Monday, July 11, 2022

Stories told by Monsters - Part 5.2 Divine Rebellion

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

Analysis of Josh Reynolds’ Fabius Bile-novels

The first character the reader meets on the pages of Primogenitor is not, as one might expect, the titular Chief-Apothecary, but his disgraced student, the “prodigal son” Oleander Koh. Oleander serves as the second protagonist of Primogenitor besides Fabius himself, and the first of the three parts that Primogenitor is divided into is aptly called “The Prodigal”.

In his vita, Oleander shows many similarities with Fabius; both hail from Terra, served as Apothecaries for the Emperor’s Children under the Phoenician during the Great Crusade, later fought on the side of the Warmaster against the Imperium (Primogenitor Lt. Ed., p. 51) and had to live a life of shifting alliances and constant struggle after the retreat of the Traitor Legions into the Eye of Terror.

In character, though, they appear to be quiet different: Where Fabius is feared and hated in most places throughout the Eye, Oleander seems to be quite the sociable type, counting aliens of different species as well as daemons to his acquaintances. Fabius doesn’t seem to care a lot about the bonds of brotherhood between Astartes, whereas Oleander seeks to return the Third Legion to a place of union and brotherhood and tries to bond with other characters, like Tzimiskes, throughout the novel.

A character trait both Oleander and Fabius share, however, is their penchant for music. Fabius likes to listen to what appears to be pieces of classical music from the 2nd millennium while he is working or thinking; Oleander likes to hum and sing, and Arrian even mentions that the singing ghosts of Urum have fallen silent since Oleander, “the only one who appreciated them”, left (p. 68).

The first song we hear Oleander sing is not an original creation of Josh Reynolds, however, but a reference to another work of weird fiction with strong elements of horror: The King In Yellow by Robert W. Chambers (1895).

‘Strange is the night where black stars rise, and strange moons circle through ebon skies...songs that the Hyades shall sing...’ (Primogenitor Lt. Ed., p. 53)

[...] ‘[...] The day wears on, the shadows lengthen and strange moons circle through the skies. And we have far to go.’ (p. 55)

[...] ‘Song of my soul, my voice is dead, die thou, unsung, as tears unshed...’ (p. 57)

[...] ‘No mask, no mask,’ Oleander said, finishing the song.” (p. 58)

What Oleander is singing is a mixture of elements from “Cassilda’s Song” as well as parts of dialogue from Act I, Scene 2 of the fictional play “The King in Yellow”, the mysterious play at the heart of Chambers’ The King in Yellow. Chambers’ King is a collection of ten supernatural short-stories, the first four of which feature “The King in Yellow”, a script to a play that makes every character that reads it go insane.

Primogenitor early on referencing “The King In Yellow”, an intrusive story that actively harms those who participate in it, sets the stage for one the central themes of both Primogenitor and its’ sequel, a struggle that will serve as the basis for the following analysis: that of characters fighting against the shackles of stories that try to ensnare them, and what destructive consequences it has for them and those around them if they fall for and repeat harmful narratives.

Characters striving against harmful dominant narratives

Most of the characters that appear in Primogenitor and Clonelord come from backgrounds with decidedly harmful, dominant narratives attached to them. A lot of the characters, especially those affiliated with Fabius, have fought to overcome and transcend those narratives.

Both Fabius and Oleander hail from the Legion of the Emperor’s Children, a Legion destroyed by their excesses and uninhibited hedonism. Both voice their regret over what happened to those who were once at the forefront of human progress and evolution. In the course of the dialogue between Fabius and Oleander on page 171 of Primogenitor, Fabius reminisces about their past:

‘There was glory amidst the madness. A sort of divine rebellion [...] Where our gene-father led, we followed. Blindly, devotedly, wholeheartedly. We lapped it up, like eager dogs. Gorged on it, until we were fit to burst – and until it consumed us in turn. [...] On Terra, in those final days, I saw what we had become – what I had become – and thought it such a waste. We could have been so much more, had we but tried. [...] We had our chance, and we wasted it. Our moment is done and all that remains is the slow passage into night. The Third Legion is dead, Oleander. Whatever it once was, it will never be that again.’

