Why I Didn’t Finish IT as a Teen

I was a couple of years older than the kids in IT when I picked it up the first time. The novel is filled with sexual content, gory violence, and profanity—very little of which was carried over to the Hollywood blockbuster out this month. IT is a creepy novel, and I know there is a long history of it leaving readers scarred. IT presses against the walls of fantastic worlds as we know them, daring to throw the reader headlong into a mythic realm from which they may never return. This novel is mature content on every possible measure.

Yet it wasn’t for any of those reasons that I set the book down. My capacity for difficult material as a kid was pretty large. My upbringing was far more R-rated than any Stephen King novel—and in some ways more dysfunctional than most of the families in Derry. Horror, thriller, and fantasy gore just don’t scare me, and it isn’t for violence that I’m attracted to the genre. Some have complained that King stretches the credibility of the reader, demonstrating violence far past what we can believe. Honestly, though, I wasn’t put off by any gap in King’s skill or the sheer ridiculousness of the fantasy concept.

No, I wasn’t thrown by IT because it was too fantastic.

Honestly, as a teen I couldn’t finish IT because it was too real.

Perhaps some context will help explain what must seem a fantastic claim, that I found Stephen King’s realism simply too much to bear.

When I was 14, I had carried this lunky paperback of IT around with me for a month before I finally laid down on my grandparents’ chesterfield to dig in. The house was quiet that day, and would be quiet for many days after. That winter, my grandparents had buried their youngest son and youngest grandson. My father was dead, and my baby brother, just two years old. Their hearts fell when they saw me, sad for me and desperately sad for the echo of my father they saw in my face—and perhaps the ghost of a face my brother would never become. And it was that living room, that chesterfield, where I sat in the hours of that cold winter morning of their deaths, waiting to find out if all I knew was gone.

Though my mind could not believe it at the time, they had died before my eyes. Fire ripped through our home that night. I experienced the choking smoke, explosions of blue flame, and the creeping panic of fear that trembles toward terror. I never knew how loud fire was, how it roared and screamed so that when our kitchen windows exploded from heat, I could not hear the glass hit the frosty ground beneath our feet. I saw all that we knew as home turn brown along the edges and crumple up into fire.

Then I saw courage falter, my own courage, with the result that two of the people I loved the most in the world were lost in smoke and flame.

And as my mind reeled in that season, just a few months later I found myself in front of fire once more. It was a campfire this time, and the story had turned. Instead of weakness and hopelessness in the face of mortality, at this fire I learned about a limitless horizon of hope. Near the heat of these flames, I saw that the sacrifice my father made was an incarnational echo of the sacrifice of Christ, where self-giving love of the cross is the hingepoint of history. I found myth embedded in my whole reality, so that immortality and eternity turned out to be just seconds away from all this flesh and dirt.

All these experiences of that season—all these things I learned anew—was what I brought to my reading of IT. All my understanding of reality on both ends of eternity had radically transformed in two moments of firelight. Almost as soon as I picked up IT, I knew that it would be too much.

I know that many turn to Stephen King because he is the master of monsters. He certainly can throw his horrors on the screen of the mind, with few zippers showing on the monster’s back. But if you look at his greatest works, the horror falls into two camps. It is either bound up with the terrible mortality of the human heart—as in Carrie, The Shining, The Green Mile, The Dark Half, and the best of the novellas—or a great mythic evil, demonic in scope and amorphous in shape, as in The Stand, The Dark Tower series, and The Eyes of the Dragon. And while IT certainly fits in the latter category—anyone who knows the story knows it isn’t a monster tale—I think IT does what the best of Stephen King’s fiction does: showing with frightening clarity that terrible mortality of the faltering human heart, that darkness that rests in the souls of the broken, and transposing it upon the world in such a way that it transfigures into a great mythic evil foe. It is this feature, I believe, that is the thread that connects all the best of King’s work.

This is why I suggest, then, that realism is the taproot of Stephen King’s fantasy. The fantastic elements are not the true machinery of his speculative cosmos. King’s work is certainly fantasy. But the true monsters of our greatest living horror writer are simply a projection of the human heart on the wall of the world around us.

By the time I picked up IT as a fourteen year old, I had already glimpsed the darkness of my heart, the frailty of my frame, the mortality of all of human life, and the great mythic depth of a universe that had always been just next door. I knew almost immediately that I would find my heart in the pages of IT.

So I ran away.

That is why I put IT down as a kid. Not because it was too incredible, but because it was too real.

And, honestly, I had about as much reality as I could handle at the time.

Now, it is 27 years later, a fitting time for IT to rise again. I am just a little older than the Loser’s Club as adults. And here, now, finally, with healing and distance and fatherhood within me, I can handle the realism of Stephen King’s strangest world.

At least, I’m pretty sure that I can.

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Did that Lizard Just Turn Into a Horse? Guest Post by Josiah Peterson

The Scene

“‘I cannot kill it against your will. It is impossible. Have I your permission?’

…the Lizard began chattering to the ghost so loud even I could hear what it said.

‘Be careful. He can do what he says. He can kill me. One fatal word from you and he will!’

‘Have I your permission?’ said the angel to the Ghost.

‘I know it will kill me.’

‘It won’t, but supposing it did?’

‘You’re right. It would be better to be dead than to live with this creature.’

‘Then I may?’

‘Damn and blast you! Go on, can’t you? Get it over. Do what you like,’ bellowed the Ghost: but ended, whimpering, ‘God help me. God help me.’”[1]

Before becoming a debate coach and rhetoric instructor at The King’s College, I was a customer service and database manager at the Fellowship for Performing Arts (FPA) while finishing up my graduate studies. FPA is “a theatrical production company delivering provocative, entertaining theatre from a Christian worldview that is engaging to a diverse audience.” Among my responsibilities was transcribing and cataloging the hand written audience surveys that came in after the lab performances of their latest stage production, a theatrical adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. The scene that generated the most responses in the surveys was overwhelmingly “Man with lizard.”

It’s not a very technically advanced scene. An actor in a grey suit, who up until this point in the play has been playing the narrator wearing a red cardigan and round spectacles like C.S. Lewis, sits on a rock in the middle of a brightly lit, grassy stage, manipulating a red lizard crafted origami-style from a red handkerchief. A sparkling, robed actress tries to convince him to let her kill it. As in the book version, it’s as if the audience is eavesdropping on a deeply intimate scene from a slight distance away. A recording of Max McLean’s iconic voice provides the lines for the lizard, which are lifted directly from Lewis’s text. When the man finally gives in, allowing the spirit to wring out the “lizard” and throw it off stage, the narrator describes and a projected silhouette shows the lizard transforming into a stallion and his once ghostly companion filling out into a bright and shining new-made man. Together, horse and rider take off at a gallop over the hills toward “deep Heaven.” They are the only ghosts from the Grey Town, Hell, that are shown to stay in Heaven and in the theatrical production it is one of the last scenes.

The audience, on the edge of their seats from suspense, begins to relax and breath normally again but their eyes are still wide from the spectacle.

What makes this scene so especially powerful?

