You will never have the amazing, show-stopping ability (Magic Duel)

Because the nineteenth-century Chinese shopkeeper running
the Store of Mysteries wasn’t enough of a stereotype, let’s
give him some kung-fu action grip, too. Sigh.

It’s December 1, 2012. The top song, as it will be for most of the month, is “Diamonds” by Rihanna, and the top movie is still Twilight. In the news, BP is suspended from bidding on U.S. government contracts as part of its woefully inadequate punishment for causing the Deepwater Horizon disaster; thousands protest Egyptian President Muhammed Morsi’s assumption of sweeping powers last week; and Time announces the candidates for 2012 Person of the Year, including the Higgs boson. For some reason, their inability to distinguish between subatomic particles and people does not completely discredit them as arbiters of the worthiness of persons.

We ended last season on a bittersweet note. The defeat of the changelings was certainly a good thing for our characters, and the solid two-parter built around that defeat a good thing for the show, but the inherently paranoid nature of an “evil shapeshifter infiltrator” plot had a subtle lasting impact, helping to legitimize paranoid readings of the show. Paranoia, of course, is characterized by overactive pattern recognition—it is often characterized as “seeing patterns where none exist,” but that’s absurd. To exist, something must be a material entity, but patterns are not material entities; they are relationships between those entities, which can be separated from the entities and expressed symbolically. For example, there is the pattern that objects fall when you drop them, which can be expressed with a mathematical formula relating masses and forces and accelerations, or with the simple word “gravity.” The equation for gravitational attraction is the pattern, and the equation is also a statement, constructed of symbols; patterns, in other words, are constructs. They are not entities that exist in nature, but tools we create in order to aid us in understanding nature. (Which is not to say that, for example, the laws of physics aren’t true. Being a construct and being true aren’t mutually exclusive—quite the opposite! To be a true statement, something must first be a statement, and all statements are constructs.)

All of which is a complex way of saying that paranoia is not “seeing patterns that aren’t there,” but rather “imposing patterns where they don’t belong.” Now of course “where they don’t belong” is a subjective judgment, and thus where the line is between a paranoid reading and innocent speculation is equally subjective. Ultimately, paranoid readings by fans and critics are mostly harmless, since their power to influence the show is limited.

Paranoid readings become somewhat more problematic, however, when they begin to influence creators, especially when those paranoid readings become attempts at unifying theories. The general result of treating a unifying theory as a formula is for works to become, well, formulaic. Which brings us, of course, to the monomyth, or as I like to call it, The Paranoid Reading That Ate Hollywood.

To briefly summarize, the monomyth was a theory proposed by the folklorist Joseph Campbell and described in detail in his The Hero with a Thousand Faces, that there was a single unifying story that crossed cultures, in which a hero is called to adventure, sets out into the world, and then returns home having mastered that world. Of course if one interprets the structure as vaguely and metaphorically as possible, then it is possible to more or less fit nearly all stories into it—but at that point, one is saying that most stories start by introducing a status quo, then have some kind of conflict, and end by restoring the status quo or establishing a new one. (Even then, there are exceptions, such as Ernest Hemingway’s famous attempt to write the shortest story possible: “For sale: One pair baby shoes. Never worn.”) In other words, Campbell’s discovery ultimately amounts to the observation that if you define a category vaguely enough, it will hold a lot of things.

Where the trouble starts is that Campbell also defined a much more complex and detailed formula for the monomyth, dividing the three stages into a multitude of substages and significant events, then using a handful of cherry-picked examples to show how the structure applies to many different traditional stories from different cultures. Which, it is worth noting, is hardly unique to Campbell and not inherently problematic. There are common elements and structures that recur in many stories, as witness the popular website TVTropes or its professional equivalent (and predecessor by a number of decades), the Stith-Thompson Index of folktale types and elements.

Where Campbell becomes problematic is in his insistence that the monomyth is universal, because it signifies a universal experience of adolescence. Which is nonsense to begin with—there is no such thing as a universal signifier—but also carries the danger of converting his attempt at a description of how stories work into a prescription. That is, his attempt to convince the analyzers of stories that there is only one story that can be told could instead convince the tellers of stories that there is only one story that should be told.

