Faint Hope for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Teaser Trailer Release)

The Battle of the Five Armies bannerThe teaser trailer for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies was released this week and has sped its way through the Tolkien fan digital community. You can check out the footnote conversation at A Tolkienest Perspective, or some thoughts about film adaptation at The Oddest Inkling.

My review of the-hobbit-the-battle-of-the-five-armies-official-posterthe first film was called, “Not All Adventures Begin Well“–I think it’s pretty obvious how I felt. My review for The Desolation of Smaug was more reflective, considering why it is that Peter Jackson’s adaptations swing so wide of the mark. I argued there that in turning a fairy tale into an epic, he captured all the adventure and psychology and violence that is missing in the fairy tale, and missed all the mythic elements that are essential for an epic. In short, the films fell between two stools.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I loved watching the movies. I relished in lining up with friends, sitting next to people with incredibly hairy feet, feasting on the screen, and then arguing about it afterward. I think they were pretty good films. But they were very flawed as adaptations.

And that is exactly why I have hope for the third film. C.S. Lewis noted in his earliest reviews of The Hobbit that it began in fairy tale, but took on a darker tone by the end. The Hobbit grows into the genre of epic, trying it on at the end with global warfare, new allegiances, great deeds, prophecy fulfilled, and the heat of Smaug.

the-hobbit-the-battle-of-the-five-armies-posterThis is exactly what the third Hobbit film promises to give us. The Battle of Five Armies, if it is done well, could really bring us to the heights of The Return of the King.

Perhaps I should be wiser, and temper my hope. Once bitten, thrice shy, after all. But Jackson is a genius at the epic, and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy forged in me new expectations of what film-making and writing epic fantasy could be like.

So here is the teaser trailer for The Battle of Five Armies. I hope you enjoy, and do let me know what you think in the comments below, or share your thoughts on twitter (I’m @BrentonDana).

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The Tangled Path Before Us: A Review of Matthew Dickerson’s “The Rood and the Torc”

AmishnessityWhen I walk into a bookstore and scan the historical fiction section, I am inevitably met with dozens of book jackets featuring Amish women in bent grass landscapes or mysterious looking Elizabethan courtiers ready to be betrayed (or to do the betraying). I suspect some among them are quite good, and I also imagine we will see rich war stories in the next few years as the WWI centennial is upon us. But my eyes blur as the books overlap with one another and I simply lose interest. Some days I lose hope for the genre.

That’s why it is so refreshing when something so penetratingly unique emerges from the blur. Such is the case with Matthew Dickerson’s new novel, The Rood and the Torc: the Song of Kristinge, Son of Finn (2014).

Rood and the Torc by Matthew DickersonKristinge, the protagonist, is a destiny child. An austere and quiet monk in an early medieval France, Kristinge is content to make his way as a scribe, gardener, and brother of men in his secluded monastery. His world is disrupted when he hears the the last words of a dying warrior. Kristinge is shocked to discover that he is of royal Frisian blood, and has been hidden with his protector Willimond at the monastery until he is mature enough to face his destiny. Haunted by the possibilities of the tangled path before him, Kristinge and Willimond set out to explore these paths, taking their robes and staffs and a few coins as they journey from the mountains of France, through the faltering city of Paris and the bare lands of Friesland and Saxony, to the cold shores of Denmark.

Without burdening the reader in detail, the simple actions of finding food, getting lodging, retaining passage, and remaining safe on the road act as a portkey to the Franco-Germanic world of the 6th century. And for most of us that world is very remote. I can feel the distance when I pick up Beowulf, even in a good translation. It is a world after the fall of Rome and before the rise of Charlemagne that defines Europe. Brendan and Patrick have begun the conversion of Ireland, the deep roots of Arthur are working into the British imagination, and the Danes are moving toward an era of Viking supremacy. Though many of us in Western Europe and North America trace our roots to this ancient past, it remains completely foreign to us. Yet Dickerson is able to help slip easily into the story.

