G. M. Baker - Author

The Ring

The Charm, Silliness, and Virtue of The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings is controversial in both literary and Catholic circles. At the literary level, critics dismiss it while the public loves it, regularly voting it high on various best books lists. Catholic opinion is similarly divided, some seeing it as the great Catholic novel of the 20th century while others dismiss it as boring nonsense. Both judgements miss something. The Lord of the Rings is a big, messy, and sometimes silly book, but it has a streak of genius running through it.

(This off-the-cuff blog post was prompted not by a recent re-reading, though I have read it several times, but by observing a twitter spat on the subject, so if it get the names and incidents mixed up in what follows, I pray your indulgence.)

The tale grew in the telling, Tolkien said of it. Would that someone had taken pruning shears to it. A developmental editor worth their salt might have pointed out:

  • That the Nazgul, the greatest warriors in the service of Sauron, as per The Return of the King, should have had no trouble taking the ring off Frodo and company on the road to Rivendell and flying it straight back to Mordor.
  • That Gandalf’s death in the mines of Moria is a blatant plot device to strip Frodo of his help and that his eventual return makes no sense, any more than the death speech of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the first Star Wars movie, “If you strike me down I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine,” makes any sense. Gandalf turns into some sort of super knight in the final battle but is otherwise of no consequence again. Obi-Wan Kenobi turns into a voiceover Mr. Miyagi.
  • That the whole business of Aragorn summoning the dead to fight for him, seems entirely unrelated to the themes or plot of the book, and is in no way foreshadowed, as such plot devices should be — if they are needed to solve a plot problem, which this one isn’t.
  • Why is there any need for the monstrous battle at all, once the ring is destroyed? How does this make sense in the plot, and, more importantly, what is its literary function? If the ring is the thing, then the destruction of the ring is the end of the thing, isn’t it?
  • What’s with the elephants???
  • What’s with the walking talking trees???

And one could go on. It is a big, messy, sometimes silly book.

There is nothing wrong with big, messy, sometimes silly books — books that get by largely on charm and invention. Some others of that ilk have done quite well since The Lord of the Rings. (Yes, I am referring to a certain boy wizard.) But big, messy, silly books that get by on charm and invention don’t deserve permanent places in the literary canon on their charm and invention alone, however much they may catch the attention of the public in a given moment.

On the other hand, these characteristics are not inherently disqualifying. There are big, messy, sometimes silly books full of charm and invention that do deserve a permanent place in the literary canon. (Yes, I mean Dickens.)

They deserve it because there is something else there. At least part of what is there in Dickens (and not in Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings) is sheer exuberant humanity. Most over the top characters in literature are less than human. Dickens’ are more than human. Hagrid and Aragorn are archetypes and they do their jobs well enough. But they don’t have the sense of vivid reality of a Miss Havisham or a Sam Weller or a Uriah Heep. One does not read Hagrid or Aragorn and feel that one has met them — quite the opposite, one feels one has never met them, and perhaps one regrets the fact. But when one reads Miss Havisham or Sam Weller or Uriah Heep, one feels that one has, of course, met them, and met them many times and in many guises.

If there is any character remotely like that in The Lord of the Rings, it is Sam, and only Sam. The rest are more archetypes than people. There is nothing wrong with that. Populating a book with archetypes is perfectly respectable literary practice. But for such a book to be considered of particular note or merit, it should do something with those archetypes that points to something human.

And The Lord of the Rings does just that. Woven through all the ponderous mythmaking is a reflection on the nature of temptation which deserves serious attention, both from the literary community generally and from Catholic readers in particular.

And understanding the book in this way explains why the one scene that so many fans would have left out of The Lord of the Rings — that Peter Jackson in the movies does leave out — is actually key to this theme.

There have been many attempts over the years to identify the ring with various specific evils. The one that Tolkien specifically denounced was identifying it with the atomic bomb. This identification was chronologically impossible — the ring had been in Tolkien’s imagination and in the drafts of the book long before the bomb went off. But to identify the ring with any specific evil is, I think, to miss the point. The ring is simply the McGuffin — the thing that everyone wants. In other words, it is an object of universal temptation. It is not a question of what it stands for, but of what it stands in for — for every object of desire that is beyond our power to resist. It is the wanted thing we should not have, whatever that may be. Its simplicity and lack of clear properties or function make it not a specific device or a specific evil but simply the avatar of desire.

