Thunder and Providence

Do you know what’s coming next Wednesday? In the early morning hours — to be precise, at six seconds past 4:05 a.m. — the time and date will be:


Aren’t you glad you found that out? Otherwise, you would have missed it entirely — you probably would have been sleeping or something. Now you can celebrate the moment by running around your yard shouting, waving a couple of sparklers you’ll save from the 4th just for the purpose. That’s what I’d be doing . . . if I had a yard.

Anyway — Happy Fourth of July!

I’ve been thinking hard about this holiday over the last few days.

Not long ago, I read an article about George Washington, which described how he miraculously escaped death on several occasions, both as a young man and during the Revolution. I’m talking miraculous — he should have been toast, but wasn’t — close-range bullets strangely not hitting him, and one instance in which a British soldier had him in the sights of a newly-developed, far-shooting rifle . . . but didn’t realize who this tall, imposing fellow was, and decided it just wasn’t decent to kill a man in such a way. And without the leadership of Washington, it’s very possible — even probable — that the nearly hopeless American army would have been completely hopeless, and the war lost.

A friend this week was telling me about how, by nearly any historian’s estimation, the Revolution was a war that the Americans never should have won. They were outnumbered, outgunned, and severely lacking in training, battle experience, and seasoned leaders. They suffered some terrible defeats. What saved them again and again — and eventually turned the tide of the war — was geography, and the weather, and what many great minds of the time could only attribute to Divine Providence: the hand of God shaping human history.

Throughout my life I’ve connected Glory Day — July 4th — with freedom. But for me growing up, that meant “freedom from school.” I linked the holiday to the fun of fireworks and cookouts and spending time with friends and relatives met only rarely. Fun, fun, fun: but that fun and that freedom were bought at a heavy price.

There was a scene in the movie The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson, that really brought the impact of the Revolution home to me. Mel Gibson’s character, an American farmer, comes out onto his porch and sees a line of British redcoats advancing into view from among the trees in his pasture. As I sat there in the theater, that scene jolted me to the core. THAT was the Revolution: enemy troops in your pasture, stepping around the trees you climbed as a kid. Enemy troops in your yard. Shooting at you.

That was the reality then, and it’s the reality today for many people in the world.

It’s about a different war, but I know anyone who saw Saving Private Ryan on the big screen will never forget it. Yes, I mean the first half-hour or so, the intensely realistic depiction of the Allies coming ashore on the beaches of Normandy, under the muzzles of the German guns. When I saw that film, I seriously questioned what I was doing as a writer. At the time, I was working on The Fires of the Deep, a fantasy that takes place during a war. My book included several large-scale battle scenes of precisely that type. The movie made me ask myself whether I had any right to be doing that — to be using war as a part of a fiction book written to entertain readers. I, who have never fought in a war . . . writing a book about war . . . war as entertainment. I felt I should burn the manuscript and go start apologizing to veterans.

Tolkien had far more of a right, if anyone does: he fought in World War I, lost something like three of his four closest friends in the Battle of the Somme, caught trench fever, and was invalided home. So when he writes of battle, it’s quite real. He knows whereof he speaks, and he never misrepresents war. When we read LOTR, we come away knowing that war is a dark, sorrowful thing.

It’s true that martial conflict has always been an element explored and utilized by the poets and writers of the human race, because war is what we humans do, as much as we do anything else. Certainly its drama, its consequence, and its absolutes help to define characters, and writers love to work with stuff like that.

It’s also true that Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, one of the best-known and enduring novels of the Civil War, was written by a man who was not a soldier and had no firsthand experience of the war.

So I haven’t given up writing about war (and I didn’t burn the manuscript), but I hope I handle combat as the sad and horrifying inevitability it is in this sin-darkened world.

I have a cousin who is a veteran of Vietnam. Like Tolkien, he lost very close friends in the slaughter. He came home full of metal fragments for which, even now in July 2009, he is having surgeries. He hates the 4th of July — not for what it means, but because of its physical stimuli: in hot, sultry, steamy weather, the sky is full of explosions, and the air is laced with the smell of gunpowder. It’s far too close a reenactment of what he experienced over there. The 4th is a holiday he grits his teeth and gets through.

