terça-feira, 17 de maio de 2011
Babylon 5 and the Science Fiction Grail Quest
By Marc DiPaolo
Ray Bradbury, one of the greatest science fiction writers of the century, is essentially a Christian mystic wrestling with issues of faith and reason in a widely secular age, critic Thomas D. Calreson reveals in Understanding Contemporary American Science Fiction. To underscore this point, Calreson cites a scene in Bradbury’s “-And the Moon Still Be Bright” in which one character
“voices the anxieties so much a part of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when he condemns both Darwin and Freud not only for removing humanity from nature but also for destroying religious faith…. This sense of loss lies at the heart of much of [Bradbury’s] best fiction” (Calreson 53).
Far from being mourned, the apparent eclipsing of the Judeo-Christian faith systems is celebrated by science fiction television shows such as Star Trek, which views organized religion as the establishment’s chief tool for the oppression of the individual. This theme is most evident in the episode “Who Mourns for Adonis?” in which Captain Kirk discovers that Apollo was not a real god but an alien posing as one, narcissistically vying for human adoration. Kirk immediately informs the ersatz-god that earthlings have evolved beyond the need to be led by divine example, forcing Apollo to recognize that humanity has outgrown him and all that he stands for.
As confident as Kirk is when he makes this pronouncement to Apollo, it remains to be seen at the end of the episode if humanity really can survive an existence without myths. Viewers might easily be left wondering if the independence Kirk has gained for humanity is enough to replace what has been lost.
Also, the message emerges as somewhat hypocritical when one considers that Star Trek often mines the Bible for inspiration, most notably when it retells the sacrifice of Abraham in “City on the Edge of Forever” and when it tackles the expulsion from Eden in “This Side of Paradise.” In these and other instances, the series seems to validate the very myths it attempts to move beyond by retelling them – keeping them alive and relevant for a modern audience.
In Myth, Laurence Coupe argues that society needs mythology as a tool to understand itself, and that civilizations will continually reinvent mythology to keep it fresh, building new myths on the shoulders of old ones to keep the mythical tradition alive and carry it into the future. Whether science fiction is religious, as is the works of Ray Bradbury, or secular, like Star Trek, the genre nevertheless remains an ideal arena in which to alter or build upon the old myths and legends in the manner that Coupe describes. Such is the case because, as critic Gary K. Wolfe notes, science fiction is capable of exploring “the mythical aspects of reason itself, specifically of scientific reasoning. Science, one might well argue, is the real myth of our culture, and science fiction is merely the codification and expression of beliefs in that myth” (Wolfe 5).
While Star Trek: The Next Generation is widely considered the successor to the original Star Trek series, especially since Gene Roddenberry produced both shows, it emerges as far too unabashed in its support of a utopian, collectivist society to dovetail thematically with the first serial’s staunchly individualistic ideology. As the proper thematic heir apparent to Star Trek, J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5 continued its tradition of refashioning the Judeo-Christian legends of Western Society into a post-modern, science fiction myth that invited viewers to question and reinvent their core beliefs in time for the new millenium.
Although Babylon 5’s fans understand it primarily as a retelling of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the influences on the series are numerous, and the show is best viewed as a re-examination of the significance of the legend of King Arthur and the Quest for the Grail.
Unlike previous incarnations of the Arthurian tale, many of which were used to validate the Feudal hierarchy or the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, Straczynski’s television epic is an essentially secular tale that wrests mythology out of the hands of the establishment and bestows it upon the individual. For Straczynski, a confirmed agnostic, myth is only useful so long as it serves the individual, and the moment it becomes controlling it must be destroyed. This is a view Straczynski also extends to everything from organized religion, to government, to family – all these things are meant to serve and the moment they cease to serve they must be abolished, regenerated, and reclaimed.
Before the exact relationship between Babylon 5 and Arthurian Romance can be established, it will be necessary to briefly summarize the premise of the series. The story begins in 2258, ten years after the human race was nearly extinguished in a war against the alien Minbari. The two races have since reconciled and founded a cosmic United Nations called Babylon 5 in an effort to prevent another disastrous interstellar war and various other alien races have been quick to join in the peaceful effort. This fictional scenario so closely resembles the years following World War II and the formation of the United Nations that the series takes on immediate twentieth-century relevance.
Straczynski cleverly gives the series added pertinence by patterning the various alien races featured in the series after recognizable human cultures: the Narn are an essentially a downtrodden, zealous Semitic people; the Centauri, as members of a fading imperialist power, echo the fallen British Empire; the Minbari, weighed down by centuries of religious and military corruption, represent the Medieval Catholic Church at its most hypocritical, and, finally, the Vorlons and the Shadows are all-powerful alien races that, like Star Trek’s Apollo, were mistaken for angels and devils when they visited Earth millennia ago.
While Straczynski has problems with the personal codes of each individual character that comprises the ensemble human and alien cast, he grants all their beliefs enough respect so that viewers are forced to consider the virtues and limitations of every modern political and religious perspective the show allegorically represents. With prophets and atheists, nationalists and expatriates all demonstrating heroic and villainous traits, the series often compelled viewers to consider both the ugly side of their own ideologies and the beautiful side of ideologies they formerly viewed as utterly repellent.
Gary K. Wolfe suggests that science fiction aficionados “invest a certain part of their own fate” in the genre’s ideology because it provides them “with mythic reflections on themselves and of their potential environments, and shows them what courses of action are possible both on a personal and cosmic scale” (Wolfe 3-4). Certainly, Babylon 5’s poetic take on modern cultural pluralism does indeed offer “mythic reflections” on a large body of potential viewers, some of whom might see themselves in the Minbari, or in the Narn, or, if Straczynski was completely successful in his narrative endeavor, in the Arthurian hero, John Sheridan.
Three episodes of the series deal with Arthurian themes explicitly – “The Grail” depicts a futuristic priest name Aldous Gaijic who has spent his life in search of the cup of Christ; “A Late Delivery From Avalon” has the Babylon 5 crew struggling to convince a deranged man that he is not, in fact, King Arthur returned from the dead, and “Sleeping in Light,” the final episode, shows the series’ hero John Sheridan taken up into the science fiction equivalent of Avalon. These three episodes are significant enough that they place a gloss on the entire series, casting Babylon 5 as a futuristic Camelot, Sheridan as Arthur, and the Vorlon Ambassador Kosh as Merlin.
“Grail,” the only episode of the series I will discuss that was not written by Straczynski himself, was penned by Christy Marx, designer of Sierra’s Conquests of Camelot: Quest for the Grail computer game. It begins when the human Aldous Gaijic arrives on Babylon 5 in search of “the sacred vessel of regeneration known also as the cup of the goddess or, by its more common name, the Holy Grail.” Actor David Warner’s performance as Gaijic is assured and unapologetic throughout the episode, and he makes it clear that the character is neither insane, nor will he be deterred by the widespread wall of skepticism blocking his path.
