I have never had much luck explaining the message behind allegories to my son. I can tell him a story about the tortoise beating the hare, and he’s with it clear until the end. But then, once I start to say “so you see, the moral of the story is…” it all goes in one ear and out the other.
He can learn from fables, but like most children, he must do so by osmosis. Without anyone telling them what they’re supposed to think of it, children simply intuit what is right and true in the story, and what is wrong and evil.
But the other side of this coin is that children are able to embrace their imagination wholeheartedly. When Alice eats a cake and shrinks down to the size of a bug, and then meets a blue caterpillar smoking a hookah…children don’t bat an eye. They know that none of this happens in real life, but why shouldn’t it in a story?
Adults, on the other hand, are far more likely to get hung up on all the details and want an explicit explanation for it all. What exactly is meant by a caterpillar that smokes? Is this character an allegory for vice and its influence upon the youth?
They find it more difficult to accept that a caterpillar might just be strange for no other reason than to be strange.
Of course these are only a very few of the many, many things that are strange in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It is a world that boldly refuses to be normal, surprising us instead with one oddity after another. We have talking cats, a kingdom of cards, croquet mallets that are really flamingos, walking on walls, and riddles during a mad tea party.
And can the less imaginative adults find a hidden subtext that grounds all of this to our regular world? Many scholars have attempted to do just that, suggesting that it is an examination of insanity, or an allegory of the coming-of-age experience, or a thinly-veiled shot at the tyranny of British rule.
But even if you don’t try to find any deeper meaning, the story still presents an experience that is undeniably captivating. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland does not require any deeper meaning to already be a fascinating adventure. Perhaps it is supposed to have one, but even if not it is already worth the ticket of admission.
And Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is not the only story that presents a strange land detached from reality. Indeed, most fantasy stories are even more severed from regular life. Where Alice at least begins her adventures in the real world, tales like Lord of the Rings and The Way of Kings are entirely based in foreign lands. They neither begin nor intersect with the real world at any point, they are completely divorced from our reality.
And yet these totally fabricated world can still feel real to us. They can seem as authentic a place to us as our own home. Though their magic and mechanics might be impossible, we accept them without the bat of an eye.
And people have always been able to do this. Encountering gods and titans was not a common occurrence to the everyday Greek. Even if they believed in the real-life existence of characters like Zeus, they were not personally acquainted with the individual. The everyday citizen probably never encountered magical threads, minotaurs, poisoned centaur blood, flying horses, or gorgons…yet they were perfectly content to listen to stories about them!
As with Alice in Wonderland, even the most fantastic of tales can remain convincing and intriguing just as it is, even when separated from any sort of symbolic meaning. And even when viewed under the lens of pure fantasy, we can still feel like these places are real.
Keep Your Story Consistent)
Or at least…we can find them intriguing and believable if they have been done well. But this isn’t always the case. Every now and then I find a story that I totally accept as real for the first act, but which then shatters its own illusion in the second. And as I’ve considered these disappointments, I’ve realized there is a common failing to each of these, a particular sin that is sure to make a story break its own illusion every time.
And that is when they change the rules of their own world partway through.
A story is able to be as fantastic as it wants, it can remain completely untethered from our own world if it wishes. But is must remain tethered to itself. It needs to be consistent to its own rules.
After Alice has seen a white rabbit in a waistcoat we are perfectly content to accept companions like a smoking caterpillar and a mad hatter. But if she went around the corner and met a Greek god? Or a French revolutionary? It wouldn’t have fit with the established tone, and it would have shattered the illusion. All at once we wouldn’t see Alice as a real girl who lives in a real world and has real adventures. She would have been simply a “fictional character,” written by an “author,” and existing in a “fabricated story.” Totally fake.
I usually try to avoid calling out specific negative examples in these posts, but for the sake of clarity I will indulge in one here. I believe the main reason why Star Wars: The Last Jedi was rejected by many audience-goers was because it changed the tone of the story too severely. It frankly wouldn’t have mattered whether it was a “good story” or not, because it simply felt too different from everything that came before. Characters and themes seemed to be at odds with their prior selves, and thus they couldn’t be believed in anymore. The illusion of “a galaxy far, far away” was broken, and instead the awful truth was laid bare: Star Wars was simply a film franchise, made by movie studios, with different creative minds behind its entries.
