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Off to Find Ourselves

Reading The Goose Girl was satisfying in any number of ways, but one of the more unusual was that its heroine, Isi, is the oldest child in her family.

Perhaps “satisfying” isn’t the right word. “Smirk-worthy” will do. It’s difficult being an older sibling whose younger siblings enjoy pointing out that they are the ones all the fairy tales justify. Cinderella, they insist, was a younger sister abused by her older sisters. Personally, I think it’s at least arguable that Cinderella may have been near the ages of her step-sisters. But most fairy tales that I have read do seem to either use a younger sibling or an only child as the hero. My real problem may be that I haven’t read enough fairy tales. But there is still a real pleasure to see an older sister come into her own. Especially since she was mistreated largely because of her quiet personality.

There is something intrinsically satisfying about that, at least–watching someone who never fit in, who was never allowed to be her true self, find her place. But a conversation the other day made me think a little more about why that is so satisfying.

I forget the exact words–something to the extent that people up through the Middle Ages wrote literature focused on life-and-death struggles, and that the people after the 20th century wrote literature that was about finding meaning in life. It’s an interesting categorization. I’m not a literary critic, of course, and can’t make those sorts of blanket statements. But–thinking back to what pre-modern literature I’ve read–I don’t recall any pre-modern hero going on a quest to find himself. Odysseus’s journey was mainly about survival. The heroes in The Iliad are generally trying to kill one another. And, while the quests of Arthur’s knights are not always done out of physical necessity, they are generally focused on saving someone or undoing some evil. If they are related to the knights at all, the knights are usually trying to prove or disprove some aspect of their character–and character, after all, has eternal repercussions. What you don’t find in the pre-modern era are stories about conflicted heroes trying to figure out who they really are. They already know. They were born knowing.

We, on the other hand, have choices that, if not unlimited, are certainly greater than those most pre-modern people had. Peasants almost never became knights. And knights almost never became peasants, green thumb or no. Choices are nice. But having a great number of them leaves a person in the middle of another dilemma. If a choice has to be made, which choice is the right one? And how can we decide? Should we ask our parents? Take a personality test? Get a bunch of old ladies to pray about it? Get an opinion from a guidance counselor? Write an advice columnist? Look deep into our hearts? How about a combination of them all?

Choices aren’t a bad thing in and of themselves. Isi gets offered very few free choices in The Goose Girl; much of her growth is a matter of necessity. I don’t envy her. But choices, though not a bad thing, aren’t themselves very satisfying. The many choices we are offered have left our society feeling hollow. And so we go on a search for meaning–for the place where necessity and choice collide. Are we primarily trying to find ourselves? Maybe–in one sense. We lost ourselves in the Fall, after all. We had a choice. We made the wrong one.

John called Jesus “the Word”–our ultimate communication from God. Communication implies meaning. There is only one real place to find ourselves. Unlike Isi, we can’t understand the wind or speak our thoughts to a horse. We aren’t in a book. But we do have a Book. And it’s only in that Book, and through the Word it talks about, that we can reach the meaning that mankind has been looking for.

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Posted by on January 25, 2013 in Fantasy

 

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Critiquing Chesterton

Last fall I came across an article about G. K. Chesterton in which the author said that most people, except for members of a small “Chesterton cult,” were unfamiliar with most of his writing. “Chesterton cult?” I hadn’t known that scouring the website of the American Chesterton Society made me a member of a cult. Now I do.

To be honest, I don’t think I’m obsessed with Chesterton. I do, however, value his writings—I’ve re-read Orthodoxy numerous times, and his Ballad of the White Horse helped me survive a statistics final. (I got a D and was prepared for an F. That the passage I marched off to class quoting was “That though we scatter and though we fly,/ And you hang over us like the sky,/ You are more tired of victory,/ Than we are tired of shame.” That may sound depressing, but I knew what I was in for.)

I’ve heard that Chesterton tends to be a polarizing influence—that people either love him or hate him. I’m not sure that I fit neatly into either category—perhaps admiration is the best word I can muster. C.S. Lewis seems to have felt similarly, praising Chesterton, paraphrasing Chesterton, and (sometimes) critiquing Chesterton. Because Chesterton is not always right. In fact, there are times that he contradicts himself. So why do so many of us admire him?

