The 100 Best Fantasy Books by Steve Hayes

SF and fantasy section, American Book CenterThis will clearly be controversial and individual, but South African blogger Steve Hayes (of Khana fame) has created his top 100 Fantasy Book list. The list clusters around certain authors, like Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, John Connolly, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King (and Peter Straub), Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. Le Guin, Suzanne Collins, as well as some one-time classics and authors I didn’t know, like Jasper Fforde and Phil Rickman. I have written before about whether we could come up with a “Canon of Fantasy Literature,” and this “My Favourites” list is a great way to approach it. It might even be intriguing to do the list in such a way as each author can only have one book or series on the list. It would, as metaphorical foxholes often do, focus the mind.

You can click through to Steve’s blogs, or follow him on Twitter, @hayesstw.

Notes from underground

I saw this list of best fantasy books from Reddit.

Top 100 Best Fantasy books:

This is a list of the best fantasy books. If you want to find good fantasy books to read, this list is a safe bet.

The list was created by parsing comments on the r/books subreddit, and takes into account both number of mentions and the comment scores.

The fantasy genre is the most popular genre in the data we have.

Since the list is created by parsing user comments, it represents the most popular fantasy books, or at least which fantasy books most reddit users have been reading.

The data used in this list is from 2018 and 2019. As we get more data the list may change and will hopefully become a list of the best fantasy books of all time.

I don’t frequent Reddit, and don’t agree with the list. I…

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O Foolish Writer: The Living Reality of an Author’s Work, with C.S. Lewis, Stephen King, and Ursula K. Le Guin (Throwback Thursday)

Throwback Thursdays are where I find a blog post from the past–raiding either my own blog-hoard or someone else’s–and throw it back out into the digital world. This might be an idea or book that is now relevant again, or a concept I’d like to think about more, or even “an oldie but a goodie” that I think needs a bit of spin time.

I am feeling drawn back to fiction recently. It is a good feeling, as my exile from fiction-writing is a kind of forced necessity rather than any other kind of escape. But even as I start to spin worlds in my head, some of the old fears and insecurities are reemerging. Now that I am done paying to write, the idea of how to get paid to write looms ever large.

Rather than losing myself in worry, I have been returning to what I think are the core aspects of a life dedicated to writing. For this week’s Throwback Thursday, I want to resurrect a short post that draws from world-changing storytellers Ursula K. Le Guin, C.S. Lewis, and Stephen King. Six years after first writing this piece, I still think is more like listening or mystical reflection than it is like assembling furniture, an idea that is later confirmed for me by Frederick Buechner (“On Listening to Your Life“) and Eugene Peterson (“The Novelist as Listener“).

I think some people think writers, as they build their elaborate and beautiful fictional worlds, simply sit down and invent the details, putting together characters and places and storylines like someone puts together an IKEA shelf name Schnärf. We’ll call that the Allen Key Approach to World Building.

I suspect, though, that most writers don’t build their worlds that way. For me, the process is as much like discovery as it is like invention. In writing poetry, I have tried to bend my mind to an idea or image or form. As a result, I’ve come to think that form and content emerge together in poetry and in much of our fiction. It is a good exercise in writing, but in creating worlds, in shaping stories, the process for me is more reciprocal. And far more accidental. Stephen King describes the beginning well:

Good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing right at you out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up” (Stephen King, On Writing).

King goes on to talk about how the idea of Carrie, his breakout novel and a somewhat unremarkable remake with Chloë Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore, came from that crash of two unrelated ideas–in this case, taunting girls in a locker room and supernatural powers. There is symbolic value in the original Carrie novel, most predominantly the image of “blood.” But that symbolism emerged out of the writing, and King only seized upon it in the editing and rewriting stage.

C.S. Lewis also describes the process of writing as a kind of discovery–in this case, a windowsill watching of the world in his imaginative garden.

I have never exactly ‘made’ a story. With me the process is much more like bird-watching than like either talking or building. I see pictures. Some of these pictures have a common  flavour, almost a common smell, which groups them together.  Keep quiet and watch and they will begin joining themselves up. If you were very lucky (I have never been as lucky as all  that’)  a whole set might join themselves so consistently that there you had a complete story; without doing anything yourself. But more often (in my experience always) there are gaps. Then at last you have to do some deliberate inventing,  have to contrive reasons why these characters  should be in these various places doing these various things. I have no idea whether this is the usual way of writing stories, still less whether it is the best. It is the only one I know: images always come first (C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” 32-3).

