Artifacts of Power
Here’s a plot synopsis for a high fantasy short story.
Protagonist: Karnaca, the young warrior princess of her city-state home of Dothrak
Dothrak is beset by constant strife, sieges from without, and attempted coups from within. Her aging father seems powerless to stem the tide of decay. Karnaca wants peace and prosperity, to see her home shine as a center of learning and commerce as it did in mythic ages.
So she sets out on her adventure, seeking the fabled Sword of Balance. The sword was forged in the ancient second age, by a powerful wizard lost to time. It is known to imbue the wielder with unstoppable might, that can only be used against those who do wrong.
Through trials and tribulations, Karnaca finally lays her hands upon the ancient and venerable blade.
The story is only beginning.
She uses the sword to sweep the known world, striking at the very roots of corruption and malice, churning the depleted soil of the world.
Finally she turns her might toward Dothrak, waging a campaign of ruination upon all those who threaten the stability and prosperity of her beloved home.
Finally, her journey is complete. She surveys her domain, which now stretches beyond the edges of the world. She sees the results of her righteous campaign.
No one is free from blame, so all fall under the sword. The corrupt structure of power that held production and commerce in place lie in ruins, leaving the virtuous few to starve and languish in a devastated world of her own, accidental, devising.
Ultimately she realizes that she herself visited this devastation upon the world, that she alone is to blame. In her single-minded determination to punish the wicked, she has undone what good there had been among corrupt butresses of society. The power of balance–the power of the sword–compels her to eliminate the ultimate foe to stability and prosperity of the world: herself.
The curtain closes as she falls upon the very sword that brought her this far, and her tragic story concludes.
The thing about artifacts of power is they are imbued with wild magic. They have an agenda of their own, and will corrupt and bend the will of whoever wields them. It takes a person of particular wisdom and character to wield an artifact of such power, instead of that artifact wielding them.
Young Karnaca, in some alternate reality, could have picked up the sword and known both its power and its weakness. She might have been able to harness the narrowly focused power in the context of her greater wisdom, striking at injustice while leaving economic and social structures firmly in place. She could have gripped the potential firmly in hand, while moderating it against the myriad other considerations actually at work in the world.
Instead she was blinded by the singular vision, the singular mandate, the singular capacity of the sword to punish the corrupt. She only saw the reality that the sword presented, and so was used by the sword to its own, ruinous ends.
Human beings have many artifacts of power in their minds, and many more available to pick up.
Artifacts include the capacity to recognize true things, or the capacity to work social magic so that everyone feels good around you. They are the skills and strategies you employ in your life to pursue whatever goals you may have. They are present because you believe they work.
And in almost all cases, they really do work well. The problem is that if you are not wise enough to wield these strategies–to reflect on what they are good for, and deploy them at will in service of your endorsed outcomes–then these artifacts will use you for their own ends.
Your ability to make people feel good can corrupt you such that you can’t not make people feel good. You have to have it be that everyone is happy with you at all times. You feel compelled by the power of artifact to avoid and hide from conflict and bad feelings. And in the end you’ll find that your maniacal focus on creating harmony has cost you some part of your soul, it has backfired such that people don’t trust you to be honest with them, such that you lose track of your true preferences and convictions.
One path is to throw the artifact away, to reject its power. To stop ever trying to make people feel good, to just “be raw” and “tell it like it is.” That you’ll leave bad feelings and social ruin in your wake is orthogonal to the goal of being honest and true to your preferences and convictions.
But that’s the insidious power of this artifact.
You try to throw it away, but in reality the artifact still has hold of you. It’s simply inverted its power and its weakness while maintaining ultimate control over your actions. Now you can’t not be raw, you can’t subordinate your preferences to the greater good.
The only way through is to grow in wisdom enough to fully hold both ends of the spectrum represented in the artifact. To have a broad enough worldview to be at choice about whether to make a person feel good or to hold true to your convictions in the face of conflict. To know what strategy, what power, is the most appropriate according to your fully reflective model of the world.
When you know what it’s good for and what it’s bad for, and can can choose to use it or not, then you’ll have the power to fully wield the artifact, without risk of it wielding you instead.
If you’re a human, I am confident you are being wielded by some nonzero number of powerful artifacts. The easiest way to identify one is to identify something that’s fundamentally true about who you are. A thing you will always choose for and never against. Some virtuous way of being that is self-evidently the only correct way for you to be. To be otherwise would be antithetical to your very being, a vice of the highest order.
That subjective sense is precisely what it feels like to be wielded by an artifact of power.
- Discovering the objective truth of the world against an onslaught of biases and bullshit
- Kindness and compassion toward all people
- Loyalty to friends and family
- Never giving up
- Always telling the truth
- Taking heroic responsibility for the state of the world
- Authentically expressing yourself
- Being sure your actions are the right thing
- Making people feel welcome and comfortable
- Figuring things out for yourself
- Defending yourself against attackers
All clearly virtuous and correct. Insidious artifacts of power, one and all.
I hope that at least one of those stuck out to you as not belonging on the list, as being clearly just right as opposed to the others which are merely choices you might make. That’s where you might start in the quest to wield the artifact instead of the artifact wielding you.
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