Comfort Reading

Reading for Reassurance

Chicken soupYou’ve heard of “comfort food,” right?

In Robert A. Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast (1980), one character asks the others:  “Write down the twenty stories you have enjoyed most. . . . Make them stories you reread for pleasure when you are too tired to tackle a new book.”  (ch. 33, p. 349)

I’d never actually thought about it before I read that passage, but there is such a category.  There are times, especially toward the end of the day, when we want to immerse ourselves in a story, but not an arduous story.  Even if we’re currently reading something new that we like, we may not feel we can fully appreciate it when we’re tired out.  We’d rather relax into something less demanding.

The same can be true when we’re feeling emotionally drained.  Sometimes we pine for what we might call “comfort reading” on the analogy of “comfort food.”

We might be tempted to regard this urge for the familiar and reassuring as craven or self-indulgent.  But there’s nothing wrong with giving way to that impulse—some of the time.  We can welcome a new book as a challenge; but we don’t always have to be challenged.  Sometimes we simply need to recoup our energies for a while.

This is true in general, I think, but especially at Christmastime—so today seemed like a good time to bring up the subject.

Good Comfort Reading

What kind of stories one likes for “cocooning” will vary, culturally and individually—as the Wikipedia article cited above makes clear for comfort food.  In TV Tropes terms, “your mileage may vary.”  By way of example, here’s some of what I find myself looking for.

When I relax, I want something relatively light, not a matter of life and death.  A fan of adventure fiction spends a lot of time embroiled in saving the world, or the galaxy—or at least the imperiled main characters.  And a lot of science fiction deals with world-changing issues and problems.  That’s pretty strenuous.  It’s nice to be able follow a narrative where the stakes are not quite so high.

At the same time, there has to be enough substance to engage our interest.  A story in which nothing is at stake won’t hold our attention.  So pure farce or silliness doesn’t always fill the bill.

And for me, at least, it helps if the story is fairly “warm-hearted.”  Happy endings, sympathetic characters, a certain degree of kindness and encouragement in the air.  A cynic might have a quite different preference here:  a happy ending may not be congenial to his world-view.  But we sentimentalists want some of the milk of human kindness in our chicken soup.  (Well, maybe not literally.)

For this reason, romances make good hunting grounds for comfort reading.  Not necessarily genre romances; I’m put in mind of Chesterton’s Tales of the Long Bow, which is almost uncategorizable (social comedy? political commentary? science fiction?) but incorporates no fewer than seven separate romances in a scant 217 pages, possibly a world’s record.

In a good love story, something that matters very much is at issue—but generally only for the main characters.  This is why P.G. Wodehouse’s comedies are almost always romantic comedies.  His amiable main characters are never in very great danger, but rooting for their love affairs keeps us focused through the plot’s succession of hilarious absurdities.

Melendy children with Christmas greensPersonally, I also like children’s stories to relax with.  There’s a category of what I call “family adventures,” where preadolescent children get into a series of scrapes or difficulties that are interesting but never too serious.  Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy Quartet (starting with The Saturdays, 1941) is my paradigm example.  Some of E. Nesbit’s books, such as Five Children and It, have a similar air, but with a fantasy component.  (I’d cite Eleanor Estes and Edward Eager as well, but that would raise the mysterious question of why so many writers in this category have the initials E.E.  Same reason Superman’s girlfriends all have the initials L.L., I suppose.)

Christmastide Reading

Of all the times of the year, the Christmas season may be when one most wants to be reading something engaging but pleasant.  There are probably people who want to stage a “Game of Thrones” marathon on Christmas Day, but I’m not one of them.

There are of course the traditional comforting stories that are specifically about Christmas.  A Christmas Carol is one obvious choice (though the actual book is a bit spookier and more tough-minded than some of the adaptations)

Interim Errantry coverLess obvious favorites of mine include “A good-humoured Christmas chapter” from Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers (ch. 28); “How Lovely Are Thy Branches” from Diane Duane’s Interim Errantry; chapter 5 of The Wind in the Willows (“Dulce Domum”); Madeleine L’Engle’s Dance in the Desert and The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas; Elizabeth Scarborough’s Carol for Another Christmas; chapters 12-13 of Kate Seredy’s The Good Master; and Manly Wade Wellman’s “On the Hills and Everywhere,” in the collection John the Balladeer.  The only trouble is that some of these are quite short; they’ll barely last you through lunch.

