I am going to take a very cursory look at three types of fantasy: modern fantasies that embrace ethical and moral questions; myth; and roleplaying games. These come together into a kind of fantasy that can fit as a cushion and as a set of guidelines between ourselves and often painful questions of morality.
In Ursula Vernon’s serial comic, Digger, the eponymous wombat heroine finds herself far from home and wants to return. She becomes entangled with events and people in her new location, and she finds herself trying to live by and clarify a moral code.
Talking baldly about evil and good and about issues such as spousal abuse and community abuse of individuals is uncomfortable (even if the abuse is seen as and perhaps may be necessary for the continued functioning of the community). It may be easier instead to look indirectly, to see a community of hyenas through the eyes of a wombat who only wants to get home.
We often feel, subconsciously at least, that our community’s rules describe how the world works, and people who think they know how the rules work sometimes try to game them. To quote Murai from Digger, rules, like myths, exist “to make sense of things.” Myths explain what the rules of the world are and how they came to be that way.
Roleplaying games have rules that describe how the game world works in all respects, including ethics and morality. Here, I will use D. Vincent Baker’s roleplaying game Dogs in the Vineyard—specifically at the mechanics for resolving conflicts—to help understand the conflicts in Digger.
Dogs in the Vineyard defines four “arenas of conflict”:
There are a few additional points important to understanding the structure of conflict in Dogs. First, conflicts are about something. For a conflict to matter, what is at stake must matter to the story. Second, one can use relationships, personality traits, and objects in a conflict provided doing so fits the narrative. And third, each arena is equally important, and one can move between them. This is called “escalation” and usually happens at the point where one would otherwise have to yield.
When a Dogs conflict begins, the contesting sides (usually the player character and some gamemaster-controlled character or object) both determine what skills, traits, and relationships are involved, creating a pool of dice corresponding to those elements. The dice are then rolled and compared in a back-and-forth process, each contestant adding more dice from the initial pool to increase their total until either one side concedes or escalates—e.g., by moving from talking (use dice related to the nature of the argument like, “That’s my family you’re messing with”) to blocking a door to keep them from leaving (add dice for strength) to punching (add dice for boxing experience) to shooting (add dice for gun skill). Escalation gives the contestant more dice to roll and use in a conflict.
Clearly, one can move from talking to blocking a doorway to punching someone to pulling a gun. But one can also move from punching one’s foe to hugging him or from a standoff with guns to talking. “Escalating to talking” is an odd phrase. Yet the seed of this paper came from a scene in the television series Heroes where that is exactly what happened.
The final episode of the first season of Heroes, “How to Stop an Exploding Man,” begins with three men pointing guns at each other. It’s a classic trope of action films. But this standoff is resolved with dialogue when one of the men, the telepathic policeman Matt Parkman, tells the others that he does not intend to let anyone kill a ten-year-old girl.
What is at stake is the life of that girl, Molly. Matt has escalated from Guns to Talking. And it is an escalation. Words are powerful, and Matt is putting his relationships at risk with his words. His words stop Noah Bennet from killing one girl to remove a potential danger to another.
Many of the most powerful scenes in Digger are conversations about ethics, morality, and the correct course of action. The three threads of Digger that I will discuss are:
The conflict between two priests of the militant order of the Veiled, Captain Jhalm, and the teenage girl, Murai.
The relationship between the hyena Ed and the hyena tribe that exiled him.
The demon Shadowchild’s attempt to learn what evil is and how to be good.
I. Murai in the Doorway
Digger takes an almost instant dislike to Captain Jhalm of the Veiled, categorizing him as a bully. Murai, however, has a different view of Jhalm, who is her commanding officer. She explains that after a mind-breaking encounter with a goddess:
Captain Jhalm was ... so nice about all of it! I’d failed at just about everything.... And he should have kicked me out, I wasn’t any good anymore—but he didn’t.... he said it was his fault, as my commanding officer.
While Digger would prefer to believe that Jhalm had an “ulterior motive” for his kind treatment of Murai, she admits that
his motives for helping Murai were probably fairly pure. He really had screwed up, sending a kid up against a goddess, and he knew it. The Veiled had an awfully military flavor, after all, and you just don’t ditch your wounded veterans, even if they are just kids.
