Posts Tagged ‘meta-narrative’

Boyhood_ImageFor parts one and two, click here

When our protagonist, Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) is about nine or 10 years old, he and his sister spend a fun-filled weekend with their dad, Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke).  Late at night in the latter’s apartment, Mason Jr. asks, with a wistful note in his voice, if it is true that there are no magical beings — like elves — in the world.

At first, dad ducks the question with a question of his own — namely, why elves should be considered more wondrous than, for instance, whales.  He asks Mason Jr. what he would say if he told him there was a sea creature so big that you could literally walk through its arteries.

“But…right this second,” Mason Jr. asks, “there are no elves in the world?”

Here’s where dad has to be straight-up.

“Technically, no,” he answers. “No elves.”

Mason Jr. is at the age where children typically stop believing in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, etc.  In other words, this is when the natural wonder of childhood begins to fade, making way for the jaded “realism” of adulthood.

But it was not always that way.  While throughout human history there was always a distinction between childhood and adulthood based on growth, experience, etc., there was not in ancient or medieval societies the very sharp differentiation we see today.  Mankind’s natural openness to wonder did change from childhood to adulthood, but it was always maintained and amplified in one way or another, and found expression through various cultures, traditions, lore, religions, etc.

Patricia_Arquette_Boyhood2On the other side of this particular cultural phenomenon of our own, we have Olivia Evans (Patricia Arquette) — who, as I noted in part two,

notes a sudden realization that her life has been a mere series of benchmarks (…) …a series of incidents, with nothing to connect them all.

“I guess I just thought there would be more,” she observes.

What we are lacking, as a culture, is a comprehensive worldview, or horizon of meaning — a meta-narrative, as it were.  Whereas the Christian meta-narrative is what has defined Western culture for most of the past 2,000 years, the last several centuries have seen it become progressively more dominated by the meta-narratives of scientism and, derivatively, materialism.

According to the broadly defined mode of thought to which both meta-narratives belong, history is mankind’s long struggle against the “primitive,” “childish” darkness of religion (which proponents of this general worldview equate in all instances with superstition), culminating in its final emergence and self-assertion through science, technology, quantifiable knowledge, the conquest of nature, and even just general human ingenuity.

Please bear in mind that I am not trying to belittle science, technology, personal ambition (rightly ordered), or the achievements of modern man.  Far from it.  But the problem is when these come to define our world and our values.

When this happens, we close ourselves off to any notion of the transcendent and insulate ourselves against a teleological vision of a world charged with meaning and purpose.

Proponents of materialism and scientism will typically respond to this objection by pointing to the inexhaustible wonder of the world as present to us, much as Mason Sr. responds to his son’s question by pointing to the wonder of whales.

But in our hearts, we find that we must side with Mason Jr. on this one.  As wondrous as the world we can see and measure is, it is not enough.

Our exploration of “Boyhood” has led us down an interesting rabbit hole, for sure.  We’ll see, in part four, where it finally leads us.

Images obtained through a Google image search

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On December 15, I went into the movie theater prepared to be disappointed.

Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” has been criticized by some for essentially fitting Bilbo Baggins description of himself at the beginning of “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”:

I feel … like butter scraped over too much bread.

Jackson, while remaining faithful to the story of Bilbo’s journey as depicted in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” has supplemented it with material from the appendices of “The Lord of the Rings” and from some of Tolkien’s other works.  The extra storylines deal with events that:

1) Are connected to Gandalf the Wizard’s involvement in Bilbo’s quest; and
2) Will lead up to the events of the “Rings” trilogy.

In consequence, what was a pretty lightweight book intended mainly for children is being brought to audiences in three films, the first of which is not far short of three hours long.

The question is whether this was a mistake on Jackson’s part.  Connecting with the title character is somewhat harder, to be sure, when his story gets swallowed up in the midst of all this other material.


But I would still defend Jackson’s choice.  I said I was prepared to be disappointed when I went to see the movie; happily, I was not.  Except for the sense of abruptness with which the ending struck me (which was probably unavoidable), I thoroughly enjoyed it.

For whatever flaws he has as a filmmaker (and all filmmakers have them), Jackson is a master storyteller.  As in the “Rings” films, I found that I was never let down by the narrative movements of “An Unexpected Journey.”  Like a grand symphony, the movie hits the “key notes” not in a bland progression from point to point, but in a way that calls attention to each “note” in a unique and exciting way.

As for the extra material, I would say that what it does for the story of Bilbo’s journey is place it within the context of a meaningful meta-narrative.

The notion of the meta-narrative is all-important in human life.  Many people in this age of isolation and groundlessness yearn for the reality of being part of something much bigger than themselves, sometimes without realizing it.  I think even the weird conspiracy theories we find here and there are driven by this innate hunger to give one’s life some sort of meaningful context.

This is another area in which the Catholic Faith can satisfy the hunger of the human heart.  We see everything — all of history, the story of each nation and unit of society, the life story of each person, all struggles momentary and enduring, and even the minutiae of our everyday individual lives — as part of the great Christian Meta-Narrative, which reaches both back and forward into eternity.

It is my opinion, then, that the theme of the meta-narrative has a broadly evangelical character.


In the case of “The Hobbit,” we have the scoop on how Bilbo’s journey fits into the whole scheme of events that will give rise to Sauron’s War on Middle Earth, the journey of the Fellowship, etc.

True, Tolkien never intended to introduce folks to Bilbo Baggins or Middle Earth in that way.  In fact, he wrote “The Hobbit” before “Rings” was even a twinkle in his eye.

In terms of the cinematic representation of these works, however, audiences already have been introduced to Tolkien’s world.  How people might have perceived the “Rings” trilogy if they had seen “The Hobbit” first, told in the simple style of Tolkien’s book (which I have heard is what Jackson and his team wanted, but were unable, to do at the outset), is something we will never know.

But I think that, having been immersed in Middle Earth with the “Rings” movies and having gotten to know its principle characters and races, audiences are probably ready for another romp through this amazing world and its history, regardless of the method of storytelling.

That said, I think it would be worthwhile to take a look at exactly what this meta-narrative means for Bilbo’s story.  He is the title character, after all.  I will return with thoughts on that within the next few days (no spoilers).

All images obtained through a Google image search.

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