I am the kind of person who sometimes derives hope from unusual things. As a lover of stories, I often will comment that a certain twist seemed rather “hopeful” to me, even if most other people simply cannot see it. Indeed, the Vulcanian raised eye-brow is the most frequent reaction to these epiphanies. I certainly do recognize more obvious forms of hope that manifest themselves in storylines and relish in the glory of them. But sometimes the more obscure forms are the more profound, uncovered under the shadow of stony hearts that turn out to be more human than we realized.
I remember coming to this conclusion during the all-time-famous “Rosebud” moment in Orson Welles’ ground-breaking classic Citizen Kane. As he lies dying, Kane whispers the name of the sled he was playing with just before he was disowned by his mother as a little boy. Technically, it was really more tragic than hopeful, showing the childhood lack of love that started Kane down his road of destruction. While each man is ultimately responsible for his own decision, the landscape of the soul is complex and easily warped. Hence, the fact that he was thinking upon that simple sled at the moment of his death in some sense it validated his deep-down-long-time-buried humanity. It was almost calling out to his former self…perhaps one might say in a form of prayer, or a psalm of subconscious pleading. It was a look back at the Kane who might have been if not for the sting of rejection that left him at the mercy of his own insecurities.
Another poignant moment of this type of “hope” is seen in the impressionistic historical fiction production Barry Lyndon, about a young Irishman who sacrifices everything in a vain effort to maintain a position in the 18thcentury English aristocracy. Although he causes catastrophe for everyone around him in his single-minded pursuit of becoming a “gentleman”, he comes to an important cross-roads when he is challenged to a duel by his long-time-mistreated step-son.
A famous good marksman, Lyndon has the opportunity to kill the boy he has long detested outright after the younger contestant’s gun misfires and his step-father is awarded the first shot. Shuddering with terror, the boy vomits in the corner before courageously returning to his appointed place to await the shot. But Lyndon’s heart is suddenly softened, and in an iconic moment he turns his pistol down and fires into the ground. Subsequently, his step-son shoots him in the leg, and after it is amputated, he wastes away s a dissolute drunkard. But it is Lyndon’s own act of unexpected compassion that shows a spark of something worthwhile in the man we all thought beyond salvation.
In John Wayne’s Allegheny Uprising, the pompous and heavy-handed British officer Captain Swanson experiences a similar “moment of grace” which shows him to be a much more multi-faceted man than we might have originally thought. When his fort is under siege by rebels for multiple days, he threatens any of his soldiers who fall asleep at their post with the lash or firing squad. Making his rounds he comes upon a young sentry who has drifted off and menacingly grabs him by the collar with his usual tough-as-nails persona. The terrified soldier blurts out an apology, but he and the audience presume he’s pretty much done for. However, unexpectedly, Swanson gazes at the sleep-deprived young man for a long moment, and a look of pity enters his eyes. He released him with a warning: “It’s alright, lad; just stay awake.” Even though his character remains “the baddie” for the rest of the film, this sign of consideration towards one of his own men makes him a much more sympathetic figure than he had been previously.
Another example takes place in an episode of the 1970’s western/martial arts series Kung Fu aptly entitled “The Gunman.” The hero Kwai Chang Caine encounters a gun-slinger who lives by the swiftness of his draw and the tally marks counting out the men he has killed. However, after the gunman saves Caine in an encounter, the Buddhist monk takes it upon himself to uncover the man’s latent humanity. With his usual ability to read the state of souls, Caine encourages the man to give up his destructive life and embrace his own ability to love. But the man does not have the strength to free himself from the cycle of violence, and finds himself drawn into a final showdown with a vengeful officer of the law. But all of Caine’s words are brought to bear in his mind in that instant, and the gun-slinger who never missed a shot is unable to pull the trigger. In a truly tragic outcome, he is immediately shot down in cold blood by the lawman. But Caine, observing with tears in his eyes, acknowledges that he finally understood what it meant to love before he died.
In Game of Thrones, Tyrion Lannister proves to be another extremely complex example of the human condition. Born a dwarf in a high-ranking noble family who has treated him with cruelty and contempt, he has learned to make up for his physical disabilities with the keenness of his mind. This gives him power and a sense of security, and he is willing to play the ruthless political game at the behest of his mafia-like clan in order to maintain his position. He himself admits that his goal is not so much to live with honor, but simply to live as his own master, whatever that might entail. However, he still desperately yearns for true acceptance and affection, which all the power in the world cannot give him. He tries his best to drown this out through drunken debauchery with prostitutes. Yet almost in spite of himself, he has a conscience which makes harming the weak run against the grain. In a number of instances, especially in his treatment of Sansa, the teenaged prisoner-of-war he is forced to marry, he shows a surprising amount of courtesy and compassion for a man who claims to have no honor. Even though his character proceeds to take an even further downward spiral in search of vengeance as the series progresses, these instances indicate that he was, in fact, redeemable…if only someone would have loved him enough to try and save him from himself.
While on the subject of GoT, “Sansa’s Hymn”, a fandom song performed by YouTube artist Karliene, also brings the possibility of redemption into focus. It is a plaintive plea for an end to the ongoing cycle of hate and killing that envelops Westeros. The reason it struck a hopeful note for me was because it shows someone actually recognizing the sheer magnitude of the evil around them and articulating a desire for that evil to be brought to the end. Instead of simply becoming blinded by the darkness, the singer acknowledges that there could in fact be “a kinder way” of living one’s life that should be embraced. Does this mean that the problems of Westeros are going to be resolved on the spot? No, it doesn’t. We’re talking about George R.R. Martin’s high fantasy universe after all, so the feuding and killing are bound continue. And yet there is a glimmer of hope that someone at least thought to pray for something better. And it is said that when Sansa sings her hymn in the midst of battle, for several moments, the soldiers stop killing to listen to her beautiful voice.
The crux of all these moments is the awakening of some form of empathy, either outwards in compassion towards others or inwards in a deeper awareness of self, even if it is only temporary, seemingly too late, or if the price is brutally high. Usually, it is a matter of both/and, as the self and the other are integrally bound up together. These moments reveal some chance of redemption or aspect of redeemability, regardless of whether full redemption ever takes place in their lives. They still prove that the characters are not really inhuman as we may have been led to believe, and that all of us have a chance at any time to turn towards the light like flowers towards the sun. For even an insignificant span of time, we are reminded that all hope has not been lost.
The genuine transformation of characters, even in the face of their own death and material ruin, contain within them the germinating seed of hope itself. Even redemptions that fail to take place, as epitomized by Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, still contain hope in that it was possible. Indeed, Frodo Baggins keeps himself going with the thought “I’ve got to believe that he can back.” We must have faith that some greater good can come from even the existence of the possibility, just as it did in The Lord of the Rings, when Gollum proved to be inadvertently vital in saving the world, even though he could not be saved from himself.
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