This essay was handed in along with the story before it was discussed in class, so it refers to an earlier version than the one published here. Nevertheless, it lays out some of my intentions about the story and its theme.
The main objective of the short story “On a String” is to draw the reader’s attention to the change of perspective, to make us reconsider our own perception of what we choose to call “real”.
When introduced to the action of the story, the reader is taken along Grakk’s way and learns about his, and only his, perceptions. The perspective remains strictly 3rd person to make us share the protagonist’s tensions and anticipations. We rely on his proficiency to learn about the surroundings just as he relies on it to get out of the castle alive. He shows great care in his progress and forces us to proceed with the same speed, not letting us get ahead of him. About the two drunk nobles for instance, we are not told a thing more than Grakk can deduce from the sounds: He can “distinguish two voices” (p. 2 bottom), but we do not know for sure if our conclusions might lead us into a trap. We have to rely on our best guess. Not until they actually pass his window can we see them: “He saw two courtiers in rather loosened garments, the smaller one supporting his companion” (p. 3 middle).
We also share his thoughts and learn about his strange doubts in the correctness of the situation. It is only after a second reading of the story that we begin to comprehend the nature of this uneasiness: Grakk’s past is an invention. As a fictional character, he has not lived his past, it was only implanted in his memory when the players rolled the dice to determine his characteristics. Still, we learn that he does have a genuine recollection of the “last months” (p. 1, bottom, cmp.: p. 4, top), something that he actually remembers from his own perspective - from the moment he was created, he took on a life of his own and experienced all the adventures that the players sent him through. This is why his imposed recollections of his childhood are so meager and distant - and why he “seemed to view himself from the outside” (p. 1, bottom). He does not realize that his life began later than his memory suggests - because it was faked to give him a background that would make him a grown person rather than a baby. On these grounds, we also understand why he cannot explain the foolhardy mission he is trapped in: Due to Grakk’s knowledge, it was stupid to take on such a risk. Nevertheless, he remembers having agreed to it. He cannot tell why he did it and is indeed right with his feeling that “somebody else had decided it for him.” (p. 2, middle): it was the player’s decision, not his. This manipulation also explains his instinct-like knowledge that the other players’ characters were already at their meeting point: Since the game takes place at one table with all the players present, Grakk’s player learns about the progress the others are making. Thus, he knows it is safe to let Grakk proceed to the inner wall and unwittingly imposes this knowledge on Grakk: “...something inside of him told him they had [reached the wall].” (P. 2, middle). So Grakk’s thoughts can be separated into the ones imposed on him and his own genuine thoughts that the player is unaware of: the character is alive, but the players do not realize.
It becomes obvious then, that he is being manipulated all the time. His own decisions and thoughts merely fill the spaces left by the player’s commands. He is a puppet “On a String”, but he does not realize the full extent of this influence. He does have the capacity of independent thought, but he is unable to exercise it. As it turns out in the story, he would probably have done a better job than his player. This makes the puppet a more complex character than the master, which is highly ironic. We see his fate influenced by factors that even the players cannot control: the pure random decisions of dice. The players themselves are also only exercising limited freedom of choice: they are bound to the indifferent verdict of the dice and the rules of the game (This is meant as a provocation of theological doubt about God’s freedom of will: What rules does He have to follow?). When Jeff hides Grakk in the window niche, Eric rolls a percentile die to determine whether the drunkards get a tiny chance to detect him. The odds being extremely unlikely, only an exceptional roll like 98 (at a maximum of 100) suffices. As chance has it, the roll succeeds. Then, Jeff interprets the situation wrongly by thinking his character had already been detected. He therefore decides to attack immediately: He rolls an attack throw on a 20-sided die and... fumbles. The roll is a 1. According to the rules, the attack has thereby failed and, because it was the lowest possible number to roll, the character also drops his weapon. As a consequence of two consecutive unlucky rolls, the character is lost to the alarmed guards. Grakk, of course, does not have any knowledge about these mechanisms determining his life and death. He just feels that he is being manipulated and helpless at the mercy of the forces ruling him. Thus, a character with the complete capacity for independent decision is doomed by the pulling of his strings. But the point here is not to display a tragical example of indifferent deadly manipulation: The change of perspectives that follows expands the reader’s horizon for the logic of this fictional world and makes us reconsider the entire situation from another point of view - and that is what this story is all about.
Grakk’s death necessarily forces the abandoning of the strict 3rd person perspective on him. The blank with the asterisk before the next paragraph clearly states a jump in time and/or perspective. The cut is further underlined by the use of a new text font. The reader instantly knows to expect a radical shift of viewpoint. The situation then introduced is at first confusing and only gradually explains itself. Thus, the tension created in the first part is resolved as the doubts about the odd circumstances of Grakk’s death are slowly revealed. It will take several readings of the story for non- role players to get accustomed to the game mechanics involved, whereas readers familiar with role-playing games will take to the meaning more swiftly. Either way, every reader will want to reread the story to experience Grakk’s strange feelings of manipulation from the enlarged perspective.
Just as the tension seems completely resolved, a second disaster strikes and kills Jeff. During the second part, Jeff has often been paralleled with Grakk because he identified with his character in the game. All these analogies are now employed as foreshadowing of Jeff’s impending death: “You’re dead as a Dodo.”, “You look like it was you who got slaughtered...”, “Treat my bones with respect,...” (p. 4 ff.). Jeff falls victim to the enormous irony that he did not realize how tightly his own fate was interwoven with Grakk’s. The game seemed unreal to the players - and yet it was the only reality that Grakk knew. By considering the casting of dice an unrealistic element of the game, Jeff fails to realize that it was only a metaphor for the small accidents in life. Exactly this ignorance makes him lose attention on his surroundings and... he fumbles. Precisely like Grakk’s end, Jeff’s death was not tragically unpreventable; it was a stupid mistake, a mere moment of misfortune. How often do we evade traffic accidents and only realize afterwards that we were but a hair’s width on the safe side? Probably more often than we are involved in actual accidents. This was exactly such a moment, only that Jeff’s position was only a few feet to the wrong direction at the wrong point of time. His guardian angel (alluded to on p. 4, bottom: “...if we don’t get a lift by some guardian angel...”) had not been paying attention.
This final twist of perspective is again emphasized by a new text font and takes us to a point of view that does not explain itself any more. We see two (supposedly) higher beings viewing our reality in the same way that the players have looked down on Grakk’s fictional fantasy world. To them, Jeff is just a character in their game. Although they care for him (as Jeff does for Grakk) he is not vital to their existence. It is annoying to see the object of so much effort destroyed, but, after all, he is disposable. This perspective leaves our real world sandwiched between two other realities. Of course, the story does not suggest the existence of the latter, but it makes us reconsider our own point of view. It is meant as a metaphor for the expansion of perspective, to open one’s mind to things so far ignored or neglected.
As for the last passage, I am aware that it is not very well written, but I could not find any other way of describing a higher level of reality without relying on common kitsch concepts of heavenly life. The passage had to be as brief as possible in order not to drag the story out for too long, so I decided not to offer any depiction of the surroundings. They were not important for the twist and would have distracted from the focus on the new point of view. So, I almost entirely relied on direct speech to see Jeff through the higher perspective. The closing lines capture the fundamental irony that traps Grakk and Jeff in the same fate, but they also convey a positive note: Life goes on.