Following Up on Kerrigan
Power, Silence, the Morrigan, and More
Saturday, March 31, 2018
This week's article is a self-indulgence: I solicited some feedback from my friend Rob on the Kerrigan article from March 6, which I was especially proud of, and received a wonderful reply that prompted me to write further thoughts on the matter.
This week, then, I am presenting both the feedback and my subsequent writings, in an edited and abridged version.
I would love to get to the point where I can do this sort of things more often, so by all means if you read these articles and they provoke you to think, I'd love to hear your thoughts. There are links on how to get in touch with me at the bottom of each article.
The Original Feedback
Despite having heard the name referenced here and there, I'd never actually learned what the Morrigan *was* in her original mythological context, and the linked Wikipedia article was interesting enough that it diverted my attention from the actual article for quite a while. I do wonder why "triple goddesses" occur so frequently across cultures. (Although it may have nothing to do with gender -- there are also some notable three-part male gods, like the Hindu Trimurti and the Christian Trinity. And in turn, that may have nothing to do with *gods* per se, as "dividing things into three aspects" is a cross-cultural trend of its own, as in Plato's three-part division of the soul.)
The section near the end, about apotheosis and omnipresence [...] made me think of The Human Evasion [by Celia Green]. The part where Green talks about young children expecting and desiring omnipotence was very alien to me -- I can't remember feeling that way, even as a young child. I don't think I've been indoctrinated into resignation over my apparent inability to jump over houses or make doors open by willpower alone (two of her examples), as I can't remember *ever* feeling as acutely frustrated by *those* sorts of limitations as Green seems to be. Your talk about apotheosis, and your references to your childhood mental states, made me think that this stuff might not be as alien to you.
Power doesn't have the same emotional resonance for me that it does for you, but I do always find it refreshing to see fictional characters who are ambitious and power-seeking without this being mere setup for a Greek-tragedy-style fall. There is a moral aspect to this: in the real world there will always be some people with great power, and I would like those slots to be filled with better people rather than worse. And so I would like to see more depictions of power-seeking and power-holding that are not straight demonizations, to serve as moral and aesthetic lodestars for the sort of people who can be moved by such things. In a culture without images like these, I expect the "slots" of power to be filled more frequently with people who have sought them out from an amoral craving for abstract power itself -- people who don't aspire to *be someone like* Kerrigan or Galavar or whoever, with all the implications that has for personal conduct and so on, but who simply want to put as many people and situations as possible under the control of their abstractly conceived will. (I don't think I'm expressing this very clearly, so apologies if this doesn't make sense.)
One powerful and power-craving female character who's attracted a lot of interest in discussion in the last ~8 years (...god, has it been that long?) is Vriska Serket from Homestuck. I don't think she's a good example of the kind of character that interests you -- for one thing, she is an absolutely and exquisitely horrible person (this claim has been controversial in the fandom, but only, I think, because some people expect stories to hand them moral conclusions like this on silver platters, and get confused because Vriska is presente so non-judgmentally by the narrative voice and because she seems more "protagonist" than "villain" in any schematic breakdown of the characters). Also, her character arc ends up as poorly handled as everything else in Homestuck's unfortunate later stretches. (I still think Homestuck is a remarkable work of art and absolutely worth reading, but I prefer to see the first five "acts" as a self-contained and satisfying story and the latter two as an optional, lower-quality add-on.)
But she did come to mind, and if you read Homestuck I imagine you will have quite a few things to say about her. (I'm inferring that you haven't read Homestuck because if you had, I would expect to have heard these things by now!)
My Subsequent Thoughts
Your comments on the Morrigan are the most interesting part of your reply and I have words at length on that topic:
The Morrigan was of outstanding interest to me when I learned of her in college. I had a huge interest in Celtic history and even in one short class I learned a great deal more than the bits and snippets I had previously known. The idea of a goddess of greatness—with "greatness" encompassing its full conceptual space, thus including terror—resonated very strongly with me and helped inform my already-existing passion for the depiction of powerful female characters in terms that often included the negative emotional space—including terror and old-school awe.
This heavily informed my writing for Silence in the early novelization era; she had already evolved as terrifying in the RPG, and to be shown external influences (through Celtic mythology) along the same lines contributed much focus to my work. This harkens to her introduction in the Prelude, contrasted with the boisterous DeLatia or the tentative Benzan or the hardworking Gregor or the sarcastic Jemis or the gentle Arderesh or even Galavar himself, whose power is bold and straight forward; in contrast Silence is presented first as inscrutable and then as a predator, before she even has a line of dialogue to herself—which is itself as indeterminate of her intentions as her physical introduction. It is with the help of external sources such as the Morrigan that I have labored to present characters like these as emanations whose weight is discerned not by their battle-strength but by the doubt and awe they lay upon those who encounter them.
