Names and Wonder

My garden has never been the same since the drought of three years ago. The flowers wilted and the rose bushes died and, although we’ve had a flood of rain since, I’ve never got around to replanting them.

One surprising survivor is a cluster of storm lilies that comes up every time there’s a sunshower. A soft blend of translucent cream and lilac, they are—unfortunately—rarely there more than a day. They epitomise to me the wonder of life in all its transience, fragility and beauty.

I have a serious addiction to wonder. It’s probably the reason I’ve never outgrown that child-like asking of, ‘Why?’ Sooner or later, that is the question which leads to a moment of spellbound awe. CS Lewis admitted to the pursuit of joy; for me, it’s wonder.

It was Martin Luther who said, ‘If you truly understood a grain of wheat, you would die of wonder.’

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Threshold Thursday

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about whom I’m writing for. Is it me? Well, of course it is, at least in the first instance. I’m very much of CS Lewis’ philosophy when it comes to writing: I write the sort of things I would have wanted to read or know as a kid or younger adult.

However, there’s an aspect of my writing that is not me. At the end of the day I want to communicate to the widest possible audience. So I make sacrifices to achieve that goal.

Lately, as I’ve struggled to communicate the concept of ‘show, don’t tell’ to many writers who reject the idea, I’ve looked more deeply at the way Scripture writers told their stories. I’ve tried to see how they responded to the taste of their age and the target audience of the day.

So because today is the Thursday before Easter, I’d like to take a specific look at the story of Jesus in front of Annas and Caiaphas as told one of my heroes: a man who used numerical literary technique so exquisitely he raised it to an artform, an author who fused number and word design in ways that bubble with humour. But he also faced a complex problem that I’m glad I don’t: he wrote in Greek to communicate a Hebrew understanding of the world. Writing to Gentiles in their own language, he nonetheless wanted to convey to the Jews of the time the message that Jesus really is the Messiah.

John, the son of Zebedee, was clearly presented with a unique challenge.  How he responded is quite surprising: to me, it’s clear he selected his information so that the story of Jesus’ trial was told with specific reference to doors. 

Yes, doors.

Possibly you’ve never noticed them. So I’m going to point them out. In fact, John was so focussed on doors and words related to them that he occasionally offered us some really awkward constructions. Check out the words in bold: Simon Peter was following Jesus, and so was another disciple. Now that disciple was known to the high priest, and entered with Jesus into the court of the high priest, but Peter was standing at the door outside. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the doorkeeper, and brought Peter in. (John 18:15-16)

It would be so much simpler if we had a name instead of ‘the other disciple, who was known to the high priest’. Many commentators believe the ‘other disciple’ was John himself and this is his rather inelegant attempt at humility. However, I don’t believe that needs to be the case at all. The disciple could have been anyone, male or female, close or distant. In my view, John simply didn’t want to mix his metaphors by mentioning a disciple whose name was not about a doorway.

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Be Thou My Vision


Last Sunday I was in church singing Be Thou My Vision when a couple of lines leapt off the page and grabbed my attention:

Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;

Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

Be Thou my armour, my Sword for the fight;

Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight

The first two lines are from the end of the second verse and the next two from the beginning of the third. I was entranced. How could I have missed this before? It was about the making of a covenant. It was about oneness, about the exchange of armour and weapons, about offering dignity through the swapping of mantles. An eighth century hymn that preserves the notion of covenant we in the twenty-first century have lost entirely—how exciting!

As soon as I got home, I typed these words into Google and… …how very odd! Not a single instance of them were to be found anywhere in the entire world.

There are nearly 2.7 million results on Google for Be Thou My Vision but not one of them with these exact words. For a moment I thought I was seriously losing my memory but then I decided to change the spelling of ‘armour’ to ‘armor’.

Aha! One result. On YouTube. Hmm, the account was closed. It was just baffling. One occurrence in the whole world and it was no longer verifiable. How could there be just one and no more?

I decided to check out the 2.7 million results for Be Thou My Vision to see why this discrepancy existed—no, not all of them. Just a few. I quickly realised that, in a significant number of cases, ‘armour’ had been changed to ‘breastplate’, ‘dignity’ had been changed to ‘armour’ and ‘delight’ had been changed to ‘might’.

Van Morrison, Rebecca St James and Máire Brennan all have recorded the second version. At this rate, it won’t be long before this is the most common wording.

Does it matter? I think it does. To change the symbols of covenant to symbols of battle results in a profound loss. Instead of being about unity and defence, it’s about force and attack.