Station Commander Jeffrey Sinclair, for one, is skeptical about Gaijic’s presence on the station, despite Ambassador Delenn’s insistence that the Minbari view Gaijic as a religious and philosophical hero.
Sinclair: [bemused] “The Holy Grail? As in King Arthur? The Last Supper?”
Gaijic: “It has many names, but only one promise: the regeneration and salvation of human kind. My order has been searching for the Grail for Millenium. Since there’s nowhere else left on earth to search, I’ve taken the search outward to other worlds.”
In a Godless universe, it is absurd enough in itself that Gaijic would consider spending his life in search of a magical object that, if it ever existed and ever really did grace Christ’s table, has been lost for around 2225 years. That he would look for it off of Earth, the only place it could logically be, brings the insanity of the quest to a new dimension. To compound the problem, there is little way Gaijic could have any knowledge of the Grail’s real appearance considering that it has taken on so many various different forms in the history of Grail literature.
The Grail is often a communion Chalice used at the Last Supper, usually golden and jeweled, most recently scene in this form in the comic book Camelot 3000 and the movie Excalibur, although it appears as a poor, wooden carpenter’s cup in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
And yet it is not always a chalice, nor is it necessarily always associated with the Last Supper. The Grail is a platter for costly meats in Helinandus; a vaguely described, luminous object in Crestien; a jeweled stone for Wolfram von Eschenbach; a cauldron in Celtic fertility myth, and first a tabernacle, then a crystal monstrance in Diu Crone. Lizette Andrews Fisher notes, in The Mystic Vision in the Grail Legend and in The Divine Comedy, that the physical appearance of the Grail is, indeed, ever-changing, “though it is noticeable that the romancers are apparently quite unconcerned about it.” And yet, she says, all these visions of the Grail are thematically linked, “Always it has marvelous qualities, always it may come and go mysteriously, always it is associated with a miraculous supply of food and drink” (Fisher 55).
When one considers how problematic any real-life Grail quest would be, “Grail” emerges as highly unorthodox in its attempt to portray such a lunatic endeavor in a heroic light, especially in a secular science fiction context. For example, when Sinclair apologetically explains to Delenn that the Grail is a mere myth back on Earth, little more than “a nice story to tell your kids,” and he stops just short of suggesting that Gaijic is wasting his life in a fruitless search, Delenn’s response shames him.
Delenn: “How sad. He is a holy man. A true seeker. Among my people, a true seeker is treated with the utmost reverence and respect. It doesn’t matter that his Grail may or may not exist. What matters is that he strives for the perfection of his soul and the salvation of his race and that he has never wavered or lost faith.”
On the surface, this appears to be a strong departure from all traditional views of the Grail quest, which describe the Grail, or graal, as a source of eternal salvation, as an embodiment of the mystery of transubstantiation, or as a miraculous source of healing and sustenance. However, the concept of the irrelevance of the Grail’s existence may be a reflection of a theme presented in Chretien de Troyes’ Conte du Graal. According to Brigitte Cazalles, author of The Unholy Grail, The intratextual function of the graal [Grail] is not a “holy” dish, but an empty container bereft of intrinsic value. There, in a vacuity that discloses the function of the symbol as a receptacle whose meaning resides entirely with its holders and beholders, lies the enigma of Chretien’s Grail (Cazalles 227).
Considering Cazalles’ argument in the context of Delenn’s speech, Gaijic emerges as a true hero out of Chretien’s knight-errant mold since he is able to fill the empty receptacle of the imagined Grail with deeply significant spiritual meaning. However, Delenn also suggests that Gaijic’s quest is not merely personal, but has a broader significance for “the salvation of his race.” This is a more unusual statement, since one might assume that a real Grail, on the order of Tennyson’s – which “if a man could touch or see it, he was heal’d at once,/By faith, of all his ills” (Tennyson 207) – must exist for Gaijic’s quest to have such a broad effect.
Still, by projecting the image of a serene and contented knight-errant, Gaijic is encouraging others to find meaning in their own lives, inspiring them to find in themselves the power to fill an empty receptacle like the legendary Grail with significance.
Sinclair, who is himself a Tennyson devotee and a pious-but-pragmatic Roman Catholic, instinctively grasps Delenn’s wise interpretation of the quest’s value and embraces it instantly.
Sinclair: [demeanor softens into a smile] “I wish him luck. He’s probably the only true seeker we have.” Delenn: “Then perhaps you don’t know yourself as well as you think.”
Since, during the first season of the series, Sinclair is clearly the stand-in for the viewers, Delenn is challenging the television audience at large to not only sympathize with Gaijic’s odd perspective, but join him on his quest. By doing so, she links Gaijic’s quest with Sinclair’s quest with the viewer’s quest, and gives credence to Wolfe’s theory that science fiction fans invest themselves in science fiction tales because the tales invite fans to do just that.
This theory of viewer or reader identification with the fictional questing hero is not limited to science fiction narratives, but extends to all romance, as Northrop Frye contends in The Secular Scripture:
As we have seen, the message of all romance is de te fabula: the story is about you; and it is the reader who is responsible for the way literature functions, both socially and individually (Frye 186).
Gaijic’s quest takes him from the massive space station’s ritzy ambassadorial suites to the Down Below, where the homeless, the jobless, and the criminal element squat and forage for food. There he encounters Thomas Jordan, an engineer who worked on all five Babylon stations, earning the nickname “Jinxo” when the first four were all sabotaged shortly after he went on vacation leave.
Fearing he carries The Curse of the Babylon Project within him, Jinxo refuses to ever set foot off Babylon 5, even when a loan shark named Deuce has placed a death sentence on his head. Gaijic is impressed with Jinxo’s messianic streak and takes Jinxo under protective custody, repeatedly placing his own life in danger by fighting off Deuce’s henchmen.
Jinxo and Gaijic have an affinity for one another since they function, effectively, as two sides of the same coin. Both men are defined by their religious beliefs – Jinxo in a negative way, Gaijic in a positive way. Jinxo represents religion at its worst, since his superstition, which is bolstered by a frightening foundation of half-truth, has made him a prisoner of fear and has limited his freedom to the point that it is endangering his life.
Gaijic, however, is not a prisoner of his beliefs, but is fully in control of his own destiny and uses his mythic religion as a form of empowerment that gives him hope for the future, purpose in life, and consolation for all his pain. Gaijic represents religion at its best, religion that serves and liberates the individual. This religion is the only kind of religion that Babylon 5 respects. Jinxo’s brand of religion, which curtails personal freedom, is one of the series’ principle targets of censure.
Despite an obvious affection for Gaijic, Jinxo reveals he is just as skeptical of Gaijic’s quest as others and he wonders aloud how Gaijic can find an object if even its physical appearance remains a mystery. “Sometimes it’s the search that counts, not the finding,” is Gaijic’s reply, again echoing the theme that the questing knight-errant gives the quest its real meaning, not the object being sought. Hence the reason why so many women who are rescued at the end of tales of knightly valor have no real personality to speak of, and who often demonstrate no love for the knight in return.
