The Neverending Story: Part II

When Bastian hides in an attic to read a mysterious book, he discovers that this is no ordinary story……..the Neverending Story is a living book.

It tells of Fantasia, a land of magical creatures threatened by the Nothing. The Childlike Empress needs a new name and only a human child can grant it. Hardly believing what is going on and shivering in his damp attic, Bastian calls out the Childlike Empress’ new name and in doing so, he enters the Neverending Story.

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He finds himself a character within the story he was reading, Here, Bastian is handsome and bold, a boy equal in strength and courage to Atrayu. As saviour of Fantasia, he is granted AURYN, the gem of the Childlike Empress, inscribed with the words “Do As You Wish.”

Here, his imagination can create worlds. Everything he wishes, comes to pass.

Bastian is cautioned by the Childlike Empress to be aware that his wishes become realities, and these realities affect the fates of other Fantasians. Bastian can only govern Fantasia well when he considers deeply his desires and wishes only for what he truly wants.

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However, as Bastian grows in confidence, he becomes less and less aware of the deep desires that motivate him, and less careful of the consequences of his wishes. With every wish Bastian loses a memory of his former life. Atrayu points out, that without memory, Bastian cannot have a true will and without a will, he will lose himself.

Without a will, he cannot wish himself home again.

Can Atrayu save Bastian from his descent into madness? Will Bastian become trapped in Fantasia forever?

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Ende achieves in the second part of the Neverending Story, new insights of the significance of dream and myth to human health and happiness. Just as travelling into our dreams and subconscious is necessary for human health, a journey required to understand our deep complexes and to do battle with our subconscious fears, so too the converse journey is critical – the return to conscious life.

It is in the conscious world, our external world, where human relationships occur that the deep desires of the human heart are realised. Here we love, are loved, face external challenges and grow.

A person lost in dream or myth, or a person at the mercy of their fantasies and desires, without touch with the real world, is someone who eventually loses touch with their core identity, their memory, their will, even their own name.

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The maddened Bastian becomes so lost in his own fantasy that he needs a saviour, someone who can give him a name and restore enough will for him to remember his father and so desire to return home. Moreover, Bastian needs someone to remain in Fantasia to take responsibility for all the stories that his wishes have given life to.

Atrayu, despite being betrayed and wounded by Bastian steps in, reminds Bastian of his true name and in doing so restores him with enough will and memory to send him back to his conscious life.

It is Atrayu who remains in Fantasia to finish the story. And so Ende delivers the final note to his story. The true hero sacrifices himself so Bastian might have life.

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Atrayu is not a product of Bastian’s imagination. He is the character who drew Bastian into Fantasia, he was betrayed and wounded by Bastian his friend, and now as Bastian surrenders AURYN, at his wits end, Atrayu restores Bastian’s ‘self’ and ability to return to a life of relationship and being.

We need more heroes like Atrayu.

 

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Save the Cat

Blake Snyder was a well known American screenwriter and theorist, and his book “Save the Cat” is a leading guide to writing for screen.  In it, he outlines several tricks of the story telling trade.

One strategy he outlines is for getting the audience to side with the protagonist early on. Featured in the title, Save the Cat!  it describes the manner in which the screen writer introduces the hero in an early scene doing something nice, for example, saving a cat. This creates a bond of empathy between them and the  audience. 

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According to Snyder, the inspiration for this particular example, was the movie Alien, in which Ripley [Sigourney Weaver] saves a cat named Jones.

The contrast can be as powerful. For example, the opening montage of the TV series, House of Cards, features the  protagonist Frank Underwood, [Kevin Spacey] finding an injured and whimpering dog.

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He considers for a second, before strangling the dog and then calmly states:

Moments like this require someone who will act, do the unpleasant thing, the necessary thing.

This scene chillingly sets up his character and the whole trajectory of the TV series with its exploration of the intricasies of political ambition and power.  

Saving the cat, killing the dog,: such simple motifs connect the audience viscerally to characters through emotions of empathy or distrust.

Who is the baddy?

We all know that story does not work without a crisis; the protagonist requires a challenge to overcome, the dragon to slay, the mountain to conquer, the darkness to subdue. Every hero requires a nemesis and every protagonist, an antagonist. This is the stuff of good stories – drama, tension, a fight.

Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines villain as:

“a cruelly malicious person;….a scoundrel; or a character in a play, novel, or the like, who constitutes an important evil agency in the plot”.

Important evil agency in the plot.…………Interesting!

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As a child watching Mary Poppins I remember the bad guys clearly – they worked  in the bank. Cold, miserly, money hungry, they would steal men’s time away from their children, away from joy, fun and family. In contrast, Mary sought to bring the children’s dreams alive and to mend relationships between parents and their offspring.

The sensitive viewer may grow to believe that banks and institutions are evil, that the arts and pursuits of family, simple hearty work [such as chimney sweeping] and creativity are true, good and right. But is this a fair representation of reality?

 

Well not really,  but it’s just a kids story, right?

In a cowboy or Western movie – the baddy is an Indian or Mexican. In a spy or war movie, the baddy is a German or Eastern European or Muslim. Are the baddies foreign nationals?  Are the baddies the capitalists [Mary Poppins]  or the government [Divergent/ Hunger Games]?  Are the baddies the drug dealers and criminals amongst us ? Who are the bad guys, really?

