Tuesday, August 23, 2016

OUTREMER Update + Snippets

So, it's been a while since I've posted an update on OUTREMER. The reason for this has not been that I've been letting it stagnate; far from it. The reason is simply that I've been far too busy writing it.

However, today I come, somewhat thrilled, to give you an update. A real update. An update just a skootch more exciting than "yeah, once again, I've exceeded my target wordcount."

Today, I finished the first draft.

As you may recall, I started work on the first draft nearly a year ago, at the end of September, which means I've taken just on 11 months to finish the thing. Originally I hoped the first draft would clock in at roughly 250,000 words and that at the rate of 50,000 words per month I'd finish by February, or no later than about May.

This did not end up happening. First, I had too much plot for a 250K story: the cursory first draft now clocks in at just over 400,000 (or, a bit shy of Gone With the Wind). Second, while I was correct in assuming that I would be able to keep up a 50K-per-month output over the course of several months, I found that in practical terms I was only able to keep this up for about three months at a time before burning out and needing a break. Oops?

Fun Facts!

OUTREMER is what you'd get if you threw Tasso, Tolkien, Tim Powers, and the Arabian Nights into a blender and hit "STUPEFY"

Some of my favourite things about OUTREMER include:

- lady knights
- assassins
- djinn
- Baldwin IV
- psalms
- redemption
- Rule of Cool
- needlework
- secrets
- irony
- Raymond, Count of Saint-Gilles
- somehow, a decent level of historical accuracy

OUTREMER novel aesthetics thanks to Annie at The Curious Wren
Unfortunately, honesty compels me to admit that OUTREMER is also, at the moment, complete and utter rubbish. It's only a first draft, after all. Some of my least favourite things about this story include:

- incoherence
- failure of awesome at key points
- cheesy melodrama
- incoherence
- the mind-boggling amount of work that will be the second draft
- nonexistent world-building
- incoherence
- the fact that the first act doesn't end where it should
- how often it reads like a dry history text
- incoherence

So what's next?

OUTREMER will be taking a few months on hiatus now, since I need to attend to a few other things for a little while, and it needs time to sit on the back burner of my mind and talk to itself. At this stage of the year I probably won't get back to it till next year, but I'm confident that the hiatus will do it the world of good.

A few facts have emerged pretty clearly from the first draft, the most important probably being that it's not going to be practical to release this story as a single volume. In how many volumes it will eventually end up seeing the light is, however, currently a complete mystery to me.

OUTREMER novel aesthetics compiled by moi

OH LET'S HAVE SOME SNIPPETS

 The count gave a swift glance over the camp and a spark came into his eyes. “So! the old dog has something up his sleeve! A charge, is it to be?”
Saint-Gilles nodded. “When the sign comes.”
Bohemond turned and snapped orders to his men. Then, as the line thinned and the knights took horse, leaving a skeleton wall of sergeants behind them, he swung back to Saint-Gilles.
“What sign is this?”
“The same as the Lord vouchsafed to the Israelites in the desert.” He pointed to the northern horizon. “Watch there.”
The sky showed blue above the northern hills. Saint-Gilles squinted with his one good eye. Was there--?
The young Norman had better eyesight than him, and caught his breath in understanding. “Pillar of smoke,” he whispered, and then wheeled, shouting and snapping and putting the counts in battle array.

*

It was a bedroom. There was a big bed in the centre of it and sitting up in the bed a small boy was staring at her with enormous eyes.
“Are you an Assassin?” he whispered.
Marta’s stomach flipped and she froze into immobility.
Baldwin the Fifth. She had broken into a king’s bedroom.
“No,” she told him, “I’m a girl. My name’s Marta, like the saint. Are you a count?”
“No,” he whispered very grandly, “I’m a King. Why did you climb in the window?”
Marta sidled to the door. “I don’t believe you,” she whispered, her voice light. “Who ever heard of a King being sent to bed early?”
“I am!”
“Couldn’t be.”
“Am!”
“You’re too short. And how could you even wear a crown? Your head would stick right through. You’d have to wear it like a carcanet.”

*

“The ordinary Mahometan believes this is the tomb of Rachel the wife of the patriarch.” The voice was young, cultured—and instantly recognisable. It spoke Syriac without the hint of an accent, although John had last heard it speaking Arabic. “For that reason alone I assented to spare it. But you and I know better, I think, John Bishara.”
He swallowed painfully and turned, slowly, slowly, at the door of his wife’s grave. The Chosen was facing him on the path that led from the stream, a light, straight sword held in his right hand. He wore a loose black silken tunic, no doubt with a mail shirt hidden beneath it, and his head was swathed in a mass of black wrappings, turban and veil.
“You did this,” John whispered, a cold horror creeping down his spine.

