On Trusting Your Audience: My Thoughts on “The Giver” on Film

Lois Lowry’s The Giver was so transformational for me that it sits so far back in memory I can no longer remember when I first encountered it. It was, I think, the first dystopia I understood. Its post-apocalyptic calm is like a permanent photograph in my mind.

Anyone who loves a book this much is bound to hate the film adaptation. Most casual readers of Lord of the Rings loved the movies for their adventure, humour, and care in production. Many über Tolkien fans, though, either hated them or had severe reservations. The Hobbit adaptations have only made the gap between reader and film lover grow wider. These critical Tolkien readers have walked into the theatre wincing. Some didn’t go at all.

I’m sure many avid readers of The Giver will feel about the same. There are some differences. The Giver has been a long anticipated film, with several failed proposals in the twenty-odd years since the book first appeared. Lowry writes of uniformity in The Giver in such a way that any good director is going to bring a contemporary interpretation to the setting. Phillip Noyce, who made some great action films in the 90s, captures Jonas’ village exquisitely as he intentionally moves past the hints we have in the book. His explanation for civilizational memory as technology is super lame, but the way he captures Sameness in architecture and environmental control is well done. In some ways, Noyce is stronger than Lowry in this aspect.

Where Noyce fails, though, is that he doesn’t trust his audience.

The Giver is a very short book, and yet it takes the time to build the story and the world around Jonas. We have some of Jonas’ experiences growing up that act as pillars to the platform of the utopian community Jonas is born into.

One of the intriguing things is that Lowry’s book leaves questions open. A fighter jet appears on the first page of The Giver, and yet nothing like that technology really fits into everyday life in their community. Why do they need a fighter jet if the world is perfect—if there is no war, no enemy, no hatred? What technological links does the community have to the past? How far back is that past?

Intriguingly, we do not know how memory works in The Giver, and even the ending is open to great ambiguity. Personally, I think that Lois Lowry misinterprets the ending to her own book—I’ll leave it to the comments for readers who agree or disagree to talk with spoilers. In all these ways, though, Lowry allows her audience—a young teen audience, remember—to understand the story and to make up the difference in the details she leaves out. Lois Lowry trusts her audience.

Phillip Noyce, however, does not.

Again and again, Noyce makes step-by-step links that the audience does not need. Instead of allowing the audience to decide about memory for itself—it could be magic, religion, technology, miracle, or just a mystery—Noyce draws tight boundaries that squeeze out imagination. Similarly, whenever there is a part in the film that Noyce feels incapable of showing well on screen, he does a voice-over with the protagonist. Except for one part, the epilogue voice-over works well, and the prologue could have been good if they wrote it well. But a handful of times they slowed the action down, had Jonas look up to the sky pensively, and inside his head we heard a profound thought—a profound thought that a good film-maker will show on screen rather than voice in afterward.

It could be that Noyce was just in a rush. The first 15 minutes of the film (after the prologue) fly by, and all the great details about the community are rushed. The result is that the motivations of the characters are sometimes confused. In a science fiction futuristic utopia, Meryl Streep and Katie Holmes could be captivating figures. Because of Noyce’s rush to get to the motorcycle chases and teenagers kissing, these beautiful and talented women are wasted on screen. Their motivations are unclear, and the conspiracy is muddled. Oh, how good that added dimension to the story could have been! Instead, it comes off as kid wearing his first suit. All the parts are right, yet it is wrong in so many ways.

This awkward rushing happens at the ending, too. As Jonas works through the complex moral world he has to navigate, his choice has profound implications. The barrenness of that choice is captured well on film, but the loneliness, desperation, and sheet danger of time running thin are missing. The audience should feel panic and terror; what we really feel is mild discomfort.

Normally when I complain about film adaptations on A Pilgrim in Narnia, it’s because I think that film-makers misunderstand something about adaptation. In this case, Noyce knew he had to transform a book where the action all takes place in a young adolescent’s head. I don’t think Nocye failed in making the transition from book to film; I think he failed in making a great film.

