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.
I had a dream that I was an explorer in a new land, traveling with a party of adventurers, all fair-haired, young, and beautiful. We were pioneers, pilgrims, fearlessly carving a new course through the world! I had the sense that we had traveled for a long while already, but that the real journey was only just now about to begin. For we were on a ledge overlooking a lush and green valley, and we were happily describing how we would go into this place, stake our claim, and forge our futures. One ambition would be succeeded by another until we would make this place shine as a beacon to the world, the star that dwelled on earth rather than the heavens above.
As the rest of our group continued with their enthusiasms I noticed a cave standing on the ledge a little bit back from the rest of us. Something deep was pulsating to me from there, and I found myself growing intensely curious. I informed my compatriots that I was going to see what was inside, and they cautioned me to hurry as they would not wait for long.
I entered the cave and found that it was not very deep at all. Just a few yards in and I came to its back, against which their lay a single, massive slab of onyx stone. It was from this stone that the pulsating rhythm emanated, a deeper frequency than I could actually hear, but which I could feel.
I was seized by a strange desire to possess the stone somehow. I reached to my side and drew my knife out, then proceeded to carve an image of myself into the rock. The stone was surprisingly soft, and easily received my image onto it. I was able to make my likeness with perfect ease, even down to some of the most minute details.
With a shock I realized I had been here in this cave for far longer than I had intended and I turned to rush back to my companions. But as I tried to move my legs I found that I could not. Glancing downwards I was shocked to find that my legs had changed, somehow they had been transfigured into motionless stone!
I tried to reach down, to pull my legs free of their earthy confines, but my arms would not extend down to them. I looked to my hands and they were as sculpted stone as well. As panic set in I tried to shout out for help, but no sound emerged from my mouth, for it was stone as well. I tried to look around for anything to save me, but my eyes would not shift, for they were stone as well. All of me was stone.
Though I could not move I was now somehow back on the ledge looking down into the valley. I was an immobile statue, yet still cognizant and aware. I saw my dear friends making their way down the path without me. They went into the valley and began to build their homes, their farms, their mills.
They developed and grew, they married one another, they had families and established a community. They were happy. They were successful. And not a one of them paused to wonder about me. Once every so often I saw one pause as if trying to remember something lost in the periphery, but then they would always shake their heads and go back about their day.
I wanted to cry. But rocks cannot cry.
I had a dream that I stood in a muddy field, grouped with a great mass of individuals who were carrying thick and long beams of wood to a far off destination. Every person was being assigned a single beam, their own personal cross to bear. They all received it, bore it on their shoulder, and then made their way with it down a grassy trail.
I received mine and felt the weight of it push me an inch down into the mud. It was about half as wide as a man, and long enough that its end dragged along the ground. I turned and began to follow the others, filing my way down that same long road. In time I became accustomed to the labor, and after shifting the beam around found a position that was stable. I peered ahead and saw that the way continued for quite a long while, round bends, up and down valleys, and at times the road would became narrow and pockmarked, though never entirely broken.
I made good progress, and even passed a few of the other journeyers along my way. I saw that the road would soon follow a hill that rose, curved right, and then dropped back down to our current level again. I had the realization that I could make better time by taking a shortcut through the field at the base of that hill, which would rejoin the road at the far end of the hill. And so I turned away from the main thoroughfare and ventured out over the unbroken ground.
At first the going was easier. The grass was less beaten down here and provided a firmer foundation for my heavy steps. As I continued, though, the grass became increasingly sparse and my feet began sinking into the soft earth. I had to pause and catch my breath as each step required extra effort to first dislodge from the vacuum of muck and mire.
I had extended about twenty yards out into the field before my first real misgivings began. The effort of lifting one foot out of the mud was driving the other a little deeper in return. Thus each step went further and further, and if that continued I soon wouldn’t be able to lift my way out of the mud at all. My beam was now slowing me like an anchor as well, its long end dragging through the soft earth with every step.
I began wondering about heading back the way I had come, but turning this my wooden keel seemed far more difficult than continuing, so I took a few more tentative steps. Perhaps I would find my way to a drier patch of ground soon?
