Sunday, May 6, 2007

The Vivisection of Bone, Part 2: Mytho-Bone-esis

“And still the fragrant thorn is beautiful.” --Ebenezer Elliott, “Spirits and Men”

Read Part 1 of this series. For another, briefer discussion of some mythic motifs in Bone, check out Stephen Weiner’s “Using Graphic Novels in the Classroom, including Bone by Jeff Smith” p. 7, which briefly outlines some comparisons for which I don’t have space. Page numbers are once again from the Bone: One Volume Edition.

And here’s the requisite spoiler warning. Now let’s get started.

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man” (Campbell 1968:30).

Thus Joseph Campbell describes what he calls the “nuclear unit of the monomyth” (1968:30), that is, what he sees as the core of every myth. I’m uncomfortable with Campbell’s reduction of all myths to one, partly because Campbell’s monomyth, as he elaborates it, has notably different elements from the Hero Cycle in Stith Thompson’s motif index (Underberg 2005), but I certainly acknowledge parallels between the myths of the world.

Whether there is only one myth or several, Campbell’s nuclear unit is certainly common, which should be unsurprising, considering how basic it is. In particular, change in the mythic hero and his way of relating to the world is of the essence of the myth.

But if anything is not mythic, if anything defies the monomyth, it is the comic strip. In the Calvin And Hobbes 10th Anniversary, Bill Watterson explains in his introduction that some people enjoy comic strips because of their stability, because the characters do not change. This is evident in “Calvin and Hobbes.” Every event that happens to Calvin may as well have never happened; even when moral lessons are presented--and they are, sometimes in more intense forms than are typical of the funny pages--Calvin learns nothing. The events of his life slide off his psyche as if they never occurred; once Hobbes is returned, the stolen TV replaced, or the Snow Goons frozen, the crisis is over, Calvin forgets, and nothing changes. This is visible particularly in Calvin’s agelessness. He goes to school, goes on summer break, has numerous Christmases, and yet he never has a birthday. He is eternally six.

It is perhaps no surprise that, not long after the publication of the 10th Anniversary, Watterson retired, announcing he could do nothing more with the strip. Arguably, he could have done a lot more; he could have let Calvin turn seven, which would have opened up a new world of possibilities, but it would also have denied the inalterability that some see as intrinsic to the comic strip art form.

Bone is intriguing for many reasons, but perhaps its central conceit is its bringing together of seemingly irreconcilable opposites: high fantasy with slapstick humor, realistically drawn characters with cartoonish ones. Perhaps most startling of its collided opposites is the confrontation of three comic strip characters with Campbell’s monomyth. Bone is a depiction of the unstoppable force encountering the immovable object: the all-changing myth meets the unchangeable character. Which one has to give?

This conceit has precedents. Others my age will remember Duck Tales, which demonstrated that talented writers could get a good deal of mythological mileage out of Disney’s iconic characters. The three Bone cousins, in their personalities and even to a degree in their appearances, are similar to some of the best-known Disney characters: brave, kind Fone Bone is much like Mickey Mouse; tall, silly, easygoing Smiley Bone is much like Goofy; greedy, squabbling Phoney Bone is something like a hybrid cross between Donald Duck and Scrooge.

In Bone, the monomyth is encased in what has come to be called the high fantasy epic. The high fantasy, by the narrow definition I’ll use for this essay, involves a fantasy world, usually described as “sprawling,” beset by a curiously camera-shy representative of evil, in this case the Lord of Locusts. Locusts, of course, symbolize chaos and destruction.

This evil overlord commands a vast army of hideous monsters, here rat creatures, who tend to be surprisingly inept fighters, at least when battling the heroes. Aligned against the villain and his army are a comparatively weak force of do-gooders, perhaps attached to the remnant of an ancient utopian or otherwise good society, such as the city of Atheia. There’s plenty of room for political intrigue and the exploration of the decadence of certain members on the side of good. Typically, the people representing good are divided, argumentative, and lazy, whereas the evil are unified and energetic, though they may have minor intrigues of their own, particularly when the army of inhuman monsters has to work in alliance with groups of misguided humans.

The politicized conflict between good and evil erupts into war, climaxing with a major siege battle in which evil's massive horde outnumbers good's small army.

