Friday, November 30, 2012

Poem: Dolores Replies to Swinburne by GK Chesterton

I like to keep my Collected Poems of GK Chesterton handy, and browse through it occasionally, because there's always a new gem to turn up. A month or two back, I found this one, Dolores Replies to Swinburne, in a series of poems titled "Replies to the Poets".

Those whom God wishes to destroy, He first gives really bad taste in hair. Also see: Hitler.
I hadn't read Swinburne's original poem, Dolores. Now I have read about half of the thing, which does go on "for several pages", and while the verse has some of the crash and glitter of a Chesterton poem, the effect is more diseased. Algernon Charles Swinburne was an anti-Christian poet of the 1800s, of the "decadent" school, although Oscar Wilde found his claims to vice pretentious! And here, to give you a taste, are a couple of stanzas of Dolores:

Cold eyelids that hide like a jewel
Hard eyes that grow soft for an hour;
The heavy white limbs, and the cruel
Red mouth like a venomous flower;
When these are gone by with their glories,
What shall rest of thee then, what remain,
O mystic and sombre Dolores,
                Our Lady of Pain?


Could you hurt me, sweet lips, though I hurt you?
Men touch them, and change in a trice
The lilies and languors of virtue
For the raptures and roses of vice;
Those lie where thy foot on the floor is,
These crown and caress thee and chain,
O splendid and sterile Dolores,
               Our Lady of Pain.


Ad infinitum. Chesterton's delightful poem is a little more to the point!

Dolores Replies to Swinburne
GK Chesterton 

Cold passions, and perfectly cruel,
Long odes that go on for an hour,
With a most economical jewel
And a quite metaphorical flower.
I implore you to stop it and stow it,
I adjure you, relent and refrain,
Oh, pagan Priapean poet,
               You give me a pain.

I am sorry, old dear, if I hurt you,
No doubt it is all very nice
With the lilies and languors of virtue
And the raptures and roses of vice.
But the notion impels me to anger,
That vice is all rapture for me,
And if you think virtue is languor
               Just try it and see.

We shall know then the critics discover
If your poems were shallow or deep;
Who read you from cover to cover,
Will know if they sleep not or sleep.
But you say I’ve endured through the ages
(Which is rude) as Our Lady of Pain,
You have said it for several pages,
               So say it again.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Huntingtower by John Buchan (re-read)

This seems my year for re-reading Buchan books. The latest I had a hankering to re-read was Huntingtower, a delightful novel full of wonderful characters. I reviewed it before, but at that point it had been several years since I'd read it. And now, while it's fresh in my mind, might be a good moment to go over it again.

Huntingtower is about Dickson McCunn, retired Glasgow grocer, businessman, and romantic. On holiday in Carrick, he stumbles across something he has only ever dreamed about: Romance, in the sense of adventure. Together with a not-quite-as-disillusioned-as-he-appears realist poet, a gang of hardened Glasgow street boys, a lame laird and his battered henchmen, and (not to be forgotten) the capable and pious old lady Mrs Morran, Dickson McCunn faces the challenge of a lifetime: rescue an honest-to-goodness princess from a dark tower and Russia from the Bolsheviks.

Three genres are seamlessly blended into this wonderful book. First, the fairy-tale: the princess, the tower, the ogre, the handsome prince, all present and very much correct. Second, the shilling shocker: the gorgeous international lady of mystery (complete with chaperone); the seedy Bolshevik conspiracy; the stolen jewels which must not fall into the wrong hands; the deadly villain, the square-jawed hero.

