This is a quintessential summer night. The moon is just past full, and my electric fan is humming away, and I’m sticking to everything I touch. This is the sort of night for reading Millhauser’s Enchanted Night — just reminding you all. If you haven’t done so, that’s your homework — before the end of August. And read him at night. And read his story “Clair de Lune” from The Knife-Thrower and Other Stories. But seriously, seasons just don’t get any better than this. When people talk of severe weather in the winter — deep snow, record low temperatures, etc. — it’s just dismal and dismaying. But when people complain about the summer heat, about how they can’t sleep, about how plastic containers in their kitchens are melting and all, I get an excited tingle in my stomach. Yesss! This is the season. THE season. The imagination boils over, and dreams are born. The nights are electric, with whole worlds crackling in that residual heat. I LOVE the feeling of lying in bed when it’s far too hot for most mortals to sleep — you lie there as if in a frying pan, sizzling away, as outside the moon rides in all that velvet sky, and the wings of insects hum in the dark. Oh, read Enchanted Night! Read Lud-in-the-Mist and The Hobbit and . . . what else? Tell me your summer books! What else should we be reading in this most excellent of all seasons? It’s a good time to catch up on H.P. Lovecraft, if you like that sort of thing.
Also, just in case anyone is missing out, I invite you to look at the comments posted after the previous entry on this blog, where you’ll find the vindication of my Tolkien tantrum and the verdict on Cymbril.
But anyway, to the nitty-gritty of this posting — I came across the following quote earlier this evening. It’s talking about the cathedrals of Europe:
“The divine presence lives in nature, in space, and in light, and the cathedrals brought these elements together in such a magnificent way that even today modern man, so cut off from his own divine nature, can still feel them.” — Janet Brennan, “The Cathedral Code,” Fate, December 2006
When I read those lines, they resonated with me. I felt they provided a clear elucidation of the reason I love caves and caverns so much. Nature, space, and light. When I think of the most holy places I’ve ever seen (churches aside), I have to nod in acknowledgment. Those three elements are always present. The barn I played in as a child: a lofty, dusky space, scented with fragrant hay and old wood, suffused with the green glow of light falling through Virginia creeper leaves. The barn was built by man, but nature had embraced it and encroached upon it, peeking in at all its windows, skittering across its plant-sprouting floors. And then caves: Grand Central Station in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky — a place where soaring passages come together, an enormous space in the deep Earth, with towering boulders dim in the distance, a shadowed ceiling high above — a place made by the hand of God. Nature, space, and light. Some of my favorite places in Mammoth Cave are the grand stairways, where the path ascends flight after flight of stairs, all within a gargantuan chamber.
In The Lord of the Rings, my favorite setting by far is the mines of Moria. How I would love to have seen it when it was Khazad-dum, during the noontide of Dwarrowdelf, before Durin’s folk disturbed the Balrog! Nature, space . . . and light — for it’s the dim lighting that makes the place so alluring. The Chamber of Mazarbul: we’ve got indirect lighting filtering in from outside. That was an ideal I strove for in my years of designing dungeon for my Verralton campaign: echoing halls in the Earth, dimly-lit by filtered sunlight through fissures or from various haunting sources of light. (For anyone who may be going “Huh?!” right about now, I’m talking about Dungeons & Dragons.)
That got me to thinking about my writing. Dragonfly was written when I was in my early twenties, and (I’d like to believe) it still holds up pretty well. My second novel, called (in various drafts) Lachii or The Fires of the Deep, was an absolute disaster. I labored away on it for five years before I ever showed it to anyone. When an editor and two agents rejected it, I went on laboring away on it in isolation, striving to bring it to “perfection” before I ever let it out of the nest again. And it became, as I later described it, “like a clan of inbred hillbillies” — worked over, re-worked, and re-worked so many times, with no input from anyone but me, that it got to the point where I couldn’t even see it anymore. The world in which it’s set had become intimately familiar to me. But that world is vastly different from our own, and the more I lived in it, the less capable I became of communicating it to people who didn’t live there. In the draft I eventually let some friends read, I realized that, in a single sentence, there might be four or five specialized terms of which only I knew the meaning. Oh, I provided a glossary, yes indeed, a magnificent opus that I worked on night and day. But as one friend commented, “Do you realize that a third of this book is glossary?” Um, oops.
What was missing from the book, I now know, was light. The “nature” was there: a subterranean world, echoing and epic in every way, built directly upon my childhood love of caves. The “space” was there: endless, miles-wide corridors called dulons, large enough to fly airships through without getting anywhere near the world-walls (Shur) or the ceiling (Ra). The world was built — elaborately built. Just as Inuits have all those words for different kinds of snow, my Hurlim people have many different words for stone: lodin are the dry boulder fields; kalodin are the huge, dry boulders; lys is wet, living stone; lysshur is a wet, living stone wall; losshur is a dry wall; los is dead, dry stone. There were abundant folk sayings that made sense in the context of the Hurlim world: “He’s on a skurl under the needles.” “That’ll happen when los becomes lys.” “Hey there, all! What’s in the bucket?”
Yes, the world was painstakingly built. Yet it still didn’t feel alive. Somehow, it seemed all merely academic — a theory.
I know now what was missing.
I’m not saying this is true for all fantasy writers, but what’s revealed in that Janet Brennan quote above is certainly true for me. The triangular equation is nature, space, and light. When the three are present, I can build a setting that feels real, that invites the reader to come in. (The hot Orcharan sands of the Arena seem to work for test readers of “Here About to Die.”) But in my Hurlim world of Ama, I was trying to manage without light. The Hurlim people rely on a sense called yla, which is also an energy that flows through the Earth, emanating from the core. It passes through all spaces and solid objects, bearing a record of all it has passed through. Hurlim eyes, attuned to the yla, can read in it the distances and the surface textures, but it is a sense wholly apart from color. Water appears opaque: if calm, it appears as a flat surface; if rippling, it appears to ripple — but nothing can be seen beneath the surface; hence, the Hurlim fear of water, which seems solid, but which can swallow the unwary traveler who sets foot on it.
In contrast, look at Dragonfly — also set in a subterranean world — yet one in which the descriptions (though often horribly overdone — hey, I was a kid, cut me some slack) are vivid. Dragonfly, for all its dimness, is full of light: torchlight, jack-o’-lantern light, firelight, balloon-light, moonlight, starlight. . . .
The lesson to be learned is this: when a writer doesn’t have light to work with, his/her hands are tied. Imagine an artist trying to paint a picture of a landscape without light! Take any book in which the settings are vibrant, in which you can picture everything so clearly that you feel you’re there, living inside the scene — and then notice how light makes those descriptions possible. See what I mean?
Maybe it seems elementary to you, a principle that we wouldn’t need all these words to arrive at. But for me to realize it, I had to write draft after draft of an enormous novel. The hardest thing I’ve ever done as a writer was trying to tell a story without light. In the next draft of The Fires of the Deep, you can be sure I will have found a way to introduce light into the Hurlim world — and we’ll have the shadows and the dimness and the glimmers and the silhouettes — to give the characters a vivid setting in which to live and breathe.
The act of writing any story, to use Tolkien’s term again, is an act of sub-creation. We rearrange elements God has provided and stack them up in our own way, in our own tiny corner of the universe. Looking back to our prime model, the original Creation: it began with “Let there be light.” Seems to me that’s the way to begin.