The Shape of Water and Del Toro’s Cosmic Fairy Stories

Guillermo Del Toro is one of the most well-known fans of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. If you’re familiar with Lovecraft’s work, his influence on Del Toro is fairly obvious. I’ve even seen one internet commenter refer to Del Toro’s Hellboy as the closest we’re ever going to get to a big tent Lovecraft adaptation.

Lovecraft is famous for a brand of fiction known as cosmic horror. The basic idea is that the universe is vast and uncaring. Humanity has no special place within it, and in its dark reaches there may be things so far beyond our understanding that we could only classify them as gods or monsters—and those monsters would be indifferent to us. Whatever threat they pose to humanity comes not from their desire to destroy us, not from some special, directed enmity towards mankind, but simply from the fact that we may get in the way of whatever their true goals are.

Like Lovrecraft, Del Toro’s stories do not tend to explain the overall cosmic structure of the universe, but rather to unsettle it, to disorient the viewer and make them realize how little they know about how the universe truly is. Like Lovecraft, he calls down to earth creatures that are profoundly Other, whose purposes we cannot understand, whose very forms and way of existing are strange to us. He explodes the notion that human life as we know it is all there is, or is even particularly significant in the grand scheme of things.

But unlike Lovecraft’s readers, Del Toro’s viewers rarely come away with a sense of despair, disgust, or disturbance. Rather than take cosmic strangeness and use it to put an arrogant humanity back in its proper place, Del Toro takes it and does something else: he tells a fairy story.

The way many of Del Toro’s films feel like “fairy tales for adults” has been remarked on often enough, but it doesn’t usually get placed in the context of his Lovecraftian influences. Anyone familiar enough with the folklore can tell you, though, that traditional fairy tales have a lot in common with Lovecraft—the Fair Folk, the Good People, whatever you call them, are first and foremost strange. They are unutterably inhuman in their motives and their way of life. To encounter them is profoundly dangerous and unsettling, not because they hate mankind, but simply because they care little for us one way or the other. Simply by being who they are, they might upend our very existence.

Of course, one key difference between fairy tales and Lovecraft is that fairy tales may often have a happy ending. The fairy’s magic, rather than destroying you and all you love, not to mention everything that exists, may instead rescue you from some tragedy, or grant you a gift you never thought you could have. For Lovecraft, this was inconceivable, and stories like this were nothing more than lies delusion. For Del Toro, this is par for the course.

In this breakdown of The Shape of Water, I want to examine exactly how this works.

 

The Allure of the Other

 

If Del Toro is good at anything, it’s design. The guy is meticulous in how he crafts his sets, his props, and his costumes. He creates notebooks for his movies, with sketches for every element of the design, and background notes on characters. He chooses his color palettes carefully, distinguishing one realm from another, for example, by whether it is blue-green or orange-red in overall tone.

But it’s his creatures in particular that are most alluring. Many of them start from a human base, but are over-muscled, or have a strange bone structure to the face. They are taller than mankind, and sometimes lack eyes, or have intricate designs traced into their skin. They are rarely colored in any of the usual shades of brown, but are often red, pale white, green, gold, blue, or some other strange shade.

The more monstrous are often tentacled, but rarely slimy or fungous, and often bear features that are less squiddish or octopoid than the average Lovecraft knockoff. They are frightening, but not disgusting.

Whatever form they take, Del Toro’s creatures are rarely repulsive, and often attractive.

The Shape of Water is about the romance between a human being and a Del Toro creature. The creature in this case, referred to only as “the Asset,” is an aquatic humanoid from somewhere in the Amazon. He is built like a male model, but covered in scales and fins, and is oddly segmented, with large, strange eyes. Like every other Del Toro creation, it’s a work of art.

For Elisa, the mute cleaning lady who works in the government lab where the Asset is kept, it is even more than that. Over the course of the movie, she shares eggs with it, plays music for it, and teaches it sign language. She dances for it from the other side of the glass. The bond is clearly mutual, and she is devastated when she discovers how cruelly it is being treated, and the fate that is in store for it. She rescues him, lets him live in her apartment bathtub, and their friendship blossoms into a romance—one that is eventually consummated in what ought to be a few very off-putting scenes.

