Living, Post-Truth

pilate

 

I haven’t blogged much recently. Partly, that’s due to work and my now four and two year olds; much more, it’s due to expecting number three in a few short months.

I meant to post this piece back when I wrote it in February but, between morning sickness and the day job… well, you get the picture.

For context: I am on a circuit of writers who contribute to the Christian Comment section in our local newspaper. So, every couple of months, I get 300-350 words to give a short Christian comment on whatever I feel called to write. The piece that follows is what I wrote in February:

I have long wondered what epoch I live in; I’d read and learnt about the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Modernism… what name would history give to our slice of time?

My curiosity has been sated: it seems I live in the Post-Truth society. Defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’ – ‘post-truth’ was the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2016.

Our struggle with the nature of objective truth is not one peculiar to our time, our advanced culture, and our frenetic media-saturated lives. ‘Post-truth’ is really just a reframing of Pilate’s equally infamous question: ‘What is truth?’ (John 18:38).

The question has refracted throughout the canons of literature, philosophy and film, appearing over and over again – but rarely is it preceded by the statement of Jesus that sparked it: ‘In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

“In times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act,” wrote George Orwell. No statement more so than Jesus’; in it, he proclaims that there is not only such a thing as objective truth, but that He is its voice. Or, as He puts it elsewhere: ‘[He is] the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through [Him]’ (John 14:6).

In the Western world today, there is a kind of comfy discomfort in the term post-truth; we have solidarity in decrying the faithlessness of politics, and then feel justified in our behaviour. There is philosophical high ground in scoffing alongside Pilate – and then washing our hands of it all.

Jesus calls us to a higher standard than this. The truth isn’t just radical – it is transforming, redemptive, and awe-inspiring. Jesus longs for us to discover that, and to discover Him. He calls us to delve into the words of His Father, learn the truth, and carry it as a beacon into our truth-starved world.

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On Eagles’ Wings

My collection of essays on eucatastrophe in Tolkien’s work launches today. To whet your appetite, here is the preface… Available now in paperback and e-book formats at http://www.lunapresspublishing.com/ .

The clouds were torn by the wind, and a red sunset slashed the west. Seeing the sudden gleam in the gloom Bilbo looked round. He gave a great cry: he had seen a sight that made his heart leap, dark shapes small yet majestic against the distant glow.

“The Eagles! The Eagles!” he shouted. “The Eagles are coming!” (The Hobbit, p.263)

If you are at all familiar with Tolkien’s work, then Bilbo’s cry – proclaiming the arrival of Eagles – will be no stranger to you. Indeed, it is somewhat of a hallmark of the Master of Middle-Earth, one rejoiced over and lampooned in equal measure by his lovers and critics: at the moment of crisis, the eleventh hour when darkness holds sway and there is nothing more that the heroes can do to win the day, these plot-armoured birds appear, our protagonists fall conveniently unconscious, and when the heroes awake, the good guys have won.

A reductive way of looking at it, perhaps; but the Eagles, and their ability to swoop in and save all at the last possible moment (without a focaliser to witness exactly how they do it) seem, superficially, to fly in the face of good story telling. You could even argue that they entirely undercut the narrative by making all the efforts of the heroes amount to… well, nothing. And then there’s that niggling question – if they had all this power, why in Middle Earth didn’t they step in before, and save everyone a good thrashing?

Tolkien was not infallible, either as a man or a storyteller, and while some elements of his mythos resist our attempts to pin them down (Tom Bombadil-o, anyone?), it is possible for us to understand the eagles – even if we continue to object to them. To do so, we need to look into Tolkien’s critical writing and, in particular, his concept of eucatastrophe:

…I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite – I will call it eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function… The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’… [the] sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur… [gives] a fleeting glimpse of Joy, joy beyond the walls of the world… it can give to child or man that hears it… a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears… A tale that in any measure succeeds in this point has not wholly failed, whatever flaws it may possess. (OFS 68-69)

