Why we were captivated by the story of 12 boys trapped in a cave

By now people across the globe know that the Wild Boars, the soccer team of 12 youths — as young as 11 — were trapped in a Thai cave by heavy rainstorms this week. They had gone on this adventure before without incident. But now an international team of engineers, workers, and divers gathered for the rescue, an exit so tricky that it took the life of one experienced diver.

Now that the boys and their coach are safely out, it feels like the right time to ask some big questions about the nature of this story and the power of all stories.

News judgment is a strict taskmaster. It prevents us from telling the story of every child who is in mortal danger. We must pick and choose.

Stop for a moment and ask yourself how many children in America and around the world are at this moment in jeopardy, in danger of the loss of their health and lives. They may be victims of gun violence in Chicago or civil war in Syria, or they may have been torn from their parents at a border, or they may have lost their parents to opioid addiction, or they suffer from lead poisoning, or they live on islands or in territories in danger because of extreme weather or other catastrophes. I have no data to share with you, but the perils in this paragraph must afflict children by the millions.                   

So why did these 12 boys and their soccer coach in a cave, in a country halfway around the world, capture and keep our attention? Why has their story received hour-by-hour coverage in every form of news delivery yet invented? I am going to try to answer that question using three separate rubrics of news judgment: 1) a famous list of news qualifiers by a famous journalism professor; 2) an attempt to match this story against familiar narrative archetypes; 3) a literary scholar’s explanation of why such stories — all stories — are necessary for human survival.

Mencher’s List

Melvin Mencher was arguably the most famous teacher at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, a demanding mentor famous for his aphorisms about the process of reporting. (“Follow the money, kid” or “Get a good quote high in the story.”)  He was also the author of the most influential college journalism textbooks of the 20th century, "News Reporting and Writing." In the 10th edition of that book, he lists seven elements of news judgment. Here they are, with my grades on how they fit the story of 12 boys in a cave.

Timeliness: It has come in waves: news that boys were lost, that workers were searching, that they were discovered alive, that plans were underway to rescue them, that the first boys were brought out safely.

Impact: There is a life-and-death impact on these children and their loved ones, of course, with an emotional impact on the Thai people. But in terms of “young lives in danger,” there are far fewer than produced by the immigration crisis in the U.S. or refugee families fleeing from Syria.

Prominence: For American audiences, there is no prominent person or institution that might raise the level of attention.

Proximity: The news comes from far away. This category does not apply.

Conflict: This story does not contain the usual forms of news conflict: hot wars, political or policy debates, cops and criminals — but there is a struggle involving humans fighting against the forces of time and nature.  

The Unusual: In earlier editions of his book, Mencher referred to this as “the bizarre,” but “the unusual” is better, with less of a negative connotation. Perhaps, more than any other traditional category, this one best fits the news out of Thailand.

Currency: A story may have timeliness but then it builds up steam over time, like the Watergate hearings and the trial of O.J. Simpson. This story, as it unfolded, built interest in a race against nature and time.

Applying Mencher’s rubric, I come up with three relevant categories of newsworthiness: the unusual, conflict and currency, which is to say that his rubric, while helpful, does not fully explain the magnetism of these events and these stories.

Beyond the journalistic, I would argue that the story of 12 boys trapped in a cave derives its power from literary precedents, a kind of primal, archetypal narrative energy that makes us both afraid and hopeful.

Clark’s Archetypes 

1. These are boys and not men. We want them returned to their mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters.  

2. Twelve is a number we recognize as having meaning. Jesus led his 12 disciples. A seminar has a leader. A football team has a coach. The 12 days of Christmas.  One million children form a macrocosm. Twelve children form a microcosm, a little world, in which everything is contained and intensified. 

3. My colleague Wendy Wallace noted that this story evokes so many of our primal fears: claustrophobia, darkness, drowning, asphyxia, ripping children from their parents, famine and disease.

4. Tom French argues that the best narratives have engines, that is, questions that only the story can answer for the reader or viewer: guilty or not guilty, dead or alive, who shot J.R.?  We had multiple engines here: Will the boys be rescued? How will that come to pass? What condition will they be in when they get out? Will this happen before the monsoon storms set in? 

5. Because those questions are not answered all at once — there is delay, the passage of time, enforced waiting — this creates suspense. We have mini-cliffhangers along the way: a rescuer is killed, it’s starting to rain, they are bringing the stronger children out first, they are running out of air in the cave.

