Friday, August 29, 2014

Anon, Sir, Anon by Rachel Heffington

I'm so glad for the opportunity I had to run Home Educated Authors Week earlier this winter (or, for those of you who don't live Downunder, earlier this summer). One of the reasons for this is all the amazing new authors I have discovered through the folks I reviewed. Another is the fact that some of these authors are busy little bees and have been hard at work to bring you more good stories.

Jennifer Freitag, with her upcoming magnumopus Plenilune, is a case in point. Another is the sparkling Rachel Heffington with her upcoming novel Anon, Sir, Anon. Rachel was kind enough to send me an advance review copy of this cozy and hilarious murder mystery, which is scheduled for publication on the 5th of November--yes, rather appropriately, Guy Fawkes' Day.
The 12:55 out of Darlington brought more than Orville Farnham's niece; murder was passenger.

In coming to Whistlecreig, Genevieve Langley expected to find an ailing uncle in need of gentle care. In reality, her charge is a cantankerous Shakespearean actor with a penchant for fencing and an affinity for placing impossible bets.

When a body shows up in a field near Whistlecreig Manor and Vivi is the only one to recognize the victim, she is unceremoniously baptized into the art of crime-solving: a field in which first impressions are seldom lasting and personal interest knocks at the front door.

Set against the russet backdrop of a Northamptonshire fog, Anon, Sir, Anon cuts a cozy path to a chilling crime.
Anon, Sir, Anon is Rachel Heffington's second novel. I've also had the pleasure of reading Fly Away Home (read my review here) and her novella The Windy Side of Care, both of which were lots of fun. 

Anon, Sir, Anon knocks those two out of the park.
The whole fish in its crispy, salted jacket stared at her with a glassy eye and Genevieve thought it looked at Whistlecreig and its inhabitants in a spirit of judgement and lemon-juice.
"I incline to concur," she whispered.
"To whom are you speaking?" Farnham asked.
Genevieve snapped straight. "To my fish, if you must know."  
This little murder mystery bears all the things I've come to expect from Rachel's books: crackling wit, gloriously well-crafted prose, and quirky, lovable characters. On top of that, the plot was more tightly woven and credible, the character interactions flowed better, and the writing--though I was reading a version which had not yet been polished by an editor--is patently more colourful and compelling than in her other works. In addition, there's a streak of something a little darker in this book. From the plight of the victim, to the identity of the killer, Rachel Heffington proves herself ready to make hard authorial decisions.

It's not that the book isn't fun. I was chuckling and reading passages out loud to my family the whole way through, and at the end I felt as though I'd been snuggling in a warm fluffy comfort read for a few wonderful hours. But this book proves that fluffy and laugh-out-loud funny doesn't necessarily mean insubstantial. I loved that the emotional centre of the book is not Vivi's relationship with the dashing young man she meets on the platform at Whistlecreig--but her relationship with her odd and brilliant uncle, Orville Farnham. I'm a firm believer that relationships are the key to characters, inside the cover of a book or out, and I'm actually in awe of how emotionally satisfying I found Vivi's relationship with her uncle--satisfying enough to bear the weight of a plot much weightier than this one.
Her uncle's arm was a warm thing to clasp as they made their way through the tangle of passages and Genevieve thought what a sad fact it was that gentlemen no longer "elbow" their ladies as Farnham had so bluntly put it; there was a certain peaceable respect in the gesture that made her feel like royalty as they hurried through the echoing hall and into another cell of firelight.
Farnham himself was, of course, a duck of a character. Had he been in a PG Wodehouse novel sharing the stage with Stiffy Byng, she would probably have called him "a woolly baa-lamb", thereby offending him deeply and eliciting some mordant Shakespearian quotation.

Finally, I really loved the understated and taken-for-granted Christianity of the characters. It's rare to find a contemporary Christian novel which doesn't descend into preachiness. Of course, Anon, Sir, Anon is not in that rather weird genre, but I loved to see the sprawling magnificence of the Christian worldview peeking out at the corners--here a quote from Spurgeon, there a reference to "the difference between stepping into a church under construction and a cathedral that had stood six hundred years, steeped in worship." There is a sheer homeliness to such detail that enhances, rather than detracts from, the coziness and comfortableness of the book: God's in His heaven, all's right with the world.

Anon, Sir, Anon isn't published yet. But it contains everything I like best about good vintage mysteries like Ethel Lina White's Some Must Watch or the sweeter Agatha Christie novels. I highly recommend it. 

