The Wanderer’s Lament

I haven’t written much fiction lately, but I’ve been working on some poetry. And as our own Mr. Mastgrave reminded me this week, a poem can often be a form of telling a story. In my case, I certainly believe that that’s true. Some people are gifted enough that they can write beautiful poems about almost anything, but I can really only bring myself to write one when I have the right inspiration, usually when it has been influenced by something from my life—-a story, if you will.

Later in the week, I may write a post analyzing poems and storytelling a little more thoroughly. For now, I’d just like to share with you some of the latest ones I’ve written. The following is a work in progress born of an emotion inside me, but I didn’t really put it down in words until yesterday–so I reserve the right to edit and change it later on as I revisit it. (But I am planning to unveil it to the public at an open mic night tonight, so hopefully it’s ready enough for that at least!)

I have named this poem “The Wanderer’s Lament.”

———-

Home is not the mattress I sleep on

in a brick building far too uptight

to be anything more than a temporary dwelling.

Home is no longer the four walls

where I talked and laughed with two best friends

right up until everything changed.

Home is not even where my parents live, or my brothers,

or the simpler, more idealistic version of myself

I can still glimpse within my mind,

reading a book or doing homework

in that familiar house ten years ago.

Home is not a past that can never be repeated–

but neither is it the ever-fleeting present

or some hopeful future still in flux.

Home is not a grand adventure

6788260659_52e0a97b0d_n
Image taken from user Ciscolo on Flickr Creative Commons.

where I crossed the river to chase my dreams

and learn how to grow up a little more

and just maybe begin laying down some roots.

Home is not the winding halls

of the university I still love,

or the classroom where I spend so many hours

to earn a living and hopefully make a difference.

Home isn’t found under a steeple, in a pew,

or even a friendly living room full of smiling faces

with a Bible in my lap.

Home is not my friends,

the ones who have stood by me for years,

or the ones who so graciously welcomed me

into a strange new land.

Home is not any loving community that I’ve found,

or any that I’m likely to find in a week,

or a month,

or a year.

If one day I find love

and build up a family in a house,

if I hold a wife close to me

or cherish the sweet laugh of a child,

even then the home I long for

will still be far from me.

 

If I Find in Myself a Desire
Image taken from QuotesVil.com. Quote from C.S. Lewis.

Home will finally quench my deep desire

which nothing in this world can satisfy,

because, most probably,

I was made for another.

I don’t know what home will look like,

but I’ll see it when I go.

 

 

Allegories: The Ups and Downs

Cruciblecover
Cover of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

Lately I’ve been reading Arthur Miller‘s classic play The Crucible with my 11th grade Honors students, and I’m loving the experience. Reading it aloud in class with them has reminded me of when I first discovered the play as an 11th grade student myself, and its powerful characters with strong moral themes still resonate with me today. In fact, I tend to get so caught up in the action of the play, in the brilliant character dynamics and the almost otherworldly setting of early Puritan America, that I almost forget a few things. I forget that the play was written much later than it takes place—within the last century rather than in the 1600s—and that the author wrote it as an allegory for the social and political climate of his own time.

Now, why would I gloss over such an important historical detail, and one that is well established as the greatest influence for the writing of the play? Maybe it’s because allegories get a bad rap sometimes—and, sometimes, they deserve it. Oftentimes, when we think of allegories, what comes to mind is childish fairy tales with thinly veiled symbolism and much too didactic moral messages. I am reminded of stories like the Chronicles of Narnia—a series which, though I enjoy and respect it to a great degree, is understandably considered by some readers obvious and simplistic in its symbolism. Of course, I’m also reminded of some of my own science fiction and fantasy writings from five or more years ago that I kind of cringe to remember, because the Christian symbolism was similarly thinly veiled and rather unoriginal. (Heck, I know someone in a Christian writers’ community who even used the word “allegories” in the title of an independently published graphic novel. It’s like some authors aren’t even trying to hide it.)

