Tag Archives: literature

A Canticle for the Vatican

This article at National Review Online really struck a history buff nerve. It also reminded me of one of the great pantheon of ‘Good Books I Like’… The Vatican Secret Archive Unveiled.

Some of the documents — written on such various materials as parchment, vellum, paper, and birchbark (the medium for an 1887 letter from the Ojibwe Indians to the pope, “the Great Master of Prayer, he who acts in Jesus’s stead”) — bring to mind epic moments and historical turning points across ten centuries: the handwritten records of Galileo’s trial before the Inquisition; Pope Alexander VI’s bull Inter Cetera (which might be translated, “Among Other Things”), dividing the New World between Spain and Portugal; the 1530 petition from dozens of members of England’s House of Lords, asking Pope Clement VII to annul Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that the Tudor king might marry Anne Boleyn; Gregory XIII’s calendar of 1582 with the “missing ten days” in October, an excision that rectified the inaccuracies of the earlier Julian calendar; a letter from Mary Queen of Scots to Sixtus V just before her execution; Polish king John III Sobieski’s 1683 letter to Innocent XI, reporting his victory over the Turks at the Battle of Vienna; letters from Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln to Pius IX during the U.S. Civil War.

My favorite is the letter on Birchbark… but this all reminds me of the fantastic book ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz‘. In the book, mankind has decided after a horrific nuclear war that knowledge and learning were the ultimate cause of the war, and so, with true human blindness, they burn every book, and kill every scholar. (Although the book is set much later, the events of this time are very interesting to me.) Basically, a man named Leibowitz founds an order of Catholic monks to preserve as much knowledge and books as possible. Eventually, in one of the books three parts, the world’s new scholars come to a monastery of these monks to learn what is left.

And now back to the Vatican archives. They should strike a reminder that rather than suppress the truth of history, the Church has been a consistent ‘rememberer’ of the past. I am sure suppression of the truth has happened in the Church… obviously, the church is made of people. But by and large, the church was the repository of learning and reading and writing and what history they could keep during the dismally dark and horrific time when the Roman armies were no longer keeping the barbarians out of what is now Europe. And now again, we have a whole class of people who would rather forget the past which is embodied in these documents.

Well,  A Canticle For Leibowitz has much appeal, with deep understanding of the flaws of mankind, and the work of God in Sanctification. Also, the depiction of mankind returning and ever returning to the same bad and evil ideas is very compelling. At every stage, God saves His remnant. It is a good book, go read it, its summer… you should have time 🙂

The One Rule that Rules them All

There is one rule of writing fiction that is the key rule, the Pendragon of rules. I will illustrate it with the genre of Historical Fiction, the easiest genre in which to find this rule broken. There are many shades and subtleties that refract from the rule, but it boils down this: Do not lie to your reader! The positive form is equally important: Tell your reader the truth! (Which, of course, is not quite the same thing.)

Taking the example of historical fiction, and the excellent negative example of The Da Vinci Code we start. The Da Vinci Code is perhaps the most egregious example of a filthy, lying, novel. (It piles on the fables another layer of deceit with mostly fraudulent footnotes too, but that is another topic entirely.) Let us consider one major thesis of the ‘history’ that Dan Brown tells his reader.

Remember, the goal of writing a good novel is to never lie to your reader (and to tell the truth). That means especially for historical fiction that the historical narratives and the events around your fictional events are accurate to history. This also means that when building up your knowledge of history you follow the gold standard of believable sources. This is, briefly, that primary sources trump secondary sources which indeed trump tertiary sources, and anything beyond that deserves to be laughed at as a source. Also, sources whose potential bias is known are more valuable than sources of unknown biases. Lastly, when hostile sources and friendly sources agree, and they are both primary in nature, you can be fairly confident that this is the historical truth.

