Monday, July 11, 2022

Stories told by Monsters - Part 4.2 Mjod Tales and Post-Modernism

The following is the seventh entry in a 13-part article series. Click here for an overview and a table of contents with links to the various parts.

Prospero Burns - Space Wolves, mjod tales and postmodernism

“There are no wolves on Fenris.” – Popular expression in Prospero Burns (2011)

When it was time for the Wolves to get their showcase-novel for the Horus Heresy-series, the story of the time before and during the Paradise Lost-style civil war 10.000 years in the past of Warhammer 40.000, Dan Abnett chose to write Prospero Burns (2011) not from the perspective of the Great Wolf Leman Russ, some renowned warrior of legend or a young Space Wolf rising through the ranks, but instead through the eyes of a mortal story-teller: the skjald Kaspar Hawser, also knowingly calling himself Ahmad Ibn Rustah (a reference to the exploits of the historical Ahmad Ibn Rustah (10th century) and probably Ahmad Ibn Fadlan (10th century); for a novelization of the latter’s accounts, see Crichton, 1976).

Due to a series of events not necessary to explain for this text, the Imperial historian Hawser lands on Fenris and nearly dies there, but gets rescued by the Wolves. After nineteen years of sleep, surgery and psychic monitoring, he gets introduced into “the Rout” as a skjald, someone who accompanies the warriors of the Rout to collect, remember and tell the accounts of their life.

Abnett made the relationship of the Wolves to their stories and the oral tradition behind it one of the central themes of the novel, and it proved to be one of the core concepts that got picked up and further explored in almost any story written about the Wolves from then on. After every battle, the Wolves would come to Hawser, telling them accounts of their actions during battle. He is being told that the Wolves despise “mjod stories”, exaggerated stories not telling the truth:

“The braggart was one of the lowest forms of life, according to the traditions of the Vlka Fenryka. A warrior’s stories were the measure of him, and the truth of them was a measure of his standing. [...] that was another reason why skjalds existed. They were brokers of truth, neutral mediators who would not let any fluctuations like pride or bias or mjod affect the agreed value of truth.” (Prospero Burns, p. 208)

It is made clear that stories are the way the Wolves navigate and communicate their life and themselves to the rest of the universe. They also aim for what White calls “rich stories”, stories that encapsulate the complex whole of a person’s life and not just an aspect of it.

When Hawser for the first time has to tell the account of a killed warrior’s life at a wake, the surviving Wolves come to the skjald in preparation for it.

“They came to Hawser and they told him the stories they had of Heoroth Longfang. There were a lot of them. Some were multiple versions of the same event, retold by different witnesses. Some were contradictory. Some were short. Some were long and ungainly. Some were funny. Some were scary. Most were fearsome and bloody.” (p. 286).

Despite their insistence that “the truth of [a warrior’s stories] [is] a measure of his standing”, by allowing for conflicting accounts of the same event of a person’s life and valuing the emotions associated with the event, the Wolves seem to be seeing the “truth” of a person’s life in a postmodern rather than a modern way. Payne (2006, p. 20) explains postmodernism as “a [term] that has come to mean many things, but at its core is a recognition of the legitimacy of multiple ways of describing the world and human life. Two of these ways are the scientific and the narrative.” Payne goes on to explain this “narrative way of knowing”, contrasted with the modernist, scientific obtaining of objective knowledge, as such:

“[…] in a postmodern perspective it is assumed that it is our immediate, day-to-day, concrete, personal apprehension of our lives – expressed through narrative, the stories we tell ourselves and others about our lives – that is primarily knowable, even though these stories are only partial representation of the actual complexity of life as it is lived.”

Instead of attempting to deduce seemingly objective facts about a person’s life and how they were determined by what came before, the Wolves favour the postmodern way of knowing a person through the stories about him by himself and his peers, accepting and valuing the fact that preconceptions, emotions and individual personality shape every account. This also leads to them favouring rich stories over thin stories.

White distinguishes “between thin descriptions of life, which derive from a person’s unexamined socially and culturally influenced beliefs, and rich and thick descriptions, which more nearly correspond to the actuality and complexity of life as experienced by that person” (Payne, 2006, p. 30). A thin description of a person would, for example, be one centred on a single aspect of their personality, a favourable virtue they exhibited, a dominant cultural narrative that seems to suit them or a problem that plagued their life. In the context of Space Wolf-culture, for example things like a lack of humour, impressive martial strength, the story of a simple but satisfied line-soldier or a tendency to storm head-first into enemies.