The character of Kristinge himself helps us appreciate the contrast between our world and his. Kristinge is a Christian monk in an age before the conversion of Europe, a pacifist in an era of war and brutality, and a sympathetic soul when such folk are hard to find. As Kristinge is faced with his royal destiny, he comes to realize that when he takes up the torc of his people (the crown) it will inevitably mean taking up the sword. The kings and clan leaders Kristinge meets are men of cunning brutality, and it becomes difficult to see how Kristinge will take up that path. Can he become like Gideon or David in a land where mead hall stories are of the great feats of Valhalla, the mead hall of the slain?

Intriguingly, Kristinge’s bridge to the pagan world around him comes from a skill he learned in childhood. Like David, he is blessed with the gift of song, and his harp gains him entrance to the halls of the great men of the era. He is truly a reluctant bard at first, but Kristinge soon sees that his art can become a vehicle for his Christian expression. With great skill Kristinge weaves together biblical stories and principles of Christian humility and love with the great poems and stories of France, Friesland, and Danemark.

And it is these scenes that I love the most, the times when Kristinge takes up the harp in the mead halls and sings to audiences of courtiers and thanes and warriors. There are a dozen alliterative poems throughout The Rood and the Torc, some of which are translations of Old English, and some are Dickerson’s own creation. Dickerson’s secret is that he studied Old English as an undergrad, so he is intimately familiar with the alliterative poetry that is authentic to the period. Indeed, it isn’t even so much that the poems adorn the book, or even show off his skill as a translator and musician. It is more true that the character of Kristinge and his story emerge from the poetry itself, so that the stories and songs are intricately linked in imaginative authenticity. It really is a superb feature of the book.

One of the most fascinating parts about this book is the tension Kristinge feels about his own destiny. Tucked away as a claimant to a seat of power with a name to become a chieftain of chieftains, Kristinge is uncertain about where he fits in the world. The tri-vocational tension of artist, leader, and pastor resonates through the pages of the The Rood and the Torc. I wonder if this isn’t Dickerson’s tension as well, if we can replace “leader” with academic or teacher. Kristinge himself finds the resolution of this tension as he works out a theology that balances between cultural artistic engagement and cultural prophetic critique. I don’t think it is a coincidence that my favourite book of Dickerson’s is his The Mind and the Machine, which is a theology of culture in its own right.

Maybe I am in danger here of committing the personal heresy, of imagining too deeply into Matthew Dickerson’s motivations. So let me say flat out that if this tri-vocational tension is not true of Dickerson, it is certainly true of me. My whole adult life has been about the writer-teacher-pastor tension, and it seems to have resolved itself in my own life in a theology of culture. The Rood and the Torc for me, then, was not only a great read—I gobbled it down around campfires and in late night reading binges—but it was also shockingly prescient of my own human experience.

Perhaps all the good books do exactly this. I don’t know. But Matthew Dickerson did in this novel what Frederick Buechner did for me in his memoirs. And although Buechner’s Godric and Brendan are radically different as books, like The Rood and the Torc they transport the reader into the wonder of the medieval world through the eyes of its early saints.

I realize I have not spoken much of the storyline, and have focussed on the narrative textures of character, scenery, culture, language, theology, vocation, and art. The story is good too! I was frustrated with the ending of the storyline until it actually came together, but it drove me forward as a reader. This is no Brown-Grisham-Patterson where everything hangs on plot. Instead, The Rood and the Torc is a rich book, complex in imaginative wonder and yet accessible to the curious reader.