For example, the prince who has found inner resources of courage and strength through rescuing Sleeping Beauty rarely cares that, in many versions of the tale, the awakened heroine feels only gratitude for him, not love, as Bruno Bettelheim indicates in The Uses of Enchantment. Consider then that, while the theme is actually traditional, it translates well into an existential society like modern America, which questions the notion that anything – be it princess, Grail, or quest – can have meaning in and of itself. When Jinxo presses Gaijic to explain the rationale behind the quest, Gaijic replies in highly personal terms. Years ago, when Gaijic was working as an accountant for a major Earth corporation, he “lived in a world of numbers – clean, smooth, logical, precise” and never would have dreamed of pursuing such a fantastic quest. Later, when a freak accident killed his wife and daughter but spared him, Gaijic could no longer find meaning in his life. “The numbers didn’t add up any more,” so he left his job “believing that there had to be something, some reason why [he] had been spared.” That was when Gaijic met the last living Grail-Seeker, who saw Gaijic as “a man of infinite promise and goodness.” When the Grail seeker was dying, he passed on the staff and the quest to Gaijic. “And now I’m the last,” Gaijic explains at the end of his narrative. “But the numbers add up again.”
This sensitive argument utterly repudiates any notion that a scientific, logical worldview that leaves no room for the individual to embrace myth or magic is an adequate or emotionally fulfilling life philosophy. For the episode’s scriptwriter Christy Marx, as for Laurence Coupe, humans need myth to survive.
Before long, Deuce makes another attempt on Jinxo’s life, and Gaijic takes a bullet meant for his friend. Deuce is arrested immediately afterwards, but it soon becomes apparent that Gaijic is going to die.
Gaijic’s final words betray his genuine faith in the Grail; it is more than a personal quest for him and he grieves that his passing will bring to an end the religious order that sought it.
“My search is over. I’ve failed. No one left. No one.” Of course it comes as no surprise to any astute viewer that this is Jinxo’s cue to intercede. “Yes there is. I’ll do it. I’ll find the grail. I swear I’ll find it.” Gaijic passes his staff onto Jinxo, who reclaims his birth-name, Thomas, and repudiates his inappropriately pessimistic nickname.
The passing of the quest from one seeker to another is another theme borrowed from past Arthurian romances, most notably Idylls of the King. In Tennyson’s poem, Percival’s penitent nun sister, who first had vision of the Grail, looked into Percival’s eyes, and, in this fashion, Percival inherits the quest (Tennyson 208). In another instance, a sweet maiden passed belief on through her eyes, “and as she spake/She sent the deathless passion in her eyes/ Thro’ him, and made him hers, and laid her mind/On him, and he believed in her belief” (Tennyson 210).
As Jinxo stares into Gaijic’s dying eyes and inherits the Grail quest in the manner of Percival before him, Jinxo has exchanged a destructive religion for an empowering one. Since the name Jinxo is inextricably linked to an inferior personal myth that he has outgrown in favor of a superior personal myth, he rejects that nickname and all that it implies. When he re-baptizes himself Thomas, reclaiming his birth name, he is “crowned and mitered lord of himself,” finally free of oppressive despair like the fully empowered Pilgrim standing in the Garden of Eden in Dante’s Purgatorio (canto XXVII).
In Gaijic’s dying moments, his eyes widen and he gazes past Jinxo at something no one else in the room can perceive. “I see it, Thomas. The Grail.” Gaijic smiles, closes his eyes, and dies.
Like the end of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, in which viewers are allowed to decide for themselves whether or not the seer’s vision of the afterlife is genuine or merely a hallucination, this episode lets viewers determine on their own whether or not Gaijic’s death vision is real. This liberal attitude towards religion allows viewers more latitude in interpreting the meaning of the story, and produces a reflective mood that again places viewers at the center of the tale’s action.
Still, those who tend to favor a supernatural explanation of Gaijic’s death vision would find support for their interpretation in earlier accounts of the Grail quest, in which the questing knight only discovers the Grail upon his death. In the vulgate cycle and in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, among other places, a knight may only be granted a vision of the Grail after braving the Siege Perilous, a chair that threatens instant death to all daring or foolish enough to sit upon it. In John Boorman’s film Excalibur, Percival twice sees the Grail when he is on the verge of death and only claims it when he surrenders to his end, sheds his armor, and is reborn out of a Lethe-like river. Also, Galahad is hungry for death in Malory’s Grail text, since the staunchly Christian Galahad knows that death will lead him to enlightenment:
“…Sir Galahad fell onto his knees and prayed long time to our lord, that at what time he asked he might pass out of this world. And so long he prayed til a voice said, ‘Sir Galahad, thou shalt have thy request, and when thou asketh the death of thy body, thou shalt have it, and then shalt thou have the life of thy soul.’…When my body is dead, my soul shall be in great joy to see the blessed trinity every day, and the majesty of our lord, jesu christ” (Vinaver 107).
By allowing the possibility of a death-time fulfillment of the Grail quest, Babylon 5 offers some hope for an end to the quest, but does not suggest that viewers should rely on this coming to pass. A recurring theme in episodes penned by Straczynski is one that suggests people only find meaning in life when they embrace the inevitability of their death. Those who spend all their time fleeing from death or investing too much in an afterlife are often too distracted from the business of living to determine what their life should mean and what they hope to accomplish before they die.
At the end of the “Grail” episode, Delenn again expressed her admiration for Gaijic to Sinclair, noting that he succeeded in his quest by discovering a reason for being, a reason for the existence of life in the universe, a reason that everyone is searching for. Shortly after this exchange, Jinxo departs the station bearing Gaijic’s staff, eager to begin his quest for the Grail by laughing off the Babylon curse and, at long last, claiming the faith he needs to leave the station.
This episode is echoed strikingly in terms of theme and plot in a third-season adventure called “A Late Delivery from Avalon,” by Straczynski. As in “Grail,” this episode starts with the arrival of a suspected madman, only this time the madman steps off of the space shuttle Asimov onto Babylon 5 dressed in chain mail and wields a sword which security hopes to confiscate.
“I am Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon and King of the Britons,” the lunatic yells. “No man takes Excalibur from me and lives.” Michael York’s portrayal of Arthur is anything but understated, as Arthur is obviously far more tormented than Gaijic, and is far more incensed by the suggestion that he might be mentally unhinged.
By this point in the series, the Babylon 5 crew has worked together to form a multiracial group of knights called the Rangers, whose principals of honor and social justice bear a striking resemblance to the knights of the Round Table. And so it was only appropriate that Marcus Cole, a British Ranger, was there to greet Arthur upon his return. Marcus, whose training included linguistic and philosophical combat, is the only one who knows how to speak Arthur’s language and calm the sword-wielding fanatic down.