These genres are both well-worn and Buchan breaks no moulds spinning his story; his book examines and justifies the hoary tropes, rather than deconstructing them. But the unique appeal of this book lies in the third genre Buchan adds. What would one call it? Literary fiction? Light comedy? At any rate, the fairytale shocker has a hiccup: the handsome prince is delayed coming to the lady's rescue. And into the breach step a handful of the most motley bystanders you can imagine.
"Five laddies, a middle-aged man and an auld wife," he cried. "Dod, it's pretty hopeless. It's like the thing in the Bible about the weak things of the world trying to confound the strong."
These characters are drawn lovingly and vividly, from the battered and desperate Gorbals Die-Hards who have never known love or comfort to the respectable and stolid Mr McCunn and Mrs Morran who handle everything as it comes to them with unfailing pluck. It would be cozy to read about Mr McCunn selling hams and writing dutiful letters to his wife at the Neuk Hydropathic. But reading about him outwitting Bolshevik spies and occasionally injuring respectable lawyers is something on the heady side of delightful.
"I haven't been doing badly for an old man," he reflected with glee. What, oh, what had become of the pillar of commerce, the man who might have been a Bailie had he sought municipal honours, the elder in the Guthrie Memorial Kirk, the instructor of literary young men? In the past three days he had levanted with jewels which had once been an Emperor's and certainly were not his; he had burglariously entered and made free of a strange house; he had played hide-and-seek at the risk of his neck and had wrestled in the dark with a foreign miscreant; he had shot at an eminent solicitor with intent to kill; and he was now engaged in tramping the world with a fairy-tale Princess. I blush to confess that of each of his doings he was unashamedly proud, and thirsted for many more in the same line.
In the meantime I realised what this book reminds me of. Mr McCunn, a law-abiding homebody with a poetic streak, is pulled (protesting at every step) into the wildest kind of adventure, which interferes with his quiet enjoyment of comforts such as pipes and second breakfasts. Indeed: Dickson McCunn is a Hobbit, and probably a Baggins. Like Bilbo, he becomes the head of operations and opines that the really necessary thing in a wild adventure like his is good solid business sense.

Then you have the Gorbals Die-Hards, who are just as delightful. There's Dougal, their leader, who may be any age between twelve and fifteen, and is without a doubt the best military head in the book. There's the smallest, Wee Jaikie, who cries in moments of excitement--"When ye see Jaikie begin to greet, ye may be sure that Jaikie's gettin' dangerous." And there's Thomas Yownie, the un-fickle-able:
Into the hall from the verandah limped a boy. Never was there seen so ruinous a child. He was dripping wet, his shirt was all but torn off his back, his bleeding nose was poorly staunched by a wisp of handkerchief, his breeches were in ribbons, and his poor bare legs looked as if they had been comprehensively kicked and scratched. Limpingly he entered, yet with a kind of pride, like some small cock-sparrow who has lost most of his plumage but has vanquished his adversary.
With a yell Dougal went down the stairs. The boy saluted him, and they gravely shook hands. It was the meeting of Wellington and Blücher.
The Chieftain's voice shrilled in triumph, but there was a break in it. The glory was almost too great to be borne.
"I kenned it," he cried. "It was the Gorbals Die-Hards. There stands the man that done it.... Ye'll no' fickle Thomas Yownie."
The theme of Huntingtower is Romance--in the sense of adventure and drama. The story, after all, is not so much about the adventure itself as it is about the effect of the adventure on its prosaic cast. The Princess, the Ogre, and the Prince are at all times clearly distinguished from the rest of the cast: they are larger than life; they belong to a world which none of the other characters can touch.
That everybody should be in love with her appeared to him only proper, for he had never met her like, and assumed that it did not exist. The desire of the moth for the star seemed to him a reasonable thing […] He wished he were twenty-five himself to have the chance of indulging in such sentimentality for such a lady. But Heritage was not like him and would never be content with a romantic folly. […] But it was hopeless; he saw quite clearly that it was hopeless. […] He recognised that the two belonged to different circles of being, which nowhere intersected.

