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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Two Different Prefaces to C.S. Lewis’ “That Hideous Strength”

that hideous strength first trilogy edition lewisI am certain that within long I will be accused of being obsessed with Prefaces. I have posted great prefaces to C.S. Lewis’ The Allegory of Love and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and I have even published the earliest manuscript of Lewis’ preface to The Screwtape LettersNow I’m at it again.

In my defense, a preface, foreword, or introduction to a book often has some of the best stuff in the most condensed form. It is what an author says when she is tired of saying things, and mostly wants to find a way to get a reader connected to her material. I always encourage students to look at prefatory material before they dive in to the meat of the book.

Well, I’m at it again. I am reading That Hideous Strength, the conclusion of the Ransom Cycle that began with Out of the Silent Planet. It is an intriguing book, one part Arthuriana, one part science fiction, and one part dystopian farce. It is rich in references to other authors, from the Bible and Aristotle to H.G. Wells and Jules Verne to J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. And it explores in most detail the inner psychology of human characters in all his books, with the exception of Till We Have Faces. It is a peculiar ending to the Ransom Cycle, longer than all the other Ransom books put together and concluded with the aid of an awoken Merlin. But it is an excellent book, and worth digging into.

That Hideous Strength CS Lewis oldIt is probably surprising, then, that this psychologically complex, dark, contemporary science fiction novel is actually called That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups. Even in the title there are intertextual hints. The subtitle is very much like George MacDonald’s, Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women–a book that had incalculable influence on Lewis.  The title, That Hideous Strength, is drawn from a 16th century David Lindsay poem about the Tower of Babel:

“The shadow of that hyddeous strength
Sax myle and more it is of length”
A Dialog, Sir David Lindsay

That_Hideous_Strength Indie art by Gibberish17I knew of the Lindsay reference when picking up the book, and was surprised that it was not an epigraph to my copy. I was certain that it was. I did some digging and discovered that my ePub version had the Lindsay reference, but my paper copies do not. Both versions dedicate the book to J. McNeill, a longtime of Lewis’ that he called “Janie” (pronounced Tchainie). But only the digital copy has the epigraph.

Then I began reading the preface and noticed another difference. It was different than the one I remembered. As I dug around a bit, I discovered that there are two different prefaces to That Hideous Strength. One was published with the book and is signed “Christmas Eve, 1943″–according to his custom of dating prefaces–and one appears later. The first edition preface is longer, and mostly involved in setting the context to the story. The later preface is much shorter, and has a strange concluding paragraph that pokes fun at the length.

that hideous strength cs lewis panbooksI thought it would be fun to post both prefaces. This has the very serious reason of allowing readers to compare the two different prefaces side by side. It will also allow readers the chance to school me on where this second, shorter preface came from. Lewis would sometimes rewrite prefaces when new editions came out, as he did for The Pilgrim’s Regress in 1958. His fame increased with the publication of Narnia, so a number of his older books were re-released in the following decade.

These are good, serious reasons to post these prefaces. But there is also an entirely indulgent reason. It gives me a chance to show some of the varieties of cover art for That Hideous Strength. Although none of them border on realism, some of the imaginative scope of old SciFi art is dominant in these older book covers.

Enjoy the crazy cover designs as well as the side-by-side comparison of the prefaces. And do let me know if you have information on the provenance of the second preface.

That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups

that hideous strength cs lewis trilogy box set 2000s bearOriginal 1943 Preface

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.

that hideous strength CS Lewis Panbooks 1950sThis is a ‘tall story’ about devilry, though it has behind it a serious ‘point’ which I have tried to make in my ‘Abolition of Man.’ In the story the outer rim of that devilry had to be shown touching the life of some ordinary and respectable profession. I selected my own profession, not, of course, because I think Fellows of Colleges more likely to be thus corrupted than anyone else, but because my own profession I know well enough to write about. A very small university is imagined because that has certain conveniences for fiction. Edgestow has no resemblance, save for its smallness, to Durham—a university with which the only connection I have ever had was entirely pleasant.

