Tolkien, Fairy Stories, and Sub-creation

I was first introduced to Tolkien’s The Hobbit when I was a pre-teen. At that point I was not familiar with The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings trilogy (the movies had not yet premiered). I had the joy and privilege to experience this story with a blank slate, knowing nothing about the book besides the cover image. Image result for the hobbit coversThus I was immediately whisked away into the magic of the Shire, Mirkwood, the Lonely Mountain, and Bilbo’s adventures with his “Unexpected Party” of dwarves. To my great relief upon completing the book, I discovered that The Hobbit was only the prequel (though it was not originally written with the intention of being a prequel) to the much grander and epic The Lord of the Rings, and soon after I dived right on in to that as well.

Few worlds have captured my imagination and inner longings like Middle Earth. Perhaps I could add Narnia (I have probably read that whole series ten times or more), Hogwarts, and the Fairy Land of Phantastes. I am being very serious when I describe my experiences in these worlds as mystical. It was not merely a matter of entering a great story–I entered into a new reality of wonder. It was not merely escapism–I began to see the magic of my world in new ways (what Tolkien would call “Recovery,” discussed below). Great imaginative writers have written detailed apologias defending the power of fairy literature. Stories and worlds such as those I’ve already mentioned have unfortunately been quickly dismissed into genre fiction: fantasy. It is almost never critically viewed as serious literature. But its importance is far greater than just another pop-novel category.

Tolkien’s mythopoeia is best detailed in his famous Andrew Lang Lecture, “On Fairy-Stories,” delivered at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland on March 8, 1939. In it he describes the importance of the Faerie realm equal to and even beyond the narrative itself. Tolkien goes on to explain that writers become “sub-creators,” drawing upon the Christian doctrine of the imago dei. Humans are made in the image of a Creator-God and are endowed with similar (though not equal) abilities to create: “we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”

Tolkien went on to dispel the myth that fairy stories are only for children (similar to my statement about the dismissal of the “fantasy” genre):

At least it will be plain that in my opinion fairy-stories should not be specially associated with children. They are associated with them: naturally, because children are human and fairy-stories are a natural human taste (though not necessarily a universal one); accidentally, because fairy-stories are a large part of the literary lumber that in latter-day Europe has been stuffed away in attics; unnaturally, because of erroneous sentiment about children, a sentiment that seems to increase with the decline in children.

Tolkien concluded his lecture by listing three important functions of fairy stories: recovery, escape, and consolation. First, fairy stories help readers recover the magic of their “Primary world,” which is often lost in our overly scientific, overly explained universe. Escape, in Tolkien’s view, is not a bad thing. Instead, he likens escape to the noble desire of the prisoner rather than the ignoble flight of a deserter. Escape in this sense is one who imagines a better world. Thus, in many ways fantasy begins overlapping with the real world to help heal it. Finally, consolation is Tolkien’s and the fairy tale’s highlight. Tolkien names this the “Eucatastrophe”: “the good
catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale)…” I’m reminded of Gandalf’s eucatastrophic appearance at Helm’s Deep when it seemed that all would be lost. Tolkien, however, goes further, and here his Catholic Christianity is very evident. Consolation envisions the fulfillment of the Christian’s longing: paradise, the new heavens and new earth provided only by the eucatastrophic death and resurrection of the Christ.

Thus, I hope it is evident that fantasy, true and good fantasy, is something much deeper than a superficial pop-novel. By creating a secondary world of imagination and magic (if you will), it plays out consistently the deepest human and universal themes of the primary world.

Follow New Instagram Account: A Little Literary Fun on the Side

a big cup of books insta image

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your front door…”

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

“To be, or not to be…”

Some famous lines of literature. A good quote has the ability to boil down a profound idea into a single statement. Now, in this 144 character, bite-size Twitter culture, I’m not always impressed with our faddish, weightless phrases, and of course one must be careful not to rip things out of context. Nevertheless, I still believe in the power of a quotation, a nugget, a piece of gold from the classic, literary treasure chest.

Thus, here I am justifying a new little side venture. Follow this Instagram account for daily literary quotations. You can also see the account on this blog’s sidebar.

a big cup of books on Instagram

at the still point, there the dance is...

 

 

 

Faustus Makes a Deal with…Will Ferrell?

This week in my online Renaissance class we are reading Christopher Marlowe’s famous play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. In the play Faustus makes a deal with the devil in exchange for a life of decadence for twenty-four years on earth. In addition to various other tasks, we were asked to analyze the continued effects of Marlowe’s narrative on contemporary culture. I chose SNL’s “The Devil Can’t Write a Love Song” featuring Garth Brooks as Milo, an uninspired musician willing to sell his soul for a hit song to Lucifer, aka Will Ferrell. Please enjoy!

