C. S. Lewis Sums It Up

As he often did. From That Hideous Strength, Merlin and Ransom discussing the state of affairs:

“This Saxon king of yours who sits at Windsor, now–is there no help in him?”

“He has no power in this matter.”

“Then is he not weak enough to be overthrown?”

“I have no wish to overthrow him. He is the king. He was crowned and anointed by the Archbishop. In the order of Logres I may be Pendragon, but in the order of Britain I am the King’s man.”

“Is it, then, his great men–the counts and legates and bishops–who do the evil and he does not know of it?”

“It is–though they are not exactly the sort of great men you have in mind.”

“And are we not big enough to meet them in plain battle?”

“We are four men, some women, and a bear.”

“I saw the time when Logres was only myself and one man and two boys, and one of those was a churl. Yet we conquered.”

“It could not be done now. They have an engine called the Press whereby the people are deceived. We should die without even being heard of.”

“But what of the true clerks? Is there no help in them? It cannot be that all your priests and bishops are corrupted.”

“The Faith itself is torn in pieces since your day and speaks with a divided voice. Even if it were made whole, the Christians are but a tenth part of the people. There is no help there.”

“Then let us seek help from over sea. Is there no Christian prince in Neustria or Ireland or Benwick who would come in and cleanse Britain if he were called?”

“There is no Christian prince left. These other countries are even as Britain, or else sunk deeper still in the disease.”

“Then we must go higher. We must go to him whose office it is to put down tyrants and give life to dying kingdoms. We must call on the Emperor.”

“There is no Emperor.”

“No Emperor . . .” began Merlin, and then his voice died away. He sat still for some minutes wrestling with a world which he had never envisaged. Presently he said, “A thought comes into my mind and I do not know whether it is good or evil. But because I am the High Council of Logres I will not hide it from you. This is a cold age in which I have awaked. If all this west part of the world is apostate, might it not be lawful, in our great need, to look further . . . beyond Christendom? Should we not find some even among the heathen who are not wholly corrupt? There were tales in my day of some such: men who knew not the articles of our most holy Faith but who worshipped God as they could and acknowledged the Law of Nature. Sir, I believe it would be lawful to seek help even there–beyond Byzantium. It was rumoured also that there was knowledge in those lands–an Eastern circle and wisdom that came West from Numinor. I know not where–Babylon, Arabia, or Cathay. You said your ships had sailed all round the earth, above and beneath.”

Ransom shook his head. “You do not understand,” he said. “The poison was brewed in these West lands but it has spat itself everywhere by now. However far you went you would find the machines, the crowded cities, the empty thrones, the false writings, the barren beds: men maddened with false promises and soured with true miseries, worshipping the iron works of their own hands, cut off from Earth their mother and from the Father in Heaven. You might go East so far that East became West and you returned to Britain across the great Ocean, but even so you would not have come out anywhere into the light. The shadow of one dark wing is over all Tellus.”

“Is it, then, the end?” asked Merlin.

I don’t think it’s the end yet, for whatever my opinion is worth (hint: not much). But a sense of dread grows, one I never before felt even as a small child when we worried seriously about getting nuked.

The solution? A walk in the California sunshine, and maybe some fresh home-grown cucumbers. That ought to do it for me, for now. As for the problems on a larger scale, those are in the hands of the Oyéresu, thanks be to Maleldil. We don’t have to figure out how to win, we just have to do the best we can in the face of the ever more strident and diabolical requirement that we get in line. This fate is glorious in the infinite and divine sense – in this world, there will be only shame and destruction in standing firm. But a servant is not superior to his Master.

Brownson and the American Commonwealth

Brief thought: according to Brownson, part of being a nation by nature – by the operation of Natural Law – is the recognition of things held and valued in common. In other words, a naturally-formed nation is a commonwealth.

Brownson is clear that he’s not just or even primarily talking about the physical stuff held in common. The common wealth of a nation is most properly the ideas, dreams and sense of shared destiny that makes one person look at someone he’s never met, who may live many miles away, and think: he is my countryman; and may cause him to look at his next door neighbor and say: he is not my countryman.

If things continue as they have for the last 50 years or so (or maybe longer – that’s my personal time-frame), will we still be able to think of an Iowa farmer, a New Jersey cabbie, a California mom, a Texas dentist, a Florida laborer, a New England dental hygienist, or a Alabama city councilman as members of the same natural nation, as lovers of the same commonwealth, or will we first ask after their race, sex, country of origin, first language, level of income or some other thing that identifies their assumed true loyalties?