But no, I had barely gone three paces more and I was already dropping all the way to my thighs. My last step never stopped sinking, it just kept descending slowly and so I floundered my legs, pumping them as if swimming upwards. It made it hard to keep my balance, especially with how the beam jostled and thudded across my back.
I lost my posture entirely and fell forwards. My hands flung out instinctively into the ground, the fingers splaying out to keep me stable.
There was a sense of dread growing that I refused to acknowledge. I had been stupid, but I was going to wriggle out of this and–
I realized that I was still continuing to sink. Even with all four of my limbs pressed into the ground the mud continued to crawl up my skin, cold and sinister.
“NO!” I commanded, feeling the panic setting in. The weight of the beam was just too much. Until now I had had a sense that I mustn’t lose it, but now that didn’t matter. It was pressing me down, burying me in this mire and I started rolling my shoulders, trying to dislodge it.
It would not move. It was planted too firmly in the soil.
I tried to duck down and roll out from underneath it, but it dropped with me and only pinned me still lower. The scent of the moist earth was filling my nostrils and I felt it crawling up along my belly and chest.
Just my neck and head remained above the earth. My arms and legs churned violently through the mud to no end.
The cold sludge crept up my neck. Closed across my chin. I could taste it.
My cry became a gurgle as the filth flowed its way into my mouth, and filled my vision with darkness.
I had a dream that I was at the bottom of a large crevice, a shaft in the rock that had plunged a few hundred feet down to where I stood. I had no knowledge in the dream of how I came to be here, but here I was and with no way out.
I did not even need to ascertain that there was no exit in this dream, somehow I knew it was so. There would be no scaling the rocky walls, no friend to lower me a rope. This was my world, though I was not discontent with that fact.
What was troubling to me, though, was the intense hunger that I was consumed with. These were no common hunger pang, either, they were sharper than any I have ever felt before. I felt that if I did not find any food soon I would collapse and perish.
Desperately I looked all about me for something to eat. At first I saw nothing, but then as I looked upwards I noticed an immense number of plump white birds roosting in the holes of the rock. They looked extremely fat and delicious, and I tried throwing stones to hit one of them. They were too quick for me, though, and too clever to ever stray far enough downwards where I might reach them with my hands.
In desperation I began rooting around in the dirt, looking for any mushrooms, and I was even considering trying to eat the moss that grew along the rock walls. Before I could, though, a single black vulture slowly wafted down the chasm and landed at my feet. It was a massive fowl, standing as high as my own waist. And in its beak it held one of those plump, white birds.
It looked me in the eye, then dropped the carcass at my feet, taking a half-step backwards as if to make clear that this was meant as an offering. It never took its eyes off of me, and there was something deeply unnerving in its look. There was a deep cunning in those eyes, a frightening intensity, and a hungry desire.
Even so, I wasn’t about to pass up my only opportunity for a proper meal, and so I cautiously lowered to a crouch, extended a single hand out, and took the gift. I never took my eyes off that vulture and it never took its off of me.
With our gazes still locked on one another I tore into the flesh of that white fowl and found it was ever more delicious than I had hoped. The meat was soft and succulent, and at the slightest pressure of my teeth it burst apart in a torrent of sweet flavors. Every succeeding morsel was the best I had ever tasted, and all too soon I held the last remaining bite of the meal between my fingertips.
Though I wanted to devour that morsel as well I knew I should be gracious, and so I placed it in front of the vulture that still waited at my feet. The vulture hissed, seized the piece and flung it to the side. Evidently it could not eat the flesh of the white birds itself, though it could catch them. With a sudden pity I realized it must be hungry as I.
The vulture hopped forward, extending its mouth out towards me expectantly. With that clarity that exists only in dreams I understood it meant for me to give it a bite of my own flesh. That was the meat that it could eat. Though that naturally gave me pause I knew that if I refused then the vulture would not bring me anymore food. And so I extended my arm and watched as it plunged its beak into my flesh. It tore off a chunk and swallowed the whole thing down at once, then happily flew away.
The next long while continued to pass like this. The vulture continued to bring me the birds, I ate them, and converted them into human flesh that the vulture could take from me. It was a horrible dependency we had for one another, I suppose, and yet I somehow found it deeply satisfying.
