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 Quest for Identity: Overthinking ‘Stick Man’


One of the joys of parenthood is coming back into contact with children’s books, and we are slowly building a collection of stories by Julia Donaldson. Having now devoured the Gruffalo (upon which I have already written a post, viewable here) umpteen times, we are just now in a ‘Stick Man’ phase. And it’s got me thinking about something which really does concern everyone: our pursuit of our own identity.

Of course, the quest for identity – and, often, for adulthood – is one of the chief concerns of children’s stories in every medium. But what is interesting about Stick Man is that it presents us with what is arguably the flip-side of this quest: the trouble to maintain that identity in the face of a world which looks at us through a million different lenses.

If you’re not familiar with the story, it is actually very simple: Stick Man lives with his wife and children in a tree. On going for a jog one day, he is separated from his family and drawn progressively further and further from home by a variety of obstacles, ranging from dogs to children, to swans, the ocean, and even a distressingly close encounter with a fireplace.

At the opening to the story, Stick Man is clearly established as settled and at one with himself and his family; the ‘family tree’ is a powerful emblem of his rootedness in himself, his family and, by inference, his history. He has safely made the rocky transition into adulthood and emerged with a clear sense of himself: ‘I’m Stick Man, I’m Stick Man, I’m Stick Man – that’s me!’. The last thing he is expecting on his morning jog is peril to his physical self and identity.

At each escalating encounter, Donaldson’s verse employs the refrain: ‘Stick Man, oh Stick Man, beware of the…!’. The repetition – strengthened by the tight verse of the poem – highlights something that adolescents and adults know only too well – the world attacks who we are, sometimes indiscriminately, and often from many different angles. Stick Man disentangles himself from each situation with the defiant proclamation ‘I’m Stick Man’. It is his self-assertion that allows him to remove himself from the obstacles that threaten him and continue on his quest for home – a space which is arguably the symbolic location of his identity.

Perhaps the most evident example of the barrage of life against identity in this story is the couple of stanzas focused entirely on Stick Man’s negating of the labels that others have placed on him: ‘I’m not a bat, or a bow, or a boomerang… No, I’m Stick Man… And I long to get back to the family tree.’ In each case, others are attempting to force him into a role that, while he may externally look suited to it, it reduces him to the level of a tool or implement and does not respect his intrinsic self. He has to fight – and fight hard – to reject those labels, and to remind himself that he is right to do so. But, as the listing of roles in this section shows, the sheer number of attacks on identity can wear you down.

Stranded and lost in the snow, Donaldson’s paints a heartbreaking picture of near defeat partway through the poem, where we read: ‘Stick Man is lonely. Stick Man is lost… Stick Man is woozy. His eyes start to close…’. Note how the syllables here are short, and the sentences, too, to convey the withering of the hero’s resolve to preserve his true self against a world that has caged him in (a feeling built, again, by the closeness of those short sentences). It is a sense compounded by the gathering of open vowel sounds of ‘lonely’, ‘lost’ and ‘woozy’ which, in a verse-trick reminiscent of Milton’s Paradise Lost, conveys the yawning emptiness occassioned by loss of self. It is no accident that it is at this point that Stick Man falls unconscious and nearly becomes firewood. Surrender in this quest will result in the complete destruction of the self.

Look closely at what it is that saves him: the sound of Father Christmas, stuck in the chimney, which wakes him before he is reduced to kindling. Despite his own near-hopeless situation, Stick Man still has enough of himself left to show compassion to a ‘stuck man’, and it is this act of kindness which will ultimately reunite him with his family.

There is a subtle message, here; if we take Father Christmas as powerfully emblematic of our own childhood selves, then Donaldson seems to suggest that it is through compassion on that self that we are reconnected to the fullness of our our adult selves. In short, we have to re-embrace our inner child – with care and compassion – to find again the capacity to actualise our identity. It is only when he has done this by helping Father Christmas that Stick Man is once again able to joyfully proclaim: ‘I’m Stick Man – that’s me.’

The rewards of being at peace and joyfully proclamative of our identities are not merely selfish – being restored to himself also allows Stick Man to be restored to his proper place in his home and family. Donaldson shows us that knowing ourselves also allows us to know and be known in a fulfilling way by those around us.

