The Good Guy/ Bad Guy Myth

This article was written by Marina Benjamin and published in Aeon Magazine on 25th January 2018.

For the original article please click HERE:


The first time we see Darth Vader doing more than heavy breathing in Star Wars (1977), he’s strangling a man to death. A few scenes later, he’s blowing up a planet. He kills his subordinates, chokes people with his mind, does all kinds of things a good guy would never do. But then the nature of a bad guy is that he does things a good guy would never do.

Darth Vader

Good guys don’t just fight for personal gain: they fight for what’s right – their values.

This moral physics underlies not just Star Wars, but also film series such as The Lord of the Rings (2001-3) and X-Men (2000-), as well as most Disney cartoons. Virtually all our mass-culture narratives based on folklore have the same structure: good guys battle bad guys for the moral future of society. These tropes are all over our movies and comic books, in Narnia and at Hogwarts, and yet they don’t exist in any folktales, myths or ancient epics. In Marvel comics, Thor has to be worthy of his hammer, and he proves his worth with moral qualities. But in ancient myth, Thor is a god with powers and motives beyond any such idea as ‘worthiness’.

In old folktales, no one fights for values. Individual stories might show the virtues of honesty or hospitality, but there’s no agreement among folktales about which actions are good or bad. When characters get their comeuppance for disobeying advice, for example, there is likely another similar story in which the protagonist survives only because he disobeys advice. Defending a consistent set of values is so central to the logic of newer plots that the stories themselves are often reshaped to create values for characters such as Thor and Loki – who in the 16th-century Icelandic Edda had personalities rather than consistent moral orientations.


Stories from an oral tradition never have anything like a modern good guy or bad guy in them,  despite their reputation for being moralising. In stories such as Jack and the Beanstalk or Sleeping Beauty, just who is the good guy? Jack is the protagonist we’re meant to root for, yet he has no ethical justification for stealing the giant’s things. Does Sleeping Beauty care about goodness? Does anyone fight crime? Even tales that can be made to seem like they are about good versus evil, such as the story of Cinderella, do not hinge on so simple a moral dichotomy. In traditional oral versions, Cinderella merely needs to be beautiful to make the story work. In the Three Little Pigs, neither pigs nor wolf deploy tactics that the other side wouldn’t stoop to. It’s just a question of who gets dinner first, not good versus evil.

The situation is more complex in epics such as The Iliad, which does have two ‘teams’, as well as characters who wrestle with moral meanings. But the teams don’t represent the clash of two sets of values in the same way that modern good guys and bad guys do. Neither Achilles nor Hector stands for values that the other side cannot abide, nor are they fighting to protect the world from the other team. They don’t symbolise anything but themselves and, though they talk about war often, they never cite their values as the reason to fight the good fight. The ostensibly moral face-off between good and evil is a recent invention that evolved in concert with modern nationalism – and, ultimately, it gives voice to a political vision not an ethical one.


Most folklore scholarship since the Second World War has been concerned with archetypes or commonalities among folktales, the implicit drive being that if the myths and stories of all nations had more in common than divided them, then people of all nations could likewise have more in common than divides us. It was a radical idea, when earlier folktales had been published specifically to show how people in one nation were unlike those in another.

In her study of folklore From the Beast to the Blonde (1995), the English author and critic Marina Warner rejects a reading of folktales, popularised by the American child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, as a set of analogies for our psychological and developmental struggles. Warner argues instead that external circumstances make these stories resonate with readers and listeners through the centuries. Still, both scholars want to trace the common tropes of folktales and fairy-tales insofar as they stay the same, or similar, through the centuries.

Princess and Trolls

Novelists and filmmakers who base their work on folklore also seem to focus on commonalities. George Lucas very explicitly based Star Wars on Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), which describes the journey of a figure such as Luke Skywalker as a human universal. J R R Tolkien used his scholarship of Old English epics to recast the stories in an alternative, timeless landscape; and many comic books explicitly or implicitly recycle the ancient myths and legends, keeping alive story threads shared by stories new and old, or that old stories from different societies around the world share with each other.

