Wednesday, July 24, 2013

21st Century Folktales

About a year ago, I posted my thoughts on magic realism.

Through the course of several recent and not-so-recent conversations, my perspective on the genre has evolved, and I've developed a new way of thinking about magic realism that I think answers some of the lingering questions I've long since had on the genre.

The seed for this post came from a discussion about story conventions from different cultures. A poster mentioned that folktales from lots of cultures around the world seem to have elements of magic realism in them, and I wondered if maybe this was backward: that magic realism tends to have elements of folktales in it. After all, aren't folk tales far older than the relatively more modern concept of "magic realism" as a literary genre?

I posted:

"In thinking about it, that does suggest an interesting conclusion to me. Any supernatural fiction arising from cultures for whom folk beliefs are deeply ingrained and interwoven into the culture will probably resemble magic realism when viewed through a Western lens. Take myths from any culture around the world and re-tell it in a modern voice, and it'll probably look like magic realism. This includes Christianity. To this extent, we can use this to develop a definition of magic realism as a genre of modern-day folklore, which—as a magic realism author—I find to be a fascinating and curiously appropriate definition.

"In fact, I think one could say the demarcation of the speculative fiction genres in general may only make sense at all when viewed from a secular, Western perspective. To a person who believes in ghosts and witches, a story that involves ghosts and witches isn't a "fantasy" or "magic realism" story. It's simply a story."

Between my recent musings about magical girl monomyths, and increasingly drawing from Zuni and Japanese folklore for inspiration in my writing, I've been thinking a lot about the role of myths and legends and folktales in literature. Surely many literary genres—fantasy in particular comes to mind—draw inspiration heavily from mythology. But what genre would myth, legend, and folktale fall under?

Although all are related as traditional stories, my discussion will primarily consider folklore, so as not to be burdened with the sacred narrative nature of mythology. The Wikipedia page (forgive the source) describes folklore thusly:

"... folklore can be used to accurately describe a figurative narrative, which has no sacred or religious content. In the Jungian view... it may instead pertain to unconscious psychological patterns, instincts or archetypes of the mind. This may or may not have components of the fantastic (such as magicethereal beings or the personification of inanimate objects). These folktales... speak to deep psychological issues."

While folktales and fairy tales may often share many of the outward traits of the fantasy genre, such as trolls and dwarves and magic spells, it doesn't feel quite right to call them "fantasy," does it? Why? A telling trait of fantasy and science fiction—to me—is an implicit admission or recognition that the fantastical, supernatural, or futuristic elements aren't real. These elements in fantasy and science fiction are deliberate fabrications, consciously departing from a scientific, rational understanding of reality (or the reality of what is possible at the time of writing, for science fiction). While folklore differs from mythology in that it is not usually part of a sacred narrative, it does reflect a particular cultural understanding of the world, a particular perspective of reality.

Perhaps this is why the stories of folklore so often resemble magic realism when viewed through a scientific, Western perspective, and why writers from non-Western cultures where folk beliefs still run deep (or writers who are deeply influenced by such cultures) produce stories that are so commonly called "magic realism."

This brings me to another characteristic that I think is a marker of magic realism (and probably surrealism to an extent as well), which is that in magic realism, there exists a profound belief that the "magic" in the story is an accurate reflection of reality.

This belief may not be true on a literal level, and is often true instead on a symbolic or metaphoric level.

Another way of thinking about this is that while the fantastic elements in fantasy and the futuristic elements in science fiction exist as a deliberate departure from current reality or present-time possibilities, the "magic" in magic realism and the "surreal" in surrealism are used to evoke an experienced reality that is more "true" than could be evoked without their use.

This interpretation is evident in the very term itself, as "magic realism" is fundamentally a form of realism that is not limited by a scientific, rational, Western, linear understanding of the world. This goes back to the interesting, initial observation that the discussion of magic realism as a literary genre is only really meaningful in the context of Western scientific thought. While much of the Western world follows an Abrahamic religion, the role of its more fantastical mythology and folklore has largely been relegated to matters of the afterlife, and not an understanding of the day-to-day life affairs with which magic realism tends concern itself.

Mythology as a sacred narrative examines the world and tries to explain its reality, often through the use of the magical and supernatural. Similarly, folklore uses the same traditional, mythological understanding of world to examine psychological experiences and common themes and motifs of the human experience.

