Dilemmas in Stories

Great stories often owe their greatness in part to dilemmas that confront the protagonist, who must make some difficult choice. Below, I have summarized several example dilemmas from stories I love. As you read through them, try to figure out which method is (or could be) used to escape the dilemma in the story: going between the horns, grasping the horns, or rebutting the horns with a counter-dilemma.

The Odyssey
If Odysseus sails close to the rocks then he will lose some men to Scylla, but if he sails close to the whirlpool then he will lose his entire ship to Charybdis. He must either sail close to the rocks or close to the whirlpool. Thus he will either lose some of his men to Scylla or lose the entire ship to Charybdis.

The Aeneid
If Aeneas stays in Carthage then he will not fulfill his destiny to found Rome, and if he flees to Italy then he will lose the pleasures of a kingdom. He will either stay or flee, therefore he will either lose Rome or lose Carthage.

The Fellowship of the Ring
If Frodo goes to Mordor alone, then he will likely fail in his quest, but if he goes to Mordor with the fellowship then he endangers his friends. He will either go alone or with the fellowship. Therefore he will either endanger his friends or he will likely fail in his quest.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
If the Narnians release the traitor Edmund to the Witch then he will be killed, and if they do not let the Witch have him as her rightful kill for treachery then Narnia will perish in fire and water. The Narnians must either release Edmund, or not let the Witch have her rightful kill. Therefore either Edmund will be killed, or Narnia will perish.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
If Tom Sawyer confesses that Injun Joe killed Dr. Robinson, then Injun Joe will kill him. If he doesn’t confess, then Muff Potter will be falsely accused. He will either confess or he won’t. Hence, either Injun Joe will kill him, or Muff Potter will be falsely accused.

Watership Down
If Hazel and his rabbits again ask the Efrafans for some does then they will be imprisoned. If they try to fight the Efrafans then they will lose. They either ask them or fight them. Therefore they will either be imprisoned or defeated in battle.

The Princess Bride
If Westley and Buttercup enter the Fire Swamp then they will be killed by flame, quicksand, or R.O.U.S. If they do not enter the Fire Swamp then they will be captured by Humperdinck. They enter the Fire Swamp or they do not, so they will either be killed or captured.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
If Harry seeks the Sorcerer’s Stone then he will be expelled, but if he does not seek the Stone then Voldemort will return. Harry will either seek the Sorcerer’s Stone or he will not, so he will either be expelled or Voldemort will return.

Can you think of dilemmas that the protagonists face in other stories you have read?

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