Fantasy Friday: Worldbuilding In Dragonwitch by Anne Elisabeth Stengl


DRAGONWITCH coverWorldbuilding, some say, is vital to epic fantasy. I’d argue that worldbuilding is vital to all fiction but is perhaps most noticeable in speculative fiction. Epic fantasy and space opera might have the greatest requirements put on them to develop a world that is at the same time vividly realistic and other.

And then there are faery tales.

Some faery tales may read a lot like epic fantasy. I think of Cinderella, for example, and the main thing that sets it apart from traditional good versus evil stories such as The Chronicles of Prydain, is, well, faeries. The magic of the story comes about at the initiative of a faery godmother (or, in Disney’s version, three fairy godmothers). In fact a good many of the most famous faery tales involve kings and castles, faeries and witches, princes and fair maidens in distress.

That was then. A host of writers today have taken the threads of those old stories and are turning them into a different type of faery tale–one that utilizes the craft of contemporary fiction.

When it comes to worldbuilding, perhaps no one creates a more realistic and at the same time, fantastic place as Anne Elisabeth Stengl does in her Tales of Goldstone Wood series. With each book I think this talented author grows, and so does her world.

As I thought about explaining the worldbuilding of Gladstone Wood, the closest I could come to was the Wonderland into which Alice stumbled. There is a similar disorientation in entering the world Anne Elisabeth Stengl has created.

Things don’t work the same way they do in the world of mortals, because this is the Wood Between, where the River plots against any mortals that stray, where stars come in human form, where paths change direction, and trees aren’t where they once were. Where time is swallowed up and where faeries guard gates, lest those who don’t belong end up slipping into the land of mortals.

In my post about the worldbuilding in A Cast of Stones by Patrick Carr, I said, besides a description of location,

[worldbuilding] consists of culture and language, politics and religion, alliances and enemies, races and rules, hierarchy and economics, beliefs and superstitions, history and literature.

So how does Dragonwitch measure up? The landscape is vivid, in spite of the fact that there is no map. In part, I’m convinced that a map wouldn’t help because the paths in the Wood Between simply aren’t reliably stationary. Things move. Trees reshape and the path itself is apt to go off on its own.

But outside the wood, in the Near World and the Far World, the terrain is just as explicit, though much more familiar. There are castles and stables, crypts and courtyards, mountains and deserts, villages and temple buildings.

In addition, each of these places has its own history, prophecy, economy, government, literature, language, and hierarchy. The fabric of each place is rich, made more so when people from the different parts of this faery world come together.

A sample of the story can say far more than I can describe. Below is an excerpt from a place near the middle of the story (pp 188-189). A faery named Eanrin has just helped rescue three mortals (the Chronicler, Alister, and Mouse–a young woman) from a host of goblins and has led them into the Wood Between.

“What in the name of Lord Lumé–” the Chronicler began.

“Hush!” The cat appeared at his feet and stood up into the tall form of Bard Eanrin. The Chronicler’s stomach turned at the sight, and his knees buckled so that he sat down hard on the marble floor beneath him. The legend stepped around the Chronicler to draw back a green-velvet curtain emblazoned with small white blossoms, and peered out.

Except–and the Chronicler knew he must be mad when he saw this–there was no curtain. There was only the branch of a hawthorn tree heavily laden with clusters of blooms. But when the cat-man dropped it and stepped back, it was again rich fabric falling in folds.

“We’ve lost them,” Eanrin said, crossing his arms as he addressed the three mortals. “They’ll not find us here.”

Alistair still lay on the floor, though he’d rolled onto his back and stared, openmouthed, at the vaulted ceiling above him. Mouse stood nearby, trying to disguise her own surprise at the sudden change in their surroundings. She looked more bedraggled and waif-like than ever in this setting . . .

How frail and foolish these mortals looked here in First Hall! By the standards of Faerie, the Haven’s proportions were humble and reserved. But this was an immortal’s abode, built by immortal hands at the direction of the Lumil Eliasul, who was neither mortal nor immortal but who stood in a place beyond either. Here, the little humans looked so imperfect in their Time-bound clay bodies.

Yes, Dragonwitch definitely has a feeling of place, especially of an Other place, though the scenes that are set in Gaheris and its castle resonate with historical reality. And the Near World evokes images of an amalgamation of ancient Egypt and early America before anyone thought to name it.

What a place. What a story. But I’ll give a full review of Dragonwitch another day.

