“Essay Six: Paula, the Polestar – On EarthBound and a Constellation of Poetry by Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Keats…”

Serialized specially for The Well-Red Mage, based on the podcast by Wesley Schantz

 

 

bookwarm “The following is a contributor post by the Bookwarm Mage.”

Welcome back one and all, I’m Wesley Schantz and I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Allow me to explain.

I got a little carried away in-game and am now all the way to Threed, but I have lots to say about Twoson first, starting with Polestar preschool and the psychic girl who lives there, who has been kidnapped (or allowed herself to be kidnapped), who telepathically reaches out to you in dreams and who will be by your side for the rest of the game (with brief exceptions). She is Paula–or whatever you named her, too–the girl foretold in the legend of the Apple of Enlightenment. I hope you knew you could count on me to come back for that low-hanging fruit at some point. I did refrain from talking about Sharks and Jets and Romeo and Juliet the past few weeks, but an allusion to the central myths of East and West simultaneously, now–the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis and Buddha’s enlightenment–this will have to be an episode to itself at some point.

But I was saying how I was getting ahead of myself: I already put out last week’s podcast on Thursday when I talked with Ben Kozlowski of watchman33–and I should point out he was also the first guest, if I’m not mistaken, that Corey Olsen, The Tolkien Professor had on his podcast back when it was just a whippersnapper, so I hope that bodes well. As a result, I’d intended to take this weekend to work on some other things and take a break from BW, but I’m already worried I’ll forget what I wanted to say about Twoson if I leave it too long! And, in planning a little of the rest of this series, it looks like I’ll want to have conversations once a month or so, every location in the game taking the other three weeks, and so I should be on schedule to complete the game sometime in the fall. The time of year I traditionally like to read Philip Pullman, and so I’m planning to make his many worlds, beginning with the The Golden Compass, the subject of my next series of Bookwarm Games. But they are not video games, ah, so you’ll have to wait and see how this very fact fits into my bookwarm project!

I felt I may have come off as being too dismissive of JK Rowling, no doubt jealous that her fame has eclipsed Pullman’s somewhat, in my meandering fourth episode. I think she gets the unappreciated virtue of simple kindness just right, and the never-to-be-overstated importance of love which lays down its life for the beloved, that too her Potter books amply extol–and the way that good and evil are juxtaposed, the way the scar of that love and hate have left their mark on the boy who lived, are very interesting. But where the story falters for me is in the facile glib workmanship of the wizarding world. Hogwarts and Hogsmeade are admirably cozy, and populated with delightful characters and creatures, but the whole portrayal of how they magically coexist alongside our made-out-to-be-so mundane world feels forced and false and a little silly beside the rest of what’s at stake in these books. I thought that the role of magic and the setting as a whole was much the least developed part of the story, much as I enjoyed reading them, I don’t feel like reading them again the way I do my favorite books from childhood, like Pullman’s or Pratchett’s or recently A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, in time for the film, and continuing to wonder at their ideas, their craft, and to learn from them and put into practice what I can.

In today’s episode then I want to talk more than usual even about such role models, going back to Shakespeare, to Milton and Keats, poets much admired by Pullman, to William Blake, and also to the well of water not just of wishing on but living: the nativity story in the gospels, and of Abraham and Isaac before. But first to set the scene at least with the world of EarthBound. And I apologize for these rambling prefatory remarks, but it’s just my way of thinking through the material and seeing how I can try to weave it all together: teaching, learning, games, stories, life. Thank you for listening to my long story, as Buzz Buzz says.

If you can hold up in your brushes with Ramblin’ evil mushrooms and figure out how to deal with the spores they scatter and the un-mario-esque shrooms that sprout from your head, holding the controller in a new configuration and finally finding a use for the quack healer at the hospital, you find that the great woods encircling Onett to the south function only as a liminal space, for better or worse it’s not one you can explore, but simply gives the game a chance to load a new town map. There’s no world map to explore in EB, which is interesting to think about why that choice was made–you remain embedded in locations, this is a world held up close, not a sort of coordinate grid on which to peg a few places which exist in real detail and for you to interact with the way it is in other games.

