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What we're reading: A Cry of Stone

I've long wanted to write a post for W4 about Michael D. O'Brien's A Cry of Stone, which I re-read not too long ago. Yet I have found it surprisingly difficult to know what, exactly, to say about it. This may be simply a result of the fact that, for a few months after re-reading it, I went about loaning it to other people and trying to get them to read it (sometimes successfully), so that now the vividness of memory that might have told me what to say has faded somewhat.

But I think under any circumstances it would be difficult to know how to explain this book. A Cry of Stone is, in my opinion, O'Brien's masterpiece. (I've now read all but one of his published novels.) Its central premise is fairly simple: Rose Wabos is a Canadian Indian woman born around 1940 in an impoverished Indian settlement in Ontario. She is innately a gifted visual artist, and God's plan for her life is that she have nothing, that she continually lose anything that she seems to have gained, for the good of both her own soul and the souls of others. She is hunchbacked from her youth upwards and continually in pain; this, too, is part of the offering way that is asked of her. She is a small, improbable saint. Or maybe not so improbable, if one knows anything about saints, who, it seems, are often asked by God to have nothing.

God sustains Rose in the many sufferings he sends her by a frequent and overwhelming sense of his presence and sometimes even by dreams and visions. No doubt some of us have wished that God would give us guidance more directly, but which of us would be willing to live Rose's life in exchange? I cannot say that I would. Even the spiritual comforts are withdrawn from time to time, when Rose must walk her weary way in the darkness and in what seems to her utter isolation.

A Cry of Stone is painful and challenging. I guarantee that if you are a Christian and read the book with an open heart and mind, you will gain from it. This is as true for Protestants as for Catholics, though Protestants should realize going in that the book is very Catholic, suffused throughout with that specially Catholic concept of "offering up" one's pain and loss for the good of others.

But though the book is painful, it is also for the most part (with one exception) gentle. I've recently read O'Brien's Island of the World, whose main character suffers horribly under the Communist regime in Yugoslavia. Island of the World, unfortunately, is graphically violent in several places. O'Brien is always delicate regarding sexual matters, handling them with a sense of reverence and care. It is my opinion that he needs in his most recent novels to be a good deal more delicate about things like slaughter and torture.

A Cry of Stone is very largely free of that drawback. The one instance of terrible mistreatment, amounting to torture, of a character (not Rose) is not directly portrayed when it is happening. Rose has a spiritual gift that at times amounts to a type of ESP, and she "sees" what happened and briefly describes it to the other character. Of course the book is not appropriate for children nor even for those who are not up for something fairly intense, but it is not brutal.

The book is by no means without its flaws, however. There are too many purely theoretical discussions of art, though the reader may be prepared to forgive these in view of the fact that they are carried out by a wonderful pair of characters, an elderly Jewish couple, both painters, who take Rose into their home and treat her as both a protege and a daughter.

There is one entire section where Rose visits England that could well have been left out. While it provides a somewhat idyllic break from the sadness of Rose's usual life, for that very reason it seems disconnected from the rest of the book.

Rose is sometimes too naive. Her childlikeness is part of her character, which is generally extremely well-done, but occasionally O'Brien carries Rose's childlike nature too far as a device for bringing about a new cycle of loss and gain in her pilgrimage. But real saints are not childish, and those places are faults in the book.

Much more satisfactory is the one place where Rose, with perspicacity and a surprising amount of spunk, faces down a sharkish art dealer.

The central insight of A Cry of Stone is that our success, in itself, does not matter. Not even our success in the work to which we believe God has called us. This is a hard truth. Many of us Christians believe that God expects sacrifice of us, but we expect that sacrifice to be called for in the course of accomplishing some work for God. O'Brien presses us to admit the harder conclusion: God may ask of us that we be willing to see everything apparently lost, including the work that we have done for him, to see all of it apparently go for naught, to see no gain, to be, as far as we can tell, small, unsuccessful, and unimportant, and to have faith that God measures with a different yardstick.

