Thursday, January 17, 2013

Cold Days, and its Unintentional Stoicism

Warning:  This essay contains Spoilers for Cold Days: A Novel of the Dresden Files[1]by Jim Butcher.  While the dramatic conclusion is left unrevealed, I would advise buying and reading first.  Note, this is Book 14 of an Ongoing Series, so it may take some time to get there, but believe me the journey is worth it for the intricate, immersive and at once grim and riotously funny world that Butcher crafts.

When one hears the word “Stoic”, one’s first thought is of calm, rational, unmoved thinking, something like this:
He comes up if you Google "Stoic"
However, the old term was a bit more complicated.  It did stress the rational calm of our modern conception of the word, but it also had a certain element of fatalistic determinism to it.  The Stoics Philosophy can be summed up thusly: “Virtue consists in a Will that is in agreement with Nature.”[2]  For the Stoics, a person had a certain role to play, certain actions they were bound to undertake in any situation, and certain fates that were bound to befall them, and happiness came from accepting that fact.  Later stoics took it a step further, for them if you acted without great passion you would never find yourself in unfortunate circumstances. 

This does not seem like a philosophical standpoint that would relate to Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, Protagonist of The Dresden Files, the man who answers insults with conjured conflagration, who will leap directly into the path of danger because a lady is in trouble[3] and who once started narration with “The Building was on fire and it wasn’t my fault.”[4]

The Zombie T-Rex powered by Polka
makes perfect sense in context. 
However, while the main character of the series is about as stoic as Spock is emotionally driven, the series as a whole has become extremely Stoicist in its philosophies, particularly in the most recent book in the series, Cold Days.

Harry is just starting his employment as the Right Hand of Mab, Queen of Winter.[5]  Several things happen that are important happen on his first day on the job.  One, Mab tasks Cat Sith[6] to follow Harry’s orders, to be his batman.  Harry mostly uses this to get a Coke.   Two, Harry meets “Kringle,” yes, that Kringle, the Jolly Old Elf. Third, Mab, for reasons related to the plot, tasks Harry to kill her daughter Maeve, the Lady of Winter. 

Now, from previous books we know that there is a tenuous peace between Winter and Summer.  They trade control of the world over at Midsummer and back at Yule, etc.   However, they don’t like each other.  In the Court of Winter there is a general lack of passion and many of the figures are rather grim, if hungry and malicious, often plotting, but acting out of reason, never rashly.[7]  Summer is much more passionate and open and loving,[8] though antagonistic towards Harry because he killed the Lady of Summer years ago for totally noble world-saving reasons.  However, blood is thicker than reason in the Faerie Courts. 

Maeve is basically a
Hyperrealized version
of Kesha Serbert's
Stage Persona
The killing of Maeve comes right after Maeve has tried (and failed) to seduce Harry, and she is furious at him for turning her down.  Here we see two things that contradict the previous paragraph:  Maeve is acting passionately, rashly, with emotion, rather than with coldness befitting the Lady of Winter.   She is behaving in contradiction to Stoic Philosophy, therefore, the plot says she must die. 

To the surprise of everyone
who doesn't know their
comparative mythology,
Kringle is Odin in disguise. 
I mentioned Kringle.  When Harry meets him, he can’t help noting that “[He’s] freaking Santa Claus!”[9]  However, Kringle protests, stating that he isn’t Santa Claus until after Halloween.  He’s putting his foot down.  This seems like a throwaway gag referencing the habit of stores putting out Christmas Decorations in October September August, however, it is also a nod to Stoicist philosophy.  Harry is making sport of Kringle, who is being forced to be something he is not, to act outside of his nature by the mortal memetism of Santa Claus, which angers him.  “For when does a Vine do badly,” asks Epicetus, “When it acts against its nature.”  Kringle is afraid of being forced to act against his nature, and thus do badly, which in the backstabbing Court of Winter means courting death.

I’ve mentioned Maeve and I’ve mentioned Cat Sith for a reason, to set up two characters who, it is revealed later in the book, are possessed by a force named Nemesis.  This force corrupts people, causing them to act outside the bounds of their nature.  It grants Maeve the power to lie, something no Faerie is able to do, and Cat Sith the power to defy Harry’s orders.  Harry’s discovery that Cat Sith is possessed by Nemesis comes directly before his defeat, a metaphor for the way deviation from one’s role in the universe is to fall from grace[10].  This Nemesis is the new Big Bad that Cold Days is setting up for this Arc, as Nemesis is not defeated, only hindered.  It is curious that the monster for this book is something as simple as people not acting in accordance with their natures, but then, that is the Antithesis of Stoicism.  A Stoic would fear an external force causing him to act not in accordance with his Nature but in opposition to it, bringing dischord and disharmony.  Cold Days is, for all accounts, a horror story for Stoicists, which gets even more terrifying as Harry learns more about the Natural Order of things.

