Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Platypus' Best of 2010

As 2010 is about to wrap up, I thought I'd wind down the year with a highlights list from 2010's Platypus of Truth:

Looking at this list, it seems that 2010's Platypus of Truth has followed the stayed tradition of mild-mannered, non-offensive, odd-ball, and mildly irrelevant literary and cultural musings.  It may not be high-traffic and exciting, but we value a little peace and quiet down at this end of Lake Internet.  So, from my mossy hole in the riverbank, I and the Platypus pronounce this year another smashing success.  Best wishes to all in 2011, and remember: the Platypus speaks Truth!

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Platypus for Liebowitz: The Platypus Reads Part LXXXV

The next installment in my "books I should have read by now" series is "A Canticle For Leibowitz."  Of the three books in this series ("The Name of the Rose," "Ender's Game," and "A Canticle For Leibowitz"), I find myself most in agreement with the world-picture presented in this book (at least in as far as I understand it in one reading).  Now this presents me with an interesting question: did I like this book best of the three simply because I found myself most in sympathy with its presentation of the world?  Ok, maybe that's a banal question, but the Kantian side of me keeps demanding that it's unvirtuous and the Foucaultian side of me keeps insinuating that it all boils down to self-interest.  Forgive me Father; I ate a lizard.

Rather than engage in therapeutic web confession, however, I think I'll take a stab at describing what I found to like about this book.

Debunking the Myth of Progress: "A Canticle For Leibowitz" reminds us that technological progress does not equal moral progress.  Man is still Man no matter the mode of artificial lighting or the mode of conveyance.  If we've used nuclear weapons once, we will use them again.

Understanding Religion as a Conservative, Not a Reactionary, Force: Ages that have bought into the Myth of Progress often chafe at the constraints of organized religion.  Utopia is always over that next ridge and the Church is holding us back.  "A Canticle For Leibowitz" reminds us that the Church has historically been a preserver and transmitter of knowledge; even a creator of Knowledge (let's remember that the Big Bang Theory was formulated in large part by a Catholic monk).  More importantly, religion has, as often as not, been a restraining voice in favor of humanity.  Progressives in any age always run the risk of being "so wrapped up in whether they could, that they don't bother to think if they should."  The Church is always criticized in each age for not bowing enough to Zeitgeist as well as criticized for being too in conformity with the Zeitgeist of the previous age.  For two thousand years, the Church has been proclaiming its message and going about its business while empires rise and fall and philosophies thunder and fade.  That kind of permanence doesn't come from an institution that simply opposes whatever's new.

History is Cyclical, but it is Not Futile: In as far as the nature of Man is fixed, so he continues to act in certain recurring patterns.  Observing this much leads to Stoic despair.  However, since the rise of monotheism, there has also been a sense that Man is going somewhere.  Merely focusing on the movement, though, has produced utopia-touting tyrannies.  Historic Christianity, however, has always emphasized both: the nature of man has not changed, and that dooms him to the same unending cycle of sin and judgement; God, however, has acted to redeem the kosmos and will bring it to a good end in spite of our collective failure.

Wow.  How's them for fighting words?  In the end, maybe that's what I like most about this book: it's cranky and curmudgeonly, and hopeful in a way that's ambivalent about the traditional fist-fights.  Like the monks of the order of Saint Leibowitz, or the Wandering Jew, it keeps going on about its mission whatever the new/old hubbub and uproar in the world is.  We spend so much time screaming at each other (and yes, side A may do that sometimes, but side B is, as every sensible person knows, always worse!), I wonder how much time we actually spend doing what we think we ought.  The vultures will eat us just the same.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Decemberween Platypus

After almost a year of utter darkness, Homestar Runner is back with a 5min 55sec Decemberween short; anastasis and all...

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Whiteboard Platypus: Scribbling Through Dante (Inferno)

*All images copyright James R. Harrington 2010

Whiteboard Platypus: Scribbling Through Dante (Purgatorio)

*All Images Copyright James R. Harrington 2010

Whiteboard Platypus: Scribbling Through Dante (Paradisio)

*All Images Copyright James R. Harrington

Shiitake No Oni!!!!!!!! (and a Platypus)

Rawr.  Ph33r teh Shr00m!

*Image Copyright James R. Harrington 2010

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

We Were Talking About Video Games

Yesterday, while trying to get traction in grappling with a discussion about the arrest of the founder of Wiki-Leaks, one of my students broke through the dead-lock with a robust and thoughtful analysis of the role of order vs. liberty in Assassin's Creed.  Three cheers for the role of the middle brow in helping make big ideas accessible!

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Out on a Limb: The Platypus Reads Part LXXXIV

Disclaimer: I try as much as possible not to be political on this blog, so please read the following post in as non-partisan a light as possible.

I'm a member of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University.  We're a close-knit bunch over at Torrey.  I like to see what my fellow chums are up to and celebrate their successes and achievements as they find their places in the wider world.  In that light, I'd like to draw attention to Jonah Goldberg's "Proud to be Right: Voices of the Next Conservative Generation."  Now, fair warning, I found much in this book to agree and disagree with.  There's plenty is this book to get your blood boiling or elicit a hearty cheer (In spite of what the name suggests, it's not strictly a party-line book).  However, I want to mention "Proud to be Right" not so much for its politics as for the fact that four out of the twenty-two contributers to this collection of essays are Torrey chums.  Considering that the essays are drawn from political conservatives of all stripes across the nation, that's no small thing.  Roughly speaking, a fifth of the book belongs to THI!

So what's my bottom line?  If you're a member or friend of the institute, and don't have any moral or political qualms about funneling a few dollars Goldberg's way, then I suggest you pick up a copy and boost the sales.  The more copies sold, the greater the prestige for these four chums and the Institute.  If the thought of giving money to Goldberg or tying the Institute up with a particular political agenda makes you queasy, borrow a copy and see what they're up to.  Even when I found myself violently disagreeing with some of the essays in this book, the writing style was always engaging and the essays a pleasure to read.  Also, you can always make sure to draw attention to chums on the Left and other political persuasions.  It's a big world out there, and there's room enough in it for each member of the Institute to find a place and begin having an impact!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Ender the Discussion:The Platypus Reads Part LXXXIII

We have a well stocked fiction library at school.  In light of this, I've devoted this semester to going back and reading a few of the books on my "this comes highly recommended" list.  Near the top of that list is Orson Scott Card's "Ender's Game."  I think it's joined "Foundation" and "Starship Troopers" as a modern political sci-fi masterpiece.  After reading it, I agree that it is an excellent piece of fiction but, as with "The Name of the Rose," I have to say that the message fell flat.

Now that I've incurred my readership's collective wrath, let me explain.  I enjoyed the book; I honestly did.  The writing was tight and gripping the way a great novel should be.  From page one, I never wanted to put it down.  The characters were interesting, the pacing flawless, and the world it created was, given its premises, believable.  What fell flat then?  As with Eco, the problem is one of meaning.  "Ender's Game," in the end, has nothing that interesting to say.

On my first read-through, I see two major themes emerging from "Ender's Game."  One, kids have amazing potential.  Two, conflict comes about from a failure to understand another's perspective; another's story.  The first theme is trite, but could yield unlooked for riches if properly developed.  Perhaps Card does this in the subsequent books of the series.  In the first volume, he does not.  The second theme is the more developed and strikes me as the major meaning of the work.  The Buggers try to annihilate the human race, and Peter is a sociopath, but in the end, they're not really bad, they just need someone to hear them out.  What we have is the rather typical late-modern therapeutic idea that conflict only emerges from a failure to hear and understand each other's legitimate needs.  It's a notion rooted in the idea that man is inherently good and that evil resides simply in ignorance or the pressures of outside, impersonal structures.  Now, while there may be some truth to this, it isn't very interesting as a treatment of the problem of evil.  Is there no room for choice?  Is there no room for actual disagreement?  Is anything actually worth disagreeing over?  The therapeutic view answers these questions with a "no."  My objection to that is not that it's false, though it certainly may be, but that it's uninteresting.  You can get a decent pop-psychological novel from it, but there isn't enough complexity in such a view to get a "Hamlet," a "Notes From Underground," or even "The Lord of the Rings."  Evil is a complex and weighty problem, the idea that it has at its root a mere failure to understand is banal.

So in the end, my complaint (if it can be called that) against "Ender's Game" is the same as that against "The Name of the Rose;" the point is not commensurate with the art of the story.  Great and grand themes are evoked, but when the time comes to balance them with weighty ideas, all we get is a deferral to some trite late-modern truism.  That, in itself, could be a point.  If so, it isn't a very interesting one.

Same place, same time my friend?  Very good.  Addio!     

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Name of the Platypus: The Platypus Reads Part LXXXII

I finished reading Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose a few weeks ago and have found myself in the odd place of having very little to say about this highly acclaimed book.  Now, it's not that I didn't like it.  It was a highly enjoyable read and, like Eifelheim by Michael Flynn, did a wonderful job of envisioning the medieval past.  I did, however, feel a sense of being "under-whelmed," especially as I worked my way through Eco's afterword.  The point of the book is that it has no point except for what the reader and author create together, and Eco gets a chance to laugh at your bourgeois expectations.  I may not quite agree with that, but usually I'm at least open to it.  This time, for whatever reason, the usual postmodern/mannerist schpiel fell completely flat.

I thought of reading some Foucault to revive my waining interest, but then I remembered something a professor of mine said recently.  The context was a discussion about why there weren't more postmodern profs at the university.  This particular professor, as a professor of philosophy, asserted that while he could not speak for other disciplines, postmodernism simply isn't interesting to the vast majority of philosophers in American academia anymore.  Doing a little bit of thinking, I can see why.  Postmodernism (or Mannerism, to use Eco's preferred term) is a one-trick horse.  It jumps up and very cleverly asserts that we have no unmediated access to reality.  That is earth-shattering.  What happens next, however, is quite underwhelming.  Since we have no unmediated access to reality, and any mediation we do have hopelessly distorts our perspective so that coming at even workable approximations of the truth is impossible, we still have to get down to the business of thinking.  But what shall we think about?  The point of thinking for thousands of years has been to find truth, but if there is no truth to find, just an endless series of oppressive social constructs, then all we can really do is have a long (either completely academic or sinisterly Nietzschean) open-ended chat over coffee that either ends in amiable disagreement and an assurance of meeting at the same time next week, or in World War III.  That may sound appealing to some people, but for most I think the novelty quickly wears off and gives way to nausea.

So I think that's what I have to say right now about The Name of the Rose.  It's great fun, and well worth the read, but the "pointless point" falls flat on me.  After reading Eco's afterword, I don't think my assessment would particularly bother him.  So, *shrug*, I'll see you next week.  Same time, same place. Addio!

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Theophanic Platypus: Or Why I Love the Films of Hayao Miyazaki

I love watching the films of Japanese director and animator Hayao Miyazaki.  At this point, I've seen almost everything of his I can get my hands on.  There's a simple why to this: great production value and great story-telling.  The closest thing I've seen to it in American film is Pixar, and Lasseter makes no bones about the intellectual and creative debt he owes to Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.  To put a finer point on it, however, I love Miyazaki's films for their theophanies.

Many, if not all, of Miyazaki's films has a moment in which the world as it appears to us, physical and mundane, is pierced by a deeper spiritual reality.  This moment, the revelation of the divine (or theophany), leaves the charaters of Miyazaki's dramas transformed.  Whether it's the Spirit of the Forest in "Princess Mononoke," the Sea Goddess in "Ponyo," or the cloud of slain pilots in "Porco Rosso," these moments of spiritual revelation form the linchpin of the story.  In this way, all of Miyazaki's films function as a journey into fairyland with the protagonists being drawn out of their noramal lives to have a radical encounter with the Other that offers the opportunity, sometimes taken and sometimes rejected, for growth and empowerment.

Again and again I find myself comparing the effect with that produced by the writings of George MacDonald.  Myazaki knows how to re-mythologize the world; to take our daily lives, hallow them, and give them back to us with a renewed sense of the sacredness of existence.  In rapidly secularizing America, that comes as a breath of fresh air.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Why We Need Link: Platypus Nostalgia

I've written before on the role "The Legend of Zelda" series played in my childhood.  It was link with his little 8-bit shield that first awoke the call to adventure within me.  Role playing through his world of simple good and evil began to build a certain mindset: when there's a wrong to be righted, we must stand up and right it no matter the personal cost.  In the midst of all the puzzle solving and button mashing, I was learning what it meant to be a hero.  Maybe that sounds like an impoverished childhood, but it never stopped me from reading or going outside and playing too.  In fact, the one fed the other.  The stories in our video games gave us something to play outside, and our childish attempts at adventure in the forests of New England brought us a new appreciation for the sub-created worlds of "The Legend of Zelda," "Secret of Mana," "Final Fantasy," and "Dragon Warrior."

All this came back to my mind when I was talking to one of my students.  He's a fan of video games and anime, but also of "Beowulf," and the classics.  We were talking about video games and anime when he mentioned that the stories in anime spoke to him because they were so often about growing up and, since that's what he's still doing, they were a good way for him to reflect on that process.  Thinking back on my own experience, he's right.  The best video games, and many of the best anime series, are meditations on what it means to transition from a boy to a man.  No wonder teenagers and college students like them so much.  They have the same appeal that Haggard or Heanty's penny dreadfuls would have had a century ago.

