I can only enjoy the webcomic if I view it either as a story for children or as a parody. If I take it seriously I have to read the setting of the story as the nightmares and dreams of a right wing person. If I read it as a parody, I may read it as a story making fun of those right wing nightmares and dreams by exaggerating them to a point where it gets clear that they are irrational and unrealistic. So far, the story contained a sufficient number of funny details to make me believe that the story did not take itself seriously and attempts to ridicule those right wing dreams and nightmares: be it that cats are the only species of mammals that’s immune to the Rash (there’s no rational reason why this should be the case), be it that our heroes are meant to search for books, as the ultimate treasure in our postapocalyptic scenario, be it that their first heroic action is rescuing a kitten, be it that twice they only survive because Reynir, the civilian, is able to call help. With the last few pages however (from page 841) and most importantly the most recent page (854) I have lost trust. I will try to explain how an episode that focusses on personal matters makes me question the politics of the webcomic.
So first I will explain why the story makes some right wing nightmares and dreams become real:
Refugees bring some illness to Europe that ultimately turns the continent uninhabitable. The government fails to protect us against it. (Later it turns out that it even decided to murder the patients.) The illness is not only highly contagious and deadly, it also turns a certain percentage of those affected by the illness (maybe all) into „trolls“ respectively „beasts“, who are some kind of zombies without reasoning, aggressive against humans and still able to transfer the illness, meaning that most of Europe has become infested with those creatures, turning it into a dangerous place to all who are still human.
These are only a few: those who understand in time that the government won’t protect us and who rely solely on themselves, taking refuge in some private cabin far from civilization. Just one country, Iceland, managed to protect themselves, closing the borders at an early point in time, rigorously turning off all refugees – refugees not from Africa, Syria or Afghanistan but from the rest of Europe. Sometimes you have to be cruel in order to survive, and you should first care for your own people and only then for some foreigners.
Iceland – the country that preserved authentic Germanic culture longer than any other Germanic nation, turning to Christianity only around 1000 AD, home of the Edda and the ancient sagas that are still the most important source for stories about the Nordic Gods. Now it’s the center of the „Known World“, and it has also returned to its old beliefs. Magic works now, and the Gods support those who are true to them.
But even Iceland’s population has been reduced to 190 000 inhabitants, and Reykjavik’s population is only 41 000, which in Germany would count as a „middle town“. In Norway, Finland and and Sweden there’s small settlements (only Mora in Sweden has more than 10 000 inhabitants), and Denmark has been reduced to the island of Bornholm. Other countries are unknown: the „Known World“ now consists only of the five Nordic Countries. (Sorry to everyone in Germany, Austria, Holland or Flanders who considers himself or herself „Germanic“ or „Nordic“, too. The true Nordic countries are only Denmark, Norway, Sweden (the Scandinavian countries), Iceland and Finland.)
Refugees destroying civilization, while the governments try to cover it up – the right wing nightmare. Returning to life in small communities, returning to the belief in the old Nordic gods – the right wing dream. Living without technology – I don’t know whether right wing people would approve of this. As far as I know they enjoy the Internet as well as anyone else. Also, the historical nazis, while idealising the agrarian population and the agrarian way of life made use of current technology.)
Maybe the refugees were the first trolls. Maybe those who welcome them and do voluntary work teaching them local languages and supporting them in their dealings with institutions, those who mean to be good people, whose who care about political correctness are the trolls that got infected by the first trolls, who are now living the (non-)life of zombies. Maybe I should start rooting for the trolls.
I could only enjoy the story because my impression was that it did not intend to be taken seriously. One might interpret it as making fun both of the right wing nightmare – an illness that turns people into trolls is obviously unrealistic – and of the right wing dream: there’s no way that magic will return. Also, no one really wants to live without the technology we all have got used to.
(I guess that the author neither consciously wanted to support or to subvert those right wing dreams, but that she just needed some background scenario for some interesting adventure story, similar to background stories in roleplay games. She needed a reason why the world should have become uninhabitable, and she she wanted to include magic into her story because that makes the world more interesting.)
