With very few exceptions, everyone loves the Harry Potter books. (The exceptions consist of people who cannot read and people who have no soul.) The appeal is fairly straightforward, with themes of magical escapism, coming-of-age, and friendship woven directly and beautifully throughout the narrative. Ender’s Game is also a very popular book. Although of course it’s not as widely read as Harry Potter (very little is, after all), it’s one of the best-selling and most-awarded science fiction novels of all time. The most interesting contrast between the two, however, is that whereas everyone seems to be on the same page as to the topics and themes of Harry Potter, Ender’s Game seems to be almost an entirely different book to a wide array of diverse audiences. For example, it’s been rebranded as a young adult story (complete with new cover art) based on the youthfulness of its central protagonists, but it’s also been listed on the United States Marine Corps Professional Reading List since that list’s inception where it is seen alternately as a treatise on leadership and an exposition on tactical innovation. One of my copies of the book, on the other hand, bears Card’s inscription “A survival guide for geniuses.” Accordingly, the book functions as a kind of banner for my generation of geeks, who watched with hope and trepidation as our social circle went from the bottom to the top of the pyramid at the close of the 20th century. The common theme among fans of Ender’s Game is simple: everyone believes that they are Ender, and that his story is their story. As Card wrote in the introduction to the 1991 edition:
I think that most of us, anyway, read these stories that we know are not “true” because we’re hungry for another kind of truth: The mythic truth about human nature in general, the particular truth about those life-communities that define our own identity, and the most specific truth of all: our own self-story.
What’s most notable to me is that Andrew “Ender” Wiggin—a child-genius from a science fiction future who commits his first murder at age 6—is a highly unlikely template for such intimate self-identification from such a diverse audience. When we understand why this happens, I think we can learn something important about the message Mormonism has to share with the world. It is a message that has largely been obscured by a historical bargain—dating back to the 1890s—in which Mormons gained tentative re-acceptance from the mainstream of American culture in exchange for a promise to not to emphasize the most distinctive and novel aspects of our own theology. The consequences of this compromise echo to this day. The best example is Broadyway’s The Book of Mormon, which reiterates the standard line that Mormons are swell folk who believe stupid things. The Mormon faith has continued to grow despite our reticence to speak about theological issues that might set us at odds with the broader Christian community, but there has been a cost. In the public eye, our abdication of the role of self-definition has allowed us to be defined by novel or controversial topics (from magic underwear to Kolob to polygamy) that don’t reflect what Mormonism is really about.
Which brings us back to Ender’s Game. It’s not an overtly Mormon book. There’s passing reference to the fact that Ender’s mother is an inactive Mormon (his dad is a lapsed Catholic), but other than that there’s very, very little reference to religion in the book. When I asked Card about this, he reiterated that “in Ender’s Game itself, I had no LDS agenda.”
However, someone born and raised in a particular culture cannot help but inherit certain paradigms that will pervade his literary imagination. Card wrote the first draft of Ender’s Game when he was still in high school in Utah, and the book reflects the perspective an adolescent male would naturally have on The Book of Mormon. A war of extermination between two bitterly divided groups, brave young soldiers sent to battle in their parents’ stead, new military inventions, unorthodox tactical genius, and the fate of an entire people resting on the shoulders of one teenage general? The Book of Mormon has all of that, and Ender’s Game does too.
But specific corollaries between The Book of Mormon and Ender’s Game don’t do anything to explain the book’s appeal to a broader, non-Mormon audience who largely have no familiarity with Mormonism and more often than not don’t know—or care—what religion the book’s author follows. No, what gives Ender’s Game and more specifically Ender Wiggin such broad appeal is that the book is a strong allegory for anyone who has suffered the quietly horrific pains and vicissitudes of an ordinary mortal life. Which is to say: all of us.
