The Truth in Literature

by Sophia Nugent-Siegal © (speech to Rotary, when she was aged 13)

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”- that is all
Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.

This is Keats’ ending thought in Ode on a Grecian Urn, but what does he mean? What is the truth that Keats is referring to? It isn’t the “I know you’re lying, you ate the last Tim Tam?” type of truth but a deeper and more important sort of truth, the truth of eternity and the human condition. The beauty of Keats’ truth is as much moral as aesthetic. Wisely, the Rotary 4-way test has placed truth first of its four guides to thought and behaviour. Truth can therefore be an essential way to assess the value of art; and as I am a complete bookworm, tonight I am going to discuss its importance to an understanding of literature.

My own first great reading experience was the Narnia series by CS Lewis. When I was little, I immersed myself in it, complete with magic cupboard and costumes; but I also knew that Narnia was more than simply a good yarn about magic. Narnia gave me a model of necessary virtues such as friendship, loyalty, forgiveness. I knew then that what it had to say was important, I know now that it taught me some fundamental human truths.

Shakespeare was also a revelation to me. The first work of Shakespeare I ever read by myself was The Winter’s Tale. It tells the story of a king who wrongly decides that his wife is having an affair and who proceeds to turn his life into a complete wasteland; banishing his friend, condemning his wife and small daughter to death, while his son dies of a broken heart. But The Winter’s Tale is far more than Desperate Housewives in blank verse. It is a tragicomedy which tells of the mixed cup of human emotions, of joy in sorrow and sorrow in joy. It symbolizes, in its imperfect happy ending, the complications we all face as human beings. Like Leontes the king at the play’s end, we cannot undo all wrongs or heal all sorrows, but we must value the joys that we have. As a seven year old, though I couldn’t put this understanding into words I did intuit it; and as I have grown up, I can see more clearly that this wise truth makes Shakespeare’s odd comedy compelling. What made The Winter’s Tale powerful, and beautiful in Keats’ sense, was the essential truth contained in its human story.

Recently I became interested in ancient Greek literature. One of the great classical tragedies that is very relevant to modern life is Sophocles’ Antigone, which tells the story of a young girl’s agonizing choice between a state decree and personal morality. OK, Antigone’s situation may be a bit extreme…it’s not every day your mother hangs herself; your father puts out his eyes, is exiled then dies too in mysterious circumstances; your brothers murder each other and you’re faced with a choice of whether to bury one of them or die. But Antigone’s core dilemma is still very relevant. Antigone’s battle for the rights of the individual resounds today as much it did in ancient Athens. Truth does not age.

The importance of the notion of literary truth is often lost, especially in relation to children’s and young people’s books, in the fight to enforce the innocuous, the pretty and/or the politically correct. Young people’s books are constantly censored. Two thirds of writers and illustrators in a survey by international writers ’organization PEN, said that their publishers had censored their books before release. After publication, books (including classics) have also been banned by interest groups. Harry Potter is the most banned book in America and Huckleberry Finn comes in 4th. HP was banned by the Christian right; Huck Finn, by the politically correct left. In the case of HP, many people can’t see past the fantasy genre’s use of magic as a literary device, and take the story all too literally, believing that it will make children want to take up magic. What they don’t realize is that stories with magic in them are no more related to real witchcraft than a fairytale. If such PC standards were applied to all literature that is read by children, then the Bible would be off limits and Shakespeare inappropriate. The question we should be asking of young people’s literature is: Does it tell young people truths about themselves, their world, their times?

Truth is necessary, beautiful (in Keats’ sense) and eternal. Truth can be found in everything from children’s books to Shakespeare. As the 4-way test indicates, truth is a fundamental means of guiding and shaping our thoughts and behaviour. It is also a great way to look at literature. Literary truth speaks to us in all times. In the words of Homer’s two thousand seven hundred year old work The Odyssey:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns

driven time and again off course once he had plundered

the hallowed heights of Troy .…

Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,

start from where you will – sing for our time too.