Recently, a film titled Ender’s Game (a film adaptation of the science fiction best-seller with the same name) was released at the box office to a myriad of reviewers and fans alike arguing about the importance of the story’s focus on war, aggression, and passivism. Now there are many parallels one could make regarding the modern wars the USA has engaged in and the pre-emptive strike tactics used in the film, but I wanted to take a much more thematic look at the main character that so apparently seems to have religious connotations. Ender himself, in the film and novel, appears to embody many religious themes regarding war, nonviolence, and the Christian understanding of an all-loving, all-powerful God. I want to delve into the meaning behind Ender’s character and ultimately argue whether Ender is a symbol of Christian doctrine of just-war or a symbol of a more wrathful messiah similar to pre-Christian sentiments regarding the foretold Davidic-messiah.
In Catholic teaching, Christ comes in the form of an entirely different messiah than the ancient Jewish people had expected. Christ came in the form of a vulnerable child, what many would consider abnormal or unexpected. According to Catholic teachings, Christ is the messiah that the Old Testament speaks of. In the space-fiction novel Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, a young child is built up to be a war-machine to help defend the human race. Card does a wonderful job entering into moral conversation regarding war and humanity, but under the surface there is a constant theme that drives the novel’s compelling tale. We are immersed into a tale where a child messiah is abused by humanity for waging war. The thematic elements that show us that Ender is the messiah also hint that Ender’s true nature is the Christ figure. In Ender’s Game, the human race, especially the military, puts an emphasis on Ender being the Davidic-warrior. He should be this commander who will fight for goodness and lead the nations. What is so important in the story is how the unexpected reality of Christ the messiah shines through in Ender, although he still becomes the Davidic-warrior. Ender is the Christ figure, but humanity abuses the power Ender has to wage war. Ender’s own journey as the false messiah leads him to become the true messiah by recognizing the “lies” that humanity has purported. In this symbolism, the reader finds Christ’s message buried beneath the ethical conversation. Here we find the message that will unite the nations and conquer all foes; it comes in the most strange and unexpected package of a child-soldier, one who embodies the love and compassion of Christ.
To begin this journey through Davidic history and the parallels to Ender’s story, we must understand the expectations of the messiah and God in Jewish culture. Looking back on the Old Testament, there is evidence that the people of Israel were promised a king that would lead them and free them from all their oppressors. In Numbers 27:15-17 “Moses spoke to the Lord, Saying ‘Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint someone over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in” (The HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version). The Jewish people of Jesus’ time expected to be redeemed according to the scriptures. In Isaiah 59:20, the text reads, “The Redeemer will come to Zion”. Considering all that has happened to the Israelites in their oppression from the Egypt, the Babylonian captivity and exile, and then the Roman rule at the time of Jesus, it is not unusual for the Jewish people to consider their need for a military leader (a King even) that would redeem them.
According to the Jewish people of Jesus’ time, when the messiah comes to the world, he should conquer the nations. How then does it look when Christ arrives in his vulnerability and weakness? In Luke’s Gospel, the story begins with a comparison between the kings of the era and the new king—Christ the King. In Luke 1:5, it reads, “In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah . . . ” and then later in Luke 2:1-2 there is mention of more powerful individuals of the time: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus. . . . This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria”. All of this seems to be unimportant though, as the story does not begin to talk of the most important leaders of the world, but of this tiny, vulnerable God-baby. Later the Gospels seem to contradict what the Jewish people expected. Christ does not go about using the sword to make his message known, but rather he heals the sick, stands with the oppressed, and loves the poor. In Psalm 72, the scriptures read, “Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son. . . . May he have dominion from sea to sea. . . . May his foes bow down before him. . . . May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute. . . . May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service”. Essentially what is being communicated is that there will be a new king that will bring forth righteousness. What the Jewish people misunderstood was that the king might not come in a way that dominates the world with the sword, but with peace and love. Thus when the messiah came in such an inglorious way it was unexpected to many of the Jewish people of the time; it caused doubt and disbelief.
