A Wizard of Earthsea

First, let me express my hearty thanks to Anton Rose (@antonjrose) for letting me raid his bookshelf so that I could finally read this masterwork of speculative fiction. Second, how did it take me so long to get around to this wonderful little book?

There are a lot of things I could write about when it comes to A Wizard of Earthsea, but I’m going to focus on just one here, and it comes from the end of the book so beware: SPOILERS AHEAD!

If you’re still with me, then let me proceed. For a large chunk of this book (and it’s less than 200 pages long, by the way), Ged is either fleeing from or pursuing a shadow, a denizen of the darkness who was allowed to enter into the real, physical world through Ged’s carelessness and arrogance. The turning point in the story is when Ged transitions from fleeing the shadow to seeking it out. In seeking out what has terrified and crippled him, that thing loses its terrible power over him. All that is well and good, but at the end of Le Guin’s tale, after Ged has finally confronted the shadow and named it with his own name (see, I told you there would be spoilers), his friend Vetch sees that

Ged had neither lost nor won but, naming the shadow of his death with his own name, had made himself whole: a man: who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life therefore is lived for life’s sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark.

This is a powerful narration of the spiritual formation process. We are so prone to emphasizing those facets of our character and personality that make us look good, that make others respect, admire, or appreciate us. But at best that is just a snapshot of who we really are – it’s just the tip of the iceberg. At worst, it’s an outright lie, a fabrication set up to mask and disguise reality.

But wholeness – at least as far as life within the world as we know it is concerned – necessitates acknowledging, embracing, and welcoming our shadow-selves (naming our darkness with our own name and knowing that Christ died for that aspect as well as our “more presentable” side; or as Thomas H. Green, S.J. might have encouraged, we need to learn to sit among our weeds, not just within our wheat). Wholeness rests in allowing Christ to shine his light into the darkness of our souls, welcoming the Spirit into more and more of our hidden places so that they too can be seen and known and redeemed.

Le Guin has not written an allegory of the spiritual life in her little book, but the insight she narrates sheds light on the world around us, on what is true both psychologically and spiritually. And because she has narrated this reality rather than simply telling us that this is the case, the insight is more striking and resonant. We experience it through another’s perspective and we might just see how we can experience it in our own. We might see ways in which we can name our shadow-selves with our own names, and in doing so experience the love of Christ even there, where we may feel darkest and least lovable.

Skin and An Ember in the Ashes

Okay, so this won’t be a proper book review, but is more of a meditation on two books with similar audiences, similar blurbs, but very different impacts on this particular reader. Both Skin by Ilka Tampke and An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir were compared to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire though, I suppose, in all fairness the comparison is actually to the HBO adaptation of his books. The comparison is fitting for both books, but for very different reasons.

For Skin it comes down to sex. Plain and simple. There is a lot of sex in Tampke’s book, and none of it presents sex in a good light. It is animalistic and bestial with nothing setting human sex apart from animal sex–she seems to make the mistake that Tolkien witnessed in the 1930s and described in one of the endnotes of his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’: when it comes to sex in Tampke’s novel, humans are presented not only as animals–which is scientifically correct–but as only animals. There’s nothing good or beautiful about sex in her portrayal. It’s just acting on animal instincts. There’s a lot more about her book that makes me uncomfortable, and it mirrors Martin’s work in those ways too, but it is in the presentation of sex that she follows Martin most closely, and that is the biggest shortcoming of Skin.

If we turn our attention to Tahir’s novel, we get a world that is absolutely brutal. Her main characters suffer some truly horrendous things, and also do some truly horrendous things, and so it is the violence in her world that is most strongly reminiscent of Martin’s Westeros. But what she does with violence is what sets her apart. Like in Martin’s work, no character (except of course the two PoV characters–this is YA fiction after all) is truly safe, and the peril makes the danger real. Tahir’s characters are painted in varying shades of grey, so that even the ‘good guys’ can’t be trusted and the ‘bad guys’ have truly redeeming qualities. With that said, though their morals and personal choices reveal them as decidedly grey, the characters (even the side characters) are drawn with enough color and flavor that their peril and suffering become truly powerful events, not just for the characters who know them but the reader vicariously experiencing all this. There is one scene in particular that hit me like a punch in the kidneys. It left me aching for the characters and the trauma they had experienced, which is just as it should be. Tahir doesn’t shy away from violence, but neither does she revel in it. She shows, so very clearly, that violence has consequences, and those consequences are psychological and spiritual just as much as they are physical. Violence may be the only adequate pathway at times, but that doesn’t mean it should be or can be chosen lightly, and it certainly doesn’t remove the consequences of violent actions. In fact, you might say that it is one, just one, past violent action that is the driving force behind the entire plot, and it’s not the surface conflict that is introduced on page one. This novel introduces a world with depth and history, just like Martin’s, but there is still room for hope–and even indications that the hoped for end will become reality one day.

