By John Anthony S. Estolloso
TRULY YOURS started out teaching as an English teacher and it is with fondness that I can recall nitpicking Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird with my equally enthused students. I first encountered the novel as a required reading in college, I had to re-read it for the students’ lessons, and I still re-read the classic every now and then just for the heck of it. Suffice it to say that re-reading the novel brought about a fresher perspective of what is in the lines and between and beyond these: a sure sign that in the interval between readings, some experiences have contributed to the zeitgeist of the reader, and consequently, to the understanding of the text.
Such is the allure of revisiting our favorite stories. Whether we notice it or not, going through these provides us with a much richer and profounder comprehension of the worlds, characters, and themes that we have encountered before. This novelty of the reading experience thus carries out the essential function of the literary art: to mirror the gradated reality and maturity of the reader through the words and worldview of the writer.
We can debate about functionalities and definitions; still, it does not detract from the literary motif – apropos the relative newness of stories would be their essential and needed unoriginality. We need to be refreshed by what is predictable: hence, we revisit the books of our past or find heartwarming comfort in plots most mundane and cliché.
Noted mythologist Joseph Campbell points out that this yearning for the familiar harks back to a primeval human need for affirmation and reassurance. In his The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell reiterates this projected necessity through the recurring narrative of the Hero’s Journey, the quintessential cycle of transcendence that is the template of most myths and stories (movies included). Hence, all stories – in whatever historical or cultural context – become analogous cautionary tales that intend to both warn and educate.
Our flawed human condition sets the perfect stage and inspiration for this. If we think about it, our moments of adversity and desolation invite us to look back to the exploits of fictional heroes. For instance, the narratives of Odysseus, Siegfried, Frodo Baggins, Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, and Luke Skywalker affirm to us that we too can rise to the challenge and find some sense and meaning in the struggle.
It is in dark days when we feel lost that we are reminded that we have wise mentors, in the forms of Chiron, Merlin, Gandalf, and a host of other wise figures ready to grant the hero-character that sword, wand, or lightsaber that will help him overcome the travails of the way and perhaps, lend a friendly light in the darkness of things. It is in the ordinariness of our days that these stories call us to step up our game: there are myriads of Esthers, Lancelots, Rolands, Aragorns, and Galadriels within the pages to give us that clarion call of Becoming.
But even as they inspire, these stories also warn. We are admonished that life is not always Olympian nirvana and it might as well break down as a tragedy, like our encounters with Hamlet, Simoun, or Anna Karenina. We are cautioned to be wary of situations that seem too nice and perfect, whether these are the seductive charms of Circe and Carmen, the unholy ambition of Iago and Macbeth, or the unredeemable evil of Sauron and Voldemort. We are given a romantic glimpse of the tragic monsters that we shall face in life through the legions of dragons, leviathans, and behemoths that our heroes face.
Finally, most appealing and important to our humanness is how these stories invite us to empathize. Then again, the deathlessness of these ‘classics’ lies on the ever-enduring idea that kindness, honor, and basic decency always trumps evil and triumphs at the end.
Who can escape that in the soulful passages of de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince or from the pathos of Steinbeck’s people in The Grapes of Wrath? What else can vindicate the narrative of the prostitute and the battered wife if not the misfortunes of Fantine and Sisa? Where else is the gravitas of a human life’s value put into question than Atticus Finch defending a negro in a courtroom of the Deep South?
For whatever lessons we get from these stories, that they remain deeply relevant and relatable to our daily lives and contexts stands testament to their prestige as classics. Then again, that is the point: in books, ideas should run amok from the pedantic to the political – flippant truancy in Mark Twain’s novels is still as unceremoniously homely as dismal conditions in George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
Every November, the country celebrates the bound volume and the words and ideas within. Despite the flashy expansiveness of technology and AI, nothing diminishes the power of the written word – or at least not yet. In all appearances, words – and ideas – are still bulletproof.
More so with the narratives and tales that we grew up with. Try as we might, we cannot escape these stories: they are part and parcel of the humanity of our conscience and consciousness. They are the books that stay with us.
(The author is the Subject Area Coordinator for Social Studies in one of the private schools of the city.)