Why “In Strange Woods” Is a Masterpiece
Points on a Work of Genius in Celebration of Its Anniversary
A year ago, December 14th, 2020, In Strange Woods was released, and to this day I think about it often. ISW is a podcast musical from Atypical Artists and creators Jeff Luppino-Esposito, Brett Ryback, and Matt Sav; if you have not listened to ISW yet, you must.
The following is a collection of points, fragments, praises, and observations regarding the artistic masterpiece. My goal is to convince you that In Strange Woods is not merely entertainment but art, and furthermore I believe it’s literature. This is because ISW is profound, tragic in that characters are caught between competing drives and goods, ironic, and full of personalities who feel more human than most of us. Howl, in particular, is Shakespearean, and the story is skillfully crafted to orbit around him even though he is not the main character. It is these kinds of subtle moves that solidifies the greatness of In Strange Woods.
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The following contains spoilers, so please do not read this work before you’ve had a chance to finish the series, which you can find at Apple Podcasts. Furthermore, the following is written assuming you have listened to this series: the points I raise will not make sense unless you’ve enjoyed ISW for yourself.
I have read comments suggesting that mixing a musical with a true crime story doesn’t work, and I want everyone to know that I think this is a ridiculous criticism. First, it isn’t valid in terms of criticism, because this is a critique of the form of a work versus its content relative to its form. If I rate an opera badly because I don’t like opera, my review is completely irrelevant; a valid review requires the reviewer to be open to the genre and work and committed to judging the work on its own terms. To say a musical podcast is bad because the songs don’t make sense, the music doesn’t blend well with the audio, etc. — these would be valid critiques, because these would judge the work relative to its own aims. To say a piece is bad because “true crime stories can’t be musicals” is merely a closed-minded opinion: we can do better.
Walker Percy once wrote that the only way we can really appreciate a Shakespearean sonnet anymore was by walking into a biology classroom and finding it on the dissection board. What he meant by this is that we are so “captured” by “preset complexes” and ideas of things before we see, read, and/or experience them, that it has become incredibly difficult to experience those things on their own terms; as a result, it’s become hard to really experience beauty, art, and the world in general. Likewise, we are so cynical today, so overwhelmed by doubt, that it’s hard to really connect with characters and stories. But this is the magic of ISW: by having a mystery story sung, the characters, plot, tragedy, and art of the work can finally reach us. ISW gets around our preset complexes. Far from creating a mess by blending “musicals” with “true crime,” ISW hits us in places we didn’t know feelings we’re possible anymore and makes us feel alive.
“Through a deceptively simple format, the writer and director Lauren Shippen has created a gripping character drama…
I hope that you find the following points enhance your experience and overall appreciation for the work. Sections are organized by episode, but again please wait to finish the series before reading this, because sections will make points which allude to future sections — there are spoilers everywhere. Also, single apostrophes will be used to specify direct quotes.
Lastly, though the creators have generously made ISW free for us all to enjoy, I would still highly encourage you to support this work by purchasing the album here. Support is necessary if great work is to continue to exist in our world which desperately needs it:
In Strange Woods: A Musical Podcast: Chapter 1 - A Man Who Cannot Be Saved on Apple Podcasts
When teenager Jacob Wells goes missing in Whitetail National Forest, it sends shockwaves through his small community. A…
1. Note the technical skill: how the music grows in with the sound effects, then the perfect blending of the voice-over. And now the singing, the violin — just take a moment to marvel at the technical dexterity. And don’t forget: the ISW team had to composure, arrange, time, plan, and write everything you’re hearing. Amazing, yes?
In my experience, there’s a kind of problem embedded in completed works where, once they’re done, it just seems like their completeness was magic, something that just “happened” and almost “had to happen” — anyone who tried would have given rise to the same result. Artists work tirelessly to make it seem like what they do is easy and natural, and if the artists succeed, artists can go unappreciated. It’s a cruel irony, but awareness of this dilemma can help us in the audience avoid it.
2. As evidence of the skill of dialogue, when Howl is on the phone, note he starts off by telling the police, ‘I found the boy, the missing boy,’ and waits before adding, ‘I found his body.’ The writers could have had Howl start by saying, “I found the body of the missing boy,” but instead choice to withhold that data to build tension. For everyone who wants to be a writer, take note of this technique. Also, a long sentence like “I found the body of the missing boy” simply doesn’t sound like something Howl would say, so the writers of ISW accomplished a double goal: they made Howl sound like himself while, at the same time, building dramatic tension.
3. Peregrine is not forced to attend her brother’s vigil, and her Mom notes that she felt like she shouldn’t force Peregrine to attend, dropping the painful line, ‘I didn’t want to lose my daughter, too’ (it’s amazing how, reading this line a year later, I still hear it in my head like it was yesterday). Peregrine’s Mom here suggests it’s not always easy to tell how we “keep” loved ones. Is it by forcing them to be with us, or by letting them have their own space? Either way, in life, we take risk. Personally, I feel that many television programs, movies, and the like make it seem “obvious” what constitutes “the right course,” but a reason ISW is art is precisely that it’s “true to life”: in life, what’s right is rarely “obvious” (not that we always like art to force us to acknowledge this reality).
4. ‘When something happens, come and find me’ — a truly heartbreaking line that will be brilliantly incorporated back into later episodes. For Peregrine to sing about her brother telling her to ‘come and find me’ when she needed help, like she needs now when facing his death — utterly tragic and moving. Note the line, ‘He was good to talk to on the road,’ which suggests that Jacob provided stability and comfort during the transitions of life. Peregrine’s father is gone, and so she was already lacked support for the twists and turns of “getting by.” Now, she’s lost even more support, and so it would make sense that she would want to become “self-sufficient” — she’s already in a situation where she must be.
5. There are some funny exchanges about getting kids “to put down their phones,” suggesting that they are distracted and not taking life seriously. But does anyone take life seriously who doesn’t look at life realistically? Perhaps in this sense Howl is the only character who has “put down his phone,” per se. We pick on kids for being on their phones all the time, but Howl makes us realize that few of us are paying any real attention to the world. But maybe none of us would last if we did? Hard to say.
6. The story of ISW explores the tension of “accepting accidents” and also preparing one’s self to prevent accidents from happening (which draws into question if any event is really an “accident” at all, for its always theoretically possible that we could have been prepared). There’s something both comforting and horrifying with the reality of “accidents”: they mean not everything is our fault (which is existentially relieving), but they also mean not everything is in our control (which is existentially terrifying). ISW will also explore the reality that, no matter how skilled we are, things can still happen that we cannot control, which draws into question the point of garnering any skills at all. Are we really better off to be trained? Or are we just telling ourselves a fairytale? But to think we don’t need the skills also seems like a fairytale — what’s right? The last episode of the series will brilliantly explore this question.