(“The only way to understand the battle is to understand the language,” Cole had explained in the previous segment. “War is as much concept as execution.”)
Marcus: “Apologies my lord, we were not notified of your return. These people mean you no harm … please come with us, we’ll send word to Galahad and Lancelot.”
Arthur: “Galahad is dead! Lancelot is dead! Guinevere and Percival, even Mordred – all of them are dead. I have been gone a long time, but I’m not mad.”
Marcus: “Then set aside your sword, you’re among friends.”
Marcus’ sympathetic demeanor convinces Arthur to sheath the sword and to agree to a medical examination – an examination that is secretly meant to determine the phony Arthur’s true identity.
“Very well,” Arthur says. “I’ve been treated and prodded and healed by the nine sisters since the year of our lord five hundred and fifteen*. What is another healer after that?”
Although Dr. Franklin acknowledges that “there is enough historical evidence to suggest that there was a real person behind those [Arthur] stories,” he does not accept that the man in his sickbay is a living legend.
Dr. Franklin, however, argues that the man in his sickbay is not the real Arthur. “His speech patterns are too contemporary, his vocabulary is all wrong,” Franklin reports to Sheridan. “The question we should be asking is what made him tip over… What terrible thing could have happened to drive him back 1700 years into the past to find peace and meaning?”
Given that “Grail” has already mocked the inadequacy of the world of science and numbers that Franklin lives in – clean, smooth, logical, precise – it is certain that his approach to the situation, although understandable, would not bring the problem to an adequate resolution.
Frustrated, Arthur tries to prove his validity by recounting his final memories:
Arthur: “The last thing I remember is lying on the field of battle at Camlan, my brother Sir Bedivere had pulled me away from these peasants who were looting the bodies of my fallen knights. It was all King Meleagant’s fault. If he hadn’t sided with Mordred, with Lancelot out of the country … the old wound opened …. Oh, I was dying, three times I asked Bedivere to return Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake. By the time he finally did as I asked, it was almost too late. Then a barge appeared offshore with three queens and the nine sisters. They said that I would sleep for a time, but that I would return when I was most needed. I’m not sure how I came here, but if I am here now it is because I am most needed here and now.”
Aside from Meleagant – who is the villain of Chretien de Troyes’ Lancelot, or The Knight of the Cart and is a prince in that story, not a king – the rest of the details from this account are taken faithfully and directly from Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur*.
The similarities are indeed striking and simultaneously speak to Straczynski’s respect for the source material and to his attention to detail. The most significant detail that appears in both accounts is that an adder accidentally caused the battle.
Michael York’s Arthur is tormented by the knowledge that the battle might have been prevented had a knight not raised his sword to strike an adder (Wilhelm 565). The raised sword had been wrongly interpreted as a sign of aggression and the battle had been joined. The consequence was mass slaughter and devastation. This ironic twist of fate in Malory plagues the Arthur of Babylon 5, who continually refers to the adder and the resultant carnage, blaming himself for not preventing the misunderstanding and the ensuing battle.
Unwilling to remain locked up in sick bay, Arthur begins his exploration of Babylon 5 with the Down Below, and discovers that the criminal element have been preying on a poor widow, stealing her only photograph of her husband because it was housed in an expensive frame. Arthur is incensed by the indignity, and he makes a mental connection between the thieves and the scavengers who looted the bodies of the dead at Camlan. Seeing this as an opportunity to renew his quest for social justice, Arthur confronts the criminals and demands they return the picture. “What manner of men prey on the weak and the poor, stealing from old women? Cowards, I think!”
G’Kar, an alien whose sympathies have been with the underdog since his planet had been conquered by the Centauri, leaps instantly to Arthur’s aid and the two of them vanquish the criminals and return the picture to the grateful old woman. Celebrating the infancy of a new Camelot, Arthur and G’Kar get drunk together and talk of the joys of taking the side of good over evil.
Arthur: “It’s wrong for the strong to prey on the weak. That idea was at the very heart of the Round Table. To correct injustice, to promote a society of laws, not arms … That is the purpose which God and the crown have set before me…. You shall sit at my right hand at the new Round Table and you shall be known as Sir G’Kar, the Red Knight.”
Straczynski is making another subtle-yet-significant reference to previous Arthurian tales that characterize Sir Lancelot as the Red Knight, and those who understand the allusion are even more firmly convinced than casual viewers that G'Kar is indeed meant to be Arthur’s new second-in-command.
Again, here, like in “Grail,” the heroism and nobility which Straczynski grants Arthur invites viewers to not only relate to a madman, but to hope he succeeds in his mission, and perhaps even to want to embrace his quest in real life. It is highly subversive material by nature, undermining the kingly authority of science and logic, usurping it with romance and myth.
Meanwhile, Dr. Franklin has determined that Arthur is, in reality, David McIntyre, the gunnery sergeant on the Prometheus who fired the first shots of the Earth-Minbari War ten years before. It had been a cataclysmic misunderstanding. The Minbari ship had approached the Prometheus with gun ports open, a traditional sign of respect in Minbari culture that the Captain of the Prometheus wrongly interpreted as a threat. McIntyre obeyed his Captain’s order to attack first, and the shots he fired killed the Minbari leader Dukat. The presumably unwarranted attack provoked Delenn, then Dukat’s disciple, into such a fury that she ordered the complete extermination of every human in existence. Had Delenn’s passions not cooled, had she not realized that genocide was a loathsome goal and called off the Minbari attack on Earth at the Battle of the Line, the whole human race would have been extinguished as a result of a cultural misunderstanding.
After the war ended and the humans realized what had happened, a review board cleared McIntyre of all responsibility for starting the conflict. Still, he was never able to forgive himself, especially after he saw eighteen thousand humans butchered defending Earth in the Battle of the Line. To deal with his guilt, McIntyre had retreated into his Arthur persona, but the guilt remained. Instead of blaming himself for The Earth-Minbari War, which was begun when defenders misread the sign of a raised gun, McIntyre (as Arthur) blamed himself for the Battle of Camlan, which was begun when a defender misread the sign of a raised sword. Marcus begs Franklin not to shatter McIntyre’s happy illusion that he is Arthur, but Franklin is determined that emotional healing can only begin once the ugly truth is faced head on.
Franklin is assuming that McIntyre, like Jinxo, is misusing myth. He assumes that McIntyre is hiding from reality behind a mythic shield and assumes that the myth controls McIntyre’s actions, although both of these deductions are debatable. After all, the similarities between McIntyre’s real life experiences and the narrative elements of Arthurian myth are so thematically similar, that one can easily see McIntyre’s use of the Arthur persona as a reasonable means of coping with tragedy. This view is especially possible since McIntyre is both helping the unfortunate and actively seeking to exorcise his pain through the Arthur persona.
Franklin’s dilemma here is strikingly similar to the parental dilemma posed in Bettelheim’s essay, “The Child’s Need for Magic.”
