As politics get ugly and dumpsters explode and people are shot in the street without evidence of criminal activity, it can be easy to despair of the world. My Facebook feed runs the gamut of political emotions. There are those who want the prisons emptied, the police abolished, and every unjust death of oppressed peoples to be avenged. There are also those who feel that if everyone just obeyed the law and trusted in our American system, injustices of a few police officers could be punished and no lives would be lost. Both groups speak with a touch of naïveté at times, a belief that if we work out a few kinks, humanity will just be all right. Mob justice is the hope of one side. Stronger laws is the solution of the other. In between, there a thousand different compromises. This is nothing new; we’ve seen this conflict before and we will again.
My first encounter with these ideas was Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy, written for children in the 1980s.
Alexander is best known for his Chronicles of Prydain, a fantasy series about a brave swineherd and a spunky princess. The second book, The Black Cauldron, was adapted (and completely changed) by Disney in 1985. I never could get into Prydain as a kid, though the one documentary on Alexander’s work focuses almost entirely on Prydain’s influence. Westmark is a gloomy trilogy, set in a non-fantastical world much like our own, an AU of sorts, with a culture like 18th century Europe.
The nation of Westmark is a monarchy, under the rule of an emotionally unstable king who is easily swayed by councilors. The main protagonist is Theo, a printer’s apprentice who believes in the fundamental goodness of humanity, including himself. When his master is murdered by police for not obeying censorship laws and Theo kills an officer, he begins to question that universal goodness. As he gets swept up into the politics and inevitable revolution within Westmark he is searching for what is right.
I picked up Westmark, or rather the second book, The Kestrel, at the Bloomfield Public Library when I was about twelve years old. As I’ve said before, picking up a book can be a spiritual experience and I tend to trust in fate when browsing. I rejected The Kestrel many times because of its blocky 80s cover illustration, but one day I felt there was a reason I kept re-reading the synopsis. Once I opened the book itself, it gripped me from the beginning.
And though I was unwittingly picking up the sequel, I was pulled right into Theo’s troubles: the man he killed in self-defense, the terribly scarred friend he was too scared to save, and the murderous tyrant whose life he spared. No one can give Theo his answers and Alexander never presents a solution, which is unusual for a children’s book.
It is important to note that this book was published prior to the emergence of YA as a genre. This was back when most people only spoke of children’s and adult literature, and YA was what some used to define the slightly inappropriate kids’ books, like Salinger, Hinton, or some of Blume. In the early 2000s, when I read Westmark, the YA section was small and hard to find, and librarians had mostly relegated the sexiest books there–my first foray there got me a book that featured a bestiality sub-plot. The children’s section was confusing–you could find Roald Dahl and Tamora Pierce there, which for a pre-teen meant you never knew when a sex scene would spring upon you in an otherwise low-key book. Alexander didn’t write sex scenes or strong language. His violence was subtle, but poignant, and the description of Theo’s dead friend lying stripped and bloody, resembling a “side of beef” more than a man, with a mouth full of clotted blood like “red mud”, haunted me for years. The scene where Theo, after becoming a rebel leader and avenging his friends, is looking at his hands and realizing he’s had dried blood under his nails for days was chilling to me.
Reading this in 2002/2003, not long after 9/11, meant death and war had become very real to me. The Regians, Westmark’s vicious enemies, slaughter innocent villagers. Al Qaeda had just murdered hundreds of innocent American citizens. In The Kestrel, the reader is in agreement with Theo, when after the horrors he has seen inflicted on his own people, he is determined to kill anyone in a Regian uniform. As a child, in a freshly post-9/11 world, where my own city was under attack still from anthrax and my father had to wear a mask and gloves to work at the post office, war seemed like a no-brainer. Kill the bad guys and you will save the good guys. You will somehow heal the societal wound caused by the death of innocent civilians.
Even reading The Kestrel now, I want to believe Theo is right when he puts aside his personal hang-ups and conscience to fight the Regian invasion. He finally wins the admiration of his friend Justin, a fearless revolutionary who is as in love with the republic dream as Enjolras of Les Miserables. Theo is no longer hesitating and holding back on the sidelines. When he becomes Colonel Kestrel, he is a hero that men and women can follow. But he loses himself. He loses the ability to tell friends from enemies or to give the benefit of the doubt. He is ready to kill a friend on the slight chance that he is a mole. He very nearly kills a dear friend who is disguised in a Regian uniform. He can no longer be merciful.
The worst of Theo’s experience is his finally realizing the depravity of all humans, including himself:
The old scholar [Jacobus] had written that people were gentle by nature, and Florian asked if Theo believed that. Theo had answered that he did. It was, he told Florian, the way he felt, and he was no different from anyone else.
He wondered if he had told the truth then.
