Nearly everyone has been exposed to some of the fun, whimsical poetry of Shel Silverstein: The Light in the Attic, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Falling Up, and The Giving Tree are some of his most notable works. His writing–targeted primarily at children–shows itself to be both entertaining and often quite surprisingly deep. Today I wanted to share his poem “Invitation.” CHEERS! to fellow dreamers and creators. May your tales always find a welcome heart.
If you are a dreamer, come in
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer…
If you’re a pretender, come sit by the fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
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. Thus 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.
“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.
C.S. Lewis (the author who first cultivated my love of literature with his Narnia chronicles) once said about the Irish poet, essayist, and playwright William Butler (W.B.) Yeats, “I am often surprised to find how utterly ignored Yeats is among the men I have met: perhaps his appeal is purely Irish–if so, then thank the gods that I am Irish.” Yeats remained staunchly Irish at a time when Irish heritage was often overshadowed by their more imperialistic Anglo neighbors to the east. His poetry featured Irish legends and heroes and an overall connection to his own roots. Despite his mystical and occult tendencies that at times drew criticism, there is no doubting the magnificence of his supernatural imagination. To read more about the life of W.B. Yeats, you can check out his biography at the Poetry Foundation here.
In his poem “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time,” Yeats balances the immortal (the rood or crucifix of time) with the mortal. According to Suheil B. Bushrui’s and Tim Prentki’s An International Companion to the Poetry of W.B. Yeats, “The strength of the poem is derived from the tension revealed by its title between immortality and mortality. The Rose is identified as ‘Eternal Beauty’ but it can only be perceived in such things as an actual rose which must die. Thus while the poet wishes to experience the influence of the Rose, he does not wish to be overwhelmed totally by its power and so lose contact with this world” (83). The poem highlights the timelessness of epic, historical deeds of Irish ancestry as well as the common, mundane realities of a “weak worm hiding” and a “field-mouse running.”
I personally appreciate and am moved by the delicate balance of mortality and immortality, or, if you will, finding the immortal in the mortal. Thus, I hope you appreciate Yeats’ masterful poem.
Red Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days!
Come near me, while I sing the ancient ways:
Cuchulain battling with the bitter tide;
The Druid, grey, wood-nurtured, quiet-eyed,
Who cast round Fergus dreams, and ruin untold;
And thine own sadness, whereof stars, grown old
In dancing silver-sandalled on the sea,
Sing in their high and lonely melody.
Come near, that no more blinded by man’s fate,
I find under the boughs of love and hate,
In all poor foolish things that live a day,
Eternal beauty wandering on her way.
Come near, come near, come near—Ah, leave me still
A little space for the rose-breath to fill!
Lest I no more hear common things that crave;
The weak worm hiding down in its small cave,
The field-mouse running by me in the grass,
And heavy mortal hopes that toil and pass;
But seek alone to hear the strange things said
By God to the bright hearts of those long dead,
And learn to chaunt a tongue men do not know.
Come near; I would, before my time to go,
Sing of old Eire and the ancient ways:
Red Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days.
About a year and a half ago I remember having what can only be described as a really good day. Now, if those superlatives don’t exactly bowl you over, it’s simply because nothing truly spectacular happened; I was just able to look back at the end of the day and realize how incredibly refreshing it was.
I had a day off from work (this was when I was managing a cafe in Harvard Square) and decided to spend it by myself exploring Concord. So I walked from my house-converted-into-an-overpriced-apartment to Davis Square, took the red line one stop to Porter and changed to the Fitchburg commuter rail line out to Concord. I then visited various locales including Thoreau’s replica cottage, Walden Pond, Louisa May Alcott’s home, the Old North Bridge, and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. I felt rather transcendent myself as I ate my lunch by the water’s edge of Walden Pond. It was a clear, mild (low 70s probably) October day. The leaves were just beginning to change. As I sat in that place near Thoreau’s little Walden experiment, and as I later visited the graves of several famous writers, I somehow felt connected to that legacy, that heritage of literature. I don’t necessarily agree with all their worldviews, but I still felt as if I was breathing in the fresh air of greatness. Call their ghosts muses or whatever, I also spent time writing; one poem in particular I am still eager to publish eventually. Thus, it was…a really good day.