In regards to this talk of the Davidic-warrior versus Chris the King, we must now analyze the story of Ender’s Game to see the clues that reveal Ender is symbolic of the modern Davidic-warrior. Let us parallel the people of Israel with the people of the entire world in the novel. To an extent, the people of the world in Ender’s game are defeated; they have been attacked by the dangerous alien race, the buggers, and are struggling to rebuild society. The struggle has even caused a destruction of most religion and a restriction on birth numbers in order to keep the government and economy stable. Some could argue that, to an extent, the loss of religion in the society is harkening back to the subtle loss of faith that the Pharisees show in the Gospels. The Pharisees and Sadducees seem to forget why they have faith in religion, and the people of Earth have also lost the faith. The humans of Earth also hold a deep hope in their hearts for a new commander to save them from the looming threat of the buggers. They seek a messiah to lead them out of despair from the threat of the bugger invaders.
Colonel Graff, in the book, is the embodiment of the human race’s desire for a Davidic-warrior messiah. Early on, it is clear that he hopes to have Ender save humanity. He seems to recognize Ender as a pseudo-religious figure, and Ender’s parents do likewise:
The badge of pride that Graff speaks of could be Ender’s parents’ steadfast religious conviction. In a world where religion is looked down upon, somehow Ender is still seen as a semi-religious figure for Graff and definitely for his parents.
While Ender is with the other students in Battle School, where the children learn to fight before going on to Command School, he meets many individuals who seem to recognize him as a more than just a leader. Some seem to step outside their restriction from religion in order to acknowledge Ender as the messiah. “On impulse Ender hugged him, tight, almost as if he were Valentine. . . . [Alai] grinned. ‘Go slice up the buggers.’ . . . Alai suddenly kissed Ender on the cheek and whispered in his ear, ‘Salaam.’ Ender guessed that the kiss and the word were somehow forbidden. A suppressed religion, perhaps” (69). The word Salaam comes from the Arabic word meaning peace. The kiss on the cheek and the word peace are evident of an individual honoring a religious figure. In the Catholic tradition, this reference can be linked to the sign of peace during the Eucharistic part of the mass. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 1301 reads, “The sign of peace that concludes the rite of the sacrament signifies and demonstrates ecclesial communion with the bishop and with all the faithful”. At this point in Ender’s journey, some are attempting to make him into the messiah similar to who the Jewish people wanted before Christ—a warrior king who would conquer the nations—and others are recognizing Ender as a loving and caring leader. This is a crucial step in seeing Card’s parallel to Ender, the Davidic-warrior, and the true messiah: Christ.
Another instance where Ender is referred to as a pseudo-messiah is after he has prepared for Command School and is beginning to simulate battles with the buggers. Graff and Admiral Chamrajnagar are discussing the leadership of Ender and his importance in leading the fleets to battle. We should remember first that Graff is hoping to make Ender into a warrior leader who can command humanity to a new age out of fear from the buggers. This is a clear example of Card’s use of religious symbolism to communicate how Ender’s leaders want him to be the Davidic-warrior messiah. In a conversation between Chamrajnagar and Graff, the two are talking about the importance of the commander children and the fleets that were created to demolish the buggers: “‘And now they are all mine. They are entering into the mysteries of the fleet’ . . . ‘You make it sound like a priesthood.’ ‘And a god. And a religion. Even those of us who command by ansible [?] know the majesty of flight among the stars’” (Card 256). Here, Chamrajnagar is equating the fleet and the people Ender is commanding to a religion, as if Ender has the authority to be a religious leader. What Graff hopes to do is to use Ender’s “divine authority” to command his fleet (or as Charmrajnagar stated, his religion) to take down the oppressors. Ender is a seen as a Christ-surrogate, a child different from other children, whose abilities and talents enable him to encompass the salvation of the human race. The only issue is that Graff and all the other adults hoping to force Ender’s hand at destruction misunderstand what the truth regarding the Christian messiah really is.
