Once Upon A(nother) Time

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away … fairy tales happen. It’s the best place for it, too; anything can happen there.

The classic fairy tale opening, like the classic fairy tale ending (happily ever after), is more than form. It is substance, part of what a fairy tale is meant to be. Once upon a time could be any time, and a land far away could be anywhere, and that is the point. Unbound by specifics, free of all the maps and history books, fairy tales are timeless and universal.

It is easy, in fact, to avoid specifics, though not everyone can do so with equal art. Sid Fleischman managed the fairy tale universality with unusual elegance in The Whipping Boy, which opens, “The young prince was known here and there (and just about everywhere else) as Prince Brat …”

A lesser writer would have said that the young prince was known throughout the kingdom as Prince Brat – “the kingdom” being where every fairy tale takes place, if it doesn’t take place in the forest. The kingdom is invariably ruled by The King, The Queen, and usually by The Prince, even when the heroine marries him. (Names are part of the frivolous small talk dispensed with in fairy tale romance, which goes from first sight to lifelong commitment in less time than it takes the average person to choose dinner off a menu.)

Disney is, of course, a passing master of such conventions. In its live-action Cinderella – which is, if you count right, its latest fairy tale – Disney added a new touch of universality that, while probably unintentional, is brilliant. Cinderella, though among the most archetypal of European fairy tales, was gifted with a multiracial cast, and it feels all the more universal for that. Disney followed the same policy in the new Beauty and the Beast, but having haphazardly mixed the fairy tale up with history, the effect is jarring more than anything else.

The creative decision to anchor Beauty and the Beast to history was not necessarily a bad one, but it illustrates the meaning of once upon a time. There is power hidden in fairy tale simplicity. By gliding airily beyond the real world, fairy tales set the forgiving terms on which they are to be taken. They spurn details and outrun cross-examination. Meanwhile, the more factual approach of the quasi-historical Beauty and the Beast begs for cross-examination. It makes you wonder: Is it possible that the French Catholic Church (a state church!) was ordaining black priests three hundred years ago? Were spinsters turned out to beg in the streets, honestly? What made the Prince a prince? If he was collecting taxes, why didn’t anybody notice when he stopped? Shouldn’t the townspeople have been holding parades and throwing confetti in the air to celebrate their tax-free existence? Does anybody in the entire Disney corporation realize that a thousand years before Belle blazed her feminist trail, Charlemagne set up schools in France that educated girls?

A historical film or novel could answer these questions. A fairy tale doesn’t have to. We can wonder if the eighteenth-century France we are seeing is the eighteenth-century France that really was, because there is an answer to that question. There is no answer, and no question, of whether we are seeing a true portrayal of a far-away land, once upon a time.

And so fairy tales, placeless and timeless, tell their stories beyond the reach of such concerns. Once upon a time, Cinderella danced, and Rumpelstiltskin spun straw into gold, and Snow White ate the apple and Rapunzel let down her hair …

Review: Beauty and the Beast (the Other One)

(Yes, I know: I’m six months late to this party. But that is how long it took them to put the movie on Netflix.)

In 1991, Disney released a magnificent version of the classic fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast”. Then they released another version.

Disney’s decision to remake Beauty and the Beast as a live-action film was always questionable for two reasons. One, the story is intrinsically suited to animation, and two, the original film is so close to perfection that it leaves little room for remaking. But all things are possible, and these hurdles might have been jumped.

One of the special powers of animation is that it can make things whimsical or agreeable that, realistically, are not. Beauty and the Beast needs this power, both for the Beast and his servants. The living household objects, rendered realistic in the new version, are all exquisite. They also have about an ounce of the charm and vibrancy of their animated counterparts. Worse, they make you think that it would be kind of creepy if your coffee cup had eyes and your dresser liked to pick out your outfits.

The change from animation to live-action would not matter so much – if more significant changes had deflected comparison. And here we come to the second pitfall, which the new Beauty and the Beast plunges right into: Why remake a movie that was already nearly perfect? To make it different – not necessarily better but different in a true and interesting way. That is the successful way to remake a great film. There are two ways to fail – make it too much the same and make it different in a bad way. Disney manages both.

