From Harry Potter to The Lord of the Rings, our most loved stories concern the battle of good over evil. That’s because we’re wired that way, says Andy Bannister. It’s only in a universe where good wins out in the end that stories make sense


Source: L-R: Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings

One of the most well-known phrases in the English language must be: “Once upon a time…” Whether we are children or adults, we love stories; indeed our love of stories is something uniquely human. From the earliest recorded cave paintings to the latest movie, across time, country and culture, humans are a storytelling species.

Some tales are here today and gone tomorrow but others become classics, retold for generations. And one thing that many have in common is that they are built around a common theme. Whether it’s Frodo and the Fellowship’s struggle against the Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and his friends versus Voldemort, the epic battle of the Rebellion against the Empire in Star Wars or Charles Dickens’s angelic Oliver up against the wicked Fagin in Oliver Twist - the list could go on almost endlessly. 

All just atoms?

Our most loved, most classic stories concern the battle of good over evil. But have you ever wondered why? After all, if we live in a godless universe, all that matters is survival and reproduction. The only truthful story in this case would be something like The Little DNA Molecule That Could, which I suspect would be somewhat lacking in the plot department.

No matter how dark things may look, we know that this is not the story’s end

“Good” and “evil” are largely meaningless categories in a world which is just atoms in motion. Morality is just a nice story for children - but grown-ups need to have the courage to say: “Bah, humbug!” to all that. In a godless universe, the grim truth is that good doesn’t triumph. In the end, suffering and death await all of us and the story of your life is the same as everybody else’s: “Born. Suffered. Died.” Our love of tales in which good wins is merely delusion, wish-fulfilment or brilliant marketing by publishers.

Reflecting something more

Could it be that the reason we’re drawn to these classic stories is because, deep in our very bones, we know that they resonate with reality? That, in some way, we sense they are reflections of a deeper story? The theme of good triumphing over evil is, of course, profoundly Christian. It is the theme that runs through the whole of the Bible, culminating in the story of Jesus and his victory over the forces of darkness.

That Christian storyline is reflected in many of our favourite stories, sometimes deliberately, sometimes accidently. For example, Tolkien wrote: “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” In a 2007 interview with The Telegraph, JK Rowling described how the Harry Potter books were deeply influenced by her Christian faith and upbringing.

If Christianity is the true story of how a good God created a good world and placed human beings in it; of how we were corrupted by our love of greed and power but how God then stepped into creation to rescue us, even at the cost of Jesus’s own life; it should not surprise us that when human beings engage in our God-given role of “sub-creation” (a lovely phrase coined by Tolkien) - of creating stories of our own - that these should reflect the one true story.

A better story

It has been suggested that you can divide most of the world’s stories into comedies and tragedies. A tragedy is a story which begins with all going well and then ends in catastrophe for somebody. (Think of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and the titular character’s downward spiral into murder and insanity). If you graphed the trajectory of a tragedy, it would look like a frown. By contrast, the graph of a comedy looks like a smile - at first it seems all has gone wrong, but then comes a dramatic turn of events and the story climbs up to victory (or what Tolkien called eucatastrophe).

If atheism were true, and we live in a godless universe, then we are living in a tragedy. No matter how high humanity may climb, everything ends in ruin eventually. But if Christianity were true, then no matter how dark things may look, we know that this is not the story’s end; that, ultimately, evil will be defeated and, after the last tear has fallen, there is love.

In a godless universe, the grim truth is that good doesn’t triumph

As Sam Gamgee said to Frodo in the film adaptation of The Two Towers: “It’s like in the great stories Mr Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why.”

I believe that our love of stories was wired deeply into us by the God who created us, one more clue to who we really are and for what - or whom - we were really made. So the question becomes: will we follow Ariadne’s thread, the trail of the stones in the wood, the light from the lamppost - will we follow these clues where they lead? Or will we slam the book shut, close our eyes, stop up our ears, and mutter: “I’m just a random bunch of atoms” to ourselves until the lights go out.

Now that really would be a tragedy.