One might be tempted to identify the scene’s strength in its abstractedness. Unlike The Great Divorce’s other scenes which depict very specific sinful attitudes, the lizard can stand in for any sort of sin we carry that we are ashamed of but can’t seem to part with by our own strength. Who hasn’t felt embarrassed and vexed by some personal temptation?

But the strength doesn’t lie in the abstraction but rather in the incarnation of the abstraction.

Lewis could have had characters talk abstractedly about mortifying the flesh or fighting temptations like lust, gluttony, or wrath. We’ve probably all heard that before.

What is new is the lizard “twitching its tail like a whip and whispering things in his ear,”[2] the burning sensation and the agony the man feels facing treatment, the many excuses made to avoid it, the last ditch efforts of the lizard to escape its fate. It’s the imaginative embodiment of the otherwise abstract concepts that make the scene so powerful.

It’s almost as startling as Jesus saying “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off” and “if your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out.”[3]

The Method

The challenge of a good rhetor—in the old sense of a good person speaking well—is to go beyond clarifying terms and winning assent to inclining the soul to action. Intellectual assent is insufficient without impulse. In the persuasive process dialectic establishes the definition of terms and the logical validity of arguments. But when dialectic runs dry the rhetor must move from “logical to analogical,” and from definition to “figuration.” [4] He or she must move an audience with moving pictures.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, figuration is “the action of representing figuratively; an allegorical or figurative representation.”[5] Lewis took complex theological concepts and psychological experiences and translated them into figures even a child could enjoy. More importantly, the images he creates move the reader more than an academic encounter with the denuded concepts ever could.

This figuration of concepts is the strength of The Great Divorce, but is also pervasive in all of Lewis’s writings. It is said that Lewis uses more images in Mere Christianity than N.T. Wright’s Simply Christian, Tim Keller’s The Reason for God, and John Stott’s Basic Christianity, combined. Other times he skips the explicit dialectic completely (perhaps in order to “slip past the watchful dragons,”[6] our prejudices against spirituality) and we get the Chronicles of Narnia.

Using figuration to move an audience toward the truth is the preferred method of Lewis’s favorite philosopher, Plato. In his Socratic dialogues, Plato strategically deploys allegories and myths to convey his most important concepts, such as the Allegory of the Cave,[7] the Myth of the Metals,[8] and the Myth of Er[9] in The Republic. In his study C.S. Lewis and Joseph Campbell on the Veracity of Christianity, James Menzies lists Plato as one of Lewis’s top three literary influences (next to George MacDonald and Owen Barfield)[10] so it should come as no surprise that Lewis employs a similar rhetorical approach.

In the Phaedrus, a Socratic dialogue centered on the uses and abuses of rhetoric, Plato demonstrates the myth-making method while trying to incline the soul of his readers to the philosophic life. He employs the image of a soul in love with divine beauty, truth, and goodness, sprouting wings and ascending into the heavens.[11] The moving, almost lewd, images Socrates conjures make a striking contrast to an earlier, sterile speech by Lysias praising non-lovers and an impromptu speech by Socrates condemning the madness of love.

The three speeches, in praise of non-lovers, condemning uncontrolled lovers, and praising philosophic love, parallel three approaches to rhetoric. The first idealizes a dispassionate approach to persuasion which is unfulfilling at best and disingenuous at worst. The second warns of the very real dangers of idolatrous passion that crushes the lover or consumes the beloved. The third, “Great speech,” demonstrates the power of rightly ordered love to transform both lover and beloved, raising them to the spheres of heaven. Socrates fills this final speech with moving images in order to move his audience toward the philosophic way of life.

Good rhetoric uses myths and stories to move the soul through figurations of heavenly truth, beauty, and goodness.

Lewis explains this phenomenon in his essay, “Myth Became Fact,” writing:

Human intellect is incurably abstract… Yet the only realities we experience are concrete—this pain, this pleasure, this dog, this man… As thinkers we are cut off from what we think about; as tasting, touching, willing, loving, hating, we do not clearly understand. The more lucidly we think, the more we are cut off: the more deeply we enter into reality, the less we can think…

Of this tragic dilemma myth is the partial solution. In the enjoyment of a great myth we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction…

You are not looking for an abstract ‘meaning’ to that myth. You were not knowing, but tasting; but what you were tasting turns out to be a universal principle. The moment we state the principle, we are admittedly back in the world of abstraction. It is only while receiving the myth as a story that you experience the principle concretely. [12]

The Transformation

Suddenly the scene of anguish with the Ghost and crushed Lizard transforms into a scene of glory as the new-made man mounts his stallion and takes off into the foothills of heaven. It’s this image of the only Ghost from the bus that remains in Heaven, that offers the reader or theater-goer hope and generates longing for the time when we too will be so transformed.

In Narnia Eustace is redeemed by the painful experience of being “un-dragoned.”[13] The London cab-horse Strawberry sprouts wings to become Fledge, “the father of all flying horses,”[14] fitted for Aslan’s service. But in the horse and rider of The Great Divorce, we have not only an image of justification or the granting of a spiritual gift, but of a completely new man. This is what we can hope for at the end of the justification/sanctification process. This is a picture, or vision, of the indescribable heavenly bodies in which every thought and passion is taken captive to the will of God and the soul finds the law that gives freedom.

Even when approaching this topic in his non-fiction work, Mere Christianity, Lewis resorts to the imagery of transformation. Writing in the chapter “New Men” Lewis says:

In the last chapter I compared Christ’s work of making New Men to the process of turning a horse into a winged creature. I used that extreme example in order to emphasise the point that it is not mere improvements but Transformation.[15]

The “Man with Lizard” powerfully conveys that transformation, and its strength comes from incarnating ideas. What else should we expect from the apologist who follows a God who’s “Word became flesh?”

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, (New York: Harper One, 1946), 109-110.

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, (New York: Harper One, 1946), 106.

[3] Matthew 5:30

[4] Richard Weaver, The Ethics of Rhetoric, (Battleboro, VT: Echo Point Books and Media, 1953), 18.

[5] Oxford English Dictionary, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), accessed online http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/70074?redirectedFrom=figuration#eid

[6] C.S. Lewis, “Sometimes Faery Stories May Say Best What Needs to be Said,” On Stories, (Orlando: Harcourt, 1982), 47.

[7] 7.514-517

[8] 3.414

[9] 10.614

[10] James Menzies, True Myth: C.S. Lewis and Joseph Campbell on the Veracity of Christianity, (Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 2015), 50.

[11] Plato, translated by Alexander Nehamas & Paul Woodruff, Phaedrus, (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1995). 246A

[12] C.S. Lewis, “Myth Became Fact,” God in the Dock, (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970) 65-66.

[13] C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, (New York: Harper Trophy, 1983), 117.

[14] C.S. Lewis, The Magicians Nephew, (New York: Harper Trophy, 1983), 170-171.

[15] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: Harper One, 2001), 218.

