Tuesday, February 21, 2012

February 2012 CSFF Blog Tour, Day 3 The Realms Thereunder, Ross Lawhead

At least one member of the blog tour (none other than RLM) found the episode of Daniel in Elfland the most interesting. Frankly, there is so much that one can choose from. I also found the tale delightful. It was an interesting twist in the book. Daniel does not go back to the zany subterranean world of yfelgopes, cranky wizards, and blind women on an island in a dried up ocean, stone cities, and such. The contrast could not be starker.

As soon as Daniel arrives he is aware of a potent difference, even from the normal world he had come from; it seems to be the expansiveness of the place (and as we learn later, the time too) - there is the sun in the sky, a forest on the distant horizon, a lone mountain on the other, and a vast uninhabited, unobstructed green meadow. One has the impression that there is a powerful presence there, not apart from but immanent in the world. How immanent?

Daniel heads for the forest (a contrast to the stone under-world of Niðergeard) where he is approached by Kay Marrey who informs Daniel he is in Elfland - the Faerie realms. Daniel’s experiences in this land are loaded with anticipation for the further unfolding of the story itself. Kay explains that in the Faerie realms, objects have ownership. To put it in unvarnished terms, the inanimate has personhood! The paper that Daniel was given at St. Michael's church, just before he passed through the lych-gate into Faerie land, turns out to be a leaf. 
   Kay reached into the front pocket and pulled out the slip of paper that Daniel had been given. Except now, when Kay held it, Daniel saw that it was a leaf. A large yellow oak leaf.
   “Where did that come from?” Daniel asked.
   Kay Marrey held it upright by the stem, between his thumb and forefinger. “You were given this, yes? In your world. Did you know what it was?”
   “At first, I thought it was money.”
   Kay nodded. “It is a leaf of a different wood. It was taken to your world as a way to mark and snare you.” (p 115) 
Interesting. Given that the material stuff of Elfland holds the immaterial quality of ownership, it looks as if the leaf was used by someone not to merely send Daniel to that world, but to make him a permanent vassal there. Why? And how did the one who passed it to Daniel in this world, at the church, get it? That’s important as we learn that person's identity to be one of those critters that Daniel runs into at the beginning of the novel, who obviously would be entirely out of place in Elfland - not a native inhabitant. Are there insiders there cooperating with outsiders?

There is something about Elfland that is disturbing, however. The notion of ownership by the inanimate is disturbing enough. But it goes even deeper. This comes out when Daniel reveals to Kaeyle (the stoic charcoal maker) and his wife, Pettyl (love that name!), that he has made an arrangement with the merchant, Reizger Lokkich, by which he would return to his (and our) world. Kaeyle is doubtful. 
   Kaeyle ... said to him. “Daniel, don’t do this new deal. Stay with us for the next few days and take the surer, more natural route home.”
   “No, I have to get back soon. I’ve heard my friend’s voice calling me--twice now. I just feel--I need to get back as soon as possible. She needs me.”
   “It may not be in the plan that you reach her so soon.”
   “Plan? What plan?”
   “The plan of the universe. The natural order that instructs all things, that guides the hearts of all living things.” 
Daniel is skeptical of the ‘Plan.’ Pettyl tries to explain. 
   “Don’t think of it as a plan--think of it as all of the created worlds working in an ideal state. Nothing is set, but things have a best course. Within this we may stay on our course, or travel a different one. If we go this other way, then we have made things disordered, and it may be difficult to correct after that. More, it may knock others out of alignment.” (p 308) 
This has the feel, though not the humor, of Dr. Emmett Brown warning Marty McFly that if they’re not careful they might disturb the space-time continuum and destroy the universe.

What is behind this? Deism? Panentheism? Open theism? Daniel follows the logic. 
   “...it seems to me like the universe needs a little helping hand to correct things. And if I can, then why shouldn’t I? Is it the ‘ideal state’ that good people suffer?”
   Daniel felt his blood warm and skin tingle. Things were falling into place now; it was getting clearer. “I was brought to this point by the universe--by God. This has happened to me before. Here I am, further away from my ‘ideal state’ than I’ve ever been. I’ve been put in an almost impossible situation, once again, and I know that I have the ability to win through and set things right. If there is a universal plan, then there’s no way I’m not a part of it. I’m probably the only one in this world who can fix things and the universe knows it--that’s why it brought me here. First I’ll fix this problem and then I’ll go back and fix my own.” 
There is a confusion of a personal God with an impersonal universe. Daniel is quite confused here and though there is a soul-zinging moment of clarity for him, an epiphany, and as dramatic as it is, it is an epiphany of delusion. I’m not chiding Mr. Lawhead at this point. On the contrary, it has great potential to bring the truth of the Triune God into bold relief. This is the precarious nature of Christian fantasy. It can sound like the author is advocating a pagan, non-Christian world-view, but he is not. He is setting it up for the truth to come thundering in, in due time. We will see what Mr. Lawhead does with this opportunity.

