By the age of five I had already been immersed in the world of stories. Too young to get much out of my older brothers’ comic books, I could nevertheless watch Batman on TV. And there I learned that there were good guys who were looking out for the defenseless people who were preyed upon by the bad guys.
That was the first lesson I learned from stories, that the world needed good guys to protect the rest of us from the bad guys, and Batman became my first role model. That is who I wanted to be when I grew, fighting criminals with a BAM!, POW!, and ZAP!
Oh, perhaps my perception of the world had already developed a bit beyond that. You see, I also had a fascination with horror films, the classics like Frankenstein, King Kong, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. From such movies I realized, even at the age of five, that sometimes the bad guys and monsters really weren’t that bad. Sometimes people ended up being the bad guy even though they were trying really hard to do a good thing, like Dr. Frankenstein. Sometimes a creature was taken out of its natural environment and brought into modern-day civilization, and were called monsters just because they didn’t fit in with what we considered “normal”. Sometimes a creature is created in disregard of all the laws of God and nature, and through no fault of his own, becomes something evil. That was the story of Frankenstein’s monster and the one I could best sympathize with. In many ways the monster was no different than any other human being, but because of his appearance and his inability to fit in, the villagers inevitably would come after him with torches and pitchforks. I could understand his desires to do good and make friends, and to me he was always the tragic hero in any story about him.
There was one story I encountered, however—and I couldn’t have been more than six—which continues to show me the power of stories. I remember wanting to watch something on TV and my older brother wanting to watch something else. He told me the story was by the same person who wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and that was enough to sell me on it (I was fortunate to have much older brothers who would explain things to me rather than use their size advantage to get what they wanted). You see, the Hunchback was a character I knew from pictures I had seen in the horror magazines my brothers would bring home from the store despite my father’s disapproval. I’d never watched the movie but had seen pictures of the horribly deformed person having his shirt ripped off and being tied to a revolving wheel so the mob that surrounded him could all get a chance to see the agony in his face as he was whipped for whatever crimes he had committed. In him I could see a character quite similar to Frankenstein, and I half-suspected that what he was found guilty of was the crimes of being disfigured and not fitting in.
So I agreed to watch the movie. It started promisingly enough, a dark, stormy night with a large and brutish stranger who cannot find a place to stay the night. You see, in my eyes, all good stories started out with darkness and lightning and the threat of impending menace. And the person who nobody wanted to let into their society, well that wasn’t too far from any of the monster movies I loved.
Then someone told the scary-looking social outcast to try knocking on a certain door. And the big, bedraggled stranger, not wanting to sleep in the rain despite his obvious dislike for the society that would not accept him, knocked on the door and was welcomed in like a long-lost relative. He was seated at the table and treated as an equal, not unlike the way Frankenstein was treated by the lonely blind man who was unable to see the ugliness in his guest that others did.
But unlike Frankenstein, the big, scary-looking stranger could not appreciate the kindness that he was being shown. Perhaps he had more experience with the human animal and was unable to heedlessly accept kindness when all he had known was harshness. And so, after everyone else was asleep, the scary bad man awoke, and doing what bad men do, stole all the silver from the house of the man who was kind enough to share his food and give him a bed in which to sleep.
This was the time for Batman to arrive and put things to right. Batman would beat up the big bad guy and return the silver dishes to its rightful owner. And so he did, although actually it was police officers playing the part of Batman. They brought the bad guy, along with the stolen goods he had been caught with red-handed, back to the man who had been wronged.
It was at this point something occurred in the story that made no sense to me. This should have been the end of the story, the bad guy loses and the good guys win. But the man who had been wronged was a man of God, a bishop as it turned out. And when the villain was made to stand before him, the bishop did a bad thing himself: he lied. He told the police that the man had not stolen the silver dishes but that he, the bishop, had given them to him. Then he spoke to the bad man, who had a look in his eyes that showed he understood no more than me the behavior of the bishop. The bishop explained how the man had been his guest and that he should be released at once. With that the police left the scene and with it the story.
I couldn’t understand the bishop’s behavior, and so I asked my brother why he would do such a thing. He told me something to the effect that it was because the bishop was a man of God and that it is said that we should turn the other cheek and forgive those who had wronged us. I still didn’t understand and yet I knew some very deep and powerful twist had taken place in the story that I had so far been told. No longer was Batman the main character in the story, he had been dismissed by the bishop along with the police. Nor was Frankenstein the main character, for not only did the bishop accept him he absolved him of whatever crimes had made him a social outcast. He had transformed him from a monster into a man.
Since that moment, I have read an awful lot of comic books and watched a lot of horror movies, but I’ve never forgotten the story of the man who through kindness and faith saw humanity in the monster. And from then on, no story I’ve read can I consider a great and enduring story if it does not have some aspect of the bishop in it, relying instead on heroes and monsters.
P.S. The movie I describe was Les Miserables, which you can watch by clicking on the screen below: