Friday, January 2, 2015
Of Monsters and Angels
At the suggestion of several people whose opinions I respect, I recently read Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I have never read any of Gaiman's work before and wasn't sure what to expect. Initially I thought the book was going to be a psychological drama with an element of mystery but it didn't take long to realize that what I was reading instead was a no-holds barred fairy tale for adults. I wouldn't call the book an allegory, but if you enjoy allegory, fantasy, and tales with supernatural elements, I would recommend it. It is a fairly quick and easy read. I hasten to add that while several reviews I read suggested it is suitable for all ages, I strongly disagree. It is one very scary book, and there are several scenes that are definitely not appropriate for children.
I should clarify what I mean in calling the book easy to read. It is limited in narrative scope, focusing on a few characters primarily at a single point in time and space, and it is straightforwardly told. So it is easy in the storytelling sense. It is not, however, easy to pinpoint the book's meaning, and as a one-time English major I like to be able to do just that. So ever since I finished reading I have been trying to figure out what it all means, and here in non-spoiler fashion is what I have concluded (at least for now).
One of my favorite parts of the book occurs when the main character/narrator, who is seven years old at the time, has a conversation about monsters with his 11-year-old friend. (Monsters figure prominently in the book.) As they discuss the nature of monsters, Lettie, the 11-year-old, observes:
"Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are things people are scared of. Some of them are things that look like things people used to be scared of a long time ago. Sometimes monsters are things people should be scared of, but they aren't."
The conversation between the two continues as they discuss one of the adult characters whose behavior has been nothing short of monstrous:
I said, "People should be scared of Ursula Monkton."
"P'raps. What do you think Ursula Monkton is scared of?"
"Dunno. Why do you think she's scared of anything? She's a grown-up, isn't she? Grown-ups and monsters aren't scared of things."
"Oh, monsters are scared," said Lettie. "That's why they're monsters. And as for grown-ups . . . . I'm going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don't look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they're big and thoughtless and they always know what they're doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren't any grown-ups. . . . "
In my opinion this passage encapsulates what the book is about. As the story opens the narrator is an adult returning to the town of his childhood to attend a funeral; he is soon overtaken by the repressed memory of something terrible that happened when he was seven years old. The bulk of the book recounts that memory, which includes an epic battle against some pretty horrifying creatures. Therein lies the heart of the book. Throughout our lives we encounter monsters in various shapes and sizes. Sometimes they look like monsters; sometimes they don't. Sometimes we recognize them; sometimes we don't. But they are there, and in one way or another we are always battling them. If we are lucky we will have someone on our side helping us fight them. But we will always bear the scars of the various monsters we encounter, and it may take a long time for those scars to heal. Moreover, even when the battle is over and we have moved on, the memories have a way of calling us back and making us relive the entire ordeal. That is to be expected and is a necessary part of processing what has happened. That battle with the monster was real, and pretending it wasn't doesn't help. Acknowledging and facing it is part of the process of healing and moving on.
I am a Christian and as such tend to read everything through the lens of my faith. Neil Gaiman is not a Christian as far as I know, and neither is his book, but there are several themes in the book that rang true for me as a Christian. There is no doubt in this book that there is such a thing as evil and such a thing as good and that they are at war with each other in big and small ways. There is no doubt that there is more to the created world than what we see on the surface. And perhaps most important, there is something called love, and it is so powerful that it can lead one to sacrifice himself for the sake of another.
Here are a few more takeaways from the book that rang especially true for me:
Monsters are real, but they don't always look like what you might expect.
The same goes for angels.
Sometimes the people you most trust turn out to be monsters.
The monsters are afraid, too. Sometimes they don't even know they're monsters. They may even think they're doing good.
Help can come from the most unexpected places.
There is such a thing as evil. It is powerful, but good is more powerful.
Things are not always as they seem.
Much of life doesn't make sense, but every once in a while we are granted a moment of clarity, and it can strengthen us for the rest of the journey.
If you're looking for a book to get lost in for a few days, one that will capture your imagination and get you thinking about some of the Big Questions, you could do worse than The Ocean at the End of the Lane.