Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Christmas Meditation

The Christmas season has an amazing store of joy that it can, and often does, shower on the head of the unsuspecting. A little hand gripping your hand to tug you toward a glittering Christmas tree. A few flurries in a strangely warm winter. Hugs from kindergarteners happy that you're playing them a song for their school party. Sweet cookies around the table with friends.

Holiday shoppers (Daniel Acker, Bloomberg)
And then, meanwhile, there is the misery of shopping. The unfathomable crowds inside and lines of cars outside. The disgruntled faces at every turn. The look of frustration that I know mirrors my own as I apply strange quantities of pressure on myself to find "the perfect gift."

It occurs to me that there's an inverse relationship between these two things. That the more I get caught up in the shopping, buying, surprising, driving, competing ... the less I glimpse the simple, clear joys of the season.

Those joys are childlike things. To see the season from the eyes of an innocent wonder: that's the secret, I think. And heaping piles of stuff somehow deadens that wonder.

It's not all that different from life, is it?

So here's to keeping an eye out for the joy, friends.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Remembering my ancestors

Bath time for (baby) grandma
Bath time for (baby) grandma
The old religions had something right, I think. Keeping in mind the people who formed you, from their own bodies, even after they've gone to rest in the earth.

Today, lacking a ritual that satisfies that need without offending my own religious scruples, I have found that tracking my ancestors' movements brings to life something of who I am.

And that, in some ways, must have been what ancestor worship was all about: a way to know your place in the world. After all, social groupings seem so arbitrary. Circumstances of birth, property inheritance, marriageable persons within a reasonable distance from home ... these all seem incredibly--really incredibly--arbitrary. We have no control over any of them, and, what's worse, they seem so strangely random. Like the personalities of your siblings. How can one find meaning in any of this?

But the story of the dead; of where they went and what they did; of their wars and their courage; of their breaking new ground and migrating across continents--these are somehow meaningful to me. I watch my ancestors, as it were, cross oceans, found villages, set up churches, marry and move. And now and again, someone stands out as almost heroic in the herd: a man or woman who does something really noteworthy, whether for good or ill. And I begin to understand: maybe I really am connected with the world around me. Maybe I really do belong where I am. Maybe there is meaning in the circumstances of my birth, my wiry frame and personal traits, my siblings and the gifts I have inherited.

So yes, in a way, genealogical research is like ancestor worship, in the sense that it fills the same void. It gives honor to those who have died, without covering over their blemishes, except in the way that such things become lost to later generations. It honors how they have shaped me. That I am not alone. I am like others around me; and also, in some way, these others have left a trace of themselves in me.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Ode to Teachers

You teachers of the young,
we their parents thank you.
Not in paltry sums of money,
though our taxes give you that,
but in our better, deeper hearts.

You tame the wildness of our children.
You temper their devilish ways.
You hold them in straight lines
and within dotted lines,
which we can never achieve in a hundred afternoons.
You make them read, when we are busy reading.
You make them ask questions we would shun to answer.
You mold of them persons suited to learning,
who showed us few signs of teachability.

Countless hours you spend crafting
words and activities to guide our young,
on paths of gradual difficulties,
while we plan nothing, taking what they give us,
and expecting behavior we ourselves struggle to exhibit.
Therefore you have the stronger influence
over their minds and their discipline.

With godlike patience you teach them letters,
numbers, sums, and fractions,
while juggling the demands of a fickle government
and a still more fickle public,
that too often undervalues the supreme value
of your ceaseless labor, your long hours
and small payment, and smaller esteem.

Better than most of us, you see the value
in our children, you turn from the goods
of a more lucrative life, you weed and trim
the small saplings, knowing (when we forget)
that of these seedlings, great trees are made.

For all this and all that I have left unsaid,
the joy you feel when our children succeed,
the pain you feel when they fail,
the heartache it gives you when we fail them,
the love you bear them in countless small gestures,
for all this and all that I have yet left unsaid,
we their parents thank you.

© John Pyle, 2012

Friday, November 23, 2012

An Inspiring Writing Challenge for Everyone

You don't have to be an aspiring writer to try this. My five-year-old handed me a pencil and a half-sheet of unlined paper and told me to write until it was full. He also instructed me to write about a toy. What came out was both fun and heartwarming.

English professors call this "freewriting," and it can be a great way to explore whatever you're thinking about. You write as fast as you can until time is up or you've filled up the paper. The thing I like about it is, it isn't structured at all. You can just unleash. And since you're using pencil and paper, you have that wonderful muscle memory of writing from schooldays gone by, and the potential to doodle, too.

All right, so here's your challenge: Take a pencil and a half-sheet of unlined paper, and write about something that's important to you and one other person close to you. When you've done it, if you'd like to share, post it here or on your own blog or Facebook (and link via the comments section). Ready? Enjoy.

Oh, and here's what I wrote:

Daddy is a big toy that boys like to play with, bang into, jump on, tackle, tickle, read with, sit on, snuggle with, turn around and make dizzy, count to ten with, steal potato chips from, ask for candy, rake leaves with, jump into their leaf piles, may [make] snow angels with, throw snowballs at, drive trucks on, steal shoes from, play fire engine with, throw baseballs to, ask for rides in a truck with, ride on back of,
Your turn.

P.S. There is no expiration date for this challenge. So whenever you happened upon it, go ahead and give it a try.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Fantasy - according to Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino
Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino puts magic, the breaking of everyday rules, at the center of his notion of fantasy. Why is magic a feature of fantastic tales? What purpose does it serve?

"Fantasy," he said, implies “a detachment, a levitation, the acceptance of a different logic based on objects and connections other than those of everyday life or the dominant literary conventions.”

The magic is there, in other words, to let us sever ties with our everyday world and habits and ways of thinking. Cut loose, we can drift in the tale, in a way we otherwise wouldn't.

But for Calvino, this is not escapism in a bad sense--in the sense that we're looking to shrug off responsibility for life, or to deny its reality. Yes, in fantasy you as a reader don't confront “the problem of believing or explaining.” But that's because you come to it expecting this levitation: “the pleasure of fantasy lies in the unraveling of a logic with rules or point of departure or solutions that keep some surprises up their sleeves.”

The impulse behind all this? Intellectual play. Like myth, it lets us recombine the elements in our world, which may entertain or just might clarify what the world is, and what we are within it. 

Italo Calvino, “Definitions of Territory: Fantasy,” Le Monde, August 15, 1970; transl. Patrick Creagh, 1986.

Reprinted in: David Sandner, Fantastic Literature: A Critical Reader (Praeger, 2004).

