Several years after my father's death, I dreamed he was a security guard at a steel plant. It was a gigantic place, dark and terribly hot, sparks flying everywhere from the mammoth vats of red-hot pig iron being poured in the background. The plant stretched on endlessly, the air inside thick with the force of the heat and full of the dull roar of intense flames. In the middle of this place, which was automated, there was a small glass booth, and that is where my father sat all alone, wearing not the typical two-tone blue of a security guard's uniform, but a bright orange jumpsuit he had once brought home from the Santa Cruz County Jail. He had worked for a time there after retiring from the Army. Now he was dressed as a convict.
I woke quietly from the dream, still resonating with its emotional charge. It was a hot and windless summer evening in Davis, California, in a house without air conditioning, but I felt oddly cold, as if I had just returned from that scene in my dream and the 100-plus degree heat was relatively chilly by comparison. In the transitional state of consciousness after waking, I recall thinking the steel plant was "hot as hell." And then I realized that my father was a security guard there -- in hell -- in a scene right out of Dante's Inferno. For years to come nothing relieved the haunting sense of guilt I felt after waking that night.
Although I have studied a wide range of approaches to interpreting dreams, including techniques that involve entering and interacting with them, I found the key to this dream was linked quite directly to memories of my father's stories. Freudian and Jungian interpretations had general and rather predictable insights to offer -- an Oedipal wish to condemn my father to hell since I could no longer kill him, a longing for integration with the departed source of my masculine self -- but as I was finishing my first book more than fifteen years later, I remembered the story my father had told me after his second return from Vietnam.
The Men and the Monkeys (a Montagnard myth)
In the old days the men and the monkeys lived together. They were friends. But the men were jealous of the monkeys because the monkeys had good fields with lots of rice and the men's fields were bad and produced very little. But the men knew that if you looked at their fields from the ground they looked very good and if you looked at the monkeys' fields from high up from a hill, they looked small and bad. So the men showed the monkeys the fields from these different heights and tricked them into switching.
When harvest time came, the crops were bad for the monkeys and they had nothing to eat. So they went to their friends, the men, for advice, and the men told them, "You have to kill your children for food." Now the monkeys still trusted the men for their wisdom about the fields, so they went home, and crying all the while because they were so sad, they butchered all their children.
That night the men sneaked into the monkeys' village and stole all the meat. The next morning, when the monkeys came to the men's village, they saw them eating meat, and the men said it was just bird meat. But the monkeys recognized the flesh of their own children -- how could they not? -- and now they were afraid of the men. They ran from the men's village into the deep forest and from then on, they lived wild.
Now the monkeys steal corn and rice from people and they're always screaming in anger because a long, long time ago the men lied to them and stole the spirits of their children.
At the time, I had only the vaguest idea of what this story meant; I certainly had no clue about the meaning of my father telling it to me then. I was only eleven years old, able to get the gist of a fable or a parable, but hardly equipped to analyze text and context.
In retrospect, I find both the story and the context of its telling charged with layers of ironic meaning. My father had served two tours of duty in Vietnam, working with Special Forces in the highlands as an adviser to local Montagnard groups who had been recruited to do counterinsurgency against the Vietcong. He sympathized greatly with the plight of the Montagnards, who are an indigenous group oppressed by the Vietnamese in much the same way Native Americans suffer in the U.S. This story, he said, had been told to him by a Montagnard chief in the village of Buon Romen.
The ironies, of course, are many. In the story, which is an explanatory myth, the distinction is between the men (Montagnards) and the monkeys, but this had been told by a chief who must have understood that in his listener's mind the story would have greater metaphorical meaning. American soldiers often referred to the Vietnamese (and other Asians) as monkeys because of their small stature, whereas Asians often referred to Americans as monkeys for their hairy bodies and their "animal" smell. So the issue of who betrays whom in the myth becomes an elaborate web of possible meanings. If the men are the Americans and the monkeys are the Montagnards, what is the betrayal? What if the men are the Vietnamese and the monkeys are the Montagnards?
Perhaps the Montagnard chief was only recounting an explanatory myth at face value, but knowing what I know about the wisdom and eloquence of chiefs, I think the truth was probably more complex. In all likelihood, this story was designed to evoke guilt in my father for his complicity with one of the armies that forcibly recruited Montagnard sons from their villages. The fact that my father then told the story to me -- his half-Asian son -- adds a poignant irony, especially because he had often fondly called me his "little monkey" when I was younger.
My father recounted the story to me during a tense moment after I had made a disturbing discovery about our family history. Instead of fostering intimacy and responding to my discovery with sensitivity, his tale and its telling served as an unconscious displacement for him. When he should have been confessing his guilt (or at least airing his feelings) about one thing, he instead called upon this story to allow him something to say in the silence. That it could metaphorically serve as a narrative about his own guilt was probably unintentional, although compared to other stories he had told me, this one was distinctly different coming, as it did, from an Asian tradition. He had always been my conduit for western culture: Classical Greek and Roman mythology, German fairy tales, and stories from the Bible. For an army sergeant, he was unusually well-read.
