A Game for 2 Players: Risk and Relationship in Zathura

While feeling under the weather last week, I crawled into bed with my laptop and watched Zathura for the first time in six years. There’s nothing esoteric about this film; it’s a cozy, good-looking, action-packed, well-paced movie for kids, or adults in need of comfort. It’s a closed-room drama, taking place entirely in a home—albeit one that spends most of the story floating around in outer space—and centering exclusively on a family, a father and three children. A robot and some space lizards show up partway through, but all the human characters are part of the same family.

zathura house in space

The film opens agreeably enough, with ten-year-old Walter playing catch with his father while six-year-old Danny watches from the porch steps. Father and son are smiling and relaxed. Walter is good at catching and throwing, and dialogue is confined to remarks like “Nice grab.”

Suddenly the dad announces that Walter’s time is up. Walter protests, but his dad tells him he’s had his twenty-five throws and it’s Danny’s turn now. “That’s not fair,” Walter says. His dad replies, “It’s exactly fair.” Danny tells his brother, “You’re not the only one who gets a turn.” Walter mimics him in a whiny sing-song; the dad tells them to stop. He needs to get on with Danny’s turn so he can work for an hour and get ready for a presentation that afternoon. Playing catch with his boys is only one item on a full to-do list. In a matter of moments, the happy family scene has soured.

Unlike Walter, Danny can’t catch or throw well. His dad makes excuses for him, incorrectly blaming himself for a bad throw, and offers a constant stream of instruction and encouragement that Walter didn’t need. Clearly, twenty-five throws for Danny will be a slow and agonizing thing for Walter to watch. Walter is visibly angry; it’s like he’s being punished for competence. This is the universal and unwinnable struggle of parenthood: trying to divide limited time, attention, and resources among kids who aren’t the same and never will be. No matter how hard the dad tries to be fair, he will never really succeed. Someone will always feel cheated.

zathura boys sofa

Tensions escalate inside the house. It’s a lovely old spacious Craftsman bungalow, filled with nooks, bookcases, hardwood paneling, enormous fireplaces, a dumbwaiter, and a huge basement, but the boys don’t like it; they think it’s creepy. Walter tells his dad, “I like Mom’s better.” His dad replies, “Well, so did she, and now it’s hers.”

Family conflict drives this plot. It’s the force behind everything that happens. The parents’ divorce, though seldom spoken of directly, poisons the atmosphere, aggravating the rivalry between the brothers. Walter and Danny have their established patterns of hostility, and they fight by rote like an old married couple deep in the grip of mutual contempt. Walter is abrupt and vicious; Danny cheats and manipulates. They are habitually competitive, seeing themselves strictly in comparison to each other. When Danny laments that Walter is better than he is at sports, his father consoles him by praising his vivid imagination, and Danny asks, “Is it better than Walter’s?”

Eventually the brothers’ enmity turns physical, destroying their father’s work project. Worn and frustrated, the dad leaves for the office to print another copy. The boys are now alone except for a terrifying teenage sister, played by a surprisingly expressive pre-Twilight Kristin Stewart. One of the funniest things about this film is that resentful as the brothers are of each other, they are united in their fear of Lisa. Even after meteors wreck the living room and the house is discovered to be adrift in space, the boys quail at the prospect of waking their sleeping sister.

Pictured: acting.

Pictured: acting.

The weirdness starts when Danny finds a board game called Zathura: A Space Adventure. It has an appealingly retro fifties sci-fi look, with metal spaceship markers, an analog control panel, and a hand-cranked key. Danny asks Walter to play it with him, but Walter dismisses it with barely a glance, saying it’s for babies. He’s not even capable of evaluating the game on its own merits; he rejects it because Danny likes it.

zathura game box danny walter

Danny starts playing anyway. He turns the key and presses the red GO button; the game spits out a card printed on yellowed paper, and the red spaceship advances on the board. The card reads, Meteor shower. Take evasive action. Moments later, actual meteors start punching through the ceiling and destroying the house. It doesn’t take the boys long to figure out that whatever the cards say ends up happening in real life.

zathura meteors

Walter finds instructions printed inside the box. Do you have what it takes to navigate the galaxy? It’s not for the faint of heart. For once you embark upon your journey, there’s no turning back until Zathura’s reached. Pieces reset at the end of each game. Walter deduces that the only way out is through, and if they keep playing the game to the end, they’ll make it back home and everything will be all right.

Walter’s logic is sound, but Danny abandons the game, which, besides the meteor shower, has by now produced a homicidal robot and frozen Lisa in cryogenic sleep. Walter pleads and reasons, but Danny refuses to play, saying, “All I know is that when we play this game, bad things happen.” Walter can’t advance the game by himself because it’s not his turn. As it says on the box, Zathura is A GAME FOR 2 PLAYERS.

zathura game board 2

This is a poignant picture of the tragedy of divorce: the story stops because someone quits. It doesn’t “finish” in the sense of reaching fulfillment and completion at the end of a long life of vows faithfully and lovingly kept; it just ceases and doesn’t resume. Marriage, like Zathura, is a game for two players, and if one of them leaves the game, no one can move on. The focus of Zathura is the relationship between the brothers, but the specter of the parents’ failed marriage is never far off.

Eventually Danny agrees to play again, and the game spits out some more cards, which quickly become reality. The cards don’t appear to get reused; they are freshly generated turn by turn, making the game open to infinite possibilities. Soon the boys are visited by Zorgons, enormous man-eating space lizards, but in the next move they rescue a stranded astronaut who has been stuck in the game for fifteen years and knows how to keep the Zorgons away. Overall, things are looking up.

zathura astronaut

Then betrayal brings their progress to a hideous grinding halt. While no one’s watching, Danny cheats by moving his spaceship game piece ahead on the board.

Walter is furious. The astronaut tries to smooth things over, but diplomacy is useless. Danny really did cheat; no amount of mitigation will change that. Worse still, when Walter moves his brother’s game piece back where it belongs, the game accuses him of cheating and ejects him right out of the house.

Of course this isn’t fair. If anyone should be ejected from the game, it’s the one who actually did the cheating. But here again, the game mimics marriage. One person cheats, the other suffers. That’s how cheating works.

The astronaut manages to get Walter back into the house, but Danny’s betrayal rankles. And on his next turn, Walter gets an opportunity for revenge.

From the beginning of the film the boys have made no secret of their grievances with each other, and they have acted on them with ruthless consistency. Danny wants to be better than Walter, so he cheats to get ahead of him. Walter just resents Danny’s very existence. He wishes his brother had never been born. When he draws a gold card that says Shooting star, make a wish as it passes, he has a chance to make his wish come true.

The astronaut manages to talk him out of it, and once the crisis is past he reveals that fifteen years ago, he, too, drew a gold card and wished his own brother out of existence. He’s been stuck in the game ever since, alone with his remorse, battling Zorgons and getting sucked through time sphincters, unable to advance or go home. He is Walter, future Walter, Walter as he will become if he remains on his present course. And present ten-year-old Walter holds the power to show mercy and make things right for everyone.


People make much of the importance of communication in relationships, and it really is important, but free and accurate expression of thoughts and emotions will only take us so far. Our problem is not merely (or even mostly) that we fail to communicate clearly; our problem is that we are selfish beings. Danny really does cheat and whine and use weakness to make people feel sorry for him; Walter has a runaway temper. They don’t have some epiphany of renewed understanding at the end of the film; they’ve understood each other pretty well all along, and throughout the game, each has had to deal with the other’s very real faults, made worse by the additional stress of being pelted by meteors and pursued by Zorgons. By the time the credits roll they haven’t really demonstrated any improved behavior, but things are not as they were. Danny has finally owned up to his cheating and apologized for it, and Walter has decided that whatever Danny’s faults may be, the two of them are brothers, and as such they will take care of each other.

As I rewatched this movie, I found myself thinking about an ebook I’d read recently called Romance in a Month: Guide to Writing a Romance in 30 Days. (Don’t judge. It’s a good book.) In one chapter the author outlines the plot points of a romance novel. (Are you judging? Don’t do that. Plot points are useful tools of craft, and after reading about these I was able to identify them in the works of Jane Austen.)

After the Meet, wherein the hero and heroine…well…meet, there is something called the Lock-In, wherein something compels them to spend significant time together whether they want to or not. Next comes the Main Conflict, which can be tied to circumstances but ought to arise primarily from clashes between the core values of the two characters. This conflict will not be easily resolved. Because of the characters’ growing attraction, though, they ignore the conflict as long as they can or adopt some temporary compromise, and soon they reach the Realization Point, at which time they realize that they are more than friends and cannot back out without emotional pain. Whatever happens next, life cannot go back to how it was before. The conflict escalates; it can no longer be smoothed over or ignored; and the characters go through the Big Bad Breakup. The breakup ought not to be some flimsy thing based on simple misunderstanding; it should be an occasion for genuine grief, and all hope should appear to be lost.

And then comes something really beautiful, something that could not exist apart from the raw anguish of the breakup: the Grand Romantic Moment. One of the characters—or both characters, if it happens to work out that way—must make a move to restore the relationship. The author must not do some cheap deus ex machina thing where circumstances suddenly conspire to bring the hero and heroine together and remove their difficulties. At this point both characters want desperately to be together, but neither knows how the other feels. Whoever takes the initiative undergoes real and tremendous risk. There could be exquisite fulfillment and lasting happiness ahead, or a fresh wave of rejection, humiliation, and pain. There is no way of knowing until the move is made.

Marriage is an arrangement not unlike Zathura. It is a decision to bind your fate to that of a fellow fallible human being in a thing where you will see each other at your absolute best and worst. Do you have what it takes? It’s not for the faint of heart. There will be trouble, and possibly man-eating lizards, but also high adventure, breathtaking spacescapes, and depths of love and trust you never knew were possible.

zathura go button

The Empty Ring

My friend Jim at Therefore Now Ministries recently wrote a piece on why marriage is objectively better than living together—not merely for reasons of moral soundness, but because it’s just better, more desirable, more satisfying. Jim was right on as usual, and as I read his words, I suddenly remembered a strange and terrifying situation I heard about some years ago.

A man met a woman at a strip club or whatever those places are called now. He was a patron; she was an employee. They developed a relationship, and she moved into his high-dollar home in a Dallas suburb. She quit her job and became a full-time homemaker, cooking for this guy and keeping his house.

