Opinion

“Essay Twelve: ‘I have no something’ — On Saturn Valley and the Great Chain of Being”

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.”

In this week’s discussion we’ll keep up the blistering pace, ranging over the Fly Honey and the Zombie Paper, the graveyard passage with its swag, Saturn Valley and Grapefruit Falls with Belch’s base behind, and the Third Your Sanctuary location, Milky Well– and still have ample time for a soak in the hot spring to wash all the smelly gunk off, and to drink a cup of coffee with the Mr Saturn at the tree stump by the newly-taller ladder. Our touchstones this time are Dante, Chaucer, Goya, all in the circle of Saturn, of course. I’ll also be quoting more extensively from EarthBound itself for once, and not just in scattered references and one-liners, but dwelling on that coffee break sequence in some detail.

In this program so far I’ve been cavalier about jumping from the game to all sorts of tangential and fanciful connections, mainly because I think they’re interesting and they open up new ways of thinking about the game, the other works, and the life we’re borrowing time from to do all this contemplative work and play. Playful reading like this, inviting you all to enjoy playing and reading along with me, may overstep the bounds of propriety at times, gliding over a major question too lightly, or giving undue attention to a minor point which doesn’t really warrant it, but I hope at times it also hits the mark.

Next week I’ll be in conversation again with another friend and big EarthBound fan, Steven Abel, thus returning full circle now that we’re about a third of the way through this series, as he was the first person I thanked back in the first episode for introducing me to the burgeoning world of games analysis.

This week it’s time to thank my teachers, among them Madame Suzanne Shayt, who left a very kind comment on last week’s episode, so I hope she’s listening. A wonderful mentor when I was learning Latin and French back at Gaithersburg High, before and after I graduated she was generous with her time, and always demonstrated unflagging courtesy and energy in a room full of sullen, unappreciative clods of potential, like Vesuvian effigies stirred to life by language. Also to Dr Donald McColl, aka Art Boy, whose evening art history class became the crown jewel of my time at the small liberal arts college, Washington at Chester, where he was simultaneously so down to earth and flighty-fancy in the glow of the lantern slides, with equal sprezzatura and verve telling stories of Canadian gas station adventures and of his latest research on newly discovered statuettes of Anatolian good shepherds. And for the other side of art history’s all-encompassing embrace, for the fatherly attention to the fall of the sparrows of individual masterworks, from Homer and the Bible through to Tolkien, before I ever went to St John’s I got the tutelage of Professor Corey Olsen, close-reader extraordinaire. He has now set up his own merry university, Signum, where I help out by offering courses for younger students on Signum Academy.

Anyway, my approach here is far from the St John’s/Tolkien Professor one of scrupulously resisting appeals to biographical or historical context or whimsical allusions to far different works, but I hope my work is akin insofar as it’s aspiring to reading like a fellow storyteller, interpreting the text in a spirit of charity, in Chaucer’s mixture of earnest and game.

You can find the Chaucer courses on Signum University; for more on Saturn in Dante, look up Giuseppe Mazzotta’s Yale Open Course. Or check out Alex Schmid’s epic series of podcast recordings–since we collaborate on so much, that will be helping me out, too! As it is, as long as you pay taxes I’m already getting some tiny percentage of your financial support since I work as a substitute in our the public schools, and that’s much appreciated! It pays the bills and lets me work on my writing and other projects, so, as the poet says, I ain’t got no worries.

After much preamble, then:

We left off with Jeff and the Sky Runner going from gracefully circling, locking onto Paula’s call for him to come to their aid, to its crashing through the graveyard’s hallowed pavement with a Boom like the one which opened the game, the arrival of the meteorite that fateful night. Shaking off the burnt bits and soot, Jeff makes a debonair entrance. Though the Sky Runner can’t be fixed for now, he’s got the Bad Key Machine to release the friends from their locker. Whatever nefarious plans the zombies had for them–to turn them into zombies, too? To force them to listen to Pokey’s annoying knock and never be able to open the door?– whatever it was, Jeff arrives in time to turn them loose. Up from underground, we have a new start to the game.