"Poor? Even if what you say is true, Rose, it does not matter, for in your failure you may bring about a greater harvest for souls than if your work is praised throughout your nation and beyond. Perhaps the failure is a necessary sacrifice. Will there be a soul one day, I wonder, who happens to stop before a painting of yours and is struck a gentle blow in his heart? Will the Holy Spirit then speak to him, because of the word you have made flesh for his eyes to see? Will he perhaps turn to God and consider the impossible question?"

"What question, ma Mere?"

"Is God, after all, what he says he is? If he does ask this, God will answer him. This I believe. You must not doubt it. You may never see it; you may never know for certain; it may occur far from where you live or long after your death. But, because you existed, it will occur. You came into being, and you stood firm in the cold dark places of the world, you continued to walk through the forest in winter even when all bearings seemed lost."

In this book as in others, O'Brien tells us over and over again: A life is a word. We speak this word to the world and do not know what its results will be, but visible results do not matter. Rose paints because she cannot do otherwise, because it is the thing asked of her, because her life is a word, and painting is her way of speaking that word.

Rose returned home with a feeling of intense purpose, went straight to her studio and stared at the piles of pine cones, maple keys, wasp nests, and other treasures she had retrieved from the parks throughout the city. The pine cones spiraled inviolate on their stems. Some of the weed wings were broken, and the hive was ripped a little. Each life is like this, she said to herself. Some are burned and some are blind, and some see, and some do not see, but all are part of the texture, and the texture is beloved, for it is part of the form that the Beating Heart has made.

Then she inscribed on the canvas a drawing of the blind girl and her friend. And on another canvas the burned boy who had only eyes. She worked all night, alternating between both...

O'Brien himself paints on a large novelistic canvas. The plot covers Rose's entire life (though she dies in her early thirties) and quite a bit of space. Rose touches the lives of people in her own village, in the nuns' boarding school where she is raised in her teens, in Toronto, Ottowa, Montreal, and even Europe. It would be too much to try to list, much less describe, the many people she meets and the many whom she loves. O'Brien has a gift in all of his books for memorable character sketches. But I will name one: A recommendation of A Cry of Stone would be incomplete without a mention of the Indian Jack Tobac, who appears only in its final pages. (But don't look ahead.) Jack Tobac is a character in only two of O'Brien's novels, the other being Strangers and Sojourners. He is one of those people whose existence seems to justify the human race, a man of kindness and insight who is never afraid to give. Here he appears quite unexpectedly as a passing stranger to help Rose and give her a place to live when she is very ill. When he and his wife Mari-Kahenta take Rose in, the scene is like light on the page.

A review like this cannot do justice to A Cry of Stone, and I am sure that there are other passages, probably better ones, that I could have quoted to attract readers to the book. Read this book. It will stretch you and force you to look at Jesus Christ, at the world, and at yourself. It will draw you deep under the waters. It will make you see.

Comments (36)

This book is on its way to my house right now! I shall have to get some writing done before it gets here so I can enjoy it guilt-free!


I've resisted reading O'Brien's stuff for years now, mainly because I can't stand the theory of fantasy (and characters therein) that he gives in "A Landscape with Dragons". I think he totally and completely misses the point with his theory of symbols in that. As the most telling example, his theory goes off the rails and criticizes Tolkien for using some dragon character (in Farmer Giles of Ham maybe? can't remember) as a pleasant and enjoyable protagonist, instead of a symbol of evil. I would entrust my mythic fantasy to Tolkien a thousand times over before putting it in the hands of a second-rater like O'Brien. But aside from the argument from authority, his thesis simply doesn't ring true: the rightness and wrongness of fantasy literature isn't mainly found in such things as whether traditional mythic creatures (or powers) retain their traditional good or evil stance, it lies deeper. Does the fantastical world have an underlying coherence that retains a stable moral framework? Do characters become good by remaining within the morality needed by that framework? Alternatively, does the author make you WANT the character to do bad things (given the morality of the fantasy world) to "win out" of the predicaments and crises? If the work simply doesn't have a coherent underlying structure, it is bad fantasy. (Harry Potter suffers some of this). If the structure is coherent, but the author makes you want the main character to do bad things (like having the hero sleep with the girl before marriage), then it may be good qua fantasy but bad qua story-telling.

Does O'Brien's own stuff manage to be good fiction even though his theory has major holes?

The dragon in Farmer Giles is always up to no good. Sure, he's LIGHT, not even as serious as Smaug in _The Hobbit_, but that doesn't make him sympathetic. There's a difference. At no point are you being manipulated to say, "Awwwwww, poor dragon, there really is good in him, maybe the line between good and evil isn't so sharp after all." It's that kind of attitude I think O'Brien is getting at. Now I haven't seen a place where he criticizes Tolkien, but if he did, he would probably be over-interpreting because I'm certain that Tolkien would actually be on the same page with him as far as his core philosophy of fantasy is concerned.

Also, O'Brien doesn't write fantasy---he writes in the historical or futuristic thriller vein.

In most of his books, dragons do not figure. At least not literally. :-) On the occasions when he does bring in symbolic things like that, I would say that it is a strength that the dragons are bad. But then, several of those times he's just quoting the Book of Revelation, and St. John seems to do pretty well with a bad dragon. :-)

I hadn't read his criticism of Tolkien, but I think he's also aiming at the Jungian-neo-pagan types, and there, I think he's spot-on. (For example, without trying to start a new sub-thread, think of people you may have seen elsewhere arguing that there's really no problem with having "good vampires" in various books and who have tried to compare a girl's "marrying" a vampire in fiction with the marriages between elves and men in Tolkien. Believe it or not, I've actually seen that ridiculous comparison. O'Brien's theory is a good corrective there. "I wanna marry a vampire, Dad." "No! That's a really bad idea!") O'Brien brings up some of this in _Plague Journal_. There's a great sequence where a little boy keeps having horrible nightmares about a dragon. His ditzy feminist mother reads Jungian psychology and makes him a cutesy dragon puppet which she calls "Smoggy" and tells him to hug and kiss in order to "swallow his shadow." Instead, the little boy grabs it and throws it into the fire in the fireplace, after which he has no more nightmares. I got a real kick out of that. In that book, O'Brien is _extremely_ positive about Tolkien and uses him as a reference point.

In any event, while Farmer Giles of Ham is certainly a light-hearted book, the dragon isn't _good_. In fact, Farmer Giles constantly has to be on his guard against the dragon's tricks and remember that the dragon is more dangerous than he appears. I'd say it's a pretty traditional dragon, just lightened up a bit.

In more general answer to your question, O'Brien is an extremely talented novelist, but his novels differ somewhat among themselves both in quality and in sub-genre. For example, Father Elijah, Plague Journal, and Eclipse of the Sun are all apocalyptic thrillers. If you would hate apocalyptic thrillers, don't read them. If you think you might like a chase-and-flight novel with a lot of Catholic depth to it, then by all means read Eclipse of the Sun. (You shd. probably read Plague Journal first in that case, as the two are in sequence. Plague Journal is short and has some wonderful characters, especially one Vietnamese Catholic family.)

If you like something slow-paced without thriller or apocalyptic overtones and with a huge amount of Catholic depth to it, read A Cry of Stone, on which see the review above.

Strangers and Sojourners is somewhat sweeping and historical, set from 1900 to about 1970, mostly among what we Americans would call frontier people in British Columbia. It has a slow pace and a lot of insight into human nature.

Sophia House is a prequel to Father Elijah, but is not thriller-like at all. It's set in World War II and is in some ways a Holocaust novel, though you only reach Auschwitz on the last page. It has a major theme of homosexuality, which I think is pretty well handled but which some people might find annoying or distracting. Lots of long conversations and a bit slow. (The protagonist, a reclusive book dealer, hides a Hasidic Jewish boy in his attic.)

