moralizing, ambiguity and charles de lint

So I've been thinking about mythic structure. Two integral parts of this structure is that the hero learns a lesson (of course, this element is widespread in non-mythic stories), and that he/she brings back something (knowledge/an artifact) for the his/her society. These two elements ensure that most stories I write using this structure automatically have a slightly didactic quality to them. It certainly doesn't have to be the main element in the story but, overall, a lesson is learned by the protagonist. By extension, the story is teaching this lesson to the reader. And that's all fine and good. But...

What about when I don't have the answer?

Or when the answer is cloudy. What if its not an issue like racism, which has clearly defined moral boundaries. How does mythic structure deal with these topics? Do I have to make up an opinion I don't necessarily have?

One way round this is to have two storylines. Two characters could learn the opposite things and both come to similar fates, or they could both learn the same lesson and have totally opposite fates. Of course their fates are going to depend upon the type of society they enter so that would also play into the equation. In either example, it could easily be read as me making a moralistic statement about the two different societies. So, the two socieites have to be held equal. I worry that this would tend towards abitrariness.

And also, what if I want to have only one character?

Maybe here the ambiguity enters with the character's return to society - there is an ambiguous response to what the character has learned, and to what he's trying to teach. This would probably work better as it's the same society reacting to one lesson. But here the ambiguity is saved for the end. Still, it's a solution...

But it's not a solution inkeeping with what I see as the true intent of mythic work. The intent of mythic work does seem to be to provide some sort of solution, to provide a working answer for the issues in life. As soon as a story stops containing a message then it loses some of that mythic quality.

But is making a story mythic that important? The best I can do is this (long) quote from an interview with Charles de Lint:

JP: Since we're attending a conference on myth and imagination, why are those things important to today's society?

CdL: They're important because we don't have them in our lives. People nowadays grew up with, and the ideals that they have, are rock stars and super models and actors and sports figures. And they don't sustain the ideal because they're fallible. The characters of myth or the characters of legend are great ideals in terms of the right way to sort of live your life. Again, it goes back to that same thing about repercussions and how everything you do is gonna have an effect somewhere and so you should maybe pay attention to that. The idea of respecting everything that's around you, not just yourselves, your family, your friends, but also other people and the city you live in, your environment. To me, it's all connected. I find a connection in all that sort of stuff. And I find those kind of things in mythic stories a lot. I don't find it in the story of an actor addicted to heroin, or a sports figure who does these amazing feats then we find out that they were on steroids. I don't find that uplifting feeling in those kinds of stories. And because the old mythic stories are kind of getting far away from where we live, that's why it's fun to write new stories, new stories with a mythic feel that are set in the here and now. I get so much mail from people, or I go on a book tour, and people come up to me and they'll bring me a copy of my book Dreams Underfoot, for instance, and they'll say, "This is the book that got me through high school," you know, or "This is the book that got me through whatever," and it's very humbling, and it's a wonderful feeling to have, that you were able to help somebody you didn't even know, so indirectly. But it also reinforces that concept to me that the mythic material we're working with does have impact and does have some place in the modern world.

Now, I've just started reading some of de Lint's stories and I find them beautiful. They're hopeful. Not in a trite or contrived way, but in a simple, true way. They connect with the reader. And I think the above quote helps show the importance of mythic structure in writing.

Essentially, I believe that mythic stories comfort people. But at the same time, I enjoy reading ambiguous stories and I believe we live in an ambiguous world. They can ring more true and can reflect the world that surrounds us more accurately.

Comfort is a very important thing. Finding shelter in this world can be hard, and providing it in the form of literature is something I want to do. But at the same time I want to avoid the escapist notion that fuels so much of the Tolkein-lite crap that floods the fantasy/science-fiction shelves at book stores. de Lint manages, mostly, to provide comfort without the escapism, but he has little ambiguity.