You’ll soon see there are new enemies around town, urban zombies and most fearsome of all zombie dogs, as well as a new tent appearing in the field cluttered with empty circus wagons to the south. If as I’ve suggested the circus tent in the middle of town suggests the humans’ hapless government, this satellite tent would be the infiltration by Master Belch in a bid for overt rule over the populace, a new parasitic order–for indeed the tent is equipped with eyes to watch and a mouth to consume. Here Jeff’s stock of bottle rockets bought from the back alley arms dealer comes in handy, and when the Boogey Tent falls, the zombies animating it run away, leaving a core of garbage and in it, the precious jar of Fly Honey. An agent lurking by one of the billboards explains that this gross condiment is the secret to Master Belch’s strength, and the many Slimy Little Piles you meet, belchlets, will crave your Fly Honey when they smell it on you, whether to try to strengthen themselves, or simply to be able to return it to Belch for brownie points. So the sticky Fly Honey is that which helps whoever wants to climb that greasy tent pole, or who doesn’t mind a bad taste in the mouth and a squishiness of the spine so long as ingesting it will yield increased power.

Walking the dark streets musing such thoughts, you’ll shortly be getting a call from Apple Kid, your other brainy friend, who’s a bit of a slob, telling you about his latest invention, and moments after that, the Mach Pizza delivery man will bring it to you. As it happens, he’s tired of looking for Ness, doing Apple Kid this favor, and has decided you must be him (wink), which works out fine because you are. Using the Zombie Paper in the big tent has no immediate effect, but using the hotel once again, despite the rough night you had last time you went there, lured in by the zombie lady and clocked by her minions hiding behind the door, you’ll see that overnight all the zombies are drawn to the trap, including those two who were guarding the graveyard path. You can stop in to visit them, undead and dying, quipping about their agony in a morbid air-quoted way which seems calculated to give you mixed feelings about your plan. To restate the classic conundrum posed by a work like Beowulf: does it take a monster to defeat monsters? Or to continue the political analogy: must corrupt, sticky means be used to wipe out corrupt gatekeepers of a zombified traditional order with their sticky fingers, leering red eyes, and putrid flesh?

On your way through the newly opened path, your bravery and irreverent callousness are rewarded in opening the caskets as you battle through swarms of bestial foes, who have at least had the decency to let them alone. There’s an exponential increase in your party’s power with each new member contributing an additional turn, which can mean the difference between a fight lasting one round and two, between your being attacked once or twice a battle or not at all, and particularly with the slime generator you can rack up turns without being attacked back. You also have more choices how to allocate items, of which you can carry quite a few more despite the slots taken up by Jeff’s special items. You can decide how to equip the armor you find, whether to boost Ness’ stats as much as possible and use the others as support, loaded with healing items, or to try and balance out your party; to rely on Jeff as another friend who can heal, to free up the others to attack, or vice versa, because… bottle rockets. The silver bracelet and the deluxe sandwich making you run at a clip, you must imagine taking these from the lunchbox or off the wrist of the skeletons moldering in their coffins. The game suggests some such drama, wailing TAAAAAH-DAAAAAH! text when you unfasten the lids. Whether to use your burst of speed to dash by and out of the room or to zip from foe to foe quickly, sneaking up on them from behind while you’re still blinking and invulnerable between fights, is up to you. There’s no eluding the first Slimy Little Pile at the exit, however, and if you’re unlucky his stinky burps can make your team’s tears blind them, or perhaps around this point Ness will start feeling homesick for the first time, losing the will to fight, craving pie, and missing his jammies. Calling home is the only cure for this ailment. Your mom will have heard about your new girlfriend, and she encourages you to keep going while she gives the dog a bath.

When you do emerge into the Grapefruit Falls area, you’re greeted by an old man who knows there’s a town full of strange people nearby. Taking the next cave entrance you see, you can hear their music echoing fairly in the tunnel and come across some of their many rich garbage cans, until coming out once more, the awesome music rings out full force. Saturn Valley, an enclave of funny little people ensconced in their little hollow, living in houses shaped like they are: stubby legs, round schnozes, whiskers, gentle eyes, and a red bow on top. When they speak, their accent is represented visually. You may recall hearing-seeing a voice like this back in Happy Happy Village, and in many ways this area is a kind of variation on that part of the game. Even geographically they seem to line up, both east of a river, maybe even the same one. Whereas HHV was under an oppressive cult, the Mr Saturns are a kind of family or community, speaking their own language with boings and zooms, harmoniously standing on their ladders, putzing around in their warrens, or wallowing in pink hot springs. They have some excellent items for sale and will give you rare coins as gifts when you prove yourself, and their doctor and inn are free and of the highest quality.

