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Archive for the tag “Inklings”

Urban fantasy, mediocrity, and the male torso

I’ve become interested in literary genres recently, mainly because I’ve been reading several books that are difficult to classify. I’ve been looking for books that are similar to those of Charles Williams, and someone said that they belonged in the urban fantasy genre.

I would definitely include two of Charles Williams’s novels in the urban fantasy genre — All Hallows Eve and Descent into Hell. They are not my favourite Williams novels, but they are certainly urban fantasy, so I added them to the urban fantasy list on GoodReads, where Descent into Hell is rated 2657th along with Sign of Chaos by Roger Zelazny, and The Rakam by Karpov Kinrade.

It seems that I was the only person who voted for it, so if you think it deserves better company, please go there and vote for it too.

I’m not sure, though, that moving it further up the list would put it into better company,. because at the top of the list, with 2631 votes, is City of Bones by Cassandra Clare, the reviews of which do not inspire much confidence.

And it’s not just the reviews. It’s the cover, which features a faceless male torso.

The faceless male torso seems to be a meme, or trope, or whatever you call it, that is featured on about one in ten books nowadays. I recently entered my latest book, The Year of the Dragon, in a book cover competition, and in those competitions there is almost always at least one cover with a faceless male torso.

It seems a rather odd thing to have on a book cover, and it makes me think of the the title, though not of the content, of a book by C.S. Lewis, Till we have Faces.

I checked to see what lists Till we have Faces was on, and it was only on one — Novels for grown-ups by authors better known for their children’s books. I added it to The Best of Mythic Fiction list, and one other. Again, go there and vote for it if you think it deserves to be found by more people.

Dropping back down from the face to the torso again for a moment, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams did once publish a book about the Arthurian torso. It might have been better known if it had been published with an illustration, like one of these.

That should keep us going till we have faces.

Now, back to literary genres, and especially urban fantasy.

Another book that I thought belonged in the urban fantasy genre, and I think it is the best urban fantasy novel I have ever read, is Elidor by Alan Garner. Yet it is 1727th in the urban fantasy list, and it seems that I was the only person who voted for it. If you’ve read it and think it deserves better, please go and vote for it here. If you haven’t read it and like urban fantasy, or think you do, please add it to your to-read list right now.

 

South African Camelot

Today at our Neoinklings literary coffee klatsch we started off by discussing some of the problems of the country. Every day there is news of more political scandals and more corruption. The rich robbing the poor on a grand scale in the VBS bank scandal. Racism is making a comeback on a grand scale too, especially after being deliberately and assiduously promoted by the British PR firm Bell Pottinger.

There’s the story of land reform. One day our President is going around handing out title deeds to people and telling them how important and valuable they are, and the next day he is saying how expropriating land without compensation will solve all our problems, thus rendering the title deeds worthless. And expropriating land without compensation will make it much easier for the government to hand it over to foreign mining companies in places like Xolobeni.

And at this point David Levey asked why we weren’t talking about books, and I thought that it was actually a good lead in to a book I have just been reading, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table by Roger Lancelyn Green.

Roger Lancelyn Green was a member of the original Inklings literary discussion group, many of whom were very interested in the mythos of King Arthur. They incorporated elements of the Arthurian legends into their own writing. There are echoes of it in C.S. Lewis’s novels, especially in That Hideous Strength. Charles Williams retold many of the stories in his poetry. Much of their work on this topic was collected here: Taliessin through Logres, The Region of the Summer Stars, and Arthurian Torso.

Roger Lancelyn Green retells many of the stories in prose, for children. They have been retold many times, by many authors, in both prose and poetry. Since they are told for children there is no critical apparatus: no footnotes or cross-reference or explanations. Such explanations as are needed are incorporated into the text. But Green tells the stories in such a way as to bring out more clearly the Inklings’ take on them. One of the things that many of the Inklings emphasised was the distinction between Britain and Logres.

King Arthur’s adventures did not end when he had defeated the Saxons and brought peace to Britain: for though he had set up the realm of Logres — the land of true good and piety, nobleness and right living — the evil was always breaking in to attack the good. It would need many books to tell the story of every adventure that befell during his reign — that brief period of light set like a star of Heaven in the midst of the Dark Ages…

And that is where I see a parallel with South Africa. In the mid-1990s we experienced a brief period of light set like a star of Heaven in the midst of the Dark Ages. Apartheid, like the Saxons, had been driven out. “And the Saxons throughout the whole of Britain, and in Scotland also, fled away in their ships, or else swore to be King Arthur’s loyal subjects.”