Maybe the most important sign that the story was not intended as fodder for the dreams of right wing people is our crew of heroes itself: the one who comes nearest to the „Nordic ideal“ is Sigrun, a fierce fighter and a sincere believer in the Gods of the Nordic pantheon, believing that after death she will end up in Walhalla. But first she is a woman, second, while being a courageous and intelligent fighter, she is rather ignorant about anything that has nothing to do with fighting, providing us with comic relief, third she engages in futile power struggles with Mikkel who is much better educated than her, meaning she has to make clear that she knows everything that might be of relevance. Reynir, the other person who has some link to the Nordic Gods, rather takes an experimental approach to magic once he has discovered that he has the talent to become a mage, not much caring about asking the gods for support. Also, Reynir is no fighter at all.
Mikkel and Emil are atheists, and neither of them is much of a fighter, even though they do fight. Mikkel’s virtues are intelligence, wit and sarcasm, education, keeping his calm and calming other people, but not fighting. Emil’s most important virtue is compassion and overcoming his cowardice when he cares for someone else.
This leaves the Finnish members of the team, including Onni, though technically he is not a member of the expedition team but of the support crew. Tuuri is more or less like the rest of the team, curious about the outside world, not much caring about the Gods, not a fighter at all (because she is not immune), and in the end she gets boring and dies. Lalli and Onni however- maybe these are the two characters who are taken more seriously than anyone else. Onni is the deus ex machina of the story, saving the whole team by crossing the distance between Sweden and Denmark via the dream world, fighting the ghosts when the situation is desperate. When the fight is over he needs to relax, but while he fights he is invincible. In some way it’s good that he is not part of the team, or he would be the one character who makes everyone else seem powerless. (On the other hand, not being immune might be a serious handicap.)
Now Lalli: he starts out as a rather confused kid who does not know how to tell Tuuri that he does not want to go on the expedition. Speaking only Finnish and not being able to communicate except via Tuuri worsens his awkward position. On the other hand the team soon discovers that he is a competent night scout, a fearless fighter and also quite a powerful mage. In Odense he is the one who discovers the troll that’s following them in the hospital, he is the one that warns of the ghosts overrunning them, he tests the runes Reynir has drawn in order to find one that will protect them against the ghosts. Being now with Emil he is the one who saves his live against the giant on the ice, while Emil is rather clumsy in this situation and has nothing better to do than fall into a hole. Even when Lalli falls in a coma, gets pushed out of his safe space in the dream world and ends up in Emil’s dream he is still the competent guy who takes charge, choosing the route, looking out for trolls, while Emil is the one who has to drag him through the snow. When they meet the giant in the house it’s again not Emil, feeling pity and longing to help the giant, but Lalli, calling it a trap, who knows how to act, and even hurting – torturing – his friend is presented to us as okay because there was no other way Lalli might have prevented Emil from getting himself and Lalli killed. And in page 854 it’s confirmed: Emil was out of his mind, Lalli did the right thing.
It’s not only about torturing his friend and not finding any other way to persuade him not to succumb to the troll’s lure – it’s also that I would have wished that Emil, not Lalli was right in this situation, or that both were partially right. I would have wished that Emil in his trust, not Lalli in his distrust was right, just as Reynir was right when he trusted Pastor A. I wish the situation would not have been presented to us as one where it’s appropriate to torture your friend, because in the face of ultimate evil everything is okay.
As there have been questions: I think that torture is an absolute taboo, even worse than killing. It’s not the same as dragging your friend out of a dangerous situation. Sometimes there’s situations where you need to employ force though it’s always preferable not to employ force – this also goes for persons who really don’t know what they are doing, be they small children, old people suffering from dementia, or people suffering from mental health issues – even for drunk people. Using force always has the potential of (re-)traumatizing a person, so it should be the ultimate resort. Torture – intentionally hurting someone in order to make him or her do what you want, pushing them to the point where they cannot think of anything but of making the pain stop – is even worse, as you break the person.
These days I wondered whether I should return to Terry Pratchett, whose books I have read over and over those last few years. Both in „Night Watch“ and in „Small Gods“ the torturers are irredeemably evil. In Carpe Jugulum there were those important lines:
„I meant that we are enjoined to see things from the other person’s point of view,“ said Oats patiently.
„You mean that from the point of view of a torturer torture is all right?“
(The second speaker is Granny Weatherwax.)
So never never listen to anyone who justifies torture. They will always have some justification.
One page later, Granny explains, what she considers evil: „when you treat people as things“. Torture turns a person into a thing.
Now the author created a very special situation: Lalli is helpless, being stuck in Emil’s head. Torturing Emil is the only thing he can do to prevent him from going into that house and from getting both him of them killed. Maybe this is a situation when it’s okay to torture, as a last resort.