Over the years, writing (pseudo-)divinity has remained one of my central preoccupations and greatest challenges as an author; obviously divinity is hard to write when you introduce it in a protagonistic capacity early in the story, because high levels of power tend to short-circuit the conflicts that fill out a story's length. (I metaphorically confide this to the reader by instigating the mass mindwashing of Davoranj in the Prelude.) The Morrigan existed in storytelling as a deity by virtue of not generally exerting her power to resolve conflicts, or else as being depicted as incapable of affecting key protagonists in a decisive manner—or simply because the authors in those times didn't necessarily apply the logical discipline to their story continuities that we now do. Silence, who is mentioned immediately upon her introduction in the Prelude as rumored to have been exiled from the most powerful city in the world for working "forbidden magic," proceeds in the ensuing pages to show utter contempt for the providence of the Gods (in all violation of our conventional sense of karma), and then is tasked with the nigh-impossible feat of winning the hearts and minds of the nations essentially single-handedly—and the reader is told that this audacious notion is regarded as plausible by Galavar and Silence both. Her physical presence of course is intimidating too; she is said to be rather than shown to be a killer, thus deproblematizing the vulnerability of actually depicting her in combat. (This theme is significant enough that I locally warp the plot in ATH to have greater control over when she is shown in combat.) Aside from her martial dangerousness, some people at some times perceive an aura of light surrounding her, which is not seen with any other character. Reminiscent of the Morrigan—I can't remember for sure, but this may have been inspired by the Morrigan—Silence has a power of metamorphosis that she uses in the story to transform others (and, much more difficultly, herself) into different creatures—most prominently ravens. Indeed, as you will later learn, the "types" of magic she utilizes, even before creating the Sineish Dsagan, are pretty much the equivalent of administrator-mode hacks, capable of breaking the world or of reforming it completely—a rare and broadly abhorred practice. But it is of course reputation and presence-of-aura (as opposed to presence-of-body) by which her status as "terrifying" is made or broken. In Book I she utilizes the terror of her mere presence to establish order in Soda Fountain, and swiftly conceives of creating the Sineish Dsagan as a counterbalance to the Power of the Gods. This is all very difficult to write, because I find traditional villains who occupy similar space to be unbearably boring: They're always a zillion steps ahead of everyone; they're invulnerable to every plan; they take no true risks—they design their plots so that every potential outcome is a win for them. With Silence I go to enormous lengths to avoid these gutters completely, and over the years I have tremendously increased her vulnerability and conflict as a character. That tension—vulnerable pseudo-divinity—is a chemical compound not easily made and not stable either. I would not expect most writers to pull it off.
Subsequent female avatars have proven a lot easier for me. Afiach's power of song is potentially world-shaping, but Afiach's level of ambition and her scope of interest preclude this power from being utilized to the full—thus the conflict is not introduced in the first place. (Nor does she truly come to understand her power till the end of her Interlude.) Cherry, from my Star Trek Ripoff, is never presented as a deity of any sort; simply a damn good starship captain. The novel I am currently working on, the one derived from my 2017 MTG fanfic, does entail pseudo-divinity, or, if the semantics bug you, let's say actual divinity, but the tapestry of the story is much less problematic and grandiose than The Curious Tale's is, and my overall standards are lower, so it's not as hard.
Getting back to the Morrigan, your thoughts on the frequent appearances of triple goddesses (and other triple deities for that matter) mirror my own interest when I was learning about the concept in those days. If I were to wildly throw a dart of speculation, rather than laboriously compose a data-supported model of theory, I would bet that the underlying human motive for this is not purely aesthetic, as you speculate, but circumvariate as well, encompassing people's subconscious understanding that they are not a single person but are in fact a continuous being whose aspects are partially circumstantial. Three is, perhaps, the ideal number to indicate this, three being the lowest number of multiplicity. Three is also the lowest positional indicator in all kinds of conceptual frameworks: We are each, in one sense, a continuous being who occupies three different periods of time (a past, present, and future self); and, in another sense, we are each a hierarchical being who is, depending on context, superior, inferior, or peer. And though our individual personality variations are certainly greater than three, it can be safely assumed (I think) that most people do not consciously think about this and simply express the impulse of diversity through the simplicity of the trio. A trio has no symmetry (even if two are equivalent, this pair is different from the third); it cannot be described as anything other than a group. Inside of us are the many voices of our personality, both those intrinsic to us and those situational to those with whom we interact, each with its own desires, tastes, and style. Three is the shorthand for community, and for multiplicity, and three therefore is a natural number for the idea of divinity, which, no matter how amount of "oneness" one may ascribe to the agency of a given deity, accurately expresses our implicit understanding that every individual is complex.
