In Defense of Pretty Things and Pretty People
I’m a passionate fan, but not always the most loyal. My interests ebb and flow. Some things become lifelong passions while other bursts of enthusiasm fade quickly, never to be revived—like fireworks. After a few months of reading, YouTubing, blogging, discussing, referencing, and joking, I’ve decided that Game of Thrones is one of the latter.
My enthusiasm fizzled out. Reasons vary, but the primary one is that it’s just too much for me.
I find the politics and religions of Westeros completely fascinating, and I enjoy reading details about food and social rituals in that world. I think the books have helped me improve my own writing. But I am done with the war, death, rape, betrayal, disease, starvation, theft, and mutilation. Maybe reading the books in quick succession made it worse, but I’m tired of wondering whether a character I like will survive, and of not being able to trust anyone. I’m sick of every plot, relationship, or cause ending badly, however well-written or clever. I described the first book to Joy as “Narnia without Aslan,” and I stand by that. There’s no hope or peace, and very little genuine love. Call me a wimp, but I can’t take that for very long.
I don’t think every fictional character needs to be good or likeable, or that every ending needs to be happy or that every loose end needs to be tidily resolved. I’ve written extensively on my appreciation for villains. I can handle morally ambiguous characters—coughSherlockcough—and unhappy endings, if they’re well written and make sense in the overall story. My favorite characters in the Harry Potter series died by the end—seriously, all of them—but I understand what those deaths added to the story. I’ve written fanfics with sad or ambiguous endings, not to arbitrarily avoid a happy ending, but because that is what worked for me, as the writer. In general, though, as in life, I want good to prevail. I want things to be beautiful, happy, noble, and honorable.
People argue that stories like Game of Thrones are commendable because, though fictional, they are realistic. Yes, parts of GoT are based on history. True, they don’t sugarcoat things, or sweep tough issues under the rug, or shy away from the fact that war can bring out the worst in humanity, that people die, that schemes fall apart, that life brings a lot of suffering. I appreciate when people don’t sugarcoat things. I don’t agree with hiding things that go wrong.
Here’s the thing: being honest about the awful parts of life doesn’t mean you have to ignore or deny the good, happy things in life.
They exist! There are mountains and beaches and gorgeous forests. People fall in love, and sometimes those relationships actually last and couples grow old together. Delicious food literally grows on trees. Kittens are cute and fuzzy. There are days when the weather is absolutely perfect. Sometimes you learn something useful in school. And there is nothing wrong with wanting entertainment that has a happy ending and likable characters who do the right thing and then don’t have to die. I think that the older I get and the more shit I experience, the more I want more hopeful, uplifting entertainment. But because I am me, it needs to make sense, and it needs to be well-written and not blatantly emotionally manipulative (I’m scowling at you, Nicholas Sparks).
George R. R. Martin could probably write a more detailed, true-to-life account of the Battle of Agincourt than William Shakespeare. But at the end of the day, I want the pretty, stirring speeches full of pretty words about honor, glory, and loyalty, spoken by pretty, pretty men.
Acknowledging that things sometimes suck, that there is evil in the world, that others are less fortunate than you, doesn’t mean that you have to pull a Clockwork Orange and immerse yourself in all of that evil. You don’t have to watch horrific film scenes for their “realism” or read heartbreaking news stories. You don’t have to be cynical or squash all idealism.
We shouldn’t shy away from terrible things if there is something we can do about them. Pray for people in difficult situations. Donate to disaster relief. Volunteer for a suicide hotline or a battered women’s shelter or a soup kitchen. Let misfortune–yours or others’–help you develop perspective and be grateful for what you have. Let it teach you to treat others with patience and charity. But if acknowledging the horrors of life doesn’t help you do any of that, then why bother?
(Prepare thy eyes to roll…)
(Oh, wait, I’m talking to myself from 2010…)
…in his letters, C.S. Lewis wrote a bit about the growth of journalism and the increasingly rapid spread of news–especially bad news–due to newspapers and radio. (I wonder what he’d think of 24-hour news channels and Twitter?)
On 18 February, 1940, in a letter to his brother, Lewis said of a mutual acquaintance:
He is very much depressed having a greater faculty than you or I for feeling the miseries of the world in general—which led to a good deal of argument, how far, as a man and a Christian, one ought to be vividly and continuously aware of, say, what it’s like on the [front] line at this moment.
I took the line that the present rapidity of communication et cetera imposed a burden on sympathy for which sympathy was never made: that the natural thing was to be distressed about what was happening to the poor Jones’s in your own village and that the modern situation, in which journalism brings the Chinese, Russians, Finns, Poles and Turks to your notice each morning really could not be met in the same way.
We can’t help everyone. We can’t feel sympathy for everyone. It is humanly impossible. So maybe we should focus on where we can actually do any good. And maybe … dare I say it … skip over the stuff that makes us miserable for no good reason.
In other letters, as well as his published works, Lewis repeatedly reminds the reader that Christians are commanded to rejoice. Presumably that means we need to find and acknowledge things to rejoice about. He writes in The Problem of Pain:
My own idea, for what it is worth, is that all sadness which is not either arising from the repentance of a concrete sin and hastening towards concrete amendment or restitution, or else arising from pity and hastening to active assistance, is simply bad; and I think that we all sin by needlessly disobeying the apostolic injunction to “rejoice” as by anything else.
In a letter written 13 September, 1962, he wrote to a man seeking his counsel,
Your question what to do is already answered. Go on (as you apparently are going on) doing all your duties. And, in all lawful ways, go on enjoying all that can be enjoyed—your friends, your music, your books. Remember we are told to ‘rejoice’ [Philippians 4:4]. Sometimes when you are wondering what God wants you to do, He really wants to give you something.
Some people may say it’s naïve to wish for a happy ending, to hope for the best, to want things to be beautiful and peaceful and honorable, either in fiction or in real life. This is a particularly sad thing for Christians to do, because (uh…spoiler alert?) the Bible has a happy ending.
The last chapter of the Bible, Revelation 22, begins thusly:
Then he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. There will no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and His bond-servants will serve Him; they will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads. And there will no longer be any night; and they will not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God will illumine them; and they will reign forever and ever.
God wants to restore the world and bring His people and his creation back to the way He originally meant it to be. He is working toward that end. Our world may seem like Westeros now, but Narnia is real, and we’re going there.
Bitterness, cynicism, and misery aren’t cool or admirable, however “realistic” they are.
Hope, joy, and optimism aren’t silly, and they don’t have to be “unrealistic.” And in the world as we know it, sometimes they take more strength and courage to keep up.