But is that not so unlike magic realism? On the other hand, is that not so unlike much of fantasy as well?

It is here, where the magical merges with one's understanding of reality, where the differences between the two genres dissolve. It seems to me that one's conception and understanding of "reality" is key to distinguishing the speculative genres, if they are to be distinguished at all (from both each other and from straight realism). Much like in Jorge Luis Borges' short story, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," context is the key to the interpretation of a text. The nature of reality, how one perceives it, and how the reader perceives it, can all drastically change the interpretation of a story and even its very genre. If one writes a science fiction narrative, and all the technologies are then invented, what is left that makes the work science fiction? If a writer or reader believes in the experienced reality described by a story—literally or metaphorically—what makes it speculative anymore?

A final thought is to consider what kind of questions motivate the different forms of stories: if fantasy and science fiction answer "what if," and myth and legend answer "why" or "how," then magic realism and surrealism answer "how does it feel?"

In the end, magic realism are just mundane stories that happen to be magical.

Or perhaps more simply, and more magically, magic realism are just mundane stories told by people who (still) happen to believe in magic.

And maybe I just like to tell fairy tales.

The Mahou Shoujo Monomyth

(actually posted on May 21; reposted from here)

I'm suddenly tempted to write a treatise proposing the steps for a heroine's journey by analyzing the structure of various magical girl anime.

I posted that here on December 22, 2012, the day after the world ended. Half a year later, I decided "Okay, I'm going to actually do this." This is the result.

While the Hero's Journey actually works perfectly well for a female hero, I do see lots of major deviations from it in works that I would consider prototypical of a "Heroine's Journey". It's hard to make conclusions about what constitutes a "man's journey" versus a "woman's journey" without falling neck-deep in gender biases and stereotypical gender roles, but I'm going to try. I'm not nearly as well-read on classical texts as many people I know, so for better or worse, I'm building off of modern examples.

In particular, as I mentioned, I am thinking of the genre of magical girl anime, and series like Revolutionary Girl UtenaMagical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, and Magical Girl Madoka Magica. I am also considering Western shows likeBuffy the Vampire Slayer, which I think can basically be considered a Western take on the magical girl genre.

I'm just going to go through the steps of the monomyth as given on Wikipedia and give some of my thoughts on them...

In the very first steps in the Hero's Journey, you have the Call to Adventure and Refusal of the Call. But in works I consider Heroine's Journeys, it usually goes the opposite way. The heroine seeks adventure, but her desire is refused, often by society or some other artificial hindrance. Or, there is a call, but she doesn't refuse it. There is often less internal conflict over whether to accept the call in a Heroine's Journey, and more external conflict due to outside forces that make acceptance of the call difficult for the heroine.

I think Supernatural Aid is a rather gender-neutral step, and I'd leave this one alone, as I think it works basically the same in both.

Then you have Crossing of the First Threshold and the Belly of the Whale. Here I think is where the Heroine's Journey begins to deviate further from the classical Hero's Journey. In the male version, there is a departure from the hero's familiar world, and a journey into an unfamiliar world which is new and different from the old. I think it works differently for heroines. Rather than a departure, there is often a revelation that the familiar world is different than it appears, and there is the discovery of new and unfamiliar things in the same world. The post above me mentions a "Secret World" as a possible step in the Heroine's Journey, and I think that fits this idea perfectly. I think the Belly of the Whale works sort of the same as in the Hero's Journey, but represents a different kind of separation from the old self, since in the heroine's journey, the two worlds are actually the same. For a heroine, this could represent an acceptance that the Secret World is the real one, and the familiar world is a facade, for example. These steps are exemplified by the revelation that vampires and demons exist and slayers are born to fight them, that witches exist and magical girls exist to fight them, and that there are secret duels and a floating castle above Ohtori Academy.

I'd add a step before the Road of Trials, called something like Collection of Companions. The male monomyth is very much about a lone hero, and even though in many versions there are companions, there is not nearly as much emphasis placed on the idea of friends and companions, but I think it's emphasized much more explicitly in the stories I'm considering Heroine's Journeys.