When he read my story “Seawall,” the climactic battle story at the end of the Agondria cycle, he offered me his experience. “Let me tell you some things about what a person thinks and feels just before and during combat.” I would never have asked him to relive such things, but you can believe I listened with both ears and took very thorough notes. I revised “Seawall” accordingly — so if you read it, you’ll know that the battle parts are as close to the real thing as I can get them — I who do not know war and have no right.

While we’re on this topic: people ask me, since I live in Japan, about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “What’s it like?” . . . “Have you been there?” . . . “What do people think?” Yes, I’ve been to Hiroshima, but not to Nagasaki. I’ve seen the “Atomic Bomb Dome” — the one gutted, domed building that was left standing in August of 1945, because it was in the blast shadow, directly under ground zero. I’ve seen the Peace Park and the museum there, and that, too, is an experience I’ll never forget. Aside from all the written accounts, the films, the photos, and the half-melted artifacts on display there, three things in particular are etched in my memory:

One is a 360-degree photo, floor to ceiling, that covers the wall of a circular room in the museum. This picture (probably a carefully-pieced composite) was taken at the blast center. It shows flat, charred wreckage to the horizon in every direction. Where there was once a city full of people.

Another is a wall of maps for comparison. The maps are of several major cities in the world, with different colored circles showing you the effects of a bomb equal in strength to that dropped on Hiroshima. I picked out Chicago, where I’d gone to school for four years, and I spent quite a while studying which suburbs would be vaporized, which would be flattened, which would be set ablaze. . . . When it’s a city you know something about, there’s a lot you think about.

Finally, the museum has a long, long wall of illustrated accounts of the atomic explosion and the days afterward . . . done by children. Children who lived through it — what they saw, what they thought, what they felt, what they did. Big, childlike letters and colorful pictures. The pictures are very much like the gruesome scenes we kids (okay, we boys) drew for amusement, from our imaginations. But these were scenes that kids like ourselves actually saw.

The single most memorable piece we played in junior high band class was an arrangement of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It started out through a few verses with beauty and grandeur and mounting tension — a brave young country careening toward internal war. In the middle section, after the melody had risen to a kind of scream, all the wind instruments dropped out, and a grand timpani solo took over. The percussionist pounded the kettledrums, rattling the windows. Hooves, rifles, cannon fire . . . North and South, clashing headlong . . . John Brown, convinced “that the sins of this guilty country cannot be purged away but with blood.” Then the shots faded, the smoke rose, and a muted trumpet played a sorrowful lament. Finally, the other voices came back, reacquiring harmony, gathering strength. As a kid in junior high, I got goosebumps every single time we played it.

This isn’t a post about delight and enchantment this week. Maybe it’s a theme I should have saved for Memorial Day or Veterans’ Day. But I thought Glory Day, this time at the height of summer when we live to the fullest and read and write, watch movies, travel, and dream, would also be a good time for us all to remember a respect for our materials, whatever they may be. Those materials come to our hands at a price. Our freedom is the result of sacrifices made on our behalf . . . and it is the gift of a Power greater than ourselves, ordering our days.

Near the end of Saving Private Ryan, the Tom Hanks character delivers a stern speech to Private Ryan, reminding him that his life, too, has been purchased at a great cost, so Ryan has a duty now to use his life well.

Is that not our only response to Providence? G.K. Chesterton wrote: “Here dies another day during which I have had eyes, ears, hands, and the great world around me. And with tomorrow begins another. Why am I allowed TWO?”

And in the words of the unforgettable Mr. Keating (played by Robin Williams) in Dead Poets Society:

“What will your verse be? Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”


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43 Responses to “Thunder and Providence”

  1. mileposter Says:

    Thanks for the reminder of the cost of Independence Day. Too few realize what the fireworks really mean. And all of life is precious, is worthwhile, is so meaningful. Today is the first day of the rest of our lives. May God grant us grace, wisdom, and courage to live it to the fullest, to His glory and to the benefit of others.

  2. Tim in Germany Says:

    Thanks from here too. For me, the heart of your post lies in your catechizing about our curious American habit of separating celebration from commemoration. You wonder if “Maybe it’s a theme I should have saved for Memorial Day or Veterans’ Day.” But I’d say you’ve done well to ponder the risks and costs of revolution at the very moment you also celebrate it.
    I know the soldiers whose kids I teach see all three of the holidays you’ve mentioned very much in terms of “What’s this going to cost my family?” I don’t mean to suggest they are being selfish or short-sighted, merely that they are very much in touch with the real, day-to-day costs of “politics by other means.” Your evocation of the soldiers in the pasture scene from The Patriot is right on the money.
    It seems dangerous and unhealthy to separate celebration of a victory too entirely from contemplation of its costs. Good on you Fred, for mashing them back together.