El Salvador: Juayua, Ataco, El Principito, and Grace

[I missed a post last week, so this is basically a combination of yesterday’s and tomorrow’s posts.]

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Yesterday I went to las cascadas de Juayua with some friends. We’re in the rainy season here in El Salvador, but if we wait for ideal conditions in life, we’ll sell ourselves woefully short. Thus, we plowed on and had a great time despite the rain. Unfortunately, the weather did prevent decent pictures. Still…

These waterfalls pour into crystal clear pools where one can relax and enjoy the surrounding environment (the jungle). I guess we couldn’t exactly relax too much since it was really cold, but we did have fun. Built alongside these pools are multiple tunnels leading to other pools. Though a little intimidating to plunge through a tunnel in the dark, it was a neat experience. We had a great time, and tried to stay dry, but most of our stuff got pretty wet. Afterwards we cleaned up as best as we could (I was directed to go inside this poorly lit house to change. As I walked in an old lady was moseying about and soon left. I changed quickly hoping she wouldn’t walk back in while I was stark naked!).

After the waterfalls we ate a delicious lunch and then visited Ataco (now my second time) to walk around and grab some coffee. There’s some really great wall art there!

As you can see, there’s a painting dedicated to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s work, El Principito (originally in French, Le Petit Prince). This work is significant throughout the world, but it is especially significant in this region of El Salvador: Saint-Exupéry married Consuelo Suncín de Sandoval of El Salvador, and Ataco is near Sonsonate, the departamento where she grew up.

I started reading El Principito to work on my Spanish. Here are a couple favorite quotes so far:

Las personas mayores nunca pueden comprender algo por sí solas y es muy aburrido para los niños tener que darles una y otra vez explicaciones.

 

Cuando el misterio es demasiado impresionante, es imposible desobedecer.

Finally, I’m also reading Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin Gospel for the first time. In his fifth chapter, Manning goes into great detail to discuss the exchange of grace and wonder. This idea of wonder I think accurately relates to my experiences in El Salvador as well as to what I’ve read so far in El Principito.

     The spirituality of wonder knows the world is changed with grace, that while sin and war, disease and death are terribly real, God’s loving presence and power in our midst are even more real.

In the grasp of wonder, I am surprised, I’m enraptured. It’s Moses before the burning bush “afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3:6). It’s Stephen about to be stoned: “I can see…the Son of man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). It’s Michelangelo striking his sculptured Moses and commanding him, “Speak!” It’s Ignatius of Loyola in ecstasy as he eyes the sky at night, Teresa of Avila ravished by a rose. It’s doubting Thomas discovering his God in the wounds of Jesus, Mother Teresa spying the face of Christ in the tortured poor. It’s America thrilling to footsteps on the moon, a child casting his kite to the wind. It’s a mother looking with love at her newborn infant. It’s the wonder of a first kiss.

I’m learning to live with wonder in the moment. Thanks for sharing in part this journey with me.

A Day in the Life of Your Favorite Book Character (Anodos)

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If you could spend a day as your favorite book character, who would it be?

I wanted to think outside the box a little bit here and choose a character lesser known than, say, a certain famous hobbit. Then it hit me: Anodos!

Anodos is the name of the main character in the Victorian fairy story Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women written by George MacDonald in 1858. If you have never read George MacDonald, you should. His stories are full of imagination, and he is incredibly influential in the fantasy genre. Many are unfamiliar with his name, but he rubbed shoulders with some of the most famous writers in Western Literature. C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia, acknowledged his incredible literary debt on multiple occasions. In fact, George MacDonald takes the place of Virgil as guide in Lewis’ The Great Divorce, a modern interpretation of The Divine Comedy. Lewis would say this about MacDonald’ Phantastes in his own book Surprised by Joy:

It was as if I were carried sleeping across the frontier, or as if I had died in the old country and could never remember how I came alive in the new. . . . I did not yet know (and I was long in learning) the name of the new quality, the bright shadow, that rested on the travels of Anodos. I do now. It was Holiness. . . . It was as though the voice which had called to me from the world’s end were now speaking at my side.

In Phantastes the main character, Anodos, awakes one day to find himself no longer in his own room–he is in Fairy Land. The story follows Anodos through Fairy Land on his strange adventures as he seeks to escape the wiles of the spirits of the Ash Tree and the Alder Tree. At one point, even, he has confrontations with his own, evil shadow, an element that would later remind me of Ged in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series (another must-read for all fantasy lovers). I kind of felt like Phantastes was an adult Alice in Wonderland: more plot, less nonsense, and deeper moral imagination all amidst a strange, Alice-like journey through a magical place (this is an especially appropriate example since MacDonald was a mentor to Lewis Carroll and his Alice publication). I don’t want to ruin the story, but you must read it!