Monday, November 5, 2012

Happy Birthday

This blog is one year old, as of November 5. For your enjoyment, a couple of stats I found to put this anniversary into perspective:

  1. "There are an estimated 31 million bloggers in the United States" (
  2. Of "business blogs," 65% haven't updated their blog in over a year (ditto)
  3. Lots of blogs die after 3 months or so. The best data I could get was "most." Not too fine, but makes the point.

Well, that was fun.

Cue the confetti.

Friday, October 26, 2012

A Visit to the Old Country

Turns out I have roots in Tennessee. About two weeks ago, I made a little pilgrimage to the old country. It was a surreal experience.

Here I am, standing at the grave site of my ancestor, Coonrod Pile. In the distance, of course, is one of the seven mountains that surround the beautiful, peaceful valley of Pall Mall, Tennessee, birthplace and home of Sgt. Alvin York, the war hero. Alvin York was the great-great-grandson of Coonrod, who helped settle the valley in the 1790s.

Here's the plaque beside the grave. Coonrod and his wife Mary are buried side by side there, with a daughter. The "Three Forks of the Wolf" refers to the river that flows through the valley. Below is a shot of it, from the suspension bridge you cross to get to from Alvin York's house to the gravesite.

You probably can't tell how green the river is. It's quite lovely.

From this place - not a place like it, but from this very place - one of my ancestors set out in search of his own farmland, though his daddy was rich: I mean Coonrod Pile's son Daniel. He made his way to Indiana then Illinois. It was very moving to retrace his steps.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Folktale Humor and "The Reluctant Dragon"

Brer Rabbit
Image credit:
Here’s a common kind of folktale: the humorous tale. Take Grimm's “The Gallant Tailor.” One thing I notice right away is its use of metaphors--not a given in the Grimm collection. Here are some examples:

And his heart quivered with joy, like a lamb’s tail.

“This is too much!” cried he, and sprang up like a madman and struck his companion such a blow that the tree shook above them.

They fled away as if they had been wild hares and none would venture to attack him.

These metaphors heighten the tale’s humor, the incongruity inherent in it. Soren Kierkegaard said that humor comes from joining two things that don’t belong together. I’ve often heard the term “apt metaphor,” but humor depends on something more like “surprising metaphor”—unexpected or inapt metaphor. Such as giants fleeing like wild hares.

Just as a fairy tale is an “apt metaphor” writ large, a humorous tale is an “unexpected metaphor” writ large. But this kind of story also uses more metaphor within the actual telling. The metaphors make the scenes funnier, which makes the story more entertaining. Or, in Mark Edmundson’s terms, they infuse the story with feeling—a humorous one.

The central metaphor for the “Gallant Tailor” is this: “his workshop seemed too small for his valor.” We ponder the incongruity throughout, even as we follow him to his triumph. By the end, this insignificant tailor will become a king. In pre-modern Europe, that’s about as absurd as you can get. But the tailor does it by being clever, as well as insanely puffed up with pride.

Let’s take a second example. I can’t help thinking of Brer Rabbit and his many close shaves. The stories are entertaining; they're funny. Part of the humor is that the smallest animal consistently outwits all the larger ones. Even Mr. Man comes out like a fool. Probably the sharpest contrast is between Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit. We all know foxes are clever, but here the rabbit is smarter.

Most of the stories turn on Brer Rabbit’s ability to bluff others into doing something that helps him and hurts them. Brer Rabbit gets what he wants—steals it, usually—and then someone else pays for it. Like “The Gallant Tailor,” Brer Rabbit stories are full of metaphors, all of them exaggerated, inapt, unexpected. Like the Gallant Tailor, he wins by being clever, even if he’s not exactly a deserving candidate for his good luck.

Contrast these traditional tales to a modern fairy story, the well-known “Reluctant Dragon” by Kenneth Grahame. Grahame’s humor is what I’d call jocular. He pokes fun in an amused sort of way. Consider this example:

What the boy chiefly dabbled in was natural history and fairy-tales, and he just took them as they came, in a sandwichy sort of way, without making any distinctions; and really his course of reading strikes one as rather sensible.

Here’s another:

"Scales, you know, and claws, and a tail for certain, though I didn’t see that end of him—I ain’t used to ’em, and I don’t hold with ’em, and that’s a fact!"

The incongruity here is of a different kind: it has to do with the absurd situation of a man discovering an actual dragon, an animal of folklore (of uncultured, pre-modern tales), in a cave. The characters in the story are afraid—the shepherd and his wife in particular—but the reader isn’t meant to be. So—in other words—we’re laughing at him, the shepherd. This comes out in the next dialogue:

“It’s all right, Father. Don’t you worry. It’s only a dragon.”

“Only a dragon?” cried his father. “What do you mean, sitting there, you and your dragons? Only a dragon indeed! And what do you know about it?”

You’ll note the overstatement and understatement, another trait in humor.

When the boy meets the dragon, he’s surprised only that the animal is purring—another incongruity. But the main one for this tale, of course, is that the dragon just wants to be a nice fellow and get along with people. He explains:

“You see, all the other fellows were so active and earnest and all that sort of thing—always rampaging and skirmishing and scouring the desert sands, and pacing the margin of the sea, and chasing knights all over the place, and devouring damsels, and going on generally—whereas I liked to get my meals regular and then to prop my back against a bit of rock and snooze a bit, and wake up and think of things going on and how they kept going on just the same, you know!”

We’re meant to laugh, I think: What a funny idea, a dragon who makes fun of other dragons from those old silly tales! What a funny idea, a dragon who just wants to live peaceably! Instead of laughing at the tailor, or laughing with Brer Rabbit, we’re laughing at those dragons of old—at the fairy tales themselves, really.

The jocular tone of the story fits it very well. It’s the appropriate form for a story that says fairy tales shouldn’t be taken seriously. Dragons are the brunt of jokes; knights in shining armor are, when you think about it, foolish kinds of characters. Or—at least they are in a modern world, where these things (we know) don’t happen, where the old tales have lost their meaning. Let’s all have a laugh at our ancestors.

As you’ve guessed, I don’t share Grahame's humor. That's because I don’t share his infatuation with the modern world and its loss of wonder. But I admire the skill with which he’s told his tale, wedding a humorous form to a humorous tale.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The form of a fairy tale

Grimms' Fairy Tales
Mark Edmundson defines form as “the primary way that writers infuse their words with feeling.” A literary work’s form should be “in tune” with the story’s plot, should reveal and create emotion, and in that sense should reveal “how it feels to live the author’s truth.” In these senses, Edmundson tells us,

In the music of the lines, in the form, is an entire attitude, a bearing.