We already live in a country where it is routine for people in the East Coast metropolitan areas to consider Southerners, Texans and the residents of the fly-over states as rubes, bumpkins and, most especially, people whose concept of the nation and its destiny are WRONG. Many black are presented in the media (1) as having a fundamental loyalty to changing or even destroying the culture they find themselves in, one they do not share with the white people who, in theory at least, created it. In this they differ radically from Martin Luther King, who always saw blacks and whites as sharing a culture, and wanted that shared culture to be better in a way that wasn’t fundamentally destructive. (2)

Yet, ironically, the coastal city-dwellers (3) do not see themselves as attempting to destroy the nation, but rather think that the people who disagree with them are the ones doing the destruction. A Texan may think them crazy Yankees, and might fervently believe they would benefit mightily by striving to be more Texan-like – but he is unlikely to have any evangelical zeal about it. He is unlikely to think it his job to do anything at all about the situation – as long as that behavior is mutual.

But the true evangelical heart of this country has always been in the Calvinist Northeast, founded and peopled by fanatics who fled Europe so they could run their own theocracy. While the religious aspects of this attitude have evolved, then dissolved, from Puritan Calvinism through Christian Universalism  to modern secular humanism, the zeal has survived unabated, at least in enough people to keep an unshakeable (and unearned) sense of moral superiority alive. Thus, we end up, for example, with a puritanical zeal against 48 oz sodas and for homosexuality that brooks no heresy.

A key part of the nationhood of the U.S. is, or was, the recognition that we are all very different *other than* our love of the Commonwealth. How else could such a wild mix of people from all over the world ever hope to form and keep a sense of nationhood?

  1. Not any I know personally, but who am I going to believe, the media or my own lying eyes?
  2. I’m aware that there are more radical aspects to King’s philosophy, but at least in his famous public speeches, he called for all to live together – and that’s what I’m getting at here.
  3. Calling them ‘elites’ is not really accurate – I don’t find this attitude to be any less prevalent in the man on the street than in the professor or stock broker or politician in his office. However, my personal sample size is really, really small here.

Being Rash for Christ

When reading the lives of the saints, it’s common to see both a relentless practical disposition and utter spontaneity side by side in the same person. This is that whole Catholic both/and thing Chesterton among others likes to go on about. Thus, great saints will typically devote themselves to a rigorous, no excuses life of prayer and discipline AND run off to convert the Saracens at the drop of a biretta. Or kiss the leper, give somebody the clothes off their backs, take a condemned man’s place – that sort of thing.

A certain tiny rash act on my part, not remotely in the league of anything an actual saint would do reflects,  I hope, a tiny bit of the spirit of the thing: I will, it seems, be in charge of a bit of continuing Catholic education at our parish. Because the director said I could do a class, and so I submitted an outline and that was that.

Here’s what I’ll be trying to do. First note my abiding hatred of the graded classroom model, so imagine this as being done in a way to defeat that model (which lurks, after 12+ years of Pavlovian training, in our minds despite our dislike of it and despite even efforts to root it out) so as to allow actual personal relationships to be formed – which is by far my most obvious weakness as a ‘teacher’. People are just so much more demanding than living in my own head! Anyway:

Feasts and Faith: Continuing Catholic Education Continue reading “Being Rash for Christ”

Writing Update

Got on a bit of a roll, stayed up till after 1:00 a.m., and am now the proud owner of over 6,000 perfectly good English and a few nigh-unpronounceable Welsh(1)  words arranged into something like a story, minus 1.5 scenes and a bit of connecting tissue. A good number of those words will no doubt need to be trimmed, and a few more conscripted in their places. It’s tough being a word.

One little bit I’m doubtful of: I have the British characters use the proper Welsh names for mythological things  the first time they come up, but then have the Americans use the more common parallels thereafter – for example, there’s a Welsh version of the Grim Reaper called the cyhyraeth. He appears in a list of what our heroes are up against, the American then refers to him as the local version of the Grim Reaper – and that’s it. Is it off-putting as a reader to come across unknown, hard to pronounce words once or twice and then have them never used again? It seems cool to me, gives it a little flavor…

I’m liking so far how the story reflects the good cheer that’s almost always evident in Arthurian stuff – the Round Table is, after all, a sort of moveable feast, with knights clinking and drinking and feasting their ways around Arthur’s kindoms. Hoping it ends up with the right dash of  plain goofiness, another near-ubiquitous feature of the tales.

