Oh, Absalom

Today I am posting a video of a song by the incomparable Jamie Soles.

A couple of warnings: I recommend you just listen to the audio. Don’t look at the screen, because the words pulse in a way that is likely to give you a seizure. I apologize; this was the only YouTube version of the song I could find.

Secondly: This song will make you bawl, particularly if you are a parent.

The back story goes as follows. The relationship between King David and his adult son Absalom had deteriorated badly. The story of that is also tragic, but too long to tell here. It’s in 2 Samuel 13 – 14. Eventually Absalom, having lost all respect for David, stages a coup (2 Sam. 15). David actually has to flee Jerusalem. Eventually, his men fight Absalom’s in a bloody battle in the forest. 20,000 men die (2 Sam. 18). Absalom, as he rides his mule through the woods, gets his head (possibly his long, luxuriant hair?) caught in the branches of an oak tree. His mule runs off and Absalom is left dangling there. David’s bloodthirsty general, Joab, finds him, stabs him in the heart with three javelins, and buries him unceremoniously in a pit. (2 Sam. 18:6 – 17) This even though David, who at first had wanted to go out himself into the battle, had instructed his generals, “Deal gently with the young man Absalom for my sake.”

Word comes to David that Absalom is dead before his victorious army returns to the city. When they come back, they can hear David in the small room over the city gate (the “judgment seat”), weeply loudly and saying over and over again, “Oh, Absalom, my son, my son, if only I had died instead of you!” The army sneaks into the city in shame, like defeated men.

Joab goes up into the room and berates David for not honoring his soldiers. “You love those who hate you and hate those who love you. You have made it clear today that … you would be pleased if Absalom were alive today and all of us were dead.” (2 Sam. 19:6)

This is not true, of course. No way this situation could have gone would have made David happy. But Joab just doesn’t get it.

I kind of hate that this story is in the Bible, because I wish the whole thing had never happened. It’s one of those slo-mo tragedies where, just when you think that every single thing has already gone wrong, the situation unspools some dismaying new tentacle of horror.

On the other hand, given that it did happen, I am glad this story is in the Bible. Clearly, this is not some slappy-happy, naive, “everything-will-be-great-if-we-all-just-believe-in-our-hearts” kind of document. This document was written by and for people who live in the actual world, where each of us, by the time we are adults, has witnessed or experienced this very kind of thing: complicated, tragic, stupid, seems like it could have been prevented at any point along the way. God is aware of these situations and of how stupid and futile and tragic they are. He is a God for people who find themselves in those situations.

Ahem. OK, sermon over. I guess I got carried away. Here’s the song.

Time-Words in Fiction

Photo by Kris Schulze on Pexels.com

How do you handle expresssions of time when writing about a preindustrial culture that does not use our time divisons?

Not that Preindusrial People Are Unaware of Time …

I’m not meaning to imply that people in preindustrial cultures take no notice of time. This is a notion, sometimes asserted, that goes with the romantic “noble savage” idea that because hunter-gatherers live closer to the earth, they necessarily live a “simpler” life, comparatively free from worries, cares, and conflict. See The Gods Must Be Crazy, the Wild Yam Question, and many others.

In fact, the earth is trying to kill you, so people who live close to the earth have plenty of survival-related worries (besides the usual human sin problem that did not first arise with industrialization). Farmers have to pay detailed attention to months and seasons, as do hunters, who also have to be concerned with times of day. So, no, there are no “time-free” people. In fact, there have been many ancient cultures that were very, very concerned with calendars. See Stonehenge, above, which was apparently a computer for predicting eclipses, and the Maya, who could be fairly said to be obsessed with dates.

But, Seriously, How Do You Deal with Time?

But, of course, it makes no sense to have a hunter-gatherer culture going around talking about the months by the names we give them. Let alone the days of the week, although if you follow Genesis, people have always known that days come in sevens and one day is for rest. Talk of seconds and minutes is even more of an atmosphere killer when it comes to verisimilitude.

Sci-fi writers can make up their own time divisions or draw on terms from sci-fi convention: clicks, parsecs, light-years, cycles, and no, I don’t know what most of these words mean really. They are fun, though. Perhaps in the comments you can enlighten me.

Anyway, here is how I deal with time. I didn’t spend a lot of … you-know-what … thinking about this when I first started drafting. I became more aware of it as my characters moved more into a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. You will still occasionally see the word, for example, “hours” crop up in my books. But when it would not take too much rewriting to get rid of modern time-words, here is what I use:

  • I don’t talk about specific months by name. Rather, I talk about seasons. (Early spring, midwinter, etc.) (However, if you are interested, my character Ikash’s birthday is in April and Hyuna’s birthday is right around Christmas.)
  • I do sometimes mention months in a generic sense, because everyone is aware of lunar months. I don’t say “moons,” because that sounds … well, I just feel like saying “moons” is a minefield.
  • It has never been necessary for me to mention weeks, either.
  • For “minute,” I try to use “moment,” which is less specific and technical sounding.
  • I use “a few beats” instead of “a few seconds.”
  • Nanoseconds, for some reason, have never come up.

Warning Labels

Some books need warning labels. Especially history books. Heck, history needs a warning label! Heck, this entire world needs one! It should read something like: Fallen World. Danger, Difficulty, Death.

For all these reasons, the brilliant graphic artist Nathan Hale puts warning labels on the the brilliant historical books he produces for children. The labels are tailored to each individual story. For example:

This is from the back of Big Bad Ironclad.

Note the delightfully specific terrors promised, such as “underwater toilets” and “Swedish swearing.” (And yes, the book delivers those very things. It makes sense in context. So does the bomb on a stick.)

This is from the back of The Underground Abductor, about the life of Harriet Tubman.

Besides the horrors and heroics that we all know her life contained, we get “supernatural visions” (Harriet’s and, before her, Nat Turner’s); “massacre” (led by Nat Turner); “muskrat trapping” (more of a hardship than it sounds); and, of course the “drugged babies” are so that the escapees would not be caught.

Now, I write fiction, and it’s pretty dramatic and everything, but nothing I or anyone else will write can compare to the drama and poignancy of Harriet Tubman’s life.

With that disclaimer, here — and you can tell that I worked really hard on this — is a warning label of my own, done in the style of graphic artist Nathan Hale, applied to my book The Long Guest.

In the comments, please post a goofy warning label of your own about your own book or a favorite book.

GKC Quote on Cave People

To-day all our novels and newspapers will be found swarming with allusions to a popular character called a Cave-Man. So far as I can understand, his chief occupation in life was knocking his wife about …

In fact, people have been interested in everything about the cave-man except what he did in the cave. Now there does happen to be some real evidence of what he did in the cave. What was found in the cave was not the horrible, gory club notched with the number of women it had knocked on the head. [It was] drawings or paintings of animals; and they were drawn or painted not only by a man but by an artist. They showed the experimental and adventurous spirit of the artist, the spirit that does not avoid but attempts difficult things; as where the draughtsman had represented the action of the stag when he swings his head clean round and noses towards his tail. In this and twenty other details it is clear that the artist had watched animals with a certain interest and presumably a certain pleasure. [I]t would seem that he was not only an artist but a naturalist.

When novelists and educationists and psychologists of all sorts talk about the cave-man, they never conceive him in connection with anything that is really in the cave. When the realist of the sex novel writes, ‘Red sparks danced in Dagmar Doubledick’s brain; he felt the spirit of the cave-man rising within him,’ the novelist’s readers would be very much disappointed if Dagmar only went off and drew large pictures of cows on the drawing-room wall.

G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (orig. ed. published 1925), pp. 27 – 30

My Wish for You: A Welcome Distraction

So, tomorrow is election day in the United States. It’s going to be hell for everyone.

But don’t be sad, because The Long Guest goes on sale today!

So, strap on your face mask and your riot gear, venture out and vote … and then come home and curl up with a hot beverage and a book about an apocalypse you can enjoy. Leave everything else in the hands of God.

Buy TLG on Amazon

Buy TLG on Bookshop

Giants II

Photo by NEOSiAM 2020 on Pexels.com

Welcome to October, month of Halloween! Every Friday, we will discuss scary things. This week’s scary thing is giants, and specifically the proper use of the word cannibalism.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post arguing that in both ancient history and folklore, giants are more horror creature than fantasy creature. Part of the reason for this is that they eat people. My question for you is, Can we properly call them cannibals?

But first, a detour about eating blood

In my second book, The Strange Land, the people group whose adventures I am following (I think of them as “my” people) tell stories of giants who eat people and animals indiscriminately. Their euphemism for them is “blood eaters.”