Beauty and the Beast reproduces its predecessor’s plot, its songs, and its most iconic shots and scenes. To its credit, the film does innovate in smaller matters. To its discredit, it innovates badly. It reshuffles events and characterization in ways that are often puzzling and invariably damaging. Its original ideas are slight and usually poor.

The Beast is a much reduced figure in this second outing. He is less of a beast, for one: physically smaller, more tame in temperament, more human in appearance, lacking the mouth full of fangs and the animalistic power and agility of the old Beast. The first Beast literally roared; the second huffs and puffs. The first Beast had a violent, mercurial temper; the second is mostly just dyspeptic. The first Beast had sudden shifts into realization and regret; the second … no.

Gaston receives a kinder, gentler, and ultimately scrambled characterization. His buffoonery and presumption are sanded down significantly, and his worst moments in the first half of the film are excised. Then, as if suddenly in the throes of some psychotic break, he resorts to murder. After that, Gaston loses all initiative. His maneuver to clap Maurice into the insane asylum is no longer a sinister scheme to blackmail Belle into marriage; neither does he incite the mob against the Beast out of jealousy and offended pride. Both acts are merely defensive and desperate attempts to hide his crime.

The servants-turned-household-objects fare worst of all. Their warm (even enthusiastic!) welcome of Maurice is eliminated, and it matters because their welcome of Belle is so suspect. They adopt the peculiar habit of declaring selfish motivations for acts of apparent kindness. (Why does Lumiere – it’s not the Beast in this version – get Belle out of the dungeon? So he can kiss the maid again!) They sing “Be Our Guest” not because Belle wanders into the kitchen saying she’s hungry but because they realize she’s planning an escape. When Belle flees, doors slam and lock, the dog rears up and barks at her – it looks like a jail break, and they’re the prison guards. Incompetent ones, but still.

As for new ideas, Disney did decide to give Belle a shamelessly maudlin back story. The Beast has a sob story, too, and he and Belle bond over shared childhood trauma, and it’s all very dreary. Disney also anchors the story to a particular time and place, shifting it away from fairy tale and into history. Then it fumbles the history, and drops it, and steps on it. Disney clearly sends out the message, “This is eighteenth-century France! Btw, we have no idea what eighteen-century France was like, and we don’t care, either.”

The movie has its good points. The technical skill is obvious, and the film treats us to some beautiful vistas. The re-imagining of Maurice and Gaston has merit, whatever the flaws in execution. There is talent in the cast. But the new Beauty and the Beast is inevitably heir to the old one, and it neither breaks from its legacy nor upholds it. Fans of the movie say that there are many versions of Beauty and the Beast, and that’s true. But the precise trouble is that this movie is not a version of Beauty and the Beast, the fairy tale; it’s a version of Beauty and the Beast (1991) – and a worse one. Beauty and the Beast (2017) is so notably like Beauty and the Beast (1991), and yet so notably inferior, that there is hardly even a point.

An Unheralded Significance

Show me a person who thinks that the Old Testament is only tales for children, and I will show you a person who hasn’t read the Old Testament. I am not referring principally to the fact that a lot of material in the Old Testament isn’t exactly family-friendly, though that is true. The larger point is that the Bible has far beyond enough to challenge and satisfy a grown-up intellect. Even the stories, the straightforward part of the Old Testament, hold more complexity and depth than is quickly unlocked.

A lot of people miss it, and not only children. One reason for this, of course, is that many people don’t really read the Bible. Another reason is that the style of the narrative (as opposed to the poetry and the prophecy) is concise and businesslike and occasionally so understated you can only marvel. You have to work harder reading it because many things will not be spelled out. It’s plain, for example, that Esther and Xerxes did not have a monogamous marriage – if you catch the devil in the details. (Many people don’t. This contributes to the popular misbelief that the Book of Esther is a beautiful love story.)