Dickerson is best known for his nonfiction work, including From Homer to Harry Potter: a Handbook of Myth and Fantasy (2006), The Mind and the Machine: What it Means to Be Human and Why it Matters (2011), and a number of books on J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Truly, Dickerson is a diverse artist-scholar, producing works that range from folk albums and musicology books to computer science models and literary criticism. According to his website, he will be releasing a fly fishing book in the late summer, just before he publishes the first in a fantasy trilogy. All of this is on top of (and occasionally part of) his role as a university professor. Busy fellow.

mind and the machine matthew dickersonWhere does The Rood and the Torc fit in this resume? The answer to this question is intriguing. While The Rood and the Torc is a tight, imaginative, literary narrative, it also displays the breadth of Dickerson’s personal palette. The novel brings together all of his interests. It is an environmentally rich outdoors novel, filled with Christian thought and imaginative play, and resounding with song. And while there is little overlap with The Rood and the Torc and Tolkien’s legendarium, the 6th century context is evocative of the Beowulf world that Tolkien used both as a reference point and as imaginative inspiration. The Rood and the Torc has that “Northernness” that C.S. Lewis felt captured his sense of eternal longing; indeed, it is as if Kristinge brings together the humility of Frodo and the mysticism of Ransom. Dickerson takes the protagonist further than either Frodo or Ransom in moving through the personal struggles with destiny to a sense of vocation in the end. But in many ways the novel rhymes with the work of the Inklings as it captures the best of Dickerson’s other expressions.

For those that love books filled with art and ideas, The Rood and the Torc is a must read. Although Matthew Dickerson has not quite renewed my faith in historical fiction as a genre, he has made me sensitive to the fact that I need to move past the bookstore displays of mainstream trends to the small press section where this generation of writers are resisting the restrictions of sales demands and producing books that are worth reading and owning and passing on to the next generation. The Rood and the Torc is one of those books.

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Till We Have Confusing Book Titles: Guest Post by William O’Flaherty

Essential_CSLWilliam O’Flaherty is like a digital C.S. Lewis handshake. He is a technological rainmaker, drawing together Lewis resources through his various posts, blogs, podcasts, interviews, and news items at Essential C.S. Lewis, a feature site of the Middle Earth Network. William has also been featured in my Great Links occasional blog. Here he gives us an informative and humorous look at the strange ins and outs of C.S. Lewis publication.

That Hideous Strength Tortured Planet by LewisNot long ago Brenton wrote a piece about his discovery of a shorter preface to That Hideous Strength. It turns out that the mysterious second preface originated from an abridged version of that story which was approved by Lewis entitled The Tortured Planet. Confused? Sit back and get ready for your head to spin as I unveil other madness involved in books by Lewis that have either multiple names or the same name that is actually a different version!

Let’s begin with That Hideous Strength, first published on August 16, 1945 in the UK and on May 21, 1946 in the US. According to Walter Hooper in his excellent C.S. Lewis: A Companion & Guide (aka C. S. Lewis: A Complete Guide to His Life & Works), there are many differences between the two books. Hooper notes that the UK edition is superior to the US volume.

But wait, didn’t I mentioned another shorter edition? It was published in 1946 by Avon Books of New York (the first US edition was by Macmillan). My copy of The Tortured Planet notes on the cover that it is “Specially abridged by the Author.” To make matters more interesting, Hooper points out that this shortened version contains some minor revisions by Lewis. From what he states Lewis used the UK version, which already had changes that were likely made by the editor. Thus, Hooper concludes if “a critical edition” is ever created “it should make use of the corrections and improvements found in the Abridged Edition.” Beyond all this, it’s worth noting that Brenton isn’t crazy for claiming to have a copy of That Hideous Strength that contained the preface for the abridged The Tortured Planet. That’s because there is an edition (first published in 1955) from Pan Books of London that published this shorten version of the book using the original That Hideous Strength title!

Perelandra by CS LewisThe previous book in the Ransom Cycle, Perelandra, has a less confusing situation (sort-of). While there is no published abridged version of it (although Lewis actually created one), the same book is available under two other titles: Voyage to Venus (Perelandra) and Perelandra: World of New Temptation. While the latter is not really a dramatically different title, its subtitle could create confusion to the casual reader. As for that never published abridged version, Walter Hooper mentions that a copy remained in Lewis’s library during his lifetime and it shortens the book by about 25%.

