Friday, February 1, 2013

Happily Ever After (or: What Story-time with Dumbledore's Army Should Be Like)


It’s not just fairy tales that end “happily ever after.”  The majority of narratives and mythologies espoused by humankind, including religion, have a “happily ever after” built in.  That’s become troubling to humans living in the 20th and 21st centuries, because we realize that, for many people (maybe even most people who’ve ever lived) there is no way their personal stories can be classified into “happily ever after.”  Life is hard work.  Life is a long fight, sometimes to the bitter end.  Life can feel like a desert with all too few oases.  The narrative arc of a person’s life doesn’t flow the way a fairy tale’s does.

But I firmly believe in the importance of continuing to tell narratives with a sort of “happily ever after” ending.  It can be bittersweet.  It can indicate that there are still struggles ahead for our heroes.  But we, as a human race, as a society, need to tell one another stories that inspire.  If we don’t believe that some sort of “happily ever after” can be attained, why would we keep fighting?  We may begin a fight just for the ideal, for the principle, but if we’re going to continue on in a fight, a journey, or a committed task, we must believe that the goal is attainable.  And belief in the outcome stems from the narrative you believe you can live.

Not only do we need to believe justice can win, we need to believe it can win here and now.  It’s no good walling ourselves up in ivory towers, propping our feet up on the grate, and assuring one another that once we die, we’ll go to heaven & the bad guys will go to hell, so really it’s all okay.  That’s escapism at its laziest.  I don’t want to just be told that I’ll have a good afterlife.  I want to know that right here, today, I can shout out loud for justice and truth and someone will hear me and it will make a difference.  It's common to say that all that's necessary for bad people to win is for good people to do nothing.  That's true.  And a promised win in the afterlife is no reason to let evil win here on earth.

Sometimes, I lose faith in that “happily ever after.”  Sometimes, when the chips are down, nothing comes through the way I think it should.  But although I may rant and scream in pure, unproductive frustration for a short time, I need to remember that it’s just a setback.  That I should keep fighting. 

Frodo didn’t give up when he realized he had to take the long way around into Mordor.  Harry didn’t just roll over and die when the Death Eaters took over the Ministry of Magic and Hogwarts.  Luke, Han, Leia and Chewie didn’t just throw up their hands in despair when they discovered they were in a garbage compactor.  I could go on, but you understand what I’m saying.  These narratives all end happily despite the appearance of an apparently insurmountable obstacle.  Frodo makes his way into the heart of Mordor and accomplishes his quest (and, by the way, only afterward achieves a peaceful afterlife).  Harry Potter, I’ll admit, ends a little too happily for my taste, a little too abruptly, with too few long-term consequences mentioned.  But the point is, Harry and his friends do finally defeat Voldemort and the Death Eaters.  With some outside help, Luke, Han, Leia and Chewie made it out of the garbage compactor and eventually destroyed the Death Star.  What’s my Black Gate?  My Hogwarts takeover?  My trash compactor?

In the interest of realism and artistic integrity, I’m not discounting narratives that end tragically.  1984, a cautionary tale, ends with our hero having given up his integrity and individuality, being in the end conquered by “Big Brother.”  I love that ending because it is straight-up horror.  We need to see how things are now, and how things could be if we lose our battles for justice and freedom.  I need those alternative, dystopian narratives to provide a contrast.  But I can’t only surround myself with dystopia.  I have to have faith (and shockingly enough, being named “Faith” doesn’t mean I have an automatic supply).

So, when it appears that we’ve lost, or are losing, when injustice is the order of the day, we need to keep on telling one another “happily ever after” narratives.  Not the unadulterated “happily ever after” of fairy tales; we’re too old for that.  We’ve all experienced too much.  We need a believable “happily ever after.”  A “happily ever after” that says, it’s possible for us to win this fight.  There will be casualties.  Our lives will not be the same, we may be irreparably damaged.  But justice can happen, if we continue to fight.  That’s how we’ll strengthen each other, remind each other not to give up.  Remember all those stories.  The hobbits, the Rebel Alliance, and Dumbledore’s Army all won in the end, and so can we.