Setting aside for the moment the idea of having sex with an Amazonian fish-person, the fact that Del Toro really did manage to pull off this inhuman romance is significant. This was love between a human being and something that was incredibly other.

A number of Lovecraft commentators have, along with Lovecraft himself, said that the most primal fear mankind has is the fear of the unknown. That which we don’t know is somehow supposed to be frightening, to be unsettling, to be something we would destroy rather than face. Del Toro calls bull on this, and he’s right to do so.

Humanity frequently loves the strange, the other, the unknown. We are attracted to the exotic, the new, the different. We love travelers’ tales and fantasy stories, tales of the distant future or the distant past, or of some far-off kingdom in a land not quite like our own.

The moment capitalism gave us the opportunity, we ditched homestyle fare in favor of a dozen different foreign cuisines—and now pizza, tacos, General Tso’s, and all the rest are a central part of the American diet.

One complaint about the portrayal of certain ethnicities in film is the way they are made exotic and sexualized in that context—that is, we look for the ways they are different rather than the same, because difference attracts us. And of course, most of humanity is attracted to a particular kind of strange and exotic anyways—the opposite sex.

There is something to be said here about religion, too. While it is true that we have generally portrayed gods in anthropomorphic ways, this is always qualified by their unearthly attributes—whether that is merely size, strength, and beauty, or the unsettling powers they have over aspects of reality. As often as not, we portray the gods as animal or half-animal. The very notion of worship is based around the fundamental strangeness of the divine—here is a thing different from myself, strange and other, and far more powerful than I. I must adore it.

Lovecraft, a homebody, a racist, and a bachelor for most of his life, did not often get this love of the other, but certain fantasy writers do. One of the first real fantasy books I read, the one that got me into this lifelong obsession, was Song in the Silence by Elizabeth Kerner. In it, the protagonist travels over a vast sea to a dangerous island in search of a legend—dragons. She wants to see something and befriend something that is sentient, but that is not human. The driving force of the story is that she has a powerful desire to see and know the Other.

The Shape of Water understands this, as do many other of Del Toro’s stories. Rather than recoil in fright or disgust when we encounter the other, Del Toro’s design asks us to marvel at it, to enjoy it. His characters will learn to love such creatures, to trust them, to befriend them. He takes the unsettling cosmic horror, and turns it into an appearance of the Fair Folk—strange, but also beautiful.

 

True Violence

 

There is, however, a dark side to Del Toro.

Del Toro movies aren’t shoot-‘em-ups. They’re not violent in that sense. The more free rein he’s given, the less a gun is fired. But when a gun is fired, it’s sickening.

Hollywood has given modern people the ability to see violence over and over, but not to feel it. We know it’s acting, and we know the “movie magic” will be undone when the scene is cut and the dead extras rise again and walk offstage to visit craft services. Often, we barely see what happens to bad guys that are killed onscreen—a motion is made in their direction, and they fall. It is less important to know what exactly happened to them than whether the good guy neutralized them. This is not violence, it’s playing a game where you can tag out members of the other team.

But Del Toro portrays movie violence as violence. The first violent scene in the movie comes when a man’s fingers are bit off. We see the stumps and the blood spurting from them, see his pale, shocked face, watch him collapse. This is our antagonist—he’s supposed to be intimidating. But the non-fatal and non-crippling wound is shown as profoundly painful, and his lifeblood spills out everywhere. Soon after, we find his fingers, and they are placed in a brown paper lunch bag for transportation. He later comments on this, as a condiment got on them. They are reattached, and we watch for the rest of the movie as the character waits for them either to get better or to rot and have to be removed.

Other scenes of violence are equally torturous. We get a disturbingly humorous introduction to a cattle prod, and then we see it pressed into the Asset’s flesh repeatedly a few scenes later. I say “pressed” because you can see his skin actually pushed in, not merely contacted, and you have to wonder if he is being cut by the prod as much as he is being electrocuted by it. Where another movie might show us a few zaps and leave it at that, having communicated the fact that the Asset is in pain, Del Toro lets it go on, again and again, driving home the cruelty and the degree of suffering. “You will not enjoy this or shrug this off,” he seems to say, “You will understand what it does to the creature.”