I also find it fascinating, when it comes to female triple deities, just how these individuals are organized. "Three mothers" is fairly common, as is "three sisters"—I suspect the previous paragraph accounts for why. Less common is the "mother-wife-daughter" triplet, the "three daughters" triplet, and the "three wives / lovers" triplet. I don't possess any real knowledge to account for these disparities in frequency, but I am apt to conjecture that those triplets which do not commonly occur reflect a cultural dearth of regard—perhaps indicating that the loremakers did not give much thought to the depth of such individuals. A puzzling possibility, as one would expect the perception of great complexity indeed in a wife especially, but, like I said, I am only conjecturing, and thus needn't defend any ill-supported claims. Simply it is an interesting topic to think about.
On learning about triple deities in college, I was interested enough to consider how I might incorporate them into my own storytelling. Relance already had three Gods but they were not a trinity. There was no easy "in." Ultimately, little came of my interest...at least to date.
Moving on, Celia Green was clearly possessed of at least some similar apprehensions of my own as she developed; we share at least some worldview conceptualizations and personality and psychological characteristics in common. I would quibble with a great deal of even her observational phrasing and framing (you know I would), but it is more to-the-point of my words here to express that she and I were alike in our desire for and expectation of great power and breadth of presence. The fact that this way of existing was alien to the younger you does not surprise me now, but it would have surprised me greatly when I was younger. I am one who incorrectly tends to intuit more similarity between individuals than actually exists. It honestly surprised me, over the years, to learn that there are people who genuinely dislike cherry ice cream (as opposed to having some situational aversion or physiological or psychological block preventing them from enjoying it), and that there are people who "know in their hearts" that females are inferior. It still baffles me today, on some level, that such wrong mindsets really exist, be it on trivial things like ice cream preference or grave matters like bigotry. Yet these people do exist and I understand that now. You were right, at any rate, to connect Green to me in the way you did.
On the subject of those who desire power "for power's sake," or, as you put it, people "who simply want to put as many people and situations as possible under the control of their abstractly conceived will, here I confess to another alienation from my fellow humanity: I do not understand why this is such a big trope. It's literally the go-to generic villain motivation for every story in every genre. That motivation is so far away from how I perceive the world that it isn't even sensical to me. Yet it is apparently a grossly common impulse in people. It reminds me of how I can't relate to the fact that so many people are okay being in situations where they actively and explicitly and viscerally bring suffering and torment to others...something I cannot do. I bet the two are related.
To me, the pursuit of power has three key layers of motivation: self-preservation, self-determination, and self-actualization.
The first of these is the easiest to comprehend: The world is of course a notoriously oppressive place. Even civilization for all its horrors is less brutal than nature, and beyond nature-as-biology is the inexorable doom of nature-as-reality, from which no one escapes unscathed. Even though most people don't consciously understand this, everyone knows what it feels like to be powerless and at the mercy of forces outside their control. Your wording of power for power's sake hints at this "power for self-defense" motive, in that it describes people bringing situations and circumstances and individuals under their control for the purpose of not having those things be outside their control. To get back to Silence (because of course), rather than being fearless (indeed she considers herself a coward) Silence goes to colossal lengths to rig the game in her favor by anticipating, controlling, and mitigating risks. She is a master of prevention and preparation, the very opposite (most of the time) of spontaneous, and the reason for this is not some grandiose intellectual vision but the fear of tripping on some random stairs and breaking her neck. She even tells Galavar in the Prelude: "If I fall down on that slippery brick and break my neck, so be it. If I choke on that cherry pit, fair play." Her way of making peace with her fear of dying in some fucking stupid mud hole despite her genius and potential is to make every reasonable effort (and even a few unreasonable ones) to protect herself, and then walk out into the killing field of the wide world prepared for whatever happens. It's interesting; the next line she says, "And if the Gods drag me down under the wave, then that's how it will be," ties back to her thematic point about personal sovereignty and defiance against the Gods, yet it is the two seemingly trivial and concocted examples she gives prior to this "true" one that reveal more about her character than any reader would likely realize: She is quite afraid of tripping, choking, and other "unworthy," "premature" forms of death (as well as of risks other than death). On its own this is a perfectly understandable but nevertheless pathetic trait. And when I look at the ridiculous trope of "power for power's sake" in others' storytelling, I typically deal with it in one of two ways: By default, I roll my eyes, log it as a disruption in immersion, and move on. But when the story demands my investment, I will often interpret "power for power's sake" as "power for self-preservation." This has a cost: Whereas most people presumably regard this trope as intimidating, when I see it in this light I find its practitioner to be pitiable, for they present themselves as these philosophical creatures of immense potency, yet their true motivations reveal childish fear and vulnerability. So it often spoils the storyteller's intended air for the villain in question, at least in me.
It is the second and third layers that I personally find much more interesting, and spend much more time as a storyteller exploring. Here is why Afiach Bard, in spite of everything that stood in her way, became an itinerant place-singer who travels the world to sing at rocks and so forth. And, whatever we might say of Silence's inner cowardice, it is in the pursuit of these greater layers of power that she spends most of her time and energy. The reason "power for power's sake" is so cheap to me is that it completely excludes the use of power. "Power" is like "time"; it has no physical form yet it intersects everything. When I hear villains drone on about power for power's sake I think to myself "And what the fuck you gonna fill yer money bin with, eh?" Power isn't a thing. If you've got all this money, all this authority, all this whatever...okay. You've got "power." And now you're telling me that's the end of the story? You're just gonna stop there? You're not gonna USE it? Power doesn't exist without being used in some way. Like electrical current—another form of power—it only exists when it is in motion.
This trope of power for power's sake is truly absurd to me yet storytellers really mean it seriously when they invoke it. When we look at what villains do with their power when they have it (separate from, and after, having acquired it), it's a gigantic haze of drab color schemes and not much else. Such villains' lairs lack personality; their lives lack rich pursuits. This is incredibly common in our storytelling! And the minute you change this, say by giving them a taste for cards or fine suits, you give lie to the sentiment of power for power's sake, because now that power is being put to use for some other sake.
In my worldview, power is inevitably turned toward self-actualization and the aforementioned expansion of presence and experience. It is instructional to look at Silence's lifestyle in Empire on Ice, where, free of the harsh realities of Relance, she spends her days delighting in ordinary things to an extraordinary degree. I am reminded of the episode where a chocolate tanker truck crashes on "Imperial Lombard Street" and she fights other people to be able to lick it up off the asphalt. As she explains it, "He wanted chocolate, but he was weak. Sometimes you just have to throw yourself on the ground and lick the pavement." To get back to the poem accompanying the original Facebook post (Editor's Note: It was a poem about the importance of making the ordinary come alive), it's stuff like this where the real fulfillment of living is cultivated. A person either gets that or they don't, and one who does immediately and permanently has an end for their power other than "power's own sake."
Returning to your comments, then, and your expectation that the "slots" of power will be filled by "people [with] an amoral craving for abstract power itself"—and your corresponding hope for exceptions to these, including depicted exceptions in our storytelling—what comes to mind for me is the tragedy of power for evil. You're right: Most socioculturally understood "slots" of power are inherently sought out and occupied by odious people. This has figured heavily into my political thinking over the years. I'm well aware that if we curtail corporate abuses with greater governmental oversight, the...let's call them festering leeches...will simply seek out positions in the government instead, or with whatever organizations who work with the government to implement policy. If we make labor unions more powerful, their legendary corruption will return. And we're already seeing what happens to an ascendant progressivism, now under internal siege from left-wing bigots and ethically degenerate monsters. Much as I fight for a stronger progressive movement, stronger labor unions, stronger oversight of enterprise...I'm aware that it's not as simple as just shifting the center of power. Durable and just systems of power must accommodate the continual onslaught by festering leeches. The leeches exist in every generation and society; they are everywhere. They will always gravitate to the centers of power, no matter what those centers are. And not just federal power, but all systems of power on all levels, right down to classrooms and office staffs.
Power is so much more than people commonly understand it to be: They recognize its rarity and excellence and often seek to possess it or declare allegiance to others who possess it, but it baffles me that folks apparently have no fiddlin' clue as to what power actually is, how it manifests, and what it can do. The central theme in all of my writing is power, and clearly it's a subject the world needs lots of 'splainin' to, so assuredly my work has something to contribute.
How's That for Esoteric Rambling?
As you can perhaps tell, I greatly enjoyed Rob's feedback; the proof is in the nature of my reply. I hope it was of some interest to general readers!
That's all for this week. Join me next week when I get political...but not in the way you probably think.
Until then, may you seek out and receive exciting feedback on something that matters to you!
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!