Homespun Research and the Heart of Reading

Happy Friday to you all!  It is March 1 and I have the privilege to once again write something (hopefully intelligent or at least maybe witty) to you every Friday for this month.

I have been doing some reading…I know, it is a dangerous thing to do.

Most notably, I have recently reread C. S. Lewis’s Four Loves and Dorothy Sayers’s Mind of the Maker.   These are two fantastic books one is about the four basic kinds of love (yeah, that was sort of a giveaway) and the other about creativity as a reflection of our Divine Maker.  Both of these books for very different reasons have me thinking on the notion of the reader and the process of reading, which leads me  to another of Lewis’s books, An Experiment in Criticism.  

I hope to take you on a little wandering through my thoughts as I ruminate on these books and the effect they have on my perspective of reading, literature, and the heart of the reader.  

My journey towards this topic commenced shortly after graduation, when I started to miss school. (I know I’m not entirely sane).  Before grad school, I would of told you, “I don’t read nonfiction.”  I suppose it is because most of the time people recommended nonfiction books that did not appeal to me or were on topics I was not interested in.  Truth be told, I was more interested in escaping my reality then learning about how I was viewing my reality through the books I was reading. But as a longing for learning crept into my heart again, I begin to do research on the topics I loved best – fairy tales and fantasy.  This homespun research opened the door to a fantastical world of discussing the topics I loved best and all the while I was shaping my understanding of reading and why reading/stories are important.

My initial research into fairy tale criticism was entirely from a secular perspective.  I looked up the best critics who saw the world through the lenses of Marxism, feminism, psycho-analyticalism, and most importantly atheism – well if they weren’t atheists, they held to an agnostic position that discredited the existence of any god(s).    Though these critics were not necessarily bad at what they do, as a Christian, I had to filter what they said.  I had to suspend my beliefs and biases in order to follow their arguments.  This was a good exercise in critical thinking, as Lewis describes in An Experiment in Criticism. 

However, such intellectual exercise is exhausting if you aren’t filling your mind with what you actually do believe, which is why I have found Lewis and Sayers so refreshing.  They discuss my favorite topics but from a biblical perspective.  They confront the issues of the secular critics and give strength to the Christian biblical worldview.  Therefore, their writings make it possible to read the critics and stay informed but not become lost or disillusioned by them.  For a good reader is a well informed reader; a good reader is one who does not just escape from reality, but when escaping into a book takes his/her biblical worldview with him/her; a good reader reads.

Until next time…and more of my meanderings…Happy reading!

On a side note (but rather important), if you are looking for some good nonfiction such as the books mentioned above, may I suggest  Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Donald Williams’ newest book from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

Matching Wits With a Goblin King: The Hollow Kingdom, by Clare Dunkle

In keeping with the main theme for this month, I am reviewing another lesser known fantasy novel that more people should read.  Really.  You should read it.

Last week, I focused on pure fantasy, a story in another world with its own magical system and culture.  This week, my chosen novel is much closer to home.

Fairytales hold a certain fascination for authors who want material for telling stories.  Telling old stories in a new way has been popular for a very long time, of course, but lately, it seems like there are more versions of Cinderella and Snow White than we could ever possibly need. Ever.

One storyline that has come up a few times in various stories and poems is the goblin and the princess, or some variation thereof.  George MacDonald’s book, of course, uses this motif.  The story comes in many forms, but the general idea is that goblins or something similarly wicked living under ground come out at night and try to steal away a child from its parents or a girl for a bride.  One of two endings is expected: either the child/girl is rescued by someone cleverer than the goblins or, in a darker turn of events, the goblins succeed and their quarry is never seen or heard from again.  While not speaking of goblins in this case, I always think of Yeats’s Stolen Child:

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

The dark, unsettling fear of something out in the darkness in the forests and under the hills that can simply creep out and steal the unsuspecting, whether by force and trickery, has haunted more than one culture and inspired more than one story. The Hollow Kingdom is exactly that sort of book, with goblins hunting in the darkness and a heroine trying desperately to outwit them, but this tale is delightfully unexpected in its outcome.

