Author’s note: this essay was written before Halo: Envoy’s release and published before I read it, which is why the section discussing “Oasis” as a groundwork for the novel is so very short.
Jat’s was the worst death in all of Halo. It was a coldly cynical death. Empty and brutal.
And it was narratively perfect.
On three separate levels.
To begin with, I must accentuate the fact that Jat’s death is consistent within the confines of the short story “Oasis” itself. While the manner in which this simple act both follows up on threads and lays groundwork for future fiction is impressive, those are both secondary. As discussed in my last article, moments in stories need to work first in their own context before operating on a different layer, such as a reference, callback, cameo, etc. (Smoke and Shadow
Solidifying a Theme
The main theme of “Oasis” is survival.
It opens with Dahlia surviving the dangerous fever, it continues with Dahlia recalling the times she and her family survived the Covenant assaults, and its main conflict is Dahlia fighting to ensure that her family survives.
The introduction of the Sangheili Jat at first appears to derail this theme. Up until his appearance, Dahlia has been entirely motivated by survival (of her or her family), but her act to save Jat’s was born out of righteousness.
This couldn’t be right, Dahlia thought. Even among the aliens, there was some kind of law, honor. You couldn’t just execute someone right there in the sand. (Fractures, p 372)
Dahlia’s choice to save Jat seems to be in direct contrast to the theme of survival. It draws attention from an enemy. It puts her life, and by extension, the lives of her family, at risk.
What Jat’s inclusion does is provide a cost to the theme of survival. Up until he enters the story, survival is something to be achieved by any means necessary, but Jat establishes that there is a price Dahlia is not willing to pay. She is not willing to be merciless.
Artwork by The Chronothaur – used with permission
Jat – both as a character and as a narrative function – continues to push Dahlia towards these choices that challenge her outlook on life and her initial stance on survival. He takes the initial theme and begins to shape it, which in turn, shapes Dahlia. The subthemes present in “Oasis” are numerous and complex, but the one that Jat’s death hammers home is change.
Joining the ranks of Benti and Olympia Vale in the category of “young women learning life lessons from Sangheili,” Dahlia goes from someone who unquestioningly hates Sangheili, especially Jat’s leader Rojka, to someone who cradles his head in death. The contrast between her and the militia who came to her rescue and murdered Jat is stark. She is told that she wouldn’t consider the Sangheili a friend if she had seen what had happened to the Outer Colonies during the Human-Covenant War.
But of course, she did come from the Outer Colonies. She did know what horrors were wrought in the war. But she changed. She changed because of Jat, and because of Jat, she lived.
And moving forward, Dahlia will survive because she is willing to change.
The second narrative level on which Jat’s death works is as a groundwork for future fiction.
From the novel’s title and summary, it’s clear that “Oasis” from Fractures is a set up for Envoy. We know that tensions between Sangheili and humans on Carrow are high. We know that there is are larger players at work on the alien side – Thars and Rojka – and that Sandholm will likely be targeted soon. All of this establishes that “Oasis” does not exist in a vacuum; it’s laying the groundwork for a larger story that is on its way.
These all set the societal groundwork for Envoy, but Jat’s death sets the emotional stage.
Jat’s death at the hands of the colonists ensures that we know going into Envoy that the tension between Sangheili and humans is real. While there’s hope from in the likes of Dahlia, the carelessness with which Jat is dispatched escalates that conflict into which Envoy’s protagonist, Melody Azikiwe, is stepping. Even more telling than Jat’s execution is the dismissal of his death and Dahlia’s grief. It establishes that the larger community is going to reject an offer of peace, even if the offer is as great as the protection of a child. This establishes exactly what sort of stakes Azikiwe is going to be facing in Envoy.
Symbols and Metaphors
The final narrative level on which Jat and his death work is on the broader scale of the universe as a whole, as a metaphor for one part of the spectrum of human-Sangheili relations. When Halo: Fractures was first released, Archive member Grizzlei made this observation:
One of the lingering thoughts I have for Fractures is three different stories showcased three entirely unique experiences of Human-Sangheili cohabitation.