It is in this respect that the book is particularly Catholic. To the secular world, temptation is merely a psychological phenomenon to be overcome by will power. But The Lord of the Rings insists over and over again that temptation cannot be overcome by will power alone. The wise and mighty of will — Gandalf, Aragorn, Elrond, Galadriel — all refuse to touch it, knowing that it will master them. Frodo is not chosen as ring bearer because of his strength but because of his humility. All the same, Frodo does not master the temptation of the ring. It is beyond his power to do so. Instead, on the cusp of Mount Doom, he claims it for his own.

Only three characters give up the ring voluntarily.

  • Bilbo, who is bullied by Gandalf into leaving it behind for Frodo. (There is a gross inconsistency here between the kind of hold the ring has on Bilbo and the kind it has on Gollum and on Frodo. The tale grew in the telling.)
  • Sam, who holds it very briefly in Shelob’s lair.
  • Tom Bombadil, who finds it wholly uninteresting.

Catholic (Christian) teaching is that we, as fallen creatures, cannot overcome temptation by the exercise of our own unaided will. Like Frodo on the cusp of Mt. Doom, we will always turn back from the edge and claim our vices for our own. To triumph over temptation, we need something more than will power. We need grace.

Grace can take strange forms. In The Lord of the Rings it takes the form of Gollum, equally in the thrall of the ring, biting off Frodo’s ring finger and then plunging into the volcano, thus sending the ring to its destruction.

There is a critique of the nature of evil in this scene. The ring is undone by its own contradictions. Its only means of persuasion is covetous desire, and in the end it is the covetous desire of the creatures that it has corrupted that leads to its destruction.

But Gollum is only there to play this part in the destruction of the ring, and thus the saving of Middle-Earth, because earlier Frodo had spared Gollum’s life when Sam (with eminent justification) was about to kill him. This act of mercy, which seems mere foolishness at the time, is the act that actually saves the day.

One cannot, in literature, show grace operating in the world as a kind of outside force moving the pieces around to change the outcome of the story. This is Deus Ex Machina and it is death to the story form. (Nor do we see grace acting in such a blatant way in real life either.) But what one can do is provide the evidences of grace, to suggest its presence without delineating its operation. This is what Frodo’s act of mercy to Gollum does.

Sam illustrates another Catholic theme in the resistance of temptation: obedience. Sam is, from the beginning to the end, a servant. He never wavers in this role. He never seeks to take the lead or to exalt himself in the fellowship of the ring. He is Frodo’s servant. He loves his master and is obedient to him. And thus, very much against his judgement, he spares Gollum at Frodo’s command. In obedience he takes up his master’s quest when his master can carry it no further. In obedience he returns the ring to Frodo when Frodo is able to take it up again. His love for, and obedience to, his master, enables him to part with the ring which has corrupted every other creature.

Every other creature, that is, except Tom Bombadil. Tom Bombadil is a prelapsarian figure. He is not tempted by the ring because he is not an heir to the original temptation. He lives in a state of nature, and the natural world obeys him (the oak tree releases Pippin at his command). But he cannot be trusted as the guardian of the ring, as Elrond explains, because he would have no interest in it, no notion of its significance or peril. He lacks, in other words, the knowledge of good and evil which is the fruit of original sin. He is not only immune to temptation, but incapable of understanding it.

And this is a necessary part of the meditation on temptation that runs through The Lord of the Rings and is reflected in so many of its secondary incidents: the corruption of Saruman, Pippin’s seduction by the palantír, Boromir’s seduction by the ring. It establishes and grounds the whole theme in its Catholic anthropology.

The Lord of the Rings is a book full of charm and invention and adventure, and can easily be forgiven its inconsistencies and occasionally silliness and enjoyed for those things alone. No one should be faulted for enjoying it for that and no more — there is nothing wrong with enjoying a rollicking adventure story. But neither should anyone be faulted who finds those things tedious.

But the debate about merit — whether we are talking literary merit in the general sense or whether we are talking about particular merit for the Catholic reader — the merit it has lies in its deep meditation on the nature of temptation. Taken purely as such, it would have benefitted from some serious editorial pruning. But that does not mean it is not worth persevering past the charm that leaves you cold and the invention that bores you, to get at that part of the story.

Of course, the modern literary critic, if they detect this theme, might reject the book on the ground that they reject the theme. But the ordinary reader does not have to detect the theme of a work to enjoy it (nor should they be forced to try). And nor do they have to work out whether the theme agrees with the official doctrine of the civilization to which they belong in order to be touched by it. Fiction that eschews overt ideology has the ability to slip under the guard of prevailing ideology and speak to direct human experience. Which might go a long way to explaining why the general public values this book so particularly, and in contradiction to so many of the critics. They may perhaps feel that temptation is like that after all, and respond, however tacitly, to its unifying role in this big messy book.

But wait, you might well say, given that its appeal is so broad, is it really a problem that it is a big, messy, sometimes silly book that relies heavily on charm and invention but also has this thread of genius, this meditation on temptation, running through it? Would editing it down to where its great theme became more readily apparent make it a more or less popular book?

Probably less popular, in truth. But that was not my question. Would it make it more widely regarded as a work of literature and as a work of serious interest for Catholic readers? Conceivably. Then again, perhaps all those who dismiss it for its fantasy setting would dismiss it just as quickly in a more compressed format. Certainly there are many who will dismiss anything out of hand that is not contemporary realism.

So maybe The Lord of the Rings is just right after all, succeeding in bringing a meditation on temptation to a wide audience who would never pick up a book that was described as containing such a thing, even if in the process it loses the regard and the attention of some of the people who would pick up a book so described.

My purpose, I suppose, is simply to say to them, yes, there is much in this big messy, sometimes silly, book that relies over much on charm and invention, and that may not be your cup of tea. But there is something else there as well. Let us not pretend for the sake of its virtues that it has no vices. But let us not dismiss what is wonderful in it just because of its candy coated shell. And let us not assume that just because a book is a rollicking adventure story, that it cannot contain something else besides.

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14 Comments

  1. Galastel

    You can prune a book down to an in-depth discussion of one theme. You then are quite likely to get a book that’s dry and didactic. But if there is more than one discussion in your book, more than one thought, more than one theme, you are going to get a big messy book. And it had better have charm and invention then to hold it all together.
    Those are the books I prefer – the ones you can reread many times, and find thoughts you haven’t thought before.

    • Thanks for the comment, Galastel,

      Certainly if the writer sets out determined to get their theme across at all costs they can forget to tell a story. I’ve seen quite a few of those. But there are lots of books with a consistent main theme that don’t fall into that trap. Grahame Greene’s The Power and the Glory is one that springs readily to mind.

      But you are certainly right that there can be more than one theme. Tolkien’s environmentalism was a big part of the books appeal back in the day. I’m not sure what Tolkien would thing of the modern environmental movement, though. He was passionate about preserving the English countryside, so I’m pretty sure he would have a beef with the people who want to cover it with windmills and solar panels. 🙂

      But as you say, a book with multiple themes can have trouble holding them together, and that does seem to be the case here. It certainly gives a book more than one way to appeal to the reading public, and The Lord of the Rings clearly succeeded on that front.

      The downside is that people who might appreciate one of its themes may fail to see it — may fail to get to it — because they are bored by all the other stuff. That certainly seems to be the case here too. This makes it harder to reach consensus on the merits of a book, which is definitely the case when it comes to The Lord of the Rings.

      • Galastel

        Mmm, what Tolkien would have thought of modern environmentalism is interesting. His was tinted with nostalgia, it was about a simpler way of living, closer to nature. Modern environmentalism seems to be more about preserving nature as something separate, in a way, from humanity. I can almost see modern-day environmentalists sending all humans to a different planet, just so we’d stop doing damage to nature.