Thanks to Thomas Nelson for kindly providing a copy of The Realms Thereunder for review on the February 2012 Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

Ross Lawhead's Web Page
List of CSFF Blog Tour Participants
The Realms Thereunder on Amazon

Monday, February 20, 2012

February 2012 CSFF Blog Tour, Day 2 The Realms Thereunder by Ross Lawhead

There are several places in Mr. Lawhead’s novel that impinge directly upon the metaphysical and theological. Fantasy does that. Especially Christian fantasy wherein it is difficult to avoid conveying at least a minimal message to the reader. Perhaps even a subliminal one. As this is done by using the make-believe to tell us something about what is real, some Christians oppose fantasy: 
It becomes very difficult to separate fantasy from reality, especially in the minds of children. There was an interesting article in The Newhall Signal (newspaper) in light of this. Noting one of the teachings of the popular fantasy games, "Death is usually seen as a temporary state with characters returning 'from beyond' to play again..." -- from Christian Fantasy: Biblical or Oxymoron? 
I’m not sure what a fantasy (roll playing?) game has to do with the fantasy of literature, but the implication is that, especially for children, the ability to discern between fantasy and reality is difficult. In the article cited above, this point is made in the context of a broader assumption that fantasy contributes to a distorted discernment of the real. 
While God told us to continually communicate truth to our children (Deut. 6:5-7), today's culture trains children to see reality through a global, earth-centered filter. This "new" mental framework distorts truth, stretches the meaning of familiar words, and promotes mystical "insights" that are incompatible with Christianity. – ibid.
 I’ve written a brief article defending the case for the literary genre of fantasy and its use in imparting Christian truth, and it is not my intent here to present an apologetic for it.

But however one may come down on the issue, the writer of Christian fantasy has to concede that, by definition, the story must proffer elements of a world-view that simply does not exist. For me, as a writer and supporter of Christian fantasy, not only do I not see that as a contradiction of Christianity and biblical truth (the only kind of truth there is), but that it is well suited to do exactly the oppostie, convey biblical truth in a way that cannot be done through regular fiction or non-fiction. This places a great responsibility on the Christian writer to ensure that the story-world he creates (reflecting his Creator’s image in doing so) does not by negligence promote a non-Christian, pagan perspective of reality.

Freya, a key character of Mr. Lawhead’s novel, who has experienced the ‘reality’ of a fantasy world, struggles with the attitudes of those who would pooh-pooh that which they do not understand and have not experienced. After causing a scene by confronting the veracity of a lecturer’s position who began her talk with the opening words: 
“‘The Matter of Britain’ is the name that we give to the works that form up the early pseudo-histories of Britain...” (p 18)
 Freya wrestles with her conscience and motivation on the matter: 
“Why did she do it. What did it matter what people thought and believed, even if it was a lie? What right did she have to burst the fragile bubble of unreality [italics mine], what does it matter if they live a lie? Ignorance is blessing. It was futile to try to wake people up, so why did she do it? (p 22) 
Interesting this – an illustration of the educated scholar rejecting what cannot be proven historically or in the lab. The fantasy world created by Mr. Lawhead is part of a larger reality that includes both worlds, the one we live in and the one that only a few from our world have had the privilege of experiencing. And those who have not experienced it are unbelievers to the core.

Did Freya have the right ‘to burst the fragile bubble of unreality?’ Absolutely, because she knew the truth, she had experienced it first hand. She not only had the right, but the obligation.

Is this not what the Christian is to do? Is he not obligated to burst the bubble of unreality of those whose eyes have not been opened, and perchance God would use that bursting to open their eyes. Taking it into our arena as Christian writers of fantasy, should there not be at least some motivation to take that special gift God has given us and use it to manifest the real through the fantastic, in particular, the reality of the most fundamental biblical truths that center on Jesus Christ and his gospel?

Thanks to Thomas Nelson for kindly providing a copy of The Realms Thereunder for review on the February 2012 Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

Ross Lawhead's Web Page
List of CSFF Blog Tour Participants
The Realms Thereunder on Amazon

Sunday, February 19, 2012

February 2012 CSFF Blog Tour, Day 1 - The Realms Thereunder, by Ross Lawhead

The two characters, Daniel and Freya, in the first book of the Ancient Earth trilogy, are played out in two different worlds (modern day England and a presumably Middle Ages fantasy world), at two different times (present day and eight years prior), and of two different ages (as teens and then as young adults in their early twenties). Ross Lawhead could have told the story in a more sequential manner, perhaps with book one strictly as the story of the fantasy adventure eight years prior. I suspect he may have contemplated that when the tale first started rattling round in his head, but as one thinks upon it, there are good reasons as to why it came out as it did.

For starters, there would have been no way around the fact that Daniel and Freya are not native residents of the fantasy world, that they had their origin in modern day earth, and that Lawhead would have had to get them from here to there anyhow. So there would have been an unavoidable merging of the two worlds from the start. Once there, if he had kept them there for the duration of the book, how much more he would have had to spend on that world. Which would have been appealing, seeing that the extra attention would likely have given the world more substance and development, and it probably would have made the story ten times easier to follow. But after having had the experience of tracing the back and forth of his father’s novels (The Skin Map and The Bone House) I really did not have much to complain with this regard.

There are really two stories to be told. Though the main characters Daniel and Freya are in both adventures, the world-view and maturity of the two are starkly different in each; the early experiences had a discernable affect that continues into the present day. Freya was a happy-go-lucky girl while Daniel was a school-hater with an unhappy home life, and a yearning for recognition. The present day Freya is an obsessive, nervous college student trying to avoid the past; Daniel lives on the streets in order to carry out a mission that understands and faces the past.

In the early tale Daniel and Freya discover a hidden crypt of sorts in a church they are visiting on a school field trip. This houses two knights who have been lying there for centuries, who awaken and play a substantial part in the rest of the story. Not able to leave the church and return home from the crypt, Daniel and Freya are forced to follow the two knights, Egcbryt [ETCH brit] and Swiðgar [SWIDTH gar], back to their world. Through the friendship and protection of these two, the youngsters are spared the devilry and murder of yfelgopes [EE fehl GOHP as] and eventually arrive at their destination, Niðergeard [NI thur gayrd], a subterranean city under threat of attack by the armies of Gad. From there the tale goes on to reveal what they must do to return home and how they accomplished that. It is laden with trial and danger.

The later story of Freya and Daniel in their early twenties involves a return by Daniel to that other world, and of Freya having to contend with influences and entities from that world in this one. What happens to each has a direct bearing on the outcome of the other, which unites them in the end.

Along the way the reader encounters a number of tantalizing creatures and personalities: Ealdstan [ee ELD stan] a cranky ancient wizard in Niðergeard; a wood burner (charcoal maker) in Elfland; eight blind women on an island in the (now dried up) Sleeping Ocean, whose labor is a constant weaving of a tapestry on which the continuous history of the world is embroidered; Neiman, a despicable yet pitiable half-faerie who causes women to become infatuated with him; the merchant Reizzger Lokkich who has murderous plans for Agrid Fiall, a greedy, merciless moneylender; a young dragon and two dead trolls (feasted upon by the dragon), and more.

The writing is quite good, though there are a few places in which some lines made me cringe, being reminiscent of some of my least favorite Christian fantasy writers. The style was not consistent throughout, I thought. It assumed a manner at times (not persistently, though) that was more for young teens in those parts where the story was actually about young teens, that is, the earlier tale.

One of my favorite characters, who did not appear much in the book yet held key scenes, was Alex Simpson. Lawhead’s writing created a remarkably tangible crescendo and spike in the revelation of his role (p. 166); for me, that alone made the reading satisfying.

Thanks to Thomas Nelson for kindly providing a copy of The Realms Thereunder for review on the February 2012 Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

Ross Lawhead's Web Page
List of CSFF Blog Tour Participants
The Realms Thereunder on Amazon