Before the daemon spoke to Fulgrim, before the Third’s fall and the carnage of the Heresy, the Emperor’s Children told a dominant narrative with arguably healthy effects for their individual well-being and personal development. It was a collective narrative centred on their rebirth after their brush with extinction through the gene-blight, a narrative where the drive towards perfection was proposed as the desired leading theme of a warriors’ self-narrative.

Not excess and obsession, but moderation and balance were seen as instrumental in the drive towards perfection, and the wiser members of the Legion preached that perfection should always be the goal and the strive towards it the source of a warriors ambition, but that it should never be mistaken for a state that could actually be achieved and shouldn’t be desired as such.

The whisperings of a daemon, hidden in a sword that Fulgrim brought into his possession, poisoned the Primarch’s mind and spread throughout the whole Legion. The dominant narrative informing the self-narratives of individual Legionnaires changed, “perfection” becoming seen not as a source of aspiration for personal growth towards the ideals of the Great Crusade, but as the ultimate indulgence in ones’ own desires and the most extreme experiences. It led to individuals connecting the story-points of their life in a new way, judging and valuing old and new moments and events according to the changed dominant narrative.

The new dominant narrative, however, was one of decidedly toxic propensities and led to the identity of the Legion to turn into an identity extremely destructive to themselves as well as others around them.

In reality, changes to dominant narratives aren’t founded on a single source like the daemon in Fulgrim (2007) and usually don’t change as fast and as extreme as they happen in that novel. Evolution of dominant narratives along social trends absolutely does happen, though, and there are uncountable examples for toxic narratives in any given society.

An example for the harmful effects that identity-informing dominant narratives can have can be found in the concept of toxic masculinity, a form of male identity that values “masculine” behaviours such as dominance, self-reliance and competition and is known to have detrimental effects both for individuals as well as society at large (Levant, 1996). Toxic masculinity gets perpetuated in various dominant narratives about men, woman and gender-appropriate behaviour, the dominant narratives being re-told in day-to-day-life through casual discussion, fairy tales, art, music, TV, film and literature (see, for example, the video essays of Jonathan McIntosh, available on the Pop Culture Detective-channel on YouTube).

Payne (2006) also mentions several therapeutic examples of persons seeking therapy that are being plagued by harmful dominant narratives, narratives that perpetuate behaviour harmful to the person themselves and/or others in relationships with them, the latter often being the case for men performing a toxic version of masculinity.

Following this, the four Dark Gods of Warhammer 40.000 can be viewed through the lens of narrative psychology as representations of sets of values that characters either adhere to or strive against.

Khorne, the Blood God, values strength and martial honour over all else, “might makes right” taken to its logical extreme. Tzeentch, the Changer of Ways, rewards intellect, ambition, scheming and the willingness to betray others if necessary. Followers of Nurgle, the Grandfather of Plagues, see suffering, death and despair as aspects of life that ought to be celebrated and spread, often appearing joyful and jovial in introducing involuntary adepts in the great community of the sick and the dead. Lastly, Slaanesh, the Prince of Pleasures that Fulgrim and most of the Emperor’s Children follow, represents limitless hedonism and a set of values that has individual, egoistic pleasure at its highest point.

These sets of values can get introduced to an individual either by individuals or societal developments, can be examined, modified and performed in individual ways and, according to the ideas behind narrative psychology, are communicated and distributed by means of individual self-narratives and over-arching dominant, cultural narratives. Adhering to the sets of values represented by the four Dark Gods proves in almost every case to be toxic to the individual as well as the people and society around it.

This contrasts with the way cultural narratives shape the characters in Lukas the Trickster, where they are initially introduced by Leman Russ as means to shape the bestial nature of the Space Wolves into something beneficial to themselves and society around them, even if the unquestioning approach the Wolves of the 41st millennium take to them can have detrimental effects as well.