There are redeeming qualities to the film that make it well worth watching. Jeff Bridges is brilliant. Not every line is exquisitely crafted, but his character comes in and transforms the role the way he did as Obadiah Stane in Iron Man. It is a different Giver than in the book, but it captures beautifully the relationship that develops there between mentor and protégé.

Despite flubbing the framework, the memory scenes in the film are very well done. Often beautiful, frequently captivating, the montage scenes of human experience is as vivid as they could be. There are one or two scenes that I would slow down, and I would handle the film’s transition to colour a little differently, but I thought that Noyce understood this feature of the story well and displayed it for us brilliantly.

While some of this praise and criticism comes down to taste and artistic license, I think at the core Phillip Noyce does not trust his audience. Some of the shifts are consumeristic pandering. For example, Noyce elevates the age of the characters so he can move Jonas’ sensual discovery into the realm of the sexual. It is a good economic move.

Beyond these sorts of decisions, though, Noyce is uncomfortable with ambiguity. In the book, the strictest people are caring and kind; in the movie they are harsh. The creepiness of Jonas’ dad cooing as he “releases” a child is bowled over by Noyce’s need to overstate things. In doing so, he misses the key political moment, that the emphasis on “sameness” is really a betrayal of basic human individuality, and the structures for “precision in speech” are really a way of making all speech—and thus all human interaction—meaningless. The Orwellian nature of the dystopia is lost, despite Noyce’s clear eye for the visual.

All of this is there in Lois Lowry’s middle grade novel. She believes that twelve-year-olds are sophisticated enough to appreciate the book in all its layers. I’ve taught The Giver for young teens and university students, and they understood the book.

But Noyce believes that movie-goers aren’t going to get it. We’re just not smart enough to use our imaginations and fill in the blanks ourselves. So Noyce condescends to us by giving us a good story in a great setting with lots of breakneck speed and pedophilic sexual tension built up by pounding music meant to make your heart rush. It is a troubling approach to film-making. It might even be a troubling trend.

But imagine if Christopher Nolan approached The Giver the way he approached Inception. A smart, visually-stunning film with enough ambiguity to make our head’s spin, Inception set a new bar for speculative fiction on film.


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“Into the Region of Awe” by David C. Downing: A Review

David Downing, Lewisian AuthorFor some time I have suspected that David Downing was on to something here. Part of what I’m doing in researching C.S. Lewis is to see what is at the core of who he was as a Christian—not just what believed, but the thoroughgoing centre of his faith and life. I have a paper coming out this year that argues that the idea of self-surrender in Galatians 2:20 is at the centre of Lewis’ spiritual theology:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (NIV).

So I am interested when people write directly about C.S. Lewis’ spirituality. John Bowen’s The Spirituality of Narnia: The Deeper Magic of C.S. Lewis (2007) is one. David Downing’s Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C.S. Lewis (2005) is another, and I’ve finally had time to sit down and read it.

David Downing is a well-respected C.S. Lewis scholar and an American English Professor. I’ve reviewed some of his fiction here before, and have worked through his essential study on Lewis’s science fiction, called Planets in Peril (1992), and his biographies of Lewis. Into the Region of Awe is a focus on both Lewis’ biography and his writing, narrowing the lens on a particular aspect of C.S. Lewis’ spirituality.

Looking for the King by David DowningIt is probably important to wipe from people’s mind the idea that Lewis was himself a full-blown mystic. That isn’t the case. Instead, Lewis studied mystical writers as well as historians of mysticism, and drew from that tradition. While some people devote their entire lives to mystical ecstasy and visions, what we mean here is something more rooted. It is about being relationally connected with the Divine, being aware of the Other, the Holy in everyday life. Lewis experienced what he called “Joy,” a numenous longing that led him into his faith. It is a practice of faith that includes the awakening and then emptying of self, the enlightening of the soul and spiritual struggle, and finally union with Christ.

The outline of the book is a bit peculiar. Downing begins with a wide look at mysticism (as expected), then narrows in to the mystical elements in Lewis’ faith. The following chapter then gives a survey of Christian mysticism using the authors Lewis knew well as the focus point for the history. I loved this chapter—it is a great introduction to the topic—but I think it could have better prepared the reader for Lewis’ own experience.

