24 August, 2013

We have found the enemy and it is us…

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No enemies here! Meeting special, seasoned souls in a Chinese village…
(click on the pic to enlarge)

This saying, the exact origin of which is still a matter of debate, often invokes a human journey of discovery and transformation that has proved very dear to storytellers.

We see an echo of it in books and movies at regular intervals. A complex man or woman, gifted but scarred, is sent to an unfamiliar culture to evaluate, exploit or even destroy it. Sent by the so-called good guys.

A stranger in a strange land, they are soon touched by the power, depth, and virtues of that ‘other world’ and end up becoming part of it in a way that ultimately seems to have been their destiny all along. In the more dramatic examples, they change sides and fight their own people, rejecting their birth culture for something more profound that their insights, their specialness, enables them alone to perceive. Hollywood often casts this character as a mature age male American soldier.

John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) in Dances with Wolves (which draws on not only a fine novel but also the earlier A Man Called Horse movies starring Richard Harris) is fated to become a buffalo hunting Native American, hunted in turn by his own people as a mad deserter. Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) in The Last Samurai, hired to help suppress Japan’s Satsuma Rebellion, is seduced by samurai ‘discipline, honour and compassion’ and opts to fight alongside his former enemies to the bitter end. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the disabled former marine in Avatar is coerced into spying on the natives of planet Pandora, but finds love and becomes a legendary hero, along the way helping to drive a ruthless mining-military conglomerate from this unique, symbiotic world.

While writing the Moonshadow series, I decided to assign this classic role to a young, female Japanese orphan…just for something different. 🙂

Snowhawk, a teenage shinobi (professional spy) of great skill and deep personal anger, learns that the brutal clan that raised and trained her are not in fact typical of the spy class. Their sworn enemies, The Grey Light Order, who fielded her rival Moonshadow, are actually the closest thing the ninja world has to real good guys. After encountering Moonshadow on his first mission, Snowhawk sees the chance to defect, triggering what the ninja called Twilight War; a secret death-feud between spy clans where no quarter is given.

Why do people love this story thread so much? I believe it’s because it reflects a deep instinctual knowledge most of us eventually ‘fess up to’: that for humans ‘the truth’ is sometimes a very subjective thing. It’s not an ultimate reality at all but a particular view, formed by upbringing, culture, social pressure or propaganda. We often write ‘The sun rose.’ But of course the fact is, the sun has never moved. The passage of time, and who records (or edits) a history, can render many ‘facts’ quite relative. To me it seems that the real ‘enemy’ is actually human nature, or at least, human ignorance. This is all challenging stuff for writers and readers to explore.

Heroes and villains. Can complex people even be both? Let’s check the mirror. 🙂

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