Keep up to date on Anon, Sir, Anon by following Rachel Heffington on her blog. And: remember, remember, the fifth of November.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Introducing iFlipd + GIVEAWAY

Hello Vintage Novels readers! Today we have something a bit new--a sponsored post. If that sounds a bit grossly commercial, hang in there and I'll see if I can make it worth your while.

I'm actually quite intrigued by all the new ways that technology is changing the reading experience. I started out insisting I would never own an ereader, and now I've owned one for a year and would feel lost without it. We may not like the impersonal nature of technology, but it provides us with a world of opportunity that we simply couldn't access otherwise.

One of the more interesting opportunities I've seen lately is the new ebook rental platform, iFlipd, a reading app with some intriguing possibilities not just for reading more conveniently but also for sharing, trading, and discussing books.

So how does it work?

The basic set-up is pretty simple: you download the app to your device--currently iFlipd only supports Apple's iOS7, though they're planning to branch out as things get underway--and pay $2 to rent a book for a week. If you need more time to read you can just rent it another week, or as long as you like. Once you’ve reached the full purchase price, you own the ebook.

Then things get more interesting. If you finish the book in under a week, you can "flip" the remaining rental time to a new reader who picks up your spare days for just $1. Meanwhile the days you save doing this go into your account to be put toward other rentals.

The social nature of the iFlipd rental model, as well as the “flipping” payment model, holds a few fascinating possibilities--eg, for readers to have whole conversations in the margin of a book they're reading. I interviewed iFlipd's CEO Kati Radziwon for more details.

Interview with Kati Radziwon

Hello, Kati, and welcome to Vintage Novels. Your app sounds like a great way for readers to discover and read new books. Where did the idea for iFlipd come from? 

The idea for iFlipd started over a simple coffee date with a girlfriend. She was looking for a parenting book and couldn’t find it for less than $20 and there was a 4 month waiting list at the library for it. She wasn’t even 100% sure she would like it and just wanted to test it out before buying. This started my wheels turning and I began to research ebook rentals. I quickly realized there was no good solution out there and decided to solve the problem!

What kind of reader do you think would benefit most from iFlipd? 

iFlipd is really for any kind of reader, but we do believe that the model works extremely well for self-help, parenting, cookbooks, travel books, religious content, and several other genres. The best part about iFlipd is that even if you read a novel and keep it long enough, you eventually own it, so there is no loss. You just pay as you go!

I can imagine a service like iFlipd being great value for readers, but how’s it been getting publishers on board?

Publishers are excited about iFlipd and the idea of opening up an additional revenue stream. We have been careful to be very fair to publishers and make sure they are getting the compensation they deserve for their books. We are working to bring on many more publishers as we speak, so keep an eye out for some great new content soon.

There are a bunch of other ebook subscription services out there. What sets iFlipd apart?

iFlipd is not a subscription, so that is the biggest difference. We are a simple pay as you go rental platform that allows readers to only pay for what they are actually reading. No commitments and no hassle. If you don’t read one month, you don’t pay…it’s that simple. We have also integrated extensive social features and rewards into the app to enhance the experience and create a community of readers who get rewarded for participating.

The reading experience has been changing remarkably over the last few years. Do you have any thoughts on where the book industry might be headed next, and how iFlipd will be a part of that? 

The publishing industry is changing rapidly and I think iFlipd is poised to be at the forefront of the change as you will begin to see. Consumers are hungry for new options and publishers are in need of additional revenue. Creating more flexible reading platforms that follow the music and movie industries is something I think you will begin to see shift over the next few years. I also think the reading experience will continue to get more social and engaging with authors and publishers coming up with new ways to communicate directly with their readers.

With the “flipping” feature in iFlipd, where you can share books with others, I’m guessing this app has the potential for more social interaction than most other ebook subscription services. Have you seen a lot of book-related interaction with the app?

Yes! The flipping aspect of the app allows readers to share a book they no longer need with the rest of the reading community and we reward this behavior. This perpetuates the social interaction of our community as people share time with a book, and encourage others to read. It will also be possible to have a conversation directly in the book (coming soon). This allows readers who have previously rented a title to share their notes and comments with others. All this behaviour is rewarded and we believe makes the community of iFlipd readers much stronger.

Lots of people who love books go on to write one. What kind of opportunities does iFlipd offer to authors? 

iFlipd is a great platform for any type of author to test out their work and gain exposure. Because of our lower price point, readers who might otherwise be hesitant to try a book, might now go pick up a new authors work and give it a shot.

And finally, I’ve got to know. Do you have a favourite vintage novel? 

