Post #21: Greek Myth in Disney’s ‘Gargoyles’
By Vincent Tomasso
Originally published Saturday May 23 2015
“The time may soon come when the world will have to face...the New Olympians!”
When I was a kid, one of my favorite television shows was the animated Gargoyles (1994-1997), a series that supported my passion for myth and legend. Although Gargoyles made liberal use of a wide variety of world myths, from Celtic to Hopi, it dealt very little with Greek myth, which is surprising given the importance those stories have in western culture. In the thirty-fifth episode of the second season, “The New Olympians”, Greek myth at last became part of the Gargoyles universe. And yet this didn’t happen in the ways that I, and perhaps others, expected. Fascinated as I was with monsters and heroes, I didn’t expect a merger with Gargoyles to happen in quite the way in does in this episode. The plot has the descendants of creatures of Greek myth living in isolation in fear of the humans who had once persecuted them--a narrative parallel to the Manhattan gargoyles’ own story. This reversal of expectations--the heroes of Greek myth are demonized and the antagonist monsters are portrayed sympathetically--leads the audience to re-assess what they think they know about Greek myths.
“The New Olympians” is part of the so-called “World Tour” arc, in which Goliath (leader of the Manhattan gargoyle clan), his human friend Elisa, his daughter Angela, and his pet Bronx are sailing to various locations as determined by the mystical island of Avalon. At the beginning of this episode they arrive at the island of New Olympus, which is populated by the descendants of creatures from Greek myths. In the course of the episode we meet,among others, Talos (descended from the Minotaur), Boreas (the wind god Boreas), Helios (the sun god Helios), Ekidna (the mother-of-all-monsters Ekidna), and many others. [see figure 1] Because humans persecuted them back in ancient Greece, the New Olympians’ ancestors formed their own nation on the island and created a cloaking technology that hid their home from prying human eyes.
This revisionist take on Greek monsters as misunderstood victims has been a trend in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. While modern culture can portray Cerberus, the triple-headed guard dog of the underworld, as a lovable puppy dog who serves Hades only so that he can save the soul of a human girl who loved him (see Bernard Evslin’s Cerberus entry in his Monsters of Mythology series), the Greeks felt that monsters threatened civilization and so could legitimately be destroyed. “The New Olympians”, by contrast, contradicts what the audience thinks it knows about evil Greek monsters in order to re-play two of Gargoyles’ central themes: appearances can be deceptive, and tolerance is paramount to civil society.
For a race of beings who came from ancient Greece, the New Olympians’ society is surprisingly futuristic: the police force rides hovercraft, the island’s guardian is a giant robot with golden armor, and the cityscape is dotted with observatories and 1930s SF-inspired spires (header image). I’m reminded of the close connection between the science fiction genre and classical antiquity, which has been explored in the recently-released Classical Traditions in Science Fiction and was further discussed in March’s The Once and Future Antiquity conference. There are some hints of stereotypical ancient Greek architecture, but the overall impression is of a city of the future. This is our first clue that the New Olympians are not what they seem. And given modern audience’s familiarity with ancient Greek mythical creatures, appearances are everything.
This theme of appearances re-occurs during Elisa’s trial, during which the testimony of several New Olympians completely up-ends any remaining preconceptions the audience might have. Taurus, the chief of police, deconstructs Greek heroes: “My ancestor the Minotaur was locked in a labyrinth by humans, starved, and then killed by a human ‘hero’” (figure 2). The very creatures we might expect to be the villains from our knowledge of myth turn out to be Elisa’s grudging ally (Taurus) and an excitable if law-abiding protestor (Ekidna). The irredeemable antagonist is Proteus, one of Elisa’s fellow prisoners on New Olympus.
In Homer’s ancient Greek epic the Odyssey Proteus is a sea deity who helps the Greek king Menelaus when he stops in Egypt on his way back to Greece from the Trojan War. True, Proteus makes things difficult by resisting Menelaus, forcing the king to wrestle him as he changes form (lion, serpent, panther, boar, water, tree!) (figure 3), but he’s certainly not villainous.
Gargoyles’ Proteus, on the other hand, is, according to Taurus, “unlike the other New Olympians; he is evil.” In his first appearance he evokes Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs had come out not even five years before), standing in his clear-paned containment cell (figure 4) and initially taking the form of Taurus’ father, whom he murdered in an escape attempt. It’s no coincidence that the actor who voiced Proteus, Roddy McDowell, is a villainous Brit to Goliath’s heroic American Keith David, just as Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal is to Jodie Foster’s Clarice. In the course of the episode, Gargoyles’ Proteus tricks Goliath into releasing him from the prison by morphing into Elisa and then beats the gargoyle senseless after he changes into a giant cyclops. Despite these mutations, unlike his fellows who have “monstrous” forms, Proteus’ usual form is humanoid, underscoring the deceptiveness of appearance. Proteus is the evil character in this episode precisely because of his shape-shifting ability, and this aspect was a recurrent theme in 1990s television: both the animated X-Men series and Hercules: the Legendary Journeys featured characters named Proteus.
“The New Olympians” revolutionizes the audience’s conception of the ancient Greek past. Greek heroes like Theseus are depicted as persecuting racists, while the superficially monstrous like Taurus turn out to be noble after they realize not all humans are evil. And not all New Olympians are misunderstood outcasts; some, like Proteus, are truly evil. Goliath and company help re-align New Olympus to become less isolationist and more tolerant, through which the episode suggests that the past can be educated by the present.
Header image credit: screen capture (Buena Vista Television/Disney Television Animation).