Gods and Monsters

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March 3 2000 9:30 PM

Gods and Monsters

The mythic quality of the presidential candidates. 

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Like all good knights, Gawain spent most of his time on quests. In his 1992 ecological manifesto, Earth in the Balance, Gore explained his quest: "Writing this book is part of a personal journey that began more than twenty-five years ago … it has also led me to undertake a deeper kind of inquiry, one that is ultimately an investigation of the very nature of our civilization and its relationship to the global environment." Such writing may sound pretentious, but remember, your journey is no quest if all you're doing is seeing which grocery store has the best price on bananas.

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On one quest, Gawain stopped at the castle of a lord and lady. While the lord was out hunting, the lady kept trying to seduce Gawain. He was able to resist until she offered him her magic girdle of bright green. If he wore the girdle, she explained, he would be protected from death. (Scholars have yet to analyze how the girdle's power would have been affected if it had come in earth tones.) The problem was that taking gifts violated his knightly vows. In the 14th-century epic Sir Gawainand the Green Knight, his transgression is considered minor. In other words, there was no controlling legal authority preventing the acceptance of the girdle. And yet, Gawain realized, he had damaged his reputation and his self-perception. He says of himself, "Now I am faulty and false and found fearful always." But his own fall from grace helped him see Arthur and all the other knights in a different light. He realized they were all a bunch of rogues. Gawain concluded it was better to be a pragmatic live knight than a virtuous dead one.

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Bill Bradley: Odin. The chief god of Norse mythology, Odin is a dark, brooding figure, devoted to his pet ravens, Thought and Memory. (Perhaps they were the ghostwriters for Bradley's memoir Time Present, Time Past.) Odin and his wife, Frigg, live near Valhalla, the hall of slain heroes, over which Odin presides. Various sources describe him as "a tall rugged man in his 50s" and "a strange and solemn figure, always aloof." Odin is a seeker of wisdom, consulting both "giants" (presumably a team of Nordic proto-NBA players) and "dwarves" (everyone else). He can be "terrible, arrogant, and capricious," "maybe a god to be respected, but not a god to be loved." Unexpectedly, he is the god of poetry; he worked hard to become a poet himself. In The Well of Remembrance, by Ralph Metzner, the god is described this way: "Though he inspired his followers, some to the point of self-sacrifice, Odin also has the reputation of at times abandoning those devoted to him. … While Odin could be generous with his wisdom he was not known to be warm-hearted." In The Norse Myths, by Kevin Crossley-Holland, Odin says of himself, "I've roamed far and I've learned much and all that the gods know I know."

Compare this to recent descriptions of Bradley in the Los Angeles Times: "[L]ittle in his fading campaign for the presidency, little in his outsized life, has come simply. … At 56, he is a cerebral, deliberative figure with a writer's eye for observing the world around him. … Bradley is a solitary figure, shrouded inside a plaid wool afghan as he hunches over sheaths of position papers. … He might emerge raging and fiery, hair strands askew and face reddened. … But the distant Bradley soon returns, sometimes in the same speech, peering out remotely over his half-glasses."

To the Los Angeles Times, it's "painfully apparent in the weeks of drift … how much Bill Bradley may have wounded his campaign by being himself." But with Odin it's hard to imagine things turning out any other way. Here's one of Odin's own poems about taking advice:

Happy is he who hath in himself
Praise and wisdom in life;
for oft doth a man ill counsel get
when 'tis born in another's breast. 

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