I nearly called this post “Faith and Fiction” and then remembered I already had a post called that and it is not this post. I’ve reached a point where I’ve been blogging long enough that I’m running out of titles. Or maybe I’m just not thinking creatively enough – which I guess is possible.
Over the past couple of years of studying English Literature I’ve become increasingly aware how much you need to know to be able to understand a lot of literature, because it relies so much on referencing other things. Sometimes, books reference Shakespeare. (Quite a lot, actually.) So it helps to be able to tell your Hamlet from Macbeth and work out what Twelfth Night is. But more often, they reference religious texts.
And because we’re talking about English Literature and for a very large percentage of the time in which these texts were written, England was a Christian country, ‘religious texts’ refers to the Bible. Or, you know, things associated with it.
Because you read the Bible, but then they’re also referencing the Apocrypha because they’re Catholic or something, or maybe they’re talking about angels and the main place to find that is in the book of Enoch, which is an extrabiblical text … and then you think it’s going to be from the Bible, but it turns out it’s actually from Dante’s Inferno or something, and unless you’ve got an intimate knowledge of Every Piece Of Important Literature Ever, you’re gonna miss some of the references.
There’s a reason a lot of universities put The Bible on recommended reading lists for English Literature courses – because it doesn’t matter if you believe it. People throughout the centuries have been drawing on these stories and ideas under the assumption that their readers will know what they’re talking about.
In GCSE English, we studied The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Obviously, it’s set in a super religious society. Off the top of my head, though, there’s a line about “Remember what the angel Raphael said to the boy Tobias,” and unless you know who they are, that’s fairly nonsensical. Well, it harks back to the Book of Tobit, part of the Apocrypha, with Raphael being the archangel who looks after Tobias when he goes on a journey, but you have to know that.
At AS we discussed how Hamlet’s religious beliefs impact on his actions – how his fear about his father’s ghost isn’t just a simple, “But what if it’s not him?” but rather, “But my religion says purgatory doesn’t exist so he cannot be a ghost which means it’s a demon come to trick me into committing murder – unless my religion is wrong. So now I’m going to have an existential crisis instead of just doing what he said.” Understanding why that is totally changes how you view his actions.
It’s at times like this that I really appreciate being brought up in a Christian family, because it means that I tend to pick up on the use of religious imagery in poems, and I’ll understand a concept that’s referenced or the symbolism of a Biblical name that’s used in a novel. A lot of what I know, though, isn’t from standard church attendance.
A couple of years ago I was writing an apocalyptic novel, so I spent a lot of time researching angels (and ended up reading the Book of Enoch which was … illuminating). On a similar note, because of my poem Urban Angels, a 2.5k poem that’s included in Crossroads Poetry, I now know the difference between different types of angels, and I’ve figured out what the seraphim actually are. Or at least, I did know. I’ve mostly forgotten again.
I’m reading Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People at the moment, for fun, because I’m a total nerd, and a lot of that revolves around miracles and healing and penance and visions – when it’s not dissing the Irish for celebrating Easter at the wrong time. So when in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Angel says that “faith was a living thing” in the medieval period (I’m paraphrasing, but he’s basically insulting the state of the Victorian church), I concluded that as an educated man he’d probably have read Bede and similar works. He’s thinking about these miracles as much as about the illuminated manuscripts that survived.
I don’t know about the Anglo-Saxon Church because I was taught it – I know about it because I’m a nerd – but it helps a lot in situations like this. I know he’s probably not thinking about witch hunts and persecution and thinking it’d be better if we treated people that way: he’s thinking about the church Bede describes, where miracles were regular occurrences but people fasted and punished themselves and dedicated their lives to God.
And, you know, there are other things I pick up on with my reading that aren’t to do with Christianity. I pick up on folklore and mythological references, imagery reminiscent of legends. Once I said that a description reminded me of Blodeuwedd, and then had to explain to the class who that was. Some of what I know is history, so I know what happened, but most of what I know is literature.
I think the thing that you have to remember when reading is that no book exists in a vacuum. Just as YA fiction now might involve pop culture references, drawing on images from TV and films that the vast majority of people would understand, fiction has always taken influence and inspiration from what people knew. If what people knew was myth, it was myth. If it was religion, it was religion. If it was theatre, it was theatre.
(I’m not saying YA fiction never references Biblical or mythological or Shakespearean imagery. They do. I do. There’s stuff about Hamlet dotted around in The Quiet Ones and book six of the Death and Fairies series is structured as a five-act revenge tragedy would be structured in Jacobean theatre because that was what worked – or was when I did that draft. And I just told you I wrote a poem about angels and an apocalyptic novel for which I did a lot of research and read a lot of Biblical stuff.)
In a perfect world, we’d all have infinite time and would be able to sit there and read every text that might possibly have influenced any writer. We’d read the Bible and everything that goes along with it. We’d read the Iliad and the Odyssey and the Aeneid. We’d read the Mabinogion and the Tain and the poetic and prose eddas. We’d read the complete works of Shakespeare – and probably more recent writers too, like Dickens and Austen and the Brontes, because they’re always alluded to.
And then we’d pick up any ‘classic’ and we’d feel like a total smartass for getting the references. Hooray. Brownie point for us for having years of knowledge in order to comprehend a single throwaway sentence.
To some extent, that’s all it is – to feel clever. But it can also enhance a book a great deal. I enjoyed Brighton Rock a lot more when I understood the metaphors it was using, which I initially didn’t pick up on because I haven’t read Faustus and I’m not a Catholic.
And reading modern texts that reference older ones can make you appreciate the source material all the more. I got into Hamlet originally because of Maggie Stiefvater using it in Ballad, even if I disagree with her interpretation. (Ophelia didn’t kill herself.)
So I guess what I’m trying to say is: it doesn’t matter if you believe it or not, but reading the Bible can be really useful. As can reading epic poems and obscure myths and occasionally, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. But only if you’re prepared to put up with him going on and on about when Easter should be every five pages because, uh, he does that. Like, the whole way through.
It’s pretty entertaining after a while. Or I think it is. Because I’m a nerd. I think I mentioned that bit.