The Founder of the Time

I have been continuing my read of Christmas Books of Dickens. There is a genre of Christmas entertainment – songs, movies, stories – that has been called “Christmas bubblegum”: high on sugar, low on substance. Dickens’ stories, for all their sentiment, could never be classed in it. They have too much sadness, and too much religion. (Dickens also has an unaccountable tendency to detour into ghost stories while telling Yule-tide tales.)

Here is a brief passage from “The Seven Poor Travellers” (available in full here):

Going through the woods, the softness of my tread upon the mossy ground and among the brown leaves enhanced the Christmas sacredness by which I felt surrounded. As the whitened stems environed me, I thought how the Founder of the time had never raised his benignant hand, save to bless and heal, except in the case of one unconscious tree. By Cobham Hall, I came to the village, and the churchyard where the dead had been quietly buried, ‘in the sure and certain hope’ which Christmas-time inspired. What children could I see at play, and not be loving of, recalling who had loved them! No garden that I passed was out of unison with the day, for I remembered that the tomb was in a garden, and that ‘she, supposing him to be the gardener,’ had said, ‘Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.’ In time, the distant river with the ships came full in view, and with it pictures of the poor fishermen, mending their nets, who arose and followed him, – of the teaching of the people from a ship pushed off a little way from shore, by reason of the multitude, – of a majestic figure walking on the water, in the loneliness of night. My very shadow on the ground was eloquent of Christmas; for did not the people lay their sick where the mere shadows of the men who had heard and seen him might fall as they passed along?

Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year, in the Name of Him who “made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”

Christmas Books of Dickens

Two nights ago, in honor of the season, I picked up Christmas Books of Dickens, a volume I bought at my library’s fall book sale. The first story was, of course, A Christmas Carol.

I last read A Christmas Carol a year or two ago, and reading it again I was struck anew by what a masterpiece it is. I’m not referring only to the ingenuity of the story, or the immortal characters; I don’t mean only Dickens’ wonderful tribute to the Christmas season, or his incomparable excoriation of greed, selfishness, and the love of Mammon. The whole story flows with skill. Dickens’ mastery flashes out in a thousand glints.

There is the eloquence of the dialogue. So much of it is profound. When Scrooge begs Marley to “speak comfort” to him, the Ghost replies, “I have none to give. It comes from other regions, Ebenezer Scrooge, and is conveyed by other ministers, to other kinds of men.” You could stack up ten standard Hollywood movies that, all put together, did not carry as much meaning as that one reply.

Where not elevated by truth, the dialogue is still elevated by intelligence. Even Scrooge, irascible old doubter, makes his rejoinders well. “You,” he tells Marley’s Ghost, “may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

There is Dickens’ use of adjectives. An old rule of thumb in writing is that when it comes to adjectives, less is more. Dickens did not obey this rule. Nineteenth century literature is probably more suited to abundant adjectives than twenty-first century literature. But more than that, Dickens was a great writer; he knew better than to waste words. Consider the string of adjectives he applied to Scrooge: “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!”

Each word sharpens the portrait of the old sinner.

Then there is Dickens’ ability to give character to almost anything he turns his pen to. There are many excellent examples of this in A Christmas Carol, but I will limit myself to three. For the first, Scrooge’s home, to the extent he could be said to have one: “They were a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with the other houses, and forgotten the way out again.”

Second is Dickens’ description of Norfolk Biffins (a kind of apple): “There were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner.”

Finally, Scrooge himself: “External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have him. The heaviest rain and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage to him in only one respect. They often ‘came down’ handsomely, and Scrooge never did.”

Lastly, there is Dickens’ subtle humor: “There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot – say Saint Paul’s Churchyard for instance – literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.”