Enjoyed this post? Check out ‘The Deep, Dark Wood: Overthinking ‘The Gruffalo‘.

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

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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!

A Universe of Gates: Thoughts on ‘Stargate: Universe’

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Been a while since I’ve written a post – returning to work after maternity leave will do that to you! – but part of it can also be explained by what I’ve been watching on Netflix: Stargate: Universe.

For context, you need to know that I loved Stargate; SG-1 began broadcasting when I was in my early teens, and I was (and remain) a devotee of both the story and the story-telling. Okay, the first two seasons are a little hit and miss, but as the series grew it was plain that this was wholesome storytelling, in so far as it delighted in the personalities and quirks of its protagonists, was able to paint against a grand canvas, but didn’t take itself so seriously that it couldn’t explore itself through the lens of the parodic. The series was a winning mix of character driven story telling, with humour, compassion and challenge, with a good dose of sci fi. Perhaps, as Christopher Judge (Teal’c) said in a recent interview, the series wouldn’t be made today – but there’s real charm and quality to it. Much the same can be said for its spin-off, Stargate Atlantis – which I also enjoyed immensely. In fact, I love the series so much that when I first applied to Cambridge it was to read – you guessed it – Egyptology.

You can imagine how excited I and my fellow Gatephiles were in 2009 when Universe was first broadcast – we were looking forward to more of the same (even if we were expecting rather better cgi). It’s not what we got.

Judging by the way the ratings figures look, I stuck it out longer than many. But I didn’t last. Just five episodes into the 2009 run, I gave up. To me, it just wasn’t Stargate.

Fast-forward to 2016. I’ve been rewatching SG-1 while subjecting my husband to this formative part of my adolescence, and come across SG:U. I’m still routinely stuck on the sofa nursing a baby in the evenings, so I decide to give it a go – for completeness’ sake.

The short of it is that 7 years’ absence has given me the ability to see the series for what it is. Criticised by many as too much like a soap opera or masquerading as the revamped Battlestar Galactica, Universe is dark, gritty, more interpersonal than interplanetary (especially in its first season). It’s a story about ‘the wrong people’ – in the wrong place and at the wrong time to boot. It’s difficult to really empathise with any of the characters because, with the possible exception of Eli Wallace, they are all flawed, broken, or outright self-serving people. Even when, like the O’Neill’s, Carters, MacKays and Weirs of the preceding shows, they are strong, cunning, intelligent or diplomatic, it comes at a price, and 11th hour plans never come off without a hitch. Nobody has plot armour.

It was a bold – and intentional – step on the part of the writers and producers. And it was in many ways the death of the franchise. But with the benefit of emotional distance, it’s clear to me that while SG:U is not really ‘Stargate’, it still in many ways exemplifies good, character driven story telling – which was, after all, what really made its predecessors.

I felt like it was a third of the way into the second season before Universe really found its feet, by which point its cancellation had been sealed – just as the series started to explore a little more of its inherent scifi story hooks. By the time I reached the closing shots of the final episode, I was close to tears. I had genuinely come to care about these characters, and wished that I had just a little more time with them.

The entombment of Destiny‘s crew in stasis and the uncertainty of Eli’s fate is poignantly metaphoric of the fate of the franchise and its fans. Like many of the latter, I feel betrayed by the impending Stargate reboot, which intends to make almost 20 years of wormhole travel worth much less than one of the parallel universes in the quantum mirror. The eradication from canon of these series feels like the equivalent of hurling the toys (and soother, and muslin, and bottle) from the pram in a maelstrom of intellectual property fury. It is, to put it bluntly, not cool.

I have no doubt that the rebooted Stargate movie trilogy will look impressive, or that it will amass vital dollars in theatres. It will probably even accrue a new generation of fans who dream of aliens amid the pyramids of Giza. But, Emmerich and co, here’s the snag: 20 years of storytelling doesn’t just disappear because you will it to. And, when all is said and done, I rather suspect that the new fans will go back to the television series; and that the box sets of SG-1, Atlantis, and even Universe will be highly tradeable commodities on eBay long after the collector’s extended rebooted Stargate Trilogy edition drops down to £2.99 and free postage.

