I was recently reading a book on Greek mythology, and I was struck by just how much of a jackass Odysseus is. Also the people who wrote about his adventures. I mean, wherever he goes, his crew die, and this is treated as OK because the hero got through. They’re like the redshirts in Star Trek, only thousands of years in advance. Their lives are harsh and apparently expendable.
Matt Wallace recently wrote an insightful series of tweets relating to this. He was talking about ancillary characters rather than random mooks, but I think the point still stands. If the author or the heroes treat other people as expendable, if they just move on from death, that sends a message. It’s a message that can make the story harder to believe, or worse yet harder to care about.
I’ve stopped caring about death in mainstream superhero comics because it doesn’t matter. Endless resurrections have seen to that. Death is powerful in a story because it matters. Treat it any other way, and some of that power is lost.
The sun shone brightly on Llowen as he emerged from his hut. It was a long hut of sturdy logs, as befitted the home of the Harvest King. His for a year in exchange for his duties.
People smiled at him as they passed, hurrying through the dust of the town square. Most would be on their way to the fields. A few, like the blacksmith and the town’s trader, would be preparing for other sorts of work. Pigs snuffled at piles of scraps outside wattle and daub huts. Chickens scurried between people’s feet.
“Bless me, your majesty,” said a pregnant woman as she approached Llowen.
He smiled and placed his hand on her belly, the wool of her dress a little less rough than his hands. Power flowed through him. The strength of the harvest god granted to his messenger each year, the power of growth.
“Thank you.” The woman kissed his hand and walked on.
Beaming like the sun above, Llowen walked out through the town’s wooden gates and looked down the hill at the fields. The high priest Waldrun was also at the gate, as he was every morning, peering at the crops.
“This weather is bad,” Waldrun said, his tone sharp. “Plenty of sun but not enough rain. The crops are faltering. We may yet need you to perform your ultimate duty.”
Fear gripped Llowen’s heart. He had known that being Harvest King came with a price, but had not expected to pay it. It was years since the crops had faltered. Years since a sacrifice had been needed to unleash the god’s full power.
“I can make it right,” he said.
“Yes.” Waldrun nodded. “That’s why we have the Harvest King.”
Every day, Llowen rose early. He gathered the townspeople in the square and spoke, the invigorating power of the harvest god flowing through him. Spirits rising, farmers walked out to the fields more motivated than ever. They fetched water and dug up weeds, tended the weak plants and watched over the strong.
Still it was not enough. The sun blazed down, patches of grain began to wither, and Llowen felt fear squeeze his guts.
More was needed. Every day he went out to the fields before dawn. The other townsfolk were growing weary now from long weeks of labour. They needed the crops to grow, but they also needed rest.
Not so Llowen. What did he have to conserve his strength for? He would succeed or he would die, for the good of all. Day and night he worked and prayed in those fields, only sleeping when he could not hold his eyes open any longer. Every plant he touched grew a little strong. Everywhere he went, the harvest grew richer.
At last, the faltering crops gained a little of their lost vitality. At last Llowen returned to his bed, falling into a deep and dreamless sleep.
He was awoken by the roar of thunder and a fearsome clattering upon his roof. For a moment he smiled. Rain at last! The crops would grow.
Then he realised just how heavy it was. Casting aside his blanket, he ran naked out into the storm. Rain lashed his flesh. Mud spattered his legs as ran through the town, out the gates, and down into fields filled with devastation. Everywhere he looked, crops had been flattened, cut down by the rain before they had time to ripen. Half-formed ears of grain lay sodden in the mud. Vegetable leaves were wilted and broken.
He picked up one of those stalks of grain and tried to release his power through it. It was too late. Tears joined the rain running down his cheeks.
The sun was rising as the people of the town processed down to the fields. Llowen led the way, dressed in nothing but a white sheet. His eyes were downcast, not even taking in the limp remains of the crops. Behind him came Waldrun in his full priestly regalia – an oak wreath around his head, a sickle in his hand, a bronze medallion hanging from his neck. Behind them came all the others, including a woman carrying a newborn baby.
At last they came to the sacred spot, a stone slab laid out among the fields. Over a small fire, Waldrun brewed a potion. Beside it he laid out knife and rope.
“It is time,” he said at last.
Pouring the steaming contents of his pot into a clay bowl, Waldrun handed it to Llowen.
Llowen knew that he should be strong. He had volunteered to be Harvest King, to be the conduit for his people’s survival. They looked at him with gratitude. But all he felt was fear.
With trembling hands he raised the bowl. The steam was sweet but with an acrid undertone.
“The first death,” Waldrun announced. He lowered his voice and leaned close to Llowen. “Drink quickly. It will deaden the pain of the rest.”
Llowen did as he was told. The potion scalded his mouth and throat, but he gulped it down. Quickly the burning faded. Numbness swept over him and he sank to his knees. The world was growing dark.
“The second death.” Waldrun placed the rope around Llowen’s neck and pulled it tight, cutting off the air. “And the third.”
The pain of the knife in Llowen’s side was strange and distant. He toppled forward. Blood flowed from him, enriching the ground, making it warm beneath his cheek. He saw the grain start to revive as the power of the harvest god flowed from his king. Limp vegetables stiffened and turned bright green. Fruit burst out upon the branches of trees.
He looked up and saw a baby peering down from his mother’s arms.
Llowen smiled. He was not afraid any more. Everything would be well.
* * *
This story was inspired by an article by Austin Hackney on the song “John Barleycorn” and the mythology around it. I’d never considered that this folk classic might refer to ancient rituals as well as brewing, but Austin makes an interesting case, and it got me imagining.