The Dark Crystal: Fantasy, Animism & Subversion
What might one say of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance? Lovers of the original, like myself, appear to be blown away by it, and even those who didn’t like the original movie have nothing but good things to say about it. So if you haven’t watched it, don’t waste time reading this and go check it out by whatever means necessary….
I am naturally assuming that you’re a fantasy fan at this point, and that even if you haven’t actually watched any Dark Crystal, you’ll still know that there is a beloved place in people’s hearts for Henson’s movie. So much so, that when you see something that was beloved to your childhood being revived, there is a fear that maybe it wont live up to the desires you’re cradling in your heart, the desire to see the old magic you once felt revived.
Yet seeing what little I did of the painstaking attempts to accurately recreate the world of Thra, a little light of hope was kindled, and when the time was right I sat down to watch the whole thing over the course of a couple of evenings.
And once again I was totally enthralled by the world of Thra.
It wasn’t simply the beauty of its crafting, nor the spectacular settings, nor the fantastic puppetry that brought the characters to life, no, it was also the grotesquery of the villains, the horror and subtle implications that underpinned the nicely paced and plotted story. It spoke to me at a deeper level, igniting that little spark which lives deep down where my inner child dwells, just waiting to be amazed and terrified by the awe and mystery that wild flights of the imagination can induce.
And that is perhaps why the first episode caught me off guard, needling me when I had lowered the defences that we all learn as we grow older. It was the sudden shift to horror, to a spectacle that went beyond just straight up murder to something worse. When the Skeksis drained the essence from the Gelfling guard I was…. deeply disturbed.
Because Mira isn’t just slain by physical violence (one assumes that the lack of blood might be a good reason to give it a PG certificate), but rather her soul, her vital essence, her living connection to the world of Thra is drained out of her and consumed by the villains.
This prompted visceral disgust in my gut. If one’s soul is the essence of our being, if it is our connection to the universe, was this not a crime worse than just murder? Was this not a perversion of the natural cycle of birth, life and death because her energy could not return to cosmological substrate of creation? As her soul cannot return to Thra, one assumes that she became nothing, that whatever made her unique was assigned to oblivion.
Reflecting on why I felt this way became a thing of curiosity, and two days later I posted a reply to a Reddit thread regarding the series. I offered the notion that the original movie, and fantasy at large, had certainly informed my world view as a child, that it had contributed to my animistic view of life – that is, the sense that all living things are connected through some fabric, be it spiritual, quantum, or just as physical matter recycling through birth, death and decay.
Fantasy is filled with quests throuh natural worlds, through rolling forests with their myriads of strange, exuberant flora and fauna, and perhaps that’s why I came to love the woodland with its trees and fungus, it’s birds and insects. Out on the local heath in the tall Summer grasses with the crickets singing…..
And up on the hill, watching the clouds….
By the ocean, listening to the sound of the waves lapping the beach….
It all seems to have…. soul.
So I suppose it is no surprise that I find myself at odds with the very society that spawned me, that I would spend most of my adult life resisting it in some fashion or the other; from avoiding the exploitation of a corporate career to being given dirty looks when saving a worm from the pavement, from the dystopian unease that sometimes grips me when at the supermarket to the long term goal of getting off grid.
NB: I lived in a yurt for five years now….. and if you stick around I’ll tell that story another day.
So the question arose: if these natural, animistic representations had a profound infuence on me as a child, and if animism is a core component of the Dark Crystal’s cosmology, might such notions be considered subversive? After all, an animistic approach to life surely stands in stark contrast to what might be considered the society’s dominant ideology…..
THE WHAT? (A HISTORY LESSON OF SORTS…..)
What I mean by this is the guiding outlook that has come to dominate the world, the attitudes and approaches of human superiority and the maintenance of authority’s wealth and power.
For example, how do the captains of industry, the CEO’s of global corporations, and the rulers of nations maintain what they have acquired under the civilisation project over the past 6000+ years? How do these institutions view the natural world?
So…… a brief history (or rather, “a hideously over simplified historical narrative of the rise of the dominant ideology”).
Let’s go back to the roots of the modern era with the start of farming and civilisation. These newly forming city states shifted society away from the traditional hunting and gathering societies who were low impact, more egalitarian (judging by extant tribes and communal burials) and had a deep knowledge of their world: they lived within the natural cycles of their local ecology, had a knowledge of game animals and gatherable plants, berries, nuts etc. They also worked to lunar cycles – I think the earliest known lunar calendar is 32,000BC – and they typically only took what they needed each season.
