The exotic and the familiar (Part 4)

Continued from Part 3.

Before we examine the merits that made our three breakthrough fantasies break through, I hope you will permit me a Historical Digression:

As luck or providence would have it, the other night I saw, for the first time, Tim Burton’s magnificently lurid production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. That tale has been around, in various forms, for nearly two hundred years; it is one of the hardy perennials of horror fiction – far older than Dracula, almost as old as Frankenstein, almost exactly contemporary with the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe.

Mr. Todd first appeared in 1846, in a story called The String of Pearls, by James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Priest – who, for that achievement alone, deserve to be ranked in the first class of Victorian novelists, but never are. For, alas, The String of Pearls was a penny dreadful. That is a term, or insult, that may need a bit of explanation for the benefit of the modern reader.

Every so often, the business of literature is turned topsy-turvy by some new technological development, and the previously unchallenged assumptions of the Grand Old Men of the business are blown to atoms and scattered widely over the waste regions of the cosmos.

[Read more…]

Happy New Year

But in Gondor the New Year will always now begin upon the twenty-fifth of March when Sauron fell.

—J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

Catholic tradition holds, on reasonably secure grounds, that Jesus was crucified on the twenty-fifth of March; which makes it the feast day of St. Dismas. That is the name assigned by tradition to the robber who was crucified with him, to whom he said, ‘Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.’ By a happy coincidence, I am writing this in a year when Good Friday falls on March 25: a rare event.

It is also the Feast of the Annunciation. On somewhat less secure, but still reasonable grounds, the Church calculates that Jesus was born on December 25; which means, in round numbers, that he must have been conceived somewhere around March 25, and the angel who broke the news to Mary is therefore thought to have appeared on that date. This fits in with the ancient Jewish tradition that great sages and prophets lived an exact number of years, being born (or conceived) and dying on the same day of the year.

There are more fanciful associations. For instance, some have supposed that Adam and Eve were created on March 25. I ask the skeptical among my 3.6 Loyal Readers to suspend their unbelief momentarily for the sake of a good story. Supposing that there were an Adam and Eve, and that they were created on the same day (which even Genesis does not tell us), they lived long before the invention of fixed calendars; so that even if they knew the exact time of year at which they were born, and told their children, the information could not have been passed on to the authors of the Torah. The language of the Hebrew calendar is too new, the calendar itself too recent, to convey data directly from so remote a source. You could suppose that God gave the information to the author of that passage in Genesis; but then, Genesis does not tell us any exact date either. Even the most enthusiastic and credulous believer, I am afraid, has to surrender this particular story as a pious taradiddle.

In the Middle Ages in Christendom – not everywhere, not always, but certainly in the official records of the Church – March 25 was treated as New Year’s Day in commemoration of these events, real and legendary; with the odd result that March 24, 1066 (to pick a year not quite at random), was almost a year after March 25, 1066. This peculiar system persisted until Pope Gregory XIII reformed the calendar in 1582, bringing it back in step with the seasons, and incidentally moving the New Year back to January 1, the start of the old Roman consular year.

The Protestant and Orthodox countries stuck to the Julian calendar for some time yet; England went over to the new system in 1752, which by that time meant dropping eleven days from that year, so that March 25 of the old calendar corresponded with April 5 of the new. In 1800, the old and new calendars diverged by one more day, so the British Parliament made a special enactment that the tax year would start on April 6 instead; but they did not trouble themselves to move it to April 7 in 1900. That is why, to this day, the British tax year begins on the sixth day of April, to the lasting exasperation of accountants, taxpayers, and all tidy-minded persons.

‘Thinning’, as The Encyclopaedia of Fantasy calls it, does not only occur in fantasy fiction; we often find it in real life. The old Catholic New Year has thinned to a shadow, and all that remains of it now is a bizarre tax regulation in Britain, which hardly even pretends to be a Christian country. One of the few people to recall the old New Year and the old reasons for it was Tolkien, who deliberately chose that date for the defeat of Sauron and the beginning of the Fourth Age; so the reason for the date passes over into myths and old wives’ tales. But as Tolkien made Celeborn say—

Do not despise the lore that has come down from distant years; for oft it may chance that old wives keep in memory word of things that once were needful for the wise to know.

