I read Clyde Ford’s The Hero with an African Face(Amazon affiliate link) this week and found it to be one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Now, with that said, it’s not a book I’d recommend to a disinterested novice. It targets an audience already familiar, to an extent, with the work of Jung and Campbell. While this knowledge isn’t strictly necessary, it helps. People familiar with literary criticism in general should not have difficulties.
The Hero with an African Face shines in its respect and depth of interaction with the myths it presents. Ford does a tremendous job bringing everything together in a meaningful way. Likewise, he builds from simple to complex themes and topics.
He also does not try to cram the whole of African mythology into a single schema. He addresses the contrasting and parallel elements within individual cultures without over-simplification. Ford talks about both the myths and the culture surrounding them with great detail. This allows Westerners with different cultural assumptions than Africans to better appreciate the myths.
As is common among surveys of mythology, Ford groups the myths by topic. He spends some time with creation myths, then on to myths about the underworld, and so forth. He also, as mentioned earlier, focuses on the cultural origins of the myths. The Yoruba oreishas’ stories come separate from the stories of ancient Ghana. The exception to this is when they are deliberately compared, which is always marked.
I’m not an expert on African myth. My limited knowledge of the subject is much less than Ford’s, so I can’t critique his own knowledge. I can say with confidence that my knowledge of African mythology has grown by reading this book.
A book like this has three ways it can provide value.
The first is its information. Assuming Ford’s work is correct, The Hero with an African Face delivers. His work is recommended by experts, which I will have to satisfy myself with. While the body is just 200 pages long, each page carries new and significant information. The book cannot cover the entirety of African mythology, but it gives a foundation.
As a source of stories, the book has more ambiguity. Its length limits it, and its stories are often abridged. Despite this, it still offers glimpses at captivating, and unfamiliar, stories. Many of the stories show the deep archetypal underpinnings of storytelling. These stories are absent in the Western canon, and give a feel for the breadth of human expression. It gives a whole new context for understanding the modern African writer.
The last criteria is how pleasant the book is to read. Ford uses diagrams and images to great effect, and bolsters the text. He intersperses personal and historical experiences with stories and literary theory. The whole text rings with passion and conviction, and carries such meaning that it is hard to pull away from.
Ford is a master wordsmith. Although he contents himself to apply others’ methods to a new frontier, he elevates their work. By applying a different perspective, Ford unlocks secrets that others were blind to. In particular, his take on the heroic cycle is refreshing. Ford contrasts the fact-based Western culture with the expression-based African culture. This paints the picture of a hero who gains qualities, instead of one who passes waystones.
This is an easy book to recommend. It’s academic, but also bears intrinsic interest. It tells stories that touch on universal themes, and helps us interpret all stories. It deals with the individual and the whole of humanity in one marvelous attempt.
I’m going to do something a little out of the ordinary today and focus on a quote from something that I read that isn’t really an aphorism for one of my reflections. It’s a quote from Clyde W. Ford’s The Hero with an African Face (Amazon affiliate link), and I found it very interesting for its clarity.
Typically I’ve tried to gravitate toward short aphorisms, but I’m beginning to exhaust the ones that I have at my disposal that speak to me, so I’m probably going to wind up going over a greater range.
This is both exactly what I hoped would happen when I started doing this, and something that I feel a certain amount of hesitation over. Ironically, I don’t even keep close track of who reads these, so this may just be me writing for myself anyway. Lest I sound vain, I do this as part of a self-improvement exercise, and I’m not able to work diligently without some accountability, so the publication of my thoughts is a necessity toward a different end than fame or success. Still, I won’t object to any money thrown my way.
Across time and throughout the world, the hero strides out of myths and legends as the one who has ventured beyond the security of the present into an uncertain future, there to claim some victory or boon for humanity left behind.
Clyde W. Ford
The Hero, in an archetypal sense, turns chaos into order. That is what they do.
I do not believe that I have ever heard the notion of the hero expressed as a traveler in time before. That is something that is an important concept, because time and space have both unique and parallel expressions in consciousness.
I like the notion of the hero moving into an uncertain future, which speaks to me in a way that I don’t often hear.
We have a tendency to think of stories as something static, something that gets set in stone and never changes.
Of course, there’s also Reader Response Theory, which argues that stories are always what people make of them, but I don’t like holistic approaches to understanding because they’re never as good as what you come to piecemeal.