When we meet Dickson, he considers himself a romantic; when he meets Heritage, the Poet, that young man talks about Communism and declares himself a realist. But then when adventure does come to them, the surprising thing is that both desert their previous convictions. Dickson, self-avowed romantic, is deeply disturbed by the thought of danger and adventure and desires nothing more than to get out of the adventure with his self-esteem intact. His thirst for adventure having failed him, he is brought up to scratch by his lifelong sense of duty and a certainty that what the Princess really needs with her is a hard-headed businessman. Before long, he finds himself facing death, and not liking it much:

Last Sunday, he remembered, he had been basking in the afternoon sun in his little garden and reading about the end of Fergus MacIvor in Waverley and thrilling to the romance of it; and then Tibby had come out and summoned him in to tea. Then he had rather wanted to be a Jacobite in the '45 and in peril of his neck, and now Providence had taken him most terribly at his word.

Romance, the romantic discovers, involves the cold and chilly business of walking into death. On the other hand, the Realist has an easier time of it, because Realism, unlike Romance, is a phantom. A catch of music sung in the evening air, and suddenly the whole world changes:

A week ago he was a cynical clear-sighted modern, a contemner of illusions, a swallower of formulas, a breaker of shams—one who had seen through the heroical and found it silly. Romance and such-like toys were playthings for fatted middle-age, not for strenuous and cold-eyed youth. But the truth was that now he was altogether spellbound by these toys.

At the end of the book, the Grocer and the Poet make their peace:

"The trouble about you, Dogson," says Heritage, "is that you're a bit of an anarchist. All you false romantics are. You don't see the extraordinary beauty of the conventions which time has consecrated. You always want novelty, you know, and the novel is usually the ugly and rarely the true. I am for romance, but upon the old, noble classic lines."

Romance is not novelty and liberation. Romance is duty and convention, faith and perseverance. This is Buchan’s eternal theme: the man faithful in little who is faithful in much. It’s Dickson’s sense of duty and responsibility that goads him back into the fight. Princesses, jewels, and spies are all very well, but in Huntingtower the true romance is located right where it always has been: in the common things, the little things, the everyday things.

As a coda, I also want to note that that Buchan also locates romance within Christendom and the Church. As usual in a Buchan novel, the adventurous life is only lived within the context of faith. Providence and the Kirk are everywhere. Dickson is an elder of the Guthrie Memorial Kirk, and the literary society of which he is a guiding member is operated under the Guthrie Memorial aegis. In fact Dickson’s life in his kirk is evidenced within the story in two ways. First, his activities in the literary society are noted; he gives addresses upon life and literature, and at one point reflects that having tasted a bit of real adventure he will now be able to provide much better teaching; the insinuation is that his adventures fit him better to fill his duties as an elder of the kirk. Second, while in Glasgow, he visits a gun-maker to arm himself; the gun-maker is a fellow elder at his church. The weapon eventually passes to Heritage’s use; it might not be going too far to say that the Church symbolically provides the means for the characters to arm themselves against evil.

Then, as always in Buchan novels, the larger cultural context is Christendom. Dickson gets tips from the Covenanters on how to survive in the wilds with enemies hunting you down. And as always, there are the odd coincidences, flashes of divine grace in the plot which assure the characters that Providence is on their side.

Huntingtower is one of those books that only gets better each time you read it. I loved it more than ever this time, especially the characters. Dickson, who could be Bilbo Baggins’s long-lost  and more bloodthirsty brother. Mrs Morran, who may be a prim old lady but doesn’t let that stand in the way of saving the day. Dougal and his “men”, the first to go to the Princess’s defence and decidedly the most capable. Sir Archibald Roylance, Buchan regular, who spends two chapters worrying about Dougal giving the orders to start firing on the enemy too soon and then forgets all that “coyness about shooting” the moment the siege starts. And even Saskia, the Princess herself, and her handsome and romantic fiancé Prince Alexis Nicolaevitch, alias “Mr. Alexander Nicholson of the rising firm of Sprot and Nicholson of Melbourne”.

Sprot and Nicholson! Ladies and gentlemen, Huntingtower, a joyous experience.

Arthur's Classic Novels etext
Librivox recording

Monday, November 19, 2012

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

I first began reading this novel about ten years ago, and never got beyond Part 2, not because it was slow-moving but because my attention was distracted. Be that as it may, I always intended to finish it off sometime, and this (entirely unaware of the imminent Joe Wright/Keira Knightley motion picture extravaganza) I have now done.

Tolstoy's acclaimed novel--It's a work of genius! It's daringly realistic! It's shorter than War and Peace!--follows the mirror lives of two impulsive, passionate, but ordinary people. Anna Arkadyevna Karenina, the wife of a wealthy St Petersburg bureaucrat twenty years her senior, is gifted with intelligence, beauty, and the ability to make almost anyone love her. Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin, a rural landholder hopelessly in love with Princess Yekaterina "Kitty" Alexandrovna Scherbatskaya, struggles both in an effort to improve his estate despite the laziness and wastefulness of the peasantry and in an effort to understand the meaning and purpose of life in the face of death.

Our story opens in the Oblonsky household, where Kitty's elder sister Darya has just been devastated by the knowledge that her husband, the cheerfully amoral Prince Stepan Oblonsky, has been unfaithful to her. The prince's sister Anna Karenina soon arrives in Moscow to heal the breach at about the same time that Oblonsky's friend Levin arrives to propose to Kitty. Unfortunately for Levin, the handsome and rising young army officer Count Alexei Vronsky has been carrying on a flirtation with Kitty which the young girl believes is serious, so she turns down Levin's awkward proposal. Vronsky meets Anna by accident at the train station and is immediately fascinated by her charming manner, but the moment is cut short by a spot of tragic foreshadowing. Later that week, at a ball, Kitty is heartbroken when Vronsky spends the night paying court to Anna and then follows her to Moscow.

Kitty realises that Vronsky never had serious intentions toward her despite doing all he could to gain her heart, but it's too late to recall Levin, who has returned home to bury himself in farming. Meanwhile, Anna flees home to St Petersburg, surprised by the strength of her feelings for Vronksy, who follows on the same train. At first she determines to resist Vronsky's advances, but cannot help finding her husband, Alexei Karenin, repulsive, or intentionally going into society where she knows she will meet the besotted count. Soon Anna forgets her scruples and begins a passionate affair with Vronsky; gradually, both of them discard everything they valued in life: family, career, social standing. Meanwhile, Levin tries to make sense of his life in the face of heartbreak, frustration with farming and the economy, and the approaching death of his brother.

Anna Karenina is, in genre, usually described as a realist novel. I'm not sure if this is the best description of either the genre or this specific book. In my experience the realism or otherwise of a book is usually judged by reference to a materialistic, secular view of life that fails to see the inherent poetry of existence. Realist literature often seeks to make the author's hand in the novel as invisible as possible, on the mistaken assumption that real life does not involve an Author Who uses foreshadowing, irony, and coincidence. The result is chaotic, meaningless, and depressing, since it reflects the unbeliever's experience of reality. Anna Karenina, with its flashes of divine grace, its skilful use of foreshadowing and drama, its juxtaposition of the two major characters, and its romantically idyllic view of the agrarian life is not realist in this sense.

On the other hand realism in literature can take the form of a desire to reflect created reality as faithfully as possible, without romanticising or demonising any part of it. This is a worthy effort. ND Wilson has pointed out that escapism can occur in two directions: it can be escape out of God's created order into a secular world, or it can be escape from the modernist dungeon into the fairytale world God made. And for a good discussion of this, I highly recommend GK Chesterton's Orthodoxy, the chapter entitled "The Ethics of Elfland." But I digress.

As for the themes, I’m not sure I could do justice to Anna Karenina on so brief an acquaintance. But here are a few observations.

The first thing to say, of course, is that Anna Karenina is not—as the trailer for Keira Knightley’s new movie assures us—“An Epic Story of Love”—at least, not in the way the trailer suggests. Anyone who comes out of this novel thinking an affair would be grand and noble has missed the point despite 700 pages of evidence to the contrary. Anna is not a free-spirited woman caught in the shackles of a cruel society as outdated as it is artificial. She is a guilty woman made miserable and petty by sin, and the book chronicles the horrifyingly destructive effect of that sin. Over and over she insists that she cannot be happy without Vronsky, but from the very beginning it is certain that she cannot be happy with him, even at the moment of surrender:

“A moment before this happiness…”
“What happiness?” she cried, with contempt and horror.

