Among Others

I’ve had this particular book of Jo Walton’s (along with several others) on my to-read shelf for a long time, and I mean a loooooooong time. I grew interested in Walton’s books after following along with her obsessively detailed rereading of Pat Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles (the first book of which, The Name of the Wind, is perhaps my favorite book of all time, though I don’t know if it can really unseat The Lord of the Rings from that position). It was brilliant. I found her writing to be insightful, thought-provoking, humorous, and thoroughly enjoyable. I figured that anyone who loved Rothfuss’s books as much—or more—than I did was well worth reading in her own right, and yet I still didn’t make it a priority to start reading any of her books. But after finding a used copy of Among Others at Barter Books a couple months ago it finally moved up my list, and boy am I happy it did.

 

This book is a joy. As Pat Rothfuss said of it, “This book is gently magical.” I like that. Gently magical. It really is a perfect description. The magic doesn’t overwhelm the narrative and it is something that always remains just beyond the understanding of those humans who attempt it. It works, but its repercussions and real-life effects are not always fully understood.

 

It is saturated with books, most of them SFF from the late 1970s and earlier, and the most influential book within the text is . . . you guessed it, The Lord of the Rings. And considering the role LotR plays within the text it should come as no surprise that the book itself manages to accomplish all the primary aims Tolkien elucidated for the genre of Fairy Story, in which this delightful book squarely resides. You see, while it’s a story of a girl in her early teens living in late 1970s Wales and England and the SFF books she loves and wrestles with, it’s also about a girl who sees and speaks with fairies and is willing to sacrifice everything to perform the magic they ask her to do—and through this magic to save the world. And yet, the whole story is told through journal entries. So the tragic event that shapes the whole narrative, and precedes the first journal entry by several months, isn’t actually explained until very near the end. While this format might turn some off, I found it captivating. Experiencing the wonder of books and the slow unfolding of magic in this girl’s life (in conjunction with all the other things you would expect in the journal of a 15 year-old girl) was like a stroll through unfamiliar country that bears striking similarities to familiar paths and places. It was a joy, which is as it should be. For the genre of Fairy Story should contain within it hints of joy that break in from beyond the walls of the world. It should bring about recovery, escape, and consolation. And it does! It most certainly does!

 

So, do yourself a favor and go read this one. It won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for good reason.

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A Slow Defeat

Times like these prove life to be

nothing but a slow defeat.

We’re losing ground each passing day

as peace and justice fade to grey.

We injure love and ruin all

with senseless wounds and hurt and gall.

 

In these sad and broken days

our hearts are mourning Christ’s delays.

Come swiftly Jesus, Kindly King,

set wrongs to right, and healing bring.

 

We long for what we’ve never seen

a realm of rampant harmony:

where all are welcome, all are heard,

where hearts are mended, and the world

is free from wrack, and free from strife

and each breathes to each a vibrant life.

Tolkien and Boethius

Have you ever had one of those moments when you read something that perfectly encapsulated something you’ve been thinking (and possibly writing about) for months? Well I had one of those moments last week and it was reading Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy. In this particular bit, Boethius is writing about the effects of sin on human lives, and his phrasing (aside from the fact that the translation I’m reading from is about 400 years old) sounds like something straight out of my partially-written chapter on Saruman. In this chapter I’m thinking through what exactly happens to Saruman over the course of his personal story arc. I’m thinking through his starting and ending points, and Boethius nails it! As I’ve already mentioned in a previous post, Saruman in effect become no-one and no-thing as a direct result of his actions within Middle-earth (though as a created spirit with free will he can never really become no-thing in the truest sense since created spirits cannot be annihilated, but within the context of Arda, and possibly Ea, he ceases to exist in any meaningful fashion), or as Boethius’ anonymous 17th century translator puts it, “Whatsoever is, must also bee good. And in this manner, whatsoever falleth from goodnesse, ceaseth to be…”
This is straight up Tolkien. All created things are good since they are created by Eru, Iluvatar, the One. So even that which is broken and fallen with Arda was not always so; not Morgoth, not Sauron, not orcs, not Saruman. All things were originally good and by virtue of being maintain some semblance of goodness. But, by pursuing vice and falling from goodness created things cease to be what they once were. They lose their goodness and in doing so lose their very being; so too for Morgoth, Sauron, orcs, and Saruman. By embracing evil, wickedness, and sin and pursuing them they sacrifice their goodness and their very being, leaving themselves to become, in the end, no-one and no-thing. They are an absence rather than a presence. But still they have power. Still they can negatively affect the world. And yet while “evil labours with vast power and perpetual success” it always does so “in vain: preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout in” (Letters, 76). 
This is the truth of the world all around us. It may seem that evil is winning, but it’s not. It may seem that the darkness will forever prevail, but it won’t. It may be that hope has died, but it will always be reborn. Evil cannot conquer forever. One day, it will cease. It will become what it truly is: no-one and no-thing. 

