Writing Tips by Stephen King

I’ve blogged from time to time about the importance of Stephen King‘s On Writing. It is a funny, moving, flawed, and priceless resource for those who dream of having their journal sketches become hardcover books.

On Writing is one of the books that changed my life.

It is also, I think, a pretty good resource for anyone who taps out their living on a keyboard–from storytellers to journalists, from preachers to teachers, from bloggers to speechwriters, from scholarly researchers to policy writers.

In preparing for my previous post on Stephen King and Danse Macabre I stumbled across this poster. Though it has the kind of professional staleness you’d expect from a publisher–boy, I’d love to see a good edgy graphic novelist or digital designer get ahold of this book–I think it is a great reminder of some of the bright practical points of On Writing. It wasn’t these 14 things that meant so much to me but the book as a whole, warts and zippers running up the back of the monster’s back and everything. But I rarely forget these 14 points, which make a great addition to the writing rules from L.M. Montgomery, Olivia Butler and Robert Heinlein that we’ve already discovered. It’s true, these are all writing hacks compared to many other elegant writers of writing books. Still, you know who I am talking about, and I think these rules go a long way to transcending genre and the limitations of labels.

I hope this little post from A Pilgrim in Narnia helps you along your way, whether your destination is the bestseller shelf or the bargain bin, the lectern or the pulpit, a product user or the legislative assembly, your little writing circle or the entire twitterverse.

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Happy Hobbit Day! Signum Reading Today

September 22 is when we celebrate the birthday of Bilbo Baggins and his mythic heir apparent, Frodo. It is a day for hobbitish celebrations, both fantastic and epic.

That the “New Hobbit” adventure begins with a birthday party that begins a long, dark journey has always been to me a poignant reminder. I think fans would have love another two or three books like The Hobbit, books filled with that curious rugged hominess of hobbits stepping out on the road of adventure. Another fairy tale of childlike wonder was not to be, however. As much as Frodo’s journey was an echo of Bilbo–the journey to a mountain to give away rather than find a great treasure of inestimable worth and the capacity for imaginative slavery–there is a literary depth and mythic sadness in Frodo’s journey that makes The Lord of the Rings a completely different book.

How we compare birthdays shows the difference. Bilbo’s 111st birthday, when Frodo has turned 33, is filled with joy and a bittersweet departure. 17 years later, on Frodo’s 50th birthday, he has his last night of ease in the Shire. The next morning, Ringwraiths enter the Shire and Frodo finds himself on the road, fleeing his home for Bree. By his next birthday, Frodo will have won and lost many things.

Though some may call it a fairy tale, it occurs to me that this is very much like real life. Fans and friends would have lapped up another friendly there-and-back-again tale of dragons and dwarfs. But Tolkien’s story to tell was deeper and darker, richer and more joy-full at the most intimate levels of where myth meets fact. But even at the storied level of the adventures of our own lives, the story doesn’t usually go how we wish it to. For

Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.

So to two fair hobbits, Happy Birthday!

In celebration of Hobbit Day, and to kick off the annual fundraising campaign for Signum University, why don’t you join the free Hobbit Day Reading by Dr. Corey Olson (@TolkienProf). I’m actually hoping to make an appearance myself.

So dear Bagginses and Boffins, Tooks and Brandybucks, Grubbs, Chubbs, Hornblowers, Bolgers, Bracegirdles and Proudfoots, here is the announcement:

Join Signum University on September 22, 2018 – also known as “Hobbit Day” because it is the birthday of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins – for a special event to kick-off this year’s Annual Fund Campaign.

As we did last year, we are starting the campaign with a special Hobbit Day Reading. However, this year we are expanding it to include not only Signum Founder and President Dr. Corey Olsen, but a host of special guest readers and panelists who will be performing and discussing various works by Tolkien along some of our other favorite fantasy and science fiction authors.

The event will also signal the official kick-off of our Annual Fund Campaign, which will include a number of special events, as well as a focus on our regularly scheduled activities for both Signum University and the Mythgard Institute. During the event, Dr. Olsen will provide more details about this year’s campaign, including fundraising goals and details about our Donor Appreciation Program.

Click Here for more.

 

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A Fatal Flaw in Contemporary Writing: Thinking About Identity in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (Part 2)

Earlier this week I put a review up of what I think to be a strong, engaging literary sf book, skillfully written to accomplish two things that many authors could not do. First, Emily St. John Mandel has created in Station Eleven a postapocalyptic novel that walks us through the collapse of civilization without reducing the book to the drudgery of illness, loss, chaos, and marches of the walking dead. Second, Mandel manages to write likeable narcissists on a moral quest without making the audience bored by either the self-attention or the vital lesson. In both cases, Mandel uses deft literary devices and strong writing to turn deadly literary traps into dynamic features of the text.

