Friday, November 14, 2014

Hallmarks of Our Modern Myths, Part I

I often get letters from readers inquiring about the archives, particularly about the work dealing with movie symbolism. These posts seem to be the most popular series in the archives, though the particular exegesis at work might be a bit overwhelming to new readers. 

Since people are constantly discovering these posts I thought it would be useful to have a kind of thematic guide to the underlying themes in the series looking at films such as Star Wars or The Matrix, so neophytes can understand the basic issues that aren't always made explicit in the texts. 

Which is to say that there are a set number of hallmarks that I study in each film as part of an overarching exegesis, that ties these modern myths back to stories that are much, much older. This will be a work in progress, so if there are major revisions to a certain post (and there may be major additions as I go along) it will be reposted. So keep an eye on the site in the coming days.


Most problematic in our mythos is the recurring theme of militarism and military discipline. Many of the heroes in our myths are either in the military or militaristic organizations. Self-discipline and aggressive strength are often glorified, even in those characters who are civilians. 

Star Trek not only champions the military ethic in the presentation of its heroes, it also positively presents a universal system of governance that is essentially a totalizing military dictatorship. Star Wars does the same (though to a lesser degree), glorifying the (celibate, self-denying, essentially slave-like) military order of the Jedi as its highest ideal. 

Similarly, Frank Herbert (the ur-source of many of Star Wars' concepts) presents a very positive image of militarism and feudalism in the first Dune novel, despite his protestations in later years that he was actually critiquing the corruptive aspects of power. 

Alien invasion films/shows such as Independence Day, Battleship and Falling Skies gives us not only a heroic panoply of warriors, they also hint at military rule. The Chronicles of Narnia is also unabashed in its worship of militarism and warfare. But military ethics and values extend beyond the obvious suspects here. 

Like Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica (the remake mostly, but the original as well) glorifies a militarized society in service of an existential battle with a wholly alien threat, in this case artificial intelligence.

2001: A Space Odyssey and the Mars movies present astronauts as heroes, even though they don’t engage in actual combat. But astronauts are also highly trained and regimented individuals, and NASA is for all intents and purpose a branch of the U.S. military.  

Likewise, Mulder and Scully may seem like mavericks, but both are highly-trained, elite Federal police officers. And the rebels in The Matrix may seem hip and countercultural, but they are in reality an extremely specialized and regimented guerilla army.  Similarly, Harry Potter trains at Hogwart’s, which resembles nothing less than a military academy for young witches and warlocks. 

It’s also worth noting that the four most archetypal creators of these types of myths-- Roddenberry, Arthur C. Clarke, C.S. Lewis and Frank Herbert --all served in the military.


In addition to the explicit glorification of the highly disciplined and physically powerful individual (which is unsurprising given that many of these stories are action-oriented), these myths also champion other militaristic ideals. 

For instance, none of these stories seem to bother with ideals like democracy or egalitarianism (with the notable exception of Moore's BSG, which presents us with the unlikely concoction of a liberal military totalitarian state). On the contrary, most of these stories present us with hierarchies. Orders are given and followed and people seem to know their place.  

Subsequently, HAL is presented as a villain in 2001 because he usurps Dave Bowman’s rightful station as commander of the Discovery. And the first signs we see that Anakin Skywalker is crossing over to the ‘Dark Side’ is when he becomes insubordinate and breaks Jedi protocol. 

Even in Dagon, Paul’s refusal to go along with the plan laid out for him by his father is depicted as being literally self-destructive. When Uxia intervenes and physically forces him to submit to Dagon’s will, he is granted immortality.

Yet at the same time, these characters are not serfs, condemned to a lifetime of drudgery as in the Feudal system. There is a implied meritocracy at work, often presented in the form of military rank. Characters are seen being promoted or advanced, often to positions of great power. Luke Skywalker, Paul Atriedes and Neo are all examples of this. 

This closely mirrors the Mystery traditions, where initiates start off in positions of powerlessness but are allowed to earn the right of advancement, either in the form of rank or degrees. The creator of the national Sol Invictus religion, Aurelian, rose from humble origins to a position of supreme power through military service. 

This pattern seems to be a very important one in the Mystery tradition. Hierarchy is decided by merit, at least theoretically. 

The idea of justification by works is common in ancient Egyptian religion. When one appeared before Osiris in the Hall of Judgment, his soul was weighed and he was required to account for his life and justify his eternal reward through both negative and positive confessions (“I did this good thing and I did not do that bad thing’). The soul was then measured against the Shu feather of Ma’at, (which represented truth)  and the soul was judged accordingly.

That all these archaic concepts bled into these kind of entertainments speaks to the influence of Masonic and quasi-Masonic groups at the turn of the century in Hollywood and  other corners of the showbiz world. 

