Watch Your Back!

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With Friends Like These)

Brutus has a problem in William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. He is good friends with the titular character…but he is also deeply opposed to the man and all he represents! The historical backdrop of the play is that Rome was run as a republic for centuries until Julius Caesar put down all of his foes, domestic and abroad, and is now on the precipice of ruling as a dictator. Brutus is sickened by this totality of power, convinced that the republic was the morally correct form of government. As Brutus later tells the masses, he loves Julius Caesar but he loves Rome more.

And to that end he joins forces with Caesar’s enemies. Together they hatch a plot to assassinate their leader and Brutus is instrumental in laying the trap for his own friend. Things unfold until we come to a pivotal scene on the steps of the senate. Suddenly the assassins draw out concealed blades and stab their leader one at a time! Last of all comes Brutus to finish the job.

And then Julius Caesar says something that immediately shifts us from Brutus’s perspective to his own.

“Et tu, Brute?” which simply means “you too, Brutus?”

Who knew that three words could pack so much of pain and betrayal? In this moment there is little to do with politics and greater goods and saving the Republic. In this moment there is just one friend being killed by another.

Even though Caesar has been shown as a pompous and deeply flawed character, even though the arguments for his death have been presented in a very sound and convincing manner, one cannot help but be moved by pity for the man in this very moment.

This, we understand, is what it really means to betray another.

Snakes of History and Scripture)

And it’s worth noting that the intimate relationship between Julius Caesar and Brutus was by no means a fabrication of Shakespeare. The two of them really did have a powerful bond, much like that of a father and son. Indeed there are some that theorize Brutus may have actually been Caesar’s bastard child! But even if not, Caesar was still a very paternal figure in Brutus’s life.

It is important to remember that fiction has its basis in fact. The idea of a betrayal is so dramatically interesting and has been incorporated into so many stories, that one can lose sight of the fact that it is not merely a work of fiction. Every romanticized story of a traitor has its roots in the soil of history.

Consider Benedict Arnold, the powerful general who led the fledgling United States to a number of decisive victories in the Revolutionary War. But after advancing the Revolution in such an instrumental way he did not feel appropriately recognized by his comrades. For their negligence he became bitter and ultimately threw in with the British against his former allies!

There is also Robert Ford, who was enamored with the outlaw Jesse James and eventually joined his gang. A wild life of freedom came at a heavy cost, though, and Ford learned the great burden of being a wanted man. One-by-one the gang’s numbers were whittled down until Ford was one of the few people James still felt he could trust. He brought Ford into his own house and fed him from his own table. And all the while Ford was tempted by the $10,000 reward and full pardon that were promised to the man who brought in Jesse James’s dead body. There, in James’ own living room, Ford picked up a gun and shot his hero in the back of head.

The scriptures are full of betrayal as well. There is Joseph who had his precious coat torn apart, was cast into a pit, and sold into Egypt by his very own brothers! To be fair, they did stop just short of killing him, unlike Cain, who out-and-out slew his own brother Abel. Jacob connived Esau into selling away his birthright, and then took his blessing by deception. Then, of course, there is the matter of Judas, who walked with Jesus, saw the miracles, and still sold his master for thirty pieces of silver. Even Lucifer is described by Isaiah as a “son of the morning,” a great angel in the courts of God, but he sought to overthrow his Maker and was cast down to earth as a traitor.

The Tendency to Betray)

Betrayals for money. Betrayals for political gain. Betrayals for ideology. Betrayals for jealousy. Betrayals for spite.

Betrayals against the state. Betrayals against friendship. Betrayals against one’s own family. Betrayals against God.

The fact is treachery is in our DNA. When we humans are given with the chance to lift ourselves upon the bones of another…we pause and give it serious consideration. And if we expand our scope to less fatal acts of betrayal, we can see that the vast majority of us have already been traitors in one way or another.

We cheat on our romantic partners, we let our siblings take the fall for our naughty behavior, we tell the secrets of a friend, we steal another’s possessions, we let down those that trust us. At every level of love, family, and society we find ways to trade those who matter most for our own gain. And even those who do not give in to the temptation are still tempted. Our animalistic instinct is to choose ourselves.

Preparation)

At their worst, stories present so many examples of betrayal that we start to think it is the common destiny of us all. At their best they alert us to the reality of our own shortcomings so that we can prepare against them.

Stories show us the best and the worst, and in between they let us choose our own role to play. We get to decide if we are Boromir clutching for the ring of power or if we are Sam refusing to leave our friend’s side. Do we identify with Fernand Mondego betraying a rival to steal the woman he loves, or with Edmond Dantès who will swallow his revenge to spare her added grief? Within the spectrum of story there is a place for us all.

In my own story I have revealed that Reis is also a traitor to his own order. Now Tharol must come to terms with it and decide how he will respond. Will he meet that treachery with a betrayal of his own? Come back on Thursday to find out.