1952’s Mere Christianity is a classic that some aren’t aware were three previously published books. Those who are might still be confused because that single volume is divided into four sections that are labeled as books. The reason for this is that they are based on four sets of radio talks from the 1940’s on the BBC. The first two broadcasts were initially published as Broadcast Talks in the UK. When released a year later in the US the publisher obviously realized a different title was needed because no one in the United Stated had heard the material over the air…so it became The Case for Christianity.

CS Lewis Apologetics Books Mere Christianity Miracles ScrewtapePrevious to the release of Mere Christianity was Miracles, Lewis’s last book containing all new material that had an apologetic theme. The original covers contained the subtitle A Preliminary Study when it came out in 1947. Then in 1960 a revised edition (with changes to the third chapter) was published. US editions didn’t catch up until 1978. However, in 1958 (prior to the revised version), Lewis created an abridged copy for The Association Press and it carried the original title, Miracles: A Preliminary Study!

While Lewis was still living he oversaw several works that were collections of shorter material. In 1949 he published Transposition And Other Addresses in the UK that carried the title The Weight of Glory And Other Addresses in the US the same year. These books were Weight of Glory by CS Lewis signatureidentical. However, in 1980 a revised version of The Weight of Glory came out that included additional essays (and one that had been previously expanded after its 1949 release).

After his death there have been more than a few books collecting his essays. In fact, too many with overlapping inclusion of his shorter works to discuss in this post (so many that another article could easily be written). There is, however, one worth noting related most directly to our present theme. It is God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. It was first released in the US in 1970. The exact same book came out a year later in the UK as Undeceptions: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Then in 1979 God in the Dock: Essays on Theology was published containing less than half of the material.

Wow, a confusing journey! Many thanks Will! Check out his various resources on EssentialCSLewis.com.

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The Sea a Sham Born of Uniformity: On Subverting the Normal with Gene Wolfe (#WritingWednesdays)

writing_wednesdaysClassic SciFi authors will cringe when I admit this, but I am reading Gene Wolfe for the first time. It just hasn’t come across my path until I found a dozen Ursula K. LeGuin and Gene Wolfe books at a thrift store (for a quarter each!). I have now begun The Shadow of The Torturer (1980), volume one of the Book of the New Sun.

If anyone else is on the verge of picking up Gene Wolfe for the first time, I would encourage you not to hesitate. In a very short book, Wolfe has created a sophisticated fictonal world. The speculative air of this future world is shot through with the tang of invention. It is evocative, mood-laden, a story with the skyscape of an unknown futuristic world combined with the familiar cobblestones of a medieval court on the border between European Christendom and the lands of the Saracens.

As evocative as this little book is, it is also disorienting. Gene Wolfe is a committed “show” writer, avoiding the “tell” of info dump. So we discover his speculative universe little by little, and much remains obscure for pages on end. Wolfe demands the suspension of disbelief from his readers, and requires our patience as he carefully places the layers of his world into place.

From a writer’s perspective–and Wolfe’s story really is a kind of narrative writer’s workshop–we can learn from his ability to disorient the reader. One can do that easily enough through strangers, dreams, foreign lands, or other dimensional realities; there are some brilliant examples of these in all of the best fantasy books. But Wolfe takes it a step further. He not only enhances the texture of his world by having readers discover its idiosyncrasies, but he also disorients the reader by having her discover mundane realities in her world in new and surprising ways.

The following excerpt is a great example of this subversion of the normal. The protagonist falls asleep beside a giant. In his sleep he mounts a leather-winged beast and explores the dying globe that he has been forced to wander. Watch the way that Wolfe inverts our expectations, speaking of the vision ahead as a “sham of uniformity” and a “purple waste.” The Shadow of the Torturer is a narrative reprimand to the writer prone to info dump, as well as a template for the double inversion of the reader’s expectation in entering the speculative universe.