The point is that allegories are sometimes looked down upon these days, because when they’re too obvious, they can come across as preachy and pretentious—a moral message disguised as a work of fiction rather than a genuine creative work itself. I saw an internet article once that, when poking fun at heavy-handed symbolism in a popular contemporary novel, jokingly called the author “C.S. Lewis.” And that got me thinking. First, my English major nature thought things like, “Well, if you think C.S. Lewis’ symbolism was so heavy-handed, then maybe you should go read ‘Young Goodman Brown‘ by Nathaniel Hawthorne and be glad for C.S. Lewis. And if you think that’s too much, then you should go read The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, in which pretty much every character’s name equates to some moral concept like ‘Charity’ or ‘Despair’ or ‘Faithless.’ But once I let my snarky English major side calm down a bit, I got to thinking, “well, aren’t there right and wrong ways to do symbolism and allegories in ways that today’s audiences will accept?”

And the answer is that, of course, there are. After all (though I personally haven’t seen it yet), wasn’t there recently a very popular movie in which the characters were just living embodiments of emotion? And aren’t some of the superheroes I like, the Green Lanterns and their multi-colored associates, based largely on the same thing, harnessing their powers from will or fear or hope and rage?

It’s not that symbolism—or direct thematic conveyances of emotion—are entirely shunned in today’s culture. It’s just that those elements have to be coupled with others, too—like good characters and a good story, which every compelling work of fiction should have anyway.

I remember writing a paper on the allegorical nature of The Faerie Queene, and how it (or at least the part we read in class, because the whole thing is super long) is pretty much just a Christian knight battling monsters who represent different sins, and using supernatural help to overcome them. My professor recommended a book called The Allegorical Temper, which I ended up citing in my paper. I don’t have exact quotes handy anymore, but the author’s consensus was that allegories only work if they’re stories as well. They shouldn’t be only moral messages, but they should be able to function on two levels, as messages conveyed through a good story. If a character represents an idea, then the character shouldn’t completely disappear into that idea; they should still be a well-developed, fleshed out character who is enjoyable and compelling to read about, like any other character should be. Then whatever underlying messages are present may still come through, but without overpowering the story for what it’s supposed to be.

Animal Farm
Copy of Animal Farm by George Orwell. Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

In hindsight, I’m not sure I can say that The Faerie Queene meets that goal particularly well. Obviously, more than a few direct allegories have been good enough to make their way into the classic canon of literature, and yet they vary in how much they actually tell a story beyond just the allegory. I recently started rereading George Orwell‘s Animal Farm because I’ll be teaching it too later in the year. Of course, my memory may be flawed because I haven’t read it in a decade, but I seem to remember the symbolism in that book being fairly thinly-veiled as well. Different animals correspond directly to different people or social classes involved in the Russian revolution, and the plot is narration-heavy without a lot of room for extra character development. The anti-totalitarian theme—a political message if not necessarily a moral one—comes through very directly, and the entire story seems to be there to serve that theme.

But again, consider The Crucible. It’s well known that Arthur Miller wrote it as a caution against the militant McCarthyism sweeping through 1950s America. Thus, the judges conducting the Salem witch trials within the text of the play are analogous to the anti-Communist courts of Miller’s era, and the town of Salem can be seen as a warning against America following a similar path. But that’s about it. That’s where the allegories end. John Proctor, the main hero of the story, doesn’t directly represent goodness or sin or anything like that. He’s a well-developed, realistic character with both good and bad traits, who just acts in accordance with his personality based on the events of the story. Abigail Williams, the main antagonist, isn’t directly representative of any one person or philosophy in Miller’s time. She’s just the villain, acting on evil motives but not on the author’s determination to drive home a moral point. The characters have lives and stories of their own that stretch beyond the text of the page and can exist independently of the author’s anti-McCarthyist sentiment.

To summarize: if you’re ever trying to write an allegory, or any story with an above-average amount of symbolism, know how to do it well. Include your symbolism and the themes and meanings you want it to represent, but don’t lose sight of writing a good story beyond that. Develop your plot and characters first and foremost so that the deeper messages can really come through in an engaging, compelling, and powerful way.

Writing Religion

noaa_globe-oceansWell, Neal’s busy this weekend, so I’m afraid that you’re all going to have to contend with a couple of extra posts from me.  On Tuesday Paul wrote an excellent post about how he’s using Religion in his own world, G’desh, that inspired a fair amount of conversation. One of the questions raised in this conversation was whether we should be using religion in speculative fiction at all. There were two major concerns raised 1) the risk of creating offense to those whose religious beliefs might be similar to a religion that seems to be negatively represented, and 2) the fact that so much fantasy religion seems to be too close to Christianity. So, I want to give any newer writers sharing these concerns a few guidelines on how to write religion effectively in speculative fiction. However, first I do have to say that I find the second concern somewhat surprising. The vast majority of fantasy that I’ve read, from Steven Erikson and George R.R. Martin to Ursula Leguin, Glenn Cook, David Eddings, and to a degree even J.R.R. Tolkien draw much more heavily on polytheistic religions (Greek, Norse, Celtic, Egyptian mythology) than on Christianity. While there are clear Christian ideas present in Tolkien’s writing, and C.S. Lewis is quite obviously attempting to write a Christian allegory, I can’t say that I’ve seen an overwhelming Christian influence in the high or dark fantasy Genres. So, if someone could provide some examples of this influence, I would be most appreciative. Now, a few guidelines when writing religion in speculative fiction:

-1) Religion exists: I know that some people try to take religion out of the world entirely, but this doesn’t generally work well. The reason for this is that it is human nature to believe in something. While the question of whether God exists can, and has been, argued ad infinitum, the simple fact that the Great Spaghetti Monster has worshippers should prove that, even if God doesn’t exist, we as a race want him to. At a fundamental level humans need something to base their lives on, and religion is simply the most accessible foundation available. Whether any particular religion is true is relatively unimportant for this point. It is simply easier for most people to believe that God or some set of gods exist that brought everything about than to live in a state of constant skepticism or attempt to formulate a rational metaphysical belief that is not founded on something… else. This is even true in the speech of modern Atheist scholars. Even though these scholars do not believe in any deity, and some even believe that they can prove that no such deity is reasonably possible, they talk about the universe as though it were a deific, intelligent, willful entity. So, in my humble opinion, an attempt to simply excise religion entirely isn’t realistic. It would be kind of like trying to write a world without math or without people.

658px-Belief_Venn_diagram.svg2) Write what you believe: I firmly believe that every story is and should be a teaching tool. So, be aware of what your fiction is teaching. I’m not saying that you sacrifice story for the sake of lesson, but your world should reflect your beliefs about the real world. When I read your story, it should teach me something about the world as a whole. So, when you are creating religions for your world, do it in a way that you can actually agree with. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be a theologian and get every detail exactly right, but if you believe in a naturalistic world filled with elemental spirits and creatures, why would you write a world in which a monotheistic God sent a savior to redeem the sins of man? In opposition, if you believe in a God who sent a savior to redeem the sins of men, why would you write a world with no concept of monotheism or redemption? Consider the work of Steven Erikson here: Erikson’s Malazan world is very humanistic. The gods were once men, and to some degree still are. Similarly, men can become gods, and men can kill gods. While Erikson’s religions are many and complex, as is religion in the real world, he makes it clear that man must save himself. In Erikson’s world a man is responsible for his own life, he cannot simply rely on some god to come and make everything better. One of the reasons that my own world of Avnul emphasizes the concept that the gods are above men, beyond them in every way and not reliant on them is that I disagree with the common humanistic arguments in modern fantasy and want to provide a counter to them.

Religions_4x53) Write something that reflects reality: How many religions can you name? Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Sikhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Wicca, Shintoism, Ba’hai, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witness, Paganism, Norse Religion (yes, people actually still worship Odin and Thor), The Great Spaghetti Monster (yes, he has a few actual worshippers now), Tenrikyo… Honestly, I’ve barely scratched the surface! In the history of the world there have been hundreds of religions (at least), and if you break down all of the different cults, sects, etc, there have been thousands. They range from sensible to insane, from historically realistic to having no basis in evidence at all, from ancient to only a few years old, from believable to utterly and completely unbelievable. If you’ve written a world where there are only two or three religions then you’re missing the mark. You may decide to write a world where there is one true religion and hundreds of false religions. You may decide to write a world where all religions are false, or write a world where all religions are true (see above), but write something that actually reflects the way the world is.