Unsurprisingly, Downing includes a chapter on Narnia. Again, I think the order is strange—this chapter should occur before his fifth chapter on expressing mystical experiences in words—but within the chapter he goes through various examples of mystical elements in the Chronicles of Narnia. It is a good study, especially in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Last Battle.

Although the Narnia chapter is good, and the history of mysticism very useful and readable, the real strength is Downing’s study on The Space Trilogy—the science fiction books featuring Dr. Ransom, written in the WWII-era. His exploration of the themes is superb, going into detailed analysis of Ransom’s journey. One phrase captures Ransom’s conversion best: “For Ransom it is a revelation to discover that what he thought of as his ‘religion’ is simply reality” (88). This is the strongest point of Downing’s work: showing that a mystical faith is one that is integrated into the soul. What look like external practices—reflection, prayer, fasting, meditation, service—is really the expression of God’s working in a whole life. The unit on the Ransom Cycle was superb.

Lewis was not without critiques of mysticism. While many would be concerned with “otherworldliness,” Lewis was concerned about “inner-worldliness”—an opposite concept that can have the same result of disengaging with all of life. Moreover, Lewis was critical of the mysticism movement in general.

“Ultimately, the contemporary trend in world mysticism must be found wanting, both for its logical inconsistencies and for its empty promises of gnōsis without kenōsis, the gaining of knowledge without the losing of self” (148).

Neither did Lewis think everyone was to walk the mystical path.

“Unlike scholars such as William Inge and Evelyn Underhill, Lewis did not see mysticism as the norm for Christian spirituality but rather as a special calling. He considered mystical sensibility to be a natural gift the Spirit could use in one person the way he might use physical strength in another. But Lewis felt it would be as much a mistake for every Christian to seek to be a mystic as it would to take up fishing for a living because that is what so many of the disciples did” (160).

Still, Downing is convincing in arguing that even for those who do not walk down this very narrow path, there is much to learn from those who have. I must agree.

Since I was looking for a particular kind of conversation going into this book, I was pleased to see that the idea of self-surrender was on Downing’s radar.

“Evelyn Underhill wrote that the great goal of every mystic is complete self-surrender. Ransom achieves that goal, but only by undergoing a kind of mystical death and resurrection.” (105)

I will have more to say about that paragraph as I go on in my work, but it was thrilling to see someone teasing out these threads without unraveling the whole garment.

This is not a highly academic work of impenetrable theology by any means. It is learned, evenly paced, and clear, and certainly accessible to anyone who has an interest in C.S. Lewis or Christian spirituality. It is also very short. Downing has a gift for saying a lot of things in few words, and, in this case, taking a very big, potentially complex topic and explaining in a way that capture’s the reader’s imagination. This was definitely a good purchase.

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Three rules for naming your fantasy world

Brenton Dickieson:

I enjoy Mr. Wright’s work. A New Zealand historian and blogger, he also has cool things to say about building fictional worlds. 

Originally posted on M J Wright:

In my mis-spent early twenties, a friend and I created a fantasy world map for our RPG sessions.

I had to share this pic, taken by She Who Must Be Obeyed. We end up in some interesting places, sometimes. Just in case anybody googles "Stockton Mine".

To build a world, start by wearing a hard hat (like mine).

Yes, I played Dungeons and Dragons – and later a game we invented ourselves to get around the sillier D&D ideas. The world was designed around what we might call the ‘rule of funny’, with place names made up mostly of bad puns and motorcycle parts manufacturers. This meant we had waters such as the Greg Lake, next door to rolling hills such as the Sinfields. And there was the Hergest Ridge – though we didn’t have the Old Fields. We also riffed on Tolkien’s unfortunate habit of ending place names with ‘-dor’. You know… Backdor. Frontdor. Dianador. Groan.

That does raise a point for those of us engaged in (more serious) fantasy world-building. Place names gotta be credible. Tolkien, inevitably, set…

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The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth… Or At Least Pass the Pepper

B Unfortunate @ 10I admit it: I’m a geek.

