Exploring where life and story meet!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Watching and Waiting

The notes float hauntingly through the room, stirring something in the soul: a longing, a groaning, impatience for a promise fulfilled after years of darkness and despair.  The song was 'O Holy Night,' yes a strange music choice for August, but it was a random selection, not something I went looking for, but it reminded me of something innate in almost any good fairy tale: The Promise or Prophecy or whatever you want to call it.  It is that hope promised to return in the days of darkness and dismay, when light seems a myth and peace a dream, but yet, there it is, shining quietly, resolutely even when the world has quite forgot or cannot bring itself to believe.  Sometimes I think we moderns miss out greatly by not celebrating the ancient feasts and fasts of the church, remembering the yearning, watching, waiting of Advent, wondering at the Incarnation, solemnly pondering Lent, mourning on Good Friday, and the celebration of Easter and the anticipation of the Ascension.  Remembering those who lived through the events themselves, sharing their doubt, grief, fear, sorrow, hope, confusion, and joy reminds us that these were human souls, quaking mortals just like us in all their fears, doubts, failures, and triumphs.  Wondering what God was up to through all the long years of history.  We too easily look back at past events and wonder how people ever doubted or were confused, but hindsight is 20/20.  How the disciples thought the Cross was the end, how the people thought to make Him king, that He would conquer the romans and establish His kingdom right then and there, how His own family thought Him mad and sought to take Him home.

It is the truest fairy tale ever told, and the heart of every human story, whether we believe it or not.  All those long years of doubt and darkness, watching and waiting, but yet generation after generation only heard deafening silence while the miracles of the past were lost in mist, shadow, tears, and pain.  The world moved on and forgot The Promise, all but a few, and when it came, few were those who knew it for what it was and even then, everyone misunderstood what it truly was.  I suppose that is why I love fairy tales, for they are an echo of this great story that is not yet fully told.  They remind us of the Great Story in their small scale.  As we watch the hero fight and struggle, as we wait for the hope foretold, as evil looms large in the shadows round about, as despair and darkness cover the world, it stirs that part of us that knows the story is true, that it is out there waiting for us to not only discover it, but to embrace it, and thereby assume our own place in the Story of Life, else we can sit on the sidelines and watch, missing out on that for which we were made.  

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Strange Bedfellows and a Lack of Sleep

I did not think it possible, or at least hoped I had outgrown it, but I have fallen again into the temptation of staying up far too late reading a book; it is a flaw I had not indulged in since graduate school ten years ago and hoped it was now merely a matter of historical interest, rather it was only a lack of tempting reading material that kept me from this rather venial sin.  But I have overindulged on literary treats in the last few days and my mind is still reeling slightly from the barrage it has just suffered, but I am happy (and more importantly know how it ended), thus I can get back to life as usual, sadly neglected of late.  I have had this trait for as long as I can remember, not so much a reading addiction as a need to know how things end, it applies to any sort of story, be it a movie, a book, or what have you.  I have no patience (or think I don't) to wait for how everything plays out, so if I catch wind of a good story, the rest of life is all too easily forgotten.  Perhaps that is one reason I enjoy reading well read and beloved books over again, I then have the freedom to lay them aside and not feel anxious for the plight of the hero.  A predilection I have even noticed in my own stories, I cannot keep something a secret too long, hence I tend more towards short stories.  I haven't picked up a book like that in years, until a few days ago.  I had thought it impossible to ever find a living, current writer I could enjoy so much but I am happily wrong.

I have started many a newer work only to lay it aside in disappointment or disgust, perhaps being too picky, but there was always something amiss: the writing style, the plot, the characters, the world, the pacing, but most especially the worldview.  I demand excellent writing, an intriguing plot, characters I care about, a world that feels as if I am part of it, a pace that neither lags nor races, and something that speaks to what it means to be human, but not in a way that is unreal, shallow, or false.  I need a book with soul, or rather that acknowledges that people are more than a collection of atoms dwelling in an accidental universe, and in so doing also speaks to the deeper reality of our own existence; a book that still means something when the story is over, from which I cannot walk away unchanged.  This is one of those books.

It is very hard to write a review of such a work, it cannot be summed up well in a few words but rather must be experienced.  Other works I have read have occasionally popped into my mind as comparisons, though having some commonalities (as most good books will) it is something that is altogether unique (also as a good book should be).  It is a fantasy novel, containing the familiar battle of good versus evil, but it takes a look at both sides, the flaws and strengths and vagaries and subspecies of each and takes them all seriously.  It is a four book series and the first book had me hooked immediately, turning all my preconceptions on their head; I was putty in the author's hands, annoyed at my own gullibility but delighted by the unanticipated twists and turns.  The first book starts out innocently enough in the tradition of Ben-hur and 'Gladiator', but as the series goes on, it deepens and fleshes out in ways hardly to be imagined but certainly enjoyed.

But as good as the story is, its undercurrents are even better and it contains resounding echoes from many of my favorite books.  It has the 'insanely hopeful in spite of overwhelming odds and looming despair' feeling of A Tale of Two Cities.  It has the powerful themes of redemption and love, and the rejection thereof, of Les Miserables.  There is a spicy hint of The Screwtape Letters and a whisper of Pilgrim's Progress.  It has all the twists, turns, complicated characters and plots, political intrigue, action, romance, adventure, an immersive world, and intense pacing of the first three Robert Jordan novels (the Wheel of Time series) without the tedium and stagnation found in his later books.  But most of all, after everything, it most seems to echo The Imitation of Christ.  Yes you read that correctly.  A fantasy novel that also speaks to the very core of your soul and demands of you answers to the same questions the characters must face.