Tolkien’s treatise as to the purpose and function of fairy stories is as much a work of theology as it is of literary theory, culminating in his view that those stories that evoke the eucatastrophic turn ultimately reflect what he calls ‘the Great Eucatastrophe’ (73): the story of the birth, death and resurrection of Christ, which is ‘the eucatastrophe of Man’s history’ (72) – and that the taste of Joy which we experience in fairy in the unlooked for ‘turn’ is a glimmer and a pointer to that supreme eucatastrophe in our own, primary reality. Tolkien leaves Plato – and his theory of forms – quite in tatters: for Tolkien story, rather than distracting us from the true nature of things by presenting pale copies and imitations, actually, at its pinnacle, has the potential to draw us closer to God. Better let those poets back into the Republic, Plato!

So how does this concept illuminate the eagles for us? We need to understand them as a narrative embodiment of Tolkien’s eucatastrophic theory; they are the unlooked for grace, the redemptive turn – such a strong glimpse of Joy that the protagonists cannot truly and consciously look on it.

Of course, not being God themselves, the Eagles don’t solve everything. Despite their intervention, Thorin still dies, Frodo is still so injured that he cannot remain in Middle Earth. But these aquiline amigos are a pointer to that presence beyond the walls of the world that was so instrumental in Tolkien’s life and writing. Perhaps, in choosing the Eagles to crystalise this concept, Tolkien had in the back of his mind a few verses from Isaiah:

Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens…

those who hope in the Lord

will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

they will run and not grow weary,

they will walk and not be faint. (NIV Isaiah 40, v.26, 31).

As this preface might suggest, I’ve been fascinated, inspired and led by Tolkien’s concept since childhood. Whatever my line of enquiry into Tolkien’s work, the sequence of clues has always led to the same culprit: eucatastrophe. The book that you’re holding represents a kind of eucatastrophe casebook, a series of investigations into Tolkien’s work that reveal how overarching this theory was in his writing and mindset. It is a theory that has, in turn, enormously influenced my own genesis as a critic and a writer.

I invite you to join me on my journey into the eucatastrophic qualities of Tolkien’s stories – for, while it found its pithiest expression in eagles’ wings, its touch on the landscape of Middle Earth is entirely inescapable.

The Salt and Sweet Water Tongue: Writing the Sacred, Writing the Profane

water

 

Over the weekend, I read some of the more recent reviews of my Knight of Eldaran trilogy on Goodreads. More than other genres, fantasy has a bit of a marmite thing going on – you love it or you hate it; it’s difficult to be anywhere in between. Consequently, some reviews will be good, others not so encouraging. Whilst I was expecting this, what I was not expecting was specific criticism for use of profanity and graphic content.

Now, some context before I go further: I absolutely respect the opinions of those who find profanity, blasphemy, or sexual content in literature unpleasant or outright abhorrent, and the point of this post is not to ridicule or belittle those views. Indeed, I myself have a low tolerance of these things in what I watch, read – and even write. Many of those reviewers who have commented negatively on graphic content in ‘The Knight of Eldaran’ have been from North America, and it is true that what we in the UK consider ‘swearing’ seems to start from a slightly different baseline than our compatriots across the puddle. Even so, the comments I read got me thinking.

If you are someone who finds swearing uncomfortable, be aware that the following paragraphs will reproduce some of the langauge that has been criticised in the novels.

The Knight of Eldaran‘ is what I might call historical fantasy. It seeks, to put a Tolkienian term on it, to create an ‘inner consistency of reality’. That means that characters are going to make choices that we as readers aren’t comfortable with. As a writer, I genuinely struggled with whether or not to have characters use words like ‘bastard’ or ‘bloody’, because these are words that I would not use myself, and gratuitous swearing – so ubiqutous in so many parts of our culture – pains, irks and disgusts me. I considered coming up with some in-world equivalents, but in the end made the call to include this language.

Perhaps you’re reading this and wondering what objections readers could have to swearing. If they’re a parent, they may just want to guard their children from exposure to such language and concepts – and the argument ‘kids know far worse’ in no way invalidates parental desire to protect their children. Linguistic theory also clearly shows that we copy and emulate what we are exposed to and, whether for children or for ourselves, we may decide that we don’t want to use those kinds of words, and that therefore limiting our exposure to them is prudent.

