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Reading Literature in the Light of Faith

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Tag: Chretien de Troyes

New Literary Journal: The Lost Country

The Lost Country, cover, volume 1 number 1

This week, phone and internet outages combined with a raging head-cold  to keep me from getting much writing done (although I’ve got plenty of things on the hob!). Let me suggest, then, that you take a look at the online edition of a new literary journal, The Lost Country, produced by some young scholar/writers of my acquaintance, who call themselves The Exiles. You can read it online or download a PDF, but if you like what you see, you should really consider subscribing to the print edition, which is very handsomely produced. You can also learn more about The Exiles, who describe themselves as “a literary club in the venerable tradition of the Inklings of Oxford and the Fugitives of Vanderbilt University.” If you’d like to encourage them in their work, they accept donations!

a literary club in the venerable tradition of the Inklings of Oxford and the Fugitives of Vanderbilt University
a literary club in the venerable tradition of the Inklings of Oxford and the Fugitives of Vanderbilt University
a literary club in the venerable tradition of the Inklings of Oxford and the Fugitives of Vanderbilt University
a literary club in the venerable tradition of the Inklings of Oxford and the Fugitives of Vanderbilt University

In the debut edition of The Lost Country, you’ll find an essay that I wrote called “Charity, the Key to Reading The Story of the Grail,” which is excerpted and adapted from my doctoral dissertation. But just to set the record straight, my dissertation was about memory as the hermeneutic key to reading Chrétien de Troyes’s Perceval (a.k.a. The Story of the Grail), and it was Barbara Sargent-Baur of Princeton University who literally wrote the book on charity in The Story of the Grail. Memory and charity, of course, work hand in hand, but if you want to know how that works in Chrétien’s romance, you’ll
have to buy a copy of my dissertation (just ask for no. 3317643) or wait until I publish it as a book. Or
just keep reading this blog, because I’m bound to mention it one of these days.
Not today, I’m afraid, because I’m still waiting for the pseudoephedrine to
kick in so that I can breathe well enough to oxygenate my brain properly.

What are you doing still reading this? Go! Go check out The Lost Country.

On Film Adaptations of Beloved Works of Literature

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, film by Peter Jackson

Many fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels of Middle Earth are waiting anxiously for the premiere of Peter Jackson’s new film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which will cover the first part of Tolkien’s famous novel about Bilbo Baggins’s taking off from his comfortable life in Hobbiton to travel with a band of dwarves bent on retrieving a bunch of treasure from a dragon. I use the term “anxiously” advisedly, as many Tolkien purists were not entirely happy with Jackson’s massive three-film adaptation of Tolkien’s even-more-massive novel, Lord of the Rings, and are worried that he’ll similarly distort this story of a beloved Hobbit, as well. As a Tolkien admirer myself, I must admit that, while I have greatly enjoyed Jackson’s films about the One Ring and the humble hobbit tasked with destroying it (the extended editions, not the truncated versions that aired in cinemas), I was somewhat put out that the films distorted or obscured many of the themes found in the novel.  (I insist on thinking of Lord of the Rings as Tolkien conceived it, a single story; only the tale’s great length caused it to be published serially in three separate volumes. Probably it should not even be called a novel, but a romance or a saga.)

Liv Tyler as Arwen Evenstar

Liv Tyler as Arwen Evenstar
in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films

However, as a student of the Western literary tradition, I have long since learned that great stories get handed down by being retold in succeeding generations; each new telling brings out something different, making an old story new again. The whole history of the Western literary tradition – at least, up to the invention of the modern novel – bears witness to this fact. Unfortunately, in Hollywood, even not-so-great and lousy stories get re-told ad nauseum these days, presumably because screenwriters aren’t aware of the truly great, time-tested tales, having been “educated” in universities where the classics of literature have been abandoned and where no one actually reads anymore. (Here endeth the rant, before it is even begun. Another day, perhaps.)

At any rate, whenever I find myself watching a film version of some greatly loved literary work, I have learned to stuff the student of literature back into a dark corner of my mind so that the film enthusiast can enjoy herself. I tell myself that Peter Jackson the filmmaker, creating cinematic versions of Tolkien’s tales, are rather like Mallory or Tennyson reworking the romances of Chrétien de Troyes and Geoffrey of Monmouth. I would not reject Mallory’s version of Lancelot as an illegitimate appropriation of Chrétien’s original, so perhaps I should not begrudge Jackson’s giving Arwen Evenstar the role of an Amazonian action star or accuse Jackson of failing to appreciate the true thematic depths of Tolkien’s stories. I can convince myself that “different” is not necessarily “inferior.”

