Reading can hurt you

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I really enjoy almost everything that Alan Jacobs writes, but I found myself in special agreement with this post about the triumphalism of some YA writers:

Laurie Halse Anderson’s comments are typical in this regard. “Books don’t turn kids into murderers, or rapists, or alcoholics. (Not even the Bible, which features all of these acts.) Books open hearts and minds, and help teenagers make sense of a dark and confusing world. YA literature saves lives. Every. Single. Day.” See? Salvific power, no danger. Even penicillin is dangerous for some people, but not YA fiction!

I was excited for a moment when Libba Bray acknowledged that “Books are dangerous.” Yes! But, oh, wait: “Yes, dangerous. Because they challenge us: our prejudices, our blind spots. They open us to new ideas, new ways of seeing. They make us hurt in all the right ways.” And, it seems, never in the wrong ones. So, not really dangerous at all. Not in any way.

(Another interesting theme in these comments is how much more trustworthy YA writers are than parents. Apparently, while books can only be good, parents are often bad.)

You’d do well to read to the end of his post, which covers most of the obvious ripostes. And really, it’s important to keep your head about this. In general I’m in favor of reading broadly and deeply rather than limiting yourself and your kids to “safe” texts. But it doesn’t follow that reading anything is automatically virtuous, or insisting that a book can never have a negative effect on a reader. In fact, if we take seriously the notion that books are powerful, we have to accept that books are a power which can be used for ill, and which can damage those who read them.

His Dark Materials: Good Stuff

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I’m finally getting around to fleshing out my thoughts on Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, which I finished about a week ago. And to start things off on a positive note, I’m going to start by talking about the things that the serious does extremely well.

The first book (The Golden Compass) is great from cover to cover, and there’s almost nothing bad to say about it. The heroine is marvelous, the settings gorgeous, and the world-building intriguing and complete. My favorites have to be the panserbjørne, though: giant armored bears who “make their own souls”. Iorek Byrnison is one of the most memorable figures of of recent fantasy literature, and he rightfully sits next to Aslan in the pantheon of dangerous-talking-animals-who-help-little-girl-protagonists.

In fact, what I remember most about the first book is the colorful, intriguing cast of secondary characters: the witches, the gyptians, and especially the Texan Lee Scoresby. I wished the second and third books had more of that–but then, I wished a lot of things about the second and third books.

Also, it’s impossible for me to talk about this book without bringing up the controversy and hostility the book generated in Christian circles. Some of the criticism was justified: Pullman’s clearly has it out for the Church, and his polemics derail his plot, especially in book 3. (More on this later.) But there was some rather hysterical stuff, especially lines like this: “I pointed out that, in these books, everything we normally associate with safety and security—parents, priests, and even God himself—is evil, is indeed ‘the stuff of nightmares.'” That says too much. Lyra’s actual parents are pretty nasty, but her surrogate parents (the gyptians, and to some extent Iorek Byrnison) are loving and courageous. In fact, there’s quite a bit of Christian virtue to be found in the heroes of the books, and a great many valuable or wise lessons imparted by Lyra’s surrogate parents.

As for the priests and God, that will have to be a separate post.

Fantasy, gods, and power

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(This is kind of a mess. Sorry.)

So there was a really great post about fantasy, power, and magic at the American Scene. This paragraph in particular resonated with me:

By contrast, Steven Erikson, as best I can tell from Gardens of the Moon, does not appear to be interested in anything other than the many varieties of power: physical, psychological, magical, political, spiritual. In his world there is no art, unless you consider as art certain varieties of magic — say, shifting a person’s soul from a human body to a wooden marionette. But this is really just the exertion of a (temporary) power over death. And once I decided that I wasn’t going to read any further in the series, I decided to cross the Rubicon — that is, check the Wikipedia pages of the next few volumes for plot summaries. I turned away from the computer with a great sigh of relief that I didn’t devote any more time to Malazan.

I haven’t read Erikson and so can’t comment on his books in particular, but this complaint is one that I’ve had, too. Furthermore, it puts me in mind of that thread at SF Signals about gods in fantasy. What’s intriguing is that almost all of the discussion of gods in fantasy assumed that the primary thing that gods to is be powerful. So the responses included the typical warning that having an omnipotent god would remove the tension (since s/he could just come in and fix everything) and a discussion of the ways that gods and their followers get or use power.

(Aside: Why do we assume that an omnipotent diety removes tension? I believe in an omnipotent God, but I experience plenty of tension thankyouverymuch.)

Really, is this all that gods are good for? In the actual religious lives of people around the world, I can think of three broad categories of experience that are related to the gods or divinity:

  • Diety as powerful and influential over the world and human lives
  • Diety as a moral judge and source of ethical judgements
  • Diety as sacred, numinous, and beautiful

Now what’s up with this list? In discussions of diety in fantasy, #1 bestrides the discussion like a colossus far disproportionate to the amount of concern that actual worshippers have for power.

