Teal Veyre is really interesting thinker whose blog I’ve been following for a few years now. (She’s the angry bespectacled cartoon gal on the left.) In this episode of her Viridescent Storms book podcast, she and I talk about dinosaurs, giants, utilitarianism, worldbuilding, and of course, The Lord of the Rings. Many of the topics are ones that faithful Out of Babel-ites will recognize, but with Teal’s unique perspective, it’s all fresh! Plus, you get to hear our voices. The interview with me takes up about the first 30 minutes, and then the Storms offer a tutorial on a program called Notion and how it can be used by indie authors.
I notice that so far, the video has only one like, which is of course disgraceful. Get over there and like it and club some sense into those YouTube algorithms!
Cute, right? Plus, he’s thought to have lived in “Doggerland, the now-submerged region between the United Kingdom and continental Europe.” If that’s not cool I don’t know what is. I recently saw a theory somewhere that Doggerland was the inspiration for Tolkien’s map of Middle Earth, that his cycle of stories is supposed to be a history of very ancient times before those lands were swallowed up by the sea.
Now, we could quibble about how much this facial reconstruction owes to imagination. We’d need to know how big was the “piece of skull” used in it. Was it just a fragment, or was it a good bit of the skull? But as for me, I’m not going to look a gift Neanderthal in the mouth. (So to speak.) Also, I know someone who looks a bit like this. A little more chin, a little less nose, but still a human face.
I just finished watching this with my kids, and I … I just …
Why is all this stuff happening?
I mean … I just …
We are just so far off script here. I don’t even know at this point whether Bard is going to kill Smaug or what … or whether we are going to see an elf-dwarf marriage …. or why Gandalf is such a moron … and there are so many brand-new plot holes that I just …
I’ll give you a moment to click on the link and go read the article in all its awful glory.
There. You back?
Let’s take a moment to appreciate everything going on with this article. First of all, the unironic use of “hobbits” in the headline. Waaay down in the article we get the explanation, “For example, on Flores in Indonesia, where the “Hobbits,” or Homo floresiensis, lived …” I kind of have an issue with naming an actual group of humans, “hobbits.” Granted, maybe they were short, like some people groups living in the Philippines, Australia, and Africa today. And at least, in the explanation, the term is put in quote marks. But when you use Hobbits with no quote marks in a headline, it gives the impression that you don’t know what you are talking about, sort of like some of the news articles that came out when the Lord of the Rings movies did, which incorrectly summarized the books.
Secondly, when we did start calling everyone hominins instead of hominids? That also looks like a typo. I’m guessing what it actually is, is some newfangled anthropological term that is meant to imply a class of beings that were somehow even less human than hominids. You all know my feelings on that. (Human rights for Neanderthals!)
Thirdly, as a not-too-dim layperson, I’ve got to say that the “findings” in this article strike me as a sort of rickety Tower of Babel of assumptions (see what I did there?), piled on top of one another, each one of which could possibly turn out to be bunkum. First, there is the difficulty and inconsistency of dating events millions of years in the past. Related to this is the uncertainty of determining, at this time depth, such things as exactly when and why a given species went extinct, and when a population actually arrived on an island.
Finally, the word “jerk.” I don’t mind this word; I use it when called for. In this article, all it takes to be a jerk, apparently, is to exist as a human and cause some kind of detectable change to the natural environment. This is coming out of the whole world view where humans are not part of any kind of design for the world and are not supposed to alter it in any way; hence any human-caused environmental change is by definition bad. I mean, I’m with you; I think the Mediterranean dwarf elephant was cute and it’s too bad if humans contributed to its demise. But when things pass away, we can mourn them even if it was their time to pass away.
Example: I recently heard the argument made that “the earth is fragile.” Evidence to back this up was that the Everglades, a unique swamp ecosystem in Florida, will vanish if sea levels rise. Now, that would be a shame. We would indeed lose many things if sea levels rose. But the Everglades are not the same as the earth. Sea levels have been lower in the past, as evidenced by many archaeological sites that we discover off the coasts. Sea levels rose, and those parts of the land were lost to us. But the earth went on. On the other hand, much of North America was once, I am told, a shallow inland sea. Now it’s plains, mountains, deserts, etc. Again, the ecosystems changed — a lot — but the event was more properly termed change than just purely destruction.
Assuming that the many premises in this article are actually true, and that they actually support the conclusion that ancient humany people had less of an impact on the natural environment than did people in the last 12,000 years or so, I can think of one major reason that would be the case: population density. Lower populations have less impact on their environment. They just do. You cannot eat all the mammoths when the mammoths outnumber the people. Also, if you have a teeny tiny village of just a few dozen people, even your sewage is not that big a deal. You can go and do your business back in the woods behind your garden. People don’t even really see the point of toilets until a certain population density is reached.
