The Heart of Man is Not Compound of Lies: Redemptive Sacrifice Found in Fictional Literature
The Heart of Man is Not Compound of Lies*: Redemptive Sacrifice Found in Fictional Literature
Readers are warned that major spoilers for A Tale of Two Cities and Harry Potter exist in this essay.
Fantasy is often regarded as either escapist or romantic; a means to ignore or deny the harsh realities of human life. Cynics see it as pure entertainment, with little or no true value apart from distraction. However, the importance of fantastic tales should not be so easily dismissed. Fantasy has been created by human beings for thousands of years in various forms, from classical Homeric epic poetry, to Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, to modern American television shows. Joseph Campbell, a 20th-century scholar of mythology and religion, wrote that myths indicate the universal search for meaning, as well as reflect the journey of each individual. He wrote: “What human beings have in common is revealed in myths. Myths are stories of our search through the ages for truth, meaning, for significance. We all need to tell our story and to understand our story.” In fantasy, we can question existence and purpose in an imagined space, confront the realities of suffering and death, and experience a touch of joy.
This “imagined space” of fantasy is removed from everyday life. That is, we encounter characters we have never met and travel to places we have never been. Further, the very rules which govern our world are often rewritten. In a fictional universe, one may encounter anything from talking beasts to people with superhuman abilities to fire-breathing dragons. In his essay “On Fairy Stories,” JRR Tolkien describes “faerie” as a wide, deep, and high realm that ordinary humans may enter, assuming they can accept the Secondary World imagined by the author: “And while he [the reader] is there [in faerie] it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.” To enter faerie, or the imagined space created by a story, and thus become able to experience the unfolding plot, the reader must trust the creator of the imagined world, relinquishing doubt and pride. In this humble surrender, there is temporary rest from the stress and care of life.
But in faerie there is more than simple respite: in the temporary absence of the thoughts, feelings, and distractions that so often clutter our minds, there is the opportunity for insight and self-understanding. In the detachment of a strange imagined world, we may encounter ideas, people we know, or even ourselves. The wonder of fiction is that it can take a concept like love, strip it of its everyday appearance, and re-present it in a disguised yet powerful form. In this way, an abstract concept like love can become real to us.
In fiction, it becomes more than an idea: it is tangible, practical, accessible. At last it is something we can engage with, touch for ourselves.
Fiction is detached from reality in that it often exists in an alternate or parallel universe. But we don’t invent and enjoy fiction in order to and convince ourselves of the literal existence of that world or its fantastic elements. For example, it would be foolish to read The Lord of the Rings and conclude that the one ring, elves, wizards, and hobbits actually exist in our physical world. Middle Earth is detached from our world in this way. But thematically, The Lord of the Rings is about questions that concern humans deeply: the struggle of good and evil, friendship, and courage in the face of certain defeat. The setting of Middle Earth allows for these themes to appear strongly. This disguise, or veil, is what makes these themes able to appear with such potency.
This costume enables asking questions and revealing truth. To further this point, I consider a court jester of the European Middle Ages as an analogy to fiction. This court jester was the only person allowed to “mock and revile even the most prominent without penalty.” The jester, dressed in a silly outfit, skipping around, juggling balls and doing tricks, is ridiculous, even contemptible. Because he was laughable, his words were not taken seriously, and therefore he had the unique ability to point out uncomfortable (though perhaps obvious) truths about the king, without punishment. Any other person, great or small, who called the king a fool directly would surely have had their head chopped off.
Fictional tales, full of fantastic beasts and laughably absurd enchantments, hold the same power as the court jester. Their strangeness is exactly the thing that gives them a unique power to strike a chord within us. As Clyde S. Kilby observed about the power of fantasy, “No amount of shouting at us that this is all wrong changes the fact for very long. Detachment and the upside down view are a constant necessity to circumvent the rats, the tags, the clichés everywhere awaiting us.” Fiction, like the court jester, can deliver truth through the “upside down view.”
The notion that the projection of oneself into an imagined space allows for greater self-understanding and the revealing of truth is not so far-fetched or strange. Sports, art, even board games all provide space where inhibitions can be removed and character revealed. Thus, this vehicle of fantasy allows for the exploration of questions that deeply concern human beings. For example, characters who, motivated by love rather than self-interest, sacrifice themselves to save others. And, in their willing surrender to death, victory over death is achieved. To illustrate, I have selected the climaxes of two novels which capture this.
Sydney Carton of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities lays down his life for Lucie Monet, her husband Charles Darnay, and their child. Darnay, an innocent man, is held in the Conciergerie prison to be guillotined as an enemy of the Republic during the French Revolution. Carton and Darnay are doppelgangers, and Carton, motivated by his love for Lucie, infiltrates the prison, chemically knocks out Darnay, and trades places with him. Carton is executed in Darnay’s place. This selfless act not only saves Darnay but Carton himself, in so far as his sacrifice unwittingly frees him from a life of lethargy and self-pity. Although Carton is killed, Darnay, Lucie, and their child escape the very jaws of death.