map_4414) Write something that is fundamentally yours: Perhaps, like myself, you are a Christian. If you are going to write an allegory 1) make it obvious and 2) make it accurate. I believe I’ve mentioned before that I have serious problems with the concept of redemption presented in Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. The Christian religion is, in part, about the redemption of wicked men. However, in Lewis’ fiction all the wicked men die horribly and go to Tosh. If you are not trying to write an allegory, then make the religions in your world your own. Tolkien is an excellent example of this, as is Erikson. Both men write worlds that have clear elements of their own beliefs. If you read Tolkien (especially the Silmarillion) concepts of monotheism, angelic beings, creation, the fall, and redemption of the wicked are all very clear. However, Christianity does not exist in Tolkien’s world, nor does any direct cognate for Christianity. Similarly, as I mentioned above, Erikson’s world is distinctly humanist, but there are still real gods with real power.

When we write the ultimate goal, as Aristotle said, should be to both educate and entertain. Pay attention to what you’re teaching people and write a world that reflects the real world and allows you to say something real about that world, but that is also thoroughly your own creation. It’s a careful balance, but when struck well it’s what makes stories great.

Story Challenge of the Week

hesedI think love is very important in life. I’m not talking about romantic love here, or at least not just about romantic love. I’m talking about loving others in general. Anyone who knows me particularly well can tell you that I’m not a fan of C.S. Lewis. Most of my friends have heard my rants about The Chronicles of Narnia or Lewis’ glaring theological inaccuracies, (which, to his credit, he freely admitted – Lewis did not consider himself a theologian, it is later fans who have attempted to make him one). However, there is a quote from The Four Loves that I am quite fond of. Lewis said “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”* Love does not require romance to be real. There are many people that I love, some of them read this blog, others probably don’t even realize I run a writing blog. All of them have hurt me, and I have no doubt that I have hurt all of them at one point or another. So, this is your story challenge this week, and from all of the crazy stuff I come up with, I think this is probably the most difficult challenge I’ve ever given you.
Your Challenge: Write a story about real love. This should not be a story about romantic love, or cliched love, or seemingly perfect love. I want you to write a story about true, real, unremitting love. Whether it is between friend, siblings, parent and child, or love for a stranger, write me a story about loving someone.
*The Four Loves, by C.S. Lewis can be purchased here, though I have no doubt that with a little effort you can find it for a cheaper price.

Philosophy in Writing: Explicit vs. Implicit?

John-Ronald-Reuel-Tolkien-10-500x337There are two underlying approaches to writing anything with a philosophical basis or concept behind it. Regardless of everything else you do, you must choose to be either explicit or implicit in your writing. However, regardless of which you choose to adopt in your own writing, it is important to recognize and understand the importance of both styles and their respective advantages and disadvantages. I am not going to tell you which one is better for your personal writing; they can both be effective or ineffective equally, but personally, I find myself drawn more towards those writers whose philosophy takes on an implicit form, but that is just me.

Tolkien’s writings (particularly the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit) are prime examples of the subtle and intricate nature in which Tolkien conveys his philosophy. The connections between his stories and the ‘real world’ are obvious to the reader on a conceptual level, yet difficult to pinpoint in detail. This is precisely what it means to write the implicitly true; Tolkien believed that an implied truth was far more readily accepted by the common reader than an explicit one. He wanted to create a story which was true in its meaning, even if it is untrue in regards to the actual existence of the world and characters that he created. In this way it can be accurately said that all stories are true, even though some of them never happened, for all stories carry truths, both implicitly and explicitly. As to the question of which one is better or which one ought to be chosen for a particular story I am afraid that I cannot begin to answer that for you; yet to speak out of personal preference, I find writings with implicit morals to be much more fascinating because of their heavier reliance on the active engagement of the reader. Anyone who has any inkling of knowledge about Christianity can read the Chronicles of Narnia and make the connections, but without any clear knowledge of Tolkien or the Silmarillion it is easy to conceive of (in part because it happened prior to the publishing of the Silmarillion) someone reading the stories of the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit without picking up on the subtle Christian truths woven throughout the story which I do not have the time to mention here. Tolkien’s ability to create a world so relatable to our own despite its vast differences is just one attestation to the power and importance of implicit philosophy.

