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Escaping Fate Essay


Director: Rian Johnson
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels
Distributor: Sony
Rated: R
Studio: Sony
Release date: 2012-12-28

The Annotated Sandman Volume One

Contributor: Leslie S. Klinger, editor, introduction, notes
Publisher: DC Comics/Vertigo
Author: Neil Gaiman, Leslie S. Klinger
Publication date: 2012-01

It’s said that age breeds wisdom. If we had this wisdom when we were growing up, would it help us? If we knew what we know now when we were younger, would we make the same mistakes? Probably not, but then again, if we didn’t make those mistakes, our younger selves would not become our older selves. It’s a slightly confusing time travel paradox, one that has perplexed all forms of narrative storytelling. More often than not, it seems that characters that seek to change the past are inevitably fated to end up on the same track. Any attempt to change their fate only makes things worse and brings them closer to the inevitable.

The conflict of fate is a tried and true storytelling method that goes back to Greek tragedies. Aristotle, in his storytelling-bible, Poetics, stated that plot is used to elicit an emotional response from an audience. Tragedies occur because heroes unknowingly sabotage themselves. They either seek their destiny only to the detriment of those around them, or take extreme measures to prevent what they see may be their future, ultimately playing into what has been foretold. The tales of Oedipus Rex, Theseus and Ariadne, Jason and Medea, Perseus, Achilles, Heracles, Odysseus and Agamemnon are fated to tragedy and glory at their outset. Yet thousand of years later, their narrative and thematic structures are as a popular as the deeds of their heroes.

Narrative storytelling refuses to let these characters escape. Hubris must be defeated, the will of the gods fulfilled. Man is flawed, and our stories remind us that, no matter how far we reach, no matter how sure our footing, we can always fall. There are lessons to be learned. Stories, in the inevitably of their conclusions, impart us with knowledge. As readers and viewers, we see characters set upon these paths, knowing the mechanics of storytelling but following all the just same. And hopefully, we learn something from the mistakes of our fictional counterparts.

The emotional fatalism perpetuated by myths is the foundation of contemporary storytelling, specifically with regards to science fiction and time travel. In the unofficial Bruce Willis time-travel trilogy of 12 Monkeys, The Kid, and Looper, Willis’ characters are both inhibited and assisted by their past selves. The lingering memory of a man dying in an airport terminal in 12 Monkeys haunts Willis’ Cole every time he closes his eyes. When Cole is sent to the past, it is inevitable that his past, present and future will tie together in that fatal moment. In The Kid, Willis’ Russ comes face to face with his eight-year old self. Reinvigorated by his younger self, Old Russ learns to enjoy what he has now, even if he can’t change what he has lost in the past.

The concept of fatalism is even more striking in Looper. Willis’ Old Joe is sent to the past to be terminated by a younger version of his self, played by Joseph-Gordon Levitt. Old Joe has survived his reckless youth. He knows what he has lost, and his goal in traveling back in time is to escape his imminent death and save the woman he loves. Not having the experience of loss like his older, balder self, Young Joe has his own youthful dreams and desires that he wishes to fulfill. It’s his life, not his future self’s. Their battle over self can either set off a never-ending loop of selfishness, or end in the inevitable destruction of self.

The heart of all of this is that characters who know their future cannot escape it. The past may haunt us, with regret, but we are capable of learning from it, and moving on. But there is something even more frightening: a predestined future, an oracle foretelling that certain events will transpire, a time loop in which we see the calamity we will be subject to. Imagine that there is nothing you can do, no ejector seat, no escape hatch. Despite what they may think, these characters have no control.

Time travel offers the hope that you may have a chance to right a past wrong and change the future. However, time seems to be resistant to change; one small fix can just as quickly lead to a worse future. Back to the Future has become the contemporary benchmark for this type of time travel fatalism. A simple mistake by Marty could eliminate him from existence. What’s worse, trying to fix things in the past continuously causes a butterfly effect that will benefit the future of some and ruin it for others. Throughout the film there is an attempt to maintain a state of normalcy, to return to what we know, as if there is only one correct, predetermined path. Time is fated. It is resistant to change and anything that disrupts its flow will only result in tragedy or chaos.

Characters who are aware of their fate inevitably try to escape it. Like a theme park ride, there’s a predetermined course that can’t be escaped. Their attempts to set a seemingly more beneficial course may muddle things even worse. In Greek tragedy, characters’ vain attempts to surmount the laws of fate only exacerbate their problem and bring about that which they so heartily tried avoid. In any case, there is no escape—characters understand the inevitability of fate, and either must accept it or destroy the world around them trying to avoid it.

