Taking a field trip in the year 1389, Dream and his sister, Death, visit the White Horse tavern. Curious to observe the humans they otherwise so elegantly guide from behind the scenes, the pair overhears Robert “Hob” Gadling talking to his friends over some ale: “I’ve seen death. I lost half my village to the Black Death. I fought under Buckingham in Burgundy. I know what death is. Death is… stupid.”
And then, right under the nose of the very Death he mocks, Hob asserts a bold theory: “Nobody has to die. The only reason people die is because everyone does it. You all just go along with it. But not me. I’ve made up my mind: I’m not going to die.”
With every word, Death’s literal field day is turning into a figurative one, and she laughs almost as much as Hob’s friends, who try to convince him that death isn’t exactly optional. “You don’t know that!” Hob says. “I might get lucky. There’s always a first time.”
While Dream does not understand “how any sensible creature could crave an eternity of this,” he is happy to follow along with the experiment Death is willing to set up: Hob Gadling shall indeed not die, and he will meet Dream at the same inn every 100 years. The two agree, and in 1489, Dream finds a shocked Hob waiting for him, who nonetheless claims being alive this long has been “brilliant.”
By 1589, Hob has been knighted and made a great fortune, so of course, Dream finds him in high spirits. 100 years later, the wheels of luck have turned. Hob has lost his status, money, and, worst of all, his wife and son. He’s been down and out, hating every second of the last 80 years, and yet, when Dream asks him if he still wants to live, he only says: “Are you crazy? Death is a mug’s game. I’ve got so much to live for!”
Another 300 years later, the two get into a fight, and when Dream can’t make it to their scheduled meeting in 1989, Hob is, for the first time, seriously concerned. While it will take another 30 years for them to finally catch-up, when they eventually do, Dream apologizes for keeping his now-friend waiting and, after a good laugh and a beer, the two agree that Hob’s attitude is still the same: “I could do this forever.”
It’s a fun thought experiment, isn’t it? How long would you want to live? 500 years? 10,000? Forever?
“It’s all changing,” and that alone is fascinating, Hob says — that time referring to the invention of chimneys. “Your eyes aren’t watering all the time from the smoke!” A few centuries later, he claims safe streets and the wide availability of food are, “what I always dreamed heaven would be like.”
When would you have enough of observing the human story? Of getting to play in earth’s infinite sandbox? Would you be weary after a few generations of raising great-great-grandchildren? Or would you be more of a Hob, happy to do this forever?
Of course, unlike the fortunate Mr. Gadling, you and I will never get to discover our true, authentic answers to these questions. What we do know for sure, however — and if anything, Hob’s story reinforces this lesson — is that life is precious precisely because we don’t live forever.
And while he is enviable, there are some principles from which even Hob isn’t spared. Like the rule that you have to live your life one day and lesson at a time. At first, Hob is a sellsword, fighting for whoever will pay him the most coin. Later, he becomes a merchant and slave trader, but in time, he grows a conscience. At the time of their latest meeting, Dream sees a Hob vastly changed from the lowly bandit he initially came across. A man of morality, virtue, and principle. “Well, I may have learnt a bit from my mistakes,” Hob admits. “But that doesn’t seem to stop me from making them,” he adds with a smile.
Unfortunately or not, we don’t have many lifetimes to experience every tiny detail of the universe — but we also don’t need hundreds of years to grasp the most important parts. Gandhi understood a lot of them in just 78 years, and he managed to capture the essence of it all in a quote that you and I, but even a man like Hob, can aspire to live by — no matter for how long: