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.

Much of Magic

Sir Bors set out on the Quest for the Holy Grail, but he spent most of the appointed year in prison because (it can happen) he made an unscheduled stop to proclaim the Gospel to apparently unreceptive heathens. “They knew much of magic,” he later told King Arthur, “but little of God.” (quoted from Maude L. Radford’s King Arthur and His Knights)

This formulation – much of magic, little of God – is striking in any case, but particularly so because it occurs in an Arthurian story. Although this is often neglected in modern retellings, the Arthurian legends combined Christianity with magic, pagan legends with culled elements of Christianized Britain. Classic versions of the sword-in-the-stone legend put “the wise magician” Merlin working together with the Archbishop of Canterbury to find a new king for the Britons. And still the association of magic with heathenism: much magic, little God.

There is tension between the Church that makes common cause with magicians and the heathens full of magic, but perhaps not contradiction. The authors of the Arthurian myth found they could broker an accommodation between Christians and magic. Yet they could rarely have missed the accommodation between pagans and magic, typified in the Druids whose memory outlived their presence. The sort of magic that most famously imbues Arthurian myth – the magic sword, the wise man who saw the future, the Lady of the Lake – is not witchcraft. Yet it remains, in itself, ambivalent. Despite the rumors, there is no inexorable link between magic and the devil, but neither is there any inexorable link between magic and God.

I’ve seen the link between magic and God made; probably all of you have. There is more than one way to weave magic into the framework of Christian doctrine and Christian principles. C.S. Lewis’ way – carving out a place for magic in an explicitly Christian universe – is the most obvious. Another method, popular in modern Christian fantasy, is to fix a magical world beneath God (often called the Creator, the Eternal One, etc.), without venturing any further in Christian belief than monotheism. J.R.R. Tolkien is the premier example of the most subtle method. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings show little overt religion, but his posthumous works reveal his efforts to bring his creation into harmony with Christian thought. The influence of Tolkien’s faith on his work is indelible. (In this lengthy but thoughtful essay, Steven Graydanus examines how Tolkien’s Catholicism shaped his portrayal of magic.)

Much fantasy is created by people who have no interest in taming magic to Christianity. That alone doesn’t make it bad; I once read a charming, perfectly innocuous children’s book called The Enchanted Castle, in which I found nothing to condemn or to call Christian. Yet the portrayal of magic in fiction isn’t always innocuous. Nor is it bound to keep its customary ambivalence; it may be remade into more sinister forms. The categorical rejection of all fictional magic is mistaken, but there is a shade of legitimate warning down at the roots.

Because it may justly be said of some books, as it is justly said of some people, that they know much of magic and little of God.

Can We Say …

The Nephilim walked into history in Genesis 6:4, which runs, “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.” The Nephilim are mentioned once more, as the terrifying inhabitants of Canaan (in reality, the ancestors of the prodigiously-sized Anakites; whether they have any connection with such groups as the Rephaites is more than I can say).

The actual importance of the Nephilim, in theology, religion, and the arc of the Bible’s narrative, is slight; their fascination is large. Their close connection to the much-disputed “sons of God” entrenches them in controversy; their association with the outsized denizens of Canaan increases the intrigue. Their name means “fallen ones,” and Nephilim is frequently translated giants, including in such venerable translations as the King James Version, the Geneva Bible, and the Wycliffe Bible. (The Geneva Bible also provides the alternate word tyrants.) Giants, fallen ones, heroes of old, men of renown – wouldn’t you love to know more about them?

One ancient, and still popular, interpretation of the Nephilim – it appears in the Book of Enoch, written before the birth of Christ – holds that they were the children of fallen angels and human women. For obvious reasons, this interpretation is the one that prevails in Christian speculative fiction. It’s not that the writers necessarily believe it, any more than sci-fi writers necessarily believe that it’s possible to go back in time or to travel faster than the speed of light; it’s just that it’s that sort of idea. The idea is acutely uncomfortable. But ideas often are in a genre that takes, for its parents, people like Edgar Allan Poe and the Brothers Grimm.

What sets the Nephilim apart from other ideas is that they are derived from the Bible. Nobody really cares whether it’s possible to go back in time when reading (or writing) time-travel stories. Nobody ever liked Star Wars less because some scientist debunked lightsabers on the grounds that that’s not how lasers work. We’re all happy to set aside debates and, for the sake of our chosen stories, presume what we suspect to be false. But should we have a different standard when the debates are centered around Scripture?

This question goes beyond the Nephilim and, if you care to follow it, wanders into all sorts of nuance. Is it all right to write a novel where the rumor is true and the Apostle John never dies? (This, too, happens in Christian speculative fiction.) Can we say that Daniel founded a school of astrology that eventually trained the Magi, though we know in our hearts that never happened? Can we have time-travelers at the Crucifixion? Can we have the Nephilim after all? Are the answers to all these questions conditional on the details, on what we do with the premise more than what the premise is? Is it simply a matter of staying in the gray and not infringing on the black and white? (For example: We can say the Nephilim were giants or tyrants or angel-human hybrids because that argument has been going on for centuries, but we can’t say they caused the Flood because they didn’t, and if you don’t believe me, read Genesis 6 past verse 4.)

What do you think? What sort of lines have you drawn, in your reading or writing?

The Making of ‘Us’

America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature. It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice … Nobody expects a modern political system to proceed logically in the application of such dogmas, and in the matter of God and Government it is naturally God whose claim is taken more lightly. The point is that there is a creed, if not about divine, at least about human things. G.K. Chesterton, What I Saw in America

I open with this quotation for two reasons. The first is that today is July 4, and it is appropriate to Independence Day. The second is that, like Independence Day, it points to the creation of a nation. Nations, though somewhat maligned as, for example, a proximate cause of World War I, stand as the largest cohesive group yet formed by humanity. (Empires, though generally larger, possess unity no deeper than the edge of a sword – hence the inevitable dissolution of all empires, usually in short order.) Groups are defined by common identity. National identity is only an unusually modern way of defining us

The oldest method of creating a broad us is through blood, through a concept of family expanded to include thousands. Clans, tribes, kinship groups: all have been societies unto themselves, holding political power and social organization within a web of kinship. Common ancestry, real or invented, is an effective way of forging identity and unity, and a tenacious one. Even today, ethnic violence is often a reversion to tribal divisions, whose bonds prove stronger than overlying national identities.

Religion also forms a basis for groups and for identity. Some religions (it isn’t true of all) transcend divisions by ancestry to create a broader identity. Islam, at its birth in the Arabian peninsula, did this; the Koran specifically forbids violence against fellow Muslims of different tribes. Christianity used to be a powerful force of cohesion in the West, a common source of moral standards, metaphysical beliefs, and – in such forms as music and literature – culture.

National identity followed the rise of the nation-state. National identity encompasses any attribute or characteristic people wish to claim, from speaking Gaelic to fine cuisine to the Declaration of Independence. It often includes common ancestry or religion but often transcends them as well. The Reformation broke the religious homogeneity of Europe, and America never had much in the way of ethnic homogeneity; national identity is another avenue to unity.

By all these things we forge identity, and by identity we create the us, and Man must have the us. The trick of it all is that if there is an us, there must also be a them. What bridges one gap may deepen another; if the presence of a commonality is reason to spare someone, the absence of it may be a reason not to spare him. Nations have broadened beyond tribes, but not risen above tribal impulses.

So where do we go from here? Maybe you see evolution in all this and, with happy optimism, imagine that identities will grow broader and broader until they merge, in some distant utopia, into one universal identity. Maybe you think that that would be very nice, but unfortunately people aren’t, so it’s more likely that a regression into primitive loyalties and narrow identities will create a dystopia. Maybe you think that another basis of common identity is possible, whether culture or secular creeds or social class (Workers of the world, unite!).

Whatever you think or imagine about the thorny issue of communal identity, of this – as of everything else – stories are made.

Spotlight: Trust and Obey

Trust and Obey Blog Tour

Faith Blum has a new book. And it’s not a Western. It is a fairy tale retelling set during the time of King Saul. Read on to learn more about the book.

About the Book

Trust and Obey_KindleA wicked priestess, a morally corrupt king, and two children stuck in the middle…

Hadassah and Gidal love their parents and will do anything for them. When Priestess Basmat tell Ehud and Jerusha to pay their debt, they cannot and she takes Hadassah and Gidal as her slaves for two years.