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/119135271″>CS Lewis on Stage: The Great Divorce Story Synopsis</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user33570519″>Fellowship for Performing Arts</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

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9/11 and Mythology

Based on the number of brochures that governments and non-profit groups produce, I suspect that most people are under the delusion that people operate out of beliefs. Know→Believe→Do, this is the way that the brochure-makers and moral pundits understand the process of human change. Read the brochure or take the class, then your attitude will change, and then your action is almost automatic.

How does this work out in real life?

I was a student in the late-80s/early-90s, and we were bombarded with sex ed information. It was the STD scare era–early enough that an ignorant teacher called AIDS the gay disease, but late enough that most of us already knew better. Every two or three months we were gathered together for another session that began with a teacher drawing a longhorn womb on the blackboard. Knowing the female anatomy, logically, we would practice all the healthy attitudes of an STD-free life.

I never once saw the male system drawn on the board, though having nuns as teachers may have been part of the reason. It’s difficult now to know the link between anatomy and ethics that teachers then (and now?) thought (think?) was obvious. But it wasn’t obvious to me. It still isn’t. Quite clearly attitudes changed and so did behaviours, but I have my doubts about the effectiveness of the spamology and bully pulpit approaches to sex ed.

Ultimately, why did people change their sexual habits? Because they were terrified of getting AIDS or something else. And why were they terrified? Because the cultural story made these links explicit. Our mythology shifted, and so did the way we lived.

You could see this with my teen sex ed class. Once again, the teacher is droning on about anatomy and the bedroom. I am doodling absentmindedly in my scribbler, wishing our teacher used the book Where Did I Come From?, which I had been given as an 8-year-old. None of us were paying attention, and I knew that the guys, at least, were not won over to the idea of safe sex. But when a real woman told her personal story of how she got HIV and would die a horrible death like Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, every student was tuned in.

You see, I think humans work out of story, and these stories collect together into a cultural mythology that gives the power of change that can lead to revolution.

This is why I listen to the stories that we are telling each other as a culture. Think of a collection of films that came out a couple of years ago. Wild, The Revenant, The Martian, Mad Max: Fury Road, Boyhood, Ex Machina–those films all dealt with the question of isolation and community in really sophisticated ways. Even the turn in the Marvel Universe films is asking that question. That means something, but what? Clearly Hollywood is going through a mid-life crisis as baby boomers struggle with questions of mortality and the Brat Pack generation struggles with wrinkles and real jobs. If I had to describe last year’s films in a single word, I would use “disintegration.” But that story isn’t being sustained this year. This is the year of sequels, remakes, rebrands, reboots, and echoes of the past. I’m not sure yet what it means.

Film is just one of the ways that we tell stories that contribute to our cultural myth, but filmmakers are the new mythmakers. I’m reading Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, and his essays on cultural myths in the 1950s are fascinating. He begins with wrestling–yes, professional wrestling with the outfits and everything–but his topics include Billy Graham as a shaman, Greta Garbo’s face, wine and milk, margarine, and the amount of sweat in Roman films. He makes fun of Elle magazine a lot. With Chestertonian wit, Barthes uses the symbols of culture to discern the underlying stories, thinking about how ideology quietly works in that world. I think he is going to argue that stories are (when they are good) stripped of political frameworks, but they still pass on political ideas. I don’t always understand what Barthes is talking about, but he is shockingly good at seeing the signs of the times in things like a magazine cover, a makeup ad, a newspaper clipping, or a play.

On this day, sixteen years after 9/11, I hope that those who have suffered so deeply on that day will allow me to ask some questions about what that foundational American event means. Many would think it absurd to say that an event orchestrated by so few can have meaning, but we cannot be naïve. Humans are meaning-making beings, and cultures as sophisticated as America’s will shape those meaning-moments into a mythology for itself. So I ask, what does the myth of 9/11 shape in us today?

One thing that I want to set aside, as intriguing as it is, is the “truther” movement around 9/11. Conspiracy theorists are not moved by mythologies in precisely the same ways as mass culture (though I think mass cultures can fall for a conspiracy). “Truthers” look at the cultural myths and see the unseen links, the way that we imagine pictures in the splattering of stars in the sky, or see our futures in damp leaves at the bottom of a tea cup. When I say that 9/11 is a myth, I don’t mean that it never happened–goodness, are there people that think that?–or that it was a media or government hoax. I mean that 9/11 has become a foundational story to us, and the way that story tells us something about our culture today.

One of the most shocking things to me about 9/11 is the passing of time. I have had university students born after 9/11. How is that even possible? I watched it happen little by little, as I would invite students to share their “where I was on 9/11” story, that soon became an unanswerable question. “I was in the womb. I don’t remember it, but a teacher showed me a womb on the whiteboard and it looks like a longhorn cow. I was near the left eye, I think.”

My students are too young to remember this critical moment that has shaped America ever since.

And in the world of cultural myths, 9/11 is this generation’s JFK moment. Most people in their 60s or older can remember where they were when they heard that John F. Kennedy was shot, and most people born before 1995 can remember how 9/11/2001 unfolded. There are other moments. I remember, for some reason, where I was when Princess Diana’s death was declared on radio. I remember the Challenger exploding on TV, Tiannaman Square and the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the death of Kurt Cobain. But it is 9/11 that is the true generation-shaping where-were-you-when event.

If I think of the old black-and-white reels of people hearing about JFK, I imagine shoppers clustered outside of an electronics store, or families with TV trays clustered around turn-knob TVs, all watching the same few seconds of video roll again and again. For the east coast and Europe, 9/11 was a school and work phenomenon, while the west coast woke up to the tragedy. For those that were watching live on CNN or NBC, 9/11 unfolded in a series of blows: the first hit, the second plane caught on the news, the fires, the panic, the exiles, the towers fall, the city goes white. And then the long dark vigil as news comes from the Pentagon and Pennsylvania and who knows what will be next?

I was in rural Japan on 9/11, our second week in a new country. I remember the moment I was told, and the weather, and the quiet of our rice field community. Kerry and I were hungry for news, so drove to the top of a mountain to catch the US military radio broadcast from the base on the Kantō Plain. Over the next few days all the foreigners–Australians, Brits, Canadians, Germans, all supporting our American friends–gathered for endless hours in a living room watch satellite CNN, watching and waiting.

Waiting for what?

We were waiting for the 21st century, I believe, though we didn’t know it then.

For years after the 2001 terrorist attack, I argued that 9/11 was the end of the 20th century. I think it is still a pretty good argument: the century that began in 1893 with the world fair, a hopeful century of peace was soon plunged into the second 30-years war. 1914-1945 were the bloodiest and most soul-destroying of all our world’s history of warfare, where the grand vision of technology and progress collapsed into ideology and despair. The 20th-century will forever be described as the age that invented mass technology genocide and played dangerously with the idea of cosmocide. We’re still playing with the idea that we could destroy all life as our oceans warm and as global political leaders play chicken with nuclear bombs.

9/11 was, in my mind, the perfect close to the 20th century, the last gasp of the zombie of human nature that threatened a whole century otherwise filled with incredible progress in science, technology, medical care, travel, global awareness, and religious faith.

What 9/11 teaches us still is that all of those things are tainted.