I would say the Wizard of Oz, if that is considered vintage. My dad has the entire original collection of the Wizard of Oz and use to read them to us as bedtime stories. I have wonderful memories of falling asleep to stories of Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Lion, and the Scarecrow. I am also a big fan of Grimm’s Fairy tales which he collected as well.

Those are two excellent books to consider for reviews at Vintage Novels sometime! Thanks for talking to us, Kati! 


Sadly, because I don't have a suitable device, I haven't had the opportunity to try out iFlipd for myself. However, I've been asked to let you all know that for a limited time iFlipd is giving everyone one free ebook rental to start with.

If this sounds like something you'd be interested in, you can read more at the iFlipd website and download the app from the Apple store.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Boys of Blur by ND Wilson

I was talking to another aspiring writer a few weeks back, and we were agreeing that writing a novel is like juggling cats, what with all the many layers of explicit and implied meaning and artistry that goes into it, and I asked her, "Have you looked into rhythm?"

She hadn't.

So I prescribed a book for her. The Rhetoric Companion by ND Wilson and Douglas Wilson. Chapters 22 and 23 of that book, which is the single best how-to-write book I have ever read bar none, are alone worth the price of the book. They describe and quantify a phenomenon I had noticed but never quite understood. The Wilsons call it the rhythm of words, and say:
The meter of your prose is as present as the meter of your poetry. The difference is that the meter of your poetry is identified and set apart, while the meter of your prose meanders and hides (occasionally under bushels). Nevertheless, at least a portion of your ear should be attuned to this aspect of your supposedly mundane talk.
This small and usually-utterly-overlooked element of rhythm is the single biggest thing missing from the vast bulk of professional writing today. And ND Wilson is doing his best to bring it back. Flip open the cover of his latest novel (written for kids), leaf past the title page, and the first thing you'll come to isn't a chapter heading. It's an ode.
When the sugarcane's burning and the rabbits are running, look for the boys who are quicker than flame.
Stare through the smoke and let your eyes burn.
Don't blink.
While cane leaves crackle and harvesters whir, while blades shatter armies of sugar-sweet sticks, watch for ghosts in the smoke, for boys made of blur, fast as rabbits and faster.
Shoes are for the slow. Pull 'em off. Tug up your socks. Shift side to side. Chase. But be quick. Very quick. Out here in the flats, when the sugarcane's burning and the rabbits are running, there can only be quick. There's quick, and there's dead.
Or, better yet, hear the author reading it himself:

OK. Now that you know what nigh-perfect prose rhythm sounds like, let me explain why such fireworks are so particularly apt for this little book.

Charlie Reynolds comes to the little town of Taper, Florida for a funeral--his stepfather's old football coach. That's where he meets his step-cousin Cotton Mack. That's where he runs through mud and sugarcane for the first time. That's where he first meets the old man with the rusty sword, and smells the stink of envy at midnight in the churchyard during a grave robbery...

That's where he meets the Gren, made of shadows and decay, muck-covered and stronger than steel. And the Gren want Taper...

(Gren, geddit? Geddit?)

OK, so when ND Wilson sits down to plan his next nail-bitingly thrilling children's fantasy adventure story, I don't know what happens. Most likely he discards a stack of ideas as amazing as this one, and I'd like to go dumpster diving in the recycle bin of his mind, because it must be crazy in there. But here's what I guess happens:

"So I'll write another adventure story for 9-12-year-old boys, because that's what I do best. And because I do it best and why discard a winning formula, I'll give him a close family, loving relationships with his siblings and mum, and a tragic backstory involving a dad who can't be there anymore and a new father-figure who can be. Only this time, maybe the dad is gone because he was abusive, but instead of Charlie refusing to allow his scars to heal and let his stepdad step into the breach, I'll show them all moving on and healing...Yeah! And the zombies and the football go on top of that!

"Now all I need is a plot. BEOWULF'S."

And then, I imagine, he air guitars around his office.

After reading Wilson's other books, I've come to expect this marriage of real, sympathetic characters (because adults have feelings too), close family ties (because you don't need to be an orphan to have adventures), lowbrow awesome (zombies! Dragonvampires! HAMMY IMMORTAL CAPTAIN JOHN SMITH, ARRR!), peculiar American sports (baseball and gridiron, so far), with philosophical musings on death and resurrection and shameless cribbing from great literature like The Odyssey and Beowulf.

