Orual and the King of Glome

On the surface of it, there is no greater contrast than Queen Orual and her tyrannical father.

Even when we consider only Book 1 of C.S. Lewi’s great literary fiction, Till We Have Faces, Orual is not just a successful queen, but has a peculiar genius for political leadership.

Take “the mines” for instance. The mines were a standard Greek and Roman tool for torture and punishment, and a place to eke out a little profit from war-slaves in the few months they could survive in that environment. This was how the King of Glome understood the mines, with the result that they required more silver to operate than came from their rocky depths. When his great counsellor, the Fox, falls out of favour, the King decides to send him to the mines. Grandfather Fox, now old and enslaved in the palace, would rather die than go to the mines, so he asks Orual to find “the little plant with the purple spots on its stalk” down by the river. Like his master, Socrates, the Fox prefers death to dishonour and suffering.

For Queen Orual, however, the mines were an opportunity. Rather than working men to death, Orual set a new manager over the mines, provided better living conditions for the slaves, and created a profit-sharing scheme that would lead the slaves to manumission in 7-10 years if they worked hard. Ultimately, beyond the hope it brought to the slaves, it created many new grateful citizens in her realm and increased the profitability of the enterprise. Yield increased by 50%, and Orual is able to boast that

Ours is the best silver in all this part of the world, and a great root of our wealth (book I, ch. XX).

Beyond winning favour from her people and increasing profitability, Orual created what was arguably the best library in all the barbarian lands on the Peloponnese, with eighteen books, including some of Homer, Euripides, and Socrates.

While Orual credits her success to great counsellors and the mystery of her veiled face, she clearly has a genius for the throne that her father utterly lacks. Moreover, as we see in Book 2, even in her old age and in the midst of deep bitterness, Orual has the capacity to move past her own self-delusion to be open to transformation. Her father never had any such knack or intention.

But there are several parallels in the text to show that, despite the differences in their tyrannical rule and courtly circumspection, the King of Glome and his daughter, Orual, share similar traits. Three brief moments from the text will show the connection.


Our Father’s Own Rage

The first comes early in the tale when Psyche has offered herself as a healer to the people of Glome during a plague. When the plague worsens, all of the minor healings are forgotten–as is Psyche’s vision of compassion. The people turn on Psyche, viewing her as accursed and using signs to ward off evil in her presence. Orual is furious at the people:

“You healed them, and blessed them, and took their filthy disease upon yourself. And these are their thanks. Oh, I could tear them in pieces! Get up, child. Let me go. Even now — we are king’s daughters still. I’ll go to the King. He may beat me and drag me by the hair as he pleases, but this he shall hear. Bread for them indeed. I’ll — I’ll — ” (book I, ch. IV).

Psyche’s response is entirely different, but it is her reaction to Psyche that is most telling:

“Hush, sister, hush,” said Psyche. “I can’t bear it when he hurts you. And I’m so tired. And I want my supper. There, don’t be angry. You look just like our father when you say those things…” (book I, ch. IV)

Read Till We Have Faces and you will see how, as Orual’s bitterness grows and her love transforms, increasingly we see references to anger, wrath, and “my father’s own fury” (book I, ch. XI).

The People of Court

The second example I’ll only give briefly. As you read through Till We Have Faces, though Queen Orual stands in stark contrast to her father as they work as princes of their land, her father’s personality comes through in her critical nature from time to time.

When Orual is broken and sick following her loss of Psyche, she spends several days lying in bed–first in delirium, but then in a slumbering grief, and finally in a mind focussed upon a plan of action to recover Psyche’s remains. It is an “unchancy” or even irreligious move in one sense, as Psyche has been devoured by the god, so the bones are the god’s. But it is also an instinct that operates according to honour, and may assuage her grief.

However, even by this time, Orual has become a counsellor in her father’s court–though an abused one–and is relied upon to mind her sister. The King becomes impatient and asks continually,

“Where’s that girl got to? Does she mean to slug abed for the rest of her life? I’ll not feed drones in my hive forever” (book I, ch. IX).

