Category Archives: wordsmithing

The ethics of writing

While talking about the ethics of representation with a professor of mine, he asked me, “Look, let’s say you get drunk and then decide to drive home. You know you’re not supposed to do it, but you do, and on the way, you fall asleep behind the wheel and crash into a tree.

“You’ll get out of the tree, say, ‘Oh my God, thank goodness it’s just a tree,’ and feel relieved. You’ll have to pay a fine, maybe get a DUI, and you’ll have to pay for repairs, but in ten years, it will probably be a funny story you tell in ten years.

“But let’s say instead of hitting a tree, you hit a person. Suddenly, you feel a whole lot worse and you won’t be telling it as a funny story.

“So the question is, what are you basing your reaction on? The ethics of the action or the ethics of the consequence? Because in both cases, you did the same thing — you got drunk and lost control of your body while driving. But the consequences are very different and out of your control.”

This made me pause. In our culture, we like to think we judge people on the ethics of the action, regardless of consequences. You should not avoid stealing because you might get caught, but because the action of stealing itself is unethical. However, in the two cases of hypothetical drunk driving, our reactions are drastically different (either as the actor or the viewer) because of the consequences, despite the initial action being identical.

Anthropology is obsessed with ethics, mostly because what we do (learning about and then representing people) can have widespread and powerful effects. Anthropology has helped bring awareness to the plight of those who are brutally oppressed by powerful structures and figures, but also used to justify those same powerful structures and figures (such as European colonialism or racism). Therefore, we take our ethics very seriously. We try to do as little harm and as much good as possible.

But, as my professor noted, the consequences of our actions are usually completely out of our control. I may take painstaking action to act as ethically as possible while performing fieldwork and writing an ethnography, which someone may then use for less-than-ethical, even maliciously diabolical purposes. What can I do? Was the decision I made to write that ethnography unethical because of the consequences? Or am I absolved of fault because my own action was motivated and carried out with ethical precision (if that’s even possible)?

Of course, ethics is much messier than this, which is why I seem to be grappling with a constant headache these days. Since I’ve especially decided to start pushing myself, challenging my traditional, pre-conceived notions of what a “proper” ethnography is supposed to look like, my advisors and mentors just shrug and say, “We can’t tell you how to do anything anymore. You’ll have to figure it out yourself.” But, by the way, what you do or not do can have widespread, powerful effects for good or for evil on the people you study, or maybe even some other group you didn’t even think about. No pressure. Don’t inadvertently start a genocide. It’ll make our school look bad and funding might be harder to come by in the future.

In the end, you do what you can, and you try the best you can. Nobody imagined, especially J.D. Salinger himself, that Mark David Chapman would use The Catcher in the Rye as his “statement” after killing John Lennon. And surely, we won’t hold J.D. Salinger culpable or complicit in the tragedy. But at the same time, how do you grapple with it? If Roland Barthes is right, every time you write something, a little part of your commits suicide. No wonder so many writers decide to eventually finish the job their writing started. Ethics, writing, and representation is a dirty, messy business. 


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Slaying Shakespeare’s Holofernes with a series of tubes (and cat pictures)

“Don’t be humiliated by dinosaurs into thinking yourself inferior because you can’t spell broccoli or moccasins. Just let the words fly from your lips and your pen. Give them rhythm and depth and height and silliness. Give them filth and form and noble stupidity. Words are free and all words, light and frothy, firm and sculpted as they may be, bear the history of their passage from lip to lip over thousands of years. How they feel to us now tells us whole stories of our ancestors.”
– Stephen Fry


During our morning commute, my wife and I discussed – what else? – internet memes, because we are those kinds of people, I guess. I mentioned how a friend on Facebook wrote a status asking anybody else if they have also felt the feeling of reinvigorating enthusiasm in an art they had long become complacent in. I left a reply with a picture of Pikachu patting a Caterpie on the back with the caption, “I know that feel bro,” because I am that kind of person, I guess.

I proceeded to tell my wife how “I know that feel bro” is one of my new all-time favorite Internet memes, how it seemed to perfectly encompass that feeling of deep resonance with someone else’s obstacles, plights, or victories. I struggled to capture the words in describing this to my wife, when she patted me on the knee and told me straight-faced, “I know that feel, bro.”

This is why I love my wife.

But on to more meme-ish matters, what about “I know that feel bro” captures my heart so? A lot of people have complained that the Internet has broken English, and no better place to see this than the battlefield known as Internet memes, wherein lies a hundred thousand million broken letters, words, phrases, and sentences, where weapons of mass grammatical destruction are deployed on a regular basis. Or, that is how the pedants wish to portray the state of the English language on the vast plane we call the Interwebs. But I would beg to differ.