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Tim, I’ve been meaning to say how delighted and honored I am that you’ve found your way to this blog and pitched a tent here! It’s wonderful to be back in touch!

      Separating celebration from commemoration. . . . {See the old Irish song I quoted below, in response to Elizabeth.}

      Very, very glad you’re here!

  3. Elizabeth Says:

    It’s been rainy since the beginning of June in Vermont, so last night my cousins and I took the chance on the calmed, but cloudy, weather and went out to Magic Mountain for a fireworks celebration. We had my cousin’s son, Logan, with us. He’s six and makes friends very easily, and made an instant friend with a boy named Andrew.

    We sit down in lawn chairs, wrapped in sweatshirts. I was holding two of the colored light strings Logan had bought. The fireworks were pounding above our head, beautiful and simplistic in a way that small town America is capable of (I come from a town where the fireworks have become a massive production and so have lost any of the beauty and the glory of a fireworks display.)

    Logan was standing with his friend Andrew, across the field. The two boys were hollering and shouting. This was a shooting star! Mars just blew up! Machine guns! This one was a Digimond cloud (or something; the dialogue of young boys is a little like a second language). They cried out “boom!” with each explosion, trying to time it right. You could hear the cheering from over at the base of the mountain where they were setting them off. And the boys crying about this explosion, that explosion, drawing their comparison, had my cousins and I laughing. Laughing at the joy of childhood.

    I wonder – they don’t know the price of war. They don’t know what the fireworks mean, other than a party in the field and glow sticks and staying up late, then falling asleep in the car ride home. Part of me wants them to never know: to never see a war, to never know what it’s like to have enemy soldiers in their back yards, to never hear a real machine gun. Maybe it’s a hopeless wish.

    Each generation forgets the price of the one before; each generation marches anew to war. Washington, as a young green commander, decides to seize the French Fort and starts the French & Indian war, a war that spanned the world; young European men scrambled to sign up for World War I before the fun would be over. The U.S. followed policies of indirect war against Communism for years, “culminating” in the Vietnam war. It goes on and on.

    There is this wonderful line in the Tao, which maybe should be our approach to these celebrations:

    “Observe victories as you observe a death in the family: with sorrow and mourning. Every victory is a funeral for kin.” (Ch. 31)

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      This is an astounding comment — better in every way than the post itself. Just read this, everybody!

      Seriously, I love the description of the fireworks display, and listening to the two boys. Yes! This is what it was like when we were kids! This is exactly what we reach for when we try to remember. The foreign language of little boys — yes!

      About the European men scrambling to sign up for the “fun” — in the post, I almost included the part from Gone With the Wind, in which the Southern young men are celebrating how they’ve been “awarded” the war, and one of them asks in bewilderment, “Don’t you want a war?”

      I love that line from the Tao — thanks!

      I also can’t help thinking of this old song:

      For the great Gaels of Ireland
      Are the men that God made mad:
      For all their wars are merry,
      And all their songs sad.

  4. Chris Says:

    Somewhere, buried deeply in the Archives of the Taylorville Junior High School Media Center (nee Library) is actual film footage of an interview with Stephen Crane conducted in Manners Park in or about 1977. It was made by two young film-makers working on a Lit class project.

    It was probably one of the greatest literary coups known to the town of Taylorville.

    It touched on, silently, of course, his work on “The Red Badge of Courage” and helped explain it in a way no actual “reading” of the book ever could.

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      No WAY! That is amazing! I had no idea. The TJHS Media Center probably tossed out that footage long ago to make room for some archival episodes of Friends. . . .

      Of course, my favorite Stephen Crane is his poem about the creature crouching in the desert, “naked, bestial,” devouring its own heart:

      “Is it good, Friend?”
      “No. It is bitter — bitter. But I like it
      Because it is bitter
      And because it is my heart.”

