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The Matrix Mercenary

Disclaimer: After watching The Matrix again after a full decade, I now have a new appreciation for the movie and concept. I once had a discussion with a friend about the idea of The Matrix. She asked me, “Ever wonder if The Matrix is real?” I could see it in her eyes that she was serious about the matter. Of course, I looked at her like she was high. (Let’s be honest… she probably was.) But when re-examining her question, it is not totally without merit. The world we live in is merely the perception of our reality, or our “ideal.” Because we have not been exposed to other worlds/realities, we are confident in saying that this earthly world in 2010 is real. This life/world is all we know, therefore… how can it be an illusion? The Matrix is really just a modern twist on the story of The Cave.

  • Plot-points (The Cave): Prisoners are held captive inside a dark cave, facing a wall for an indefinite amount of time. A fire is lit behind them, casting shadows on the wall they face. All they’ve ever seen are shadow figures, dancing on the wall and therefore perceive these shadowy images to be the reality of their world. [ex. The shadow of the dog walker & canine = a dog.] However, when said prisoners are introduced to daylight, they cannot handle the fact that the dog walker & canine are two separate entities. Being introduced to this alternate reality was too much for the prisoners to handle and therefore, they revolted and killed their captors. Lesson: Sometimes ignorance is bliss??

In relation to The Matrix, both stories introduce the concept of an alternate reality and a human’s ability or lack of ability to accept their surroundings at face value. The prisoners in The Cave acted as most people would in such a scenario: with fear and violence. For example, if a stranger came out of nowhere and tried to convince me that the sky is red, I would laugh in his face. There is no way, in my mind, that the sky could be red (because of scientific knowledge and the concept of MY reality). The sky is blue. Sticking with the color theme… The Matrix‘s main character was given a choice between a red & blue pill, which brings us to our cast…

First, let’s establish the roles in the hero quest of some of the characters:

  • Hero: Neo “the One”; unique past (awesome computer hacker & wants to know the meaning of The Matrix)
  • Guide: Morpheus (older, more experienced figure; believes in Neo to the point of no return)
  • Prophet/Guide #2: The Oracle; tells Neo what he “needs” to hear before the hero can advance/be successful on his own
  • Trainer: Computer Programs, Morpheus & crew help
  • Chief Adversary: Mr. Smith & his Agents; Neo “descends into the Underworld” when fighting the machines/agents

So, with The Thinkers it’s all about mind over matter. Because The Matrix deals with virtual realities and computer programs, Neo must use his internal judgment to decide what the right/most heroic thing to do is. His journey began by choosing the red pill over the blue pill. “Alice tumbled down the rabbit hole” as it were… instead of returning to the world of the blue sky. Morpheus and Trinity traveled to Neo’s reality in order to retrieve him because they believed him to be “The One.” He was reborn into a futuristic world of machines and computer generated monsters. After his rebirth, Neo was trained in combat through software programs in order to have the strength to fight the evil Agents of Mr. Smith. On the brink of death, Neo finally masters himself and finally “defeats” the Agents of chaos.

But is Neo a hero without any real physical feat being done, outside of The Matrix? Absolutely. Not all heroes are club swingers and sword wielders. Neo demonstrated heroism by overcoming his lack of belief in himself and performing the tasks that would ultimately save some of the teams’ lives. All in all, it was a pretty great flick after 10 years… but I’m too stubborn to consider anything too outlandish outside of my own reality. My ideal is nice, let’s keep it that way.

[Note: Jess, you must really be a Hugo Weaving fan… since he’s one of the main guys in both The Matrix & V for Vendetta, yes? Love it!]

Save Us, Shahrazad!!

 

King Shahrayar & Shahrazad

 

Is Shahrazad our heroine in 1001 Nights? Yes. Can I consider her a personal hero of mine? Absolutely. She demonstrates several admirable qualities which firmly place her in the “Hero” category, for me. First, I admire her lack of hesitation. Unlike the aforementioned heroes of blogging past like Gilgamesh (who almost allowed the fear of mortality ruin his life –ha, irony), Shahrazad does not question herself, nor her motives throughout her journey. In an effort to dissuade the bitter King Shahrayar from continually “wedding, bedding, and beheading” (Jess McCall) his flavor of the day “wife”, Shahrazad offers herself to his highness. This decision wreaked of bravery! Though Shahrazad knew there was a chance of utter failure (off with her head!) she believed taking the chance was worth it. She wanted to either change the king’s outlook on life/women or die trying. Though this greatly disheartened her father the vizier and her younger sister, Dunyazad, she felt it was her duty to the people (mostly women) of her community to attempt to halt the king’s actions. Inevitably, King Shahrayar (hater of women) accepts the vizier’s daughter as his bride. But before he can dismiss his wife and force her into the afterlife, she concocts a clever plan.

