Examining Light Novels: On Good Works and Goods

Those of you familiar with Spice and Wolf know that much of the plot centers on trade.  On the other hand, the conflict often concerns how Lawrence must weigh intangible goods like friendship against his more tangible business deals.  Lawrence must make a living, but he recognizes the poverty of commerce in comparison to richness of Holo and Col’s company.  (A young boy named Col gets picked up in book six…the only remarkable feature of that book.)  The threat of eventual separation from Holo and loneliness are recurring themes.

The fourteenth novel adds an additional point to this conflict between tangible and intangible goods.  Lawrence, no doubt drawing from the medieval morality play Everyman, remarks that we can only bring our good works into the afterlife.  Contrary to the expectation of the pagan kings buried with wealth, food, drink, wife, slaves, armor, and weapons, no material good can be brought with us.  The Theologica Germanica, a mystical work of the 14th century, goes so far as to say: “If any one there took upon him to call anything his own, he would straightway be thrust out into hell, and would become an evil spirit.”

This brings us to the question of why we strive to increase our hoard of stuff.  Our present life may last us only 18, 30, 50, 70, or 100 years.  Whatever age one reaches, it is but a drop in the ocean when compared to eternity.  Yet, more people seek the things of this earth rather than eternal life: “For all seek the things that are their own; not the things that are Jesus Christ’s,” (Phil. 2:21).  The reasons for this are two-fold: 1) the mind more easily grasps and quantifies material goods and money; and 2) material things can offer a window into who you are–and an easy and safe one at that.  Our Lord says: “For where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also,” (Matt. 6:21).  We can look at our possessions and say things like:

“I have all these anime figurines because I enjoy the art and beauty of Japanese animation.”

“I have these Japanese language books because the Land of the Rising Sun fascinates me.”

“This fine car shows that I’m well-off and appreciate safety and the good of the environment.”

It is easier to own art than to create it, to own a book than to master a language, and to own a car than to make an effort to drive less and participate in oil spill clean-ups and the like.  How is owning things safe?  We control what we own and thereby control how we perceive ourselves.  Ownership of any of the items above can derive from passion, engagement in those fields, and other positive character traits.  On the negative side, buying things can be an act of avoiding worthwhile action–a substitute for real living.

To engage with other people and to learn how they perceive you can cause pain and embarrassment.  (Think of the man with his eco-friendly car.)  Other people judge us far more accurately than we do: a complex, sentient being can never fully understand himself or herself.  In a more impoverished age, one’s words and deeds would count for much more.  Instead of being preoccupied with loneliness and isolation, men of ancient times were much more preoccupied with their good reputation and honor.  We condemn the readiness with which 16th century Frenchmen might fight a duel, but they were as much preoccupied with their reputation as we in the modern age are with isolation.  Who we meet and associate with are far more controlled than in past times.  This results in us meeting far fewer people and having a far less complete picture of society.

For all the advantages of wealth making it easier to quantify and to reflect a positive image back at ourselves, the quest for material goods helps our salvation not in the slightest.  God did not create us to be circumscribed by and dependent on possessions.  He even tells the rich young man to sell all that he has (Luke 18:22).  Our salvation and true self are gained by nothing else but prayer, the sacraments, and good works.  The first builds an enduring relationship with our Maker, by which we learn our great need of Him and are educated by Him.  (I include meditation on Scripture under prayer.)  By the sacraments, we offer ourselves as clay in God’s hands, Who molds us into the likeness of His Son.  Good works count as our active participation in the life of the Holy Spirit.

We wouldn’t find Holo and Lawrence that interesting if they were only worried about their stuff.

We ought to perform the Corporal Works of Mercy and the Spiritual Works of Mercy whenever possible.  We may have excuses for sometimes neglecting the Corporal Works of Mercy, because some require money and property.  (Justice demands that we satisfy our creditors and necessities first!)  The Spiritual Works cost nothing, and are more valuable than the Corporal Works–just as the soul is more important than the body.  And, God will look upon these works during our particular judgment rather than how much stuff we owned!  (See Matt. 25: 31-46, Matt. 6:14, and Matt. 5:7)

The saved shall enjoy–but not own–the Beatific Vision and the company of the saints and angels.  However, we will receive one thing as our very own: “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it,” (Rev. 2:17).  In the opinion of many commentators, that new name is simply our true character formed by God’s grace and our good works.  Strive for that over possessions!  How many souls in hell would much rather have had that one stone than the vast wealth they owned in this life?

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5 thoughts on “Examining Light Novels: On Good Works and Goods

    1. I’m glad that you liked the article and hope that you’ll enjoy the books! Isuna Hasekura’s Spice and Wolf is pretty well researched for a series of fantasy novels. A setting reminiscent of the Holy Roman Empire of the High Middle Ages is a rather unusual choice too. The author himself is either an atheist or a Shintoist–perhaps both. (The Japanese often display an outward adherence to Shintoism for cultural reasons while not believing in it.) Besides amusing characters and high stakes economic intrigue, its often unfriendly opinion on Christian doctrine makes me think more deeply about my faith. Rarely do I agree with a theological statement of Hasekura’s as I do here.

  1. I enjoyed your article. However, I have to disagree with this statement: “Other people judge us far more accurately than we do: a complex, sentient being can never fully understand himself or herself.” Please consider:

    Zen philosophy states otherwise, as does Christianity for that matter. Dogen wrote: “To escape from the world means that one’s mind is not concerned with the opinions of the world.” and “Enlightenment is like a reflection of the Moon on water. The Moon does not get wet and the water is not disturbed.”

    From Christianity: Romans 7:15-24. While the section deals with Paul not understand why he does what he hates, he still knows himself well enough to recognize such. Likewise, Jesus’s words about the broad and narrow way warn us not to pay heed to everything others state (Matthew 7:13), and finally his parable about the plank and speck implies we can know and must understand ourselves to help others (Matthew 7:1-5).

    Apologies if I come off as a little blunt. This is a bit of a pet peev of mine. Others are unable to judge us with more accuracy as long as we are self-aware and mindful.

    1. I’m glad that you enjoyed my post! Looking back at that statement of mine, the first part is problematic when stated in an unqualified way like that: some people badly misjudge us, and we should often ignore the opinion of the world, as you say.

      Self-knowledge is incredibly important, which is why Socrates’ most important dictum is “Know thyself.” Yet, how do we come to self-knowledge? I’d argue that introspection is incomplete: understanding who we are requires the help of other people. This is why David did not recognize himself in the Prophet Nathan’s parable (2 Samuel 12: 1-4) until Nathan said: “Thou art the man.” We have the tendency to jump to extremes in our own case, thinking ourselves much better than we are or much worse.

      Self-knowledge tends to be acquired by triangulation if you will. Books, culture, religion, teachers, God’s grace, friends, enemies, and introspection all play a part. In regard to other people, we are closed books until we communicate: a conscious being needs to reveal his thoughts and motivations to be fully known. We can come to great self-knowledge if we pay attention to what these sources of knowledge tell us and consider them; but, it is not unheard of for an intimate companion to know his friend better than his friend knows himself.

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