Lewis uses two other images to capture that imaginative impulse: bubbling up and fermentation:

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 (C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds, 32-3).

Substitute brewers for jam-making housewives and you can bring both those images together into one. In that way, subcreation is also like being in love. And as writers, we know that our beloved can be moody and temperamental at times.

Lewis goes on to talk about the shaping of the author’s desire, the discipline to turn it into a story. But sometimes the force of the story moving forward and the character development in their natural environment is beyond our ability to control. Ursula K. Le Guin, considering the creation of her Earthsea Cycle, admits that some things seemed to be outside of her specific manipulation:

At the end of the fourth book of Earthsea, Tehanu, the story had arrived at what I felt to be now. And, just as in the now of the so-called real world, I didn’t know what would happen next. I could guess, foretell, fear, hope, but I didn’t know.
Unable to continue Tehanu’s story (because it hadn’t happened yet) and foolishly assuming that the story of Ged and Tenar had reached its happily-ever-after, I gave the book a subtitle: “The Last Book of Earthsea.”
O foolish writer. Now moves. Even in storytime, dreamtime, once-upon-a time, now isn’t then (Ursula Le Guin, Tales from Earthsea, 3).

“Now moves.” Yes.

Although Le Guin as author created the world of Earthsea, it is inauthentic for her to exert the sort of control that says, “this is the last story.” This quotation comes from the beginning of her collection of short stories and historical background to the Earthsea Cycle, and she went on to write a fifth book, The Other Wind. Now moves on, and if the author is wise, she will tumble after her work.

It may seem what I’ve described is quite a mystical process. I think it is. Authors who reject the Allen Wrench Approach are today’s mystics. The mystics and prophets and lovers of history have often been called fools. Perhaps we should, with Ursula Le Guin, admonish ourselves: O foolish writer! And then, when we’ve admitted our folly, it is time to look out that window again to our own imaginative gardens.

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Mark Vernon’s “A Secret History of Christianity,” review by Wesley Schantz (On Owen Barfield)

Review of A Secret History of Christianity: Jesus, the Last Inkling, and the Evolution of Consciousness, by Mark Vernon

A guest post from Wesley Schantz
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

For purposes of calibration or, if you like, conversion, I would have given Good Omens a perfect score of 5 out of 5, even while acknowledging it has its flaws, so maybe I’m an easier grader than Brenton. And in the interest of full disclosure: Mark Vernon graciously allowed me to interview him for my ongoing study of Philip Pullman; he subsequently sent me an advance copy of his new book. According to his website, A Secret History of Christianity will be released in August.

Lest the title put you off (or simply mislead you), the author hastens to clarify: “By ‘secret,’ I don’t mean a Dan Brownish reference to an occult code, let alone a conspiracy theory, but to a truth that seems obscure or hidden only because it’s tricky to grasp” (2). Humble, good-humored, and reasonable as that sentence is, it gives a good sense of the book as a whole.

In a short space, and in a remarkably lucid style considering the intellectual heft of his subject matter, Mark Vernon brings together a great many insights into Christianity which, if not entirely new, he puts in a new light with reference to the peculiar philosophy of Owen Barfield.

If, like me, you’ve tried tackling Barfield on the strength of his reputation (for instance, coming to his works via Verlyn Flieger’s seminal treatment in Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World) and found his writing difficult to get into, Vernon’s approach here is welcome. He eschews the more academic, close-reading analysis of major texts in favor of a richly allusive introduction to them. In Vernon’s encouraging retelling, we get the context for the Christian story from its Hebrew and Greek roots through to its efflorescence, reformation, and decline as a religious and cultural force, rapidly bringing us all the way from the prophets and Plato right up to the present moment. Right now we find ourselves, as ever, in a critical time, and we would do well, Vernon counsels, to consider Barfield as a guide in attempting to make sense of what this history, and its central mystery in the figure of Jesus, might portend.

