All Roads Lead to Art
By: Joshua Calkins Treworgy
There are few places in the whole of existence that are stranger than the inside of a storyteller’s skull. Planting your feet in those boundaries can see a person faced with a zombie nightmare, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse masquerading as middle-aged heavy metal rockers, being stranded on an abandoned space penal colony with marauding, mutated tribals, or superpowered freaks who want to take over parts of Michigan. Mind you, these are just a few examples from inside my own mind, forget the hundreds of more talented storytellers out there who work in the prose space.
And think about poets, musicians, and visual artists or illustrators, too. Clamber into those imaginations, and you’ll never need to consider taking drugs again, because the experience will render you awakened and terrified of the Realm of the Imagined. Yet, you may also be charmed, ensorcelled to the point of needing to return, if for no other reason than to confirm for yourself that there is in fact a line of division between the waking, everyday world, and the one to which you were temporarily transported as a visitor, a guest, and nothing more.
Perhaps some spark of the Creative will be awakened within you, as well, and you’ll be inspired to try your hand at a creative endeavor! However it manifests, I advise you to follow that pull, and see what you might achieve. This is not to say that every attempt will be good, or even seen through to a completion terminus. Perhaps the attempt proves little more than a total lack of skill or talent with creative writing or music or visual arts. That’s fine! If all you learn is that you needs must stick with established methods of some numbers-based, logical pursuit, then the effort at least has been made.
And numbers make their own kind of music….
Love Him or Hate Him, He Wasn’t Wrong….
J.J. Abrams is a television and film writer who carries a mixed bag of reputation. Some love him, some hate him, and some curse his and Rian Johnson’s names collectively eternally for Star Wars Episodes 7, 8 and 9. Certainly I had a host of issues with the writing in those films, but I have my own hypotheses that could be applied to “fix” most of the problems drummed up by them.
Abrams, along with Alex Kurtzman of ‘Star Trek’ fame (as well as working on several ‘Transformers’ projects), together worked on an earlier and much overlooked series project which I rather enjoyed, a show called “Fringe”. At its core, Fringe focused on para-scientific theories and principles, on pseudo-science in effect, or sci-fi. It tampered lightly with and then transitioned fully into multiverse theory, often in ways that flirted with one’s ability to suspend disbelief. Abrams would go back to this well with his ’Star Trek’ films later on, with the alternate timelines material.
In any event, we’ve seen this sort of thing codified long before the genres of sci-fi, fantasy and cosmic horror, if we but look hard enough. Abrams himself has admitted that he often looked to faery tales of yore when seeking inspiration, particularly when introducing the idea of ‘many worlds’. Look, for instance, to the Celtic myth of “The Enchanted Cave”, and how the prince passes through a cave (read: Portal/passageway) that takes him from his own world into the realm of fae. See how the Norse favored the notion of hidden pathways leading to the Bifrost Bridge, which span connected the mortal world of Midgard to the heavenly realm of Asgard, land of the gods. Think on how the Chinese legends of the dragon Shen Leong spoke of his transporting the souls of heroes to the Realm of Ancestors, a place where only true heroes could receive a tangible embodiment for the whole of the afterlife, while those not classed as heroic were restricted to only brief periods of tangibility.
Abrams wasn’t just spouting theoretical abstracts with these sorts of stories; he was following a long-standing narrative tradition, one contributed to by storytellers and artists from across a myriad cultures and a broad swathe of known history! A history, by the by, that includes musicians as well. Musicians who could swear that Beelzebub had a devil put aside for me, for meeee, for MEEEEEE!….
Mythologists Are Historians
The creative impulse sees outlets in all kinds of ways that we both understand and don’t. The cave paintings of early human beings tell us that they wanted to convey either true observations as they understood them, or theorized explanations of the world in which they dwelled. Whatever the case, we have these images, created by primitive man, attempting to convey concepts or ideas. Fast forward to the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt, and we have tales of gods and goddesses, spirits, rituals, spells. Travel north and slightly east or west, and the Norse pantheon and fae folken get introduced in symbols, woodcuts, carvings, poems, and stories, all dubbed legends or lore. Could any of these myths be proven? Could any of them be disproven?
