Christ-Figures in the Fiction of Orson Scott Card
[This essay was read at the Brigham Young University Symposium on Science Fiction and Fantasy: "Life, the Universe, and Everything, V," 4 February 1987; subsequently appeared in The Leading Edge: Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy Vol. 14 (Summer 1987): 15-24; and , extensively revised, as a chapter of In the Image of God: Theme, Characterization, and Landscape in the Fiction of Orson Scott Card. Westport CT: Greenwood, 1990. The original has been slightly revised for StarShine and Shadows.]
In "Fantasy and the Believing Reader" (1982), Orson Scott Card argued that the role of the critic is much the same as that of a novelist or short-story writer -- to tell a story:
Literary criticism is the stories we tell ourselves about our stories. When we speak of a literary work's "meaning" we may be telling a story about how the author intended the work to be read, how the proper audience of the work would have understood it, how the work is received by a modern audience, what the work tells us about the author and his community or even how we think the work should have been written and how it compares to that standard of measurement. In all cases, however, we are telling a story -- that is, we are giving an ordered account of casually related events. (45)
Several years ago I was speaking to a student about Card's work, specifically about "Kingsmeat," a short story first published in Card's Unaccompanied Sonata and Other Stories (1981). The story had been singled out for harsh criticism -- Sandy and Joe Straubhaars' article, "Science Fiction and Mormonism," for example, refers to its "bald sadism," a comment made even more severe by the fact that both author and critic are LDS, yet they apparently could not reach a common ground in interpreting the story.
Even so, the story affected me deeply -- on a level I found hard to articulate. When the student challenged me to make sense of what seemed senseless violence, I went back to the text and read it again, searching for a key to help explain why the story is as powerful as it is.
When I did so, I discovered the value of Card's argument that criticism is the art of making stories about stories and is valuable only as long as the critic understands that his or her story is not the totality but only a perspective. "Kingsmeat" had already been subjected to analysis from a perspective that assumed Card to be misogynistic, sadistic, enamored with violence for its own sake. Yet having previously read such tales as Songmaster (1980) and "The Porcelain Salamander," I was convinced that that critical 'story' misrepresented Card's intentions and his abilities. The Straubhaars' 'story' failed to explain "Kingsmeat" fully for me.
In a discussion with a book dealer who had become one of Card's most astute and enthusiastic readers, I discovered yet another 'story' about "Kingsmeat." He spoke of the tale in terms of his own experiences with the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. For him, "Kingsmeat" evoked the ambiguity of collaboration -- self-sacrifice to preserve the greater good, even if those saved never fully understand the nature of that sacrifice. My friend spoke long and persuasively about this 'story'; for him, it provided a valuable and dynamic approach to Card's fictions. For me, however, it proved less useful. Not sharing my friend's background -- and being substantially closer in age and life experience to Card -- I wanted something more direct.
This need led me again to the texts -- to everything Card had written since "Ender's Game" appeared as a novelette in the August 1977 Analog. As a result of that immersion in Card's imagined worlds, I discovered a critical 'story' of my own, one that makes the fictions part of a coherent whole, that helps define the nature of Card's heroes, and that explains why I emerge from my encounters with his worlds and his characters a different person.
In Speaker for the Dead, the narrator writes that for Valentine Wiggin's children, the facts about Ender's life "became the family legend, and the children grew up hearing marvelous stories of their long-lost Uncle Ender, who was thought in every world to be a monster, but in reality was something of a savior, or a prophet, or at least a martyr" (88). In many ways, this sentence provides an important clue to Card's fictions. From the beginning, many of his central characters have shared this common denominator, struggling through the process of becoming "something of a savior," responding to different situations differently but in each working to bring about a greater good than the individual could legitimately assume for himself -- in Card's own terms from "The Finer Points of Characterization," the characters blend pain and jeopardy with a legitimate sense that they are larger than life (II, 38).
"Ender's Game," first a novelette (1977) and subsequently a novel (1985), concentrates on Andrew "Ender" Wiggin's recruitment as a child for military training that enables him to defeat the "Buggers," an insectoid alien race ostensibly committed to destroying humanity. In the earlier version, Ender's Christic parallels are explicit. The world needs soldiers, one character argues, and if that requires that one child be denied the freedom to be a child, the sacrifice would be worthwhile; Ender will make it "possible for the others of his age to be playing in the park." The training commander replies:
"And Jesus died to save all men, of course." Graff sat up and looked at Anderson almost sadly. "But we're the ones," Graff said, "We're the ones who are driving in the nails." (106)
The line controls much of the narrative. Ender is a Christ-surrogate, a child different from other children, whose abilities and talents enable him to encompass the salvation of the human race. To do so requires only that he relinquish his own humanity and, in doing so, almost relinquish his sanity and his life.
