Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Startlighter, by Bryan Davis - Day Three of the July 2010 CSFF Blog Tour

Starlighter, book 1 of the Dragons of Starlight series
by Bryan Davis
Published by Zondervan, 2010

Thanks to Zondervan for kindly providing a copy of Starlighter for review on the Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

In my preceding posts, I have been rather blunt in saying that the writing in current-day Christian fantasy for the young (13 - 16 year olds) is quite poor and that Starlighter is no different.

My goal has not been to put a bulls-eye on Bryan Davis. I’m not only trying to review a book - and I think have done that, more or less - but I’m also trying to bring attention to the sad state of writing in the current-day genre. Bryan Davis happened to be on the chopping block. In my mind, others could have been there and the critique would have been just as harsh; in some cases, harsher.

This is my concern. A chief motive behind the CSFF blog tour is to raise awareness of Christian fantasy so that editors and publishers would not shy away from it. The purported reason is that Christian fantasy is a small market. No doubt, that is part of it. But I think an unspoken, underlying reason is because the quality of the writing itself is simply poor.

A thought experiment might give credence to this assessment.

Let us envision one named Joe (the name is fictional and any similarity of persons in real life is not entirely coincidental - Joe might be any one of us). Joe has written several Christian fantasy novels for YA, which have been published by Christian publishers and have been fairly well received by a substantial contingent of Christian readers. The reception has been so positive that he receives the acclaim of not only other well-known (to the Christian community, that is) authors of his genre, but even by some Christians who write outside of it. Joe does admit, however, that since the latter generally write for a Christian audience, the common goal of writing for the Christian reader may have something to do with their praise.

After such laud and honor, Joe begins to think he should be able to get published by one of the major mainstream ‘secular’ publishing houses. He’s not arrogant; he simply sees a viable opportunity to raise the respect of Christian fantasy up a notch or two in the eyes of the secular world - reader and publisher alike.

‘But how would Christian fantasy be received by these publishers?’ Joe wonders. Joe gets on Amazon and takes a look at the (few) bad reviews of his own novels. He discovers that the primary reason for the bad rating is because of the Christian element. It was too preachy, too much pushing a religious agenda. “Ah ha!” Joe cries, “I’ve got it! I’ll write a fantasy novel but without the religious slant to it. And then I’ll get it published by one of those big houses, like the one that did J K Rowling’s. Brilliant!”

Joe has to admit he’s feeling a little guilty over this - it has the smell of compromising his Christian principles, watering down the story just to make it palpable. He thinks about it a bit and decides, ‘No! If I can get my work published by the biggies, I will have proven that Christians can write fantasy with the best of them. And then... then I’ll be able to work in Christian themes bit by bit.’

So, Joe gets to work and produces his first novel of a new series, taking more care with it than he has ever done before. To his surprise and delight, he finds that he is able to work in some symbolism and imagery that definitely has some moral value to it; granted it is, as he feared it would be, watered down, but it’s there and no more religiously blatant than what one would find in any other popular non-Christian work (he spent a good deal of time making sure of this, even asking some of his most trusted endorsers to make an assessment, and they agree with him - it’s neutrally safe).

Joe feels really good about his prospects now and through a respected agent who already has a successful track record, submits his work to the top-notch, big time publishers.

But to Joe’s dismay he receives rejection... after rejection... after rejection. Years later, the manuscript sits in a dusty desk drawer, forgotten, and with it most of the embarrassing memories.

Why was Joe rejected? If you are honest, the moment this imaginary scenario contemplated the mainstream publication of one of ‘us,’ you thought or suppressed the temptation to think, ‘No way. There’s too much competition out there, so many elite names, so many unbelievably good works...’

That’s the problem. We aren’t writing stuff that comes even close to what our successful secular peers are writing.

And it does matter. A Christian writer ought to strive to be among the best of writers. We are redeemed image-bearers of God, part of which entails our imaging his creation-work in our writing. The creation of a fictional world (Randy Ingermanson calls it ‘story-world’) is akin to the creation-work of God, and just as God spoke into being a cosmos with exquisite design, order, and beauty, so should our words create an imaginary world of fine craftsmanship.