In my American Literature class we will be taking a look at Transcendentalism over the next couple of weeks. Here is a small excerpt from M.H. Abrams’ immensely useful A Glossary of Literary Terms (7th edition) under the entry “Transcendentalism in America”:
What the various Transcendentalists had in common was less what they proposed than what they were reacting against. By and large, they were opposed to rigid rationalism; to eighteenth-century empirical philosophy of the school of John Locke, which derived all knowledge from sense impressions; to highly formalized religion, especially the Calvinist orthodoxy of New England; and to the social conformity, materialism, and commercialism that they found increasingly dominant in American life. Among the counter-views that were affirmed by Transcendentalists, especially Emerson, were confidence in the validity of a mode of knowledge that is grounded in feeling in intuition, and a consequent tendency to accept what, to logical reasoning, might seem contradictions; an ethics of individualism that stressed self-trust, self-reliance, and self-sufficiency; a turn away from modern society, with its getting and spending, to the scenes and objects of the natural world, which were regarded both as physical facts and as correspondences to aspects of the human spirit; and, in place of a formal or doctrinal religion, a faith in a divine “Principle,” or “Spirit,” or “Soul” (Emerson’s “Over-Soul”) in which both humanity and the cosmos participate.
It’s amazing how relevant some of these tenets are still today. In an over-commercialized, super-technological, empiricism-is-our-only-truth type of world, we need a return to nature, to unplugging, to spirituality.
I am most refreshed in nature. I have been blessed to get out into the wild in my life: the Kalalau Trail along the Na Pali coastline in Hawaii, the West Highland Way in Scotland, Acadia National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and more. I live in El Salvador right now. And while it’s difficult to be isolated in nature (security reasons), there are some spectacular views, spectacular opportunities to witness another marvelous part of the world.
So here’s my advice. If you’re feeling the grind of the machine (corporate culture, for example, or whatever system is stymieing your life), break free. For a moment at least. Where is it you can go to transcend, to commune in nature? To know that you’re not just useless mass of atoms? You’re made of special stuff.
I was talking to one of my students today, and we were discussing a book he’s reading, how much he hates a certain character, and how a sign of good story-telling is based upon how much we emotionally hate (secretly love how much we hate) the villain. Thus, my non-expert list of Top Eleven Greatest Villains. Obviously this is pretty broad since I’ve included literary characters as well as film and television characters.
11. Daniel Quilp
This one probably is unfamiliar to most people, but he is the main antagonist in Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. Described as rather dwarfish, Quilp is a brute who treats his wife terribly, constantly prevents the other beloved characters from achieving respite from his wiles, and creepily wants to get rid of his wife and marry beautiful, sweet Little Nell. Thus, though lesser known, he makes the bottom of my list.
10. Thomas Barrow
Yes, I was a Downton Abbey junkie. The early 20th century history drama on PBS follows a British, aristocratic family as they adapt to strong social changes. Thomas Barrow was evil in many of his machinations, but he was tragic. He is a great villain because, like all great characters, he was extremely complex. He had his enemies and his loves. I went from despising him in the first season to rooting heartily for him in the last.
Another lesser-known villain, Ambrose is a protagonist in Patrick Rothfuss’ hit fantasy book series The Kingkiller Chronicle. Ambrose is a classic school rival: rich, egotistical, spoiled, jealous. He’s just talented enough to cause problems (he’s responsible for Kvothe being kicked out of the famous library, being whipped publicly, and being tortured a bit by a sort of voodoo doll), and his misogynist treatment of women makes you want to kick him in the bad place. I didn’t like Draco Malfoy, but I think I’d choose him as a friend over Ambrose Jakis.
R.I.P. Christopher Lee (2015). Saruman both in the film and the book made such a great villain because of his change of alliance. Fighting for good when he thought it was a winning battle, he changed teams when Sauron grew strong. Though Sauron proved to be a stronger villain, Saruman was more human, more prominent to the readers. It made his betrayal all the worse. Nevertheless, as Gandalf prophesied, “There is only one lord of the rings, and he does not share power.”
7. Clubber Lang
Here we go; here’s a fun one. “I pity the fool” who cannot understand the genius of this hard-hitting, boxing bad guy. This villain is not so much twisted as simply iconic. Plus, the best song of the Rocky saga is featured in Rocky III: “Eye of the Tiger.”
Was Macbeth really a villain? Though he was the tragic hero of my absolute favorite Shakespeare play, his hunger for power made him a villain, another one of those complex bad guys whose evil was so profound (he slaughtered the family of Macduff) and yet who managed to elicit pity from the audience. Who cannot but feel some twinge of pity for the man who recognized his inability to wade out of the river of blood he’d stepped in, the man who recognized tortuously that “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing” (Act V, Scene 5)? P.S. I’m a fan of the Michael Fassbender adaptation.
“Why so serious?” Okay, so Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker was inspired. The only reason he’s not ranked higher is because, well, number 4 is too classic, and my top 3 were decided more on their cringe-worthiness. But Ledger’s performance was incredible; that maddening Joker was terrifying in his unpredictability. R.I.P. Heath Ledger (2008).