From an adult point of view, and in terms of modern science, the answers which fairy stories offer are fantastic rather than true. As a matter of fact, these solutions seem so incorrect to many adults – who have become estranged from the ways in which young people experience the world – that they object to exposing children to such “false” information. However, realistic explanations are usually incomprehensible to children, because they lack the abstract understanding required to make sense of them. While giving a scientifically correct answer makes adults think they have clarified things for the child, such explanations leave the child confused, overpowered, and intellectually defeated. A child can derive security only from the conviction that he understands now what has baffled him before – never from being given facts which create new uncertainties….
To tell a child that the earth floats in space, attracted by gravity into circling around the sun, but that the earth doesn’t fall into the sun as a child falls to the ground, seems very confusing to him.… More important, to feel secure on earth, the child needs to believe that this world is held firmly in place. Therefore he finds a better explanation in a myth that tells him the earth rests on a turtle, or is held up by a giant (Bettelheim 48-49).
Bettelheim’s argument, although given in the context of a child psychologist advising parents on child rearing, is no different than Coupe’s argument for the necessity of myth in society. Straczynski demonstrates that he adheres to the Coupe-Bettelheim school of myth and fairy tales in “A Late Delivery from Avalon” when he has Franklin’s attempt to restore McIntyre to reality, metaphorically killing Bettelheim’s turtle earth-bearer and replacing it with an unfriendly theory of gravity, tragedy ensues.
When Franklin tells McIntyre the story of the Prometheus, McIntyre tries to avoid facing the truth by falling heavily back on his mythical autobiography. “Prometheus? There were Romans still living in my country whose family married Britons and they carried legends from Greece. Prometheus brought fire from the Gods.” But Franklin, unrelenting, drives the point home. McIntyre is assaulted by images of Earth spaceships exploding during the Battle of the Line, but he shouts continually about Camlan. “I was responsible for my knights. Their armor was not strong enough to protect them. Their horses! Their horses were on fire! The old wound. No, the pain will never go away. I must return Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake. I didn’t know. We didn’t know! The bodies of the slain, drifting like stars.”
Finally, just as McIntyre’s shouts raise to a fever pitch, he hallucinates that Mordred has stabbed him from behind and falls into a coma.
A disconsolate Franklin realized that he failed to heal McIntyre because he failed to understand the language of McIntyre’s pain. He didn’t know that the only cure for a man mired in a world of mythical pain was to provide an end to the myth. So he and Marcus determine that the Lady of the Lake is indeed needed to bring Arthur out of his coma, and the only appropriate Lady of the Lake on Babylon 5 is Delenn. When Delenn arrives at Arthur’s side, he opens his eyes and sees her take Excalibur – the symbol of all his guilt – from his grasp. When Delenn clasps her hand in his and smiles down on him, she is playing two roles – as the Lady of the Lake she is forgiving Arthur for Camlan, as Delenn she is forgiving McIntyre for the death of her mentor Dukat and the Earth-Minbari war.
McIntyre recovers his health and his sanity afterwards, and is able to leave his guilt behind and start anew. His first step is to embrace G’Kar’s downtrodden people by joining their fight against the Centauri oppressors. G’Kar approves of the decision and likes McIntyre as much as he likes Arthur:
G’kar: “My people will trust him well, doctor. He will be welcomed and put into a position of authority in the resistance. He has good ideas about raising up those in need, about organizing others into something better and nobler than they had been before. We are in great need of such ideas and such men.”
Franklin: “A new Round Table? I’ve heard worse ideas.”
McIntyre: “I’m healed. Soul and body mended. One journey has ended, another beckons.”
This resolution has two significant facets to it. The first is that McIntyre is mentally healthier at the end of the episode than he was at the beginning. The second is, no sooner has he been freed of his mythic Arthurian prison, than he decides to readopt an Arthurian persona of his own free will. Perhaps the best gloss on this theme can be found in a religious Christian work, A Grief Observed, in which C. S. Lewis meditated on his loss of faith following the death of his wife, Joy. Lewis posited that the Christian God is never impressed with a faith that is arrogant, weak, or imprisoning – what he calls a “house of cards” faith.
He further posited that God will always react to such corrupt faiths by destroying the house of cards, forcing the foolish believer into a period of atheism until such time that the believer is able to rebuild the faith from scratch, this time with a stronger, healthier foundation. Since Joy’s death utterly destroyed Lewis’ faith, he reasoned that his faith was simply no real faith at all, and build on a shabby foundation.
If my house had collapsed at one blow, it was a house of cards…. Indeed, it’s likely enough that what I shall call, if it happens, a ‘restoration of faith’ will turn out to be only one more house of cards. And I shan’t know whether it is or not until the next blow comes – when, say, a fatal disease is diagnosed in my body too, or war breaks out, or I have ruined myself… (Lewis 42, 44).
McIntyre’s faith in Arthurian Romance manifested itself in an unhealthy fashion since it compelled him to believe falsely that he was King Arthur returned from Avalon. Therefore, it was a house of cards faith that needed to be destroyed by a benevolent God figure – or, in this case, science and myth (represented by Franklin and Marcus) working together on a common goal – so that McIntyre could be set free.
However, since the Arthurian myth had intrinsic value, and still had the potential to transform McIntyre’s tragic past into a more positive future, McIntyre decided to instantly begin rebuilding his faith, hoping this time that it would not be a house of cards. So, by the end of the episode, McIntyre is no longer controlled by the myth, but is in full command of both the Arthur romance and his own future.
As Frye explains in The Secular Scripture, reclaiming romance in the present as a means of understanding the past is only half the task. The other part of the task is transforming the romance into a beacon that will light the traveler’s way into the future. Fortunately, McIntyre appears to have done just this.
Marcus Cole expresses regret at McIntyre’s departure, which surprises Franklin, since McIntyre wasn’t the real Arthur. Marcus’ response, though facetious, is actually a superb gloss on the series as a whole. He gestures to the enigmatic Ambassador Kosh, who had chosen that moment to appear at the docking bay, and says grandly, “Next you’ll be saying he isn’t Merlin.” Franklin isn’t amused, but Cole presses on with the connection:
Cole: Merlin was a great teacher, you know. They say he aged backwards and that was how he was able to foretell the future, by remembering. Which means, he came from the future. Maybe he had Arthur form the Round Table by remembering us. We’re forming one of our own, after all, which makes you Percival, I’m Galahad – him being sinless and all – Sheridan as Arthur, Ivanova perhaps Gawain, I think we both know who Mordred is, so the question is, who’s Morgana Le Fey?”
Although Marcus himself admits that the parallels between Arthurian Romance and Babylon 5 are not perfect – Morgana Le Fey is, indeed, missing – the parallels are there and they are striking. Robert de Boron’s prose Merlin, written in 1200, begins with the defeated denizens of Hell lamenting that Christ had rescued the Old Testament heroes from Hell after his crucifixion and passed on the Grail, a cup of enormous magical power, to Joseph of Arimathea (Rosenberg 306-307, 316).
