It’s November, which is not really my favourite time of year. It’s rainy and gray, and winter is winging its way to us. Many people around me tend on the side of melancholy here in the Pacific Northwest in November. So, I’ve decided to do a fun post this week, thinking about some of the characters in pop literature who serve as symbolic defenders of our natural world.
Now, you should understand this. I grew up on a steady diet of comic books, horror movies, and sci-fi TV. You might see some evidence of this in the list here. Hopefully though, what comes out is the idea that heroism and the defence of the earth, or parts of it at least, are inextricably connected to how we ourselves ideally view our place in it.
Well, we’ll ponder that. But, in the mean time, here’s the list!
Lord and Lady Greystoke are killed in the jungles of deepest, darkest Africa. And their infant son is raised by apes, and re-named Tarzan in the classic Edgar Rice Burroughs tale. Tarzan is a 20th century version of the ancient pagan Green Man myth from Anglo-celtic traditions that pre-date Christianity; a defender of the natural world, and at home in the ‘green world’ because it’s that which defines him.
Plus, if you could live in a sweet treehouse like Tarzan’s all year round you would, wouldn’t you?
2.a) Aquaman and b) Prince Namor The Sub-Mariner
Respected as princes of Atlantis in DC comics and Marvel comics respectively, both heroes are defenders of the sea, and friends to all marine life. Both are suspicious of, and even a violently aggressive toward, land-based civilizations who seek to exploit the world’s oceans without thought to how many species become endangered as a result.
Imagine what these guys would say about the state of the Gulf!
3. Wonder Woman
A princess from the Amazon-ruled Paradise island, Wonder Woman not only stands for gender equality, she also has a natural affinity with nature, allowing her a rapport and even communication with animals. On Paradise Island, nature and civilization are held in balance, and it’s part of her mission in the stories to bring these ideals to the rest of us.
And presumably, her invisible plane is a hybrid.
4. The Black Orchid
Once your standard comic-book super heroine, this character was re-imagined in the 1980s by writer Neil Gaiman and artist Dave McKean, repositioned as a human-plant hybrid. An important undercurrent in the story is about our connection with nature, taking you from urban Metropolis (Supes’ home turf!) to the jungles of the Amazon. This is a journey which in the end is something of a comment on how far we’ve strayed from this connection with the natural world .
Of course, another theme here is that sometimes nature will strike back in the form of a hot, purple babe when threatened.
5. Swamp Thing
Born out of an explosion in his lab, Dr. Alec Holland is transformed into the hulking Swamp Thing. Much like Tarzan, Swamp Thing is yet another incarnation with the Green Man of ancient myth. Swampie is another hero that embodies the natural world, with its often fearsome power held in balance with a gentle demeanor. And in the stories, his treatment by humans as something to be feared, and their subsesquent cruelty toward him, is very telling of our cultural approach to the natural world as a whole.
6. Gandalf The Grey
Maybe you think this is kind of weird one. But, when J.R.R Tolkien wrote the Hobbit, and the Lord of the Rings books, he was very concerned about the disappearing countryside and increasing industrialization in his native Oxfordshire. As a result of this, he placed his concern into the person of Gandalf the Grey (later the White); a friend of Hobbits and Elves, both peoples living in harmony with nature.
He critizes the Dwarves for ‘delving too deep’ in their mining pursuits and releasing the demonic Balrog (surely a metaphor for something). He is opposed to his former superior Saruman, who tears up trees in order to pave over the forest and build up his private orc army. He also stands in defiance against Sauron, who has turned the land of Mordor into a wasteland in order to consolidate his own power, and would do the same to the whole world.
In short, Gandalf kicks all kinds of butt for the cause of saving Middle-Earth, even on an ecological scale. And he provides something of a subtext for our own world while he’s at it.
Superman (aka Kal-El, aka Clark Kent) was sent to earth from a dying planet of Krypton to be a savior to humanity, and to the earth. Everyone knows that. But, what a lot of people don’t know is why Superman is Superman; he takes his power from our yellow sun.
That’s right; Supes is solar-powered!
8. Robin Hood
Held down by the Man – Prince John and the Sheriff of Knottingham, specifically – Sir Robert Locksley, known to the people who love him as Robin Hood, takes to the forest – Sherwood Forest specifically. And here he makes green living a way of life, while stealing from the rich and giving to the overtaxed poor.
These days, you’d just apply for a tax credit on green building upgrades.
Related to this of course is the very contemporary Save Sherwood Forest fund, which gives you the chance to be a modern day Robin Hood where protecting greenspace is concerned.
9. The Silver Surfer
Once the Herald of Galactus, a monstrous and enormous planet eating being with a really big hat, The Silver Surfer saw that defending planets is a far higher calling than taking part in their consumption. While you don’t see much tree planting or recyling going on in the adventures of the ‘Surfer, what you do get is yet another metaphor for standing against the unthinking forces of pure and unchecked consumption, whether it’s wearing a big hat or not.
10. The Lorax
Surrounded in controversy in some quarters, this figure in children’s literature represents our environmental conscience, defending the health of the Trufulla Trees, and the animals who depend on them. And where I don’t think author Dr. Suess was condemning the forestry industry (as the controversy seems to suggest), I do think that through the Lorax, he’s suggesting that we balance industry interests with those of ecological respect. This is a big part of what sustainability is all about.
This list of heroes and tales of their exploits in our pop culture consciousness to me is very telling of a larger story; that through our heroes, we are trying to envision better versions of ourselves, our worldviews, and the ways in which we live in relation to how we inhabit our planet. Once again, we are reminded that action and change can be easily ignited by stories that activate our imaginations for something better.
And it’s exactly this sort of cultural change in perspective that we need to foster political and economic changes that will allow us to live sustainably for the centuries to come. In short, saving the earth isn’t just for people in capes and tights.
(In reference to the images, please click through on each one to view fair use details from Wikipedia)