The reference to The King in Yellow supports this reading of the Dark Gods and their whisperings as metaphors for corrosive sets of values that are transported and spread through narratives. “The King in Yellow” is not only sung by Oleander in Primogenitor, but is mentioned in Clonelord by two other members of the Emperor’s Children.

“Strange is the night, eh, Palos?”, Flavius Alkenex casually says to a subordinate while watching the stars of an unknown system. Palos chuckles at that: “We are far beyond the Hyades now, brother” (Clonelord, p. 262).

Both are again quoting lines from “The King in Yellow”, and the following thoughts of Alkenex’ show the long history the words have had with the Third.

“The words belonged to an old poem. Or perhaps a song. Some tatter of words that had haunted the Remembrancers of the 28th Expedition, in more innocent times. He remembered how it had flown from one to the next, from singer to sculptor, from painter to dancer, like some outlandish mimetic virus, until it had at last extinguished itself in the frenzies of that final performance by the composer, Kynsca.

Some among [Alkenex’] brothers held that those words were a message from somewhere else, though what that message might mean, and who it might be from, none could agree. “

The mentioning of “that final performance by the composer, Kynsca” is a call-back to the finale of Fulgrim (2007), where the building tension and growing daemonic influence on every societal level of the Emperor’s Children’s fleet erupts during the musical performance of Bequa Kynsca in an orgy of madness and slaughter. The performance serves as the final fulcrum for the Emperor’s Children’s transformation, and everyone attending the performance is either killed or transformed according to the values of Slaanesh that had begun to take hold in them.

By connecting the “King in Yellow” with this pivotal moment in the Emperor’s Children’s history, Josh Reynolds offers a literary example for the intrusive power of stories and the effects they can have upon the personality of people. The toxic values of Slaanesh are carried by a literal story throughout the society of the 28th Expedition, and take hold in the people living in it. It’s also notable that “The King in Yellow” is not just a story but a play, a story that is intended to be actively performed, further deepening the applicable metaphor for dominant narratives, the building of individual narrative identities informed by them and the performance of roles of gender, age and race that are suggested through them.

In the light of the references to The King In Yellow and the way Gods and daemons (the “Neverborn”) are described throughout both novels, the Gods can be viewed as living stories, narratives that have a will of their own that want be spread and re-told. In reality, stories are dependent on people to tell them, and ebb and flow with cultural developments and societal change. In the world of Fabius and Lukas, there exist powerful narratives that work to be heard and to be spread by themselves.

‘The Neverborn are stories made flesh’, Saqqara said, [...] ‘Stories of murder and fear, despair and hope. Of excess and cruelty. They are warnings and retributions, hammered into shape by our belief. They are what we make of them.’ He looked at Fabius. ‘And he makes of them...nothing. He denies them, denies the story of them. It infuriates them, down to the very root of their conception.’ (Clonelord, p. 293)

Many followers of the Dark Gods justify their worship by the obvious truth of the gods’ existence – the gods of the Warp are not just theological ideas, but are obviously real and their daemons absolutely capable of interfering with the physical world. This leads to a restrictive, but powerful narrative which is extremely common among “the Lost and the Damned”: The Gods are real, therefore we have to serve them, to do that we have to adhere to their values, which leads to reward for success and punishment for failure, which ultimately lets one ascent to become a daemon, a literal part of the patron God and elevated beyond the suffering of the mortal plain.

The Gods can thus be viewed as domineering narratives, narratives that have a mind of their own and seek to become and stay dominant narratives: “self-aware falsehoods”, as Saqqara calls them (Clonelord, p. 163).

If viewed through this interpretation, the end of the Heresy makes perfect sense as being orchestrated by the Gods: instead of a clear-cut win or defeat for either side, the end-result of Horus dying and the Emperor being interred upon the Golden Throne forced the Traitors to flee and the Imperium on a declining, ten thousand year long course of decay and stagnation. With both parties from then on stuck vicious cycles of violence, hatred and retribution, this led to a universe which justly bears the tag-line of “only war, and the laughter of thirsting gods.” By ending the Heresy as it did, the Gods guaranteed that for the next ten millennia, stories of murder, betrayal, death and excess would never cease to be told.

