncture:

    “Kenton impatiently thrust back his chair. He knew that for the past hour
    he had been out temporizing, divided between the burning desire to get
    back to the room where the ship lay and the dread that when he did he
    would find all that adventure had been illusion, a dream; that the
    little figures had not really moved; that they were as they had been
    when he had first loosed the ship; that it was only a toy manned by
    toys–nothing more. He would temporize no longer.”

    Kenton COULD have continued to “temporize” and refused to go back to the Ship-World. He did not.

    • Andy says:

      If I understand Campbell correctly, his work was mostly about noting interesting similarities in myths and folklore among various cultures. Unfortunately for everyone, Hollywood has mistaken this to mean that all stories must be the same, so every blockbuster movie that comes out is required to rigidly adhere to the template.

      • deuce says:

        Agreed. They seem to miss the fact that all of the points of the monomoyth are more like each channel on an EQ. Some can be pushed to the max, some dialed way back. It can be useful, but it shouldn’t become a straitjacket.

        The “refusal” part of the monomyth, if done well, can be used to pull the reader in tighter to the story. Unfortunately, Hollywood seems to fixate on just one angle of it.

        It can happen in various ways and for various reasons. It’s not always about “I suck” or “The System/the Man sucks, but I’ll help these people this one time.” A very simplistic reading of a very complex feature of the monomyth.

    • Nathan says:

      In general, the monomyth holds too much influence. Hickman and Taylor deemed it THE narrative structure for DMs to follow. (I’d argue Lester Dent’s pulp formula instead.) It’s a tool that holds some value, but, like three-act Save the Cat, it had been turned from guide to paint-by-numbers.

      • deuce says:

        I would NEVER recommend the monomyth to DMs. That’s ridiculous. Roleplaying scenarios, contrary to what Hickman/whoever may think, are a completely separate animal from prose hero tales and legends. I agree that Dent’s formula would work well. Pretty damned well, actually.

  • deuce says:

    “Just as one example of that, today’s storytellers are absolutely hung up on the “refusal of the call” segment. (…) … the characters of Aragorn and Faramir waste valuable screen time acting out some hack’s idea of how the story should go rather than having the sense to give us the characters as J. R. R. Tolkien conceived them.”

    While I felt fairly good about the FotR movie, then I saw the expanded version and Aragorn weeping about his “weak Mannish blood”. At that point, I was fairly sure we were screwed for the next two movies. Petey and Frallipa’s adaptations were absolutely infested with post-modern bullshit. The vast majority of the testosterone in JRRRT’s novel was ruthlessly drained out of the movies. I could go on for 10K more words.

    • John E. Boyle says:

      Ditto. There were scenes in the LOTR movies where it seemed like Jackson was deliberately portraying the opposite of what Tolkien intended.

      • Andy says:

        Boyens especially seems to have a problem with going on about how they “improved” Tolkien’s work with their Screenwriting 101 BS.

        • Nathan says:

          Save the Cat has a lot of sins to answer for.

        • deuce says:

          I refer to Fran and Boyens as “Fralippa the Two-Headed Monster”. Petey is just their pawn/boytoy.

          I watched plenty of Boyens interviews. She has zero understanding of the texts AND had an agenda. Simple as that. As I once remarked, She knows about as much about medieval society/warfare as I do about menstrual cramps.”

          • Taarkoth says:

            That could explain why they bizarrely treated their mention of the Lay of Luthien as if it was some sort of great tragedy and not one of the most triumphant stories in the Silmarillion that it actrually was.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    This in-depth review has been great; I just have to get hold of a copy of this book again.

    In regards to Joseph Campbell, I haven’t been able to finish the second page of any article/book he’s written. I know this will get me burned in effigy but I find his work boring and more than a little empty.

  • roo_ster says:

    John E Boyle:

    My effigy will be burning next to yours, I am afraid.

    • deuce says:

      Talk about borrowing trouble… Did anybody say that Campbell was an exciting writer? Who is going to stand up and do that? Were Einstein or Crick “exciting writers”?

      Campbell’s monomyth is predictive. You can apply it to THE HOBBIT or Robert E. Howard’s HOUR OF THE DRAGON, as well as numerous myths around the world. JRRT and REH expressed the monomyth long before Campbell ever wrote it down.

