Classic Remarks: Recommend a Diverse Classic

Recommend a diverse classic. Or you can argue that a diverse book should be a classic or should be included in the canon. Or you can argue that the book should be a classic, but that you don’t want to see it in the canon.

A diverse classic? That’s an extremely vague phrase which could technically be interpreted in countless ways, but I get the gist. In the English-speaking world, the standard literary classics almost entirely come from Europe and the countries which developed from European colonies. It can also be argued that the most famous, mainstream works tend to deal with similar subjects, perhaps from similar or familiar perspectives. This is a chance to discuss a book that either comes from a different cultural milieu or deals with subjects or perspectives that are rare or unique in the Western literary canon. Continue reading “Classic Remarks: Recommend a Diverse Classic”


Another Major Award!

No, still not a lamp. Leg. Statue. “Yeah! A staaaatue!” “Ralphie!”

I’ve been given the prestigiously obscure Liebster Award, in which one blogger with fewer than 200 followers writes trivia and answers to random questions about themselves, and then tags a bunch of other bloggers with fewer than 200 followers to write more trivia and more random questions. My eternal thanks to Lady Blue Whimsy for sharing the fun with me!

L’Trivia du Moi

Firstly, I’m supposed to talk about myself.

1) Hello, my name is David, I like fantasy stories and run a modest blog visited by wonderful people which I’ve somewhat embarrassingly been neglecting for several months.

“That’s no good! Why, that’s not even conversation!”*

2) Alright, how about this? I’m currently listening to the achingly beautiful soundtrack from The NeverEnding Story (1984).

“Ah, that’s better. Any other amusing trivialities?”

3) I can struggle my way through Latin, even the medieval variant, preferably if I have Cassell’s Latin Dictionary at hand…and William Whitaker’s Words.

4) My workplace got robbed recently, but it was my day off (no one got hurt, fortunately!).

5) I recently counted over two dozen unread books in my bedroom, the thought of which leaves me simultaneously sad (they are unread) and very happy (BOOKS TO BE READ!).

6) Since discovering him about a month ago, I have spent many hours listening to the Tolkien Professor podcast by Dr. Corey Olsen. IT IS AMAZING. If you love talking about Tolkien and taking his works seriously, definitely give this guy a listen. What he’s done is take the world of academic Tolkien Studies, which is struggling valiantly for recognition amongst mainstream academia, and brought it to the masses. There are close to 300 episodes already, but they are organized into different series: some go through The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion chapter-by-chapter, others speculate about Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, some are recordings of the actual class lectures he gives at Washington College or Mythgard Institute. Basically, if you read my blog and like Tolkien, immediately add this podcast to your listening list.

7) I like people more than I let on.

Answers to Lady Blue Whimsy’s Questions

1. If you could date a fictional character, whom would it be?

Probably Gwyneth Blair. I’d probably have more to talk about with her than with most other fictional women I can think of, and I’m pretty sure we’d get along.

2. If you could travel either forwards or backwards in time, which one, and why?

Backwards. Something about traveling to the future just feels wrong, like cheating. But, especially being a historian by training, I thrill at the idea of traveling back and actually experiencing the things we can now only study through texts, archaeology, and such clues. It’s like the ultimate primary source! Of course, I have a feeling that even if backwards time travel existed, historians would still argue angrily over what “really” happened. Everyone who went back to a particular event would see it differently. Even when the facts match up, “history” is often merely the interpretation that wins out in the mainstream.

3. Vanilla, chocolate, or Superman ice cream?

Wha–Superman ice cream? What’s that? Does it taste like the American dream? (And why does that sound awful?) Like Truth, Justice, and the American Way? Like Krypton? Oh wait, I guess it’s a real thing. Hm, never had it. Personally, I can’t resist an excellent vanilla OR an excellent chocolate ice cream, and I combine them whenever I get the chance.

4. If you had to name your children after your family and relatives, which five names would you pick?

Five all for one kid? Hehe, I’m guessing this is five names in general. Well, perhaps: Rose (or some variant, my family has many), Audrey, Orlando, Joseph, Michael.

5. What one type of food or dish could you eat every day for the rest of your life?

Home-cooked spaghetti.

6. If you could be a fictional character, whom would you be?

Be? I’ll go with Ridley Dow, from the wonderful Bell at Sealey Head by Patricia McKillip. A kind-hearted but absent-minded scholar of the arcane, he cuts a mysterious and dashing figure when he arrives at the Cauleys’ Inn during a storm. I used to imagine myself as a roguish swashbuckler, but Ridley’s brand of dramatic scholarship is a slightly more realistic goal for me, but no less romantic. He gets to study magical, Fey happenings and save (and end up with) the woman he loves, all while making some very good friends and dressing pretty cool.

7. If you could only write one story in your entire writing life, which would it be?

The evasive-but-true answer is whatever story God desires me to finish, but the story most important to me is currently titled The Carpenter’s Sons, and I do hope it will be a published novel sometime before I die. Ideally, it’ll be a pleasing blend of influences (Tolkien, Brian Jacques, Rosemary Sutcliff, R.L. Stevenson, and George MacDonald most notably) filtered through the better parts of my imagination, and all by the grace of God.