Guns in his universe are not point-and-click instruments that remove an inconvenient opposition. They leave entry and exit wounds. If these wounds are punched in a cheek, a finger can go through them, and you can drag the bleeding person along in excruciating pain. If placed elsewhere, there will be plenty of blood, and it will spread rather than merely streaming down a single channel. It will get everywhere and it will stain. And still the victim will not be dead. Guns are cruel, and Del Toro will make you aware of the fact.

Though violence is hardly supernatural, I do think this is one of the most Lovecraftian elements in Del Toro’s work. The way he uses it tells us that the universe is not a kind place. Cruel, bad things happen, and they happen suddenly and irrevocably. Once they happen, there will be time to contemplate them, to experience the pain. It will not be easy. The universe does not care for your feelings. Violence happens, and it is not good.

But violence does not get the last word in a Del Toro film, and that’s another thing that makes it a strikingly distinct than Lovecraft’s cosmic horror.

 

The Misfits of the World

 

“All us freaks have is each other.”

The quote comes from Hellboy, but it’s applicable here, too. The protagonists are a who’s-who of marginalized groups—a “differently abled” Hispanic woman, a black woman, a gay man, and, depending on how sympathetically you read him, a communist. They stand in contrast to a white, heterosexual, American male antagonist with a wife and two kids who lives in the suburbs, wears a suit, and is trying desperately to be “upwardly mobile.” The most ridiculously stereotypical “normal” American against the most ridiculously stereotypical collection of “not normal” Americans.

A certain sector of Twitter has done a lot of eye-rolling at this, and with good reason. On the face of it, it’s ham-handed and clichéd, and is definitely trying to score political points. It also requires zero sacrifice on the part of the filmmakers, challenging absolutely nothing about the world they live in. Since when is Hollywood a bastion of middle-class, heterosexual, monogamous, family-centered, anti-blaspheming, straight-laced, suburban, patriotic conservatism? The Oscars have been described as a series of lectures on sexual ethics from the people who protected Weinstein. The Shape of Water does nothing to undermine that image.

But set aside the politics for a moment. The idea of the marginalized winning instead of the mainstream is a classic trope of fairytales and folk stories, and even of the Biblical narrative. Whether it’s cobblers or seventh sons or scullery maids, fairy tales are full of the most unexpected people being the ones who save the kingdom, and often who end up ruling it, alongside whatever prince or princess that met along the way.

The kind of misfits Del Toro chooses for his heroines and heroes may often tell you exactly what decades of Hollywood the guy has been working in, but the particular kinds of misfits are less important than the fact that they are misfits. Del Toro portrays a world where horrible violence happens, where humanity’s place in the universe is not as central as we thought it was, and yet in the end the little guy is the one who wins. The underdog comes out on top. His world is the world of fairy tales.

 

God or Monster?

 

The Shape of Water revolves around the Asset.

The Asset is vulnerable. He can be captured, chained, and beaten. He bleeds. He needs food to survive, and if the chemical properties of the water he lives in are not properly maintained, he suffocates and begins to die.

The Asset is not all-wise or all-knowing. He does not know Elisa’s intentions to begin with, and he is slow in learning sign language. Music is a novelty to him, and cats are strange and frightening. At one point, Elisa tries to tell him how she feels, and he doesn’t even notice. He is busy eating his eggs, as indifferent as a housecat.

The Asset, it seems, is not a god.

But the Asset is a god. He was worshiped by the natives of the Amazon. Brought back to Elisa’s apartment, he his capable of healing wounds and restoring youth, in a limited form. He shines with a strange and otherworldly light, and it is uncertain whether this is an emotional reaction or a sign that power is flowing out of him. And finally, when killed, he is revived. When others are killed, he can revive them. He can even change the very nature of a being into something new.

Part of Lovecraft’s project is to destroy our notion of the distinction between gods and aliens, gods and monsters. Religion, science, magic—they are all the same in Lovecraft’s world. They are simply different names for our interaction with the unknown, and what we call that unknown, whether we think it is divine or demonic, is irrelevant. It is simply Other.

In the same way, Del Toro breaks down the distinction between god and monster with the Asset, and with many of his other creatures. He is not concerned with a simple binary of good-by-nature or evil-by-nature, nor is he concerned with the ultimate structure of the universe and anything that is truly, transcendently Divine. He is concerned only with the wide and wild variety of beings that may live in a universe as strange and vast as ours, each with its own limitations, but whose limitations are far different from our own.

