The Man Who Would Not Be King: Prologue

How do we begin? Once upon a time, in a galaxy far far away, in a wide green land – there was a small and as yet insignificant person who lived in a hole in the ground. His name was not Ishmael, nor was he a White Rabbit, but he and his fellow heroes of a thousand faces, names and addresses did go on a long journey where something was found, many things possibly happened, and perhaps something was also lost.

Meanwhile, at home, as Penelope spun and weaved her web, and Alice climbed up to peer into the looking glass, the ladies waited and waited and waited for their hero to return or, in many cases, rescue them from that “fate worse than death” which would appear to be spinsterhood. We all acknowledge the universal truth that a man who returns from a long journey with a large fortune must be in want of a wife. Unfortunately, many suitors without incomes also desire a comfortable establishment from which to wander. Happy families are declared by the men to be all alike (and boring) while every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way – probably because of some woman or other. Something many wives and daughters (and mistresses) might disagree with. And of course the title of my book echoes a great story by Rudyard Kipling that was made into a wonderful film, which is now perceived as sadly racist and colonial, which it always was of course, and which was Kipling’s whole point. Neither he, nor John Huston (the 1975 film’s director) seem even remotely aware of the female power that brings it all crashing down to earth. The colonial and masculine/feminine trope of the Captive, powerfully reinvented from James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans” to John Ford’s “The Searchers” and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s “The Revenant”, and to many stories before and since, is another one.

My story begins on a bright cold day in April, the cruelest month as TS Eliot tells us, but Chaucer and Shakespeare do not. The clocks would have been striking thirteen if there had been any clocks, or a month called April. Owen’s mother died that day. Or maybe, yesterday; he couldn’t be sure. He was only nine years old and his namesake, Lord Owen of Fenn, was not as clear in his speech as he usually was. All Owen himself, our young hero, could remember was sitting between Master Jarryd and Lady Rose of Brock in their library in front of the fire, as Lord Owen of Fenn looked at him with deep sadness and told him, “Lady Mariamne, your Mother, has passed away over the Bridge of Light. I have come to take you to the Palace. Your Father wishes to see you, and you can see your Mother one last time.”

And so, dear Reader, I have to start somewhere, and that sad beginning seems as good as any other. Except of course that stories never really have a beginning, or an end. They just start arbitrarily in the middle of something (“It was a dark and stormy night”) then carry on until someone dies; or they’re all killed; or, Dear Reader, she marries him, or finally says yes; or the hero is born; or, in what is probably the loveliest final paragraph of any story written in the English language, lovingly recreated in John Huston’s final film “The Dead”:

. . . snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Sometimes the story gradually peters out into a long disquisition on the meaning of life, the universe, and everything until the poor Reader forgets there were ever any characters to care about at all. Or, the author gets tired of his or her unruly actors and puts a final period on it all. And so they lived happily ever after, or not, until enough readers demand a sequel, and off we go again tilting at windmills and slaughtering endangered species, such as dragons.

There need not be a Reader, of course; Dear, Poor, Idle, or otherwise. Stories have been told since long before words were put onto paper, or papyrus, or leather, or stone, or woven into cloth. I imagine stories have been told around the fire since our ancestors first discovered how to light a flame and keep it going. That was more than a million years ago, long before humans, or Stanley Kubrick’s depiction of us. But what about the words you say? They must have had “language”. No, not really. Stories can be told without words. Songs, dances, pictures on a cave wall, or stacked into a stone cairn, or flickering on a screen, anything really. And why do we assume that only humans tell stories? Whales sing, apparently inventing new songs every year; elephants call to each other in deep subterranean tones our ears cannot hear; wolves howl; birds warble, chirp, croak and caw; monkeys chatter; bees dance. They’re all telling stories.

The best stories aren’t just communicating information, however beautifully or eloquently put. They take us into the world of Story – of histories, real or feigned; of traveller’s tales and tall tales; of emotions and relationships; of action, adventure and violence; of the many ways we intelligent creatures make sense of the Reality we assume is out there. Of how we take this jumbled chaos of perception and turn it into patterns our brains process in meaningful ways. The stories we tell, and how we tell them, are very fundamentally who we are. Those stories can also change the Reality we think they are describing, but only up to a point.

Both Reality and Story are deeply connected, but both have Rules. Stories that stray too far from Reality will not survive, and might actually lead us into terrible mistakes. The Rules of Nature, of the Universe and of living societies, even our own individual sense of ourselves as subjects of our own stories, are inexorable. We disobey those Rules at out peril – which is what many of the greatest stories are trying to teach us. Perhaps the very first story was sung by a mother or a grandmother to a frightened child to keep them safe and calm in a world of both great danger and abiding love.

This story is, like all stories, very much a collection of other stories refracted through the prism of my own connection to Story and Reality. Some of the narratives I draw on are well-known and I am very conscious of the debt I owe to their authors, from “Anonymous” and “A Lady” to the enormous universes of JRR Tolkien, George RR Martin, Ursula K Leguin, Isaac Asimov and the fantasies and fiction they have inspired. But stories also appear in quieter contexts – the sharp silhouettes of Jane Austen; the town and country of Anthony Trollope; the darkness of Charles Dickens; and the heavy yearning of George Eliot. Stories can seem universal and can travel through time in a variety of guises. Just ask Kiviuq, the hero of the great Odyssey of the Arctic, or Prince Rama, or Gilgamesh, or Ulysses. Or Penelope. Or Molly Bloom. Or Scheherazade. Or Lady Murasaki. Many of these big stories have been translated into cinematic universes, which is how I and many others visualize the written and spoken words that created them. And, like all stories, this one is very personal. I know these characters, I know the predicaments and mysteries they get caught in, I know their world, and I know the stories they tell themselves, or have read or heard within this story.

Stories are about life and living and what these things mean in a cosmos which appears to care nothing about us. The universe in this story can be – just as our own is – cruel, pitiless, causing needless suffering to the most innocent, while evil-doers (including at times my own hero, Owen) live on and seem to prosper, while there is also love, and humour, and ordinary days where nothing much seems to happen. Until they die. No one escapes that fate. (Unless there really is a sequel). But the stories that try to make sense of it all, which might even be the source of life itself, or at least of our conscious ability to perceive and create living realities, sometimes do survive for a surprisingly long time. I have no illusions that this is one of those stories, although it has formed a very large part of my own inner world for many years.

As poor Owen absorbs the loss of his Mother, and what that means to himself and to the others in his life, we begin with the children.

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