In St. Andrews, they call this semester “Candlemas” for the feast celebrating Christ’s presentation at the temple. Last semester was Martinmas. The names of Oxford terms are Michaelmas (“Micklemas”), Hilary, and Trinity. I don’t know much about the history of the names, but I love the sense of centuries-old tradition, the familiar turning of years. Being part of it, even in the ephemeral role of an international MLitt student, makes me feel part of a community analogous to the universal Church (on a smaller scale).
Between the strict, stricter, and even stricter lockdowns that have fallen into place since New Year’s, the howling winds, frigid rain, piercing sleet, and treacherous ice that have kept us indoors, and the heating-hour schedule which makes our flat freezing at midday and night, my morale has been low. Each new restriction feels tighter and more imprisoning, such that anything that goes wrong – a broken appliance or an interruption to work – threatens to snap my self-control. Small, comforting, physical things like baking fudge brownies, snickerdoodles, or Swedish almond cake to warm up the kitchen, keeping my space reasonably clean and tidy, wearing sea-scented perfume and makeup each day even if I can’t go out, and decorating my room with beautiful art prints helps.
This print is my favorite of the ones I purchased. It’s titled “White Day.”
My classes this semester are also marvelous. We’ve studied the paradox of God as Father and Almighty through Job and Genesis; the iconic art of Michael O’Brien; the turbulent and mystical poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. I’ve looked into riddle theory for a short story and Scottish lore for a potential, longer project. The fervent, wild poetry of Joy Davidman (the woman who married C.S. Lewis), a book of folk tales from around the world, and Dorothy Sayers’ hilarious, heart-deep Busman’s Honeymoon have also been cheering companions. Lockdown restrictions can take away so many things, but they can’t take away our studies or our books (yet) and I am thankful.
I turned 26 recently. Theoretically, it’s a transition from the bewildered post-college wandering of early 20s to the greater steadiness and maturity of late 20s. I feel a shift in how I look at the world and myself. I am not the fresh-out-of-college, cripplingly shy, confused girl that I was, though I’m not the confident, wise, gracious woman I want to be. The change is slow, like trickling sand.
After graduating college, I felt like I was living in the extended epilogue of a children’s book like Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Half Magic, or The Penderwicks, when the author gives you a glimpse of how the children grew up: ten years later… It was bittersweet. But in our story, an epilogue would have ended by now. Our extended family grows from grandparents-parents-kids to grandparents-parents-young adults-babies; I continue to seek adventures and career opportunites; I try to figure out the size and shape of the gift God has given me and where it fits in the Kingdom.
Candles (another forbidden item in this fire-safety-conscious country). Not as bright as sunlight or glamorous as moonlight, but cozy and mysterious on a stormy winter night or gray winter afternoon. Candle-mas: a feast of candles, historically significant in the Church, but also a comforting image in this late winter lockdown.
The summer heat has overcome most of the flowers, though the orange tiger lilies and small pink tea roses are still holding out. When I walk by the river, ocean breezes just barely disperse the steamy humidity.
This week’s Summer of Faerie post probably should have been the introduction to this blog series – a look into fairy tale scholarship from a Christian perspective. However, I didn’t have it ready when I started in late May, so it provides an academic interlude after the delightful prose and poetry other writers have contributed.
Many wise scholars have walked this path before me, exploring the relationship between Biblical truth, faith, and the space between once-upon-a-time and happily-ever-after. This essay explores a few of their thoughts and my own experiences in the perilous realm of Faerie.
Fairy Tales as Lanterns in the Night
In the Cape Cod village where I grew up, the library had previously been the schoolhouse. It was a quiet, sunny building with gleaming wooden floors, framed Sailor’s Valentines made of seashells, and glass cases of wooden ship models. They kept fairy tales, fables, folklore, myths, and legends in the corner of the Children’s wing.
I returned to that corner over and over. These books filled my mind and fueled my own stories with images: golden palaces and dark woods, beautiful princesses and wicked witches, ravenous dragons and friendly enchanted frogs.
While I loved the excitement of these stories, I found that the more-developed characters and complex plots of fairy-tale-related books like C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted, and Edward Eager’s Half Magic series were even better. I grew away from the flat characters and simple plots of the original fairy tales, but still shivered with delight at the mention of enchantments, wizards, castles, sea serpents, riddles, and magic swords.