Despite her complete distaste of her father and his approach to kingship, Orual finds herself mouthing the same words of desperate use. And this of a man she admired and loved, brave Bardia. As his end-of-life sickness deepens, the Queen misses his leadership–and his companionship. In frustration, she finally cries out,

“Does he mean to slug abed for the rest of his life?” (book II, ch. I).

The parallel is a stunning one–and one of many such personality ticks that seep in upon Orual’s attitude. In the end, the people around her are there for her use–a softer but parallel attitude of her father (or Jadis, Queen of Charn, for that matter).


Finally–and critical to Orual’s self-discovery–is the way the King and his daughter relate to Psyche.

Certainly, Orual’s motherly and sisterly love for Psyche begins with deep authenticity. When Psyche is fated to die, Orual’s panicky grief is real, and her motivation to save her sister is genuine. Orual even offers herself in Psyche’s place–though she is a substitute unacceptable to the gods.

By contrast, Psyche and Orual’s father has no real love, though he discovers in Psyche’s own grief a way of posturing himself before the watching world. The King has been cowardly and terrified when he though his life was demanded; when Psyche was chosen as a sacrifice, the king was relieved. More than that, he saw the opportunity to present himself as the grieving father-king who reluctantly allows his daughter to die so the people don’t suffer.

So when Orual persists in trying to save Psyche, the King has had enough:

“Death and scabs!” he said. “You’d make a man mad. Anyone’d think it was your daughter they were giving to the Brute. Sheltering behind a girl, you say. No one seems to remember whose girl she is. She’s mine; fruit of my own body. My loss. It’s I who have a right to rage and blubber if anyone has. What did I beget her for if I can’t do what I think best with my own? (book I, ch. VI).

The king’s cruelty stills the blood. But watch how Orual’s own love develops for Psyche. In loss and grief, the love sours and grows into love that is not love. In her trial before the gods (or before her own heart), Orual begins to rant about why the gods are unfair:

The girl was mine. What right had you to steal her away into your dreadful heights? You’ll say I was jealous. Jealous of Psyche? Not while she was mine. If you’d gone the other way to work — if it was my eyes you had opened — you’d soon have seen how I would have shown her and told her and taught her and led her up to my level. But to hear a chit of a girl who had (or ought to have had) no thought in her head that I’d not put there, setting up for a seer and a prophetess and next thing to a goddess . . . how could anyone endure it? (book II, ch. III).

And, in closing her argument:

Did you ever remember whose the girl was? She was mine. Mine. Do you not know what the word means? Mine! (book II, ch. III).

The parallel is clear. Though the King’s feeling for Psyche was always as a tyrant for his realm–or for his sense of self–Orual’s love for Psyche began in intimacy and deepened into something beautiful. In the end, though, for both King Trom and Queen Orual, Psyche herself disappears into the self-need that each royal has to satisfy. Psyche is not Psyche, a person, but an object. In the moment of greatest threat, they each cry out, “She is mine!”

This loss of self to self-need is the pattern of the whole.

The difference between Queen Orual and the King of Glome at their worst is only a blade’s width apart. And, yet, a blade’s width is enough. Orual’s own pen–her suit against the gods–becomes “the gods’ surgery” (book II, ch. I). Orual’s transformation is possible, even in old age, while the King never awakens again to a world outside his own self. King Trom dies in madness, while Queen Orual dies in clarity. The pattern of self-need, once probed by “the gods’ surgery,” become the entry point to the loss of self–which is, ultimately, the prerequisite for the true love that Orual longs to have in her heart.

