Sunday, July 11, 2010

Hinds' Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard; The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis

I seem to be founding a pattern of reading companion books. First it was Blink and The Invisible Gorilla, now I'm on an allegory kick. We shall see what happens next...

When I first picked up this book, I was a little bit leery of it. After eight months of reading somewhat dry, intellectual approaches to spirituality, an allegory with a (literally) lame, ugly main character with the uninspiring name of Much-Afraid seemed like it was headed into soft and undesirable territory.

And I will say that yes, to a certain extent, that impression was correct. There were times when I got a little sick of the less-than-intrepid heroine crying in the face of some new disaster or failing yet again to fend off her not-so-dear cousins, Pride, Bitterness, Self-Pity, &c. But at the same time, I connected too well with too many parts of the story to discard it as mere fluff.

Literarily, it's something of a modern Pilgrim's Progress, though Hurnard tends to avoid Bunyan's rather more obvious sermonizing. It makes no pretenses about being anything but an allegory, so all of the characters have names that aptly describe who they are: no mystery there. Lots of symbolism, a motif or two, and a neat little twist to tie it off at the end, those are really the bulk of the fine points there.

In brief summary: Much-Afraid, a cowering shepherdess whose only rebellion is to break away from her family (the Fearings) to work for the Good Shepherd, discovers that there is a way for her to leave the Valley of the Fearings and to be healed of her physical (and emotional/spiritual) deformities. The path, however, is difficult and will require her to climb up into the mountains, facing unnamed trials and tribulations.

In short, a good book so long as you do not like to pursue interpretation.

The Great Divorce was a fun read, in part because searching for it gave me an excuse to plunder a few used bookstores in my area (resulting in a biography of Charles Fox, the previously reviewed Dark Lord of Derkholm, and several other works), and in part because it was all of the intellectual delight that Hinds' Feet lacked while also being incredibly readable. I think it took me about two, maybe two and a half hours to actually read it, plus another hour when accounting for all of the quotes that I wrote down.

The premise of the story is captured in the preface when Lewis says, "I think earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell: and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself."

The story itself concerns an unnamed narrator who finds himself dazedly wandering through silent, gray streets until he comes to a queue of people. Seeing aught else to do, he joins the line without questioning what its purpose is and eventually comes to understand that it is for a bus. The people are a more or less unpleasant lot, but some seem decent enough. None of the other characters stick around for very long. When they have taken their long bus ride, they arrive in a land that is somehow more real than they are, a land in which they are ghosts who can barely walk on the unbending grass for the pain of it. The bulk of the story that follows is taken up in the encounters of the various ghosts with the spirits who come to greet them and offer to guide them to the mountains and a greater reality.

Lewis delivers all of the usual profundities in what I found to be an easy to follow format. Perhaps if it suffered at any point, it was in the repetition of structure. Spirit meets Ghost, offers to lead Ghost, Ghost shows recalcitrance, stalks back to bus. But each situation was sufficiently fresh and different to make this a non-obstacle for me. Highlight would have to be the cameo appearance of George MacDonald, whose works I have not read (save for a copy of The Princess and the Goblin through which I am painstakingly making my way), but whose professorial Scottishness and character make him perfect for his role.

Downside: The part of me that has been subconsciously avoiding fiction has been complemented by an increased desire to read non-fiction. Curses!

1 comment:

Brent Waggoner said...

The great Divorce is... great.

Hind's Feet in High Places is Ok. It was a little bit fo a slog, but it inspired one of my favorite albums of all time, Much Afraid by Jars of Clay.