King Shahrayar is an avid listener of stories. Fortunately, his latest bride, Shahrazad, is a master teller of stories. Each night for one-thousand and one nights, Shahrazad postpones her judgment day by captivating the king with wondrous fables and imaginative tales. Shahrazad’s use of storytelling to distract the royal is ingenious. Much like fellow hero Odysseus, Shahrazad utilizes her cunning and imagination to outsmart her foe. Maybe if I can distract him with magnificent tales of other worlds, I can buy enough time to change the heart of the woman-hating king? This proved that Shahrazad could think on her feet, which is another attribute of a heroic character.

Also, with the girl’s choice to marry the king, she demonstrates pure selflessness. Many of the aforementioned heroes throughout this blog establish some form of selflessness throughout their quests, but Shahrazad acts in such a manner immediately and without question. Sacrificing herself for the sake of saving lives is completely worth it to her. And every night she spent with King Shahrayar, another virgin was saved from the murderous marriage bed. However, by the end of the one-thousand and one nights, Shahrayar’s frozen heart begins to thaw. He discovers that he has three children with his wife (she kept those pregnancies hidden well, don’t you think?) and that her stories are heart-warming. With a cloud of guilt lowered over his head, King Shahrayar does not have the heart to dispatch the mother of his three beautiful children.

In addition to her compassion for others, Shahrazad (eldest daughter of the vizier) displays total and complete purity. As described by the king himself, “I loved you in my soul because I found you pure, holy, chaste, tender, straightforward, unassailable, ingenious, subtle, eloquent, discreet, smiling, and wise” (471). The only other hero that could match Shahrazad’s pure qualities would be that of Sita in Sita Sings the Blues. Both women give themselves entirely to their cause. One, surrenders herself to Mother Earth; Sita. And the other abandons any trace fear and lives with the cruel king in order to save her people. Both women are pure and chaste, which shows extreme devotion to their loved ones. In my book, the culmination of these qualities defines a hero.

In a funny way, this story reminds me of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Our Belle (Shahrazad) lives locked away with a menacing Beast (King Shahrayar) in exchange for the lives of her loved ones; i.e. Belle’s father (Maurice) or Shahrazad’s fellow women. During their stay, both women tell incredible stories that warm the hearts of their “beasts” and inevitably, the once hesitant captives become amorous lovers to the newly awoken spirits of the once rigid men. When the bitter layers are torn away, we are left with a handsome prince and a loving paternal king.

[I wonder if Beauty and the Beast is based off of this tale?? Which would be strange… since Aladdin stemmed from another of the Arabian Nights.]

 

Belle & the Beast

 

 

The Thinker vs. The Fighter

 

 

True, a person can demonstrate heroism through incredible physical feats and intense trials and tribulations as we’ve seen with heroes like Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Rama, and Beowulf… but not all heroes demonstrate their power on the physical plane. When examining “The Thinkers” we discover that overcoming one’s mental state can be far more challenging than facing a six-headed sea beast or venomous dragon. Humans are stubborn beings by nature, so willing one’s self to be different and be better is no easy task. As creatures of habit, we are generally set in our ways in regard to our actions and morals. The “I’m right, you’re wrong” attitude is a heavy weight on the shoulders of us all. But within the principle of Daoism, we find the term: The Way. The Way is an order/method of living. To contrast the linear ideal of right and wrong (found in Western religious practices), The Way teaches us that there is no absolute good or absolute bad. Instead,  it is said that people will learn from their experiences and ultimately make choices that are “right” for them and their personal path to enlightenment. So, how does this relate to The Thinker’s Hero Quest?

In reading Giō, I found the obedient daughter to be quite heroic. The Japanese shirabyōshi dancer demonstrates several heroic qualities throughout her journey. To me, one of her most profound qualities would be that of her selflessness. Like Sita, Beowulf, and many before her, Giō sets aside her personal views and feelings in an effort to keep those around her happy.

[Tangent: Giō‘s mother really irked me. Her character seemed nothing more than an incessant guilt-trip. Her humble and talented daughter was dealing with some extreme internal abuse (from the unappreciative Chancellor) and yet the mother still expected Giō to please the authoritative figurehead so she could remain at peace in her old age? And why? Because she was so comfortable living in the capital that she couldn’t be bothered with her daughter’s free will and feelings? Ridiculous, if you ask me. I would say that Giō‘s mother is her foil, in fact.]