So, again I am back to my initial problem: how to introduce ambiguity to mythic stories without undermining the shelter that they provide for people. It can't come at the end - that is where redemption lies, and to steal that is to steal the hope from the stories, and it is the hope that I find so enchanting in de Lint's stories. It must come before. It has to come during the struggle. It must be in the hero, in his problem, and in the forces that oppose him, exactly where it is in our lives.


some additional thoughts on the collective unconscious and also some new ones on the tarot

So I've been thinking more about the collective unconscious and I just can't imagine it being the result of some similarity in brain patterns, or some pool of collective psychic imagery. Rather, I have convinced myself that it must be some artifact of society. It is caused by society, rather than causing it. However, I also currently believe that it is an integral lynch pin of social human behaviour, and it allows society to continue to exist and to propagate.

The collective unconscious (there has to be a better term...) is then, I propose, a collection of the fundamentals of social existence. The archetypes and our relation to them is a universal bonding factor, something we can all relate to. This would explain the wide-ranging nature of these images. I have no idea if they appear in Eastern writings, and would actually expect them not to. I would pose that there are probably several collective unconscii (sp?) for cultures that developed with little interaction (e.g. East-West). My supposition would go so far to say that there are likely some areas of significant overlap (representing common ground between the two socities) but also some areas of significant departure.

The use of these collective images, images we can all relate to, in stories, art, etc. would therefore provide a certain glue, which holds society together. In my fictional writings, where I use mythic structure, I have noticed the stories become one of conformity. The hero, after his trials and tribulations comes to embrace the societal values that he formally ranted against. And, as I pointed out previously, the hero sacrifices himself (the individual) before he returns home to save society.

Thus mythic fiction is a force for society, against selfishness, and stimulating altruism. This is certainly not its only function, and I doubt the power of one individual piece, but as one, art using mythic tropes, tapping archetypes, acts to hold society together.

This sound all sorts of high and mighty but I think it may be true. It would certainly go some distance to explaining the creative urge. It would also explain the surprisingly positive response I have received to some of my stories (from friends and family only I would mention, I have only just submitted a piece for some more professional critique).

I am therefore going to continue to use mythic structure, and also to include more of these archetypes in my fiction. It strikes me that using fiction to try to knit society more tightly together, to increase the altruistic instinct is a decent goal in life.

But where to find guidelines on how to tap into the repository of images and thoughts that is the collective unconcious? Of course, by arguing that the collective unconscious is a universal feature of society, I am also bound to wander into the use of archetypes if I write unguided but I would prefer a more guided approach. However, Jung himself only mentions 4 archetypes (the self, the anima, the animus, and the shadow) and this is not enough to sustain fiction. Even when supplemented with other frequently mentioned archetypes (the mother, the mentor, the trickster, etc.) it seems there is more.

This is where I come to the Tarot. I want to make it perfectly clear up front that I don't believe that the Tarot can predict the future. That is new age, hippy bullshit--no more, no less. However, its reputation to do this impossible task is, I believe, tied into its relationship with the collective unconscious.

However old the Tarot is, it is pretty damn old. To have survived for so long it must be tapping into something pretty significant, and I am staking a hope on it being more than just human gullibility. People continue to find significance in these cards. A large part of this, certainly, is the human desire for causality. People look at the random assortment of cards and force connections to the situation they're contemplating. (Indeed, in this capacity, as long as the person using the cards is aware of this fact, I could see the Tarot actually being a useful way to examine a personal situation, rather than just as a way to fleece tourists out of $100). But, again I would point to the longevity of the cards. To have survived this long (at least 600 years according to wikipedia) they must have tapped into something pretty fundamental. Otherwise the old pictures would have lost their meaning centuries ago.

I would argue that the tarot is therefore a repository of the western collective unconscious.

It is therefore a perfect guide for creating fiction. I indeed to experiment with it's use as a tool to stimulate my creative juices. If you see my name up in lights in a few years, you'll know I was right.