The Shadow of the Torturer
Chapter 15: Baldanders

And then I dreamed….

I bestrode a great, leather-winged being under a lowering sky. Just equipoised between the rack of cloud and a twilit land we slid down a hill of air. Hardly once, it seemed to me, the finger-winged soarer flapped her long pinions. The dying sun was before us, and it seemed we matched the speed of Urth, for it stood unmoving at the horizon, though we flew on and on.

At last I saw a change in the land, and at first I thought it a desert. Far off, no cities or farms or woods or fields appeared, but only a level waste, a blackened purple in color, featureless and nearly static. The leathern-winged one observed it as well, or perhaps snatched some odor from the air. I felt iron muscles beneath me grow tense, and there were three wing strokes together.

The purple waste showed flecks of white. After a time I became aware that its seeming stillness was a sham born of uniformity – it was the same everywhere, but everywhere in motion – the sea – the World-River Uroboros – cradling Urth. Then for the first time I looked behind me, seeing all the country of humankind swallowed in the night.

When it was gone, and there was everywhere beneath us the waste of rolling water and nothing more, the beast turned her head to regard me. Her beak was the beak of an ibis, her face the face of a hag; on her head was a miter of bone. For an instant we regarded each other, and I seemed to know her thought: You dream; but were you to wake from your waking, I would be there.

Her motion changed as a lugger’s does when the sailors make it to come about on the opposite tack. One pinion dipped, the other rose until it pointed toward the sky, and I scrabbled at the scaled hide and plummeted into the sea.

The shock of the impact woke me. I twitched in every joint, and heard the giant mutter in his sleep. In much the same way I murmured too, and groped to find if my sword still lay at my side, and slept again.

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“The Myth of Empty Space” by Dallas Willard

I was at my extended family’s house yesterday and saw Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy on a side table. It is a bookish home, and I’m a bookish person, so I’m often flipping over books and picking up where people leave off. It has been 15 years since I’ve looked at The Divine Conspiracy–I’m no longer certain that I’ve ever actually read it–but I was curious because my brother-in-law is reading it with energy. I didn’t have time to read the whole thing, so I just read the footnotes (see the bookish comment above; it’s a geek thing). He uses a C.S. Lewis quote in a way not unlike my “There is No Such Thing as Space.” While my use had to do with the War of Worldviews that Lewis was engaged in, Willard moves it to the realm of the human experience of God. I thought it would be interesting to see the quote in the context Willard gives it, considering Willard’s growing influence among searching evangelicals.

God Wants to Be Seen

Similarly, God is, without special theophanies [special God appearances], seen everywhere by those who long have lived for him. No doubt God wants us to see him. That is a part of his nature as outpouring love. Love always wants to be known. Thus he seeks for those who could safely and rightly worship him.God wants to be present to our minds with all the force of objects given clearly to ordinary perception.

In a beautiful passage Julian of Norwich tells of how once her “understanding was let down into the bottom of the sea,” where she saw “green hills and valleys.” The meaning she derived was this:

If a man or woman were there under the wide waters, if he could see God, as God is continually with man, he would be safe in soul and body, and come to no harm. And furthermore, he would have more consolation and strength than all this world can tell. For it is God’s will that we believe that we see him continually, though it seems to us that the sight be only partial; and through this belief he makes us always to gain more grace, for God wishes to be seen, and he wishes to be sought, and he wishes to be expected, and he wishes to be trusted.

Seeing is no simple thing, of course. Often a great deal of knowledge, experience, imagination, patience, and receptivity are required. Some people, it seems, are never able to see bacteria or cell structure through the microscope. But seeing is all the more difficult in spiritual things, where the objects, unlike bacteria or cells, must be willing to be seen.

Persons rarely become present where they are not heartily wanted. Certainly that is true for you and me. We prefer to be wanted, warmly wanted, before we reveal our souls—or even come to a party. The ability to see and the practice of seeing God and God’s world comes through a process of seeking and growing in intimacy with him.

