Recently I finished reading Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols (affiliate link), and it’s been one of the most enjoyable books I’ve ever read, albeit a difficult one.
I’m going to start off with a review of it, then move into my more personal thoughts to better organize them.
I read Man and His Symbols on Kindle, and it was well-formatted and organized. All the illustrations appeared clear and there were no perceptible typographical issues.
Looking at a book like Man and His Symbols it is hard to give a definitive review because of its nature. It is an overview of a lifetime of work, compiled not only by Jung himself but also by Joseph L. Henderson, M.-L. von Franz, Aniela Jaffé, and Jolande Jacobi.
The foreword by John Freeman is also of interest, and helps quite a deal in preparing the reader for what they should know about Jung.
Man and His Symbols is the first book by or about Jung that I have ever read, so I approach it as a novice who had some knowledge of Jung’s analytical psychology, but not strictly speaking all but the briefest of understandings. My knowledge was influenced more heavily by people like Joseph Campbell and Carol Pearson who have built on Jung’s ideas but approached them in a much different direction.
So with that said, many of the concepts were at least familiar to me, though my understanding of them was far different from what Jung’s intent was, colored as I was by casual discussions and partial understandings.
Actually reading Jung’s work first-hand in a manner intended for novices like myself changed my understanding of his philosophy and understanding of the psyche dramatically.
Each of the writers featured in the book has their own approach and intent, but the core concepts remain the same. In this way, I think that Man and His Symbols may actually be an ideal introduction to the work of Jung; Aniela Jaffé’s interpretations of symbolism in art particularly helped me break down some of the concepts.
Through drawing on the various authors, Man and His Symbols becomes a conversation as much as it is a statement, and it is much better for it.
I have launched into Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul in audiobook format, and the comparison of the two perhaps best presents an opportunity to describe Man and His Symbols in a way that makes sense.
Man and His Symbols is a survey of Jung’s ideas. It’s deep nonetheless, but the traversal into this depth is assisted by the various inflections that the different contributors to the volume add. It benefits from having a vast array of inputs, including connections to mythology and legend as well as anecdotes and examples of psychoanalysis in practice. This give an opportunity to fully express the notions it contains, but not necessarily to explore them fully. It is a starting point for further reading, either of Jung or those who were inspired by him.
There were things in Man and His Symbols which I understood the concept of, but not all the nuance of. Jung’s explanation of the collective unconsciousness, for instance, didn’t really click for me: I understood what its role was, but not what its essence was.
Modern Man in Search of a Soul is a different sort; it is a very detailed study of one particular topic, and while it too draws from mythology, anecdotes, and psychoanalysis in practice it is much more deep: if it were the first work of Jungian analytical psychology that I had read I would be greatly distressed by trying to understand it, but as a follow-up to Man and His Symbols it is quite interesting.
So, in short, my review of Man and His Symbols is best summed up in the following: If you want to know more about Jung and you are willing to spring further into reading, Man and His Symbols is invaluable. If you want a survey of Jung followed by interpretations by his followers, Man and His Symbols is incredible. If you are already familiar with Jung and understand his work, but you want to dive into the deepest depths of Jung’s works, Man and His Symbols contains interesting overviews. It is not that it is shallow, but it is merely scratching the surface of the depth and complexity of Jung’s total work.
Man and His Symbols is an interesting book, to say the least. As far as reading books for the purpose of self improvement, it’s definitely in the top five or so books that I’ve read, and I know for a fact that Jung influenced Jordan Peterson, whose 12 Rules for Life I not only enjoyed but also benefited personally from; Jung’s work is also referenced in Peterson’s Maps of Meaning, which I have been reading on-and-off for a longer amount of time than I care to admit to (admittedly, it is a rather voluminous tome).
While finishing up reading Man and His Symbols I also listened to Johnathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, though I did not write reflections on it and I don’t currently plan to. However, there is an interesting intersection here.
One of Jung’s teachings is the collective subconscious, and while Haidt’s work seems at first to dissuade from such an assertion (after all, he finds that moral judgments are generally culturally instilled), he has also found moral foundations that seem to underlie these moral decisions.
In essence, what people value, and how they perceive the outcomes of actions, influence their tastes. The moral foundations seem to be themselves tied to some sort of universal human mode (assuming, of course, that they are not hogwash) of thought. This seems to line up well with the notion of Jung’s collective subconscious, and help to explain theories of the mind and how it interacts with archetypes.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have put off writing this reflection for almost a week, and in that time I have also listened to a good portion of Modern Man in Search of a Soul, which means that my reflections are therefore colored by both Haidt’s work and further readings of Jung.