We’re not doing that. For whatever reason, we are failing, and until we honestly face up to it, Christian fantasy for the young is not going to change; it will remain second- and third-rate pablum. Let’s take a hard critical look at what we’re producing. It’s not good. By the God-given talent each one of us has, we can change that. But it will take work. God created by simply speaking. We image his speech by writing, speaking the words onto paper, but our speech does not come easy. Regardless, we must write with great care and attention, laboring over syntax, phrasing, vocabulary, rhythm, voice (ours as well as our characters'), esthetics. The first paragraph of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has all this, and it is sustained to the last page. It crushes me; to hope I could ever write that well is glaringly ludicrous. But that is precisely what each of us should endeavor to do. Let’s be done with our mediocrity. Let’s roll up our sleeves, and put our nose to the grind. Much could be done for the promotion of the Kingdom through fantasy, but it has to be good - really good - writing. Let’s make it that good.

See a list of the participants for this month's blog tour.
See Starlighter on amazon.
See Bryan Davis's website and blog.

Startlighter, by Bryan Davis - Day Two of the July 2010 CSFF Blog Tour

Starlighter, book 1 of the Dragons of Starlight series
by Bryan Davis
Published by Zondervan, 2010

Thanks to Zondervan for kindly providing a copy of Starlighter for review on the Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

One of the chief aspects of any good story is its characters. Character development is controlled by the character’s interaction with the fictional world the writer has created. Such interaction takes place between a person and other persons, or between a person and his environment (situations and events). Another way to state it is to say that for any given person in the story, interaction takes place not only with the setting of the fantasy world, but also with other characters within that setting.
Take the simple idea of someone sitting at a dinner table, engaged in eating a meal. There are others at the table participating in the same meal. What typically happens in such a setting? Usually it’s uncomplicated: people eat their food and converse with each other. But assume that in our scene there is one character whose presence is important to the story, and the impact of that character in the story may depend significantly on that simple dinner scene.

The situation and the character work together. The setting and its circumstances facilitate the animation of the character because we can watch the character in a context, and by his reaction and dialogue within that context, see his personality unwrap.

If the character at the dinner table is moody, he may sit with his eyes fixed on his plate, spooning his food away without the slightest hint of interest over what the others are eating or conversing; it will show in his face and body language, even in the manner of his eating. This single trait of moodiness could be the central point around which the whole dinner scene revolves providing potential conflict, mood, or intrigue (or a combination of these). Whatever is evoked can follow the character into another situation - one where the circumstances are different and the cast is new but takes on a nuance of which it would be devoid if not for what has already been revealed to the reader at the dinner meal.

Mood, situation, intrigue, conflict, temperament - all of this provides the writer with the material to build a delightful character.

Bryan Davis has conjured up such a character, Tibalt Blackstone, whose role is not leading, but significant and continues through a large portion of the book. Tibalt is the son of Uriel Blackstone (one of the original abductees who escapes from Starlight back to Darksphere, warns of the dragon world, and is shut away as a lunatic for his efforts). Tibber the Fibber, as Tibalt is known to his captors and inmates, is unquestionably the most colorful character in the book.

One reason for this is how the reader encounters him. Our first glimpse produces intrigue:

   As soon as the thought entered his [Jason’s] mind, a movement
caught his eye. Three doors ahead on the left, probing fingers
reached between the bars. Easing to the right to avoid them, Jason
stopped and looked at the gray-bearded face pressing against the
window’s grating. Long strands of greasy hair spilled down the
sides of his head, and his smile revealed wide gaps between sparse
p 86.

First thing you think is ‘we’re looking at a loony’ partly because he looks like someone who’s been stuck there for a very long time; the straggly, greasy hair gives that impression. But more so because whoever this person is, he’s probably lost any sense of deprivation and awareness of his horrendous plight – he’s smiling. Who would do that in these circumstances? He’s got to be a nutcase. What he says next doesn’t help to improve this impression:
   “You are finally here,” he said with a cackle. “I knew
you would come! I knew it!”
p. 86

The reader scoffs, and along with Jason wants to say none too delicately, ‘Really? And who are you?’