So, if a larger population means more environmental impact, and environmental impact means you are a “jerk,” then we have finally identified the problem. The problem, on this value system, is that there are too damn many of you. Put another way, the big problem with you is that you exist.
So, if you want to be morally upright according to this value system, but you don’t quite feel up to suicide, I suggest you that make like Harry Potter and “be in [your] room, being very quiet and pretending [you] don’t exist.”
Here are some practical ways to apply that.
Stop eating all the animals. (Ideally, stop eating.) Stop breathing out so much carbon dioxide. Try not to fart, of course, and also not to produce too much sewage. (That will be easier once you stop eating.) And whatever you do, for God’s earth’s sake don’t produce any more awful human beings! They will just go on eating and breathing and pooping and doing all those icky things that destroy the beautiful Everglades.
Today I will be doing the Finally Fall Book Tag, which I got from Riddhi. A tag is a series of prompts that the blogger responds to, usually by naming one or more books. At the end, we are supposed to “tag” other bloggers, but we all know that I don’t do that because it just gets too complicated, what with not wanting to leave anyone out, not wanting to hand anyone a task they hate, etc., etc. It’s sort of like planning a wedding that way.
In fall, the air is crisp and clear: Name a book with a vivid setting.
The Lord of the Rings.
OK, look, TLOTR could actually be the perfect answer for every one of these prompts, am I right? So I’ll just name it for each of them, and then one other one that is my backup answer.
Beyond Middle Earth, I suggest you check out the setting in Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish cycle. It’s on a planet that, because of its orbit, experiences seasons that last for lengths of time that we on Earth would call years. The people who live there have eyes with no whites to them. After intermarrying with immigrants from Earth, they develop a skin tone that is navy blue in the upper classes and “dusty” blue in the lower classes. It’s fascinating, brutal, and beautifully written.
Nature is beautiful… but also dying: Name a book that is beautifully written, but also deals with a heavy topic like loss or grief.
The Lord of the Rings. They kill off Gandalf.
Also, this book. The Holocaust, survivor’s guilt, lost children, neurological disease. Are those topics heavy enough? See my full review of ithere.
Fall is back to school season: Share a non-fiction book that taught you something new.
The Lord of the Rings will teach you terms like weregild (“person-money” – money paid in compensation for someone’s death).
Everybody please go read this and as many other Thomas Sowell books as you can get your hands on.
In order to keep warm, it’s good to spend some time with the people we love: Name a fictional family/household/friend-group that you’d like to be part of.
Failing that, I would be honored to live and work with Mma Potokwane, the forceful woman who runs the orphanage in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.
The colourful leaves are piling up on the ground: Show us a pile of fall coloured spines!
I didn’t intend it, but every book in this pile except for The Family Mark Twain is indie published.
And Neanderthal Woman is homemade.
Also … the golden-leaved mallorn trees of Lothlorien.
Fall is the perfect time for some storytelling by the fireside: Share a book wherein someone is telling a story.
One of the best things about Lord of the Rings is the way you keep getting hints of yet more ancient places, people, and stories.
And for my backup answer, we have Ursula Le Guin again. In her Earthsea trilogy, there is a very creepy story told about a stone that if you so much as touch it, steals your soul. In her book Left Hand of Darkness, the main story is interspersed with short myths to help us get a feel for the culture of the planet the story is set on, where glaciers cover about half the landmass and people are sexless for most of each month.
The nights are getting darker: Share a dark, creepy read.
The Balrog, and Shelob, and the Ring and the effect it has upon people, are all pretty doggone creepy.
Also, The Dark is Rising and the whole series that follows it deals with pre-Roman paganism still alive in Britain.
The days are getting colder: Name a short, heartwarming read that could warm up somebody’s cold and rainy day.
The Hobbit. Annndddd …
Allie Brosch’s new book Solutions and Other Problems.
It’s not heartwarming in the sense that it presents the universe as a rational or hopeful place, BUT it did make me laugh so hard it brought tears to my eyes. It’s not short in the sense that it’s a big, thick hardcover, BUT that’s only because it is packed with her funny (and actually very artistic) drawings. It’s a fast read.
Fall returns every year: Name an old favourite that you’d like to return to soon.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS.
Also, this book, The Everlasting Man, by the ebullient GKC. I recently ordered my own copy so that I could mine it for future quotes on the blog, and I quickly discovered that GKC was the original source of all my suspicions about ancient people having been just like us, but smarter.
Fall is the perfect time for cozy reading nights: Share your favourite cozy reading “accessories”!
