The Little Girl and the Tree

“Good children’s literature appeals not only to the child in the adult, but to the adult in the child”

When I was in kindergarten, my teacher, Mrs. Glaes, loved to read stories aloud to my class.  It was my favorite part of kindergarten, almost as much fun as learning the magic letters that would unlock the world of reading for me.  On day, Mrs. Glaes read us the best book, a wonderful story that managed to impact my entire childhood, and even my adulthood.  Like many of the best children’s books, it was one of those that a child absorbs, which then becomes a part of who they are and who they become.  The story was none other than Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.

Shel SilversteinI loved that story.  Most of all, I loved that tree!  Like the little boy in the book, I was a child who delighted in playing outdoors, particularly when there were fantabulous trees to explore and climb.  On the farm that my parents had, there were ample trees for me to play among.  There was the fruit orchard, where I could pick cherries, pears, peaches, plums, and apples.  There were the small crabapple trees in the side yard, where I could find birds’ nests, and once, even a little orphaned baby bird (sadly, I showed it to my dear friend the cat, who expressed her interest in a manner that I found very upsetting and improper).  Then there was the marvelous big tree in the front yard, where I was certain I could climb all the way to where the giants lived, way up in the sky, just like Jack did.  But it was not until I was seven years old that I found my very own Giving Tree.  They’re quite rare, you know.

tree divider

When I was seven, we moved away from the farm, and away from all that I knew and loved in my early childhood.  Gone was the endless cornfield, which I knew stretched all the way to Africa.  It was a magic cornfield:  it could be anything at all!  Sometimes, it was a vast ocean, and there were horrible angry sharks and a big hungry giant squid who wanted to eat me.  Other times, it was the maze to the witch’s castle, where all the little children from fairyland had been captured.  Only I could rescue them!  And sometimes, the cornfield was an enchanted forest, where pixies and gnomes and flying unicorns loved to hide.  Across the cornfield was my best friend Laura’s house.  When we left the farm behind, we had to leave her, too.  I got to see her once every few years or so, but it was never the same.

tree branch divider

The new house was bigger than the old one, and I had a nicer bedroom.  But the school was much bigger, too, and no one seemed terribly eager to make a new playmate right away.  In fact, most of the kids thought I looked like the perfect victim for their bullying.  For a few rough weeks, all the magic and wonder went away.  I was a little lost soul, the weird kid that nobody wanted to talk to at the bus stop, or sit beside on the bus, or play with on the playground.  I cried myself to sleep a lot of nights.  Sometimes, I pretended to be sick just so I could visit the kindly school nurse.  I wished more than anything that I could have a best friend.

tree divider

One day, after getting home from school, I found Her.  She was sitting at the edge of the front yard, a beautiful evergreen in a wonderful sea of magic ivy (sometimes it was a sea, sometimes a cloud, occasionally a treacherous minefield), and she wanted to be my friend.  She was my very own Giving Tree.  I never gave her a name, but for five years, until we moved again, she was one of my best friends.  In fact, she was the only best friend who never decided she wanted to play with somebody else, or told my secrets, or thought my games were too crazy.  She never got angry with me.  She loved all of my ideas.

tree branch divider

Sometimes, my Giving Tree was my mother, counseling me about how to be brave around the bullies, or telling me that I wasn’t really too weird, or helping me dress for the Grand Ball.  Sometimes, when I was fighting in the Civil War, leading my secretly-all-female company of soldiers, she would be the general.  When I wanted to be a rare species of mountain cat, she was my home, and she carefully protected all of my cubs.  When I turned into a bird, she had perfect places for me to nest.  If I felt like heading an expedition to the North Pole, she was a terrific mountain, and she always kept me safe from polar bears and abominable snowmen, although she did have an avalanche once.  If I decided instead to become a chef, she provided me with all the ingredients I needed (my most famous specialty was “French Baked Bark”).  And any time that I was Maid Marion or Wendy, Robin Hood and Peter Pan had a deliciously dangerous place to rescue me from (a burning tower, a dungeon, a haunted castle, Captain Hook’s ship . . . ).  She even agreed to turn into an Arabian fortress for me when I was exhausted from fleeing across the desert on my camel (most people thought it was a bicycle, but they were quite mistaken).