Indeed the entire Anna plot demonstrates one truth: “the eternal error made by men who imagine their happiness lies in the accomplishment of their desires.” While social restrictions, such as the difficulty of getting a divorce (without solid evidence of the affair, Anna’s husband cannot divorce her, unless he should admit falsely to being unfaithful himself; meanwhile, Anna herself does not want a divorce since it would mean losing all rights to her son Serozha) and the impossibility of an openly “fallen” woman being accepted in society do add greatly to Anna’s misery, the real problem lies in the fact that she is entirely incapable of being happy in a guilty liason. At every turn, even the mercies and kindnesses granted her only make her more unhappy. Eventually, it boils down to this: Anna knows it would be as easy for Vronsky to dispose of her as it was for him to win her. Her predicament is the same as that of every woman who gives herself without the minimum protection of an absolute lifelong covenant: once the first rush of infatuation is over, only the ability to be prettier and more agreeable than every other woman in the world will protect her.

“Just think! I am not his wife; he will love me just as long as he loves me; and how, by what means, am I to keep his love? It is by this.”
And she put out her white arms in front of her beautiful body.
With extraordinary rapidity, as always happens in moments of emotion, all sorts of thoughts and ideas went rushing through Darya Aleksandrovna’s mind.
“I have not tried,” she reasoned, “to attract Stiva to myself; he deserted me for some one else, and the first woman for whom he sacrificed me did not retain him by being always pretty and gay. He threw her over and took another. And will Anna be able to fascinate and retain Count Vronsky? If that is what attracts him, then he will be able to find women who dress even better and are more fascinating and merry-hearted. And however white, however beautiful, her bare arms, however beautiful her rounded form, and her animated face framed in her black hair, he will be able to find still better, more attractive women, just as my abominable, wretched, and beloved husband has done.”

In the end, it’s Anna’s jealousy that begins to destroy her relationship with Vronsky. Because she has no other hold on him and has given up so much for him, her enjoyment is spoiled by the knowledge that she may lose it at any moment. The crowning irony is that this begins to destroy the relationship even before he becomes indifferent to her.

At the climax of her story, Anna looks out at the world and decides that all social constructs and relationships have been elaborately constructed to conceal that fact that everyone is evil and everyone hates each other. After so much time spent looking at her through the lens of other characters or even the narrator, to see the world through Anna’s eyes is chilling. She is already in Hell, having followed her own desires there.

The plot dealing with Konstantin Levin follows a very similar person on a very similar quest: seeking happiness through the accomplishment of his desires. Levin also seeks happiness through love: a happily married family life is his ideal, but even the realisation of this ideal fails to satisfy him. Of course, marrying for love with the intention of fidelity already puts him in a happier position than Anna, but even as Levin struggles with his own jealousy, it is his secure position as a married man that allows him to deal with it; his relationship with Kitty is one of trust and understanding. Meanwhile, Kitty’s sister Dolly, having made a “brilliant” rather than a wise marriage, has lost all respect for her husband and can only lapse into indifference as a coping mechanism for her own jealousy.

Eventually, as the plot unfolds, Levin finds himself living out the dilemma of the book of Ecclesiastes. Faced with an impending death, Levin realises that all his efforts in this life are meaningless unless something beyond the material world gives meaning to them. He wrestles with philosophers and dusty tomes for a long time before the simple words of a peasant cut through the Gordian knot and illuminate him. Then he reflects:

“What should I have been, how should I have lived, it I had not absorbed these beliefs…if I had not known that I must live for God, and not for the satisfaction of my desires?” … And, though he made the most strenuous efforts of his imagination, he could not picture to himself what kind of a wild creature he might have been, if he had not really known the aim of his existence.

The answer, mutely provided by the structure of the book itself, is that he would have been like Anna—as gifted, as accomplished, as doomed.