To Say Nothing of the Dog coverBut even at Yuletide, we may not want to marinate in Christmas quite to that extent.  So I also cultivate a selection of books that strike (or encourage) the right mood, but don’t have anything specific to do with Christmas.  I’ve mentioned Wodehouse; Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances have a similar combination of light-heartedness and warm-heartedness (I’ve often thought of her as Wodehouse crossed with Jane Austen).  Other kindly and entertaining tales not specifically about the season include Lois McMaster Bujold’s A Civil Campaign—one of my all-time favorites for all seasons—Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog, and Diane Duane’s Omnitopia Dawn.

Have any favorites of your own for Christmastime, or comfort reading generally?

The Good King

I began to wonder some years back about the curious preference for monarchy in futuristic settings.  In the world at large, monarchies have been retreating in favor of republics and democracies, at least in theory, since 1776.  Why are SF writers so fond of equipping future societies with kings, emperors, and aristocracies?

Star Kingdoms

We can pass lightly over the old-time, pulp-type stories where royal rule is merely part of the local color:  Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars (1912), Edmond Hamilton’s The Star Kings (1949), E.E. Smith’s The Skylark of Space (1928) with its Osnomian royal families.  Here, like flashing swords and exotic costumes, monarchy is simply part of a deliberately anachronistic setting.  Similarly in high fantasy, where aristocracy comes naturally in the typical pseudo-medieval milieu.

But we see royal or aristocratic governments in more modern stories too.  Asimov’s Foundation stories are centered around a Galactic Empire.  (Since that series was based on Gibbons’ The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, an Empire was inevitable.)  Similarly in Star Wars, which draws heavily on Asimov.  Jerry Pournelle’s CoDominium future history has a First and a Second “Empire of Man.”  David Weber’s heroine Honor Harrington serves the “Star Kingdom of Manticore” (later “Star Empire”), modeled closely on England around 1810.  Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga contains a number of polities with different forms of government, but many of the stories focus on Barrayar, which has an Emperor.  Anne McCaffrey’s popular Pern series has no monarch, but has two parallel aristocracies (the feudal Holders and the meritocratic dragonriders).  It got to the point where I began to feel a decided preference for avoiding monarchical or imperial governments in SF storytelling.

The Lure of Kingship

Aragorn with crownThere’s something that attracts us in royalty—or we wouldn’t see so much of it.  I encountered this puzzlement directly.  As a kid reading The Lord of the Rings, I was as moved as anyone by the return of the true King.  I asked myself why.  If I don’t even approve of kingship in theory, why am I cheering for Aragorn?

The reasons we’re drawn to monarchy seem to include—

  • Kings are colorful. (So are princesses.)
  • Stability
  • Personal loyalty
  • Individual agency

The first point is obvious, but the others are worth examining.

Stability

It’s been pointed out that even in a constitutional government, a monarch provides a symbolic continuity that may help to hold a nation together.  British prime ministers may come and go, but Queen Elizabeth is always there.  (Literally, at least within my lifetime.)  This gives some plausibility to the idea of a future society’s returning to monarchy.

Something like this stabilizing function is behind commoner Kevin Renner’s half-embarrassed harangue to Captain Rod Blaine, future Marquis of Crucis, in Niven & Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye:  “maybe back home we’re not so thick on Imperialism as you are in the Capital, but part of that’s because we trust you aristocrats to run the show.  We do our part, and we expect you characters with all the privileges to do yours!”  (ch. 40)

Unfortunately, relying on the noblesse oblige of the aristocrats doesn’t always work out well.  It depends on who they are.  For every Imperial Britain, there’s a North Korea.  When the hereditary succession breaks down, you get a War of the Roses or Game of Thrones.

Too much depends on getting the right monarch.  By the law of averages, it doesn’t take long before you get a bad ruler, whether by inheritance or by “right of conquest”—and you’re up the well-known creek.

Personal Loyalty

Personal loyalty appeals to us more strongly than loyalty to an institution.  One can pledge allegiance to a state—but even the American Pledge of Allegiance starts with a symbol:  the flag, and then “the Republic for which it stands.”  Loyalty to an individual moves us more easily.

This kind of loyalty doesn’t have to be to a monarch.  Niven & Pournelle’s Oath of Fealty explores how loyalty among, and to, a trusted group of managers can form a stronger bond than the mere institutional connections of a typical modern bureaucracy.  One can be faithful to family (the root of the hereditary element in kingship), to friends, or even an institution or a people.  But it’s easiest with an individual.  This loyalty is the basis for the stability factor above.

Individual Agency

The vast machinery of modern government sometimes seems to operate entirely in the abstract, without real people involved.  “Washington said today . . .”

In fact it’s always people who are acting.  But it’s easier to visualize this when you have a single person to focus on.  “When Grant advanced toward Richmond . . .”  In the extreme case, we have the ruler who claims to embody the state in his own person:  “L’état, c’est moi” (attributed to Louis XIV, the “Sun King” of France).