6. Descent into the underworld. Near my desk I have a copy of Dante’s "Inferno." His "Divine Comedy" begins, of course, with his getting lost in a dark wood and finding a guide, the poet Virgil, to lead him down deep into the circles of Hell, a necessary journey that will end with an ascent through Purgatory into Paradise. That story derives from both classical and Christian models. The singer Orpheus descends into the underworld trying to rescue his lover. Jesus, after his Crucifixion, descends into the underworld to grant salvation to lost souls.  

7. Rebirth. The descent works best as a narrative element if there is a return to the surface, through the dark tunnel into the light.

Boyd’s Theory on Stories and Human Survival

If Mencher offers some categories of newsworthiness, and I kick it up a notch with some ancient and persistent narrative patterns and archetypes, both are only prologues to the literary theories of a New Zealand scholar named Brian Boyd. The title of his book grabbed me, even though I failed to recognize it as an allusion to Darwin: "On the Origins of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction." 

Boyd is a practical, insightful, and versatile critic, a world expert on Nabokov who immersed himself in the science of evolutionary biology, a reader who takes us “from Zeus to Seuss.” This is not just a clever phrase. One big section of his book applies his theories to a reading of Homer’s "The Odyssey," another to "Horton Hears a Who!" by Dr. Seuss.

For as long as I have been studying literature in a serious way (about 1966), we English major types have been vigilant against reductive scientific interpretations of works of art. When it comes to “his genes made him write that,” we don’t want to hear it. Boyd is no reductionist. He ventured into Darwinian science and came out, not only unharmed but armed with powerful frames to help us understand both language and literature.

From his theoretical vantage point, God or Darwin (from my bias, maybe both) gave human beings a brain. More accurately, humans evolved over millions of years to have a brain of a certain size. That brain gave us language. And that capacity for language gave us the ability to tell stories. That power comes with lots of benefits.

If a wolf tried to attack me at the edge of the forest, or if a cop car was hiding on the other side of “Thrill Hill” here in St. Petersburg, Florida, waiting to give me a speeding ticket, I could find you and tell you what happened to me. As a result, your experience would expand. Without having to walk near the forest or drive over the hill, you would know that danger lurked there. You might choose to avoid it.

But, wait, there’s more! In real life, I never have seen a wolf anywhere, and I’m not sure I have ever even stood at the edge of a forest. (I have to get out more!) But I have driven too fast over Thrill Hill and got a ticket from the police officer waiting on the other side. These two kinds of storytelling expand our experience exponentially. I can tell you true stories based on things that actually happened. Or I can make things up, telling you the kinds of stories we categorize as fiction: No, it wasn’t a wolf at the edge of the forest, friend, it was a unicorn, a centaur and a dragon from Saturn. 

Stories not only enrich human experience, they are a form of virtual reality. When Romeo and Juliet die tragically, the audience weeps — even though the dead are only acting. From an evolutionary perspective, this great capacity to tell and learn stories increases the potential of our survival as a species. Another way of putting it: If stories did not help us survive, we would not have the ability to tell them.

But how is this magic set in motion? Boyd leads us along two paths. On one path, stories teach us how to live together. We can’t survive alone. There are dangers out there, and we need to work together — to collaborate — to protect ourselves and procreate. On the other path, stories identify the sources of danger, from murderers and tyrants to typhoons and plagues, the many ways in which violence, disorder, natural disaster, human greed and intolerance threaten a safe and peaceful order.

An efficient manifestation of this pattern can be found in stories told over the years in the television series "Law and Order." Each episode begins with a typical New Yorker finding a corpse, a horrible disruption of the social order. For a half hour, the police will investigate the murder and make an arrest, for the second half hour prosecutors will bring the accused to trial, and a jury will issue a verdict. Order is mostly restored.

The story of the 12 boys trapped in a cave has no villain to speak of — no Judas, Iago or Cruella de Vil. The coach has apologized and been forgiven. But other kinds of dangers have been exposed. To name them in the kindest way, we can call them inexperience, folly, naïveté, unpreparedness, an under-appreciation for the unpredictable power of nature. From this story, I will learn to be more cautious about entering caves, and not just the literal ones. 

On the other hand, maybe my grandson — who is 13 — will experience the story and nurture a desire to become trained as an expert diver, someone willing to travel to other countries and risk his personal safety to help others. He can learn to collaborate. 

That is the ultimate value of this amazing story, one worth remembering for many years. 

Once upon a time 12 boys and their coach got trapped in a deep, dark, dank cave, and over days and days people from all over the world thought of them and prayed for them and sent their best and bravest to rescue them so that they could be well, grow up, have children and be able to tell their children, and their children’s children, a truly amazing story — one that sounds like fiction, but even better, comes from real life.  

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.

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