Since reading Man and His Symbols, I have become very conscious of my dreams. I do not mean that I am hyperaware of them, though I think I may remember them better than I used to because I have placed an increased importance on them, but rather that I spend more time reflecting upon them.
The results of such a self-assessment can be both encouraging and discouraging. On one hand, I have been able to reduce my stress and give myself a more positive outlook on life (though the portion of my life that I have entered into is the happiest of my life, and God willing it will remain so), but on the other I ask more questions, more deeply.
In this sense, reading Man and His Symbols has created for me a small conundrum, namely that of self-analysis, which carries dangers in and of itself (Shakespeare is not errant when he writes that the eye sees not its own reflection), but it has also practically helped me to sort out some of my anxieties. As someone familiar with Pearson’s work, the concepts of the shadow and the archetype are not novel to me, but Jung’s explanation is derived from his fascination with the mind, rather than the more practical slant that Pearson takes.
A year ago, I would have disdained Jung as being quasi-mystical. I don’t deny that there is an element of the mystic in him, but my perspective on that aspect of his life has changed. Jung is clearly in awe of that great unknowable, ineffable, uniquely human element of the mind-psyche-soul that blends conscious and unconscious.
Reading Jung, one is struck by how much less we have learned than we think we have. Haidt writes about people who have suffered injuries to the parts of the brain that are associated with emotion, and how they are paralyzed by analysis and make worse decisions than their uninjured counterparts.
Jung presents the unconscious in a way that one cannot help but draw parallels to the role that emotion plays. The subconscious is powerful and we cannot understand it (at least at present, but probably we will never understand it). As someone who is religious, this doesn’t particularly bother me, since my own personal belief is that the subconscious is potentially a connection to God and things beyond ourselves, and this seems to mesh with Jung’s notion of a collective unconscious
The anima and animus concept were known to me at a very basic level before I read Man and His Symbols, but I didn’t really understand them until after reading (or, at least, understand them as well as I now do). I think that it’s an interesting thing to consider, especially when looking at characters and how they’re portrayed/developed in fiction.
Part of what I really enjoyed about the book and is probably more personal than broadly applicable is the way that it really helps draw connections between symbols. I spent a lot of time studying literature before I ever really learned to identify symbolism, and that’s something I’ve been trying to compensate for now that I’m aware of what I was missing out on.
It’s not a great secret that I’m a fan of the game Warframe, published by Digital Extremes. I haven’t played it very much, but I’ve been stuck listening to “We All Lift Together”, a song created to promote a large addition to the game, and as a result I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I’ve been playing Warframe on-and-off since it was in beta, and while I don’t consider it my favorite game, I think it has some of the best (if not the outright best) storytelling in a game with a single linear storyline, despite being very minimalist in how it develops that story.
The way that it pulls this off is by managing to tell a story that combines deep psychology and mythical elements on a very fundamental level to make a narrative so compelling that player choices, generally absent except in the most superficial forms, are irrelevant.
There are practical considerations of this as well–much of the story takes place as flashbacks or responses to critical incidents–but this would be frustrating to the audience were it not tied to strong principles of storytelling.
Understanding Psycho-Mythic Storytelling
Psycho-mythic storytelling ties into Jungian notions of the subconscious and other elements of the human psyche, which is derived from while simultaneously informing stories that have emerged across the entire range of human society and experiences.
It is important to realize that many of these elements are archetypal; that is, that they do not have any single manifestation that can be pointed to as a source. Nonetheless, many of these factors are still universal.
As I work through examples of these events across Warframe’s storyline, I will introduce these as needed, however, an understanding of Jungian dichotomies is important.
Jungian dichotomies draw from the fundamental notion of paired elements (e.g. order and chaos, masculine and feminine, known and unknown) being represented both within and as an extension of all things.
Balance between the two extremes in a dichotomy reflects a more reasonable approach to the universe, one which is likely to meet with objective reality in such a manner that produces positive outcomes.
For instance, considering the very most basic of the possible responses, you have the conflict between known and unknown.
The known, generally, is not exciting. While there may be some contentment in the present, at some point the known gets boring; change is a natural state, and to remain in the known is to embrace stagnation.
However, the intrusion of the unknown is a terrible thing, because it represents the risk of loss, or more accurately the possibility that the subjective self will be harmed in some way.