The earliest mythologists we can universally turn to are The Brothers Grimm. Often, people make the mistake of saying “Grimm Faery Tales” and thinking that the tales belong to them as creators, but this is simply not so. To clarify, the brothers Grimm were caretakers of tales, not original tellers of those tales. They travelled much of Europe and parts of Asia and Africa in order to gather and compare myths and legends, to seek consensus among the tales. They were undertaking the great and scholarly work that Joseph Campbell would later summarize in his great analytical works, establishing patterns and helping us to recognize the universal impulses of creative invention.
They were tracking the origins of these tales, and trying to decipher why some of them came to be. To quote Disney’s “Brave” for a moment, “Legends are lessons”. If you need further proof, look to comedian Patton Oswalt. Strange pivot, I know, but hear me out if you will. In one of his specials, he confesses that he began at one point attributing to a single person, to one kid, all of his craziest tales of adolescence. Despite the fact that there were several kids who did several of the memorable things that stuck out in his memories of that time in his life, he had aggregated them all into a singular entity, projecting all of those out-of-the-ordinary acts and accounts to a lone figure. Thus, friends and neighbors, are legends truly born.
And what is birthed in the mind has many legs, and scrambles to be made real. Just look to Mordred, he of the spidery fame…
Jake Jackson, Henry Schoolcraft, Lenn E. Goodman, Joanna Cole, Dr. Kwando Osei-Nyamo, Dr. Brittany Schora, A.W. Reed, John D Batten, Joseph Campbell. These are but a few of the names we needs must hold in high regard, because they are guides to the dreams of cultures through history. These folks, these mythologists, are in their very own way historians.
And so too was Tolkien…
Fiction as Mythology
Well now, here’s a great big can of worms to pop open, yes? How can I possibly make the argument that J.R.R. Tolkien was a historian? Or that his tales are worthy of being labelled properly as a mythological canon? It’s simple, really. Allow me to explain.
How did the folktales of the time of the Brothers Grimm become timeless? What made them survive to the modern era? Re-tellings, and a few things more besides, but mostly the re-tellings did the trick. In much the same way that ancient hunters developed tools and tactics for successful hunting, so too did storytellers tinker with the tales of their times to discover what made a tale effective, what could be changed and what details had to remain unchanged in order for the story to remain relevant to the audience receiving it. There has to be something in a tale to make it adhere to the imagination and the memory of an audience in order for them to judge it worthy of continuing forward through time, and passing it along, like the traits one cannot reject from their genetic heritage, to the next generation of listeners, readers and viewers.
Even if you’ve never read the Lord of the Rings, you likely know the basics of the story. Its lore influenced so many other genre tropes that you can’t walk in the fields of fantasy without tripping over a Tolkien-ism. Where did his creations take inspiration? The author gave us plenty of explanations in his time, and he confessed much of the inspirations stemmed from older lore and myths, and that he adapted many of these to his own tastes and put his own spin on them to present readers with something new. And as one should suspect, many of these source myths and legends stemmed from their own inspirations, and in some cases were the amalgamations of other tales long passed down among various cultures and customs. Yet, all of them had to come from somewhere, yes? Some singular source? Why would the original teller of these tales tell them to begin with? Because creation is a force, an impulse that cannot be ignored.
And those stories represent a whole other world, a reality into which we are given but a brief view thanks to the likes of Tolkien, Donaldson, Pratchett and Gaiman. Whether one believes it or not, those stories are true to the people within them. Frodo knows the Shire, knows of the One Ring. Tolkien told Frodo’s story, thus making it history to the beloved hobbit and all those who came to read his tale. He created that history for the peoples of Middle-Earth. He birthed that world, a world for which Tolkien was as God, the ultimate historian if one follows my odd logic here. But even he had to use The Word, and the Word was good…
But I digress. Art is an act of creation, and art comes in many forms, as I mentioned before. Perhaps we should move on from the written word as an artform, and look to another, one that is shared more universally.
