Shadow Climaxes

Having written 10 science posts (and thanks BTW to all who’ve read that series), a little art for a change. Kundalini brings all your previous attachments to the surface — what you believed, what you loved, and why, has to be combed through. This process revealed just how great had been the influence genre fantasy & sf on me, at a formative age, so the next two posts (in a sequel to my rather tongue-in-cheek very first one) look to see if there is any actual meat in what I loved at the time. If you like this stuff too, here’s a different way to look at it.

In a society that is probably the most fictioned in history, f/sf does seem to matter. ‘Geekdom’ aside, serious work like that of John David Ebert is very relevant — his views on 2001 and Close Encounters as millennial annunciations, amongst many other clever spots (2005, that’s my review there), will strike a chord with anyone who grew up in the cinema I remember. There seems to be quite a lot of this around that I haven’t read yet. We kids were being seeded with all sorts of beliefs about spiritual transcendence, personal power, symbolic truth, etc., in our popcorn afternoons. I’ve seen serious journalistic articles pointing out how big blockbuster fantasies are now functioning as a church-replacement.

So from my current perspective, is there anything in it? (Something has been stirred, certainly if we’re to judge by Jedi Religion, not to mention this, the horror the horror…) Do all those fantastic images get at real personal transcendence, do they seed something that can flower? Or can you not get there from here? In my meditations one definite pattern did appear — an attempted Jungian transcendence of the Good vs. Evil idea. I’ve called this the ‘Shadow Climax’.

(SPOILER ALERTS; I’m giving away four endings here.)

I got it first in The Lord of the Rings, the beginning of so much else in the field. All its beauty aside, there’s no doubt of the general relevance of this book — all the obvious societal and ecological points speak to that. Tolkien was bang on concerning the cultural need to throw away the Ring of Power, cease choking nature and allow it to speak and to be re-divinized, the inevitable decline of civilization even if the battle with tyranny should be won, and the Stoic perseverance required to achieve any victory of any kind in such a situation, etc. LoTR’s obvious moral authority and relevance in such areas is all the more striking for the book’s consistent rejection by lit crit ‘authority’, who mostly never saw any of this coming.

But it’s also a personal and psychological book. On the one hand, the big armies, the living landscapes, the noble warriors, the great battles; on the other, the true moral core, Frodo and Gollum. And I’m not the first to note that Gollum is in fact a Shadow in the Jungian sense (see Clute & Grant, 1999) — he’s the vile, the sneaking, the rejected, the perpetually desiring, the repulsive, but crucially, he was once nonetheless a hobbit, and Frodo cannot help but recognize a kinship with him on a deep psychological level. Those are the very ingredients of the Shadow, in analytical psychology.

So the stage is set for a different kind of climax to the story, not an obvious good-wins “big battle”, but a Shadow Climax. Only here, for me, Tolkien falls short because of his Christian ideals. Frodo can’t throw the ring away, so can’t win. He’s not strong enough. From a Jungian/kundalini perspective he needs to investigate his shadow, come to terms with it, discipline it, transmute it, join it, and become, since that’s where his power is. But when characters like Frodo and Gollum do come face to face, this cannot occur. Gollum accidentally destroys both the ring and himself, and never appears, in the last analysis, anything other than simplistically evil and somewhat inept. Frodo doesn’t overcome his own moral weakness, and does not transcend anything.

So yes the big war is won, but Frodo from then on is weakened, depicted as suffering. Psychologically, he has lost. He wishes only peace, evinces only vulnerability, feels much pain. He has not experienced healing, and when he leaves for ‘the West’ (that is, for the transcendent afterlife) it’s because he must heal. The idea that, through Gollum of all characters, he might have healed already, and transcended in this life, could not fulfill itself in this kind protagonist, the everyman of Tolkien’s world; I can’t imagine a divinized Frodo! (Unlike a Wizard possibly, but the Wizard turns out not to be mortal anyway.) Even today, yoga as a way to access inner transpersonal divinity comes under regular attack from Christians.

To me there was always a dissatisfaction with that result, and I probably was not the only one. (Tolkien mentions getting letters which stated Frodo should have been executed as a traitor rather than fêted as a hero — see 2000.) But that isn’t the end of it, because then the Shadow Climax got repeated and revised several times in other works of fantasy and science fiction. People were looking for another way to play it. The next place I remember seeing it was in Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), a book I probably read more deeply than Tolkien if anything. Le Guin herself has said that Tolkien is the source, the beginning of understanding fantasy, and (consciously or not) I am sure the Shadow Climax of LoTR was in her mind as she wrote her own. One critic at the time, trying to place her work, said: “… we have cast about for names and produced Tolkien. This however is only a rough guide and even unfair, for Ursula Le Guin is no imitator”. No definitely not, but her book is linked to Tolkien thematically as well as generically. (I recall the reviewer’s words from reading the book jacket at the time, BTW, which gives me some idea of how absorbedly I was reading; I don’t know who wrote them.)

The Shadow Climax of WoE takes place between Ged, the main protagonist, and a being actually called ‘the Shadow’, which Ged has summoned accidentally in a moment of pride, then been hunted by, hunted it in return, and now comes finally to confront. There is no war, no army, no world-threatening — Le Guin’s interest is in the revision only of the personal and psychological aspects of LoTR (amongst other aims entirely separate of course.) Ged and Vetch in the Land of the Dead are like Frodo and Sam in Mordor — the hero is drawn into himself in a private struggle, while the friend is absolutely faithful but unable to comprehend; but where is the evil threat of Mordor? Completely absent. And when Ged meets the Shadow, there is no violent struggle — they simply say each other’s names, and both names are “Ged”. And they join and are one.