Ennoblement

It’s nice when you start working on a PhD thesis with an idea in mind, a hunch about the way things are, and after working on it for close to two years you come across confirmation that you’re on the right track–that what you’ve suspected all along is actually true…

“I regard the tale of Arwen and Aragorn as the most important of the Appendices; it is part of the essential story, and is only placed so, because it could not be worked into the main narrative without destroying its structure: which is planned to be ‘hobbito-centric’, that is, primarily a study of the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble.”*

  • The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin (2000), p. 237.

The Spider’s War

There’s a good chance this will prove to the best book I read all year. It’s a truly satisfying conclusion to one of the best series I’ve yet read. Big claims, I know, so hopefully I can offer some support for them:

The characters are well-drawn and absolutely convincing. They act consistently and believably, and that means even the characters you’re rooting for aren’t always likable, and the bad guys aren’t all bad. Which leads me to Geder. He is the perfect example of this. His actions are understandable, but he never comes across sympathetically. You’re never rooting for his success even when you understand how damaged he is and how badly he longs to belong. He’s a horrible man, but his relationship with Aster is tender and sweet. It is all the things you’d hope it would be, but Geder’s tenderness and affection for his ward don’t stop him from ordering some true atrocities (all while blaming others for “forcing him to do it” of course). He’s a petty man, small minded and proud, but he isn’t Sauron . . . he isn’t a dark lord with strictly malicious purposes (not that I have any problem with heroes battling against truly epic evil mind you). He isn’t some malevolent force that has lost all that was originally good in him. No, he’s human, just like all tyrants throughout our history, and that means he is equally capable of compassion, mercy, and monstrosity. Murder, butchery, and intense rage contrast with his deep and abiding love of and respect for his father. I’m sure Hitler felt tenderly toward his nearest and dearest, but that didn’t stop him from genocide. It doesn’t stop Geder either. And so evil as represented by Geder is an Augustinian evil–it is an evil characterized not by some intense substantive force, but rather by lack. It is evil as privatio boni, the privation of the good. In this, he parallels Sauron, only on a much smaller scale. He is capable of human-level evil, rather than angelic-level evil (or dragon-level evil to put it in the terms of The Dagger and the Coin). In a world where humanity (in all its races–and we’ll talk more about that in a moment) has risen from the ashes of a dragon-apocalypse to stand on its own two feet, it’s exactly the right depiction of evil, and it’s made even more fitting in the context of war and suffering which is portrayed so dramatically. 

Moving on . . .

Every time Marcus and Yardem are on the page together, I smile. The way they speak to each other is great. Like the best of friends who have worked together, travelled together, and survived countless difficulties together they know each others’ minds so well they don’t even need to speak in full sentences. Their abrupt, punchy dialogue is both delightful and unique. Where others might be long winded, these two speak only the words that must be spoken. Why say, “Yes, it is” when “Is” communicates the same thing? Love it!

The place of medieval banking as a primary story element in this epic fantasy series is amazing! Who would have thought banking would be both fascinating and powerful? Apparently Daniel Abraham would. Of course there’s political intrigue and war, but money is the driving force in these novels and the advancements in banking are integral to the advancement of the plot and of course to the story’s conclusion. Brilliantly done!