We don’t identify with Ender because he is brilliant and exceptional and never loses. We identify with him because he spends the entire book poised on the brink of total, catastrophic failure. All heroes face and overcome obstacles, of course, but Ender is not a typical hero. He doesn’t have a goal or quest of his own. He gave that up at the age of 6 when he handed himself over to be molded and shaped into a tool for the sake of humanity. Despite his unique military genius, he is a powerless child who is manipulated and isolated by powerful adults in an environment over which he has no control. I can think of no other popular hero who is as helpless as Ender. He is cut off from his family, deprived of friends, denied privacy and possessions, wracked with guilt at his own actions in the name of self-preservation, and yet he is expected to continue to sacrifice to serve others. Even his ultimate triumph at the end of the book is accidental, and in the aftermath he is first viewed as a dangerous weapon and ultimately as humanity’s greatest villain. He is never allowed to return to set foot on his home planet. Ender describes this feeling to his sister in one scene: “… just when I think I can handle things, they stick in another knife… They keep changing its [gravity’s] direction. So I never end up on the wall I launched for. I never end up where I meant to go.” Null-g battle tactics and alien armadas aside, Ender is the everyman because he suffers in ways that all of us suffer in our day-to-day lives.
This much is universal. (I have met happy people who claim to be unfamiliar with this kind of suffering. I suspect they are lying, but maybe they just aren’t fans of Ender’s Game.)
There are many aspects of the book that are distinctly Mormon, but the central one is the relationship between Ender and Graff. Graff, who is assigned the primary duty of turning Ender into a military genius, is necessarily Ender’s primary tormentor. He is the embodiment of all the abstract forces, bad luck, and systemic obstacles that any of us face in our lives, and the source of almost all of Ender’s suffering. (Ender’s older brother Peter, the Mormon incarnation of Lucifer/Satan, is the sole exception.) And yet Graff’s fundamental relationship to Ender is one of love and empathy, albeit one-sided. In a book obsessed with the theme of empathy, the very first words are Graff’s, speaking of Ender. “I’ve watched through his eyes. I’ve listened through his ears.” Later on Graff, speaking to another adult, says “The kid’s wrong. I am his friend.” Ender never understands the love and empathy Graff has for him, which is by design. As Graff says, “Ender Wiggin must believe that no matter what happens, no adult will ever, ever step in to help him in any way.” He then allows a group of older boys intent on murdering Ender to take a shot at him. (Ender survives by committing his second murder.)
And yet this suffering, which weighs heavily on Graff as he watches Ender flounder and struggle, is ultimately for Ender’s benefit. Not in a generic or abstract sense, but in the sense of making Ender into the kind of person who can also love enough to make someone suffer when it is necessary. This is illustrated in a poignant scene not long after Ender becomes commander of his own small army of children. In the first training session, he finds himself isolating and sabotaging his smallest, youngest, and brightest recruit (a kid named Bean). In realization of what he has done, Ender is initially heartbroken at his own actions, wondering “Why am I doing this? What does this have to do with being a good commander, making one boy the target of all the others?” He the resolves:
Well, what I’ve done to you this one day, Bean, I’ve done. But I’ll be watching you, more compassionately than you know, and when the time is right you’ll find that I’m your friend, and you are the soldier you want to be.
Tragically, Ender is unable to extend his own experience to see the truth about Graff. He speculates: “And me—am I supposed to grow up like Graff? Fat and sour and unfeeling, manipulating the lives of little boys so they turn out factory perfect… ? You get all the pleasures of the puppeteer.” And then, much later in the book, he wonders “…perhaps Graff felt some affection for him. But no, it was just another calculated gesture.” Of course it wasn’t a calculated gesture. When Ender is transferred from the Battle School to Command School he leaves everything behind, but Graff comes with him. “How far,” asks Ender, “How far are you going with me?” And Graff replies, “All the way, Ender,” but Ender never recognizes the significance of this statement. The important thing to realize is that Graff is in no way a typical God figure. Card takes pains to describe him as a mortal, as someone who gains weight as the stress takes its toll and who is sinking under a weight of pressure that is much less than what Ender labors under. Just as Ender, when he steps into the God-like role over Bean and his other subordinates, seems increasingly alien and remote to them while inside he remains a lonely, desperate child.
