Oddities only strike ordinary people. Oddities do not strike odd people. This is why ordinary people have a much more exciting time … The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling. They startle him because he is normal. The fairy tale discusses what a sane man will do in a mad world.G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter 2
“It takes a village to raise a child.”
When Hillary Clinton says this, it means your children actually belong to the State, and the State has a right to intervene if they don’t think you’re doing it right (which, trust me, you’re not). When normal people say it, it means only that in order to grow into healthy, functional adults, kids need more than just a mom and a dad. They need a whole community around them.
In the past, I’ve blogged about how living in a small, isolated community consisting mostly of extended family limits the options when a family must deal with abuse. That is still true. But it’s also true that living in a close-knit community can provide some benefits for children whose own parents are lacking in some way. They can receive re-parenting, or supplemental parenting, from aunts, uncles, grandparents, older cousins, and others.
Re-parenting in Harry Potter
Re-parenting occurs in Harry Potter. Harry, as we all know, does not have a proper family and lives as the unloved stepchild of his aunt and uncle. When he meets his best friend, Ron Weasley, he is introduced to Ron’s family.
From Ron’s point of view, the Weasley family is not all that great a place to be. It’s a large family, Ron is the youngest of many brothers, and he often feels overlooked. Also, the Weasleys are poor, not in the sense of starving but in the sense of wearing hand-me-downs and being subject to taunting from snobbier wizards.
From Harry’s point of view, Ron’s family is paradise. It’s an intact family with a loving father and mother. Mrs. Weasley is a great cook, and Harry’s wizarding gifts are accepted as a normal part of life instead of being hated, feared, and suppressed. Even the large number of siblings makes the household a fun place to be. Harry stays with Weasleys many times and eventually ends up marrying into their family.
Imperfect Parenting and Re-parenting
Over the course of the series, Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, also provides a father figure to Harry. However, it takes Harry some time to realize that this is happening because he has been conditioned to mistrust authority figures.
Harry is also re-parented by his father’s childhood friend Sirius Black. This brings out the point that all of us need re-parenting from a variety of people, not just one person or one family. Neither Dumbledore nor Black is perfect (Mr. Weasley might be perfect though!), but between the three of them they give Harry a decent composite father figure. That’s why we say “it takes a village,” not “it takes one perfect person other than your parents.”
Ironically, sometimes someone who is a flawed parent themselves can be an ideal supplemental parent. This is true of Dumbledore, who is a wonderful mentor to Harry even though he let his own family down in significant ways. We also see it in how Ron experiences his family as a place of being second-best, whereas Harry has a great experience in the same family. In some ways it’s easier to be a good parent to your child’s friends than to your own child. Thus, the need for re-parenting is not necessarily proof that our own parents failed us completely or were more than usually flawed. It takes a village is an expression that, properly understood, simply takes into account the fact that everyone is badly flawed. It’s like the interpersonal version of the need for checks and balances in government.
Re-parenting in Voyage of the Dawn Treader
In C.S. Lewis’s classic sea story, Eustace Clarence Scrubb has parents who are neither neglectful nor directly abusive, but they have raised him with an inadequate set of values that is rapidly forming him into a sluggard, a coward, and a snob. Eustace, when he is whisked into Narnia, is re-parented not by any one adult per se but by the total experience of being in Narnia. And ultimately, of course, by Aslan Himself.
In Eustace’s case, getting re-parented is painful. At every turn, he is asked to work harder, put up with more hardship, and complain less than ever in his life before. Then things get really intense when he turns into a dragon and, to cure him, Aslan literally rips away his dragon skin. Eustace’s experience shows that re-parenting is not just about lots of love, hugs, and healing emotional wounds (though of course it can include that). It’s also a process of re-training, being challenged and held to higher standards. We see this in Dumbledore’s relationship with Harry in the later Harry Potter books, where Dumbledore starts giving Harry difficult assignments and holding him accountable whenever he doesn’t get on them.
Re-parenting in The Strange Land
Ikash, the teenaged protagonist of my novel The Strange Land, has an abusive father and a mother who because of her circumstances is barely functional. Early in the book, before Ikash ever notices his crush, he “falls in love” with her parents, who have an imperfect but warm and loving home. They demonstrate to him that there is another way to have a marriage besides the one his mother and father have. It takes a village.
His crush’s father doesn’t immediately accept Ikash, seeing him for the at-risk teen that he is and a potential danger to his daughters. Ikash is re-trained and challenged when he sees that Hur does not trust him, and is motivated to become worthy of that trust. The relationship grows through a series of tragedies and setbacks, and by the end of the book, the way those two re-parent him is really a sight to see.
Ikash also finds father figures in his paternal uncle and in his older cousin Ki-Ki. In both cases, it takes him some time to trust them because of his previous bad experiences with authority. I didn’t consciously copy this dynamic from Harry Potter. It’s just a natural dynamic that often repeats itself because of human psychology being what it is.
