The Sorrows of Young Goethe

Let me tell you a story.

In the summer of 1772, 245 years ago, a young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe took a position articling in Wetzlar, Germany. He wasn’t a very good lawyer, however, and spent most of his time “lying in the grass beneath a tree, philosophizing with his friends” (The Sorrows of Young Werther, 5)–a job usually more suited to city workers than lawyers. Often, he would walk to the quaint village of Garbenheim and sit in the village square enjoying the quaintness of the scene, reading his Homer or the Bible, and talking to the villagers. He often sat in the shade of the linden tree, sketching the scene or reading or writing notes, and occasionally indulging the neighbourhood children with some money for a treat.

Not too long after he went to Wetzlar, in early June he went to a ball and a young woman caught his eye. Her name was Charlotte Buff. She was a simple country girl, beneath his social stature, but he was captivated. He was haunted by her beauty and lively charm, so he pursued her, not knowing that she was engaged to be married already to a personable young man named Christian Kestner.

Charlotte Buff was the second oldest of eleven children, the daughter of a widowed military officer. After her mother’s death, she gave herself lovingly to her family, caring for the children in her energetic, witty and unassuming way. Goethe fell in love with Charlotte’s domestic bliss and her inspiring ability to bring lightheartedness to any occasion. He was taken with the children, and was kind to Charlotte’s brothers and sisters, helping out as the occasion arose.

Interestingly, he became close friends with her betrothed, Christian Kestner, who had a “calm and even behaviour, clarity of opinions, and firmness in action and speech” (Werther, 6). As the character of Werther says in Goethe’s novel, “No doubt about it, [he] is the best fellow on the earth” (54). They had a mutual respect for each other, and Kestner called Goethe a talented genius, a man of character with a vivid imagination. He noted in letters to friends that Goethe was prone to “violent emotion,” but worked hard at a self-control that worked well with his independent spirit.

For Goethe, the summer was idyllic, with the friendship between he, Charlotte, and Kestner blossoming into full bloom in the joyous beauty of the countryside. They were inseparable, and Goethe felt that the friendship was smooth and painless.

Reading Kestner’s diaries, though, we see that that was not his impression. He trusted Goethe, and knew that they were friends, but as he was at work, Goethe would spend his days with Charlotte. When Kestner returned home, he felt the annoyance of Goethe. Goethe was frustrated, to be sure, but felt like being with Charlotte was a kind of reward, a great happening in the longing he had for her (recalling the words of Peter Abelard, who had fallen in love with the forbidden Heloïse).

How long could this love triangle withstand tension? Goethe felt like it was completely innocent—and it seems that according to social convention, it was innocent. But the tension must have been unbearable. Goethe’s echo in the voice of Werther is intriguing: “we should treat children as God treats us; He makes us happiest when He leaves us our pleasant delusions” (42). It seems he would prefer to remain in his delusions about their relationship than face the truth.

Finally, in mid-August, Charlotte told Goethe not to expect her to return his love. He became quite depressed, and within a month Goethe returned to the city, leaving without warning, simply leaving a note that said, “I am alone now, and may shed my tears. I leave you both to your happiness and will not be gone from your hearts.”

For those who have read The Sorrows of Young Werther, this will seem vaguely familiar. More than “vaguely,” actually. The parallel with Werther is pretty remarkable–and a little frightening, considering how the novel ends. In the second half of the novel, the main character—Werther, in love with “Charlotte” who is betrothed to another—descends quite dramatically to the point of suicide. Does this too parallel Goethe’s experience? Did Goethe commit suicide?

Well, like Werther, Goethe moved to the city to work, away from Charlotte and Kestner. And, like Werther, he fell in love again and was again disappointed, for he loved a young woman of a higher class who was, again, wedded to another person.

Historical sources suggest that Goethe was in some sort of depression. He heard a rumour—untrue, but shocking to him—that his good friend von Goué had committed suicide. He wrote to Kestner—yes, they are still on writing terms—that “I honour the deed,” but “I hope I shall never trouble my friends with news of such a kind” (Werther, 8-9). Then, three weeks later, a young gentleman named Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem shot himself.

Jerusalem was a law student with Goethe and was also a sharp writer and thinker. He took a job as a secretary to the ambassador of Braunschweig, just as Werther took clerk position in the novel. As a secretary he worked in his free time on painting and poetry and philosophy, occasionally attending the social functions.

