Okay, folks, the audiobook of my short story “Nightfall” has just dropped. Have a listen and see what you think.
Narrative theory is the academic idea begun by the Russian scholars Todorov and Propp and continued later by the American Joseph Campbell, that the same archetypes and story motifs and narrative structures appear repeatedly in fairytales and folktales in every culture.
With Star Wars everywhere in the news this week following the release of Rogue One and the tragic death of Carrie Fisher, let’s take a look at narrative theory through the example of Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope. It was written and directed by George Lucas and released in 1977. It’s a science fiction film even though it takes from every genre; Arthurian legend (the Jedi knights are similar to King Arthur’s knights of the Round Table, Obi-Wan Kenobi is a Merlin-like figure who gives Luke a laser sword similar to Excalibur), Japanese Kurosawa movie The Hidden Fortress (1958) (Lucas said: “The one thing that really struck me about The Hidden Fortress was the fact that the story was told from the [perspective of] the two lowest characters. I decided that would be a nice way to tell the Star Wars story, which was to take the two lowest characters, as Kurosawa did, and tell the story from their point of view, which in the Star Wars case is the two droids.” Darth Vader’s helmet is also supposed to resemble a Samurai’s.)
Star Wars also evokes American Westerns (Han Solo is dressed exactly like Gary Cooper in High Noon minus the cowboy hat.The raucous, violent canteen is like a Western saloon and the destruction of Luke’s home and family is very like The Searchers) and World War II movies (Darth Vader’s helmet also resembles a Nazi helmet, the Empire’s troops are called Stormtroopers just as Hitler’s were and the dogfights in outer space are like Second World War aerial battles. Lucas even edited World War II dogfight footage into an early rough cut of Star Wars as a guide before the special effects were ready.)
Lucas had tried and failed to secure the rights to make a Flash Gordon movie, yet he retained the opening exposition crawl from the start of the old 1930s Buster Crabbe/Flash Gordon serials for Star Wars.
Here are Propp’s archetypes in Star Wars:
Hero – Luke Skywalker
Donor – Obi-Wan Kenobi gives Luke his lightsaber.
Helper – Han Solo, Chewbacca and the droids
Princess – Leia
Her Father – Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader
False Hero – There is no obvious false hero in the Star Wars – Episode IV. It appears to be Han Solo, who selfishly refuses to take part in the crucial assault on the Death Star but he redeems himself in a last-minute twist by saving Luke’s life and neutralising the threat of Darth Vader which gives Luke time to destroy the Death Star.
Dispatcher – I believe it’s Leia; she puts the distress hologram inside R2-D2. This sends the droid on his mission which reactivates Obi-Wan who activates Luke as the hero.
For me, the structure is this;
Act I – Hidden Fortress meets The Searchers
Act II – Where Eagles Dare (Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton disguise themselves as Nazis to infiltrate a German fortress on a mountaintop just as Han Solo and Luke Skywalker disguise themselves as the enemy to get around the Death Star)
Act III – The Dambusters (Lucas hired British cinematographer Gil Taylor to shoot Star Wars and he had done special effects photography on the 1955 British film The Dam Busters. The assault on the Death Star at the end is a virtual shot-for-shot remake of the bombing of the German dams at the finale of The Dam Busters.)
© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.
Star Wars © Lucasfilm Ltd.
Wuthering Heights, the only novel by author Emily Bronte before her death at 30, has been highly influential on popular culture. It was published in 1847, the year of the great Famine in Ireland, Bram Stoker’s birth and exactly 50 years before he published Dracula.
The book begins with the narrator Lockwood coming to stay at Wuthering Heights. He is given the former room of Catherine Earnshaw. During the night, he dreams that the ghost of Catherine or Cathy Earnshaw comes to the window, grabs his arm and begs to be let inside. Lockwood informs Heathcliff, the landlord, who opens the window to let the spirit enter but none appears. This supernatural appearance at the window is similar to how Dracula gains entry to the bedrooms of his victims, except he uses his mental, physical and/or erotic power to get in. In some vampire stories, it is necessary to invite a vampire in for them to gain access. It would appear to have at least partially originated in this standout scene from Wuthering Heights.
The story of Wuthering Heights is then told in flashback (Stoker also uses narrators to tell the story of Dracula but in the form of letters and journal entries). Heathcliff as a child is discovered wandering homeless by Mr Earnshaw on his trip to Liverpool. (Liverpool is a port and, as with Dracula, Heathcliff seems to have arrived in England by ship although that is never stated in the book. Judging by the ethnic description of him though and the location where he was found, it is a strong possibility.) The boy is described as “a dark-skinned gypsy in aspect.” Earnshaw names him Heathcliff and brings him home where his presence stirs up jealousy from Earnshaw’s son Hindley and infatuation from his daughter Cathy.
