Sunday, December 23, 2007
Mythology in the Third Age, Part 2
Okay, I finally figured out how I'm going to handle this. And, yes, I've had a version of it I hate sitting around for, um, about two weeks. This is my level of dedication. I don't just post any crap that I can think of and call it good. Except that one time when I intentionally wrote a bunch of crap just for the sake of doing it. Anyway, after offering a curve ball the first time around with Boy Meets World, I've decided that I'm going to go something completely and totally lacking in creativity. Yeah, for part two of the modern mythology I'm going with Babylon 5 (oh, you'd best be believin' in the spoilers. However, I’ve tried hard to spoil the “what” without spoiling the “how,” as, at least for me, that tends to make going to see it even more compelling). Since I stole the name for this part of the series from the show, I suppose there's some form of symmetry there. We begin and end at the World Navel: Babylon 5 itself. It is a crossroads, a place designed specifically as a nexus of trade in goods, information, and understanding. Later on, when the true nature of the planet B5 orbits, Epsilon III, becomes known, its status as World Navel is cemented. The Great Machine carries all the knowledge of the ancients while the station carries all the wisdom and vigor of the younger races. There's more to the World Navel than simple knowledge, however. From within the World Navel comes a sense of possibility. In an ancient myth, it was the place where wall between the divine and the mundane dissolved to a thin film or wore away to nothing, the place where the ethereal reached out and touched the real. In the readily accessible but less obviously mythological situation of Boy Meets World the World Navel was more theoretical. We can all sense the possibility of a child growing up to be an adult with the capacity to change the world, but we don't tend to think of it as miraculous. In Babylon 5, however, the sense of strange, wondrous possibility abounds. Ancient aliens made of light, Soul Hunters, women who can metamorphosize like butterflies, and rifts in time can show up at any time. It's the magic of science fiction and the reason those worlds make the most sense when creating a modern mythology. J. Michael Straczynski seems to have taken care to create a mythology in the world of Babylon 5. Everything centered on Captain John Sheridan (and would have centered on Commander Jeffrey Sinclair had actor Michael O'Hara not left after the first season), commander of the Babylon station. Shortly after taking command, Vorlon Ambassador Kosh took Sheridan under his wing and began instructing him. The Vorlons counted as the stand-ins for the Olympic gods. They were an ancient, mysterious, super-advanced alien race who refused to let anyone in to their territory. Delenn, the Minbari Ambassador, stood in for the goddess. The Minbari were the oldest of the younger races and as such carried a certain gravitas. (It's easiest to draw a parallel between Sheridan/Delenn and Aragorn/Arwen rather than explain it. So, there you go. JMS borrowed from J.R.R. for that one. Or, at least, I'm borrowing from J.R.R. to explain JMS.) Furthermore, in a story arc kicked off in the second-to-last episode of season 3, "Shadow Dancing," Sheridan went through the central part of the hero's journey. Following the appearance of the Temptress (who, in this case, was probably the least-likely person to play that role, um, ever), Sheridan traveled to Z'Ha'Dum, home world of the Shadows. In this, he pulled off the mythic journey aspect of any good myth. Over the course of five episodes ("Shadow Dancing," "Z'Ha'Dum," "The Hour of the Wolf," and "Whatever Happened to Mr. Garibaldi?" and "The Summoning"), Sheridan runs through the journey, wherein he is chased by the Shadows, escapes through a descent in to the center of the world and, finally, receives assistance from the closest thing to god in the universe. This cycle is followed by a the hero's return with the necessary information to become the Master of Two Worlds, to borrow Joseph Campbell's terminology. And, in my book, the best proof that JMS was intentionally creating a mythology is the episode that directly follows "The Summoning:" "Falling Toward Apotheosis." With Sheridan's return to Babylon 5 he was elevated unwilling to a sort of god-man status. This is the literal definition of the idea of apotheosis. Using Campbell, however, we learn that the idea of apotheosis is significantly more complicated than the simple idea of deciding that someone is now a god. It's actually