I think the Road of Trials can fit into the Heroine's Journey in some ways, but I'll introduce one way it doesn't fit, which I think is a key difference in how I think the Heroine's Journey differs from the Hero's Journey: the goal. The male monomyth is extremely goal-oriented, even if that goal is an arbitrary MacGuffin to justify the adventure in the first place. The Hero's Journey is thoroughly and essentially quest-like. The Heroine's Journey is antithetical to this. Maybe a short-term goal of defeating the Big Bad is introduced, but that's rarely ever the main goal, and the "goal" in a Heroine's Journey tend to be much more abstract. Buffy must slay vampires and protect the world. The magical girls in Madoka must fight witches to protect the world. Utena wants to become a prince and protect Anthy. In a Hero's Journey, the Road of Trails is a path toward the goal at the end of the quest. In a Heroine's Journey, it's often part of a never-ending struggle.

Now we get to some of the really problematic ones. The Meeting with the Goddess, the Woman as Temptress, and Atonement with the Father.

I don't think it's as simple as replacing the Meeting with the Goddess with a God, and since love and companionship is often emphasized from the beginning with a Heroine's Journey, the encounter of love doesn't fully fit. There are examples of it, but I don't think it's a necessary step in a Heroine's Journey. I would replace it with maybe something like Testing of Friendships.

The Woman as Temptress obviously doesn't work, and I don't think the whole step really works in a Heroine's Journey at all, even if you replace the woman with a man, or just consider it in terms of a false and seductively easy answer to troubles. That doesn't really happen in the stories I consider Heroine's Journeys. Rather, there's often a Rejection of the Burden. This isn't quite like refusal of the call. Instead, it's the heroine's struggle with the endless nature of her struggle, questioning whether it will in fact ever end, or if it's even possible, or if it was a good idea in the first place.

Likewise, for Atonement with the Father, I don't think you can just replace the father with a mother, though again there examples of that being used. Since the essence of this step is essentially about being initiated by a figure of ultimate power over the hero's life, I don't think it fits with the Heroine's Journey at all. I think the Heroine's Journey rejects that, and instead I'd replace it with Acceptance of the Self. This is the step after the heroine overcomes Rejection of the Burden, when she decides to believe in herself as a heroine. It's about believing in her own heroism.

Like Supernatural Aid, I think Apotheosis is pretty gender-neutral, and works perfectly fine in the Heroine's Journey.

Finally, I don't think the Ultimate Boon has any place in the Heroine's Journey at all. The Heroine's Journey isn't quest-oriented in the first place, and so there's no point to the step. The Heroine's Journey will never end as long as the world remains the same.

Which brings us to...

Revolutionize the World!

I'm just going to group together all of the "Return"-type steps, since they're basically just alternate endings to the Hero's Journey, and rarely do they all occur in the same story, unlike the other steps. However, they all carry the same theme in the hero making some kind of peace between his old, familiar world, and the new world he has encountered on the adventure. This doesn't work at all in the Heroine's Journey, because part of the inherent difference I've suggested is that these worlds are different faces of the same world. The Secret World completely overlaps with the heroine's previous, familiar world. So how is this handled in the Heroine's Journey? I think the Heroine's Journey tends to end by rejecting the system itself. The heroine always picks a third option.

That's why the final step is Revolutionize the World. In believing in her own heroism, the heroine develops the power to overcome the endless struggle by changing the rules themselves. The heroine neither stays in the Secret World, nor does the heroine return to her previous world (which would in fact be possible anyway, because you can't un-see the Masquerade). Rather the heroine changes the world itself, and leaves both her original world and the Secret World behind.

(spoilers abound below)

Utena destroys the castle and leaves Ohtori Academy, freeing Anthy from her burden. In the movie version, Utena and Anthy leave for the real world together. Nanoha rejects that her enemies are enemies at all, and in defeating them, she "befriends" them, and turns them into her companions. Madoka uses her power to rewrite the laws of the universe so that magical girls don't become witches, finally ending the cycle of despair, and becomes a god who exists outside of time. Buffy rejects that she is a lone heroine (incidentally, a rule initiated by men who must have subscribed to the Hero's Journey) and awakens slayer powers in every potential; then she finally takes the fight to Hell itself, destroys the Hellmouth once and for all, and leaves Sunnydale.

(end spoilers)

I'd love to hear what everyone thinks of this potential model of the Heroine's Journey. I think I've done my best to avoid ingraining any inherent gender biases or gender roles into it, and instead build the steps from the stories I love most about heroines and the common motifs they exhibit. I also think it can work perfectly well for a male character (and can think of at least one anime example that does follow this pattern with a male hero). But this is my idea of a woman taking a woman's journey, a Heroine's Journey.