The Mythic Well IV
by Annie Hamilton
Prior to the initial screening of Babylon 5, Starlog magazine ran a promotional article on the projected series. Accompanying the piece was some quite dire artwork, while atrocious mis-spellings abounded. Straczynski was - as he later made pointedly clear - very upset about the treatment, but he'd obviously forgotten what the write-up on Star Wars looked like before that film made its first outing. By comparison, I thought he came off fairly well. Anyway, the article itself describes Babylon 5, the series, likening it to, in order, The Prisoner, Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere and L.A. Law.
Nearly three years were to pass before it was revealed that B5 is heavily based on Arthurian legend. And to prove the point, there was an entire episode, A Late Delivery from Avalon, which worked in several themes: Arthur himself, redemption and Excalibar, with glancing references to Merlin, Gawain and Morgan Le Fay. And we had Bruce Boxleitner reveal in a couple of interviews that he thought Delenn was the Guinevere of the series (to his Arthur, of course!) More recently, he's said that, in keeping with the Arthurian tone, Sheridan was going to grow a beard! And of course, we've had pointed out to us numerous references to the Round Table - from the table in the centre of the War Room where the War Council meets to the actual set-up by Valen of the Minbari Grey Council.
Furthermore, we've been told by Straczynski that Babylon 5 is a kind of Rorschach test (the ink blot perception test) and we see in it the mythic form with which we are most familiar. Which is exactly why I'm so suspicious. You see, until quite recently, I was much more familiar with Arthurian legend than I was with The Lord of The Rings. Now, I would not consider myself any kind of expert in matters Arthurian (having read mostly popular fictional accounts and modern re-tellings) but still I'm sure that most people would agree with me when I say that Arthurian legend is quest-based. Individual knightly quests gave way eventually to The Quest for the Holy Grail.
Now it's on this matter of the quest that Straczynski is most adamant that we see the distinction between Babylon 5 and The Lord of The Rings."Lotr was a "quest" story... there's no quest here. And right at that point, the analogy completely falls apart. If there are occasional echoes of Lotr, it's because we draw on upon the same well-spring of mythic archetypes and saga-structured storytelling..." jms
Actually The Lord of The Rings was an inversion of the quest epic - it wasn't so much a tale of going out in search of Something as already having the Something and undertaking a journey to destroy it. Be that as it may, if the separation between B5 and Lotr hinges on this matter of "quest", surely that must also apply to Arthurian legend? If B5 is definitively not analogous to The Lord of The Rings because the latter is a "quest" story, why doesn't this same demarcation apply to the Arthurian cycle which must, after all, almost qualify as the quintessential quest collection? The distinction is odd - so odd that I get the impression that this is one of those times when there's an attempt to squeeze our perceptions into a particular mould. For instance, I'm open-minded and I'm quite prepared to accept that the Grey Council is like unto the Round Table, but I can't help asking: "Where is the table?" Because it's not there. It's absent. Lacking. There's a round space, but the table itself is patently omitted. Even symbolically, its presence is questionable: what exactly is there that's Arthurian about the Grey Council? Are there the first budding shoots of democracy? Are there knight-equivalents eagerly venturing forth on deeds of derring-do? Or any benevolent monarchy with an accessible castle like Camelot which supplicants may approach to plead for aid or to which an aspiring knight might go to offer his services? On the contrary, the Grey Council seems more like a Star Chamber, ruling by stealth, floating in space, out of touch with the lives and concerns of the common people. The members of the Council stand in a ring (oops! sorry, wrong word), that is to say, they stand in a round formation, like they would if they were around a round table. I guess it's kind of Arthurian. I shall try to forget that they wear grey robes like Tolkien's ringwraiths[[*] do, and they cover their faces like the ringwraiths do. And they are leaders of their people like the ringwraiths were once kings of men. And there are exactly nine of them, like there are exactly nine ringwraiths. And they tortured Sinclair and others like ring-wraiths did when they were questioning captives in their dungeons. I'm sure Arthur would have done something similarly urbane sometime, wouldn't he? I've yet to come across it, but I haven't given up looking.