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Worldbuilding In A Cast Of Stones by Patrick Carr


Warwick_Castle_-mist_23o2007Every author creates a world for his characters to inhabit, but those working in speculative fiction have to invent one. Contemporary and historical writers have to research theirs. Speculative writers have to research but also design, combine, entwine features from this life and from their mind and imagination into a cohesive whole.

The world a writer builds is made up of more than landscape. It consists of culture and language, politics and religion, alliances and enemies, races and rules, hierarchy and economics, beliefs and superstitions, history and literature.

I say this because a number of reviews, particularly Mike Duran‘s and Katherine Coble‘s, of Patrick Carr‘s novel A Cast of Stones pinpointed worldbuilding as a weakness. In my comments to their posts I concurred, but I have to admit, I began to wonder how accurate the statement was.

As I’ve mentioned once or twice, I deeply felt the lack of a map! I realized as I read without the ability to reference a map, that I wasn’t picturing where places were in reference to one another. I didn’t know where the mountains were or where the gorge ran. I didn’t know how close the sea was, and was surprised to learn that the capital city was on an island (? – I think I have that right). In other words, I didn’t see the world well.

On the other hand, I felt the culture was well established. A messenger system existed. Each town had a tavern/inn that served as a gathering place and to which newcomers went. But they also had a church, and the priest had some authority. For example, the village priest had the power to have someone flogged and thrown into the stocks for drunkenness.

Herbwomen were looked at with suspicion, as if they believed in something unholy. Something unholy did venture in the land–a malus, which would best be compared to an evil spirit. And so did ferrals (a kind of sentient super wolf), though these were an aberration of the norm.

The church had a key part to play in the kingdom but was augmented by the conclave of readers (perhaps the most unique element of the governmental structure) and by the king and the Watch–soldiers dedicated to his protection. Readers were conscripted by the church, whereas serving in the Watch was something reserved for only the most skilled fighters. Both positions required training, so formal education was also a part of this world, at least for some of the people.

The economy depended on trade caravans, and bartering was the standard manner of doing business. People from various parts of the world, with varying physical features and accents based on their place of origin, gravitated to caravan guard jobs.

Other people lived in towns and villages or on farms, each under the oversight of an earl who owed his allegiance to the king. A line existed between commoners and the hierarchy. Even the church and the conclave of readers had their ranking.

All this to say, I actually know quite a bit about the world that author Patrick Carr created. In some ways it does resemble the medieval world of Europe–which required research–but there is also an inventiveness that had to come from his imagination.

Does Carr create a strong sense of place? Well, there’s no mistaking this world for Kansas, or Oz. Could it have been stronger? Undoubtedly. The weakest element, in my opinion, was in the visuals–the description of where the characters were.

Tomorrow I hope to comment on a different Christian speculative novel, one that does, in my opinion, a wonderful job of worldbuilding.

How important is worldbuilding to you when you read fiction? What makes a place feel real to you?

CSFF Blog Tour-A Cast of Stones and The Hero’s Lot by Patrick Carr, Day 3


Heros Lot coverAs it happened, CSFF’s plans to feature A Cast of Stones in a blog tour dovetailed with publisher Bethany House’s plans to promote the second book in The Staff & The Sword series, The Hero’s Lot. Consequently, I have the privilege of reviewing this one as well.

I’m happy about that, certainly, because I loved A Cast of Stones. After I read the last page, I dived right in and gobbled down The Hero’s Lot. Gobbled it whole. Or nearly so. I love a book that draws me in to the point that I am steeped in the story and the world, and Patrick Carr‘s epic fantasy novels did just that.

But here’s the downside for me: I don’t remember the details well when I read glomps at a time. So now you’re forewarned, and still I offer you my review of The Hero’s Lot.

The Story. Of necessity, if you haven’t read A Cast of Stones yet, you’ll find spoilers from this point on. I’m sorry. I just don’t know how I can discuss a sequel without giving some idea what happened in the book that came before. I’ll do my best to paint with a wide brush, which actually should work since I don’t remember the particulars well!

Errol Stone has made remarkable changes, and yet he’s plagued with his own insignificance. Yes, he now has much needed abilities that can serve his king well, but those closest to him expect him to offer himself as a pawn for the good of the nation.

A great threat lies over the land. Their king is childless, and a prophecy or a curse says that when the king dies with no heir, the barrier keeping their land free from being overrun by an evil entity comparable to evil spirits, will fall.