Posted in Reflections, Thoughtful Essays | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Corey Olsen’s Exploring The Hobbit: A 10 Minute Book Talk

From my point of view, there are three (linked) things that make Corey Olsen’s Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit an effective companion to one of the most important pieces of literature in the 20th century:

1. A focussed close-reading of the text, going “beard to beard” with the text (a phrase I borrow from C.S. Lewis);
2. A treatment of The Hobbit as a work of literature in and of itself–connected to the larger Middle-earth Legendarium, but its own story (and its own text history); and
3. A treatment of the poetry, showing how these songs and poems we read are critical to the themes of the book.

Now, it is true that the author, Corey Olsen, aka, the Tolkien Prof., is my boss and a friend. But I still think the book worth reading on its own merits.

Goodreads Book Description:
The Hobbit is one of the most widely read and best-loved books of the twentieth century. In December 2012, millions will be introduced or reintroduced to J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic with the arrival of the first of two film adaptations by acclaimed director Peter Jackson. Exploring The Hobbit is a fun, thoughtful, and insightful companion volume, designed to bring a thorough and original new reading of this great work to a general audience. Professor Corey Olsen (also known as the Tolkien Professor) will take readers on an in-depth journey through The Hobbit chapter by chapter, revealing the stories within the story: the dark desires of dwarves and the sublime laughter of elves, the nature of evil and its hopelessness, the mystery of divine providence and human choice, and, most of all, the revolutions within the life of Bilbo Baggins. Exploring The Hobbit is a book that will make The Hobbit come alive for readers as never before.

Posted in 10 Minute Book Talk, Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

It is Easy to Teach C.S. Lewis’ “Till We Have Faces,” but It’s Hard to Blog About It

Though I am always nudging readers to see The Great Divorce as C.S. Lewis’ most genius work of fiction, Till We Have Faces truly is a remarkable novel. It is the dying-days journal of Orual, Queen of Glome, who sues her capricious gods for their unfairness to her. The writing is elegant, the portrait is intimate, the transformational element is intricately tied to the psychological development in Orual’s tale, and the fictional world is complete. I know of many people who resist Lewis’ work, but admit that Till We Have Faces is among the 20th century’s important novels.

And, despite this, in more than 900 posts, I have never really blogged about Till We Have Faces. I have several hours of lectures about the novel, and get to teach it twice this semester–once at The King’s College, and once at Signum University, with two weeks in each class for discussion. These teaching times have included several close readings of texts. Moreover, Till We Have Faces is critical to my research into C.S. Lewis’ theology. And, despite all this, I have struggled to talk about Lewis’ only work of “literary fiction” for the blogging community.

Part of this hesitancy, I think, is that I don’t fully understand the novel. Unlike some work that is obscure or poorly written, each time I have read the book I have deepened in my knowledge. Over time, some questions have settled in for me:

  • How does Till We Have Faces connect to the rest of Lewis’ fiction?
  • How do we read TWHF in the midst of Lewis’ life?
  • What is the novel’s relationship to the cross–an event that will come later in the secondary world that he has created?
  • How is the critical moment of transformation in the text related to Lewis’ theological understanding of human experience and God’s character?
  • How can there be “love that is not love?”

But there are other questions that still gnaw at me. When reading, I can often intimate the answers to them. When I set the text down and look around, though, I have trouble talking about these ideas that seem to slip away from me. Here are some questions I keep asking myself:

  • What does it mean that Orual says, “I am Psyche?”
  • There is a tremendous amount of gender play in the book. How are these integrated into Lewis’ understanding of sex and gender roles when he wrote the book? Are they even coherent?
  • It is clear to see how Psyche is a Christ-figure; what is the role of the Shadowbrute?
  • Beyond that, what is the speculative logic behind the god figures in the universe of the text?
  • I understand Orual’s dream-vision and Psyche’s temptations in the way they relate to the story of Cupid and Psyche that went before, but some of the details about how they connect to Orual’s awakening are confusing to me.
  • What does the title mean?

I have decided not to worry too much about all the limitations I have in reading Till We Have Faces. As good wood matures and grows richer in colour, I trust that the novel will also deepen inside of me. But I have decided to share some of the things that I have discovered over my years of reading the text. I hope that these thoughts this spring can strengthen the reading of those who love this novel, and encourage people who enjoy literary fiction or Lewis’ other storytelling to pick up Till We Have Faces for the first time.

