L. Jagi Lamplighter is a writer of fantasy and children’s stories. When not writing, she reverts to her secret ID where she lives in fairytale happiness with her husband, writer John C. Wright, and their four delightful children Orville, Ping-Ping, the Cherubim, and Justinian the Elf King. Learn more about her by visiting her website.
When I was preparing to write this article, I discussed the idea with a few folks who are sight-impaired. The comment that most stuck with me came from Day Al-Mohamed, co-author of the charming Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn. She made quite a few insightful observations, but the one that struck me was: “I am not your metaphor.”
Day’s comment really made me think.
Historically, blindness often has appeared in stories as a metaphor. For example, the blindness of King Dhritarashtra in the great Hindu epic, The Mahabarata is often taken to have a metaphorical quality. His story, in short, is as follows: King Vichitravirya dies without an heir. Following the instructions of his mother, Vichitravirya’s brother Vyasa went unto his brother’s wives and used his yogic powers to grant them sons. Vyasa was apparently fearsome to behold. Ambika closed her eyes and refused to look upon him. Their son, Dhritarashtra, is born blind.
Dhritarashtra grows up to be king of a large nation, but his blindness, in particularly his blind love for his son, despite his son’s faults, lead to the downfall of his country. The blindness of Dhritarashtra’s eyes is used as a metaphor for the blindness of his judgment.
Here we see that both the blindness of the child is caused by the metaphorical blindness of the mother, and that the inability of his eyes to see is reflected in his inability to reign in his son.
In Greek mythology, the seer Tiresias is known for his blindness. Stories differ as to how he lost his sight, but there is a general belief that the lack of physical vision was somehow balanced by the increased spiritual visions—knowledge of things that happened afar off or were to happen in the future granted to him by the gods.
While his blindness is not metaphorical per se, it has an almost magical aspect to it that differs greatly from the every day experience of the average person, blind or seeing.
As a writer and a reader, I am not against the use of blindness, or anything, as metaphor if it fits the story. Nor am I against blindness going hand and hand with inner vision. And yet, I felt Day had a point. At least occasionally, it would be nice to have a blind character who simply happened to be blind, the way other folk happen to be lame, or deaf, or have a bad heart or unusually short, or even red-haired, or freckled.
Metaphors and spiritual gifts are not the only difficulties blind characters face. Kody Keplinger is a YA author who also happens to be blind. Participating in a blog called Disabilities in KidLit, she wrote on the subject of blind characters in stories for children:
“The characters are either completely ruled by their disability – physically and emotionally – constantly breaking down about the struggles they face, fearing the outside world, struggling to adapt, etc. Or, they don’t seem fazed at all. In fact, you might never know they were blind because they are independent and fearless and nothing – NOTHING – holds them back.
Presenting disabled characters as weak or fragile is problematic and unrealistic when the vast majority of us live full, happy lives. But the second option, the disabled person who isn’t even fazed, that’s not honest either”
Her observations made sense to me. On one hand, any character fails to be a real character if they only have one quality—such as a disability. On the other hand, if a character is not affected at all by a particular characteristic, then it might as well not be there. Why bring it up?
So, ideally, it would be nice to have a blind character who was not being used as a metaphor, whose blindness was not supernatural, who was not entirely crippled, but whose life was not untouched by the disability either.
Armed with this idea, I went back and looked at the blind character in my Prospero’s Daughter trilogy, Cornelius Prospero.
The Prospero’s Daughter trilogy is a modern sequel to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It concerns the efforts of Miranda to rescue her father, the dread magician Prospero, who has been kidnapped and imprisoned in Hell. Cornelius Prospero is one of Miranda’s younger siblings, born after the events chronicled in The Tempest. He carries the magical Staff of Persuasion and runs the Orbis Suleimani, a secret, illuminati-like organization that falsifies history in order to protect mankind from the scourge of the supernatural.
He also happens to be blind.
Let us examine Cornelius, and see how he fares according to the criteria suggested by Day Al-Mohamed and Kody Keplinger
Cornelius’s blindness is not metaphorical. It is not used by the story to get some message across or to make a point.