By actively encouraging the telling of an account coming from a variety of different sources, the Wolves let the skjalds tell rich stories of their life, stories that allow for multiple view-points and paint a complex picture of the person not limited to a single facet, be it favourable or damning. Of course, this also allows for the existence of unfavourable views, of painful truths and harsh assessments.

In the 10.000 years since the events of Prospero Burns, the culture of the Space Wolves at the time of Lukas the Trickster seems to have shifted from that embrace of rich stories towards thin, culturally approved stories, with Lukas as a reminder of the postmodern approach of that by-gone time.

Lukas the Trickster - Howling against tradition

The Wolves of Lukas’ time place great value in the martial prowess of single warriors, in aggrandising the greatest tale for themselves by slaying the mightiest foes and in living a life on agreed principles of honour. Lukas sees the dominant truths of the Wolves, crystallized in dominant cultural narratives, as deliberately implemented by their absent gene-father, the Primarch Leman Russ.

“A trap. A trick, played on those long-dead warriors by their Wolf King. Russ had taken a legion of brutal killers and convinced them that they were heroes. He had twisted the ancient superstitions and sagas of Fenris into a cage of words to contain his wild sons. It was a chain of illusion, holding them fast, though they could barely remember it.” (Lukas the Trickster, p. 69)

Lukas even approves of this “tool to hammer [Russ’] warriors into shape”; while sharing stories with his Blood Claws, Lukas thinks about this tradition:

“A good trick. Sagas shaped them, whether they knew it or not. Gave them something to emulate, and hold on to when needed. A good thing, mostly.”

But then, he immediately adds:

“But sometimes they believed too hard. And in believing, were caught fast.” (p. 133).

Lukas views the Wolves as holding too tight to tradition, as being too beholden to the mould that was created for them by their father, and as shying away from the ugly parts of their story.

In Chapter 6 of Lukas the Trickster, Kjarl Grimblood and the Runepriest Galerunner have a meeting in the Hall of Silences, discussing the best way to deal with Lukas after he pulled an exceptionally demeaning prank on Grimblood. Grimblood mentions that there are not a few voices that call for the Trickster to be silenced for good, inquiring from Galerunner why they keep up with Lukas’ antics. Galerunner explains that Lukas is “a lord of misrule [...] A clown, the fool in the court of Russ, speaking truth where it is neither wanted, nor acceptable.” After Grimblood asks why they let him do so, Grimblood states:

“Because it must be done. There must be one voice at least, that howls against tradition, else we grow complacent. Lukas' wyrd is to move out of step with the rout.” (p. 77).

The place of their meeting further underlines this theme of the necessity of hearing “truth where it is neither wanted, nor acceptable.” The Hall of Silences is a place installed by Leman Russ to “ensure that his warriors tasted not just the sweet, but the bitter as well [...] tributes to past mistakes”. Displayed are weapons used in dishonourable acts, banners of painful campaigns and the armour of warriors who used to be allowed to kill their own kin. It is “a shrine to forgotten things, built by men who forgot nothing” with an “air [...] pregnant with stories untold”. However, Galerunner observes, “few warriors of the Rout visited the hall these days”.

The hall is a testament to past mistakes, but it is also a reminder of the ways the Rout has changed over time, that they were once able to “cast off old ways, and [be] taught new, better rites.” By ignoring and forgetting those past mistakes and losing themselves in a favourable, but limited narrative, the Space Wolves of the 41st millennium also deny the need and the possibility for further change. To acknowledge that there were once ways which they had to overcome would mean to acknowledge that there might be ways in which they still have to change.

The reminders in the Hall of Silences are signifiers for unique outcomes in the Wolves’ story. Unique outcomes are “instances which contradict a dominant story”, “memories that contradict or modify the [...] dominant story” (Goffmann, 1961). In therapy, unique outcomes are used to enrich a problem-saturated story that people bring to the therapist, meaning a story of the person’s life told with a limiting focus on the problem which brought the person to therapy. This story fails to account for instances where the problem was absent or overcome, partially solved or just not the main focus of the person’s life (Payne, 2006, p. 72).

