Saturday, May 20, 2006

British Myths and a Small Rant

Recently, I finished re-reading Guy Gavriel Kay's The Last Light of the Sun, which is quite good (nearly equalling The Lions of Al-Rassan in my estimation). I also recently watched King Arthur (the one with Clive Owen and Keira Knightley). Since this was a few weeks ago, I can't remember if I went to go re-read the Kay book after watching the movie or not. In any case, I tip my hat to Synchronicity here. Between the two of these, I was struck by two things.

Thing the first: What is it about British mythology that so much of it is about preserving order against chaos? The resonances here with T.H. White's Once and Future King are clear and, I'm sure, deliberate on Kay's part. While there's definitely such a thing as Too Much Order (e.g. East Germany pre-1991), most British mythology is contrasting order not so much against license as against rapine and pillaging -- defense against marauding invaders.

Is it simply that much of British history is about just that: defending against invasion? (Or succumbing to it in a number of cases....) Certainly British history's foundational stories often involve repelling invasion -- think of the Spanish Armada, or the Battle of Britain -- or successful invasions, like the battle of Hastings.

But certainly there is a long British tradition (one that J.R.R. Tolkien subscribed to, certainly) that sees maintenance of order as a cardinal virtue -- to allow people (well, people with enough money and time and the right set of sex chromosomes) to tend their gardens and drink beer at the pub. (There's an argument to be made that this is Conservatism in its best sense, but you certainly wouldn't recognize that in today's Republicans in the USA.)

What's interesting about this vision of maintaining order is that a significant part of the goal of order is allowing people to learn things and write (and read) books, and forge bonds with each other, instead of fighting with each other. (I sense another rant coming, about the differences between US and British SF and how that might be connected to differing histories and shaping ideas about colonialism. More on that later.)

Mythology, n.
The body of a primitive people's beliefs concerning its origin, early history, heroes, deities and so forth, as distinguished from the true accounts which it invents later.       --Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

The second thing is more from The Last Light of the Sun than King Arthur, but the latter did touch on it a bit. I don't think it's a huge plot spoiler to reveal that part of The Last Light of the Sun touches on the remnants of mystic power in Britain by including beings from Faery.

Kay's alternate-world Christianity (Jaddism) has declared belief in Faery to be heresy. Kay works this interestingly, because in this alternate world, Faery and its power is in fact real, and several of the characters have to deal with the fact that their Church is pushing something that blatantly contradicts reality.

What I wonder, in a Devil's-Advocate sort of way, is whether the long domination of Europe by the Catholic Church, with its stamping out of all heterodoxy, might have made it easier for the development of modern science in the European Enlightenment.

Imagine the counterfactual setup: a Europe where dozens or hundreds of belief systems ruled. (And by "belief systems" I mean things that include claims about the way the universe works that are actually empirically falsifiable, and mostly -- mostly -- avoided by modern religions in the European-influenced world.) In this counterfactual Europe of the 1500s, the natural philosophers of the day would have had to tackle dozens or hundreds of different cosmologies, instead of one, to convince enough people that what they were saying was right.

To set up a Straw Man for a moment, I would guess that some (naive) Cultural Theory types would argue that this hypothesis is wrong because science is merely a competing worldview that historically supplanted parts of the Church's cultural hegemony. Of course, since this is my Straw Man to knock down, I say hogwash! Science is ultimately about empirical evidence, evidence which can convince other people, even those who don't agree with you or your theories.


stlbanjo said...

Wow! Content. My wings are aflutter.

rantingnerd said...

Do I detect a not of, say, sarcasm here?

stlbanjo said...

yes, many nots of sarcasm.

rantingnerd said...

Augh, I cant spel.

At this point, I think you've got an arpeggio of sarcasm....

ravenweb said...

Interesting. I think there's likely a dialectic of order and (natural) disorder at play as well. The dueling propriety and sensual appetites of Victorian England provide one example. For more contemporary stuff that reveals how the rising UK underclass butts up against the idea of order as a cardinal virtue, check out any of the British "Angry Young Man" novels (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe) or films (Alfie - the Michael Caine version).

rantingnerd said...

Hrm. I think what you're describing is an internal tension, which is definitely present, but less peculiarly British than the external chaos/attack/invasion issue. (I mean, people were complaining two thousand years ago about how the Youth of Today are Ruining Everything.)

Not that I'm disagreeing, just, you know, discussing....