The really tall and long-legged giraffe-like animals, and the large and sturdy beasts: the hippos, elephants did survive the many stampedes into battle. The tiny animals, gnats, fleas and ticks survived by stealth. They cunningly choose hosts who could unwittingly protect them. Many of the aerial creatures, including flying geckos, bees and hummingbirds survived, I think. But those who flew away and abandoned the last fight haven’t been seen since. So I do not have any verification of life. Likewise, it is thought that the creatures that burrow underground: the armadillos, ferrets and meerkats are all dead. The stampedes compacted and collapsed their underground tunnels, and once underground, they couldn’t make it back up to the surface. We think they suffocated, slowly. All the other animals, my subjects, are definitely dead. Their blood has stained the forest floor dark brown; the smell of their decomposing corpses taints the air around me, and the vultures circle overhead – ready to dive down and pick over the flesh that remains. The survivors of the last great battle blame and shun me. I feel ashamed, but mostly baffled as to how I ended up in this situation. Nor can I, with absolute confidence, accurately remember the cause we were fighting for.
I thought I would inspire great courage in all the beasts in the forest. But this abject carnage has taken me by surprise. The Wizard said I should have had the common sense to think the whole Great And Constant Battle though, but as he gave the Scarecrow brains (and not me), I don’t see that it is really my fault. To be exiled from Oz as a punishment is extreme. But The Wizard has decreed I must learn how to become a true and good leader by visiting other lands, and speaking to the subjects of other rulers. And to all you incredibly smart and pedantic Scarecrow-type people, I’m not taking about office stationary here. I’m referring to great and powerful leaders, and the secrets behind their leadership success. I know that he is also sending Tinman and Scarecrow away with me and that we have to work together, but I don’t know why yet. Until I have learnt how to be a good and true leader, I cannot return home to Oz.
Maybe I should start this story at the beginning, or at the end of the last beginning. At the end of quest that began with Dorothy’s house landing on the Wicked Witch of the East, The Wizard of Oz bequeathed me courage. I drank it down quickly, lest The Wizard change his mind. In the same ceremony, he gave Tinman a heart, and Scarecrow a brain. We each chose a territory and people to rule over. Obviously mine was the forest. Living in the depths of the natural world, surrounded by living and growing trees, and a vast, complex and natural eco system brings joy into my life. The Good Witch Glinda compelled the Winged Monkeys to take me to the forest (after Dorothy clicked her silver heels, and returned to Kansas). And so I ruled as King of the Beasts. I expected this to be a Happily Ever After type of fairy story. I thought I could sit back feel the warmth of the sun on my fur, and enjoy the delectable fruits of being King. That isn’t quite how life in the forest evolved.
In the early stages, I admit, I did want to prove how strong and dauntless I was. “Courage is Everything” was my motto. My first policy decision was to announce that every slight, disagreement or conflict must be fought. I wanted my reign to be the very pinnacle of absolute courage, all the time. Not just sunrise to sunset, but day and night. Each challenge was the opportunity for every creature, large and small, to prove how plucky, tenacious and courageous they were. All the creatures of the forest wanted to prove they were worthy of living in the forest with me as their King. The first few deaths were mostly an extension of natures’ due process: the sick, the elderly and the weak. We could justify those deaths as natural selection, but on reflection, maybe this sent the wrong message, especially to the carnivores who re-acquired the taste of warm flesh with a still beating heart. The next wave of deaths was predominantly adolescents who wanted to prove their maturity. By this stage, we had set up a tournament stage in a clearing near the centre of the forest. Those young deaths were harder to watch, partly from the lack of kill-skill. But I was still adamant that “Courage is Everything”.
The parents did begin to complain. Not, as they described it from being meek or faint-hearted, but from a purely practical standpoint. We had, as they saw it, lost speed and muscle in protecting the forest from Emerald City migrants. We had lost the food-gatherers and shelter-builders: key components of our self-sustaining, compassionate community. The mutually supportive habitat that had existed for many generations in the forest was disintegrating. But I was still unwavering in my belief that “Courage is Everything”.
In retrospect, I can possibly see that when you contest everything, you might not know when to stop. And when you go to war based on a plan scribbled on a torn envelope, maybe that isn’t an actual battle strategy? I didn’t believe in reasoning, reflection, or in weighing up all the available conflict-resolution options. With hindsight, I can see how the small fights escalated into substantial, all consuming battles. Or, I can now see the stacks of rotting corpses. But where’s the valour and glory in debate and procrastination?
Is courage everything? I’m not so sure now, but I guess that’s my quest now I’m living in exile. I’ll need to discover the answer if I’m ever going to get home to Oz.
The Lion’s backstory
Photograph by Kev Ryan