        A theme that spoke to me very strongly in the LotR is the juxtaposition of the “prototype heroes”, like Aragorn, and the simpler, more human hobbits, who end up doing the greatest deeds. There’s a current of belief in humanity there – that those simple, lazy, unworldly fellows will rise up to the occasion; that we can rise to the occasion, and without being particularly brave or smart – still find it in us the courage and determination to do the right thing. It’s the very opposite of G.R.R. Martin’s (and many others’) “dog-eat-dog” world.

        You are right that a theme in a book might have spoken to a person, if only they were to have found it within the rest of the stuff. But then, maybe this book just isn’t for them. On the other hand, there might be in a book a theme that speaks less to a particular person, but there are enough other ideas in the same book to attract them, so they’re willing to overlook a theme they disagree on with the author.

        As a Jew, a theological Christian discussion isn’t particularly interesting to me. In as much as it is also a more general philosophical discussion, it is interesting, but I might well disagree with the conclusions reached. For example, I find Boromir’s questioning and doubt much more relatable than Faramir’s faithful rejection of the Ring. He did the right thing, but as far as I’m concerned – he did it for the wrong reasons.

        There is enough in The Lord of the Rings to make it one of my favourite books, one I reread every couple of years, despite certain disagreements I might have with it. In part, I think it’s made possible by the very fact that it’s big and messy and about a lot of different things all at the same time. Contrast it with Narnia, with its overpowering Christianity – I can’t abide it. I rejected it as a child because “Aslan shows up and solves everything, that’s boring” and I rejected it as an adult because there’s nothing for me to relate to, as well as because it actively rejects me as a non-Christian.

        As for the merit of a book, I can only say that some books, e.g. The Lord of the Rings, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Master and Margarita – I have grown, and the world around me was made bigger to me, through having read them. Other books – the best I can say about them is that I’ve been entertained. I don’t know how you reach consensus on this – many people agree their world has been made bigger by the same book? Perhaps in part it is a subjective experience, dependent on who you are, as much as on the book.

        • Yes, there is certainly a deus ex machina problem with The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. (My favorites among the Narnia books are The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Horse and his Boy, and The Silver Chair, and I just realized the other day that they all take place outside of Narnia.)

          But I see it as of a piece with what you say about the story of the small who rise to the occasion, the small who do small deeds of great significance on the periphery of great events. I suppose one could build a defense of the huge battle in Return of the King with all its grandiosity and silliness as the necessary contrast element to the humble efforts of Sam and Frodo. The actions of Lucy and Edmund are small in contrast to the actions of Aslan, but they are hugely significant in their own lives. I think that this theme recurs again and again in Catholic Literature. The Whisky Priest in The Power and the Glory accomplishes nothing of worldly significance. Guy Crouchback, in Waugh’s Sword of Honor Trilogy, makes not meaningful contribution to the war effort. The difference he makes is very small, and yet hugely significant in a small way. This begins to touch on something that I plan to talk about in another post, so I won’t delve further here.

          Your mention of the contrast to G.R.R. Martin highlights one of the strangest and perhaps most significant things about Tolkien: he has thousands of imitators, but not one of them is anything like him. That too is a subject for another post.

          As to merit, I am, obstinately, of the school that believes that artistic merit is objective. (See C. S. Lewis’ defense of it The Abolition of Man.) But I am reconciled to the fact that I have only a slight chance of persuading those of my own community who have rejected it, and none at all of converting the modern critic, who would only object to it more the more he understood it.

          • Galastel

            I am really undecided on whether merit is objective or subjective. On the one hand, if someone were to tell me that in their opinion there’s no merit in “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, I’d think there’s something wrong with them, rather than with the book. It’s sort of hard for me to think of its merit as “subjective”. On the other hand, there’s clearly a lot that you find beautiful and worthy in Narnia, whereas I can’t find much in a book that so explicitly denies there’s worth in me as a person (“The Last Battle” in particular).