In this way peace came to the whole island for a great many years: though still there were robbers and outlaws, cruel knights and evil magicians dwelling in the depths of forests and deep among the mountains, ever ready to break the peace and stain the realm of Logres in one wicked way or another.

The evil that threatened Logres was not merely external. It came from within. The Realm of Logres was set in the land of Britain, and Britain kept breaking through and threatening Logres. And so we read of the magic of Nimue and Morgana le Fay, how Nimue buries Merlin, and Morgana le Fay provokes fights between friends. The whole story is a kind of analogy of South Africa, where in 1994 we had a brief glimpse of our Logres, but even during the glimpses it was tainted with evil. How Jacob Zuma, who was once a loyal knight of the Round Table, became a usurper, and allowed evil to flourish. Could Winnie Mandela be cast in the role of Morgana le Fay, or perhaps the cap would fit Victoria Geoghegan better.

It’s not, of course, an allegory of South Africa, but there are many symbolic analogies, and one could probably find similar analogies to life in other countries as well. Maybe this is why the stories of King Arthur are told and retold, because they have an almost universal appeal and applicability.

Another version I have also been re-reading is The Quest of the Holy Grail. It concentrates on only one aspect of the mythos, the quest of the Grail. It’s also full of medieval moralising. Perhaps that’s why I prefer Green’s version — his modern moralising is more to my taste. But maybe I ought to heed the medieval moralising as well. The modern one deals with sins I am more aware of in others, the medieval one makes me feel uncomfortable because it reminds me of sins that I am more aware of in myself.

A Tolkien bestiary

A Tolkien BestiaryA Tolkien Bestiary by David Day
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth introduces us to all kinds of creatures that are unfamiliar to us. Some we may have encountered in other stories — elves, dwarves and goblins are found in many different fairy stories and fantasy novels, but hobbits, ents and balrogs are not. But even the ones whose names we know play a different role in Tolkien’s stories. They have their own history, culture and languages.

This book is a kind of encyclopaedia of such creatures.

I’ve returned it to the library now, but I rather wish i had it for reference. Tolkien’s books are full of allusions to tales, myths and legends of his world, but paging through other stories to find them can be quite challenging. Here they are all packed between the same covers.

Do you want to know the history of elves, and which ones saw the light of the two trees and which ones didn’t? A quick lookup in this book will tell you.

Do you want to know about the relationship between Shelob and Ungoliant? It’s all here.

And I found that just reading through it as if each entry was a chapter in a book helped me to recall some of the stories. It’s a kind of mental map to the peoples and creatures of middle earth.

I just can’t remember whether it said balrogs have wings or not. That’s why I’d like my own copy.

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Neoinklings: Tolkien in South Africa

At 10:30 we went to Cafe 41 in Eastwood Road for our monthly Literary Coffee Klatsch of Neoinklings, and David Levey joined us to inkle, as he put it. It seemed a rather felicitous term.

He told us of a thesis someone had written, or was writing, on Tolkien’s South African connections, and we had a rather discursive discussion about that — Tolkien had left South Africa when he was 3 or 4, and as far as I know he never returned. Most of one’s memories of that age seem to be a series of still pictures. I recalled Leo Aylen, a poet who was the son of a former Anglican bishop of Zululand, who visited there about 35 years ago. He said the Australian aborigines had a concept of early childhood as one’s dream time, and he was revisiting the scenes of his dream time to give him something to write about.

Goanikontes, Namibia

Goanikontes, Namibia

We talked of the landscape — the Free State, where Tolkien was born, seems to be like the land of the Rohirrim in Lord of the Rings, and Val said that Goanikontes, in the Namib desert, was like Mordor though it seems unlikely that Tolkien would have visited it. Goanikontes had been where Val’s great great great grandparents, Frank and Frances Stewardson, had lived for a while, in the 1850s, and it may have been there that Frank Stewardson had been mauled by a lion.

We talked about the identity, or lack of it, of white English-speaking South Africans. It will be interesting to see if the thesis mentions whether Tolkien had such an identity, but generally speaking white English-speaking South Africans do not have a distinctive identity or a distinct culture. There is no consciousness of being a “volk”, like the Afrikaners. Though one could put them in a Venn diagram, it would be far less significant than a set of white Afrikaans -speaking South Africans, or Zulu or Tswana-speaking South Africans. I mentioned a friend who had recently written of “we”, referring to white South Africans, and that I find that to be one of the primary markers of racism, using “we” to refer to a group defined by race, and “they” or “these people” to refer to the outgroup. David said that John Lambert, one of the former history lecturers at Unisa, was writing about white English-speaking South Africans, and it will be interesting to see what he comes up with.

