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Thursday, December 11, 2008

For some of the more overzealous forum members, re: 614: Celia may be ridiculously, stupidly naive, but that doesn't translate into being dead meat. Just ask Elan.

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized minty-fresh breath.)

So my time this week has been monopolized by various other things, such as the whole college-football-tournament thing, and the webcomic post has been pushed to Thursday as a result, and this is what happens when I don't have much time to write it: I fall back on OOTS and produce something fairly hastily thrown together. And still take much longer to write it than my schedule should by all rights allow.

So what the hell is going on with Belkar? I touched on this once before, but as just about every single thing Belkar does is being viewed in light of Shojo's challenge to him, I think it's important to establish a baseline for what that actually means.

So far, though more so in his first couple of strips back in action, not much seems to have actually changed in Belkar's behavior, which has only stoked the speculation on what he will do differently, and how that'll affect his much-prophesied death, and what it means for when that'll happen. The general consensus, so far as I have observed on the forums (and as over-interpreted by me), seems to be that Belkar is going to toe the line and, outwardly, do everything Haley and later Roy asks of him, effectively turning into the ultimate team player, more committed to the main quest than anyone, appearing to have seen the light and turned good, trying to play the Great Hero, while only occasionally "cheating" somehow, out of sight of anyone else. And in an addendum that's growing in popularity, actually becoming good in the process.

The most succinct interpretation of the matter I could find on short notice probably came from Robert A. Howard of Tangents:
One of the greatest flaws of Belkar’s character was that he has been a two-trick pony for the longest time. He was a violent comedic foil who had no social graces, no interest in blending in, and whose solution for everything was “stick a knife in it until it’s dead.” And it was getting old and boring. What’s worse, it was hurting the rest of the comic as well. The rest of the cast have undergone character growth and have had some truly intriguing stories behind them. Belkar? Outside of killing things, he was useless. The visitation of Lord Shojo (whether it was Shojo’s spirit, a manifestation of the curse Belkar was under, or even just a hallucination) ended up providing Belkar with a chance (and a reason) to grow, while staying fundamentally who and what he is.
Thus Belkar is going to pretend to have character growth. Yet I must wonder… in pretending, and while playing the same game everyone else is, some of that faked character growth may actually rub off. In the meanwhile, watching Belkar slaughter his way through a horde of low-level thieves, leaving the one girl alive after kissing her breathless, has actually become amusing again. What’s more, he may actually get to play the part of hero once again, and enjoy himself immensely while doing so. And while he is fated to die (according to the Oracle, whose death activated Belkar’s Mark of Justice to begin with), I can’t help but wonder if maybe he’ll gain a measure of redemption in the process… or at the very least enter into the Abyss ready to kick butt and chew bubblegum.
There is a bit of a problem with this interpretation, at least judging what it is by the first paragraph: it's not necessarily new to Belkar. But in large measure it's pretty much what I've seen presented elsewhere: Belkar making a show of being the hero, while still being his old self if he can get away with it, whatever that means.

Okay. What was Shojo actually saying when he made his challenge to Belkar?

For starters, he invites Belkar to play
The Game, the big one. The one that each of us plays every day when we get out of bed, put on our face, and go out into the world. Some of us play to get ahead, some of us just want to get through the day without breaking character. It's called "Civilization". No, wait, there's already a game called that... OK, it's called "Society". Your problem is that you don't want to play the game at all, you want to sit on the couch and eat Cheetos while everyone else is playing.
Belkar snaps back, "Well, why shouldn't I? What's the point of their Society, anyway? It never did anything for me." Shojo's response is that if he keeps mocking them and ignoring them, they'll kill him.

