Zarathustra and Mystery

When it comes to choosing names for fantasy characters, there are examples from history and literature that can be inspirational, or even repurposed. “Zarathustra,” or “Zoroaster” is one of those. Zoroaster was an ancient Persian prophet.

My first exposure to “Zarathustra” was via the score for a famous scifi movie.

I have blogged in the past about the sense of mystery, or mysticism, in fantasy and science fiction. I was introduced to this as a young teenager. When 2001: A Space Odyssey was released, my father took me and some of my friends to see it. The story generates all kinds of questions, including who placed a monolith on Earth to influence the evolution of Homo sapiens, and another monolith on the Moon to signal when humans first achieved space travel? What is the meaning of the "star child" at the end of the movie? I’m sure my father left the theater scratching his head and wondering why he had brought us to see this movie. I’m also sure I had some of the same questions, but the difference was I could accept that there are some questions for which there are no good answers. I was comfortable with, even relished, the mystery.

But beyond the mysteries presented in 2001: A Space Odyssey, I remember being profoundly moved by the movie’s score, and in particular, the opening theme by the composer Richard Strauss, which is the introduction to his tone poem, “Also sprach Zarathustra.” When I learned that Strauss was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous work of the same name (in English, Thus Spoke Zarathustra), I had to read it. This was in the early 1970s, shortly before I started college. It was a time of mysticism and psychedelics and Hermann Hesse and Tolkien and black-light posters of wizards and mountains. In translation, Thus Spake Zarathustra was rendered into “Biblical” English (“thee,” “thou,” etc.), which only added to its mystery.

As it turned out, I don’t think I understood a word of it! But it impressed me, and I went on to read many other mystery-flavored works as I transitioned into college, including those of Hesse and Kahlil Gibran. Feeling nostalgic, and imagining I may decide to reread Nietzsche, I recently added a copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra to my library.