Evidence supports that Ender’s own relationship with his sister and brother, aptly named Valentine (who has taught him how to love) and Peter (who has taught him violence) are symbolic of Ender’s own relationship to his Christ-like image or his Davidic-warrior image. All throughout the book, Ender imagines Valentine in instances where he recalls love, peace, and respect. When Alai first gives him the kiss of peace, he recalls Valentine. A valuable means of entering into symbolic imagery are dreams. Ender has many dreams through his time with a computer game that links with his subconscious thoughts. The story begins with Ender as a mouse who kills a giant. As Ender begins to play more, he enters into a fight with a giant snake. At first Ender kills the snake: “The snake began to unweave itself from the rug again, only this time Ender did not hesitate. He stepped on the head of the snake and crushed it under his foot” (Card 117). The snake is symbolic of Peter’s violent presence in Ender. Later in the novel, after many attempts at Ender to win the game by killing the snake, Ender kisses the snake instead of killing it. “And the snake in his hands thickened and bent into another shape. A human shape. It was Valentine” (Card 152). Then Ender walked with Valentine down a stairway with tears in his eyes and he saw a multitude of people who all had Peter’s face applauding him. The dream ends with Ender knowing, “wherever he went in this world, he went with Valentine” (Card 152).
This dream is cryptic, but it is telling of Ender’s own relationship to violence and love. I would dare to say that Valentine is a symbol for Ender’s tendency towards his Christological symbolism, and Peter is a symbol of Ender’s Davidic-warrior path. Throughout the novel, Ender is forced to exercise his violent side, just like he kills the snake over and over again in his dreams. When he finally chooses to kiss the snake and love, he realizes that all along Valentine has been the true path to the “End of the World” as he calls it (Card 152). Later in the novel we learn the dreams were psychic messages from the alien race, calling for Ender to protect them in peace from the human aggressors. This sheds much needed light on the symbolic nature of the dreams as it informs how we see Ender at the end of the novel. Unlike his dreams, Ender chooses to violently defeat the buggers. In doing so he follows the Davidic-warrior path that all of humanity hoped for him. In doing so though, he also awakens his loving side of himself. The Christ-like qualities rush back to Ender and he breaks down, contemplating all that he has done. In the end he chooses to right the wrongs he has done and atone for his sins. He finds an egg of a queen bugger and chooses to take this egg to begin the race of buggers again somewhere where humanity cannot touch them.
Arguably, Ender fulfills his role as the warrior messiah when he defeats the buggers and slaughters their entire species from existence. But his innocence is important to the symbolism regarding his Christ-like qualities. For the story to play out the way it does, all of the adults running the Command School must lie to the children. They tell them that the practices and simulations they run are solely tests to determine their own ability to go to war. When Ender and his squadron destroy the buggers, Ender takes all the sins of humanity on his shoulders in the one act of xenocide, the killing of an entire species. While some could argue that Ender is a one to one symbol of Christ in the novel, I would argue that Ender is more a symbol of a Christian than of Christ. He has Christ-like qualities that hint at the importance of his love and compassion, but is still tainted by humanity’s wishes for a warrior messiah. Ender becomes the warrior messiah for the people of Earth, but in doing so also recognizes his loving nature. Here we find a tension within the character of Ender. He is not solely the Davidic-warrior messiah, but he is also not solely the Christian messiah. Ender embodies the love and compassion of Christ, but is human. He is not the Christ figure of the novel, but the message of Christ penetrates through Ender. The novel itself presents Ender as a character in which inner turmoil mirrors the tensions many religious and secular individuals face with regards to just war.
1. Attridge, Harold W., Wayne A. Meeks, and Jouette M. Bassler. The HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, including the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006.
2. Card, Orson Scott. Ender's Game. New York: Tor, 1991.
3. Catechism of the Catholic Church: With Modifications from the Editio Typica. New York: Doubleday, 1997.