One of my favorite examples of this unheralded significance comes at the very end of 1 Samuel. It concerns King Saul (as so much in 1 Samuel does) and how he was buried by the men of Jabesh Gilead. Saul and three of his sons died in a battle with the Philistines. The Philistines – this is pretty much the textbook definition of being a bad winner – then pinned their bodies to the wall of a city. And this is how the story ends:

When the people of Jabesh Gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, 12all their valiant men marched through the night to Beth Shan. They took down the bodies of Saul and his sons from the wall of Beth Shan and went to Jabesh, where they burned them. 13Then they took their bones and buried them under a tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and they fasted seven days. (1 Samuel 31)

And you know at once that it was kind of them, but there is more beauty here than is readily apparent.

Jabesh Gilead played another, much earlier role in Saul’s story. His first true act as king was rescuing the people of Jabesh Gilead from an invader who had planned, after conquering the city, to gouge out the right eye of every man in it. Most debts are forgotten after forty years, but the men of Jabesh repaid the debt of the kindness Saul had shown them. Saul’s bread finally returned to him on the waters.

There is poetry in the fact that Saul’s reign, which began with him showing kindness to Jabesh Gilead, ended with Jabesh Gilead showing kindness to him. And it is all the more poignant because it is the last word in Saul’s story. There are few stories in the Bible darker or more tragic than Saul’s – the long descent, into murder and insanity and futile clawing to keep what God had given away. He had the peculiar torture of knowing the truth and not being helped by it. His last few chapters are filled with horror and despair, with the sense of being finally rejected by God and going helplessly into the end.

And then, to finish the story, the brave gratitude of the men of Jabesh – an act that looked wistfully back to a better past, a repayment of an old, old good deed that murmurs that Saul hadn’t wasted quite everything after all.

It is not redemption, not so little and so late. But it is a note of grace, at the very end.

Promises, Promises

Let’s talk about promises. To narrow the field, let’s talk about the promises the producers of culture make to us regarding their shows and movies and books.

Now, I don’t mean advertising slogans (BEST OF THE YEAR), which are not promises so much as exercises in hope and hype. I mean the implicit promises of genre, or brand, or whatever label under which a work takes up residence. These promises are made (of course!) in the interest of profit; if they get us to believe, they get us to buy. But once we believe and buy, they end up bound to their brands. The power of brand is a conservative force and resists change – including from readers and writers wanting something new in Christian publishing. (Incidentally, that is a preview. We will end at Christian publishing, but we’re taking the long way around, like they did before the Federal Highway-Aid Act.)

A brand is identity in shorthand and infinitely useful in this capitalistic world of choices. When you are so unfortunate as to be driving cross-country, do you stop to eat at small, unknown restaurants in small, unknown towns, thus exploring the rich variety of our great country and supporting hard-working small-business owners?

Of course not. You might get disappointed. You might get lost. You might get salmonella. What you do is, you watch the FOOD signs and get off the interstate when you see the logo of a chain restaurant that strikes you as good or, at any rate, acceptable. I’ve seen critical social commentary of this, but it’s only good sense. The selection off the highway sign of corporate logos is a selection based on knowledge, and if you’re not thrilled about getting a mediocre hamburger from McDonald’s, you won’t really be disappointed, either. Because you knew what to expect.

To teach people what to expect is the triumph of brand, and quite profitable when the expectations are good. What follows such triumph is an effort to preserve the brand and fulfill expectations. Disney, for example, has released most of its PG-13 fare and all of its R-rated fare under its Touchstone label. The more auspicious Disney label is reserved for gentler, kinder movies, movies fit for children. This is not a moral decision or an expression of values. Disney knows that its brand is a promise of movies that, while rarely without a dose of pathos, will never be too edgy or dark. Violate that too often or too egregiously, and see how many parents will be buying theater tickets on no other grounds than “it’s Disney”.

The same principle is manifest in publishing. Del Rey isn’t going to be releasing cozy mysteries with titles like Lemon Meringue Madness, and if you’re waiting for Harlequin to publish a six-hundred page literary novel with allusions in the original French and a textured analysis of symbolic-interactionist theory, I hope you’re a patient soul. That’s not what they’re about, and their readers know it.

