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.

First Plunge

I heard of him a long time ago. I often saw him quoted – sometimes by C. S. Lewis. Writers and reviewers praised him as a man of imagination, an artist who brought together the beautiful, the fantastical, and the spiritual. I saw him ranked with C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, one of the godfathers of Christian speculative fiction. But I never bothered with his work myself.

Then, while browsing a library shelf for books for my younger sisters, I saw it: The Complete Fairy Tales, by George MacDonald. I’d heard good things about MacDonald. I liked fairy tales. I picked the book up.

Now I can hold up my head among my fellow SF fans: I have read George MacDonald. My first taste was The Light Princess. This fairy tale begins, as is traditional, with a king and queen having a baby. In writing the invitations to her christening, the king forgot the Princess Makemnoit – which was “awkward”, the narrator tells us, because she was his sister, and “imprudent”, because she was a witch.

So – well, you all know. The witch went to the christening anyway and got revenge for the slight by putting a spell on the child. By the spell she deprived the princess of all her gravity – both in body and in soul.

I wasn’t surprised that MacDonald used the old formula: an evil witch, an enchanted princess, a brave prince. That he made an ingenuous story with it did not surprise me, either. What did was that he told the fairy tale with a sense of humor and even a sense of parody.

The greatest example of MacDonald’s parody was the metaphysicians Hum-Drum and Kopy-Keck. But often it flashes through in smaller ways. He uses the old trope of provoking the witch by not inviting her, and in that very act observes, “Of course somebody was forgotten. Now it does not generally matter if somebody is forgotten, only you must mind who.”

The humor manifests itself in several ways. One of these is puns. George MacDonald has often been called a great writer, and puns have often been called the lowest form of humor, so this seems a little odd –  even if MacDonald’s puns are sometimes so clever they cannot be understood without footnotes.

Another manifestation is asides that are half humor and half (indicting) social commentary. In telling how the king forgot his disinherited sister, MacDonald writes, “But poor relations don’t do anything to keep you in mind of them. Why don’t they? The king could not see into the garret she lived in, could he?”

And later, when the prince “lost sight of his retinue in a great forest”: “These forests are very useful in delivering princes from their courtiers, like a sieve that keeps back the bran. Then the princes get away to follow their fortunes. In this they have the advantage of the princesses, who are forced to marry before they have had a bit of fun. I wish our princesses got lost in a forest sometimes.”

Neither does MacDonald fail to draw out the humor – and fun – involved in having a princess with no gravity. He brings out, too, the loss and misfortune of it. In one passage, he tells of the Light Princess that “she would laugh like the very spirit of fun; only in her laugh there was something missing. What it was, I find myself unable to describe. I think it was a certain tone, depending upon the possibility of sorrow – morbidezza, perhaps. She never smiled.”

I have been enjoying my first plunge into the stories of George MacDonald. They make me want to read more fairy tales. They make me want to write some.

Review: Tangled

Tangled was celebrated at its release as the fiftieth animated movie made by Disney. It’s appropriate that it should be a princess movie. Also appropriate is that it is based on a classic European fairy tale. Carrying yet another Disney torch, the writers took happy license with the fairy tale until only a few basic elements remained.

I don’t know that Tangled began with a Disney executive saying, “The next animated movie will be our fiftieth. Holy smokes – we need to make this special.” In fact, I doubt it. But if that had been the goal, Tangled would be a spectacular fulfillment. The movie is a wonderful mixing of the best of the old Disney with the best of the new.

The best of the new Disney is found mainly in two things. Humor is the more minor of them. In Old Disney there was humor, too – but not the sort that involves the hero doing battle with a frying pan. Still less would Old Disney have had the heroine repeatedly deck her Prince Charming with a frying pan. Of course, the old-time Prince Charming was never a smart-aleck thief who dismissively calls the princess “Blondie”. (“Rapunzel,” she corrects him. “Gesundehit,” he replies.)

The greatest contribution of New Disney is that the protagonists have actual personalities. Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella were all mild and rather predictable heroines. Prince Charming was generic, and entirely interchangeable with Cinderella’s prince. Their stories were frameworks on which less essential characters hung their colorful hats. The dwarves and the three fairies carried the liveliness and humor of their fairy tales.

But in Tangled Rapunzel and Flynn Rider are characters, not types. The movie has wonderful secondary characters; I am ready to accord Maximus the place of Disney’s best animal sidekick. But here the principal characters can keep up.

If the protagonists show the strength of the new Disney, the antagonist shows the excellence of the old. Gothel is one of the movie’s best elements, a villainess we haven’t seen the likes of in fifty years. New Disney’s villanesses are generally in the cast of Cruella de Vil, Eesma, and Urusla. They were always somehow over-the-top – Cruella with her enormous furs and enormous temper, her every facial feature seeming to come to a point; Ursula’s nastiness was as heavy and obvious as her tentacles; Eesma was, indeed, scary beyond all reason, but in a way that fit the half-sane humor of The Emperor’s New Groove.

But in the days of Old Disney, the villainesses were Maleficent, and the evil stepmothers of Cinderella and Snow White. Gothel belongs to their class. Watching Tangled, you can see in her the cold menace of the evil queen, the elegance of Maleficent, the intellectual sharpness and half-hidden malice of Cinderella’s stepmother. Gothel has a presence that – as much as anything she actually does – makes her frightening.

Tangled is, as Flynn assures us in his opening narration, a fun story. It also earns its PG rating with a surprisingly intense scene that culminates in one of the most clever, most satisfying ends Disney ever dealt out to a villain.

That same scene brings home the movie’s moral. Somewhere, in all the jokes and adventure, Tangled slips in what they call a Point. Now, most Disney lessons these days are like a Hallmark greeting card, only not as deep. We are constantly being instructed to Follow Our Hearts, Believe In Ourselves, and Make Our Dreams Come True. So it’s no surprise that a character in Tangled tells Flynn and Rapunzel, “Go, live your dream.” (Okay, it’s a little surprise that the character is a one-handed hooligan, but someone had to say it.)

Flynn answers, feelingly, “I will.”

And the hooligan says, “Your dream stinks. I was talking to her.”

It’s a great moment, all the more so because it comes off as self-parody. But here’s the thing: Flynn’s dream – to live alone on an island, “surrounded by enormous piles of money” – really did stink. Tangled may begin as another tale of following your dreams, but it ends as a more profound story of changing them.

Tangled is a triumph – comedy mixed with drama, captivating characters bringing home an excellent story. It’s worthy of Walt Disney himself, and more than fit to be the fiftieth animated film made by his studio.

For a breakdown of the film’s moral elements, go to Plugged In; for another review, go to Decent Films.