In a way this sounds like a cushy deal for her. She didn’t have to work her sexually degrading job anymore. She had no childcare duties. She had a nice well-furnished house to live in and good food to eat, and all she had to do in return was keep the place clean, cook appetizing meals from expensive ingredients in a spacious kitchen with new high-dollar appliances, and provide pleasant company for the guy. Sexual favors would certainly be expected, but at least she had just one man to satisfy, which had to be an improvement over whatever she was doing before.

Okay, so I tried for the sake of argument to make the above scenario sound reasonably attractive, but I guess there’s really no way to do that. Basically this was high-end, white-collar prostitution.

For Christmas the man gave the woman an engagement ring minus the diamond. The space inside the prongs was substantial; it would take a big stone to fill it. He said he would buy the stone after she proved that she was “The One.”

empty ring

What kind of man does that?! And what kind of standards might such a man have for housekeeping? With so much time on her hands the woman ought to be able to produce some exquisite meals as well as keep the house in pristine condition. She would constantly labor under the pressure of expectations, both spoken and unspoken. She would feel perpetually off-balance, never sure if she had done enough. They say that when you marry for money, you will earn every penny. I imagine that when you provide sexual and housekeeping services for money, you will earn it even more. And of course it was for money. What woman would enter into an arrangement like that for love? What could love possibly have to do with it?

This is the legalist view of the Christian walk. We have been taken out of a former degrading way of life and moved into a clean, respectable environment, but we must prove our worthiness to be there through constant performance. It’s not that we believe we earn our salvation—that would be bad doctrine—but we hold to a vague idea of some higher level of God’s favor that makes a Christian truly legit. Home schooling, natural living, daily “quiet times”—whatever activity or combination of activities our particular group has deemed essential in separating serious Christians from shallow fire-insurance dabblers, we must persist in doing them if we want to keep in good standing with God. We can never be sure we are doing enough; we are edgy and anxious. We have been given a costly gift, but it’s defined by its emptiness, prongs outstretched like the fingers of a grasping hand. Who would want to wear such a thing?

In this construct we are not a bride but a whore. And God is not a loving husband but a man of business, dispensing payment for services rendered. In the place of sacrifice, we have a bloodless commercial arrangement.

God’s love is nothing like this. It is a wild reckless passion culminating in an unbreakable lifelong commitment. It is unilateral: nothing we can do or leave undone will ever lessen or increase its strength. It is permanent: God will never walk away. It is more than duty: he maintains the same intensity of love for us always. He doesn’t get disillusioned; he never had any illusions to lose. We may fool others and ourselves with silly posturing, but he sees all—the hidden sins, the laziness, the lust, the greed, the moral weakness—and he chose us anyway. In his eyes we are precious and lovely and will remain that way forever.

God doesn’t offer an empty ring.

Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame.

Song of Solomon 8:6

Victims and Perpetrators: The Propagation of Sin

You know the most important thing your granddad ever taught me? Hmm? Be ready. Hurricane, flood, whatever it ends up being. No more food gets delivered to the grocery store, gas stations dry up. People just turn on each other, and all of a sudden all that stands between you and being dead is you. ~Keller Dover


There are four basements in the film Prisoners. The first is a finished basement in the home of Franklin and Nancy Birch. Like the Birches themselves, it’s warm and inviting, with comfy furniture and a TV; we see the teenagers relaxing there after Thanksgiving dinner. Keller and Grace Dover’s basement is far from comfy, and the kids aren’t allowed down there, but it’s clean, well lit, and orderly, part workshop and part storeroom. The storeroom side is filled with homemade shelves; Keller’s a carpenter by trade. They’re simple, sturdy, and perfectly suited for their purpose, which is storing survival supplies. Canned vegetables, tubs of shortening, batteries, and bottled propane stand in tidy rows with no wasted space. A clipboard hangs from a nail, holding pages of dog-eared lists.

The other two basements are the stuff of nightmares. One belongs to an elderly priest, who apparently still lives in the rectory in spite of being a registered Level Three sex offender. Even before we see Detective Loki stumble upon a half-rotten corpse duct-taped to a chair, this basement is a terrifying place. There’s no staircase, just a straight drop from the door to the bare dirt floor, and little light. Statues of Mary and Moses look vaguely appalling under Loki’s flashlight beam.

The final basement is the worst of all, just a hole in the ground covered by a piece of plywood. Its bottom, seen by the flicker of Keller’s penlight, is littered with the shoes and clothing of children long dead. It’s a pretty good depiction of hell, a place of darkness and isolation where hope dies. You could call it a pit of despair without irony and without referencing The Princess Bride. But it’s here that Keller finds a final remnant of hope, a potential conduit of grace, something that once was lost and now is found: a red whistle belonging to a child. Keller’s child.

Basements are powerful symbols in the dream landscape. The represent the unconscious: hidden motives, repressed emotions, smothered memories. They’re where people store things—sometimes with organization and intent, like Keller, and sometimes with haphazard haste. Sometimes basements hold things we have no use for, but for whatever reason cannot or will not get rid of (the corpse in Father Dunn’s basement is a rather extreme example of this). Buried beneath the foundation, the hidden items are out of sight but never fully out of mind. They haunt our conscious hours.

keller hood

Keller’s basement is in good order, reflecting his readiness and ability to take care of his family in the event of a disaster. Some may say that being a “prepper” necessarily involves anxiety, but Keller is neither a hoarder nor particularly paranoid. His survival supplies are neat and accessible; his storage system demonstrates mental organization.

No, Keller’s primal fears are kept elsewhere, and they fill an entire building.

Why don’t you rent out Grandpa’s old apartment house? Keller’s teenage son Ralph asks him early in the film. Ralph is trying to raise money to buy a car; he’s already earned half and wants his dad to lend him the rest, but Keller says he doesn’t have the cash. So Ralph asks about the apartment house. Grace looks expectantly at her husband; plainly the subject has come up before. Keller replies that the building is old and would cost too much to fix up. But this doesn’t make sense, because Keller could do the work himself. Money is obviously tight for the family, and for a man as capable and purposeful as Keller to let a potential source of income sit idle is odd.

Later, we learn something of the building’s history from an old newspaper article. When Keller was a teenager, he lived in that building, and his father committed suicide there. Keller and his mother found the body.

Eventually we see inside the apartment building. It’s as bad as the two terrifying basements, dirty and decaying, with peeling wallpaper, gaping holes in the drywall, and long corridors lined with half-open doors. It looks a lot like a prison—and Keller’s father once worked as a prison guard. Abandonment, neglect, and destruction have left their mark. No wonder Keller wants to leave the place boarded up. But when desperation drives him, he needs the building his father died in—not just for privacy in the strictest sense, but because the things he will do here must be compartmentalized. They are too primal, too unspeakable, to be allowed to touch the rest of his world.

On Thanksgiving Day, Anna and Joy, the young daughters of the Dover and Birch families, are abducted. It’s sadly fitting that the abduction happens during a time of fellowship, ease, and laughter among friends, when Keller is as relaxed and content as we will ever see him. Disaster often does strike when all seems most right with the world, teaching us not to trust the happy times or to ever fully let down our guard.

keller grace

Ralph recalls an old camper the girls were playing on earlier. He’s pretty sure someone was watching them from inside. The families go looking for the camper. It’s gone.

Later, the camper is spotted at the edge of some woods. Detective Loki is on the scene in minutes. There’s no sign of the little girls, and the driver, the creepily spaced-out Alex Jones, can’t or won’t tell Loki where they are.


In storytelling as in life, what is left unsaid is often at least as interesting as what is said. Prisoners is haunted with implicit but inarticulate things hovering at the edges. This is especially true of Detective Loki. He looks like someone who is trying to appear normal and not succeeding very well. He’s good at his job—in fact he’s never failed to solve a case—but something is clearly wrong. His hair, his mannerisms, his facial tics, his tattoos, the way he buttons his shirt—he is socially marginal at best and obviously coping with some past trauma. Also he has no place to be on Thanksgiving Day but by himself at a Chinese restaurant. When we first see him we don’t know he’s a detective; he’s just some guy alone on a major holiday, chatting with the waitress, friendly but definitely “off.” He could be the perpetrator for all we know. There is plenty of back story potential here, but the only information we are given about Loki’s past comes when he is interrogating Father Dunn about the body in his basement.

I spent six years in the Huntington Boys’ Home, Father. You know the Huntington Boys’ Home, right? Huh? Hurting a f*** like you would be a real treat for me.

The idea of sexual abuse is one of the hoverers in this story—present, but as a phantom, seldom dealt with directly. There are other ways of hurting children.

At heart Keller and Loki are much alike. They have both been let down by people who should have protected and nurtured them, and as a result they are both self-contained and self-reliant. And when driven to extremity, they both lose perspective and step out of bounds, and innocent people get hurt.

Loki’s investigation into the girls’ disappearance is hindered by lack of evidence. The ongoing search of the large wooded area where the camper was parked is painfully slow and fruitless. There is no DNA evidence to suggest that the girls were ever in the camper, and the interrogation of Alex Jones, who is described as having the IQ of a ten-year-old, yields nothing. Keller asks about a lie detector; Loki replies that it doesn’t work when you don’t understand the questions. In the absence of hard evidence, the police can’t hold Alex longer than 48 hours.

Keller tries to enlist Loki as an ally. Two little girls have to be worth whatever rules you have to break to keep that a****** in custody, he says. Loki doesn’t answer. When the 48 hours are up, Alex is released.


Keller is angry and desperate. It’s possible the girls are still alive, but time is running out, and the police still have no idea where to look. He’s certain Alex knows more than he’s telling, and a cryptic remark Alex makes to him in the parking lot of the police station confirms this.

So he kidnaps Alex at gunpoint outside his aunt’s house, drives him to the old apartment building, and takes over the interrogation himself.