Where most children's books seem small, Wilson's seem big. If I were a little more of a snob, I would say that these books are much too good for the piefaces they were written for. Kids don't need to meditate on how a graveyard is like a garden, or feel sympathetic for the bravery of a woman who has left a dangerous and abusive relationship, or be soaked in the rolling cadences of a master prose stylist, or get jokes about the rigours of classical home education.
"Secret is," Cotton said, "I ain't never running from piles of books. I run from the books she be putting in the piles." His eyebrows went up. "You ever hear of the Brontes?"
Charlie shook his head.
"Well, don't," Cotton said. "Ever."
Wilson's are books for a bigger world, a world of more possibilities and adventures than most kids will ever know. A world of danger and big ideas, where excellence is possible even in a nail-biting zombie yarn for kids. That's why they're so important, and that's why your children should read them. Because after a few shots of NDW, they won't just be begging you for the next book, they'll be asking you for Beowulf and Latin lessons.

All of Wilson's books have these things in common, but Boys of Blur was special. Wilson does have some maturing to do as a writer, and the exciting thing is that I see that maturing happening right before my eyes. I've really enjoyed his Ashtown Burials series, but there are times when it resembles a hot mess--a sprawling, gigantic story with the enthusiasm and apparent lack of direction of a rubber bouncy-ball. It's brilliant, of course, but times come when you wish the brilliance would go away for a bit and let you breathe. Boys of Blur, as a standalone, proves that NDW can write something light, tight, and self-contained, with a glorious economy of words, characters, and plot. There's more room to breathe in this book, a better opportunity to appreciate the themes, a more ultimately-satisfying story.

Oh, yes, and if you do include Beowulf in your home-ed reading program, add Boys of Blur. It's not just by a Beowulf fanboy, it's from a family where everyone has been thinking over and discussing the deeper meanings of the poem for a good long time. In Boys of Blur, the monsters are zombies and Heorot is a football stadium, but the meaning of it all is the same.

If you've never read ND Wilson before, I highly recommend starting here. So far, it's my favourite of anything he's ever done.

Find Boys of Blur on Amazon or The Book Depository.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Announcing PENDRAGON'S HEIR by Suzannah Rowntree

It's hard to know exactly what to say. After bleeding so many of them out into pixels, I'm stuck for words. It's not that I'm not super excited for this project, because I am--I think you're all going to love it--but now that the time comes to reveal the thing, I'm not so much bouncing up and down as tossing it out in one direction and then trying to sneak off in the other direction before anyone notices. So here goes.

I'm writing a novel.

by Suzannah Rowntree 
Blanche Pendragon enjoys her undemanding life as the ward of an eccentric nobleman in 1900 England. It's been years since she even wondered what happened to her long lost parents, but then a gift on the night of her eighteenth birthday reveals a heritage more awe-inspiring and more dangerous than she ever dreamed of--or wanted. Soon Blanche is flung into a world of wayfaring immortals, daring knights, and deadly combats, with a murderous witch-queen on her trail and the future of a kingdom at stake. As the legendary King Arthur Pendragon and his warriors face enemies without and treachery within, Blanche discovers a secret that could destroy the whole realm of Logres. Even if the kingdom could be saved, is she the one to do it? Or is someone else the Pendragon's Heir?
I've always preferred to keep my writing exercises kind of quiet. After all, I don't want to unleash anything on you all before it's utterly perfect ready. Well, now I can see "ready" on the horizon. I'm hoping to self-publish Pendragon's Heir sometime in the next six months, Lord willing and the creek don't rise.

Some Q&A

How long has this novel been in the works?
The first draft was made, like the cosmos, in six days in 2005--though it wasn't anywhere near as impressive at that stage! I've worked at it on and off ever since, including spending the whole of 2013 rewriting the whole thing from scratch for the third time. I let it rest for the first half of this year while I worked on other projects, and now I'm doing a stiff edit of the most recent draft.

What genre is the book?
It's a fantasy set in 1900 Gloucestershire and Arthurian Britain. 

What authors have influenced Pendragon's Heir the most?
All my favourites, but particularly GK Chesterton and Charles Williams.

Will there be a sequel?
Nope! This is a standalone.

What do you have planned for after Pendragon's Heir?
I have a few ideas for things I'd like to do next, but I haven't done any solid work on them at this point. That will have to wait until I've finished this book!

For more news on Pendragon's Heir, keep watching this space! As I work through final edits and the publishing process, I'll be sure to keep you all updated with my progress, and to share some snippets, character profiles, and so on. Till next time! 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Phantastes by George MacDonald

In Surprised By Joy, CS Lewis famously wrote of his first acquaintance with this early work of fantasy, "I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes...That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me, not unnaturally, took longer."