Less discussed is the historic shift that altered the nature of so many of our modern retellings of folklore, to wit: the idea that people on opposite sides of conflicts have different moral qualities, and fight over their values. That shift lies in the good guy/bad guy dichotomy, where people no longer fight over who gets dinner, or who gets Helen of Troy, but over who gets to change or improve society’s values. Good guys stand up for what they believe in, and are willing to die for a cause. This trope is so omnipresent in our modern stories, movies, books, even our political metaphors, that it is sometimes difficult to see how new it is, or how bizarre it looks, considered in light of either ethics or storytelling.

Grimms Fairy Tales

When the Grimm brothers wrote down their local folktales in the 19th century, their aim was to use them to define the German Volk, and unite the German people into a modern nation. The Grimms were students of the philosophy of Johann Gottfried von Herder, who emphasised the role of language and folk traditions in defining values. In his Treatise on the Origin of Language (1772), von Herder argued that language was ‘a natural organ of the understanding’, and that the German patriotic spirit resided in the way that the nation’s language and history developed over time. Von Herder and the Grimms were proponents of the then-new idea that the citizens of a nation should be bound by a common set of values, not by kinship or land use. For the Grimms, stories such as Godfather Death, or the Knapsack, the Hat and the Horn, revealed the pure form of thought that arose from their language.

The corollary of uniting the Volk through a storified set of essential characteristics and values is that those outside the culture were seen as lacking the values Germans considered their own. Von Herder might have understood the potential for mass violence in this idea, because he praised the wonderful variety of human cultures: specifically, he believed that German Jews should have equal rights to German Christians. Still, the nationalist potential of the Grimm brothers’ project was gradually amplified as its influence spread across Europe, and folklorists began writing books of national folklore specifically to define their own national character. Not least, many modern nations went on to realise the explosive possibilities for abuse in a mode of thinking that casts ‘the other’ as a kind of moral monster.

Slavic Myth

In her book The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales (1987), the American scholar Maria Tatar remarks on the way that Wilhelm Grimm would slip in, say, adages about the importance of keeping promises. She argued that: ‘Rather than coming to terms with the absence of a moral order … he persisted in adding moral pronouncements even where there was no moral.’ Such additions established the idea that it was values (not just dinner) at stake in the conflicts that these stories dramatised. No doubt the Grimms’ additions influenced Bettelheim, Campbell and other folklorists who argued for the inherent morality of folktales, even if they had not always been told as moral fables.

As part of this new nationalist consciousness, other authors started changing the old stories to make a moral distinction between, for example, Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham. Before Joseph Ritson’s 1795 retelling of these legends, earlier written stories about the outlaw mostly showed him carousing in the forest with his merry men. He didn’t rob from the rich to give to the poor until Ritson’s version – written to inspire a British populist uprising after the French Revolution. Ritson’s rendering was so popular that modern retellings of Robin Hood, such as Disney’s 1973 cartoon or the film Prince of Thieves (1991) are more centrally about outlaw moral obligations than outlaw hijinks. The Sheriff of Nottingham was transformed from a simple antagonist to someone who symbolised the abuses of power against the powerless. Even within a single nation (Robin Hood), or a single household (Cinderella), every scale of conflict was restaged as a conflict of values.

IliadThe Iliad

Neither the Greeks nor the Trojans stand for some set of human strengths or frailties

Or consider the legend of King Arthur. In the 12th century, poets writing about him were often French, like Chrétien de Troyes, because King Arthur wasn’t yet closely associated with the soul of Britain. What’s more, his adversaries were often, literally, monsters, rather than people who symbolised moral weaknesses. By the early 19th century, when Tennyson wrote Idylls of the King, King Arthur becomes an ideal of a specifically British manhood, and he battles human characters who represent moral frailties. By the 20th century, the word ‘Camelot’ came to mean a kingdom too idealistic to survive on Earth.