8. If you could change the ending to a favorite story, which would it be?

I’d like to make the ending of Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth a bit more romantic, between Marcus and Cottia. It’s nice as it is, but it’s the only part of the book that feels even slightly less than perfect to me. A bit rushed, mainly, as if their romance was an afterthought (although their friendship itself is very well developed).

Tag some other bloggers who have fewer than 200 followers

  1. Brenton Dickieson
  2. Manoah’s Wife
  3. Matt Schneider
  4. Urania, Terpsichore, Melpomene, Thalia, Calliope
  5. Tyler Tichelaar
  6. The Golden Bookwyrm
  7. Emily Kazakh

(Of course, as with always when I tag people, you’re not obligated to participate, and you can participate even if I neglected to tag you. But if you do participate, please let me know somehow, because I really want to read your answers to the questions below!)

Questions for the Tagged

1. If you could choose one fictional creature to be your pet/animal companion, which would you choose and why?

2. Name a favorite moment of yours from any movie released in the 1980s and explain why.

3. If you had to be chased by some hostile fictional creature or character, through a fictional landscape, which ones would you choose and why?

4. In-N-Out, Five Guys, or Chik-Fil-A?

5. Name a song you really like from a musical genre you don’t generally like and explain why this one works for you.

6. What is, in your opinion, the best portrayal(s) of the Elves/Fair Folk/Faeries in film? Multiple choices are permitted, but you must say why you think your choices are so good.

7. What was the last black-and-white film you saw, and what did you think of it?

8. What did you think of the new trailer for The Desolation of Smaug?

*Extra special gold star points and cookies to whomever can name what movie this line comes from.

Locus Poll Final Results

In November the Locus magazine’s website hosted a poll to find out the best novels and short stories from the 20th and 21st centuries in the genres of fantasy and science fiction. I voted, as did some of you readers. The results of the novels are now in!

I’m fairly pleased by the results. Now, as I expected, my personal choices for the best sci-fi were not well-represented, but that’s in large part because I just haven’t read much sci-fi, and so voted from a very narrow field. But I still managed to get two books on 20th Century Sci-Fi list: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams and Ringworld by Larry Niven. However, it is sad to see Lewis’ Space/Ransom Trilogy nowhere on the list. It is still so barely known and appreciated. The last book on the list received only 19 votes, so Lewis’ trilogy received even less than that. I also voted for Fahrenheit 451, which makes an appearance, although I voted for it more out of obligation than from any actual admiration I had at the time I read it (back in high school, to be fair).

On the 20th Century Fantasy Novel list, I fared delightfully much better. I shan’t deny my gratification at seeing LOTR at number one. There’s hope for the world yet! Martin’s Game of Thrones snagged a second place, which I suppose I can’t complain about since I haven’t read it. The Hobbit at number three is satisfactory. It’s also nice to see Zelazny’s Nine Princes of Amber get a nod, although it’s a higher nod than I expected. I recently finished his whole Chronicles of Amber and greatly enjoyed it. And I note that A Wrinkle in Timesits comfortably on the fantasy list rather than the sci-fi one. +)

In fact, the only fantasy novels I voted for that didn’t get on the final list were Peter Pan, If on a winter’s night a traveler, and The Black Cauldron. The second one doesn’t surprise me because it’s rather obscure, the third one doesn’t surprise me because it’s the sort of YA fiction that still struggles for literary respect, but the absence of Barrie’s iconic fairy story rankles me a bit. Did people just forget it? Did they assume that because it’s a children’s story it mustn’t be important? WERE TOO MANY SNOBS VOTING? *gasp of indignant rage*

Oh well. Can’t win ’em all.

Also, please take a moment to admire my spectacular new header picture for this season, photographed this very day by yours truly. ‘-)


Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, does it? Thanksblogging. I suppose we could call it Blogsgiving, except that I’m thanking blogs rather than giving them, or even Thanksblogsgiving, but that’s rather a mouthful.

Then again, isn’t Thanksgiving all about mouthfuls? Big, delicious mouthfuls of glazed turkey, hot stuffing, cranberry sauce, salads, mashed potatoes with gravy, and pumpkin pie, and all the other sides and toppings your family likes to add on. Exactly what Abraham Lincoln intended for the holiday when he made it official, right?

Okay, perhaps that’s not actually what it’s about. Thanksgiving is about giving thanks to God for all the blessings He has given us.

And since this is a blog, I’m going to single out one post (or a series, if they are inextricably linked) from each of the blogs I read often that I am particularly thankful for. Note, of course, that each blog has many more posts of great worth and interest.

Blog Posts I am Thankful For

From Darren at them0vieblog, his series on James Bond. His in-depth analyses of every movie and Bond-actor has greatly increased my enjoyment of the Bond franchise, and has influenced me to accept the theory that the legendary name is an alias passed down to each new generation with the 007 status.

From the great wealth of good advice that Stephanie gives at BeKindRewrite, I find her discussions of an author’s narrative voice in a given story to be more helpful than much else I’ve read on the topic.

From Jamie Helton at FilmVerse, his defense of 3D as a filmmaking tool is both optimistic and practical.

