The Mythic Well I
by Annie Hamilton
Even before a single episode of Babylon 5 was aired, advance publicity compared the series to Patrick McGoohan's surreal television thriller, The Prisoner, to the dark and gritty realism of Hill Street Blues and to J.R.R. Tolkien's epic fantasy adventure, The Lord of The Rings. It was an extraordinary mix, by any stretch of the imagination, but Babylon 5 was to be, in the words of writer-producer, J. Michael Straczynski, fundamentally "a novel for television". During the first and second seasons many fans noted a few fascinating parallels between Babylon 5 and The Prisoner , but far more than those, they noted an increasing number of correspondences with The Lord of The Rings. Partly this resulted from the encouragement given by Straczynski in his repeated references to the book, both in interviews and in his comments on the internet. For example, when Michael O'Hare, who played Commander Sinclair, left the series, Straczynski remarked, in an extended Lotr analogy that his departure was akin to the Breaking of the Fellowship. And again, when Andrea Thompson, who played telepath Talia Winters, left the show, the death of her character was likened (amongst others) to the death of Boromir in Lotr.
However as time went by, Straczynski began to repeatedly insist that he was not doing The Lord of The Rings with the serial numbers filed off and the focus of explanation shifted from Tolkien to Arthurian romance. This perplexed a number of fans who were aware that Arthurian romance almost invariably involves the adulterous woman. It seemed to suggest that, either nothing was as it seemed to be (more than possible!) or else that Babylon 5 was like an Arthurian romance in much the same way the latest Mills and Boon novel is. Complicating this matter was the suggestion (in several cast interviews) that the romance between Sheridan and Delenn was like that of Arthur and Guinevere. Some fans started looking for a third party, but couldn't spot one. And still can't. Unless, perhaps, Lennier's suddenly going to turn into Lancelot or Tristan. Strangely, no mention seems ever to have been made of Beren and Luthien in The Silmarillion, a book of tales by (surprise! surprise!) J.R.R. Tolkien where the human hero, Beren, falls in love with a half-elven princess, Luthien, and against all odds (including considerable family disapproval) finally marries her, but only after he's died and been given a return to life of a few short decades by Mandos, the lord of the dead. Mandos was an angelic guardian, one of the two Feanturi (masters of spirits), the other of whom was Lorien, the lord of dreams and visions.
Further confusing the issue, Straczynski made numerous statements with a theme of Babylon 5 being a kind of Rorschach test, pointing out that people saw in it whatever mythic form they are most familiar with. And since, as he pointed out, he had drawn from the same literary traditions and well-spring as Tolkien, the implication was that it was natural that people saw similarities between Lotr and B5.
Very much the same thing was said to people who saw elements and aspects of the Kennedy conspiracy or World War II or the Bible or the Koran in the plot-line of the first season.
Now implication is a tricky thing, because the validity of our subsequent inference depends upon our assumptions and on how accurate our perceptions really are - and the situation doesn't get any easier when we are trying to understand the comments of someone who is a self-admitted proponent of the rules of Zen writing. After all, when Straczynski says in an interview that the shot of the swearing-in of Morgan Clark was deliberately framed to echo that of Lyndon Baynes Johnson taking the oath in Air Force One (even mentioning that the day on which the scene was shot was on the actual anniversary) and then goes on to tell fans who see elements of the Kennedy conspiracy that B5 is a kind of Rorschach test, what does that really mean? I can't tell you what it does mean but I ll tell you what it doesn't mean: it doesn't mean that just because you see the mythic form with which you are most familiar, that you're imagining it. It's possible that you're seeing it because it's actually there.
In the meantime, we should note that plot-lines like the Beren-Luthien romance are thick upon the ground in literature. I'm sure anyone of us could think of half a dozen other mythic tales, besides The Silmarillion, to which this particular B5 storyline could be compared, in as much specific detail, if not more. Please pardon my sarcasm. Those of us who are not Joseph Campbell will probably be scratching our heads trying to think of even one that fits this category.
Now perhaps it's only coincidence but the change in emphasis from Tolkien to Arthurian romance seems to have occurred around the time of Bruce Boxleitner's tragic encounter with foot-in-mouth disease. Boxleitner, who plays the character of Sheridan, confirmed what many people already suspected by commenting in an interview: "By the way, the Rangers come straight from the J.R.R. Tolkien epic, The Lord of the Rings."