Within Trevelyan, tensions between the volunteers and their families from Earth and Sangheilos are the typical kinda strained as expected for late 2553 but the air is filled with optimism—that it could be a better place. On Carrow, absolutely nothing is ideal. Sangheili settlers have begun to forcibly colonize a Human world, constantly encroaching on O.C.’ers territory. Well-armed, motivated, and objective militias defend both sides, and both are more than willing to utilize them for the most petty reasons. Neither Human or Sangheili colonists have the backing of their homeworlds. Lastly, on Venezia, it’s literally business as usual. Human, Sangheili—you name it—they’re on Venezia, finding peace wherever they can all for the sake of starting anew, free of any national or religious allegiances.
This is science fiction at its best highlighting no one single way of life. Post-war civilizations now prominently encourage narratives to deliver more diverse circumstances. In conclusion, here’s a wonderful monologue from Stargate SG-1, episode 200:
“Science fiction is an existential metaphor. It allows us to tell stories about the human condition. Isaac Asmiov once said, ‘Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today, but the core of science fiction—its essence—has become crucial to our salvation, if we are to be saved at all.’” (Archive)
The different characters and reactions that she is describing here is could be considered examples of “ficelle characters.”
Blackwell Reference Online specifically defines the ficelle as a “character whose role within the novel is to elicit information, which is conveyed to the reader without narratorial intervention” (BRO). Probably the most famous type of a ficelle is the “foil,” a character created specifically to contrast and highlight certain aspects of the protagonist. In his essay “The Human Context,” W. J. Harvey gives the ficelle its broadest definition yet: a character that “exists in the novel primarily to serve some function. Unlike the protagonist, he is ultimately the means to an end rather than an end in himself” (p 237).
Harvey goes onto list a multitude of functions that the ficelle can serve in the story before settling into the description of one in particular, which I will likewise be focusing on here. A ficelle, or rather a collection of ficelle characters can be used to function as a means to relate and propagate the effects of an epiphany throughout the story.
While Harvey uses the word “epiphany” to specifically describe a commonality in modern fiction around 1965, it can also be viewed in broader terms, as a critical moment of enlightenment, and thus change, in a story.
In order for an epiphany to carry an impact to the story’s conclusion, we must see “its effects radiating throughout time,” which “requires that the [epiphany] diffuses itself through many characters and many relationships” (p 245). In short, we must see the epiphany affecting characters other than the protagonist, and affecting them in different ways.
The [epiphany] itself must be gradually connected with the disparate and commonplace concerns of everyday life, through a careful gradation of characters from those who are able in greater or lesser degree to comprehend [the protagonist’s experience] to those who, all unknowing, are brushed by the events [leading to the epiphany] (p 245).
This gradation of characters is the collection of ficelles. Characters who are affected by the protagonist’s epiphany, and who respond in a multitude of ways in order to provide depth and understanding to the reader.
Of course, in a franchise as broadly spread as Halo, ficelles to one story may also be protagonists for another. In this essay, the terms are not mutually exclusive.
Jat is one of many ficelle characters that are an exploration of the effects of Halo’s first big epiphany.
Now we must ask ourselves: when was the first big epiphany of the Halo Universe? Not in terms of canon chronology – as ho boy, that’s an argument for the ages – but in terms of canon publication?
If you have followed me on Halo-related social media for any stretch of time, it shouldn’t surprise you that my answer is not the Flood/Halo reveal in Combat Evolved, but Thel ‘Vadamee becoming Thel ‘Vadam in Halo 2.
This is more than wild fangirl speculation; all the reveals in the canon leading up to Halo 2 were still consistent with the environment of the Human-Covenant War. Child soldiers? Horrendous and shocking but appropriate for the environment. Reach falling? Earth being found by the Covenant? All appropriate for the environment.
Even the Flood and Halo in Combat Evolved do nothing more than escalate the current environment. There are no alliances forged between human and alien to combat the new menace; it’s “merely” a new player on the field. The Halo ring’s threat of mutually-assured destruction doesn’t cause the combatants to back down, it’s “merely” a new asset to take or deny the other party’s taking.
Halo 2, on the other hand, breaks the environment of the Human-Covenant War. This is the story that takes Halo from a very clear “us vs. them” battle into a fight for mutual peace. And the person on which this epiphany is centered is Thel.
Strangely enough, Thel is rather passive in his Journey up until his grand epiphany. He doesn’t actively pursue the truth until the very end, and his first alliance with humanity was based on necessity and was not his idea. But once the epiphany lands, in the control room of Delta Halo, it sticks, and then goes onto create the new environment that would define the Haloverse until the events of Halo 5.