Both our relationship and the stories my father would tell me underscored a crucial thing that I better understand now: One of the great problems of patriarchal cultures is that they rely on the dysfunctional father-son relationship to perpetuate themselves. Societies that grew out of warfare-related expansion cannot produce good soldiers if fathers are nurturing and affectionate with their sons. The classic scenario of an authoritarian or emotionally (or physically) distant father with the mother serving as mediator is so common that we tend to take it for granted as the way things are and have always been. At the same time, for boys and men, the cultural pressure to love their fathers, no matter how dreadful their behavior, is so strong that it can leave the son with particularly conflicted, violently contradictory, feelings. The tension between fathers and sons requires some form of release, physical and emotional, and whereas the physical release can take the form of violent individual and team sports, the emotional release, like most culturally significant tension, finds outlets in literature, myths and folktales.
Classical mythology, traditional folktales, and the Bible are full of tales having to do with the conflict between fathers and sons: Laius and Oedipus, Godfather Death and his godson, Abraham and Isaac. Because themes are amplified when they serve the rhetoric of culturally resonant stories, sons kill fathers and fathers kill sons often through symbolic substitutes. The blame for the violence is often placed on the father, but in reality the culpability goes both ways, often implicating the father more strongly.
After all, as one of the most famous father-son myths reminds us, Oedipus didn't simply kill his father, his father had set the chain of events in motion by pinning his son's ankles so he could not walk and then leaving him on an exposed mountaintop to die. The irony, of course, is that Oedipus kills Laius during an argument about right of way while he is walking to Thebes. Later, Oedipus becomes a great hero by solving the riddle of the sphinx, which involves locomotion -- the very thing his father tried to prevent in him: "What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?" Oedipus's answer, "Man: he crawls on all fours as an infant, walks upright as a youth, and hobbles with a cane in the twilight of his years." It's a terrible irony that he embodies the answer, standing there with his staff in hand. And yet, despite his great insight, Oedipus is blind to the fact that he is no more than a pawn in a greater narrative controlled by the Fates.
The origin of the Olympian gods can be traced back to the myth of the Titan, Cronus (Saturn), devouring his children. One of his sons avoids this fate with the help of his mother, and eventually, Zeus (Jupiter) is able to overthrow his father and establish the pantheon of Classical gods and goddesses.
In the story of Daedalus and Icarus, the father designs wings of feathers and wax that permit escape from an island prison. Daedalus warns his son not to fly too high or too low, but Icarus, full of the joy of flight, soars too close to the sun. The heat melts the wax that holds his wings together and he plummets into the sea where he drowns. This story is thematically similar to the story of Phaethon, son of the sun god and a mortal woman. Phaethon seeks out his father one day, and in his pleasure, Apollo grants him anything he wishes, not realizing that his son's greatest wish is to take his place for a day. When Phaethon announces his desire, Apollo cannot help but acquiesce because he has sworn an oath. He tries to dissuade the boy with dire warnings, but Phaethon insists on driving the chariot of the sun. The results are disastrous. He loses control of the horses, and he flies everywhere, scorching heaven and earth until Zeus himself intervenes and strikes the boy dead with a thunderbolt.
These father-son tales are all about the consequences of trespass, or, put another way, the cost of disobeying the law of the father. They function primarily as cautionary tales that serve the best interest of the patriarchy by helping maintain the father's authority both within the family and the culture.
A more unusual story of trespass is "Godfather Death" from Grimms' Fairy Tales. A poor father is so desperate to find a godfather for his son that he runs out to the highway to ask the first man he comes across. He meets God, then the Devil, but he rejects them both as unsuitable -- God because he is unfair and the Devil because he is deceitful. Finally, the father meets Death, and accepts him because he makes all men equal. Death appears at the christening to stand as godfather, and he watches over the boy as he grows up. When he is ready to make his way in the world, Death gives the youth a gift that makes him the best doctor in the world. Death sternly warns the youth that his gift is not to be abused, but eventually, the young doctor falls in love with a sick princess and he abuses Death's gift in order to marry her and inherit her father's kingdom. Death takes the young doctor away to a cave full of candles that represent human lives. He shows the young doctor his candle, which is sputtering, on the verge of going out. The youth pleads for Death to light him a new candle, appealing to the fact that he is his godson, after all, but Death lets the flame sputter out and the youth dies. Godfather Death gets his revenge for the youth's transgression.
"Godfather Death" is unusual because it actually contains four father figures: the devoted father (who gave the boy life), God and the Devil (one of whom the boy will meet in the afterworld), and Death (who takes his life). Did the boy's father betray him by daring to judge God and rejecting him as godfather? Would his fate have been any different if God had been his godfather? Could one reasonably expect a happy ending with Death serving as godfather? For added resonance, readers never learn if, in the end, the young doctor's soul was consigned to heaven or hell.