Furthermore, Jhalm defends Murai when the hyenas who serve the demon Sweetgrass-Voice try to capture her, holding them off alone until reinforcements arrive. He is wounded severely enough that his eye is bandaged for the rest of the story. The relationship Murai has with Jhalm and vice versa has grown stronger because of this (which, in Dogs terms, probably means increasing to a larger die size).
Jhalm plans to bring an army to the temple of Ganesh and go into the passages below the temple to break the shackles constraining the god He-Is, not realizing that the god wishes to die or that freeing him will release an evil demon. Digger prepares to go ahead of him to kill the god, but she needs more than the hour she expects to have before Jhalm arrives.
What is at stake seems to be whether someone can buy Digger enough time. Murai offers to do that although she needs someone to place her sword in her hand. Digger protests: “You can’t fight Jhalm! He’s got an army! You—You’ve got a broken arm!”
Indeed. I have been telling you, have I not, that I believe Jhalm is an honorable man?
An honorable man might send an army against a single defender, but I do not believe that he can send an army against an injured girl with a sword. I believe he will try to convince me to surrender, and that will buy you time.
So I will stand in the doorway with my sword and my broken arm, and we will see which one of us is correct.
In Dogs in the Vineyard terms, Murai has not only her stats—her innate qualities—but also her relationship with Jhalm and two possessions: her sword and her broken arm.
That a broken arm is useful to the person who has it may seem strange, but earlier in the story, we have seen examples of using anything and everything in a conflict—even one’s own weakness. When Digger asks the hyena Grim Eyes why she is accompanying Digger and Murai on their quest to learn more about the god beneath Ganesh’s temple, the hyena explains that Boneclaw Mother, the oldest of her tribe, told her to do so, threatening to rip Grim Eyes “up one side and down the other ... even if I am blind and five times your age.”
When Digger asks if Boneclaw Mother can actually do that, Grim Eyes says,
Doesn’t matter. That’s one of those fights where if you lose, you’re humiliated, and if you win you’ve beaten up a blind elder who can hardly walk, which is arguably worse. She’s good at using her weakness as a bludgeon.
Similarly, the talking statue of Ganesh uses Murai’s weakness to guilt Digger into giving up her best chance of returning home. Digger cannot, in good conscience, allow the unworldly and often mad Murai to make the journey on her own.
Similarly, Murai’s battle with Jhalm is fought with more than swords—and more than words, for Captain Jhalm has trained Murai and taken care of her, and he will have before him this girl, not some nameless foe. For her part, Murai has to face the man who trained her and whose eye is bandaged because he protected her and who now asks her to trust him rather than her own damaged mind and stand down.
Murai will not have an easy task. Just before she takes up her position, the statue of Ganesh tells her:
If you are slain, Jhalm will be grieved, but it will not sway him from what he believes to be his duty. Hold for as long as you can, but the gods do not doubt your courage and they do not require your death.
Not only is it not required that Murai die to achieve her goal; dying will explicitly not achieve that goal. If anything, it would make Jhalm more determined not to have killed her in vain. The rules of engagement here are complex.
Once Jhalm understands the situation—for, to his credit, his first assumption is that Murai has returned injured and needs treatment—the conflict begins in earnest. They are talking. Jhalm has an army. Murai has a broken arm. Each has a relationship with the other.
Jhalm invokes Murai’s history of madness, saying:
I know you are doing what you believe is right. But are you certain you are not becoming... confused again? You know that sometimes you are not entirely reliable.
Are you certain that you are not having one of your episodes?
Murai is prepared for this, and she replies:
It is possible that I am mad, sir. It may even be likely.... Perhaps I am not standing here at all, and this is only in my head.
Jhalm continues his attack, saying:
Murai, let me help you. Give me the sword, and I will take you to a healer. You will not have to face the shadows alone.
It is clearly very difficult for Murai to say “no,” and yet she does.
Jhalm changes tactics, using his position as her commanding officer, saying,“I do not wish to make this a direct order, Murai.”
Murai responds, “I do not wish to disobey a direct order, Sir. Nevertheless, I will not step aside.”
This is a bit of verbal footwork on both parts. Jhalm gives no actual order perhaps because it will make him look bad if Murai disobeys him in front of the army, perhaps because he does not want to punish her for what he believes is an honest mistake, probably some of both.
But if his words will not work, Jhalm is prepared to escalate. He says:
Murai, I have several dozen warriors with me. You cannot hold them off, and even if I give the order to try and disable you—swords are imprecise weapons. You will certainly be injured, and you may even be killed.