So to pass on to the War Council - which has also been compared to the Round Table. Here there actually is a physical table, though again I perceive its circularity to be of a ring-like nature. And far from it being a democratic forum, with heroes being commissioned to perform illustrious tasks, it seems to me that the War Room has three prime functions: it is a discussion place for strategy, it is a safe venue for the sharing of knowledge (such as that gained from ancient Narn documents) and it is, with its superficial veneer of democracy, the perfect place for military dictates, the reasons for which are shrouded in secrecy and to which only one or two characters are privy. In effect, not so much Arthur's Round Table as one of the Councils of the Wise, mentioned in Tolkien's The Lord of The Rings where strategy about the containment of the Shadow of Mordor was discussed, where ancient lore obtained from long-forgotten scrolls was revealed and where, in the final analysis, one or two key players made the final decision about which strategic option would be implemented. Take your choice between a couple of White Councils and the Council of Elrond.
Again, I'll try to put that out of my mind, think of Arthur's court and - while Sheridan's growing his beard - keep a careful watch-out for the appearance of Lancelot. Perhaps we could even anticipate the return of Sheridan's sister, Lizzy, with little baby Mordred. But I doubt it. As I've said before, this Arthur-Guinevere romance is a smokescreen. Sheridan's relationship to Delenn bears as much similarity to that of Arthur and Guinevere as the rakish hero and virginal heroine of the average Barbara Cartland novel does. Rather, there are quite a number of aspects of the tale of Beren and Luthien in The Silmarillion which strongly parallel the Sheridan-Delenn romance. Of course, the Beren-Luthien story isn't complete without the appearance of the devil's wolf-warden, Carcaroth, who bit off the hero's hand and, in agony because his innards couldn't cope with the star-jewel the hand had been holding at the time he swallowed it, went on a bit of a rampage causing widespread distress. But we looked very briefly at that last time...
Now the tale is still not complete. There's Huan to be accounted for. He was a great dog whose loyalty shifted abruptly from his elven master to the beautiful Luthien, all because of an attempt to kidnap and murder her. Huan was a fine and noble hound, whose defection to Luthien was totally unexpected in the light of his record of allegiance to the arrogant, battle-proven (and surprisingly, somewhat craven) brothers, Celegorm and Curufin, who were two of the sons of Fëanor and thus leading warriors amongst the Noldorin Elves. The trouble with Huan was that, when it came right down to it, he was a beast of the utmost integrity. Hypocrisy was not his style. Although Huan was generally meek around Luthien, he was a peerless fighter when roused - savage and ferocious to a fault. He eventually came to a tragic end - saving her, of course. Unfortunately, to compare any name translations here would be to divulge several major spoilers as well as lots of minor ones, so let's leave this for the moment and move on. Those of us who don't need any translations to pick the parallel can grin ferally to themselves while the rest of us peer briefly at what's below the waterline of the next iceberg.
The one thing that does appear Arthurian, at least superficially, is the episode A Late Delivery From Avalon, where David "King Arthur" McIntyre appears, tormented by guilt over his involvement in the start of the Earth-Minbari war. I have a question: WHAT exactly is the late delivery from Avalon? Is it "Arthur" himself? Is it Excalibar? Or is it that mysterious package, claimed by Garibaldi to contain the makings of bagna caôda, which was stuck in the post office? I don't ask this last question frivolously. Because
(a) David McIntyre seems to be a fair bit like Lotr's Grimbeorn, a human warrior respected by dwarves (Note: from Old English - `beorn', bear or from Old Norse `bjorn', bear; Arthur : from Latin - `artos', bear).
(b) There is an Elven harbour called Avallónë mentioned in The Silmarillion where the master palantir (crystal stone of far-seeing) was kept.
