Saturday, 15 December 2012

Squeezing the giant's heart

There’s a Norse folk tale I remember from childhood involving a giant who hides his heart. The hero has to find the heart, so that he can save his brothers who have been turned to stone by the giant, and rescue the beautiful princess the giant has imprisoned. The princess’s job is to find out where the giant keeps his heart. 

It’s a bit like Delilah getting Samson to reveal the secret of his strength, except the secret in this case is more complicated. The heart, apparently, is on an island, in a church, in a well, inside the body of a duck, enclosed in an egg. Helped by creatures he has helped earlier in his travels, the hero eventually gets his hands on the egg and starts squeezing. He promises to save the giant’s life if he will free the princess and liberate his brothers from their petrified state. In the more authentic versions of the story, once all this is done the hero immediately ignores his promise and crushes the egg.

It occurs to me now that this tale of torture and retribution is the archetype of all those ticking bomb scenarios envisaged in dramas such as 24. To free the hostages, some heart has always got to be squeezed. And if you’ve got a problem with that, get over it – you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.

But specifically what put the story in my mind was the latest episode of Homeland. For those who don’t know, this is an America drama about a US marine called Sgt Brody, who is released after eight years of captivity in Iraq. It turns out that during these lost years his captor and sometime torturer, Abu Nazir, befriended him and converted him both to Islam and to the Islamist cause.

We’ve seen Brody on the brink of detonating a suicide bomb. And we’ve watched him being co-opted by the CIA having been seduced (on more than one level) by an agent. Whose side he’s on now is anybody’s guess. Which I suppose is what makes us watch – those of us who do. To be honest, none of it makes any sense if you think too hard about it, but demanding hard thought is not its purpose.

Clearly Abu Nazir is a bad guy, but he’s well matched by the odious Vice President who represents all that’s most callous about Washington politics and the American imperial machine and is, from Abu Nazir’s perspective, a war criminal. And in the climax of the latest episode, Nazir gets to squeeze the VP's heart. It isn’t hidden in a duck’s egg, but on a laptop, because the VP, it turns out, has a pacemaker. Brody, all-American hero and establishment protégé and therefore uniquely placed to play the role of princess, texts the serial number from the VP’s office, thus handing control of the VP’s heart to Abu Nazir’s geeks. The VP shows up just in time to have a heart attack in Brody’s arms.  

We’re used to mythic themes being reimagined in the light of technological advances. Science fiction does this all the time. Huxley’s Brave New World is, among other things, about the ancient dream of eternal youth and its limitations. The crew in Danny Boyle's film Sunshine fly too close to the sun. Philip K Dick’s story ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ (adapted for the screen as Blade Runner) is a version of the Pygmalion myth. But this is the first time I’ve encountered the heart-squeezing trope given the pseudo-scientific treatment. 

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