The final act of a story is where the hero has been truly converted to their guiding philosophy, and now they will trust in it to overcome the villain’s philosophy. Consider Disney’s animated film The Lion King. Simba has tried to run away because he feels responsible for his father’s death. But though he hides for a time, his royal calling comes back to him. He is convinced that he must take up his rightful place at the head of the pack. Thus he heads out to confront the villain of the story: Scar. At this moment Scar needs to be defeated. He needs to die so that Simba’s arc can reach its full closure.
But now the story comes to a snag: this is a Disney film, one that is targeted towards families and children. The idea of the main character killing anyone, even a cold-blooded murderer, is unacceptable. Simba has to show that he is better than Scar, has to show that he is capable of killing him…but then he needs to stop just short of actually doing it.
So what happens instead? Scar and Simba fight, Simba gains the upper hand, Scar asks if Simba is going to kill him and Simba says no, Simba tells Scar to leave the kingdom instead.
But rather than fade into obscurity, Scar throws some burning embers into Simba’s eyes and lunges at him once more! In self defense Simba kicks Scar off of the rock and down to a pack of hyenas. Unlike Simba, the hyenas do not have any halo to preserve and they are able to kill Scar without any moral scruples. Thus Simba proved his superiority over Scar and he maintained his honor by offering Scar a way out, but then Scar became a victim of his own malice.
And this is hardly a unique concept. Many animated Disney films make use of similar conveniences to get rid of their villain while preserving the hero’s innocence.
Consider Beauty and the Beast. Just like Scar, the villain Gaston tries to kill our hero: the Beast. Just like Simba, the Beast overpowers Gaston, but orders him to leave, rather than deal the killing blow. Just like Scar, Gaston isn’t willing to leave well enough alone. He later sneaks up behind the Beast and literally stabs him the back. The Beast cries in pain and flings his arm back as a natural reflex. The movement dislodges Gaston, causing him to fall all the way to his death. The Beast won in a fair fight, Gaston caused his own demise, and the Beast’s innocence is preserved.
Personally, when I watched these films as a child I wouldn’t have had any concerns about the good guy dealing a fuller measure of justice to the villain, but I guess the Disney executives didn’t want to chance it. Other studios have had to deal with the same issue, though, and some of them have found different solutions to it.
Shooting in the Back)
For example, take a look at the Old Western. The cowboy or lawman has to be able to outgun any bandit along their way and has to show off that expertise many times over. But we can’t exactly turn them into a ruthless murderer, now can we? What we can do, though, is have a lot of lethal self defense! So long as the baddies start the duel, it is okay for the hero to finish it.
And so it is that these films are full of scenes where the hero tries to bring a peaceful resolution to a volatile moment, but then the villain reaches for their gun as soon as the hero’s back is turned. Someone calls out a warning or the hero hears their movement, then spins on the spot and guns down the would-be killer.
This same idea of lethal self defense has been carried into many other films since, and remains one of the most popular ways to both showcase the hero’s prowess while retaining their integrity. And this approach has the added benefit of making the hero’s prowess shine all the brighter! Evidently they are so confident in their abilities that they can give every bandit a head-start and still finish first.
Consider the classic western High Noon. Here the sheriff is made aware that his old rival has been released from jail, and has arrived in town with three of his cronies. Now everyone knows that the four of them are here for the express purpose of killing the sheriff, but he can’t exactly arrest them (or gun them down) until they’ve actually done anything wrong.
So he sneaks up behind them and calls out their names. He won’t shoot them in the back of course, but he watches for them to wheel around and try to shoot him. Once they do, he outdraws them, taking out one of the bandits right off the bat.
There’s also the example of The Magnificent Seven, where Britt is egged into showing his speed with a knife. He throws his blade at a target at the same time as a blowhard shoots at his own. Britt claims to have won the race, but the other man disagrees and suggests they have a duel to prove it. The rowdy man even shoots at Britt’s feet and threatens to kill him right then and there if he doesn’t rise to the occasion. At this point Britt can’t be held accountable for what follows. It’s either his life or the other man’s.
This time there’s no disputation. Britt wins and the other man falls dead. Lethal self defense.
Of course not everything has to be a matter of life or death. In the last chapter of my story I had my protagonists forced into a promise with a villain that they needed to get out of. But I can’t have them just renege on their agreement because that would make them dishonorable. Thus it was the villain that had to break his contract first, freeing the children to let go of their end as well.