Mixed into the political situation is a quest, frequently involving a magical artifact, either the evil overlord’s one weakness or the source of his power, which he has foolishly left lying somewhere in the countryside. The final siege battle forms the backdrop of the completion of the quest. Since fantasists back themselves against a wall with these paired conceits, an explanation is sometimes necessary that the evil army was bound to the will of the overlord and disperses peacefully or becomes otherwise incapacitated at his death.

High fantasies, particularly the quest portions, make good vehicles for unlikely or reluctant heroes. Sometimes, these heroes are what I call interpreter characters. Interpreters are mediators between the high fantasy universe and the reader. The interpreters may have a mindset or background closer to the reader’s than to the world of politics and magic occupying the book. Explanations to the interpreters keep the reader from getting lost, and their personalities keep the reader from getting bored. In the case of The Lord of the Rings, the hobbits serve as interpreters. In the case of Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry, five students from the University of Toronto serve in that role. In Bone, the Bone cousins, who come from a society more-or-less like modern America, act as interpreters, filtering the story about dreams and demigods through easily digestible dialogue and worldviews.

Of course, everyone knows the high fantasy formula. Susannah Clements suggests in her fine lecture, “From Middle Earth to Fionavar: Free Will and Sacrifice in High Fantasy by J.R.R. Tolkien and Guy Gavriel Kay,” that the real question in a high fantasy is not whether good will triumph over evil but how much it will cost good to accomplish that triumph.

In The Lord of the Rings, the cost is rather low, and for that reason the books are, in my opinion, unsatisfying in their conclusion. The biggest sacrifice is Gollum, a character nobody cares about (notice how they try to repair that deficiency in the films). The smaller sacrifice is more subtle: Middle Earth is a less magical place when the story is complete, but since the reader is about to leave it anyway, he probably doesn’t mind too much.

The Fionavar Tapestry, on the other hand, is too extreme in the other direction. The sacrifices are frequent and intense. At first, they are quite moving--Paul hangs for three days on the Summer Tree after the manner of Odin and Jennifer is graphically raped by the archvillain. But after that, the sacrifices are less dramatic and even routine: a race of sinless beings has a fall from grace, a sea god gives himself up to torture, and a man who just found the love of his life willingly dies in battle to save another. And it just goes on.

Arguably, Kay’s constant sacrifices aren’t a failure. The torments are varied and unexpected graces appear. The greatest problem is that the biggest and most moving sacrifices are at the beginning of the story rather than the end. The other great problem is the conclusion: The Lord of the Rings ends in decisive fashion with Frodo and the elves departing forever into the uttermost West, but The Fionavar Tapestry ends with the characters just sort of wandering wherever, deciding whether they’ll go back to our world or hang out in Fairyland. The obligatory separation that gives good fantasies their sense of completion is missing. Surely the interpreter characters must go back to their own world or move on to the next one--ultimately, they don’t belong in the world in which the story takes place.

It is a delicate balance to strike, and even great masters have missed the mark by at least a hair. Besides that, the effect for which the high fantasist is reaching is largely a subjective one gauged by the reader’s disposition, preconceived notions, and attitude at the time of reading. Some may be bored by The Lord of the Ring’s overextended post-climax conclusion while others may delight in it (I am in the former category). Some may find the end of The Fionavar Tapestry a relaxed relief after the preceding brutalities while others may find it an aimless extension of Kay’s sometimes ludicrous worldbuilding (I am in the latter category). But speaking from my own subjectivity, Bone strikes the balance precisely, both with a definite sacrifice and an ending in which the characters are separated. Bone matches my expectation of what emotional response a high fantasy will produce. I expect the high fantasy to make me want more, to open a yearning in the heart like a sweet wound. Others may prefer to end high fantasies with a sense of satiation, in which case I would suggest they’re reading the wrong kind of books.

