Stories help us chart a course through the often wild and dangerous geographies of being human. They give us direction— direction toward what, of course, is in large part at the discretion of the tale. This is the inherent potency of stories: Powerful stories compel us toward a version of ourselves either virtuous or vicious. Every time we engage with a story, we embark on a course headed toward one of these destinations, for it is a truth universally acknowledged that stories rarely lead us anywhere without transforming us in some way. Who can read the final sacrifice of Sidney Carton and not wish to be so full of perfect love? Who can read the imaginings of Sam on the slopes of Mount Doom and not long for such hope? Who wants to be like Gatsby, dead in a pool, bleeding out a dreamy and deceived faith?
I first experienced this mind-shaping, life-transforming, trajectory making efficacy of story in the works of Tolkien. Over the course of several years, I traveled with Bilbo and a company of dwarves to the Lonely Mountain and there outwitted a dragon. I felt a dwarvish greed awake within me at the sight of the Arkenstone and watched anxiously as the same greed took my friends and nearly turned them upon each other. I fought with the peoples of Middle Earth against the creatures of the enemy and bowed my head with grief at the death of dear companions. I was content in Bilbo’s contentment; I grew restless with Bilbo’s restlessness; and in the spirit of Bilbo, I joined Frodo and Sam on a long, perilous journey to Mount Doom. And finally, when I finished The Return of the King, for the first time in my life I cried at the end of a book simply because it was over. I felt a kind of despair to have no more nights to spend under the sacred stars and trees of Middle Earth. For the first time I really understood the affective nature of story, and I saw how story can, more powerfully than any other medium, inspire within me a desire to be faithful, hopeful, and loving like the dear friends of the fellowship. I understood the possibility of redemption in a keener light, having grown angry at the treacherous desire of Boromir, but then solemn over his arrow-pierced body as I honored his life spent in the noble protection of his friends. I grew full of hope for a Kingdom where all joyful things are true and sad things are untrue—an enlivening hope that has never left.
Stories teach us in ways that more didactic forms of communication cannot. We need commands, instructions, suggestions, and advice, but one of the best means of persuading both our heads and our hearts is through a story. I need to be told to be courageous and hopeful when I fail to be. But in a much more fundamental way, I want to be courageous when I see Gandalf at the first gate to Minas Tirith—the luminous and last defender of all that is good and right and true—standing before the deathly Witch King of Angmar, willing at whatever cost to himself to resist the voice and spirit of that king. Commands tell me what’s right; stories make me want what’s right. Like the expert in the biblical law, I know that I should love my neighbor. But when Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, his story challenges my narrow conceptions of the command and strengthens my desire to love.
I am not alone in experiencing this effect of stories. Indeed, stories, and the characters within them, bear witness to this course-charting, will-shaping power themselves. Few tales so humorously demonstrate potency, even the peril, of this nature of story as Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Here we have a man who’s stuffed his head so full of the romances and fantasies of knights errant—stories of chivalry and virtue—that he’s grown mad under their weight. He can no longer distinguish their fantasy from his reality. So, he sets off to perform the deeds of the storied knights he so desperately admires in an attempt to resurrect a robust knight errantry in an unchivalrous world. And as he rides his feeble Rocinante, leading along his squire Sancho, he exposes his delusion in dangerous, silly combat with the likes of windmills, sheep, and priests. As we ride along with him through the wilds of Spain, we recognize the mighty tug of stories on the heart and mind of a man powerless to resist them. At least his stories of chivalry were virtuous even if his imitations of the heroes did not bear the virtues out.
But what if I pick up a story that revels in darkness, that exalts nihilism over hope, a story that is essentially vicious— what am I tempted toward then? If stories can inspire toward virtue, they can also be dangerous and uncertain. Such stories can subvert—and often seek to subvert— “unreal” virtues for the sake of a mad adherence to a materialism devoid of divine power. They are quixotic stories inverted, campaigning to destroy our
silly fantasies with barrages of the real— the hopelessly real. Stories like this offer visions of the world that are cold and stark; they forget the vibrant warmth of fantastic, spiritual life that invests the best stories with higher truth and deeper magic. Authors of such stories would happily replace the fantasies of Tolkien, Lewis, and Chesterton. But we won’t let them.
Beside, but above, such grim tales stands a different kind of dangerous and uncertain story, whose themes require a maturity and critical faculty to appreciate, and whose themes won’t let us remain comfortable. These are difficult and complex, but with a propitious kind of moral complexity.
Graham Greene is a master of such complexity. Some of his books illuminate only by means of a flickering flame shrouded in an oppressive darkness. In The Heart of the Matter, Greene gives us a man named Scobie who’s caught between his concern for his reputation and the desperate, secret acts he feels compelled to commit. Though trying to do his job with order and care, he feels forced to make little concessions for the sake of those he seems to love (but with a sickly, pallid love). These concessions torment him and mislead him. His acts grow more sinful until, finally, he condemns himself as a reprobate, irredeemable—damned.
Yet Greene is masterful here. In one small, crucial event, we sit with Scobie in his despair before a statue of Christ on the cross, and in so doing we see a means of escape for him. In a brief smattering of thoughts, Scobie realizes that the sinless Christ overcame his torment by suffering in public. Nevertheless, in suspense we watch as Scobie, too concerned for his clean reputation, refuses to follow Christ’s example in suffering. In horror, we watch as he rejects the means of escape we wish he would take. And as Scobie later makes his irrevocable and final choice, we understand what he no longer can, that it is better to come clean, to confess, to share our sufferings in public than to allow a concealed, corrupting sin to fester in our souls. A small event, a statue of Christ, a flickering flame—but enough light to dispel the darkness if only we’d look at it. A direction forward, if only we’d take it.
We need these stories too—complex stories that are inherently good as well as difficult—because they are such significant means of growth for us. We neglect these stories at the risk of stagnation; we ignore these stories at the risk of missing a path towards becoming fully human—a human marked by virtue.
So it is that every time you pick up a good, enduring, even difficult book, you are participating in a powerful event, brimming with the potential of transformation. It’s a dangerous business, turning the page. You begin the first chapter, and, if you don’t keep your wits, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.