It didn’t have to be this way. When I was fourteen, all of my comic books (and my dad’s) and my Dungeons & Dragons books were lost in a fire. I also lost my “Farms Not Arms” shirt. I just didn’t have the heart to start over.

And, surprisingly, comics were not as much of a chick magnet as you’d imagine for a teenager with bad teeth and bad skin who couldn’t look girls in the eyes. By fifteen I got braces to straighten my alien teeth, and found good, kind friends who told me when my hair looked dumb or when I was being a dork. It was a chance to start over.

I did well for a while, living the life of the almost normal. Never fully normal, of course. But the 90s were pretty good for individuals. Kurt Cobain appeared on Rolling Stone, and suddenly my slovenly look and edgy music made me mainstream. I was popular at my youth group and did well at college. I was on a roll, and even managed to convince someone to marry me after college. When you are a closet geek, you have to jump at these opportunities.

Then along came charts. I know, I know. Charts for many people are benign. Charts are just a part of life for most, just a way to organize data.

For me, though, charts were the gateway drug to greater Geekdom. I used charts first in my teaching as a way to synchronize huge ideas into simple patterns. I loved it. Then I started doing basic graphic design (think 90s internet style… very cool), and when Powerpoint came along, I was a like an innocent traveler in the Dark Lord Microsoft’s hands.

About this time I started reading for fun again. Working full time through college had been brutal, and by the time I got my B.A., it had been some time since I read a great book. At first my reading was filled innocent things like the latest bestseller, books that aren’t likely to make you disappear into literary woods forever. But soon I rediscovered J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Stephen King. I devoured J.K. Rowling and Ursula K. LeGuin (the books, not the people), and took a graduate class called “Books, Children, and God.” I haven’t stopped reading since.

You have to watch out. If you want to avoid Geekicity, you need to avoid reading good books at all cost. The worlds of those books and others sucked me in. By the end of grad school I was creating worlds of my own and my bedside reading pile threatened to topple. It’s been that way ever since.

Bedside Table ReadingEventually I took the next step in Geekianity. I began blogging, and discovered a digital universe of like-minded folks. Not all geeks are created equal, of course. I’m on the fantasy, theology, and politics side of the Geekist scale, while others are more into SciFi, horrror, photography, poetry, interpretive dancing, and medieval languages. I’m sure there are readers of A Pilgrim in Narnia who even love puzzles and cat videos (or videos of cat puzzles), but they haven’t admitted it openly.

Reading, Writing, Blogging … it’s a slippery slope. One thing led to another and I’m doing a PhD in fantasy literature and presenting papers at Mythcon. It has been an epic descent.

Now, some of you have been reading this and thinking, “That’s not all that geeky. What’s the harm of a little fantasy literature and a few teaching aids?” Anyone who has asked this has never been to Mythcon.

Mythcon is a new level of Geekism.

As it turns out, no one had to be asked to remove his or her wimple or light saber during the paper presentations.  The papers themselves were of generally high quality. There were some fan presentations, but most of the sessions were led by grad students, authors, and academics who laid out hard-hitting ideas.

I’d encourage you to watch The Oddest Inkling blog as Sørina captures a few of the highlights. I attended great talks on Neil Gaiman, Harry Potter, H.P. Lovecraft, Beowulf, Terry Pratchett, C.S. Lewis & Carl Jung, and various Tolkien topics. The panels were real features. I was on the “Inklings and King Arthur” panel, and realized I was the least among greats in the weekend panels, with topics like “Faith and Fantasy” and “Teaching Tolkien.”

There are different kinds of folk at Mythcon in sometimes overlapping groups. There was a pretty hardcore Tolkien contingency. I had lunch with someone who was fluent in Tolkien’s languages, and was amazed that whenever someone quoted an obscure passage from the legendarium, heads nodded throughout the room. There was a large Christian contingency, folk who feel that fantasy helps capture the basic existential fact that the universe is made up of more than matter. There were subcultures of neopagans, professors, fantasy writers, theologians, grad students, linguists, and philosophers. There were probably some attendees that were all of these.

