Exploring where life and story meet!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

On character and characters

What makes a good character?  Why are we attracted to certain personalities, fictitious or not, while others we shrug off, ignore, or overlook?  Why is a too good hero or an ultimate villain sort of dull when a rather ordinary minor character steals the show?  Why is Samwise Gamgee so much more interesting than Sauron?

I think we attach to characters with whom we can relate, that is those who are most like ourselves: the most human.  We want a character who has suffered sorrow and defeat, who has failed, who yet has the hope of triumph, one with a a sense of humor or a quick wit, a mysterious or humble background is always nice, and though they are riddled with foibles and failings (as we ourselves, if we are honest) they are still resilient, willing to learn, willing to get back up and try again.  If they are too good and never fail or struggle, we cannot relate and find the character beyond our experience.  If they are an embodiment of evil (like Tolkien's Sauron) we might feel a little uneasy at mention of their name, but we never really consider them a true character.  Darth Vader is a character we find intriguing while the Emperor (at least in the original trilogy) is just a shadowy force behind the bad guys in the Star Wars epic; we shudder when we see or hear about him, but forget him once he is gone.  Perhaps it is this conflict within a character, the struggle that reflects our own: like calling to like.  The evil against the good and vice versa.  Sam struggled with his baser self while Vader could not quite repress certain feelings unfit for an evil overlord.  Perhaps it is this struggle that draws us like moths to the flame, for it is our own.

I often wonder if this is not part of the reason for the Incarnation.  What can a mere mortal know of God?  No wonder the Israelites trembled in the desert and sent Moses as their go between.  But God made flesh?  Immanuel, God with us?  That we can sort of wrap our minds around.  He dealt with rejection, weariness, sorrow, temptation; He wept and from some of His statements, I am sure He laughed, just like each of us.  He is the ultimate character, what He intends each of us to become: our real and true selves.  We find little interest in a life spent numbly plodding along, merely reacting to what happens around us; never truly knowing ourselves or being known.  We are intrigued by a life that is changed, that is full of honest struggle, that though failure happens the person rises from the ashes and pushes on, by someone who admits they are not perfect but does not despair at this statement nor do they boast in their strengths but rather uses them for the good of others.  This is what we want in our characters and what God wants for each of us.  Do not simply exist, placid as a cow in a meadow with never a thought for the really important things in life.  Be a character, be the actual you!  Discover who and what you are, 'know as you are known.'  Don't just post things on social media and decorate your exterior so everyone thinks you are something, rather be something, exercise that flabby thing called a soul, that part of you that will last forever.  Become the character you were meant to be.  Get out of the Shire, defy the Emperor, get you gone on whatever journey of the heart lays before you!  


Thursday, October 23, 2014

The New Fairy Tale

I have watched several movies over the years, and I am sure there are others of which I am unaware, all with the same theme: a modern man, advancing the influence of progress, finds himself on the wrong side of justice when faced with a native or traditional people group; only by finding acceptance among said people group and standing with them (often futilely) against his former allies can he find redemption.  'Dances with Wolves,' 'Medicine Man,' 'The Last Samurai,' and "Avatar,' all come to mind, all of which are beautifully filmed, with a stirring soundtrack, and a compelling narrative.  Whether it is told in the 'old west,' Japan, or on a distant planet, it is the same story with different pajamas.  This seems to be 'the fall' narrative of the modern, quasi-new age materialist and also their 'redemption' saga.