Returning to Dan Brown, therefore, we investigate his claims that, for instance, the council of Nicaea only excluded the gnostic ‘gospels’ because they undermined the churches authority etc. as well as the related claim that these gnostic ‘gospels’ are of equal or greater value in determining the events of Jesus of Nazareth’s life.  I put these assertions together because they fall to the same criticism. The Council of Nicaea on AD 325 knew quite well what historical scholars know today, that the gnostic ‘gospels’ were written later by at least 100 years than the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and were written by people who could never have even met of known Jesus, nor even known people who know him. (Which would constitute a secondary source.) This information means that for all intents and purposes, either Dan Brown did no research, or he lied to his audience, breaking this rule.

(On an interesting side note, he also got the teaching of Gnosticism wrong. Orthodox Christianity teaches that Jesus is the Messiah, and that His nature is true God and true man, together.  There are, and were for most of the Church’s history, heresies that taught that Jesus was only a man, which is what Dan Brown claims the Gnostic gospels prove. However the alternate heresy, that Jesus appeared as a man but His essence was only that of God, is actually what Gnostics believed.)

So ultimately, this means that authors must write about what they know, or research and come to know what they wish to write about. If the author wishes a character to go crazy, he needs to know in decent detail, about craziness. The flip side of the coin, the one that tells the author to tell the truth, I describe to some extent in ‘The Right Story told True’ and will likely revisit again as it interests me.

The Harloth-tìrath: and Other Rules of Fantasy

In view of the upcoming third annual novel contest at ACM, I figured I would start a ‘rules for genres’ theme. These things are those things that I find distract the reader and are hallmarks of poor writing. I don’t know how many potential applicants might read this blog, and this post and upcoming posts. However, I will remind those reading that I am a judge for this competition and a mentor for several finalists each year. (Finalists in the competition have a few months to work with an assigned judge to rework their manuscript. Us mentors do not read for grammar, but try to help the author eschew distractions, tighten the story, and make it even more interesting.) And of course, many authors in the library fantasy section are blatant violators of these rules…

Without more introduction, I will plunge right into this post’s topic: Rules for Fantasy. Of course the rules are ‘more like guidelines’ but the higher the number of broken rules and the more egregiously they are flaunted the more likely the book (that you are reading or writing) is not worth the time.  Fiction in general has rules like: Don’t treat your reader like an idiot, they can remember things from page to page. Follow the rules you make. Characters must be true to the personality you gave them, if they change there must be a reason. (Having characters acting or talking out of character is a terrible jolt for the reader.) etc.

Here are three rules for good fantasy: (For instance: The Eyes of the Dragon)

1. No Elves (Or dwarves, or shadow/fire demons …)

In general, as soon as elves appear, the story becomes transparent. Inserting mythical beasts, alternate races of sentient beings, this all has either the campy feel of fan-fiction or the plagiaristic feel of… plagiarism. In general, stories with elves use them to distract from the gaping inanity of the plot or boring meagerness of the characters.

This rule applies even to those stories that do not explicitly have elves. If there is a set of people, or a race of people, who have elvish characteristics, it has almost the same effect. For example, Orson Scott Card (who has some really good works) has a series about Alvin Maker which start with the book Seventh Son. The first book or two are good, but then, all of a sudden, it turns out that the Indian tribes are actually very, very, elf like (in tune with nature, special woodland related powers, odd and profound wisdom… everything except pointy ears.) At that exact moment, the books begin to spiral down and down into ever more vapid displays of cliché.  (And I usually like O.S.C.)

So, in summary, Tolkien used elves because he was brilliant. Everyone else who does so, seems to do it because they lack an imagination of their own. Until such a time when I read a novel (other than Tolkein) with both elves and originality, I will believe this the immutable first rule of fantasy.

2. No invented languages

Unless the author is a philologist, brilliant, and Tolkien, invented languages are just nuisance and pretentions. Tolkien actually invented languages with strict and realistic grammar based off of the ancient languages he was master of like old Norse, old Welsh etc. etc. When reading any other book that has an invented language, it is distracting and unconvincing. It is very like the author thought, ‘well gee… what should I call this? I know… I will call it the klåkkakûla. (K’s are for dwarvish… it’s a convention of bad fantasy.) The same thing in elvish is harloth-tìrath, and in the ancient language of Man: ombundium, and in orcish: zkartzik…. English? you ask. In English it means ‘boring’.