So over the next few weeks, I am going to include some thoughts about the Till We Have Faces. Some of these are about background reading, such as Lewis’ writing life and the novel’s journey to publication. Others are reflections on the text, such as a word study on “cruel” and a thoughtful post about “Orual and the King of Glome.” I hope you can join me in this series, reading and talking about what some consider to be C.S. Lewis’ crowning literary achievement, Till We Have Faces.

Posted in Original Research, Reflections | Tagged , , , , | 25 Comments

Call For Papers: C. S. Lewis and Friends Colloquium, Taylor University, June 4-7, 2020

I wanted to re-share the Call for Papers for one of my favourite conferences (which I describe here and here). I am working on my proposal today–a month early–because I think they are filling up the timeslots pretty rapidly. If you are thinking of proposing a paper or creative piece, get that proposal in!

The topic is intriguing, calling upon Dorothy L. Sayers’ 1938 essay, “Are Women Human?” My own proposal is working with the research of one of the keynotes, Monika Hilder, on C.S. Lewis’ theological feminism.

Are WomEn Human (Yet)?
Gender and the Inklings
C. S. Lewis & Friends Colloquium
Taylor University
June 4-7, 2020

JOIN US for our 12th Biennial C. S. Lewis & Friends Colloquium, June 4-7, 2020. Sponsored by Taylor University’s Center for the Study of C. S. Lewis & Friends, the Colloquium features keynote addresses from top scholars in the field, plus hundreds of presentations of both original scholarship and original creative work in paper sessions, workshops, panel discussions, performances, artist exhibitions, and much more. The Colloquium welcomes scholars, teachers, students, life-long learners, fans, seekers, and, as always, new friends to be part of our adventurous company. For the first time in our history, and as part of our mission to identify and support the next generation of friends, the Colloquium will feature a one-day pre-conference especially for “Young Inklings” on June 3.

Of course, this liveliest of conferences will have its usual dramatic performances, board games, late night singalongs, tea and biscuits,  and the return of the fabulous pop-up bookstore by Eighth Day Books. In addition, The 2020 Colloquium will also once again include the opportunity to buy used and rare copies of books by Lewis & Friends authors. Come discover why Devin Brown says “The Taylor University Lewis Colloquium is the premier Inklings conference on the planet, with something for every level of scholar.”

Plenary Speakers: We are happy to announce that our plenary speakers for 2020 include Monika Hilder, Jane Chance, Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson, Don King, Diana Glyer, Jason Lepojärvi, and Charles Huttar.

Conference Theme: The 2020 Colloquium program will highlight the specific theme of “Are WomEn Human (Yet)? Gender and the Inklings.” Over eighty years after Dorothy L. Sayers first posed her startling question (and in honor of the centennial of woman’s suffrage), we think it is high time to acknowledge and celebrate women in the lives and works of authors like C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Dorothy L. Sayers, and George MacDonald, but also to look carefully at their attitudes towards and relationships with women. We also hope to encourage new scholarship on individuals such as Ruth Pitter, Joy Davidman, Mary Neylan, Barbara Reynolds, Louisa and Lilia MacDonald, Ida Gordon, Katherine Farrer, Sister Penelope, Anne Ridler, and others whose contributions have been insufficiently noticed and/or undervalued in the shadow of their more famous friends. In keynote addresses, panel discussions, paper presentations, and creative work of all kinds, we will explore together these topics and many others. As always, papers on more general topics are also encouraged.