God as a person is not present in Ender’s Game, but God-like relationships of suffering and learning are. This is a stark example of the Mormon interpretation of John 5:19 where Jesus tells his disciples: “The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.” (KJV) Graff empathizes with Ender and even loves Ender, but he isolates him and forces him to struggle in order to grow. And in return Ender learns to emulate that relationship, first with his subordinates in Ender’s Game, but ultimately in much deeper and more profound ways in the sequel and spiritual heart of the series, Speaker for the Dead. Ender doesn’t become either his imagined version of Graff (the cruel puppeteer) or the real Graff (just another fallible human), but instead comes to enter into empathic and God-like relationships of painful healing. The appeal of Ender’s Game is therefore universally appealing: we have all felt as overwhelmed and unheroic as Ender. It is an integral element of the human condition. What is less easily accessible is the Mormon response to that condition: that we are all children of God (thus: the same kind of being as God) and that this is the only process by which we can develop to become more like Him. In this light, Ender’s Game functions both as a profound work of Mormon literature, and also a uniquely Mormon theodicy. I have a strong suspicion, based on interviews with Card and also the recent graphic novel adaptation of the book, that the upcoming film will maintain much of this key material. We shall see. In the interim, however, I plan on writing a couple more pieces to delve further into the Mormon themes of Ender’s Game.
This book is being assigned as a required book to many of the middle schoolers in our area, so we read it for RS book club a few years back and some of these themes popped out to us as well.
One of my brilliant Primary kids had not read this yet, and I wanted him to READ it before the movie came out. He started it under duress, but I got an email from his mom a few days later that he begged to skip dinner so he could finish it:) And he asked to borrow my copy of Ender’s Shadow.
When I attended a talk by OSC a few years ago, I told him that I was upset that Petra was the one to crack under pressure, not a great role model for young women. I was surprised at how angry he got. He insisted that Petra was one of the strongest people in the universe. Well, not all of the books in the later arc had yet been published. Yes, Petra did end up being an amazingly influential person. But most people who read the first book are not going to read all the sequels, so I am not sure that I am entirely happy.
Great post on a great book.
What I love most about Ender’s Game is that the book grows with me (yay, reader-response theory). When I was a teenager, Ender was just a kid with too many responsibilities–like me. Now as an adult, Ender is forced to make decisions under duress–like me.
Very interesting insight. I have been reading Card’s stories since he began publishing science fiction in the 1970s, when he was still working as an editor at the Ensign. It is hard ot believe, but the original novella version of Ender’s Game was his first published SF story, appearing in Analog Science Fiction. Mikal’s songbird and other stories that appeared that year won Card the John W. Campbell Award as best new SF author. When he began writing Speaker for the Dead, it was not connected to the Ender’s Game universe, and turning its protagonist into Ender was something that happened as that book developed. To provide backstory for Speaker for the Dead, Card expanded the original Ender story, and so the novels Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead were published back to back, and both won the top awards in SF from fans (the Hugo) and writers (the Nebula), an unprecedented feat.
I sincerely hope that the movie is good enough, and its success sufficient, to enable the development of other stories by Card.
” But specific corollaries between The Book of Mormon and Ender’s Game don’t do anything to explain the book’s appeal to a broader, non-Mormon audience who largely have no familiarity with Mormonism and more often than not don’t know—or care—what religion the book’s author follows.”
I don’t know that people don’t care anymore. There’s a boycott movement going about by people who are offended by Card’s “homophobia.”
Two months ago when I finished reading Ender’s Game for the first time, I felt as if something deep and personal, if not sacred, had happened to me. I was totally unprepared for that type of reaction. After all, it’s a science fiction book! But you’re right: it’s the self-identification with Ender, along with the God-like relationships and themes (thanks for articulating and expounding on the the latter in such a thoughtful, eloquent way) that resonated with me.
When you write that Ender becomes increasingly more distant and lonely in his God-like role with his subordinates, I was reminded of this excerpt from the book, which shows just how much Ender comes to internalize and even embody the leadership qualities imposed upon him:
“The soldiers knew by now that Ender could be brutal in the way he talked to groups, but when he worked with an individual he was always patient, explaining as often as necessary, making suggestions quietly, listening to questions and problems and explanations. But he never laughed when they tried to banter with him, and they soon stopped trying. He was commander every moment they were together. He never had to remind them of it; he simply was” p. 181-2 Starscape (2002).
