Tag Archives: C.S. Lewis

The Books You Fight With

Jane Austen’s been in the news a lot lately, due to her death happening two hundred years ago. As with most occasions Austen is mentioned, discussion turns to ranking her books. Pride and Prejudice is apparently preferred by the popular vote, while Emma is lauded by the critical vote. And I have no argument with this—I’d put one or the other of those at the top myself, except—what book do I find myself meditating on the most? Which one do I wrestle with, and spend hours studying thematically and artistically? It’s not my favourite book, but it has the power to haunt my thoughts more than all the others combined. It’s Mansfield Park.

Does this mean it’s the best one?

Some books you’d never choose as your favourite, but they’re the ones with the power to haunt your thoughts. And a book with that kind of power is perhaps more genius than we want to give it credit for. So maybe we should recognize some of the books we fight with more than we do.

This is not to say these books are perfect. Often it’s some of their very flaws that cause us to wrestle with them so deeply. I, for one, will never forgive Mansfield Park for ending with the very same scandal as Pride and Prejudice (though Jane Austen is really not to be blamed—how many exciting societal events did she really have to work with for the climaxes of her novels?) Flaws are part of the reason, but not the whole reason. For instance, I fight with the protagonist’s (Fanny’s) passivity every time I read it. But I can’t shake the feeling her passiveness means something. I can’t shake the feeling this novel displays something more fundamental about Austen’s worldview than all the others. In which case, it might be some of her most important work.

And I get this feeling when I read That Hideous Strength, by C.S. Lewis as well.

Just like with Mansfield Park, among the people that know such a book exists, opinions are divided between those who highly dislike the novel, and those who love it. It was while discovering my brain was stuck in a loop pondering the message of this book, actually, that I realized the books we fight with might have more power over our thoughts than the ones we love.

Because we love easy-to-understand. We love comforting concepts. But the ideas we may need to grapple with are not always easy or comforting.

For example, I need to consider whether passivity and helplessness, as Fanny shows in Mansfield Park, does have value. Despite my modern context screaming at me about the value of assertiveness and standing up for yourself, I need to not despise Fanny for not being ‘modern’ in this way.

When it comes to That Hideous Strength, I need to accept it’s not going to feed me comforting ideas that I really like, as the first book in the trilogy did (Out of the Silent Planet). Sure, I may have issues with some of the plot, and the time spent with unlikable characters, and the possibly ludicrous events that happen. But what I may be avoiding thinking about by doing this is how much some of these unlikable characters resemble me. Or worse—how I’d like some of the unlikable protagonists to be squashed like a bug because they remind me of unlikable people I personally know—but the novel shows them grace. So I should maybe do so too.

I’d go into the plot more but this book is so obscure for a C.S. Lewis book that I don’t know how many of you will have heard of it. I’ll just say check it out if you like his work. My brain thinks about it more than all my other favourite parts of the Space Trilogy.

So start appreciating those books you fight with. They’re at least as powerful as your favourites.

Drop me a line below about which books these are for you!

 

 

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Let the Children Grow Up–They Do in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

‘Neglectful’ was the word tossed around by one reviewer of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Apparently the Professor was neglectful of the children he’d taken into his house during the bombings of WWII, letting them run through his house on their own and not over-scheduling every minute of their day with dance class, extra tutoring, or athletics.

Let’s leave aside the fact that a bachelor professor who appears to be entirely unused to children decides, out of the kindness of his heart, to shelter a group of four children seeking refuge from the bombing of London. Such a man might not be exactly up-to-date on the recent recommendations of the mommy blogs, nor might he think it harmful for children to just take care of themselves for some hours of the day (as children used to do in decades past). Let’s leave all that aside and look at how the children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe are actually allowed to grow up in this book.

Now that our society has invented the idea of childhood (and this is not a bad thing), we have created a very specific, protected idea of what childhood should be. However, in order to grow up children have to eventually step outside of this safe, protected bubble. You might even let them blunder through your house and through a half-forgotten wardrobe that sometimes is a portal to another very dangerous and magical world.

In other words, they become independent and make their own decisions.

It’s very interesting that one well-known criticism of Narnia is that the children don’t grow up–or at least, not in the right way.