 

A Fairy Tale Ending

 

Del Toro’s stories are, from start to finish, a fairy tale spin on Lovecraft’s cosmic horror. We encounter the Other, and learn that our place in this cold, uncaring, indifferent universe is far from secure. But instead of destroying us or driving us insane, the Other offers us a chance at redemption, at escape from tragedy or at achieving some dream we never thought was truly possible. The universe these two authors live in is metaphysically the same, but their outlook on it is not. For Del Toro, there is a chance of a happy ending.

I find this strange and interesting and human. Lovecraft insists that a world where we don’t matter in the grand scheme of things must be horrible. He yearned for order, and when he did not find it, he was disturbed. But Del Toro is an anarchist, and a liberal. He believes in individual freedom, in the ability of individuals to create their own meaning, their own dreams, and to pursue them to the end of the line.

A world that is cosmically indifferent is, by definition, not hostile to humanity. Lovecraft was so caught up in the horror, that his stories reflected a world where, in practice, the Other is hostile. Del Toro recognizes that while the Other may indeed be hostile, it is just as possible that it might find a reason to help us, or at least refrain from hurting us. And so Del Toro can have a fairy tale ending.

Ultimately I can’t agree with either perspective. I don’t believe the cosmos is essentially disordered and meaningless, or that we have no special place within it, although I would agree that we’re definitely not at the center of things. But if the cosmos really were indifferent, I think Del Toro’s take is probably the healthier and more accurate one. In a world that does not care one way or the other, why not take a chance and see if it will side with us? If anything, that desire is certainly more human.

Regardless, Del Toro’s cosmic fairy stories a great deal more fun to watch than Lovecraft’s cosmic horror is to read.

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Lovecraft’s Ancient Aliens

I

            Imagine a humanity alone in the universe. Imagine millions, even billions of years of evolution, struggling up from the slime that served as the cradle of some long-forgotten microbe, through countless eons of birth, reproduction, and death. Seas rise and fall. Continents shift. Meteors strike. Climate changes. Over the drifting generations we have ventured from sea to land, from land, perhaps, to the trees, and from the trees to the African savannah. We learned to hunt and gather. We learned to sow and reap. Cities were built, gods were worshipped, empires rose and fell. Through the long climb of progress, up through shifts in culture and technological innovations, we at last arrive at modern man. Our satellites sway in orbit, our telescopes look out at the stars. All our struggles, our pains and sorrows, the countless lost memories and forgotten lifetimes, and the end of every life, has all come to this.

And we are—utterly—alone.

All that we strove for, every empire and every nation, has ended in the dust. All of our great men have died, and though we know their works, they now know nothing. We have come as close to utopia as technology can take us, but still we fight, still we war, still we find reasons to suffer. All our gods, all the long history of great temples, enormous idols of stone, of gold, wreathed in diamonds and fine garments, of bloody sacrifice, all that has come to nothing. Even our gods were temporary, just another delusion on the road through history.

So stood the evolutionary naturalist in 1959. So stand many today. But in 1960, that all began to change. Before we go there, however, let us return for a moment to Lovecraft.

At the Mountains of Madness brought us a strange vision of the ages that lie behind us. Somewhere in the geologically distant past, a race of aliens came out of the stars. They landed here, and found this planet to their liking. So they began to seed it. They created every kind of life: animal, vegetable, and things in between. Among these countless experiments were our ape ancestors. It was their act of creation that brought us to life, their purposes that animated us. In a very real sense, they gave us meaning. And for Lovecraft, of course, that whole meaning was a cruel joke.

In another of Lovecraft’s stories, which will receive more attention later, he adds to this picture. The Call of Cthulhu tells of an alien being made of a material we are to primitive to understand. Its powers lie beyond our comprehension, as far beyond our abilities as the Elder Things were above our simian ancestors. This thing, by its power, by the long memories of our race, and by the traces of the civilization it once ruled, reaches out and leaves an indelible mark on our consciousness. Those who know him, worship him as a god. For, in comparison to us, what else could he be?

