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Searching the Corners for Treasure:
An Examination of the Role of Science Fiction in the Reclamation of Mythic Tradition

- By Matthew Uselton -

     Wendy O’Flaherty in her book Other Peoples’ Myths: The Cave of Echoes laments that even though myth still exists, “bloody but unbowed, in the Western culture...for most of us...the surviving mythologies of Western culture, though they may share many of the themes and even the forms of traditional mythology, no longer perform the function of traditional mythology.” (135) For many Westerners, the power of myth to shape lives and create a cultural unity has become nullified through familiarity and overexposure. Myths “neither comfort us as routinized traditional myths can do nor shock us as inspired retellings of routinized traditional myths can do.” (135)
     Many Westerners are bombarded with iconic symbols of myth from youth causing the most familiar icons of sacrifice, heroism, etc, to lose their potency. The shock of hearing the story of Christ’s sacrifice is lost amongst the constant bombardment of images of the cross and the repetitious allegorical representations in the media. In other words, the Western public has become acclimated to many of the mythic symbols of the culture, and exists in a desensitized state.
     For O’Flaherty it is imperative that the Western people reconnect with their mythological roots. At risk is the fundamental shaping and reinforcement of cultural values and the internal sense of history and place. O’Flaherty believes that one of the best methods of recovering the icons and symbols of the Western mythos is to experience them in unfamiliar settings. This defamiliarization, in her opinion, occurs when we are engaged with myths from outside the Western culture.
     To illustrate this point, O’Flaherty turns to the story of the Rabbi of Cracow as told by Heinrich Zimmer. In the story, the Rabbi has the same dream three nights in a row. In this dream, the Rabbi is told to go to Prague and to look under a certain bridge to find his fortune. Upon arriving the Rabbi finds the bridge heavily guarded, yet he comes each day to see if there is a chance for him look for the treasure. Finally one of the guards approaches the Rabbi. The Rabbi tells the guard about his dream, to which the guard replies with laughter. The guard tells the Rabbi that he is foolish to follow his dreams and relates that he has had a dream about a treasure being in the house of a Rabbi in Cracow, but that he is not running off to chase some fool dream. The Rabbi thanks the guard and returns home, where he finds a treasure buried in a neglected corner of his house.
     O’Flaherty believes that this story illustrates the way in which our own cultural treasures often lie in a neglected corner, unexamined because of proximity and familiarity. “The visionary power of foreign myths may help us to achieve a literal re-vision of our own scriptures in other ways, as well, to revalue parts of them that have fallen by the wayside or have been too hastily jettisoned.” (O’Flaherty 136) Therefore it takes a journey outside of the familiar to discover or to be shown by another our own neglected corners filled with treasure.
     One of the difficulties of O’Flaherty’s method of exploring other religious myths is that the ‘otherness’ of the myths is so unfamiliar that the reader often gets lost. The confusion comes in several ways, including the casting off of familiar suppositions about tradition and adopting patterns from another culture in order to understand and interpret their mythos. In other words, the readers must step out of their own cultural skins and place themselves in a new and sometimes completely different cultural setting before the images and meanings of the texts can even be accessed, let alone interpreted.
     So before one can begin to experience Christian symbols and similarities in the Mahabarhata, one must first step outside of the western predilections brought to the text, assume or begin to learn a new set of cultural symbols, and then experience the text. The interesting thing is that after that is accomplished, the reader must reverse the process, eventually stepping back into his/her own culture. For just at the Rabbi had to first journey away from the familiar and then return to the familiar in order to discover the treasure, so must we be able to journey back and forth, a constant movement of re-experience, in order to fully illuminate the cultural gems lying grubby in our mental earth.
     Often there is a tremendous amount of research involved in order to step from one mythos into another. The step often involves accumulating vast amounts of knowledge of cultural practices, religious tendencies, and comparative dissimilarities before one can maneuver comfortably within another culture’s mythos. The outside research is necessary because many of the texts are written for a culture already familiar with the traits and suppositions in which it functions. This rather daunting task of scholarship often deters people from seeking the treasure, just as the guard refused to travel to Cracow on grounds of practicality.
     So what is to be done to help revive the awareness of Western mythology and re-energize the symbols of the culture? Casey Fredericks in his book, The Future of Eternity posits that the answer to the rejuvenation of the Western cultural mythos lies not in the otherness of unfamiliar religious texts and folk tales, but in the modern works of science fiction and fantasy. The goal of the book is “to account for the impact of mythology on modern science fiction and to study how the oldest form of the human imagination serves as an inspiration for the newest.” (3)
     Fredericks explores the notion of estrangement in science fiction in the second chapter of his book. This notion of estrangement is the same as O’Flaherty’s “otherness” in the sense that estrangement is the process by which a reader is taken out of the familiar cultural settings and placed into surroundings that range from slightly altered to the bizarre. The reader is mentally stripped of cultural tags and suppositions as he is immersed into the new surroundings. The concept of estrangement also involves the recognition of the subject, but it is still somewhat unfamiliar, and through a process of re-experiencing a recognized subject in unfamiliar terms the reader’s understanding is enriched.
     For Fredericks, the process of reading science fiction is different from the reading of religious texts in that science fiction demands that the reader lay aside, or suspend, disbelief in order to engage with the text. “For a time the familiar seems unfamiliar, but that estrangement allows us to experience it anew and in greater depth.” (48) This suspension of disbelief reduces the tendency of the reader to make evaluative judgments about a text based upon cultural comparisons, therefore aiding the reader in shedding his cultural skin. Fredericks writes, “[with myth] we open up intellectually to the new possibilities, even new impossibilities, and for a time abandon our awareness of normal human limitations” (48)
     Another aspect of science fiction that is important to Fredericks is the manner in which it is created. Because sci-fi is often a creation process, involving place, people, traditions, etc, the author often includes explanations of origins and culture in the work. In other words, all the cultural research that might be required in understanding texts and practices is included in the text itself. This self-contained approach to experiencing otherness is ideal for a Western culture that is tending toward a pre-packaged mentality.
     The writer creates the initial text with some conscious and unconscious elements of myth integrated into the narrative. The writer is not necessarily bound by the myth, in so far as he still has the right to adapt and modify the narrative in any way he sees fit. When the text is re-created in the mind of the reader, the ideas, thoughts, and structures of myth trigger a recognition response. This response causes the reader to create anticipations and expectations about the text, as well as being drawn further into the world of the text. As the reader is coaxed further into the text, he is actively participating in a prefiguration ritual, i.e. creating and drawing conclusions based upon elements presented and the knowledge brought to the text by the reader.
     Prefiguration is a concept that deals with the idea that the outcome is predicted by the clues given in writings beforehand. This idea originated in religious studies, where they look to clues given in the Old Testament to the arrival of Christ. In the books of prophecy, there are veiled indicators of the arrival of Christ, as well as his life and eventual death. Prefigurative elements are important because they generate responses within readers that lead them towards an interaction with the text that goes beyond a simple reading. Prefigurative moments also generate a sense of gaps in the story that force the reader to individually draw conclusions and attempt to fill in those gaps with pre-existing knowledge. Wolfgang Iser in his essay “A Phenomenological Approach to Reading” thoroughly explores the methods by which a reader interacts with the text.