jack13On the other side we have the explicit; perhaps the greatest examples of explicit truths are Aesop’s Fables. These short stories are famous for their practical applications and stated morals. Really any story with an obvious or stated moral to it can be considered explicit; it is the obvious connections to daily life that make it explicit. Similarly, C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are also explicit in their connections to general church theology. Aslan is obviously representative of God and his actions are clearly reminiscent of God’s actions in Christian theology. He dies to save a boy who betrayed Aslan and the boy’s family and was resurrected. Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth does not have any clear correlation to Christian theology on the level that Narnia does and this is one of the reasons for which Tolkien, who as we mentioned before believed that implied truth was more powerful than its explicit counterparts, critiqued Lewis’ writings. He found the truths to be too obvious and too blatant compared to his much more subtle way of expressing similar underlying beliefs. Despite Tolkien’s harsh opinion, I do believe that the explicit is important as well, especially for younger audiences. A child is not going to pick up on the subtleties of Tolkien’s writings whereas they might find the lion Aslan to be a comforting reminder of what they learned in church, or what their parents taught them about right and wrong.

Conservatism vs. Liberalism

Abraham_Lincoln_November_1863

Yet another post from Canaan Suitt:

“What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried?” – Abraham Lincoln

Conservatism is obstructive to the pursuit of truth and harmful to the wellbeing of society when the old ways of thinking and doing things are erroneous. Conversely, Liberalism, which we may say is in essence trying the new and untried against the old and tried, is dangerous when it is merely a desire to push against tradition for its own sake, without the guidance of reason. Both may be dangerous, and for the same reason: namely, both may eschew truth for something else–tradition for the one, “liberation” for the other.

It doesn’t seem to me that the ideas we call liberal would be called liberal if they had come first. Conversely, it doesn’t seem to me that those ideas that come along and challenge the established ideas can be called conservative. Of course, established and new ideas could be called liberal and conservative, respectively, if, like Humpty Dumpty, we could call things what we please. But using the established meaning of the words, it seems to me that conservative is conservative because it comes first in time and development and liberal is liberal because it comes subsequently. Now, probably both conservatives and liberals would take umbrage at this reduction of their respective ideologies to a matter of chronology. Conservatives may counter by saying that their ideas and values are in accordance with absolute truth, regardless of what newfangled ideas may come. Liberals may give an argument not unlike the conservatives’ in that it gives their position legitimacy by according their views with the truth (in throwing off the falsehoods of tradition).

This image was found here. I like the image... not sure I like the site. However, credit where credit is due.
This image was found here. I like the image… not sure I like the site. However, credit where credit is due.

As I began by saying, so now I reiterate that the relationship between conservatism or liberalism and truth is precarious. To clarify, I am talking about conservatism and liberalism in a political context. Now if conservatism were defined and used to mean–what I don’t think it really means–accordance with absolute truth, then I would unwaveringly call myself a conservative. For, as C.S. Lewis once wrote, “An open mind, in questions that are not ultimate, is useful. But an open mind about the ultimate foundations either of Theoretical or Practical Reason is idiocy. If a man’s mind is open on these things, let his mouth at least be shut.” Liberalism, because conservatism and liberalism are opposites, would mean the open mind that Lewis condemns–would be forsaking the foundation that gives meaning to anything. But traditionalism–adherence to the old and tried–is not synonymous with adherence to truth, period. Conservatism means going along with the old and tried politically, which may be good and may not. In the context of Lincoln’s speech quoted above, it is very good, because by it he means adhering to the Constitution and being devoted to the perpetuity of union. Liberalism, politically, as doing the new and untried, may be good and it may be destructive. A liberal mindset or idea may in fact greatly improve upon the conservative way of doing things. I think of the great contribution of those “liberals” Erasmus and Luther, or those liberal measures called the Thirteenth and Nineteenth Amendments. On the other hand, rebellion against the old and tried merely because it is old and tried is no good reason to be a liberal. The standard against which both conservatism and liberalism have to be tried is truth itself.

This photo was found at Keyboard Militia.
This photo was found at Keyboard Militia.