“The idea of keeping childhood alive forever and ever and regretting the passage into adulthood—whether it’s a gentle, rose-tinged regret or a passionate, full-blooded hatred, as it is in Lewis—is simply wrong,” the famously outspoken critic of Narnia, Philip Pullman said once in an interview in The New Yorker. His own series, His Dark Materials, attempts to rectify this by having his protagonist grow up and awaken to her own sexuality at the end. Now, as far as I can tell, the children don’t embark on any sexual relationships in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but I don’t think this is the only valid marker of growing up. They do grow up.

And this is why I loved this book. At the end, they actually get to live out their whole lives in Narnia–become kings and queens and put into practice everything the story taught them up to then. So often as a child I’d read fiction where the characters went back in time, or went to another world, and learned something, but they never got to use it in that world. They always had to come back. They always remained children. The reader never fully saw the consequences of the story’s ideas.

And besides the ending of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which so satisfyingly lets the children have a life in the world they helped to save, they have to ‘do’ things throughout the book.

I, who was raised in the safe, coddled confines of ‘be careful!’ ‘safety first!’ and ‘accidents are always preventable!’ was astonished to read about Peter picking up his sword when Susan is attacked by the wolf, and to read Aslan saying, “Back! Let the prince win his spurs!”–just after Aslan finished telling Peter about how he must become king one day. My heart was in my mouth–they weren’t actually going to let Peter do something, were they? Of course he would want to rescue his sister, but there must be some more experienced, more adult character around that should save her.

But no, if Peter is to be a king one day he must shoulder the responsibilities of adulthood himself.

Here we come to another controversial aspect–the children fight in the story. Now, we could point to the times, and argue that children in history had very different lives than they have today, and nobody at the time thought it at all odd. We could point out that Lewis lived through WWI, when very young teenagers died by the thousands in the trenches. We could point to the fact the story is set in WWII, when ‘fighting the enemy’–physically fighting, and not with economic sanctions or making a show of army exercises on a country’s borders–was viewed positively. But really what it comes down to is allowing the children to learn that not everything in life comes easily, or without a struggle. The villain won’t helpfully toss himself off the cliff for them. They must act.

This is not to say violence is glorified here–the children don’t especially like fighting. But they certainly have to back up their beliefs with their deeds.

Now, there may be books where children must grow up even more than the children do in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. They may have to, say, face a thousand more deaths of close friends, and watch graphically described gore pass in front of them. You could certainly imagine a ‘grittier’ children’s book than Narnia, even if you’d hesitate to actually give such a book to a child. I’m just arguing this was the first time I read a children’s book that showed me how to go beyond childhood. It showed me the good and bad in the challenge of growing up.

Millennials, a group of which I am a member, are frequently derided as a group that doesn’t know how to grow up. And I obviously can’t point to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a guide that taught me how to grow up–of the typical markers of adulthood (marriage, children, house, career), I can only possibly point to career as an objective marker of the level of adulthood I’ve achieved. Reading literature in this vein is not a cure-all for the ‘millennial problem’ (and I’ve read His Dark Materials too, lest you argue that series would’ve helped me more). However, children need a vision of adulthood to aspire to. They need to read different ways of shouldering the responsibility of living. And if we only present fiction where parents and guardians are not ‘neglectful,’ and hover over children just as much as parents and guardians actually do nowadays in real life, we’d hold back the whole process.

Give the kids some space. Let them grow up.

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Out of the Silent Planet Awoke My Imagination – Let It Awake Yours Too

C.S. Lewis, by Paulina Van Vliet. All rights reserved.

C.S. Lewis, by Paulina Van Vliet. All rights reserved.

I’ve been meaning to read Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis for a long time, ever since I discovered Lewis really did write fiction besides the Chronicles of Narnia. Now that I have I can’t resist blogging about it, because it excited me so much to find out how good it was. I rarely review books here, but some books are worth it, and if you’ve been looking for a worthwhile book I’ll write down some things to consider with this one.

Out of the Silent Planet always sounded like such an intriguing title, but I probably haven’t touched it till now because it’s sci-fi. Also, you hear so much less about it than the Chronicles, so you assume it can’t be quite as highly regarded. And after a brief survey of the internet writings on it, I think opinion on this book is a little more divided. But those who love it really love it, and now I’m one of them.

Basically, in this book a professor, Elwin Ransom, gets kidnapped and taken to another planet, Malacandra. The book actually has many reasons to inspire dislike, or a more tepid reception, including its out-of-date science and scientific errors, its theological ideas sprinkled throughout, and some weaknesses in story construction. I’ll first list all the irritations and dislikes I had while reading (skipping over any scientific discussion, as I know very little about scientific beliefs at the time), and then I’ll explain what blew me away.