The scene is set up for an exchange (‘dialogue’ is the technically sterile description for this) that begins to add color and life:

   Jason set the flame closer to the door and read the
number on a metal plate just above the crossbar. Cell
number twenty. “Who are you?”
   “They call me Tibber the Fibber, but my real name is
Tibalt Blackstone. I survived the Great Plague, I did.”
   “The Great Plague! Then you must be over ninety
years old.”
   “Oh, yes. As old as the hills and older than rust, my
bones are brittle, and my brain’s full of dust.”
p. 86

We sense that Tibber is going to be fun to watch. The ensuing exchange between Tibber and Jason is the best in the book. You get a picture of Tibber, a crackpot who might be more sane than we think, all of which makes you warm up to him right away.

Bryan Davis was on to something with Tibber the Fibber. The power of the character continues throughout the book, giving a little extra in all those places where he appears. That is so, in spite of those subsequent encounters never gaining the liveliness of the first one. But because the reader has such a visual on Tibber from that first scene, his presence makes those passages more vibrant than they would without him.

I wish Bryan Davis had done this with all his lead characters. But, with the exception of Tibber and this initial encounter with him, the characters are flat. They appear but don’t catch our imaginative eye. We are more or less told what the characters are like rather than seeing and hearing them. To have done that no doubt would have expanded the length of the book by many, many pages, but it would have raised the overall quality several notches.
One of three elements that go into the making of a good novel, according to Stephen King, is dialogue “which brings characters to life through their speech,” (On Writing, p163). This is an area where Starlighter does not do very well (our first encounter with Tibber excepted). Not that the book is lacking in dialogue, but it lacks believable, realistic, colorful dialog. We don’t get a feel for the personality because the dialogue is too often stilted, corny, drab, consisting of short exchanges of passionless words for which the reader has little empathy. The story is intended for the young teen and older but the level of dialogue is too elementary and a bit reminiscent of Danny Orliss, the Bobsy Twins, and the Sugar Creek Gang.
As an aside, I would say that even in those successful books, the dialogue could undoubtedly have been better. I read them as a pre-teen, and even then I sensed something lacking; but for whatever reason, it didn’t make me quit reading. An example of excellent dialogue in a novel for the pre-teen reader would be The Great Brain series by John D. Fitzgerald. There the dialog is elegantly simple, but richly colorful. Fitzgerald’s characters come to life in a way that much of that genre doesn’t match. Granted, the animating power behind The Great Brain is largely due to simple and brilliant description enhanced by Fitzgerald’s own voice in the telling of the story. But the dialogue itself is singularly integral; it is full of personality; the rhythm and content of the speech combine to stamp the speaker’s personality firmly in our imagination.

Believable and personality-endowing dialogue is critical whatever the reading level. Starlighter was abysmally lacking in such dialogue.

See a list of the participants for this month's blog tour.
See Starlighter on amazon.
See Bryan Davis's website and blog.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Startlighter, by Bryan Davis - Day One of the July 2010 CSFF Blog Tour

Starlighter, Book 1 of the Dragons of Starlight series by Bryan Davis
Published by Zondervan, 2010

Thanks to Zondervan for kindly providing a copy of Starlighter for review on the Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

Starlighter is a story of two worlds, one inhabited by dragons (Starlight), the other by humans (Darksphere). A hundred years prior, humans where abducted and taken back into the world of the dragons. They are known as the Lost Ones. The Lost Ones labor in servitude for the dragons, performing many chores of which the most important is to work in mines to retrieve a precious gas that the dragons need to survive.

About a year after the abduction, Uriel Blackstone, one of the kidnapped humans, escapes and return to Darksphere. Upon proclaiming what had happened, he was declared a lunatic by the authorities and confined, but not before predicting that one day the hidden underground gateway to the dragon world would be found and the Lost Ones rescued.

The story unfolds in a set of events that works toward the ultimate rescue of the Lost Ones, though the rescue itself waits fulfillment in subsequent installments of the series.

The reader encounters the appearance of at least five key personalities: Adrian, a boy-warrior; Elyssa, a Diviner; Koren, a gifted story-teller; Randall, of spoiled nobility turned bold warrior; and Tibber the Fibber, a whacky old man, whose knowledge is key to the success of the quest to find the underground gateway that leads to the dragon world and ultimate rescue.