Just so you know up front, this post is going to talk about a Meyers-Briggs personality type, and also rely on the reader having some background knowledge of The Lord of the Rings.
Now that I’ve weeded out 90% of readers, let’s proceed.
The Meyers-Briggs Typology
The Meyers-Briggs (MBTI) is a personality typology that describes people’s preferences on how to process information and make decisions. People can be Extraverted or Introverted (E vs. I); Intuitive or Sensing (N vs. S); Thinking or Feeling (T vs. F), and Perceiving vs. Judging (P vs. J). I’ve discussed elsewhere the limitations of these binaries. Some people fall right in the middle between two of the preferences, for example, and the four MBTI preferences don’t tell everything about a person’s personality. That said, I still find the typology interesting and useful. In an earlier post, I discussed the ESTP, who is often the disruptive force in the story. Today, I’m going to discuss a much more passive type, the INFP, who is almost the ESTP’s opposite.
Frodo as an example of the INFP
When I say the INFP is “passive,” that’s not a slam. I’m an INFP myself.
The INFP is Introverted. This means that he or she has a rich inner life, and draws his/her energy from within. Interacting with the outer world drains him. (Extraverts get their energy from the outer world.) Many of the strongest characters in The Lord of the Rings are Introverted, from which we can guess that J.R.R. Tolkien probably was as well. That’s not surprising, given that he was a professor who created, just for fun, several languages and an elaborate world with its own history and mythology. Introverts are less than 50% of the population, but they are overrepresented in literature because so many authors are Introverts.
As an NF (Intuitive and Feeling), the INFP is very sensitive to the feelings of those around him. He or she cares a lot about all relationships being harmonious at all times. Conflict of any kind stresses the INFP out to a greater degree than other types. This can mean the that INFP will unhealthily say or do anything to avoid conflict. The up side is that the INFP wants to have a good relationship with, and believes that he can reach, anyone. Exhibit A is Frodo’s ability to understand and even win the loyalty of Gollum.
INFPs are not quick to thrust themselves forward, take leadership, or take the initiative. They don’t want to do a task until they feel they understand it and can do it well. Mistakes are an unacceptably high cost when you can’t tolerate any damage to any relationship (read: criticism).
As a not very quick, ambitious, or assertive type, the INFP can often appear to be contributing nothing to the group.
This is really apparent when we look at Frodo’s role in the Ring saga. He delays a long time leaving on his quest and needs a push from his friends. Once he does set out, he spends all three books getting into hot water and getting rescued by people who are more powerful, capable, or (in the case of Sam) harder working. Like the other hobbits (but even more so), for about the first half of the adventure Frodo appears to be almost a pure taker. In fact, some of the most famous scenes in LOTR involve someone literally carrying him: the humans carrying the hobbits down out of the snow drifts on Carhadras. Aragorn running out of Moria with Frodo in his arms after Frodo gets speared by an orc. Sam carrying Frodo up Mt. Doom.
What is this guy good for, anyway?
Of course, as we all know, Frodo is weak and passive not just because of his personality but because he is in fact carrying a heavy, but unseen, burden: the Ring. It’s a spiritual burden that occupies his mind, allows him to see what others can’t, and exposes him to terrors. It also, more and more as the story goes on, saps his strength. He may not appear to be contributing anything, but he is doing real work for the group, though that work is hard to quantify.
Tolkien makes it so that the work Frodo does, bearing his burden, is obvious to the reader and is also clear to, and appreciated by, the rest of the Fellowship. Most people don’t read The Lord of the Rings and come away saying, “I don’t see what the big deal was about Frodo. He didn’t do anything.”
Non-Frodo INFPs also bear a burden. They bear the burden of their worry about every single person and relationship they are aware of, and of their ability to take personally everything that happens in the world. Of course, the nature of this burden varies with the maturity of the INFP. When immature, our burden is self-absorbed in nature. We want everyone to like us, we want never to be criticized. But as we mature, this can move on to becoming genuine concern for the well-being of all the people whose existence we know of.
This is a heavy burden indeed. When news travels around the world in seconds, no problem or tragedy can fail to come to the attention of the INFP. An INFP who really takes every human tragedy to heart will be too overwhelmed. Only one Man (who, in my opinion, was the perfect example of all the Meyers-Briggs types) is capable of bearing the sins of the world. As an INFP of a certain age, I have had to master the skill of consciously setting things aside as not my problem to worry about so that I can function.
Still, even if we limit the INFP’s burden to the sins and sorrows of the people in his or her immediate circle, that’s a lot. If you know an INFP (and you are not one), they are probably thinking about all of this stuff a lot more than you are. They are expending a lot of mental energy on it. That may be why they need so much sleep. If they are a Christian INFP, they are no doubt also wrestling in prayer for you and for everyone in their circle.