This is, I suppose, the major theme of Anna Karenina—live for God, not for one’s own desires, because happiness does not come from one’s desires. There are also other themes, of course: most obviously, the theme comparing agrarian with cosmopolitan life, the comparison of various kinds of Christian religiosity from pietism to spiritualism; the long discussions of philosophy, economics, and war. There are faults in the application of the theme: Tolstoy’s Christianity is a vague, inclusive thing which I suspect to be unitarian and thus unable to save or to speak authoritatively into history; and the whole Levin plotline suffers from authorial lecturing.

A hundred and thirty years after its publication, Anna Karenina is remembered mainly for its eponymous heroine and not Levin. The reason, beyond the title, is fairly simple to discover. Anna’s plot is more immediate, more dramatic, and more authoritative. Tolstoy simply is better able to depict the ennui of evil than he is able to display the romance of goodness. His idea of goodness is too vague. To convince us that Anna is wrong one only has to tell her story. But to convince us that Levin is right somehow requires a series of tracts.

In GK Chestertion’s critique of Tolstoy in his book Twelve Types he made the observation—

The narrow notion that an artist may not teach is pretty well exploded by now. But the truth of the matter is, that an artist teaches far more by his mere background and properties, his landscape, his costume, his idiom and technique--all the part of his work, in short, of which he is probably entirely unconscious, than by the elaborate and pompous moral dicta which he fondly imagines to be his opinions. The real distinction between the ethics of high art and the ethics of manufactured and didactic art lies in the simple fact that the bad fable has a moral, while the good fable is a moral. And the real moral of Tolstoy comes out constantly in these stories, the great moral which lies at the heart of all his work, of which he is probably unconscious, and of which it is quite likely that he would vehemently disapprove. The curious cold white light of morning that shines over all the tales, the folklore simplicity with which 'a man or a woman' are spoken of without further identification, the love--one might almost say the lust--for the qualities of brute materials, the hardness of wood, and the softness of mud, the ingrained belief in a certain ancient kindliness sitting beside the very cradle of the race of man--these influences are truly moral. When we put beside them the trumpeting and tearing nonsense of the didactic Tolstoy, screaming for an obscene purity, shouting for an inhuman peace, hacking up human life into small sins with a chopper, sneering at men, women, and children out of respect to humanity, combining in one chaos of contradictions an unmanly Puritan and an uncivilised prig, then, indeed, we scarcely know whither Tolstoy has vanished. We know not what to do with this small and noisy moralist who is inhabiting one corner of a great and good man.

That is a fair comment, I think, to make about Anna Karenina, although fortunately in this book the fault is kept to a reasonable minimum.

In the end, I recommend that you read Anna Karenina not so much for what it teaches but for what it teaches against. Many writers have tried to depict sin in both its attractiveness and in its destructiveness, and have failed—either by making the sin so repulsive that it becomes impossible to see how a rational person could embrace it, or by making the sin so enticing that the moral is compromised or lost. In Anna Karenina Tolstoy appears as the rare success. There’s no denying the sympathy one feels for the main characters; there is no denying the ugliness of their sins. Equally, there are moments of divine grace, unexpected and unpredictable, that retrieve the wreckage being made of the some characters’ lives. The result, despite abovementioned flaws, is well worth while.

Gutenberg etext (trans. Constance Garnett)
Librivox recording

I have not seen any of the various film adaptations of Anna Karenina, none of which (I am reliably informed) treat the story properly. The 2012 movie looks sumptuous, and I never yet met the elaborate visual conceit I didn’t like, but its whole point seems to be that Anna’s trouble stems from the artificial restraints of a society held in place only by the willing suspension of disbelief of its members. A typically contemporary way of looking at it, and not remotely what Tolstoy was saying.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Works of N D Wilson

Well, I haven’t been around much for the last week or so, because I have been having a bit of a rest and reading Anna Karenina. I’m enjoying it, and looking forward to writing the review, but as I’m only about halfway through the book that will have to wait for now!

Instead I’m going to do something rather unusual and talk about a contemporary author.

Classically educated, a lecturer on the forgotten art of rhetoric, and the son of a Presbyterian minister and theologian whom I’ve been reading for years, N D Wilson was one novelist I was always going to be interested in.
In this story, the sun moves. In this story, every night meets a dawn and burns away in the bright morning. In this story, Winter can never hold back the Spring... He is the best of all possible audiences, the only Audience to see every scene, the Author who became a Character and heaped every shadow on Himself. The Greeks were right. Live in fear of a grinding end and a dank hereafter. Unless you know a bigger God, or better yet, are related to Him by blood.
Leepike Ridge: In this standalone book eleven-year-old Tom, facing the grisly prospect of having his widowed mother marry a skinny man with no chin, takes a midnight ride down the nearby river on a Styrofoam raft. When he wakes up, he’s in a black cave underground with a man who’s been living on crawdads since he got trapped there in the same accident that killed Tom’s father, except that it was no accident, and now even Tom’s mother is in danger as well. A great read, and a lovely riff on the Odyssey and Tom Sawyer.

100 Cupboards/Dandelion Fire/The Chestnut King: Henry York’s parents get kidnapped bicycling in Bolivia, so Henry goes to live in Henry, Kansas with his Uncle Frank, Aunt Dotty, and cousins of whom the most important is named Henrietta. Before too long, Henry discovers a hundred cupboards in the wall of his attic bedroom, all leading into strange and sometimes terrifying places. Then Henry accidentally releases the terrifying Witch of Endor and uncovers a family heritage far stranger and wilder than he could have imagined.

Notes From the Tilt-A-Whirl: This non-fiction book—but by the end you’ll wonder if there’s really any difference between fiction and non-fiction, or whether a better name for the latter might be “literary criticism”—is a whirling stream-of-consciousness meditation on the nature, glory, and terror of creation and creation’s God.
Do not resent your place in the story. Do not imagine yourself elsewhere. Do not close your eyes and picture a world without thorns, without shadows, without hawks. Change this world. Use your body like a tool meant to be used up, discarded, and replaced. Better every life you touch. We will reach the final chapter. When we have eyes that can stare into the sun, eyes that only squint for the Shenikah, then we will see laughing children pulling cobras by their tails, and hawks and rabbits playing tag.
The Dragon’s Tooth/The Drowned Vault/(To be continued): Wilson’s current Ashtown Burials series, projected at five books, tells the story of siblings Cyrus and Antigone Smith who unexpectedly find themselves drafted into the Order of Brendan, a secret society of dominion-taking explorers, scientists, and scholars. Then Cyrus loses the powerful weapon left to him by a renegade member of the Order, wakes a terrifying evil, and uncovers a family heritage far stranger and wilder than he could have imagined.

Although I was disposed to like Wilson’s works, it took me a number of years to finally cave in and become a fan. His books never quite grabbed me, though I enjoyed them, until he started the Ashtown Burials series and kicked into high gear. By then I had a better handle on his writing style and main concerns; possibly it was reading Notes From the Tilt-A-Whirl, his authorial manifesto, that helped me understand his work.

There are some things I dislike about N D Wilson. He includes plenty of gore, vomit, and squids, usually with a boylike appreciation for them. The language in The Drowned Vault surprised me—it was pretty strong, even for a YA book, and it’s officially classified as a “children’s book” I believe. His characters sometimes have bad attitudes, and I didn’t feel they were very clearly dealt with. Finally, on the technical side, I feel like Wilson tends to include more characters than he knows what to do with, and there were some missed opportunities in the 100 Cupboards series.

But how about what’s good about Wilson? Oh, so much. For one thing, Wilson is a writer’s writer. This is kiddie lit fic, a bit more ornamented and conceited than I like, but when it’s good, undeniably so.

One thing Wilson does well, and nobody else, is to write strong masculine characters. While his female characters, especially in the Ashtown books, are a little bit too similar to the guys, the books are—all of them—stuffed with wise male authority figures and young boys and men learning to be men themselves.

