In Remembrance Of Sir Christopher Lee

Saruman-christopher-lee-2509258-800-600Sunday actor Sir Christopher Lee passed away at age 93. He had the unenviable task of playing the part of the turncoat Saruman in The Lord Of The Rings movie trilogy. I don’t know where he stood spiritually except that he took a firm stand against the occult.

Adversaries are rarely appreciated, but we writers need them. Stories need them. They are the opponents against which our heroes must struggle, and Sir Christopher Lee played his part admirably. So in his memory, I’m re-posting, with some slight revision, an article that first appeared here at A Christian Worldview Of Fiction in December 2012 under the title “Saruman or Faramir?”

Some while ago, I re-read The Two Towers, the second volume in the Lord of the Ring epic by J. R. R. Tolkien. The first half of the book is devoted to the conflict between Saruman the White, once head of the Council of wizards and Gandalf’s superior, who secretively aligned himself with the great Enemy in the East, against those who aimed to forestall the evil sweeping the land.

For years, in his leadership role, Saruman counseled patience and waiting rather than active resistance as their Enemy grew ever more powerful. Saruman acted the part of a friend, but in reality he was undermining the efforts to withstand the Great Evil.

In the second half of the book, the protagonist Frodo and his servant Sam fall into the hands of a man named Faramir, charged with patrolling the border between the Evil Lord’s stronghold and that of Gondor, the land taking the brunt of the conflict.

Faramir is rightly suspicious of these two hobbits who say they are travelers. There are no travelers here, he says, only people for the Evil Lord or against him. His inclination is to take Frodo and Sam with him back to Gondor.

At some point during Faramir’s inquisition of Frodo, Sam interrupts with these lines:

It’s a pity that folk as talk about fighting the Enemy can’t let others do their bit in their own way without interfering. He’d be mighty pleased, if he could see you now. Think he’d got a new friend, he would.

These two characters, Saruman and Faramir, seem to me to reveal the dilemma of the Church. On one hand there are people pretending friendship, even high up in authority, considered wise, people with influence and standing who others listen to and follow. Yet all the while, they are working for the enemy.

On the other hand there are those who seem wary and suspicious, who want to interview and question, who insist on details in order to be sure which way a person is aligned, all the while delaying and perhaps discouraging those from the work they have set out to accomplish.

Either there is lax acceptance leading to betrayal, or scrupulous investigation leading to division and potentially the undermining of significant work.

Interestingly, in the last sixty or seventy years the Church has tried to utilized the equivalent of passwords to alleviate the problem: Jesus people, born again, Bible believing, Christ followers. All are designed to alert others of a person’s true beliefs so that Family members can find one another.

The reality is, Saruman ended up showing his true colors when he held Gandalf captive. And Faramir showed his true colors when he let Frodo go free. In the end, their actions, not their words, showed their allegiance.

I suspect the same is true today. Whether or not a person claims some sort of connection with Christ matters less than whether or not they actually listen to Christ, put their trust in Him, obey Him. Who is taking up their cross? Who is seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness? Who is dying to self and living to righteousness?

Handsome is as handsome does, Sam says to Faramir at one point, and the old adage is still true. Christians don’t need to talk the talk as much as live the life. Then it will be quite apparent who is Faramir and who is Saruman.

Fantasy Friday – What’s Better Than Tolkien?

As the old year drew to a close, I abandoned a contemporary fantasy for the tried and true — a re-reading of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, which you may recall from the post Fantasy Friday – Reading the Greats.

In explaining my decision, I said, in part,

I want a book of substance, that says something and makes me think larger. I want a story that touches my heart and makes me cry. Or laugh. I want a story I will want to re-read some day.

What book better qualifies than one of Tolkien’s? He is the master of fantasy, certainly. But why? Once we know Frodo makes it safely to Rivendell, once we know who the nine are who will make up the Fellowship, once we know the mountain won’t let them reach the pass, once we know who doesn’t make it out of the mines of Moria, why read it all again?

Today I read the last of writing instructor John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story which ends with the chapter “The Never-Ending Story” in which he addresses the factors that make a story live on. Such stories are the ones we re-read. Such stories are the ones that influence us long after we’ve put them back on the shelf.

Truby looks first at stories that do the opposite, then presents ways in which a writer can create the kind of story that doesn’t leave the “must read” lists. Most of what he says, however, is quite different from Tolkien’s work. Is Mr. Truby wrong, then, in his estimation? Actually, no, he stretches his theory to include books like The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

These are stories that are plot heavy and story-world heavy. The characters are important but less so than what they accomplish and how it affects the world. These are the types of stories that usually do not make the have-to-re-read list since the driving force is “what happens next?” Once the reader knows the outcome, the need to re-read evaporates.

But Tolkien’s work is different. He does two things which Truby identifies as elements creating an “infinite story tapestry.”

  • Place a tremendous number of details in the background of the story world that on later viewings [readings] move to the foreground.
  • Add elements of texture — in character, moral argument, symbol, plot, and story world — that become much more interesting once the audience has seen [readers have read] the plot surprises and the hero’s character change. (p. 420)
  • I remember the first time I re-read The Fellowship of the Ring. I had all but forgotten the character Tom Bombadil and much of what happened to Frodo and friends in the Old Forest. But this time, reading again after much less time had elapsed, I knew what was coming and focused on different aspects. I even thought ahead to Fangorn and the Ents.