          • I didn’t know that there was an issue of that kind with The Last Battle. I never thought it was a good book, though, even as a kid. Not as bad as The Magician’s Nephew, but not a good book at all. I wish he had stopped at five. With the last two it was clearly Lewis the apologist holding the pen rather than Lewis the storyteller. I think Lewis was a fine apologist when writing apologetics. But apologists make poor novelists, regardless of what cause they are promoting.

            This is why his space trilogy is such an odd duck. It is clearly a work of apologetics in novel form, and if you read it in that form, it works. But Lewis is a good enough storyteller that it almost works as literature — almost, but not quite.

            But this strikes at the heart of the problem of literary merit. There are many for whom literary merit simply means how much a book supports their ideology. But that is to deny that literary merit exists as a separate consideration (which Lewis explicitly argued against in “Men without chests”). If we hold that literary merit is a separate thing, then we have to allow that it exists even in books whose sentiments we disagree with, or which are written by authors whose sentiments we disagree with.

            But this is the wider issue of whether literary merit can exist in books that contain significant flaws — of whatever kind. And that brings me back to my argument about The Lord of the Rings: that is contains both significant flaws and a core of real literary merit. And thus we can acknowledge that even if ideological conformity is not an element of literary merit, enormous literary merit can still exist in books written with ideological purpose. (My go to examples for this are The Grapes of Wrath and Oliver Twist — both works written is a mood of political outrage, and both books which survive on their literary merit long after the causes the espouse are moot.)

          • Galastel

            Oliver Twist is actually a very good example of your point: it is a book I do not like. First, because Fagin is a conglomerate of antisemitic stereotypes. Dickens even refers to him as “the Jew” more often than he calls him by his name. Second, because Oliver’s “happy end” comes not by his own merit, but by virtue of having a rich uncle. Compare to Hector Malot’s Sans Famille, dealing with largely the same themes, but where Rémi earns his happy ending through his own hard work (mostly). I disliked the message that “to get out of a bad situation, you must have a rich uncle”. (Of course, Dickens’s target audience was the rich uncles rather than the poor children.)

            Even though I do not like Oliver Twist, I cannot deny its literary merit. In a way, it invites me to an intelligent discussion, and I choose to disagree with some of its points. But even if I were disagreeing with its main point, I believe the discussion would have still been interesting. To wit, I have enjoyed Paradise Lost, despite finding myself rather on the side of Satan, and not at all liking God. (Unless that’s the point? It can’t be a complete accident.)

            In Narnia, I’m not invited to a discussion – I’m being proselytised to. To me, whatever merit Narnia has – it’s locked behind a fatal flaw. It’s so heavy on Christian allegory, that am I actually allowed to engage with it as a story at all? Can I call the whole stone table sequence stupid, for instance? Or have I just said that the Crucifixion is stupid, and we don’t do that to other people’s religion? If I’m not allowed to criticise, I’m locked out. But if I am allowed to criticise, and the stone table sequence (for instance) is only made not stupid by representing a Christian element – then I’m still locked out. I’m only allowed in if the stone table sequence makes sense within the framework of the story, regardless of what it “represents”.

            If a reader might be locked out of a story, to what extent is merit objective vs. subjective? If I’m locked out of a story, am I then supposed to accept its merit based on hearsay, or does it hold little merit for me? If a story relies heavily on some outer source – if it is, for example, a parody, (easier to talk of those than of religious allegories) how are we to judge its merit? To judge it as a work thoroughly independent would rather miss the point, I think. But to judge it within the framework of its connection to other sources – does not then subjectivity enter into the equation, in how one engages with these sources?

            (And my, have we gotten carried away. This conversation started with Tolkien being awesome. Which he is. Stop me if this has gone too far. I’m just really enjoying this process of trying to sharpen my understanding.)

          • Well, we might sum that up as the question of whether literary merit is culturally contained. That is interesting, because in the sense that literary merit has to do with getting at the universally human, it ought not to be culturally contained. But on the other hand, literary merit is expressed through story, and stories are made up of references to stories (stories all the way down). Stories exist in cultures, and are the product of cultures. If you don’t know any of the stories on which a meritorious story is built, it may be dealing with the universally human, but it is doing so in a way that is inaccessible to you.

