When you’re dead, you’re dead, and until then . . . there’s ice cream.

— Patrick Jane, The Mentalist

Joy was not a deception. Its visitations were rather the moments of clearest consciousness we had, when we became aware of our fragmentary and phantasmal nature and reached for that impossible reunion.

— C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy

There is a joy in life which drenches nearly every moment. Just as Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) exclaims in Dead Poet Society (quoting Walt Whitman) “O me! O life!”, as Thornton Wilder’s Emily asks in Our Town, “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it?”, as August Rush declares “the music [of life] is all around us, all you have to do is listen,” or as Ray Bradbury distilled the essence of every sunny summer day into dandelion wine, life and its joy is inescapable.[1] [2] [3] [4] But, as Williams’ Keating also advised, “there’s a time for daring and there’s a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.” So it is with joy: at times it is to be whole-heartedly pursued, but at times it is also to be dutifully guarded against the sins which encroach on it. All of this is made clear in the stories we enjoy, so we will trace its plight through various television, film, and literary works.

Hastened by the twin advents of COVID-19 and streaming video content, the civilized world has rapidly become a binge-fest, at least in one’s ample bits of free time. While this author has been typically and reluctantly slow to join such trends, the world moves on and one is eventually obliged to participate. Once in the binge-verse, I often find myself reverting to the old ways, like when I find myself glued to a series about pre-digital era board games (Netflix’s Queen’s Gambit) or detective series from the pre-streaming video era such as Monk, the obsessive-compulsive detective, or the snarky yet insightful Mentalist featuring Simon Baker as Patrick Jane.[5] Jane is a fraudulent psychic turned detective bent on hunting down the serial killer Red John who murdered his wife and daughter, though his bloodquest for vengeance is paradoxically peppered with moments of joy throughout. A similar balance between matters of gravity and ecstasy can be found in nearly every good story, though The Mentalist’s Jane demonstrates how profoundly related such poles of human experience as joy and duty can be (though in Jane’s case, duty is mingled with more somber aspects such as grief and vengeance). The voice of Samwise Gamgee easily comes to mind, the Hobbit who reminds his companion that “there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”[6] Sam thus demonstrates, as does Patrick Jane, that duty owes its gravity to the sanctity of the joy that it safeguards. This fundamental insight drives nearly every good story, as we can then trace in the works of Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park) or in recent films such as Top Gun: Maverick and Thor: Love and Thunder.

The arc of The Mentalist’s Patrick Jane provides a stunningly clear example of the dual nature of joy, its bright side when celebrated, and the solemn if not dark side when we are called to protect it. Jane’s backstory is defined by his denouncing the serial killer Red John as pathetic and cowardly on a talk show, only to discover Red John’s immediate retribution in torturing and murdering Jane’s wife and young daughter. Jane is wracked with grief and self-loathing for the fatal consequences of his own arrogance and cockiness, yet he also exudes the joy of life, if not the thrill of the hunt for evil and stupid villains, throughout the seven year series. It is in fact his intimate familiarity with evil that provides his ability to sniff out killer after killer. When asked to sympathy by the perpetrator of a kidnapping and organ-harvesting scheme to save the lives of humanity’s luminaries, “scientists, leaders, philanthropists, people who shape the world,” Jane replies instructively (and with well-deserved venom) “I’ve worked with psychopaths and monsters for years. So yes, I do understand your perspective . . . very well.”[7]

Knowing grief and the evil of such monsters, however, does not shut down Jane’s taste for the joys of life. Jane’s winsome smirk throughout the series belies not just a healthy portion (and then some) of self-confidence, but typically his sense for the truth and knowing a route to cut through deception and stupidity to arrive at that truth. His quest for vengeance is itself life-affirming in the same way that even the strictest of measures from the Old Testament bore witness to the value God places on life: destroy life and be yourself destroyed. Sidestepping here issues of punishment versus rehabilitation, this fundamental insight illustrates our point, as voiced by Samwise Gamgee, that “there is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.” [8] Jane’s joy reaches completion as the series concludes (vague-spoiler alert), in both its celebratory and solemn senses. His quest for vengeance on Red John is achieved, though as Jane often heard when questioning others about acts of vengeance, it was incomplete if not empty, as it didn’t bring anyone back. [9] Nevertheless, Jane’s quest for vengeance is dignified by Plato and C.S. Lewis alike, as in his Abolition of Man Lewis cites Plato in declaring

The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likable, disgusting and hateful [10]