“Found Families” versus Re-parenting
Once or twice while reading book blogs, I have seen the term “found families.” I take this to mean stories where a character is orphaned or rejected for whatever reason and goes on to find or create a “family” for themselves from friends they meet along the way.
Clearly this is related to what I’ve been saying about re-parenting. I am not sure that it’s exactly the same thing because I don’t know the details of what people mean when they say a “found family.” My sense is that found families might more often consist of peers, whereas when I say re-parenting I am thinking more of a character being brought under the wing of a mentor (or, ideally, a couple) who are older and wiser. Also, re-parenting can happen without the characters really being considered a family, as in the case of Eustace.
In the comments, please tell me what you know about the term “found families” and also what you love and/or hate about found families and re-parenting in fiction.
Today is a special day for me and my husband. (Happy Anniversary, Honey!)
It’s not 25 years, but it is an anniversary that I would have thought would make us old, back when I was nineteen.
We don’t look old. Our kids are still school-aged, for crying out loud.
In honor of this day, I am posting what I believe is the sweetest love song in theater.
Tevye and Golde, in this song, are about the same age as my husband and me. Possibly a little younger. But they seem older because they married and began having children very young, and their hard life has aged them. Neither of them is a prince or princess. Instead, they are a peasant couple. After having made a life together, prompted by the newfangled habit of marrying for love they are just now raising the question of whether they love each other.
Reader response is a wonderful style of literary criticism which allows the reviewer to just note down their personal reactions, even if those reactions occurred while watching the show at midnight, when we get sleepy and our inner five-year-old emerges.
This post doesn’t explain the plot step by step, but it does contain all the spoilers and all the sarcasm.
So, my reactions to the movie version of Angels and Demons, in order …
1. Oooh, these Catholics are so mysterious and sinister!
2. Science-y stuff is happening inside the big collider. The people are speaking French. They think the collider might blow everything up, but they press on anyway because it’s Science.
3. Now they have made antimatter.
4. The messenger from the Vatican speaks English with a cool, ominous accent. He seems to be perfectly fluent, but he can’t remember the word formídable. The closest he can get is for-mi-dá-blay. The professor has to translate for him.
5. The professor is really smart. He knows more about Catholic history than the Catholics themselves. Seems legit.
6. The Illuminati were a bunch of honest truth seekers who were absolutely, positively not into the occult. They were just rationalists and scientists who were persecuted by the Catholic Church. Now they want to use the antimatter to blow up a small country (Vatican City), but that is totally justified because the Catholics branded a cross on the chests of five Illuminati back in the 1500s.
7. The Illuminati have kidnapped the four preferiti, a.k.a. Cardinals who are being considered to become the next Pope. The other Cardinals are in conclave. The Great Elector, the leader of these, is obviously the bad guy. He doesn’t want to evacuate St. Peter’s Square, even though it clearly might be a good idea. He has “I WANT TO BE POPE” written on his forehead, and it’s possible he is behind this whole scheme. He either works for the Illuminati, or is more likely using them.
8. The Illuminati assassin is torturing the preferiti one by one and leaving them around Vatican City for the Professor to find.
9. VATICAN CITY SCAVENGER HUNT!!!
10. Wow, I am just learning so much from this movie. I had NO IDEA that the church adopted the symbols and holidays of previous pagan religions, or that Dec. 25 was originally … oh, wait. Yes I did. I wrote an article about it here.
11. Also, English was the language of rebels and mavericks, like Shakespeare and Chaucer. (Chaucer????)
12. Honestly. There are no admirable characters in this movie. Not the Great Elector, not the Komandant of the Swiss guard, not the Illuminati assassin because torture, not the Professor because he always looks like everyone is getting on his last nerve with all this religion stuff … The only admirable character is a young priest who was the Pope’s protégé and who confusingly still loves the church as a place of simple people full of compassion even though he admits the church has “always sought to impede progress.” I’ll bet he apostatizes before the end. Either that or he becomes the next Pope.
13. The Pope was murdered, by the way. Turns out he didn’t really have a stroke. I think we are supposed to feel sorry for him (or for the protégé), but the scene when they open his coffin displays a black, swollen tongue protruding from his mouth and spreading a stain over the rest of his face. Clearly super symbolic.
14. Speaking of symbolism, in one scene the Professor gets trapped in the Vatican Archives. To preserve the ancient books there, oxygen is kept to a low level and the walls are lined with lead. When the power goes off, the electronic doors lock. The professor has to break out of this hall of old books where he cannot breathe or communicate with the outside world, or he will literally die from being stifled. The only way he can break out is to push a heavy bookcase full of priceless artifacts into the re-enforced glass, destroying these precious objects.
Hmm, what ever could all of this symbolize? Let me think …
15. OK, they have saved the one remaining preferitus. And they have found the antimatter. But – oh no! – they can’t replace the battery that will prevent an explosion, without possibly causing an explosion.
16. The protégé is taking the antimatter up in a helicopter so the explosion doesn’t kill anyone! He’s going to be martyred and made a saint!