Jerusalem struggled in Wetzlar, however. He had been rejected by high society and even though he was reasonably fashionable and polite, he did not make friends easily—he called Goethe, one of our most enduring authors, a “fop” and a “scribbler.” Unfortunately, his rejection by the aristocracy was personally troubling, and he fell in love with another man’s wife. He began to brood in Wetzlar, taking long, lonely moonlit walks.

As his passion for the married woman hit its peak, he wrote a popular article in defense of suicide; it is quite similar to Werther’s defense of suicide in the novel. In the novel, Charlotte’s fiancé is going on about his scruples over keeping guns, and Werther places a gun to his head in mock suicide. He reacts strongly. “it isn’t loaded,” Werther counters. “Even if it isn’t, I cannot imagine how a man can be so foolish as to shoot himself; I find the mere thought repellent.” (55)

They then have a discussion of morality where Werther suggests suicide is a great thing done by great men, suggesting that, “it would be as misconceived to call a man cowardly for taking his own life, as it would be to say a man who dies of malignant fever was a coward” (58). There is no agreement around the table on this question.

Returning to Goethe’s real life friend, Jerusalem, we find that Jerusalem wrote of the woman he loved, “I do not believe she cares for gallant amours, and in any case her husband is extremely jealous; so his love finally put paid to his heart’s ease and peace of mind” (9). One night, Jerusalem borrowed some pistols from a friend, saying that he was going to go on a trip. He dismissed his servants, wrote a note—which we still have—and shot himself at his desk. He bled throughout the night and died not long after being discovered in a pool of blood on the floor. Werther’s fate was precisely the same. And just as Werther does in the novel, Jerusalem left a copy of Lessing’s play Emilia Galotti on his desk.

Goethe was clearly thrown off by the suicide, writing to Kestner, “The poor fellow! … he is in love. It was loneliness, God knows, that ate away at his heart” (9). In the end, though, Goethe does not follow the fate of his friend Jerusalem and his character Werther.

The Sorrows of Young Werther is an intriguing “what if?” story. The first half of the novel is really a semi-autobiographical story of his falling for Charlotte–cleverly disguised as Lotte in the novel–and loving her even when it is impossible that she might return his love. The second half, after he is unsuccessful in love once again, is not Goethe’s story, precisely. It is the story of Jerusalem, who surrendered to his passions—or had the courage to surrender, if you believe the argument. The second half of Werther is the path that Goethe could have taken, but didn’t.

What if Goethe had lost himself to his passion like Werther had? Jerusalem was, for Goethe, the path not taken, the road not travelled. And there are other cautionary tales in the novel, warnings of paths that Goethe could have taken—madness and murder—but did not.

Instead, Goethe moves on. For his part, he retained a healthy correspondence with Kestner, but did not pursue Charlotte again. He wrote the novel we read in about a month in 1777, 240 years ago, and it became an international best seller. There was a kind of “Werther Fever” that erupted when Napoleon took a copy on his campaign in Egypt (as American Presidents are often photographed with books that become bestsellers). Young men all over Europe read the book and started dressing like Werther. Pilgrimages to Germany became a regular feature of the literary world, and the Romantic period saw Werther as a kind of ideal story, one lost in unrequited love and living only for love. There was even reputed to be a rash of copycat suicides, each one leaving the copy of their favourite play covered in blood.

Goethe, however, came to hate the book. Although it created a new literary movement, he wished he had chosen not to be so dangerously autobiographical. He also exposed the real Charlotte to public scrutiny—something he never intended. He recognized the book’s power to move young lovers, but he hated being famous for it. Really, he was the world’s first international celebrity. But he did better work than this, he thought. His creation of the character Faust is probably his most important literary work, but his scientific work is important—he is the first to theorize that colours appeared in a spectrum, a play of darkness and light. Clever fellow.

I think he is probably a jerk for writing a best-selling novel at 24 years old, and then snubbing superstardom. But he really captures some key things about the shifting cultural understandings of love. It is also a book I make my students read, knowing some will loathe it and others fall in love. It is a novel that defined a generation–actually, one that changed every romance story after it. Yet it is still, for a lover of books, simply a light summer read.

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Is Narnia an Allegory? (A Friday Feature from the Vault)

No. It’s not.


Allegory of Love CS Lewis new reprintWhile tempted to leave it at that and produce the shortest blog of history, I think it is important to let the Narnian himself address the question. C.S. Lewis was, after all, a literary scholar who had written an entire academic book about the development of medieval allegory (The Allegory of Love). He knows what allegory is, when it works well, and how to use it when it is the best genre to use. He liked Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and George Orwell‘s Animal Farm. He himself wrote an allegory, The Pilgrim’s Regress, and never chose to do so again.