Errol is needed in the process of selecting the new king because one of his abilities allows him to read the lots cast by others. Without him, unscrupulous power-hungry earls can manipulate the selection process and steal the kingship.

Consequently, his enemies accuse him of trumped up wrong doing. His punishment is to go on a seemingly impossible quest. And once again, the church puts a compulsion on him, giving him no choice.

And I’ll stop there.

Strengths. Once again Patrick Carr has created a multi-dimensional tale. There is political intrigue, but also a genuine quest. There is a love interest and a new friend. There’s personal growth and personal sorrow. Much is at stake for Errol as a man but also for his country and the lands nearby. His path is fraught with danger and the outcome of his efforts is uncertain, at best.

In other words, the story is filled with action and conflict and tension. And the stakes are raised. Errol is more important than anyone could imagine at the beginning of A Cast of Stones, and his own life is more at risk than ever before.

The characters in The Hero’s Lot are not stagnant. Some change for the better, but others show up in a less flattering light. New characters appear, and some old friends die.

The world is richer in this second edition of The Staff & The Sword, in part because Errol’s travels show it to be far bigger than I realized in the first book.

The trilogy theme also seems to emerge. Above all else, Errol is striving to be somebody. When he was orphaned and learned that even the father he thought he knew was not his natural parent, he escaped into the bottle. Now that he’s sober, he tries to make himself into someone who matters, though he doesn’t believe his new rank or his unique abilities make him worthwhile. When he learns the facts about his parentage, he once again slides into despair.

There’s also a spiritual theme that emerges, but I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice it to say, this one could be a little uncomfortable for some Christians.

Weaknesses. There’s no map! Yes, this is an even greater problem in this book because Errol and those who accompany him are crossing borders and traveling by ship. I want to see where they are and where they are going. At one point others were headed from a different place to the same town as Errol and company. I wanted to know how different these two routes where and what the chance was that they’d both arrive at the same time. Maps can give clues to such things. But, no map!

I also thought The Hero’s Lot was a little more rushed than A Cast of Stones. I can’t remember details (going too fast, myself), but I had the sense that things weren’t being explained as carefully as I’d like, that if I went back and read again, I’d find a few holes, in the foreshadowing, if nowhere else.

Still, I think The Hero’s Lot is a remarkable book that advances the story on every level.

Recommendations. Epic fantasy lovers will be so happy with this book. It’s rich and well worth the time it takes to read. It’s a delightful story, so readers of all stripes will enjoy it as well. So I highly recommend the book to readers and suggest it is a must read for epic fantasy fans. It’s an adult book, but young adults who are good readers will have no problem with it.

Just a reminder that A Cast of Stones is available until the end of August as a free ebook with either Kindle or Nook. What a great opportunity to get in on this trilogy, to find out if this is the kind of story you’ll like, without costing you a dime.

Also, you can pre-order Book 3, A Draw of Kings, which is due out February 2014.

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

CSFF Blog Tour-A Cast of Stones and The Hero’s Lot by Patrick Carr, Day 2


A-Cast-of-StonesI’m a fantasy fan, and in particular, an epic fantasy fan. Consequently The Staff & The Sword series by Patrick Carr is in my wheelhouse. These books feel as if I’m coming home. Already I’m thinking I want to re-read them.

The first book, A Cast of Stones (free as an ebook until August 31), had me hooked by the end of the first chapter. So now you know my bias as you read my review. 😉

The Story. Already, at the age of 18, Errol Stone is a drunk. The town drunk, in fact, but he knows his way around the countryside, including a dangerous gorge that must be crossed to reach the ravine where a certain secluded churchman lives with his servant.

Consequently, when a messenger appears mid-morning one day, Errol wins the job of delivering the missive and a parcel of communion elements to the pater. On the way, however, he encounters a would-be assassin who attacks him. Despite his slightly less than sober state, he manages to avoid being killed, though he does take an arrow and nearly drowns.

His worst nightmare, however, occurs because his injury requires him to spend the night away from town and from the pub and the ale his body craves. The good pater helps him survive with the aid of the communion elements he brought, and the next day, because the message Errol carried is too waterlogged to read, the three start out to intercept the messenger.

But opposition has only begun, and when the churchmen realize that Errol has a unique and much needed ability that he isn’t even aware of, they press him into service–most literally. He now is under compulsion to go with them to the capital of their land and offer his services to the church–for which he has no love because he’s suffered beatings for his drunkenness at the hands of the local priest.