Any attempt to control fate by doing the logical thing is disrupted by emotion. The lasting effects of personal decisions have impacts on both the future and the past. Logic sets a planned straight and narrow, a set of rules that is disrupted by emotional experiences: love, anger, regret, responsibility, grief, desire, and despair. These intimate designs put us on and remove us from our chosen path.

Free will and fate are intertwined to raise questions of control in Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel The Sandman. Despite the fact that we may we think we are following our own path, are we truly just on the road to some inevitable conclusion? The main characters incorporate the forces that control our lives, Dream and his siblings Desire, Despair, Delight/Delirium, Destruction, Destiny and the ultimate inevitability of Death. While Dream and Destiny may seem at times competing for control of a character’s life, they eventually tie together due to a path laid with desire, delight, delirium, despair and destruction that can only end in a feeling apropos to the final stage. Emotion and catharsis both dictate and hinder the pursuit of dreams.

Dreams give us hope, that something will change, that perhaps we have control. That is what our tragic heroes want to believe—that they can, with the help of dreams, escape their destiny.

Again, it is the nature of storytelling that they cannot escape. Those affronts to the gods must be punished, order must be maintained, dreams are only a diversion from destiny, and human emotion is the cause of tragedy. The lesson here is clear: we are fallible, we are not divine, and we cannot disrupt the laws of nature. Yet it is a parable we are willing to hear time and time again.

As audience members removed from the situation, we are able to take a step back and see how the pieces fit together. We cringe when an obviously logical decision is foiled by an emotional response. Love keeps Cole from ignoring the warning that lives in his dreams. Arrogance hinders both Old and Young Joe from realizing the future they have set in motion. Things would be fine if Joe or Marty or Oedipus just took a step back, realized what they were doing, and listened to reason.

Our own understanding of the situation, our ability to see beyond a character’s limited point of view, our affect for the story and characters creates an emotional connection. It’s same reason we yell at characters that run upstairs in a horror movie (instead of running outside to safety). Affect is the principle that makes stories successful. It overcomes our own logic as viewers and ties us to the characters’ fates. We get frustrated with their illogical choices, but we still hope they can escape. Why would we get frustrated if we too weren’t emotionally involved?

We see what is coming and there is no escape for us, either. Heroes fall to the same traps again and again. Our brain tells us to act one way, our heart another. What logic dictates, emotion disrupts. And sometimes what we think is right, what we think will make everything better will only make things worse. Knowing the future only leads to the inevitable. Escaping the past only dooms one to repeat it.

ENG214 Topics in World Literature: Ancient to Medieval
Prof. E. Joy
Spring 2010

Sample Student Essay (Critical Essay 1):                            

Fate versus Destiny

In Greek literature fate and destiny have always played a very important role. In fact, throughout most Greek literature fate has remained the one constant dilemma which all of the main characters are forced to confront. In Homer’s Iliad, fate always seems to be always lurking around the corner, waiting for its next victim to meet his or her destiny, which is in the end ultimately death. Even the gods are even unable to stop or intervene in the course of fate. But despite the doom and gloom that fate represents it seems that free will within the Iliad is not lost. Decisions can be made, when faced with fate, and even though the outcome in the end may be the same it raises the question, does fate exist? If fate is the “end all no way out” type of scenario then why is it even possible to allow the characters to even make decisions or contemplate other outcomes? The truth is, if Akhilleus never made a decision and left his life up to fate he would have never been one of the greatest Greek heroes. Akhilleus would have never been dipped into the river of Styx as an infant if his mother Thetis did not decide to do it. Akhilleus wouldn’t even have been in the Trojan War if he didn’t decided in the first place to enter the field of battle and become a warrior. On the Trojan side, Paris would have never even thought of Helen if it wasn’t for his decision to give the apple to Aphrodite. Again this raises the question, does fate really even exist or is “fate” just an explanation for the outcome for the decisions being made whether good or bad?