Mostly Familiar…Mostly

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So here we are with a new week and a new series! Today I thought I would talk about a pattern of storytelling that is so ubiquitous it can very easily be overlooked. The pattern goes like this: an author writes a story that takes place in a real-life setting. The world is populated them with life-like characters, and they all have real-life problems to deal with. Then, from that entirely ordinary foundation the world suddenly diverges into the fantastic!

From the Oracle’s prophecies in Oedipus to a simple, magical wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia, to the superpower effects of radiation in Spider-Man, we love to take our plain and mundane world and inject a little magic into it. Think about how this pattern applies to Harry Potter, Stranger Things, The Matrix, Midnight Special, Cloverfield, Men in Black, Field of Dreams, Back to the Future, E.T., A Wrinkle in Time, Escape to Witch Mountain, Flight of the Navigator, The Neverending Story, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Five Children and It, War of the Worlds, Dracula, Gulliver’s Travels, Beauty and the Beast, Peter Pan…I could go on for a while.

What is it about this formula that makes it so popular across all times and cultures of literature? Well, I can think of two elements.

 

To Explore)

First and foremost I believe that there is a thirst for fantasy and adventure baked into our very bones. Mankind was destined not only to live, but to thrive. We feel hunger and fatigue to ensure that our bodies will survive, but we also have wanderlust and fantasies to ensure that our spirits will, too.

Invention, exploration, creation…these are attributes inseparable from our history. We are where we are today only because of our unique ability to imagine a world different from our own. People conceived of steam power, printing presses, and sailing ships first as fantasies, and then they found ways to bring each of them to life.

But though every invention may have begun as a fantasy, it still had to somehow be grounded in reality, or else it could have never come to be. A great leap has to be launched into from the feet being firmly planted in the now. If you fantasize about the future world only in media res, with no thought for how you get to there from here, then it will never be anything real. To sail around the world you first must obtaining a ship.

How fitting, then, that all of the stories I listed above begin in the present, the familiar, the mundane, and then progress into the unknown. And where once Georges Méliès fantasized about everyday scientists building a rocket to go to the moon, now that that fantasy has become real it has been reimagined as a man being stranded on Mars in The Martian.

And that will ever be the pattern of things. People will never stop exploring, they will never cease to push further. Perhaps early man thought that if he only had a way to grow crops he and his family would be forever content. And then perhaps the medieval man thought all he needed was a way to light the streets at night. And then post-industrial era man simply wished for a way to fly through the sky.

The truth is it isn’t about having the food, the electricity, or the airplane, it is about taking what we have and making something more of it. As I said, it is baked into our bones. The inventors will continue to invent and the researchers continue to research. And as they do, the story-tellers will continue to weave tales of everyday people discovering new worlds.

 

To Find Truth)

The other reason why we love these stories is because they suggest that there are bigger truths out there than immediately meets the eye. Truths that most people are blind to, but once seen open up entire new worlds of possibilities. Mankind has a natural tendency to believe that there is something greater at play in our lives, whether it be God, Karma, nature, or something we do not even know the name of. Each of us hopes to be reached out to by that higher truth, and be taken from where we are now into a greater world.

So we seek out religion, civic office, or just being a nice person to those around us. We’re hoping to find a purpose, a calling, some great mystery that we were born to unravel. Skeptics may suggest that these are merely delusions of grandeur, but there is no denying that we come by these feelings naturally. They are in us, that is unavoidable, and we feel that there must be a reason for them. The author takes these feelings and paints them into a story.

Those stories tend to follow a fairly consistent pattern. First the main characters needs to be drawn into the fold, they need to pass through some sort of matrix or portal before they can witness the magic that they had previously been blind to. They are initiated into the truth, and then quickly discover their real self and purpose.

This new paradigm is not merely a side-venture for the hero, either. Where at first the magic was tucked away in a small corner where it could hardly be seen at all, eventually it will either overtake the natural world or else absorb the main character into its confines entirely. If the hero ever does go back to “ordinary life,” they will do so only as a permanently changed individual. The truth of that mystic world lives in them now, and will permeate through every moment hereafter.

Those that have felt called to something higher in real life will realize that these sorts of stories are not works of fiction at all. There may not be wizards or aliens or parallel worlds, but the themes behind them are as real as anything.

 

Perhaps these two reasons for why we tell stories that blend reality and fantasy are really just two sides of the same coin. Perhaps we explore to find truth, and perhaps we only find our true calling in exploration. In any case, these movements run deep within us and I suspect they always will. Never mind what summits we achieve, we will always find roots of the great unknown reaching through the familiar, calling us to follow.

On Thursday I’d like to expand to try my hand at a story that is set in a modern, realistic setting, but which bit-by-bit leads into the fantastic. And in this story I want to particularly focus on the sequential progression into greater and greater fantasy. I don’t want to start to tease the new world and then fully leap straight into it, I want it to bleed into our world more and more. Come on Thursday to see how it turns out.