7. Peregrine expresses a deep emotional anguish that really hit me when she claims that Jacob would still be alive ‘if Dad had done his job,’ suggesting fathers are “supposed” to, first off, stay around, and second teach their children skills for survival. But is this true or an emotional and not-well-thought-out claim favoring a return to hyper-if-not-toxic masculinity? Are people like me failing as Dads because we don’t teach our kids how to start a fire (I have kids)? Maybe — it’s worth considering. Peregrine then claims that because of Dad ‘I [now] have to wrestle with this fear’ (italics added) — it’s the “this” here I want to focus on, by which I think Peregrine means an “existential situation in which she must always wonder if things could have gone differently.” We all live our lives constantly flirting with the possibility of something happening that becomes a “this,” a thing we could have avoided. Then again, perhaps we couldn’t have done anything differently? Perhaps we could have? Perhaps. Always perhaps. This “perhaps” — I think Peregrine captures here a deep emotional and existential reality that is not expressed often enough in art. Perhaps we can interpret Howl’s ‘I like the quiet’ as a kind of “clearing” and/or “oasis” from this “this?”
8. Howl’s “A Man Who Cannot Be Saved” is a great song, and, as we discover by the end of ISW, the song ultimately proves to perhaps be self-referential, despite the fact Howl possesses incredible survival skills. Can anyone be saved, then? Perhaps with the right relationships, if only we can accept them (which, as suggested by Howl and his relationship with Gerda, we might not always be so able). Between preparedness and vulnerability, is vulnerability better? But isn’t it foolish to be vulnerable? Isn’t it foolish not to be?
9. ‘[Making] an emotional decision at a critical time’ — this is a wonderful idea that will circle back around multiple times in the story. Is Peregrine making this mistake when she decides to do “The Final?” Does Howl do this when he vanishes at the very end? There’s a richness in the idea that we suffer so much trouble when we are emotional at key moment, say when we give into our anger during an exchange with our boss at work or spouse — countless examples could be made. At the same time, how can we not be emotional at key moments? By garnering the right skills? Do skills increase confidence? Maybe they only increase overconfidence? The final episode of ISW suggests it could be the latter, and that “move” is evidence ISW is indeed literature: ISW questions and complexifies its own ideas, and so feels truer to life. This is because life is where certainty is mostly impossible; life is where we can only do our best.
In Strange Woods: A Musical Podcast: Chapter 2 - Dead Reckoning on Apple Podcasts
With new questions rising around Jacob's death Brett joins Howl, Peregrine, and the other four high schoolers in the…
1. Don’t you love how the intro song that starts off each episode leaves out a resolution note? What a smart way to make the listener feel instantly invested in the program…
2. ‘I wanted to know what it’s like to be lost…really lost’ — this is a strong start for the episode, and by the time we finish ISW, we realize how problematic this idealistic and youthful curiosity can prove. And yet if we never undergo this experience and end up lost in the woods, we may lack the skills to survive. Additionally, there is something about modern life that makes us all “lost,” or at least that is how it sometimes feels…
3. The forest is referred to as ‘a thick expanse of greenery that looks terrifyingly the same in every direction’ (brilliant description, by the way — this team is full of so many amazing writers), and ISW does a great job of making the listener feel this horror. I couldn’t help but think about modern life in light of this description (with the loss of “aura”), how every town is increasingly the same collection of franchise stores like McDonalds, Walmart, and son. Considering the work of Charles Taylor in The Secular Age, modern life irons out differences, and we need skills to figure out how to survive in this condition. But do those skills exist? Will they really help?
A Secular Age — Wikipedia
A Secular Age is a book written by the philosopher Charles Taylor which was published in 2007 by Harvard University…
4. ‘Push into the fear until it shatters’ — a powerful and noble idea, but it gets Peregrine into grave trouble toward the end of the story, a situation she arguably wouldn’t have escaped without help from the broader community (suggest the importance of relationships, which require vulnerability). This is why ISW is literature: it presents convincing and powerful ideas, and then questions the very ideas that it puts forth. Great art does not take itself for granted.
5. The ‘Rule of 3’s’ is something writers out there should take note of: for those who have listened to the series, do you remember what constitutes the ‘Rule of 3s?’ I bet you do, because a repeating theme and pattern like this is hard to forget. This method can be used to drive home key story ideas without having to remind the audience constantly.
6. Peregrine laments being “alone” in her songs, but there is at the same time something about wanting to be in the forest that suggests she wants to be “alone” in some way. Alone, we don’t have to worry about being attached to someone we could lose, but it also means we can’t be attached to someone who we wouldn’t want to lose. Which is worse? Perhaps there is something about learning “how to survive when we are alone” that makes us more willing to be vulnerable? Perhaps it’s by facing the loneliness that we can learn how to face loss? Perhaps learning to be alone is how we learn how not to be alone? But that assumes it’s possible for anyone to be really “prepared” for life, and arguably that might not be the case (as the last episode suggests).
7. “I Know This Girl (Preprise 1)” is in the running for the best mother-daughter song out there (it will also be reprised brilliantly in Episode 3). ISW intelligently plays on the idea of “knowing a person,” and how we can think we know someone when we really don’t (really knowing someone else might be an impossible ideal). Frankly, we often don’t want to know the truth about people so that we can form our own personal myths around them, for good and for bad (what Michelle and I call “hole hope”). We can enjoy being “in the dark,” per se.
8. ‘Life is disappointment. / It affects you because you have opposite expectation’ — this line perfectly captures Howl. If you think about it, it’s not as nihilistic as it seems, and that’s the genius of Howl. He seems like he has given up on life, but it’s precisely because he has “given up” on what many people hold onto that life seems to become worth living (or does it?). It’s the expectation that makes life miserable, but if we assume the worst of life and prepare for it, then no expectation will torture us. How can life disappoint us if we expect it to disappoint us? That said, it’s not so clear that it’s “life” which disappoints Howl so much as he ends up disappointing himself because he is not able to keep something “pure” from feeling “stolen” and cheap (his relationship with Gerda). Is that his fault or life’s fault? Perhaps Howl’s life philosophy is just a shell.
9. Howl’s question to Brett on ‘What would you do?’ if you were in a car wreck, etc. is great, because it makes us as the audience start wondering the same thing. What would we do? Are we fools not to be prepared? (Can we ever be prepared?)
10. Howl’s reply to Brett — ‘I was a kid when I was sent to Vietnam […] nobody seemed to think that was inappropriate’ — is amazing and catches the audience off-guard. We can sympathize with Brett’s points about the questionable nature of Howl’s training, but when we hear Howl reply with this, we back down. The reply can also make us reflect on how easily we fall victim to truisms and ideas we absorb without ever thinking about them: we are won over by Brett’s concerns, only to hear Howl’s side and instantly feel persuaded. This first suggests the importance of empathy, interacting with different kinds of people, and “giving people a chance,” but second it also hints at why we probably do need “survival skills” against ourselves. We are carried along by complacency and vague notions we overhear with incredible ease and thoughtlessness, easily lured into comfort and self-deception (suggesting a profound need for radical epistemic training that may ultimately prove never good enough). Howl just asks us to wake up to ourselves, but can we?
