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The Wingfeather Saga: A Wonderful Surprise

Warning: Don’t go into the forest. Don’t go, even if the thwaps in your garden are driving you insane. It won’t be a very enjoyable walk. And you had better hope you don’t run into a horned hound. Or worse, a toothy cow.

On the other hand, if you think toothy cows sound interesting, you might want to give The Wingfeather Saga a try. A series of four books by Andrew Peterson, it chronicles the adventures of three siblings: Janner, Kalmar (“Tink”), and Leeli. In a world filled with dangerous animals, the three face a greater danger. The Fangs of Dang, nasty lizards who rule their hometown of Glipwood, think that their family is hiding a secret—the location of the Jewels of Anniera. The three children do not know what the Jewels are, or where they are located—but when the Fangs come, sent to their continent, Skree, by Gnag the Nameless himself, they know how to do the most important thing. Run.

On-the-Edge-of-the-Dark-Sea-of-Darkness-195x300The Wingfeather Saga is Andrew Peterson’s first series of books. It is not, however, his first experience with writing—I became familiar with him as a songwriter before I learned that he was writing a fantasy series. A lot of his older music doesn’t really interest me—generally speaking, it sounds like CCM as usual. His most recent album, Light for the Lost Boy, is a different story. It’s more evocative, more imaginative. A couple songs sound more like his past songwriting, but the majority of the songs are a full level above any of his previous work.

Maybe Peterson found his second wind. In any case, his songwriting experience means that when he includes songs in his series, they actually sound like songs. I cringe to think of some of the sad attempts at balladry that I’ve come across in the fantasy novels I’ve read. Understanding the rhythm in poetry never seemed difficult to me growing up—maybe it was the product of my musical education. But a creative writing class in my undergraduate days taught me that even if rhythm isn’t that difficult, it’s at least more difficult for some than others. Anyway, ballads aren’t easy to write. But Peterson could easily put the songs in his Wingfeather Saga to music; all are all well-written, and some are frankly beautiful.

Aside from songs? The Wingfeather Saga melds gentle humor (I loved the “footnotes,” especially in book 1) with some very serious themes—themes so serious that my local library classified the final book as young adult. The series is really not aimed at the young adult market, although teenagers (and some adults) may enjoy reading it. It’s been compared to The Lord of the Rings, but I think that’s pretty inaccurate. Similarities to LotR mainly consist of an evil enemy who uses evil monsters and the fact that the book is fantasy. In other words—not much. Being aimed at children, it’s more comparable with the Narnian Chronicles, but without an Aslan-substitute. Thank God! It’s one of the first Christian-themed fantasies that I’ve read that haven’t either tried to force an incarnation of Christ into the story or included explicit theological discussions. Aslan is wonderful, but I recall reading that one of Lewis’s friends had been considering a similar story, with Christ incarnated as a tiger. When he saw Lewis’s story, he scrapped his plan. Overkill kills.

Tolkien wrote that there was only one incarnation of Christ, and therefore he did not even intend for any of his “good” characters to be Christ-figures, let alone actual incarnations of Christ. In this regard, Peterson follows Tolkien. He includes a “Maker” who is active, but mainly behind the scenes. Peterson’s “Maker” is more obviously involved than was Tolkien’s “Eru,” but most of the time it isn’t in-your-face. A non-Christian wouldn’t be able to read this series without realizing that the Maker is, in fact, God—as some have been able to read Lewis without realizing that Aslan is a “supposal” about Christ. But Christian readers who dislike preachy fiction can relax. Peterson does not preach. He sings. And that is what makes him so unusual.

Tolkien was Catholic. Lewis was an Anglo-Catholic. Both are favorite authors of Peterson’s, which, for an evangelical, is not extremely unusual. Finding an evangelical who also likes George MacDonald and G.K. Chesterton—as Peterson does—is rarer. And one who admires Thomas Merton? Practically unheard of. But Merton, too, numbers among Peterson’s favorite authors. Yet Peterson is a pastor’s son, raised, as he puts it, in the “nondenominational denomination.” As far as I know, Peterson hasn’t changed “denominations.” He clearly remains an evangelical Protestant. And that makes him extremely unusual. Evangelicals with vivid imaginations who like both G.K. Chesterton and Thomas Merton have a tendency to end up in the high church somewhere. Yet Peterson apparently hasn’t—and his fantasy world seems as Protestant to me as Tolkien’s is Catholic. His world is vivid with an appreciation of ancient truth—the sort of viewpoint I associate with the high church. But Peterson’s concept of ancient truth seems lifted more from Genesis than from a continuous church tradition.