Like many others, I put this "faerie romance" on my to-read list on the strength of Lewis's glowing recommendation. And I just got around to reading it last weekend.

Anodos, our young everyman hero, is exploring an old desk in his recently-inherited castle when a stately fairy appears to him and promises that the following day he will find the path into Faerie itself. When he wakes, he find that his room has transformed into a forest, and so he goes wandering into the country of the imagination, hunted by Ash, Alder, and shadow, rescued and assisted by Beech-tree, knight, and wise-woman, but trailed the whole way by a Shadow of which no-one and nothing can rid him.

The plot is meandering--I actually thought it was the least tightly-crafted of MacDonald's fantasy works, including Lilith and The Princess and the Goblin. The imagery is, as usual with MacDonald, striking and memorable, something wonderfully new, yet which you feel as though you've known your whole life. There is a little Victorian sentimentality plaguing an early chapter, but after that it's all satisfying moral dilemmas and epic quests. For example, at one point Anodos meets a knight in rusty armour:
"Never," he added, raising his head, "shall this armour be furbished, but by the blows of knightly encounter, until the last speck has disappeared from every spot where the battle-axe and sword of evil-doers, or noble foes, might fall."
In my post on The Wise Woman, I gave a brief explanation of mythopoeia, which I defined as a story which communicate eternal truth through the medium of fairy-tale and legend. A few days ago, I stumbled across an article by a modern fantasy author, Lev Grossman, whom I don't know from Adam, but he described Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe like this:
I bristle whenever fantasy is characterized as escapism. It’s not a very accurate way to describe it; in fact, I think fantasy is a powerful tool for coming to an understanding of oneself. The magic trick here, the sleight of hand, is that when you pass through the portal, you re-encounter in the fantasy world the problems you thought you left behind in the real world. Edmund doesn’t solve any of his grievances or personality disorders by going through the wardrobe. If anything, they're exacerbated and brought to a crisis by his experiences in Narnia. When you go to Narnia, your worries come with you. Narnia just becomes the place where you work them out and try to resolve them.
I think Grossman gets it exactly right. In mythopoeia, your life becomes a confrontation with your own sins and faults. Lewis did it in Narnia, but George MacDonald did it even more clearly in Phantastes.

So, Phantastes is a mythopoeic story, and in many ways a really good one. It actually has a very similar theme to The Wise Woman--in fact, I could swear that the Wise Woman herself, with her mysterious cottage, makes an appearance. Just like the two little girls in that book, we find Anodos carrying around an awful weight: his Self. From the beginning of the book, he's clearly callow and foolish, finding in Faerie only the dangers which he brings with him. His Shadow rides him, waxing with his self-conceit and fading as he is given grace or wisdom. Again, Phantastes is all about the inability even of wise counsel and discipline to change a person's heart. It asserts, as The Wise Woman did, that you can feel good about yourself without ever being freed of your sin.

CS Lewis said that Phantastes "baptised his imagination" and I can believe it. Part of the book really is about the sanctified imagination. Anodos, like most newcomers to Faerie Land, falls in love with its extraordinary beauty. But when he finds his Shadow, it begins to affect his eyesight: under its influence, all things seem to be withered and ugly. And eventually Anodos learns to embrace this twistedness:
I began to be rather vain of my attendant, saying to myself, "In a land like this, with so many illusions everywhere, I need his aid to disenchant the things around me. He does away with all appearances, and shows me things in their true colour and form. And I am not one to be fooled with the vanities of the common crowd. I will not see beauty where there is none. I will dare to behold things as they are. And if I live in a waste instead of a paradise, I will live knowing where I live."
There you have it, the unbelieving imagination, which refuses to see the goodness and mercy and justice of God in the world, however plainly written, but locks itself up into a world smaller than the world. The baptised imagination, however, sees with the eyes of faith, and thus always lives in Faerie:
But is it not rather that art rescues nature from the weary and sated regards of our senses, and the degrading injustice of our anxious everyday life, and, appealing to the imagination, which dwells apart, reveals Nature in some degree as she really is, and as she represents herself to the eye of the child, whose every-day life, fearless and unambitious, meets the true import of the wonder-teeming world around him, and rejoices therein without questioning?
For Nature, as she really is, is a book written by God, if we have the guide by which to read it.

All these are ideas which CS Lewis and his friends repeatedly included in their own fiction. Many other smaller details do as well: Phantastes, perhaps even more than Spenser's The Faerie Queene or Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, contains a thousand little pictures that I first saw in Narnia. When a girl in the forest warns Anodos:
"Trust the Oak, and the Elm, and the great Beech. Take care of the Birch, for though she is honest, she is too young not to be changeable. But shun the Ash and the Alder; for the Ash is an ogre,—you will know him by his thick fingers; and the Alder will smother you with her web of hair, if you let her near you at night."
--it's hard not to hear the Beaver's whisper: "Some of the trees are on Her side."