a cycle that starts with episode 15 of season 3, "Interludes and Examinations." The Vorlons hold a central place in Babylon 5's mythology. They hold the role of demi-gods and angels. On a more personal level for Sheridan, the original Kosh held the role of surrogate father. He hand-picked Sheridan for his task, but the father-son nature of the relationship was not made explicit until "Interludes and Examinations" when Kosh appeared in Sheridan's dream in the person of Sheridan's actual, human father. As Sheridan traveled to Z'Ha'Dum the true nature of the Vorlons was revealed and now Ambassador Kosh had to be removed. In "Falling Toward Apotheosis," that part of the story was handled. In this, Straczynski handled the major part of Campbell's look at the nature of apotheosis. The nature of the mythological god is a duality. This is generally made known with a pantheon and is explicit in Zoroastrianism, with its universal conflict between good and evil. Duality even leaked in to Christianity with the Manichean Heresy: the idea that Satan and evil are, indeed, equal to God. In the points up until "Interludes and Examinations" Kosh takes on the role of Elohim, the Creator who walks with Adam in the cool of the evening offering instruction. By "Falling Toward Apotheosis" curtain was pulled back, so to speak, and the duality of the Vorlons was made known. In this, Kosh became sinister, the Serpent marring the perfect idyll of the Garden of Eden. Furthermore, while re-watching parts of "The Summoning" and "Falling Toward Apotheosis," (by the way, I love the fact that my “research” for this consisted of sitting in a coffee shop with a video mp3 player watching Babylon 5, then reading Joseph Campbell...) I noticed something I had never seen in the four or five times I've sat through Babylon 5. Sheridan's apotheosis was juxtaposed with an attempted apotheosis on the part of Emperor Cartagia, leader of the Centauri people. In Sheridan's figurative ascension to godhood he assumed the role of the Bodhisattva, the one who transcends the continuum of life and death, but returns from places beyond the universe to bring his hard-won knowledge to those who need it. Sheridan's sacrifice, a necessary part of the ascension and return, was a deeply personal one, made in the dark, witnessed by only one other. Cartagia, on the other hand, made a Faustian bargain, offering to trade the lives of his people in exchange for his own exaltation. In this Cartagia proved himself unworthy. Apotheosis cannot be achieved without self-sacrifice. It is entirely possible, in fact, that it cannot be achieved intentionally at all. Like any good mythology, the Babylon 5 story doesn't end when the hero's journey ends. Oddly enough, I suppose, Season 5, the last season, was a period of transition. Sheridan moved in to a new role and proved himself somewhat less than perfect, a necessity for any good mythological hero. This is the final aspect of the role of the mythological hero. He must show weakness and pass what he has learned on to others. We only got glimpses of the possibility of this transition, but it required a look outside of the immediate world of Babylon 5 itself. Specifically, it takes looking over to Crusade, the follow-up to Babylon 5 and it's central character, Matthew Gideon. It also, I guess, takes a little bit of reading in between the lines with the stories of Ivanova, Lochley, and, possibly, the Centauri prince who shows up in the new DVD Babylon 5: The Lost Tales. We cannot actually know if that was to happen, however, so I can only offer the suggestion and leave it at that. The only thing I do know is that over the few episodes of Crusade we had, there was a budding relationship between Matthew Gideon and Captain Elizabeth Lochley, who replaced Sheridan as captain of Babylon 5 in Season 5. Gideon, in one episode, professed an admiration for Sheridan. Those two bits, however, are all the even remotely hard evidence I have to offer. Although Babylon 5 in and of itself was a complete story, the failure of Crusade to make it much past the middle of the first season left a lot of the story frustratingly untold. Although the occasional movie has come out since and the Lost Tales series offers some hope of at least a partial continuation, much of the intended story will probably never be told. The tragic premature deaths of Richard Biggs and Andreas Katsulas, who played Dr. Franklin and G'Kar respectively, mean that those stories will never be told fully. So I have to leave the mythology of Babylon 5 here. Up next: understanding our world through modern mythology.