The great 'sin' of humanity is its wanton destruction of nature, traditional cultures, and denying justice, fairness, and equality (however defined) to 'the others.'  And man's only hope is to embrace the imperiled culture of 'the others,' and live in harmony with nature and his fellow man.  It is a beautiful and compelling story, that gives hope to a world with little of joy to be found.  The only problem is that it is completely, and utterly, impossible.  No matter how we idealize any given culture or the natural world, there never has been and never will be a human society that is 'in harmony' with nature, that is not infested with greed, hatred, envy, strife, treachery, lying, and the like.  It makes a nice movie but has no basis in reality.  No matter your culture, your race, your gender, your creed, your language, we are at heart all human.  And as humans, regardless of our society, a grouping of humans will all have the same faults, shortcomings, and failings.  It is our nature.  As for this gracious mother earth that will embrace us if only we 'understand' her, go watch a nature show, particularly from the 1980's or early 90's (some of the more modern films are edited to remove the more gruesome aspects of life in the wild).  There is no nurturing, mother earth.  In the wild, it is kill or be killed.  The young, old, and pregnant are not spared but rather preyed upon.  There is no mercy, only survival.

The makers of these films (and writers of the original stories) are correct in assuming we need such a story, it is innate in our being and old as man himself.  "Tale as old as time," as a certain singing tea pot puts it.  That is why these films are so powerful: they resonate in the deepest part of our souls.  We already have such a tale, but we don't want that story, we want a story where man can save himself.  We want to be the hero, not the princess locked away in the tower by the evil step-mother.  In dispensing with the old tale, we find ourselves floundering and restless until we find one to replace it.  This meta-narrative that our salvation can be found by embracing our true humanity and the natural world is a nice dream, but it falls apart upon waking.  We cannot fix what is broken by embracing something that is flawed at its core.  Humanity is flawed, broken, and we cannot fix ourselves.  Long ago, when the stars were young, someone whispered, 'ye can be gods,' we listened and broke the world.  We are still broken and still think ourselves gods, gods that sound like defiant toddlers screaming that I can 'do it myself.'  We even invent stories to reassure us of this fact.  But they are just that, stories, and they will not fix the world.  But there is an older tale that can do just that.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Words of four letters

Home.

For so common a word one would think it wouldn't have so vague and ephemeral a definition and elicit feelings ranging from warmth to dread to guilt to longing in those who hear it.  But then, it is intimately linked with love, and of all words in the English language, love is the least precise and the most dangerous:

 "The girls nowadays indulge in such exaggerated statements that one can never tell what they do mean.  It wasn't so in my young days.  Then a girl did not say she loved turnips, in just the same tone she might have said she loved her mother or her Savior," Miss Patty, Anne of the Island

We all want it, home, love, whatever the name we choose to give it, it is innate in the human soul.  We all want to belong, to be accepted, to be part of something bigger than ourselves, to have a place to set out from and return to, to be safe, to have fun, to rest, to work for something that lasts, to care for others and be cared for in return, to have hope, joy, and peace, a place to laugh and to cry.  Many of us have a house or apartment or a condo or tent or what have you, but very few actually have a home.  Innately we know the difference between a house and a home (and no, a cat does not make it magically happen, regardless of what the cute poster says).  Some of us go through life and never find it while others spend our whole lives trying to escape it or trying to find it again once we do.  I was one of the former, though I didn't quite know it at the time.

I knew I wanted it, and always thought I had it, didn't I get warm fuzzy feelings around Christmas?  I think the whole world gets warm fuzzy feelings around Christmas, at least the young and the young at heart.  I thought it meant a place of my own, where I could do my own thing and have some privacy and be alone.  Oh so alone.  That was no fun either.  So if home isn't automatically found with your family of origin or in having your own life, where is it?

A quote from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, "not all who wander are lost," had become rather popular in certain circles some years back, and I used to really like it too, I still do, but it is very sad if you stop and consider the meaning.  It was written about a man who is forced to wander because he no longer has a home, he might have a home in some distant, unknown future but there is no guarantee and he might wander forever for all he knows.  We geeks know that it works out in the end, but he doesn't know that.  He, like all of us, wants to find home.  But where?