11. Howl’s duet with Gerda in “Something So Pure” is one of the best songs of the entire series, and it breaks me. Note how Gerda is a photographer who “frames the world,” per se. Is that the key to being joyful? Learning to “frame and freeze the world” in a way where we can see and appreciate its beauty? Or is that self-deception and a form of denial? Framing a picture is how we display it, but “framing” also “cuts off” a thing from the world. And isn’t there something perverse about being a “war photographer?” Perhaps, but maybe it helps the general public “know the truth?” Yes, but what if the photography is artistic? Could such photography contribute to deception, to thinking war isn’t as bad as it actually is? Perhaps a risk of ISW itself is that it makes the idea of “going to the woods” and learning survival skills sound fun and entertaining when it’s actually very dangerous (suggesting the meaning of ISW and art of ISW are one, as is the case with great works)? Art can run the risk of seeming frivolous, but art might also be necessary if we’re to face reality. Can art present truth without at the same time somehow trivializing it? How?
12. Gerda sings to Howl, ‘Hold still, I see you…Don’t move…’ in a voice is so angelic and beautiful it brings to mind Beatrice from Dante. Please note that this line means “don’t run,” which is what Howl struggles with and ultimately does. As will be expounded on, it is likely that all of us in today world will increasingly feel like Howl, if indeed “The Grand Technology’ is correct…
13. ‘I see you’ — how incredibly moving I found this lyric and its expression. Does Gerda “really know this man” (to allude to the song of Peregrine’s Mom)? Gerda seems caught off-guard when Howl decides to leave, so perhaps she didn’t know him as well as she thought? Also, at the end of ISW, assuming Howl isn’t dead, Howl may forsake this advice “not to move” and instead leaves. But perhaps Howl is leaving to visit Gerda’s grave? Maybe Gerda is still alive? So perhaps Howl is only returning to the spot from where he shouldn’t have moved in the first place? Additionally, is it possible for any of us not to move? We’re always changing, trying to find out way — an illusion of photography is the possibility of stillness. Perhaps this is something Howl feels, and once he feels “the fakeness,” he can’t rejoin the illusion again? He awoke: he cannot fall back to sleep.
14. Hearing Gerda and Howl sing together is a divine treat, and it gets me every time when I hear Gerda sing, ‘Or must I live with this pain for whatever remains of my days?’ The very next line we hear is Howl telling us that ‘She died in Israel’ — a punch to the gut. This is brilliant writing, for it tells us that Gerda’s pain come to an end, and yet it didn’t at all. In Howl, we are then left to ask: Does pain end with death? Did the pain of Gerda’s loss get easier for Howl in finding out she died, or did it get worse? Later on, Howl is praised as someone whom “presses into pain” and helps people “sit in the dark,” which is to say that Howl doesn’t run from pain, but helps people face it. If this is true though, how are we to interpret his leaving of Gerda? Is that running from or to pain? To leave Gerda caused him pain, but it also seems that Gerda brought him pain in making him feel like he was living in a lie. Don’t people seek to be alone and isolated often precisely in order to avoid the pain of others and the world (the pain of vulnerability)? This suggests a special depth to Howl, and frames him as worthy of being called “literary.”
15. Note how Howl says, ‘She had bequeathed me this house, this land.’ Again, for the writers out there, Howl could have said “gave me,” but notice how much is communicated about Howl’s character with “bequeathed.” He feels old and refined, behind the times yet noble. Also, note how Gerda doesn’t say, ‘I love you,’ until the climax when Howl walks out the door. We know they love each other, but this powerful phrase isn’t used until this key moment of tragedy. Powerful writing. ‘No, no, we are not finished yet’ — another example of the same brilliance.
16. Let’s try to paint a sketch of Howl: he’s a survivalist who found Gerda, a vision of “a beautiful life,” who helped him live with his sense that “life is disappointment.” But the ‘peace that we stole’ (italics added) eventually began to feel fake, and living around that fakeness became too much — Howl had to leave. Because of what life had done to Howl, he couldn’t stay around happiness without thinking it was a kind of denial of reality. Also, the very existence of Gerda suggested that perhaps “life wasn’t disappointment,” which would mean Howl perhaps needed to leave to keep his thesis and philosophy of life alive (a “fixed belief,” to allude to Pierce). Perhaps he’s a fool, then? Or perhaps we should feel sympathy for him and his inability to feel that joy could be anything but denial…After all, he did not ask to suffer war.
Howl suggests that it is immoral for Gerda and him to stay together and enjoy happiness, for “life is disappointment,” and if they are not disappointed, then they are cheating on the game of life. In one sense, what Howl is doing seems very foolish and even stubborn, but let’s give the man some credit: how often do we choose how we feel? Do we think that Howl wanted his relationship with Gerda to feel cheap and fake? Or rather did it just start to feel that way, and once it did, the pain of that artificiality became too much for Howl to “play along with” and pretend didn’t exist? It ate at him: perhaps he had to leave. In such a state, if he stayed, Gerda would have just been hurt. In this way, leaving could have been loving.
Howl did not want to be involved with war (even if he chose to enlist, for he did not want his family’s company to be involved in warfare, as we later learn), but once Howl was involved, it rocked his world and made it difficult for him to believe in anything pure and beautiful. It reminds me of Christians who experience something truly evil in their lives, who even though they know the theological answers to the problems of evil, now that the problem has become an emotional one, they just can’t “feel” like God exists or that it even matters if God does. Sure, they know there are still intellectual and theological arguments for why God could be out there, but the arguments cease to feel compelling and binding. Gradually, due to a horrible event the believers didn’t ask for, they lose their emotional connection to God, which makes it hard for them to keep believing. This could be especially tragic if the only hope the person has for ever seeing a lost loved one again is thanks to the existence of something like heaven.
Howl knows his relationship with Gerda is beautiful and pure, but it seems he just can’t feel it. If we suffered that emotional state, we might leave too: the pain of the fakeness and shallowness could easily drive anyone to make similar decisions as Howl, after which it would make sense to be isolated, to just get by with basic survival — a hard life, but a life that could be trusted. Pain can be trusted, yes?
17. Note how the narrator, Brett, is increasingly wrapped up in the story personally. Often, when I listen to “true crime” podcasts, I always find it weird how the narrator maintains a distance from everything that is going on. It feels strange, cruel even. ISW brilliantly upsets that expectation, and as Pink Ninja 236 notes, Brett Ryback is increasingly part of more songs as his personal involvement in the musical increases. Note also how the narrator’s name is the same as the actual person playing his part — brilliantly suggesting how the character closes the gap between art and reality.