Once the idea of national values entered our storytelling, the peculiar moral physics underlying the phenomenon of good guys versus bad guys has been remarkably consistent. One telling feature is that characters frequently change sides in conflicts: if a character’s identity resides in his values, then when he changes his mind about a moral question, he is essentially swapping sides, or defecting. This is not always acknowledged. For example, when in the PBS series Power of Myth (1988) the journalist Bill Moyers discussed with Campbell how many ancient tropes Star Wars deployed, they didn’t consider how bizarre it would have seemed to the ancient storytellers had Darth Vader changed his mind about anger and hatred, and switched sides in his war with Luke and the Rebels. Contrast this with The Iliad, where Achilles doesn’t become Trojan when he is angry at Agamemnon. Neither the Greeks nor the Trojans stand for some set of human strengths or frailties. Since their conflict is not a metaphor for some internal battle of anger versus love, switching sides because of a transport of feeling would be incoherent. In Star Wars, the opposing teams each represent a set of human properties. What side Darth Vader fights on is therefore absolutely dependent on whether anger or love is foremost in his heart.

Wonder Woman

Bad guys change their minds and become good in exactly the same way in countless, ostensibly folkloric, modern stories: The Lord of the RingsBuffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), the Harry Potter series (1997-2007). When a bad character has a change of heart, it’s always a cathartic emotional moment – since what’s at stake for a character is losing the central part of his identity. Another peculiarity in the moral physics of good guys versus bad is that bad guys have no loyalty and routinely punish their own; whether it’s the Sheriff of Nottingham starving his own people or Darth Vader killing his subordinates, bad guys are cavalier with human life, and they rebuke their allies for petty transgressions. This has been true since the earliest modern bad guys, though it scarcely exists among older adversaries who might be hungry for human flesh, but don’t kill their own.

Good guys, on the other hand, accept all applicants into the fold, and prove their loyalty even when their teammates transgress. Consider Friar Tuck getting drunk on ale while Robin Hood looks the other way. Or Luke Skywalker welcoming the roguish Han Solo on side. Good guys work with rogues, oddballs and ex-bad guys, plus their battles often hinge on someone who was treated badly by the bad guys crossing over and becoming a good guy. Forgiving characters their wicked deeds is an emotional climax in many good guy/bad guy stories. Indeed, it’s essential that the good side is a motley crew that will never, ever reject a fellow footsoldier.

Luke Skywalker

Again, this is a point of pride that seems incoherent in the context of pre-modern storytelling. Not only do people in ancient stories not switch sides in fights but Achilles, say, would never win because his army was composed of the rejects from the Trojans’. In old stories, great warriors aren’t scrappy recruits, there for the moral education: they’re experts.

Stories about good guys and bad guys that are implicitly moral – in the sense that they invest an individual’s entire social identity in him not changing his mind about a moral issue – perversely end up discouraging any moral deliberation. Instead of anguishing over multidimensional characters in conflict – as we find in The Iliad, or the Mahabharata or Hamlet – such stories rigidly categorise people according to the values they symbolise, flattening all the deliberation and imagination of ethical action into a single thumbs up or thumbs down. Either a person is acceptable for Team Good, or he belongs to Team Evil.


Good guy/bad guy narratives might not possess any moral sophistication, but they do promote social stability, and they’re useful for getting people to sign up for armies and fight in wars with other nations. Their values feel like morality, and the association with folklore and mythology lends them a patina of legitimacy, but still, they don’t arise from a moral vision. They are rooted instead in a political vision, which is why they don’t help us deliberate, or think more deeply about the meanings of our actions. Like the original Grimm stories, they’re a political tool designed to bind nations together.

The idea that whole categories of people should be locked up made the concentration camps possible

It’s no coincidence that good guy/bad guy movies, comic books and games have large, impassioned and volatile fandoms – even the word ‘fandom’ suggests the idea of a nation, or kingdom. What’s more, the moral physics of these stories about superheroes fighting the good fight, or battling to save the world, does not commend genuine empowerment. The one thing the good guys teach us is that people on the other team aren’t like us. In fact, they’re so bad, and the stakes are so high, that we have to forgive every transgression by our own team in order to win.


When I talked with Andrea Pitzer, the author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps (2017), about the rise of the idea that people on opposite sides of conflicts have different moral qualities, she told me: ‘Three inventions collided to make concentration camps possible: barbed wire, automatic weapons, and the belief that whole categories of people should be locked up.’ When we read, watch and tell stories of good guys warring against bad guys, we are essentially persuading ourselves that our opponents would not be fighting us, indeed they would not be on the other team at all, if they had any loyalty or valued human life. In short, we are rehearsing the idea that moral qualities belong to categories of people rather than individuals. It is the Grimms’ and von Herder’s vision taken to its logical nationalist conclusion that implies that ‘categories of people should be locked up’.