On arriving in Twoson, you have your chance, briefly to ride a bike, going as far as the cave leading to Peaceful Rest Valley or the tunnel blocked not by police this time but by ghosts, outrunners of the undead who’ve infested the next town over. Make much of your time on the bike while you may–ring the bell with the R button and smile away–because you’ll probably want to bring a Teddy bear with you before long, and you can’t ride bikes with teddy bears everyone knows, and you’ll have other friends behind you the rest of the game, and for some reason there’s no baskets or tandem or multiseat bikes to be found. When you’ve had enough wind in our face and whistling, send the bike home via Escargot Express for your sister to keep for you–I like to imagine her taking it out for rides while you’re away, having adventures of her own with all the items you send her way. You can free up more space in your backpack by parting with the town map, too, especially if you have a player’s guide, a handy internet screen, a decent memory of where things are, and the pencil eraser, too, once you’ve fed and invested in Apple Kid, not the more presentable Orange Kid, incredibly hot as he may be, and tidy and mouse-less as his house appears, his inventions are all in vain, and once you’ve locked horns with Everdred, who only in spraining his ankle leaping down from his roof gives you the chance of victory. Oh and grab the For Sale Sign before proceeding as well, another in the running jokes about reading, since people can somehow see it no matter how far into the wild you go, when you hold it up they will come running puffing and excited to buy things you don’t need. Try it out with the fresh eggs, which after so many steps will hatch into peeping chicks and then clucking chickens, and can be sold at ludicrous profits. In Twoson, the hippies and bag ladies and cops have blue faces, and many of the adults have gone through the valley swarming with restive oaks and lil ufos to join the Happy Happyist cult painting everything blue in their commune.

We’ll say more about the two towns as reflections of one another next week, but the most important person who’s missing now is not a parent but a girl, your dream girl, and in some sense the archetypal girl, Paula, though she has a personality of her own. In the preschool she runs with her mom, you can see the range of reactions to her kidnapping. The children are distraught, some amazingly articulately so, perhaps attesting to Paula’s skill as a teacher and caretaker, perhaps to the more widespread nature of psychic powers in the vicinity. They all look up to her, the way Ness’ friend in the treehouse looks up to him, the way all of us look up to someone, whether a parent or role model or leader of a movement, in our attempt to fashion some ideal of ourselves and how we hope to be in the world. Paula’s parents represent the extremes of faith in her abilities, of hope in her safety, of love for their daughter: her mother blithely carries on, secure in the belief that everything will be all right, and none of this will have lasting negative repercussions on anyone before it does turn out all right–an unsettling, if majestic, degree of faith, if one can believe it, in turn, to be sincere. Perhaps she’s putting on a front of strength for the benefit of the scared kids? But somehow it does seem genuine. Paula’s dad, on the other extreme, is frantic, engaged in magical thinking, which happens when you lose things, of course (her favorite food, pie, will bring her back, as though she were the cat perched on the preschool roof, who anyhow never seems to stir for anything, even when fuzzy pickles man drops down) and clearly only tries to say the brave things while all his actions give his words the lie. Yet his relief will be all the more touching when you do return with his daughter at last. Of Ness’ feelings, again, we get no hint, he simply stands in as the canvas on which your own may be painted and expressed.

For my part, here is what the polestar connotes: Cleopatra’s lines on the death of Antony–among the saddest and strangest lines I know, it is the death of an ideal she mourns, so that at least this poet believes the streams of idealization in romantic love flow both ways and are mutual between Cleopatra and Antony, between Egypt and Rome, woman and man, east and west (or south and north, if any of my Uruguayan friends are listening, I haven’t forgotten you!) And that ideal can survive even the errors, foibles, harsh words and unheard words, having been impressed as deeply once as Enobarbus’ great speech implies–but perhaps it cannot survive despair, the prospect of a world without the beloved in it, and instead the cold embodiment of everything his genius revolted at in Octavian.

When Antony dies, so Cleopatra:

The crown o’ the earth doth melt. My lord!
O, wither’d is the garland of the war,
The soldier’s pole is fall’n: young boys and girls
Are level now with men; the odds is gone,
And there is nothing left remarkable
Beneath the visiting moon.

So the pole there is perhaps the polestar, perhaps the soldiers’ standard or banner, or could even be that garlanded pole around which villagers danced, and hence symbolic of festivity and joy. Those are all question-marked in the note.

But the poet may go further than idealizing a person, why stop there? You can idealize love itself, as Shakespeare’s sonnet 116 would have it —

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

So he has the image of the star guiding the sailor, which is a classic one there.

Then the same sonnet-speaker famously undoes the fulsome and conventional praise of the beloved in ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,’ 18.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
   So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
   So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

The poem itself conserves the love and the beloved’s beauty and grace, and perhaps it alludes to the child and descendants carrying on that grace and beauty which can not only be sung in poems but embodied.