There is in my view only one real weakness in Station Eleven, namely the chief antagonist, the Prophet. In strong, careful movements, Mandel works out the biographical storyline of each of her main characters, linking them in intimate ways as we draw closer and closer to the centre. The Prophet threatens to destroy the fragile, desperate peace that falls upon the postapocalyptic Great Lakes world as he quietly takes apart innocence and beauty in his cool destructive influence. There are some interesting features of the Prophet’s character. He doesn’t hate art, he has a kind of morbid curiosity, and he is part of the intricate web of the book’s most remarkable strength: the way it orbits around one particular character. Other than that, though, the Prophet’s character is pretty flat. He is just another brutalizing, pedophilic, creepy, cult leader who orients the entire universe around his own self-understanding. Unfortunately, Mandel’s Prophet lacks the depth even of a single-episode crime TV character.

Granted, it is hard for fictional cult leaders to shine next to the incredibly complex, heartbreaking, and eerie real-life stories of these kinds of figures. Still, the Prophet fails in this winning novel. I think there is a reason for the failure, though in suggesting it I am moving into dangerous territory by speculating about the experience of the author. The presupposition I’ll move forward with is that Mandel is a bright and critical reader, able to offer a feminist critique of work while still loving literature. I suspect she is typically generous and inclusive, a fairly normal Canadian, so that living in the US includes a kind of quiet political interest combined with the constant disturbed feeling of parts of American culture combined with an underlying admiration for the best of America. I haven’t read anything on her, but this is my guess.

While most fiction writers know that we embed a bit of ourselves in most every character, our stories are going to have characters with radically different experiences from our own. When this is done badly, novels have that monotone quality of made-for-TV movies where every character talks the same. When done well, the story has a rich, deep, and broad character life.

When we write about people that we are not, there is one absolutely essential rule: we need to be able to see the world from their angle.

I think this is the same whether we are writing about a feminist accountant experiencing a life crisis, a terrorist praying for a way out, a medical marijuana user falling in love with his physiotherapist, a gay rights activist playing the stocks during his day job, a Palestinian poet on the run from an intellectual hitman, a ceramic tea-cup painter with blood on his hands, a pro-life protestor struggling with disillusionment, an atheist broadcaster about to compromise her principles, a Japanese animator with a failing secret life of crimefighting, an ISIS fighter with nothing to lose, or a fat man who wins a luxury Barry Manilow show cruise. If you cannot empathetically appreciate the whole perspective of that character–if you cannot see through their eyes and appreciate the beauty and horror and layered dimensions of their identity and choices–you will not be able to tell their story.

This principle is particularly true of people whose worldviews are vitally different than your own. I asked once on this blog if people could appreciate the beauty of evangelicalism, even if they disagreed with it or even hated the point of view. As a Person you can carry around whatever bigotry you want, but as an Author, if you can’t see the beauty of their worldview from the inside, you will never write an evangelical character well. True, you may play fabulously to anti-religious crowd in this Trump era. Evangelical support of Trump is the Scopes Monkey Trial of the 21st century. But unless you feel the heart of the evangelical you will never write that character to your own critical ability. If you can’t understand why a young Muslim man would turn give his life as suicide bomber, you can’t write that character. If you don’t understand why someone would leave their faith or protest at a clinic or commit adultery or knowingly do the wrong thing at work, you will never be able to tell their story well.

Whether your book is a bestseller or a bargain bin reject, if you can’t empathize with the worldview of your antagonist, your work will only have the strength of every boring trope you have ever seen, whether that’s the gay best friend, the socially awkward IT coder, the fat girl without a date, the magical negro, the deadbeat dad, the ditz, the monologuing bad guy, or the hypocritical clergyman. Yes, in each one of those cases you can think of a brilliant book or film featuring that character. Analyze that story and see what makes the difference.

Now the case of Emily St. John Mandel’s generally skillful work in Station Eleven. In considering the character of the Prophet, I suspect that she does not have a close intimate friend who has a deeply committed and authentic religious belief that she not only disagrees with but finds abhorrent. I could be wrong, and if I am I will retract this criticism. But I suspect that there is no one on her “I would drop everything and do anything for you” list who has a religious perspective that disturbs her, such as a fundamentalist Christian, a Benedict Option Catholic, an evangelical who voted Trump, a Jehovah Witness who really believes that it is wrong to give her daughter a blood transfusion, an Orthodox Jew in a gender-divided commuity, or a Muslim who wears the hijab and hopes that America will be part of Dar al-Salam in a future, global, universal ummah.