I have found it, at last, though I went kicking and screaming (or at least like Jonah, running as fast as I could in the opposite direction).  I did not want relationship, it was scary, it hurt, it wasn't worth it.  And like Jonah, I eventually got the idea (though hopefully with a little better attitude) that one cannot resist one's destiny indefinitely, you can run, you can balk, you can refuse, but you cannot escape, at least not without enduring an ordeal far more painful and difficult than whatever it is you are supposed to be doing.  Such is the dreadful power of Love and Home!  We are all called to it, most of us are terrified, for it is scary and painful and full of grief, but it is also the only thing worth doing and finding in this world and beyond.  For Christ it led to Golgotha.  Can we then expect our own journey to be free of sorrow?  But it is a good sorrow, a grief that will one day die and leave only those things that last forever. It shapes us, builds us up, breaks us down, mends us, and mars us; it hurts to be shapen yet would we rather remain forever a raw chunk of marble or an unpurified lump of ore?  Can we be useful, beautiful, or happy in such a state?  Love demands what is best for us, and in this fallen sphere that means hurt and change.  Home demands Love, for it is the key to that place we all so desperately desire yet all too willingly flee.

Monday, October 13, 2014

On doing the impossible

I'm a huge fan of adventure stories and fairy tales and am thoroughly convinced that each and every life is just such a story, so why does it always come as something of a surprise when my own life takes a sudden plot twist?  In any story, we anticipate just such an occurrence, for there would be no story without those moments where an impossible choice lies before the protagonist and likely the fate of the world hangs in the balance.  Thankfully the fate of the world is not at stake here, but it is still rather inconvenient for the sake of one's peace, prosperity, and comfort, but then who ever said the point of the story was for the main character's comfort?  Who would want to hear such a tale?  Who, in the end, would truly want to live it out?  Boring!  The whole reason the Author wrote any given character into the tale was so that character could become the person the Author meant him or her to be, and there is no story and no character development if the person in question stays safely at home and never leaves the comfort of their easy chair.  Where would The Hobbit be if Bilbo hadn't gone running off after a party of house crashing dwarves?  Or what of the Exodus if Moses had ignored the fiery bush and gone back to his sheep?  Life is not safe or comfortable, it is messy, inconvenient, unpredictable, joyous, and beautiful.  If it is safe and comfortable, that is an existence, not a life and no wonder you are ill at ease and discontent!

I said I would never do it again, and I meant it, but I shouldn't ever say things like that because I cannot predict the future and it seems like the Author enjoys replacing our exclamation points with commas.  But if I have learned one thing in life, it is to trust the Author when He says, 'go do X or Y.'  I can drag my feet, make excuses, but eventually I end up doing it anyway and usually in a more roundabout and painful way than I would otherwise have had to if I had just said 'yes' at the first.  I have also found that though it often seems impossible or ridiculous at the first, by the time it is over it has made for a really amazing chapter in this ongoing story of life.  So here we are, a year after my life fell apart and I stared at my husband in astonishment when he said he was applying for a position way out here, 'where?!' I had thought at the time.  Well, where became here and it has been a much smoother transition than I could have possibly imagined and certainly no accident, but just as life is starting to get comfortable again, you'd think I would start to recognize the signs and anticipate that 'something' is going to happen to upset the proverbial apple cart of our looming ease, that little voice that isn't a voice niggles at the back of my mind and says, 'maybe it is time to try adopting again.'  I would love another kid, but do you realize what adoption does to one's family equilibrium?  What does a cheese grater do to a block of cheddar?  But then God has done far crazier things than that which He asks of us, Who else would step out of eternity, into Time and Mortality, and then die?  In that light, what is so impossible about anything He might ask of us?  And where would the story be if the character said 'no,' went home, and sat before the fire for the rest of his life?  We can't ruin the story now can we?  Onwards into the next chapter!

Monday, October 6, 2014

A light in the midst of a literary Dark Age!