      The problem comes when witless post-modernists blindly try to follow it with zero subtlety or comprehension. Bluntly, they’re co-opting a pretty obvious structural archetype in the human mind to try and subvert Western Civilization, whether they’re conscious of it or not. There’s also the fact that, in modern storytelling, parts of the myth may have occurred previous to the actual story (as in the case of Aragorn). You see the whole thing laid out in ancient myths/legends because the entire saga has been, inevitably, filled in over the generations to conform to the monomyth. Post-modernists use the blueprint without ever taking any of this into account.

      BTW, Lucas started talking all this Campbell crap to obscure the fact that his original Star Wars movie was, structurally, a slightly reshuffled FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING with the Mount Doom scene from RETURN OF THE KING tacked onto the end.

      If y’all wanna force me to do a monomythic breakdown of “Ishtar”, I’ll do it. It’s not that hard.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    Not trying to borrow trouble, just expressing my opinion. I never expected Campbell to be exciting, and I’ve dealt with booring text before: I’ve been playing ASL since it came out and I’ve studied the Federal Tax Code (they’re roughly equivalent in density and format, or were in 1992). I’m not trying to yank your chain, deuce, it’s just that Campbell bores me to tears.

    Now, you splaining The Ship of Ishtar in terms of the monomyth, THAT sounds interesting. But I don’t think in terms of Campbell’s theories.

  • Jill says:

    Wow, those girls are really angry. Over a videogame character.
    The Campbell hero’s journey is a bit overrated. I’m picturing a Yoda like character:
    “Go on this journey you must not because you must learn first to refuse the call.”
    “But I don’t have time for this. The slaves are going to die.”
    “Impetuous, you are. You must first become cynical at the Empire for doing nothing for you personally.”
    “But the princess, I’m her only hope.”
    “Strong woman she is. You must first learn…Hey! Where did he go?! Fool!”

    • deuce says:

      Just because Lucas started throwing in crypto-Buddhist babble (and mindset) into ESB has nothing to do with Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. The Hero’s Journey structure doesn’t have a particular bent.

      As I said, you see the mentor figure show up in “Ishtar” (Nabu), THE HOBBIT (Gandalf) and HOUR OF THE DRAGON (Yelata). All three novels can be EASILY parsed using Campbell’s points. He didn’t come up with the structure, he simoply pointed it out.

      Since I’m not a huge fanboy of his, I don’t know if he told everybody to write using the structure. Even if he did, it doesn’t negate the fact that that the structure is THERE to be found in myths and classic novels. Campbell did not invent it. Lucas didn’t invent it. So trying to hold whatever crimes have been committed by Lucas (or who-the-hell-ever) in its name against the structure ITSELF is silly.

      • Jill says:

        Oh, I’ve read Campbell’s writings. I don’t even dislike Star Wars. I think it has good archetypes. But there’s a part of me that doesn’t like the 17 stages of the journey, as presented a la Campbell in CW workshops. And part of the 17 stages is the departure, which involves a reluctant hero. Campbell’s approach was to research and look for patterns in mythology, but because his work developed a large audience, he’s been codified, and the fixed version of his ideas now bears his name. This goes way beyond Star Wars, but Star Wars was discussed in the article, so….

        • deuce says:

          So, apparently, with you and Jeffro, the problem is the “reluctant hero”. I think you guys AND these new subversive morons are making too big a deal of it in different ways.

          On the one hand, trying to say that a “Reluctant Hero” with a capital “R” is required by the Hero’s Journey paradigm is just flat out wrong. The protagonist may initially refuse, but he may have what appears to be good reason. There are other myths where the would-be “hero” DOES refuse and pays the price. In that sense, the moment of refusal in a monomythic tale is actually there to show the listener that they SHOULD “go for it”. Don’t flee from adventure. In many examples of the Hero’s Journey, the refusal isn’t a huge deal. The hero simply has the common sense or sense of duty to wonder for a minute if he should jump in. We see that with Kenton.

          On the other hand. We see these postmodern writers who make “reluctance” practically the central trait. We see it constantly and I’m sure this is what has got everybody so pissed at Campbell, despite the fact that, AFAIK, he never “instructed” anyone to take that slant.

          Lord of the Rings easily fits the HJ structure. In fact, it does it twice. Once, partially offstage in the case of Aragorn, and then with Frodo. JRRT hadn’t read Campbell at that point or, perhaps, ever. The same goes for Campbell reading LotR before he published his findings. Then, Lucas “borrowed” FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING for his plot and threw up a smokescreen by blathering on about Campbell. Trying to wing it just using the monomyth, he crashed and burned with “Return” (stealing most of the title of RETURN OF THE KING while he was at it).