Running parallel to the more familiar apologetics of his contemporary and frequent compère C.S. Lewis (whose Discarded Imaged and Surprised by Joy in particular bear referencing here), Barfield advocated a profoundly philological and mythological worldview (whose outlines also become apparent, to take another well-known point of comparison, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “On Fairy-stories”). In Vernon’s account, Barfield still accords Jesus a central role in the drama of history, but rather than laying a theological emphasis, in terms of divine providence and salvation, for him the historical Jesus embodies a key turning point in consciousness. In one of the strongest sections of the book, Vernon, who nowhere in it either professes or rejects Christian faith outright, sketches the transformation in human consciousness in the light of the gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

For me, the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection is consummately portrayed in Piero della Francesca’s sixteenth-century fresco. (Vernon,132)

Part of the effectiveness of these central chapters, of course, is owing to the groundwork Vernon lays out for readers in the first third of the book. Though without pictorial illustrations, there are enough memorable exempla from ancient works of art and literature to give us a sense of the stages in cultural evolution, and its impact on individuals’ experience of the world. Barfield’s theory of participation provides the core of the argument, but Vernon brings in evidence from a variety of sources for support. He juxtaposes a selection of Romantic poetry with the Socratic aporia, and draws connections between the shifting conception of ancestry, land, and divinity among the Hebrews and the inner life of parts of the body among the Greeks.

A particularly momentous occasion came when a painter of pots discovered the trick of foreshortening. (Vernon, 49, cf. The Story of Art, by E.H. Gombrich)

Ultimately, the serious student of any one of these subjects will probably find something (or the absence of something) to gripe about. For the art historian or textual scholar, the superficial analysis of imagery and language will grate; for the theologian or aspiring mystic, the sweeping generalizations and relative lack of fear and trembling will appal; and for the perplexed reader of Barfield, the loose and baggy summaries of this “first and last” Inkling’s dense thought will leave plenty in his writings to puzzle over. In recompense, though, and in a way that opens it up to be accessible to anyone, the succinctness and ready fluency of Vernon’s Secret History cut right to the heart of the matter. The further reading, and re-reading, he invites us to more than make up for any initial impression of a lack of depth given by his conversational tone.

Little wonder that Blake was drawn to the suspended end of Mark’s gospel. No one has caught this moment of possibility like him, in his watercolor “The Three Maries at the Sepulchre.” (Vernon, 183)

Appropriately enough, a series of questions follows this passage. As Vernon notes elsewhere, following Barfield, perhaps “the move from the Greek historia, which had meant ‘knowledge gained by inquiry,’ to history as ‘the study of the past,’ arose with the need for objectivity from the Bible” (157). His Secret History continues this speculative, imaginative inquiry into the essential truth of scripture as prose and poetry, and the possibility of our participation in it.

 


Wesley Schantz coordinates Signum Academy, writes about books and video games, and works as a substitute teacher in Spokane, WA.

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7 New Audiobooks on C.S. Lewis: Michael Ward, James Como, Stephanie Derrick, Patti Callahan, Joe Rigney, Diana Glyer, Gary Selby

Checking Audible for something completely unrelated, I was pleased to see that Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia is now on audiobook. I thought I would provide a brief set of reviews on some good, new Audible C.S. Lewis finds. While sometimes audiobooks give us a new book discovery (like these “6 Surprising Audiobook Celebrity Narrators“), they are often for me a way of rediscovering a book or reading it with different eyes–or ears, as the case may be.

Michael Ward, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis (13 hrs)

I have argued that Dr. Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia is the most important resource for reading Narnia that has emerged in the new century. While one might argue with parts of Ward’s thesis–as I have donePlanet Narnia is a great book for providing close readings of Lewis’ greatest works in a literary way that invites us into a deeper understanding of the books behind the Narnian chronicles. I hope the publishers record The Narnia Code, the popular version of the Planet Narnia resource, but I am thrilled that they began with the magnum opus, Planet Narnia. Meanwhile, Audible also has Ward’s “Now You Know” audio course, “Christology, Cosmology, and C.S. Lewis,” a shorter but helpful resource for newcomers to the conversation. The audiobook reader, Nigel Patterson, is professional and even in tone.

James Como, C.S. Lewis: A Very Short Introduction (4.5 hrs)

I was thrilled when I heard that New Yorker James Como was writing the volume for C.S. Lewis when someone showed me the text in a galley proof form. Honestly, I was surprised this little volume was as good as it is. Not because of James Como, who has invested 50 years into reading C.S. Lewis well. But I have read about 20 of these Very Short introductions, and have looked at another dozen or so. Though they typically balance brevity and thoroughness, this one is peculiar for the strong voice of the text. Como writes in a lively style within a very understated series. Effectively, you have a 4-hour summary of Lewis’ life organized as a study of his texts. It works pretty well, and there are even a few surprises and refreshing moments, particularly in his treatment of Till We Have Faces and Letters to Malcolm. Roger Clark’s voice is engaging and professional, but needs to be sped up a little.