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One Central Spot of Red

Recently, while I was interviewing Andrew Lansdown, he commented he was living proof anyone can learn to write. He claimed that no one could have started out worse than he did. His story drafts were terrible. I laughed and told him I was sure I could still give him a good run for his money.

But, as I’ve reflected on his words, I’ve wondered: can anyone learn to write? Andrew is a poet and as a result I think there’s probably an aspect or two he’s automatically assumed about writing that isn’t necessarily true for everyone.

Most aspiring writers (and sometimes even published ones) seem to believe one of two things:

(1)   that great technique—and this includes spelling, grammar, sentence flow, engaging prose, a narrative hook, all the principles of perspective and ‘show, don’t tell’—makes a wonderful book.

(2)   that technique is a non–essential—the ideas, the message, the information imparted, the events of the plot (which are subtly different, by the way, to the plot itself) are all–important.

As I receive manuscripts to appraise, I am often struck by the fact that one very critical element is missing in an otherwise excellent text. This ingredient is sometimes missing from my manuscripts, too!  George Macdonald said it best: ‘As stories they want the one central spot of red—the wonderful thing which, whether in a…story or a word or a human being—is the life and depth—whether of truth or humour or pathos…that shows the unshowable.’ 

What stories do you remember? And what makes them memorable?  As I asked myself this, I thought of the images, scenes and words from various books that have stayed with me over a lifetime:

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Discovered or Imagined?

a real book

It’s been a while since my last post. Partly that’s because the comments in Discovered or Invented? were so thought–provoking, I had to pause to reflect for a time on a question I’d never really considered before.  Are stories discovered or imagined?

There are aspects to this question I’ve pondered before but I’ve never really looked at it in just that phrasing. And I’m not sure, after considerable thought, that there’s a simple answer to it.

To invent [that is, to make a poem] is to come into a knowledge of the unknown thing through the agency of one’s own reason.’ This statement by the medieval grammarian, John of Garland, is cited as an idiosyncratic view by Robert Edwards in Ratio and Invention but, if John is eccentric, then he’s in very good company.

George MacDonald—the great nineteenth century fantasist who influenced CS Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, WH Auden, JRR Tolkien and EE Nesbit, not to mention yours truly—said: ‘A man may well himself discover truth in what he wrote; for he was dealing all the time with things that came from thoughts beyond his own.’

In his notes to his children’s fantasy, The Moon of Gomrath, Alan Garner wrote: ‘The more I learn, the more I am convinced that there are no original stories. On several occasions I have ‘invented’ an incident, and then come across it in an obscure fragment of Hebridean lore, orally collected, and privately printed, a hundred years ago.’

I’ve often encountered a similar phenomenon in my own stories: scenes that I thought I’d invented out of my imagination turn out to be classic moments from certain northern myths or folktales. Names that I’d made up and then looked for through 27 books without result have subsequently popped up in the age of Google as real names with precisely the meaning I assigned to them.  My spelling is often atrocious, as if I’d never seen the name but heard it sounded out in Old Gaelic or Norse and spelt it phonetically. I don’t even find this spooky any longer. Because I’ve noticed that lots of other writers do it as well. They just don’t know they do.

So is the creative process really one of discovery, rather than an exercise of imagination? Are writers explorers, rather than fabricators? I think a lot of us are, particularly in the field of fiction and more especially within the genre of fantasy. There’s a lot of talk in fantasy (and speculative fiction generally) about world–building, but sometimes I wonder: is it truly about creating or about charting an already–existing geography?

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In The Silmarillion by JRR Tolkien, a tragic episode in the history of Middle Earth is mentioned. A group of elves, forced into exile and betrayed by their kin, find that their only option for survival is to cross the Helcaraxë—the Grinding Ice. This broken, shifting ice-pack shrouded in clinging mists which were impenetrable to starlight formed the perilous bridge between two land-masses.

From the moment I read this scene, the idea fixed itself in my mind that this part of the story was not really fiction—that once upon a time, this really had happened and that this episode came more from deep ancestral memory than the wilder corners of Tolkien’s imagination.

But then—who were those elves? Where was the Grinding Ice? When had it taken place?

From time to time, I get these little pokes at the back of my brain when I’m reading. A tiny whisper that says to me: real, not fiction. I used to dismiss these thoughts. I would ignore the recurring idea that the enchanted winter of CS Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe really did take place, that the bridge of birds in Chinese folklore was the same as the necklace Brisingamen from Norse mythology and that they were both a stairway of ‘stars’ that circled the Earth as ice-rings now surround Saturn.