tree divider

I’ve never forgotten my special Giving Tree.  She helped a frightened little girl express herself.  She took the place of the playmates that I had to say goodbye forever to.  When I finally made new friends, she welcomed them, too.  With two busy working parents, she listened to a lot of eager chatter about my day at school and absorbed thousands of tears when I just didn’t have the words I needed.  She was just like the tree in the book, guiding me through my childhood and steering me toward growing up.  And from the book, which I read over and over again as soon as I could read it for myself, I learned what it meant to be generous and loving.  I learned about gratitude from that book, too.  It shaped my character in ways that I may never fully realize.  Even today, that book and my tree are still a part of me.

tree branch

“And the tree was happy.”

Demons, Monsters, and Ghosts, Oh No! Part XIII: Man or Beast

The legendary werewolf...although a little more were and a little less wolf than was mythologically proper.

Well, I’ve said a lot about vampires – at least for a blog, I mean people write whole books on the subject – so I think it’s time to move on.  Standing beside the vampire on the pinnacle of the modern monster popularity chain is the werewolf.  These two creatures are often connected in modern folklore, either as hated enemies or master and servant.  Some modern works have attempted to unify the two positions (I’m looking at you Underworld), but in my opinion the result is questionable at best.  However, what the modern stage has generally missed is that you can’t just talk about werewolves.  While the werewolf comes down to us from medieval European folklore, it is a part of a much broader (and older) family of werecreatures that populate ancient myth.

While shapeshifters are incredibly common in mythology both ancient and modern, they compose an incredibly broad category that includes certain fae, monsters like the doppleganger or changling, magicians, gods, demons, werecreatures, and other assorted physically malleable beings.  Werecreatures – herein defined as beings that can take two forms, one human and one animal – are a distinct sub-category of shapeshifter that exist worldwide.  In Europe we have the eponymous werewolf (or lycanthrope*), however we also see legends of men who could transform themselves into bears coming out of Scandinavia (and Canada).  In Africa we see the Bouda, a kind of werehyena.  In North America we see some mythology that has Thunderbirds turning into humans, along with the Bear-men of Canada, and a Coyote or Fox man out of Mexico.  As we move further south in the Americas we find the Lobisomem, a dolphin that could turn into a small boy, from Brazil.  The Chonchon from Chili, which is a woman that can turn into a vulture, and the more general Kanima, or Jaguar-men (also known as Runa-uturungu).  Asia also has its share of werecreatures such as the Aswang, a Philippino creature that can take a canine or human form (interestingly, this name can also refer to the Manananggal, a Phillipino vampire).  The Kitsune and Tanuki from Japan, Fox-women and Badger-men respectively (it is interesting to note that fox-men are very common throughout Asia), and the Lang Ren, or wolf-human, from China.  I am going to include the Selkie in this group as well because, though they are technically Fae (at least to my understanding) they are also bound to human and seal forms.

An Aswang that is not a Manananggal...oh how terms change.

When we look at the mythology of these creatures we can identify two specific types of werecreature.  1) Humans that turn into animals (usually either through intentional magic or because of a curse) such as the werewolf, the berserker (Norse bear-men), and the Chonchon, and 2) animals that learn to (or naturally can) take on human shape such as the kitsune, tanuki, lobisomem, or selkie.  These distinctions generally affect the disposition and intentions of the creatures in the mythology.  Animals that learn to take on human shape are generally curious, helpful, and desire human company, while humans that take on animal shape are generally dangerous, destructive, and evil.  It is also fairly common for humans to be cursed when they take on animal shape, werewolves being the most obvious and common example of this.

It is also interesting to note that humans that take on animal shape are always given dangerous, predatory forms usually of the, or one of the, apex predator/s in the region.  Bears are common in Scandinavia and so we have berserker** as well as ulfhoebar or eigi einhamir (Scandinavian wolf-men).  However, in the majority of southern Europe bears are less common and wolves are the apex predator, so we have the French loup garou, the Russian wawkalak, the Greek zyrkoklas, and so on.  In Central and South America coyote and jaguar are much more common and so we wind up with werecreatures that emulate them.