Importantly, Payne warns explicitly that utilizing unique outcomes does not necessarily mean ‘pointing out positives’:

“[...] although clues to different strands in the story may indicate ‘hidden strengths’, ‘underestimated capacities’ and so on, that is not the point. The point is that the clues should contradict or call in question the dominant story in any way that is potentially helpful for the person. The helpfulness may be painful rather than pleasant or initially heartening.” (Payne, 2006, p. 72)

Payne points to the example of Alan Jenkins, who worked with men who victimized their female partners or children with violence or abuse. Payne writes:

“Alan Jenkins […] asks at an appropriate stage questions such as ‘Do you think that Jill has lost some trust and respect for you as a result of your abuse?’ and ‘Have you lost some respect for yourself also?’ (Jenkins 1990:135). I imagine that answering in the affirmative, and meaning it, must be extremely painful for the man, but such an answer is nevertheless an in-session unique outcome. It contradicts what may up to then have been a comforting dominant story of self-justification: ‘I’ve got a short fuse’; ‘I knew it was wrong but I couldn’t help myself ’ (Jenkins 1990: 19). If the remorse signals a recognition of the pain he has caused, together with a wish to make amends, it may be possible to discover other instances in the man’s history when a similar recognition, or even a momentary doubt of his dominant story, may have occurred. Such unique outcomes might then be plotted into a parallel story of a potential to empathize with victims, to escape from self-justification, to make amends. The emerging alternative story must not, of course, itself become a dominant story justifying or excusing the abuse, but it may contribute towards the man’s finally and genuinely choosing to break with his habits of violence and abuse, and contribute to his maintaining permanent change.”

By closing their eyes from the uncomfortable unique outcomes of their collective story, the Wolves deny themselves this chance for meaningful change, instead holding fast to and permeating potentially harmful, encrusted dominant narratives. This way of emulating only a thin description of what it means to be a Space Wolf that Lukas is fighting is exemplified by the young Blood Claws that Lukas attaches himself to, mostly by the hot-blooded pack-member Ake. At several points in the novel, Lukas and Ake clash in discussion with each other.

Learning from the Jackalwolf

“Pups die for pride, unless someone teaches them otherwise.” - Galerunner to Grimblood, p. 78

One of the first of these discussions happens in Chapter 8 “The Way of Things”, when Ake tries to kill a mighty elk by himself. He underestimates his prey and nearly gets crushed to death were it not for Lukas, who shoots the elk and saves Ake. Ake is furious about Lukas’ interference, insisting that it was his kill. Lukas reminds him that they are a pack, not lone wolves. When Ake questions how Lukas killing the elk that Ake had already injured is any different from Grimblood killing (and taking credit for) the Kraken the Blood Claws had been fighting earlier, Kadir, the unofficial pack-leader, explains that “Because we all agreed to share the kill [...] It wasn’t his to steal or yours to take. It was ours.” (p.101, emphasis added).

Lukas and Kadir, in this scene, take a stance for collectivism instead of the individualism that Ake lives by. Ake makes it very clear that he seeks to write a mighty saga for himself, one of slaying great beasts and powerful foes. He lives by the individualistic creed communicated by a surface-reading of the culture of warrior-sagas the Wolves live by. Ake believes the measure of a warrior to be the saga that is written about him, and that demands of him to take the greatest deeds by himself. If he doesn’t make the kill himself, it won’t feature in his saga. The old, experienced Lukas knows that this individualistic way of approaching the hostile world of Fenris – and the universe of Warhammer 40.000 at large – is a sure way to get oneself killed, and knows of the merit of a collectivist approach. He knows that Wolves are depended upon each other, just as the people of Fenris are upon their common tribesfolk, and is aware of the tight net of relationships, dependencies and cultural influences that connects every member of the Chapter and the people of their world.

This might seem paradoxical for the idiosyncratic Lukas, who never attaches himself for longer than one Helwinter to the same company and spends as much time banned from the Wolves’ Aett as he does at its hearth, but Lukas lives very much in a symbiotic relationship with the rest of the Wolves: without the Wolves to remind of their flaws and point out the ways they could change, Lukas would have no reason to exist, and without Lukas, the Wolves would miss an important voice of dissent amongst their ranks.

It’s also notable that, as soon as Lukas gets assigned to a new company under a new Wolf Lord, instead of retreating to Fenris’ wilderness he attaches himself to a pack of young Blood Claws and tries to teach them important lessons about being a Space Wolf. He does that even though he seems to enjoy spending time alone and having to face constant hostilities from the other Wolves when he’s around them; Lukas nevertheless sees it as his wyrd, his fate, to be an instructional thorn in the Wolves’ side.