In retaliation, the demons planned Merlin’s conception, hoping he will act as their prophet and savior and granting him unlimited knowledge of the past. God, attempting to thwart the plan, grants Merlin knowledge of the future in the hopes that Merlin, now caught between conflicting impulses of good and evil, would side with good. Indeed, Merlin ultimately sides with God over Satan, ordering King Uther Pendragon to create the Round Table as a third incarnation of the table the disciples ate at in the Last Supper – the second incarnation having been created by Joseph of Arimathea.
Now, if Kosh is Merlin as Marcus suggested, then one might easily infer that the “5” at the end of the station’s name not only stands for the fifth Babylon station, but the fifth of the Grail banquet tables (the fourth being the United Nations, which is oft referred to on Babylon 5 with nostalgic reverence).
That being the case, Gaijic’s assumption that the Grail is secretly on Babylon 5 no longer seems quite so absurd. This argument is more easily supported later on in the series, when it is revealed that Kosh was secretly the one behind the development of the station in the first place, although he allowed the humans and the Minbari to think it was all their doing. And in Babylon 5, as in Merlin, the Round Table is not immediately presided over by Merlin’s champion – just as Uther heads the table for a brief time before Arthur, Commander Jeffrey Sinclair holds brief sway over Babylon 5 before Captain John Sheridan takes over.
Under both commanders Babylon 5 makes great strides in settling sectarian conflict and forging personal friendships between the Ambassadors, the member races are soon divided by a massive interstellar war orchestrated by the god-like “First Ones” – the Vorlons and the Shadows. Sheridan discovers during the course of the series that the First Ones are immortals who ruled the galaxy before the younger races – the humans, Minbari, Centauri, and Narn – were even created.
As the main villains of the series, the Vorlons and the Shadows vie for the right to direct the destiny of all sentient life in the universe, and their apocalyptic war threatens to engulf humanity and all the “younger races” caught in the middle. The point of contention is ideological and again reflects the epic confrontation between Christianity and Darwinism that has inspired so many science fiction tales. The utopian Vorlons, as Lords of Order, have worked since Creation to nurture the evolution of life in the universe by creating peaceful religions that encouraged obedience and teamwork on the various worlds. The Shadows, the Lords of Chaos, believed evolution was best served by conflict, and caused wars for the benefit of their charges, unconcerned any time a weaker race was wiped out since only the strong deserved to survive.
Morden, the human spokesman for the Shadows and the series’ closest equivalent to Mordred, tries to win Sheridan over to the Shadows’ side by claiming that humanity was at its most progressive when it was following the philosophy of Chaos over the philosophy of Order.
Morden: “Think about it, Captain. Look at the long history of human struggle. Six thousand years of wars, bloodshed, atrocities beyond description, but look at what came out of all of that. We’ve gone to the stars, split the atom, written sonnets. We wouldn’t have come this far if we hadn’t been at each other’s throats, evolving our way up, inch by inch.”
Sitting beside Morden, Sheridan’s wife, Anna (played by Boxleitner’s real-life wife Melissa Gilbert), furthers Morden’s argument, criticizing her husband for keeping Camelot’s ideals alive in Babylon 5.
Anna: “Everything depends on getting the other races to fight each other, to create conflict in order to promote growth and evolution. By getting them to cooperate, you are working against that goal.”
Although Morden has neither married nor seduced Anna sexually, he acts here as Shadow King and the demonically possessed Anna acts as Shadow Queen, recalling the scenario at the climax of Morte Darthur, when Mordred has crowned himself king of Camelot and taken Guinevere as his queen.
The Shadow philosophy, while logically convincing, demonstrates the problems of a Darwinian philosophy that is not tempered by Jesus Christ’s religious, humanitarian philosophy. Any scientific or military movement that refuses to support the underdog, nurture the poor, and protect the defenseless is too inhuman – too Satanic – for anyone of good conscience to embrace. And so, the Shadows are wrong for utterly refusing to acknowledge the importance of religion, myth, and order, as exemplified by the Vorlons.
Sheridan rejects the Shadows’ offer of an alliance, just as he later rejects the Vorlons, furious with them for curbing free will, dictating the course of human destiny, and for ruthlessly slaughtering the very innocents they were pledged to protect in their crusade against the Shadows.
Here the parallel to the modern world is clear. Any religion, Christian or otherwise, that refuses to allow its followers to think for themselves, or to embrace Shadow-like chaos in any way, shape, or form, is too repressive and exclusive. Any religion or government that increases its adherents through forced conversion and kills all those who refuse to comply is too evil to deserve survival. Any government that refuses to tolerate dissidence – be it Nazi Germany, McCarthy-era America, or an atheist Communist regime – even if it creates a utopia, is also evil in its drive for “perfection,” and should be overthrown.
As stand-ins for the audience, the Babylon 5 crew is caught in the middle of this polemic war, just as viewers, in real life, are constantly exposed to an ideological war between the forces of science and religion, law and individuality. The Scopes Trial, the abortion debate, the gay marriage issue, the morality of cloning, the limits of censorship – all these political and social issues pit the polarized forces of science and religion, individuality and society, against one another. The Vorlon/Shadow War is an allegory for each and all of these contemporary crises. These real-life conflicts seem to have no real resolution, just as the Arthurian tales at their best reflect conflicts between personal honor and social mores that are impossible to resolve.
However, the solution which Babylon 5 poses is that personal honor is always superior to social mores and the laws of God and government. While Sheridan proves he is too big a man to succumb to factional fighting, others are not so noble. Discovering that the evil Earth President Clark had paid for his presidency by assassinating his predecessor and pledging Earth’s allegiance to the Shadows, Sheridan decides to break away from Earth and declares Babylon 5 a fully independent territory. Delenn, too, is disgusted that the Minbari have become isolationist, and renounces her planet, taking hundreds of loyal Minbari with her back to Babylon 5.
After these defections, Babylon 5 becomes a symbol of the perfect balance between order and chaos – an independent, multiracial community of exiles and revolutionaries working together in triumphant expatriation. Also, when one considers the station’s position – a mortal outpost caught between warring angels and devils – one soon realizes why Straczynski named the station Babylon.
As Mircea Eliade indicates in The Myth of the Eternal Return, “Babylon was a Bab-iliani, a ‘gate of the gods,’ for it was there that the gods descended to the earth … such a capital is, in effect, at the center of the universe … at the meeting place of the three cosmic zones: heaven, earth, and hell” (Eliade 14).
Still, while Babylon 5’s independence, its daring in striking out on its own in an uncertain universe, was what gave it its moral strength, its isolation also was its central weakness. By this time in the series, the station begins to look a lot like England after the Roman armies were forced to withdraw their protection, leaving the territory vulnerable to invasion. Only instead of having to protect England from Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, Sheridan was faced with the task of keeping his blossoming Alliance protected from the Shadows, the Vorlons, and their armies.