Up till now I’ve tried to make posts that don’t mention you know what, because I figure that readers come to Out of Babel for fun and weirdness, not for more mentions of you know what. But, I saw this super fun tag over in the book nook of The Orangutan Librarian. I hope by trying it I’m not letting you down. As you can see, I’ve spun it a little, imagining how the characters would handle coronavirus in their own worlds.
Take 5 or more of your favorite book characters and imagine what they would be doing if they were quarantined with us in the real world.
You can have them be in their own squad if you want, or working on their own.
The Pevensie kids, of course, would not even be here …
For some reason I imagine Edmund and Lucy quarantining with their cousin Eustace and his parents rather than being with their parents (who got stuck in Greece) or with Peter and Susan (who got stuck at their respective universities). Eustace, though less of a know-it-all since his first trip to Narnia, is still extremely well-informed about epidemiology, government policy, and all the latest economic and medical updates. His mother, Alberta, insists that everyone wear masks and gloves even inside the house.
Middle Earth Quarantine
Gandalf the Grey would have caught the coronavirus early (because he travels a lot), come down with complications (because it hits old people the hardest), died, and been resurrected.
Sam Gamgee, humble, hardworking, and patient, would be the perfect person to quarantine with. He’s also a very resourceful cook.
Faramir and Eowyn would be climbing the walls, holed up in the Houses of Healing in Minas Tirith.
Tom Bombadil and the River Daughter are immune to human ills and they also take a long view of the death of much of the rest of the world.
Gimli would rather risk death than give up smoking.
Tony Hillerman Quarantine
Sadly, in real life, the coronavirus has hit the Navajo nation really hard. Tony Hillerman’s Navajo cop characters, Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, would be reacting very differently. Leaphorn, who is older and more of a homebody, would be happily hanging out with his wife Emma at his home in Window Rock. Chee, who is young and restless, would be running around the reservation trying to help everyone he could. He would go to be with an older relative who is dying of the virus, making sure that the person is moved outside as per tradition and that they have someone with them. Though young and healthy, he would unexpectedly develop a bad case himself and would be found recovering in the hospital at the very end of the book, being visited by his girlfriend Janet or Bernie, depending upon where we are in the series.
Junie and Mike of the Emberverse have already been through a society-destroying event that resulted in most people dying. Junie heads up a neo-pagan community near Corvallis, Oregon, and Mike runs a more specialized, military one just northwest of Salem. Since the Change destroyed all modern technology, the inhabitants of the Emberverse would probably barely notice the coronavirus. Fewer people develop the diseases of civilization (heart disease, diabetes) in their medieval-style world, living conditions are less crowded, and there are no nursing homes or hospitals. Probably all they would notice was a particularly bad seasonal flu endangering the few remaining old people. They’d be grateful that this sickness, unlike many, was not threatening little children. Junie would be using her herbology and caretaking skills to help as many of her subjects as possible. Because Junie and Mike both grew up in the modern world, before “the Change” happened, they are aware of germ theory and this would help them enforce hygiene on their people.
Agatha Christie Quarantine
Miss Marple has lived through two world wars. She would gamely go along with whatever deprivations and regulations the quarantine brought. She’s been through worse. If anyone complained, she would smile sweetly while silently judging you and simply say, “So many things are difficult.”
Hercule Poirot is already a bit of a germophobe. He would take enthusiastically to masks and hand sanitizer, but would become peevish when unable to procure the foods that he’s used to. Whenever Hastings began to panic about the many unknowns, Hercule Poirot would calm his fears through the use of the Little Grey Cells.
P.G. Wodehouse Quarantine
Airheaded bachelor Bertie could not stand not going to his club. He would beg Jeeves to come up with a way that Bertie could skirt the rules to get out and about. Jeeves would do so, knowing that within hours, Bertie would be back home with a horrible hangover that he would need to sleep off and then drink one of Jeeves’s miraculous restoratives. Jeeves knows that the coronavirus mostly endangers older people, so even if Bertie should become a carrier, there is little danger that he would infect anyone because even in normal circumstances he cannot be induced to visit his Aunt Agatha.
And … I can’t resist … Quarantine with my own characters!
Nirri is, essentially, already in quarantine all the time. He broke his spine in a fall from the Tower of Babel, becoming paraplegic, and is now being reluctantly cared for by people with whom he does not share a language. He is the nightmare person to be quarantined with: arrogant, demanding, unable to communicate or be reasoned with. Though 130 years old, he is healthy as a horse and there is no way he is dying from this. On the bright side, he is an accomplished musician. Give him a lute and he will entertain you all evening, even if you don’t understand the words to his songs.