And yet the power of love beyond any particular love, animating it as the power of poetry animates any particular written expression and leaves it yearning to express something which still escapes–something higher, like the star.

Melodies heard are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter Keats’ Ode of A Grecian Urn

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
       Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
       Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
       Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
               Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
       She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
               For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

This idea of the poem existing in some sense before it’s written down, and that this is greater than the poem that is expressed. this Shakespeare celebrates unstintingly, both implicitly in his word-play and lavish poetry and at times explicitly in his speakers’ ideas.

In the great English epic and lyric poets, Milton (and his eccentric reader William Blake) and Keats, the Dantean image of the stars which recurs to give order to the whole divine comedy at the end of each of its three parts:

…to see—once more—the stars.

pure and prepared to climb unto the stars.

the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

(The final lines of Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, respectively, Mandelbaum trans.)

— is fused with this most human of poets, Shakespeare and his followers, and we get lines like these: Blake, the Tyger:

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!
When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

The illustrated edition: 

The tiger is so powerful and fearsome, bright in front and dark behind, and the tree that he’s under has this kind of face on it, almost as if it’s in awe and dread of the tiger, too. Nature itself in awe of the Creator’s works.

John Keats:

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
         Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
         Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
         Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
         Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
         Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
         Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

There we have the eternal nature of the stars contrasted or put in tension with the human desire for the beloved.

We have lines like the one that’s so misquoted in the title of a recent book:

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

But in ourselves…

(Cassius, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar)

Now we’ve got to read Milton. In Book I after the fall of the angels we hear about this passage on Lucifer:

Nor was his name unheard or unador’d
In ancient Greece; and in Ausonian land
Men call’d him Mulciber; and how he fell
From Heav’n, they fabl’d, thrown by angry Jove
Sheer o’re the Chrystal Battlements: from Morn
To Noon he fell, from Noon to dewy Eve,
Summers day; and with the setting Sun
Dropt from the Zenith like a falling Star,
On Lemnos th’ Ægean Ile: thus they relate,

Erring Book 1 740-46,

So comparing one of the fallen angels to the story of Hephaestus, as told for example in Homer’s Iliad, Book I, lines 591 [Zeus] caught me by the foot…Lemnos. So the story of Hephaestus in Greek myth is recast in Milton’s conception to be a story about a fallen angel, in that fall which precedes that of Man.

Then of course there’s the association of Lucifer with the morning star, and he has that around Book 5 708: 

but all obey’d
The wonted signal, and superior voice
Of thir great Potentate; for great indeed
His name, and high was his degree in Heav’n;
His count’nance, as the Morning Starr that guides
The starrie flock, allur’d them, and with lyes
Drew after him the third part of Heav’ns Host

Just an example of the dangerous nature of admiring starry ideals, if the star you set your sights on happens to fall, happens to betray its trust.

And then I did want to look at the Gospel stories. The shepherds are in Luke, but this passage is in Matthew: wise men and the star Matthew 2 (in Luke the shepherds and prophets…

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,

Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him…

When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.

10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

Love that King James language. There’s the star that leads to the Savior, even for those from distant lands, from distant walks of life.

And this nativity story is prefigured by the story in Genesis of Abram, later called Abraham. Here he’s still called Abram, this is Gen 15:4…

After these things the word of the Lord came unto Abram in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.

And Abram said, Lord God, what wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus?

And Abram said, Behold, to me thou hast given no seed: and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir.

And, behold, the word of the Lord came unto him, saying, This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir.

And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be.

And he believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness.

The number of the stars, again the descendants, those who come after you. If you believe in that as you believe in anything, in your own salvation or your own love, or whatever it might be. Then skipping ahead a bit, 22:15, after the Abraham and Isaac scene, which I don’t feel qualified to speak about, but by all means read it and read Fear and Trembling, but then this the second time [the first time was to stop him from killing his son] and said… voice.

15 And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time,

16 And said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son:

17 That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies;

18 And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.

So the blessing is not just for Abraham and his family but for the whole world through him and the son he was willing to slay but was restrained from at the final moment.

And then this is repeated again at least once more–again, I’m not really qualified to speak about this stuff but I can at least point you towards it, so Gen 26:4 This is when there’s a famine:

And the Lord appeared unto him, and said, Go not down into Egypt; dwell in the land which I shall tell thee of:

Sojourn in this land, and I will be with thee, and will bless thee; for unto thee, and unto thy seed, I will give all these countries, and I will perform the oath which I sware unto Abraham thy father;

And I will make thy seed to multiply as the stars of heaven, and will give unto thy seed all these countries; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed;

So promise of land, of salvation from death, in this case specifically by famine but I guess more generally, and then the promise that there will be an inheritance for one’s children.