For people of faith, purity of word can be a vital outward sign of their reverence for God – and so they eschew profanity. Indeed, for Christians, there is guidance in James to this effect, in James 3. Exhorting his readers to beware of their tongues, which can both praise God and curse their brothers, James exclaims: ‘Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?’ (NIV James 3:11). The purpose of the striking imagery is clear: purity of language can be a signal of inward purity, and we should aim to be holy as our Father is holy. Indeed, given the Johanine declaration ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’, human words – which are creative, just as that first Word – have a sacred quality that we should be in awe of. So to misuse words – or to use ‘evil’ words – is a bad idea. (What exactly constitutes good and evil words probably needs to wait for another time, and for those with more philosophical or theological gumption than myself!).

So, as a Christian… how do I justify the language that I use, when others consider some of it to fall in that ‘evil words’ category?

The profanity in my novels – which, to my mind, consists of the two words I’ve already mentioned, with the possible addition of ‘whore’ (which one reviewer also objected to) – is as far as swearing in my books goes. While it is language that I am uncomfortable with, it is infrequent and never used gratuitously. It always serves the purpose of building character – and it goes without saying that none of the characters who use it are framed as morally virtuous at the time that they do. In this way, the swearing in the novels demarks characters who are morally skewed: command over their language reflects their command over their moral compass.

Perhaps the most notable example comes part-way through ‘The Traitor’s Heir’, when Eamon (who is in the middle of what I call his ‘evil montage’) attacks Giles, furiously screaming “Bastard!” at him. There is no way that the reader is called on to applaud Eamon here, either in his action of his verbal expression of rage. Indeed, in the third novel, Eamon himself recognises his brokenness in language that would  be familiar to readers of James:

“You speak with a measured tongue.”

“A measured tongue? My tongue is a fountain that pours out saltwater one moment and fresh the next,” Eamon answered passionately. It had sworn him to the throned and to the King. What two things could be more different?

Ultimately, it could be argued that swearing in this fantasy trilogy serves to highlight the moral choices of its users.

Similarly, the sexual content of the novels – in this case, the extra-marital liaison between Eamon and Alessia (which is never described graphically or at length, but is certainly hinted at figuratively) – cannot be considered to be framed in a morally positive way. It is clear that both Eamon and Alessia are in some measure deceiving and abusing each other at first. While I do think that they come to genuine feelings for each other and, in the trilogy’s epilogue, a committed long-term relationship, it is not until they have learnt to respect each other and each other’s brokenness that their relationship becomes truly meaningful and mutually edifying.

I understand why some readers would have reservations about story-telling with swearing and sexual  content – especialy Christian readers coming to a trilogy by a Christian writer. I didn’t want to use either element gratuitously – and don’t feel that I did. I decided to walk a tricky line down the middle (and I’m open to the idea that I have stumbled en route). I’m sure I’m not the only writer – whether of faith or secular – who has grappled with the same decision.

So why did I take the risk? Because I didn’t want readers to reject the novels’ heart  – which is a story about the complex moral maze that we all navigate, and the way that we can be sustained in it by grace and redemption, whatever we have said or done, as long as we accept the call on our lives and dedicate ourselves to following it as truly as we can – on a technicality. Because if God is giving you a nudge to say that he’s there, it’s far easier, and more comfortable, to nit-pick your way out than to listen.

I’m not claiming, by the way, that my novels masterfully proclaim the great truths of eternity. But I will tell you this: I’m a great proponent of what Tolkien calls eucatastrophe (indeed, I’m working on a book of critical essays on it right now, and it is my favourite word to play in Hangman). Eucatastrophe essentially posits that stories in general – and fantasy in particular – can serve as startlingly clear connections to higher truths. Being, like Tolkien, a Christian and writer of fantasy, it is my hope that any such revelatory moments that come from reading my work point in the same direction.

Comments, thoughts, or quibbles? Are you a writer, of faith or none at all, who has had similar choices to make? Leave a comment or get in touch!

This post is also published on www.annathayer.wordpress.com. I’m experimenting with posting my blog thoughts in both places!

The Most Wonder-full Time of the Year

This week, in preparation for that Cambrian Explosion of the toy box that is Christmas, I did a bunch of wrapping, and I shared a really special time with my family decorating our tree. I feel smugly prepared, but something gnaws at me:

Everywhere I go, images of Santa abound, and he’s to be visited/assisted/rescued in every festive episode of every children’s programme that my son grazes at.

As a mother to young children, I am in the thick of what I’m dubbing my ‘Santa Quandry’: Santa isn’t real. And, at age three, what mummy and daddy tell toddler about the origins of his presents this year will stick. Do I really want to tell him that they came from a fat man who would find himself blocked at the bottom of our fireplace by a large, draft-excluding piece of cardboard?

Let’s examine this Quandry. Of course, there’s real wonder and excitement at Christmas time, especially if there is something a little bit mysterious about the gifts. The mystery opens the door to traditions that can be tenderly kept down the generations. One that captures all the magic and wonder for me is listening outside the living room door for the sound of the angel chimes that would signify that Father Christmas had been. I now have my own chimes, and want them to be part of the fabric of Christmas with my children. But, to put it bluntly, I don’t want to lie to them. Does that kill the magic? Worse, does it put my children in a position where they kill the magic for someone else’s children?

It seems to me that by being honest with my children from the outset, I can shield them from that awful mark of passage – discovering that Santa isn’t real, perhaps at the hands of peers who will not be kind or generous about it. Will that rob them of the season’s wonder?

No, because the real wonder of the season is the nativity story that we remember. Baby Jesus is all to easily relegated to some quiet suburb of the heart, crowded out by the lights and gifts, the overpowering ‘Santa’, the pressures of wanting family and friends to really feel how much you love them, the crush of preparing the perfect festive treat, the bite to the wallet as the day approaches.

Silently, so silently, the wondrous gift is taken – even in Christian homes, like mine. How often do I really stop to think about what we are celebrating?

I am, of course, au fait with Saturnalia and all its winter festival associates, and that arguing for a return to ‘the real meaning of Christmas’ is repeatedly attacked by those who -quite correctly – say that other feasts came first. That’s not the point. If Christmas is, for me, the time to think on the infant  who was given to us as the most costly gift of all, then isn’t that the story that should take centre stage with my children? It’s much more serious than “Where did my presents come from?”; it’s “Why do we give presents?” In fact, it’s much more important than the presents I’ve bought and wrapped, the tree I’ve decorated, the social calendar I’ve filled or the meal I’ve planned.

Perhaps, then, the answer to the Santa Quandry is simple: don’t lie. The gifts under the tree are from family and friends. Giving them – as you discover as parents – is a blessing, a token of love in a world so desperate for it. That is, in itself, wonder-full, and needs no further wrapping to make it so. But it is also in receiving gifts and returning to the hearts of our families at Christmas time that we remember the unspeakable vulnerability, tenderness, and grace of a God who lay, that first Christmas, in his mother’s arms as warm and as close as my 7-month old daughter does to me now. That is the true wonder – and it is a story worth telling.

Like my writing? Check out my sister site www.annathayer.wordpress.com to learn about my award-winning fantasy trilogy, ‘The Knight of Eldaran‘, and my work on Tolkien and Lewis. Yes, you got me: I’m a geek.

The Kilns: An Oxfordshire Treasure

Our wipers were on full speed when we reached our destination,  turning down an unassuming close which admonished that no coaches were permitted. The house – like so many sites of historical or literary importance in this country – was marked with a distinctive blue circle plaque. Although there was no mention of party business,  the sign on the latch gate was quite clear: no admittance without prior appointment.

