Strange Prisoners

Dryad is prefixed with a quote from Plato’s The Republic, specifically his allegory of the cave. This is something I came across and re-read only after I was well in to writing the book. I can’t even remember what I was researching at the time, but it struck me as something that comes close to what I was thinking when I created the narun.

SunriseThe allegory in brief: In an underground cave a light source (fire, sun, good) shines past a stage (a raised way) onto a blank wall such that players on the stage have their shadows cast upon the wall. In front of the wall, constrained so that they can see only the wall, are prisoners. Socrates postulates to Glaucon that unenlightened people are like those prisoners, seeing the world only as shadows cast upon a wall. (For more detail see the Wikipedia article.)

The conversation between Socrates and Glaucon goes on (and on), descending into politics and science and many other areas of philosophy, but I like to think about the original image. I like thinking about those prisoners, as people, looking the wrong way and thinking that they are seeing the world, but in fact they are seeing only shadows of it.

In a lot of science fiction you see a form of this idea in the concept of other dimensions: hyperspace, other-space, outside. Normal humans see and live in one set of dimensions and these other dimensions exist in parallel. Most examples of these other dimensions end up being described as somehow separate from the world we live in, you have to move from one set of dimensions to another. What I like about Plato’s allegory of the cave is the idea that there is more right here, in the world we live in, happening all around us if only we could see it. Not one or the other, but both!

The concept of life and praanin in Dryad (and the subsequent books) is an all too literal interpretation of this idea. It is pale and incomplete, but you’ve got to start somewhere. The zarana (Glades) of the story tend toward the science fiction concept of separate dimensions, but the existence of prana is very much intended as an an additional aspect to the world we live in. It infuses all living things, including the Earth itself. To be able to see (sense) prana is to have the cave wall replaced with polished metal, an imperfect mirror, so that colour and some detail inside the shadows become partly visible. Such prisoners still can’t see everything, but they can see more than those that see only shadows.

The nadis, where prana flows and that our narun can pass through (in substances from which life has departed), are not literal spaces (although science tells us that matter is mostly space anyway). No the prana and nadis are like an extra dimension, and extra depth, an extra reality, laid over top of this one. It is always there, it’s just that we don’t normally see it or sense it.

I also like the idea of the light source in the allegory being the Sun or Good. Plato develops the The Form of the Good into something that resembles nirvana, a concept that forms part of the background work for my books. There is something almost spiritual in Plato’s concept of good – where ultimate knowledge and understanding can bring absolute justice. He compares it to the Sun which makes objects visible and generates life. This leads some to say that Good is Plato’s version of God. I don’t have a problem with that idea although I have my doubts whether Plato would have approved.

The idea that the light source may be the Sun lines up well with my use of prana in Dryad. The word prana was borrowed from Sanskrit and the Sun, or sunshine, was considered to be the source of prana. This gives some interesting correlations between the concept of prana as used in my story and the Sun as the light source in Plato’s cave.

The idea that the light source may be good, or a source of knowledge, is consistent with my idea that to be able to see prana is important. That the human inability to see prana is a shortfall and a problem, that we will never understand the world on which we live if we fail to understand the life that surrounds us. But none of that is to say that prana, and the ability to see it, is in and of itself good. Knowledge is not, of its own self, either good or bad. Being able to see the light does not mean you will choose to be led by it.

Another thing that I like about the image presented in Plato’s allegory is that the players on the stage are not necessarily good. They may know more than the prisoners, they may be able to see the light – if they choose to look the right way – but they can also the see the shadows that they cast and the prisoners that watch them. Indeed, in the translation by Jowlett, the players are described as marionette players, which could be interpreted to convey implications of manipulation that are specifically not good.

What if the players on the stage are little demi-gods, standing between the prisoners and the light? All the good that the light tries to shine on the prisoners must pass by these players. Those players that mean well will try to impart truth and goodness, those players with less considerate sensibilities could filter the light to show anything at all. They may be jokers, they may be entities with evil intent, they may simply be bored (watch a bored child at an ants nest and see what good comes to the ants).

Such an interpretation of the image presents a way to believe that there may indeed be one God, and that He is a being of goodness, but what reaches us could be something else entirely.

And last but not least, I do enjoy simple ideas with many layers of meaning. Plato’s allegory is such a simple idea and it has layers of meaning going well beyond my presentation here. I chose the specific quote because, when I first saw it, I thought that it fitted my story very well and on multiple levels.

A person unfamiliar with the allegory will presumably read the line as being about the preta, or perhaps the prisoner narun, and that is fine. It is a strange image that I am presenting, and they are indeed strange prisoners, so the quote fits.

Once a person looks up the reference and tries to understand the allegory they are likely to see that I am actually referring to ourselves, humans, as the prisoners. That it is our lack of ability to sense and understand life that keeps us trapped and means that our view of the world is incomplete, like shadows on the wall.


Disclaimer: Please don’t go looking for layers of meaning in the story itself; if they are there, they weren’t intentional. More than half the story was written before I rediscovered the allegory and selected the quote, and the story was almost complete before I wrote this essay. As you can see from this essay, I quite like the correlations between the allegory and my story, but the story was written in the hope of being entertaining, it was not expected to be a source for philosophical discussion.

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