Watching Wonder Woman at the end of the 2017 movie give a speech about preemptively forgiving ‘humanity’ for all the inevitable offences of the Second World War, I was reminded yet again that stories of good guys and bad guys actively make a virtue of letting the home team in a conflict get away with any expedient atrocity.


Written by Marina Benjamin,  published on January 25th 2018, you can read the original article, titled “Why is Pop Culture So Obsessed with Battles Between Good and Evil?” in Aeon at

Green Eggs and Ham

Reading is fun ! 

Green Eggs and Ham is one of Theodor Seuss Geisel’s, [Dr Seuss], most famous works.

It has been listed as the fourth best-selling English-language children’s book of all time even surpassing Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and coming close behind The Tale of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter.

Seuss, a cartoonist and writer, is best known for his quirky illustrations and rhythmic poetry [anapestic tetrameter] which make his stories so appealing.

green eggs

Green Eggs and Ham was originally written as a bet between Seuss and his publisher. Seuss had completed The Cat in the Hat using only 236 words and was challenged to complete an entire book with fewer words.

Seuss [a German name rhyming with rejoice] completed the book with only 50 words.

The 50 words are: a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you.


Seuss wrote the stories in the 1950s, an era when children’s readers were Dick and Jane stories. A national report on illiteracy among school children at the time, concluded that children were not learning to read because their books were boring.

Seuss’s books which were both simple and amusing, sold record numbers.

Want your kids to read? Read them Dr. Seuss.


J.K. Rowling is the world’s most influential person

Psychologist Adam Grant wrote one of my favourite books “Give and Take”, a book which examines the merits and power of being someone who “gives more than they get.”

In this article, published in Tech Insider this week, he posits that children’s author JK Rowling has been incredibly influential in shaping the values of a whole generation of young people.

Here at Bear Skin, we say “Hear hear!!” The sentiment that good writing shapes empathy and broadens perspectives, in turn shaping behaviour is a Bear Skin mantra.

Please enjoy.


J.K. Rowling is the world’s most influential person, says top psychologist — and the reasons why are stunningly convincing

by Chris Weller

If we define someone’s influence as how much they can shape people’s thoughts and goals, Adam Grant says J.K. Rowling is in a league of her own. Thanks to her “Harry Potter” books, millions of young readers have been trained in social and emotional skills that policymakers are only starting to get behind.

Grant, a professor at Wharton Business School and author of Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, recently bestowed the title of “most influential” on Rowling in a Q&A on the open forum site Parlio.

give and take 2

Not counting the Bible,

“Harry Potter has reached more people than any other book series in history,”

Grant points out.

“Never mind the movies, merchandising, and other sources of contact.”

Worldwide, “Harry Potter” books have sold more than 450 million copies.

The next highest series is “Lord of the Rings,” by J.R.R. Tolkien, at a comparably paltry 150 million copies.

tokein 4tokein 3tolkein 2

But Rowling isn’t just the most influential because she moves a lot of paper, Grant argues. It’s how her books affect kids, both in the moment and for life.

“It affects them when they’re young and impressionable — and has inspired an entire generation to read, opening the door to many other avenues for education,”

he says.

Some adults certainly read novels as a form of escape, but great novels suck you in. Science backs it up.

harry potter

Psychological research suggests that, by stepping inside the mind of a main character, reading makes us more empathetic. We consider alternative points of view and see the rationale behind choices that we may never face firsthand.

More than that, “Harry Potter” has been found to be especially helpful in reducing kids’ latent biases: Perspective-taking, wrote researchers of a 2014 study, “emerged as the process allowing attitude improvement” toward immigrants, homosexuals, and refugees when people sided with Harry over Voldemort.

harry potter  2

The stories may take place in fantastical worlds, but its relatable themes get kids thinking positively about the Earth they inhabit.

“Ms. Rowling,”

Grant says, addressing the author,

“the world would be a better place if you kept writing ‘Harry Potter’ books.”