4. Darth Vader
Trivia: “Luke, I am your father,” is actually a misquotation. Seriously. Check it out here. So…classic of classics here. He might be the most recognized super villain of all time after Satan himself perhaps. Complicated backstory. Redemptive final act to save his son. Great costume. Awesome voice (James Earl Jones). He may not be the villain that makes you wanna squirm like my top 3, but seriously, Darth Vader rocks.
3. Eli Sunday
Though Daniel Plainview was not exactly a good guy, I HATED Eli Sunday. He was an absolute creep in the award-winning There Will Be Blood. Maybe it’s his fanatic, hypocritical, money-grubbing religion that makes him so hateful. But let’s be honest [SPOILER ALERT], no one was upset when his head got smashed in with a bowling pin at the end of the movie.
2. Dolores Umbridge
There were some great villains in Harry Potter–Bellatrix, Greyback, and of course Voldemort himself–but no one truly bugged me like Umbridge. In fact, it was Umbridge more than any character that made me appreciate the genius of Rowling’s characterization; Umbridge legitimately ticked me off. Dressed in pink, acting all cute and sweet, that woman was the devil! She absolutely refused to admit the presence of danger and instead spent her energy torturing Harry or politely (ehem, severely) turning Defense Against the Dark Arts class into a textbook affair. Yeah, I’ll be joining the D.A. thank you very much.
1. Negan [SEASON 7 SPOILER]
Is there really anyone else? At once smiling, at once intense and spilling your guts, the leader of the Saviors in The Walking Dead freaks me out. He is exact. He is unforgiving. HE KILLED GLEN! With his barbed wire bat, Lucille, he seems to have qualms about nothing. He’s sickeningly entertaining. He’s the alpha-male, the head patriarch. He’ll steal your wife and make you thank him for it. What?! Rick, please beat this guy.
Okay, what about you? What do you think about the list? Who would you add/subtract?
Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.
Zora Neale Hurston’s character, Janie, said this at the end of Their Eyes Were Watching God. This next week is my last before receiving my third degree, this one in literature (the previous two in religion). I just submitted my final research paper, “Self-realization in Their Eyes Were Watching God.“
Though Hurston was a famous figure in the Harlem Renaissance, her works are often conspicuously devoid of racial politics. Alice Walker noted this as well: “I think we are better off if we think of Zora Neale Hurston as an artist, period—rather than as the artist/politician most black writers have been required to be.” Nevertheless, Hurston’s novel should appeal to anyone who feels they don’t have a voice. Part of my thesis was that Janie, the main character, only achieves self-realization by pushing past social norms, social expectations. As a chronic people-pleaser, I can’t help but think of a phrase my very wise mother has been repeating to me a lot over the last few years: “You’re not responsible for anyone’s happiness but your own.” I still struggle to internalize that, but what freedom! This isn’t a cop-out from serving others (it’s not a selfish self-happiness that ignores all others). But it IS understanding that it’s not my ability/responsibility to control how people react to situations. Also, I don’t need to worry so much about social conventions. I just “got tuh find out about livin’ fuh [myself].”
It’s not until Janie stops listening to rigid social norms of her culture that she finds love. But what a love! So coincidentally, shout out to both Black History Month and Valentine’s Day (a few days ago)! May you find self-realization and love and freedom! Even after Janie’s great love, Tea Cake, had died, she found life from her love.
Then Tea Cake came prancing around her where she was and the song of the sigh flew out of the window and lit in the top of the pine trees. Tea Cake, with the sun for a shawl. Of course he wasn’t dead. He could never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and thinking. The kiss of his memory made pictures of love and light against the wall. Here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.
Home is one of the most powerful motifs I’ve ever found in literature or theology.
In my senior’s English Literature class we’re reading Robinson Crusoe (I needed something in our textbook that would hold their attention amidst senioritis better than old poetry they couldn’t understand–remember, English isn’t their first language). At the beginning of the story the main character is being persuaded by his father not to set out on his adventure. Let your imagination wander a little bit, and it’s a rather tearful, dramatic account. Robinson Crusoe’s brother has already died on his own adventure, and his father withholds his blessing (and God’s) if his son insists stubbornly on his journey to the sea.
Now, my experience with my parents has never been like that. They’ve always been supportive of my adventures, the path of my life (and it’s taken quite a winding way). But it’s always so difficult to say goodbye. I said goodbye last July when I moved to El Salvador. I said goodbye after visiting them at Christmas. And I just said goodbye to them last Tuesday after they were in the country for a week. My parents are beautiful people, and we are very close. It was difficult to say goodbye. I love them dearly. So this is an important lesson to adventuring.
Always remember where you came from. There’s a worn-out statement packed with meaning. Nobody is so alone in life that they would not be missed if they left. Stay in touch. Send a postcard. Love the ones you leave behind. Visit. And when your journey’s over, it’s okay for your tired feet to find their way back home. Home is one of the most powerful motifs I’ve ever found in literature or theology.