I myself think Plato’s approach (see The Republic I) is the best one – to be guided by reason and the ever-pressing desire to understand and act upon the truth. I am not very concerned with labels–it seems to me that most labels are applied in hindsight by posterity or in the present by the opponents of a certain way of thinking–I am concerned with knowing the truth (“as God gives us to see the right,” as Lincoln said elsewhere and applying it to society. If this means that at times I seem conservative to those who may observe me, well, that’s fine. And so it is if I may be liberal.

This sort of person, who is not concerned for labels or movements or systematized political stances, the person whom I’ll call “The Sojourner,” will unsettle conservatives and liberals alike. On some issues, conservatives will applaud the Sojourner; on others, liberals will approve him. Both will be disturbed on many other points. Both sides will see him as an anomaly–an unstable conglomeration of diametrically opposed ideologies. Neither will welcome him entirely. “He’s delusional, you know. That chameleonic fellow thinks he can support our pro-life stuff while supporting the legalization of homosexual marriage!” Or, in a meeting room on the other side of the Capitol, “What’s he trying to do–get a bigger constituency? Everyone knows you can’t support these damn imperialistic programs and align yourself with our green initiatives! It’s just a load of BS.” For his part, the Sojourner knows the world is more complex than his friends seek to make it. In his thoughtful quest for the right, he is mostly alone (except in the company of books and rarely met like-minded people), but he knows solitariness is necessarily a part of the quest.

In the Opinion of the Intelligent Readers Club…

Alright, well Cassandra is taking a break for a while, but I have a great sub for her! This is the first of several posts that you’ll be seeing from Canaan Suitt:

Machiavelli’s most famous work, and arguably his most influential. The Prince is one of the few books that I’ve read multiple times. It’s magnificent.

“The Divine Comedy,” said my professor, visibly irritated, “a work which everyone likes to talk about but which no one has read.” He could have substituted the Iliad, the Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, The Republic, Plutarch’s Lives, The City of God, Beowulf, The Prince, Paradise Lost, Hamlet, The Federalist Papers, Moby Dick and many other renowned pieces of literature and the same censure would hold true. Just today I had a discussion with a friend who expressed disapproval of Machiavelli’s “wretchedness,” but when I asked him if he had actually read The Prince, he responded that, of course, he had not. Or there was the pompous interlocutor who attempted to discredit Alexander Hamilton’s “big government” stance but had not even glanced at The Federalist Papers to discover what Hamilton actually said (besides, Jay and Madison wrote most of the section on the Senate which my friend was bashing). Anyone who actually reads books can only express dismay at such foolishness.

Some of the classics are wonderful, but honestly I think that some of them are over-rated… Everyone is going to have his/her own tastes in literature, don’t be ashamed of yours.

Perhaps we can forgive my friends’ vanity when we realize that the impression that we must read certain books (the “classics”) to be considered intelligent is inculcated in students throughout their education. For instance, I’ll never forget my high school English teacher who used to harp on the books that were “vitally important” to read before going into college or the condescension I sometimes received and at times gave to others when a certain book hadn’t been read. I was frowned upon for not having read 1984 in my senior year of high school; I frowned upon someone else because they hadn’t read The Screwtape Letters. First of all, this impression in and of itself is skewed. The purpose of reading “classics” is not so one can brag about one’s intelligence. It seems to me that the only valid reason for reading classics or anything else is to gain knowledge and understanding, not to obtain a membership card into the Intelligent Reader Club. But secondly, this impression isn’t even enforced by reading the books, which, it is insisted, must be read. My English teacher failed to enlighten me a great deal. Homer, Plato, Augustine, Machiavelli, Milton, and Shakespeare, are met far more frequently, and perhaps exclusively, through textbooks and other secondary sources than through what the actual authors bequeathed to the world. Like my friends in the foregoing examples, some people will feign knowledge of the primary works based on such superficial acquaintance in order to seem knowledgeable. Some people don’t read them (don’t even read the textbooks!) and don’t care, either. In both cases, the ignorance is disturbing.

Modern politics… Sophism at it’s best… or worst, as the case may be.