Kate and her sister Emily move in with their great-aunts on family land after the death of their father.  Their uncle, who is in charge of Kate’s inheritance until she comes of age, is an unpleasant individual and their aunts are very mild mannered, but Kate and Emily settle in as well as they can and try to make a life at Hallow Hill.  When strange things start happening and the goblins begin to appear when the sun goes down, Kate discovers that unless she is very, very clever, she will be claimed as a bride for the goblin king, Marak, and locked in his kingdom underground for the rest of her life.

The story that follows is filled with bizarre magic, and, with the trap closing inexorably around her, Kate fights blindly against an enemy she does not understand.  Her only hope is to convince her uncle that goblins are real, but her uncle has an agenda of his own.  And besides, what rational person believes in goblins?

Dunkle draws on old stories to create an ancient world under the wild hills of the 19th century British countryside, and she fills the woods and hollows with goblin magic.  Once Kate is in the goblin king’s sights, she becomes increasingly entangled in his world and out of step with her own.  The landscape above the goblin kingdom becomes only slightly less surreal than the world beneath.

Hollow hills, perhaps?

My favorite thing about this story is not necessarily that it is an unexpected take on the goblin-stealing-girl storyline.  I love the characters.  Kate is plucky and generally a sensible girl.  Her sister Emily is far too curious and fearless for her own good and finds the goblins more interesting than frightening.  Throughout the story, the strange, magical creatures Dunkle introduces as secondary characters are what make the story truly engaging.  Even the doors have character (read it to find out what I mean).

Retelling old tales is not a bad thing, if it’s done well.  Old motifs can be reworked in an endless number of ways.  What makes a book stand out is when it takes a good, old story and leads its readers on a very different road.

Don’t step out the door when the sun goes down…

Fairytales are sometimes better retold

I have always loved fairytales.  As a child I would have my mom read fairytales to me nearly every night before bed.  Sometimes my mom would make-up fairytales.

Fairytales have an endearing enduring quality about them.  After listening and reading the tales over and over again, the characters become apart of our childhood and who we are.  We start to identify with certain characters; they become so familiar that we know them immediately in any story in any retelling.

I would like to share with you some of my favorite retellings of some old classical fairytales,

  • Beauty by Robin McKinley
  • Fables  by Bill Willingham (This is actually a graphic novel)
  • Entwined by Heather Dixon (Melissa wrote a book review)
  • Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire

The nice thing about retelling a fairytale is you don’t have to write a book.  There are hundreds of short stories with retellings of fairytales or stories that involve a fairytale character. One of the reasons I love Fables so much is because not only does Willingham incorporate the classic character in a modern setting he also adds characters from nursery rhymes.  Suddenly little Boy Blue is working for King Cole and Snow White.

In the August issue of Gallery of Worlds, Brittany Meng wrote,  “Tallow and Tuffet,” a fascinating little story about Jack, not Jack in the beanstalk but Jack be nimble.

And look for more retellings and new fairytales in the All Hollow’s Edition of Gallery of Worlds. 

So what do you mean when you say myth?

Last week I posted what I thought would be just a tidbit of food for thought.  Since I have been talking about myth and C. S. Lewis for the past six months at least, I really was not prepared for the response I got concerning what I mean when I talk about myth. So I thought that today I could shed a little more light on the concept of myth, which is not only a philosophical term, but a historical and literary term.  Sometimes the distinctions between the different disciplines that use myth become blurred, but there are some things about myth that are universally true…

G. S. Kirk defines myth with the understanding that religious rites and rituals are revealed, explained or understood through the myth (Myth Its Meaning and Function 23).  Even though “something really ‘higher’ is occasionally glimpsed in mythology: Divinity, the right to power (as distinct from its possession), the due worship,” myth is still something other than religion (Tolkien, “On Faerie” 51).  Indeed according to Tolkien and Andrew Lang, “religion and mythology (in the strict sense of that word) are two distinct things that have become inextricably entangled, though mythology is in itself almost devoid of religious significance” (Tolkien 51).  However, Tolkien and Lang missed the connection and power of revelation in myth and how it works with the religious convictions and practices of the culture.  Lewis also embraces Kirk’s concept of myth as Gibson in his book, C. S. Lewis Spinner of Tales: a Guide to His Fiction, insists:

Lewis did not believe that all pagan religions were completely empty of truth.  In an essay titled ‘Religion without Dogma’ he speaks of the mass of mythology which has come down to us as having many sources mixed together—from history, allegory, ritual, and so on.  But he suggests that some of the sources may also be supernatural—in fact, both diabolical and divine.  The latter, he says, may be a praeparatio evangelica, a divine hint in the ritual or poetry which shadows forth the central truth declared clearly and historically in the incarnation.  As already noted, he refers to these divine hints as the ‘good dreams’ which God had sent to man prior to the full revelation in Christ.  (232)

Lewis and Kirk understand divine revelation as the key to what makes myth, myth.  It is not magic but divine inspiration that set a myth apart from a fairytale.  Tolkien and Lang are right to assert that mythology is not religion, but that does not mean that myth cannot share aspects of the religious practices with culture and give understanding and meaning to mysteries not fully revealed.

Brownie, Castle, Sheep, Dragons, Narnia: Why I’m Really Going to Scotland

In less than two weeks, I will be moving to Edinburgh.  No, not the Edinburg in Texas.  I mean the one in in Scotland.

As you can imagine, I’m pretty excited.  I fly from D.C. to Heathrow and from Heathrow to Edinburgh.  From thence, I shall begin my adventure.

This is where I will be living.

My bedroom is in the top right tower...

Okay, so maybe I won’t exactly be living in Eilean Donan Castle, but I will be living on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh City just down the road from this castle:

I can wave hello to a castle every morning!

Don’t ask me about my plans of conquest.  Just keep an eye on the news over the next ten months…

Now, I am ostensibly heading to the University of Edinburgh to obtain a Master of Science by Research degree in Celtic Literature and Language.  But who really goes to Scotland just to study for a degree?  I mean, there are schools in the US too, right?  So, what are the real reasons that I will be going, you might ask?  Well, I have a check list of sorts.  There are five things that I plan on doing before I leave:

  • Obtain a brownie

No, I don’t mean those chocolatey snacks that come in little squares.  Brownies are actually a type of small fae creature native to Scotland.  They live in houses and are kept happy with saucers of porridge or honey left out for their consumption.  A happy brownie will help with chores and keep out of sight.  An unhappy one will wreak havoc and leave your rooms a mess (one guess as to how happy your average college student’s brownie is).  Folklore has it that Scotland is just overflowing with brownies, so I intend to have my own.  You know, to help with the dishes from time to time.

  • Acquire a castle.

I don’t really think that it is too much to ask for.  I mean, there are so many castles in Scotland and few of them are being properly lived in and looked after.  The fact that I am going to be located so conveniently near one (on the very same road!) is, I feel, the workings of Fate.

  • Photograph sheep frolicking across fields of heather.

Everyone knows that Scotland is full of sheep and full of heather.  They are bound to coincide and be picturesque for my enjoyment.  That’s why I bought my awesome camera, after all.  The sheep will frolic for me.  Or else.

  • Find the dragons.

Everyone goes to Scotland to look for the Loch Ness Monster.  He’s really the easy one to find in comparison.  It’s the dragons that are much more discreet and far more fond of their privacy.  That’s why you see pictures of the Loch Ness Monster, but no photos of the dragons.  They just don’t want to be seen.  But I feel that dedication and some long, patient hours looking through any likely caves will reveal a dragon or two.  And then my life will be nearly complete.

  • Enter a portal to another world (possibly Narnia) and have brilliant adventures.

Crossroads, twilight, cairns, and sunwise circles.  Where else can you bring all of these together in one place?  Not only that, but I have it on good authority that my bedroom is going to be furnished with a wardrobe.  Yes, a wardrobe.  And you know what that means.  No, really, that’s what it means.

Oh ye of little faith.

With less than two weeks to go, I have a lot of things to do to prepare for my adventure.  I have my camera for sheep-frolicking photographs, my rain boots for tramping the hills on dragon hunts, and plenty of motivation to keep me going as I find my brownie, get my castle, and locate that portal.  Really, I don’t think my expectations for my trip are unreasonable.  After all, there are only five things on my list.

So what do you think?  Am I missing anything?