There were some odd moments at Mythcon. I heard a great paper from a student on Tolkien’s evolving Anti-Speciesist ideas. I asked a question that began a dialogue I could not have anticipated.

“Thanks for the great talk,” I said. “A question: When Tolkien writes, ‘The fox thinks…,’ is he being anthropocentric?”

The presenter was about to respond, when someone from the crowd spoke.

“When animals speak with me telepathically….”

And it went on from there as the speaker talked about his praeternatural calling to lead a dying community of sentient-sapient forest animals in a last chance resistance to a Mordor-like human conspiracy to crush them. Believe it or not, the presenter had not prepared an answer ahead of time to that perspective, but I thought she handled it beautifully.

There was a general medieval feeling to the weekend conference. There was always a sword nearby (when needed), and one could often see a Mythcon participant having to sweep back his or her robe sleeve in order to tap out a text message. I heard renditions of “Edge of Night” (Pippin’s song) and the Last Unicorn song. I sat in a room as dozens of people recited the first 18 lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales by heart (a useful skill I discovered) while a friend texted an alluring photo of himself as King Arthur to his wife.

Yes, I admit that the pinnacle of Mt. Geek is dominated by Comic-Con in San Diego and Doctor Who listserves, where hardcore fans critique comma splices in the thousands of episodes they’ve learned by heart. Doctor Who fans understand commitment to the craft.

Where Mythcon shines, though, is in its inclusiveness. I had dinner with the Doctor at Mythcon, but he had the bowtie of #11 and the shoes of #10–a syncretism that many fans would never allow. At Mythcon it was greeted with a blessing in one of Tolkien’s elvish tongues (I think … it might have been Vulcan, or Portuguese).

It’s true, there were some pokes and jabs throughout the weekend, but they were mostly harmless. For example, late at night we were standing in a failed horse stable using a junior baseball bat to hit a zombie head of Prince William off of a dummy wearing a 1970s McDonalds uniform with the hope of hitting a fuzzy rabbit toy. Typical Sunday night. When someone flubbed it, there was a low murmur from the crowd, chanting, “Linguist … linguist ….” Linguists, apparently, were fair game (see below).

Even that, though, just accentuates the Geek-embracement of Mythcon. There were some trolls (as you can imagine), but for the most part they weren’t overfed. There were some popular folk at Mythcon, but they seemed to act more like mentors than alpha leaders. Overall, everyone was supportive and encouraging. I was hoping to get more pushback on my ideas, especially since I was speaking to a group that knew more than I did. Overall, though, I was thrilled with how easy it was to connect with others.

Other geeks, that is. It would be a shocking event for anyone who thought they were mainstream and über cool because they knew the 3 Laws of Robotics, Tolkien’s given names, or why there are two dots above the “u” in über.

Sorry friend, you are a geek. But, the good news is that you have a space at this table. Pull up a chair and dig in to some roast beast. Oh, can you pass the pepper? It’s behind Lewis’s lost Athurian poem and next to the guy with the tentacles and the woman handing the Light of Eärendil to that little hairy fellow. They won’t bite.

*Hard to explain that game with the bat except by quoting The Hobbit:

“If you have ever seen a dragon in a pinch, you will realize that this was only poetical exaggeration applied to any hobbit, even to Old Took’s great-granduncle Bullroarer, who was so huge (for a hobbit) that he could ride a horse. He charged the ranks of the goblins of Mount Gram in the Battle of the Green Fields, and knocked their king Golfibul’s head clean off with a wooden club. It sailed a hundred yards through the air and went down a rabbit-hole, and in this way the battle was won and the game of Golf was invented at the same moment”  Tolkien, The Hobbit.

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The Fictional Universe of Narnia

I am editing a paper Mythcon in August in Norton, MA. I am quite excited to be presenting some of my work on The Screwtape Letters and the Ransom Cycle. It is an unusual audience, a mix of scholars and fans of fantasy literature. It may be the only academic conference where the ladies are asked to remove their wimples and the men are asked to leave their weapons (whether traditional or magical) in the umbrella rack outside. It is also quite likely that the avid fans in the audience will know more about the topics than the academics presenting–certainly that will be the case with me.

