The Child That Books Built
Lent 2, 25th February, 2018
Nicholas Browne, Lay preacher at St Peter's, Eastern Hill
May the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
This is the second in a sermon series entitled Friends and Companions — Books that have shaped our theology, so in between great theological and spiritual figures like Rowan Williams, Richard Rohr and Dame Julian of Norwich, you get me talking about a late 20th Century American science fiction and fantasy author. And a feminist, pacifist, anarchist agnostic. In the immortal words of Sesame Street 'One of these things is not like the others'!
The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, I am a secondary school English teacher and the interpretation and exposition of literature has been at the heart of my professional life for over 30 years. More importantly, though, is the fact that, like so many other people, my early moral education happened outside the church. Instead of scripture and Sunday School, I had literature. I was, in the words of the English Anglican essayist and novelist Francis Spufford, 'The Child That Books Built'.
In a recent interview in The Guardian, the great Australian children's author Jackie French said, "The books that children read become part of them in the way that books they read as adults are very, very rarely going to do. Kids are more deeply interested in moral issues than adults. Adults more or less have got their morals made up — yes we can change, we do change, but kids are terra nullius and they are creating their moral view of the world. So they get incredibly angry — in fact upset, deeply, deeply upset if in the end injustice rules."
I wish I could say that my childhood and early adolescent moral formation was informed by a precocious engagement with Jane Austen and George Orwell. Or even Harper Lee and William Golding but it wasn't. I discovered the heroic fantasy of JRR Tolkien at the age of about nine and it formed the basis of my reading for about the next ten years.
As a deliberate evocation of the Germanic saga, The Lord of the Rings embodies on the whole, a fairly simple morality. Evil is an external force, personified in the Dark Lord Sauron and his army of orcs, and must be resisted at all costs. That's not the end of the story, of course and the vision of heroism presented in Tolkien's work is as much or more the stoic fortitude of the ordinary person as it is the chivalrous bravery of the warrior. And, in the end, what defeats the powers of evil is an act not of violence but of renunciation.
Much popular fantasy literature since Tolkien — including the Harry Potter series and films like Star Wars — follows the same pattern of heroic resistance to a Dark Lord of some kind, whether he is called Sauron, Voldemort, Darth Vader, the White Witch or, indeed the Devil. But when I read Ursula Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea for the first time at the age of about 13, I encountered a very different moral vision.
This novel, the first of a trilogy, which she much later extended into a series of six books, is set in a world in which the practice of magic is intimately tied to knowing the true names of things. In the world of Earthsea, an archipelago of islands, every animal, plant, bird, location has a true name — and possessing the true name of something is to know it and to have power over it — in a manner similar to how God gives Adam the power to name all the creatures in Genesis 2:19. And people have true names too — given to them when they reach adulthood, to be shared only with those worthy of the greatest trust as again, to possess someone's true name is to possess and have power over their identity. The central character is a boy named Sparrowhawk who, after revealing magical talent under stress is apprenticed to a wizard named Ogion, who gives him his true name — Ged. In a trope which, I suspect, Le Guin later regretted, he is tempted by a young witch to test his powers by stealing a spell from his master's book. Somehow, he manages summon what appears to be a malign spirit:
He had been reading without any light, in the darkness. He could not now make out the runes when he looked down at the book. Yet the horror grew in him, seeming to hold him bound in his chair. He was cold. Looking over his shoulder he saw that something was crouching beside the closed door, a shapeless clot of shadow darker than the darkness. It seemed to reach out towards him, and to whisper, and to call to him in a whisper: but he could not understand the words.
He is rescued by the arrival of his master who chastises him for ignoring the dangers of power.
Ged goes on to train and practice as a wizard but his life is marred by the presence of this shadowy evil force. Eventually, he decides to stop running from the creature and to turn and pursue it. On a small boat on the open sea, accompanied by his friend Vetch, he confronts the shadow-thing, which, as he approaches, turns successively into a series of people with whom Ged has been in conflict or whom he believes he has failed:
At first it was shapeless, but as it drew nearer it took on the look of a man. An old man it seemed, grey and grim, coming towards Ged; but even as Ged saw his father the smith in that figure, he saw that it was not an old man but a young one. It was Jasper: Jasper's insolent handsome young face, and silver-clasped grey cloak, and stiff stride. Hateful was the look he fixed on Ged across the dark intervening air. Ged did not stop, but slowed his pace, and as he went forward he raised his staff up a little higher. It brightened, and in its light the look of Jasper fell from the figure that approached, and it became Pechvarry… Still Ged did not stop, but went forward, though there were only a few yards left between them now. Then the thing that faced him changed utterly, spreading out to either side as if it opened enormous thin wings, and it writhed, and swelled, and shrank again. Ged saw in it for an instant Skiorh's white face, and then a pair of clouded, staring eyes, and then suddenly a fearful face he did not know, man or monster, with writhing lips and eyes that were like pits going back into black emptiness.
At that Ged lifted up the staff high, and the radiance of it brightened intolerably, burning with so white and great a light that it compelled and harrowed even that ancient darkness. In that light all form of man sloughed off the thing that came towards Ged. It drew together and shrank and blackened, crawling on four short taloned legs upon the sand. But still it came forward, lifting up to him a blind un-formed snout without lips or ears or eyes. As they came right together it became utterly black in the white mage-radiance that burned about it, and it heaved itself upright. In silence, man and shadow met face to face, and stopped.
Aloud and clearly, breaking that old silence, Ged spoke the shadow's name and in the same moment the shadow spoke without lips or tongue, saying the same word: 'Ged'. And the two voices were one voice.
I can still remember the impact of that passage. The notion that the dark shadow of evil that Ged has faced throughout the novel is, in fact a part of himself was shocking to my 13-year-old mind. In his account of his childhood reading, Francis Spufford, whom I mentioned earlier, had a similar reaction. 'I resisted its lessons,' he writes. 'I resolutely thought of the shadow as a bogey alien to Ged... I didn't go to the worlds of story to be reminded that on a dark road your anger and your cruelty pace just behind you, daring you to turn your head...'
Le Guin presents her readers with a profound and uncomfortable truth in this novel — that the evil shadow we have to confront might not be some alien bogey at all but part of ourselves. As the Russian Orthodox writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn puts it in The Gulag Archipelago:
"Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.
Now Ursula Le Guin was not a Christian and her novels contain no Christian message such as that in the works of C.S. Lewis. But they have, nevertheless shaped my theology.
One of the more difficult and unpopular Christian doctrines is that of Original Sin, an idea systematically set out by Saint Augustine based on his reading of Paul. And it is perhaps because of reading A Wizard of Earthsea as an impressionable teenager that my reaction to studying Paul and Augustine was not the distate that might be expected from a wet liberal such as I am. I saw Original Sin not as some horrific denial of human potential but in terms drawn from that image of Ged and his shadow naming each other with the same name and the same voice.
Perhaps this Lent we — and I, especially, rather than seeking to find a Dark Lord to confront, should take our small boat onto the empty sea and name the shadow we find with our own true name.
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.