I am not a Harry Potter fan. Categorize me as you wish. I haven’t read them nor have I seen the movies (except #5, as a favor to my 20-year-old daughter, on the second attempt (the first ending in the first five minutes when my four year old threw up in my lap)). I just missed the boat and moved on.
That said, I’m generally a huge OSC fan. I love Ender and all the Ender books — except Shadow. I don’t know, Bean just bugs the heck out of me and I just did not want to revisit the whole story being bugged.
I’ve read most of Scott’s other books, short stories, essays, too, and was even bishop of his secret online AOL ward once back in the day. (Long story, but a couple of handfuls of Mormons used to meet in an unpublished space on AOL that he was provided in exchange for hosting Hatrack River.)
The first book of his I read was in 1990 titled Woman of Destiny (which sound like a romance novel). Later retitled (good choice) Saints. It almost made me think polygamy was not evil incarnate. But not quite.
FTR, I think his short story version of “Lost Boys” is the creepiest thing I’ve ever read.
Very insightful. Thanks.
So, I cannot read and have no soul. What else is new. =)
No, no, Allen. You’ve misunderstood me. I’m not saying that you cannot read and have no soul. I’m saying that you cannot read or have no soul.
I hope this clarifies things. :-P
Excellent post–thank you for it! I look forward to your future meditations on Mormon themes in Ender’s Game. I’ve had a similar experience to Anthony C. above as I’ve read Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead (and to a lesser extent, the other novels in the Ender Universe) over the past year. So unexpectedly, deeply moving.
I find it interesting that OSC specified to you that Ender’s Game was not intended to explore LDS themes. That seems to implicitly confirm my perception that later novels in the Ender universe *were* thus intended. In particular, LDS cosmology and soteriology in Xenocide/Children of the Mind, and LDS moral, social, and political themes in the Shadow series. (FWIW, though I largely agreed with them, I felt that his explorations of the latter were a bit too heavy-handed and far less artful than his explorations of the former.)
Regarding one claim made in the OP: I would submit that Peter is definitely not the incarnation of the Satan/Lucifer from LDS theology. Perhaps superficially, if one looks only at the original Ender’s Game. But in the context of Xenocide/Children of the Mind and the Shadow series, Peter is a much more complex and relatable character.
Rather, IMO, the Satan/Lucifer character in the Ender universe is unequivocally Achilles.
Rachel E O-
Great response! My own impression is that the Ender’s novels come in three chunks:
Original – This includes Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead (which are really just 1 story). This has the least obvious Mormon undertones, but also the strongest and most authentic exploration of Mormon theology.
Phase 2 – I would put Xenocide and Children of the Mind (of Christ) in this category. I think by this time OSC was sufficiently confident of his own place that he felt much more free to explicitly get into Mormon themes. After all, OSC wrote Mormon plays before Ender’s Game / Speaker for the Dead were published, wrote them as basically secular novels, and then immediately returned to extensive Mormon themes throughout most of his subsequent works. In any case, here the emphasis seems to be on speculative Mormon cosmology as opposed to theology. It’s easier to find, but less compelling I think. But it is what clued me into the Mormonism of the series. (And some of it is still quite compelling, but the focus is less on real-world issues and more on how to find Kolob, as it were.)
Phase 3 – I don’t know that Ender’s Shadow itself was written as a political polemic, but a lot of the sequels were. I felt as I was reading it that Shadow Puppets existed almost exclusively to showcase pro-life politics. So I found that the themes were the easiest to see and the least compelling in the most recent books (which is mostly why I haven’t finished reading them).
As for Lucifer, you make a good point with Achilles. In a sense, I don’t even consider anything in the Ender’s Shadow series to be really on the same plane, and that’s one reason I didn’t consider him. As for the rest, well, that will be in an upcoming post. Thanks, though, for giving me more to think about as I write it!
Fun discussion. I loved Ender’s Game, but it took multiple attempts to get into the Speaker for the Dead sequels. They’re quite different, but I actually read them more often than EG. I love the interplay of characters, the series of discoveries, and the various LDS reflections. In spite of knowing the whole plot, I still find myself affected by certain events and happenings.