Unfortunately my ravenous appetite never was abated. Whenever I was not feasting I sat with my head turned upwards, waiting to feast. The vulture was a skilled hunter and soon learned to never cease in bringing me my next meal. At first I tried to ignore the fact that the number of those birds was beginning to diminish, but after only a matter of weeks I could not deny that my gluttony was driving us to ruin.
Where before every nook and cranny of the rocky walls had been overflowing with my winged dinners, now I could scarcely see so much as a feather in all that schism. The vulture struggled to find them, too, and more and more regularly it would come to me exhausted and empty-beaked. It would still approach me for its regularly-scheduled feeding, but I would kick at it and drive it away.
“You can never have anything from me until it you have made payment first!” I would shout at its retreating form.
When it did find food for me I now devoured the entire thing in haste and was left all the more dissatisfied for having tasted so little… with so long to go before I would eat again. I grew faint and weary, and took to sleeping while I waited for the vulture to return.
One time I awoke to see it looming before me, slowly approaching with that same sinister glint in its eye. It paused when it had seen that I had awoken, but after a moment continued forward again. I tried to lift my hand to shake my fist at it but I found my arm would not move. I tried to kick out at it but my leg refused to answer.
I glanced downwards and saw all of the vulture’s bite marks up and down my body. I realized it had systematically weakened my sinews, devoured my muscles, damaged my nerves. All to the point that I now lacked any power to fend it off. It was in that moment I realized my body was more the vulture’s than my own any more.
And still it came forward.
On Monday I mentioned that myths commonly abstract a story’s themes, which signals to the reader that its topics are universal principles rather than individual narratives. It’s important to do that early in the myth, so that the reader understands the proper frame of mind to read from.
In each of today’s piece my intention was to present a sequence of events that was too bizarre to be taken at face value. I did things like beginning each by saying it was a “dream,” I made strong use of supernatural events, I limited the use of character and plot, and I used a narrative voice that was emotionally distant from the intensity of the moments being described.
Most commonly when a reader picks up a new story the main driving question that pushes them through to the end is “what happens next?” But by utilizing these specific tactics I hoped to change that question into something more like “what is this about?” Thus the different experience presented in a myth has something to do with how the writer writes, but also in how a reader reads.
The other thing I wanted to accomplish with this piece was present the same theme in three different ways. There are shared elements between the details of each, such as a solitary central character and a setting based in nature, but what ties them together most strongly is the themes that they all share. Each features a character with initial promise, who encounters something new or strange (a slab of rock, an inviting field of mud, a vulture), and who ultimately loses their way. These are myths about losing one’s place, of being distracted from the right way, of being overwhelmed, and of being consigned to a destruction.
These are sobering ideas, and frankly myths often are. Even the ones that are happy tend to be happy with a heaviness. There just seems to be little point in engaging the reader’s intuition to teach a principle, unless it is a principle that carries some weight.
Before closing, I need to mention one other element shared in these stories: the way that each of them introduces the reader to a new idea and then asks them to follow the logical continuation of that novelty. In fact this is a tool of story-writing that I’ve been using in all of my pieces for this current series. Come back on Monday where we’ll examine this more fully, and until then have a wonderful weekend!
On Thursday I posted a short story about a Sweet Bay tree being confined within a college multi-purpose room. At its core, that story was meant as an allegory for how our lives can sharply change course in only a moment, while our expectations for that altered future then take a great deal longer to adjust. On the surface, I realize that that may seem like a very strange connection to draw, but for me the idea of this allegory arose quite naturally.
The idea for that story actually began more than a decade ago when I watched the television mini-series Roots for the first time. For those that don’t know, Roots was a six-chapter epic spanning multiple generations of African slaves in America, the real-life ancestors of the man who penned this story.
Roots and Trees)
The story begins with the first of our subjects being captured in his native homeland and then sailed across the ocean to America. There he is sold into slavery and his daughter, grand-son, and all of the further two generations spend their lives in servitude until the Civil War is concluded and they are set free. There the story closes.