Call for Papers: We invite proposals for scholarly papers on any topic related to C. S. Lewis and his circle (broadly defined) – Owen Barfield, G. K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, Dorothy L. Sayers, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and others. We are especially interested in papers on the conference theme, papers that expand the horizons of previous scholarship, and papers from new and emerging scholars. We also invite creative work—poetry, fiction, essay, drama, film, visual art, musical composition—that responds to or is influenced by the conference theme and/or these authors.  Proposals should be 100-200 words in length and should anticipate a twenty-minute presentation time limit.  Creative work must be a complete work, rather than a proposalDeadline for proposals is February 15, 2020. All proposals will be considered on a rotating basis.

Complete information, including submission instructions, will be available soon at our website: library.taylor.edu/cslewis. Direct all proposal-related questions to jsricke@taylor.edu. Please address all other questions to cslewiscenter@taylor.edu.

Young Inklings Pre-Conference: College and university undergraduates are invited to the first-ever “Young Inklings” event on June 3. The complete student registration package will include lodging, meals, and the events of that day, as well as the main conference. Students will have the opportunity to attend special lectures and participate in workshops with leading scholars, as well as to present their own scholarly and creative work. Work submitted for the student writings contests (see below) will be considered for presentation at both the pre-conference and the Colloquium.

Student Essay Contest: Currently enrolled undergraduate students may submit complete critical essays on the work of C. S. Lewis or a related author (see Call for Papers above for further information). Essays should not exceed ten double-spaced pages, excluding Works Cited. Winners will present their papers at the Colloquium and will receive free registration, room, and board. First place will receive a cash award as well. Deadline for student essays is March 1, 2020. For further information and submission instructions, please see our website at library.taylor.edu/cslewis.

Student Creative Writing Contest: Currently enrolled undergraduate students may submit creative writing (poetry, prose, drama, creative non-fiction, graphic novels, screenplays, etc.). Submissions should not exceed ten double-spaced pages (and should be at least five pages). The creative works should show familiarity with and influence by (or response to) the works of C. S. Lewis and his circle (broadly defined). Winners will present their papers at the Colloquium and will receive free registration, room, and board. First place will receive a cash award as well. Deadline for student creative work is March 1, 2020. For further information and submission instructions, please see our website at library.taylor.edu/cslewis.

Keep in Mind: The best way to be aware of Colloquium news and updates is to pay attention to our new website: library.taylor.edu/cslewis[Note: We are currently undergoing a redesign of our website. The current website contains all necessary information, but you will notice an updated format soon.] Colloquium announcements and other important information will also be added regularly on our Facebook page (please “like” to make sure you are in the loop): https://www.facebook.com/cslewiscenter/.

Posted in News & Links | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Charles Williams’ Descent Into Hell: A 10 Minute Book Talk

Truly, and in both ways, this is a weird book. Charles Williams‘ (in)famous novel, Descent into Hell (1937), encapsulates Williams‘ idea of “Co-Inherence,” Substitution, or the Way of Exchange. This is a complex, many-layered, lovely, and disturbing book. It is definitely worth reading, but as much as I love this novel–and think it’s Williams‘ most important novel–I really struggle with it every time. It is a book that you carry about with you for a couple of weeks, and it is one worth struggling with. I am glad that I have made my students struggle with it, and each year one or two say it is the most transformative book they’ve read. It may be for you also.

Here are some of the double concepts–the ‘binaries’– within the novel that I mention in the video:

  • Pauline’s Doppelgänger
  • Pauline and the Grandmother
  • Pauline and the Martyr
  • Stanhope and Shakespeare
  • Battle Hill and the Manor; The City and the Suburb
  • Samille and Fox
  • Wentworth and Hugh/Moffatt
  • Wentworth and the Suicide-Ghost
  • Adela and “It”
  • Two kinds of Death
  • “terribly good”
  • Inside/Outside
  • Master/Subordinate; Hierarchy/Democracy
  • Beauty vs. Consolation
  • Silence vs. Speech
  • Forgetfulness vs. Happiness (Substitution)
  • Joy vs. Pain/Misery/Fear/Hate (False Binary?)
  • The Real Self and the Perceived (Substituted?) Self
  • The Split Self (104); Self vs. Other
  • Free Will/Choice vs. Necessity (112, 126)
  • “where two loves struck together, and the serene light of substitution shone” (81)

“The bottom had dropped out of her universe, yet her astonished spirit floated and did not fall” (111)

To understand Co-Inherence, see Sørina Higgins’ piece, “My Life For Yours: CW’s ‘Co-Inherence’ theme.”