*

She bit her lip. After a moment she said: “I don’t understand you. You aren’t a coward. So why do you avoid the fighting?”
Lukas let his head fall back with a thump on the door behind him so he could see into her eyes. “You have got to be joking.”
But the puzzled furrow between her eyebrows convinced him she wasn’t.
“I don’t understand you Franks,” he growled. “You think nothing of throwing yourselves half-prepared into impossible situations, and it amazes you when you’re mown down by your hundreds. I’ll tell you why I don’t run to join them. The last time my belly was full was October. I have a rusty mail shirt, someone else’s sword, no shield, and half a lance. And I have no particular wish to die.”

*

A black shape came to the edge of the Saracen camp—she could see him outlined against the flickering firelight—and her voice faltered and died as they faced each other.
Then he stretched out his hands at his side and began to walk toward her. Marta froze. Surely he could not see her against the black heap of the hill? Surely he could not hear the half-whispered words of Rahel Bishara’s lullaby?
Then came the fire.
It raged up all around the black robe of the Saracen. Her eyes were hot and sticky and she wasn’t sure what she was seeing: just the small figure standing black and threatening in a ring of dirty, smoking grassfire. She became suddenly, horribly sure that he was looking at her, that all his attention was bent upon her. And then he lifted his hands and walked on, the fire licking after him like the train of a ceremonial robe.

*

He finished eating, bowed to Abdul, and left the tent. Saida followed him, her baby under her arm. Between headdress and veil, her eyes watched him solemnly. “There will be no more journeys to Acre after this, John Bishara.”
He felt as if a cold drip had run down his back. “Why do you say that?”
“Times are changing,” Saida said in her soft voice. “The wind blows here and there as it wills, and so does the will of Allah.”
“Do you know something I don’t?” he asked on impulse.
She gave him a cool, level stare. “You don’t always have to lick your thumb to figure out which way the wind is blowing, John Bishara.”

*

They were surging through the last ripples of surf onto the wet sand of the shore when a column of Frankish knights burst over the dunes in a smart shower of sand and stood there, the horses shaking their heads, while one of them only came on, the sand kicking up behind him as he ploughed his horse down to the shore.
“Who goes there?” he hailed when he came within easy earshot. He spoke French with a Western accent. “Who is your leader?’
Balian strode across the firm sand at the brink of the sea, signalling with his hand for his men to gather themselves behind him. At once the knight leveled his spear, nearly in his breast.
Balian stopped. “Are they so poor in courtesy in France, then, that friends are welcomed with blades?”
“Your name,” the Frenchman insisted.
“My ship is flying a cross.” Balian sighed. “I am Balian, former Lord of Ibelin and Nablus. I have a hundred and fifty men and horses and food in my ship. You may have heard of me.”
“No.” The spear wavered downward a little. “From your complexion you could be a Saracen.”

*

At first, Lukas assumed the duke was scanning the landscape for fortresses, or even signs of the Turkish army rumoured to be on its way from Baghdad. Then Godfrey sighed and said, “It’s beautiful.”
Lukas blinked. He supposed it was beautiful. Under the haze of an April sky, Lebanon glowed in muted colours. On the right, the sea was a rich silver-blue carpet; but the green land reared up on the left like a massive wave. Between mountains and shore the fruitful plain was a patchwork of groves and orchards, all set out in orderly rows, with here and there the brighter emerald of pasture, or the rich red of freshly broken earth. White among the orchards shone farms, monasteries, villages, fortresses, or mosques... South, blue with distance, Tripoli on her peninsula spurred the sea.
“You didn’t tell me it was like this, Bishara,” the duke said with a smile.
Whether it was the long Turkish occupation, or the more recent passage of the Frankish army, the centuries had not left Lebanon untouched. The villages and towns were shrunk. Some of the farms, some of the houses in the villages close at hand, were clearly empty, roofless shells. Some of the orchards had gone wild, and burn-scars in the landscape suggested that some of the buildings had been torched; mosques? Villages?
“No, my lord,” he said, sighing. “It was better than this.”

*

“The sultan al-Ashraf is merciful,” Ibn al-Salus had told him, a smile lurking in the back of his cold eyes. “You are permitted the next two hours to go where you will. After that, the hunt will begin. The sultan wishes you every opportunity of escape.”
Around him, the Mamelukes stared at him from behind veils of chain, faceless in the predawn dark.
“What opportunity for escape have I in the desert?” he appealed.
Ibn al-Salus shrugged, throwing up his hands. “Perhaps you should have considered that before organising a conspiracy to assassinate the sultan.”
“What if I refuse to run?” He drew himself up to his full height, thrusting out his chin in a show of courage. “A man of my birth should face death with dignity. Not running like a dog.”
“Nor sitting peaceably.” Something that might have been pity moved in ibn al-Salus’ face. “Die a red death, friend.”

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Black Corsair by Emilio Salgari

If you've spent any amount of time around me, you know that I have a soft spot for old vintage swashbucklers. I read a lot of them while I was studying law and thus not mentally equal to anything but the most insubstantial and fun stories, but reading these old-style melodramas of honour, mistaken identity, love and revenge gave me a deep appreciation of the fun and the gripping which continues to this day both as a reader and as an author.

Back in the day when I was a brain-dead law student combing the internet for free vintage swashbuckler ebooks, one author caught my attention: Emilio Salgari, author of the classic The Tiger of Mompracem. Sadly, although Salgari seemed to be wildly popular in the Italian-speaking world, it didn't seem like there were any English translations of his book available. A a result, more recently, when I was contacted by a representative at ROH Press and offered a free review copy of an English translation of Salgari's 1898 pirate yarn The Black Corsair, I was thrilled to take him up on the offer.

Emilio di Roccabruna of Roccanera, Lord of Valpenta and of Ventimiglia (what a mouthful!), is out for revenge. The governor of Maracaibo, Van Guld, a Flemish defector to the Spanish, has shot his elder brother and hanged his two younger brothers. Now only the Lord of Ventimiglia, also known and feared across the Caribbean as the Black Corsair, is left--and Van Guld has sworn to finish his work. After sneaking into Maracaibo to rescue his youngest brother's body from the gallows, the Black Corsair pulls together a coalition of the Tortuga pirates to storm Maracaibo--but Van Guld is as cunning as he is cruel, and more than one surprise waits for the Black Corsair along the way!

As you might guess, this is thrill-a-minute book, intended not to have a dull chapter in it. Reading it, I understood Salgari's appeal. The adventure goes from one peril to the next, complete with a dash of romance, humour, and plenty of gore. Wikipedia informs me that Sergio Leone cited Salgari as an influence on his spaghetti Westerns, and having now had the opportunity of reading one of his books, I can appreciate the influence.

All the same, The Black Corsair wasn't without some rather significant flaws. For me, the most disappointing thing was the lack of conflict in the characterisation. For a book about pirates seeking bloody revenge on the high seas, this story had the most agreeable cast of characters I've ever met! From the hero's three sidekicks, to the vast number of people whom the Corsair dueled, captured, or had dinner with over the course of the narrative, none of them seemed ever to have even mild disagreements, either with each other or with the Corsair. Sure, the constant petty conflict in most current-day books gets on my nerves just as it gets on yours. However, I found myself longing that perhaps one of the Corsair's devoted followers would turn out to be holding some kind of grudge, or that one of the noblemen he duelled at some point would not immediately swear gentlemanly friendship with him immediately afterward. The reason for this is that conflict drives story, and the conflict we as readers find most compelling is not battles and duels so much as it's interpersonal or internal conflict. There was plenty of external conflict in this story, but it was almost fatally short on interpersonal conflict.

As a result, I found it difficult to care about the characters, even though the story itself was never short on thrilling coincidences. My patience was then further tested by the ending, which came with no resolution, just a maddening cliffhanger. I was completely unprepared for this, and considerably annoyed when it happened. Where was the swashbuckler I was promised? This was only half of it! For the rest of the story, I'd have to consult the sequel, Queen of the Caribbean. Enough to make you take to piracy yourself.

That said, there was also plenty to appreciate in this story. Salgari evidently writes with the intention of being educational as well as entertaining, and I found the level of detail he included in his work pretty impressive. One chapter takes a moment to give you a frankly completely fascinating overview of the history of piracy in the Caribbean, the South American jungles are lovingly and even pedantically described, and the nautical details evidently draw on Salgari's own experience as a student of seamanship in his youth.

As far as themes go, the fact that the story doesn't conclude in this volume makes it difficult to pass any firm judgement. While the pirates are depicted sympathetically and act with probably more of a sense of honour than they would have in real life, Salgari doesn't shy away from rather gritty depictions of battle. And while the revenge motive drives the plot, it leads to an obviously idiotic decision on the part of the hero at the end, which I have no doubt at all will be reversed somehow in the sequel.