Another of my student is writing his senior thesis in defense of video games.  It's an odd choice in that video games have more wide spread acceptance than ever before (thank you World of Warcraft).  Why defend something that has finally become mainstream and is no longer a guilty pleasure?  Ironically, as video games have gone mainstream, they are more in need of defending as adult tastes import into them increasing levels of violence, escapism, and sexuality.  It seems as though all the wildest worries of the naysayers are coming true.  In spite of this decadence, the video game is not going away any time soon, far from it, but it may be in danger of losing its moorings; of forgetting its purpose.  In light of this shift, we need people who are willing to devote time and energy to meditating on the value, and role of video games in modern life.  If there really is something good and worthy in these amusements, then now, more than ever, they will need defending; both from their supporters as well as their detractors.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Thus Spoke the Platypus Part XV

Is Utnapishtim an ape?  Does he dance before you in the manner of an ape?  Laugh then.  Laugh at the dancing of Utnapishtim; he will not resent you.  Laugh until your sides crack and your head breaks; for through the gap may come Wisdom!

Thus Spoke Utnapishtim

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Academic Platypus: The Humanities Safety Valve

I teach a course called "Humanities" at a classical school.  Humanities is a rather amorphous course that's something like a combination of History, Ethics, and Literature (you might think of it as "History and Moral Philosophy"  Oops!)  It can be a little difficult to teach since you're always caught on the horns of a dilemma: do I focus on the Literature end or do I focus on the History end; there isn't enough time for both.

That said, I have found one thing that Humanities excels at: serving as a safety valve for other courses.  Have an argument break out in Anatomy and Physiology about cannibalism in survival situations?  Shift it to Humanities.  Have a rash of questions about Satan in Bible class?  Shift it to Humanities.  Kids want to talk about the decline of pop-music as copyright laws gets ever tighter? You guessed it: bring it up in Humanities.  What I'm saying is the very amorphous nature of the Humanities course becomes a huge asset when seen in context with the other classes.  Knowledge produces questions, but not all questions fit in with a given class' agenda.  Rather than allow students "pregnant with the Logos" to stifle in frustration, Humanities acts as a safety valve where questions that don't fit in anywhere else can be brought up and dealt with.  It's a sort of catch-all class where the various disciplines can be brought together and addressed as a unified whole; a place where students can unwind and work out their intellectual problems apart from the tyranny of compartmentalized knowledge.

Humanities is a safety valve, but it can be even more than that.  It can be a place where students are allowed to experience knowledge as a whole; a place where things come together and make sense.  Under such circumstances, Humanities would cease being the ugly duckling of the upper school and become a beautiful swan.  As our culture continues to fragment, students crave unity and stability.  They want a chance to see "the big picture."  My class is where they do that.    

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Tolkien's Legacy: The Platypus Reads Part LXXXI

My wife and I have been reading "The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun" edited by Christopher Tolkien.  If we had picked up the book when it came out, we would have payed a pretty penny.  As it is, we got it for less than three dollars at Amazon.  So far, my wife and I are enjoying the book, especially academic material.  However, the reason it's selling for such a low price has also become abundantly obvious: the book is esoteric, technical, and has no direct connection with Middle Earth.  So esoteric is the work, that you really need to have read "The Volsunga Saga," know a fair bit about the history of the Northern European Dark Age and both Eddas to enjoy it.  I have all those prerequisites, hence my enjoyment.  This leads to the question, however, of why Christopher brought out and published this work.  Surely he must have known that it would be a commercial failure; that it was bringing out his father's "scripta minora" in the strongest sense?

And yet.  And yet, even Tolkien's 30-something flailings are better than what most scholars or authors can bring out on their best day.  Maybe Christopher Tolkien has hit upon something that is needed in our modern, crassly democratic culture: we need to have things that are high and good thrust in our faces because they are high and good; not because we want them.  In a way, this is Tolkien's legacy.  In his preface to "The Lord of the Rings," Tolkien admits that he published the work without much hope for its popular success since it was "primarily linguistic in nature."  Even Rayner Unwin admits that he and his father published the work expecting to lose money on it.  They did it because they recognized "The Lord of the Rings" as a work of enduring genius.  Tolkien's work has always been produced and published on principle.  All this is not to say that Tolkien and Co. are elitist, like pent-housed culture snobs producing deliberately esoteric work so they can sneer at the unwashed masses.  Rather, they are people who believe that some things are worthy in and of themselves, regardless of what markets and masses think of them.

Tolkien pointed to that which is worthy, regardless of what others thought, and the world is a richer place for it.  In bringing out "The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun," Christopher is following his father's footsteps.  In the end, it's not about what the fans demand or making a quick buck, it's about remaining faithful to the Tolkien legacy.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Filling In The Corners: The Platypus Reads Part LXXX

W. H. Auden muses in an essay on "The Lord of the Rings" that Saruman and Sauron both posses industrial capabilities but do not wage modern war.  There are no orcs with tanks in the War of the Ring.  Careful examination of the text and some knowledge of actual historical cultures can help us solve this problem.  Ever the niggling detail man, Tolkien's world is coherent.

Saruman's orcs bring gunpowder, the fire of Orthanc, with them to the siege of Helm's Deep.  While gunpowder pre-dates the Industrial Revolution, it foundational to modern warfare.  The corrupt wizard also installs industrial technology in the Shire.  We see this specifically at Ted Sandyman's mill, capable of grinding grain at an accelerated rate in order to feed the soldiers of Isengard.  Saruman's complex logistics, using the Shire and Bree as a relatively unassailable supply network, is another feature of modern war.  After losing the War of the Ring, Saruman comes to the Shire and orders his minions to run the mills simply to foul Hobbiton with their industrial waste.  This waste is probably related to coal-burning as the smokestack by the mill suggests.  Aside from grain, Saruman's machinery in the Shire and at Isengard was probably employed in the mass-production of armor and weapons for his genetic-hybrid army of Uruk-Hai.  Thus, in terms of gunpowder, industrial machinery used for food and weapon production, modern notions of supply, and in the desire to create genetic "super soldiers," Saurman is waging modern war.

In Sauron's case, the industrial motifs are harder to detect, but we can find evidence of Victorian Era steel structures such as the iron ramparts of Barad-Dur and the bridge that spans its lava moat.  Also of note is the peculiar "trench dialect" of the orcs that intentionally resembles the slang of British soldiers in the First World War.

