On February 20, 2015, 1000 Voices For Compassion will take to the blogosphere and share their thoughts and stories about compassion in all its forms (love, kindness, understanding, empathy, mercy, etc.). Many of these “Voices” are also posting articles on the subject in advance of the big day. Since I’d been debating between two ideas I like equally, I decided, “Why not pursue both, and make one the lead-in article?” 🙂
As an avid reader and a novelist-in-progress, some of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned have come from literature. So, for my lead-in to #1000Speak, I’m doing a literary “exploration” of compassion that aligns with my DIY MFA column “Theme: A Story’s Soul.” Below are some acts of compassion from books I’ve read over the years. As you read the examples, think about what you can learn from each character, as well as the impact their decisions or actions may have on other characters, their world, and the story’s audience. Maybe you’ll want to add some of these books to your wishlist if you haven’t read them yet. Either way, I hope you’ll find this sampling of literary compassion as inspiring as I do.
NOTE: Some of the following examples contain spoilers (either major and minor) that are necessary for discussing the topic at hand.
The Two Towers (The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, Book #2) by J.R.R. Tolkien (Epic Fantasy)
One of literature’s most famous acts of compassion occurs when Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee discover and capture the deranged creature Gollum, who had been stalking the two hobbits on their way to Mordor to destroy the One Ring. It’s no secret to Frodo and Sam that Gollum once possessed the ring (which Frodo now carries) and now wants to reclaim it. While Sam immediately distrusts Gollum and believes the pair should kill him, Frodo pities the creature. He already has a fearful understanding of the Ring’s poisonous sway over its bearer, and thus he understands that Gollum’s obsessive, manipulative nature isn’t his truly his own. Out of empathy, Frodo chooses to be merciful to Gollum, and takes up Gollum’s promise to lead the hobbits into Mordor so they can fulfill their quest. Of course, Frodo’s decision comes back to bite him in figurative and literal ways later on… But had Frodo not chosen compassion over violence, the story could have turned out much differently.
The above example is also a pivotal moment in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Two Towers. The scene begins at 1:50 in the YouTube clip below.
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell (YA Historical Fiction)
After Karana and her younger brother Ramo are left behind on their island home, the siblings must defend themselves daily against a pack of wild dogs. Unfortunately, the pack kills Ramo one night, driving Karana to hunt down the pack out of vengeance. She eventually injures the pack’s alpha male – but when she goes in for the kill, she notices the dog lacks the strength and will to fight back, and stops herself. She then has a change of heart and brings the dog to her cave to nurse him back to health. The alpha male, whom Karana names Rontu, never leaves her side after he recovers; and the two remain faithful survival companions until Rontu dies of old age.
Black Star, Bright Dawn by Scott O’Dell (YA Historical Fiction)
Taking her father’s place in the grueling Iditarod dog-sled race didn’t deter Bright Dawn from acting compassionately toward her competitors. At one point, she helps a disqualified fellow racer by strapping his two injured dogs to her sled and carrying them to the next checkpoint town. Another time, she sacrifices time to fix a broken mile-marker so other racers know can follow the correct path. When the Iditarod ends, Bright Dawn finishes far from first place, but she receives an unexpected honor: the race’s Sportmanship Award, in honor of the selflessness she demonstrated during the race. It’s clear from Bright Dawn’s stunned reaction that she’d never once thought she’d be rewarded for her actions, and she remains humbled by the Iditarod experience in general as she returns home.
Fire by Kristin Cashore (YA Fantasy)
One of the reasons why I adore the titular character in Kristen Cashore’s Fire is her compassion. She’s a half-human, half-monster who inherited from her father Cansrel the ability to read others’ minds and alter thoughts at will. During her childhood, she watched Cansrel abuse his powers by exploiting the king – and became so fearful of her own gift that she resolved to never use it on others. Years later, she learns to accept the duality of her powers and returns to the kingdom’s central city to assist the king’s two sons with a diplomatic crisis. While she works wonders with interrogations and espionage efforts, she feels most comfortable at the war’s front lines, soothing the feelings of injured soldiers and (in the most grievous cases) easing them through a less painful death.
Compassion could very well be one of the figurative “lights” the title refers to. Set in WWII-era France and Germany, All The Light We Cannot See follows two children on opposite sides of the conflict as they grapple with the horrors of war and struggle to hold on to the things they value, both the tangibles (family, cherished possessions) and the intangibles (innocence, sense of right versus wrong). When conscripted Nazi engineer Werner finally meets the blind French girl Marie-Laure during the bombing of Saint-Malo, he should have killed her or turned her in to his superiors. Yet, he doesn’t. He instead befriends Marie-Laure and ushers the girl to safety during the temporary cease-fire. It’s one of several acts of kindness readers will witness during a gripping, exquisitely written story that shows humanity at its most cruel and at its most humane.
Who can think of a more vicious setting in world history than Nazi Germany – and the perfect setting for contrasting the brutality of war and religious discrimination with the goodness of the human heart? Like with All The Light We Cannot See, kindness runs rampart in The Book Thief. However, one particular act of compassion soars high above the others: the Hubermann family’s decision to shelter a Jewish man in their basement for 2 years. Liesel and her foster parents knew what the consequences would be if the young man was discovered by the Gestapo. So, why did they hide Max for so long? Because they couldn’t bear the thought of what would happen to him if they turned him away.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Harry Potter Series, Book #2) by J.K. Rowling (MG / YA Fantasy)
One of the most touching subplots of the Harry Potter series was the mistreatment of house elves by their witch / wizard masters. The thread begins in the second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, when Harry befriends Dobby, a house elf who serves Draco Malfoy (Harry’s rival) and his family. Harry learns a great deal about house elves as the story goes on, including how a house elf’s master can grant their servant freedom by giving them a sock. He also feels sorry about his friend’s situation (really, who wants to be a servant to the Malfoys?). So, how does Harry set Dobby free from the Malfoys at the end of the book? By tricking Draco’s father into giving Dobby a sock! 😉
The film version of this scene plays out a little differently than Rowling’s original. But it’s so adorable that I just have to share the YouTube clip here.
The Hunger Games (Hunger Games Trilogy, Book #1) by Suzanne Collins (YA Dystopian / Science Fiction)
There’s little hope and compassion in an environment as brutally violent as the Hunger Games Arena. Those circumstances, however, don’t stop Katniss Everdeen from forging an alliance with her youngest opponent Rue. The two girls bond after Rue alerts Katniss to a tracker-jacker (think mutant wasp) nest as they hide in the trees one night; and though their time together is short, it’s clear they want each other to survive the Games. When Rue is fatally wounded by a fellow Tribute, Katniss refuses to leave her friend’s side. She then sings a lullabye to Rue as she dies, and covers Rue’s body with flowers – a heartbreaking farewell that’s as much an act of compassion as it is a gesture of defiance directed at the Capitol.
Gosh, writing about that scene brings tears to my eyes. It’s no different when I watch the film version, either. Here’s a YouTube clip of Rue and Katniss’ final moments together. [WARNING: This clip contains brief violence during the first minute and a riot from 4:50 through the end.]
What novels have you read that feature acts of compassion? Share your examples and other thoughts by commenting below.