The unknown is also the source of anything better than what is currently had, however. This makes it desirable; one who is able to frame an encounter with the unknown in such a way that they are able to approach it to their advantage is going to wind up having success in their endeavors, and their prize will be either what they desire or something that transcends that which they originally wanted.
Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, from which the Hero’s Journey is derived, draws upon this relationship with the unknown: the Hero must find it within themselves to find a subjectively greater future by entering the unknown and confronting it. You can find more in his seminal work The Hero With a Thousand Faces (Amazon affiliate link).
Much of what I am applying to Warframe is also based on the mythological analyses modeled by Jordan Peterson in his book Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (Amazon affiliate link). I’ve been listening to it on-and-off for the past few weeks, and I’ve been finding it incredibly interesting.
Tiers of Cosmogony
Before I get too far ahead of myself, I also want to talk about cosmogonic tiers.
There is a distinction in cosmogony based on the “depth” of experiences, and we can see this in classical myth as well. The concept of cosmogony centers around the idea that everything started as chaos, and then became more structured and ordered as things go along. Each generation overthrows its predecessors in a heroic revolution, although this eventually stops when we reach the current generation–the one in which humanity resides.
This can be distilled into tiers and generations. There’s not always a clear descent between generations (i.e. two generations may fit one cosmogonic tier in some places), but these figures can be generalized by category.
A good example from this comes from Greek myth, where we see Chaos, which is the first entity in existence.
At this point existence is beyond comprehension, and beyond anything that is relevant to our audience, and it is only through filtering down to further levels of experience that we reach anything that has relevance in human life.
Chaos’ cohorts and children (some of the distinctions here are blurred based on the telling) represent universal entities: Gaia, land; Tartarus, the underworld; Eros, the sexual drive; and so forth. These are primordial deities–they exist before the world that is known does.
These are personified entities (and, in some cases, Chaos is as well), but they are not directly interfaced with the human world. To humanity they are alien, and even when personified their motivations and drives are not necessarily comprehensible.
From this initial generation come the Titans, a second generation of the divine. These figures now have their own clear families, and by extension a clear role in the universe. More heavily personified, they are portrayed as the creators of humankind, but are themselves still more defined by their differences than their similarities.
The third generation, the traditional Greek gods as we would know them, represent archetypal figures. They have a particular divine domain, but otherwise they are human in motivation and depiction. They obey the rules which apply to humanity (albeit frequently with special privileges; these rules often apply only to their interactions with each other) and face consequences when they fail to do so.
The gods serve as representations of tradition and upright action.
It is in the fourth or later generations that we see mortals and demigods appear. These figures are defined by their vulnerability; where the earlier cosmogonic forces develop from existing outside the world to eventually become a mere part of it.
Onward to Warframe
The psycho-mythic nature of Warframe’s narrative contributes to its emotional power. It takes place in a universe where the players take on the role of the heroic individual–one born into the fourth generation of the cosmogony in the same place that humans would fall in the Greek mythosphere–but one which relies on symbolism and psychological establishment of the cosmogony that unfolds.
The reason why I define this as psycho-mythic, instead of simply psychological or symbolic storytelling, is that it relies both on the more modern storytelling methods and approaches while also building heavily (and not unintentionally) on the mythology of ancient times.
The layering of the cosmogonic process is a key part of this: the players’ characters (collectively known as the Tenno) are children of the old age, but living after its fall.
Children of the Unknown
The Tenno fit the role as the heroic individuals of the mythical saga very well; they are a sort of Horus figure (Peterson elaborates on this mythical type in his book Maps of Meaning) who must bear a sacrifice of themselves to make the world whole.
This sacrifice is not literal death, but it does entail suffering and pain. The Tenno are children who have known nothing but war, and while they have deific powers, they are also exiles.
Hunted by the Orokin, their own society playing the role of mythic progenitors, due to the threat that they posed, the Tenno are awakened by their protector, the Lotus, in the current time of the game.
They are hunted and hounded by forces that are generally their inferiors: as representations of the fourth-generation heroic individual (i.e. a cosmically significant figure that has been personified enough to lack a deific cosmological significance and instead adopt personal motives) they face the Grineer, Corpus, and Infested factions within the game, each of which represent monstrous figures that are themselves the product of the Orokin but also the inferiors of the Tenno.
The hallmark of the Tenno, however, is also their outward identity, the Warframe.
The Warframe as Protective Father
One step up the generational chain from the Tenno is the warframe. In-universe, the warframes were created for the Tenno, but when the Tenno awaken the warframes are out of their control–at least, most of them are.