In ancient Jewish society there existed a unique law to deal with the accidental killing of another. The man that was guilty of the manslaughter was permitted to flee to a City of Refuge, an asylum where none was permitted to do him any harm. If that man ever strayed from his City of Refuge, though, he would be at the mercy of the Revenger of Blood. This Revenger of Blood was a man that had been given the right and duty to slay the killer should he encounter him abroad.
In the last year of the reign of Herod the Great, King of Judea, there lived a man of Hebron named Elkanah, a wealthy and powerful man, known abroad as honorable and pious. To this man came Omri, a servant of Elkanah’s uncle…
“Did he say for what purpose he came?” Elkanah asked his attendant, Hoshea. Hoshea shuffled behind his master as he moved about his court, attending to all matters of business before the end of day.
“No,” Hoshea replied. “But he did suggest that his matters were urgent, and there was a graveness about him.”
Elkanah nodded as he stepped up to a pedestal where one of the local merchants stood. The merchant pulled up a ledger and laid it on the pedestal. As Elkanah reviewed the record, he motioned to another nearby servant to bring him his own record as well, and the two were laid side-by-side for comparison.
“I am nearly finished here, go and fetch him. Also, invite him to stay with us for the Sabbath afterwards.”
Hoshea made to leave but Elkanah held up a hand to stop him. “And then fetch the money purse and buy for sacrifices before sundown.”
Elkanah turned back to the records, gave them one last analysis, then turned to the merchant and asked “Are we satisfied?” The merchant nodded, and now laid their contract on the pedestal instead. Elkanah motioned to another servant who brought them a reed pen and in turn they signed the bottom of the paper.
Elkanah nodded to the merchant and his associates, who made their way out of the room, passing by Hoshea as he returned with a short and rotund man in tow. The man appeared nervous and pulled his cap into fidgety hands as he entered the room.
“Peace be unto thee,” the man saluted as he approached Elkanah. “Thine greatness and goodness are known for miles, Rabbi, I am thine servant, Omri.” Then he bowed himself to the ground.
Elkanah lifted the man up and clapped his shoulders. “I am glad to see thee, Omri. Will you stay with us for dinner that we may discuss your matters in comfort?”
“I am honored,” Omri inclined his head in another slight bow. “But if thou wilt be gracious, I am weighed by a somber business and would be relieved of my duty.”
“As thou knowest, I am the servant of Hiram, thine father’s brother. Ever since that tragic accident with thine father, Hiram has sent servants from time to time to discover the movements of thy father’s killer. He does this tirelessly as his duty to thine father.”
Elkanah nodded. “Hiram is an honorable man, by all accounts that I have heard.” His gaze strayed slightly to the side where Hoshea was now drawing a measure of gold and silver from the money chest and placing it into his bag.
Elkanah motioned a pause to Omri, then turned and called “Hoshea, come here.” When the man drew near Elkanah reached into the money bag and pulled out a coin that was faded and pockmarked. “We do not use this coin for purchasing sacrifice, Hoshea.”
Hoshea shrugged. “The markings are still legible. It is permitted.”
Elkanah smiled, but his voice was firm. “There is that which is permitted, and that which is sublime. Go and replace the coin.” Then he turned back to Omri.
Omri gave another slight bow, and then continued. “At all times thine father’s killer, a youth named Talmai, has remained in his asylum in the city of Shechem, never once abandoning his refuge. Yet three nights past, my master received word that Talmai’s father, an elder in Jerusalem named Anah, lies dying on his bed and calling for his son. It is known that messengers are bearing this news to Talmai, and there are those that say Talmai loves his father dearly and will not fail to answer the call.”
Elkanah somberly turned his back to Omri, bowing his head in deep contemplation. “And your master calls on me to fulfill my duty as the Revenger of Blood upon this young man’s head.” He face grew paler by the moment and the tips of his fingers quivered slightly. “Though I have never harmed any man at any time.”
“If you will permit me…” Omri began tentatively. Elkanah made no effort to suppress him so he continued. “There is no joy in this work before you, and there are none that envy thine station. But the way of duty requires of us to do that which is just, no matter how it aches our conscience. Such was the lot you chose when thou accepted the station of Revenger.”
“Never did I expect this youth to abandon the safety of his refuge.” Elkanah turned his head upwards, but closed his eyes against the light. “But truly, it was my duty to accept the station… I will do that which I have pledged,” he finally determined. “Go and tell thine master. I will take my journey to the northern entrance of Jerusalem; there I and my servants will lay in wait for the man, and take him while he is yet on the road.”
Omri bowed. “I thank thee, my lord. God be with thee.”
“In this?” Elkanah whispered to himself, after Omri had left the room.