Which brings us to the second villain of our piece, George Lucas. Lucas made a little movie you may have heard of, Star Wars, and in so doing essentially invented the big summer Hollywood blockbuster as we know it. He has stated that he deliberately followed the monomyth as a recipe, and he made a great deal of money doing so, with the consequence that Hollywood learned the monomyth as well, and fixated on it as The One True Way to Tell Stories Make Money.

Which is a problem if you like variety in your stories, if you like them to be non-formulaic. The power of the monomyth within film and television is now such that anything which resembles the monomyth gets pulled gravitationally into it. Just as shows like Lost and The X-Files have trained us to instinctively engage in paranoid readings, series like Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer have trained us to instinctively expect the story beats of the monomythic formula.

One of the dangers of the dominance of the monomyth is the excessive focus on adolescence. If every story is the story of adolescence, then adolescence is the only story, and reaching adulthood becomes the end, rather than the beginning, of one’s life story. The epilogue to Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows, for instance, is disappointing largely because it implies that nothing has happened in the decades since the end of the characters’ adolescent adventures, since all of them have precisely the lives one would have expected based on who they were and what they were doing at the end of their adolescence—that for them, growing up meant that all stories are ended forever. The ending of Buffy, while rather more satisfying, carries largely the same implication: after three seasons of trying to escape the cycle of once-a-season monomyths, Buffy finally succeeds by destroying the premise of the series. She can go anywhere and do anything, has total freedom to experience any kind of story she wants—and at that precise moment, the series ends, because the monomyth tells us that adults don’t have stories worth telling, unless those stories can serve as metaphors for adolescence.

And so when Friendship Is Magic ends a season with both a strong encouragement toward paranoid readings and an extended, blatant Star Wars reference, the implication is strong that the monomyth is coming, especially since Friendship Is Magic actually is about the process of maturation and socializing, which is a large part of adolescence and therefore the monomyth structure. The only thing surprising about the presence of monomythic elements in “Magic Duel” (written by M.A. Larson and directed by Jayson Thiessen) is thus that it manages to turn away from them in the end.

That there are Jungian elements in play in this episode is fairly obvious. Trixie is not only Twilight’s foil but her Shadow, the image of that part of Twilight which she works to overcome–in her case, her initial antisocial focus on developing her magic over relating to others. That in the end Twilight must save Trixie, rather than destroy her, confirms her status as a reflection of Twilight’s own darkness. The specifically Campbellian elements, however, are also present. For instance, that Trixie’s power source is the Alicorn Amulet makes her equally a shadow of Twilight’s primary mother-figure, the alicorn Princess Celestia. She is thus the Dark Mother, and Twilight’s final making of peace with her is the Atonement with the Mother (fittingly for this show, both are gender-swapped from the standard-issue Hero’s Journey). Twilight initially Refuses the Call by trying to stay in Ponyville when Trixie tries to drive her out, and is punished by harm befalling her loved ones (compare Luke Skywalker’s initial refusal to be trained by Kenobi, immediately followed by stormtroopers killing his aunt and uncle). She encounters a good mother-figure/mentor in Zecora, acquires the Gifts of the Goddess, and prepares to face off with the Dark Mother once more so that she can return home. And just to make clear that this is not simply paranoid reading on the viewer’s part, Zecora tells Twilight she “must unlearn what you have learned” and has her levitating objects while standing on her head, at which point Twilight is interrupted by a message telling her she needs to help her friends–all clear references to Yoda’s training of Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back.

At the same time, a degree of departure from standard formulae is already apparent, most notably in the titular magic duels. Typically, magic duels in fiction tend to take one of two forms. Often (as in Star Wars and Harry Potter) they strongly resemble non-magical duels such as fencing, Old West-style gun duels, or even street brawls (as in Buffy). Alternatively, they also frequently take the form of the shapeshifting contest, the most familiar examples of which are probably the competition between Merlin and Mim in The Sword and the Stone and the one between Dream and the demon Choronzon in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, but mythological and folkloric examples (especially if one includes the non-magical variant in which the shapes are indicated by words or gestures) abound. Equestrian magic duels, however, work very differently: rather than assuming competing forms or trying to destroy one another, Trixie and Twilight instead each cast spells which the other tries to dispel or undo, with Twilight losing the first duel when she is unable to undo the effects of Trixie’s age spell.