          The monomyth can definitely be abused by the current crop of writers, but they abuse anything they can get their hands on. They haven’t read the old tales. They’ve grown up on incestuous pablum. Plus, they’re just pig-ignorant.

          • Nathan says:

            Part of it is that using the monomyth is more like pick 5 of these 10 events* and write your story. Today’s writers strive for 10 of 10, and their stories read like paint-by-numbers as a result.

            *Despite the idea of a monomyth structure, many myths only check some of the boxes set forth by Campbell.

          • Jeffro says:

            I’m not sure exactly what I said and when at this point, but here’s a claim:

            Contemporary authors follow the “refusal of the call” by rote. They have lost the understanding of what makes characters are likable or unlikable. When they adapt old stories, they emphasize or interpolate “refusal of the call” beats that are just not that important in the source material.

            As far as I know, I have never stated that The Lord of the Rings does NOT follow the mono-myth formula. I have not attacked Joseph Campbell’s thesis– I’m calling out something very specific in how it is applied in recent films. Luke’s “refusal of the call” was organic and in character. Rey and Finn’s “refusal of the call” came in on schedule and made no sense. The root cause of this is a substitution of traditional virtues for fake ones and has much more to do with culture than anyone’s scholarship on this point really.

          • Jeffro says:

            Ah, this would be where the disagreement is:

            “Because he never actually refuses the call himself.”

            I never saw it in Ship if Ishtar but I think you do.

  • deuce says:

    Kenton did not find himself back in Manhattan, turn around and try to go right back. He went to another room, sat down and “temporized”. FINALLY, he went back.

    This is no different from other mythic/legendary heroes who didn’t IMMEDIATELY answer the “call of adventure”. Did Kenton keep saying “I wish I wasn’t here” or somesuch? Of course not. He’s not some postmodernist jackass (like Donaldson’s Covenant). Once Kenton was back in the Ship-World, he wanted to stay. The REASON behind the “refusal” (in Kenton’s case, understandable caution and disbelief) is all-important in a story. Postmodernists, with their hatred of society and mankind in general, transfer that to their reluctant “heroes”, creating the unheroic moral cripples we see so often.

    Some editions of “Ishtar” edit out the fact that Kenton had become very disillusioned with “this world” due to his wartime experiences. This was quite rare, still, at the point Merritt wrote the novel. When Kenton found a more vivid, honest place to go (and BELIEVED in it) he jumped back in. I suspect Robert E. Howard took note of Kenton’s world-weariness and shell-shock and used much the same thing in “Skull-Face” for his Costigan character.

  • deuce says:

    One glaring example of a worthless “reluctant hero” (“heroes” in this case) are the goddamn Sarmatians in Fuqua’s “King Arthur”. They were still trying to return to Sarmatia despite being in Britain for 20yrs and barely remembering their homeland. The people they’d lived amongst were in mortal danger. Some of the “heroes” even had girlfriends and kids among the locals. Yet, “Back to Sarmatia and screw the Romans!” I hoped all of them would die after that.

  • deuce says:

    Nathan: “Part of it is that using the monomyth is more like pick 5 of these 10 events* and write your story. Today’s writers strive for 10 of 10, and their stories read like paint-by-numbers as a result.”

    I absolutely agree. There is no subtlety or understanding in them. They are trying to write a stoy by brute force because they are pig-ignorant as to what a good story even looks like, thanks to all the good stuff being “problematic” or verboten. It’s somewhat analogous to the attempted creation of “The New Soviet Man”. Hating mankind as it is, Marxists tried to force humans into their mold. The results were horrible and certainly not artistic. The Hero’s Journey is a structure. And, no, it doesn’t have to be followed in exact order and hit every point. A true talent can play with elements (knowingly or not) and still create art.

    However, one can never overcome one factor, no matter what formula is used: “Junk in, junk out.” When it comes to Dent’s pulp formula, I’ve seen a LOT of junk from those following it, so it certainly isn’t some cure-all, either.

  • […] up on a couple of recent topics we’ve touched on here: the abuse of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey template in film, the way the industry relentlessly un-imagines characters from before 1980, and of course… […]

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