Island of the World has a lot of good sections and a lot of profundity but in other places (as I've said) is much too violent and painfully graphic.

Yes, he's a good novelist. I think he's worth reading.

He has his lapses in talent, but as far as I'm concerned these have nothing to do with any theory of symbols but rather are just plain lapses--places where his dialogue is somewhat wooden or where a plot goes off course. For example, while I enjoyed Fr. Elijah, it's a weakness of the book that the entire plot centers around an entirely pointless attempt to confront the human antichrist figure and call him to repentance. Fr. Elijah is tasked to do this and meets the antichrist character over and over again but never seems to get around to this major confrontation until an over-dramatic scene quite late in the book. Meanwhile Fr. Elijah gets framed for murder of a woman character to whom he had drawn close. The whole "confront the antichrist" thing just isn't in my opinion a good plot device. It sometimes makes the novel feel like it's not going anywhere.

If you want my advice, you'll definitely read A Cry of Stone and make decisions on the others on a case-by-case basis. A lot will depend on your own tastes. But I wouldn't be dissuaded by your disagreement with O'Brien in a theoretical book.

I agree that O'Brien is a talented novelist. Lydia likes some of his books more than I do, but I will second the recommendations for A Cry of Stone, Sophia House, and especially Strangers and Sojourners, which is a very beautiful book with a lot of depth.

She doesn't mention his last couple of books: Theophilos, a novelistic treatment of St. Luke, and The Father's Tale. I haven't read the latter, but the former is quite good, if not as gripping as the books named above.

The Father's Tale got such consistently dreadful Amazon reviews that I didn't have the heart to buy it or try to get it on interlibrary loan. In fact, one of the things mentioned, besides apparently a plot that gets seriously derailed, was painful descriptions of torture, and I can do without any more of those.

Theophilos is worth reading, but I think people will enjoy it most who already like O'Brien from other novels and who are looking for something else by him to read. At times it doesn't even seem like a novel, because there is a very long section that is just memoirs and interviews with people living in apostolic times who have memories of Jesus or his miracles. It's well-done in its own way (actually historically quite clever in several places and well-researched) but lacks the depth of character portrayal of most of O'Brien's work. I thought the resolution and conversion of Theophilos was a bit contrived, and the scenes of crucifixions were too gut-wrenching for my tolerance level.

One of the things I like about O'Brien is that he shows that it's possible to be painful and profound without being either obscure or dark. Now, some people might say that O'Brien's novels sometimes _are_ dark, but I think any darkness is always firmly placed in either the realm of human evil or in the mind of the character, with a strongly Christian and therefore redemptive worldview surrounding the whole of the plot. Therefore the reader is never actually led to despair.

O'Brien challenges a false dichotomy I think some Christians who like literature are tempted to make: Either you're fluffy and sentimental, on the one hand, or you're obscure and/or super-dark, on the other. O'Brien is neither. He strongly challenges the reader with the problem of evil. In A Cry of Stone there is a character who really can't get a break. He's horribly abused as a child, and nothing goes right for him from then on. Every time it seems like he's getting some stability, something happens to him without his consent that sets him on the wrong track. For example, when the boys' boarding school where he's been going is dissolved and he's sent back to the Indian village, he has no parents and no one to care for him, and the government agent insists on giving custody to the shaman, a deeply bad and scary customer. So of course the boy is then raised to abandon Christianity and go back to Indian native religions. O'Brien makes you ask why God allows this, why God doesn't intervene to help this innocent young man and keep him from continually being led astray and harmed. O'Brien doesn't make it easy or happy-happy for the reader. But at the same time he isn't at all afraid to let the reader see that he, as the author, believes that there is an answer to those questions and that God has not really abandoned Tchibi (this boy) even when he appears to have done so. O'Brien is not an absent author. Some people might think this un-literary, but I think it works very well when he's at his best.

I'd say it's a pretty traditional dragon, just lightened up a bit.

Well, I don't think so, Elephant. Tolkien's portrayal of the dragon is, indeed, one of a crafty, deceptive character. But not one of unrelieved evil: in the story, Tolkien has the reader rooting for Giles and the dragon against other characters who are clearly out to use them both. Probably in a metaphysical sense, the mere fact that Giles can make conscious use of the dragon's capabilities by mutual consent with the dragon means that the dragon must be a fundamentally neutral sort of entity (we can never make an intentional bargain with the Devil, even for some legitimate future good). Whether or not that's the case, this story device, where Tolkien has the reader rooting for the dragon (under Giles' hand) could not possibly happen under O'Brien's theory. So at that point in the story, yes he is a sympathetic character. Which, as far as I can see, simply disproves O'Brien's theory of symbols as a direct counter-example. And probably serves as a significant (though maybe not completely sufficient) argument against O'Brien's theory of fantasy as a whole.

I too have been appalled at the sympathetic vampire stuff out there. To date I have yet to pick up a single vampire book, or see any of the TV shows or movies. I just don't see any need. And lot's of reason not to support that crud. But in my view it would not be in principle off-limits to construct a fantasy world in which humans are vampires (say) evolved from vampire animals, and continue to prey on animals in the vampire fashion. Kind of how human carnivores prey on other animals in this world. (Yes, I can see all sorts of reasons not to construct such a fantasy world for prudential reasons - I was speaking in theoretical terms, OK?) As far as I can tell, O'Brien would claim that it would be by principle an abuse of fantasy to do so.

I'll give A cry of Stone a chance after I clear out my current reading material - including an anti-sharia Muslim author.

I'm inclined to think that would be an abuse of fantasy. I'm not sure the "prudential reasons" and "in principle an abuse of fantasy" are so easily disentangled as all that.

I totally disagree that one is ever exactly "rooting" for the dragon in Farmer Giles. To be sure, the king is bad in his own right, and the dragon is often funny and in the end is useful to Giles as a sort of bodyguard. But the deal that Giles makes with the dragon is to avoid greed on Giles's own part with its consequent dangers. Tolkien is explicit about this. He says that if Giles had held out for the whole treasure he might have gotten a curse put on it. Giles himself has to guard against greed, a traditional dragonish quality (which of course Chrysophlax has in full measure). The danger to people who get gold from a dragon hoard is always that they will be cursed in this way. That comes up pretty often in both Tolkien and also in Lewis, where Eustace turns into a dragon by lying on a dragon's pile of treasure and thinking greedy, dragonish thoughts. I would agree that Chrysophlax isn't as bad as, say, an orc in Tolkien. But that's not saying much.

I just read Farmer Giles today, and I have to agree with Lydia. The dragon is only "useful" as long as he is kept under strict control and guard. Yes, it's lighter than a traditional dragon story, but the message about greed remains the same; even at the end we're told, "In his bad heart of hearts the dragon felt as kindly disposed towards Giles as a dragon can feel towards anyone. After all, there was Tailbiter: his life might have been taken and all his hoard,too." He is let go because he's too expensive to keep; he's not going to bother them anymore because he wants to continue living. It seems to me the story is clearly enough about our own inner dragons. Farmer Giles becomes rich and powerful, yes, but he doesn't become a tyrant like the king because he never gives in to greed -- therefore his prosperity is multiplied and enjoyed by everyone under his rule; the king is overcome by Farmer Giles because he never can discipline/enslave/slay his own inner greed. Because it's a light tale, the dragon is allowed to live -- but never to conquer the man who spared him. I.e., he's not solely and strictly a symbol of evil but has a life of his own which eventually Farmer Giles must respect by freeing him -- but only after he has been well-subdued.