When Lewis turned to writing for children and his earlier science fiction books, he could have easily chosen allegory. Instead, he wrote fairy tale and space romances. J.R.R. Tolkien hated allegory “in all its manifestations” (see his 2nd edition foreword to The Fellowship of the Ring).  Lewis did not dislike allegory, but he saw greater potential elsewhere. Here is a paraphrase of a note in a letter to Fr. Peter Milward on Sep 22nd, 1956:

Into an allegory a writer can put only what he already knows: in a myth he puts what he does not yet know and could not come to know in any other way.

The Hobbit by JRR TolkienThis is the adventure of fantasy writing. There was far too much unknown in Narnia and in the Ransom books for Lewis to leave them in allegory.

Yet, again and again, from the letters he answered, through published reviews, to academic conversations today, people talk about the allegorical elements in Narnia, and sometimes even call them allegories. Lewis and Tolkien protested similar treatments of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, publishing responses to critics who went astray. But if theses stories really aren’t allegories, how come so many think they are?

This is partly answered in Lewis’ rhetorical question to Wayland Hilton Young on Jan 31st, 1952: “is it possible for any man to write a fantastic story which another man can’t read as an allegory?” Readers experience a kind of gestalt effect: distinctions blur and new images emerge in our reading. It is part of what makes reading a dynamic, adventurous undertaking. It is why we reread books, over and over again.

The other part of the answer is probably equally hopeless to combat.

the one ringClearly, we have no idea what we mean by the word “allegory.” If asked, doubtless educated readers would say something like, “stories where the characters or objects in the story have a one-to-one relationship with some idea or thing in the real world.” When we are pushed to say what this relationship is, it falls apart. The Ring of Power that Frodo must carry is what? Nuclear weaponry? Our dark tendency to dictatorship? Original sin? If we disregard what the author was doing and what his contextual conversations were like, then I suppose the ring could be anything.

Of course, then, we aren’t really saying anything about the text we are reading anyway.

Both Lewis and Tolkien denied this one-to-one relationship existed in their work. It isn’t that there isn’t symbollic value in saying, for example, that Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom is like Christ’s Passion. Or that the undragoning of Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a good image of conversion. And it doesn’t mean that mythopoeic writers are speaking to real life conversations about power and faith and culture.

_aslan in the snowBut calling them “allegory” tells us more about the reader than it does about the books themselves.

I thought it would be helpful to let Lewis himself explain. To Lucy Matthews on Sep 11th, 1958, he wrote:

You’ve got it exactly right. A strict allegory is like a puzzle with a solution: a great romance is like a flower whose smell reminds you of something you can’t quite place.

His most extensive response in letters, though, was to a Mrs. Hook on Dec 29th, 1958. It is such a helpful reading of Lewis’ own writing project that it is worth quoting at length:

Magdalen College,
29 Dec 1958
Dear Mrs Hook
By an allegory I mean a composition (whether pictorial or literary) in wh. immaterial realities are represented by feigned physical objects e.g. a pictured Cupid allegorically represents erotic love (which in reality is an experience, not an object occupying a given area of space) or, in Bunyan, a giant represents Despair.
If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity in the same way in which Giant Despair represents Despair, he would be an allegorical figure. In reality however he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, ‘What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?’ This is not an allegory at all. So in ‘Perelandra’. This also works out a supposition. (‘Suppose, even now, in some other planet there were a first couple undergoing the same that Adam and Eve underwent here, but successfully.’)
Allegory and such supposals differ because they mix the real and the unreal in different ways. Bunyan’s picture of Giant Despair does not start from supposal at all. It is not a supposition but a fact that despair can capture and imprison a human soul. What is unreal (fictional) is the giant, the castle, and the dungeon. The Incarnation of Christ in another world is mere supposal: but granted the supposition, He would really have been a physical object in that world as He was in Palestine and His death on the Stone Table would have been a physical event no less than his death on Calvary.
Similarly, if the angels (who I believe to be real beings in the actual universe) have that relation to the Pagan gods which they are assumed to have in Perelandra, they might really manifest themselves in real form as they did to Ransom.
Again, Ransom (to some extent) plays the role of Christ not because he allegorically represents him (as Cupid represents falling in love) but because in reality every real Christian is really called upon in some measure to enact Christ. Of course Ransom does this rather more spectacularly than most. But that does not mean that he does it allegorically. It only means that fiction (at any rate my kind of fiction) chooses extreme cases….
Thank you for the kind things you say about my other works.
Yours sincerely
C. S. Lewis