Zillah is a born caretaker and the tribe’s resident medical expert. It was she who insisted they rescue Nirri. Though young and even middle-aged people don’t usually show symptoms of the virus, in a tribe their size there might be one or two who do. Zillah would spend herself caring for them, and then get sick herself (she is the tribe’s second oldest person, after Nirri). She would survive, cared for by her daughter Ninna, and the weeks when she was sick would be the loneliest of Nirri’s life.
You Sure You Wanna Do This?
If you do, I tag …
Jyvurentropy, who has been posting so much that I can’t keep up with her
n.b. “Perfect,” as I will use it below, doesn’t always mean perfect but rather perfect in its context or else merely “really terrific.” Especially when used of actual, historical people. As we all know, perfection isn’t perfect, right?
The Perfect Genre
“Pick a book that perfectly represents its genre.”
The Rise and Fall of Ben Gizzard is the perfect Western.
“Ben Gizzard would die on the day he saw a white mountain upside down and a black bird talked to him, but not before. An old Indian he cheated out of some furs told him this.
“This was good news to a man as mean and crafty as Ben Gizzard. He settled in treeless, birdless Depression Gulch and cheated, robbed, and killed his way to riches. How his life seemed charmed in that place where there were neither mountains nor birds!
“But one day a young artist arrived in town with a large black bird sitting on his shoulder. Oh, Ben Gizzard!
“Our slithering villain comes to his end when he least expects it, and the world is a better place without him, and a better place for the telling of his story, which is both funny and awesome.”
The Perfect Setting
“Pick a book that takes place in a perfect place.”
Gosh, there are so many books that I love for their setting. There is Pearl Buck’s Pavilion of Women (an aristocratic household in pre-Mao China), Susan Cooper’s The Grey King (Wales, with magic), and Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series (modern-day Botswana).
But my top pick would have to be Treasures of the Snow by Patricia St. John. It takes place in a beautiful, sensuously described version of Switzerland (example: the children picking fresh strawberries and eating them with cream for lunch) and, of course, the fact that everything is so mountainous is crucial to the plot.
The Perfect Main Character
“Pick the perfect main character.”
I’m gonna have to go with Bilbo Baggins here. His combination of humility and spunk cannot be beat.
The Perfect Best Friend
“Loyal and supportive, pick a character that you think is the best friend ever.”
Sam Gamgee would be an obvious choice, but there are class issues there, so instead, let me name Mr. Tumnus from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
Reason: Tumnus just met Lucy an hour or two ago and she has not done anything special for him … and yet he’s ready to put his own life on the line to protect her from the Witch’s secret police. “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friend.”
The Perfect Love Interest
“Pick a character you think would be an amazing romantic partner.”
Charles Ingalls from the Little House series.
On the down side, he will drag you and your children across the American frontier, where you will almost lose your lives in every. single. chapter.
But on the plus side! The man can build a livable house, single-handed, in a few weeks. He can dig a well, provide food, and make friends with the Indians. He’s never met a stranger. He is gentle and kind with Caroline and his daughters, and he is unflaggingly cheerful, even when starving. (Read The Long Winter and watch him effusively praise the dehydrated cod gravy that Caroline breaks out to put some variety in the family’s totally inadequate diet.) And he can fiddle, sing, and dance! What more could you ask for?
This guy is a ball of energy and good cheer. There would be no better person to have by your side in the hairy situations that he will surely get you into.
The Perfect Villain
“Pick a character with the most sinister mind.”
“Amazing Amy” from Gone Girl. I don’t think it will be too much of a spoiler, by now, to tell you that she fakes her own death and frames her husband for it, then fantasizes about “him getting butt-raped in jail.” It’s never clear what Nick did to deserve such a fate, other than fail to think she is sufficiently amazing. And that trick she pulls at the end of the book … well …!
The Perfect Family
“Pick a perfect bookish family.”
Since I was a little hard on the Dutch on Friday, let me rehabilitate them a bit. My “perfect bookish family” is a Dutch family, and they actually lived: the ten Boom family of Haarlem, circa 1935.
Corrie ten Boom’s book The Hiding Place describes how the family took in Jews during the occupation until they were turned in and went to concentration camps themselves. Even though the book is about the Holocaust, it is heartwarming and includes many laugh-out-loud moments. The heartwarming part is Corrie’s description of the family’s life in their tiny, ramshackle house/watch shop. The laughing out loud comes mostly from the personality of her father, Casper ten Boom, a true character and an amazing man of God whom I look forward to meeting some day. Corrie’s mom was also amazing, and I think it was her warm personality (and Casper’s) that offset the natural sternness of the Dutch of that time, making the ten Booms … the perfect bookish family.
The Perfect Animal or Pet
“Pick a pet or fantastic animal that you need to see on a book.”