These gaps have a different effect on the process of anticipation and retrospection, and thus on the “gestalt” of the virtual dimension, for they may be filled in different ways. For this reason, one text is potentially capable of several different realizations, and no reading can ever exhaust the full potential, of each individual reader will fill in the gaps on his own way, thereby excluding the various other possibilities; as he reads, he will make his own decision as to how the gap is to be filled. ...With “traditional” texts this process was more or less unconscious, but modern texts frequently exploit it quite deliberately. They are often so fragmentary that one’s attention is almost exclusively occupied with the search for connections between the fragments; the object of this is not to complicate the “spectrum” of connections, so much as to make us aware of the nature of our own capacity for providing links. In such cases, the text refers back directly to our own preconceptions-which are revealed by the act of interpretation that is a basic element of the reading process. (959)

     Fredericks notes that most authors of sci-fi are notorious lovers of myth and will often incorporate mythic structures into their narratives. First, myth is a nice structural device because of all the prefigurative responses generated by the reader’s encountering them in a text. Myth is also readily available and since the iconic principles are already evidenced in society and education in general, there is a pretty good chance that the reader will be able to access some of the symbolic representations in the narrative. Because “the mind can adapt to a new set of ‘conditions’ no matter how implausible and function within the setting” the reader assimilates the mythic structures, not as individual components, but as a contiguous portion of the narrative. Thus the myth is experienced, not as a strange anomaly in the narrative, but as part of the story. Subsequently, it is through this incorporation and assimilation that the myths imbedded in the narrative often surprise the reader when, waiting like the guard in Prague, they point the reader back to his own dusty corner to re-discover a hidden treasure. Therefore, the reader is able to carry the metaphorical baggage of the mythical meaning, when encountered in its new form, back into the world at large and makes those meaningful cultural connections.
     To better see how this principal functions within the world of science fiction, let us take a common myth that has become impotent in the Western culture and examine how two authors have re-infused life back into the iconography. One of the familiar tales that has become passé is the tale of Adam and Eve, specifically where the temptation and decisions of Eve are concerned. Many Westerners are desensitized to the idea that Eve was first tempted by Satan and then eventually expelled from Eden for her transgression. The story often fails to elicit responses within the readers, due to its familiarity.
     Two authors have taken this integral story from the Western mythos and incorporated it into their novels, giving the story new life. The first example is C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra, a science fiction novel that takes place on Venus. The second example is Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass, the third book in the His Dark Materials trilogy. Both of these stories revolve around the story of Eve and her temptation, providing Westerners an opportunity to re-experience a familiar myth in an unfamiliar way.
Perelandra is Lewis’s take on the creation story. The story is centered on Edward Ransom who is sent by aliens to the new planet of Venus. When Ransom arrives he finds a planet covered in water, populated with floating islands of vegetation. Ransom is forced to come to grips with this new concept of planet, one that is in constant motion rather than solid stationary land. As the reader sees Ransom’s reaction to the new surroundings, the defamiliarization process is initiated. So that as Ransom makes discoveries about the planet and about how to operate on this strange world, the reader becomes further immersed in Ransom’s experience and is able to step away from his world, into Ransom’s.
     Ransom soon discovers that he is not alone on the planet.

"It ran easily: the heaving surface of the field did not seem to trouble it. Then his own land reeled downwards and backwards and a great wall of water pushed its way up between the two countries...The creature was still running. The width of water between the two islands was about thirty feet, and the creature was less than a hundred yards away from his. He knew now that it was not merely man-like, but a man-a green man on an orange field, green like the beautifully coloured green beetle in an English garden..."(Lewis 53)