Patti Callahan, Becoming Mrs. Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis (12.5 hrs)

Patti Callahan turns from her career as a popular novelist to the study of Joy Davidman, American poet, literary convert, and ultimately “Mrs. Lewis,” late-of-life companion to C.S. Lewis. Callahan balances the historical work of people like Abigail Santamaria and uses some recently discovered love poems to C.S. Lewis to structure a novel about Joy’s life. It is a fictional retelling, so we should be aware of some of the conceits used to make the story flow. Callahan is a winsome personality and an enjoyable writer to read. Lauren Woodward’s voice is quite lovely, though she is new to audiobook narration. The accents are not well localized, and I wonder if Woodward’s softness contributes to my concern that Callahan doesn’t quite capture the edge, risk, and raucousness of Joy Davidman. I found I also needed to speed this reading up to enjoy it fully. This complaint, that we don’t quite see Joy in the novel, is not one that everyone shares, but it made the book ultimately unsatisfying to me–like an itch I can’t quite reach or a recipe I can never get quite right.

Stephanie L. Derrick, The Fame of C.S. Lewis: A Controversialist’s Reception in Britain and America (8 hrs)

I have been anxiously waiting for this book for some time. Dr. Stephanie Derrick, while she was a Ph.D. student, was one of the people who revealed C.S. Lewis’ lost “Christmas Sermon for Pagans,” and I have her dissertation on the reception of Lewis. While I am disappointed that The Fame of C.S. Lewis is not a little longer–hardly a terrible critique for most writers–this conversion of a thesis to a popular-level book is a lot of fun. Based on research that many of us have no chance to undertake, Derrick keeps pressing on the question about why Lewis was so well received in the US, how he was viewed in the UK, and how his image grew globally in the 55 years since his death. I am rereading Fame this week as I write a review for Sehnsucht. Narrator Elizabeth Sastre has a gorgeous voice, and her experience reading fiction gives the audiobook a nice depth.

Joe Rigney, Lewis on the Christian Life: Becoming Truly Human in the Presence of God (12 hrs)

While there are some books on Lewis and spirituality–and quite a number of devotional style materials–intelligent, integrated conversation about C.S. Lewis and the spiritual life is still limited. Narrator Sean Runnette’s fatherly, backyard American-style BBQ afternoon voice is rich and enjoyable. It does add, however, to an anxiety I have about Rigney’s connection to Bethlehem College & Seminary, which does not accept women in their seminary programme. While the book is limited by the questions that Rigney brings, nowhere in Lewis on the Christian Life do I see Rigney bending Lewis to his perspective. Unless you know that Rigney is offering a double critique–on the one hand, inviting fundamentalist and conservative Christian readers to be shaped by Lewis, and critiquing Lewis on perceived weaknesses on the other hand–the chapter on “Theology” is a bit strange as it sits in the text. But it is a book that grows throughout the reading, so that the later chapters on “Pride and Humility,” “Christian Hedonics,” and “Healthy Introspection” are among the best. It is a very American book (Lewis was not American, but many creative readers are), and it is very evangelical (Lewis was not evangelical, but many faithful readers are), but it brings a strong reading to a great many topics that a diverse set of readers have questions about.

Diana Pavlac Glyer, The Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community (10 hrs)

As I mentioned in my discussion with William O’Flaherty and Diana Glyer about the new Tolkien biopic, I think Glyer’s The Company They Keep is one of the most important books on Lewis and the Inklings in this century. It is a book that took decades to complete, offering a rereading of the Inklings by considering the ways that they worked together, wrote together, read with one another, edited one another’s work, offered criticism, and encouraged one another toward writing the books that ended up changing the face of literary history. Glyer is a careful researcher and a lyrical writer, so even in the depth of archival, historical, and literary analysis, we are still in the midst of a story. I was pleased with Bandersnatch, the popular version of The Company They Keep–also an audiobook, read by Michael Ward (see above). But I was thrilled when I heard that there was an audiobook available. Bev Kassis’ reading is a little flat, but is largely accurate and works better than most for the complex of materials in the book.