But with the first city states and the rise of farming the new urban cultures cleared the land and raised walls against the natural world, separating themselves by increasing developments in hierarchy, technical specialisation (such as priesthoods, architects and military), and urbanisation.
Key to maintaining this burgeoning hierarchy was an abundance of resources to feed the new administrations, their religious experts and the soldiers who expanded territories under state sanctioned conquest. However, over-reaching the boundaries of their local resource limits made these city state vulnerable to collapse, and in conjunction with warfare, climatic shifts and cultural factors many did indeed fall into ruin.
Meanwhile the rise of state religions helped build legitimacy for the ruling order through new myths and ever evolving pantheons of gods and goddesses that embraced a new solar logic, but which retained hidden lunar motiffs. Over time Pantheism would be eclipsed by Monotheism, but the essential purpose remained the same: to legitimise man’s stewardship over the earth, his “dominion”, thus placing man (and I mean man) above nature, in charge of it, to do with it as he would.
Integral in this shift was the creation of paradises and heavens for good behaviour. Heaven is not of the Earth, a far cry from hunter and gatherer religions that tied human life cycles to the land. Instead of the ancestors returning in cyclical rebirth via the earth they now resided in heavenly abodes and there they stayed.
If they didn’t go to some hellish underworld that is…..
Eventually these beliefs would form the underpinnings of capitalism in Europe where the hereditary land system (under feudalism peasants had rights to their own piece of land) was broken up by Enclosure and the work force was transformed into itinerant labourers for the benefit of land owners. The new Protestant work ethic held that the reward for a back breaking life of toil was a place in heaven. This formed the stage for the burgeoning of the industrial revolution.
At the same time the influence of the church on how society viewed the world was being challenged with new philosophies that mirrored the rise of industry. The likes of Descartes and his contemporaries began to refine the workings of creation into an image of the machine, thus rendering what was left of Nature as nothing more than a bio-mechanical object.
The nascent sciences embraced objectivity, the cold detachment that probed the working of nature via acts like live vivisection, and with it came incredibly high levels of technical specialisation – the progress of civilisation’s technical mastery until it had built the atomic bomb and iPhones more powerful than the computers that sent men to the moon. God as the prime motivator was moved aside and the beginnings of psychology took root, perhaps best summed up by Descartes’ motto, “I think, there I am.”
With the rise of science and industry, and the consolidation of the first world’s nation states into relatviely stable rival blocks (often at each others throats), the scene was set to fully make Nature into a soulless resource. The emergent global networks of civilised hierarchies began to extract resources at a much increased rate and shifted it out of sight by exporting all the problems to their colonies.
The final wave came with the rise of late stage capitalism that has now succeeded in taking control of most of the global centres, from Europe to the USA, to China and Russia (state capitalists masquerading in the costume of revolution). These massive blocks of world power have consistently degraded the world to build up their armies, their industries and placed an unprecedented amount of wealth into the hands of a minority who have waged a campaign to utterly disenfranchise the poor from any rights to their own lands via state bureaucracies, the rule of private property and corporate ownership of resources.
We now live in a world where mass resource exploitation is essential to capitalist production, from wood for furniture and paper, to the vast mines of ore and minerals for steel and microchips, to the trawling of the seas and the farming of the land. Nature has been effectively enslaved, devalued and striped of its right to exist as a living thing for itself. It is now something to be owned by private institutions.
This process of commodification sees its final expression in the opinion of neo-liberal capitalists who claim that if nature can be turned into a product, and someone owns that product, then they will care for it. For example, this has been proffered as a solution to air pollution: if someone owns the air (the air your breathing for free!) then they will clean it up. The same for other essentials such as water – companies such as Nestle are infamous for their claim that water IS NOT a human right. It is a product, and you should have to pay for it.
When social responsibilities to the air are only seen through a profit orientated lens, that is not progress, it is a form of insanity. It is the final act of Enclosure, barricading the natural world behind a wall of money.
That is what I mean when I say dominant ideology: a form of human supremacy over the living world, and not just of humans over plants and animals, but also the civilised human over the rural human, of the rich urban banker over the coffee shop worker.
It is a pyramid of importance with nature right at the bottom.
THE BAD GUYS…. (FANTASY REPRESENTATION)
Obviously the above is an attempt to squeeze 6000+ years of history into a partial narrative, a sort of story that eschews the usual back patting of the myth of progress and which would require a series of books to cover.
But it will suffice for the purposes of my argument as we now turn our attention to the portrayal of villainous traits in our pop culture.
I think we can safely say that many are the villains in fantasy (and sci-fi) who wield the power of authoritarian regimes and empires that can only survive through resource harvesting, although more often the depiction focuses on their use of force in the form of secret police and military, as well as the structural violence of impoverishing the populace.
They are warlords and sorcerers or galactic tyrants and ominous corporations. They are are demons, necromancers and other power hungry, anti-social characters.
The two genres have also often invoked images of environmental decline in relation to the machinations of these overlords, often in conjunction with a love of death and violence – these tyrannical overlords are anti-life. Look at Donaldson’s Lord Foul and his Sunbane which cycles nature through the seasons so rapidly it causes it to break down, or the Land of Mordor which is a wasteland. Or the dominion of Rakoth Maugrim of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry trilogy.
Or R. Scott Bakker who goes overboard with his No-god who employs a horde of psychotic rape monsters who have scoured the northern lands of Eärwa, or the draconic power in Priory of the Orange Tree that has burned the lands of Yscalin where the lavender grew. In Erikson’s aborted Kharkanas prequels there is also subtext of how the Tiste Andii people have depleted the land of resources.
Going further back, there is the aspect of kingship that can be found in Arthurian legend which ties the king to the land, and when his health fails the land declines, found as a theme in numerous books like Tim Power’s The Drawing of the Dark. If the Fisher King fails then the West will fall to the evil sorcerer Ahriman.
Science fiction has also represented the decline of modern society in regard to civilisation and the environment, from Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up and Philip K Dick’s dystopias to Wendig’s Wanderers (see last weeks review). Judge Dredd’s Cursed Earth immediately springs to mind as well, the human populace enclosed in mega cities and subject to the harsh, totalitarian rule of the Judges. Beyond the walls of the mega city is nothing but an inhospitable, radioactive wasteland filled with mutants.
And when tyrants get pissed in sci-fi, they can often deploy weapons that don’t just scour all the life from a planet but destroy the whole world à la death star levels of annihilation. They don’t bat an eyelid at the wanton destruction.
So it’s no surprise that when it comes to the Dark Crystal we are presented with the Skeksis. They are wonderfully grotesque, twisted and morally revolting. As the unelected heads of society they also employ the same tactics as modern day authoritarian systems of governance:
- They hide behind notions of tradition which infer that the status quo is a good thing, that it is stable and just.
- They are hierarchical, placing themselves as superior to the populace they govern.
- They will ultimately employ violence to get what they want.
- They disseminate false rumour about those that might reveal them (whistle-blowers will be persecuted).
- They demand tribute without actually doing anything – such as dismissing the farmer’s claim that his crop are blighted. Instead of being interested the take a family heirloom as tribute because….. well, tradition.
- They are abusing their position of trust for their own ends and….
- …. and are in fact draining the life from the ecological infrastructure of Thra.
- They appear to have committed genocide against the Gruenaks (“I thought we had wiped them out”) as well forcing the Arathim from their ancestral home.
- They then try to play the Arathim against the Gelfling to hasten the death of both groups.
- They are completely callous to the suffering they cause (and are in fact often seen revelling in it).
Moreover, they are the ones ultimately responsible for the Darkening: it was a Skeksis who chipped the Crystal, a secret that they have kept to themselves (much as, say, the fossil fuel companies kept their impact reports to themselves for decades). They do not care for the world, they stand beyond it, outside of the concerns of those that live in it.
Of particular note is the scientist. What does he do? He contrives to find an ever better way to drain the life from the Skeksis’ subjects, the Gelfling, and he also performs the unnatural splicing of two living creatures to manufacture an obedient super soldier. The science presented here is not the myth of wondrous advancement, but the ominous manipulation of matter and energy into ever greater use to the hierarchy – not so much an honest inquiry into the workings of the universe, but rather the exploitation and violation of spirit and life.
These villains mirror the worst aspects of our own real world authoritarian/hierarchical power structures and their questionable morality. It is their callousness that is ultimately responsible for the decline of both fictional and non-fictional worlds, a decline which will ultimately lead to the same result: Thra and the Earth will become barren, lifeless worlds.
BUT WHAT IF…..? (ANIMISM)
But what if, instead of this callousness and separation we were to look at the world through a different ideological lens? What if, instead of pretending to be separate and in charge of the natural world, we were to embrace an alternative, contrasting way of being in the world? Of recognising our part of the whole natural, living web of life?
Animism is not a new concept. It has often been used in fantasy and spirituality to explain how a person is connected to everything, the most obvious example being Obi Wan when he gives Luke the explanation of the force as an energy field that binds everything in the universe together, be it a rock or a tree or an X-wing.
