Tidbits of Inspiration: The Birth of Religion

Gobekli Tepe

Gobekli Tepe

National Geographic is, as ever, fascinating.  In this latest article, I found a piece that resonates strongly with me and with my writing.

I’m at an early stage of my writing “career”, such as it is, so I can’t really say there are any strong or recurrent themes on which I have frequently touched in the body of my work.  That said, I do feel like there is a pattern to it.  One strongly recurrent theme is the relationship between mythology and religion.  And religion is important to me, on a personal level as well. 

And so, this article was entirely fascinating to me, and is the subject of today’s Tidbits of Inspiration.  The article is about the excavation of an archeological site in Turkey called Göbleki Tepe (which I actually know how to pronounce by virtue of my visit to Istanbul).  What’s astonishing about the site: it appears to be a religious mecca – a massive temple complex – that dates back to the early Neolithic period and 7,000 years before the building of Stone Henge – a period when organized religion, according to old theories, had not yet developed.  The site suggests a profoundly different development of human civilization than anthropologists and archeologists had long thought: one in which organized religious worship was central to the development of human society from the hunter-gatherer period into the stable, agriculture-focused communities that gave rise to the long arc of human recorded history. Continue reading

Planning for Pantsers

Two weeks ago, as I wrapped up my series of posts on writing Mythopoeia, I mentioned that it would be useful, if you want to produce a work of mythopoeia as the bedrock of your speculative fiction novel, to employ a “planning” method for writing.  Whereas, of course, this can be difficult for someone who’s a “pantser” – someone who writes by the seat of their pants, otherwise known as a discovery writer.

I’m mostly a planner, myself, but betimes I am also occassionaly a pantser.  Meaning, I think writing style is more of a continuum than a binary either/or proposition.  There are times when one methodology is preferrable over the other, I think, but neither is inherently better or worse in general.  I, for instance, will tend to “pants” it when working on shorter-length fiction.  But for those who hover closer to the pantser side of the Force more often than not, treading into the world of planning can seem… shall we say… daunting at times? Continue reading

The Maker’s Art, Part 3: Creating Mythopoeia and Anthropological Artifacts

Last week I waded into long discussion in which I tried to draw a clear line between what constitutes a work of “Mythopoeia” and what is only “Fantasy” – acknowledging along the way that Mythopoetic works can be something other than Fantasy.  My position is perhaps an arguable one, but I’m comfortable delineating Mythopoeia as separate from other forms of Speculative Fiction, and even defining it as separate from the physical “artifacts” that represent it.  Mythopoeia is an idea, something that lives in the hearts and minds of both creators and producers of artistic works.  But it is an idea that we engage by interfacing with those anthropological artifacts: be they written works such as novels, poems, epics, webpages and blog posts, or be they visual works of art, sculptures, paintings, and photographs, or be they motion pictures or music, or be they works in an interactive medium like video games, table-top games, or board games, or be they some sort of new and evolving oral history. There are a variety of mechanisms by which mythopoetic works can be expressed in physical form.  But I’m primarily interested in the written form and those that can benefit from the techniques of the written form. 

By now, you must be wondering… so what?  What does it matter?  Why did I set out to try to define Mythopoeia in the first place?  And, having done so, to what use could this definition be put?

Last time, I mentioned my contention that few writers today are consciously attempting to write something that might be called Mythopoeia.  And part of the reason is that writing Mythopoeia is hard.  It requires thinking at a whole different level, layered on top of the thinking that goes into writing a novel.  I could say the entire essay has been a long way of saying it was partly this realization that forced me to conclude that I wasn’t ready to write “Project SOA #1” yet.  Because as I’ve spent years developing background detail, filling several notebooks with thoughts and ideas on historical and mythological complications, I’ve discovered how truly difficult it is to organize a coherent, complete, and engaging mythology, and how challenging it is to weave that into the primary narrative.  Because as an idea takes hold, if you think about it for a while, you realize the idea has implications – huge implications – that must necessarily change the plot and direction of the novel itself.  This is but one of the challenges I faced with making “Project SOA” work (another being a serious grappling with clichés, tropes, and genre conventions, and better understanding them and when and whether to use them, or if not to use them, how to adjust my plot and characters to compensate).

But the whole point of coming to a better understanding of what is or is not Mythopoeia has been to better equip me with the tools to write novels that rest on the bedrock of a solid mythopoem.  Why would I want to do that?  On one level, because it’s intellectually interesting to me.  I find intrinsic value in the creation of a coherent mythological narrative.  But there’s a baser reasoning, too. 

