Phoenix from the Ashes: The Literature of the Remade World

By Carl B. Yoke | Go to book overview

14
MYTHIC HELLS IN HARLAN ELLISON'S SCIENCE FICTION

Joseph Francavilla

Beneath the grim, despairing, "realistic" surface of Harlan Ellison's desolate, wartorn landscapes lies a symbolic dimension to the postholocaust world involving a combination of motifs: the hero's descent into hell and a variation of the Prometheus myth. In "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," The Deathbird," and "A Boy and His Dog," the postholocaust setting functions as a nightmarish wasteland into which, or from which, the Promethean hero can descend, an inverted world where the protagonist steals the "fire" of knowledge, creativity, freedom, and life from the punishing, deranged god(s) presiding over the region of darkness. The protagonist finally finds and confronts his shadow doppelgänger, subjecting himself to tortures, trials, and punishments. Eventually the hero sacrifices himself, or part of himself, usually restoring the balance of hope and despair and of cowardly selfishness and noble sacrifice which has been upset at the outset of the stories. As a result of his defiant theft, the hero may be confined and punished eternally by the powerful, maniacal authority, his other self. Or, if the hero overcomes the tyrannical god, the rebel wrests control of the earth or its representative(s) from this evil force. This representative is almost always an embodiment of the feminine, often symbolizing the earth mother goddess, with which the hero has had a sexual union. This object of love (woman and/or earth) is put out of its pain so that it is no longer tortured; the hero is forced to destroy, usually out of compassion, what he loves. This euthanasia is a last resort made necessary because the love object is still subject to torture which the hero cannot now curtail or eliminate.

This action by the hero departs radically from the monomyth of the hero's descent into hell as described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a ThousandFaces

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