Quests, Good vs. Evil, and How We Are Complicated

Self Portrait as a Knight upon the Completion of a Great Quest

In this post I talk about:

  • Arthurian Legends
  • the destruction of dichotomies
  • our fixation on steadfast character
  • playing poker with a bunch of the maintenance guys from my school
  • Lately I’ve been thinking about Arthurian Legends. It started with a conversation with my friend about the graphic novel I am currently working on, Jeremiah. The comic has nothing to do with medieval knighthood (it takes place in modern-day Iowa), but he made some comparisons to the figure from the legends called the Fisher King. Inspired by this conversation, I later wrote a thesis paper drawing huge comparisons between the Fisher King and Jeremiah, but the one that struck the deepest chord with me was this: The notion that there is no “good” and “evil,” but in all decisions, there is the better choice. The goal for everyone is to attempt to always make the better choice.

    Dichotomies do not exist within Arthurian legends. The best knights are not simply warriors, but are also wise. The concept of illumination, the gathering of information, is vital in a lot of the stories. Contemporarily, we seem to boil the legends down to good vs. evil, knight vs. dragon, etc., but it was more complicated than that. Just like real people, no one has one side to themselves. The complication of people’s lives is made into the vast metaphors of the legends.

    Application of these values is difficult in real life. It’s hard to acknowledge that everyone in our life is a complex being. We go through our lives wanting the other people we interact with to be simple: “For the purpose of living one has to assume that the personality is solid, and the ‘self’ is an entity, and to ignore all contrary evidence.” – E. M. Forster. Towards the end of Lolita Humbert Humbert receives a shocking letter from his old friend, John Farlow, whom he assumed was a simple, good-natured suburban man. The letter reveals that while Humbert was going through his journey as told in the novel, Farlow was having his own journey, flying off to South America marrying a younger woman, and other sordid details.

    “I have often noticed that we are inclined to endow our friends with the stability of type that literary characters acquire in the reader’s mind. No matter how many times we reopen ‘King Lear,’ never shall we find the good king banging his tankard in high revelry, all woes forgotten, at a jolly reunion with all three daughters and their lapdogs. Never will Emma rally, revived by the sympathetic salts in Flaubert’s father’s timely tear. Whatever evolution this or that popular character has gone through between the book covers, his fate is fixed in our minds, and, similarly, we expect our friends to follow this or that logical and conventional pattern we have fixed for them. Thus X will never compose the immortal music that would clash with the second-rate symphonies he has accustomed us to. Y will never commit murder. Under no circumstances can Z betray us. We have it all arranged in our minds, and the less often we see a particular person the more satisfying it is to check how obediently he conforms to our notion of him every time we hear of him. Any deviation in the fates we have ordained would strike us as not only anomalous but unethical. We would prefer not to have known at all our neighbor, the retired hot-dog stand operator, if it turns out he has just produced the greatest book of poetry his age has ever seen.” – Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita

    The figures within Arthurian legends similarly have no specific character. Each person tries to make the right decisions, to the best of their knowledge. In the story of the Fisher King, who is a perpetually wounded king on infertile land, Perceval’s uncle tells him he “shouldn’t ask foolish questions about things he doesn’t understand.” When Perceval, a knight, witnesses strange things within the Fisher King’s castle, and does not ask questions, it is a mistake. If he had asked questions, the Fisher King would be healed and fertility would be restored to the land. He should not have listened to his wise uncle, because it is more important to gather knowledge than be polite.

    Two weeks ago I played poker with my friend and his coworkers, who are all maintenance people at my school. It felt like the completion to a great quest I had been on: in the first few weeks of freshman year of college I had the door of my closet fixed by a specific maintenance person. He was very nice and kind, and ever since then I had a very distant obsession with him. I wanted to get to know him and spend time with him. But how could I? It felt like everything about the two of us was different: gender, age, class, trajectory in life. Everything that normally brings two people together, the specific sharing of something to place us in the same group, wasn’t there. There was no way I could breach that.

    But my friend got a maintenance job, became coworkers with this very specific person, and I eventually was invited to play poker. I have never played poker, but I saw this as the singular opportunity to be able to breach all odds of difference and get to know him. And it was great.

    Senior year of college, I finally had the intense breakdown of societal code I’ve been striving for since freshman year. The Arthurian quest was mainly one of the mind, breaching very strange strangleholds of presupposition that held me back. There is no “me” and “them,” there are no dichotomies. We are all very complex beings and everything can come to an understanding; a level can be shared.

    I come to this because I battle within myself consistently whether I am of stable character. Mostly it’s brought on by other people: I immediately come across as a tightly wound person, and people have a habit of thinking of me as a goody-two-shoes. It’s disturbing for them when I break that notion. Sometimes I wonder if people would be more comfortable if I just let them think of me in one way. We’re all like this, though. We are all surprising, especially to ourselves. If we didn’t attribute words like “honest” or “unreliable” to people that we know or ourselves, if we didn’t have words like that to dictate our character and our expectations, we could conduct our lives by always trying to make the better choice.

      List of References:

      Doris, John M., Lack of Character – A theory book on personality and moral behavior.

      Nabokov, Vladimir, Lolita – A classic novel about a man becoming sexually involved with a 12-year-old.

      Tennyson, Idylls of the King – Classic King Arthur and Holy Grail stories.

      Merlin, BBC – A tv show with new versions of the classic characters. I actually really enjoy how every figure makes decisions that could be good or bad in the eyes of others, but they’re always trying to make the right decisions. Perhaps the only character who is always completely moral is Arthur himself. link

      In Our Time, BBC Radio 4 – A radio program with scholars who discuss the history of things. Particular shows I’ve enjoyed in this context have been Merlin, The Fisher King and The Holy Grail. link

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