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Of Myths and Metaphors: Star Trek TNG’s Darmok

Star Trek TNG Darmok

Several weeks past, I attended a workshop on the use of storytelling for effective social engagement. Sitting at my table was a doctoral student interested in better ways to communicate concepts of ecological economics to the public. As we chatted about the various metaphors embedded within conventional economics, particularly around growth and development, I started thinking about stories that focus on the challenge of communication and the power of metaphor. Searching my mind for examples, I found myself returning once more to the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation for inspiration, this time to an episode titled Darmok.

Synopsis

The Enterprise, captained by Jean Luc Picard, encounters an alien race called the Tamarians in orbit around the planet El-Adrel. Unfortunately, the two crews find each other’s languages incomprehensible. Frustrated at the impasse, Dathon, the Tamarian captain, kidnaps Picard, transports them both to the planet surface, and orders his crew to prevent the Enterprise from interfering.

Once on El-Adrel, Dathon repeats the phrase “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” to Picard and tosses him a dagger. Picard refuses the weapon, believing the gesture to be an invitation to duel. As night falls and the two make camp, Dathon shares his fire with a frustrated Picard while saying, “Temba, his arms wide.”

Darmok A Danger Shared

The following morning, a hostile creature approaches their camp. Dathon tries once more to speak with Picard.  Picard finally realizes that the Tamarians communicate by citing examples and metaphors. They stand together against the beast, but due to some unfortunate timing, Dathon is mortally wounded in the ensuing fight.

Back on board the Enteprise, the crew struggles to decipher the Tamarian language, but without much success. They come to a similar conclusion as Picard, deducing that the Tamarians speak via metaphors derived from mythology and folklore, but without knowing the context with which to ground these metaphors, the chance for successful communication is slim.

A second night falls on the planet. As Picard tends to a dying Dathon, he pieces together the meaning behind “Darmok and Jaled at Tanagra”, a tale in which two lone warriors arrived on an island as strangers, but through shared adversity against a common foe, left as comrades. Picard realizes that Dathon had hoped to recreate the event on El Adrel as an attempt to open relations between their two people. Moved by his actions, Picard shares a story from Earth, part of the Epic of Gilgamesh. While listening to the tale, Dathon succumbs to his wounds.

Picard has little time to mourn the loss of Dathon the following morning before the hostile lifeform returns. The Enterprise crew resorts to force in order to disable the Tamarian ship and rescue Picard, but the hostile act triggers a full-on firing match between the two vessels. With the Enterprise about to be destroyed, Picard successfully establishes communications with the Tamarian first officer,  demonstrating that Dathon’s mission had succeeded.

Darmok Tamarians Mourning

The Tamarian crew is saddened by the loss of their captain, recording the story of successful first contact as “Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel” before departing in peace.  In the coda, Picard quietly honours Dathon’s sacrifice to open the door between their two people. 

Myth and Storytelling 

“My turn? No, I’m not much of a storyteller.”

Jean-Luc Picard: Big fat liar.

Darmok’s quiet campfire scene ranks as one of my favourites in the entire series. Picard’s telling of Gilgamesh was my first exposure to the ancient Mesopotamian tale, and complemented by the background music, it left a lasting impression on me.  Patrick Stewart puts on a masterful performance, but equally excellent is the venerable Paul Winfield, expertly playing one who only has a vague notion of what is being said, but is nevertheless captivated.  The scene reinforces the notion that the telling is often more important than what is being told.

I love that Picard chose to tell the Epic of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Narratively, it is a fitting tale to tell, for Enkidu was eventually struck down by the gods, leaving Gilgamesh to mourn the loss of a dear companion. But beyond that, this ancient tale, one of the earliest known stories in human history, also depicts conflict between the forces of nature and culture. Enkidu, the massive man-beast of the wild, fights Gilgamesh, the god-king from the city of Uruk,  yet out of this tumultuous struggle emerges a sense of mutual respect and a profound friendship that renders both more human and humane. Gilgamesh discovers a worthy equal and ceases to torment his subjects, while Enkidu sheds some of his feral nature to adopt the ways of civilization.