Each warframe is based on a theme, and these themes often tie into great symbols. While they are not innately sentient (with the exception of the Excalibur Umbra, which was created by fusing an Orokin with the infestation that spawns every warframe), they are the first experience that the player has with the Tenno, and are defined by their impersonal relationship with the universe.
This is not to imply that the warframe has no personality unto itself, but rather that it has a role in the third generation of the cosmogonic structure. Each of the individual warframes is an example of something that has a deific role in the universe: the Excalibur represents mastery of the blade, the Volt represents power over lightning, and the Loki represents trickery and deception.
Each warframe plays a deific role, rather than a personal one, and while they are merely tools to an end they are simultaneously idols to concepts that play an important role in the life of the Tenno and in the universe of Warframe, assuming the role of protector gods among primitive civilizations that have begun to spring up in the ashes of the Orokin world.
In this sense, the warframe serves as a sort of archetypal father, who in a psychological sense is often thought of as a bringer of order.
The Titanic Lotus
It is the Lotus who searches for and awakens the warframe and the Tenno, however.
To draw a parallel to the Egyptian myth of Osiris, it is Osiris’ wife who finds the parts of Osiris after he is murdered by Set and reassembles them, giving birth to the mythical figure Horus, who is a fourth-generation cosmogonic figure representing humankind.
The Lotus fills this void in the psycho-mythic framework of Warframe; she is the one who awakens the Tenno, and also plays a key role in mentoring them and directing them toward solving the problems with their universe.
However, the Lotus’ origins are shrouded in mystery, and as the world is revealed through the storyline of the game it is clear that she is not necessarily who she seems.
At first, the Lotus is associated with Margulis, an Orokin woman who raised the Tenno after they encountered the void (both of these are first generational figures in the cosmogony), but it is later revealed that she is actually a Sentient, one of the creations of the Orokin.
The Sentients have a clear parallel to the Titans of Greek mythology; the first gods to have been purified and complicated to the extent that they can represent natural forces, rather than abstract spheres of existence, the Titans are often portrayed as rebelling against or usurping their precursors, only to be usurped in turn by the third-generation deities.
When the Sentients turn against their creators, the Orokin, the warframes are created to destroy them; the warframes skip to the third cosmogonic generation but it is the Lotus, a second-generation figure, who preserves them from both her fellow Sentients and the Orokin themselves, mimicking the myth of Zeus being given to Amalthea for safekeeping. The fact that both the Lotus and Amalthea are feminine figures is important in a Jungian psychoanalysis; the archetypal father can bring order but also tyranny, while the archetypal mother brings promise but also risk.
The Orokin and the Void
The Tenno gain their power from the Void, a sort of ur-chaos. The Void is an extradimensional space, one that requires special means to access.
The Void is the palace of the Orokin, the grand civilization that spawned the Tenno (again, we see the generational nature of mythology resurfacing), though they were unable to reach it without significant sacrifices and even for their technologically advanced civilization it was something of an outlier; when they fell, so did their dwellings in the Void, which exist in the current day of the game as either derelicts or uninhabited, but still active, stations.
The Void serves as a primordial first-generation figure in the cosmogony of Warframe; many ancient myths involve a later generation’s members returning to the originator of the world and slaying it, making its corpse into their home.
The Orokin serve as additional manifestations of this first level. Along with the Void, they are the ultimate progenitors of the Tenno, originally children who were lost in the Void following a failed expedition to that extra-dimensional space.
The fact that the Tenno, who ultimately are responsible in part for the eventual Orokin conquest of the Void, are able to draw power and shelter from the Void has mythic significance; it is common for a great heroic figure to slay a great threat and make use of its remains for sustenance, shelter, or both.
The Universe in Balance
The conflict that unfolds in Warframe is one of bringing the universe into balance. The Tenno, reawakened and representing humanity, face both other fourth-generation forces, like the Grineer, Corpus, and Infested and the Sentients.
The struggle against other “mortal” forces is not uncommon in mythology, and is a defining trait of some of the early mythic heroes like Odysseus, Beowulf, and Gilgamesh: their foes are not necessarily divine in nature, and they vanquish them using mortal might and cunning.
In this way, the Tenno are able to fight the Grineer, Corpus, and Infested with their own might. As joint members of the natural world, they are on the same playing field, though the Tenno as part-divine by nature of their connection to the primordial first-generation entity of the Void are at a distinct advantage, and as epic protagonists are therefore going to succeed in almost every challenge (even if doing so requires them to come to apotheosis first, something seen in the Second Dream and other storyline missions in Warframe).
