The healing power of fiction
Warning: This article contains spoilers for the book Wyrd Systers by Terry Pratchett, 1988.
I finished Terry Pratchett's Wyrd Sisters (1988) audiobook on my way to the gym this morning and, for a while, I could not think of anything else because I felt a powerful movement within.
Good stories are powerful. They move us. They stir more than emotions. They catalyse an inner transformation of a very subtle type.
I am now much more self-aware than I used to be, and I would not have been able to notice what happened to me today if it had happened 10 years ago. Most psychic processes happen at a level below conscious awareness. The more I work on myself, however, the more attuned I become to those processes. And today, I felt it. Pratchett's book made something "move" in my psyche.
The power of words
The book deliberates on the power of words. Pratchett sets his story in a completely fictional universe enveloped in absurdity, inviting you to leave your rationality and critical judgement behind. You can only engage with the story once you surrender to its wonderful, nonsense universe.
Having said that, we soon find ourselves inside the most archetypal European setting: the royal court. Moreover, the book contains easily recognisable Shakespearean references. Shakespeare influences much of the way English speakers think (and this is a subject to explore in another article). Therefore much of the text in the book feels very familiar despite its setting in an alternative world.
I had been happily enjoying the book at a superficial level for many commuting hours until a character completely arrested my attention: the Fool.
Until the appearance of the Fool, we had been following the story of the soul of a dead King wanting to avenge his own murder, and failing, as he cannot interact with the physical world. In the depths of despair, the new King seeks advice from the Fool, who, in turn, turns out to be the wisest man in the court (just like the Fool in Shakespeare's King Lear, who speaks more sense than any other protagonist in the play). He is the one who puts forward the (also Shakespearean) insight into the power of words, which is the main theme of the book.
Words are the tool of my trade as a therapist. I know the power of words. Words can change the past, the present, and the future. They can change minds and hearts. They transform our perception of the world. And our perception of the world is our world.
The Fool in this book's universe is quite different from what we expect. He was brought up to be a Fool, as were his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. He went to Fools' Academy, where he slept on a wooden mattress and learnt to only tell jokes pre-approved by the Guild Of Fools, all in preparation for a life of humiliation and self-flagellation.
Part of me relates to this character. The part of me who was not taken seriously and was not heard. From the times when I was told I had not been hired to think or that I was hired to follow instructions. From the times when I had to smile when I really wanted to cry. Or when I had to be endearing and nice to survive at a job, a party, or a relationship. Sometimes being a Fool is the only way to get through the day.
The Young Witch
The second character to hook me was the youngest of three witches, Magrat. She is described as average-looking, extremely skinny, "as flat-chested as an ironing board with two peas on it", and with untameable hair. She is unassuming, curious, creative, and more effective and practical than she gives herself credit for. She has a gentle demeanour, wears a lot of silver, and is good with herbs. Magrat is me! Pretty much. I always have that nagging feeling I can never get things quite right, but just enough to work, most of the time. Magrat is also said to "get in the way of her own happiness, " which hits home for me.
The story becomes even more interesting when the Fool and Magrat fall in love with each other. Because they are parts of me, I am in love too. There is miscommunication, avoidance, awkwardness, and all the usual errors that people who like each other fall into. Pratchett had a talent for creating a magical universe with emotionally human characters. The novels explore human emotion, belief, religion, and philosophy over a scatty background of magical trouble.
The witch and the unconscious
In the story, "The Land" is unhappy because the new King does not love the Land, he loves only power. So "The Land" (as a collective of living creatures), in the form of thoughts, calls out to a witch who can read thoughts and harasses her into doing something about it.
Forests in stories are a symbol of the unconscious. The witch, in this case, is a psychological function that mediates between conscious and unconscious material. In real life, this function can be performed by dreams, meditation, or psychotherapy, where content surfacing from the unconscious can be brought to light and understood.
Power vs love
Carl Jung said power and love are opposites. Where there is one, the other is not. This has taken me years to understand.
Power is always afraid of losing power and will do anything to keep it because power is rooted in fear. Power is ready to consume itself because even death is preferable to vulnerability. It wants to conquer fear by subduing, suppressing, repressing, and controlling. The new King, who killed the previous one, represents power in the story.
Love is an alternative approach to fear. It is approaching fear with hope.
Letting life take you by the hand and show you what it is about. It is to trust that we are part of life and not life itself. Scary, but full of experience, beauty, adventure, and wonder. Love is embracing vulnerability in favour of what can be. This is brought to life by the Fool and Margrat, who are both young, naive, insecure, and unsure but hopeful.
The Fool, however, has sworn absolute loyalty to the King, who is now engaging in a witch hunt. This causes the Fool great distress, as his work is his life, and he never dreamt of doing anything else. Going against the King is a serious matter for the Fool. It would mean losing his identity and acting against an oath.
Situations of this sort can feel like death. Because it is a kind of death. When we have been defined by a career, a partner, or socio-economic status, for example, the prospect of losing it feels like death, and we cannot imagine what it would be like to change. Going against our deeply held beliefs is like psychological suicide.
When it comes to it, the Fool betrays the new King and is prepared for the consequence: death. Enraged, the new King stabs the Fool, who then lies "dying" in Margrat's arms. He confesses to being relieved for no longer being the Fool and that he did what was right.
This is surrender: you've done the right thing by yourself and your heart, so come what may. It takes courage, but love does something to us, and we feel courageous and free.
Luckily though, the knife was a prop, the stabbing was fake, and the Fool survives (because the episode takes place during a stage play - a play within the play).
From Fool to King
The new King falls off the stage into a ditch and dies after being exposed as a killer. The previous King's son and rightful heir to the throne, who had been hidden by the witches for protection, is requested to take the throne, which he refuses. Having grown up in a theatre troupe, he prefers a thespian life: he said he enjoys playing Kings, not being one.
The more senior witch, who is being bullied by The Land to find a suitable King, reveals that the Fool is actually a son of the previous King and enthrones him instead.
In the book's last chapter, Magrat discovers that the Fool's alleged ancestry is no more than a possibility rather than a fact. In others words, the witches made it all up because they needed a King to appease The Land, who was now happy.
The witches tell Magrat: "He will be a good enough King; it doesn't matter how he got there".
This relates to the infamous impostor syndrome: the nagging feeling that we are not who some people think we are, and they will soon find out.
There is a Fool in me, a Magrat, a King, a forest, and witches. Every character of the story is mapped to a part of me. The story tells me it is okay to take on the challenges I don't necessarily feel prepared for as long as I am a "good enough King".
The story's heart-led action and surrender offer hope for the parts of me stuck in roles they don't want to be, which is very healing. My inner Magrat has found love and acceptance. The forest was "heard" - the unconscious's message was listened to and honoured.
We naturally know what feels right in our hearts but need constant reminding. Emotions are a much better moral compass than money, status, rationality, or power. Stories can remind us how it feels to act in certain ways and the options we have.