Some of these quotes make it seem like you think Mormon theology is one big hazing ritual.
“God as a person is not present in Ender’s Game, but God-like relationships of suffering and learning are.”
“Not in a generic or abstract sense, but in the sense of making Ender into the kind of person who can also love enough to make someone suffer when it is necessary.”
“There are many aspects of the book that are distinctly Mormon, but the central one is the relationship between Ender and Graff. Graff, who is assigned the primary duty of turning Ender into a military genius, is necessarily Ender’s primary tormentor.”
From the book “Well, what I’ve done to you this one day, Bean, I’ve done. But I’ll be watching you, more compassionately than you know, and when the time is right you’ll find that I’m your friend, and you are the soldier you want to be.”
“He is the embodiment of all the abstract forces, bad luck, and systemic obstacles that any of us face in our lives, and the source of almost all of Ender’s suffering.”
Personalizing abstract forces of suffering and assuming suffering is there for our own good and growth and then combining that with a story of geniuses, murder and wars to death strikes me as something of a paranoid delusion.
Is this the “good news” of the gospel that someday our suffering will be over and enjoy becoming stronger through pain in the meantime?
Egad, if Love thy Neighbor means to toughen them up for the fight, I think I’ll pass.
You know I’m telling you this for your own good. :)
Suffering might not be the most important thing, but it’s the necessary ingredient that rescues “love thy neighbor” from insipid sentimentality. The Good News is not a Hallmark card. In addition: eternal progression is at the heart of the Plan of Salvation, and I believe that no genuine learning takes place without pain.
Everyone suffers in life. That none of this suffering need be pointless, that there is someone who loves us and feels our pain with us and who will help make sense of it all, that our pain can all be turned to our good in the end: these all sound like Good News to me.
Thanks for the response.
I’m trying to carefully separate your thought from things it might get mistaken for and also trying to see how far you take this idea. I’m not trying to be create straw men just differentiate you from them.
So let’s take Christian Science or any other belief that thinks that alleviation of pain through medicine is somehow improper or suspect. Do you believe alleviation of pain this way is preventing us from learning something or not experiencing something we need to experience to grow?
What differentiates your thoughts about suffering from a Panglossian this is the best of all possible worlds way of thinking?
The part that concerns me the most is that “this suffering is for your own good” thinking seems to me the most common justification of self-righteousness. Insipid sentimentality beats the heck out of callous disregard.
As for learning, I’m not sure what you mean by “genuine” learning, in other words do you mean significant or just actually taking place, but I don’t recall learning to read or memorizing my times tables being anything other than bliss.
The physiology seems to be that stress and unpleasant experiences more easily and permanently create memories but I don’t think these are more genuine, often like in PTSD, they are skewed interpretations of the world.
Its the love comes from pain idea that just concerns me here. That’s as insipidly sentimental as it gets.
Thanks for responding. I recognize you may be correct and that I may we wrong so I appreciate you further explanations.
Nope. I’m not an ascetic. I don’t think suffering should either be intentionally caused for its own right (in ourselves or others) or should be allowed to remain for its own sake (in ourselves or others). Suffering is not the end, but rather a means, and the only one who has the right to administer suffering on a grand scale is God. We, as parents, of course must replicate this on a small scale. (I’m thinking of something mundane like putting a young child in timeout to correct behavior, not anything exotic or weird or abusive.) But for most of us most of the time the emphasis is absolutely on alleviating rather than causing or perpetuating suffering.
I think that logically this can be a tricky balance, but intuitively it is pretty straightforward: suffering generally accompanies growth, but it’s not our job to dictate the trajectory of growth for others or ourselves, but rather to submit to the will of a benevolent God.
Or, another way: there’s already plenty of suffering. We don’t need to add more. But it is important to value suffering because otherwise we can be tempted into the Stalinesque solution to suffering: no man, no problem. There’s a balance here between accepting the meaning that comes from suffering without becoming sadistic or masochistic, and I think it’s best captured by Matt 18:7: Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh! (Matt 18:7)
The most important distinction is that I’m not asserting that there’s some perfect, optimal sequence of events that the Universe follows, as though every rape, murder, and other horror was handpicked by God for our personal edification. Rather, I’m espousing a faith in God’s healing power that all suffering–that intended as part of our training and that which incidentally accrues to our own mistakes or the evil will of others–can be converted to our benefit.