What is the “form” of a fairy story? Let me touch the iceberg here. This is John Ruskin, in “The King of the Golden River”:

And Gluck climbed to the brink of the Golden River, and its waves were as clear as crystal, and as brilliant as the sun. And, when he cast the three drops of dew into the stream, there opened where they fell a small circular whirlpool, into which the waters descended with a musical noise.

It seems to me Ruskin’s music is “as clear as crystal.” It does not cloak its meaning under metaphor. This is because a fairy story is already, in some sense, a metaphor writ large. But he does use descriptive detail in this and other scenes. His description gives a richness and color to the image I see when I read it. It invites me into nature. The feeling is there, too. It is a feeling of wonder, evoked by such primal words as “river,” “sun,” “dew,” and “whirpool.”

Here’s a more “classical” example, a few lines from “Rumpelstiltskin”:

There sat the unfortunate miller’s daughter, and for the life of her did not know what to do. She had not the least idea how to spin straw into gold, and she became more and more distressed until at last she began to weep. Then all at once the door sprang open, and in stepped a little man who said, “Good evening, Mistress Miller. What are you weeping so for?”

Here description has fallen away, and the narrator tells us only enough to bring us, without damage, to the intrusion of magic into the tale. The storyteller does build up the girl’s distress, but with a very light hand. The mundane details—what she was wearing, how she gestured when she cried, what the room and the little man looked like—are left to us to construe as we like. And we do like, I think, to construe them in our own minds (or perhaps not, for not all readers do this).

So here in Grimm we seem to have a simple form, where the magic is highlighted by the paring away of everyday detail. This holds true in the rest of the tale, until we come to this episode:

On the third day the messenger came back and said, “I haven’t been able to find any new names, but as I came round the corner of a wood on a lofty mountain, where the fox says good night to the hare, I saw a little house, and in front of the house a fire was burning. And around the fire a most ridiculous little man was leaping. He was hopping on one leg and singing …”

Here the storyteller slows down to give us description. As in Ruskin’s story, nature is the storyteller’s object, and in a poetic vein. Something like a metaphor appears in “the fox says good night to a hare,” but the whole scene is more like an etching than a realist painting. It is the crux of the story, too, and one can taste the triumph here that will come at the expense of the little man. Again, primal words like primary colors come at us: “wood,” “mountain,” “house,” “fire.” The leaping man, the “one leg”—none of this is wasted. It serves him up for our enjoyment.

“Fundevogel” (a foundling tale) works the same way, but without any humor at all. Notice how sparse is the introduction of its horrific theme:

So then the cook said, “Tomorrow morning early, when the forester goes out hunting, I am going to boil the water. And when it bubbles in the kettle, I am going to throw Fundevogel into it and boil him.”

Such sparseness of detail, just as we saw above, is characteristic of these tales. But it does not diminish the story’s horror; to me, it conveys it more directly. This is just how it happens in life. I’m not plagued by a premonition. The clouds don’t darken overhead. I just find myself in the presence of someone capable of unspeakable evil, realizing it only after the words have come out of her mouth.

The story is sparse all throughout, almost like a mourner’s tale. It’s as if the story’s emotion has been stripped out of it. But one small bit of conversation gets repeated four times.

Lina said to Fundevogel, “Do not forsake me, and I will never forsake you.”
And Fundevogel answered, “I will never forsake you as long as I live.”

This exchange, or some other untold force, allows Fundevogel to perform magic, which again is described in simple, straightforward language. The cook, “the witch,” is an embodiment of evil, a threat that comes without dark clouds or foul weather; the threat is always thwarted by magic, but that magic comes in response to this deep friendship between Lina and Fundevogel. Very little description is given in the whole tale, and it loses nothing from that. The spare sentences again have the effect of heightening the dramatic action, moving us quickly from one magical intervention to another. The witch’s frustration is disclosed by her words and demeanor. But the storyteller infuses the whole tale with feeling only at the point of that repeated vow of undying friendship. Set against an uninflected narrative voice, that quiet vow speaks eloquently.

Mark Edmundson, Why Read? (Bloomsbury, 2004)
R. L. Green, Modern Fairy Stories (Dutton, 1955)
Grimms' Fairy Tales, translated by E. V. Lucas, Lucy Crane and Marian Edwards (Grosset & Dunlap)

Like this? Come see my new blog, Fairy Spell.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Mark Twain on Amateur Authors

The Autobiography of Mark Twain

In his autobiography, Twain writes:

Not even the most confident untrained soldier offers himself as a candidate for brigadier-generalship, yet this is what the amateur author does. With his untrained pen he puts together his crudities and offers them to all the magazines, one after the other—that is to say, he proposes them for posts restricted to literary generals who have earned their rank and place by years and even decades of hard and honest training in the lower grades of the service.

How times have changed, right? Right. He goes on:

We do not realize how strange and curious a thing this is until we look around for an object lesson whereby to realize it to us.

He proposes: opera. Suppose a man signs up for second tenor with the opera and (just pretend) suppose he gets the slot without a tryout. They go to perform.

After the first act the manager calls the second tenor to account and wants to know. He says:
“Have you ever studied music?”
“A little—yes, by myself, at odd times, for amusement.”
“You have never gone into regular and laborious training, then, for the opera, under the masters of the art?”
“Then what made you think you could do second tenor in Lohengrin?”
“I thought I could. I wanted to try. I seemed to have a voice.”
“Yes, you have a voice, and with five years of diligent training under competent masters you could be successful, perhaps, but I assure you you are not ready for second tenor yet. You have a voice; you have presence; you have a noble and childlike confidence; you have a courage that is stupendous and even superhuman. There are all essentials and they are in your favor but there are other essentials in this great trade which you still lack. If you can’t afford the time and labor necessary to acquire them leave opera alone and try something which does not require training and experience. Go away now and try for a job in surgery.”

Writing is an art. It requires patient training, lots of practice, drafts and “workouts” and other sorts of exercises. It requires patient and careful attention to words, style, narrative. It’s a craft that has to be learned, that requires, according to Twain, “apprenticeship.” What would this study “under the masters” look like in this field?