Even acknowledging these points, one might still be tempted to say that Auden's objection stands.  Where are the rifles and canons that the antagonists of Tolkien's world should be able to build with their industrial capabilities?  The answer can be found by looking at actual historical societies.  The leading nations of the Industrial Revolution were Britain and America; both capitalist democracies.  France, Germany, and Russia also industrialized, but were late in coming and in some cases only partially successful until the mid twentieth century.  They also were only capable of becoming industrial states by copying the efforts of Great Britain and America.  The point of all this is that Isengard and Mordor are not dynamic, democratic, capitalist states where innovation is rewarded and necessary for economic flourishing.  Instead, they are slave states, like Ancient Greece or Rome.  Slavery is toxic to industrial progress as it encourages solving problems by simply adding more slaves rather than innovation.  In addition, without profit incentive there is no reason to innovate, and without the rights of free speech and freedom of association innovations that do occur spread slowly if at all.  Both these points could be made about nineteenth century Germany, Russia, and France, nations that eventually industrialized, but it must be remembered that they had the examples of Great Britain and America to follow; Isengard and Mordor have no one to imitate.  Thus, while the union of the two towers does posses industrial capacities in the War of the Ring, it lacks the conditions necessary to fully capitalize upon them and produce the full spectrum of modern military technology.

J.R.R. Tolkien made his sub-created world his life's work in a way rivaled by no other modern author.  It should not surprise us, then, that even in the face of as perceptive a critic as W. H. Auden, Tolkien's Middle Earth holds up when put to the test.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Where All The Trees Are Strange: Strange Paltypus(es) Part XIII

After twelve years of living in the high desert, it's been a breath of fresh air to be back among the woodlands again with mist, and rain, and standing water.  When you've grown up in the forest, surrounded by trees, the leaves and the bark and the shadows sink deep into your soul in a way that can never completely be rooted out.  I remember one patch in La Mirada park where the trees grew close enough together that the formed a canopy.  There were times when I would take a stroll there just to feel the sunlight passing between the leaves.

Like I said, it's good to be back in the forest.  Still, even with all the greenery, there are moments of disconnect; like trying to remember an old tune and knowing that you've gotten part of it but it's not quite right.  I've thought for a bit, and I know what it is: the trees are all strange.  The trees are all strange.

Qui Transtulit Sustinet

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Nietzsche's Ring: The Platypus Reads Part LXXIX

In "The Lord of the Rings," Sauron's body is diffused throughout Middle Earth in a perverse parody of Christ's Church.  It is significant that the object that ties this diverse organism together is a ring; gold and unadorned.  In fact, Sauron's ring resembles nothing so much as a common wedding ring.  To what might Sauron be wed?

Following the idea that Sauron's body is a mockery of the Church, we can look to Christian imagery to guide us.  The Church is not only referred to as the "body of Christ," but also the "bride of Christ."  Sauron's body is also his bride.  In distinction to the Church, however, the members of Sauron's body are merely extensions of his will; mere puppets.  If this is true, then the bride Sauron is marrying is himself.  This idea should sound familiar to readers of "Thus Spoke Zarathustra."  Indeed, Zarathustra, the herald of Anti-Christ, sings:

Oh how should I not lust for eternity and for the wedding ring of rings - the Ring of Recurrence!  Never yet did I find the woman by whom I wanted children, unless it be this woman, whom I love: for I love you, O Eternity!  For I love you, O Eternity!

By bringing the Ring to the fires of Mount Doom, Frodo sets in motion the events that destroy the One and all it offers: power, the exaltation of self, and eternal life.  In "The Lord of the Rings," Tolkien rejects not only Sauron's ring, but Nietzsche's ring as well. 

Friday, September 03, 2010

The Problem With Disraeli's Angles:The Platypus Reads Part LXXVIII

British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once claimed that he was on the side of the angels to which G.K. Chesterton quipped: "on the side of the fallen angels, and all the imperialisms of the princes of the abyss."  Beyond simply disagreeing with Disraeli's policies, Chesterton was reacting to a common sort of gnosticism popular in the Victorian era that equated anything "spiritual" with the Good.  The problem with such an attitude is that it ignores the possibility of spiritual evil.  It wants angels but ignores demons.

Mike Mignola's occult-saturated world makes no bones about the existence of spiritual evil, but it often raises the very real problem of how to fight it.  Jesus' challenge to the pharisees with the principle that "Satan cannot cast our Satan" isn't a given for many of Mignola's protagonists.  This poses a very real problem in that if means don't matter, is it only the ends that separate Good from Evil?  What is the basis for the moral "up" and "down" in Mignola's universe?

For some time, Mignola has been playing his cards close to his chest.  However, as Hellboy's destiny accelerates with the events of "The Wild Hunt," we seem to be getting a few hints.  These hints have become stronger with the release of "Witchfinder: In the Service of Angles."  "Witchfinder" is a "Hellboy" spin-off with Victorian occult detective Sir Edward Grey as its focal character.  We know Sir Edward's fate from the "Hellboy" series, but now Mignola gives us the opportunity to see how he got there.  Without recapitulating the plot, much of the ethical drama in the work centers around the temptation for Sir Edward to fight evil with its own methods, or at the very least by stepping into gray areas (pun intended).  The warning signs already seem clear; those who use evil to fight evil pay the price in the end, and Sir Edward is danger unless he can learn this lesson.  That this is the central question for Sir Edward as a character can be seen in Hecate's words to him at the end of "Darkness Calls," that he will learn to do evil to do good and so become a traitor.

Though there's still two more novels of "Witchfinder" and an unknown number for "Hellboy" left to go, it seems like Mignola's moral universe is crystallizing; not dualist, but somewhere within the broadly Judeo-Christian tradition; perhaps somewhere in the neighborhood of Underhill and Williams. There are still a lot of twists and turns ahead though, so this analysis is merely provisional.  One thing is certain: wherever Mignola is taking us, it's one hell of a ride!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Return to Middle Earth: The Platypus Reads Part LXXVII

My wife and I are drawing toward the close of our second trek through "The Lord of the Rings" together.  As with all great works, returning to Tolkien's masterpiece rewards the reader with fresh insights.  Here are a few things that have stood out to me this time:

1. Gimli the Patriot  The defining aspect of Gimli Gloin's son is that he is a patriot.  A new generation of dwarves has shown up on the scene in Middle Earth since "The Hobbit"; a generation who grew up after the successful reconquest of Erebor and the resounding defeat of the goblins at the Battle of Five Armies.  Gimli stands as a type for this new generation in his fierce dwarven pride and generally more optimistic outlook on life.  Thorin and co. pass right by Moria without a second glance, having experience a Pyrrhic victory in the Dimril Dale.  For Gimli, the whole journey from Caradhras to Mirrormere is a sacred pilgrimage.  His song of Khazad-Dum is more than just an elegy, it is a nationalistic hymn.  If you need a little help seeing it that way, listen to the performance of the piece by The Tolkien Ensemble.

