Hey folks! This Wednesday (12/21) at 10am PST, I’ll be interviewing Austin M. Freeman about his new book Tolkien Dogmatics. The link above should take you there.
This post is a little glimpse into the way my mind works. Not intentionally so, but more as a natural side-effect of me sitting down with a pen and paper to record my thoughts in the moment.
So, I’m reading a few books right now, and one thing I love about doing that is seeing connections between them in ways that feel immediate and fresh, unforced and natural in ways that prolonged, intentional reflection can’t achieve. Don’t get me wrong. I love prolonged and intentional reflection. It’s where some of my best and most transformative thoughts have come from. But there’s something powerful about immediacy and spontaneity.
So, I want to pay attention right now to how captivated I am by the books I’m reading (particularly Nona the Ninth and The Citadel of the Autarch) and see where that leads me.
The first thing I see is the use across both stories (and their predecessors) is the term, lictor, which makes me pause to look up the word. What does it mean? Essentially, a lictor was a Roman bodyguard, a specially-selected civil servant with the right to carry out capital punishment. This makes sense for Severian. That’s his job. But what about the lictors in Nona’s (and Gideon’s and Harrow’s) world? Since I’m not done with Nona and so much of the book is told in flashbacks to John’s early days (or at least dreams in which he tells the story of those early days to Harrowhark), I think I’ll get there.
But the prevalence and importance of death to the stories is the next thing that stands out to me. In neither story is death a thing to be avoided at all costs like it is for most of us in 21st century America. It reminds me of my PhD research and the beautiful train of thought that sees death as a mercy, rather than a punishment, as a good part of a good universe. As hard and painful as it is for those left behind, it is a profoundly natural and necessary part of the world we live in.
After all, life comes from death. New growth from destruction. And this connects to a third thing I’ve been reading: Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. I have in mind the prodigal, Destruction, also known as Olethros, which has the connotation of destruction that leads to regrowth or rebirth. Not wanton, but targeted with future flourishing in mind. It’s the same idea as that of pruning the vine so the remaining branches will bear more fruit. Destruction with a positive connotation. Destruction which precedes renewal.
What a thought.
And it’s a thought that feels especially appropriate given the state of the world today. How much in our world needs to be destroyed so renewal can occur? How much must crumble, be torn down and destroyed, so that what is good and true and beautiful can emerge? So much. So much.
Olethros is hard, but it is needed. It will hurt, but sometimes pain is required for healing to take place. And that is what the world needs today: healing. But the boils must be lanced so the infection can be cleansed. The festering rot of racism and systemic injustice must be healed. The strip-mining of creation must be stopped and salved. The inequities of capitalism run amok must cease so that a new and better world can emerge.
We need to dream better dreams. Dreams of a world made whole, where everybody belongs and peace (which is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice) prevails. We need to imagine the world as it could be. One that allows everyone to flourish and thrive, bearing good fruit that feeds us all.
Hey there everyone. This is just a heads up to let you know that I have a new blog post on C.S. Lewis up on the Logos Academic Blog (LAB). If you feel so inclined, head on over and check it out.
And if you feel further inclined, go ahead and sign up for updates from the LAB while you’re there. They post regularly on all sorts of interesting things connected to the world of biblical studies and academia.
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.
My older son has been reading for nearly a year now. I just saw the entry in his school reading journal from January 20th of last year. It’s remarkable how far he has come in the past year–from not being able to read beyond making the sounds of each letter to plowing through his early reader books. I’m so proud of him!
But this isn’t an entry just to brag about my boy; no, it’s about the vistas that open up to us in reading. He’s on the cusp of those vistas now. He can’t quite see the grand sights, but we occasionally get glimpses. Whether it’s laughing at Kipper and Biff (who came up with these names?!?) or eagerly turning pages to find out how Zeb escapes the stormtroopers, he’s beginning to see the joys that await us through reading.
I’ve been enjoying reading for so long that I can hardly remember what it was like before, but I used to hate reading. Hated it! I just wanted to play with my G.I. Joes or go out and play baseball. None of this reading nonsense! But then I found fantasy novels in seventh grade and just like that, I was hooked. It was quite a turnaround. From despising reading to staying up far past my bedtime just to see how Drizzt and Wulfgar would make it out in one piece.
I’m looking forward to when he gets there–when stories capture his heart and mind, because I can see it happening every now and then. When that day comes I hope he’ll want me to read Lewis and Tolkien to him, Harry Potter and Roald Dahl, but when it comes down to it, I’ll read anything he wants so we can enjoy it together.
It’ll be fun when it happens, but for now I’ll help him along with his early readers, knowing they are preparing him for a lifetime of laughter, excitement, joy, and transformation. Their simple words are casting a spell that will stengthen with age, unlocking the doors of imagined worlds and beckoning us in, inviting us to see worlds both wondrous and strange.
Those days are coming. And I can hardly wait.