Myst-Making: The Art of Sub-creation in “Myst: The book of Atrus”

[N.B. Though I do discuss the themes of the book in a detailed manner, I have included no real plot spoilers.]

The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar. The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power—upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator. (Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” pg. 8 )

Recently I reviewed the novel Myst: The book of Atrus, in which an arrogant man named Gehn eagerly instructs his son, Atrus, in the nearly-lost magical Art of D’ni Writing belonging to their now-ruined civilization. This Art, and much of the novel’s themes, works as a fairly literal metaphor for J.R.R. Tolkien’s idea of sub-creation, which is elaborated in the above quotation.

The Art of Writing in Myst: The book of Atrus

To re-cap from my review of the novel: The Art of D’ni Writing, called “the art of precise description,” is beautifully literal: when a D’ni writer describes a world, that world comes into existence, and is called an Age. A special paper and special ink are required, as is the special D’ni language in which to write, but still, what is written becomes real. If the writer describes well—that is, precisely, accurately, with detailed knowledge of the elements, physics, wind patterns, tectonic movements, etcetera, and with perfect attention to cause and effect—the Age that comes into being will be stable and fertile, filled with a self-sustaining environment and possibly peopled with whole cities and kingdoms that regard him as a god. But if he writes not well, if he makes mistakes, writes contradictions, if his writing does not have internal consistency, then his Age becomes unstable and eventually collapses into nonexistence. If any changes are made to the Book that describes an Age, those changes will become manifest in the Age itself—for better or for worse!

Sub-creation and the philosophy behind Christian fantasy

Now, when we write fiction, we are inventing new places and new persons, but the question must always be brought up of whether we truly create anything in our thoughts from scratch, or whether the source of all our thoughts is really somewhere else. The Christian, for instance, believes that every thing is from God and in God’s power; thus when a Christian writes a story, he acknowledges that even his ideas are not truly his own, for his brain is not his own, nor his soul—all belongs to God, the All-Powerful (the originator of all power).

Only one act of creation was ever ex nihilo, and that was the one of Genesis which started it all. Everything else is a shadow of that creation, a trying to understand it and the Creator. I write about a character that is drawn from my experiences with the people God has created, and I imagine new places and vistas only because I have seen the ones brought about by God. No human invention is truly original. As George MacDonald wrote,

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 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 himself had 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 with things that came from thoughts beyond his own. (quoted in “Imagination” in The J.R.R. Tolkien Handbook by Colin Duriez, pages 129-130. Emphasis mine.)

Tolkien wrote that the highest form of fantasy was sub-creation, the creation of a fictional, secondary world that had enough depth and detail to maintain the “inner consistency of reality.” The idea of suspension of disbelief may be the most basic form of this idea, as it involves avoiding gross contradictions and disregards to logic in order to allow the receiver of the story to believe in it at the level the story requires. In sub-creation, however, the world-building itself is one of the most important of the story’s elements. A new world is created with its own geography, its own stars, its own trees, its own winds, and they all must make sense together. Yet they need not be mere copies of our own world. Rather, we are encouraged to let the laws of nature inspire us to imagine other ways they might be.

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. (George MacDonald)

In making such fantastical alterations to our invented worlds and in trying as we can to make them consistent within that world, we gain greater appreciation for the balance and artistry of God’s creation. We know we cannot surpass Him, and we do not try to. But in emulating Him by creating in the best ways we can, we show our admiration for Him and we learn more about Him.

Every new embodiment of a known truth must be a new and wider revelation. No man is capable of seeing for himself the whole of any truth: he needs it echoed back to him from every soul in the universe; and still its centre is hid in the Father of Lights. (C.S. Lewis quoted in “Imagination” in The J.R.R. Tolkien Handbook by Colin Duriez, page 129)

How Myst: The book of Atrus engages the question of where our Ideas come from

In the novel, the two main characters hold differing views on how their magical Art works. Gehn believes that he is a god and that his Writing literally creates new worlds ex nihilo. In Tolkien’s terms, he believes he is an original Creator, and that his creation is primary (coming into existence solely by his power). This belief fuels his arrogance, blinds his critical faculties, and ultimately brings out his cruelty. His son, Atrus, eventually comes to disagree with him, believing that by Writing they are somehow Linking to pre-existing worlds. He is uncomfortable with being called a god and worshipped; he is too aware that he himself is a created being, not supernatural or omnipotent or eternal. His belief also implies the existence of an original First Creator, which the book mentions as a possibility but does not further discuss.

The book generally sides with Atrus, but leaves enough ambiguity about the nature of the Art that you cannot be completely sure how it works. For one thing, Atrus’ theory depends on the idea that there are infinite pre-created worlds; this is the only way to explain how he can Write such a specific description of an Age in a Book—a place he has never known to exist before—and then travel to it. This idea, while plausible in a fantasy setting, is nonetheless unsatisfactory, for it removes any Meaning and Purpose that comes from the uniqueness of a particular world. Further, it is confirmed that if a Writer makes changes to an Age’s Book, those changes will manifest themselves in the Age. This is how Gehn tries to fix all his Ages that are steadily falling apart. The fact that this is possible suggests that the words in the Book do hold the creative power.

And yet, one time Gehn’s revisions go too far, in a way that is not completely understood by the characters or the reader. After the latest of a series of Gehn’s revisions to the Book of Age Thirty-Seven, Atrus visits it to discover that it has irrevocably changed. The people on the island of Age Thirty-Seven, who had worshipped Gehn and Atrus and developed relationships with them over a few years, suddenly have no knowledge of them and are hostile. It’s as if Atrus has stepped into a parallel universe. This gives credence to Atrus’ theory that to change the description in a Book does not actually change that Age, but rather Links to a similar Age, one of an infinite pool of worlds.

Also challenged, quite interestingly, is Gehn’s assertion that D’ni Writing must be sparse and precise, strictly following the D’ni rules literally and avoiding all contradictions in order to work. To my mind, this is akin to building a fictional world that in all its physical laws is identical to the real world; perhaps the names and geography is different, but there is no magic, no new creatures, no impossible wonders. Gehn believes that this is all that is possible through the Art. We begin to suspect his theory when we learn that, although he follows the Rules to a T, all his Ages are unstable and falling apart. But it is not that the Rules are completely flawed, for Atrus himself follows them carefully—more carefully than his father, in fact—when creating his first Age, which is implied to be perfectly stable and self-sustaining.

However, the idea that this is the only way Writing can work is turned on its head by the discovery of the character Katran’s first Age, which seems to break all sorts of scientific laws and yet somehow is stable and incredibly beautiful. Perhaps it is a case where Poetry trumps Logic? Not necessarily—the implication is that even though Katran changed the laws of gravity (among others), she did so with consistency and purpose. This is analogous to the creation of a fantasy world with magic and other impossible features that nonetheless plays true to its own rules. Katran is the character who most purely practices the Art. And, relevant to our discussion, she is the one who perhaps most purely does what Tolkien, MacDonald, and Lewis believe is sub-creation.

I do not know if the writers of Myst: The book of Atrus were familiar with the theories of Tolkien, George MacDonald, and C.S. Lewis. Nonetheless, their sub-created world seems the perfect place in which to explore these ideas, and even if the other books in the series fail to deepen the philosophical discussion, I am still grateful for the book even bringing it up. When I write anything at all, it is an act of worship to my God, however poor due to the limitations of my heart. When I write fantasy, when I create new characters and grow them and become attached to them, it helps me get a tiny view of how God sees us. He is the great Author.

Book Review: “Myst: The Book of Atrus” by Rand and Robyn Miller, with David Wingrove

Title: Myst: The Book of Atrus
Series: followed by The Book of Ti’ana (a prequel) and The Book of D’ni based on the mythology of the Myst computer games.
Author: Rand and Robyn Miller, with David Wingrove
Pages: 286
Published: 1995 by Cyan, Inc.
Spoiler-free Synopsis: “These pages are your link to the story of Atrus, son of Gehn, and the last of the race of D’ni—the masters of The Art, the craft of linking to other worlds through the descriptive art of writing. For most of his young life, Atrus thought the stories his grandmother told him were just strange legends. Then his time came to explore the magnificent underground realm…The Book of Atrus is a tale of son against father; of truth versus evil; and of love and redemption.” (Back Cover)
Reason for Beginning: First, I vaguely remembered a good friend recommending it to me years ago. Second, I found it at a library book sale. Third, the jacket is really cool!
Reason for Finishing: Fast-paced story with lots of really fascinating and pretty original ideas. The sense of discovery was palpable—I genuinely could not predict how the story would play out, and that excited me. Also, the characters, while few, are pretty mature and multifaceted.
Story Re-readability: Even after knowing the end, I think it would be interesting to read the book again, to catch more details that may have slipped by the first time. Stylistically, the fast pace and pleasing narrative style should make rereading easy.
Author Re-readability: Hard to say how much of this book is David Wingrove’s and how much is the work of the Millers, but I’m certainly going to check out the Books of Ti’ana and D’ni when I get a chance.
Recommendation: Yes! While it falls short of being a masterpiece, this is still a very good story nicely written, with an original (to me, at least!) premise. Dealing as it does with the art of writing itself, and even with the concept of subcreation (though without directly mentioning Tolkien’s term)…

Key Thoughts

(No significant spoilers below)

Going into Myst: The book of Atrus, I knew nothing of its premise or its mythology. I even overlooked the synopsis (copied above) on the back cover. As a result, I had the joy of discovering its world and story wholly through page-by-page exploration, my mind alert for telling details and glimpses into its makeup. And, fortunately, while the book was certainly written with the games’ fans in mind, the Millers and Wingrove also constructed it so that the uninitiated will not have undue trouble. Atrus’ situation at the start is outwardly simple and settled—meaning the reader does not have untangle a web of happenings by jumping in media res—and the fact that he knows very little about his history and the D’ni means that, for the most part, we are learning alongside him.

The volcano and Cleft.

The boy Atrus’ mother died giving him birth and his father subsequently abandoned him in anger and emotional pain. His grandmother, Anna, raises him in a cleft in the side of a volcano, in the middle of a vast desert, where water gathers in a pool and allows them to grow enough food to survive in terrace gardens filled with fertile volcanic soil. They are periodically visited by traders from afar and with their surplus buy certain tools, foodstuffs, and few luxuries—enough to forge a comfortable existence. We gather this information by watching events, by listening to brief conversations, and by being patient. How they started their life in the Cleft, we do not know, but we note the interesting fact that both Anna and Atrus always wear special goggles whose lenses can be adjusted for opacity—like sunglasses of varying strengths—or to magnify images like a telescope or microscope. Nor do we know anything about the world beyond the desert, but that there is a market for the paintings Anna produces from the plant dyes she grows.

The story proper begins when Gehn, Atrus’ father, returns to take charge of him. Gehn is a hard and bitter man, blaming his mother Anna for many unsaid things, and he intends to undo the “harm” that her upbringing of love, thoughtfulness, and patience has supposedly done to his son. In the past years, he has been studying the ruins of D’ni—their ancestral underground home, utterly destroyed thirty years ago—in order to master the magic Art of Writing that had enabled the D’ni to rule an empire of thousands of self-created worlds for sixty thousand years, all from their subterranean city. Gehn says their people were worshiped as gods, and rightly so, for they can create worlds and life from nothing but words and the powers of their imaginations!

The Art of D’ni Writing, called “the art of precise description,” is beautifully literal: when a D’ni writer describes a world, that world comes into existence, and is called an Age. A special paper and special ink are required, as is the special D’ni language in which to write, but still, what is written becomes real. If the writer describes well—that is, precisely, accurately, with detailed knowledge of the elements, physics, wind patterns, tectonic movements, etcetera, and with perfect attention to cause and effect—the Age that comes into being will be stable and fertile, filled with a self-sustaining environment and possibly peopled with whole cities and kingdoms that regard him as a god. But if he writes not well, if he makes mistakes, writes contradictions, if his writing does not have internal consistency, then his Age becomes unstable and eventually collapses into nonexistence. If any changes are made to the Book that describes an Age, those changes will become manifest in the Age itself—for better or for worse!

This part of the story, as you can imagine, holds the greatest interest for me. So much so that my thoughts on the matter grew so long that they better fit in a separate post, which you should be able to read shortly.

The conflict comes from the polar opposite personalities of father and son. I like characters like Atrus, who is a quiet, intelligent, and sensitive boy. His mind is scientific and romantic, and he works carefully on problems so as not to make mistakes, and with the intent of trying to understand the basic principles which the world runs on. He wants to Write new Ages because of the beauty of the process and of how it may help him better understand his own world. His father, however, is ambitious and impatient. It is telling that of Gehn’s dozens of Ages, all are unstable and falling apart, while it is heavily implied that Atrus’ first attempt—on which he poured more time and thought than Gehn ever put on his—is perfectly stable.

Even more jarring tensions arise when Atrus begins to question his father’s theories that all the Ages they write are created originally, ex nihilo, by their words. What if, Atrus wonders, all these worlds already exist, and we are simply able to link to them when we write? His father will tolerate no such thoughts, for, among other things, they would require a moral change in his behavior. And yet Gehn is not a thoroughly despicable person, not fully fallen. His joy at the beauty and complexity of the Art is genuine and not based on thoughts of selfish gain, and I believe he does truly admire his son. He is trying to do what he thinks is right, but he is stubborn, unwilling to consider the moral consequences of his actions, and possessed of the belief of his inherent superiority to pretty much everyone else.

The story takes its time to develop, but there is always something interesting to discover just around the corner, sort of like intellectual cliffhangers. I like the overall clarity and smoothness of the prose; it moves quickly but still has time for detailed observations along the way. Descriptions paint strong and often beautiful images without being too flowery. There’s nothing outstanding in the prose, but generally serves the story nicely.

The book of Atrus is held back not by what is on the page, but by what is left off; certain story developments are terribly rushed and need more time and depth to have the weight they should. Most egregious are the ending chapters concerning Age Five and the character of Katran, both of whom are extremely important but receive the bare minimum of page time. Atrus’ relationships with this place and person are crucial to his whole development into an adult and to the climax and themes of the plot, and yet they remain sorely underdeveloped.

And ironically, the prose, while mostly very nice, often lacks quite the precision we need to form the needed mental image. The neat sketches scattered throughout the book help to correct the most confusing ones, but it wasn’t until I looked at the MYSTlore Wiki that I really understood what the cleftwall was, despite it being mentioned repeatedly in the early chapters. This is jarring mostly because the rest of the prose mentions very apt details, and the whole concept of D’ni writing is centered around writing precisely and accurately.

But the story, ultimately, is very neat. I would like more of my questions answered, especially pertaining to the origins and nature of the Art, but there are two other books and a few games in which the concept is still to be explored. Even the climax itself is satisfying, but that it was rushed so badly. Everything that is present in the story, I like a lot—it just needs further development. Myst: The book of Atrus is not as extraordinary as I had hoped, but it is still beautiful, inspiring, and satisfying.