August 24, 2015

Do Justice, Love Mercy

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In the last few days before my classes start, my family and I have been 'catching up' on some movie-viewing time courtesy of Netflix.  (During the school year we get a disc in the mail and then it sits on our counter, unwatched, for the next four weeks or so until we either have an evening to spare or simply say "eh" and mail it back for the next impatient viewer.  We're feckless subscribers.)  Last night we finally settled down for the last installment of the Hobbit trilogy, after having seen the first two in theaters and been too severely underwhelmed by both to go watch "The Battle of the Five Armies" when it came out.  It was, I felt, somewhat better; they made a hash of Bard, but Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage were excellent as Bilbo and Thorin, and that covers some sins at least.  After having watched a few others movies in the past few weeks, though, notably Von Ryan's Express, I tended to fixate on the very minor, added, unnecessary plot point of the coward Alfrid.

Or, rather, the fact that none of the main characters seemed willing to give Alfrid the fate he deserved.

Alfrid doesn't have a whole lot of purpose in the story, except as an object for the viewer's disgust.  He isn't the horrible, 'fantastic' evil of the orcs and goblins and so forth; he is the normal, everyday evil of greed and selfishness taken to a ludicrous degree.  In the early scenes, after Alfrid (who, I might add, is basically the same character as Wormtongue with a little more screen time) has attempted to escape with the Master of Laketown and been abandoned, the townsfolk quite reasonably attempt to lynch him.  However, Bard - like Aragorn with Wormtongue in the film version of The Two Towers - stops them, insisting that enough people have died already.  Thereafter, the good characters show a curious insistence on entrusting Alfrid with important responsibilities (which, of course, he fails to perform) and refuse to make him answer for his misdeeds; Bard even allows him to go on his merry, gold-laden way when Alfrid deserts the makeshift army of Laketown.

Much the same scenario plays out in the 1965 Von Ryan's Express, in which the two protagonists, one British and one American officer, take very different views on mercy and the demands of war.  When the soldiers get out of the POW camp, the Brit, Major Fincham, insists they kill the officer in command of the camp; Von Ryan overrules him, arguing that the officer cannot simply be killed in cold blood.  The decision comes back to bite him, costing quite a few of the soldiers their lives, and yet when the protagonists encounter a similar situation later on Von Ryan again errs on the side of mercy (and it once again backfires).

Why the emphasis - perhaps the over-emphasis - on mercy?  Why can't we just hang Alfrid or shoot the evil Italian or German?  From the writer's perspective, the choice seems to have far less to do with the antagonist (we don't really care what happens to Alfrid: he's a despicable character anyway) than it does with the protagonist: viewers are uncomfortable with a 'good' character taking a life into his hands, particularly in the role of executioner, and writers don't want to wrestle with the moral ambiguities through their protagonist.  The evils the antagonist has committed aren't worth the protagonist getting his hands dirty.  Hence this pattern of having a Bard or a Von Ryan choose not to kill a (human) antagonist - or, better yet, having the protagonist stop other characters from killing the antagonist - is such a recurring element that it now seems taken for granted. "Mercy isn't a weakness" is a mantra in fiction.

common explanations
  • "too many people have died already"
  • "he's not worth the powder"
  • "he's suffered enough"
  • "if I kill him I'll be just as bad as he is"
Don't get me wrong: mercy is huge and powerful and absolutely crucial.  I think the contemporary focus on it - in literature, but also in such debates as whether or not the death penalty is acceptable - is an outgrowth of Christianity; I'm glad we have such things as the Geneva Conventions that recognize the worth of human life in a manner unheard of centuries ago.  On the other hand, I think we need to wrestle with the dynamics of "doing justice and loving mercy."  What does it mean to "do justice," anyway?  Are there times when mercy isn't ours to give?  What do we do when our protagonist is in a position of authority, holding the fates of others in his or her hands, and has to decide how to act?  Of course the answer differs from character to character, but it seems to me that we shouldn't be too flippant in having the character withhold judgment for the sake of illustrating their goodness through their clemency.  Maybe sometimes we need to let the characters (and the readers or viewers) deal with the consequences of moral decisions and the weight of responsibility, as Von Ryan eventually does. 

Mercy is huge, and because it is huge it should be illustrated thoughtfully, intentionally - not brought in carelessly because that is what the consumer 'expects,' or because justice is too messy to handle.