She tells him, “That is a chance you will have to take, Sir.”
At this point, odds are, in Dogs in the Vineyard terms, the players have run through their original pool of dice and need to change things to bring in more. On the narrative level, one doesn’t want to go back and forth on the same point. Murai is not going to move for words alone. Jhalm does not want to escalate, but he will not concede. If there is not to be a physical battle, something must change.
This is when the hyena warriors arrive with their leader, Boneclaw Mother. She takes over Murai’s side of the conflict. She is talking, but she has her Excellent Hyena Hunters to match Jhalm’s Big, Excellent Army.
After introductions are made, Jhalm says:
I regret, madam, that this is not the best time for us to speak. If you will return to your territory, I will be honored to receive a delegation from your people at the earliest possible time.
He wants the new factors gone. He may also, at first, genuinely believe that the hyenas are there because of the new policy he created of keeping them on their own land.
Boneclaw Mother asks for his arm, saying:
Took a wild boar to the hip a few years back, and when the weather changes, it feels like the bastard is still in there.
They are playing the game of being courteous, a game Jhalm started in an attempt to convince Boneclaw Mother to take her tribe and leave the area of the temple. Because he started this game, he cannot easily refuse to let the hyena take his arm, nor does he.
This would best be described as “Taking the Blow” in Dogs in the Vineyard’s term. Also, this signals that Boneclaw Mother has escalated to Physical. This is important even though no physical attack will be launched. Just how important it is will be revealed only some time after the conflict is settled.
Jhalm tries to get back on script, but Boneclaw Mother cuts him off:
Let’s not waste both our time, son. You’re going to keep saying “I’m busy, come back later” in as many ways as you can, in hopes of finally making this senile old savage understand what you’re saying. Eventually, you’ll figure out that I understand perfectly well what you’re saying—savage I am, but senile I’m not—and then you’ll move on to diplomatically phrased threats, in hopes that we’ll go away.
Again, dramatically, one doesn’t want to bore or annoy the reader by having the story run around in circles, even if one might argue that Boneclaw Mother should keep Jhalm talking as long as possible since the idea is to buy time. Then again, Boneclaw Mother has her own opinion of what’s at stake.
Jhalm shifts his ground to his military superiority, for his army is twice as large as the hyena’s. While Boneclaw Mother notes that the hyenas are “bigger. And meaner,” she concedes that they don’t have swords. She even concedes that while, theoretically, a cavalry of trolls will arrive, she doesn’t expect that to work.
But she notes:
Were I a crude old woman, I might point out that I’ve got my teeth about eight inches from your throat, son—and while I might not manage to take you out, killing me would make Grim Eyes mad enough to take your other eye, and then piss in the socket for good measure.
The physical arena is important. Boneclaw Mother is close enough to attack Jhalm. The hyena army is necessary even if it never lifts a weapon, for without it, Jhalm would ignore Boneclaw Mother. He must talk because of the physical threat the army represents.
He is not, however, moved by Boneclaw Mother’s threats. Now, she is the one who shifts tactics:
I was going to point out that after your people are done with mine, there won’t be very much left of yours to go haring off after dead or dying gods ... but I think you’d go alone if you had to.
So instead, let me point out that there’s actually one more person in this equation ... and that’s the girl standing in the doorway over there, with the broken arm.
For that is what it all comes back to: Murai, standing in the doorway, with her sword and her broken arm, denying entry to Captain Jhalm. At stake is whether Captain Jhalm will order his army to attack the wounded, mad girl for whom he feels responsible so that he can do what he believes needs to be done.
Jhalm does not want the hyenas involved in this and says, “She is none of your concern.”
Boneclaw Mother says:
No? I see a warrior with an army at his back preparing to kill one brave, half-mad girl with a broken arm. I would think that would be the concern of any decent creature.
Angrier and perhaps more uncomfortable, Jhalm says again, “Madam, this is not your affair!”
Given that both sides acknowledge his military superiority, why is he reacting so strongly? It is because, as Boneclaw Mother says, “Perhaps we are not here as warriors, captain. We are here as witnesses.”
For Jhalm, the physical presence of witnesses is more of a deterrent than the physical threat of an army.
He tries to convince Boneclaw Mother that she does not know “what is at stake,” but here, she has the advantage. She says:
I know exactly what is at stake, Captain. You are trying to convince yourself that whatever cause you follow is worth that girl’s death.