The animals turned humans, on the other hand, are generally much less dangerous animals and often not predatory.  The fox, while a predator, is not an apex predator, nor are badgers, seals, or dolphins.  All of these generally feed on insects or small animals and are not generally dangerous to humans, unless you run a chicken farm or fish hatchery.

Tanuki hunting giant carp...what else would badger-men do?

I am forced to wonder if this dynamic has something to do with an innate fear of being removed as the apex predator.  Animals that are not a threat are welcomed among us, in real life as pets and in mythology as magical friends.  However, those animals that compete with us as the apex predator in a region are driven out (see the extermination of predatory species in early American history, we are still trying to reintegrate wolf packs into lands where they were once common) in real life, and they become the punishments, curses, and monsters of our folklore.

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*Interestingly enough Lycanthropy is a psychological disorder that, I believe, has been included in the DSM since its inception (although I could not confirm it as I don’t have a copy of the DSM I handy).  It is a disorder in which the diseased believes himself to be an animal or to be possessed of animalistic qualities (e.g. the need to hunt, kill, and eat raw meat, etc).

**Berserker is more commonly known as the ‘elite’ fighting force of the Vikings.  They were real, and it is commonly believed that they went into battle naked, covered in warpaint, and whipped into a psychological state of rage that bordered on, or crossed over into, insanity.  However, the name is in direct reference to the belief that they turned themselves into bears when they went into battle.  Ulfhoebar were similar to Berserker, but they were believed to turn themselves into wolves.  On the other hand, the mythology surrounding the Eigi einhamir is completely separate from the Berserker.

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Among the Neshelim  is now available in eBook on Smashwords and Kindle and in print from Amazon.com, I’ll have a link for the print copy coming soon.  I am curious what people think of the blub.  Does it draw you in? Make you want to read the book?  If not, why not?

Among the Neshelim

Tobias Mastgrave

Understanding. One little word, and yet it means so much. We spend our lives pursuing it in one form or another. We long for it, we seek it, but it is always a rare commodity.

Chin Cao Yu, priest and scholar, has sacrificed all he held dear in its pursuit. Now he undertakes the journey of a lifetime, a journey among the mysterious Neshilim, a people of power unlike any he has seen before. This journey will turn the world he thought he knew upside down and challenge everything his dearly held beliefs. Has he found the ultimate truth or the ultimate lie? And what will he do with it when he learns?

Harry Potter and… “oh, what part do you like best”

Last week I reminisced about when Harry Potter first became the popular young adult read and about those who opposed it.  While the books did create a descent dialog about morals and what we should read or shouldn’t read, such conversations are weighty and often miss a vital part of why people even read Harry Potter – the books are fun!  They are well written with interesting characters and a very well constructed and believable world.

I love getting into conversations with HP enthusiasts (particularly those who have actually read the books).  Inevitably we get into the debate about which book we like best, which character we like best and which villain we like best – you get the idea.  This is the best part of literary criticism, not where the faults and failures are revealed but where the greatest and most genius parts of the story are relished and loved.

The first book will always have a place in my heart because, well it is where it all started, but the Prisoner of Azkaban is by far my favorite. I love the way time is manipulated; I love Professor Lupin and all the marvelous things he teaches the students; I love Buckbeak and I love the semi-happy way in which the story ends.  Harry for once in his life has a family that actually wants him and cares about him.  Granted he cannot actually be with his godfather, but Sirius Black’s very existence is a cheerful hope for a brighter future.  I think out of all the books, including the Epilogue, the Prisoner of Azkaban has the most hopeful of endings.  I know that the threat of Voldemort is even greater but for once Harry’s personal live is not raked with pain and loss.  In Prisoner of Azkaban Harry doesn’t lose as much as he gains.

