The Mythic Well VI

by Annie Hamilton

Myths, legends and fairytales exert a fascination for many people in this rational age for a very fundamental reasons.

Bruno Bettelheim explored deep into the mythic well to try to understand the yearnings that such stories satisfy. His background was extraordinary. During the Second World War he was interned in the concentration camps of Dachau and Buchenwald. He survived and later, after moving to the United States, he became a Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago. However, out of his wartime experience of the holocaust came a desire to heal hurt souls and restore hope and meaning to those who had lost it, particularly to children.

Although he wrote many books, his fame rests most solidly on his multi-award-winning book of criticism, The Uses of Enchantment:The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. In it, he writes of a particular famous English professor and he says this: "Tolkien describes the facets which are necessary in a good fairy tale as fantasy, recovery, escape and consolation - recovery from deep despair, escape from some great danger, but, most of all, consolation. Speaking of the happy ending, Tolkien stresses that all complete fairy tales must have it. It is "a sudden joyous `turn'... However fantastic or terrible the adventure, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the `turn' comes, a catch of breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to tears.""

It may be surprising to some people but Tolkien regarded his great fantasy epic as a fairytale and made use of a number of the more famous stories associated with the genre. The princess Luthien in The Book of Lost Tales was like Rapunzel, trapped in a tree bower. But her story transmutes so that in The Silmarillion she becomes more a type of the Sleeping Beauty - many try to penetrate the magic-girdled barriers surrounding the kingdom of Doriath, but only the human hero, Beren, overcomes all obstacles, espys her beauty as she dances and slowly wakens her to a true, deep love. In after days of Middle Earth, it was said that no woman had ever been as beautiful as Luthien, except perhaps the elven princess Arwen. In many ways, Arwen the Fair was compared to Luthien, not least in her love for the human, Aragorn, for whom she sacrificed her elven immortality, just as Luthien before her had done for Beren. To ensure no one overlooked the obvious, Luthien's epithet, Tinuviel, daughter of twilight or star of evening was bestowed on Arwen and she became known as Arwen Evenstar. Arwen's beauty was such that Aragorn was not the only one to succumb to her charms: Frodo felt that his soul was pierced when he looked on her. She was the daughter of Elrond Half-Elven and her name meant royal maiden.

Now long before Disney's animators superbly captured twentieth century sensibilities, completing the final transition from fairytale to fairyfloss, the story of Sleeping Beauty was already subject to immense revision and sanitation. Its original version dates from no later than the sixteenth century and perhaps as early as the fourteenth. It was a rip-roaring Boy's Own medieval adventure of horses, hunting, falconry, castle-exploring, `co-habiting', bigamy, jealousy, sadism and murder. (Bettelheim is strangely coy about using four-letter words and euphemistically explains the rape [which fortunately didn't involve necrophilia, but the "hero" king wasn't to know that at the time] as `co-habitation'.) The raw violence and amoral tone of the story was apparently a bit excessive for some nineteenth century collectors of folklore who altered the story, removing the rape scene and adding a bit of narrowly-averted cannibalism instead! In French, the story became The Sleeping Beauty and in German, it was called Little Briar Rose. But it was originally known as Sun, Moon and Talia.

An unusual title until it becomes apparent that Talia is the sleeping princess and `Sun' and `Moon' are the twins born of the rape. You don't need an especially great knowledge of linguistics or of either Elvish language (where the elements `ar' and `tar' both denote royalty) to see that Arwen and Winters are related words. Now, Talia Winters is certainly no Sleeping Beauty in the Disney mold, nor even in the tradition of the Brothers Grimm. She is much more like the Sleeping Beauties of Tolkien's Middle Earth whose slumber was metaphorical and not physical.

And yet, the moment of her `awakening' comes when she hears the story of the telepath who was raped while asleep and whose child was taken from her shortly after birth - a story echoing precisely the events of the old fairytale, Sun, Moon and Talia.

