Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Modern Myths

"Immortal Snake" by Rachel Pollack is one of those stories that casts itself in explicitly mythic language. It begins:
"Long ago, in a time beyond memory, Great Powers owned the land, the water, and even the air. Of all these empires, the strongest was a land called Written in the Sky."

This story form is not uncommon in the pages of short story collections (I don't know of any novel-length work using these conventions). Among others, Michael Swanwick has used it to good effect recently (although I'm not currently coming up with the title of the story I'm thinking of).

Authors typically have a very specific reason for writing using this style. A myth generally has a specific purpose. The ones I've seen are usually either cautionary tales, or explanations of how a world came to be. "Immortal Snake" doesn't make any moves in the direction of the latter purpose; it seems instead to be a story with a cautionary moral. However, I don't think that a story with the moral "damned if you do and damned if you don't" is really the best fit for the mythic style. [Spoilers ahead in the story description.]

The kingdom described in the story has a very elaborate set-up for cycling through their kings. When the astrologers determine that the signs are right, they kill and cook two of the king's companions, feed them to him thus poisoning him, and he dies. They take his skin, hang it up, and then choose a new king. It's symbolic of a snake shedding its skin each year. The king lives a life as hedonistic or as useful as he chooses, but lives under the threat of the astrologers knocking on his door at any time. For time immemorial the realm has been operating this way: it is implied that this has been a very stable arrangement—the kingdom has been successful in its wars, and while there's poverty it isn't described as being extreme.

Obviously, one doesn't write stories about static situations, one writes them about times of change. This king's companions are his sister, who cares passionately about the poor, and a story-teller. It turns out that the story-teller can mesmerize anyone with his gifts, even the astrologers. They neglect their duties in order to listen to him night after night. The sister and the story-teller fall in love, and plot things out in such a way as to overthrow the rule of the astrologers. Their coup succeeds.

The king serves out his term, ruling well and dying a natural death. The story-teller succeeds him, reigns benevolently, and dies peacefully. However, in the last nine paragraphs of this novelette, the story-teller's sons fight a bloody civil war of succession, ruining the kingdom to the extent that their main enemy easily conquers them, kills and enslaves the populace, and sows the land with salt. The end.

WTF? What moral shall we derive from this? An author's note at the end states that this is based on a real myth from the Darfur region, implying that their problems have ancient origins. That seems horrible to me: Darfur's problems stem from mundane conflicts over land, religion and ethnicity, and have been exacerbated by climate change. To imply that they have some mythic origin would be to suggest that there's nothing we can do about it, it's simply their fate.

If the story is meant to have a moral in its own right, the only one I can derive is: it's better to be ruled by a silly, arbitrary, oligarchical system than to rock the boat; if you insist on change it'll all end in tears. That also seems like a less than perfectly useful message in this day and age, when change is what we will dearly need to get out of the straits we're in. Perhaps someone else can offer a better explanation of the author's goal with this story, but as I read it I found it very disappointing.

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