Elkanah stood atop a rocky outcropping, one that overlooked the road to Jerusalem eight cubits below. Ahead of him the road emerged from a distant crevice and passed through a wide plain before turning beneath his feet. The moon was only half full, and this portion of the path was the only stretch that was well illuminated in all the region, though his position was further lightened by two torches on either side.
From his perch, Elkanah and the small group of men with him saw his servant Hoshea running down that dusty road towards them. He closed his eyes and sighed, knowing that such speed could only foretell that he had been successful in discovering the man Talmai. Hoshea reached the bend in the road and made his way around to the back of the rocky outcropping, where its sloping side led him up to where Elkanah stood.
“Master—” Hoshea panted as he stepped into the light of the torches. Elkanah held up a hand, silencing his servant until he had had a chance to regain his breath. Hoshea paused to take a few, long and deliberate breaths, then nodded. “Master, I have been and seen, and the report of Hiram’s servants is true. The four men come and one of them is tall with ruddy cheeks and dark, curly hair, the same as how Talmai is described to be. They will be at this place within the hour.”
“Are they armed?”
“No, they are not.”
That surprised Elkanah, but he nodded and turned to one of the men standing at his side. “Now Uzziel, take thine men and conceal them among the trees both before and after this bend in the road. Then thou and two that thou choosest wait in the road, without weapons that thou may appear peaceful. When the four men are drawn near to thee, hail them and say ‘Art thou Talmai?’ and they will say ‘Nay, we know not of whom thou speak.’ Then say thee ‘But we know thou art Talmai, and we are messengers from thy father, come to bear news that he has died this very day.’ Then the man will not be able to compose himself and will begin weeping. Thus we will have confirmation of his identity, and then call to thine men and they shall catch the man and bring him here to me.”
“It is well said,” Uzziel approved, then he turned to his men and they all departed with him until Hoshea and Elkanah were alone on their perch. Elkanah motioned to Hoshea and they doused both of the torches, then turned to face the road and began their wait.
Elkanah could feel his heart pounding in his chest, its every beat protesting the moment coming. He ran his hand along the hilt of the ceremonial sword at his side, a weapon that had only been ornamental in his house. For a moment he looked heavenward and silently prayed for strength, though partway through that request changed to a petition for understanding why these events had come to him.
The minutes slid by slowly, and the initial tension slowly relaxed. One-by-one Uzziel’s guards down below settled into seated positions, and then Hoshea did the same. It was just as Elkanah himself began to bend his knees that four dark figures came into view, travelers emerging from the shadow of the crevice in the distance. A muted call from Uzziel and the guards in the trees crouched deeper into their grass, while Uzziel and the two men he had chosen rose to their feet and stood conspicuously on the side of the road. Up above, Elkanah and Hoshea lay on their stomachs so that their silhouettes would not be visible to their quarry, and watched to see what transpired.
With the scent of dust filling his nose, Elkanah peered at the dark figures as they drew nearer and nearer. The more he tried to stifle his breath the more ragged it wheezed out of him. After a moment he reminded himself the men below would not be able to hear his breath and he let it out, long and heavy. He found himself wondering which of the four approaching men was Talmai. Which was the one that did not know he was now taking his final walk and breathing his final breaths?
The men passed by the first set of trees where Uzziel’s guards were hid, and passed on without perceiving the threat behind them. As they started towards the bend in the road and caught sight of Uzziel and his companions there was a noticeable slowing of their steps. Even so they came forward, no doubt not wanting to betray their anxieties.
From up above Elkanah could not hear the words spoken between Uzziel and the four travelers, but after a few exchanges between them he saw the third of them draw his hands up to his face and begin wailing so loudly that Elkanah could hear it clearly. Uzziel cried out and at the same moment seized on the weeping man, dragging him down to the ground. Talmai’s associates leapt upon the two strugglers, trying to pry them apart, and Uzziel’s associates leapt upon them in turn. There was a moment of complete confusion, but then the armed guards had rushed in from the trees and at sword point took each of the travelers by their arms and held them still.
Elkanah could not hear the words that Uzziel threatened to Talmai’s three companions, but they must have been compelling for at his word they were released and ran off into the night without a single glance back. With only Talmai remaining in their grip, Uzziel and his men made the march towards the sloping side of the overlooking rock and Elkanah and Hoshea rose to their feet and rekindled the torches. At first Elkanah faced towards the approaching men, but as they drew towards the light he found he could not face his captive and so he turned his back to them.
