I spend a lot of my time on the mechanics of mythology, which is my way of excusing myself for reading Harry Potter when I should be studying the Qur’an. I’m a Religious Studies student at McGill, with a long history of listening to my friends and family from Brooklyn try to story-top each other. (“Yeah, I’m Jerry Seinfeld’s cousin. We’re, like, really close.”) There’s something so fundamental about trying to construct a worldview, and then convince other people that it’s absolutely true. Your best bet is to make the story so compelling that whether the facts align or not becomes immaterial.
Today, we use the word myth as a synonym for false, which is something that makes my Religious Studies professors squeal in agony (try to picture that for fun). Mythology is an attempt to capture truth, to express a construction of the cosmos, one that is necessarily culturally conditioned. In contemporary times, mythology has been relocated. Meaning is no longer found in the traditional mythological tales of bards, prophets, and princesses. It is found in the courageous hobbits of the Shire, the curious ethics of Dexter, and in mythology’s most obvious heir, superheroes (and supervillains).
Let’s take a look at arguably the most infamous character in film over the last ten years, Heath Ledger’s Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Why was the Joker such a big deal? Granted, Heath Ledger was tremendous, but why was he so universally fascinating, the subject of Halloween costumes and terrible impressions for years to come? Look at it from a comparative mythological perspective. Let’s call the Joker a ‘trickster,’ a pretty easy jump, based on his name. The trickster is a mythic character, present especially in the mythologies of Africa and the Native Americas. He (sometimes she) is the supreme con-artist, manifest as a sexual deviant; a comedian, vainglorious, or completely lacking in morals. In all manifestations he is, and here I am quoting The Dark Knight, an “agent of chaos.”
The Joker cannot be confined to his human personage. He keeps changing his backstory, for one, and has mutilated and painted his face to further distance his role in Gotham from his human self. He is not driven by greed (“It’s not about money, it’s about sending a message”), by sex, nor by the desire for power. There is no negotiating with him, for there is nothing he wants. As Alfred explains to Bruce Wayne, “Some men, Mr. Wayne, just want to watch the world burn.” The Joker brings the “White Knight” into the darkness; he makes Batman compromise his morality in order to operate within the realm of chaos that the Joker has created in Gotham, thus becoming an Orwellian Big Brother rather than a protector of the peace. And as is often the case in trickster myths, he achieves some sort of victory. As a friend of mine pointed out, The Dark Knight is one of the only superhero movies in which the villain achieves what he wants. The Joker embodied and created chaos, and Gotham is forever affected.
While the trickster figure often only operates in mythic time, and is not conceived as a living figure, his role in mythology is as a disruptor to black-and-white conceptions of the cosmos. He mocks the established order, and even the idea that there could be an order at all, and introduces irony and absurdity where once existed truth and sacredness. He explains the presence of suffering and injustice. Think of how the Joker mocked not only Gotham, but also the audience’s approach to superheroes. We are used to endowing heroes with every human and superhuman positive quality we can think of. The Joker in The Dark Knight made us question this. He is a force of chaos not only in the world of Gotham, but also in our own conception of mythology and heroism. We, as a culture, have invented a new dualism in the world of superheroes and supervillains, one that Nolan seems to imply is untenable, and an insufficient reflection of the world as we know it. But this, of course, is no new revelation. The existence of the trickster in mythologies worldwide seems to imply we’ve been rediscovering this fact since the dawn of time.
Try the works of Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, and Carl Jung for more on the trickster archetype.
This is Elena Dugan’s first column about religion and myth in the modern world. You can contact her at email@example.com.