And given that the standard response in the book to ideas of God, faith, hope, and meaning is that they are strange and disturbing, I wonder if Mandel has someone close to her who is even deeply religious (in a more-than-Oprah-book-of-the-month club kind of way)–quite apart from the more extreme religions in the previous paragraph. I do suspect that she has people she respects that are spiritually minded but not terribly religious, and probably some people she loves that attend church or synagogue. That element comes out well in the book, but the despicable worldview of the Prophet is both incoherent and lifeless.

In most books, this particular weakness might not be fatal. In Station Eleven, however, a great deal of the plot is structured around someone with a disturbing worldview, i.e., the Prophet. He is the chief Antagonist and the anvil against which two of the main characters test their mettle. Yet there is no empathetic connection between the audience and this critical character, despite watching him grow up and despite Mandel’s critical ability to connect with other people who do awful things and live terrible lives. I think this gap exists because Mandel cannot respect the antagonist, and she struggles even to understand his motives. In a book that smacks of Providence and has a tender respect for little rituals of remembrance and connection, the reduction of religion to madness and violence–people like this just think that way, after all–is not just a weak point but almost a fatal flaw.

I should note that I am not offended. Mandel is hardly the first author to play on tiresome anti-religious tropes (or anti-gay sentiments, or xenophobic stereotypes, or …). I like anti-religious writers, for the most part.

I also think that it’s okay that her lack of tolerance in this particular area squeezes through into the narrative. The idea that there is a loving God governing the universe and who expects people to respond ethically is pretty absurd–especially in a novel where 99.9% of people are killed by disease and human violence. That absurdity is the crisis of our times. It is worth writing about.

But if the novel was meant to be a critique of theistic Meaning and a call to live meaningfully–because “survival is insufficient”–the flat nature of her main villain is a critical failure at this point.

This failure of character development is a singular occurrence in Station Eleven. Emily St. John Mandel certainly lacks no strength in creating varied and empathetic characters, which is why I suspect the character’s religious worldview is a blind spot in Mandel’s experience. If Mandel had taken the time to research the perspectives of prophets like the one in her novel, to really get on the inside and understand how they work and appreciate the horror of their perspective in disturbing admiration rather than just dismissive assumption, that character could have been great.

Otherwise, and in all other ways, the book was a splendid discovery for me. In a literary environment where the postapocalyptic has become rather drab, Mandel’s Station Eleven certainly deserved the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2015. I hope to see more from Emily St. John Mandel.

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Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven: A Brilliant Apocalypse with an Almost Fatal Flaw (Part 1)

From Mary Shelley to Margaret Atwood, I have a deep interest in women’s sf and speculative fiction. It is not just a question of perspective and hearing other voices. Rather, it simply that some of my favourite writers are in this tradition, such as Madeleine L’Engle, Judith Merrill, Ursula K. Le Guin, (a recent discovery) Octavia Butler, and, of course, the queen of magical sciences, J.K. Rowling. As a Canadian, I’m particularly on the lookout, since Margaret Atwood has risen to such literary heights, and there are always new and brilliant discoveries, such as Nalo Hopkinson’s challenging and worldview-bending fiction (think of a more strongly voiced Neil Gaiman-styled fantasy for the Afro-Carribean-American community). My attention was piqued, then, when I heard of Station Eleven, a book that has caught some buzz on my local campus.

And, honestly, Emily St. John Mandel had succeeded in creating something that I have been trying to conceive of for years. I have longed to create an apocalypse that was not really a disaster book but the lived stories of people as they experience a crisis and can only experience normal life through memory and artifact. What I stumbled over, again and again, was the linearity of the event, so that everything I conceived of had the trudging, onward stomp of endless journeying. Everything I attempted to outline became a refugee story, which I just didn’t feel was my story to tell. In particular, my characters were lost in the trope. What Mandel did, however, was create a sustained imaginative world after a pandemic where the characters live brilliantly in their own dark and light interior lives.

I have always suspected that the use of letters, memory, and artifacts could challenge the linearity of normal life-after-apocalypse storytelling. Mandel does use epistolary forms and memory, but she goes so much further.

First, she almost completely abandons a linear chronology. She does this by creating a central event: the staging of King Lear in present-day Toronto, with a famous actor as the lead as he is minutes away from a fatal heart attack. King Lear, then, functions as book-end and touchpoint throughout the narrative. The reader returns to this stage many times as we move across a life-long timeline of lives.

Second, Mandel creates a graphic novel-within-a-novel, an interior fictional world of stunning beauty and personality and intimate connection that serves as a second time-link to structure the non-structured chronology.

With deft literary and visual sophistication, Mandel uses both King Lear and the graphic novel, Station Eleven, as a routing mechanism for the narrative and as metaphorical suggestions of the main personalities in the novel. These tools, combined with a genius use of artifacts, open the reader to a rich literary experience that is not lacking in cultural criticism. The trekkie quote that structures the entire post-apocalyptic drive–“Survival is Insufficient”–is really a question of what it means to live today and echoes C.S. Lewis’ argument in “Learning in War-time” in 1939.

Station Eleven is constructed with a complex structure with a constantly shifting point of view, but the reader is never confused or struggling in the dark. I had to make a kind of mental character list and timeline, but that may be my weakness as a reader. There are costs to Mandel’s approach. After the first scene it takes a bit to get into the story, perhaps accentuated by the fact that the characters are sometimes despicable they are each struggling with their own narcissism. But this struggle with self has a deeply metaphorical purpose. This six-degrees-of-separation story of the end of civilization confirms the narcissism of the central character: all the people in the world do, in fact, orbit around the actor that plays King Lear.  This cord of Station Eleven is so essential that to remove it would be collapse the whole, and so prominent that the novel suggests in its thematic design a kind of Providential guidance–an idea that is impossible within the diegetic world of its main characters.

Station Eleven is a book that has deeply impressed me, drawing me into its characters’ lives and making me see more possibility in the genre. Mandel wrote and published what I could only intimate and succeeded (no small feat) in making likable narcissists that the reader wants to spend the apocalypse hanging out with. This is a great literary achievement and is worthy of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for the best sf novel in 2015.

There is, however, one flaw–and a flaw that is nearly fatal for me. I will return on Thursday to consider that flaw because it is much larger than Emily St. John Mandel’s project. Meanwhile, here is an interview with the author on TVO. Canadian interviewers in the tradition of CBC tend to give authors a bit more space to talk than sound bite radio and TV elsewhere.

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A Timeline for the Creation of Narnia

Yesterday I shared some Press Association news about a new C.S. Lewis letter that popped up in a Lewis Facebook discussion groups. It really is a neat letter and a great opportunity to see Lewis’ handwriting when he is writing for children (and, thus, it is almost legible).

This “Grittleton House Letter” is a response to kids’ fan letters, and there are a couple of Narnian firsts revealed in the text. This 22 May 1952 letter is the first (and only?) time Lewis uses the title, The Chronicles of Narnia. It is also the first time that Lewis indicates he has seven Chronicles in view, and has all but The Last Battle sketched out. Lewis takes time to describe The Magician’s Nephew (MN) in some detail for the first time, which is really quite a nice addition. Lewis wrote “fifth book” and crossed out “fifth” and substituted “sixth.” Is this just a normal error Lewis makes with numbers, or is Lewis right at this moment securing the future release schedule of Narnian stories? I don’t know, but it will be almost exactly a year later before The Last Battle (LB) is finished in draft form. Is Lewis expecting too much when he suggests the children should have seen the Professor’s role coming? I don’t know, but by May 1952 the links are all there for Lewis (except maybe the Narnian apocalypse).

I decided this was a good chance to update (and publish) my “Timeline for the Creation of Narnia.” Actually, my own personal timeline is a little different because, as I discuss in “On a Picture by Chirico: A Proposal about the Creation of Narnia,” I suspect that Lewis was working on the characters of The Magician’s Nephew in 1948 before Narnia began to bubble up in his imagination. My suspicion about The Magician’s Nephew comes from reading the LeFay Fragment, and remembering that in 1948 and early 1949 Lewis is writing poetry of talking horses, creation stories, pictures of Eden, and civilizational apocalypses (all things in The Magician’s Nephew). When the Digory story fails to come and “Aslan came bounding in,” the LeFay Fragment was set aside and Lewis fairly quickly wrote and rewrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (LWW). This means that I have some doubt about the precision of Roger Lancelyn Green’s dating of each Narnian step. However, Green was a critical factor in both the creation of Narnia and its publication so I have left my speculative theory off this published timeline.

