Friday, November 30, 2012

Blessed are the Pure in Heart, for Theirs is the End of the Story

I’ve been reading more contemporary fiction than usual, which prompted me to think about literary patterns.

Throughout the history of storytelling, the theme of the pure in heart has appealed to human minds. The pure in heart (also known as the deserving) shall see God: they will find the knowledge necessary to achieve their happy ending.* The popular definition of a “pure heart” changes, as does a culture’s understanding of what it means to “see God,” but the theme remains resonant. Interesting, is it not, that humanity seems to feel instinctively that life holds some secret, or answer, or knowledge that must be found or revealed to the deserving?

Stories demonstrate the traits that a given culture sees as making a person worthy of knowledge—and the knowledge that is worthwhile as the ending of a story. Yet even a deserving protagonist is not wholly good, because he or she is an illustration of how people would like to view themselves, and none of us wants to be compared against an unattainable ideal. We want to think ourselves deserving of a happy ending.

Folk and fairy tales are the most obvious illustrations of this theme. Fairytale heroes must earn the essential knowledge to kill the giant, scale the glass mountain, or sort a thousand grains of millet. How do these heroes succeed when undeserving older siblings, richer princes, faster animals, and other obnoxious creatures fail? Not by being perfect. Witness the rather cavalier attitude of many an ash lad toward the characters whose wealth he acquires! Yet these imperfect protagonists prove sufficient purity of heart through good-hearted gestures. The young lad shares his food with a beggar, speaks courteously to an old person, or takes mercy on an imperiled animal. Despite his lack of saintliness, he is more honest, generous, and polite than his rivals (it is generally not too taxing for any of us to imagine that we are a little better than other people).

How does this compare to the fantastical fiction of our own day? The genre is not uniform, so let us look first at the bubbly and shiny subculture of Disney and its ilk. What knowledge does the bubbly and shiny protagonist need to gain? Today’s goose girl or cinder maid becomes a princess because she believes that she is one. She needs to know that she is AWESOME and can do anything she desires. Those who do not receive or embrace this knowledge have no chance of a happy ending. We are all familiar with the premise that a personal belief in a desired outcome proves purity of heart. It is not necessary to behave perfectly in other categories (the heroine’s impatience with her mother is fine, although she must of course be kind to animals).

On the other hand, today’s more literary speculative fiction eschews the optimism of everything bubbly and shiny. In the typical science fiction/fantasy tale, it is evident that both the qualifications and the reward of a protagonist have changed. These heroes rarely need specific technical information of the sort that aided Jack the Giant Killer. Instead, they must find the understanding that will allow them to make some kind of peace with themselves. They need to know that even though life sucks and many people are rotten, it’s OK. It’s all OK. They will make it. They will assert themselves where it counts, or accept themselves, and move on—freed by the knowledge that they have seen through the illusions of society. Their purity of heart is demonstrated by a willingness to abandon the comforting illusions that others cling to, because these heroes value truth over comfort.

Even today, despite our claims of cynicism, our stories still tell of heroes who are pure in heart. It is the popular definition of “deserving” that changes—not the framework. We don’t seem able to let that go.

*This is not the theological meaning of Matt. 5:8, of course. I am speaking of a human interpretation of the moral sense inborn to each of us.

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