Characters defying dominant narratives that they have recognized as harmful to themselves and their society is a theme both present in Primogenitor and, even more explicit, in Clonelord. A lot of characters in both novels come from a background with a strong, domineering narrative attached to it, a narrative that has proven to be destructive for the group they hail from, but which is nevertheless perpetuated by most members of that group.

Fabius and Oleander are both members of the Third Legion and have personally been present for nearly their complete history, including the time of the Third’s transformation and degradation under the influence of Slaanesh. Both have seen how harmful the adoption of the narrative and the set of values associated with Slaanesh have been for body and mind of their Legion-brothers, and deal with it in a different way.

Fabius sees Slaanesh as something utterly destructive, a corrosive force that is to be avoided. He focuses entirely on his work, trying to allow no “distractions” to cloud his mind, especially not hedonistic indulgences. He spits on the concept of gods and daemons as well as worship of them, and considers everyone a fool who follows these “superstitions”. Fabius doesn’t deny the existence of gods and daemons – he lives in literal hell, after all - but views the creatures of the Warp as confluences of natural phenomena, human emotions bled into the warp to form creatures with a semblance of sentience but which are ultimately only a reflection of a viewer’s hopes and fears.

Where Fulgrim offered a description of the universe as one ruled by actual gods, their daemons being divine heralds of creeds that have to be obeyed, Fabius instead hearkens back to the old ways of the Great Crusade, especially to the creed of The Imperial Truth which proclaimed all religion as superstition and the universe as a place objectively describable by science. Both his disdain for religion and worship as well as his return to the values the Legion exemplified before its fall can be viewed as direct rejections of the destructive narratives based on the set of values Fulgrim introduced through the worship of Slaanesh.

By focusing on his altruistic work of creating a new humanity, Fabius sees himself as exempt and immune to the narrative that proves to be so corrosive to body and mind of the remnants of the Third, a narrative that leads to the internalisation of the values of Slaanesh. He also rejects the suggestion of inevitability attached to these narratives, the suggestion that every Traitor Legionnaire is already serving the Gods in one way or another and is destined to succumb to them.

“[...] it is my nature to question, and our brothers have become ensnared by a dogma no less flawed than that of the Loyalists. We traded one form of servitude for another, and for what? The chance to become nothing more than the basest of slaves. Is your collar heavy, Kasperos? Have you noticed its weight yet? I would not share it with you for anything.” – Fabius to the Radiant (Primogenitor Lt. Ed., p. 212)

Oleander takes a less extreme approach to the Dark Gods and life in the Eye. He accepts the fact of the gods’ existence and organizes his life around that fact, not opposed to it like Fabius. He acts in a respectful, but not subservient manner towards denizens of the Warp. “Good manners go a long way in the Eye, especially when it comes to servants of the Prince of Pleasures”, he tells Arrian (Primogenitor Lt. Ed., p. 120). This also shows in his approach to Xenos (aliens), traditionally hated with a passion by loyalist and renegade Space Marines alike, with several of which Oleander is acquainted. Regarding the values represented by Slaanesh, he is partly living by them; he seeks unique experiences, shows signs of masochism and regularly smokes a pipe with supernatural stimulants that was gifted to him by “a daemon of his acquaintance” (p. 78).

Importantly and contrary to many others of the Emperor’s Children, he tempers his tendencies for hedonism with moderation and control. He still sees a difference between pain and pleasure, a distinction most of his brothers can’t make anymore, and intentionally refrains from giving in to the addictive qualities of his pipe too often. He still holds fast onto the duty of the Apothecary: “To be an Apothecary, one must see beyond one’s own desires and find the best route for those in one’s care.”

