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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, March 24, 2015


“To burn always with this hard gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” 
― Walter PaterThe Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry

In Part 3 I invoked the model of Shakespeare's TITUS ANDRONICUS to illustrate, among other things, why not every narrative that ends in violence falls into the "combative mode." I did not address the potential question, "why is it important, whether or not a given scene of fictional violence fulfills a particular set of literary values?"

The Walter Pater quote above speaks to the reason: what I've called the "combative mode" is an academic way of speaking about an archetypal construct, one that, in my view, is capable of stirring from at least some readers the response of a "hard, gemlike flame" of ecstasy. Myth-analyst Joseph Fontenrose termed this construct "the combat myth" with regard to archaic myths only. I imagine that Fontenrose might not care for having his name bandied about with that of the archetypal psychologist Jung, but I invoke the name "combat myth" only for convenience, not to make any such conflations.

The combat myth is one of many archetypal constructs identified by Jung and other thinkers. A short list might include such storytelling favorites as "the long-separated siblings" and "the destruction of the scapegoat," and under the right circumstances these too have an equal ability to inflame the human heart with the stirrings of the sublime. But the combat myth is arguably harder to mark off from other forms of fictive violence, which is one reason I've devoted so much space here to delving into "conflict and combat."

In Part 3 I gave copious examples of merely conflictive-- a.k.a. "subcombative"-- forms of violence. I used certain Shakespeare plays as illustrations of those patterns, though of course the patterns long precede Shakespeare and his time. I might just as easily have used HENRY IV Part 1 as an example of Shakespeare's fairly rare use of the combative mode, since that play does build to the martial conflict of two high-dynamicity figures, Prince Hal and Hotspur, and concludes with the victory of the former over the latter. 

Further complicating the identification of the combative mode is the 19th century's evolution of the commercial franchise. In earlier eras, a popular story in the combative mode usually remained in that mode in further retellings, and the same usually held true for a work in the subcombative mode. But once a given franchise demonstrated popularity, other authors might adapt that franchise, or even simply "riff" on it, in ways not congruent with the original work.  In many of the reviews on my film-blog, I've devoted scrupulous attention as to whether a given adaptation or concept-riff remains in this vein.

Here's a list of works that started out as COMBATIVE but had SUBCOMBATIVE follow-ups:

The "Fu Mancu" novel series begat THE MYSTERIOUS DR. FU MANCHU and THE RETURN OF DR. FU MANCHU

Conan Doyle's novel THE LOST WORLD begat the 1925 film  and the 1960 film.

Bram Stoker's DRACULA begat the slower paced 1931 film.

Marvel's Man-Thing comic begat this dull monster-movie take on the theme.

And, most strangely, Tolkien's lively book THE HOBBIT begat this 1977 animated film, which managed to purge most of the book's violent content despite following the plot fairly closely.

And as for works that start out as SUBCOMBATIVE and go the other way, we have:

Fritz Lang's original DR MABUSE and its 1960 follow-up-- the latter of which bred a whole series of combative serials.

Matheson's I AM LEGEND novel begat THE OMEGA MAN.

The 1922 SHERLOCK HOLMES, based on a similarly stodgy play, was transformed into the most combative Holmes film of the classic Hollywood period.

Almost identically, Dick's short story PAYCHECK became this hyperkinetic movie.

Lewis Carroll's Alice books begat Tim Burton's 2010 effort.

The folktale "Sleeping Beauty" begat the prince-centered narrative of Disney.

The generally subcombative Sherlock Holmes stories of Doyle begat A STUDY IN TERROR and the much later Robert Downey Jr. series.

I must emphasize that a given work's tendency to emphasize the "combat myth" over other possible myths does not make it superior, nor does the reverse hold true-- though one can certainly find critics who will immediately prefer "intellectualized" myths to visceral ones, as I examined here.  But as a pluralist I look for excellence in any kind of myth. Philip Dick's ANDROIDS is not superior to BLADE RUNNER because the original de-emphasizes the combat myth, and Doyle's LOST WORLD is not superior to the 1925 film because the novel glories in violent strife.  

I'll be descanting on further subjects of an archetypal nature in my next essay-series, though from a less academic angle.

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