The hard part, for me at least, has been to make the ultimate battle emotionally convincing, with the right amount of action. We’ll see, I suppose – that’s the major tidying-up that needs doing.

Don’t know how it works for more experienced writers of fiction, but at least in this case, I didn’t really know what I was writing until about halfway through. I had an inkling to retell the story of Lynette and Lyoness, but knew I couldn’t do that straight up, as it’s too long, too mature (after a fashion) and has way too much gratuitous violence (that’s another characteristic of Arthurian tales: knights errant tend to kill a lot of dudes in the course of their errant-ing.)  It became an exercise in imagining what might happen 1500 years after the Red Knight is defeated and sent by Gareth to Arthur’s court. I liked the idea of a heroine whose love for her sister compels her to seek aid from the Round Table, and how she doesn’t get what she wants, but ultimately something better.

It’s a mini-hero’s tale, two parallel mini-hero’s tales, really.

Another issue with the legends: they do not have emotionally tidy resolutions, especially the Welsh versions. Some characters just disappear – Lynette is more plot device than damsel in distress, as it’s Lyoness who gets rescued and gets her knight in shining armor (after several cruel or pointless plot complications, at least in the eyes of a modern reader).  So the most work, so far, has been putting some emotional content into the bare bones, and then ending it so that everybody is not left hanging – on the level of a juvenile.

One more evening of writing, then I’ll get my victims betas (having 4 smart kids who have read a lot is a boon, let me tell you!) to give me feedback, revise, and done.

I hope. This fiction-under-a-deadline is a new thing for me.

  1. One of my friends grew up in Wales. He possesses the awesome superpower of being able to pronounce things like Llamhigyn Y Dwr and Cŵn Annwn  right the first time. I think. He could be pulling my leg, how would I know?

Book Review: Somewhither

Mild spoilers ahead – you’ve been warned.

Just finished rereading Somewhither, a grand tour through John C. Wright’s daunting and vivid imagination, wherein dwell creatures eldritch, fell and fantastic beyond anything any one, or even any small number taken together, of earth’s many mythologies ever dreamed. Plus all the worlds and trained warriors and assassins and spies and superheroes from a dozen cultures, comics and RPGs (I suppose – I just hear about those things from my kids) kicked up a notch or two by Wright’s deft muse, and all tossed into one epic blender of an adventure, of which this is only Part I.

Which is why I needed to read it twice. At least.

Short and sweet: Rollicking good time. The action never stops, the fights are epic, the worlds awesome. The banter between various characters is especially gratifying and hilarious, as it switches in a moment – often a tense life or death moment – between taunting rational direwolf-equivalents in bad Latin to teenage boys gone camping level humor to ponderously grand creatures being shot down with ‘your mother wears army boot’ type comebacks. All narrated 1st person by a large and ugly teenage boy named Illya who happens to be unkillable and who has a crush on and needs to rescue a beautiful and buxom ‘girl’ ridiculously out of his league, who happens to be – not a girl.

I thoroughly enjoyed it, even though I’m probably not in the target market bull’s eye. The ideal reader – and I’m guessing, here – would be someone who grew up on RPGs and gaming, for whom their daily routine involves visiting a new universe populated by dozens of different kinds of creatures defined more by their unusual powers and weaknesses than by mere physical attributes. Rules such as ‘he can do X to him as long as he obtains Object A, but Y won’t work because he’s a Z’  will define the actions and govern to a large extent the plot. Contrast with old-school comics where all you had to know about Superman was that Kryptonite was bad, or old Star Trek where you needed to know only that Spock could do mind melds, neck pinches and was constrained by logic (as he imperfectly understood it). In any old-school battle, there was almost always only one trick/vulnerability to keep track of. In the world of Somewhither, you meet new species of creatures and new magical objects about every chapter, then later fight them off or use them somehow – you need to maintain a mental catalogue of these creatures and objects and what they do, what they are vulnerable to, what they are impervious to, so that, when the epic fight scenes erupt, you can follow. Such activity is second nature, I suppose, to RPG players, but not to this old dude. (1)

That said, Somewhither was fun and worth it, even if I found myself fumbling about a bit, especially the first time through. Go buy it and read it!