My favorite character changes with my mood but there are several whose past intrigue me and several whose personalities are rather catching.  Lupin is fascinating.  He is humble, smart, but at times too timid which is interesting since he’s the werewolf. I would have loved to have known more about Sirius’s brother.  He did so much for the cause of defeating Voldemort and yet Rowling tells us so little about him.  Every one talks about Snape being a favorite and though I like him in an emo sort of way, I cannot say that I would classify hims as an absolute favorite.  I actually really enjoyed book four because of the introduction of the international schools.  I really liked Krum and would have liked to see more of him in the books.  Fred and George are perhaps my favorite characters.  I know that in real life I was not particularly fond of the guys like them, but in HP they are amazing.  When they make the swamp and Pro. Flitwit cannot bring himself to clean up all of it, well that scene was the most brilliant episode in the books.  And though in the books I never liked the Malfoys, I love Jason Isaacs’s portrayal of Lucius Malfoy.

There I think I covered the basics of most of my HP conversations. But since they are so much fun please let me know what your favorite characters are and which parts of the books (or movies) you like best.

The Cesspool of “Christian” Fiction: The Christian as Author Part I

A metaphoical view of the average “Christian fiction” section of your local bookstore.

Today I would like to start a series dealing with a very intense topic for writers who are also Christians in today’s world:  How do we define ourselves, and, in the end, does it really matter?  Most attempts to answer this question begin by setting up what I believe is a false dilemma.  On the one hand we have the idea of the “Christian author” and on the other that of the “author who just happens to be a Christian.”

Unfortunately, neither of those definitions really satisfies or is philosophically consistent, at least as currently understood.  Therefore, I would submit that we need to look at something new–or, more properly, a rediscovery of something old that has been forgotten.*

First, we shall deal with the modern conception of the “Christian author” who writes “Christian fiction.”  I for one use those terms only when I am forced to do so.** In modern parlance, a “Christian author” is very narrowly defined as “that which springeth forth from the shelves of Christian bookstores, whence only Christians go, and therefore only Christians read.”  Further, their product, “Christian fiction,” is considered to be–often justly–a stereotypical mismash of cliched themes, forced/unnatural discussions of religion, church-type anachronisms, and predictably unrealistic endings. I find this definition somewhat justified, in the sense that there is A LOT of this type of garbage out there and those that peddle it are LOUDLY “Christian.”  It is therefore understandable how people walk away thinking that this is the totality of what Christians write.

My problem with the label is that it is also plainly inaccurate and wrong on a deeper and broader level.  These sorts of novels aren’t garbage because they contain Christian themes or because they are written by Christians.  They’re nonsense because they’re so poorly written in general.  The Christianity involved is frankly incidental.  If that same author were to write another book on another topic, it would be just as bad.  Often, just like “Christian” music, their works are whatever the rest of the world did five years ago with a Bible verse slapped on it or an altar call crammed into it.  As intelligent, thinking Christians (whether authors, musicians, or otherwise) we do and are done a disservice when we applaud “Christian” authors who write trash and think the standard sufficiently raised over the “world.”

Unfortunately, this also says something very sad about a church culture where the standard for real literacy and good taste has fallen so low.  I understand very well that not everyone will be able to understand and appreciate the depths of the “Greats” of Christian literature nor do I think that being able to do so makes one person “more Christian” than another.  Some people are given equally valuable gifts that take them in other directions.  I do have, however, a problem with a “Christian” subculture that is geared to promote and reward the creation of substandard drivel in the place of something deep and real.  I am positively angry (righteously so, I pray) at a subculture that discriminates against good literature by ingraining a shallow, anti-intellectual bias.

It hasn’t always been (and doesn’t have) to be this way.  For hundreds of years, thousands of Christian authors have produced landmark works of art to which, frankly, most modern authors can’t hold a candle.  Tolkien, Lewis, Augustine, Dante, Sayers, MacDonald and many, many others all stand as testament to this fact.

