Tag Archives: heroes

What Paganism can learn from comics

There’ isn’t a definitive narrative for the Marvel universe. People keep re-writing Batman, Superman, Spiderman, retelling their origin tales. The X-Men have had more re-boots and parallel universes than most of us could keep up with. Some people only ever see the films. People keep telling new stories about these characters because they are popular. The stories keep up with wider social changes. None of these stories ever is or ever should be considered the ‘real’ version.

Imagine that as a person far into the future, you had some of the surviving comics to draw on. You had the middle bit of a film, a book review, three comics, seven fragments of fan fiction and the script for a crossover project. You don’t know which ones came first. You don’t know that you have fan fic in the mix, much less which bits fall into that category. Whatever sense you made of the content, it would not seem to you as it did to the people who created it.

When we look at what writings there are about myths, legends and ancient histories, it is of course tempting to think there’s an underlying truth to uncover. A real version. We look for coherence in stories about Gods and heroes. Coherence is generally in short supply. It occurs to me that we have something in mythology that has more in common with modern comics reboots and re-imaginings than it does with the agreed and fixed texts of book-orientated religions.

There may never have been a fixed, original story. There may be no single coherent truth to uncover. When we’re talking about figures like King Arthur, or Loki, the modern treatment of them in films and books may simply be a continuation of what’s always happened – people tell stories about characters they like.


Of heroes and dragons

We know the imagery. The hero (of any gender) turns up with a bloody great weapon and slaughters the evil beast, and saves the day. There is much rejoicing. From our earliest fairytales onwards we are taught how good it is to put down the bad guys, and that a hero is someone who destroys monsters. In real life, it doesn’t always work out so well.

“I feel so proud of myself for standing up to you.” “I’ve been wanting to say this to you for a long time now.” Two different scenes. Two different furious, self-righteous women who have just taken down a dragon. The dragon in question is evil. It makes awful demands. Its words can be inferred as being critical. It is not happy with how things are and it said so. It is such a selfish dragon! It was long overdue taking down a peg or two, and they pause to take pride in a job well done. They are triumphant. The dragon is crushed.

The dragon in question is not actually dead, but slinks back to its cave and cries, and feels dreadful. It picks over everything it has said and done, testing its perceptions against the accusations and wondering if it really is that awful, and if it really did need taking down. It looks at its dragon face in the mirror and wonders what is so innately wrong with it and why it is so hateful. What has shocked it most is the sense of how pleased the dragon-fighters are. They are so certain that they have done a good thing, bravely taking down its monster self.

Sometimes it pays to try and look at a story from another angle. How much do you have to hate a person, or feel jealous of them in the first place to enjoy crushing someone else’s spirit? Where are we in relationships when landing a punishing blow on our designated dragon feels like such a win and a source of pride? Where are we in our humanity when seeing someone else crawl off, wounded and confused, feels like a victory? How can that possibly be a win?

We don’t have stories about negotiation. No one says ‘maybe if we stopped cutting down the dragon’s forest and replacing the deer herds with our cattle the dragon wouldn’t bother us.’ None of the fairy stories of old tend to suggest that the dragon may have had feelings and needs too. When we take other people and turn them into dragons so that we can righteously fight them off, we forget that they are people too, and that there were other feelings and needs in the mix. The dragons want things that are not convenient, not comfortable or welcome. Does that make them monsters to be fought? If your dragon is trying to kill you then yes, you fight it off. If what your dragon said was ‘I could really do with some help tidying up’ or ‘I wish you felt you could be honest with me’ then putting on the armour and preparing to do battle is not the best response.

All too easily, we turn into monsters those who are merely guilty of being inconvenient, or not doing enough to feed our egos.

I’ve been the dragon. I’ve watched people glow with pride when they’ve wounded me. I’ve seen people delight in taking me down a peg or two. Or feeling proud of putting me on the floor, because they stood up for themselves, and this is automatically a good thing, in their minds. I’ve crawled back to my cave enough times to try and work out where I went wrong, and years on, the scars from the dragon-hunters remain, and the more recent ones still bleed sometimes. And yet there are other people for whom I am no kind of monster at all.

I try not to stay in spaces where I am cast as the villain and set up as the bitch to be taken down, the ice queen, the monster. I don’t want that role in anyone else’s life. I don’t want to provide anyone with something to test their metal on, I don’t want people trying to prove things by cutting me down to size. It took me until this winter to realise that maybe I do not deserve to be someone else’s dragon, and that maybe the problem in all of this is not actually me.


Pagan pondering the Mediaeval

I’m in the process of reading Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and I think it has implications for the mediaeval texts beloved of modern Pagans. I’m very aware that I’m wading in to a topic I barely know about, so, I’m just waving a thing because it may need waving.

The first section of Don Quixote was published in 1605. It’s a satire on what was at the time a popular genre across Europe, namely the chivalric romance. By the looks of it the chivalric romance goes back to the 12th or 13th century, easily. There were enough texts and readers for a satire of it to make sense. The premise for Don Quixote is that the man has been driven out of his wits by reading too many of these things, and has come to believe they are true.

Chivalric fiction, as far as I can make out from this book, is all about your knight errant, who has to have some largely unrequited love interest and run around performing impossible feats in her name. The Arthurian myths are specifically referenced by the Spanish author, as being examples of this. I was aware of Chretian de Troys, (is that how you spell it?) and that Lancelot came to the Arthurian tradition from the French authors, but had no idea why. The answer, it would appear, is because this is a genre and it was happening across Europe. It’s like superhero fiction and romance combined. There’s magic in it, and mighty feats. There’s also a drawing on actual historical figures and events such that many romances of this genre are a tangle of the two, again, from what I can make out.

There are so many texts beloved of Pagans that were recorded in the Mediaeval period, and that purport to represent something older. I’ve read The Tain, I’ve failed to get through Le Morte D’Arthur, there’s all the wondrous Welsh stories, and they exist in a context. A genre that spanned the continent and centuries, full of heroes, epic fights, marvellous heraldry, lavish descriptions of costume, unlikely speeches, magic, impossible acts… and a tendency to draw on history for inspiration. Of course this does not rule out drawing on myths as well, authors are seldom averse to stealing good material and recycling it.
When we come to these texts as Pagans, it is often with our eyes to the ancient past, and what might be revealed, and not to the context of the stories themselves. I suspect the context matters. Genres tend to shape the ways in which stories are told, the elements you play up, the things you skip over. In this case it may explain both Lancelot and the grail myths, which always struck me as a bit shoehorned in. Maybe they were. But what else owes to literary habits of the time and not to the ancient Celts?

It occurs to me that we might have a better shot, as a community, at finding the truly old stuff in these stories, if we went in by first pinning down the rules, conventions and normalities of the chivalric romance genre, and then looked for what doesn’t fit. Giants and wizards, princess and challenges, they all fit the genre, from what I can see. I’m not sure we’d have much left. Of course that a thing fits in a time and place does not rule out its being older, but it does raise questions.
I know I have neither the time nor the skill to do the work that might be useful on this score, and I have no idea if anyone out there is working on this stuff, and from a Pagan perspective. So, I’m waiving and waiting to see what anyone else comes up with.