CXXXIX

Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

In my lifelong quest to revive interest in form, I consider this experiment a great achievement because every audience for which I have read it has loved it.  In each stanza, the last line must be the same as the first line, though often with a new twist of meaning due to context.  Then, to repeat the pattern of the microcosmic stanzas on the macrocosmic level of the poem as a whole, the last stanza must be the same as the first stanza—but not seem merely redundant.  The result might be the most satisfying sense of closure I’ve ever achieved.

 

THE BALLADEER

 

The king unto his troubadour

Said, “Come, a ditty while we sup:

Some sample of your ancient lore

To lift the weary spirits up.

Some tale of hero true and brave

Who faced the dragon’s fire alone

A damsel or a town to save

And got for his reward a throne.

A lay of beauty and of dread,

Of starlit sky and distant shore,

A ballad of enchantment,” said

The king unto his troubadour.

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The minstrel took his lyre up,

His fingers poised upon the strings;

And motionless stood knife and cup

To watch the melody take wings.

So silence reigned throughout the hall,

And then the troubadour began

With notes like drops of rain that fall

Upon a parched and burning land.

First soft, then like a torrent down

It flowed, and swept them away,

Beyond the walls, beyond the town

Beneath the waning light of day.

They heard the western sky turn red,

Then fade away to black.  They heard

The stars glint silver overhead

Until the morning breezes stirred

A land where they had never been.

A lull came, and they drained the cup.

‘Twas e’re such like enchantment when

The minstrel took his lyre up.

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He stood; the words began to flow.

With them the sun rose bright and clear,

And then the knights beheld the foe–

And hand was clenched on hilt for fear.

They saw the green and glittering scales;

They heard the rumbling of his blaze;

They felt their hearts begin to quail

Beneath the venom in his gaze.

They felt the dragon’s baleful breath,

Surveyed the worm’s appalling length,

And knew why men could long for death

Rather than assay his strength.

They saw the ruined countryside,

They saw smoke rising in the sky,

They saw the serpent’s ramping stride,

And then the worm began to fly.

Then darkness came upon them all;

They flung them down to wait for woe,

Save one bold warrior, strong and tall,

Who stood; his words began to flow.

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“Come Death, Destruction, Flame, and Fire,

Come Malice, Madness, evil Spell,

Come Darkness, Doom, or Dragon’s Ire,

I still defy thee, Fiend of Hell!”

He took the flame upon his shield;

It melted fast onto his hand.

The sword his other arm did wield

Became a beaming fire-brand.

What no mere mortal blade could do,

Heat from the worm’s own evil heart

With one sword wielded fierce and true

Did: tore the gleaming scales apart.

The blood spurt scalding from his side;

The dragon roared and rose in pain;

A hundred tons of ravaged pride

Fell in a ruinating rain

Upon one still undaunted knight

Who scorned to raise his useless shield,

But lifted up with all his might

The sword, and thus his fate was sealed.

Down came the worm, the knight went down,

But drove his point into its heart.

Then came a blast and dinning sound

To split the very sky apart.

A searing blaze leapt in the air;

The worm was his own funeral pyre.

But also on that warrior fair

Came death, destruction, flame, and fire.

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The tear flowed freely down the cheek

Of comrades in that bitter glade;

They cursed their hearts, too slow, too weak

To stand and give their brother aid.

But then the flames began to part,

And, striding forth, the hero came:

For those who pierce the dragon’s heart

Become impervious to flame!

Then down as one upon the knee

They fell, and took him as their king.

He swore them there to fealty

Upon his sword, still glistening.

So courage rose within each heart,

And with their oaths they gave it breath:

Ne’er more from duty to depart

Come fire, flame, destruction, death.

“They kept those vows in many deeds,

But those come in another tale;

And now, my brothers, we must needs

Drink our lord’s health in frothy ale.”

Thus ended the good balladeer,

And none could find a word to speak:

The last note faded in the ear;

The tear flowed freely down the cheek.

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It seemed no time had passed at all;

It seemed eternity had run.

But as they left the banquet hall,

They saw the last light of the sun.

The night passed o’er them peacefully,

The day saw many a noble deed.

They gathered once more, gracefully,

For meat and drink and golden mead.

The king received them royally

And greeted warmly one and all.

Since last they’d bowed the grateful knee,

It seemed no time had passed at all.

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The king then to his troubadour

Said, “Come, a ditty while we sup:

Some sample of your ancient lore

To lift the weary spirits up.

Some tale of hero true and brave

Who faced the dragon’s fire alone

A damsel or a town to save,

And got for his reward a throne.

A lay of beauty and of dread,

Of starlit sky and distant shore,

A ballad of enchantment,” said

The king unto his troubadour.