Heathcliff, like Dracula, is the mysterious, dark foreigner bringing his obsessive, destructive and ultimately lethal love to England’s stuffy upper classes. The theme repeatedly used in Wuthering Heights about eternal love even after death was one Bram Stoker would return to in Dracula five decades later.
Although they appear destined to be together, Cathy and Heathcliff grow up and marry other people and their relationship turns jealously masochistic with fatal consequences. Only after their deaths do they appear to fulfill their destiny and become soulmates at last.
Dracula author Bram Stoker was the manager of actor Sir Henry Irving. Irving was a fearsome figure who dominated Stoker. Many believe him to be the inspiration for Stoker’s vampire count.
Not only did Irving serve as inspiration for Bram Stoker but, indirectly, for actor Laurence Olivier who played both Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and Van Helsing in Dracula onscreen.
When stuck for ideas on how to play Shakespeare’s Richard III in the movie he was directing, Olivier said: ‘I’d always heard imitations of old actors imitating Henry Irving. And so I did, right away, an imitation of these old actors imitating Henry Irving’s voice. That’s why I took that sort of rather narrow vocal address.’
Cathy’s ghost appearing at the window echoes the victory over death and return from the grave in vampire lore. Stephen King’s 1975 novel Salem’s Lot was inspired by Dracula. One night over supper, King mused what would happen if Dracula reappeared in the-then 20th century. Again, King makes the connection between Dracula and Wuthering Heights explicit when dead boy Ralphie Glick comes to his brother’s window after being preyed upon by the master vampire in the town. He also wishes to be let in as Cathy does.
In 1978, Kate Bush reached number one in the UK charts with her song Wuthering Heights. It was directly inspired by a 1967 BBC adaptation of Emily Bronte’s novel that Kate Bush saw when she was 18 (she even shares the same birthday as Emily Bronte). Bush specifically chose Cathy’s appearance at the window in the book to structure the song around and wrote from her perspective: “Heathcliff! It’s me, your Cathy, I’ve come home. So co-o-o-old, let me in at your window.” She definitely played up the scary, supernatural side of the scene and wasn’t afraid to potentially frighten away record buyers. Her bravery paid off with her first and only number one to date.
Kate Bush’s mother was from Ireland. With her high-pitched wailing and scary eyes in the video, it’s tempting to imagine Kate Bush shifting the setting of Wuthering Heights to Ireland and the ghost of Cathy becoming a Banshee coming in from a misty bog in the Irish countryside. Journalist Clive James famously stated in 1978 that he wasn’t sure ‘whether Kate Bush is a genius or a headcase, but she is definitely something else.’ Her ethereal, otherworldly performance spooked some people just as the original scene in Emily Bronte’s book had.
Here are the two very interesting versions of her Wuthering Heights videos:
It just demonstrates how, when an author hits upon a striking and powerful image, it can permeate down consciously and unconsciously through many forms of artistic expression for decades and even centuries to come.
© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.
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Allow me to elaborate on my quote, dear readers. In the Second World war, Britain and Germany were gleefully bombing each other’s major cities into oblivion day and night. In the myopia of war, they thought they were engaged in a conflict to strengthen themselves, but were, in fact, destroying each other as major world powers. This created a vacuum into which stepped the new superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union.
In the aftermath of the war, Britain was devastated physically, financially and mentally. Rationing was still in force and luxuries were unheard of for a whole generation of children. The war was before their time but the impact and implications of it were a daily fact of life. Ruined areas called bomb sites still pockmarked the land and the new kids played on them, including a young David Bowie.
Bowie’s biographer Paul Trynka kicks off his excellent book Starman with this illustration of grim post-war austerity from Peter Prickett: “Everything seemed grey. We wore short grey flannel trousers of a thick and rough material, grey socks and grey shirts. The roads were grey, the prefabs were grey and the bomb sites seemed to be made of grey rubble.”
Behold the constraints of reality! Glam Rock in the 70s was going to be the antithesis of all that childhood drabness and deprivation. First though, Tolkien would unleash the beast that was The Lord of the Rings. Despite being written in stages between 1937 and 1949, three volumes were published over the course of a year between 1954 and 1955 (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and the Return of the king). There was a sudden glut of Tolkien product in the marketplace at just the right time. The books were manna from Heaven for a generation starved of good food, new ideas and hope. For the first time, they had in their hands an affordable escape and a template for a way out of their difficult situations. It was like the scene in the Wizard of Oz where the world goes from monochrome to eye-popping technicolor as Dorothy reaches Oz. John Lennon was one of many British kids who became a fan of Tolkien’s.
