Saturday, February 2, 2008

Women and Myth

Back when I was still hanging with evangelical Christians I was rather enamored with the book Wild at Heart by John Eldredge. It was one of those books written for the sort of people who buy all of their books from a Christian book store and it offered advice and views on how to live life as a good Christian man the way god intended. The book actually spent a lot more time evaluating the concept using movies and fairy tales than the Bible, which I thought was pretty cool. It laid out malehood using basically archetypical mythic heroes as the example and boiled fundamental lifelong male desires down to three things: a beauty to rescue, a battle to fight, and an adventure to live. It was somewhat limited, but it was an interesting and compelling idea. I knew that a lot of people had nothing good to say about the book but I didn't understand why. Then I happened to mention to a friend that it was one of my favorite books and she was noticeably taken aback by it. I asked why and she told me it surprised her because the guys she knew who really liked the book didn't know how to treat women (the implication being that I did, as by that time I had known this particular friend long enough that she would have figured out if I were a misogynistic jackass by then. Of course, I’m still you’re basic, garden variety jackass, but not in a way that’s limited to one people group or another). I thought about it for a moment and realized the problem. If you take an idea like that and give it to a lot of guys, especially ones who are part of a tradition that explicitly or implicitly treats women as second-class citizens (as evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity tends to do, seeing as it's relying on an "infallible," "eternal," "unchanging" text that was written some time during the bronze and/or iron age when women were generally assumed to be little more than property) they're going to assume that all you have to do is walk up to their female object of desire and say, "I'm going to be your knight in shining armor," and she's just going to swoon and go along with the program because, hey, she's looking for someone to just show up and take possession of her. This attitude is stupid, both according to an understanding of classical mythology and, well, women. Especially in the modern age. For the classical understanding we need to go to the story of Siegfried. This is one of those myths that traveled around a lot and made its way in to Germanic and Norse mythology in various incarnations, so I'll tell (well, paraphrase the key bits) it as I know it. Which makes sense, since learning it the way I know it informed me of how to deal with this situation, anyway. Siegfried was one of your standard, garden variety Really Awesome Warriors (RAWs). He was big and strong and could tame wild beasts and wield a legendary sword and was unafraid of dragons and all that fun stuff (I told you I was gonna paraphrase). He had a mentor who convinced him to go and kill the dragon Fafnir. Upon killing Fafnir, Siegfried accidentally drank some of the dragon's blood, which gave him the ability to talk to animals. He learned from two little birdies that his mentor was going to double-cross him to steal Fafnir's treasure and that he should seek out Brunhilde, a warrior maiden who slept inside a great flame. Siegfried searched and found Brunhilde's great flaming abode (that would be an awesome name for a band). He plunged fearlessly through the flame and asked her to teach him magic and wisdom and whatnot. She did, they fell in love, everyone was happy for a time. But then Siegfried had to leave to take his newfound wisdom out to the world. She bestowed upon him the ability to change his shape and told him never, ever to give up a particular powerful magical ring he had captured from Fafnir's lair. So Siegfried went out in to the world. He came upon a castle and impressed everyone there and became one of the king's knights. The king's son, Gunnar, became his closest friend. The king's daughter, Gudrun, fell in love with him. He didn't reciprocate, however, since he was madly in love with Brunhilde. Fortunately for Gudrun, however, her mother was one of those evil sorceresses that pop up all over the place in the world of myth. She brewed up a potion that made Siegfried forget his previous life and Gudrun started to work that voodoo that she do on Siegfried. Meanwhile, somebody or other decided that the next most brilliant possible maneuver was to get Brunhilde to marry Gunnar. So Siegfried and Gunnar headed off to the flame-wreathed mountain. When they got there, however, Gunnar was too afraid to plunge through the fire. Siegfried said, "Hey, I've got this crazy shape-shifting ability for reasons I don't completely understand, why don't I go in disguised as you? What could possibly go wrong?" So he did exactly that. Brunhilde wasn't going to have anything to do with that plan. She had been waiting for Siegfried and Gunnar just wasn't good enough. Then she saw Fafnir's ring on "Gunnar's" finger and decided Siegfried had forgotten about her and moved on. She reluctantly agreed to go with this new guy. "Gunnar" went back through the flame before her and when she emerged the real Gunnar and Siegfried were standing before her. She still went along with the pair and decided to make the best of it, but was rather pissed at Siegfried. Eventually she figured out what had happened, told Gunnar, and Gunnar confronted his mother. His mother said she'd take care of it. And when she said "take care of it," she meant, "kill Siegfried." Siegfried died, Brunhilde cast herself on to his pyre, and everybody lived happily never after. The simple and straightforward lesson in all of this is, "Don't expect a woman to fall for just anybody." She gets to, y'know, choose and stuff (of course, the rather ironic counter lesson is that you can get a guy to pretty much fall for anyone if you use the right application of feminine wiles, but that's beside the point). Also, if you force her to choose, bad things will happen even if you get her to go along initially. I have a phrase that seems rather simplistic and insulting for situations like this: "Remember, women are people, too." It doesn't sound like something that should have to be said, but lots of people haven't exactly gotten the memo. In the spirit of my theory of mythology as an ongoing process I like taking the old mythic and fairy tale archetypes and screwing around with them. I've got one such tale I'm working on right now for the purposes of performing as a storyteller. It's an archetypical setting of a kingdom set somewhere outside of time and space as we understand it. I introduce the king and queen of the land as wise and just, then I introduce the daughter, intentionally, as someone who possesses all of the wisdom and justice of her parents and is also quite beautiful. I workshopped it at a guild meeting a couple of months ago and the very first reaction I got was from one of the veteran storytellers who said, "I love that you said the princess was beautiful last." A couple of the other tellers immediately chipped in with their appreciation. It was rather gratifying to know that someone got the point. It's why I place a great deal of importance in understanding the lessons of traditional and modern mythology and looking at what the changes tell us about ourselves. During the central mythological cycle of that modern myth I love so much, Babylon 5, Sheridan goes to Z'Ha'Dum. At roughly the same time Lando goes to Centauri Prime, Garibaldi disappears and G'Kar goes off in search of him. Babylon 5 and, more importantly, the entire Shadow War, is put in the hands of Lyta, Delenn, and Ivanova for several critical days. The three women are left to attempt an impossible rescue of Sheridan and attempt to hold together a fragile alliance that's ripping apart at the seams. They don't have much luck with the whole thing. At no point is their failure attributed to their gender, but the fact that they are left in an impossible predicament. When Sheridan returns and takes control of the situation it's not because he's a man, but because he's returned from Z'Ha'Dum and most regard him as a god (it's how the mythological cycle works, y'know). All three women dealt with grief, fear, betrayal, and the simple need to push forward in their own ways. In this they were the heirs to Brunhilde, dealing with a situation they never asked for and forced to do their best to make it through. They weren't window dressing or props to be pushed around at will by the men in the tale. They were people. Only a fool would treat them differently. Hiding behind myth and fairy tale to excuse such behavior doesn't work. Up next: um...I don't know. I'll get back to you later, possibly when I'm tired of Portal and Team Fortress 2 (yeah, I finally got The Orange Box this week. So what, wanna fight about it?)...

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