Since graduating from college, I’ve begun to explore literary scholarship more, especially the work of Christian scholars. I’ve discovered an army of great thinkers who believe that fairy tales are more than escapist fancies for children, but essential to moral formation, awakening wonder, valuing goodness and justice, strengthening courage, and clinging to hope.
Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridgesaid that reading of “Faery Tales & Genii” habituated his mind “to the Vast . . . I know no other way of giving the mind a love of ‘the Great’ & ‘the Whole.’” E. Nesbit, a fantasy writer from the Victorian era, argued that a properly educated imagination is like the light in a Japanese lantern: “It transfigures everything into a glory that is only not magic to us because we know Who kindled the inner light, Who set up for us the splendid lantern of this world.”
I had plenty of voices in my life that taught me to wonder at the vast and magnificent, such as my kindergarten teacher, who taught us about the magic of monarch butterflies, lady’s slipper orchids, and stars. However, fairy tales, especially beautiful illustrations like Angela Barrett’s, helped me accept and love the treasures of the universe: fiery sunsets over mountains, the smell of pine, golden pollen and pine needles floating on water.
G.K. Chesterton argued in “The Ethics of Elfland” that “conditions” of fairy tales teach us a “The Doctrine of Conditional Joy” that parallels the truth of the Bible: “A lamp is lit, and love flies away . . . An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone.” Rules like Cinderella’s midnight curfew helped tune my mind to the holy restrictions of the Bible, which did not always make logical sense, like Moses’s disobedience at the waters of Meribah.
C.S. Lewis, Christian apologist, professor, and author of the Chronicles of Narnia (and many other books) fell in love with the Form of the fairy tale for “its brevity, its severe restraints on description, its flexible traditionalism, its inflexible hostility to all analysis, digression, reflections, and ‘gas.'” A fairy story that leaves me wondering and a little mystified, like the Little Mermaid’s voyage to heaven (in the original tale) reminds me that there are mysteries on earth and in heaven too great for my mortal mind to grasp.
J.R.R. Tolkienargues that a fairy tale’s happy ending is a sudden “joyous turn” or “Eucatastrophe” that gives us “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” My child self learned to expect happy endings: spring after winter, health after sickness, and especially, Heaven after the difficulties of this life (which even I, loved and sheltered as I was, knew).
Truth. Joy. Wonder. Insight. With all of these brilliant voices before me, I don’t want to just repeat their thoughts – but I do want to consider them. How did fairy tales fill my mind and shape my heart?
I think of the little girl I was: a shy, moody bookworm who spent hours devouring books, a tree-climber in the Cape Cod woods, and a swimmer in the New Hampshire lakes. I preferred my curly hair wet because it looked more like a mermaid’s then, scribbled stories in dozens of spiral-bound notebooks, and acted out scenes from books or movies with my cousins. Fairy tales and other books gave me colors and shapes for my daydreams, vocabulary and information about the world, and a deep yearning for the eternal – the yearning that C.S. Lewis calledsehnsucht.
What did fairy tales do to me? They gave me visions of beauty and mystery: vice punished and virtue rewarded; battles and quests finishing with happy endings. They reinforced the framework that I believe is the real story of this world: the Fall that causes suffering, the Eucatastrophe or “joyful turn” that Tolkien described, and the happy ending that stretches into eternity.
Fairy tales gave me a hunger for the wild, the mysterious, the unknown. The lessons I learned through the green flannel-graphs of Sunday School or the boisterous songs of Vacation Bible School taught me goodness and truth, but sometimes made me think of my faith as something that belonged in white church buildings and wooden pews. Fairy tales and fantasies shaped my desire for midnight woods and perilous seas and green mountains beyond this world – a desire that is godly (just read Isaiah or 1 Peter).
To be honest, fairy tales did have some negative effects on me. They helped plant the false ideas of feminine beauty that our culture continually deplores and yet upholds. For a long time, I believed that vice would be punished and virtue rewarded right away, instead of after some years of undeserved suffering or prosperity. They made me long to be perfectly beautiful and good without trying at all, like a fairy-tale princess. Fairy tales gave me deep joys and fascinating ideas, but they were a golden framework, not the full picture of reality.