 

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The very word villain comes from the Middle-English word for “base or low born rustic” or medieval latin “farmhand”. In medieval times, it accounted for one who did not behave in manner befitting a Knight – one of lowly, dishonourable behaviour.  In contemporary parlance, the word is cognate to the french word for “ugly.” The term “sinister” comes from the latin root for “left.”

So in narrative terms – cruetly and malice, wickedness and crime are related to social class, political persuasion and physical appearance? Maybe not in such simplistic terms but if we continue to digest simple stories and their simple morals, perhaps we produce a society of people with narrow minded stereotypical views of who out there needs to be punished for social ills.

How do we redress this?

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Of late, years Hollywood has played a lot with story conventions around stereotypical bad buys, and we have more tales telling the back stories of villains such as Wreck It Ralph, Despicable Me, Maleficent, Shrek, Monsters Inc and so forth. Children learn that the bad guy [or girl] has a story too.

However since classical days, the greatest of literary works are the most complex in their approach to the nature and origin of evil.

Greek and Roman plays and poems presented complex tales of conflicted heros with murky motivations. Shakespeares characters are deeply wrought characters full of  jealousy, hubris, power lust, and vengeance. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and the Russian writers are famed for the manner in which they can cast characters both empathetic and corrupted at once. The genuis of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter is that while evil lay without in the form of Voldemort, it existed in very real form within Hogwarts too, among the full blooded wizards, the Slytherin families and even within Harry himself and his desire for power.

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Most tales of inner struggles are tragedies. Simple stories of good versus bad can end happily when good guy defeats bad guy, but what does one do when the good guy IS the bad guy? How does this story possibly end happily?

John Lennon’s song has become the anthem of peace marches since the ’60s

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

 

For us to realise that there is no baddy “out there” – not another nation, not another religion, not an ugly person or a different person – this requires a terrbile self knowing and self realisation that is absent from Lennon’s anthem – the baddy is within.

This sounds like religious dogma you might protest…. Religion has created all manner of  guilt complexes to make us out the be the culprit of all wrong doings.  Religion exists to torture us in the knowledge that we are “baaaaaad” deeply and irrevocably bad. However, it does seem that within this realisation comes the truest form of self- knowing.

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No wonder our human psychology is complex – we construct stories in which  the fault belongs to others. These narratives save us from descending into madness. Acceptance of culpability would crush us. But lack of acceptance creates in us a delusion, a splintering from true self-knowing. So what is the answer?

I personally find the solution in Hebrew literature. Ancient and deeply perceptive, Hebrew narrative is nuanced enough to make the protagonist both empathetic [we can identify with them] but also the villain. When you pass by the normal foils – giants, lions, enemy kingdoms – you find the true problem. The human heart is the problem. While there is evil and conflict and tension from without – ultimately it’s the complex, betraying and deceitful human heart at the bottom of it all.

This narrative however, does not descend into despair. It does so by introducing a new note into the story – the note of grace.  When the crushing knowledge of human culpability is first raised, so is the notion of a sacrifice, a scape-goat. First, literally it was a goat or lamb, ceremonially slain at feast times and symbolically expunging evil. However, such symbols cannot redress the evil in the human heart, can they?

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And so transpires the greatest myth of all, the myth become history [as CS Lewis puts it], God become man, to die a death that only man can die, and redress an evil that only God can redress. This scape-goat moves from beyond symbol into something so groundshattering  that philsophers and theologians are still confused by the depth and weight of it all. This event in history, permits true self knowledge. Humanity can know self to be corrupt without despair, for the punishment has fallen upon the scape-goat, the innocent. This gracious act in turns becomes the wellspring of transformed action, as with a new lease of life, humanity can simultaneously know self and rejoice.

How would this transform politics, international relations, human relations – the fundamental understanding that the problem lies within?  And this knowledge does not result in despair, nor in delusion, but in glorious self knowing and true “peace on earth.”

 

Why Little People?

Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… small acts of kindness and love. – Gandalf, “The Hobbit, An Unexpected Journey”.

 

In continuation from yesterday’s post “Why Archaeologists”, I want to follow the “hero journey” one step further to examine the quality of smallness in the hero. Not only is the main character often an ordinary, but the hero is often the underdog.

Think of the orphans, outcasts, children, or ‘nobodies from nowhere’ who are suddenly in possession of a magical item, granted a mysterious power or discover and fantastic destiny. These characters are sent out on the “hero journey” quite beyond their own wishes, but in the process find courage and wit beyond their expectation, timely help and return home, much transformed.

Just as the “scientist” hero is an avator to our dreams, to carry us into mystery safely, the “underdog” hero is our avatar to carry us to greatness. If the smallest of chracters can face the giants, wizards, beasts or evil empire, so can we. Moreover, the truth that victory over darkness comes through “the everyday deeds of ordinary folk….. small acts of kindness and love” is a profound truth we need constant reminder of.

In an earlier post “Ubermensch and what stories teach about power” [Dec 5, 2014], I reflected on the irony that as power grows, power controls.  Power creates puppets. Narratives with a small hero, remind us that history is turned by the “small acts of kindness and love,” by the deeds of “everyday people”.