Aliens in This World

An ordinary Catholic and a science fiction and fantasy fan.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

"Cross on the Mountain" essay



This is my translation of an essay by now-pro fantasy writer Natalia Mazova which I found online. I can't guarantee that all the sociology and history jargon is translated correctly. I don't speak Academese in English, so Academese po-Russkiy is Right Out. However, I think there are some very interesting and useful ideas here. Enjoy.



"Cross on the Mountain,
or On the Lord God's Secret Service"

an essay by Natalia Mazova, 2000.


"You see there, on the mountain, the HQ raised
Around three thousand soldiers?
Go visit it!
But when you tire, come back --
To work in GB, to work in GB,
To work in GB with me...."

-- Vadim Kazakov


The text of this article, originally, was an expanded dissent against the old Constantina Krylova article, "Russian fantasy: Between Empire and Steppe". For those who haven't read or don't remember this work, I will recap her basic theses.

It goes like this: Western fantasy, as was long ago explained to us in that "Piruge" by Sapkovskiy, all comes from the archetypes of the legends of King Arthur, who has his own inclusive European "progress myth", i.e., about the truth given out to those who have not yet tasted this satisfaction. Recently, as a contrast to this myth, an Eastern myth formed (more precisely, an Asian-Eastern), the "ancient source of knowledge myth", i.e., about the heritage of the past, which is the main property of Eastern civilization. However, Russia does not have its own distinct fantasy precisely because the "native heroes in no way defended the chivalrous law of honor, and even more, did not perform the tea ceremony". The Russian mind is not directed toward the present or the past, but into the future.

Up to this point, I agreed with the worthy Krylova, though with some reservations. But after this she started to discuss Russia's oppression, between Byzantium in the West and the nomads to the East, and also about the mythological consequences of this oppression....

Right away, I want to specify that I am a convinced follower of L.N. Gumileva and a supporter of the "civilizational" (also called the "national-sociological") analysis of history. For that reason, for me it was all too obvious that:

A) Byzantium -- is not quite the West (in the sense of not being part of European civilization), since, like us, it had the ideal of civilization's high value as a positive, whereas the West has it in the negative;

B) it's even more obvious that the nomads were not by any means the kind of Eastern civilization in which ancient wisdom and tea ceremonies are to be found, since they never had in their civilization a positive concept of a harmonious system ("conformity", according to V. Rybakov's terminology).

C) Finally, Kievan/Slavic Russia, according to ethnogeny theory, is not our ethnos at all, but an inertia phase of the previous one. Our ethnos and stereotypes of behavior began with the building of Moscow.

And at this moment, enlightenment came upon me: yes, indeed, it seems like the inclusive myth used subsequently as a basis for fantasy is always drawn from the ascent phase of this ethnos; moreover, in a very high degree from the phase of hidden ascent!

Specifically, this is the moment when a new people realizes that they are something different than all that is around them, and all that came before. In fact, the Arthurian cycle of legends corresponds to exactly this stage of Europe's development. Our Prince Vladimir coupled with Olga/Helga -- are an inheritance from the previous ethnos, and therefore is also "they don't disappear" together with the three bogatyrs and the whole pagan Slavic pantheon.

So, what formed the attitude of our native Russian/Muscovite ethnos in this phase, that is, somewhere from the 13th to 15th centuries?

First, it had been Christian for a long time and with stability. And if those same Celts had happened to drop a even one single goddess (eg, Brigit) into the number of the saints, then charge all Paganism's expenses to Demonology's account. However, the place in history for the Sword in the Stone -- had been occupied once and for all by the story of the Cross on the Mountain, while the place of the Knights of the Round Table by the apostles, i.e., the missionaries. (Poor, poor Andrezej Sapkovskiy in his Catholic Poland! If he only knew how Christian myths sink into folklore and in that, can convert the minds of people not stupefied by too much learning! They don't have the archetype of this in Poland; in Holy Russia, there are too many to be able to fit them in a cart.)

