Monday, December 27, 2010

The Fellowship and the Lonely God

The Fellowship and the Lonely God

Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic to the level of romantic fairy-story--the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths--which I could dedicate simply: to England; to my country.
~J.R.R. Tolkien

One of Tolkien’s goals in writing the Lord of the Rings was to create a new mythology for England. He arguably succeeded beyond his wildest dreams: one man drawing on the tapestry of past civilizations to create a myth so deeply rooted in its native land it seems millennia old. The tales of Middle-Earth are firmly bounded on the rich soil of Northern Europe and resplendent with the virtues of fellowship, humility and unity. The leadership of Aragorn, the struggles of Frodo, and the guidance of Gandalf are amazing examples for us, yet I believe they no longer represent the spirit of England. Instead, the BBC TV show “Doctor Who” serves as a new myth for the British Isles.
“Doctor Who” is the longest-running sci-fi television show ever, running from 1963 through the present, with a break from 1989 to 2005 (not including a TV movie.) The title character, known simply as “The Doctor,” is a Time Lord from Gallifrey, with two hearts and the ability to regenerate into a new body after death. This allows a relatively seamless transition between actors in the main role. The current incarnation (11th) of the Doctor is played by Matt Smith, the youngest actor to take on the role.

Several aspects of the show reflect modern Western culture, from the range of settings to moral values. The Doctor travels through space and time in his TARDIS—Time and Relative Dimension(s) In Space—which is disguised as a police box from the 1950s and is bigger on the inside. He journeys throughout the universe, from the beginning of time to the burning of the Earth to strange planets and satellites. If, as Tolkien says in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,' one of the essential components of fantasy is “survey(ing) the depths of space and time,” then Doctor Who has a strong fantasy flavor.
But there are also contrasts between Doctor Who and Lord of the Rings. While Tolkien emphasizes unity and fellowship in the face of danger, the Doctor is an incredibly lonely man. In the revived series, he repeatedly speaks of himself as the last of the Time Lords—only later do viewers learn what lead to the fall of Gallifrey. Even though the Doctor finds companions to travel with, they end up leaving, some in tragic ways.
Furthermore, while Tolkien views fear as a conquerable enemy, Doctor Who tends to emphasis fears as genuine threats. The show has a reputation of being watched from behind the couch, with children peeping out in fright at the monsters. While some of the classic series monsters suffer from dated special effects, the show in general (especially the Steven Moffat episodes) is full of nightmare fuel. From angel statues to shadows, it takes ordinary objects and infuses them with terror. Don’t blink. Don’t blink.
In the episode “The Hungry Earth,” the Doctor says “Monsters are scared of me.” While the line is meant to be reassuring, other episodes show the Doctor’s dark side. In “The Runaway Bride,” a character says to him, “You need somebody to stop you.” Another episode, “The Waters of Mars,” unleashes a truly terrifying side of the Doctor as he declares, “We're fighting Time itself! AND I'M GONNA WIN!” The season five finale drives the point home with a surprising twist of events.
Another area worth commenting on is the romantic angle. The classic show had the Doctor as a celibate hero without romantic entanglements, but three of four female companions in the new series had crushes on the Doctor (only one was reciprocated.) Unfortunately, the new series also has some homosexual relationships among minor characters, but nothing more is shown on-screen than a kiss. Parents might want to skip over some scenes with young children and discuss it with older ones; thankfully, such scenes tend to be only token nods.
But the overall theme of Doctor Who is the struggle between pacifism and fighting. Despite all the enemies the Doctor faces, he is incredibly reluctant to pick up a gun. His trademark ‘weapon’ is not a laser or a pistol, but a sonic screwdriver. And unlike Lord of the Rings, where only some enemies (Southrons and Easterlings) are shown mercy the Doctor’s tries to give everyone a chance, even in cases where it seems ridiculous. His plans tend to have three stages:
1. Talk
2. Sonic
3. Run (often skips to this one)
On the other hand, if the villain rejects the offer, retribution is swift and harsh. One of the clearest examples of this is in the two-part episode Human Nature/Family of Blood. Without spoiling the ending, I will quote a character to describe the Doctor’s wrath.
“He never raised his voice. That was the worst thing — the fury of the Time Lord. And then we discovered why — why this Doctor, who had fought with gods and demons, why he had run away from us and hidden... He was being kind.” (Family of Blood)

According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, a myth is “a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; especially : one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society.”
The Doctor is a lonely man, one who travels the universe but has no place to call home. He is constantly battling monsters and the dark side of himself, facing things that crawled out of humanity’s worst nightmares and trying to balance respect for all life with the dangerous nature of his enemies.
Tolkien’s mythology exalted lowly heroes like Frodo who succeed with the aid of friends. But the Doctor, who feels alone and caught in a never-ending battle, is an embodiment of today’s society. He is a new mythology built around the values of our time.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

"Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus" by C.S. Lewis

... and beyond this there lies in the ocean, turned towards the west and the north, the island of Niatirb which Hecataeus indeed declares to be the same size and shape as Sicily, but it is larger, and though in calling it triangular a man would not miss the mark. It is densely inhabited by men who wear clothes not very different from other barbarians who occupy the north- western parts of Europe though they do not agree with them in language. These islanders, surpassing all the men of whom we know in patience and endurance, use the following customs.

