“The Dark Crystal”

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Does anyone remember The Dark Crystal? The movie came out in the ’80s and it was all animatronics and puppets, and it was a Jim Henson film. You know, the guy who created the Muppets. I saw it on the shelf at the library and the video store when I was a kid, but it was off-limits. I mean, it had the word “dark” in the title, so obviously it was problematic.

My parents were somewhat charismatic Christians who got into the culture wars to a certain extent, but mostly did their own thing. In retrospect, they were hilariously inconsistent about books and movies. The Never-Ending Story, which scared the crap out of grade-school me? Totally okay. Darkwing Duck? Nope (I asked about this as an adult, since my mom had told us then that we weren’t allowed to watch it anymore because darkness, and she said it was because of all the commercials on that channel. Lesson learned: give my kid the actual reasons or she will think that I think something is evil when I don’t think that at all). We were allowed to read pretty much all the books with magic in them, but my mom banned The Babysitters’ Club for a while because she thought it was giving me nightmares (I begged to differ and snuck the books at my grandparents whenever I could until the ban was lifted; today I have no idea if she was right or if my anxiety was particularly heightened then for some other reason). I brought The Dark Crystal up recently in conversation, that I had just watched it, and there was no negative reaction to it. I suspect it was on the no-go list because I was so easily scared and it’s likely to have been one of those things that scared me.

Recently, I bought a copy of Labyrinth, since HMV is shutting down all their Canadian stores and everything’s on sale. I re-watched it, thoroughly enjoyed the goofy awesomeness of it all, and decided to get The Dark Crystal at the library and watch it, since it had been forbidden and now I was curious.

And it was interesting. I appreciated the art (especially the textiles in the Mystics’ valley), although the colour scheme of beige on beige with a dash of tan was a little boring. I guessed almost from the beginning that the Skeksis and the Mystics were a single race that had been split in two, and that healing the crystal would unite them again. It reminded me a little of the Ancients in Stargate, who were always meddling with other people’s world and lives and then screwing things up.

It’s not a film I plan to add to our personal collection. I didn’t like it enough to want to re-watch multiple times, unlike Labyrinth. But the messages of healing what it is broken, that we go wrong when we try to split our light and dark sides in two, and that we are only whole when we are both light and dark combined, spoke to me in a way that I don’t think I would have heard when I was a kid. (Although it was a message I also got from The Adventures of Mark Twain, the Claymation film of weird awesomeness.) I think of nature, “red in tooth and claw,” and yet exquisitely beautiful and delicate. Life is beautiful, and it is brutal. It’s not light vs. dark, the way I learned it as a child. It’s both in concert.

This is not to say that I don’t believe in evil, though I do tend to attribute a lot more acts to stupidity and ignorance than outright evil (which, honestly, often seems worse). But I do believe that most of us are capable of doing both good and evil, and that it’s mostly up to us to sort out our ethics and figure out how to do the least harm we can. While I can see that the concept of sin in the Abrahamic religions has its uses, I honestly don’t find that moral system very helpful anymore, since, especially in most versions of Christianity, you can commit some pretty heinous crimes and then just write yourself off as forgiven, with very little incentive not to do it again, given that God forgave the first time, so he’ll forgive you again.

So I did some more of my ethical and religious sorting, as it were, because of The Dark Crystal, and for that alone, I’m glad I watched it. Now that I’ve stepped away from a religion with a deeply entrenched concept of Holy Writ, I find my inspiration and my scriptures in many places, and my life is all the richer for it.

 

Mythologies

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I must have been ten or eleven the year I received two of Arthur Cotterell’s mythology encyclopedias for Christmas, Norse Mythology and Classical Mythology. I delved into them and read them cover to cover more than once, but I was more interested in the Greco-Roman legends in Classical Mythology than I was in the stories in Norse Mythology. That interest has flipped, and Norse mythology is a lot more interesting to me now than it was when I was a kid.

I think much of my interest in Classical Mythology stemmed from the fact that it taught me words like “phallus” and had a lot of pictures of nude paintings. There were fewer nudes in Norse Mythology, and while I was somewhat ignorant about my fascination with nudity probably coming from puberty (otherwise known as that irritating thing that meant I needed to wear bras), I wasn’t immune to its effects. There’s a lot of sex in most mythologies, but it was so blatant in the Greco-Roman legends, what with Zeus impregnating every other woman while in the form of some animal and carrying unsuspecting young men off to Mount Olympus to be his cupbearers/lovers. It was scandalous and titillating for a homeschooled kid who was too embarrassed to ask many questions about sex.  And all the paintings and statues from the Renaissance had so many naked people, and I was totally allowed to look at it because it was art. (My parents have no objection to nudity in and of itself, and were happy to answer questions about sex, but I managed to pick up the “sex is bad” vibe from the conservative homeschool community that we were part of and was extremely uncomfortable about the subject for years).

Norse Mythology, on the other hand, was downright conservative. Most of the paintings and statues featured in the book had clothed people. I neglected a lot of the book because there weren’t enough nudes, and the sex wasn’t quite as dramatic-sounding. But my interests in it now aren’t purely academic, and it’s funny how I’m drawn more to both Norse and Celtic mythology when those were topics that didn’t really strike my fancy when I was a kid devouring mythology books about Persephone and Hercules and Odysseus. (Though it’s not like I was approaching Greco-Roman mythology with the idea of practicing Hellenistic religion…and now here I am researching Brighid and Loki and thinking about possible pantheons).

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Mythology’s an odd thing for me at times – as a child I read mythology mostly like any story but with the vague understanding that people once believed in these obviously fictional constructions. Yet I couldn’t see that the same reading could be possible for the Bible because I was taught to view it as absolute truth. But much of it leans far more towards mythology than history: there are rivers turned to blood, a talking serpent who imparts both wisdom and doom, terrifying angels that look nothing like the descriptions we see today, and a pantheon of a Three-Part God pitted against an adversarial god of evil and his minions. Yet I remember taking Balaam’s talking donkey completely seriously while thinking the Minotaur was an absurd but an interesting story.

Now it’s easier to see these as foundational stories which provide people of a specific culture and religion with a background of who they are and what’s important to them. Myths don’t need to have literally happened for them to be true in that sense. The myths provide a knowledge of the gods and their characters, a history of sorts for the people, and a sense what direction they’re “meant” to take in life.

They can also be entertaining stories. I love the way we continue transforming mythology in new retellings. I devoured American Gods as quickly as possible, and years ago found myself connecting a bit more with Norse mythology through Diana Wynne Jones’ novel Eight Days of Luke. I’ve read a lot of versions of the Arthurian myths, and of course I read Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. Now I need to actually go read the Mabinogion and get through Hero with a Thousand Faces, among others, but the mythologies of our past are the mythologies of our present as well. We continue to add to the stories, and to reach out to the gods in new ways.