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 Deep Dark Wood: Overthinking ‘The Gruffalo’

Despite being Italian, my family has always, thanks to one Tanta Johanna, celebrated the day of Saint Nicolas on the 6th of December as done in Germany. When I was young, this was the day that advent calendars, Christmas decorations and chocolate were delivered, a kind of pre-Christmas warmup for the big day itself.

This is a tradition I am maintaining now that I have children of my own, but they are so young that I didn’t want edible treats to be the focus. Instead, I bought them a new book each and, while my seven-month old has been slapping her way through ‘That’s Not My Fox’, for my nearly three-year-old son, I bought a copy of Julia Donaldson’s ‘The Gruffalo’.

I don’t think there can be many people in the UK who haven’t heard of the Gruffalo but, I confess, I had never read the story and knew nothing about it. So it was with real interest that I sat with my children to listen to my husband reading it for the first time. And, as a literature student, there were a number of things about it that really struck me.

The story follows a mouse through a wood, where he encounters three animals – a fox, an owl and a snake. In western folklore and fairytale, each of these creatures has traditional significances: in its size and demeanour, the mouse represents a kind of innocence and weakness which also, in the story, allows it to become a kind of Everyman. Young readers identify with a creature that is little and might encounter danger, which this mouse does.

Mouse’s foes here are traditional figures of the cunning and ruthless (embodied by fox), the otherworldly (in the owl, long an emblem of omen as well as wisdom) and the duplicitous (in the snake). Indeed, the ‘deep, dark wood’ itself has Dantean resonance, recalling the poet’s wandering in despair, and migh also, if we put on the hat of Freudian theory, be emblematic of the dark world of the subconscious and unconscious. In which case, could fox, owl and snake be allegorical symbols for sins or unspoken desires?

You might think this is getting a bit heavy, but don’t worry; Donaldson’s remedy to what could actually be quite frightening is inventive rhyming that skilfully mixes the key ingredients of balladic, oral, tradition – repetition, a strong rhyme scheme, alliteration, especially in emphatic positions, such as ‘scrambled snake’ – with vocabulary that undercuts frightening elements by contrasting the fairytale set up with quotidian elements like ‘ice cream’. These tangible, everyday items, named by the mouse, help a child feel like the protagonist is safe and in control, and make any threat in the story manageable.

Mouse himself showcases a very western virtue; in the same vein as Homer’s wily Odysseus, Mouse averts becoming dinner for any of the larger, threatening creatures through use of his wit. Readers delight in this, and the wit is compounded by Donaldson’s verse, which always gives the metrical and linguistic punchlines to Mouse, while the villains are contained by repetition. Mouse frightens the creatures away with talk of a Gruffalo, which he knows does not exist.

Except, of course, that it does – exactly as he has described it. So Mouse uses his wit again, explaining to the hungry Gruffalo that as he (Mouse) is the most frightening thing in the forest (as evidenced when fox, snake and owl flee from him), Gruffalo should leave him alone. Gruffalo duly does so, leaving mouse to enjoy his nut in peace.

As well as the oral elements that I mentioned earlier, Donaldson employs a triadic structure in the three encounters, conforming to rhetorical and narrative traditions, and frames the poem in a kind of ‘there and back’ frame, which not only heightens predictability and enjoyability for children but also allows for a strong resolution when Mouse escapes the cycle and gets his reward. Indeed, the final page uses a fraction of the lines used in every other verse, giving us a powerful sense of Mouse’s victory.

Overthinking it? Totally. But there is no reason why children’s literature should not be analysed in as much detail as any other. Good storytelling, after all, begins in the nursery; it is there that our imaginations are awakened.

‘The Gruffalo’ is just such storytelling: it allows little ones to approach some genuinely frightening ideas in a controlled situation, making it safe enough to explore intellectually, and thus perhaps better arming them for some of the trials of real life. Very Bettelheim. At the same time, Donaldson’s verse is skilfully wrought to introduce some of the most cherished tools in a literary workbench. And, of course, ‘The Gruffalo’ is gorgeously illustrated, too.

Hats off to Donaldson and Scheffler; this story genuinely deserves its accolades!

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.