Their plans, however, are foiled when they are once again attacked. Severely wounded, Errol is separated from the rest of his traveling companions. Eventually he must try to reach the capital on his own–the compulsion requires it of him.

That’s as much as I’ll tell. Anything more and I’d spoil the story.

Strengths. I’m not sure yet how he did it, but Mr. Carr had me caring for a drunk right in the first chapter. I didn’t know what factors led up to Errol’s desire to remain inebriated, so I wasn’t feeling sorry for him at that point and, and still I pulled for him, hoping he would succeed, grieving his choice to climb back in the bottle yet one more time. In other words, Mr. Carr created a sympathetic character who is not, in the early stages, anyone’s idea of a hero, least of all, his own.

There’s also a nice balance of action and quieter moments that allow for character development. The plot is full of intrigue and unexpected twists. There’s a little of the journey quest in the story, but then it morphs to a story filled with political intrigue, prejudice, false accusations, and assassination attempts. And there’s a love interest–an impossible love interest. This is a plot that has all the tension a reader could want.

The theme of A Cast of Stones is not fully developed because this is part of the greater story, The Staff & The Sword. However some threads peak through and I can begin to make guesses. For one, Errol himself is growing up. He isn’t at the end of this book what he was at the beginning.

Weaknesses. the greatest weakness from my perspective is the worldbuilding. There were times that I felt a little lost, not being able to picture the lay of the land and where the travelers were in respect to where they were headed. This series cries for want of a good set of maps! How many happy moments have I spent pouring over the map of Middle Earth. If only I could do the same for . . . whatever the name of this place is. There’s no map to turn to so I can refresh my memory! 😕

As weaknesses go, this one isn’t life-threatening, and probably only those of us extreme epic fantasy lovers will care about the lack of a map. But that’s all I have. The story is intriguing, the characters interesting, well drawn, believable. Errol’s transformation is progressive and realistic. A-Draw-of-Kings-cover

Recommendation. If you enjoy an action-packed story with intrigue and characters you care about, then you’ll enjoy A Cast of Stones. Well, the whole of The Staff & The Sword series. I just saw the cover for book three and that it may now be pre-ordered at Amazon.

Anyway, for epic fantasy fans, this is a must read. For others, you’ll miss a good story if you pass on this one.

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

CSFF Blog Tour-A Cast of Stones and The Hero’s Lot by Patrick Carr, Day 1


    I see the Christian spec-fic genre as requiring a fairly serious break from the “bad theology” that has shaped much of mainstream Christian fic and a revisiting of a theology of the arts.

Them are my cards and they’re all on the table — “bad theology” has shaped much of mainstream Christian fiction.

My guess — no, my fear — is that many advocates of Christian speculative fiction are importing the same faulty theology and worldview into their approach of the Christian speculative fiction genre.

A-Cast-of-StonesSo said author Mike Duran in his post entitled “Christian Spec-Fic & ‘Intellectual Rigor’ — A Proposal.”

As it turned out, in the discussion that ensued, I presented Mike with a counter proposal, and he accepted. I gave him a short list of novels to choose from and challenged him to read and review whichever book he picked, in light of his question about Christian speculative fiction. As it happens, he selected A Cast of Stones, Book 1 of The Staff & the Sword series, by Patrick Carr, the second August selection of the CSFF Blog Tour.

Happily, Mike learned that in honor of the release of Book 2, The Hero’s Lot, A Cast of Stones is currently being offered as a free ebook (Nook is offering it for free as well), so he also invited his Facebook friends to join him in the challenge. One person even suggested a Facebook page where readers could discuss the book.

I wanted to intervene and say that such a discussion is the kind of thing that participants of the CSFF Blog Tour get to do, but I refrained–I don’t want to turn a positive conversation into smarmy spam. 😀

As to the portion of Mike’s post which I quoted above, I’ve spent some time trying to discern what “bad theology” Mike is referring to. From what he’s said in other posts and what he’s said in real life, I know he believes the Bible in the same way I do.

What he doesn’t believe (and again, I agree) is that there is a set of conservative behavioral standards often adhered to by an element of the more conservative evangelical churches which defines or even identifies Christians–things like no drinking, dancing, smoking, swearing. A number of readers who admittedly don’t read Christian fiction believe that these stories still hold to those standards. More than once I’ve heard how Christian fiction can’t show someone drinking, for instance.