2. Sauron's Body  Sauron's body is diffused across Middle Earth in a dark parody of the Church.  Think about it.  Sauron is never seen in bodily form in the work.  He manifests himself through his servants.  Sauron has an eye in Barad-Dur.  His mouth speaks with Aragorn at the Black Gate.  There are only nine fingers on the black hand, and nine Ring-Wraiths that do its will.  Sauron attempts to make his his nine pseudo-fingers into a full ten with the corruption of Saruman, who Gandalf calls "a finger of the claw of Mordor."  This spiritual body is bound together with the power of the Ring, which sometimes seems a second eye of Sauron, sometimes a wheel of dark Pentacostal power.

3. I am Lancelot; Lancelot as he Should Have Been  Others have drawn comparison between King Arthur and Aragorn (though I think the comparison is more fitting in the case of Frodo).  Read over the passages that deal with Aragorn and Eowyn and then read Tennyson's "Lancelot and Elaine."  Lancelot is the perfect knight, worn out in acts of service, but his problem is that his will is weak.  Aragorn is powerful, humble, and flawlessly courteous, but his will is so powerful that he can wrench the Palantir from Sauron and leads the Grey Company through the Paths of the Dead.  Lancelot's weakness of will is why he can never be king and why he ought to have married Elaine.  Aragorn's strength of will makes him fit to be king and the reason he is able to marry Arwen.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Seven Heavens of Summer Reading III: The Platypus Reads Part LXXVI

September is just around the corner and that means that Summer is nearly at an end.  On that note, it's time to announce this year's winners for "The Seven Heavens of Summer Reading."

Moon: Lilith by George MacDonald  Constancy and inconstancy form a central motif in this weird tale turned Universalist allegory.  As a symbol of this stand the various moons that govern the nightly changes of MacDonald's imaginary world.

Venus: She by H. Rider Haggard  The colonial administrator turned author brings us a vivid picture of Venus Infernal in this seminal work of adventure pulp.

Mars: Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein  One of the great soldier's novelists since Kipling, Heinlein easily captures the slot devoted to the god of war.  On the bounce!

Mercury: From Alpha to Omega by Anne H. Groten  I tried to teach myself Greek this summer.  Not the best thing to try during a major move.  Still, what better book could there be for this summer's language award?

Sun: Education For Human Flourishing by Paul Spears and Steven Loomis  For the heaven of scholars, only one book this Summer will do.  If you are an educator, read this book.  ... and that's all I'll say pending an opportunity for a fuller review.

Jupiter: Hellboy Volume 9: The Wild Hunt by Mike Mignola  This is hands down the best Hellboy comic to date.  Just when you think you know where Mignola might be going with things he completely "blows your mind."  Oops!  Was that a spoiler?  I'll say no more then.

Saturn: At The Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft.  Lovecraft is all about endings and doom.  Ok, there are a few other things he's on about too; mainly Southern New England.  Still, cosmic horror at the South Pole?  Could there be a more Saturnine work?

Well, there you have it folks.  Hopefully, you had some time for your own fun and informative reading list this Summer.  Right now, it's back to the salt mines for me.  See you on the flip side!  And remember, reading is always good for you.  Unless it's the Necronomicon.  Then it's bad.  ...very, very bad.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

All Damned, All Saved:The Platypus Reads Part LXXV

After "The Summer of Lovecraft," I decided to scrub my brain with a little George MacDonald.  I chose "Lilith," since it seemed to complement all the weird literature from this summer's reading.  As it turns out, this was an apt choice since H.P. Lovecraft recommended it (particularly the original draft) as an excellent example of the British incarnation of the "weird tale."  After re-reading "Lilith," I find the fact that Lovecraft recommends the book distinctly odd.  After all, can there be two cosmic visions farther apart than Lovecraft's "be eaten first" and MacDonald's "even Lilith shall be saved"?  Of course, the features of the book that were most important to MacDonald the pastor are probably not the features that appealed most to Lovecraft the agnostic/atheist.  Still, it's an interesting link.

Steampunk Platypus Part V

It's done.  It took fifteen years, but it's done.  I have finally finished Final Fantasy III.  Not exactly big news, but there you have it.  As I've been working my way through this SNES classic, I've tried to put down my thoughts about why this video game has done so well over the years.  After finishing FFIII, I have some final thoughts to share.

Kefka, the villain of the story, reminds me of nothing so much as Heath Ledger's Joker.  He is the clown who gets the "joke" of modernity: the world is utterly meaningless, yet humans run around acting as if there's some point to life.  Infused with the god-like power of magic (an obvious analog for technology in the game) Kefka seeks to share the joke with the rest of humanity by slowly destroying the world.  Against this assault of nihilistic fury, the protagonists find strength to resist in the community that they have created.  Together, they challenge Kefka's nihilistic project by asserting that they have created their own reasons for living.  The two points of view are, of course, irreconcilable and an all-mighty knock-down-drag-out ensues with all twelve principle characters taking on Kefka as Lucifer on a lovecraftianly-blasphemous multi-story throne complete with an organ fugue.

You couldn't ask for a more gen x/mosaic storyline.  It's all here; nihilism, angst, created community, radical authenticity, and existentialism.  Final Fantasy III is the perfect mass-market post-modern icon.  That's ultimately why it keeps selling.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

By the Mystic Housatonic: The Platypus Reads Part LXXIV

What's good in Lovecraft?  What good can their be in the writings of a thin-skinned, morbid, racist, hack whose every page screams with overly-articulate horror at the meaninglessness of the Neo-Darwinian universe? 

H.P. Lovecraft intentionally situated himself as the continuator of Edgar Allan Poe; of whose writings we might ask similar questions.  However, in his deep love of Southern New England, he has just as much in common with Nathanael Hawthorne.  Like Lovecraft, the quality of Hawthorne's writing is inconsistent and has the peculiar flavor of the literary autodidact.  The power of Hawthorne's writing doesn't come from high literary style, or flawless creative art, but from his ability to give us a vision of New England and its inhabitants that rises above the mundane to resound with spiritual power.  The same can be said, on a lesser level, for H.P. Lovecraft.