Gary S. Selby, Pursuing an Earthy Spirituality: C.S. Lewis and Incarnational Faith (7.25 hrs)

This book is perhaps as closely related to my work as Joe Rigney’s and came out the week after I submitted my thesis on the same topic. I am very curious to begin reading Pursuing an Earthy Spirituality next week. Like many of the writers on Lewis featured here, Selby is a teacher who has found Lewis to be an engaging classroom conversation. While Selby is doing what Rigney has done, Rigney has avoided the word “spirituality” and Selby includes it in the title. The difference could be telling, as is the focus: “By considering themes such as our human embodiment, our sense of awareness in our everyday experiences, and the role of our human agency–all while engaging with the writings of Lewis, who himself enjoyed food, drink, laughter, and good conversation–Selby demonstrates that an earthy spirituality can be a robust spirituality.” The audiobook reader, James Anderson Foster, is professional and even in tone.

Don’t forget to check out my review of Alan Jacobs‘ The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis, which is now available on audiobook. Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of J.R.R. Tolkien and his story of The Inklings are both available on Audible with stronger narrators.

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CFP: “2020: L.M. Montgomery and Vision”: Conference in Prince Edward Island

Living on the extreme end of the continent has its perks. Besides a rich culture, gorgeous beaches, and something we call weather–sorry folks, most of you don’t really have weather–we in Prince Edward Island also have Anne of Green Gables.

It’s true, it gets a bit much with all the tourists buzzing around and all the TV remakes. But even those have upsides. Lucy Maud Montgomery’s work has introduced the world to a gem of an Island, and this interest, in turn, has buoyed the prosperity of Canada’s poorest province. And as far as TV remakes go, the cartoon and the Martin Sheen version were painful, but the 1980s Kevin Sullivan miniseries still wears well, there is intriguing work coming out of Japan, and the new Anne program on Netflix/CBC is very well done (though the latter is either loved or hated by fans).

As part of encouraging the worlds of Anne from an Academic and artistic perspective, the L.M. Montgomery Institute has a biennial conference at the University of Prince Edward Island (where I teach part-time in religious studies). I had a wonderful experience at the conference in 2018 (see my write-up here), and I hope that you will consider joining us.

The Institute is looking for strong, interdisciplinary papers and presentations that draw out the best of Canada’s century-old literary superstar with the best of 21st-century scholarship. This conference is extremely rigorous; with a proposal deadline is August 16th–a full 10 months before the conference next June–they expect Montgomery scholars and readers to be on their toes.

Besides spending time in Prince Edward Island at a lovely point at the end of June, this conference might be interesting to you as an academic or as a reader of L.M. Montgomery. My own proposal is about how Montgomery deals with providence and evil in Anne’s House of Dreams, a book she wrote during WWI and after she lost a child. What would your approach be? With a theme about vision, perhaps you want to talk about how Montgomery (or Anne, or Emily) envisions the future. Or maybe you want to look through her books to see what she sees about culture, ideas, religion, politics, or something more intimate. Or perhaps you want to come and just soak in the words and the work by attending a world-class conference

In any case, you should come to this little Island! For me, I’m back to my reading of Anne’s House of Dreams.

CFP: L.M. Montgomery and Vision (link here)

The L.M. Montgomery Institute’s Fourteenth Biennial Conference
University of Prince Edward Island, 25-28 June 2020

“My fingers tingle to grasp a pen—my brain teems with plots. I’ve a score of fascinating dream characters I want to write about. Oh, if there only were not such a chasm between seeing a thing and getting it down on paper!” –Emily Climbs (1925)

“If for Montgomery Nature was eternal and eternally present, then the memory pictures of Nature reflected were perhaps meant to help her and her viewers to transcend time and, in entering the imaginative landscape, initiate generative seeing and fresh reverie.” –Elizabeth Epperly, Through Lovers Lane: L.M. Montgomery’s Photography and Visual Imagination

The 2020 conference invites proposals for research pertaining to L.M. Montgomery’s life, writings, and/or scholarship through the lens of vision. Montgomery found inspiration in what she saw around her, and she spent a lifetime translating what she saw into her writing and other creative works. The word vision derives from the Latin videre, “to see,” but as Montgomery knew, there is never a direct or straight line between the observing eye and the object that is seen (or not seen). Beyond topics relating to “visuality,” “vision” might also suggest, among others, (in)visibility, prescience, dreams, wisdom, imaginary or supernatural phenomena, apparitions, and the visioning and re-visioning of material – including her own life – for which Montgomery is renowned.