It is worth noting that the Tenno is not automatically awoken fully to their abilities at the start of the game, but must instead acquire them during the storyline as they grow in knowledge of their true nature. Up until they achieve this divine apotheosis, it seems that the primary conflict is strictly between them and their worldly antagonists.
As the story progresses, the risks and dangers increase with it. The Tenno are not able to face the Sentients alone. While their warframes provide them with some divine power, the warframes are themselves very much natural; they have power drawn from the Void, but it has been distantly removed and is revealed to have always come from the energy flowing from the Tenno to a warframe, rather than being an intrinsic property of the warframe itself.
In the most recent story update, the Tenno encounters Ballas, an Orokin traitor who sided with the Sentients, but has been corrupted by them. He gives the Tenno a boon, a weapon with which to slay the Sentients, before the scene ends.
Warframe’s compelling story draws its weight from being designed with psychological and mythical archetypes that make every character and element more significant than it seems at first glance.
This powerful storytelling method means that although it has relatively little dialogue compared to many other games and almost no player choices, it manages to tell a story that is part of an epic cycle and put the player at the helm of a character who they can sympathize with.
The ensuing connection to the Hero’s Journey means that the player wants to do the same thing that their avatar does, without requiring coercion or massively branching narratives from the writing team.
I’m not always a huge fan of Disney’s policies. They’re a massive corporation, and their pursuit of increasingly restrictive copyright laws is something that is a major concern of mine.
However, I’m also an advocate for storytelling, and occasionally I have to go to the theater with my family and see something solid, and Disney usually delivers that.
Anyway, despite the fact that it’s not even Thanksgiving yet, Disney has already released its version of The Nutcracker, an interesting take on the classic ballet.
For those who are totally oblivious to its existence, here’s a quick trailer:
I’ve sort of settled into a review/analysis format when I talk about movies (see my previous Christopher Robin and Incredibles overviews on the Loreshaper Games blog), so let’s start with my review, which I will keep free of spoilers.
Disney taking fairy tales and turning them into franchises is not new, nor is their big-budget live-action formula.
“The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” takes that approach to the classic Nutcracker story, with a fairly large departure from the standard format in which the story is told. These do not get in the way of the general conceit, but do make it substantially more complicated.
As a result, it is impossible to say that the film is a faithful adaptation of the ballet or the short stories that inspired it, even though it includes both musical interludes and plot devices (such as many of the characters) who are drawn directly from the original.
The film centers itself around a young protagonist, Clara Stahlbaum, who is experiencing her first Christmas after the loss of her mother and coming to terms with the whole ordeal and moving on with her life. Along the way she enters a fantastical realm and does the standard Hero’s Journey stuff, but that’s pretty much all stories so don’t count it out just because it’s orthodox.
I’d classify it as being fairly character driven, and this is one of the strongest strengths, due to the incredibly solid acting delivered throughout the whole film.
Clara is striving to come to terms with her mother’s death and reunite their family. Loss and coping seems to be something of a common theme for children’s movies, with the Incredibles 2 taking a much milder approach to this in the form of coping with Helen Parr’s new job as opposed to the literal death of Clara’s mother, and in the analysis section I’ll give some theories as to why. However, I will say that there is a good connection between her internal struggles and the struggles unfolding around her, which makes the plot flow really quickly without being too confusing (of course, I am not the film’s target audience).
This film is part of a recent trend of Disney movies aimed at younger audiences that treat their viewers as intelligent, like Christopher Robin was earlier this year.
In general, I thought it was solidly executed in all counts. The acting was solid, the music was quite on point (I’m not even a fan of most of the parts Tchaikovsky’s ballet, despite generally liking his other work, but they don’t over-use the Sugar Plum Fairies motif until you’re sick and tired of it, so I count that as a win), and the CGI was flawless.
The characters are sometimes a little flawed. The character of Clara was fantastic and is a great example of showing heroic growth in a film protagonist, but the main villain (who is revealed in a twist that isn’t incredibly surprising, but this is a movie made for children) comes across as a little shallow (albeit reasonably shallow, as I’ll get into more detail about in the analysis).
One of the things that I do have to say here is that Disney does a good job of paying homage to many of the elements of the original tale, including ballet sequences and set-dressing that is iconic and recognizable. The storyline itself is quite different than the original fairy tale, so don’t expect anything similar in terms of that.
The Four Realms as a setting element is something of a weakness. While Clara’s travels into a Narnia-esque realm set a good window-dressing, there’s an odd feeling that we didn’t really get a good look at the setting, but we also know more than we need to know about it.