Phantastes is a beautiful story of love and redemption, a long quest to abandon the Self. There are things in it as simple, yet noble, as anything you have read in Tolkien or the Brothers Grimm. There's also a good deal of stuff that I, a fairly paint-by-numbers, Westminster-Shorter-Catechism-loving Presbyterian, raised an eyebrow at. The Universalism is apparent, if not aggressively so, the references to Nature are a bit too worshipful for my taste, and I thought that the main character's spiritual experience at the end was a good bit more Neoplatonist than orthodox. George MacDonald is, as always, as deeply flawed as he is profound and thought-provoking, and I never fail to be grateful that his greatest pupil, CS Lewis, used him to rather more orthodox ends. But Phantastes was lovely, and worth the reading.

Find Phantastes at Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg, or Librivox.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Hermione in the House of Paulina by CS Lewis

Re-reading and reviewing George MacDonald's book The Wise Woman last week called to mind a wonderful, evocative poem from CS Lewis--a great fan of his--which for all the world appears to be about the Wise Woman herself and her mysterious house. More ostensibly, the poem seems to have been inspired by Shakespeare's play The Winter's Tale. (Spoilers ahead! If you want to miss them, skip straight to the poem.) In this play a king, driven mad by jealousy, puts his wife Hermione on trial for adultery. The ordeal causes her to collapse, and Paulina, the wife of the king's councillor Antigonus, reports her death. At the end of the play, sixteen years later, with Hermione vindicated and the king repentant, Paulina invites the king to her secluded house in order to view a statue of the departed queen. When they arrive at the house, the king and his men are convinced that this is a statue--then they speak of how lifelike it appears--then it steps down and is Hermione herself.

Scholars have debated for years over whether the explanation of this plotline is meant to be magical or mundane. Did Hermione actually die, and was brought back to life? Or was Paulina fibbing, and did she only go into hiding for sixteen years? The play contains evidence for both viewpoints, but I believe Shakespeare left the question intentionally vague. Whichever view you take, CS Lewis' poem provides his own theory to explain the play, one that falls somewhere between fantasy and realism and squarely into mythopoeia:

Hermione in the House of Paulina

How soft it rains, how nourishingly soft and green
Has grown the dark humility of this low house
Where sunrise never enters, where I have not seen
The moon by night nor heard the footfall of a mouse,
Nor looked on any face but yours
Nor changed my posture in my place of rest
For fifteen years--oh how this quiet cures
My pain and sucks the burning from my breast.

It sucked out all the poison of my will and drew
All hot rebellion from me, all desire to break
The silence you commanded me. . . . Nothing to do,
Nothing to fear or wish for, not a choice to make,
Only to be; to hear no more Cock-crowing duty calling me to rise,
But slowly thus to ripen laid in store
In this dim nursery near your watching eyes.

Pardon, great spirit, whose tall shape like a golden tower
Stands over me or seems upon slow wings to move,
Coloring with life my paleness, with returning power,
By sober ministrations of severest love;
Pardon, that when you brought me here,
Still drowned in bitter passion, drugged with life,
I did not know . . . pardon, I thought you were
Paulina, old Antigonus' young wife.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Wise Woman and Other Stories by George MacDonald

I first read The Wise Woman years ago, courtesy of a church library, in an edition titled The Lost Princess. I was familiar with George MacDonald's other fairytales, The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie, and was happy to find another, similar story. It was greatly edifying to me then, but I re-read it again last weekend (partly as an aperitif for Phantastes), and found that the story had grown with me.

The volume I read also contained some of MacDonald's other fairy tales, and I'll review them briefly as well.

The Wise Woman: Princess Rosamond, spoiled rotten by her foolish parents, has grown into a little monster who insists on her own way in everything and throws violent tantrums if she is denied. Rosamond's parents finally send for the Wise Woman, who takes Rosamond away with her and introduces her to a whole new concept: discipline.

Meanwhile, north of Rosamond's kingdom, the daughter of a shepherdess also draws the Wise Woman's attention. Agnes looks like a model girl, apart from occasional obstinacy, but the Wise Woman sees the pride, self-satisfaction, and hypocrisy lurking beneath the surface.

Two little girls, one naughty, the other obedient. But is there hope for either of them?

