There’s a conspiracy afoot; mutterings and deals done by implication and whispering in a secret twilight language. Slips rope around your neck and yokes you to its own purposes, jerks you around like a marrionette. Even if you see the strings, you have very little chance of clambering up to see who’s doing the pulling.
You know Jack – everyone knows him. Knows how he sold his mother’s cow for a handful of magic beans. Magic. Beans. How crap is that?
Imagine, you’re so damn poor that you can’t eat, can’t even feed the cow which used to keep you alive. You are irrevocably screwed. This goes beyond stomach sticking to ribs territory
This is the Hunger curling like a beast around your bones, slicing away muscle, sucking you dry so that all you can do is stare hollow-eyed at the way the world seems to shift and twist like a live thing.
It’s the Hunger that’s grating your brain into fine powder, leaving thoughts as faint ghosts or hard, serrated knives that stab in you in time with the fanged spikes driven into your gut. It’s Hunger that breathes mockery and foulness, swells your belly in violation of usual concepts of fullness.
Pain and weakness unending, leaving you stumbling and staggering – complexity becomes impossible as you dehydrate and waste away, bones tight against your skin. Famine peels off, surges ahead of his brothers to greet you with your own personal Apocalypse, your own revelation. You know Death is coming soon after – hell, you can see Him coming up from the Down Below every time you look in the mirror.
Riding up through flesh, patient and inexorable, becoming more and more visible as the day goes by. Even the fear of Him becomes attenuated, stretching thinner and thiner as the minutes slide into hours, slide into days. The hiss of sand in the hourglass becomes soothing, a familiar sound, ever-present as you count your last breaths.
Things narrow, and your last piece of focus, your last act is one of sacrifice – you must give up everything that maintained your life up to now. Must break the cycle, and gain new-minted coin to take you into a new world.
And Jack gets you Magic. Bloody. Beans.
It’s all you can do not to kill him. In fact, you would kill him, had you the strength. But you’re so damn weak, all you can do is gape at him, as he tells you the story:
As, says he, I led our beloved cow to market with my stomach all a-grumbling and a-growling. As I led her along the road to who knows where – whether it be green field, or red slaughterhouse – I chanced upon a traveller coming the other way. Richly dressed he was, in a tall black hat and bright be-ribboned clothes of the finest silk, and though he was wealthy, he walked while juggling three golden balls like a common clown.
I smiled at him politely, mindful of the need to get to market, and headed on my way. Yet, as we passed, he called out. “Master Jack!” said he. “Why do you take this cow to market?”
I stopped. “You have the advantage of me, sir – you know me and yet you are unfamilliar. I take this beast to market for cold, hard coin.”
He smiled and bowed, “I thought as much – for you walk llike a scarecrow with knees all knobbly and face all thin. Allow me to introduce myself – I am Dr. Wolfkopf, conjurer and thaumaturgist exraordinare!”
“Begging your pardon doctor,” I said, “But I know of conjuring, yet naught of this thauma-whatsit. Pray tell…”
“Pray tell? Pray tell! Oh lad, you are a caution. A veritable caution. I am a thaumaturgist – a worker of wonders!” He smiled widely. “I take dreams and make them into coins, and take coin for making dreams!”
He scratched Old Bessie on the nose and between the ears. “Tell me master Jack, what is it that you dream of?”
“Why, a full belly!” I said immediately, then a little later lest our beloved cow be upset, “And a fine home for old Bessie, of course.”
“This I could do, and easily,” said the doctor. “But you have no coin…” He brightened. “Yet this old cow would fetch a pretty penny, no? Let’s take out the middle man, young master Jack – I have need of milk, and you food. For her, I’ll give you a full belly and riches beside. No coin needed.”
What was I supposed to do? Jack asks you innocently.
Doomed and raging, too weak to really scream, you toss those damned beans away. You turn your face away from foolish Jack, and wait for death..
But you know how the story goes – you know about the beanstalk and the castle in the clouds. You know about the blood and the fee-fie-fo-fum, and grinding bones to make bread. You know about the golden goose and the fleeing from the realms above with gleaming wealth and fortune from magical wisdom.
You know the axe and the tumbling, falling tree-which-isn’t-only-a-beanstalk. You know how Jack The Lad becomes Jack the Giant Killer – most feared slayer of monsters. You know the power and wisdoms of the giants and the other folks, the neighbours who don’t live in the same time-stream as you.
All these you know by instinct – and so every once in a while, you find yourself asking, where have all the heroes gone? Where have all the bone-knowings gone, all the feelings and truths that you knew in childhood, before the world told you to shape up and fit into the normal skin.
You start to wonder if they never existed – or if they were ‘just’ stories.
So let me reassure you – you are indeed a victim of a conspiracy. Someone’s pulling your strings, jerking you around. Click the link to embiggen the picture if you don’t believe me.
Someone once said:
The border between the Real and the Unreal is not fixed, but just marks the last place where rival gangs of shamans fought each other to a standstill.