Posted in Feature Friday, Fictional Worlds, On Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

On The Importance of Having a Permit, Or Truth-Telling and Our Response to Charlottesville

I am a university teacher, and my classroom is a space for many views. It is not quite a “safe space” for any idea. As a participant in the discussion, you would be responsible for slander or plagiarism. You could be expelled for saying something in class, though it has never happened. You are being marked, so making up evidence will probably go badly for you. I expect respect for one another, so although we may mock an idea we don’t mock one another. I expect students to be respectful to guests as they are to me and their peers. Although it is not an all-out space for cold hard facts—we are flesh and blood, not intellectual robots—it is a space for truth-telling, even if the truth is painful.

Although it is not an all-out space for cold hard facts—we are flesh and blood, not intellectual robots—it is a space for truth-telling, even if the truth is painful.

With this in mind, I once invited a white supremacist to address my class. My masters thesis was on antisemitism, and I was teaching a class on religious and anti-religious bigotry, following a class I called “The Anguish of the Jews,” a history of antisemitism. This was in a five-year period where my classes all had this kind of edge. Several times I taught “Atheism, Agnosticism, Atheism, and Belief,” “Religion and the End of the World” (with a focus on cults), and several classes on Islam, terrorism, and the so-called clash of civilizations. I was very interested in the fault lines between various groups, especially as these continental plates moved and shifted and crashed together. I liked debate, and loved what that environment did for student learning.

As part of this crash of ideas, I invited a neo-Nazi to my classroom. He preferred the term racialist, which is how I would have introduced him to students. He is part of a movement that takes up ideas of white purity and European heritage, sometimes mixing it with Christian exclusivism. He wasn’t the first white supremacist I met in Prince Edward Island, but he was the only one I knew that would speak openly about it.

So I invited him to share his views with my students.

Why would I do this? The answer is simple, really: I want to live in a world where people with stupid ideas aren’t inhibited from saying them aloud. Stupidity that is oppressed will grow out of its own energy, fueled by its martyr status. Stupidity that is suppressed will go underground, breeding in increasingly dangerous ways. We have seen this recently in North America and Europe, where movements many thought were dead show new militancy. The anger and frustration against immigrants and people of colour often caught on tape in numerous roadside and grocery store rants are from voices that have been long suppressed. Now that these words are said, they are now in the world and we really know the heart of the ranter, who is our neighbour.

Like I said, it is important for people with stupid ideas—or even stupid people—to say things out loud. Active suppression contributes to the recent balkanization of ideas and radicalization of young people—especially to Islamism, but also to nationalism, racialism, environmental terrorism, and actions against the LGBTQ community. I am against the Canadian laws that imprisoned Ernst Zündel, the notorious holocaust denier and antisemite. As despicable as his ideas are—and as dangerous as they are in the hands of young people—the use of post-9/11 security laws to jail him only legitimized his position. I think it is fine that Canada expelled him and that the Trump administration barred him from the U.S. Perhaps Germany was right to jail him given their history, but I’m not sure. When we evil suppress ideas they breed more evil. I do not mourn his recent passing.

In the end, the local white supremacist didn’t come to my class. He lacked the courage to do so, and I was secretly glad. I believe my students were intelligent enough to slice through his ideas, but I’ve come to realize that truth-telling requires certain contexts. Raw ideas in the cold world are not always as true as the facts behind them. Anyone who has been overheard by the victim of their gossip, or has tried to talk to a kid about sex, or has had to tell a horrible secret, or has sat with a dying person with regrets, or has been an “other” in a dominant culture, knows that truth-telling is done in a context.

The ability to perform contextually sensitive truth-telling comes by many names. Contemporary culture calls it good leadership. The ancient Chinese, Hebrews, and Greeks called it wisdom. St. Paul called it telling the truth in love, and Jesus’ life was both speech and silence, action and submission.

Truth in human context is never just the bald truth of mathematics, digital coding, or colour contrast.

And so Charlottesville. Dear Charlottesville, dear Virginians, dear Americans, I am so sorry for your violence, for your hurt. I grieve for Heather Heyer, the fallen policemen, and America’s lost youth.

