I’ve been working on a theory. Let me know what you think.
It has to do with some of the stories and characters that I find most compelling and why. I’ll give you an example: That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis.
It’s the last in C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Plant sci-fi trilogy, and features a young college fellow’s slide towards darkness and his wife’s efforts to rescue him. I read it several years ago, and while I don’t remember a lot of the plot specifically, I do remember being invested in their stories to the point of practically physical distress.
I remember thinking about this specifically while I was reading. I don’t remember when it happened, but at one point, I actively questioned why I was so invested while I was reading. It’s not that it wasn’t good writing by any means, I’m very fond of Lewis and especially this trilogy, but I do remember being surprised because of how, well, normal it was. I mean, there are definitely elements of the strange–something sinister as my friend Sarah put it–but the story was also, in some ways, plain, at least in comparison to the world-hopping high stakes novels I’m used to.
Then I realized, I wasn’t just interested because of what was happening on the surface. No, I was interested because what I was reading had a soul on the line. It wasn’t just Mark’s marriage or career. It was Mark himself, and what would happen to him not just in the next few days, months, or years, but for eternity.
This, I think, is the eternal thread, that knife’s edge between death and life, good and evil, and when I see people tread it, see them danging in the balance, I’m captured.
I think of other examples of this in literature, the men of Rohan in The Two Towers, George in Of Mice and Men, heck, even Kylo Ren plays with this. In each, you see the inevitable march towards decisions that will mark a lifetime, those turning points towards good or evil, freedom versus chains. They open me up to a larger reality, a vaster scope, and it isn’t just in writing. Many other kinds of art or day to day life have it too.
Which brings me to the question of what exactly it looks like when woven into a story. How does one wind it into the great tapestries of their creative work, and when? There are many, many stories I adore that don’t outright hinge on a singular point of salvation for example, many that I find just as impactful and meaningful as those listed above, and still others that try and do so without success.
So what is it that really earmarks something as having that thread, even if it’s buried deep beneath layers and layers of other stitches? At first, I’ll admit, I found the question frustrating. Mad Max: Fury Road doesn’t mention Jesus at all, and I used to cry telling people about it. Likewise, our good friends George and Lenny don’t find some happy ending (at least that we see), and yet I see the thread there too.
Except, that’s kind of how life works, which is the beauty of the thread.
You see, ultimately, all human lives end in tragedy or comedy. There are, sadly, some of both. This is why happy endings and sad ones can be equally True, and it’s also why, to a certain degree, all stories have this thread. Are characters turning to good or evil, light or darkness? This, though sometimes as foggy and gray as Solomon’s vapors, it always true, and something that with wisdom, we can begin to discern.
That being said, even with this understanding, what does it actually mean? What does it tell us about the stories that most draw us in, and how to tell stories ourselves? Personally, I think I’ve found it useful in reminding myself what I am uplifting in the stories I tell. Am I celebrating and hoping for a turn towards the light (as my Father does), or am I beautifying evil, justifying what is wrong as right, when in fact I should compassionately cling to good with love and understanding in sight for the lost? That is perhaps one practical function of it from a strictly technical perspective. Another perhaps just to remind us of the journey we are all on.
I suspect there is much more to be gained.
So, what do you think, friends? Does my theory hold up? Do you see the eternal in what you read? Hinge points for a soul? If not (or even if, I suppose), what else do you see? What most captures you, in writing or in other forms of art and why? What examples do you have, and if you’ve had any success in capturing it in your own work, how did you do it? Let me know in the comments below! I’d love to know.