You can read the full article from Tech Insider here.

A New Hope

As early trailers for Star Wars Episode VII ‘The Force Awakens’ are released, fever rises amongst fans worldwide.

It is the “originals” that most of us consider to be the greater films, Episode IV, V and VI, released in 70s and early 80s, for many of us, films of our childhood.

Will the new films meet our expectations?


So significant were these films that they have marked a generation. The first release, Episode IV was entitled “A New Hope” and ever since then the galaxy long, long ago and far, far away has been a second home for many.

And a source of hope.

Why so significant? Why do these films, along with the recent success of Harry Potter books and films, and the enduring greatness of Tolkein’s books and films, rank so highly in the charts for commercial success?

Why have they imprinted themselves so profoundly on the popular psyche?

star wars

Surely entertainment value alone cannot account for such significance!?

Joseph Campbell building on the work of Carl Jung, examined myth and narrative in the context of psychological theory. The ‘hero journey’ he defined, common to epic narratives, aligned with the human subconscious or dream journey, taking the voyeur through trials, to wholeness and health.

Unlike his contemporary, Bertrand Russell, Campbell praised the work of narrative to inspire hope.

star wars IV

Bertrand Russell, however, renowned  20th century philosopher and staunch atheist wrote in his paper, A Free Man’s Worship :

That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins–all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

Only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair …………

In Russell’s philosophical view, facing the reality of our insignificance is the healthiest and most real human endeavour, one more developed than any submission to gods of natural forces or ideals. To him any other belief was self-deluding fancy.

star wars VI

Yet in the midst of such modern and post-modern thought, fantasy and science fiction narratives [arguably modern myths and legends]  continually call us to believe.

Deeply philosophical and spiritual in nature, these stories have us asking such questions of our existence as:

  1. Why is there something, rather than nothing?
  2. How can I know the world?
  3. Do humans have intrinsic worth?
  4. What is the significance of human suffering?
  5. Do we have anything to hope in beyond this life?

Narrative calls the viewer/ observer into a journey with the protagonist or hero, a journey which bestows upon the hero great worth and responsibility.

This worth, whether via royal or supernatural endowment, enables the hero to triumph over difficult and dark trials, with a promise of hope of restoration beyond.

star wars V

Joseph Campbell concurs with Carl Jung and others, that such a journey which restores the protagonist to “hope” is in fact the healthiest course for the human psyche.

But is this simply a case of “the benefits of religions for the atheist” as Alain de Botton would say?

Is it simply that, while “hope” is good for the soul so to speak, one cannot simply surrender a scientific or rationalist framework and so simply admire “hope” from afar?

Anaïs Nin recorded in her diary in 1943:

Stories are the only enchantment possible, for when we begin to see our suffering as a story, we are saved.

Believing we are, like the characters we love, simply part of a grand narrative – is ultimately redemptive.

But, one simply cannot BELIEVE in cosmic hope against all evidence or simply because it is of temporary benefit to emotional health!

Can we?

To Russell, hope beyond death is a false hope and so truth and freedom, he concludes, can be found in stark acceptance of this finite existence:

Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned to-day to lose his dearest, to-morrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of Fate, to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power.

Unless one finds an ounce of empirical evidence for the breaking in of dream into history, and of narrative into real life!

Scholars consider the Christian narrative to make such audacious claims through the historical birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

An earlier post attempted to excavate some of the historical evidences for the validity of this claim by first century eyewitnesses. For the sake of brevity, we will not here seek to repeat.

Nevertheless, in the Christian narrative, as C. S. Lewis writes, “myth meets history”. No longer a theoretical hope, nice-to-believe but incongruent with lived experience, “myth broke through into time and space” endowing humanity with intrinsic worth and showing ultimate reality, God to suffer with us. This process, turned back death and sorrow and restored life.

This truly is A New Hope! 

The Hero Journey

This blog often rests on questions of the power of story and how story is architected. A few posts have dwelt on the role of the protagonist as avatar of our dreams and the power of stories to assist in deep self undersanding. Stories have a way of walking us through crisis to catharsis in a way that is restorative to our soul.