Beginnings, in the Wingfeather Saga, are a big deal. There are multiple characters with close ties to past ages of Peterson’s fantasy world—even an ancient rebel (an amalgam of Cain and Nimrod?) called Ouster Will, whose death was shockingly close to the time the story takes place. (For the record, I love Ouster Will’s name. It’s perfect on so many different levels.) Where Tolkien drew largely on pagan mythologies for his own fantasies, shaping them according to his liking and the influence of Catholic tradition, Peterson seems to have internalized Tolkien’s characterization of Christianity as “true myth.” Lewis did that, of course—Narnia resulted—but his focus was more on the New Testament. But Peterson has discovered the “true myth” of the Old Testament. The Annierans are a chosen people, exiled from their homeland. And the genesis of the world was not so long ago.

What about problems? Well, the Wingfeather Saga isn’t Narnia—although a child might not notice the difference. The writing style is good, but there are places where we are told a bit too much about Janner’s feelings through his thoughts, rather than seeing him act. Those were the places where I got squirmy. Also, the serious themes of the later books don’t always meld easily with the lingering thwaps and diggles.

In general, however? Wingfeather’s series is better than average for fantasy, and worlds beyond most Christian fantasy attempts. Start with book 1, and don’t skip around in any of the books. I found out about a couple characters’ deaths too early because I assumed that this was a nice kids’ fantasy series where nobody important dies.

The Wingfeather Saga is definitely a nice kids’ fantasy series. But it’s also a tale that Peterson tells in deadly earnest, toothy cows notwithstanding. Naming a single theme for the story is difficult—as it should be. But if I were to pick only one, I think it would be salvation.

A costly salvation, without an awkward Aslan-substitute in sight.

 
 

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A Canticle for Walter Miller

Sometimes it’s best not to know what a book is about until you open it. I’ve spoiled plenty of stories for myself by reading up on them too much. (And then there’s my most recent Youtube crime, which is accidentally finding out which Harry Potter characters die before reading through the series because those videos keep showing up in the sidebar.)

I had heard the title A Canticle for Leibowitz before. Then I saw a blurb for it, saying it was written against nuclear warfare. Okay, I thought. I wonder why the word “canticle” is in the title? That sounds like a churchy type of thing. This is science fiction.

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The Monte Cassino monastery after the bombing (German Federal Archive).

I guess I had assumed that C. S. Lewis was the only important science fiction writer to pay much attention to Christianity. I now stand corrected. Walter M. Miller Jr. was a World War II veteran who had seen the horrors of war first hand. A gunner in the Army Air Corps, he took part in the destruction of the Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino, Italy. Intelligence from the ground had led his commanders to believe that German troops were camped in the monastery–the monastery from which the Benedictine Order sprang. So the Air Corps bombed the monastery. Only rubble was left. 230 Italian civilians were killed. But no Germans died that day. They had not been staying there, and only after they decided the rubble would make excellent cover did they take refuge at the monastery. Miller never forgot the bombing. He probably had post-traumatic stress disorder, but in those days no such disorder existed on the books. After the war ended, Miller converted to Catholicism and developed strong anti-war inclinations.

Miller was primarily a short story writer. But in 1960 he published A Canticle for Leibowitz, the only novel he completed during his lifetime. The backstory to the novel goes like this. The human race is stupid and sets off enough nuclear bombs to destroy life as we know it. People blame scientists and other well-educated individuals for the problem. They destroy books. They stop learning to read. Isaac Edward Leibowitz, a scientist who had been involved in nuclear research, repented for his role in the disaster and converted to Catholicism. But he saw how quickly the culture was being dismantled, and he started a religious order devoted to preserving the few books that were not burned. Until Leibowitz himself is burned by an angry mob. The novel chronicles the struggles of the Leibowitzian Order–first to survive amid the ruins of civilization, and then as civilization becomes advanced enough to destroy itself.

While opposition to nuclear war is the background, the novel offers many other questions. What is the value of preserving knowledge you do not understand? Can science limit itself, even when the safety of millions may be at stake? How should Christians respond when no one respects their point of view?

