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.

In the Beginning …

This (nearly) past year saw the publication of my second novel The Valley of Decision – the culmination of a long process that began six years ago. At that time, I had finished the manuscript that became The Last Heir and I needed a new project. I had never written fantasy, had never planned or even particularly wanted to write fantasy. But there were three influences coming together to lead me there.

First, there was Steven Curtis Chapman’s song “Burn the Ships”, in which he re-told the tale of how Cortes, well, burned his ships. (I should note here I’m listing the influences in reverse order of importance.) What captivated me in this song was the sense of radical commitment, the blazing will to never go back, even if only death lay ahead. This roosted in my imagination for a long while, before coming home in Keiran, the chief character of The Valley of Decision. (The burning of the ships also directly inspired Keiran’s destruction of Dokrait.)

Second, I was in those days repeatedly reading G. K. Chesterton’s poem The Song of the Wheels, whose phrases and lines recurred in my mind like a song. I eventually memorized it, and that was pure efficiency, as I no longer needed to go fishing up the written form. The Song of the Wheels is the song of “the little things” – “only men”, “a gasp is all their breath” – and how they broke free of King Dives and his hives “full of thunder, where the lightning leaps and kills”. I think I understand the poem better now, but I fully felt it even then, the oppression of the weak and the freedom they gained when they finally grew bold enough to choose.

My final inspiration was Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I had already read the books years before, but a new thought struck me regarding the story: Why were the Men enslaved to Sauron and Sauraman always enemies – usually to be defeated, occasionally to be pitied, but still only enemies? Why couldn’t they ever be heroes? I thought a rebellion of the slaves against their Dark Lord would have been tremendous. In my imagination, I could see some sort of captain of the slaves making a direct assault on the Dark Lord. While quoting Chesterton’s Song of the Wheels.

With this scene playing in my head, I began to consider writing the story of the slave rebellion against the dark lord. I took up the work of all writers, even writers who tell stories about imaginary people in non-existent worlds: research. I began exploring European folklore, and I grew intrigued by what I found.

The neat divisions of our modern culture – beautiful fairies, benevolent elves, mean goblins, grumpy dwarves – are wholly upended in the old stories. I was impressed, too, by how alien and sinister Faerie was to mankind in old-fashioned fairytales. Tolkien, I came to see, had rather glorified the Elves; certainly, in the old world where the tales of Faerie were first told, no right-thinking mortal was ever off his guard around faeries of any description.

These realizations came to impact deeply The Valley of Decision, which existed then as only the germ of an idea. I hope, in the weeks and months ahead, to explore how. With this post, I open a new series – “Through the Valley (of Decision)”.

CSFF Blog Tour: Unfashionable Furniture

When I saw that A Cast of Stones – showcased this week in the CSFF blog tour – was listed as adult fantasy, it made me happy. Maybe unduly happy.

I was glad for the adult label for the reason that the majority of the speculative books I’ve recently read are labeled YA or younger. I have enjoyed these novels; the YA label means that the principal characters will be under twenty, but not much more. These books – sold as they are to a younger crowd – are fit for adults, too.

C.S. Lewis once weighed forth – or possibly it was Tolkien; either way, an estimable person you ought to listen to weighed forth – that fairy tales ended up in the nursery for the same reason old furniture did: It had gone out of fashion. That was a long time ago. Today speculative fiction – in many ways our modern fairy tales – is often directed, as the old fairy tales were, to the very young.

And I wonder why. Why are so many speculative books, perfectly decent for adult reading, pitched to teens and children? Why are so many speculative books written to them, reducing the age of the heroes, reducing the page count?

Is it a matter of fashion? I don’t think so; I don’t know. The current fashions are not an area of high knowledge for me.

Is it because adults won’t read speculative books? In my observation, adults read even speculative fiction that stars twelve-year-olds. But maybe it’s the crowd I’m around.

Is it driven by the market understanding of publishers? At the Realm Makers conference early this month, Jeff Gerke said that, in the mainstream publishing houses, the speculative genre is not expanding – except in YA. Maybe writers feel that to get an audience they have to aim their stories beneath adults.