In the final analysis, I think I probably would have enjoyed this novel a whole lot more if I'd come to it much younger, with much less exacting taste. It was eminently respectable escapist fun, and while I don't know if I'd seek out any of Salgari's other novels for myself, it's definitely worth keeping in mind as good reading-fodder for the young.

EDIT: Some fascinating comments from the translator, who's clearly far more knowledgeable about Salgari than I am:
Your point on conflict is an interesting one, Salgari prized loyalty highly, the Corsair's crew, Sandokan's men, Captain Tempesta's men (his female knight) would never dream of betraying their leader. No sacrifice was too great for a heroic and noble leader. Garibaldi was still a vivid memory to many in Italy, and an example of what a leader should be.

As you noted Salgari was also an educator, and wrote in the same manner of Jules Verne and other writers from that era, though he tended to focus more on nature than technology. All that detail was from books and journals and traveler's tales, he never left Italy.

You're not the first to complain about the ending. Salgari was originally going to leave the story there, from what I'm told. [...] It was an unexpected ending for the time, unlike his usual 'happily ever after' type endings that were more common in his novels. He didn't write the sequel until 3 years later.
Find The Black Corsair in English at Amazon or The Book Depository.

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Corsair by Lord Byron


Today, we all know Lord Byron as one of the great Romantic poets of the early nineteenth century. Many of us also know that during his own life he was primarily famous as a playboy and rake who left scandal and ruined lives wherever he went--in fact, it took until well after his death for his poetic efforts to be taken seriously, and somewhat detached from the sordid details of his personal life. For these reasons I've always had a bit of an aversion to Byron, but while I was reading The Last Chronicle of Barset, I have to admit that some references to his longer poems whetted my interest. They sounded like immense fun.

So, The Corsair is my first significant experience reading Byron's poetry, and in many ways it was an extremely eye-opening one.

Our story focuses on a pirate named Conrad. A magnetic, passionate, surly figure, Conrad rules his men with a rod of iron, in between brooding on his tragic past and hating himself and everyone else. The only exception is the love of his life, Medora. When Conrad prepares a daring attack on the Turkish Pasha who has sworn to destroy him, Medora fears he may never return...and thus begins a swashbuckling tale full of twists and turns, tragic love, and moody self-loathing.

I have to admit I really enjoyed The Corsair. I decided to read it, by the way, after having watched the DVD of the gorgeous English National Ballet production of the ballet which is based on it. I loved Le Corsaire's pitch-perfect, unironic reproduction of the nineteenth-century Orientalist aesthetic, to say nothing of the pretty music and Alina Cojocaru's mesmerising dancing. I wasn't so keen on the plot, which could really have done with more piracy and fewer slave-girls. Byron's original poem, I was glad to discover, had a very similar flavour--but shares only a few character names with the ballet. The plot is wildly different, and the characters are by and large much more interesting--especially the villain, who makes a much more compelling and scary character.

So I enjoyed The Corsair as a fun story. I particularly admired the plotting, which was fairly tight and full of plenty of surprising swerves (right up to one rather ridiculous plot twist at the end). Most of all, however, The Corsair fascinated me as the originator of an extremely common and influential literary trope.

Well, of course, the origin of the Byronic Hero is not solely The Corsair. However, I was struck by how influential this poem must have been. Take The Count of Monte Cristo, for instance. Both stories feature a mysteriously charismatic man with a tragic past, forging his own destiny with a sense of pride and hubris. Both stories are strongly romantic tales featuring piracy on the Mediterranean; both touch on the Ottoman occupation of Greece. Last time I reread Monte Cristo, I noticed that the titular Count was quite the Byronic hero, but the whole Mediterranean/Orientalist flavour of the setting confirms that Dumas's novel drew strongly on the Byronic tradition. Or take another book I'm currently reading--The Black Corsair, a vintage swashbuckler. Though this corsair haunts the Caribbean rather than the Mediterranean, his character could have been copied word-for-word from Byron's Conrad.

All these stories, of course, ultimately stem from the Romantic tradition. As you know if you've ever looked at the history of philosophy, this was one of two streams of thought (the other being Rationalism) flowing directly from the Enlightenment. It's important to note that both streams of Enlightenment thinking saw man as the measure of all things; but where Rationalist man was a coldly logical being inhabiting a baldly materialistic universe, Romanticist man was a passionately emotional being inhabiting a universe of powerful natural and supernatural forces. In the Rationalist stream, man's reason shapes the universe. In the Romanticism stream, it's his passions and imagination.

