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In This Object We Trust: How Fictional Things Take on Mythical Stature

Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.

From Marvel Studios

From Marvel Studios

Coming off the finale of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, I reflected on the series as a whole and there was much I enjoyed about it. One of the biggest factors I enjoyed was how it turned Captain America and his shield from an average superhero into a larger than life mythical figure that no one could really fill. This role was especially emphasized through his shield, which to me somehow became its own character.

It reminded me of several other examples from the past and modern day that were able to achieve this status.

in-this-object-we-trust-how-fictional-things-take-on-mythical-stature

The Granddaddy

Starting with the oldest known example of Excalibur.

The legendary sword of King Arthur, the sword was said to be only wielded by the King of England and was enchanted by the mystical figure, the Lady of the Lake. Embedded in a stone rock, many would try to claim Excalibur as their own, along with the throne by extension. But all of them failed.

That was until Arthur stepped up and succeeded. Through his sword and his Knights of the Round Table, the new king was able to subdue the land and bring a relative peace. Depending on which version of the story you read, because there are many, Arthur is eventually mortally wounded and either near death or after it, Excalibur is returned to the Lady of the Lake. Supposedly waiting for a successor to reclaim its power and the throne.

The origins of this story are hotly debated, along with which version was the original one. What none dispute however is certain key factors they all have in common, and Excalibur was a key one. Though its capabilities also depended on the teller, the sword itself always remained a symbol of the perfect projection of justice through righteousness. And set the standard for future fictional symbols of authority to this day.

From New Line Cinema.

From New Line Cinema.

The Cursed Jewelry

The next example is also older, but more recent, and thanks to a book and movie franchise, has become a cultural icon along with the story that it involves. The One Ring of The Lord of the Rings.

This object is the creation of the story’s central villain, an evil angelic being named Sauron. Having tricked the Elves into making 13 other magical rings prior, in order to control them and by extension control the populations under it, Sauron needed a ring of greater power. Thus he made the One Ring himself and imbued a great amount of his own power and personality into it.

The Lord of the Rings tells the tale of the Ring’s return to the world stage as a small band of ragtag heroes endeavor to destroy it by tossing back into the fires of Mt Doom, where it was forged. I feel the movies do a better job of showing this, but the ring is portrayed and described as having its own will. Though it will grant whichever user longer lifespans and invisibility by passing into the wraith world, the ring is always trying to corrupt them. Depending on their own personality, some fall quicker than others.

But ultimately, anyone with common sense knows that only Sauron, its creator, can master the powerful object. And given the numerous battles and drama that are stirred up by it, the One Ring became a central character in the story. And its destruction is deemed so important that it marks the beginning of a new age in that universe.

in-this-object-we-trust-how-fictional-things-take-on-mythical-stature

The Family Heirloom

The mythologization of the lightsaber of Anakin Skywalker was from the beginning a direct correlation to the aforementioned Excalibur. A wizard who helps a boy claim his birthright as symbolized by a blade. Even the loss of it in Empire Strikes Back is loaded with symbolism as it represents two story beats: the mirroring of Luke with his father as shown by the loss of his hand, and at the same time the beginning of Luke starting to become his own person. After he loses the weapon, he has to create his almost-equally famous green lightsaber and with it defeats Darth Vader.

Whatever you may think of the sequel trilogy, one of the aspects I did like was how it continued the legacy of Anakin’s weapon (though the lack of explanation for how it got to Maz Kanada was bullshit). Here, the lightsaber represents the same elements but with more gravitas, as Rey and Kylo constantly fight over who has the right to wield the Skywalker weapon. And thus making it a central player to the story. It also comes to have a dual meaning.

To Rey, its legacy is not familial as it manifests her acceptance of following the Jedi path in general, for which she was initially in denial. Kylo’s attachment to it is about the Skywalker legacy since he is one, but also aligns with an entitlement to his heritage. The weapon of Anakin Skywalker, one of his family’s progenitors. Beyond them however, it is the larger incarnation of the influence the Skywalkers’ legacy has over the galaxy and the Jedi order as a whole.

From HBO.

From HBO.

The Chair Forged in Fire

The Iron Throne in the Game of Thrones franchise is an ugly piece of scrap. Many swords welded together by dragonfire into a great chair by the conqueror of all Westeros, Aegon Targaryen. Yet despite this, this throne of melted swords becomes the focal point of several conflicts throughout the Targaryen's 300-year history, and even afterwards when they are overthrown by Robert Baratheon.

Though the seat itself does very little, the shadow it casts over that universe stretches from all over Westeros to across the eastern continent of Essos. By the series end, several great houses are either decimated or completely destroyed, and the seat of the throne itself, Kings Landing, is burned to the ground.

