[There is an interesting alternate view of Tybalt from a fan of Wright here]
[I’m putting some additional Tybalt opinions at the end]
It is a rule of blogging that a blog in search of hits must blog on the topics that have received hits. Such is the way of the blog.
The recent posts on the Sandifer-Day discussion received some nice slow-burn attention from directions other than File 770. Which was nice. So to break that winning streak I’m going to waffle on more about the Hugo puppy-nominated story “One Bright Star To Guide Them”. Specifically I am going to consider whether Tybalt the Talking Cat makes any allegorical sense whatsoever.
To recap “One Bright Star To Guide Them” is a story that looks at some characters in adulthood who, as children, went on a Narnia like adventure. The author is John C Wright and it was edited by Vox Day. It is one of several works by Wright that received a Hugo nomination this year (2015) because of the Rabid Puppy slate.
In the story the hero is Thomas and he has lived a somewhat successful,life since his childhood struggle against the forces of evil. His return to this supernatural struggle is heralded by the appearance of talking cat (yay!) called Tybalt. For most of the story Tybalt the Talking Cat guides Thomas through a series of conflicts and encounters with his former childhood companions.
Towards the end of the story Thomas is commanded by Tybalt to kill him (Tybalt). Understandably Thomas is reluctant to do so but Tybalt insists – essentially saying that as grown man Thomas should follow the orders he is given. Thomas kills Tybalt and by doing so can wield a magic sword against the main baddy of the story.
Later, as the story wraps up, a monstrous winged lion appears to Thomas and explains his future role as the wise-old-man of a future generation of heroes. The lion turns out to be Tybalt resurrected, who says:
Thomas, I have not died. Rejoice; I am risen. The Lord of the Fortunate Islands, the Emperor of the Summer Country, has banished death and dying from his kingdom, and only those who flee his kingdom will encounter them.
So that is Tybalt.
Now in the Sandifer-Day podcast the two of them spend some time discussing Tybalt as piece of Christian allegory. In Wright’s blog post on the topic he focuses on this exchange.
Sandifer: Sure. Now then, do you want to just explain quickly the broad strokes of the allegory? In particular, the talking cat character, Tybalt. Who does he represent, and in particular, there’s this climactic scene where Tommy has to kill this magical cat in order to lose his fear and become able to wield the magical sword that’s necessary to defeat the villain. So, can you just explain how that allegory works, quickly?
Day: Well, Tybalt represents two things. Number one, he’s obviously the Jesus Christ figure, because he has to die in order for the sacred fire to be lit, and then of course he comes back after his death, so he’s the Aslan, he’s the Jesus Christ. He’s also, however – in that he’s a black cat who has to be killed – he’s also representational of the sin in Tommy’s life, and it’s the same reason that Mel Gibson, when he was filming…
Sandifer: Passion of the Christ, using his own hands to actually be the one to hammer the nails into Jesus’s hands, right?
Day: Exactly, because the killing of Tybalt – If you don’t follow the theological implications, the need to kill Tybalt himself seems a little bit strange. But it’s actually relatively sophisticated, because, if you notice the killing fire, that turns into the weapon, and what that fire represents is of course the Holy Spirit – which, by the way, is the same fire that Tolkien refers to when Gandalf meets the Balrog and talks about being a servant of the secret fire. And so throughout the novella, there are these theological elements. Often Catholic, because of course, although I’m an Evangelical Christian, John happens to be a Catholic, like Tolkien, and so the theology of the story tends to be actually more Tolkien-esque rather than C.S. Lewis, but, you know, that’s just details.
And so from a purely literary point of view, I can see where the Tybalt thing can be a little confusing, but again, if you’re aware of the theological elements, than you immediately recognize the sin aspect, the Jesus Christ aspect, and the Holy Spirit aspect as well, which, I think the third one is sometimes missed.
In short John C Wright’s story has overt Narnia overtones, and includes a talking cat/lion who dies and is resurrected. Hence Tybalt is like Aslan and Aslan is like Jesus and hence by some law of transitivity, Tybalt is therefore a Jesus figure (plus other stuff).
Now there are certainly oddities there. In Wright’s story the hero kills Tybalt and also Tybalt is a lesser being than the god-figure of the fantasy realm (presumably The Lord of the Fortunate Islands, the Emperor of the Summer Country – a name with Arthurian suggestions, along with the Glastonbury setting of one chapter).
Wright, in a comment on his blog, rejects this reading of Tybalt and indeed sees the work as not being particularly Christian. Indeed he regards it as significant that he wrote it when he was an atheist (although it was published only recently).