The world-building behind this series is magnificent. The conception of the different races forged by dragons from one original stock of humanity is executed perfectly. The differences are shown in the final volumes to be intentional (both on Abraham’s part and on the dragons’) and integral to the plot. The locales are varied and exciting without being extravagant, but they match the races who populate them. It’s a fascinating thought experiment to wonder how humanity would respond if we were essentially divided into 12 very different races or breeds (think humans as we know them side-by-side with humans fashioned in the likeness of dragons, or dogs, or otters . . . they’re all human, even when they’re covered in thick furry pelts or dragon scales). Of course there’s racism and prejudice, but there’s also a shared humanity that even such physiological differences cannot change. And this element of a united (even if not always friendly or beneficent) humanity is in stark contrast to the role of humanity under the rule of the dragons . . .

And don’t even get me started on Inys . . . 

Finally, the main threads of the series are tied off as only a master storyteller can accomplish, but that doesn’t mean Abraham ties off all the threads. He has left himself room to tell other stories (or even another series) within this world that will build on what’s already happened while introducing us to new characters and locales. I really hope he does it because I’m not ready to leave this world behind. I want more of it, and that’s a testament to the work Abraham has put into making this world feel intriguing and real. But even if he doesn’t revisit this world (and he has said in the comments of a post on his blog that he currently has no intentions of doing so), he has given us a masterfully crafted tale in five parts, each one better than the one before. I cannot recommend this series highly enough.

Praying for Rain

When I posted “Creation Song” a few weeks ago I mentioned that it was something of an oldie, but compared to the poem below, it’s still young! “Praying for Rain” came out of a poetry writing class I took as an undergrad in February 2001! I’d been writing poetry for several years at that point, but it was the first poem I felt truly proud of–proud enough to share it in class, which for an introvert like me is saying something. It mingles images from my childhood home with a vivid dream I had not too long before writing it. Even after 15 years, I still like it and I hope you do too!

Praying for Rain

Home, with its azure skin
painstakingly applied
in the searing summer sun,
and its shaded jungle of a yard
overrun with vines,
and protective hummingbirds dive-bombing
the cat, killing his curiosity,
and the blossoms of the silverberry tree
strewn across the yard
like ashen fingerprints –
all this is home,
all this is my world,
all this is burning.

A Prayer Project on Saruman

No surprise here, but I’ve been thinking a lot about Saruman lately (after all I am currently writing a chapter of my thesis on him). Most recently I’ve been thinking about the power of his voice to coerce and manipulate, to sway others to his point of view, and basically remove their personal agency from them to replace it with his own. What’s worst about it is that Saruman was explicitly forbidden from acting in this way before being sent to Middle-earth. The Valar forbade the Istari from unveiling their power to dominate Elves or humans, yet Saruman was swayed away from obedience by his desire to see a good end accomplished in the particular way he wanted to see it done. It’s sad to see one with such potential for goodness and redemptive influence go so wrong, but it has really only highlighted for me the ways that I live in similar (if much less dramatic) ways.

How often have I name dropped, or responded to situations so as to communicate that I already knew the information being shared–that I am well-liked and in the know, that my voice should be attended to and welcomed? How often have I disobeyed express commands from the One who sent me into this world? How am I really any different from Saruman?

Well, hopefully I’m different in the same ways the characters of the story are. They too are faced with life under the sun in the same way I am. They too are tempted toward self-aggrandizement and subtle pomposity. They are human, with the same struggles and foibles I have–with the same struggles Saruman has–but they actively resist. I can do the same. But, I have an advantage against these struggles that they do not have. I, like all Christians, have the Holy Spirit alive in me. The very presence of God breathing light and life into limbs prone to sin. I, by the grace of God, can choose obedience and faithfulness. I don’t need to end up like Saruman. Rather, I can end up like Frodo or Sam: granted passage aboard a ship bound for a port beyond the walls of the world. What a gift! What grace! Hallelujah! Amen.