Well, Twain isn’t talking about grad school. Maybe an MFA gives you a leg up, maybe not. But Twain knew nothing of graduate “creative writing” programs. As far as I can tell, he knew about “critique groups” only in the sense that he had others (notably his wife) read and critique and edit his work. But neither of these is what he had in mind. From what I gather of his life story, his own journalistic career was a major part of his training. Getting published in countless brief columns, reporting, working the beat in California. This went on for years. He then, as he describes it, fell into the lecture circuit at a time when it was thriving. Writing entertaining lectures that proved to be successful was, then, another kind of “honest training in the lower grades of the service.” His first break-out book, The Innocents Abroad, began as reportage from aboard a steamship touring the Holy Land. He talks, in that book, about how many passengers meant to keep a journal, and how many succeeded—him.

Something Twain doesn’t mention as clearly, that he might have taken for granted, and that’s certainly visible in his works, is his careful, patient reading of literature. For instance, he once found James Fenimore Cooper guilty of 114 of 115 possible literary offenses (“Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” North American Review, 1895). He praises the literary merits of Kipling’s works, discusses the stylistic excellence of certain biblical passages, weighs the literary merits of Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs, lampoons literary excesses in pop-fiction of his day. His patient, careful reading and attention to style are evident in what he produced.

So there you have it: Twain’s recipe for apprenticeship, for learning from the masters. With some natural ability, hard work, careful reading, willingness to learn, humble efforts at less-than-glamorous publication, he promises that “you could be successful, perhaps.” But, as he puts it (and I paraphrase):

If you can’t afford the time and labor necessary to acquire the essentials in this great trade that don’t result from natural ability, leave writing alone and try something which does not require training and experience.

Does that sting? Maybe you (and I) need a little antiseptic.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Rewriting: A Few Thoughts

The Autobiography of Mark Twain
A copy of Mark Twain’s autobiography fell into my lap this summer. I’ve read it off and on since, hitting page 300 just today. In chapter 53 (this is the Charles Neider-edited version of 1959), Twain discusses works in progress and works abandoned. He also talks there about rewriting.

This past summer, I too (humble me) rewrote a novel that I originally wrote some fifteen years ago. This is unusual for me. Everything else that I wrote in that period has long since gone the way of all old computer files and notebooks. But this story I have rewritten now three or four times. I keep trying to get it write. (Freudian slip? Let it stand.)

My new tack, this time, was the mantra, “I’m starting to get bored here.” Wherever the plot dragged along, slogged down, got needlessly embroiled, I cut to the good thing (the interesting thing) that should happen next (I knew this, because I had written the story before, you see). I leaped over earlier drafts’ complications and hindrances – and never looked back.

One thing that helped – trust me, one needs “help” with such a thing – was the realization that I could just save a new version of the file whenever I hit that point. Another was that I didn’t try to edit the existing work, but to rewrite from a blank sheet, with the old draft on the desk at my elbow. I sometimes typed as much as a page or two without changing a lot. I called this rewrite “New Try,” and I got up to #7 by the end.

Back to Twain: “In Rouen in ’93 I destroyed $15,000 worth of manuscript, and in Paris in the beginning of ’94 I destroyed $10,000 worth—I mean, estimated as magazine stuff. I was afraid to keep those piles of manuscript on hand lest I be tempted to sell them …”

And here’s another: “In the story of Joan of Arc I made six wrong starts and each time that I offered the result to Mrs. Clemens she responded with the same deadly criticism—silence…. When at last I found the right form I recognized at once that it was the right one and I knew what she would say.”

He says a little later: “To start right is certainly an essential…. Twenty-five or thirty years ago I began a story… Four times I started it in the wrong way and it wouldn’t go. Three times I discovered my mistake after writing about a hundred pages. I discovered it the fourth time when I had written four hundred pages—then I gave it up and put the whole thing in the fire.”

Compared to Twain, I know, I have been weak. And that’s not good. But his courage inspires me. And, as he says, that's what heroes are for: "Our heroes are the men who do things which we recognize with regret and sometimes with a secret shame that we cannot do. We find not much in ourselves to admire, we are always privately wanting to be like somebody else."

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Great Art of Fantasy

How to Read a BookMortimer Adler, in his classic "How to Read a Book," suggested five questions to help readers evaluate the artistic quality of a novel (and I quote):

1.     To what degree does the work have unity?
2.     How great is the complexity of parts and elements which that unity embraces and organizes?
3.     Is it a likely story, that is, does it have the inherent plausibility of poetic truth?
4.     Does it elevate you from the ordinary semiconsciousness of daily life to the clarity of intense wakefulness, by stirring your emotions and filling your imagination?
5.     Does it create a new world into which you are drawn and wherein you seem to live with the illusion that you are seeing life steadily and whole?

He writes, “I will not defend these questions beyond saying that the more they can be answered affirmatively, the more likely it is that the book in question is a great work of art. I think they will help you to discriminate between good and bad fiction, as well as to become more articulate in explaining your likes and dislikes.”

Adler says nothing about fantasy fiction (why would he, writing in 1940?). But his questions four and five would suggest, as J.R.R. Tolkien claimed, that fantasy done well can be one of the highest forms of literary art, bar none. (Of course, where it fails, it can also be among the worst.) In fact, Adler’s questions might even suggest that “literary” fiction succeeds only insofar as it approximates what Tolkien called “subcreation”—a thing at which the best of fantasy excels.

After all, what kind of imaginative writing better “elevates you from the ordinary semiconsciousness of daily life,” especially “to the clarity of intense wakefulness,” than the kind that takes you out of our own world to another realm? For it to achieve this elevation, though, the writer's craft has to have that same intense wakefulness about it. It can't be a sleepy hodge-podge of worn tropes, but must select its detail with precision. The best fantasy does this as well as any kind of writing.

For that matter, what kind of fiction creates “a new world into which you are drawn and wherein you seem to live” more completely than the kind that requires “subcreation” of a world in the author’s imagination?

In fact, done well, fantasy can also excel at what Adler calls the “inherent plausibility of poetic truth.” Not factual truth, of course—which isn’t the point of fiction, after all—but the truth that is deeper than factuality, that touches the soul.

Needless to say, “literary” fiction (perhaps better termed “realism” fiction, in this conversation) can attain to high art. Honed language and clarity of thought and expression can bring us into an alternate version of our own world, in which none of the fanciful elements (like magic, or strange geography, or otherworldly creatures) plays a part. This alternate world is so like ours that the reader has no need to learn special rules, except those of the writer's peculiar point of view. But it is, as the life of an imaginary person living in an imaginary society (albeit one very like ours), an instance of "subcreation." It simply doesn't go as far in the process of subcreation as fantasy does. Or maybe we should say that it cloaks its subcreation more intentionally than does fantasy.

Meanwhile, fantasy, rather than cloaking its imaginative work, tends to cloak the similarities that exist between its imagined world and our own.