Deborah Kerr, Van Johnson in The End of the Affair, 1955

The End of the Affair (1955), a good film adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel

Of course, sometimes “different” really is “inferior.” I remember being truly enraged at the way the 1999 film version of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair had completely missed the unmissable theme at the heart of the novel (without which it became meaningless). I probably should have simply skipped this “filmization” starring Ralph Fiennes, because it made me unwilling to watch film versions of beloved books for several years thereafter. I must add that the 1955 film version of this novel, which came out just a few years after The End of the Affair was published, managed to convey the book’s central theme adequately, while still providing enough romantic tension to satisfy those who cared nothing about meaningful themes and bought tickets only to see Van Johnson and Deborah Kerr in a clinch. (What? You haven’t read The End of the Affair? Don’t worry, it’s never too late. Find a cheap second-hand copy and start reading! Then get back to me if you still don’t understand what it’s all about. As a hint, I’ll just say that it is not simply about a love affair that ended too soon.)

I was shocked recently when one of my friends, whose literary taste and perspicacity has always seemed reliable, said she had quite enjoyed the 1999 film version of The End of the Affair. She was surprised that I had truly hated it. (Our conversation, alas, was cut short before I could explain why I thought the film was such an awful distortion of the novel.) This has led me to wonder: Is there any criterion for judging a film based on a novel, qua adaptation, to be “good”?

My first thought is that we might adapt the criterion for judging books “good” that C. S. Lewis set out in his An Experiment in Criticism. I would say that a good adaptation would have to constitute an intelligent, perceptive reading of its literary original. That is, in order to be deemed a “good” adaptation, the film would succeed in bringing out or developing some important
theme that can be found in the literary original in such a way as to enrich – or at least ratify – an intelligent reading of the original, even if it has to alter or truncate the novel’s plot or characters to be cinematically effective.

A still from Erich Rohmer’s film, Perceval le Gallois, a truly excellent film adaptation of the 12th century romance.

A truly “great” film adaptation would go even further, illuminating the story in such a way that a re-reading of the literary original would be enriched for having seen the film, perhaps bringing out nuances that had escaped the reader’s notice upon the first reading. I suggest that, according to this criterion, Eric Rohmer’s Perceval le Gallois, a film adaptation of Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval/The Story of the Grail, is a great adaptation, although it does not even touch upon the Gawain strand of the narrative, which occupies about one third of the romance’s total length. My reading of Chretien’s romance, which was the subject of my doctoral dissertation, was probably changed forever, and for the better, once I had seen Rohmer’s film.

On the other hand, if the film fails to bring out literary themes faithfully, no matter how closely it follows the original plot points or characters, it is a “bad” adaptation. Notice that this is quite different from saying that it is a bad film qua film. It’s possible, for instance, that the 1999 film, The End of the Affair, is of passable quality as a movie qua movie (I recuse myself from trying to judge it on these grounds) while being a truly execrable film adaptation qua adaptation (which is still my assessment, although I’m planning to re-watch both the 1955 and 1999 films, to see if my opinion still holds).

Tolkien, The Hobbit book coverAt any rate, it is a truly intrepid (or, sometimes, ignorant) filmmaker who dares to make a screen version of a beloved literary work. Fortunately, Peter Jackson is a great storyteller for the big screen, so I’m willing to bet that his Hobbit films will be more than worth the ticket price, even if it does turn out that he has deviated from Tolkien’s story in some significant way. The fact that he is splitting the novel, to create two films, suggests that he did not want to leave out a single interesting detail. (I turn a deaf ear to the cynics who suggest that he simply wants to milk the Tolkien cash cow for all it is worth.) I certainly am looking to seeing the new film.

By the way, if you are one of those people who like seeing film adaptations of literary works (or discovering that a film you’ve enjoyed is based on a book you’ve never read), you should take a look at Movies for Booklovers, a section of a larger web site called The Greatest Literature ofAll Time which lists and reviews film versions of great literary works.Meanwhile, anyone who both loves Tolkien’s The Hobbit and is looking forward to the Peter Jackson film might think twice before re-reading the novel before seeing the movie. Try to enjoy the movie for what it is before comparing it to the book that Tolkien wrote. If you’re lucky, you’ll find that it succeeds both as a movie and as a film adaptation of a beloved literary work.

What do you think about film adaptations of your favorite stories? Love ’em, hate ’em? Click “comment”  at the bottom of this page and chime in.

Hidden in Plain Sight: Biblical (il)literacy and the modern reader

The Gospel readings that the Church’s lectionary provides at this green time of the year are full of parables, which may be one reason that I’ve had parables on the brain late. Mark Shea’s recent feature article in Crisis Magazine, “The Parable of the Dishonest Steward,” is a good exploration of why Christ so often taught in parables and, also, why he had to explain them, even though on the face of it they are quite simple. As Shea points out, what’s obvious to a Christian may not be obvious to others, who have not “eyes to see nor ears to hear”; these only faith can provide. This brings me to another reason I’ve been thinking about the uses of parables as teaching tools.

A short story informed by faith

U. S. postage stamp commemorating Katherine Anne Porter

Short-story writer Porter was a convert to the Catholic faith.