Lovecraft returns to this theme of gods and creators from beyond the stars time and again. His fiction constantly drives at the point that mankind is not at the center of universe, that far stranger things may be far greater than us. But when he wrote those stories, he could not have foreseen the effects his fiction would have. This idea, the idea of a race of godlike aliens that came to the Earth in ancient times and created either our species, or much of our culture, gripped the minds of generations.

II

            By 1959, Lovecraft’s writings, never mainstream, had fallen from what brief popularity they had enjoyed. Few had heard of that master of horror, and his stories held no great place in the public consciousness. There were two, however, who had heard of him.

Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier were two Frenchmen with a penchant for the occult. Both had lived through the Second World War. Bergier had actually participated in the French Resistance, and his work there may be an interesting tale in itself. They met in Paris, in 1954. In 1960, they published a collaboration that would change the world.

The Morning of the Magicians, as it is known in English, was a broad survey of a variety of conspiracy theories and occult topics. It was structured in an unconventional manner, and written in a personal tone. Louis and Jacques led their readers through a tour of issues as broad as ancient alchemists’ knowledge of the atom, the influence of German occultism on the Nazi party, and the Nazca lines. Most important of all, they made the suggestion that the Earth had hosted ancient civilizations founded by an alien race, and their influence had enormous effects on the development of humanity.

In the following year, they began to publish a magazine responsible for, among other things, bringing Lovecraft back into the cultural awareness of French audiences.

III

            The Morning of the Magicians cast forth a wide sphere of influence in the early sixties, reaching the UK in 1963, and the United States in 1964. The burgeoning counterculture took hold of many of the ideas it suggested, bringing an air of the esoteric into the movement. It was not the English translations which were most important, however, but the German edition of 1962. This found its way into the library of Swiss man by the name of Erich von Daniken.

In 1968, von Daniken published a book titled, “Chariots of the Gods?” His work drew heavily on that of Pauwels and Bergier, but had a tighter focus. It called the reader’s attention to artifacts throughout the world whose creation was far beyond the powers one might easily ascribe to primitive man. He pointed to the pyramids, to Stonehenge, to the Piri Reis map and the Nazca lines. He wrote of ancient myths, of legends handed down over centuries. He reminded his audience of the cargo cults of the South Pacific, how stone age tribes had mistaken modern sailors and airmen for gods. It all pointed towards one conclusion.

At some point in the past, beings from the stars had visited the Earth. They bestowed gifts on us: technology, information, and ideas that could have been gotten nowhere else. And we had remembered them as gods.

At first, the book had little impact outside of circles already interested in the paranormal. Even there it produced few notable shockwaves. But in 1973, von Daniken had a stroke of luck. His book was picked up by Alan Landsburg, who called on his friend, Rod Serling, of Twilight Zone fame, and got him to narrate a new documentary. In Search of Ancient Astronauts was broadcast to millions of American homes in 1973, introducing the ancient aliens hypothesis to mainstream pop culture. The documentary became a series, hosted Leonard Nimoy, which would help sustain a growing subculture of people interested in the paranormal.

IV

            This hypothesis, rooted, it would seem, in the fiction of Lovecraft, would go on to have a long life. The Stargate universe owes its existence to the idea, as do various Doctor Who plotlines, much of the X-Files mytharc, the attempted revival of Indiana Jones, Alien vs. Predator, and Prometheus. It also forms the plot of the often overlooked Hanger 18, a little gem my grandparents have in their movie library as a result of it being filmed in a town they spent a lot of years in. It’s worth watching, and rumor has it there’s a MST3K episode of it out there.

The idea not only impacted the world of fiction, but also found a home in many new religious movements. New Age beliefs have always looked to the stars, hoping for enlightenment, or interstellar saviors. While not every UFO religion can be credited to von Daniken’s influence, his work certainly helped create the culture in which such ideas were thinkable.

Return again to that lonely evolutionary naturalist. Now he looks out at the stars and can see more than empty space. He sees the houses of his neighbors, perhaps even the long-forgotten home of our race. Looking back at the gods of our past, he is no longer disillusioned. Instead, he is inspired, for in those gods he sees friendly visitors, or distant relations from a far nobler stock than the ape-men he once called his ancestors.

