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.