The Beatles turned everything on its head when they shot to fame in 1962. As well as topping the charts with monster hits on both sides of the Atlantic, they also made some remarkable films including A Hard Day’s Night, Help and the surreal, Pythonesque Magical Mystery Tour. Kicking around for ideas for a new Fab Four flick, John Lennon suggested an adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
Peter Jackson directed both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies. In 2014, he said “The Beatles once approached Stanley Kubrick to do The Lord Of The Rings and he said no. I actually spoke about this with Paul McCartney. He confirmed it. I’d heard rumors that it was going to be their next film after Help.”
It wasn’t just Kubrick who rejected The Beatles: “It was something John was driving, and J.R.R. Tolkien still had the film rights at that stage, but he didn’t like the idea of the Beatles doing it. So he killed it,” Jackson added.
Lennon had published two books himself, A Spaniard In The Works and In His Own Write, his love of wordplay being evident in the titles. Lennon was fan of Lewis Carroll as well as Tolkien and his writing has been compared to Carroll’s, particularly I Am The Walrus.
It is arguable that many of the prog rock concept albums of the 70s were an attempt to transfer Tolkien’s epic fantasy imagery to the album format. Rick Wakeman played piano on Bowie’s Life On Mars and was the keyboard player with Yes. Wakeman did a 70s concert at an ice rink with skaters playing knights on horseback jousting to the music he was playing. He admitted recently that he had gone too far but it was excess-all-areas in the 70s.
Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin was a serious Tolkien nerd, liberally sprinkling references to the books in his songs. Take these lines from Zeppelin’s Ramble On: “Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair. But Gollum and the evil one crept up and slipped away with her.”
Queen, in turn, were big fans of Led Zeppelin. They played Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song during soundchecks and Plant turned up at The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992 to perform Innuendo and Crazy Little Thing Called Love. It’s possible that Freddie and the boys imbibed some of Zeppelin’s Tolkien imagery by osmosis. Seven Seas of Rhye was Queen’s first hit. It came out in 1974 and was written by Freddie Mercury. Rhye was a fantasy world that Freddie had created with his sister Kashmira. Freddie sings of “the mighty Titan and his troubadours” in Seven Seas of Rhye. On other Queen albums there was “Ogre Battle” and “Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke.” The imagery of Brian May’s The Prophet’s Song on A Night At The Opera is very Tolkienesque, although the images came to him in a dream. Queen would also go on to do the music for fantasy films like Highlander and Flash Gordon.
Tolkien was probably horrified by the bands and music he inspired but that would have been a typical reaction from his generation. None of it was intended for him. He was unable to foresee the consequences of publishing his books but it is interesting to see how one creative act can inspire many similar and dissimilar ones, spreading out like ripples in a pond. We pass the torch of inspiration down the generations, it is not ours to keep but ours to maintain and pass on.
© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.
If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.
My exposure to the magical world of stories began in my childhood. My mother would read bedtime stories to my brother and I. She would read from books and we heard tales like The Elves and The Shoemaker, Snow White and Rumplestiltskin. It was hearing the canon of the works that had gone before.
Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin
My father took a different direction. He made up stories on the spot and put us in them. We would start chipping in ideas on what direction the story should take. Our particular favourite was the story our dad told about Batman and Robin bringing us to school in the batmobile (we were crazy about the old Adam West Batman TV show). Sometimes, my dad would say it was too late to continue the story despite our protestations. (He would always finish with: “I had a little doll, I stuck it in the wall, that’s my story after all.”) The next day in school our imaginations ran riot with the possible turns the Batman story could take later on. I was starting to write my first story.
In school itself, there were more stories. I remember my teacher reading from Roald Dahl’s James And The Giant Peach. She read the words and I put the visuals to it in my mind. I would look from the book to the teacher’s face. The book was some sort of incantation read aloud to us, holding us spellbound. Then the teacher would close the book and say it was time to move on to another subject. I didn’t want her to close the book. I didn’t care about the other subject. I wanted to hear the rest of that story. As a writer, I don’t get distracted from stories now and it is very satisfying to me.