So if O'Brien is critical of this story because the dragon is not evil "enough," I would agree he's taken his criticism too far; he may have misread the story, too -- even the best critics do so at times, after all. However, I have a great deal of respect for the basic position that fantasy writers need to be careful in their use of the archetypal symbols. Monsters should be monsters. I even hate the movies about the green ogre, what's-his-name, whose beloved princess turns into an ogre to prove that ogres are not monsters, only misunderstood good people. Whatever. As Chesterton says, we don't have to tell children that monsters exist; we have to tell them that monsters can be slain (or at least brought into subjection).

Tony, I'll have to read O'Brien's "A Landscape with Dragons" -- is it in a collection of his or where? From what you say about it, I would probably appreciate it. I agree with you that a fantasy world must create and remain true to its own rules -- that's basic -- but I would disagree that it will be a great work of literature if it ignores the time-tested values of our recurring images except for some really excellent reason; I can't think what such a reason would be off-hand. I fear that too much literature today, especially fantasy, has flouted those values and helped create a world in which we no longer believe in evil qua evil.

Go, Beth.

And sucking and drinking blood from the throats of living creatures is creepy, even if they're not human. Let's _not_ create a fantasy world about good humanoid vampires. When I say that I like my beefsteak so rare it's mooing, that's a joke. (No, that's not an invitation to my millions of vegan readers to start a sub-thread about the evils of eating meat.)

But seriously, when Masked Elephant points out that O'Brien doesn't write fantasy, that's the heart of the issue for O'Brien's actual fictional work. It's fiction of quite a different kind and to be appreciated as such.

I looked up that Chesterton quote because I somehow remembered it references dragons:

"Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon."

Which is reason number ten billion to appreciate the comic genius of Monty Python's killer rabbit.

Thanks, Step2. I couldn't remember for sure if he specified dragons and was too lazy to go find it . . . :)

I totally disagree that one is ever exactly "rooting" for the dragon in Farmer Giles.

I agree that one never roots for the dragon independently. But the way the story is written, one is led to be glad that Giles and the dragon are working together for a time to confound the greedy king (was it the king?), and take delight in the dragon's antics to do so. And one is led to be more or less pleased, or at least satisfied, when the dragon "gets to" go back home. Now, I grant you that there is a fine line between delighting in the dragon helping Giles overcome evil men, and delighting in the dragon. But this is a CHILDREN's story. Please don't tell me that kids are going to first laugh with the dragon and Giles, and THEN be satisfied with the dragon's release, and THEN tell themselves "but remember dragons are evil and always to be avoided - just like temptations." Not gonna happen.

Yes, Giles is drawn through temptation through the dragon, which he overcomes, but Giles then USES the dragon, which one doesn't do with inherently evil things. For the story, the dragon cannot be a through-and-through evil like a demon, because demons never have any "as kindly as a demon can feel about anybody" sort of sentiment - only HUMANS are like that. Even people who are given over to vice have some redeeming qualities, have "as kindly as a tyrant ever feels about anybody" sides to them. Tolkien is using the dragon the way an author uses a bad human character, not a mythic evil character.

Well, yeah, actually, I think Tolkien has several warnings about not trusting dragons in the story. I'm not going to go look them up at the moment, but that dragons are liars and such is driven home pretty strongly. There's none of this "reversal of mythic roles" about it. It's not about how to have a nice relationship with your pet dragon, or about how dragons aren't actually so bad after all, or any of that modern goop. Tolkien is quite clear that Chrysophlax is, after all, bad, and that he's bad _because_ he's a dragon and in a number of distinctive ways that dragons are bad.

I'd tend to agree that the character is more like a pretty bad human (though not the worst human) than like an orc, but I'd be inclined to put that down more to the lightness of the story as a whole. Read the tragedy of Turin Turambar some time in the Silmarillion and you'll get Tolkien being more serious about dragons. Brrrrr.

Let me emphasize, again, that whatever criticism O'Brien may have of that particular short work, O'Brien reveres Tolkien. In fact, in Plague Journal he holds him up as an icon of the right use of symbol. The children in the story have their imaginations kept clean, instructed rightly, and set on the right track by The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, despite the poison being fed to them by the Canadian public school system. It would be no exaggeration (because O'Brien tends to take such things very seriously indeed) that in that book he portrays Tolkien as one instrument of their salvation. He uses repeated explicit allusions to those books of Tolkien throughout Plague Journal and does so very effectively, more effectively than I would have thought it could be done.

