‘As a man, I’m flesh and blood, I can be ignored, I can be destroyed; but as a symbol…as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.’ Batman Begins, 2005
Living amongst the creatures of night, man has always sort to conquer darkness in the shelter of their caves. Before the first light of the fire, stories would have been vastly different and perhaps questionable whether man’s emotions were as psychological. Without fear, man hunted and survived off the land with no preconceived ideas of grand concepts or even their own place in the world. Survival was more instinctual but through the evolution of the hunt, tools developed and with it, self-expression. The imagination, perhaps humanity’s greatest tool of all, has helped to communicate through paintings, words and most potently, symbols.
As with John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, at the height of the Renaissance period and the later Romanticism of William Blake’s own poetry and significant artistry; both their representations of the fallen Angel, Lucifer and his legion of demons have inspired countless stories and visual media ever since. These works have often depicted demonic figures with bat-like wings and horned features, striking fear in to the general public who, at the time, sort inspiration through more religious endeavors. However, mythological stories of man’s transformation in to bats have many other symbolic and cultural links that separate them from the more obvious confines of Christianity.
Model behaviour found in mythology can be intrinsically linked when animal attributes are projected on human nature. Ties between the two help us all to see similarities but more importantly, focus on particular aspects and traits that can define specific archetypes. Bats, in most instances, are seen as creatures of the night due to their nocturnal instincts; where drain the life source of others in order to survive. Therefore, often these attributes do not translate to how man should behave and forms much of the basis of why a fear of bats is explored within a number of cultures. Bats are often a symbol of death and deception – where the Mayans in particular depicted them as agents of the underworld; some discoveries from this early civilisation showcase human sized carvings of a bat. Smaller examples that have been located only confirm how much the bat was worshiped and is thought to be how the Mayans honoured the dead and that in doing so, were less likely to join these creatures in the afterlife.
Other connotations of the bat that have originated from South America are that the creature represents greed and jealousy born from the belief that the bat was envious of the bird’s feathers and that his nocturnal lifestyle was a direct punishment for this sin. The bat is also depicted as a conceited bird who lost his feathers through a punishment and out of the shame and embarrassment began to travel only by night while confined to the shadows, undetected. In a more positive light, Chinese mythology viewed the creature as a symbol of good luck, longevity and happiness; while certain native American tribes believed the bat to be a trickster, others believed his presence meant that something good was about to happen.
As a unique and mysterious creature, unlike most animals, its appearance is one that defies convention yet, what is often apparent is that the symbol of a bat manages to convey a very clear and explicit message. With fear in mind, it has been easy to make references to classic, Gothic literature and that there is a truth that supernatural elements form the basis of this emotional reaction. The mere notion of a boy pledging an oath to avenge his parent’s murder is a dark and powerful concept and in realising that the idea of Batman is the result of a child’s reaction to this traumatic event only helps to further justify why a man would dress as a bat. As puerile and juvenile as it seems, the theatrical element of the character lends itself as much to spectacle as it does to subtlety – where it as much about the dramatic leap from a rooftop than to recede back in to the shadows.
Batman absorbs some of the classic tropes of the Western archetype – an antihero who rides in to town and saves the day – but there have also been a number of important iterations of the character that have shaped our understanding of a more modern, mythic hero. In an analysis of Batman during the early seventies, writer and critic, Roger B. Rollin had compared Batman to other important heroes from history, such as Beowulf and Milton’s Paradise Lost. As with the majority of these examples of fictional work it is within these studies that the classic ‘hero’s journey’ has been explored in great length through such works as Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) – a ‘monomyth’ outlining there are specific, universal themes that define a hero. Self-sacrifice, reluctance to the cause, the quest, the old man as guide are just some of the parallels that can be drawn, however, Rollin’s analysis argued that Batman’s hero type could also, more specifically, be identified by influential Canadian literary theorist, Herman Northrop Frye. In his article, Beowulf to Batman: The Epic Hero and Pop Culture (1970) Rollin references Frye’s Type II hero as: human yet morally and legally superior to others – a conception that gives him “a semi-divine aura” (Rollin, p. 435) that places him beyond real human concerns, “Though limited, he is still overwhelmingly powerful and overwhelmingly virtuous” (Rollin, p. 435). Frye’s conclusion presents a cohesive vision of unrivaled morality that expresses an appropriate code of conduct to the reader.
Where Campbell’s hero’s journey described an individual who ventures from the normal world into a supernatural one; winning a decisive victory and returning with their reward – in contrast, Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence set out to argue for the existence of America’s own monomyth in their book, The American Monomyth (1977). As later extended in, The Myth of the American Superhero, they defined:
‘A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition; the superhero then recedes into obscurity.’ (Jewett, Shelton Lawrence 2002, p.6)
The American Monomyth suggests a level of cultural belief in American society that helps to explain the desire in American government to ‘save the world’ and is perhaps a quality mostly associated with the superhero complex. Having observed the major differences between heroes of ancient mythology and those of popular American culture, Jewett and Shelton Lawrence developed a critical definition of a cultural American pattern. They observed that these heroes fitted this pattern and were ubiquitous in American culture, which made them problematic and, some would argue, an almost ridiculous contradiction:
‘In these conventions the monomyth betrays an aim to deny the tragic complexities of human life. It forgets that every gain entails a loss, that extraordinary benefits exact requisite costs…The American monomyth offers vigilantism without lawlessness…He unites a consuming love of impartial justice with a mission of personal vengeance that eliminates due process of law.’ (Jewett, Shelton Lawrence 1977, p.196)
Impartial justice and personal revenge have always played an important role in the story of Batman. His motivation is brought to the forefront by the strict moral code he has defined in order to help protect the innocent and the legacy of his parents. Despite his brutal approaches in working outside the law, his refusal to use a gun symbolises an individual who forms the antithesis of one of America’s most controversial laws. It is this decision alone and the discipline of the character that helps him transcend any form of patriotism and conformity that, to some, may seem a step too far and another important facet that lends a more universal appeal – where Superman represents how America views itself, Batman can be seen as how the rest of the world views America. His mythology is built from one man’s quest of vengeance and although justice is not as tangible as the Holy Grail it is still the chalice that Bruce Wayne searches for, not only defining his character but the also the world he inhabits.
To be continued in Part IV: Psychology