But as we can expect to make progress in the seeing of any subject matter, so also it is with God. Toward the end of his life Brother Lawrence remarked, “I must, in a little time, go to God. What comforts me in this life is that I now see Him by faith; and I see Him in such a
manner as might make me say sometimes, I believe no more, but I see.” The heavens progressively open to us as our character and understanding are increasingly attuned to the realities of God’s rule from the heavens.

The Myth of Empty Space

So we should assume that space is anything but empty. This is central to the understanding of Jesus because it is central to the understanding of the rule of God from the heavens, which is his kingdom among us. Traveling through space and not finding God does not mean that space is empty any more than traveling through my body and not
finding me means that I am not here.

out of the silent planet by c.s. lewisIn Out of the Silent Planet, C. S. Lewis gives an imaginative description of how one of his main characters, Ransom, experiences a “progressive lightening and exultation of heart” as the airship carrying him moves away from the earth:

A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science was falling off him. He had read of “Space”: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now—now that the very name “Space” seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam…. He had thought it barren: he saw now that it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even upon the earth with so many eyes—and here, with how many more!

Some may object that this is only literature. Yes, but it is nonetheless helpful in loosening the baseless images that, without scientific validation of any sort, flood in from the culture of pseudoscience to paralyze faith. Sometimes important things can be presented in literature or art that cannot be effectively conveyed in any other way.

Certainly mere space travel is not the way to discover the divine richness that fills all creation. That discovery comes through personal seeking and spiritual reorientation, as well as God’s responsive act of making himself present to those ready to receive. Only then we cry with the Seraphim, “Holy! Holy! Holy!” as we find “the whole earth full of his glory.”

In a striking comparison, Ole Hallesby points out that the air our body requires envelops us on every hand. To receive it we need only breathe. Likewise, “The ‘air’ which our souls need also envelops all of us at all times and on all sides. God is round about us in Christ on every hand, with his many-sided and all-sufficient grace. All we need to do is to open our hearts.”

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Remembering Christopher Mitchell

Brenton Dickieson:

This week many online blogs are mourning the loss of Christopher Mitchell, past director of the Marion E. Wade Center. Here is the official Wade Center blog, and you can read tributes and memories from the Oddest Inkling and Essential C.S. Lewis.

Originally posted on Off the Shelf:


Chris Mitchell, former Director of the Marion E. Wade Center, 1994-2013

It is with great sadness that we announce the unexpected death of Christopher W. Mitchell, Director of the Marion E. Wade Center from 1994-2013. In addition to serving as Director, Chris held the Marion E. Wade Chair of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois from 2006 to 2013.  Many of those who have visited or researched at the Wade Center over the years will recall Chris’s warm welcome and affable manner in discussing any subject, from woodworking to the nexus of faith and imagination. His love for God, family and friends, great literature, and good food was palpable, and his enjoyment of life’s good gifts was infectious.

Wheaton College President Philip G. Ryken reflected that “Chris Mitchell has been a good friend and a constant encouragement. We became better acquainted through some of his visits to Oxford when…

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On Mixing Fantasy with Real Life, A Lesson from Sesame Street (#WritingWednesdays)

writing_wednesdaysThis is the latest in a series called “Writing Wednesdays,” focusing on writing resources from the common to the unusual. This one is perhaps a little unusual.

For work I am reading Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (2000). It’s been on my to-read list for a decade or so, and I am now at a point where I have to predict a tipping point moment, so I have an excuse to pick it up.

Gladwell’s über-bestseller is like a self-help guide to social engineering. It predicted (or helped create?) the viral, memetic atmosphere of the Twitterverse we now live in, where youtube videos spread like medieval plagues. It’s a bit creepy, really.