In the second place, it was wonderfully aware that it had obtained Paradise thanks to Byzantium, and therefore it treated it accordingly. Probably exactly as the Dunadan of Arnor and Gondor felt about Numenor and its legacies: the land of the kings of old... Or in our case, of the saints -- this doesn't change the essence of this approach.

However, the nomads were not completely received as a "deadly east wind"; this is exactly the influence of western cultural infiltration, what Gumileva called the "black legend". More likely, they already had taken up the same place in our legendary layer as the Saracens in Europe's: an enemy, yes, but an "old and dear" one. (An uninvited guest was worse than a Tatar, and whoever in that epoch was worse for Russia than a Tatar -- is three times worse for ourselves...)

And in the third and last place, exactly in the 15th century was when Byzantium finally fell to the Turks' attack. What's more, there occurred what is known in historical grammars of the old Russian tongue as the elegantly-named Southern Slavic influence. Simply put, the greater part of the Byzantine intellectuals fled to the only place which remained Orthodox -- to Russia.

And maybe, without themselves wanting it, it gave our people their main sense of meaning -- to be the last and only stronghold of the True Faith. "Two Romes fell, the third is lost, a fourth there will not be be!" But what sort of Rome is taken as an archetype? First of all, the Eternal City, the city equal to the world, and located in the center of the world. In other words -- the City-for-All.

Going from all of the above outline, I formulated three archetypes inherent in the containing myth of our ethnos. (What's more, I made this deliberately lofty -- it's myth, after all.)

A) For them, in order to save the world, is sacrificed a Savior, but not a savior. However, the real meaning of his acts are -- Triumph after Sacrifice; and his weapon itself -- not a sword, but the Word.

B) There were Kings of Old, in whose hands was the True Light -- but they fell. However, their descendants rejected their inheritance, except for a few, and these few, from now on, stand on that wall which separates existence from nonexistence.

C) On these few is founded the City-for-All, which they know -- is only the shadow of the shadow of the True City; however, it works with no less success than the True one. Specifically, all roads lead here for those who want to become one of those sharing the inheritance.

It's not hard to see that the given archetypal complex has not been realized in full measure in any one work of Russian fantasy, yes, not in all of fantasy, either. The whole Numenorean line in the professor's work is built on the second and third archetypes, and I give him a deep bow for that. But nevertheless, the Professor is English and Catholic. The motif of the legacy of the kings of old is very beautifully defeated by Lev Vershinin in his "Return of the King" (I originally borrowed the terminology from there; indeed, I love this narrative almost as much as if I'd written it myself). As far as Triumph after Sacrifice is concerned, these motifs undoubtedly exist in Nienna's The Black Book of Arda, but it's not hard to notice that the Sacrifice there is large, and here there is clearly a strain against triumph.

(All these conclusions were made in July 2000. Since then, "sacral fantasy" has arisen, but also, in essence, it has begun to work with the archetype "participation in the Wall-at-the-Edge-of-Darkness".)

However, our nation has always been famous for a conscious that doesn't always fully track our subconscious glitches. Which is why the line actively giving us this archetypal complex has been present in our fantastica since olden times, but in this situation has barely managed to penetrate into our fantasy.

This -- is the progressor motif in that classic form in which we encounter it in the Brothers Strugatsky.

In the ideal -- in him is very much our own traditional messianism. Indeed, the progressor carries not an "ideal world order", but a world of unconditional truth, towards which he is working by right of what dwells within him, and in essence using the Word. On the use of weapons, more or less rigid prohibitions are imposed. And the difference between the "white burden" and its carrier is exactly the same as that of Savior from savior.

(At one of the Zilantcon seminars when the discussion turned to progressor-ism, I asked, is someone considered a progressor of men who never has lived by the ideal he preaches, but who is confident of its existence? To me, the answer was obvious, but the community's opinion interested me. Alas, there didn't turn out to be any opinion at all in the community on this score....)