The woman is completely self-serving at one point in the Giō text:

For three whole years you enjoyed favor with the Chancellor. That was a stroke of fortune hardly to be matched. Now if you refuse to answer his summons, if it scarcely likely you will be put to death. Probably you will merely be banished from the capital. And even if you are banished, you and your sister are young and can manage to live even in the wildest and most out-of-the-way spot. But what of your mother? I am a feeble old woman –suppose I am banished too? Just the thought of living in some strange place in the countryside fills me with despair. Let me live out the rest of my days here in the capital. It could be thought of as being filial in this world as well as the next.

Giō, much as it pained her, did not feel that she could disobey these pleas from her mother and so, weeping all the while, she set out for the Chancellor’s mansion. ( 1378)

Due to Giō’s sense of guilt and duty to her family, she goes along with the mother’s request. In my view, setting aside one’s personal feelings and deep-rooted upset in favor of another’s wishes is a mark of a true hero. Towards the end of the tale, Giō impressed me once again by an incredible mental feat. She dropped away any trail of sadness and devoted herself entirely to “the recitation of the Buddha’s name.” By giving herself to the spiritual life, the former shirabyōshi dancer is following her quest for The Way. So despite the protagonist’s lack of physical battle and anguish, she is still a hero in my eyes because she overcomes her mental pain and eventually does what is “right” for her path in life.

The 13th Warrior

Disclaimer: I had to create a “Hero” music playlist before writing today’s blog. It helped in the inspiration department as this topic proved to be a little more difficult to formulate and discuss.  And here…we…GO!

For viewing The 13th Warrior for the first time, I would say that it was a pretty decent flick. The movie contained all of my favorite things for an action movie, including: sword fights, pyrotechnics, gore, and some horseback combat. More importantly, the story supplied a healthy amount of comic relief. Though most moviegoers would view Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan the Arab (Antonio Banderas) and Buliwyf  the Norseman (Vladimir Kulich)’s to be the most important characters to the story, I would respectfully disagree. For me, one of the sidekicks stole the show, which was none other than the clever blonde and bearded, Herger (Dennis Storhøi.) Herger’s character served as the “guiding light” throughout the journey. I use the term guiding light in two ways: first, to depict Herger as a witty and humorous companion to Buliwyf and his men and secondly, as an innovative  and crafty warrior who teaches Ibn how to trick his opponents into a false sense of security. True, Herger is not the main character. Also true, the story of The 13th Warrior was not told from the point of view of the clever Norseman, but rather the intellectual mind of the Arab, Ibn. Despite all of this, hero-like qualities can be found within Herger.

The Norseman, Herger, follows the path of the Hero Quest in a number of ways. He proves his devotion to his people by signing up to be a warrior. He demonstrates his ingenuity and cleverness while clanging swords with the giant ginger, pretending to be weak and striking on the opportune moment. Herger displays his physical brawn by besting the likes of numerous “bear” creatures and beheading the Prince’s right-hand oaf. But despite his triumphs and tribulations, Herger and his men still answer to their leader, Buliwyf.

Buliwyf is a doppelganger for Beowulf. Alongside the Arab, Buliwyf descends into the cave of the Eaters of the Dead (a manifestation of the Underworld) in an effort to extinguish the lives of those who torment King Hrothgar’s people. At this point, he has already confided in his guide(s) in the forms of Ibn the Arab and Herger the Norseman. These two combine know-how with combative skills in order to form a powerful warrior-hood. With a lengthy journey, a promise to save Hrothgar’s people, and trustworthy guides and confidants at the helm, Buliwyf kills the treacherous “bear” people… but with great cost. The woman-leader has poisoned the great warrior and he falls sickly, very fast. Despite his poor health, Buliwyf shows true heroism by engaging in combat with the son of the slain mother. Even in the clutches of death, the true hero (Buliwyf) emerges for a fight. Though I was rooting for Herger the whole time, it is apparent that the selfless Buliwyf (Beowulf-like character) is the true hero of The 13th Warrior. All in all, I enjoyed this movie much more than the ancient text because Beowulf lacked comic relief and Herger was just the man to provide it. Laughs make a heroic tale more relatable to the common folk, anyway.