And what is Christian publishing about? What promises does it make? To many readers, one of its most crucial promises is that it will be clean – that they can get the story they want without the unsavory content they don’t. All such readers could doubtless find books in the secular market they would enjoy, but the finding is so much easier in the Christian market. They expect that Christian publishers will adhere to certain standards, and depend on it.

Readers who want different standards, or even exceptions to the old ones, may be asking for more than they know. New standards and too many exceptions do something dangerous. They break the brand. They break the promise.

Review: Tarzan of the Apes

It is the rare but glorious lot of writers to create a cultural icon that lasts generations, one of those things that everybody just knows even if they’re not sure how. Tarzan is one such icon. Who doesn’t know the image of the handsome, wild, muscular man swinging through the jungle with the agility of an ape? Sometimes there’s a girl in his arm, but to tell the truth, she’s not really necessary.

Like many such icons, Tarzan has been unmoored from his ultimate source. Everybody knows Tarzan, but most haven’t read Tarzan of the Apes, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. When I picked up Tarzan of the Apes, I was driven more by curiosity than the hope of a good story.

Tarzan of the Apes was first published in 1912, and a century is more than enough to make a novel historically interesting. Even the novels that were radical unconsciously reflect the ideas and attitudes of their era (no one lives entirely free of his time). In this respect, Tarzan is interesting, even though what it reflects can be quite bad. The crude racist stereotypes are obvious blemishes, but the more subtle eugenicist ideas are the same poison – refined and intellectualized and so more pernicious.

This book surprised me. It is darker and more violent than I anticipated, with a surprising dose of cannibalism from both white and black characters. Tarzan’s jungle divides itself pitilessly into killer and killed, and he himself is a wholehearted participant. Most of the characters, of whatever race or species, are scum. At the same time, it is far more thoughtful than I would have guessed. In the best tradition of speculative fiction, Burroughs uses fiction to explore an idea. He takes up the nature vs. nurture debate by putting a child of the best hereditary (in an eugenicist touch, the son of English aristocrats) in the worst environment (raised by savage apes in a virgin jungle).

To Burroughs’ credit, he doesn’t offer a quick, cut-and-dried answer. Tarzan, the subject of his fictional experiment, is deeply influenced by both hereditary and environment. At the same time, Burroughs’ treatment of the question is generally unconvincing, occasionally ridiculous, and undermined by eugenicist assumptions. Burroughs explicitly grounds the explanation of Tarzan’s superhuman physicality in evolution, in the logic that human muscles and senses atrophied as we learned to rely on reason and would rejuvenate in an environment that demanded it for survival, but I didn’t buy it. Nor did I buy that Tarzan’s aristocratic genes made him instinctively gracious or chivalrous, or that he could become fluent in any language quickly. In a very real way, Tarzan of the Apes is a book of ideas. It’s just that the ideas are mostly claptrap.

As much as eugenics, as an idea, deserves to die, its presence in Tarzan is part of the novel’s scientific bent. So, too, are the references to evolution, the nature vs. nurture debate, and the way an important plot point turns on this new thing, fingerprinting. If you don’t know what that is, the book explains it. A good part of the book’s darkness comes from its more realistic portrayal of apes in particular and African jungles in general. The portrayal is not really scientific; Burroughs attributes to the apes a language (however limited) and customs and laws (however savage). But unlike Disney’s Tarzan and The Jungle Book, which were developed out of a desire for fun, child-friendly stories with animals that talk and sing and occasionally even dance, Burroughs’ jungle society was developed in the spirit of the real jungle. The apes in this novel are violent, but so are apes in real life.

To take Tarzan of the Apes strictly as art, the plot was well-constructed and the author unafraid of making decisive change in his hero and story. The love story, for once, was not completely predictable. The old professors were funny. I was still ready for the book to end in the neighborhood of page 150, and I got tired of the phrase “forest god”.

Not much of the real Tarzan of the apes survives in his icon – not his propensity to kill, his blue blood, his superhuman strength. But the image of him in his jungle is enduring. Tarzan of the Apes may be good fare for those interested in culture, history, and old-fashioned pulp romps. Reader discernment is needed, however, and the novel is emphatically not for children.