What is it about terribly written English and the Internet? One cannot blame simple ignorance – while the leakage of Internet memes into places like Facebook have certainly diluted the demographics, for a while now, the vast majority of people who created memes were 20-30 years old and educated, if not a bit cynical as a whole and underachieving. The use of broken English may have originated in the first of the memes – cat photos with captions – because the idea of a cat (and, subsequently, dogs, frogs, penguins, and honey badgers) mastering the English language is only slightly more absurd than their daily adventures and mishaps. But there is something joyful, even pleasurable, in manipulating the English language, in breaking it and bending it and reshaping it to fit your own whims. This activity is what poets have enjoyed for centuries.

In a way, the Internet has become a collective Shakespeare, not that epics of masterful insight into the human condition are regularly produced from the keyboards of a million bloggers (though the Internet has certainly produced some epic things, see also: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, The Guild, the product descriptions, et al). Rather, the Internet collectively imitates arguably Shakespeare’s most lasting legacy on the English language – the popularization of completely made-up words. Some words he just mashed together, some he stole and bastardized from other languages, and others he just made up completely. That’s the kind of English maverick he was. He didn’t care about the current rules; he broke the rules constantly and made you like it.[1]

But back to the Internet – over the course of a decade, it’s spawned a cavalcade of new words. Email, for example, or log on, blog, and (shudder) webinar. But the meme community has also spawned some very sticky catchphrases that have, (perhaps) against all odds, conquered the general American English landscape. Perhaps most noticeable is the word “fail,” once a verb, now nouned into existence (often found with the superlative “epic” attached to it). This new usage of the word “fail” has become the new “-gate” for many journalists (think goodness). Even people who have only a perfunctory access to the Internet are familiar with the term. And now, as memes continue its expanding pervasiveness, an entire generation of high school students now say things out loud like “I can has x?” or “y all the z!” or “like a sir” or “why you no x!” Even popular phrases such as “true story”, “I lied!” or “oh God why” have taken on new meaning thanks to the Internet memes of the world.

Yes, some people will look at this as some wholesale genocide against the English language, but I would counter that the pure joy and appeal of using such phrases is its subversive nature against the English language. People began employing terrible English because they well understood the rules of language. It’s why turns of phrase like “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” or “The play’s the thing, to catch the conscience of the king” or “Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try” tickle the fancies of English lovers everywhere. These sentences bend and break the general syntax structure; they play with grammar and vocabulary and connotations of words. They defy general expectations of what English is supposed to look and sound like. And that’s why poorly written English memes have become so popular as well.

Sure, over time, the memes will lose their punch and soon people will use them as everyday language, even when they don’t understand where the phrase derived its meaning, or why it was so popular in the first place. Many of Shakespeare’s manipulations and innovations within the English language are also duly employed by many everyday English speakers everywhere without a second thought to their originator. Many strange phrases in English are like that, such as “turn of phrase” or “bee’s knees” or “between a rock and a hard place,” employed by many, its history and implications understood only by a few. That’s the way English evolves.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Internet memes is the accidental nature of it all. I doubt that the very first person to utilize the nounified version of the word “fail” did it deliberately, savoring in the delicious, poetic deviance of it all. In fact, this very popular usage most likely was born out of ignorance or, ha, an English fail. But the English speaking community in turn appropriated it for their own as a flagship of Internet speak, if you will, a dialect that created a sense of identity and belonging that mutated into a widely popular new usage of a very old word. The War on English that the Internet is waging (which many assert is happening) is not necessarily a wave of barbarians beating on the Hadrian’s Wall of the English-speaking Rome (this metaphor just got weird). Rather, it is the age-old war between dialects, a verbal rebellion against the authorities-that-be who seek to control and preserve language for their own purposes while rarely understanding why.

But sweeping, romantic linguistic ideology aside, if anything, the vast popularity of the Internet meme (and its ability to invade the English langauge offline) has proved the old adage that a million monkeys typing on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the works of William Shakespeare. While, perhaps, we have not seen the exact wording of Shakespeare produced by the incessant pounding of a billion bloggers at their keyboards, we have seen the spirit of Shakespeare and his adventurous, subversive use of the English language emerge from the ruthless environment of billions of memes competing against each other until the very best (or, at the very least, the most infectious) rise to the top and proliferate into our language. It is, you could say, an almost beautiful accidental poetry.


[1] In fact, that’s how you could term all of Shakespeare’s career – a giant love affair with the English language. In his first play, Love’s Labours Lost, he fires the warning shots with the character Holofernes, a side act for the main story, involving a bunch of over-educated pedants dicussing the English language and how horrible everyone is and how awesome they are. Holofernes, the most pretentious of them all, talking about someone else’s English speaking:

He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer
than the staple of his argument. I abhor such
fanatical phantasimes, such insociable and
point-devise companions; such rackers of
orthography, as to speak dout, fine, when he should
say doubt; det, when he should pronounce debt,–d,
e, b, t, not d, e, t: he clepeth a calf, cauf;
half, hauf; neighbour vocatur nebor; neigh
abbreviated ne. This is abhominable,–which he
would call abbominable: it insinuateth me of
insanie: anne intelligis, domine? to make frantic, lunatic.

The true irony (which Shakespeare may or may not have intended) is that Holofernes’ practice of pronouncing the ‘b’ in ‘debt’ and so forth have fallen mostly out of favor, even though he would swear up and down until he was blue in the face that we are mangling the English language. Such is the way language goes.


Filed under wordsmithing

A (humorous) meditation on death, loss, and fatherhood at two in the morning

It sounded like a cross between gagging for air and a forced, scratchy cry. My wife and I immediately jumped out of bed, sprinting towards the baby’s room. We flung upon the door and snapped on the lights. My wife pulls my son out of the crib. Normally a heavy sleeper, he is completely motionless.

“No no no no no no no no no no no no no no,” we stammer continually. I force my finger into his mouth, trying to detect any sign of breath. His eyes flicker open and he cries once, more out of annoyance than anything else.

“Oh, thank God,” I say, breathing in deeply. He wriggles in my wife’s arms, elated that both of his parents wanted to play so badly, they had waken him up (rather than the other way around).

“Want to stay up a bit with him, just to make sure he’s okay?” my wife asks. I nod. We take him back to our room, where he crawls over us, clapping and laughing.

I have had several brushes with death before. Once, while swimming in the ocean, a massive wave overpowered me, and the undertow dragged me across the sand, holding me under the water and unwilling to let go. I finally popped up for air and staggered to shore, bruised and cut. Another time, while hiking up a waterfall, I watched my friend lose his grip and slide uncontrollably towards the bottom. We watched helplessly until he thankfully caught hold of a root sticking out of the waterfall’s rocky face, from which he climbed back to safety. Another time, I collapsed while hiking up a hill towards a Buddhist temple in Korea. My mind realized as my whole body contracted into a ball, tingling and unable to breathe, that perhaps I might die. I was oddly at peace, but remembered that I had just started dating my first girlfriend (and future wife) two weeks ago, and she would be furious that I died while away and that maybe I should fight for life instead of giving up. Lucky for the both of us, I was spared.

This brush of death (or the perception thereof) was something wholly different, a completely new monster. I have rarely felt such a mind-numbing, awful terror that gripped my brain and heart and lungs with so much ferocity. At the birth of my son, I wondered if I would ever be one of those parents who would jump into a burning building to save his child. The thought seemed so foreign, so difficult to comprehend. At that moment; I got my answer. I would have done anything to hear my son cry again, even take my own life. There was no question.

I contemplate this new feeling, equal parts awe-inspiring and terrifying. My wife and I are silent as my son climbs on our legs and arms, a solemn assembly of parents who had just experienced (if only briefly) our new, absolutely worst nightmare.

Then we heard the sound again, loudly, outside of our window. We looked at each other.

“A cat!” we hissed together. Relief floods into our faces, then embarrassment. My son giggles, as if to gently laugh at us. The clock reads 2 a.m. I’m just glad it’s the weekend, because (as predicted) my son decided to stay up for two more hours before going back to bed.

“Oh, my son,” I whisper into his hair as I hold him close. “I’m so glad you’re okay. You have no idea. But seriously. You need to go back to bed.” He patted my cheek condescendingly, then crawled away to play with a ball of yarn.


Filed under life stories, parenting, wordsmithing

Following adventure

My son crawled swiftly over to the bookcase and started pulling out books one by one and throwing them onto the floor around him. I shook off my shocked expression and swooped in, grabbing him and pulling a copy of Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy out of his mouth. This had never happened before; ever since he started crawling, it seemed every day was a new episode of the What Can I Put Into My Mouth Show. I looked grimly at the bookcases as my son wriggled and protested. I would have to reorganize them so that all of the important, valuable books were on top.