I believe that one of the central ideas of this tale came into my head from conversations I had with a scientific colleague, some time before I met a rather similar suggestion in the works of Mr. Olaf Stapledon. If I am mistaken in this, Mr. Stapledon is so rich in invention that he can well afford to lend, and I admire his invention (though not his philosophy) so much that I should feel no shame to borrow.

that hideous strength cs lewis HeadThose who would like to learn further about Numinor and the True West must (alas!) await the publication of much that still exists only in the MSS. of my friend, Professor J. R. R. Tolkien. The period of this story is vaguely “after the war.” It concludes the trilogy of which Out of the Silent Planet was the first part, and Perelandra the second, but can be read on its own.

C.S. Lewis, Madgalen College, Oxford, Christmas Eve, 1943.


Later Shortened Preface

that hideous strength cs lewis 1964This is a ‘tall story’ about devilry, though it has behind it a serious ‘point’ which I have tried to make in my Abolition of Man. In the story the outer rim of that devilry had to be shown touching the life of some ordinary and respectable profession. I selected my own profession, not, of course, because I think Fellows of Colleges more likely to be thus corrupted than anyone else, but because my own profession is naturally that which I know best. A very small university is imagined because that has certain conveniences for fiction. Edgestow has no resemblance, save for its smallness, to Durham – a university with which the only connection I have ever had was entirely pleasant.

In reducing the original story to a length suitable for this edition, I believe I have altered nothing but the tempo and the manner. I myself prefer the more leisurely pace-I would not wish even War and Peace or The Faerie Qyeene any shorter-but some critics may well think this abridgment is also an improvement.

that hideous strength cS lewis 1990s  That Hideous Strength by CS LewisThat Hideous Strength Tortured Planet by LewisThat Hideous Strength by CS Lewis 1970s cool

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“Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said” by C.S. Lewis


This post is part of an ongoing series Called Writing Wednesdays.  Perhaps no one would be more surprised than C.S. Lewis himself at the success of his classic children’s stories, The Chronicles of Narnia. Hundreds of millions of copies of the Narnian tales have been sold, and they are read and reread by children and adults everywhere. It won’t be surprising that C.S. Lewis’ Christian worldview emerges in Narnia, though some (like a character in one of Neil Gaiman’s stories) can feel betrayed by this emergence. For some, the Christian ideas break into a world and destroy the art and beauty. For others, they assume that Lewis began with a Christian message and squeezed a story around it. And there are some that read Narnia only for that message.

But for Lewis, it was a much more complex and organic project. He speaks a bit about it in “On 3 Ways of Writing for Children” in the essay collection, Of Other Worlds. Any reader of Lewis will need to know J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay, “On Fairy Tales.” But Lewis also shares some of his process of writing in an article in The New York Times, Nov 18, 1956. This is especially helpful for authors whose moral, religious, social, or environmental vision tends to shine through their work. Here is an excerpt of what he said (also in Of Other Worlds and On Stories), with a copy of the article posted below.

Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said

In the sixteenth century when everyone was saying that poets (by which  they  meant  all  imaginative  writers) ought to please and instruct, Tasso made a valuable distinction. He said that the poet, as poet,  was concerned solely with pleasing. But then every poet
was also a man and a citizen in that capacity he ought to,  and would wish to, make his work edifying as well as pleasing.

Of Other Worlds by CS LewisNow I do not want to stick very close to the renaissance ideas of ‘pleasing’  and  ‘instructing’.  Before I could accept either term it might need so much redefining that what was left of it at the end would not be worth retaining. All  I want to use is the distinction between the author as author and the author as man, citizen, or Christian. What this comes to for me is that there are usually two reasons  for  writing  an  imaginative  work,  which  may  be  called Author’s reason and the Man’s. If only one of these is present, then, so far as I am concerned, the book will not be written. If the first is lacking, it can’t; if the second is lacking, it shouldn’t.

In the Author’s mind there bubbles up every now and then the material  for  a  story.  For  me  it  invariably  begins  with  mental pictures. This ferment leads to nothing unless it  is accompanied with the longing for a Form: verse or prose, short story, novel, play or what not.  When these two things click you have the Author’s impulse complete. It is now a thing inside him pawing to get out. He longs to see that bubbling stuff pouring into that Form as the housewife longs to see the new jam pouring into the clean jam jar. This nags him all day long and gets in the way of his work and his sleep and his meals. It’s like being in love.

While the Author is in this state, the Man will of course have to criticise the proposed book from quite a different point of view. He will ask how the gratification of this impulse will fit in with all the other things he wants, and ought to do or be. Perhaps the whole
thing is too frivolous and trivial (from the Man’s point of view, not the Author’s) to justify the time and pains it would involve. Perhaps it would be unedifying when it was done. Or else perhaps (at this point  the  Author  cheers up)  it  looks like  being ‘good’,  not  in a
merely literary sense, but ‘good’ all around.

Susan Narnia bow_battle Anna PopplewellThis may sound rather complicated but it is really very like what happens about other things. You are attracted by a girl; but is she the sort of girl you’d be wise, or right, to marry? You would like to have lobster for lunch; but does it agree with you and is it wicked to spend that amount of money on a meal? The Author’s impulse is a desire (it is very like an itch) and of course, like every other desire, needs to be criticised by the whole Man.

Let me now apply this to my own fairy tales. Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument; then collected information about child-psychology and decided what age-group I’d write for;  then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out ‘allegories’  to embody them. This  is  all  pure  moonshine.  I  couldn’t  write  in that  way  at  all. Everything  began  with  images;  a  faun  carrying  an  umbrella,  a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t even anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord. It was part of the bubbling.

Then came the Form.  As these images sorted themselves into events (i.e., became a story) they seemed to demand no love interest and no close psychology. But the Form which excludes these things is the fairy tale. And the moment I thought of that I fell in love with the Form itself: its brevity, its severe restraints on description, its flexible  traditionalism,  its  inflexible  hostility  to  all  analysis, digression, reflections and ‘gas’. I was now enamoured of it. Its very limitations of vocabulary became an attraction; as the hardness of the stone pleases the sculptor or the difficulty of the sonnet delights the sonneteer.

Tumnus & Lucy with Christmas packagesOn that side (as Author) I wrote fairy tales because the Fairy Tale seemed the ideal Form for the stuff I had to say. Then of course the Man in me began to have his turn. I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it  so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I  thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself  did harm.  The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical.  But supposing that by casting all  these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could. That was the Man’s motive. But of course he could have done nothing if the Author had not been on the boil first.

You will notice that I have throughout spoken of Fairy Tales, not ‘children’s stories’. Professor J.R.R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings has shown that the connection between fairy tales and children is not nearly so close as publishers and educationalists think. Many children don’t like them and many adults do. The truth is, as he says, that they are now associated  with  children  because  they  are  out  of  fashion  with adults; have in fact retired to the nursery as old furniture used to retire  there,  not  because  the  children  had  begun  to  like  it  but because their elders had ceased to like it. I  was  therefore  writing ‘for  children’  only  in the sense  that  I excluded what I thought they would not like or understand; not in the sense of writing what I intended to be below adult attention. I may of course have been deceived, but the principle at least saves
one from being patronising.  I  never  wrote  down to anyone;  and whether the opinion condemns or acquits my own work, it certainly is my opinion that a book worth reading only in childhood is not worth reading even then. The inhibitions which I hoped my stories would overcome in a child’s mind may exist in a grown-up’s mind too, and may perhaps be overcome by the same means.