The priestess works them hard, but there are two other servants to divide the load with, so they cope as well as they can. Then King Saul comes in disguise requesting the priestess’s other services—as a medium.

Will Hadassah and Gidal trust Adonai to take care of them? What will happen after Priestess Basmat comes face-to-face with the prophet Samuel?

Amazon

Goodreads

About the Author

FaithBlum_EmmaCatherinePhotography03Faith Blum is a small-town Wisconsin girl. She’s lived in, or outside of, small towns her whole life. The thought of living in a city with more than 60,000 people in it scares her, especially after some interesting adventures driving through big cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota.

Faith currently resides in the middle of the state of Wisconsin with her husband and their cat, Smokey. She is blessed to be able to have writing as her full-time career with household work and cooking to do on the side. She loves to paint walls as long as she doesn’t have to do hallways or ceilings.

When not writing, you can find her cooking food from scratch due to food allergies (fun), doing dishes (meh), knitting, crocheting, sewing, reading, or spending time with her husband (yay!). She is also a Community Assistant for the Young Writers Workshop and loves her work there. She loves to hear from her readers, so feel free to contact her on her website.

Giveaway

Giveaway

Faith Blum is doing a giveaway with her blog tour. She is offering a paperback copy of Trust and Obey as well as a magnet with the cover on it! You can enter here.

Excerpt

Saul called in Urim, the priest. “Have you heard from the Lord yet about this battle?”

“No, I have not.”

Saul picked up the nearest thing to him and threw it at the tent wall. “Why is He ignoring me? I need to know what to do. I can’t take the silence anymore.”

Urim bowed his head. “I’m sorry, my king. I cannot help you.” He backed out of the tent and Saul was left alone with his servants.

Saul sat down, his shaky legs no longer holding him up. His vision clouded and he ground his teeth together. One of his servants approached and Saul snapped his head in that direction. “Seek for me a woman who is a medium so I may go to her and inquire of her.”

Achim took another step nearer. “My king, there is a woman who is a medium at En-dor.”

The cloud dissipated from Saul’s eyes. “Gather some servants clothing for me that I may disguise myself. Then pick another servant to go with us.”

Achim bowed. “Yes, my lord.”

Saul stood and paced around the tent until Achim returned. Achim assisted Saul in changing into the servant’s clothing.

When he finished, Achim scooped up some cooled ashes. “My king, may I smudge your face?”

Saul nodded. “Who is coming with us?”

“My brother, Carmi. We grew up in En-dor and know the best ways to get in and out of the village unseen.”

“Very good. We must get going.”

Achim beckoned to a shadow at the edge of the tent and a man stepped out. “I am at your service, my lord.”

Saul looked him up and down. “Come. We depart now.”

 

Tour Schedule

June 26
Bookish Orchestrations – Introductory Post
Frances Hoelsema – Book Spotlight
Rachel Rossano’s Words – Book Spotlight

June 27
Letters from Annie Douglass Lima – Book Spotlight
RockandMinerals4Him – Book Review
Shannon’s Blog – Book Spotlight

June 28
Writings, Ramblings, and Reflections – Special Post
Wildflower Acres – Book Spotlight

June 29
God’s Peculiar Treasure Rae – Book Review
Purposeful Learning – Book Review
The King and His Kingdom – Book Review

June 30
Bookish Orchestrations – Giveaway Winner

Show Your Hand

When I first heard of Triplanetary, recommended as one of science fiction’s great space operas, I caught the copyright year 1997. When I actually got the book in my hands, I realized 1997 was the copyright renewal, 1948 was the original copyright, and much of the book had run as a serial in 1934. Triplanetary is, in a word, old. Old books are often the best to analyze; they come unhindered by current debates, unfiltered by current assumptions.

Triplanetary, an epic clash of four intelligent species framed as an even more epic struggle for galactic destiny, presents an excellent case-study of how a creator’s stories reveal his beliefs. In the first place, it has actual ideas; in the second, it is not a book with a message, so what comments it makes on philosophy or religion are subtle and, perhaps, unconscious. The novel opens with the chance meeting of two alien races hundreds of millions of years ago. The races, super-intelligent and practically immortal, are about equal in ability but polar opposites in nature. Multiple galaxies are not big enough for the both of them, and the benevolent aliens, thinking long-term, hatch a plan: They will find some promising planet and, over the course of thousands of generations, “develop” a new race to outstrip their rivals and finally take the place of Guardians of Civilization.