     But Ransom is in for another surprise, as it turns out not to be a green man, but a green woman that he has seen running on the other island. Ransom makes contact with the strange Lady and comes to understand that she is seeking her husband. Through conversation, Ransom learns that she is the first Lady and her husband is the first Man, and they have been separated.
     This bit of information should make the reader access the Eden myth as he is trying to make relationships between the knowledge in his head and the information on the page. In all likelihood the reader will recall the myth of Eden and understand that the situation on Perelandra is similar to the story of Adam and Eve. There is a key distinction between a story being “like” the Eden myth and the story actually being a verbatim recounting of the Eden myth. The difference lies in the reader’s response. A story that is “like” the Eden myth will often not illicit a negative response within the reader, as he is accessing the components of the story that are similar, allowing for a point of contact, while at the same time keeping the dissimilarities-in this case the Venutian setting and the interloper Ransom-in mind. However, a direct retelling will most likely illicit a response of preordination in the reader, where the reader can tell from the similarities and the preciseness of the story that this will just be a retelling of the Eden myth, and since he knows how the story ends there is no need to continue reading.
     It is the otherness of Lewis’s tale that keeps the reader engaged with the story. Lewis then introduces the character of Weston, an evil character from the first book in this series, Out of the Silent Planet. Weston is interesting in that he plays a dual role as adversary to Ransom, as well as fulfilling the role of the tempter in the Eden mythos. Weston is the introduction of evil into this paradise, and both the reader and Ransom know what his purpose on Perelandra is, to tempt the Green Lady. For the reader is not the only person aware of the Eden mythos, as Ransom and Weston both hail from Earth and are familiar with the Eden story.
     What follows in the story is Ransom having to deal with the fact that he has been sent to Perelandra as God’s representative to stop Weston and prevent a repetition of the exile from Eden. Ransom makes it very clear that if Weston should succeed that there would be no redemption for the Green Lady, as there was on Earth with the coming of Christ. So Ransom begins to battle Weston, who by this time has been possessed by the Devil, first mentally and then physically. In the end, Ransom must kill Weston in order to prevent the temptation of the Green Lady. Ransom defeats Weston and is reunited with the Green Lady who has discovered her husband. Ransom is then allowed to see how the Earth might have been if Adam and Eve had not been expelled from Eden.
     What this novel does for the reader is allow him to re-access a neglected corner of his mind, through the associative process of reading something that is unfamiliar. When the reader returns to the real world, there may or may not be a great change in his interpretation of the Eden myth. However, the important thing is that in that time that he was reading, the reader was once again actively involved with a central myth of the Western culture.
     Philip Pullman also uses the Eden myth in his novel The Amber Spyglass however his use is a bit different than Lewis’s. For Lewis, the importance seemed to be in updating the story and making it more relevant and accessible to the reader. Pullman, however, wants to call into question the dogma that has surrounded the myth of Eden.
     Pullman has created a world that is currently at war with the heavens and seeks to create their own paradise. Pullman has two central characters, Will and Lyra, both children on the cusp of adolescence. For Pullman, these two represent his Adam and Eve, as they exist in a state of innocence, but are approaching an age when understanding dawns in the minds of children. Pullman has set up a physical manifestation of this movement from child to adolescent in two ways. First there is the particle simply known as Dust. Dust only collects around adults, therefore when a special film is used only adults will show up as glowing entities. Secondly there is the fixation of the daemon in one state. Prior to adolescence, the daemon is able to change shape freely, but after the transition into puberty, the daemon becomes fixed in one shape.
