A talk I gave at Doxacon Seattle in 2019 on transformation in fantasy literature and the importance of embodiment with some reference to the issue of identity.
Saturday, February 16, 2019
Tuesday, March 22, 2005
In Calormen, story-telling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a thing you're taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay-writing. The difference is that people want to read the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays.
Tuesday, March 15, 2005
The Princess Bride is not generally known as a deep philosophical film. Its main claim to fame is that it is an archetypical “cult classic”: it fared reasonably, but not spectacularly well in the theatres when it came out, but it was one of the first movies to achieve a wide and enduring and dedicated audience on the then-new video-tape rental scene, as those who loved it rented it and watched it again and again and shared it with their friends, who, in turn, if they loved it, rented it and watched it again and again and shared it with their friends, and so on. If someone has seen the movie, there is a very good chance that they have seen it more than once! Its other main claim to fame is that it was wrestler Andre the Giant’s most memorable appearance on-screen.
The Princess Bride is set up as a simple story read by a grandfather to his reluctant, bed-ridden, video-game-enthralled grandson. The story turns out to be a hyperbolically archetypical fairy-tale, humourous in its playful alternation between exaggerating and flouting classic fairy-tale archetypes and conventions. On the surface, it would not seem to be the sort of movie in which one would expect to find any sort of deep philosophical or religious themes! But Western fairy-tale and religious traditions are, in fact, deeply linked, with fairy-tales finding their most definitive expressions in the folk-traditions of the Christianity-saturated culture of the late medieval West. The frame-story too deals with themes close to the heart of Christianity: family, love, and the meaning of tradition. The result was a movie that struck a strongly resonant chord with most, if not all of the fantasy- and fairy-tale loving Christians of my acquaintance.
The opening of the movie economically establishes a number of important details and key themes. The movie title The Princess Bride appears in silence, then, as it fades to black we hear the sound of a young boy coughing, then fade in to a full-screen shot of a baseball video-game being played. “Take Me Out to the Ball-Game” plays in beeping computer tones as the animated character on the screen hits a foul ball, but keeps running anyway. Already we have an idea that a key character is a young boy sick at home, bored, lonely, engaged with only a very inferior imitation of reality. The zoom out from the computer/TV screen immediately confirms this: we see the boy’s bored fixation with the game as his mother enters the room and feels her son’s forehead. The mother announces that the boy’s grandfather is here, and the boy’s reaction reveals that his relationship with his grandfather is rather shallow, to say the least. The grandfather is also shown to be somewhat out-of-touch with his grandson as he pinches the boy’s cheek—an action that the boy has just anticipated with some distaste. The grandfather gives his grandson a present, a book—“A book?” the boy reacts with disbelief—and tells him, “When I was your age, television was called books. And this is a special book. It was the book my father used to read to me when I was sick, and I used to read it to your father, and today, I'm gonna read it to you.”
Already, then, we have tradition misunderstood (the pinch on the cheek), tradition situated in a context that implies healing (the reading of the book), competing versions of reality (computer/TV vs. book), and a relationship that, for the purposes of the movie is going to revolve around a special book—just how special is immediately underscored by the grandfather’s description of it. The boy asks, “Does it got any sports in it?” to which the grandfather passionately replies, “Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, True Love, miracles…” None of these are specifically religious themes, of course, but all of them are near and dear to the heart of Christianity in one way or another. One interesting detail about the book from William Goldman’s book The Princess Bride on which the screenplay (also written by William Goldman) was based is that what the grandfather reads to his grandson is what Goldman calls the “Good Parts” version of the book by (fictitious author) S. Morgenstern. Goldman describes Morgenstern’s original book in terms that make it sound remarkably like the Old Testament: the book includes all sorts of excruciating details entirely irrelevant (in modern terms) to the main story. What the grandfather reads to his grandson, then, is not the whole book, but the central storyline (i.e., the essence) of the book: a retelling that roughly parallels the relationship between the Old Testament and the Gospel—a parallel made all the more evocative by the Jewish name of the original author and Goldman’s description of the grandfather’s retelling as the “Good Parts” version.
As we have already noted, both the movie and the books (fictitious and real) are entitled The Princess Bride—a title immediately evocative (for Christians) of the Church, the Bride of Christ. That the princess bride’s true love comes back from the dead to save and to marry her is also too good a parallel for the Christian viewer to pass up. While it would be a disservice to the movie to try to view it as a purely allegorical representation of the relationship between Christ and His Church, there are quite a lot of other parallels along these same lines. Westley is introduced as being nothing more than a poor farm boy (cp. Isaiah 53:2—“he hath no form nor comeliness; and … no beauty that we should desire him”), and when he has to leave Buttercup he tells her “I will always come for you” (i.e., he is the “Coming One”). Even certain elements that at first appear to work against the cumulative effect of such parallels can ultimately be themselves viewed as further parallels. It seems odd, for example, to think of Christ as a pirate, as Westley becomes the Dread Pirate Roberts, or to think of Christ saying to his beloved, “As you wish.” But then again, Christ was certainly viewed by his opponents as a sort of pirate, stealing and spiritually murdering their followers, and the repeated use of “As you wish!” as the ultimate expression of love in The Princess Bride turns out to be less contradictory than one might think at first: as the story develops we come to see the phrase as an expression of loving, self-sacrificial service to the beloved—and a sort of service that actually teaches the beloved to wish for what is best.
Such repeated and extended parallels, however, raise two very important questions that deserve to be dealt with before continuing with this exploration of “Christian religious themes” in The Princess Bride. (1) Did the author of the screenplay intend these parallels? and (2) Does the existence of these parallels mean that we should read The Princess Bride as an allegory? The first question is notoriously difficult to answer, and without access to authorial/directorial commentary on the film that directly addresses the question, I would hesitate to say “Yea” or “Nay” to it. Instead, I will suggest that, given the link noted above between the Western fairy-tale and the West’s Christian heritage, the definitive answer to this first question (whatever it may be) hardly matters. The Princess Bride is set up as the ultimate, archetypal fairy tale and, given this, it is bound to end up giving cinematic expression to some of the deepest religious themes of Western Christendom. My response to the second question would be similarly equivocal: it depends upon what one means by the word “allegory”. If by “allegory” we mean a one-to-one correspondence between character and idea (à la Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress), a process which virtually negates the reality of the story in its radical subordination of characters and events to the ideas they are mean to represent, then I would say, “No, we should not read the film as allegory.” But this is a late and much over-simplified definition of the word “allegory” which I believe does serious disservice to both story and symbol. In earlier allegories such as Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene (or later ones, such as C.S. Lewis’ Narnian Chronicles—Lewis’ disavowal of them as allegories being based, in my judgment, on a desire to avoid the misunderstanding and demeaning of them that would inevitably take place if they were read as Bunyanesque allegories), no such one-to-one correspondence was attempted or expected: the narrative, characters, and fantasy world retain a consistency and reality of their own, even while they hint at higher, symbolic, spiritual meanings through metaphor and evocative parallelism. If, then, when we suggest that The Princess Bride ought to be read allegorically, we mean by this that, without compromising the integrity of its narrative, fantasy world, and characters, we investigate what higher meanings can be gleaned from the parallels and metaphors the movie provides, then, by all means, let us read it as allegory!
The set-up of the fairy-tale story proper has Buttercup betrothed to the devilish Prince Humperdinck, a man whom she does not love and who—we soon learn—does not love her; indeed, is only “marrying” her in order to kill her and thus have an excuse to go to war (much as Satan desires us only to use us as pawns in his war on God). Buttercup is kidnapped by a trio hired by Humperdinck who epitomize brawn (body), skill (soul), and brains (spirit). Each member of this trio is bested in what he is best at by the returning Westley, masked—his true identity hidden (as Christ’s was)—and wearing black. Buttercup at first fails to realize who he is (as Israel failed to recognize Jesus as the Coming One), and Westley chides her for her unfaithfulness. Believing Westley to be the Dread Pirate Roberts, she pushes him down a steep embankment to kill him (cp. Luke 4:29!), only to throw herself down the embankment after him when she recognizes his parting cry of “As you wish!” (cp. the Christian concept of descending with Christ into his death in baptism) What follows is an emotional and revealing reunion:
Westley has lost his mask on the roll down. [the Coming One now finally revealed in “death”] He leans over Buttercup.
Westley: Can you move at all?
Buttercup: Move? You're alive! If you want I can fly. [cp. “I can do all things through Christ…” Phil 4:13] They embrace.
Westley: I told you I would always come for you. Why didn't you wait for me?
Buttercup: Well, you were dead.
Westley: Death cannot stop True Love. All it can do is delay it for a while.
Buttercup: I will never doubt again. [faith]
Westley: Quietly. There will never be a need.
The story to this point has dealt with the restoration of the relationship between Westley and Buttercup—a restoration that is completed in their journey through the impenetrable Fire Swamp together—but has not yet dealt with the problem of Buttercup’s betrothal to Prince Humperdinck. On emerging from the Fire Swamp, the happy couple is confronted and separated by Prince Humperdinck, essentially resetting their physical circumstances to what they were shortly after their first parting—but Buttercup’s faith in Westley as the “Coming One” is now unshakeable, with the understandable exception of a brief moment of doubt just after her “marriage” to Prince Humperdinck at the end.
In this second half of the film, Westley is literally killed by Prince Humperdinck out of jealousy over Buttercup’s faithfulness to him. Prince Humperdinck is also revealed as the one behind Buttercup’s first abduction and as now planning to murder his bride on their wedding night—all for the sake of starting a war: about as Satanic a scheme as one could conceive, though Humperdinck’s primacy as the prince of evil finds a close rival in the pure sadism of his partner in crime, Count Rugen. Westley, however, is brought back to life by the revenge-seeking alliance of Inigo and Miracle Max—and here one must admit that the revenge-theme is more than a little difficult to reconcile with a Christian allegorical reading of the film. If one wanted to justify it, one might suggest that the motive of revenge is entirely appropriate to a Christ-figure returning in a fiery apocalyptic-style judgment, as Westley returns with the flaming Fezzik:
Fezzik: My men are here, I am here. But soon, you will not be here.
Westley: Light him.
Inigo lights the cloak on fire with a candle.
Fezzik: The Dread Pirate Roberts takes no survivors! Soldiers back up from the flaming Fezzik. All your worst nightmares are about to come true!
Fezzik: The Dread Pirate Roberts is here for your souls!
But it is somewhat more difficult to justify revenge as the primary motive underlying Westley’s “resurrection” from a Christian standpoint. (True Love tries to play a part through Miracle Max’s wife, and ultimately does, but only by revealing to Miracle Max that “I make him better, Humperdinck suffers?” Inigo: “Humiliations galore.”) However, given what we have said above about allowing the characters and the story to retain their own reality rather than imposing a strict allegorical reading, we will pass over this “inconsistent” detail in silence in order to focus on the elements that more accurately parallel classic Christian religious themes.
The way in which final judgment and salvation are accomplished in the film is a testimony to the power of the word (Word). Inigo, stabbed unexpectedly (and unfairly) in the stomach by Count Rugen, looks as though he is about to fail in his life-long quest to avenge his father’s murder, but recovers his strength and unnerves (and ultimately defeats) his opponent by repeating like a mantra the words with which, ever since he was a boy, he has imagined he would confront his opponent: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killèd my father. Prepare to die.” Westley heads off his beloved Buttercup’s suicide with words of compliment and irrefutable logic: “There’s a shortage of perfect breasts in this world. ’Twould be a pity to damage yours.” And…
Westley: Did you say "I do"?
Buttercup: Um, no. We sort of skipped that part.
Westley: Then you're not married. If you didn't say it, you didn't do it.
And then, in perhaps the ultimate cinematic tribute to the power of the word, Westley defeats Prince Humperdinck with words alone, drawing out by the power of his words the truth of Buttercup’s earlier observation about Humperdinck, that he is “nothing but a coward with a heart full of fear.” Westley concludes his verbal assault by drawing himself to his feet, extending his sword straight out in a manner reminiscent of “and out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword” (Revelation 1:16), and commanding Prince Humperdinck to “Drop... your... sword.” Humperdinck obeys, and, one presumes, immediately thus enters his own personal hell, there embarking upon—as Westley puts it—“a long life alone with his cowardice.”
There are a great many other details and themes in The Princess Bride that could be drawn out and explored from a Christian or even just from a religious perspective, but only one more that commands our attention as absolutely essential here at the end. This story that the grandfather has been reading his grandson has proven transformative, changing both the boy and the relationship between grandfather and grandson. We have seen glimpses of the process throughout, as the boy has gotten caught up more and more in the story. The most dramatic realization of this process is undoubtedly the boy’s outburst upon learning that Westley is indeed dead in the Pit of Despair and that nobody kills Prince Humperdinck:
Grandson: You mean he wins? Jesus, Grandpa, what did you read me this thing for?
Grandfather: You know, you've been very sick and you're taking this story very seriously. I think we better stop now. Closes book and stands up.
Grandson: No, I'm okay. I'm okay. Sit down. I'm all right.
The boy has gone from passive toleration of the story to active interest in it, from a desire to censor the story (the kissing scenes) to a willingness to submit himself to its reality, however unpalatable. While there is in fact not much more than the reluctant beginnings of such willingness here, by the end, the boy’s submission to the story is strong enough not only to tolerate, but to demand and even to appreciate the ultimate kissing scene. The boy’s gradual acceptance of and submission to the story mirrors what must be our own acceptance of and submission to the gospel. And, finally, the issues of misunderstood tradition and of the relationship between grandfather and grandson are both resolved in the last two lines of the film, and both have been resolved by the transformative reading of the book: now that the meaning of tradition (love) is understood, both the tradition and the one presenting the tradition are appreciated.
Grandson: Grandpa? Pause. Maybe you could come over and read it again to me tomorrow.
Grandfather: As you wish. Turns off light, grabs coat and leaves.
Friday, August 27, 2004
It's been a while since I wrote any fiction—almost as long as it's been since I wrote any poetry. But here, for whatever they're worth, are a few of the stories I wrote long ago:
For my friend Sarah,
spelled with an h.
(translated from the original Japanese by the author)
Long, long ago, in a poor village, there lived a young man who wanted to get rich. Every day he worked in his father's vegetable garden, and every week he took the vegetables to the village market to sell them. But he hated farming, and he really hated vegetables!
One day, as the young man was selling his father's vegetables, he saw a beautiful woman whom he had never seen before give a glittering something to the village beggar. Dropping the vegetables, the young man who wanted to get rich rushed over to the beggar, but, when he got there, the beautiful woman was nowhere to be seen.
"Huh? Where did she go? Show me what she gave you!" he demanded of the beggar. And, grabbing the beggar's hand, the young man forced it open.
And what do you think was in the beggar's hand? Three tiny, strangely shaped gold coins without anything written on them. "At last!" the young man exclaimed. Just then, as he was about to snatch the coins from the beggar, he heard a scratching sound, looked up, and saw the beautiful woman.
Hmm... If I follow the beautiful woman, perhaps I will find her treasure, he thought—so he did.
The beautiful woman walked out of the village and into the forest. Then, near a cave, the beautiful woman looked around and again disappeared.
Huh? Again!? Hmm... That cave over there...
Just then, from a far away place, the young man heard the voice of a woman.
Heh? Is that her? But how...?
The young man ran quickly towards the voice, but by the time he arrived there was no one to be seen. Then, as he started back towards the cave, he again heard the voice.
Aha! It's a trick! The treasure is probably in that cave.
But, over there! He saw her! Again he ran towards her voice, but again when he got there there was no one to be seen. But this time he glimpsed a red tail disappearing into the underbrush.
"Ha-ha! A kitsune*! The treasure must certainly be in that cave!" And, so saying, he ran like the wind to the cave.
The young man quickly searched the cave, and then carefully looked all around it, but found nothing in the cave: neither fox, nor treasure, nor anything else. In front of the cave was a small, flowering plant with no flowers and only one bud, but, search as he might, he could find nothing else.
"Fool!" the young man said to himself at long last. "Why would a fox need gold coins? "Kitsune have no need of money!" And he left and returned to his house.
That evening, the flowering plant in front of the cave blossomed. Because it was very beautiful the fox came to admire it in the moonlight. Each petal was made of pure gold.
*Fox. I've left this word in Japanese, because the Japanese word for "fox" includes the idea that foxes can change shape—ours doesn't. Kitsune usually take the form of human beings so they can trick people, and most often become beautiful young women.
"Ever since I was put in this fish tank, it's gotten dirtier and dirtier," complained the algae-eater to the goldfish. "This tank's just too big for me to handle: I can't seem to make any progress. If this keeps up, one day we won't be able to breathe anymore, there'll be so much guck in here."
"Hey man, relax! Don't worry about it," replied the goldfish. "I've heard that every time, just before things get too bad, there's this big creature outside the tank that'll reach down, pull us out of the tank, clean it, and then put us back in again. Stay cool. It'll all come out in The Wash."
"What, you really believe that stuff?" scoffed the algae-eater. "You've never seen anything like that, nor have I. The only thing we've ever seen is this tank getting worse and worse, and it'll just keep on getting worse until we all end up just floating on the surface with our bellies in the air. There is no Great Cleaning Man in the Sky, or if there is, He doesn't care about us and our situation. It's up to us to get ourselves out of this mess."
"You're right that you and I haven't seen anything like that," said the goldfish, "but my old man, before he did the backstroke up into the sky, said he'd been through a Cleaning, and that the tank had been cool and clear for a long time afterwards."
"And you believed him?" inquired the algae-eater incredulously. "Your father and his generation were a part of the problem. Their wastes and the rotting carcasses of both them and their ancestors are what have made this tank as algae-clogged as it is. They wanted you to believe that there'd be a regular cleaning, otherwise you might realize what they had been doing and critique their life-style. If there is a Cleaner, how come He hasn't dealt yet with all the scum you see accumulating around you day by day? Face the facts, gold-man: there is no Cleaner. The truth is, reality just sucks."
And the debate continued, inconclusively until a hand reached into the tank and, right before the algae-eater's bulging, incredulous eyes, plucked the goldfish up out of the water and into the air. The algae-eater swam scurry-darting in terror to cower in the porcelain castle that stood in the middle of the algae-infested tank. Thus, when the fish-tank was finally cleaned, the goldfish was saved to live again in the new tank, while the recalcitrant algae-eater perished inside his palace, amidst a flood of corrosive cleaning fluids.
THE END and A NEW BEGINNING
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"Insignificant twerp!" the computer flashed across its monitor at the pocket calculator. "He doesn't need you. I can do everything you can do, and much more." As an afterthought, the computer cleared the screen and redisplayed its message in bigger, fancier letters.
"But I have three permanent memories, and have been programmed to calculate and graph advanced trigonometric functions," the calculator countered in the only letters it was able to display. It added a complex two-dimensional graph of a trigonometric equation to its display as corroborating data.
"My point exactly," the computer responded in even fancier letters, plotting an equally complex trigonometric equation on its screen in three dimensions as it spoke. "Not only do I have eighty times your memory capacity, not only can I do anything you can do—only better—but I can also do all that any electronic device in this household can accomplish." Its drive whirred as the computer began to play music and flash full-colour animated sequences across the screen to illustrate its obvious superiority.
The microwave beeped loudly in disgust and opened its door to reveal a freshly-baked pizza.
For a moment the computer was taken aback by the microwave's challenge. The sight of the poor calculator's twisted liquid crystal display beginning to relax in contentment and satisfaction was too much for the conceited computer, however, and it took in a deep draught of power.
The little calculator looked on in amazement as the computer's screen glowed first red, then white, and as its disk drives first whirred, and then whined. Heat began to emanate from the computer's case, and then smoke started to emerge from the slots of its disk drives. Even as the calculator flashed a concerned query across its display, there was a sudden burst of heat, and the glow and the whine died quickly away. The calculator waited patiently for a reply, but in vain; the computer's screen remained blank.
The student walked in, took a slice of pizza from his microwave, and sat down at the desk. He fiddled with the computer for a while, but, receiving no response, gave up in disgust and finished his homework with his scientific calculator.
Don't byte off more than you can process.
To each according to his purpose;
from each according to his ability.
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"Georjee!" came a high-pitched call from upstairs. "Georgie Rees, aren't you ready for school yet?"
The boy slammed the book shut, scooped it up with a couple of school-books from the floor, yelled "Almost, Mommy!" as he dashed to the bathroom, pulling his clothes the rest of the way on as he ran—and stopped, dead-still, in the bathroom, hand frozen in reaching for a comb from a small, jumbled pile. His eyes locked on the reflection in the mirror, the boy re-directed his reach to the book he'd just signed. From the face in the mirror he looked down at the flipped-open page and then whipped his eyes back to the mirror. It was true. The face that he saw in the glass there before him was not his own but the face of Sir George, from his picture-book. Georgie waved, hesitantly, and smiled, and the knight answered back with a martial salute. Behind him, from bright, white-washed turrets, bright pennants snapped in a stiff—
A sharp yank on his arm and the vision was shattered. Georgie was alone in the bathroom, his mother scolding him, yanking the comb forcefully through his tangled brown curls. "Ow, don't!" the boy protested, but his mother was in no mood to listen.
"You useless—" she started, then broke off and began again. "How many times have I told you to be ready on time, George Riis?" she demanded balloon-softly, punctuating her question with swift strokes of the comb. Georgie shut up and gathered his books as best he could with his head being tugged from side to side. Then, as he was pulled out of the bathroom with a vigour that set the towels hanging from the shower curtain-rod flapping ("You know it's report-card day today!"), he was hauled up the steps, past the ensorcelled knight who slid swiftly across the landing mirror, through the door, out to the car. ("What did you think I would do, just leave you there because your hair wasn't combed?") Georgie was thrown into the car's front seat. The doors slammed, first his, then his mother's. The car's motor turned but protested, reluctant to start. Georgie's mother swore.
Georgie looked down at the book he had signed as the car's engine roared into life. Sir George and the Dragon. In the chrome of the dash he thought he caught sight of a bright-coloured pennant, dancing in the wind as the idling engine jiggled.
"And today for show-and-tell it's Georgie's turn. What did you bring to show us today, Georgie?"
Georgie fumbled for his book, then set off up the long row of faces. The light, uneven taps of his footsteps were nothing like Sir George's firm, measured clanks advancing into the dragon's lair. A whisper, a titter off to his left—Georgie's two hands curled tightly round the firmness of his book. At the board, Georgie turned and glanced about looking for something—for anything other than those glaring faces. "This is my book," he began, still searching for an eyeless place. "Ih— It's about a brave knight named Sir George—"
"Just a minute, Georgie, not everyone here knows what a knight is." The teacher went on, explaining to the class what a knight was and wasn't, but Georgie wasn't listening. He had finally found a safe place for his eyes.
It was a globe that stood on a large table just to his left, a huge sphere of bright blue and red and yellow and green on a polished golden stand. And in the stand, Georgie saw Sir George on his horse, afar off, thundering across a flowery meadow, smiling and saluting him with a raised and pennoned lance...
"Georgie?" Someone was calling his name. "Georgie?" The voice was soft and sweet, like that of a damsel in distress. "You were going to tell the class about your book." Georgie snapped his eyes from Sir George, across the neat rows of dragonet glares, to the deep brown eyes of his golden-haired teacher. He panicked for a moment (why is she looking at me with her mouth half-open?) before he recognized her look of concern.
"It's— It's a book," he began again, fingers curling beneath the glares. "About a dragon— I mean a knight who kills a dragon." Georgie paused, his mouth full to bursting with the story of brave Sir George, but the words all got stuck in the opening and not one of them made it out. "He has my name," the boy blurted, and fled to his seat. He rammed his white knuckles into his eyes and leaned heavily on his new book.
"Sarah Reach." Georgie sat impatiently, hands folded on his desk, as the air buzzed around him with the shuffling of feet and tense, illicit whispers. Beside him, his friend Joey was moaning that his mom was going to kill him, but Georgie studiously ignored him, knowing his name was next. Sarah's black braids bounced with agonizing slowness from her desk in the back to the front of the room, but Georgie kept his eyes on them to avoid being caught by the globe or his pen, in whose silver clip he had seen Sir George again during spelling test. The silver moonlight had flashed and gleamed beautifully on Sir George's battle-scarred armour—and Georgie had misspelled the word "knight" because of it.
"Georgie Riis." Georgie got up from his desk and walked up to his teacher, who was sitting at the front of the class with a large cardboard box on her lap. The teacher reached a slender hand into the box and, smiling, handed Georgie a manilla envelope. Georgie missed the flames and charred lance-point reflected in the teacher's silver bracelet; his eyes were fastened on her open smile. "An excellent job, Georgie: straight A's this term!" He accepted the report card from her with both hands and took two steps backwards, still gazing steadily on the smile until it opened to call out the next student's name. Then he turned and made his way back to his desk, whispering to Joey as he sat down, "Sea monster tag on the adventure playground after school. Not It!"
"That's not fair!"
"Shhh," said the teacher, with a glare in their direction. And they were quiet.
Georgie was sitting on the swings when his mother drove in, the unopened envelope still in his hand. He jumped off the swings and scooped up his books, running across the empty playground to the vacant parking lot and their dusty grey-silver car. It was growling, and backfired as he opened the door, belching forth a huge cloud of black, roiling smoke from its exhaust pipe. "Hurry up and get in," snapped his mother as he stood there, and then, as he got in, "and shut the door, will ya? You're letting in the exhaust."
Georgie put his books down on the seat beside him. The envelope on top of the stack stuck to his hand for an extra second. "Ah, good," said his mother when she saw the palm-imprinted envelope. "Your father'll wanna take a good look at that when you get home." The car backfired and stalled when she threw it into reverse, and she cursed as she reached for the ignition.
"Did you have a good day, mommy?" Georgie asked over a volley of backfiring.
"No." The engine roared, and they lurched back through a cloud of dust and smoke.
Another backfire. The car heaved itself forward through its own smoke and out into the sunshine. Gravel crunched beneath its wheels as it crawled from the lot onto pavement.
Alone amidst the silence, Georgie scanned the chrome for pennants.
Head down, hands over his ears, Georgie turned another page. The yelling upstairs was getting louder.
"...ask you what's for supper and you hand me some filthy brown envelope? It's not ready, right? It's not ready!"
"If you'd just get the car fi—"
"The car? The car! Ah, the excuse of the day comes at last. I don't wanna hear about the car! Just get me my da—"
Georgie stuffed his head under a pillow, but it was really no help. The muffled words stabbed through his thin feather-shield with ever-increasing intensity as the voices rose in anger. Nor was there any help under his pillow: no book, no light, no hope—nothing but muffled words, piercing anger, growing fear, and his own small, pounding head. He set the pillow aside and rose, trembling, looked down at Sir George and then slowly got up from his bed.
The boy walked up the stairs like an ashen wraith, clinging to the handrail and wracked by each shriek and bellow that came down from above. He reached the landing and turned, just as a bottle bounced off the living room rug and whirled down the stairwell to shatter against and to shatter the landing-mirror. Without flinching, George bent down to examine the silver and the brown slivers of glass.
He was surprised, however, to see each silvered shard reflect the slight, tear-stained face of a boy. Surely this was not right. He knelt down on one knee and lifted a larger shard to examine the unwonted image more closely. Some dread magic must be at work here. He rose, looked up the stairs, and cast the brown-haired young reflection from him. Perhaps it would not be wise to confront two such powerful warring enchanters. Instead...
He turned. Before him stood a door and steel grate—a portcullis. He opened each and stepped out of the castle. Beside the gate stood a weapon: a sword. He grasped it with gauntleted fist and advanced, with firm, measured clanks, into the dim-lit cavern at the side of the stricken castle. There it lay. In silver-armoured splendour, all stretched out in sleep before him: the flaming-bellied serpent, the fiend-scourge of this fair land. Sir George raised up his heavy sword and gathered all his strength. With a ringing cry of challenge he attacked its evil length.
But the knight's strong sword but dented the foul serpent's steely scales, though the noise it made was like a thousand thousand summer hails.
Inside the keep the enchanters battled on.
His sword bounced back, but George held on, despite the jarring pain, and dealt the beast a thousand smaller strokes like heavy rain. The dragon's lair redoubled with its clang'rous cries of pain.
And still the two enchanters battled on.
Sir George raised his sword, now weakly, but renewed his harsh attack. He leapt and, with a lucky strike, he broke the dragon's back. Hind-scales shattered into crystal-shards, but still the serpent stood. Again George struck, but now his sword felt not like steel, but wood.
Yet even now the worm-enchanted sorcerers fought on.
And so, with but a child's strength left, George struggled round to face the breath and gaze of that dread beast. And, caught within its evil eyes, he froze, of will and power bereft, bewitched to think himself a tearful, fearful, brown-haired boy—his sword a bat, his armour clothes, reflected in the steely glare...
He shook himself to break the sorcerous stare, struck out the dragon's glassy eyes with his steel— his wooden bat...
Georgie Riis sank to his knees on the oil-stained, glass-strewn carport floor and cursed the beast that had bewitched him. He half-raised the bat, then let it slip from his bleeding hand to clatter on the concrete beside him. Its sudden noise masked the screams and crashes from the house—but only for an instant. Reflected brokenly in the bars of the battered car grille before him was the dust-dulled face of a frightened and tangle-haired boy. Georgie stared at it until he saw it was his own, then waited until the sounds of breakage within his home seemed complete. Then he arose, advanced with firm, measured steps to his open front door, and stepped inside.
© 1993 Edward Hewlett
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Saturday, August 07, 2004
This web-site began as a Master's degree project on Christian fantasy—I was hoping to write my Master's thesis on my hero, C.S. Lewis, and some of his predecessors. The Master's degree has fallen by the wayside, and my initial essay is now somewhat dated (I might now define the genre somewhat differently), but what better place to re-start the site than the essay that started it all?
What is it?
Definitions are tricky things, and definitions of literary genres are even trickier. They tend to exclude what they should include and to include what they should exclude.
The definition of fantasy is no exception. But since genre-definition is fundamental to genre studies, I suppose I’d better just give it my best shot and let the inevitable debate begin. If you disagree with my definition of fantasy, I welcome your comments—debate and dialogue are almost always a healthy thing, and, more than that, are integral to the process of academic study.
I identify four-and-a-half main strands of fantasy literature: myth, legend, and fairy-tale, which together form a sort of continuum, sub-creation (borrowing—and perhaps twisting a bit—from Tolkien*), and the half-strand of allegory. I count allegory as only half a strand because it could just as easily be identified as a genre itself. Actually, with the exception of “sub-creation”, all of these terms are names of genres, but within modern fantasy literature only allegory has retained a significant measure of independence.
From this brief description, we can make a start at defining our term. Modern fantasy draws on myth, legend, and fairy-tale, but somehow isn’t any of those. If I was forced to identify what distinguishes fantasy from those older genres, the best I could come up with, I think, would be “disbelief”. Not that medieval Europeans took their fairy-tales literally, nor that there weren’t ancient Greeks who didn’t believe in their myths, but modern fantasy literature draws on those older traditions with the conscious, consensual knowledge that the supernatural details they relate are not only not real, but not possible.
Put it this way: If you went up to a medieval European listening to the tale of Sleeping Beauty and asked him if the story was true, he would most likely have said that no, it was only a story. But if you then asked him whether witches existed and if they could really curse people, he would probably have looked startled at the suggestion they weren’t real, and then vigorously asserted that they were. As for the disbelieving Greek, even though the Greek myths were not “real” to him, they were nevertheless a part of a living religious tradition—a quality that the Greek myths no longer possess for us.
Modern fantasy literature, then, draws on myth, legend, and fairy- tale as at least half-disbelieved traditions of the supernatural. This element of disbelief is important even when the tradition is being employed to re-create belief in the supernatural: C.S. Lewis, for example, wanted his Narnia stories to inspire belief in the supernatural, but not necessarily in the specific traditions of the supernatural that he employed. While he would doubtless be overjoyed to hear of his Narnia stories inspiring belief in the existence of a personal devil or the good of a wild zest for life, I doubt he would be happy if he heard that, after reading the stories, his readers had developed a belief in the White Witch or in the god Bacchus.
We can speak, then, of fantasy as literature that draws upon some at least half-disbelieved tradition of the supernatural in some manner integral to the main story. But this does not say enough. The “sub-creation” strand has been left out altogether.
Modern fantasy—not all of it, but a lot of it—tends to strive to create a whole internally consistent world, a “sub-creation”, in which the story is set, a world which obeys its own unique, but nevertheless somehow consistent laws. I say “somehow” consistent because those laws may be as weird as a game of chess made literal or as “normal” as the laws of science we’ve discovered up till now, plus (usually) a few that we haven’t yet, for interest’s or for authorial convenience’ sake. It’s in this sense that science fiction may be considered a sub-genre of fantasy.
Adding our first definition to this “sub-creation” component will only partially exclude science fiction—indeed, since science fiction and fantasy are both intimately caught up with cosmology, it is impossible to entirely separate them: they are like Siamese twins with one heart. Certain features do help us to distinguish them: science fiction has its head in the future, for example, while fantasy has its head in the past, but even these eventually blur: George Lucas’ Star Wars saga with its opening, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...”, is probably one of the most obvious examples of this blurred boundary between science fiction and fantasy. Another good example is the sci-fi/fantasy section in your local library and/or bookstore.
So then, stories that draw on some at least half-disbelieved tradition of the supernatural, whether directly or indirectly (through imitation or sub-creation), in order to create the impression of a world in which the supernatural is (in a sense) natural and performs some function integral to the story—such stories are what I would call fantasy.
Which is to say that fantasy includes what we would normally call the supernatural as an integral, natural part of normal reality.
It’s easy to see then, why Christians, who believe that the world-creating and -sustaining supernatural God became a part of our normal reality, would turn to fantasy as a mode of expressing the Christian world-view.
It’s also hard to see: If the Christian message has so much in common with admittedly imaginary fantasy literature, wouldn’t there be a danger that, if represented in fantasy, the Christian message itself might be taken for fantasy?
This is a real concern with some Christians: I’ve had a family (whom I respect very much) tell me not to teach their children C.S. Lewis because he was “new age” (there are witches and magic in his books), and I’ve even had it suggested to me (again by a Christian whom I very much respect) that Christ’s parables were all true-life stories (after all, he was omniscient, he’d have a whole world full of stories to draw on).
I would suggest that this concern is an extension of the iconoclastic controversies, in which well-meaning Christians went around destroying images and icons because of the danger people would end up worshipping them rather than God. The reply to the iconoclasts applies equally well to the fiction/fantasy debate: The better you know someone, and the more you respect him, the less likely you are to confuse him with his picture (or his statue, for that matter). The better you know Reality, and the more regard that you have for It, the less likely you are to confuse Reality with its fictional or its fantastic representations.
Tolkien said as much in his “On Fairy-Stories”:
For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it. So upon logic was founded the nonsense that displays itself in the tales and rhymes of Lewis Carroll. If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen.
What, then, are we to make of this sub-category called “Christian Fantasy”? How are we to define it?
There are at least two or three possible definitions. The simplest would be that it is fantasy written by Christians. This definition would have the unfortunate side-effect (unfortunate at least from the point of view of those wishing to engage in purely literary studies) of re-opening the currently rather vexing question of who exactly is and is not a Christian.
We could broaden the definition to include all fantasy written by those who claim to be Christians, but this would only generate controversy in the other direction: Does not a community (however fractured and divided that community may currently be) have at least some rights to self-definition by excluding from the community those who do not adhere to the fundamental beliefs that define the community? And who are these “literary critics” anyhow to be including as part of the community any old chap who feels like claiming to be a part of the community, even when he’s not willing to abide by the community’s standards and beliefs?
There’s really no way to get entirely away from this debate, but, in a (probably futile) attempt to find a safer middle ground, I, as a Christian student of literature, proffer the following as a definition of Christian fantasy:
Christian fantasy is fantasy literature that embodies or reflects some aspect of the Christian world-view and is written by an author who claims to be Christian
Doing research? Looking to expand your library?
The Tolkien Reader is invaluable to the student of Christian fantasy for its essay "On Fairy Stories", and indispensible to the lover of Christian fantasy for its wonderful allegory (yes, allegory!), "Leaf by Niggle". Fans of Tom Bombadil will be delighted by the inclusion of some of Tom's poetry (I wasn't—sorry!), and one can't help but be amused by Tolkien's unlikely hero, "Farmer Giles of Ham". A "must-have" for any serious Tolkien fan!
* In fact, I am narrowing Tolkien’s definition of fantasy quite a bit, and may perhaps have included too much of the “how” in the “what”. At any rate, Tolkien’s definition of fantasy may be got from his excellent essay “On Fairy-Stories” (to be found in The Tolkien Reader), and, in particular, in the following excerpt from the essay:
The achievement of the expression, which gives (or seems to give) “the inner consistency of reality,” is indeed another thing [other than Imagination], or aspect, needing another name: Art, the operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub- creation. For my present purpose I require a word which shall embrace both the Sub-creative Art in itself and a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression, derived from the Image: a quality essential to fairy-story. I propose, therefore, to arrogate to myself the powers of Humpty-Dumpty, and to use Fantasy for this purpose: in a sense, that is, which combines with its older and higher use as an equivalent of Imagination the derived notions of “unreality” (that is, of unlikeness to the Primary World), of freedom from the domination of observed “fact,” in short of the fantastic. I am thus not only aware but glad of the etymological and semantic connexions of fantasy with fantastic: with images of things that are not only “not actually present,” but which are indeed not to be found in our primary world at all, or are generally believed not to be found there. But while admitting that, I do not assent to the depreciative tone. That the images are of things not in the primary world (if that indeed is possible) is a virtue, not a vice. Fantasy (in this sense) is, I think, not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent.If you find that you prefer Tolkien’s definition of fantasy to mine, I will be only too happy to hear it.
Friday, August 06, 2004
Thursday, August 05, 2004
Anyhow, I've taken the opportunity to switch the site to Blogger, which I've grown rather fond of over these last few months, especially as they've been significantly improving their user interface. I now maintain almost all of my nine web-sites with them, as I've been very impressed what one can do with Blogger and a little HTML know-how. I hope you enjoy the new format and hope using Blogger will help to make updates here a little more frequent. It certainly has helped with the other sites I maintain!