In fairy tales, the male equivalent of the wicked stepmother or the witch (both evil counterparts of the good mother) is typically a giant, an ogre, a devil, or a hostile king. In some tales like "The Twelve Brothers" (a variant of "The Seven Ravens"), there is a king who sets out to kill his sons, but in most cases, as in "Jack the Giant Killer" (prettied up into "Jack and the Beanstalk") and "The Brave Little Tailor," the main character's major obstacle is a giant. These figures may be read as symbols for the father, whose authority and power, from a child's perspective, often seems colossal.
Stories of giant slaying can also provide a metaphor for sons as they grow older and begin to achieve a sense of themselves as distinct from the father. Sometimes feelings of rage and fantasies of destruction are an early step towards a son's understanding that he is separate from his father, that his father is not always right or honorable, and that we often have to leave our fathers behind, literally and figuratively, in the journey towards adulthood. In this way, I think stories of giant slaying and patricide show, in a dramatic and extreme way, a process of separation that can often feel like the end of the world both to parents and their teenagers.
The significance of stories about fathers willing to sacrifice, or murder, their sons is often less apparent, and perhaps because of this, more disturbing. In one of the most famous of these stories, the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, God tests Abraham by requiring him to sacrifice his son. After much anguish, Abraham takes Isaac up to an altar on a mountain. But just as he is about to slit his son's throat, God, now convinced of Abraham's loyalty, intervenes, and a ram magically appears, tangled in a bush. Abraham is permitted to offer it in Isaac's place. From a father's point of view, this is a gut-wrenching story of divided loyalties -- that of culture versus family. In this case, Abraham's loyalty to God (culture) is rewarded, and the substitute sacrifice offers him the best of both worlds, with both culture and family intact. From the point of view of the son, however, this might seem like a story about a father who cares more for his God than for his own flesh and blood; the happy outcome is not as convincing, and he is left with the traumatic images of a God that demanded his death and a father willing to kill him. It is no wonder that Soren Kierkagaard, one of the great western thinkers of the 19th century, drew the infrastructure of his philosophy from this Biblical story, which resonated intensely with his own relationship to his father. Likewise, many of Carl Jung's psychological insights originate with his interpretation of two dreams having to do with his feelings about his father's religious authority.
The New Testament introduces a different sort of father figure to remedy the harsh and demanding God of Abraham. The Gospel of John puts it quite explicitly: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." The change is quite radical: instead of demanding that fathers sacrifice sons to prove their loyalty to Him, God the Father, the God of the New Testament, actually sacrifices his own son for the sake of humankind. And whereas the Old Testament God relented at the last moment by offering Abraham the substitute sacrifice, this God allows His son to die on the cross. No substitutes. His devotion to humankind is that profound.
But if we examine the doctrine of the Trinity, the logic goes even further: God and Christ are one and the same, and so God has actually let Himself be killed by humans in order to show His devotion to them. To illustrate His promise of everlasting life, He even rises from the grave.
And yet, even this story cannot avoid an ironic charge from a son's point of view. In his last moments on the cross, Christ laments to his Father, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani?" ("My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?").
One of the parables told by Christ in the Gospel of Luke provides the most striking contrast to harsh father figures. The story of the prodigal son is about a young man who takes his inheritance early and moves to another land, where he squanders everything and becomes destitute. When he is so low that he has to fight animals for food scraps, he decides to return home and throw himself at the mercy of his father. The reunion is not what the son or the audience of the parable would expect. Instead of punishing his son or receiving him with stern chastisements, the father rejoices and throws a magnificent feast. But the prodigal's older brother, who had stayed to serve his father, is upset and refuses to celebrate. When his father comes to plead with him, he says, "Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!" "My son," the father says, '"you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we have to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again. He was lost and now is found."
I suppose the world would be a better place if all men grew up into fathers like the one with the prodigal son. Most of us make do with the problematic relationships handed down to us through generations of patriarchs. It's ironic that my father, by negative example, has inspired me. I know that my dream of seeing him in hell will always be with me. It is one of my Ur-myths, and I know that whenever I see fathers and sons in conflict, I will be reminded of it. In the strange and logically inexplicable way that fantasies and dreams do their work, I know the dream resolved something for me. I can only think that my father would appreciate the irony -- that his resorting to a story instead of addressing the issue at hand would lead to such a resolution so far in the future. That's the thing about good stories -- sometimes you don't understand them until their tellers are long gone.
About the Author: Heinz Insu Fenkl is an author, editor, translator, and folklorist at SUNY, New Paltz. His work includes Memories of My Ghost Brother, for which he was named a Barnes and Noble "Great New Writer" and a PEN/Hemingway finalist in 1997. His second novel, Shadows Bend (a collaborative work, published under a pseudonym) was an innovative, dark "road novel" about H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith. He has also published short fiction in a variety of journals and magazines, as well as numerous articles on folklore and myth.
Copyright © 1999 by Heinz Insu Fenkl. This article appeared in Realms of Fantasy magazine, 1999. It may not be reproduced in any form without the author's express written permission.