Chapter 20 of the series Myths and Dragons
I saw a documentary on the Washington Scablands a while ago. Usually, geological erosion is thought of as a process of change involving long stretches of time. However, there are exceptions - dramatic upheavals that can change an entire environment. The cataclysmic floods that shaped the Scablands occurred over a 2000 year period. Two blinks of and eye, geologically speaking.
In some ways, the world has learned these lessons again in the last few years. Stories of the effects of hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis still grip our attention and bring us closer together. These storms may no longer be ‘magical’, but they are still meaningful. They expose how vulnerable we are, physically, emotionally and economically, to the things we don’t know or don’t control.
Two researchers were interviewed as part of the documentary. They had constructed a scaled-down version of the land, complete with layers of different stone and dirt and sand. It was all strategically packed or piled to model the land around Washington State. Two kids playing in a sandbox. Two very meticulous kids and a very controlled sandbox.
They poured water over the model, mimicking the size and speed and power of a flood. It was really neat to see what was washed away and what wasn’t.
One of the researchers explained how this kind of work was important because it was “scale-neutral”. Their land was only a few metres squared and flooded by a few hundred litres of water. Multiply everything by a thousand and you’d get the same effects, just larger. Multiply by a million and you should get the same effects too, but much larger.
I thought ‘scale-neutral’ would be a good closing chapter for this series on the exploratory hero.
Ancient myths and stories are easily swept aside today because we think we know so much more about the world. People think myths can’t give an accurate picture of reality because they are often set in outlandish worlds with magical forces and supernatural characters. They are built on grand exaggerations without a basis in what we think is reality.
But our reality has a lot to do with how we act and the consequences of how we act.
Those exaggerations can be understood as being scale-neutral. If the audience of a story empathizes with the hero of the story and adopts that hero as a model for how to act, they don’t have to believe in magic. They don’t have to appeal to anything supernatural. They simply have to be the hero, scaled to the reality of the world they find themselves in. They act, according to the model.
If we focus too much on the magic, then we miss the point of the exercise. And if we make the myth some absolute truth, then we don’t get to be the hero.
There are two theories in evolution that, I think, show the importance of adopting the attitude of an exploratory hero.
The Red Queen Hypothesis suggests that continuing adaptation is needed in order for a species to survive and thrive. Everything else surrounding the species- the environment and the species’ competitors – is changing. In one use of this hypothesis, every individual becomes an experiment. Every individual must find the way by adapting to changes. This attitude, I think, can be adopted either consciously or unconsciously. Heroes aren’t just made up in stories. They are born, in each and every one of us.
The Court Jester Hypothesis suggests that environmental factors provide the drive for evolution in species. Big examples such as meteors and storms are often used to explain these environmental factors, but even day-to-day things like temperature can initiate a species to change or adapt. In terms of story, however, myths understood the importance of paying attention to the jester. It is what you don’t know, and what you don’t control, that you have to pay attention to and learn from.
Interestingly, the Red Queen and the Court Jester can work together. They explain different parts of a complex whole and they don’t necessarily step on each other’s toes.
I wonder why today’s bright minds used what could be thought of as old metaphors for their new theories. We don’t live in cultures directly ruled by queens any more. And who employs a jester these days to entertain at court? What does the story of evolution have to do with rulers of noble blood or entertainers that expose their audience’s vulnerabilities?
Could it be we are finding new ways to tell our old stories? Maybe we still think in terms of myths and stories after all.
What do you think?
Continued in the next post with closing remarks and bullet points