We see this pretty clearly in the Byronic hero. Besides being attractive, sophisticated, and introspective, the Byronic hero traditionally demonstrates a strong, individualistic and often unconventional moral code. This brings him into conflict, often violent conflict, with society: he's quite likely to be found either leading nationalistic uprisings, plotting complicated vengeance, or starting revolutions.

I find it fascinating to see where this philosophy ultimately led. A later thinker in the Romantic tradition was the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who took this idea to its logical extreme in the figure of the Ubermensch. As I understand it, Nietzsche's Ubermensch was a figure who had freed himself from traditional concepts of morality in order to reconstruct for himself and for the rest of humanity a new moral code independent of what had come before. This figure was necessary to the eradication of the concept of God from human thought, since to eradicate God would be to abolish morality. Since Nietzsche was opposed to nihilism and considered some form of morality necessary, the Ubermensch was born. In a nutshell, this was a philosophy of human transcendence: the deification of mankind.

Both the Byronic Hero and the Ubermensch have gone on to become enormously influential cultural tropes: characters whose own unfettered and reconstructed sense of morality shapes all those around them. It was fascinating to read an early entry in this progression.

Find The Corsair on Wikisource.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Using Five-Point Covenant Structure to Identify a Theme

 

Today I'm taking a quick break from reviewing books to discuss a useful tool for identifying theme in storytelling. Whether you're a reader trying to engage with the deeper messages of someone else's story (or even History!) or a writer looking to strengthen and reinforce a theme in your own story, having a quick, comprehensive set of worldview questions to apply can really help.

THEOS

The model I want to discuss today is based on a particular stream of covenant theology most recently developed by theologians like Ray Sutton and James Jordan. I have to admit I haven't studied this indepth, but it's a view of Biblical covenants (and, more generally speaking, all ancient Near-Eastern covenants), that breaks the terms of any given covenant down into five headings, which are easily summarised with the acrostic THEOS.

T = Transcendence (Who's in charge here?)
H = Hierarchy (To whom do I report?)
E = Ethics (What are the rules?)
O = Oath or Sanctions (What do I get if I obey or disobey?)
S = Succession (Does this outfit have a future?)

Now: I haven't studied this explanation of the covenant in enough depth to say whether I think it's a good expression of what actually is in Scripture. However, I've recently been playing with it as a tool to help me identify and evaluate themes in my own stories, as well as in history, and I've been very impressed with the results. The reason is that the considerations listed above are all considerations which every worldview must answer. Too often, whether we're authors or readers, our attention to the worldviews and themes we're faced with is limited to Transcendence, with sometimes just a bit of attention to Ethics or Oath. Apply all five points, however, and you get a much more full-orbed worldview that can be expressed in a much more powerful, reinforced way.

So how exactly does this model help? Let's look at two well-known fantasy epics, the Star Wars Original Trilogy and CS Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, to find out.

Transcendence

Of course, as Christians, we recognise that God is the ultimate transcendent authority in every situation. However, when we're talking about non-Christian worldviews, or literature with allegorical or symbolic overtones, the transcendent authority may look a little different. If you're trying to discover the transcendent authority in any given story, try asking these questions:

Who is the creator?
Who is the redeemer?
Who is the lawgiver?
Who is the revealer of truth?

In Star Wars, the answer to the first question is the Force - it creates and sustains all life. Redemption is brought to the world by bringing balance to the Force. The Force communicates with those who are attuned to it, by listening to their feelings: this shows them what to do (law, or a kind of lite law substitute) and reveals truth to them. So in Star Wars, the Force, as mediated through personal feelings, is the transcendent reality.

In CS Lewis's Narnia books, by contrast, all these questions are answered in the character of Aslan, who both creates and redeems Narnia. Unsurprisingly, Aslan was intended as a very clear allegory of Christ. In a story I'm currently working on, on the other hand, this position of transcendence is occupied not so much by God or a Christ-figure, as (focusing on just one of God's attributes) divine law and justice.

Hierarchy

This is where things start to get interesting. Hierarchy is all about representation. Who represents the transcendent authority to the main characters of this story? Or which character most consistently embodies the story's worldview? This, obviously, is where all the doomed yet kindly elderly mentor figures come from.