The novel includes some profound passages on suicide and euthanasia, which make Miller’s own death more tragic. Clearly, he believed–at least at the time he wrote the novel–that suicide is a sin. But in January 1996 he shot himself in the head. His wife had recently died. He was depressed. He had never really recovered from seeing the Monte Cassino bombed into the ground. And so Miller, whose passages on suicide are some of the most profound fictional meditations on the subject that I have read, died by his own hand.

I wonder, though, whether Miller could have written what he did had he not understood why someone might commit suicide. He understood. He fought. He failed. As we all do, at different times and in different ways.

A Canticle for Leibowitz ends on a grim note. Nuclear war has destroyed the earth for a second time. Yet Miller suggests that there is still hope. Out of ugliness, God brings redemption. And no bomb, however powerful, can change that.

 
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Posted by on October 15, 2014 in Science Fiction

 

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Pullman the Preacher

It’s always nice to know that you’re not imagining things. (Particularly when you spend a lot of time doing just that–on purpose.) I read through Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series because I wanted to be fair. Pullman’s atheism felt heavy-handed, and I wondered whether he was really more didactic than Lewis, or whether I was just uncomfortable with didacticism from an opposing point of view.

PSo when I found this article in The Atlantic, I was greatly comforted. It isn’t just me. There’s a reason that lots of people–even Christians–read through Narnia without noticing the Christian elements. I’ve never heard of someone reading Pullman without realizing that he is an atheist. Yes, atheists get preachy, too. And it’s a shame, because Pullman really is a good writer. He could have done a lot with the His Dark Materials books if he hadn’t gotten caught up in trying to prove that atheism can be an emotionally satisfying worldview.

From the article:

…An appropriate response to this irritation would have been to write an “atheist’s Narnia” in which the polemic is less abrasive – and therefore more effective, perhaps – than Lewis’s Christian sallies sometimes are. More myth, in other words, and less message; more Middle-Earth, perhaps, and less Narnia. Instead, Pullman seems to have set out to take the things he hated about Lewis’ writing and recreate them, but at a heightened, more hectoring pitch.

There are other children’s fantasies by atheists that offer an alternative to Narnia. I’m thinking, in particular, of Susan Cooper’s “The Dark Is Rising” series. Cooper‘s world is rather dualistic–which is not atheistic enough, perhaps, for Pullman–but she wrote a compelling series that doesn’t preach.

I enjoy books that struggle toward what their authors see as the truth. Some authors do this successfully–Flannery O’Connor, and C.S. Lewis much of the time. Others–Ayn Rand, for instance–get so caught up in trying to demonstrate the truth of their viewpoints that they end up sacrificing their artistry.

All art is didactic in some sense. Even if you really don’t care what conclusions someone else might draw from it, you have beliefs, and those beliefs shape the way you write. Like it or not. So ranting against didacticism isn’t the answer. But the good of the story has to come first. If the story isn’t improved by adding something, don’t add it. Even if it proves that your viewpoint is eternally right. Just don’t do it. Preachy stories are annoying. Period.

 
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Posted by on September 17, 2014 in Fantasy

 

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What’s with All the Stupid Fantasy?

I recently picked up a book about why manners are important. That may have been the title; I can’t remember now. It was sold in a shopping complex where about the only thing I could afford was a sandwich. Which was all I wanted, fortunately. But I did page through the book. It was exactly what it said, and I could appreciate most of it, even though etiquette was always my sister’s hobby, not mine. But one section gave me pause.

The author evidently loves novels of manners because she likes realistic characters who have to work through their flaws and mature. So far, so good. But she finds the current taste for fantasy disturbing. Imagine, she says, a fourteen-year-old girl who reads fantasy exclusively. Most of the time she reads stupid, caricatured descriptions of people who like to swing swords around. What little good fantasy she reads involves black and white moral dilemmas with characters so elevated that they are unrelatable and teach little about how to live in the real world. (I can only assume the author was thinking of Tolkien.)

I sympathize with some of the author’s complaints. Although I consider fantasy my favorite genre of literature, I actually do not read it very often. I don’t like the stupid characters, either. Especially the warrior elf queens who feel like they were invented to prove that women can be tough. And there are other problems with fantasy stories beyond those that might irritate a Jane Austen fan.

C.S. Lewis complained about people who wrote “science fiction” stories with perfectly ordinary plots—spy-stories, romances, and so forth—which have nothing to distinguish them as fantastic but the unusual setting. There are still a lot of stories like that. Whatever fantastic elements are there feel arbitrary. The wonder and sense of strangeness are missing. If you read fantasy for “otherness,” then the pickings are very slim.