Talia Winters, on waking to the reality of Psi Corps tyranny, makes a dangerous choice - at the risk of her life, she plays the central role in a huge deception: that of making the Psi Cop, Bester, believe that the telepathic Underground has been destroyed. She is the fairytale princess, imprisoned not in a tower, a tree bower, a thorn-guarded castle or a magic-girdled kingdom, but in an oppressive organisation from which she wants to escape. Her ex-husband, Matt Stoner, is not the prince on the white charger she's desperately seeking, but more of a mesmerising dragon prowling about to flame any likely princely candidates and even the not-so-princely ones. (Better be careful though about judging princely behaviour: it's worthwhile remembering that Tolkien's hero-king, the warrior and Ranger, Aragorn, was completely deprecating about his own looks, was widely reputed as being unable to hold down a job for any length of time (being known as `Stick-at-Naught' Strider), was able to quell talk simply by staring coldly and was wont, at times, to make quite pointed and sarcastic remarks.)

Now up to a point, Talia Winters follows the classic fairytale pattern - she's in the process of recovering from deep despair, she's escaped from great danger. And then, of course, she gets killed. In the fourth last episode of the second season, Divided Loyalties.

Now anyone who knows anything about Bettelheim's theories of the meaning of fairytales (and I don't think there's any doubt Straczynski does - he has, after all, admitted to degrees in both psychology and sociology) should have realised the enormous risk this story entailed. In killing the archetypal Sleeping Beauty, he chose dramatic impact over a message of hope and he might even have got away with this psychological brutality without alienating the `prime consumer' but for one thing. A single slip-up of this kind can be put down to dramatic licence, two slip-ups to carelessness, but five - well, that goes beyond pattern into outright theme. Yes, this is merely the second story in a five episode block that lost a large section of that most prized of all demographics: the women's audience. (Why is it most prized? Because women in the 25-40 age grouping are considered to be the main buyers for families and therefore, by extension, the `prime consumer'.) The five episode block chips away at the concept of consolation as women understand it while hammering home one of Babylon 5's most recurring themes: there is no hope for the innocent. It begins with Confessions and Lamentations, where the entire Markab race die, the mother figure being unable to protect the representative of innocence: the child. And then there's Divided Loyalties where, without a murmur of protest, the entire command staff falls into line with Lyta's plan to murder an innocent person without even examining any other options. The guilty get away scot-free. You may not have realised that before, but give it a moment's thought. The only person we can be sure didn't shoot at Lyta and kill the guards accompanying who were accompanying her is Talia. Why can we be sure of this? Well, because we actually see her in bed at the time.

Next up is The Long Twilight Struggle, where Londo is - reluctantly - off to view the attack on the Narn homeworld. The intuitive feeling that there's no hope for the innocent which lingers from the previous two episodes is now reinforced as the Narn get bombed "back to the Stone Age", but there's a new repellent factor come into play. And that is the suspicion that, in Babylon 5, the consolation, hope and comfort which is part and parcel of the good fairytale[1] is the preserve of the guilty: is there any question in anyone's mind that Londo will eventually be redeemed?

On to Comes The Inquisitor. Yes, having Jack the Ripper as an interrogator working for the Vorlons certainly did `grey' them up[2]. In fact, they were positively muddy by the end. So, more importantly, was the show itself - in contrast to the emerging theme, which by now to some people was almost crystal-clear. The innocent have less chance of a happy ending than Jack the Ripper. In The Fall of Night, the very next episode, the Vorlons are `greyed up' even further as Sheridan's first instinct is not to express gratitude but to wonder about how much mankind has been manipulated. Innocence again, but exploited this time. Or arrested, as in the case of the shopkeeper accused of treason for expressing anti-President sentiments.

