Lewis, Lovecraft, and Reading Fantasy

 

            I recently stumbled across what is actually a very old article in The Imaginative Conservative, titled “Lost and Found in the Cosmos: Lovecraft, Lewis & Alien Worlds.” It’s the sort of article that was designed for me.

            When I was a pre-teen/early teen, my family switched not only churches, but theological traditions. Combined with other difficult events in my life, all the questioning and re-thinking I had to do about my faith was disconcerting. That was when I was introduced to C.S. Lewis’s apologetics material, which became my lifeline to sanity. Afterwards I explored his fiction, and even some of his academic material, and I have long thought I owed Lewis a sort of debt as my father in the faith.

            I stumbled onto Lovecraft, fittingly, at an equally insane time in my life. Lovecraft was not my father in much of anything, though he framed certain questions about the world in interesting ways. I also tend to think he’s refreshingly honest and self-aware for a materialist, but I’ve always been skeptical of materialists who take anything like an optimistic outlook on life.

            I would not call myself an expert on either of these men, though I have lived with someone that I think could claim that title on Lewis. I would say that I’m more than casually familiar with both, though, and each has done quite a lot to influence my writing in various ways. This is why I was delighted when the piece in The Imaginative Conservative highlighted a common thread between them, and in doing so, helped me to understand the world of fantasy literature a little better.

The Tools of Fantasy

 

            The article focuses on how Lewis and Lovecraft both told stories about alien life.

            For Lovecraft, alien life was fundamentally strange, disgusting, disturbing, and indifferent to the existence of mankind. There is no basis for friendship between our species and one of theirs, and often not even for communication. Our goals are different, our minds are different, the ways we see the world are different, and we are not even made of the same kind of matter. Any encounter between us drives one or the other to insanity or death.

            For Lewis, life outside our sphere may be strange, but it is not disturbing. Though we might not understand the aliens at first, soon we can grow to appreciate them, to admire their beauty and their skills, and the ways they interact with their environment. Each kind of creature is built for its own place, and though it may not thrive outside of the place, there is no fundamental opposition between one place and another, one species and another. There is a harmony at the back of all creation, and simply because one voice in the chorus may seem strange to another does not mean it does not have a place in whole.

            This is exactly the sort of thing fantasy literature is adept at highlighting. Both these men want to examine the nature of sentient life. To do this, they both created sentient life-forms in situations far different from our own, some of them taking forms that were utterly inhuman. They were then free to exercise their imagination and come to a deeper understanding of what it meant to be sentient. They also wanted to examine what it would be like to take a creature built for one place and let encounter a creature built for another. In fantasy literature, which I am using a shorthand for all speculative fiction, you are allowed to do that.

            Fantasy is a genre with the potential to examine the world in ways almost no other genre can. It can examine the structure of the cosmos, or expose its lack of structure, simply by sending you on a journey. It can explore the meaning of humanity by setting the human next to the inhuman, or by turning one into another. It can ponder the possibilities of predestination and free will by inventing prophecies or engaging in time-travel. The limitations nature imposes on the scientist and philosopher in the real world are overcome through the power of imagination in fantasy literature.

 

The Readers of Fantasy

 

            This aspect of the fantasy genre has always attracted me to it, the fact that it lies so close to the surface in both Lovecraft and C.S. Lewis is probably a major part of what attracts me to their writings. But this is not all that fantasy is, and that must be taken into account when examining the genre.

            J.R.R. Tolkien, who has the authority to speak on such topics, says that “fairy stories” are good for a number of things, and one of them is escape. We do not live in a perfect world, and at times it is good to rest from our labor, to enjoy a vacation of the mind to strange and distant place, from which we can return refreshed. If real suffering is a prison, fantasy allows us to fly the coop.

            This is a good and healthy use of fantasy, and the fact that Tolkien acknowledges it is quite honest. Some people criticize this use of fantasy, but he does not. There is a difference, he says, between the escape of the prisoner and the flight of the deserter. And there is also a word for people who are constantly worried about escape—he calls them prison guards.

            But an unhealthy kind of escapism, the kind Tolkien calls “the flight of the deserter,” does exist. I missed quite a lot of my teenage years while squirreled away in my room reading Harry Potter, or off in a corner trying to make my way through Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. I think a lot of fantasy readers can say the same. After all, it does take quite a lot of time to tear through five hundred page paperbacks, especially when there are a dozen to a series. The world is not built out of free time, and time spent there is not going to be time spent with family and friends.