Now my last quotation, when Scrooge is waiting for the Ghost of Christmas Present to appear: “Now, being prepared for almost anything, he was not by any means prepared for nothing; and, consequently, when the Bell struck One, and no shape appeared, he was taken with a violent fit of trembling. Five minutes, ten minutes, a quarter of an hour went by, yet nothing came. All this time, he lay upon his bed, the very core and centre of a blaze of ruddy light, which streamed upon it when the clock proclaimed the hour; and which, being  only light, was more alarming than a dozen ghosts, as he was powerless to make out what it meant, or would be at; and was sometimes apprehensive that he might be at that very moment an interesting case of spontaneous combustion, without having the consolation of knowing it.”

As such an old and well-loved story, A Christmas Carol can be read online. Merry Christmas – ’tis the season.

CSFF Blog Tour: Tinkerbell vs. Elrond

Modern fantasy was weaned on J. R. R. Tolkien. Among the precedents he yielded to us is that of the tall, beautiful, wise Elf. This Elf’s principal rival in modern culture is the Fairy – the Pretty Butterfly Fairy, glittery and about fifteen inches tall. You would ask the Elf what to do with a powerful ring on which hangs the fate of the entire world, but you wouldn’t ask the Fairy for advice about dryer settings.

Elrond is generally taken as a truer heir of European fairy tales than Tinkerbell. Yet Tinkerbell, with her jealousy and almost lethal mischief, carries one of the strongest traits of the faeries. There are many fairy tales, and faeries of every description, but it’s safe to say that benevolence was never their strong suit.

“Everything about them,” Yeats once wrote of the faeries, “is capricious, including their size.” So they appear in so many of the old stories: mischievous, malicious, unpredictable, tricking, fooling, afflicting humans. The Butterfly Fairy is rather harmless, the Elf generally good, but no right-thinking mortal was ever off his guard around the faeries.

D. Barkley Briggs, in his series the Legends of Karac Tor, surprised me by rejecting the Tolkien model. His fairies are more like the ones in the folk tales – magical tricksters, dangerous neighbors, fixated on pleasure and light-hearted pastimes. Briggs resurrects the old superstition of the Good People fearing iron, and he even uses “elfin” instead of “Elven”.

Below I have posted a folk tale that shows a little the faeries’ troublesome and heedless treatment of mortals – a reigning characteristic of the Fey that Briggs replicated and Tolkien wholly excised. It shows a great deal more the wariness and fear humans harbored for faeries. That the farmer should see such high stakes in so simple a bargain proves just how leery people were of Fey Folk.

Also interesting is the question of whether faeries can be saved like “good Christians,” and their reaction to the priest. It’s a theme that recurs in European folk tradition, the meeting – usually, the collision – between Christianity and the world of faerie. It’s almost like Christian speculative fiction.


T. Crofton Croker

Reproduced from Sacred Texts

It is said by those who ought to understand such things, that the good people, or the fairies, are some of the angels who were turned out of heaven, and who landed on their feet in this world, while the rest of their companions, who had more sin to sink them, went down farther to a worse place. Be this as it may, there was a merry troop of the fairies, dancing and playing all manner of wild pranks, on a bright moonlight evening towards the end of September. The scene of their merriment was not far distant from Inchegeela, in the west of the county Cork–a poor village, although it had a barrack for soldiers; but great mountains and barren rocks, like those round about it, are enough to strike poverty into any place: however as the fairies can have everything they want for wishing, poverty does not trouble them much, and all their care is to seek out unfrequented nooks and places where it is not likely any one will come to spoil their sport.

On a nice green sod by the river’s side were the little fellows dancing in a ring as gaily as may be, with their red caps wagging about at every bound in the moonshine, and so light were these bounds that the lobs of dew, although they trembled under their feet, were not disturbed by their capering. Thus did they carry on their gambols, spinning round and round, and twirling and bobbing and diving, and going through all manner of figures, until one of them chirped out,

“Cease, cease, with your drumming,
Here’s an end to our mumming;
By my smell
I can tell
A priest this way is coming!”