The humble chicken.
There are a few books with a chicken protagonist. The Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin, Jr., is one. There is also a Russian fairy tale where a rooster saves two poor children:
“I, the cock, have a crimson comb / And the wicked czar has nothing like it! / He took away their fortune / from two poor little orphans / And he dines in style / while they go hungry!”
The Perfect Plot Twist
“Pick a book with the best plot twist.”
Stern Men by Elizabeth Gilbert.
(Yes … it’s about lobstermen.)
Though it takes place on a tiny island in Maine, this book features a Jane Austen-worthy plot twist near the end.
The Perfect Trope
“Pick a trope that you would add to your own book without thinking.”
Spiritual transformation of a main character.
Not only would I add this without thinking, I actually wouldn’t think of writing a novel where it did not happen. To me, spiritual transformation is a critical part of a novel.
(Not that I don’t enjoy books where this trope doesn’t take place. Mystery series, particularly, do well if the detective MCs are fairly static.)
There are a few novels where the transformation is almost the only thing that happens. I give you The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, and all the Church of England novels by Susan Howatch. But much more commonly, the MC’s spiritual transformation happens as a result of a lot of other action in the plot, as in The Hobbit (fantasy), Identity Man by Andrew Klavan (crime thriller), and many, many others.
The Perfect Cover
“Pick the cover that you would easily put on your own book.”
My book is not St. George and the Dragon, but this is the artist I would have wanted to do my covers: Trina Schart Hyman. She’s gone now, but her art lives on. I have been trying my whole life to draw and paint like she did. I’ll bet she would have made the ruined Tower of Babel look amazing.
The Perfect Ending
“Pick a book that has the perfect ending.”
A Christmas Carol.
It’s the ultimate happy ending. We feel Scrooge’s childlike joy when he realizes he is being given another chance at life. Also, Tiny Tim is not dead after all and Scrooge has a chance to save him. “The spirits did it all in one night!” There is a strong sense of death and re-birth, not just of Scrooge but of his entire world.
I realize that everyone knows how the book ends and you might think of it as a cliche at this point, but really, if you read the entire book, hanging in there through Scrooge’s sad childhood, slow hardening, the horrific descriptions of poverty, etc., and then you get to the end and it doesn’t move you, well, I don’t know what to do for you, really.
A fellow blogger, Never Not Reading, made this delightful post: More Religious Characters Please. She points out that devout religious characters, particularly Christians, are extremely rare in fiction compared to their distribution in the general population.
I Have my Doubts about the Concept of Representation
She comes at this from the “representation” point of view, which is predicated on the idea that every kind of person ought to be able to find someone like them in fiction, and that if they can’t, this is somehow unfair or discriminatory. I don’t actually buy in to the assumptions behind this view. There are philosophical problems with the concept of “someone who is like me” that, if we parsed them, I suspect we would never get to the bottom of. I also think there are some other faulty assumptions packed in to the idea of representation: assumptions about what fiction means to the author and what fiction is meant to do for the reader. So, I find the whole idea of representation suspect.
Is This Persecution?
However, Never Not Reading is right about one thing. Religion plays a large role in life for very many – perhaps the majority – of people. It does not play any role in the characters’ lives in much of the fiction that is out there. This is even true of fiction set in historical periods such as the Middle Ages.
When religion does play a major
role in a story, it is often portrayed as a force for evil. That goes double for Christianity.
What is the reason for this?
Never Not Reading goes out of her way to emphasize that she is not saying this lack of religious characters is a form of persecution. I agree. I think there are many complex reasons for it, which we will explore below.
Possible Reasons Non-Christian Authors Don’t Portray Devout Christian Characters
They don’t know any Christians in real life. Although polls will tell you that the majority of U.S. citizens identify as Christian, there are large pockets of society that are very secular. One of these is New York City, home to the publishing industry in America. Another is L.A., home to Hollywood. If you are an artist or writer, you are likely to move to one of these places to launch your career. There, it is easy to live your life without ever interacting with anyone who is openly Christian. It’s easy to get the impression that most people are secular, at least most normal people. And if your mental image of Christians is some variety of kook, it’s possible that some of your acquaintances are believers and you don’t realize it because they seem so normal.
It’s easier to portray madness than sanity, evil than good. Most people are bored by portrayals of virtue. A story with no evil in it is going to come grinding quickly to a halt. So if you are going to put religion into your story, it is easier to make the religious person the villain. The villain in Stephen King’s Misery, Annie, is a beautifully drawn portrayal of a crazy person who at first seems normal. Nothing beats the creepiness of the moment when, after torturing the hero, she starts to tell him that she has been talking to God.