Herger the Joyous

Beowulf

If a hero is defined by that of his brawn, then Beowulf takes the cake for most heroic. Time and time again, the Geatman demonstrates his physical power and worth through extraordinary feats. For example, he defeats the terrible Grendel single-handedly, ripping off the beast’s entire arm without the use of weaponry or protection. “The fiend soon found he was facing a foe whose hand-grip was harder than any other he ever had met in all Middle-Earth” (Beowulf, p.1581). That’s a pretty intense physical feat, wouldn’t you say? After combating Grendel, he then faces the brooding she-wolf, Grendel’s mother, inside her underwater cavern. (Though I’m not quite sure how he managed to hold his breath for so long while searching for the water-dwelling mistress? Super-human lungs, perhaps? Gills? SCUBA?) At any rate, seeking out and destroying this murderess was another incredible physical accomplishment. During his later years, Beowulf even battles a menacing dragon, alongside Wiglaf. It’s a rarity to see an elderly gentleman face a crazed monster. Though wrinkled with age and gray of hair, Beowulf sets out to destroy this new threat before it demolishes his people. Sadly, while killing it, the dragon inflicts a severely venomous neck bite upon the Geat, which ultimately kills Beowulf. Despite losing his life, Beowulf proves his heroism even in his final moments of life. (Which is saying something, because most of the elderly people I know relax in retirement, whereas Beowulf exerted much energy and his life one last time, in order to save his kingdom.) It is just unfortunate that he had to die to save his people because in this hero’s absence, the Geats are left vulnerable and unprotected. As much as I admire Wiglaf’s bravery during the dragon battle, does he really have what it takes to protect  the people of Geatland without Beowulf to guide him?

Another quality that sets Beowulf apart from most heroes is his seeming faultlessness. Unlike Gilgamesh, Beowulf does not fear death and therefore does not search for immortality. To contrast Odysseus, Beowulf does not succumb to the advances of goddesses/beautiful women (the movie doesn’t count) or receive divine aid from a higher power whenever he’s in trouble because Beowulf fights his own battles. Sure, he utilized an incredibly useful sword forged by giants while in Grendel’s mother’s lair, but I see this as a fortunate happenstance. He didn’t beg the gods for assistance. In relation to Rama, Beowulf does not desert his loved ones (Danes, Geats, warriors) as Rama initially did with Sita. Beowulf is not a death-fearing pansy. Beowulf is not a sex-crazed manipulator. Beowulf is not a “holier than thou” type figure. When examining faults, none of the aforementioned men are up to snuff when compared to Beowulf. The only other truly selfless hero or heroine in this case would be Sita, particularly in Sita Sings the Blues. At the end of her tale, she completely surrenders herself to Mother Earth. Beowulf surrenders himself to death at the bite of the dragon. There was no whining along his hero quest. Beowulf is a “let’s get to it” sort of hero, with no if, ands, or buts about him. Unless we imperfect humans consider “faultlessness” a fault in and of itself, then Beowulf is an undeniable hero. He cared for and saved as many people as he could during his mortal state and if it weren’t for that fatal bite, I’m sure Beowulf would be helping little old ladies cross the street.

Wishful Thinking...

Sita Sings the Blues was a highly entertaining film! Honestly, after seeing the time length of the video, I was a bit skeptical as to whether I would enjoy it or not. How could an hour and twenty-minute homework assignment catch my interest? Well, this production proved me all kinds of wrong. The music, vibrant geometric drawings, and silly character dialogue added just enough flare to make the story of The Ramayana that much more interesting. A fascinating aspect of this production is that it is not entirely devoted to the text of The Ramayana. True, the film recounts the heroic journey of Rama, but it does much more than that. Sita Sings the Blues delves farther into the mind of the damsel and examines Sita’s point of view, after she is happily reunited with Rama.

Nina Paley, the creator and artist, illustrates the world of ancient Ayodhya in simple terms so as to help captivate the audience and promote understanding of the story. The old-time songs, sung by Annette Hanshaw, paint a picture of Rama and Sita’s tumultuous relationship with its lyrics, creating an emotional environment for both the characters and audience. Also, the sarcastic, conflicting, and sometimes confused comments made by the narrators were my favorite part. Their overlapping conversations and witty banter were reminiscent of a student debate, which also made the story more relatable.

I believe it was a wise decision on Paley’s part to completely rehash the tale of Rama and Sita before diving into her own take on the work by Valmiki. She relates the events in The Ramayana to that of a modern American couple, struggling to keep their relationship together. Struggle is paramount in a hero quest. After Sita was kidnapped, Prince Rama struggled to reclaim his bride from the clutches of the evil Ravana, ruler of Lanka. Rama battled numerous foes along his quest and because he is a manifestation of the god Vishnu, Rama was able to conjure divine weaponry (i.e. arrows, swords) which aided him in the killings of said beasts. Throughout the telling of The Ramayana, we are led to believe that Rama is the hero. However, during Sita Sings the Blues, we are introduced with the possibility that Sita could be our heroine. After all, throughout the original tale, Sita displays numerous heroic acts, including: resisting the advances of Ravana and jumping into a pyre of flames in an effort to prove her purity to her husband.

