Thoughts, Opinions, Gripes, and Grievances


Kian Pfannenstiel, Writer

A lot of classic books go relatively overlooked because they aren’t interesting enough right off the bat. Well, that’s the way I’ve seen it, at least. Novel-writing seems like an arms race to get the attention of the readers faster than any competition, which is far from how it should be. Books should set up with a reason to care about the plot. Answer the question, “Why does the main character want to ‘win’ in the end of the book?” If you don’t set up something in the beginning that we care just as much as the characters that they save (or sometimes destroy), there isn’t as much weight to the conflict. What happens if the character fails? If you don’t set up something to return to (or try not to return to), why should the reader care about the main character (by the way, I just found a new extent to which my laziness will go, and will be shortening “main character” to “MC”) winning, much less the MC? Because the reader goes into the story caring a little, the MC naturally cares less about the story than the reader. The MC, therefore, must be given a reason to care. For example, give your Frodo a Shire to return to after he’s vanquished the Dark Lord Sauron, and if he fails, the Shire is destroyed and all that he loves and holds dear goes with it. Or, give your romance character a desperately lonely life before they meet someone and have them struggle to not go back to it. For all of its faults, the Harry Potter series does a fantastic job of this: it gives him both a terrible home to not go back to and it gives him something that he wants to keep safe from Voldemort.

Now that that’s out of the way, you don’t have to go as far as Wu Cheng’en, who spent the first part of the book Journey to the West framing why the coolest character in his book is the coolest character and then proceeds to not make him the main character.

This character is Sun Wukong, the monkey king. This monkey became king by being more impulsive than all of the other monkeys on his mountain island (for context, he jumped into a waterfall and found a palace on the other side). He does nothing for any reason but because he wants to and he has no control over his impulses. He begins by seeking a monk and asking to learn how to be immortal, which the monk teaches him, and then teaches him how to fly. However, because being a monk requires impulse control and being a monkey leaves you with no impulse control, the monk kicks Sun Wukong out and warns him that the gods will try to kill him for gaining immortality in the wrong way, but because he’s immortal it doesn’t work.

Sun decides that he also wants to get some new clothes and a great weapon, so he goes to a dragon (which are famous for being equal to or stronger than the gods in Chinese mythology) and asking for it. The dragons are afraid of Sun Wukong (he has been doing some other things to make himself more powerful, I’m only hitting the important stuff), so they oblige. Sun Wu doesn’t really like any of their magic weapons, so he takes a pillar and uses it as a quarterstaff. At this point, the gods are also afraid of Sun Wukong, so the Jade Emperor says he’s going to kill Sun (not sure how, though) when another god tells him to just let Sun have a job. The Jade Emperor agrees and asks Sun to watch the gods’ pears (one specific god owns them, but they all get to use them). As an impulsive monkey, however, Sun decides that he’s just going to eat the pears–all of them. When the gods find out, he’s already gone and drunk the gods’ wine–all of it. There’s a special thing about the pears and the wine, though: they make you immortal. Sun is already immortal, so he’s now triply immortal. When the gods corner him, he jumps over to this other dude’s house (I think he’s a friend of the gods or something, but I’m not sure) and eats the seeds of these figs that he finds, which also make you immortal. When the gods finally capture him, they decide to stick him in this giant copper boiler that will, after 41 days, reduce him to the essence of immortality that they can bottle back up. But Sun is too strong, and just comes out mad. So the gods ask the Buddha to help, because he is the only thing in the universe thus far that is stronger than Sun Wukong. The Buddha asks Sun to successfully jump out of the palm of his hand. If Sun can, he’s free to go. If he can’t,  the Buddha punishes him. So Sun agrees and jumps to the edge of the universe, where he finds 5 pillars. He leaves a little graffiti on one and pees on another for good measure. He then jumps back and says to the Buddha that he succeeded. But the Buddha reminded Sun that, as Buddha, he is one with the universe. The Buddha then holds up his hand and shows that on one finger is the graffiti that Sun Wukong left and another smells faintly like ammonia.

And then you learn why you don’t mess with the Buddha: he sticks Sun Wukong under a mountain (which Sun would usually be able to get out from under easily) and places a magic seal on it (which is why Sun is stuck under the mountain) and condemns him to stay under that mountain for 300 years.

And it is only after the 300 years that the actual story starts.

Because I never read Journey to the West and I am not clever enough to come up with my own opinions from the beginning of this article, I recommend you check out the Overly Sarcastic Productions youtube channel for lots of similar material (and it’s articulated much better than I ever could do). Their channel is linked below.