Can reading a young adult fantasy novel help us to understand the condition of the Western mind? After reading A Winter’s Promise by Christelle Dabos, I am convinced that it can. It helped me understand how a post-Christian civilisation can become inclined to “wokeness”.
In A Winter’s Promise, a headstrong young lady called Ophelia is betrothed to a taciturn and influential member of a distant clan, a betrothal that is forced on her by her family. She must follow her fiancé to a cold, icy “ark” known as the Pole, where mistrust and political games abound, and prove her capacity to survive the web of intrigue she becomes involved in.
A Christian novel?
First of all, to do justice to author Christelle Dabos, I have to make clear that the link I am making between A Winter’s Promise and social justice activism is mine and not hers. Her novel is in no way a defense of postmodernism, nor does it incite to activism of any sort. In a way, her novel is full of Christian values that the protagonist has internalised.
For example, while the lifestyle of the people on “the Pole” is far from exemplary, the protagonist does not engage in or describe in detail any of the sexual licentiousness she encounters, and instead consistently denounces it. The same holds for the lack of honesty and transparency, and even the cruelty she is faced with. Judging from the protagonist’s standards, this is a deeply Christian novel.
However, what nearly dissuaded me from reading the book at all was the “Fragment” at the beginning which describes the love relationship between God and a mysterious “I”, which ends: “And one day, when God was in a really bad mood, he did something enormously stupid. God smashed the world to pieces.”
Now, obviously, this is a work of fiction and this quote needs to be situated in a fictional context. Still, even a fictional blasphemy is abhorrent to me. Both the fact that God is here used in a seemingly monotheist sense, and that blame for what is wrong in the world is heaped on Him, does ring a big Western-thought bell.
Gnostics have talked about a bad god for ages. And as Spanish philosopher Leonardo Polo explains in Freedom in Quarantine, Luther was one of the first of a string of Western thinkers that attributed negativity to God. This notion is in no way only fictional.
What is going on?
While reading this book, a series of others came to mind that can help us make sense of the “me against the world” or even “self-righteous me against God” sentiment that Ophelia conveys.
One rather deep and not particularly easy, but still very helpful book is CS Lewis’ Till We Have Faces. Lewis called this book his masterpiece, and that claim becomes intelligible once you listen to Peter Kreeft’s brilliant explanation.
According to Kreeft, Till We Have Faces addresses some of the most existential questions around religion. A key question is: “Why are holy places dark places?” Or in other words: why does God not show Himself more clearly? Why is there so much seemingly senseless suffering in the world, to which God seems to be absent?
Lewis’ answer, according to Kreeft (and you really need to listen to the lecture to understand this well) is that we cannot understand that Till We Have Faces, until we have cleansed ourselves enough interiorly so as to be able to talk to God face-to-face, and not to project our inner darkness onto the world around us.
Silence is golden
While this may sound like a cop-out, the reality and depth of Lewis’ answer is aptly illustrated by a BBC documentary that was aired some years ago called The Big Silence. In it, Benedictine monk Fr Christopher Jamison invited five people to immerse themselves in a nine-day Ignatian silence retreat. Some participants had a religious background, others did not.
What struck me was a dialogue between the monk and one of the non-religious participants, a businessman who did not become religious after the retreat, but did have a profound inner change. In the silence he started to realise that all his longing for business success had actually been rooted in escaping childhood trauma.
The silent retreat also instilled in him an awe for the beauty of the universe. Fr Christopher aptly summarised his change of heart by saying that while the universe had seemed an unfriendly place to him at first, in silence he had discovered that it is actually a profoundly friendly place. The businessman had confronted his inner darkness, and his vision of the world around him improved as a consequence.
It seems to me that Ophelia’s “me against the world” or “self-righteous me against God” attitude is key to understanding woke psychology. In this theory, the world is seen as an evil, oppressive place; that in turn is blamed on those who have been responsible for that world, most especially white male Christians.
The Marxist dialectic inherent in Wokism of oppressed versus oppressors fits this sentiment perfectly. Social justice activism proposes that we overthrow power structures, so that the oppressed are liberated and the paradise of equality is instituted.
However, this external solution does not address any of the real internal drama that is going on and perhaps the easiness of this solution is part of the attractiveness. The real challenge to see the real beauty in the world, and to appreciate the love that occasions it, remains unaddressed.
All this is not to say that only woke psychology suffers from this issue. Indeed, any conspiracy theory does, or, for that matter, anyone who cannot see anything else than woke people taking over the world. White male Christians are not immune, nor is anyone else. Confronting the darkness within us is a task we are all called to take on, with God’s help.
Given these considerations, would I recommend reading A Winter’s Promise, or giving the book to young people to read? This book, and the four-book series it is part of, has been crowned with several awards and has become a bestseller — not without reason.
The book is well-written, the story world is well-elaborated, the story is entertaining and has a rich plot. And, as I mentioned, in her conduct and appreciation of the things happening around her, the main character is a morally upright person.
Still, the book also conveys the sense of oppressiveness of marriage, of family structures, and of the wider world in general. In a way, reading this book could be a good opportunity for people to address and talk about these issues in a reflective way.
My advice would therefore be: only recommend this book to young people if it can be accompanied by constructive discussion of the issues raised above.
What remains for me is to express the hope that the above considerations can be insightful for the author Christelle Dabos herself. Speaking for myself, I can say that I found it very helpful for Lewis, Kreeft, and Fr Jamison to open my eyes to the mysteries of our inner darkness, and how confronting them requires a continual struggle.
To speak in terms of the mythology of one of Lewis’ best friends, JRR Tolkien, taking up the task to bring our inner ring to Mount Doom may perhaps be challenging and arduous, but it will bring down Mordor and make a new age shine forth. It would be wonderful if Christelle Dabos’ considerable talent could further enlighten us on that journey in future books.