Next week:  The author who just happens to maybe also be a Christian, part-time, on alternate Wednesdays, but don’t hold that against me, please…. https://lanternhollow.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/newrule5.gif?w=600 *Is knowing and understanding such things important?  Without doubt it is.  “For as [a person] thinks within himself, so he is.” (Proverbs 23:7)  As humans we have a tendency to become what we conceive ourselves to be.  C. S. Lewis remarked on this when he said of Uncle Andrew that, “the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed.”  So, however you define your role as an author will be what you tend toward.  To do otherwise means you’re becoming a hypocrite–saying one thing and doing another.

**The fact is that people think in this terminology and if you want your post to appear in search engines, you have to use certain terms.  Hence, I included “Christian Fiction” in the title of my previous post not because I write “Christian fiction” in the skewed sense which I identify here, but rather because I’m most likely to pick up hits from Christians who read by using it. https://lanternhollow.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/newrule5.gif?w=600

Science Fiction Problems: Video Games (Summation 1) Part V

This is the fifth (and final) part of a series. For the other parts, click the following links:

Part I: Video Games as a Part of Culture

Part II: A Brief History of Virtual Reality and its Role in Science Fiction

Part III: Psychological Conditioning in Gaming

Part IV: Mobile Computing and Video Games in Science Fiction

After several weeks in this series I think its time to move on, but first I want to summarize what we’ve talked about here and give you some questions to ask yourself when trying to wrestle with these ideas in your stories. So, let’s start with the ideas we talked about in Part I and II.

Video Games in Your World

Kind of funny that two of my favorite books have "game" in the title

Bearing the legal questions of selling mature-rated video games to minors in the California law discussed in Part I, the legal and social place of video games in your own story world should be considered and thought through if you intend to include them. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help you figure out where video games fit into your world in general:

  • Are video games generally considered closer to art or merely a distraction? Depending on how they are viewed by the culture, they could develop into a primary form of expression, or recede into meaningless entertainment. If it isn’t important to your culture, it doesn’t have to figure into your story, so this is a good way of factoring out video games if you don’t want to deal with them.
  • To what degree are video games regulated in your world? How much is content restricted, and in what ways? Are violent, sexualized games widespread and accepted, or are they restricted and minimized? What does the culture that accepts this look like? Is development of video games restricted or open? Can just anyone make games, about anything they want, or does the government regulate developers?

The Place of Virtual Reality in Culture:

A great book, and apparently a movie releasing next year- here's hoping they don't ruin it.

As we discussed in Part II, virtual reality has (apparently) been a part of science fiction since nearly the very beginning. It’s become such a staple of modern sci fi that it would feel strange to not have it at least addressed in your science fiction story, especially if its particularly futuristic. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help figure out how this idea fits in your story:

  • What uses would your culture have for virtual reality? This goes beyond whether or not it exists in your world, going to the simple matter of whether or not it would be used. Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games is a good example of this- while the technology almost certainly exists in her world, It isn’t likely to be very useful to her characters. Most are simply surviving, others get their daily entertainment out of watching children fight to the death in an American-Idol-gone-wrong game show. In this example, virtual reality is simply unimportant to the story, and so Collins doesn’t even have to address it. If you find that your culture really would have uses for virtual reality, how widely is it used? Does it have professional applications, or is it just entertainment?
  • Is it a world or merely an interface? Is virtual reality just a cool way that your characters play video games, or is it a world in itself? We talked about cyberspace and how it developed, but having virtual reality in your world doesn’t necessarily mean that your characters have their own version of The Matrix. Not all stories need or can afford to take on the idea of a virtual world. Careful! Unless you plan to have your version of cyberspace is a primary part of your story, it can be very difficult to balance it and make both worlds feel necessary. If you decide it is, you’ll need to answer the same questions you will for the real world.
  • What does Cyberspace look like?:  If you choose to include it, cyberspace must have its proper place. New forms of crime, new forms of businesses, forms of entertainment, all come with a virtual world. You will need to define the rules and the possibilities of this world. Who has access to it, who controls it, and how do all of these issues affect the real world? I’ll likely make a post about this to help put together a virtual world, but if you give it some thought, you can apply any of recommendations for world-building we’ve given in previous posts.
Next week we’ll finish this off with the rest of the questions! Until then, did I miss anything? How have you used these ideas used in sci-fi, or seen them used?