CSFF Blog Tour: The Hound of Heaven

Among Starflower‘s fine points is its spiritual themes. I found them interesting, and ultimately moving, and in the various devices of Christian fantasy, they were fresh. Fresh, but familiar. I had read something similar in a poem once.

In her Author’s Note, Anne Elisabeth Stengl wrote, “Many of themes found in Starflower were inspired by a beautiful poem written by Francis Thompson. The poem is called ‘The Hound of Heaven’.” Principal among those themes is the imagery of God as the Hound, and us as the quarry, fleeing His love. The conversation between Eanrin and the Hound contains lines adapted from the poem – and, one might add, lines adapted from Paul’s words and from John’s.

Here, then, is a link to the poem, with a lovely and elegant layout; beneath the poem is a brief commentary G. K. Chesterton once gave on it, and a biography of the poet. And here you may hear Richard Burton read The Hound of Heaven.

This poem is not easy reading; I think that anyone besides a Cambridge professor of literature who wants to understand all the words will have to use a Dictionary. The narrator is not afraid to say things like, “Banqueting / With [our Lady-Mother] in her wind-walled palace, / Underneath her azured dais, / Quaffing, as your taintless way is, / From a chalice / Lucent-weeping out of the dayspring.”

Yet there is, first to last, something arresting about the poem. The style and the imagery are astounding – some might say confounding, but never merely dull. More even than that, the poem’s power is the story it tells of Man and of God, of the flight and the chase, the love and the fear. Hard as The Hound of Heaven is, it is worth the effort.

What Is In A Name

If you ever go to the Faerie realms, there are things you should know. One of the first is this: Your true name is your real self. Don’t share it lightly. You are not likely to hear a Faerie’s true name, for they are bound by the same laws and keep their names carefully. But if you do hear a Faerie name – usually by chance, voices drifting from a cottage as you wander by – hold on to it tightly. There’s power in such things.

It’s an idea immemorial in legends and myths and fairy tales: Knowing a person’s name gives you power over him. A variation is that you can dissolve an evil creature’s power over you by naming it. This is classically seen in Rumpelstiltskin, and even better seen in the legend of St. Olaf and the troll.

The importance of names has traveled up these old roots to modern fantasy. In The Hobbit Bilbo riddles his way out of telling Smaug his “proper” name. This, the narrator tells us, is wise. But he did tell Gollum, and that was foolish – though for the prosaic reason that it allowed Gollum to track him down.

Later Treebeard was not so hasty as to give Merry and Pippin his real name, even when they were hasty enough to give him theirs. Aragorn once warned Pippin not to speak the name of Mordor loudly, and he himself went disguised under the name Strider. His true name was revealed with his true nature.

In the Wingfeather Saga, the villains take away the names of their victims. The Overseer called the children in the Fork Factory tools, and told them they had no names. When the Stonekeeper turned people into Fangs, she gave them new names, and they forgot their old ones.

Against this, the Wingfeather children heard their mother’s voice: “Remember who you are.”

Starflower uses the significance of names more traditionally. “There is great power,” says the Dragonwitch, “in a Faerie lord’s name.” And there is. But the true power is in true names, given by the One Who Names Them. Before a creature may truly live, someone says, it must be known by name. Every living thing, be it man or woman, animal or angel, sleeps inside, waiting for that day when it will wake and sing. But until it is called by its true name, it will remain asleep.

A given name does, in Starflower’s world, grant one power to command others – or to be free of their command. But by a true name their souls are wakened and live.

The Bible, too, makes mention of naming, almost from the first. At the creation God named things: the day, the night, the sun, the stars, the moon, the sky. He named Adam, and He brought the animals “to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.”

And that is the real significance of naming: In it, we reflect God’s image. Animals don’t name things, or know their own names. But God names things, and knows His name, and He has given it to us to do the same.

Sometimes, as God worked His will through people, He renamed them. Abram He named Abraham, Sarai He called Sarah, and Jacob, Israel. When God comforted His people, He sometimes told them the new names He would give them. The Holy People. The Redeemed of the LORD. Repairer of Broken Walls. Restorer of Streets with Dwellings. Sought After. The City No Longer Deserted. Beulah, married. Hepzibah, my delight is in her.

In Revelation Jesus Christ declared this promise to His church – to each of us, if we will accept it: “To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.”

