Arachne, Athena, and a Thousand Princes

Xenia1Imagine a world where competitiveness is that world’s foundation, where it is nothing but mimetic rivalry all the way down. (See my post Human See, Human Want.) Actually many people have, but I am going to focus on a couple of recent fantasy novels I’ve just read which do that.

The Mark of Athena is the latest volume in Richard Riordan’s second series about adolescent demigods, Heroes of Olympus. These books can be a fun way to learn about Greek and Roman mythology, but if ever these gods are real and they really (mis)rule the universe, we’re in trouble. The positions of Zeus and the other Olympians, for example, are the result of earlier conflict. In Riordan’s novels, Cronos and Gaia make comebacks that fuel the divine in-fighting.

This latest book Riordan makes the millennia-old resentments come alive in their tense paralysis. Arachne who offended Athena by weaving a better tapestry than Athena could. Arachne is imprisoned under Rome as a giant spider with a monstrously bad attitude. Beth, a daughter of Athena, has to take from Arachne the Athena Parthenos that was stolen by the Romans and restore it to the Olympians. We see frozen resentments such as Arachne’s in human experience all the time. What if God really were like Athena instead of a God who generously brings us into being and even more generously saves us from follies such as that of Athena and Arachne?

The other books is A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix. Prince Khemri is one of countless youths raised in privileged but inhuman conditions to serve the inter-galactic empire as a prince. Each prince is connected to the imperial mind upon coming of age (if he or she is not assassinated first) and is plunged into a system fueled by rivalry and nothing but rivalry. Material goods and programed courtesans are furnished in abundance so there is nothing to fight over except power and position. Nix does a superb job of showing us what such a system looks like, a system that is totally sacrificial. Khemri is singled out for a unique assignment that forces him to live with normal human beings. He is quite bewildered when he finds himself instinctively defending a woman when all his training taught him to use a human as a shield for himself. Is it a shock to us if ever we discover something in the world that isn’t rivalry all the way down, but is grounded instead in love that reaches out to others?

See Baptizing the Imagination for an essay on religious aspects of fantasy literature. See Violence and the Kingdom of God for more about mimetic rivalry and religion.

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