Whatever the explanation, I’m glad to read a Christian fantasy written for adults. I’m glad to read a Christian fantasy about adults. To learn more about this rare bird, follow the links –

To the author’s website;

To A Cast of Stones [Book One] on Amazon;

To The Hero’s Lost [Book Two] on Amazon;

To the blog tour (reviews up in some places today!):
Julie Bihn
Jennifer Bogart
Keanan Brand
Beckie Burnham
Jeff Chapman
Laure Covert
Pauline Creeden
Emma or Audrey Engel
April Erwin
Nikole Hahn
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen

Krystine Kercher

Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Writer Rani

Nathan Reimer
Chawna Schroeder
Jojo Sutis

Steve Trower
Phyllis Wheeler

Rachel Wyant

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: Attercop, Shelob, and Ungoliant

Human beings seem, by nature, to find something loathsome about spiders. Jonathan Edwards compared sinners in the hands of an angry God to spiders. Others have found spiders even more creepy than repulsive, and to many they’re the stuff of nightmares and phobias.

Speculative fiction has responded to this old human fear with giant spiders. Tom Pawlik, when he made them the ravening menace of Beckon, was walking in a tradition with deep roots. Spiders were employed by both Lord Dunsany, a forefather of fantasy, and H. G. Wells, a father of science fiction. J. R. R. Tolkien, the father of modern fantasy, made signature use of them. Each of his major works bears the mark.

In The Hobbit, the victims are Bilbo and, even more, the dwarves: “Suddenly he saw, too, that there were spiders huge and horrible sitting in the branches above him, and ring or no ring he trembled with fear lest they should discover him. Standing behind a tree he watched a group of them for some time, and then in the silence and stillness of the wood he realised that these loathsome creatures were speaking one to another. Their voices were a sort of thin creaking and hissing, but he could make out many of the words that they said. They were talking about the dwarves!”

The meat of the conversation was about how to prepare the dwarves for supper – much like the Trolls’ discussion, only far more intelligent. Thus Tolkien made his spiders sentient, capable of talking, of differing opinions – and of taking offense.

As Bilbo sang after hurling a few stones: “Old Tomnoddy, all big body, Old Tomnoddy can’t spy me! Attercop! Attercop! Down you drop! You’ll never catch me up your tree!”

And the spiders “were frightfully angry. Quite apart from the stones no spider has ever liked being called Attercop, and Tomnoddy of course is insulting to anybody.”

In Lord of the Rings, the giant spiders return, and this element of fun is gone. “Even as Frodo spoke he felt a great malice bent upon him, and a deadly regard considering him. Not far down the tunnel, between them and the opening where they had reeled and stumbled, he was aware of eyes growing visible, two great clusters of many-windowed eyes – the coming menace was unmasked at last. The radiance of the star-glass was broken and thrown back from their thousand facets, but behind the glitter a pale deadly fire began steadily to glow within, a flame kindled in some deep pit of evil thought. Monstrous and abominable eyes they were, bestial and yet filled with purpose and with hideous delight, gloating over their prey trapped beyond all hope of escape.”

And later: “There agelong she had dwelt, an evil thing in spider-form … Little she knew of or cared for towers, or rings, or anything devised by mind or hand, who only desired death for all others, mind and body, and for herself a glut of life, alone, swollen till the mountains could no longer hold her up and the darkness could not contain her.”

Here Tolkien goes beyond giving his spiders minds. Shelob is “an evil thing in spider-form” – not really an animal at all. Yet the bestial instinct rules her. She doesn’t know or care for “anything devised by mind or hand”; her only purpose is to devour.

Finally, in The Silmarillion we meet, literally, the mother of them all – Ungoliant. “In a ravine she lived, and took shape as a spider of monstrous form, weaving her black webs in a cleft of the mountains. There she sucked up all light she could find, and spun it forth again in dark nets of strangling gloom, until no light more could come to her abode; and she was famished.”

Ungoliant sucked the sap from the Trees of Valinor, which had been the sun and moon of that paradise; she drank the Wells of Varda dry and ate the jewels Morgoth had stolen from Formenos. And she would have gotten Morgoth himself, if the Balrogs hadn’t come when he cried out. So, in The Silmarillion, Tolkien goes farthest of all. Even Morgoth was overpowered by a spider.

J. R. R. Tolkien is far from the only one to use giant spiders as enemies, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who made them such enemies as he did.

CSFF Blog Tour: Tinkerbell vs. Elrond

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

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

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

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

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

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


THE PRIEST’S SUPPER

T. Crofton Croker

Reproduced from Sacred Texts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What may that be?” said Father Horrigan.

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

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

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

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

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

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