Darmok Death

At the episode’s conclusion, Picard comments that “more understanding with our own history and mythology makes us more capable of understanding and communicating with others.” The statement serves as a reminder that past knowledge can help us foster more durable relationships with ourselves and with others. This links me back to a comment made by a fellow WordPress blogger I keep coming back to about the value of mythic stories:

“All over the world great mythic stories were told to people of all ages, stories that had violence, humor, sex, slap-stick, philosophical questions, and ethical dilemmas built into them. As you grew older, you would realize new depths to the stories, picking up on themes and ideas within the tale as your own maturity grew and your mind asked new questions… We injure ourselves by simplifying the world.”

Earthknight

Question:

  • What are your favourite mythic stories? What elements make them memorable?

Sokath, His Eyes Uncovered!

 “Their ability to abstract is highly unusual. They seem to communicate through narrative imagery by reference to the individuals and places which appear in their mytho-historical accounts.”

– Data, describing the Tamarians

Over the course of the story, Picard slowly works out the main but by no means complete meanings behind the phrases uttered by his Tamarian counterpart:

  • “Shaka when the walls fell!” denotes failure
  • “Mirab, with sails unfurled.” means departure
  • “Kiazi’s children, their faces wet.” signifies unavoidable death (?)
  • “Sokath with his eyes uncovered!” conveys revelation or understanding

I won’t go into the feasibility of a language constructed entirely upon metaphor. I am not a linguist, and far more knowledgeable people have written extensively about this issue. (See here for an essay on Tamarian grammar) As I rewatch the episode, I instead find myself thinking about our own use of metaphors in everyday life, that we often communicate through narrative imagery. Why are metaphors so evocative? Why are we so drawn to them?

This is personal speculation, but perhaps the power of metaphor stems from its inherently cooperative and participatory nature. In a successful metaphor, the teller compresses and transmits the entirety of their experience as code, while the receiver uses their understanding of the world and the other party to decipher its meaning. The teller must trust that the receiver is capable of understanding the essence of their experience, while the recipient has to be fully engaged in the process of figuring it out .

Perhaps this active and inclusive process, compared to one party stating instructions or ideas at another, is what makes metaphors so powerful. Visiting a concept discussed in The Science of Narrative, communicating in metaphor, like communicating in stories, may lead to greater “neural coupling” in which both teller and receiver become more attuned with each other.

Darmok Picard on Bridge

Darmok also illustrates how metaphors are able to tap into vast multidimensional experiences. Packed into the five word phrase of “Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel” is a sea of emotion and meaning that Picard becomes intensely aware of: First contact, shared danger, cultural exchange, death and sacrifice, personal courage, and all the specifics those elements entail. Maybe this is why as narrative devices or standalone expressions, metaphors can evoke such deep resonance within us: They can instantly deliver and provide context to a web of elements that cannot be easily summarized by ordinary means of communication.

Question:

  • What are examples of powerful metaphors that have stayed with you?

The Courage to Convey, The Willingness to Listen

 “The Tamarian was willing to risk all of us just for the hope of communication, connection. Now the door is open between our people. That commitment meant more to him than his own life.”

– Picard, in the coda

What resonates with me most in Darmok is how Picard’s curiosity of the other and his willingness to listen helps avert a disastrous conflict. Dathon, despite his commitment and sacrifice, could not have achieved his goal without Picard’s help. Darmok highlights the fact that it always takes two (or more) for successful communication, especially across disparate worldviews.

Darmok Picard Storytelling

We often celebrate the courage of the conveyor, the one who initiates the exchange, extends the first gesture. What is less often praised is the listener, the one who is receptive and perceptive enough to create the space for fruitful dialogue. Both are absolutely crucial for meaningful communication. Having two speakers can quickly degenerate into one talking over the other, while having two listeners mean no bridges will ever be built.  Successful communication seems to be an exercise in complementary partnership, and as I write this sentence, I realize that this also holds true in reverse: enduring partnerships rely on complementary communication styles.