Similarly, the culmination of the Harry Potter series is Harry’s surrender to death. In order for Voldemort to be truly defeated, Harry must submit and be killed. Bitter and terrible as it is, Harry’s willing surrender is the only way to destroy the Horcrux living inside him. But death was not the end, for he rises from the grave, triumphant. Harry is finally free from the weight of Voldemort’s Horcrux, and the land is free from Voldemort’s reign of terror.
It is paradoxical that in submission to death, death is defeated. Rowling’s character Dumbledore says: “The true master [of death] does not seek to run away from Death. He accepts that he must die.” This climactic deliverance is what Tolkien would call a “good catastrophe” or more commonly, a “happy ending.” Tolkien described this as the consolation of the fairy story. He elaborates:
“In its fairy tale- or other world- setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace…It does not deny the existence…of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary for the joy of deliverance, it denies…universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief. It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher and more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art…”
Tolkien himself believed that there is true magic to be found in fairy stories; that in journeying through a fictional tale, truly feeling despair along with story characters, and finally experiencing deliverance by the good catastrophe, the reader can actually receive a touch of unmerited joy. I see this as related to the discussed motif of death and resurrection. This theme of life emerging from submission to death in fantasy is apparently fairly universal. It can be found in some form in a variety of fantastic tales, from Homer’s “The Iliad” to Disney’s “Hercules” to “Star Wars.” While one can dispute the reason for this universality, denying its existence would be very difficult. There is some weight, some power, some kind of profound meaning in the motif of death and resurrection.
The question is not then, whether this death and resurrection is significant, but why it is significant and where that significance comes from. As a Christian, I will present what I have come to believe. I see man’s fascination with death and resurrection as a shadow or reflection of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christians believe the willing submission of Jesus to torture, humiliation, and death has somehow saved those who accept Him from death. We hold that the death of Jesus for the redemption of fallen man is not merely a story, but reality itself. He is the Person that we clumsily seek when we write and relish fantasy. The reason we are enchanted by these stories is that they echo His True Story. C.S. Lewis writes, “He sent the human race what I call good dreams: I mean those queer stories scattered all through the heathen religions about a god who dies and comes to life again, and by his death, has somehow given new life to men.” Lewis and Tolkien, both enchanted by fantasy in many forms, believed that in Christ, myth meets history to defeat death once and for all.
For Lewis (an atheist from age to 15 to 30), his recognition of joy through the guise of fantasy was what brought him to believe in Christ. “I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralyzed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm… But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.”
Through fiction, we may experience the joy of Christ, independent of any human construct of religion. Regardless of who we are or what we have heard about God, I believe the “good catastrophes” found in fantasy can bring us into contact with tangible, accessible grace. Christ promises deliverance from death, and His people can truly sing, “Where, O death, are your plagues? Where, O grave, is your destruction? (Hosea 13:14, NIV).
Fiction is a sophisticated form of art. These tales do not ignore suffering and death, rather they contain characters who willingly submit to death. Such heroic figures do not do this out of selfish despair, but out of an overwhelming love that is stronger than fear of death. Faced with crushing darkness, they do not ignore it and they do not hopelessly commit suicide, but rather sacrifice themselves for others. Therefore, the best fictional tales are neither naive nor nihilistic. In exposure to fiction, readers can experience the Gospel: that love ultimately and truly defeats all darkness and despair. In fiction, we can see a glimpse of joy that echoes the truth of Christ: “Since the children have flesh and blood, He too shared in their humanity so that by His death He might break the power of him who holds the power over death- that is, the devil- and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death,” (Hebrews 2:14-5, NIV). Fantasy should not be dismissed as simple children’s stories, or as a fool’s paradise. I challenge readers to reflect on their favorite fictional stories and ask themselves what about those stories strikes them as powerful or true, and what they believe the source (if any) of that truth may be.
Lydia Anderson grew up in Portland, OR. She will be graduating in Spring 2017 with a Bachelor of Science in environmental engineering from Cal Poly.
* Tolkien, J.RR. Mythopoeia. 1931
1 I will be using a loose definition of “fantasy.” By fantasy or fiction, I mean any oral, visual, or written story invented by humans. This includes everything from historical fiction to cartoons to oral storytelling.
2 Campbell, Joseph, and Bill D. Moyers. The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday, 1988, 6.
3 Tolkien, J. R. R., and Peter S. Beagle. The Tolkien Reader, 68-69.
4 Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967.
5 Pepys, Samuel, Robert Latham, and William Matthews. The Diary of Samuel Pepys: A New and Complete Transcription. Berkeley: U of California, 1970, 202.
6 Ryken, Leland. The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing. Colorado Springs, CO: Shaw, 2002, 70.
7 Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. London: Dent, 1906.
8 Rowling, J. K., and Mary GrandPré. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine, 2007, 678.
9 He also calls it “eucatastrophe”
10 Tolkien, J. R. R., and Peter S. Beagle. The Tolkien Reader, 68-69.
11 Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. New, 50.York: MacMillan Pub. 1952, 50.
12 Lewis, C. S. Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967, 50.
13 NIV Bible. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2007.
14 NIV Bible. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2007.