Louise Cowan, in her essay “The Necessity of the Classics”, begins by telling the story of Kagemusha, a film by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. In simple, short form, it is the story of a man who is about to be put to death for stealing, but his execution is stayed because the soldiers notice that he bears a remarkably close resemblance to their chief.
So, he becomes the chief’s understudy – learning his mannerisms, voice, walk, and personality. Cowan also notes that he gradually takes on both the internal and external “dignity” of the leader. When the chief dies, the beggar has become so skilled as an understudy that he is able to keep up the ruse for months.
Eventually, of course, the ruler’s death is discovered, and the understudy becomes the beggar once again. Yet, Cowan notes:
“But a strange thing has happened: this pretender has developed a genuine sense of responsibility that cannot so lightly be dismissed. The burden of leadership, with its peculiar blend of selflessness and pride, has become his own. Despite his low station, he follows along after the troops in battle and stands at the last defending the banner of his defeated people, exposing himself to the enemy’s onslaughts when all others have fallen…Is this heroic gesture still part of the act? Where does it come from, this apparent greatness of soul that finally requires in a counterfeit role an authentic death? … through schooling in a tradition. Such magnanimity, we are shown, requires mi- mesis—imitation. To remake oneself in the image of something that calls to greatness demands a heroic tradition displaying heroic models.”
Truly great literature has a similar effect on us. It gives us models of virtue, wisdom, and goodness to imitate, as well as pictures of evil to avoid. It calls us to true nobility of soul.
As Christians, we have the particular blessing of being able to read classic literature with a more complete picture of the truth, goodness, and beauty demonstrated for us in these stories, while at the same time seeing God’s common grace at work even in the stories and lives of pagans. We can see the flaws and perfections of Achilles, Odysseus, Aeneas, Beowulf, Dante, Hamlet, and more – learning from them both good and bad lessons that drive us to wisdom and virtue in Christ.
Scripture records for us the stories of saints and sinners gone before, stories of great triumph (Hebrews 11) and great fall (1st Corinthians 10:1-13). Classic literature works in similar fashion, teaching us through the struggles, victories, and failures of the characters. As Leland Ryken wrote, “Literature is built on a grand paradox: It is a make-believe world that nonetheless reminds us of real life and clarifies it for us.”
In An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis asks, “What then is the good of - what is even the defence for - occupying our hearts with stories of what never happened and entering vicariously into feelings which we should try to avoid having in our own person? Or of fixing our inner eye earnestly on things that can never exist?” In self-reply, he offers, “The nearest I have yet got to an answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves…We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own…We demand windows…In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself.” When we enter great stories, we are changed. We become different people.
So, let us read deeply, widely, and prayerfully – knowing that our souls can be fed, warned, and shaped through the power of stories.