Some religions have a taboo on “eating meat with the blood still in it.” In Indonesia, there is a special word for such meat. If you want to eat, say, a chicken, the word for the animal and the meat is ayam. But that’s only if the bird has been killed properly and bled out. If these rules have not been followed, it is ayam bangkai, which translates as “chicken carrion” or “corpse chicken.” If you are a devout Muslim, you would not eat meat without knowing that it has been butchered in the proper manner. Otherwise, you could accidentally defile yourself by eating ayam bangkai or some other kind of bangkai.

Obviously, this rule goes way back, at least to Leviticus:

“Any Israelite or any alien living among them who eats any blood — I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from his people. For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life. Therefore I say to the Israelites, ‘None among you may eat blood, nor may an alien living among you eat blood.’

“Any Israelite or any alien living among you who hunts any animal or bird that may be eaten must drain out the blood and cover it with earth, because the life of every creature is its blood.”

Leviticus 17:10 – 14

There is a similar passage in Deuteronomy 12:23.

Here in Leviticus, God gives two reasons for the taboo on blood-eating. First of all, the blood is important to the sacrificial system that He had set up for the Israelites. “I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar.” This blood was a key part of God’s solution for dealing with the people’s sins. Obviously, to eat such a thing for mere physical nourishment would be to take lightly the evil in one’s own people, family, and heart, and to disrespect the sacrificial system and, by extension, the One who set it up. Note that God does not expect the other nations, to whom He has not yet given this sacrificial system, to abstain from blood, unless an individual foreigner happens to be living among the Israelites, and therefore presumably learning about and also benefiting from that system.

The other reason, which seems to be implied here, is that eating or drinking an animal’s blood shows disrespect for the creature itself. “The life of every creature is its blood.” Even when out hunting, and not bringing an animal for sacrifice, He tells them to bleed out the body and to cover the blood with earth, as if to symbolically give the animal a proper burial before we take it home and eat it.

Apparently, avoiding eating an animal’s blood is the respectful, civilized, human thing to do. This is very different from the usual picture we are given of ancient people, where they club something in the field and then tear right into it with their teeth.

I have described elsewhere how Genesis 6:1 – 4 tells of spiritual beings interbreeding with human women, producing a race of giants who terrorized the earth. This would have been before the Flood (and was probably a major reason for the Flood), which makes the time frame very ancient indeed. The extrabiblical book of 1 Enoch tells us,

“and when the people were not able to sustain them [with agriculture], the giants dared (to attack) them, and they devoured the people. And they began to sin with birds and wild animals and reptiles and fish, and to devour one another’s (!) flesh, and drink blood.” (I Enoch 7:2 – 6, quoted in Giants by Doug Van Dorn, p. 60)

This horrifying practice was apparently common knowledge even as “recently” as the time of the Exodus, which is still ancient history but is now within the realm of recorded history, not just dim memories. When the Israelites arrived on the border of the land of Canaan, having escaped from Egypt, Joshua sent twelve men to spy out the land. They came back and reported “it is a land that devours its inhabitants” (Numbers 13:32 -33). That’s why they were so scared. Even after having seen God’s ability to deliver them from the merely human inhabitants of Egypt, they recommended not entering the promised land for their own safety.

I am not arguing that the Biblical taboo on eating blood was given because the giants ate blood. I see it in reverse: eating blood — like eating people, like bestiality — was just one of many obvious and intuitive taboos in ordinary human morality which the giants either were unable to perceive or perversely sought to break.

This picture of giants as somehow paranormal and as eating humans and/or drinking their blood is well attested in world folklore. Polyphemus, the cyclops who captures Odysseus and his men in the Odyssey, will literally pick up a human and eat him alive. And he’s not hunting them like animals. He is fully aware that the sailors he has captured are persons and can talk, and he doesn’t care. He likes Odysseus, and so promises to eat him last.

Beyond Polyphemus, Van Dorn points out in his book that cultures all around the world have stories about paranormal creatures that seek to drink human blood, though they are not always portrayed as giants.

About the word “cannibal”

Surely, cannibalism has to be one of the last taboos. Even if you have been exposed to the concept before, it never seems to lose its shock value. (“Soylent Green is people!!!“)

On the other hand, the idea of a giant eating people, I believe has lost its shock value, though maybe it shouldn’t have. We associate it with fairy tales. After all, how scary can a character be if he lives in the clouds and goes around saying Fe, Fi, Fo, Fum?