I know all about gods, Captain. I know that a god that demands a child’s life is not a god worth serving.
Boneclaw Mother could tell him what she knows about this god in particular. But this conflict is not about the bare facts of the situation. It is about what kind of man Captain Jhalm is and what he is and is not prepared to do for his convictions.
And Jhalm stands down, conceding the conflict. As Boneclaw Mother later tells Digger:
Nine times out of ten, you just have to rub their noses in what they’re actually doing. People get carried away with their own righteousness and tend to gloss over the consequences. Show them they’re about to run off a cliff and ... well.
... and just in case, I had Owl Caller mix up a couple of his best poisons and paint them on the claws of my left hand. [Ellipses in original.]
It is good to know that Boneclaw Mother had a contingency plan. While we want the perfect game, where no one has to die, we know that not everyone plays by the same rules. We get to have it both ways: Captain Jhalm stands down, shamed into seeing that what he was about to do was wrong. But, we are also assured that being right does not mean being a fool, and victory is not solely a matter of having the author on one’s side.
Murai’s conflict with Jhalm is a single incident that draws on an entire history of and between the two characters. Yet it is relatively simple: Jhalm is wrong in his facts and wrong in his actions.
II. Ed: Myth, Hyenas, Culture, Remembering
The situation of Ed, the outcast hyena skin painter, is more complicated, involving the myths, laws, and politics of his tribe. As Murai tells Digger, myths exist “to make sense of things.” She also tells the wombat, “A good myth is always true, even if it isn’t real.”
The myth of the Cerulean Hills Boneclaw tribe is true. In the beginning, the first mated pair of hyenas, She-Is and He-Is, were equals. But the demon Sweetgrass-Voice tempted He-Is into trying to claim supremacy over She-Is. This led to the death of the child of He-Is and She-Is and to the defeat of He-Is.
This had consequences in myth and in hyena society. She-Is became known as She-Is-Fiercer. He-Is tried to destroy the demon possessing him by dying, but the demon gathered worshippers to keep He-Is alive by removing the hyena god’s heart, hanging it from a chain and pulling constantly to keep it beating while Sweetgrass-Voice looks for someone who can free it.
In hyena society, the first-born child of most hyenas is stillborn. The females rule the tribe and are stronger than the males. This is the context that Ed comes from.
When readers first meet Ed, they know none of this. Ed is not even Ed yet. It is only after he and his guest have spent some time talking that the reader first learns that the heroine is called Digger-of-Unnecessarily-Convoluted-Tunnels or Digger, for short, and that the hyena’s name has been ritually “eaten,” which is why the hyena refers to himself as an “it.” Digger offers him the name “Ed.” This one word changes everything for him.
Digger’s relationship with Ed’s former tribe is complicated. Hunted first as prey then as a matter of honor when she breaks the spear of the hyena Grim Eyes, Digger nevertheless saves the hyena’s life.
Grim Eyes is not entirely sure what protocol demands—what the rules of the game are—so she decides to leave that to the elders of the hyena tribe, promising to tell Digger first if she gets permission to continue the hunt. Grim Eyes will play fair.
In the course of keeping Digger alive until then, another hyena, Skull Ridges, is killed by hooded figures that Digger learns are also hyenas. Digger tells Grim Eyes about this but also tells her that the hyenas who killed Skull Ridges are dead.
This leads to a conundrum. If a person—a person by hyena standards, that is—kills a hyena, there must be a reckoning. Killing the hyenas who have killed one’s tribemate counts. Unfortunately, Digger does not count as a person by hyena standards. Therefore, Skull Ridges was not properly avenged and currently has a value of trash, rather than as an honored warrior of the tribe. Digger offers to let Grim Eyes take credit for avenging Skull Ridges, but the hyena refuses, horrified at the thought of cheating. After all, if the rules are broken, anyone could lie about her status, no one could trust anyone, and hyena society would crumble.
Again, Grim Eyes refers this to the tribal elders, and Boneclaw Mother finds what she decrees to be an acceptable loophole: Digger must be made a member of the hyena tribe.
This is gaming the system that makes up the traditions of the tribe, and the hyena elders are concerned, especially the single male elder, Boneclaw Mother’s “occasional paramour,” Owl Caller. He seems to have nothing against Digger or against Boneclaw Mother exploiting a loophole to keep Skull Ridges’s status intact. This is a loophole built into the tribe’s culture. His conflict with Boneclaw Mother begins when she overhears him explaining to Digger that the adoption ceremony involves “an elaborate three-day ritual.”