The necessary sacrifice in Bone’s high fantasy myth is accomplished in two ways. The first is by a tease: we have every reason to believe Thorn will die at the Crown of Horns or even before. I say this because Fone Bone and Thorn have a competition for the role of central hero in this myth. The story begins by following Bone, yet when he arrives at the spring where Thorn is bathing, his role switches to that of “herald” to Thorn’s coming adventure and life change (cf. Campbell 1968:49-58). Fone Bone is the strange creature the hero sees as the quest begins, announcing the existence of a world beyond Thorn’s current ability to imagine. Taking the herald, combining him with the helpful companion, and then letting him take center stage in the role of a faux protagonist is certainly a unique idea. Smith’s execution of this isn’t perfect; without Thorn, the entire book of Rock Jaw Master of the Eastern Border feels like a pointless interlude, but such can be expected, for as far as I know, Smith is here exploring new territory outside the bounds of what we normally consider good writing. He succeeds anyway, combining the changeless comic strip protagonist with the high fantasy epic: as the story gradually morphs from light, episodic adventure to full-scale myth, Smith lets Bone fluctuate between first-place hero and second-rate sidekick. As this happens, Thorn changes via a rite of passage as a fantasy hero should while Fone Bone remains largely the same. In this way, Smith satisfies the needs of the myth and the comic strip simultaneously.

The interesting effect of this competition for first place is the conclusion in the reader’s mind that the story can ultimately do without one or the other of the characters. Briar detects this as well, for she says as she determines that Bone is a true protagonist, “...that means I no longer need you, Princess--” (p. 918). It would have made an interesting (and desolating) twist if Thorn had died after accidentally bequeathing a fragment of the Locust to Bone, forcing him to continue alone on a quest that was never rightfully his to begin with. While reading Bone for the first time, I convinced myself this was going to happen. Interesting though the idea is, it would have mortally wounded the story, for it would have killed the relationship that, as I’ve previously discussed, is Bone’s centerpiece. Nonetheless, the possibility of the story going on without one or the other of its main characters lends Bone a tension few high fantasies have. In this way, Smith gives the work the emotional impact of Kay’s repetitious sacrifices without the laborious presentation of constant death or protracted torture.

The possibility of the death of Thorn almost takes on certitude when Bone proposes that Thorn will indeed die if she touches the Crown of Horns (p. 1161). Arguably, both of them do die in that scene, in a sense. Bone dives into his head (p. 1277) much as he dove into the Dragon’s mouth in an earlier dream sequence (pp. 894-896), perhaps representing in both instances a death-and-rebirth motif. In this second sequence, Bone encounters a light that says, “Hello,” but then Thorn appears and draws him back (pp. 1278-1279). The scene can be variously interpreted, but since Bone is diving into his own head toward his own center, we are probably meant to understand the light as his own soul, which in the Bone universe is a coagulation of the dreaming, probably identical to the “Dreaming Eye” through which the Dreaming streams and by which it can be perceived (p. 868).

So why does Thorn tell Bone that if he goes that way he can’t come back, a warning presumably of either death or permanent catatonia? Perhaps such direct contact with one’s own center would mean self-revelation too intense to bear. In that case, there is a conscious turning here from ultimate enlightenment. This may be a choice in favor of the material world and in rejection of the spiritual one, though that would be at variance with the rest of the comic. It may be the rejection of a pure spiritualism that ignores or contemns the physical, in which case it would be in tune with the underlying theme of balancing opposites; it would also be, at least on this point, in line with Christian metaphysics. Or it may be a representation of the bodhisattva who foregoes entrance into Nirvana in order to turn back and teach others, which may also align it with the story’s end in which the bones return to Boneville.

The second of Bone’s sacrifices comes at the climax. One sacrificial death, one tragic death, and one necessary death occur, altogether making a satisfying “cost” for the defeat of evil, consummating--but also relieving--the fear of approaching death that pervades the comic’s latter third. The sacrificial death is Lucius’s. He seizes Briar to save Rose and in so doing repairs the mistake he made years before (p. 1271). He dies heroically, saving others. He also, in a sense, dies in place of Thorn and Bone. Having botched his own romantic story, he gives them the opportunity to complete theirs in the right manner, and they do. “This is a far, far better thing I do,” he might say if the action allowed such an introspective pause.