In our nightly reading time, my parents would read a Bible story and a “fun story” like Treasure Island, Johnny Tremaine, Treasures in the Snow, and The Rats of NIMH. It was the Bible stories that gave me a full picture of reality: the green Eden we lost, the devouring dragon, the righteous King who came to die on the Cross for us, the Spirit who comes like wind, like fire, the glorious kingdom that awaits us. Scripture tells the true story that is far more wondrous and beautiful than anything we sub-creating humans could make.
Snow White is not my favorite Disney movie, partly because I don’t like polka dots. However, the last scene, when the prince and Snow White ride up on his horse and see his castle shining in the sunset, still hurts me because it makes me yearn for the Kingdom of Heaven. Fairy tales, like lanterns in the dark, helped remind me of the true Light.
Two Februarys ago, I drove our old family minivan about an hour away for one of my first job interviews after college. The snow was about three feet deep, old enough that it was tinted gray and covered in an icy sheen that glittered in the sun.
I fumbled my way through my interview, developed a stress headache, and recovered by listening to the audiobook of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban on the way home. I realized how comforting it is to delve into an old, familiar story when you enter unknown territory: new jobs, new places, new people.
I thought about that drive through the snow this weekend as I unpacked in my first apartment. As I drove down here through highways edged with long green grass and golden black-eyed susans, I listened to Focus on the Family’s excellent radio drama of The Screwtape Letters. I marveled at C.S. Lewis’s cinematic prose and Andy Serkis’s ability to drop his voice to a low growl at key moments.
During the unpacking, my roommate and I put on Focus on the Family’s radio drama Dead Air, from their Father Gilbert series – less academic than The Screwtape Letters, but also insightful and far more terrifying.
Two stories which both explored demonic activity didn’t seem appropriate for the hot July day or the exciting/sad occasion of my first move out. But the beauty of Lewis and Paul McCusker’s stories are their demonstration of God’s love and grace conquering evil.
The Screwtape Letters made me think about how God has guided me this past spring. I prayed over a tentative five-year plan sometime in March: I wanted to move farther north and build a life near my previous job. But God gently guided me through circumstances this time (instead of speaking directly through prayer or His Word, as He has in the past). This summer has been a cascade of blessings and changes, events at the intersection of spiritual and physical reality: divine providence, Holy Spirit murmurings, situations beyond my control, and my own prayers and choices.
In Letter XXVII of The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape advises Wormwood to convince his “patient” (the human he is trying to tempt away from God) that petitionary prayer is useless. If the thing the patient prays for doesn’t happen, Screwtape instructs, make him think that petitionary prayers “don’t work”; if the thing does happen, make him think that it would have happened anyway and the prayer was redundant.
The truth of this free will-predestination paradox, which Lewis expresses through Screwtape, is that “the Enemy does not foresee the humans making their free contributions in a future, but sees them doing so in His unbounded Now. And obviously to watch a man doing something is not to make him do it.”
If Lewis is right, God heard my prayers for guidance and opportunity in His unbounded Now. And he gave me something far better than what I planned or asked for.
In Dead Air, detective-turned-priest Father Gilbert encounters a villain who calls himself “Legion” (after a group of demons in Mark 5) who is responsible for the disappearance of at least two girls. The drama explores the darkness of temptation and corruption, but Father Gilbert and one girl’s parents illustrate the supremacy of grace and forgiveness.
I haven’t directly faced the evil or suffering described in The Screwtape Letters or Dead Air. But as I review color schemes, hang up my clothes, stack dishes, and list the hundred things I forgot to buy, these stories remind me of the real war fought beneath the surface of ordinary things. The common and cosmic, everyday and eternal, prayed-for and predestined intertwine in the mystery of God’s grace.
Summer is in its noon. This season, midsummer, was always the most heavenly time for me. New England is steamy with humidity on sunny days and rumbles with thunderstorms at least once a week. The lilies are opening up like small trumpets, pink tea roses bloom in my mom’s garden, and every weekend, the highways glimmer with the red taillights of families going to or from the beach.
In my childhood, mid-July was the climax of the year: swimming among the water lily pads in the kettle ponds of Cape Cod, hiking and catching salamanders in the green mountains of New Hampshire, and backpacking in the blue wilderness of Yosemite.