And away every one of the fairies scampered off as hard as they could, concealing themselves under the green leaves of the lusmore, where, if their little red caps should happen to peep out, they would only look like its crimson bells; and more hid themselves at the shady side of stones and brambles, and others under the bank of the river, and in holes and crannies of one kind or another.

The fairy speaker was not mistaken; for along the road, which was within view of the river, came Father Horrigan on his pony, thinking to himself that as it was so late he would make an end of his journey at the first cabin he came to. According to his determination, he stopped at the dwelling of Dermod Leary, lifted the latch, and entered with “My blessing on all here”.

I need not say that Father Harrigan was a welcome guest wherever he went, for no man was more pious or better beloved in the country. Now it was a great trouble to Dermod that he had nothing to offer his reverence for supper as a relish to the potatoes, which “the old woman”, for so Dermod called his wife, though she was not much past twenty, had down boiling in a pot over the fire; he thought of the net which he had set in the river, but as it had been there only a short time, the chances were against his finding a fish in it. “No matter,” thought Dermod, “there can be no harm in stepping down to try; and maybe, as I want fish for the priest’s supper, that one will be there before me.”

Down to the river-side went Dermod, and he found in the net as fine a salmon as ever jumped in the bright waters of “the spreading Lee”; but as he was going to take it out, the net was pulled from him, he could not tell how or by whom, and away got the salmon, and went swimming along with the current as gaily as if nothing had happened.

Dermod looked sorrowfully at the wake which the fish had left upon the water, shining like a line of silver in the moonlight, and then, with an angry motion of his right hand, and a stamp of his foot, gave vent to his feelings by muttering, “May bitter bad luck attend you night and day for a blackguard schemer of a salmon, wherever you go! You ought to be ashamed of yourself, if there’s any shame in you, to give me the slip after this fashion! And I’m clear in my own mind you’ll come to no good, for some kind of evil thing or other helped you—did I not feel it pull the net against me as strong as the devil himself?”

“That’s not true for you,” said one of the little fairies who had scampered off at the approach of the priest, coming up to Dermod Leary with a whole throng of companions at his heels; “there was only a dozen and a half of us pulling against you.”

Dermod gazed on the tiny speaker with wonder, who continued, “Make yourself noways uneasy about the priest’s supper; for if you will go back and ask him one question from us, there will be as fine a supper as ever was put on a table spread out before him in less than no time.”

“I’ll have nothing at all to do with you,” replied Dermod in a tone of determination; and after a pause he added, “I’m much obliged to you for your offer, sir, but I know better than to sell myself to you, or the like of you, for a supper; and more than that, I know Father Harrigan has more regard for my soul than to wish me to pledge it for ever, out of regard to anything you could put before him–so there’s an end of the matter.”

The little speaker, with a pertinacity not to be repulsed by Dermod’s manner, continued, “Will you ask the priest one civil question for us?”

Dermod considered for some time, and he was right in doing so, but he thought that no one could come to harm out of asking a civil question. “I see no objection to do that same, gentlemen,” said Dermod; “but I will have nothing in life to do with your supper–mind that.”

“Then,” said the little speaking fairy, whilst the rest came crowding after him from all parts, “go and ask Father Horrigan to tell us whether our souls will be saved at the last day, like the souls of good Christians; and if you wish us well, bring back word what he says without delay.”

Away went Dermod to his cabin, where he found the potatoes thrown out on the table, and his good woman handing the biggest of them all, a beautiful laughing red apple, smoking like a hard-ridden horse on a frosty night, over to Father Horrigan.

“Please your reverence,” said Dermod, after some hesitation, “may I make bold to ask your honour one question?”

“What may that be?” said Father Horrigan.

“Why, then, begging your reverence’s pardon for my freedom, it is, If the souls of the good people are to be saved at the last day?”

“Who bid you ask me that question, Leary?” said the priest, fixing his eyes upon him very sternly, which Dermod could not stand before at all.