Boneclaw Mother says, “Yes, but Skull Ridges isn’t getting any fresher. Let’s cut to the chase.”
Owl Caller says, “Your hearing is, as always, impeccable, madam—even if your sense of decorum is not.”
In calling her sense of decorum into question, it seems that what is at stake is whether the ritual will follow the proper forms—whether it will take three days or far less time.
Boneclaw Mother’s response is to cite the foundation of the tribe’s traditions. “Owl Caller, the main point of the ritual is to make sure no one is entering into it lightly. Do you really think I’m doing this lightly?”
Owl Caller says, “One would hate to think so, Madam.”
Without explicitly saying so, Owl Caller makes it clear that he does think it is possible she would do so—or at least that she has not convinced him that she would not do so.
Boneclaw Mother says:
Oh, come on. All of those endless questions and responses and the burnt offerings and the blood mingling and that stupid thing with the cactus spines—and for what? To make life harder for this creature who’s doing something we ought to be begging her to be doing anyway.
In Dogs in the Vineyard terms, she’s pulling in a die for Digger as an object. Again, she points to the reason behind the ritual, to ensure that Skull Ridges is not merely trash.
Owl Caller says, “I have no more love of pointless ritual than you do, madam, but I fear for the loss of our traditions. After all, without tradition, what protection do any of my brothers and I have except the good will of women?”
Boneclaw Mother may have thought the reason for Owl Caller’s objection was for the form of the ritual, for tradition for its own sake. But what is at stake is not whether Digger will spend three days in a ritual. It is about so much more—including the place of the weaker adults of the hyena tribe, the men. Where Boneclaw Mother was saying that the reason for the ritual properly takes precedence over the ritual itself just as the territory takes precedence over the map, the signified over the signifier, Owl Caller is saying that the larger purpose of ritual, of a body of traditions, of rules cannot be so easily untangled from morals and ethics.
Myth and tradition teach that female hyenas rule over male hyenas. They teach that female hyenas must not abuse that power. They may be more guidelines than rules, but setting aside small things for expediency, as Boneclaw Mother is doing, threatens to lead to deciding that larger things are also relatively small, just as male hyenas are relatively small to some female hyenas. If female hyenas fall out of the tradition of protecting rather than abusing male hyenas, then no male hyena is safe in his own tribe.
If Boneclaw Mother can set aside the rules of the game, the rules of life among the hyenas, whenever she chooses, then any female hyena can, and the male hyenas have lost the game before it has begun. No matter what the men do, they can never be safe; the rules they are taught to follow might change at any time.
And while Ed is not referred to directly, he is very much present in both Owl Caller’s and Boneclaw Mother’s minds, and Owl Caller is using his relationship with Ed here as well.
Boneclaw Mother says, “That is fair enough. Our good will has failed a few too many times in recent history. But this must be done, Owl Caller.” Placing a hand on his shoulder, she adds, “Let us speak after the feast, old friend. There are things we might discuss.”
For all her words of concession, Boneclaw Mother is pulling rank and is sticking to her plan, her game of changing the rules. She has also escalated from Talking to Physical, placing a hand on Owl Caller’s shoulder, using her relationship with him.
Owl Caller concedes the conflict. Boneclaw Mother can and will change the rules in this case. There may be a follow-up conflict later, when they are in private, but that is beyond the scope of the comic, for we never see them alone together.
After the shortened ceremony is over, Boneclaw Mother brings Digger to visit Owl Caller in his home. Owl Caller begins to broach the topic of Ed, delicately, but clearly trusting Boneclaw Mother not to have a problem with that. And indeed, she says, “It’s strange, but the older I get, the deafer I go. Can’t hardly hear anything some days.”
The hyena with impeccable hearing is playing the game, pretending she cannot hear at all what she cannot hear as tribal matriarch.
Owl Caller asks after Ed, saying, “He is—was—my sister’s son. We were close, once.” He says that there was no justice in Ed’s exile. Boneclaw Mother agrees, “That bitch Bloodmare outmaneuvered us. I’m to blame. I should have seen it coming.” Later, she says:
In the end, someone like me can only bend tradition. I cannot break it completely, or I break the source of my own power. Bloodmare knew this. She was a formidable hunter, and her death—may She-Is-Fiercer forgive me—was a great relief to me. Bloodtail is only a shadow of her mother, and Grim Eyes seems to have shaken the family madness.
