I’m a child of the 80s, and it shows in my tastes. So it should go without saying that I love the Back to the Future trilogy. I rewatch it pretty much any time it’s showing on TV.
The other night, my favorite, the third one, was on, and I was struck by something: Hill Valley of 1885 gives us a full picture of Wyrd (Wurt in Deitsch) for Hill Valley in 1955 and 1985. We see this on both the individual level, with the ancestors of its citizens, and on the community level for the town as a whole. We also see a little bit of how the land influenced the Wyrd of the town, and how the decisions people made within their own times created changes in Wyrd.
Before I start explaining Wyrd using one of my all-time favorite movies, let me give you a little background on why I think a relatable example is needed. Wyrd is a commonly misunderstood concept both within and outside of Heathenry. It’s often wrongly thought of as a punishment and reward system, or seen in terms of systems that are foreign to it, such as Eastern Karma or Roman Fate. Modern people have often struggled with their families of origin, and so can’t imagine a strong connection to the Ancestors. The idea that Their actions influence our lives today might strike some as unfair as if we’re being punished for things we didn’t do. Really, though, Wyrd is an impartial law of the Universe, much like gravity. Gravity doesn’t cause an object to fall because that object is bad. Gravity simply is. Ancient Heathens learned how to influence Wyrd in ways that are beneficial to the people experiencing it–this is what we refer to today as building or strengthening Wyrd.
Now it’s time to go back to the future! Erm, except we’re going back to the past…of the future…which is actually in our past now…right, so on with the examples!
When Marty McFly, our hero, first arrives in the Wild West version of his hometown, we’re treated to a tour that showcases some of the similarities and differences the 1885 version of Hill Valley has with the other versions of Hill Valley that viewers are already more familiar with. You can see some of the comparisons yourself in this fan video. Particularly notable is the clock tower being raised upon the town courthouse during its construction. For many towns, the courthouse is a pervasive symbol of the town’s identity. In personal experience, I have found that the spirit of a town or smaller city will often identify itself with the courthouse or city hall. The spirits of larger cities seem to identify more with their full skyline or other better-known landmarks. For Hill Valley, the clock tower is its spirit.
In Hill Valley of 1885, the clock tower is being born and is dedicated in a special ceremony at the town festival. In 1955, the ledge of the clock tower is damaged while Doc Brown attempts to send Marty back to 1985, and then the clock itself is struck by lightning. In 1985 Hill Valley, we are told by a historic conservation enthusiast that the clock tower has not rung since it was struck by lightning. In the alternate version of 1985, the clock tower is nearly invisible as part of Biff’s casino.
So what can this important landmark tell us about the spirit of Hill Valley, and its Wyrd? In 1885, when the clock tower is “born”, the town is brand new, full of hope and excitement, as settlers attempt to carve a new life from the frontier. But all is not pleasant and peaceful. Mad Dog and his gang attempt to use the new courthouse as the site of a hanging, when they decide to kill Marty for the mild offense of accidentally dumping a spittoon on Mad Dog. The courthouse itself is nearly a victim of this ugly act that would have become a part of its new identity–Mad Dog states that he sees a courthouse as a fitting place for a hanging.
In 1955, the clock tower is at its height, much as Hill Valley is. The town is an idyllic 50’s paradise, where the worst problem in town is the high school bully and his cronies. The clock tower is at the center of town, now in a handsomely finished building of brick and stone, and it rings out the hours for all to hear as they flow by through their busy lives. Then, in 1985, the town is past its prime. The clock tower rings no longer, and while its position in town has not changed, the buildings around it certainly aren’t as nice, nor as bustling, as they used to be. The clock tower reflects the collective Wyrd of the town. If the historic conservationist were successful in her goal of raising funds for the clock tower’s repair, it might actually succeed in reviving the town–both because they’d be aiding the town’s spirit, and because it would reflect citizens of the town being civic minded enough to do something about the town’s problems.
Now, remember, when we watch the 1955 and 1985 versions of the characters, we’re simply seeing the same people separated by 30 years. Those characters are still being affected by Wyrd, in that they are following out the life paths they’ve begun for themselves. But where things really start to get interesting is when we look at the 1885 characters. These people are the ancestors of the folks in 1955, and, because this is a comedy, we can see in hilarious exaggeration how they influence their descendants.