Our technology and luxury life is globally exhausting–not merely benign, but environmentally abusive and oppressive to the poorest on our planets. It used to be that medical care was for helping with things that happened to people. Now medical technology is mostly about what we do to ourselves. And the most sophisticated, innovative, and wealthy civilization in human history cannot even figure out how to provide equitable care to its citizens–or why they should even bother. The technology of phones and social media brings new social connection, but they are also deeply alienating. Our global connection brings great diversity, but also a deep weariness with war and news and disaster.

And religion. The story of the 20th century that no one tells was the great growth of Christianity in the southern hemisphere–the fastest growth in church history. That growth will be strong in this century, but it won’t look like the growth of your local neighbourhood American or French church life. It is Indian, African, Latin, and Asian. But the greatest growth in religion will be Islam, provided that the current political version of it in West Asia does not devour itself.

In any case, none of these are neutral realities in our lives, and religion is certainly not what it used to be in the cultural mythology. Even as Europe, Britain, and North America moved past public life religion, local church and synagogue life was viewed as a social good. Quaint perhaps. A little eerie at times in its revivalistic form after WWII. But part of the social good that is needed to give people meaning.

That is all in the past. The public does not think that religion is neutral, but is a powerful force for good or evil. Harold Bloom, Reinhold Niebuhr, Christian Smith, and Harvey Cox each have theses about what the real American religion is. With respect to the public, however, this is changing. The face of 9/11 was religious–despite all our attempts to help people understand the difference between heart- and hearth-faith and the face of religion in the hands of politicians and revolutionaries. In the mythology, however, this event of violence on the US east coast is linked with anti-gay violence, gender inequality, and White Supremacist violence throughout the country. The word “Christian” is beginning to weave-together with images of hatred and bigotry in the subconscience of middle America.

In the end, I have the shocking thesis before me that 9/11 is the beginning of a century, not merely the ending of one. It is the supreme symbolic event, bringing all of our 20th-century lessons together except one. Flying planes into buildings brought together global connectivity, luxury travel, religion, and technological advances in a single act of mythological suicide. And that last progressive wonder of the 20th century, medicine? There are some wounds you cannot treat with research-based methods, and 9/11 has caused that kind of wound.

We have seen this once before. The French Revolution (1789-1799) was the close of a century defined by progress, where we had finally thrown off the shackles of religion and unhelpful politics to forge a new age of peace based on science, philosophy, and social cohesion. Even from a Christian perspective, the greatest revivals of Western history walked side by side with the Enlightenment in America and Britain. The 18th century was filled with hope.

But it descended into flame and hatred, a new century defined by war and slavery and, ultimately, the roots of totalitarian regimes. For those in the southern hemisphere, it was an age of terror perpetrated by empires who said they were there to help. The French Revolution was the natural result of the Enlightenment project, and the 19th century that followed created the wars and genocides that defined the 20th.

Just like the French Revolution of the 1790s ended one century and began another, so 9/11 is that hinge-point of history. What will it create for us, this new mythology? We cannot know for sure; we are still living it. Our fears around immigration, our discomfort with religion, our fear of the loss of economy hegemony, our diminishing social returns, the emergence of ISIS and refugees on a scale heretofore unknown in a time of “peace,” our obsession with safety, our disillusionment with politics, the drifting of America away from its allies and the recentering of the world’s power centres away from the West–these are all moments captured in symbollic form by that fateful attack sixteen years ago today.

Is it all doom and gloom? No, I don’t think so. I suspect it will be a revolutionary movement that begins in New York City that will ultimately, peacefully, offer new ways through the crises of the day. 9/11 has changed the landscape of lower Manhattan in more ways than one. I think the value of diversity and human love will ultimately rise up against myths of division and fear. We should celebrate that when we see, and live it when we can.

But on this day, as we wait for news of copycats and global hack attacks and stock market crashes and ISIS pushes and storm survivors, 9/11 remains the most powerful myth alive today.

Here’s to the 21st century.

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A Lament for the Loss of Young Teachers (A Feature Friday Post from the Vault)

mr-hollands-opus dreyfuss teachingI am doing work in the statistical analysis division of our labour market research unit in government. Of course, I am. After all, I’m doing a PhD in fantasy literature.

I wrote this piece a couple of years ago, where I combine the deep pain of my own vocational journey with the job trends of the generation. It’s really a tough road ahead if you want to become a teacher–either in the university setting or the K-12 classroom. I wonder if I was being a bit too honest here, but I thought the lesson was a good one. 

Though I can’t yet put statistics on it, my work in labour market research is beginning to lead me to think that school teachers may have a bit more hope at finding their way into classrooms. I don’t think this is the case yet for North American and British universities; it’s just not stable enough. But I do have hope for those of you who would like to shape young minds to transform their worlds. So I repost this essay, remembering the essentials of what we do as teachers.

Mr_Hollands_OpusOne of my wife’s favourite films is Mr. Holland’s Opus. At the head of a strong cast, Richard Dreyfuss gives the performance of a lifetime as a frustrated artist who finds the entire ground of his being shift. Once trapped by the backup plan—a support mechanism that began to cage him in at all sides—his pretty little cage begins to fall away. As a greying father and music teacher, Mr. Holland, Dreyfuss finds himself longing for the very things he has come to resent.

I have not seen this film for 15 or 20 years, but I remember it intimately. Mr. Holland’s Opus has the strength of teenage love or childhood trauma for me. It is intrinsically linked with my story, as if it had happened to me.

Yet, there is a reason I have refused to watched it again. There are a few, actually.

Mr. Holland’s fallback career is teaching. As a young husband working as a classical composer on his magnum opus, the struggles of an aging car and a cramped apartment are heightened by the birth of his son. He takes a position teaching high school students to provide a home for his growing family. Meant to be temporary until he completed his symphony, the necessities of life mean that he is teaching kids how to drive after school and in the summer while his composition sheets rest undisturbed on the piano at home.

In his heart, Mr. Holland plays with resentment. Wife and son and sorrow and students are all the minutes of each day that keep him from his true calling.

holland02Some of us find the altar quicker than others. For Mr. Holland it takes a series of conversion moments before he discovers that his magnum opus is not the symphony, still incomplete, but the life that he had composed before him.

It is a gorgeous film, beautifully written and magnificently acted.

And it fills me, to this day, with a kind of grief and anger that brings tears to my eyes.

RichardDreyfus mr hollands opusThis film comes at me from all sides. I too am a frustrated artist, whose manuscripts moulder—if digital files can be described as mouldering—as my creative energy goes into other people’s work. Though I feel the passing of time desperately, by whatever act of Providence I learned early what it took Mr. Holland a lifetime to learn.

My greatest script is not the next bestseller, but my family, my neighbourhood, my church and friends and students.

While frustrated artists, writers, dancers, architects, and entrepreneurs can identify with Mr. Holland’s story, I am someone who desperately wants what for him was a distraction.

I want to teach. I want to inspire young hearts and minds. I want to raise the critical bar of a generation who were not entrusted with the best that our school system could give them. And I want to help a generation of students to change the world in ways that I cannot.

And as difficult as it is to find my way to a publisher, as it turns out finding a permanent space in front of a white board is far more elusive than a listing on Amazon.

Mr. Holland’s Opus dreyfuss babyI am not alone, and the problem is not limited to the academic teaching world.

Dreyfuss’ character is the model of the Baby Boomer vocational model. Those who can fight or pay their way through a liberal arts degree find themselves stumbling into a job. Given the rapid growth of their community, the job becomes a career. And over a series of moves, purchases, renovations, pregnancies, and golf games, the career becomes a life. Retirement brings a pension, which gives space for renovation, travel, grandchildren, and a few more golf games

It is the middle class American dream. Or it was. It is not the reality for most of us in Generation X or Y. We are vocational nomads, born into an age of financial instability and fated to a continuing narrative of austerity.

I like the financial austerity, personally. I think it makes us lean and lithe, able to adapt to a rapidly changing global marketplace.

DesertIt is not economic austerity that frightens me. It is the austerity of hope and courage and innovation that dominates the conversation for young people as they find their way in the world. That’s what keeps me up at night. This pessimism is not coming from people in their 20s and 30s—and even 40s—who are struggling to find their way. Among their great gifts to us, Baby Boomers have left for us a legacy of despair.

Nowhere else outside of the art world is this so acute as for those who would love to be teachers, whether in the university and college world, or even in the public school system. Once a fallback job, where bright students could get a BEd in case nothing else worked out and they needed to teach, there are now very few teaching jobs. Where we once had a problem with teachers who didn’t want to be teachers—even teachers that resented their students, like young Mr. Holland—we now have young scholars desperate to find their way to a classroom.

But there are no new classrooms available.

teacher-apple studentCertainly, there are some hot teaching markets.

Houston, Phoenix, the coastal Southeast US are great places for young teachers to find a space to serve—especially if they can work with children who have barriers to learning. In the largest cities like Chicago, LA, and Toronto, the cream will rise to the top and find their way in. There are also some spaces in the UK and North America for teachers who specialize in Math and Sciences or, in Canada, French. You can often find a space teaching on a First Nations reserve or overseas–places where they need longevity but seldom find it.

Spaces in the academy, though, are terrifyingly absent. Only 1 in 5 PhD graduates find themselves in a tenure-track position where they can teach, write, research, and serve their communities. Almost half of US high school teachers have a master’s degree, resulting in an inflation in credentials that makes it difficult for most to get a job. Many passionate teachers are permanent substitutes or are teaching English overseas.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, public school teachers are getting older, while emerging scholars find their way into the business world. So many of our teachers, researchers and writers—a whole generation of the curious—are filling boardrooms and assembly lines when they should be filling the margins of notebooks with red pencil marks (as important as boardrooms and assembly lines are).

Apply on textbook

It is not only a “Brain Drain,” but a rapid evacuation of curiosity and passion from the lives of young people.

What has caused this problem?

As it turns out, it is not a single problem, but a perfect storm of uncertainties.

The financial crash of 2008, and the long, slow recession that followed, has redefined our entire generation. Many teachers and professors, having lost a great deal of their lifelong investments, have suspended retirement. It is a generational trend in all kinds of jobs. In my government job, I am in the youngest quartile of workers, despite just turning 40. As one student described it, Baby Boomers are clinging to their cubicles for dear life.

apple hand beauty artAt the same time that there are fewer job opportunities because workers are working longer, in universities and school systems, administrators are not filling the positions of those who retire. Sometimes they are “hanging” the positions, leaving time until the fill them. In rural areas and in most universities they are combining classrooms and even closing departments in fields like literature, anthropology, classics, and–shocking in the greatest age since the generations of Newton and Einstein–physics.

In the late 60s, as so many Mr. Hollands were stumbling into careers, Ronald Reagan asked a key question: Why should we subsidize intellectual curiosity? As governor of a growing state and high national GDP, he perhaps had the luxury to question the value of creativity and curiosity at the highest levels. His question has become the grand narrative of our day. Governments and research funding agencies have shifted their money away from the liberal arts and pure sciences to technical and precise training and research.

Add shifting demographics in aging cultures, increasing disparity between the very rich and the working poor, a global education market, donor and research dominance among the top schools, and a crisis in confidence in the public, and you have a recipe for death of teaching as a vocation.

apple-handAnd God help you if you have a teacher like Mr. Holland in his early days, clinging to his desk for dear life. You are not likely to have the academic credibility after grade 12 to compete in today’s world, let along find space for your dreams.

Perhaps Reagan would suggest that we as a society can’t be subsidizing dreams, either.

When a student comes to me and asks for a recommendation for grad school or a Bachelor of Education, I sit them down and have a long talk. I am anxious to teach, but the prospects are not good. Until 2012, I made a full-time salary teaching by contract. In 2015, I made $15,500, and filled out my salary with other kinds of work. The future doesn’t look bright.

So I make sure, before writing a recommendation, that hopeful teachers know what they are in for. I suspect the market will open up over the next 5-10 years in public school, but the University may never recover. Ever.

red yellow green appleIf you cannot tell, I am someone who has counted the cost. I know that my pursuit of a PhD is not a golden ticket. Rather than the protected space to teach, write, research, and serve the community I love, I will either have to move or pursue academics independently.

I know this, but there are days when I am not sure if I can carry this. I am deeply sad.

The loss for culture, however, is far deeper than one frustrated teacher like me or you. If we believed that education was stationary, we tie children to their desks and undergraduates to their laptops and feed them on white pages and bright screens.

But that is not how education works. As a Christian I believe that God is active in our reality. Education, then, must move and transform and rise up to meet each generation’s questions and hopes and learning needs.

Oxfordshire, Oxford, Magdalen College IISo if our educational institutions—our small elementary schools and large high schools and our centuries-old universities—are not employing emerging educators, it is our students who will miss out.

Moreover, to bring it back to this particular moment, if schools aren’t including emerging scholars and teachers, they aren’t including the emerging voices of women scholars and teachers with a broad varieties of culture and experience.

I, personally, will find my way. But I lament the loss of a generation of teachers. I agree with the meme quote that says that “A teacher is a compass that activates the magnets of curiosity, knowledge, and wisdom in the pupils.” If we lose all these new young teachers, we shouldn’t wonder that our culture feels lost.

Posted in Feature Friday, On Writing, Original Research, Thoughtful Essays | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

My Teaching Philosophy on the 1st Day of School

In the springtime I was thrilled to receive a teaching award. Today I’m walking into the classroom for the first time since then. Every time I step in front of students, I think about what I am doing. I have five courses this fall of various kinds. Preparation-wise, they range from dusting off last term’s Powerpoint slides to writing and producing an entire lecture series on a specialty topic for the first time. The students range from first year/first course undergrads fresh out of high school to graduate students in extremely rigorous programs. No matter the level of student or the complexity of work, I am always thinking of what it means to be a teacher.