One person to whom I mentioned this aspect of the tale once said, “They shouldn’t give kids books like that.” But there is no horror in this powerful moment. It’s about self-realization, completion. Here, in the genius of Le Guin, we have a fantasy attempt at identifying a specifically Jungian shadow with the Yin, the necessary other half of the bright Yang, the night, the dark, cold — but not the evil in any simplistic way. We have real acceptance, real vision. As a result, Ged is healed, and the danger is past. The t’ai chi symbol replaces 2 millennia of good vs evil in the soul of the West. (This combination of opposites is distinctly Taoist of course.)

But strangely, transcendence doesn’t follow. As a matter of fact, from a beginning powerfully alive and connected to nature, Ged does gradually become lamed throughout the rest of the series of books (at least the four I’ve read) of which WoE is the first; less and less able, less and less the answer to the questions life poses. His wisdom seems impotent. He has been “healed” in a quiet way that shows acceptance of vulnerability, but is “whole” only superficially and resembles the post-Climax Frodo in many ways. This is not the alchemical rebirth of kundalini, the living vision in the waking worlds that transforms the mind and body in ecstasy. So the healing is well short of what is really possible.

In the final Star Wars movie, Return of the Jedi (1983), essentially the Le Guin solution is repeated, although with LoTR elements resurrected too. The Shadow Climax gets an additional dimension (and a very psychoanalytical one!) from the father-son relationship between Shadow and Hero — Darth Vader again is the rejected, the ‘bad’, that his son Luke must somehow deal with whilst identifying with it, and the Emperor is the tempting Ring which will be thrown into the abyss and destroyed. There is a recognition on the part of Luke, a joining of forces where there had been enmity — but Vader then dies anyway, and Luke’s story, although it has ended well, is over. He doesn’t transcend either. As in LoTR, the Shadow destroys itself (as human beings will) and with that destruction any chance of transcendence is lost.

However fascinated and stirred by these works I would have been as a child, then, I couldn’t have followed their threads to the where I’m at now. But there is one more example of a Shadow Climax that has stayed with me a long time, and which I studied as hard as any of those others, and that’s found in The Dark Crystal (1982) — a film I believe Jim Henson acknowledged as his masterpiece. As with WoE, this is a movie I have heard some say they are disturbed by, throughout even, that they find the gentle Mystics:

"Dark Crystal" -- Mystic

as unpleasant as those evil pistachios, the Skeksis:

"Dark Crystal" -- Skeksi

I had the exact opposite reaction — I loved the entire world from start to finish.

The Shadow Climax here has clearly been knowingly designed, just as with Le Guin and Lucas, using the Jungian/Joseph Cambellian formula. But it is very original too, since it takes place between the surviving members of these two races, the Mystics and the Skeksis, which although geographically separate have been depicted as profoundly linked throughout the film by the device of having a Mystic die instantly, whenever his Skeksi counterpart does, and vice versa. The Mystics, “natural wizards”, having hardly done anything throughout the story, suddenly announce that ‘it is time’, and that they are going to ‘return to the castle’ where the Skeksis are. And when they reach it there is a perfect Shadow Climax — in the Crystal Chamber designed by the extraordinary Bryan Froud, the hitherto powerful Skeksi tyrants are cowed and do not attack; the two races become drawn together and merged in a magical alchemical transcendence to reveal a third, new and obviously transcendent one, the UrSkeks:

"Dark Crystal" -- UrSkek

composed of equal parts of both. (These would originally have had glowing coloured chakras and energy flowing through them, according to Froud, had Henson not run out of time and money. Froud very deliberately employed real-life sacred symbols throughout the film, including sacred geometry, the kabbalistic tree of life, acupuncture points and the four- and five-element systems, as may be seen even more clearly in the famous accompanying book, 2003.)

The UrSkeks deliver loving wisdom to the protagonists, resurrect one of them (kids’ movie remember), and then they ascend — they rush upward, a move very reminiscent of kundalini. Here then is some real spiritual truth in a fantasy movie, which thereby becomes a real recommend for anyone wanting to meditate — or to get their kids to meditate! Come to know the Shadow intimately, and you end up with more light, and more efficacious light, than if you had simply tried to avoid the whole issue, is the message — and this transformation empowers you by transforming you outside your old identity. Sadly though, even here, the Shadow Climax is not experienced by the protagonist. The ‘gelflings’ of Dark Crystal, like the ‘halflings’ of LoTR, stand for the everyman and don’t get to experience transcendence. Perhaps this is a reflection of the essential otherness of spiritual endeavour, but I’m not at all sure it’s a necessary one.

And that’s also the last fantasy in which I recall having experienced a Shadow Climax. The idea seems to have become played out at that point. If you have seen one since, though, please mention it! I haven’t been keeping up with genre fiction in a long time. I would love to know, if this motif has reappeared, what has been done with it by subsequent authors. Have we really yet to see a fantasy in which the protagonist is reborn to superconscious power by means of accepting and transforming a Shadow? Hasn’t someone written one? Have I missed it? :)

Next post I will finish this topic off without too much seriousness. In long meditation sessions, what past weirdnesses returned for inspection! The overtly bs Christian sex-morality of Ghostbusters and Superman, contrasted with genuinely useful spiritual ideas in C. S. Lewis and Larry Niven (!), plus the 80s cartoon serials with excellent empowering imagery for the kiddies. See you then.


EDIT: Someone has uploaded the final moments of Dark Crystal to YouTube, and tagged it “kundalini”. :)


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