C.S. Lewis once observed that with “every tick of the clock, in every inhabited part of the world, an unimaginable richness and variety of ‘history’ …George Macdonald’s “The Princess and the Goblin”: The Animated Movie with a Note by ChrisC
Recently, I picked up the novel St. Elmo by Augusta Jane Evans. Part of me wonders whether it stands as the first harlequin romance-style novel, since it certainly has the woman-who-tames-savage-man plot. You might call it The Fifty Shades of Grey of the 19th century: this novel was the third bestselling novel of 19th century America behind Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur. However, St. Elmo has a deeper understanding of tragedy and sorrow and is far more elevated than Fifty Shades of Grey.
So elevated, in fact, that most modern Americans can’t enjoy the book. The reviews on Goodreads revealed a common note of frustration with the Ciceronian periods, les belles lettres, and Classical and Medieval allusions. They put down the book rather than subject themselves to being tortured by someone with a Classical education for over 450 pages. That Americans are not given the…
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‘My mind to me a kingdom is’ is a poem that has been popular with readers ever since it was published in 1588 in William Byrd’s Psalmes, Sonets, & Songs. Yet the authorship of ‘My mind to me a kingdom is’ is by no means certain. Who wrote it? First, here’s the poem, which expresses […]
It seems remiss on my part that I’ve written nine poem essays for this site so far and not one of them has been about John Donne. After all, Donne is one of my favorite poets, and one of the writers who got me interested in poetry in the first place.
It’s almost as if there are two John Donnes: there’s the—ahem—eager young poet who wrote racy seduction ballads and there’s the sober old minister examining himself and his conscience before a terrifying though merciful God. Even more fascinating than the fact that this contrast exists in the same poet is when the two personalities overlap, as they do in Holy Sonnet XIV, otherwise known as “Batter my heart, three-person’d God”:
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
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While reading Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, that many of Tom’s heroes were pirates and brigands rather struck me. In many respects, Twain well reproduces the feelings, thoughts, and thirst for adventure found among boys of Tom’s age. Yet, one cannot help but feel that the long periods of time spent without supervision and the affection for pirates is outdated. Despite The Pirates of the Caribbean series of films, pirates don’t seem to hold the imagination of Americans as they once did. Why is this the case?
Fulton Oursler’s Father Flanagan of Boys Town (published in 1949) contains the opinion that America’s crime problems can be connected to how much the people celebrate outlaws. Children in the much more orderly society of Great Britain prefer stories about police and other persons who uphold the law. Essentially, Oursler contends that reading about outlaws encourages Americans to become outlaws themselves–in much the same way as people now argue that violent video games encourage people to be violent.
The following essays counts as the musings of a novice better versed in history than science fiction. To illustrate the point, my list of most read science fictions authors consists of Jules Verne, C. S. Lewis, and Gene Wolfe. I lean far more towards fantasy. Nevertheless, I like to ponder some ideas about the historical context behind the waxing and waning of science fiction as a genre. For, one cannot help but notice that science fiction has lost popularity vis-à-vis fantasy. Once again, my reading in science fiction is but slight, and the comments posted after the article may be far more illuminating; but, let me get our dear readers’ gears turning.
If we look at the birth and death years of the Father of Science Fiction, Jules Verne (1828 – 1905), we see that they extend through most of the 19th century into the Progressive Era and cease nine years before the outbreak of WWI. As 18th century thought was marked by individualism and liberty, the 19th century is marked by the rise of nationalism and collectivism. Jules Verse was born thirteen years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, which unleashed the forces of nationalism and democracy across Europe. The greatest conflict of nationalism vs. localism counts as the American Civil War, pitting the nationalist Northerners against their sectional Southern brethren. Jules Verne’s novels feature a great affection for Americans–more specifically Northerners and Yankees, who count as the main characters in The Mysterious Island and From Earth to the Moon. The zeitgeist of the North was more in line with the spirit which Jules Verne inherited from the French Revolution and which Verne imbued his novels.