It’s a laughable statement, and has been for at least five years, but A Cast of Stones ought to put the issue to bed because the protagonist of the story, Errol Stone, is the town drunk. (Note, he doesn’t just drink, but he is a drunk, something Scripture does, in fact, speak against). And yet, some strictures remain–primarily a prohibition against swearing and “coarse” language and against sex scenes.

As I understand Mike, this kind of “PG-rated story” means Christian speculative fiction is still tied to bad theology that says good Christians don’t do “those things” or at least want to hide their eyes from others doing those things.

I think I understand his point. Books that frown on including curse words have no compunction against showing characters steeped in greed and anger. Some have characters that slander their neighbors, or ignore the homeless. Why have evangelicals picked out a set of “defining sins” that aren’t in Scripture–at least in the way Christians use them–while ignoring others?

There’s something else in another comment that I think might also get to what Mike means by “bad theology”–that Christians have a bad theology of the arts. They exist as a means to evangelize. They are, in essence, little more than a pragmatic way to take the message of the gospel to those who need to hear. Or they are a means by which Christians can reinforce their own narrow views about life and godliness.

I’m stepping out on a limb here because I don’t know which, if any, of those ideas are part of what Mike thinks is the ongoing bad theology of Christian fiction. He says he doesn’t mean content when he refers to the intellectual rigor Christian fiction is lacking.

I’ll let others ferret out precisely what Mike means. I’ve written what I mean about intellectual rigor both here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction and also at Speculative Faith. I’ve written my theology of art, too, in bits and pieces here and there (see for example this post and this one and this one). Perhaps I need to revisit the subject.

In a nutshell, I see art as little more than an extension of who I am and what I am tasked to do and be. Consequently, my art is to be consistent with my life and my life purposes. My life purposes certainly include proclaiming who Jesus is and what He’s done (“. . . that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” 1 Peter 2:9b), but that’s not the limit by any means.

And how does all this relate to A Cast of Stones, beside the fact that Mike and some of his Facebook friends will be reading and reviewing the book? I see this novel, and a number of others, breaking the mold which has limited traditional Christian fiction. It questions things other books have not questioned before. It addresses, for instance, what might be a barrier to someone becoming involved in the church–a significant topic lately considering the articles discussing why millenials are abandoning the church.

I promise–tomorrow I’ll discuss the book itself in more detail. For now, I recommend you check out what other CSFF’ers are saying about the first two of The Staff & the Sword books. (A check mark give you a link to a tour article).

Julie Bihn
Keanan Brand
Beckie Burnham
Jeff Chapman
Laure Covert
Pauline Creeden
Emma or Audrey Engel
April Erwin
Nikole Hahn
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Krystine Kercher
Shannon McDermott
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Writer Rani
Nathan Reimer
Chawna Schroeder
Jojo Sutis
Steve Trower
Phyllis Wheeler
Rachel Wyant

The Case For Independent Thinking


press_conferenceIn the dystopian novel 1984 by George Orwell, the province of Oceanian, operating under the direction of Big Brother, is perpetually at war with Eurasia or Eastasia. At any moment, however, the government could make peace with the enemy and declare war on the former ally.

The unique aspect of this reversal was that the government would alter history to appear as if they had always been friends with country X and had always been enemies of country Y. The public, then, who had been fervently opposed to Eastasia one day, became fervently opposed to Eurasia the next. No one seemed to notice that what they had believed to be true, what they had rallied to support, had been altered.

In essence, they did what they were told and believed what their government fed them.

This same kind of mindlessness is a trait in the dystopian Safe Lands society created by Jill Williamson in her novel Captives. There, two media personalities hold sway over the population, dictating fads and trends that change over night for no reason other than the whims of the celebrities.

Sadly, real life seems to be imitating fiction. More and more, celebrities are telling the public how to live and what to value while government is telling its citizens how to think and what to think, with the media creating the illusion that “this is the way everyone thinks” or “this is what is right.”

Smoking has been banned in many places (here in California, in most places); bicyclists must wear helmets and motorists, seat belts; infants must be in car seats; and all of us are now supposed to purchase health insurance. In some parts of our state, plastic grocery bags have been banned, and in New York, giant-sized soda was forbidden. All these rules and regulations are in place because government needs to do our thinking for us, apparently.

Further, the politically liberal faction accuses political conservatives of mindlessly following certain talk radio personalities who tell them what to think. On the other hand, here in California, the labor union bosses are known to tell their members exactly how to vote on every issue and for each candidate.

Worse, lobbyists now tell Congressmen how to vote on bills they haven’t read.