Interspersed in this are references to the Code, a banned book on Darksphere, but which is read and memorized by believers (in the Creator) for its wisdom and guidance. It appears to be ancient wisdom literature in which some of the sayings are reminiscent to those of Jesus, such as, “If you wish others to treat you and your belongings with respect, then let respect for them flow in your thoughts, your speech, and your deeds.” (page 23)

The central dark secret of the tale lies in a dragon egg on Starlight. It portends the end of human existence on that planet, and possibly on Darksphere as well. It figures prominently toward the end of the book and presumably continues that prominence in the next.

I want to preface this review with a clarification that though I will use the term Christian fantasy for young adults (CFYA), I have in mind those works whose readership is between the ages of 13 to 16 (7th - 10th grade). I believe Starlighter falls in this category. Setting a limit to the age range does not mean that a book written for that audience will not appeal to those who are older. On the contrary, I think a novel written for the thirteen year old, if written well, will appeal to anyone of that age or older. The Harry Potter series is a case in point.

My impression of the story itself is mixed. I like how the story takes shape on Starlight, especially the events that center on Koren, and the venerated dragon egg toward the end of the book. The beginning was likeable as well. The middle recounted the quest for the underground passageway and its traversal, but it was not very believable to me. In particular, Achan and Elyssa taking on impossible odds and making it through with what would require superhuman strength and skill. Yes, it is a fantasy, and the fantastic does give some wiggle room, but it cannot ignore human frailty either.

One thing about the story that didn't enamor me was that it was about dragons, again. That is what Bryan Davis specializes in so it should not come as a surprise. I am not saying that a dragon story is bad, but I have yet to read any current Christian fantasy novel in which I can really ‘see’ the dragon. I know what a dragon is supposed to look like, but I find it hard to visualize one in any of those books. I lay the responsibility for that more or less on me; there may be a flaw in my imaginative abilities when it comes to dragons. Those who have enjoyed Bryan Davis's stories and dragons will undoubtedly like this story as well.

True to what is expected of today’s Christian fantasy the story begins with an action scene in which Jason and Randall face each other in a tournament. After a trick maneuver, Jason wins, and the story begins in seriousness. Contrary to the action-scene of the tournament, the story eases up - it does not race along with continued rapid-fire action. Yet, it moves quickly enough that there’s no threat of it stagnating along the way. For reasons which I will give below, I prefer a slow, steady pace (which is not the fashion as I have been told), and though Starlighter is not action-packed, it moves along more quickly than I like.

Perhaps as a symptom of trying to get things going as quickly as possible, the novel encounters a problem before the first chapter ends. It introduces so many characters in such quick succession, it became confusing for me.

I think that’s the temptation, even bane, of today’s CFYA: to bring it on fast and keep the pace going. Though the action in this novel didn’t fly, it still suffered because it moved faster than what I think a story should.

As I see it, there are two looming difficulties with fast-paced and quick moving stories:

(1) The characters tend to have little depth, little personality; the reader only knows about them, but doesn’t know them. The reason: to accommodate the pace, the scenes have to change before the characters take on color and life. There is one exception to this in Starlighter, which I’ll look at in my second post. But the novel’s characters suffer for lack of vivid personality, and the pace is probably a significant reason why.

(2) Coexistent with shallow characters are events that lack authenticity, believability, and pertinency, events which fail to elicit empathy or arouse emotions of fear, humor, joy, pain, and so on. Just as the reader does not become acquainted with the characters, neither does he live (imaginatively) within the event. He stands outside and observes, but he doesn’t have the sense of being there.

As much as the pace of the story has an impact on the authenticity of its characters and events, there is something even more fundamental than that - the writing. Good writing brings the imaginary world and its characters together in such a way that the reader ‘feels’ like he is there in the middle of it. No matter how good the story itself is, or appropriate its pace, the resolution of (1) and (2) will not come about without good writing, and much of today’s CFYA fails miserably in this area. Instead of painting masterpieces, we are producing poor quality paint-by-number imitations. In my estimation, Starlighter falls within the latter. (But see my review of By Darkness Hid, which I hold as a long awaited and happy exception to this).

