Leigh Bardugo’s character of the Darkling, played by Ben Barnes, has been an object of both controversy and fascination in Season One of Shadow and Bone (available through Netflix). Some viewers love him, some hate him, some viewers love to hate him, and some hate to love him. “Darkling and Alina” fan videos pepper the internet with hopes of love for this brooding character. Fascination with the Darkling runs deep, and people’s hopes for love for him aren’t surprising. After all, he has so many qualities that could lend themselves to a truly profound, fierce, and loyal connection with someone – whether in friendship or in marriage. He desperately needs a connection like that to truly flourish and find the freedom to be himself and embrace life. But there’s just one problem:
The Darkling is a deeply prideful man.
And pride strangles love.
Ben Barnes as The Darkling in "Shadow and Bone." © 2021 Netflix. All Rights Reserved.
We aren’t talking about the emotion of pride, that feeling of your heart swelling when your little brother gives his very first piano recital or the satisfaction of a job well done. With the Darkling it is the sin of pride which St Thomas Aquinas succinctly defines as “an excessive desire for one’s own self which rejects subjection to God.” As we see from the book of Genesis, pride could be considered the mother of all sins. It resists submitting to God who is Love. In other words, while pride may seem like love (if only love for one’s own self), it actually denies Love and thus strangles the ability to love at all.
We all have some propensity towards pride. The Darkling is no different. This propensity in him has been fed his entire life both by the teaching of his mother, Baghra (Zoe Wanamaker), and by his own choices. He was raised to believe he is more and others are less. Others are disposable, blips on the timeline through which he must live. Even if he enjoys their company, even if he does form a true bond with them, he is fated to outlast them. Because, in his pride, he believes that his survival, feelings, and future are more important than any of theirs. He makes himself the center of all he thinks, says, and does – of all that matters.
By declaring himself the center of all, The Darkling inherently shuts love out. He casts aside those he deems unequal to himself, and he manipulates those he considers equal, to keep himself at the center. He desires love, but through the self-centered orientation of his every action and thought, he strangles all of love’s first shoots before it can ever blossom in him.
Ben Barnes as The Darkling and Jessi Mei Li as Alina in "Shadow and Bone." © 2021 Netflix. All Rights Reserved.
That is not to say that the Darkling is devoid of good qualities or intentions. He has a deep desire to protect Grisha from persecution. He aches for the pain of his outcast people. He wants Alina (Jessie Mei Li) to be safe. He shows gratitude to Alina. He asks her consent before pursuing a romantic encounter with her. He wants her to feel like she belongs even though he has never felt that. These desires, feelings, good intentions are all real. His inability to live out of them is nothing but tragic.
Here’s the thing – humans often have mixed intentions and motivations. We wind up seeking Reconciliation for things we did half out of right intentions and half out of selfish or manipulative ones. The Darkling also has mixed intentions in his seemingly-altruistic plans, but he is not going to any confessional (or Grishaverse equivalent) to help purify those intentions. He feeds the very attitudes that are twisting good desires into hypocrisy and betrayal. He makes his own will the center and definition of all that is worthy and good.
When we make ourselves the center of anything, we cut ourselves off from the possibility of being touched, transformed, and vivified by others. We declare ourselves idols and cut ourselves off from the touch, transformation, and life of God. Through pride, we cut ourselves off from others when, instead, we are called to live in communion. We cut ourselves off from God when he is Life and Love itself. It is for this very reason that pride is considered the most fundamental of “the deadly sins.”
“It was Pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels.”
- St. Augustine
Pride is why the Darkling destroys everything he touches. It’s why he can’t give or accept love. It’s why he is so restless in seeking something to fill the emptiness inside him.
Ben Barnes in "Shadow and Bone." © 2021 Netflix. All Rights Reserved.
To truly have a chance at love and peace, the Darkling needs to learn and adopt humility.
We aren’t talking about the emotion of humiliation here. The virtue of humility is the antidote to the poison of pride. Humility is understanding ourselves and others for who and what we really are, and God for who and what He really is. It’s being able to accept our own lowliness, not in a way that degrades or devalues, but in a way that embraces the glory of God’s greatness and the depth of his gift in extending grace to us. Humility puts others first, without trashing ourselves (devaluing ourselves would be discarding a precious gift of God and suggesting he doesn’t do such great work, after all!). Humility allows us to step out of the spotlight so we can see reality, our true selves, others, and God – God who is Life and Love.
Humility frees us to love, and to accept love.
Jessie Mei Li as Alina in "Shadow and Bone." © 2021 Netflix. All Rights Reserved.
Humility can be hard. Have you ever tried to pray the Litany of Humility? Possibly one of the hardest prayers to pray with sincerity. Humility brings us life, belonging, love and peace. The very things that the Darkling seeks, but in vain.
“Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:29)
When you notice mixed intentions in your own actions (probably not to the extent of the Darkling’s, but still), consider bringing them to Confession. And, if you feel called to, consider walking through the Litany of Humility:
O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.
From the desire of being esteemed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being extolled, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being honored, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being praised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred to others, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being approved, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being humiliated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being despised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of suffering rebukes, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being calumniated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being forgotten, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being ridiculed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being wronged, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being suspected, Deliver me, Jesus.
That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That, in the opinion of the world,
others may increase and I may decrease, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I set aside, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised and I unnoticed, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be preferred to me in everything, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
Season One of Shadow and Bone can be streamed on Netflix. Season Two becomes available on March 16.