18. The title, “Dead Reckoning,” is important: it refers to our ability to find our way and save ourselves from getting lost by paying attention to the lay of the land. For me, embedded in this title is a tragic irony here. Howl perhaps believes that he is “being realistic” to view his relationship with Gerda as shallow and fake, and once he sees “the lay of the land,” he knows what needs to be done, and he leaves. But is his interpretation about “life as disappointment” correct?
“Dead Reckoning” is supposed to be our reliable guide, but if we use it wrongly, it can make us feel more lost while we think we are going in the right direction (as discussed later in ISW). This is an incredible idea with tragic implications, for Howl believes he is being “realistic” when he leaves Gerda, but he might just be getting himself lost. He tries to “reckon with death” in the world and perhaps uses “dead reckoning” to travel the wrong way. “Going in the right direction” could be losing everything.
If we believe “life is disappointment,” then if (we get lost and) live a disappointing life, we are using “dead reckoning” correctly. That’s the tragedy, which suggests we shouldn’t want to use “dead reckoning: if life really is disappointment, for using it will keep us unhappy. But if we “know” we are misusing “dead reckoning,” we will know we are being fake, and then it will be too late to go back — this is what seems to happen to Howl. Once he learns the truth of the world, it’s too late, and “dead reckoning” can only get him lost (because the world is lost, which in a sense means he isn’t lost at all). The only hope is to use “dead reckoning” incorrectly, but he would know he was doing that and living a lie. It’s too late for him. He can’t un-see what he’s seen.
19. The final solo line Gerda sings is, ‘Will you ever come find me?’ The next part of the song is sung simultaneous, suggesting Howl does find her, but on terms of “pain” (‘Or must I live with this pain…’). But when ISW comes to an end, it is suggested that Howl might try to “find her” on different terms…
In Strange Woods: A Musical Podcast: Chapter 3 - Alone on Apple Podcasts
As relationships continue to fracture, everyone gathers for the annual New Year's Eve "turkey drop", where an…
1. The thesis put forward by Pink Ninja 236 that the narrator is more involved musically as he is more involved personally is provided evidence by the opening.
2. Peregrine’s mother tells us something that I feel captures the spirit of the age well: ‘I just…I just sometimes I feel like I’ve lost faith in my ability to know what to do.’ Surrounded by diverse and Pluralistic views, countless career occupations, endless and opinionated voices — it’s just hard to know how to act and what to believe. We don’t want people we love to hurt, but we also want them to be prepared. We want the people around us to have a chance to discover themselves, but we also don’t want something to happen from which we cannot come back. What’s right?
3. The tension of Peregrine’s uncle believing he must be the disciplinarian because no one else will be is I think a widespread situation. There is no hard rule for what constitutes “too hard” versus “too soft” as a guardian — we can only guess. But there’s an irony here, because people want to be disciplinarians without themselves knowing “tough” survival skills like Howl. It’s interesting that Howl doesn’t seem to think he needs to be a disciplinarian, almost as if the skills themselves — and the obstacles that must be overcome to learn the skills — teach discipline on their own. Perhaps a problem with the world today is that we are trying to “discipline one another” versus force ourselves to encounter life on terms that would lead to discipline?
4. The twist of the bear at the party is a great way to push the story forward and make the town put faith in Peregrine and her team. We can expect Howl to appear and save the day, but once the bear shows up, the function of the turkey drop in the story is clear, and it provides a realistic way for the young team to show off what they’ve learned.
5. Do we believe Howl not showing up to help against the bear is evidence of neglect or evidence of trust? Sure, he easily had no idea what was going on (though the story suggests there’s more to the bear than we think), but assuming for a moment that Howl did, did Howl do the right thing in letting the children fend off the bear themselves? Perhaps had Howl not prepared them, then his absence would be cruel, but in having prepared them, perhaps Howl was the only one who really “took care of” the kids (and also gave them a chance to “prove themselves” and build confidence). The other adults at “the turkey drop” didn’t know what to do — it’s not like they could have helped — whereas Howl, even if in his absence, was there in the skills the children used and displayed. This complexifies the meaning of what it means to “be there” for someone, and in this way arguably Howl was more “there” than even the onlooking parents. Are we ever really “there” for someone who we don’t prepare for life? And can we ever be “there” for people we can’t prepare? But ultimately the desire to “be prepared for life” can be precisely why we are never around or “there” with people, say in the example of isolationist Howl. Preparing people might be the only way to be “there” for them, and yet preparation might be also what drives us away.
6. ‘The bear just wanted to get the turkey, obviously, but the dog kept charging at him […] It was this…cycle that wasn’t just going to end unless we [the kids] did something’ — this great dialogue from Eric could be read as suggesting that, without the right skills, the cycles of accidents and pain will continue indefinitely. Similarly, we could read into the line an idea that until we garner the ability to navigate “modern life,” the cycles of anger and tribalism that define modern politics will only worsen. Something must be done differently, but what?
Also, the “back and forth” between the parents and the kids, where the parents fought against the desire of the kids to learn from Howl, and the hunger of the kids to prove themselves, also couldn’t end until “something changed.” No parent would intentionally submit their children to a situation where they had to fend off a bear, and yet there’s a real sense that the children were fortunate in have the bear show up, for it gave the kids an opportunity to prove themselves and “end the cycle” in ways that otherwise would have been crazy, careless, etc. to take on. Considering this, “being prepared” shows its importance in another keyway: when crazy situations arise which could lead to horrible trouble, those situations can be transformed into “great victories.” Because of the bear incident, the whole town’s perception of “The Finale,” Howl, the children — everything changed, highlighting how “being prepared” can payoff. Arguably, without extremely risky situations, “cycles” which we find ourselves stuck in will prove inescapable, and yet there’s also something crazy about doing what needs to be done to escape these cycles. We need the situations to surprise us, just like the bear, and yet car wrecks and accidents which ruin lives are also surprises.
7. The song sung by Peregrine’s mother (Kathy) is stunning, one of the best “coming of age” songs around. ‘I know this girl,’ her mother sings excitedly, after earlier in the series lamenting that she didn’t — a beautiful and redemptive move in the story. The mother claims that she didn’t fail as a mother, that her daughter is fearless and free. But suddenly there’s a moment in the song where Peregrine and the team seem to lose control of the bear, and suddenly Kathy’s sentiments feel foolish and naïve, suggesting how fragile and truly risky the “surprise situations” are in which we can prove ourselves. Fortunately though, the kids are able to take control of the situation again, and Peregrine’s mother can resume her song.
However, is Peregrine’s mother taking more credit here than she should? She claims she gave Peregrine the tools, but did she? The beauty and hope of the song makes this seem unquestionable, but that’s another example of how great literature works. Wasn’t Howl the one who helped Peregrine prepare for life? If Peregrine’s mother can take credit for what Howl made possible, Howl can be seen as a martyr. This might also help us sympathize with Howl’s preference to be isolated: people can reject you for who you are, but because of the way you are, you’re able to help people in ways that then those very people don’t appreciate was thanks to you and your way of doing things.