Wright says of the allegorical elements of Tybalt:
The symbolism is perhaps heavy handed: The tale is about the growth from childhood to manhood. This is the moment when Thomas no longer relies unquestioning on his childhood beliefs.
The death of the beastlike non-reasoning part of his soul ignites the light of reason. However, he must break the weapon to that the light is everywhere, all around him.
This breaking is symbolic of analysis, questioning one’s own deepest unspoken assumptions. He breaks the weapon so that it can be reforged by his next student. The whole scene is a symbol of skeptical, of obedience turning into understanding.
Mr Sandofer takes it as a symbol of unquestioning obedience, as if Tybalt were Isaac being sacrificed by Abraham where Zadkiel is unexpectedly delayed.
Mr Beale takes Tybalt to be a symbol of redemptive sacrifice, as if Tybalt died for Tommy sins. There is nothing in the text to support this. I suppose all who died and return from death are Christ figures in the same way all women are Venus and all men are Mars, but, aside from that, Aslan is a Christ figure because he is king, and he dies to save Edmund, whose life is forfeit for his treason. Here, Tommy has committed no treason; he is the appointed champion and knight of the light. The black cat is much more like a familiar, a guiding spirit. And he is snide and proud and nothing like Aslan at all. The black cat returns in a larger and more glorious form because all childhood virtues, when they are reformed into adult strengths, turn into something greater: think of the loyalty and teamwork learned in Little League coming to fruition when a man joins the Army.
In short, according to Wright both Sandifer and Day get Tybalt completely wrong. Tybalt is symbolic of the childish “beastlike” non-reasoning part of the soul. Thomas has to kill his childishness o move forward.
As Wright points out Day’s reading can’t be correct because Tybalt differs from Aslan in key ways. Yet Wright also says that Day’s mistaken (which would be a big one if it was a mistake from the guy who edited the story) was less bad than Sandifer. Philip Sandifer looks at it in terms of obedience – which is a pretty reasonable take given that is how Tybalt present it in the text:
It is not the stalwart soldiers of the Sons of Light who question orders, Little Tommy, but wilful children. At the place of the Swordbearer, I bade you leap and you leaped not. Woe came of that, and capture, and Richard died, whom you were meant to save. Are you not a Man?
Tybalt repudiates Thomas for not following Tybalt’s advice and demands obedience from Thomas.
What are we to make of this? According to Wright, killing Tybalt is symbolic of the death of the unreasoning beast like part of his soul. Yet Tybalt has been acting as guide throughout and as an adviser and, as Tybalt points out, when Thomas has not listened to Tybalt things have gone awry. So is Tybalt reason or beast-like unreason? Wright’s second comment that killing Tybalt is like a kind of skepticism makes a bit more sense i.e. we use reason to attack our own reasoning to form new ideas. Hmmm – that is a bit to like Hegelian dialectics for my taste but maybe Wright is more fond of Hegel or maybe Marx (!)
Wright points to his previous atheism as an indication of the story lacking Christian allegory. Well we should trust the writer on what they did intentionally versus what they did unintentionally. A story whose most interesting aspects are accidental is not a great testament to the quality of the writer.
- Atheist or not Wright, in a story with nods to Narnia, includes a talking lion/cat who is killed and who is resurrected. If you bake Aslan shaped cookies people will say “these cookies look like Aslan”. The same is true of talking cats and Wright surely can’t have not noticed that his non-Aslan is quite a bit Aslan like.
- Tybalt poses his death in terms of not just an apparently Christian sense of obedience (not only Sandifer but Day also pick up on this) but also in terms of courage. When Tybalt reappears he is in the form of a winged lion – Christian iconography from Revelations, often associated with the evangelist St Mark (and/or his gospel) and also a symbol of christian courage. Maybe Mr Wright was unschooled in such iconography when he wrote it but odd he missed it now. But sometimes a giant winged supernatural lion is just a giant winged supernatural lion.
What are we to conclude? The simplest answer is that Tybalt is an allegorical mess and the reason for that is Wright really didn’t know what he was doing. I’m happy to believe that Wright’s claims about what he intended are correct but all we can conclude from that is what was obvious from the beginning: One Bright Start To Guide Them is not well written nor well edited and the potentially interesting ideas are mainly happenstance.
Extra Tybalt Graphs from Simon Bucher Jones: http://www.simonbjones.blogspot.co.uk/2015/06/a-helpful-graphic-comparing-religious.html
Philip Sandifer’s open letter to JCW: http://www.philipsandifer.com/2015/06/an-open-letter-to-john-c-wright.html