Consider all the most popular works of fiction in the last hundred years.  I’ve talked before about the “triumph of fantasy and speculative fiction” in the larger popular culture.  But at another level, the best works of fantasy and speculative fiction – those with the most enduring fandoms and the most engaged fans – are often among those with strongest mythopoetic frameworks.  This isn’t universally true (for instance, I mentioned Harry Potter last week, and how I don’t find it to be strongly mythopoetic in nature), nor is the reverse necessarily true either: if you have strong mythopoetic underpinnings to your work you won’t necessarily write a best-seller.  But the more strongly a work is predicated on a complex and coherent mythopoetic framework, the more easily engaged its audience.

If you accept this outcome as desirable (or even better, if you find the idea of writing mythopoeia intellectually interesting and stimulating), then you may wonder: how do I do this? Continue reading

The Maker’s Art, Part 2: Refining a Definition of Mythopoeia Through a Sample Exegesis of the Fantasy Corpus

In the previous post I began a discussion of a topic I’ve long wanted to address here on this blog: the concept of Mythopoeia as a distinct genre within the sphere of Speculative Fiction.  However, I ended the first part of my discussion with what appears to be a fatal contradiction.  I defined Mythpoeia as a work of constructed or artificial mythology, but then acceded that most works of modern Fantasy Fiction (and indeed many works of other subgenres of Speculative Fiction) are predicated on invented mythologies.¹  Still, I contend that there is a line of separation between a true work of Mythopoeia and a work of modern Fantasy Fiction.

Just what, then, is that line of separation?  Consider this: I would assert that Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”, in fact, is not a work of Mythopoeia.  It is, rather, an artifact of Tolkien’s Mythopoem.  It is a physical manifestation, in book form, that attests to the existence of the underlying mythopoetic work.  In other words, a novel, or a novel series, is not Mythopoeia.  But a novel – frequently, but not always, a novel of Epic or High Fantasy – is typically the the primary mechanism by which the reading and media-consuming public will discover and interact with the Mythpoetic work. 

It is my contention, therefore, that while many works of modern fantasy and science fiction include mythological motifs and invented backstories and mythologies, few writers and creators are creating Mythopoeia by design.  Most of the imaginary mythologies and backstories exist solely in support of the fantasy novel to which they are attached, with little or no intrinsic value of their own, and with little of interest to explore outside the framework of the novel.

Take the Harry Potter novels, for instance. Continue reading

The Maker’s Art, Part 1: Defining Mythopoeia in the Context of Fantasy and Speculative Fiction

I’ve hinted in the past (digging into the deep history of my blog) that I’d eventually get around to elucidating my views on the genre of “Mythopoeia”, and why I consider it distinct and separate from “Epic Fantasy“.

Let me get this out of the way upfront: this is going to be a long post.  (There’s a fair probability that I may have to split it into several posts.)  So you’ve got to be rather interested in the fantasy genre or in mythology for any of what follows to be of interest to you.

As another caveat: if anything I say here comes off as denigrating or derogatory to other genres of fiction, I assure you this is a misreading of the intent of what I write.  I strive here only to draw nuance and distinction, not to make claims of quality.  I have a particular organizational hierarchy in my head, but that hierarchy isn’t meant to be suggestive of quality or value, per se.  Hopefully that will become clear in the course of this essay.

I’d like to start off my discussion by laying out a lexicon of Mythopoeia.  As I mentioned on one of my early posts on the subject, the term “mythopoeia” is likely unfamiliar to a large number of potential visitors to this site.  The word itself, insofar as I can deduce, can largely be attributed to J. R. R. Tolkien with regard to its use referring to a literary genre: it is the title of a lovely poem written by Tolkien that serves as a defense of the genre (or, more broadly, as a defense of the Fantasy fiction genre).  (As an aside, Wikipedia has an interesting analysis of the poem on its page about the poem itself.)

Mythopoeia, as used throughout this essay, is a noun, referring to the genre much the way I might refer to “fantasy”.  Mythopoeic and mythopoetic are synonymous adjectives.  A work of mythopoeia could be described as mythopoetic.  A mythopoem is a noun, and means a work of mythopoeia.  It does not mean a poem (in the rhyme-and-verse sense, at least) that is about mythology, although a poem about mythology might be a mythopoem.  (In other words, “mythopoem” is a higher-order category of work that can include some poems about mythology, but also includes works that are not poems.)  A mythopoet, noun, is the creator of mythopoeia.

All of these, then, are contingent on understanding what mythopoeia is – and to a lesser extent what it is not. Continue reading

Tidbits of Inspiration: The Lost Tribes

You may have seen in the news lately that photos were released of an indigenous Amazonian tribe that has remained uncontacted by modern civilization.