The main sources are Lewis’ Collected Letters (edited by Walter Hooper), Hooper’s Companion and Guide, the C.S. Lewis biography by Green and Hooper, Hooper’s Past Watchful Dragons, and manuscripts that have been published in the last decade. Joel Heck’s “Chronology” is a great source for bringing it all together, though I differ here on a couple of tiny points.

Do you see any errors in this timeline? What about things that should be added or taken away? At this point I see this as a public document that you can take and do whatever you want with. I hope to add footnotes later when I have time, just like I hope to visualize it in an infographic. I also apologize if anyone else has done this (and no doubt done it better): I simply haven’t found another example.

I have tried to make this timeline as thin as possible, including only:

  • The “first time” events only with regard to LWW (contracts, illustrator connection, workshopping, etc.)
  • Major highlights of a book’s progress
  • A handful of life events that would impact writing (illness, death of Mrs. Moore, meeting Joy, work other books, editorial projects, etc.)
  • Abbreviations are below

Unfortunately, we don’t have all the information that we might want about how long Lewis took to actually write each book. It looks like LWW came together in 2.5-3 months once Lewis got going, while it took 7 or 8 years for MN to go from first glimpse to final print. Like LWW, it looks like Prince Caspian (PC) took 2.5-3 months to write, though we don’t know precisely how long The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (VDT) took. If Lewis finished PC in late December 1949, he may have written VDT in only 7-8 weeks (complete by 21 Feb 1950). Again, if we imagine that Lewis wrote his first four chronicles one after the other, then The Horse and His Boy (HHB) may have taken five months. However, Lewis didn’t usually write a lot in term because of the workload. It is more likely Lewis began HHB in mid-March after Hilary Term was closed, or even at the close of Trinity Term in mid-June. If that’s the case, HHB may have taken as few as 5 weeks. Given the breeziness of the tale and (I think) Lewis’ love of it, I wouldn’t be surprised if HHB was written that quickly.

In any case, that means that we have 15 months from the time that LWW was first read aloud to the completion of the 4th complete story (with ideas about MN kicking around in there). That is quite a feat, especially considering that Lewis was hospitalized for exhaustion in this period, a stress that was heightened by Warren Lewis’ alcoholic binges and Mrs. Moore’s increasing needs in terminal illness. In any case, after four quick volumes it is 9 months before The Silver Chair (SC) appears, in March 1951. Green has the manuscript (MS.) of SC almost 8 weeks after Mrs. Moore dies, which matches the timeline we have intimated (of 5-12 weeks per story). However, SC is a more complex story, more philosophical and intertextually layered than HBB—and darker. I suspect that SC was begun earlier, perhaps in December 1951 after Michaelmas Term was complete. However long each one took to write, we have 5 chronicles in 2 years.

After SC was penned, Lewis tried to return to MN. He tells Green in May 1951 that he is working on the story, and 31 Oct 1951 Green has a version of it. Lewis officially began his sabbatical to work on his 16th-century literature book (OHEL) in October 1951, though functionally it began as Trinity Term closed in mid-June. When did Lewis write MN during that time? Was Green reading the final edition in October or a story Lewis worked on longer? We have almost no information about MN until we hear it went to the publisher 2.5 years later, March 1954. The new Grittleton House letter tells us that the story that we have published was in place in May 1952, meaning that MN may not have been as difficult for Lewis as I had previously thought.

In 1952 Lewis finished OHEL and began indexing it, edited Warren Lewis’ The Splendid Century, and edited Mere Christianity. In September 1952 he first meets Joy Davidman. While she certainly brings energy and delight, her presence means that Lewis is struggling at Christmastime 1952 to complete LB (which was not yet sketched out in May). Between a return to the classroom at Magdalen College, Oxford, and his discovery of friendship with Joy, however, LB is begun in late 1952 and complete in some form by 2 Mar 1953. We don’t know the editorial process of most of the books, but like MN, there is a more extended editorial with copies going to Lewis’ primary reader, Green, in Spring 1953 and Winter 1954.

Still, with this Grittleton House letter and a revised timeline we can confirm that from the time Lewis read from LWW to Roger Lancelyn Green to the time he finished his first draft of LB was just shy of 4 years (10 Mar 1949 to 2 Mar 1953). It was a remarkable achievement, and we see that Lewis wrote prolifically while under the most pressure, but was also very fruitful when given the time to do his work.