I am participating in a panel on Arthur and the Inklings, but I am also presenting my paper, “A Cosmic Shift in The Screwtape Letters.” It is where I suggest that the fictional world–what we call “the speculative universe”–of Screwtape is also that of Ransom. By contrast, it seems that Lewis most well-known world, Narnia, has no connection at all.  As part of the original paper, I wrote a short section that tests the Narnian speculative world a little bit. It was a section I quite liked, but it has to be cut from the paper. During my presentation it will be only 30 seconds long.

But I thought it was still good, so I’m sharing it here. It also gives readers an opportunity to share some of our favourite parts of the Narnian world.

The Fictional Universe of Narnia

Susan Narnia bow_battle Anna PopplewellAs a world-builder, C.S. Lewis is perhaps most famous for his creation of Narnia. By the close of the seventh Chronicle, the imaginative construct goes far beyond the country of Narnia to include a myriad of possible universes linked by the Wood between the Worlds. Of these universes we are invited into three: a geocentric land of Narnia, the unsung world of Charn, and the Earth. Of Earth, we have referential events in history like WWII and the wartime exodus of children out of London. According to the beginning of The Magician’s Nephew (1955), the readers’ grandfathers were children and little boys were made to wear stiff collars at the same time the first Narnia story took place.

But we also have a hint that the Chronicles are not set in historical England, but in the England where “Mr Sherlock Holmes” was a real person “living in Baker Street,” and we may be liable to bump into the Bastable children when they were “looking for treasure in the Lewisham Road.” Perhaps, as Lewis believed fantasy reading made every wood enchanted (“Three Ways of Writing for Children“), so he believed good fiction infiltrates the life of every city, weaving its fictional and referential histories together.

The result is that the speculative worlds of Edith Nesbitt and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are aligned in some imaginative way with Narnia. This sort of literary intertextuality is nothing new to Lewis. Neither are the literary echoes limited to the Earth-bound stories in Narnia. From the The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to The Last Battle (1955), Narnia slowly fills with talking beasts, Marsh-wiggles, giants, satyrs, naiads and dryads, gnomes, centaurs, Dufflepuds, and various races of men and witches, dwarfs and gods. Narnia is a mythologically rich world, and the Chronicles of Narnia are a veritable legendarium of European and West Asian traditions mixed with beings of Lewis’ own invention.

Narnia MapWithin the Chronicles, we have an imprecise but relatively full timeline of Narnian history.[1] We have a Narnian creation story—not the creation of the Narnian universe itself, but the Aslanic filling of the world with verdant song—and some of the streams of anthropological and biological development. We have the stories of Charnian and Narnian apocalypse, but the future of the (fictional or factual) Earth is unknown to us. The physics of the Narnian universe seem relatively clear. As on Earth, boats float in water, swords shed blood, humans can breathe the air, gold is hard and snowflakes are not. But it becomes increasingly evident that the operational physics of Narnia do not tell the entire story. Within the sweet water and cool earth of Narnia there are inhabited worlds, and there are places along the edges of the world where shed blood has a different meaning. Humans can breathe, but so can humanoid stars. In Narnia, water may turn a man to gold, and snowflakes may not melt even in July. Readers of Narnia will know that the metaphysics and magic are more layered there than they first thought.

Carpenter Tolkien LettersCan the architecture of Narnia bear this complexity? Humphrey Carpenter, for example, said that Lewis borrowed “indiscriminately from other mythologies and narratives,” throwing in “any incident or colouring that struck his fancy” (Inklings, 224–227; cf. Sayer, Jack, 312-313).[2] Certainly, the Chronicles of Narnia are stylistically different than Tolkien’s mainstream Middle Earth books. And, as far as we know, there is no legendarium or world-building Bible behind Narnia as there was behind Middle Earth. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote heroic epics out of an unprecedented mythology while Lewis wrote imagistic stories whose speculative framework grew as the stories developed.