There’s something inspiring, in a way, about the idea of these pre-industrial civilizations hidden from the eyes of modern society, lost in the jungles and remote islands of the world.  There’s a grand tale, an epic to be sure, woven in that mysterious history.

What would it be like to be the first of these lost tribes to come in contact with a greater world that is both magical and barbaric – so advanced and yet, from your cultural perspective, so backwards and so fallen.  This is the stuff of deep mythology and epic tales.  This is basic Hero’s Journey stuff, the thread of which flows through so much of our story-telling.

A Taste of Fantasy

I’m not sure how often I’ll be able to participate in these Author Aerobics exercises being posted by T. S. Bazelli on her blog, but I decided to participate this week, at least.  (I say I’m not sure because the situation on the home-front may evolve such that I might need to take a short break from regular daily blog updates, for a little while, to focus my attention on things there or for school.)

Anyway, this week’s challenge was a dialogue punctuation excercise, asking us to utilize a number of different dialogue tags and punctuation.  Which means, of course, that the story would largely involve a lot of talking.  Oh, and we were asked to touch on the theme of “spring” (with the sly suggestion at the end that this could mean “the season” or “the coil”… or something else, entirely).  I decided to pass on another shot at a steampunk (it’s too soon), as much as I enjoyed the last one, and go straight for a little mythology-inspired fantasy that actually arose from pondering both the word “Niflheim” and the antecedent of spring: winter.

So, a couple notes: yes the dialog is a little archaic and stilted.  It reflects the mood I was in after reading a few wikipedia entries on norse mythology.  I also struggled with adding “The End”, because this doesn’t really feel like the end of a story, but the end of a chapter.  I contemplated using the phrase “The End?” with a question mark, but decided that was a little silly looking.  I contemplated not putting “The End” at the end.  Ultimately, though, I’ve no idea if I’ll ever return to the world described in this short tale, so for now “The End” is appropriate.

I call this 1,004-word taste of fantasy (woohoo, almost in the word-limit!):

From the Farthest North

By: Stephen Watkins

“No,” he said.  “The law is the law.  I will not allow it to be broken, not even by you.”  Ingurd turned away from his impetuous son to gaze out at the thick banks of snow visible in the pale moonlight.

Hulfur Ingurdson would not be deterred.  “Do you want our village to die, father!  Our food will not last.  The spring has abandoned us, and we will all perish unless we do something!”

Ingurd turned on his son, a fire in his eye.  “Do not lecture me, boy!  Our laws have kept us safe for generations.  You cannot conceive of what is out there, of what I’ve—“

“Peace, Ingurd,” Snorri interrupted, holding his hand up in a gesture of conciliation.  “Allow me to speak to the boy, to explain again our law, so that he can understand.  The winter,” he said, turning his attention to Hulfur, “has always come.  And it has always ended.  And with the coming of the winter, there have always been the Niflurmur, who feed on men’s souls.  You have thought that they were legends, but there was a time when their attacks on Holdur Thyul were relentless. 

“That was before we built the wall.  And that was before the Law of Winter.  None can go outside the walls, as long as Winter’s claw grips the land.  Any who goes out is Lost, for we cannot risk the touch of the Worms of Nifhel here in Holdur Thyul.  When the spring thaw melts the mantel of winter, then we are safe, for the Niflurmur always retreat to Niflhimor with the retreat of winter.”

“But what if the winter will not retreat?” Hulfur pressed.  “It has been six turns of the moon since Deepwinter’s Night.  The spring is past due by at least two turns.  This winter…” He cast his glance over the wall toward the heavy drifts of snow, ghostly in the pallid light.  A raven settled at the peak of the wooden palisade and squawked once.  “This winter will not end…”

Ingurd turned again from his son, scowling, and shooed the raven away.  Snorri frowned momentarily before answering Hulfur.  “The winter always ends, Hulfur.  The spring always comes.  It has been thus ever since our people came out of Mitlhimor to this northern land.  The spring comes, and then we will plant.”

Hulfur sighed.  Snorri was a skaald.  He was the keeper of the history and the laws of Holdur Thyul.  These were things he would know.  He glanced at Ingurd, who kept stoic watch over the winter-gripped forest beyond the palisade walls of Holdur Thyul.

“You would be wise to listen to the boy.” 

Ingurd started at the sudden voice.  He gazed over the heavy drifts, from which the voice had sounded.  “Who… who dares—“

A figure stepped from the shadows of the woods, covered in a long dark cloak and a wide-brimmed hat.  Ingurd swore a curse.  “By the din of Vyolnir!”  He turned to sound the alarm.

The stranger raised his hand in a gesture of peace, striding toward the walls.  “Hold your alarm, I am no Worm of Nifhel.”

