A Series of Innocuous Blogs for Vainglorious Edification.
|A New Quest Begins|
May 25, 2008
In George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s first Indiana Jones epic, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” professor Jones is recruited by military intelligence to find the Ark of the Covenant and bring it under Allied control. Set before the start of WWII, the story establishes the Ark as the most powerful artifact on earth - rumored to offer a direct connection to the power of God. The Nazis are after it because they believe as do the Allies, that the army that carries the Ark before it is invincible. And so we are launched into a matinée adventure that to this day is rollicking entertainment. We recently watched the Indiana Jones trilogy in anticipation of the newest Jones offering, “The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” Not only does the original hold up, it offers a subtle look at the mythology of power and how it is managed by the forces that be.
In the realm of ageless fiction, improbable sources of mythological power have long been sought after, discovered and carefully preserved. It is a common element of mythology that we believe in hidden sources of power and their ability to elevate us above our mortal station. In Joseph Campbell’s seminal work The Hero with a Thousand Faces he introduces the idea of the monomyth. A single universal set of truths that have played a role in man’s imagination since the Bronze Age. Campbell surmises that these truths, expressed in different mythologies, speak of man’s common need for self-realization and ultimate transcendence. The heroic foundation is a construction of man setting out on a quest for a source of power to redeem both him and the people he represents. Like any quest, the hero suffers innumerable hardships along the way. He is beaten, burned, drowned and starved. He is subjected to ungodly environment, spans of loneliness, spiritual doubt and disease. But in the end he is allowed to touch the source of his pursuit, metaphorically the truth - usually only briefly and with surprising little consequence.
In the preface to Campbell’s book he quotes a Rig Vedic saying, translated approximately as: “Truth is one, the sages speak of it by many names.” It is the common goal of the hero be it expressed as the Holy Grail, Excalibur, the Fountain of Youth, or Atman. By reaching his goal the hero hopes to access a power greater than himself and if enlightened, use it to benefit his brethren. But there is antagonism toward such quests. There are mythological opposites who would derail the quest and destroy the hero. Such an opposite could be other men like the Nazis in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Or a secretive and jealous god, unwilling to let a mortal ascend. Or a manifestation of evil in the form of monsters, devils, plagues or banshees. In any case the hero has a formidable challenge, always from forces far more powerful than himself.
What we learn from Campbell and other teachers of mythology, is that the quest never quite ends as expected. Unlike a fairytale romance with golden light and the music of harps, a hero’s quest often ends in a minimum of transcendence. We are reminded that although our protagonist has achieved the improbable, the world as we know it is not going to change. There are forces in place that have vested interests. Be they dark or light forces, they have a stake in seeing that our hero not change too much of the balance of power. Because if that should happen the power of mythology itself might be jeopardized. The purpose of mythology could be destroyed and along with it, the amusement of myth makers. And so, in Spielberg’s (and John Williams’) homage to the great Citizen Kane, the Ark of the Covenant, recovered by Indiana Jones, is sealed in a wooden crate, stamped “Top Secret,” and wheeled into a cavernous government warehouse. It is a warehouse filled with hundreds of other such crates. A repository for secrets of the universe kept safely away from the meddling hands of men. Safely under lock and key until such time as a new hero stumbles upon the cavern and brushes the dust from its aging crate - and a new quest begins.
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