What's your favorite story when you're tired of working for all the right things and running into brick walls and dead ends?  If you were sitting around a campfire with Dumbledore's Army right now, what tale would you tell?

3 comments:

  1. Faith, I am a lover of mythology, and one thing I've found is that you can tell a great deal about a people and culture based on the stories they tell. The Greek's myth focused on the exploits of mighty heroes, deals with themes of love, tragedy, and transcendence. Much of modern day storytelling and literature stems from their patterns. The Egyptians had an obsession with death and the afterlife, an ever present theme in their stories. The Norse myths are very gritty, harsh, and include a lot of battle and glorious deaths, which reflects a lot of what we know about this harsh people.

    What conclusions would you draw about society today based on the primary themes in our stories? I'm interested to hear your thoughts, and thankful for what you've shared above!

    Iliad Keys

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    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment! You're right, it's possible to tell a lot about a culture by their prevalent mythologies. I came up with a few major themes present in modern Western mythology:

      1. The ever-present struggle between optimism and realism which I believe is what I have outlined above. We know there are seemingly insurmountable obstacles in life. We know that sometimes these obstacles will change our lives forever. But we also want to believe that we can overcome these dark realities.

      2. A humanistic/subjective focus. It's about individual people, and it's about here and now. In Greek myths, the gods are always interfering in human events, mixing their efforts up with human efforts until you can't tell who's fully responsible for the outcomes. In modern tales, though people may appeal to a higher power, it's always human effort which is moving the story forward. Star Wars makes this relationship with the supernatural most explicit: Jedi and Sith "use" the Force. They don't appeal to it to perform actions on their behalf. They have to channel the power for themselves. God isn't a character in our stories, so moving the story along by saying that he worked a miracle is, these days, sloppy story-telling.

      Also, we don't have an overwhelming focus on death or the afterlife. Post-Enlightenment myths look for success, redemption, happiness, etc. in this present life. This is a distinct departure from many older mythologies (especially the old Christian martyr myths), suggesting that as a society we don't truly stake our hopes on religion anymore. Even religious writers tend to have a present focus. Tolkien's glimpses of an "afterlife" in the West were limited and, though they provided a motivating force for some of his characters, the characters still had a will to live, not to die gloriously (except for Eowyn and that desire was portrayed as a faulty one). And in Les Miserables, one of the most blatantly religious myths which still captures our imaginations, Jean Valjean dies happily not primarily in hopes of Heaven but because things have been made right in his life on earth.

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    2. 3. Finally, I believe the strongest theme in modern day stories is value of the individual coupled with a deep distrust of institutions. Villains have huge bureaucracies, overarching systems, legions of drone-like minions to do their bidding. Heroes are outnumbered, unique, and usually form diverse alliances to achieve their goals. There are several historical factors which may have brought this focus about, including the Enlightenment's value of the individual, the social movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the Western struggle against Communism. However it came about, modern Western stories always value the anarchic diverse handful of individuals over monolithic powers-that-be. In the stories any group tells about themselves, they always cast themselves as the scrappy little nobody standing up to the cruel system. Paul Ryan (Romney's running mate) might have had plenty of money and power, but he valued the stories and philosophy of Ayn Rand, who wrote her anarcho-capitalist heroes as the few being oppressed by the many (the "looters" and "moochers"). At my own ultra-conservative alma mater, the few moderates are put through a great deal of trouble by those in positions of leadership, but as it turns out, the leaders see themselves as the faithful few holding back the hordes of liberals. Both accounts cannot be true, but both sides of any question desire to play the heroes part.

      In conclusion, I believe our modern Western myths suggest a subjective, individualistic, experiential, humanistic philosophy that each of us operates with every day (whether we'd admit it or not). We pay lip service to the supernatural but we rely on ourselves. Structures and systems seem villainous to us. And, as my original post stated, we want to know that we can succeed here and now.

      That was quite a long-winded reply, I hope it was something along the lines of what you were looking for.

      -Faith

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