Ingurd growled. “Hold yourself, stranger.  Whether you be Niflurmur or no, I cannot tell, but you’ll not cross the gates of Holdur Thyul this night.”

The stranger smiled, and his hand disappeared into his cloak.  “I will wait here, then, in the shadows of your walls, until my message is heard.”

“What message is worth hearing in the cold of winter?”

“You fool, Ingurd Baldurson.  You cower behind your wall as the reach of Nifhel grows longer and tighter over Mitlhimor.  Do you think your walls can hold back the ravages of winter?  Do you think that you can hide from Nifhel’s gaze here, at the very steps to Nifhel’s Gate?  The boy is right.  The time for bold action has come.”

Ingurd eyed the stranger, wondering how the man knew his name.  “Who are you, stranger, that you come here and speak so, that you walk about in the depths of winter as though you have no fear of Nifhel?”

The raven settled on the stranger’s left shoulder as he produced a deep chuckle.  “A fool only has no fear of Nifhel’s might, but a fool also who goes about in winter unequipped to deal with Nifhel’s minions.”   The raven on his shoulder squawked again.  “I am called Gylfar, and I will deliver my message.

“Know this, Ingurd Baldurson, and Snorri Sturlungson, and all you of Holdur Thyul: the Twilight is at hand, and the Ashur move again in the Middle Realms.  The Bane of Turun stirs in the deep, and the Fell Fang is abroad, wreaking death and havoc.  You, Snorri, know that these are the signs of the Twilight. 

“But the Lords of the Ashur, the Ragna, will not let the long night fall without sending their might against Lukur and his consort, Nifhel.  The call has gone forth to gather the armies of men against that dark day.  Vyolnir, the Hammer of Turun, has been raised in the city of Fallsgard.  There, the princes of all of Mitlhimor wait for the sound of the horn, and for the Nine to come down from the Farthest North.”

“The Nine from the Farthest North?” Snorri interrupted.  “All these things are spoken of in the Elder Songs.  But surely you don’t mean—“

“Holdur Thyul,” Gylfar nodded, “is the Farthest North.  The last village of men before the Gates of Nifhel.”  He pulled his hand from the depths of his cloak.  The raven took flight, cawing loudly, as he held up a small, shining object.  “Behold the Eye of Othar!”

Hulfur gazed in awe as the stranger was engulfed in an intense light that made the night as day.  An Ashling!  One who had been touched by the Ashur, and carried their power.  Hulfur turned to his father, who looked humbled by this display. 

The stranger spoke again.  “Eight you must send forth, lead by Hulfur Ingurdson.  I will be the Ninth.”

The End.

More of the Games We Play

Yesterday, I began talking about board games.  Although I had friends who were avid players of “Settlers of Catan” prior to meeting the future Dear Wife, and although I had the desire to give the game a try, I never actually played until Dear Wife-to-be came along.  Dear Wife was then and is now a very skilled player of Settlers.  I’ve kept stats in the past; she beats me at it roughly 3 times out of 4.  (This roughly corresponds to her win-rate at other, non-Settlers games as well, considered collectively.  There are some we have which I quite literally never win, and some where I actually have the advantage, but as a rule she wins most of our games.  I am slowly coming to peace with this.) 

A fancy version of Settlers

A fancy version of Settlers with a 3-D miniature board set up with the Cities & Knights expansion.

Settlers, for the uninitiated, is a game where you attempt to exploit the natural resources of a small island in order to build towns and cities.  You gain points for each town or city built.  The rules are fairly complex, but once you get the hang of it, the handy reference card that comes with the game is all you’ll need to stay refreshed on what it costs to build this or that.  The game board is a series of hexagonal tiles laid out at random in the shape of an island.  Each tile represents a different kind of terrain, which generates a different resource.  Chips placed on each tile indicate which die roll, on a roll of two six-sided dice, will cause that tile to produce a resource.  Statistically, numbers closer to seven will come up on a “2d6” roll more frequently, so tiles with these numbers are considered more valuable (but the actual value of seven is reserved for a different effect, so that when a player rolls 7, no tiles produce a resource).  Each turn, the active player rolls 2d6, and every player that has a city or town adjacent to a terrain tile that produces a resource on that turn collects some of the resource produced.  Cities and towns are placed at the vertices of the the hexagonal tiles, so each city or town borders on three different terrain tiles.  After collecting resources, the active player can build cities, town, roads, and other things, or trade resources with other players or the bank. 