In Star Wars, it's Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and other Jedi masters who train their apprentices in the ways of the Force. They have evil--or "dark" counterparts in the Sith lords who train evil apprentices. In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf does substantially the same job, representing a more personal creator.


In Narnia, by contrast, the main characters interact with Aslan personally. In a sense Aslan fits into the hierarchy too, being himself the son of the Emperor-over-the-sea. However, there's a great deal of discussion in the books about the fact that only Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve - Men - can be kings and queens in Narnia. Like the original Adam and Eve, they're given the care and protection of the whole nonhuman, plant and animal world of Narnia. So the main characters themselves represent Aslan to Narnia, and Narnia to Aslan. Which may, in fact, be a distinctively Protestant way of seeing things--it's a kind of fictional expression of the priesthood of all believers.

Ethics

Ethics is all about rules, which is to say, the basis upon which the characters make their moral decisions.


In Star Wars, the characters solve moral dilemmas through emotional intuition. But, there's a dualism in emotions as well as in the Force. You know the line: "Anger, fear, aggression, the Dark Side are they!" Oddly, the Light Side does not draw on the contrasting "positive" feelings. In the prequels, it's the main character's love that is his Achilles heel, eventually corrupting him. Rather, the "feelings" that can be trusted as inspired by the Light, apparently resemble a sort of passionless Zen state.

On the other hand, in Narnia, much is (again) made of the Emperor's laws and rules. It's these rules that demand Aslan die in Edmund's place in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; later, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan reminds Lucy that he obeys his own rules. In The Silver Chair, Jill is given a set of explicit instructions by Aslan, which leads directly into the most memorable moral dilemma in the whole Narniad--free the dangerous madman, or ignore Aslan's orders?

Oath (Sanctions)

Here's where we look at what happens to the characters as a consequence of their actions. You might think this is a no-brainer, but some stories exist merely to prove that no matter what you do, the consequences don't matter--that was, after all, the big problem I had with Rebecca, where the protagonists get away without significant consequences for their wrong actions. This can go the other way, too: you can imagine a story where no matter how hard the protagonist tries to be good, he can't prevent awful things happening to him, the obvious inference being that they are pawns of Fate in a brutal and random universe (hello, Candide and Oedipus!)


In Star Wars, however, this is probably the most conventional aspect of its whole thematic structure. People who commit mass murder and extortion die nasty deaths. People who sacrifice themselves for others' lives and freedoms are honoured. Heroes who resist tyranny must battle through dark times, but come out all right in the end thanks to the helping hand of the screenwriters--I mean, the Force--and are rewarded with way awesome telekinetic laser sword powers. Villains who repent and join the goodies come to a satisfyingly bittersweet end, not reaping the full benefits that accrue to those who have been heroic all along, but dying well and joining the Light Side after death. All this is relatively Judeo-Christian.

Now bear with me, because I'm going to argue that on this point, the Chronicles of Narnia are seriously lacking. In the first six Chronicles of Narnia, there's no issue: at the end of each book, faithfulness triumphs and is blessed, while evil loses and is judged. The stories are satisfying--right up to the final book, where this pattern completely upturned, owing to CS Lewis's depressing premillennial eschatology. In this sense, Star Wars could actually be said to be the more Christian of the two stories! Like the Narniad, Star Wars has its dark, Saturnine chapter; but unlike the Narniad, it puts that chapter right in the middle of the trilogy, not at the end of the whole series. (The Empire Strikes Back is one of my favourite movies, but imagine if that had been the end of the whole story?) In Star Wars, the characters battle through the darkness in the faith that their obedience will be rewarded. In Narnia, the pattern of covenantal blessings and curses, which holds steady all the way through the first six books, is suddenly, jarringly, and (in-universe) inexplicably abandoned. The Last Battle is not without its own good points, and it is in itself somewhat internally consistent; but I'd argue that not only is it a deeply unsatisfying story, it's utterly out of keeping with every other story in the series.

Don't be premillennial, folks. It's bad storytelling.

Succession

According to this model, the final provisions of a Biblical covenant usually have to do with succession--what happens in the future. So ask yourself: What provisions do the characters of this story make for the future?

This is also quite conventional in Star Wars. Luke ends the Original Trilogy a fully-tested Jedi Knight ready to revive the lost Jedi Order and the ways of the Force in the newly-freed galaxy. Han has left his irresponsible scoundrel ways behind him and seems ready to settle down with Leia. They've proven themselves good leaders for new adventures in the galaxy's new future.

