Do you remember the first time you read The Two Towers? Did you throw the book away near the end, bitter, betrayed when that demon Tolkien seems to have killed Frodo? I remember I was outraged. Having read all that way for him to do this? It was a treasonous way to write. He had led me to believe the thing would end otherwise, and if the ending did not involve Frodo, I didn’t want it.*
But then I read on, and checked ahead, and saw he hadn’t died, and so resumed.
I knew it couldn’t end that way. It had to end better or it would have been a terrible book. Which is curious, if you think about it. After all, how do we know?
I think we know because there are certain expectations an author raises: expectations he must satisfy. You enjoy the end because he has created and nurtured a desire for it. When we assume what we do about Frodo at the end of The Two Towers, we get upset because we think we are not getting whatever it is we felt he was working toward.
I think that is how literature works: it nurtures a desire, awakens and stirs and nourishes desire. Then if it is a good book (in terms of artistry) it satisfies the desire. It creates an expectation that it meets.
And I think that is how we must judge these things: being aware of the desires encouraged in us. But there are then two things to be aware of: not only how well it satisfies the desire it has stirred up, but also what desires it stirs up. There are desires Christians have to put to death and not encourage.
But I do think this is the main question for evaluating imaginative writing. How does it operate on your heart? What desires does it nurture, strengthen, draw from you and then by satisfying, endorse?
*I do think it goes to show how shallow is the modern silliness about spoilers. It isn’t what, but how that matters in a story. We don’t read The Lord of the Rings in order to find out if Sauron will or will not win. We will hate the book if he does. We don’t read Harry Potter wondering if Voldemort will come out triumphant. He can’t, or it won’t be a good book. We read mainly to find out how. That explains also the pleasure of re-reading: we see better the how things come about, knowing perfectly well what will. The satisfaction lies not in what, but how. And that’s in other words the point of the remaining paragraphs above.