Rather than attracting unwary seekers and kidnapping people for nefarious sacrifices, the Mr Saturns are instead being kidnapped by Belch and his minions and taken behind the waterfall. One Mr Saturn knows the secret password: not to speak at all, but to wait three minutes. As it happens, silence is Ness’ forte, but those three minutes were a long time to sit still as a kid, watching the water animation and listening to the music last heard in Peaceful Rest Valley.

The ladders in Saturn Valley, too, play with your expectations and memories, recalling your experience with the Bubble Monkey and the aspiring dungeon designer in Winters. These ladders allow you to climb to a point much too high for you to dismount onto the surrounding ground in one place, and to one a few rungs too low to reach the hot springs in another. You can’t move the two ladders of course, to swap them. Is the Mr Saturn up there keeping a lookout like the kid outside your tree fort back in Onett? Daydreaming, watching butterflies and beetles? Or waiting, and by not saying anything saying the password that will let you go those places you can see but not reach, and thus proceed to other places unseen, like the far side of the hilltop in Onett…

Those ladders remind me of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, nicknamed Strawberries. Here’s the hell panel:

Jheronimus Bosch: Garden of Earthly Delights - Hell

No paintings of the period are more remote from the spirit of the Italian Renaissance than those of Bosch, an almost exact contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci. Bosch stresses the frailty and wickedness, not the beauty and nobility, of humankind. The pleasures of the flesh, which Italian artists celebrated, he condemned as severely as the author of The Imitation of Christ – ‘Oh how brief, how false, how inordinate and filthy, are all those pleasures!’ Musical instruments, which to Giorgione and other Italian artists symbolized a soothing and celestial harmony, were for Bosch the agents of the Devil. In his view of hell they surround the damned, one of whom is crucified on a harp. Perhaps he had in mind the words of Isaiah (5:11-14)… Bosch’s view of hell is not, however, as was that of medieval artists, a mere aggregate of symbols. His is truly a vision. A hallucinatory, unbounded, fluid space, seen from far away and above, is rendered with complete command of the new techniques of pictorial representation. In the chaotic area between the foreground and the burning buildings on the horizon, human figures, demons and various strange and incongruous objects seem to float, all depicted with a weird reality. Even the most bizarre are uncomfortably tangible presences…(p. 460 in The Visual Arts: A History (7th ed.) by Honour and Fleming)

Such ladders also raise echoes of Dante, himself echoing the biblical imagery of Jacob’s vision. One is the ‘longer ladder’ he hears about near the bottom of the Inferno (canto 24), where Virgil tells him

“Now you must cast aside your laziness,”

my master said, “for he who rests on down

or under covers cannot come to fame;

and he who spends his life without renown

leaves such a vestige of himself on earth

as smoke bequeaths to air or foam to water.

Therefore, get up; defeat your breathlessness

with spirit that can win all battles if

the body’s heaviness does not deter it.

A longer ladder still is to be climbed;

it’s not enough to have left them behind;

if you have understood, now profit from it.”

Then I arose and showed myself far better

equipped with breath than I had been before:

“Go on, for I am strong and confident.”

We took our upward way upon the ridge…

Another is the ladder in the seventh circle of Paradise, the heaven of contemplation associated with Saturn. This time it’s Beatrice speaking (Paradise canto 21):

We now are in the seventh splendor; this,

beneath the burning Lion’s breast, transmits

to earth its rays, with which his force is mixed.

Let your mind follow where your eyes have led,

and let your eyes be mirrors for the figure

that will appear to you within this mirror.”

That man who knows just how my vision pastured

upon her blessed face, might recognize

the joy I found when my celestial guide

had asked of me to turn my mind aside,

were he to weigh my joy when I obeyed

against my joy in contemplating her.