My personal library is the closest thing you can get to peering into my soul. It’s developed organically over the years, collecting into a certain order developed over years of tinkering. Now, I would have to redo it all if I didn’t want my son gnawing on my 1950 edition of an RLDS Book of Mormon or the books I “borrowed” from my father’s library. Somehow, it felt like desecration to me, another significant part (and loss) of my life in upheaval from the arrival of my son.

That’s really what parenting is about, drastically reorganizing your life to make room for another. Somehow, marrying my wife was much easier — we meshed our libraries together with very little overlap and yet with great mutual interest. My wife has since then read (and been horrified) by my copy of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and I’ve read her copy of The Chronicles of Prydain series, which I had never heard of before I met her. Deciding to get married was a conscious choice on our part, made because we felt we were pretty compatible with each other. There was little reorganization.

But a baby — you don’t get to choose a baby. How I wish sometimes that my baby would sit still and look at his picture books with me. We could, father and son, sit on the couch together, reading books and exploring the world through literature and words and stuff. But no, he likes to climb on things with relish and crawl into trouble, a perfect foil to his adventure-adverse, neurotic, acrophobic father.

(If we were hobbits, my son would be an adventurous Baggins, while I would be a deplorable, cowardly Sackville-Baggins. Shameful, I know.)

A horrible thought crosses my mind. What if I hate what he likes to read, or worse yet, what if he doesn’t like to read at all? What if I introduce him to the things I love — Lord of the Rings, Avatar: The Last Airbender, board games, or CBC’s Wiretap — and he hates all of them? What if he likes other things, like sportsball statistics and cars and other testosterone laden activities?

My son is still wriggling under my arm, crying out angrily now, as I stand in front of the bookcase while this terrifying alternate-possible future flashes before me. I take a deep breath and put him down. He looks up at me. I smile at him. The answer seems simple, if difficult. I’ll just have to make room on the bookshelf for books on sportsball and cars and rock bands. And maybe I’ll have to overcome some of my more adventure adverse, neurotic, acrophobic (and really, lots-of-things-phobic) tendencies to hang out with my son. I let out a deep sigh. I can compartmentalize phobias, right? Right?

My son is tugging at my pants, as if to say thank you. I know it’s ridiculous — to think that my baby not only has the cognitive ability to understand the turmoils of an uncertain, nervous parent but also to read my mind — but the delusion is comforting. I pick him up, and lower my forehead at him. He bumps mine with his and laughs.

“How about this book?” I ask, pulling one out. “Look, this is a monkey — wait a second, that’s a picture of a chimpanzee, but it says ‘Monkey.’ Chimps aren’t monkeys; they’re apes! This book is wrong!”

My son patiently sits for a couple of minutes as I furiously page through the picture book for more inaccuracies. Eventually, he wriggles out of my grasp and crawls away, off to find something else to climb and some new trouble to adventure into, and I follow behind him, nervously, close behind.


Filed under life stories, parenting, wordsmithing

Scriptures, the Tarot, and other universal archetypes

I’ve recently been reading a lot about (and collecting) Tarot decks in conjunction with a project that I’ve been working on. The Tarot deck has always fascinated me, even since my childhood, not because I believed that such cards held some kind of mystical clairvoyant power, but mostly because of the archetypes the Major Arcana represented. Concepts such as Judgment, The World, Temperance, The Sun, The Moon, The Emperor, The Fool — they all felt like symbolic poetry, a world of ideas and feelings and connotations packed into a single card with a single image.

In retrospect, my fascination with  Tarot cards most likely stemmed from my strict religious upbringing, especially one such as Mormonism which is still obsessed with the idea of symbolism. We continue to, like many other religions, employ symbolism within our worship, and also within the way we speak about and act out our faith. How could I, a kid raised to automatically ferret out symbolism and derive great joy and satisfaction from decompressing it, resist the rich symbolism of the Tarot?

"Okay, I tap The Emperor and sacrifice the Nine of Cups to deal five damage to your Hierophant."

"Okay, I tap The Emperor and sacrifice the Nine of Cups to deal five damage to your Hierophant."

While learning about the symbolism of the Tarot, it was inevitable that I learned a little in how to use them in the traditional sense of fortune telling. So when some friends came over, I offered to do some Tarot readings as a sort of parlor trick. They agreed and said it sounded like fun. I proceeded to lay out spreads for each of my friends. Some of them mirrored their life situations perfectly while others, predictably, did not. All in all, however, I was very surprised to see how invested people get into Tarot readings; they automatically seek out to relate their life to the cards, or extrapolate meanings in the symbolism to apply to their own life.

