A Story of a Story)
There is an account in the Old Testament of the prophet Nathan coming to King David and relating a story to him. Nathan told of two men: one was wealthy, while the other had nothing but a single sheep. The poor man loved that sheep, though, and cared for it like a daughter. He let the creature eat from his own plate and drink from his own cup.
The rich man had a great deal of livestock, but one day, when traveler came to visit with him, the wealthy magnate saw an opportunity to take the poor man’s sheep and serve that for dinner instead. For whatever reason, he would gladly take all that the other had, if it meant not having to give up any of his own.
When King David heard this story he became incensed, and declared that the rich man would pay for his crime, would even be put to death! Then Nathan revealed to the King that David was the man. Nathan revealed that the Lord knew David’s secret: he had arranged for the death of Uriah, all so that he could take the man’s wife for his very own.
Even without the revelation, this story is compelling for how effectively it fires one’s sense of indignation. The account of a man’s love for his sheep delights us at first, but all of that energy is funneled into rage when another sunders that joy.
But then the story goes from compelling to unforgettable when it is shown to be just one layer in a deeper tale. David has been tricked into betraying his own conscience, and has pronounced the same wrath that will be poured out on him. As a reader there is a deep catharsis to this, a sense of balance, a rightness in the wicked impaling themselves on their own swords.
This sort of multi-layered story reminds me of another, that of Fifth Business by Robertson Davies. In a casual moment the story recounts the several key archetypes in a story: a hero, a villain, a confidante, a heroine, and “fifth business.” Then the memory of that offhanded conversation returns multiple times when the reader realizes that the book’s characters are being cast into those exact same roles.
But this isn’t all. The book also discuss Jungian archetypes, and again we realize that the characters of the story fit them perfectly as well, even literally in some cases.
At another point it discusses the value of myth and allegory, and how these fantastical tales are projections of our very real-life dramas. Then, once again, the memory of that conversation returns when we see how the characters’ ordinary lives are replaying the legends of Oedipus, of David and Goliath, and of Gyges and King Candaules.
And so the story is a layer upon a layer upon a layer, and all of it builds to the story’s core theme: that we ignore myth and archetype at our peril. It claims that in the quiet and seemingly mundane things of life there are the seeds of legend, that the stories of gods and giants are not meant merely to entertain, but to serve as signposts to the reality of what it means to be human. If we do not realize this, then we both fail to learn from hte lessons of the past, and we might fail to recognize the truly significant things which are happening to us.
Which, of course, is exactly what happens in the story. For this is yet another conversation that is played out by the characters. Boy Staunton does not remember a boyhood act of cruelty that destroys another. It was too little a thing for him to hold on to, especially when “more important” things like money and politics came into the picture. For his ignorance of the myth and legend lurking in his own life he is eventually killed, becoming a tragic legend to those who knew him, and another layer on top of an already many-layered story.
Especially fascinating is when the upper layers of a story are able to break out of their fictional confines and into the real world. Consider for example the story of The Shootist. This tale exists both as a book and as a film, but it is the film that is truly exceptional for how its themes bleed into the real life of its leading actor: John Wayne.
The story of The Shootist is that of an old gunslinger, J. B. Books, who finds himself at odds with the world changing around him. The days of the Old West are all in the past, technology and civilization have spread everywhere, and the world simply does not have a need for him anymore. Compare this to the life of John Wayne, a man who made much of his career in Western films. He was iconic as the confident, square jawed, no-nonsense cowboy who could never be beaten in a fair fight. But then…Westerns were dying. The times were changing, and like the cowboys he had represented, he was old and being left behind.
It isn’t just that J. B. Books has outlived his time, though, it’s that he’s almost outlived himself. He has a cancer, and he knows he’ll soon be lost, along with all the memories of his glory years. As such, he decides that he wants one final hurrah. He calls out all of the criminals left in town and guns them down in a final blaze of glory. Once again, compare this to John Wayne as well. That man also had cancer, and this would be the last film he would ever make. One last hurrah, and then he passed away three years later.
There are small elements of the film that further blur the lines between J. B. Books and John Wayne. Books takes comfort in the presence of an old friend, played by James Stewart. Stewart was a former co-star in previous John Wayne films, and agreed to this last project together as a favor to him. The horse that Books rides is played by the exact same horse that John Wayne had ridden in six other films. They even changed the name of the horse in the film to be the same as in real life. And what does the J of J. B. Books stand for? John.
All of this combines to make a movie that pulls on the heartstrings for two completely separate reasons. Or is it for two reasons that are wound together inseparably?
In my mystery story I have introduced a former detective who is hiding behind a bevy of unanswered questions. Even as he tries to unravel the knot of an unusual suicide, his partner is going to be trying to unravel the knot of his friend. On Thursday we will tease at those tangles a bit more, though of course we will have to wait until the end to see the entire mystery laid bare.