The tragic death is Kingdok’s; he is Bone’s sole tragic character (pp. 1257-1262). Formerly a mighty king, he turns over his power to the Hooded One. It is interesting to trace Kingdok’s character and appearance through the comic: in the early chapters, he looks like a large and especially toothy rat creature (p. 98), but he evolves into a gigantic walking mouth, a creature of nightmare (p. 480). Intimidating as he is, other characters gradually dismantle him in representation of his loss of authority. Thorn cuts off his right arm, symbol of strength (pp. 477-478). Rock Jaw rips out his tongue, symbol of the ability to give commands or opinions (p. 774). Gran’ma smashes in one side of his face with a statue, completing the mutilation (p. 850). Humiliated and debased, Kingdok insists that Thorn slay him even though she gives him opportunity to live (p. 1257). He will have none of it: he forces her hand and very nearly frustrates her quest. Kingdok is a noble character who destroys himself--the subject of tragedy.

The necessary death is Briar’s. She, along with the Locust, is a villain who needs to die if the story is to resolve, so we need speak no more about it.

The sacrifices have appropriate impact, for both Lucius and Kingdok have enough development to be sympathetic characters. After everything is wrapped up, the story ends with the conclusion of the myth: the interpreter characters, alien to the world of the story, return to their own world (p. 1332), “with the power to bestow boons,” Campbell would say. What exactly these boons are, we don’t know. That brings us back to the earlier question: do the bones change? Can they, in fact, bestow boons? Have they learned anything?

Before answering that question, I will pause to address fans who hope for sequels. Sequels to myths are inevitably bad because when the myth is over, it’s over. Whatever happens next is unnecessary and uninteresting. Does anyone want the details of Cinderella’s happy married life? Does anyone want to read about Sam mucking around in the Shire? If you don’t believe me, read Dune, a mythic story in its own right. When you’re done with that, read the sequel, Dune Messiah. If you manage to get through it and still aren’t convinced, read Children of Dune. Repeat as necessary with the remaining three sequels. Somewhere in there, you’ll realize that sequels to myths are bad news.

But now: do the bones change? I think the answer is yes, but their change is subtle and Smith makes a nod to comic characters’ unchangeability. The comic ends where it began, with the Bone cousins having an argument in the desert (p. 1332), the same argument with which we first me them (p. 19). Phoney clearly hasn’t learned his lesson; the story’s end finds him trying to rob people. Smiley is still a moocher. Fone Bone is still Fone Bone.

Yet they have learned something. They are going home together. Earlier, in The Dragonslayer, Phoney makes a serious move to head home without Fone Bone and Smiley (p. 588). But in Crown of Horns, he exclaims to Gran’ma, “I can’t leave without my COUSINS” (p. 1219).

As for Fone Bone, he has gone through a similar transformation; he must choose between Thorn and his cousins or, as previously described, between selfishly clinging to Thorn and unselfishly releasing her. Upon first meeting Thorn, he says, “.....Boneville....? ....What’s Boneville?” (p. 61). The sight of a beautiful woman has made him forget countrymen and homeland. But when he decides to go back to Boneville, Thorn says, “You don’t have to explain, Fone Bone. I know how much you love your cousins” (p. 1323).

As for Smiley, if anyone hasn’t changed, he hasn’t. We’ve learned a few things about his character, but they haven’t been changes. Smiley is inalterable because he adapts to any situation. Smiley bends like bamboo. His wu-wei approach to the world is evident in the way he goes along with Phoney’s moneymaking schemes: Smiley agrees to play along with Phoney, though as Phoney hints early on, Smiley may not be entirely on board, for Phoney says to him, “Satisfaction with YOU is always so TEMPORARY!” (p. 218). Later, we learn that Smiley made Phoney pay everyone for pies they had stolen as children (p. 963). Fone Bone opposes Phoney’s plans directly, but Smiley prefers to undermine them from within. Yet at the same time, Smiley seems to acquiesce to Phoney’s worldview as well as his schemes; as he says during The Dragonslayer, “You can’t feel SAFE unless there’s somethin’ to be safe AGAINST!” (p. 509), defending Phoney’s conniving plans. Characters like Smiley make highly entertaining sidekicks--Smiley could hold his own with any of Shakespeare’s wise fools--but such characters are never heroes. If Thorn or Fone Bone behaved like Smiley, they would have glided right along and adapted to everything--and the Locust would have won.

Now that we’ve discussed the high fantasy myth of Bone’s plot and the changes in its characters, we must discuss Bone’s underlying cosmological and cosmogonic myths.