One friend, who recently got out of a bad relationship, took the Tarot spread’s interpretation to mean that he needed to stop dwelling on the past and look forward with an attitude of healing. My wife, whose spread told her that her life had recently seen massive changes (like a baby perhaps), interpreted it to mean that she needed to look at her situation at different angles rather than trying to fix problems by just trying harder. My spread told me that I needed to be more careful with how I spent my money, and that perhaps my life is not in accordance with the values of modesty and temperance.

We all sat back afterwards, somewhat surprised but satisfied by our readings. As I contemplated this later that night, it struck me at how optimistic and even — dare I say it? — helpful these readings were. I’ll admit that lately, I’ve been a lot more wary about where my money goes. My wife has been a lot more diligent and creative in her approaches to personal problems recently. And our friend who had just left a bad relationship felt almost a sense of relief and a much more positive outlook for the future. None of these things are really bad.

In fact, this is a lot like reading the scriptures.

Now, before every Mormon decides to crucify me for daring to compare the occult like the Tarot with the scriptures, let me explain.

Scriptures are mostly story. They are intensely human stories rich with symbolism and meaning. We often must sit back and work to decompress the sheer amount of knowledge, information, and advice within them. And most importantly, like a good Tarot reading, we extrapolate those symbols and appropriate them for our own, working hard to match them with what is happening in our personal lives. I could read the conversion story of Alma the Younger in the Book of Mormon and derive a completely different interpretation than my father would, and we would most definitely apply them differently in our lives. But when Mormon sat down to write the abridged account of Alma the  Younger, he could not have had all of these things in mind. Yes, the Book of Mormon is for our day thematically, but that’s exactly why it’s so successful as a piece of religious literature — the themes are broad, universal, and archetypal. They are applicable to every situation and station in life.

Like Tarot readings, the person giving the reading does not have to work hard. In a Sunday School class, one simply has to read the story out loud and people will immediately begin to draw connections to their own lives. And often, these lessons are beneficial. The Alma the Younger conversion story tells parents to be patient and trust God. It warns against the personal sorrows and pains of sin, but it also extols the virtues of forgiveness and love. It’s a treatise on the fallen nature of man and the dependency one must develop on God’s grace. It talks about the hurt errant children can inflict on parents. It talks about social consequences in not only ignoring family and religious traditions and customs, but also in actively rebelling and fighting against it. This is not even a comprehensive list of what this simple story can teach.

In fact, both scriptures and Tarot rarely communicate anything new in our lives. Instead, they work with the material that we do have, roiling beneath our conscious thought, and give it some kind of metaphysical form. It allows us to access feelings deep within us, some joyful, others uneasy, and bring them up to the surface to face and examine. Deep down, I knew that I should be more careful with my money, but “finding it in the cards” gave me a little bit more of a kick out the door to actually do it. My wife knew that trying the same old things to solve her perennial problems wouldn’t work; the Tarot interpretation that she created for herself helped her to finally face up to it and act out on it. And my friend, reeling from a personal loss and trying to patch up the wounds he sustained from it, found the reading helpful in fighting back the personal insecurity that can sometimes haze over a good, if not difficult, decision.

Now, I know that there is no actual, real power in the Tarot. I know that the deck has been around forever but it was only in the 19th century when people began creating mystical interpretations of what was once an absurdly complicated card game (like Bridge) to build a way to tell fortunes with it out of whole cloth. I know very keenly the somewhat dubious history of the Tarot, and especially how this Tarot undermines the idea that there can be no good that comes from it. However, the Tarot’s power, I believe, is not because it has some kind of inherent occult-devil power, or because there is power infused within the cards, but because they happen to depict universal themes that speak to everyone in some way. The cards do not tell the future; we tell the future for ourselves, using the symbols provided by the Tarot as prompts.

What is interesting to note about the power of scripture is that they, too, do not have to be “factually true” to have such power. I don’t want to re-open a whole “Is the Book of Mormon historical or not?” debate. In fact, my main point is that such a debate is counter-productive. The mythological figure Mormon (and he is more mythological than historical in our religion), despite his historian status and profession, did not compile the Book of Mormon to provide factual dates and statistics and observations for any kind of academic reason. Rather, he compiled his civilization’s mythos, from its mythical founding father Nephi, to various characters with superhuman abilities. How is Ammon the arm-slayer any different from the heroes of old? Mormon understood that encoded within the genetic material of these myths were powerful human emotions and archetypes that could motivate us to realize what we already know what we must do but were too afraid to face.

