Thursday, December 9, 2010

St. Frodo Baggins Pray for Us?

Come Advent, for some reason, I always end up deeply absorbed in some sort of fantasy world. In this case, it's the world for a young adult horror novel that I'm working on, and as usual I'm confronted with the question of what, exactly, the status of sub-created persons is.
It's a problem that theologians don't tend to bother with, probably largely because they're not artists, and are therefore not especially aware of some of the stranger things that are true of the people who live in the world of fiction. The most notorious example of this is the fact that fictional people appear, at some point, to come to possess free will -- and even some semblance of moral free will. You'll have a lovely little hero, or heroine, who is supposed to be perfectly good and virtuous, or a villain who is supposed to behave perfectly abominably, and all of a sudden they'll make the decision to do something totally unexpected, even "out of character," if you conceive of "in character" in a really narrow sense. In fact, it is these decisions, often more than the plotting decisions of the author, that make the character "come to life," that give shape, definition, breadth and meaning to the narrative. Often these decisions are small things, like Sarah Woodruff's decision to stop at a dairy and have some milk in The French Lieutenant's Woman, but sometimes they're drastic decisions that pull the plot in an entirely unexpected direction. In some cases, all you can do is give up on having any sort of control and let the character go in a sort of creative free-fall, trusting that they will make choices that will produce good narrative -- which always turns out to be true.
Now, the question is, if you have a character, and you pull back and give them their freedom, what is the moral status of those decisions? The simple answer is to say that it may be "edifying" or "disedifying" when transcribed into a work of art, and so is, in a sense, moral or immoral. This leaves the moral responsibility in the hands of the author, but that sidesteps the problematic experience, which is the apparent freedom of the sub-created agent. The problem is further complicated by the fact that for every moral decision that makes itself onto the paper in the form of text, there is a whole subtext of moral struggle, wrestling with dragons and demons, quiet despair and silent determination, a whole human battlefield on which the passions and hopes and virtues and weaknesses of the character are being played out, totally out of view of the reading public, but exposed to the author (who usually doesn't have the space or word-count or audience attention span necessary to transcribe the entire matter), and often reawakened in the mind of any reader who is particularly drawn in by the world (Who hasn't spent time contemplating a favorite story, reliving and drawing out the full experience that lurks within a metaphor, a symbol, a couple lines of spare and terrifying text?).
Is there some sense in which God gives real freedom, or life, to the creatures of the human imagination -- the way that Iluvatar gave real life to the Dwarves who were created by one of his Valar in the Simarillion? Does the experience of the artist reflect an actual spiritual fact, or is it simply an ontological illusion of the subconscious mind?

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