The Reepicheep Syndrome

It happens in fiction. A character strides through scene after scene, endlessly impressive to his fellow characters and obviously beloved of his author. He is invariably showered with attention and almost always with praise – except from the audience. The audience can only watch, baffled and annoyed. This character is the author’s pet: The author is transfixed by him, but the audience just can’t share the joy. Call it the Reepicheep Syndrome.

Reepicheep is, of course, the bold, talking mouse of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. We know he’s bold because

You can take this guy.

they tell us he’s bold, and also because he recommended the phenomenally bold course of sailing to the Island where Dreams come true (though here I am using “bold” in the sense of “stupid”). Reepicheep talked incessantly of honor and his sword, though his only known uses of the sword were to beat a coward and stab Telmarines in the foot. His habitual threats of violence thus rang hollow. But everyone took him as a paragon of valiance and courage, and by the end of Voyage of the Dawn Treader, it was all rather too much.

Though the namesake of this syndrome, Reepicheep is a mild example of it. Why C.S. Lewis decided to anoint him “most valiant of all the Talking Beasts of Narnia” is a mystery, but at least he remained fairly tolerable. A far more extreme (and obnoxious!) example is Wesley Crusher. Widely taken as an avatar of Gene Wesley Roddenberry, Wesley Crusher was the Enterprise‘s wunderkind, a precocious genius and occasional savior of the ship, the captain, and possibly the galaxy. What he is truly famous for, however, is the irritation and, yes, hatred he inspired in the fans.

The hatred is probably out of proportion to the actual offense. But the point is that it was very real. For some reason, it struck the writers – or perhaps just Roddenberry – as a good idea to present Wesley as genius, savior, and sometime-victim of adult stupidity, while viewers – according to their account – mostly suffered. Wesley Crusher is an exemplar of the Reepicheep Syndrome.

But the greatest example – the model of imperfection for the ages – is Jar Jar Binks, the symbol for all that is wrong with the prequels. The mockery and hatred directed at Jar Jar Binks is a rare distinction; that he is annoying is as universal an opinion as that the world is round. (There are always dissenters.) George Lucas thought he was a good idea, though, and that was when the franchise started going off the rails. Even after receiving the judgment of the fandom, Lucas insisted on including Jar Jar Binks in following movies. In one sense, he broke from the usual pattern of the Reepicheep Syndrome: Jar Jar was not an object of much admiration (though the people of Naboo, proving that they should have been left to the Trade Federation, elected him senator). But the divergence between the author’s judgment and the audience’s is rarely so overpowering.

Divergence of opinion between author and audience is common. The Reepicheep Syndrome distinguishes itself by a blatant fondness on the side of the author that is inexplicable to the paying public. Wesley Crusher and Jar Jar Binks are star examples of this phenomenon, but all readers have their own experiences of it. Reepicheep is one of mine. What are yours?

The Distinctive Pearl

I have occasionally had the thought that modern Christian fiction has not so much departed from mainstream publishing as stayed where everyone used to be. The idea was first prompted by the Clayton Standard, which promised clean stories and “intelligent censorship” to the people – more than two million a month – who read the romance, western, sci-fi, and detective stories published in Clayton Magazines. I don’t have the evidence to support the thesis, but periodically, I read something that resurrects it.

This happened, most recently, with Pearl, a poem dating to the fourteenth century and attributed to the author of Sir Gawain and the Green KnightPearl tells of a father who, grieving for his dead little girl, meets her on the shores of paradise and even sees heaven. The poem is filled with scriptural allusions and theological discussion and is only slightly less religious than the Bible. It sounds like a modern Christian novel, maybe even a bit The Shack meets 90 Minutes in Heaven.

In justice to the author of Pearl, his premise is moderated in a way that The Shack – and many other stories, Christian and secular – are not. For reasons J.R.R. Tolkien explained in the introduction he wrote to his translation of the poem, Pearl is almost certainly based on the author’s real-life loss of a very young daughter. Such losses were sadly common in his time, and the tragedy of Pearl feels grounded in life (unlike the faintly lurid melodrama of The Shack, which feels like someone was trying to think of just the worst thing). Still, the premise of Pearl holds a familiar ring.