Therefore, the character I pick is Anodos. I want to wake up in Fairy Land and learn bravery and beauty and mystery through magical forests even if it is risky.

Yet I know that good is coming to me—that good is always coming, though few have at all times the simplicity and the courage to believe it. -Phantastes

How about you? If you could spend a day as your favorite book character who would it be and why?

Read This: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

[Here is a piece of advice if you want to be better read and don’t know where to start: besides the “canonized” classics (Western AND non-Western), try reading Pulitzer Prize winning fiction or Nobel Prize authors. When I’m looking for new, contemporary fiction and I’m not sure what to read, I’ve recently been going to the most recent Pulitzer Prize winning novel that I have not read.] 

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[Don’t worry, no spoilers here! ]

Viet Thanh Nguyen is the 2016 Pulitzer Prize winning novelist of The Sympathizer. Though born in Vietnam, at four years old his family fled to the United States after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Nguyen now is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Southern California.

“‘No one is righteous, no, not one…'”

This verse, Romans 3:11, might be an appropriate summary for The Sympathizer and an especially poignant reminder for the American idealist.

Over three-quarters of the book takes place as a confession from the main character (unnamed throughout), a Vietnamese political prisoner, to his communist commandant. He is a mole, a communist spy that has spent years as a captain for the southern republic of Vietnam. After the fall of Saigon, he escapes as a refugee to America. There he continues to act as an informant and operative for the communist party before he returns to Vietnam with a small reconnaissance party only to be captured by his communist comrades and forced to write and re-write a satisfactory confession over the course of a year. The book concludes with a self-revealing climax about the character, the reality of war, and human nature.

In his novel, Nguyen writes the main character as a living embodiment of contrasts and duality. He is a bi-racial bastard, the secret love child of his Vietnamese mother and his father, a French priest. He is in southern Vietnam as a mole, a sympathizer for the communist north. He is a strange amalgamation of East and West: he studied in America, speaks perfect English, understands the culture, and almost feels at home there as a refugee. He is a mole with a conscience, constantly struggling with his role in the revolution. He truly sympathizes with both sides of everything: both sides of the revolution in Vietnam and in some ways both sides of the world (East and West). His struggle is not a negation of identity (in contrast to a faceless character towards the end of the book) but rather a doubling of it. Thus, in perfect story form, Nguyen himself explores the duality of the Vietnamese American, perhaps best captured in the book’s opening lines.

“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of a minor nature, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess…. But in the month when this confession begins, my way of seeing the world still seemed more of a virtue than a danger, which is how some dangers first appear.”

Additionally, Nguyen explores the abuse of power from all angles: the Americans, the southern Vietnamese, and the northern Vietnamese. No one is innocent, as the character realizes.

Finally, uniquely, Nguyen isn’t really directing his novel towards white Americans. In a Q & A with Paul Tran, Nguyen implies his desire to “directly [confront] the history of the American war in Vietnam from the Vietnamese American point of view.” However, it’s not a novel to describe the Vietnamese to whites.

“I did not want to write this book as a way of explaining the humanity of Vietnamese. Toni Morrison says in Beloved that to have to explain yourself to white people distorts you because you start form a position of assuming your inhumanity or lack of humanity in other people’s eyes. Rather than writing a book that tries to affirm humanity, which is typically the position that minority writers are put into, the book starts from the assumption that we are human, and then goes on to prove that we’re also inhuman at the same time.”

So there you have it. I recommend the book. It’s thought-provoking and challenges our assumptions. And it is written from a unique and powerful voice. Enjoy!

At the Intersection of Books & Dreams

“I have come to believe that coming true is not the only purpose of a dream. It’s most important purpose is to get us in touch with where dreams come from…”

This weekend I watched a TED talk by Lisa Bu entitled “How Books Can Open Your Mind.” It’s a fascinating account of a young girl scorned from pursuing her dream (Chinese opera) and finding solace in books. Eventually reading also gave Bu the tools necessary to “re-start” her relationship with her parents. However, as the quote above points out, the ultimate benefit of reading in Bu’s life was not an actualization of her dreams but rather an actualization of her identity.