Is it any wonder that a lot of women found the repetition exceedingly disturbing and stopped watching? There was a sense in which this was a sustained attack on things they cherish - motherhood, innocence, hope, faith, comfort. If you decide to kill off Sleeping Beauty, you should know better than to expect universal accolades, particularly as you've obviously done the reading in psychology you've claimed. Indeed, some condemnation could reasonably be anticipated and "stuff happens" [3] is probably not an adequate response if you expect to keep your audience.

"No cute kids" is a fabulous motto, but not if it's interpreted as "the only good kid is a dead kid." Shon dies in the first season, Shinar in the second [4]. Is it any different later???[5] As for the fate of the innocent: well, let's look beyond Talia to another archetypal innocent - Marcus. Well now... need I say more?

I will, eventually. But before I do I'm going to have you look at something. Here it is. It's just a list:

Alisa, Alison, Alison, Carolyn, Carolyn, Cailyn, Elise, Elizabeth, Elizabeth, Elizabeth, Elizabeth, Elizabeth, Felicia, Julie, Lianna, Lillian, Lise, Lyndisty, Lyta, Talia. Notice something common? Apart from, of course, the five Elizabeths[6] and the fact that these are all names of women in Babylon 5. Yes, they contain the element `li' or `ly'. It's a strange statistical fact that well over 50% of the women in B5 share this element in their first name[7]. Some, who don't make the list above, have `ly' or `ley' in their surnames. Others, like Susan and Susanna, have - amazingly! - both `li' and `ly' hidden in the meaning of their names: lily. Curiouser and curiouser, thought Alice.

Unable to resist the opportunity to indulge in a bit of statistical analysis, I checked out the most comprehensive book of names I could find, The Great Australian and New Zealand Book of Baby Names, which despite its parochial title is a very fine work and my favourite of nearly a dozen name books I own. There are 371 occurrences of `li', `ly' or `ley' in over 5000 feminine names, including diminutives - slightly less than 7.5%. Now just looking at first names: what is the probability of `li' or `ly' cropping up 50% of the time merely by random chance? You need to know a fair bit of mathematics, including how to test a hypothesis using a binomial expansion in order to be able to check this, but the answer is approximately 1 in 500 million, which is about the same probability as throwing a coin and getting 29 heads in a row. The odds get dramatically worse (they fall below 1 in a billion) if surnames are included, let alone anything else, such as the hidden instances, Susan and Susanna, or `lau' (as in Laurel, Laura and Lauren) which are conceivably part of all this[8]. What does this mathematical analysis demonstrate? Well, it points up the fact that the chances of `li' and `ly' being meaningless and insignificant are simply bugger all. (Putting it in another way, we can be 99.99999998% sure that the appearance of `li' and `ly' is intentional and just didn't happen by random chance.)

It would be interesting to look at how many new women's names crop up with this element - because, you see, from a mathematical standpoint we only need odds of 1 in 50 to start being extremely suspicious. Yes, 1 in 50!

But let's leave the question of what `li' and its relatives mean for the moment and go back to the Sleeping Beauty archetypes. To Luthien and Arwen.

We've been dancing around the story of Luthien for some time: a story that Tolkien wove out of Norse legend, Greek myth, Christian imagery, medieval Jewish text, English folklore, Anglo-Saxon poetry, French romance sagas and German fairytales. All of these things and more constitute "The Mythic Well": the great story-telling tradition of Western Europe. Of the hundreds of fairy tales, isn't it a remarkable coincidence that Straczynski and Tolkien both chose Sleeping Beauty for their arcs? How odd that just about every time Straczynski dips into the mythic well he comes out with almost exactly the same elements, symbols and motifs as Tolkien did. You see, it's not just the same bit of Norse legend, the same bit of Greek myth, the same sort of advent of the wolf (even if it was the Mother instead of the Father of Wolves), but suddenly there's the wolfhound as well! The Great Dog, Huan, who unexpectedly leaves his masters, Curufin and Celegorm for Luthien, just as Neroon defects from Shakiri's to Delenn's side and for not dissimilar reasons. (Please see footnote 4 on the relationship between `sha' and `fin' and then take a look at Curufin and Shakiri.) And it doesn't stop there...