Posted in 10 Minute Book Talk, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Celebrations of Life: 30 Years, 4 Years, Today

Today is the 30th anniversary of the death of my father and baby brother. I saw them perish in a fire when I was a boy–an event that has shaped not just my family life, but my entire understanding of the world.

Today is also the funeral service of a church-friend who died suddenly, a fellow just a little older than I am. Shawn and his family tumbled into our church a little while back, adding energy to our community as they discovered and renewed their faith. A week ago Sunday I began a series called “Remembering Heaven,” about restoring a Christian vision of how resurrection life transforms the way we live in our homes, our workplaces, our neighbourhoods, our churches, and our world. The series requires looking away from heaven for a little while as we move past poor theology and pop culture images to get a deeper sense of new life.

And then Shawn died, and on Sunday I had to face the congregation again to talk about dissolving the great divorce between eternal life and everyday existence.

I am a teacher, really, and have terrible awkwardness when it comes to the deep personal needs of church folk. I struggle to be consistently helpful at potlucks and nursing homes and board meetings. I typically sit in the pew as our normal preacher–a pastor in beating heart and pumping blood–brings messages of grace to our community. I receive more than I give. Pastor Mike is on a well-needed sabbatical, however, and I had this book idea I wanted to work out. “Remembering Heaven” is the result, a series that runs up to Easter as we learn about creation, subcreation, and new creation.

Now, with Shawn’s wife, his little girl, and all his friends there, sitting in grief and loss…. There is no way to speak about our Christian hope in a way that is theoretical. As our community sang, I thought about my pastoral awkwardness–the deep needs of the family and my own vocation to work in words and story and images. And I thought about my own family. My father and brother 30 years ago, and my mother 4 years ago next week. All my grandparents are buried, and a close cousin, and any number of friends. I have not lost a spouse or a child, but I know loss, and it makes me tired. The music continued, and then it was my turn to speak.

And in the clarity of the moment, I knew that my role was to offer hope. For that is the nature of the gospel: well-founded hope–not pie-in-the-sky, sweet-by-and-by, escapist, romantic visions of heaven that are told to us as childhood fairy tales and whispered in the ears of nursing home patients as a kind inoculation about the terror of impending death. More than terrible Victorian paintings and episodes of Simpsons and TV preachers offering cloud cars and Cadillacs, I believe that God’s vision to transform earth with a vision of heaven gives root to our hope in heaven.

I gave the sermon as I had written it and we will see if it can provide comfort and root hope. I felt utterly inadequate to the task. But it was a sermon that links the creation prologue (Genesis 1:1-2) with this passage:

Revelation 21:1 Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children.

Shawn’s family has chosen not to use the word, “funeral.” Instead, they are hosting a Celebration of Life tonight. I like this term. My father and brother’s funeral had two pastors and a priest, though we were not at all religious. And in all the words and talk from kind friends and ministerial neighbours, I had no sense from the funeral service (to re-use N.T. Wright’s words) of what Christians teach on the subject of heaven (Surprised by Hope, 24). At the very least, tonight, people will know about New Life, which is what the Scripture wants to talk about as well.

So now, 30 years, 4 years, today. Life goes on, and so does Death, though it is our defeated enemy. And though I continue to feel loss, in particular on this day, and though life makes me tired, my hope of New Life grows as my trust in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross deepens. I have come to believe that a “Celebration of Life” is not just what we do when someone dies or when we think of those that we have left behind. I think that in our invitation to celebrate life, to encourage life, to make new life grow–to live on earth now what we see of heaven then.

Here is the introductory sermon in the series, “Remembering Heaven.” If the link fails, click here.