8. Peregrine’s mother sings about Peregrine that ‘She was fearless and free,’ suggesting that we aren’t free unless we are fearless. Howl might know this, aware that we can’t “be free” unless we are “prepared,” but if indeed “preparation” helps us avoid “vulnerability,” and “vulnerability” is necessary for relationships, is there a sense in which relationships threaten freedom? The children indeed seem “trapped” by their parents, but the parents also seem “trapped” worrying about their children, and if something happens to someone, everyone is devastated, perhaps for life. Fear and freedom seem to be opposites, but Howl is arguably the freest character in the story, and yet do we want to live like him? Perhaps the answer is learning to be fearless in relationships, but that would require the people with whom we relate to be fearless too (if everyone is to feel free), and why should they not be worried about us unless they see us fight off a bear or something? And there we have another “cycle” which cannot end until we are surprised by a situation which could ruin our lives…
9. The episode ends suggesting that the bear event was staged, perhaps by Howl to give the kids a chance to show off what they learned to the town, perhaps by Peregrine — who knows. This is narratively an “open question” skillfully woven into ISW that could be addressed in another season (personally, the hanging thread reminds me of Lost’s famous polar bear). Did Howl know the kids needed a chance to prove they were prepared to end all the “cycles” and “back and forth” the town was stuck in? Perhaps.
In Strange Woods: A Musical Podcast: Chapter 4 - The Man I Remember on Apple Podcasts
A trip to Boston sheds light on Howl's past, bringing even more questions, as a storm threatens everything back in…
1. The episode starts with a phone call where we learn “PJ” is another name for Howl, which is a great way to hook our interest: it suggests Howl lived “another life” before he moved into the woods. ‘I don’t know what [a podcast] is,’ Howl’s cousin (Sandra) tells us, which is pretty hilarious and instantly helps us identify what kind of character she is — another move writers should note (Sandra is built quickly while the conversation remains natural).
2. Generally, we all want to know if we “have what it takes,” and Peregrine embodies that spirit beautifully. She sings ‘If you feel you’ve lost your stride […] Stay clear. Stay clear.’ This suggests the state of mind needed to overcome obstacles, and when we learn that Howl chose to enlist for Vietnam, we can start to think that Howl and Peregrine might be more similar than it originally seemed. Did Howl allow Peregrine into his life because he saw himself in her?
At the same time, isn’t part of the problem with Sandra and her family that they “stayed clear” as they profited off of war? They would have ‘lost their stride’ if they started questioning the ethics of what they did, which is exactly what happened to Howl (and drove him to perhaps doing something terrible). Corporations today will let ‘principles […] be [their] guide’ and stay focused on what benefits shareholders, all while they destroy the environment or worsen inequality. How do we know which principles to stick to, and how do we know when our “staying clear” is actually “self-deception?” These are big questions ISW encourages us to ask, and perhaps the answer has something to do with facing and overcoming ‘a critical time’ in a non-emotional way (alluding to a phrase which circles back around throughout the series). Perhaps there’s a big difference between principles earned through ‘a critical time’ and principles used to justify the status quo?
3. Sandra is a collector, which is brilliant, because people who suffer trauma tend to hoard, as do people who are poor. What’s interesting is that the rich like to collect as well, suggesting the rich might be “poorer” in ways different from the financially poor. Sandra also contrasts with Peregrine in that she does not want to lose anything, where Peregrine has lost a brother she can never get back. At the same time, Peregrine seems to be training precisely in order to assure that she never loses anyone again, or perhaps so that she doesn’t die in an accident and have her mother bear her loss. This was a dimension to Peregrine’s motive that dawned on me as the story progressed: Peregrine really loves her Mom, so maybe Peregrine just wants to make sure she never dies like Jacob did so that her Mom won’t have to bear more pain. Paradoxically, Peregrine pursuing her interests causes hardship for her Mom, which would mean that for the sake of protecting her Mom, Peregrine hurts her. As we cannot learn survival skills without exercising and “hurting all over,” perhaps we can’t survive life without sometimes “hurting inside?”
4. Sandra has arguably lost a family member just like Peregrine, but who is worse off? Sandra, whose family member is still alive but estranged, or Peregrine, whose brother is no longer alive? Sandra’s loss is more emotional, a matter of relationship, while Peregrine’s loss is more physical, a matter of fact. ISW has played continually on the question of the difference and difficulty of emotional versus physical challenges, and here between Sandra and Peregrine we see that question arise again.
5. Sandra doesn’t want to lose “the happy times,” but we have to wonder (as a song in the background plays about “happy times”) if such days were only made possible thanks to the suffering of others. This points back to Howl’s inability to be with Gerda, because he felt like their happiness was ‘soulless and cold.’ While Howl cannot stay in the “fakeness,” Sandra would do anything to return to it.
6. Note how the little detail where the vinyl player doesn’t ‘work […] the first time’ adds so much to the character of Sandra and the atmosphere of her home. Additionally, Sandra keeps all “the good memories” on the upper floor of her house, while all the memories she wants to forget are kept downstairs, suggesting how memories aren’t as “objective” as we like to think (they’re structured to our benefit, though we can make mistakes, just like Sandra leaving out the picture of Howl which Brett finds). When we think of the past, trying to think of “the happy times,” it often doesn’t work for us, because what we remember first is the pain. We then quickly fix the situation and start remembering “the happy times” again, just like Sandra fixing the vinyl player.
7. As memories are “structured” by us as we like or see fit, so too our understandings of people are similarly “structured”: Brett had a certain idea of the kind of person Howl was (as did we in the audience), only to have Sandra deconstruct that idea. “What we think” and “what is the case” are often radically different, and yet all we know is “what we think.” But if that’s true, how can anyone be prepared?
8. ‘Hold on to happy, happy times!’ — this describes Sandra’s life, her desperate effort to “hold on,” while Howl gave up Gerda.
9. Another amazing detail is how the record playing the “happy times”-song gets stuck on the last, “resolution note.” This suggests Sandra simply cannot tie her “life story” into a nice package with a nice bow. This is also suggested by how Sandra has become obsessed with her “family tree” but seemingly not her “family roots.”
10. The variety of music genres featured in ISW is stunning…
11. Howl wanted to use rocket fuel, assumedly to explore space, to explore an unknown country (perhaps like Peregrine), but the fuel was instead used for weapons of war, to end lives. This is too much for Howl to take, and I wonder if a similar feeling dawns on Peregrine in the final episode when she is alone in the wilderness, a place where she perhaps journeyed to learn skills for the sake of assuring her Mother didn’t suffer another unexpected death, only to find herself on the verge of dying and causing her Mom suffering.