No matter where the far-flung action of the Lovecraftian imagination may take us, to the snowy depths of the Antarctic or the heart of the cosmos where the idiot god Azathoth devours the universe to the tune of insane pipes, the anchor of the work will always be firmly grounded in the wooded hills and quiet townships of New England.  This strong sense of place gives the doomed characters of Lovecraft's drama something on which to take a stand, however weak and fleeting, against the cosmic horrors that they confront.  They are not Robert Howard's barbarians, creatures of instinct, but civilized men, standing up for all that is good and noble in the world against the inevitable onslaught of meaninglessness and decay.  They are Puritans who have long ago lost their faith, but not the steel that toppled tyrants and empires.  At rock bottom, Lovecraft is, with all his flaws, Chesterton's patriot.  He loves his homeland, and with whatever tools he has, rough and awkward as they are, he seeks to fashion New England into a place that can hold weight in the great cosmic scale and, if only for a moment, stand against the tyrannies of a vast, cold, and meaningless universe.  The giant must be slain because it is gigantic.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

She-Who-Must-Be-Read: The Platypus Reads Part LXXIII

Following my established routine, I've endeavored to expand my knowledge of Pulp this summer with a some selections from H.P. Lovecraft and Ridder Haggard.  Lovecraft will have to wait for his own post.  In the meantime, I'd like to take a look a truly seminal novel in the history of Pulp: Ridder Haggard's "She."

This one thin volume seems to have exercised a greater influence on subsequent works in a way only surpassed by "The Lord of the Rings."  A quick surface read will reveal familiar elements and scenes from "The Magician's Nephew," "The Lord of the Rings," Robert Howard's Conan stories, "Congo (though that's more Haggard's other great work, "King Solomon's Mines")," "Dune," and the Indiana Jones trilogy.  This is a powerful and diverse influence for a novel that spans only a little more than a hundred pages.

*very minimal spoiler ahead*

One of the great pleasures of reading "She" is Haggard's use of layers of carefully researched detail to build a believable secondary world.  For instance, many pulp writers today, the late Michael Chriton excepted, would be content to give a simple English "translation" of the legend of She and Kallikrates that serves as the protagonists' "call to adventure."  Haggard, however, provides not only an English translation, but the "original" Attic Greek, the revised Byzantine cursive Greek, abbreviated Ecclesiastical Latin, un-abbreviated Ecclesiastical Latin, abbreviated Early Modern English, and un-abbreviated Early Modern English together with a whole history of the transmission of the tale down to the present day.  I'm currently (trying) teaching myself Attic Greek and I can't tell you how much I enjoyed puzzling it and the other translations out.  This is just one salient example of the extra effort Haggard puts into his work to make it believable.  If you're not seeing shades of Middle Earth yet, you should be.

There's much more that could be said about this remarkable and seminal work, but if you haven't read it yet, I don't want to spoil the fun.  If you have read it, I invite you to consider again the links between it and subsequent works of adventure fiction.  Can you find Jadis, Charn, Galadriel's mirror, the Cracks of Doom, Sam Gamgee, the Fremen, the Temple of the Grail?  Can you add to this list? 


Monday, July 12, 2010

Originality is Overrated: The Platypus Reads Part LXXII

As promised, I'm continuing my review of Hellboy Vol. 10 with a discussion of "In The Chapel of Moloch." "In The Chapel of Moloch" is the first Hellboy comic that Mignola has both written and illustrated in some time. As such, it seems to represent Mignola's personal musings in a less guarded fashion.

*Spoilers Ahead*

"In The Chapel of Moloch" presents us with three characters: Hellboy, the Jerry's agent, and Jerry the Artist. Given the cast of characters, Mignola's general theme is quite obvious: this is a meditation on art. The story begins with Jerry's agent calling Hellboy out to Portugal to investigate his client's increasingly weird behavior. Jerry's career has apparently hit a dead end, with the artist only capable of producing copies of Goya. In an effort to save his reputation, Jerry rents a villa in an isolated part of Portugal and holes up in the adjoining chapel to reconnect with his muse. Jerry stops taking calls, begins working exclusively at night, and eventually loses the power of speech except for mumbling the word "Moloch." Upon investigating the chapel, Hellboy discovers that it had once been a sight of Moloch worship and that it had previously been cleansed by the Knights of Saint Hagan. Hellboy and Jerry's agent agree to hide in the chapel and wait until Jerry appears to see what happens. When night falls, Jerry enters the chapel with his new muse, a strange creature that clings to his back and whispers to him. At it's prompting, Jerry continues work on a huge clay statue of Moloch. Hellboy leaps into action in spite of Jerry's vehement protests and destroys both the creature and the statue (which, of course, comes to life and starts pounding Hellboy). The comic ends with Jerry complaining that his career is ruined and that he'll never be "original" and Hellboy assuring him that it could never have ended well any other way.

Taking a look at this short piece as a meditation on art, it becomes clear that Mignola is attacking two things: the emphasis on "originality" in art and the idea that as long as it's "art" anything is justified. According to Jerry's agent, Jerry's Goya inspired paintings are actually quite good and were working towards the goal of reviving interest in Goya and making his work relevant again. Instead of being content to revive interest in an old artist, Jerry insists on being original and his willingness to do anything, even sell himself to the dark powers, just to be original nearly destroys him. It is also interesting that Jerry's patron muse is Moloch. Moloch was traditionally worshiped by child sacrifice. In essence, Jerry has offered up his artistic progeny, the Goya paintings, in hopes of achieving wealth and fame from Moloch. Using Hellboy as his mouthpiece, Mignola bluntly states that "it's not worth it." The message is clear: the obsessive pursuit of originality is a dangerous artistic red herring, and idea that anything is ok so long as it's art is evil. Given the subject matter of the Hellboy series, this doesn't seem like an abstract warning.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

On the Straight and Narrow: The Platypus Reads Part LXXI

 It's not often that we get to enjoy two Hellboy volumes released within six months of each other.  After the groundbreaking "Wild Hunt," however, it's hard not to imagine a short stories volume being something of a let down.  I was very much pleased, then, to find that "The Crooked Man and Others" holds its own.  There are only four stories in this volume, but each one is a masterpiece of the "wierd tales" genre while also deepening our apreciation of Hellboy and his journey as a character.

*Caution: Spoilers Ahead*

The most important short-story in the volume is the one from which the collection takes its name: "The Crooked Man."  In "The Crooked Man" Mignola again reminds us just how much folklore there is to explore in the world by setting the tale in the back-woods of Appalachia.  After a long string of stories featuring Hellboy in Europe, Africa, and England, the return to America and American Folklore is welcome change.  While the story is unmistakably "Hellboy," the new setting gives the whole tale a distinct flavor from other works thus far.