Mid-movie setting exposition is tricky, and they did about as good a job as they could, but there were places mentioned and briefly explored that didn’t matter to the plot, and that’s one of the sins of the newer Star Wars movies that Disney should have learned from.
Also, there is literally a character named Sugar Plum in this movie. Sure, I get it, Sugar Plum Fairies, but do you have to name one Sugar Plum? Too saccharine for my tastes.
All-in-all, I’d say that this is a good movie. A star-studded cast delivers a PG-rated performance that’s not going to go down in history as great, but is also not the worst use of your time.
I’ll be honest; I think that this could be a good teaching movie because of the fact that it has fairly little objectionable content and is really rich in symbolism and depth, not to mention the fact that it ties in naturally to a short story that you could read and therefore allows you to use the film as an educational enrichment.
It’s not a Christopher Robin or Lion King tier movie, where it’ll be something worth returning to, but I wouldn’t dismiss it as a cynical cash-grab. If you’re going to the movies anyway, consider it.
Also, it’s not a musical. Misty Copeland is in the film, and she’s fantastic, but you see as much of her in the credits sequence as in the movie itself.
Basically, I watched this movie because I was tagging along, but I thought it was quite good. If I had to quantify it, I’d give it a well-earned four out of five stars.
A Star Wars Rant
This film’s storyline should have been used in The Last Jedi or The Force Awakens to establish Rey’s character.
It’s really strong and ties into all the places that you could want it to go. Change all the set dressing and actors, and you’ve got a perfect setup here.
This movie proves that a lot of the complaints about Disney’s perceived practices are invalid; the film has an incredible diverse cast, all of whom are talented. It has enough development in each of the central characters to make them stand out, without detracting from Clara’s growth. It has comedic relief. It has moments that hit on deep sadness and fear.
The Last Jedi could have had these things too, but it didn’t follow the Disney formula.
There’s a lot to analyze here, and I really thought that this movie was really good at working the Disney magic, even if they didn’t always get the payoff they desired.
Most people are probably aware of the Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell, but I think that we can take a step back to just plain Jungian interpretation of many of the archetypal symbols that show up in this film.
I’m not sure what Disney’s in-house writing guide says about storytelling; I know that they have something like the Hero’s Journey as an in-house document that they use to crank-out award winning screenplays, but I’d be willing to bet that it’s really in-depth, and that The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is going all-in on that symbolism.
And, really, it should. The Nutcracker as a fairy tale has clear and evident symbolic importance to most of its elements, and Disney’s version plays with that a little while being conservative in many ways.
The Known and the Unknown
A large part of any good story is knitting together the known and the unknown. Without having the known world represented, you lack any connection to humanity, but failing to enter the unknown leaves the storytelling exercise pointless.
Stories about people going to work, coming back home, and going to bed, then repeating the process, tend to be boring unless there’s some struggle that makes that process difficult.
This is because, as Jordan Peterson describes in his Maps of Meaning, the storytelling process is about mediating decisions that come about when the unbearable present meets the unknown future.
To put it in simpler Jungian dichotomies, there is the known and the unknown, and a liminal bridge between them. To bring balance between these two things is to bring the mind into wholeness.
The story starts off with Clara’s life in chaos. Her family is beginning to celebrate her first Christmas after her mother’s death, and Clara is clearly not emotionally prepared for this.
She is told that she must keep up appearances, or that certain behavior is expected, or that it is important to maintain traditions. This is the immature animus–the avatar of order–failing to speak to her.
She is lost and drowning in the unknown; she doesn’t know what to do now that her mother is lost.
The feminine often symbolizes opportunity, especially in Jungian interpretations. While the full reasons for this are beyond the scope of this analysis, it is relatively simple to claim that the death of Clara’s mother represents the loss of this optimism about the unknown. It is an end to the positive perceived valance of the unknown that fosters turning the unknowable spaces around us into knowable spaces.
The conflict, therefore, stems from having an imbalance; the world is chaotic and this chaos confronts Clara on account of her mother’s demise. The loss of her mother has stripped Clara of any optimistic worldview about the future; the unknown now represents, quite reasonably, only death to her, because she has lost sight of the potential for a positive unknown.
Entering the Four Realms is an opportunity for Clara to undergo a Hero’s Journey, initiating a growth of character that could also be classified as a bildungsroman.
