Sunday, February 1, 2015

"Our" Values: Mythology, Media and Identity

A few days ago I had a very interesting conversation with a coworker of mine. A few months back we had gotten to talking about the sorts of television shows we both liked, and one of the recommendations I suggested to him was "Vikings". Now, I thoroughly enjoy the show, am particularly cognizant of how the depictions line up with historic accounts as well as the saga's upon which many of the characters are drawn from, and am particularly fond of the fact that the show hints at the reality of the gods, if heavily reliant on a few specific sources. Anyway, he had finally gotten around to watching a few of the episodes; mostly from season 2 as he had caught them during a weekend "Vikings" marathon. He said that he was really liking the show and the only things that sort of bothered him were the few instances that he dubbed "fantastic".

I inquired to what he was talking about, and he mentioned some particular things: that the Seer has no eyes and that a prophecy which had been made in an earlier episode comes to fruition. He argued that these elements pulled him out of the show as they were simply too fantastic for a series based on "history" was supposed to be. He further explained that another show he enjoyed, "Game of Thrones" establishes itself as firmly in the realm of fantasy because in the very first episode a white walker is shown. In "Vikings", these problematic, fantastical bits are interspersed and occasional, and this bothered him. Now, he was able to see past some of the historic inaccuricies (i.e. that Ragnar Lothbrok was not involved in the raid of Lindisfarne), justifying it by creative license, but he was really hung up on the overtly fantastic things.

My first response was to try and explain that the worldview presented in the show is supposed to be reflective of the pre-Christian Norse cultures, and that such things were present in the Saga's, one of the major sources of the show (as well as some particular sources, i.e. Adam of Bremen). These elements were part of the saga literature, and what is more part of the worldview of these people during the period this show is supposed to represent. Still, it was all too "Game of Thronesy", and really shouldn't have been part of something which was supposed to be historical.

So I brought up an example of a historical film to use as a comparison: Braveheart. My associate had no issues with Braveheart, even though a ridiculous degree of artistic licence was taken, particularly the depiction of Princess Isabella. In the film she is portrayed as a rather fetching adult, who among other things sleeps with William Wallace, conceiving the child who would become Edward III. What a great plot twist, and what a way to give Edward longshanks his comeuppance. Except that at the time of Wallace's death, Isabella was nine, and had yet to set foot in England. I came up with another example, this time less an issue of a historians quibble, but rather a popular depiction of a fantastic act within a none the less within the context of a historic film:  Moses parting the Red Sea, as depicted in, lets say "Prince of Egypt". My friend countered with, "well that's part of our perception; that's something which is something everyone grew up with and recognizes."

To conclude this conversation, I made the following case: So you are perfectly fine with awesome miracles being depicted, like a lone person parting a massive body of water, and still understanding the film as historic? You are also fine with egregious artistic licence being taken which significantly alters known history, and still cut the film some slack? But a prophecy being made about a child being born a monster (i.e. having a deformed pupil) and coming true, or a man having no eyes, is beyond the pale of credulity? Yes apparently, and my associate provided the reasoning in his response to my inquiry about cinematic depictions of Moses; he identified that story as "his" or "ours", in a collective sense. The story of Moses is part of "our" collective mythology and purported history. There is good reason that the producers of "The Bible" TV miniseries some years ago had the tagline "The story of all of us" accompany it, they knew it was true, and that it would resonate with their audiences, western TV viewership.

True, at least, in the sense that a considerable majority of people would agree with such an idea. For all the secularist and church-state barriers, culturally "we" are Christian. Or if this is too much of an absolute statement, then it would be more accurate to say that the religious perspective which informs western culture, and what is "normal", is a Christian one. And, you know, birds go tweet. It is a remarkably obvious realization, at least when you are coming at it from outside such a perspective. It isn't as if my associate is particularly devout or pious; he does not attend regular church or religious services, and to top it all of he does not really identify as a Christian. Yet, when confronted with something from outside of established standards of "familiar miracles", even when exceptionally banal in comparison, it has to be removed from the realm of history and relegated to the realm of fantasy, where such depictions are acceptable.

The adage that "my religion is someone else's mythology" is not a new concept, but it remains an apt observation. It is a realization which many who come from a religious perspective outside the mainstream understand early on, but within the mainstream it is a radical concept. It did not, even for a second, occur to my colleague that perhaps this was not a fantastic element added as an embellishment for dramatic flare, but rather an actual historic occurrence. Now, I am absolutely not advocating for either a literalistic interpretation of Saga literature (or any other mythic account) or for the historic veracity of this particular event. I bring this idea up to illustrate the insidious cultural double standard endemic in western thought about religion and myth. Where one perspective is taken at face value, even for granted, but others are weird, oh and probably made up.

I think there is great value in representing the worldview of the given group one is presenting as accurately as possible. Vikings, if nothing else, does this very well for a historical drama in 2015 (not withstanding some sanitizing elements, relating to human sacrifice), and despite my colleagues disapproval, it is something which makes it more, and not less, accurate.