In the middle of winter when fogs and rains most abound they have a great festival which they call Exmas , and for fifty days they prepare for it in the fashion I shall describe. First of all, every citizen is obliged to send to each of his friends and relations a square piece of hard paper stamped with a picture, which in their speech is called an Exmas-card . But the pictures represent birds sitting on branches, or trees with a dark green prickly leaf, or else men in such garments as the Niatirbians believe that their ancestors wore two hundred years ago riding in coaches such as their ancestors used, or houses with snow on their roofs. And the Niatirbians are unwilling to say what these pictures have to do with the festival, guarding (as I suppose) some sacred mystery. And because all men must send these cards the market-place is filled with the crowd of those buying them, so that there is great labour and weariness.

But having bought as many as they suppose to be sufficient, they return to their houses and find there the like cards which others have sent to them. And when they find cards from any to whom they also have sent cards, they throw them away and give thanks to the gods that this labour at least is over for another year. But when they find cards from any to whom they have not sent, then they beat their breasts and wail and utter curses against the sender; and, having sufficiently lamented their misfortune, they put on their boots again and go out into the fog and rain and buy a card for him also. And let this account suffice about Exmas-cards.

They also send gifts to one another, suffering the same things about the gifts as about the cards, or even worse. For every citizen has to guess the value of the gift which every friend will send to him so that he may send one of equal value, whether he can afford it or not. And they buy as gifts for one another such things as no man ever bought for himself. For the sellers, understanding the custom, put forth all kinds of trumpery, and whatever, being useless and ridiculous, sell as an Exmas gift. And though the Niatirbians profess themselves to lack sufficient necessary things, such as metal, leather, wood and paper, yet an incredible quantity of these things is wasted every year, being made into the gifts.

But during these fifty days the oldest, poorest and the most miserable of citizens put on false beards and red robes and walk in the market-place; being disguised (in my opinion) as Cronos. And the sellers of gifts no less than the purchasers become pale and weary, because of the crowds and the fog, so that any man who came into a Niatirbian city at this season would think that some great calamity had fallen on Niatirb. This fifty days of preparation is called in their barbarian speech the Exmas Rush .

But when the day of the festival comes, then most of the citizens, being exhausted with the Rush , lie in bed till noon. But in the evening they eat five times as much supper as on other days and, crowning themselves with crowns of paper, they become intoxicated. And on the day after Exmas they are very grave, being internally disordered by the supper and the drinking and reckoning how much they have spent on gifts and on the wine. For wine is so dear among the Niatirbians that a man must swallow the worth of a talent before he is well intoxicated.

Such, then, are their customs about the Exmas. But the few among the Niatirbians have also a festival, separate and to themselves, called Crissmas , which is on the same day as Exmas. And those who keep Crissmas, doing the opposite to the majority of the Niatirbians, rise early on that day with shining faces and go before sunrise to certain temples where they partake of a sacred feast. And in most of the temples they set out images of a fair woman with a new-born Child on her knees and certain animals and shepherds adoring the Child. (The reason of these images is given in a certain sacred story which I know but do not repeat.)

But I myself conversed with a priest in one of these temples and asked him why they kept Crissmas on the same day as Exmas; for it appeared to me inconvenient. But the priest replied, “It is not lawful, O Stranger, for us to change the date of Crissmas, but would that Zeus would put it into the minds of the Niatirbians to keep Exmas at some other time or not to keep it at all. For Exmas and the Rush distract the minds even of the few from sacred things. And we indeed are glad that men should make merry at Crissmas; but in Exmas there is no merriment left.”

And when I asked him why they endured the Rush, he replied, “It is, O Stranger, a racket, using (as I suppose) the words of some oracle and speaking unintelligibly to me (for a racket is an instrument which the barbarians use in a game called tennis ).

But what Hecataeus says, that Exmas and Crissmas are the same, is not credible. For the first, the pictures which are stamped on the Exmas-cards have nothing to do with the sacred story which the priests tell about Crissmas. And secondly, the most part of the Niatirbians, not believing the religion of the few, nevertheless send the gifts and cards and participate in the Rush and drink, wearing paper caps. But it is not likely that men, even being barbarians, should suffer so many and great things in honour of a god they do not believe in. And now, enough about Niatirb.

C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock,
"Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus"
(1st published in Time and Tide, 1954)

Flight of Shadows

Flight of Shadows by Sigmund Brouwer is the sequel to Broken Angel by the same, but it stands well on its own. Caitlyn and her friends have managed to escape the theocracy of Appalachia, but the world Outside is just as harsh to those with differences. What will Caitlyn decide about her deformity--to keep it and the risk that comes with it, or to get rid of it?
I actually pereferred this book to its prequel because it did a better job of getting inside the character's heads and giving the reader an emotional attachment. It is a beautiful blending of suspense and sci-fi--think the Maximium Ride series with a dash of Ted Dekker, but much better planned than Patterson's books. 4/5 stars
I recieved a free copy of this book through Waterbrook's Blogging for books program but was not required to write a positive review.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Mining for Pomegranates

One of the most wonderful things about being an author is revision--the chance to look at your work through new eyes and see things you missed the first time. This is especially true when it comes to NaNoWriMo novels, which are written at breakneck speed.
In a way, it's like miners trying to break through a mountain. They don't care about scenery or stability. But later, when the dust has settled and we have time to use the more delicate equipment in our toolbox, we start looking closer. Perhaps we'll open a new passage because one part is unstable and prone to cave-ins, or we'll widen one tunnel for easier access. But the best part is when the lamplight reveals a cavern full of sparkling gems. Each gentle tap opens up even more wonders to our sight.
It's also like making a fruit salad. You throw in whatever you can find in the cupboard and fridge, and only on the third or fourth helping that you identify that delightful taste lingering in your mouth. Pomegranate seeds? You don't remember putting them into the bowl, but it's so delicious you don't really care.
So as you sit down to edit a story--any story--don't think of it as a dull, boring task. Think of it as an opportunity to find something new.