In a strange twist of fate, Lovecraft’s horror literature, meant to dethrone mankind from the center of the cosmos, has given them a new place in it. Instead of terror at the vastness of the black unknown, he has given them something new. He has given them new connections, transcending the short memory of our petty nations and the thin heavens of our fragile earth. He has given them a past. He has given them friends. He has given them hope.

It is strange what may grow from the well-placed seeds of a myth.

 

Jason Colavito first made the connection between H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction and the ancient aliens hypothesis in popular culture. The majority of the preceding story can be found in his article here, originally published in Skeptic, or in far more detail in the book which he wrote afterwards.

Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian

The Hyborian Age—where all the women were supple and all the men had mighty thews.

The world of Conan is a riot of wildly diverse races, cultures, and civilizations. Roman-inspired troops fight pseudo-Egyptians, there are echoes of Babylon and Persia, grim Celto-Germans, fearsome steppe nomads, and Picts that more closely resemble a caricature of native Americans than ancient British tribes. Speaking of native Americans, there are Aztecs too, or perhaps Mayans, though considering one of their number is named “Olmec,” it’s hard to tell. An Iranistan resembling old Orientalist legends of the Ottoman Empire butts up against a desert filled with Cossacks and a distant pseudo-India. The Far East is out there somewhere, and the jungles, plains, and deserts of “the Black Kingdoms.”

This incoherent mix of cultures from every era and part of the world is engaged in a constant struggle for survival, where only the mightiest races can survive. And race is very key in the story. If you cut Howard, he bleeds with that old style of Darwinian racism that is no longer in vogue among scientifically minded progressives. The darker the skin, the more savage—usually—the person. Peoples’ characters are defined by their bloodlines, genetics having a strange amount of weight in an otherwise Nietzschean, will-centered story universe.

The overall effect is an intriguing one. Are Aquilonians Roman or high medieval France? How did a Mesoamerican people sprout out of what appears to be Egyptian stock? Are the Egypt-inspired Stygian sorcerers actually any different from the Shemite villains Conan meets elsewhere? Are the Cimmerians Celts, or Germans, or Scythians, or something else altogether? What is the difference between the black men whose race makes them little more than animals in Conan’s sight, and the black men Conan is willing to call his friends?

This wild riot is intriguing. There’s always something new—if not terribly so—and each piece of the puzzle is just suggestive enough to make you want to fit them all together, to form a coherent view of Conan’s world. At every turn, however, you are confronted with contradictory bits of information, or some strange new problem that destroys the picture you thought was coming into view. Still, the fruitlessness of the exercise does not diminish its effect. With each new story, you are drawn into the world and wondering at every new and exotic person, city, custom, or creature that comes around the corner.

While Howard’s Darwinian racism is more central to his stories, and expressed in far more violent outbursts than in those of his friend, H. P. Lovecraft, it is qualified in an interesting way. Though Conan looks down in contempt at so many peoples for being uncivilized and barbaric, barbarism is clearly something both Conan and his creator admire. There is something more primal and more excellent about a wild man, a barbarian, a wolf in human form, than in the soft folk of more civilized stock. It is always the city folk who are the first to die, and one particular story makes it startlingly clear that all civilization goes this way. In Conan’s world, the natural state of man is wild barbarism, barely elevated above the animals. That is the place where human excellence thrives, and all civilization must ultimately bow before this fact as it is swept away in the sands of time and only the strong, the wild, the primitive remains. In such a world, how seriously can we take the supposed inferiority of Pictish hordes or Afghuli tribesmen?

Conan himself is an interesting puzzle. Like Superman, he’s impossible to beat, but he is far more cynical than that golden-age American hero. The only law he recognizes is survival, the only good he knows is the pleasure of his own belly—supple women, power, and gold. Indeed, the coldly predatory way he sometimes treats women is shocking, despite Howard’s unwillingness to cross certain lines or his studied avoidance of any entirely explicit sexual content. Conan is a creature powered largely by his lizard brain, made unstoppable by the might of his arm and his rough upbringing in the hills of Cimmeria.

Then again, Conan sometimes does make a moral choice. He saves a woman rather than treasure, goes back to save a newly-met traveling companion rather than fleeing to safety. Sometimes this is waved away with a cynical comment about how it was in his own self-interest in a roundabout way, or the careless acknowledgment that risking his neck like that was a poor choice, one he probably will not repeat. But sometimes it seems like Conan is developing human qualities that have little to do with the primitive pleasure-centers of his brain. There might be some character hiding under all the raw barbarian muscle.