Question:

  • Are you a conveyor or a listener?

Conclusion

Darmok Picard Knife

While not as accessible as The Inner Light, I found Darmok to be an extraordinary hour of television, embodying one of core mantra of Star Trek “to explore strange new worlds and seek out new life and new civilizations.” As with most aliens in science-fiction, the Tamarians serve as mirrors for ourselves, reminding us of the importance of myths, metaphors, and storytelling in our lives while demonstrating how ingenuity, determination, and receptiveness can help defuse conflict, bridge gaps, further understanding across different worldviews.

Related Ekostories

 Star Trek: The Next Generation is a registered trademark of Paramount Pictures. All images are © Paramount Pictures and are utilized under the the guidelines of Fair Use; no copyright infringement is intended.

17 Comments

  1. This is one of my very favorite Next Generation episodes, and certainly among the most moving. Thank you for posting the clip.

    Going back to the title of your post, I think myth and metaphor are very tightly entwined, and the most powerful metaphors I know of are myths. Watching Bill Moyers’ interviews with Joseph Campbell was a powerful experience, and as a Christian, I call to mind C.S. Lewis’s comment that he saw Christianity as a “true myth.” (I think that’s the correct quote. Haven’t double checked.) Recognizing that religion is rooted in symbol, metaphor, and myth as its primal language should keep those of us who subscribe to organized religions humble and help to avoid the hubris that comes from literalist readings that attempt to force the reader’s opinion on everyone else.

    The most powerful literature draws on myths, too, for example The Lord of the Rings, which is rooted in Tolkien’s deep religious beliefs, which he uses to create something at once old and new. One of the things that moves me most in Tolkiens’ work is his obvious reverence for the earth and its creatures, as embodied in Treebeard and the Ents. Another of my favorite writers, Robertson Davies, talks about this kind of mythic intertwining of life in many of his novels, most notably in The Deptford Triology and “Rebel Angels.”

    Thanks for reminding me of a beloved ST episode and for making me think!

      • Haha I don’t mean to highlight Patrick Stewart and Star Trek episodes, but it seems that they’re too good to avoid 🙂

        • They are, indeed! There were so many universal themes that foreshadowed what has come to pass. I enjoy your discussions – insightful and detailed.

  2. Fun post Isaac and thanks for reminding me of that particular episode. I think it’s interesting to think how language and communication have changed and continue to do so in the present moment. On more than one occasion, I have felt that people are losing their ability to recognize or relate to traditional metaphors and symbols. Perhaps the world trending towards the secular has had an impact here? This just underscores our need to create new stories or find ways to update the more universal ones. When I look at how my own children communicate with their friends through social media and text messaging, I’m struck by the brevity of words and the renewed importance of actual images.

    • Hi Al,

      I think language and communication is always changing and evolving, but perhaps it is the rate and the changing of forms in present times that is a little disorienting. I think the lack of resonance of particular stories lies very much in the way of telling and that is a generational problem. If kids don’t want to read long books anymore, is it our responsibility to push them to read them or should we engage them on their own medium and tell stories on tweets and texts? Is there a way to meet half way, to engage in some form of compromise that works for both parties? Bit of a rambling train of thought.

      As an aside, I would actually contest the claim that as a whole the world is trending towards the secular 🙂 There’s a fantastic series on Ideas, a Canadian radio show, titled the Myth of the Secular. It’s a lengthy series, but well worth it, if you are interested:

      http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/episodes/2012/10/22/the-myth-of-the-secular-part-1/

  3. I don’t recall this particular Star Trek episode, but it sounds very thought-provoking. Specifically, one question that comes to my mind about a language based on metaphors: would said metaphors eventually come to receive so much use, they devolve to the level of cliche, wherein everyone knows instinctually what the words mean, but they fail to resonate on an emotional level or stimulate new emotions and perspectives the way a new metaphor comparing previously unassociated ideas does?

