I expect most of us have a well padded comfort zone these days – the world has become a scarier place, and we have all sought comfort where we can. From our safe place we can read of the discomforts of story book heroes and heroines, enjoying their hardships all the more because they are not ours. But even the most cursed characters need a break!
A thing can provide comfort. When all is darkness, the light of Galadriel will show you the way. A small present, almost forgotten, saves Frodo and Sam in the spider haunted darkness. Then, when all the Shire is destroyed, a small box of earth and a seed provide hope and restoration. A memory can also comfort – a photo of a loved one, a cherished possession of theirs can bring back the person. Even an old sweater can still smell of a mother’s perfume. How hard is it to discard these things, for are you not throwing away the person you cherish? At the end of time, we must give up all things, but until then we carry even useless things for the comfort they give us.
Comfort is also relative. For a change or thing to bring relief, it must be the opposite of what we are experiencing. A cup of hot chocolate might be just what you need after fighting off mutant polar bears in a sub-zero tundra, but it won’t be as welcome after a feast in an over heated royal palace. It doesn’t have to be big either. A very small change in circumstance can be enough to provide a moment of respite or restore spirits.
Comfort can also be used to contrast a situation. Jane Eyre, having run from a comfortable home, faced starvation after losing her money and situation. A handful of cold porridge scavenged from the pig trough was gratefully accepted, and she slept rough under a hedge. A far cry from a warm bed in a house where she faced moral temptations. Yet she slept with a clear conscious, although accompanied by a broken heart.
The young Hornblower, by CS Forester, beset by seasickness and bullied on his first voyage finds solace in trigonometry questions and a fresh breeze. To set his mind to work, to forget his bodily discomforts, is enough comfort for a character who becomes so much more than his limitations. A good example of a character where his thoughts make a hell of heaven for himself, an anxious over thinker who finds solace in mathematically precise calculations.
Routine also provides comfort. The habits we all develop, that the doing of which will somehow guarantee we are alive to repeat them tomorrow. How jarring is the sudden break – the sleeper spy of 20 years suddenly activated? Or a loved one kidnapped? A drive to work stopped by an EMP (electromagnetic pulse from a massive solar flare) and you are plunged into the apocalypse. Suddenly everything familiar is not and has even becomes suspect. A barrier has been shattered, and everyday life will never feel as safe as it once was.
But it differs with culture, time and character. A bowl of bread and milk for supper was probably pretty good for a hungry Victorian child, yet it would be rejected by today’s children longing for sushi. A pipe of Shire leaf was a comforting memory of home for Pippin and Merry, but to a non smoker, certainly not. An ancient Roman may long for garum, yet even a few hundred years later the strong fish sauce might provoke disgust. But everyone has a weakness, something that softens them even momentarily, and what this is can provide a profound insight into their character.
But comfort can also be rejected. It is too soft, it is a thing of fear for the tough person to accept in case they can never return to being tough. Or even something that is uncomfortable for the character who has only experienced hardship. In Star Trek, Miles O’Brien suffers 20 years in a (mental) prison, sleeping on the floor. He cannot then sleep in a bed, it feels unnatural. Klingons also spurn comfort, it is a dishonour to their militaristic macho persona. Conan looks down on the softness and luxury of city dwellers, for they could not survive where he can. Newt, the little girl in Aliens, spurns the apparent comfort of a bed for the safer hard floor under it. Comfort has brought danger and no longer fills its soothing function. What is the characters reason for rejecting it?
So the type of comfort that the character accepts or rejects can reveal a great deal. A hardened warrior or a delicate upper-class maiden? A tough childhood or one of excess? The smallest flame can warm the soul and bring back a happy memory on even the toughest journey.
P.S. Doing it tough yourself, or know someone in need of comfort? Please reach out if you need help or be the small light of comfort for someone else. Everyone is fighting some kind of battle, but it may not show on the outside.
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