A few months ago, I was musing about story climaxes and happy endings. My favorite stories ended happily, usually in one of three ways: with a war (or at least a battle), a wedding, or both. (To be precise, the war is often the climax, and the wedding is the happy ending.)
Wedding – Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, Half Magic, Jane Austen, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Shirley, The Sherwood Ring, Time at the Top, Ella Enchanted, The Farthest-Away Mountain
War – The Hobbit, Harry Potter, The Battle for the Castle, A Wind in the Door, The Great and Terrible Quest
Both – The Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games, the Prydain series, The Fairy Rebel
Wars and weddings make excellent climaxes/endings: the violence and suffering of war resolves itself in victory, and the pain and desire of love are resolved in marriage. I think there’s a deeper reason why these events make good endings, though: they point us towards the true end of the world.
Christians believe that history is teleological, or has a purpose and and ending (instead of being random, meaningless, or endless). The telos or purpose of history is the fulfillment of God’s judgement and redemption. God created humans to be in an intimate relationship with Him, but when the first man and woman sinned (broke God’s law), humanity separated from God. Jesus Christ’s death on the cross paid the price for sin and allowed humans to be reconciled to God. At the end of the world, that reconciliation will be complete, and those who believe in God will enter heaven to be with Him forever.
The end of the world includes the end of a War that has raged throughout history, the battle between Satan and the armies of God. It will conclude with a Wedding, the marriage of the Lord Jesus Christ and His Bride, the Church.
I think every story that ends with a war, a wedding, or both foreshadows the reality of the last days. The War will be greater and more terrible than the flood that destroyed the old world – but it will end with victory. The Wedding will be more glorious than a summer sunset. Believers will cross the edge into eternity, where worshipping God is truly our happy ever after.
Revelation 21:1-4 – “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
Happy endings anticipate eternity. When a good book or series ends with “happily ever after,” readers can imagine the victory and marriage continuing in perfect joy, without having to watch the problems that are inevitable in a fallen world.
Not all good books end with wars and weddings – or, the war and the wedding are not the whole resolution. Some end with new beginnings, like Anne of Green Gables or Hannah Coulter. Others end with homecoming, like The Hobbit. Some end with a joyful death, like Les Miserables. I think all these happy endings are wrapped up in our yearning for heaven: the Homecoming, the Rescue, the beginning of the delicious mystery of Eternity.
A few years ago, one of my favorite English professors warned us about climax seasons. He said times of greatest joy and fulfillment – such as our wedding days – can also carry the greatest grief and yearning. Climaxes remind us how much we yearn for the true Happy Ending.
In this climax season (of the year, if not my life) of summer, I yearn for the end of the War, the Wedding, the Homecoming, and the New Beginning. And the happy endings of the books I love remind me that it is coming soon.
On June 2nd, I flew back from a week in the UK – exhausted, content, pondering, and with a renewed sense of yearning. May was an intense month of travel (Colorado Springs, Denver, Pennsylvania, and then the UK) and I was more than ready to come home.
But it was beautiful. The rich history and traditions of Oxford, the mysterious beauty of the Lake District, the medieval look and modern busyness of Edinburgh, and the green peace of Durham gave me images and insights enough to ponder for a long time. I still need to sift through my hundreds of pictures and thoughts, but at first glance, here are a few things I discovered.
Oxford has layers of loveliness: the old beauty of stone walls, buildings, spires, and statues, all covered in the fresh spring beauty of yellow roses, green ivy, and flowering vines. We walked through the green parks every day, dodging bikes and other foot travelers, listening to birds cooing in the trees and watching ducks, swans, and ravens hop around among the lilly pads and cattails in ponds.
The town was full of tourists like us, the murmur of many languages, and students in black robes. We got chai tea and Italian hot chocolate (my life will never be the same) at a tea shop, wandered through a curio/bookshop full of quill pens and gilded masks, and explored the stalls of the Covered Market.
We heard echoes and whispers of the spirit of Oxford. The town and university are centered on thought leadership and intellectual discovery, but remember faith: we attended a lecture on “The Failures of Political Journalism” at Green Templeton college, wandered through the University Church of St. Mary, went to exhibitions on language and 3-D images at the Weston Library and Museum of the History of Science, and enjoyed an Evensong at Magdalen College.