I was just reading recently a blog post that took me back to my youth about an evangelical book arguing that God doesn't really have a plan for your life.

Maybe I should try to get some discussion going of that topic in relation to A Cry of Stone. Which, believe me, assumes that God definitely does have a plan for your life.

I should have the book read by early next week . . . :)

I even hate the movies about the green ogre, what's-his-name


I don't care for the movie much for various reasons, but I think there may be a difference in kind between an "ogre" like Shrek and the vampire movies. Shrek's ogreness was not so much the "misunderstood evil" meme (i.e., the bad being is not 100% bad, but rather has a redeeming quality if we only understood him correctly), but more along the lines of not to judge by appearances only. In fact, aside from the normal annoying characteristics of just about any personality type, Shrek was not really "evil" in any particularly monster type way.

Maybe I am just "culturally" ignorant, but I never thought the category "ogre" really meant much anyway - more of a "big ugly nasty type" generically, without much if any specific difference to it. Vague enough to not carry any determinate sense of evil.

In the traditional fairy tale, ogres are man-eating monsters that resemble, in gross fashion, human beings. Tolkien's orcs are a type of ogre.

As with many other kinds of monsters, we have made them into either misunderstood creatures who are really good at heart but have been bullied or discouraged into their "acting-out" behaviors, or mere funny or mildly offensive creatures who are not necessarily evil.

It's hard to fight the culture. But as a teacher of literature, I can't help but hold to certain perspectives, and one is that we should take great care with changing the values of our traditional symbols and images lest we also lose the sharpness of our understanding of what they are meant to convey. I'm not at all averse to a certain amount of playing with the ideas, of course -- but when the play becomes a new and serious norm, then I find it problematic. (It's also problematic, in practical terms, when students are unaware of the traditional concepts associated with certain archetypes, and with any sense of mythology or fairy tale. One has to spend a week teaching what they ought to have been reading as children before getting to the assigned texts!)

Tolkien's trolls are also a kind of ogre. Possibly closer to the Germanic type than orcs, because they are larger.

In which literature do we find ogres talked about with enough specificity to identify what they are? I only remember one fairy tale with ogres, and it simply talks about the ogre as big, ugly, and nasty. (That's why I say maybe I am culturally iggerint. I just ha'n't readed the right litacher :-) ).

Sorry, Tony, that's a question that would take me far too long to try to answer! One could simply look up good descriptions/definitions from reputable literary sources, I suppose. Some things I simply know by a lifetime of reading and listening to others talk about what they've read . . . and I don't have time to sit down with books of fairy tales, etc. to give a list that would help.

You need to read a bunch of fairy tales, Tony. For example, "Jack and the Beanstalk" and "Hop o' My Thumb." Ogres are bad dudes. They always try to eat people. Sometimes they are giants, as in "Jack and the Beanstalk." To quote a Google books result I just came up with, "An ogre's main objective is to devour human beings, who are generally swallowed whole. Sophisticated ogres fatten their victims and later season them for consumption."


Thanks for the assist, Lydia!

Wait, I've always heard of Jack's opponent as "the Giant", and never as "an ogre". You're kidding, aren't you? Isn't an ogre one species of baddie, a giant another species? And a troll a third? I read all sorts of fairy tales as a kid, and I don't recall any that referred to "ogre" as a sort of general category, of which giants are one sort. The tale of the three billy goats Gruff always calls the nasty a "troll", never anything else.

Next you'll be telling me that werewolves and vampires are ogres, too, right?