This controlled and willing encounter with the unknown represents the formation of an animus within Clara’s psyche; she goes after the prize of knowledge, of being able to open a gift left behind by her mother in an egg (symbolic of fertile potential) which can only be opened by a key which has been lost in the Four Realms.
This animus is a means of structuring the world into order once again; by encountering the Four Realms, which were brought to life by her mother and exist in a sort of magical space, she is able to put her thoughts into perspective.
It can also be said that the magical Four Realms have a parallel in similar stories such as C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, which is that they carry deep symbolism related to introspection and reflection; they are not only literal places that the characters are able to visit, but a place where the objective reality that filters into consciousness is no longer the governing force and instead the mythic symbolism of the subconscious can filter in.
Rodents and Owls
One of the interesting symbols in the film is that of the rodent. The Mouse King is a key figure in the film, but he winds up being a help rather than a hindrance. The counterpart to them is an owl, an assistant of Drosselmeyer, who is to look over Clara, and who provides her with guidance in a couple points throughout the film.
Rodents are vermin, and typically symbolize chaos and the unknown. However, the owl represents a counterpoint in both representing order and wisdom but also preying upon vermin. Despite this, Drosselmeyer’s owl ignores the rodents throughout the film (for a reason that becomes symbolically important near the film’s conclusion).
Near the opening of a film Clara and her brother try futilely to capture a mouse in their attic, which is significant because it reflects Clara’s inability to adapt her psyche to the uncertainty of her new life devoid of maternal care.
Later in the film, but still in an early scene, Clara passes down a hallway lined with owl mosaics (I believe on both sides of the hallway, though I only noticed the mosaics half-way through the scene and the far side was obscured in such a manner that I cannot be 100% positive). However, in a brief shot the owl mosaics on one side have been replaced with mouse mosaics. At the end of this passageway, she is brought into the Four Realms.
Over the course of the film, the owl plays a relatively minor role but appears in key scenes in which Clara is experiencing doubt. It reflects the return of the known world’s relevance to Clara’s psyche, allowing her to return to a mental state of order that has been difficult to find since her mother’s death.
It is the rodent, however, as an avatar of the unknown, that is perhaps more important to consider.
The Mouse King is a frequent adversary throughout the earlier parts of the film, but in the latter parts of the film he turns into an ally for Clara and the Nutcracker (whose role is much less relevant to this analysis; he exists primarily to support Clara, but he still provides some deeply symbolic elements to the story).
This transition from enemy to ally–paralleled by the character of Mama Ginger, who is in league with the Rat King–provides the psychological counterweight to the undesirable elements of chaos.
By discovering that the unknown does not necessarily need to be feared, Clara develops as a character into a heroic figure, fulfilling the type that has been set out before her.
The Triumph Over Doubt
In the film, it is clear that the main enemy is not necessarily the unknown, but rather fear and doubt. This is a core Jungian psychological concept. This uncertainty is created by an inability to balance the psyche, something that Clara overcomes.
But it also provides the basis for the main villain’s motivations; Sugar Plum (ugh, that name), who was “abandoned” like Clara upon Marie’s death, is incapable of overcoming that doubt and fear.
This imbalance leads to her seeking to become a tyrant; an out-of-balance representation of Jung’s “dreadful father”, whose role in the universe is to pursue order above all else, even at the expense of change.
The usurpation of Clara’s rightful place as Queen of the Four Realms and the oppression of the populace that comes alongside Sugar Plum’s ascension, as she creates an army of tin soldiers who lack individual agency and awareness, is a classic example of this archetype playing out.
At one point, Sugar Plum explains clearly that with her army, she will never be hurt again.
This symbolizes the key message of the story: It is necessary to accept reality to move on with one’s life, but that process requires self-discovery and acceptance of agency.
There’s other things that can be said here, but I’m not necessarily the person to say them and I have constraints on my time, so they’ll have to go unsaid for now.
Basically, I felt like the cinematography was well-done, the characters were generally vivid, and the storytelling had that Disney magic that comes from a deep understanding of the psychology of stories.
Were there missteps? Yes. But I don’t think they grew to the point of detracting from the journey, and Nutcracker is an interesting example of how the Hero’s Journey can manifest, albeit one wrapped in silly window dressing.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Pearson’s personality archetypes, particularly the Sage, which is at odds with some of the other stuff I’m writing about and requires a different approach, so I can’t get these thoughts out without really going into this separately.