Joseph Campbell once wrote, “Whenever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed. The living images become only remote facts of a distant time or sky. Furthermore, it is never difficult to demonstrate that as science and history mythology is absurd. When a civilization begins to reinterpret a mythology in this way, the life goes out of it, temples become museums, and the link between the two perspectives is dissolved.” When we argue about whether or not the scriptures are historical, and when we get offended when people point out that there’s not a whole lot of scientific evidence for the Book of Mormon’s historicity, we shouldn’t bat an eye. Because historicity only matters if you’ve based your faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ on carbon dating and archaeological digs. We derive religious meaning, significance, and utility from accessing instead what Carl Jung called the collective imagination and consciousness of humanity. True efficacy of the scriptures comes not from whether or not it actually happened in the past, but whether or not these stories continue to play out in our everyday lives.


Filed under fokltale, life stories, religion, wordsmithing

How to Train Your Own Campbellian Archetypical Hero

I loved the movie How to Train Your Dragon immensely. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it felt very complete, very satisfying as an overall story, even if it was originally made for children. It wasn’t until about a week after watching it that it hit me — How to Train Your Dragon is the classic archetypical hero’s journey, more than you would originally think.

Spoiler Alert: There’s a lot of spoilers in this post, so watch the movie if you haven’t already and stop reading.

"And so it happens that if anyone -- in whatever society -- undertakes for himself the perilous journey into the darkness by descending, either intentionally or unintentionally, into the crooked lanes of his spiritual labyrinth, he soon finds himself in a landscape of symbolical figures (any one of which may swallow him) which is no less marvelous than the wild Siberian world of the pudak and sacred mountains." - Joseph Campbell

"And so it happens that if anyone -- in whatever society -- undertakes for himself the perilous journey into the darkness by descending, either intentionally or unintentionally, into the crooked lanes of his spiritual labyrinth, he soon finds himself in a landscape of symbolical figures (any one of which may swallow him) which is no less marvelous than the wild Siberian world of the pudak and sacred mountains." --Joseph Campbell

HTYD starts out by introducing the hero of the story — Hiccup, son of the Viking chief. It turns out that Vikings spent a lot of their days building up a seaside pastoral/horticultural/fishing community that fell prey to constant dragon attacks. Like the archetypical hero, his father is famous and strong. He’s a powerful man who leads his people with ferocity and ambition. Yet, the Viking community is in a state of constant siege and, most importantly, decay. Their never ending battles with dragons wears them down. Hiccup’s father continually seeks for a solution, some form of attack that will cease the dragon attacks once and for all, yet finds himself frustratingly impotent in doing so. While the Viking community is not teetering on the edge of total collapse, the edges are beginning to fray. Tensions are mounting, and something must give in order for there to be renewal in the land.

Hiccup is not strong at all; he’s downright puny. Yet he is endowed with a special gift that sets him apart from the other Vikings, and that is critical thinking and technical knowledge. He stumbles upon a dragon (one of the most powerful, in fact) who is injured; Hiccup befriends the dragon and trains him in a very symbiotic way. The dragon (of Night Fury species), whom Hiccup dubs Toothless, has torn his tail which it uses for flying. Hiccup studies the dragon’s abortive flight attempts and builds a replacement wing which Hiccup controls. Only by working together in a state of union can the two achieve their goals.

During his training sessions, Toothless flies him into the very den of dragons itself, an elusive island Hiccup’s father has sought his entire life. There, he enters the maw of Hell and the underworld, a realm of suffering, death, and decay. He learns the dragons themselves are slaves to a Master Dragon, one Dragon to rule them all and in the darkness bind them. It forces the dragons to raid the Vikings so that they may plunder their lands to bring tribute back to the Great Beast. To disobey is certain death. Hiccup discovers in his venture to the Underworld the source of the Problem itself, a corruption that has thrown the entire world out of balance. Dragons, representative of the forces of nature, need not fight against and destroy Vikings, or humanity. Hiccup sees a vision of a world where man and nature unite in harmony; he intends to see it happen.

Still, the Viking community is very suspicious of dragons and Hiccup must keep this relationship a secret. Eventually, others are drawn into the circle of trust, and eventually he must marshall his allies and directly oppose his father, who has now begun to show signs of hubris (and even madness). After betraying his son’s trust and using him to find the dragons’ homeland, he hurtles towards oblivion with the rest of his followers. Hiccup understands this to be certain death; such an invasion will only end in bloodbath and the complete and inevitable annihilation of the Viking race. Hiccup’s father, the chief, has effectively lost his kingship, his right to rule, and Hiccup must take the crown by violence to save the kingdom now toppling into destruction.