Jane’s quest for joy finds completion as well, not only in whatever form his romantic aspirations may take with chief detective Theresa Lisbon, but in the friendships Jane develops with so many of his colleagues throughout the series. Their communal celebratory joy is aptly displayed in the finale as they dance (yes, even Rigsby, and even Cho) to the infectious beat of Earth, Wind, and Fire’s September with such lyrics as

Do you remember
The 21st night of September?
Love was changing the minds of pretenders
While chasing the clouds away

Lewis, friend and Oxford University colleague of Samwise’s (sub-) creator J.R.R. Tolkien at Oxford, repeatedly demonstrated the dependence of joy on something besides mere pleasure. In the opening of The Abolition of Man, Lewis summons the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge to illustrate the poles of joy and fear and the moral substrate found beneath both.  Lewis reports that Coleridge praised the tourist who reported a waterfall as sublime (the sublime inspiring awe if not fear) and “rejected the second [tourist] with disgust” who described it as merely “pretty.”[12]  Lewis took to task modern educators who taught that any such value judgments were only about one’s feelings rather than about something greater than oneself (about which one may have feelings). Lewis and Coleridge hearken to another British intellectual, Edmund Burke (and even to the German Enlightenment figure Immanuel Kant), who wrote of the poles of the sublime and the beautiful. The sublime invokes respect, fear, or even terror, while beauty produces a sense of harmony and enjoyment.[13] Jane understands this dichotomy of joy and vengeance, of the beauty of life that inspires such joy and the vengeance on the evil that destroys it.

Lewis wrote of the transcendent sources of true joy to show how we can find it. He cautioned against mistaking mere pleasure for joy, claiming that neither the erotic nor the mystical occult would suffice as true Joy; nor would books or music in which we find beauty, they are all cheats and only partially quenched desires.[14] [15] Instead, any such desires were “merely the mental track left by the passage of Joy – not the wave, but the wave’s imprint on the sand.”[16]

Lewis himself wrestled with the “problem of joy” along his path to faith. So dominant was joy for him that he named his autobiography Surprised by Joy (titled after a Wordsworth poem of the same name, as Wordsworth also lamented its elusive nature). Momentary glimpses and yearnings throughout his life fueled his appetite for lasting joy, such as from the feeling he got from his brother’s toy garden, akin to John Milton’s “enormous bliss of Eden,” the “idea of Autumn” in Beatrix Potter stories, or images of the beautiful, dying Norse god Balder which gave him a desire “with sickening intensity” for cold, austere northern regions.[17] As an academic, he rediscovered the full sense of the word “life” in the elan vital philosophy of Henri Bergson, from whom he “learned to relish energy, fertility, and urgency; the resource, the triumphs, and even the insolence of things that grow” and prompted him to appreciate artists, “flaming, unanswerable, people like Beethoven . . . Goethe . . . and the more exultant Psalms.” [18] Lewis would later admit that in doing so he had focused on just “one Divine attribute, that of necessary existence” to the exclusion of the rest, and moreover had attached it to the wrong subject, “to the universe, not God;” nevertheless, this “mere attribute was of immense potency.” [19]

However, it was the bare and ugly fact of joy’s nemesis, evil, that led Lewis towards his belief in a binding, universal morality, and thus to a belief in a moral law giver, God. Lewis points out the irony, if not stupidity, of assuming a neutral position towards the existence of evil (as well as good) in an essay titled “De Futilitate.” Lewis’s main argument concerned the inability of the human mind to make even intellectual sense of the world without being gifted mental faculties somehow in tune with how the universe operates (such as our ability to understand the cosmos’s language of mathematics). The point translates even more powerfully to the moral realm and our recognition of evil and good. Lewis admits that it may be difficult to envision any sense of morality at work in the world,

There is, to be sure, one glaringly obvious ground for denying that any moral purpose at all is operative in the universe: namely, the actual course of events in all its wasteful cruelty and apparent indifference, or hostility, to life.[20]

However, the situation is quite the reverse, as he explains,

But then, as I maintain, that is precisely the ground we cannot use. Unless we judge this waste and cruelty to be real evils we cannot of course condemn the universe for exhibiting them. [21]

Lewis’s argument even precludes a “true for me” approach

Unless we take our own standard of goodness to be valid in principle (however fallible our particular applications of it) we cannot mean anything by calling waste and cruelty evils. And unless we take our own standard to be something more than ours, in fact to be an objective principle to which we are responding, we cannot regard that standard as valid. [22]

Lewis completes his case by poetically highlighting the irony, futility, and the contradiction of denying this universal sense of morality:

In a word, unless we allow ultimate reality to be moral, we cannot morally condemn it. The more seriously we take our own charge of futility the more we are committed to the implication that reality in the last resort is not futile at all. The defiance of a good atheist hurled at an apparently ruthless and idiotic cosmos is really an unconscious homage to something in or behind that cosmos which he recognizes as infinitely valuable and authoritative . . . the idea of a wholly mindless and valueless universe has to be abandoned at one point.[23]

Lewis thus affirms and sanctions the cohabitation of such stark opposites as good and evil, joy and vengeance, that we find in the heart of Patrick Jane. The point is the same that Lewis made in his popular wartime broadcasts-turned book, Mere Christianity, the opening chapters of which are subtitled “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe.” Similarly, in an appendix to Abolition of Man, Lewis shows that basic moral laws (don’t lie or steal, honor your parents etc.) are found across all cultures, without much variation from one to the other, all of which implies some extra-human source (God). [24] [25]

As to joy being anything more than a clue or foretaste, however, Lewis was skeptical. After coming to faith, Lewis declared that he “nearly lost all interest” for the topic of joy, though he could not “complain, like Wordsworth, that the visionary gleam had passed away” (Wordsworth lamented his fading memory of a child lost at an early age). Indeed, “the old stab, the old bitter-sweet, has come to me as often and as sharply since my conversion as at any time of my life whatever” he declared, but now regarded such incidents as mere signposts, admitting that “when we are lost in the woods the sight of a signpost is a great matter.”[26] Such moments of joy nevertheless fuel life, and inspire us to duty to safeguard that joyous life.

The sense of joy and the duty it inspired in The Mentalist’s Patrick Jane lurks in nearly every good story. This significance inherent in the story can be explained more clearly by taking one further glimpse into Lewis’s psyche. In his college studies, Lewis came to abandon his faith in the significance of stories, much though he loved and had feasted on them in his youth. He adopted a “New Look” which regarded all stories and mythical tales as mere pleasures without further significance, similar to how the world of psychology at the time regarded most intellectual thought as mere exercise in personal fantasy. Just as tellingly, Lewis wanted to be left alone, with no God behind any story which might require something of him, “I had wanted (mad wish) ‘to call my soul my own.’”[27] It was due to this lack of faith in any overarching story that Tolkien penned the poem Mythopoeia to Lewis, from Philomythos (lover of myth, the Catholic Tolkien) to Misomythus (hater of myth, the agnostic Lewis), to rehabilitate the significance of story, or myth, for Lewis. In it, Tolkien imbues myth and even nature with meaning, declaring the firmament “a jeweled tent myth-woven and elf-patterned,” “the heart of man . . . not compound of lies” but one which “draws wisdom from the only Wise [God],” and of “wish-fulfillment dreams” asks “whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream?” [28] Lewis subsequently dropped his “New Look” of agnosticism, finding often that novelists of some faith to be more substantial than those with none (declaring “Christians are wrong, but all the rest are bores”).[29] At the turning point, Lewis declared

the long inhibition was over, the dry desert lay behind, I was off once more into the land of longing, my heart at once broken and exalted as it had never been since [his youth].[30]

Thus, Lewis could find in such faith-infused fantasies as George MacDonald’s Phantastes that

never had the wind of Joy blowing through any story been less separable from the story itself . . . [and] now I saw the bright shadow [of another world] coming out of the book into the real world and resting there, transforming all common things and yet itself unchanged. [31]

The ultimately spiritual basis for both joy and duty that Lewis found can be found in all manner of stories, such as those of Jane Austen and even modern films with no apparent theological commitment, to which we now turn.

That Jane Austen’s novels exhibit the same dichotomy between joy and duty found in The Mentalist, giving at least a hint to the transcendent moral undergirding of such argued by Lewis, becomes apparent when comparing such novels as Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park.[32] [33] [34] In each, Austen shows the everyday value of joy, and the burden (and sense) of duty to preserve such joys. A recent fit of eighteenth century binge-ing led me to the 1995 Ang Lee film version of Sense and Sensibility (S&S), in which the workings of sublime duty and joy in beauty are as unavoidably apparent. Like so many of her novels, S&S features young, honorable souls making their way in society, which in Austen’s time meant finding a suitable marriage partner, and usually one with thousands, if not tens of thousands, of pounds (English currency) of funds of inheritance from their landed estates. Suitors, both male and female, exercise caution (or not) to avoid cads or bores who often have the cunning if not power to waylay them on their lavish English countryside roads to bliss.

