Top 10 clerics in fiction

Asking, answering – and sometimes sneakily evading – readers’ spiritual questions, literature offers many memorable men of the cloth

From whisky priests to reluctant exorcists, visionaries to hypocrites, literature is densely populated with a wide range of unfortunate clerics. Not for them the silent cloisters and deserted pews. They are forced into the spotlight by their authors, to be emotionally (and sometimes physically) tortured on their journey to salvation.

Even as children, we are introduced to the idea of churches and monasteries as a setting for our stories. Perhaps the rules and boundaries of school are softly reflected in their walls, or perhaps in either location the subtlety social dynamics lead to small victories feeling like great triumphs. As adults, our fictional preachers are sent out into the world, to ask and answer life’s most difficult questions on our behalf.

Some struggle with doubts about their own faith, many with the doubts of others, a few battle with demons of a very literal kind. And whilst the vicar in my novel, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, escaped without injury, not everyone is so fortunate. Whether their suffering is of the flesh, like Damien Karras in The Exorcist, of the mind, in John Boyne’s A History of Loneliness, or whether their torment is entirely self-inflicted, clerics in fiction never have an easy time of it.

Here are just 10 of them:

1. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
Through his nameless “whisky priest”, Greene asks us to decide between virtue and vice in this 1953 novel. A drunk and a sinner, the clergyman picks his way through Mexico, ministering God’s will as best he can, while fighting self-condemnation and overpowering guilt. Chased by the Lieutenant, who believes the church to be fundamentally corrupt, the priest is eventually trapped by his own compassion. The novel caused controversy when first published, but in 1965 Greene was told by Pope Paul VI: “Mr Greene, some aspects of your books are certain to offend some Catholics, but you should pay no attention to that.”

2. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
Published in 1971, this tale of a child’s demonic possession was a powerhouse of a horror story. Jesuit priest Father Damien Karras agrees to see 12-year-old Regan MacNeil in his role as a practising psychiatrist. However, Karras soon realises Regan’s disturbing behaviour is the result of evil spirits rather than mental illness. Doubting his faith after the loss of his mother, Karras nevertheless conducts an exorcism, and in doing so regains his own belief in God. Filmed in 1973, 20 years after Greene’s novel, audiences were more shocked by pea soup than by a wandering priest.

3. The Summoner’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer
In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s friar tells a story about a summoner’s friendship with the devil. In return, the summoner shares the tale of a hypocritical friar, who is more interested in food and women than parishioners’ souls. The riposte highlights Chaucer’s fascination with corruption, and this is even more apparent when the summoner tells of a friar guided through hell by an angel. Seeing no other friars, he remarks they must all be “in a state of grace”, upon which the angel asks the devil to lift up his tail, and there are “twenty thousand friars, swarming around Satan’s arse”.

4. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
There are more unfortunate monks in Eco’s debut novel. A much-debated work, this complex, intellectual story tells the tale of Sir William of Baskerville, a Franciscan monk, who travels to an abbey to investigate a suspicious death and, subsequently, a series of curious murders. Rich with biblical and medieval theory, and littered with references to other texts, it quotes: “Books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.” Indeed.

5. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
In this celebrated novel, we meet the deeply unmindful Mr William Collins, clergyman and heir to the Bennet estate, who sets his sights on a wife. Realising that his initial choice, Jane Bennet, is unavailable, he turns his attentions to her sister, Elizabeth. When his proposal is refused, Mr Collins wastes little time in selecting another bride. It is suggested Collins reflects Austen’s own observations of the clergy, as he shows silliness, hypocrisy and a complete lack of self-awareness. Preferring objects over beauty, Collins “could number the fields in every direction, and could tell how many trees there were in the most distant clump”.

David Bamber as Mr Collins in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.
David Bamber as Mr Collins in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Photograph: BBC

6. The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham
Social norms are also explored in this story of the alien invasion of a quiet, English village. The exquisitely titled Reverend Hubert Leebody is the first port of call when the villagers start to suspect that some of their offspring are not of this world. Blessed with telepathic powers and the ability to manipulate others through mind control, the Children are eventually dealt with by a bomb. It suggests, perhaps, that gunpowder rather than God, is the way forward when faced with extraterrestrials.

7. A History of Loneliness by John Boyne
In this powerful story of guilt, tragedy and control, Boyne explores Ireland and Catholicism through the eyes of his central character, Odran Yates. Odran enters the church at 17, believing it to be his path in life (because his mother told him so). From the intensity of the seminary to the overwhelming authority of the Vatican, Odran sees his naivety as weakness, and condemns himself to the reader as an unreliable narrator. Whether or not you agree with his portrayal of the Catholic church, Boyne’s words remain both compelling and deeply moving.

8. The Three by Sarah Lotz
The subject of religious corruption is also dealt with in this beautifully disturbing thriller from Sarah Lotz. Through a series of transcriptions, emails and newspaper articles, it tells the story of four simultaneous plane crashes, which leave just three mysterious child survivors. As the world whips itself into a conspiracy frenzy, the evangelists of the US Bible belt fan the apocalyptic flames, seeing it as an opportunity to make money rather than save souls. Incidentally, this book starts with the most gut-churning description of a plane crash I’ve ever seen. Maybe not one for an airport read.

9. The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith
One of the most popular novels of the 18th century, Goldsmith’s story of the rollercoaster fortunes of Dr Charles Primrose has been referenced in the work of many other authors, from Jane Austen to Mary Shelley. Unworldly and complex, Dr Primrose is said to have been created by Goldsmith in order to pay off his own personal debts. Whether true or not, Primrose’s suffering is often held up as an example of the spiritual journey of a Christian hero.

10. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Robinson’s Pulitzer prize-winning, epistolary novel is written as the autobiography of Reverend John Ames, who is dying of a heart condition and hopes the words will be a legacy for his seven-year-old son. An exploration of faith and vocation, Ames is perhaps the most sympathetic of all our clerics, and, like all the best characters, he will settle in your mind and refuse to leave. Ames’s quiet wisdom offers a view of religion for the non-religious, but perhaps all our literary clerics could learn from him. There is magic hidden amongst the mundane, and God can truly be found in the most unlikely of places.


Joanna Cannon

The GuardianTramp

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