Mercy vs. Wisdom in Modern Fantasy Stories
© 2009 William R. McGrath
I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.
Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.
Mercy: Compassionate or kindly forbearance shown toward an offender, an enemy, or other person in one’s power; compassion, pity, or benevolence.
Wisdom: The quality or state of being wise; knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action; sagacity, discernment, or insight.
Someone asked me recently if I think my fantasy novels will ever become big best sellers. I told them that I would be surprised if they did, because their central theme is a very different one than most successful fantasy novels. In the three most popular fantasy works of our time, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia and the Harry Potter series, either the underlying theme or the tipping point of the story was an act or attitude of mercy, (i.e. Frodo to Gollum, Aslan to Edmond and Eustace, Harry towards Peter Pettigrew and Dumbledore towards nearly everyone). My stories on the other hand are about wisdom and wisdom is not as desired among modern readers as is mercy. I don’t think the problem is merely that I am a new author. Even when done by masters, wisdom does not sell as well as mercy. Let’s examine two fantasy stories that, while well regarded, are not nearly as popular as the above mentioned works; Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke and the Ransom Trilogy of C.S. Lewis (AKA the Space Trilogy). In both stories the focus is on wisdom. As do most wisdom stories, these teach by example; either positive “this is what you should do” (as Professor Ransom, who starts out a good man in the first book of the Space Trilogy and gets better as the books progress), or negative “this is what you should not do” (i.e. Mark Studdock’s immature need to be part of the inner circle in That Hideous Strength, or the small-minded selfishness of Mr. Norrell and the arrogance of Jonathan Strange in Clarke’s story). While these works are admired and have sold well, they are not in the same mega-bestseller class as are the “mercy” stories. Why is that? Were the sales of the Space Trilogy far below the Narnia stories simply because Narnia was aimed at children, who are believed to be a larger group of fantasy readers than adults? What about more recent books, like those of British writers J. K. Rowling or Susanna Clarke? Is it the writing? I think most critics would agree that, line for line; Clarke is a more sophisticated writer than Rowling, but it is Rowling who has become the richest woman in England through her writing.
I can understand why mercy is more popular than wisdom in our day. Wisdom may teach you how to fish, but when you are starving you don’t want a fishing pole, you want food and you want it right now. Wisdom may keep you out of trouble, but mercy can get you out of the trouble you are already in. Wisdom is something that you must earn, it takes work. Mercy is something unearned; it is a gift freely given at no cost to you (though it may cost the giver dearly). It is not the innocent that need mercy; it is the guilty.
Have you noticed that most children have no problem with the harsh punishments imposed upon the villains of fairy tales? It is we adults who find the justice severe in these tales and would like to see it tempered with mercy. Perhaps there are more adults in our society who feel that they need mercy than there are those who desire wisdom.
It may also be that mercy is more in keeping with what makes fantasy a different genre than other types of fiction. Frodo did not show mercy towards Gollum because he hoped that Gollum would ultimately save him from the evil power of the ring. Frodo’s mercy was a gift; and, importantly, a gift from higher to lower. That this gift ended up saving the day was something of a miracle and miracles are what fantasy is all about.
Wisdom on the other hand is different. Wisdom is something you can learn; it is a skill, a technique, almost a technology. You expect it to work. Mercy is the gift of the underdog, the little guy, the weak. Wisdom is the tool of the favorite, the experienced, the one expected to win. Most heroes of fantasy stories these days start out as the underdog. But this was not always the case. Once upon a time princes and heroes were the main characters in fantasies and myths. Go back a few hundred years and it would have been Aragorn who destroyed the ring and Harry would have been born a prince.
Historically, most fables and fairy tales were wisdom stories. “If you are foolish, bad things will happen to you” or “while the hero did something foolish to get himself into trouble, he was able to use the things he learned along his journey to get himself out.” Most of these stories are examples of problem solving and pluck. I would even argue that the tales wherein the hero “entertains an angel unknowingly” out of kindness and thereafter gains a boon are in the wisdom category. Why? Because the kindness here, unlike Frodo’s mercy towards Gollum, is usually done because the hero remembers some good advice he has received; thus the kindness is done because of wise council, rather than empathy. I find it interesting that, back in the days when most people believed in miracles, most fantasy tales emphasized wisdom. In our day, when most people don’t believe in miracles, most popular fantasy stories emphasize mercy.
NURTURE VS NATURE:
I’ve heard that most adults have a tendency to choose books that reinforce their own worldview: Conservatives tend to read novels that agree with their political views and Liberals tend to do the same with their book choices: people who believe in God tend to choose different novels than do atheists, etc. I have to wonder if this holds true for our personalities as well. Do naturally empathetic, soft hearted and merciful people, (let us call them “Abrahams”) choose to read mercy stories, while those who hold wisdom as the highest virtue, (“Solomons”) tend to look for stories which teach that attribute? Are there more Abrahams currently in the world then Solomons, or do the Abrahams simply read more fantasy while the Solomons tend to read histories and biographies or, when they do read fiction, they are fact based techno-thrillers, such as those of Tom Clancy or Michael Creighton? Even when a fantasy story has broad appeal, such as The Lord of the Rings, or the Harry Potter series, I suspect that different people respond to different elements of the stories. Do the Abrahams find that the scenes where mercy is shown are their favorites? Do the Solomons find that they are nodding their heads in agreement whenever wise council is given?
Are you an Abraham or a Solomon or something else? Which is more important to you, wisdom or mercy?
NOBILIS VOS ESTOS,