In the next comparison and contrast, I'd thought we'd tackle something really interesting: the telepaths and the Sylvan Elves. Of course, this set is unfinished because I'm sure there'll be more parallels with the Telepath War about to start - but it's fascinating nonetheless, even at this stage. It's almost as fascinating as the recent comic, In Valen's Name. Why do I get the singularly disturbing feeling that Valen isn't just based on Eärendil any more, but on Ar-Pharazon as well? Neither of these characters of Tolkien's Middle Earth returned from the Undying Lands - both of them were trapped by the Valar, but in entirely different ways.

Now Ar-Pharazon was the last king of the Numenoreans and a particularly unpleasant piece of work. Used to make human sacrifices, in fact. So what does this suggest about B5's heroes?


Will there be any by the end? Probably not. Let's remember that even Frodo succumbed to the power of the Ring. "I am naked in the dark," he despaired on the way to Mount Doom, " veil between me and the wheel of fire."


September 1998

See here for the comparisons between the Telepaths and the Sylvan Elves.

Reference Sources for Mythic Well VI:

  • Ruth S. Noel, The Languages of Tolkien's Middle Earth
  • Robert Foster, The Complete Guide to Middle Earth
  • J.E.A. Tyler, The Tolkien Companion
  • David Day, A-Z of Tolkien
  • J.R.R Tolkien, The Silmarillion
  • J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of The Rings
  • J.R.R. Tolkien, The Book of Lost Tales
  • Alain Carrazé and Hélène Oswald, The Prisoner
  • Andy Lane, The Babylon File
  • David Bassom, The A-Z of Babylon 5
  • Alfred Bester, The Demolished Man
  • Alfred Bester, The Deceivers
  • Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment - The Meaning and Importance of Fairy tales
  • Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde - On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers
  • Lesley Chamberlain, Nietzsche in Turin - The End of the Future
  • Cecily Dynes, The Great Australian and New Zealand Book of Baby Names
  • Lawrence V. Conley, Where Empires Touch Starlog # 182
  • Matt Bielby, The World According to J. Michael Straczynski SFX # 9
  • Fernand Comte, Dictionary of Mythology
  • J.E. Zimmerman, Dictionary of Classical Mythology
  • Leah Liddell, Statistical Inference: Hypothesis Testing in Mathematics


From time to time, people ring me up and say, "Get a pen - you're gonna love this!" and they then read out a really juicy quote from the internet or from a magazine interview. To all those people, quite a few of whom wish to remain anonymous - thank you. You know who you are. From time to time, people will also ring me up and say, "Are you sure X is a point of comparison to Y? Because I think it looks more like Z." To all those people, thank you as well. More often than not, I have only realised the third point of comparison through someone else's insight. In this regard, I would most particularly like to thank Karen McDonald for our fruitful discussion of Bester. Any mistakes, of course, are mine.

[1] You may wish to argue that Babylon 5 is not a fairytale. True, but it borrows heavily and overtly from the genre and should not be placed beyond criticism in these terms simply because its label is `science fiction'.

[2] It is interesting to see Jack the Ripper a.k.a Sebastian in the adversarial role - taking the part of the tester. Satan, the fallen angel, was traditionally assigned exactly this position. Originally the devil did not have the pejorative overtones of evil which is a normal 20th century understanding, but rather was thought of as holding a position akin to that of a loyal opposition, as intimated in the biblical story of Job.

[3] "RE: Talia... look, you've kinda got to look at this the way I do. Stuff happens. Yes, Talia was hoped for to be a key to the solution of the problem. (Not the key, but a key.) But if you do that, every single time, you become predictable. It means you, the audience, can relax. "Well, we know now that Talia will always get through this because she's the one they're hoping for." Suspense: gone. Story: suddenly predictable. There's no rule that every person who is hoped to solve the problem in real life is gonna make it to the end or BE that solution. So if you delete that person, now it's "Oh, hell, NOW what're they gonna do?" which is more intrinsically interesting to me than the other option.

