What's this? Two blog posts in two days? How can it be? Well, yesterday's post was really only half a blog. I talked about how my novel Pilgrimage is a Buddhist parable. But is it really? There's another way you can read Pilgrimage and that's as a story about mental illness. That's what we're going to do now. Again, some spoilers and it will make far more sense if you've read the book. So go do that.
The majority of characters in Pilgrimage suffer from pretty severe mental illness. The only person who doesn't is Griffith. Griffith is kind of a wimp but being afraid of people who want to kill him isn't a mental illness. It's just good sense, really. And to his credit, Griffith shows a lot of determination and bravery in the face of frightening circumstance, so good for him.
Roland, who is really the main character in the story, gets the most development. Everybody gets to see what is going on in his brain and why it's an unpleasant place to be. Roland is an alcoholic but his alcoholism is really just a symptom of his severe self-destructive depression. Roland is addicted to his sadness as he is to alcohol. He utterly loathes the person he has become and that drives every poor choice he makes. The journey that Roland and Griffith takes is a physical counter-part to the emotional journey that Roland makes through the film towards an acceptance of his past and recovery from his depression.
Caia, who joins Roland and Griffith on their journey, is in a similar situation. But her depression takes on a more nihilist than self-destructive angle. Caia is tormented by the sins of her past, like Roland, and even though she hopes to atone for them, she doesn't believe she can ever really make things right again. Caia's depression is explored philosophically in the novel and it's revealed that she no longer believes her life has meaning or that she has any free will. Rather than rage against these ideas, she accepts them with a quiet melancholy.
But mental illness is not just reserved for the heroes of the story.
Lloyd is paranoid. He has also fixated his paranoia on Griffith. Lloyd has nothing but grand designs for his future and the misuse of his power, but is convinced that Griffith is acting against him with every breath. He cannot stop, cannot do anything at all, until he has killed Griffith to keep him from meddling in his plans. Griffith is, of course, only interested in getting as far from Lloyd as possible, but as far as Lloyd is concerned, that's just a part of Griffith's diabolical treachery. Were Pilgrimage told from Lloyd's perspective, it would be a very different and very delusional story. It's also worth noting that Lloyd is a walking plague. It's suggested that while he was never a nice guy, the catalyst for his disturbed state of mind is at least part physical malady. I think this is important because often we still think of mental illness as being all a state of mind, but medicine is showing more and more that mental and physical health are not so separate.
Pentdragon, the would be king and tyrant, is so offended when he meets Griffith and Roland that he decides the most important thing he can do with his time is try and kill them. Why? What do Roland and Griffith do that is so awful? Well mostly they don't care about him. Roland insults him a little but mostly they think he's just full of crap and want nothing to do with him. Pentdragon, having a bad case of narcissism, simply cannot fathom being ignored. That somebody might not see him as the centre of the universe is enraging. He drops everything in a flash to prove just how important and powerful he is to the protagonists.
All these key characters with their severe mental illness orbit around Griffith, the one healthy person amongst them. But not only is Griffith the only healthy one, hiss only desire in the world is to help other people be healthy. His magic is focused on healing wounds. The goal of his journey is to become better at healing others. Griffith tries through-out the novel to help the others and save them malady.
And his efforts do help to heal Roland. Note that I say help. Because what's super duper important in the arc of Roland's depression is that Griffith gives him a hand up and he takes it, but he still climbs out of that pit of despair on his own steam. Griffith can't do all the work for Roland. Roland has to make the choices to be healthy again. But Griffith is integral to that process, enabling Roland to see his problem and address it.
Mental illness is a complicated issue and in a book full of action, adventure and magic, it was never intended to be a serious analysis. But I think the book handles it with the due respect and never makes light of the serious problems these characters face. For Roland, it ends on a happy note, with him beginning to recover. But depression isn't like a switch that gets turned off when you get the right medicine or decide to stop being unhappy. Roland's recovery is a long process that continues even after the novel concludes.
So Pilgrimage is about mental illness?
Or, wait, is it a Buddhist parable?
Can it be both?
Does it have to be either? Can't it just be a fun little adventure story?
When I wrote it, I definitely intended it to be about Roland's recovery through his friendship with Griffith. I always knew that Roland would be suffering when the story began. Those themes were there from the initial concept. It wasn't until I completed the book that I realised it works as a Buddhist parable. But I have a long standing interest in Buddhism so that didn't surprise me.
But the truth is, when you pick up Pilgrimage and you read it, Pilgrimage becomes your story. The Pilgrimage you read to yourself will always be unique and that's as it should be. If it speaks to you as a story about depression or as a story about Buddhism or as something else, that's wonderful.
All I hope is that you enjoy it.