It’s perfectly natural, almost inevitable, for Keller to take matters into his own hands. He tried to let the system do its work, but the system let him down. The basic premise behind a survivalist mindset—which I am in no way criticizing—is that bad times will come, and Keller knows experientially that this is true. Keller’s father warned him not to rely on other people—and in a dark twist, those “other people” turned out to include the father himself. And Keller took the lesson to heart. He is used to doing things for himself. If the economy collapses, he can hunt his own food. If he needs something built, he can build it himself, whether it’s basement shelving or a holding cell for an unlawfully detained prisoner. He has the tools, the knowledge, and the drive to do whatever it takes to protect his child.

keller cell

Everyone has moments of extremity. This situation is intolerable. I must act now! I will do whatever it takes to get results! Our passion is genuine and raw; our motives are good. But we are flawed, deeply and tragically, shaped both by environment and by our own choices, and stepping out of bounds to force a situation will yield a mixed bag of results. And in forcing the situation, we make ourselves worse than we were before.

Nothing is evil in the beginning. We have no less an authority than Elrond for that. (It should go without saying that LOTR can legitimately be brought into practically anything.)

If any of the Wise should with this Ring overthrow the Lord of Mordor, using his own arts, he would then set himself on Sauron’s throne, and yet another Dark Lord would appear….For nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so. I fear to take the Ring to hide it. I will not take the Ring to wield it.

Later, when Sam urges Galadriel to take the Ring, he makes an earnest and reasonable appeal. You’d put things to rights, he tells her. You’d make some folks pay for their dirty work. Yes, she tells him, that is how it would begin. But it wouldn’t stop with that.

Prisoners is a story about sin and its propagation. It’s about what people will become and what they will beget when they try to accomplish good ends by using power that is inherently corrupt. Characters are actively trying to protect children—Keller and Loki at first, and later Franklin and Nancy Birch. Even Father Dunn, as it turns out, did his best to help. The body in his basement turns out to be that of a child murderer who came to him for confession five years ago. Father Dunn was convinced the man would kill again, and so he acted. What other recourse did he have, an old child molester with a lifetime spot on a police watch list? Why should the authorities listen to him? He did what he did and hoped for the best.

father dunn

They all mean well. They all desperately want to act as agents of justice. But they have all been compromised from the get-go by things that have been done to them and things they have done. Their judgment is skewed, their integrity is flawed, and they don’t have all the facts. Their well-meant actions might help the situation at hand, or they might perpetuate cycles of sin and abuse. Probably both.

Even a few well-placed words at the crucial moment can have severe consequences. Keller’s wife, Grace, craters under the strain of her daughter’s disappearance and then rebukes Keller for not taking better care of the family, accusing him of inadequacy if not outright negligence. Grace is barely coherent and keeping to her bed; her nightstand is littered with prescription bottles and crumpled tissues. She has left her husband and son vulnerable, robbing them of an emotional center. People often say and do terrible things when under duress. Does that make it excusable? It certainly doesn’t undo the effects. Shortly after being castigated by his wife, Keller kidnaps Alex Jones. This is not coincidence.

Later, Keller passes the blame on to Loki, accusing him of wasting time and following the wrong leads. You let this happen! he shouts. The words hit home. By now Loki has a new suspect in custody, Bob Taylor, who is just as creepy and baffling as Alex Jones, and just as stingy with useful information during interrogation. Stung by Keller’s reproach, Loki breaks protocol to step things up, but he quickly loses control. Within seconds, Bob Taylor is dead.


Bob Taylor turns out to be a victim, horribly wronged, deserving of pity. So does Alex Jones. But victims generally grow up to be perpetrators, and we are all victims to some degree. A chilling moment occurs when Keller is spying on Alex just before kidnapping him. Alex lives with his Aunt Holly, and he’s about to take her little dog for its nightly walk. He pauses at the end of the driveway and suddenly jerks the leash up, leaving the dog dangling by its neck. The dog gives a strangled yelp and struggles feebly. Keller watches from his truck, horrified. Alex waits a bit, then sets the dog down. Come on, Tucker, he says calmly.

In general we’re all prone to blame others and excuse ourselves. Other people’s abhorrent actions come from faulty character; our own are due to extenuating circumstances. The truth is, everyone has extenuating circumstances and contributing factors, which get hopelessly entwined with their own wrong choices. No matter how horrifically you have been messed over, or how extreme the circumstances that drove you to take desperate action, you are responsible for the damage you inflict. And that damage becomes someone else’s extenuating circumstances and contributing factors for their own future sins. Eventually, a reckoning must come. Justice makes legitimate demands, and we must do what we can to protect the innocent from predators.

The question becomes, how will you relate to the messed-up, perpetrating others in your own life? With compassion? With force? There is no simple answer. If you are able at the end of the day to gather up the people who are left to you and hold on, then you are most likely blessed.

Prisoners ends in a bleak place, but not a hopeless place. There is scope for forgiveness, redemption, restoration. The final shot is open-ended, just like any given present moment in our own lives.

dover family

Of Saints, Freaks, and Weird-Looking Lizard Guys

In speculative fiction as in all art, it’s important to balance realism with fantasy. Your characters may have physiologies unlike those of any creature on this planet, they may live in floating cities or carry on photosynthesis with their antennae, but their behavior and emotional lives had better ring true, and the internal logic of the secondary world had better remain consistent, or your story is sunk.

I’ve written fantasy stories for most of my adult life, and once I had kids I started taking a professional interest in the world-crafting they did through play. My son was a stickler for accuracy from a young age, especially regarding his pet subject, dinosaurs. He demanded strict realism from dino models; the sight of a poorly executed plastic lizard with a random crest or horn irritated him as badly as the word “Brontosaurus.” Once approved and in his possession, though, Daniel’s models led lives of a sort unknown to any taxonomical order or family of Reptilia, building fortresses, forming alliances, and holding feasts to rival those of the Geats and Jutes.


We got rid of our TV when Daniel was around three and rarely saw movies; my kids’ first exposure to comic books happened in their teens. Their imaginative lives, therefore, were largely unaffected by franchises directed to children. They had to make up origin stories and sometimes names for many of the random action figures we acquired from yard sales. These included a maroon Batman, a Goliath (his back story, at least, was easy to verify), and a Riddler who sported a backpack with a capturing loop thing that could be launched over victims. Some action figure personas were mysteries to Greg and myself as well as to the kids—like Wrench Man, who wore big clamping wrench things on his shoulders for I know not what purpose, and Chief, an armor-suited guy equipped with a jet pack, a hook, and a bubble mask that could have indicated a life in space or the deep sea, or both. Most bafflingly of all, pushing a button on Chief’s back made his head flip around, changing his face to a visage only vaguely humanoid, goggle-eyed and open-mouthed with rage. To this day I have no idea what this character was supposed to be.


Goliath has no pants. Goliath needs no pants.

It was the nineties, so Beanie Babies and their knockoffs abounded. My kids had lots of beanies and other stuffed animals, including the pragmatically-named Beanie Cow, a fox, an anteater, a mouse, and a kangaroo inexplicably called Peter in spite of the pouch he possessed. Lots of the animals had accessories or clothing; Peter the kangaroo wore a red cape I’d made from a fabric scrap, and a frog who came to us minus one eye was soon supplied with an eye patch, which had to be connected to a matching vest because an eye patch is not an easy thing to strap to the head of a frog. The eclectic stuffed animal tribe included such members as a little fabric crow from a craft store with jointed legs held on by buttons; Gwendolyn, a sassy biped of indeterminate species who wore a gold-embroidered coat; and Cuddly Chameleon, a plush, rainbow-hued fellow with a curled tail, a crested neck, and an inscrutable heavy-lidded facial expression. Cuddly was a sort of patriarch in the stuffed animal community, whimsical but wise, and always stirring things up. He was the sort of character I think of in my own writing as a catalyst. He made things happen.


LEGO bricks and accompanying figures presented special suspension-of-disbelief problems. Daniel had lots of minifigs, including characters from the Rock Raiders, Johnny Thunder, and King Leo’s Castle storylines. He didn’t have a complete Star Wars set, but Anna had a random Chewbacca who ran around with the other characters. Anna and Emilie also had lots of Belville sets, featuring princesses, a prince, a king and queen, a couple of infants, and assorted fauna. In my daughters’ storyverse, most of the Belville humans were either stupid or evil, as suggested by their facial expressions; the only sympathetic characters were princesses Flora and Elena, the horses, the cats, and a carrot-clutching rabbit. The difference in scale between Belville figures and standard minifigs is substantial; even the rabbit towered over Johnny Thunder. This had to be accounted for when the worlds met.


And meet they did—not just Belville and minifigs, but dinos, Beanie babies, everyone. The handling of the crossover stories interested me greatly. Samuel Taylor Coleridge spoke of “that willing suspension of disbelief…which constitutes poetic faith”; J.R.R. Tolkien preferred the paradigm of secondary belief based on the inner consistency of the fictional reality. Whatever we call this aesthetic action, we can agree that certain conditions have to be met in order for it to occur, and that credibility can only be stretched so far. An audience or reader may suspend disbelief for ghosts, or aliens, or leprechauns, but ordinarily not for all three in the same story.

My children’s toy collections formed a system of worlds, each equipped with a complex history and mythos, discrete and independent but able to meet and interact through special circumstances. For the most part, conflicting fantastic elements in crossover stories were handled with the breezy nonchalance that made Joss Whedon’s Avengers so much fun. Discrepancies between worlds were cheerfully acknowledged and remarked on but not belabored with heavy-handed explanations.

The stories concerning these characters were long and intricate. Often Daniel and Anna would “play” without actually having the toys present, just by talking through a story scenario. The two of them would go outside and sit on the swings and just talk. They didn’t swing or run around or multitask in any way. They were story-crafting, and that took concentration.

One day while out and about, we happened upon some likely additions to the stuffed animal ’verse. I don’t remember whether they were real Beanie Babies or knockoffs, but I seem to recall some of them being smaller than standard beanies, real micro-guys of three inches or so. They were all reptilian, and—oh, the joy!—one of them had the same rainbow pelt as Cuddly Chameleon! He wasn’t a chameleon himself; he was more of an iguana-type guy. There were some quasi-chameleons in the group, but their pelts had blue and green splotches. Still, these animals were clearly meant to go home with the Midkiffs.


On the way home I listened to the sounds of play coming from the back seat of the Suburban. I heard this sort of thing all the time but always found it interesting. With only three young actors to voice a multitude of characters, much had to be done in the way of tone, timbre, syntax, and so on, and new dialogue had to be consistent with a character’s history.