Shared, But So Different
Until we had translation easily available to us all, we had all these myths and legends closed off to us if we didn’t speak the language that the stories were first told in. Missed context, cultural adaptations and differences, these two factors alone could completely change how a story landed with the audience. Early on, and even in recent times, it has been visual artists and musicians who, without precise translations and adaptation, give us our best chance for sharing stories and myths. If we have as a species any shared language, I would argue that it is music.
Ah, music. Yes, the manipulation of physical things to produce all manner of sounds. And what is sound? Sound is vibration, a physical effect of action taken in the universe, and vibrations are spawned from all events. It renders moot the whole ‘tree falling in an empty forest’ question in philosophical circles, doesn’t it? Or does it? You tell me.
Now, music as a shared language seems a bit of a stretch to the everyday person, I’m sure. Yet, what happens to the listener when minor chords feature heavily in a piece of music? What do you think when a 4-beat note carries for 2 bars in a 4/4 tempo song? Set aside lyrics for a moment and really think about the beauty of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Varied tempos, alteration of instrumentation, rising and falling tempo. What other than ‘greatness’ fits to describe that song?
Music plays to emotion, you see. Without lyrics, music can move us to tears, or give us energy for workouts, or soothe us, or make us smile or grimace or gnash our teeth and bang our heads! And above it all, it is a language that can be expressed mathematically, as so many things can be. “Fringe” got that right; Walter Bishop’s line in the season 1 episode “The Equation” let us see that Abrams and Kurtzman well understood this.
It wraps around, you see. Delightful, is it not?
And musicians and composers from anywhere and anywhen have had access to this language since humankind could discern patterns and beat the ground to a repeatable rhythm! The drums of ancient tribesmen are no less relevant than the guitar riffs of Eric Clapton, and they serve the same purpose: “hear this sound, and tell me how you feel!” One needs no specific genetic heritage to tell them that this is true. And that, dear reader, is what all good art does; it makes you feel, it makes you think. Good art gives you a specific message to think about, convinces you to feel a certain way, generally speaking. The greatest art, however, not only gives you those messages and feelings, but leaves itself open to the recipient’s analysis.
Much as I hate Roland Barthes’s theory of ‘Death of the Author’ when it is abused, it is absolutely brilliant and beautiful when it is used in conjunction with other means of looking at what a piece of art might be driving at, or could be.
The Circle, Complete, But Not
Mankind has put forth ungodly amounts of effort over the course of its existence to finding ways to understand the universe in which it exists. From tribal drums to synthwave beats made on phone apps, from cave paintings to Blender 3D art renderings, and from clay tablet inscriptions to Substack and ebooks, we have used art in all types and conveyance means to commune to one another everything from the absurd and fantastical, to the trite and mundane. It’s a universal impulse, you see; no culture, no genetic line, has ever been free of the creative impulse.
Even hunter-gatherer tribes fall prey to the creative impulse. After all, an innovation from short spear to spear-with-plant-fiber-line created retrievable weapons, and isn’t that improvement a creative process? Sure, it has logical underpinnings and causes of action, but the fact remains that someone had to imagine that such a curious trick was possible first, and then attempt to make it. It was a dream, and nothing more, until someone actually went and made the thing. This begs the question, ‘Can variability of thought be our collective hope to succeed as a species?’
I certainly think it is. If I’m right, we need to look to our fictions of the past for answers. After all, without the speculation of video calls from Asimov and Bradbury, do we ever get to Facetime with Aunt Sally? Without the heroism and sacrifice of Frodo and the Fellowship, do we have inspiration for the sorts of folks who, not being physically heroic in their own right, might not otherwise decide to take risks and innovate? It almost comes full circle, and in their time, Bradbury, Asimov and Tolkien were dismissed as dreamers and loons. But were they dreamers, or were they prophets? Could it be that they were a little bit of both?
I hope to figure that out with some more time, folks, and report back to you my own findings on the subject. With time, perhaps we’ll all get to that point of understanding, and see that in all things, art is what ultimately drives us as a whole. Art, also known as the creative impulse, will be our way forward.