Little Daylight: This short story is a poignant twist on the familiar Sleeping Beauty. Little Princess Daylight is cursed by an evil fairy to sleep all day and wake all night, and to wax and wane with the moon.

Cross Purposes: The Fairy Queen sends two messengers to bring her a boy and girl from a nearby village. The messengers soon lose the two young people, and the pair of them navigate the confusing borders of fairyland together in an attempt to return home to their village.

The Castle: A Parable: A large family of siblings living together in a wonderful castle resent their elder brother's iron-handed rule, and even try to imprison him.

Reading this book reminded me why George MacDonald's wonderful fairy-tales have always been so treasured by Christian writers from CS Lewis to Madeleine L'Engle. A word often used to describe these stories is "mythopoeic"--that is, the stories communicate eternal truth through the medium of fairy-tale and legend. Mythopoeic writing is not quite allegory (although, as CS Lewis pointed out, George MacDonald's fantasy "hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic"), since it tends to use but not be entirely dominated by symbols. On the other end of the scale from allegory you would have most contemporary "world-building" fantasies, where the major challenge for the author lies in subcreating a detailed world with specific geography, history, laws of nature, and technology rather than reproducing the "mythic" effect of a legend. Think of it as a sliding scale with pure metaphysical symbolism down one end (allegory) and raw geopolitical speculation up the other end (world-building). Mythopoeia would fall in the middle, able to overlap with either of the other two. Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queen is a good example of allegory; The Lord of the Rings is a good example of mythopoeia; The Chronicles of Narnia might fall slightly toward the allegory side of mythopoeia, and a book like KM Weiland's Dreamlander might lean towards world-building.

Where was I? Oh yes. So MacDonald's fairy-tales are primarily mythopoeic, with an allegorical slant. They are stories written to imitate myth, intended to explore and develop some aspect of Truth. Little Daylight, for example, with its wonderful eucatastrophe, has sweet things to say about Providence, humility, and selflessness (or charity, which is the same thing). The theme of Cross Purposes seems to be the misleading nature of appearances, and The Castle seems to be talking about Law and Grace.

George MacDonald
The Wise Woman, though, is the star attraction of this book, a little more allegorical than the other stories. It's an astoundingly rich story--I feel as though all sorts of things are happening here which I can barely even gesture towards. Then, one of the things MacDonald does very well (which I had forgotten until I had read this book) is to invent things and settings which take root in the imagination. In this book there is a cottage with no doors: you must knock at the blank wall before the door will turn out to have been there all along. Inside the cottage is a bed of living heather, which must be watered every day, and there is a little door behind the clock which leads to the hall of a palace, where the walls are covered in pictures so real that you can step through them into the scenes they represent. The imagery in each case is very simple. But you don't forget any of it. In an allegory each of these things would have some plain symbolic meaning. But in a mythopoeia, the imagery simply reminds you strongly of something on the edge of consciousness. Perhaps the doorless cottage is a commentary upon the verse "Knock, and it shall be opened unto you." Then, perhaps it isn't. But it feels as though it could be.

The imagery in mythopoeia is elusive. If it wasn't for MacDonald dropping a broad hint that his Wise Woman is somehow identified with Una of The Faerie Queene I would find it difficult to say what she might be a symbol of. Even so, I can only make guesses. Truth? The Holy Church? Or perhaps the best guess, Wisdom herself?

I'm not trying to nail it down, and I wouldn't recommend trying. Most mythopoeic imagery is best flying free; you must unmake it, clip its wings, and slice it open if you want to pin it down, and then it no longer looks like itself.

Besides, there is plenty of very plain teaching in this little story. It's primarily the story of two kinds of sin: the outright rebellion of Rosamond, and the sly conceit of Agnes. (Spoilers ho!) In the end, only one of them repents. Rosamond's hard heart is eventually broken, and she learns to rule herself; but Agnes, having been shown her sin and the ugliness thereof, continues obstinately in the same sin. To be honest, I am a little tired of the assumption, rather trendy these days, that religious hypocrisy is somehow the worst of sins, bordering on unforgiveable. But although MacDonald's story ends with the hypocrite unrepentant, I didn't get the feeling that he treated Agnes as any worse than Rosamond.

Perhaps this was the thing I found most compelling about the story as I read it this time: it portrayed repentance as a work of divine grace. Again and again, Agnes and more commonly Rosamond attempt to mend their ways, and pride themselves for a while on their newfound righteousness, only to slip right back into the same evil at the first temptation. Again and again, MacDonald cautions us that the little girl only happens to be in a good mood, or to be afraid of punishment, or something of the sort: but her heart is still sinful. One thing this drives home for the reader is the fact that both the girls are in need of the same thing: divine grace. Both of them are capable of being in a good mood, or temporarily mending their attitudes. But the fact that Rosamond mends, and Agnes does not, has less to do with how depraved they are, and more to do with grace.