In a fascinating 2008 essay, Jo Walton quotes Bujold on political themes in SF:  “In fact, if romances are fantasies of love, and mysteries are fantasies of justice, I would now describe much SF as fantasies of political agency.”  A science fiction character is frequently involved in effecting a revolution, facing down a potential dictator, or establishing a new order—exercising autonomous power.  Walton links this notion of political agency to the fact that SF illustrates change:  “SF is the literature of changing the world.”  The world-changers can be outsiders, or they can be the rulers themselves—as in a number of the examples above.

It’s not surprising that we’re attracted to characters who act outside the normal rules.  We (especially Americans, perhaps) are fond of the idea that good people can act in ways that are untrammeled by the usual conventions.  I’ve already mentioned Robin Hood.  And the whole concept of the superhero—the uniquely powerful vigilante who can be relied on to act for the good—is powered by this attraction.

But this idealization of individual initiative is also dangerous.  Too much depends on getting the right hero—or the right monarch.  It can only work if the independent agent is seriously and reliably good:  virtuous, in the classical sense of virtue as a well-directed “habit” or fixed character trait.  Even then, we may be reluctant to give any hero unlimited power.  Too much is at stake if it goes wrong.

The Rule of Law

Our admiration for the powerful ruler is always in tension with our dedication to the rule of law:  “a government of laws, not of men,” in the well-known phrase attributed to John Adams.  We can see this as far back as Aristotle:  “law should rule rather than any single one of the citizens.  And following this same line of reasoning . . . even if it is better that certain persons rule, these persons should be appointed as guardians of the laws and as their servants.”  (Politics book III, ch. 16, 1287a)

No human being can be trusted with absolute authority.  This is the kernel of truth in the aphorism that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  But we can’t get along without entrusting some power to someone.  When we do, it had better be someone who’s as trustworthy as possible.

The Ideal of the Good King

Thus the true king must be a virtuous person—a person of real excellence.  This is the ideal of an Aragorn or a King Arthur, whose return we’re moved to applaud (even against our better judgment).  (It should be obvious that the same principles apply to the good queen—or emperor, empress, princess, prince:  the leader we follow.  But I’ll continue using “king” for simplicity’s sake.)

What virtues do we look for in a good monarch—aside from the obvious ones of justice, wisdom, courage, self-control?

If the ruler or rulers are going to be “servants of the laws,” they require humility.  A king who serves the law can’t claim to be its master.  Arrogance and hubris are fatal flaws in a ruler.  For example, we should always beware of the leader who claims he can do everything himself and is unable to work with others.

The good king is also selfless—seeking the common good of the people, not his own.  Self-aggrandizement is another fatal flaw.

In effect, what we’re looking for is a ruler who doesn’t want to rule:  a king who believes in the sovereignty and the excellence of common people.

Aragorn defers to FrodoIt’s significant that Aragorn, our model of the good king, is introduced in LotR as “Strider,” a scruffy stranger smoking in a corner of a common inn.  Even when he’s crowned in victory, he remembers to exalt the humble.  The movie has him tell the four hobbits, “You kneel to no one.”  Tolkien’s text is more ceremonious:  “And then to Sam’s surprise and utter confusion he bowed his knee before them; and taking them by the hand . . . he led them to the throne, and setting them upon it, he turned . . . and spoke, so that his voice rang over all the host, crying:  ‘Praise them with great praise!’”  (Book VI, ch. 4, p. 232)

We see the same essential humility and selflessness in other admirable leaders, kings or not:  Taran in the Chronicles of Prydain, and the revolutionary princess in Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy; Niven & Pournelle’s Rod Blaine; Jack Ryan in Tom Clancy’s novels; “Dev” Logan, head of Omnitopia Inc. in Diane Duane’s Omnitopia Dawn—the unpretentious opposite of the “imperial CEO.”  America was fortunate enough to have such an example in the pivotal position of first President, George Washington.

The Alternative

At the other end of the spectrum, the most dangerous person to trust is an unprincipled and unscrupulous autocrat—someone convinced of his personal superiority and infallibility.  Giving power to an individual who has no interest in serving the common good, but only in self-aggrandizement, puts a nation in subjection to a Putin, a Mussolini, a Kim Jong-un.

The antithesis of the good king is the tyrant, who, however innocently he may start out, figures in our stories mainly as the oppressor to be overthrown.  It’s much better, if possible, to intercept such a potentially ruinous ruler before the tyranny comes into effect:  Senator Palpatine before he becomes Emperor, Nehemiah Scudder before he wins his first election.  Allowing the tyrant to gain power may make for good stories, but it generates very bad politics.

If we must have strong leaders, then in real life as well as in stories, character is key—and hubris is deadly.