            And obviously we don’t have a universal culture, (and I don’t think it is something we should hope for either). So the logic of this is that there can be literary works of universal merit but that they all lack universal accessibility — either because they assume stories that are unknown to or repugnant to other cultures — such as Dickens invoking all of his cultures prejudices captured in the words “the Jew”.

            This is not at all to succumb to literary relativism or to say that any story is a good as another. But it is to say that different cultures may have to get to common truths through the lenses of different stories.

            That’s a comfortable little thought. The only problem with it is that not every culture reaches the same heights of vision and expression in every art. So if certain cultures have gone father and realized works of art of greater merit than in my culture, what do I do? Do I content myself with what my own culture has achieved — which is easily accessible to me — or do I go and learn enough about that culture to appreciate the greatness of its works? (And this is a problem existing through time as much as across geographies. How much Greek history and culture do I need to learn to appreciate Sophocles?)

            Such study is no small undertaking. Perhaps therefore we have to be willing to content ourselves with acknowledging that there is merit in works that are inaccessible to us because of cultural differences that we do not think are worth the effort to bridge. Of course, in a multicultural society, that presents a formidable curriculum development challenge which I am glad it is not my job to grapple with.

  2. Nice post, Mark. And a good followup discussion. For a couple of years when I was a kid, one of my main sources of reading materials was the library at the Anglo-Catholic theological college my dad went to. (Also as you know I think, I “did theology” at uni or at least dabbled enough to see what I didn’t know.) So I’m interested in your exploration of Catholic literature, or literature by Christians in general.

    About Tolkien, I get the strange feeling that he’s documenting something he imperfectly remembers. He documents Middle Earth in great, painstaking detail about Middle Earth (LOTR lets us off comparatively lightly on that score), and paints vividly the themes that the events there evoked for him. For me, the theme of temptation or desire comes through very strongly – the ring behaves very like the heroin a couple of acquaintances from my youth succumbed to – they thought it was a power they could control, and of course they couldn’t.

    But Tolkien indeed is vague on characters and some of the unlikely plot turns they’re involved in. Somehow that doesn’t make them any less real to me, it’s just that they’re narrated by someone with a dramatic memory and an academic’s approach to documenting the less-important details of place and culture. Maybe Gandalf never fell into that pit, but just hung out in the shallows of Moria for a bit. He seems to have a lot on his plate that we don’t see half of. And I wouldn’t rely on Tolkien’s recollections to convict the Balrog.

    Regarding the Narnia books, though, I was interested in what you had to say. When I encountered Harry Potter, I thought how one-dimensional he and his schoolmates were compared to the human children, flaws and all, who visit CS Lewis’s alternative worlds. The three books you mention are particularly good that way. The Last Battle kind of let me down though – I loved the theme of subjective perception with some characters seeing a smelly dark shed and others a beautiful place with delicious food. But the end felt to me like a bit of a cop out. I thought that feeling was just because I’m not a Christian (though still religious). But interesting that you also get that sense, if I understand you correctly.

    As for objective merit, it’s impossible to define in a watertight way, but a very useful thing to recognize pragmatically. The world is not “just whatever I say it is”.

    • Thanks for the comment, Joe.

      That’s a very interesting observation about Tolkien. I think I see where you are coming from. LOTR is a novel situated inside a mythic history, and, yes, there is a distinct feeling that that mythic history is incompletely grasped, incompletely known. Perhaps he designed it to feel that way. Perhaps he always felt he was discovering it more than inventing it, and that he had never quite discovered it all.

      Most of what I see as the flaws of LOTR, however, result from that mythic history. In this sense I think Tolkien can be blamed for a lot of what ails the fantasy genre today (which is to say only, what I don’t like about the fantasy genre today), which is its obsession with mythic history. There is nothing wrong with mythic history as a hobby, and there is quite a hobbyist community around it. There are people who spend years developing their mythic histories and then decide to write a novel set in it, just as a way to show it off. Tolkien seems to be the progenitor of this clan.

      The problem is, mythic histories and novels are not the same thing. Most novels written to illustrate mythic histories are lousy novels. Even the ones that are not are usually deeply flawed and turn off a large number of people who find the mythic history stuff silly.

      I agree with your about Harry Potter as well. The books are enormously inventive and sometimes hilariously funny. The letters from Hogwarts pursuing Harry to the ends of the earth are one of the most comic things this side of P. G. Wodehouse. But the characters — like the books — are morally vacuous. What makes The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe so special is not the plot, which is very much Deus ex machina — but the moral complexity — the moral humanity — of the characters. And, now I think of it, that is just what was missing in The Last Battle and The Magician’s Nephew, where the characters are chess pieces manipulated to make a point. Whether one agrees with the points being made or not, this is not satisfactory storytelling. (Further, those two books exist is large part to round out the mythic history of Narnia — again, not a good basis for a novel.)

      Lewis himself made much of the idea of the difference between that which is human and that which looks human and isn’t. It is a theme very much present in The Last Battle. And yet the book falls into that same trap itself, creating characters that look human but aren’t, because they exist only as avatars of a point of view.

      No writer ever went broke writing characters who are avatars of a point of view. They sell like hot cakes to people who share that point of view. There have been countless Catholic and Christian books published in that vein. But merit in literature, in my view at least, consists in creating characters who are actual humans, with all our yearnings and failings, our affections and our good intentions. If my faith is true, it should have nothing to fear from that.

      This is perhaps why Grahame Greene’s The Power and the Glory is one of my favorites. In parallel to the story of the whisky priest, in all his brokenness and failings, Greene interleaves a hagiographical account of the same man in the traditional saccharine church pamphlet form. He doesn’t need to comment on this. The contrast says it all.

      • Mark, I’d be curious to know how you decide whether to judge a book on its literary merits or its religious/philosophical/cultural merits. I suppose this question is meant for you personally since everyone may have a different preference. Are there books you enjoy purely because you agree with their ideology and not because you think they’re particularly well-written?

        I ask for two reasons. One, because your other comments on this post have steered toward literary criticism and been less forgiving of books that exist to prove a point. Is that indicative of your overall approach to reading, or is it the purpose of this blog, or is it just the purpose of this particular post?

        And two, I’m curious if there’s any underlying logic for how readers and writers should approach this conundrum. I’m both a reader and a writer, and I have a very specific sense of taste when it comes to preachiness. I don’t care for allegories (despite being deeply religious), but I also have no patience for books whose only ambition is to entertain. I need something in the middle which cares about meaning and substance – which reveals something about the human condition – while not overtly preaching. I believe that my writing trends in that direction as well. Or at least I hope it does.

        And I will probably always have an audience of those who agree with me when it comes to those aspects. But is there a right or a good way to balance them? Or is that purely subjective to each individual?

        • Excellent question, Joseph. I’d probably answer it seven different ways on seven different days, but here’s the first thing that pops into my head.

          I think at the core of this — and that reason that literature exists at all — is that there is a difference between experiential truth and propositional truth. This is presumably about how the brain works rather than there being two different types of truth. So lets say that there are truths we can receive propositionally and truths that we can only receive experientially.

          Stories create experiences. (I’d reference Lisa Cron’s book Wired for Story here, which argues that the brain processes stories exactly the way it processes experiences.) Sometimes we read the story and it strikes us a true — as true to life — even though it is fictional. Sometimes it strikes us as false to life — though sometimes, perhaps, we may prefer the lie to the truth. Sometimes it illuminates life, making us see it differently.

          What is clear is that the truth of stories cannot be translated into propositional statements without substantial loss of effect. We don’t have to go any further than the Bible to see this. Every word of the bible has a million words of commentary written about it. But no commentary every written strikes us or stays with us the way the Book of Ruth or the Song of Songs or the story of the prodigal son does. There is something recieved in the experiential truth of story that is missing in the propositional truth of philosophy.

          In this sense, literary criticism that attempts to tease out propositional truths from a story is entirely missing the point. There is something in the experiential truth that propositional truth can never capture.