Illya Muromets is a odd teenage boy living in rural Oregon with his even odder family. Illya has grown very large and very ugly – heavy brow ridge, huge teeth. He looks nothing like his 2 brothers or his parents. His homeschooling includes rigorous physical and combat training, as well as Latin and Hebrew. He doesn’t see this as particularly weird, just sort of odd like everything about his life. His best friend is Foster Hidden, fellow Boy Scout and champion archer.

Dad takes ‘business trips’ that involve getting armed and armored to the teeth, which arms and armor include any number of holy relics and silver bullets, and and hiking up the hill to the ruins of an old monastery and disappearing for days on end. His mother went on one such trip, and never came back.

Illya gets a job doing grunt work at a nearby ‘museum’ for the mad and colorful Professor Dreadful, who has an inexplicably beautiful and brave daughter Penelope. Penny Dreadful (groan!) tries to become the youngest person to sale around the world alone, but her yacht goes down and troubles beset her. She doesn’t get the record, but she survives and returns in time for Illya’s raging hormones to inflict the world’s worst crush on him.

Professor Dreadful gets locked up in the local nuthouse, to the surprise of few. He had been working to decipher a set of what might be cuneiform letters that appeared mysteriously on a wall at CERN after a fatal accident.

Illya gets a desperate message: Professor Dreadful has deciphered the cuneiform, which contained instruction on how to build a gateway between worlds in Ursprache, the one language spoken before the fall of the Tower of Babel.

He has constructed the gateway. He left it running in the museum basement. Penny is going there. Illya must unplug the gateway and save Penny!

Finally telling his father what he had promised to do, he gets geared up, armed with an ancient katana, and advised to shoot the humans but chop the freaks. His father’s advice includes such gems as:  “Decapitate, disembowel, dismember,”  and “Make blood loss work for you.”

It does not go well. The gate gets opened. Evil creatures invade earth. Illya ends up on a ship between worlds, ultimately a prisoner of an unimaginably great power – the unfallen Tower of Babel. The rest of the story concerns Illya’s discovery that he cannot die, his escape and his efforts to find and free Penny. While almost everyone in the Tower is an utter slave, Illya does meet up with a few good guys with interesting superpowers: Osafrage, who looks like an Old Testament prophet and can control gravity; Foster Hidden, who turns out to not be just another Boy Scout who is good with a bow; a Blemmye, a headless giant who can and will eat anything and any body; and Abby, a ‘twice born’ girl who is invisible to the stars. The story involves a series of epic fights and narrow escapes, culminating in a showdown with the only other creature just like Illya – except utterly evil. This book ends on an outrageous cliffhanger – which is, I suppose, required after the manner of its kind.

All this action and banter and wild creatures would make a great B movie. Somewhither is raised to a higher level by Wright’s key plot device: in Babel, astrology works. Everything is fated and known. All the inhabitants are slaves not just to the Tower, but to an iron fate. EXCEPT: there are those who do good for the sake of doing good, which is the one free thing a man can do. Once you do that, you are  invisible to the stars, and thus to the astrologers of Babel. BUT: do something base, something selfish or vile, and you become visible again, and trapped by Fate. Through this device, Wright is able to explore the current moral fade of Materialism, imagining that, since everything is ruled by immutable natural laws, there can be no free will, no choices made – all is determined.  Wright paints a detailed picture of the despair inevitable with such a view, and the life of freedom those who choose to do good – to die to themselves to live in God. That is the life of adventure, of sacrifice, and of love, which is ultimately what Somewhither is all about.

Eagerly awaiting Volume II.

  1. I gather also that players of RPGs and video and strategy games get to be very conversant in mythology and mythological types by osmosis (I once asked our youngest about a character race in another Wright story – a hormagaunt, I think – and he knew all about them from some game or other). I’m swimming uphill in the sense that I have to figure out and categorize unfamiliar creatures all the time:imagine reading Tolkien for the first time, and having no idea what a dwarf, elf,  troll or wizard was. Multiply that by an order of magnitude, and you’re in my boat as I read Somewhither.

 

Writing a Goofy Story for Real

Blogging has been down this week, as there is a deadline this weekend for submissions of stories for a collection of juvenile fiction based on Arthurian legend. Seemed like a) something I could do; and b) something with a deadline, so as to mitigate my infinite capacity for procrastination.

Predictably, fell down the research rabbit hole: I thought I had a good enough grip on Arthurian legend (hey, I’ve read Mallory and White, and seen Holy Grail a million times – what more could there be to it?) buuuut – a little investigation revealed what a moment of thought could have made evident: there’s a boatload of source materials, even apart from the more modern secondary stuff. Sheesh.

I love Once and Future King. White does a remarkable job of capturing the slapstick, the horror, the honor and the sheer baffling weirdness of Mallory – often found in Morte d’Arthur all in the same tale.

But the Welsh tales makes Mallory’s mish-mash of stories look like a tightly-structured novel. Evidently, Arthur was attractive enough a figure for the storytellers to simply graft him into all the existing nature myths and heroic tales. The whole chivalry idea that gives the Mallory and especially the White retellings their coherence are almost completely absent. Arthur is just a mythic warrior figure, not the imposer of some sort of moral order. His chief characteristic seems to be an over-the-top willingness to promise almost anything to anyone who walks into his court and asks a boon, before he even hears what the dude/babe wants. I’m guessing the ancestors to the Welsh found this sort of reckless vow-taking either heroic or amusing, or maybe both. But to me, it’s almost like those tense scenes in movies where you’re yelling at the screen: “Don’t go in there! Get back-up, or at least a flashlight, or just walk away!” But it wouldn’t be much of a story if they did…

I wanted real place and people names, mythical creatures that are already in the tales, and to capture  the vibe of how the tales unfold. Check on the first two; still not sure I’m remotely getting it on the last point. But I’ll never know if the story works unless I finish it and release it into the wild.

Brief overview: a history professor from California gets a fellowship to a Welsh university, and brings his two daughters for a semester’s adventure. He has a great aunt who lives in an ancient and isolated manor house up in Brecon’s Beacon, a bit of Wales’ National Forest. Older daughter Ness has graduated high school,  so she goes off to visit her great-great aunt. Younger sister Lynette is attending school in Caerleon-on-Usk, an ancient Welsh town – Roman ruins, that sort of thing, and one of the very few real places mentioned in the legends where Arthur held court.

The story follows Lynette, who is being picked on by three mean girls at school. Being pursued by them after school one day, she ducks into a tiny bookstore, where the proprietor helps her escape them in a most unusual way.

Lynette is worried about her sister, who left for her great-great aunts without any luggage and without saying goodbye. The old manor is outside cell-phone coverage, and the old lady is a bit of a Luddite, so there’s no easy way to contact her. Her father refuses to worry (at least, he’s not letting Lynette see his worry) and is trying to give his older daughter some room. So Lynette is stuck in Caerleon, waiting to hear from Ness.

Until something spooky happens. Lynette decides she must go find Ness NOW, and steals a horse from the University and heads out – with a gift from the old bookseller at her side….

So, anyway, will get back to blogging in a few days, after I’m either done or not done and the deadline is past.

How About Some Prayer All Around?

I have things to say, but not today. Today, we should pray. Not, or not just, for miracles of healing, not, or not just, for justice and peace. We pray always first of all to know the mind and love of God, to become more like Him and closer to Him. By seeking God first, we open those fissures through which He can act in us and in our world through us. That’s the way the miracles happen.

No judgements today.

May God have mercy on the souls of the dead, and on those who killed them for whatever reason, good or bad.

May He comfort and sustain all who love them.

May He touch the hearts of all, especially those who do not want to let go of their anger.

May He sustain and bless the efforts of all who seek peace and provide comfort to the afflicted.

St. Joseph, Terror of Demons, pray for us!

Holy Mother Mary, Undoer of Knots, pray for us!

St. Peter Clavier, pray for us!

St. Martin de Porres, pray for us!

Closer to home, I ask your prayers for the repose of the soul of a Chris, husband of Cathy, a friend of ours, who died yesterday after a long and difficult battle with cancer, and for comfort to Cathy, their 3 children and two grandchildren.

Also, prayers for my sister who is battling cancer. She is in the hospital now. A few days ago she underwent 6 hours of surgery to remove tumors, and is awaiting test results to see what the next steps will be. She has consciously separated herself from God and His church, so please pray also for her heart to be softened so Our Lord may touch her.

Finally, today marks the 1st anniversary of my sister Annette’s death. Please pray for the repose of her soul, as she, too, pushed God away from her at the end of her life.

Amen.