Forgive me for getting all academic here, but I’m going to put on my graduate school hat for a moment. As a fan, I just read stories and revel in their flow and fun. But occasionally, I like to admit that I do indeed have a Master’s degree in Communication Studies and dust off the passive voice, complex sentences and gobbledygook that makes it sound like I am a Deep Thinker. So here we go…
Mantles of power, varying aspects or incarnations of gods, and the masks they can wear are a mainstay of fantasy literature and represent the need and ability of characters, and humanity, to change.
As an example, take Odin. The All-Father. Far seeing, wise, powerful, the leader of the Norse Pantheon. He is also frequently mentioned in modern fantasy. Jim Butcher references him in The Dresden Files. Kevin Hearne has him as fairly central figure in The Iron Druid Chronicles. Rick Riordan features Norse gods in his new series featuring Magnus Chase. And of course, Odin is also an important figure in Marvel’s Thor movies.
Physically, Odin is represented in all of these worlds as a male older figure with one eye. The one eye is a notable trait – indeed a symbol — derived from the original Norse myths, representing Odin’s sacrifice for wisdom.
In Butcher’s Dresden Files, Odin is only one aspect of a multi-faced character. Vadderung is the contemporary Odin, who lives in a modern day version of Midgard with a company front company front called Monoc Securities. Monoc is yet another ode to the one eye of Odin, as monocle in Latin literally means one eye. Sometimes Odin appears in another aspect, as in Cold Days, when he appears as Kringle, or as we may know him, Santa Claus.
The concept of a god wearing multiple mantles or aspects is not singular to Butcher. Lucienne Diver, who has not yet used Norse mythology in her Latter-Day Olympian series, uses the concept of varying aspects and incarnations as well. In her latest book, Blood Hunt, coming out at the end of October, she plays on this theme heavily. Apollo, for example, literally morphs physically into a member of the Egyptian pantheon. By using this technique both authors present the idea that gods represent concepts and that belief systems have universal needs, met and realized by similar aspects of what is essentially the same god.
Kevin Hearne uses Odin as an individual figure, but plays with the concept of multiple aspects with other characters. For example, he asks a devout Christian woman to imagine the Mother Mary, and when Mary appears, she looks as the woman imagined. Even Jesus changes looks/aspects/mantles depending on the belief system of His believers (read the sharply written Hammered).
One subtle but important difference does exist between the aspects of a god and the mantles. Previously, I have discussed them as if they were exactly the same thing, and they are not. A mantle can have a far deeper meaning as not just one face of a godlike incarnation, but a cloak of power that one can sluff off and hand to someone else. Or, more accurately, a cloak that transfers to another person once you die. Butcher does this beautifully in the ending scenes of Cold Days, as the Ladies’ mantles transfer to other vessels. They actually take a type of physical form and fly into the new vessels’ chests.
Confusing matters more, only a few pages later, in the same exact book, Butcher alludes to mantles as masks. “Masks, mantles,” Kringle said, “What’s the difference?” (Cold Days)
For readers, the difference is subtle yet instructive. While many of us wear masks, displaying different aspects of who we are or hiding part of ourselves, the masks can be removed and our true selves revealed. Humans can wear masks and it simply hides parts of who we are. Mantles, on the other hand, are components of godhood or at least fantastic power. Harry Dresden is handed the Winter Knight’s mantle, not the Winter Knight’s mask.
Another key difference is that Mantles typically bring responsibilities and burdens, and the very real possibility that the bearer will lose who he or she is and become what the Mantle wants them to be. This is Harry’s continued battle as he feels the power of the Winter Knight try to change who he personality and values. Even Molly, who now carries the Mantle of the Winter Lady, is changing in front Harry’s eyes, becoming less wizard and more Fae. She is absorbing and changing due to power given through the Mantle.
But, it should be noted that Molly wears a mask as well, displaying different aspects to different people, playing a challenging game that will inevitably fail. Winter Lady to the Fae, dutiful daughter to her mother and father, wizard and friend to Harry. The problem with masks, unlike mantles, is that they can slip. Mantles overpower. Masks hide. And tiny differences can signal the slipping of a mask and the revelation of the mantle’s changes, such as when Molly successfully uses a cell phone.
Whether an aspect, mantle or mask, the writer’s ultimate goal is give his or her character a reason to change. The changes can represent different incarnations of the same things such as when Diver’s gods morph from one pantheon to another, or challenging and terrible powers such as Dresden’s Winter Mantle, or even the power of individual belief, as in Hearne’s Jesus.