And no one seems to notice!

Every time the government passes some silly law, I think, do they seriously believe we can’t reason for ourselves? But then I hear people I know, educated people, parroting some kind of nonsense that’s circulated through a media source, and I slap my head. Are we so conditioned that we are losing our ability for independent thought?

I was raised in an era that taught school children how to recognize brainwashing. Now I see those same techniques coming out of the White House and state house and out of our TV commercials.

Apparently we have become a society of consumers, and every business, political entity, cause, or organization sees people as buyers to whom they must sell. “We need to sell people on the idea that . . . ” seems to have replaced, “This is the right thing to do.”

So here’s my plea for independent thinking:

1. It’s Biblical. Scripture says to test the spirits to see if they are from God or from false prophets. (1 John 4:1) Jesus said “See to it that no one misleads you” (Matt. 24:4) and Paul said, “But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). And those same Thessalonians were commended in Acts for “examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11). Surely, thinking things out doesn’t stop with “spiritual things,” does it? Shouldn’t our whole lives be about integrating God and His word and way into all we do?

2. It’s necessary. On occasion when I was young, I’d try to talk my mom into something she’d forbidden by saying, everyone’s doing it. She wisely pointed out the weakness of that argument: if everyone jumps off a cliff, would you jump too? Eventually I got the point.

3. It’s wise. Doing anything without thinking is not wise. Letting someone else do your thinking for you is even less wise. This week I saw a segment of the program Lookout that featured a crook masquerading as a church financial investment counselor–or some such position. In fact, he bilked church people of millions of dollars in a Ponzi scheme. How? People let someone else do their thinking for them.

4. It’s responsible. In theory children listen to their parents and do what they’re told. The adults in their lives know what’s best. However, at some point, it’s time to grow up. It’s time for those children to take charge of their own lives. If they simply trade off their parents for some other group or organization or “role model,” they haven’t truly grown up. Sure, adults are still influenced by others, but we alone bear the responsibility for our decisions. Anyone still mindlessly going along with the crowd or the political party or the way the culture is doing things is immature, not having learned yet to take on the responsibilities of an adult.

I’m sure there are other valid reasons we should cultivate independent thinking. What am I missing, or am I tilting after windmills?

Captives CSFF Tour Wrap


CSFFTopBloggerAug13The CSFF tour for Captives by Jill Williamson, originally scheduled for July, was well worth the wait, I’d say, based on the reviews and various articles discussing topics introduced by the book.

Several participants offered book give-aways. Steve Trower came through with his usual, entertaining Tuesday Tunes post, Shannon Dittemore looked at the motivating factors behind a classic dystopian novel, and Jason Joyner provided an interesting view of the story by writing as if he were living in the Safe Lands.

In the end, 21 bloggers posted 44 articles during the tour. Here are the participants who posted at least three times, with check marks linked to their articles. Take some time during the next ten days to review their posts and then vote in the poll below to determine who will receive the First August CSFF Tour Top Blogger Award.

You’ll have until midnight (Pacific time), September 1, to vote.

Published in: on August 22, 2013 at 5:14 pm  Comments Off on Captives CSFF Tour Wrap  
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Standing Up For Magic


magic-bookRecently I had a discussion with a Christian who considers much of speculative fiction to be opposed to the Bible. I’ve only had a few encounters with people who hold this view, though other writers have spoken of being surrounded by such folk.

The exchange reminds me that it’s wise to confront this attitude head-on, with Scripture.

Some years ago Stephen Burnett recounted a question that came up at an ACFW Conference. Seems one of the conferees was asking how a Christian fantasy writer is to handle magic since magic is intrinsically un-Christian.

Interesting.

Here’s the first definition for magic in the Oxford American Dictionaries: “the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.”

My question, then is, Do we Christians not consider God “supernatural”? But … but…but … God’s work is miraculous, not magic, someone may well say. And the Oxford American Dictionaries would agree that God’s work is miraculous: “occurring through divine or supernatural intervention, or manifesting such power.”

But isn’t miraculous simply a more narrowed term, specifically referencing the divine? Magic, on the other hand, does not exclude the divine.

However, I don’t want to get too caught up in semantics. Let’s agree that the Bible does warn against magic and witchcraft and other sorts of divination sought from powers other than God Himself.

In contrast, God’s powerful works are called miraculous and prophetic.

The point that is noteworthy for fantasy writers and readers, however, is this: the Bible makes it clear that both God and Satan have power. Not in equal measure. Satan is no more omnipotent than he is omnipresent, though I suspect he’d like Man to think he is both.

