Study Guide

Cold Mountain Spirituality

By Charles Frazier

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Chapter 1

As Inman sat brooding and pining for his lost self, one of Swimmer's creekside stories rushed into his memory with a great urgency and attractiveness. Swimmer claimed that above the blue vault of heaven there was a forest inhabited by a celestial race. Men could not go there to stay and live, but in that high land the dead spirit could be reborn […] Inman did not consider himself to be a superstitious person, but he did believe that there is a world invisible to us. He no longer thought of that world as heaven, nor did he still think that we get to go there when we die. Those teachings had been burned away. But he could not abide by a universe composed only of what he could see, especially when it was so frequently foul. So he held to the idea of another world, a better place, and he figured he might as well consider Cold Mountain to be the location of it as anywhere. (1.64-65)

Cold Mountain is a lot more than just a mountain in this book. It's the symbol for everything Inman is trying to regain, whether he can see it or not.

Chapter 5

Listen to me, Laura, he said. That preacher does not speak for God. No man does. Go back to sleep and wake up in the morning with me just a strong dream urging you to put him behind you. He means you no good. Set your mind on it. (5.96)

Cold Mountain is deeply respectful of spirituality; that doesn't mean it won't criticize someone who's doing a bad thing and blaming it on religion.

—Don't kill me, I'm a man of God, the man said.
—Some say we all are, Inman said.
—A preacher is what I mean, the man said. I'm a preacher. (5.23-25)

Maybe we're all spiritual beings, whether we like it or not. Cold Mountain suggests it's possible, at least.

Chapter 6

But now, as she looked out at the view, she held the opinion that what she saw was no token but was all the life there is. It was a position in most ways contrary to Monroe's; nevertheless, it did not rule out its own denomination of sharp yearning, though Ada could not entirely set a name to its direction. (6.47)

The characters of Cold Mountain hold different views on how things work, but almost all the ones we know well experience some sort of longing. Is it the longing itself at the heart of the book's view of spirituality?

Monroe had commented that, like all elements of nature, the features of this magnificent topography were simply tokens of some other world, some deeper life with a whole other existence toward which we ought aim all our yearning. And Ada had then agreed. (6.46)

Sounds kind of like Inman's thoughts about longing for a world we can't see, right? This theme comes back over and over again in Cold Mountain, like the sunrise. And it's meant to evoke the same kind of longing for beauty.

When they began planting, Ruby had held out a handful of tiny black seeds. Looks like not much, she said. It takes faith to jump from this to a root cellar filled with turnips some many weeks hence. That and a warm fall, for we started late. (6.2)

Seemingly ordinary things are the stuff of faith for Ruby, a practical character who can nonetheless see the wonder in nature. Sounds kind of like Jesus' parables, though Ruby rarely goes to church.

The crops were growing well, largely, Ruby claimed, because they had been planted, at her insistence, in strict accordance with the signs. In Ruby's mind, everything—setting fence posts, making sauerkraut, killing hogs—fell under the rule of the heavens. Cut firewood in the old of the moon, she'd advised, otherwise it won't do much but fry and hiss at you come winter […] Monroe would have dismissed such beliefs as superstition, folklore. But Ada, increasingly covetous of Ruby's learning in the ways living things inhabited this particular place, chose to view the signs as metaphoric. They were, as Ada saw them, an expression of stewardship, a means of taking care, a discipline. They provided a ritual of concern for the patterns and tendencies of the material world where it might be seen to intersect with some other world. Ultimately, she decided, the signs were a way of being alert, and under those terms she could honor them. (6.3-4)

If Nature is your mother, then Ada figures you should listen to what she says; it's like trusting your mom's advice not to throw light and dark clothes in the same washer. This is one of many moments in the book when paying attention to nature is seen as a form of spiritual experience.

Chapter 8

They had, as well, invented a holiday called Thanksgiving, which Ruby had only recently got news of, but from what she gathered its features to be, she found it to contain the mark of a tainted culture. To be thankful on just the one day. (8.22)

In lots of cultures and folktales, thankfulness is a huge part of what it means to be a spiritually aware person. Maybe that's what Ruby means here. Although we do like our pumpkin pie here at Shmoop.

How do you know its name is Rigel?
—I read it in a book, Inman said.
—Then that's just a name we give it, the boy said. It ain't God's name.
Inman had thought on the issue a minute and then said, How would you ever come to know God's name for that star?
—You wouldn't, He holds it close, the boy said. (5.54-58)

There might be real things beyond our knowledge. In Cold Mountain, the world is a place full of mystery.

Where it ran shallower and slower, then, were the places prone to freezing. Monroe would have made a lesson of such a thing, Ada thought. He would have said what the match of that creek's parts would be in a person's life, what God intended it to be the type of. All God's works but elaborate analogy. Every bright image in the visible world only a shadow of a divine thing, so that earth and heaven, low and high, strangely agreed in form and meaning because they were in fact congruent.

Monroe had a book wherein you could look up the types. The rose—its thorns and its blossom—a type of the difficult and dangerous path to spiritual awakening. The baby—come wailing to the world in pain and blood—a type of our miserable earthly lives, so consumed with violence. The crow—its blackness, its outlaw nature, its tendency to feast on carrion—a type of the dark forces that wait to overtake man's soul.

So Ada quite naturally thought the stream and the ice might offer a weapon of the spirit. Or, perhaps, a warning. But she refused to believe that a book could say just how it should be construed or to what use it might be put. Whatever a book said would lack something essential and be as useless by itself as the gudgeon to a door hinge with no pintle. (16.51-53)

Wow—Ada's father had a book that essentially read everything as a symbol of how the world works on a spiritual level. Dude loved him some symbolism. But what if he's right? What if the whole world is full of symbolic connections, and you can't understand it unless you think symbolically? If that's true, Ada's probably right that it needs more than book-learning to get the most out of it.

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