Religion is also a great way to add punch, depth, and believability to your villain/cult leader. Christian-type religions, when they go bad, go really terrifyingly bad. This is easier to portray than the comparatively sane boring version, especially if you don’t actually know any sane and boring Christian groups.
They may actually hate them. Writing fiction is unavoidably a spiritual practice. Fiction is about how we see the world, people, the problem of evil, the cosmos … in short, about how we see reality. The only instruments we have with which to perceive and portray these things are our own eyes, ears, mind, and heart. These are the tools with which we write fiction.
Fiction will therefore reflect the author’s personal spiritual state as well as his or her unique personality. If a person has rejected God, their heart may actually be at war with God and with His people. This may come out in their writing, particularly if their writing is deep and heartfelt.
Stephen King, again, is a great example of this. He is a brilliant writer. I love his work. I tried to read Insomnia, and I couldn’t get through it because the pro-life character was also a despicable wife-beater (and was showing signs, when I stopped reading, of maybe being possessed by something or other. After all, it’s a Stephen King novel.)
Again, I am not saying this phenomenon is persecution. It is a natural consequence of the nature of fiction. It is always possible, when reading an author, to tell what he or she loves and hates. And some authors do hate Christians.
Possible Reasons Christian Authors Don’t Portray Devout Christian Characters
They wish to have wide appeal. Christian authors are aware that religion of any kind, but particularly Christianity, is Kryptonite to many people. It is enough to make people put down a book. That’s a shame, particularly if the story we are telling can be told without overt Christianity. After all, our first duty is to entertain the reader. We are not preachers, we are storytellers, so the story itself is supposed to be what we bring to the reader.
They fear being defensive. If we do put Christianity in to our book, aware that some readers will be skeptical or hostile, we could fall into making the book an apology or defense of our religion. Good authors don’t want to write a thinly veiled philosophical or political rant. (Hi there, Ayn Rand! Hello, Dan Brown!). They just want to tell a story. This is really, really tricky to do if we are feeling defensive, on account of the whole author’s-spiritual-state-comes-out-in-the-writing thing. So to avoid preachiness, it can be easier simply to avoid the whole topic.
They fear being unoriginal. As an author who grew up in the church, when I first started writing I wanted my writing to be interesting and new. Anything drawing on the Bible would be, I felt, tame and derivative. (Of course, that didn’t stop 12-year-old me from shamelessly ripping off Tolkien.)
Unfortunately, if you want to be wise it does not do to turn away from the font of all wisdom. In the years since, I have discovered that the Old and New Testaments are an incredibly rich source of story, history, myth, emotion, insight and symbolism that literally never runs dry. Some of my favorite pieces of art draw openly from the Bible. But surprisingly, instead of making them tired and derivative, this gives them their power. An example is Johnny Cash’s When the Man Comes Around. The lyrics are literally just a series of random quotes from the Old Testament prophets (plus a few quotes from Jesus), and the song still gives me goose bumps every time.
Religion is just too big to control in our writing.
This, I think, is the #1 problem for both Christian and non-Christian writers. If we are going to write about true religion (as opposed to the fake and hypocritical kind), then we are writing about God. We have just unleashed God into our book. This is sort of like blithely grabbing on to a blasting fire hose. It immediately introduces all these deep, destructive, hard-to-portray realities that are just too much for most writers to corral.
What kind of book we are capable of writing depends on our wisdom and maturity as a writer and as a person. I have made the mistake of trying to write about God when I was an immature writer, and I was not. Ready. For it. Trying to “include” God threw off all the dynamics of the book and basically destroyed it. My writing about the other characters wasn’t deep or wise enough to keep up. I wasn’t yet good enough at writing about the human heart, about suffering, about betrayal. My characters were paper dolls and God was a firehose.
Dostoevsky can do it. Mary Doria Russell did a great job in The Sparrow. But for us ordinary writers, if we choose to stay away from making religion a serious part of our plot, I think it might just be a sign of knowing our limits.
The Bechdel test, a rough-and-ready way to critique a book or film from a feminist perspective, states that a story ought to have 1) at least two female characters 2) who talk to each other 3) about something other than a man.
One of my favorite series, The Lord of the Rings, flunks this test. (Though, I should point out that ‘Til We Have Faces does not!) And it doesn’t just flunk it a little bit. Bilbo is a bachelor. So is Frodo. So is Gandalf (more of a monk or an angel, really.) Mothers tend to be dead: Frodo’s. Eomer and Eowyn’s. Boromir and Faramir’s.
But, although they are not seen talking to each other (except the garrulous Ioreth to her kinswoman), the Lord of the Rings cycle has a number of intriguing female characters of all different classes and personalities (and even species), and each plays an important, though hidden, role. I thought it would be fun to rank them below in order of relatability. I have only included female characters that we actually get to see in action. (Smeagol’s grandmother, for instance, is not included, and neither are the Entwives.)
