Poetic Justice

In children’s fiction, and fairy tales, poetic justice is a frequent feature. It restores the balance and avenges wrong without the good guys having to actually take revenge. So the good people are never morally compromised by killing the villain, but the wrongdoer gets their ’comuppance’ as we called it when I was small. This has some interesting implications, both from a druid and a writing perspective.

Poetic justice, by its very nature is appropriate, and is usually something the villain brings upon themselves – they are eaten by the very monster they created, they fall into their own evil machine, are blown up by their own bomb, foiled by the going wrong of their own evil plan. Aside from keeping the main character safe without requiring them to become violent, this method of resolution feels wholly deserved. It’s very satisfying.

Justice is an issue of great interest to Druids. One of our prayers asks for ‘the knowledge of justice, and in the knowledge of justice, the love of it.’ Druids of old were involved with law and justice too. Modern Druids talk of the importance of restorative justice, of returning balance and offsetting harm done.

When thinking about poetic justice from a Druid perspective, it raises a few interesting issues. Firstly, it’s random and just happens or is brought about by the wrongdoer, so you can’t actively seek it (although you can of course pray for it). It doesn’t require any action on the part of the victim. Sometimes this is, or can seem, a good thing. However, justice that requires the victim to face their oppressor, or just be brave enough to make a cry for help, has very different effects. When the victim seeks redress or participates actively in the process of justice, they own what happens. Although it may be hard and painful, actively seeking justice, gives something back to the victim. No matter what the offence, to be the victim of something is to lose a part of yourself – rights, freedom, self determination, property, soul… a survivor able to actively participate in justice may do better in the long run than one who benefits from a quirk of fate.

Where the victim has died, of course they can’t seek for justice, but their families can. Vengeance can be a ghastly, destructive thing, so poetic justice may spare them from that. There can be no righting of the wrong, no restoring of the balance when someone has died. Finding justice in such circumstances is difficult to say the least. 

From a writing perspective, poetic justice gives you an easy, tidy solution to the narrative. In kids fiction and fairy tales this fits the form and is satisfying. It can seem too tidy in more adult fiction, and doesn’t give the other characters chance to work through their own solutions. It can feel a bit ‘rabbit out of hat’ and too convenient to be plausible.

But even so, there are times when we all wish for it, and times when poetic justice comes, magically, to redress a balance we cannot hope to fix for ourselves. There have been a few such moments in my life. I would have no objections to encountering a few more.

3 thoughts on “Poetic Justice”

  1. Words of wisdom; thank you! I feel revenge is sought after more than justice perhaps because we might wish for the “rabbit out of the hat” ending or fairytale poetic justice when in most cases it takes time, understanding and soul searching to come to terms with an injustice. Some wrongs can’t be righted, but we can learn from them and move on using our knowledge to eel out some sort of righteous action for the future.

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  2. Bridget, perhaps “revenge is sought after more than justice” because justice so often isn’t “poetic” (imposed by Fate or Heaven or the villain’s own actions, “what goes around comes around”) and also isn’t achieved by the workings of the court, but is left entirely undone — and there the grinning villain is, so close, so temptingly within range of a weapon….

    Patience is hard. Trusting to the slow process is hard. The discipline of waiting is hard. You may have suffered a great loss, and it may be that the court will impose at most a fraction on the wrongdoer — and there at the hearing his throat passes within reach of your hands….

    So it really is a testament to self-restraint that so many people have let due process take its course, and not taken personal revenge.

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  3. In a way, the choice to seek justice over revenge is an act of faith, a leap of faith, a decision to trust in a system already known to be imperfect at delivering results and thus somewhat untrustworthy — because a society based on justice is better to live in than a society based on revenge… and all our acts of faith help shape that society.

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