The conference theme might inspire papers that explore:

  • Montgomery’s visual descriptions and aesthetic; how she “sees” the world through her writing
  • Adaptations or revisions of Montgomery’s life and works on/in film, stage, art, new media, and beyond
  • The art and artistry of the illustrators of Montgomery’s works
  • Connections between vision and other senses in her fiction
  • Sight/seeing and the limitations of it or the enhancements and physical aids to it (e.g., glasses, binoculars, telescopes, camera lenses, etc.)
  • Metaphors of vision (e.g., re/views, perspectives, visionaries, reflections, blindness, opacity/transparency, etc.) in and around the world of Montgomery
  • Re-seeing, revision, remembering, and nostalgia in Montgomery’s creative and/or autobiographical processes
  • Things unseen, invisible, imaginary, or otherwise out of sight

Please submit 250-300-word proposals by 16 August 2019. Proposals should clearly articulate a strong argument, but they should also situate that argument in the context of established Montgomery scholarship. Proposals that view Montgomery’s life and art from different cultural and theoretical perspectives are welcomed. All proposals are blind reviewed. Proposals for pre-conference workshops, special exhibits, films, performances, or other visual displays are encouraged and welcomed.

PS., here are PEI’s old tourism videos, many of them gorgeous.

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Lessons on Christian Culture from Good Omens, and Why the Protests Make Weird Sense

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, WitchGood Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I decided to reread Good Omens because of the Amazon Prime series–though don’t tell fundamentalist American Christians that the series is on Prime or else they’ll have to end their boycott of Netflix. It is a pretty silly protest–not because playing with the powers of darkness is something we take likely (see the current geopolitical scene), but because it shows that the offended religious folk hadn’t bothered to take the time to be offended by the actual series. Instead, they were offended by an IMDB listing.

Intriguingly, unlike their anti-religionists, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman are pretty nuanced in this sacrilicious book.

Terry Pratchett was an avowed atheist, and Neil Gaiman is a Jewish author who is generally reticent to speak about faith, though I think it’s fair to say he has a pretty secular outlook. Individually, they are among the most important fantasy writers of the generation.

It is reputed that Pratchett’s Discworld series represented 1% of the book sales in England, even through the Harry Potter craze. This 40ish-book series begins in parody but develops into a book-world of some beauty and depth. Pratchett hinges the series on various characters–Samuel Vimes and the Watch, Granny Weatherwax and the witches, Rincewind and the wizards, Moist von Lipwig on industry, Tiffany Aching on the Chalk, and Death on what it means to be human–allowing the series to become detective novels, social commentary, adventure stories, quest narratives, and character explorations as the story develops organically (and often goofily). Pratchett’s Discworld is a stunning achievement, and I miss him.

While Pratchett’s work continues in the parodic, idiosyncratic, colourful trajectory of Good Omens, Gaiman’s most important fantasy moves into more mythic realms. A certain kind of reader will be forever grateful for Gaiman‘s Sandman project, and yet I think American Gods is his most important and underrated work. I would go further: I think that American Gods is the single most important work of American mythopoeic fantasy, with Stephen King‘s The Stand as a possible exception. Patrick Rothfuss may unseat American Gods if he would ever finish his work, and George R.R. Martin has a more extensive reach. But in terms of genre development and a rooted reorientation of classical stories, Gaiman is mythmaker without contemporary equal.

Intriguingly, Gaiman and Pratchett as so-called anti-religious writes can have strikingly original and helpful things to say for Christian readers. I could speak endlessly about their work from a theological perspective, but it is important to note that Good Omens isn’t a parody of the church or of religion. Like a pretty typical UK landscape, the people are largely non-religious–a post-Christian culture trying to figure out how to live normal lives with all these oddments of religion still lying around. Good Omens is a parody of the film The Omen, with some drive-by swattings of religious ideas and popular culture along the way. It is often obscure in its writings, with bits of past-its-prime cultural humour and “this is the real meaning of life” preaching that it could do without.

Good Omens is a flawed book, for certain. But there is an instinctive reaction to popular themes of Christian theology that warrants our attention.

