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December 21, 2006

The Stories That Our Monkey Brains Like

Dear Internets,

I have a few questions. Has anyone ever written a good essay about the way the Lord of the Rings movies (even more than the books) use many of mankind's longtime favorite storytelling tropes? And what these tropes say about the way our monkey brains particular, what we find emotionally gratifying? And how this plays out in actual human wars?

The particular tropes I have in mind are:

1. We are pure Good, they are pure Evil

Our enemies want to destroy us all (and in some cases, eat us). This desire grows out of their very nature. Thus, our only option is to destroy all of them.

In stark contrast, we are reasonable and wish merely to live together with everyone in peace. The only trouble comes when Evil arrives from the outside.

2. Good is pretty and pretty is Good; Evil is ugly and ugly is Evil

Have you seen our enemies? They're HIDEOUS!

By contrast, most of us are quite attractive.

This means you can tell someone is Good or Evil just by looking at them.

3. To win we must only kill the Man at the Top

Our enemies are mindless automatons, directed by the One Big Brain in charge. Once we get him, they will all run away screaming.

4. Our Head Guy has been chosen by Destiny!

Elrond tells Aragorn in Return of the King: "This is your test. Every path you have trod, through wilderness, through war, has led to this road."

Compare with this, from Hubris by Michael Isikoff and David Corn:

After September 11, [LIbby] came to view Cheney as a historical figure who saw the dangers facing his country with greater clarity than anyone. In December 2001, during an interview with journalist James Mann, Libby read aloud a passage from Winston Churchill's memoir of the years leading up to World War II: "I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial." Libby told Mann these words could be applied to Cheney in the post-9/11 period.

I'm sure there must be other tropes that I'm missing. Anyway, what does the internet say?

Posted at December 21, 2006 10:09 PM | TrackBack

David Brin, himself a science fiction writer and with his own epic to his credit (the Uplift saga), more or less approaches the same territory through a different prism here:

Posted by: En Ming Hee at December 21, 2006 10:43 PM

It's always the littlest good guy that makes the greatest impact?

Posted by: matt at December 22, 2006 12:20 AM

I don't remember Lord of the Rings - is there a nice and funny black or ethnic guy who makes the ultimate sacrifice 15 minutes before the total victory?

Posted by: abb1 at December 22, 2006 02:48 AM

I don't know from monkeybrains - a lot of this is down to lazy plotting. See most especially number 3 - writing about huge conflicts which are won the way huge conflicts are won in reality (i.e. by the combined efforts of a multitude of people all doing their part, however apparently minor) is hard work. All those characters, and research, and technical comprehension! Yeesh. So much easier to just have B.J. Blazkowicz take out the boss Nazi at the end.

Posted by: RobW at December 22, 2006 03:24 AM

Has anyone ever written a good essay about the way the Lord of the Rings movies (even more than the books) use many of mankind's longtime favorite storytelling tropes? And what these tropes say about the way our monkey brains particular, what we find emotionally gratifying?

You mean those movies were supposed to be enjoyable? I thought they were a public diplomacy intiative of the Pentagon.

For some reason, I did kind of identify with the subjects of Gondor, under the insane king Denethor, but I lost my respect for his army when they obediently followed his 'charge of the light brigade' order.

There's nothing noble about stupidity, no matter what Tennyson says.

Posted by: Cal at December 22, 2006 05:24 AM


By that measure even the "Ramayana" should count as a Pentagon public diplomacy initiative.

Posted by: En Ming Hee at December 22, 2006 06:47 AM

The storyteller's trick that bugs me the most is this idea that characters/people have a definite core identity that is inborn and unchangeable, that if events present themselves at opportune times to opportune individuals then epic change may occur, which means credit for change should rightly be ascribed to the fates or nature or whatever external controlling force the storyteller or listener feels most comfortable with. It's such a common feature of stroytelling that it's hard to even notice but when it's evidenced in stories it seems to evoke an instinctive, satisfying sense of well-being which I would call pattern recognition, but if it's done right it feels like the truth.
The reason it bugs me is it may not be possible to tell a really good story without using this old trope. At least I haven't figured out how to yet.