By now you're aware that The Last Battle is the caterpillar in my Narnian salad, so I'll try not to labour this too much. In one sense, The Last Battle does a fair job of depicting the time when the heavens and earth are wound up, when succession will entail eternal life in the new heavens and the new earth, which Lewis does gloriously depict. What I'm not at all keen on is the fact that the story ends in a final defeat in the physical world. In this sense, succession is brought to a full stop, since all the faithful main characters are raptured away from their homes in a terrible train crash (except Susan, but that's a discussion for another time). And this too is inconsistent with the rest of the series. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan tells Lucy that she'd been brought to Narnia so that she would learn to know him better in her own world; there is a telos of maturity here, with Narnia's purpose being to equip adults for the "real" world. In The Last Battle, that telos of maturity is abruptly reversed. Instead of going on to disciple their own world, everyone returns to Narnia and then goes to heaven, leaving no-one behind in their own world (not even Susan, whose Narnian discipleship has failed) to bear witness to what has been learned in Narnia.

Conclusion

So there's a quick critique of two major twentieth-century fantasy epics according to the five-point covenant model, with apologies to those among my readership who really love The Last Battle or happen to be premillennial. (I love y'all as brothers & sisters in Christ! Really!) I'm sure there's far more that could be said about both stories (and I want to acknowledge that CS Lewis has probably thought far more deeply and rigorously than I have about just about everything), but as you see, this is a really helpful way to evaluate some of the themes and internal inconsistencies of a story's worldview.

Which is why I'm so excited about using this model to help build the themes in my own stories. Applying this to a work-in-progress recently helped me to get my mind around how I could strengthen the story's theme by paying more attention to ethics and also succession--ending the story in a way that reinforces (rather than subverting) the main theme.

What do you think? Do you have an alternative view on The Last Battle? How do you evaluate or build thematic structure in your stories?

Friday, July 29, 2016

When a Man Marries by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Isn't it fun to discover a whole new author just waiting to thrill you? I had this experience the other day digging into my very first Mary Roberts Rinehart book. I'd heard of her before, but I'll be honest with you: my expectations weren't particularly high. Consequently, When a Man Marries, an outrageous vintage farce, was a very pleasant surprise.

Kit McNair may have refused to marry Jimmy Wilson back when he was an unattached bachelor, but she still considers him a close friend, and when she finds him in the dumps on the second anniversary of his wife's departure, she determines that what he needs to cheer him up is a dinner party. Things go quickly awry, however, when Jimmy's rich aunt arrives in town expecting to find him still married. Kit agrees to impersonate the missing Mrs Wilson, but an evening's deception quickly turns into an intricate imbroglio when a case of smallpox results in the whole dinner party being quarantined on the premises. Add police and reporters watching the house for escapees, Jimmy's ex-wife Bella lurking in the basement, a jewel theft to solve, the irascible Aunt Selina to hoodwink, and the love of Kit's life choosing to turn up at the exact moment she's impersonating someone else's wife, and When a Man Marries has all the ingredients for a classic screwball comedy.

This book was, quite frankly, a party. I say this with full cognizance of its shortcomings. This was not a deep book, or a very tightly-plotted one. There's a little harmless satire at the expense of the socialites who, quarantined after the servants have fled, find themselves almost completely incapable of surviving without them; but eventually I felt this theme was dropped and never really resolved. The jewel thefts, too, turn out to have a rather off-the-wall solution, and sometimes Kit doesn't even seem to be trying to keep up her impersonation of Bella. Suffice it to say that if you are the kind of person to whom the internal logic of a story world is immensely important, this book will probably drive you crackers.

That said, I don't think I've ever noticed a book's flaws less while reading it. Rinehart writes with a splendid comic sensibility, inventing ridiculous situations almost as handily as PG Wodehouse at the top of his form. Her style, and the narrator voice, was also a delight--witty and knowing and constantly teasing us with unspecified awfulnesses lurking in the future. From the moment I looked at the first page, I knew I was in for a treat.

If you're in the mood for a fluffy, silly comic read, then give this book a try. I'll certainly be trying another Rinehart next time I am!

Find When a Man Marries on Project Gutenberg, Librivox, The Book Depository, or Amazon.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Poem: The Mewlips by JRR Tolkien

I've been re-reading The Hobbit, preparatory to tackling The Lord of the Rings. And this is rather a special occasion for me. I have, of course, read both books more times than I can count. Eventually, I found that I had read them so much that I had begun to remember everything about them. So I decided to take ten years off.