A narrative pattern that underpins many great stories has been identified by anthropologist and literary historians as The Hero’s Journey. Articulated best the American scholar Joseph Campbell in his work, Hero with 1000 Faces, the Hero Journey can be identified within most great drama, storytelling, myth, religious ritual, and psychological development.

It describes the typical adventure of the archetype known as The Hero, the person who goes out and achieves great deeds on behalf of the group, tribe, or civilization. By following The Hero, the avatar, the individual lives, dies and is redeemed to the tribe, a new person.

heor journey

Its stages are:

  • THE ORDINARY WORLD.  The hero, uneasy, uncomfortable or unaware, is introduced sympathetically so the audience can identify with the situation or dilemma.  The hero is shown against a background of environment, heredity, and personal history.  Some kind of polarity in the hero’s life is pulling in different directions and causing stress.

hero journey

  • THE CALL TO ADVENTURE.  Something shakes up the situation, either from external pressures or from something rising up from deep within, so the hero must face the beginnings of change.

call to adventure

  • REFUSAL OF THE CALL.  The hero feels the fear of the unknown and tries to turn away from the adventure, however briefly.  Alternately, another character may express the uncertainty and danger ahead.

refusal of the call

  • MEETING WITH THE MENTOR.  The hero comes across a seasoned traveler of the worlds who gives him or her training, equipment, or advice that will help on the journey.  Or the hero reaches within to a source of courage and wisdom.

meeting of a mentor

  • CROSSING THE THRESHOLD.  At the end of Act One, the hero commits to leaving the Ordinary World and entering a new region or condition with unfamiliar rules and values.


  • TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES.  The hero is tested and sorts out allegiances in the Special World.

never ending story

  • APPROACH.  The hero and newfound allies prepare for the major challenge in the Special world.

luke and yoda

  • THE ORDEAL.  Near the middle of the story, the hero enters a central space in the Special World and confronts death or faces his or her greatest fear.  Out of the moment of death comes a new life.

you shall not pass

  • THE REWARD.  The hero takes possession of the treasure won by facing death.  There may be celebration, but there is also danger of losing the treasure again.

end of epidsode 1

  • THE ROAD BACK.  About three-fourths of the way through the story, the hero is driven to complete the adventure, leaving the Special World to be sure the treasure is brought home.  Often a chase scene signals the urgency and danger of the mission.

finale harry

  • THE RESURRECTION.  At the climax, the hero is severely tested once more on the threshold of home.  He or she is purified by a last sacrifice, another moment of death and rebirth, but on a higher and more complete level.  By the hero’s action, the polarities that were in conflict at the beginning are finally resolved.


  • RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR.  The hero returns home or continues the journey, bearing some element of the treasure that has the power to transform the world as the hero has been transformed.

hero journey

 So when questioned why you enjoy story so much or whether reading is wasting your time, simply reply that you are working on your emotional, psychological, spiritual, social and even physical health.

More stories please !

‘Ubermensch’ and what story teaches me about power

I have noticed as I get older, I become more empowered. This comes from multiple sources – as I age I become more comfortable with myself and less doubtful and self conscious. As I gain years, I learn more about the world and understand how things sit and how science works. I gain a certain perspective and acquire a certain cynicism, and all of this gives me a vantage point from which to approach life.

It’s curious to me that many people equate this personal journey with the turn of history. I hear, “we are so much more enlightened these days”.  Does this evolution within myself truly mirror social and historical cycles. Indeed, Europe emerged from the dark and middle ages into a scientific, artistic and cultural renaissance around the 14th c AD. The religious wars that ensued endowed Europe with caution and cynicism of the validity of religious beliefs, finding peace in humanism, rationalism, education. Growing scientific awareness, improved human conditions and greater peace in the land during this period instilled Europe with the supreme confidence of the 18th and 19th Century. In this time Darwin published his treatise on Natural Selection, artisans approached ever more impressive and realistic renditions, education and literacy levels spread throughout Europe with the rise of capitalism and democratic governments. Mechanisation brought about factories, cars, aeroplanes and weapons of war. Human confidence was at an all time high. By the end of this period we find the advent of a certain kind of confidence embodied in Friedrich Nietzsche and his work “Ubermensch” [the Super Man] and his catch-phrases “will to power” and “God is dead.”