Ender is a particularly LDS Christ-figure, however. The choices he must make are real choices; his sufferings, real sufferings. On the opening page of the novel, Card applies the Book of Mormon dictum of opposition in all things: the only way Graff can manipulate Ender into the proper choices is to surround him with enemies. Ender responds by distrusting all accepted notions of how things must be done and penetrating to the heart of each problem, resolving it immediately and for all time. This often requires violence; yet he remains oddly untouched by that violence, an innocent who ultimately does sacrifice himself for the greater good.
This pattern develops fully in Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead, but even a cursory look at characters in Card's other fictions suggests the pervasiveness of this concern.
Card's first book-length forays into science fiction, Capitol (1979), Hot Sleep (1979), and its revised version, The Worthing Chronicle (l983) deal with ostensible immortality through the use of a drug, somec. In each, a single character takes responsibility for the burden of directing human life; The Worthing Chronicle in particular structures that character on Christic lines, as Jason Worthing brings back to life and educates adult space voyagers whose memories have been lost. He absents himself frequently, going on somec and returning years later to teach their children, while he himself remains essentially unaged and unchanged -- a god, in fact and deed.
A Planet Called Treason (1979) depicts, as its title implies, the attempt of a planet to expiate the treason of its founding families. Exiled on a planet devoid of metals, the characters find new ways to develop -- some inimical and highly dangerous. Through his experiences among the different families, Lanik Mueller learns to integrate the changes each family has experienced; he suffers a humiliating death, rises transfigured, and finally acquires a control over time that gives him virtual immortality. His life consciously recapitulates the movement of Christ's, in spite of the overt sexuality and graphic violence some early reviewers decried.
In Songmaster (1980), Ansset begins as a miraculous child with a miraculous voice, grows to understand the power in his voice, and in doing so distances himself from humanity. Through his struggles, he teaches the Galaxy peace, ultimately reigning as Galactic Emperor and dying voluntarily in the High Tower of the Songhouse. In his life, he becomes the imagistic savior for the individuals whose lives he touches, bringing order and fulfillment out of disorder and hatred: through his death he breathes new life into the static rhythms of the Songhouse, fulfilling his mission as mediator.
In Hart's Hope (1983), Card embraces high fantasy but does not abandon his Christic hero. Orem Scanthips recapitulates in human terms Christ's mission as the Son of God. Orem's birth is as mysterious in its way as was Christ's -- in the context of the novel, it is almost an immaculate conception, certainly a conception shrouded in the religious imagery of the Hart as God. Orem grows to adolescence distanced from the court and protected from its corruption. He undertakes a journey of maturity, finally arriving at the city of Inwit (the Anglo-Saxon name means "Conscience"). He marries the Queen, becoming the Little King, and, through his ability to absorb magic, undoes the evil magic of Queen Beauty and facilitates the return of King Palicrovol -- even though doing so costs him the life of his son, Youth, and puts his own life at peril. In the analogical and allegorical world of Hart's Hope, Orem is literally the savior, making possible a reconciliation between the true King and Conscience through the shedding of innocent blood. Throughout, Card uses such images as Orem being sold for a bag of silver to solidify the parallels between Orem and Christ.
In 1984, Card moved even closer to his LDS heritage with the non-SF historical novel, A Woman of Destiny. Focusing on Dinah Kirkham, an amalgam of several early LDS pioneers but strongly suggesting Eliza R. Snow, Card introduces Joseph Smith into the novel. The presence of a literal prophet in the novel allows Card to make clear and unmistakable allusions to a Christ-figure, allusions that are transformed into allegory in The Tales of Alvin Maker, a six-part science-fantasy-in-progress based heavily on LDS history. His central character, Alvin Miller, seventh son of a seventh son and possessor of powerful magic, parallels Joseph Smith, and thus recapitulates what we might now recognize as Card's primary character: "something of a savior, or a prophet, or at least a martyr."
It would be fascinating to concentrate on each of these novels and explore the complexity with which they develop Christic imagery and Christ-figures -- something I intend to do in a full-length study of Card's fiction. But for this symposium, it might be more instructive to look at several short stories, including "Kingsmeat," and see precisely how he generates a sense of the Christic.
Unaccompanied Sonata and Other Stories includes several narratives that begin the process. Each fragments the mission of Christ, then focuses on a single attribute and explores the ramification of a juxtaposition of Godhood with humanity.