Within the crystal that—as it revolves

around the earth—bears as its name the name

of that dear king whose rule undid all evil,

I saw a ladder rising up so high

that it could not be followed by my sight:

its color, gold when gold is struck by sunlight.

I also saw so many flames descend

those steps that I thought every light displayed

in heaven had been poured out from that place.

And just as jackdaws, at the break of day,

together rise—such is their nature’s way—

to warm their feathers chilled by night; then some

fly off and never do return, and some

wheel back to that point where they started from,

while others, though they wheel, remain at home;

such were the ways I saw those splendors take

as soon as they had struck a certain step,

where they had thronged as one in radiance.

That ladder might also recall Platonic dialogues (Symposium), Homeric epics (Zeus’ golden chain), Hesiod’s Theogony:

As soon as one of them was born, Ouranos would conceal them all in hiding place in Gaia and did not sent them back into the light, and he delighted in his evil deed.

Monstrous Gaia was groaning within, congested. She conceived a cunning, evil trick. Quickly she made the element of grey adamant and fashioned a great sickle and showed it to her children. Then she spoke, encouraging them, though sorrowing in her heart. “My children with a reckless father, if only you agree to obey me. We would avenge the evil outrage of this father of yours, for he first devised unseemly deeds.” Thus she spoke, and binding fear grabbed them all, and none of them spoke. Then great Kronos of crooked counsel, embolden, quickly addressed his dear mother with words: “Mother, I promise that I will bring to completion, this deed, since I do not care for that ill-named father of ours. For he first devised unseemly deeds.” Thus he spoke, and monstrous Gaia laughed loudly in her heart. (Tyrrell trans.)

And perhaps you know the story of what happens next. That’s Kronos to the Greeks, Saturn to the Romans, depicted with a sickle, so we think of him as Time, as the Reaper of what’s sown, integral to that chain of processes linking back to whatever first fall we might imagine in our mythology. In Ovid we get this image of the Golden Age:

Earth of itself–and uncompelled–untouched  

by hoes, not torn by ploughshares, offered all  

that one might need: men did not have to seek:  

they simply gathered mountain strawberries  

and the arbutus’ fruit and cornel cherries;  

and thick upon their prickly stems, blackberries;  

and acorns fallen from Jove’s sacred tree.

[…]

And streams of milk and streams of nectar flowed,

and golden honey dripped from the holm oak.

(Metamorphoses I, Mandelbaum trans.)

This idea is everywhere. You could look at Don Quixote’s discourse on the golden age, etc.

A good description of the concept of the chain of being as well as the darker side of Saturn’s story comes in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In the opening story after the general prologue, when he’s chosen to go first by drawing lots, but fittingly too as the most noble of the pilgrims, the Knight tells a tale depicting a medieval cosmos of classical content into which amorous nature, both pity and desire, impetuously erupt. In the great allegorical set piece of the tournament between the infatuated cousins Arcite and Palamon for the hand of the lovely Emily, each prays to a different pagan god, or if you like a chief virtue. In a kind of ultimate Rock Paper Scissors, Arcite prays to Mars (martial prowess), Palamon to Venus (sexual love), and Emily to Diana (chastity). But as we discover, or as we knew deep down all along, the true power of providence is above these, hinted at darkly in the person of Saturn. This is when Venus goes to talk to him:

‘My deere doghter Venus,’ quod Saturne,

‘My cours, that hath so wyde for to turne,

Hath moore power than woot any man.

Myn is the drenchyng in the see so wan;

Myn is the priison in the derke cote;

Myn is the stranglyng and hangyng by the throte,

The murmure and the cherles rebellyng,

The groynynge, and the pryvee empoysonyng;

I do vengeance and pleyn correccioun,

While I dwelle in the signe of the leoun.

Myn is the ruyne of the hye halles,

The fallynge of the toures and of the walles

Upon the mynour or the carpenter.

I slow Sampsoun, shakynge the piler;

[…]

Now weep namoore; I shal doon diligence

That Palamon, that is thyn owene knyght,

Shal have his lady, as thou hast him hight.

Though Mars shal helpe his knyght, yet natheless

Bitwixte you there moot be som tyme pees,

Al be ye nought of o compleccioun,

That causeth al day swich divisioun.

I am thyn aiel, redy at thy wille;

Weep now namoore; I wol thy lust fulfille.’

 

(Towards the end of part three of The Knight’s Tale, Riverside text. That K in knight does get pronounced, just like in Monty Python’s Holy Grail.)

We also have an answering passage from old Egeus, who represents a human take on Saturn as he’s the father of the current king, Theseus. You have the fun metafictional moment there of the Knight, one of Chaucer’s pilgrims, talking about pilgrims within the tales, just one of many such profound jokes:

‘This world nys but a thurghfare ful of wo,

And we been pilgrymes, passynge to and fro.’

Theseus himself gets the last word, of course, as he seyde his will, or made his decision:

‘The Firste Moevere of the cause above,

Whan he first made the faire cheyne of love,

Greet was th’ effect, and heigh was his entente.

Wel wiste he why, and what thereof he mente,

For with that faire cheyne of love he bond

The fyr, the eyr the water, and the lond

In certeyn boundes, that they may nat flee.

[…]

Thanne is it wisdom, as it thynketh me,

To maken vertu of necessitee…’

I can’t recommend Chaucer highly enough. But for a tremendous meditation on the contemporary status of the chain of being concept I recommend Wendell Berry’s essay “Poetry of Place.” Again, for brilliant discussions of the medieval philosopher-poets and modern fantasy myth-makers, check out the Tolkien Professor’s Mythgard and Signum pages, and for Dante lectures delivered in the most delightful Italian accent listen to Giuseppe Mazzotta’s Yale Open Course.

We feel groove

So insightful and refreshing are these kinds of courses, you might ask yourself why people waste so much time and so, so much money on academic ideological antics when all this good stuff is there freely at hand, waiting, quietly saying the password… But I’ll climb down again from my soapbox-stack of a ladder.

Going through Belch’s factory where the Mr Saturns are forced to make Fly Honey is a great place to level up, roasting Foppies like zombie Saturns and then magneting PSI points from them as needed. Indeed, as EXP is now split three ways, a little leveling may be in order until Belch and his Slimy Piles are push-overs, for all their flatulence. Then back in Saturn Valley the free hotel is a perfect place to fix lots of contraptions during the night, leveling again against the fast mushrooms and fierce plant men lurking around Milky Well meantime.

Milk and honey again… that image in the middle of the Bosch painting sure looks a lot like Milky Well!

Let’s pass over that–noting in passing though that it’s your mom’s voice that you hear there at the source, the wellspring, and as we gather a few more sanctuaries we’ll want to take a step back and wonder what sort of pattern is emerging in these glimpses of the past.

Just so, we come to the coffee break, which you can take as often as you like. It provides a retrospective of your journey so far. We’re not so close to the end as Dante is in Canto 22 of Paradise, when he casts his eyes back. But still, a good third or so into EarthBound.

 

 

 

Notice how it’s like a battle background, only with encouraging text foregrounded instead of the image of the enemy you’re fighting and the battle command text above. The key word here, rather than wisdom or friendship, though there’s plenty of that present, too, seems to be courage. That makes sense. After the frightening town of Threed, after the disaster that’s befallen the idyllic Saturn Valley, or looking at the story of Saturn, stumbling upon the topsy turvy Saturnalia, or coming across Goya’s painting of Saturn devouring one of his children, it’s understandable, then, that courage should be the emphasis. And with that, interestingly enough, faith in the victory of good over evil. It’s posed as a question, but who is it asking? Who is this I who encourages you? It doesn’t sound like your dad on the phone, but like someone telling a story, putting together the important elements and gathering them within a narrative so as to keep them in perspective. As a kid, maybe, I was almost as impatient at these three and a half minutes as I was waiting behind the waterfall, but now, looking back, I find in them much to contemplate. I wonder what else you notice.

To recap: I suggested investing your time in some of the other teachers out there making their work available. We hustled from Threed to Saturn Valley, had a look at some ladders and at some great art and stories, at images that should be giving you nightmares for awhile, as beautiful as their form in some ways might be, and at some beautiful language. We’ll move on to the desert, but first a conversation with my buddy Steve next week. Thanks again for reading.

 

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