12. “There’s Nothing Like A War” impressively blends in its lyrics “a war between nations” with “a war that emerges in the family” (‘Bang! Kaboom! The fights they had […]!’). For me, a theme in ISW has been that we cannot draw hard lines between our “family lives” and our “outside-the-family lives,” that what we do on our own influences how much people worry about us, which shapes how free we feel, and so on. We simply can’t “keep things in the family,” as arguably Sandra attempts to do metaphorically by keeping certain secrets “in the basement” while “putting on her best face” upstairs. We must learn to live both inside and outside the family: we cannot separate them.
13. Howl’s parents are destroyed by the death of their twins, and yet the family profits off war. Surely their weapons killed twins somewhere in the world, yes? Also, the children who died are called “Charity” and “Mercy,” suggesting that charity and mercy died inside of Howl with his sisters.
14. Sandra’s song, “In the Dark with Him,” is gut-wrenching and powerful. In my opinion, the key lyric in the work is “in the dark with him,” which is loaded phrase. When we are “in the dark,” we can be ignorant and oblivious (and do note that basically all of us are “in the dark” about the difficulties and hardships of life, as Howl has reminded us throughout the series). Brett sings in a way that suggests he puts hope in Howl, and he is arguably able to do this because he doesn’t know the full story about Howl (as Sandra will soon unveil). In this way, ignorance and hope can go together, which works well enough until truth bursts in. Likewise, we can have hope in our abilities to handle dramatic and tough situations like car wrecks and “bears showing up” (to allude to Episode 3), until those “surprise situations” actually happen, and then our “hope” can be shattered. Unless, perhaps, we’re prepared…
“Darkness” represents the difficulties in life we need to learn to ‘push through,’ but ‘push[ing] through’ ignorance can mean finding truth, which takes the darkness away. In this way, we can’t “stay in the darkness” but so long without eventually losing it, but perhaps being aware of this and “staying in the darkness” all the same is part of what it means to accept it?
15. Howl attracts people because he teaches them to “live with the pain,” but maybe this is just a projection made possible because of the “darkness” and ignorance which surrounds him (‘the trick he plays,’ as Sandra puts it)? Perhaps Howl rather causes pain? Also, there is something strange about the idea of ‘soothing despair’ — is Brett being idealistic? Perhaps by the end of ISW, Howl realizes that despair was never soothing, thus why he might have left?
16. When we are “in the dark” about something, we can feel there is ‘[n]o room for doubt’ in our understanding of it, and yet we can be entirely wrong. The more we realize this, the harder it can become ‘to know what to do.’ Is hope only possible when we don’t doubt in this world where ignorance seems unavoidable, where perhaps we should doubt? If hope is necessary, does that mean irrationality is necessary too?
17. To learn survival skills, it’s likely we must choose not to be “in the dark” about the difficulties of life. How tempting it is then to remain ignorant, but that means we won’t be prepared. Is pain good?
18. The part where Brett sings, ‘No, there’s nothing can break through,’ and then Sandra interrupts him harshly with, ‘Brett!” is another example of genius writing. This also teaches us through “showing versus telling” that we should take with a grain of salt what we are told by the characters in the story, that ironies and contradictions could be operating beneath the surface.
19. ‘Now you’ll see the real collection’ (italics added) — Sandra says this as they descend into the basement, another example of perfect dialogue. Indeed, what we keep “under the surface” is often reality, as reality entails the “surprise and critical situations” which can ruin our lives. We are guilty of avoiding what we don’t like to think about.
20. Note that Sandra and Brett are “in the darkness” when they enter the basement, for it is indeed dark down there. They have “descended into it” versus sat around a fire in a blanket, and as a result of “moving deeper into it” (as Brett sung about), they discover a disturbing truth about Howl. Does this mean Brett was idealizing Howl? What about us? We’re we ‘in the dark with [Brett]’ — a darkness of ignorance that has now been replaced by “a dark revelation?” “The darkness of ignorance” and “the darkness of hard truth and pain” are not the same — which “darkness” do we want to sit in and sing about?
21. Sandra loved and cherished the memories upstairs, but downstairs she is irritable and upset. Not everything we collect is precious. Also, note what Brett says when they descend: ‘Here in the darkness, the cold, damp Boston winter can’t be kept out.’ Symbolically, the basement and woods are blended together. To really go into our memories, perhaps we need survival skills just like we need for the woods.
22. ‘The tiny little cracks’ — do all of us have these? Every person, family, town, and country?
23. The episode leaves us wondering if we were “in the dark” the whole time about Howl in our very feeling of knowing him. This is the opposite of Peregrine’s mother, who claims, ‘I know this girl,’ while standing to the side and watching Peregrine deal with the bear (Episode 3). If Peregrine’s Mom was actually down there, helping fight off the bear and being shouted at by Peregrine with orders, her Mom might not be so confident of her assessment. Brett basically sang, “I know Howl” before he descended into the basement: he was not able to “stay on the outskirts” like was Peregrine’s Mom. Does this suggest the feeling of “knowing someone” is evidence of not knowing them at all? Are we always fooling ourselves?
24. Howl followed his principles, and people died. Hannah Arendt’s wrote on “the banality of evil,” and I wonder if Howl guilty of that “thoughtlessness” here? This is suggested by how Peregrine’s singing about, ‘If you feel you’ve lost your stride, principles can be your guide […] Stay clear.’ This is exactly what Howl did, and it arguably lead to a murderous disaster. Is there a difference between letting people die “on principle” versus letting people die “for business?” Is Howl really any better than his father? Again, ISW is literature: it complexifies and ironizing its ideas and themes throughout. The answer isn’t simply “sticking to our guns” (note the pun): navigating Modernity isn’t so simple.
In Strange Woods: A Musical Podcast: Chapter 5 - The Final on Apple Podcasts
Series Finale. The teens embark on The Final and the lives of Whitetail are changed forever. In Strange Woods is a…
1. The final episode starts with a great move by the writers: the flight is delayed, and Brett arrives back from Sandra’s too late to see the opening ceremony. By doing this, the writers start the episode off with a feeling that “it’s already too late,” that “time is running out.”
2. This episode will mix in and incorporate a lot of the old songs from previous episodes, which makes it feel both climatic, nostalgic, new, and final.
3. Brett’s commentary suggested that Howl’s training should have assured that the kids were fine. ‘But hope can be like a cloud,’ Brett warns, ‘blocking out better judgment, liable to break at any moment.’ This is a great and ironic description, because it is the clouds which roll in and bring the snow, complexifying “The Final.” Thus, metaphorically, this suggests that “hope can get us into trouble,” just like the hopes of the children in themselves perhaps got them into trouble. Considering this, perhaps “efforts to be prepared” are always just an illusion — no one can really be prepared for what life brings. Life is always “a strange woods” and always stranger than we think.