I’m not going to comment on the author’s shallow interpretation of Tolkien except to say that if she thinks Boromir, Denathor, and Saruman fit neatly into black-and-white categories, she hasn’t been reading carefully. And The Silmarillion includes characters even more complex than those in The Lord of the Rings—if complex is what she really wants. (Sometimes I think that what people mean when they object to “black and white” characterization is that they don’t like reading about a world where a clear good and a clear evil exist, even if both are complex. But I would say, with Tolkien, that the real world is like that. Good and evil may be complex, but no one will be talking about shades of gray at the Last Judgment.) As for relatable, I think that in some ways Tolkien’s characters are more relatable than “realistic” ones. Frodo is an Everyman—as is Gollum. Archetypes are relatable precisely because they are archetypes. And archetypes can be complex.

The truth, I think, is less that fantasy characters are not relatable and more that the author could not relate well to fantasy characters. Well—that’s fine. Everyone has a favorite genre. I would rather relate to Frodo, or Faramir, than to Elizabeth Bennett. (In the past, I have even tried to deal with difficult people by trying to imagine them as Gollums, who, if evil, are also pathetic and in need of compassion.) It’s a personal preference. People who like good fantasy (scarce as that is) are not inferior to people who like good novels of manners (and I’m sure there are bad ones). It’s a difference in kind of taste, not necessarily quality.

But I recently re-read J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories,” and it brought another problem into view. Tolkien believed that fairy stories were the hardest form of literature in which to write. To produce something that attempts to show what reality is really like, while simultaneously rearranging that reality, is extremely difficult. Thus, someone attempting a novel of manners has an immediate advantage over someone attempting a fantasy. In Tolkien’s words:

Fantasy has also an essential drawback: it is difficult to achieve. Fantasy may be, as I think, not less but more sub-creative; but at any rate it is found in practice that “the inner consistency of reality” is more difficult to produce, the more unlike are the images and the rearrangements of primary material to the actual arrangements of the Primary World. It is easier to produce this kind of “reality” with more “sober” material. Fantasy thus, too often, remains undeveloped; it is and has been used frivolously, or only half-seriously, or merely for decoration: it remains merely “fanciful.” Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it. But that is not enough—though it may already be a more potent thing than many a “thumbnail sketch” or “transcript of life” that receives literary praise.

To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.

Another potential misunderstanding comes because, over the course of the last century, literature has grown more and more like drama. “Show, don’t tell” is the instruction I was given when I took a creative writing course in college. It works well—for realistic fiction. In fantasy, things don’t work quite the same way. My English professor warned our class, “Showing is not always superior to telling.” She was right. Of course, a fantasy can tell too much, but the point is this—realistic fiction and drama may be able to grow together, but drama and fantasy have no such luck. Even modern fantasy movies, with all their special effects, cannot exactly reproduce the feeling of “otherness” that a good fantasy story creates. I like The Lord of the Rings films, with a few reservations, but I don’t go to them for “otherness.” To fully appreciate the Elves, and Lothlorien in particular, you need the books.

Fantasy is hard to write. Flannery O’Connor once remarked that so many people had learned to write a “competent” short story, that the short story was in danger of dying of competence. Fantasy has no such problem. And your creative writing class may not help you—“show, don’t tell” injunctions only go so far.

If you love novels of manners, then go read them—by all means. Beyond reading a few fantasy classics, most works in the genre aren’t worth your time. But don’t blast the genre. Competent fantasy is harder to write than competent realistic fiction. Keep fourteen-year-olds away from the warrior elf queens, please. But introduce them to the good modern authors of imaginative fiction: Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engel, Ray Bradbury. And if they run out, try going back in time to Beowulf. Or The Kalevala. Or The Niebelungenlied.

Jane Austen would be okay, too.

 
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Posted by on August 12, 2014 in Fantasy

 

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To People Who Write in Books

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Note: I found this slipped under my door one morning. But since there is a bookcase near the door, I’m afraid that it didn’t slip under the door, and was slipped off the shelf instead by a badly treated copy of The Lord of the Rings. In which case I have at least one literate and very grumpy book in my bedroom. I’m borrowing my sister’s dagger. It’s not sharp, but a book wouldn’t know.

Dear poltroons, fiends, and knaves,

(and also some very nice people with poor study habits):

I write in defense of books—pure, clean, involiate. We realize that accidents happen. Little children want to read about Frodo, and they aren’t of an age to understand reprimands like Don’t read with dirty fingers and Don’t leave the book lying open for six weeks. We feel the pain of those mistakes, but we understand them. It is the adults who are the true problem.