            But it’s not just the amount of time spent that worries me. A large portion of the fantasy world, as has often been pointed out, is just repackaged Tolkien. It is not a genre known for innovation, though there are notable exceptions. The industry that nerd culture has become also expands this beyond unoriginal books and fills tabletop games, MMORPGs, card games, TV shows, and movies with the same old tropes. The worlds are familiar, the fantasy races are familiar, the MacGuffin swords and rings are familiar, and the characters and plots are old as dirt.

            There is something to be said for that. One of my favorite things about medieval literature is that authors didn’t feel the pressure to invent something new every time they set pen to paper—a reworking of old material was perfectly acceptable. Old and familiar is good for binding a community together, and allows you explore those same themes with a level of depth constant novelty just doesn’t allow. If you use it that way.

            But if fantasy is a genre with unique tools that allow it to explore the cosmos, and the nature of humanity, and other philosophical and scientific worlds in new and exciting ways, if all that is true, then this kind of thing is disappointing.

            Lewis taught me to think about hierarchy and place, the nature of being human, the nature of being male and female, and who God is in new and exciting ways.

            Lovecraft taught me to understand just what it means for man not to have a privileged place in the universe, and what the truly Other would be like if there was no harmony behind it all, and to contemplate the difference between science and magic, between religion and cosmic politics.

            Tolkien taught me to consider that great power that appears to be a gift may come at an unthinkable cost, and to realize that in a fallen world, death in its time might be a gift.

            I don’t want merely to escape. I don’t want to waste time in a world not my own simply because my own can get rough. I want to be equipped to handle that real world better. I need relaxation and refreshment, to be sure, but also need wisdom, need news eyes for the world. Fantasy has the ability to grant that, but when the genre becomes an exercise in revisiting the same old elves and dwarves, and the same old magic swords, it loses something important. It loses the magic that makes it unique.

            That’s not the fantasy I want to read.

            That’s not the kind of reader I want to be.

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Scratching in the Dirt

The Sage

An old man is riding through the mountains, plodding his was slowly towards the western frontier. Behind him he leaves the luxurious life of the capital, of walking the halls of power, head held high as others bow before him. By the standards of the world, he had reason to be proud. He was a wise man, a cunning counselor, trusted by the rulers of that age. But he is going to the frontier, and has no intention of coming back.

He reaches the last outpost of civilization just as the sun is setting. It is manned by a single, lonely border guard. There are no threats in this direction, no reason for armed camps or grand fortresses. Just wilderness. So the man at the edge of the world is glad when he sees the man coming from its center, and invites him to stay the night.

Over the course of a humble meal and quiet conversation, the guard comes to recognize the stranger’s immense wisdom, as many others have before. He is amazed at the man’s experience, the great things he has seen, the noble people he has known. He goes to sleep that night puzzled, wondering who this stranger might be.

The next morning, as the old wanderer saddles up and prepares to ride away into the unknown west, it dawns upon the border guard who this man is. Finally recognizing this famed councilor of powerful men, this noble sage who moves in the circles of the great, he asks the man one favor before he departs. Would he leave the world with a summary of his teaching?

Smiling, the old man dismounts and picks up a stick laying nearby. Over the next several hours, he scratches out in the dirt a text of poetic simplicity, of refined elegance and deepest wisdom. Having finished, he bows to the humble border guard, and crosses the frontier, never to be heard from again.

The Tao

This world-weary sage was one Laozi or Lao Tsu—that is, Master Lao. If he did indeed exist, he lived in the sixth century before Christ, at about the same time the prophet Daniel was carried off to Babylon. That work he scratched into the ground by the border was the great Chinese classic, the Tao Te Ching, also Romanized as Doadejing. In it, Laozi outlines his philosophy in 81 beautiful, poetic verses, each about the length of a Biblical Psalm.

This philosophy was centered around a single, all-important concept: the Tao. “Tao” literally means “way,” as in a road or path. It can often be found on Hong Kong street signs with no deeper meaning than that. But as a philosophical term, it is much more significant. The Tao is the way the whole cosmos works together, united in a single transcendent plan or system which is greater than any of the individual parts. It is the principle which underlies the behavior of everything in the universe, animate or inanimate, from rain on the mountains, to the flight of the sparrow or the life cycle of a butterfly, to the rise and fall of kingdoms. Not one grain of sand escapes its purpose, and no galaxy is beyond its reach. The Tao encompasses everything.

Attached to this view of the universe in an implicit system of morality, something like natural law in the West. If the universe has its own way, its own set of behavior, men often have a set of intentions contrary to it. We do not pay attention to the way the world is meant to work—the cycles of nature or human behavior, the way apparent opposites work together, or the laws of cause and effect which everything must obey. We have desires, and we rush towards them blindly, fumbling along, disrupting the natural way of things.

Instead, Laozi advocates the principle of wu wei, or sometimes wei wu wei. The English is roughly “action without action.” That is, as things which exist within the Tao, we are assuredly meant to act. However, it is better to act in a way consistent with nature, aware of its underlying principles, rather than fighting against it. Thus we go with the flow of the Tao—we take action, but that action comes from outside us. It is actionless action.

The Disciple

In outlining this philosophy, the Tao Te Ching became a cornerstone of Chinese and East Asian intellectual history. It is something like what Plato’s Republic is to the West, though centuries older. One rough contemporary of Plato, however, was Loazi’s disciple, Zhuangzi.

Zhuangzi—sometimes Romanized as Chuang Tsu, with the second element meaning “Master”—was also a government official, though a minor one. By this time in Chinese history, philosophy had become somewhat more developed, and there were many competing schools. Zhuangzi became a follower of Laozi’s teachings, and authored his own classic as a reflection on these same truths. That classic is often simply called by his name—Zhuangzi.

The Zhuangzi is not a collection of poetic musings, like the Tao Te Ching, but of short stories and anecdotes. These fables are designed to provoke philosophical reflection, asking the reader to consider how limited the merely human perspective is, and how vast the universe. It is the whole Tao we should consider, not merely our own perspective. Of course, many will find this difficult, and it may be that we can only live according to the Tao through some unconscious process or practice, rather than through any apparently easy, conscious effort.

Perhaps it was inevitable than anyone elaborating on Laozi’s philosophy should come across as more skeptical than the original verses. They are a meditation on the Tao itself, while the Zhuangzi often asks us to ponder our own relationship to it. Because that relationship is troubled by human folly, and has to overcome the obstacles of our limited human perspective, the stories can often come across a bit pessimistic. Becoming one with the Tao seems desirable in the Tao Te Ching, and here it appears difficult.

The Zhuangzi also poses more straightforward philosophical problems than its more poetic predecessor. Among them are the famous Butterfly Dream, in which we asked to question how we can distinguish the real world from the dream world—or if there is in fact any difference at all. Where Laozi’s work might find some parallels with Western Stoics, Zhuangzi’s might be more at home with postmodern philosophers.

Five Pecks of Rice

For centuries, Taoism was purely philosophical. It attracted people who, like the founder of the school, sought to escape the troubled world of civilized society to become solitary hermits, at one with nature. Furthermore, its lassaiz-faire, anarchist political tendencies did not exactly promote state sponsorship, or popularity among people who wanted to advance in society. For some time, it seemed merely like an esoteric doctrine suitable only for intellectuals with little ambition. That changed in the second century after Christ.

China’s ancient western frontier lay in the provinces of Sichuan and Shaanxi—the former famous in the United States for restaurants bearing its older Romanization, Szechuan. This was mountainous territory, filled with strange and standoffish hill-folk, with centers civilization concentrated in the fertile river valleys. In troubled times, the more heavily populated provinces of eastern China often turned against each other, and the western frontiers were left to fend for themselves.

The Han dynasty, often considered a golden age, had begun two centuries before Christ and was coming to a slow, painful end two centuries after Him. Palace officials began to interfere in imperial decision-making, there were coups to be fought off, and regional rebellions began disrupting formerly smooth administration of the provinces.

Zhang Daoling lived in this twilight era of the Han dynasty. He had grown up reading Taoist works, and received the best education of his day. He was asked repeatedly to serve as a professor in an imperial college, and even as tutor to the Emperor himself. He refused, preferring his life of seclusion and study. This study included a new element in Taoist philosophy—seeking longevity through practices inspired by Taoist wisdom.

In AD 142, Zhang Daoling declared that Laozi had appeared to him in a vision. This phase of world history would soon be ending, he said, to be replaced by another. Those who wished to survive in the next age must separate themselves from the corruption of their times, and join him in pursuing a Taoist path to holiness. This became known as the Way of the Celestial Masters, and it was popular throughout Sichuan and Shaanxi. A firm commitment was expected of new converts, as seen by the requirement that each prospective adherent donate five pecks of rice to the cause.

Though it may be easy to doubt his followers’ claims that he became an immortal, Zhang Daoling certainly lived to an old age. When he died, first his son and then his grandson succeeded him as head of the movement. His grandson, Zhang Lu, was sent by the Han emperor to quell a rebellion in the west. He obeyed, but upon his victory, he established a new state in the Hanzhong valley as a haven for those who followed the Way of the Celestial Masters. This became known as the Five Pecks of Rice Rebellion.

This new state, with its devotion to Zhang Daoling’s apocalyptic version of Taoism, seemed to prosper for a time. Each citizen’s name and their stage in the progress towards holiness was recorded. It was understood that those who had progressed to a higher stage could command divine generals in the spiritual war against demonic forces. Lawbreakers were not punished by ordinary means, but expected to confess their crimes, and were told to seek penance through solitary meditation or do good deeds on behalf of the community. What had once seemed an esoteric philosophy had, with the addition of other elements, become the religious and political philosophy by which the community lived.

In the meantime, the Han dynasty had dissolved into three warring kingdoms, each with their own claimant for the imperial throne. This period would last for less than a century, but the epic nature of the events which shaped it have turned the era into a common setting for tales of romance and high adventure in eastern Asian storytelling.

One of the three rulers, a man named Cao Cao, attacked Zhang Lu, driving him from his kingdom. Cornered in eastern Sichuan, Zhang Lu surrendered. After a brief quarter century of independence, Hanzhong was reincorporated into the mainstream of Chinese civilization.

But the Five Pecks of Rice Movement did not end with the fall of its independent kingdom. Zhang Lu was relocated to Cao Cao’s court in the kingdom of Wei. There he used his authority as a religious leader to reinforce the legitimacy of the kingdom of Wei over the other two kingdoms. His followers spread throughout the realm, and by the time China was reunited under the Jin dynasty, Taoism had become mainstream.

Wisdom of the Ages

Not only had it become mainstream, it had also become explicitly religious. Followers now worshiped Laozi and others who had achieved immortality through Taoist teachings and practices. Zhang Daoling’s emphasis on the pursuit of longevity had also brought it in close proximity to a wide variety of shamanistic sects which promised supernatural powers to those with the right knowledge—or those willing to pay them. Though the Tao Te Ching and the Zhuangzi still formed the center of Taoist teachings, other elements had been introduced which had changed it almost beyond recognition.

One of the central texts that defined Taoism in its new, more religious guise was the I Ching. The I Ching was far older than the Tao Te Ching, its origins shrouded in mystery. On its most basic level, it was a divination manual, telling the reader how to determine the right course of action based on the manipulation of certain mystical symbols. On a deeper level, though, it came to be understood as a complex and symbolical explanation of how the cosmos worked—how heaven was reflected on earth, how the five elements interacted, and how yin and yang could be found in every other operation of the universe.

Incorporating the I Ching into Taoism, along with the worship of a new pantheon of immortals, transformed the abstract philosophy into a full-blown religious tradition, distinct from both Buddhism and Confucianism. Much as Plato’s teachings had begun in pure philosophy and ended by inspiring Gnostic heresies and late antique magical systems, so Laozi’s teaching had become something else entirely.

In this form, however, those teaching had gained a wider appeal, and even official imperial support. Multiple times throughout history, Taoism was considered a leading candidate for becoming the official religion of the Chinese state. It influenced the other two major religious traditions as well, and many minor ones, and it was soon understood that a man could not be truly educated, could not be truly cultured, if he was not familiar with the writings of Laozi and Zhuangzi. Thus, despite undergoing great change, their ideas had become an integral the culture of one of humanity’s greatest civilizations.

A Translator’s Puzzle

Christianity is a proselytizing faith. When the West began interacting with China on a regular basis, it would not be long before missionaries came to translate the Bible into Chinese dialects. This did not begin happening on a large scale until the nineteenth century. When it did, translators were often puzzled by words that had a technical meaning in the original Hebrew or Greek for which there might not be a good equivalent in Chinese. One particular problem was found in the first chapter of the Gospel of John:

“In the beginning was the Word, And the Word was with God, And the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, And without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, And the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, And the darkness does not comprehend it.”

The casual English reader might be struck by the poetry of the passage, without necessarily finding any difficult words. For the translator familiar with the culture of the early Roman Empire, however, it presents quite the puzzle.

The Greek word for “Word” in this passage does not simply mean “a thing you say.” That would be “lexis,” but here the manuscript says “logos.” Logos does mean “word,” but it is also a technical term from Greek philosophy. It means something like “rational order” or “logical principle.” It is the reason the world acts the way it does, the transcendent plan that guides the functioning of all of nature. With the Stoics in particular, it came to be something divine, a sort of pantheistic deity that was the same as nature itself. For them, it was simultaneously the explanation for why the world behaved the way it did, and a moral guide for those living in it. Not long after Christ, drawing on that Stoic tradition, a Jewish philosopher named Philo of Alexandria adapted the logos to his faith. It was the rational principle by which the Biblical God had created the universe.

Confronted with this word, the nineteenth century translators scrambled for something that might have a similar meaning. Clearly a word that just meant “word” would not do. It needed to carry those crucial philosophical connotations which lend John’s words so much weight.. So they chose Tao.

Just like the logos, the Tao was the principle behind all of nature, the thing that explained the way nature behaved. It was the quasi-divine force or plan which directed everything, and which human beings would do well to seek to understand. Though not identical, the two concepts were very clearly similar.

And thus Taoism, Greek philosophy, and the Christian Gospel were united in a single passage of the Chinese Bible: Jesus is the Tao, the Logos. He was in the beginning with God, and was God, and all things were made through him. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men—men who could not comprehend it. Jesus was identified as Laozi’s mysterious Tao, but—perhaps to Zhuangzi’s shock and protest—in human form.

Of course, this does not mean that the translators saw Christianity as just another form of Taoism. The Incarnation alone appears to violate Taoist understandings of reality, as perhaps does the concept of divine revelation in the first place, at least when set against early philosophical Taoism. Furthermore, this single passage in John is qualified by the rest of Scripture, a context which stands apart from, and often perhaps against, much of Taoist tradition. Nevertheless, the way the concepts align, the apparent appropriateness of the word choice, this strange meeting of Eastern and Western concepts—these things are certainly worth thinking about.

The Tao of the Blog

Every so often I have a little crisis trying to figure out what this blog is for. This is not really the place for a serious academic essay, but it’s not the place for mere personal status updates either. I have Facebook for the latter, and am not particularly qualified for the former. If I just want to post links to interesting articles, there’s Twitter. If I had a particular hobby or area of expertise I wanted to share, this might be the place, but I have few which are so readily shareable. What kind of writing does a blog lend itself to?

Blogs do seem well adapted to relatively ephemeral content. A post arises, perhaps it occasions a conversation in the comments, and then it disappears into the archives as other posts arise to take its place. You can search those archives, but people rarely do without good reason.

Blogs are also good places for informal musings. This blog in particular does not belong to any company or institution, but to some random guy in East Texas. Many blogs are like that. Thus they are good places for random people to talk about whatever interests them, without necessarily requiring them to stick to a specific topic, or meet academic or professional standards when it comes to things like sources. This is just some guy talking.

But unlike Facebook or Twitter, blogs are both formatted for longer articles and designed to be read by a wider audience. This promotes guys talking at length about what interests them, in a way that might interest casual passersby.

In accordance with the principle of wu wei—at least, as I understand it—it pays to cut with the grain of the medium. The nature of a blog makes it a great place to take something like the Tao Te Ching or the Zhuangzi chapter by chapter and muse out loud about its meaning, its connections to other classic works and to pop culture, and whatever lessons these things might have for those who read them.

I am not an expert on these books. I have never taken a class on them in particular, or on Taoism in general, or even on Eastern religions. But I do enjoy learning about these things, and if my learning can be to the profit of other casual readers who might be interested in the topic, it is well worth the effort to spruce up my musings and publish them on this blog.

So this introduction to Taoism is more than an interesting story, though I hope has been that. It is an invitation. I am going to start working my way through the Tao Te Ching verse by verse, posting my thoughts here. If you are interested, please read along and comment below. Learning works best in community, and I would find it a blessing if my blog could provide a little of that.

Time and Love

Humanity are an affectionate lot. Really. No doubt, we love imperfectly, but there is no question that we love quite a lot. We love our parents, our kids, our other halves, our cousins and countrymen. We love the smell of rain and the taste of foreign cuisine. We love the homely, the exotic, and that subtle and perfect mixture of both.  Stories, landscapes, music, words, and small furry animals with deceptively sharp claws. We love like crazy.

But we are imperfect creatures, marred from almost the beginning. Warped as we are, we can no longer love as we should. There are a dozen ways this is true, but to a guy like me, one stands tall in the lineup. As Alabama points out, modern man is in a hurry to get things done, and we rush and rush until life’s no fun. In the fast pace of a society with rapid transportation and instant communication, we are slaves to the clock. All that bustling means we do less of what we love and more of what we think is expected. And after that, we spend time vegging to make up for the rapid pace of a packed day.

This hits me particularly hard, because where others might see calendars and schedules, I see a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff. For example, I went to college with an absolute passion for reading and writing and all things high fantasy. Yeah, I was that nerd. But with college came class, and homework, and a job (when I could get it). In the cracks I tried to cram a new circle of friends and a freshly forged social life. By the end of sophomore year, I could not read for a solid hour without setting the book down half a dozen times. At the beginning of junior year, I couldn’t tell you the names of half those books I used to love. I spent no time on what I loved, and soon I had lost the ability to.

This is doubly true of my writing. I used to write in a dozen different styles in imitation of as many genres. I had scribbled out scraps of high fantasy, scholarly essays, dark fantasy, political commentary, “scholarly” treatises, science fiction, a smattering of history and chronicle, snooty poetry, armchair theology, and singsong lyrics. After two years of no good reading and only hasty writing, I descended into drivel. The only topic I had any strength on was what had occupied my mind continuously: home.

By now it should be obvious that a great deal of what I put on this blog is just working out whatever I’m dealing with at the moment, so it should come as no surprise that I could go on in detail with more examples from my own life. I’ll spare you. I’m sure you can sympathize, and with a little reflection you can probably come up with far more painful examples. The fact is, if you love something, you have to devote time to it, or you will lose it.

This means, especially if you are like me and have zero time management skills, you can’t put off whatever it is you hold to be important. There will always be something else to do. If there is a time vacuum in your life, it will be filled. You have to fight for what you love, cramming it into spare moments and carving out blocks of your day. You do not have time for what you love, you make time for what you love. And it is that effort that shows you love it, and that allows you to love it better.

That said, I am going to end this post and finish up chapter one, draft two of my novel. Go and do likewise, with whatever you love.

God bless.

My Beef With Coming of Age Fantasy

In my experience, starting anything with a qualification softens the blow of a potentially offensive point far too much. But my fantasy-nerd street cred is probably lower than it ought to be right now, and I am attacking what seems to be one of the biggest selling genres of the day. So, let me just say that I love fantasy, I love coming-of-age stories, and I love coming-of-age fantasy stories–when they are done well.

The problem is that our artistic culture is stupid. It is filled with artsy artists, who tend to be insecure, introspective brats who like to dream up a world with themselves at the center. On top of that, people who are coming of age are some of the most self-centered people on the planet. Combine the two, and you have a recipe for annoying.

How many stories of this type have you read, or even watched? Now tell me if the following seems to accurately describe your experience: 1) protagonist is incredibly gifted, 2) protagonist is horribly misunderstood, 3) protagonist finds himself in situations demanding far too much of him, but through his aforementioned giftedness and some cheesy variant on finding himself manages to come out okay, and 4) all those people who horribly misunderstood him are either publicly proven wrong or else our victorious hero has for his own ends chosen to allow his natural inferiors to continue in their pitiful ignorance. Sound familiar? I swear I’ve read it a million times.

This is annoying on so many levels. For one, coming of age stories can actually be awesome. I mean, this is where kids discover things like the opposite sex, their vocation, what it means to take risks and be responsible, real good guys and real bad guys, the passage of time, and how cool the world actually is. Not to mention the magical ability to suddenly understand some of the most important people in their lives–their parents. That is an era of life and a process that is rich with themes and characters and potential plotlines. Wasting it on “poor me, I’m misunderstood” is just stupid.

Then there’s the fact that it essentially ruins the fantasy genre. What is awesome about fantasy, what draws most people to it (or draws me to it, anyways), is the fact that it deals with the world on this grand, sweeping, epic scale full of wonder, excitement, and discovery. You can be taken on an Odyssey that introduces you to so much that is new, so much that has never been seen before, and then do cool things with all that new stuff. It is just plain fun. And a misunderstood teenager story limits the vast potential of fantasy into the most cramped of possible spaces–the distance between the two ears of a  kid who won’t grow up.

That is, of course, the central irony with this trend. I don’t have a problem so much with protagonists who think they are misunderstood–I’m not sure any teenager doesn’t think that–no, I have a problem with a story that says they are right. That kind of story, where junior proves his superior wisdom over society or the authority figure, that’s a coming of age story where absolutely no one comes of age. There is no growth, only the increasing rot of an already bad egg.

But like I said, I don’t mind if the character starts out that way. In fact, I would love to see a coming of age story where that fantasy setting is used beat the living angst out of the kid, pitch him out of his own skull, and let him discover the awesomeness of the world around him. As in, the world and its inhabitants which are awesome, not him or his skills or his gifts or specialness. A coming of age fantasy that is humbling. That I would love.

Now, I’m sure they are out there, somewhere in books that aren’t fifty year old products of awesome British Christian academics. Somewhere, someone alive and kicking has written a non-winy-misunderstood-teenager style coming of age fantasy, and possibly even written a good one. But where? Honestly, have you heard of one?

Recovery Reading

So, when I came to NSA, I thought “Cool, a place where I read the classics non-stop.” What I had not anticipated was the fact that I would have little time for anything else. Sadly, I lapsed in my fun reading. Indeed, for months at a time I would read no fiction whatsoever. For an avid reader, that’s disturbing. For someone who wants to write, that’s downright stupid. You need good stuff going in, or no good stuff will ever come out. So, after a crisis and some soul searching, I slapped together a list of books good for writers to read, and I’m starting to read it. This is actually modified from my personal list, and it’s divided up into sections. But check them out, I insist.

Children’s Literature:

The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
The Time Quintet, Madeleine L’Engle
The Dark is Rising Sequence, Susan Cooper
The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis
The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Patricia C. Wrede
The Book of Dragons, Michael Hague
Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer
Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling
The Chronicles of Prydain , Lloyd Alexander

Non-Fiction:

Dragons: A Natural History, Karl Shuker
The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, C.S. Lewis
Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms, Alistair Moffat
Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis
The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life, Armand M. Nicholi Jr.
Born Fighting: How the Scot-Irish Shaped America, James Webb
God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World, Walter Russell Mead
Our First Revolution: The Remarkable British Upheaval that Inspired America’s Founding Fathers, Michael Barone
Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton

Mythology:

The Prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson (Norse)
Theogony, Hesiod (Greek)
From the Poetic Edda: (Norse)
___Alvissmal
___Voluspa
___Grimnismal
___Rigsthula
The Mabinogion (British/Welsh)
Lebor Gebala Erenn (Irish)

Classics:

The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer
Paradise Lost, John Milton
Fierce Wars and Faithful Loves: Book I of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Roy Maynard
The Iliad, Homer
The Odyssey, Homer
Beowulf
The Aeneid, Vergil
The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri
The Song of Roland
The Oresteia, Aeschylus
MacBeth, Shakespeare
Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare

More Recent:

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien
The Space Trilogy, C.S. Lewis
Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn Series, Tad Williams
Dresden Files, Jim Butcher
The Halfblood Chronicles, Andre Norton and Mercedes Lackey
Kolmar Series, Elizabeth Kerner
House, Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker
Monster, Frank Peretti
Prey, Michael Crichton
Timeline, Michael Crichton
A Time to Kill, John Grisham

Arthuriana:

Culhwch and Olwen
The History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth
The Lady of Shallot, Tennyson
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
The Dream of Rhonabwy
Peredur Son of Efrawg
King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, Roger Lancelyn Green
The Pendragon Cycle, Stephen Lawhead
The Warlord Chronicles (not for kids at all), Bernard Cornwell
Camulod Chronicles (also sketchy, haven’t read them all), Jack Whyte
Avalon High (if you feel like high school drama), Meg Cabot
…and several other things mentioned above and below.

More Welsh Stuff:

The Battle of the Trees
Y Gododdin
Dialogue Between Myrddin and His Sister Gwendydd
The Apple Trees
The Dream of Macsen
Llud and Lefelys

Poetry:

Judith
The Dream of the Rood
Anything by Kipling
Anything by Billy Collins
The Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot

And so, so much more. But this is quite a lot to sink your teeth into. You can probably tell from this where my interests lie, and where my deficiencies are. If you have suggestions, I’m open to them. But these are mine. Mostly, I recommend picking up a book and following your nose where it leads. It worked for me, when I let myself do it.

God Bless.