I shall attempt to talk about it without spoiling too much of it, and obviously will not bring in any of the rest of the trilogy, since I haven’t read them yet.

The Bad:

It was incredibly difficult to get into the story. There is nothing especially compelling about Ransom as a character—you don’t start chapter one and immediately get excited you get to follow this character for the rest of the story. I picked it up several times without making it through the first chapter. I ended it without a real strong idea of what the guy was like. You don’t get any sense of his life outside the events of the story. Is he motivated to escape Malacandra and get back to his life as a professor on earth? Does he have any human relationships he’s missing? What brought him to the point where he decided to take a walking tour? He doesn’t seem to have any internal struggles, other than the small character arc of overcoming his fear-based response to everything.

The rest of the characters are somewhat caricatures too. There’s a scientist whose sole focus is human progress, and whose speeches mainly consist of his ideas of human progress. There’s another bad guy who’s solely driven by greed. There’s a lot of ‘good’ characters who don’t change throughout the novel, because they’re good already.

Yes, there were a few points where I was reading it that I thought to myself—can this really be C.S. Lewis? This is a very poorly constructed novel! People must just read it out of loyalty to him!

On top of the rest of these flaws take the very limited and slow amount of action this novel contains. There’s certainly conflict—why was Ransom kidnapped? Can he escape? Can he find food and drink on this new planet? Etc., etc. But most issues just sort of resolve themselves without Ransom having to fight too much for them. The climax, in the worst light, could be seen as everything in the story just easily resolving themselves.

 

The Good:

The first part where I suddenly found myself being drawn into the story was during Ransom’s philosophizing on the spaceship during the journey to Malacandra. And I HATE philosophy, so it’s shocking for me to say the philosophy in this book are some of the best parts of the story. But it’s true.

These parts are written very beautifully, which is no surprise considering Lewis was a very adept writer. They confront our stereotypical ideas of space travel and ever so subtly turn them inside-out. Is space empty? Are aliens inferior to humans? Are aliens hostile to humans? What do you think?

About halfway through I would have described it as an excellent philosophical treatise with a story tacked on. But the plot kept turning, and despite the characters being somewhat motivation-less and wooden, there were several emotional moments that absolutely hit home. I was surprised to discover I really did care about what happened to them.

There’s some incredible descriptions in here as well. Lewis does what many authors forget to do (in the books I’ve read, anyway), and grounds his perspective in his character so deeply that the reader sees what the character sees. For example, when getting off the spaceship Ransom is initially unsure which colours are ground, which as water, which are trees, etc. Which is absolutely true—if you don’t have any context for figuring out a new location, you are confused at first! Just think about getting out of a different subway station and being completely unsure which street is which. Lewis also does not immediately have Ransom realize the spaceship he travels to Malacandra in is shaped like a sphere–he first describes the odd shape of the room from Ransom’s perspective, and the slow realization that the shape is due to the spaceship’s overall spherical shape. Few authors do this–they immediately have the characters perceive they’re on another planet and describe it, or on a spaceship and describe it, without exploring the process of realization that occurs in a character’s head. There’s more than one passage like this, and these ground the story in reality in a strong way.

So, after good philosophy and unique descriptions, this book also hinges on languages in a way that excites me as a person who loves words. Ransom does not have a ‘universal translator,’ but actually has to learn the alien language. Then he has to translate some ‘Earth’ ideas into this alien language, which is an ever-so-subtle device to explore some of the ideas we take for granted. It’s lovely, lovely. You’d never see this in a blockbuster movie, but it drives the action in such a different way than you’d expect.

Lastly, this book made me realize how long it’s been since I read a book that really thrilled my imagination. I didn’t think C.S. Lewis could pull it off and really bring the story together in a satisfying way, because I’ve gotten so good at predicting with the first few chapters of a novel how bad the novel is going to be. I’ve also had far too many promising novels fade away into gibberish and frustration. It’s so wonderful to discover you’re actually in the hand of an author you can trust–an author who writes well and plots well and will not disappoint you even in a story with weaknesses. My imagination was so fired up this week, and it was a shock to discover I’d forgotten what that felt like.