  5. fsdthreshold Says:

    By grace, this was a TREMENDOUS writing day! I set a new personal record (on this project) for most words written in a single day: 3,315! (I don’t know if that’s an all-time personal record or not. When I was doing NaNoWriMo, right at the end, I had some 3,000-plus-word days, but if it’s not an all-timer, it’s right up there!) TSW (The Sacred Woods) is now at 47,490, and I’m swiftly closing in on it — hoping to have a rough draft by about the end of this month!

    Soli Deo Gloria!

  6. I believe providence guides/guards U.S.A. Says:

    (I apologize to all in advance for the length of this post …)

    How about this from Crane:

    A man said to the universe:
    “Sir I exist!”
    “However,” replied the universe,
    “The fact has not created in me
    A sense of obligation.”


    A man feared that he might find an assassin;
    Another that he might find a victim.
    One was more wise than the other.

    All this talk about the American Revolution and the sacrifices involved in war remind me of Sandburg’s great poem “Grass”

      Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
    Shovel them under and let me work–
              I am the grass; I cover all.
    And pile them high at Gettysburg
    And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
    Shovel them under and let me work.
    Two years, ten years, and the passengers ask the conductor:
              What place is this?
              Where are we now?
              I am the grass.
              Let me work.

    We are the progeny of greatness, of genius, of a generation (the REAL “greatest generation”) upon whom Providence smiled. Can there be any doubt that, despite all of our faults, that the United States of America (by which I mean the people thereof, and the government which, until last this January, served them) is specially blessed? No other people are so generous, no other people so merciful, no other people so dedicated to the liberty and human rights of others.
    Yes, we have slaughtered 50 million babies in their mother’s womb, yes, we firebombed Dresden, yes, we have sinned. But no one else has done all the wonderful things we have done.

    They died at Concord. At Brandywine and Monmouth, Oriskany and Cowpens. On the high seas and Great Lakes. Of sunstroke, hypothermia, smallpox, staph infection, 57-caliber musket ball, grape shot, sabre stroke and bayonet thrust. Crying out for mother, for God, for mercy, for water. Alone, in groups, under a horse, behind a wall, in the arms of their wives … for us.

    May God have mercy upon us, and may He continue to bless these United States!

    • Chris Says:

      (Providence, please accept the following in the spirit is intended. Not one of hostility, but a personal opinion. And one I often find comes to mind at times like these).

      I, too, am a proud American. I’m proud of the great things we’ve done for the world. But I must always remember, we are not superhumans. We are no more special than any other group of people, some of which we, as a people, have helped exploit.

      We Americans make up 5% of the earth’s population and we consume 25% of its petroleum. Some portions of that come from our willingness to support or destabilize other nations in service of a constant supply (just look at the present price we pay and have paid for the last 30 years with regards to Iran, whom, in the 1950’s we set in motion in our help in ousting their chosen leader, Mossadegh, in support of British petroleum interests who were threatened by Iran’s desire to control their own natural resources).

      We are not intrinsically “better” or more “blessed” than any other group on the planet and we must always keep in mind that we are, like our worst enemies, only human. No more, no less. If there is a God surely he doesn’t love one child more than another.

      We are, however, amazingly wealthy. We are the wealthiest group of humans to have ever existed as a country in the history of the earth. Yet we still have rampant poverty and we have inequitable healthcare systems based on some imaginary “market” (for a thing many economists will tell you is _not_ a market good: healthcare).

      If we are blessed we are merely blessed with a cohesive continental-sized resource-rich country.

      The statement you made: “…and the government which, until last this January, served them”, I must take exception to. My government was not serving me by torturing. My government was not serving me by “washing their hands” of other brutalities by “rendition” to countries that would do much worse than we had the stomach to. My government was not serving me by getting us involved in a war we could ill afford as a distraction for whatever reasons. My government was not serving me when an election was decided by the Supreme Court over the questionable tactics of elections in various states. My government is still not serving me when a minority group has a basic right removed by ballot initiative here in California (Prop 8, banning gay marriage).

      My government IS serving me in being free, fair, honest and open. I harbor no illusions that any politician is inherently more or less “honest” than any others. But I don’t see that prior to January of this year that we were necessarily being “served” better.

      We are a great country, but just as “grace” is freely given by God by recognizing that we are in no way “deserving” of salvation (that we have all sinned), national greatness does not come from merely claiming it. We must _be_ it. And the only way to _be_ great is to realize we all fall far short of the goal. We can _be_ better.