He also mentioned that the history department at Unisa has now been reduced to one lecturer, which is very sad, and does not augur well for the future of South Africa — all of history before 1994 will, in effect, become dream time, and labelled “Van Riebeeck”.

 

The One Ring

People have often discussed the symbolism of the rings of power in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Some have tried to interpret the story allegorically, an approach that Tolkien himself rejected, and the question keeps cropping up.

Someone recently asked, in a Tolkien newsgroup:

Assuming Sauron’s fears would have come true, and Aragron had brought the Ring to Minas Tirith.

What could he have done with it?  Or did Sauron consider the unexpected appearance of the Army of the Dead as something that Aragorn had done with the Ring?

It seems to me that even attempting to answer that question would indicate that one had missed a central point of the story. Nevertheless, people do ask such questions, and there seems to be no adequate way of responding to them.

But the other day someone posted a graphic on Facebook relating to the elections taking place in the USA later this year, which seems to be an excellent response:

BernHil1

It says quite a lot about the US elections, and it says quite a lot about The Lord of the Rings. At least that it how it seems to me, writing from 10000 miles away from the US, in South Africa.

Of course it assumes familiarity with the plot of The Lord of the Rings, and it also assumes a certain degree of familiarity with US politics, and the different approaches taken by different candidates. Not being American, I rely on those online quiz thingies to tell me which candidates come closest to my way of thinking, and one of them told me that I side 94% with Bernie Sanders on most 2016 Presidential Election issues. Hilary Clinton came second. But the graphic summarises quite nicely the difference between them, if one is familiar with The Lord of the Rings, and it also, if one is at all familiar with the positions taken by the candidates and their supporters on various issues, helps to make the significance of the ring in the plot of the book clearer.

So one small graphic can help to clarify a political question, of who to vote for in an election, and a literary question of the meaning of a central artifact in a well-known novel.

 

What has happened to paper.li?

For some time now I’ve been using the paper.li web site to make sense of Twitter.

One can get overwhelmed by so many tweets on different topics, and now that Twitter has added pictures, it’s become a bit of a bandwidth hog too, producing nearly as many “a script is not responding” messages as Facebook.

Paper.li produces a digest of articles with links on Twitter, suitably formatted and headlined. My personal one is The Steve Hayes Daily, which it makes from my Twitter feed.

But what I found even more useful was the ones based on Twitter hashtags, which enabled one to follow topics of interest. So I regularly look at The #Theology Daily and The #orthodox Daily.

There wasn’t one for my own field of Missiology, but paper.li let me create one, with the URL http://paper.li/tag/missiology. And you can see it as The #missiology Daily. So if anyone posts a link on Twitter to a missiological article, and includes the hashtag #missiology in the tweet, all those links will be conveniently collected in one place.

The problem is that paper.li no longer appears to allow this. The existing papers based on hashtags continue, but it seems that it is not possible to create new ones.

Inklings

Inklings

I am interested in the group of authors known as the Inklings (who include, among others, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, J.R.R. Tolkien and Owen Barfield). There quite a number of bloggers who blog about these authors, and there are other interesting articles on their works that people tweet about, and I thought it would be nice to see tweets about them in one place, so I looked for an #Inklings paper on paper.li, which would have the URL http://paper.li/tag/inklings.

But there wasn’t one.

But paper.li invited me to create one.

I tried to do so, but the URL wasn’t based on the tag, it was based on my name, and the content was a mishmash of stuff, none of which seemed to relate to the #inklings hashtag. I deleted it and tried again, but it still didn’t work. So it seems that the people at paper.li have removed the functionality of creating a paper based on a hashtag.

Boo hiss!

Actually the people who run web sites seem to do this quite often. They come up with something that people find useful, and attract them to start using the site, and then they remove the very thing that attracted them. They seem incapable of learning the lesson that “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Mrs Dalloway and the Greater Trumps

Mrs DallowayMrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It took me a while to read this book, even though it is quite a short one, and all the action takes place in a single day. I suppose ideally one should read it in one day too.

It is a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a London housewife who is preparing for a party. The story switches from one viewpoint to another, not only her own, but those of people around her: servants, an old friend, her daughter, a suicidal shell-shocked soldier and others. It is set in the 1920s, and so scenes from Downton Abbey come to mind.