The Bone cosmology comes from Australian aboriginal mythology. Callicott gives a good summary, which I will quote at length:

“Australian aboriginal mythology is referred to as ‘The Dreaming’ or ‘Dreamtime’--alternative translations of the Aranda word alcheringa. The contemporary convention of capitalizing these terms indicates that they are better understood as proper names than as descriptive nouns. ‘The Dreaming,’ read literally, suggests that Australian aboriginal mythology originated in and was sustained by dreams. However, while dreams per se seem to play a vital part in the spiritual life of native Australia, their role is not as large as the name would suggest. ‘Dreamtime’ seems to be the less misleading term, since the reference is to a special sort of time--the familiar time of the mythic human mind, a time that is at once long past and existing alongside the present, perhaps as dreams exist parallel to the waking experience. Elkin captures its dual sense of both long ago and right now, and its similarity to dreams: ‘the eternal dream-time--a time which is past and yet present, partaking of the nature of the dreamlife, unfettered by the limitations set by time and space’” [Callicott 1994:174].

Compare this to a conversation about the Dreaming from Bone 490:

Thorn: The Dreaming? Isn’t that the name for the OLD TIME?
Bone: You’ve HEARD of this?
Gran’ma: It IS the old time, but it still exists. It’s all around us.

Callicott indicates that dreams, as such, are less important in Australian mythology than in Bone. Campbell, when discussing the Australian Dreamtime, emphasizes and probably overemphasizes dreams because he wants to link mythology to Freudian and Jungian dream interpretation (e.g., Campbell 1968:18-19,137-138). If Smith gets some of his inspiration for Bone from Campbell, as I half suspect he does, the reader interested in the Smith’s original intent may profit from reading Bone’s mythology from a Jungian angle. Personally, I’m unimpressed when people undergoing Freudian or Jungian psychoanalysis start having Freudian or Jungian dreams, but this apparently impresses Campbell greatly (1968:11-12).

Whatever way Bone is meant to be read, we can say with some certainty that Australian mythology, with a heavier emphasis on actual dreams as entrypoints into the spiritual realm, forms the primary inspiration for Bone’s cosmology: “Dreams are windows to the spirit world...” “That’s what our ancestors believed. A world from which everyone comes... ...and to which everyone must one day return” (p. 330). Some of the more intriguing elements of Australian mythology, such as the mythologized landscape, song lines (Littleton 2002:648-649), totem animals, and increase sites (Callicott 1994:175) are absent from Bone. However, this quote from Callicott may be relevant:

“The ancestral beings were human but also had the characteristics of various animals--such as the emu, kangaroo, bandicoot, or red flying fox--into which they would eventually transform themselves. When their walkabouts were complete, each ancestral being ‘went down’ or ‘in’ at a certain spot” [Callicott 1994:175].

The only being from the Dreaming named in Bone is the Locust, represented as, and in control of, locust swarms. How this being of pure spirit (p. 782) relates to the material locusts of the mortal world is unexplained, but the Locust’s own going “in” to the world by being frozen in stone in the Eastern Mountains may reflect the Australian ancestors going down into the earth and remaining present through totem animals. The Ghost Circles, points where the barrier between mortal world and Dreaming is thin, may be similar to the increase sites where the ancestors entered the earth, but all these things in Bone take on a sinister aspect.

The cosmogonic myth of Bone is laid out on three occasions. First, Gran’ma tells the myth to Phoney (pp. 781-783). Later, Taneal radically reinterprets it (p. 999). It is presented for a third time in its own chapter (pp. 1173-1177). This third presentation is the clearest and forms the basis for this discussion.

The story begins like a fairy tale, “When the world was new, and dreams had not yet receded from the waking day...” “DRAGONS ruled the Earth” (p. 1173). We learn that the dragon queen Mim encircled the world and held her tail in her mouth (p. 1174). The image here comes from Norse mythology, in which the Midgard serpent is “of such an enormous size that holding his tail in his mouth he encircles the whole earth” (Bulfinch [1855]2003:333). The Midgard serpent appears to be an emblem of chaos, for he will fight the gods at Ragnarok and die by the hand of Thor (Cotterell and Storm 2006:204). Mim or Mimir (see this article from Brittanica), on the other hand, is a wise god who tried in vain to mediate a peace between the warring Vanir and Aesir (Cotterell and Storm 2006:210). Mim in Bone has aspects of both a wise world-preserving god and a god of chaos. Mim/Locust is a representation of the Indian Mahadevi or Great Goddess (Cotterell and Storm 2006:396, Campbell 1968:109-120). As Mim, the central deity of Bone is a world-preserver. As Locust, she is a destroyer.