These efforts were collaborative and somewhat spontaneous, but usually Daniel directed things. He was doing that now, and his vision was clear. The gist of the story was that the little reptiles were worried about going to their new home. They knew their bodily configurations did not conform to those of any factual animals. They knew they were about to meet a community of toys awaiting them. And they were afraid.

“Look at us!” one little reptile wailed in Daniel’s voice. “We’re freaks!”

I don’t know what made Daniel deal head-on with the realism issue that day, but I do think the decision marked a leap in his maturation as a storyteller. He actually had a bunch of self-aware stuffed animals pondering the nature of their existence. What species are we, exactly? Are we iguanas? Chameleons? Geckos? Why do some of us have these serrated sail things running down our backs while others do not? And what’s up with these weird colors? What’s the matter with us?

Of course we don’t want to get carried away with realism in storytelling. Give it too much weight and you will soon be observing that in the real world you do not see rabbits taller than Chewbacca, or kangaroos taller than that, or Chewbacca at all, or any animals that talk or willingly wear capes, and soon after that you will be giving up play altogether. Daniel didn’t take things that far. What I found so interesting was that in his exploration of the realism problem, he focused on the freakish reptiles’ fear of rejection.

Social conformity is a soul-crushing thing. I’m not talking about natural law, which is here to stay whether people like it or not and is disregarded only at great peril. Social conformity might be likened to what C.S. Lewis referred to as belonging to a collective. Some people are pretty good at it. I never have been. That sounds self-congratulatory, but I don’t mean it that way. It’s just true.

One of my most painful childhood memories involves an ill-advised slam book fad in sixth grade. These slam books were spiral notebooks in which friends and classmates could record their opinions about various topics, including teachers, music, and each other. There was a thin veneer of anonymity but in reality everyone knew who said what. And the page topped with my name was covered with one word over and over in all the different handwritings of my peers. That word was weird. Variations included nice but weird, weird but nice, and smart but weird, but this did little to mitigate the sting. I had been socially marginalized in the pages of my very own slam book. It still makes me feel a little sick to think about it.


Wouldn’t it be great to belong to a community where 1) everyone is a freak and 2) no one cares? If everyone is a freak, then no one is. The word has no more power. We are all just individuals. We don’t have to conform to some standard we can never attain and only dimly understand. We can stop striving and simply be.

In his wonderful essay “Membership,” C.S. Lewis writes,

How true membership in a body differs from inclusion in a collective may be seen in the structure of a family. The grandfather, the parents, the grown-up son, the child, the dog, and the cat are true members (in the organic sense), precisely because they are not members or units of a homogeneous class. They are not interchangeable. Each person is almost a species in himself. The mother is not simply a different person from the daughter; she is a different kind of person. The grown-up brother is not simply one unit in the class children; he is a separate estate of the realm. The father and the grandfather are almost as different as the cat and the dog. If you subtract any one member, you have not simply reduced the family in number; you have inflicted an injury on its structure. Its unity is a unity of unlikes, almost of incommensurables.

Isn’t this what everyone wants? Not to conform, but to organically belong? To be irreplaceably, inescapably oneself, and to have one’s unique identity recognized and treasured?


The end of the story for the little reptiles, which of course Daniel was purposely building up to all along, is that they arrived home full of dread, expecting rejection and scorn, only to find that the members of their adoptive family were as outlandish-looking as they were, and also warm and welcoming and fun—exactly the family they would have chosen for themselves if they had even known to imagine something so marvelous.


If acceptance is so great and makes everyone feel so good, why not just abandon all standards of behavior and accept everything? Because human morality is not an artificial construct. Some behaviors are abhorrent and ugly, and it is natural and just for us to want to cast them out. Tolerating them might make people feel good in the short term (well, some people, anyway) but will ultimately destroy the community we are trying to nurture.

And what are we supposed to do about that? We’ve all got ugly things about ourselves—not just weirdly colored pelts and odd neck frills, but things like malice, lust, perversion, greed. We can’t make these things go away by ignoring them, and we can’t just stop doing them. Our problem with sin is systemic.

The good news is that Christ has dealt with sin, thoroughly and permanently. He hasn’t just made temporary amends or hidden it from view. It’s gone. We who believe in him have a new identity. His blood has paid our debts, his righteousness has been given to us freely, and through him we have the power to walk in the light. We know this because he says so. We might not feel particularly righteous or victorious at any given moment, but his word is more trustworthy than our temporal experience. We can rest in his faithfulness.

And just like the disparate collection of toys in the Midkiff household, we are united to each other by virtue of whose we are. We belong to him, and by extension we belong to each other. With all our defects of mind, character, and person, our weird back-stories and inconsistencies, we can be assured that we have our place, and a very good place it is. We’re free to love and help each other, to think and rest and play and be. The striving is over. We’re home.


Control is Just an Illusion, Friend.

Lots of people sneer at the Control Freak archetype. I do not understand these people. They seem to think loss of control would be a good time—like a roller coaster, perhaps, which is actually a tightly controlled construct when functioning correctly and not killing people. Also people choose whether or not to get on the thing, thereby exercising control; so this is not the best illustration, though I see it used a lot.

Loss of control is not an amusement park ride, friend. It is death, dismemberment, famine, enmity, destruction, financial loss, and horrifying social situations that make you wish to God you’d stayed home with a cat on your lap instead of venturing into the greater world. It is falling asleep at the wheel and having the trailer of a semi sheer off the top of your car, along with your head. It is coming home from vacation to find one of the last of your child’s unexpected litter of gerbils dead in the cage because they started fighting and the house-sitters couldn’t spare the time to make a damn phone call to ask you what to do. The root of the desire for control is fear. And fear in this world is not without cause.

My own usual response to fear is to put a lot of energy into creating an airtight system that eliminates risk. But this is not without cost. Go too far with this sort of thing and you will find yourself desiring secrecy even when there’s no need for it. You’ll want to check things all the time and make sure all is well. You’ll suppress emotion, because emotion must be regulated by reason in order for the system to function, and then when it’s time for emotion to have its say, you won’t be able to find it.

I don’t really have a grip on this problem. I honestly don’t. I believe it is right for reason to regulate emotion, for cause and effect to be understood and managed, and for risk to be taken seriously. But I have lived forty-four years, and I see now that I have feared too much and modeled some not-so-healthy behaviors to my kids. I’ve been too quick to circle the wagons when things got rough. There were friendships I didn’t nurture, hospitality I didn’t show, and unasked-for advice I didn’t give but should have. I meant well. I wanted to keep from making mistakes. But fear of making mistakes can lead to sins of omission. “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin” (James 4:17).

The sad irony is that the point of control is to protect something, but too much control is destructive. To eliminate all risk is to smother life itself.

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” That’s our friend C.S. Lewis talking, and he knew.

The assumption behind a preoccupation with control is that I can in fact control everything, that it all depends on me. To this unspeakable hubris I can only plead guilty.

And therein lies the system’s flaw. I can’t control everything, and even if I could control half the things I’d like to control, I wouldn’t have the wisdom to manage them properly. That’s how supervillains are made.

Three nights ago, I saw Frozen with my youngest child. This is a story about a princess, Elsa, who has the power to create ice at will and sculpt it into whatever formations she chooses—crystals, pillars, flurries, drifts. Her creations are beautiful, and great fun for Elsa and her younger sister, Anna.

But as the opening song warns, ice is beautiful! powerful! dangerous! cold! Elsa loses control over her power and hurts Anna. The aftermath is a nightmare of shock, trauma, fear, and guilt. Elsa’s parents sternly warn her that this must never happen again. From that day forward, Elsa’s life is terribly altered.


The words fear, love, power, and control all occur in the opening song, and these forces dominate the story. Power carries risk; risk leads to fear; and the response to fear is to try to exercise more control. After Anna’s accident, Elsa focuses all her energy into maintaining control over her power. Because the manifestations have emotional triggers, this involves severe emotional suppression. Her efforts leave her mentally exhausted and socially isolated. Worst of all, Anna, formerly her closest companion, has had her memory wiped of the knowledge of Elsa’s power, leaving her confused and hurt by her sister’s rejection. So a construct designed to keep Anna from being hurt just ends up hurting her in a different way.

Eventually things come to a head, as they are wont to do in Disney movies and in life. After Elsa loses control again and unwittingly freezes the entire kingdom, she flees to a mountain where she thinks she can do no further damage. But Anna follows, refusing to be kept at bay any longer. Cornered and pressured, Elsa struggles to maintain control; but in trying to stifle her emotion, she only warps it, and it breaks out in unwanted and terrifying manifestations. The more she panics, the worse things get.

Watching Elsa’s frantic and futile efforts, I thought, This is exactly like living by the law. Legalism is all about damage control. It can never produce any active good, despite what those who live by it think. It seeks to quell sin, but it only produces rebellion.

Control proves a failure, and Anna is hurt again, this time apparently fatally. Only then does Elsa learn that the true protection, the only force capable of managing her potentially deadly power, is not control at all, but love.

This changes everything. Anna is healed, the kingdom is restored, and Elsa’s entire existence blossoms into a thing of glorious possibility. Transformations abound: death into life, conformity into freedom, fear into love. Elsa is able to not only be near people again, but to relax, to laugh, to play.

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).

I don’t mean to be flippant by quoting the apostle John in connection with a Disney movie. To be clear, John is speaking of the very reasonable fear of a just judgment–a guilty fear, not the fear of ordinary pain or loss. And the perfect love that’s capable of casting out that fear is the love of God demonstrated in Christ’s propitiation. This is wonderful news for the world, and my friend Jim gives an excellent treatment of the subject here.

But I think I do not go too far in saying that fear, when brooded over too long by an overstimulated mind, is the enemy of love. It cripples relationships, poisons joy, steals hope, and confuses emotion to the point where you honestly don’t know what you feel.

So what is the solution? Some sort of let-love-have-its-way scenario? Bursting into song and dance on a mountaintop like a Disney princess? Maybe it’s just recognizing that the supreme level of control sought by those of “freak” status is just an illusion anyway. Terrible things will happen, despite your best efforts to secure yourself against all shock and alarm. You will be blindsided–if not by the thing you’re guarding against, then by something else. That’s what “blindsided” means: you don’t see it coming. And the energy you’re spending on maintaining a defensive system would be better spent on loving the people around you before they’re taken, which they most certainly will be at some point unless you’re taken from them first. Yes, it’s risky. But it’s worth it. They’re worth it. They’re worth the fear and discomfort and uncertainty and vulnerability–wonderfully worth all this and more.