“My mother, Thetis of the silvery feet, tells me of two possible destinies carrying me toward death: two ways: if on the one hand I remain and fight around Troy town, I lose all hope of home but gain unfading glory; on the other, if I sail back to my own land my glory fails-but a long life lies ahead of me.” (9.449-506). Despite the fact that everyone will eventually die at some point within their lives, which is not fate or destiny at work, but which is a reality, Akhilleus can make choices about his future. If fate was ultimately the only option for Akhilleus, he would not have the option of having any sort of free will or the ability to even make decisions. The decisions which Akhilleus does make, however, are the reasons that will ultimately lead him to determine his own fate. The choice of going into battle knowing that there was a possibility for death, which most warriors already know, is not because fate has already decided it for him: he chooses to fight. He chooses to go and make his name immortal by going into to battle and becoming one of the greatest warriors in Greek history. If fate made the all of the decisions for him Akhilleus would have never challenged Agamemnon for Briseis. He would have never been torn over the option of whether he should continue to fight or to turn back and go home because his pride was wounded. Fate, destiny, has nothing to really to even do with Akhilleus other than the simple fact that Homer uses Fate as an excuse for characters to rationalize the situations instead of having them deal with the consequences of actually having to make a choice. When Akhilleus finally makes a decision, good or bad, destiny or fate are to blame for the outcome of a decision. Fate does not control the results or consequences of a decision and it seems that destiny is used only as an excuse to embrace or rationalize death within the Iliad.

Hera said it best when Zeus was debating whether or not to save one of his sons, Sarpedon, from his “fate”: “O fearsome power, my Lord Zeus, what a curious thing to say. A man who is born to die, long destined for it, would you set free from that unspeakable end?” (16.256-59). Mortal men are supposed to die in the Iliad. It wasn’t Sarpedon’s destiny or fate that made the decision for Zeus to let him die in field of battle nor was it fate that stopped Zeus from interfering. Zeus made his choice not to spar the life of Sarpedon and Sarpedon made his choice to go into battle knowing what “destiny” had in store for him if the worst should happen. Sarpedon is mortal and death is inevitable but in the end Zeus made a decision and so did Sarpedon. The fact is Sarpedon and Zeus both had free will and the opportunity to change “fate” by making different decisions about their actions. In the end fate did not decide the outcome of the situation. Sarpedon and Zeus decided their “fate” on their own terms knowing that there would be consequences and the benefits of their actions.

But one of the most vivid portrayals of fate and or destiny in the Iliad is when Athena intervenes between the combat of Akhilleus and Hektor: “Father of the blinding bolt, the dark stormcloud, what words are these? The man is mortal, and his doom fixed long ago. Would you release him from his painful death? Then do so, but not all of us will praise you” (22.212-16). In other interpretations of the Iliad the word death is referred or replaced by the words fate or destiny. The idea of fate used by Athena allows Zeus to rationalize Hektor’s death by drawing on the fact that Hektor is mortal, like Sarpedon, and is therefore fated to die as a mortal, even though he is favored by Zeus. Allowing this conflict to continue and sparing Hektor from death goes against the idea of fate which the gods seem to highly respect. However, Zeus unknowing and knowing, in a way, can change fate by sparing Hektor’s life. By allowing Athena to trick Hektor, Zeus ultimately ends the suffering between Hektor and Akhilleus. If Zeus spared Hektor, he knows that it would be altering Hektor’s mortality and only prolong his suffering, like Sarpedon. The fact is Zeus has free will to make that decisions about the give circumstances that will happen in battle, which by the way is not fate, and change or alter the consequences. Hektor also has opportunities within Book 22 to escape fate and Akhilleus by running away into the city. Another decision Hektor had was the choice not to face Akhilleus and to try run and escape, but he doesn’t. The truth is, it is not fate that prevents Hektor from running away from Akhilleus and it is not fate that prevents Zeus from intervening. It is Hektor’s and Zeus’s choice. It is Hektor’s choice to stand up to Akhilleus and face him head on and Zeus’s choice to allow this to even happen.

In conclusion, fate and destiny are not the only outcome in the Iliad. Even though death is the basic definition of destiny it can be changed. The characters in the Iliad can make their own decisions about their destiny. Free will is not a lost cause because the illusion that fate offers can be altered by making different decisions throughout the story. Akhilleus had a choice to go into battle knowing his “fate” of death will eventually come true if he chose to continue fighting. Zeus and the rest of the gods had plenty of opportunities to interfere and change the course of others' fate and destinies, especially the fates of Sarpedon and Hektor. Hektor had a choice to run, a chance to escape Akhilleus, and to live out the rest his life with his family. Fate did not make those choices for them. They all made decisions for themselves and unfortunately decisions have consequences. The course of fate can be changed if the characters really want it to and they would have done so by making different decisions. Free will throughout the Iliad was not lost but was clouded by the illusion of fate, and that is what ultimately led them all to face their ultimate destinies.

Work Cited

Homer. The Iliad. In The Bedford Anthology of World Literature. Book 1. Ed. Paul Davis et al. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003. 288-420. Print.

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