(c) Straczynski has previously likened his ability to hide the obvious in plain sight with that of a magician wheeling an elephant on-stage while the audience is distracted by the shapely assistant.
Now as a long-time admirer of Michael York, I found his performance quite a distraction, but it did not stop me from wondering whether Garibaldi really knew what was in the package. According to my understanding of the line of inheritance with regard to the palantiri, it wouldn't be at all out of keeping for a package containing the B5 equivalent to be sent to him.
But, of course, this is speculation and inadmissible as clear-cut evidence. Lastly, I urge you not to forget the first season episode, Grail - where Aldous Gajic arrives on B5 to look for the Holy Grail. The story is penned by Christy Marx, but let's have a look at it anyway. `Gajic' is the surname of Mira `Delenn' Furlan's husband. I hesitate to suggest that there was any ulterior motive for this tribute, but I'm going to anyway. `Gajic' as an Elvish word means of the sea. Aldous is Old English (and its stem was used for some names in the language of Rohan in Lotr) for old man. From The Book of Lost Tales, a description of the Old Man of the Sea (long before Hemingway, by the way!):
"Then went the Man of the Sea out when the tide began to creep in slow and shallow over the long flats. He bore as a staff a timber great as a young tree, and he fared as if he had no need to fear tide or quicksand..."
Maybe Straczynski's right. Maybe the only reason that this evokes an image of Aldous Gajic with his staff is because I can't help remembering TV Zone magazine honouring David Warner with an award for his ability to hold a tree and still look dignified. Or maybe not.
B5 is a kind of Rorschach test... viewers see in it the mythic form with which they are most familiar. The implication is that we're imagining that most familiar mythic form. But are we? Perhaps sometimes, but I very seriously doubt whether it's all the time.
I really think we need some serious practice with this Rorschach business. So, take a good long look at the ships of Babylon 5, in particular, the Narn, the Centauri and the Minbari. If you have a Micromachine set, that's perfect. What shapes do you see? For the life of me, I cannot see a nautilus shape in the Minbari cruisers. (Maybe they're supposed to be like Captain Nemo's `Nautilus'?) I've investigated a few marine biology books and I can't find any nautilus shell that bears any resemblance to the Minbari vessels. So why this revelation on the designer's part? Is it that there is a concern that we might otherwise miss a clue in the `chambered spiral' of the nautilus form?
On the other hand, some clues of shape and form don't elude me. Permit me some truly Rorschachian observations. Is there significance in the axe-head form of the Narn vessels? In the double-pointed arrow silhouette of the Centauri warships? In the Star-of-David shape of the smaller Shadow vessels? When all's said and done, Straczynski is a man of immensely careful and prescriptive detail. Actually there was almost a nicely emerging trend in shipshapes there, but unfortunately it's completely wrecked by the Minbari warcruisers. To complete the pattern à la mode Tolkien, they would have to look like longbows - or gliding swans. And they look like neither.
Still, as you read the following comparison and contrast, be sure to keep in the forefront of your mind all those axes, arrows and six-pointed stars in Arthurian legend. Otherwise you might just succumb to a really very nasty suspicion... a very similar sort of suspicion to the one the editors of SFX obviously reached. I'm sorry, but I really have to take you to task, fellas - Straczynski never said what you hid on the spine of your February 1996 issue. Ever.
It gives me a tremendous warm glowy feeling every time I read it, but he didn't say it. I wish he had. Remove the italics and the word, `just', and that's what he's said. As journalists - masters of the art of semantics - you should realise exactly what a crucial difference those two tiny changes make! If there's any emphasis in the quote at all, I personally believe it should go on the last word.
Zha'me'ne. Annie Hamilton
[[*] When Lotr's hobbit-hero, Frodo, slips on the One Ring, he can see into the `invisible' world. Rather than the outward dark wrappings of Black Riders, he perceives that the ringwraiths with their `pale king' are attired in grey robes, with carved helms upon their heads, their faces white, their eyes keen and merciless.