The Lovecraft connection really cannot be ignored. Nods are given to that mythos, certainly, but they share a larger underlying logic. Lovecraft sets out in his work to tear down man’s presumptuously anthropocentric view of the universe. He does so by introducing his characters to inhuman beings of great antiquity, of vast power, and who little notice or care what happens to feeble humankind. Entire civilizations struggled up from the slime before us, many dwell beside us, and many more will outlive us. We are less than a footnote in the annals of cosmic history.

Howard also takes a crack at our anthropocentric presuppositions, but from another point of view. Rather than drawing attention to what gods or monsters might exist beyond the limits of our knowledge—though they certainly do exist in this world—Howard draws attention to our own continuity with the forms of life below us. All too often, Conan stumbles across a race of men that look and act a little too apelike. At other times, he runs across apes that act far too human. Conan himself is often said to have more in common with a jungle dragon or a wild wolf than he does with civilized men. He even knows the name and sign of a god the animals worship but man has long forgotten. Always we are reminded that men are merely beasts, and beasts may be more cunning, or stronger, than men. After all, many races of man have little more intelligence than the apes from which they are descended. The illusion that we are special is constantly dashed.

This is why racism is so prominent in Conan’s world. It’s the entire point. Man is just another beast in the struggle for survival. At any point he is arising from another species of ape, or diverging along two evolutionary paths. Just as the Atlanteans once overcame the other stocks of men in their world, and the Hyborians overcame the new races of men after the Cataclysm, so the “sons of Aryas” will soon wipe out what is left of Conan’s world and a new stock of human will come to dominate the surface of the planet—an event of far less consequence than such a creature might think. History is nothing but a succession of species eliminating its competitors and spreading its seed.

That, by the way, also makes the religion of the Hyborian world a far more brutal thing than in many other settings. There is no reverence among the followers of the gods, except on the part of the weak minded and easily killed. One might expect religion to be a superstition in this world, but it is not. No, the gods exist, but they are just another form of life, one more powerful than man, one that might be persuaded to help him if given the right incentive. The gods of Conan’s age are things to be cynically bartered with in acts barely distinguishable from either the summoning of a demon or the hiring of a mercenary. They are far from holy.

This is what makes the Conan movie so very different from these stories. The racism is toned far down, and the gods, though hardly treated with reverence, do not figure as hugely or as savagely in the darkness behind their sorcerous servants as they do in Howard’s originals. Where the written Conan is essentially an escapist fantasy where we get to follow the ubermensch around as his slays, lays, and plunders his way across an exoticized version of our own past, the film is a more sensitive treatment of the riddle of steel, of man’s heart and will and strength. It also asks Conan what is best in life—and wants you to seriously consider the answer as the film proceeds. While Howard’s stories certainly have some deep themes, it is rare that he explores them so philosophically. He sees, perhaps, far less meaning in life than the filmmakers, and far less wisdom to be gained from contemplating it.

Overall, the original Conan the Barbarian stories are quite a diverting smattering of adventures. Though the language gets a bit repetitive and the world never quite coheres, the zest with which Conan engages his world, the thrill of combat, of survival in dire circumstances, the wonder of strange lands—all can keep the reader spellbound for hours at a time. While I wouldn’t want to spend entire novels in this world, the occasional vacation there is enjoyable. It’s not hard to see how it inspired so many imitators and retellings. It’s quite the ride. Particularly “Beyond the Black River.”

 

Conan’s hand fell heavily on her naked shoulder.
“Stand aside, girl,” he mumbled. “Now is the feasting of swords.”

Marvel, the Gods, and Atheism

Marvel has a tense theology. Let’s lay some quick groundwork before tackling it.

One of the fundamental principles of classical monotheism is the Creator-creature distinction. Imagine a bubble. Inside is all of time and space from beginning to end. At one end of the bubble is the first domino ever knocked over, and all of reality ripples out from that first action, that first moment of creation.

Now, standing outside the bubble, outside of time and space and the chain of causality and reality as we can understand it, is the Creator. The Creator caused everything else to exist, and caused it to exist in the way it exists. But the Creator himself stands outside of that bubble of spacetime. Nothing made him exist. He just exists because that is what he does. He is the uncaused cause, the unmoved mover. Among other things.