Every day brought so much to ponder and so much to enjoy. I’ll reference this trip in many future posts, but for now, I came away with some important resolutions:
Enjoy nearby beauty
Oxford was breathtaking with its ancient stonework, glassy rivers, yellow roses, and silver skies. But I had a recurring realization: New England is just as beautiful: its starry mayflowers and pert black-capped chickadees, fragrant beach-roses and green maple trees. Though traveling is great in many ways, I only need to step out my front door to see beauty. I need to value the treasures around me, not just those that are far away.
Seek unity in diversity
Most of the “content” we found at Oxford in lectures and exhibitions presented a set of different opinions on each topic, without identifying any as primary or true. Diversity, inclusion, and redefinition (breaking down old meanings of humanity, gender, faith, language, science,etc.) were celebrated as the highest good.
I love listening to people who are different from me, being sharpened as iron sharpens iron. But I believe that the highest good is celebrating true things, not just different things. The original purpose of universities was to seek unity in diversity, with every individual discipline striving together to unravel mysteries. I yearn to seek transcendent, unifying truth, Wisdom, in literature, art, language, and theology, and from people of all nations, backgrounds, and experiences.
Burn bright in darkness; cultivate in the desert
While rushing to the lecture, we had two minutes to duck into the Eagle and Child Pub, were Lewis, Tolkien, and the Inklings used to meet. My glimpse of the place stayed with me: dark, tiny rooms dimly lit by light bulbs, with barely enough places to squeeze faded armchairs beside brick fireplaces. The famous Rabbit Room was plain, with only a wooden table that may have seated five.
Lewis and Tolkien lived in a dark time: through the blood, fire, and fear of two world wars, sickness, grief, and a growing cynicism and loss of belief. But in imitation of God in Genesis 1, they spoke worlds into being: stories that acknowledge darkness and despair, but burned bright with love, beauty, and hope. The Inklings’ fellowship by the fire nurtured friendships, creativity, and joy that they poured out in stories that still kindle imaginations today.
The Christological center of Lewis and Tolkien’s imaginations stirred me deeper still. People of different faiths or no faith at all (like George R.R. Martin, Philip Pullman, Tamora Pierce, and Patricia McKillip) can also imagine worlds into being. But the narrative of an all-powerful, loving Redeemer who sacrificed Himself for humanity is the greatest Story; all other good stories echo it.
The world is still dark – maybe darker – today. But there are many light-bearers and dream-cultivators, people of strong faith and abundant imaginations, in Oxford (including Michael Ward, Sarah Clarkson, Joy Clarkson, and many others), in New England, and in the whole world. I can’t wait to discover more of them.
A few months ago, in February, the snow made the roads too slick and visibility too dim to drive to work. I worked from home at my dining room table, tapping away on my laptop and laughing at some plump robins I saw out the window. They hopped from branch to branch in the crabapple tree, gobbling up the small red fruit. The sun melted the snow into shining drops that hung and then fell beneath the robins’ feet.
Now, the earth hovers between wild, wet snowstorms (like this morning) and clear days when the air’s bitter chill softens. The bare tree branches, brown and gray, are gold in the radiance of early morning and evening. Like all seasonal transitions, this time of waiting feels special to me: as if we’re waiting for something that’s never happened before, that we’ve only dreamed about before.
In my school years, spring was the season of deepest, most painful yearning for me. Though I love learning, my shyness and laziness meant that I never enjoyed the schedule, work, and social demands of school. I connected summer with heaven: perfect rest (sleeping in), perfect peace (no scheduled schoolwork), perfect beauty (the maple trees all green, the peonies blushing pink), and perfect joy (playing, biking, swimming, or reading books all day). When warm breezes carried the smell of fresh earth and new growth, bright green leaves softened the trees, and deep-souled purple crocuses sprouted up, I ached for summer and grew increasingly grumpy in the classroom.
This is my third spring after finishing college, and I no longer connect summer with heaven. I’ve learned to love fall, the season I used to hate as the summoner of ugly yellow school buses, dead leaves, and the renewal of imprisonment in school. But spring is still a season of waiting.