Grace and Redemption in Cymbeline

New York Daily News

Years ago my young son and I were listening to a modern Scottish folk song called “Knock Knock Knock.” Daniel wasn’t following the song’s plot, so he asked me what it was about. I told him, “Well, this noble Scotswoman’s husband goes off to war, and she tells a page to bring her news of how the battle goes. If her husband survives, the page is to knock twice; if he’s killed, the page is to knock three times. The husband survives, but the page gets killed, and no one else knows about the knocking code. Whoever brings the lady the news knocks three times, and in despair she throws herself out the window to her death without ever answering the door.”

Daniel thought about this, then said, “You know…if the people in these songs would just stop and think things through before taking action, they’d be a lot better off.”

He was right. But the nature of tragedy requires that characters not think things through. At the end of a tragedy the reader or audience is left with a lot of if-only’s. If only they’d waited. If only he’d kept control of his temper. If only she’d been more patient. If only they hadn’t been so unyielding or hasty or impetuous or ambitious or prideful. If only they’d allowed time for further developments or revelations to manifest, or simply for that first overwhelming wave of raw emotion to pass.

Tragedy can be defined as a drama or literary work in which the main character is brought to ruin or suffers extreme sorrow, especially as a consequence of a tragic flaw, moral weakness, or inability to cope with unfavorable circumstances. Indeed, a tragic hero is ultimately someone unable to cope. He cannot or will not learn or adapt or conceive of possibilities beyond some all-encompassing obsession. He may have many admirable qualities, but his character is narrow in scope. He is defined primarily by a few unyielding and overweening characteristics such as jealousy, impetuosity, or pride, and ultimately these cramp and stunt his better qualities. He is like that person we all know who has so much going for him but can’t escape the power of some flaw or addiction—the one who makes us think, I have seen people just like you do exactly what you are doing and fail spectacularly, bringing shame and misery on themselves and everyone close to them. You think you’re different, you think you’re strong enough, but you’re not. And unless you turn from the path you’re on, you’re going to come to a bad end.

The thing about tragedy that works us up emotionally is the feeling that it didn’t have to be this way. All through the unfolding of the plot, we’re thinking, Don’t do it! Don’t send that letter. Don’t insult that person. But the hero does. And that action leads him to a different set of choices, where, again, there’s still a chance to do the right thing—which the hero fails to do. And the further the plot progresses, the more the character’s range of choices diminishes. Early on it’s possible to salvage a lot of future happiness; later, not so much. But right up until the final choice is made, there’s still time for the hero to at least be saved from utter ruin and find a measure of peace. After that, his doom is sealed. There are storms you can’t weather and falls you can’t get up from.

But sometimes, in art and in life, somewhere along that path of destruction the hero chooses rightly. Yes, he’s been morally compromised to a greater or lesser degree, but he still has many opportunities before him, and his experience has taught him wisdom and appreciation for things of value. This is the nature of grace, to be pulled back from the precipice, rescued, rehabilitated, and fitted for a full and productive and joyful life.

It’s also the nature of the romance plot. Romance is tricky to define because the word is used for wildly different applications, but dramatic romance might informally be thought of as a potential tragedy in which the hero stops and thinks, to good effect.

There’s a scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Indy and his father are trapped in a stone chamber with no way out. Indy starts beating himself senseless against a wall trying to force a way through, but Henry Senior calmly takes a seat and says, “I find that if I just sit down and think…” Before he’s finished the words, a hidden staircase opens up, triggered by Henry’s weight on the chair. Henry finishes up cheerfully, “…a solution presents itself!”

So the hero in a dramatic romance stops and thinks, and learns, and grows, and triumphs. He moves from a tragic hero’s narrow focus to a place of wisdom and perspective and maturity.

The designation of dramatic romance is a relatively modern one. Shakespeare himself didn’t use the term. Seven years after his death, when thirty-six of his known thirty-seven plays were published in the First Folio, they were all categorized as tragedies, comedies, or histories. Of the plays that were later reclassified as romances, The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale were called comedies in the First Folio, Pericles of Tyre wasn’t included at all, and Cymbeline was listed as a tragedy.

Dramatic romance does have much in common with tragedy on the one hand and comedy on the other. (An Elizabethan dramatic comedy is primarily defined by its happy ending and usually includes greater emphasis on situation than character, wordplay humor, multiple intertwining plotlines, mistaken identity, separation and reunion, and lovers who triumph in spite of opposition.) A contemporary of Shakespeare’s, John Fletcher, actually used the term tragicomedy to define the emerging genre that united tragic and comedic elements.

It wasn’t until 1875 that Irish critic and poet Edward Dowden proposed that Shakespeare’s late plays—The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, Pericles of Tyre, and Cymbeline—should be classed as dramatic romances. Dowden argued that these plays resembled late medieval and early modern romances—which, interestingly, had gone out of fashion by the time Shakespeare wrote his late plays. Miguel de Cervantes was satirizing medieval romances in Don Quixote around 1600; Shakespeare’s romance plays were probably written between 1608 and 1612. Other critics agreed with Dowden that the late plays represented a more complex kind of comedy and ought to have a special designation of their own. Romance is just a label, but a useful one here.

Like a comedy, a dramatic romance has a happy ending involving the reunion of long-separated lovers or family members. A dramatic romance also contains a contrast of scene, courtly and pastoral, and often exotic; magic and other fantastical elements; and the presence of pre-Christian, masque-like figures. In The Tempest we have Prospero summoning goddesses; in Cymbeline, which takes place in pre-Christian, Roman-ruled Britain, we have an actual appearance by Jupiter (though there is some question as to the authenticity of this scene).

Most significantly, the plotline of a romance is described as redemptive. And where there’s redemption, there’s some egregious badness from which characters need to be redeemed, a potential tragedy caught in time before all is lost.

The romance Cymbeline shares some similarities of plot with Romeo and Juliet and Othello, which are tragedies, but with significant differences. A woman wakes from a death-like sleep beside a corpse that she believes to be her husband’s. Juliet stabs herself and dies, but Innogen, though she grieves and loses consciousness from shock, doesn’t commit suicide or consider doing so. A gullible man is persuaded by a scheming Italian that his wife is unfaithful to him. Othello goes right to work killing Desdemona with his bare hands, but Posthumus engages a very unreliable assassin, and his later ruminations make it evident that he didn’t expect the assassin to follow through. Later, Posthumus gets word that Innogen is dead; he’s tormented by grief and self-loathing, but unlike Romeo and Othello, he doesn’t kill himself. He joins a battle, and hopes and expects to meet death while fighting for his country.

Robert Heilman writes,

Different conventions are at work…those of tragedy…those of dramatic romance. As it is used here, convention does not mean a formula, stereotype, or constricting rule, but rather a certain point of view, a way of perceiving human behavior, of understanding it and responding to it emotionally….The tragic convention interprets life as a clash between, on the one hand, transcendent principles of order and, on the other, urgencies of desire and intensities of feeling that, once they are in play, lead inevitably to destructive encounters and somber catastrophes. The convention of romance approaches life in terms of the ultimate reconcilability of desires and circumstances; though ambitions and needs may be great, they tend to fall within a realm of moral possibility; and circumstances, though they may be antagonistic for a long period, eventually yield to meritorious humanity. The tragic involvement is total, reckless, irremediable; the protagonist is wholly committed to a situation which seems to enfold all of life’s possibilities. In contrast, in the convention represented in Cymbeline the personal impulse does not become identical with, or aspire to dominate, all of reality; beyond the individuals there is an independent life that makes legitimate claims or offers alternative possibilities.

This is not to imply that romance is “tragedy lite.” Heilman also writes,

Romance is not watered-down tragedy; it is another way of looking at conduct and experience. It is equally aware of serious dangers to life and well-being and of preventives, safety devices, the means of return from the shadows. It does not fall short of something that might be expected of it; rather it adopts a different perspective, and the better the individual romance is, the greater its ability to persuade us of the validity of its perspective.

Shakespeare’s tragedies currently enjoy greater popularity than his romances—The Tempest is probably the only one of the romances familiar to modern audiences—but at one time the romance Cymbeline was very popular. It was a favorite of literary critic William Hazlitt and of John Keats. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s favorite Shakespearean line is from the final scene of Cymbeline.

The hero of Cymbeline is Posthumus Leonatus. The title character, Cymbeline, is mostly a figurehead; he errs and is redeemed, but the play is primarily concerned with Posthumus and with Cymbeline’s daughter Innogen.

Twenty years before the play’s action begins, a British ruler and warrior called Sicilius Leonatus loses two grown sons in battle and dies of sorrow before the birth of his youngest son, who is therefore called Posthumus Leonatus. Postumus’s mother dies while in labor with him; he’s born by Caesarian after her death. From the very beginning of his life, Postumus is alone in the world.

The baby is adopted by Cymbeline, a Briton king. Like Posthumus’s father, Cymbeline has lost two sons, taken from him at two and three years of age by a courtier named Belarius, whom Cymbeline wrongly accused of treason. Cymbeline lavishes Posthumus with the care and education he would have given his own sons. Posthumus thrives in this environment and grows into a beloved and respected man.

Cymbeline has another child, Innogen, a daughter of excellent character and intelligence. Innogen and Posthumus, raised together from childhood, fall in love. But Cymbeline, like many widowed kings in stories, has chosen badly in his second marriage, and his second wife disapproves the match. The queen is self-serving, murderous, and manipulative, and her son from her first marriage, Cloten, is as wicked as his mother and just clever enough to be dangerous. With Cymbeline’s own sons missing for twenty years and presumed dead, Innogen is the heir to the kingdom. The queen wants the throne to pass to her own son, so she persuades Cymbeline to make Innogen marry Cloten.

The character of Innogen is considered one of this play’s greatest strengths. Heilman writes,

Even allowing for the susceptibility of male critics to so charming and devoted a creature as Innogen, whose attractions, ranging as they do from sweetness of affection to sharpness in repartee, from blind fidelity to keen insight into motives and character, from cookery to courage, make her virtually a dream girl, there is no doubt that she is one of the most substantially characterized, and hence convincing, of Shakespeare’s romantic heroines.