More generally, many people have the impression that they ought to have an opinion, and so they express it when, in fact, they don’t have one. In America, this is especially true in politics, a fact that has been proven to a superfluous degree this election year. What most people call their political opinions are the parrot-like recapitulations of their preferred pundit. Not only have people not actually read the books that would have greatly assisted them in forming their opinions, they haven’t even thought for themselves. In consequence of this uncritical mindset, peoples’ tempers flare and they become ludicrously defensive when their political opinions are assailed. For instance, I often wondered why voters become as emotionally involved as the actual candidates during an election when their preferred candidate is criticized–and not even with a good criticism! Someone gives an insipid criticism of a Romney gaffe and the Romney supporter goes nuclear with ominous prophecies of the future if Obama is reelected. It seems to me that unthoughtfulness accounts for this phenomenon. People would rather become polemical about sound bites and birth certificates and falsely pride themselves on having an opinion rather than confront real issues as well as the candidates’ stances on those issues and thereby possess an opinion worth verbalizing. I wonder if we are the most insecure people in the history of the world!

Plato’s allegory of the cave is presented in the Republic as an example of his theory of ideal forms. An example with great depth and breadth that has managed to successfully impact cultures from Plato’s own time to today because it strikes at the basis of human nature.

One thing my English instructor did teach me is that I ought to conclude my writings with a rousing plea, a challenge for readers to take up. Unfortunately, I will not meet that guideline here. All I can do is express my wish that more people would read and read deeply. All I can do is express my wish that more people would think and think carefully. In his essay On the Reading of Old Books, C.S. Lewis wrote that the only palliative to a narrow, uncritical mindset is to read broadly and deeply. He said reading old books help dispel the misconceptions of the current age like a fresh sea breeze. On the other hand, reading current books help dispel the misconceptions of the past and expose the tacitly accepted mindset of the present time. Reading a three-paragraph textbook summary of Plato’s Theory of Ideals, for example, will not reveal what Plato really meant in all his nuance and complexity–only Plato can do that, and he does a far better job of it than Editor et al. That goes for any of the works I listed before and many, many more. We must read carefully and then think deeply and then repeat. That is, we must do this if we really want to understand and be thoughtfully engaged in the world. The opinions which we love to have and express will follow naturally if we do this–and they will be worth hearing!

Creation Stories

So, now that you have been working on the writing challenges, I hope that some of you might be willing to try your hand at writing the history of a word all your own. Actually, I’m sure that a few of you have been writing for a while now, and have perhaps been trying to create a world, but you just aren’t sure where to begin. That is where I hope to help you. The next few posts are going to be looking at what it takes to write your own world into existence.

Let there be… a giant ying yang symbol… floating through the sky.. with a dragon… and a turtle… and a… what is that, a mermaid? Ok guys, this is getting ridiculous!

One of my favorite examples of someone writing a history of a world is the famous author and Linguist J.R.R. Tolkien. You want to talk about someone who wrote the history of his world just look to this man. Tolkien wrote several volumes of in depth and complete history of the world that we know as Middle Earth. Really, I could spend several blog posts writing about what he did, but I will get back to the topic at hand.

Now, please don’t think that I’m telling you that you have to go as deep as Tolkien, but if you want to then… Great!!!! It can take years to do that, and I’m sure this isn’t something that most of you want to dedicate that much time to do. I was a history major, so I love the idea. But… I’m sure you are thinking, “Ok… but what is the first step?” Well, if you don’t have a world or even if you do, then do have a creation story? Yes, every and I mean every civilization has a story about how they were created. Your world needs to be as real to you as the one of are living in.

So, how can you write a story if the world itself is just a two dimensional image in your mind. You, in a sense, are the over arcing god of your world. /you probably have a god/gods of your world, but you dictate what they do. So, how do you want the world to come into existence? Honestly one of my favorites is from Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis where Narnia was sung into existence. I mean how great is that? The god sang things into being! Be creative!

Two great authors!

There are so many different creation stories out there, use them to feed your imagination. Now, I know you are probably thinking, “I thought you were going to talk to us about the history of the world?” Well, I am this is part of the history. It might or might not play a part in the story itself, but many times characters tell bits and pieces of myths or legends within the story. These myths and legends come from the creation of your world, or the story of a hero that lived in another time. Now that I have you thinking about what you want to have your in your creation story, go sit down and start writing it. This is the foundation of the history of your world. Have fun with it, remember you are the one with the power. Bring it to life for everyone else to see. Also, remember that you will never get better at writing unless you start somewhere.