     In terms of the use of the Eden myth, Pullman has almost pushed it to the periphery allowing the first two books of the trilogy to focus on the characters of Lyra and Will. The first indication that something like Eden is going on is early in The Amber Spyglass when it is revealed that Lyra is destined to repeat the choice of Eve. As this knowledge blooms in the book, the reader is able to see how the various factions react to the news. One faction sends a priest to kill Lyra, believing that she will further separate man from God. A second group seeks to use Lyra to lead them to a promised paradise, knowing that in order for Eve’s choice to be replicated, Lyra must be in a paradisal setting. Throughout all of the struggles, though, Lyra remains unaware of her impending choice.
     By allowing the reader to understand what is facing Lyra, the reader is forced to access the Eden myth, just as with Perelandra. However, unlike Lewis’s version, the reader must make evaluative judgments about the reactions of the people to the information about Lyra’s situation. By making the reader evaluate the Eden myth in this manner, Pullman is not pointing out that this is simply a nice myth, but he is forcing the reader to make decisions about what to do with the myth. Pullman further complicates the matter by not presenting a traditional retelling of the Eden myth.
     Pullman takes the Edenic situation, presenting some of the traditional symbols of the myth including the tempter, the fruit, and even the surroundings of paradise, and turns the eventual outcome on its ear. Pullman is relying on the reader to bring all the expectations of the Edenic myth to the text so that he can present an alternate interpretation to the tale. In this way, the otherness of the novel is not only bound up in settings and characters, but also in the outcome.
Focusing specifically on the temptation sequence in The Amber Spyglass we find that like Lewis, Pullman is using a human to represent the tempter. Mary Malone, a former nun, has be led to the land of the Mulefa, a paradise of giant trees and no humans. Her divination book of I-Ching leads Mary and she knows that she has been sent to this paradise to act as the tempter. Because she is a former nun, she understands what role she has been asked to play, though she is somewhat reluctant. When the children finally arrive, Mary does not specifically set out to tempt them but her story of leaving the church has profound effects.
     Lyra asks Mary if she remembers when she stopped being a nun. Mary relates how she was giving a paper in Lisbon and went out with friends to celebrate. She talks about going out and her beginning to “discover another side of [herself]...one that liked the taste of wine and grilled sardines and the feeling of warm air on [her] skin and the beat of music in the background.” (The Amber Spyglass, 442) Mary goes on to talk about how she realized that there was another part of her self that was missing; there was no love to balance her duty.

"Being in love was like China: you knew it was there, and no doubt it was very interesting, and some people went there, but I never would. I’d spend all my life without ever going to China, but it wouldn’t matter, because there was all the rest of the world to visit.
“And then someone passed me a bit of some sweet stuff and I suddenly realized that I had been to China. So to speak. And I’d forgotten it.”
“Anyway,” Mary went on. “I remembered the taste, and all at once I was back tasting it for the first time as a young girl.
“ I was twelve years old. I was at a party at the house of one of my friends, a birthday party, and there was a disco...this boy-I didn’t know him-he asked me to dance, and so we had the first dance and then the next, and by that time we were talking...And you know what it is when you like someone, you know it at once; well, I liked him such a lot. And we kept on talking and then there was a birthday cake. And he took a bit of marzipan and he just gently put it in my mouth-I remember trying to smile, and blushing, and feeling so foolish-and I fell in love with him just for that, for the gentle way he touched my lips with the marzipan.”

The talk then turns to the notions of good and evil.

“When I first saw you, in your Oxford,” Lyra said, “You said one of the reasons you became a scientist was that you wouldn’t have to think about good and evil.”
“When you stopped believing in God,” [Will] went on, “did you stop believing in good and evil?”
“No. But I stopped believing there was a power of good and a power of evil that were outside of us. And I came to believe that good and evil are names for what people do, not for what they are. All we can say is that this is a good deed, because it helps someone, or that’s an evil one, because it hurts them. People are too complicated to have simple labels.”
(The Amber Spyglass, 446-447)

Lyra and Will, after listening to Mary’s story the night before, travel off into the woods for a picnic.