Is it ever okay to pull out the rug, change the rules of your story, and subvert a reader’s expectations? Of course. There are always ways exceptions to the rules, and ways to break them that create a fascinating and worthwhile experience. But tread carefully if you go this route. It is very easy to take it too far.
If you do break the reality of your story, perhaps you could consider breaking it into a greater reality, one that can encompass the first. That is my intention with The Favored Son. I spent the first three posts trying to establish basic ground rules, then disrupted them with the fourth, and have spent the next few in a place where nothing seems grounded. My hope is that as I come to the end I’ll be able to catch the fractured pieces into a new, greater whole. I’m really not sure if I will succeed. There is a very real possibility that I do not, and the story will finish with a sense of having been at war with itself.
I hope that isn’t the case, but if nothing else the effort should be very educational! Come back on Thursday to see how I try to catch all the broken pieces.
It occurred on a day when I was deep in thought about those three Treksmen who had been in line behind Yanni. Bil-Lyew, Zafrast, and Obasi. Why had they had been able to witness Yanni’s death and quit this dread journey before it was too late while I had not? Why had I stood immediately before Yanni and not immediately after? I had been the very last Treksman to get through the Pledge and be chained to this doomed venture.
“This was always to be your fate,” I whispered to yourself. “Perhaps all of us walking here were chosen. But you, Graye, you were chosen especially.”
Why, though? I was of absolutely no consequence. Did I have a special part to play? That seemed unlikely. There was nothing that I was likely to do which my companions were any less likely to do themselves. Perhaps I was guilty of some special sin that I had forgotten and had to be punished for?
Of course, I had sinned, I do not deny as much, but more than Bil-Lyew? More than Zafrast? Certainly I couldn’t have sinned more than Obasi had!
“It doesn’t matter,” I sighed to myself. “Who are you to question the turning of the wheel? Your fate awaits you at Graymore and that’s all there is to it.”
“No, your fate is with me,” a silky voice called out. I looked up and looked about, unable to see any who it was that had spoken.
“Who’s there?” I asked.
“See me,” the voice came back, soft but earnest, and definitely female.
My mind imagined a person to which such a voice might belong, and all at once I saw the very likeness before me, standing just off the side of the road. She was incredibly pale, with a tall and thin face, perhaps the most beautiful and enchanting I had ever seen. Her hair was deepest black, and I could not tell how long it was, for its color perfectly blended in with her clothing, which swathed around her tightly, all the way to the top of her neck.
“What are you?” I asked the phantom. I felt an intense desire to understand her, for everything about her was a complete enigma to me. The more I stared upon her, the more unsure of anything else I seemed to be. All the world slipped out of my periphery and there was only her, but even she was still somewhat out of my focus.
“I am the fate that has been chosen for you.”
“To love you?”
“Or to fall to me. Whichever you would choose.”
Both sounded rapturous to me.
“But what of Graymore Coventry?” I asked. “It has already claimed me. I cannot turn away from it or I will die like Yanni.”
“Die to me. I may yet rennervate you. Thus you will give full due to your pledge, and yet achieve a second fate.”
“Die to you?”
“Yes, give yourself over.” Her eyes flashed brightly and she seemed to draw nearer, though she didn’t walk a single step towards me. She did raise her hands, though, and as she did the wide sleeves fell back and laid bare her ivory arms. Carved marble they seemed to me, and one of them was raised to caress, the other to strike. All my heart thumped with desire to drop to my knees, lean against her bosom, and feel which one she would lay upon me.
The more I spoke with more, the more I focused on her, the more she seemed to take definition, the more real she seemed to be. I felt like she could be entirely real if I wanted. I just had to believe wholly in her and she would be.
One of my last fingertips left the handle of the wagon, and my heart thumped painfully.
I looked down to my side. Now only the two small fingers on my right hand remained touching the wood. I had been letting go without even realizing it. Of course a Treksman can let go of his handle as the need permits, but the Job knew our hearts, knew that I was not just letting go as a matter of course. I was letting go to abandon my station, and it was about to claim my life for that betrayal.
“See me!” the woman exhaled sharply. My eyes snapped to her and I saw the utmost ferocity in her eyes. But what was that ferocity? Was it anger for my hesitation, or desperation that I give my love to her? The uncertainty of her seared my heart with greatest desire.