Though it’s a day’s drive from Charleston to Charlottesville, anyone who has spent any time in America knows that the murders at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church—a young white man walked in and killed a bunch of seniors and young people praying, including their pastor—are never far from American experience. As soon as I heard of the “Unite the Right Rally” in Charlottesville, I knew there would be trouble. Symbols are never innocent, and a protest filled with swastikas, semi-automatics, Confederate battle flags, and racist placards is going to become violent.

The result was deadly. Dozens hurt, two police troopers lost, and one young woman killed, though she was a half-mile from the epicenter of the rally.

Two questions:

What is the President’s role in the moments after such a tragedy?

What is the Christian response to this issue?

One of the first things I remember seeing on TV was the launch of the spaceship Challenger. One of the astronauts was Christa McAuliffe, a schoolteacher, so classrooms all over the world were tuned in. I remember my teacher being so stunned as the aircraft exploded that she forgot to turn the TV off. Later, the Good Morning America President, Ronald Reagan, left us with these iconic words about why bad things happen: “It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.”

That was my first vision of a President in childhood, and it’s hard to forget it. I remember as a college student how Bill Clinton, beleaguered by the Oklahoma City bombing, tried to forge a path of balance between discipline and liberty, and drew Billy Graham to the platform for a Christian response to “Christian” terrorism. Barack Obama’s Sandy Hook and Charleston speeches were moving and supportive. Even George Bush, whose Iraq war has led to so much unnecessary suffering, was able to connect and show how deeply he felt the 9/11 tragedy.

So, thinking of our two questions, how should President Donald Trump have responded? These are his first words:

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.”

With no reference to the act against the victims of terrorism, this President showed his true qualities. The fascination in the media has been about the “racist” remarks of the President. It isn’t what he said that’s racist, but the fact that he tried to hold together those who “cherish our history and our future,” with no differentiation of blame. To quote the President on a previous terrorist attack, “we have to say the words,” we have to name the enemy. If he was just responding to a riot then his statement is fine, provided it is followed with a sense of strength and purpose. It was not followed by such a statement, and a riot is not all that happened.

The next day, Trump did follow up with a statement condemning neo-Nazis and other white supremacist groups, but used a press conference the following day to clarify that he wants to condemn violence and hatred on all sides.

How should the President respond?

He should respond like a President, with truth and honour, showing vision and courage and wisdom that rises above the indignity of the tragedy to show the dignity of his office. A President sides with the victims of terrorism. This President should respond as he would if the terrorist was brown or had an Arab accent: to condemn in no uncertain terms the act and all those that are connected with it. Full stop. Then, with more wisdom but some of the courage of George Bush, to move against the perpetrators. As Bush said following 9/11, “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” Would that this President could back his many disavowals of white supremacists by holding their feet to the fire.

If this President were half the man of Bush, Obama, or Reagan–or even a quarter of the human being–he would have know when to speak and what to say.

Instead, this President has responded by claiming that he was waiting to know all the facts. And he will continue to respond to criticism with this statement, made in the first press conference on another question:

“if anyone disagrees you can leave the room right now.”

How should the President respond? He should respond like a President, comforting the hurt and leading America to grander future.

There will come a time to know all the facts, a time when protestors and counter-protestors will be charged, where police forces will be criticized, where policy and court challenges will clarify and blame, where cooler heads will recognize the alt-Right is not the same as conservativism, or that it was not one thing that happened in Charlottesville but many. Republicans will go through a terrifying period of soul-searching where they try to find out what they lost about conservative values and normal people in their hunt for conservative power and populism. There will come a time when alarmist media and critics will see the damage they are doing when they leave out the whole story for the sake of their progressive vision.

The wounded will heal, the dead will be laid to rest, and we will come to speak of Charlottesville the way I discuss things in my classroom. But, Mr. President, the time for that kind of conversation is not while the bodies of terrorist victims are still warm and the wounded are still being triaged.

Trump’s focus on the neo-Nazi permit to protest, besides being a shockingly selective picture of what happened, shows that the President does not have wisdom in his speech. There will be a time to think about permits, but the time is not now. A young one is dead.

The President should know this. My kid did.

How do Christians respond?

Christians are part of a Semitic religion that began in Asia with African roots, where its God came to Earth as a poor Jewish carpenter’s son whose skin tone is more like your average mideast Arab than any American white supremacist.

Christians reject all claims to racial supremacy. We are a global, intergenerational community that is more ethnically diverse than any institution on earth. Our vision for heaven is multicultural, as is our vision for our communities.

We are part of a faith that has at its centre the giving up of power, the laying down of our selves, the call to meekness as we follow the example of Christ on the cross. Christians reject all power leveraged against the weak and all acts of terror.