Make no mistake. God’s power trumps Satan’s, and it’s not even a fair comparison. Satan may not get this because it seems he keeps trying to go up against God, as if he can outmaneuver Wisdom or out-muscle Omnipotence.

Be that as it may, we can’t deny that he has power and it is supernatural—beyond Man’s abilities. Pharaoh had his magicians and so did Nebuchadnezzar, and seemingly they were used to these conjurers producing what normal folk could not. Their power was not from God, however.

Moses, with the rod of God, went head to head with Pharaoh’s magicians, if you recall, and God’s power dominated. Nebuchadnezzar’s sorcerers could not tell their king his dream, let alone the interpretation of it, but God’s man, Daniel, could.

But back to fantasy. If supernatural power—good and evil—is real, then why should Christian fantasy writers pretend that the evil forces in their stories don’t have real supernatural power? Why should we pretend that those siding with good have no supernatural power?

Fantasy, after all, gives a story-long metaphor for the real world. Why would we want to give Christians—young adults or adults—the idea that there isn’t actually supernatural power of any kind by doing away with magic in our stories?

It seems to me it’s important to address the source of power and the reality of power and the proper attitude toward power—all of which fantasy can address. Unless, of course, a Christian story must be scrubbed clean of supernatural power.

This article, except the opening paragraphs, is a re-publication from an earlier post here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction

Published in: on August 20, 2013 at 8:42 pm  Comments (2)  
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On Fantasy Characters


Till_We_Have_Faces(C.S_Lewis_book)_1st_edition_coverI don’t know if the protagonists in fantasy are particularly different from the protagonists in fiction at large. Maybe. There is some “hero” quality a fantasy reader may expect, but I’m not sure that readers of other fiction don’t want that as well.

Here are some thoughts about fantasy protagonists from The Writer’s Guide to Fantasy Literature, edited by Philip Martin (The Writer Books):

The hero has a complex dual role to play: to be human and to be larger-than-life. In many ways, Harry Potter and Bilbo the hobbit are like us, their readers. They are shy, quiet, reluctant to take center stage, not seeking fame or heroic stature. Yet they also have special powers, and when called upon, draw on their inner strengths to perform feats of great courage and personal sacrifice.

p. 98

I started thinking about the fantasy heroes I have loved. There is Taran from The Book of Three and the other stories in the Chronicles of Prydain. He was a young pig-keeper—apparently not a particularly good one—who wanted to be a knight. He was “relatable”—”human” as the quote above terms it. But he became larger than life, in part because of his desires to be greater than he was, but more so because he learned what that meant, learned how incapable he was, and then he did the really heroic.

There was Fiver from Watership Downs, the weakest rabbit in the warren, but with amazing powers that ended up saving them all. He was “human” because of his weakness and his inner strength. What mattered wasn’t just the exterior—the vulnerable part. He was more.

An obvious one is Lucy from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. She was the youngest of the four Pevensies, which put her at a disadvantage. But when she found Narnia and came back telling her brothers and sister, their disbelief made her a sympathetic figure—more human. She was right but misunderstood and disbelieved. She became heroic because her belief was a cornerstone to their relationship with Aslan.

Speaking of C. S. Lewis fantasy, there is Oruel from Till We Have Faces . She was the unloved and unlovely princess, save for the special place she had in her sister’s heart. She too was sympathetic because of her humanness—her weaknesses, disadvantage, frailty, and her longings, her hopes. She didn’t become heroic until the end, which I won’t mention because I don’t want to spoil it for any who haven’t read the book yet.

This leaves me with a question, however. If the hero doesn’t become heroic until the end, will readers lose their interest in him (or her)? I mean, Till We Have Faces is not a well-known or popular work of Lewis’s. Is Oruel, perhaps, too human, and not enough larger than life?

What about some of the contemporary Christian fantasy? Billy and Bonnie in Dragons in Our Midst, Susan Mitchell in The Swords of Lyric series, Abramm in Karen Hancock’s The Guardian-King series, Kale and Bardon in The DragonKeeper Chronicles, Aidan in The Door Within series or Aidan in The Bark of the Bog Owl. Your thoughts?

Re-posted from an earlier article here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction.