17. Oh wait, he parachuted out!
18. But the explosion high over St. Peter’s Square is blowing his parachute all around! He’s going to die after all.
19. He survived! Now the cardinals are finding an obscure bylaw that allows them to make him Pope.
20. But the Professor has just found a hidden video that shows the protégé was the one who hired the assassin! He just made it look like an Illuminati plot! It was him all along!
I did not see that coming.
21. But the reasons he did it were the same old tired reasons we have been told all along. He killed the Pope because the Pope was OK with the scientists making antimatter and the protégé thought it was blasphemous.
22. In other words, he did all this in order to impede progress because he thought it might diminish the power of the church.
23. The lady scientist feels guilty about having made antimatter because it was stolen by the assassin and almost used to kill thousands of people. She wonders if they should go on making antimatter.
The professor encourages her to make some more. That’s good advice. After all, what are the odds of something like this happening again?
24. The Great Elector is now allowing the remaining preferitus to become Pope and is acting all nice & humble towards the Professor. “Religion is flawed, but that’s because people are flawed.”
OK, I was wrong about the Great Elector. Still, this feels like Dan Brown is trying to have it both ways. He’s just spent an entire movie showing us that religious zeal is really really bad and destructive, but now he wants to say that it’s also not, with no reasons given.
Verdict: I ended up really enjoying this movie because it was so twisty. But that doesn’t change the fact that it was a hatchet job. Even the twists serve its purpose, because the person behind the evil plot turned out to be the character who seemed the most saintly and was certainly the most zealous. He ends up setting himself on fire, murmuring, “Father, into Your hands I commend my spirit” and then screaming and writhing like a demon as he burns. If that’s not blasphemous I don’t know what is.
Bjorn Andreas Bull-Hansen blogs here about men’s mental health, viking culture and bushcraft (“viking camp”). That’s why I call him an actual Viking.
I realize that not all of you will make the time to watch this 8-minute video, so below are some highlights of the transcript. But you need to watch the video to get the full effect of the Norwegian accent, the poignant eye contact, and especially the emotion in this guy’s voice at 6:55 when he talks about “our gods. Or what we perceive as holy.”
Highlights of Bjorn Andreas Bull-Hansen Talking about Female Thor
“So, you want to make Thor a woman.”
[takes swig from beer bottle]
“… you people.
“Listen. I’m OK with a female Thor. I don’t care! That’s only because I’m a grownup.
“But here’s the thing. Thor is a symbol of masculine power. But I do suspect that … the writers … have a little bit of an agenda and they think it’s interesting to tear down that concept of masculine power. But let me tell you, there is actually such a thing.”
[takes swig of beer]
“My ancestors, they knew how important masculine power is for our society, for the family, and for our culture. And let me just say that you are stepping on something now that means a lot to some of us.
“So go ahead, make Thor a woman. But just know this: if you think it’s OK to make Thor a woman, you should never again criticize anyone for ‘cultural appropriation.’
“Every day, I walk my dog among the grave mounds of my ancestors. And my belief system is no less important than any other belief system.
“We should all lower our shoulders when it comes to our gods. Or what we perceive as holy. I think the world would be a better place if we did. But never again will you cry out about ‘cultural appropriation.’ Because that’s what you’re doing now, making Thor female.”
[swig of beer] [shakes head] “You people.
“So go ahead, go ahead! I don’t care. Thor is still out there. All around us, as a symbol of masculine power. He is present in every healthy society, in every healthy family.
“That’s all for now. Have a wonderful day! Bye-bye.”
Sad topic today.
An abusive marriage is a major part of the plot in my second novel, The Strange Land.
I first introduced this problem with a very minor mention in The Long Guest. Wife abuse of some kind (not always the violent physical kind) could occur in a quarter to a half of all relationships, depending on the culture. In The Long Guest I portray a small founding group of not quite 100 people, which means fifteen or twenty families. Given that human nature has not changed throughout the ages, to have a group of this size with no abusive families in it would have been grossly unrealistic.
The Limits of the Options
Abuse within a family is always very difficult to respond to. This is true in every age, but in our modern age there are at least a few options that those who care about the victim can offer. As a last resort, breaking up the family in order to stop the abuse might not be ideal, but it’s at least possible. It is possible for a single mom in our society to survive economically. As for the abuser, it is possible to put him in jail, or failing that to put hundreds of miles between him and his victims.
There are fewer options available to a community when it’s tiny, isolated out in the wilderness, and consisting basically of one big extended family. In this situation, there is no jail, there is no other place to live and it’s much less possible for a woman, especially if she has young children, to physically survive without a man.
So, how can the community handle this? A case of abuse is essentially a case of a stubborn, very hard heart. Rebukes don’t work on such a heart. Threats or pressure might work for a while, but ultimately tend to make the abuse worse. In a small, isolated community with no police force and nowhere else to go, the community has very few options unless they are willing to kill the abuser. They are unlikely to be willing to do this, especially if he is related to them by blood. If they do choose to put him to death, in the best case they must now support his widow and children. In the worst case, it could tear the community apart, resulting in anything from more deaths to the complete end of the tribe.
