Dickens: Great Expectations

Author: Charles Dickens
Genre: Victorian coming-of-age
Published: 1 December 1860 – 3 August 1861, All the Year Round (weekly) & Harper’s Weekly (monthly)
Pages (Chapman & Hall Edition, 1862): 554
Other Works: A Christmas Carol, Nicholas NicklebyDavid Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist

Picked by Joshua Rothe (Stitched Crosses series; Shadow of the Stars series)

new-2Great Expectations might be one of the greatest stories either never read (because it was imposed during high school literature) or greatly misunderstood/misinterpreted (based on the inadequacies of visual adaptations).

It is not a ‘rags-to-riches’ story. Nor is it in any way a vehicle of criticism primarily against the upper class, or a stick stirring the pot of class warfare; Dickens is careful to place heroes and villains in all stations presented, because his is other purposes.

Great Expectations is about original sin, which works through covetousness and ambition to corrupt temporal wealth and success — be it by hard labour or inherited. The poisonous fruit usually produced is vengeance, thanklessness, contempt, a scything tongue. Dickens is clear: we are slaves to sin, it is part of our very nature from birth. The story shows this truth as iniquity bears itself out in every choice the characters make — even when they think they are making a choice for good.

It is also about crippling guilt under the law, natural and created. The story illustrates profoundly and often what St. Paul writes about in Romans 3:9-20 — “None is righteous, no, not one… through the law comes knowledge of sin.” But it is also about repentance and the forgiveness of sins: repentance and forgiveness saturates this story, and also the good fruit it bears. Where there is no recognition of sin, no contrition that one is a sinner and has sinned against those one loves, no forgiveness or the humility to seek it, destruction follows.

The story also illustrates vividly true love — not just the romantic kind between man and woman, but the deep love and loyalty between friends, the formidable bond of love between members of family. Where this love does not exist or is rejected, death and hate and cruelty is shown rushing to fill the void.

Also not to be lost in everything is the importance of vocation. Pip desires from the very first pages to be a blacksmith, like his dear brother-in-law and teacher, Joe. It is only when Pip is infatuated with a forbidden fruit (Estella), and given wealth, that he engages in reckless abandon to achieve what the world defines as ‘great expectations’. It is when Pip replaces truth for falsehood, to be someone he is not and part of a world that was never meant to be his calling, that he becomes blind to the reality that he is (with others) but a pawn in someone else’s wicked schemes.

All-in-all, Great Expectations is a superb presentation of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son; it is a sobering cautionary tale; it is a tale with a solemn victory — not of the kind that comes with fanfares and parades, but of the soul and heart.

Great Expectations is a story worth every minute you are willing to give it, even if it takes weeks and months to get through its chapters.

Tolkien: The Children of Húrin

Author: JRR Tolkien (edited by Christopher Tolkien)
Genre: Fantasy – Middle-earth
Published: 17 April 2007, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Pages (Hardcover): 313
Other Works: The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings

Picked by Joshua Rothe (Stitched Crosses series; WARS: The Battle of Phobos, Volume 3)

The Children of Húrin is a strange story. It is definitely a work that only a Roman Catholic could write. I do not say this with any derogatory intent to my fellow Christian kin. I am speaking of the harsh Romanist mentality that life-lessons are best learned hard and unapologetic if life is to be best served. The book’s aim appears to scare the listener into strict discipline, like a parent saying, “Listen to me, otherwise this could happen to you…”: a cursed life where one bounces from point to point with the knowledge (passive or active) that the shoe will drop…eventually. This is the hopeless fate of errant paths, Húrin warns.

Even more depressing is that the book reminds just why fighting evil is a thoroughly dangerous proposition.  There is, of course, no other choice for the godly man, but Tolkien seems to want to make his readers secure in the knowledge that this life is something of a burden (at the least) with the only hope being that those who are willing to stay the course against evil must (and will) be rewarded on another horizon. (Not that this message of hope comes from this particular story, but from The Lord of the Rings.)

Fans of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit should be warned that they will not find anything near the charm, heroism, or frivolity that is contained in either of those two principle works. The Children of Húrin is a dark tale of the sort that Bruce Wayne would read till the pages fell out. It takes place in the First Age of Middle-Earth, during a period when Morgoth (the mentor of The Lord of the Rings’ Sauron) was at the height of his rule.

It should be noted that Húrin is technically an unfinished work. His son (and the editor of the work) articulates in the introduction, “While I have had to introduce bridging passages here and there in the piecing together of different drafts, there is no element of extraneous ‘invention’ of any kind, however slight.” It may be that Tolkien had intended there to be something of a ‘happier’ ending, but given that Kullervo (a famous tragic figure from Finnish folklore), Oedipus, and Sigmund (from the Völsungasaga and made famous by Wagner) were the primary influences for the tale this cannot be known. (Afterall, The Lord of the Rings was also inspired by mythic Norse and Germanic tales.)

If one can glean any happy thought from this story it is in experiencing the vile Morgoth confidently declaring control over the fates of men and Middle-earth. Evil loves to purport this delusion that they are in full control of all ends. It rebels against authority while setting itself up as authority, proof that hypocrisy is the bedfellow of evil. Further, Húrin declares that we can be sure the only power villainy has is that which we give it. There is no mention of Húrin casting blame of his family’s situation at the feet of Ilúvatar (the Middle-earth representation of God). All indications by Tolkien is that the depravity that befalls Húrin’s children is not from any uttered curse of a dark lord, but a pronouncement of a condition that can be held at bay by consistent right action, valor, courage, and other virtues (at least within the setting of Middle-earth).

In the real world, this curse of original sin holds no damning power over those who have accepted the call to place their lives in Christ. Thus the right actions in this very real space against evil being works from trust in the Triune God and His Word through justified faith in Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection for all.

Tolkien isn’t wrong in painting a picture of how we are hopelessly corrupted, and that detours and suffering in life certainly occur when we rebel against our Creator. Húrin is right to illustrate that we do not have the strength or wisdom to save ourselves from our flaws and sins. My concern with this story is that there is no salvation spoken, let alone had. It’s as if the story is saying, “Salvation is a moot point. It is best not to stray too far from the path at all.”

We will never know what JRR Tolkien’s full intent with this story was; given the high inspiration of his other Middle-earth works this one’s suffocating gloom seems somewhat out of character.

The Children of Húrin is a book wholly depressing, and yet I couldn’t put it down; it is devoid of inspiration, but its execution of story and setting is flawless. I read this story faster than any other Middle-earth adventure and found myself more deeply surrounded in the settings. Perhaps that is because the Húrin children–specifically their penchant to make flawed decisions–were easier to relate.

Highly recommended, with the caveat that it is best read with a KJV or ESV edition of the Bible close-by.