First of all, Chesterton is funny. By that I don’t mean he inserts jokes into his serious works so other people will read them. Rather, there is a good humor about his entire writing style. Among all the nonfiction I have read, Chesterton’s is the most entertaining. For example, Chesterton declares tradition to be “the democracy of the dead.” (Who else would put it like that?) “Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarcy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea.”

And, as the passage I just quoted suggests, Chesterton thinks for himself. He calls himself a liberal (in the 19th century sense) while simultaneously casting himself as a traditionalist. And both descriptions seem accurate. In an age of bipolar politics, Chesterton offers another way to look at life. He does the same thing in regards to Christianity; by starting with an informal anthropology, his book The Everlasting Man reveals Christ in a very different way.

In the end, I think one of the main reasons that I admire Chesterton is simply for his viewpoint, for his unique way of looking at things, and for his incomparable means of expressing them. As J.R.R. Tolkien said in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Chesterton’s “MOOR EEFFOC” –“COFFEE ROOM” seen backwards—is limited in its ability to make the world look new to us. It is good to realize, once in a while, that rivers really could flow backwards, or the grass be red, or houses be upside-down. But according to Tolkien (and I believe he was right) most of us cannot think that way for long. If we want to see the world in a new way, our best recourse is found in fairy tales. Yet, whatever he called his view, Chesterton’s way of thinking is that of a man permeated by the fairy tales that Tolkien so revered. Chesterton, unlike Tolkien, may never bring someone to the level of high myth. But he has convinced many people to learn what Cinderella did. If there is a pumpkin in the garden, the best response is to say “Thank you.”

 
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Posted by on January 18, 2013 in Classic Literature

 

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Fantasy and Mixing Genres

I’m not a fan of urban fantasy. The very idea of fairies (or vampires, or whatever) hanging out in some sort of London underworld makes me begin groaning (if alone) or grimacing (if not alone). The only explanation that I can come up with is something to do with the atmosphere—I don’t typically enjoy urban fiction anyway, and adding supernatural creatures to the cement environments I hate adds an additional annoyance factor. So perhaps it isn’t terribly surprising that I do like stories that bridge the gap between fantasy and historical fiction.

The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge is one such book. It is seems set in the 19th century England (although that isn’t entirely clear) and centers around a story of medieval family conflict. The heroine, Maria Merryweather, has to find a way to right the wrongs of her ancestor, Sir Wrolf, in order "Virgin and Unicorn," Domenico Zampierifor peace to come to her family manor. Some of the story’s elements are realistic, if a little idealized. Others are possible by stretching reality, while a few are simply fantastic.

C. S. Lewis observed that one of the distinguishers of pure Story, as opposed to the novel, is a focus on atmosphere that envelops both the plot and characters, rather than the other way around. And The Little White Horse has a very strong atmosphere. In fact, coming away from the story, one of the main things I remember is the color—silver and black (and, well, pink).

My main criticism of the book is, in fact, that the atmosphere may be too strong—that the story would be more like a fairy tale if its fairy tale qualities weren’t so carefully protected. Most fairy tales are much less fairy tale-ish than might be expected. Often they are more realistic than we would prefer—the versions we are more familiar with have often been divested of some of their more jarring elements so they can be told to children. That isn’t to say that good fairy tales are jarring, but that there is a delicate balance between “faery” elements and realistic elements. The Little White Horse gives a bit too much dominance to the faery.

The Perilous Gard (written by another Elizabeth, Elizabeth Marie Pope) is a story similar in that it bridges a gap between history and fantasy. Also like The Little White Horse, it includes a love story of sorts. Granted, it is, I think, intended for slightly older readers; but I’m also inclined to think that it better succeeds in balancing the faery and realistic elements.

Of course, it helps the story is partially an explanation of where English fairy legends came from in the first place. But its atmosphere is at least as strong as that of The Little White Horse, although different—more caves and candles than sunlight and moonlight. Still, it isn’t every author who can create a story about violent elf-like pagans hiding in the backwoods of medieval England.

I suppose The Little White Horse rather shows why J.R.R. Tolkien so hated allegory. To protect the atmosphere, the story invokes so much symbolism that it likely produces groans in some readers.

I didn’t groan. And if it isn’t every story that can make violent elf-like pagans come alive, it also isn’t every story that can make an eccentric dwarf seem quite realistic. Or that can pass off a lion as a dog. Or that can come up with a credible ending without killing someone. The Little White Horse has its faults. I would not call it great. But it was very, very good.

 
 

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