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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

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...

Saturday, January 13, 2018

KNIGHTS OF COMBAT AND CENTRICITY, PT. 1

One of the great curiosities of comic-book mythography is that even though the heroes-- and occasionally, the demiheroes-- are the protagonists with whose will the audience identifies, often much of the mythicity resides within the villains and/or monsters who are in the position of supporting players....as I detailed here, Will Eisner's feature THE SPIRIT was such a genre-chameleon that it's arguable that the titular hero had little myth to call his own, and most of his villains were no better.-- BAD WILL ON TOP (not a reference to Will Eisner), April 2016.

I touched on the importance of the Sir Walter Scott oeuvre in this 2013 essay, but the truth is that I had not then and do not now have a deep acquaintance with Scott's works, unless one counts film adaptations. I did read one book, THE TALISMAN, over thirty years ago, but despite enjoying the work, I wasn't moved to keep reading Scott, probably because he wrote little or no metaphenomenal fiction. I've now finally amended this lack somewhat by finishing what is arguably Scott's most famous novel, IVANHOE.

Though there haven't been that many film/TV adaptations of IVANHOE in comparison to assorted other classics, it's still a name to conjure with, even among people who don't know much about Scott or 19th-century literature. It seems to be the first novel to successfully revive the medieval tradition seen in European courtly romances, but in a naturalistic world, without dragons, faeries, etc.  But according to writer Nancy Springer, who penned both a foreword and an afterword to the 2000 Tor edition of the public domain novel, the knightly hero himself is something less than successful.

Who is the real hero of Ivanhoe? Certainly not Wilfred of Ivanhoe himself, for never was a title character more palely drawn. Even though he is the common thread that strings the novel together, he is all but invisible... He is a pawn, exercising no control of the events around him, a piece of plastic with almost no personality...

Springer then goes on to argue that the true heroes of the novel are two of Scott's supporting characters. One is Richard the Lion-Hearted, newly returned to England following his captivity during the Crusades, a "vibrant, quirky personality" who makes common cause with Robin Hood and his Merry Men in order to recover his throne from Prince John. (IVANHOE is said to be a key influence on the 20th century's development of the Robin Hood narrative.) The other hero is Rebecca, a beautiful Jewess and daughter of money-lender Isaac. Rebecca is easily the most vivid character in the novel. She's also, to bring in my concern for mythicity, the most mythic character, for it's through Rebecca and Isaac that Scott addresses the contemporary sociological concerns of his culture, regarding the emancipation of the Jews in England. Although the novel takes place in a 12th-century England where such an emancipation is not possible, Scott constantly calls attention to the travails of the Jewish people through the experiences of the Jewess and her father. For years prior to my reading of the novel itself, I occasionally encountered statements that Ivanhoe, who inspired romantic interest in both Jewish Rebecca and his Christian inamorata Rowena, should have wed Rebecca. I share the sentiment, though Scott sets things up so that such a marriage is socially impossible, which may well have been the state of the real world in those days.

Since my opening quote references "villains and monsters," who are usually the carriers of what I call "bad will," I should note in passing that not much of IVANHOE's mythicity inheres in its villains. These are largely the Norman overlords allied to the reign of Prince John, but except for one, most of them seem to me to be standard bad guys, only differentiated by their particular circumstances. The exception is the Templar Knight Sir Brian deBois-Guilbert, who, like Ivanhoe, has returned to England from the Crusades, though the two apparently clashed for some reason even though they were on the same side. At one of John's tournaments Sir Brian espies the lovely Rebecca, and he spends most of the novel trying to win her over. Scott does devote some attention to the torments of the lovelorn knight, whose affection is not reciprocated even before Rebecca falls for Ivanhoe. But Sir Brian doesn't sustain much of a symbolic discourse, for all that Scott makes an effort to critique the elitist and "bigoted" order of the Knights Templar through the evil knight.

From all my statements on centricity, it should plain that I have no problem with a main character having little color-- or mythicity-- of his own. For me Ivanhoe is as much the star of Scott's only story with the character as the Spirit is of his long-running serial adventures. Springer's metaphor of a "common thread" catches some of the sense of Ivanhoe's role in the narrative, but she apparently does not realize how often famous works may be organized around an essentially unremarkable character. The Spirit is not really any better-characterized than Ivanhoe-- Eisner tended to refer to his hero as something along the lines of a "big dumb Irishman"-- and as I mentioned above, most of the mythicity of the Spirit's serial adventures inhere in his supporting characters, just as figures like Rebecca, Richard and Robin Hood are more mythic than Ivanhoe himself.

In both cases the undercharacterized, under-mythicized character functions as a organizing factor. In place of Springer's thread-metaphor, I've repeatedly used the image of the circle with diverse elements swirling about inside it, as when I described these elements as incarnations of "centric and eccentric will." My formulation suggests that there is no firm rule that the hero of a given narrative, whether it is of a serial or a stand-alone nature, must be "the most interesting man in the room." At the same time, there's no rule that he cannot be, or that the narrative's centric will may not include an ensemble of characters who are at least strongly interconnected in some way, be it no more than two or even an indeterminate number.

(Examples of the former would include pairings like those discussed in ENSEMBLES ASSEMBLE: the two monstrous enemies in 1934's BLACK CAT and the literal monsters in 1968's THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS. Examples of the latter would include "swarm-types" like the Aliens from the ALIEN franchise and the Martians from Wells' WAR OF THE WORLDS, as well as what I'll tentatively call the "diversified swarm," in which the entities have a common origin but take on diverse-looking appearances, like the Cartagrans from the two-film WAXWORKS franchise.)

My screed is obviously not a one-on-one response to Springer's assertion: she's concerned only with vividness of characterization. Her meditations on Ivanhoe, according to my system, concern only"the relationships of discrete personalities" and so belong to the potentiality I've called "the dramatic," while "the mythopoeic" deals with the "relationships of symbols." Further, "the dramatic," like "the kinetic," belongs in a different bailiwick than "the mythopoeic" and its kissing-cousin "the didactic."
From THE LONG AND SHORT OF WILL:

Plainly, what I call a work's "lateral meaning," glossed with a combination of two of Jung's psychological functions, is confined to what sort of things happen to the story's characters (sensation) and how they feel about those developments (feeling). The function that Jung calls "intuition" finds expression through the author's sense of symbolic combinations, which provides the *underthought* of a given work, while the function of "thinking"finds expression through the author's efforts at discursive cogitation, which provides the work's *overthought.* 

(I note, with yet another digression, that the opposite of "lateral meaning" ought to be "vertical meaning," which takes in both underthought and overthought, in keeping with my use of the term "vertical" here. More on this in another essay.)

Thus, I reject Springer's thesis that a work's "real hero" must be its most dramatically interesting person. A given author may merely wish to use the "centric will" of a given protagonist as an organizing factor, and nothing more, and there have certainly been other good stories that starred protagonists even duller than either Ivanhoe or the Spirit. Still, this should not overlook one last structural quibble: that a dull viewpoint character is not the same as a dull centric protagonist. Ivanhoe is the star of his show because he provides this linking function, and this contributes to what I've called an *endothelic* status, wherein the "narrative is focused upon the will of the viewpoint character or of someone or something that shares that character's interests." A contrary example of this would be Lemuel Gulliver. He's every bit as dull as Ivanhoe but Gulliver's not at the center of his narrative, which is focused rather upon the worlds Gulliver explores. Thus GULLIVER'S TRAVELS fits the category of the *exothelic* in that the narrative is focused on "something outside the interests of the viewpoint character, though not necessarily opposed to them."

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