When I included an abusive marriage purely for realism, I had little idea that I would be handing my community of characters a truly insoluble puzzle.
The Limits of the Law
These very questions, and others like them, are explored in the video below by the always articulate Alistair Roberts. Roberts is answering a question from a viewer about why consent (in cases of arranged marriage, concubinage, etc.) does not seem to feature as a concept in Old Testament law. How can we square this with the idea that the Law is in any sense good?
Roberts talks about the limits of any law to change the society it governs, and about the extremely limited reach of national-level laws to govern what goes on within a household. He mentions cases like that of Hagar, Abraham and Sarah’s Egyptian slave woman, whom Sarah “gives” to Abraham so that Hagar can have a son who will be considered his heir. The way the founding couple treated Hagar was normal in their society at the time, but was certainly exploitative and was arguably rape. Though Hagar’s case was not covered by the law, it is obvious from the story that God noticed the injustice and avenged it. I never noticed that God avenged what happened to Hagar and her son Ishmael until I heard Roberts point it out in other videos, and then it became blindingly obvious. He recaps that here, as well as giving proof that God took seriously King David’s treatment not only of Uriah, but of Bath-Sheba as well (another case that today would be considered at least sexual harassment and probably rape).
The bottom line is that we do what we can to right wrongs, but our varying circumstances constrain what are able to do. These topics, sadly, are relevant to everyone. If you spend long enough in a community of any kind (church, school, team, family) you will eventually be forced to deal with the question of how to confront abuse. This video isn’t going to to give you all the answers (because they don’t exist), but it could help clarify your thinking. If you have time, give it a listen.
Another excellent resource on this topic is the book Why Does He DO That? by Lundy Bancroft.
A fellow blogger, Never Not Reading, made this delightful post: More Religious Characters Please. She points out that devout religious characters, particularly Christians, are extremely rare in fiction compared to their distribution in the general population.
I Have my Doubts about the Concept of Representation
She comes at this from the “representation” point of view, which is predicated on the idea that every kind of person ought to be able to find someone like them in fiction, and that if they can’t, this is somehow unfair or discriminatory. I don’t actually buy in to the assumptions behind this view. There are philosophical problems with the concept of “someone who is like me” that, if we parsed them, I suspect we would never get to the bottom of. I also think there are some other faulty assumptions packed in to the idea of representation: assumptions about what fiction means to the author and what fiction is meant to do for the reader. So, I find the whole idea of representation suspect.
Is This Persecution?
However, Never Not Reading is right about one thing. Religion plays a large role in life for very many – perhaps the majority – of people. It does not play any role in the characters’ lives in much of the fiction that is out there. This is even true of fiction set in historical periods such as the Middle Ages.
When religion does play a major role in a story, it is often portrayed as a force for evil. That goes double for Christianity.
What is the reason for this?
Never Not Reading goes out of her way to emphasize that she is not saying this lack of religious characters is a form of persecution. I agree. I think there are many complex reasons for it, which we will explore below.
Possible Reasons Non-Christian Authors Don’t Portray Devout Christian Characters
They don’t know any Christians in real life. Although polls will tell you that the majority of U.S. citizens identify as Christian, there are large pockets of society that are very secular. One of these is New York City, home to the publishing industry in America. Another is L.A., home to Hollywood. If you are an artist or writer, you are likely to move to one of these places to launch your career. There, it is easy to live your life without ever interacting with anyone who is openly Christian. It’s easy to get the impression that most people are secular, at least most normal people. And if your mental image of Christians is some variety of kook, it’s possible that some of your acquaintances are believers and you don’t realize it because they seem so normal.
It’s easier to portray madness than sanity, evil than good. Most people are bored by portrayals of virtue. A story with no evil in it is going to come grinding quickly to a halt. So if you are going to put religion into your story, it is easier to make the religious person the villain. The villain in Stephen King’s Misery, Annie, is a beautifully drawn portrayal of a crazy person who at first seems normal. Nothing beats the creepiness of the moment when, after torturing the hero, she starts to tell him that she has been talking to God.
Religion is also a great way to add punch, depth, and believability to your villain/cult leader. Christian-type religions, when they go bad, go really terrifyingly bad. This is easier to portray than the comparatively sane boring version, especially if you don’t actually know any sane and boring Christian groups.
They may actually hate them. Writing fiction is unavoidably a spiritual practice. Fiction is about how we see the world, people, the problem of evil, the cosmos … in short, about how we see reality. The only instruments we have with which to perceive and portray these things are our own eyes, ears, mind, and heart. These are the tools with which we write fiction.
Fiction will therefore reflect the author’s personal spiritual state as well as his or her unique personality. If a person has rejected God, their heart may actually be at war with God and with His people. This may come out in their writing, particularly if their writing is deep and heartfelt.