The defining characteristic is that "The Crooked Man" is the most openly Christian of any of the Hellboy Tales.  This is all the more interesting because I found it also to contain some of the most overtly disturbing images in Mignola's world.  In "The Crooked Man," we find evil shown plainly for what it is; a bending and perverting of the good.  The central image of evil is one that could be drawn out straight out of C.S. Lewis: the devil as the "crooked" or "bent" man (Remember "Out of the Silent Planet).  The temptations that the Crooked Man offers are all plain and practical as a Medieval morality play: money, sex, and power.  All of these things are goods, but the Crooked Man offers them at a "discount" or in ways or quantities that are not good.  He bends them.  As Hellboy and the ensemble each reject the temptations thrown at them, they are immediately unmasked and shown to be the "bent" and ugly things they are.  More importantly, we see these evils being resisted by the minister in the story with direct quotation of scripture and testaments to God's provision and faithfulness.

The greatest Christian moment in the story is the "eucatastrophe."  The Crooked Man demands that one of the characters surrender himself and the magical cat bone that he was given in exchange for selling his soul as a youth.  All hope seems lost as the Crooked Man uses this persistent taint of sin to launch continual assaults on the protagonists in a way reminiscent of Psuedo-Dionysius.  It looks as though the only way to save the others is for the man to surrender himself.  When all hope seems lost, the minister seizes the cat bone, the instrument of evil, and calls out to the Holy Spirit to break its power.  Not only is the power of the cat bone broken, it is infused with Holiness and with it the minster inscribes the cross on a shovel which Hellboy uses to defeat the Crooked Man.  With the villain on the run, Hellboy and the former witch walk back to the Crooked Man's house where he now appears as he truly is: pathetic and broken.  The protagonists return to the Crooked Man the now Holiness-infused bone destroying him completely.  Thus, God not only wins in the end but is shown to have power over the tools of the devil to straighten them out and use them to achieve good (think of the Cross).

The only marred aspect of the story (and given its place in the overall narrative, this may be not a blot but an intentional and thought provoking) is that Hellboy and the former witch are not mature enough to extend grace to the Crooked Man's human minion who is left old and broken when her master is overthrown.  They instead punish and shame her for the great evil she had perpetrated over the course of the tale.  This is odd, considering that they have earlier helped another witch to repentance and seen the salvation of her soul even when her body is destroyed by the vengeful forces of darkness.  One wonders if they have ever heard the parable of the unmerciful servant.  Still, given that this story takes place early in Hellboy's career, Mignola may intentionally structured the ending in this way so as to highlight the log in the protagonists eye that he will some day have to confront.

All in all, the "Crooked Man" is an extremely dark, but masterful tale of Christ's power to rescue even worst of sinners even at the last possible moment. 

Coming Soon: a review of another short story from this volume, "The Chapel of Moloch."

In the House at Redlands: Platypus vs. Yog Sothoth

We discovered Thursday evening that out garbage disposal was home to an inter-dimensional horror of Lovecraftian proportions!

It soon became clear to us who the culprit was behind this non-Euclidian invasion: C'thulhu!

Braving the sanity-threatening forces of the elder gods, the Platypus was able to drive back the trans-cosmic horrors and ensure the safety of earth.  For now...

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Scholarly Responsibility: The Platypus Reads Part LXX

As usual, my summer reading plan has taken a bit of a detour.  While waiting for some of the other books to come in, I picked up Verlyn Flieger's "Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World."  I'm not all the way through it yet, but I am frankly bothered by what I've read.  As a seeming result of her commitment to the philosophy of Owen Barfield, Flieger casts Tolkien's work as essentially dualistic and rooted in Barfield's idea of the fragmentation of meaning.  The problem here is twofold: 1.) though Barfield was a fellow inkling, Flieger thus far has failed to make the case that his thought was as influential on Tolkien as Flieger claims (what precisely Flieger is claiming is often hard to ascertain), 2.)Flieger attempts to cast Tolkien's imaginative project as essentially dualist, a claim that Tolkien the Catholic would have flatly denied.  Such claims demand real and painstakingly collected evidence that is carefully argued and respectfully responds to opposing theses.  Flieger spends precious little time doing either.  By chapter 6 of the work, one feels that "Splintered Light" is really two books: 1.) that seeks to argue for that the "Silmaillion" is central, rather that peripheral to understanding Tolkien's literary project, 2.) an attempt to raise the prestige of Barfield's thought by asserting that it is central to Tolkien's legendarium.  The first seems laudable and properly academic to me.  The second seems like special pleading and at points outright hijacking; both of which have no place in academia.

In all scholarly pursuits, authors ought to be engaged on the merit of their works, not co-opted to serve the commentator's particular philosophical agenda.  Has anyone else read this book?  Flieger is a force to be reckoned with it Tolkien studies and I would like to believe that the book gets better, or else that I have misunderstood her project.  If you can, please set me straight.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Steampunk Platypus Part IV

Character Killing

It's a rule of storytelling that killing off a likable character (all else being equal) deepens audience commitment to the story.

As we've discussed earlier, technological advances during the early and mid-nineties allowed video game designers to create narrative driven games.  Squaresoft led the way with its landmark Final Fantasy series.  However, at that time, video game designers creating products for Nintendo had to work within the parameters of the company's ethics code.  This code was meant to ensure that Nintendo products were child-friendly; children being the target audience for video games during this time period.  This meant that story elements like permanent character death that could be traumatizing to young children were frowned upon or disallowed.  Final Fantasy II went out of its way, as a matter of fact, to bring back characters from otherwise fatal situations (falling out of an airship and being turned to stone come to mind.  Rydia's resurrection was supposedly left out due to sheer lack of production time).  Final Fantasy III was groundbreaking, then, in allowing the player's decisions to result in the death of at least four characters; two playable and two NPCs (Mog and Shadow, and Cid and the wounded soldier).  Because mistakes could be made and cast members could die, Final Fantasy III's narrative became that much more interesting.  Player decisions had actual consequences, and thus overall player commitment to the story increased  making Final Fantasty III one of the most beloved RPGs of all time.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Summer Reading: The Platypus Reads Part LXIX

Summer is finally here, and with it the Summer Reading List.

This year's anticipated titles include:

1. "Education for Human Flourishing" by Paul Spears
2. "At the Mountains of Madness" by H.P. Lovecraft
3. "The Lord of the Rings" by J.R.R. Tolkien (Again)
4. "The Last Battle" by C.S. Lewis (Again)
5. "Hellboy Vol. 10" by Mignola et al.
6. "She" by Rider Haggard

As usual, I'll be keeping you all posted as I work my way through.