My cousin lives in a library. It’s a hard life, but he tries to be understanding. His cover gets sticky, and the librarians are too busy to clean it off. His pages are torn, and there is nothing he can do. But he says the day that sticks out in his memory is the day a mature adult scrawled Frodo lives! across his title page.

Don’t get us wrong. We love to see people writing Frodo lives! on appropriate targets, like pigs, and bedspreads, and other people’s privacy fences. But writing in a book—a book!—is unconscionable.

We have feelings. We also have pages that are white where they aren’t black (or purple, red, orange, etc.). We would like to keep them that way.

Please, we beg of you. By all that you hold dear on this good earth—alarm clocks, styrofoam, and the little plastic microbeads that are currently poisoning fish in the Great Lakes—we charge to control yourselves. Restrain your pencil.

Better yet, burn it. There ought to be a pencil-burning occasion in revenge both for book-burnings and for all the damage we suffer when pencils are applied to our pages by people who ought to know better.

Many illustrious people have written in books. Some of them were monks. Those monks wrote notes in copies of the Bible. And since that time Bible scholars have been fighting tooth and nail about which words count as original text. People who write in books enjoy stirring up conflicts that can last for generations to come.

You may be thinking, “But I write in cursive. Nobody would confuse my pencil marks with actual text.” Try to remember that not everyone who wrote in books was a Gothic-scribbling monk. Vikings probably wrote in the books they stole, after they stripped all the gems off. And they probably wrote in the Viking equivalent of cursive. So by writing in books, you are joining with people of ill repute. (Or boring people–Alexander Pope wrote in books.) Also remember that there might be a dark age in the future. All elements of our culture will be forgotten. The archeologists of future generations might not know that you markings are not part of the original text. You could start a war.

You say, “Well, I want to stop writing in books, but it’s hard not to. I’ve developed a habit. What should I do?

First, try taking notes about the book somewhere other than in the book. That is the proper way to record ideas from a text, or your feelings about those ideas. Second, remember that there are nerve endings located within our pages. We feel pain when a pencil touches us. That pain leads to stress, which can lead to severe spinal injuries, which can lead to our untimely deaths. By writing in books, you may become guilty of bookslaughter. Third, bear in mind that we have feelings, including pride in our appearance. And many of you have bad handwriting.

If you ignore this warning, beware. You may have books in your house. And they never sleep.

Yours,

A Very Resentful Volume

 
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Posted by on August 4, 2014 in Humor

 

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Actors, Artists, and A.W. Tozer

C.S. Lewis wrote, while introducing a new translation of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, that people ought to read two old books for every new book they pick up. People’s worldviews change. Not their opinions; their entire way of understanding reality. To paraphrase Lewis, there are places where Barack Obama and George W. Bush are in shockingly close agreement—shocking, that is, to Socrates. We wouldn’t notice very easily, because we share their basic assumptions.

We share many things in common with people who lived fifty or sixty years ago. Certainly there isn’t a gap of the sort that would occur between Obama and Socrates. But there are still some things that we find very difficult to understand. Those were my thoughts while reading A.W. Tozer’s essay, “The Menace of the Religious Movie.”

I’m not a movie fan. My go-to source of relaxation is books, not movies. (A secret vice: when I’m tired, I have a habit of going to poorly written children’s books to let my mind vegetate. I suppose it’s my version of junk television.) I have read and admired Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death, and I agree with Marshall McLuhan that “the medium is the message.” Film has its problems. Emotional manipulation is a major one—and that isn’t even to bring up the damage that some movies have done in religious contexts. Like Postman, I do not believe that any medium is neutral. Tozer, on the other hand, did believe that film was a neutral medium—which makes his attitude toward movies seem even stranger.

Tozer was opposed to religious movies. All religious movies. He quipped that they were making poor attempts to do what what Hollywood could do better—a fair claim, especially at that time. But evidently he considered all Hollywood movies off bounds for Christians as well. A professor of mine told our class that when he was growing up out West, all evangelicals frowned on going to movie theaters. Not fundamentalists—mainstream evangelicals. I guess some of Tozer’s attitudes reflect his time.

Others seem strange, even for the mid-1900s. Tozer opposed acting, period. Pointing out that our word “hypocrisy” comes from the Greek word for “actor,” he argued that all acting is hypocritical. I had thought that attitude had died with the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Apparently not.