Innogen is innocent (the similarity of sound is probably no accident) but shrewd. She isn’t fooled as her father is by the counterfeit charms of the queen. She loves and respects her father but she doesn’t mince words when telling him of her contempt for Cloten, and when Cymbeline insults Posthumus she talks back and defends Posthumus in no uncertain terms. In the opening scene, one unnamed gentleman fills in another on Posthumus’s history.

The King he takes the babe

To his protection, calls him Posthumus Leonatus,

Breeds him and makes him of his bedchamber,

Puts to him all the learnings that his time

Could make him the receiver of, which he took

As we do air, fast as ’twas minist’red,

And in’s spring became a harvest, lived in court—

Which rare it is to do—most praised, most loved,

A sample to the youngest, to th’ more mature

A glass that feated them, and to the graver

A child that guided dotards. To his mistress,

For whom he now is banished—her own price

Proclaims how she esteemed him and his virtue.

By her election may be truly read

What kind of man he is (I, i, 47-61).

After giving Posthumus a glowing commendation, the gentleman winds up by saying that the highest praise he can offer of Posthumus is to say that Innogen loves him.

Innogen and Posthumus marry in secret and exchange jewelry as tokens—a bracelet for her, a diamond ring for him. After learning of their elopement, Cymbeline banishes Posthumus on pain of death and imprisons Innogen to coerce her into marrying Cloten anyway.

Meanwhile, the queen goes to work compounding a poison, planning to murder both Innogen and Cymbeline after Innogen’s wedding to Cloten. She asks Cornelius, the royal physician, for the ingredients. Cornelius finds this just a little suspicious and supplies her instead with a potion that will give the temporary appearance of death without causing permanent harm.

The banished Posthumus goes to Rome and meets an Italian named Iachimo. After hearing Posthumus praise Innogen’s virtue, Iachimo challenges him to a wager. If Iachimo can go to Britain and seduce Innogen, Posthumus will give Iachimo the diamond ring that Innogen gave him. If Innogen remains true, Iachimo will give Posthumus ten thousand ducats and meet Posthumus in combat.

The idea of giving some yahoo you just met (or anyone else) permission to go to Britain to try to seduce your wife while you stay behind in Italy is obviously insane to a modern reader, but according to the conventions of the time it’s perfectly reasonable behavior. Posthumus and Iachimo even draw up a written contract to formalize the arrangement.

Even when viewed from a more modern sensibility, Posthumus’s actions in this scene are not as bad as they might be. The scene is a good one, lively and quick-paced, and Posthumus shows himself courteous, well-spoken, and intelligent. He adores his wife and is quick to feel any slight to her honor. Once her virtue is questioned, it must be vindicated. At this stage Posthumus never doubts her; he wants to see her rightly honored. His faith in her is an excellent thing in itself but ought to be balanced by foresight and self-control. Like a typical tragic or near-tragic figure, Posthumus is too narrowly focused.

Posthumus underestimates Iachimo’s cunning and his determination to win at any cost. Perhaps judging Iachimo by his own character, Posthumus unconsciously expects his adversary to play fair. Much is made in the play of Latin cunning versus British forthrightness; the contrast between Iachimo’s scheming and Posthumus’s naïveté is the most striking example. Heilman describes Iachimo as “an Italian rascal, a conventional source of agreeable shudders in Renaissance England.”

Iachimo presents himself to Innogen as a friend of Posthumus’s from Rome. She’s eager for news of her husband, and Iachimo tells her that Posthumus is very well, very well indeed, not despondent at all; in fact he’s known in Rome as the Briton reveller and spends himself on prostitutes. Iachimo tells this as if reluctantly, saying that Innogen’s beauty and obvious good character compel him to make the painful truth known. At this point Innogen is distressed but not fully convinced. And once Iachimo professes his own admiration for her and offers himself as a lover so she can be revenged on Posthumus, her response is swift and certain.

Away, I do condemn mine ears that have

So long attended thee. If thou wert honorable,

Thou wouldst have told this tale for virtue, not

For such an end thou seek’st, as base as strange.

Thou wrong’st a gentleman who is as far

From thy report as thou from honor, and

Solicit’st here a lady that disdains

Thee and the devil alike (I, vi, 141-8).

But Iachimo is not called an Italian rascal for nothing. Here is his response.

O happy Leonatus! I may say

The credit that thy lady hath of thee

Deserves thy trust, and thy most perfect goodness

Her assured credit. Blessèd live you long,

A lady to the worthiest sir that ever

Country called his, and you his mistress, only

For the most worthiest fit. Give me your pardon.

I have spoke this to know if your affiance

Were deeply rooted, and shall make your lord

That which he is, new o’er; and he is one

The truest mannered, such a holy witch

That he enchants societies into him.

Half all men’s hearts are his (156-68).

Clever Italian! He says he propositioned Innogen only to test her virtue, because he thinks so highly of her husband! Now he rejoices that he can give Posthumus a good report. Innogen, herself a forthright Briton, believes him.

Then Iachimo asks a favor. He’s carrying a chest full of treasures for a gift to the Emperor and wants to keep it safe. Might Innogen be willing to hide it for him overnight? Innogen agrees to stow the chest in her own bedchamber.

That night, after Innogen goes to sleep, Iachimo climbs out of the chest. He writes down a description of the arrangement of Innogen’s bedroom, examines her naked body, makes note of a distinctive mole under her left breast, and removes from her arm the bracelet that Posthumus gave her. Then he climbs back into the chest to wait for morning. This is villainy on a high order, something that Posthumus and Innogen in their innocence would never have guessed.

In the morning, Cloten urges Innogen to forget Posthumus and take him instead. Weary of his odious advances, she rejects him soundly in terms that demonstrate that though naturally courteous, she’s quick in repartee and willing to be blunt when necessary. Then Cloten insults Posthumus and mocks him for being an orphan dependent on the charity of Innogen’s father. Innogen replies,

Profane fellow!

Wert thou the son of Jupiter, and no more

But what thou art besides, thou wert too base

To be his groom. Thou wert dignified enough,

Even to the point of envy, if ’twere made

Comparative for your virtues to be styled

The under-hangman of his kingdom, and hated

For being preferred so well (II, iii, 124-130).

Cloten responds by calling down a curse on Posthumus, and Innogen continues,

He never can meet more mischance than come

To be but named of thee. His meanest garment

That ever hath but clipped his body is dearer

In my respect than all the hairs above thee,

Were they all made such men (132-6).

Suddenly Innogen notices that her bracelet, which she’s certain she was wearing last night, is missing. While she’s puzzling over this, Cloten, stunned by her rejection, keeps repeating, “His garment?” and “His meanest garment?”

Meanwhile, Iachimo returns to Rome and tells Posthumus that he seduced Innogen without much effort at all. Iachimo describes Innogen’s bedchamber in detail; Posthumus replies that this is insufficient proof. Then Iachimo produces the bracelet, saying Innogen gave it to him. The final blow is Iachimo’s description of the mole under Innogen’s breast, which he dwells on with particular alacrity. Posthumus, convinced and devastated, hands over his ring.

Posthumus writes to Innogen, telling her to meet him in Milford Haven. He also writes to Pisanio, a servant he left behind in Britain, telling him to kill Innogen. Pisanio, baffled and distressed and knowing Innogen to be innocent of the unfaithfulness Posthumus charges her with, keeps quiet for the time being and takes Innogen to Milford Haven. There he shows her Posthumus’s letter and tells her not to return to court but to remain at Milford disguised as a man while they figure out what to do next. He also gives her a box of medicine given to him by the queen, which he says and believes will cure her of any indisposition she might suffer while away from home.

Meanwhile, Lucius, a representative from Rome, travels to Britain to collect tribute. Cymbeline, prompted by the queen, refuses. Lucius warns that this means war; Cymbeline cordially encourages him to bring it.

Lucius goes to Milford Haven to prepare for war against the rebellious Britons. Cloten, still stung by Innogen’s latest rejection of him and her preference of Posthumus’s meanest garment to his entire person, finds out that Innogen has gone to meet Posthumus at Milford Haven. Cloten obtains the same suit of clothes Posthumus wore when Innogen last saw him and announces his intention of finding the lovers in Milford Haven, murdering Posthumus in front of Innogen, and raping Innogen in the presence of Posthumus’s dead body while wearing Posthumus’s clothes.

Innogen, disguised as a young man, takes the name Fidele. Near Milford Haven, she meets Belarius, her father’s banished courtier, and her two brothers, Guiderius and Arviragus, who are living under different names given to them by Belarius, who has raised them as his own sons and kept their origins secret. The brothers are strangely drawn to Fidele/Innogen and invite him/her to stay with them at their cave and cook and keep house for them.

Belarius and the brothers go hunting, leaving Innogen alone at the cave. Innogen, worn out with travel and sorrow and living outdoors, takes the tonic given to her by Pisanio, not knowing that it was given to him as poison by the queen, who in turn did not know that Cornelius tricked her by supplying a harmless but death-like coma-inducing potion.

Meanwhile, Cloten, still wearing Posthumus’s clothing, meets Belarius and the brothers. Cloten attacks Guiderius, and Guiderius kills Cloten and cuts off his head with Cloten’s own sword. After Belarius recognizes Cloten as the queen’s son, Guiderius throws the head into the creek so Cloten’s body can’t be identified. Arviragus returns to the cave, where he finds Fidele/Innogen apparently dead and carries her body out to the other two. The brothers sing a song of mourning for Fidele/Innogen, then lay her and Cloten out for burial, cover them with herbs and flowers, and depart.

Innogen awakes beside a decapitated corpse dressed in her husband’s clothing and assumes the worst. She deduces that Pisanio forged the letters from Posthumus and conspired with Cloten to kill them both. She throws herself on Posthumus’s supposed body and faints. Later she is revived by Lucius, who assumes she is a page whose master has been slain. Lucius takes Fidele/Innogen under his protection.

Guiderius and Arviragus, aware of the coming battle between Britons and Romans, resolve to leave the forced seclusion Belarius has kept them in since childhood and fight on Britain’s side. Belarius, seeing their determination, joins them. Meanwhile, Posthumus, in Milford Haven as part of Lucius’s company, has received word from Pisanio that Innogen is dead. Filled with remorse, Posthumus disguises himself as a British peasant and leaves the Romans to fight on the British side, pledging to fight so recklessly that he can’t possibly survive.