Months later, Boxleitner's malady still lingered when he opened his mouth in another interview, only to change feet. "Last year, I said to him, 'You've got this whole rich tapestry of story worked out, with so many dimensions and so much depth to it. What was the germination of this? Where does this sort of thing come from?' He gave me a copy of Lord of The Rings , and he asked me to please read it over the hiatus. I did, and I started to see some parallels and some very interesting things. I happened to remark on this in an interview, and Joe read it and said, 'My God, it sounds like I m a plagiarist!' Well, no, I certainly didn't mean it that way." (Sci Fi Entertainment, April 1996)
Is it possible to reconcile Straczynski's statement that he is not doing Lotr with the serial numbers filed off with Boxleitner's revelations? The simple answer is that the serial numbers are not filed off - and that they correspond to the names of characters and places (in disguise, of course). A thin patina of Arthurian romance glosses situations and incidents that fundamentally find their origin in Tolkien's writings. Indeed, his body of work is paralleled, if not with detailed exactitude, then certainly with exquisitely fine rather than broad brushstrokes. The major characters and places in one universe all have their counterparts in the other. As for the minor characters and places - well, there's an astonishing number of them. To pick just one for an example out of the many possible, there's Thular, the long-dead researcher who invented the organic weaponry of Ikaara 7 and his parallel, Eol the dark elf who forged malicious sentient swords and who died before being able to pass on the secret of his invention of living armour.
In addition to all this, the Minbari tongue is so similar to the languages of Tolkien's elves that it may be considered merely as a latter-day dialect.
However, the simple answer about the serial numbers - that they're not filed off, that they're easily read by anyone who can follow Straczynski's well-marked clues - is not to everyone's liking. Many have taken Straczynski's statement at face value and someone even suggested that the continually re-surfacing discussion on the internet likening Babylon 5 to The Lord of The Rings is so boring and nauseating, given Straczynski's clear and unequivocal announcements to the contrary, that a complete ban should be placed on the topic. Straczynski himself responded to this recommendation by saying that he would rather not have a ban implemented, but instead would like to see B5 and Lotr compared and contrasted.
Ahh...had I but worlds enough and time...! I, at least, would be delighted to oblige. Unfortunately, considering the vastness of the task, I really don't have the time - and as Babylon 5 increasingly presents us with an idealised and romanticised fascist viewpoint, as well as a lead character (notice that I couldn't quite bring myself to suggest hero) who reminds me more and more of the little guy with the moustache who wrote Mein Kampf, I have even less of an inclination.
However, I can make a beginning, if only a small one.
But before I do, I must make a few points quite clear. I believe Straczynski completely when he says there is no one-to-one correspondence between B5 and any other work. I consider that it is a general (but not universal) three-to-one correspondence which, in my view, qualifies it as the triple-encrypted code mentioned quite often in 1994, but rarely since. One other point I would like to clarify is this: there are some parallels in the following which you may find a bit dubious. I've wondered myself about the inclusion of some that struck me as ambiguous.
However, I established a touchstone of significance which was based upon Straczynski's revelations about foreshadowing: he disclosed that Talia had been foreshadowed as the traitor as early as her first episode where she comments she doesn't feel like a victim. The discovery of her dark side was also foreshadowed by the way she was continually shown in mirrors. Both were such subtle touches that even in retrospect, the clues doesn't look particularly relevant. After these points were made evident by Straczynski, I felt justified in including even the most trivial of congruencies, so long as they had more obvious connection than those. I may have missed a few parallels this way, but I really don't think I have included any that shouldn't be there. And although this approach ultimately allowed me an unduly wide latitude of significance, can we really argue when the exemplars have already been so skilfully delineated by Straczynski himself?
The last point I wish to make is that this analysis is entirely based around my analysis of Minbari and my belief that it is fundamentally related to the Elvish tongues, Sindarin and Quenya. It is these languages - as well as others of Tolkien's invention - which form the basis of the triple-encrypted code and ultimately provide the answer to that ubiquitous question once posed by the redoubtable hobbit, Merry Brandybuck: "Who are you and what do you want?"
And so, to work. To start, I'm going to compare and contrast Straczynski's Vorlons to Tolkien's Valar. This is not because the most compelling evidence about the mythic well is here, it's because I'm the sort of person who, on being presented with a roast dinner, eats the beans first. Thus, if you find the Vorlon/Valar parallels intriguing, just you wait! However a warning: those of you who may have been hoping for a comparison of Sheridan (or Sinclair) and Aragorn are doomed to hope in vain - not just because you'll have to wait for the meat, but because anyone who knows anything about Tolkien's writings knows that Aragorn was the hidden king.
I would like to thank Aaron Brockbank for directing me out of the works of Alfred Bester and into The Lord of The Rings at an especially critical moment, Karen McDonald for her expertise and long-suffering in answering my persistent questions about Arthurian legend and, most particularly, Rose, for her formidable knowledge of The Silmarillion.
If there is a moral to this story, it is probably this: Never tell anyone who likes mucking around with codes, patterns, names and languages and who hasn't ever managed to get through The Lord of The Rings that the only reason they're seeing Lotr references in B5 is because it's the mythic form with which they are most familiar.
As a consequence of my supreme ignorance of the actual text, (which I am only just in the process of remedying) I therefore deeply indebted to the following authors for their insights and scholarship:
- Robert Foster (The Complete Guide to Middle Earth)
- David Day (A-Z of Tolkien)
- Colin Duriez (Tolkien and Middle Earth Handbook)
- Christopher Tolkien (The Book of Lost Tales)
- and most especially Ruth S. Noel (Languages of Tolkien's Middle Earth)
The first rule of Zen writing: use your opponents force against them.
Que? Does that really mean what I think it means?