Contrary to what the President said, Christians are not American first, but seek to infuse America with the heart of the gospel, which is the self-sacrificial love of Christ.

Christians pray for victims and the victimizers. And where they live in that community they cook meals, donate money, open doors, and give support to the bereaved and the broken.

Christians unite with the oppressed, stand by the persecuted, and support those who are victimized—with no reservations about lifestyle or policy.

Christians condemn in no uncertain terms the ideologies of race and fear that come from Ernst Zündel, the KKK and groups like David Duke’s alt-right movement. This worldly pattern is Rome and not Jerusalem, and we reject it and all temptations to give them an inch of our allegiance.

Christians speak the truth, but they speak the truth in love, in context, in life and flesh.

Christians may or may not get a permit, but they know that it is humans that are made in the image of God, not ideologies.

How should Christians respond to Charlottesville?

In humility, knowing that we have contributed to the story of racism.

In service, knowing we are the hands and feet of Christ.

In hope, believing that things do and can change.

In critical intelligence, rejecting culture’s temptation to extremism.

In prayer, knowing that God moves.

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Infodump and Identification: Thinking about Fantastic First Pages with Anne McCaffrey

I’m having trouble getting into the (sort of) second Dragonriders of Pern book, Dragonquest. I loved Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonsong, caught up by the protagonist’s heartsore struggle to express her creativity in a world of martial law. In dire threat of the biological terror of Threadfall on the colony planet of Pern, severe gender roles have evolved out of a necessity for safety. Menolly has an unusual musical ability, which has been encouraged by the Harpmaster of her community. When her father, a leader, takes away the hope she has to use music in her work, she escapes from their stronghold just as Threadfall strikes. In desperate need for survival, using her keen intellect and creativity, Menolly discovers the dragons that are the one hope for a beleaguered world.

I loved the energy of Menolly’s character set against the restrictive structures of her community. Salvation for Menolly was salvation for Pern, including the discovery that her father’s strengths and power in leadership also created weaknesses and vulnerabilities for a community perpetually on the brink of disaster.

Loved it–especially as it fed my fascination with early women SF writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, Suzy McKee Charnas, Madeleine L’Engle, and (a bit later), Margaret Atwood. (I know I’m missing Diana Wynne Jones and Marion Zimmer Bradley, but I wasn’t struck by Howl’s Moving Castle or Mists of Avalon so never went back to their earlier work).

Honestly, though, Dragonquest is painful to read. It began with 8 to 10 pages of background information, filled with technical terms and names I’ve never heard of. Honestly, it left me both cold and confused. Then the book itself begins with the reminiscences of a storyteller, trying to retell the same history but using the particular viewpoint of a character I don’t know well enough to care about. Then the perspective switches again and I think I’m going to get more inner dialogue about the state of this beleagured world.

I set the book down last night and turned off the light. I’m still, a half-day later, 10 seconds away from tossing this paperback and reading something else. Frankly, Anne McCaffrey has buried me in

Frankly, Anne McCaffrey has buried me in infodump.

This little experiment of reading a good writer in a series I like brings to mind what for me is an absolutely essential rule of reading speculative fiction:

I only care about the world because I care about the characters. 

This might seem like a strange statement to some fans of the fantastic. After all, isn’t science fiction and fantasy all about the “world?” Aren’t we reading because we love the fictional worlds of Pern and Dune or the imaginary lands of Middle-earth and Narnia?

Frankly, no.

Look, I love these lands–what I call the “speculative cosmography” of a book. I am fascinated that the mindscape of readers is one where Oz is North of Middle-earth, where Ringworld and Dracula sit on the same shelf as Dante’s Divine Comedy and a whole bunch of books set in and around Mars. Middle-earth is the richest world I know, and I would sell all I own for one moment in Narnia. You just have to say “cupboard” and I am immediately transported to the complex and beautiful world of Harry Potter. We don’t want to see all the worlds we read about–I talk about the Mythogenic Principle here–but I am deeply moved by the depth and beauty of some of the best speculative cosmographies that I read.

No matter how fantastic your fantasy world is, though, I will never find out unless I am won by your characters.

If I pick up a book and the book is really about the book-world and not about a story, I am likely to set it down. We live in an era of reading where the emotional plotline of the characters is one of the most significant driving features of the narrative plotline. If our characters don’t change, we have failed as writers. Even before this era–thinking of Beowulf, Homer, Dante, and Bunyan–some of my favourite old stories are progresses, travelogues, where the character grows in the journeying.