Both, then--the "realism" fiction and the "fantasy" sort--have the power to bring us out of semi-consciousness to a wakeful state, a new recognition of the world in which we live.

And so, a work in either genre can be termed "a great work of art." At least in Adler's way of defining it.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Readers Wanted: Mortimer Adler on Talking Back to Books

On the order of “books I should have read a long time ago,” I’ve just completed the classic How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler, published in 1940 by Simon and Schuster. (My 1967 paperback originally cost $1.75; but that’s another topic.)

In case you haven’t been introduced: this is a practical how-to guide to reading well. Its subtitle, “The art of getting a liberal education,” will give some sense of its scope. It mostly deals with reading non-fiction, “expository” books, and its focus is on “great books.”

The book is full of rules. All sorts of rules. These rules have to do with accomplishing deep reading of well-written books. And one set, in particular, has to do with how to talk back to a book. That’s where I want to focus in this post.

Adler’s first claim is that you have to really understand a book before you can critique it. (He earlier teaches you how to make sure you understand it.) He asks readers to be honest, not arguing for the sake of arguing or self-aggrandizement. For fiction, he advises that we abstain from critique until we “fully appreciate what the author has tried to make [us] experience.”

Ah, if only.

Behind this recommendation is Adler’s concept that what imaginative literature does, more than anything, is communicate an experience that is ultimately beyond words. Great works of fiction do this by drawing the reader into the imaginative world that the writer creates--or perhaps creating it within the imagination of the reader. Within this world is an “experience” that the author has had, and this is conveyed to the reader through the episodes and characters of the novel. He writes, "[The author] has used words to get into our hearts and fancies and move them to an experience that reflects his own as one dream might resemble another."

For Adler, you haven’t read a novel (or play, or poem) until you’ve made “an honest effort” to have this experience that the author tried to produce for you. And this in turn requires an “active” reading approach, not a passive one where you simply let your eye pass over the page.

Naturally, Adler doesn’t recommend that every book be given this kind of reading. Frankly, some novels don’t demand that much work—and that’s all right; they aren't meant to. But he does suggest—and with good reason—that if you’re going to critique a book, you’ve done this part: your part.

Seems only fair to me. I’ll try to hear what this book really has to say before I talk back to it.

Like this? Come see my new blog, Fairy Spell.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Wizard of Oz: American Faerie

For a long time, I’ve wondered if (and how) the creatures of faerie that resided in Europe could have made their way to American soil, where I live. Or is our soil already occupied by native sprites, whose voices and stories people like me (of European extraction) can’t easily catch on the wind?

Frank Baum made an effort to catch the wind of an American fairyland, to weave fresh American fairy tales, most famously The Wizard of Oz. This is, on its surface, a pretty simple book (as it should be): simple in language and straightforward in its telling. That’s not to say there aren’t unexpected and delightful turns. But the plot is easily followed. The characters have humorous incongruities, but not what I would consider great complexity. Like most (or perhaps all) European fairy tales, the narrator is “omniscient,” moving seamlessly into the perspective of any character most central to the current action. Like European fairy tales, this one has wild woods, witches, magic shoes, a magic hat, instructions that must be obeyed. Like European tales, it has just the right number of helpers and wishes to come out without any extras at the end.

But it also has distinctly American qualities. (The Library of Congress calls it “The first totally American fantasy for children.”) For instance, the places where magic happens are almost always wide open, not close and clustered forests. This setting is more typical of the American heartland. More importantly, maybe, it has newly-minted characters. The iconic Scarecrow, the ever-so-modern Tin Woodman, and that girl Dorothy in her pigtails, carrying her basket out of the house for a long walk. Oz, of course, the elfland version of that iconic American, the traveling charlatan and sideshow performer—with a good heart. Not surprisingly, he’s from our world (Omaha). And then the various peoples, like Munchkins and Winkies, who remind me a little of elves and dwarfs but aren’t. This feels like American innovation. Even the names of things have a fresh, non-traditional sound.

I wish I knew why this tale was and is so appealing. Maybe it’s Dorothy’s innocence—her goodness that prevails over all obstacles. Maybe it’s the freshness of Oz-land. Maybe Baum captured something, an American flavor of European folklore. Or maybe he was just a gifted storyteller, weaving surprises that his readers delight in.

Maybe one of you can solve the riddle for me.

At the end of the day, I’m not ready to pack up and find my way to Baum’s faerie. But plenty of Americans have been (witness this site, and this list of books, with full text!), and that’s quite a legacy.

Friday, July 27, 2012

On Planning and Not Planning

I seem to be made of contradictory tendencies. One is an overweening desire to know what’s going to happen. To have it all charted out. I have gone through phases of this sort with finances and with road trips. I’ve tried it out on writing.

The other tendency doesn’t want to plan, but to follow an idea. This idea that teases me, I want to see where it heads, explore it. Like a trail. I’ve tried this on road trips much less often, but on bike rides and career paths and hikes, this is how I’ve tended to move forward. The “this looks interesting, I wonder where it goes?” approach.

I have these two conflicting tendencies in my reading habits too. There’s the “important that I read it” pile and the “I wonder what this one’s like” pile. Maybe you have this, too. I have it in spades.

In the experience of writing, I’ve vacillated between the well-plotted grand design, and the agonizing feel of a blank space, a question mark, an “I have no idea what happens now.” (This last one is like sitting at a groundhog’s hole and hoping he comes out. Because if he doesn’t, this will be a long winter. It takes a lot of faith. And sometimes--though certainly not always--what comes out of the hole is not worth the wait.)

One of you recently reminded me that in writing, as in art, there is a place for planning ahead. I’ve tried to reconcile my two tendencies by using the planning phase intuitively. I use it to explore the spark that might come out of the idea that’s brewing in my head. I use it to jot down ideas, to sketch out possible trajectories, to feel after a character. I might list what I know about him or her and what questions I have about him or her—including how she’ll turn out.

For me, it’s critical not to let this go too far. My lengthy three-volume epic that I once outlined (while working in a factory, I might add) never came to fruition. Worse, I never started it. Partly, I lost interest, and partly I got overwhelmed. I have to be careful not to expend my creative energies for this or that story in the planning phases. If I do that, I’m sunk. There’s no juice in the tank for bringing it to life. (For the same reason, I don’t much talk about ongoing story projects. Early advice I’ve found helpful.)