And that’s an interesting thought to have, because if part of being a shaman is bringing back knowledge, in shaping and maintaining your people’s relationship with In Here and Out There, then there’s got to be story-telling involved. Storytelling is the transmission of culture, after all. Those who want to win a war often do so through shadow operations, pulling the strings from behind the scenes, acting through proxies. It’s easier and more effective than a shooting match or a stand-up battle. Just have a look at how media influences politics, as I’ve suggested many times before.
Remember how Jack cuts down the beanstalk, fells the tree? He seals the realm of the clouds away, burns the bridge between heaven and earth. You ask where all the heroes have gone – those human-divine hybrids, those children of gods, those changelings? These princes of the damn universe? Just think of that war for a second – think of a struggle that’s so big, so complex that it isn’t a war at all, that even the notion of friend and enemy begins to blur, if there was ever a distinction.
The advertisers and politicians Banksy and I have mentioned? They’re using language and emotion to jerk you around, to manipulate your behaviour, but most of them are like extremely clever children aping absent parents. Because honestly, as with all conspiracies, there’s another layer.
They say the greatest trick the Devil pulled was convincing people he didn’t exist. Equally, they say that Punch beats the Devil – gets the Prince of Darkness kicking and swinging in the noose, while our favourite hunchback clown runs cackling into the night. Maybe you can hear that unmistakeable voice even now, nasal and grating: “That’s the way to do it!”
He’s right. Bend over – here it comes again, the Tragical Comedy.
They’re just stories – they’re not real, or so they’d have you believe. Which is shorthand for Stories don’t matter.
They don’t matter, they’re not real, so they can’t have an effect.
Ask anyone who’s ever been a child. Ask anyone who has had recurring nightmares. Ask anyone who has PTSD. Ask anyone who’s been betrayed, or in love. Ask anyone who has been inspired.
Stories can hijack your flesh, can make you do things that no effort of your rational, conscious mind can prevent. They can even make people kill, can make people love. Yet you’re told again and again that they don’t matter. It doesn’t matter that people live their lives by them, following their whims. Doesn’t matter at all.
Stories are for entertainment purposes only. Don’t mind as we make you want the latest product or shape your self-esteem. Those stories you tell yourself, your natural tendency to create narrative – it’s not important, just cede the storytelling to us. You haven’t lost anything.
But we haven’t forgotten the war, have we:
They become formless.
They become soundless.
Therefore, they are the masters of the enemy’s fate. – Sun Tzu
Imagine then, that they do this by degrees. Piece by piece they slide into the roles of entertainer and mountebank, of juggler. Until at last, the disgust and disbelief sets in. They vanish, slowly, surely from the world of man. First the heroes become “nothing but stories.” and then the storytellers slip away in their rags, unwanted and unlooked for.
They fade away, appearing only as anomalous figures, shades and nomads, moving like restless ghosts.
Magic. Bloody. Beans.
Here you are, starving for meaning; struggling to make sense of things, to scratch that itch, to fill that damn hole, wondering where the heroes have gone, and Jack goes and gets you magic beans. Worthless damn beans, worth less than a cup of over-priced coffee in one of the endless corporate coffee-shops that fill your streets.
Jack’s a Big Gorram Hero. The Giant-Slayer needs magic beans. Without the beans, without the magic cloak, he’s nothing. All a damn pipedream, really. Just a story.
Except, if you know your wizards, pipe smoking isn’t that out of character. Neither is juggling. Bait and switch is bread and butter, y’know? Because the heart of the conspiracy is this – even the word magic is a smokescreen. The notion that you can cut down the beanstalk, seal off the place where the Neighbours live, is wishful thinking.
The Storyteller knows their weapons – they fought the first and only war, and know it isn’t about winning or losing. They could tell you where the heroes have gone – they have drinks with them every night.
Yes. It is a conspiracy. From conspire. Which is an act of union – a breathing together.
You know the doctor, passing out his pills, his poultices. You know the doctor, the physician – the Miracle Man who can make you better. You know the power of a uniform; the white coat, or the medal encrusted chest – the badge and staff of office. The door’s been slammed shut, the stars are no longer right, and yet you still have the knowing.
And they’ve been shaping it, bending it to their own ends, for generations – cultivating, culturing you. Whispering about “Good” and “Evil”, trying to lock down this or that – to divide the In Here and Out There into their own petty fiefdoms.
Or maybe they retreated without retreating at all. Maybe the storytellers aren’t in on the conspiracy at all. Maybe it’s you that have been conspiring together, breathing as one?
Maybe you don’t want to see the world as it really is, so you’ve given what you have quite freely, so that things make sense. Think about Jack The Lad, being given the beans. Without them, he would never have climbed the beanstalk. Without the travelling doctor giving him those magic things, Jack would have sold the cow for coin, and when he did that, he and his mother would have perished when it ran out.
Instead, the good doctor Wolf-head – for that’s what Wolfkopf means – broke the pattern, and changed things. That’s what magicians and heroes do.
Magic. Bloody. Beans.
The ordinary turned extra-ordinary, that breaks the pattern. The mortal turned immortal – the lead turned to gold.
Time to grow your own, kids.