You tell me!  Do you think Bard should have killed Alfrid?  How have your characters wrestled with these issues?

August 18, 2015

A Close of Summer Update

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"I've missed your posts in the blogosphere!"

Several people have recently, or semi-recently, brought up the lack of posts on Scribbles.  You know, seven months' worth of no posts.  Here at the end of summer, though, I thought I would write an update - and give you all some snippets of Wordcrafter.

Although I finished with the spring semester back in early May and completed a stand-alone, three-week class in early June, the last few months have still been taken up almost entirely with academic stuff.  I've been spending the summer working on a research project with one of my history professors, the goal of which is to produce a "sourcebook" of original documents from the English civil war period [Suzannah: think this Crusades reader, but probably not as big].  The specific subject?  Popular works, especially cheap eight-page pamphlets, that deal with witchcraft, comets, apparitions, monsters, and other such supernatural "prodigies."  Oh, it's very cheerful.  In fact I have really enjoyed myself - except while reading the accounts of witch-trials, which are universally depressing.

Since we made substantial headway in June and July, the work has let up a bit in the past couple of weeks as we approach the beginning of the fall semester.  In a vain attempt to fill up the excess time on my hands, I've been digging in, sometimes with relish and most times with a grim will, to that continued project that is the rewrite of Wordcrafter.  I'm not precisely sure where I was in the story at the end of the school year, but I think I've added about 20,000 words since May: not a whole lot for a story that promises to be another large one, but not too shabby, either.  We're departing faster and faster from the course of the original story, and I believe the scene I'm working on now is something of a watershed, after which the territory will be almost entirely new.  Thus, although I originally thought I could get along fine with just the structure of the first draft(s) in my head, I'm now beginning to think it would be wise to actually construct an outline.  (I write outlines for a three-page reflection essay.  I am not a pantser, people.  Outlines are gold.)

august snippets

Her clothing was rich, the nose- and mouth-covering heavy with embroidery and a layer of gold mesh, three medallions hanging from her turban across her forehead: even I, who had little acquaintance with Tera and none at all with the Gypsies, had no difficulty recognizing high rank. But my eye was drawn chiefly to her right hand and the weapon in it, for I had never yet seen a firearm here in Ethan’s world. It was no automatic; flintlock was more like it, the barrel and handle cased in wood, the hammer under her thumb fashioned, I thought, like a dragon. She had its twin buckled to her left hip, almost lost in her clothes, and it took me a moment to reconcile myself to the oddity. 

“I thought you were dead,” I said rudely. 

// 

 ...I was too bleary-headed to pay much attention to details, but as we came down the hill between the towering pagan stones I was conscious, almost as keenly as in that moment when I came through the shack, of a change in the world around me. It was as though I had physically passed out of the Tera I had come to know, the Tera of the Horsemen and the villa and a Mediterranean summer, and come instead into the setting of a Grimm’s fairytale. 

// 

“Well, I call that fine!” Ash cried warmly, pounding me on the back in momentary forgetfulness of my crime. “You’re not much of a fighter, but sure and you can take a hit!” 

// 

Funny how black the night seemed, here where there were no electric lights. Silent, too: my mind strained unconsciously for the sound of a car, of a train out in the distance, of voices or music on a radio, but there was nothing. Here on the threshold of the villa the world fanned out from us in layers of darkness, and it was as imperturbable and unnerving as the ocean on a night with no moon. 

 // 

When we ducked in Threshing Floor had just backed into Sure Repulse, a big red creature with a hell of a temper, and the boys were hurrying en masse to put down the fracas. It was mayhem, and I stood against one of the empty stable boxes and squinted around me with a certain amount of smug satisfaction. 

 “I could have stayed in bed a bit longer, apparently,” I observed. 

 // 

Her talk was of Marah and Our Good Fortune, of hunts here at the waning of the summer and of legends of great hunters from millennia ago who had fought monsters rather than deer and boar: easy, uncontentious conversation, light as the yellow wine her father had served us. 

// 

“I’d like to think Ash’s big mouth will get him into trouble one day,” he said, “but unfortunately he’s the sort of fellow who always manages to dodge trouble by the skin of his teeth."
 
meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings






The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings






Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing



Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 85,000 words

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