What’s more, for me it’s important that I let the characters take me to places I didn’t know they had in them. I figure that I know these characters (I’m tempted to say “people”) better after I’m knee-deep in their story than I did when I was just thinking about them from afar. (Though I sometimes go back to an early spark to correct a misread of character or direction, too.) As for secondary characters—the friends and colleagues and minor (and sometimes major) enemies that will crop up in the story—for me these must happen as the story invites them in, or as they bully their way in. I think a lot of writers will tell you that: some characters write themselves into the story. Almost all my secondary characters do something like that. They’re there in the path or even the psyche of the character whose tale this story primarily tells. But they too are real, moved by their own mysterious motivations. No one sits idle, a piece of furniture. Everyone, like the real people you know in life, has a story, an angle, wishes, dreams, despairs—even if they seem ever so pedestrian to you and me.

All this to say, I suppose, that planning a story (or a work of art, or a life's journey) shouldn't be allowed to take the place of the story (or life) itself. If it serves that end, all to the good. If not, let it go.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Intuitive Writing

Serendipity? Not long after I wrote my last post, Terri Windling posted an eloquent testament to the intuitive approach to creating art – visual, narrative, poetic. (If you'e not seen it, jump over there for a wealth of insight and inspiration. Trust me, it's rich.) That discussion has inspired me to reflect a bit more on the theme.

I remember a time when I felt guilty, actually guilty, that I wasn’t “doing my homework” when I wrote stories. I’d been told to plan out my stories in advance, write outlines, give my characters little biographies, work up a complex portrait of scene and society. All that before you write – so I’d been told. This advice came via all sorts of channels, mostly writing guides. But it also seemed to be what one my literary heroes, Dostoevsky, did – as far as I could tell from reading the introductory articles to his works. (I now think his approach was more intuitive than I then supposed.)

Still, I persisted in being “lazy,” jumping into my stories with almost no idea what would happen, hardly a clear idea of who was who, and at most a vague sense of where the story might go. All I knew was a dilemma or an idea, a concept of some kind. My excuse was that I didn’t have time to do all that other work. That if I did that, I’d never get a chance to write the story, explore the idea. But the deeper reason was that I just didn’t want to do it. It evoked from me a deep, internal “uggh.”

Only slowly have I come to see that this is not a bad thing. As I mentioned in my last post, I came across the other sort of advice later in my apprenticeship. I’ve eavesdropped on artists I admire, and found out they do what I do – that they loathe the notion of planning all this out in advance. That it empties the work of its joy, and saps the potential of the story itself, or their creative process. So I gave up that guilt and just started writing.

And then something happened. I had a novel that I’d rewritten a couple of times, and on the last rewrite a character had emerged out of the woodwork into the story and, despite almost no presence on the page, had played a vital role in its unfolding. And one night, though I can’t swear it kept me up, she nagged at me. She wanted me to tell her story. I thought, “This is silly. It doesn’t make sense to write the story of a minor character in an unrevised novel.” But … well, she kept nagging, in an intriguing sort of way. So, to appease her, I jotted down some four or five lines, sketching out what I knew about her and what I didn’t. It turned out that I knew quite a bit more than I suspected, but I put it aside, still thinking it was foolish to obey this impulse.

Then, a few days later, I opened up that little document, about as close to an outline as I’d ever gotten, and I wrote about two paragraphs in her voice, coming from the point in the story where she awakened from her own hardship into hope. And that cracked open my resistance. The whole story was there. It was simply a matter of finding out how we got to that tangled knot, and how it would untangle for her.

I wrote it, thinking it was awful. I almost gave up, then went back and glanced over some earlier pages – realized it wasn’t awful. After that, I wrote it with fear that I would destroy what had begun. And then gradually I just gave up my fear and prejudice and reservations, and I wrote her story with a kind of astonished, listening ear.

If any of my novels makes its way before you, I hope it’s this one. Later this summer I plan to send out her story. But if no one notices her, at least I did. And I feel a kind of awe and pride in having done so.

Like this? Come see my new blog, Fairy Spell.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Two Kinds of Writing Advice

As a writer, I've been on the receiving end of plenty of writing tips, strategies, how-tos, and how-not-tos. Looking back at this wealth of opinion on how to craft good stories, compelling characters, believeable worlds, etc., I see some patterns. In particular, two overarching approaches to writing stand out: the blueprint approach and the intuitive one.

Let me preface this post by saying that writing advice was important to my growth as a writer. When I was learning the craft (and when aren’t we?), I plowed through a lot of how-to manuals (I still pick at them). I got my Writer’s Market and read all those articles (well, almost all of them). I checked out volumes from the library and worked through them. I wouldn’t go back now and undo that—even for the advice I’ve rejected. When I started reading advice, I’d already written a lot of stories, and these manuals taught me about revisions, preseverence, inspiration, what works and what won’t, and more. The more advice you can get when you’re starting out, the better.

But after you read a lot of writing advice, you realize that some kinds of advice work better for you than others. I suspect other beginners have experienced this. I’ve identified two general approaches, and I’ll first discuss the one I encountered first. Since I was working especially on “how to write fantasy,” and especially novels, I’ll focus on that kind of advice.

1. The blueprint approach. The first approach to “how to write a fantasy novel” is to tackle the pieces, or elements, of the novel. These would include the world in which your story takes place (including the type of magic in that world, and its role in that world), the characters and their personalities (plus what kinds of creatures will exist in your world), the dilemma those characters must face, the way that dilemma unfolds (the plot), and such smaller pieces as “scenes” that occur in the larger story arc.

Proponents of the blueprint approach often advise us to build exciting, interesting, and believable worlds, populate them with exciting and interesting characters (not too perfect), and throw them into a situation that is also exciting and interesting. They might tell us how to construct a kick-ass plot line, how to make dialogue zing, and how to give depth to characters. If you follow their advice, you can (perhaps) build something readable or at least something halfway there.

2. The intuitive approach. The second approach begins from the other side, so to speak. If the first approach builds the story like a house, the second feels its way into it by a door or window (or perhaps a crack in the foundation). In the second approach, there is a house but no blueprint, because the writer does not know where she or he is going. Probably the most widely read description of this approach is Stephen King’s On Writing. King disavows plots altogether, claiming he is not (nor does he ever desire to be) a plotting person. He starts with an idea (an intuition), a new combination of two things, and he describes the unfolding of the story as a discovery, not a construction project.

But other writers say similar things. Ursula LeGuin informs us that she did not know what existed on the islands of Earthsea until she “went there” with her characters. She too seemingly intuits, discovers through writing. Jane Yolen tells us that she writes like a reader, not knowing what will happen next (and interested to find out).