With few exceptions – Henry and Benti from “The Mona Lisa” come to mind – every human-Sangheili relationship has been defined by and birthed from Thel’s choice in the control room of Delta Halo. Some of these are hopeful, as seen in Hunters in the Dark. Others are cynical, such as those displayed in the Kilo-Five trilogy or “The Return.”
As a ficelle, Jat becomes the embodiment of both the conflict on Carrow and the one propagated by ONI’s Parangosky. A Sangheili believes cooperation is the only way to survive, but humans just want the hingeheads dead. Richard Sekibo in Hunt the Truth is a similar ficelle to Jat, his human counterpart in many ways.
I would just like Noah Eichen to personally understand that I am still mourning this man.
Through the ficelle characters of Jat and Sekibo, we can see the effects of a cynical take on Thel’s epiphany. Before we go further, we must first establish what exactly Thel’s epiphany is, and for that, I turn to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth.
The Classical Monomyth is summarized by Campbell in the following description:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. (Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 1956, p. 30).
Thel’s epiphany happens when he takes his step across the threshold between “the world of the common day” and into “the region of supernatural wonder.”
The normal world [of common day] is that which the protagonist occupies before the start of their journey. It is often a place of comfort and safety or at least familiarity. However, there is something inherently wrong within this world (Campbell, 1956, p. 37). The hidden world [of supernatural wonder] is a realm beyond what the protagonist initially experiences. It is full of new wisdom and dangers, and most importantly, the power which can fix the wrong within the normal world. Thel’s normal world is the Covenant, more specifically the battlefield. The hidden realm is diplomacy and peace, and the power from this realm is the ability to destroy the Covenant. …Not just the establishment as a whole, but the ideals which it represents [hierarchical oppression]. (Hero’s Journey of Thel ‘Vadam: Introduction)
For a further discussion of Thel’s monomythic Journey, visit ArbiterAnalysis on Tumblr.
The “region of supernatural wonder,” i.e. diplomacy and peace, is Thel’s epiphany. It’s the realization that ongoing destruction, and social/galactic elevation through destruction, is not what will bring about salvation. Cooperation will.
A critical line in Halo: Escalation hammers this home:
“Finding a way to pacify the Brutes and get access to their resources is in the UNSC’s best interests. And the Arbiter knows it’s in his best interest… He’s not happy about it, but as leader of the Sangheili, he knows it’s what’s best for his people.” – Admiral Hood, Escalation Issue #1.
Even when he isn’t happy with the idea of cooperation, Thel knows it’s the right thing and acts accordingly. And, as rest of the Escalation arc shows, he commits everything to it, regardless of his personal feelings.
A perfect ficelle to Thel, Serin Osman stares at almost the exact same situation, thinks the exact same thoughts – duty over emotion – and comes to the exact opposite conclusion:
She wondered if she was telling herself that [Hood’s and Thel’s peace treaty] was a meaningless exchange simply to justify what ONI was doing. If the Arbiter really could deliver peace, then she was doing everything in her power to stoke a revolt that would remove him. But she couldn’t gamble Earth’s future on the goodwill of one individual. What was that line the Parangosky never let her forget?
It’s not the enemy’s intentions that you have to consider. It’s their capability.
Osman was going to have those damn words tattooed on her arm one day (Glasslands, p 360)
Osman, Parangosky, Sapien Sunrise, and Jat’s murderers are all on the gradation of characters that “are able in greater or lesser degree to comprehend” Thel’s epiphany in a cynical light. They look at diplomacy and cooperation, and instead of embracing it, they try to destroy it. Osman and Parangosky have yet to be fully successful – and there is still a potential for Osman’s view to change – but Sapien Sunrise and the militia on Carrow brought this interpretation of Thel’s epiphany to a brutal conclusion.
And because Halo’s story is not yet complete, Jat… and the likes of Sekibo, Osman, Rhu ‘Vrath, and perhaps Melody Azikiwe, all of them, for better or for worse, are symbols of what the galaxy could one day become.
W.J. Harvey’s “The Human Context” was originally published in the book Character and The Novel in 1965. All citations here are from its reprint in the essay collection The Theory of the Novel in 1967.