Owl Caller says of Grim Eyes, “There was good blood on her father’s side,” and Boneclaw Mother replies, “Yes, I suppose there was.” This exchange is more fraught than it appears, for, as readers later discover, Grim Eyes’s father was Ed.
Digger says that what Ed needs most is company, something Owl Caller and Boneclaw Mother cannot provide. Digger can and does. Ed does the same for her after she has learned that she must choose between meeting the Trader, Manuel, and his two-headed talking bandersnatch in one month’s time or accompanying Murai on a quest that will take at least six weeks.
If she can meet them, Manuel will bring her to lands she knows from where she can find a way home. But he travels strange roads and cannot show her the route on a map or describe it for her. (I can see the gamemaster setting this up ever so carefully.) Digger knows what she needs to do, but she wants to vent her frustration first.
Ed listens, and then asks if there is “much badness underground” and if Digger has a chance to stop this “badness.” When Digger says yes to both questions, he says:
Then Digger-mousie should be going to stop badness now, at once.... Is must go. Is not be saying “Is not my fight.”
To explain his point, Ed tells his own story. He is introducing new stakes: whether Digger will do the right thing, not grudgingly, but with an understanding of why it must be done.
Most first-born hyena children are stillborn because of what happened in the tale of She-Is-Fiercer and He-Is. Ed was a rare first-born who did survive and was considered lucky. He married Blood-Eyes, and they loved each other. After their first child died, she began to beat him, having expected his luck to protect their first-born.
Other hyenas told him to leave his wife, but he could not bring himself to do it. When they had a child who lived, Ed hoped that things might get better.
They did not; Blood-Eyes abused her child as well as her spouse, and it took Ed a long time to realize what was going on.
Long ago, Ed could have found allies, but over the years, his value to the tribe dropped. The only way he saw to protect his daughter was for him to tear out his wife’s throat in her sleep.
At the trial for the murder of his wife, Ed realizes that not only did the entire tribe, including the elders, know his wife beat him; most of them also knew that she was hurting their child. He was the only one “who is being blind.”
The usual penalty would be death, but Boneclaw Mother and Owl Caller did not want this and said there had been enough killing. This is when Bloodeyes’s mother and sister (Bloodmare and Bloodtail, respectively) called for Ed to be exiled and his name eaten.
Digger is appalled at how the tribe treated her friend, protesting that Ed was right, his tribe was wrong, and his punishment was not fair.
Fair? Tribe is not concerned with fair. Tribe must work. Is was ... bad thing. All, all bad. Is not one thing right, one thing wrong—is all wrong. Is cannot be made fair. Tribe is not punish, all tribe is fall apart, is not fair either. One death, one punishment, one ending.
Ed is not telling story to make mousie be weeping. Ed is telling story to make mousie understand.
And why else do we tell our stories? Why do we have our myths? To understand the rules, why the world is as it is, why we must or must not do something. And Digger must do something. Ed says:
If is being badness, if mousie can stop badness now—mousie must be going and doing. Going now. Is great shame of Skin-Painter’s life that it did nothing for so long. Is great sorrow.
To Digger’s insistence that Ed was not to blame, he says:
How is not to blame? Is long road, mousie, is many turnings.
It could have been leaving road many many times, could have been leaving, could have gone to hearth of mother’s brother, could have run, could have done many, many things.
It is having seventeen years, long and long, to think of the things it could have done!...
But it did nothing. It was being coward, mousie. If it had acted at once, then no blame, but it did not.
And if Skin-Painter is not to blame, then Blood-Eyes also not to blame, no one to blame. Blood-Eyes hurt as badly from loss of little one. Blood-Eyes crazy. Skin-Painter sane, but coward. Elders see all, know, do nothing.
It is to blame. Blood-Eyes to blame, elders to blame. Enough for all. All failed, all wrong, all suffered.
All, all blame.
If Digger-mousie is knowing badness, is not acting to stop badness, then mousie is also to blame. Digger-mousie understands?
Digger-mousie must act now.
And Digger concedes the point and sets out with Murai.
However philosophical Ed may be, his fate remains a rebuke to his tribe or at least to those like Owl Caller and Boneclaw Mother who would see justice done. But both Boneclaw Mother and Ed understand that the tribe must “work.” This comes before fairness and justice.
