Tim told stories deep into the night—stories of love and hate, adventure and suspense. Joan was nervous at first. These stories weren’t real; they were made up, but they didn’t seem like lies. There was a truth in them she could not identify—a human truth not bound to time or place. One story told of a warrior king who struggled for years to get back home. He fought monsters and gods to see his wife again, but when he arrived, she didn’t recognize him or believe him. Joan felt the sorrow of the characters in her own heart. The impending tragedy felt almost unbearable, but then the wife came up with a clever test for the husband to determine if it was really him. He passed the test, and Joan sighed with relief, realizing for the first time she had been holding her breath. It was as if the king’s happiness was tied to her own. She would have been miserable if things had worked out badly for him.
There was the story of the peasant farm girl who outsmarted an ogre in order to save the prince. Another told of a poor fisherman who caught a golden cod, but realized too late it wasn’t as valuable as his family. All the stories Tim told had the same effect. They drew her in and became real in her mind. How could falsehoods feel so much like the truth?
Sneaking a peek around the grotto, Joan saw the other listeners just as enraptured as she. They were all experiencing the same fears and elations along with the characters in the tales. Because she was a member of the royal household, Joan identified most with the fictional king and prince, but she found herself equally concerned with the peasant farm girl and the poor fisherman. Likewise, the servants and field workers around her clearly cared for the royal characters despite having more in common with the penniless laborers. She realized that maybe there really wasn’t much difference between these people and herself. There was a kinship among them.
An idea struck her like a wave. These stories showed how everyone was the same no matter their social status. A poor farmer was really not any different than a prince. Her king could not have peasants thinking like this. By banishing stories, he was making sure they never did. The king was assuring his dominance.
When Tim had finished and the others had scurried off into the night, Joan remained behind. She wanted to discuss the significance of stories, but there were so many new ideas swirling in her head, she wasn’t sure where to begin. She decided to start with her most recent thoughts.
“The King is controlling people by not allowing stories,” she said.
Tim was stunned. Most first-time listeners simply considered stories as a means of escape—a way for their minds to wander free from the miseries of life. At first, they didn’t look past their own enjoyment of them. Joan had less experience than any of them, yet she had already grasped the bigger picture. In fact, she had articulated so concisely ideas he had only wondered at. It sounded like she understood stories better than he did.
“I suppose you’re right.”
“These stories made me realize that people have the same feelings no matter how different they are. The king has banned stories, not because they are evil, but because he can’t have people thinking they are his equal.”
“It would make controlling others easier if you could set yourself above everyone else,” he agreed.
“That’s why listeners will look the guards in the eye,” Joan said. “They see themselves as equals.”
“That may be some of it,” Tim responded. “But listeners are also curious. They like to look around and really see things. They like to learn things. That’s hard to do if you are always staring down at your own feet.”
“But most people are content to just stare down all the time,” she observed. “They seem no better than sheep.”
“They are not content; they just don’t know better,” he pointed out. “But you are right; they certainly are not better than sheep. In fact, they are worse than sheep. Sheep at least, can be happy. A sheep’s world is no larger than what it can reach with its mouth when it eats. It is quite happy in that little world. But you know the human world is bigger. To have your mind confined to the space around your feet is like being in prison.”
“And if they try to look up, they are hauled to the dungeons,” Joan inserted.
“The king denies us language too,” added Tim. “We are only allowed to say yes. That’s it—mindless obedience. Think how that affects us. Without words the world has no place in our minds. Things exist only when we look at them; we cannot take the ideas of those things with us without words. The world becomes a haze beyond our limited sight. Our feet are real, the ground is real; the guards are real, the pain they inflict is real. That’s it. That’s all we know.”
“Sheep,” Joan mentioned again. She couldn’t get the image out of her head.
Tim continued. “Stories teach us that we are all the same; language allows us to share, but field laborers are not allowed these benefits. They are absolutely alone even though they live with hundreds of others. Stories teach change and the passage of time, but nothing ever changes for a peasant. One day is like the next, eternal and miserable. Have you heard of the forest wanderers?”
“No,” she answered. Joan didn’t know of the existence of anyone who wasn’t a member of the royal household or a worker.
“They are people who are so deprived of language they can’t tell one thing from another. Their minds break. They simply wander off into the forest. One day, the bell rings for them to go home and they just keep walking. You can find them in the woods sometimes just drifting around like smoke, and you can do nothing to help them. They eventually die, of course.”
“How sad,” commiserated Joan. “It seems so hard to be a commoner, but it seems even harder to be a listener in a world that doesn’t want you. How do you not just look up all the time, even if by accident? How do you avoid getting caught?”
“Looking up is a hazard we warn each other about. It takes a lot of control. But not getting caught?” He laughed. “We all get caught, sooner or later.”
Joan was shocked. “But you will be killed.”
Tim shrugged his shoulders. “Yes. But there is no way for me to break back into the mental prison of servitude even if I wanted to. I would rather die having known stories, having had free will to exercise my mind, than to simply die every day, no more aware than a snail. It is how all listeners feel. The risk is worth it.”