Must Reads

Enter here to tales of yore,

Everyone has their list of books that they think are amazing.  We tend to tell people that they must read these books, thus the title, must reads.  However, while there are a lot of great books out there, and a lot of books that are beneficial to read, there are relatively few books or authors that one ‘must read’.  Books/authors that one ‘must read’ are books/authors that have become foundational to a particular genre, or that have significantly changed that genre in some way.  So, I have compiled a list of ‘must reads’ for Science Fiction and Fantasy fans.  You will not that this list is relatively short (comparatively speaking) and at least a few books that you think should be on it, aren’t.  Again, these are books/authors that founded or significantly altered the genre.

Isaac Asimov: Asimov wrote numerous short stories and a number of novels.  However, he is best known for his Foundation Trilogy.  Asimov effectively founded the Science Fiction genre, and thus is definitely a must read.

J.R.R. Tolkien:  Tolkien was a prolific author, so prolific that books of his short stories and still be found and newly published by his descendants.  Best know for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien is to fantasy what Asimov is to Science Fiction.

C.S. Lewis: While not as prolific a fiction author, nor as influential to the genre as Tolkien, Lewis’s work and relationship with Tolkien are both significant to the genre.

Edgar Allan Poe: Poe is not the first person to come to mind when one thinks of sci-fi/fantasy.  His work primarily belongs to the genres of horror and mystery, but the influence of Poe’s writing is felt throughout the sci-fi, fantasy, and horror genres and thus he is a must read for any fan.

H.P. Lovecraft: Like Poe, Lovecraft’s writing belongs primarily in the realm of horror.  However, Lovecraft’s influence is also felt throughout all three genres, and to truly understand any of them, one must be familiar with his work.

Frank Herbert: Dune, Dune Messiah, and Children of Dune are all profoundly influential novels that have helped to shape the sci-fi genre in its entirety.  It is difficult to find a good sci-fi author (or film maker) who has not been influenced by Herbert’s work.

Of many man and dragons score,

Robert Heinlein: Like Herbert, Heinlein is a name that should be familiar to all sci-fi fans.  While Herbert dealt more with the philosophical, Heinlein’s fiction deals with practical and political concerns.  Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers are suggested.

George Orwell: While there are many great dystopian authors, Orwell is arguably the most prolific and influential (thought both Ray Bradbury and Aldous Huxley rank only slightly lower).  Animal Farm and 1984 are suggested.

Sir Thomas More:  More’s novel Utopia (1516) is responsible for the great flood of dystopian fiction of the 20th century.  While the novel itself is not a must read, familiarity with its ideas is important.

George Macdonald: Macdonald was a significant influence on the work of both Tolkien and Lewis, and many consider Macdonald’s writing to be the first true fantasy written for adults.  Phantastes is recommended (although my favorites have always been The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdy, though these are written for children).

Robert E. Howard: Best known for Conan The Barbarian, and his many short stories involving this character.  It is argued that Howard introduced the first protagonist with a significantly different moral structure in fantasy.

Ursula K. Leguin: The Earthsea series is almost as foundational to the development of modern fantasy as Tolkien’s work.

Terry Brooks: While his work is often as maligned as it is loved among fans of the fantasy genre, the Shannara series led a major change in the way that fantasy was published (if not the way that it was written) and opened doors for many other fantasy authors.

And of the living lands all covered in war.

Stephen R. Donaldson: Donaldson’s work in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: The Unbeliever stood side by side with Brooks’ Shannara novels in reintroducing the fantasy genre to the American public.

Glen Cook:  While Brooks and Donaldson changed the way that fantasy was published, Cook changed the way that fantasy was written.  Before Cook the fantasy genre was dominated by stories about kings, princes, and maidens.  The tales tended to revolve around men and women of significant power and influence, who changed the world.  Cook’s The Black Company changed this focus.  Cook’s series looks at fantasy through the eyes of the soldier, the mercenary, and the peasant.  Instead of great heroes, Cook’s protagonists are men and women who’s primary goal is to stay alive, and to get home with all their parts intact.