We Read for Courage
The theatre was dark, the music in the kind of slow, lyrical build that draws your heart into your aching throat, as I watched the story of Snape, one of the most troublesome characters in the Harry Potter series, come to its climax. My siblings and I had joined hundreds of others that evening to catch the midnight showing, delighted to witness the film closing to a story that had taken me, at least, by real surprise with its profoundly explored themes of friendship and power and sacrificial love. Of course, I'd read the books first and came to the movie with the scenes already vivid in my imagination, but I wasn't prepared for the poignancy with which the filmmakers crafted the moment of revelation that comes to Harry as he confronts the hidden sacrifice and grief and bravery of Snape's frustrated life and finds that it shows him how to love more sacrificially than he has ever imagined he could.
When I did, I found myself weeping. More startling though, was my realisation that the grown man beside me (a stranger) was also crying, sobbing uncontrollably, shoulders shaking with silent, chest-deep heaves, tears running unchecked down his stubbly face. I might have found this extremely uncomfortable if my sister beside me wasn't also crying, as were most of the other people in my line of sight in that old theatre. I saw faces of total, honest sadness, of yearning, or radiant hope all around me.
I sat there in wonder, awed at the way this shared story broke down the polite facades we all usually fix carefully in place and somehow allowed each of us to touch something grieved and yearning in our own hearts. I sat there amazed at how deeply this story of an unloveable but oh so brave character got to the depths of some truth that defines us, that illuminates our own struggle. And when I got home that night, I lay in bed trying to understand exactly what it was the story had given us. I came to two conclusions.
First, I think Snape, the flawed character, helps us to glimpse and accept our own imperfect reality. We see ourselves in his flawed and resentful heart wrestling with his desire to be faithful in the one love he has experienced. Glimpsing his story helped each of us in that theatre (each reader of the books, of course!) to acknowledge a little of the tragedy we carry in our own hearts. I think we were all, in a way, peering inside our own hearts in that moment of revelation, at our own yearning and frustration, our own desire for love, our own capacity for evil. I know I was thinking of all the hard things I had known recently, of my struggle to trust God, my sense of feeling unseen and unloved and the bitterness I felt growing within me. The story helped us to speak ourselves true.
But second, in Snape, I think we also saw what I think is once of the most powerful concepts we gain by exposure to great stories, and that is the possibility of agency, the knowledge that we as characters in our own story have the capacity to choose to act upon love, to fight for goodness, rather than to give in to the darkness of our own hearts or the meanness of our circumstances. Later in the series, Harry, who has spent most of his life hating Snape, names his own little son after the man and tells the child that Snape was 'the bravest man I have ever known'. Because it is Snape's act of sacrifice that helps Harry to choose the brave act on which the whole story turns.
In Snape, I think we, with Harry, glimpse both the depths of our frailty and the heights of our capacity to be redeemed by, to act in, love. In that final novel of what is truly a masterful series, in the glimpse of Snape's courage, Rowling's many readers gained an idea of what it means to live in courage, to act in brave, loving defiance of the darkness, and that is a gift I think we need pretty much daily in this dark, hurting old world. We are all of us fighting a battle and we read for the courage to act, hope, and love in our own small stories.
When I wrote my Book Girl introduction with Lilian in mind, I knew that one of the keenest gifts I wanted to give her through books was courage to face a world that I know she will all-too quickly discover to be broken. I wanted to gird her with strength to confront her own frailty, her fear, to face bad dreams when she's tiny and failed dreams when she's older with a fighter's heart. I wanted to equip her to wrestle well with the sly, hurtful ways of the world, and more, with the discovery of those ways in her own heart. I wanted her to know that though she might suffer grief or loss or disappointment, that she might be tempted and she might do wrong, those are not her identity, because she has the capacity, always, to act, create, confess, forgive, and oh, always, to love.
In a chapter titled 'Books Can Impart Hope' (in Book Girl) I write about some of my own deep grief, and the way that stories have helped me to live with courage:
"A reading woman is a realist; she lives in this broken place, and she grapples with the daily stuff of life in a fallen world. Broken bodies, shattered relationships, a world in which wars and flat tires and miscarriages are daily realities—this is her story, and the great works of fiction and theology show her what redemption looks like in ordinary time. I find it ironic that the reading of novels is sometimes criticized as an escapist activity, because some of the novels I love best are the ones that have taught me how to accept and survive the most grievous facts of my life. It was Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country that first made me honest enough to admit the way personal pain made me doubt God’s goodness or the way grief made ordinary life feel pointless. But it was that same book that showed me the possibility of a creative, stubborn faith that could endure even in total tragedy." (p. 222)
The books that have helped me to that the most? Well, Harry Potter of course. But also...
Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, one of the more poignant and searing explorations of loss I have ever encountered while also managing to be a novel about a man who rejects the poison of bitterness. I love this quiet story of a father's love in the midst of apartheid in South Africa.
The Lord of the Rings has always been one of the spiritual touchpoints of my reading life, a novel that invaded some of the darkest moments of my teens with the message that beauty endures, that hope allows me to act in courage, that I had a choice to make and a good battle to fight.
Frederick Buechner's work has also always been a deep encouragement to me, one that looks unblinkingly at the darkness of the world yet tells me I can be led in and through it by the light of love transforming even the shadows. His 'Speak What We Feel and Not What We Ought to Say' is a marvelous look at works of literature like Huckleberry Finn, The Man Who Was Thursday, and Shakespeare's King Lear, all forged in faithful courage in the midst of suffering. And his memoir, 'The Sacred Journey' is an aching beauty of a book.
Finally, Elizabeth Goudge's The Scent of Water is a contemplative story, a novel of the interior world exploring what it looks like to be faithful - in prayer, in willing to live - amidst mental illness and loneliness. I return to this novel again and again for strength and courage to walk and strive well in my own journey.
These stories walked with me as brave companions who challenged my tendency to despair or inaction, who showed me by their narratives that love is a choice we can make, that courage is a story we can live, one whose horizons open all of our lives up to the light of hope.
For as Madeleine L'Engle so poignantly put it:
A book too, can be a star, a living fire to lighten the darkness...