Out from the Shadows

This is the first of a 2-part review of Orson Scott Card’s novel, Ender’s Shadow (part 1 is spoiler-free).

In 1985, four years after my birth, Orson Scott Card delivered his magnum opus, Ender’s Game, to critical and popular acclaim. Wildly popular among sci-fi fans, it also earned him a Hugo & Nebula award from the critics. All of this from the book that was only supposed to create background story for Ender’s role as the Speaker in Speaker for the Dead (a book that, arguably, a far smaller audience has ever heard of).

Until a few months ago, I was content to agree with a friend of mine that Ender’s Game was the perfect book: too perfect to spoil with a potentially inferior sequel. And so it was in ignorant bliss that I overlooked Children of the Mind, Xenocide, and Speaker for the Dead. Continuing along this vein, I would have ruefully passed over the literary genius of Mr. Card’s parallax story, Ender’s Shadow.

Ender’s Shadow is unlike anything I’ve ever read. Or even heard of for that matter. It is about as presumptuous a story as can be imagined, and in the hands of a lesser author it would have flopped miserably.

In Shadow, Mr. Card takes one of the minor characters from Game, Bean, and fixes the POV through Bean’s young, gifted eyes, whereupon Mr. Card then follows the EXACT same sequence of events from Game. He has the balls to tell his critically and popularly acclaimed story.. AGAIN! Talk about a guy who can’t get out from the shadow of his own success, right?

Wrong.

When I first read what Mr. Card was attempting to do, I was flabbergasted: how do you return to a story that fans love without ruining it? WHY would you return to a story like that with even the slightest chance of ruining it?

For a brief time I flirted seriously with the idea of opening up the Ender’s Game universe to other writers, and went so far as to invite a writer whose work I greatly admire, Neal Shusterman, to consider working with me to create novels about Ender Wiggin’s companions in Battle School. As we talked, it became clear that the most obvious character to begin with would be Bean, the child-soldier whom Ender treated as he had been treated by his adult teachers.

And then something else happened. The more we talked, the more jealous I became that Neal might be the one to write such a book, and not me. It finally dawned on me that, far from being finished with writing about “kids in space,” as I cynically described the project, I actually had more to say, having actually learned something in the intervening dozen years since Ender’s Game first appeared in 1985. And so, while still hoping that Neal and I can work together on something, I deftly swiped the project back.” – Orson Scott Card on writing Ender’s Shadow

After writing a series of books (Xenocide, Speaker for the Dead, Children of the Mind) that were still contained within Ender’s universe–though removed from the events of Game by 3,000 years–Mr. Card placed himself, like Bean under the shadow of mighty Andrew Wiggin, under the influence of the book that launched his career, to boldly see if there was anything left to be said.

In the 2nd part of this review, Enough about Ender, I shall happily report that Bean stands highly (though not very tall), and is an ace of a character up Mr. Card’s literary sleeve.

Published in: on July 15, 2010 at 3:54 am  Comments (1)  
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The Magicians: Expelliarmus Escapism

 

**Spoiler Alert**

Like my Horns review this essay is for 2 groups of people: those who have already read The Magicians, and those who have no intention of reading the book.

**

Expelliarmus, as Harry Potter fans may recall, is an incantation whereby a magician disarms an opponent. The opponent I hope to disarm through this essay is Fiction as Escapism. Like David trying to topple Goliath, I feel woefully ill-equipped to this task, as many many people buy into the lie that fiction in general, and fantasy in particular, can offer nothing more than a temporary flight from the cruel world we see to a light-filled Narnia/Middle Earth/Fillory we hope for.

This subject is, by the way, very personal to me.  There was a period of several years when I watched close family members submerge themselves in an endless wave of media. Tuesdays at their house involved a trip to the local Blockbuster, followed by several hours of watching through every new movie that came out that week. The in-between time was consumed by reality television, old movies, re-runs of old sitcoms, as well as several current sitcoms that just had to be watched.  It felt very much like watching Mildred, the wife of Montag in Fahrenheit 451, whose over-consumption of television created a chasm between her and her husband (and the world), and eventually led to her failed suicide attempt.

Dialogue did not exist in my family members home. Creativity did not exist. Their memories of the real world were being slowly burned away, as was their humanity. And like Martin Chatwin in The Magicians who fled into the fictional woods of Fillory, what was left was nothing more than a monster. In their desire to flee the cruel real world, they became egotistical, selfish, grumbling echoes of their former selves.

And so we meet Quentin Coldwater.

The protagonist and main character of The Magicians, Quentin is a ridiculously intelligent student who graduates at the top of his class in Brooklyn. We meet him en route to an interview for admission to Princeton; he is also hopelessly depressed and infatuated with a dream of entering the world of his favorite childhood books, Fillory and Further (a fictional series of books that Grossman “wrote” for use in The Magicians).

Quentin’s entire life has been a series of disappointments, despite his outstanding academic achievements, as he discovers that obtaining what he thinks he wants does not bring him the satisfaction he hoped for: “He had performed all the necessary rituals, spoken the words, lit the candles, made the sacrifices. But happiness, like a disobedient spirit, refused to come.

Through a series of magical encounters Quentin discovers that magic is real, and he is offered admission to Brakebills, a magician’s school in upstate New York not unlike Hogwarts.

At first everything is magical: he meets interesting people; he discovers a latent talent that he never knew he had; he even meets the woman of his dreams. But Quentin soon discovers that magic is not as enchanting as the Fillory books made it seem. Magic is hard grueling labor. It involves taxing mental concentration, a daily rigorous grind of finger exercises, and memorizing painstakingly long lists of spells, circumstances, and exceptions. And despite the initial excitement, Quentin learns that there is no transfiguration spell for the heart. He is still the same depressed, unhappy man that came to Brakebills.

The heart of this story is Alice, the woman that Quentin falls for. Unlike the other magicians, who are jaded by the world and then respond with hedonism, Alice maintains an adept’s heart, even when the man she loves betrays her. She understands Quentin as no one else does, and yet loves him. She is also the source of some of the book’s greatest insights.

Alice speaking on what a life with magic would really be like:

I know you think it’s going to be all quests and dragons and fighting evil and whatever, like in Fillory. I know that’s what you think. But it’s not. You don’t see it yet. There’s nothing out there.” She is referring to her family, describing what it’s like to be the child of magician parents, and how they’ve pittered their lives away on selfish, foolish, destructive hobbies. They have tremendous reality-bending powers, but their use of this power only results in more isolation, a greater widening of the relational gap between parents who do not love each other and cannot adequately love their daughter.

It is interesting to me that this magician family has the power to alter reality with their words, and yet they isolate themselves in silence from one another. They live in an enchanted Roman palace that grows ever more elaborate even as it widens the gap between them.  They become incapable of speaking into one another’s lives, and thereby unable to shape each other’s world.

This relational gap between people is one of the key themes of the book. Grossman does not explicity state why this gap exists, though he alludes to the price of being the smartest, the best, the top tier, as the reason for this isolation. And there is certainly something to that. But the true source of the gap is sin. Alice’s parents hated one another, and this resulted in isolation and devastation. Quentin cheated on Alice, which led to Alice cheating on him, and a wedge was driven between them. And at the heart of Quentin’s unhappiness is a tightly wound ball of bitterness that isolates him from everyone.

It is this bitterness–against his parents, against himself, against his experiences–that fuels his desire to escape into the fictional world of Fillory. At his core, he believes that this will save him.

And he gets what he wants. He goes to Fillory…and is miserable. And in danger. And more isolated than ever. It is Alice, faithful Alice, who calls him out on his real problem:

Do you want to be the only asshole who went to Fillory and was miserable there? Even in Fillory? Because that’s who you are right now.

And Alice gives him the advice that only someone who truly loves him could give:

Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life. Stop waiting. This is it: there’s nothing else. It’s here, and you’d better enjoy it or you’re going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever.

Escapism is the lie that a change of location will bring a change to happiness. Grossman wrote this book partly in reaction to Lewis’ Narnia books, and the belief that many Christians have that Narnia (aka “Aslan’s country” aka “heaven”) is real. Quentin discovers that Fillory is real, just like many Narnia readers discover that Lewis wrote about something he, too, believed was real.

I have met many Christians whose hope in the Rapture is little better than Quentin’s hope in Fillory: their attitude is terrible, their lives are a disaster, but they maintain the hope that an escape to heaven will bring the happiness they long for.

The sad reality is that heaven is real, just like Quentin discovered that Fillory was real, just like Lewis understood that Aslan’s country was real. But it is not Aslan’s country that brings happiness. It is Aslan himself. What Quentin needs, what I need, what all of us are longing for in escapist fiction, is an escape from ourselves. And like Eustace discovered in the The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,  we are all dragons who need our hardened skins torn off.  

You have to let me undress you,” Aslan told [us].

Eustace could not remove his dragon skin just as Quentin could not remove his bitterness. Quentin goes from Brooklyn to Brakebills to Fillory, longing to escape, never realizing his prison was his own heart.

It is Christ, Aslan, God Himself, who alone holds the key to our prison. And though it tear us to pieces, though it wound us, though it humiliate us to ask for help, we must ask him to tear off our hardened skins. We must ask him to disarm our own hopes of escape. We need him to speak magical words that only He can utter:

“Child, your sins are forgiven.”

The Magicians: A Spoiler Free Review

“Can a man who can cast a spell ever really grow up?” – Dean Fogg, The Magicians

**

With The Magicians, Lev Grossman has given us a fantasy good enough to be placed in the annals with The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, and (though it is no great compliment in my opinion) His Dark Materials trilogy. Stylistically, it reads more like The Yiddish Policeman’s Union than any of these books, and though it is filled with throwbacks to Narnia & HP, it is by no means appropriate for children. Magicians is best thought of as a Harry Potter for adults, though I know plenty of adults who would find its sex, booze, and drugs, and general hedonism & cynicism, a literary deal-breaker.

In regard to its literary merit, I believe Lev Grossman has introduced himself as one of the finest prose writers of our time–his voice is compelling, witty, and dripping with sardonic humor. The finest praise I can lavish on him, however, is the amazing way he has crafted a world within a world. Magicians is, without a doubt, one of the finest frame stories I’ve read, and the way Grossman uses the fictional world of Fillory to comment on the fictional universe of The Magicians is a case study in literary genius. It makes Gaiman’s World’s End (which I thoroughly enjoyed) look, ironically enough, a bit childish by comparison.

Like many others, I am excited to see if Grossman can follow-up his high caliber fantasy debut with an equally splendid sophomore work when he introduces The Magician King in the summer of 2011. If you cannot wait until then, I’ve got a little secret for you, compliments of a fellow book loving nerd & friend: he published a fantastic non-fiction essay called “The Death of a Civil Servant” in the May volume of The Believer.

Go. Read. You know you want to.

And for those who want a more detailed review of the book, stay tuned for my in-depth analysis, The Magicians: Expelliarmus Escapism.

Published in: on June 29, 2010 at 5:34 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Naked Truth

You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die…When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye…Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.” – Genesis 2:16, 3:6-7

You have probably heard of Godiva chocolate. If you are fortunate, you have also tried one of their delectable treats. What you may not know is that the company was named Godiva (in 1926) after the Lady Godiva, a noblewoman who lived in Coventry, England during the start of the second millenia.

Legend has it that her husband, Leofric, Earl of Mercia, had been oppressing his people through cruel taxation, and when the Lady Godiva confronted her husband and asked him to relieve his people, he scorned her request, advising her that he would only relieve their taxation if his wife, this noble woman, would ride a mare through the city streets, naked.

She agreed to his outlandish request, and sent a decree throughout the city that the people were to shutter themselves inside, thereby lessening the shame she was about to take on their behalf. Most of the populace acted honorably, but for one man, whom the legend identifies only as Tom, who peeped through his shutter to behold the Lady in her naked beauty. For his stolen glance he was stricken blind, and the world was given its first and greatest voyeuristic term, Peeping Tom.

There is a deep thread of what I call “the forbidden mystery” that lies at the heart of Western stories. This need to see the forbidden at any price. A thread that runs from the Garden through the Greeks, and whose echo finds its way even down to the chocolates we consume. Adam & Eve are the first, the Lady Godiva & her Peeping Tom may be one of the lesser known, but there are many more.

Lot’s Wife

With the coming of dawn, the angels urged Lot, saying, ‘Hurry! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away when the city is punished’…But Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.” Genesis 19:17, 19:26

Moses & Yahweh

Then Moses said, ‘Now show me your glory.’ And the LORD said, ‘I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,’ he said, ‘you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.‘” Genesis 33:18-20

Actaeon & Artemis

Actaeon, the hunter, pursued the goddess Artemis (Diana), desirous to see the chaste beauty unveiled. He followed her into a woods where he saw the beautiful Artemis naked, bathing in a stream.

He was then punished for his sight by being transformed into a stag and torn apart by his own hounds.

Tiresias & Athena

Similar to Actaeon, the young Tiresias stumbled upon the goddess Athena as she was bathing, but instead of being killed, the boy Tiresias was blinded for this forbidden gaze.

The myth is a bit vague about the boy’s intentions, but because Athena felt guilty about the boy’s loss of sight (though unable to restore it), she gave him the gift of prophecy, and also the ability to understand the language of birds, which seems to hint that he was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. He may not have meant to witness the forbidden mystery, but it cost him, nonetheless.

(There is another version of the myth, equally intriguing, that involves snakes &  sex changes, which we won’t discuss here).

Perseus & Medusa

Up to this point, the forbidden mystery has been beautiful. And I would argue that for most of the previous stories (Lady Godiva, Athena, and Artemis) it is because the crowning achievement of creation is man, and man’s co-equal, woman; because most of these stories were written by men, it is obvious that the greatest mystery, hidden beneath her veils and dresses (or the less sexy but modern achievement– pants), is woman. Any man can tell you the first time he saw a naked woman because it (sadly, often) has about it the aura of forbidden mystery.

But with Perseus and Medusa, the heart of the forbidden mystery is not beautiful at all, quite the opposite; at the heart of that gaze is a defilement onto death. When Medusa is forced to see her own visage, even she is rent to stone by the mystery of her own ugliness (contrast this to Moses & Yahweh, where death is also promised; in places like Psalm 27:4 we catch glimmers of Yahweh’s visage when the psalmist longs “to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD“).

Western stories are big enough to hold, at the heart of their forbidden mystery, both beauty and ugliness, with lethal consequences for both. Or, as the writer of the Wiki article said so well, “Even if Peeping Tom is a late addition [to the Lady Godiva legend], his being struck blind demonstrates the closely knit themes of the violated mystery and the punished intruder.

Cupid & Psyche *spoiler alert*

This is my favorite of the forbidden mysteries, mostly because of the wonderful remake that C.S. Lewis gave us with his book, Till We Have Faces.

The legend is that Psyche (a woman whose beauty rivaled that of Cupid’s mother, Venus) arouses the jealousy of the powerful goddess. Venus instructs Cupid to shoot Psyche with one of his enchanted arrows, forcing the woman to fall in love with a hideous serpent; but upon seeing her beauty, Cupid falls in love, and strikes himself with one of his arrows instead. The two are wed, but Cupid demands that Psyche not behold his face, for fear that she will recognize him as a god, and thereby arouse the attention of his mother, the still-vindictive Venus.

Lewis neglects most of this back story to focus instead upon the relationship between Psyche and her sister, Orual. Unlike Psyche, Orual is beyond ugly. And though she is jealous of her sister’s beauty, she is even more jealous of this unknown husband who has stolen the heart of her sister. So she, like Satan to Eve, plants a seed of doubt in Psyche’s heart: is your husband truly the man he says he is? maybe he is the ugly serpent you were supposed to marry? how will you know unless you look?

At the heart of the forbidden mystery lies a test. Some of these tests (Lot’s wife, Eve, Psyche) are explicit, while others (Artemis, Moses, Medusa) are implied. But the test is the same: look and receive your punishment, or avert and live. But why this test?

The most difficult to understand is the Garden of Eden story. Why, in the midst of paradise, would God place a test? It is my opinion that the test is for relationship. Without the chance to walk away, to forsake, there can be only robotic love. Also at the heart of the test is trust: will Adam & Eve trust that God is good and wants only good for them? Or will they heed Orual’s voice and steal away into the night, to peer into a mystery that their lover has forbidden? Will they trust their own curiosity, or the one who has “caused His goodness to pass before them”?

The deeper mystery of the Bible is that violators are pardoned. The forbidden mystery has, tragically, already been perceived; we received what we desired while gazing at the fruit, gorging ourselves on the knowledge of good and evil, until the nakedness of our deeds sent us hunting for cover, even willing to slaughter the remnants of truth, as creation itself groans for release from our futile attempts to cover ourselves with power, control, the building and crumbling of a thousand empires, while a guilt that defies pacifying holds us in its grip, however our noblest or most debased efforts.

There is an itch that lies behind the eyes of man that cannot be scratched. There is a darkness too deep even for our 20/20 vision to unveil; a riddle whose solution must be cut, like Alexander of old, by someone who wields the proper sword.

Thanks be to God that that darkness was finally lifted in Christ, who is the image of the invisible (dare I say, naked?) God, and whose life is the light of man.

Amen.

**

Netography

(What do you call this nowadays? it’s certainly not a bibliogaphy anymore, is it? webography? anyways, it’s a list of my sources for this post).

Lady Godiva

Godiva Chocolate History

Perseus & Medusa

Actaeon & Artemis

Till We Have Faces

Baseball Ballads & Biblical Battles: A Reflection on Big-Headedness

On June 3, 1888, Ernest “Phineas” Thayer published the poem “Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888.” It was published in the San Francisco Examiner to critical acclaim.

