Meeting Mormon #BOM2016

Mormon 1-7

One thing about narratives is that you always have to be revising your assumptions as you get more information. What you think you are reading at the beginning of a book may very well not be what will think you have read when you are done. We see this dramatically in “surprise ending” kinds of narratives—think of the ending of movies like The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects, which force you to reinterpret everything you have seen in light of the information presented in the last reel.

All narratives work this way. We see this very clearly in long sagas. Knowing that Harry Potter is a Horcrux, for example, changes the way that we read all of the books in the series. But we see it in shorter texts too. It is one of the way that narratives tickle our cognitive fancies. They give us pleasure by hiding information from us, revealing it in stages, and then making us stretch back to reinterpret what we thought we knew in the light of what we finally discover.

And yet, for all of this, there has never been a narrator quite like Mormon, the final redactor of all of the Book of Mormon (and the reason it has that name). In one sense, we meet Mormon fairly early on in the narrative. He pops in for a second in “Words of Mormon” and does his first  “time passes” glosses of a couple hundred years of history. And we hear his voice throughout Mosiah, Alma, Helaman, 3 Nephi, and the second “time passes” gloss called 4 Nephi. By the time we get to the actual Book of Mormon, its main character is an old friend.

Except that we don’t actually know much about him or the context in which he lived until we get to his very own book. We know (from the title page) that the whole BOM was written by his hand and “sealed up, and hid up unto the Lord” by Moroni. And we know from the Words of Mormon that Moroni is his son and that the two of them have “witnessed almost all the destruction of the . . . Nephites” (WoM: 2). And we know that he was tasked with abridging the records of the 150 years or so between the time of King Benjamin to the coming of Christ.

Like everybody who writes anything, Mormon was trying to understand something about the world he lived in. No matter how hard we try to do otherwise, we must ultimately write only from our own perspective. That’s how perspectives work. Furthermore, all historians must use history to understand something about their own present, and Mormon was no different. Consider:

  • Mormon was a military leader and a brilliant strategist. Military life was what he knew best, which may account for the overwhelming emphasis on military actions and military strategy in the Books of Alma and Helaman. When former generals write history books, they almost always overemphasize military history, and there is no reason to think that Mormon was any different.
  • Mormon spent most of his life in a society that was split into two opposing factions, called “Nephites” and “Lamanites.” During his time, these were clearly delineated factions involved in a war of extermination. If we read back through Mormons narrative, we often find him trying to fit the conflicts that he is writing about into a similar “Nephite vs Lamanite” narrative, even when other indications in the text suggest that the dichotomy is not nearly as concrete as it was during Mormon’s day.
  • The Gadianton Robbers appeared to be very strong during Mormon’s day (1:18-19), which would have made it important for him to trace the origins of this secret society back as far into history as he could. His own experience with the Robbers might also have tempted him to extrapolate from it in order to explain the effects that the same group had on historical events.
  • Finally, Mormon lived at a time when the Nephites were wicked, weak, and in the process of being exterminated. A natural instinct of those who write at such times is to focus on the glories of the past, perhaps even exaggerating the extent of military victories and the role of important cultural heroes. Many of the stories of the greatness of David and Solomon trace back to the days of Israel’s captivity in Babylon, just as many of the exploits of King Arthur were created when England was being conquered by the Normans.

What all of this points to is the fact that Mormon was creating a story whose ending he knew before he even started. The narrative, therefore, had to be a tragedy, and the story he crafted had to be a story of decline, because that is how he knew it was going to end. Like the great English historian Edward Gibbon, who wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Mormon was writing a story that had to end badly. This doesn’t mean that he got the history wrong, but it does mean that, like Gibbon, Mormon framed the entire narrative according to what he knew about how it was going to end.  Such a perspective contains both great blindnesses and great insights. And, as readers, we must be aware of both.

 

Comments

  1. Clark Goble says:

    Brant Gardner made pretty compelling arguments that Mormon is misreading the earlier Gadianton Robbers in light of the robber structures of his own time.

    I think it’s an important point you raise though. Mormon is interpreting things in light of his own experience. Further, the texts he’s reading are likely themselves somewhat vague (much as the Book of Mormon is to us). We look at how say 19th century people filled in gaps in the text with their own interpretations, but Mormon is almost certainly doing the same thing. This level of distortion ought inform how we read it.