In Conclusion:

What is really interesting about super-good books, and the one thing I love about them, is how so many of them do not follow the advice writers are constantly being given today. I can’t imagine any publisher publishing this book nowadays. It starts off soooooooooooo slow—just a guy walking through the back lanes of England. It has such wooden characters, characters without real character arcs. It takes sooooooooo long for any sort of action to occur, and the action that does occur fails to create much suspense. Why would a publisher take it on?

But yet—you care about these wooden characters! Somehow by the middle the shocking thing that happens affects you emotionally. You even feel pity and some sympathy for the bad guys at the end. And the climax and ending is somehow satisfying, even though a reader could so easily feel cheated if these events were not well-written.

I think, despite the good behind teaching writers how to better their craft, we sometimes risk making all writing exactly the same. We could be overlooking the next C.S. Lewis by insisting on being dropped into the middle of the action. And I do not say this under any delusions that I am the next C.S. Lewis who should not be ignored, because I know there’s so much about character and plot that I need to keep on learning about until the end of the my writing days. But stories can somehow, some way, work without these things. Our confidence in our knowledge about what is ‘good’ storytelling may be far too similar to our confidence in the progress of history and the idea we’re superior to civilizations that have come before us. We’re missing the context. We unknowingly blind ourselves to what they can teach us.

However, to conclude this review–Out of the Silent Planet will likely not change anyone’s mind about C.S. Lewis. If you dislike his philosophizing and general outlook on life, you won’t find this book any different. If you dislike his neat and logical prose, you’ll find that here as well. Even if you love C.S. Lewis because of the Chronicles of Narnia, you may find this one a little ‘weirder.’ But if you love inventive settings that inspire you to think about the world in new ways, give this one a shot. It’s worth it.

 

 

Have you read Out of the Silent Planet, and if so, what did you think?

 

Related Book Reviews of Out of the Silent Planet:

While writing this post I discovered there were not a lot of people writing about the Space Trilogy, so I thought I’d link to a few good reviews I came across here.

The Silent Planet of C.S. Lewis – why this book counts as good classic sci-fi despite having angels in it.

The Cosmic Trilogy 1: Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – a deeper review of the books as a whole.

Out of the Silent Planet – a comparison with Gulliver’s Travels that I didn’t notice myself.

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Stories and Stuff’s Top Posts in 2013

Three years in and this blog is still going strong! And that’s all thanks to all of you, my dear readers, who keep coming back and reading, commenting and sharing. Virtual confetti, balloons and champagne to all of you! Here’s a summary of the top five most popular posts Stories and Stuff had this year:

 1.) Creativity is the Residue of Time Wasted

Creativity – we all want it, we’d all like to know how to have more of it. This was clearly a pithy little quote that explained creativity in a way a lot of people liked.

 2.) Ranking Jane Austen – Is It Possible?

Jane Austen – an ever-fresh topic, no matter what the year. My Jane Austen vignettes were popular this year as well, even though I didn’t get around to publishing a new one in 2013.

 3.) Abusing Punctuation: The Ellipses…

I guess everyone loves rule-breakers, and here’s my post about my addiction to this piece of punctuation.

 4.) Tolkien’s “Take That!” to Shakespeare

We all remember being forced to read Shakespeare in school, and hating it. So clearly this post about one of our favourite authors, J. R. R. Tolkien, taking a stab at bettering Shakespeare struck a chord with readers.

 5.) “You Too?” What Friendship Is, and Why It’s So Hard to Find

That “moment of connection” that’s so necessary to friendship, as C. S. Lewis explains it, and my own take on how I fail sometimes when it comes to this area of friendship. And anyway, we all wish we understood this whole friendship thing better.

So this list features Jane Austen, J. R. R. Tolkien, AND C. S. Lewis… regular readers of my blog will not be surprised! (And, oh look, I abused another ellipsis in that last sentence!) The rest of the list covers aspects of good writing: how to be creative, how to write on friendship, and what a good long sentence without an ellipsis might look like.

In conclusion – thank you so much for supporting this blog in 2013 (and buying my ebooks too – I know some of you did!), and I wish you all the very best in 2014! Happy New Year!

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Two Impossible Things to Get in Life

cup of tea

“You can’t get a cup of tea big enough, or a book long enough, to suit me.”

-C. S. Lewis

Don’t you love it when people know you enough to get you something for Christmas that’s just perfect? Here’s something that combines three things I love: C. S. Lewis, tea, and books. Isn’t it a great mug?