Roughly 2,976 years earlier, in 1088 BC, a young man named Samuel was also using words to reach the audience of his day, the nation of Israel.

As I was reading 1 Samuel 4:1-10 this morning it dawned on me that there are some eery connections between this ancient text about a battle, and the more modern text about a ballad. Unfortunately, they both reveal that big-heads will be big-heads, whether in 1088, 1888, or 2088. Not particularly profound, I know, but if you will indulge me, I will show you what I noticed.

1 Samuel 4:1-10

1And the word of Samuel came to all Israel.

Now the Israelites went out to fight against the Philistines. The Israelites camped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines at Aphek. 2 The Philistines deployed their forces to meet Israel, and as the battle spread, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand of them on the battlefield.

3 When the soldiers returned to camp, the elders of Israel asked, “Why did the LORD bring defeat upon us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the LORD’s covenant from Shiloh, so that it may go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies.”


So the people sent men to Shiloh, and they brought back the ark of the covenant of the LORD Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim. And Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God. 5

When the ark of the LORD’s covenant came into the camp, all Israel raised such a great shout that the ground shook. 6

Hearing the uproar, the Philistines asked, “What’s all this shouting in the Hebrew camp?” When they learned that the ark of the LORD had come into the camp, 7 the Philistines were afraid. “A god has come into the camp,” they said. “We’re in trouble! Nothing like this has happened before. 8Woe to us! Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? They are the gods who struck the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues in the desert. 9 Be strong, Philistines! Be men, or you will be subject to the Hebrews, as they have been to you. Be men, and fight!”

10 So the Philistines fought, and the Israelites were defeated and every man fled to his tent. The slaughter was very great; Israel lost thirty thousand foot soldiers. 11 The ark of God was captured, and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died.”

Before we even get into “Casey at the Bat,” we have one connection: the unusual name of Phineas–the son of Eli killed during the Ark battle, and the author of the Baseball ballad.

If you will continue to indulge me, I will show you some others in “Casey at the Bat.” We’ll begin with the 1st stanza:

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville Nine that day;

The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play,

And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,

A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game

Here is the situation: the fictitious team of Mudville is down 2 runs in the 9th with 2 strikes already against them (yeah yeah, I know the died connection is weak, but stay with me). Continuing on,

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest

Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;

They thought, if only Casey could get but a whack at that –

We’d put up even money, now, with Casey at the bat.

Now we see the hope that the Mudville fans hold onto: though they are in deep despair over their odds of winning this game, they know “if only” their mighty player Casey would just get to bat, they would win.

(We’ll skip down a bit to the part where Casey, miraculously, is up to bat).

Then from 5,000 throats and more there rose a lusty yell;

It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;

It knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,

For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

This should sound familiar right?

“When the ark of the LORD’s covenant came into the camp, all Israel raised such a great shout that the ground shook.” 1 Samuel 4:5

For the next several stanzas, Phineas is going to describe to us the haughty manner in which the Mudville’s champion Casey approaches this potentially crisis-turning moment. I will give you some of the highlights:

ease in his manner” , “pride in his bearing” , “defiance gleamed in his eye” , “a sneer curled his lip” , “stood…in haughty grandeur” , “scornful look

Over the course of seven stanzas, we discover that Casey is arrogant, puffed up on his own strength and talents. And with the casting of the final ball, his pride will have its fall.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;

The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,

And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;

But there is no joy in Mudville — mighty Casey has struck out.

There may be “laughing somewhere,” but it wasn’t in the city of Mudville, and it certainly wasn’t in the nation of Israel after the day of battle. We are told in 1 Samuel 4:13 that “When the man entered the town and told what had happened, the whole town sent up a cry.

Pride in the nation of Israel (particularly its leaders), and pride in the heart of Casey, resulted in sorrow for the people.  They took the good things that God had given them (talents, a visible sign of His presence, and a promise that He would be with them) for granted. They ignored opportunities to humble themselves until it was too late to prevent calamity.

It only takes two letters to describe big-headedness in our day.

BP.

**

If you liked (or disliked) this strange post connecting big-headedness, baseball, and biblical battles, please say so in the comments. I’m always trying to improve the site, and tying history together definitely interests me. If there is anyone else out there who finds it equally interesting, pipe up and say so. Thanks!

**

And as always, I like to give credit to the places that made this post possible.

“Casey at the Bat” – Wikipedia article

“On this Day” Wikipedia Main Page

Bible Gateway

Biblica.com