The Night Is Always Darkest Before The Dawn


Of course, if we didn’t muck about with the clocks, the night would be darkest at around midnight through the simple action of our patch of the earth being turned 180 degrees away from the sun*. Technically, I suppose that is before the dawn, but in an obvious, predictable and non-oppressive sort of way. Taken literally, the statement is a truism of little value… so let’s not do that.

Taken metaphysically, it becomes an aphorism of significant power, most often heard when your life has not only gone down the toilet but been down there for some time, and a fresh load of foulness has just landed on your head. But it is not it’s use as a bleak blanket of comfort, a cold intimation that there is hope to be had in the pit of despair, that I wish to examine; it is the implied acceptance that the bottom of the light-less sump of the sewer system is the only place to go once things start going wrong, that “better” is only achievable via “worst”.

We like the outline a great deal, endless horror movies have this as the only plot; the fantasy genre is full of it; even rom-coms require the leading lady to be broken down in tears and humiliated before the final kiss is allowed to happen. In terms of excitement it is all very well, but what is this story form really teaching us?

It may be efficacious when doing depth psychology to go digging in the dirt for the pearl of wisdom, but in every day life this paradigm is probably not healthy. Take the story of a man called Scott who, a hundred years ago this year, immortalised himself and a bunch of plucky Brits by pressing on in the face of adversity, upper lips artificially stiffened… failed totally and died in the process. We are so obsessed by the idea that suffering is noble in itself and that some magic talisman of salvation will come to us if we just make life hard enough, that we have raised this overconfident and inexperienced public schoolboy to the status of a saint: Scott of The Antarctic! But Scott was not overcome by circumstance: he went out to the harshest of the worlds environments deliberately and with remarkably little in the way of appropriate experience. Instead of using dogs to pull the heavy sleds he used ponies and then men, making the whole unnecessary job considerably harder than it needed to be. He also got off to a slow start, took a tricky route and didn’t set up his supply dump in the right place.

A man in heavy skins stands in snow next to a Norwegian flag with a sled and a team of dogs

Roald Amundson at the south pole. Smiling and looking very casual. Clever chap.

Why do we not hear more about the Norwegian who knew about cross country skiing; spent a couple of years learning how to handle dog teams from people who live on ice all the time; set off as soon as the weather was good following the easiest route; got to the south pole first and came back without losing a man or getting caught in any storms?
His name was Roald Amundson and he had already been the first to traverse the North-West Passage, and having got “First to the South Pole” under his belt went on to be first to have visited both poles. Surely he deserves the epithet “Of The Antarctic” and should be the role model we aspire to?

I’m not sure how we go about it but I wonder if it’s time we started telling some different stories? Stories in which things get sorted before they go horribly wrong, people get saved before they are at deaths door; stories in which we all get to turn round and climb out of the pit before we reach the snake infested bottom, when the dark night involves cocoa and a good sleep before the dawn.

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

*The rising and setting of the moon also affect the darkness at any given time of the night, but for the sake of simplicity and the length of the sentence I thought it best to leave that out of the main text. If the moon set in the early hours and the sky clouded over for a bit then cleared as the sun rose then that night could be said to have been darkest before the dawn but I think “always” is probably pushing it.

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4 Comments

Filed under stories, Storytelling

4 responses to “The Night Is Always Darkest Before The Dawn

  1. A fine point, well made as usual. I cannot help thinking that the ‘nobility in failure’ and similar societical norms are the absolute delight of those who have loads and don’t intend to give it back, because the masses who could force a change are inured to their lot and the fiction of the inherent righteousness inferred by travail. Ennui and apathy win again.

    • Anastasia Kirov-Renshaw

      Absolutely. Inculcated docility dressed up by our public-school-ethos apologist mentors as Stoicism. (Personally, I’m only a Stoic because of the ban on smoking in public places). “It’s not the winning that matters,” they say, “it’s the taking part”… ‘They’ being the corporate sponsors and chief beneficiaries of the industrialised madness called Sport. It’s a national disease. They should try farming for a living, instead of as a tax dodge. Meanwhile, Cliff’s right – we must do what we can to subvert this tendency by boycotting the likes of Le Morte D’Arthur and The Battle Of Malden, The Charge Of The Light Brigade etc, and promoting tales of success through intelligent planning instead. A good modern example would be Agent ZigZag. Or Der Hauptmann von Koepenick.

  2. Thank you for your comments, and yes, one can’t help but think that many of the “in the face of fearful odds” stories are merely a sop to the cannon fodder and way to keep us all in our place.

    Yep, I’d have to ditch almost my entire repertoire.
    I enjoyed the tales of Agent ZigZag and Der Hauptman von Koepenick but I think I would at least have to balance them, if not replace them completely, with something less morally dubious…

  3. Kim Spink

    Cliff my dear…As I awaken from my usual mid-year hibernation, I was most pleased to read your latest Folk Tales Corner.
    I agree heartily with you in all aspects.
    I suppose it would be wiser to more Amundsen practical rather than Scott romantical….. yes that is a word…Ive just added it to my dictionary.
    Anyway I am off on a new adventure. I will ask myself each evening, What can I put right now, before the darkest hour envelops me?
    See you anon my dear friend. x

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