A Banshee mourning
In grandmother’s kitchen, once the housework was finished, the women in my mother’s family would sit down with cups of tea and swap stories, jokes and gossip. My grandmother recalled how the Banshee attacked her father in the wilds of the country. The story went that his bicycle tyre got punctured. He was pushing the bike along a narrow country road when he heard a woman crying. There, on the wall, was a woman combing her long, bedraggled hair and sobbing. My great-grandfather approached the woman and asked her what was wrong. At that moment, she threw her comb at him, striking him in the foot. His foot swelled up as a result. The moral of the story is; if you hear the Banshee crying, you mind your own business and don’t interfere with her spectral mourning. She was crying for families with O’ or Mc in their names. As a child, I didn’t question the veracity of this story. It was 100% real, terrifying but also enthralling. This wasn’t just family history I was hearing, it was the words of eyewitness testimony to a supernatural incident. I have tried to do the same thing with vampires in my novel The Vorbing. I wanted to make the vampires real creatures to see how that society operated, hunted and functioned. I also wanted to treat vampirism as a pandemic.
My grandmother also related an incident to me that may or may not be true. She claimed to have witnessed an attempt to dispose of a murder victim’s body possibly through cannibalism. Before I relate what happened to you, you have to understand what life in rural Ireland was like when my grandmother was a child. She was born in 1910 and there was no electricity in the countryside then. The Irish government’s Rural Electrification Scheme didn’t come along until the 1940s. It was a dark land where the even darker worlds of superstition and criminality flourished. My grandmother was told to get something in the shop by her mother. It was dark outside and if it wasn’t a moonlit night, you wouldn’t be able to see your hand in front of your face. Pitch darkness. She set out and soon came to a house with its front door wide open. My grandmother thought she saw what looked like a human body roasting on a spit over the fire. She crept inside to get a closer look. Her fears appeared to be confirmed. It was a man’s body. She spun around to get out of there and something or someone hit her on the leg. She managed to escape and lived to tell the tale. My grandmother died back in the 1990s, so we’ll never know if any of her story was true. Was it mistaken identity? A bad dream? Something she made up? Or was it real? It was related to me as fact when I was in my 20s. There’s a little nod to my grandmother’s experience in my book The Vorbing, I won’t give away how I work in the reference. So you’ll all have to go to school and hear about Batman later if/when you buy my book, he he. I had a little doll, I stuck it in the wall, that’s my story after all.
The Vorbing is available exclusively on Amazon Kindle from Thursday, October 29th, 2015 and can be pre-ordered at this link now; http://geni.us/1bza
© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.
I don’t know what the weather is like where you are right now, but it’s filthy here in Dublin this morning – dark, wet and windy. Even if it’s not like that in your neck of the woods, here’s something to set the Halloween mood – The Vampire Bodies of Europe. I’ve just added an article on that very subject over at my website The Vorbing; http://thevorbing.com/2014/10/the-vampire-bodies-of-europe/
Vampires may have been part of our heritage centuries earlier than we thought…
“I vant to bite your neck!” went my brother’s dodgy Bela Lugosi imitation and a lifetime’s fascination with vampires began for me. We were in our New York apartment and he would follow me around goading me with his vampire voice. I’d put my chin on my chest to protect my neck and flee and my brother would creep after me. I got a “taste” of what it was like to be a vampire’s victim.
My next run-in with vampires was, again, my brother’s doing. We were in Ireland by then. It was my 12th birthday party and my brother put on our VHS copy of “Salem’s Lot” with David Soul. That was and still is the only really terrifying vampire film for me (along with F.W. Murnau’s seminal Nosferatu). My father told the kids that they could leave the room if it got too much for them. One by one, they did until all of us were in the back room. The terror didn’t end there. The kids refused to walk home alone in the dark after the party. They insisted on phoning their parents to collect them, even the kids that lived around the corner! You don’t forget things that scar your psyche like that. The windy, autumnal nights that followed were filled with a creeping dread of nightfall. Thanks again, bro…
Fast-forward another decade. I was dating a girl when vampires unexpectedly entered my life once more. “I want you to bite me on the neck,” she said seductively as she leaned against the wall of our deserted acting class. “What?” I said. She repeated what she wanted. It didn’t sound any less strange the second time so I repeated it. “You want me to bite you on the neck?” I parroted. “Yes,” she said. “Are you sure?” I asked, offering her one last chance to back out of it. “Yes,” she replied again. “Okay,” I said with uncertainty but with a certain amount of intrigue at playing the vampire himself for the first time. Before I sink my fangs into her neck, I’ll provide a little background on my “victim.” Her uncle was a haemophiliac who had died of AIDS (this was the 90s when it was still a death sentence). This had fuelled her interest in death and vampirism and its blood disease similarity with her uncle’s affliction. Tune in to my next blog post to find out what happened next…
© 2014, Stewart Stafford. All rights reserved.
Excellent article on Irish folklore. What do you think? http://www.lpobryan.com/research-in-ireland-for-jeremiahs-tomb/