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Book Review: Snarl by John Francis Pearring, Jr.
A Thomistic and Tolkienian Perspective
Snarl is a work of Catholic fiction which, unlike many others, truly fits both terms. It is a story of poignant, moving drama, following the trials of multiple characters whose inner lives are fleshed out through straightforward and down-to-earth prose fitting their unique personalities – an accomplishment which is raised even higher by the fact that most of his characters are animals which never speak. As each thread of the storyline is woven together into a single tapestry, at first seemingly unrelated but brought together through convergences of providential chance and design, the relations of the characters are brought to life as a plot at once singular and multifaceted. John Francis Pearring, Jr., has not written an allegory, using literature as a mere vehicle for theology without concern for its artistic qualities. Instead, like other great Catholic writers throughout history, from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Tolkien and Flannery O’Connor, Pearring breathes life into the works of his hands from the dust and clay of his imagination.
Nevertheless, while Snarl worthily fulfills its predicate of fiction, it is also undeniably and powerfully Catholic. Like the other aforementioned Catholic authors, Pearring manages to express his Catholic faith and even explore issues which are on the edge of theological speculation, specifically the possibility of an afterlife for non-human creatures, without violating the dignity of the secondary world which his subcreation has fashioned. Through curiously relatable characters, a heartfelt narrative and a well-developed environment with strikingly personal descriptions, readers follow Pearring into what is a combination of deep love for God’s Creation, especially animal life, and a lifetime’s consideration and hope that this deep love will not end but be fulfilled.
Pearring’s work could be considered an example of what Tolkien described as a “Beast-fable,” a kind of tale in which animals act as human proxies in order to show, rather than tell, a moral or theme. However, according to Tolkien’s understanding, Snarl is more of a fairy-tale than a beast fable, since Pearring communicates the interior lives of animals according to their “proper languages” rather than with overt anthropomorphism or substitution, nor does he use animals merely for satire or allegory. As a fairy-tale, then, Snarl can help to accomplish the three powers which Tolkien recognized in the enchantment of faerie: “Recovery, Escape, Consolation”. Without diminishing the artistic integrity of the story itself or betraying the nature of each character’s species, both human and non-human, Pearring conveys his hope for an animal afterlife and instructs readers in the role which all creatures great and small can have in God’s Providence, shown most clearly in Snarl through the rescue of Walking Eagle by Pikes Beak. In doing so, he brings the natural world out of the closet of familiarity to which it is often consigned by long years of human experience and, through Recovery, reveals it for what it truly is: a gratuitous gift of God, an expression of his love both for humanity and for nature itself with God as its ultimate end, an eminently beautiful work of God’s artistry.
As a fairy-tale, Snarl offers Escape in the best sense, that intended by Tolkien: not a fugitive escape from humanity’s just punishment for sin but a hopeful lifting of the mind and heart to the way we were meant to live before the Fall, a reminiscence of the harmonious order which once existed within man and between humanity and the rest of Creation, transcending the barriers both of death and imagination through faerie. Pearring accomplishes this foremost by giving the reader an insight into the interior experiences of animals, satisfying what Tolkien identified as a desire which all humans have had “to hold communion with other living things.” The issue of universal salvation raised by Pearring and contradicted by Scripture would constitute a fugitive spirit of escapism, the charitable but misplaced hope that God’s mercy can even violate human free will and give salvation to those who willingly reject it, like Judas. This point, however, like others in Snarl, is only a hypothetical consideration, not an authorial endorsement.
Is it possible, from a philosophical and theological perspective, for non-human animals to use conceptual language? According to Catholic tradition, especially in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, it is not, precisely because such animals are not persons; they are irrational, driven by instinct rather than intellect and will. However, as Tolkien said, fantasy is founded “on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it.” More importantly, fairy-tales should be true beyond fact, using the imagination to show elements and mysteries of reality which are either hidden or forgotten. While animals and other living things are not persons, as are humans, they are still alive, with their own interior dimensions and depths which, as St. Thomas knew, no human can fully comprehend. They are, in fact, images of God, words of the Word clothed in material signs and beloved by Him, even if they are not made in God’s image.