But it was Austen’s faith, as well as extensive reading (despite having a limited education), that worked in her to such advantage to produce such a lively stream of wisdom. Austen biographer Peter Leithart explains that “charity did not come naturally to Jane” as “she had a childish selfish streak and was too sharply observant, too amused and appalled and provoked by human folly, to be entirely gentle or sympathetic.”[35] Nevertheless, Leithart claims that “her prayers shop that she saw this as a fallout, and she prayed for a gentler, kinder heart. Leithart connects the advice of her father, Rev. George Austen, to her brother Francis as characteristic of the training she must have received, as Francis was instructed that discourse with one’s inferiors includes “a sort of kindness they have a claim on you for, and which . . . will not be thrown away on them;” it was thus no surprise, adds Leithart, that “little Jenny” (as she was known) “grew up to write Emma, one of the great English novels about charity.”[36] Of Jane’s erudition, Leithart notes that her copy of Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas provides “evidence of Lewis’s claim that Austen was Johnson’s intellectual, moral, and stylistic ‘daughter.’”[37] Lewis  himself cited her as a figure as pivotal (and more so than the Renaissance!) in the passage from the classical and medieval worlds to the un-christening of modern one (she and her age were last of the dinosaurs, as it were), and philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre placed her alongside Homer, Aristotle, the New Testament, and Benjamin Franklin in illustrating the social duty aspect of morality.[38] [39] Austen, credited by Leithart as a pivotal if not defining figure in the development of the modern novel, thus had more than the usual aspiring-writer credentials to write of matters of the heart and its joys and woes and duties, and she owed as much to her faith as to anything else.[40]

In Sense and Sensibility, sisters Elinor (the one with sense, played by Emma Thompson) and Marianne (the sensible, or sentimental, one, as Austen considered so many characters from Romantic era novels of her day, and played by Kate Winslet) amorously amble towards their ultimate suitors, the unambitious but honorable Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant) and the modestly charming though moral, and older, Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman), respectively. Plotting the demise of felicity for Elinor and Edward are unwanted family ties, including a prior secret engagement made under economic duress; and for Marianne and Colonel Brandon, the threat is from the charming chanter of poetry, the dashing but morally unreliable John Willoughby. The good sense of the elder sister Elinor is perfectly complemented, if not negatively embodied by her sister, the whimsical, poetically, and musically talented Marianne. Though they are indeed loving sisters, the overt joy of Marianne’s manner contrasts sharply with the disciplined, though caring, and self-sacrificial nature of Elinor; the sentimental and sensical, the joy of beauty and duty to the sublime, as it were, perfectly offsetting one another.

Elinor exhibits this balance within her own joy, a joy tempered with the satisfaction of having performed her duty, as upon Marianne’s recovery from life-threatening illness, Elinor “could not be more cheerful,” though “her joy was of a different kind and led to anything rather than to gaiety,” but instead to “satisfaction, silent and strong” within her at the restoration “to life, health, friends.”  Predictably, the responsible Elinor lashes out at the sentimental Marianne in a flash of anguish over the difficult lot assigned her in the pursuit of love, exhibiting the conflict between joy and the duty it often requires. She sobs to Marianne:

I do understand you. You do not suppose that I have ever felt much . . . [but] if you can think me capable of ever feeling, surely you may suppose that I have suffered now … [as] the composure of mind with which I have brought myself . . .  [has] been the effect of constant and painful exertion.[41]

Joy knew much grief for Elinor; as if to reciprocate, the effervescent and naturally joyous Marianne respects Elinor’s selfless suffering: “Oh ! Elinor you have made me hate myself for ever. How barbarous I have been to you! – you who have been my only comfort.”[42]

In their felicitous finale, the sisters learn to embrace their complements on the joy-duty spectrum. The sentimental Marianne, “born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions” learns “voluntarily to give her hand to another” (Colonel Brandon) and, “instead of falling a sacrifice to an irresistible passion . . . found herself at nineteen submitting to new attachments, entering on new duties” in her new life.[43] Elinor is similarly drawn towards her opposite tendency, as  after a life of circumspect duty, she found herself the recipient of the devoted Edward, who himself honorably acquitted a life of wealth (and the duty it would have required of him) to find himself rewarded with her love, which she found to grow from having her every nerve “thrill with transport” to simply the state of “mirth.”[44]

In Pride and Prejudice, Austen repeats the pattern of virtuous lovers navigating the hazards of the morally unworthy to ensure the joys of love. Family interferences and secret engagements try the souls of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy as they overcome their own prides and prejudices regarding each other, whilst the wide-eyed and innocent lovers Jane Bennett and Mr. Bingley must suffer meddling and intrigues to preserve their connubial joy. The tale, complete with the wicked Mr. Wickham and Mr. Collins with unending mention of his Patroness, Lady Catherine De Bourgh, and her good taste and suitable condescensions, is well-known. The trials of joy and constant threats by the unworthy show Jane Austen to be Patrick Jane-like in her ability to discern the evil that lurks in men’s intentions, though love, requited or otherwise, is invariably the result rather than murder and the detection of its culprits.