I know that some would disagree vehemently with me about the quality of writing in today’s Christian fiction. Rebecca LuElla Miller, whose opinion I respect highly on all things fantasy, countered the charge against the writing quality of current Christian speculative fiction in a recent post (Jumping into the Christian Speculative Fiction Discussion) by citing four authors who, in her thinking, have produced works in which the writing is quite good. I tend to agree with regard to George Bryan Polivka, but I differ about the others. Even so, as far as I can tell, the authors cited were not writing for the younger age group, so whatever one may think of how good those writers are, they don’t represent well the group I have in mind.

I am more and more convinced that the lack of recognition for Christian fantasy for the young is not for a paucity of literary works, but for a dearth of good writing in the genre. We all, myself included, have got to do better. We are obligated to strive to excel above our secular peers, and I think very few of us really understand that. I have more to say on this, but I’m going to save it for my third post. I hope you’ll read it.

See a list of the participants for this month's blog tour.
See Starlighter on amazon.
See Bryan Davis's website and blog.

Rating Chart

Monday, July 12, 2010

By Darkness Hid, by Jill Williamson, a Review

By Darkness Hid Blood of Kings Book I
Marcher Lord Press, 2009
Jill Williamson

By Darkness Hid traces the paths of two people, Achan, a male born a stray, and Vrell, a seventeen year old girl, of noble birth, who under her mother’s direction, has left her family and changed her identity (because of her small frame she is able to dress as a male roughly fourteen years old) to avoid being married off to the loathsome Prince Gidon. Her love is for Bran, of lower social rank, but who has the sympathy of her mother. Achan also has a love, Gren, of higher social rank. Because Achan is a stray, Gren’s father would not think of giving her to Achan in marriage. Achan is a not-so-devoted polytheist, Vrell is an ardent monotheist who believes in Arman, the one true God.

The story takes place in the Kingdom of Er’Rets (Hebrew Arets, meaning land or earth?), whose western portion, Therion, has been enshrouded in Darkness since its king died thirteen years prior. Darkness has overtaken the land because Arman has withdrawn his presence.

By the order of Lord Nathak, Poril (Nathak’s cook and Achan’s guardian) stands over Achan daily to ensure he drinks a foul tonic that requires Achan to chew mentha leaves to assuage the repulsive taste. The alleged purpose of the tonic is to keep disease away, but the real purpose turns out to be vital to the overall plot. Achan’s fortunes look like they might change for the better when a knight, Sir Gavin, takes him under his tutelage to become his squire. He is hopeful that this new status might eventually win the approval of Gren’s father.

Achan and Vrell have a special gift, bloodvoicing, the ability to mentally hear the thoughts of others, and to communicate telepathically with others who have the same gift. This gift is another critical element to the story.

Achan resides in Sitna. Vrell, in self-exile, resides in a fishing village called Walden’s Watch, under the care and confidence of Lady Coraline Orthrop who knows Vrell’s mother. For different reasons, both are required to go to the great city of Mahanaim, where the ‘Council of Seven’ governs. A large part of the story is their journeying to the city. Eventually, their paths cross in such a way that Vrell and Achan, though not close companions, are thrown inextricably together. What happens with Vrell and Achan at Mahanaim is key to the climax, setting things up nicely for what presumably continues in the next book.

When I have set out to read the Christian fantasy for young adults (CFYA) of our current day, including the works of the most popular authors, it has been a test of my will to persevere; I constantly come upon something about the writing that makes me look up from the reading and shake my head in despair or disbelief.

Not so with By Darkness Hid. It was a delight to read. Characters are developed well. It avoids trite, hackneyed, or melodramatic description and dialog. The various settings are described sufficiently to give the reader a participating sense of the Kingdom of Er’Rets. One empathizes with Achan who, in his low station, longs to win his beloved Gren, frustrated that her father will have nothing to do with it. The same for Vrell, who longs to be back home again, with the love of her heart, Bran.

Williamson steadily, patiently unfolds a tale in which the reader ‘feels’ the frustration and disappointment of Achan and Vrell as events carry these two farther and farther away from their hopes. It develops gradually without stalling. I like that in a novel, especially one that portends an epic saga. In my thinking, that’s the only way to do it, and Jill Williamson has done this well.