Thoughts On Intellectual Rigor


The_Thinker,_RodinRecently I wrote an article playing off author Mike Duran’s post and follow-up responses about Christian speculative fiction. As I wrote my remarks, I realized toward the end that one phrase in particular gnawed at me: “intellectual rigor.” Christian fiction in general and speculative fiction in particular needs more intellectual rigor, according to one comment to the original post.

So what does that mean when it comes to fiction? Not the use of good hermeneutics on the way to a scintillating sermon, I’m fairly certain. That might be intellectually rigorous, but it wouldn’t be good fiction.

Are we talking about stories that only college professors will “get”? If so, then the complaint is really that all Christians aren’t college professors.

Ironic that one of the most brilliant college professors wrote one of the most widely read children’s fantasy series, and no one calls into question his intellectual rigor. People of all ages and all walks of life can understand the Narnia tales. They aren’t structured in a way that makes them difficult. Are they, therefore, lacking in intellectual rigor?

Some years ago I read a novel touted for its literary quality, so I decided I should read it as part of my writing education. The story had two point-of-view characters–sisters, as I recall.

One told her portion of the story in chronological fashion, starting at the beginning and working her way forward. The other, alternating with the first, told her portion looking back from the conclusion of the story, detailing the events in reverse order as they wound down to the start.

Of course, the reader is left to figure out this structure on her own. How many chapters did I flounder through, uncertain what had happened or when and to whom. The worst of it was, in the end, one sister dies. That’s it. Yes, it seems like a tragedy, but to what purpose? What’s the point, I thought as I closed the book.

Was that intellectually rigorous because I was confused most of the way through the book? In the same way that a puzzle is, I suppose. But I’ve worked many a puzzle and haven’t found my worldview challenged or my questions answered.

Ah, yes. There’s the rub. Unanswered questions are supposed to be a sign of intellectual rigor in this day and age. But why, I’ll never know. Knowledge leads to greater questions and more knowledge–just ask scientists working with DNA or those studying the God particle. Unanswered questions lead to . . . I’m not sure what. A repeat of the questions, perhaps? Asking them of a different source? But why? Some say the value is in the seeking rather than in the finding.

“Seeking” with no hope of finding reminds me of someone whose car is stuck in a mud puddle or a snow bank and he stomps hard and harder on the accelerator, as if spinning the wheels in place will actually get him somewhere. I don’t find this approach to learning to be intellectual or rigorous. It seems disingenuous and foolish.

God has a lot to say about foolishness and wisdom and about knowledge. But perhaps the greatest way His Word can help in unfolding what intellectual rigor in fiction should look like is through the fiction of the Bible–the stories people in the Bible told.

Jesus told the most stories, which we refer to as parables because they have a moral or point to them. In reality all good stories have a point (which is why I was so disappointed in the oddly structured literary novel I read which was mostly pointless). David’s counselor and friend Nathan told him a very pointed story. Several of the prophets told stories, too–fantasies, actually, because they included talking trees and such.

But here’s the thing. The people who told those stories did so to communicate something with their audience. They weren’t trying to obscure their point.

Why did they use a story then, instead of just coming right out and saying what they wanted to say? Because there is power in stories. Stories help us to see truth through someone else’s eyes rather than through our own biased view. Through stories we get to Truth by seeing past our own version of truth.

When David heard Nathan’s story, he saw clearly how shamefully he had used his faithful military commander Uriah by stealing his wife and having him killed, and he repented. When the Pharisees heard Jesus’s story about the shameful vineyard workers who kept beating the messengers who came to collect what they owed and who finally killed the owner’s son, they looked for ways to kill Jesus.

These were intellectually rigorous stories that made the people who heard them think, and ultimately to act, though not always in positive ways. Stories don’t come with guarantees.

They don’t even come with guarantees that the audience will understand. More than once Jesus took His disciples aside to explain the meaning of His stories. Certainly the words were understandable, the images were familiar, but the disciples were wrestling with the “so what” of the story. What does it mean, they asked Jesus. They weren’t asking, what does it mean when you say a sower went out to sow. They got that. They got that seed wouldn’t grow if the birds came and ate it or if it fell on rocky ground or if thorns choked out the roots. What they wrestled with was the significance of what they heard.

In all this talk of “intellectual rigor,” I’m hearing very little about adding significance to our fiction. It seems to me, writers today want to tell farmers stories about computers, and when they aren’t interested, these writers are chastising them for not being intellectually rigorous.

If they want to reach farmers, these writers ought to be writing stories about which farmers care and which hold significance for farmers rather than criticizing them for the weakness of their intellectual rigor.

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