Although de Boron’s Merlin seems to remain primarily on the side of the angels, his satanic offspring makes his allegiance suspect and Kosh’s allegiance is just as vague. Although Kosh’s people, the Vorlons, are far more heroic than the Shadows are, especially since they helped sponsor Babylon 5, they grew progressively more ruthless as the series evolved, and viewers began to wonder if Kosh would turn on Sheridan. However, Kosh remains faithful to Sheridan, knowing in advance that aiding Sheridan against the Shadows will cost him his life.
Kosh not only foresees his own death, but Sheridan’s as well. He knows that the Shadows have seduced Sheridan’s wife Anna, brainwashing her to their side, and predicts that they will use her as a lure to bring Sheridan to the Shadow home world, Z’Ha’Dum, a land from which no traveler has ever returned. “If you go to Z’Ha’Dum, you will die,” Kosh intones repeatedly. But Kosh is killed by the Shadows before he has a chance to prevent Sheridan’s trip to Z’Ha’Dum, removed from the Babylon 5 legend as effectively as Merlin was removed from Camelot by Niviane.
When Sheridan goes to Z’Ha’Dum, he does so despite Kosh’s warnings, hoping to learn the Shadows’ agenda and, perhaps, to free his wife from their influence. His mission is partly successful in that he learns the key to defeating them, but he is forced to kill his wife and leaps off a cliff to his death in order to escape capture and brainwashing.
Those who expected Sheridan to remain dead were those who did not remember the key rule of the epic – every epic hero from Ulysses to Aeneas to Dante must take a trip to the underworld, and Sheridan earns his stripes as an epic hero by dying. Death also has a particular significance in Arthurian Romance, since it demonstrates that the greatest personal epiphanies and the culmination of the Grail quest are achieved at the moment the questing knight surrenders to death and sits upon the Siege Perilous. Such is also the case in Babylon 5.
Existing in the odd netherworld between life and death, Sheridan encounters Lorien, the First of the First Ones, the oldest being alive who, nevertheless, did not create the universe. Sheridan is more than confused when he first meets Lorien, constantly asking, “Why am I alive?” to which Lorien continually replies, “That is the question, isn’t it?”
When Sheridan still does not explain, Lorien expands upon this message, which is both the key to defeating the Shadows and the Vorlons and the series’ central theme.
Lorien: “Words have meaning and names have power. The universe began with a word, you know. But which came first, the word or the thought behind the word? You can’t create language without thought and you can’t conceive a thought without language. So which created the other and thus created the universe? No, I see you’re too wrapped up in your question to consider the larger issues.”
Sheridan: “What question?”
Lorien: “Who are you? It’s a dangerous question, isn’t it? There’s never a good answer to it. I suppose that’s the point…. It’s easy to find something worth dying for. Do you have anything worth living for?….You’re not embracing life, you’re fleeing death, so you’re caught in-between, unable to go forwards or backward. You’re friends need you to be what you can be when you’re no longer afraid. When you know who you are and why you are and what you want when you are no longer looking for reasons to live, but can simply be…. Surrender yourself to death, the death of flesh, the death of form. Step into the abyss and let go.”
It is only when Sheridan jumps again into the abyss, facing death a second time, that he realizes what he wants to live for – he has done grieving for his long lost wife and now he lives only for his love for Delenn. The realization is enough. Lorien rewards Sheridan by granting him twenty more years of life in order to defeat the First Ones and usher in a new age of prosperity for the younger races.
This is the moment in which Sheridan ceases to be a heroic reflection of the viewer and moves beyond the members of the television audience, elevating to God-hood, although Sheridan’s transformation invites fans of the show to contemplate joining him on a leap into the arms of death. The question is, are the viewers brave enough to sit in the Siege Perilous? It is a question that every good written romance asks of its readers, Northrop Frye explains:
romance … begins an upward journey toward man’s recovery of what he projects as sacred myth. At the bottom of the mythological universe is a death and rebirth process which cares nothing for the individual; at the top is the individual’s regained identity. At the bottom is memory which can only be returned to, a closed circle of recurrence: at the top is recreation of memory. In romance, violence and sexuality are used as rocket propulsions, so to speak, in an ascending movement. Violence becomes melodrama, the separating of heroes from villains, angels of light from giants of the dark. Sexuality becomes a driving force with a great deal of sublimation in it” (Frye 183).
Whether or not it is also true for the viewer, the reborn Sheridan certainly now understands how the universe works. It is a continuous cycle of life and death, stability and revolution. The only way to truly be alive is not to create the illusion of stability by blindly embracing stale ideologies and old myths. As Sheridan’s hero, Abraham Lincoln said, ‘The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise to the occasion.’
Sheridan had already taken the first steps when he disavowed allegiance to any one religion and chose to break away from the aging, corrupt government of Earth. Now that he had broken free of the boundaries of his own life and faced death, the one final rebellion was to break himself and all the younger races free of the First Ones. And so, he and Delenn force a confrontation with the Shadows and the Vorlons in which they demand their independence.
By this point in the series, The Vorlon-Shadow War has escalated to the point that both races have forgotten that their mission is to guide sentient life.
Instead, they threaten to annihilate all life in the universe, humanity included, in their uncompromising contest of wills. The Captain of Babylon 5, John Sheridan, rises above the polemic, demanding the right to find his own balance between order and chaos, refusing to choose one over the other. In a moment that echoes Kirk’s confrontation with Apollo, Sheridan then stands firmly before the warring giants, demanding that they relinquish their claims on the races of Babylon 5 and set humanity free.
DeLenn: [speaking to the First Ones] “You’ve been fighting each other for so long you’ve forgotten – You’ve lost your way. How can you guide us? How can we learn who we are and what we want if you don’t even know?
John: “We can’t afford it anymore. We don’t need it. We don’t need you. We’ve learned to stand on our own. We’ll make mistakes but they’ll be our mistakes, not yours…. We refuse to take sides in this anymore and we refuse to let you turn us against one another. We know who we are now. We can find our own way between order and chaos…. It’s over because we’ve decided it’s over. Now get the hell out of our galaxy! Both of you!”
Knowing that they are beaten and unwanted, the Shadows and the Vorlons revert from angry parents embroiled in a bitter divorce to sad, lost children, wondering what to do with themselves. After Sheridan expels them from the galaxy, Lorien promises to follow them into the other universe beyond the rim, the metaphysical place to which all life will eventually evolve, or pass away after death. Before Lorien departs with the Shadows and the Vorlons, he bequeaths the universe to Sheridan and Delenn, who will represent the interests of all the younger races.
Lorien: “This is yours now and you have an obligation to do as we have done – to teach the races that will follow you and when your times comes as ours has to step aside and allow them to grow into their own destiny. If your race survives, if you do not kill yourselves, I look forward to the day when your people join us beyond the rim. We will wait for you.”