Posted by: Just some guy at December 22, 2006 07:45 AM

1. We are pure Good, they are pure Evil

I wonder what's different about my upbringing (or my inherent nature, but I've always favored the nurture side of that argument) that makes me strongly prefer epic stories where this is distinctly not true, especially of the antagonists.  In the fantasy realm, Clive Barker has done this wonderfully so far with one major villain in his (half-finished) Abarat quartet and Philip Pullman does a magnificent job throughout in the His Dark Materials trilogy.

Note: Both of these works are marketed (at least in part) as "juvenile" fiction, but good writing is good writing.  The main character in each may be a pubescent young woman, but the actual depth of writing, plotting, and characterisation is (IMHO, etc.) far superior to and more mature than anything Tolkien was capable of.

Posted by: Dayv at December 22, 2006 08:48 AM

Jon, this isn't really to the point, and you've probably already seen it, but just in case, have you read this McSweeney's article?

Posted by: Chris Ekman at December 22, 2006 09:19 AM
The storyteller's trick that bugs me the most is this idea that characters/people have a definite core identity that is inborn and unchangeable,...

Been around the internets much? Particularly the blogosphere?

Unless one sticks to the one-dimensional, easily understood model, it's clear that complexity will generate contradictory views which just proves that you're a hypocrite. A movie typically has two hours to develop complexity -- a blog comment section has two-three paragraphs at most.

And hypocrisy is currently the biggest sin on the internets; a complex world view demonstrates a character feebleness easily dismissed as weakness. Hence the word is Fisk-ing.

No, I'd say in many ways when we deal with people, we tend toward cartoonish simplicity particularly when in broadcast mode. Ascribing change to outside forces allows us to stay internally steadfast.

Posted by: Ted Pan at December 22, 2006 11:06 AM

Wasn't that the whole point of Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces?

Maurice Sagoff's take:

Monster Grendel's tastes are plainish.
Breakfast? Just a couple Danish.

King of Danes is frantic, very.
Wait! Here comes the Malmo ferry

Bring Beowulf, his neighbor,
Mighty swinger with a saber!

Hrothgar's warriors hail the Swede,
Knocking back a lot of mead;

Then, when night engulfs the Hall
And the Monster makes his call,

Beowulf, with body-slam
Wrenches off his arm, Shazam!

Monster's mother finds him slain,
Grabs and eats another Dane!

Down her lair our hero jumps,
Gives old Grendel's dam her lumps.

Later on, as king of Geats
He performed prodigious feats

Till he met a foe too tough
(Non-Beodegradable stuff)

And that scaly-armored dragon
Scooped him up and fixed his wagon.

Sorrow-stricken, half the nation
Flocked to Beowulf's cremation;

Round his pyre, with drums a-muffle
Did a Nordic soft-shoe shuffle.

Posted by: slim at December 22, 2006 01:50 PM

Lewis Lapham in Harper's commented on the movie version of The Return of the King around the time that it was released. He made some mention of Aragorn's portrayal as a crusading-Jesus figure.

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at December 22, 2006 02:58 PM

Yeah, what slim said - though the tropes Joseph Campbell highlights are different than the ones you suggest. Actually, I think you're not correct, here. I don't think those tropes are what make us love the Lord of the Rings, etc. Some of the best-loved movies of all time, according to IMDB, include: The Godfather; The Empire Strikes Back; The Good, The Bad and the Ugly; Pulp Fiction; The Usual Suspects; Goodfellas; Dr. Strangelove; The Silence of the Lambs; Fight Club; etc., etc. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to suggest that the pure-good-vs-darkest-evil trope is necessary or important to an enjoyable story.