Because the game board is laid out randomly with each game (the number of tiles doesn’t change, but their placement in relation to each other, and which tiles are associated with which die rolls does), the strategic complexity varies with each play.  The strategy that is most effective in one game may not generate the same results in the next game, because of the dramatic differences brought about by the board layout.  This gives Settlers a lot of replayability.  As the gateway drug for strategic board games, Settlers also introduced many of us to the idea of “expansions” for board games.  In the image above, for instance, the game is set up with the “Cities & Knights” expansion, which adds Viking raiders, knights for defense, and a secondary group of resources called “Commodities”.  There are several other types of expansions, including expansions for number of players (increasing the base game designed for 3 to 4 players to a larger board that can have 5 or 6 players), and multiple other variant rule-changes. 

For Dear Wife, Settlers was only the first of several new games she learned in the years before we met, and she owned copies of several of these games, games like Carcasonne, Ticket to Ride, Fluxx and Guillotine.  (Of those, besides Settlers, Ticket to Ride has been our next favorite.)  Since meeting, however, we’ve added to our game collection, and now I’m pretty proud of the number of games we own!  One of the first additions to our game collection was a simple card game called “Take the Train” and the high-speed Scrabble-like game “Bananagrams“, and “Bohnanza“.  All are fun enough, but the really cool additions have been “Qwirkle“, “Colosseum“, “Shadows Over Camelot“, and our most recent addition, “Smallworld“. 

In “Ticket to Ride” players are attempting to build a railway network connecting the cities on a map.  Each player has a list of routes they are attempting to complete, and must collect different-colored train cards that correspond to the colored routes on the game board.  “Bananagrams” is basically Scrabble without turns or points: the winner is the first person to build a crossword and go out once all the tiles have been drawn.    “Bohnanza” is a fun card game where you are trying to make money by harvesting “beans” (Bohn is apparently German for “Bean”).  Each of the cards is a whimsical type of bean (“Soy Beans” are dressed like yuppies, “Chili Beans” are fiery southwestern types, “Green Beans” look sick to their stomachs).  You try to collect matching beans, because the more of the same type of bean you plant in your field, the more you make when you harvest.  The trick: you have to plant in the same order that you draw the cards, you only have  couple of fields, and you can only plant one type of bean in a field at a time.  “Qwirkle” is a tile game that’s a bit like Scrabble, but with shapes and colors.   You score as you make rows and columns of tiles where the colors and shapes each either all match or are all different. 

A game of Colosseum set up to play

A game of Colosseum set up to play

“Colosseum” is another game that, like Settlers, is pretty complex.  There are a lot of different little bits and pieces to the game, and there’s a lot going on.  But at it’s core, it’s pretty simple.  You’re putting on exhibitional and gladiatorial shows at the Colosseum.  You need certain resources to put on these shows – like actors, gladiators, lions, chariots, and set-pieces – which the players bid on.  Then you try to put on a show using the resources you have: bigger more extravagant shows draw bigger crowds and earn more money, which you can use to buy more resources and other things to help draw bigger crowds, attract the attention of the Emperor, Consuls, or Senators and put on bigger shows.  After a set number of turns, the player who’s put on the single greatest spectacle wins.  

A game of Shadows Over Camelot in progress

A game of Shadows Over Camelot in progress

“Shadows over Camelot” has become another favorite.  Of the list here, it’s the only one that’s a non-competitive game.  In other words, it’s cooperative.  In this game, the players are each one of the mythical Knights of the Round Table, each is endowed with a special power, and all are trying to stave off the dark forces intent on destroying Camelot.  In the game, there are several “Quests” to which the Knights can lend their effort, such as the “Quest for the Grail” or the “Quest for Excalibur” or staving off one of the various barbarian bands laying seige to Camelot.  Each quest has a risk of failure, because at the start of each turn, players have to draw and play a card that causes an evil effect before the player can do anything to try to advance one of the quests by playing good cards.  And even though the players are cooperating, they can’t share information about what they have in their hand.  The game can become really intense (especially if you use the advanced rule that allows for one player to be a “traitor” secretly working for the enemies of Camelot) as the forces of evil progress closer and closer to victory, and the final fate of Camelot comes to hinge on the outcome of a single action. 

Smallworld out of the box!

Smallworld out of the box!

Last, but not least, we recently had a chance to play (and add to our collection) the game “Smallworld”.  Smallworld is an irreverent strategy game of world domination fought between stereotyped fantasy races, like Elves, Dwarves, Wizards, and Zombies.  In this game, players represent one of any number of archetypal fantasy races and attempts to control the map of the small world in which the game takes place.  Eventually, the player’s race will become overextended and will go into decline, and the player will abandon that race to champion a new race.  Players accumulate points by holding more territory and earning gold from their possessions.  After a pre-determined number of turns, the game ends, and the player having earned the most gold wins.  Again, it’s a game with a lot of moving parts (there are around a dozen fantasy races, and even more combinations of special powers, and several more bits and pieces), but the game play is fundamentally simple and yet ingeniously complex in execution.  One neat feature of this game is that a player may have to change strides in mid-game and adjust his strategy when he abandons his old race to start over with a new one.  Each race and power combination will play a little differently. 