Still, I bid you all a happy and glorious New Year in the Old Style (with Gregory’s correction), and in company of the old wives of Oxenford; and I add a prayer for any of my readers who may chance to be British, and in the clutches of the Inland Revenue. God bless you all.

Legosity

So far, I have described my thoughts about ozamataz up to the point where I asked whether one could attract that kind of self-sustaining fan participation, and if so, how. This is also the point at which the Muse, or the Guardian Angel, or the Collective Subconscious, or Something, stepped in. Perhaps it was the Great Oz himself.

Having worked out something of the nature of ozamataz, I asked my brain: ‘OK, brain, what is it that makes some things have ozamataz when others don’t?’

And my brain, without missing a beat, obligingly answered: ‘Legosity.’

I was duly annoyed, for I then had to figure out what legosity was. My brain is cryptic and has no manners, and seldom troubles to explain itself.

The one thing my brain did deign to tell me is that legosity has something to do with Lego. This made sense on the face of it. Lego toys have an ozamataz of their own. They have inspired movies, games, theme parks, and of course, the imaginations of millions of children the world over. The manufacturer’s recent habit of producing specific single-purpose Lego sets like model kits, which hardly fit together with other Lego and are hardly intended to, is most regrettable. These kits tend to take up shelf space at the toy shops and displace the kind of Lego that you can really play with. But the original bricks and doors and windows, Lego people and Lego cars and Lego trees, and so on – those are still available, and you can do anything with them. Nowadays, you can even buy Lego with moving parts and electric motors, and build Lego machines that can be controlled via computer. There are Lego robots in the world, and serious men with doctorates in the hard sciences have been known to play with them.

As the unfortunate history of the kit-model kind of Lego shows, it is not so much the brand name, or even the mechanical ingenuity of Lego that gives the toys their unique quality. It is the concept. At bottom, Lego consists of a whole range of bits and pieces, all designed to fit together easily and without fuss, so that they can be used to build anything the imagination can conceive. You do not have to be a skilled carpenter, or a watchmaker, or know how to build ships in bottles, to build houses and cities and fairy castles out of Lego. The skill in your fingers (especially a child’s fingers) ceases to be a limit on what you can achieve, and the mind is set free to soar.

Even the name Lego is well chosen, and means, I think, more than its inventor intended. We are assured that it comes from the Danish phrase leg godt, ‘Play well’. But it is also Latin and Greek, and in those languages the word has a wide and subtle range of meanings that reach right down into the guts of the human psyche. [Read more…]

Ozamataz

I have spent the last week or so (when not sleeping off my medications) in a fairly continuous process of brainstorming, chewing over several new-to-me ideas and figuring out how to turn them into actual writing techniques.

I forget exactly what prompted me to revisit the Key & Peele skit I reposted some time ago, in which the duo performed a thorough piss-take on the silly (and often self-inflicted) names one so often sees among American football players. Of all the daft monikers they introduced to the world, one in particular seems to have caught the public imagination: ‘Ozamataz Buckshank’. The name Ozamataz has been ‘repurposed’ for any number of online game characters and social-media personas. I think part of the reason lies in the delivery: in the original skit, the name was pronounced in a drawl reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart. It is, in fact, a fun name to say aloud, and I think that contributes to its popularity. But there may be more to it than that. A name like ‘Jackmerius Tacktheritrix’ or ‘Javaris Jamar Javarison-Lamar’ is too Pythonesque, too blatant in its silliness, to have much staying power. ‘Ozamataz’ is almost, but not quite, realistic; it could plausibly be an actual word.

And so, hearing the name again, I asked myself: If ozamataz were a word, what would it mean?  [Read more…]

‘After the real world has passed away’

After the death of his wife, Edith, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote to his son Michael:

I do not feel quite ‘real’ or whole, and in a sense there is no one to talk to.… Since I came of age, and our 3 years separation was ended, we had shared all joys and griefs, and all opinions (in agreement or otherwise), so that I still often find myself thinking ‘I must tell E. about this’ – and then suddenly I feel like a castaway left on a barren island under a heedless sky after the loss of a great ship. I remember trying to tell Marjorie Incledon this feeling, when I was not yet thirteen after the death of my mother, and vainly waving a hand at the sky saying ‘it is so empty and cold’. And again I remember after the death of Fr Francis my ‘second father’ (at 77 in 1934), saying to C. S. Lewis: ‘I feel like a lost survivor into a new alien world after the real world has passed away’.