Ultimately, Pearl is set apart by its execution rather than its premise. In two significant ways it stands apart from, and perhaps above, most fiction of our own day. First, its visions of heaven and of God are strictly bound by orthodoxy, by the teachings of Scripture and the doctrines of the church. Here is no imagining of God as a woman, or even of a chatty, casual Jesus; the grieving father’s brief sight of Christ is made up of imagery from the Apostle John: Christ dressed in white with a wound in His side, the elders bowing before Him, the angels offering up incense. In its vision of heaven, Pearl is even more indebted to the Apostle John, employing his descriptions of the New Jerusalem. (Most of the poem takes place beside a river that symbolizes death – in other words, at the border between this world and the next; the father never enters heaven and is only permitted a glimpse of Jerusalem across the river.)

Secondly, Pearl distinguishes itself – from both secular and Christian fiction – by the limited ground it gives to emotion. There is no treacle here, no sappiness. The emotion is very real – the image of the father dropping his precious pearl and losing it in the grass is a painfully beautiful allegory – but it does not consume the work. In part, this is because the father’s grief is mature; he has had time to think deeply as well as feel deeply, and the poem seeks to answer him with scriptural exposition. The calm, clear-eyed debate of these passages changes the air of the entire poem.

More importantly, Pearl never goes the way of tears and warm hugs and joyful reunions on the hither shores. Father and daughter remain separated by the river, never crossing to the other. His consolation lies in other, sterner things – in the conviction that God’s way is right and his own duty is patient submission. His father’s love must be satisfied by the knowledge that his daughter is a queen in heaven, redeemed and glorified; he must resign his pearl to God.

In its reverently orthodox imagery and restraint of emotion by reason, faith, and duty, Pearl distinguishes itself from the typical Christian novel. In its unabashed religiosity and theological exposition, however, it exhibits one of the most distinctive traits of traditional Christian fiction. Mainstream fiction has moved on from such things. But whether that is due to an evolving attitude toward art or an evolving attitude toward religion is a matter for debate.

Spotlight: Dreams and Devotion

 

 

 

Some dreams will be dashed, and their devotion will be tested.

Dara’s life is full of farm work and worries, especially now that her older brother is a priest in a faroff city. Yet she still has time to dream of the life she hopes will someday be. She dreams of marrying her dear friend and the worries of her family ending. Now, the selfishness of one person threatens her very way of life.

Dresden’s initial excitement about living a life devoted to the service of God quickly is dashed on the rocks of reality. The life of a priest is nothing like what he imagined. To make matters worse, he finds out his family back in his home village is on the brink of disaster. Torn between his vows and his love for his family, what will he choose?

Buy the book for the special preorder price, here.

 

 

 


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About Sarah

Sarah Holman is a not so typical mid-twenties girl: A homeschool graduate, sister to six awesome siblings, and author of many published books and short stories. If there is anything adventuresome about her life, it is because she serves a God with a destiny bigger than anything she could have imagined.

Find her at www.thedestinyofone.com

 

 

 

 

Stops on the blog tour:

July 8
Bookish Orchestrations ~ Faith Blum
July 9
His Princess Warrior ~ Katie Hamilton
July 10
In the Book Case ~ Tarissa Graves
Jessica Greyson ~ Jessica Greyson
July 11
Gods Peculiar Treasure Rae ~ Raechel
Read Another Page ~Rebekah Morris
July 12
Whimsical Writings For His Glory ~ Jesseca Dawn
Shannon McDermott ~ Shannon McDermott
July 13
The Page Dreamer ~ Deborah O’Carroll
July 14
Knitted by God’s Plans ~ Kendra E. Ardnek
With a Joyful Noise ~ Amanda Tero
Once Upon an Ordinary ~ Kate Willis
July 15
Jaye L. Knight ~ Jaye L. Knight

Review: Heart of the Winterland

Princess Calisandra is two hundred years old, and you would never know it, because she still possesses the body, mind, experiences, and maturity of a very young woman. That is what happens when you pass your whole life in a kingdom locked by magic into winter, timelessness, and an inescapable sameness. But finally something is giving, either in Cali or in the magic, because after two hundred years of accepting every day just like the last, she is growing restless. She is about to rebel.

