Saturday, August 29, 2015


Back in June, over at Charles Stross' blog, guest blogger Hugh Hancock asked why Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos is so popular a setting for "shared universe" fiction, and answered:
The Cthulhu Mythos is almost 100 years old. [But] it's the most modern part of our mythology that we're allowed to access....
It's not terribly uncommon -- to put it mildly -- to see articles complaining about Hollywood's unoriginality. Hollywood puts out sequel after sequel, and when the studios do vary things by starting on "new" material, it's usually material that has been proven in another medium, from the Hunger Games to Guardians of the Galaxy....
I think Hollywood's onto something, and has been for some time. And that thing is mythology.
From Star Wars, to the Marvelverse, to - well, every other thing with a "-verse" after it - the biggest movies are those which tap into a mythic quality. Often they'll simply hint at other parts of the universe, at mythic heroes or elements of their universe with powerful resonance....
As storytellers, we want to interact with the myths of our age. They have a meaning beyond just the stories, serving as filters for universal archetypes. And they need to be **set* before they can be used: a new character in a new world doesn't have the power of myth, but a character we've grown up with as a god-like figure in our stories does....
But most of our myths are locked up beyond our reach.
Thanks to various intellectual property laws, notably copyright, any mythic figure created after approximately 1920 has a unique custodian. That's an incredibly powerful position, and it's responsible for the positions of most of the nobility of storytelling today. In the film world and the comics world, in particular, there are sharp deliniations between the studios -- the myth-holders, the nobles -- and everyone else.
The former can make far more money than the latter. Why? Because of their hold on our myths. The public hungers to see tales of their mythic heroes, as they have throughout history. It's an incredibly powerful draw, and possibly the only thing sustaining the top-heavy world of moviemaking as it is today.
But the result is that storytellers can't access most of their mythworld. We reach for our mythic figures, but we can't touch them; at least, not without risking legal battles that we'll almost certainly lose. And we definitely, definitely can't do what storytellers have been doing for the rest of humanity's existence, which is tell tales of our myths for money....
And so we reach for the most recent myths we can access: things that still have some mythic resonance, even if that resonance is faded in comparison to James Bond, Star Wars or Middle Earth.
And the most recent mythic tales with any great power? The Cthulhu Mythos. Reaching further back, there are a few more; vampire fiction supplies a few, of which Dracula is by far the best known, and Sherlock Holmes is another.
We can also attempt to tell tales of more recent myths with the serial numbers filed off. The wave of fantasy fiction in the '80s and arguably the rise of D&D both demonstrate that. But it's not as powerful, nor as satisfying.
And we can create our own mythic figures and attempt to rise to the nobility. That's been the path for most really successful novelists, from Charlie's Laundryverse (there's that -verse suffix again) to J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter, to Iain M. Banks' Culture, George R. R. Martin's Song Of Ice And Fire, and so on....
Of course, there's a real danger here. As time marches forward, thanks to the magic of ever-extending copyright terms, the list of myths that we've got access to remains static. They become steadily less useful as myths for our current culture. For example, it's been noticable over the last couple of decades that the Cthulhu Mythos' original obsession with secretive, backward cults of non-white people has become more and more of a problem.
But there's no real prospect that anything's going to successfully change that status quo in the near future....
Will Cthulhu ever become less popular? Only if copyright terms stop extending, and Disney's prevented that so far.
So, oddly enough, the fate of Cthulhu rests with Mickey Mouse.