When possible, Dear Wife and I don’t like to let too many weeks go by without playing a game or two.  We don’t get cable TV, and we don’t go out to the movies much, so this is one of the most important forms of entertainment in our home.  While the purchase of a single board game may cost us more than a night at the movies, we know it’s an investment in hours of fun that we’ll return to time and again. 

And it doesn’t stop there.  Both of us have a bit of a creative side (I suppose that goes without saying, in my case, since I fancy myself a writer), and some time ago we started batting around ideas for a board game of our own design.  That’s a hobby that’s been on the back burner since my school ramped up in intensity, but it’s one we’re sure to return to in the future.  If and when we do, you can be sure I’ll blog about it, here! 

Happy gaming!

Writing Quotes: Mythopoeia

Yesterday, in my list of ten great books that moved me, I made mention of the term “Mythopoeia” – a term which is no doubt unfamiliar to many readers and potential readers.  Professor Tolkien coined the term, at least in the sense of mythopoeia representing a distinct literary genre.  As a genre, it is defined as an artificial or constructed mythology.  In theory, then, many – if not most – works of fantasy are works of mythopoeia.  But truly, Mythopoeia really means something more than just a fantasy story with an invented mythological backstory.  A mythopoetic work is the mythology itself, related and told on its own terms.  It is a work that explores mythological and anthropological themes, one that reexamines comparative mythology, digests it, and re-crystallizes it into something that is at once familiar and distinct, that hearkens back to a shared history before memory and that comments on the human condition.

Besides all that, Mythopoeia is also the title of a poem written by Tolkien: one that defends the making of invented mythologies (and by extension the writing of fantasy stories) against a friend who found them distasteful because they were all “lies”.  The poem must have had an impact, because that friend went on to write his own fantasy stories – stories that are nearly as beloved today as Tolkien’s work.

Today’s writing quotes are selections from that poem:

The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.

 

I will not treat your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker’s art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.

~J. R. R. Tolkien

Happy writing

Ten Books That Moved Me

 So, apparently there’s this game going on in the “blogosphere“, started, as I understand it, by Tyler Cowen on the blog “Marginal Revolution“: name the 10 Books that influenced your view of the world.  I first saw this on the blog of T. S. Bazelli, who’s commented here a few times.  So, at first I had a bit of trouble with this.  I didn’t come up with ten, right away.  It took a little thinking about it, but I did come up with ten.  And the list is a little surprising to me: they’re not all fantasy and science fiction novels (in fact, there’s comparatively little science fiction at all, which may make sense considering I’ve read very little sci fi as compared to fantasy), though they almost all are.  Further thought caused me to consider a few others that impact that list – additions I’d make or possibly substitute if I wasn’t going with the first ten influential books I thought of.  So, here they are:
The Book of Three Cover

The Book of Three

  1. The Chronicles of Prydain” by Lloyd Alexander: starting with The Book of Three and concluding with The High King.  Originally published in the 1960s, and the conclusion of which is a Newbery Award winner, these are books written and intended for a children and adolescent market, and that’s the age at which I discovered them.  I’ve blogged about the influence these books had on me before.  Suffice to say, I’m not certain I’d be a writer today – or an aspiring author, rather – if not for these books.  If everything else in my life were stripped away, this still lies at the heart of who I am, and it is these books that started me down that path.  The final book, if I had to choose, is of particular note in my memory.  The books concluded with such a tangible bittersweetness that writing that emotion has been a sort of quest of mine ever since.

    Picture of an Open Bible

    An Open Book of Scripture

  2. The Bible and other books of Scripture: In some circles (including among many of my friends), claiming the “Bible” or any other book of scripture as one of your biggest influences is by definition a cliché.  The fact is, through most of my life, I’d read and had read to me bits and pieces of the Bible, but I’d never read the whole thing.  Still, I was taught about its importance and preeminence among books, just as a matter or religious instruction.  However, when I was about 19 years old and in college, as I was finding my religious beliefs challenged in unexpected ways, I undertook to read the book, from cover-to-cover as part of a separate religious-studies class looking at a different religion from my own, at that time.  What I discovered there was interesting and exciting.  It challenged some of my long-held beliefs, re-affirmed others, and made me think more about the nature of christianity than I had before.  Was God, for instance, a benevolent and merciful being?  The Bible doesn’t always suggest that he is!  And yet, it concludes with a resounding affirmation of those very traits!  What to make of all that?  In the end, it lead to a profound shift in the direction of my life.  I can honestly say, were it not for that change, I would not be where I am today, I would not have met my wife, and I would not now be bringing a new life into the world with her. 