Posted in Reflections | Tagged , , , , | 21 Comments

Shūsaku Endō’s Silence: A 10 Minute Book Talk

Shūsaku Endō’s Silence is the story of, Sebastião Rodrigues, a Jesuit missionary who goes to 17th century Japan to be a priest to an oppressed church and to find his mentor, Fr Ferreira, who is reputed to have apostatized. Fr Rodrigues finds that he becomes one of the Kakure Kirishitan, one of the “Hidden Christians” be persecuted in the 1630 and 1640s. The story of Fr Rodrigues is told through a number of epistolary perspectives, including historical notes, diaries, shipping logs, and letters that Fr Rodrigues can never be sure will reach his superiors in the west.

As I am teaching an upcoming Japanese Religion and Culture course, I could use Endō’s Silence to discuss a definitive point in Japan’s history, when it repelled Western attempts to colonize, limited its trade, and successfully crushed the spread of Christianity. This age, the Edo period from the early 17th century to the Meiji restoration of Western relations following the American civil war in the 1860s, has defined Japan’s history and identity. Silence works as historical fiction in the period of persecution, which was peculiarly effective.

However, Silence isn’t about history—even the history of Roman Catholicism in Japan. It is a story about what it means to be faithful. And this is what draws me to the novel. Fr Rodrigues’ narrative is not so much his historical moment but the struggle within himself of what it means to be faithful Christ’s face—an image he loves—when the result is great suffering for himself and others.

Fr Rodrigues is always thoughtful and questioning, but solid and compassionate. He is set against Kichijiro, an ingratiating and intemperate Japanese convert who apostatized numerous times. While it looks at first like Kichijiro is merely the priest’s means to connect to Japan and a foil for Fr Rodrigues’ own struggles in faith, the link between the two men becomes more intricate and complex as the story goes on.

Ultimately, the question the book asks is captured in this quotation from the end of the novel: “This country of Japan is not suited to the teaching of Christianity. Christianity simply cannot put down roots here.” In one way, this is historically untrue. There are more than a million Christians in Japan, most concentrated where the persecution was greatest (in Nagasaki). But, though I never read Silence when I lived there, it was something I wondered about Japan. A third or more of Koreans are Christian, perhaps 10% of China or a little less. But only about 1% of Japan is Christian, and there are no signs of a radical shift. More than that, in my experience, the Japanese looked at Christianity as foreign, other. And for many, to become a Christian is to betray something Japanese in themselves.

That Shūsaku Endō makes a gaijin, a foreigner, the protagonist of Silence is intriguing. This device, with the native Kichijiro as the counter-voice, is quite brilliant. “Betrayal” is the heart of Silence—not just about betraying the image of Christ that Christians must stomp upon to avoid persecution, but about betraying others and God’s betrayal of us in silence. The twist in perspective in Silence is an effective way for Endō to work out his own Catholic faith as a Japanese person.

While I think this is a profound story of faith and betrayal by a uniquely situated author, I struggled to really love this book as a story. I have only read it once, and I suspect it is better as a reread. And perhaps I was too focused on the theological aspects, but I had trouble connecting to the characters and have never understood the epistolary structure. I also don’t know how this book sits in the Japanese realist tradition, which (like Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata) is in conversation with three traditions: nature, court tales like Genji, and the contrasts of movement and stillness we see haiku poetry. The contrast, the juxtaposition is there, and it is nature that provides the contrast to Fr Rodrigues’ own silence.

Artistically, I don’t know how to read this book, personally, I struggled to get into it as a novel—when it comes to Japanese fiction, all I want to do is read Haruki Murakami: if Shūsaku Endō is the Grahame Greene of Japan, then Murakami is Japan’s Kafka. But as a work of theological fiction, it really is an effective work. I have not come to a resolution in my mind about Christian faith and Japan, but it certainly is a provocative book.

Posted in 10 Minute Book Talk, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments