On the Profoundly Rational Doctor Stephen Strange (Part 2)

Having found his way to “India, land of mystic entanglement” in the hope of having the “Ancient One” heal his hands, the still entirely cynical Strange discovered that magic really did exist. Prior to that discovery, he’d shown no more respect to his exceptionally aged host than he might have previously displayed to a forlorn, cash-strapped, would-be patient. Yet with the proof of the objective existence of sorcery came the knowledge that there were distinct schools determining how it might be put to use. As such, not only was Strange faced with the way in which thing really worked, but also with the way in which things could made to work best for him. The Strange who’d perceived of private medicine as a means for the accumulation of status and wealth was suddenly faced with an equally straight-forward model for evaluating self-interest. On the one hand, there was the prospect of a world dominated by the magic of the ruthless Baron Mordo, who Strange had already made a deadly enemy of. On the other, the maintenance of the benevolent order watched over by the Ancient One. As a man who had always reduced reality to profit, influence and social respect, Strange had always lived his life according to simple and straight-forward models of how the reality functioned. For a man who longed to be “the best … The greatest!!!”, the prospect of assuming a position of authority which both protected him and fulfilled the most exalted of responsibilities must have been irresistible.

In becoming the Ancient One’s disciple, and ultimately the Earth’s magical defender, Strange was initially serving the same basic drives and following the same reductionist thinking that he always had. Here was the game, here were the rules, here was the best possible outcome. Magic was real, Mordo was a deadly menace to his own survival, the Ancient One offered the chance not just of survival, but achievement. In the newly-revealed order of things, his interests and those of the overwhelming majority of his fellow human beings now entirely coincided. That the Doctor Strange who accepted the “path…fraught with danger” offered to him by the Ancient One eventually developed a deeply compassionate nature is beyond doubt. But he didn’t need any such empathy to embrace the opportunity which his own dogged pursuit of self-interest had brought him to. Strange had simply replaced his absolute faith in self-interest with the certainty that magic worked to his as well as the greater good. No leap of faith was required. Though the time he’d spent in the Ancient One’s company before agreeing to serve him had encouraged a few promising trembles of empathy, it wasn’t emotion but logic which transformed his allegiances. The evidence of magic’s existence was conclusive, the correlation between cause and effect entirely consistent, the choice before him no choice at all.

Of course, Strange’s “magic” is clearly anything but. It’s actually nothing but science that the Ancient One passes down to him, and with it comes a grasp of the Marvel Universe which none of his fellow superheroes could ever begin to comprehend. At the heart of Strange’s new understanding of everything was a certainty that existence operated according to an ultimately benevolent and just set of principles. This in itself must have come as an overwhelming shock to the entirely materialistic Strange. As he expresses following his initial battle with Loki;

“And yet, some omnipotent power has so arranged the universe that good must always prevail! For every mighty villain, there is a mightier hero! For every menacing enemy of mankind, there is a fighting Avenger!”

It’s the kind of reassuring cod-mysticism which Lee had always made a habit of sprinkling through his more cosmic efforts, and yet, Strange obviously knew that this was the way of things. Unfortunately, it seems that there’s no guarantee that this “omnipotent power” will step in at a time which best suits those threatened by villainy. Though Strange believed that it was “written that good must always triumph over evil”, he also knew that he himself wasn’t always destined to be the “fighting Avenger” who wins the day. The good will ultimately prevail, but when and how is beyond predicting, as he admitted when conceding that “the ways of fate are inscrutable indeed”. As such, he obviously felt no complacency at all when it came to the prospect of the success of his own endeavours, let alone the chances of his personal survival. All Strange could do, it seems, is work as hard as he could so that he might fulfil the role of champion as and when circumstances demanded it. Whether that would be enough to win the day, or whether he was merely helping set the stage for some more favoured protagonist, was something that he could never be sure of.

As for what that champion’s role might have precisely involved, Strange’s mention of “the sorceror’s code” in the second Amazing Spider-Man Annual indicates that he considered himself bound to the magician’s version of the Hippocratic Oath. In “Beyond The Purple Veil”, for example, he referred to an “oath” which compelled him to aid “even … enemies of society”. More intriguing yet, he declared;

“I dare make no exceptions”.

That suggests that Strange wasn’t just ethically committed to a particular way in which his mystical responsibilities might be fulfilled. The word “dare” carries a sense that there were serious and thoroughly unpleasant real-world consequences which would be triggered by his turning away from any humans in need. Regrettably, we’re never told what the repercussions of any such oath-breaking might be, and yet, we can note how this prerequisite often appeared to compel Strange to throw himself into situations where his fierce compulsion to help could be used against him. In “Witchcraft In The Wax Museum”, he impulsively left his body woefully unprotected in order to race to the source of what was revealed to be a faked cry for help. Such was no isolated incident Though frequently portrayed as a meticulous scholar and a brilliant improviser, Strange’s self-interest was obviously of little regard when compared to the suffering of even blatantly anti-social individuals. Again, there was a strange contradiction at play in these stories. Strange was the Ancient One’s trained and designated successor. It might be imagined that his status as the Earth’s only physically strong and magically powerful defender would require him to take a great deal of care in preserving himself for the greater good. But that’s obviously not how either Strange or the Ancient One understood their responsibilities. To not save a single life, it seems, would be as terrible a business as failing to preserve the universe itself. And whether or not the Earth might be left defenceless because Strange felt bound to risk all for a single and strategically unimportant life, that was exactly the sacrifice that he was obliged to offer day in and out.

Yet this “sorceror’s code” wasn’t one which obliged him to look to the best interests of the various extra-dimensional races which he encountered. If the choice was between the survival of the Earth as it stands and that of even innocent alien bystanders, then Strange appeared honour bound to put the interests of human beings first. And so, Strange retained his determination to defeat Dormammu despite believing that that would inevitably led to the destruction of the Dread Lord’s people at the hands of the rampaging Mindless Ones. It was a prospect which horrified him, and yet it didn’t in any way sway his determination to break his opponent’s power and bring to an end the terrible threat he posed to the Earth;

“I wish to bring no harm to this fantastic world … and yet my first duty is to Earth … and the ones who inhabit it! I have no choice … I must be true to my oath!”

To be continued.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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