“I tell no lies about the matter, and nothing in life but the truth,” said Dermod. “It was the good people themselves who sent me to ask the question, and there they are in thousands down on the bank of the river, waiting for me to go back with the answer.”

“Go back by all means,” said the priest, “and tell them, if they want to know, to come here to me themselves, and I’ll answer that or any other question they are pleased to ask with the greatest pleasure in life.”

Dermod accordingly returned to the fairies, who came swarming round about him to hear what the priest had said in reply; and Dermod spoke out among them like a bold man as he was: but when they heard that they must go to the priest, away they fled, some here and more there, and some this way and more that, whisking by poor Dermod so fast and in such numbers that he was quite bewildered.

When he came to himself, which was not for a long time, back he went to his cabin, and ate his dry potatoes along with Father Horrigan, who made quite light of the thing; but Dermod could not help thinking it a mighty hard case that his reverence, whose words had the power to banish the fairies at such a rate, should have no sort of relish to his supper, and that the fine salmon he had in the net should have been got away from him in such a manner.

CSFF Blog Tour: Aion, Aslan, and Balder

Many Christian fantasy worlds have, as their right religion, a simple monotheism. Characters will speak of, and pray to, the One God – the Maker, He is sometimes called, or the Creator. But holy books are elusive, the places and practices of worship are vague, and redemption is a belief rather than the finished work of God. Theologians would subsist on thin gruel in these worlds.

So I was struck, reading the Legends of Karac Tor, by the complexity of its religion. D. Barkley Briggs wrote in monks, abbeys, and bishops, written revelation and sacred stories; he created a Jesus-figure, a Satan-figure, and another Adam. (Adam ate forbidden fruit; Yhu, the First Man of Karac Tor, drank forbidden water.)

The mythology of Karac Tor is shaped foremost by Christianity. After that, there are three influences. The first is the Catholic Church. Somehow more telling than the bishops and monks are the little things Briggs borrowed – blessed water, and the sign of the circle, an alteration of the sign of the Cross for a world without the Cross.

Another, more vital influence is C. S. Lewis. Aion, son of Olfadr the Everking, closely follows the pattern of Aslan, son of the Emperor-over-the-Sea. Though no more divine than Olfadr, Aion is much more the focus of both the books and the characters. They surely believe in the mercy and way of Olfadr, but they generally talk of the mercy and way of Aion. Aion even dies and comes to life again. And I think I hear an echo of “Lion’s Mane!” in Sorge’s exclamation, “Beard of Aion!”

The third, most surprising influence is that of Norse mythology. In The Book of Names, readers encounter Kr’Nunos, “the deceiver of old. He was there at the Pillar of Reckoning; there, convincing Yhu Hoder, full of bitterness and shame, to pull the string and release the arrow. He watched as Hoder’s poisoned dart struck true, killing the great Aion.”

For many centuries the Scandinavians told a similar story, the story of Balder the beautiful. Balder, the son of Odin the All-Father, was the fairest of the gods and the most worthy of praise. When ominous dreams made the gods fear that some danger threatened Balder, Frigg extracted a vow from all things on earth that they would not hurt him.

All things except the mistletoe.

One day Loki – the mischief-maker, bent toward evil – disguised himself in the form of a woman and went to talk with Frigg. So he learned that the mistletoe, alone of all things, could harm Balder. He pulled up the mistletoe and persuaded the blind god Hoder to throw it at Balder. The dart pierced and killed Balder the beautiful.

It’s easy to conclude that Briggs based the story of Aion’s death off the story of Balder, particularly after he named Aion’s killer Hoder.

There are other parallels to the Norse gods. Odin had two ravens who were his special servants; so did Olfadr. Loki and Kr’Nunos share one significant trait, aside from their roles in divine murders and general evilness: Both are shape-shifters, taking the form of other creatures (including animals) in order to work their malice.