While each generation has their own trials and arcs, I was always most captivated by the plight of that first forefather, Kunta Kinte. Of all of these people, he alone begins his life wild and free, with absolutely no expectation of ever being bent to another man’s whims. Understandably, he resists the harsh changes that are thrust upon him, and refuses to accept that they define his new reality. As such he performs one escape attempt after another, but sadly each ends in failure and he never does obtain his freedom.
I remember watching his ambitions to return to his native Africa with a mixture of both understanding and sad cynicism. Obviously I could appreciate his desire to return back to where he belonged, but at the same time I wondered how he didn’t realize it was hopeless. Suppose he had managed to break free and evade capture. How then was he expecting to find to cross an entire ocean and find his old tribe in the middle of a massive continent?! At the very best he might win a better life than his current slaver, but he would never be able to recapture the exact life he had had before.
To be clear, I did not think he was stupid for trying to escape, more so I was perplexed by the recognition of a human stubbornness. A stubbornness that defies reason, and one that is common within all people, myself included. I vaguely understood that this stubbornness had something to do with not allowing ourselves to accept that which our hearts have deemed to be unacceptable.
Or at least, I almost knew that. At the time all I experienced was a strange sensation, a sort of empathetic emotional reaction, but I didn’t understand what it was about or why it was there. Something inside of me had been stirred, but I wasn’t able to put words to it until a few years later when I was seated in a large multipurpose room at college, looking at the massive trees that had lined the walls in massive planter boxes.
Suddenly I found myself wondering how on earth they had come to even be in this room, given that they wouldn’t even begin to fit through the doors. The simplest explanation, I decided, was that they had been brought in while still young and small, and had afterwards grown to their massive statures. Then I realized that if that was the case, then now they would only be able to leave this room when chopped into small pieces.
Though these were only trees that I was contemplating, I found this notion very sad. It was right then that some strange connection happened inside of me. Some voice said “hey, that’s kind of like Kunta Kinte, isn’t it? Able to come in, but not to go out. That’s kind of like all the slaves, and all other people who can never have what they want from life.”
I was so wrapped in an individual’s experience that I hadn’t been able to see the bigger picture. I had not understood why I felt a connection to someone whose experience was completely different from my own. I had to realize that there was a broader theme at play here. Up until that moment of epiphany I had been viewing this as a single character’s problem, rather than as a universal suffering which happened to be reflected in that single individual.
Being able to take a specific instance and find in it the universal comes more easily to some than to others. I don’t think I used to be very good at it at all, but of all things it was an education in software development that taught me how to step back from the minutia to take in the whole.
Of course what we are talking about here is abstraction, the act of focusing on an entire body of material rather than on the individual components. The ability to deal with an interface, rather than an implementation.
Most often in stories we get connected to a character, or a moment. We talk about the hero or the showdown. We evaluate these elements as a single entity, deciding if we enjoyed them entirely within their own context.
But sometimes an author doesn’t want the reader to be obsessed with a character or an event, they want them to be thinking about an idea, or a type, or a theme. The author wants them to ask “What are the key attributes of this sort of man?” or “what would I do in a situation like that?” or “do the ends always justify the means?”
And that my friends, is how we come to myths. It is where we change from the specific to the abstract.
Long ago authors figured out that the way to get people to focus on the idea of a story instead of the details, was to put walls up between the readers and the actual events described. I’ve made mention of this before, but when all the ordinary things in a story have been made strange and unfamiliar, then the intangible themes that usually hang in the background now come into center focus.
We don’t relate on a personal level to tortoises, nor to hares, and so in Aesop’s classic fable we have no distraction to keep us from recognizing the truth at the core of this myth: that flighty passion will burn out, while stoic consistency will eventually win the day. Even if we were entirely unaware of Plato and his work we would immediately assume that The Cave was a work of allegory. The premise of this story is that of men that spend their whole lives in an underground cave believing that their lives are made up of nothing more than a series of shadows being projected upon a wall. It is just too foreign and bizarre to take at face value, and so we naturally start looking for a deeper meaning in it.
In my next blog post I am going to present a collection of three short myths, each being an examination on the same theme. My intention will be to illustrate how an author can indicate to the reader that the story at hand is meant to be understood abstractly, and to show that there are multiple ways to approach the same lesson. Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out.