A little bit out of context, but I’ve always loved the sense of this statement from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:
“What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again?”
The thing about poetry is that its power and brilliance lies in its weakness. There are only a handful of universal themes, but poetry takes that vague generality and fractures its meaning and its telling (its story) into a thousand-million little tributaries which break off from the complete thing and then eventually find themselves coming back to their source or running dry awhile away.
What can be more general than love?
Famed avante-garde American poet E.E. Cummings explores the tension of love in his poem “[love is more thicker than forget].” Love is paradoxical in nature, just beyond defining but never going away. “love is more thicker than forget,” says his opening line, forcing the attention and the absurdity while defying normal English conventions. It is “mad and moonly,” “sane and sunly.” But importantly, “it cannot die.”
Famed Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice has appealed to select audiences throughout the years, namely my college roommate Jimmy. Because of Jimmy I was introduced to Damien Rice though I have still listened to very little of his work. His largely mellow tunes also (surprise, surprise) explore themes of love and relationships. On his most recent album My Favourite Faded Fantasy (2014), the narrator of “Colour Me In” states his desire to “repress it [love]” and that “love let me down.” But guess what? He couldn’t escape it. To live without love is a foolish, unwinnable game. It’s what colors us in.
So read this poem, and then watch Rice’s performance. What are the connections you make? [p.s. it’s a good practice, connecting art forms and messages across mediums, genres, and times]
love is more thicker than forget
more thinner than recall
more seldom than a wave is wet
more frequent than to fail
it is most mad and moonly
and less it shall unbe
than all the sea which only
is deeper than the sea
love is less always than to win
less never than alive
less bigger than the least begin
less littler than forgive
it is most sane and sunly
and more it cannot die
than all the sky which only
is higher than the sky
First of all, can we just acknowledge how cool Walt Whitman looks? I mean, like the original mountaineer hipster guy. Okay good, glad you agree.
I first came across Whitman in college quite by accident. I honestly can’t remember how I found his poem “Song of the Open Road,” but it was while compiling a POI (program of oral interpretation) for my forensics team in college (think debate/speech, not CSI). It’s sad, really, that I “accidentally” stumbled upon one of America’s most famous poets. But this truth perhaps highlights how far I’ve come literarily-speaking since that time.
Whitman (1819-1892), a humanist journalist, essayist, and poet, was not always loved for his poetry. His free verse was very unconventional, and his overt liberality of human sexuality was ill-approved. Nevertheless, his legacy is one of the trademarks of American literature. His works praise humanity (i.e. “Song of Myself”) and are quintessentially American in their wild, rugged freedom. And if you aren’t very familiar with Whitman’s poetry, you may have at least come across his famous “O Captain! My Captain!” which was written about the death of Abraham Lincoln and more recently immortalized in Dead Poets Society(starring Robin Williams).
So, without further ado for all my freedom-loving, adventure-seeking, open-roadies (yes, I subtly wanted to pretend I have “roadies”), literature is something that should become a friend on your journeys if it is not already. Nothing goes better with travel than deep thoughts (think Chris McCandless in Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild”). Thus, Whitman’s “Open Road” is almost like a companion guide to the adventurer. I’ll share a few lines from the rather long poem, but you should read it all for yourself. Happy adventuring!
[a few pictures from my trip to Scotland a couple years ago]
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The earth expanding right hand and left hand,
The picture alive, every part in its best light,
The music falling in where it is wanted, and stopping where it is not wanted,
The cheerful voice of the public road, the gay fresh sentiment of the road.
O highway I travel, do you say to me Do not leave me?
Do you say Venture not—if you leave me you are lost?
Do you say I am already prepared, I am well-beaten and undenied, adhere to me?
O public road, I say back I am not afraid to leave you, yet I love you,
You express me better than I can express myself,
You shall be more to me than my poem.
I think heroic deeds were all conceiv’d in the open air, and all free poems also,
I think I could stop here myself and do miracles,
I think whatever I shall meet on the road I shall like, and whoever beholds me shall like me,
I think whoever I see must be happy.
Forever alive, forever forward,
Stately, solemn, sad, withdrawn, baffled, mad, turbulent, feeble, dissatisfied,
Desperate, proud, fond, sick, accepted by men, rejected by men,
They go! they go! I know that they go, but I know not where they go,
But I know that they go toward the best—toward something great.
Allons! the road is before us!
It is safe—I have tried it—my own feet have tried it well—be not detain’d!
Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen’d!
Let the tools remain in the workshop! let the money remain unearn’d!
Let the school stand! mind not the cry of the teacher!
Let the preacher preach in his pulpit! let the lawyer plead in the court, and the judge expound the law.
Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?