In the midst of the war, he opposes his father and strips him of his authority to lead. He takes the reins of kingship and leads his people in battle. He is victorious; yet, the victory comes not without a price. Hiccup is caught in the dying throes of the corrupted Great Serpent, a now corpulent and bloated mockery of dragonship, and plummets to the earth. It is at this point that he dies, Hiccup son of Stoik the Vast. He is literally swallowed up by the dragon Toothless. Representative of nature’s relationship with man, you could say that the earth itself, Mother Gaia, swallows the lifeless body of Hiccup. However, when the crowd gathers about to mourn the loss of their hero, Hiccup emerges from the dragon’s mouth and is reborn, hero of the Vikings and new chief of the Viking tribe. Still, he has not emerged unscathed — he has lost a leg, symbolic of the atoning price the king must pay in order to renew the land and bring new prosperity to its people. Just as how Toothless (nature) lost its limbs, throwing herself (and the world as a whole) off balance, so Hiccup must also undergo the ritual of sacrificing the king in order to bring about renewing power.

And that he does. Hiccup has brought about rebirth to the land. Dragons and Vikings now live together in harmony, a symbiotic relationship built upon mutual trust and cooperation rather than competition and death. Hiccup has literally restored the paradisaical Garden of Eden, the perfect marriage of man back into his place within the vibrant web of life. Though his father still lives, Hiccup is the de facto new king of the Vikings, revered by his followers and subjects, with a new queen by his side.

What makes HTYD so Campbellian, however, is not the simple Hero Outcast -> Adventures -> Gaining/Realization of New Powers -> Plunge into the Underworld -> Battle -> Death -> Rebirth narrative. Almost every Disney movie has this narrative. Heck, even Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (which is another great movie) has this basic narrative. What makes HTYOD Campbellian is its attention to kingship, decay, and renewal. Here, we are shown a society literally falling apart. The king is helpless, weak despite his physical strength, even slightly mad. The Viking civilization is in a death spiral because the very land itself (the dragons) is rebelling against them. Here sets the stage for a hero to emerge, one of kingly blood himself who will bring renewal to his people but through sacrifice in order to re-establish balance in a world that has gone off-kilter.

Even more Campbellian is Hiccup’s “death.” Many children’s movies have an implied “death(?)” scene where the fate of the hero is in question. Not only does it build climactic tension right before the denouement, but it is essential in order to establish that the hero is no longer the same person; he has been reborn into a new creature. Hiccup’s “death” is even more dramatic and symbolic. Toothless, the symbol of nature, literally swallows up Hiccup, just as the earth swallows the hero’s body as a grave. This grave, ironically, is what saves Hiccup and brings about the means for his resurrection as the hero. And when he emerges, though he has mastered nature and dragons and claimed the rightful throne from his ailing father to lead his people (and thus uniting them as one and overcoming dualistic thinking), he has sacrificed himself to bring about this restoration.

And this is why HTYD is so ultimately more satisfying of an ending, more rich of a conclusion, than a movie like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Flint emerges from his implied “death(?)” scene basically the same as before — he’s the same lovable, goofy inventor, except validated by his peers and (most importantly) by his father. But other than that, nothing internally has essentially changed. The ending is self-gratifying, almost to the point of a Mary Sue — the “moral” of the story is simple; all of us are geniuses waiting to bloom and be validated by those around us, and we are to project this narcissism onto Flint himself.

Hiccup’s death, in contrast, is entirely opposite. Hiccup emerges changed, not only physically, but internally as well. He has suffered and made the blood sacrifice necessary to bring restoration to his people. He emerges the master of two worlds — both the social world he emerged from and eventually tamed as chief, but the dragon/nature world as well, which he also has tamed. His is not a self-indulgent victory in which he narrowly averts crisis brought about by his own hubris (like Flint), but one where he stops the madness of the king from plunging his people into destruction and pays the atoning burden for his people.

In short, this is the difference between HTYD and other hero’s journey stories like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Another great comparison example (last one, I promise!) is Harry Potter and Twilight. Both are archetypical hero journeys (Yes, Twilight! Though, in reality, it’s more of like an anti-hero’s journey. But that’s for another day). But in one story, the hero suffers loss and undergoes a fundamental change within himself to find mastery over the world he lives in and overcome death. In the other story, the heroine is a narcissistic egomaniac who also finds mastery over the world and overcomes death, but only through sniveling passivity and dithering, vapid cowardice. In the former, the mastery over death is preceded by volunteering to become a sacrifice, and this sacrifice enables the hero to overcome the Problem or the Corruption in order to bring balance, peace, and renewal to his people. In the latter, the mastery over death is preceded by satiating selfish desires, abandonment of previous obligations, and this mastery over death enables the heroine to continue living this selfish lifestyle. Thankfully, HTYD falls into the former category, though unfortunately, many hero journey stories nowadays fall into the latter, a self-indulgent attempt to justify counterfeit heroism — that is, heroism without obligation and sacrifice, yet replete with all of the unearned accolades and laurels of victory.