Ultimately, the critical reader can decide about the cohesiveness of Narnia. It could be that what Carpenter calls unevenness in Lewis is what people find most charming and inventive. It is doubtful that Lewis imagined unicorns in Narnia when he sat down to write the first book, but it is not incongruous when one appears in the last book.

Yet, the breadth of possibility is not endless. Lewis’ mythological borrowing in Narnia is limited to sources within his own civilizational sphere. Moreover, there are some things that would be inauthentic to Narnia. While the appearance of the god of wine to lead the bacchanalia in Prince Caspian raises eyebrows, something about the world would break with the introduction of a vampire or Wellsian alien.[3] For all Arthur Conan Doyle is referenced in the telling of a Narnian tale, the summoning of Sherlock Holmes (or his next generation equivalent, Lord Peter Whimsey) to investigate the messianic claims of the purported Aslan in The Last Battle would be a step too far. The intertextual layering has its limits.

White Witch Edmund TildaSwintonRegardless of whatever framework may be behind the creation of Narnia,[4] in a very real sense the books are meant to be a slow unveiling of Lewis’ imaginative cosmos. We see this in the way the reader is introduced to Narnia in the first book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. We watch as Lucy, the kind of girl who knows better than to lock herself in a wardrobe, begins to wonder if her improvised hiding place is not bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Her experience is extremely sensual. She revels in the feeling of the fur coats against her cheek until they become scratchy tree branches. She hears the crunch of mothballs beneath her feet only to feel the surprising texture and temperature of snow in the dark. Then there is light ahead in the darkness, and snow falling in a wood.

As Lucy enters Narnia she encounters significant incongruity. She is in a wood instead of an abandoned room. It is dark where she is standing, but she can see the daylight of her room through the wardrobe doorway. It is snowing here and raining in the world she has left behind. Lucy follows the light and finds, of all things, a city lamppost burning brightly in the middle of the lonely wood. As she contemplates the little flame, a fawn comes into view—doubtless the first half-goat/half-man Lucy has ever encountered.

Tumnus & Lucy with Christmas packagesAs we watch Lucy coming to terms with her new world, we are surprised once again. It is the mythological creature and not the human that is startled and disoriented by the sight of the other. The fawn is carrying what look like Christmas parcels in a land where it is always winter and never Christmas (so we discover). Quite apart from not talking to strangers as a girl who knows better than to lock herself in a wardrobe should know, Lucy engages with this very strange stranger and actually goes to his home. The angelic mediator we might expect in this dreamlike tale is actually a traitor, and a rather ridiculous one at that. He sells Lucy to the dictatorial leader of the land, and then promptly sets Lucy off to safety. In a pool of tears, the traitor forfeits his own life for his victim’s. Either Tumnus the fawn is very bad at treachery, or there are other principles at work, ideas that slowly unfold as the reader uncovers the secrets of the land of Narnia.

In any case, as Lucy discovers the land of Narnia, so does the reader. The Narnian speculative universe in its entirety is revealed slowly over the length of the seven chronicles. Lewis as a world creator of Narnia is nimble and creative, so that it is very much a pay-as-you-go universe. And yet it is not complete chaos or indiscriminate pastiche. There is a coherence to Narnia, and the reader is gradually introduced to that world just as the children: a little surprise, the sense of something foreign, and a bit of adventure ahead.

[1] See Walter Hooper, Past Watchful Dragons, ch. 5.

[2] Note that Joe Christopher offers some critical questions about how far these are Tolkien’s critiques rather than Carpenters, “Tolkien: Narnian Exile” Mythlore 55 (Autumn 1988): 37-45. Green and Hooper note the inconsistencies in Narnia, Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis: A Biography (Glasgow: Fount, 1974).

[3] Though, indeed, there are some parallels between the aliens of H.G. Wells’ First Men In the Moon and the earthmen of Prince Caspian. It could be that the Lefay Fragment was abandoned because its Digory and Polly story of fairy godmothers and trees that talk was beyond the scope of the Narnian framework.

[4] I.e., see Michael Ward, Planet Narnia.

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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 a grad student, 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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