Will and Lyra followed the stream into the wood, walking carefully, saying little, until they were in the very center.
There was a little clearing in the middle of the grove, which was floored with soft grass and moss-covered rocks. The branches laced across overhead, almost shutting out the sky and letting through little moving spangles and sequins of sunlight, so that everything was dappled with gold and silver.
...Lyra took one of those little red fruits. With a fast-beating heart, she turned to him and said, “Will...”
And she lifted the fruit gently to his mouth.
(The Amber Spyglass, 465)

Pullman has presented a moment from the Eden myth, the verdant surroundings, the use of the red fruit, the offering of that fruit to Will by Lyra. Each of these details resonates with the original myth, recalling in the mind of the reader the story of Adam and Eve in the garden. This scenario has another parallel as well, the offering of marzipan to Mary Malone on the night she left the church. That story, the one of Mary rediscovering love, is the one that the children are remembering, not the story of Adam and Eve.

She could see from his eyes that he knew at once what she meant, and that he was too joyful to speak. Her fingers were still at his lips, and he felt them tremble, and he put his own hand up to hold hers there, and then neither of them could look; they were confused; they were brimming with happiness.
Like two moths clumsily bumping together, with no more weight than that, their lips touched. Then before they knew how it happened, they were clinging together, blindly pressing their faces toward each other.
(The Amber Spyglass, 465-466)

     This is the long awaited moment of Lyra repeating Eve’s choice, the tempter has played her part, the fruit has been exchanged, and now is time for the transgression. However, Pullman does not have the children discovering shame or their nakedness or even that there is good and evil in the world, rather Will and Lyra discover love.

“...I love you, Will, I love you-“
The word
love set his nerves ablaze. All his body thrilled with it, and he answered her in the same words, kissing her hot face over and over again, drinking in with adoration the scent of her body and her warm, honey-fragrant hair and her sweet, moist mouth that tasted of the little red fruit. (The Amber Spyglass, 466)

     The discovery of love by Will and Lyra seems somewhat anti-climactic, particularly when viewed in light of those who would kill Lyra to prevent her from repeating the transgression of Eve. Yet Lyra is guilty of nothing more than discovering her first love and experiencing that love. Pullman has taken the negative expectations of other characters and turned the actuality of the act into something that is not only viewed as natural, but also good. Lyra is not participating in some vile rebirth of evil into the world. She is falling in love.
     Pullman has changed the outcome of the Eve myth, taking it in a direction that is unforeseen. The reader is now forced to deal with the myth, not only in terms of what has been taught over they years, but also in light of the new revelations brought forth by Pullman’s text. So not only does the reader face the otherness of the story, but the otherness of the outcome and the value of that outcome. The baggage the reader is forced to carry includes the realization that Eve’s choice may not have been solely about the knowledge of good and evil, but may have actually been about the knowledge of love and the wish to experience that love.
     Certainly this complicates things in terms of how the reader deals with the myth, but I think that is essentially what the O’Flaherty and Fredericks mean when they are talking about experiencing things in an estranged manner. The otherness forces the myth to grow from a planer concept into a complex and multi-faceted structure that bodes careful examination and study. In other words, the myth has become a valuable thinking tool for examining the world.
     If myth is to continue to function as a meaningful part of Western culture, then it falls to the authors to show us our traditions in new and unfamiliar ways. The culture has moved in a direction that the repetition of the same stories are ineffective, as they bounce off a mental canvas already supersaturated with the iconography and dogma of the culture. It is only through the re-presentation of the tradition in ways that seem strange and foreign that we will be able to reclaim the stories of the past and set the direction for the future.

     Works Cited

Fredericks, Casey. The Future of Eternity: Mythologies of Science Fiction and Fantasy.
     Bloomington, Indiana. Indiana University Press, 1982.

Lewis, Clive Staples. Perelandra. New York. First Scribner Paperback Fiction. 1996.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. Other People’s Myths: The Cave of Echoes. Chicago. The
     University of Chicago Press. 1998.

Pullman, Philip. The Amber Spyglass. (His Dark Materials; Book 3) New York. Alfred A.
     Knopf. 2000.

Richter, David. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Second
     Edition. New York. Bedford/St. Martin’s. 1998.

Back to Interpretations of His Dark Materials

Searching the Corners for Treasure:
An Examination of the Role of Science Fiction in the Reclamation of Mythic Tradition

by Matthew Uselton

Posted with the author's permission.

Last modified on June 14th, 2002.

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