“She was Cosmic Power, the totality of the universe, the harmonization of all the pairs of opposites, combining wonderfully the terror of absolute destruction with an impersonal yet motherly reassurance. As change, the river of time, the fluidity of life, the goddess at once creates, preserves, destroys” [Campbell 1968:115].

Campbell’s presentation of the goddess is similar to Taneal’s presentation of Mim/Locust: “This is MIM, the first dragon. You see her long body? She holds her tail in her mouth and gives life to the world.” “This is also Mim--but in her dark aspect. Here she is the lord of DEATH: The Lord of the Locust.” “She is the creator AND the destroyer... You cannot have life without death. The two are always together” (p. 999).

The point in Taneal’s version, then, is balance: Locust and Mim, creator and destroyer, must be in harmony. The first and third presentations of Bone’s mythos, however, are at variance with this presentation. In these, the Lord of the Locusts is a representation not of destruction to be balanced with creation, but of imbalance itself, an agent of chaos opposed to order. According to these versions, annihilation of the Lord of the Locust is the solution to the problem. According to Taneal’s version, the annihilation of the Lord of the Locust would mean everyone’s hosed.

The subsequent events of the story give the lie to Taneal’s explanation, leaving open the question of whether Smith intended Taneal to be in error or whether Bone has an internal inconsistency. The way in which Taneal’s presentation is given suggests to me the latter. Smith is not the first fantasist to try to force this kind of dualism into the high fantasy formula. As with the other attempts, the result is incoherency, as I’ll explain more thoroughly in the next essay. This essential incompatibility of two myths, incidentally, also gives the lie to Campbell’s insistence that all myths are the same.

Taking the Lord of the Locust alone, apart from Mim, we have a representation of another motif from mythology--the evil god who is imprisoned in the Earth but still has influence. This motif has appeared in ancient mythology and modern speculative fiction from Loki to Cthulhu. Loki from Norse mythology is probably the best-known version--chained under the earth where a venomous serpent drips painful acid on his face, awaiting Ragnarok, when he will be free to make war on the gods and destroy the universe.

Satan is in the same line of trapped gods. Note, for example, the language of Revelation 20.1-3 and 7: “Then I a saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and locked and sealed it over him, so that he would deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be let out for a little while.... When the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, in order to gather them for battle...” (NRSV).

Similarly, 2 Thessalonians 2.8 reads, “For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed” (NRSV). People have wasted time and paper trying to figure out who “the one who now restrains it” is. The nature of the restraining force is not the subject of the passage; the idea is that evil is for a while in check but will come out in full strength at the end of time. “End times” language appears in Bone as well, specifically referring to an indefinite future date when the Locust will be free of his restraint.

The battle between the dragons and the possessed Mim more-or-less resembles the ancient Near Eastern Combat Myth, a widespread story of creation best known from the Babylonian Enuma Elish in which Marduk defeats the rampant nature goddess Tiamat. In the Canaanite version, Baal defeats Yam (Coogan 1978:75-115). In both versions, a god conquers a chaotic being represented as a serpent, the ocean, or both. These stories are similar to the Titanomachy of ancient Greece in which the Olympian gods defeat the older, serpentine Titans (Littleton 2002:146-149). The Canaanite, Greek, and Babylonian myths all feature younger gods defeating older ones and usurping them. Similarly, in Bone, Mim, apparently the original dragon, is replaced by her children when they turn her to stone to trap the Locust. Smith’s version is perhaps unique in that he represents all the actors as dragons, beings normally associated with water and, hence, with chaos (e.g., Ingersoll 2005).

Finally, before ending, we’ll discuss the Crown of Horns. The Crown of Horns is an example of a common concept in mythology, a world axis or focal point, which Campbell calls the World Navel (1968:40-42). Typically, the World Navel is a mountain, such as Mount Meru in Buddhism (Littleton 2002:385), or a tree, such as Yggdrasil in Norse Mythology. Christianity, of course, which claims to fulfill the myths, has Christ hanging on a tree on a mountain, which is less a focal place than a focal event.

