The Lonesome Sparrow

Relationships of ownership they whisper in the wings
To those condemned to act accordingly and wait for succeeding kings
And I try to harmonize with songs the lonesome sparrow sings
There are no kings inside the Gates of Eden

Bob Dylan

As I begin to write this post, I’m not sure what this verse from The Gates of Eden has to do with Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, except that the entire time I had the book in my hand, I kept hearing the song in my brain, and in particular, this verse. Dylan will do that to me. When I hear a phrase or a word that was used as part of a lyric in a Dylan song, the song comes rushing in, and often I go rushing to the stereo to listen to it. When Hurricane Katrina made so much noise a few years ago, I found myself listening to Dylan’s rant about the injustice heaped on Hurricane Carter.

This is the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame

They were not related in any way, but Dylan’s reputation for singing about social justice, which he solidly demonstrated in that song, was quite complementary to the outrage New Orleans experienced in September of 2005. So it may be that this book has tapped into the same sense of… something I previously felt when listening to this song. Let’s find out.

The Gates of Eden is a very obvious biblical allusion. Dylan often uses biblical allusions in his writing, especially in his early years. But he can be so obscure in his meanings. He has often said, when asked, that even he doesn’t know what his lyrics mean, or when asked a second time, he’ll have a different answer. This is the hallmark of great art, though, which leaves the interpretation up to the individual to experience and figure out. The viewer or listener can take from it whatever they want, because in the end, art is to be experienced and enjoyed, not necessarily dissected.

So, religion feels like it permeates the song, even if it doesn’t. I see Eden as a metaphor for where humanity resides, where we are now. Here, on Earth. The Gates of Eden keep everything about humanity inside, and everything else, outside. It is a line of demarcation between us and the Universe. The voyagers in The Sparrow leave Eden to find something else. Not knowing what it is, they, or at least Sandoz, the main protagonist, think maybe it’s god.

I’m not sure if The Sparrow is great art, (it probably isn’t – OK, it’s not) but it is interesting for its simple, straight forward attempt to evoke a god. It is not that obscure in its intentions, though, clearly it tries to make a statement about the role of god in the society of the time, as seen through the actions and feelings of it’s characters. Aside from succumbing to the conceit of positing the first expedition to a known inhabited planet elsewhere in the universe, manned by a motley, somewhat unqualified, crew of Jesuit priests and admirers, it does a decent job of asking questions and allowing the reader to answer them.

So, what’s the main question? I mentioned in a comment earlier, while I was still reading it, that I couldn’t tell whether the author was writing from the position of dogma, and hence was preaching to her readers, or from a position of skepticism, and hence was asking her readers to consider and assess a non-theistic viewpoint. I think, having finished the book, she favored the dogmatic aspect, without coming right out and preaching. These characters all seemed to assume a god out there who likes to reveal a portion of his “plan”, by allowing the singers to transmit their songs into space, thus revealing their existence. There had to be a reason for that, didn’t there? Or so they thought.

As it turns out, there was no ulterior reason. The Ranao just sang, and I wanted to scream at them, every time they pointed to god that it was so obvious that there was no god driving them to discover this new world, that it was their own, innate human quest for knowledge that pushed them. I sensed that the author wanted us to arrive at the conclusion that God does have a plan, but in the end, her sole surviving believer seems to question not only the plan, but the existence of god. Or does he? When he was asked to comment about Marc Robichaux’s death, there was this exchange:

“It must have been very difficult,” the Father General said.


“And then you were alone.”

“Oh, no,” Emilio said softly. “Oh, no. I believed that God was with me.” He said this with great sincerity and because of that, it was impossible to know if he was serious or if this was mockery. p. 384

After what he went through, if he still thought there was a god, he needed shock treatment. Wait. That’s what he got. Maybe some serious hallucinogenics?

So. The question? Are there any Kings inside the Gates of Eden? Is there a god? We’ll whisper to each other that there is, and we’ll wait, and wait and see, and maybe sing along with the lonesome Sparrow, but I hate to break it to you. No King is going to show himself, because the King doesn’t exist.

He’s not inside the Gates of Eden. He’s not even outside them.


OK. Now I’m off to read all the other essays that I so studiously avoided to date. I’m not sure the Dylan reference helped the discussion, but that’s what came out when I sat down to write, so…

12 thoughts on “The Lonesome Sparrow

  1. Posting the first comment on this. I re-read this and I think it reads like one of those bullshit English essays I had to write for English Lit college classes. But my professor loved them. I thought they were crap.

    Oh, well.

    I doubt I’m going to read the next one. Not that I wouldn’t like to, but I have too many other books, and projects, I want to get to, and Camus never really interested me. I not going to force my self to read it. Sorry, Evo, but I’ll skip to the next one. I hope whatever it is, it is a light, quick read.

  2. Without writing a long-winded book, Dylan pinpointed Sandoz’s main problem with his faith. Here it is:

    You got a lotta nerve
    To say you are my friend
    When I was down
    You just stood there grinning.

  3. I liked this post. I haven’t read The Sparrow, but I’ve found all of the literati responses intriguing.

    Exterminator, I like that quote from Dylan. My problem with it, though, is that
    if one applies it God, there isn’t anyone there to stand around grinning at the poor guy on the ground.

  4. I’ve never been a fan of Dylan, mainly because I can’t stand the sound of his voice and don’t understand a word that he says. But maybe I should read him.

  5. Exterminator,
    Since I didn’t read the book, I’ll assume from your comments that the character held on to his faith even after his god apparently either failed or abandoned him. What do you think it would have taken for him to figure out that no one was there?

  6. Actually, it doesn’t surprise me at all that Sandoz continued to believe in God somewhat. Atheism usually requires courage and strength, and real things to cling to so that you don’t need imaginary ones. Emilio’s been through hell and lost nearly everything he holds dear. His instinct would be to look for a safe, familiar place to believe from, not to brave the winds of the abyss and build a new, stronger way of understanding, surviving and finding motivation.

  7. And Sandoz does give one explanation in the book for why he still believes there’s a god. I don’t remember the direct quote right off the top of my head, but he basically states that it’s a choice between being able to blame what happened on a god and having someone to hate, or accepting that there is nothing and everything that happened was possibly his fault. Even though he couldn’t forgive himself, I think it wasn’t for the latter, it was for the shame he felt for how he was mistreated.

  8. Yes, considering the incredible damage Sandoz did with his expedition – to the aliens, to his friends, to his order, to himself – it must be nice for him to be able to blame God. Even if it means that he has to accept that it’s all some inscrutable plan, at least it’s not HIS fault.

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