However, what is often missed from these comments is that this rise and fall in confidence has existed as long as humanity has existed and in fact is cyclic or parabolic. The turn of the 20th century, wars, genocide, global warming etc. have all contributed to a plummeting sense of confidence in humanity and pure scientific rationalism, and a rising tide of interest in spirituality.

Our journeys are unique, yet curiously alike. We can all relate to the feeling that God is disinterested in the suffering of humanity and the fate of the planet. God does not deliver a destiny to us on a plate; it is ours to create. The tools are within our hands and if life is running stale it is only my fault. My decisions matter and my struggles make me.  As for who I marry, what career I choose, whether I suffer or gain, God does not really care. God is not there. The world is a mass of science and matter. As we emerge from youthful faith, we can feel along with Marx that “religion is the opiate of the masses” and a fairy story to fright good people into compliance. Life is wilder, stranger, meaner and more unpredictable than religion and religious people would have us believe.

Such belief brings a melancholy and loneliness, but also a sense of power. ‘I am not beholden to a mystical destiny. I hold the future in my hands. It’s me or no one that decides. I bear my suffering and also my future success or failure in my hands, alone’. The sense of power that this independence brings is curiously liberating.

In all of this tide of change,  fairy story itself remains constant in its messages to us of the bigger picture.

When Frodo, the smallest of all creatures, the humblest of beings in the epic narrative, Lord of the Rings, takes the ultimate weapon of power, he has one duty –  to destroy it. The ring can control and corrupt any of it’s holders but the little Hobbit has resisted it longer than normal. Even he struggles and falters in the delivery of the ring to its doom. Once destroyed however, the world can rebalance. As though discharging an intense voltage, the power can run back into all the nooks and crannies of life where it can nourish instead of consume.


When Harry attains the wand of ultimate power, the one to wield dominance over all creatures, he does the only thing good and just, he breaks the wand and drops it into a crevasse. Harry’s struggle with the wicked Voldemort has shown him the amassing of power brings death and consumption. The small acts of good people make the world a good place and power dispersed is the only way to foster this goodness.

From these tales I learn that:

  1. In my journey I gain power. Either by age, learning or decision. However, increased power does not make me free. It simply makes me more a puppet to power. The illusion of freedom is in fact veiled control. I become an element moved about in the waves of history. Soon I’m surrendered to a imprisonment of power and require deliverance.
  2. True heroic acts and true history is moved forward by the smallest of characters and the smallest of acts. The good and true is brought about by everyday people and their faith in love and good deeds. Therefore, the power I attain as I grow is only to in turn give away to those who would use it to generate more life. To amass power in the belief I’m alone in the universe is simply to be consumed and controlled by this power.
  3. Those who believe in God might well be like children who believe in fairy tales. But God works through the little ones and their small faith.

When I consider a baby born in a barn, a carpenter in a backwater of the middle east, a man broken and dying between two criminals – I see how God works. Through the small, the humble and the good – power is broken and returned into the nooks and crannies of life where it can nourish instead of consume.




The Wicked Step Mother

Have you ever wondered why fairy stories feature so many wicked step mothers?


The recurring feature of a widower with children,  bereft of a mother, springs up in children’s tales with alarming frequency  and proceeds to unfurl a nightmare of a new wife and her murderous schemes on the children.

Snow White who faces murder at the hands of the woodsman commanded to bring her heart in a box.

Hansel Gretel Wilkin

Hansel and Gretel who are led into the woods to be abandoned and trapped by a cannibalistic witch.


Rapunzel who is locked in a tower by a jealous stepmother to live in solitary confinement.

cinderella 2

Cinderella who is locked in a dungeon by her stepmother to serve the family as a slave ………

Other stories feature children alone in the world facing murderous grown ups wishing to exploit, imprison or eliminate them.

InfoboxTheSnowQueenharryedmund and witch


In 2015 I am marrying a man with four children and face the duty of step-parent. What does this mean for me and my relationship with them? Are we doomed?

I don’t believe so.  In true form, fairy stories speak of  a reality more spiritual in nature.  Reading between the lines, a mother represents to children true unconditional love. When she dies they are left with a loving father who is  helpless to care for them in the same motherly way. His choice to remarry exposes the children to one who does not have their best interests in mind, one who does not love unconditionally.

