In Running With the Demon, Terry Brooks explores the power of the seemingly small decisions. I imagine that most readers have heard the parable of the two wolves, but I’ll summarize just in case: We all have two wolves inside us – one good, one evil. They battle for control of our hearts. Which one wins? The one we feed the most. The whole Word and the Void series, and Running With the Demon in particular, takes this principle and stretches it beyond the individual to the entire society.
Throughout the book, the author repeatedly surfaces examples of small-scale goods and evils. Far from isolated actions, these deeds are skirmishes in the never-ending battle between Order and Chaos.
For evil, we see both commonplace and supernatural indicators. Side characters discuss newspaper articles about tragedies from around the country with an air that says “surely this would never happen here.” The reader knows that it can and is. The bad feelings and the desperation produced by the steel mill strike is an explosion waiting to happen. Throughout, when we see demons influence people towards evil, they never start with a blank slate. They harness the evil that is already inside the human and gently nudge them towards one compromise at a time until they fall off a moral cliff.
The most powerful image of the effect of small evils comes from The Feeders themselves. Invisible creatures of shadow who parasitically leech negative emotions from their hosts, these creatures of darkness are a concrete manifestation of the evil Brooks rails against. People may think that their secret sins go without effect, but in the Word and The Void series misdeeds literally increase the presence of evil in the world as feeders grow and reproduce.
On the other side of the scale, we see the power of small kindnesses. The sylvan Pick’s faithful shepherding of the forest is a small, thankless goodness. Most park visitors take the park’s existence for granted, never considering the work of the park rangers they can see. They are incapable of knowing about the labors the little wooden man undertakes to maintain the spiritual health of their wood.
Josie the diner-owner’s unending friendliness is another. We clearly see the healing power of her positivity in her impact on John Ross, to say nothing of her patrons.
Old Bob, retired steelworker, has not worked at the mill for several years, but his legendary work ethic and integrity makes him an influential part of the strike negotiations despite the years off.
There is no good equivalent for the feeders. There are no angels or spirits that float nearby when people do good. We have to look harder to find the ripples that emanate from each good deed, but they are present in the text.
In John Ross’ prophetic dreams, we see a nightmare post-apocalyptic future born when the accumulation of small evils overturns society. No matter how many battles John wins, that future never changes. Several times in the series, demons taunt our heroes, saying that their source of power is superior, because humanity tends towards evil. Tellingly, good triumphs, but with the dreams, we are reminded that each victory is a precursor to future battles.
So, is Mr. Brook’s point that we are all doomed, that civilized societies inevitably cycle towards moral depravity until they collapse under the weight of their own sins?
On the surface, maybe. There is certainly a not-too-subtle warning in his text.
I see in this series a call to action. It warns that if we do not actively seek to improve the lives of those around us, if we do not consciously seek goodness and kindness, we will slide towards evil. That goes for individuals as well as societies. So, stay vigilant. Keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities to lift up your brothers and sisters around you.
I would like to conclude by paraphrasing an illustration that I originally heard from a pastor. He was talking about Christian living in particular, but I believe the principle applies to all faiths and moral codes:
Goodness is like climbing a greased rope or walking up a down escalator. If you stop moving, stop striving, you inevitably slide backwards.