Following the bizarrely delightful “Intermission,” Sita’s character is then developed further in Sita Sings the Blues. We discover that Sita is pregnant with Rama’s child. As opposed to delighting in the pregnancy of his wife, Rama banishes Sita to a far away land, for fear that her presence in the kingdom would upset the subjects of Ayodhya. How could a responsible king bed with a woman who has lived in another man’s house? During her exile, Sita again shows devotion and bravery by remaining pure of heart. She bears twin boys and teaches them about their father Rama and to “Sing his love, sing his praise.” When Rama discovers his children and wife in the forest, he demands Sita prove her purity once again. Sita says, “If I have always been true to Rama, if I have never thought of another man, if I am completely pure of body and soul, then let Mother Earth take me back into her womb.” This selfless act sets her apart from most heroes, in that she sacrifices herself, body and soul, entirely just to prove her point.

When combining both of these tales, we encounter two heroes. Rama is the hero of The Ramayana and Sita is the heroine of Sita Sings the Blues. He stops at nothing to save his precious bride and she sacrifices herself to prove her devotion to her beloved Rama. In a way, their relationship reminds me of Disney’s Hercules. Hercules, son of Zeus, will stop at nothing to save the soul of Megara, whereas she sold her soul to Hades in an effort to save her ex-boyfriend. With this telling, the term “hero” becomes less ambiguous, in my mind. Heroes will always encounter struggle. Overcoming said struggle is what makes them heroic. Like the song suggests, “If You Want the Rainbow, You Must Have the Rain” which indicates that with hardship, comes ultimate delight. Being a hero doesn’t always have to mean defeating monsters and stopping crime. Committing a selfless act like that of Sita’s can prove to be just as heroic.

Before & After

Gutting Gilgamesh

An epic is a lengthy poetic composition that is comprised of three main elements: a hero, his/her journey, and a lesson learned or goal achieved upon completing said quest. A story is not an epic without a hero. But what is a hero? For the purposes of this story, a hero is just this: someone who sets out to challenge themselves on both mental and physical planes in order to gain knowledge/goods. However, my idea of hero differs from many others in that the acceptance of one’s fate is the deciding factor of if you’re a true hero or not.

With this being said, is Gilgamesh a hero? I would say so, yes. However, he had to go through quite a character transformation before I could even consider him to be heroic.

In the prologue of Gilgamesh, I thought the protagonist to be an arrogant pansy in need of complete control and dominion over his subjects. How can a pansy be a hero? Sure, he is the son of the goddess Rimat-Ninsun and king to the people of Uruk, but does royal and divine blood constitute what it is to be a hero? Not in the slightest. A crown does not change a country, the leader does. So does Gilgamesh possess any real gusto? Can he overcome extreme physical and mental obstacles? Throughout the epic, Gilgamesh proves his physical brawn by defeating Humbaba alongside his companion Enkidu and Shamash, the sun god. However, his strength was not enough to convince me of his heroism. He had assistance in defeating the forest beast. True heroism is shown when the protagonist can stand alone against his/her aggressors. It is up to the individual to face their demons, and in this case, Gilgamesh must resign to the fact that he will not live forever. Near the end of the epic, his only opponent is himself.

Gilgamesh

Heroes go through trials and tribulations throughout their journey and display character transformations toward the end of the tale. It was not until the death of Enkidu that Gilgamesh “saw the light,” so to speak. By watching his friend slip into the mortal coil, Gilgamesh soon began to question his own state of being. Finality and “the End” are frightening concepts to any mortal. Even for Gilgamesh, a demi-God, he could not bear the thought of aging into oblivion. With this issue haunting his thoughts, Gilgamesh sets out to remedy his mortal state and achieve immortality. He journeys on to seek out the counsel of Utnapishtim, a known immortal. The plant that Utnapishtim suggests is swept away by a serpent and once his chance to cheat death slips away, Gilgamesh is left in shambles. It is after this failure that Gilgamesh truly discovers himself. Despite failing to achieve immortality, Gilgamesh learns the worth of mortality. He reflects on the magnificence of his life back home. Does being a hero mean living forever? Not necessarily. In the flesh, Gilgamesh will eventually fade away. In stories, Gilgamesh will live forever. When  it comes down to it, changing one’s mind is often tougher than changing the physical world because humans are stubborn creatures. Why would Gilgamesh want to live forever without Enkidu, anyway? In the end, Gilgamesh learned that mortality is a gift, not a curse. It is with Gilgamesh’s acceptance of his fate that he truly achieves the title of hero.