3. Last rule for now. You cannot give straight off, modern sensibilities to characters in a fantasy world. This rule is even more important for historical fiction, and dystopian fiction. However, in fantasy, it would be generally jarring to meet a sexually liberated communist feminist in a world of swords and patriarchy. Basically, your setting has to feel self-consistent, and if you put your characters into a historical-like setting, the people need to be believable too. This does not mean that the women in your story have to be non-entities, or in the metaphorical kitchen. (Witness Eowyn, and back further, Britomart, and even further to Antigone.) Just let your characters speak in a ‘real’ fashion, without the idioms and platitudes of modern speech.

Now, of course these rules can be broken. And if anyone reading this wants to submit a story that breaks one or two of these rules or whatever, of course that is fine. Just remember that you cannot break these rules in lieu of plot, interesting characters, originality, and conflict.  For those who do submit a novel, semifinalists get good solid feedback, and finalists get rigorous feedback, and winners… well they win.

Update: A negative example just occurred to me. The horribly plagiarist and predictable Eregon books are violators of every rule here, and then some. If you want to know what garbage looks like when transmuted into fiction, they are a prime example.

Agnes Mallory

It has become official; I am on a Klavan kick. I have now read 4-5 of his books, which are all well put together and enjoyable. Some are better than others, of course. The Identity Man was good, Corruption was just ok. The Uncanny was quite fun, as was Hunting Down Amanda, the first unpredictable and the second predictable, but both very enjoyable nonetheless. However, there is this one  that I have found to be excellent literature. I don’t think it falls for certain in any genre, but I suppose it would be classified psychological thriller perhaps. Agnes Mallory, I think, should, and perhaps will be remembered as an actual classic. A book whose content, storytelling, plot are so captivating, so well done: a book whose philosophy strikes so true, that it is can stand the test of time.

The narrator of Agnes is a loathsome man, Harry, who had been a relatively typical boy when he actually knew the eponymous Agnes (who is Agnes Sole as a child).  As one reads the book, you are ‘treated’ to the present day Harry, a man whose respectable outer shell has been removed, who has collapsed in on his own depravities as a recluse. You also get glimmers of the past, when as a child, Harry spent time with Agnes.

As I mentioned before, the narrator (and dare I say, the main character) is an ‘inner man’. He has many characteristics of Dostoevsky’s ‘Underground Man’ (Found as the nameless main character and narrator in Notes From Underground: a chillingly accurate look at the nature of man.) He is entirely self-absorbed, he is petty. He is… unmasked. In all too much of modern writing and movies, the false facade that people put up is considered the worst part of a person which is based upon the idea that societies constraints make a person untrue to themselves. This last is, perhaps ironically, true. The true nature of the man without the socially enforced facade of kindness, selflessness, and forbearance restraining the ‘inner man’ is one entirely consumed by corruption and petty, or not so petty, evil.

The other very important person is Agnes (of course). Agnes is a brilliant sculptor, and also, well, crazy. The book does not give reasons for her insanity, but instead shows glimpses of shadows of reasons. I believe that Agnes is crazy because she cannot reconcile the greatness of mankind with its utter depravity. (Seen in the contradiction between the art of the West and Auschwitz.)

In the end, Harry is unable to save Agnes, and the books real power comes with the realization that even if Harry had been a good an, even if he had not been incessantly thinking of sex, and the repercussions of his moral and political corruption, he would not have been able to save Agnes. In fact, no man or woman could have done so.

I do not want to talk at all about the plot in any more detail than this, the book deserves to be read and found afresh, without someone else’s imprint. Agnes Mallory is spooky, is unpredictable, and beautiful in the paradoxical, sad, beaten, and yet still glorious fashion that depicts so well the state of man: simultaneously made in God’s image and cravenly fallen.  The book is worth the time and worth incomparably more than the money. Give it a read (or two) sometime.