Some of Tozer’s concerns, however, are legitimate—even if I do not agree with all of his reasoning. He worried that people were paying more attention to natural gifts than spiritual gifts, treating Christian actors as superior to Christian teachers, pastors, and evangelists. Given our media-obsessed culture, that remains a danger. Or, worse—those teachers, pastors, and evangelists may try to reinvent themselves as media personalities. As Neil Postman worried, the end result of that will be a nation that takes Christianity less seriously. If a pastor is as good as a movie star, he probably won’t be any better.

But, coming more from the perspective of a writer than of a theologian, I worry as much for the Christian actor in that situation as I would for the pastor. Artists of any medium—film, visual arts, the written word—are vulnerable to forces that the church leaders may not understand. Artists do need to be respected, to have their natural talents affirmed within the context of the church. The church, however, must be careful. I recall reading of a church that had a writer-in-residence. That situation—giving someone a prominent church office based on his or her natural talents—made me uneasy. True, churches have secretaries, musicians, and janitors. Those positions are necessary for the church to function. Is a writer-in-residence? And if he or she is, then shouldn’t he be treated as an equal counterpart to the secretaries, musicians, and janitors?

Celebrity is dangerous. Those in holy orders—pastors, deacons, etc.—have higher positions than others in the church, and Scripture itself recognizes that they are extremely vulnerable. That was long before the TV preachers that so concerned Neil Postman, let alone Internet-based megachurches. People in high positions need to be careful. So does anyone, whether an artist or not, whose calling puts him in the public eye. Churches need to reach out to artists, as they need to reach out to everyone. Artists should feel that the church welcomes their gifts. But Christians should be able to conduct outreach without treating artists as a special, “higher” class. As pastors know very well, “higher” can mean “endangered.”

 
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Posted by on July 23, 2014 in Nonfiction

 

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On Jill Pole

My mother read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to me when I was seven years old. The ironic thing is that she hates fantasy (although, she says, she liked fairy tales when she was little). Apparently she was taking me to see a play based on the book, and she wanted me to have read the book first. Now, whenever she complains about my enjoyment of “fake life,” I gleefully point out that she started it all.

She is not amused.

44250_w185My relationship with the Narnian chronicles was rather stormy, however. In fourth grade I began buying a few of the books for myself—in addition to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I also bought Prince Caspian, The Silver Chair, and The Magician’s Nephew. Soon I decided that The Silver Chair was my favorite, probably because of Jill. She had a stronger personality than most of the other characters, and she wore shorts, wandered around in strange cold places, and got to carry a knife. (I was old enough then to like knives and young enough not to worry about being cut by one.)

About a year later, in a fit of anti-magical conscience, I got rid of all my Narnian books for fear they included witchcraft. Never underestimate the willpower of a worried fifth-grader. (But I still liked The Silver Chair.)

After a few years, my conscience decided that Narnia wasn’t evil after all. When my sister was given a Narnia boxed set, I read and re-read The Silver Chair to my heart’s content. I developed a fondness for Edmund, but Jill remained a favorite.

The surprising thing about that is that I rarely pick female characters as my favorites. A lot of them simply bore me. The boys are the ones who go off on all the adventures. When the girls do have adventures, they usually seem like they’re trying too hard. I don’t want the book to read as if the author decided “Girls should have adventures, too.” Strong female characters are great. Strong female characters invented to prove some feminist point are boring, annoying, or both.

Jill is a strong female character. Better yet, she has nothing to prove. (Well, that she isn’t afraid of heights, but that phase is short-lived.) There are no unrealistic heroics. Jill is not another tired copy of the Elf Warrior Queen Who Knows Karate. Or a Really Cool Ranger Girl Who Can Do All the Things Everyone Else Is Afraid Of. (If you are planning a book about either of those characters, or someone similar, then please. Spare us.)

From Flannery O’Connor: “The person writing a fantasy has to be even more strictly attentive to the concrete detail than someone writing in a naturalistic vein—because the greater the story’s strain on credulity, the more convincing the properties in it have to be.”

Unlike some of her truly fantastic female counterparts, Jill is very much a real person, not a character invented to defy stereotypes or to serve as wish gratification. She is strong. She also doesn’t think much about the points of a compass, has trouble remembering important things, and almost kills her friend in an abortive attempt to show how tough she is.

That’s what I call realism.

 
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Posted by on July 17, 2014 in Fantasy

 

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