When a protagonist is in severe need of salvation, the process by which it is achieved is quite likely to involve more than simply falling in love. The precise process by which salvation is realised will, of course, vary according to the protagonist’s circumstances but there are two broad types of process by which protagonists are saved. The first of these is employed when the protagonist, largely or wholly through no fault of their own, appears emotionally dead or trapped in an emotional hell of isolation, low self-esteem, and perhaps misplaced guilt. This “process by which salvation is realized” (Morris 37) can be conceptualised as a freeing from Hell or as a raising from the dead. At the heart of the process to save such a protagonist is a struggle to defeat the negative beliefs and emotions which constitute the protagonist’s tomb or hell: only then can the protagonist reach out and accept happiness.
In Elizabeth Hoyt’s Lord of Darkness (2013) this process is summarised in “The Legend of the Hellequin,” a short tale which appears in installments spread across each of the chapters of the novel. Hoyt’s “books often feature quotes from [her] own fairy tales at the beginning of each chapter” because she “like[s] the idea of the fairytale serving as a foil for the main story, either highlighting a theme or thread within the main story, or throwing a slightly different light on it” (The Literary Shed). In Lord of Darkness the Hellequin is a creature who spends most of his time in Hell and whose “companions are tiny imps, naked, scarlet, and ugly. Their names are Despair, Grief, and Loss” (25). One day, however, the Hellequin encounters a woman, who is “lovely, her face both innocent and good” (45), and as they become more closely acquainted she rids him of Despair, Grief, and Loss, pushing them one by one off his horse; by the end of the tale, she has “outwitted the Devil and saved me from Hell” (357). Godric St. John, the hero of the novel, is in a state similar to the Hellequin’s: he feels as though “He’d died the night [his first wife] Clara last drew breath” (76) but there is “still a tiny spark inside of him [...] that hadn’t died” (112-13) and so for him, too, there is “one who can save him” (275). In his case, however, the companion imps of Despair, Grief, and Loss are internalised, and there is no external Devil with whom to bargain. Instead, the heroine challenges Godric himself, gradually drawing him back into society. This is a process which in the early stages includes Godric being “persuaded [...] to accompany her on a social call” (37), moves on to reconcile him with his family, and concludes with declarations of love, the anticipation of parenthood, and his admission that “You saved me” (354).
In Justine Davis’s Clay Yeager’s Redemption (1999) Clay, like Godric, is both a “man who might never heal if he didn’t exorcise his demons” (229) and one who believes he is “just as dead as his once happy life, but his body kept going” (79). Clay’s case is, perhaps, a more difficult one than Godric’s because Clay’s demons have convinced him that there is no possible process by which he can be saved. The words “penance” (93) and “absolution” (153) are referenced quite explicitly and Clay is convinced he does not deserve the latter. This leaves him trapped in a permanent state of penance, “haunted by demons” (95) who ensure he will “endure the punishment, pay the price no one else would exact from him” (80). That punishment involves cutting himself off from his father and colleagues, living on the road, constantly on the move, and alone except for his dog. Neither his father telling him that “It wasn’t just your fault. You can’t punish yourself forever” (93), nor a formal diagnosis of “Survivor’s guilt” (168), were able to prevent him roaming “aimlessly, rootlessly” (168).
When he meets his heroine, Casey, however, things begin to change: “Even when he’d tried to run, he hadn’t been able to leave her behind” (169). Perhaps this is, at least partly, due to the fact that she, too, has been traumatised by violence. Shared suffering is not essential to saving protagonists struggling with “demons” but nor does it seem wholly irrelevant. In the case of Clay and Casey, as in that of Godric and his heroine, who had both suffered a bereavement, the protagonist whose role it is to assist the other has already largely overcome the experience. When the protagonist who assists has suffered and risen again, she perhaps resembles the Christ of the Isenheim altarpiece, painted by Matthias Grünewald. Created “at some time between 1510 and 1515” (Marsh 60) for a hospital chapel, the “graphic nature of the crucifixion portrayal” allowed the “patients facing inevitable death” to “see in the figure of Jesus one who suffered as they were suffering” (62). Clay certainly responds to Casey partly because he senses that she “had faced her own demons” (105) and will therefore “really understand” (105) his situation; this creates “a connection with her unlike anything he’d ever known” (105).
Another similarity between how the sixteenth-century patients would have responded to the altarpiece and how these heroes respond to the heroines who assist them, is that the offer of salvation “is experienced affectively and does not come solely as the result of cognitive insight, aesthetic appreciation, or even religious knowledge” (Marsh 68). Casey does have at least one cognitive insight Clay had “never thought of” (168), but on the whole, an attempt to argue the demons into oblivion merely results in Clay giving “a weary sigh, as if he’d been through this countless times. She was sure he had been” (162). A breakthrough comes after she has abandoned “any effort to make him see reason” (166): like the Hellequin’s lady, who argued with the imps Loss and Grief before simply pushing them off the Hellequin's horse, Casey’s next move is physical, and all the more effective for that, because it directly accesses his emotions. She “Instinctively [...] reached for him” (166), “holding him as if she wished she could absorb the pain” (168-169) and he knew “he wasn’t going to run. He wasn’t sure when he’d made that decision, wasn’t even sure he had; he only knew that when he thought of pulling away from her, he felt a pain that made moving simply impossible” (169).
It often takes more than one battle to win a war against a set of entrenched demons, however, and it is after several more sorties that another physical move on Casey’s part brings Clay within reach of salvation:
she took him in her arms and simply held him, stroking his hair, his cheek, his back [...]. And after a while, something quietly broke inside him, flooding him with a warmth that was unlike anything he could remember. A warmth so powerful that the pain ebbed at last, leaving him feeling emptied. Not hollow, but scoured somehow, and waiting, not painfully but expectantly, as if for the first time he thought that perhaps he could be filled again, could be alive again. (223)
The final stage of the process requires Clay’s more active participation, for salvation is not simply something which is offered: it must be actively accepted.