As children, many of us are supposed to dream of being astronauts; I wanted for a long time to be an astronomer, because of the Universe book (a National Geographic book) whose pictures of the mythic namesakes and the artist’s renditions of the planets and constellations, the gods and their stories I would pine over and pore over, the world-tree of Norse myth, Mercury with his wings, and maybe it’s partly these pictures that made me fall in love with Pullman’s work, which I read first as a kid, and I reread it and it’s still so good. I fell in love with his work for his heroine, Lyra, is captivated by the idea of North, the aurora, the Northern lights, and the possibility of getting to travel there helps explain her falling for the temptation of the glamorous Mrs Coulter despite her clearly malignant soul, portended by her golden monkey daemon… A little bit for example p. 23:

Lord Asriel put a new slide in the lantern frame. It showed the same scene. As with the previous pair of pictures, many of the features visible by ordinary light were much dimmer in this one, and so were the curtains of radiance in the sky.

But in the middle of the Aurora, high above the bleak landscape, Lyra could see something solid. She pressed her face to the crack to see more clearly, and she could see the Scholars near the screen leaning forward too. As she gazed, her wonder grew, because there in the sky was the unmistakable outline of a city: towers, domes, walls…Buildings and streets, suspended in the air! She nearly gasped with wonder.

I love situations like that–you get that often in Tolkien, too–where characters in the story are held spellbound by wonder, and so your wonder is in a way primed, magnified, reflected by their wonder. Verlyn Flieger talk:

She goes to rescue someone, too, like Ness rescuing Paula, and in her story it turns out other than she had imagined it, and that her story is just beginning. More on that come in the fall–I hope you’ll stick with me.

One last EarthBound consideration (a word which may be derived from the word for star, sideris) for today before I close: it struck me on playing through this time that Paula is the only one of your four friends you don’t play as independently prior to their joining the quest. The brainy Jeff, Poo the prince from the East, each has a mini-quest of his own before meeting up with Ness and Paula–Ness’ own solo preliminaries we’ve just seen in the episodes on the overture and Onett–and I’m torn in how I feel about this decision on the game designers’ part. On the one hand they make it clear that Paula could have escaped from the cabin on her own: it is her choice to wait for you there, to endure the loneliness with just her teddy bear for company, the feigned powerlessness with confidence in her own potential, which will quickly and unmistakably be born out as she can soon deal more damage than Ness against most foes, and particular in major boss fights. A PSI Freeze attack could have popped open the lock and let her out of the cabin, a little leveling against crows prepared her to sneak past the cultists and return home–but she stayed for Ness, to let him have the quest, and what a great sacrifice this was, and what a better story it lets you tell. Her confidence is tempered by humility, her brazenness by patience, and never playing as her, you are left to imagine what she is like up until you meet her, and when you do, she gives you the decisive item for defeating the cult leader, Carpainter, who is empowered with lightning like Jove so that the only way to protect yourself is with a Franklin badge–scientific experimental boldness, democratic canniness overcoming the mythic tyranny, bringing down with love a deranged order untrue to its own promises. More on this next time.

To recap: We’ve seen many of these examples of stars in literature, and thought about what they might symbolize. As something to look up to, to wish upon, to hold above you as a judge on your actions, as a model to follow or to be wary of. And hopefully these examples have been a little bit familiar and a little bit strange seen through the lens of this quirky video game. In the background of some of these thoughts are the Biblical series and other early podcasts by Jordan Peterson on Pinocchio and Gepetto, I imagine Alex Schmid and I will talk more about this at some point on side quests before too long. Again, looking forward to coworkers in this great task of reading, playing, interpreting. Thanks for reading, and take care.

 

Foot-links for further reading:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/

http://www.blakearchive.org/copy/songsie.r?descId=songsie.r.illbk.44

https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/

https://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/pl/book_1/text.shtml

https://www.biblegateway.com/versions/King-James-Version-KJV-Bible/

https://archive.org/stream/fear-and-trembling-johannes-de-silentio/fear-and-trembling-johannes-de-silentio_djvu.txt

The sister series on The Golden Compass: Gamecool Books —  http://newschoolnotes.blogspot.com/2018/10/gamecool-books-golden-compass-by-philip.html

 

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