To this point, it seems that Shojo's point might be bigger than whether or not Belkar should be a "hero", but whether he should simply live a life bigger than just stabbing everyone at every opportunity. Consider Belkar's life immediately preceding being struck by the Mark of Justice: skipping out on the entire explanation of the Gates because he'd killed a guard and fled, leading Miko on a wild goose chase and slowly driving her more and more insane with fury, pretty much trying to get her to kill him out of blind fury for kicks. Belkar doesn't even care about staying alive as long as he believes he can be quickly resurrected. The only reason he doesn't simply kill the rest of the group is so he has people to back him up if he ever gets in deep, to be led to people to kill, because if he kills one the rest will turn on him, and as an audience to his deeds. (As I've said many times in the past, I have neither prequel book, but according to Wikipedia, the main reason he joined the Order in the first place is a variant of the first reason.) The purpose behind the quest doesn't matter so much as "Those people? Bad. Take care of them."

For further insight, look no further than strip #58, when Vaarsuvius gives Belkar Owl's Wisdom so he can give Elan a couple last-minute healing spells. Before V dismisses the Owl's Wisdom, Belkar briefly seems to undergo some actual character growth: "I've wasted my life on anger and needless rage, when I could have been healing. My eyes are finally open. From this day forward, I'm never hurting a living creature ever again." (That last sentence would prove oddly prophetic...) With this piece of evidence, we can place a name to Belkar's life through the Mark of Justice experience: "anger and needless rage". He's spent too much time consumed with both to realize his true potential, whether that involves " creature[s]" or not.

Interestingly, that Miko chase I mentioned? Might be a perfect metaphor for what Shojo was talking about. Belkar cared only about his own fun, and missed something far more interesting and important in the process. As many people have suggested, this whole episode may cast into a new light why Shojo afflicted Belkar with the Mark of Justice in the first place.

Belkar interprets "playing the game" as "show[ing] up and play[ing] by everyone else's stupid rules", and Shojo replies, "Of course not, my wooly friend [Belkar at this point has metaphorically turned into a sheep]. You can cheat."
Nudge die rolls, palm cards, "forget" penalties... but you have to sit down to play first. As long as the people at the table see a fellow player across from them, they'll tolerate you. A crooked player is a pain in the ass, but someone who refuses to play at all makes them start questioning their own lives - and people HATE to think. They'd rather lose to a cheater than dwell too long on why they're playing in the first place.
The apparent implication of this speech is that it doesn't even matter if the other players know Belkar is cheating, so long as he plays at all. It's entirely possible that Belkar could continue to be the same stabby, backstabbing jerk he's always been, so long as he gives a rat's ass about what everyone else is doing, and doesn't display a willful ignorance of the rules. But Belkar doesn't seem to interpret it this way: "So, you're saying that if I can trick all the other mindless drones into believing that I subscribe to their arbitrary moral framework, they'll just leave me alone?" Shojo doesn't correct him: "They all assumed I followed the Paladin's Code, didn't they?" That calls back to Shojo's addendum to the "you can cheat" comment: "Twelve Gods know that I always did."

Now, let's refresh your memory as to the nature of Shojo's deception. We first encountered him as a senile old fool who took advice from his cat. There was some evidence he wasn't what he appeared, but only a speechless Haley seemed to catch on. As Shojo explains to Roy, he puts on an act of senility in order to shirk any public responsibility for his edicts, which might result in certain upset parties putting an end to his life. Shojo also explains that he is "the commander of the paladins of the Sapphire Guard by virtue of my inheritance, not merit. In other words, I command the paladins. I have never claimed to be one. ... Technically, I'm a 14th level aristocrat. Heck, I'm not even Lawful!"

Shojo explains that he hides his true nature from the paladins to get away with acts he feels might be the right course of action but which technically violate the code the actual paladins swear to uphold - taking the Gates as an example. Shojo felt that with two gates down, there was a clear and present danger to the others, but none of the paladins would be willing or able to investigate or reinforce them without violating an oath of non-interference in the other gates, so he created a complex scheme to bring in the OOTS and have them do his dirty work instead, including misleading Miko as to the true purpose of the arrest and putting on a show trial with a largely predetermined outcome issued by Roy's own disguised father's ghost.