Kadir seems to take to Lukas’ lessons the fastest, understanding the importance of the social contracts the Wolves at large and the members of their small pack have made with each other; if they agree to hunt as a pack, the earnings and demands of a single individual take a back-seat to the achievements and needs of the whole. To remind a person that he doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but in tight relationships with other people and society at large, fits the focus of narrative therapy on the individual as part of a larger society instead of a discrete, isolated unit. In systemic family therapy, from which narrative therapy emerged (Payne, 2006, p. 6), individual disorders and suffering are always seen in the context of the system of close relationships, usually of the family, that the person seeking therapy lives in, instead of taking place only inside the individual person. In this line of therapy, the system as a whole has to change for the individual to get better.

Lukas reminds Ake and the Blood Claws that they, too, live in a co-dependent system of people instead of as isolated individuals. This is one of the first instances where Ake sees only a thin version of the Space Wolves story, in this case only a breeding ground for individual proficient warriors, where Lukas sees the rich story of a closely-bounded, co-dependent and multilaterally influenced pack of related beings.

The fallacy of valuing individual pride over the needs of and the connections between the larger whole are a recurring theme of Lukas’ interaction with the Wolves as exemplified in his discussions with Ake. Later in Chapter 8, Lukas shows his habit of occasionally gifting the people living in Fenris’ harsh wilderness with food or other presents by throwing leftovers of the hunted elk through a chimney.

Again, Ake criticizes Lukas for this practice as well as the people of the village for abandoning the initial attempt at pursuit of the mysterious figure of Lukas into the snow-storm. Ake thinks the people of the village as cowardly and weak and Lukas, by helping them, as keeping them that way. Fenris’ harshness would make the people of Fenris strong, and the strongest of them, like Ake, would show that they were worthy of being chosen by the Runepriests for transformation into a Space Wolf. “We must endure, we must persevere, we must be worthy. [...] That is the way of it, Trickster. Else why were any of us chosen? [...] Because we survived. We were worthy.” (p. 108).

Lukas counters that “survival is a test of nothing more than endurance”, and he himself was partly chosen because of luck. Lukas reminds Ake that the people of Fenris are as much part of their pack as their gene-enhanced brothers. He assails Ake’s, and arguably many the Wolves’, belief that the cruel conditions of Fenris make them stronger and harder than other Space Marine Chapters.

“Have you pups ever wondered why we let them live like this? Why we let them suffer hardship and cruelty?”

“To make them strong.” Ake said, as if on cue.

Lukas laughed. “Pride”, he said. “We have convinced ourself that suffering builds character. Suffering builds nothing but walls. We settle for beasts when we could have men. [...] Down here, mortals suffer for our pride. On other worlds, controlled by other Chapters, they live in peace. They don’t suffer as we suffer, and yet they produce warriors of equal skill.” (p. 107/108)

The “pups” have a hard time to comprehend this critique of their core beliefs. This shows how deeply ingrained the dominant narratives of their Chapter’s culture are within them, as the dominant narratives of a culture are in most persons seeking therapy (and those offering it). They rebut Lukas arguments not with anger, but as if they were stating obvious facts: the dominant narrative – that suffering builds character, and none suffer more than the people of Fenris, so the chosen warriors from them must be the greatest of all - has taken the character of an unquestionable, universal truth for them. Lukas tries to widen their perspective to include other cultures as well, and how their way of living shapes their people, in this case measured by the martial capacity of the Space Marines that hail from them.

Lukas rejects their clinging to the dominant narrative of the superiority of their way of living:

“Oh, we like to pretend that we are better – that our savagery makes us strong. But it’s a lie, told by old men who were themselves lied to by those who came before. Worst of all, we all know the lie for what it is. But we accept it, because to do otherwise is to admit that somewhere along the way we made a mistake.” (p. 108)

Lukas encourages the young Wolves to consider the stories told to them as such: narratives told by a certain kind of people permeated throughout several generations in a certain place, and only one of numerous possible narratives. He invites them to consider the possibility of alternative ways of telling that story, and thinking about other layers to the dominant narrative that has been laid out before them (Payne, 2006, Chapter 4 “Encouraging a Wider Perspective on the Problem”).

Variants of these arguments recur at other points of the novel. When Lukas wants to take the time to bury the dead of a tribe they saved from being slaughtered by the Drukhari, Ake wonders why they should waste time on that (p. 148). Lukas rebukes him:

“We waste time because someone must. [..] Fenris is ours, pup, and we are responsible for it. Responsible for [these people]. These have suffered twice over what you or I did when we endured the tests of Morkai. [...] They have earned our respect.”