But animism in practice entails a slightly more complex appreciation of the world than simply asking if a rock is alive or hugging a tree, and has a physical quality that doesn’t deny the needs of the body (as opposed to Yoda’s “luminous beings need not this crude matter”).
As Tim Ingold highlights:
“Life is the temporal process of its ongoing creation. The world of this ‘animic’ understanding is home to innumerable beings whose presence is manifested in this form or that, each engaged in the project of forging a life in the way peculiar to its kind. But in order to live, every such being must constantly draw upon the vitality of others.
A complex network of reciprocal interdependence, based on the give and take of substance, care and vital force – the latter often envisaged as one or several kinds of spirit or soul – extends through the cosmos, linking human, animal and all other forms of life.
Within this network, the generation of animate form in any one region necessarily entails its dissolution in another. Vitality must be surrendered here so that it may be reconstituted there.
For this reason, no form is ever permanent; indeed the transience or ephemerality of form is necessary if the current of life is to keep on flowing. All of existence is suspended in this flow. Borne along in the current, beings meet, merge and split apart again, each taking with them something of the other.”
The Perception of the Environment by Tim Ingold (2000)
It should be clear that there is a foundation of animism to the cosmological order within the Dark Crystal: life as a flow, a balance of vital forces, and the merging or splitting of being. The world is alive with “innumerable beings”, a world in which we are specifically shown examples, such as Deet’s connection to the natural order when she feeds the Murlocs and where we are shown the sharing of being through the Gelfling’s dream fasting.
Indeed the Gelfling civilisation feels more in tune with nature than our own ancient civilisations – there is an almost organic feel to places like Stone-in-the-Wood with its woodland setting and mushroom-brewery-waterfall (I seriously don’t know what to call it) and houses made within the trunks of trees.
There is a gentleness to their society, and although they acknowledge the existence of violence, it is something not to be revelled but is seen as an act that diminishes society – we are shown the Crucible in the centre of Stone-in-the-Wood, “a tall cylindrical forge…. where The Stonewood Soldiers placed their weapons after each battle to be melted down believing that once a battle was over they should discard aggression to help those that were injured.”
And then there’s Aughra….
She appears to me as an earth mother figure, a sort of Pachamama. She errs when she is beguiled by the orrery the Skeksis gift her, and swaps her duty of care to the crystal for the wonders of the universe. This might be regarded as an allegory for the neglecting of the natural world around us, either by setting our sights on a heavenly reward, or perhaps the stars as destinations, or even as simply the distraction of entertainment.
Yet the plight of Thra as it tips out of balance brings her back and she is distressed that she can no longer “hear the song of Thra”, the song that emanates from the network of living beings in both substance and time. Aughra sees the imbalance of forces, the detriment to life and the threat that this entails.
Once she reawakens her connection to Thra, her third eye is once more able to observe the flow of time, and so she attempts to guide the flow of events towards a restoration of harmony. She does not force them. She advises, she gives warning but she never makes anyone do anything, such as when Seladon is going to the castle and Aughra warns her to no avail (and which results in another disturbing scene suggestive of a gang rape – PG, really?).
Lastly, Aughra is attuned to the rise of the resistance and, during the convergence of characters via a spiritual networking, she intervenes as Thra’s avatar. It is like a natural reaction where the cosmological forces of Thra have acted like an immune system, the Gelflings becoming a counterforce to the effects caused by the Skeksis.
Speaking of which, what is one to make of such beings as the Skeksis? Firstly, they are intricately involved in the animistic principle as beings whose essence has been divided, yet their life force is entwined with their other halves (the Mystics) so that one cannot exist without the other. They are essentially linked through a spiritual bond.
The Skeksis also act in defiance of the animistic principle. They wish to live forever and so they thwart the “surrender of vitality” that would be teturned to the natural cycle of time and instead only take living force, both from the land (via the crystal) and then from Gelflings directly (extracting their essence). There is no reciprocity, there is no respect.
The effect of this is to render the Chamberlains appeal to Rian during their carriage ride hollow. When the Chamberlain says that life must feed on life, he is being disingenuous because the Skeksis do so outside of the natural order and in fact subvert it for selfish purposes.
Moreover, they do not wish to be recombined with their split selves. Their whole existence stands in opposition to the animistic principles of life force as ever changing, as mutable. But they are not only placing themselves outside of Nature, they are also placing themselves outside of time as well through their desire to live forever. To attain immortality they will sacrifice all life to their aim and deny the transformative process within the cycle of birth, life, death, and decay.
