Wrestling with the Ghost of your Father

Or – how to be the Lion King, the Top Gun, or the rightful ruler of Denmark.

The animated classic, The Lion King, the Reagan-era air force blockbuster, Top Gun, and the essential Shakespearean tragedy, Hamlet, are all about the same thing: how do you make atonement for the absence of your father?

It’s a strange theme. Yet it is an idea so ubiquitous – from the Bible, to the Odyssey and the Aeneid, to the TV show Lost – that clearly it carries some residual vitality which requires our attention.

Why do so many of our most popular works of art have to do with losing one’s father and attempting thereafter to come to terms with his spirit?

Whenever something keeps coming up in story and myth, my literary instincts tell me that the idea is probably too primal or too close to our own experience to be expressed in any other way. So perhaps the best way of understanding this strange notion of wrestling with your father’s ghost is to look at the stories themselves.

In The Lion King, Simba is manipulated into carrying the guilt of his father’s death by the cunning Scar, and goes into self-imposed exile. When he re-encounters his childhood love, Nala, he is forced to confront his past – namely the spirit of his father, who tells him that he has forgotten who he is, and that he needs to take his place in the circle of life and return as king.

The story is largely derived from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, kills his father, marries his mother, and seizes the throne of Denmark.

The ghost of his father appears to Hamlet in the night, on the battlements of the royal castle, Elsinore, and begs Hamlet to bring his uncle to justice and gain revenge for his treason and murder. (It is intriguing to note that Shakespeare himself had a son named Hamlet.)

Both stories have to grapple with the fact that maybe the fathers are to blame for their demise and the ruin of the kingdom.

Why did Mufasa leave Simba all alone when he promised he would be with him forever, as the kings of the past have always done?

How can Hamlet believe that the ghost is not some kind of demon asking him to commit wanton murder (especially as the Protestantism of the Danish and English kingdoms would seem to rule out the old Catholic idea of spirits in Purgatory)?

The action film Top Gun focuses on this aspect of trusting the father.

Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell is an ace fighter pilot who is considered by many to be reckless and a dangerous wing man, despite his brilliance.

As his partner, ‘Goose’, puts it to him, perhaps the reason for his recklessness, his constant need to prove himself in the air, is linked to the fact that his own father died in an accident under dubious military circumstances, and thus he is always flying against a ghost.

How do all three stories end?

Simba eventually sees that death and losing your father may simply be a part of becoming king, and he moves on from his ‘maverick’ days of ‘hakuna matata’ and restores the kingdom as a new Mufasa, ready to face the crushing responsibility of being king.

‘Maverick’ himself comes to grips with his father figure, despite the death of ‘Goose’, when his mentor, ‘Viper’, assures him of the basic goodness of his father, and declares he will be his wing man if need be. He flies a combat mission in which he integrates his genius with his squad and finally chooses to become an instructor himself with the ‘Top Gun’ training programme – he enters the patriarchy, if you like.

‘Hamlet’, being a tragedy, ends in slightly more dubious circumstances. By the time Hamlet decides to act decisively against his kingdom, by the time he feels ready to take on the challenge, with the faith that death may be part of his destiny (‘The readiness is all’), it is perhaps too late to save Denmark, and the kingdom, with Hamlet’s death, falls to a foreign rival. All he can do is ask his best friend, Horatio, to tell his story, ‘the rest is silence’, and Horatio declares, ‘Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince: and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!’

These stories are undoubtedly highly politically incorrect.

They seem to suggest a male initiation rite into patriarchy or fatherhood, and the channelling of aggression and autonomy into a pattern in which such energy can become healthy for the community and the soul. They seem to suggest, in other words, the necessity of a father – even if he is only present in spirit.

In this regard, I am reminded of the latest sociological study by Stanford economist, Raj Chetty, on income mobility in the US.

The study found that boys with absent fathers are less likely to achieve success than even girls from similar backgrounds. What’s even more interesting is that even if your father is absent, so long as there are fathers in your neighbourhood, you still have a much greater chance of economic success – just from having fatherhood as a concept that is present in your life.

Like it or not, there seems to be a real spiritual (literally) importance that fathers have for their sons.

Why?

I’m not sure. I think it has something to do with the story common to all these myths of wrestling with your father. There seems to be a process for becoming a strong, integrated man:

1. Your father, or the spirit of fatherhood, is present, but perhaps dying.

2. You question your father’s spirit – it seems to be dead – and seek your own autonomy. You want the life of a maverick – or the life of hakuna matata.

3. You feel called back to your father’s spirit, and understand that the life of a maverick is not the full picture of what you or your family needs. (Often in myths it is the archetype of the goddess who calls the son back to the father, or who offers the son back to the father – as Nala does in The Lion King, as Kelly McGillis’s character, Charlie, does in Top Gun, as even the Virgin Mary does in the gospels, and, crucially, as Ophelia fails to do in Hamlet.)

4. The wildness of the young man then achieves atonement with the spirit of the father, which comes to represent the structure of his world, and that world is renewed by the energy of the young under the guidance of the old.

This clearly contradicts the egalitarian, gender-is-a-construct ideology of modern liberal democracies.

But even within these liberal democracies, we are already coming to an understanding that something is going wrong for young men. They shoot up schools. They beat up female security guards when their soccer team loses (looking at you Kaizer Chiefs fans). They under-achieve according to the study above.

Men are full of testosterone. Ancient societies recognised they needed a mechanism to channel this aggression in fruitful ways. Thus the myths tell us these stories of renewing fatherhood and patriarchy – because these societies knew that the biology of young men, and of fatherhood, is not simply going to be wished away, so therefore it requires guidance and not misguided attempts at abolition.

This is why these stories of fathers are so crucial – they are not just stories. And we don’t just need to read and re-tell the successful fatherhood stories – the failure ones are just as important, such as Macbeth (the son kills the father), King Lear (the father abdicates his responsibility), and Oedipus (in which the son never gains access to his own destiny).

These stories become the equivalent to a weaponised information matrix which helps young people to structure their lives, to wrestle with their world so as to be reconciled to the world in a peaceful yet fruitful fashion.

This is also partly why I fear the consequences of the political correctness movement of the last decade – if we write off the structure of all our societies as being permanently tarnished by colonialism and sexism, we create a cohort of young people with no loyalty to any structure and thus no means or motivation to improve society as they find it.

Without this basic loyalty, nothing of lasting value can be built – hence the failures of massive social revolutions, from France in 1789 to Russia in 1917. What the revolutionaries always fail to understand is that it is no uncommon thing for society, or the spirit of our fathers, to fail. All social structure is always dying and in need of renewal.

But renewing a structure is possible, while inventing a new one is not. At some point Simba needs to come back to Pride Rock and face the issues. And so these myths tell us that despite the failures, or death, of our father’s kingdom, we can still be loyal to that structure by bringing it back to life by our own actions and renewal.

Somewhere along the line we seemed to have lost the thread of the stories which allow for the acting out of good fatherhood. We need to go back to the old stories. Their very survival tells us they have something important to say.

Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote in his work ‘After Virtue’ that stories are in fact the basis for all morality: “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?'”

In short, telling young people that things are good or bad is not enough. Instead, we need big, powerful stories, that then act as a structure in which to live and navigate one’s way to a positive ending.

I may be biased as an English teacher, but I can only conclude that as a teacher of literature, I may have the most important job in the world.