One of the reasons it took me so long is that I got distracted into reading other books in between, one of which was The Greater Trumps by Charles Williams. I began re-reading it as a result of a discussion about the names of books by Benjamin Disraeli, the titles of whose books Sybil, Lothair and Coningsby were used for the names of characters in The Greater Trumps.

I could not help but be struck by the contrast between Mrs Dalloway and The Greater Trumps. Both are set in a similar period, between the World Wars of the first half of the 20th century. But in Mrs Dalloway I was much more conscious of the setting in a specific time and place — London of the 1920s. I lived in London for a few months in the 1960s, but the London of 40-45 years earlier was very different, just as it is very different today from the 1960s. Some things may have been the same — the sea of bowler-hatted businessmen crossing London Bridge each morning and afternoon may well have been similar in the 1920s and 1960s, but now they belong to a vanished past. But in Westminster, where Mrs Dalloway is set, the fashions were very different in the 1960s, and are probably different from both today.

In The Greater Trumps, by contrast, though the action moves from a London suburb to the country, the time and place are less important. One could film it today, in present-day clothes, and it would make little difference to the characters or plot. The setting is important, in the sense that it is an isolated country house, and there is a snow stom, but characters and plot take precedence over time and specific place.

So this is not really a review of Mrs Dalloway, but the Good Reads review prompt asks “What did you think?” and that’s what I thought.

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Migration of the butterflies

Every year, between Christmas and New Year (New Year’s, if you’re American) butterflies migrate through our garden, flying northeast.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThey occasionally land briefly on flowers and other plants, perhaps for a bit of refreshment, but they are soon on their way.

Every year we see them going, always in the last week of the year, but we never see them coming back.

Where do they come from, and where do they go to?

There is a story by Charles Williams, The place of the lion, which has a scene that these butterflies remind me of. In William’s book the Platonic archetypes begin to gather their antitypes into themselves. The world becomes aware of this when a lioness escapes from a circus to find and be drawn into the archetypal lion.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen a butterfly collector notices a migration of butterflies, and follows them to see where they are going, and sees the mother and father of all butterflies, drawing all its children to itself.

And so this one-way migration reminds me of this story, one that I have read several times.

At this time of the year I am also reminded of another book by Charles Williams, War in heaven. That is because at Matins on Christmas Eve we sing the Polyeleon, the “many mercies”.

O give thanks unto the Lord for he is good, Alleluia. For his mercy endureth for ever, Alleluia

And one of the characters in War in heaven, a mild and inoffensive and innocent-seeming Anglican archdeacon, goes through the book singing that psalm to himself, while the villains are raging. And though they may do their worst, he just carries on singing:

Sihon, King of the Amorites: for his mercy endureth forever.

And Og the King of Bashan: for his mercy endureth forever.

And whenever we sing it, it gives me goosebumps.

And still I wonder where the butterflies go to every year, and why they never return.

I imagine they lay their eggs far southwest of here, and then fly north-east, leaving their children behind them. And their children must hatch out next year, and lay their eggs before leaving, and flying, flying, flying to the northeast, never to return. Perhaps there is a giant archetypal Platonic ideal of a butterfly, hovering somewhere over Madagascar, calling, calling, calling …

Tarot twaddle

One of the things that I find vaguely annoying is the kind of nonsense one often hears spoken about Tarot cards. On the one hand you hear some Christians saying that Tarot cards are of the devil, and on the other you hear occultists talking about their deep hidden meaning that only those really in the know can discern (and when those in the know do reveal, in conspiratorial whispers, what they have discerned, it usually turns out to be quite trivial).

So I was quite pleased to discover (hat-tip to A Conservative Blog for Peace) this article 7 ‘Ancient’ Forms of Mysticism That Are Recent Inventions | Cracked.com:

Tarot’s new fortunetelling function was quickly seized upon by 19th-century fans of occultism, which was what bored white people used to do in the 19th century before backpacking around India was invented. The occultists ‘discovered’ tarot’s long history and renamed the two parts of the deck ‘Arcana’ to replace the slightly less spooky trumps and pits.

In 1909, two occultists published a new version of the cards, the Rider-Waite deck, which is what most Americans visualize today when they hear the word “tarot.” The new deck switched out the traditional Christian imagery on the cards with pagan symbols to make it look like they predated the New Testament, replacing the Pope and Popess with a Hierophant and High Priestess, presumably so that fortunetellers could say more exotic things than “I see a Pope in your future.”