In the literature class I’m currently teaching  (an introductory course that teaches the basics of literary interpretation), we’ve been studying short stories and how they work, reading selections that provide good illustrations of the various techniques we’re discussing (plot, setting, point of view, character, etc.). Most recently, we’ve been examining Katherine Anne Porter’s frequently-anthologized story, “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” a real literary gem.

I don’t know much about Porter, other than the fact that she was a native Texan (at one time writing for a Fort Worth journal) and a convert to Catholicism (although during a long period of her life she was apparently disaffected from religion in general), nor have I read a lot of her work, but “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” makes me want to read more.

The Jilting of Granny Weatherall

The story is simple on the face of it, yet has hidden depths. It is told in a third person, limited omniscient voice, which means that the voice telling the story does not belong to any of the characters in the story, and it allows us to know things that an ordinary objective observer could not know — in this case, the reader hears the rambling thoughts of elderly, dying Granny Weatherall during the last hours of her life. This is an interesting and tricky choice. Since as events come to us filtered through the old woman’s groggy, feeble, and wandering consciousness, the reader has a bit of a job to figure out what, objectively, is happening in Granny’s sick room. This is what I mean by its being tricky: Granny’s idea of what is happening to, and around, her is not always accurate, but an incautious reader is liable to overlook this fact. Porter’s authorial intention goes beyond the objective level of physical reality and the subjective level of Granny’s mental meanderings, to the moral level of Granny’s spiritual state, something which even Granny herself seems determined to ignore, and which many readers will miss altogether.

Kruseman's The Wise and Foolish Virgins

The parable of the wise & foolish virgins refers to the Day of Judgment.

This is really one of the things that interests me about the story. In fact, this moral level of significance, in which the author is explores and comments on Granny’s spiritual condition, is the real focus of the story, but many readers will fail to realize this. This is because Porter hints at her real purpose by use of Biblical motifs taken from Christ’s parables about death and judgment. At first, these allusions seem simply details of Granny’s wandering memories — lights and lanterns, for example —  but the cumulative effect is to make a savvy reader gradually aware that the omniscient narrator is trying to make a point, which the reader should get, even if Granny does not. The insistence of these parabolic images grows in intensity until their presence finally bursts into plain view in the final paragraph or two of the story. In the end, they are hard to overlook, at least for anyone equipped to recognize them at all. But to miss them is to miss the meaning of the story, whose central theme is Granny’s spiritual unreadiness to meet her death.

The Biblical illiteracy of modern readers

It’s a great pity that many modern readers these days are utterly incapable of recognizing these Scriptural allusions at all. When the story was published in 1930, Porter had a reasonable expectation that many, if not most, of her readers would be familiar with the stories of the Bible, particularly the parables of Christ in the Gospels.

For centuries, literary authors had been able to make allusion to the Bible to illuminate their own works of fiction. (I wrote my doctoral dissertation on one such writer, twelfth-century Chrétien de Troyes, who first popularized stories about the knights of King Arthur.) But, alas, the great stories of the Bible are no longer part of the warp and woof of Western culture, and otherwise literate Americans who read this story today may easily miss the point Porter is trying to make. In other words, Katherine Anne Porter’s short story, like Biblical parables, can be understood only by those who have “eyes to see, ears to hear.”

It’s distressing to realize that even those who teach students to read literature are unable to see what Porter is getting at in this story. For instance, a casual cruise of the internet on the subject of “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” will discover not only the predictably awful essays and summaries written by and for students, but also offerings by “professionals” which entirely deliberately ignore or unwittingly miss the ample allusions that point to the real heart of the matter in “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” (I even found this academic essay by a certain Barbara Laman of the University of Miami, which misses the point rather spectacularly, thanks to the peculiar kind of mental astigmatism created by a “feminist” perspective).

Without knowledge of the Bible, we remain culturally illiterate

Here’s why the sad effects of Biblical illiteracy in the general culture should concern anyone with an ounce of cultural sensibility: many of our great works of literature are now largely incomprehensible even to “sophisticated” and highly-educated readers, simply because these works rely on allusions to a thesaurus of meaning that has now been banished to the cultural outhouse. The Bible has been banned in the public sphere, and its cultural influence is ignored or denied.

In the case of “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” failure to recognize Biblical allusions or their significance will force an otherwise-astute reader to arrive at exactly the wrong idea of what this story is about. How many other, even greater, cultural treasures are, in effect, being distorted and defaced by this cultural blind spot? Loss of familiarity with the great stories of the Bible produces a great loss not only for those who are at least nominally Christian, but for our culture as a whole. This is an argument that has been made with greater force and eloquence by others than I have done here, but it is one that was borne in upon me with renewed force this week as my students and I have been analyzing this widely-read work by one of America’s great short story writers.

©2010 Lisa A. Nicholas, updated 2017