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

Donald T. Williams, PhD

9/11, Fantasy, and How We Deal With Evil

My theme this month is Instant Plot ideas, but I thought I’d deviate this week.  My post this week falls on September 11th, and I was thinking about how we struggle to cope with evil in this world.    What I believe shocks people most about the event that happened back in 2001 is the sheer villainy required for anyone to voluntarily cause the deaths of so many people.  We have our Hitlers and our Stalins of history, but it’s easy to put those in the past.  They are part of history.  This is still part of our present.

graveyardWhile not everyone ascribes to a set of beliefs in which there is a dichotomy of good and evil, instinctively, most of us still see it in the world.  We can’t help it.  It’s not enough to explain something away by pointing to psychological damage or confusion or perspective differences.  We continually confront evil in the world, even if some of us don’t want to call it that.

This connects, in my mind, to why so many of us write stories, particularly fantasy stories,  and why we are drawn to read them. Within many of those fantasy novels is the great struggle between evil, in some form, and heroism, flawed but irrepressible, and we do not tire of seeing our heroes win.  We read those stories and in some ways, they help us come to terms with what we see happening around us.

A mistake many people make, however, is to view these forays into fantasy as mere “escapism”, as if reading about a world that isn’t “real” makes it somehow irrelevant to real life. The flaw in this reasoning comes when we set up false contrasts between truth vs fiction or fantasy vs reality.  Fiction isn’t the opposite of truth because fiction can reveal truth through its story telling.  And good fantasy certainly isn’t the opposite of reality because it has the ability to use the fantastic elements of its worlds to reveal profound and powerful meaning in our world.  Now, to be fair, many of us do read in order to escape into another world, but we always return to our own and, if the book was good enough, we bring something back with us.

wall of stars washington dc
Here We Mark the Price of Freedom

Tolkien set the standard, but the stories came before him – stories with monsters and dragons and evil knights and wicked kings.  These forces of evil were not “real”, but they represented for their tellers and listeners a reality that was undeniable – Evil exists and we are fighting against it every day.

The most important truth and reality that we can draw from these fantasy villains, however, is that they are temporary forces and they are inevitably the losing side.  A good fantasy novel also  has heroes, and the heroes – at no small cost – are the ones who win in the end.

“Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten” ~ G.K. Chesterton

Now, I am generalizing fantasy novels in this post, since many have deviated from the traditional good vs evil to show less dramatically opposed characters or different scenarios, but I think that the idea is still there – rooted in the genre – and we still read it and write it quite often.  We want to create a believable, shiver-inducing evil because we  want to give our heroes something to defeat.  And through the telling of a “mere story”, we also want to show our readers that evil is a real force in our world, but not the force that wins out in the end, even when it seems like it must. Tolkien called it the “eucatastrophe” of the fairy tale, and there is nothing quite so profound as that sudden turning point from darkness to hope.  It is difficult to cope with the existence of tragedies on any grand scale, and yet our stories include them regularly, because in a story we get to see the ending, and the ending is good.

That glimmer of a picture of how this world’s story will end is nothing if not encouraging.

Just a thought.

Fantasy, Dragons, and a Longing This World Cannot Satisfy

I am hiking somewhere on the magical Isle of Skye, so today’s post is about this world and our search for something beyond it.

If we discover a desire within us that nothing in this world can satisfy, also we should begin to wonder if perhaps we were created for another world.

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

I have always loved the idea of being created for another world.  It’s not that this world does not satisfy me.  This world is meant to be satisfying to a degree.  If we spent our days dissatisfied, we would be missing out on what this world has to offer.

A tree stump carved into a dragon in Wales.

But sometimes I think about what makes a fantasy novel so enthralling, at least for me.  I read them and I write them.  I enjoy some film versions as well (though tragically few of any worthWhy are fantasy films often so cheesy?).

I think, too, about why dragons are my favorite animal.  A creature that no one living has seen (who will admit it – I will neither confirm nor deny…) is the one I love the most.  What made me graduate from horses, my childhood favorite, to fire-breathing, flying creatures of fantasy?

I think that it has a lot to do with what Lewis is saying, though his quote goes a lot further and a lot deeper.  Many of us are supremely aware of a world beyond this world, the ultimate satisfaction at the end of this life.  That, of course, is the world he is talking about.

But there are other worlds to pursue in the meantime, worlds that I feel we are meant to pursue and create and explore and enjoy.  This world may not satisfy my love of dragons, mystery, and magic on the surface, but I can fall into the pages of a book or step through the looking glass of my camera lens.  Somewhere between the pages, around a secret corner, after a sunset, that’s where my longing drives me and where I find some measure of otherworldly satisfaction.

Why do I love fantasy?  Because there is a longing that nothing in this world can satisfy.  And while there is a greater world, the ultimate, perfect fantasy, that will someday replace this one, until then, there are also stories.

Why else did the Creator make us sub-creators if not to create worlds of our own?

Taking a Walk and Trespassing on Faerie: Further in!

Last week, I advised everyone to take a walk, take some pictures, and then eat cake.  I think that’s about as sound as advice gets for cultivating inspiration and giving you a reason to write.

Well, I’m a firm believer in practicing what I teach, so this past Saturday, I went for a jaunt myself.  And, to my intense delight, I stepped into exactly the fantastic world of imagination I had hoped to discover.