She is about to leave.

She is about to find out what, or who, may exist outside her empty little kingdom, locked in winter and in time.

Heart of the Winterland, written by Kirsten Kooristra, is a fantasy novel appropriate for all audiences. It is rich in world-building and in characters, bringing together warriors, princesses, and sorceresses across a diverse range of milieus, from snowy Trabor to the sea. The magical kingdom of Sjadia, the spell cast by the queen, and indeed the novel’s premise, all stand as imaginative and intriguing concepts.

Unfortunately, there is a meandering quality to the plot. The heroine possesses no real goal, aside from ‘leave and see what’s there’, no nemesis, and little initiative. What she does is usually in response to what happens to her, and what happens to her is due almost entirely to other people or to coincidences. I waited for the central conflict or need to emerge, but it never did.

Heart of the Winterland is a gentle fantasy that is abundant with sympathetic characters, imaginative world-building, and intriguing fantastical concepts. At the same time, it lacks a strong driving force. Choose according to your preferences.

 

View Heart of Winterland on –

Goodreads

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Good Character(s)

This summer I made my first foray into Jane Austen, reading Mansfield Park. I found the novel more thought-provoking than enjoyable, and one of the issues it raised for me was the relationship between moral goodness and good characters. Fanny Price, the novel’s heroine, is probably the most emphatically good (in the moral sense) character I have ever experienced, and also a bad character in the sense of not being compelling or enjoyable. She is, in fact, one of the reasons the book drags as it does (the other is that the simple plot takes far too long to unfold). I began to find her tiresome; Jane Austen’s own mother called her insipid.

I call Fanny Price emphatically good not because she is the most moral character I have ever read but because the whole book emphasizes her goodness. Austen’s admirable theme is that the meek shall inherit the earth, and her intriguing purpose is to cross-examine the true value of the witty, vivacious belle who was (is) the ideal of high society. Fanny exists as a kind of living counterpoint to all the defects of the upper classes – lack of principle, lack of kindness, form over substance, glitter over gold. Her goodness, as central to the novel’s ideas, is inescapable, but it does not do her many favors.

Yet I am sure that it is not due to excess goodness that Fanny Price is (to be kind) unengaging or (to be like Jane Austen’s mother) insipid. Fanny would be both a more enjoyable character and a more accurate representation of goodness if Austen had not mishandled the virtue of humility. She portrays it quite badly – though, in fairness, most authors do. In Mansfield Park, Fanny is humble; this means that she has a pathetically low, and generally false, valuation of herself and accepts other people’s negative opinions of who she is and what she deserves to a point that seems almost weak-minded.

Nor is Fanny a moral paragon in all respects. The narrator repeatedly reminds us that she is anxious and timid, and it’s certain that she has almost no courage at all. It is to Austen’s credit as a writer that she created such limitations in her character, and if you stop to consider it, Fanny’s timidity lends a poignant note to her climactic resistance to an unwanted marriage. Ironically, though, Fanny would have been better company for four hundred pages if her virtues had extended a little farther, and that would have done more for the novel than a little poignancy.

Additionally, Austen – who excelled in creating sharp, lively portraits of female characters – failed to do so with Fanny Price. Fanny gives little impression of anything except strong moral convictions and a puddle of weakness besides. Details such as her physical grace and her love of reading are barely seen and certainly not felt. Her passivity is the stuff of legend; her only contribution to her own destiny is to reject Henry Crawford – in other words, manage to do nothing when someone else is trying to get her to do something (usually she is just carried along when other people do things).

What makes a good character is ultimately disconnected from what makes a good person. White knights and black villains have alike succeeded as characters, and have alike failed. Even the case of Fanny Price proves that what matters is not the amount of goodness a character possesses but how it is used, and what the character possesses besides.