I first heard of Tarot cards in Iris Murdoch’s novel The sandcastle in which a schoolgirl used the cards to interpret things that were going on in her life. The descriptions meant nothing to me, so I went out and bought a pack of Tarot cards. The only place in Johannesburg that sold them, I discovered, in the Johannesburg of 1962, was “The Mystic Bookshop”, which was on the second floor of a rather seedy looking building in Eloff Street (which probably looks a lot seedier today). The shop was full of spooky paraphernalia, like crystal balls, candlesticks in the shape of snakes and other such things. They had only two packs of Tarot cards in stock, retrieved from a dusty shelf in a rarely-opened cupboard, so I gathered that there wasn’t a big demand for them.

I took the cards home, and looking at them discovered what references to The Hanged Man and the Falling Tower in the book actually meant. I was also struck by the Christian imagery of the cards, especially in the Greater Trumps. The people were all dressed in medieval clothes, and one felt transported back into an age of faith, in which Christian imagery and symbolism came naturally to people and were a part of everyday life.

In The sandcastle the girl, Rain, assigns the cards her own meanings, and relates them to the people and events in her life. I became quite curious about them, and mentioned this to Brother Roger, an Anglican monk of the Community of the Resurrection, who had lent me the Iris Murdoch book. His response was to lend me another book, The Greater Trumps by Charles Williams.

Central to the Williams book is the role and character of The Fool, shown on the left. Williams’s dealing with the Tarot in his novel is quite different from that of Iris Murdoch, though there is one common feature. Like Rain, Williams interprets the cards in his own way; he takes some of the occultists’ interpretations, but reworks them and weaves them in with others, and in a sense restores the Christian symbolism that the occultists removed.

The Cracked article debunks some of the 19th-century occult hogwash about the cards, and points out that they were, like ordinary playing cards, originally intended to be used in a game. But the designers and manufacturers of the cards incorporated symbolism of the world around them. There are French packs that are clearly influenced by the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, but the oldest ones seem to have been designed in a Medieval setting, real or imagined.

Charles Williams had some associations with occultists, including A.E. Waite, who was one of the originators of the Rider-Waite pack referred to in the Cracked article. I was rather saddened to discover that that was the pack that Williams was probably most familiar with, in which the Fool has been debased into the image of a late-Victorian fop.

But the main point remains: Tarot cards have whatever symbolism we want to give them. As a Christian, I suppose I prefer the older Marseilles pack, with its Christian symbolism, into which, like Rain in the novel, I can read whatever symbolism I wish. I find the Rider-Waite pack rather repulsive, and I can’t think of them as “real” Tarot cards.

I suppose one of the things that appeals to me about the “real” Tarot cards is that in the figure of the Fool there are echoes of the figure of the “fool for Christ”, a kind of saint who was more common in medieval times than in more recent ones. And that is one of the reasons I have adopted the Tarot Fool as my “Gravatar” for blog comments and the like. Not that I am a real fool for Christ, but rather a wannabe. The Rider-Waite version doesn’t cut it. Yet when I did a Google image search for the Fool of the Tarot, the real Fool didn’t come up at all on the first three pages. And perhaps that is because in our age, the real Fool is hidden.

Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought: But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory: Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (I Cor 2:6-8).

And “occult”, of course, means “hidden”.

And this came up in another context earlier this week. There was a synchroblog on the Wild Goose Festival, a kind of vaguely Christian wayzgoose held in the USA last month. We were told that the wild goose was an ancient Celtic Christian metaphor for the Holy Spirit.

I couldn’t attend the festival, and had never heard of the ancient Celtic metaphor, so I decided to write about it once I had found out more about it. I found it stretched back over the years to the dim and misty 1960s, which makes me feel really ancient. And I think that makes an eighth that could be added to the Cracked seven.

The Inklings: Williams and transformation

For some Christians, “witness” is an active verb, and so “witnessing” is an activity that they engage in, and expect others to engage in, and it often ends up0 as a kind of “in your face” proselytising. In the following story, however, I think we come closer to the true meaning of “witness”. The Inklings: Williams and transformation:

W. H. Auden worked with Charles Williams on a collection of Poetry he edited for Oxford University Press. Many years after first meeting Williams, he would recall that interview in surprising terms and mark it as one of the events that led him to embrace the Christian faith:

‘For the first time in my life, [I] felt myself in the presence of personal sanctity… I had met many good people before who made me feel ashamed of my own shortcomings but in the presence of this man… I did not feel ashamed. I felt transformed into a person who was incapable of doing or thinking anything base or unloving (I later discovered that he had had a similar effect on many other people.)’

From Auden’s testimony “witnessing” can be more effective if it is a mode of being than a mode of soing or talking.

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