“Watch the trees,” my college roommate and I used to warn each other solemnly. We joked about how quickly the buds on the trees burst into Scottish green leaves and fragrant blossoms, as if the trees conspired to surprise us every year. We tried to watch the bare branches carefully, every day, to catch those quiet signs of transition before the change.
I no longer expect the summer season be heaven and fulfill my dreams of rest, peace, beauty, and joy. But the uncertainties of young adulthood have replaced the feeling of being trapped and suppressed that I had in school. I longed for freedom, but sometimes it feels like I have too much: too many choices, too many opportunities.
As C.S. Lewis said in The Screwtape Letters (letter XXV), seasons are the perfect pattern of permanence and change, God’s perfect gift to fickle humans who long for both. I’m slowly awakening to the truth that life’s seasons, like nature’s seasons, have beauty and pain – and underneath, the bedrock of God’s promises, His goodness, His life.
I’m watching the trees. I’m waiting – with uncertainty, with impatience, but knowing that God’s joy outlives all seasons.
Within my love for stories is embedded several, more specific affinities. One is for echoes, writers’ allusions to each other’s owork across the ages in archetypes, allusions, and retellings. I love tracing certain ideas across literature: for example, the fact that Cyrano de Bergerac’s large nose alludes to the classical poet Ovid’s physiognomy, or that Huckleberry Finn’s adventures fit into the genre of Bildungsroman.
Sitting in my British Literature Survey class, the first freshman English course at my school (where they weeded out all but the most passionate literature-lovers), I listened to my professor describing the land of Beowulf. She outlined the social structure of the mead hall, the king and the warriors, the scop’s entertainment during the nightly feasting in the communal sleeping hall, and though I had never read Beowulf before, I was thrilled by my own recognition. I had seen it before, as Tolkien’s Rohan.
The best writers are (usually) excellent readers, like rivers fed by the tributaries of their predecessors. They soak in wisdom and knowledge, images and patterns from their favorite works and then recreate them in the freshness of their own experience.
As a growing writer myself, I struggle to create stories that are wholly my own, while still following the traditions I love. For years, I longed to echo the stories I loved, with all their beauty and wonder – and created a rehash of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander, Madeleine L’Engle, Martha Finley, Roald Dahl, Elizabeth Bishop, L.M. Montgomery, George Macdonald, Elizabeth Winthrop, Betty Brock, Betty MacDonald, and Lynne Reid Banks that brought nothing new to the genre.
Around ten years old, I gave up. I finished Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader and felt the depths of joy and longing at its end fill my soul. I realized that I didn’t have the maturity to write something that rich – so I decided to stop trying.
I grew, and wrote, and started many stories that I never finished. I yearned to write about crumbling castles and mysterious mansions, faraway mountains and fantastic adventures, but scorned my own attempts as pathetically derivative.
My last semester of college, I took a Creative Writing course in which the professor had us read two short stories a week and write a reflection of what we wanted to “steal” (artistically imitate) from them.
I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story, “Ile Forest,” in the anthology I bought for the class. The richness of its gloomy atmosphere and wild setting, its old secrets and new passions, captivated me. I found myself questioning my self-imposed creed: Le Guin wrote a story brimming with tropes – the mysterious old house in the ancient forest, the enigmatic hero, the beautiful young woman, love and longing, in 1976 – years ago now, but long after those elements had been invented and reused by all those who came before. Were they trite, or classic?
I read Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Velvet Room and had a second shock: she, too, wrote yet another story about a mysterious old house – but I loved her book. She made it her own mysterious old house. So did Megan Frazer Blakemore in The Water Castle, and Jacqueline West in the Elsewhere series, and Daphne du Maurier in Rebecca, and Maryrose Wood in The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place. I just finished Elizabeth Goudge’s bewitching, exquisite book, The Bird in the Tree, which is full of “tropes” – the mysterious old house, the place-of-refuge, the little village by the sea, and the drama of family.
Write what you know. I think that’s true; no one is going to be very impressed by my tale of an archeological mystery in Egypt unless I do a lot of research first, and even then, knowledge is often a pale imitation of experience. Yet the rule that is new to me (though others have discovered it first) is write what you love.
What settings, characters, plot structures, and genres inspire you? What sets your heart on fire, and lifts the weight of exhaustion and boredom from your shoulders when you think about it? What stories heal and comfort you? And what do they all have in common?