Posthumus meets Iachimo in battle and vanquishes but does not kill him. Belarius, Guiderius, Arviragus, and Posthumus fight valiantly and save the life of the king. At this point Posthumus and Belarius both have reason to resent the king but fight for him anyway, though their identities are concealed and neither one expects a reward. To Guiderius and Arviragus, Cymbeline is a stranger; they have no idea it’s their father they’re defending.

The young princes rally some terrified British troops, restoring their courage and turning the tide of the battle. Posthumus, unable to find death in combat and aware that the Britons have won the day, surrenders himself to the Britons, claiming to be a Roman.

While awaiting execution, Posthumus falls asleep, and his cell is visited by the ghosts of his father, mother, and brothers, who express their love for him and rail against Jupiter for bringing such misfortune on him. Then Jupiter “descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle,” and throws a thunderbolt. He rebukes the ghosts, telling them he has plans for Posthumus and Innogen that they know not of.

Posthumus wakes to find Jupiter and the ghosts gone. A jailer takes him away to be hanged.

Cymbeline praises Guiderius, Arviragus, and Belarius for their valor in battle and knights them, not knowing them for his long-lost sons and former courtier. Cornelius, the royal physician, arrives and tells Cymbeline that the queen has died in a fit of madness brought on by her anxiety over Cloten’s disappearance. Before her death, she unrepentantly confessed her abhorrence of Cymbeline and her plans to murder him and Innogen by slow-acting poison and make Cloten king.

The prisoners of war, including Lucius, Iachimo, Fidele/Innogen, and Posthumus, are brought to Cymbeline prior to execution. Lucius asks Cymbeline to spare the life of Fidele/Innogen, and Cymbeline, strangely drawn to her just as her brothers were, does so. At this point, almost all the characters who are still alive are together but largely unknown to each other; most of them are wearing disguises and/or using assumed names.

Innogen sees Posthumus’s ring on the hand of Iachimo and demands to know where he got it. Iachimo, full of remorse, confesses his villainy against Posthumus and Innogen, not realizing that both are present. Posthumus, now aware of the deception practiced on him, raves against Iachimo and himself and confesses to the murder of Innogen. Innogen throws herself into his arms, and he, not recognizing her in man’s attire, thrusts her roughly away from him. Pisanio recognizes Innogen and tries to help her, but she accuses him of having tried to poison her. Then Cornelius speaks up and tells Pisanio the truth about the supposed restorative he had from the queen. Innogen and Posthumus embrace, and Cymbeline makes peace with his daughter. Pisanio reveals that Cloten left home in Posthumus’s clothes in search of Posthumus and Innogen, Guiderius reveals that he killed Cloten in a fair fight, and Belarius reveals that Guiderius and Arviragus are the king’s own sons. Cymbeline, humbled and wiser, issues pardons all around and pledges to voluntarily pay tribute to Rome as before.

It’s quite the plot—all those characters running around with their various schemes and deceptions and misconceptions, meeting and parting, instinctively loving or hating and sometimes beheading one another. In spite of all the subplots things never get confusing. The final scene is particularly well-paced with revelation after revelation after revelation, each given at the proper time, with characters giving appropriate reactions in brief asides. Not one of these revelations is a surprise to the audience. We’ve had the information all along. But we enjoy watching as the characters make their disclosures and assemble the full truth together.

Heilman writes,

In both tragedy and romance human beings are reservoirs of strong passions. Yet romance has a greater sense of limits—of the decorum or principle or rational endowment or even pragmatic awareness that balances off the passion and holds it back from the irretrievable.

It’s in the final scene—which, along with the character of Innogen, is commonly considered one of Cymbeline’s greatest strengths—that we see this balance fully restored. Iachimo’s confession speech is an emotionally satisfying piece of histrionic remorse. Like Iago, he is a theatrical villain, but unlike Iago, he repents. He tells Cymbeline,

Upon a time—unhappy was the clock

That struck the hour!—it was in Rome—accursed

The mansion where!—’twas at a feast—O, would

Our viands had been poisoned, or at least

Those which I heaved to head!—the good Posthumus—

What should I say? He was too good to be

Where ill men were, and was the best of all

Amongst the rar’st of good ones—sitting sadly,

Hearing us praise our loves of Italy

For beauty that made barren the swelled boast

Of him that best could speak; for feature, laming

The shrine of Venus or straight-pight Minerva

Postures beyond brief nature; for condition,

A shop of all the qualities that man

Loves woman for; besides that hook of wiving,

Fairness which strikes the eye—(V, v, 153-68)

Impatient, Cymbeline interrupts, saying, “I stand on fire. Come to the matter.” But Iachimo is not going to have his scene rushed. He replies,

All too soon I shall,

Unless thou wouldst grieve quickly. This Posthumus,

Most like a noble lord in love and one

That had a royal lover, took his hint,

And not dispraising whom we praised—therein

He was as calm as virtue—he began

His mistress’ picture; which by his tongue being made,

And then a mind put in’t, either our brags

Were cracked of kitchen trulls, or his description

Proved us unspeaking sots (169-178).

Again Cymbeline interrupts, saying, “Nay, nay, to th’ purpose.” Iachimo goes on,

Your daughter’s chastity—there it begins.

He spake of her as Dian had hot dreams

And she alone were cold; whereat I, wretch,

Made scruple of his praise and wagered with him

Pieces of gold ’gainst this which then he wore

Upon his honored finger, to attain

In suit the place of’s bed and win this ring

By hers and mine adultery. He, true knight,

No lesser of her honor confident

Than I did truly find her, stakes this ring;

And would so, had it been a carbuncle

Of Phoebus’ wheel, and might so safely, had it

Been all the worth of’s car. Away to Britain

Post I in this design. Well may you, sir,

Remember me at court, where I was taught

Of your chaste daughter the wide difference

’Twixt amorous and villainous. Being thus quenched

Of hope, not longing, mine Italian brain

Gan in your duller Britain operate

Most vilely; for my vantage, excellent.

And, to be brief, my practice so prevailed

That I returned with similar proof enough

To make the noble Leonatus mad

By wounding his belief in her renown

With tokens thus and thus; averring notes

Of chamber hanging, pictures, this her bracelet—

O cunning, how I got it!—nay, some marks

Of secret on her person, that he could not

But think her bond of chastity quite cracked,

I having ta’en the forfeit. Whereupon—

Methinks I see him now—(179-209)

He does indeed. Posthumus advances on him, saying,

Ay, so thou dost,

Italian fiend! Ay me, most credulous fool,

Egregious murderer, thief, anything

That’s due to all the villains past, in being,

To come! O, give me cord or knife or poison,

Some upright justicer! Thou, King, send out

For torturers ingenious. It is I

That all th’ abhorred things o’ th’ earth amend

By being worse than they. I am Posthumus,

That killed thy daughter—villain-like, I lie—

That caused a lesser villain than myself,

A sacrilegious thief, to do’t. The temple

Of virtue was she; yea, and she herself.

Spit, and throw stones, cast mire upon me, set

The dogs o’ th’ street to bay me; every villain

Be called Posthumus Leonatus, and

Be villainy less than ’twas! O Innogen!

My queen, my life, my wife! O Innogen,

Innogen, Innogen (209-27)!

Posthumus spends less than one full line rebuking Iachimo and seventeen rebuking himself. He has matured; he has gained perspective.

Heilman writes,

In adopting the genre of romance, then, Shakespeare exploits all its potential variety, at one level by an always lively movement of scene and plot, and in a more fundamental way by examining characters with either an amused detachment or a fullness that stops just short of tragic complications….The characters who survive have not been merely lucky; they have been modified, have learned somewhat better or wiser ways of confronting the unexpected.

The most notable passion to be modified in Cymbeline is the desire for quick revenge: Cymbeline against Belarius, Cymbeline against Posthumus, Posthumus against Innogen, even Britain against Rome. The resolution is marked by forbearance, generosity, restoration, and grace. The pivotal point appears to be when Cymbeline observes Innogen during the tranquil scene. He notes,

Posthumus anchors upon Innogen,

And she like harmless lightning throws her eye

On him, her brothers, me, her master, hitting

Each object with a joy; the counterchange

Is severally in all (393-7).

Then Cymbeline immediately turns to Belarius and says, “Thou art my brother; so we’ll hold thee ever.”

Iachimo, realizing that Posthumus spared his life in the recent battle, kneels before him, saying,

I am down again,

But now my heavy conscience sinks my knee,

As then your force did. Take that life, beseech you,

Which I so often owe; but your ring first,

And here the bracelet of the truest princess

That ever swore her faith (412-7).

Posthumus replies,

Kneel not to me.

The pow’r that I have on you is to spare you;

The malice towards you to forgive you. Live,

And deal with others better (417-20).

Then Cymbeline says,

Nobly doomed!

We’ll learn our freeness of a son-in-law:

Pardon ’s the word to all (420-2).

With so much to be humbly thankful for, hostility is not worth holding onto. Characters who have themselves been the recipients of saving grace pass the grace along. Magnanimity is the order of the day.

In dramatic romance, redemption is key. Characters are flawed but have intrinsic worth, and when they err they are given a second chance. Catastrophe is followed by good news. Someone thought dead is alive; someone lost is found. A relationship that seemed irrevocably broken is restored, instantly, with the need for forgiveness scarcely even noted by the offended party. The overall mood is like that in the parable of the prodigal son, whose father is in full celebration mode before the son can deliver his rehearsed confession speech. Potential tragedy is arrested by grace, which generates a richly happy ending made all the more satisfying for the brush with disaster.

The play closes with a pledge by Cymbeline to forestall future bloodshed by continuing to pay tribute to Rome, though the Britons have won today’s battle. The peace that’s been restored in Cymbeline’s family will be extended to the entire kingdom. The king concludes with the words,

Never was a war did cease,

Ere bloody hands were washed, with such a peace (483-4).

Working the Work of God

“Man, am I tired,” the young schoolteacher said at the end of a hard day.

His father, a lifelong rancher, scoffed. “You’re not tired. You sit in a classroom all day. You don’t do any work.”