Yet ultimately the Skeksis cannot exist outside of the system of life indefinitely. Once they have killed and drained all the Gelfling, once they have drained all the life from the planet, they must eventually succumb to death. But this fact does nothing to change their behaviour as they are completely hostile to the acceptance of mortality.
They are in a state of total denial.
This couldn’t be more like our current political and economic rulers. The fear of losing their authority, the fear of change within a closed system that will eventually lead to the complete demise of the very system they are so invested in. In this respect, the Skeksis and our leaders are self defeating. Only by acknowledging our need for balance and harmony can we hope to resolve the dilemma.
Nature is the very foundation of the pyramid I mentioned earlier. Without its life supporting systems everything, society, knowledge, imagination will perish.
Such are the dangers of placing oneself outside of Nature, where as animism as a natural philosophy embraces our position within the cycles of life, makes us part of the whole world without recourse to pseudo-spiritual guff.
THE POWER OF IMAGINATION
When I think of where fantasy really shines, it isn’t in the depiction of another patriarchal, medieval feud between royalty that’s like old Europe but with a dragon. Rather it is where flights of the imagination can really take us off to explore brave new worlds.
So for me Age of Resistance really excels as a work of the imagination. Great care and thought has gone into crafting something wonderful, something that asks you to witness both the wonderful and the terrible, and as it draws you into its reality you are awed by its power.
Of course, there is no conscious need to watch it as a mirror to our own struggles, no need to try and see analogy when we are simply invested in its wonder. I certainly didn’t sit down and watch it with the idea that I would write this article. I was enveloped in the narrative and it was only as I talked about the experience of viewing it that these ideas bubbled to the surface.
But that is what prompted me to ask how much had I been influenced by the original movie, and by extension the fantasy that subsequently appealed to my burgeoning imagination. I suspect that it fed a sense of wonder that inversely brought about confusion and unease with the world around me, and through those chaotic years the need for answer which ultimately lead me on my own quest that took me into anthropology.
Anthropology (the study of humanity) has a maxim, that it serves to “make the exotic familiar and the familiar exotic”. It too requires a stretching of the imagination to understand different cultures and their world views, and through doing so see the strangitude of our own culture. It is, in essence, much like fantasy, the stranger in the strange land travelling amongst new worlds.
And as they say, travel broadens the mind.
In the broadening we awake our imagination to greater possibilities, and as we travel in world’s such as Thra we are absorbed into its cosmological reality, a reality that gives us the power to compare our own world with that of another, letting us see that maybe some of our attitudes, some of the things that we take for granted, might be strange or maladjusted when viewed from without.
Given that, the question might be asked how The Age of Resistance isn’t subversive to the dominant ideology of our civilisation?
At this point the cynic might point a finger and say that fantasy is a pretty niche genre, and that, amongst the deluge of media we are fed, the message of one or two alternatives might be lost. That is likely true, just as true as the fact that fantasy might be nothing more than escapist entertainment – the orrery that distracts us from the reality around us.
I could go further and say the media requires subversive ideas to not only refresh its creative palette, but because the system at large needs to cater to a diverse audience, and if a media system wishes to claim that it is “free” then it must include counter narratives, just as long as those counter narratives never actually threaten the structures of power.
We are living at a time of greater uncertainty, a time when the new generation is increasingly aware of what a difficult future they face, and these young minds are not necessarily completely submerged in the dominant ideological narrative. They have embraced modern media, yes, but that has allowed them access to levels of information and perspective that older generations didn’t have. No longer are we just watching “the news” but are able to find alternatives, new ideas and possibilities, new ways of doing things.
And it is the effect on the developing imaginations of this generation that is the key point, because Age of Resistance is categorised as child/young adult viewing, and if it works the muscle of the imagination that in itself is subversive to the institutions as they stand.
The powers that be require thoughtless, unimaginative people to fill their ranks of power, and without resistance they will simply continue to satisfy their own selfish needs at the expense of the whole world. The old institutions will themselves resist the change required, just as they are doing now.
In reply, let us not dismiss fantasy as foolish, or silly, for it grants us a chance to think differently, to envision different realities where alternative ideas might prove to be more beneficial than banging our heads against the same old brick wall.
As Ursula Le Guin said of sci-fi but which I think equally well applies to fantasy:
Science fiction lends itself readily to imaginative subversion of any status quo. Bureaucrats and politicians, who can’t afford to cultivate their imaginations, tend to assume it’s all ray guns and nonsense, good for children.
Good for children.
Need I say more?
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