(Letters no. 332)

I am sad to report that these descriptions of feelings fit me rather exactly. My mother was a difficult person to deal with, and nearly impossible to talk to; she had the fixed habit of listening to the first half-dozen words that you said, ignoring the rest, and then responding to what she imagined you might have said; and she had a short and fearsome temper. Our relationship could be charitably described as ‘fraught’; yet one has, as a rule, only one mother, and whatever she may be, one feels the loss when she is gone. My father was my chief friend, supporter, and confidant for many years, and I still miss him terribly. Now that I have lost them both, and in rapid succession, I feel rather like the little girl from London in the Second World War, who was interviewed by a reporter after losing her home and family in the Blitz: ‘Now I am nobody’s nothing.’ It is a disorienting and indeed frightening feeling.

 

A postscriptum about practical matters: It will probably take some months to settle my parents’ affairs, but once that is done I can expect to come into a small inheritance, which if used frugally, will keep the wolf from the door for some time while I get my bearings and (I hope) find a way to make my work pay my bills. I thank all those generous donors who have helped me through my recent difficulties with gifts of money (and still more, of time, attention, and care). I believe I shall be all right for the time being.

Reasons for books

It occurs to me (in such a way that I may write a future essai about it, or then again I moutn’t) that there are four major, common, and abiding reasons why particular books get written, and that one can rank them by how likely they are to produce books that stand the test of time. From least to most likely:

1. Books written solely for money – often in a genre for which the author had no particular liking or affinity. (Such books are usually unpublishable. There is an art to being a successful hack, which the would-be get-rich-quick artist can seldom master.)

2. Books written chiefly to please the author’s fans. (This is a good and worthy motivation. The trouble is that so many fans want the same book again and again under different titles. Such work is seldom good to reread; and it is rereadable books that most often endure.)

3. Books written because the author had an itch to tell a certain story, and the itch would not go away. (Often these are the books that win large number of fans, who then clamour for more and give rise to category-2 sequels.)

4. Books written because the author very much wanted there to be a certain kind of book, and could not find it. Sometimes there is a book-shaped hole in human literature, and someone sets out to write a book to fill that hole.

(Note that a single writer’s oeuvre may span all four categories. Robert Silverberg has written seminal books of science fiction, and he also used to write quickie porn novels to pay the rent.)

The Inklings had an uncanny knack for finding book-shaped holes and filling them; which largely accounts for their enduring fame. Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction fills what was then a massive gap in literary theory. C. S. Lewis frankly admitted that he wrote his works of Christian apologetics only because none of the clergy (who he considered ought to have written them) were doing the job. And of course there is Tolkien, who found an entire genre-shaped hole and, not being immortal or infinitely productive, only got as far as to lay the book-shaped cornerstone of the wall that has since filled the gap.

I myself get all kinds of ideas for books, but they don’t stick with me unless I can at least delude myself that they fall into category #4. Nothing else seems worth my extremely limited working time and energy. (I have never even been tempted with #1 or #2: nobody has offered to buy my soul with money, fame, or even fan-letters. Whether I could resist such temptations is anybody’s guess.)

But then I feel ashamed for my presumption. If there is a book-shaped hole in literature, surely it is because better writers than I have tried and failed to fill it. Who am I to try what the real experts could not do?

Looking at things in this manner, I am morosely convinced that this dissonance or antinomy accounts for a good deal of the writer’s block with which I am so often afflicted.

 

In other news, I have been tired and unwell yesterday and today. No new writing of any account, alas. I think I shall try to get some extra sleep and see if that helps.

For Charlie, but mainly for Baga

Two sayings that, at this moment, are particularly worth bearing in mind:

 

It needs but one foe to breed a war, not two. And those who have not swords can still die upon them.

—J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

 

To survive you often have to fight, and to fight you have to dirty yourself. War is evil, and it is often the lesser evil. Those who take the sword perish by the sword, and those who don’t take the sword perish by smelly diseases.