Grimm (TV Show)

Well, I guess I will foray into television shows. Probably will not do that very often, but since the Grimm’s Fairy Tales were among my favorites (and still are) I wanted to write about this show. The show starts with the premise that the Grimm’s fairy tales were warnings, not just stories. Warnings from people who could see the underlying monsters in what otherwise appears to be people to those who cannot. Those that see the monsters are called Grimms and those that cannot are everyone else.

For instance, the story of the big bad wolf and little red riding hood are based on the ‘real’ existence of Blutbaden. Basically the people/ monsters what do this undergo a physical change mostly related to their faces, and physiological changes like added strength when they take their monster form. The main character is a new Grimm (apparently the ability to see these monsters comes after a related Grimm dies.) who is also a police detective. Well, enough with this, the real question is how is it in terms of fairy tales.

The show has two failings. This first is actually only a partial failing. It seems like most really evil things done by people are actually done by the bad wesen (generic name for the shape changers). This is really more of a fault of the setting. For instance, every detective show features way too many clever murders, so here, obviously all the nasty things done are done by the wesen. This strikes against the nature of man. However, the show does redeem itself by using these wesen as models of a very Christian understanding of the nature of man. If one looks at the wesen, the bad ones are driven by evil desires they are born with. However, a few we meet are actively fighting their nature to try to be good. This is never represented as the wrong thing for the wesen. For instance the main secondary character is a reformed blutbad (werewolf) who fights his evil nature in a way strikingly reminiscent of the battle between the old Adam and the new man in a Christian.

The other failing is that it took a while to warm up. The first few episodes were fairly predictable and almost lame. The show hobbles along on the crutches of a few unique ideas and the hope that they will pick up some of the darkness from the Grimm’s fairy tales. Because, really, without darkness, the light of hope of the hero (which in Grimm’s is an ordinary fellow trying to do the right thing.) looks tepid. However, sometime around episode four the story catches up with the feeling of the Grimm’s fairy tales, and by episode 10 the show is downright macabre.

So, to sum up, the show is a fun twist on fairy tales, while it took a while for it to catch the right spirit, it has turned out to be a great re-look at some of the best, most insightful, most human storytelling of all time. (That would be Grimm itself. Don’t believe me, ask Chesterton 🙂 ) The show also gives a realistic portrayal of the trials of sinful people in its main character, and its major supporting characters.

Book List

I generally eschew genre labels, since they mislead and prejudice the reader’s mind. So here is a list of good books to read in the best order I can think of… as they come to mind.

Lisey’s Story, Stephen King
War in Heaven, Charles Williams
All Hallows Eve, Charles Williams
The Sands of Mars, Arthur C. Clarke
Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke
Youth, Isaac Asimov
Phantasties, George MacDonald
Lilith, George MacDonald
Perelandra, C. S. Lewis
That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis
Out of the Silent Planet, C. S. Lewis
Desperation, Stephen King
The Worthing Saga, Orson Scott Card
Salem’s Lot, Steven King
A Good Man is Hard to Find, Flannery O’Connor
A Sense of Reality, Grahame Greene
In Freedom’s Cause, G. A. Henty
Roverandum, J. R. R. Tolkien
The Smith of Wootton Major, J. R. R. Tolkien
Lord of the Flies, William Golding
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Master of Ballantrae: A Winter’s Tale, Robert Lewis Stevenson
Kidnapped, R. L. Stevenson
The Lady of the Lake, Sir Walter Scott
The Ballad of the White Horse, G. K. Chesterton
The Napoleon of Notting Hill, G. K. Chesterton
The Man Who Was Thursday, G. K. Chesterton
The Flying Inn, G. K. Chesterton
Till We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis
The Red Rover, James Fenimore Cooper
The Pilot, James Fenimore Cooper
The Deerslayer, James Fenimore Cooper
The Winter of Our Discontent, John Steinbeck
If I Forget Thee, O Earth, Arthur C. Clarke
The Green Mile, Stephen King

Of course, this list is not exhaustive at all, I just felt the need for some list making…