The truth is somewhere in-between. Stories have the intended meaning of the author (RRT doesn’t deny this, but basically ignores it) and their more immediate purpose and meaning in our lives.
There’s a link here in the form of the archetypal, Jung would say the collective unconscious, elements that are common across all times and places. People can see the archetypes and connect to them, even if they are not aware and conscious of what the archetypes are.
A lot of these archetypes are most clearly expressed in myth–which does not mean that myths are simple and primitive–because ancient myths carry meaning for us only in the sense that we are aware of it. There are things that an American will see that would never occur to an ancient Arabian, or African, or Asian, or Greek mind. There are things that were very important in the original context that have fallen away from our knowledge (and knowing these can allow us to make even more connections which sometimes are obvious in their universal quality only once we awaken to them).
But the real thing here is that the Hero moves from the current unbearable world into the world of chaos and potential. It’s a cosmic force, in the literal sense; it is the sun rising in the east and falling in the west, being brought across the sky on a fiery chariot.
And this is why we have anything good at all. Everyone is a hero when they move the world in a better direction. It is the act of sacrifice for a noble purpose, even if the sacrifice seems insignificance (sacrifice is, loosely defined, merely giving up something in the tangible present for intangible benefit), and this is what builds society.
The Hero is the basic unit of life. We can choose to rise to the call or fall into squalor.
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’ve been perpetually struggling to keep up on my reading even as I double down on work and writing. Last week I read The Mere Wife, a novel (affiliate link) by Maria Dahvana Headley, and I found it quite interesting.
To borrow from the blurb on Amazon:
New York Times bestselling author Maria Dahvana Headley presents a modern retelling of the literary classic Beowulf, set in American suburbia as two mothers—a housewife and a battle-hardened veteran—fight to protect those they love in The Mere Wife.
I’d say that this is a bit of an understatement, but it’s a good summary of the book in the sense that you should get an idea of what it is so you can decide whether you’re interested in checking it out further.
If you’re not sold, however, I strongly suggest that you check it out. It’s an interesting, compelling read.
The whole novel is told in this delightful style, something that falls nicely between stream-of-consciousness and more traditional styles. The result is a book that is occasionally confusing, but only so much so as the complications of reality are to its characters’ minds.
Most of the time, it manages to combine the sort of crisp and clear imagery that one rarely finds outside of epics; I found myself frequently thinking of Homer and Beowulf as I looked at the language and deep descriptions, which are tremendously indulgent but have a sense of action to them, something that you see with many works that belong to an oral tradition.
As far as craft goes, I don’t think I can recommend it enough. It’s rare to get such a great glimpse into characters’ heads,
Thematically, it’s heavy. Many of the themes discussed relate to PTSD, family drama and infidelity, and violence. It’d get a nice graphic R rating if it were made into a movie.
However, while The Mere Wife may occasionally veer into the realm of the grotesque, it does so no more than sacrosanct myths. Where it resorts to vulgarity it does so to depict life as it is, and while I wouldn’t be passing it out on a middle-school reading list, I’d definitely recommend it to a mature reader, especially one who has already become familiar with Beowulf.
Indeed, one of the things that struck me as I read The Mere Wife is how close it manages to feel to that epic. The three act structure is maintained, though it is different, and the characters are all closely drawn from the original myth, but given their own life and meaning.
Honestly, even if you haven’t read Beowulf, I can still recommend The Mere Wife. The protagonist, Dana, is based off of the character of Grendel’s mother, who is barely a footnote in the original epic but comes to life throughout the novel as a tragic figure.
The tragedy plays deeply into the American consciousness, but also in general to the world of the 21st century. The loss of mysticism, digital panopticon, paranoia in the war on terror, and racial tensions of our day all are developed into themes and touched upon, questions that are answered, unanswered, and explored.
Universally, The Mere Wife puts us into the shoes of its characters. Loathsome or ennobling, each gets a fair shake, and we are left feeling sympathy for all of them. It lives up to the legacy of sagas and epics, and I was able to get through all 320 pages of the tale in just a couple days, finding every excuse possible to read it.
I really cannot recommend the book enough. I will conclude with the first paragraph of the novel; it was all the preview I needed to be convinced that it was worth checking out:
Say it. The beginning and end at once. I’m face down in a truck bed, getting ready to be dead. I think about praying, but I’ve never been any good at asking for help. I try to sing. There aren’t any songs for this. All I have is a line I read in a library book. All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.