When There Is No Good Decision

I read the book The Sower of Tales quite a while ago, and when I saw it again recently, I decided to take it out from the library to reread it out of interest. I remembered that it was a good story–and I still hold that opinion now–but something I didn’t remember was one particularly interesting moment between the protagonist, Calantha, and her companion, Phelan, at the hands of an evil sorcerer:

“I wonder how long you’d hold out if you had to watch your companion being… shall we say, corrected by me? He’s a flute player, isn’t he? Now… how would he play with broken fingers?”

The Sower of Tales

How many times has it happened before–the hero of the story refuses to help the villain and so someone he or she cares about is put under the threat of torture. It’s a pretty commonly used tactic, and rightfully so. No one wants to see their best friend suffer or hear the sound of their agonized screams. Logically, it’s a sound strategy to use in a story. Still, it sometimes feels to me like it’s a little too convenient and overused. The friend is threatened, the hero surrenders, the plot goes on.

So when Calantha didn’t surrender when she saw Phelan’s fingers being broken, it took me by surprise.

Even as Phelan screamed with pain, he begged Calantha not to give in, to stay strong no matter what happens. And believe it or not, she did. She felt horrible about it, tormented by the enormity of his pain, but she didn’t give in. Did she not care about Phelan? Did she not care that his music was everything he had? Of course she cared. She felt her fingers breaking too. But she is an incredibly strong hero to realize that the pain of her friend might not be the most terrible thing to happen.

Wow, I thought, Could I do that?

What a question. If one of my best friends was being tortured, screaming in agony even as she begged me not to surrender, I really don’t know if I could hold out. I love my friends so much, it feels like there’s nothing in my life that could be more important than them. But there are so many different scenarios and so many different consequences, I don’t think there is a clear-cut yes or no answer as to whether I would risk their pain.

I think there are three main factors:

  • The Threat: how badly will your friend be hurt? Would you be okay if it was just physical torture, pain that would eventually fade? What if the threat was death?
  • The Stakes: what are you fighting for? Is it the end of the world, or just a “this could possibly turn bad if you didn’t succeed” scenario? Would you take the risk if there was a chance the situation could be mended later on?
  • The Trust: how does your friend feel about this? Does he or she understand that success is more important than his/her well-being or survival? Is there enough trust between you that you know your friend would want you to do whatever you have to, no matter the cost?

They’re huge questions. And trickily complex. For example, the threat may be enormous, like death, but maybe the stakes are truly the end of the world. Either situation is horrible, and the trust between you becomes the deciding factor. I don’t think I would be able to tell what I would do in this kind of a situation until I was actually in it.

This is a huge test of morality. How far are you willing to go to save the world, or defend your friends? What means the most to you? Calantha’s example shows that a hero can never, ever be black or white. There has to be grey. To save the world, she chose to let her friend be harmed. On one hand, she was a saviour, on the other, a monster.

It’s tough, but a hero’s journey is never easy. There are difficult decisions, moral tests, and nightmarish situations that haunt you for a very long time. And there’s no right or wrong.

Calantha is born from valour in her determination and courage. She had the strength to make a difficult decision, and that teaches me that sometimes as a hero, you can’t save everybody. But you have to be brave. You have to keep fighting. You have to follow your gut and trust your companions, your closest friends.

Sometimes, you have to break a few bones to save a thousand lives.

Do you know any friend-or-surrender situations?

May you always have the strength, courage, and trust to endure the grey decisions.

-Alex

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