[There are major spoilers in this cave. Beware.]
One of the impressive aspects of Neil Gaiman’s works is how he weaves magical stories that are relevant, cautionary tales for our own time. Recently, I read The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains: A Tale of Travel and Darkness with Pictures of All Kinds and noticed similar themes to The Ocean at the End of the Lane about the dangers of money and craving. I discussed this theme briefly in my post from last year.
The plot of Gaiman’s story begins with the unnamed protagonist finding a guide, Calum MacInnes, to take him to a cave on Misty Isle. People seek the cave because it contains gold, although gold is ultimately not what the protagonist wants. Calum used the money from his previous trip in the cave as a bride-price and for his farm. The locals can find the cave, too, but they know better than to enter it. Calum states, “[b]ut they are too wise to come here, to take its gold. They say that the cave makes you evil: that each time you visit it, each time you enter to take gold, it eats the good in your soul, so they do not enter (46). However, Calum doesn’t believe that the cave feeds on good and evil. Rather, he feels that his experience afterwards was that “things are flat. There is less beauty in a rainbow, less meaning in a sermon, less joy in a kiss…”(47). Calum notes that eventually nothing means anything, not even killing a man.
Gaiman drives the point home by revealing that Calum is the one whose lack of care and negligent actions lead to the death of the protagonist’s daughter. He chose to leave her tied to a tree by her long, red hair, unable to reach her knife. She died there. This was over the fact the Calum was stealing the cattle that the protagonist himself had stolen, and the young woman stood up to Calum. When Calum returned in a year, he realized what he had done. He says to the protagonist, “It was an evil thing I did, perhaps.” The protagonist, the dead girl’s father, says, “There is evil.” Calum’s love of wealth led to the death of a human being.
It is revealed later that money in the cave is not exactly money. The protagonist’s father was not a mortal, and his heritage allows him the ability to see the creature living the cave. It explains to him: “I taste their pleasure and their joy. I feed, a little, feed on what they do not need and do not value. A taste of heart, a lick and a nibble of their fine consciences, a sliver of soul” (56). The creature provides the protagonist with a weapon and informs him of when Calum sleeps since Calum intends to ambush the protagonist when he emerges with the gold.
Calum and the protagonist fight, and they fall over a cliff onto a tree. The protagonist makes a promise to come back to help—in a year. This parallels the year that Calum left the girl to tie through his negligence and thievery. In his narration, the protagonist states, “I take no joy in killing; no man should, and no woman. Sometimes, death is necessary , but it is always an evil thing. That is something I am in no doubt of, even after the events I speak of here” (38).
This tale reflected a great deal on money, property, alienation, and evil. In many societies, people are taught the ideology that money is both Real and Important, when it is really just a social construct. It causes problems including alienation, or estrangement, from our lives, labor, and communities, similar to Calum’s experience after leaving the cave. In turn, this alienation from his community, in addition to his desire for riches led to the death of an innocent through negligence. Money doesn’t have to be real for us to suffer from it. In theory, our lust for money (or in the case of cows, property) destroys us, it makes us more likely to harm others.
A few other scenes illustrate these points about greed and property further. In one scene during the men’s travels, they stay with a man and woman. The woman is treated by her man as if she is property. He beats her for making choices he disagrees with, and then “he had his way with her” which agitates the protagonist, although he doesn’t interfere (20). In another scene, the protagonist does not cheat the ferryman, though the ferryman would have charged him as a boy due to his small stature. This interaction illustrates the use of money for a transaction, rather than someone trying to maximize the money that he keeps. If the protagonist had wanted to be wealthy, he would have allowed the ferryman’s misapprehension to continue. The issue with greed is that there is never enough to be satisfied.
At one point, Calum states: “‘Your King will want more gold, because Kings want more. It is what they do. Each time you come back, it will mean less. The rainbow means nothing. Killing a man means nothing’” (48). While certainly this can be true of Kings as individual people, it can also be true of governments and corporations. Organizations require more money. Businesspersons desire more money. Individual people in the United States (and other places) crave more money because they want to achieve the American Dream, or upwards social mobility. Yet, the wealthier people become, their behaviors, on average, have been shown to become less generous. This short PBS video documents studies by psychologists looking into the negative effects of being wealthy on behavior, as well as the effects of pretending that a person is wealthy. (My favorite from this video is that drivers of luxury cars were less likely to follow the law and stop for pedestrians crossing.)
The more we strive for extrinsic, external rewards, the less we can experience the beauty of the world, the beauty of other people, or the fruits of rewarding labor. Many work to gain wealth, rather than working for passion. There are many cases of corporations choosing to maximize their profits over the wellbeing of people in their communities like the avoidable West Virginia water crisis earlier this year. In this blog post, Robert Reich discusses how corporations are blamed as entities, but individuals are still the one’s making decisions. GM did nothing about a faulty ignition switch that led to 13 fatalities, and both executives and engineers knew about it, as discussed in this article. Individuals and organizations can lose sight of the community as they attempt to gain wealth.
“The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” is a meditation in the nature of good and evil as it relates to money and property. While I don’t necessarily think that Gaiman was stating that all money or property is inherently evil, I do think that he repeatedly warns of the dangers inherent of craving property instead of focusing on the well-being of others. The final scene in his book is the protagonist turning his back on the cave and walking a path home to his wife, to his family.