#2 is almost completely absent. The problem is that “God as a source of moral reasoning” has become so tightly identified with Christianity (and with a particular political platform) that any writing about it will be perceived as a commentary on that religious/political stance. The only writer that I can think of who seriously addresses this idea is Philip Pullman in His Dark Materials, and he has an explicit agenda to subvert the idea.

That leaves #3: diety as the numinous. My personal favorite! This is much rarer than treatments of diety as power, but at least it does have some serious treatments. I’d put Tolkein in this category, for example–though his dieties are certainly powerful, they’re associated with beauty and sublimity much more than ability. Raw exercise of power is the almost exclusive province of the baddies. Maybe it’s just me, but this approach seems to open up so many more possibilities than the exclusive focus on power. Art, love, majesty, sacrifice, wonder–these are the things of great literature, and they’re only tangentially related to power.

Evil Vaarsuvius for the win

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I’m a big fan of Order of the Stick, but I really felt that the plot got derailed after the fall of Sapphire City. The party was split up in two or three places, there were too many subplots, and too many intrigues involving minor characters that I didn’t care about. And the big picture plot with Xykon seemed to get lost in all of the noise.

However, the recent Evil Vaarsuvius arc has been plain awesome. We’ve gotten major development of one of the central characters, tied up a multitude of loose ends that have been lying around since, well, since the fall of Sapphire City, and it’s actually been funny. See the linked strip for demonstration of awesomeness. (But note that this isn’t the beginning of the arc. You’ll need to go back 15 strips or so to catch it from the start.) I anxiously await the conclusion of the arc.

Gimme That Old Time Religion

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Over at SF Signal their Mind Meld this week was about one of my favorite topics, Religion in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Most of the answers are very good, though I especially liked John C. Wright’s answer, which included this paragraph:

Dark Fantasy lends itself nicely to monotheism, because we all know Christians are creepy: either they look like spooky Puritans, dressed in all black, a la Solomon Kane, or they have spooky gothic Cathedrals, complete with gargoyles and graveyards and torture chambers, not to mention ritual cannibalism and what’s not to like about that?

The real gem, though, was from the comments, which included this stunning poem by CS Lewis:

Cliche Came Out of its Cage

1

You said ‘The world is going back to Paganism’.
Oh bright Vision! I saw our dynasty in the bar of the House
Spill from their tumblers a libation to the Erinyes,
And Leavis with Lord Russell wreathed in flowers, heralded with flutes,
Leading white bulls to the cathedral of the solemn Muses
To pay where due the glory of their latest theorem.
Hestia’s fire in every flat, rekindled, burned before
The Lardergods. Unmarried daughters with obedient hands
Tended it By the hearth the white-armd venerable mother
Domum servabat, lanam faciebat… at the hour
Of sacrifice their brothers came, silent, corrected, grave
Before their elders; on their downy cheeks easily the blush
Arose (it is the mark of freemen’s children) as they trooped,
Gleaming with oil, demurely home from the palaestra or the dance.
Walk carefully, do not wake the envy of the happy gods,
Shun Hubris. The middle of the road, the middle sort of men,
Are best. Aidos surpasses gold. Reverence for the aged
Is wholesome as seasonable rain, and for a man to die
Defending the city in battle is a harmonious thing.
Thus with magistral hand the Puritan Sophrosune
Cooled and schooled and tempered our uneasy motions;
Heathendom came again, the circumspection and the holy fears …
You said it. Did you mean it? Oh inordinate liar, stop.

2

Or did you mean another kind of heathenry?
Think, then, that under heaven-roof the little disc of the earth,
Fortified Midgard, lies encircled by the ravening Worm.
Over its icy bastions faces of giant and troll
Look in, ready to invade it. The Wolf, admittedly, is bound;
But the bond will break, the Beast run free. The weary gods,
Scarred with old wounds the one-eyed Odin, Tyr who has lost a hand,
Will limp to their stations for the Last defence. Make it your hope
To be counted worthy on that day to stand beside them;
For the end of man is to partake of their defeat and die
His second, final death in good company. The stupid, strong
Unteachable monsters are certain to be victorious at last,
And every man of decent blood is on the losing side.
Take as your model the tall women with yellow hair in plaits
Who walked back into burning houses to die with men,
Or him who as the death spear entered into his vitals
Made critical comments on its workmanship and aim.
Are these the Pagans you spoke of? Know your betters and crouch, dogs;
You that have Vichy water in your veins and worship the event
Your goddess History (whom your fathers called the strumpet Fortune).

Okay, so it’s not the best poem in the world, but it’s a reminder that actual paganism was more bracing and interesting than the misty-eyed cliches that dominate much modern thinking (both in the minds of defenders and detractors).