My daughter and I recently went out on a date. After missing the movie we wanted to see, we ended up watching The Book of Eli, a movie I had not heard anything about.
The movie opens in the future, after some sort of apocalypse. There is little vegetation, water is scarce, the roads are littered with abandoned cars, and the sun shines down harshly on a bleak landscape, pocked with craters.
The man named Eli (played by Denzel Washington) is walking West, scavenging on his way, but it is unclear why. He seems to have a clear purpose and one he is determined to follow.
He comes upon a town along the road which is ruled by a man named Carnegie (played by Gary Oldman). Carnegie has sent out his minions on motorcycles to bring him books, which are now scarce and valuable.
He is looking for one in particular.
Eli comes to the notice of Carnegie and Solara (played by Mila Kunis), the daughter of Carnegie’s mistress. Eli invites Solara to pray with him—something she has never done. This leads to Carnegie finding out that Eli has the book he is looking for—a King James Bible.
Solara joins Eli on his journey, and they are chased by Carnegie and his men, who think the book is a sort of talisman that will give them political power.
When Solara asks how he knows where he is going, Eli tells her, “We walk by faith, not by sight.” He reveals to her that the book he has is a King James Bible—the only one left.
“Do you read it all the time?” she asks him, as he sits by the fire, running his fingers over the text. “Every day,” he says decisively. He is walking West with this book, he confides to her, because God has told him to.
Carnegie and his men eventually catch up with them, Eli is shot, and his Bible is taken from him. But he somehow manages to survive, and he and Solara finish the journey, ending up on the Golden Gate Bridge, surrounded by the ruins of San Francisco.
“That’s it,” says Eli, facing into the wind toward Alcatraz.
Back in the town, as Carnegie opens the pages of the book, his face contorts into a look of despair. As the camera pans up, the pages of the book reveal no text.
It is printed in braille.
Eli and Solara row out to Alcatraz, where a group of men have salvaged the books they have retrieved from a ruined civilization and created a vast library—history, literature, science, and religion. But, explains a white-haired man, there is one book they do not have: the Bible.
Eli has the Bible, and yet he has no book. He asks the man to get out paper and write what he says. Eli, mortally wounded, then begins: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth …” As he begins to recite the entire Bible, which he has learned by heart, the camera zooms in on his eyes, and it becomes apparent that Eli is blind.
We the viewers have not seen this, blind as we have been, though, had we paid closer attention, it would have been clear from the beginning.
The movie is the story of a man’s single-minded purpose: the preservation of a book—and of literature in general. The men on the island were doing what monks in monasteries scattered throughout Europe did throughout the Dark Ages— copying and recopying the words of a fallen civilization. And Eli is doing what we once all did—committing those words to memory.
We live in a post-apocalyptic world, although we are often blind to it. The civilization we once called Christendom lies in ruins, and the only hope of saving it is through an act of preservation. Our culture has destroyed itself, in part through a large-scale act of educational self-immolation.
Each of us, on each of our little islands—with the purpose and determination of an Eli—need to be copying and recopying the words that were once taught to every school child. And, like Eli, we need to be committing them to memory so that we—and those who come after us—will not forget them.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Late Summer 2011 edition.