Once humanity is granted its autonomy from the gods of the past and stands ready to face the future, Sheridan is both excited and daunted by the prospect. In this scene, from “Into the Fire,” he expresses his view of human history with his true love, Delenn, the leader of the Minbari:
Sheridan: “It’s a new age, a third age…. We began in chaos – too primitive to make our own decisions, then we were manipulated from the outside by forces that thought they knew what was best for us … and now … now we’re free to stand on our own…. It’s a great responsibility.”
Sheridan’s three ages express the mythical history of Babylon 5 – before, during, and after the rule of the Shadows and the Vorlon – but they also offer an interesting gloss on the real human history from prehistoric times to the age of empires to the era of democracy. However, as hopeful as Sheridan is about the future, he briefly expresses a Bradbury-like regret over his decision to exorcise the old angels and devils from the galaxy.
Sheridan: “It feels like the magic’s gone.”
Delenn: “Not gone. Now we make our own magic. Now we create our own legends. Now we build the future. Now we stop …
Sheridan: “… being afraid of shadows.”
As good as their word, Sheridan and Delenn marry and found The Interstellar Alliance, uniting the various alien races under one rule and bringing peace to the formerly unstable galaxy, utilizing Babylon 5 as the seat of government.
Unlike Kirk before him, Sheridan is glad to defeat the stifling myths of the First Ones, yet he recognizes the need for myth in a universe that has lost all its gods. That is why, in the final episode of the series, “Sleeping in Light,” Sheridan plans on his deathbed to give the younger races a new myth to give them hope for the future – he plans his own deification.
The episode takes place twenty years after the end of the Shadow War and the founding of the Interstellar Alliance, on the night that Sheridan realizes his time allotted has come to an end. After watching the sun come up with his wife, Delenn, Sheridan announces that he must leave her and face his destiny alone.
John: “Everything we’ve built here and with the alliance has become half reality and half mythology and if it all ends here like it ends anywhere else … but if it ends out there, they’ll remember it. It’ll make it a little easier for you to keep the others in line.”
Delenn: [crying] “Always thinking strategy, even now.”
What is fascinating and horrifying about the exchange between the two is that it completes the transformation of Sheridan from a knightly hero – a rebel who represents the spirit of the people – into a king or a god – the very force of order and establishment that a hero, by his nature, is sworn to oppose. It is here that a series which has been staunchly pro-individual all along ultimately recognizes the necessity of government, religion, and the establishment and has its hero proclaim this necessity.
This is a comforting moment for those who are inclined to be sympathetic with collective organizations such as government and religion. Still, the unapologetic individualists may also take comfort in knowing that the series’ philosophy demands that institutions must die and be reborn to remain pure and true to their peaceful, generous visions. Therefore, even this myth Sheridan is creating will not last forever, nor will the Alliance last forever, but will pass on after it has outlived its usefulness. Not even Babylon 5 is forever, it turns out, since Sheridan leaves after this discussion, taking a shuttlecraft to Babylon 5, to give it one last look before it, too, is decommissioned.
Sheridan then proceeds to Coriana 6, the sector of space where the First Ones left the universe behind. As soon as he arrives at the gateway to the dimension beyond the rim, Sheridan begins to feel his life slipping away. Then, in the area of space in front of his vessel, a web of light appears and speaks to him in Lorien’s voice. Although Lorien has protested long and hard that he is not God, he sounds very much like a god of some kind when he reveals that has been waiting for Sheridan all this time.
Sheridan: “Can I come back?”
Lorien: “No. This journey has ended. Another begins. Time to rest now.”
Then there’s a close-up of Sheridan’s face, which is illuminated by a brilliant burst of light, symbolizing his final illumination – the end of his Grail quest. As he looks on it, he smiles and says, “Well, look at that. The sun’s coming up.” When the light recedes, Sheridan is no longer on board the space ship. He has been taken beyond the rim to join the First Ones. And so, when an expedition is later launched to find Sheridan, the empty space ship is discovered, but there is no sign of his body.
This moment, like the resolution of “Grail” and the end of The Seventh Seal, is ambiguous. The series has maintained all along that there are no souls as Christians understand them, that there is no God as Christians understand it, and there is no Heaven as Christians understand it. And yet, this closing segment belies the argument, seeming to suggest that Sheridan has died and God and His angels have taken his soul up into Heaven. Although Straczynski might deny this and argue that Sheridan’s essence was taken beyond the rim to evolve into a new state of being among Lorien and the First Ones, such argument seems to be primarily semantic, and, therefore, meaningless.
Still, since the segment is ambiguous, it is up to the viewer to determine what has actually occurred – a supernatural event, an evolutionary miracle, or something else altogether. No matter what explanation the viewer may choose, there is no avoiding coaching such an explanation in a mythological fashion.
Voicing the final narrative speech of the series, Susan Ivanova, one of the show’s many cynical personalities, makes a cryptic statement about Sheridan’s ultimate fate, “Some of the Minbari believe he’ll come back some day, but I never saw him again in my lifetime.”
This sentiment bares a striking similarity to the one that brings Malory’s chronicle to a close, “Yet some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of our Lord Jesu gone into another place; and men say that he shall come again, and he shall win the holy cross. I will not say it shall be so, but rather I will say, here in this world he changed his life. But many men say there is written upon his tomb this verse: [here lies King Arthur, former king and future].” (Wilhelm 569)
Unlike Star Trek: The Next Generation, which celebrates atheism and argues that there is no need for myth or religion in the future, Babylon 5 recognizes the human need for myth as the key tool in defining our lives. The series only rebels against established dogmas that have atrophied over time and demands, in a true Emersonian fashion, that we all discover our own defining life myth rather than be slave to myths handed down to us by our parents.
As Northrop Frye astutely states in The Secular Scripture,
The myth of Eden, similarly, suggests a final reconciliation with nature as something to be attained after the human community has been reordered. We reach the ideal of romance through a progressive bursting of closed circles, first of social mythology, whether frivolous or serious, then of nature, and finally of the comic providential universe of Christianity and other religions, including Marxism, which contains them both (Frye 173).
While Frye supports the view that traditional myths need to be “burst” like “closed circles,” he qualifies the concept by maintaining that
transcendence [of myth] here does not mean repudiating or getting rid of it, except in special cases. It means rather an individual recreation of mythology, a transforming of it from accepted social values into axioms of one’s own activity (Frye 170).
Babylon 5 invites viewers to consider it as a myth for the modern world, a new vision for a pluralistic, post-modern community entering the twenty-first century. It raises fascinating religious and theological issues, coached in a retelling of the Arthurian saga, and it invites viewers to explore these issues during the course of the series as an honorary member of its ensemble cast.
However, at key moments when the show is in danger of taking a firm stand on the existence of God and the meaning of life, it backs off and allows viewers to find their own answers, because Straczynski would never want to trap viewers in his own mythic vision. He would rather viewers use his series as a tool to empower them and help them think for themselves and find their own meaning in life, for that is what myth, at its best, affords its adherents.
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