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Lords of Order, Lords of Chaos

 

There is a philosophy called Dualism which holds that there are only two kinds of people in this world: those who divide everything into two categories and those who don’t. All right; so maybe that’s not exactly what Dualism teaches, but people have been perceiving the world as paired opposites ever since Marduk cleaved the body of Tiamat with his sword and fashioned the world from the two halves. The theme was old when Zoroaster first envisioned the universe as a cosmic struggle between Truth and Falsehood. And so we have Light and Darkness; Yin and Yang; Anima and Animus; Marvel and DC.

Order and Chaos.

I probably first encountered the theme of Order vs. Chaos through Dungeons and Dragons, where it forms one of the axes of it's system of Character Alignment. D&D lifted the idea from two influential fantasy writers. Poul Anderson used this theme in his fantasy novels, “Three Hearts and Three Lions” and “Operation Chaos”; as well as his Dominic Flandery series, about an agent of a declining Galactic Empire, working to prevent that Empire’s eventual fall.

Writing about the same time as Anderson, and to a certain extent borrowing from him, British SF writer Michael Moorcock wove Order and Chaos into to his stories about Elric of Melniboné. His tragic hero, Elric, finds himself caught in the struggle between the Gods of Chaos whom his family has served for centuries, and the Gods of Order. Roy Thomas brought Elric to comics in the early '70s, having him appear in a two-part story in Marvel's CONAN THE BARBARIAN. Since then there have been various comics adaptations of Elric published by different companies and drawn by artists such as Barry Windsor-Smith, Walt Simonson and P. Craig Russell.

Inspired by Elric, Jim Starlin created a pair of cosmic buttinskis called Master Order and Lord Chaos, who each manifested himself as a giant disembodied head. Although, they personified opposing principles, they were described as brothers and usually worked together. They understood the need for Balance between their two forces in the Universe, and to that end combined their powers to create an entity called the In-Betweener to embody Balance.

In the 1980s, the gods of Elirc worked their way into DC Comics, with a number of their mystic heroes recast as soldiers or pawns in this struggle. Dr. Fate was originally an archaeologist who gained magical powers by donning the "Helm of Nabu", an artifact created by an ancient Egyptian sorcerer. Nabu was rewritten as one of the Lords of Order and Dr. Fate became their sometimes rebellious servant in their eternal war against the Lords of Chaos. Other characters, such as the Phantom Stranger and Kid Eternity, also got redefined along the Order vs. Chaos axis.

At the time, the notion that Order and Good are not always congruent seemed reasonably profound to me. After all, the Nazis were all about Order, and they certainly were Evil. This theme came up again in the TV series  Babylon 5  in the conflict between the seraphic Vorlons and the malevolent Shadows, aliens which at first seemed to personify Good vs. Evil but later on were seen to embody an arbitrary moral Order vs. a Darwinian Chaos.

Now, I grew up in the wake of the ‘60s, which equated Order with Repression and Chaos with Freedom. There was nothing new about this; G.K. Chesterton, writing at the beginning of the century, began his surreal novel  The Man Who Was Thursday  with a debate between a poet claiming that all art is anarchy and another claiming to be a "poet of Order".

Chesterton’s near contemporary Rudyard Kipling wrote a famous line in his poem "Recessional" about "lesser breeds without the law." Despite the temptation to associate Kipling’s "lesser breeds" with the brown-skinned natives his empire subjugated, in the context of the poem he’s referring to peoples who worship power for its own sake, untempered by a respect for justice and honor. The militaristic Prussians of Kipling’s time and the Nazis who eventually followed them may have been rigid in terms of rules and regimentation, but lawless in their ethical codes.

Later on, I decided the idea of Law and Chaos not equaling Good and Evil wasn’t quite as deep as my comic books thought it was. If your only choices are Order and Chaos, any hero worth his spandex will have to side with Order, because heroes are all about helping people and saving them from destruction. Chaos  causes  destruction and doesn’t care about anybody. Poul Anderson knew this, which is why in his stories Chaos is always a force to be combated. He was an engineer at heart, I think, and associated Chaos with entropy and decay, and associated Order with preservation and building. And he knew his Kipling.

Alan Moore understood this too. In his revolutionary series, V for Vendetta, his hero, V, is certainly an anarchist, an agent of Chaos bringing down a corrupt Order. But once the repressive government has been overthrown, a new and better one must now be built. That is something V is incapable of doing. The anarchist must step back so that a new and hopefully better Order can be created. But anarchy remains waiting in the wings, just to keep Order honest.

Not everybody gets that point. About the time DC reprinted the original V FOR VENDETTA series, they introduced a character in BATMAN named “Anarky” inspired by V and intended to be a sort of libertarian hero out to smash Big Order. To me the character seemed simplistic and he never appealed to me.

Neil Gaiman gently mocked the eternal conflict between Order and Chaos in his graphic novel  Books of Magic. When Dr. Fate explains the struggle between the two forces, young Tim Hunter comments that it sounds like a series of rotten fantasy novels.

"Oh no," Fate replies; "It is the basis of Magic: the imposition of Order on formless Chaos, the release of Joyous Chaos into the Gray monotony of Order..."

To which Tim’s companion John Constantine mutters, "Chaos versus Order indeed. I thought Everyone had heard of Fractals these days. There’s no chaos, no order; just patterns of different levels of complexity."

Perhaps; but dualistic lenses like that of Law vs. Chaos are how we try to make sense of these patterns.

At least that’s what a person of Lawful Alignment would say.



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Kurt Wilcken draws the webcomic “Hannibal Tesla Adventure Magazine” at http://www.kurtoonsonline.com/ and writes a weekly blog about obscure Bible stories, “The Ones You Didn’t Hear in Sunday School” at: http://onesyoudidnthear.blogspot.com/ He also sometimes refers to himself in the third person and he lives for feedback.