Not that I imagine it’s a spoiler, but that race is us.

With this idea, the author tips his hand regarding his essential worldview. A Christian author could easily write a secular book, but even there – even in a sci-fi novel nobody believes anyway – he’s unlikely to portray humanity as the product of aliens monkeying with the evolutionary process. The aliens’ “program of genetics” – managing blood lines and human mating, through means that are never described – hints at eugenics; it’s ambiguous, however, whether the aliens’ genetic program advanced the evolution of humanity or created a master race within it.

The most important idea in the novel is Civilization (capitalization from the original). It’s curious that Civilization is never defined; perhaps the author assumed that people would know what he meant by it, and perhaps, back in 1948, he was right. Probably what he meant was Progress, in every way the word can be understood. Triplanetary presents a long history of malignant aliens engineering the destruction of civilizations, from Atlantis to Rome to the United States, and an equally long history of benevolent aliens raising up newer, better civilizations in their place. One sees, in the long panorama, a climb out of chaos and violence, a march toward science and technology. You might even call it the long arc of history, bending toward justice. This unexamined optimism, with its touching idealism and materialistic faith, is old and widespread.

The ethic of Triplanetary is not our modern ethic. It’s too archaic in its reverence for womanhood, its definition of manhood by courage, resolve, and physical heroism; its casual assertion of moral principle above love is bracing. At the same time, it is not a Christian ethic. The sense, felt sometimes in the pages of the book, that Civilization matters more than the millions lost along the way is cold and foreign. The ethic of Triplanetary is, moreover, divorced from God – amicably divorced, to be sure, but divorced all the same.

Triplanetary is revealing of its time and its author. Beliefs about God, the universe, and right and wrong have a way of becoming apparent, even when left unspoken. We all show our hands in the end. It’s only a matter of how.

A Christian Twist

(I am going to state right here that this is not my finest work. But I wrote it under the influence of a summer cold, and this is as good as it’s going to get, people.)

 

Christian speculative fiction, as a whole, has evolved along distinct lines from secular speculative fiction, acquiring its own hallmarks and characteristics. There are many reasons for this, too many to explore or even list; different cultural pressures, different audience demands, even the division between Christian and regular literature (did it exist a hundred years ago?) all played their parts. Another cause, and the one I want to focus on today, is that Christianity itself – so much the intellectual and cultural background of these works – introduces different elements into fiction. The handling of these elements may or may not accord with Christian thought and biblical exegesis, but the source of the material is beyond doubt. Here, then, are a few of these elements:

Angels/demons. Many different cultures and religions harbor ideas of angels and demons, and then there are free-floating, popular notions – for example, the belief (unattached to any actual religion) that people die and become angels. What Christianity provides, then, is not the general idea of angels but a specific idea of who and what they are. The two greatest representations of angels and demons in modern Christian fiction are Peretti’s This Present Darkness and Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. There have been many others, all containing variations of their own. But one great commonality cuts across all Christian portrayals of demons and angels: They are always dedicated to the service of either Heaven or Hell; never do they act as free agents. In Christian SF, angels never exist without God and rarely exist without the devil. Christian doctrine on angels is so established, and so developed, that it encourages the use of angels in Christian SF – far more prodigious than in secular SF.

The Nephilim. The Nephilim appear only briefly in the Bible, but long enough to stir up all kinds of controversy. Various interpretations of what they were have been put forward, some quite tame. Naturally, the wild interpretations have gotten a foothold in Christian SF. Half-demon supermen are rich material for fantastic novels, and this is obvious even if you are one of those Christians who are just driven crazy by the whole phenomenon. Nephilim stories are unusually bound to our own world and history, especially to (borrowing a phrase) the days of Noah and the days of the Son of Man. The incubus is made in a similar mold, but it inhabits a different milieu than the Nephilim and lacks the absolute identification with angels and the Bible.

The End Times. To speak of the End Times as the end of the world is accurate but desperately incomplete. The language of the End Times, both revolutionary and catastrophic, makes it clear that it will be the end of the world, the universe, and the current cosmic order. So when Christians use the term End Times, they aren’t whistling Dixie. The End Times have become an established niche in Christian fiction, inspired by the stormy visions of Revelation and driven by Christian enthusiasm (periodically intense, never entirely dormant) for the subject. Left Behind carries the field, but C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle entered it more than sixty years ago, and newer books carry on the charge.