The relationship of children to adults, especially parents is an interesting one. In a sense, children are a motif of one’s mortality. As they grow and learn, the adult ages and declines. Their ascendancy signals the adults descent from beauty, health and vigour. This very motif is shown in Cinderella,  the wicked step mother’s vanity emphasised  in her magic mirror’s declaration she is no longer the “fairest in the land”. What greater threat to a woman to no longer be beautiful and desired?  What greater threat than the younger and more beautiful youth ready to take her place.

mean girls


This motif is shown in more ways that simply fairy stories but plays out in power plays between humans of all ages and genders. The Mean Girls of high school bully those younger to establish primacy and control of the alpha males and jocks at school.  The “queen bees” belittle and control their own flock of followers to keep a pecking order and establish dominance.  Almost a carnivorous cannibalistic dynamic is created, in which the younger threatens to take the seat of power and the older seeks to exploit and maintain control at all costs.

Indeed, parenting is one of continual death to self and sacrifice of self for children. It’s a dynamic that is directly contradictory to the above dynamic. A parent willingly gives up their own place in the world to make way for the children – they give time, money and care to make sure the children have the best start in the world. For the biological parent this is both selfishly motivated – it is a sign of one’s genes continuing in the world, one’s seed flourishing. But it is also a signal of true love.

Parenting gone wrong is then the purest symbol of evil. And it’s not limited to wicked mothers or step mothers……..


Look at Darth Vader !

So what can I learn about being a good step parent [or parent for that matter] from these stories? I’m reminded of the following account from Matthew 20: 20-28.  Jesus describes his own death and this conversation proceeds.

A Mother’s Request

20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favour of him.21 “What is it you want?” he asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” 22 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”“We can,” they answered.23 Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.” 24 When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers.




Understanding Jesus to be a king, the mother has asked what every mother wants for her children – to have the best. She wants them to be favoured and preferred. But what she asks she does not understand.  In seeking favour in her terms, she seeks dominance, control, primacy and power. A seat of influence for her two boys.

Jesus asks the men if they can drink his cup. Having just described his death – he speaks of the nature of his love for humanity. As a true lover, he lays down his life that the children will grow in life. Will they do that? Can they do that?

25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus talks of the rulers of the Gentiles who “lord it over” the people and who “exercise authority” over them. His command to his followers is to become a servant, become a slave to others. To follow this king and to sit at his side equals laying down your life for others.

And this is the true love story

Thank you for the feeling

“For in Calormen, story-telling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a thing you’re taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay-writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays.”
C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Horse and His Boy. 

horse and his boy

What is the secret of a good story? And why aren’t we taught to tell stories the ways children in Calormen are taught to tell stories? I believe the answer to the first question is – feeling. And the answer to the second is – the sacred and secular divide.

A good story is felt. Audiences can all tell a fraud when they read it. When a writer doesn’t truly care for the reality of the characters they create, their  spiritual and emotional reality. The story rings hollow, it smells of propoganda, it falls flat.  They know this from their deepest feelings.

In her memoir, Sarah Turnbull, a journalist in Paris, writes of  interviewing Kristin Scott-Thomas. The actress was once stopped outside her Parisian apartment by a fan not for – “can I have a photograph?” or “I liked the English Patient” but rather to hear, “thank you for the emotion.”


Turnbull remarks –  where in the world but France would anybody say that? Thank you for the emotion.

english Patient 3

Herein lies the rub. By speaking the language of our heart stories and art, moves something much deeper in us than the logic can account for.

It fascinated me that around the time of Hitchen’s celebrated release of “God is not Great”, there were queues around blocks in major cities to buy the final Harry Potter novel. In one, a scientist, declares that all spiritual pursuits are contribution to injustice and evil in the world. The other explains how evil exists within two parallell worlds, one shut off from the other through a combination of  fear and  alienation.

In her stories, Rowlings takes on 300 years of western philosophy which has worked to alienate sacred and secular – to tell a story of epic struggle between good and evil. The readers voted and their passion broke publishing records.