And yet the chair remains, until it is destroyed by dragonfire.

Unlike the other examples in this essay, the Iron Throne is barely seen. It doesn't seem to come across as anything important when you look at it. But to the people and armies who fought over it, it symbolized the ultimate authority. From the Targaryens, to the warring Barathen brothers, and those who submitted to it, he or she who sat on that ugly pile of burnt blades had the right to rule all of Westeros. And according to Daenerys, the world.

To the many who died because of those trying to possess that authority, the Iron Throne was the altar upon which their lives, lives that wanted nothing to do with it, ended. While certainly not sentient, the Iron Throne’s power definitely extended well beyond itself, Kings Landing, and Westeros.

It was the incarnation of amoral and naked power that promised no guarantees about the character of the person sitting on it, whether they were good or evil.

From Marvel Studios.

From Marvel Studios.

The Defender of Justice

From the beginning of the Marvel cinematic universe, the shield of Captain America was establishing itself as a legacy character. The numerous off-hand cameos it made in the MCU’s early years built up the mystery of where Captain America was, when he would appear and even if it was his actual shield. So by the time of First Avenger, the groundwork was already laid and indeed even followed the ancient beats of Arthur and Excalibur.

Between First Avenger and Civil War, the shield then becomes just another superhero weapon used by just another superhero. That is until the end of Civil War, where after a brutal beat down of Iron Man by Cap over his boyhood friend, Buck Barnes, Iron man shouts that because he is rejecting doing the right thing by helping the Winter Soldier, that Cap no longer deserves to use the shield. The very shield that Tony Stark’s father, Cap’s friend, had created. The very father and friend who had been killed by the man Cap was now rescuing.

Ever a man of conscience, Cap renounces being Captain America by there and then by dropping the shield to the cold ground and walking away as Steve Rogers.

It's from this point on where the object now begins to take on a truly mythical status. This is because it no longer represents one man, but a higher ideal. One of justice, good values, and steadfast loyalty. Values that like Thor’s hammer, if betrayed by the wielder, then that person no longer has the right to use it. Values that Steve Rogers betrayed when he chose Bucky, an assassin, over true justice, while also being the main catalyst for splitting the Avengers apart and battling each other.

For a while then the shield goes MIA for Infinity War and is not used again until Endgame. Perhaps because he’s felt he’s already paid the price, or that the desperate situation required him putting aside his guilt, Steve Rogers again takes up the mantle one last time in the battle against Thanos. By the story’s end, the shield is broken but still usable. When Cap then goes back into the past to return the Infinity Stones and doesn't return, Sam Wilson, his modern age friend who's stuck by him, wonders where he is before finding him by the lakeside, now an old man. (Bucky didn't seem surprised at all so I’m assuming he knew).

He gives the repaired shield to Sam as his successor to the title of Captain America. A title Sam doesn't feel worthy of and where The Falcon and The Winter Soldier picks up from.

By now, with the disappearance of Steve Rogers from the public, the shield becomes even more significant. An empty throne waiting for someone to sit in it. And while the show goes to great lengths to explore the casualties along the way that the mantle has created, it still represented to all people by the end of the series an image of pure righteousness. That he who wields the shield must be a righteous man, which is why the blood on the shield after Jon Walker kills the Flag Smasher feels so awful. The symbol of purity and honest values now soiled by blind rage and the blood of a surrendering enemy.

It is only then that Sam Wilson begins to seriously consider taking up the mantle that the original Captain America had entrusted to him. A mantle that, when he rejected it, puzzled everyone who knew him.

"Power resides where men believe it resides. It's a trick, a shadow on the wall"

— - Varys, Game of Thrones

Cults of Cultural Values

Obviously the importance of all these objects lay in what they meant to the people that looked up to them. In and of themselves, none of them could really create the world people cast upon them or enforce a will of their own.

Even the One Ring, which did have a will of its own and could project it’s influence to nearby people, was trying to return to Sauron to wield it. Had it been left alone, it would not have conquered the world on its own nor walk itself all the way to Mordor.

I think the importance lies in what this says about the people who worship these objects. That human beings have always and will always have a tendency to look to something else to embody their ideals. Whether that be a deity, an object, or a person. There were numerous arguments made on the internet when John Walker used the shield to kill someone, making death threats to the actor and treating the shield as if it were a real thing instead of a work of fiction.

We do the same with real objects as well like cults of personality, constitutions, flags, vehicles of war, and monuments. And just like Excalibur, the One Ring, the Iron Throne, and the shield of Captain America, they are embodiments that can never be truly filled or can entirely remain loyal to.


© 2021 Jamal Smith

Comments

Robert Walker from Atlanta, GA. on May 12, 2021:

Boom!

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