The problem with looking at Tolkien's work and trying to extract general principles from it is that there's probably no work that has inspired more knock-offs and derivatives than his. Our familiarity with his world is multiplied many fold by the decades of fantasy (and even non-fantasy) that came after him, employing the exact same formulas and in some cases nearly-identical mythologies. If we in fact go back to the original myths that Tolkien himself was trying to emulate they're not quite that straightforward. Try reading, for example, the Nibelungenleid, the story of Seigfried, Brunhilde, etc. It's incredibly weird and difficult to understand, because its main themes are NOT universal tropes - they're based on ethics that are completely alien to us. Which is why, although I love Campbell's ideas, I think we should take them with a grain of salt - there are elements of story-telling that are very, very old and very wide-spread, but all stories are NOT the same, and the specific cultural components of storytelling are ignored to the detriment of our understanding.

Posted by: saurabh at December 22, 2006 03:39 PM

Err, sorry, I forgot to add some stuff: "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" is an interesting read, and the argument Campbell makes is a great answer to your basic question, which is this: the reason we see the same stories told over and over again in so many different cultures, and why so many stories have similar structures and elements (to the point that Campbell described an ur-story, a "monomyth"), is because all storytelling is fundamentally allegorical; what's actually being described is our own progression and development, our own struggle for growth and understanding. So, when we cut the head off the serpent and conquer the beast, this is not a reflection of any belief about the nature of the world or of real life, but a reflection on the nature of human existence itself. The story of the Buddha reaching enlightenment is probably the rawest way to understand this.

In brief: storytelling is not political philosophy, it is existential philosophy.

Posted by: saurabh at December 22, 2006 03:47 PM

Interesting that you raise this question about The Lord of the Rings, as I was just pondering a plot point (who knows why) during my commute to work a week ago. One remembers how in both the books and the movie, Gandalf in Moria counsels Frodo that we are in no position to judge who deserves death and who deserves life (this in specific reference to Frodo's regret that Bilbo had not killed Gollum when he had the chance). And, though it had not really occurred to me before, this scene sets up one of the basic messages of the book: not that the littlest of people may save the world, but that ALL of us are weak and prone to moral corruption. Frodo's will fails at the edge of Mount Doom, and only Gollum's crazed attack causes the ring to be destroyed.

A simplistic story of Good triumphing over Evil? Or a rather more equivocal message about fallibility and humility?

On a related note, I've found that one of the most interesting things about epics is that at a macro-description level they can seem to be (as Cal puts it) public diplomacy initiatives of the Pentagon, but at a more detailed level they contain varying levels of doubt and ambiguity. Yet readers or viewers select the parts that appeal to their own natures, rendering the poet or film-maker's actual intentions quite secondary. In other words, it's a Pentagon film insofar as viewers make it so. And we'll never really escape that problem.

Posted by: Ian Mason at December 22, 2006 08:26 PM

The Lion King is sorta the same story. Except with music.

Posted by: Lloyd at December 23, 2006 09:23 AM

We are the Last Bastion!
Most of us are too weak, cowardly, or both to recognize or resist Evil. Only we, the Last Bastion, have the balls needed to do what is necessary. Those of us who doubt or object to our actions will thank us later, once we have vanquished the Man at the Top and solved all our problems.

Compare with "decadent Europe."

Posted by: Alan at December 23, 2006 10:16 AM

"1. We are pure Good, they are pure Evil"

Do you mean Goode?
aaah! gotcha!

Posted by: Omar at December 23, 2006 02:45 PM

There's another great old book on this theme, called The American Monomyth.

It lays out the tropes Jonathan's talking about, as seen in western movies, the original Star Trek, Disney movies, Playboy magazine, and other great old stuff like "Walking Tall" and "Death Wish."

The authors did a sort of update in 2002, but I haven't read it.

Posted by: Brett at December 23, 2006 03:05 PM

Then at the end, they have to go into the fortified citadel and drop this little ring into this one vent and the whole thing goes blooey...

Posted by: Kip W at December 23, 2006 07:40 PM