Thus, God is interactively creating the best possible world given free will (and possibly random chance: I’m not placing too much emphasis on an exact definition of God’s power).
This is how I understand D&C 122:7: …if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good. I don’t think the “jaws of hell” are an extension of God’s will. Thus: God can turn anything we experience to our benefit, but does not intend everything that we experience.
It seems to me that the mere acquisition of new facts (for example, learning the definition of a random new word) does not really change who we are in any significant way. But genuine learning (e.g. discovering something about ourselves or our behavior) does. I don’t mean anything too technical here: it could be merely a matter of degree (maybe every new definition changes us, but in a very small way) or it could be a matter of kind (but I’m not proposing any particular new category at this time).
“No, no, Allen. You’ve misunderstood me. I’m not saying that you cannot read and have no soul. I’m saying that you cannot read or have no soul.
I hope this clarifies things.”
Well, in logic “or” includes the possibility of “and.”
“A or B” has three possible answers: maybe “A” – maybe “B” and it might be “A and B.”
So that doesn’t really clarify anything. ;-)
Well, as long as we’re going to be technical about things, what I clarified is that your argument is invalid:
P1. If you don’t like Harry Potter, you must have no soul OR be illiterate.
P2. I don’t like Harry Potter.
C. Therefore, I cannot have a soul AND I cannot read.
C is possible, but not logically implied by P1 and P2. Therefore the “cannot” in your original statement is a logical error. :-P
EDIT: Oops, I thought Allen wrote this at first glance. My bads.
Your thoughts in 17 make more sense to me, but they seem a bit different than your thoughts about Ender’s game. These ideas seem to be on something of a continuum. Your interpretation of Ender’s game has much of the suffering intentionally inflicted and meaningful in the context of a grand war. This seems different from in 17 where you describe suffering as more of either a punishment, an attention getter for error or just something God will make better now or in the hereafter.
I’m at the other end of the spectrum: I believe most suffering is devoid of meaning and attempts to assign meaning to suffering are usually counterproductive to growth of the soul. I’m not absolute in this this sense it is a continuum. I think existential suffering that leads one to humility and God can be useful, but the rest, not so much. But the type of suffering I think is a good thing is the type that makes us realize that suffering is transitory and irrelevant.
You say you are not an ascetic, but the fine line between self-discipline and severe self-discipline as you point out is a fine one, even a relativistic one. Certainly many of our fellow travelers would consider the law of chastity and the word of wisdom ascetic.
I think you meant something like “you aren’t an ascetic, for a mormon.”
Here’s one way towards a bottom line. Even behaviorists think that both carrots and sticks play a role in determining our behavior. What is it that for you makes the stick, suffering, essential for learning, in ways that carrots cannot replicate. I’m not advocating child-rearing practices but philosophically thinking, but doesn’t the promise of a good thing, rather than an immediate punishment, not only also change behavior but emphasize a long-term perspective and self-discipline rather than pain avoidance?
But speaking of my version of Ender’s teacher, I tried never to discipline my children in a way that someone else could use later on them as a form of manipulation. I wanted them servant to no power and no authority (including my own) but the voice of reason and the still small voice of conscience. I wanted them immune to pain, guilt trips, withholding of love, desire for community, pleasure, boredom, stimulation, propaganda, tradition, glamor, beauty, humiliation…well you get the picture, I am the stoic father from hell.
I get that you don’t see yourself as an ascetic but you have a unique form of ambivalent enchantment with obedience, will, perfection and growth that you sometimes take as the essence of mormonism. You might be right, but I’m just not so sure.
You know. ” I tried never to discipline my children in a way that someone else could use later on them as a form of manipulation.”
Excellent point. I have tried to teach my children how to argue effectively with me.
It is amazing to think how long Card ‘s career has gone and where the world has gone.
Regardless of what Al Gore says, Orson Scott Card REALLY invented the Internet in Ender’s Game!