Now, I have no doubt that if I continue to read Dragonquest that I will enjoy her prose style and get into the story. The reason I’m setting the book down is that Anne McCaffrey is in love with the book-world, the speculative cosmography. Heterocosmica, however, is only ever the context for a story. Stories are about people, and the world Bible should be almost invisible to the reader.

This tendency to infodump is in most of us, and is in tension with another rule of fantasy writing: will your readers know what kind of book they are reading within the first few pages of reading? Honestly, I’m struggling at this point with a manuscript. It begins with a dark scene of the child’s birth, a prologue that sets up the character relationships and the “engine” of my fictional world. Yet I have never been satisfied. It took a writing group to help me see that it is my protagonist, the hero, who we want to see first. The book is a story of contrasts, and it is through the light of her character that we come to understand the darkness of her world.

In rewriting this beginning, however, I now no longer satisfy those who require that we know the genre in the first few minutes of reading. I may still be able to fix that in a clever way–think of how Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone begins with a daytime owl and a cat reading a map, but set in the context of the Dursley’s home. While I think readers have some tolerance for doubt about genre in this genre-bending age, there is no forgiveness for the sin of infodump.

So with respect to one of the greats, I’m setting Anne McCaffrey aside. I will pick up the Pern books on another day. Right now, there are far too many good books for me to read to continue spending time on infodump.

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Signum University Fall Registration

The Oddest Inkling

signumLogo_100Hear ye, hear ye!
Fall 2017 registration at Signum University is open! Come peruse our lineup of marvelous classes and make your Sophie’s choice among them – or bravely refuse to do any such thing and simply quit your day job so you can sign up to take them all!
Introducing Writer’s Forge
This year, Signum is offering a new student service: the Writer’s Forge, a writing tutorial program where you can hone your craft, becoming a more effective communicator within Academia at large and in your degree work in particular. The Writer’s Forge can give you confidence in your abilities as a scholar, even if it’s been a while since you tried your hand at a paper.
Signum Advisory Reminder
Don’t forget to take advantage of Signum’s advisory program. If you’re a credit student, contact your Signum Advisor ASAP to discuss your progression in the degree program. We…

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Reading the Great Divorce: Friday Feature Podcast

Today’s Friday Feature is another podcast by William O’Flaherty, and fits in well with my mission to get people to read and reread The Great Divorce. Here William allows four people to share what they found meaningful about Lewis’ dream novella about the other side of the End.  I hope you enjoy, and find your way (back) to this forgotten classic.

This podcast, part of an occasional feature to encourage you to read material from Lewis, focuses on one of the shortest works by him (excluding essays, of course). The Great Divorce was first released in weekly installments in The Guardian before published in 1946. If you have never read this fictional work then you will be pleasantly surprised about how much truth can be learned from the experiences of the characters! The guests sharing their thoughts are (in order of appearance): Dennis Beets, Gina DalFonzo, James Motter, and Brenton Dickieson.

Check it out here:

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Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms and The Revised Psalter by C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot

Until the time I was forced to hammer out the details for my chronological reading of C.S. Lewis’ works, I thought that he wrote Reflections on the Psalms out of his work with an Anglican committee to update the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) psalter. It turns out, I had it all backwards. Here are some of the hopskotch links that lad Lewis to writing his only book-length book on Scripture and his important relationship with the 20th century’s great poet, T.S. Eliot.

From the time that he began to believe in God, C.S. Lewis attended chapel daily and went to church each Sunday–places where the recitation of the Psalms was a continual event. Students have testified that he read the Psalms himself, soaking in the poetry and the images over a lifetime of practice.

This reading became a habit in WWII, though we don’t know how well he kept the habit (see the 12 Jul 1940 letter to his brother). Where Christian discipline might fail some, a desire for poetry might have fueled his reading even when the spiritual connection was lagging. He loved Coverdale’s 16th-century translation of the Psalms that occupied the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) and reflected the work of Tyndale. While Lewis knew that the resources for accurate translation were far greater in his day than Coverdale’s, of the BCP Psalms Lewis said that “in beauty, in poetry, he, and St. Jerome, the great Latin translator, are beyond all whom I know.”

Narrowing in from liturgy to particular interest, if we were to judge by Lewis’ letters, it may have been a spiritual confidant, Sr. Penelope, who first drew Lewis’ attention to the literary potentials in the Psalms.  Sr. Penelope, writing as an anonymous nun, sent Lewis her Scenes from the Psalms, arranged for use in Schools (1939). Though we don’t have her side of the discussion, he does provide a bit of feedback to her work.