This is the author’s first novel. Compared to the current-day CFYA, it stands apart in such stark contrast I am forced to say it is in a class by itself. Its beauty and writing is unmatched and has set a new standard for CFYA, particularly for those stories that tend toward epic fantasy.

But is it among the elite? By this I mean, how does it compare to the classic Lord of the Rings, or to more modern day secular fantasies such as Harry Potter? Granted, there are distinctions to be made when making such comparisons. By Darkness Hid and its medieval setting is more akin to high fantasy than it is to fantasy set at the end of the twentieth century. In some respects you simply cannot compare it to Harry Potter because they are different types of fantasy.

But there is more than just genre comparisons. The writing itself, though controlled to a certain degree by the genre, can be compared. Admittedly, each author has his or her own style. But the question I have in mind is, regardless of the style or the genre, does the writer skillfully and artfully produce a work that approaches ‘master’ status. We often refer to the ‘old masters’ when we think of classical paintings and other works of art. That is what I mean by ‘master’ status. I think time will prove Rowling’s writing to be ranked among the masters. Does Williamson’s writing have the same quality?

I would have to say no. Does she have the potential? Maybe. We may someday sit back in awe over her craftsmanship and wonder if we could ever be that good. But though she hasn’t attained that yet, she is the first CFYA author of recent years who has come anywhere close to it.

By Darkness Hid is a very good read, not only because of the story itself, but because the writing is good. Williamson’s talent for simple and artistic description, a vital component of all good writing, is evident in the following sample. Vrell is standing on the banks overlooking the sea, below Walden Watch Manor. She, with the four Orthrop children, has come to watch Lady Coraline depart by ship to visit her ill father:

The unfamiliar warmth of the sea breeze tousled
Vrell’s short hair in and out of her eyes. Her
skin felt damp with the abrasive smell of seaweed,
fish guts, and paraffin oil from boat lamps. The
smell stuck to her. With Lady Coraline gone, Vrell
would not have a decent bath until her return.

The sea stretched out before her, calm and heavy.
Gulls swarmed the rocky shore, nipping bites of
whatever creature had died among the rocks. The beach
rose sharply up the hill until sand gave way to green
grass that ran all the way to the greystone manor walls.

I’m not a lover of the ocean and seashore, but I’ve been there, and have found some pleasure in it, in spite of my greater desire to be among the hills and woods. But I can wonderfully visualize this because there is a combination of vocabulary, syntax, grammar, mood, and craft that transports me by imagination next to Vrell, feeling the same breeze, breathing in the same scents, witnessing the same gulls.

We don’t find this quality of writing in the Christian fantasy for the young that has been written over the last decade or so, not even among the popular, lauded, and award winning authors. In my opinion CFYA has been very mediocre. Williamson has risen far above that.

One thing that has annoyed me in the current writing of CFYA is the so-called use of free indirect speech which, in the instances where I find fault, comes as a series of rhetorical questions that more or less intrude onto the page. I say intrude, because the mood of the moment does not call for them. I think it is distracting, and possibly a sign that the author is a poor writer or has been given bad instruction on the use of that technique. Unfortunately, Williamson at times makes use of this style of free indirect speech, contrary to what I would expect of such a good writer.

Here is an example:

He started off at a silent jog, keeping on
his toes. The frigid air stung his eyes. His
mind raced. All his life he’d dreamed of being
a knight; riding a horse and wielding a sword
to protect the weak. Could the gods have finally
taken notice of his measly offerings over the
years? Could his station in life really change?
If so, would Gwen’s father look at him differently?

It’s not so much that this is bad; I just think the positioning of those questions is out of place, leaving the mood flat and sterile. It misses an opportunity to use a prose that reveals rather than simply states a series of bland questions. Again, it is not that such a device is never appropriate, but I think for such questions to naturally appear, it is better for them to come in a fit of emotion (joy, fear, anger, hope, etc). Otherwise, work them in as introspective observation in which the reader gets a peek into Achan’s contemplation over his plight without encountering a colorless series of questions that presumably are passing through his mind.

To illustrate, I offer an alternative to that series of questions. (Please forgive me Jill for presuming that I could have written this better than you, but indulge for a moment my egotistical, annoying delusion that I think I know what I’m talking about).