I have been enjoying the works of actual living authors of late, and have had to change my opinion that the literary arts are not what they once were.  I was quite convinced that a good author must be both British and dead (with a few exceptions, such as L.M. Montgomery).  Anne Elisabeth Stengl, the promising young author of the Tales of Goldstone Wood series, has given me hope that there is still a balm in Gilead.  I dare place this young lady among the pantheon of literary saints like C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, and Tolkien, for she understands the fairy tale, and what is more, she can add something of worth to that beloved genre in an age when the hearts and pens of so many have grown cold.  She has a heart, a talent for writing, a merry sense of humor, a refreshing wit, and has heard the muses sing.  What's more, she may even believe in fairies.  I highly recommend this series, the more so as I become more acquainted with it.  Her latest book, Golden Daughter, the seventh in the series, is her best work so far; her talent and skill grow and shine brighter with every tale told.  It is not my favorite story in the series, but it is at this point the best told tale and one well worth reading (as is the entire series).  I was fortunate enough to receive a free preview copy and my review follows:

Golden Daughter is the seventh book in the Tales of Goldstone Wood series (this is a review of a free preview copy) and is a worthy addition to an excellent series.  Until I picked up these books, I was quite convinced that any fantasy writer worth reading had been dead for fifty years or more.  Happily I am quite mistaken; Ms. Stengl is a worthy heir to George Macdonald, Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis.  In this book particularly she combines the aching beauty of Macdonald, the whimsy and charm of Lewis, and the intricate world-building of Tolkien with her own quick wit, all too real characters, a complex and interconnected plot, superb writing, and shrewd humor, enwrapping it all in a mystique and intrigue that may well lead to lost sleep and neglected duties as the reader falls under her spell and desires nothing else in life but to know what happens next.  This book can be read as a stand alone, but I would recommend starting at the beginning as it fleshes out and explains some of the questions left from earlier in the series and you will get far more out of it if you already understand something of the world in which it happens. 


This book deepens and widens an already immense world, adds new characters that feel more real, more complex than some of the people you meet in real life, and only worsens the yearning to hear the Song of Spheres for yourself.  There is sorrow, pain, grief, despair, and darkness in this story as in life, but there is a hope beyond the doubt, a light beyond the darkness, life beyond death.  This book will stir the deep places of the soul and ask of you the same questions the characters themselves must face, which is exactly what a good book does, for a good story is not merely a well told tale but a mirror upon ourselves and the world at large, if only we have the courage to look therein.  I very much enjoyed this book and impatiently await the advent of the next addition to the series! 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Another reading addiction

I have discovered another book series to which I have become addicted but which I am still trying to decide what I think of the books themselves.  It is one of those curious situations wherein you want to know what happens next and find the world, characters, plot, writing or some combination thereof intriguing but are not quite sure what to make of the whole.  I have the same feelings towards the writings of G.K. Chesterton and George MacDonald, I love their writing in general but either their work is so far above me or I am not exactly certain what they are trying to say that I have a hard time saying if a certain book is among my favorites or not.  Phantastes intrigues me but is it on my favorite list?  The Man Who Was Thursday is a great but confounding read; I am not sure what to think.

In this particular case I speak of the 'Tales of Goldstone Wood' books by Anne Elizabeth Stengl, of which the first book is Heartless.  She is an excellent writer, her world is rich and beautiful, some of her characters are annoying and others endearing (just like real people), but there is something about this series that confounds me.  The first book does not fit very well with the rest of the series and has a theological/literary flaw* that has bugged me for a time, but the author mentions on her blog that this work is highly allegorical and her later books have improved significantly on this point.  There is also a bit too much mystery in the books, after reading the first half dozen books through I can look back and make more sense of things, but for a first time reader, things are often frustratingly foggy. A little mystery, foreshadowing etc, are essential to a good read but there was enough here to frustrate even a seasoned reader of the genre!  But then I do tend to be a bit impatient when it comes to 'what is going on' so this may be a personal flaw rather than a foible of the writer.  But perhaps the thing that frustrates me the most is not really a failing on the part of the writer but of epic fantasy itself.