My eyes shot back to my hand, where now only the smallest finger remaining to task.
“What are you?” I interrupted her.
“All that you desire, all that you fear.” I mouthed the words with her even as she said them.
“The two are one and the same” the voice continued, but now I became aware that it was my voice speaking. My voice and someone else’s. But not the woman’s. Another woman’s. Another woman that was yet unseen.
I was just as confused at this realization as you might imagine, but strange as those words are to write and strange as they were to feel, somehow I knew they were true. I realized that there had been some sort of trance, one that had linked me with another person that I could not see, and by our unison this phantom woman that I did perceive was given voice and thought.
I felt a sensation like waking up, the gray of my periphery began to be washed again in color, and I saw anew my caravan and my companions. All the seven who had been conscious with me had all come to a halt. Four of them were staring off in their own trances and muttering their own nonsenses. The other three lay dead.
There wasn’t a single mark upon them, each had fallen just outside the reach of their wagon handles, no doubt having forsaken them in just the same manner that I had been about to.
Out of the corner of my eye I could still see the strange woman, but she was far less defined than before. Indeed with every passing moment where I did not believe in her, she seemed to be become more and more unmade.
“What do you mean?” Boril’s voice rang out, and my eyes snapped to him, three wagons ahead of me. He, too, was staring off into nothingness, and his tone was shrill and vehement, like he was trying to hide his fear. “If my own hand is not my own, then what would it be?!” He mouthed an answer to that, I did not hear what, but his eyes went wide at the message that it conveyed.
“No!” Boril said disbelievingly, and looked down at his hand, which appeared absolutely ordinary to me. But his face contorted in horror and he flexed his fingers in an erratic, painful-looking way. “Get it off! Get it off!” he shrieked, fumbling with his other hand for the cutlass at his side. And as he did so I saw that his hand was beginning to shift. It was starting to turn black, with the hairs on its back standing on end and elongating, and the fingers starting to move with the scuttling rhythm of spider-legs.
“Boril! No!” I shouted, rushing forward and catching the arm that held the cutlass, just as he raised it to to chop off his own limb…or whatever he had been bewitched into thinking it had become.
Bewitched! I thought. That’s it.
Boril struggled against my grip and I heaved backwards, pulling him to the ground with me, continuing to wrestle his arm and shouting at him that his hand was perfectly fine. It took a great deal of shouting for him to hear me over whatever voice echoed in his head, but at last he seemed to see that what I told him was so. For the more I told him that his arm was fine, the more he seemed to doubt whatever he had seen previously, and the more his hand truly came back to its ordinary form. Once he stilled himself I let go, and sprang to my feet, eyes glancing about madly for our foe.
“Where are you witch!” I demanded. “I do not believe in your spells anymore!”
Two arms, thin and bony, wrapped themselves around my neck from behind. There was a surprising strength to them, and they pulled me firmly against the shoulders of a lithe and wiry woman.
“To live without belief is to live without air,” she hissed as her forearms contracted against my throat and began to choke the life out of me.
“Boril–” I gasped, reaching my fingers out to him. But to my dismay he was once again staring at some unseen phantom, once more caught up in his delusions.
The witch tightened her grip further, and the blood was cut off from my head. I was getting dizzy, and starting to lose my focus.
“Fool,” she simpered sweetly. “You do not have to believe me to still be under my power. You might have had anything you wanted in your final moments, your ignorance gave you every possibility. But now you know, and so you die, powerless. You ought to have believed.”
Darkness was crowding around my eyes, and I was about to concede to my fate…but then, I realized that this was most certainly not my fate. My fate was to go to Graymore Coventry and there lose my soul.
The witch was wrong. I believed all too strongly.
With the last of my strength I flung my fist backwards. With my fingers having grown numb it was not difficult to convince myself that they held steel. And having convinced myself of that, it became true.
I heard a terrible shriek. It seemed distant and faint, and then rushed forward at tremendous speed until it echoed right beside me. At the same time the pressure on my neck laxed and I gulped down cold air.
Behind me the witch writhed in her death agonies. Only a few moments more and her last grip on life broke, and with it all traces of her bewitchments dispersed. Even the knife I had conjured by her own magicks to stab her.
“Get up, Boril,” I wheezed out. He was still kneeling on the ground, snapping his neck about in every direction, faced painted with utter confusion.
Of the eight of us who had been keeping watch, three had died before I came to my senses, and another one during my fight with the witch. Only four of us remained, and we of course had to wake all the others. This path was too treacherous, and though it was an agony to remain awake, we could not dare proceed with partial strength. We must all press forward together, dejected as we were.
We were thirty then.
It seemed a wise choice at the time, but it brought us to the worst adversary we had faced yet: our own broken hearts. For though I had felt dejected during all the time I had kept watch with the seven others, we had been few enough that I scarcely caught sight of their faces. Now, though, at every turn of the road, at every lifting of a wagon wheel out of a rut, at every stop to setup camp…at each of these moments I was required to stare into their gaunt and hopeless visages. And then what despair I had started to feel in myself was only pressed deeper.
For when one is full of sorrow alone, one might yet take comfort in the thought that there is still light and good elsewhere in the world. But when all one sees is the same bleakness in others, it becomes easy to believe that this is how it is everywhere, and forever will be.
If I could have believed that my memories of laughing children and playful men and charming women were true, that they were not but dreams, then I would have been encouraged in the burden I had to bear. Then I might have told myself that the innocent parts of the world were still able to live and laugh and love because I bore the trial for them. I would have thought to myself that there was a certain taxing of darkness that had to weigh on the world, and if enough martyrs took it on them then the rest of the world would still be free to feel the joy, and I would feel a quiet pride in facilitating that.
Instead, these encouraging theories were squashed out by the darkness that crammed in from my fellows. Our bleakness seemed too infinite to believe that it did not reach into every corner of the universe. Each one of us silently took our heartache and heaped it upon each other, multiplying our woes again and again, until it became exponential, and each new day was a hundredfold more painful to bear than the last.
I would rather be consigned to my doom alone than to have been put in this company of the damned.
Bahnu was the first to give in to the despair totally. One day he simply let go of his handle, took four steps off of the road, and then died for abandoning his contract. He didn’t say a word through the whole process. He just left.
The next day Ra-Toew and Sinfarro walked away. Not together, each at different hours and in different directions.
The next day was three more. The next it was four.
We were twenty then.
Regular practice is for the caravan to return with all of their empty wagons at the end of their journey. But we now lacked enough hands to push them all, and so the unpacked vehicles were left behind, a pile of empty vessels, laid out haphazardly beneath the cold sun.
On Monday I discussed the way that a story reflects the thoughts and feelings of its writer. The more that I’ve written stories on this blog, the more I’ve realized how difficult it is to write a lie.
You can project anything in a statement on social media, you can say the words when looking another person in the face, you can pretend something in any of the usual forms of communication. But, as I say, it is a very difficult thing to tell a story that you don’t believe in.
For even if you force yourself to write dialogue and themes that state the lie, you still betray yourself by how hollow your work will feel. Those that are perceptive will read it and say “your heart clearly wasn’t in this.”
I don’t believe that this is exclusive to writing stories, either. I believe it applies to all of creativity. The thing we make cannot come alive unless it is true to us. Just try to play a rousing ballad on the guitar while inside your heart yearns for a a tragic melody on violin. The right notes might be played, but they just won’t resonate.
Publishing this piece was fairly unsettling for me then, because it is quite true to my own recent experiences. The themes of despair and hopelessness are ones drawn from a very personal space.
For this and other reasons, I have wondered if I ought to have made this blog private. But whether I should have or not, the fact is that now I have already become comfortable with sharing myself in this way. I feel that those who care enough to read my work have earned the right to know me sincerely.
I am well aware that I don’t talk about myself personally on here very much. While other blogs detail their homes, their families, their day-to-day experiences, I share myself in a different way. You may not always know what is going on in my life, but you do see what is playing out in my heart. This blog is really just a personal journal, only one that logs its daily entries through story.
Quite regularly we look at ourselves. Bathroom mirrors are an integral part of every morning routine, after all, and even if we say we don’t care about appearances we can’t help but catch a glimpse every now and again.
During my youth I was in the Boy Scouts, and on occasion would go on camping trips, sometimes for as long as a week. Over that time I would never once see my reflection, and it would become a very a surreal experience. I could feel the dirt sticking to my sunburned face and knew that I must appear a mess, but I could only imagine to what degree. After coming home I would look in the mirror again and the imagined image was superseded by the real reflection. Some bits of who I was met my expectation, and others did not.
