The Gray Tradition: Monomyth

I think it’s probably useful if I try to list the characteristics the books in what I’m calling the ‘Gray Tradition’ have. This is a working list, not a complete one. Not every book does all of these, and I’m not at the stage yet where I can say which of these are necessary or sufficient. As I say, I’m at the stage where I’m seeing what I think are patterns, where I’m starting to make links. I don’t have conclusions at this stage.

Note that the treatments of the subjects can be extremely varied. Also: some of these concepts are in ancient folklore and as old as storytelling, while, looking at them, some are clearly rooted far more locally: in the counterculture of the sixties. I would like to look at how these things originated, how they were popularised.

As you can probably tell from those caveats, I’m thinking aloud here, rather than carving into stone and I would welcome any help. I don’t give any examples here, I’m going to come up with a (similarly rough) list of books that I think fit soon. For some sense of who I’m talking about, I named some authors in the first post in this series.

So, the books of the Gray Tradition tend to:

Have an intrusive narrator, even one who appears as a supporting character in the story.

Be a metafictional narrative – one that points out that it’s a story, foregrounds fictional contrivances, features existing fictional characters, is about the power of storytelling.

Explore philosophical issues, usually ‘large’ ones such as the existence of God, the nature of reality or what it is to be human, rather than everyday ethical dilemmas.

Be written by men.

Have a protagonist who starts in the mundane world, even a hyper-mundane one. He either lives in some grimy, dark city or occasionally a faceless suburb. Their life is one of routine, although it’s often monotonous rather than actively dangerous.

The protagonist is introspective – a Hamlet type: pessimistic, self-analytical, someone with an elaborate imaginative life, who feels trapped by duty.

People are conformist. Even a counterculture, if one is presented, is bound up in rules and hierarchies.

History is often a lie, or something extremely important has fallen down Orwell’s memory hole. We, the readers, can see something is wrong. The characters accept something as ‘normal’ that we would find beyond the pale.

The protagonist has perhaps had glimpses of another world – either something incongruous has happened: he might see the authorities drag someone away, or is aware through media reports of some immense, distant struggle.

Books are important – often as artefacts of a time before the current system was in place, but other books can represent the official (or accepted) account of reality. Unlike television reports or computer files, books can not be edited or amended.

Reality can be edited, your memories – and those of your loved ones – can’t be trusted.

The universe can be characterised by the phrase ‘polymorphous perversity’. The hero and his allies are often extremely diverse ethnically, in terms of age, in terms of sexuality, class and so on. The villains tend to be more homogenous – blank faced, identical, uniformed, one race – but there are also malevolent forces that are truly polymorphous – shapeshifters, beings that steal identities or animate corpses, or have no fixed form.

Characters play strategy games, often chess, and see the game board as a microcosm of real life.

They tend to be disdainful of wealth and power, with the rich seen as decadent, obsessed with acquiring money over any ethical concerns. The rich are often humbled, their palaces demolished.

There are ‘also people’ – machines, creatures or simulations of people. Many are benign, even paragons. There’s a darker version, something soulless, or purely mechanistic (and often insectile).

There is mysticism, but pains are taken to explain that this is not irrationality. Magic represents an alternative operating system for the universe, or an extremely advanced technology. It operates through ritual. The author of the book believes – or at least has said in interview, which of course needn’t always be the same thing – that they believe there’s some truth in this as a worldview.

The protagonist undergoes some profound and permanent physical transformation, often disfiguring or at least which leaves them unable to pass as a normal human. They often choose to do this, even though they don’t (can’t) understand all the implications until the transformation is complete.

The protagonist often develops some psychic ability: precognition, telepathy or some form of mind control. The implication is that the protagonist is the first homo superior – the next stage of human development. The characters with these gifts tend to have weird eyes – a straightforward concrete way of indicating ‘they see differently’.

The protagonist comes to see beyond the everyday world, sees a vision of our place in the universe and instantly understands that we are, as Plato said, shadows on the cave wall and that there is a large reality or series of realities.

Our universe is a simulation, copy or dream existing within a higher structure.

Some form of drug is often employed to get to this realm. If not, there’s a literal doorway.

The protagonist often comes to understand, or has the instinctive sense, that even those who have previously known or inhabited the higher realm do not fully understand it. That there alternatives to the Manichean struggles the ascended masters talk about.

If our hero meets ‘God’ at some point, there’s a pretty good bet that it’s not – even if its a benevolent force, it’s either something that thinks it’s God or an avatar of God rather than the whole being. Usually it’s a malevolent being trying to trick our hero.

The books often have utopian themes. We see a better society, or even a plan to enact utopia in our world.

They are violent. There are disasters and wars that kill millions, the protagonist often fights hand-to-hand battles. He, or at least his allies, often have no compunction about killing. (One of the things the hero must do, in fact, is lose his compunction to kill). Building a better world inevitably means destroying the old one – many will die.

Again, I don’t know if it’s significant or why it would be, but the weapon of choice is often a blade.

They tend not to explore identity issues like race or gender. At first glance, this is a very white, male genre. This is changing, I think.

Frequently occurring words: God, Infinite, Simulation, Knife, Real, Layer.

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