Because I have an interest in names and have long noted a connection between a writer’s name and characters (sure there’s Lewis, from the Welsh for lion, but there’s also George Lucas and Luke Skywalker; Tolkien and Tóki, a name which seems to be cognate with Earendel, Tolkien’s self-admitted source of inspiration; Catherine Fisher’s fisher-king in Corbenic; and most incredibly of all, Toni Morrison’s repeated use of names unique to the Morrisons of the Hebrides when she is Afro-American and Morrison is her ex-husband’s name), I tend to collect obscure fragments of knowledge to do with names and myths.

After a while, the accumulated weight of evidence all pointing in the same direction within fiction—and fantasy in particular—the names used in them for both characters and places, the storylines, the peculiar similarity of so many independent fantasies was overwhelming. And all indicated the mid-sixth century. During my investigations, I was extraordinarily fortunate: I made two errors that balanced each other out.  However, I’d also asked so many questions of friends, acquaintances and relatives for so many years that by the time I worked out an exact date, they knew to ring me straight away when Catastrophe was aired. It was a television programme and, as my sister said when she rang me about it, it quoted just about every piece of literature I’d been asking questions about over the previous decade. Incredibly, it mentioned the exact date I’d calculated from evidence within certain fantasies.

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I was up early again this morning to check out another astronomical wonder: a total lunar eclipse.

Apart from the faint blood hue towards sunrise, a casual observer wouldn’t have noticed too much difference from an ordinary moon. Except for the first fifteen minutes, that is, when it really did look as if a huge bite had been taken out of it. No wonder the Vikings of old believed a ravening wolf was chasing the moon.

They called the moon, Mani, and considered it to be one of those giants I’ve looked at in earlier posts in this series. One of the stories about Mani tells how he captured a pair of children, Hjúki and Bil, who had gone to a well to fetch some water. They carried a bucket on a pole laid across their shoulders. This tale of Hjúki and Bil is sometimes said to be the origin of our nursery rhyme, Jack and Jill.

The Dictionary of Non-Classical Mythology says nineteenth century mythographers considered Jack and Jill were two asteroids captured by the moon. Imagine—a world in which the moon was circled by two moons of its own! And then somehow, in some ancient cataclysm, they were drawn into earth’s gravitational well and spun out of control to a watery splashdown in one of earth’s oceans. Through most of the twentieth century, this scenario was regarded as verging on impossible within historical times—but in the twenty-first, it’s coming into favour again.

Jill Pole is, of course, one of the major characters in The Silver Chair. She arrives in a watery splashdown, dropping into Narnia after an astronomical fall. Perhaps I should retract my assertion The Silver Chair is about giants, Jupiter and Thursday, rather than—as Michael Ward suggests in Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of CS Lewis—the moon.

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Giants in the Earth

I was up early last Tuesday morning, taking a last lingering look at the line-up of planets in the pre-dawn sky. Although it wasn’t a conjunction in any real sense any longer, it was—in many ways—the most spectacular sight of the last month. Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter were visible; a new moon was momentarily caught in the branches of my neighbour’s tree; twice I saw the incandescent streak of a meteor and, to cap it off, although the cloud veil seemed too thin for a storm, lightning flashed across the sky several times.

It was a bit of a worry, really. If I up and move to another country shortly, it won’t come as a complete surprise. Seven years ago I looked out my kitchen window at a new moon around this same time of year and—as a direct consequence—wound up living in New Zealand. I worked at the high school in a tiny town nestled against the Blue Mountains of West Otago: Tapanui, the edge of the rainbow.

On my first major trip around the South Island, I headed down to Gore, round to Queenstown and Arrowtown, where I visited several movie locations from The Lord of the Rings, before returning through Central Otago.

Michael Ward talks about donegality in Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of CS Lewis. By it, he means a defining but ordinary quality. As I drove through Central Otago with its strange rock formations, bleak uplands, steep stony chasms and snowgrass, I didn’t know the word ‘donegality’. But I did have the strongest sense that, if any place on earth really encapsulated Ettinsmoor from The Silver Chair, this was it.

It felt like giant country.

As I drove into Ettrick, the very name of the town seemed to confirm that sense of ettins nearby. When I investigated the local legends shortly afterwards, I wasn’t surprised to find the Māori equivalent of the ettin: Kopuwai, a brutish giant able to step from one mountain to another but now petrified as a pillar of rock on top of the Obelisk Range. 