This intuitive approach to writing is less commonly encountered in how-to guides, and for an obvious reason: it’s hard to give concrete advice about following your intuition. (Though Stephen King did a pretty good job.) What’s more, writers who take this approach tend not to gravitate toward “how-to” thinking in the first place. They aren’t blueprint sorts of people.

Which brings me to the impetus behind this post, and its final point. If, like the second group, you’re an intuitive, idea-oriented person, you’ll probably find the blueprint approach mechanical, devoid of excitement, turning the writer into a typewriter. If you’re the blueprint sort, you’ll probably find the intuitive approach overwhelming, lacking focus or direction, confronting the writer with an intimidating blank page.

The point is, then, to discover which kind of writer you are. I wish I had known sooner; I would have spent less time trying to pinpoint the exact beginning and end of a scene in my novel, and more time thinking inside the scene. Maybe this post will help you avoid a similar pitfall.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Aladdin: Laziness Pays Off?

(You can actually buy this lamp here.)

The problem with Aladdin is that he’s lazy. It kills his father—literally. Then his poor mother has to work herself raw, while he hangs out with friends. And what punishment does the lad get for his indolence?

A magician tries to use him for his own ends. He decides that, however unlikely, the boy will do exactly as he asks and retrieve a miraculous lamp that (the story never says why) the magician can’t get for himself. So he dupes the family and then takes the lad to a cavern where Aladdin does exactly as he’s asked and gets the lamp. Only something goes wrong and the magician leaves him to die in the deep cavern. With the lamp.

How does Aladdin escape? Through hard work? Nope. He accidentally rubs a ring the magician had given him, gets the assistance of an unforeseen genii and gets out, with tons of jewels and a dingy lamp. A couple of days later his mother—not him—cleans the lamp, thereby discovering the more powerful Genii of the Lamp. (Thanks, Mom. I’ll take it from here.)

I won’t go through every twist of this fascinating adventure. Suffice it to say that Aladdin gets everything he wants through the magical work of the Genii: a palace, a princess, a fine if sentimental father-in-law. (Thanks, Genii. I’ll take it from here.) Poor mom gets hardly mentioned again. I suppose she eats at the royal table …

I’m sure you know the story: the magician finds out about the lad’s exceptional good luck and contrives to get the lamp back. Aladdin comes close to death before he can reacquire the lamp, this time through a small output of effort. Mostly he mopes around until, by accident, he rubs that ring he’s been wearing all this time and the lesser genii appears, transporting him to the desert place to which his castle—and princess—have been relocated. Notice he doesn’t even have to journey much here. It’s not a long epic journey through wilderness on little food.

Nor does he have to fight the magician. The only thing he does, in fact, is go to the next town, get some poison, and give it to the princess. She does the hard part: flirts with the magician, mingles the poison with wine, gives him the deadly drink. (Thanks, dear, I’ll take it from here.)

Now Aladdin can emerge literally from the closet where he’s been hiding, steal back the lamp and regain his fortunes.

There’s another episode, but it doesn’t touch on my theme. At the end of the day, that’s about all the effort Aladdin ever exerts: a little courage (sometimes a lot), some military command (not made much of in the story), and some clever stratagems. Oh, and he’s generous with that free money the genii provides. Everybody else does all the heavy lifting.

In modern fiction, we’re taught to expect that main characters will change in some way by the end of the story. Fairy tales don’t always comply with that expectation. Aladdin, the lazy youth, grows into a good-hearted man, we’re told. But I don’t think he much changes. All his wealth and happiness he owes to luck, not industry. He’s not the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps sort of hero. He wouldn’t have much inspired my immigrant ancestors to raise their station through hard work. He’s lazy, lucky, good-hearted, and a little bit clever. Mostly lucky.

Which raises the question, whether my “hard-working immigrant” ethic is realistic or even true. Maybe what you really need is good looks and some luck. Or maybe the story’s telling me: listen, without a genii on your side, you’ll never get there. I don’t like to believe that. But I’m not na├»ve either: there really are limits to how far hard work will take you. And there really are times when you have to say: It wasn't because I worked harder than anybody else.

So maybe the story’s telling me: find your genii. He’s hiding on your person somewhere—a neglected ring on your finger, a dingy lamp in your pocket. You’ve got him right there, the thing that will lift your fortunes. Feel around for him already, and stop working so hard.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ray Bradbury Tribute - In his own words

I never met him, except where we all met him: In his books and stories. Here are some things he said about his own life.

“In my later years I have looked in the mirror each day and found a happy person staring back. Occasionally I wonder why I can be so happy. The answer is that every day of my life I've worked only for myself and for the joy that comes from writing and creating. The image in my mirror is not optimistic, but the result of optimal behavior.”

“I like to think of myself on a train going across America at midnight, conversing with my favorite authors”

“All my life I’ve been running through the fields and picking up bright objects. I turn one over and say, Yeah, there’s a story. And that’s what kids like. Today, my stories are in a thousand anthologies. And I’m in good company. The other writers are quite often dead people who wrote in metaphors: Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne. All these people wrote for children. They may have pretended not to, but they did.”

“Every so often, late at night, I come downstairs, open one of my books, read a paragraph and say, My God. I sit there and cry because I feel that I’m not responsible for any of this. It’s from God. And I’m so grateful, so, so grateful. The best description of my career as a writer is “at play in the fields of the Lord.” It’s been wonderful fun and I’ll be damned where any of it came from. I’ve been fortunate. Very fortunate.”

“Action is hope. At the end of each day, when you’ve done your work, you lie there and think, Well, I’ll be damned, I did this today. It doesn’t matter how good it is, or how bad—you did it. At the end of the week you’ll have a certain amount of accumulation. At the end of a year, you look back and say, I’ll be damned, it’s been a good year.”  

Good work, Mr. Bradbury.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

John and Coonrod: A Tale of Two Pyles

Photo courtesy of

So in digging through my ancestors (and sometimes successfully avoiding my difficult novel), I’ve come across two somewhat famous persons of the name “Pyle” / “Pile.” Both were born in Orange County, North Carolina (about 200 miles east of where I now live). One is related to me, and the other is not.