      (I know it sounds disingenous for an atheist to speak in the phrases of a religion he has abandoned, but indeed, the concepts are often quite solid, and “salvation” of any sort comes at some price to personal pride.)

      (Sorry to side track on this patriotic holiday.)

  7. I believe providence guides/guards U.S.A. Says:

    Your objections are indeed taken in the spirit they are given. It is clear we disagree — in extremis — politically.
    While I revel in the people of California overcoming the judicial activism of the 9th Circuit Court of Comrades, while I rejoice in the freeing of 21 million from tyranny, while I shout with joy that New Haven, Conn, was called out as racist and while I was thrilled the Supreme Court would not allow the state of Florida to violate the 14th amendment, I would gladly defend your right to disagree.
    I do not believe God loves one child over another, but His favor IS given to those who follow His will. And He has blessed some over others. Many believers often see the merciful God and forget the Just Judge …
    Americans are humans, those we are fallen. It follows that all in which we are involved would be flawed. I argue only that we are less flawed than others and that it is our duty to not only improve ourselves but to give others the same opportunity.
    My parish priest has a bumper sticker on his car that reads: Who would Jesus bomb? I asked him a question he did not want to answer: Given that the Nazis and Imperial Japanese were permitted to start the second world war, were we to allow Evil to triumph, or were not evey bomb that hastened the Axis defeat, in the end, a necessary sadness?

  8. I believe providence guides/guards U.S.A. Says:

    Chris and all:
    Ooops. I got a tad bit fired up. End of politics from me. Sorry to all — Jeff

  9. Chris Says:

    Personally I think politics should fly loud and proud. This is a weblog of a writer, an artist. Politics is just another “passion”! Isn’t that what an artist’s life is all about? While it may not be the passion of this particular artist, it is a fine example of a drive or a passion that spurs not only writers like Jeff but can certainly “inform” characters in any given circumstance or work of literature!

    Vive l’ difference! As the say.

    Of course there is a time and place for everything and I suppose political debates aren’t really a good fit here. But it’s fun to at least throw it out once in a while!

  10. I believe providence guides/guards U.S.A. Says:

    Well said, Sir Chris!
    I just can’t help having fun tweaking people sometimes.
    For instance, on July 6 we should be celebrating the death of magnitude 5 [expletive deleted] Bob McNamara, who, along with Hank Kissinger and Wally Cronkite-Trotsky combined to kill more Americans than the North Vietnamese could possibly have slain.
    Instead, the pablum-spewing media is consumed by the death of a proven pedophile, a pervert and freak of nature who, in the end, was nothing more than a minstrel.

  11. fsdthreshold Says:

    As Chris points out, politics (or perhaps I should say an interest in how we are governed and the policies we make and endorse) is woven deeply into the fabric of how we view the world and how we live in it — which certainly sounds as if we’re talking about art. So such discussions are also welcome here.

    I ask only that we all stay mindful of the fact that a diverse group of people are reading along, including some young ones, so we need to watch our language.

    As Chris also points out, I am just about as apolitical a creature as there is, so I doubt I’ll be jumping into political discussions. But I read all comments with interest!

    • Chris Says:

      Aw c’mon Fred! %%^&*! There’s nothing more satisfying than
      using some crude and coarse language! I so enjoy peppering
      my commentary with needless and pointless profanity so much
      so that I often forget to add “content”!

      Speaking of *&&^$%@, I’d like to take this time to teach the
      younger readers some exceedingly filthy words:

      Cummingtonite (an actual mineral!)

      There, I’ve done my “educational duty” for the day!

      • fsdthreshold Says:

        I’ll grant you that some of the most quotable movie lines couldn’t be quoted on this blog!

        To your list of really filthy words, I’d add this one:


    • Tim in Germany Says:

      Can’t we all just agree that conservatives are heartless, self-serving plutocrats while liberals are meddlesome, latte slurping socialists?

      But seriously, I’d like to explore our shared ideas about children and obscene language. Fred asks us to watch our language because some of the readers are children. As a middle school teacher, I spend a great deal of time in the obscenity free zone. But I genuinely do not understand the purpose of separating children from naughty words.

      To clarify, I can understand objections to taking the Lord’s name in vain and other blasphemous/heretical expletives. I also understand that some implementations of certain words are so graphically sexual as to carry the possibility of ‘educating’ youngsters before they are ready.