One of the interesting things about the Sage is that they’re often associated with a lot of somber, rules-oriented thoughts, but many of the heroic examples of the Sage are going to be characters that enjoy their lives quite a bit. They’re not Puritans–or at least not Arthur Miller’s unhappy, scheming Puritans–but rather they’ve discovered freedom that is deeper than mere anarchic desire.
To the wise Sage, true freedom comes through responsibility, through recognizing the path that leads away from evil (however one wants to define evil; I’m a big fan of the simplified “infliction of deliberate harm” method as a short-hand), and through following the rules required to do what is right.
In a sense, the Sage who isn’t a total flaming wreck recognizes that there are rules that they need to follow, but that these rules serve an end. With that knowledge in mind, they can do something that is more potent than just going after perfect adherence to the rules that govern them.
The reason why this is important is that a mature Sage discovers the freedom to do what they need to do without having it consume them. They know what costs actually reside beneath the surface of their actions, and they can take responsibility for them. They make informed decisions that provide them with a brighter outlook for tomorrow than what was had for today.
This is part of living a happy, fulfilled life, and it is only possible when one finds meaning, or purpose. Victor Frankl, the famous psychologist and Holocaust survivor, notes that many of his patients made a tremendous recovery from devastating depression or anxiety when they were able to find a sense of purpose.
The Sage can find that purpose, and they hunt for the way to fulfill the role they must take on.
When they do this, they are freed from doubt, uncertainty, and all matter of trivial privations. They face challenges that are worth overcoming, and never created by their own mistaken actions.
However, without that core, there is nothing to guide life, and no reason to do anything other than live in the moment. It is responsibility, to society, to others, even to ourselves, that gives us hope.
This responsibility can’t be handed down from above, like the disastrous totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century attempted to do. Like over-sweetened foods, the efforts of these ideologies to control their prisoners often revolved around the notion of purpose–that the individual’s responsibility lies in the collective.
But it is only a small fraction of people, if any, who can find purpose for themselves in the machinations of such a regime. Real purpose is found through introspection, exploration, learning.
Too often we see people living lives of chaos. Their goals are unset, their purpose unclear. Devoid of responsibility they embrace only oblivion. This may provide some momentary satisfaction, but it never compares to the products of finding and accepting a purpose.
Likewise, it is important to remember that purpose is about finding something outside of the self. While self-improvement can be a valid route to purpose (for instance, I find that my current attempts to lose weight have a high amount of meaning in my life), it is not enough in and of itself. My weight loss is meaningful to me because it gives me an ability to pursue my other sources of purpose–writing, God, teaching–rather than as an end of itself.
To bring us back to the topic of the Sage, we can consider this: if you have purpose, but no rules to live by, you will be no more likely to achieve your goals than someone with no rules. Small challenges can be overcome by instinct; otherwise our species would have died out a long time ago.
Meaningful challenges–the ones that give us a reason to exist–require us to embrace the wisdom that comes with accepting our limitations. That includes knowing when to subordinate our judgment about what is right and wrong, which can become corrupted by our desires, to established codes (I’m religious, so you can take a wild guess as to how I do this), and also acknowledging the limitations of our perceptions.
However, the Sage goes beyond this: you do not just embrace the limits, but also what they allow you to do. It’s about recognizing the merits of the rules, which also allows you to find whether or not the rule itself has value. It’s very easy to know the consequences of the rules, and what the rules present, but when you can point to a rule and say what it does for you, it will be more effective.
One thing that used to bother me as a writer is that I would always have a point I wanted to make, and not really know how to make it.
My attempts to be obvious were heavy-handed and artless, and when I was subtle I found that the stories I wanted to tell didn’t say what I wanted to say.
This was the cause of no mean frustration for me, since younger me wanted to make a point with everything, to the point of ultimately giving up and writing either stuff that I considered meaningless drivel or stuff that was so chock-full of symbolism and heavy-handed ideas that it lacked any real development or originality.
As I’ve been branching out into creative writing, I also have felt a pull to move toward other sorts of writing. I’m going to try my best to keep these essays non-political and positive, or at least not negative and spiteful.
Since this blog is no longer strictly about games, I feel that it’s a good time to diversify, since a lot of the work I’m doing on my game projects is strictly in the background.
This was originally going to be a velotha’s flock post, but I decided that some of this should be a stand-alone thing. One of the issues with game design, I feel, is that most of it doesn’t really go down the road of storytelling. Even more narrative-focused games often do so with a focus on “story over rules” rather than following any sort of storytelling praxis.
I think that there are a few reasons for this, and I’ve got a brief breakdown of what I think GMs and designers can do to prevent mediocre storytelling in their games.