From M.Q. Allen, this informative post on the Middle Ages and what aspiring fantasy writers should know about it.

From jrlookingbill at Try-ing—to-be—mis-under-stood, the posts on George MacDonald’s Lilithare especially good, although there are many that summarize and discuss the works of some of the great philosophers.

From the Episcopal priest at Dover Beach, I appreciate the insightful quotes he posts from insightful Christians throughout the ages, from Thomas á Kempis, to Professor Tolkien.

From aquisha at the Ridiculously Awesome Movie Adventure Blog, his review of Steven Spielberg’s 1991 movie Hook.

From El Santo of The Webcomic Overlook, especially his review of Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, which introduced me to one of the prettiest and most entertaining webcomics I’ve found yet.

From my friend Jubilare, I’m thankful for so many of her posts, but the beginning of her upcoming series on the Free Peoples of Middle Earth is very good and thought-provoking.

From the sadly retired collaboration at the Picture Book Report, the illustrations for The Neverending Storyare particularly haunting and beautiful.

From authoress Nicola Slade at Nicola Slade’s Winchester Mysteries, I found her recollection of The Eagle of the Ninthto be charming.

From Grimmella, I’m thankful for her thoughtful participation in The Hobbit Read-Along.

From Brenton Dickieson at A Pilgrim in Narnia, I’m grateful for many of his thoughts, such as his rundown of a collection of important and lesser-known essays by C.S. Lewis.

From Rob, The Old Book Junkie, there are some neat posts on G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. I particularly like his concise run-through of Chapter 4: The Ethics of Elfland.

Michael of Like Something More Than Mortal has a series examining superheroes that is well worth the time of anyone so interested.

From Novareylin at MySeryniti, her lists of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books in order of recommended reading and dates published will provide a useful guide once I finally dig into that series.

From Taliesin Tale-Weaver of Lights in the Library, I really appreciate his contribution to The Hobbit Read-Along on Chapter 4: “Over Hill and Under Hill.”

From Steve Betz of Stevil, this drabble, a hundred-word story, which challenges the way we look at those beggars on the street.

From David Mitchell at Morning at the Brown Brink, his contribution to Pages Unbound’s Tolkien Week celebration on The Children of Húrin is a great summary of a series of posts he did for While We’re Paused.

From Pages Unbound, I appreciate the comments on Tolkien’s “Smith of Wooton Major,” a story which shockingly I still haven’t yet read.

From Mere Inkling, Rob’s neat reflection on the power of Boromir’s death in Fellowship of the Ring.

From Theologians, Inc., his comparison of Greek and Northern mythologies.

From Invisible Kingdoms, Karl Beech’s exploration of the literary and poetic uses of the legend of Lyonesse, that ancient kingdom on a lost English peninsula that supposedly sank beneath the sea.

From Jenny’s Sketchbook, her gorgeous drawing of my favorite couple from Tolkien’s legendarium, Beren and Luthien.

From The King of Elfland’s Second Cousin, Chris’s recent ruminations on Structure and Perspective in Children’s Stories and Films.

From Steven E. Golden, his discussion of the book From Homer to Harry Potter, which sounds like a fascinating discussion of what myth means, especially in relation to religious faith.

From The Egotist’s Club, there is so much to make me thankful, but I remember now with fondness the gentle poem written by Melpomene’s kid sister.

From The Bookwyrm’s Lair, her examination of why she hated the death of a certain character in Harry Potter.

From With Eager Feet, this rumination on how Christ’s humility completes and perfects what was missing in Aristotelian magnanimity.

From Humane Pursuits, this rumination on the individual’s responsibilities to those in need.

From Aftran’s YA Book Reviews, this review of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet which has some good insights.

From Things My Children Said, this hilarious story of a 6 year-old painstakingly writing his letter to Santa. And also these photos of Doctor Who figurines, because they’re hilarious.

From Emily at WanderLust, this rumination on Michael Phelps, humility, and the Olympics is quite good.

From Brian Melton at Passing Through the Shadowlands, this explanation of the dangers of moral debunkery.

From Ellipsis Omnibus, the review of Spurgeon’s All of Graceis also a fine reflection on the beautiful heart of Christ’s gospel of grace.

From Eric William Barnum: TragicHero, this spotlight on three creation stories by Tolkien, Lewis, and Richard Adams.

From Literary Legends Quests & Odysseys, this summary of the key ideas presented in each of The Chronicles of Narnia.

From Lantern Hollow Press, SO MUCH, but especially their very own Thanksgiving post from today! It cheerily celebrates the goodness of fellowship through feasting by way of Brian Jacques’ Redwall books.

Speaking of Brian Jacques, you can’t go wrong with the reviews of the entire Redwall series by Rose Red Prince.

From Catecinem, very many posts, but recently this piece about the reported “death” of film culture.”

From Jamie at The Tousled Apostle, her thoughts on how God can speak to us through music.

From Malcom Wilson at badonicus — a fantastic blog on the historical King Arthur which I should read far more than I actually do – I like his informative overview of the strong likelihood that an historical King Arthur was indeed Christian.

From CHILDREN OF ARTHUR, his list of legendary figures whom royals have sometimes claimed descendence from is quite interesting.

