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.

read more

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.

read more

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.’

read more