There’s Marshall Strickland, for example, the grandfather of Principal Strickland from 1955. We see him teaching his son the importance of discipline as he deals with the town’s outlaws, a concept that would clearly be passed down in the family. The bartender at the saloon seems to have the same disposition as the owner of the 1955 cafe–drink something already! And Mad Dog Buford Tannen, ancestor of the main antagonist Biff Tannen, lays down a path of actions even crueler and more dangerous than the future school bully will. Savage, selfish, and stupid, he starts family “traditions” such as flubbing cliched lines (“I’m going to hunt you down like a duck!”) and crashing into manure (“I hate manure!”). But he also outright kills people and foreshadows his 2015 descendant’s life of crime.
But most interesting out of all of these examples, for purposes of understanding Wyrd, is our hero himself, Marty McFly. Why? Because Marty is the one who changes his Wyrd. He meets up with his ancestor, Seamus McFly, who has a gentle and kindly disposition that seems a bit at odds with Marty’s reckless nature. But, we learn from Seamus that he had a brother named Martin, who shared more than just his name with our protagonist. He too had a hot temper and cared a great deal what others thought of him. In particular, he shared an Achilles heel with our hero: he couldn’t bear to be called chicken. Thanks to Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer, we already know that Marty is slated to have a bad car crash in the future that will end his musical career, and get pulled into a scheme that gets him fired from his job because he just can’t walk away from anyone who calls him chicken. We learn that similarly, Seamus’ brother lost his life to a bowie knife because he couldn’t back down from a fight.
So what does this have to do with Wyrd? Martin was Marty’s ancestor and seems to have passed on his hot temper and sensitivity to insults to Marty. Martin laid down patterns of Wyrd based on his choices to never back down from a fight, even the fight that killed him. These patterns survived to affect Marty later, even though he never knew Martin or Martin’s story. This is a significant point about Wyrd for those without a living connection to their relatives–the patterns of Wyrd shaped by your ancestors’ choices can affect you even if you never met them.
However, Marty was not being punished for Martin’s recklessness–Martin already suffered the consequences for that. Also, Marty wasn’t being forced to act as his ancestor did. It was just his natural tendency. If his ancestor had made different choices, perhaps remained alive to be an uncle to little William (Marty’s direct ancestor), he might have been able to teach the positive aspects of standing up to bullies assertively, giving the family line a much-needed boost for dealing with the Tannens later. Instead, George (Marty’s father) seems completely unable to stand up for himself in the original 1955 timeline, which could be interpreted as the family’s reaction to Martin’s Wyrd, and an attempt not to end up like him, as Seamus warns Marty in 1885. Seamus would presumably pass on this cautionary tale to William and his other children, causing the family as a whole to be more reserved and likely to back down from a fight.
So, Wyrd isn’t a punishment and reward system. It’s not a force of judgment. It’s a natural law, much like the laws of physics, where certain choices will lead to certain tendencies, and certain tendencies will lead to predictable results. Wyrd also does not eliminate free will. In fact, it’s all about choices–it’s the collective sum of all choices ever made. And, since it’s based on our choices, we are completely empowered to change it!
Marty goes on his journey through time ultimately because he needs to heal his family’s Wyrd. Since his parents have been the victims of bullying all their lives, the family has turned out poorly–an uncle in jail, a daughter in a series of unhappy relationships, a son with a poor job, father and son too willing to give up on their dreams, and in general, the family having a hard time making ends meet. Marty must also heal his own Wyrd, and overcome his fears of what others think of him, that hold him back in pursuing his dreams, and put him in danger by getting into pointless fights. How does he change all this? By changing his choices, and helping his father to change his choices. His father stands up to Biff, leading to a path where he pursues his dreams of writing and sets a better example for his children. Marty outsmarts Buford and learns that he doesn’t have to answer every challenge that’s made to him, as long as he’s confident in who he is. He changes the future, avoiding both the car accident and getting fired from his job. We know by the end of the story that he’ll be able to pursue his dreams of music with an uninjured hand and the love of his life at his side. And it’s likely that his son (also Marty!) who gets bullied into a life of crime in the original 2015 timeline will be able to make better choices when his time comes, too.
Now, kids, this is a movie and a cheesy comedy at that. It’s not a perfect explanation of Wyrd. But it might help make some of the basic concepts a little clearer for people who are confused about it! I’ve got to wrap for now because I’m OUTTATIME, so may the power of love be with you, and may all your bullies end up in manure!
*Huginn’s Heathen Hof LLC does not own any of the content from Back To The Future. All movie stills and covers used here belong to Amblin Entertainment and are used here under the ‘fair use’ clause of section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976.*
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