A Treatise on Storytelling, II: Cowardly Stories

“You’ve got to go into the scrap heap” Theodor Kittelsen 1880

By the end of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, the titular character is a pitiful figure. Whenever he is given the chance to be someone, whether good or evil, he runs away, leaving sorrowful lovers, unruled kingdoms, and abandoned fortunes behind him. While Peer lives a wild life following every desire that comes to his mind, his life is worthless. As an old man, he is finally faced with the messenger of death who has come to take his soul. Peer is horrified to find that rather than a messenger of God to take him to heaven or the devil to take him to hell, he is met with a simple looking man who refers to himself as the “button moulder.” He informs Peer that Peer will be melted back down into a pool of souls, and reused as someone who will hopefully amount to something on the second time around. “You were meant to be a gleaming button on the world’s waistcoat, but your loop was missing; so you’ve got to go into the scrap-heap, to be merged into the mass”¹ For the rest of the play Peer relentlessly tries to prove that he is good enough for heaven or bad enough for hell. He will do anything to escape the oblivion that he would meet in the casting ladle of the button moulder. Peer’s cowardice in life caused his life to mean nothing at death. Like Peer, the stories that we tell often run from hefty moral decisions and end up without definition, fit only to be melted down and reused.

Every story is a matter of right and wrong. It is impossible to create conflict without establishing a way things ought to be. When the evil king locks up the plucky hero’s family because he wants to secure his throne, the story is telling us that there is something wrong with desiring to hold on to power at all costs, and that locking up an innocent family is problematic. When the chaos of a rioting crowd is portrayed as terrifying and wild, the story is telling the audience that this kind of passion is dangerous. Because we are dealing with reality, there is no way to tell a successful story and avoid telling something about right and wrong.

Speaking about right and wrong is dangerous. Making bold moral statements alienates and frightens audiences. But stories are the moral heart of a society. The stories we tell and the heroes we love shape and change us dramatically. There is no getting around the fact that the art we consume changes us in ways that are fundamental. If storytellers avoid tackling important issues, not only will their conflicts be sapped of life, boring and inconsequential, but the stories will be unable to sufficiently shape the audience in positive ways, creating a cowardly audience that flees from moral decisions. There are many examples of cowardly storytellers that pervade our culture’s stories, resulting in several symptoms of cowardly storytellers. Here are a few that have been bothering me.

I don't know Marvel, is he evil enough?
I don’t know Marvel, is he evil enough?

Just as Peer flees definition, seeking after adventure as opposed to making a stand for anything, so do many stories flee from taking a stance on any moral issue, choosing the most broad and general categories for evil and good as they can. In the recent Marvel superhero film “Thor: The Dark World,” the central threat of the story is that the villain, sporting the uncompromisingly evil name of Malekith, wants to stop the universe from existing. There is almost no cause less controversial than the cause of “let’s stop the universe from not existing.” While there could perhaps be compelling arguments for ending the universe, our menacing dark elf villain never explains his rationale. Because I trust in the cowardice of filmmakers, I knew that by the end of this movie there would still be a universe. People would band together to save the day, and all other days. By making the plot’s risk all encompassing, the writers of this film completely remove any exploration of the film’s ideas. Remarkably, the writers have made the possible end of the universe boring and trite. While the complex and heartful interaction between Thor and his brother Loki redeem this film in part, the central plot demonstrates cowardice. This theme is not unique to our hammer wielding hero. Themes of  “death is bad” and “life is good” often encompass most of the moral heart of our films. While these are true statements, they are hopelessly boring without further discussion. Ultimately they are not just boring, but a demonstration of the reluctance of the filmmaker to tread on any unstable or risky ground..

Cowardly refusal to discuss matters of importance seeps its way into a great many films. How many movies have you seen where the heroes must fight hard to keep the current system existing. Generally a wicked villain will rise up, threaten the peace, and the heroes will save the day, bringing us right back to where we started. Our films have become a vigorous defense of the status quo. Often I find myself wondering why the status quo is so worth saving. It often seems that the only people who really want to change the world are the villains. While Ultron may want to cleanse the world of evil by wiping out mankind, at least he does not take the Avenger’s approach of just letting evil happen. We need films that are brave enough to try and create something, as opposed to just stopping misguided reformers. If anything, this reckless defense of the way things are gives us a fear of the firebrand. If we continue to fight for the system, when will we ever join the moral revolutionary? The poet’s pen should fearlessly strike the paper, causing deep gashes that form something beautiful. The artist should be a revolter, burning down the established concepts in the mind of the audience and building up stronger cities.

There actually was a big red genocide button
There actually was a big red genocide button

At the risk of incurring the wrath of the Whovians (a formidable crowd indeed) I would argue that one of the clearest examples of storytelling cowardice comes in the Doctor Who season 7 finale. One of the only interesting plot points of the show up to this point was that the protagonist, the earth saving, long lived, enigmatic “Doctor” is haunted by a genocide he once committed on his own people to save the universe. Lingering in the back of the show’s mind is the question of whether or not, if given the chance, he would do this act again. The Doctor is faced with this choice in this finale as he, through a convenient and technobabbled time coincidence, is again faced with the same decision. He can choose to save the universe or choose to not commit a genocide of his own people. At this point I got excited. The show makers were finally going to answer their question: is it justified to commit a horribly immoral act in order to save the universe? I would have been happy either way. Had he pushed the big red genocide button, the show would be making a big statement on morality and pragmatic decision making. Had he decided to not push the button, the show would be making an even more exciting statement: the universe and everything in it is not worth a single immoral act of this magnitude. I desperately wanted him to stay away and the show to end on this powerful note. But instead the show’s music kicked in and the writers figured out a way, using an impossibly large amount of time travel, to run away like Peer. They ran away from making a decision. We are left with the idea that when difficult choices have to be made in life, you will always be able to run away.

We need to ask more of our stories. They should not parrot simplistic ideas of morality that make us comfortable. Let the bard’s prophesies and screams make us profoundly, healthily uncomfortable, lest we settle for weak willed art, devoid of any meat. Our stories will form us. Is it too much to ask that they form us powerfully? When a storyteller sits down to write they should write with courage, creating stories that either deserve heaven or hell; stories that create devils or angels. The most insidious kind of evil is the kind that seeps in gradually, eroding at our moral strength. It is this erosion that weak willed stories create. By telling stories like cowards we are molding cowards. Our stories become buttons without loops, fit only to be remolded into the casting ladle. Stories should inspire the hearer to sing like an angel or curse like a devil, not passively nod in agreement as he slips into oblivion

¹ Ibsen, Henrik. “Peer Gynt.” Eleven Plays of Henrik Ibsen, ed. Bennet A. Cerf, Donald S. Klopfer. New York: The Modern Library. 466. Print


4 thoughts on “A Treatise on Storytelling, II: Cowardly Stories

  1. 60guilders July 18, 2015 / 9:32 PM

    I think part of the reason why misguided reformers tend to be the villains these days is that most people have figured out that upsetting the applecart tends to result in a lot of ruined apples, and not much else. One is reminded of Chesterton’s fence.

    • Luke Brake July 19, 2015 / 1:07 AM

      Absolutely! I think this demonstrates cowardice once again. It is so much easier to complain about evil than to create good. Chesterton’s fence is a great example here.

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