I recently saw this picture online. (It's a one-sentence summary of The Lord of the Rings, in case you weren't sure, and it is supposed to be goofy).
Reading this made me think. I guess if you want to get down to the bare bones of the plot, that is an accurate summary. But obviously the Lord of the Rings is about so much more than that. It's about courage and cowardice and fear, learning to change your past, going on and trying again when the way seems blocked, and never giving up, no matter how hard it may be. It's about loyalty, friendship, and love. It's about learning to always make the right choices. It's about resisting temptation even when you think it may kill you. It's about taking what comes and doing the best you can. It's about service and it's about sacrifice. But a simple plot summary can never explain this.
This started me thinking about other classic works. One that came to mind is Les Miserables. This is my favorite musical ever (and now it's also my favorite movie) and I'm reading the book. It's an incredible story that can teach us so much. But if you look at the most basic elements of the plot (and the plot is not necessarily what it's really about) then it doesn't look quite so nice. A thief breaks his parole and spends the rest of his life hiding and running from the police while raising the orphaned daughter of a prostitute. Throw in a rebellion and a bunch of college boys dying and you've got the whole plot. That sure sounds pleasant. Not. But Les Mis isn't about that at all. It's about many of the things listed above in my description of the Lord of the Rings, and more. It's about consequences, and how they must be faced. It's about humility and pride, and what each will bring you. It's about repentance and forgiveness. It's about faith. It's about love. It's about how to find God.
These are true classics, ones that can teach you something new every time you read them. But what is it that makes them that way? Surely it's not the basic plot line. Yes, the plot summaries above are a little too simplified, but still. What makes a story about a couple of nobodies destroying a possessed ring so incredible? What can we really learn from thieves and prostitutes?
But maybe the plot really has very little to do with the reason these books are classic. The plot can be a start, but really, are any of the things these stories teach that I listed above actually a main part of the plot?
There are many things that contribute to making something into a true classic, but two that stand out to me are the characters themselves and the choices they make (plus the consequences of those choices). And there are a few characters who particularly stand out to me in the two stories I mentioned. (If you haven't already figured it out, I'm assuming that anyone reading this already knows these stories. If you don't, you are missing so, so much. For Lord of the Rings, the books could be a challenge for some people, depending on what it is you're used to reading, but anyone can watch those movies. And they're so much fun. And don't skip the books either, because if you think the movies are amazing, just wait til you read the books. So amazing! For Les Mis, the book is absolutely incredible, so don't skip it. It does take a while to read. So go watch the musical or the movie.)
Samwise Gamgee: So, I really love Sam. Like, if he were a real person, I would marry him. But I'm not going to talk about that. Not too much, anyway. But, oh, Sam...Sam never wanted adventure. Oh, he wanted to meet elves, but he didn't want danger. He wasn't looking for much excitement. When he and Frodo reached Rivendale, he wanted to go back. They had brought the ring as far as they had planned, and he had seen the elves he'd longed to meet. He'd had his bit of excitement, and he was ready to go home to his little garden and the girl he loved. But he didn't. When Frodo volunteered to take the ring to Mordor, Sam immediately stepped up and promised to go with him. He had made a promise that he would not leave Frodo, and he kept that promise to the end. Over and over again Sam followed Frodo when no one else would. He stood by him and supported him when the ring had corrupted Frodo to the point that he no longer recognized what Sam had done for him. Still he followed him. He risked his life fighting a spider to save him, and when he believed he had failed, he took the ring and promised to finish Frodo's mission. When he learned Frodo was alive he battled through ranks of orks to save him, and returned the ring willingly. And in the end, he literally carried Frodo up Mount Doom when he himself was nearly as weak. And he was ever hopeful, talking of saving food for the journey home, never giving up hope that they would make it out alive until they were surrounded by lava with seemingly no chance of any escape. I won't claim that he did nothing wrong. It's true that he never trusted Smeagol, and never really treated him well. But everyone makes mistakes. And when Samwise promised to follow Frodo all the way, he never gave up. He never backed out. Samwise the brave. Samwise the Stouthearted. Samwise the loyal, the true, the enduring. (Can you tell that I like him?)