Putting the Platypus to the Test

My doctors have finally decided that the super-meds I'm on aren't working so I'm up for a round of tests this month.  I just got finished with a PH probe; a wire running through my nose and down my throat to the top of my stomach (it feels like having a really bad cold).  Next week, I get to have a scope put down my throat and a tracking pill left in my stomach to record the acid levels.  Fun, fun, fun.  The goal is to find out if anything is agitating the hernia and causing it to over-react.  If they can't find anything, we go to surgery, but that's looking unlikely in the short-term due to some insurance problems (not the company's fault; it's a complex issue).

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Steampunk Platypus Part III

It's not the emperor's fault, sure he was on the wrong track with this whole "blood and iron" thing, but he's not really evil.  It's those advisers that are the problem.  If one could only speak to the emperor, make him see reason, all would be well.

Heard that one before?

It's interesting to me that in both Final Fantasy III and Secret of Mana, that the emperor is almost a non-Character.  We hear about him, but the real villain with a fully fleshed-out personality is one of his aids (Kefka or Thanatos).  These aids treacherously overthrow their master and then get down to the business of doing some real damage.

Why is this?

One could see this as a reflection of Japan's World War II experience where Emperor Hirohito got a pass while Tojo took the blame.  It could also be that an Emperor is essentially a glorified bureaucrat and that makes him relatively uninteresting as a video game villain.  An aid, or a right-hand man can mix it up with the heroes on a man-to-man basis with greater credibility.  Finally, allowing the aid to over-throw his master shows the player just how evil and ruthless the villain is.  After all, isn't there supposed to be honor among thieves?

Of course, these answers may be wide of the mark.  Still, it seems worthwhile to ask the question: "what does make for a good villain?"  Is he someone who starts off with power and position, or is he the anti-hero, going on his own twisted hero's journey?  

Monday, May 10, 2010

Steampunk Platypus Part II

Characters.  An important part of any story is its Characters.  Great plot plus uncompelling Characters equals fail.

In the 1990s, new technology was allowing video game designers to actually tell stories with their games.  Pong and Asteroids were left in the dust and new market for story-driven games opened up.  At the forefront of this movement was the company Squaresoft with its innovative Final Fantasy series.  As Squaresoft pushed the envelope in video game story-telling, a new problem arose; for the first time video game designers had to create believable characters.  The stories had just gotten that big.

Building off the success of Final Fantasy II (Japan IV), Final Fantasy III (Japan VI) and Chrono Trigger featured large casts with sweeping plots, richly orchestrated music, and a myriad of varried locations.  To hold player's attentions, each character of the cast had to be unique with his/her own story arch and defining characteristics.  In addition, interest had to be maintained in the cast as a whole.  Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy III solved this second problem in two interesting ways.

With its characters designed by Akira Toriyama of Dragon Ball Z fame, Chrono Trigger was already off to a rich start.  However, the games real genius comes in taking the wild and varied characters of Akira Toriyama's designs and welding them into a coherent ensemble.  The solution seems to have been making each of the characters "misfits" in some way.  The cast as a whole gains its power by serving as a community of acceptance where everyone can "fit in;" an attractive theme for the teenagers to whom the game was marketed.  Think about it: Lucca is ostracized for her nerdy scientific ways, Marle has a strained relationship with her father and chafes against the constraints of being a princess, Frog lives with the shame of having failed his friend and is an outcast because of his strange form, Robo is separated from the other robots when Lucca gives him a heart, Nyala is a woman leading a tribe of men, and Magus' entire civilization has been destroyed.

Final Fantasy III also offers it ensemble as a place of acceptance for outcasts, but it adds an extra layer by making all of the characters suffer from dehumanization in some way or other.  Terra has been stripped of her memories and forced to be the tool of the empire.  Locke's ambitions as a treasure-hunter are constantly berated as mere thievery.  Edgar plays the rich fop because it is his only release from the roll of "king."  Sabin flees the dehumanizing aspects of the kingship only to lose his family, his country, and his spiritual guru.  When the kingdom of Doma falls to the empire, Cyan, as the sole survivor loses everything.  Gau is driven into the wilderness and forced to live as a beast.  Shadow doesn't even have a name.  In joining together, the cast of Final Fantasy III not only finds acceptance, but also restores and affirms its members humanity; an interesting theme that dovetails nicely with the industrial and imperial setting.

Stories don't function without characters, and they don't hold audience's attentions without compelling ones.  As innovations in technology allowed video game designers to enter into the role of story-tellers, the need to create compelling characters became imperative in order to maintain player interest.  Squaresoft's Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy III take up this challenge in interesting ways.  Not only do they make the individual characters compelling, but they also create strong themes to bind their ensembles together.

Interesting what you can learn from a video game.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Steampunk Platypus

No, I haven't built a world-destroying mech powered by a mysterious orb.  Alas...  However, imagining a society in the throws of the Industrial Revolution that has also discovered magic is what Final Fantasy III (Japan VI) is all about.

Final Fantasy III was developed by Squaresoft (now SquareEnix) as part of their hugely successful Final Fantasy Series.  In fact, I believe Final Fantasy XIII is just now coming out.  At the same time Final Fantasy III was in development, Squaresoft was also working on its hugely popular Chrono Trigger.  While the Final Fantasty series continued from one epic success to another, however, the Chrono Trigger series spluttered and died.  In fact, the re-release of the original game for the DS has largely been responsible largely for driving up the price of used copies of the orginal SNES release, rather than urging SquareEnix to create a sequel (which is what fans had hoped).  Why the two series took the paths they did is an interesting question since the two games are visually and game-play-wise quite alike ( the main differences being Chrono Trigger's move away from the static battle stage of the Final Fantasy Series and its slightly more sophisticated renderings of the characters so that Akira Toriyama's art design could have its full effect).  The main question, then, seems to be why did one series flourish while the other floundered.

There are probably multiple bureaucratic answers for that having to do with logistical and legal realities and the political innerworkings of Square.  On a story level, however, it seems that the sweeping, open, and sometimes amorphous structure of the Final Fantasy games allows for an infinite number of sequels that are all only loosely connected.  Chrono Trigger, on the other hand, with its tight characterization and narrow scope lends itself to being a one shot.  Put another way, for a game to be considered a true "Final Fantasy" it must simply incorporate a few key elements, the rest is left up to the whimsy of the creators, while to be a true Chrono Trigger sequel a game must successfully extend the story of Chrono and his companions in a compelling way.  To Sum up: Final Fantasy games, in their structure, lend themselves to sequels while Chrono Trigger is set up as a stand-alone.

I'm ok with that.  Ultimately, Chrono Trigger is a reminder that each of us have our own little stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end.  The Final Fantasy series, on the other hand, reminds us that while our little stories soon come to an end, The Story, like The Road, continues on.  Those are both truths that we need to be reminded of from time to time.