In a monotheistic universe, all of reality is shaped by the personality and by the will of the Creator. To a very great extent, everything is just mimicking what Dad does. Each thing’s meaning is defined by the meaning he gave it, and its purpose by the intensions he has for it. And because he authored it all, he has authority over it.

In the Marvel universe, and in the imagination of those who deny any such being standing outside and independent of spacetime, this is not so. Puny mortals, superheroes, and gods all exist on a spectrum. There is no fundamental distinction between them.

Take Spiderman. Spiderman has superhuman sense, superhuman reflexes, and cool web-shooters. Your average Joe might be tempted to think his powers were supernatural, even godlike. But set him next to Thor, and there’s no comparison. Thor’s got mojo. He is so clearly godlike in comparison to Peter Parker, earthlings actually worship him. But set him next to Jean Grey (a.k.a. Phoenix), and again, there’s no comparison. So what if Thor is really strong and can fly? So what if he apparently lives for eons? Phoenix is more powerful than death itself. She controls space, she controls time, and she controls the thoughts inside a person’s mind, given a good excuse. Can most of the gods of classical paganism claim that?

And that’s why Joss Whedon’s refusal to let the Avengers bow before Loki makes sense. Sure, he’s a “god,” relatively speaking. He’s got oomph. He has power. But fundamentally he’s no different than any other creature zooming around the Marvel universe. Under the right set of circumstances, he can have all that taken away. Under the right set of circumstances—say, acquiring the Infinity Gauntlet—a puny human as klutzy and awkward and harebrained as Peter Quill might become top dog in the universe. The difference between one Marvel character and another is just degrees of power, which can be won or lost. There’s no real difference in kind.

And that’s why Captain America’s offhand remark that there’s only one God is such a big freaking deal. Perhaps Joss and the producers meant it as an offhand funny remark from a charmingly out-of-date super-patriot, but it has major implications. If Captain America believes that there is still a real God, a transcendent God, someone who stands outside of the bubble and stands as Lord of the whole shebang and judge of the actions of the Avengers and those around them—that changes everything.

In a world where the chain of being is all there is, there’s no reason for Iron Man or Thor or anybody else not to play with morality. There’s no reason they shouldn’t cross a line to get things done, let a few people die in order to save the world. Break a few eggs to make an omelet. The ends justify the means. It all comes down to what you think the greater good is and what you think you can get away with. Besides, if the other guy is bigger than you, and you let something as petty as your qualms about personal freedoms, or the sanctity of life, or whatever else get in your way, you’re going to regret it. There’s no room for that in the big leagues.

But if there is a just God standing outside of that chain of being, then you might be held accountable to him. The ends do not necessarily justify the means. Superheroes do not get a blank check and a free pass when they run around destroying cities or overthrowing democratically elected governments. There is a judge who will see justice done in the long run, and you are not him. And you might guess where I’m going with this.

Marvel’s Civil War plotline is ultimately about this question. In the grand scheme of things, are there limits to the authority of the guys with the supersuits and magic powers? Are they to be held to the standards of common mortals? Is there a God standing outside the universe who presides over the destinies of planets and the fates of the Avengers, or is it all a conflict between different degrees of power in a mechanistic cosmos? If the former, let’s put some brakes on Tony Stark. If the latter… maybe we leave the tough calls up to him. After all, he’s bigger.

Before I bring this in for a landing, let’s bring in another fictional universe. This is why H.P. Lovecraft, the materialist par excellence, is so comfortable with a universe filled with so many gods. The line between atheism and polytheism isn’t one that separates two fundamentally different mythologies. It’s just a question of terminology. If you believe that the world is one vast uncaring void, then maybe some small creatures the universe doesn’t care about worship other, larger creatures the universe also doesn’t care about. The gods of a polytheistic universe aren’t deities in any ultimate or transcendent sense, but they sure do look like it compared to the ants walking around beneath them. The Christian—or Muslim, or Jewish—disbelief in the gods of polytheism is simply nothing like the atheist’s or some polytheists’ disbelief in the Creator God.

And that is why Captain America can still not believe in pagan gods, even after hanging out with one.