I'm now whittling slowly through The Hobbit, enjoying it terrifically and recording my thoughts for posterity on Twitter - click this link to see them, or follow the hashtag #JRRTandMe. It's been huge fun, because having let the book "rest" for ten years means I've come back to it with a fresh perspective.



For example, the other night, while enjoying the famous "Riddles in the Dark" chapter, I thought I spotted some imaginative kinship between Gollum and the Mewlips from an obscure Tolkien poem collected in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil...

The Mewlips
by JRR Tolkien

The shadows where the Mewlips dwell
Are dark and wet as ink,
And slow and softly rings their bell,
As in the slime you sink.

You sink into the slime, who dare
To knock upon their door,
While down the grinning gargoyles stare
And noisome waters pour.

Beside the rotting river-strand
The drooping willows weep,
And gloomily the gorcrows stand
Croaking in their sleep.

Over the Merlock Mountains a long and weary way,
In a mouldy valley where the trees are grey,
By a dark pool's borders without wind or tide,
Moonless and sunless, the Mewlips hide.

The cellars where the Mewlips sit
Are deep and dank and cold
With single sickly candle lit;
And there they count their gold.

Their walls are wet, their ceilings drip;
Their feet upon the floor
Go softly with a squish-flap-flip,
As they sidle to the door.

They peep out slyly; through a crack
Their feeling fingers creep,
And when they've finished, in a sack
Your bones they take to keep.

Beyond the Merlock Mountains, a long and lonely road,
Through the spider-shadows and the marsh of Tode,
And through the wood of hanging trees and the gallows-weed,
You go to find the Mewlips--and the Mewlips feed.

Cheerful, isn't it?! I must say I've never liked it myself, but revisiting it, it does seem rather an early template for something like Gollum. What do you think?

Friday, July 15, 2016

Journey for a Princess by Margaret Leighton

Last month, I spent a few weeks in Tasmania, on assignment in a house full of little girls. As you might imagine, this involved proportionately large quantities of dolls, tutus, and books about princesses.

Real, historical princesses.

Like this classic (1960) young adult novel by Margaret Leighton. Journey for a Princess is the story of Elstrid (or Aelfthrith), youngest daughter of Alfred the Great, growing up under the shadow of her elder and more successful siblings at the Wessex court. But when a Viking noble on a diplomatic mission to Alfred's court asks for her hand in marriage, the king buys time by sending Elstrid on pilgrimage to Rome with her aunt--via Flanders, where the Countess Judith has some matrimonial plans of her own. As Elstrid's journey continues, she finds that as Alfred's daughter she has much more danger and duty to face than she ever imagined.

I didn't know anything about the historical Elstrid when I began reading this book, so about halfway through I realised I had no idea how the story was going to end! I enjoyed the suspense that added to the book, and I loved seeing Elstrid's ninth-century world, from Wessex to Flanders to Rome, through her eyes. I don't know what Margaret Leighton was like as a scholar, but she certainly showed a detailed familiarity with the people, places, and everyday life of Western Europe at the time, which makes the story very vivid and immersive.

On the other hand, I thought the first half of the book was a little slack. This pays off in the final quarter, which is a really fun (though probably not historically accurate) blend of romance and adventure as open rivalry breaks out for Elstrid's hand and the alliance with Wessex.

I'd also note a reservation about the worldview of the story, which is pretty pro-Rome--Elstrid and her aunt accompany the payment of the Peter's Pence tax from Wessex to Rome, which is seen as an unequivocally good and proper thing in the story, for example. No doubt that's a historically accurate attitude for the characters to have, but it wasn't one that was widespread at the time (the rest of Europe wasn't paying Peter's Pence at that point) and I thought this and other elements betrayed the author's pro-Roman perspective. Protestant readers will probably want to look out for that.

Otherwise, there was lots to love in this story. Like much young adult fiction, this is a story about a girl reaching adulthood, with the responsibilities and new experiences that come with growing up. Unlike a lot of YA, however, Journey for a Princess is about living up to real standards of maturity, rather than asserting a right to immaturity. Elstrid's journey requires her to take more and more responsibility for more and more areas of her life. As a princess in ninth-century Europe, she must learn that her foolish decisions may cost lives--and that the wise choice she doesn't want to make may carry its own happiness with it.

Journey for a Princess is not just a vivid look at a little-known period of European history; it's also an inspiring picture of faithful and feminine strength. It's good enough to be a rewarding read at any age, but I would particularly recommend it for girls between 8 and 15.

Sadly, Journey for a Princess is currently out of print, but it is available on the Open Library.

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