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Different reactions, same book
By Orson Scott Card March 25, 2010

I got a letter the other day from a "concerned grandmother, great-grandmother and former English teacher" who is also a member of the LDS Church.

"I have always tried to read what my students, my children, and grandchildren are reading," she wrote. Recently she read Brandon Mull's first novel, Fablehaven, and says, "for the first time I am really disturbed."

She wrote to me because I am quoted on the cover of the book, endorsing it.

Her questions about Fablehaven arise from the way religion is treated in the book -- she believes that little children are likely to come away from the book associating the word "church" with "evil."

Here are the problems that she finds: "There are amoral fairies who change into little devils if you restrict their freedom and a kiss releases them. There is a little boy who never obeys, but is always rescued. The troll massage is described with the words 'ecstacy' and 'decadent satisfaction.' And then there is this church that is falling down from disuse and it is filled with evil and then replaced with a beautiful field of flowers."

She concludes with the question, "Am I totally overreacting?"

I don't think she's "overreacting," mostly because she has not yet chosen her reaction. Right now she's still questioning, and I wonder if it's possible to overquestion any of the storytelling arts.

Because make no mistake -- storytelling is what shapes our moral responses to the world around us. Of course, that includes all kinds of storytelling -- which ranges from gossip to science, history, and scripture.

Fictional storytelling is particularly powerful, however, because the author invites the audience to live inside the world of the story and add the events of the story to their own memories as if they had lived them.

Of course, audience members filter and edit the stories they receive. Things that to the author or other readers might be unnoticed will make a much deeper impression on a particular reader, because of his own concerns or experiences.

Readers bring their own attitudes to the stories they are given; what seems obvious and important to one might seem trivial or nonexistent to another.

The "concerned grandmother" who wrote to me is a very careful reader, and certain details leapt out at her; it seemed to her that there was a pattern of anti-religious symbolism in the book.

There certainly are anti-religious children's novels around -- most notably Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, which is relentlessly hostile in its treatment of Anglican Christianity.

It reminds me of the reaction one nonmember reader had to my own novel Seventh Son, which is loosely and allegorically based on the life of Joseph Smith. (It's my fictional attempt to explore what it might mean to have the prophetic gift.)

"I thought you were a religious guy," he said. "But this book really does a number on religion!"

I had to laugh. "I suppose it does," I said. "But it doesn't satirize my religion."

More to the point: I had a character who thought he was religious, but in fact was playing for the wrong team. I was contrasting his actions with the actions of truly Christian people. I couldn't help it if my effort to show how religious people sometimes deceive themselves into doing evil was taken by a rather careless reader as a statement that all religious people are deceived or evil!

I'd like to think that those who read Seventh Son will come away from the book with a clear idea of what true religion is supposed to be. But I can't control every reader's perceptions.

Fantasy fiction deals with the realm of the supernatural; so does religion. So it is very important for religious writers of fantasy to make it very clear that the supernatural events in their fiction are invented, unlike the supernatural elements of their religion, which they believe are real.

It's rather like making sure that children don't get Santa Claus mixed up with Jesus in the Christmas story.

So when you run across religion in a fantasy novel by a Latter-day Saint, it is certainly not going to be the true religion that we believe in. It is going to stand for something else.

When I read Mull's Fablehaven, I took very different meanings from the points that my correspondent objected to. While Mull quite properly is not using his book to preach the gospel, he can't help it that certain LDS ideas are bound to surface quite without any planning on his part.

For instance, I thought it was a very LDS idea that when you restrict the freedom of a magical being, it turns to evil. It seemed like a clever way to depict the consequences of Satan's plan. For them to be freed by a loving act -- a kiss -- seemed to make this even clearer. The message: Love liberates; attempting to control others leads to evil.

The "little boy who never obeys, but is always rescued" seems to me an excellent representation of the human condition vis-a-vis the Savior.

When you get "ecstacy and decadent satisfaction" from a troll, I think the symbol is as obviously pro-Christian-values as if it appeared in Pilgrim's Progress.

And a "church that is falling down from disuse," which now "is filled with evil" -- well, I'm puzzled that a Latter-day Saint could take anything from this except the doctrine of the Great Apostasy.

When the evil is defeated, the decadent building is replaced with "a beautiful field of flowers." How is that a problem? Don't we Mormons all know the hymn-words "the Earth will appear as the Garden of Eden" at the time the Savior says to his people, "Come home"?

I don't think my reading of Mull's book is the only possible or valid one. But I do try, when reading the fiction of Latter-day Saints, to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Maybe, reading this reply, my correspondent will change her mind about Fablehaven. I know Brandon Mull to be a kind, generous, orthodox Latter-day Saint who represents us very well to the world outside; therefore I start from the assumption that his books will be as faithful to gospel principles as he is.

But she might continue to dislike it, and that's perfectly all right. Just because a writer and reader are both LDS does not mean they're going to approve of all the same things in fiction!

A few years ago, a Mormon woman tried to get my books banned from a Utah school library. My characters didn't all adhere to the standard of decorum that she thought appropriate.

The librarian pointed out to her that my books were much more decorous than most worldly fiction in the same genre. But the would-be banner of my books said, "We expect more from LDS writers."

Here's the thing: We each come to our own conclusions about what is appropriate -- or not -- in the stories we create and the stories we watch or read. It's good to be humble, though, and not assume that our own conclusions are the final word.

For instance, I really hate vampire fiction. I don't understand why anyone is attracted to it. So even though I know Stephenie Meyer to be a faithful Latter-day Saint and a lovely human being, I'm incapable of giving a fair reading to her vampire novels.

That doesn't mean I have some kind of duty to "save" other people from reading her novels by getting them banned from bookstores.

Just because I've made up my mind about a particular novel doesn't mean I have the right to prevent other people from making up their own minds! (I think that resembles too closely the plan that we all once rejected in a certain council.)

If my correspondent were to try to ban an LDS writer's books from a bookstore or library, then I would say she was indeed overreacting, because she would be acting on the assumption that once she's made up her mind, everybody had better make up their mind the same way.

But if she states -- or writes -- her opinion of a book she disapproves of, allowing others to agree with her or not, as they choose, then she isn't overreacting at all.

She has simply become a reviewer, offering her opinion among many others. She is taking part in the marketplace of ideas.

To her I say, Welcome! There's always room for more light and knowledge.

Copyright © 2010 by Orson Scott Card

 
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