In this book, Harry (and the readers) discover that Winter and Summer are not in balance, as thought, but that Winter outnumbers Summer a-hundred fold.  However, Winter’s true purpose in all things is to hold back The Outsiders, Eldritch Abominations from beyond the furthest reaches of our Universe.   Winter keeps them in check, whereas Summer keeps Winter in check.  And, because Maeve is not acting in concert with Mab but in consternation to her, Winter is losing.

Like this only bigger.
The horror of the book, and for that matter, of the series as a whole, in terms of overall arc-plot for the series, is the terrible idea of The Outsiders pushing their way into our reality.  This is vitally important.  How important?  Well, for one, one of the Senior Members of the White Council of Wizards has only one role, that of making sure they don’t get through the Outer Gates.  For a while, this is a vague background metaphor, however, as we learn, the Outer Gates aren’t just a metaphor, but literal gates through which the Outsiders are pouring in, desperately trying to take purchase on our world.

An important element of Stoicism, as discussed, is the adherence to Nature above all else.  While this perspective is primarily attested to people, it is also in some cases applied to the physical world.  For instance, while the Stoics generally derided the ideas of praying or making supplications to the Gods, they did admit that reverent to the manifestations of God, such as the planets, was all right.  They saw the planets as being highly in accord with Stoic philosophies, as they obeyed a natural, unchanging order.  The stoics believed that everything was set out with a proper order, and that passions would lead to problems due to deviation from that order.
"But for me, it was Teusday." 
The Outsiders are representations of the strife that comes from deviance from that order.  Having no formal shape, no common physical features or natures apart from a general desire to bring about an end of all things and a resistance to magic, the manifestation of Nature, these chaotic antagonists are an anthropomorphization of the antithesis of Stoic Order, which to me was the deciding factor in calling this book an argument for Stoicism. 

Now, to be fair, making the Big Bad a conglomerate of Eldritch Abominations isn’t exactly a new move, and could be interpreted in many ways, but it definitely ties in with Nemesis and Kringle’s refusal to be Santa Claus, and its alignment with the argument for Stoicism comes through in the universal agreement that the Outsiders must be stopped at all costs.  However, Maeve, instead of helping Mab, is making things worse by her machinations.  Because Winter is not acting in accordance with the Deterministic Nature that someone (probably God) laid out for it, chaos is infecting the world.  When simplified down to these levels, it’s almost academic.  The whole book plays out as a very long cautionary tale.  It’s really not much different from Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel.  There are even villainous wolves pretending aid and evil witches ensnaring children.

Now, why does this all matter?  Well, for one, it is pursuit of deeper understanding for the sake of deeper understanding, and understanding is its own reward.  However, understanding the philosophy of the dominant literature is an important element of understanding society.  The Dresden Files are one of the most widely read series in the Urban Fantasy Genre.  People who don’t even regularly read books (that is, most of my friends) all picked up and read this one within a week or so of its publication.  It still had its own display rack even two weeks after release in my local bookstore.  It was featured in The DC Spotlight’s list of Books to Know for January 2013, the series as a whole featuring in the Kansas City Star, The Seattle Post, the New York Times, and that’s just over the last two years.  The series has some clout to it.  It speaks to something in a great many people in America, and understanding what America is reading tells you more about America.  And America, apparently, wants to have a place in the world, wants to know what its role is and be able to live in accordance with that, as opposed to seeking it out. 

If you enjoyed this, maybe you'd like something I made in relation to Book 15

[1] Butcher, Jim.  Cold Days: A Novel of the Dresden Files. New York: ROC 2012.
[2] Russel, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy. Simon&Schuster/Touchstone: New York 1967.
[3] To his credit, he admits that his heroic chauvinism is a flaw.
[4] Butcher, Jim.  Blood Rites: A Novel of the Dresden Files.  New York: ROC 2004.
[5] There are two Courts of Faeries, Winter and Summer, each with three Rulers, a Mother, Queen, and Lady, with the Queens being the primary rulers, the Ladies being party-girls and the Mothers being largely uninvolved in greater affairs, spending most of their time chillaxing in a hut somewhere in the NeverNever. 
[6] A figure from Celtic Folklore.  The Cat Sith was never a friend, but only an enemy if angered.
[7] Lawful Evil
[8] Chaotic Good
[9] Cold Days, p. 38
[10] Or at least to fall off of a boat. 

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