1940-49

  • 1939-1945: WWII, including war children staying at the Kilns
  • 1940s: CSL writes “This book is about four children…” false start to Narnia (in the Dark Tower Manuscript)
  • Summer 1948: CSL told Chad Walsh he was trying to complete an E. Nesbit-style tale he had begun
  • 10 Mar 1949: CSL reads two chapters of a children’s tale to Roger Lancelyn Green (probably LWW)
  • 30 May 1949: CSL has finished writing LWW by this point
  • June 1949: Green hears of another children’s fantasy, believed to be the germ of MN
  • Summer 1949: CSL beta tests LWW with the Barfields and at least one child
  • 14 Jun 1949: CSL collapses and enters Acland Nursing Home for treatment
  • 29 Jul 1949: CSL submitted LWW to publisher Geoffrey Bles Ltd.
  • 13 Aug 1949: CSL signs contract with Geoffrey Bles Ltd. to publish LWW
  • 17 Sep 1949: CSL gets inspiration for a new children’s story idea, perhaps leading to PC
  • 17 Dec 1949: CSL writes to Pauline Baynes about her LWW illustrations
  • December 1949: Green provides feedback on PC MS.

1950

  • 21 Feb 1950: PC (the Horn story) typed; VDT complete in MS. form
  • 26 Jul 1950: Green reads HHB MS.
  • 16 Oct 1950: LWW published in the UK

1951

  • 12 Jan 1951: Mrs. Moore dies
  • 6 Mar 1951: Green has read SC MS.
  • 31 May 1951: CSL tells Green he is in the middle of writing MN
  • 15 Oct 1951: PC published in the UK and the US
  • 31 Oct 1951: Green reads MN
  • Oct 1951-Sep 1952: CSL on Sabbatical to finish OHEL

1952

  • 22 May 1952: For the first time CSL uses the phrase The Chronicles of Narnia and reveals plans for 7 stories (all worked out except LB, including details about VDT and, for the first time, MN)
  • July 1952: CSL finished writing OHEL, turns to indexing and proofreading
  • 7 Jul 1952: Mere Christianity published
  • September 1952: CSL meets Joy Davidman
  • 22 Sep 1952: VDT published in the UK
  • 26 Dec 1952: CSL working on LB but slowed by Joy’s presence

1953

  • January 1953: Warren Lewis’ The Splendid Century published
  • 25 Feb 1953: CSL nearly finished LB
  • 2 Mar 1953: CSL has completed LB
  • 20 Mar 1953: HHB submitted to publisher
  • 21 May 1953: LB complete and intending to send to Green when TS. complete
  • 7 Sep 1953: SC published in the UK
  • 21 Dec 1953: CSL gives the Davidman boys a copy of HHB on TS.

1954

  • February 1954: Green reads revised LB TS.
  • March 1954: TS. of MN sent to publisher
  • 6 Sep 1954: HHB published in the UK

1955

  • 2 May 1955: MN published in the UK
  • 3 Jun 1955: CSL correcting proofs of LB

1956

  • 19 Mar 1956: LB published in the UK
Common Abbreviations (Publication Dates)
CSL C.S. Lewis
LWW The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950)
PC Prince Caspian (1951)
VDT The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)
SC The Silver Chair (1953)
HHB The Horse and His Boy (1954)
MN The Magician’s Nephew (1955)
LB The Last Battle (1956)
OHEL The Oxford History of English Literature’s English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (1954)
MS. Manuscript
TS. Typescript

 

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For £5,000 You Can Own A Piece of Narnia: New C.S. Lewis Letter Surfaces

That’s right, Dominic Winter Auctioneers is putting a newly surfaced letter from C.S. Lewis on the auction block. It is a great artifact, as The Daily Mail reports, a generous and light bit of Narnian delight as Lewis answers some questions from schoolchildren at Grittleton House School in Wiltshire. The auctioneers have made photographs of this short, two-page 22 May 1952 letter. The children of Grittleton House–who Lewis calls Grittletonians–were no doubt curious after the release of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) and Prince Caspian: Return to Narnia (1951). Not only did Lewis assure them that The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader (1952) would be out in a few months, but that there would be seven stories in all.

Although the letter is very much like one sent to Michael Irwin just a couple of months previously (25 Mar 1952), there are a couple of things really worth noting here. There is, of course, Lewis’ characteristic humour and generosity of spirit to children. And as is usual for him, Lewis encourages the children to read well and write their own stories.

But what is entirely new here? First, I believe this is the first time that we know there will be seven Narnian books. A year later, on 2 Mar 1953, Lewis will tell his publisher that there will only ever be seven Narnian stories. Second, this is I believe the first time that Lewis has used the phrase The Chronicles of Narnia to describe his work. He tends in articles and letters to say “Narnian books” or “Narnian stories.” It was Lewis’ friend and children’s author Roger Lancelyn Green who named the books, which is fitting considering how important he was to their creation.