Generally speaking, about once a year, toward the end of the year, I kinda look around at the characters with a loaded gun in my hand, and say, "Hmmm... if I take out *that* person, what happens? Is there anyone here I can afford to lose? Would it be more dramatically interesting to have this person alive, or dead? What is the absolute bare minimum of characters I need to get to the end of the story and achieve what I have to achieve?"

It helps to really remember that this is a *novel*, and uses the structure of a novel. That means you have to have some real surprises as you go. Anyone is fair game. To the question "Why did you get rid of Sinclair? Why'd you get rid of Keffer? Why'd you get rid of Talia? Why'd you get rid of ... oh, er, that hasn't happened yet..." there is only one answer: 'cause I felt like it', and `cause I thought it'd make the story a lot more interesting'.

The stories I like best are the ones that rachet up the tension and the uncertainty inch by inch until you're screaming. This could apply to any of Stephen King's novels (and recall that a lot of my background is in horror writing). Mother Abigail in thE STAND was supposed to be their hope for the future. So in short order she's vulture-food, JUST when she's most needed. *Because that's interesting*. It makes you say, "Oh, hell, NOW what? (Stephen actually does that a lot in his books, and it's a technique I've learned as well.) Boromir in Lotr was a capable, skilled fighter, deemed absolutely essential to the Company of the Ring... oops, there he is by the tree, full of Orc arrows.

Stuff happens.

Same here." jms

Straczynski here raises an interesting point - that novels should have real surprises as they go along. Until recently I would have agreed entirely. But in view of the fact that the novel he's most frequently compared the Babylon 5 series to is The Lord of The Rings (yet another reference right here, in fact!), it would be worthwhile noting that the writer of that epic actually once made the point that fantasy and fairytale don't require surprise. He backed it with an argument that Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment supported with a number of real-life examples from his practice of clinical psychiatry.

[4] Perhaps we just need to be cautious about characters with `Sh--' in their names: it's obviously on the cards for them to die young. The Sheridans being other obvious examples. `Den sha', as we know, means to the death: could it be that the names dictate the characters' fates? (Note the Markabs - Fashar, Dusha, Shioshnek - all contain this element, though I don't think it actually means death in the Markab language, I think it means turtle. (Don't ask - we'll get to why eventually!) Death in the Markab tongue is clearly `fa' as in `drafa': black death. `Drafa' was the plague that killed the Markabs' and `dra' is derived from the elvish for dark and used as black in such Minbari words as `Drala Fi': Black Star. And if I were a Minbari I wouldn't have stepped on such a clearly doomed ship: it's got death in its name, too. While `fa' is the Markab word for death, it's closely related to the Minbari word `fi(n)' which like `sha' is about mortality and death. `Fi(n)', derived from the Elvish `firn': mortal, dead.

[5] Rhetorical question.

[6] Could this perhaps be a subtle reference to Nietzsche and the theory of Eternal Recurrence? Nietzsche did, after all, mention one specific regret he had in connection with this theory - the eternal recurrence of the Elisabeths.

[7] By contrast, a mere 14% of the male characters to this point have the same elements in their names. While we're indulging in curious statistics, I should point out that over half of this 14% are played by non-white actors.

[8] `Li' and `ly' have a very small number of possible sources in Elvish, and one of these also involves the fragment `lau'. Another of these suggests that names with `an' in them may also be derived from the same source. There are very few female names in B5 that do not have any of `li', `ly', `lau', `ley' or `an' in their formulations! In fact, many of them have more than one of these elements. Oddly enough, one of the meanings is exactly Friedrich Nietzsche's view of the eternally-cyclic Elisabeths.