He was afraid that he had.
People are not essentially good. War proves that. His later experience in politics only cements that understanding. Theo himself is no better or worse than most, and he has to come to terms with that.
Theo’s moral descent is not unique. He and his rebel friends call themselves animal names (Kestrel, Shrike, Monkey, etc.) as code names, but these become another way to further distance themselves from their humanity. Kestrel can do what Theo cannot. Even Justin/Shrike and Monkey, though we never get insight into their thoughts, sometimes indicate a kind of deadened awareness that they have become creatures they are not proud of (when Justin kills an enemy child and Monkey steals food from a family), but they don’t know how to go back and to fight they have to be this way. Justin and Monkey never do find their way back to who they were.
After reading The Kestrel, I went on to the sequel, the last in the trilogy, The Beggar Queen. This story shows a contrast between three political groups. The ancient monarchy is headed by Mickle, a new young queen who secretly believes in a republic and hates her position, so leaves much of the royal duties to her councilor, Torrens. A kind man from a humble background, Torrens is almost the perfect link between the people and the aristocracy, but when given authority, Torrens begins to tighten censorship laws for the protection of the people and the queen’s good name. The revolutionaries, the people’s hope for a republic, are led by Florian, a charismatic man who has long fought for equality. But his protege, Justin, is impatient for the republic to begin in his lifetime and is hardened enough by war to think any amount of lives is worth the sacrifice. The most obvious villain is Cabbarus, a scheming narcissist who brings about a fascist government where people are killed as examples. But as the story unfolds, it is clear that in Torrens and Justin, and even Florian, there is the potential to be as power-hungry and oppressive as Cabbarus, though all in the name of different causes.
Theo is young and passionate, and he gets swept up again into the revolutionary cause, trying to balance his morals with the necessity to be strong and to kill. This time, the presence of Mickle, his fiancee, keeps him grounded, as she is a compassionate leader of her own troops. Theo, is in fact, at his best when he considers his fiancee’s well-being because it forces him to remember that everyone around him is an individual, and not masses of soldiers to be sacrificed or enemies to be exterminated. After everything, Theo and Mickle have each other, and they understand what the other has been through in the war. It’s no fluffy romance. It may be more akin to the relationship between Katniss and Peeta at the end of Mockingjay–a love between to two people who know each other’s sorrows and darkness enough to carve out their own happiness in the world. Theo also has his art, in which he can express his anger and his loss, his failures and his being complicit to things he knew were if not exactly wrong, not exactly right either.
I read the first in the series, Westmark, last, due to my own juvenile error. But while they are best read in order, Westmark can read like a prequel, which shows us Theo’s origin story. We see Theo at his most innocent, drawn to the charming Florian, who tells him all men are brothers, which means they save each other, they value each other, but that sometimes brothers kill each other, “for the sake of justice” and “for a higher cause.” Florian truly believes that, and from Florian’s perspective, it all makes sense. In the end, Florian is right. This does occur. But at the very end, even Florian betrays some horror and no sense of joy at what is left when so many have killed and been killed.
The words that hit me the hardest back then was this scene, where Theo is horrified by the small skirmish fought in the town of Nierkeeping.
“Even if the cause is good,” said Theo, “what does it do to the people who stand against it? And the people who follow it?”
“Next time you see Jellinek [the cook],” said Florian. “Ask him if he’s ever found a way to make an omelet without breaking eggs.”
“Yes,” Theo said. “But men aren’t eggs.”
It is impossible for Theo, even as he is pulled into the revolution, to see that what he does will make the world a truly better place. All he knows is he is stopping certain injustices. Yet injustice continues to spring up. Friends turn against each other. Loved ones disappoint. How much more does a cause made up of thousands of people betray and disappoint?
The omelet is perhaps a free world–the republic the people dream of. In the end, they make the omelet then. But what is left? Is it really better for the dead to have died than have lived? Just as Florian continually says that he can never come up with an answer to Theo’s assertion that men are not eggs, neither can the reader come up with a better way for the people of Westmark to have resolved their difficulties or Theo to have brought about peace.
As long as there are people, there will not be peace. Placing hope in a cause or a human being will always end unsatisfactorily. Westmark taught me that. But it also showed me that as long as there are people, there will always be much more than violence, there will be love and kindness and yes, even hope, despite everything else. That is something to keep in mind when the despair sets in, the feeling that things will not be all right in the world, or that the outcome of an election will mean the demise of all good. Nothing will fix everything, but nothing will destroy everything. We all have some measure of control over our relationships and communities, and that is what we can focus on. As long as we are here, we can do something even if it’s just supporting someone who needs it or making someone laugh. We will make mistakes. We are only human. But we can at least try not to be anything less.
Brittany Ann Zayas