Hancock points to one of the many serious problems with Disney's lobbying of Congress for ever longer copyright terms (as long as it takes to keep Mickey Mouse, first introduced in the 1928 silent film Steamboat Willie, out of the public domain), terms likely to go nigh-irrevocably global soon in the wake of successful negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement

Of course, long before modern I.P. law, artists were already forced to forge their own myths. And this is a new situation, and one that comes with secularity. As Charles Taylor explains in the tenth chapter of A Secular Age:
The creation of this free space has been made possible in large part by the shift in the place and understanding of art that came in the Romantic period. This is related to the shift from an understanding of art as mimesis to one that stresses creation. It concerns what one could call the languages of art, that is, the publicly available reference points that, say, poets and painters draw on. As Shakespeare could draw on the correspondences to make us feel the full horror of the act of regicide, to recur to the case I cited above. He has a servant report the "unnatural" events that have been evoked in sympathy with this terrible deed: the night in which Duncan is murdered is an unruly one, with "lamentings heard i' the air; strange screams of death", and it remains dark even though the day should have started. On the previous Tuesday a falcon had been killed by a mousing owl, and Duncans horses turned wild in the night, "Contending 'gainst obedience, as they would / Make war with mankind." In a similar way, painting could draw on the publicly understood objects of divine and secular history, events and personages which had heightened mean¬ing, as it were, built into them, like the Madonna and Child or the oath of the Horatii.
But for a couple of centuries now we have been living in a world in which these points of reference no longer hold for us. Few now believe the doctrine of the correspondences, as this was accepted in the Renaissance, and neither divine or secular history has a generally accepted significance. It is not that one cannot write a poem about the correspondences. Precisely, Baudelaire did. It is rather that this can't draw on the simple acceptance of the formerly public doctrines. The poet himself didn't subscribe to them in their canonical form. He is getting at something different, some personal vision he is trying to triangulate to through this historical reference, the "forest of symbols" that he sees in the world around him. But to grasp this forest, we need to understand not so much the erstwhile public doctrine (about which no one remembers any details anyway) but, as we might put it, the way it resonates in the poet's sensibility. 
To take another example, Rilke speaks of angels. But his angels are not to be understood by their place in the traditionally defined order. Rather, we have to triangulate to the meaning of the term through the whole range of images with which Rilke articulates his sense of things. "Wer, wenn Ich schrie, horte mich, aus der Engel Ordnungen?", begin the Duino Elegies. Their being beyond these cries partly defines these angels. We cannot get at them through a mediaeval treatise on the ranks of cherubim and seraphim, but we have to pass through this articulation of Rilke's sensibility.
We could describe the change in this way: where formerly poetic language could rely on certain publicly available orders of meaning, it now has to consist in a language of articulated sensibility. Earl Wasserman has shown how the decline of the old order with its established background of meanings made necessary the development of new poetic languages in the Romantic period. Pope, for instance, in his Windsor Forest, could draw on age-old views of the order of nature as a commonly available source of poetic images. For Shelley, this resource is no longer available; the poet must articulate his own world of references, and make them believable. As Wasserman explains it, "Until the end of the eighteenth century there was sufficient intellectual homogeneity for men to share certain assumptions ... In varying degrees, ... men accepted ... the Christian interpretation of history, the sacramentalism of nature, the Great Chain of Being, the analogy of the various planes of creation, the conception of man as microcosm.... These were cosmic syntaxes in the public domain; and the poet could afford to think of his art as imitative of 'nature' since these patterns were what he meant by 'nature'.
"By the nineteenth century these world-pictures had passed from consciousness. The change from a mimetic to a creative conception of poetry is not merely a critical philosophical phenomenon ... Now ... an additional formulative act was required of the poet. ... Within itself the modern poem must both formulate its cosmic syntax and shape the autonomous poetic reality that the cosmic syntax permits; 'nature', which was once prior to the poem and available for imitation, now shares with the poem a common origin in the poet's creativity."
The Romantic poets and their successors have to articulate an original vision of the cosmos. When Wordsworth and Hölderlin describe the natural world around us, in The PreludeThe Rhine, or Homecoming, they no longer play on an established gamut of references, as Pope could still do in Windsor Forest. They make us aware of something in nature for which there are as yet no established words. The poems are finding words for us. In this "subtler language" — the term is borrowed from Shelley — something is defined and created as well as manifested. A watershed has been passed in the history of literature.
There are many far more important benefits to being a Catholic Christian. But among the fringe benefits: at least our mythos isn't copyrighted!