    The Lord of Rings in Hardcover

    The Lord of the Rings in Hardcover

  3. The Lord of the Rings” by J. R. R. Tolkien: starting with The Fellowship of the Ring, of course.  These are the books without which no list of “the most influential books” is truly complete, making it a cliché of its own.  But, of course, there are reasons the books are so influential.  It’s hard to imagine a world without these books: half of popular entertainment and pop culture would be radically different if so.  But this is about the personal influence these books had on me.  As a writer, this can’t be understated.  Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books were what made me a writer, but it is these books that made me think more deeply about my writing.  I find myself turning time and again to the indices at the back of The Return of the King, and to companion books like The Book of Lost Tales and The Silmarillion for inspiration in the way that I approach writing fantasy and world-building.  I find Tolkien’s influence in my work so strong that I have come to consider that “novel-I’ve-been-working-on” (cue obligatory reference to “blathering”) not so much a novel, or a pending novel-series, but a work of Mythopoeia.  While it is, perhaps, pretentious, that is nonetheless my aspiration – and why I’ve put the book aside until I can develop my skills as a writer sufficiently to be able to tackle such a daunting task. 

    The Hobbit Cover

    The Cover of "The Hobbit"

  4. The Hobbit, also by Tolkien: Another publisher of such a list might classify this as part-and-parcel with “The Lord of the Rings”, but I have to list them separately.  Even before I eventually read this book – which is a children’s book, as opposed to a work for adults such as “The Lord of the Rings” – stories from The Hobbit formed the backdrop of my childhood (along with other tales).  Before I ever read the book, I’d seen the Rankin/Bass animated version of it.  As a story of heroism and adventure, it sets a very different mood than the later books, and have different inspirations. It was only later, with the writing of “The Lord of the Rings”, that Tolkien tied the world of The Hobbit together with the world he’d been creating since his youth that we see in The Book of Lost Tales and The Silmarillion.  It’s another part of the mythopoetic process that’s well worth reading. 

    The Cover of "Dragons of Autumn Twilight"

    The Cover of "Dragons of Autumn Twilight"

  5. The Dragonlance Chronicles” by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman: which begin with Dragons of Autumn Twilight.  Long before I discovered Role-playing, or took up “adventuring” in Dungeons & Dragons, I read the Dragonlance books.  And those books were perhaps the first books that nearly brought me to tears because of the death of a character (I won’t share which one, so as not to spoil it).  It was heart-wrenching.  Of course, that’s besides the epic scope and incredible fantasy-milieu at the heart of these books (and the companion series, The Twins chronicles; read those two trilogies but the rest of the “Dragonlance” books, most by other authors, are extraneous to these two series).  Again, really, these books skew to a slightly younger audience, but they’re still fantastic, in my opinion, and were the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration between Weis and Hickman that continues to this day. 

    The Cover of "The Eye of the World"

    The Cover of "The Eye of the World"

  6. The Wheel of Time” by Robert Jordan: which begins with The Eye of the World.  For all its flaws and detractors, “The Wheel of Time” has earned a place as one of the best epic fantasies every written, and this is especially true if we narrow our focus to the first three books of the series.  These books are among the most thoroughly-researched and richly-detailed fantasy books I’ve ever read, and even during the long slog in the middle, I always found myself eagerly anticipating the next book in the series (when I started reading them in High School, there were six of them).  Even the flaws – and yes, even an ardent fan of these books such as myself must admit that there are flaws – are a source of inspiration to me: I ask myself, as fabulous as Robert Jordan’s books are, what did he do wrong?  And how can I avoid those mistakes in my own writing?  In a future blog posting (after I finish reading The Gathering Storm), I will likely go into greater detail about the series as a whole, what I perceive the flaws to be, and how this all influences my writing. 

    The Cover of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"

    The Cover of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"

  7. The Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling: which begins with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, as per the U.S. title.  These books changed my opinion of YA literature (or at least of YA fantasy and science fiction literature).  I had staunchly refused to read the Harry Potter books, believing them to be a fantasy-light that was unworthy of the attention of someone like me who was interested in serious, adult fantasy (such as the “Wheel of Time” books above); and I held out reading these until after the first movie came out.  Of course, I had to eat my words: these books are really well-written and enjoyable, regardless of what age you are when you read them.  In retrospect, it was silly, naive, and frankly stupid of me to hold the books in such contempt: some of my favorite books were written for the juvenile market (see “Chronicles of Prydain” above).  Can you spell hypocrite?  Regardless, I also learned a thing or two about writing fantasy by seriously considering just what made these books so darn popular in the first place (and by extension, caused Ms. Rowling to become the richest woman in England).  One part of the answer, I surmised: the role relationships between characters play in these books.  I also discovered, after reading these books, how annoyed I was at the U.S. title-change.  It smacks of pandering to the lowest-common-denominator, or of assuming the general stupidity of the American reading public.  The fact is, Ms. Rowling obviously did research on folklore and mythology in writing this series, but you wouldn’t know it by the American title: there’s really no such thing as a “Sorcerer’s Stone”.  But the British title has it right: there’s loads of interesting things in folklore and mythology about a “Philosopher’s Stone“.  