The greatest Consolation of Snarl is in its overarching theme, for both human and animal characters: hope. Even through the sad parting of Snarl and Spit after the loss of their mother, the tremulous new family of Snarl and Tuft (and Randy and Becky), and the almost spectatorial role of humans who seem to at first intrude into the animals’ world until finally discovering their intimate place within it, Pearring shows that Creation is founded on hope, and in Christ, hope is certain. Despite the myriad pains, losses and fears of this life for all God’s creatures, there is hope, both now and for eternity, and the great assurance of this offered by Pearring is in his portrayal of a hypothetical animal afterlife. However, the real consolation is not in the end for animals who, unlike humans, invariably obey the will of God for their lives. Instead, the hope Pearring gives is in the afterlife itself, in the possibility of salvation, of true rest, of unending joy and the fulfillment of all desire which is open to us with God who is Love. While Snarl, Spit, Hair, Pikes Beak, Tuft and Pearring’s other animal protagonists just follow their specific natures and thus fulfill the will of God automatically, Walking Eagle is distinguished from the hunters who disobey the law and disrupt the balance of nature. Humans, then, are the ones truly in need of redemption.
Is an afterlife for non-human creatures possible? Again, from the tradition of St. Thomas, it is not, because, among material beings known to us, only humans are made in the image of God, with spiritual souls capable of knowing and loving God and thus being with him in Heaven even after the disembodiment of death, since something can only love and be conformed to what it knows. If non-human animals could know God and choose to follow him, they could, as Pearring recognizes, also choose to reject and disobey him. The implications of this could pose a difficult challenge. Should animals who attack humans or one another be arrested and imprisoned for their voluntary crimes? If they can know God, even non-verbally, should they be baptized into Christ? If they will exist with their bodies in Heaven, is there a need for the bodily resurrection and the New Earth promised by Scripture? Perhaps it could be said instead that all of Creation is part of God’s Providence and so, even if Heaven is beyond their God-given natures, the New Earth may provide a home for them without death or conflict and in perfect harmony with humanity, where their natures are not violated but satisfied without death, a possibility perhaps implied by the quote from the Apocalypse 19:17 given by Pearring. For all those who have felt a deep love and kinship with nature, especially through pets, this can be another great Consolation offered by God Himself.
Pearring also expresses the view that death and calamity resulted from the Fall, not only for humans but all earthly creatures. Yet if, as St. Thomas believed, this is not so, if the Garden of Eden was specifically set-apart for humans who alone of material beings were shielded from death, then other creatures are not made by God to live forever. Death is part of their natures as composite beings prone to entropy. This seems to be the testimony of Genesis, in which the expenditure of energy preexisted the Fall, indicating that nature was not meant to be permanent. In this case, the efforts of non-human life to continue living only means that they are meant to live while they live, not to live forever. They strive to live, to avoid death and pain, but without contemplating their ends. They follow the natures God has given them. Even when a cat is fully satiated, it will often kill just for sport. Eden was a special grace, that of original justice, given to humanity due to being made in the image of God and as a free gift from God. Once humanity rejected this gift, it became subject to death like everything else, but still with the memory and natural hope of eternal life with God which has inspired all virtue and religion throughout history. Nevertheless, if this is the case, even acting in ignorance, the struggle of creatures for life reveals, as Pearring sees, that death will eventually come to an end through the restorative power of God.
Without sugarcoating or exaggeration, Snarl portrays the hardships and conflicts which all living things endure in this world, mirroring Tolkien who wrote in The Lord of the Rings, “The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” Besides a few typos, Pearring has crafted a beautiful, challenging and sincere narrative, one which brilliantly reveals the deep faith, penetrating insight and love of nature which are evidently close to his heart. Many of the issues he considers are far from settled, yet even if they are, his story accomplishes its most important aim: to inspire hope for salvation and the ultimate destruction of pain and death in the unending joy of the Kingdom of God, both for humans and all of Creation:
For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him that made it subject, in hope: Because the creature also itself shall be delivered from the servitude of corruption, into the liberty of the glory of the children of God. For we know that every creature groaneth and travaileth in pain, even till now. And not only it, but ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption of the sons of God, the redemption of our body. (Rom 8:20-23 DRA)
 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Tolkien Reader (New York: Del Rey, 2021), 42.
 Tolkien, Reader, 43.
 Tolkien, Reader, 67.
 Tolkien, Reader, 43.
 John Francis Pearring, Jr., Snarl (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2022), Xiii; 99.
 Tolkien, Reader, 75.
 Cf. Elizabeth Theokritoff, “The Book of the Word: Reading God’s Creation,” Center for Christian Ethics (2012), 7.
 Pearring, Snarl, 29.
 Pearring, Snarl, 27.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: One Volume (William Morrow, 2012), 348. Kindle.