Aragorn: If there's one character in the Lord of the Rings that I love almost as much as Sam, it would have to be Aragorn. When I think of a truly great leader, warrior or captain (besides George Washington and Captain Moroni), I think of him. He was born to be a king, but he was ever humble. He didn't push to be the commander. When he gave advice to Theodin, the king of Rohan, and his advice was ignored, he followed the king anyway and fought to save the kingdom, even though he knew they were fighting a losing battle. He was the one who fought alongside the ordinary soldiers. He was the one who called for retreat and yet continued fighting with all his might to allow the others a chance to escape. I watch the battle in the movie of The Two Towers, and I see two different kings. There is Theodin of Rohan who commands from a distance, relatively safe behind the walls of the fortress. And then there is Aragorn, who fights alongside the ones he leads. His fearlessness inspires courage in the men, and they know he will not desert them. And later, when two men are needed to guard a narrow bridge, fighting off hoards of attackers while risking falling off the edge themselves, he is the first to volunteer. And he doesn't just show that leadership in battle. While watching The Fellowship of the Ring, the expression on his face when Gandalf dies really stood out to me. Everyone had that look of horror and grief, but the look on his face was different. It was a kind of desperation, as though he knew that he was now responsible for the well-being of his companions. And he accepted that responsibility without complaint. His dedication to fulfilling his duty is so inspirational to me.
Boromir: The first time I watched The Fellowship of the Ring I hated Boromir. If you asked me what I could learn from him, the only thing I would have thought of was "what not to be like" (which isn't always necessarily bad; there are characters who really can't teach you much other than that). But I mean, really, what is there to like about him? From the beginning he's just so suspicious, and the way he doesn't really respect Aragorn drove me nuts. Not to mention his constant coveting of the ring. And the way he talked about Gondor as though he were the one true representative of the kingdom, and the only one who could represent it properly. But watching it recently, I actually really liked him. Yes, he was proud. Yes, he feared that Aragorn would take the kingdom his family had protected for generations. Yes, he was the one most susceptible to the power of the ring. But aren't we all like that? Boromir was a flawed human being, far more like us than the near perfect characters we love. He was afraid. He was proud. And he made the mistake of acting on his fear and pride. He was tempted, and he was not always able to resist. But he did try, and he regretted the things he did wrong, and he tried to fix them. And in the end, immediately after trying to take the ring from Frodo by force, he gave his life to protect the ring-bearer and his companions. Even as he was dying, he fought on to ensure the safety of the hobbits he had sworn to protect. It's true that Boromir is in no way my favorite character, but it is his flaws, his struggles, and his failings that make him so much like the rest of us. And despite his flaws, he is still a worthy role model for us to follow. He made mistakes and he repented. And he gave his life to repair the wrongs he had done. So while there are other, far better characters for us to emulate, it is often the people most like us who teach us the most. And classics are things we can learn from again and again. I believe that Boromir is a truly classic character who can teach us so, so much.
For the characters from Les Mis, I want to compare some of them, and specifically their choices and the consequences they faced.
Jean Valjean vs. Fantine: (This one is something my mom pointed out to me a while ago.) When Valjean was released from prison he couldn't find any work to support himself. He was starving, and he was desperate. He was told to go to the Bishop for help, and he swallowed his pride and did as he was told. And taking that advice and going to the Bishop for help changed his life. He stole the Bishop's silver and was forgiven, and he turned his life around. When he swallowed his pride and asked for help he was given the chance to have a whole new life. When Fantine was fired she was advised to go to the mayor (Valjean) for help. But because of her pride she refused. Instead she turned to the people on the streets, selling her jewelry, her hair, her teeth, and eventually herself. Her pride destroyed her life, and though Valjean found her eventually, by then it was too late to save her life. What if she had gone to him sooner? He would have taken care of her and her child, and they could have had a good life together. Both Valjean and Fantine had done wrong. Both were told to go to a person who could help them. Both were proud and did not want to go, but one humbled himself and asked for help and the other ran from the one who would aid her. Their decisions changed not only their lives, but the lives of others, for once Valjean had turned his life around he was able to serve so many others, but because Fantine did not go to him for help both her life and Cosette's were worse.