And yes, despite my admitted addiction to coffee, I will never say no to a cup of tea. Or to a long book, unless it is so poorly written as to not be worth the effort.

What about you? Get any perfect gifts this year?

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“You Too?” What Friendship Is, and Why It’s So Hard to Find

“Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.’ ”

C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves

 I’ve always found friendship a tricky thing – I’ve watched other people quickly and easily slide into friendship in a matter of days, and wondered why

Jerry_Weiss,_Friends

“Friends,” by Jerry Weiss (CC BY-SA 3.0)

the process of ‘becoming friends’ always appears so daunting to me. It’d be simplistic and easy to blame it all on ‘extroversion’ and ‘introversion’ (me being the introvert, of course), but it’s more than that. I simply place too much emphasis on that magical moment of ‘connection.’

 Look above at that quote. When I read that I realized C. S. Lewis had put into words what this ‘connection’ feels like in a way I’d never managed to myself. You know what it feels like when you’ve been acquainted with someone for years, and done all sorts of activities with them, but still don’t feel like you really know them? And then there are others you feel connected to right away? Because with some people you reach that ‘you too?’ moment right away, and some people you never do.

 And that’s why some books feel like friends! We all want some evidence that our experience is not completely abnormal, and when an author can reach out and connect to us through the printed page, we might decide the book is a masterpiece. This, incidentally, might also explain why some of us absolutely love some books, while others cannot see what’s so great about them. All our lives are different.

 I realized I found this ‘you too?’ moment so important in friendship because I was writing it all the time – when I wanted two of my characters to like each other, they had to find a moment of connection at some point during the plot. (They say introverts value this type of connection in relationships, and I guess I’m just more evidence of that!) And it irritated me in other books where characters were ‘such good friends’ or ‘so in love,’ when nowhere in the book did the two of them ever really talk.

 Now, why did I say ‘too much emphasis’ on this connection up there at the beginning of this post? Because it’s easy to think I don’t have anything in common with someone, before I reach this ‘you too’ moment. When I’m staring at a stranger, I can’t imagine I’ll ever find anything in common with them. It’s too easy to give up on ever reaching the stage of a relationship known as ‘friendship.’ But most people are worth the effort – and the human experience is meant to be shared with others. I’ll end off with another C. S. Lewis quote:

 “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”

 

So there you have it – what do you think of this definition of friendship, and do you think it rings true? Do you find it easy to make friends, or difficult?

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Diana Wynne Jones, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien – What a Combination!

“When I was a student at Oxford, both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien were lecturing there, Lewis magnificently and Tolkien badly and inaudibly, and the climate of opinion was such that people explained Lewis’s children’s books by saying ‘It’s his Christianity, you know,’ as if the books were the symptom of some disease, while of Tolkien they said he was wasting his time on hobbits when he should have been writing learned articles…

“I imagine I caused Tolkien much grief by turning up to hear him lecture week after week, while he was trying to wrap his lectures up after a fortnight and get on with The Lord of the Rings (you could do that in those days, if you lacked an audience, and still get paid). I sat there obdurately despite all his mumbling and talking with his face pressed up to the blackboard, forcing him to go on expounding every week how you could start with a simple quest-narrative and, by gradually twitching elements as it went along, arrive at the complex and entirely different story of Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale – a story that still contains the excitement of the quest-narrative that seeded it. What little I heard of all this was wholly fascinating.”

Diana Wynne Jones

I love this quote, because I can just imagine Tolkien being that rambling, mumbling university lecturer that makes you want to pull your hair out. I love his books, but they are long in spots. This quote also made me realize how many of the fantasy authors that I enjoy lived through the Second World War, around the same time period. Strange, that.

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Polly Full-Part1 facebookOn the hunt for some great fantasy reading? Why not try my fantasy adventure, Why Polly?

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A Thought From C.S. Lewis – On Reading the Classics

C.S. Lewis, by Paulina D. All rights reserved.

“It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”

         – C.S. Lewis (full text found here)

Very useful rule, C.S. Lewis, but I fail miserably at it. I comfort myself with the idea that “when I have more time” I will improve my reading habits.

 Lewis’s argument is:

– Classics are classics for a reason. Who knows if anyone will be reading Twilight in two hundred years?

– Old books help correct the blind spots we modern people don’t realize we have.

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