This is why I keep my teaching philosophy fresh. I have developed my teaching philosophy over my decade or so in the classroom. I have allowed my breadth of experience to fill it out, including a decade of youth ministry, a decade or so of professional writing, and my work in policy and consultation. True pedagogues will have their own version of a teaching philosophy, even if they haven’t written it down. While mine is informed by research into the art of teaching, I have tried to avoid any of the technical terms that teaching scholars use. Perhaps this can be helpful to you, and if you have articulated your own philosophy of teaching–or if you can share it briefly–let us know in the comments below.

Statement of Teaching Philosophy

The Classroom as Space for Transformational Experience

I believe that University should be an encounter. My postsecondary education had a profound impact on my thinking in every area of my life, even though the curriculum was focused in very specific areas. Because of my own experiences as a student, my classroom teaching, and my work in youth leadership, I have come to see education as creating an environment for transformational experiences. My key pedagogical values have developed out of this belief.

The Classroom Space and Vocation

There is a lot of discussion today about the University’s role in shaping students for their work-life. This is a discussion that I have been a part of in my role as a University teacher, government researcher, and student vocational counsellor. We are in a time of great change as the University is being redefined and the global marketplace continues to evolve.

As much as the world around is in a period of accelerated transition, students themselves are also in a period of vast changes and development—perhaps even changing faster than the world around them. While a University education should excel at discipline-specific and interdisciplinary preparation, I believe that our teaching should meet students in the midst of their life journeys. The older idea of vocatio—a sense of calling—can inform our conversations with students as we create classroom space where they can explore who they are, where they fit in the world, and what roles they want to fulfill in personal, family, work, and community life.

Critical Thinking and Inquiry

I have worked hard to engender good student-teacher relationships. With student experience at the centre of my teaching, I intentionally create an atmosphere of “critical empathy” in the classroom. The classroom is meant to be a space of many voices. Students are invited to ask any question, knowing they do so within an ongoing personal conversation with colleagues, with the professor, and with the material. The study of religion and literature is ideal for developing the twin skills of critical thinking and inquiry. We want to give our students the space to learn how to ask the right questions and think through the great problems of human experience.

Multi-Modal Education

If the classroom is about creating a space for personal exploration and teaching skills of critical inquiry, what, then, is the role of the academic as “professor”—as one who imparts knowledge?

As we talk about “flipping the classroom,” there is a battle in the world of pedagogy between philosophies of outcome-based or expectation-driven education and a student-centred approach in the classroom. There is also an emerging tension between the university as a protected space for critical inquiry and the university as a job preparation tool.

I do not believe that these philosophies of education are either universally applicable or diametrically opposed. Different courses and programs will have different outcome requirements and explorative opportunities. Indeed, a multi-modal approach to education adapts ongoing exploration of critical ideas with both the tools/methods available and the intention of shaping students to be workplace engaged. The goal is to create an interactive atmosphere that identifies the skills a student can achieve in the classroom while protecting that space for curiosity, inquiry, and critical thinking.

Indeed, those things are precisely the kinds of identifiable skills that employers require. When we combine the ideas of critical inquiry and learning goals, we can create a student experience that allows learners to define their own roles within the educational encounter. That onus on the student for success is still centred in key conversations of Religious Studies—discussions of history, culture, theology, and ideas that make Religious Studies an exciting and broad discipline.

Therefore, I do not feel like it is my job to merely impart knowledge. I do impart knowledge, and my students sometimes feel overwhelmed by the complexity of religious ideas. But my key job is to impart enthusiasm, to excite the imagination, to awaken dreams, and to help students mine the great depths of the human story. Ideally, then, I do not teach classes; instead, I teach students, allowing them to shape their transformational experience as organically as possible while being true to the curriculum.

Relevant Teaching Methods

Practically speaking, this means augmenting the lecture model with other teaching methods. I also must create within the classroom a culture of openness, where the students are safe to share ideas within the educational environment.

Education should be relevant, not just economically and vocationally, but also personally and culturally. I passionately believe that each coming generation—and the generations seem to shorten with time—is charged with the task of changing the world for the better. This seems like a grand statement, but each cohort of students really does stand on the edge of new worlds. The university is a place that shapes the potential of the generation that is before us.

I aim, then, to use a number of different teaching methods in my work. I am constantly seeking to develop my teaching skills. I demonstrate this by the numerous workshops and seminars I have attended. I also seek to expand students’ experience through a variety of teaching methods, including discussion, debate, journaling, breakout groups, moodle forums, blogging, wikis and glossaries, video and media integration, class readings, fully written lectures, improvised lectures from outlines, Powerpoint presentations and Prezis, dramatic monologues, thought-mapping, question-storming, and team-teaching. I continually seek to develop these methods and hone my skills as a communicator and facilitator of learning. As the ultimate goal is student engagement, I will try most any creative endeavour to draw the students into the material.

Publically Engaged Scholarship

As an emerging scholar, I am excited about the opportunities to integrate the oft-separated academic pillars of research, teaching, and service. Anticipating the metrics for networked participatory scholarship in UPEI’s draft Academic Plan, my scholarship already exists both in academic forums as well as in blogs, editorials, interviews, guest lectures, and podcasts. In continuity with my philosophy of education, I have extended the classroom and the research process into the worlds of social media. I am actively engaged on Twitter and Facebook, rooting the conversation to my popular blog on faith, fantasy, and fiction (www.aPilgrimInNarnia.com).

Posted in Original Research, Thoughtful Essays | Tagged , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Bluebeard the Hipster Serial Groove Killer: A Revolting Rhyme

Last year I was fortunate to be able to work with Dr. Dimitra Fimi and a team of students at teachers at Signum University. Her course, “Folkloric Transformations,” is a fascinating look at werewolf and vampyre tales from the perspective of a folklorist.

As one of the discussion leaders, I challenged my students to retell a folktale in the tradition of Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes. He is part of a tradition of 20th-century writers who take the classic stories of folk history and reinterpret them in new ways. Some of these retellings are pretty serious, but we should rarely accuse Roald Dahl of anything like seriousness. His rhymes are fun, mildly inappropriate, and inversive Seussian poems. I loved them so much I challenged our students to do the same.

And, of course, I tried one out myself. I think my students did a better job, but I happen to own the copyright of my own feeble fable, so I thought I would share it. I had just read the Bluebeard tale for the first time in a number of settings (including a pretty gruesome one that turns the tale upside down). Bluebeard might be the first human non-political serial killer in stories (if he is human), so I started to think about what other kinds of things a serial killer could kill other than people (and certainly other than housewives).

As I scratched my scraggly beard thinking of this, drinking a smoothie from a wide mouth mason jar as I wrote in my journal made from 19th century reclaimed leather, and as I looked forward to meeting some friends for the newest APA at the local gastro-brew pub later, I somehow thought about hipsters.  I thought of hipsters in the “too cool to care” variety, and how Sam Roberts complained that “the kids don’t know how to dance to rock and roll.” And then I thought of how young folk these days don’t so much as dance as groove.

So then I conceived of Bluebeard, a serial killer of hipster grooves. And this is the result. I hope you enjoy, and feel free to share your own revolting rhymes.