The two chief means of bettering international prestige in the 19th century counted as military prowess and scientific progress. The interplay of these two things appear in From Earth to the Moon, where The Gun Club constantly worked at bettering Union cannon but with the end of the Civil War must turn to peacetime goals for this technology. And, indeed, the North showed more technological innovations in their armaments during the war, including things like repeating rifles and brass cartridges. (Though, the South did develop the first successful attack submarine–the C.S.S. Hunley, which was unfortunately a one shot deal.) The importance of technology tied into the theories of evolution and Social Darwinism prevalent at the time. Societies with the most advanced technology were considered to be at the pinnacle of human evolution.
By all this, I mean to say that science fiction had its birth in nationalism and owes its original raison d’etre to that zeitgeist. At the same time, let me say that Jules Verne himself was far from being a jingoist. He delighted to learn about other cultures and places and often wrote novels were the main characters were not French. It is more exact to describe Verne as a patriot rather than a nationalist.
The nationalistic spirit into which science fiction was born gradually shifted to a more universal human perspective. The shift is best observed in the writings of H. G. Wells (1866 – 1946). The year of his death corresponds with the closing of the Golden Age of Science Fiction (1938 – 1946). (Though, some place the end at 1960.) H. G. Wells was a socialist in his worldview. Marx’s Das Kapital came into publication the year after Wells’s birth, and greatly influenced the rest of the 19th century and 20th century.
To a large extent, the works of H. G. Wells exist in tension with Verne’s. The socialist worldview is internationalist in scope rather than nation-based. When Wells wrote The Time Machine in 1895, most of the Western world was firmly in Verne’s camp. By the time Wells wrote Men Like Gods in 1923, most men were longing for the kind of Utopia he describes in that novel with its end of politics and exaltation of science. Such was the crisis of faith brought about by the First World War.
The blame for the World Wars was laid largely upon Western Civilization itself, especially the ideology of nationalism. The science fiction of the mid-20th century rather denigrated the idea of nationalism. In discarding nationalism completely, a new tension developed within the genre. It passed from nationalism vs. universal human progress to collectivism vs. nihilism. These two are not necessarily perfect opposites. The nihilists of the 19th century, rejecting traditional Western Civilization, fueled the rise of socialism and communism. Refer to the hero of Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons or the villains of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Devils for examples of this type.
Yet, there is a different sort of nihilism opposed to communism though sharing the common soil of materialism. This deeper sort of nihilism finds its expression in the writings of Philip K. Dick. All the effects of scientific progress and devotion to the scientific worldview have deprived people of a metaphysical framework to the world. People have replaced the true, the good, and the beautiful with material comfort, which does not satisfy in the long run.
Isaac Asimov and other collectivists counter the nihilistic school with the ideas of class struggle and revolution leading to a better state for humanity. These two things give a metaphysical shape to reality and are much more appealing than the existential angst of the true nihilist. However, we saw the bloody horrors communism accomplished in the 20th century, still enacts in communist countries, and the scars it left on formerly communist countries. Who wants that? People who study communist history realize that the material paradise offered by Marx is but an illusion and that pure capitalism or a combination of capitalism and welfare do much more to alleviate the sufferings of the poor. Nihilism and living comfortably turns out to appeal to the masses much more than bearing la Croix sans Christ offered by communism.
This emphasis on the intrinsic meaninglessness of existence took much of the driving force from scientific progress and hence science fiction. With nihilism infecting science fiction, people now turn much more towards the universals provided by fantasy. Fantasy has always provided people with the moral conflict of good vs. evil, the importance of individual action, and wonder at the world. Much of the reason Star Wars stands as the most popular science fiction franchise lies in its borrowing these elements from epic fantasy.
So, my questions to the readers are: if Dick killed the raison d’etre of science fiction, what new raison d’etre can be found for the genre? Also, how badly have I understood the general progress of science fiction and its current state of affairs? I’m eager to hear your thoughts on these questions!