4. ‘This is harder than I thought it would be,’ Peregrine admits to thinking, then lamenting, ‘it hit me how stupid of an idea this was.’ This brings to mind what her Mom said about not knowing what to think anymore (Episode 3), and we as an audience also begin to feel that “The Final” was a stupid idea. We were so excited for the kids to prove themselves, excited like the town became about “The Final,” and now we all feel foolish, like we weren’t seeing the situation clearly. Episode 4 with Sandra unveiled to us that we never really “saw” Howl, and now it feels like we never “saw” what the children were planning to do. Can we see anything clearly? Can any of us really ‘stay clear’ and that “clearness” not be some form of self-deception?
5. The song “A Man Who Cannot Be Saved” starts to play in our minds…Children who cannot be saved…
6. The town races out to help and find the children, but it’s not clear if this is noble or foolish of them. The situation could easily get worse if the town gets lost and finds themselves in trouble. The snow mobiles don’t work. The men don’t have any skills. The walking seems endless. Everything Howl warned about manifests, but what should everyone have done? Nothing? Relationships which mean something, anything at all, won’t allow nonaction (thus suggesting a way by which relationships can make us vulnerable…). It’s easy to prefer trying and being foolish than not trying and living with the knowledge we waited.
7. Peregrine’s reprise of her early song, where she laments, ‘I left them alone, alone, alone […] trapped in my disaster,’ is genius. She feels guilty for what she has submitted the other kids too, an entire scenario she created out of despair for her brother’s loss. Did Howl put all the children in this situation ultimately due to his despair involving Gerda? Do we all tend to drag other people into our despair? Can we avoid “strange woods,” and can we ever avoid pulling people into the “strange woods” of ourselves?
8. Peregrine manages to ‘[find] the clearing,’ but ‘no one was there.’ This brings to mind the lyric ‘stay clear,’ which was overlaid in the last episode with “sticking to principles,” which in Howl’s case seems to have gotten people killed. The place where we can ‘stay clear’ seems to involve “clearing out other people,” a place where we avoid relationships and vulnerability so that we can survive. Where we ‘stay clear’ also is where we can just stick to what we believe and not ask any questions, but that can be taken so far that we don’t merely avoid other people, but actively let them perish (as suggested by Howl). So far, ISW has suggested that we associate “clearing” with “avoiding people,” but that idea will be inversed (as great art often does) in one of its final tracks.
9. The endless, level sameness of the snow recalls the trees earlier in ISW, when the woods were described as endless and repetitive. There is indeed something horrible about all that “sameness,” as can be the case with modern life.
10. ‘It feels like when you can’t shake off a nightmare, like all day. I mean you’re so sure you’re heading in one direction, and then you see the same group of trees that you passed an hour before. Your brain starts to overload, shut down. It’s terrible.’ — This dialogue from Peregrine I found particularly well-crafted.
11. The fact that a wolf ultimately saves the children by leading them to water suggests that there is something about danger which can “guide us.” A theme in ISW has been people “not knowing what to do,” and there have been episodes where danger has provided clarity (say how the bear incident helped the town know they should trust the kids and let them do “The Final”). Similarly, the prospect of facing danger and learning self-sufficiently helped Peregrine know what to do after her brother died. Is there a difference between how danger teaches us to ‘stay clear’ and how principles and/or “thoughtlessness” do so (as explored in Episode 4)? But doesn’t danger in other circumstances confuse and overwhelm?
12. When Peregrine is worried about never finding Eric, the overlay of the song lyric, ‘I’ll probably always think about it,” from Episode 1, was yet another example of genius. It really made the audience feel that Peregrine’s decision to do “The Final,” to learn from her brother’s death, would precisely cause the tragedy to repeat — a brilliant and literary move.
13. ‘Yeah, well, good intentions don’t just take away responsibility. That’s not how it works’ — Excellent dialogue from Peregrine, as was the next part where Brett, the “objective narrator,” is pulled into being held responsible for what happened. Didn’t we as the audience want “The Final” to happen too? Aren’t we responsible?
14. ‘When you comfort a grieving friend, you tell them that whatever happened, it’s not their fault. No matter the specifics, no matter what your logic-brain wants to say. I think it’s a self-defense mechanism. For the next time you’re the one grieving. Your body stores those comforting words away as a salve to apply whenever you wonder if you could have called more, could have been with them that night, could have prompted them to keep their eyes on the road.’ — Yet another extraordinary reflection, this time from Brett.
15. The way the kids find one another, meet up with the town, the twists and turns on who lives and who dies — all brilliant writing. The man who ultimately ‘cannot be saved’ surprises us all…
16. I really appreciate the exploration of the dilemma between honoring a person’s memory and “moving on.” Nobody tells us how to square that circle…
17. The song, “In a Clearing,” is beautiful, and it responds wonderfully to Howl’s story and the song from Episode 2, “Something So Pure.” Howl left Gerda because the joy and happiness felt fake and stolen, and here, Brett sings, reflecting on loss, ‘Something good never stays feeling good.’ In reply to what goodness feels like, Peregrine sings that it feels like ‘[t]ricking your brain to believe that the pain won’t come back again…It comes back again…’ In this song, we are seemingly given words to understand how Howl felt and why he left Gerda: Howl’s happiness felt like ‘tricking [his] brain.’ Isn’t that what happiness often feels like in the world today? As Covid rages, as violence spreads, as nations rage — doesn’t happiness feel like a trick? What is the right response? Well, ISW suggests it has something to do with people, as suggested by how Peregrine and her Mom come together in the end and what may have happened with Howl, but that road has been hard earned and proven difficult to travel. Are we prepared for it? How can we be?
18. Peregrine heads off to college in the final episode, and most of us associate college with “preparing for life.” After Peregrine’s adventure in the woods, and all her training which ultimately proved helpful but arguably “not enough” in the final exercise, we’re left to ask if college really prepares us for life either? With the 2008 financial crisis, collapsing political discourse — is preparation ever really possible? Or is life just too complex and random? This is something I’m left wondering at the end of ISW, which makes me think about how life might be more about cultivating relationships than it is being prepared for what might happen next. No, that doesn’t mean we should be careless and fatalistic, but it does mean we need to get our priorities straight. If we sacrifice our relationships to be prepared (as arguably Howl might represent in his pain), then we sacrifice what matters for preparation we can never do well enough (to really be ready for everything life can throw at us). But that doesn’t mean that the people we love will always be in danger? Doesn’t that mean we will always be vulnerable to suffering the pain Howl underwent?
19. ‘Where will you go?’ — Gerda sang.
In Strange Woods: A Musical Podcast on Apple Podcasts
A new podcast musical from the producer of The Bright Sessions and creators Jeff Luppino-Esposito, Brett Ryback, and…
A year after In Strange Woods came out, I find myself still amazed by it. New details I missed, new subtle plays on words, new multiple meanings — like all great works, revisiting In Strange Woods feels like visiting it for the first time. If I was forced to focus in on a single question that ISW leaves me asking though, an overarching idea, I think I might say the following:
“Is it better to be prepared or to be vulnerable?”