Bluebeard the Hipster Serial Groove Killer

While once our men were shaven folk
Though some might be a stache’in’
Now our beards are thick and full
In this age of hipster fashion

Amish beards are all the rage
The pirate look is in
Golden locks and flowing manes
Means beard oil is a thing

Grooming is a man thing now
So beards are lush and grand
The lumberjack’s a hero here
Abe Lincoln is the Man

Now once upon a hipster’s eve
Young Gus came on the scene
I have to say his great blue beard
Went well with old ripped jeans

Gus scanned the floor, he checked the scene
At the hipsters’ favourite bar
All drank their beer from earthen mugs
Floral tea from mason jars

In twos and threes the young folk gathered
Where the barman pushed his ware
With sweater vests and black-rimmed glasses
And parted slicked back hair

And while their heads nodded up and down
To the roots rock rhythm band
Not one punk stepped on the backlit floor
For no one dances in hipster land

With sardonic wit and knowing looks
They mocked that crazy time
When young folk grooved across the floor
And old folk danced in lines

“How strange!” they thought, to show such care
To set down mugs and move
“Leaning’s best,” they claim, “and nodding too.”
Detached is the theme of the hipster groove.

Then in walks Gus, who looks the part
Gandalf beard glistening in shades of blue
He looks up and down the nodding bar
And decides to kill this hipster groove

Down went his draught, Gus wipes his chin
And checks the jukebox list
He pulls a dime from his skinny jeans
Punching buttons with his fist

No emo tunes or mournful ballads
Would ever do for Gus
The record changed, the drums begin
And the room falls in a hush

Gus walks on to the old dance floor
And waits to catch the beat
Then flings his arms up in the air
And begins to move his feet

Gus shuffled left and raised the roof
He cha cha’d all the way
He reeled it in, he dropped the needle
Keeping time like Flavor Flav

So the beat went on while Bluebeard shuffled
Hipster toes began to tap
Deck shoes moved to left and right
Tattooed hands began to clap

Soon the crowd was moving in
The beat made bodies move
And finally after years of strife
They threw off the hipster groove

A smile broke through that thick blue beard
And Gus slipped on past the crowd
And headed to the next brew pub over
Where dancing’s not allowed

So when you’re out upon a casual eve
In dens where hipsters gather
Drinking tea of wild hemp root
And talking hipster blather

Heed this story, mind these words
For those who love the hipster groove
Watch any punk that strikes a pose
And run if his beard is blue

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The Fantastic Imagination: An Essay on Fantasy Theory by George MacDonald

This essay is a great find, originally an introduction to the collection of The Light Princess and Other Fairy Tales. With George MacDonald’s characteristic wit, it forms a nice partnership with C.S. Lewis’ “On Stories” and J.R.R. Tolkien’s “On Fairy-stories“–and indeed may have influenced them. MacDonald considers the way meaning works in fairy tales and fantasy stories, summarizing it with the iconic saying,

“the business of the painter is not to teach zoology.”

And certainly Lewis must have known this quotation when he wrote his “On 3 Ways of Writing for Children“: 

I do not write for children, but for the childlike, whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.

MacDonald thinks about fantasy-writing theory. Echoing John Donne, he writes, “and man may, if he pleases, invent a little world of his own, with its own laws.” Those laws must be consistent or the story falls: 

Law is the soil in which alone beauty will grow; beauty is the only stuff in which Truth can be clothed; and you may, if you will, call Imagination the tailor that cuts her garments to fit her, and Fancy his journeyman that puts the pieces of them together, or perhaps at most embroiders their button-holes. Obeying law, the maker works like his creator; not obeying law, he is such a fool as heaps a pile of stones and calls it a church.

I hope you enjoy this great piece that sets the stage for a 20th c. conversation about fantasy literature, even peeks forward to reader response theories or the last generation.

That we have in English no word corresponding to the German Märchen, drives us to use the word Fairytale, regardless of the fact that the tale may have nothing to do with any sort of fairy. The old use of the word Fairy, by Spenser at least, might, however, well be adduced, were justification or excuse necessary where need must.

Were I asked, what is a fairytale?

I should reply, Read Undine: that is a fairytale; then read this and that as well, and you will see what is a fairytale. Were I further begged to describe the fairytale, or define what it is, I would make answer, that I should as soon think of describing the abstract human face, or stating what must go to constitute a human being. A fairytale is just a fairytale, as a face is just a face; and of all fairytales I know, I think Undine the most beautiful.

Many a man, however, who would not attempt to define a man, might venture to say something as to what a man ought to be: even so much I will not in this place venture with regard to the fairytale, for my long past work in that kind might but poorly instance or illustrate my now more matured judgment. I will but say some things helpful to the reading, in right-minded fashion, of such fairytales as I would wish to write, or care to read.

Some thinkers would feel sorely hampered if at liberty to use no forms but such as existed in nature, or to invent nothing save in accordance with the laws of the world of the senses; but it must not therefore be imagined that they desire escape from the region of law. Nothing lawless can show the least reason why it should exist, or could at best have more than an appearance of life.

The natural world has its laws, and no man must interfere with them in the way of presentment any more than in the way of use; but they themselves may suggest laws of other kinds, and man may, if he pleases, invent a little world of his own, with its own laws; for there is that in him which delights in calling up new forms–which is the nearest, perhaps, he can come to creation. When such forms are new embodiments of old truths, we call them products of the Imagination; when they are mere inventions, however lovely, I should call them the work of the Fancy: in either case, Law has been diligently at work.

His world once invented, the highest law that comes next into play is, that there shall be harmony between the laws by which the new world has begun to exist; and in the process of his creation, the inventor must hold by those laws. The moment he forgets one of them, he makes the story, by its own postulates, incredible. To be able to live a moment in an imagined world, we must see the laws of its existence obeyed. Those broken, we fall out of it. The imagination in us, whose exercise is essential to the most temporary submission to the imagination of another, immediately, with the disappearance of Law, ceases to act.

Suppose the gracious creatures of some childlike region of Fairyland talking either cockney or Gascon! Would not the tale, however lovelily begun, sink once to the level of the Burlesque–of all forms of literature the least worthy? A man’s inventions may be stupid or clever, but if he does not hold by the laws of them, or if he makes one law jar with another, he contradicts himself as an inventor, he is no artist. He does not rightly consort his instruments, or he tunes them in different keys. The mind of man is the product of live Law; it thinks by law, it dwells in the midst of law, it gathers from law its growth; with law, therefore, can it alone work to any result. Inharmonious, unconsorting ideas will come to a man, but if he try to use one of such, his work will grow dull, and he will drop it from mere lack of interest. Law is the soil in which alone beauty will grow; beauty is the only stuff in which Truth can be clothed; and you may, if you will, call Imagination the tailor that cuts her garments to fit her, and Fancy his journeyman that puts the pieces of them together, or perhaps at most embroiders their button-holes. Obeying law, the maker works like his creator; not obeying law, he is such a fool as heaps a pile of stones and calls it a church.

