Journal of the Plague Years 2021: Morality in Fiction

Writing about Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers got me to thinking about morality in fiction again. On the whole, I’m in favor of it.

Trollope is a great example: Barchester Towers brings life to the Tractarian Movement. To me, it’s a miracle that he’s located the beating heart of a theological debate, and created characters who struggle with the moral questions that drove John Henry Newman to join the Catholic Church, and the Rev. Kingsley to attack him in print.

Few novelists would try that trick today. Morality and religion have fallen firmly into disrepute in fiction, mostly, I think, for historical reasons. Prior to the Modernist movement in the early 20th Century, novelists felt obliged to instruct their audiences — sometimes, alas, at the expense of plot and character development. Novels were considered to be newfangled and raffish. Poets could advocate art for art’s sake; novelists were left to resort to cheap thrills, didacticism, or both. There was also the vexing question of the female reader. One didn’t want to teach her anything she ought not to know. Women weren’t permitted to learn Greek and Latin precisely because Ovid and Homer are naughty and violent by turns.

Now audiences are no longer presumed to be impressionable; the novel has equal pretension and greater popularity than verse. In Trollope’s time, the necessity of morality was strong enough that he felt the need to address it in his Autobiography, a charming remembrance of his writing life and artistic ethic. He says unapologetically that he feels it’s his duty to reward good and punish evil, and to show the wages of sin. I think he’s right. This puts me far outside the literary mainstream, and has caused me to lock horns with every creative writing instructor I ever had.

I had to revisit the problem of morality in fiction when I started writing Man Raised by Spiders. I wanted it to be a fantasy novel, because I think allegory is genuinely freeing. I’d stopped reading fantasy as a teenager, however, because fantasy seemed morally cramped to an unbearable degree. With a very few exceptions, authors took one of two approaches.

The most common is what I think of as the Lord of the Rings/Star Wars axis, which portrays a Manichean struggle between good and evil. One culture is good because the author says so, and its characters are helpfully fair-skinned and lovely; the opposing culture is evil, death-worshipping and vile, and its denizens are swarthy-skinned, matriarchal, or both. The apotheosis of this kind of thinking is that stupid fucking Star Wars movie with the overdressed princess. We are told that her planet is a democracy, and therefore good. The culture is incoherent, and no particularly democratic ideals or institutions are portrayed. We’re just supposed to accept that this planet is good and worth saving, and that those other folks are wicked. This is both abominable and absurd.

The opposite pole exists in reaction to the mealy-mouthed purity of LOTR. I remember a handful of fantasy series that aspired to gritty realism. At their best, they allowed authors to wreak havoc with sexual and racial stereotypes; at their worst, they celebrated ugliness and degradation, and made a spectacle of cruelty.

More than anything, I wanted to create a world that presented genuine moral conflicts. I kept thinking that I wanted my hero to confront the possibility that he’s on the wrong side, or that there is no right side. As a result, each of my characters has moral limitations, and they’re torn between cultures that are neither good nor evil, but simply incommensurate.

Valentine is rigid, hot-tempered and naive; Inglorion is thoughtless and hedonistic. Both of them act in ways that should make the reader genuinely uncomfortable. One of my favorite passages in Man Raised by Spiders occurs when Valykria breaks off her engagement with Valentine. She’s afraid of marriage because she was raped by her brother and one of his school mates. Valentine explodes into righteous anger, and punches a wall. He’s immediately contrite, but the damage is done — he’s confirmed her worst fears about male violence. Neither Valentine nor Valykria is “right.” They’re both hurt, and what’s broken can’t be repaired.

Inglorion’s story presented further difficulties. Inglorion is idealistic and devout, and believes that he has a higher moral purpose. He risks felony kidnapping charges to rescue his half-sister, and sacrifices his own happiness by returning her to Liamelia upon their father’s death. These chivalrous impulses exist side-by-side with a compulsive need for sex and seduction. From the very beginning, we see him using sex as a tool of conquest or a drug. A close friend and early reader was shocked by his revenge against a high elvish debutante who teases him; I found it hard to narrate the downward spiral that forces him to drop out of a military academy and undertake a suicidal quest underground.

The individual episodes are disturbing, but over the arc of the series, both Inglorion and Valentine grow up and gain wisdom. Inglorion, in particular, has to root out the contradictions in his character in order to deserve his destiny. This is Trollope’s moralism in the simplest and perhaps truest form. For me, though, the most important moral lesson of the series comes through the villain, Inglorion’s father Tereus.

Tereus is variously characterized as a nasty old reprobate, a thoroughly bad man, and (Inglorion’s words), a war criminal, tyrant, brute and fucking asshole. Outwardly, Inglorion’s fate is to end slavery and heal the Great Divide. His true duty is to feel compassion for Tereus, the person he hates most.

The challenges are obvious, and it’s not for me to say if I’m meeting them. Tereus’s actions must be genuinely cruel, and have consequences for himself and everyone around him. At the same time, he can’t be entirely depraved. Mostly because that’s boring, but also because it’s not plausible that he would become a general and field marshal without some degree of charm and ability. Creating Tereus and making him believable and sympathetic was fiendishly difficult, and has given me real pleasure. I particularly enjoyed writing The Last Days of Tereus Shelawn because it was an opportunity to show his cruelty in all its persistence and variety, and to develop the recognizable human motives behind it.

Throughout, too, I’ve given a lot of thought to the social, economic and political forces that shape the characters and their moral universe. On the surface, the high elves of Liamelia appear to be good. If that’s not clear to you, they’ll happily explain why that’s so. However, even a casual look around shows that rape, inequality and cruelty thrive, along with hypocrisy and self-satisfaction. The blessings of wealth and citizenship are unequally distributed, and the winners consider themselves to be not just well-fed and educated, but morally superior.

Drow culture appears unequivocally brutal: infanticide, blood vengeance and slavery are not just accepted, but expected. I’ve gone to great pains to consider the material base of their culture; much of this will become clearer in Duke of the Underdark and subsequent volumes. The point is, cruel practices arise out of material necessity, and distort cultures and individuals. The Drow smother babies at birth, not because they’re monsters, but because food, water and oxygen are limited. If the population grows beyond those limits, a sharp die-off will result. I modeled aspects of Drow civilization on the Plains Indians and Sparta, harsh cultures that are easily romanticized from a distance.

Valentine and Inglorion are torn between high elvish and Drow culture. Inglorion’s an abolitionist and peacemaker because he believes in a higher good. This isn’t a story about a good culture destroying an evil one. Rather, it portrays the violent collision between Inglorion’s ideals and the iron reality of Liamelian wealth and Drow poverty.

This, then, is what I mean by a moral novel. It’s not that good is easily discerned and always wins in the end. It’s a story about how flawed people try to love each other and make things a little bit better. Inglorion wants to be able to marry and own property; he wishes he could have had a university education. Slavery nearly killed Valentine, so he’s determined to put a stop to it. Philomela and Tereus are both war criminals, and know from experience that even victory is bitter. Right is tactical and shifts from one side to another; it’s also absolute and transcendent.

If you’d like to check out some of the actual product, click on the Table of Contents, or any of the episodes linked above.

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