The Nine Worlds is another idea taken from Norse cosmology. Hel – the domain of Kr’Nunos in the Legends of Karac Tor – is the realm of the dead in the legends of the Norse. Isgurd, where Aion dwells and his followers go after death, may be an alteration of Asgard, the fabled home of the gods and of righteous men after they die.

If other Christian authors have a simple monotheism that is strictly orthodox as far as it goes, Briggs writes a complex monotheism made of Christianity, pagan myths, and one of C. S. Lewis’ best ideas. It’s interesting to read, and fun to untangle. But I haven’t given up on the simple, orthodox way.

CSFF Blog Tour: Corus the Champion

The sky was yellow with a strange storm. That was their first sign. Their second, less subtle sign was the messages the ravens dropped at their feet. “You have been chosen,” they read, “for a life of great purpose. Adventure awaits you in the Hidden Lands.”

Now the four Barlow brothers are in the Hidden Lands, experiencing adventure to the point of nearly losing their lives. In this, the second book of the Legends of Karac Tor, they are entangled ever deeper in that strange world. It’s a place of magic, and it’s riding the edge of apocalypse.

Perhaps the thing that stands out most about D. Barkley Briggs’ fantasy world is how old and tired it is. There is not a person who doesn’t seem worn out by life, or a nation that doesn’t seem worn out by history. The black strands are stretched over many years and woven depressingly over Karac Tor.

Its legends trace some of these strands. Briggs writes the old stories of Karac Tor well. They carry the flavor of real myths – the same mixture of small details with brief, enormous assertions, the same uncertain boundaries between fact and fable. Karac Tor being a fantasy world, its legends are true.

One of them is, in fact, a character. This, and his somewhat unusual, ah, form, give him real flair. This is one side of his character. The other is muahaha evil. All the characters of Corus the Champion are strong enough to carry their roles, but it’s the second-tier ones who show most of the color.

Briggs deals heavily in the folk traditions of our own world. Arthurian legends are central to his story. His fairies are drawn more purely after the pattern in European fairytales than I have ever seen, and I saw a surprising number of gleanings from the Norse. Briggs plumbed the old folk tales and came up with his hands full.

I ought to mention that the Legends of Karac Tor are written in an omniscient style. I have no complaint against this, but some may say (reasonably enough) that it creates distance between the readers and the characters. One recommendation I would make to Mr. Briggs regarding his writing style is that he use fewer sentence fragments. It’s not always bad to write in fragments. The brevity can create emphasis. Pack a punch. But it can be overdone. Become problematic. On occasion.

Minor errors aside, I did enjoy Corus the Champion. It’s a journey we’ve all seen before – discovering gifts, discovering destiny. Briggs enlivens it with sharply drawn characters, with interesting scenery, with living legends. The word he shows is complex and old, its magic deep. About the religion in the novel I hope to write tomorrow; today I will say only that it is present, strong, and satisfyingly integrated into the story. Corus the Champion is a book worth the read.

Per the custom, here are the links:

The book (Amazon)

The author (Hidden Lands)

And the blog tour:

Gillian Adams
Noah Arsenault
Beckie Burnham
Morgan L. Busse
CSFF Blog Tour

Carol Bruce Collett

Theresa Dunlap
April Erwin
Victor Gentile
Nikole Hahn
Ryan Heart
Bruce Hennigan

Christopher Hopper
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen

Krystine Kercher

Rebecca LuElla Miller

Eve Nielsen
Sarah Sawyer
Kathleen Smith

Donna Swanson

Rachel Starr Thomson

Steve Trower
Fred Warren
Phyllis Wheeler

Nicole White
Rachel Wyant

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

Blog Tour: Worlds Unseen

The past comes back. Forty long years ago the Council for Exploration Into Worlds Unseen came apart, ending tumultuously after an all-too-brief quest for hidden truth. Its members scattered, took up new lives. Died, a few of them. Now, four decades after they knocked at the door of worlds unseen, the worlds unseen are knocking at theirs.