Cornelius does not see visions or gain some benefit from his blindness. He was blinded in an accident as a grown man. He did not develop some sudden magical power to compensate for his disability.
He does claim that he can hear the truth when it is spoken, but since he fails to do this the one time it would be helpful to Miranda, this is, perhaps, an exaggeration upon his part.
Cornelius is a very powerful man. He decides the fate of nations. To a degree, he runs the world. He also spends much of his time taking care of tedious bureaucrat details, using his enchanted staff to persuade clerks to sign papers.
In neither of these tasks is he impeded by his lack of sight. He does not allow his disability to slow him down in this regard. Nor does he want pity for himself from those around him.
Nor is Cornelius’s blindness his main problem. Each Prospero child has a besetting sin against which they struggle. Cornelius’s is power lust. The main dilemma in his life is between his desire to run the world, as he puts it, and his wish to retire and relax in the sun, free of responsibilities. His blindness is not what defines him as a person.
Cornelius does not shirk his duties or ask for pity but neither is he unaffected by his lack of sight. Cornelius’s blindness is older than the concept of seeing-eye dogs. His magical staff has been made into a white stick that he can tap before him. Ordinarily, he employs a boy, a member of his extended family, to lead him around. When the main characters go to Hell to rescue their father, however, he has to leave the boy behind and trust his siblings to escort him.
Day emphasized that blind people do not hear better than sighted folks. They can’t hear dog whistles or other things outside of the range of human hearing range. However, they do pay more attention to what they can hear. This can be good or bad. It means they probably will notice a noise that others don’t pay attention to. It also means they are more easily confused when surrounded by loud noises.
This, too, is true of Cornelius. When the family meets a room filled with a loud roar, he is disoriented. When the roar is dampened, and he can hear music of the winds, he is entranced. When the Staff of Silence is activated and the music suddenly shuts off, he is as alarmed—as we might be if the room in which we stood was suddenly plunged into darkness.
So Cornelius is not a metaphor like the blind king from the Mahabharata. He has not gained a supernatural power along with his blindness, the way Tiresius has. He is not blind for pathos’s sake; nor is he unaffected by his disability.
He is, rather, a character who has lost his sight and who deals with this lack as best he is able in his circumstance, without letting that loss define who he is.
As I worked on the Prospero’s Daughter series, a question arose: Was it realistic to take a blind man to Hell? Would it push the reader’s credulity too far? What if the reader responded: Oh come on, a blind person couldn’t really do all that, right?
After some contemplation, I thought: Well, is it realistic to take anyone to Hell?
Is it realistic that any eleven-year-olds could do what Harry Potter, Hermione, and Ron do?
Is it realistic that any Hobbit could do what Bilbo or Frodo do? I mean, come on, Hobbits are just little guys!
And yet, there are real eleven-year-olds alive today—especially in war zones—who have done unbelievable things that most adults could not accomplish.
So, is it realistic that a blind man could do what Cornelius does? Travel through unpleasant terrain and terrible hardships to help save his family?
Maybe not, but in real life, there are blind people who have done utterly amazing things. There is Erik Weihenmayer—who has kayaked the Colorado River, parachuted and climbed Mt. Everest. Or Chen Guangchen, a civil rights lawyer who after refusing to stand down, even when imprisoned and beaten by Chinese officials, participated in a harrowing escape culminating with his coming to America. Or adventurer-motivational speaker Miles Hilton Barber, who flew an airplane from London to Sydney relying on instruments alone (with a sighted co-pilot). He has also undergone sledge racing in Alaska, hikes across the Sahara, and was the first blind pilot to break the sound barrier.
I couldn’t do any of those things!
If Mr. Weihenmayer can climb Everest, the jagged Mountains of Misery in Hell would be like a stroll in the rolling foothills!
So, is it realistic that a blind man could make it through Hell. Probably not, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible.
And, when we come down to it, isn’t that what fiction is really for?
To show us the nigh impossible? To inspire us. To remind us that we are capable of more than we currently do. To show us that others, who started with far less, have gone farther than we feel we can go…so maybe we can go a little farther, too?
Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Cornelius Prospero, a blind man journeying through Hell.
Not a metaphor, but perhaps an inspiration.