This is a good result from a new letter, considering how Lewis tended to follow a certain formula in his writing. It gives one hope about how many thousands of letters have never surfaced, and what may be in someone’s photo album or memory chest. Actually, it is almost a “too good to be true” discovery with more than 3,700 letters already in print, but the handwriting is authentic. Hopefully, the new owner will donate the piece to one of the C.S. Lewis archives or at least provide a high-quality copy for researchers. Or, perhaps you could own it–if you have enough $s or £s kicking around!

Following the Dominic Winter Auctioneers/PA photographs of the two-sided letter, I have provided a rough transcription of the letter. Where I have “and” may in some cases be an idiosyncratic ampersand (his stylistic plus sign). I am hoping tomorrow to dig into the details of the letter and provide a new timeline for the creation of Narnia. Thanks to friends in the Virtual C.S. Lewis Society for discovering it.

Magdalen College,

Oxford

May 22d. 1952

My dear Grittletonians—Thanks for your nice and interesting letters. Like you, I am sorry that Peter and Susan are not coming back to Narnia, but I think, being the two eldest, they are now getting to the age at which people stop having that sort of adventure for a time—they may start having it again later, but not for some years. The new book is called The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Lucy and Edmund find Caspian (now King of course) on board ship, sailing to the Eastern end of the Narnian world. There will be lots about Reepicheep. And there will be a Sea Serpent, and a Dragon, and lots of strange islands. I do hope you will all like it. I intend to have seven of these stories altogether—that is, four more after the next one. They will be called The Chronicles of Narnia. The fifth sixth book goes right back to the beginning and explains how there came to be that magic Wardrobe in the Professor’s house—for of course you will have guessed that the old Professor must have known something about things like that himself, or else he would never have believed what the children told him. I don’t know yet what will happen in the seventh. What do you think would be a good thing to end the whole series with? Of course Aslan will come into them all.

I wonder what other books you all like. I like George MacDonald’s two Curdy books, and Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and The Wind in the Willows. Do you write stories yourselves? I did at your age: it is the greatest fun.

Love and good wishes to all,

yours ever

C.S. Lewis

P.S.       E. Nesbitt’s books are splendid, I think: especially The Phoenix and the Wishing Carpet and The Amulet.

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Stephen King, Dawn of the Dead, and the Culture of 9/11

I have talked before how I found Stephen King‘s On Writing in a bargain bin in the street, and how that discovery catapulted me toward a dozen years of constant writing since. The novel I sat down to write after reading Kings part-memoir/part-manual is called “The Other Side of the End,” about a group of friends too hungover to make it to the apocalypse. It isn’t very good, but after I wrote it in the winter of 2006 I came to realize that it was in significant ways writing about 9/11. Though I didn’t construct the book this way, it was answering the question, “What would a generation of people raised on the fear of 9/11 be like?” I became convinced that the subtle formation of that watermark of American history was overlooked and under-considered. And, yet, we were all formed on that fateful day seventeen years ago.

Last week I began reading Stephen King‘s Danse Macabre, having finished H.P. Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature and thinking about future work in the field. Danse Macabre is King’s critical study of the genre of horror fiction on film and in print, focussing on 1950-1980 (his years of primary formation and just as he was beginning to come to the front as a leader in the genre). In a lot of ways, it is exactly what I expected: a smart, punchy, humorous and informed study written in a mix of pottymouth prose, spirited self-reflection, and endless intertextual references–all interspersed with moments of lyrical beauty and pungent critical thought. So far, at least, it is a great book, though I wish his book and film summaries were a bit more coy about the endings and plot twists. Like C.S. Lewis, King sometimes underestimates how much us normal human beings have read.

What I didn’t anticipate was how strong King is at making the links between culture and these horror stories. This is intentional on his own part, though not because he thinks that any particular film or book or movement is fatalistically determined by its cultural moment and inherently limited that way. Instead, King argues that the horror genre has arisen organically out of human experience. We see this not just in how it uses archetypes–symbols that we all see in our dreams and rituals and the stories we tell–but also in the primal experiences of human fear, bigotry, disgust, horror, alienation, and terror.

As an example of this, I’d like to share with you the unusual link that King makes between 9/11 and the 2004 remake of Romero’s classic, Dawn of the Dead. In this essay he agrees with my argument that 9/11 has formed us all and is still forming us. I tried to capture this idea last year with my post on 9/11 and Mythology, and King backs me up on this point. If you want to know about the political situation we are in, the films that we are watching, the books that pop on and off bestseller lists, the protests you see on campus and on TV, and the culture wars we are waging, we need to look at the mythological moments of our history.