In the moral world it is different: there a man may clothe in new forms, and for this employ his imagination freely, but he must invent nothing. He may not, for any purpose, turn its laws upside down. He must not meddle with the relations of live souls. The laws of the spirit of man must hold, alike in this world and in any world he may invent. It were no offence to suppose a world in which everything repelled instead of attracted the things around it; it would be wicked to write a tale representing a man it called good as always doing bad things, or a man it called bad as always doing good things: the notion itself is absolutely lawless. In physical things a man may invent; in moral things he must obey–and take their laws with him into his invented world as well.

“You write as if a fairytale were a thing of importance: must it have meaning?”

It cannot help having some meaning; if it have proportion and harmony it has vitality, and vitality is truth. The beauty may be plainer in it than the truth, but without the truth the beauty could not be, and the fairytale would give no delight. Everyone, however, who feels the story, will read its meaning after his own nature and development: one man will read one meaning in it, another will read another.

“If so, how am I to assure myself that I am not reading my own meaning into it, but yours out of it?”

Why should you be so assured? It may be better that you should read your meaning into it. That may be a higher operation of your intellect than the mere reading of mine out of it: your meaning may be superior to mine.

“Suppose my child ask me what the fairytale means, what am I to say?”

If you do not know what it means, what is easier than to say so? If you do see a meaning in it, there it is for you to give him. A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will mean. If my drawing, on the other hand, is so far from being a work of art that it needs THIS IS A HORSE written under it, what can it matter that neither you nor your child should know what it means? It is there not so much to convey a meaning as to wake a meaning. If it do not even wake an interest, throw it aside. A meaning may be there, but it is not for you. If, again, you do not know a horse when you see it, the name written under it will not serve you much.

At all events, the business of the painter is not to teach zoology.

But indeed your children are not likely to trouble you about the meaning. They find what they are capable of finding, and more would be too much.

For my part, I do not write for children, but for the childlike, whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.

A fairytale is not an allegory. There may be allegory in it, but it not an allegory. He must be an artist indeed who can, in any mode, produce a strict allegory that is not a weariness to the spirit. An allegory must be Mastery or Moorditch.

A fairytale, like a butterfly or a bee, helps itself on all sides, sips every wholesome flower, and spoils not one. The true fairytale is, to my mind, very like the sonata. We all know that a sonata means something; and where there is the faculty of talking with suitable vagueness, and choosing metaphor sufficiently loose, mind may approach mind, in the interpretation of a sonata, with the result of a more or less contenting consciousness of sympathy. But if two or three men sat down to write each what the sonata meant to him, what approximation to definite idea would be the result? Little enough–and that little more than needful. We should find it had roused related, if not identical, feelings, but probably not one common thought. Has the sonata therefore failed? Had it undertaken to convey, or ought it to be expected to impart anything defined, anything notionally recognisable?

“But words are not music; words at least are meant and fitted to carry a precise meaning!”

It is very seldom indeed that they carry the exact meaning of any user of them! And if they can be so used as to convey definite meaning, it does not follow that they ought never to carry anything else. Words are live things that may be variously employed to various ends. They can convey a scientific fact, or throw a shadow of her child’s dream on the heart of a mother. They are things to put together like the pieces of dissected map, or to arrange like the notes on a stave. Is the music in them to go for nothing? It can hardly help the definiteness of a meaning: is it therefore to be disregarded? They have length, and breadth, and outline: have they nothing to do with depth? Have they only to describe, never to impress? Has nothing any claim to their use but definite? The cause of a child’s tears may be altogether undefinable: has the mother therefore no antidote for his vague misery? That may be strong in colour which has no evident outline. A fairtytale, a sonata, a gathering storm, a limitless night, seizes you and sweeps you away: do you begin at once to wrestle with it and ask whence its power over you, whither it is carrying you? The law of each is in the mind of its composer; that law makes one man feel this way, another man feel that way. To one the sonata is a world of odour and beauty, to another of soothing only and sweetness. To one, the cloudy rendezvous is a wild dance, with a terror at its heart; to another, a majestic march of heavenly hosts, with Truth in their centre pointing their course, but as yet restraining her voice. The greatest forces lie in the region of the uncomprehended.

I will go farther.–The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is–not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself.

The best Nature does for us is to work in us such moods in which thoughts of high import arise. Does any aspect of Nature wake but one thought? Does she ever suggest only one definite thing? Does she make any two men in the same place at the same moment think the same thing? Is she therefore a failure, because she is not definite? Is it nothing that she rouses the something deeper than the understanding–the power that underlies thoughts? Does she not set feeling, and so thinking at work? Would it be better that she did this after one fashion and not after many fashions? Nature is mood-engendering, thought-provoking: such ought the sonata, such ought the fairytale to be.

“But a man may then imagine in your work what he pleases, what you never meant!”

Not what he pleases, but what he can. If he be not a true man, he will draw evil out of the best; we need not mind how he treats any work of art! If he be a true man, he will imagine true things; what matter whether I meant them or not? They are there none the less that I cannot claim putting them there!

One difference between God’s work and man’s is, that, while God’s work cannot mean more than he meant, man’s must mean more than he meant. For in everything that God has made, there is a layer upon layer of ascending significance; also he expresses the same thought in higher and higher kinds of that thought: it is God’s things, his embodied thoughts, which alone a man has to use, modified and adapted to his own purposes, for the expression of his thoughts; therefore he cannot help his words and figures falling into such combinations in the mind of another as he had himself not foreseen, so many are the thoughts allied to every other thought, so many are the relations involved in every figure, so many the facts hinted in every symbol. A man may well himself discover truth in what he wrote; for he was dealing all the time things that came from thoughts beyond his own.

“But surely you would explain your idea to one who asked you?”

I say again, if I cannot draw a horse, I will not write THIS IS A HORSE under what I foolishly meant for one. Any key to a work of imagination would be nearly, if not quite, as absurd. The tale is there not to hide, but to show: if it show nothing at your window, do not open your door to it; leave it out in the cold. To ask me to explain, is to say, “Roses! Boil them, or we won’t have them!” My tales may not be roses but I will not boil them.

So long as I think my dog can bark, I will not sit up to bark for him.

If a writer’s aim be logical conviction, he must spare no logical pains, not merely to be understood, but to escape being misunderstood; where his object is to move by suggestion, to cause to imagine, then let him assail the soul of his reader as the wind assails an aeolian harp. If there be music in my reader, I would gladly wake it. Let fairytale of mine go for a firefly that now flashes, now is dark, but may flash again. Caught in a hand which does not love its kind, it will turn to an insignificant ugly thing, that can neither flash nor fly.

The best way with music, I imagine, is not to bring the forces of our intellect to bear upon it, but to be still and let it work on that part of us for whose sake it exists. We spoil countless precious things by intellectual greed. He who will be a man, and will not be a child, must–he cannot help himself–become a little man, that is, a dwarf. He will, however need no consolation, for he is sure to think himself a very large creature indeed.

If any strain of my “broken music” make a child’s eyes flash, or his mother’s grow for a moment dim, my labour will not have been in vain.


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