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.
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.
“A man doesn’t do what he can. He does what he must.”
Those were the last words my father said to me before he left to fight in the great Civil War. He meant them by way of explaining why it was he had to go and leave our little farm and family, to fight for a cause he believed in.
It was the last time he said those words to me, but it was not the first. How he came by them, I do not know. For a man who lived as large as he, I would not be surprised to learn that he came up with them himself. In any case, they were his mantra all his days, a creed that he exemplified many times over.
My father showed the makings of a legend early in life, as early as the age of thirteen when he stood down old Hal Ritcher.
Hal Ritcher was the local drunk, a mean and spiteful man who led a life of profound disappointment and then punished all that were littler than him because of it. He was a particular nuisance to the children, and one day they caught his ire by playing too loudly in a nearby barn while he was trying to sleep off a hangover. He rushed out at them, brandishing a stick and screaming and cussing like the devil himself! He swore he’d see blood for their impertinence, then grabbed hold of the nearest one of them he could, poor, little Belle Sue.
Well my father wasn’t going to stand by to see her lashed, so he stepped forward and shouted at Hal Ritcher. Hal let her go and charged at my father with raised first. My father raised his own and in a flash laid Hal out flat with a single blow to the chin.
Now as I said my father was only thirteen years at the time, but all the children there said his blow rang like a hammer on an anvil! They wouldn’t have believed it possible if they hadn’t witnessed it with their own eyes.
“What did you hit him with?” one asked in awe.
“Just my hand.”
“But I didn’t think you could hit so hard.”
“Well neither did I. But I had to so I guess I just did. That’s how it is as a man, you know.”
“But you’re not a man, James,” Belle Sue frowned.
To which my father tossed the hair out of his eyes and grinned broadly at Hal Ritcher’s horizontal form. “Ain’t I, though?”
Five years later, when my father was eighteen, he attended a social party put on by the local cattle baron. After a great amount of coercion he had finally removed Belle Sue from the rest of the young men and was trying convince her to give him a kiss when a horrible shriek sounded from the fields.
One of the cattle hands had been giving the young children turns riding on his horse, when something spooked the critter and away it rushed with a small boy clinging on its back for dear life.
“Oh he’ll be killed!” a woman shrieked and a few of the ladies fainted straight away. Meanwhile the men bumbled about uselessly, calling for horses and ropes and all manner of things that wouldn’t arrive until it was much too late.
Not my father, though. He bounded out with steely determination, cutting through the property to the corner of the road where the bronco was sure to pass, reaching that junction at just the same moment as the steed. Somehow he leapt above its flashing hooves and threw his arm around its neck. Then he hauled down, running the creature’s head into the dust as he grabbed the poor boy off its back with his other hand.
I can only imagine the amazement that must have been on everyone’s face when my father came walking out of the cloud of dirt, the boy waving happily on his shoulder and the horse following sheepishly after.
“How’d you think to do that?” one of the cattle hands asked.
“I dunno,” my father said modestly. “I guess I just had to is all.”
Even Belle Sue threw up her hands in not-so-disappointed defeat. “Well, James, you’re a hero, now I supposed I’ll have to kiss you.” And she did just that.
That Belle Sue was quite a playful one, and I suppose you might have guessed already that the two of them got married. It was a long time before she relented and she led him on quite the chase, though she never had eyes for anyone else. The story of how they finally came together begins one day when a whole crowd of young men were gathered round her feet.
“When you going to stop playing your games and marry one of us?” they asked her.
“When I feel like it, I suppose,” she shrugged. “Seems you boys aren’t doing much to make me feel inclined that way, though.”
“Yes boys. And so I say until one of you proves your worth.”
“Hmmm…Oh I know! Haven’t any of you noticed that great, big lily growing on top of Heaven’s Peak? Now that’s the sort of flower a girl would love a man for! Honestly I can’t believe one of you hasn’t fetched it for me already, I’d say that I must have it.”
“On Heaven’s Peak?! That’s thirty feet of rock shooting straight up into the sky! Now how do you expect anyone to get up there to pick you a flower?”
“I’m sure I don’t know, I suppose only a man could manage it.”
Well that crowd of boys went away grumbling and she giggled to herself, never expecting anything to come of that conversation. But she hadn’t accounted for my father when he heard tell of what she said. Why he just walked away alone that same afternoon and came back before dark with that flower for her. Then the two of them had a quiet little conversation together in the gazebo, and when they came back they announced their engagement!
All my days growing up I heard her pester him to know how he had scaled that rock, but he never told his secret. He only ever said: “You said you must have it, so I had to get it.”
It was a happy home my siblings and I grew up in, at least for the first years while father was still there. I was only six when he left, as I said, to war. And as you might imagine, he quickly became a bona fide hero there, too. Soon he was made a Second Lieutenant and led a platoon of thirty men.
I met several of those men in the years after, and each told how when he first received his station he sat down with those men and promised that not a one of them would die on his watch. Though it might seem incredible, he delivered on that promise too, though they found themselves in many the tight spot during the war.
He managed that feat partly by his excellent training and marshaling of the men, and partly by taking on the most dangerous roles for himself, such as when they made their retreats and he would linger in the back to give the Johnny Rebs a target of his own hide to shoot at.
It was at one such retreat that they found themselves in a most dire strait. Their commanding officer had required them to dig their ditch with a cliff wall at their backs. When the bugle sounded retreat they knew they were all dead men. Though the wall could be scaled, it would be a slow process, and there was no chance that they would have it cleared before the enemy rushed into their trenches and picked them off like flies.