Stephen King, again, is a great example of this. He is a brilliant writer. I love his work. I tried to read Insomnia, and I couldn’t get through it because the pro-life character was also a despicable wife-beater (and was showing signs, when I stopped reading, of maybe being possessed by something or other. After all, it’s a Stephen King novel.)
Again, I am not saying this phenomenon is persecution. It is a natural consequence of the nature of fiction. It is always possible, when reading an author, to tell what he or she loves and hates. And some authors do hate Christians.
Possible Reasons Christian Authors Don’t Portray Devout Christian Characters
They wish to have wide appeal. Christian authors are aware that religion of any kind, but particularly Christianity, is Kryptonite to many people. It is enough to make people put down a book. That’s a shame, particularly if the story we are telling can be told without overt Christianity. After all, our first duty is to entertain the reader. We are not preachers, we are storytellers, so the story itself is supposed to be what we bring to the reader.
They fear being defensive. If we do put Christianity in to our book, aware that some readers will be skeptical or hostile, we could fall into making the book an apology or defense of our religion. Good authors don’t want to write a thinly veiled philosophical or political rant. (Hi there, Ayn Rand! Hello, Dan Brown!). They just want to tell a story. This is really, really tricky to do if we are feeling defensive, on account of the whole author’s-spiritual-state-comes-out-in-the-writing thing. So to avoid preachiness, it can be easier simply to avoid the whole topic.
They fear being unoriginal. As an author who grew up in the church, when I first started writing I wanted my writing to be interesting and new. Anything drawing on the Bible would be, I felt, tame and derivative. (Of course, that didn’t stop 12-year-old me from shamelessly ripping off Tolkien.)
Unfortunately, if you want to be wise it does not do to turn away from the font of all wisdom. In the years since, I have discovered that the Old and New Testaments are an incredibly rich source of story, history, myth, emotion, insight and symbolism that literally never runs dry. Some of my favorite pieces of art draw openly from the Bible. But surprisingly, instead of making them tired and derivative, this gives them their power. An example is Johnny Cash’s When the Man Comes Around. The lyrics are literally just a series of random quotes from the Old Testament prophets (plus a few quotes from Jesus), and the song still gives me goose bumps every time.
Religion is just too big to control in our writing.
This, I think, is the #1 problem for both Christian and non-Christian writers. If we are going to write about true religion (as opposed to the fake and hypocritical kind), then we are writing about God. We have just unleashed God into our book. This is sort of like blithely grabbing on to a blasting fire hose. It immediately introduces all these deep, destructive, hard-to-portray realities that are just too much for most writers to corral.
What kind of book we are capable of writing depends on our wisdom and maturity as a writer and as a person. I have made the mistake of trying to write about God when I was an immature writer, and I was not. Ready. For it. Trying to “include” God threw off all the dynamics of the book and basically destroyed it. My writing about the other characters wasn’t deep or wise enough to keep up. I wasn’t yet good enough at writing about the human heart, about suffering, about betrayal. My characters were paper dolls and God was a firehose.
Dostoevsky can do it. Mary Doria Russell did a great job in The Sparrow. But for us ordinary writers, if we choose to stay away from making religion a serious part of our plot, I think it might just be a sign of knowing our limits.
The protagonist of my first novel, Nimri, has a personality that in real life would be Kryptonite to me. (Whichever kind of Kryptonite it is that saps Superman’s strength. Green, I think.)
On the MBTI, Nimri is an ESTP:
Sensing (i.e. concrete)
Thinking (no special desire to please people)
ESTPs are observant, energetic, and crude. David Keirsey, in his book Please Understand Me II, calls them Promoters:
Witty, clever, and fun, they live with a theatrical flourish … Promoters have a knack for knowing where the action is. ESTPs have a hearty appetite for the finer things in life … Promoters are so engaging with people that they might seem to possess an unusual amount of empathy, when in fact this is not the case. Rather, they are uncanny at reading people’s faces and observing their body language … ESTPs keep their eyes on their audience, and with nerves of steel they will use this information to achieve the ends they have in mind – which is to sell the customer in some way. Promoters can be hard-nosed utilitarians … they can keep their cool in crises and operate freely … although they ordinarily have little patience with following through and mopping up.Keirsey, Please Understand Me II, pp. 64 – 65
How Did This Guy Get in The Story?
I’m an INFP. I have little natural sympathy for this type. Thus, I didn’t set out to write an ESTP character. But I also didn’t set out to write a likeable character, which perhaps helped open the door to a temperament I wouldn’t normally consider.
When I began writing the novel, I only knew that Nimri was smart, strong, snobbish, and involved in building the Tower of Babel (the ultimate project to promote). I knew I was going to put him in a difficult situation where he’d be humbled and have a chance at redemption. Once I put him in this situation (paraplegic, being cared for by people he once looked down upon, and unable to speak their language), ESTP is the personality that naturally emerged.