She has good characters and I want to know more about these characters, but there is so much going on that there isn't as much room for character exploration as I would like.  I have the same complaint with the Lord of the Rings.  I really want to know what happens after the ring is destroyed and everybody has to go on with their lives, but all we get is a little blurb that so and so did whatever and then it is over.  I want to know what the characters felt, thought, and experienced not just the cold historical facts.  Besides these two minor complaints, I have really enjoyed these books and look forward to the next installment in the series.  If the worst I can say is that she mystifies me at times and I want to know more about her characters, I suppose these are not failings at all but rather flaws in my character as a reader: I must cultivate patience is what it all boils down to and her books are good enough to keep me hooked.

It was also interesting to note which books have influenced her, I thought I caught hints of C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, The Last Unicorn, and "The Hound of Heaven."  She did not mention this on her blog, but I also wonder if the sixth book in the series doesn't have a little Star Trek influence (no, not the technology but rather the main evil minds me of a major villain in the sci-fi series and her flouting the laws of time is also suggestive, but this is all a theory).  No wonder I like these books, she seems to be the modern heir to some of my favorite writers.  I must also admit that I have imbibed her works in a drunken binge (trying to satiate my 'what happens next' addiction).  I have not savored them as one should a fine work, but rather consumed them quickly in a short period of time.  I plan a leisurely second read and perhaps that will settle once and for all my conundrums with this series.  It takes a good book to get me to read like an addict, so chances are good these will end up on my favorite book list.

*The first book portrays the Christ figure pursuing a mortal woman as his bride, the allegory is appropriate and beautiful, but as the foundation for a series, it jarred me that one particular girl in all the history of the worlds could be united thus with the Creator, from a theological standpoint it made little sense.  The Church is the Bride of Christ (that is all believers throughout the ages) so how could one frail mortal girl stand in for millions?  What about the rest of us?  If this were a stand alone book and solely an allegory, it would be fine, but as the corner stone for a series it made little sense.  After the first book we hear hardly a mention of the character and it feels as if she were locked away in some closet somewhere like a crazy uncle never to be seen again.  Besides for this little snafu, the series is well thought out and put together and I look forward to seeing where it goes from here.


Monday, September 15, 2014

Price vs cost

I was at the grocery store lately and was asked by the checkout lady, whom I hardly know, if she could get a price break on a certain professional procedure as I was now working part time at the local provider of such services.  I wanted to ask if I could get an 80% discount on my bananas since I had a passing acquaintance with her.  I get annoyed when people ask me things like this, and I was not quite sure why until I sat down and thought it out.  I was feeling that in asking for a discount, they felt that my time and skills were of little or no value and thus it was outrageous for me to charge a reasonable market price for said service and I was indignant that my years of schooling, hard earned experience, and insane student debt counted for nothing but rather they are the ones who get to be upset when I decline to offer free services based on the most meager acquaintance.  It is a strange world we live in!  But more importantly, this is how so many of us treat our own faith in Christ.  We want to get by 'on the cheap,' we want 'cheap grace' rather than redemption, we want Christianity on our terms rather than His.

Our salvation cost Him everything and we assume it should cost us nothing.  We want to live as we want to live, not as He expects us to.  We treat it as some eternal life insurance policy we can ignore until the moment we need it when rather it should be a radical change in life and behavior.  We are called daily to 'take up our cross' which literally means to take up an implement of death and carry it towards the site of our own execution!  We must be ready to lay down our lives and priorities in His service, in whatever guise that may take at the moment.  This is not an easy, gentle faith to be ignored save at the last end of need.  It demands 'my life, my soul, my all,' and if you are not prepared to lay it all down, why bother pretending?  The Book of Revelation warns believers about being 'lukewarm,' rather let us be either hot or cold!  All or nothing!  It is the ultimate insult to approach the throne of grace with a list of prerequisites before one is willing to kneel before it.  Christ held nothing back.  He asks the same of each of us.