The clearest example of such a technique occurs in "The Porcelain Salamander," a small masterpiece of fairytale-like fantasy. The story is simple: once upon a time, a merchant's wife dies in childbirth. The man is so distraught that he curses his child: Kiren would be paralyzed until she lost someone that she loved as much as he had loved his wife. He repents of the words almost immediately, but in his world curses have power and the child is unable to move. The father tries to make restitution to her by bringing wondrous gifts from far places, including a small porcelain salamander. Its magic is that it moves; in fact, if it ever stops moving, it will cease to be magical and become simply a porcelain figurine. One day, partially restored through her joy at being with the salamander, Kiren walks with it in the forest; a magical barrier rises, cutting them off from any escape. The wall ends just above Kiren's fingertips; if she could reach it, she could pull herself over and escape. The salamander understands also and offers to stand still so she can climb on it and pull herself to safety. She refuses, but the salamander walks to the wall and stands still … and becomes a porcelain statue. She escapes, and the curse dissipates; but her life is changed. She has learned lessons in love and charity, and for the rest of her life, she is a more gracious, generous person.
The salamander suggests Christ. Its incessant movement suggests the various omnis associated with Godhood: omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence. Being "omni-motile," the salamander is distanced from and superior to humanity. It chooses to relinquish that distance, to become part of a world in which things - both people and animals -- must occasionally stand still. By choosing to do so, it offers its life in exchange for another's. It completes the sacrifice that restores the child to her father and gives her the ability to become fully human; more than that, she shares in small ways the attributes of the salamander: her hands dance, her eyes are "white and lustrous as deep-enameled porcelain," and in their movement, it seems that she can see into another, higher realm.
"Kingsmeat" is more problematical but perhaps more valuable as an index to Card's techniques. It lacks the fairy-tale qualities of "The Porcelain Salamander," just as it lacks the other's gentleness and wondrous fragility. Instead, "Kingsmeat" confronts us with another facet of the world -- its inherent violence and suffering and hatred and death.
A colony world has been invaded by aliens, the king and the queen. At first the aliens stable the colonists as a farmer might stable a herd, regularly selecting a likely specimen and slaughtering it for food. Now, however, the Shepherd (Card capitalizes the name/title) mediates between the aliens and the humans. He selects victims, but instead of killing them he removes the flesh required for the king and queen. There are few whole people remaining in the colony; almost every one has lost a leg, or an arm, or other body parts. Card does not spare us; one particularly vivid episode shows the Shepherd slicing away a lactating breast On the other hand, the episode also demonstrates the Shepherd's humanity; there is no pain, no blood, and the wound heals almost immediately. The Shepherd reconciles his humanity with the demands of an alien morality and consequently finds himself reviled and hated by those he is trying to save.
The story was criticized for its graphic violence, yet the violence is necessary. It is a way to re-create viscerally (i.e., emotionally rather than intellectually) the reality of Christ's Incarnation as mortal and the pain of his sacrifice and confirm us in our testimony of that mission. As both Man and God, Christ sees further, deeper than we: he understands more fully the true significance of events. What might seem cruel may be, in an eternal perspective, the only viable possibility. C. S. Lewis expressed this idea when he spoke of true repentance as being as painful as having a surgeon remove a cancer or a dentist drill to the nerve of a tooth to remove decay.
And it seems inevitable that we read this story on such a level. The title suggests that there is more here than just a science-fiction adventure tale. Similarly, capitalizing the word Shepherd invests it with great dignity and almost forces us to see in one Shepherd a pale reflection of another, greater Shepherd. In addition, Card's Shepherd assumes the mantle of a saving mission, one not fully understood by those he saves. When the rescue ship arrives, the king and queen are destroyed, and the colony is restored, it is clear that no blame must be attached to the shepherd or his actions. In fact, the commanding officer orders that the colony honor the Shepherd for his sacrifice.
And here lies the final irony of a difficult and uncomfortable story. The colonists fulfill the letter if not the spirit of the law. In a final analogy with Christ, the Shepherd is stripped of his humanity. Once a year the people enter a certain house to honor him: "There were no large strong hands now.... Only a head and a neck and a spine and ribs and a loose sac of flesh that pulsed with life. The people looked over his naked body and saw the scars." He is, like the Christ in too many lives, kept out of sight, brought out only on ceremonial occasions to be subjected to the attentions of those who have no true conception of who he is or what he has done:
Then they set down their gifts and left, and at the end of the day the Shepherd was moved back to his hammock, where year after year he looked out the window at the weathers of the sky. They would, perhaps, have cut out his tongue, but since he never spoke they didn't think of it. They would, perhaps, have cut out his eyes, but they wanted him to see them smile. (70-71)
A final story again re-defines the Christic mission and its impact. "America" is a difficult work that may offend many LDS readers with its overt sexuality.