I’ve recently re-read the plays of Sophocles. Paul Roche translated the Signet version. This translator has also ably translated Ten Plays of Euripedes and The Complete Plays of Aristophanes. (Euripedes counts as my favorite of the three Athenian Tragedians, by the way–which puts me in the minority for sure!) The Ancient Greek proverbs and ideals come across in an authentic manner even though the prose is written in good, modern English. While reading the play this time, I was impressed with the notion of hubris leading to a fall and how hubris is punished by the gods. But, my interpretation of how Sophocles understanding of hubris evolves over the course of his plays would not have occurred to me if not for a particular conversation with a friend of mine.
In that conversation, I opined that people have forgotten that God punishes people for pride. My friend responded that if God really punished people for pride, we would all be dead. This struck me as a profound insight. Indeed, is God under any especial necessity to punish people for pride? Pride, like the other capital sins, carries its own punishment with it. Pride distorts our view of ourselves, which in turn hinders us in our interactions with the real world. Socrates made the foundation of philosophy, the love of wisdom, to know oneself. If we don’t know ourselves, we fail countless times, wound ourselves, and vex the people around us such that we drive them away. What is more offensive than arrogance? What could be a worse affliction in and of itself?
I can’t remember the last Young Adult work of Christian fiction I’ve read, but Sword and Serpent by Taylor Marshal has to count as one of the greatest. It ranked as the #1 novel in the highly specific category of “Young Adult Christian Historical Fiction. Of the 349 reviews currently on Amazon, no one has rated it with one or two stars, and I must say that it deserves this praise. Set in the days of Diocletian’s persecutions, it follows the young St. George, called Jurian in the text, and his sister as they flee persecution in their hometown. The two of them are assisted by Saints Christopher, St. Blaise, and St. Nicolaus on the way. (The first two are members of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, among whose number also falls St. George.) St. Christopher is present most of the difficult journey to Rome. Taylor Marshall does an excellent job of making all these saints human and relatable while endowed with miraculous powers.
Meanwhile, a pagan priestess named Sabra on Cyrene begins to question the legitimacy of offering human sacrifices to her demonic god. At the same time, she cannot wrest herself from what she thinks is her duty to her people. When she herself is chosen by lot, the king, her father, conceals this from the people and compels her to flee to Rome. But, she feels obligated to return to face her doom. Jurian and Sabra meet in Rome and agree to sail together to Cyrene. But, will Jurian’s prophecy or Sabra’s fate be fulfilled on the island?
Here, I’m going to try my hand at marketing–again. As you see from the title, my dear readers, I’ve self-published a fantasy novel–a medieval, military, fantasy, adventure novel to be more precise. The roots of this novel lie in an old manuscript I created at seventeen years of age and completed at nineteen. The tome, dubbed Ketil’s Saga, stretched for over three hundred Word Document pages, was written in a pompous and abstruse style, and contains one of the most meandering plots never to have been inflicted on the public. I dream of one day polishing it enough to be presentable trilogy; but, writing a new story set within the same world seems an easier proposition.
All Man’s Clotted Clay might be a familiar title, since this book was submitted to Athanatos Christian Ministries’ 2015 Novel Contest and made the semi-finals. As such, it has received…
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This sounds like a very interesting book. Please consider helping this author in order to get this book published.
Dear readers of The Oddest Inkling:
As you know, in 2013, a previously-unpublished work by J.R.R. Tolkien appeared: The Fall of Arthur, his only explicitly Arthurian writing. The publication of this extraordinary poem revealed subtle connections between “The Matter of Britain” and the rest of JRRT’s legendarium, and thus invited an examination of the theological, literary, historical, and linguistic implications of the Arthurian writings of all the major Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield. It became immediately obvious that a scholarly study of these works was necessary.
The book I have been editing for four years, The Inklings and King Arthur, fills that gap. It is an edited essay collection that examines the Arthurian works of Tolkien, Lewis, Williams, Barfield, their predecessors, and their contemporaries. It offers exciting, rigorous analytical perspectives on a wide range of the Inklings’ Arthurian and related works, contributing…
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