The point is this: We might discuss this, if the situation were in any way realistic. However, it’s extremely unrealistic, as people normally don’t get stuck in other people’s heads. What’s the point of creating a moral dilemma that will never occur in real life and has no parallels in real life, a dilemma which is not even the simplified version of anything in real life? In any realistic situation, when Lalli is in his own body and has no way to grab Emil and hold him back physically, because Emil is stronger and heavier, Lalli may just let go, telling himself that he did everything he could to save him. It would not be his fault then if Emil gets himself killed.
What’s more important: why did the author create this morally problematic situation? What’s its significance for the plot, and for the characters‘ (and their relationships) development? Is there no other way to convince Emil that magic exists? Is there no other way to make the two of them talk in a meaningful way? Why casually create such an incident when there’s many more possibilities?
Maybe the real conflict is the one between Emil’s outgoing and compassionate attitude, and Lalli’s distrust. The author makes a point that Lalli knows what’s „real“: Trolls talk, they give the impression of needing help, but in reality they are all evil. If they appear otherwise, that’s just deception in order to trap the human. (Now get back to the refugee premise: even if a refugee appears friendly, it’s just deception. Those who won’t believe this just don’t see the truth. – You see, I have some experience discussing with right wingers on Twitter.) Emil admits being wrong, he was out of his mind, even though in reality he was in no way crazy, just compassionate, see page 855. But now he will learn from Lalli what’s real. Maybe compassion towards trolls is crazy.
There’s another character whose main virtue is compassion: Reynir. He hopes to find Pastor A so that she may help the ghosts find a way to the afterlife. In some way the story is a competition between the young mages: Who will save the day: Reynir, compassionate, curious about other people, ready to get connected to them (as with Pastor A in the dreamworld, but also with the rest of the team), but an absolute beginner as a mage – or Lalli, a proficient mage, but full of distrust to the point that he is not able to trust that he will be given a slice of cake if he politely asks for it.
You may call Reynir and Emil naive – you may also call Lalli’s distrust paranoid. It depends on how you perceive the world, or what you perceive as real. Is Lalli just being realistic when he says: all trolls are evil, and your compassion is entirely misplaced? This is what the author wants us to believe at the moment. Making Lalli stronger and stronger as a fighter supports his world view even more. Who would believe that persons without any experience as Emil or Reynir perceive the world in a more realistic way than Lalli? On the other hand, Lalli is not even realistic when it comes to asking for a slice of cake.
At the moment she makes it appear as if it’s Emil, not Lalli, who needs to learn. Even Emil itself admits this: The outside world is dangerous, trolls are always evil, compassion will get you killed. Lalli knows what’s real, he sees the world of magic. (It were Emil’s lines about being out of his mind that make me feel sick almost on a physical level when I read page 854, meaning I can hardly read that page. Emil’s devaluates his own compassion, his way of thinking. He admits: you see what’s real, I don’t.)
Only that Lalli has no idea what’s real in relationships between human beings. He even distrusts Emil’s nanny. (I don’t hate Lalli. Actually I quite liked him before recent developments. I just don’t see him as the young genius who has been presented to us during those last few weeks. He is a competent night scout, mage and fighter, but else he is like a little child. He appeared to me like a lost puppy even worse than Reynir, who is much more curious and wants to understand what’s going on around him. I hoped for Lalli that with the team’s support he might learn to behave like a nineteen-year-old human being, not like a small child who still steals the cake. I meaning: stealing the whole cake is funny with a two-year-old child, but even such a child you will tell that this is not okay. With a young man it’s not funny but sad. It’s only funny in a comic, not when the young man is your guest.)
So it all boils down to the question what’s real. I started reading the comic with the idea that it was making fun of rightwing nightmares: That refugees might spread an illness like the Rash is so unrealistic that it cannot be taken seriously. People who speak about refugees spreading illnesses don’t know what’s real (though they claim this), it’s only them who are full of distrust, building walls of distrust, so that no experience with an Arab refugee can dispell the distrust.
Now however we learn that the character full of distrust knows what’s real. It’s where I get to doubt that the author will create a satisfying story, with Reynir finding Pastor A and Emil teaching Lalli about compassion.
I will follow the comic for a while to see whether I was wrong, but I will no longer stay awake till half past one waiting for the new page.