This was my first visit to the Kilns,  home of a man needing no epithet: C.S. Lewis. I’ll be honest,  I’d had an incredibly stressful day, punctuated by the incessant whines of a poorly baby and the seemingly endless spontaneity of a toddler’s bowel movements. In addition, I had not had my morning coffee – the sine qua non of mums everywhere – and I was drenched. Despite standing on the threshold of the home of one of my inspirations and outright heroes,  I was not feeling in a placed to be wowed.

The first thing that strikes you when you step through Lewis’ door is the utter sense of peace and welcome in the place, one compounded by the warmth of the residents and guides.  No parent could have been more grateful than we were to Bethany,  who offered to play with our son while we took part in the tour.  So it was that our initial orientation in Lewis’ story and connection to the house was to the backdrop of a giggling toddler dropping a tennis ball down the great man’s stairs.

You don’t go to the Kilns to see tonnes of paraphernalia – very little is original due to the place’s history – but dedicated volunteers have  lovingly restored the home one room at a time.  Even so, it was a thrill to sit at Lewis’ desk (I didn’t dare to touch the beautiful pen there!), to walk a space he and his loved ones knew intimately,  and to hear stories about him. I won’t spoil them – you’ll have to go and let the talented guides quiz and entertain you! I can, however,  reveal that I resisted the White Witch’s temptation in the dining room. The sugar on my husband’s fingers suggested that he was not so fortunate! (The Witch should have offered me a glass of port from the exquisite port set instead!)

Retracing my steps through the rose garden at the end of our tour, to the car and thence back to the A34, I felt as though I had been on a literary pilgrimage.  But, unlike visits to the homes of other writers,  I felt curiously edified and refreshed – which is, I suspect,  exactly what Jack would have wanted.

Like my writing? Check out my sister site www.annathayer.wordpress.com to learn about my award-winning fantasy trilogy, ‘The Knight of Eldaran‘, and my work on Tolkien and Lewis. Yes, you got me: I’m a geek.

A Worthwhile Verse

Having a 7 month old and a nearly 3 year old is an adventure.

When the first thing I hear at 06:04 is the crash of the lego box being tipped all over the living room floor when I was just dropping off to sleep, this verse flits through my head: children are a blessing from the Lord.

When my daughter’s in her third change of clothes in two hours and then she and her brother coordinate poopocalyptic nappies but still can’t nap at the same time, I remember: children are a blessing from the Lord.

When the washing machine has been running non stop and I’m still behind on the laundry… when they get into a fight over a piece of track that’s identical to 27 others (but only that one will do)… when they’re colouring the kitchen floor (and each other)… when they’re hungry and supper is being prepared in 3 second intervals… when my car journeys are judged by how many times I can listen to their current favourite song (and nails on a blackboard would be exquisitely better)… when I finally get a shower but all I can think of to sing is the theme to ‘Peppa Pig’ or ‘Team Umizoomi’ (“La la la la la… they are a tiny team!”)… when I look at myself in the mirror and think “Just begone,  bump!”or mournfully walk past the nice bras in M&S because no such thing as a sexy,  supportive nursing bra exists… I say to myself,  perhaps through clenched teeth: children. Are. A blessing. Not a trial, a blessing. From the Lord.

And when they’re sick, or fall, or are sad, I hold them close. When I feel their pain like my own, and pray they should never know more of it, I remember it: a blessing.

And when they’re lying on the bed in just their nappies tickling each other,  covering me in kisses, applauding me for ‘a good job, Mummy!’, telling me it’s the best supper EVER (when it’s just fish fingers again), or racing to the door to greet daddy, or being wondrously and spontaneously caring,  gracious, or tidy… they’re a blessing.

And when, God willing, my son phones me (probably via skype on something smarter than I am) with the news, or my daughter smiles at me over a coffee and lays one hand on her belly, then I’ll share this worthwhile verse with them: Children are a blessing from the Lord. And I shall pray that they – and I – never forget it.

Like my writing? Check out my sister site www.annathayer.wordpress.com to learn about my award-winning fantasy trilogy, ‘The Knight of Eldaran‘, and my work on Tolkien and Lewis. Yes, you got me: I’m a geek.