From The Fourth Person, his insightful reviews of Rosemary Sutcliff and his love for my own favorite book of hers, The Lantern Bearers.

You’ve all given so generously to me, that I do hope not only that I can give back in good kind, but that you may all benefit from each other. Happy reading, and God bless!

Half Price Book Raid II

A few weeks ago I had the honor of visiting two of those elegantly erudite ladies at the Egotist’s Club, Urania and Melpomene. Among the varying important cultural pastimes we took part in (an impressive Renaissance Faire, an Irish pub, stalking university grounds at night, watching me die hilariously in Assassin’s Creed 2 and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess [that darn chicken!]), perhaps the most productive was a pilgrimage to a very large Half Price Books.

Here be my (legally paid for) plunder.

Tamsin by Peter S. Beagle

Since being amazed by the beauty of The Last Unicorn, I’ve wanted to read more of Beagle’s work. This one seems to be an urban fantasy of sorts, or at least a fairy tale with a modern setting, and it comes highly recommended. I think I’m most interested in what Beagle’s prose style will be like. His Unicorn prose formed striking and beautiful similes with deceptively simple words to achieve a sublime, ethereal quality – you’re amazed at the beauty of his prose, but never so overwhelmed that you lose track of the story itself. It was perfect for that fairy tale, but something tells me that Beagle is canny enough to shift his style when tackling a story with a different tone. Of course, I’ll be sure to let you know how he does, once I read it.

The Bards of Bone Plain by Patricia McKillip

Same amazing cover art style as with “The Bell at Sealey Head.”

Likewise, The Bell at Sealey Head was so great that I’ve been eager to read more of McKillip. She has a nice habit of taking intrinsically interesting ideas, adding unique little twists to them, and then populating her story with a cast of incredibly likable and good characters who quite rightly become the story’s main focus rather than the plot itself. Urania is already a fan of this, her latest book, published in 2010, and presented it to me in the store – very politely, mind you – to add to the pile of books already in my arms. She also presented me with the series listed below:

The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny

Sadly, my versions don’t have this awesome picture.

These have been on my desired reading list for some time, so I was delighted when we found the whole series in two volumes. At half price each, of course. Hard to ask for a better deal!

Invisible Cities and If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino

These are the Experiments, but ones I knew I wanted. I don’t know how many of you have noticed, but if you look to my right-hand sidebar, way down below the Categories, you’ll see links to some of my favorite webcomics. One of them is a dreamlike, philosophical fantasy called Hero (Urania actually wrote about it a few weeks back for the Meme), in which the protagonist gets to travel through a series of mystical cities that all embody different ideas: the City of Desire, the City of Delight, the City of Despair, etcetera. As it happens, the webcomic was itself inspired by Italo Calvin’s Invisible Cities, an experimental novel in which Marco Polo recounts to Kublai Khan various fantastical cities he’s visited on his travels. Since the comic is so fresh and intriguing, I had to check out the book as well.

If on a winter’s night a traveler I had heard about only after researching Calvino online due to my interest in Invisible Cities. I knew next to nothing about it, but the copy I found in the store was a beautiful dark blue hardback, as perfect-looking a book as one could hope. It touts itself as an “interactive novel,” which initially made me think of those dreadful Choose Your Own Adventures, but in this case means something quite different. I bought it and promptly started reading it. I’m about two-thirds of the way through it now, and I can say with assurance that I have never read anything like it in my life. See, in all the reading and studying about books that I’ve done, I hear every so often of a book or author that redefines what is possible with literature. Shakespeare did that. They say Henry James and James Joyce and T.S. Eliot did, too. Authors who do something manifestly Different than what was done before. That doesn’t make them automatically good, but it can make them very important. And Calvino, I think, is one of those authors who is very good at being very Different. Final judgment to be postponed until actual review (well, opinions on art should always be open to revision, as one grows and matures). But to give you a taste, here is the book’s first chapter. Read it. It’s short. And addicting. Everyone who loves books will immediately know what Calvino is talking about.

What are your recent book acquisitions? Borrowed? Lent? Read surreptitiously at a bookstore without actually buying?

Book Meme 2012

Remembering the great fun that came of last year’s 30-Day Book Meme, the Ladies of The Egotist’s Club have started another one and invited me to join.

Except this one is a little different.

There are ten topics, and the idea is to write on one topic a week—thus, the project should take ten weeks, which is considerably longer than the 30-Day Meme, but produces fewer entries and at a more manageable rate (the everyday postings of the 30-Day was fun, but sometimes a bit hard to keep up with). The good news for we readers is that this still makes for four posts a week from The Egotists. However, it also means a measly one a week from me. Which I suppose might be good or bad, depending on your opinion of my writing.

Not that I will post nothing but the meme topics; I’m still working on a variety of other posts. But the Meme should be easier, quicker, and possibly even more interesting.

The topics:

Week 1: Book Crush(es)

Week 2: Books I’d give a theme song to

Week 3: Best villain

Week 4: Best love story

Week 5: Characters and literary figures I’d name my children after

Week 6: The author by whom you own the most books

Week 7: Favorite words and phrases, or lines and literary allusions that would win your heart.

Week 8: Best Story Settings

Week 9: Book(s) that you would bring on your honeymoon. (ie; so intrinsic to your life that it MUST be shared with your life partner as soon as possible. Or just fun to read together.)

Week 10: Books that I would bring if the world was going to be destroyed by aliens/cylons and we had to restart civilization as we know it. (ie: the basis of human knowledge and thought and civilization.)

As Melpomene noted, there is a bit of a romantic slant to these. At least half of them are overtly so. Which will prove an interesting challenge for I, a man, for though I consider myself a romantic and delight in a well-written romance in a novel, I don’t often find myself falling in love with a female character or judging a real woman by a fictional standard.

Not often-ish.

At any rate, there are some exciting topics here, and I can’t wait to dig in and share my answers with you. Meanwhile, the Egotists already have a pretty good start on it, so politely pay them a visit and join the already-blooming conversations.

And now, for good measure, a song about zombie ninjas from the maestros at SongsToWearPantsTo.

WARNING: Video contains copious amounts of really fake blood, slightly obnoxious rapping and rocking out, and zombie ninjas.

P.S. If zombie ninjas aren’t your thing, Andrew Huang also writes songs about The Legend of Zelda, Celtic Techno Burritos, and Robot Pirates.

P.S. Yes, his humor is always that random and surreal.

On Myth: “An Experience in Criticism” by C.S. Lewis, Chapter 5

Unfortunately, this will be my last post in Lewis’ book, at least for the time being. Why? The book is due back to the library tomorrow and I’ve already renewed it twice. But weep not, my friends! For this is one of the more important chapters for understanding what people like Lewis, Tolkien, and MacDonald (hereafter grouped together as the Great Trio) meant when they spoke of myths and fairy stories.

You see, it’s so dreadfully hard to define the word myth, in its deepest sense. Obviously we are not using the word to mean merely “an untrue story,” as you hear the Mythbusters use it. We are using it closer to the cultural sense: the Greek myths, the Egyptian myths, the Scandinavian myths, the Chinese myths, and etcetera. And yet, not completely in this sense. The Great Trio tend to accord the kind of story called myth a reverence and awe which I do not see in many of the stories I read in my classics and ancient history courses. The story of Ares and Aphrodite getting caught, mid-coitus, in Hephaestus’ net and exposed to all the deities of Olympus seems more akin to a medieval fabliau than Eros’ wooing of Psyche.

And indeed, Lewis himself admits this disconnect:

If we go steadily through all the myths of any people we shall be appalled by much of what we read. Most of them…are to us meaningless and shocking; shocking not only by their cruelty and obscenity but by their apparent silliness—almost what seems insanity. Out of this rank of squalid undergrowth the great myths—Orpheus, Demeter and Persephone, the Hesperides, Balder, Ragnarok, or Ilmarinen’s forging of the Sampo—rise like elms.

Those great myths—the ones we remember most strongly and poignantly—clearly have a different nature than their lesser cousins. They are retold in endless variations, they are alluded to in poetry and literature, they become reference points even in everyday speech, and they provide subjects for art all through the ages. The thing is, we can find similar kinds of stories that have been written even in recent times, by specific authors rather than anonymous cultural entities. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for one, and A Christmas Carol for another. We might call these stories “mythic,” because they share a certain nature with the great myths.

But what is this nature after all? While acknowledging the difficulty and even subjectivity of myth, Lewis puts forward five characteristics all its types have in common:

  1. They are “extra-literary.” Meaning, their power lies in the plot or the central idea, and not in the particular words used to tell the story. Those who encounter the myth of Eros and Psyche separately from Apuleius, Robert Graves, Thomas Bulfinch, and C.S. Lewis will nonetheless have a shared mythical experience; the power the story works on them will be much the same from these various sources, so long as the plot is preserved. But those who encounter the same story through Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and 1996’s Romeo + Juliet encounter only the same plot, not the same power, because the words of Shakespeare and the style of Baz Luhrman dominate the plot.
  2. They carry the weight of inevitability. Their power may be in their plot, but not in plot twists, suspense, or surprise…at least not in the conventional sense, where wondering how a story will turn out is most of the fun. But myths do not grow stale after you know the ending. They are meant to be contemplated, or meditated on. They are meant to work on you long afterwards. In fact, sometimes a myth is just an idea, not an actual plot at all. “The idea that the gods, and all good men, live under the shadow of Ragnarok is hardly a story. The Hesperides, with their apple-tree and dragon, are already a potent myth, without bringing in Herakles to steal the apples.”
  3. We don’t relate much to the characters. Not in the way we do when reading a novel or a play, certainly. We do not go into their heads, nor feel their innermost emotions. They are less specific people, and more universal representatives for the human race. Oh, they may have personality traits – they need not be blank slates. “The story of Orpheus makes us sad; but we are sorry for all men rather than vividly sympathetic with him, as we are, say, with Chaucer’s Troilus.”
  4. Myth always has a supernatural or magical element.
  5. The mythic experience is always grave and serious in some way. It may be joyful or sorrowful, warm or cold, but it is never comic.
  6. And not only grave, but numinous. It is awe-inspiring and awful in the original sense. It feels weighty and important, both in general and to us personally, and no allegorical explanation of it will fully satisfy us (or should not). A true myth reminds us of the spiritual realm, which is larger than us.

Looking at this list, Lewis and I both notice the same thread running through it: he is describing myth based on its effect on us. The application of the label myth to any particular story must then have some element of subjectivity to it. Imagine the tip of an iceberg. We know there is a great something floating beneath the arctic waves, and but we are not concerned with it. We are concerned with the tip itself as an object worthy of contemplation. Likewise there is much that can be said about the psychology behind mythical stories, why they affect us and how they have developed, and those studies are fine. But they are irrelevant here. We are concerned with how people read, and specifically with how they experience stories. And a lover of a myth loves the myth no matter how he receives it, even if it is through a bad storyteller.

But wait! Didn’t Lewis earlier accuse unliterary readers of attending exclusively to the plot and ignoring the words by which the story is told? Yes. But the lover of myth uses this “procedure” where it is appropriate, and only because the very nature of myth provokes it. Of course, a myth can be told through superlative literature. Frequently they are. And,

…[the lover of myth] will then delight in that literary work for its own sake. But this literary delight will be distinct from his appreciation of the myth; just as our pictorial enjoyment of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is distinct from our reactions, whatever they may be, to the myth it celebrates.

But an element of subjectivity remains. And here comes one of Lewis’ most important warnings:

We must never assume that we know exactly what is happening when anyone else reads a book.

Some books are more likely to produce excellent experiences than others, but two people may read the same book, and one enjoy it only as entertainment, while the other walks away deeply moved and forever changed.

Unliterary Readers: “An Experiment in Criticism” by C.S. Lewis, Chapter 4

Chapter 4

The Reading of the Unliterary

Each art is itself and not some other art.

Words mean things in a way that musical notes do not. So while the best appreciation of a symphony may be to attend to the intricacy of the notes themselves, even apart from the subjective meanings they suggest to the listeners, we cannot say the same of a book. We cannot just pass our eyes over the shapes of ink on a page and call that reading; we must attend to the meanings and connotations—both objective and subjective—of the words.

The first note of a symphony demands attention to nothing but itself. The first word of the Iliad directs our minds to anger; something we are acquainted with outside the poem and outside literature altogether.

Lewis makes an important side note about poetry at this point. The idea that “a poem should not mean but be” is ridiculous, he says, as I have always asserted. The words must mean if they are to have value. Lewis says this even applies to Nonsense poetry. The silly words of Lewis Carroll, in their context, suggest real creatures and noises and textures. Gertrude Stein’s “a rose is a rose is a rose” is not the same as “arose is arose is arose.”

Next, Lewis notes five primary characteristics he has observed in unliterary readers; that is, those who use books instead of receiving them.

  1. They read only for the Event, to find out “what happens next.” They only read narrative, and once read, they discard it. The worst are those who only care to read the news, desiring to read of events they think are real, but are not happening to anyone they know. (Note that Lewis is not criticizing the reading of narratives or the news – merely a certain attitude!)
  2. They have no literary ear. They are deaf to both the beauties and “cacophonies” of certain phrasings. This is especially horrible with academics, who are very well-read. “They will write of the relation between mechanisation and nationalisation’ without turning a hair” (29).
  3. More generally, “they are either quite unconscious of style, or even prefer books which we should think badly written” (29). The really good, unqiue writing demands too much of them. They prefer Flash Gordon to H.G. Wells. Or in modern terms, Twilight to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Eragon to The Lord of the Rings.
  4. They dislike much dialogue, preferring more pictures and action. Now, I think Lewis is too generalized with this point. It seems these days that the unliterary often prefer lots of dialogue—so long as it is bad, clichéd, and accompanied by wild action or slapstick comedy. Many good and great books favor prose over dialogue, just as many great films are also light on dialogue (and I’m not just thinking of silent films, though those are included). But his point still stands. The unliterary prefers not to think about what he is reading, and wants only to absorb and vegetate. Intelligent dialogue and prose make a claim on his energies that he is unwilling to grant.
  5. They demand swift-moving narrative” (30). Common condemnations of other works include “it’s too slow” or “it’s too complicated.” And I admit fully that I share Lewis’ disdain for such people. Their complaint is different from a considered critique that a book is too slowly paced or too boring in that it is an excuse to not really consider the book at all. They will resist enjoying a book solely because it doesn’t work hard enough (by their standards) to grip their wilted attention spans.

Point 3, about style, interests Lewis the most. It’s not that the unliterary reader enjoys bad writing because it is bad. He hardly even notices it. To be conscious of style means to take the words themselves seriously, but the unliterary reader cares only for the Event. Writing that really tries to describe specific things, people, and ideas demand more of his attention than he wants to give, but clichés absolve him of this obligation. He wants everything to be instantly and shallowly recognizable: “My blood ran cold” is the descriptor he prefers to fear over, say, a more complex observation by Dostoevsky, or even another metaphor that is still concise but so specific as to make the reader remember his own fears.

Unless we are fully attending both to sound and sense, unless we hold ourselves obediently ready to conceive, imagine, and feel as the words invite us, we shall not have these experiences. Unless you are really trying to look through the lens you cannot discover whether it is good or bad. We can never know that a piece of writing is bad unless we have begun by trying to read it as if it was very good and ended by discovering that we were paying the author an undeserved compliment.

See, good writing knows when to use many words and when to use few words, but an unliterary reader cannot tell this difference. So he may read a detailed landscape by D. H. Lawrence or John Steinbeck and find them too much to handle, but then think that Thomas Malory was being stingy with words when he wrote: “he arrived afore a castle which was rich and fair and there was a postern opened towards the sea, and was open without any keeping, save two lions kept the entry, and the moon shone clear.” The unliterary reader wants a degree of sensationalism so he can pretend he is imagining without doing the actual mental work.

They would rather be told that the castle was ‘bathed in a flood of silver moonlight’. This is partly because their attention to the words they read is so insufficient. Everything has to be stressed, or ‘written up’, or it will barely be noticed. But still more, they want the hieroglyph—something that will release their stereotyped reactions to moonlight (moonlight, of course, as something in books, songs, and films; I believe that memories of the real world are very feebly operative while they read).

As a writer, I can say this is a particularly important, but difficult, point that Lewis is making. The temptation is so strong to write stereotyped descriptions and characters: the hills always verdant and rolling, the clouds fluffy and white, the mountains jagged and majestic. These adjective are true, but they are generic, and do not describe the uniqueness of a this hill, these clouds, or that mountain. But to achieve the better writing means to imagine better. To understand just what is important about the thing I am describing; why is it here, why am I putting it in this place of the story, how does it affect the other things in the story, and what memories and emotions are attached to it?

The Few and the Many: “An Experiment in Criticism” by C.S. Lewis, Chapter 3

The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender.

 Chapter 3

How the Few and the Many Use Pictures and Music

By way of expanding the uses of his theory, and of providing more varied examples, Lewis begins noting how the “many” tend to approach visual arts and music in a way that prevents them from being really experienced.

His observation on art boils down to this: that most people like pictures and paintings primarily for the subject or scene rather than for the artistic expression. If the painting is of something they like – a pastoral scene, an energetic battle, an alluringly unclad woman, etc. – then they will like it better than a superior painting that is of a scene that does not inherently interest them – say, a still life, or a portrait like the Mona Lisa. So it is that Lewis himself, as a child, loved all the illustrations of Beatrix Potter because he loved anthropomorphised animals, but made no distinction between her good illustrations and her hasty, ill-drawn ones. Used this way, art is reduced to the value of a toy or a religious icon.

While you retain this attitude you treat the picture—or rather a hasty and unconscious selection of elements in the picture—as a self-starter for certain imaginative and emotional activities of your own. In other words, you ‘do things with it’. You don’t lay yourself open to what it, by being in its totality precisely the thing it is, can do to you.

His observation on music is similar: the many invariably go to music which either provokes a social response (dancing, humming, clapping) by an infectious rhythm or melody, or which incites strong emotional responses and daydreams. Or all of these, of course. Lewis believes that nearly all of us start in the many with regards to music, and only begin to appreciate it with time and some musical education. We listen to most music just for the tune or rhythm, usually failing to notice and appreciate all the wonderful choices in arrangement and performance. And the more we focus on the images and emotions that a song conjures up for us, the less we notice the actual music itself.

As regards one instrument (the bagpipes) I am still in this condition. I can’t tell one piece from another, nor a good piper from a bad. It is all just ‘pipes’, all equally intoxicating, heartrending, orgiastic.

Now, as Lewis has warned before, these popular uses of pictures and music are not inherently bad or wrong. Keats looked at the black figures on a piece of ancient pottery and was inspired to write “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and that was very good. “But admirable in its own way; not admirable as an appreciation of ceramic art” (18), if that was his only reaction to it. And to deny the “organic,” emotional responses to music would be not just foolish, but utterly insane!

To sing and dance round a fiddler at a fair (the organic and social response) is obviously a right-minded thing to do. To have ‘the salt tear harped out of your eye’ is not foolish or shameful. And neither response is peculiar to the unmusical. The conoscenti too can be caught humming or whistling…But they don’t hum or whistle while the music is going on; only in reminiscence, as we quote favourite lines of verse to ourselves. [emphasis mine]

I interject quickly to say that I don’t think Lewis is denying that musical people will ever hum and whistle a tune while listening to the song, but rather that they are always sure to take time to listen to songs with their full attention, in order to pick out all its notes and unique details. Their enjoyment becomes “impregnated with intelligence.” We could even say that it is informed enjoyment, and “far more sensuous than the popular use; more tied to the ear” (24).

With art and music, as with books, we should open ourselves fully to what the artist is doing with his particular art. We must try to rid ourselves of preconceptions and prejudices—not of all thought or opinions, certainly, but of our own demands for what we want the piece of art to be.

We must make room for Botticelli’s Mars and Venus…by emptying out or own [emotions and opinions regarding the mythological characters of these Roman deities]. After the negative effort, the positive. We must use our eyes. We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.) (19)

I studied classics at university, and I can tell you that I really don't like Mars or Venus, or their Greek counterparts Ares and Aphrodite. But this painting is beautiful.

But the good spectator–like the good reader–is not passive. He receives a work of art for what it is, in order to learn what its own terms are, so that he may see more accurately what it is. Once these terms are understood, he may decide that they are not worth his full employment.

So we draw a distinction between good and bad approaches to art. Good art can possibly be used for unworthy purposes, but it encourages a good, intelligent approach. On the other hand, “a bad picture cannot be enjoyed with that full and disciplined ‘reception’ which the few give to a good one.” Try gazing for a long period at a painting by da Vinci or Jacques Louis David; you will be drawn into it, marveling over little details, a line here, the colors there, the shape and composition of the whole. But try the same experiment with a poor painting or drawing, and you will find there is no real substance to concentrate on. You will likely even find that the more concentration you give it, the worse the picture appears, as all its artistic faults become apparent!

That is the heart of Lewis’ argument, and one of the most important passages in the book. Another easy example for us to consider is film. Most people go to the movies just so they can turn their brains off and have various emotions pricked and tickled while they watch attractive people doing things they find attractive. They actively resist movies that try to demand more of them as viewers, or that have elements that don’t conform to what they know they like. But if I had never sat down to watch Citizen Kane to humor my dad’s interest, I never would have discovered what a fantastically entertaining movie that is, in addition to it being a fantastically intelligent and insightful one. Had I never agreed, however reluctantly, as a kid, to watch a boring-sounding movie about a girl and some geese, I never would have experienced the beauty of Fly Away Home.

But back to books. I admit that I very rarely read a book that is not fantasy or history-related. Other books simply interest me less. I know my comfort zone (and pretend it’s some kind of expertise), “what I like.” And, ultimately, this is detrimental. Now, because I have known of this danger for years, I do try to mitigate its effects. Every so often I step aside to read a nonfiction book, maybe even one that has nothing to do with writing or history. And while I think all my literature classes from fifth grade through university could have used more great fantasy literature, I am also grateful that they forced me to read novels I never otherwise would have considered: To Kill a Mockingbird, Crime & Punishment, even The Scarlet Letter. Even the books I disliked gave me experiences I could not have had otherwise, and thus played some role in enriching me.

I leave you now with a good piece of music to Listen to and consider in enjoyment.

Can you think of a painting or piece of music which, by paying long and considerable attention to it purely for its own sake, you were able to enjoy it more fully?

Half Price Book Raid

I stripped my shelves of dozens of books, and afterward they were still crammed, and I still had stacks on my table and headboard. It was a painful, difficult task. I would look at all my fantasy books and immediately find them all to be priceless. I would look at all my books written before 1900 or about time periods before 1900, and could not bear to part with any. But in all harvests there is chaff, and I went through my storehouse of literature and cathartically removed the least nutritious, least savory, and least sweet. I took down these books, including a dozen or so old textbooks, until they numbered 57, and drove to the nearest Half Price Books, which buys used printed stuff.

They gave me $13 for the lot.

It’s not that I had been dreaming of sudden wealth from the sale of 57 used and somewhat useless books. But I did rather hope that it would at least cover the purchases I made. Six books cost me about $27, which is certainly a good deal, but leaves me $15 poorer than this morning. Oh well, minor complaint. The truth is, the value of the books I found is far, far more than $27, or even $72, if it had come to that (which I’m grateful it didn’t).

I found the two other Myst books, in which I was interested after reading Myst: The Book of Atrus.


Myst: The Book of Ti'ana
The Book of D'ni

The Bell at Sealey Head by Patricia McKillip, which I have a dim memory of being recommended to me by some friends in the past. I know nothing of it, but I read McKillip’s debut series The Riddlemaster Trilogy, which I liked despite the spotty writing, and have wanted to explore her more polished writing.

Then there is Three Hearts & Three Lions by Poul Anderson, about which I know even less except that the back cover proclaims it a seminal and influential fantasy novel and that the author’s reputation is among those that have come highly recommended but only vaguely described. But the plot sounded interesting and it was $2 on the clearance shelves, so I doubt I stepped wrong.

And then…a Sutcliff novel! The store had a grand total of two Sutcliff novels, and the other was The Eagle of the Ninth, of which I already have two copies (and have given away a third). This one is a retelling of the tragic medieval tale of Tristan and Iseult (or Isolde), and is aptly titled Tristan & Iseult.

And lastly, Neil Gaiman’s Adventures in the Dream Trade, which is not actually an exciting novel but a collection of sundry items from many sources: an article here, a poem there, and the apparent entirety of the months from February to September from his old blog It was $2 and I enjoyed the introduction by John M. Ford (where he provided some witty poems that helpfully explained how to pronounce Neil’s name — Gaiman rhymes with drayman), so it was probably a good buy. It occurs to me now that I have read more of his casual writing on his blog and in a few articles than I have of his actual fiction.

Anyway, in more relevant news, I have finished Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn and intend to review it soon. My review of the Doctor Who two-parter “Human Nature”/”The Family of Blood” will be delayed, as upon watching it many months ago I was so drawn in to the story that I forgot to take notes, and so will have to refresh my memory before attempting to report on it.

At any rate, God bless you all and Godspeed on your own reading!