Wars and Weddings

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.)

  • WeddingLast 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
  • WarThe 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.

Musings from the UK: Oxford

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

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.

Resonance: Stories that Echo

Pink sunset over a beach.

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.

TropeMaking 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.

The Magic of the Ordinary

New York City skyline in the glow of sunset.

Nurtured by books like The Chronicles 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