Who's to say this might not be my way in?

I am forever searching for Narnia (and dragons, of coursealways dragons), and in my own way, I have found it in bits and pieces and teasing hints as I explore the landscape of Scotland.  Lamp posts glow gloomily in the mist.  Lions built into the architecture watch me as I pass by on the street.  A castle ruin whispers of kings and queens of old…

I have a rule.  If you see a locked door in an old garden wall, give it a quick push.  It just might open for you.  If the sun is setting and you are standing at a crossroads… wait a moment, hold your breath, hope…

You’d think I would be eternally disappointed since I have yet to wander into a wood and meet a faun (though I did meet James McAvoy the other day…no, I seriously did!).  However, when I take a walk and bring my camera, I am transported to a fantasy realm (maybe Narnia, maybe somewhere else) and for those few hours, I am captivated.  I think that’s part of why Anne of Green Gables is one of my heroes.  She does it so very well!

Let me take you on my Saturday walk and show you what I mean.

Walking along the road, I happen to notice an old house on an empty street...
A lantern hangs in the door, and I get a strange sense of expectancy...
I thought that I had just turned a corner, but maybe not. I'm somewhere else. Where have I gone? Does it matter?
Wandering an empty forest, I can't get over how green it is. The wintry weather has stripped the trees of their leaves... but not every tree.
A chill wind blows through the grass, but there's no denying it: Aslan is on the move!
Trespassing into a strange part of the forest... the trees don't seem quite so friendly here... Whose side are they on?
Spotted: a dragon sunning itself on a rooftop! Not as uncommon as you'd think around here...
It isn't safe here! Further in! Further in!
A secret path through the woods...
Snowdrops! Protection against magic, you know. This could be useful...
Is that the old house again? Is it really time to go already?
Leaving for now, but I know I can return. Once... always...

It might seem a little silly to take these pictures and pretend to be somewhere magical, but if you think about that sense you get from a truly wonderful book – a book that takes you to a faraway place and you don’t come back until you reach the final page – that’s the feeling that I search for when I take a walk with my camera and let my imagination go a little crazy.

You might be thinking to yourself that I have it easy: I mean, there’s a castle next door and old, beautiful buildings all around me.  I freely admit that this is an ideal place to get lost in Faerie, but I am quite sure that it’s possible anywhere.  Isn’t that how Faerie works?

Don’t you have a crossroads in your town?  Isn’t there a gate you haven’t bothered to try opening?  Is there a spot of garden, some dark old trees, a house where no one seems to live?  Don’t tell me there isn’t!  Go find it.

How St George Ruined the Dragon’s Reputation (But Museums Love Him)

I was in London for the weekend and I spent a great many hours in the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum wandering the halls and admiring the shiny, the old, and the impressive that they had to offer.

Since I am always on the lookout for dragons, I notice them whenever they show up in the odd sculpture, architecture, or painting, such as this example in King’s Chapel, Cambridge:

But where I noticed them most often was being stuck with a spear or a sword by a certain St George on everything from painted plates to jewelry to pots.

Earthenware dish from the 1700's

I know the story of St George is ever so slightly famous and the British have held it near and dear to their hearts for quite some time.  It is a popular legend about their beloved hero vanquishing the dragon, rescuing the maiden, and generally being awesome in a cliche knight sort of way.

16th century pendant

What we don’t usually get to hear is the unfortunate dragon’s perspective on being thus portrayed.  The dragon has quite a connection with British history and not all of it is so infamous.  The red dragon is on the Welsh flag, after all.

Rachel gave me a fun, cheesy, little movie called George and the Dragon that involved a new take on the story in which the princess insisted that George help protect the dragon and its egg rather than rescue her and kill it, as directed by her father.  I appreciated the gesture on the part of the screen writers.

Italy, 1500. I would like to suggest that here, the princess is going "Stop, you moron! We were just having a cup of tea!"

Tradition is all well and good, but it seems like George and the dragon might do very well to call a truce.  Then we can start seeing pots and plates and gold encrusted baubles that feature a valiant knight making friends with the dragon, playing frisbee with the dragon, having tea with the dragon… I would buy those baubles- wouldn’t you?

I have this theory that George is patting him on the neck here, not holding the dead body of his recent kill. Sometimes the dragon is shown as tamed rather than killed, which is a kinder interpretation of the legend. (This is a 15th century German sculpture)

With all due respect to Tolkien’s Smaug, I have enjoyed the recent imaginative retellings of dragon tales wherein the dragons are not always the villains.  If dragons are going to continue to appear in architecture, stories, and film, George is going to have to either concede defeat or just become friends with them and move on with his life (or legendary existence or whatever). Because, really, this is going a bit far, don’t you think?

Part of the insignia of the Order of the Knight of the Garter from 1628. The only complete insignia known to still exist.

For more pictures, several of which feature dragons, take a look at my blog So I Went to Scotland Searching for Dragons.