    I also have a better grasp of how The Hobbit fits into the history of Middle Earth. There are many, many more references to Bilbo’s story than I remembered. (And now I wonder if that’s because I re-read The Hobbit since re-reading The Fellowship of the Ring. 😉 )

    One reason writers should read great literature is to learn. To be honest, I hope it’s one of those “caught, not taught” things because when I read Tolkien, there’s just so much to enjoy that I forget to look at how he put it all together. Is there anyone better in fantasy?

    What Makes Fantasy Work, The Continuation Continued

    One of the elements that good fantasy needs happens to be part of world building, and it’s one of the genre’s tropes. Fantasy needs magic. I’m using the term loosely. A good number of Christian fantasies don’t have traditional magic. But they do have something mysterious or “other.”

    In George Bryan Polivka’s Trophy Chase Trilogy, for example, the only “magical” element was the firefish, and that was enough. It was both mysterious and other—not of this world.

    I personally like more magic, not less. I wanted Gandolf to overcome the Balrog and the Hobbits to escape the Black Riders. I wanted the Ents to stir up the trees and the Elves to shield the Hobbits from the Orcs. I wanted the White Tree to provide Gondor with protection and Boromir’s horn to bring the help he needed. I wanted to warn Pippin not to look into the palantir.

    The more magic, the more intrigue. Anything can happen, and the reader is left equally to wonder and to worry because the best stories give magic to both sides.

    Intrigue leads to the next point. Fantasy that works also has a plot that works. Rule one for a good plot is, Create conflict.

    Like other fiction, fantasy is best when the character faces an external conflict and an internal conflict. Ideally the two battles will coalesce at the climax. That’s what J. R. R. Tolkien did so well in The Return of the King. Frodo wasn’t only fighting against Orcs and Sauron and Shelob. He was also fighting against becoming another Gollum.

    Shockingly, the latter is the fight he lost. Which brings up another element that makes fantasy work—surprise. I think one of the reasons so much epic fantasy gets criticized is because of a lack of surprise. Readers and reviewers will say a story is “derivative” (the kiss of death to a fantasy) though you never hear that accusation made of romance or even of mystery. I have to believe that what the “derivative” accusers are actually saying is that the story tipped its hand and didn’t hold any surprise.

    One of the things that kept me reading furiously through the last three Harry Potter books was the unpredictability. Was Snape good or evil? Would Harry be able to leave the Dursleys and go to live with Sirius Black? Would he win the Triwizard Tournament? Who was trying to kill him during the competiton? Why was he seeing such vivid visions of Voldemort? How would Harry find the horcruxes? And on and on.

    Questions create intrigue, twists create surprise, and delay creates suspense. All of these elements, along with conflict, make a fantasy plot work.

    There’s still more, I think, so I’ll tackle those last elements another time.

    Why I Love Fantasy

    I started re-reading one of the Harry Potter books this week. I often get the urge to read fantasy when it gets close to Christmas. I have yet to figure out why. My theory is that I enjoy fantasy so much because it fits in with all the other enjoyments—snuggling under a warm blanket (it would be in front of a roaring fire if I had a fireplace), with Christmas music playing and a hot mug of cider in reach.

    But why fantasy?

    I have several ideas.

    One is that fantasy transports me to a magical other place, sort of like a snow-covered world does. Not that we have snow in Southern California, except in the mountains, but that’s the point, isn’t it. I grew up connecting snow with Christmas and my snow experiences are very other worldly.

    Once, when I was about ten and we lived in Colorado, we had snow in September, before the trees had lost their leaves. Branches laden with wet snow broke, transforming our yard into secret tunnels and hideaways … until my poor dad cleaned up the mess. But for a few hours, I was in a private world, an imaginary place. The same kind good fantasies create.

    Narnia, a secret place away from the adult world. The world beyond the Shire—more mysterious than secret. The magical realm accessed through platform 9 3/4. These are not your everyday places. These are tangibly other.

    A second reason I love fantasy, especially this time of year, is because of the overarching story in each. Sally Apokedak said it best in her response to an earlier post. She was referencing Harry Potter originally but expanded her thoughts:

    You take a poor, abused kid and give him more power than anyone else on earth has. And you see how his mentors help him develop his power and you see what he does with the power in the end. It’s a wonderful story.

    It has shades of Christ, born in a manger, a powerless babe. Then he grows in wisdom and stature and he grows in favor with God and man. But he’s in a constant battle with an evil foe. In the end he has to make a great sacrifice to save his friends. This story–His story–is the one that all great stories imitate, I think.

    His Story, indeed. Fantasy, with its good versus evil motif is the perfect fit for the story of Christmas—and Easter. Yet the best writers, retell it in a way that shines light on it anew.

    Above all, after a glimpse of Narnia, further up and further in, or of Gondor under Aragon’s rule, these fantasies give me a hunger for heaven. They stir a longing for the return of the King, for the presence of the Lion of Judah. Great fantasies go far beyond good stories, which is why I love them.

    – – –

    Note: The previous post under this title took a turn away from this topic, so I decided to create a separate article, complete with the two pertinent comments.

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