          And that, I think, is what makes literary merit different from philosophical merit. And it is why I don’t like novels that are trying to make a propositional claim rather than create an experience. It is much more complicated than that in reality though, because we don’t keep propositional and experiential truths in two neat separate baskets. We are always somehow working back and forth between them. Christ in the Bible often takes the apostles aside and explains a parable in propositional terms.

          So while literary merit and philosophical merit are distinct things, they are mixed up with each other in complex ways.

          Perhaps part of it is this. It is far easier to lie propositionally than experientially. Indeed, it is far easier to deceive oneself propositionally than experientially. In this sense, literature has a philosophical role to play as a disciplinarian of propositional logic.

          But we can’t neglect either that humans often like the lie. We like experiential lies just as much as we like propositional lies. I think, though, that there is always a level of discomfort with the experiential lie that you can never quite dismiss. Even if you like the lie, you know, somewhere inside, that it is a lie. With propositions you can deceive yourself utterly. This is, perhaps, why ideologues hate art, and hate comedy most of all.

          Preachiness in books comes in two forms, I think. One is propositional preaching inserted into a literary work. It might make a fine sermon, but it is misplaced in a work that is intended to create experiential rather than propositional truth.

          The other is in the form of an experiential lie. A character in a novel converts to Christianity (or any other faith) and immediately they stop drinking, their skin clears up, their marriage becomes blissful, their kid’s grades improve, they get a better job, and it never rains on their picnics every again. That is all just a lie, and we know it for a lie. Life is just not like that. The father welcomes home the prodigal son, and what does he get — a load of resentment and complaints from the other son. That is a story that is true to life.

          Either form of preachiness is repugnant in literature, and it has nothing to do with whether you belong to the faith that is being preached. One is not true to the form, and the other is not true to life.

  3. I like the word “resonance” to describe the feeling of experiencing a story that rings true. It’s a great feeling, and probably accounts for the success of all of the most successful books. But as a life-long reader, I’ve noticed that what resonates with me can change over time. Sometimes dramatically.

    This is probably a natural part of aging. When I was a child I needed child-like things to excite my imagination; now I need something else. That’s reasonable enough. But it can also sometimes indicate a shift in my devotions, even deeply-held ones.

    So if resonances can change, why do we trust them at all? (I suppose this starts to introduce a separate debate, of logic versus emotion. And maybe the question itself is foolish since I’m asking about the logical conditions under which we should follow our feelings…)

    But more to what you were saying: if it’s hard to lie experientially, how is it possible that what resonates might change? Could a story feel true at one time and not at another? And are there any universal human truths which are not subject to change? In a multicultural society, you can always find someone who disagrees with what you believe to be a universal truth. Thus my use of the phrase “human truths,” since it seems that there are things about humanity which transcend cultural differences (and those happen to be what literature is best at speaking about).

    • I think resonance is a good word for this. But maybe novelty has something to do with resonance as well as truth. Maybe the resonance fades simply because we are so familiar with the experience that it no longer lights up the brain.

      And I don’t think that an experiential truth has to be particularly profound. Nor does it have to be universal. There are lots of experiential truths that are culturally specific.

      Part of the problem is trying to sort out what is a culturally specific truth from what is a universal truth. It is not helped by the fact, noted above, that stories are themselves culturally specific. We approach the universal through the lens of our culture, because culture is stories (stories all the way down) and only stories can provide that experiential truth that really resonates.

      Perhaps this leads to much misunderstanding between cultures. We become attached to our stories rather than to the experiences they capture. We argue because we tell different stories about the same experience though we can’t fall into total cultural relativism here. Sometimes one culture is simply nearer the truth than another culture has yet come.

      But it could also be that universal truths that don’t change are all propositional. All experience is individual and takes place in a specific time and place to a person whose perceptions and expectations have been shaped by a particular culture. We don’t actually have universal experiences. We have particular experiences of common things. Perhaps that is why literature is so important to us, and why philosophy, with its great universal propositions, while it can be both true and useful, leaves us aching for something more specific, more human.

      Literature, then, may give us the particular experiential encounter with what is common and universal that no philosophical statement could ever give us.

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