Through reading we live a thousand lives, and I believe that by surveying those multitudes we better understand our own. Books empower and they teach and they console. And in a sense, they allow us to live out those lives that our world won’t allow (our dreams). Furthermore, as Bu points out, even shattered dreams can help us understand ourselves better. Therefore (motivational soap box), find your dreams, find your books, find your dreams (yes, it’s cyclical). Even in the pursuit of understanding a dream realized or a dream dreamed, you will find yourself more deeply I believe.

PS Check out this 6:16 video in full:

That’s Not Old English! (how to act like a total tool…and enjoy doing it!)

You know the person…the type of person who tries to act so sophisticated, like they know everything. They’re the people who say “That’s sooo bourgeois.” You know, like this…

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And yet, all of us secretly enjoy when we’re the overly smart ones. When we can stop someone and say, “Actually, you’re wrong…” with our noses in the air (okay, let’s not put our noses in the air). So, if you’ve always desired this kind of moment, here’s a great piece of trivia to flaunt in someone’s face.

SHAKESPEARE IS NOT OLD ENGLISH. And if Shakespeare is not Old English, then Dickens and Austen most certainly don’t fit in that category. I have heard many times how somebody was turned off because they didn’t realize the book was written in Old English (actually, I saw this on a book blog recently…gasp!). So if you hear someone say that, prick your ears up because they’re probably wrong.

The most important piece of Old English literature is Beowulf, our oldest manuscript being from around 1000 CE (the story itself probably far older). Old English is basically unreadable to English speakers today.

Not only is Old English unrecognizable, even Middle English (e.g. The Canterbury Tales written in the late 14th century) is extremely difficult for most modern readers.

Shakespeare was actually writing in early modern English while authors such as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens were writing in late modern English.

So there you go! Go sound smart with your friends…

And when you have a chance, check out this awesome interactive resource put out by the BBC (HERE).

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The Number One Rule for Developing a Deep Perpetual Ongoing Unceasing Unquenchable Insatiable Appetite for Books…

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DON’T STOP READING!!!

Okay, okay. I know this is earth-shatteringly profound. But seriously, as cyclical a statement as this might seem (the way to develop a love for books is to keep reading but it’s difficult to keep reading without having a deep love of books), I’m learning how important this is. Here is my point: sometimes we challenge ourselves in what we read (as we should), but we hit a dry-spell. The gas runs out. We are weary (“even youths grow tired an weary”–Remember the Titans or The Bible, whichever you prefer). Netflix keeps looking more like a viable option to unwind. If this is you…QUICK! DON’T WASTE TIME…FIND A BOOK THAT REALLY APPEALS TO YOU OR DUST OFF AN OLD FAVORITE.

Keep pushing yourself in what you read…top shelf material. But if you’re reading game is getting a little dry then (to rip a Bible verse wildly out of context) REMEMBER YOUR FIRST LOVE! It’s okay to put something uninteresting down for just a little bit. I’m not suggesting that quitting halfway is a good, ongoing habit. I’m just saying that sometimes we  need a little LTLC (Literary Tender Loving CARE…duh!).

I remember once I was reading this extremely dense philosophy book and, even though I was theoretically really interested in its contents, it was actually boring me to tears. But I felt that if I was going to read, I needed to be reading that book. The problem: I stopped reading altogether! Don’t let that be you. Plus, I can almost guarantee, if you’ll keep yourself reading in general, you’ll find a greater ease and desire to return to that top shelf material. So spice up your reading life!

Finally, here’s my personal reading template to use or toss aside: always I am reading one piece of nonfiction and one piece of fiction. Naturally I finish fiction novels much quicker than nonfiction (this may not be true for everyone), but I’m always reading both. Additionally, I mix up my fiction. This isn’t a hard, fast rule, but I usually go no more than two or three books in a row of either literary classics or contemporary fiction or even pop fiction. I want to read the canonized classics to understand why good literature is good literature (some of my all-time favorite books are more than a hundred years old). But I also want to read new literary fiction (Pulitzer type material) as well as The Hunger Games and other “pop” novels (aside: we’ll often find that “pop” novels have as much depth as “literary masterpieces;” they simply appeal on a different level).

So what story do you need to return to in order to fan that reading flame?

by Zhen-Yang at DeviantArt.com

Resources (Literature and Beyond)

Okay, so this is my first full week teaching…exhausting. But exhilarating as well! I’m blessed to teach what I love. And when you teach what you love, you LOVE finding great resources. I’m very fond of various teaching methods, especially visuals and those that increase interaction. Thus, I wanted to share (unashamedly hoping some of my students find this post) one of the neat tools I’ve come across: infographics from Course Hero. HERE is their Pinterest board, and HEREis their teaching resource website. We’re beginning to study Chaucer next week in my British Lit. class, so maybe someone will stumble upon this infographic before seeing it in class.