This departure is then compounded by Twilight’s trickery in the second duel. Her apparent Gift of the Goddess, the amulet given to her by Zecora, is a fake. She has learned no useful magic from Zecora’s tutelage, and her apparent Apatheosis into a massively powerful spell-caster is a trap to get Trixie to try to swap amulets. In other words, the episode that opens with Trixie defeating Twilight at her specialty, spell-casting, ends with Twilight defeating Trixie at her speciality, stage magic. Through all this, it is ultimately Trixie, not Twilight, who grows; this was never the story of Twilight’s maturation at all–and even Trixie has not “grown up” in a singular leap, but taken a single step toward greater maturity and socialization.

Given the immense gravity of the monomyth in the modern culture of television, coming this close to it and then veering away is quite an achievement, and the result is a leading contender for strongest episode of the third season (which, interestingly, tends to shine when it puts characters up against their Shadow archetypes). But there is a price, unfortunately; the series did not quite attain escape velocity, and as such must sooner or later come crashing back down into the monomyth. The monomyth’s endgame was not averted in this episode, only delayed, and the result will be the show’s greatest crisis since the departure of Lauren Faust, and the deepest rift within the fandom to date.

The Apatheosis of Twilight Sparkle is coming.

Next week: I’m at a con, so guest post! This time, another good one by the ever-reliable Spoilers Below.

7 thoughts on “You will never have the amazing, show-stopping ability (Magic Duel)

  1. I think I missed the “blatant Star Wars reference” during the changeling episodes. What was it?

    Anyways, when you think about it, you're right that Twilight wasn't really the one who had to grow in this episode. But that raises the question of what purpose, besides an unmasked Star Wars homage, her training with Zecora served? I don't think it was beyond Twilight's capabilities to come up with a plan like this before this episode and most of what she did with Zecora was, at best, a way of reminding her to look outside the box for solutions. Again, the real reason for that montage is clearly a nod to Lucas but that kind of answer doesn't really work diegetically.

    PS. I've only ever seen the word “Apatheosis” spelled as Apotheosis before. I'd assume a typo except you repeated it twice.

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  2. So… I screwed up, and here is the acknowledgment: The blatant Star Wars reference is in “Return to Harmony,” not “A Canterlot Wedding.” So it's not that the season ends with a blatant Star Wars reference and an endorsement of paranoia; it's that it *opens* with a blatant Star Wars reference and ends with an endorsement of paranoia; rather than that episode being an announcement that the plague of Campbell and Lucas is coming, it's that the season is bookended in such a way as to make that announcement.

    And no, that's just me consistently misspelling “Apotheosis.”

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  3. Also, wasn't Angel basically meant as a refutation to the idea that adults don't have interesting stories? Angel used monsters as metaphors for adult problems, like Buffy used them as metaphors for teen problems.

    Unfortunately, it didn't work quite as well.

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  4. The ending of Buffy, while rather more satisfying, carries largely the same implication: after three seasons of trying to escape the cycle of once-a-season monomyths, Buffy finally succeeds by destroying the premise of the series. She can go anywhere and do anything, has total freedom to experience any kind of story she wants—and at that precise moment, the series ends, because the monomyth tells us that adults don’t have stories worth telling, unless those stories can serve as metaphors for adolescence.

    Like

  5. Oh. Heh. Yep.

    I think Angel is at its best not when it uses monsters as metaphors for adult problems, but when it uses them to satirize adult problems. This is why enemies like Jasmine and Wolfram & Hart worked so well, with the former being basically modern Christian apocalypticism cranked up very slightly, and the latter modern American Big Business exaggerated basically not at all.

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