Sunday, September 05, 2010

4: Meeting With The Mentor

Had Jack Kirby read Joseph Campbell? He might have done. He was one of those autodidacts who read un-systematically and uncritically absorbed what he read. But the source (or possibly The Source) that Kirby claimed for the Eternals was not Campbell but Eric Von Daniken.

Ah, Von Danikien, Von Daniken! Spinners in cheap seaside bookshops: Gold of the Gods alongside Our Mysterious Spaceship Moon, The Jesus Scroll, Dune Messiah, Jaws and the Bermuda Triangle. Self-evident truths that NASA, the Pope and the Evil Archaeologists have suppressed, revealed for 25p on very cheap paper.

He's still alive, apparently. His latest book is called History is Wrong.

Kirby seems to have taken Chariots of the Gods very seriously indeed. He didn't believe the specific conspiracy theories cooked up by Daniken, of course, but the idea that mythology and religion and civilisation are one vast cargo cult, based on confused, garbled memories of encounters between ancient human beings and extraterrestrials is one he seems to have found plausible. (Why else, he asks, do all mythologies agree that the gods live in the sky? Don't native Africans in jungle movies always think that the white man and his aeroplane is some kind of deity?) He returns to the idea over and over again. His widely derided Devil Dinosaur includes a story in which a cave woman called Eev is imprisoned by an alien computer called the Demon Tree. He produced an unpublished portfolio of science fictional interpretation of famous Bible stories, and did the concept designs for a movie (or possibly theme park) based on Roger Zelazny's unreadable Lord of Light.

He doesn't seem to have regarded any of this as particularly in conflict with his Jewish faith. The Ancient Astronaut theory seems, if anything, to validate the Bible for him. These old stories: maybe they aren't literally true - but maybe they aren't just something that some guy made up, either. And my stories, well, they're only guesses about what might really have happened but who is to say I am not on the right track?

It may only be a grain, but it's a grain of truth.

George Lucas had definitely read Joseph Campbell. According to the Making of Star Wars, he came across him while working on the third draft of his space opera.

"I spent about a year reading a lot of fairy tales – and that's when it starts to move way from Kurosawa and towards Joe Campbell...I started to realise that I was following those rules unconsciously. So I said, I'll make it fit more into that classic mould."

It isn't quite clear what Lucas did with Star Wars to make it fit in with Campbell's template. The Making of Star Wars points out that in the older drafts, Luke had brothers and sisters, where in the final version he is a loner. The figure of Ben Kenobi - as the Old Man who pops up just after Luke's first adventure and gives him advice and a special weapon - first appears in the post-Campbell drafts.

What is clear is that between Star Wars and the Empire Strikes Back, Obi-Wan's treacherous apprentice had morphed into Luke Skywalker's daddy, and the driving force behind the trilogy was re-envisioned as the redemption of this Dark Father and his reconciliation with his Son. (One rather assumes that Harrison Ford wouldn't have taken Sean Connery along with him on the quest for the Holy Grail if Campbell hadn't revealed that all quests stories are really about Atonement With The Father.) Regular readers will know that I prefer the Wild West, Fairy Tale cosmos of the original Star Wars movie to the heavily mythical stuff in the sequels. But a lot of people seem to think that the Empire Strikes Back is quite good. Would a pre-Campbellian version – in which Vader is simply the murderer of Skywalker Snr – have sunk without trace?

By the time you get to Return of the Jedi, the films have completely bifurcated: Luke and the Emperor and Darth Vader act out their mythological psychodrama on the Death Star, while, in another part of the forest, Han Solo and the the Ewoks rather half-heartedly go through the motions. The prequel trilogy exists purely in order to make sense of this section: to explain why Luke's father turned to the Dark Side; why he turned back; and why it mattered. The raison d'etre of Episode One is to retrofit Star Wars to Campbell's "monomyth". So if Campbell can take quite a lot of the credit for the Empire Strikes Back, he must also take the majority of the blame for the Phantom Menace.

Lucas seems to have had strong ideas about what kinds of scenes he wanted in his movie; but to have struggled to work out how they fitted together. There was always going to be a desert planet and some sort of race or chase and a scene where big, or possibly small, furry creatures destroyed or helped destroy an indestructible armoured battle station. But how or when or in what order changed from draft to draft. In the early versions, our heroes were going to visit the Empire's throne world called (confusingly) Alderaan. Quite late on in the proceedings Lucas realised that you don't need a world-city in a movie which has already got an indestructible armoured battle station. The two or three scenes in which the baddies explain their plans to each other could just as well happen on the Death Star itself, and that could also be the place from which the goodies have to rescue the princess. (The best place to imprison the spy who stole the plans to the Ultimate Weapon is on board the Ultimate Weapon itself. Obviously.) But he liked the scene where the heroes approached the baddies' lair through the disgusting sewers, so he transferred that bit to the garbage masher on the Death Star. You can see the join, but only just.

The process of writing Star Wars was a process of chopping: of cutting away foliage until a very simple, classical shape emerged. So you could see why Lucas would have found Joseph Campbell and his theory of the monomyth so attractive. If you chop and delete hard enough, said Campbell, you will find that there really is a pattern, a simple pattern, underlying every story: and that that pattern is Really, Really Important.

It's said that in order to make a carving of a duck, you take a lump of wood and cut away everything that doesn't look like a duck. It must save a lot of time if a man turn up at your door with a supply of duck templates.