At first, Nimri behaves like a jerk, which is what we would expect of anyone in such a situation but especially of this personality type. He first yells at his rescuers and attempts to order them around even though they can’t understand him. He then falls silent and begins to observe them. Later, he tries to assault one of their young women, at which point they start treating him like a prisoner. (ESTPs, remember, are crude and utilitarian.)
At this point, Nimri’s Promoter gifts kick in and start to serve him well. He is energetic and adaptable, so instead of brooding, he starts a diary and occupies himself with things like arm exercises. His ability to read people’s body language helps him as he observes his captors and begins to figure out their names and who is related to whom. When he eventually picks up a little of their language, he begins joking with them. His concrete nature helps him find tasks he can do, such as music and weaving.
By the end of his time with his captors, Nimri does find redemption … but not by turning into an INFP. Instead, the positive aspects of his Promoter personality start to shine. He becomes what you might call a “good” ESTP. Still a source of energy, but energy that’s a bit more positive. Red Kryptonite.
Yet whether using his talents poorly or well, Nimri is a disruptive force in the story.
Some People Are Like That
Perhaps you know a person like this. Some people need only enter a room – or just walk by it – and chaos immediately breaks out. Disruption follows in their wake. They don’t even need to do anything (although they usually do). In Nimri’s case, he causes a stir even when sitting imprisoned in his room not talking to anyone.
And We Need Them
Though I started out to write Nimri as an unlikeable character in need of redemption (as are we all), I actually needed his maddening nature more than I realized. A story needs a disruptive force to keep things moving. Jordan Peterson would say, speaking his language of archetypes, that we need a balance between the forces of order and the forces of chaos. Too much chaos and society falls apart, but too much order can be stifling, enslaving. And so in a novel. You need a steady source of trouble or nothing will happen in your story.
(By the way, Peterson relies heavily on Jung for his archetypes. Concidentally, the MBTI is also derived – distantly – from Jung’s work. I realize there are problems with the MBTI and there would certainly be problems with trying to draw solely on Jung for your complete philosophy of life. However, both are useful when talking about stories.)
The disruptive force in a story is often the villain. It can be that character that readers love to hate. Or it could be something more abstract, like Nature. In some stories of the sane-man-in-a-crazy-world variety, almost all the characters are colorful and disruptive, and only the protagonist is vainly trying to hold things in order. This is true of Dave Barry’s novels, of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, and of the TV series King of the Hill (all of them comedies). It’s a little more difficult if you’re writing a “serious” novel and wish to have a number of admirable characters. You can’t make them all admirable, or no one will cause trouble, and then where will you be? Still, stories can accommodate more than one disruptor. It’s often best if you have several, including some outside force and one or more characters closer to home. In Beowulf, Grendel is the monster but Beowulf himself disrupts Hrothgar’s court by his arrival, and he is also challenged by Hrothgar’s designated mocker.
What’s a favorite story of yours and who is the disruptor in it?
But I don’t know how to get there from here.
Many years ago, a friend and I got talking about what Utopia would look like to us. I ended up producing a fairly extensive write-up on utopia according to me, dubbed “Jentopia.”
Jentopia turns out to be a very decentralized, low-tech society. I sketched a vision of people living in a scattered network of mostly self-sufficient farmsteads. They subsisted on agriculture, animal husbandry, hunting and fishing, or whatever combination of these best suited their immediate environment. Government was local. Crimes were handled at the community level by a tribal or community council. If a major military threat should arise from without, communities would get together and form a temporary militia to repel it. All art was folk art, all music folk music. Things that require a specialist, such as medicine, midwifery, and metalsmithing would be handled by local experts or by traveling specialists with whom gifted young people could apprentice if they chose. Young people, when they came of age, could travel to other communities to find spouses or seek work. Or they could simply go explore their world. Because of the low level of technology, it was unlikely that any one group could completely wipe out another. The low tech also limited the speed and range of travel. The world was connected, but loosely so. Families and communities were largely self-sufficient.
The closest I have ever seen historical conditions coming to Jentopia is the description of Almonzo Wilder’s boyhood in the book Famer Boy, written by his wife, Laura Ingalls Wilder. I suppose that this book, plus the Noble Savage myth, is where my mental picture of Jentopia originated.
The Wilder family are prosperous farmers living in upstate New York in the 1880s. They raise cows, sheep, pigs, and horses. They have fields and a big garden. The sheep produce wool, from which Mrs. Wilder weaves and then makes all the family’s clothes. They have their own woodlot, from which they get (as needed) wintergreen berries, nuts, and timber. They have their own lake, from which they cut ice to store for the summer. They achieve all this by working nonstop. By the time he is nine, Almonzo is plowing all day in the early summer. He makes up for it by eating his weight in food at every meal.
The Wilders are as near as a family can come to being completely self-sufficient. Nevertheless, they are connected to the outside world. A shoemaker and a tinker each make an annual trip to the area, selling the family what they need. A buyer from New York City comes by once a year to buy Mrs. Wilder’s butter. Mr. Wilder trains horses and sells them. And they are not completely safe from crime. A neighboring farm family is robbed and severely beaten in their own house one night. Also, the Wilder’s whole lifestyle would vanish if one of them were to become disabled by an injury or a serious illness.
