Posts Tagged With: Narnia

Equality and Diversity of Humans…and Elves?

Fantasy tales are often populated with a wide array of beings. Elves, humans and dwarves are a common trio, along with trolls, orcs and countless other variations. Not all authors have filled their stories with these fantastic races to purposely tell stories of diversity or race-relations.  However, long before terms like diversity were buzzing in everyone’s minds, two masters of fantasy had made a statement on equality among people. Joseph Loconte writes in A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War:

[J.R.R.] Tolkien and [C.S.] Lewis encountered the horrific progeny of [eugenics] in the trenches and barbed wire and mortars of the Great War [World War I] — and it gave them great pause about human potentiality…the characters in their novels possess a great nobility, creatures endowed with a unique capacity for virtue, courage, and love. Indeed, a vital theme throughout is the sacred worth of the individual soul in Middle-Earth and Narnia, every life is of immense consequence.

The “races” of Narnia and Middle-Earth are very much like us, always at odds with each other: Elves hate dwarves; elves look down on humans; hobbits are obviously different from their larger human cousins; orcs once were elves.  And yet the fellowship of the ring throws together polar opposite, feuding races in a quest to the save the world.

Against all odds, they succeeded.  A powerful message among the many in these stories.

Tolkien and Lewis began writing during a time when eugenics was on the rise. This misuse of science and philosophies pretending to be science was rationale to cleanse humanity of undesirable races, beliefs or attributes. People remember the result of this horror in World War II under the Nazis, yet don’t know that this thinking had been promoted among the “elite” thinkers and governments across the world for decades.

While many many post-WWI writers saw hopelessness, and others turned to Progress as a god to right humanity, Tolkien and Lewis saw the importance of every life. They wrote of evil that couldn’t be reasoned away — and could be hidden behind “science” and “progress.” The equality of peoples doesn’t automatically equate to the equality of ideas and actions. Even Tolkien’s “dreadful orcs are presented as rational beings” — but being rational isn’t the same as being on the side of virtue.

Middle-Earth and Narnia showed how mankind, even with its capacity for wrong, has innate qualities that can defeat the most terrible of evils; qualities that transcend superficial differences among people, and show that we are much more than a result of randomness and fate.

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A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and a Great War

Check out the trailer for the upcoming series on J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis:

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Imagination and the Doorway to Reality

Writers often draw us into the worlds and characters that burst from their imaginations.  These “made-up” worlds are reason for some to shun this or that genre because they are imaginary. The truth, though, is that authors aren’t writing imaginary stories. Alister McGrath, in his biography of C.S. Lewis, explains:

Narnia is imaginative, not an imaginary, world. Lewis was quite clear that a distinction had to be drawn between those ideas. The “imaginary” is something that has been falsely imagined, having no counterpart in reality. Lewis regards such an invented reality as opening the way to delusion. The “imaginative” is something produced by the human mind as it tries to respond to something greater than itself…to “communicate more Reality to us.”

Lewis would use his imaginative world to explore serious themes like “origins of evil, nature of faith, and the human desire for God” — not unlike most writers have grand ideas of deep thoughts woven through their narrative.

Quite often their starting point to accomplish this is surprisingly very simple. Narnia started with “an image of a faun carrying an umbrella and parcels through a snowy wood.” Tolkien scrawled on a paper, “In a hole in he ground there lived a hobbit,” after the idea popped in his head and he “did not know why” it had. From these humble origins, grand tales came to life.

What lives in your imagination, ready to inspire, entertain and challenge?

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Fairy Tales Illuminate What we Forget

If you read older versions of common fairy tales, they were often darker and more adult. They were made more kid friendly at some point, because children cannot always determine fact from fantasy, as Tolkien would argue. However, they do want something rooted in reality that didn’t have to be all cutesie. Tolkien’s first book, The Hobbit would attempt this. He was concerned about some of its more darker moments, but witness its success, and depth that exceeds what often passes for “children” books. And so Tolkien, and later C.S. Lewis with The Chronicles of Narnia, would bring fairy tales out of the nursery and gave something that would drive a child’s imagination and be sophisticated enough for an adult. Then, Lord of the Rings would take this further, bringing fantasy to maturity.

Bradley J. Birzer writes in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, that fantasy — or fairy stories as Tolkien would often call them — is worth “the effort of entering” in spite of “its many perils and the great possibilities of misunderstanding” because:

…fairy stories illuminate the vast inheritance our ancestors have bequeathed to us…[they] give us a new sense of wonder about things we have taken for granted or which have become commonplace…[and] provide humans with a means to escape the darkness, conformity, and mechanization of modernity…this is not the same thing as escaping from reality. We still deal with life and death, comfort and discomfort. We merely escape progressivism and the progressive dream, which reduces all of complex reality to a mere shadow of creation’s true wonders

Middle-Earth was much more than elves, orcs and trolls. Of course, what do you expect from an author who was an Oxford scholar who created an entire history, new languages and new races for his mythos? And those things were not even what made it great.

The very human stories were.

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“Escaping” Into Fantasy? Be Wary…

Since 1977, Terry Brooks has been writing his Shannara fantasy series. Once the first trilogy was complete, he gave up his day job as a lawyer and never looked back. In spite of his success, he has often been asked why he writes fantasy. Not so much now, with fantasy’s mainstream success, but some still equate fantasy with escapism.