Another thing Wilson does very successfully is point readers toward the strangeness and adventure of the world they inhabit. G K Chesterton breathes out of every book, especially the 100 Cupboards books. I believe the very purpose of fantasy is to remind people that they live in a fantastic world. Wilson constantly does this in everything he writes.
All the normal noises of life were gone, leaving behind the secretive sounds, the shy sounds, the whispers and conversations of moss disputing with grass over some soft piece of earth, or the hummingbird snoring. 
But he does it through the fantasy elements of his world as well. When reading The Dragon’s Tooth it hit me that the Order of Brendan is a big old metaphor for…the Church. Divided, confused, and weak, the O of B is nevertheless the communion of saints, the storehouse of the wisdom of the ages, and the nourisher of its families and members. At the same time, casual Christianity peers out of the pages:
“Desperate for my life, I cast prayers into the sky, to the one who wove the world. And my prayers were heard. For the first time, spiders came to me. They were my loom and my silk, and as I wove, holy power flowed through me, a touch reserved for creatures outside this world. What I wove shimmered like a pond at dawn, and in it a sun rose and set, and men and women moved as if alive. I wove them voices of holiness to curse Minerva and her kind, and to sing of the beauty that once was in the world and that would come again like morning…That day, Minerva died. Now I never can.” 
Finally, two major themes twist into everything that Wilson’s ever written. The first theme is fathers and father hunger. The second is death.

All Wilson’s characters start out with dead or lost fathers. All of them end up discovering and taking on their father’s work. All of them find their fathers again or find father figures in friends of their fathers. Older brothers grow up to become the protectors and guardians of their younger siblings. Unlike just about every other book on the marketplace, Wilson’s books celebrate and encourage not just responsible masculinity but actual fatherhood. Along the way Wilson touches on related matters: baptism, the passing on of a vision from one generation to another, family heritage, ancestry, uncles and cousins. To a generation that largely despises or doesn’t even know its parents, Wilson depicts the beauty of faithful and loving father-child relationships.

Death may turn out to be Wilson’s favourite theme. And don’t think of this as a morbid fascination. Like Tolkien, Wilson knows that death is double-edged, and is a gift as much as it is a curse. It is our curse, but for those of us who do not fear the second death—the eternal death of body and soul together—death is gain; death ushers us from the endless toil of this world. All Wilson’s books are full of death and resurrection; mortality, immortality, and the other side of death:
She glanced at Nolan. “We two still feel like mortals, like death was stolen from us. We are like you, the dying.”
George Livingstone adjusted his short blond bulk on the ground. “So…you want to die?”
Arachne nodded. Her ancient blue eyes were lightless and still. And then, slowly, a sun rose within them. She smiled at George. “Just not today. See, I am like every other mortal.”
Nolan climbed to his feet, watching loose pine needles slide off his trousers. His face and body still belonged to a boy, but to Cyrus, he seemed as burdened as the oldest man. When he spoke, his voice was low. “There are things on the other side of death that we may never see. Thirsts we may never quench. Tastes these mouths cannot consume. But down here, under the sun, there is nothing new.” 
The same theme lies scattered throughout Wilson’s other works. Notes From the Tilt-A-Whirl is almost a book-length meditation on it. His next non-fiction book, Death By Living, sounds even more so. And always the same theme:
Caves and darkness can't hold you when you die, they can only hold your bones. 
I’ve now read all six of ND Wilson’s Random House books, as well as his hilarious little parody, Right Behind. From humble beginnings misbehaving for Credenda/Agenda magazine, Wilson has emerged as a powerful writer in his own right, and he’s improving. God willing, the trend will continue, and by the time he’s done, Christian letters won’t know what hit it.

NDWilsonmutters on Twitter. Rare sightings occur on his blog. In 2009, Kevin Swanson lured him onto the airwaves in a discussion on whether Christians can write good stories. But if you’ll be guided by me, you’ll run off to Youtube and download ND Wilson’s session, “Trouble Makers” from the 2012 Grace Agenda Conference.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...