Still, Digger cannot stop trying to find some measure of justice for Ed. After he dies destroying the heart of He-Is and the demon Sweetgrass-Voice, she takes Boneclaw Mother’s arm and says:
You have to do something for Ed!
I know he’s nameless, but—you can’t let it end like that. It wasn’t his fault!
What is at stake is whether Ed can he be posthumously reintegrated into his tribe in any meanigful way. Can he receive some measure of justice?
Boneclaw Mother says, “You cannot force gratitude on the unwilling,” but Digger says, “You could do it.” She knows that Boneclaw Mother is a master of gaming the system.
The hyena concedes, saying:
Well, I had been thinking ... There isn’t much I can do for Skin-Painter any more.
But it seems to me that I might have had a relative at a distant tribe named Ed, who fell heroically in battle with a demon not long ago, and it’s only appropriate for me to honor him. It’s a good story, and my people love a good story—and they also dearly love getting drunk and crying for people they’ve never met.
And if Grim Eyes and Owl Caller suspect that I am not being entirely truthful in some of the details, I think they’ll have the good sense to keep quiet.
The larger problems of the hyena society will not be solved in a day or a year. But some small measure of justice can be finagled at least if one is willing to stretch a point as far as it will go. The tribe must “work,” but that also means that there must be some kind of closure on Ed’s story even if it is not the ideal ending.
III. Shadowchild: What is Evil?
Murai’s and Jhalm’s conflict and Ed’s situation both exist within the context of their communities. But what happens when one finds someone who has no community, no traditions, and little understanding of the world, and who is an innocent, almost a tabula rasa?
Digger finds herself having to answer this question on a practical level when she takes on the difficult task of educating Shadowchild, a demon with deadly power and a childlike innocence and ignorance. The easy thing to do would be to let the Veiled priests kill Shadowchild, but Digger considers this wrong.
That said, she is not so naive as to believe that Shadowchild isn’t dangerous. Teaching morality and ethics is protection both for and from the demon.
Trying to give the “nutshell” explanation of morality, Digger lists several principles, including “Don’t eat anything that talks.”
She tries to keep things simple and logical where possible. She also makes a point of giving positive feedback, praising Shadowchild for stopping the hyenas from eating Digger without hurting any of them—and then immediately tries to make sure that Shadowchild won’t try to hurt the hyenas before they’ve done anything wrong merely because they might someday try to do something wrong.
Shadowchild tries to follow Digger’s rules. However, this creates a problem for the hyenas: Every time they are about to kill a deer so that they can eat, Shadowchild loudly asks the deer if it can talk. This spooks the deer, and it runs away, leaving the hyenas hungry.
Shadowchild is scrupulously following the rule “If it talks, don’t eat it.” Earlier, the demon asked Digger how to be sure whether something talks, and Digger told it to ask, to make a good faith effort (and not worry about whether the subject in question talks only “under certain specific circumstances, like if you dance with it under the third full moon of a new century in the rain,” as Shadowchild speculated might be possible). So, Shadowchild has been asking and has made a genuine, good-faith effort to find out if every creature hunted by the hyenas talked, erring on the side of “yes,” as, after all, when one is hooked on a line, perhaps all one can do is attempt an interpretive dance to answer the question. It’s all quite logical and goes beyond the letter of the principle to its spirit.
Digger recognizes this and praises Shadowchild, saying, “You’re trying to do the right thing, and that’s good. I’m proud of you.” She then asks if any of the creatures Shadowchild asked could talk. Shadowchild admits that, at best, one deer “sort of gronked” at it.
Digger tries to use inductive reasoning, building a case that, given that Shadowchild has approached several deer,and that none of them could talk, it is permissible to presume that deer as a group cannot talk and to hunt them for food. The hyenas “need to eat.”
“But,” says Shadowchild, “what if only one deer talks, and they eat it by accident?”
Digger gives this honest consideration, saying:
Shadow, this is tough. You have to use your best judgment. If the hyenas can’t eat, they’ll starve for sure, and that’s worse than maybe possibly killing a talking deer that might not actually exist.
Somewhat discouraged, Shadowchild says, “Being good is hard.”
Yet Shadowchild proves up to the task. It accompanies Digger, Murai, and Grim Eyes on their quest to learn more about the god below the temple of Ganesh. While the women sleep, Shadowchild finds it has company.
