We all love the young hero who challenges the provincial, narrow, and oppressive conventions of previous generations to create a new and better world capable of dealing with new challenges. We like to see innovative thinking and the creation of new, hopeful solutions to replace the cynical and often corrupt institutions currently in place. As often as not that seems to require violent overthrow of the establishment and the death of the hero’s father by his own hand.
As an aging father of six, I’ve become increasingly less intrigued by that plot line. I identify more and more with dad, and find myself defending some of his choices as responsible stewardship rather than priggish stupidity. He may be wrong, but he’s not actually evil despite what his children think.
Oddly, this came to a head for me recently after a week of movie watching that started with Fiddler on the Roof and ended with How to Train Your Dragon (in 3D).
Once I got past the Vikings with Scottish accents, I found myself progressively annoyed by a father who made no effort whatsoever to understand his own son. My own experience suggests that dad at least tries, and while he may not have the tools to understand it’s usually not from a lack of interest, concern, or effort. When dad did finally come around, it required a complete rejection of his own assumptions. No meeting of the minds here–dad was simply, completely, and irreconcilably wrong on all points, and happiness came only when father fully capitulated to the dictates of his son and utterly turned away from prior wisdom.
I understand that it’s a little more complex than that. It turns out there was a fundamental assumption that could not continue, and in following the Disney taxonomy wisdom came first to the animals, then to the children, then to the other adults, and only lastly to dad. And dad did finally come to real understanding and conversion to a new way of thinking.
Contrast that with a Tevye who struggles greatly to both understand the next generation and reconcile his own history, understanding, and tradition with a changing world. He not only considers the other hand, he capitulates as a matter of both faith and compassion based on a considered approach to the questions. He grows and changes, but builds upon his own foundation of wisdom rather than being required to utterly reject it to move forward. Even his one firm stand on his own sense of right is softened so that his daughter knows her father still loves her even if he can’t follow her path.
Fundamentally different approaches there–in one, father evolves while in the other, father is defeated. I want to touch on two reasons I see for that essential difference.
First is simple generational differences of the storyteller. Fiddler on the Roof is at least two generations (and possibly three) older as a story, and works from an older presumption that even when father didn’t know best, he was still a character to be respected as part of a line of authority that extends back and will extend forward through the current and future generations. It recognizes massive social upheaval beyond their control as a context, and respects current (and ancient) tradition as worthy if sometimes inadequate to newer contexts. Personal identity is a combination of the new and the old.
Not so for Dragons, which works from a newer trope that tradition is just old and that the next generation is fundamentally disconnected from prior generations. There is no need to respect tradition because it’s demonstrably wrong and often embarrassing, and we need to jettison it wholesale and move to the next thing. Identity is created explicitly as a rejection of prior history.
(A broad overstatement, but not entirely unfair.)
Second is the religious foundation that ties cultural identity to a long history independent of theassumptions of either the individual or the community. Governance of religion is outside the scope or control of local leadership, and as such changes at a much slower pace than the immediate context.
This is born out not only in Mormon story, but in Biblical story as well. Lehi was guided by both history and direct communion and the next generation had to choose evolution as an extension of that history with acceptance of current authority (Nephi), or as either a replacement of current authority (Laman) or a rejection of both history and authority (Lamanites). It was a conflict among siblings about the direction to take, with respect for authority and tradition as the crux of the conflict. Change and evolution happens anyway, but the question is where the starting point is.
Arguably the same is true of Noah and his children. Noah retained his authority and one branch respected that authority until it passed naturally to the next generation, while the other wrested the authority away and rejected the established order. Likewise Jacob and his sons, Adam and Eve’s sons, and even Joseph Smith and his son vs. existing hierarchy (brothers in the gospel). And of course the archetypal conflict between God and two of his sons–one of whom wanted to respect his father’s authority and one who sought to replace it with his own.
Story told from a religious assumption leaves that core question in place: Will we continue the tradition and recognize the continuing authority of the previous generation, or will we wrest it from them?
As Mormons we carry that religious foundation when we approach story, and as such we tend to focus on our relationship to the established institutions (family, church, nation)–just as others do. But the difference is that we still allow for the possibility that those institutions are not corrupt and wrong as we seek to evolve them in light of new contexts. We don’t require revolution in order to change and grow, and we don’t need to reject current wisdom to embrace new wisdom.
It’s one of the many apparent paradoxes of Mormon thought that we expect the next generation to change the institution–we believe in eternal progression and the acquisition of both knowledge and wisdom through line upon line, precept on precept development. We expect to know more and understand more as the generations progress, and we are at peace with that as a continuum.
And that comes through in our stories, in both subtle and overt ways. It’s one of the many reasons Mormons do so well in international market epic fantasy–we directly honor the idea of power coming from ancient sources and the belief that old people are fonts of useful wisdom. But it also shows in modern tales and settings where we sometimes allow for peace within the establishment at the same time that we evolve that establishment.
We don’t have to hate our fathers as a matter of foundational identity, though we reserve the right to do so as situation demands. That flexibility is both subversive and conformist at the same moment, and it creates an opportunity for Mormon authors to jar readers and help create exactly the cognitive dissonance that leads to the sort of deep exploration and consideration that modern readers claim to want.
By proving contraries, truth is made manifest. And nowhere more evident than the stories we tell both to ourselves, and to others.