The Fantastic or Mythical is a Mode available at all ages for some readers; for others, at none. At all  ages, if  it  is well  used by the author  and  meets  the  right  reader,  it  has  the  same  power:  to generalise while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not
concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experience, and to throw off irrelevancies. But at its best it can do more; it can give us experiences we have never had and thus, instead of ‘commenting on life’,  can add to it.  I  am speaking, of course, about the thing itself,  not  my  own  attempts  at  it.  ‘Juveniles’;  indeed!  Am I  to patronise sleep because children sleep sound? Or honey because children like it?

Sometimes Fairy Stories NYT 1956

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Neil Gaiman is a Jerk, and a review of The Graveyard Book

Neil Gaiman is a jerk.

Well, I don’t really mean that. But honestly, how many beautiful ideas is a guy allowed to have in a lifetime? There’s Coroline and American Gods, not to mention and incredible array of short stories, and practically inventing a genre of literature with Sandman. And now I’ve heard that his recent The Ocean at the End of the Lane was voted best book in the universe or something. I mean, seriously?

All deep-rooted bitterness aside, The Graveyard Book—you may remember I’m writing a review here—The Graveyard Book is based on a pretty elegant premise. An orphaned toddler wanders into a graveyard, and it is up to the dead people who live there to raise him. Brilliant.

The Mowgli character in this liminal fantasy is “Nobody Owens,” raised by the disembodied spirits of various generations under the protection of the graveyard. Needless to say, his education is eclectic. Because of his unique neighbourhood, he is able to speak the English of a hundred generation and has a very particular and narrow understanding of history. He learns to read English and Latin from the epitaphs on tombstones, but he also learns the particularly ghastly gifts of fading from view, dreamwalking, and haunting. It is a very clever book, able to draw in our cultural imagination of graveyards into a single bittersweet tale.

This is one of those books that can work at various “layers.” I know, I know. Books that are tinged with meaning, moral, or symbolism are terribly unfashionable right now. But The Graveyard Book does what good books should. I am always looking for a story that will capture the sense of alienation and loneliness I had when I was child. What could be better than a boy named “Nobody” who is practically invisible to humans and lives in a place that doesn’t exist? Moreover, parents reading this book are going to be left with the haunting feeling—see what I did there?—that they are in some danger of over-protecting their children.

These morals emerge naturally from the narrative; none of them are forced. Critics of layered stories are missing the point, I think. Anyone reading Harry Potter would be a dangerously narrow reader if they didn’t see the social implications. Yet they read because the Harry Potter books are good literature that are great fun to read. The Graveyard Book is exactly that type of read.

I’m not surprised it’s good. As soon as I heard the premise I knew that it would be. It is not a perfectly good book. Gaiman is a short story writer at his best, so the book is episodic, filled with flashes of Nobody’s life as he grows. They are great episodes, but the plotline is really going somewhere. Nobody’s life has a particular direction, as readers slowly come to understand. Some of that sense of destiny is lost in the triptych style of storytelling, so a little bit of the payoff for the climax is missing too. It is not only the retelling of Kipling’s classic, nor is it simply an orphan tale. It is a messianic story, laced with prophecy that crosses many millennia and a few dimensions. I think that this particular element fades too much to the background.

But these are granular criticisms within a heap of praise. My real complaint is that Neil Gaiman is a jerk. And greedy too. The Graveyard Book won not only the Newbery Medal, but it also won the Carnegie Medal (a first double win, I believe). If that wasn’t enough, Gaiman took home the Hugo and Locus awards. How are other writer’s supposed to build a career when this guy is sitting down to a computer with his elegant premises, fantastic hair, and friendships with amazing illustrators (in this case, Dave McKean)?

Anyway, readers may note a touch of bitterness. I would hate for my grave feelings about Gaiman at the moment to overshadow what is a very great book. But don’t buy it. That will just help his cause. Read it in the aisle at the bookstore or over someone’s shoulder on the bus. No one will find that creepy at all.

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