On the modern Ring of Gyges

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized influence.)

Rich rarely makes huge storytelling blunders, a result of how straightforward the comic’s art style forces his storytelling to be, but this comic contains a pretty big one. In the midst of Belkar dealing with Mr. Scruffy’s injury, we get a random panel showing Enor with Mr. Scruffy’s head, Gannji with Belkar’s head, and the back of Belkar’s head.

Or a flashback to Enor and Gannji’s arena battle, giving context to Belkar’s decision to save the two by unleashing the allosaurus. That works too, but only if you remember (a hard task given how slow the comic has updated recently – Robert A. “Tangents” Howard had a post on this comic nearly a week ago) that the line in that panel was originally said by Roy in the original comic. The panel isn’t given any real context, certainly no buildup, and the “revelation” contained therein seems to be randomly divulged without any real impact or providing any additional meaning to current events. In fact, there isn’t really any reason we couldn’t have gotten it a lot sooner.

Regardless, we now have some context for that decision, and an opportunity for me to say something about it. What we knew before was that Belkar made that decision, and didn’t want Ian to tell Roy about it – and seemed uncomfortable taking Roy off the scent himself. Considering Belkar is currently trying to fake the sort of character growth that would lead to him releasing a dinosaur to save a couple of people he only knows for getting him thrown in jail, it seems odd that he would deny any responsibility for it and actively try to maintain Roy’s impression that he’s still every bit the bastard he’s always been.

But what I’ve noticed, re-reading past strips in this book and my posts on them, is that Belkar only ever claims to be a team player. He never claims to have any sort of character growth beyond that. He never actually tries to claim that he’s any less of a murderous psychopath, he simply claims he’s no more of one than any other adventurer (something of a sore spot of Rich’s). Which begs the question: is that what Shojo meant? When he asked Belkar to fake character growth, did he mean as little character growth as possible? Re-reading my original post on the matter, there may be evidence in favor of this interpretation:

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…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 “hurting…living creature[s]” or not.

I proceeded to suggest that “Really, nothing about the conversation says Belkar needs to stop acting outwardly evil; only the circumstances would determine that at any time”, and that one interpretation of Shojo’s remarks was that “Belkar needs to stop acting like he’s above the alignment system entirely, and start acting Chaotic Evil“: “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.”

Belkar’s reaction to his own decision to release the allosaurus suggests he’s taken this interpretation, but there’s a difference between not hiding your evil actions, and hiding your good ones. Belkar has an interest in Roy thinking he’s a team player, but somehow, he seems to also have an interest (or thinks he does) in Roy thinking he’s still a Chaotic Evil murderous psychopath. (It’s not that Roy would have a problem with him helping Gannji and Enor specifically; Roy’s own reaction disproves that.) Otherwise it would seem odd that Belkar would hide an act that would further his effort to convince Roy of his reformation, however defined. What makes it even odder is that Belkar has been introduced to the rewards of being good – but interestingly, his interpretation is wrong: “I did exactly what I always do – murder people horribly – but because I killed the people everyone else wanted me to kill, I get presents instead of jail time?”

So I have two interpretations of Belkar’s decision to hide his decision to release the allosaurus from Roy. The first is that Belkar is still new to this “society” and “morals” thing, and doesn’t realize that saving lives, even a couple of supposedly evil lives, is as praiseworthy as killing the people Roy asks him to. The second has to do with what we’ve now learned about the reason he released the allosaurus: that Belkar panicked at his own decision and didn’t know what to make of it. Under this interpretation, Belkar believes he had a one-time moment of weakness and worries that if Roy knew about it, he might not trust Belkar to do what needs to be done in the future. But not only is he wrong about what Roy’s reaction would be, he’s wrong about what that moment means, because I’m now with the group that believes that Belkar’s fake character growth, or at least his alliance with Mr. Scruffy, will lead to real character growth, at least in the short time he has before he inevitably dies – and perhaps Belkar’s line in the last panel suggests he realizes this. Perhaps it’s only now that he even realizes why he released the allosaurus to begin with.

Both interpretations also raise the question of why Ian doesn’t correct Belkar’s misconception, but I’ve been meaning to write a whole post on him…

1 thought on “On the modern Ring of Gyges

  1. My interpretation is that Belkar doesn’t want Roy to know about his actions because he’s not comfortable about having actual character growth (hence his complaint about Mr. Scruffy influencing his behavior), and Ian doesn’t “correct” Belkar because he doesn’t care about Belkar.

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