The gods had finally noticed him. Achan quashed
that thought right away. Whatever he was getting
into, he still knew deep down he was nothing to
be noticed. It was foolhardy to think his place
in life could change. But it never hurt to dream;
dreams sometimes come true. And if this one did...
Achan took in a sudden icy breath at the thought
of this... Gwen’s father would have to change;
he’d just have to. He’d have to look at him

Written this way, I think an author is able to put his own voice into the story, which is always helpful. In this illustration, it gives the reader a sense of Achan’s temperament, revealing a bit more of what he thinks of himself and what matters most to him right now.

By the way, I do think Williamson, had she chosen to, could have done better than my proposed alternative because she knows Achan better than I do, and because she is a good writer.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Christ Figures and Aslan

In response to my article On Fantasy Christ Figures, I was asked what I thought about Aslan, the great Lion in C S Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia series. It is a good question. In answer, let me begin by a statement from the original article,

“Everything that Christ did was revelatory of the Father. His body language, facial expressions, speech, choice of words, etc. was all revelatory.”

I believe that postulation to be true. Even as Christ walked amongst us before his resurrection and subsequent session at the right hand of the Father, Christ was The Revelation of God – the final revelation, as Hebrews 1:1,2 implies. His followers, in particular, the Twelve, not only witnessed what he did, but they bore witness to him.

I may observe what one does from a distance, even on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. It could be a co-worker, a celebrity, my pastor, a teacher. In a case like one of these, I may achieve some sense of what the person is like, inwardly, but it would be negligible; I have little intimate understanding of his character. I haven’t seen him close up; I haven’t been witness to how he reacts in a particularly bad, or good, set of circumstances. I am not his close, intimate friend that would permit to witness him under such conditions. Hence, in those situations, I see neither his facial expressions nor body language, nor hear the words that come out of his mouth, nor their inflection and tone, all of which convey information about the person. This information is not merely about what he is capable or incapable of being from a purely physical or intellectual perspective. More importantly, it reveals something about the character and heart. Certainly, we cannot know a man as he knows himself, but that man cannot help but reveal something about himself when we see him as he interacts with this world and its situations, and especially as he interacts with us.

That is what Christ did. He did not stand aloof from his disciples. He was in their midst such that John reminded his readers that he (and the other disciples) not only saw him, but they touched him. They witnessed not only what Christ did and what he said to the multitudes, but what he said and did within their little circle. In that intimate circle, Christ, in every aspect of his humanness, revealed the Father to them. He never spoke, facially expressed, postured, or intoned in such a manner that gave a false witness to the Father. Whether he wept or laughed, spoke softly or cried out, touched gently or gripped harshly, ignored or paid the closest of attention, whatever he did, he was revealing something about the Father. And only because it was he who behaved and spoke in that manner was there assurance of no falsehood – Christ was the Truth, the Word, and as such he declared (John 1:18) the Father with complete accuracy. He who saw Christ, saw the Father (John 14:9).

My contention is that if there is one who portrays Christ in our fantasy story, there is the danger that we may make the figure say something or behave in a certain manner, whose bearing may communicate to the reader something about God that is not completely accurate, possibly even blasphemous.

The danger of this happening increases the more the Christ figure coincides in identity with the Christ of the New Testament. Notable examples in film are Ben Hur and Passion of the Christ. In the former, Christ is on the fringe and never seen face to face. In fact, he is quite mute. In the latter, one virtually stands (and sits) next to the Messiah where, to me, his troubled, frustrated countenance appears as moody and depressing as my mean-spirited uncle’s, even at the best of times.

This is where I think there is a difference between Lewis’s Aslan and the Christ figure of some other novels. In stories in which the Christ figure is a human being, we have a figure who is an image-bearer of God and therefore capable of saying something accurately about God. The danger, his image-bearing provides the potential to say something false about God.

Animals were not made in God’s image, and as such, are not able to reflect God’s attributes. They reveal his existence and deity in much the same way all of creation does by its very existence, design, and purpose (Romans 1:20).