True, any book, television show, hobby has that element — and there’s nothing wrong with that, so long as most people know how not let one overcome the other. Good fiction, whether or not it is fantasy, ultimately rests on how much it draws on real life. From the outside, that may be hard to grasp when talking about stories with fantastic creatures. Yet we have detailed here in past posts that it was the depth and themes of fictional worlds of Middle Earth and Narnia that was in large measure the reason for their enduring success. Continue reading

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Will Readers “Misunderstand” Your Book?

I wonder how much authors worry about how readers misunderstanding what their book is about. Its meanings, themes and intentions. Some authors might overcompensate by entering the story and explaining too much. This “author intrusion” often makes a character sound out of character or exposition sound like a lecture. Authors should realize not every reader is going to get, or like, everything you have written and that’s okay. A mature reader isn’t going throw down your book if he or she doesn’t agree with every sentence you write. They might do so if your book isn’t entertaining or is unreadable.

I mentioned in an earlier post on how modern readers like to reinterpret older books (in that case Dracula) through modern eyes. When an author is still living, or wrote about their books, it’s always best to default to their explanations. After all, they wrote the book. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is brimming with themes and meaning, but it was no allegory. The author wrote:

There is no ‘symbolism’ or conscious allegory in my story…To ask if the Orcs ‘are’ communists is to me as sensible as asking if Communists are Orcs.

Devin Brown continues by asking, “Don’t they share a number of similarities? [along with Sauron/Hitler, etc.] Of course they do.” But he adds what Tolkien explained, “I think many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory.'”

Of course, “everyone knows” C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was an allegory. Everyone forgot to tell C.S. Lewis. He said he never intended to write an allegory, the story unfolded as it did. He also wrote:

As we know, almost anything can be read into any book if you are determined enough…[the author] will find reviewers, both favorable and hostile, reading into his stories all manner of allegories which he never intended. (Some of the allegories thus imposed on my own books have been so ingenious and interesting that I often wish I has thought of them myself.)

So focus on writing your story. Understand not everyone will like it or get all the wonderful things you are trying to get across. Nor should you attempt to appease everyone or your story will most likely end up not being very interesting. Make your tale organic and entertaining. Use the tools you have to improve your craft.

Because ultimately the mythos you create is yours and someone out there wants to enter it.

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C.S. Lewis, Accidental Genius

My collection of books by and about J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis has been missing a good bio on Lewis. I have remedied that with expansive new Lewis study by Alister McGrath entitled C.S. Lewis: A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet.

Released last year in time for the 50th anniversary of Lewis’ death, it is a very readable and insightful look at this influential writer-scholar who never set out to be famous. McGrath has scoured all of Lewis’ writings and letters and pieced together the Narnian’s life story from beginning to end. We see Lewis as the intelligent child trying to fit in, the soldier in WWI, the ardent atheist, the scholar who reasons to belief in God, the everyman champion of Christianity and the writer of subtle, yet complex novels. Many love his simple intellectual approach to belief (as in Mere Christianity), others can’t stand that the theology of this non-theologian wasn’t perfect (as if theirs is) or that he loved to smoke and drink. Ultimately, as this detailed biography shows, Lewis was, like us all, a very complex individual who didn’t claim perfection (or that Christianity made one so).

McGrath’s book is a study of Lewis, not his books, but through those writings McGrath looks into the mind of one of the few writers remembered decades after they have passed. His influences were many and together they left quite the legacies. For some, it was his creation of Narnia that has inspired many others (even those who didn’t like his mythos). There was his lesser known Space Trilogy (or the Ransom Trilogy, as McGrath suggests it should be known as) that showed us the dangers of scientisim and other irrational thought. His books that explored issues we all face, regardless of our beliefs, such as A Grief Observed or The Problem of Pain. Through Lewis’ many books and letters, and those who knew him, his life can be reconstructed in a way that can be accomplished for very few writers.

Indeed, it was his life that made him a writer that will be long remembered.

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Outlining Your Stories to Life

One tool writers like to debate the value of is outlining. The argument against outlining states it’s too restrictive and doesn’t allow the story to breathe. The pro-outliners write that the anti-outliners are still stuck in that rigid outlining method learned in the 5th grade. I think the latter is correct.

Yes, there are a (very) few people who can just start writing and end up somewhere great and not worry about dead ends, corners or poor endings. What outlining is not is a rigid, blow-by-blow plan of every detail of a book. In a shorter work like a short story or article, okay, an outline can be more detailed. For a novel, think of it as a roadmap with the best places to visit.

I take the storyboard approach, which, I suspect, is not original to me (Morgan Busse talks about storyboarding in a recent post). I even taped a long roll of paper on the wall initially, though this proved a bit problematic referring back to. I soon transferred it all to a notebook. In this storyboard, I put the main events I see occurring (or “set pieces”) in their approximate locations (and this must always include the beginning and end). Then this is followed with a sprinkling of other events, people and details throughout. Then the writing begins, sort of like connecting the dots.

In front of you there is a path, but you are uncertain of what is going to occur along the way. You do know where you want to end up. Just like using a roadmap, you don’t always know what will happen between point A and B and that’s where the fun begins.

Most writers are quickly surprised that their story will take on a life all its own when carving out these paths. New characters show up that weren’t planned. Locations that weren’t on the original map. C.S. Lewis wrote how Narnia “all began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood.” Then “Aslan came bounding into it” pulling the rest of the story behind him. I think that is what he was talking about, the moment a story writes itself. The instant in time the author knows they are onto something big.

It all starts with a handful of ideas and characters in the mind’s eye of an author waiting to given life. Outlining may help you do just that, but in either case, nothing will happen if you don’t start writing.

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