Warning, this post is 10% spiritual reflection AND 90% literary criticism of a Neil Gaiman story called The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains. As such it will contain spoilers for an excellent piece of fiction.
At base, the narrative works as a really good story about fitting vengeance delayed. Or … about a decent if imperfect guy’s descent into madness. Definitely at least one of those two things.
The story starts with two guys in search of treasure. As the story develops, you find out one of the two guys wants to get vengeance on the other. Years ago, one of them tortured the other guy’s daughter to death in order to steal some cows. The murderer even admits to doing it. He doesn’t seem particularly sorry – except to be caught, because obviously murdering women is wrong.
Fine points in the text reveal the murderer’s true intent. He took the dagger the woman used to try to attack him. And he thrust it into the ground out of reach, after tying her by her own hair to a tree. Why not take the dagger with him – along with the cattle? Obviously – to torture her. Who knows how she actually died for that matter. That one detail makes the whole story suspect. He makes it sound like he did this to detain her while he stole the cattle, but why the knife detail then? I don’t buy it.
A year later, the killer returns to the scene of the crime to tell someone, anyone where to find the body, in a remote location. By the time the distraught father follows the lead, all that’s left of his daughter’s body are the bones and her red hair.
In the story within a story, the murderer confessing his crime seems eager to explain his actions, to show why he did what he did, but aspects of the story don’t add up. He seems utterly blind to his sadism as seen in the few clues we get. He is entirely unaware to whom he is telling this story – a story the audience (the father) already knows.
The father knows what the guy did, but he wants to know why he did it. He will never get a satisfactory answer, not really. Because sometimes evil has no real answer. It’s a gaping hole in the narrative, like an empty cave that’s Just There.
As the title implies, the narrative centers on this cave which allegedly has gold, but the gold is fake. What is the truth you find in the cave?
Spoiler alert: Nothing. There is nothing there but some ancient spirit that lures people there in order to trade illusory items for pieces of their souls. In exchange it gives them whatever they want, including the illusion of gold. (It gives the father a dagger like the one the murderer left the father’s murdered daughter.)
Here’s what I believe and what I think this story gestures to really well. There is no fiery hell being tortured by demons with pitchforks. There’s just the revelation that you haven’t really accomplished much at all. And – past a certain point – you never will.
Living a lie, living selfishly to get stuff without valuing other people? That’s like guarding an empty cave filled with stuff no one actually wants, not even you.
Picture this. Let’s say you walked into a cave that would give you whatever you wanted. The first guy wanted gold, and the second guy wanted a fitting means for vengeance. You might walk out with something tangible like gold or a knife, but the thing you walk out with is really a reflection of your own soul – your own choices. Right?
Truth Is A Cave in the Black Mountains is a great story with a twist ending that starts with the narrator saying that he doesn’t feel bad for doing what he has done (killing this other guy.) He only feels bad for the year before he found out his daughter had been tortured to death, when he thought she had left him for some guy and blamed her for it.
As a reader, what do you think? Do you think he would have rather she left him to marry some guy – or that he would rather find out she was dead the Whole Freaking Time?
The narrator never quite tells us the answer, but it’s there, in the depths of his despair as the only thing he’s really sorry about. He never got to say goodbye and properly mourn her death – not yet, but I feel as a reader that this journey may eventually get him there.
Ultimately, the story cycles back around. It isn’t even about the cave but what the cave reveals about the narrator and about us as readers. Acting in self-defense (because the murderer is going to try to kill him once he leaves the cave) he manages to defeat his daughter’s killer. He escapes and shouts down at the killer that he will come back in a year, much as the killer came back after a year, long after all evidence of the crime would be over.
All evidence, of course, except for the guilty knowledge.
Now, why is the narrator telling us his story? Does he (secretly) feel bad for what he did? What part? Certainly he is cautioning us, putting a huge glaring flag at the entrance of this cave. Certainly he has done something to gesture toward this vicious cycle of lies and death.
Afterward, he will return to what is left of his family and continue on with his life.
Here in the judgment seat of the informed reader, I feel pulled into the narrative as if I were being asked to make the same choices. I feel – almost – as if my own immortal soul might be at risk depending on how I answer. Do I think the narrator should feel bad for not taking extraordinary measures to save the life of a known murderer who killed his daughter, who would have killed him given half a chance? Yeah, not really. And, whoa, now.
I am left with a roomful of mostly-empty symbols, except for that symbol of the cave – and of a father who is never, ever getting his daughter back. This reads to me like a morality tale with no easy center, with no easy answers, a modern day fable – like much of Gaiman’s work.
There is no Thou shalt not Divine bearded dude here, just an unreliable narrator telling us – look, here’s what happened. I had some cows, and then this guy took the cows and my daughter. I can only infer from my own humanity that he would much rather have his daughter back. Nothing will get his daughter back.
From a feminist perspective, I note that the women in this story lack agency, serving as victims. But, I also note, it’s a story about the cruel banality of death. From a symbolic perspective, none of the people in it are Actual People, they’re all archetypes, right? As archetypes, are the women in the story the victims – or are they the true heroines calling out from their graves and from their ongoing victimhood, urging us as readers to free ourselves because no guy can do this for us? It all depends on how you look at it, what you bring to the table with you – and what you’d like to walk away with.
Personally, I feel bad for the father, but I quietly smile at the daughter’s ghost, getting her righteous vengeance at the end. The father’s morality may be questionable, but hers?
It all depends on what you see in that cave. Nothing or everything? Is it a good thing or a bad thing to remove a really bad person from the planet? Perhaps one guy’s soul-stealing demon is another (better) guy’s wise and ancient soul, watching the world go by as it always has, entirely blind to what real value looks like – until someone comes along with a really good Ask.
In actual reality, men can be victims and women can seek vengeance. That’s what makes the narrative work as a callback to a bleaker time, one we would like to think we have overcome. As a narrative, I think it is an excellent piece of fiction. As a morality tale, I think it is deep and profound – like much of Gaiman’s work. And that’s my spiritual reflection for this week.