An allegory is an extended metaphor wherein a story illustrates an important attribute of the subject, perhaps characters, places or events, representing real-world issues and occurrences. It is used because it can readily illustrate complex ideas and concepts in ways that are comprehensible or striking to its viewers, readers, or listeners. And/or it is used to convey hidden meanings through symbolic figures, actions, imagery, or events, which together create the moral, spiritual, or political meaning.
Two TV series full of allegorical meaning which appeal to limited audiences will appear on American TV this month. Both confront obliquely, as allegories do, the belief systems of modern Americans.
On American TV it is difficult to present series dramas with allegorical themes because each of the potential 100 million viewers relates to the world differently particularly as mythical or religious symbolism applies to living a virtuous life or a vile life.
If you believe or are inclined to believe in one or more deities, that will color how you see the world. It will also color how you see the world if you believe the Universe - all of time and space and its contents - is randomly evolving - meaning changing incrementally in structure, form, organization, and/or makeup over time albeit logically though without the benefit of rational choice with hindsight.
Regardless of your outlook on those matters, there is the question of "specialness" - in the context of the Universe, are humans "special."
Let's draw a simple comparison. Is there something "more special" about anatomically modern humans as compared to California red-legged frogs? Making such a judgement about "specialness" is a subjective process where "subjective" means thoughts of the thinking subject rather than the object of thought.
Individual frogs don't tell us if they are "special", but individual humans do so regularly. And it can be annoying. Sure each individual is unique, as is each individual frog and as is each individual rock. But we don't use the term "special" that way. We mean "particularly valuable when compared to others" like a diamond is particularly valuable when compared to driveway gravel.
That question of "specialness" is, of course, the core question underlying the story of the HBO series The Leftovers which just began its third and final season. The Leftovers starts three years after the "Sudden Departure", the inexplicable, simultaneous disappearance of 140 million people, 2% of the world's population, on October 14, 2011.
The gnawing question is were these people taken from us because they were living a virtuous life while the "leftovers" were not? Obviously, they were "special" but it doesn't seem like virtuousness or vileness had anything to do with it.
The billions left behind experience the impact of the sudden loss of loved ones, but because it was 2% of the population, the loss isn't very unique to you and therefore not very "special." Then there are social and philosophical questions around what it means to be left behind, when others were "chosen" unless of course it was a random albeit logical event - much like 100 years ago we couldn't understand those large bones people found in the ground which appeared to be from animals that really weren't like animals we saw.
Why did they disappear? It can't be right, because they weren't "special" like us, of course.
The Leftovers began as a novel by Tom Perrotta. In an interview about his novel, Perrotta explained:
That brings us to a new 2017 Starz TV series....I thought a lot about the Evangelical Christian worldview, and this apocalyptical vision is part of it. I thought the idea of the Rapture was both poetic and richly metaphorical. Isn’t life itself a Rapture in slow-motion? Aren’t we left behind by the people we love who die before us? ...So in the end I borrowed the Christian Rapture and used it for my secular purposes.
The Leftovers deals with trauma on a grand scale and explores different reactions through the various characters. Some...try to re-establish a feeling of normality in the community, they cling to their former life in order to pick up from where they were interrupted. Others...believe that the ordeal revealed an emptiness in their life. They can’t go back, they have to invent a new way of life. This is the novel’s real theme, the way people are changed by events that surpass their understanding and the different ways in which they try to recover from a cosmic tragedy.
What if, for a moment, you reconsidered the phrase I used earlier "you believe or are inclined to believe in one or more deities" in the context of someone saying it is hard, perhaps impossible, to find a religion that has only one deity.
A number of people who identify themselves as members some of the world's most significant religions think their religion is "special" because it has only one deity. And yet many who identify with Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, for example, would have a hard time explaining the difference between a deity and those listed in Wikipedia's List of angels in theology, List of theological demons, List of saints, and List of early Christian saints. Particularly in an attempt to contrast to a religion that has a pantheon of major and minor deities, many of those whose mind screams "there is but one god" will inevitably fail their religious history test.The Oxford reference defines deity as "a god or goddess (in a polytheistic religion)", or anything revered as divine. C. Scott Littleton defines a deity as "a being with powers greater than those of ordinary humans, but who interacts with humans, positively or negatively, in ways that carry humans to new levels of consciousness beyond the grounded preoccupations of ordinary life".
But as human life evolves deities become seemingly irrelevant, less popular. People believe in new myths, metaphorically weakening the players in the old myths. In 1988 Douglas Adams, author and creator in 1978 of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, wrote the second book in the Dirk Gently series The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. In that book, Adams explores what it means to be a deity aging, becoming irrelevant. A key character is Odin.