Even without extended periods away from silver-backed glass, each one one of us will invariably have moments where we go from looking at ourselves in the mirror to actually seeing ourselves. All at once the reality of our image comes into stark relief.
An example of this was just a few weeks ago when I noticed more smile-wrinkles around my eyes than there used to be. I’m far from old, and I’m not having a midlife crisis, but it was a moment of realizing that I had changed somewhere, and I was a little concerned that I hadn’t noticed it as it happened.
Each of us wants to change, of course. But we want to be in control of that change, to choose in which ways we are altered and in which we are not. We want to be smarter, more confident, and kinder, but we don’t want to get older, slower, and fatter along the way. When I saw those extra wrinkles around my eyes, it was not just me realizing that my face was changing, but that it was doing so without my permission.
We’re organic beings. We don’t get to selectively isolate parts of us to change while leaving the other’s untouched. You cannot help but ripple the whole tapestry when you start to pull on a thread.
Of course we know and accept that change and decay happens to everyone else, and theoretically we “know” that it must happen to us as well. But each one of us has that singular moment where we accept that change, uncontrollable change, really is our fate.
This was the story of Siddhattha Gotama, a young man born thousands of years ago, in-or-around present-day India. He was a royal prince, and his father took immense precautions to shelter him from the realities of life. Siddhattha later said that the cold facts of aging, sickness, and death did not distill in his heart until the age of 29.
No matter how protected he had been, sooner or later he had to face and accept that these realities did exist. Not so much that they existed generally, but that they existed for him. He perceived that he was just as subject to the wheel of time as all the rest of humanity, and the soberness of that moment led him on a great spiritual journey. A journey that concluded in his becoming the Buddha.
Change Through Reflection)
There is a very interesting element to that story of the Buddha. Notice that this major turning point in his life comes about as a result of reflecting on his life, and coming to accept the unpreventable, ever-changing nature of it. Siddhattha revokes the illusion of control in life…but by doing that then steers himself into a different path than he had been on. It would seem that by admitting his powerlessness, he gained just a bit more power.
This is extremely similar to the story of Socrates, who craved knowledge, and sought out sages to teach it to him. Instead he was disappointed to find that none of them knew anything at all. Then, after a little self-reflection, he realized that the only thing that he, or anyone else, could really know, was the fact that they knew nothing at all. And so by admitting his complete ignorance, he gained a nugget of knowledge.
In both of these historical stories, illusion and imagination are dropped, replaced with something truer, and both times as a result of properly seeing oneself. Many times when we look in the mirror we just see a face, but sometimes we get a glimpse of the actual soul.
Now these “stories” are biographical, they are about real-life people. But they are still stories, and the experiences drawn from them have certainly found their way into works of fiction as well. A pivotal moment of character development comes in a moment of quiet self-reflection in A Christmas Carol. Here the old curmudgeon, Ebenezer Scrooge, sees his boyhood self, and how he was once so full of innocent wonder.
Then, with a rapidity of transition very foreign to his usual character, he said, in pity for his former self, “Poor boy!” and cried again. “I wish,” Scrooge muttered, putting his hand in his pocket, and looking about him, after drying his eyes with his cuff: “but it’s too late now.” “What is the matter?” asked the Spirit. “Nothing,” said Scrooge. “Nothing. There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something: that’s all.”
“I should like to have given him something: that’s all.” Only really that isn’t all. In this moment Ebenezer is finally starting to see himself rightly. He is seeing the man in the mirror as he really is, and there’s a thing or two he’d like to change about him.
And that is the real power of self-reflection, both in real life and in literature. It creates a moment where the individual has the opportunity to choose. Change is inevitable, it falls upon us all, but if we see ourselves rightly, we can choose which way that change will fall.
In my most recent story post, our protagonist had a pivotal moment of self-reflection. He was staring down another toy that had hurt him deeply, and seriously contemplated doing the same in turn. But then he stayed himself, because he realized that he was straying from the toy that he had been made as, and he didn’t want to do that. Sometimes the greatest change brought about by self-reflection is simply to return to where we had been before. On Thursday I will push that idea further, where as a reward for his rediscovery of self, the drummer will be refashioned in a higher form. Then, at last, he will be ready to return to his long-lost dancer.