(Most relatable) Rosie Cotton. Rosie, daughter of Farmer Cotton, is Sam Gamgee’s love interest not only in the movie but also in the book. She is a simple, sweet young peasant girl. When Sam returns from Mordor, she first chides him for having taken so long, and then says, “If you’ve been looking after Mr. Frodo all this while, what d’you want to leave him for, as soon as things look dangerous?” Pretty frustrating for Sam, but he likes her anyway. She just has no idea what he’s been through … and, really, how could she? Sam later marries Rosie and they go on to become a founding family in the next generation of the Shire. Rosie represents the Shire itself in all the wholesomeness and normality of its farm family life. She represents everything that Frodo and Sam went to Mordor in order to save. She is an ordinary good-hearted woman who makes a wonderful wife for Sam, the ordinary hero. That is why she wins the prize for Most Relatable.
Goldberry,wife of Tom Bombadil, the “river daughter.” Goldberry is a sort of nymph, “slender as the willow-wand, clearer than the water.” She is a little less relatable than Rosie because of her great beauty, apparent immortality, and because she is a representation not of the farm but of the forest. However, her role is very similar to Rosie’s. Tom Bombadil’s house in the forest is a supernatural refuge for travelers who would otherwise be overcome by the wild otherness of the Old Forest. Goldberry plays a critical role in making this home. She maintains it, she serves food, she beautifies the home with her singing, her weaving, her wisdom, and her very presence there. Tom wanders all throughout the Old Forest, but in the end he always comes back to his home (and invites the hobbits there) because, as he says, “Goldberry is waiting.”
Eowyn. Eowyn is the brave and beautiful niece of King Theoden of Rohan. (The Rohirrim are basically Vikings on horseback.) She feels trapped by the need to stay in the house and care for her elderly uncle. When the elderly uncle revives and goes off to fight against Mordor, Eowyn really really wants to go along. What she most fears, she says, is “a cage.” She disguises herself as a man, sneaks away with the army of Rohan, and ends up killing a demonlike creature on the battlefield, nearly losing her life in the process. Eowyn is generally the first female character people remember from The Lord of the Rings. Her restlessness is something that we’ve all felt, but her Nordic style of beauty, her superior horsewomanship and swordswomanship, and, especially, her extreme bravery are not qualities that most of us possess.
Arwen. Arwen, daughter of Elrond, is Aragorn’s childhood crush. Her role in the series is mostly symbolic. She represents the Elven colony that Elrond maintains in Rivendell, and hence, the whole glorious world of the Elves that is now fading away. She is an aristocrat, a queen, an ideal of beauty, grace and virtue that is completely unattainable (for everyone, of course, except Aragorn, who is himself an ideal of virtue).
Galadriel. Galadriel, I have been told, plays the role in The Lord of the Rings that Mary plays in the Catholic faith. Everything I just said about Arwen is also true of Galadriel, except that in Galadriel’s case, she is not an ideal that we are meant even to try to attain to. Instead, we are (not to mince words) simply meant to worship. Gimli the dwarf discovers this when he enters Lothlorien (heaven on earth) expecting to find a hostile witch. On meeting Galadriel, he has a true spiritual experience and is immediately converted. After this, he carries a lock of her hair with him and is ready to fight anyone who criticizes her. Galadriel, in other words, is a sort of female God figure, a spiritual mother who dispenses wisdom to the travelers and who gives Frodo a light that saves him in the lair of Shelob (who, being a spider, did not make this list). Galadriel would have been the Least Relatable person on this list, but we have one more …
Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. Ha! You didn’t think anyone could be less relatable than Galadriel? You have forgotten Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, the odious relative of Bilbo and Frodo. Lobelia had always hoped somehow to legally get her hands on the comfortable ancestral hall of Bag End. She nearly inherited it when Bilbo disappeared for a year in The Hobbit. She was very annoyed when Bilbo then willed Bag End to Frodo, and made quite a nuisance of herself to Frodo by saying nasty things as only a bitter, feisty, disappointed older relative can. Before Frodo goes off on his adventure, he sells Bag End to the Sackville-Bagginses, and Lobelia cannot conceal her triumph. She does redeem herself, however, by getting herself thrown in the local jail for defying a constable after Saruman takes over the Shire. When she gets out, she is met with a standing ovation and bursts into tears: “She had never been popular before.” … OK, I admit it, much of Lobelia’s bad behavior is actually very relatable if we are honest with ourselves. But she beats Galadriel because, even more than Galadriel, Lobelia is not a character that anyone would aspire to be.