Yet, Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms seemed to come from nowhere. Suddenly in autumn of 1957, without having completed a lecture series that we know of, Lewis had completed the book and sent it to the publisher to be published a year later. In the end, we don’t know what triggered his turn to Christian commentary. My own hunch–and it is only that–is that he was inspired by Joy Davidman’s unique perspective on Scripture as a Jewish-American convert. Before they were married, he wrote an introduction to her meditation on the 10 Commandments, Smoke on the Mountain (free online here). What he left us, in any case, is a very human, literary look at the Psalms, including some of Lewis’ clearest teaching about how to read with Bible.

This volume also opened up other kinds of conversations for Lewis. It may be because of Reflections on the Psalms, as well as the Pittenger Debate, that Dr. Clyde Kilby of Wheaton College queried Lewis about his understanding of Scripture. You can see Lewis’ response in his letter to Dr. Kilby in his letter of 7 May 1959, and the discussion of his views in Michael Christenson’s C.S. Lewis on Scripture. In sketching his view, Lewis offers a subtly different understanding of Scripture than Kilby and Wheaton College, but it was Dr. Kilby that began Lewis’ American archive on that very campus.

In an intriguing twist, this book led to Lewis’ involvement with the Committee to Revise the Psalter, which in turn lead to a friendship with T.S. Eliot (who was kind of Lewis’ literary arch-nemesis in the 1920s). A month following the publication of Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis received a letter from Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury in the post-WWII years through 1961. I have not seen the Archbishop’s letter, but here is the job that was set before the Committee:

To produce for the consideration of the Convocations a revision of the text of the Psalter designed to remove obscurities and serious errors of translation yet such as to retain, as far as possible, the general character in style and rhythm of Coverdale’s version and its suitability for congregational use” (The Revised Psalter, v).

Lewis’ letter in response is brief and respectful:

Magdalene College,
Nov. 14th 1958

My dear Lord Archbishop
I have thought over your Grace’s letter and come to the conclusion that I cannot refuse to serve on this Commission if I am wanted. I wish I were better qualified, but there is no use in multiplying words about that.
Yours sincerely
C. S. Lewis

Lewis did indeed serve on the committee, beginning with his first meeting at Lambeth Palace in January 1959. The committee of scholars, theologians, pastors, and poets worked fastidiously towards a publication in 1963, including several day-long and even three-day conferences. Eliot and Lewis, despite their differing perspectives and a failed connection through mutual friend Charles Williams during WWII, became friends in the process of translation/adaptation of the Psalter. Indeed, it was T.S. Eliot who first knew that A Grief Observed–Lewis’ pseudonymous memoir of grief following the death of Joy (note the author’s name, N.W. Clerk)–was really from the Narnian author and literary scholar, C.S. Lewis. Eliot played a role in the publication of the book that is one of his most problematic and important pieces.

Lewis worked on the Psalter through the death of Joy and his own faltering health. On Aug 7th, 1963, Lewis finally wrote to officially resign from the Commission to Revise the Psalter, just three weeks after he had a near-fatal heart attack and fifteen weeks before he finally passed away. I don’t think Lewis ever saw the final printed copy of the Psalter, as approved, but he did read the preface and probably saw most of the adapted translation.

I am afraid that I don’t know the final impact of the Revised Psalter. Although officially approved, it never became the popular replacement of the Coverdale translation in the Book of Common Prayer that it was envisioned to be. I don’t know the spiritual or political reasons for this–perhaps you do–but having read through the entire Revised Psalter, it is not a striking literary work. Others who have read it delighted in it, but I felt like it kept the awkwardness of an older translation while losing the beauty of Coverdale. Like the New King James psalter, it could not raise to the height of the original and did not throw itself into the language of contemporary culture.

I suspect that this awkwardness–if I am correct–came because of the competing tensions of the committee. It has to work for choral singing, to keep to the original Coverdale theme, to be updated in Hebrew (with reference to Latin and Greek), and to meet the poetic and religious sentiments of folk like Lewis and Eliot. I think it pulled at too many edges and the sheet, if it did not tear, was stretched past what was good for it.

Still, if you want a different reading experience of the Psalms, I would recommend it. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to find! Contact me through facebook if you need help from a research perspective, but I borrowed it through Interlibrary Loan. I’d love your thoughts–and a rebuke against my reading–if you have the time.

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