    • Netflix Joanne! Check it out 🙂

      What an intriguing question, and one I’m not sure the episode addresses at all – how metaphors evolve with use. After all, language is so organic and open to change, how will they “wear” over time? Do they invent new ones? I’m sure like our language, there would be dead metaphors that become irrelevant, and ones that enter into such ubiquitous use that they become as ingrained as common verbs are for English. Maybe they build metaphors upon metaphors, or mix them together to create weak and strong versions.

      My mind is blown!

  4. Wonderful post. Yet another reason why Star Trek: The Next Generation was one of the best TV shows ever. The Epic of Gilgamesh was very fitting as you mentioned. Such a great story. My favorites, however, are Beowulf, The Iliad, and The Odyssey. Stories are such a powerful way to build bridges from one culture to the next, if only we take the time to listen.

    • It’s definitely got some very good standout episodes, that’s for sure!

      I’m actually ashamed to admit I’m quite illiterate when it comes to the Western classical epics, being more familiar with Chinese mythology. That being said, I’m currently working on a piece related to The Aeneid, so stay tuned!

  5. This has always been one of, if not my favorite episode (I am watching it now, which made me look for discussions of it on the internet). Watching it makes me wonder what happens in our modern age when, due to information overload, there is no root metaphor to unite a culture, no story that is common to all Can this be a single uniteda culture? In past centuries the Bible served as a source of metaphors that tended to unite a culture. What story serves as a metaphor for ours? I hate to think that it is only whatever video on Youtube has the most hits week.

    • Hello John,

      Religion certainly served and will continue to serve as a major source for metaphors. What else? Economic doctrine is can be a pretty rich mine for metaphors, and war is full of narratives that both bind and divide. Perhaps there are powerful stories out there that both unites and acknowledges diversity, but maybe human unity requires we strive against something, the Other. I’m pondering this myself.

  6. I really enjoyed your post, and I really liked the linked article about the language. I always thought this language was impossible – just a fun idea for star trek that conveyed the importance of culutral understanding. I live in Korea, an English teacher, and I’m pretty patient, but 1) I get a bit flustered when I’m with a really good English as a second language student and they don’t get a metaphore or 2) when I’m using Korean, and I though out a Chinese 4 letter proverb, most young people don’t get it (although I admit, sometimes this is due to my pronounciation:p)

    Anyway, I think it IS possible for a language to be like this, as when I read chinese characters I often don’t think or can’t remember their korean reading(sound), but just think oh, that’s fire(instead of reading “bul” in my head), or that’s independence or solitutude (instead of “dok” in my head). So its possible if their written language is iconographic ~ OR, like another poster said about our children and texting, its pretty time saving and easy enough nowadays to just send an image of where we are to our friends instead of typing. It’s not hard to conceive a race 400 years in the future would have an even easier time perhaps even transmitting video recordings or reenactments of these myths to one another through… who knows, blue tooth brain implants? (They’re aliens too, so if they are mildly telepathic, that would explain a lot as well).

    Just my two cents! Just found your page, and it’s awesome, keep posting!

    • Hi Stephen, thanks for reading and for sharing your thoughts on the possibility of a language like this.

      I’m Chinese, and I always marvel at the terseness of the language in communicating complex ideas in a few succinct words. Poetry comes closest to thought, as they say. I remember as a child, my parents would cite a proverb (many times grounded in a historical event or a story) and then proceed to tell me what it means in normal Chinese. So the question is: How do you communicate entirely in metaphor without that step of explanation in a base language? Can the same ideas in the proper context be precisely conveyed to an entire society? For me, that’s one of the many very interesting aspects about Darmok.

      There’s also a pretty interesting and accessible video done by a popular sci-fi critic on the language of Darmok as well, if you wish to check it out:

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