Comparing fantasy books to A Song of Ice and Fire is all the rage right now, because for the first time in a long time, that comparison may draw in readers who wouldn’t have considered themselves interested in fantasy before picking up Martin’s books or watching HBO’s adaptation. And in both cases, the comparison will not wholly disappoint readers. One of them will appease readers seeking titillation, but the other is reminiscent of the best parts of Martin’s epic, and in those particular ways it may even surpass them.

The American Tolkien?

In 2005, Time Magazine’s Lev Grossman—a fantasy author in his own right—called George R. R. Martin “The American Tolkien” and the label stuck. But the comparison only holds true on the surface. The world Martin conceived in his epic series A Song of Ice and Fire unapologetically takes the path of darkness and unremitting violence that Tolkien believed Fantasy must avoid. The characters are motivated by honor and greed, lust and revenge. In some cases they are just trying to survive, just like fallen humanity in the world we know. But in Martin’s Westeros there is no joy to pursue, no beauty to protect. From the outside we can see that it is a world in desperate need of Recovery, but from the inside it is unclear if Recovery is even possible, because if there was no Fall, Recovery would not be necessary. But rather than positing an unfallen world, Martin has proposed a world in which the fallen state we see and know is the natural one. Martin’s world has always been a hostile and unforgiving place. Sorrow and failure have always been either on the horizon or a present reality, but where some of these things sound true of the world as we know it, Martin’s world doesn’t seem to have the room for the eucatastrophic turn that our world does. Universal, final defeat seems inevitable for Westeros. Martin meant it as a mirror-world in the sense that all fantasy mirrors reality to some degree, but the world Martin mirrors is the fallen and broken one we know and long to escape.

As a self-attested lapsed Catholic fascinated by religion, but unconvinced about the existence of a gracious and loving God sovereignly caring for all that he has made, it’s easy to see how Martin’s foundation differs from Tolkien’s. Their worlds bear a passing similarity, but where Tolkien’s is broken and fallen, Martin’s is simply dark. It is not broken, because that implies a state preceding the current darkness. In this case, the different roots cause their trees to produce very different fruit. This is not to say that there is no good in Martin’s series. By setting out to write nuanced, grey characters who reflect humanity’s dual potential to do good and do harm, Martin offers characters who feel real. They are no different from people walking or driving through cities and towns all around us. By making the central conflict one between people who are equally capable of cruelty and benevolence rather than between good and evil on the macro level, Martin’s world resembles ours today. It takes into account the reality that two sides may be at war, but that doesn’t necessarily make either side wholly good or wholly bad. Tolkien has been unfairly criticized in recent years for writing a struggle that is too black and white, but this criticism mistakes Tolkien’s roots for Martin’s. It is expecting Tolkien’s world to mirror ours in the way Martin’s does, but that is missing the heart of Middle Earth. Middle Earth is a sub-creation both as a secondary world conceived by Tolkien and as a primary world within the story itself where it was sung into existence by the Ainur as they play their part in the great symphony propounded by Eru, the One. But in the context of the story itself, it is also primary creation. Eru proposed the music. He conceived it. The Ainur participated in the making, but the concept belonged to Eru alone. Martin’s Westeros is not primary creation. In the context of the story, it is not creation at all.

This is of the utmost importance. Middle Earth’s mirroring of our world as a primary creation means that it too contains the possibility of Escape, Consolation, and Recovery—of eucatastrophe—that our world does. But Martin’s does not. Martin’s offers superficial escape—to a land of dragons and magic, but not a world that hints at the redemption of the primary world. It offers no consolation because there is no hope that things will ever truly change. If people are people in the way Martin imagines, darkness and violence will never end, which means there can be no recovery because there is nothing to be regained. No goodness has been lost; no beauty can be reclaimed; and truth is dark and grim. This is clearly illustrated in Martin’s belief that Tolkien took a wrong step when Gandalf came back to life. According to Martin, Gandalf should have stayed dead. Where Gandalf came back, no longer as Gandalf the Grey but as Gandalf the White, Lady Catelyn Stark comes back as the cold and ruthless Stoneheart, living in her physical body but dead in her soul. Both experience a resurrection of sorts, but the kind Martin imagines is unlike the kind Tolkien provides in The Lord of the Rings and the kind Jesus offers in the primary world. Gandalf comes back as he does because Tolkien’s world mirrors one in which “the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe” has actually occurred: our world. Martin’s world mirrors one that is lost and hopeless: it is what ours would be if Christ not only had never come, but did not even exist. And that is a truly grim world to consider.

