Courage was considered a virtue by the heroic cultures many modern Pagans look back to for inspiration. However, once you start prodding it in earnest, courage turns out to be a rather complicated thing.
I’ve spent the last few days reading Mark Lawrence’s novel ‘Prince of Fools’. Book one of a dark fantasy trilogy, running in parallel time-wise with his Thorns trilogy. I really like Mark as an author. He can do plot and action, he balances light and dark superbly so you’re always in your toes, but sometimes giggling, his craftsmanship with words is superb, and there are layers. Start digging around in what holds the plot together, and there are weighty concepts about what it means to be human. These are qualities I very much appreciate in a book. He’s also a lovely person.
After some deliberation, I feel that the key themes in Prince of Fools, for me were cowardice/courage and self-delusion. The interplay between the two in the narrative is also fascinating. The first person narrator ‘hero’ self-identifies as a coward. Jalan prefers running away to fighting and getting out of things tends to appeal to him more than sorting them out or facing responsibility. Much of this is held together by a total refusal to think too much about anything – a form of protective self-deluding there, which keeps him from the consequences of what he does, and does not do. His companion, Snorri, seems brave, he’s certainly driven, but there is no small amount of refusing to think making that apparent bravery possible, too.
The theory that Mark puts forward, through Jalan, is that everyone is afraid. Everyone is in the business of running away, it’s just a case of what you fear most. The person who fears dishonour more than death will run towards a fight, not away from it, quite simply. They may be no less afraid, it’s just a different fear. I note for myself that I can be careless of my own pain and physical damage, but fear causing discomfort – even minor emotional discomfort – to others. Which has interesting influences on my choices.
Without fear in the mix, it’s very hard to call anything brave. It may just be stupid, unimaginative, misguided. To be brave, you have to know what there is to be afraid of. It’s an interesting question as to whether, having identified the biggest fear, you can then bravely run away from it towards something that also offers challenges. I am inclined to think that the naming and owning of the fear might well be the bravest part of the whole process. To know what frightens you most is to know yourself, and to be honest about your fear is to be more authentic.
However, Mark doesn’t leave it there, because the theme of not being honest with yourself about fear runs through the book. It takes a certain amount of dishonesty to keep going when the things to be afraid of are big enough to easily break you. It takes a certain kind of deliberate forgetting and denying to stay sane in the face of horror and trauma. A person with PTSD needs to forget – because it is the remembering that takes you apart. What do we lay down of past and self in order to face the future? What lies do we have to tell ourselves in order to be able to act? When failure seems inevitable, the heroic path may depend entirely on your ability to believe otherwise. To die for a cause is to be able to believe it’s worth it right up until the last breath, despite all evidence to the contrary.
We tend to hold honesty as a virtue, but it is also worth considering what the little lies and bigger ones we tell ourselves allow us to do, for well or woe.
(More about the book here – https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18693743-prince-of-fools)