Sweetgrass-Voice, the demon bound to the body of He-Is, has sent a shadow of itself to speak with Shadowchild. This shadow promises the young demon knowledge of how to do the things older demons can do and answers to all questions—in return for just one thing: “These three little worms that sleep around us. Eat their shadows.”
To Sweetgrass-Voice, they are worms—or threats—but not people. To Shadowchild, they are its companions and its community. And, its community has rules. As it says to Sweetgrass-Voice, “They can talk! ... You’re not supposed to eat anything that can talk!”
Demon child, mortal rules were not meant for you! We are a different order of being. We were born in the black hearts of stars. The ways of mortals are nothing to us.
Devour them, and I will show you!
Shadowchild says, “But—I don’t want to!”
This is a direct outgrowth of Shadowchild’s meeting with Digger, of getting fond enough of her that even when she herself breaks the rule she taught Shadowchild, it will not eat her shadow because it would then have no one to talk to. Being with others forges relationships, bonds of friendship.
The innocent, ignorant Shadowchild from the beginnings of the story would have known only that here was one of its kind with all the answers, asking only that it eat its natural food, casually killing three people.
But this Shadowchild knows better. In the face of temptation, the young demon finds it unexpectedly easy to resist Sweetgrass-Voice, saying:
You know.... She said evil didn’t look like anything, or that it looked like a lot of things.... But I think it looks like you.
In the unseen physical battle it fights, it eats “the shadowskin of memories inside” the shadow of Sweetgrass-Voice. It now knows how to destroy He-Is and Sweetgrass-Voice. But Shadowchild has paid a price for its knowledge and is not yet sure how high that price is. Sighing, the young demon says, “Growing up hurts.”
Shadowchild has learned other things, too. It tells Digger:
My kind reproduce in ways that you would probably not understand, or wish to know. When we find children of our kind, they may be taught, or devoured, on the whim of their discoverer. Some of us grow up feral and hungry and are destroyed by human hunters and demon-killing swords. Some of us are raised as demons, and learn the ways of our kind.
It is always one of those two.
Sweetgrass-voice had no memories of a demon found by
And, Shadowchild now has a new purpose:
I am going to find the others of my kind. The feral ones, first, who have not had a chance. Then, perhaps the others....
They will devour me, or I will devour them... Or perhaps we will find a new way.
Digger tries to change its mind, but Shadowchild says:
I wish to be among my own kind, even if they tear me to pieces. I, too, want to go home.
Digger has a community even if she is far from it. Shadowchild has learned that it has one as well, one that must be changed if it is to be a viable community that is not evil. There is no road map for this, no myth—yet— of how a demon can be good or why a demon should be. There is only Shadowchild who knows the rules it has been taught by outsiders. As Shadowchild says, “Someone must teach them to be good.”
Shadowchild and Digger do not expect to meet again for quite some time if at all. But Shadowchild does not forget its friend.
After Digger has done what she can to ensure that Ed will be honored by his tribe, she sets off from the temple of Ganesh, certain that Trader Manuel has already left. To her surprise, he has not. He tells her:
I was supposed to be gone weeks ago. However, I have hit upon a snag.
Every bridge out of this place is guarded by trolls. Trolls who have taken an unaccountable dislike to me and are demanding tolls in excess of a hundred billy goats for passage. There are not a dozen billy goats in this town, let alone a hundred.
And when I attempted to go overland, my faithful bandersnatch has taken a notion into its head to disobey.
The bandersnatch agrees, its two heads explaining:
Head One: The shadow asked us not to.
Head Two: It was very polite....
Head One: It asked nicely.
Head Two: Hardly anyone asks us nicely.
I can almost see the players of Digger and Shadowchild. Digger’s, hearing Manuel’s conditions, basically sighs and accedes to the will of the gamemaster. Shadowchild’s player, however, starts asking questions. How does the Trader Manuel intend to leave? What are the possible routes? Hey, the bridges are all guarded by trolls, right?
One final move in the game. One final gift from a friend, as Digger tells the trader, “I know a couple of trolls. I might be able to get you past those bridges.”
Lisa Padol lives in Woodside, Queens. A version of this essay was delivered at MythCon in 2014. Digger by Ursula Vernon is available online at <diggercomic.com> and in print from Sofawolf Press <www.sofawolf.com/shop/digger>. Dogs in the Vineyard by D. Vincent Baker is published by Lumpley Games <payhip.com/lumpleygames>.