One of Gladwell’s case studies in “The Stickiness Factor” is Sesame Street. First filmed in the Summer of ’69, Sesame Street was to be a different kind of show on two fronts. First, it was launched as an intervention in early childhood literacy. The brains behind Sesame Street wanted a preschool education device that almost everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status. C.S. Lewis once observed a child who was enthralled at being read to. The boy had grown up in a household starved of imagination: “Not a fairy tale nor a nursery rhyme.” Too many kids in America were experiencing this imaginative malnutrition, and waiting until the child got to school wasn’t enough.

By the late 1960s, televisions were in most homes, and had begun to be daily companions even in the poorest of communities. So, armed with a goal, the Children’s Television Workshop did the second surprising thing: they hired a leading University researcher to help them out. Psychologist Ed Palmer provided “The Stickiness Factor” for the Sesame Street team. He did research into what children were actually interested in. He began playing television shows for kids in a room with great toys, and noting when kids would watch TV and when they went to their toys. Over time, they developed a way to test Sesame Street segments to determine when kids were paying attention and when they weren’t.

As they did this research, they discovered that they had to leave behind much of what they knew about television from their work on adult shows. They discovered that children like short, tight segments—not a big surprise. But in adult television, producers used confusion and rapid talking to create a sense of excitement on screen. When this happened in initial tests, kids tuned out. Slow, deliberate, expressive, friendly, supportive conversation was what kids want. That’s what I remember still of Sesame Street when I was growing up.

But when I think of Sesame Street, I also think of the Muppets, especially Super Grover (and the Near/Far skit), Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, Big Bird, and Snuffleupagus. Intriguingly, these stock characters almost never happened.

Because they were a research-based show, the Workshop was in conversation with child psychologists. And these experts had warned about creating pretty clear spaces between the imaginary world and the fantastic. Gladwell explains:

“The problem was that when the show was originally conceived, the decision was made that all fantasy elements of the show be separated from the real elements. This was done at the insistence of many child psychologists, who felt that to mix fantasy and reality would be misleading to children. The Muppets, then, were only seen with other Muppets, and the scenes filmed on Sesame Street itself involved only real adults and children” (The Tipping Point, 105).

Dr. Palmer encouraged the Sesame team to produce five shows and play them for children on that sultry summer of 1969. It was so hot that kids were distracted, and there were better things to talk about—like the first time humanity stepped on the moon. The Sesame Street team were crushed by the results of the focus group.

What Palmer found out in Philadelphia, though, was that as soon as they switched to the street scenes, the kids lost all interest. “The street was supposed to be the glue,” Lesser said. “We would always come back to the street. It pulled the show together. But it was just adults doing things and talking about stuff and the kids weren’t interested. We were getting incredibly low attention levels. The kids were leaving the show. Levels would pop back up if the Muppets came back, but we couldn’t afford to keep losing them like that” (105-106).

It was deadly news for the producers and writers, and Sesame Street teetered on the edge of imagination and reality.

Fortunately, The Children’s Television Workshop was responsive, filled with researchers of the very best kind. They changed the show rather than sticking with Plan A. It was a “turning point in the history of Sesame Street” (106). It was a few weeks until broadcast, and they had to figure out what to do.

Intriguingly, Dr. Ed Palmer decided to write to his colleagues and explain why they were going to ignore the device of the best developmental psychologists.

Henson and his coworkers created puppets who could walk and talk with the adults of the show and could live alongside them on the street. “That’s when Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch and Snuffleupagus were born,” said Palmer. What we now think of as the essence of Sesame Street — the artful blend of fluffy monsters and earnest adults — grew out of a desperate desire to be sticky (106).

So the best parts of Sesame Street were Plan B, it seems.

Should we be surprised by the discovery that children are not emotionally scarred by mixing fantasy and realism? Leave aside the fact that any parent, aunt, uncle, grandparent, sibling, friend, teacher, principal, daycare worker, Sunday School teacher, or cab driver who has spent eight minutes with a real live child knows that children live in a blend of fantasy and real life. Let’s set that aside.

Most of us who are writers will not be surprised at all for two connected reasons.