In the tradition of Voltaire‘s anti-theodicy, Candide, Good Omens puts ideas about God, faith, neighbourliness, violence, hope, and love in the stocks. This results in a public viewing of some of our difficult beliefs, misrepresented ideas, and things that live as paradoxes for faithful believers. Some of these ideas will be mocked–and sometimes for legitimate reasons. But putting these ideas in the stocks of cultural view also tests the character of these beliefs, giving us a chance to clarify, to challenge, to defend, to live beautifully with Christian authenticity, and to make our own art that explores the depth of our worldviews.

Such as ineffability, to choose a pertinent example.

So I think faithful Christian readers owe Pratchett and Gaiman a debt of gratitude.

I suspect my offended American fundamentalist brothers and sisters in Christ don’t feel the same. Setting aside the fact that Christ never calls us to be offended–and it is in some people’s minds a lifelong vocation of monastic clarity–it is okay for us to disagree. But the sheer ridiculousness of the protest is a sad and often accurate picture of the Christian response to a kind of cultural criticism that Good Omens offers. Quite frankly, I don’t know that European Christianity ever truly responded to Voltaire’s Candide, and it has meant the senescence of Christianity in much of that society.

In this way, outside of the American context, the sheer normalness of Good Omens shows how clearly unnecessary the offended fundamentalists are to the rest of the world.

And yet, American fundamentalists protesting the wrong firm for a TV show that they haven’t seen is a kind of goofiness that I think fits well in Good Omens. In fact, it could be a scene in the book, though I think it would be better if environmentalists protested the Archbishop of Canterbury for the death of all the fish. Perhaps it is better that religious folks were pretty much left out of the book altogether.

While it is a book with a lot of flaws, Good Omens is an important work of cultural criticism. It’s also pretty funny. I don’t know what they have done with the series on Prime, but it looks pretty good. If it is well done, it will also be a work that tells us a lot about the cultural moment. For this reason, if not for the great fun of the story, it is worthy of our attention.

View all my reviews

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Master’s Class Announcement: C.S. Lewis and Mythologies of Love and Sex (Signum University Class)

I am truly pleased to be re-offering my course at Signum University this coming Fall, “C.S. Lewis and Mythologies of Love and Sex.” In this masters-level course, I use C.S. Lewis’ concept of four loves to structure a course about the great myths at the foundation of our culture. Ranging from the ancient world until now, these are the moments where stories of friendship, love, sex, marriage, fidelity, and devotion have intersected with the hinges of history. It will be a semester of great reading and transformational ideas. Consider joining us this autumn at Signum!

Click here for more information. This course is part of a slate of language and literature courses that make up Signum University’s unique, online, affordable MA program. You can focus on Germanic Philology, Tolkien Studies, Imaginative Literature (like Fantasy and SciFi), and Classical Literature. I have pre-recorded most of the lectures of this course and will be meeting with students each week to discuss the lectures and the great reading list. If you are interested in this course or if you are thinking about an MA program and want to know more about Signum, send me an email at brenton.dickieson@signumu.org.

About Signum University

Signum University believes education should be accessible, dynamic, and affordable. Signum is committed to establishing a completely virtual campus that will cultivate fruitful intellectual exchange between students and teachers, prolific vocational growth for our staff, and a vibrant academic community among our students.

Signum University and Mythgard Institute offer a unique digital campus environment in which students all over the world can engage throughout the course. Each class encourages rigorous academic conversation through multiple points of instruction and dialogue. Classes are available as part of the MA program, or as an inexpensive audit.

  • The Signum Classroom provides a convenient interface for live, direct interaction with instructors
  • A Class Forum provides a place for students and instructors to hold in-depth conversations about class-related topics
  • Discussion Sections offer a moderated setting where M.A. students can talk with each other on a weekly basis
  • Lecturer and preceptor Office Hours allow further conference opportunities to ask questions, clarify ideas, and present paper topics

C.S. Lewis and Mythologies of Love and Sex (Fall 2019)

Taught by Brenton Dickieson

This course explores some of the great mythologies of love that provide a background to today’s culture. Sketched out along the twin paths of C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves and a chronological development of the idea of romantic love, we explore foundational stories of love, sex, fidelity and betrayal, romance, loss, marriage, and divine and devotional love.