Structures and templates can be terribly helpful: of course they can. Every bookshop can sell you a shelf full of books that will teach you the correct structure for a blockbuster novel. And if you don't quite know how to start your masterpiece, then it must be terribly useful to be told that a 70,000 word novel must be divided into 60 scenes, and that scene 56 should wrap up the romantic sub plot to leave the hero free to encounter his worst failure (scene 57), moment of hopelessness (scene 58), and saving act (scene 59) before wrapping everything up as quickly as possible in scene 60. It's not the only way of writing a book; but it's certainly a way and it gets you past the "how the heck am I going to start this thing?" stage.

So if young George was struggling with the question "When should Obi-Wan give Luke his father's magic six-gun?" it may have been very helpful for Joe to say "Right after he leaves the homestead: because the proper mythical time for The Hero to encounter Supernatural Aid is after he has crossed the Threshold Of Adventure."

Structures are easier to stick to if they have some kind of "belief feelings" attached to them. That's why fad diets which have discovered that you can become instantly thin if you eat, or give up, one particular flavour of food are so much more popular than ones to say "Eat less food". If it's a miracle breakthrough, it's easier to obey. So it may be that Campbell's assurances that the Heroes Journey was not only quite a useful structure for writing to but "the secret opening through which the the inexhuastible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation" gave Lucas the confidence to pick a structure for his film and stop damn well picking at it.

It must be said that when Star Wars came out in 1977/8 no-one particularly spotted the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos, but a lot of people did notice that it was a fairy tale in science fiction dress. The critics made a big deal about how it quoted and incorporated previous movies – a bit of Wizard of Oz, a smidgeon of Lawrence of Arabia, a generous tablespoon full of the Dambusters. This really was the key thing which people took away from the film. The review page in my local newspaper kept using the word smorgasbord. I recall a prophet of acupuncture (or, as it may have been, homoeopathy) on Pebble Mill At One explaining that all the different forms of mainstream and alternative medicine ought to form a big happy synthesis – in the same way that all the different kinds of movies had come together in Star Wars.

And I really do think that this was a big part of the appeal of the film: not that it was full of robots and spaceships and that Harrison Ford got some good lines and shot first but the sense that when Obi-Wan gives the lightsaber to Luke, it's an old familiar tale happening all over again for the first time.

So perhaps Campbell did not "influence" George Lucas. Perhaps he merely confirmed something which George Lucas already felt. Perhaps, in fact, he became a convenient icon, an ideogram which represented what the movie was always going to be about. You don't need to agree with Joseph Campbell. You don't even need to have read Joseph Campbell. All you know on earth, and all you need to know, is summed up in five magic words.







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Anonymous said...

Hang on - since when is Lord Of Light unreadable?

I read it about two weeks ago, to find it as brilliant as ever. It won the Hugo in 68, and was nominated for the Nebula, so it seems that I was hardly alone in my appreciation of it.

Sam Dodsworth said...

Zelazny's usually criticised for being heavy on flashy distraction and light on substance(*) - too readable, in other words. But I guess if you apply literary-fiction standards(**) then most SF is unreadable?

(*) Excellent material for a Jack Kirby adaption, in other words.

(**) I want to say "reading protocols", but that's another can of worms.

Anonymous said...

I'd agree that the Amber series is all flashy distraction (although that may be because I don't actually like it), but Lord Of Light certainly doesn't feel that way to me.

Sam Dodsworth said...

This probably isn't place for a critical evaluation of Zelazny... but I do I think Lord of Light is his best book and one with more substance than most. And I agree with you about the Amber series.

The other thing that occurs to me is that I find the tension between SF and mythic fantasy in Lord of Light interesting - but I can see that it might be jarring if you came to the book with a different set of expectations.

Anonymous said...

That's a very good point actually, which feeds back in to our host's original post nicely. Lord of Light is a case of deliberately reusing* mythology because it has resonance with ordinary people.

*On the part of both Zelazny and the main character of the book.

Phil Masters said...

One problem with readings of Zelazny is probably that he appeared as part of the SF New Wave back in the '60s, and did a few moody experimental short stories early on, so people assume that he's some kind of literary-genre writer, and try to make sense of him on that basis.

It's probably much nearer to the mark, though, to see him as doing almost exactly what Marvel Comics are credited as doing back then - creating big, extravagant, super-powered heroes fighting starkly DocSmithian battles across broad canvases, while giving those characters at least two-and-a-half dimensions and even a hint of adult emotional complexity. On that basis, his best books - for me, yes, Lord of Light, which is very comic-book, and Creatures of Light and Darkness, despite the blatant metaphor dripping from every pore - are highly entertaining (and readable).

Sadly, later on, he discovered he had (a) his kids' college bills to pay, and (b) a fanbase who'd forgive any old carelessness in the narratives as some kind of intuitive faux-naif storytelling genius.

I'd rate Nine Princes in Amber as pretty good, by the way. It's just he was definitely making that stuff up as he went along, and the quality of the inspiration trailed off accordingly through the sequels, dropping away completely in the second series.

Sam Dodsworth said...

Hm... I'd say early Zelazny was interested in the tension between his characters' humanity and the archetypal, mythic roles they're forced to assume. That's subtly but significantly different from the soap-opera tension of Spider-Man's secret identity, say.

In fact, although there is an obvious break between his early and late work, I think you can watch that tension bleed out of his books until he's finally just writing DocSmithian battles. There's a gradient of decline from "He Who Shapes" and "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" to "This Immortal" and "Isle of the Dead" that ends with "Creatures of Light and Darkness".

Mind you, he had to get beyond that one theme to develop as a writer. "Eye of Cat" suggests that he might have managed something better if he'd only decided to write less.

Gavin Burrows said...

"I started to realise that I was following those rules unconsciously. So I said, I'll make it fit more into that classic mould."

Finally... the very moment pinpointed where George Lucas went wrong!