Hugo and Nebula Award-winning English author Neil Gaiman said of Adams who died in 2001 at the age of 49:
Also in 2001 Gaiman's novel American Gods was published. If you read my political blogs, you have read repeatedly that migration is the essence of California. Here is how one reviewer explains American Gods:I think that perhaps what Douglas was was probably something we don't even have a word for yet. A Futurologist, or an Explainer, or something. That one day they'll realize that the most important job out there is for someone who can explain the world to itself in ways that the world won't forget; who can dramatize the plight of endangered species as easily (or at least, as astonishingly well, for nothing Douglas did was ever exactly easy) as he can explain to an analog race what it means to find yourself going digital. Someone whose dreams and ideas, practical or impractical, are always the size of a planet, and who is going to keep going forward, and taking the rest of us with him.
The name Mr. Wednesday tells us what we need to know, as Wednesday is the "day of Woden", reflecting the pre-Christian religion practiced by the Anglo-Saxons. Linguistically, Old English wōdnesdæg is really linguistically derived/evolved from the Latin dies Mercurii "day of Mercury", reflecting the fact that the Germanic god Woden (Odin) during the Roman era was interpreted as "Germanic Mercury".After being released from prison to discover that his wife has died, Shadow Moon finds himself being courted for a job by a man named Mr. Wednesday. While traveling cross-country with this mysterious stranger, he discovers a world populated by ancient gods and other mythological beings that our immigrant ancestors believed in when they first came to America. Not only are the Old Gods fading from the collective consciousness, but they’re also being targeted by the personifications of America’s New Gods, who get their power from technology and mass media. Wednesday wants to rally the Old Gods for a battle, and needs Shadow’s help to convince them to fight.
Early on in the book, Shadow asks Mr. Wednesday if he’s American. “Nobody’s American,” he responds. “Not originally.” Those four words represent the central thesis of the book: that in a nation made up of different immigrant experiences (including even Native Americans, whose ancestors traveled across the Bering Strait during the Ice Age), there is no quintessential way of being. Makes sense, considering that Gaiman himself is an immigrant and wrote the book entirely based on places he’d been while on a lengthy road trip.
Of course, a story about legendary religious figures is also ostensibly going to be about belief and sacrifice, both of which the deities of American Gods need to survive. And it’s also about the staying power of mythology and legends, and how they are warped and shaped over time by the people who learn them and pass them along.
Odin (from Old Norse Óðinn) is a widely revered god in Norse mythology, associated with healing, death, royalty, the gallows, knowledge, battle, sorcery, poetry, frenzy, and the runic alphabet, and is the husband of the goddess Frigg, associated with foreknowledge and wisdom. The English weekday name Friday (etymologically Old English "Frīge's day") bears her name. In Anglo-Saxon England, Odin held a particular place as a real ancestral figure among royalty, and he is frequently referred to as a founding figure among various other Germanic peoples.
The English settled what is now the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. They were, of course, avowed Christians who regularly used the names of Norse gods in common conversation. We won''t even mention who settled the part of the United States where Fargo takes place except to note that Odin and his buddy Thor (the day of the week Thursday ia"Thor's day" from Old English Thunresdæg, 'Thunor's day'), regularly appear in English language literature and stage and screenplays.
Simply, all the old gods in American Gods were brought here by our ancestor-migrants, regardless of their professed religion. The old gods worry that they're being displaced by new gods such as Technical Boy, petulant god of the Internet, part Silicon Valley punk billionaire, part cyber-bully (in the book a fat hacker kid, but in the series Max Headroom’s annoying younger brother) and Media, goddess of screens, taking the form of Lucille Ball among other TV characters.
The allegorical reference, of course, is that these creatures exist because people believe in them. The power of the old mythological beings has diminished as people's beliefs waned. New gods have arisen, reflecting America's obsessions with media, celebrity, technology, and drugs, among other things.
The regular cast is remarkable. Appearing in every episode are Brits Ian McShane, known to American TV audiences for his role as saloon owner Al Swearengen in Deadwood, who is Mr. Wednesday and Ricky Whittle, known to American TV audiences for his role Lincoln in The 100, who is Shadow Moon. Appearing in almost every episode are Gillian Anderson, Cloris Leachman, Kristin Chenoweth, and many others you will recognize.
Stories of disputes between deities allows a culture to place all its aspects in perspective. Most significant cultures in history have knowledge deities associated with knowledge, wisdom, intelligence, language, schooling, rhetoric, invention, and the arts. We don't acknowledge our deities. So we create them without an awareness of what we are doing.
The Leftovers raises the issue by having us watch how we might struggle in the absence of any comfort from a knowledge of our deities. American Gods thrusts into our consciousness deities such as Odin, the ruler of Valhalla, who sacrificed his eye and was hung for nine days from the world tree Yggdrasil in order to gain the wisdom of the ages.
What message will Americans get from all this? For we do believe in technology more than any other deity - we recreate ourselves in the fun angels of Facebooks, Twitters, YouTubes. But real American Gods created the most powerful technology well beyond anything Thor could have dreamed of. Have recent generations forgotten the true power of the deity of technology, the power to create real Leftovers from death? Will America learn anything from a manifestation on their many and various screens of an allegorical Lucy Ricardo?