To recover the shock value, I propose using the term “cannibal giants.” But there’s a problem. Technically, cannibalism means eating your own kind. Technically, these giants aren’t human. So, is this hyperbole only slightly less serious than that committed by every earnest 13-year-old vegetarian who calls her parents “cannibals” for eating something was that once sentient?

I argue no, for two reasons. For one thing, giants are clearly humanoid. They look like people (more or less). In Genesis, they have human mothers. Critically, like Polyphemus, they can talk. If they were less human-y, it wouldn’t make sense to call them cannibal. We would call them man-eating, like a man-eating tiger, which would still be scary, but not as much so, because it would be done more innocently somehow.

Secondly, the word cannibal actually has two subtly distinct senses. One, indeed, is the idea of eating one’s own kind. So we can say chickens or spiders are cannibals, or we can talk about someone cannibalizing their own ideas. But the other meaning is just eating people, who are a thing which should not be eaten, and I think this its primary meaning. Once that line has been crossed, humanity itself is now somehow defiled. We have been shown that it’s possible to think of people not as sacred bearers of the image of God, irreplaceable individuals, eternal embodied souls … but as a substance. A food source. We are being invited to change the way we view ourselves and our fellow humans, and this is true whether that ancient taboo is being broken by actual humans, or just by creatures that look sort of human and can talk and, frankly, ought to know better.

Neither one is great.

So I am going to go ahead and call these giants cannibals.

Ancient People … Clever … ZZZ

Wha? Oh, are you still there? I must have dozed off. Apparently I put myself to sleep with the monotony of saying for the one millionth time that people in the ancient world … were much more clever than we …

ZZzzzzZZZzz.

So, it appears that Persians in the 900s or 1000s were making a steel that had some chromium in it, similar to our stainless steel. Technically this period is medieval, not ancient, but it still surprised archaeologists because we modern people think that all the clever inventions and technological innovations were made in about the last 100 years and, really, in the last fifty.

We invented the world we are living in, you see.

We are also the first generation to possess moral virtue, but that’s a rant for another day.

OK, maybe I am being a little hard on the archaeologists. After all, you can recognize in principle that people in the past were just as clever as you and I, without being able to guess in advance specifically what they invented. But the article itself slips into snark, when it says that the ancient Persians “stumbled upon” an early version of this alloy. Who’s to say they stumbled upon it, and weren’t experimenting with different materials? I realize this snark is completely unintentional, but its very innocence does kind of reveal our modern bias.

Call for ARC Reviewers for The Long Guest

“The year is 10,000 B.C. All mankind was united in one project: to build a great city with a magnificent tower that reached to the heavens. But the tower fell; God confused their languages, and overnight, their world dissolved into unimaginable chaos.

Family groups, still tied by language, salvage what they can and flee to the countryside to survive. On the way, the family group of Enmer stumbles upon a highborn man, who does not speak their tongue. He lies paraplegic and near death, having survived a fall from the tower.

The matriarch of the family insists they save him; he is a human being, is he not? But he is also hateful, demanding, and useless. But if they don’t save him, who are they? And, if they do, he will leave them forever changed.

This sweeping epic starts at Babel and carries the action across the continent of Asia, even to the ends of the earth.”

That’s the official back cover copy. Coming November 1! But you can get the book before then.

ARC means Advance Review Copy or Advance Reader Copy. Here’s how it works. You use the contact button on this blog to send me your snail-mail address. I send you a free copy of the book. If you manage to get through it, you post a review on your blog or on Amazon or Goodreads or wherever else you typically post reviews. If you are a fast reader, your review might even go up around the time that the book is coming out. Either way, you get a free book, I get a review (probably); everyone’s happy!

And yes, sorry, the book is only available in hard copy at this time, not as an e-book. You will want to hold it in your hot little hands, flip back and forth to view the maps and family tree, mark your favorite passages for memorization, etc., etc.

My love to all of you! Especially to advance reviewers!

Captain Obvious Looks at the Vikings

Check out this “surprising” finding …

Vikings may not be who we thought they were, DNA study finds

… Well, that kind of depends. Who did we think they were?

In the article, “who we thought they were” is a complete straw man where “we” thought that every single Viking was tall, blond and blue-eyed, and all of one monolithic genetic stock.

In fact, even before the age when they spread out across Europe, apparently the Vikings had genetic admixtures from Southern Europe. Also, some people who were not ethnically Viking were given Viking burials.

In other words, people move around a lot and intermarry with each other. And they influence each other culturally.

Also, no large ethnic group is genetically monolithic.

What a surprising finding.