Review: The Charlatan’s Boy

It’s a sad day in Corenwald when no one believes in feechies anymore. Specifically, it’s a sad day for Floyd Wendellson and his boy, Grady. The paying crowds pay them no longer. After making a living for years by pretending to be a feechie expert and a genuine feechie boy, they may have to get legitimate jobs.

Ha ha! I’m kidding, of course. What they do next is put up the Ugliest Boy in the World act. As the bad new days run on into years, they make a daring bid to bring back the good old days. Their scheme is unethical and there has to be some sort of law against it, but what do you expect from the charlatan and his boy? They’re neither heroes nor villains, only two showmen trying to turn a pretty penny without any punctilious dedication to the truth.

Jonathan Rogers delivers his story in appropriate style. The book is filled with humor, much of it the sort that is seen by the readers and not the characters. It’s written in first-person, and as you can imagine, a charlatan’s boy will not have the most educated voice. Though to be fair, almost no one in the book does. The editor either had a hard or wonderfully easy time of it, depending on whether she tried to distinguish real grammar errors from style or simply decided it was all one.

The world of The Charlatan’s Boy is constructed with imagination and flair. Unlike most fantasy worlds, Corenwald is more American than European, more modern than medieval. A few things in Corenwald do sound British – the constables, the public houses. But the alligators are decidedly American, and if any other fantasy book mentions watermelons, I haven’t had the privilege of coming across it. American figures come wandering through, re-dressed in Corenwald guise. The traveling snake oil salesman has a lasting place in the American imagination, and the drovers are charmingly familiar. If not the brothers of America’s cowboys, they are at least their cousins. It’s the same trade, but seeing how each generally pursues it, the drovers lack the organization and sophistication of the cowboys. (Perhaps that last phrase is strange to read; it was strange to write.)

Among the rough-and-tumble sorts, constables in blue uniforms and schoolmarms in one-room schoolhouses impose civilization. Yet two things break the mien of the nineteenth-century frontier verging into civilization. For one, the weaponry is bows and arrows, swords and spears. For the other, the good people of Corenwald were seriously told by their forebears that another race lives secretly alongside them, and they are not too far away from believing it.

The Charlatan’s Boy is reminiscent of the old-school episodic novel – Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Penrod, Mark Twain. The main issues of the book are set up at the beginning and steadily – if not urgently – addressed. Yet, lingering over drovers’ fires and doing the phrenology routine, even parts that advance the plot often feel anecdotal. The anecdotes were entertaining, well-told, and even charming. But as they followed one on another, I began wondering when the next shoe would finally fall on somebody.

I would, however, do a disservice to this book if I made it sound as if it went nowhere. It did go somewhere, and the climax and conclusion were marvelous. The humor and the lightheartedness of the story are a joy, and sometimes – suddenly but naturally – sadness pierces through, straight to the heart. The Charlatan’s Boy, with its humor and its heart and its style, is captivating and even, in an unemphatic sort of way, brilliant fantasy.

Uncommon Knowledge

Once I made what is, I fancy, a common mistake in college and registered for an elective English class. At one point in the course, the professor told us to make allusions that our audience would understand, and furthermore to consider our classmates our audience. To illustrate what our audience would not understand, he asked for a show of hands from anyone who recognized the name Nebuchadnezzar. The percentage of those who did raise their hands was about one out of ten. The lesson? No biblical allusions. (We should all take a moment and consider what it means that it couldn’t be a historical allusion.)

This is a question Christian writers now face: With biblical illiteracy on the rise, should biblical allusions be on the wane? Knowing that many people simply will not understand the reference, should it still be made? To find the answer, I think it is useful to move the conversation back one step to the more general question. Should writers limit themselves to allusions they can be confident their audience will understand?

There are two immediate answers to this question. My professor gave the first – Yes. The danger of this lies in reducing writing to the lowest common denominator, carefully pruned of any historical or literary references that imply you read books not optioned by Hollywood studios. The second answer, of course, is No, and it is exemplified by the writer William F. Buckley, whose writing style was once summarized as, “Look it up, serf.” The danger of this lies in becoming abstruse, indecipherable, maybe pompous and obnoxious. One’s communication (and what else is writing?) should not encrypted with obscure allusions.

There ought to be somewhere authors and readers can meet in between the lowest common denominator and encryption. As with so many things, an excellent example of this is found in Jesus Christ. Consider this passage from the Gospel of Matthew:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. (Matthew 23:23-24)

That final sentence – strain out a gnat but swallow a camel – would sound proverbial and esoteric taken alone. But it’s perfectly explicable in its context. It’s an extravagant image to illustrate how the Pharisees keep the law in small matters and violate it in large matters; the point explains the image, and the image sharpens the point. You need only the context to understand.

At the same time, the sentence makes several allusions. It is, first of all, an allusion to the Law of Moses, which prohibited both camels and gnats as unclean animals that would make God’s people unclean. You strain out a gnat and swallow a camel explicitly accuses the Pharisees of breaking the Law of Moses and implicitly accuses them of being unclean. The sentence also alludes to the real Pharisaical practice of straining gnats from wine or drinking water – and indicts that practice as useless in achieving true obedience to the law.

In fact, the more you know of the Pharisees and the Law of Moses the more you see how acerbic and brilliant Jesus’ statement really is. But you don’t need to know any of it to grasp the essential idea. The allusions add meaning; they don’t hide it. And that is the way all allusions should work. Allusions should create new depths of meaning, not lock the whole meaning away. Once you make the meaning clear, you can dare an allusion to uncommon knowledge. And you know something? Those biblical allusions really class up the joint.

The Worthless World

Stories that are at their core cynical about the world present two different visions. The first is a vision of a world without heroes. The second is a vision of a world that doesn’t deserve heroes. These visions may easily be combined and sometimes are, but each can and does go alone, too. Together or alone, they weave an inescapable cynicism into the fabric of their stories.

I thought of that last weekend, prompted by the new season of A Series of Unfortunate Events. (Flash review: The good news is that they remedy some of the flaws of the first season; the bad news is that they replace them with new flaws.) Once doomed to unfortunate events by the malignancy and incompetence of individuals, the Baudelaires are now doomed to unfortunate events by the malignancy and incompetence of institutions. Every pillar of society crumbles when the children try to lean on it: the school, the law, the government, the free press.

It’s not that the institutions are broken. It’s that people are so stupid and savage, and nothing is worse than a crowd of them. A whole town melts into a ruthless mob; an entire hospital’s staff can evidently believe that decapitation is a legitimate medical operation (and be enthusiastic to see it); a circus show that advertises freaks being devoured by lions draws a crowd. In the middle of all this, we’re told that the heroes want to put out fires and the villains want to start them, but in the middle of all this, you have to think: The villains have a point. Lots of places end up burning down in this series, and it’s usually an improvement. Even for a show devoted to satire and absurdity, A Series of Unfortunate Events went too far, made too many people too stupid, too many people wicked, too many institutions worthless.

This is a mistake I’ve seen before. It looms particularly large in fantasy. This is partially because fantasy is by nature inclined to stories about saving the world, and such stories magnify the consequences of the error. When the hero saves the world, our sense of victory will be somewhat reduced if we privately feel that his efforts were perhaps wasted. We will still assent to the moral principle that villains ought not to burn down worlds, even if it’s an aesthetic improvement. But the purpose of stories is less to assent to truths and more to feel them.

Another reason the trope of the worthless world especially afflicts fantasy is that the most common inspiration for fantasy worlds is the Middle Ages. Many people evidently believe that the Middle Ages occurred before the invention of bright colors and were essentially the Black Plague interspersed with crusades. Such inspiration can curiously combine a lack of physical beauty (all the gray! brown! black! dirt and decay!) with a lack of moral beauty (oppression! corruption! superstition! ignorance! violence! everywhere!). When stories take us into such worlds, the stay is unpleasant. I think authors forget what a demoralizing effect the bleakness of their worlds has over their stories. Even genuine heroes can’t always counterbalance it.

Curiously enough, the cynicism of the worthless-world stories doesn’t always seem intended. In these stories, the heroes are truly heroic and a sense of morality prevails. But it’s not enough to have heroes who save the world. We need a world worth saving, too.