—George Orwell, ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War

May God be with the Christians of Nigeria in their hour of tribulation, and may He confound Boko Haram and all their evil works. And may the dead of Charlie Hebdo find mercy, and the survivors seek truth.

‘The frightful landslide into Theyocracy’

My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights, nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate!

If we could get back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so as to refer to people. If people were in the habit of referring to ‘King George’s council, Winston and his gang’, it would go a long way to clearing thought, and reducing the frightful landslide into Theyocracy.

Anyway the proper study of Man is anything but Man; and the most improper job of any man, even saints (who were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.

The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, no. 52
(to Christopher Tolkien, 29 November 1943)

(Paragraph breaks added.)

The infernal and redoubtable H. Smiggy McStudge has some things to say about all this, and has asked (or rather, peremptorily ordered) me to put some of it up here in the near future. Perhaps I shall oblige (or obey) him. He says it is to be a manual of advice for all the little McStudges, who, he says, have great zeal for their work but are in danger of believing their own propaganda. It will also be an ‘outline of history’, a form that was very popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but is pretty well extinct now. Smiggy makes his pitch thus:

‘The average human now has nothing but contempt for history – contempt born of utter ignorance. The schools teach a kind of compost of outdated sociology and falsified anthropology under the name of Social Studies, and graduate chuckleheads who cannot tell you whether George III came before or after George II, and who, if given a globe, are exceptionally lucky if they can point a finger at the Earth. History has been abandoned to the history buffs, who have the characteristic stupidity of experts, the ant’s-eye view. There are people who can tell you in minute detail the costume and weaponry of a Pecheneg warrior of the eleventh century, but who cannot tell you what the Pechenegs did, or how they influenced other nations, or why anyone should bother to inform themselves about the God-rotted Pechenegs at all. And we McStudges are very content that this should be so.

‘But let us not be fooled because we make fools of others. We need a clear eye for the prize. History is a game that we have played, using the humans as pawns and fodder. Let us not be dazzled by the lies and distractions we design for them. Our workers in the field need a clear understanding of what the game is, and what the stakes are, and which tactics are most likely to be successful. There is, of course, some risk in making this information widely available. Some of the humans are likely to read it. Fortunately, few of them have (thanks to our efforts) the mental equipment to take notice of the truth; fewer still have the gumption to act on it. These perishing few may safely be ignored. The risk is nothing compared to the risk of letting our own people wallow in the ignorance they have created. Ink is a wonderful poison. Let us cover the world with it, let us use it to drown human wit and human reason, such as they are, once and for all. But let us take care not to drink it ourselves.’

How to Shut Down Tolkien

A talk given by Brandon Rhodes at PyGotham 2014, and in my humble but infallible opinion, a very interesting one. Rhodes has much to say about how to encourage the creative faculties and how to bully them into silence.

There are one or two minor factual errors. Lewis was not the first person to whom Tolkien showed the Silmarillion matter: he had given some of it to R. W. Reynolds (for whom he wrote the ‘Sketch of the Mythology’ about 1926), and his earliest audience had been his wife, Edith. But these are unimportant in this context. Lewis was definitely the critic and catalyst who awoke Tolkien’s full powers and spurred him on through his most productive period. How he did so, and how he almost failed, makes an illuminating story.

Hat tip to Nancy Lebovitz for sending me the link.

What’s that you say? Something sold?

To my astonishment, to say nothing of crogglement, confustication, and gobsmackosity, I have sold an essay to Sci Phi Journal: and for actual money, too. With a speed hitherto unknown to magazine-kind, it has been scheduled for publication in the upcoming issue.

Look for Sci Phi Journal #2, containing ‘The Making of the Fellowship: Concepts of the Good in The Lord of the Rings’, coming soon to an ebook store near you.


In other news, I am still filled with doubt and concern about Where Angels Die. The first chapter seemed to be a rousing success, but the second has met with dead silence so far, and frankly, I don’t know what to make of that. Are my 3.6 Loyal Readers still waiting for more? Or have I done something dreadful, on a par with the infamous Klingon practice of farting in airlocks? Please advise.