They also seeped into the work of writers like Herbert and Lucas through mythicists like Jung and Campbell, as well as more exotic occultists such as Aleister Crowley and Alice Bailey.


Note: As always, please be aware that, as always, The Secret Sun isn't just about the text. 
If you don't click the links, you're only getting part of the story.  


  1. " (with the notable exception of Moore's BSG, which presents us with the unlikely concoction of a liberal military totalitarian state)"

    And, like pretty much everything about Moore's BSG, the same idea is explored with more depth and nuance in Babylon 5 a decade before...

    1. I'll have to take your word for it, never having watched much of B5. But, word taken.

  2. Chris,

    Spot-on with the themes of militarism and meritocracy in Star Trek, which I had never considered before your prior, excellent series on the subject. As for Star Wars, yeah, and of course Anikin was there to bring _balance_ to the Force, indicating that the Jedi meritocracy was an imbalance as drastic and - judging from the Clone Wars - as deadly as the Empire.

    One fella I did want to add to your list is Robert A. Heinlein, the granddaddy of militant sci-fi writers. I read a lot of his stuff in my youth, and it is rife with themes of hierarchy, self-discipline, the needs of society taking precedence over the individual etc.

    1. And some undertones of kink. Heinlein was a very complex character.

  3. Indeed, as much as I love Star Trek, the Starfleet is often portrayed as the only useful or intelligent people in the Federation. Civilians are often either crazy, self-absorbed, or both.

    I had never considered before just *where* these militaristic themes in my favorite science fiction actually came from, though. Very cool reading, Chris, thank you. I'm looking forwards to more!

    1. Yep- you and I see things the same way vis a vis Trek. Sunny, happy, liberal military dicatorships are still military dictatorships even if they are sunny, happy and liberal.

  4. A good post and I am looking forward to the rest. A note on 2001 though, the crew is the subordinate and HAL is the commander here. It is Bowman who mutinies and shuts down HAL, essentially wrecking the mission he doesn’t really understand. The book clears up a lot of confusion and opacity from the film.

    The real villains of 2001 were HAL’s 9000 programmers, by giving conflicting instructions. HAL, an AI is actually in command here and the human crew does not even know its real mission, which is to look for life on IO. In the book it was revealed that humans had a deep-seated xenophobia and if the crew knew in advance it was looking for extraterrestrial life, that expectation might color their findings, hence the information was withheld from all but the commander, HAL, who would supposedly not have the same human flaw. But HAL is human, all too human as he learns to conceal, then to construct lies, and then to kill. HAL is the protagonist and his story is told indirectly and through inference in the film.

    Below is an outstanding article that is far more articulate on the subject than I:
    Wikipedia is a bit of help also.

    The Princess of Mars cover reminds me of the recent 2012 John Carter movie and I have to chuckle a bit about some criticism about the film. Many found it too cliché and old fashioned. Those critics failed to note that this series of books (some written about century ago) created the memes that are now considered cliché and that Burroughs was born in 1875 so his tropes just might not look too modern. It’s kind of like complaining that The Golden Bough is old-fashioned, dated, and full of old information about old things.

    1. The knives were out for John Carter even before it was produced. But still there's talk of a sequel. It made a lot of money it just cost a lot more money.

  5. In discussing the militarist nature of the Federation, I’m reminded of what Bruce Rux said of The Next Generation- Classic Stalinist socialist cinema- The state and its chief representative are always the wisest and the solutions to conflict must pass through the leader’s review and revisions- I just watched Zizek’s latest, “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology” where he excerpts a film, “The Fall of Berlin” (1950), featuring an actor playing Stalin who not only saves Mother Russia from the Hun, but also councils a young warrior on how to win the girl he’s too shy to approach- Though Picard looks more like Caesar actually looked, Stalin/Picard are essentially the same in function (At least from Stalin's point of view) I can just imagine hearing “Space…The final frontier…” in Russian (But with a state approved Prokofiev march on the sound track- I know I'm rambling but doesn't the name Alexander Courage sound like an alias in exile)

    1. Not being overly familiar with Stalinist cinema, I will take your word for it. But I am familiar with Boomer nostalgia and TNG was not all fired different from TOS when all is said and done. The times changed and the cant changed with them, I suppose.

  6. Regarding TOS and TNG, the biggest difference was the filmmaking technique- The faster pace and much larger cast of TNG was made possible by the quicker comprehension of the MTV generation, for lack of a better term- Sometimes the alleged short attention span is just: I get the point, let’s move on- As for the philosophy of each show, TNG had to soft-pedal the military way more than TOS, but war gods are always much more direct and transparent than "wisdom" gods-