      But in my community (of soldiers), it seems absurd to avoid all usage of naughty words. Last time I went grocery shopping, the young woman in line ahead of me was dropping the f-bomb into her cell phone at such a pace that I could have paid for my food by charging her $1 for each. And she was, apparently, just making plans to meet some friends after work.

      Meanwhile, my guitar students can’t share many of their favorite songs in class because of the occasional lyrical obscenity. My English students can’t read literature with the ‘linguistic grit’ they regularly encounter when they watch TV. And a faint odor of unreality descends on the classroom, undermining my efforts to connect education with the students’ real lives.

      And so, I’m hoping some of the skilled manipulators of language reading this blog will take the time to explain what good purpose is served by protecting children from all obscenities or, alternately, how I might undo the creeping irrelevance of my obscenity free classroom.

      • fsdthreshold Says:

        Tim, here’s the short, simple answer: “adult” language is something most parents get very uptight about, for reasons as varied as the people themselves. If this becomes a blog where such language is used, parents won’t let kids read it. My concern is a very practical one, not an ideological one. It’s like in Dead Poets Society, when Mr. Keating tells Charley Dalton that the main reason he shouldn’t get himself kicked out of Welton is so that he can go on taking Mr. Keating’s class.

        I for one agree with you that there’s no harm in exposing children to vulgar language (say, the f-word), as long as they have the firm concept that, if you use it in certain situations, you will shock and offend people and invite labels and judgments upon yourself. The guy interviewing you probably won’t hire you. The girl’s parents you’re trying to impress probably won’t be.

        I make a distinction between vulgar language and profanity. Profanity (taking the Lord’s name in vain, in such phrases as “G.d.,” “J.C.,” or even the widely-accepted Internetism of “omg!”) is something to be avoided because there’s a commandment against it. God tells us not to do that. Using such shows a lack of respect for our Maker and Redeemer. Profanity bothers Christians, and it ought to.

        That having been said, none of this language bothers me if I’m reading a book (or watching a movie) and a character who logically would use such language does so. Perhaps that’s a bit hypocritical of me. Maybe it’s the artist in me taking over.

        At the same time, I have yet to bring myself to use obscenities in my own fiction. The one time I felt I absolutely had to use such a word was in “Here About to Die,” and it was “b**ch.” Such reluctance to use obscenities does present me with some interesting problems. In “The Bone Man,” for example, Conlin is a hit man. I struggled quite a bit with how he was going to talk. In the end, I chose to keep his language clean, and it actually helped the story: it gave me a chance to develop a surprising and non-stereotypical character. Conlin, I suppose, sees himself as being “above” gutter talk.

        I’m with you 100% that obscene language should not be a factor at all in what works of literature can and can’t be taught in a classroom. We’d have to eliminate far too many good books if we started banning them on that basis. Side note: I remember the exhilaration I felt in Mrs. Carlton’s class when we were reading aloud “A Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” and I was the sheriff, and I got to read the line “You’re a damn fool!” right there in front of the whole class. YESSSS! (Three MORE cheers for Mrs. Carlton!)

        Here’s a story about my mom. When I was about 7 or 8, I was writing a story, and I asked, “Mom, when can I start using bad words?” Her answer was, “When you run out of good words.” So far, I haven’t run out of good words, I guess.

        And that’s the bottom line of my point: we alter our language all the time to fit the different contexts of our lives. We talk one way with our parents, one way at work, one way among friends, etc. Do any of us feel really hindered by having to be aware and make such adjustments?

        There is an artistic place for obscenities. They really are the best tools to express certain things in certain contexts. But we want this blog to be as friendly to as many readers as possible, right? I think we all agree that we’re richer for the presence of everyone who is here. So bear with me, you %^#*s! (That was plural.)

  12. I believe providence guides/guards U.S.A. Says:

    Tolkien insisted there was no analogy intended whatsoever in LOTR or any of his other works, and I could not agree more. If the Free Peoples were the Allies and Sauron Nazi Germany, than you can bet your next paycheck that, having discovered a weapon of unspeakable magnitude (the Ring), the Allies would have used it to overthrow their Enemy.

    However, Watership Down and Animal Farm and certainly political works through and through, the one a treatise on fascism, the other a treatment of the Russian Revolution.