The first, the elder, is named (believe it or not) John Pyle. He was a grandson of Nicholas Pyle, who emigrated from England to America in 1683 for the Quaker colony (Pennsylvania). Born in 1723 and educated in England as a doctor, John Pyle grew up to become a famous colonel on the British side of the Revolutionary War (Google: “Pyle’s Massacre”). But when he had a falling out with General Cornwallis, he switched sides (betrayed his country?), and became a spy for General Washington—instrumental in the Colonists’ victory. After the war, Colonel Pyle settled in Orange County, North Carolina, where he died at the age of 81. (Learn more about him here)

The second, the younger, is named Conrad Pile (or Piles, as it sometimes is listed), more likely of German than British descent. He was born in 1766, evidently, and may have fought among the Colonists—as a mercenary. After the war, he and Mary Rich tied the knot: she was about 15 and he was about 17. Conrad grew up to become a kind of pioneer, crossing the Appalachians and building a log home, and later a toll road, in Fentress, Tennessee. He acquired the nickname “Coonrod”—and a lot of wealth. He died and was buried in Tennessee at age 84. (Learn more about him here)

Care to guess which is my ancestor? You got it: Coonrod. Though I was born and raised in the North, my great-ancestor traded slaves and dealt shrewdly with Native Americans and early American settlers, amassing lots of wealth. He made a life for himself in the new world, not always (I’m sure) with the best of intentions or outcomes. Then his wealth was lost during the Civil War. Two of his great-grandsons fought on the Union side; another of his grandsons was “a Confederate sympathizer.” But before that war, my branch of the family had already moved out West. According to one researcher, two of Coonrod’s sons, Jacob and Daniel, “were close and moved together to Indiana in 1818, then to Illinois in 1827, where they prospered.”

This bit of trivia just confirms again my deep-rooted interest in stories about “the rest of us”: people who don’t make the epic decisions that shape world politics, but whose lives and decisions are meaningful and dramatic enough without that.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Reclaiming Narnia

Prince Caspian
After I wrote my last post, I went surfing to see how widespread my idea about Narnia being faerie is. (Somewhat after the fact, I admit; also, not that common.) What I discovered in the process was that Narnia has been largely co-opted by two different camps. On the one side is the overtly theological camp, which wants to read even more theology into Narnia than C. S. Lewis would have welcomed. I’ve read enough of his work to know that Lewis himself believed in the old-fashioned notion that the best of Greek and Roman (pagan) culture had some genuine good in it, and this good found fulfillment (for him) in Christ. I think he would have said this about fairy tales, as much as he did about ancient poets. So no, it’s not a theological allegory, a parlor trick for duping people into learning religious dogma; he even says as much.

The other camp—there seem to be always two camps these days, and always squaring off over some shared misunderstanding. Anyway, the other camp holds that the Narnia books are too Christian, too theological, too inconsistent, too this and too that … Virtual whiners, we might call them. Fault-finders. They apparently dislike what the “theology” camp likes. Both are missing the point.

If, like me, you’re disgusted by this kind of co-opting and want to reclaim Narnia, here’s my suggestion. Read these books aloud to children (preferably about 6 years old). You’ll discover a few things, I think. One is that Narnia reads extremely well aloud. At least, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe does. You can easily and intuitively inject the correct emotion into just about any piece of dialogue. There are pauses and surprises that come right out of the book at you—and better yet, at your rapt child-audience. Watch their faces while you read, and then tell me that it’s “too theological” or it’s an “allegory.” Nope. It’s gripping fiction for children. It’s fantasy that captures—and expands—a child’s imagination. And sometimes (not always), a child might even think Aslan is kind of like Jesus. But don’t count on it.

Lewis once wrote (I think in his autobiography) that adults shouldn’t be too snobby about how children first encounter classic themes and stories. He saw value in first becoming acquainted with a retold, childish form of those old stories. Later in life, coming across the “genuine article,” they’ll experience (he thought) a shock of surprise—pleasant and appealing—and associate their earlier fond memories with it.

I suspect he had something like that in mind for Narnia, and especially the story of one person giving up his (or her) life for another out of love, beyond the demands of mere justice. Yes, that’s a story in the Bible, and Lewis was profoundly attached to that biblical story. He made no secret of that, even in the Narnia books. But it’s also a story that Lewis would have said is found in the best of “pagan” literature, in certain fairy tales and in other great works of art. It’s a story of love that we do well to encounter in our dew-eyed youth, if only so that we can believe in such love later in life, when it’s both harder to believe in anything that good, and also more necessary.

PS: This post comes as I’m re-reading Prince Caspian—aloud to kids.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Narnia as Faerie

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis says that Father Christmas is the sort of person you only meet in a place like Narnia. But what is a “place like Narnia”? Isn’t there only one such place, with talking animals, tree-spirits, giants, spells, dwarfs, prophecies, and the sharp contrast of good-and-evil?

Come to think of it, there is. J. R. R. Tolkien called it “faerie.” Ursula K. LeGuin called it “Elfland.” If you’ve been there, you know that place. (If you haven’t, pick up some fairy tales and start reading!)

What makes Narnia faerie—the realm of nature-magic, deep as the land? I’ve mentioned some of its trappings. But, as Ursula K. LeGuin reminds us, trappings do not a good fantasy make. And, love it or don’t, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a good fantasy. An authentic journey into faerie—a kind of faerie, too, that you can see and feel in your mind.

Lewis achieved just the right mix of realism and magic. The rules of Narnia are clear, things aren’t arbitrary—people really do bleed there—and yet the magic is real (within discernible limits). So is that what makes this novel a journey into faerie? The skillful realization of magic within a believable world? Does technique a good fantasy make?

Or is it the fact that it is a journey, through a portal and into a woods—for it does start in the woods, like many fairy tales. Is it the fanciful device of the wardrobe, a new thing (relatively speaking) juxtaposed with an old thing (the faerie wood)? Does that make it authentic fantasy, a journey into faerie?

Or is it the sharp contrast between good and evil? The White Witch couldn’t be more evil; Aslan couldn’t be more good. Is this stark contrast what gives it that magical quality?

Or what about the smallness of the characters? Lucy, the youngest of four and a girl (in patriarchal England) is first to discover the portal. And she’s the one who seems closest to Aslan—she and Susan, in the first book, and Lucy alone as the adventures unfold. Even Peter is only a child, though a very responsible, grown-up eldest son. Edmund, who experiences the greatest transformation (after Narnia itself), is the proto-typical younger brother. These little people, small characters, become—but don’t start out as—realm-shapers. They fall into something that’s already been going on. They’re the target of prophecies of old, innocent though they are of them. Does this, then, constitute Narnia as faerie?

No. It’s like chasing the wind, or defining the shape of a spirit. Narnia feels like faerie because, in some mysterious way, C. S. Lewis opens a door on faerie. It’s faerie as C. S. Lewis encountered it. And he had the elfish power to weave its odors and sights around us.

I don’t think he could have done it, if he hadn’t been there himself.


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