(End spoilers).

George? The General Assembly sent me. They aren't happy.
The Wise Woman could be read with great profit by anyone old enough to feel the temptation of either rebellious wrath or self-satisfied pride. As a child, I found it an engaging and edifying story. As an adult, I'm in awe both of its artistry and of what it has to say about discipline and grace. We live in a culture that (like Princess Rosamond's parents) never disciplines their children, and then looks around them in surprise when the children turn into little monsters. Discipline and good training is certainly a step in the right direction, but discipline is not enough. After all, both Rosamond and Agnes had the benefit of the Wise Woman's training and admonition. And it's divine grace that makes all the difference in the end.

Now, before any of you comment and mention it, I am aware that George MacDonald was a Universalist, and I don't mean to excuse or endorse that in the least. I kept a close eye out (because my great-great-grandfather was SOLOMON KANE, PURITAN ADVENTURER *scare chord*) but I didn't spot anything particularly Universalist in this book. As far as I can tell at this point, MacDonald managed somehow both to hold a doctrine which believed all people would eventually be saved, and to retain a more or less robust view of total depravity and irresistible grace. Even a stopped watch is right twice a day, and this book was excellent. I warmly recommend it.

Find The Wise Woman at Amazon, The Book Depository, Project Gutenberg (as A Double Story), or Librivox (as The Lost Princess).

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Privateersman by Frederick Marryat

I'd often heard of Captain Marryat's seagoing yarns, novels of shipboard life with incidents taken from the author's own experience, which have gone on to inspire more recent authors like CS Forester and Patrick O'Brien. Years ago I read Marryat's novel of the English Civil War, The Children of the New Forest, which is a good adventure yarn (although it takes the wrong side, if you ask me!) but never had the inclination to try his novels for adults until more recently. The Privateersman I picked simply because it seemed more interesting than a couple of the others.

The Privateersman, Or, One Hundred Years Ago, published in 1846, follows the adventures of a young man named Elrington who we meet aboard a privateer making war on French and Spanish ships. Elrington is young, hot-headed, and impressionable; but over the next five years as he adventures to France, Africa, Brazil, and Virginia, gets clapped into the Tower of London for helping Jacobites, and pressed into labour in the diamond mines of South America, he matures into a man of character and integrity.

I wasn't sure exactly what to think of this novel. In some ways, I was very impressed with it. In other ways, I found it pretty tedious. The plot, for instance, is almost nonexistent. Oh, it isn't that the book is dull: it's one of those episodic narratives, with the main character bouncing in and out of one deadly peril into another, but you just wish the poor fellow could make it home to his girl already because there seems no reason to keep throwing him into a new peril. And how credible is it that the same person should be taken captive in the pathless interiors of not one, but three different continents within so short a time?

All the same, there was a lot to like about Marryat's writing. One was his characterisation of Elrington, the narrator-hero. Any author can write a protagonist who's always right and good and heroic, and any reader can understand such a protagonist. It gets trickier when an author wants to depict a protagonist who is foolish, unsaved, and bad at heart. Now the readers have to try to figure out whether the author approves of the protagonist's behaviour, and must keep reading until the protagonist becomes more sympathetic, gains some integrity, and repents of his sins. Unlike many Victorian writers of perfect ("aspirational") heroes (and there's nothing wrong with that), Marryat takes the more mature approach of following Elrington from foolish youth to wise maturity.

Another thing I liked about the book was the way in which the author drew on his own life experiences on the high seas in war and peace. The opening chapter, about a brutal attack by a privateer's ship on a French vessel, is no romaticised account of swashbuckling adventure. It bears all the weight of conscience and experience of a man who has seen shipboard combat himself, and often. There is a grittiness and realism to the whole story that I appreciated. Marryat often doesn't shy away from facing his characters with very tough decisions. This book is full of fascinating ethical scenarios, and I wonder what the Victorians thought of the cavalier manner in which so many of them are solved...

To sum up, this was an interesting book, if chaotic and disorganised. The plot does not rise to any great heights of artistry, but the characterisation and themes are worth the effort. I would recommend it as a family read-aloud--I can see all sorts of opportunities for talking through issues like slavery, chivalry, and the conduct of war.

Find The Privateersman on Amazon, The Book Depository, or Project Gutenberg.


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