Seeing as The Egotist’s Club and Jubilare have settled on a variety of choices for this topic, I shall take the same liberty. After all, it’s not an easy task. It’s true I do often hear some kind of soundtrack when I’m reading a book, but it’s usually one my mind makes up on the spot. And when listening to songs I often see in my mind’s eye a story to fit it. But finding a single song that encapsulates the heart of an entire existing story or character becomes surprisingly difficult.
Here are a few I was able to come up with.
1. Mannheim Steamroller’s “Red Wine” has always struck me as an extraordinarily dignified song that nonetheless exudes warmth and beauty. It’s reminiscent of “Greensleeves” in that regard; in ¾ time, its harpsichord melody gives it the stateliness of a waltz. But the emotional cries of the flute give it a quality that is also earthy and natural. This isn’t a song for a cathedral of stone, but a cathedral of trees, which we visit in our dreams.
And so it is that I match “Red Wine” with George MacDonald’s Phantastes. This book is almost beyond description; to know what it feels like, you simply must read it yourself. In it, a young man named Anodos finds himself transported to the Fairy World, perhaps through dream or perhaps through magic. He travels through a vast and bewildering forest filled with various fairies, trolls, knights, princesses, and other creatures, some of which embody holiness, and others which embody various evils.
It’s a dreamlike story, one you can imagine watching through the flickering flames in a campfire. There is a stateliness to it; MacDonald’s Victorian prose is dignified and eloquent, his themes involve the journey of man to become holy, and the climax takes place in what might well be called a woodland cathedral. Yet it is full of emotional and spiritual yearnings. Joy, terror, and melancholy all meet in this story, and while Mannheim Steamroller’s “Red Wine” may not have much terror to it, I hear in it much of the other two.
2. In researching this topic, I came across another interesting match. One of the most soulful, heartwrenching songs I have heard in recent years has been “The Hill” by Marketa Irglova, from the movie Once. The song is directed to her absent husband, whom she desperately wants to please but hasn’t apparently been able to. Their marriage is troubled, and they have temporarily separated, but in one powerful scene, Marketa’s character (called only The Girl) walks home at night singing this song to herself, pouring her heart out to the dark streets and expressing all her sorrow, her longing for love, and her accusations: namely, that he never seems to acknowledge her feelings, her struggles, or her thoughts.
And this reminded me of Ness in The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff. There are some key differences: The Girl clearly loves her husband and desires his affection, whereas Ness hasn’t yet found herself able to love Aquila for most of the book. Yet Ness has some of the same accusations against Aquila that The Girl has against her husband. Aquila isn’t cruel, not intentionally; he just doesn’t spare hardly any thoughts for Ness’ own struggles and emotions until it’s too late, and when he does realize them he doesn’t know what to do, so he does nothing. I could imagine Ness singing this song, especially later in the book when she and Aquila do become a little closer together, but still don’t quite understand each other and still hurt each other emotionally. And, gladly, both women find reconciliation and love by the end.
3. When I listened to Celtic Woman’s cover of Nightwish’s “Walking in the Air” recently, I suddenly remembered one of my favorite children’s books. Moonhorse by Mary Pope Osborne is an absolutely magical poem with gentle, cool illustrations about a girl who is taken on a beautiful, cosmic journey by a flying horse…a moonhorse. Technically, she’s riding in the air instead of walking, but the song’s soaring poetry and mysticism fits well a journey that takes the girl and her Pegasus past living constellations, across the hunting paths of sky wolves, to where they lasso the moon and pull it across the sky.
We’re walking in the air
We’re dancing in the midnight sky
And everyone who sees us greets us as we fly.
And indeed, as they fly gracefully past planets, stars, and comets, all the creatures of space greet them as they go.
Lastly, David “Fathead” Newman’s “The Thirteenth Floor” is a song I am waiting to find the story for. It’s filled with great jazz flute riffs, jingling cymbal beats and drum rhythms, and it makes me think of an acrobatic duel in a city alley involving hip urban elves. That mix of breathy flutes and cool jazz is just infectious! But I don’t know of any existing book that it fits, so I’ll probably have to write that one myself.
Unfortunately this YouTube video is only part of the song. The full song, which can be found on iTunes under David Newman’s CD “Bigger & Better,” includes a short gap of silence after the YouTube video ends, and then it builds slowly to an exciting, action-packed conclusion.
They have three every year, the local library does, and I go to every one. It doesn’t matter how many unread books I have at home. A new favorite might be waiting patiently for me on the overfilled folding tables, or underneath them in the ragged cardboard boxes, holding its frayed corners as still as possible to keep them from getting torn or bent by some careless browser, so that it might look as sharp as it may when I find it and take it home.
There are certain books I know I am looking for. Anything with Rosemary Sutcliff or George MacDonald or G.K. Chesterton on the spine or cover page. One of the titles that has been most highly recommended to me by multiple friends. A nonfiction book on history or mythology that promises to be uniquely useful.
And then there are the happy surprises and the experiments. The “Oh, cool! That’ll be great to have” and the “Well, it’s only a buck, let’s give it a try.” Both important in their own ways. The happy surprises feel like little bonuses, rewards for patronizing the library. But in some ways, the experiments are probably the most exciting and valuable, even if they fail to reach the greatest heights of literature. These are the books where you’re venturing outside your comfort zone; where you hold off exploring no more, but turn your helm and open your sails to receive the wind and wherever it may lead you. The experiments are more likely to make you a larger person.
Reflecting on this most recent book sale, I am satisfied that I have some from each category.
Books I knew I wanted
MacDonald is one of those authors whose books I will buy just on his name alone, so long as I can spare the money and I don’t already own the book. I’ve been curious about At the Back of the North Wind for many years, mostly because of it’s beautiful title. The only other thing I know is that it’s about a boy named Diamond. Who, presumably, gets to ride on the back of the North Wind. There isn’t much more I need to know about it.
Again, Sutcliff’s name alone will get me to buy a book, even when it looks like something completely different from what I expect of her and not something I would normally give a second look. I wondered for a few moments if this wasn’t perhaps some other Sutcliff. But no, it’s her. And it’s a beautiful little story.
In fact, I just read it now, in under half an hour, and it charmed my poor soul and warmed it to no end. This is even more impressive because the story—and it really is just a short story published with its own hardcover—is about a Chihuahua, and I generally dislike Chihuahuas. But it’s as much a Sutcliff story, in its own way, as is The Eagle of the Ninth. Her prose is tender, sprinkled with yellow daffodils, and describes thoughtful people yearning for companionship and love. A children’s story, to be read aloud, but also to be savored comfortably by adults. After reading it, you will want to hug your pet—if you have one—and generally share smiles with those you love.
In recent years, I’ve grown to appreciate short stories and seek them out. Last year I bought a huge collection of Rudyard Kipling stories that I still have barely scraped, but that didn’t stop me from snatching up Flights: Extreme Visions of Fantasy. The cover design is appealing, and it promises excellent stories by the likes of Neil Gaiman, Orson Scott Card, Patricia McKillip, Larry Niven, and many other names more or less well known in modern fantasy and science fiction circles. I was never more than average at statistics, but I think the odds are high that, for roughly a buck and a half, I just bought some really neat stories.
I’m still reluctant to whole-heartedly recommend Guy Gavriel Kay after my experience with Tigana. I love his prose, the historical reality of his worlds, and the integral, though subtle, nature of magic in his stories. I also liked his characters, his twisty-but-sensible-plot, and his many dramatic flourishes. But his indulgence in sexual deviancy in that book really turned me off. However, I promised someone I would give him another chance, and The Lions of Al-Rassan is one of his most highly regarded novels. It also is inspired by medieval Spain and the Cid, a time and person that have also inspired me recently.
Science Fiction. I love it in the movies. I love it in computer games. I love it in webcomics and artwork. I’ve never read any serious, sci-fi novel. Time to change that.
I picked up Ringworld first. The title is famous and the concept so outrageous as to be irresistible. I’ve also heard that Niven regularly marries profound ideas and realistic science with really engaging adventure.
Then I started chatting with a bearded older gentlemen, who was also browsing the sci-fi section. He started mentioning the sci-fi greats and pulled out Glory Roadas his favorite Robert Heinlein novel. It seems to be an unusual one for Heinlein, being as much medieval fantasy as it is sci-fi, but it promises rousing adventure by an acknowledged master, so I’m excited to begin my exploration.
So, folks, moral of the story is: Libraries are cool, never turn away from a used book sale, and always be ready to explore new books, new authors, and new genres.
I have impulsively acquired unabridged copies of George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie. I would have acquired many more MacDonald books from the Christian camp’s bookstore, and even some more Lawheads, but my wallet wouldn’t acquiesce.
Some people go into the woods and bring back beautiful rocks, or feathers, or branches, or mud stains. I bring back books.
Also, I may have a late “Halloween” post or two, consisting of reviews of two Rudyard Kipling short stories that are of the spooky variety.
An entrancing and utterly unique, unpredictable story, full of the beauty, the gravitas, and possibly the underlying reality of dreams.Rarely has the fantasy genre been so amazingly used to communicate the gospel.
Lilith is equal if not superior to the best of Poe.
If we define Literature as an art whose medium is words, then certainly MacDonald has no place in its first rank—perhaps not even in its second. There are indeed passages where the wisdom and (I would dare to call it) the holiness that are in him triumph over and even burn away the baser elements in his style: the expression becomes precise, weighty, economic; acquires a cutting edge. But he does not maintain this level for long. The texture of his writing as a whole is undistinguished, at times fumbling…But this does not quite dispose of him even for the literary critic. What he does best is fantasy—fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic. And this, in my opinion, he does better than any man…Myth does not essentially exist in words at all.
~C.S. Lewis, 1946
Title:Lilith Author: George MacDonald Pages: 252 Published: 1895 (making this a piece of Victorian literature) Spoiler-free Synopsis: In his large and mostly empty home, young gentleman Mr. Vane is led by a strange old librarian, Mr. Raven, to a mirror that transports him to an otherworld, where he is confronted with the truth of his own soul and with the very mystery of evil itself. Reason for Beginning: After reading MacDonald’s own Phantastes, I determined to read any work of his that I could get my hands on. Lilith was the next I could get my hands on. Reason for Finishing: An entrancing and utterly unique, unpredictable story, full of the beauty, the gravitas, and possibly the underlying reality of dreams. Story Re-readability: It may not be the easiest reread, due to MacDonald’s peculiar style, but it probably should be in order to better understand its underlying meanings. As Lewis says in the quote above, there is a wisdom in MacDonald that comes out in his writings, and I don’t think we’re likely to fully understand his wisdom after only one reading of it. Fortunately, each chapter is fairly short and usually comprises a single major incident, such that you can easily track your progress through the book. Author Re-readability: This is my second MacDonald novel, and I loved it and will seek out his other books as well. The value in rereading him comes not so much from his writing style (though there are times when he manages a wonderful turn of phrase), but in the deep content of his books and the values that infuse them. He can preach boldly without being preachy because his sermons are woven into the fabric of his stories. Take the sermon out of the story, and you lose the story. Recommendation: I would be pleased if everyone read this book, as it is so unique and has so much of real value, both aesthetically and spiritually, to offer. Yet I think that many people may have difficulty getting beyond the book’s strangeness, as sublime as I find it. Knowledge of Christianity is extremely helpful in understanding this book, as MacDonald references theology quite often without explaining his references very well; nonetheless, such knowledge is not necessary. In fact, MacDonald himself would probably have preferred readers to merely read and soak in his story without trying to understand every little bit as they go. When reading Lilith, focus on the emotions of the characters and of the scenes, and then use the theology to guide your understanding of those emotions.
Obtainability: I recommend reading a physical copy of Lilith so that you can underline passages and make notes in the margins. However, it is also available online, in the public domain, here.
You bewilder me!”
“That’s all right!”
~Lilith, pg. 30
If I could meet with just one dead author, it would be to sit down with George MacDonald and have him explain, page-by-page, what he meant in Lilith and Phantastes. These two novels have some of the most surreal and difficult plots I have encountered. It’s not that they are bizarre or meaningless in any postmodern way—through them runs a deep and sure current of absolute Truth that always leads to the Christian gospel. As C.S. Lewis noted, MacDonald has a tendency to preach his point even in his stories, only we do not mind as much as we might because he is a superb preacher. With this I agree. It is not MacDonald’s values or his message which seem obscure, but the details of every strange event which, while providing opportunity for commentary of a philosophical or theological nature, are nonetheless quite, well, strange.
The plot is closer to a dream narrative, and the question of why certain events happen is better answered by examining them from an allegorical or symbolic perspective rather than applying mundane logic. I think MacDonald’s powerful images are meant to awake in us recognition and acceptance of spiritual truths. Many of these are not very clear when we first encounter them in the book, but become clearer by the end. Take this excerpt near the beginning:
Then I saw, slowly walking over the light soil, the form of a woman. A white mist floated about her, now assuming, now losing to reassume the shape of a garment, as it gathered to her or was blown from her by a wind that dogged her steps.
She was beautiful, but with such a pride at once and misery on her countenance that I could hardly believe what yet I saw. Up and down she walked, vainly endeavoring to lay hold of the mist and wrap it around her. The eyes in the beautiful face were dead, and on her left side was a dark spot, against which she would now and then press her hand, as if to stifle pain or sickness. Her hair hung nearly to her feet, and sometimes the wind would so mix it with the mist that I could not distinguish the one from the other; but when it fell gathering together again, it shone a pale gold in the moonlight.
Suddenly, pressing both hands on her heart, she fell to the ground, and the mist rose from her and melted in the air. I ran to her. But she began to writhe in such torture that I stood aghast. A moment more and her legs, hurrying from her body, sped away serpents. From her shoulders fled her arms as in terror, serpents also. Then something flew up from her like a bat, and when I looked again, she was gone. The ground rose like the sea in a storm; terror laid hold upon me; I turned to the hills and ran. (50)
Is the ground rising literal or metaphorical? It could be either, I don’t know. Nor do I know what purpose it serves for the incident or the story at large. Our protagonist knows as little as we do at this point. And yet even now, having finished the book and knowing who the woman is and why she grasps her side in pain, and even knowing the source of her arrogance and misery…I still don’t know why she appeared at this early instance, why she fell to the ground now and not other times, and why her limbs sped away as serpents (when next we see her, her limbs are attached the way they are supposed to be). I can say, to some degree, what MacDonald means, but I have no idea why he chose to say it in this way!
When confronted with Mr. Raven, a person who seems to shift physically between an old man and a literal raven at the casual blink of an eye, and who speaks in seeming riddles and appears to inhabit an otherworld even as he stands in Mr. Vane’s library, Mr. Vane accepts the situation rather quickly and engages in philosophical argument. Not that he fails to question the weirdness of the situation; he does, but doesn’t dwell on it long. What I’m trying to say is that his reactions are not always what the reader’s would be or what the reader would expect. This isn’t a bad thing, really: it makes Mr. Vane a much more interesting protagonist. He engages philosophically with the dreamworld around him, trying to understand it and his place in it. Still, it is often hard to understand why he reacts in a certain way at a certain time, or why a particular thing happens.
Yet MacDonald is aware of the strangeness, and sometimes comments on it. There is an instance where Vane becomes enslaved to a group of evil, brutish people who are so stupid that he could easily either escape or even overcome them by his wits. Yet he continues in his slavery and only tries to escape in the most inconvenient and unnecessarily difficult ways. Much later, when he is wiser, he reflects on that incident with incredulity at his own foolishness.
The chapters are short, and each one contains a very curious scene, most of which are so strange and powerful in their imagery that they will stay with you for some time: there is the house of Mr. Raven and his wife, with an endless dark room lined with couches on which people lie who wait for the resurrection of the dead—they have willingly died to themselves in order that they might live a new life; the Evil Wood, in which skeletal armies massacre each other every night, but fade before the sun rises; the bountiful forest of the Little Lovers, children of innocence and beauty who spend their days alternately frolicking and hiding from the stupid adult brutes that live nearby; the hall of leaves and branches in which skeletons dance and curtsy like aristocrats; the massive dry riverbed that is plagued by monsters only at night; the House of Bitterness, whose kind but enigmatic mistress speaks to white leopards and always wears a veil over her face; a male and a female skeleton of recently-deceased aristocracy arguing comically about their broken carriage and the difficulty of walking without muscles on one’s knees; the great city of Bulika with its silent, fearful populace, its leopards and creepy Thin Man stalking the streets; and the final scenes, so magnificent and rapturous, of…ah, but that would be revealing too much!
I have listed these images in an attempt to prove a measure of what Lewis is saying in his quote above: that the power of MacDonald’s stories lie not in the words he uses, but in the events themselves. I could retell the entirety of Lilith in my own words, and as long as I am true to the content of the story, it would retain many of the same haunting qualities it has coming direct from him. This is the power of myth and fairy story, which belongs also to Fouqué’s Undine and which Tolkien discussed in “On Fairy Stories.” (I remember now that MacDonald himself called Undine the most beautiful of all fairy tales he knew.)
As to the title, the book does involve the old Jewish myth of Lilith, Adam’s supposed first wife, who rebelled in arrogance and greed from God’s established plan and was cast out of the Garden to be replaced by Eve. The story is not in the Bible and is not true, but MacDonald uses it in his fantasy to convey his message of the sheer power of God’s grace. This book is all about salvation, and the necessity of letting go of sin, dying to one’s own self, and accepting the will of God to cleanse us and make us more like Him.
What I love about MacDonald is how powerful holiness is in his stories. Evil is shown truthfully to be weak, decrepit, a desperate sham, a pitiful and vindictive rebellion against God that only hurts the rebel, while only in holiness can people truly find themselves. We are made for Heaven; our struggle through this life is the result of our own sinful rebellion. Sin is part of human nature, but it was never meant to be; it is like a disease which attaches itself to the body, but was not originally part of it. And we cannot cure ourselves—the sick can never cure themselves! We must submit to the One who can cure us. This is always MacDonald’s message, I think: by submitting to Christ, we are cleansed of the evil that was not meant to be part of us, and we become truly ourselves.
There is another theological point, however, which MacDonald does not get right. Perhaps you have heard that he was a universalist? That is, that he did not believe that Hell is eternal, but that every created person, including the demons and Satan himself, will eventually be redeemed and join again with God. Well, it is true: this belief is expressed fairly clearly in Lilith. The Shadow, representative of Satan, is prophesied to eventually lay down his arms and submit to God, “the last to wake in the morning of the universe” (218). I have not read any of MacDonald’s sermons or essays on this subject, and so can only guess at his reasoning. My guess is that he thought that God’s grace and love are so all-consuming that it would be inconceivable for any evil to be able to resist it for ever, even Satan’s. It is a noble error, resting as it does on the sovereignty of Christ’s love and sacrifice, but an error nonetheless. MacDonald made the mistake of relying on his own reason and feelings in trying to understand the concept of Hell, and in doing so ignored the explicit nature of Scripture.
Firstly, if those who consistently and consciously reject the grace of Christ’s sacrifice unto their death do not have to pay an eternal price, but will be saved anyway, then the gospel is robbed of its meaning. Why should any person repent now, if they can sin as they please in this life and be cleansed—easily, without having to submit to anything themselves, they think—in the next? Secondly, the Scriptures clearly state that eternal punishment exists: Matthew chapters 7, 10, and 25:31-46, among others.
Does this serious error invalidate the spiritual value of MacDonald’s message and story? I think not. Christians must be aware of biblical theology and of where MacDonald trusted his own reasoning over God’s Word, but that does not mean he is no Christian, nor that his book cannot be termed a Christian book. His portrayal of the victory of God’s love over the most dedicated sinners is beautiful and moving. Rarely has the fantasy genre been so amazingly used to communicate the gospel.
And yet, for all that, the unique power of MacDonald’s story is very hard to communicate; you simply must read it for yourself.
None but God hates evil and understands it.”
~Lilith, page 206
I submit this thesis for your reflection: The greatest possible event, in any kind of story, real or invented, is the redemption of some undeserving person through pure love and grace. Often it is at the story’s end, as with the Prodigal Son, but it need not be. In Les Misérables, it happens at the beginning. But in this particular story, in George MacDonald’s Lilith, it does indeed occur near the end. I have not yet finished the last few chapters, but when I came across this passage it was so beautiful that I had to share it.
The scene is the House of Bitterness, in which Lilith, rebel wife of Adam, who has declared herself Queen of Hell and imagines herself free in her evil, but is really a slave of the satanic Shadow, has been forcibly confronted with the depravity of her soul and her slavery to sin. Broken, scornful, and then broken again many times over, she tries to remain unrepentant even as anguish takes her soul. “I will not be remade!” she cries, “I will be myself and not another!” “Alas,” comes the wise reply, “you are another now, not yourself! Will you not be your real self?” Lilith cries back, “I will do as my Self pleases—as my Self desires.” But she knows her words are false. She loathes herself, but fears the surrender necessary for change. For truly, she is so steeped in evil that it has slain her, even as she appears to live. She walks in death; she must die to death if she hopes to live again! The idea is fearful and incredible; how can it happen? “He will forgive you,” Lilith is told. It is too much for her, too much. She acknowledges she is a slave. She admits she is powerless even to change herself, even to cease her own existence. She cries that she is hopeless, that she should die, if she could, and she collapses.
And then comes what may be the finest passage by George MacDonald I have yet read.
Lilith lay and wept. The Lady of Sorrow went to the door and opened it.
Morn, with the Spring in her arms, waited outside. Softly they stole in at the opened door, with a gentle wind in the skirts of their garments. It flowed and flowed about Lilith, rippling the unknown, upwaking sea of her life eternal; rippling and to ripple it, until at length she who had been but as a weed cast on the dry sandy shore to wither, should know herself an inlet of the everlasting ocean, henceforth to flow into her for ever, and ebb no more. She answered the morning wind with reviving breath, and began to listen. For in the skirts of the wind had come the rain—the soft rain that heals the mown, the many-wounded grass—soothing it with the sweetness of all music, the hush that lives between music and silence. It bedewed the desert places around the cottage, and the sands of Lilith’s heart heard it, and drank it in. When Mara returned to sit by her bed, her tears were flowing softer than the rain, and soon she was fast asleep.
What a hell of horror, I thought, to wander alone, a bare existence never going out of itself, never widening its life in another life, but, bound with the cords of its poor peculiarities, lying an eternal prisoner in the dungeon of its own being!…I sighed—and regarded with wonder my past self, which preferred the company of a book or pen to that of man or woman; which, if the author of a tale I was enjoying appeared, would wish him away that I might return to his story. I had chosen the dead rather than the living, the thing thought rather than the thing thinking! ‘Any man,’ I said now, ‘is more than the greatest of books!’
[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.