He listened as at Uzziel’s command the guards moved into an enclosing circle around the crown of the rock, preventing any escape for their captive. Then there was the thud of the young man being dropped to the ground behind Elkanah, from which point a faint sobbing arose.
“He is here, Master,” Uzziel’s voice announced unnecessarily, Elkanah nodded but still did not turn.
“Talmai,” Elkanah breathed out. “Thou knowest who I am?”
The sobbing continued for a moment longer, then was gulped down and replaced with a quavering timbre. “I was told that the man I slew had a son. And that he had taken upon himself the role of the Revenger of Blood.”
Elkanah nodded bitterly. “Why, then, wouldst thou leave thine City of Refuge?”
“If thou knew where to find me, thou knowest why I came. No matter the risk, I had my duty to perform.”
“Indeed, a father is worth a man’s life,” Elkanah agreed, finally turning round to see his prey. Talmai was young, not yet thirty, with a gentle, open face. As much pause as Elkanah had already felt, it only deepened now.
Talmai looked despondently into Elkanah’s eyes, but his expression softened as he saw the hesitation in him. “Thou art the master here I perceive,” he spoke up. “There is none to force thine hand in this thing.”
“There is the law.”
“The law allows thee to take mine life, but it does not require it.”
“It is written an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. It was wrong for my father to die, even by an accident. This offense deserves a balance.”
“I do not deny what is deserved, yet still thou hast a choice. Why dost thy choose so?”
Elkanah called on his determination and hardened his face. “I am an honorable man, and I ever do my duty, whether it is my pleasure or not.” He gripped the handle of his sword and at last drew out its full length.
“It is also written thou shalt not kill.”
“In this case…it is permitted.”
Elkanah was in the act of stepping forward, but his own echo gave him pause. He looked over to Hoshea who grimaced at him meaningfully. Closing his eyes he tried to find his center within. He whispered so silently that none other could hear: “Is it blasphemy to want more than the law?”
He looked down to his hand, to the sword in it. He looked to his other hand, to its open palm. “Perhaps you are right, Talmai,” he finally said. “Perhaps within rightfulness itself there yet remains a choice to make.” He dropped the sword to the ground with a ringing clatter.
“Let him go,” Elkanah heard himself speak.
“Master?” Uzziel asked.
“Let the prisoner go,” Elkanah said forcefully and looked Uzziel in the eye. “He is free of the law today.”
Talmai’s face dropped into the earth and he sobbed the loudest yet. Though the guards stood apart from him he remained unable to move as his whole body convulsed with emotion. With Hoshea’s help, Elkanah also sunk to the ground, faint and weak from the release of so much tension.
“What are we to say to Hiram?” Hoshea asked him.
Elkanah thought, then finally replied. “We will say we found another law, a new star to follow.”
I mentioned on Monday that I was a bit uncertain about coming up with some good examples of multilayered dialogue in today’s story. Ultimately there was more I had wanted to accomplish in that respect than I was able to, but still there are a few instances of it here, hopefully enough to illustrate the idea sufficiently.
Beginning with the most subtle, there is symbolism and imagery, such as Elkanah being elevated above the men traveling their journey and then standing in judgment of and ultimately setting Talmai free. All of this is meant to be a parallel to the hope that there is a God above, one who is watching us travel through life, judging us, and offering mercy that we do not deserve.
Then, of course, there are a couple hints meant for the audience alone. For example, in the introduction we are told the story takes place mere years before the birth of Jesus Christ. That, and the mentioning of following a new star are obviously meant to be indicators of the approaching “new law” that Elkanah ultimately chooses to follow.
Omri’s line “but the way of duty requires of us to do that which is just, no matter how it aches our conscience” is also meant to carry a deeper meaning. On its surface it might sound noble and self-sacrificing, but the more we think about it the more it doesn’t sit right with us. Eventually it becomes clear that his definition is, in fact, exactly wrong.
The most obvious use of a dual meaning, though, is of course the echoing of the phrase “it is permitted.” Elkanah pronouncing this as justification for killing Talmai is a callback to the earlier conversation between himself and Hoshea, where he taught that there is a permitted way, but also a more sublime way, and we ought to follow the latter.
What I particularly like about this is that in the end it is Elkanah’s owns words that convince him of what he ought to do, and his words alone. When it comes down to it, every decision that we make is only done by our own inner persuasion. We must find all our answers inside, and indeed there is a theme in stories of conflict being resolved only when the hero is able to identify his or her true self to guide them. There is a lot of wisdom in that theme when done properly. Come back on Monday where we will look at this concept in greater detail, as well as how the theme has been utilized in each of the short stories of my current short story series. I’ll see you then.