When the knock sounded on Eva Cook’s door, Maggie Sheffield – the girl she had taken in and raised – answered. She found truth. And danger found her.

Worlds Unseen, written by Rachel Starr Thomson, is the first book in the Seventh World Trilogy. It’s fantasy, but not typically so. The world has a feel of medieval mixed with the nineteenth century. Trains and tea kettles invoke the era of Laura Ingalls Wilder; swords and overlords invoke the era of Robin Hood. A wilder past, only a few centuries gone, has a memorial in the wandering Gypsies and a princess descended from the ancient kings. In a flash of modernity, the people do not only disbelieve their folk tales; they are forgetting them.

All these elements come together in remarkable cohesion. The characters, too, are of many different kinds – princesses and Gypsies, farmers and professors, lords and revolutionaries. Thomson endows them with a humanness readers can believe.

The writing style, too, is a mixture. In a way it seemed omniscient to me; the narrative moved from one character’s head to another’s mid-scene. In a way it seemed limited third-person; the narrative hewed closely to the characters’ viewpoints. You would think there’s a writing flaw somewhere in there, but it’s done so smoothly I can’t fault it.

Rachel Starr Thomson gives the book a spiritual dimension. Most of the characters do not appear to have much religion. By an interesting turn, their world’s true religion is wrapped up in history hidden in fairytales. But a spiritual reality encompasses them all. The question begins as what they will do about the worlds unseen; gradually it broadens to what the worlds unseen will do about them.

The one element of the book that needed further development was Maggie’s romance. The beginning was unexpected, the end was moving, but the middle was too brief. They said it was love and I believed them. But I would have liked to see it grow.

Worlds Unseen began with an ordinary girl seeking the meaning of an old scroll, and slowly grew ever wider and deeper. The threads came together wonderfully. I ended the book with the rush of pleasure and satisfaction that is the success of a novel. Rachel Starr Thomson writes with skill and imagination, weaving her story with mystery and beauty. Worlds Unseen is a very creditable addition to Christian fantasy.

Worlds Unseen is available as a free e-book on SmashWords. It can also be bought hard-copy from Amazon, B&N, and Rachel Starr Thomson’s site. The Seventh World Trilogy has an excellent site, with information  on the books, the characters, the world and its history; there is also a section devoted to Christian fantasy, featuring reviews, interviews, links, and Rachel’s Apologetic. Earlier I posted an interview with Rachel Starr Thomson; here is the rest of the blog tour:

Phyllis Wheeler (Nov 21)

Carol Keen (Nov 26, Dec 2, and Dec 9)

Bluerose’s Heart (Nov 28)

Lindsay Franklin (Nov 30, Dec 7)

Sarah Sawyer (Dec. 9)

Dreaming At Speculative Faith

Last Friday I made a guest post at Speculative Faith. It was an essay called “Dreaming at the Crossroads,” and it focused on the intersection of Christianity, transhumanism, and speculative fiction. Here are the first couple paragraphs:

Nietzsche once declared that God is dead. Later he added that Man ought to be. “Man,” he wrote, “is something that is to be surpassed. … What is the ape to man? A laughing-stock, a thing of shame. And just the same shall man be to the Superman: a laughing-stock, a thing of shame. … Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman—a rope over an abyss” (from “Zarathustra and the Overman”).

Some would think this epitaph premature. Others would like to chisel the date of death beneath it. They call themselves transhumanists, and they are looking forward to a post-human world.

I invite you to go over and read my essay, along with the comments (forty-one at last count). While you’re there, you might want to look at the other blog posts. Speculative Faith also has a library – a treasure trove for readers of Christian SF.

I know this blog has been lagging a bit lately, but that will change next week. On Monday, December 5, the blog tour for Worlds Unseen, by Rachel Starr Thomson, continues; my review is due. On the same day, the blog tour for Corus the Champion begins, and runs for three days.