Essentially, ogres are human-like creatures who eat humans; they are also cannibals as they will eat each other's flesh as well. Yes, they have different names in different tales (sometimes depending on the original language of the tale) and the same tale may use different names depending on who tells it (what country, what language, who translated it, etc.). So giants who eat human flesh are ogres; trolls are ogres because by definition they eat human flesh (they differ from giants because they turn into stone at daybreak if they are outdoors and they always live in caves); orcs are ogres; etc. Werewolves and vampires are not ogres because, while they bite humans, they don't eat human flesh. Dragons are not ogres because, while they eat human flesh, they are not human-like creatures.

"What do they teach them in school nowadays!" :) (courtesy of the Professor in the tales of Narnia)

I hate linking to Wikipedia ever, but hopefully none of my students read here . . . :) This is a reasonably good short article that explores the term "ogre" and its possible origins. Keep in mind that fairy tales are not works that have been written one time by one author and thus can be analyzed in the same way as, say, a novel; they are folk tales that were first oral tales and that have been told and re-told many times by many writers since anyone started writing them down. (The Grimm brothers got their tales by going around Germany listening to people tell the tales they'd known all their lives because they'd been told at the fireside for generations.) So the particular words used in one manifestation are not the sole words ever used; whether we call Jack's opponent a giant or an ogre, he is most definitely an ogre.


Tony, the wife of the giant in "Jack and the Beanstalk" (in the versions I've read) expressly says to Jack, "My husband is an ogre." (Warning Jack that he should skedaddle out of there.) I suppose if there were a giant who didn't eat people, he wouldn't be an ogre. Capturing people and eating them is a necessary condition for being called an "ogre" in fairy tales. Whether it's a sufficient condition is a different question. It's sufficient for purposes of this discussion to note that it's a necessary condition.

I think maybe the (bowdlerized?) versions of Jack I have heard never had the wife say that. Like this version here:


The only story I remember specifically using the term ogre is Puss-N-Boots.

I am OK with the idea that my exposure to the "good" versions of fairy tales was lacking. But I am curious about something: if tales from other lands are translated into English, and other cultures use different classifications of bad guys, how would it even be possible to be confident that what is (in English culture) a category name for several kinds of nasties, is the right name for a foreign nasty group? Only if all of their categories all matched up to ours. And how likely is that? I find it somewhat amusing to see an apparently un-self-conscious listing of dozens of foreign nasties as being "ogres", as if they all occupied just the same niche in those cultures that ogre does in ours.

Actually, my impression is that most of the folktales reviewed by the type of people who wrote that encyclopedia article that talked about ogres were probably written or spoken originally in German and French. Which didn't prevent them from drawing what seem to be perfectly reasonable conclusions about a category called "ogres," of which the essence is as Beth has said--humanoid beings that have a major motivation to capture and eat people. "Our" folktale culture is largely a combo. of English-French-German folktale culture. It's not highly independent. Seriously, Tony, I think you're just carrying your skepticism a little too far. Don't know quite why. Face it: The concept of an "ogre" just isn't a concept of someone who is only kinda bad but maybe redeemable. It's a concept of a more or less human-like monster-being who is always looking out to eat passing travelers, sometimes capturing them and keeping them around for a while for that purpose. The Cyclops would fall pretty neatly into this category whether one calls him an "ogre" or not. Ulysses wouldn't have been well-advised to try to teach Greek philosophy to the Cyclops in the hopes of improving him. He needed to get outta there, by a trick if necessary.

The truth is that these symbolic characters are more firmly fixed than, for some reason, you want to admit. Which may mean that O'Brien is more right in his discussion than you, for some reason, want to admit.

Which has pretty much nothing to do with the quality of most of his fiction, either way.

Well-put, Lydia; thanks!

I think the notion that an ogre is an eater of people is pretty well established even in our pop culture--or at least it was prior to Shrek. An old Simpsons episode (from the 90s) includes this exchange:

Burns: I don't know what's happening. It seems our profits have dropped 37%.

Smithers: I'm afraid we have a bad image, Sir. Market research shows people see you as something of an ogre.

Burns: I ought to club them and eat their bones!


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