Where Fabius closes his eyes from the fact that the running sub-plot of his obsession with his work very much fits the creed of the God of Excess (see 5.3.4 Ignorance, Thy Name is Fabius - Falling back into problematic narratives further below), Oleander shows an integrating approach to the different sub-plot of his life, combining and trying to find a balance between his seemingly contradicting sub-plots of Inhabitant of the entropy-riddled Eye, Traitor to the Imperium, dutiful Apothecary of the Third Legion and pleasure-seeking Worshipper of Slaanesh.

Another character that actively fights against the narrative that seems to be dictated for everyone coming from his background is Arrian.

Arrian hails from the Legion called the World Eaters, a Legion known for their blood-lust, which was feared even during the Great Crusade as a barbaric weapon of merciless destruction. When the Legion was introduced to their re-discovered Primarch, it wasn’t the re-union with a long-lost father figure that many of the other Legions had experienced. Angron had been kept as a slave on the world he grew up on, used as a gladiator in the arenas of the world’s over-lords. They had driven a machine into his skull, the Butcher’s Nails, which caused him incredible pain except when he was angry or in the rush of battle.

Despite the efforts of the First Captain of the World Eaters, Khârn, Angron was unable to bond with his sons, oftentimes even killing them in fits of rage. In a desperate effort to bond with their father, warriors of the Legion started to build copies of the Butcher’s Nails and hammer them in their own skulls. The practice became more and more common, and at some point nearly every World Eater heard the Nails singing in his head.

Angron, hating the Emperor for being just another tyrant and enslaver, was happy to join Horus in his rebellion, and his sons followed. Khorne, the Blood God, turned Angron into his daemonic champion and the World Eaters into his favourite butchers. Until the days of the 41st millennium, the World Eaters roam the galaxy as berserkers, seeking slaughter and carnage as opportunities to collect skulls for the Blood God and ease some of the pain the Nails cause them in every waking moment of their being.

As such, Arrian comes off as a very unusual exemplar of his kind. Calm, composed, with a sharp mind and measured tone, he seems to be the opposite of what the World Eaters have been doomed to become. He is probably the character who is the most loyal to Fabius and the most eager to adopt his teachings as well as Fabius’ atheistic philosophy, though he “lacks the Chief-Apothecary’s certainty”, as he admits to himself (Clonelord, p. 13). Like every other World Eater, Arrian has the Butcher’s Nails irreversibly implanted into his skull, a fact that would normally cause him endless pain unless he gives in to his aggression.

The life-story of every World Eater seems to be pre-destined as soon as the Nails have been hammered into their head, a story of growing madness and blood-thirst which either ends with becoming an insane champion of the Blood God or getting killed in some battle or another. Arrian refuses to accept this: “Never a beast. Never that.”, he tells Oleander (Primogenitor Lt. Ed., p. 68). Arrian wears chains wrapped around torso and arms of his armour, “as if to keep something contained”, as Oleander observes (Primogenitor Lt. Ed., p. 57). On these chains, he displays six skulls, taken from his former squad-members who started “walking the Path of Blood”, with whose voices he still sometimes has conversations.

Arrian uses his considerable will, the teachings of Fabius Bile as well as his own skills as an Apothecary to not become as his brothers have:

”Though the Butcher’s Nails sparked and snarled within his mind, a strict regiment of chemical calmatives kept the worst of the pain at bay. Occasionally, he allowed himself to overdose, just to see what it was like on the other side of madness. But never too often. A little pain was good. It kept his feet upon his chosen path.” (Clonelord, p. 13)

Just like Fabius, Oleander and several other characters in both novels, Arrian comes from a group of people that have extremely persistent, harmful dominant narratives attached to them. To prevent falling into the same trap as most of his peers, to repeat the dominant narrative that has cost them most of their humanity, Arrian uses every tool at his disposal to deny the seemingly inevitable course and outcome dictated by the dominant narratives of his culture; he tries to “keep his feet upon his chosen path”, an undertaking that many people visiting therapy seek assistance for.

Continue with 5.3 Sins of the Fathers

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