But unfortunately, the progressors differed from the apostles precisely in the fact that they are not holy, and so doubt, not without reason, that their deaths will serve the triumph of the ideal preached by them. And their own logic is in this -- the sacrificial spirit must not harm effectiveness. For this reason precisely, the activities of any good progressor are always compared to the activities of a good intelligence officer -- conspiracy, agents of influence, and all the other stuff. Finally, if the Lord God has a Spetsnaz, as my co-author Dmitriy Volodikhin loves to say, why would he not also have reconnoiterers?

Alas, this line in our fantastica is as compromised by its many inadequate incarnations as by the general ruin in brains. For this reason, many have a completely different concept built from the term "progressor", a far more unpleasant rank associated with it. That whoever doesn't like the word can't use it -- a change in labels doesn't change the Essence. Here, Sergey Lukyanenko (also subconsciously, not otherwise) has hit on a good idea -- the "Regressor" -- a person returning civilization, which is going in its own development somewhere that's not there, to the place from which this "not there" itself began. Such a mission is personally very much after the hearts of myself and my friends, and sometimes in jest we even call ourselves the Regressors' Committee...

Here, on this collection we may also construct our national fantasy: service to the Light, when there is no other leader besides God; a legacy from the world before, lovely but ruined; the center of the universe, where one might find a share in the highest powers; and a chosen group which works in places covered in shadow, forced to frequently hide its appearance, but little by little, step by step, changing the world toward the best.

No, I call on noone to sit down and start writing this way, and only this way. I also am aware of what kind of world I live in, and I know how far the erosion of our national worldview has come. I'm willing to believe that a text written on the basis of these archetypes could be felt by the reader to be even worse than the crowded aftertaste of the sequential adventures of Vodkolava...

I just would very much like to read something like this somewhere. But as C.S. Lewis said in an analogous situation, "It was nowhere, so I had to do it myself."



My comments on this essay:

First off, Russia is hardly the only country in which religion is part of its folklore. Indeed, I would be very surprised if "Catholic Poland" doesn't have such legends. The Brothers Grimm's famous collection of fairy tales includes stories in which Jesus wanders the earth with St. Peter. The Devil also wanders about their book, looking for souls but defeated by shrewd peasants and old soldiers. I'm fairly sure I've read similar tales from all sorts of places. Spain's chivalry, by necessity, is all bound up with religion, and of course we all know the more entertaining Irish hagiographies, which include St. Muirgen the mermaid and St. Ailbe (who was raised by wolves). Maybe this heritage of religious folklore hasn't been given much attention by fantasy writers up till now -- in fact, I know it hasn't. But it's there and there's plenty of it, whether or not it's being used.

So if the Cross has really taken the place of Arthur, you have to ask what's different in Russia from all other long-Christian countries, why non-Russian religious folklore doesn't come to Mazova's mind, why mainstream fantasy writers have shied off from all religious folklore, and why Sapkovsky and Krylova didn't include religious folklore in their ideas.

(You also can ask yourself why Russians love this Third Rome idea so much, especially when the original Rome is alive and well, and Moscow clearly has so much more to offer the world as itself.)

Second, it's pretty obvious why Lukyanenko's Night Watch has made a lot of money. (His book came our in 1998, btw; the film in 2004.) I also think it's an impossible statement, that one about the Strugatskys' myth of progressors, since of course it's closely related to the Communist theme of inevitable historical evolution, but also to the general sf myth of progress (promulgated in the US by folks who were mostly in some measure influenced by Communism, as we of course know). Again, this isn't a dig at anyone or even the idea of progress and "progressors"; it's fact.

Third, I'd be a lot less worried by an English or American writer comparing God's chosen people to intelligence officers or special forces. This is not to taunt anyone, mind you -- Mazova and Russian fandom are hardly responsible for everything that's ever happened in Russian history -- and I expect that Russian people would be just as nervous if I made such a comparison to the CIA. (And if I comment about how the Russian "Our Father" talks about the coming of God's empire, they could always counter with the American religio-political belief in "manifest destiny". But there it is.)

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