CSFF Blog Tour: Starflower

Eanrin has always known to never get involved in the affairs of mortals. If all Faeries had that policy, the Hidden Land would have lived out a happier story. But as the lost daughter of the Eldest walked a road darkened by Faerie, so her path will fatefully cross a Faerie’s again. And again.

In Starflower, Anne Elisabeth Stengl tells the story of Faeries who became involved with mortals, and mortals who became involved with Faeries. Not all were the better for it; nor were all the worst.

Starflower is sold as a fairy tale, and indeed it is. Pieces and elements from all sorts of fairy tales swirl in it – refined, changed, and woven together into a new whole. A few of the old tropes are played for humor – the lady in the tower, princes turned to frogs. Most are used more seriously – enchantments, fairies, shape-changing, dragons.

One of Stengl’s most effective uses is of the law of Faerie. Everyone who has read fairy tales knows that Faerie has its laws, just as immutable as nature’s. In Faerie blessings are true, and curses are facts; vows must be kept, and names have power. Anne Stengl takes this strange code, builds it as surely into her world as the law of gravity, and lets the story flow in its courses.

The Faerie characters are realized in the uniqueness of their nature and experience. But different as they are, they are not wholly alien, and readers can understand them like people. The humans in the story are just as finely done. Stengl handles her cast with great sympathy, making flawed characters likeable and villains pitiable.

The world – or worlds, I could say – of Starflower beat with life. Some are grim, some are beautiful, some are treacherous, most are dangerous – but all are alive. You can almost feel the hot streets of Etalpalli, the humid swamp, the stony way to the Place of the Teeth.

There is very little to criticize in this book. The most I can say is that I did not understand Starflower’s sudden distrust of the poet, nor did I consider it believable. In all its main elements, Starflower excelled. It is beautifully written, a pleasure to read. The spiritual strains in the story were profound and moving. The story was unexpected, and landscapes and people rose up brilliantly from the pages. This book was a surprise to me. I had expected it to be good, but I didn’t think it would be incredible.

And now, for the interested reader, we have –

Starflower on Amazon

– the author’s website

– the author’s Facebook page

– And the roll for the blog tour – we few, we happy few, we band of brothers …

Phyllis Wheeler

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

Review: The Whipping Boy

Here’s a question: Which would you rather be – a rat-catcher or a whipping boy? On the one hand, rat-catchers catch rats. On the other, whipping boys get whipped. A lot.

At least they do when the prince is known throughout the kingdom as Prince Brat. And Jemmy, an orphan plucked from the streets to be His Highness’s whipping boy, knows which he prefers. If he had a choice, he’d exchange his silk and velvet for rags and be back in the sewers in a half-blink of an eye.

But he doesn’t have a choice. And then, one night, Prince Brat embarks on his greatest piece of mischief yet – running away.

The Whipping Boy, written by Sid Fleischman, is a classic of children’s literature. It’s a slim book – less than one hundred pages, with a large type and generous margins. The writing is direct, in both style and substance. The setting-up takes two chapters, a total of five pages – for unlike the book, we are not counting illustrations.

Brief the author may be, but his strokes are sure and bold. Characters leap brightly from the pages, knowable and entirely their own. Every once in a while, Sid Fleischman turns fine, evocative phrases in his short sentences – “a thoroughbred of the streets”, “fuming like a stovepipe”, the moon gazing “down like an evil eye”.

Places, too, are drawn out in a few vivid words – the great sewers, the dark, garlicky hut, the mist-filled forest (“Forests is creepy things,” the whipping boy says. “Gimme cobbled streets any time.”). The book is in written in that way: skilled, pleasing, and simple.

The king is unnamed, the kingdom and the city nameless, and the time is undefined. Details suggest the eighteenth century – but what does it matter? The Whipping Boy is, in this, like a fairy tale, and it breathes free of any place on a map or time in a chronology.

There is an abiding simplicity in The Whipping Boy. And simplicity, when done by a master, can be a marvelous thing. This story runs and dodges, treating us to adventure and comedy, and at its heart it is a sympathetic view of two boys – both, in their way, deprived. The Whipping Boy is a children’s book, but like all truly excellent works for children, it can be enjoyed by adults, too. No one is too old for the humor of this book, or the adventure, or the humanity.