The first is that fantasy writers know only too well the limits that non-fantasy critics have in understanding the genre of fantasy literature.

This is not a new phenomenon. J.R.R. Tolkien’s lecture series “On Fairy Tales” has a subtly defensive posture. C.S. Lewis isn’t subtle at all, and defends the use of fairy tale and fantasy in essays like, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said” and “On 3 Ways of Writing for Children.” In that last essay—a classic that is reprinted often—Lewis has to remind readers that children will fantasize about real life things, hoping in school popularity that will never happen. They are unlikely to be emotionally scarred if they never take to the mountains to slay a murderous würme or recover a lost phoenix feather. Even as late as 1992, Brian Attebery has to take an entire chapter to answer the question, “Is Fantasy Literature?” (Strategies of Fantasy, ch. 2).

Of Other Worlds by CS LewisFantasy writers know the reality of literary ghettoization as much as anyone, so it is no surprise that developmental psychologists in the 1960s miss the essential element in fantasy that makes imaginative stories the first that children relish and enjoy: we love the fantastic. It sounds too basic, but so many miss this point. We love imagining that the threshold between Main Street and Fairyland is only a millimetre thick. We love the sense of the possible, the haunting tug of the liminal, the mystery of around the bend. By “we,” I mean both me and that preschooler down the block.

Lewis confirms this point in a letter to author Dorothy L. Sayers on Dec 6, 1945. Sayers had written with pleasure at her reading of his That Hideous Strength. Lewis wrote back with thanks, commenting that he was butchered by reviewers. His comment is intriguing:

Apparently reviewers will not tolerate a mixture of the realistic and the supernatural. Which is a pity, because (a) It’s just the mixture I like, and (b) We have to put
up with it in real life.

The second reason we aren’t surprised by the segregation between fantasy and realism is something pretty simple. The fairy tales we grew up on have for us an Otherworld quality that they didn’t have when they first appeared. Here C.S. Lewis explains. In his preface to the peculiar, dark apocalyptic fantasy, That Hideous Strength (1945), Lewis prepares his reader:

“I have called this a ‘fairy tale’ in the hope that no one who dislikes fantasy may be misled first two chapters into reading further, and then complain of his disappointment. If you ask why—intending to write about magicians, devils, pantomime animals, and planetary angels, I nevertheless begin with such humdrum scenes and persons—reply that I am following the traditional fairy-tale. We do not always notice its method because the cottages, castles, woodcutters, and petty kings with which a fairy-tale opens have become to us as remote as the witches and ogres to which it proceeds. But they were not remote at all to the men who made and first enjoyed the stories. They were indeed more realistic or common place than Bracton College is to me: for many German peasants had actually met cruel stepmothers, whereas I have never, in any university, come across a college like Bracton” (7).

That Hideous Strength by CS LewisChildren’s stories have always blended the fantastic with real life. It is the core definition of the fairy tale. I know that for us the “wood” is a kind of faërie world separate from our everyday reality. Prue discovers this in Wildwood when she is forced to enter The Impassable Wilderness. But remember that most of us before the last century grew up with the forest in our back yard. The temenos—the threshold between us and faërie—was never very thick. It is only in the modern world that the wilderness becomes impassable, and thus the fantastic must be relegated to this or that shelf at the bookstore.

Urban fantasy and magic realism are challenging some of these notions, and Harry Potter has taught us to look more carefully at the mismatched bricks in city shops. But some of the old prejudices remain.

All of this is to remind us as writers what we already know. We don’t need Sesame Street research, or even the corrective tones of Lewis or Tolkien, to tell us what the value of the imaginative really is. The realism in writing situates our readers; the fantastic displaces them. Until we can get readers to tilt their heads a little at the hometown or backyard or cubicle they know so well, we can never get them to cross the threshold into whatever fantasyland we are creating. What we do when they get there is world-builder’s craft; how they return is the storyteller’s great challenge.

A case of muppet abuse:

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