Sam Monson, the young son of an engineer assigned to Brazil, meets Anamari Boagente, a middle-aged, pure-blooded Indian. Sam represents the European element in America and later becomes the Governor of Deseret, the "last European state in America" (24). Anamari represents the Indian, now beginning a resurgence that will culminate with the conquest of the hemisphere under her son, believed by many to be the incarnation of Quetzalcoatl.
The story is self-consciously mystical as Card blends Mormonism with dream-visions and intuitions of America itself as a sentient entity. The story recounts the two meetings between Sam and Anamari and their unwilling spiral into sexual intercourse as a response to her dream-visions of a resurgent America. Card takes seriously the ideal of America as a promised land -- the final words of the story are, "it is the promised, the promising land"(53). And he explores the consequences of absolute fulfillment of prophecy: the Indians had abandoned true worship of the land; Card makes explicit the theological overtones of the story when Anamari warns Sam (and us), "Say Deus or Christo instead of the land and the story is the same" (44). By succumbing to the love of gold, or the worship of idols, or the corruption of their morality, the Indians subverted their own promises, and the land called to Columbus "and told him lies and seduced him and he never had a chance, did he?"(44).
Now, five centuries later, the Europeans have demonstrated themselves equally unfit to inherit the Promised Land. The time of their punishment having passed, America is calling again to the Indians.
It sounded so close to what the old prophets in the Book of Mormon said would happen to America; close, but dangerously different. As if there were no hope for the Europeans anymore. As if their chance had already been lost, as if no repentance would be allowed. They would not be able to pass the land on to the next generation. Someone else would inherit. It made him sick at heart, to realize what the white man had lost, had thrown away, had torn up and destroyed. (44)
In a Land that is both God and Christ, Card calls forth a savior, a new Christ to wrest the land from the fallen Europeans and restore it to a purified Indian generation. Through his sacrifice, Sam Monson makes possible the incarnation of a new Christ.
Yet Card never shows us the son. He concentrates instead on Sam and Anamari and their growing awareness that they are players in a drama extending far beyond their own lives. They are saviors, prophets, even martyrs, and through them, the Land will once again be restored and its promises made newly viable.
Within his fictive worlds, Card discovers stories that make us feel the difficulty of Christ's choices, that make new and visceral and integral an understanding of what it entails to become a sacrifice. We see through the facile answers of Sunday School classes and experience vicariously the process of sacrifice, making us more aware of the enormity of Christ's mission. By looking at one facet in each story, then having us read all of the stories, he creates a composite of experience that alters his readers and their conception of the mission of Christ.
Card, Orson Scott. A Planet Called Treason. New York: St. Martin's, 1979.
Card, Orson Scott. "America." Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine (January 1987): 22-53.
Card, Orson Scott. Capitol: The Worthing Chronicle. New York: Baronet/Ace, 1979.
Card, Orson Scott. "Ender's Game." Analog: Science Fact and Science Fiction 97 (August 1977): 100-134. Reprinted in Maps in a Mirror: The Short Fiction of Orson Scott Card, 541-66. New York: Tor, 1990.
Card, Orson Scott. "Fantasy and the Believing Reader." Science Fiction Review (August 1982): 45-50. Rpt. in Storyteller: The Official Orson Scott Card Bibliography and Guide. Compiled by Michael R. Collings. Woodstock GA: Overlook Connection Press. General editor, Dave Hinchberger. July 2001 426-439.
Card, Orson Scott. "The Finer Points of Characterization, Part I: Just How Important Are These People?" Writer's Digest (October 1986), 26-28; "Part II: Creating Characters that Readers Care About" (November 1986). 37-38. "Part III: Making Your Characters Believable" (December 1986). 32-36.
Card, Orson Scott. Hart's Hope. New York: Berkley, 1983.
Card, Orson Scott. Hot Sleep: The Worthing Chronicle. New York: Ace Books, 1979.
Card, Orson Scott. "Kingsmeat." In Analog Yearbook, ed. Ben Bova, 190-205. New York: Baronet, 1978. Rpt. in Unaccompanied Sonata and Other Stories (New York: Dial, 1981). Rpt. in Maps in a Mirror: The Short Fiction of Orson Scott Card, 505-11. New York: Tor, 1990.
Card, Orson Scott. "The Porcelain Salamander." In Unaccompanied Sonata and Other Stories, 232-43. New York: Dial, 1981.
Card, Orson Scott. Songmaster. New York: Dial, 1980.
Card, Orson Scott. Speaker for the Dead. New York: Tor. 1986.
Card, Orson Scott. The Worthing Chronicle. New York: Ace, 1983.
Collings, Michael R. In the Image of God: Theme, Characterization, and Landscape in the Fiction of Orson Scott Card. Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1990.
Straubhaar, Sandy and Joe, "Science Fiction and Mormonism: A Three Way View." Sunstone (July-August 1981): 52-56.
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