We All Want It …
Despite not being perfect, the “Farmer Boy” lifestyle is very appealing to me in theory. And not only to me. It appeals to many people for different reasons. Some are survivalists who want to have more security by having more control over their food supply. Others are environmentalists who would rather not contribute to the problems of pollution and industrial farming.
These are not unusual feelings. I think most people, if you asked them, would rather be as self-sufficient as possible. And nobody, if you ask them point-blank, wants to pollute or create huge piles of garbage or exploit other people in sweat shops or indirectly participate in cruelty to animals. We all would like to live in an ideal world where we don’t harm anyone or anything else by our lifestyle. We are all trying to get back to the Garden.
So why is it that most people resist the call to suddenly enact a low-tech, environmentally friendly lifestyle? As a fellow blogger put it, “people don’t like environmental rants.” His theory is that we are all just too lazy and selfish to give up our luxuries. But I don’t think it’s that. I think most people resist “environmental rants” due to good, sound psychological reasoning.
People are willing to do something if they believe it will provide them some kind of tangible benefit. It’s best if they start seeing this benefit right away. If we tried to plant a garden and nothing came up, we might try again next year, but we would certainly be discouraged and might give up. This effect, by the way, is the reason that Dave Ramsey advises people who have a lot of debts to tackle their smaller debts first. It would make more sense mathematically to start with the larger debts, which rack up more interest. But Ramsey has discovered by trial and error that people need the early sense of accomplishment that comes with seeing a debt vanish. This gives them hope that paying off their debts is possible and further motivates them to keep saving.
Occasionally you meet a person who is so disciplined and mature that they can work hard and sacrifice for a very long-term goal, sometimes for years before seeing any results. But this is not the norm. In the real world, people give up if they don’t believe their efforts are having any effect.
That is the problem with asking people to make changes in their lifestyle for an abstract environmental goal. There is no obvious connection between our actions and the end result. We are told that the world is ending and that it’s because of our lifestyle. However, we are also told that even if we completely changed our lifestyle tomorrow, it’s possible the disastrous trend would not reverse. And even if everyone in our city – or state – or country – managed to completely change our lifestyle, China would still be out there polluting. Our actions wouldn’t make a dent in climate change, if it is even mostly human-caused. If it is even worse than the alternatives.
In the end, the actions we are urged to take are so tiny that it’s hard to see how they could do anything. Use a different kind of light bulb. Produce less trash. Don’t eat meat. Whoopee. I don’t take environmental end-times prophets seriously unless they ask us to move to the wilderness, go full Wilder, and stop using electricity altogether.
And some of them do.
The Hard Way
I hate to pick on the Green New Deal, but it’s out there, and I have heard people say that we are selfish, anti-science, anti-future dunderheads if we object to it. So, let’s talk about it.
The basic premise behind the GND is to enact a sudden, universal switch to a sustainable, environmentally friendly lifestyle from the top down, by force. There are two problems with this. One is the tyranny problem. The other is the death problem.
The Tyranny Problem: The problem with enacting radical lifestyle changes from the top down is that this is, not to mince words, tyranny. It is tyranny any time a government tries to force large segments of a population to give up their livelihood, move to a different place, raise their children in a certain way, have more or fewer children, or any other major changes to the elements of our lifestyle that are the proper domain of families.
Mao Tse Tung tried this in China. It was called the Great Leap Forward. He basically outlawed white-collar jobs and forced millions of city dwellers to move onto collective farms. Millions died in the famines that followed. (Top-down control of farming >>> crop failure >>> famine.)
Any time a government tries to force major lifestyle changes on its populace, whatever else the initiative may be it is also a power grab.
Actually, the advocates of the GND admit that it’s a power grab. They say that radical, tyrannical steps are necessary now just as they are (arguably) necessary during Total War, because we are all going to die unless we do something about this environmental problem. They say tyranny is justified because they are saving us from death.
So let’s talk about the death problem.
The Death Problem: Besides the fact that it’s tyranny, there is another huge problem with trying to get an entire population to give up electricity, plastics, and motor vehicles essentially overnight. The problem is that these modern luxuries have enabled us to build up and sustain a population that is much, much bigger than subsistence farming could support.
We all depend on electricity (hence coal) and on oil for things like our city sewer systems; our clean, processed water; our garbage removal; our heat in the winter; our healthy, abundant, affordable food. We also depend on these systems for medical technologies that keep many of us alive. Many people are dependent upon medicines that have to be refrigerated and that can only be produced with our current technology.