It was painful at times, a mirror into which I did not want to look, but also refreshingly true and taking that truth very seriously.  There were times I wanted to slap the characters, not because they were annoying, well yes they were annoying because they didn't make the decisions which they obviously should make the moment I thought they should, but why was that so frustrating?  I saw myself and my own misdeeds and indecision and stupid thoughts echoed in their own.  They were real and struggled with the same things all mortal men must wrestle with; they were not one dimensional caricatures that went out and slew the dragon and returned triumphant.  They were not thoroughly evil or good (at least the human characters), even if they were a villain or a hero respectively, they were some combination of both, sometimes hardly recognizable as a hero one moment in their pettiness or sulks and the next heart wrenchingly grand: just like all of us!  People were confused, misguided, led by deeper passions to which they could put no name but thinking they were acting on some nobler motive, they doubted, they boasted, they were people, incredibly human: deep, complicated, often unaware of their motives, falling short of their potential, overcoming their weaknesses.  It is a good story, but it is also a grand adventure of the soul.  The Light of Eidon (Legends of the Guardian-King series) by Karen Hancock.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

My week for lazy blogging!

I don't know much about Rich Mullins, but I have always enjoyed his music, apparently there is a new DVD out on him, find a well written introduction here.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Growing up too fast?

Here's an article I found interesting concerning fairy tales and a child's sense of wonder; it is a nice countercultural take on modern thought.

Friday, August 1, 2014

On bad writers and good stories

"But it's not in the power of my gift.  You know what my forte is--the fanciful, the fairylike, the pretty…"  Anne on her writing style in Anne's House of Dreams.

To paraphrase C.S. Lewis's excellent preface to his book George MacDonald: MacDonald is not a great writer, not even in the first or second tier of great writers, at least on a literary level, he is not what one would call an artist, but there is something there that defies words, he evokes something magical that simply uses words as a vehicle for its expression.  It is not how he says something but rather the sensations he inspires in his reader; he is not so much a writer as a mythologist.

I appreciate Lewis's incite into the writing of this fanciful man, I never quite understood what captivated me about MacDonald, his writing is sometimes poignant and painfully sweet, and at other times vague and rambling.  The myth behind the words is what I fell in love with rather than the words themselves.  I can be content now in knowing that an excellent writer and very learned man sometimes finds MacDonald's writing occasionally awkward; I love the man's stories but sometimes found the writing itself a little…cumbersome.

I begin to see a very clear pattern in my favorite authors: it is not so much the quality of the writing (though many of them are very gifted writers) so much as the 'soundtrack' behind the words.  Those inexplicable feelings stirred up as you read that do not necessarily have anything to do with the quality of the words, grammar, or sentence structure.  The story behind the story as it were.  How good of a story do they tell, rather than how perfect of a grammarian are they, is the question I ask.  I've tried reading some of the modern 'classics' and if they are examples of 'good' literature, I will have to stick to my poor, uncultured selections.  I may be a literary ignoramus, but I am a happy idiot.  Those books may be 'literary' or some such undefinable academic jargon, but they have no soul.  I can't read a book that has no heart, that is illogical, or that is grim, depressing, and with never a hint of hope shining through; I cannot read something that has no echo of real life in its pages.  Even the most fantastic fictional world must conform somewhat to reality or there is no point in reading it.  Neither is something that is all happiness and roses satisfactory for the same reason.

I remember watching a movie a few years ago that the critics were raving about, they did bring the strange world to splendid life and I think the musical score was good, but the movie would have been far better if the characters weren't allowed to speak; their insipid dialogue and the predictable plot seemed an intrusion into this otherwise magical world they had created.  It was rather a shame.  The plot was one of those ancient culture threatened by intrusion from 'civilized' outsiders, one of whom is adopted into said endangered culture and falls in love with his new society, thus standing in opposition to his former allies as they make one final, glorious last stand.  Think Dances With Wolves and The Last Samurai.  It is an old story and endures for good reason, it echoes somewhere deep inside and stirs that archaic thing we call a soul.  Just in this case, the tale was told so awkwardly that it detracted from the overall story, but the nonverbal parts of the movie were good enough to tell the tale without dialogue.  Job said it right in this instance, 'it is wisdom for you to remain silent.'  The artistry was there, but the story fell flat on its face because they were trying to sell an agenda rather than tell a story.

I suppose that is why I like movies like the original Star Wars, if you look at it from an artistic standpoint, it is rather ridiculous and the dialogue is certainly not what one would call witty, but it drags you in and stirs the deeps of your soul even so.  It is just good storytelling.  That's what I like about George MacDonald and my other favorite authors.  It is something that I fear is dying in this modern age, I have such a hard time finding a living author whose works I like or even a movie I really enjoy.  Most are just missing something, and I think it was something innate in MacDonald's writing: soul.  I can tolerate a certain amount of 'clunkiness' if the author (or producer) is adept in the art of story, but even the best writing (or effects) in the world cannot make up for a lack of heart and a bad story.