(Incidentially, this is why Roy is pretty much blameless for not leaving open the possibility that Xykon might strike against Azure City when consulting with the Oracle: that's not why he was hired. Re-read #290: Shojo did not even technically hire the Order to reinforce either of the other two gates, only to report on their status so Shojo would have an excuse to, presumably, send the Sapphire Guard to do the reinforcing.)

For two or three reasons, this isn't completely applicable to Belkar's situation. Belkar's evil, his only "responsibility" is to the OOTS, and he's far from in a position to make any decisions, or manipulate anyone. He barely even has any "true" motivations to work towards while technically still following the Order's "arbitrary moral framework". Even if viewed from the lens of his desire to kill as many bodies as possible, it's not necessarily in line with the Order's goals. The point is that Shojo wasn't pretending to have the good of Azure City, or even the universe, at heart. If anything, Shojo had the exact same goal as the paladins - but he still felt the need to be deceptive in the way he achieved that goal.
The Order of the Stick has a place for non-Good members. Haley has described herself as "Chaotic Good-ish", and even before going insane Vaarsuvius had a decidedly Neutral streak. For that matter, there's nothing preventing Belkar from achieving anything just from being Chaotic Evil at all - Xykon is Chaotic Evil, and he has his sights set on nothing less than world domination, yet oddly, the old Belkar probably would not get along well with him, as he wouldn't care so much about the mission as about the next target to kill.
Shojo's not saying Belkar needs to stop being evil, even outwardly. Really, nothing about the conversation says Belkar needs to stop acting outwardly evil; only the circumstances would determine that at any time. I think there are two more appropriate interpretations, and both feed into each other, and which is more correct depends more on where Belkar is than on what Shojo says.

The first of which is that Shojo wants Belkar to act more Lawful. Shojo was a Chaotic passing off as at least a reluctant Lawful, and it's a Chaotic alignment that Shojo and Belkar have in common - rather important when Shojo starts the conversation by saying "We're rather alike, you know."

The second interpretation is that Belkar needs to stop acting like he's above the alignment system entirely, and start acting Chaotic Evil.

There is a difference, although the TV Tropes description may be more helpful in illuminating it than anything in any "official" source (which may suggest it's a wild misinterpretation):
Chaotic Evil characters might intentionally help the heroes save the world by doing terribly evil things. ... Chaotic Evil characters are incredibly self-centered and evil, but can get along with good guys by being eerily charming at times. They are often crazy, but they don't have to be. Only Chaotic Stupid characters will trek 500 miles to slaughter a random village for no reason. Chaotic Evil's goals may well make no sense to anybody but himself, but he does have goals. He may "want to watch the world burn", or prove that he's the best, or the most feared, or get the most attention.
If Belkar were to strictly emulate Shojo's example, he'd attempt to hide anything he did that might be seen as flouting the normal rules of society, evil or not, but otherwise do anything he wished openly as long as that still consisted following the rules. That doesn't mean giving the impression of good - D&D 3rd edition does have the "Lawful Evil" alignment - just so long as he at least appears to fit in with his surroundings. But the second interpretation may be more interesting, and at least as backed-up by Shojo's words. Belkar, in this interpretation, is entirely within his rights to do exactly what he has been doing, but only as long as he at least makes an effort to get along with the rest of the Order of the Stick, and pay some effing attention to everything else that's going on.

Of course, Belkar's own interpretation practically matters at least as much or more as Shojo's outward intent. But early indications are that, while he is turning into more of a team player on the outside, he hasn't exactly abandoned his old ways entirely, and if anything, has only refined them. So what can we expect from Belkar in the future? A Belkar with a little more refined palate than Vaarsuvius' "hate/lust" distinction, one who knows who his friends are and who his enemies are, one who appears to be a little more controllable in his dealings with the rest of the OOTS, but who's still quick to slit the throat of any captured enemy and may even be more dangerous, in a certain sick, twisted way, than ever before.

(Hmm. Maybe I should take Shojo's advice and do something with my life rather than post OOTS exegeses every month.)

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