Well they all looked to my father in despair, but he just grit his teeth and said they all better get climbing then. One of them protested, said it would be better to die fighting than take such grim chances. My father swore again that not a one of them would die that day, except perhaps himself.
“C’mon now, Lieutenant,” one of them protested, “a slim chance is better than none. We’ll all run and see which one or two of us is lucky enough to escape. Not even you can hold back such a tide!”
“Maybe I can’t,” my father replied, “and yet I must.”
He ordered his men to retreat one last time, then stood at the lip of their ditch to welcome the enemy. As his men scrambled up the rock they heard the whooping and hollering of the foxes come for their prey. Though there was all manner of gunfire not a one of my father’s boys took a serious shot. Every now and again one of them would turn to see what went on below, and they saw my father bounding back and forth, cutting down the cowards who dared to aim at the backs of his men.
One man saw how my father took a shot himself, but still he went on. Another witnessed how he was skewered by a bayonet, but still he fought. A third said four men tackled him to the ground, but up he rose from their midst. Not a one of them saw exactly how or when he fell, but he must have at some point, though not until after his men were all safely away from that place.
And that was the last anyone knew of my father. Anyone but me.
While I wish I could say that I followed in his footsteps my whole life long, the truth is that growing up without him was hard. We lost our farm and home, we scrimped and scrounged our way through the rest of my childhood, and somewhere along the way I grew disheartened. I decided I had to find an easier way, a shortcut to happiness.
In short I fell in with some bad men, ones who weaned me off of the straight-and-narrow path that my mother had so painstakingly taught me to follow. At first it was drink, then gambling, then getting into fights in back alleys. I remember the day they brought me along for my first robbery. A part of me wondered how I had ever come to this, another part answered it had been coming for a long while now.
My posse promised it would be a quick holdup. No one was going to get hurt, and there was no chance of running into the law. Both of those statements were lies, for no sooner did our heist begin than it turned sideways. The man we were trying to rob resisted us, and the leader of our group, a fiery, short-tempered man, shot him dead on the spot. My shock didn’t even have a chance to set in before we heard the whole town erupting all around us. We tried to get out of there, but the law swept around on all sides and chased us towards a solitary barn.
I was the first to make the entrance, and as I turned to hold the door open for the rest of my gang I found that not a one of them still stood. Some were already laying dead in the street, the others were quickly getting that way. So I bolted that door shut and lay on the ground, trembling like a leaf.
“Hey you come out of there!” the Sheriff roared. ” And with your hands held high! I’ll give you thirty seconds to get sense and then we’ll unload on you!”
“I’ll fight them off,” I muttered, cocking my six-shooter. “Or I’ll grab a horse and escape. I’ll set fire to this barn and sneak out in the smoke. I’ll never let them take me alive–”
I turned in surprise, though I knew the voice so well that it did not frighten me. Standing at the end of a trough I saw my father, looking exactly the same as the day he rode out to war. He was viewing me with a sort of aching love, as if it hurt him to see me this way.
“Pa…what are you doing here?”
“Son, what are you?”
My face broke and I cried like the six-year-old I was when I lost him. “I’ve lost my way, Pa. I don’t know when or how, but I’m ashamed for you to see me like this.”
“I ain’t ashamed to see you, son. But you have done wrong, and it’s time to turn yourself in.”
“I can’t do it,” I gulped. “Once they brand me a thief and a killer that’s it! Even if they don’t hang me I’ll never escape the shadow of what I already done. I’m all alone now.”
My father nodded understandingly, but his face was firm. “You are alone, so long as you keep on this path you’ve been on. But if you turn son, if you turn right now, I’ll be in it. I promise.”
“…I would if I could. But I can’t.”
“A man doesn’t do what he can. He does what he must.”
Well that was that.
I took a few stabilizing breaths, then stood and took a few more.
“Alright, I’m coming out!” I shouted, throwing my gun out the window where the lawmen could see. I turned to look one last time at my father, and I almost asked how he was even able to be here like this. But then, I already knew his answer to that.
Raising up my hands, I walked out into the sun.
As I stated on Monday, my purpose with this was to create a piece that blended the elements of principle and example. I wanted it to be one part allegory, with archetypes that represented a core idea, and one part realism, with characters who were relatable.
Obviously the character of “the father” was a larger-than-life allegory. He is a flat character, one that is intended to only channel one personality trait: confidence. He always comes through, there’s nothing he can’t accomplish, he always knows exactly what to do and say.
The son, meanwhile, is a little more in-between. It wouldn’t be fair to say that he is entirely lifelike, as we simply do not have enough time with him to get a fully fleshed-out personality from him. Even so, in the short time that we do hear from him, he still shows a wide range emotions, including reverence, bitterness, fear, shame, and redemption.
His comment towards the end about how hard it was for him to live without a father is meant to jolt the reader out of the rose-tinted fairy tale and into a more somber reality. It’s meant to suggest that the idealized story of his father is nothing more than the perspective of a six-year-old boy who still believes his father could do no wrong. A perspective that he has maintained for the man who sired him, but lost for himself.
And that, ultimately, was the crux of my idea in marrying these two different perspectives. By laying them side-by-side and even having them overlap I meant to explore the way our view of the world changes as we age and mature. In some ways I believe our love for fairy tales is nothing more than a nostalgic longing for the simplicity of our childhood minds.
As I wrote this piece I realized I was writing “father” a lot, and reached a point where I thought someone ought to call the man by his name. It was at that point that I decided to add a little quirk to the story, something to give it personality. Do you know what I am referring to? I’ll talk a little bit more about it on Monday, as well as how to add indirect personality to stories and characters in general. I’ll see you then, and in the meantime have a wonderful weekend!