    The Cover of "1984"

    "1984" with the same cover as used in my High School

  8. 1984 by George Orwell: 1984 is easily the best book I have ever had to read for school.  It’s also the most darkly chilling, and most culturally, socially, and politically relevant I’ve ever had to read.  Basically, if you didn’t have to read it in High School like I did, then you should go read this book right now.  Seriously.  I mean, how do you even know what the rest of us are talking about whenever we snidely suggest that “Big Brother is watching you”?  Anyway, 1984 is the science-fiction (yes, it’s science fiction, even if they made you read it in school and even if Orwell didn’t know he was writing science fiction) dystopian-future magnum opus from before dystopian future sci-fi was the cool thing to write, and is the touchstone from which all other dystopian futures ultimately draw their inspiration.  And it is a book that continues to warn us against the dangers that lurk in our futures – dangers of our own making and born of our own complacency. 

    The cover of "A Wizard of Earthsea"

    The Cover of the same edition of "A Wizard of Earthsea" as was owned by my parents

  9. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le GuinLe Guin’s books are deceptively simple to read, and belie their deep exploration of complex themes.  My parents had a huge collection of books from my childhood, and buried in that collection was a box-set of the first three Earthsea books.  Pressed into the pages of the books were dried flowers: flowers I can only assume were given to my mother by my father.  I did my best to take care not to damage the dried, pressed flowers when I read these books.  I included these books on my list because I think there’s something deeper or more meaningful here than in many of the other fantasy and science fiction books I’ve read.  Also, I think Ms. Le Guin’s campaign to protect her copyrights from corporate take-over are worthy of note. 
     
     

                                                                  

  10.  A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
    Cover of "A Thousand Splendid Suns"

    Cover of "A Thousand Splendid Suns"

    This is a very surprising, non-speculative fiction item on my list.  Dear Wife very much enjoyed The Kite Runner by the same author, which she had read before we met, and when she got her hands on this sophomore novel by Hosseini, she convinced me to read it to.  Later, we saw the film version of The Kite Runner.  These stories were deeply disturbing and eye opening, and reading A Thousand Splendid Suns gave me a new understanding of evil that goes beyond the simplistic sense most often understood in fantasy fiction.  And it made me ponder such a situation in which “the good guys”, as my preconceived notions understood it, existed in a world where there were no “good” options, where every choice, every action conceivable would lead to more death, destruction, and evil, no matter what the intentions of “the good guys”.  Indeed, I was forced to ponder a world in which “the good guys” were a force for evil and ill in the world, simply as a consequence of their existence.  That is a stark reality to face, and it is one that A Thousand Splendid Suns made me face.  Also, this book has a fabulously enticing title!  

Honorable Mentions 

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: At once instructive, iconic, enduring, and immortal.  Plus, it’s about my favorite time of year!

 Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson: Adventure! Treasure! Pirates! And a boy in need of a father.  A bildungsroman that still delights young readers to this day.  This book is beyond being a mere classic.  Plus, may I say that this book began my love affair with maps?

 The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells: Veritably the grandfather of science fiction (alongside Mr. Verne, the genre’s other grandfather).  As far as I know, it’s the first time aliens invaded and conquered Earth, and also the first time they were a metaphor of something deeper.  What I read was an illustrated, abridged version for children, at a fairly young age.

 The 1,001 Arabian Nights: While I’ve never read them, the existence of this book nonetheless has a profound impact on my world, and my conception of a heroic tale: from the voyages of Sinbad, to the tale of Aladdin, to Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, these are adventures and stories that were a part of my childhood and formed the backdrop for my early development as a writer.

 Fairy Tales: From Mother Goose to the Brothers Grimm and everything in between.  My childhood was steeped in fairy tales – many of them from children’s books recounting the tales in question.  Others came from movies and television, still others were related as bed-time stories. 

 Wikipedia: It’s not a book.  But it is my one-stop-shop, where all of my more in-depth research begins.   (Which is to say, I know Wikipedia’s not where my research should end, but it’s a great place to begin!)

Happy reading!