Jean Valjean vs. Javert: One man wrongs another and is brought into the power of the one he harmed. He knows that he will be punished, that his life will be taken from him. And then the one he owes does something so strange, he believes he will never understand. The man lets him go. He forgives him, and the sinner is left to wonder, what has happened? How can a man forgive one who has done him so much wrong? How can this be right?
Valjean and Javert were both that man. The first time it was Valjean who stole the Bishop's silver and was forgiven. The second time it was Javier who was placed in Valjean's hands and was freed. Each was in exactly the same situation, yet each made such a different choice after being forgiven. I really love that in the musical "What have I done?" and "Javert's Suicide" have the exact same music, because it really highlights how similar their situations were. Valjean questions, "What have I done?...Have I fallen so far...that nothing remains but the cry of my hate?" He argues, "My life was a war that could never be won. They...murdered Valjean when they chained me and left me for dead just for stealing a mouthful of bread!" Javert asks, "Who is this man...to have me caught in a trap and choose to let me go free?...Vengeance was his, and he gave me back my life."
And here is where you truly see how similar and yet how different these two characters are. Valjean wonders about the Bishop, "Yet why did I allow this man to touch my soul and teach me love? He treated me like any other. He gave me his trust, he called me brother. My life he claims for God above. Can such things be?" He recognizes, "One word from him and I'd be back beneath the lash, upon the rack. Instead he offers me my freedom. I feel my shame inside me like a knife! He told me that I have a soul. How does he know? What spirit comes to move my life? Is there another way to go?" Javert declares, "I'll spit his pity right back in his face," and asks himself, "How can I now allow this man to hold dominion over me? This desperate man whom I have hunted. He gave me my life. He gave me freedom....Can this man be believed? Shall his sins be forgiven? Shall his crimes be reprieved?...Is he from heaven or from hell? And does he know that granting me my life today, this man has killed me even so." Each man then says, "I am reaching, but I fall." They both speak of the void they see in their lives. Each decides he must escape from the world of Jean Valjean, but Valjean does this by changing his life for good, while Javert escapes by ending his life.
Perhaps here is one of the major differences between these two men. Valjean struggles to allow the power of the atonement to work in his life, wondering how he could possible be worthy of such a miraculous gift. But Javert cannot bring himself to feel the humility necessary for the atonement to heal us. His struggle is not how he can be forgiven, but how a sinner can repent and how he could even need repentance. And how he could live in debt. He will not accept mercy, and that is what destroys his life in the end. Not his sins, not his misunderstanding of God's grace, but his pride. Perhaps it is his pride that keeps him from understanding the atonement. He is so wrapped up in justice that he will not see mercy, for himself or another, and he is so proud that he believes he does not need mercy. He does not see himself as "fallen from grace" like Valjean. He does not see that we are all fallen human beings; his pride, his greatest weakness, is what keeps him from seeing how much help he truly needs. When Valjean is faced with confusion as to why God would save him, he dedicates his life to God and turns his entire world around. Javert can not see how he is wrong, and so instead of changing his life he ends it. I find is so sad that one who wanted to do what was right, who wanted to serve God, became so caught up in his pride that when he was shown another way he ended his own life because he could not reconcile his pride with the mercy he saw. And I find it so beautiful that Valjean was able to turn his horrible, twisted life completely in the other direction and devote it to serving others. By humbling himself and allowing the atonement to work in his life he not only allowed himself to be healed, but he placed himself in a position where he could heal others and guide them to God. Javert's story is so heartbreaking and Valjean's so healing. These two men show how your choices can have such a huge effect on your life, and how the consequences of a choice are never truly dictated by your circumstances.
There is so much that makes a story a true classic, but I believe that the characters, the choices they make, and the consequences of those choices are some of the biggest things. These are "the stories that really matter," the ones we can always learn more from. They teach us that "small hands" "move the wheels of the world" and the "even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise." They teach us that "not all those who wander are lost," and that "a new day will come, and when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer." They teach us "that there's some good in this world, and it's worth fighting for." And they teach us that the best way to fight for that good is through love, for "to love another person is to see the face of God." These are the stories I love.