Filed under fokltale, philosophy, wordsmithing

Books and Mormons

Whenever I meet someone who is adamant that the pluralization for “The Book of Mormon” is “The Books of Mormon,” I cringe a little inside. It can be a perfect storm of smug self-righteousness and grammatical sloppiness/ignorance.

If you aren’t a long-time Mormon, this introduction probably doesn’t make sense. There has been a silent war within our culture about the pluralization for “The Book of Mormon,” the keystone piece of devotional scripture and literature within the Mormon tradition. The often used quick-fix is to just slap an “s” at the end, such as “I just got a shipment of fifty Book of Mormons.” However, there is now a very vocal minority who demands that we atone for our past mistakes and realize the error of our ways. “Book of Mormons” isn’t grammatically correct at all! Obviously, the correct way to pluralize The Book of Mormon is by saying “Books of Mormon.”

The problem is, that way is wrong, too.

The main mistake in pluralizing The Book of Mormon into The Books of Mormon is treating “The Book of Mormon” as a phrase, not as a single unit of information. The Book of Mormon is a title, and thus a proper noun. This method of pluralizing the main noun in a phrase that has become a proper noun does not carry over in other instances. For example, if I meet five different people at a convention dressed up as Harry Potter, I wouldn’t say that I met five Harries Potter. For another example, if I have two copies of The Game of Thrones, and I wrote on my English paper that, on my bookshelf, there sits two Games of Thrones, my professor will probably laugh and then let loose yon red ink pen. To take an even more famous fantasy novel example, hopefully nobody will ever say “At my house, we love Tolkien! In fact, we have seven Lords of the Rings!” After all, there is only one Lord of the Rings, and he does not share power, nor does he approve of erroneous pluralization.

A caveat — should you be referring to simply a general collection of books that Mormon wrote/edited, and not The Book of Mormon itself, then the “books of Mormon” pluralization works. However, I would venture to guess that 99.99% of the time, when Mormons say Books of Mormon, they are not talking of a general collection of individual books that Mormon can take creative ownership or credit for, but The Book of Mormon. And so, pluralizing a proper noun in such a way is erroneous and misleading.

The proper way to pluralize The Book of Mormon because it can be such a confusing proper noun to pluralize would be to write or say “copies of The Book of Mormon.” This is, in fact, how we pluralize most titles. If, for example, you are buying some copies of The Scream to pass out to your children for whatever reason, you will probably go to the store and ask the clerk, “I need two copies/prints/whatevers of The Scream.”

The really big irony is that the original pluralization, while not totally correct, is passable, understandable, and acceptable in everyday vernacular English. If you went to the store, you could say, “I need to buy five The Screams,” and the clerk will probably understand you okay (You could probably even drop “The” before “Scream” and still make some sense). If you tell your friends, “At the convention, I saw five Harry Potters,” your friends will probably ask for pictures instead of adjusting their glasses and saying, “Excuse me, you mean five Harry Potter impersonators,” or worse, “Excuse me? You mean five Harries Potter.”

The very concept of a proper noun is to insinuate that there is only one of these proper nouns, and if there are multiple versions of these proper nouns, that these proper nouns are at least some kind of important thing. For example, we say The White House, not because it is the only house painted white in the world, but because it is a very important house painted white. The name Kate Middleton is certainly not unique to just one person, but it is an important aspect of some people, a vital part of their identity. Thusly, we refer to a collection of scripture as “The Book of Mormon” to designate that this collection is very specific and important. That way, we don’t have to say, “Did you pick up that crate of fifty copies of a collection of texts including writings written by Nephi, Alma, Abinadi, Mormon, Moroni, et al, edited and compiled by Mormon?” We have assigned a title to that. Instead we say, “Did you get your fifty copies of The Book of Mormon?” or, if you’re feeling kind of lazy or hurried, “Did you get your fifty Book of Mormons?”

So people who say Book of Mormons, the next time someone tries to correct you, shrug it off. You are more right than they are, and hopefully we can quell this budding grammatical apostasy out of love, compassion, and persuasion, not through more harsh words and smug condescension.


Filed under education, religion, wordsmithing