The Crown of Horns apparently has a complicated history. In an earlier version of the comic, the old headmaster explains the Crown as an antithesis of the Locust, so the Locust and Crown would destroy each other if they came in contact. Vestiges of this explanation remain in the One Volume Edition; in the climactic scene, Bone and Thorn are working on the assumption that a person possessed of the Locust can kill the Locust by touching the Crown (p. 1267). Nonetheless, Smith has altered the headmaster’s dialogue in the One Volume Edition to emphasize the Crown as a world axis, thereby removing the explanation of the Crown as an antithesis of the Locust: “The Crown of Horns sits directly upon the veil, half in our world, and half in the DREAMING world.” “It is the tipping point--the point of BALANCE.” “Some say it is the very HEART of our world” (p. 1099). The new explanation is perhaps more mythological, but the original makes better sense of the story.

The Crown of Horns is a crystal in an underground cave rather than a tree or mountaintop. I haven’t located a precedent for such a depiction of the world axis, though one may exist. However, the descent into Tanen Gard to reach the Crown of Horns mirrors any of various descents into the underworld or realm of the dead. Being as it is a graveyard for dragons with a bottomless pit at its center, intentional underworld imagery seems likely. In particular, Fone Bone’s harrowing journey to find Thorn, rescue her, and bring her back is similar the various stories of people descending into the underworld to find dead companions. The outcomes of these stories are various. Ea tries to rescue Ishtar from the underworld by sending a servant and is partially successful (Dalley 1989:158). Gilgamesh, upon losing Enkidu, tries to call him up, but gets only his ghost (Dalley 1989:120-125; cf. Ferry 1992:85-92). Orpheus tries to rescue Eurydice from Hades and is wholly unsuccessful (Cotterell and Storm 2006:69).

A reasonable parallel to Fone Bone’s descent into the underworld is the story of Savitri, from India, in which Savitri manages to win back her husband from the god of death, Yama, through cleverness and bravery (Bierlein 1994:205-209). It’s pleasing to consider the various outcomes of these stories in terms of the actions of their heroes: Ea sends a servant instead of going himself and gets Ishtar back for only part of the year; Gilgamesh doesn’t go at all and can only necromance Enkidu; Orpheus actually makes the journey to Hades but commits a fatal error, turning his story into a fine Greek tragedy; motivated by love, Savitri takes the journey, makes no mistakes, and retrieves her husband, much as Bone retrieves Thorn.

The Christian reader, of course, wants to know why it’s called the Crown of Horns, for it appears to be a pun on “crown of thorns.” The name is particularly odd since the Crown of Horns is not a crown but a large crystal growing out of a wall. The name recalls the world axis of Christianity, and little else may be intended. I’ve not been able to find the term in any of my sources. According to a Wikipedia article, if you trust such things, the Crown of Horns is also “an evil, intelligent artifact of great power from the Forgotten Realms Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting.” I doubt if Smith had this in mind. I also located the term in some Satanist stuff and one of the hoax versions of the fictional Necronomicon. I doubt if he had this in mind either.

A likely source of the image is the horned crown representing deity in ancient Mesopotamia. It’s tempting to draw comparisons with specific female Mesopotamian deities, especially the Burney Relief, an image of Inanna often mistaken for a depiction of Lilith, a figure from Jewish folklore, but the horned crown is also associated with male deities. It represents authority and power and may be intended as a culmination of Thorn’s journey of self-awareness, a journey she completes only with the help of the companion who initiated her journey in the first place.

No doubt we could find other mythological links if we kept exploring, but this essay has grown long, so I’m going to have to stop.


Bierlein, J. F.
1994 Parallel Myths. Ballantine, New York.

Bulfinch, Thomas
1979 Bulfinch's Mythology. [My copy is:] Gramercy Books, New York. [Note: The copy I'm using may be paginated differently.]

Callicott, J. Baird
1994 Earth's Insights: A Multicultural Survey of Ecological Ethics from the Mediterranean Basin to the Australian Outback. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Campbell, Joseph
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The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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