If we suddenly gave up petroleum and coal, all these systems would collapse. This scenario has been explored – frequently – in sci-fi and dystopias. It always ends in huge die-offs. Often, the die-offs have an additional cause such as zombies. But if you want to read a detailed exploration of what would happen if the lights simply went out, I recommend Dies the Fire by S.M. Stirling. At the beginning of that book, all electricity, motor vehicles, and gunpowder (!) suddenly stop working. There is no bomb, and there are no zombies. Lights out is all it takes to kill off most of the population. If you don’t have time to read Dies the Fire (a doorstop of a book), try the much shorter One Second After by William R. Forstchen, in which gunpowder and motor vehicles continue to work, but the power goes off and communities no longer receive goods from the outside world via trucking. This is even closer to what the Green New Deal would bring us.
Anyone who seriously wants the United States to stop using coal and petroleum within the next ten years is asking at least 50%, probably more like 75%, of us to die in the cause of environmentalism.
I honestly don’t know whether the advocates of the GND realize this or not. Maybe they think there would be a way to find another source of power, such that it would not cause massive die-offs. Maybe they think the die-offs would be a good thing. Or maybe they don’t actually expect the GND to be enforced as it is written. In any case, I don’t think they’ve thought seriously about how bad it would really be.
The Possibly Not Fatal, But Still Extremely Hard, Way
The only nonfatal way that I can see for a Luddite dreamer to get from city life to Jentopia is to move there voluntarily. Buy some land, build a chicken coop, plant a big garden. Become a homesteader. Have a generator or a wood stove or whatever you need in case the power goes out. Dig a root cellar. Stock up on any necessary medicines.
This is good, as far as it goes. It is something that I would like to do if so positioned. That said, there are a few caveats.
Not everyone is in a position to take up the homesteading lifestyle. Some people can’t afford to move or can’t afford to buy land. Some are taking care of a sick child or elder. Some are committed to an important, demanding career that ties them to a city. (We don’t want all our doctors and firefighters to go full Luddite!)
Even supposing we do take up the homesteading lifestyle, it is going to be very demanding. Farming is difficult to succeed in if you didn’t grow up in it. (For example, you need a lot of wrist and hand strength that has to be developed in your youth.) For most people, their homestead would end up being only partially self-sufficient. They might have a large garden and keep chickens, perhaps even a cow … but a portion of their food, all of their medicine, and probably the bulk of their income would be coming from elsewhere.
Even to take up a partially self-sufficient lifestyle, here are the skills you might need: construction (fixing your house, and building barns, chicken coops, etc.). Plumbing. Gardening, including knowing what varieties of garden crops do well in your area and how to handle pests and plant diseases. Animal husbandry (if you want your own milk) and butchering (if you want your own bacon). Food preservation (canning, pickling, and maybe a smokehouse). Water purification. Home cooking from scratch. Camping skills such as how to start a fire in a fire pit or in a wood stove – and, not unrelated, fire safety. Knitting, sewing, and – if you are hard core – spinning and weaving. Sheep shearing. Soap making. First aid and possibly more advanced medical knowledge, if you are living in a place remote enough that it would be hard to get to medical care. Home dental care (tooth extraction?). Home haircuts. Vehicle maintenance (or horse breeding). How to maintain the road into and out of your place. And finally, if you are preparing for the lawlessness that would follow a social or environmental apocalypse, you will need self-defense skills, shooting skills, and gun maintenance (or sword skills if you are living the world of Dies the Fire).
Obviously, living in an environmentally friendly way is going to be a full-time occupation and then some. You will have no time for art or leisure.
Let me be the first to say that I do not have all these skills. I do not have a green thumb. I have a tiny yard that is not set up for chickens or gardening. I have a modestly stocked pantry and one lousy rain barrel. I have a fire place but no wood pile. If the power went off in our city in the middle of the winter and stayed off for a month or two … maybe my family would survive. That’s leaving looters out of the equation.
Maybe I should start calling myself a Hypo-Luddite.
It’s a really big club.
Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, HarperCollins, first published 1933. Shows the Wilder family’s lifestyle by following Almonzo through one year of his life.
The Quarter-Acre Farm: How I Kept the Patio, Lost the Lawn, and Fed my Family for a Year by Spring Warren. Seal Press, 2011. Warren decides she personally (only she, not her husband and sons) is going to eat only what she grows on her own property for one year. (She has to exclude beverages from this, or she would have to give up all drinks but water.) She works her tail off, but she does it. Her learning curve is delightful to read. Note that she lives in California, which has a good growing climate, and when the book starts her yard already boasts fruit trees.
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang. Chang chronicles the life of her grandmother, her mother, and herself. Her parents were both dedicated communists early in the movement. Her family survived being separated and sent to collective farms during the Great Leap Forward.
See thesurvivalmom.com to get a sense of the range of skills that homesteading requires.
“The Green New Deal as America’s Great Leap Forward” by Clifford Humphrey, The Epoch Times, March 31, 2019
“The Climate Case of the Century” by Edward Ring on American Greatness. The web site is kind of annoying in terms of ads and pop-ups (sorry about that!), but in the section of the article called “Critical Questions,” Ring asks a series of great questions about the extent and nature of climate change and the relative harm and benefits of trying to switch to solar and wind power.