We may well take issue with the rancher’s paternal manner, but he raises a legitimate question. What is “work”? Is it defined by effort or result? Is it necessarily physical? Must it produce something useful? Am I “working” when I tap away at a computer making a story or a blog post? Are athletes “working” when they train to pursue or propel a ball in accordance with a complicated set of arbitrary rules? Is my daughter “working” when she studies Latin? How about when she draws? What is the proper answer when a stay-at-home mother is asked with a condescending half-smile, “Do you work?”

Or condescending evil sneer.

Or condescending evil sneer.

My dictionary’s first definition of “work” is exertion or effort directed to produce or accomplish something; labor; toil. A narrower definition farther down is productive or operative activity. Narrower still is employment, as in some form of industry, esp. as a means of earning one’s livelihood. The physics one, which I do not understand in the slightest, is force times the distance through which it acts; specifically, the transference of energy equal to the product of the component of a force that acts in the direction of the motion of the point of application of the force and the distance through which the point of application moves. The theological definition is simply righteous deeds.



I posit that the most basic work a person can do under ordinary circumstances (as opposed to extraordinary circumstances like climbing a tree before this wild boar gores me, or building a fire before I freeze to death) would be work that produces or processes food, because in the absence of food all other work becomes a nonissue. Clothing and shelter come close behind; after that things get blurry. But food is tops.

Most civilizations have a staple food, usually a grain. People-groups that cultivate grain are more stable than hunter-gatherers, and stability is foundational to civilization. (By “civilization,” I mean an advanced state of human society, in which a high level of culture, science, industry, and government has been reached, as opposed to simply a group of people living together in basic subsistence.) But a truly essential thing, something that simply must exist before a civilization can develop, is a food surplus.

Without a food surplus, people spend most of their time and energy scratching up a daily living. There’s nothing left to pursue art, science, or philosophy. Even basic craftsmanship can’t progress much when you’re always working for your next meal.



A food surplus changes all that. Suddenly you have time to ponder things beyond subsistence, and members of your community can afford to specialize. After you get past the apprenticeship period involved in learning any new skill, this leads to greater efficiency in industry as well as the cultivation of the finer things in life. Metallurgy, written language, civil engineering, even a formal priesthood, all can flourish in the presence of a food surplus.

Another prerequisite for a civilization, or something that grows up along with it, is the building of walls. When you build walls, you commit yourself to staying in one place and protecting that place from predators, animal and human. And once you have those walls, you need to man them. You need an army.



It’s been said that an army marches on its stomach. Herodotus’s mind-blowing account of the march of the army of Xerxes from Persia to Greece contains some wild numbers which many modern historians find simply unbelievable, but I don’t think anyone has disputed the proportions—that is, that adding support personnel to combat personnel basically doubled the army’s size. Transporting a large army—whether 500,000 or 2.5 million—from Persia to Greece with supplies and equipment, on foot or by horse, and feeding them on the journey to keep them fit to fight when they get there, would be a logistical challenge in the modern or ancient world.

xerxes army big

And I’m sure it looked just like this.

I recently read an article that said for every modern combat soldier, there are 2.5 support people keeping him going. My son, a soldier for the National Guard, estimates it’s more like 5.

This is only reasonable. A soldier, as the apostle Paul said, doesn’t concern himself with civilian affairs; he commits himself to a different task. He isn’t raising food or making clothing or constructing shelter. Someone else must bear the burden of feeding, clothing, and sheltering him, and fashioning weapons for him to carry, vehicles to transport him, and tools for him to use. His “work” is to defend the civilization he represents—to keep that civilization, with its livestock and its commerce and its written language and its codified system of government, and its walls, and its food surplus, safe from marauders who would otherwise pillage and burn it all to heck. He’s doing a necessary job, vital to our survival, and yes, we do want him on that wall.

(I’m of course aware that a military may abuse its citizenry and that not all wars are just, but the idea is still sound. Most pacifism is the indulgence of a coddled and sated society. Its adherents cannot understand what it would truly mean to lay down arms, forever, in a fallen world. Few of us can. We’re so far removed from the edge of annihilation, so deep in our security, that we’re like fish who don’t know what “wet” is.)

In summary, then, a food surplus is necessary both to building a civilization and to defending it.

Which brings us to the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John.

The chapter begins with Jesus crossing the Sea of Galilee. A multitude that earlier saw him heal the sick now follows him at some distance. Unlike the army of Xerxes, this multitude has no supply train. These are just a lot of regular people following an itinerant rabbi to who knows where. When they started the journey, they probably had no idea how long the trek would be. If they packed provisions at all, they’ve run out by now, because it’s implicit in the text that they have nothing to eat. They’re like several vanloads of unexpected guests pulling into the driveway right at dinnertime.

What happens next is so familiar to many of us that it may have lost its shock value. Jesus takes five barley loaves and two fishes and uses them to feed a crowd that’s well in excess of five thousand. After the meal is finished, twelve basketfuls of leftover bread fragments are collected.

Think about how this must have appeared to the crowd. Without expending significant time or observable energy, Jesus somehow generated an enormous quantity of food. Just transforming five loaves into twelve baskets of bread would have been a huge deal in itself, but that’s merely what’s left over after the multitude ate and was satisfied. How did Jesus do it? He didn’t wear out any equipment. He didn’t plant any seed—always an inherently risky venture, because seed can be eaten instead of planted, and once in the ground may or may not bring forth a good yield. Neither did he reap a crop, grind grain, or knead and bake dough. The bread simply appeared as he willed it to.

Imagine what a civilization could do if it had not just a food surplus, but an unlimited supply of work-free food! Think of the possibilities for advancement in art, literature, architecture, science!

And if you are a tiny nation oppressed by a conquering empire, and if your sustainable energy source—your anthropomorphic arc reactor technology, let us say—has been foretold by the prophets and anointed by God himself…well! Think of the power of your revolution! Watch out, Rome, it’s about to get real.

But wait! Not only can your uber-guy produce unlimited supplies of food, but he can also heal the sick! Your wounded soldiers will be instantly returned to service, no worse for wear! Your army is proof against both siege and assault. That alone makes it well-nigh unstoppable. And that’s not even counting any other superpowers Jesus may have up his sleeve. If he can do all this, imagine what’ll happen when you put a weapon in his hand!

Something like this guy, without the personality disorders.

Something like this guy, without the personality disorders.

The significance of all this is easily lost on twenty-first century Americans. Our economy is such that we see little connection between our labor (such as it is) and the food we eat. The expenditure of energy goes through a lot of intermediary channels between our jobs and our food supply, and most of us have far more than enough anyway. If someone presented me with twelve baskets full of bread fragments, I would be frantically visualizing my limited freezer space and wondering how we would ever finish it all before it went bad. Not so for a first-century working-class Israelite. Abraham’s descendants remembered how God fed their ancestors with manna in the wilderness when they were too nomadic, and too stuck in a desert, to cultivate grain. God had supplied their lack by a completely supernatural, previously unheard-of means: bread from heaven itself. It didn’t grow on any plant of the field; it just appeared on the ground, ready to eat as-is or be baked or otherwise cooked as the people pleased.

By producing bread out of almost nowhere, Jesus did essentially the same thing, only more so. What an unmistakable mark of authority from on high! No wonder some of the men present said, This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world. No wonder they decided to take him by force and make him king.

It’s easy to criticize Jesus’s contemporaries for not getting it, for expecting a tangible political redemption and not perceiving that Jesus was accomplishing much more. This is the historian’s fallacy, blaming the decision-makers of the past for failing to perceive things that seem obvious from our retrospective vantage point. The truth is, political redemption was a pretty reasonable thing for them to expect, because that was the shape their redemption had always taken in the past. Certainly the prophets gave indications of greater things to come, but a game-changer this big takes time to sink in.

Through a clever game of evasion, Jesus escapes the zealous king-making crowd. Eventually they do catch up with him, and he addresses them. And boy, do they get an earful.

Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled. Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed.

Labour not for the meat which perisheth–the stuff that fills the children’s bellies and provides a layer of protection against social and political chaos, or seems to; the stuff of prosperity and stability. This is an extraordinary thing to say. To “labour not” is to invite famine and dearth.

Perhaps wondering what possible alternative there could be, the people ask Jesus, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?

Jesus answers, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.

This is the crux of the matter. The work of God is believing on the one he has sent. Not generating an endless food surplus or making a king of a guy who can; not stockpiling weapons or righteous deeds. Believing on Jesus. The only “work” that Jesus calls “the work of God” is an act of faith.

Does this sound too easy? Easy or not, people fail at it. Most of Jesus’s listeners at the time did. First they hedged by asking, What sign shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee? what dost thou work? Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat. (Notice how they still can’t get away from the word “work.”)

Jesus answers, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world.

The true bread from heaventhe bread of God—is no mere physical substance, but a person, body and soul, who gives life unto the world.

A long back-and-forth follows, with the crowd getting increasingly irritated by Jesus’s insistence that rather than being merely the source of the bread of life, he is the bread of life.

It finally comes to this.

I am that bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

This is understandably disturbing. I wouldn’t fault any earnest disciple for asking Jesus for clarification. He’s spoken in figures of speech before, and he’s always explained himself to those who made sincere inquiries. He’s a teacher, after all. Maybe the Twelve do ask for clarification later; John doesn’t say. But the crowd at large evidently doesn’t. After some more back-and-forth in a similar vein, many of his disciples–not the Twelve, but actual followers of Jesus, not random lookers-on–say, This is an hard saying; who can hear it?

Then Jesus asks, Doth this offend you? What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before? It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.

Jesus isn’t talking about some crude cannibalistic ritual. It is the spirit that quickeneth. His words have import beyond the physical.

From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.

Among those who remain are the Twelve. Were they quicker on the uptake than those who left? Perhaps they were just as puzzled as the deserters about all this eat-my-flesh-and-drink-my-blood business but had sufficient faith in Jesus to believe that whatever he meant, he’s right, because he is who he is.

Then said Jesus unto the twelve, will ye also go away?

There are no words for the poignancy of this question, or of Peter’s reply.

Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art Christ, the Son of the living God.

Isn’t this what Jesus meant when he said that the work of God was to believe on the one he had sent? This is faith not just in his food-generating abilities or his healing powers, but in him. This is the way to partake of the bread of life. This is the work of God.