Just before I left for New Zealand, my first fantasy was published by Evergreen Books. And do mean ‘just before’: the publisher received the shipment of Merlin’s Wood the day before I left. Merlin’s Wood contains some barely-disguised ettins: I was sitting at my computer dithering about to call the alien creatures I’d just ‘invented’ when my eye lighted on The Silver Chair. Thus the giant green giraffe-like horses in Merlin’s Wood became the ettii.

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The Deeps of Time

One day I’m going to sneak four words past my editors. I’m not sure how I’m going to manage it because so far they’ve caught me out every time. They delete the four words and almost invariably add a comment: ‘What on earth does this mean?’

I figure that, if they have to ask, then I haven’t managed to convey the sense at all. Yet as far as I’m concerned the four words make one of the most striking phrases in all literature. Dulcet and fragrant, honeyed, caressing and achingly beautiful: they appeal to all the senses. If only I could convince my editors they form an unassailably glorious combination… But no, foiled again!

The words aren’t mine. They’re a quote from the opening chapter of JRR Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. Perhaps I’m influenced by a halo effect; that chapter is utterly exquisite in describing angelic immortals who are given power by the Creator to body forth the cosmos and give shape to history through their singing. A dark theme distorts and deforms their symphony when one of the immortals uses it to weave corruption into the fabric of the universe. But the Creator takes even this damage and reshapes it to even greater magnificence than before. The chapter ends with mankind being established in ‘the Deeps of Time and amidst the innumerable stars.’

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Dance of the Planets

I woke up very early last Thursday morning and padded out to the kitchen for a drink of water. As I stood at the sink and looked out the window, I had to blink in disbelief. Three bright stars were clearly visible in a tiny triangle. What’s more, as I looked closely, I realised they weren’t twinkling. They were planets.

Thrilled, I looked even more closely: yes, there was Venus and Mars, and… was it Jupiter? And was there a very faint fourth planet? Mercury or Saturn?

I hadn’t been aware there was a conjunction of planets coming up, so to see them so unexpectedly was a marvellous and utterly serendipitous treat. I was reminded of the Chronicles of Narnia.  In Prince Caspian, Dr Cornelius takes Caspian up a tower to view the salutation of the stars Tarva and Alambil as they greet each other in the Great Dance.

Inevitably, my thoughts turned to Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of CS Lewis, a wonderfully compelling investigation into the hidden code that author Michael Ward believes he has discovered in CS Lewis’ most famous work. Ward contends that each of the seven stories in the Chronicles of Narnia focuses on one of the seven planets of the medieval cosmos. His thesis is that behind the eclectic, almost chaotic mix of folklore, myth and legend, there is a grand orderly dance—an extraordinary synthesis of astronomy and literary allusion.

Ward makes a persuasive case. During the twenty years I coordinated Camp Narnia, there were several times when the team raised suspicions there was a hidden secret embedded in the stories. I remember a lengthy discussion after our herald, Karen, made the point there was a curious mistake in Caspian’s flag in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. We all agreed that Lewis was too astute a scholar to have made the error of placing heraldic ‘metal’ on ‘metal’: a golden sun on a white background. It was obviously a clue—but it was beyond our ability to decode it.

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David H. Webb

Anomalos Publishing House

This is a ‘boy-book’.

David Webb makes no apology for it, merely pointing out in the preface the enormous influence of Jane Austen’s Emma on his choice of subject matter. As a teenager in his last year at an all-boys school he had been compelled to make a study of a spoilt heiress who spends four hundred and sixty pages trying—unsuccessfully—to marry off a young friend. Fortunately, no lasting trauma seems to have been resulted.

However, there are moments when I wondered what the book might have been like, had things been otherwise.

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Julia Caroline Gollasch
VMI Publishers

Unlike many people I know, I consider allegory and fantasy to be different—cousins but not twins. I love a good fantasy but I cordially dislike allegory. So, consider this fair warning!

I don’t understand why some people like The Pilgrim’s Progress so passionately. It’s too serious, too plainly didactic. It’s like an undressed parable. It’s been stripped of the cloak of mystery that a parable wraps around itself, it’s been shorn of subtlety and generally misses both humour and irony. Perhaps that’s an unfair assessment. But that’s the way it comes across to me.

Fantasy can also be very earnest in tone but in general, it has the shifting light and shadow of a fairytale. The kindly woman by the wayside may turn out to be a witch or a warrior. In allegory, such uncertainty is rare. One thing you can be sure of: both Faithful and Giant Despair will live up to their names.

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