A few more thoughts on grimdark

So I was rereading Tolkien’s essay On Fairy Stories[1]–because, you know, that’s my job right now–and found he had some very clear thoughts on the subject of grimdark, even though it wasn’t “a thing” during his lifetime.

In paragraph 82 he notes that the richness of our artistic heritage offers a unique danger: that of boredom or an anxiety to be original. This is a danger because it can lead us to despise what has become trite and familiar in favour of the startling and titillating. He writes:

“But the true road of escape from such weariness is not to be found in the wilfully awkward, clumsy, or misshapen, not in making all things dark or unremittingly violent; nor in the mixing of colours on through subtlety to drabness, and the fantastical complication of shapes to the point of silliness and on towards delirium. Before we reach such states we need recovery.”

And that is where grimdark has strayed from the foundation Tolkien laid for fantasy. It has pursued the dark and unremittingly violent in an attempt at authenticity; it has abandoned hope rather than seeking to recover what we’ve lost along the way. And the end result of grimdark is clear: darkness, pain, and despair await. But for Tolkien, the end is Joy, “Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief” (99).

You see, Tolkien does not ignore the pain and loss and grief that run rampant in this world or in the secondary world he imagined, he just denies the universal, final defeat that nihilism foresees. Why? Because he knew that defeat doesn’t have to be the end of the story. As a Christian, he knew what kind of story he was living in. He knew that, despite the horrors of two world wars that supplied much evidence for the inevitable defeat of hope and peace, the Christian story begins and ends with Joy. New life brackets the story. Birth and resurrection provide the frame. There might be horrible pain filling the story’s middle, but the Joy at story’s end is everlasting. As St. Paul wrote: “For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison.” And that man knew affliction in his bones.

So hold fast to your hope, even when the darkness seems impenetrable. Day will dawn, and Joy will follow in its wake.

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, Tolkien On Fairy-Stories, ed. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson (London: HarperCollins, 2008).

Why There’s No Such Thing as Christian Grimdark

First, a special thanks to Josh Castleman for pointing me to the interview with Steven Erikson I’ll be thinking through in this post. Before you click on that link, know there’s some colorful language sprinkled throughout. Just so you know…

So in the linked interview, Steven Erikson, author of The Malazan Book of the Fallen and other novels, defines the current trend in fantasy literature which many have called Grimdark. Erikson’s take on Grimdark differs from many others in that he doesn’t focus on the “grittiness” of the stories or the often rampant violence they contain. No. Erikson looks deeper, saying: “As a writer I can’t help but look at another author’s work of fiction from a perspective of what, how and why. What is being said, how is it being said, and finally, why is it being said.”

It’s the why that stands out to me and to Erikson, and it is the why that answers the question in this post’s title. So why is Grimdark gritty, visceral, and hopeless? Because it’s taking its cues from the ethosphere–Erikson’s term for the ethos of the culture surrounding you–of both authors and readers, and sadly enough that ethosphere is a Nihilistic one. Many experience this world as a hopeless one, devoid of compassion, justice, mercy, and love where there is no chance for redemption or reconciliation. In short, they recognize that this world is broken, but they don’t see any hope for its healing.

And that is why there cannot be, by definition, Christian Grimdark. If we write from within, and we leave something of our souls on the page when we do, as Christians we cannot leave our stories as hopeless ones because we do not believe that is the way this world will end. If we are, as Erikson says, “driving towards authenticity” our stories must contain something of that hope we carry. That’s not to say that every story must end hopefully, or with all the pieces put back together, but there must be room for it. We must as readers be able to see how redemption is possible, even if it’s only hinted at beyond the story’s end. Because this world is broken and many days and weeks end in the darkness and brokenness of despair, but that’s not where the story ends. This world will be redeemed and made whole once more.

So go ahead and tell the dark and gritty story you have to tell, let it pour out into the secondary world you’ve invented, but if you want to be authentic in your writing, make sure there’s room in all the grit for faith, hope, and love–in short, for redemption. Because that is the foundational reality the primary world is built upon.

All I’ll say about this year’s Hugo nominations

There’s a great big tide of Internet hullaballoo over this year’s Hugo Award finalists. If you neither know what the Hugos are nor have any idea what I’m talking about, you can probably just skip this entry.

Anyway, lots of people are suggesting how to vote and giving good reasons for those opinions, others are encouraging their readers to vote their conscience (which is a remarkably practical suggestion). I will only weigh in on this by referring to my reviews of the pieces the Puppies pushed through onto last year’s ballot:

The Exchange Officers

Opera Vita Aeterna

Let me offer one simple suggestion: maybe their stories haven’t won, not because of some conspiracy within the Sci-Fi/Fantasy community, but because they’re not good enough to win. Just throwing that out there.