The dynamic nature of power in the father-son relationship
Open your heart
The anti-hero protagonist of God of War (GoW) is probably one of the best video game characters ever written. The character arc that has been developing since its inception has been one filled with meaning derived from being a warrior, a killer. A Spartan, Kratos moves from being a mere boy to leading a spartan army. His purpose is ever moving, while the strings are being moved by the gods. In actuality, Kratos hardly has any freedom in what he does; this led him to killing his own wife and daughter, a deceit planned by then God of war Ares. His identity, state of being & movement is now directed with hatred and need for vengeance. Eventually he finds Athena who serves as his guide in his journey to avenge the death of his wife & daughter. But Athena too had her own intentions- to seek the power of hope for herself. God of War III ends with Kratos destroying the power of hope himself.
This is not necessarily about the re-telling of Greek mythology as shown in the GoW games, but rather focuses on the consistent power struggle that children have with their parents as authority figures. For this, I am focusing on the relation between Father and Son, and the power struggle that ensues. In GoW, Kratos learns that his father is the Greek god Zeus. By the end of GoW, Kratos kills his father Zeus- in an act of vengeance filled with hatred, anger and mistrust towards the gods. Before Kratos, Zeus had killed his own father Cronos to become the King of Olympus. It was prophesized that Cronos will be overthrown by his own son, and in order to prevent that prophecy he swallowed every child his sister-wife Rhea bore him.Thus the need for and to maintain power continued. A cycle of sons killing their fathers started and would continue.
GoW (2018) is probably one of the greatest games to have ever be created. The character arc of Kratos undergoes a drastic change as we see him in Midgard, as we are taken to Norse mythology. He has a son named Atreus, and at the beginning of GoW (2018), we see him and Atreus mourn the death of his wife. The story is immersive, moving and feels deeply personal because from being a God of war filed with vengeance and hatred, throughout the game Kratos is learning to be a father. Something that every reviewer has pointed out is that Kratos goes calling his son “boy” to actually calling him by his name.
Why am I, a therapist who clearly games, has decided to write about a game, what has it got to do with anything? I wish to take the themes of GoW games to look into the dynamics of power, authority, and change. I am aware that what I might have to say has already been done so, yet I wish to look into the contemporary nature of the father-son dynamic. Needlessly to say, my thoughts are not all-encompassing.
I do not know what it is like to be a father, but I do know what it is like to be a son. In the larger theme of patriarchy, fathers are supposed to be stoic figures who protect and provide. They are expected to be strong-willed, decisive, and brave. Sons are expected to fill the shoes of their father. While no one asked either what they wish to be, or do. My father likes to say- “one day you will be a father, and you will understand what that’s like.” My male friends have had similar experiences, and we have come to realize that we need not discard that completely. Another fundamental question that arises is the assumption that someone will be a father- almost like a prophecy that is bestowed upon. When that prophecy is fulfilled, we shall finally understand the struggles of fatherhood. I think about the lack of space of freedom & being in this. You are expected to carry forth your bloodline, otherwise the generation ends with you. While you are expected to do so, the above patriarchal introjections becoming more and more real. Underlying all of this exists power. The power to create, raise and parent a child. While paternal uncertainty is a reality, mostly subverted via monogamy, the father tries their best that the son turns out to be like them. The anxiety of paternal uncertainty might be compensated via the power influences that the father has upon the child. The word of the father is the word of God. The son is appreciated when he is obedient, and dismayed when defiant. Here, it is important to acknowledge that the father is also a son. The father’s father might be living or dead, and either might have its own consequences into fatherhood. The grandiosity of the word ‘grandfather’ is hardly ever lost. What does it mean for men of three generations to co-exist? Who yields most power? Older people tend to take on the role of children as they grow, relying heavily on their own children for care and support. The stoic father becomes frail. The brave father needs support, and the breadwinner is now dependent. Sons who have fathers who are old and have their own sons have multiple roles to play. Imagine taking care of your son, and also your older father who has also become like a child- the intrapsychic conflict of this father in between generations is hardly ever paid heed to.
On the other hand, a father who has lost his own father might mourn the loss of his stoic figure, while simultaneously moving towards his own supposed valour. There are many realities that exist, someone might not have had a father, others might have had a symbolically absent one, and some might even be estranged. Whatever the reality, it is hardly plausible to deny the dynamic power that comes from being a father. An absent or dead father might come with different consequences of how power is felt and experienced. It may or may not save the son from what I am about to say next.
The transition of a father back into their childhood is fraught with tension and conflict. The father has hardly known a bigger source of meaning than being a father and everything that comes with it. The transition starts happening when the son does not need the father to take care of him; it is almost as if the father is robbed of his meaning & purpose. The father also starts depending increasingly on the son for support and care, all the while hesitant to give away all the power he has. The son may not may not want the power but within the umbrella of patriarchy he can hardly ever avoid it. The ambivalence that is created between the father-son as both fights to maintain, gain or give up power leads to intrapsychic and interpsychic conflicts. This is hardly ever acknowledged.
The son also gains power from other sources such as Kratos did as he grew older. This ultimately leads to confrontation between father-son, although it may never be explicit in many cases and the anxiety takes the form of resentment. The son exercises his power to influence the father, someone so long only had influenced the son. A change in this dynamic is met with resistance. The father may continue to fight for his power, for to give up this power would mean giving up meaning, identity and strength. The anxiety would be: what would remain of them? While in other cases, the father might learn to be a father again; he may question and see what it means to be a father in this transitional time. This is where GoW helps us. Kratos was a son, and a father. He was a terrible father who killed his own wife and daughter. His father killed his father before him, and Cronos was so paranoid that he would eat his own children. The anxiety of meaninglessness, of being reduced to the shadows of nothingness is a perceived one, albeit real for the one experiencing it. But Kratos has been given a second chance, when he fathers Atreus. Kratos is protective, strong-willed and brave. He is the god of war after all. But what he also becomes is kind, caring, nurturing and sensitive. His protectiveness is not about rage and control, but rather about care and concern. By the end of GoW (2018), Kratos via Atreus has finally learned to forgive himself and accept himself for who he truly is. There is a juxtaposition of his Godhood and humaneness. He is a god filled with flaws, scars that remind him of his darker past; yet he is also a father who is learning from his mistakes, embracing the playfulness, and warmth his son Atreus teaches him.
I believe there is a Kratos in us all. Not the Kratos who kills Zeus, but the one who embraces Atreus, his boy. While a power struggle between father-son is unavoidable, it need not be fraught with conflict that involve intense intra & interpsychic challenges. It is important to acknowledge for the father that the only meaning & identity they hold is not one of power, and authority. There are more than breadwinners, and brave men that are supposed to protect us. Fathers are fallible, sensitive, and kind beings who can give themselves the opportunity to be a father again- of a different kind.
Identity is dynamic, and men are ascribed their identity. Patriarchy crumbles us as we grow older. The privileges that patriarchy presents us with can also be seen as double-edged swords responsible for the consistent internal conflicts we face within and outside. Power cannot be destroyed, but it can be contained. We need to reflect and see the strength of power itself. Power is exercised consciously through our actions, but moved by our unconscious. Identity is not simply rested on the power we yield or the roles we play; we are more than the sum of our actions. What we are is fallible humans who are ever changing and learning. A father is not just a father, while that might be the centrality of his identity; it is the father himself who has to give himself the chance to be more.
I acknowledge the irony of talking about the father while not being a father. Yet, I think Kratos learned to be a better father because he was a son first.