One of those is 9/11.

As we choose to remember those who died that day and sacrificed themselves to save others, we also should remember how we are still shaped by the primal experiences of human fear, bigotry, disgust, horror, alienation and–shall I add terror?–in the wake of the 21st century’s founding moment: the collapse of the towers in lower Manhattan.


Genius perfected would be Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn [of the Dead] remake, which begins with one of the best opening sequences of a horror film ever made. Ana (the gifted actress and director Sarah Polley) is relaxing in bed with her husband, Luis, when they are visited by the cute little skate-girl who lives next door in their suburban Milwaukee development. When Luis goes to see what she wants, cute little skate-girl tears his throat open, turning him into a zombie . . . and in the Snyder version, the zombies move fast. (Romero never liked that part, but it works.) Through a miracle of inspired editing (just when did she pick up those car keys, for instance?), Ana is able to escape, first into a neighborhood that’s become a slaughterhouse, and finally into the countryside (with a handy mall nearby).

I’d argue that the most effective terror sequences are either the result of instinct or pure accident rather than screenwriting or direction, and that’s the case here. Polley is a Canadian actress whose face was largely unknown to American audiences in 2004 (her main claim to fame was getting fired by Disney after refusing to remove her peace-sign necklace at an awards ceremony when she was twelve—you go with your bad self, Sarah). If we saw an actress like Julia Roberts or Charlize Theron as Ana, we’d know she’s going to live. Because it’s Polley, we root for her to escape . . . but we’re not sure she will. Those first nine minutes are a sonata of anxiety.

The opening action ends with Ana crashing her car against a tree (and once again, witness the miracles that can be accomplished in the editing room: the car runs at the tree on the driver’s side, but in the next shot hits dead center). The credits that follow, set to Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around,” are accompanied by documentary and faux-documentary footage (there’s that Blair Witch influence again) that’s supposed to show us the onset of the zombie plague. But the first shot shows something entirely different, and it’s here that Snyder shows us exactly what this inspired remake is about and how well he knew what was driving our fear-engines at that particular point in time.

What we see in that brief black-and-white shot is what looks like a thousand devout Muslim worshippers, bowing toward Mecca in unison—an image of mass belief that most Americans found troubling. By 2004, only three years downriver from 9/11, rampant consumerism was the last thing on our minds. What haunted our nightmares was the idea of suicide bombers driven by an unforgiving (and unthinking, most of us believed) ideology and religious fervor. You could beat ’em or burn ’em, but they’d just keep coming, the news reports assured us. They would keep on coming until either we were dead or they were. The only way to stop them was a bullet in the head.

Remind you of anything?

And don’t accuse me of racism or religious prejudice, either. We’re not talking about political, religious, or intellectual concepts here; we’re talking about terror, and that’s exactly what Snyder’s zombies are, it seems to me: fast-moving terrorists who never quit. You can’t debate with them, you can’t parley with them, you can’t even threaten their homes and families with reprisals. All you can do is shoot them and then steer clear of the twitchers. Remember that their bite is worse than fatal.

“Are they dead?” one of the mall survivors asks Steve, the repulsive rich guy.

His response: “Dead-ish.”

Man, that’s scary.

Yet some of the terror in Dawn transcends subtext and goes straight to the id. The movie’s most frightening moment has nothing to do with politics. One of the mall survivors (Kenneth, played by Ving Rhames), has been communicating with another survivor (Andy, played by Bruce Bohne) who is stranded on a nearby roof. They flash chess moves at each other on restaurant dry-erase boards and note zombies who resemble celebrities (Andy, a dead shot, then picks them off). After being bitten by a ghoul, the dying (or already dead) Andy flashes one final sign: not words but a jagged smear of blood. In that single three-second shot, Snyder tells us all we need to know about the insatiate hunger that lives in the decaying interior of an undead brain.

In the end, the survivors—those who haven’t been killed by zombies or each other—set sail on the loathsome Steve’s booze-cruise boat, heading for an unnamed island where they hope to find safety. The final credits suggest that hope is probably vain. It’s not a cheery conclusion, but it didn’t hurt the movie’s grosses (Dawn dethroned Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ at the box office, suggesting that John Lennon was wrong—zombies, not the Beatles, turned out to be more popular than Jesus). And that ending probably reflected the audience’s deepest underlying fear: How can you escape terrorists who don’t care about dying?

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