In a heated exchange on the last pages of Part II of the novel (p. 177/178), Ake again shows his disdain for the tribesmen that seek to flee to the safety of the sea instead of facing the Drukhari head-on: “Why waste time protecting them if they cannot protect themselves? [...] I would have them prove themselves worthy. [...] This world – this galaxy – is not for the weak.” At this, Lukas gets visibly angry for the first time:

“If the strong don’t fight for the weak, then what is the point? [...] Victory? Glory? Are you so blind that you cannot tell purpose from desire? [...] Purpose is not something you are given, Ake. It is something you choose. I choose to help these mortals. I choose to help them survive. You can do as you wish.”

Here, again, Lukas rebukes the idea of universal truths. He refuses to accept that “The Way Things Are” (Chapter 6) is “the Allfather’s will”, that the purpose of the Wolves is set in stone and unchangeable just because “it has always been like that” (p. 101). And, as Lukas observes after that exchange with Ake, the pack seems to be learning (p. 178).

Chapter 10 provides an early example, where Ake again gives in to his frustration and bloodlust and alerts a roaming pack of giant Blackmane-wolves to the Blood Claws (p. 128). Ake is, of course, eager to throw himself into battle against the dangerous creatures. The experienced Lukas makes it clear that he was “never stupid enough to challenge [a Blackmane himself]” and has no plans to come face-to-face with such gargantuan beasts. He has the “wisdom that comes only with experience” to know exactly what to do in this kind of situation: “I’m going to run while they’re busy eating you.” While Ake initially stays defiant, the other pack-members slowly agree with Lukas that throwing their life away just for sake of their martial pride is not the most sensible course of action and one after the other follows Lukas. After trying to get to them by hurting their pride and calling them cowards, in the end, the disgruntled Ake follows the pack.

Instead of following the dominant narrative of the Space Wolf, unflinching in the face of danger, not showing his back to any foe and thus holding up his martial pride, the Blood Claws broaden that narrow narrative by an important dimension: that not every battle is worth fighting, especially not just for pride’s sake. They enlarge the dominant narrative of the strong warrior striving for honour by the sub-plot of the cunning warrior (Payne, 2006, p. 62), a way of life that Lukas also gets frequently insulted for as a coward.

The importance that Lukas ascribes to his fight against the thinning of Space Wolf culture by over-dominant “universal truths” and one-dimensional story-telling is probably best encapsulated by the only time in the novel that Lukas seems to get actually scared. When Lukas warns the rest of the Space Wolves at the Aett of the raiding Drukhari, Grimblood tells him that he had a vision of Lukas’ death during the coming battle. It’s not the promise of death, however, that gets under Lukas’ skin, but Grimblood’s words that follow:

“You will die, and gloriously. Your name will live forever in the halls of the Aett, a hero to those who come after.” [Grimblood] leaned forward, teeth bared in a snarl of satisfaction. “You will die, and we will forget the Jackalwolf, and remember only the saga of Lukas the hero.” (p. 164)

At this moment, Lukas comes close to attacking Grimblood, before he calms himself and realizes that the old Wolf wants to pick him by his pride. Lukas fears neither death nor ostracism, but what makes his hackles rise is the possibility that the rich complexity of his life in the multitude of interlocking roles as the Trickster, the Jackalwolf, the Laughing One and the Strifeson might be thinned down to a one-dimensional, shallow story supporting the dominant narratives he is striving against – no matter how favourable that story would make him out to be.


The experiences of the Blood Claws with Lukas change them. His lessons regarding their responsibility towards people with less power than them and their connections to and influences from a larger whole, his challenges to traditional ways of thinking and beliefs in superiority, critiques of dominant narratives as universal truths and invitations to consider past mistakes and possibilities for change, as well as the guerrilla war of cunning they later have to fight against a numerically superior foe, enable them to integrate different, enriching sub-plots into their narrative identity; they enhance their formerly thin descriptions of life, derived from their unexamined socially and culturally influenced beliefs, to a more rich description which more nearly corresponds to the actuality and complexity of life (Payne, 2006, p. 30).

By telling the story of Lukas and the Blood Claws, Josh Reynolds offers up a microcosm of what the Trickster tries to be for the Space Wolves at large: an advocate for postmodern ways of thinking and an agent for change, a reminder of forgotten things for men who forget nothing and yet, as human as they are, sometimes choose to do.

Lukas, as such, serves as a literary example for a narrative therapist, albeit an overly and non-professionally aggressive one, and Reynolds’ Lukas the Trickster can be viewed as an entertaining, blood-soaked rendition of some of the central ideas and ways of narrative therapy which might well have the potential to encourage responsive readers to reconsider some of their own unquestioned, universal truths.

Continue with 5.1 Fabius Bile - The Apothecary will see you now

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