The point of being prepared is to avoid hurt, but if we’re to avoid ever being vulnerable, we’d have to avoid people. Each one of us is trapped in a “pressure cooker” of ourselves, dealing with thoughts that rush through our minds before we have a chance to stop them, dealing with feelings that come and go for no reason at all — sometimes, it can feel like we ourselves are “strange woods” that we’re lost inside. How do we navigate our feelings? How do we know what to think? It can feel like the greatest challenge in the world, and if we invite people into our lives, then we must deal with their problems, feelings, thoughts, and emotions too, all of which can cause us to lose a hold on whatever stability we manage in ourselves. Worse yet, if we start to care about other people, and something happens to them — could we ever recover? The thoughts, feelings, and experiences we’d have to go through then —the “this” mentioned in Episode 1 with Peregrine — how could we ever survive? Perhaps it’s best simply to escape civilization and isolate ourselves? Alone, we could work to get a grip on ourselves, and if we accomplished that, we’d be good to go. Alone, our accomplishment of “self-discipline” couldn’t be taken from us. We would be alone, but we wouldn’t lost. Is this the best way to live? Is this the best response to pain?
None of us can be prepared for everything life can throw at us (as 2020 taught), and none of us really understand how dark humanity can be, especially at “critical times.” We intellectually know about the horrors of war, for example, but how many of us have actually suffered those horrors, especially in suburbia America? Very few, I believe, and so it can be difficult for us to understand Howl’s position: it can seem obvious to us that life needs people and relationships to really feel full and alive. But Howl saw the horrors of what humanity was capable of, and Howl couldn’t help but feel like happiness was a kind of denial of what humanity could do to itself. Howl saw with his own eyes how lost humanity was, all while humanity felt to itself like it was going in the right direction. For Howl, the “dead reckoning” humanity orientated and directed itself according to was anything but a “reckoning with death.” Humanity never learned how to be guided by death, while Howl learned to take death seriously and avoid it. Humanity only ever caused it.
But then Howl met Peregrine, a girl who wanted to learn what he knew and follow in his footsteps. Howl taught her and her friends what he could, sympathizing with their plight. Society didn’t teach the kids how to survive; society left their lives up to chance. Howl would not be so inconsiderate, but at the same time his relationship with the children brought the townspeople to his doorstep. Rumors spread. Suspicion was high. Howl paid a price to open his door to the world again — was it worth it?
Each one of us is “a strange woods,” and the world we are each in is “a strange woods” too, especially in our modern age with tribalism, conspiracies, Covid, and more. It feels like the world could snap at any moment, which begs the question: Should we each begin learning survival skills, stocking up on supplies, and learning self-sufficiency? Should we start preparing for a coming collapse? But if we do so prepare, our friends and family will know, and if the world indeed breaks, they will come knocking on our door for help. People will start taking an interest in us, just like everyone started taking an interest in Howl. If we have relationships, there’s likely no way to avoid this fate. Should then we cut all ties with the outside world? When things hit the fan, if we have a soul at all, there’s no way we’ll be able to leave people helpless who we care about. We’ll surely have to do something, but then those people might slow us down. In this way, the only way to be truly prepared for the worst of the worst is to arguably be utterly alone and isolated. Is this what we should do? Is this the best way to survive “the strange woods” of life? Alone?
It can seem like we don’t have to choose between “preparedness” and “vulnerability,” but the starkness of the choice becomes clear the more extreme the situation life throws at us, and if we’re not prepared for everything life could send our way, are we prepared at all? This is the question we each must ask ourselves, with Howl seeming to be one of the few people who actually takes the question seriously. Should we all become like him? Well, perhaps, but what would that mean, exactly? The Howl we meet at the start of In Strange Woods is not the Howl we meet at the end. By the end of the story, Howl is gone.
Howl may have died on his way back from dropping the children off for “The Finale”; then again, Howl may have left to find Gerda. We don’t know, but I think it’s fair to say that something changed in Howl from his interactions with Peregrine and the others. He found relationships again, and he learned what it meant to be vulnerable. Did Peregrine teach Howl that he was wrong? Did Peregrine teach Howl that he needed to give the world another chance, that he needed to explore “the strange woods” of people again? Howl could end up lost in people, yes, and he knew what humanity could do to itself — did he really want to face all of that again? Maybe. Maybe Howl shows us that making ourselves vulnerable to others and their suffering is worth the pain. Then again, maybe Howl simply died in the woods during that winter storm, showing us that none of us can ultimately be prepared for nature. Perhaps Howl perished because he lacked relationships, while Peregrine and the children survived because of their relationships with the town, the town who came to save them. In this way, perhaps the “divide” between preparation and vulnerability is not so thick: perhaps we are prepared for life precisely because we make ourselves vulnerable in relating with others. Perhaps it is the invulnerable who not prepared for life?
As Howl leaves, Gerda begs, ‘Don’t go, Peter…Stay here, I love you…Don’t go…’ We have been told by Howl that ‘When Gerda invites you, you go,’ but Howl walked away from her invitation to love that day. But in the end, maybe he didn’t deny Gerda’s invitation — he loved her. Whether Howl perished in the woods or not that winter night, we are free to wonder: Did Howl eventually accept that invitation he couldn’t deny? Did he die in those “strange woods” he knew so well, or did he decide to venture into stranger ones?
How about us?
What did we learn?
In closing, “staying clear” has been complexified throughout ISW, sometimes delineated as positive and other times delineated as problematic. Howl “stayed clear” of civilization, and he “stayed clear” in his mind when he stuck to his principles and said nothing about the damaged barrels. Peregrine “stayed clear” in her commitment to “The Final,” only to go out into the woods and realize it was a foolish idea. Is it good to “know what to think,” then? The alternative seems problematic too, which we see in Peregrine’s Mom when she says, ‘I’ve lost faith in my ability to know what to do.’ The Modern world as a whole feels like it’s undergoing a similar sentiment — what in the world is right?
The final new track, “In A Clearing,” offers us an answer: softly, we hear the lyric, ‘What if right now, with loved ones around, we decided to let some light in?’ And then a key inversion is introduced: ‘We’d be stronger the next time a blizzard begins’ (italics added). The idea that we must choose between “relationships” and “preparedness” is thus deconstructed: vulnerability makes us stronger. ‘In a clearing, in a clearing, in a break from the trees, in the arms of someone’ — for all of ISW, we’ve been made to feel that we must choose between relationships and being prepared for life, but in the end it turns out that we can only be prepared for life with help and love from others: the thematic dilemma of ISW is brilliantly and beautifully resolved. In life, the answer is not to “be clear” of others, but to “be in a clearing” with them. We cannot see through the trees, and the ‘chaos of clouds’ overhead is not the answer — these symbols of hope are neither clearly good nor bad — rather, it is ‘the arms of someone’ to which we should look, for it is there that we ‘can feel a little touch of the sun.’ With others, we learn that surviving is not living if we do it alone.
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