This treatment of love and sex has six movements. In the prologue we ask questions about the conversations of sex and love today, we begin in the civilizational nursery by looking at some of the ideas of love in ancient Mediterranean cultures. As we move into the first chapter, we look at the emergence of Greek and Jewish understanding of love, and the Christian idea of agape, or unconditional love.

In the second chapter, we will see the development—and in some cases a recovery—of the myth of romantic love in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, including themes of devotional, courtly, forbidden, and erotic loves, as well as the forms of storytelling that blended them all. Once love stories have shed their allegorical undertones, Shakespeare is an accessible starting point to discuss the place of romantic love in culture. Shakespeare is in this way the inventor of the modern romantic tradition, though his work suggests an inversion of that tradition. While Goethe captures romantic love in all its poignancy, we see Jane Austen’s inversive mind expand the theme, and turn to the four loves with a powerful cultural treatment in Pride & Prejudice.

In chapter three we turn to familial loves. Perhaps no more rapid change in relationships has come in the family loves, particularly those between parents and children. We will read pieces that suggest that the reassertion of this parental love makes for new problems as romantic, religious, and vocational love sit in uncomfortable tension with that earliest of all loves. Problematizing parental love, then, serves as an opportunity to return to the messages and stories of love in culture today.

Chapter four’s consideration of friendship love leaves us in a difficult situation. Though popular culture is beset with friends on facebook and television, the deep traditions of friendship are largely lost to us. So we turn to some children’s literature to discuss this almost forgotten love.

As an epilogue to the class, we ask some questions about love and culture today. Are we really in a renewed romanticism? What is love in a digital age? What happens when love fails—or when the mythologies of love fail? Which is the most important of the loves? We will close by returning to an ancient theme of “calling,” meant to open questions as to where the reader sits in the world.

Course Schedule

We will schedule our discussion sessions later this summer. I will be live recording a lecture on The Four Loves, and there is a chance another book will find its way into the syllabus.

Prologue: Who Did Write the Book of Love?

Week 1: “Art is a Lie Which Makes us Realize the Truth”

    • Read: Tolkien, “Mythopoeia,” Genesis 1 – 3, Lewis, The Four Loves
    • Watch: The Princess Bride
    • Recommended: Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” Lady in the Water Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, 1980s Brat Pack films

Week 2: Introduction to Love, Religion, and Mythology

    • Read: Song of Solomon; Lewis, The Four Loves
    • Recommended: The Epic of Gilgamesh; Homer, The IliadThe Odyssey; the Cupid and Psyche cycle in Books 4 – 6 of The Golden Ass

Chapter One: The Emergence of Agape

Week 3: Greek and Christian Inventions of Love

Chapter Two: The Establishment (and Inversion?) of Eros

Week 4: Form, Flesh and Fidelity: The Art of Courtly Love

    • Read: Selections from The Letters of Abelard & Héloïse; Patristic and Medieval Writings handout; Selections from Lewis, The Allegory of Love
    • Recommended: Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur; Andreas Capellanus, The Art of Courtly Love

Week 5: Shakespeare: The Invention (and Inversion?) of Romantic Love

    • Read: Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Sonnets handout
    • Recommended: Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet

Week 6: Goethe and the Romantic Tradition

    • Read: The Sorrows of Young Werther
    • Recommended: Orlando

Week 7: Jane Austen and the Change of the Heart

Chapter Three: The Problem of Storge

Week 8: The Forbidden Love of Asher Lev

    • Read: Potok, My Name is Asher Lev

Week 9: When Love is No Better than Hate

Chapter Four: Can We Recover Philia?

Week 11: Where did Friendship Go?

HarperCollins Signature EditionEpilogue: Love and the Cosmos

Week 12: Plastic Bodies and Broken Hearts: Myths of Love Today

    • Read: Coelho, The Alchemist
    • Watch: Lars and the Real GirlEasy A
    • Recommended: Lewis, A Grief Observed

Texts

Most of these books are widely available in local libraries or in inexpensive editions. Any edition of the books is fine. Translation in parentheses; it is okay to choose a different translation. In some cases, handouts will be provided in class, as noted below.

We’ve linked to free online resources where possible. Where no legally free version is available, links point to the Amazon page where a copy of the text may be purchased. Purchases made through these links help Signum University at no additional cost to you.

Required Texts

Required Films

Suggested Works

Note: Course schedules, texts and other details are subject to change. Upon enrolling, students should refer to the syllabus and Moodle course page for the most current information.

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