Choose a few ideas, settings, situations, etc. that could be considered tropes, and then think about how you could make them your own. I listed some of mine below.
Making it Mine
The child who is swept away from a dull/painful life to a magical country
– Recasting the main character as an adult – Making the real world better/happier than the magical country – Creating an especially imaginative magical country; for example, as fascinating as The Rainbow Prison in Bruce Coville’s Luster series – Playing with the obligatory lesson that the child learns; not the usual one of learning to “be brave” or “how to make friends,” but something less common like “doing justice” or “creating beauty”
The ancient, mysterious forest
– Make the forest echo a real, earthly region its gorgeous intricacy: temperate, boreal, a bayou, a rainforest – use the beauty of a real ecosystem to make the fantasy more powerful – Create a magical system that rules the forest with specific laws (ex. a certain species of tree becomes a gateway to other worlds at night)
Life of a poor but happy family
– Pour my own experiences into each character; create tension through anger, jealousy, misunderstandings, loneliness, and frustrations that I know personally – Give the family, or specific members, some creative or magical ability that makes up for their poverty Send the family on an adventure
Like Roald Dahl’s BFG mixing dreams, I can “steal” (not plagiarize) the qualities of the stories I treasure and stir them into my own tales. My dreams, and my joy, could resonate as continuing echoes in the tradition of world-makers.
Nurtured by books like TheChronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings, I used to believe that modern technology has no place in literature. Medieval technology such as swords and ploughs, and maybe even Industrial Revolution technology like trains and mills, were acceptable, but nothing later than 1920s-era technology belonged in books.
My logic for this assumption ran deep into my beliefs about stories. I believed that stories were the exclusive realm of the mythical and the wonderful: ancient forests, splendid castles, beautiful princesses, and so on. As an avenue of the imagination, stories should be above the minor, ugly details of life, like technology.
This subconscious assumption ignored the wonderful details of ordinary life which Lewis, Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander, Edward Eager, Edward Ormondroyd, E. Nesbit, and others use. In Lewis’s Prince Caspian, Edmund remarks that being summoned from England by a spell without warning is “worse than what father says about being at the mercy of the telephone.” Ormondroyd uses an elevator as a key part of his Time at the Top.
Mentioning current technology also gives stories the precious stamp of regionalism – memorializing a certain place and time so readers can visit it. Now, I love tasting the flavor of past decades through references to slates and record albums.
My assumption also glossed over the very real fact that swords and ploughs, trains and mills were just as boring and ordinary to our predecessors as subways and cell phones are to us. For all their mythology, swords are really just romanticized pieces of metal.
G.K. Chesterton explains this phenomenon of ignoring the romance of the present with reference to modern-day detective stories. He praised detective stories for capturing
. . . some sense of the poetry of modern life. Men lived among mighty mountains and eternal forests for ages before they realized that they were poetical; it may reasonably be inferred that some of our descendants may see the chimney-pots as rich a purple as the mountain-peaks, and find the lamp-posts as old and natural as the trees. (from here)
The storytellers from whom the Grimm brothers gleaned their material wove their tales with commonplace objects. Spindles are immortal because of Sleeping Beauty, but they were as normal as cars or coffee pots to the people who used them daily.
Chesterton’s perspective reveals the amazing possibilities of our world. We don’t need to reuse crowns and Gothic castles to spice up our stories (at least, not all the time). Why not mythologize Brooklyn apartments and Iphones?
The technology of our day has near-magical capabilities. Google puts a world of knowledge at our fingertips; planes let us fly over thousands of miles in a single day.
With that in mind, I’ve put some story ideas below which realize a few possibilities of modern technology, the way fairy tales used magic rings or carpets:
Glitch in one particular Iphone which lets the user call other dimensions
Car (specific make and model) with a radio which begins receiving messages for help from another world/time
Computer virus which spreads a real, biological virus via the Internet
Windmills which were made not to generate clean energy, but to guard against holes in Earth’s magical atmospheric shield
Subway train which gets lost and discovers a network of caves full of secrets (treasure, ancient warnings about disasters, lost civilizations, etc.)
Stopwatch which begins to count down the days/hours/minutes until the next terrorist attack
Energy beings (aliens?) which communicate with the entire country using the powerlines