One recognized theme of Pride & Prejudice fits our thesis of joy and its underside of duty particularly well, that of the need for moral education. While themes of marriage, class, and wealth continue as squatters as on the lavish grounds of most any of Austen’s novels, the need for a Mary Poppins-like attention to duty yet prevails. Lydia’s lack of moral judgment in falling to the wiles of Officer Wickham, the dear Mr. Darcy isproud and overbearing despite his principled upbringing, and the younger sister Kitty is rescued from Lydia’s ill-influence and improves her character greatly in the company of her older sisters after they marry. As novelist Anna Quindlen observed in her introduction to a 1995 printing, in Pride and Prejudice Austen teaches us that “this search [for oneself and moral grounding] is as surely undertaken in the drawing room making small talk as in the pursuit of a great white whale or the public punishment of adultery.”[45] That both Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett struggle to reform themselves against pride and against prejudice is shown in Elizabeth’s contrition,

“How despicably have I acted!” she cried; “I, who have prided myself on my discernment! . . . But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Til this moment I never knew myself.” [46]

For Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, and for the entire Austen village, their joy is made only more complete by attention to moral duty.

Mansfield Park as well follows the pattern of love and joy lost then found in a path meandering through a dark wood of fallen morality. Written in 1814, after Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1814), Mansfield Park offers a natural progression on the themes of Austen’s earlier and more famous novels. Once again, a morally worthy young lady, Fanny Pryce, finds joy in love, in the form of a brotherly love from her tutor, reading partner, and cousin, Edmund Bertram, the younger brother of the family to whom Fanny is sent for her education due to her own family’s poverty. Both Fanny and Edmund find themselves the objects of romantic intrigue of the visiting brother and sister team of Henry and Mary Crawford, also cousins of some complicated sort to the Bertrams. Although Fanny would have morally completed (both the person and the joy of) Henry Crawford who ardently pursues her, she detects a superficiality and falseness in his moral composure, “ruined by early independence and bad domestic example.” [47] Otherwise, “would he have persevered, and uprightly, Fanny must have been his reward,” a joy owing to the goodness of her morality.[48] Instead, Fanny found joy in the moral goodness with Edmund, though it takes many hundreds of pages for them to admit as much to themselves and marry. Similarly, Mary was the beneficiary of her exposure to the goodness and morality of Edmund, though she was afterward “long in finding among the dashing young representatives, or idle heir apparents . . . any one who could satisfy the better taste she had acquired at Mansfield.”[49] The inextricable connection between joy and moral goodness is on display in all three of these love relations, though the lack of moral goodness on the part of both Henry and Mary Crawford dooms the joy they might have found with Fanny Pryce and Edmund Bertram, respectively. But happily enough, the love between Fanny and Edmund demonstrates how joy blooms from the good stock of moral goodness.

Even recent action films like Top Gun: Maverick, Thor: Love and Thunder, or best-selling mystery novel turned film Where the Crawdads Sing, exhibit the same philosophical nuance regarding joy that can be found with the crafty Patrick Jane and the morally illuminating matchmaker Jane Austen.[50] [51] [52] Where the Crawdads Sing, the 2022 film of Delia Owens’ 2018 New York Times best-selling novel, a murder mystery set in the swamps or rural 1960s North Carolina, illustrates the same connection between joy and justice. The joys of family, nature, and romance are interspersed through young Kye’s life, though she also knows both abandonment and abuse. Her family slowly dwindles to just her abusive, wife- and child- beating father and herself by the time she is six years old, as her mother and older sibling all leave home for the sake of their own safety. Just as she finds joy in romantic love as a young adult, she once again finds herself abandoned and even abused by the men she learns to love. The advice of her childhood friend’s Tate’s father shows the proper balance, as he instructs his son that “a real man is one who cries without shame, reads poetry with his heart, and does what’s necessary to defend a woman.”[53] Kye knows this balance as well, and finds it in the nature she so loved, which had “nurtured, tutored, and protected her when no one else would,” in the firefly and praying mantis which devour their mates, and foxes which abandon their young so they may live to breed again, “ruthless-seeming behaviors [which] actually increase the mother’s number of young over her lifetime.”[54] Where people fail, even the swamp cries out, delivering equal portions of joy and justice.

Top Gun: Maverick includes poignant moments dealing with the pain of loss and grief, evils owing to our fallen world, as the loss of Maverick’s (Tom Cruise) co-pilot “Goose” in the original film (Top Gun, 1986) is echoed in the sequel by Goose’s son “Rooster.”  Rooster is also a pilot at the elite Top Gun fighter pilot school, and the pain of the loss of his father is played out by the strained relations between him and Maverick, his instructor. Just grief and the somber side of duty in the original film is offset by the yearning for life (Goose’s wife (Meg Ryan) admits to Maverick that her late husband would have hated flying with anyone other than him, under whose piloting he died), so is it as well in the sequel. Maverick retains his sense of joy in life in the sequel in the form of his enduring “need for speed,” a metaphor of his elan vital (or vital impulse), but even more telling is the camaraderie of courage and compassion that develops among the pilots who place their lives in each other’s hands on their dangerous missions. Such joy mingled with duty and anger is reminiscent of another fellowship of hardy but humble warriors facing peril, that of Sam Gamgee, Frodo and the Middle Earthen gang, who upon their reunion, while listening to a minstrel of Gondor sing in a “clear voice . . . like silver and gold,” “now in the Elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded like sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness” (italics added).[55] The joys of fellowship, in Top Gun: Maverick as well as in its prequel Top Gun, confirm that joy is most often fraught with peril and requires duty for its preservation.

Thor: Love and Thunder demonstrates the same basic message as Top Gun: Maverick, that the joys from love, whether romantic or from a fellowship of friends or community, requires constant moral vigilance. Thor’s love relationship with the deathly ill yet valiant Dr. Jane Foster, as well as his joy in the duty of serving family, of course replays the story of precarious and duty-ensured joy. But most revealing is an encouraging comment from Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill to Thor as he despairs of continuing the fight and his duties as a superhero: “Remember what I told you: you ever feel lost? Just look into the eyes of the people that you love.”[56] Love, or more properly the joy of friendship, is sufficient to remind Thor how indebted he is to love and its joy, and to inspire him to duty in its service.

Looking into the eyes of those you love is indeed en-couraging advice for the weary. Cambridge Poet Malcolm Guite makes the same point in discussing George Herbert’s poem The Glance. Guite explains how Herbert’s poem moves from man’s first glimpse of his Creator in the Garden of Eden to revisiting the gaze after wrestling with the evils of the world. Herbert is heartened upon reunion with God’s face, finding that

But still thy sweet original joy
Sprung from thine eye, did work within my soul,
And surging griefs, when they grew bold, control,
And got the day

It is in the full fellowship with Creator, and not just with a band of fellow human creatures, that Herbert finds the ultimate love,

What wonders shall we feel, when we shall see
Thy full-ey’d love!
When thou shalt look us out of pain,
And one aspect of thine spend in delight
More than a thousand suns disburse in light,
In heav’n above.

Herbert’s Glance is written with Nathaniel’s meeting with Jesus in John 1:47-51 in mind, Guite claims. Nathaniel is bid by Philip to see Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah. His first response is cynical, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth;” but Jesus turns the tables on Nathaniel, as Jesus declares his complete knowledge of Nathaniel before they had even met, telling him of his own past. Nathaniel can only respond by declaring “Rabbi, thou art the Son of God.” Looking into the eyes of God reveals the ultimate truth, about oneself as well as about God. The joy resulting from this gaze into the face of the one who loves you is transforming. Guite compares this glance of Nathaniel into the face of Christ to the motif common to many religions of a sudden glance at deity. In Hindu theology, the term darshun describes the array of spiritual disciplines preparing one for such a moment, while for Buddhists the “Flower Sermon” describes how Buddha held up a flower to a follower to prompt a moment of life-altering enlightenment. But it is the all-knowing glance of God, of which we “yearn [but] are rightly afraid” Guite claims is the source of all joy.[59] Though Isaiah cried out in a sense of unworthiness “woe is me!” when confronted with such a view of God, that we can see God is the message proclaimed by John from the opening lines of his Gospel, that “the Word was made flesh . . . and we beheld his glory.”[60]

The Viking Thor has yet one further insight for us regarding joy, though it comes by way of Tolkien whose Lord of the Rings is a tale of courage as much as any from Viking lore. Tolkien deeply admitted this about the Norse tales, claiming that courage of Norse Gods and mankind against monsters such as Beowulf’s Grendel gave much more vitality to their myths  than could be found in any Greek or Roman mythologies.[61] This insight is fundamental to Tolkien’s theory of story, to which he gave the term “eucatastrophe.” In contrast to a tragedy or “dyscatastrophe” in which the cause of one’s downfall is dissected, in a eu-catastrophe (“eu” a prefix indicating goodness) the plot turns from tragedy to deliverance, without denying sorrow or failure, as “the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance.”[62] Instead of “universal final defeat” the story gives “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”[63] However superior in elegance, Tolkien restates the basic message shown here, that joy necessarily battles, courageously and morally armed, with evil for its life.

It is thus fitting that the Christ-figure hero of Tolkien’s saga,the wandering Ranger-turned-King of Middle Earth Aragorn, displays the same mix of dutiful burdens (and its woes) and joy, is described in terms evocative of Christ himself who set aside the joy of company with the Father for the agonies of the cross:

Thus he became at last the most hardy of living Men, skilled in their crafts and lore, and was yet more than they; for he was elven-wise, and there was a light in his eyes that when they were kindled few could endure. His face was sad and stern because of the doom that was laid on him, and yet hope dwelt ever in the depths of his heart, from which mirth would arise at times like a spring from the rock. [64]

The mirth of Aragorn exactly parallels that described of Christ by G.K. Chesterton in the finale to his Orthodoxy, a fitting finale for this ode to Joy

Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian . . . The tremendous figure which fills the gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers whoever thought themselves tall. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears . . . yet He concealed something. He never restrained his anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was one thing that was too  great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.[65]

Joy, with a guardian of duty to justice, is on full display from Patrick Jane to Elizabeth Bennett to Kya’s swampland creatures to Maverick to Thor. But joy and its companion can be traced even further back than Jane Austen’s eighteenth century, back to the story which lurks underneath all stories where joy is found in peril and needs defending, and it is not just any companions or gods who rescue it, but ultimately a divine family of companions, for whom joy and mirth may be a secret, but not a very well-guarded one.

Citation Information

Seth Myers, “Joy as Life’s Fuel,” An Unexpected Journal: Joy 5, no. 3. (Fall 2022), 27-54.


[1] Dead Poets Society, written by Tom Schulman, directed by Peter Weir, featuring Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, and Ethan Hawke (Touchstone Pictures, 1989).

[2] Thornton Wilder, Our Town (theater play), 1938.

[3] August Rush, directed by Kirsten Sheridan, featuring Robin Williams, Freddie Highmore, Keri Russell, Jonathan Rhys Meyer, Terrence Howard (Warner Brothers, 2007).

[4] Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine (New York: HarperCollins, 1957).

[5] The Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit (Flitcraft Ltd., directed by William Horberg featuring Anna Joy Taylor-Joy, October 23, 2020) was previously reviewed by this author in AUJ’s Special George MacDonald issue, “Lilith and The Queen’s Gambit: Two Ingenue Who Learn Love Through Sacrifice,” An Unexpected Journal, vol. 3, no.4, Advent 2020).. https://anunexpectedjournal.com///lilith-and-the-queens-gambit-two-ingenue-who-learn-love-through-sacrifice/.

[6]  J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers (New York: Ballantine Books, 2017), “Stairs of Cirith Ungol,” 362. These exact words appear only in the film, however: Lord of the RIngs: The Two Towers, directed by Peter Jackson (NewLine Cinemas, 2002).

[7] The Mentalist, season 6, episode 21, “Black Hearts,” directed by Bruno Heller, starring Simon Baker, Robin Tunney, Tim Kang, Owain Yeoman, Amanda Righetti, aired May 10. 2014 on CBS.

[8] Lord of the RIngs: The Two Towers, directed by Peter Jackson (NewLine Cinemas, 2002).

[9] I explored this in “The Very Moral Mr. Monk and the Disturbed Nihilist-Mentalist Patrick Jane,” NarnianFrodo, Jan. 1, 2018. https://narnianfrodo.com/2018/01/01/the-very-moral-monk-and-the-disturbed-nihilist-mentalist-patrick-jane/.

[10] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man  (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 16. Lewis here footnotes Plato’s Laws, 653 and Plato’s Republic, 402 a.

[11] Earth, Wind & Fire, “September.” Lyrics by Maurice White, Willis Alta Sherral, McKay Albert Philip,  ARC/Columbia Records, 1978.

[12] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 2.

[13] Louis Markos, “From Plato to Postmodernism: Understanding the Essence of Literature and the Role of the Author Lecture 12: Burke on the Sublime and the Beautiful” (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 1999), lecture series audio and course notes.The adventurous may choose to tackle Edmund Burke, Philosophical Inquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757) or Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment (1790).

[14] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, (Glasgow: Collins, 1955), 217.

[15] C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: HarperOne, 2000), 30.

[16] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 268.

[17] Ibid., 17-19.

[18] Ibid., 242.

[19] Ibid., 250.

[20]  C.S. Lewis, “De Futilitate” in Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1975),  69.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 70.

[24] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2017).

[25] Lewis, Abolition of Man, Appendix: Illustrations of the Tao.

[26] Ibid., 291.

[27] Ibid., 278.

[28] J.R.R. Tolkien, Mythopoeia, 1931. Available online at http://home.ccil.org/~cowan/mythopoeia.html; adorned with images from LOTR and Addison’s Walk, Oxford where Lewis and Tolkien had a long conversation [pivotal to Lewis coming to faith, it can be viewed at https://narnianfrodo.com/2017/12/06/lewis-101-tolkien-101-ive-seen-trees-from-both-sides-now/. Lewis later repaid the favor by dedicating his Screwtape Letters to Tolkien.

[29] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 262.

[30] Ibid., 265.

[31] Ibid., 221 – 222. See AUJ’s special issue on MacDonald for reviews of Phantastes and various of his other works, An Unexpected Journal: Special Issue on George MacDonald, vol. 3, no. 4, Advent 2020. https://anunexpectedjournal.com///archive/v3-issue-4-george-macdonald/.

[32] Sense and Sensibility, directed by Ang Lee, featuring Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman (Sony Pictures, 1995).

[33] Pride and Prejudice, directed by Simon Langton, featuring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle (BBC: 1995). For those unable or unwilling to endure 6 episodes, despite the fidelity they maintain to nearly every word written by Miss Austen in the novel, then the silver screen edition, Pride and Prejudice, directed by Joe Wright, featuring Keira Knightley, Matthew McFadyen, Brenda Blethyn, Donald Sutherland, Tom “Miami-Beach” Hollander, Rosamund Pike, Jena Malone, and Judi Dench (Universal Pictures, 2005) may be delightful enough.

[34] Mansfield Park, directed by Patricia Rozema, featuring Embeth Davidtz and Jonny Lee Miller (Miramax, 1999).

[35] Peter Leithart, Jane Austen (Dallas:Thomas Nelson, 2009),  29. This is one volume among many in Nelson’s Christian Encounter series, others including biographies of Francis of Assisi, Saint Patrick, John Bunyan, and J.R.R. Tolkien.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., 34.

[38] C.S. Lewis, “De Descriptione Temporum” in Selectected Literary Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 7; see also  “A Note on Jane Austen,” 175-186 in the same book.

[39] Alisdair MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics (New York: Macmillan, 1966), 94. See also Alisdaire MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (SouthBend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 184.

[40] Leithart, Jane Austen, xi.

[41] Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility (New York: Signet, 1995), 222-3, vol. 1, ch. 1.

[42] Ibid., 223.

[43] Ibid., 307.

[44] Ibid., 314.

[45] Anna Quindlen, “Introduction” in Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (New York: Modern Library, 1995), vii.

[46] Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (Norwalk, CT: The Easton Press, 1996), 212, ch. 36.

[47] Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (Norwalk CT: The Easton Press, 1996), 487, ch. 47.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid., 490.

[50] Top Gun: Maverick, directed by Joseph Kosinski, featuring Tom Cruise (Paramount, 2022).

[51] Thor: Love and Thunder, directed by Taika Waitit, featuring Chris Hemsworth, Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, Russell Crowe (Walt Disney Studios, 2022).

[52] Where the Crawdads Sing, directed by Olivia Newman, produced by Reese Witherspoon and Laura Neustadter, screenplay by Lucy Alibar, featuring Daisy Edgar-Jones, Taylor John Smith, Harris Dickinson, Michael Hyatt, Sterling Macer, Jr., David Strathaim (Sony Pictures, 2022).

[53] Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018), 48.

[54] Ibid., 237.

[55] J.R.R. Tolkien, Return of the King (New York: Ballantine Books, 2001), 249-50.

[56] Thor: Love and Thunder, Taika Waititi, 2022.

[57] George Herbert, “The Glance” from The Temple (1633), included and discussed in Malcolm Guite, Waiting on the Word: A Poem a day for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2015), 4.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid., 6.

[60] Isaiah 6:5, John 1:14.

[61] J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Monsters and the Critics” in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (London: HarperCollins, 2006), 25.

[62] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories” in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (London: HarperCollins, 2006), 153.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Tolkien, Return of the King, 274. Appendix A.v.

[65] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 167.