I am not contending that because Aslan was an animal, he was incapable of faulty revelation. In our world, a lion does not have the equipment to do so, but in the world of Narnia, the animals themselves take on some of the image-bearing attributes of men. In fact, there is often, if not always, no difference. Because of that, Aslan carries the risk that all Christ-figures bear. On the other hand, the fact that Aslan is animal, the reader is less likely to see in Aslan a parallel identity with Christ. The words that he speaks, his growling that signals anger, or a low purring growl that indicates approval or contentment are not viewed in the same way as the speech and mood of a human figure. Nevertheless, there is still the danger.

I want to digress slightly to address something that is not wholly related to the discussion, but does lead to a point that allows us to draw some conclusions.

The single event in The Chronicles of Narnia that is most tell-tale of Aslan as a Christ figure, is his ignominious sacrificial death for the despicable Edmund, and his subsequent resurrection. The scene at the Table is distanced from the close-up, intimate details of a face-to-face encounter. But the event and Aslan’s behavior through it, does make a statement about the kind of love that gives itself up in a supreme sacrifice for one who does not deserve it. In that, we have an illustration of the meaning of “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.” I see little, if anything in the Table scene, which fails to communicate that well and accurately. But then we get to the resurrection, and there, I think, is a problem. Aslan explains the meaning of why he was able to come back to life:

“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know... if she could have looked a littler further back... she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.” (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, page 163, Scholastic, 1995)

Here, we have the words of Aslan himself (we can say we have Aslanic revelation), explaining his resurrection in terms of a deeper magic which worked on the principle that only a willing victim who had committed no treachery, qualified to be raised from the dead. The reference to magic does not bother me as I take it to refer to a profound entity above and beyond what is found in the natural world - whose existence, in fact, is from Aslan’s father, the Emperor Over the Sea. The deep and deeper magic in the world of Narnia, is what supernatural (the biblical concept) is in our world. What does bother me is that the principle on which Aslan’s resurrection was based; “a willing victim who has committed no treachery” is not completely accurate. Granted, in that principle one may see parallels to the sinlessness of Christ and as such, his perfect, spotless (sinless) sacrifice. But Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient not merely because he was sinless. If an angel became incarnate and died as a sacrifice (as the Jehovah’s Witness believes) he would have satisfied that criteria as well. But the sacrifice of an incarnate angel would not meet the demand of justice from an infinitely holy God, against whom disobedience is an infinite offense. Such requires one who is capable of paying an infinite debt, and only God himself can pay such a debt. If Christ had not satisfied the justice of God for the sins of his people, he would not have risen from the dead; and he could not have satisfied the just demands of God unless he was God himself. This point does not come out in Aslan’s explanation of his resurrection, and only by remembering that Aslan is the son of the Emperor Over the Seas, the creator of the Deep and Deeper magic, could such a point be implicitly made.

To get back to our discussion, the explanation of Aslan’s resurrection and its flaws does show for us that Aslan is not the perfect Christ figure, that is, he is not, in every aspect of his character an identity with the New Testament Christ. This fact, and the question of image-bearing, probably makes Aslan a safe figure, one whose likelihood to persuasively say something false about God is rather small.

In my estimation, the problem with a fantasy Christ figure turns on whether or not the figure is a human being. Presently, I would be loathe to include a Christ figure in any of my stories portrayed by a man. In fact, I would be very hesitant to include anything, man or animal, whose role is by design such a figure. The risk is too great that my character might be unchrist-like, not intentionally, but inadvertently.

I read almost half of the novel, The Shack, by William Paul Young, a bestseller. I once sat in a hospital waiting room across from one who was avidly devouring its pages. I could not finish it. Its depiction of a Trinity was so human and trite that the three musketeers, “One for all and all for one,” could have done the job better. It was blasphemous. The laid back Dude, Jesus, is so banal and misrepresentative of the Second Person of the Trinity (the King of Kings and Lord of Lords who judges and makes war in righteousness, Rev 19:11; who in flaming fire will take vengeance on his and our enemies, 2 Thess 1:6-10; who stands before the throne of God as a Lamb, slain, Rev 5:6; before whom multitudes upon multitudes cry out in praise and adoration, Rev 5:8-13; before whom the most intimate and holy angels fall down and worship, Rev 5:14), that he is horrendously blasphemous. To say everything that ought to be said about that scandalous book would take another article, and my muster to finish reading it. I don’t think I can do that.