    I regret bringing politics (as a theme in and of itself) into the blog. Goodbye cruel world …

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      I love the filmed interview with Tolkien in which he’s dismissing the idea of the Ring as the atomic bomb. He’s so abrupt and unequivocal about it! He says something like, “Some people say the Ring is the atomic bomb. Well, it isn’t.” Heh, heh, heh!

      By the way, what do you make of Cowslip’s warren in Watership Down? Would you say it’s an analogy for anything?

  13. Kyran Says:

    Amazing post! Thank you Fred for reminding me of what the 4th really means, that the 4th is a day where we should respect and remember the people who died for our country.

    I believe that on the 4th people should remember the losses of the ones who sacrificed themselves for us. It is very easy to forget, amid all the fun and happiness, that this is a day to respect and remember the dead. At the same time shouldn’t we be celebrating and having fun? Is that not the reason that those people died? Isn’t it so that we, the future generation, could be happy? Shouldn’t we show them that their deaths were not in vain and we are content and happy?

    I have always wondered (especially this year when I learned about it in detail) was dropping the two atomic bombs on Japan really the right thing to do? Did we really have the right to do that to them? Despite all the other things that were done to innocent people during that war (more people died in a series of air raids on Dresden, Germany, than in either of the atomic attacks on Japan), didn’t dropping those bombs just make us the same as those people we were fighting to stop? I don’t think anyone can really answer this question but I know I will continue to wonder if anything actually came of that war or if it was just a sick war that ended up earning us nothing and was actually our fault for not stopping it before it started….Well I could talk about this forever so for now I’ll stop talking about World War II since we are actually talking about a different war here hehe ^^;

    I think writing about war is something hard and gruesome to do, but I don’t think you lose the right to do it just because you have never experienced it. As long as you understand the real meaning of war, that it is a sad and hurtful thing, not something great and full of glory like a lot of people make it out to be, then you can write about war. I for one wouldn’t attempt that, I don’t think I could represent it correctly, and I’m not even sure if I really understand war. I admire people like you, Fred, who can and will write about it, but who also respect and understand the fact that they will never fully understand it because they haven’t experienced it. I can’t wait to read “Seawall” ^^

    Last I wanted to write something about the moon and your other post since I didn’t before. First of all I really enjoyed reading it. I want to read those books you suggested in your post! I’m gonna try to get them from the library :] For me the moon is something like a guide. If you look up into the night sky, it will always be there, staring back at you, just out of reach. It is the largest light in the vast darkness, will almost never disappear, and will always be there when you need it. The moon hides the darkest shadows but houses the brightest light. It is a magical and unpredictable thing that no one will ever be able to grab but that will constantly continue to bestow magical light upon this beautiful earth.

    Well that ends my rant, good luck with your book and I hope it goes well and speedily for all of our sakes ^__^

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Thank you, Kyran! Excellent comment! I agree: we should live our lives to the fullest, celebrating what should be celebrated, to honor those who sacrificed themselves for us.

      You’re right: it is a difficult question about the A-bombs used at the end of WWII. I won’t attempt to answer it here (as you said, probably no one can answer it), but you’re right that we should all think deeply about it.

      Thanks for your kind words about the anticipation of “Seawall,” and I loved what you said about the moon! I especially like: “The moon hides the darkest shadows but houses the brightest light.” And also “…but that will constantly continue to bestow magical light upon this beautiful earth.” I think it’s fascinating how the moon rotates as it revolves, so that the dark side is always turned away from the Earth. (I think I put a line about that in Dragonfly, didn’t I? 🙂 )

  14. SwordLily Says:

    This post was wonderful. I don’t know if I can stay up that late or wake up that early, but I would have never known about that moment of line up. So thanks for the information.
    There were two topics I saw that I wanted to speak of. The first is the true meaning of Independence Day. When I was young the Fourth of July was nothing to me but hot dogs, color coded clothing, and pretty lights. It was only in my teens that I really started to deeply contemplate the meaning of Independence Day. With all the fireworks and good food people lose sight of what their ancestors had to struggle against to create the world we have today. In lots of places fireworks are illegal and yet people (even policemen) smuggle the fireworks in and set them off at the founding day of their country. What does this say about the unity and morals of our America? The world is changing and I will never know all the answers, but I can try to just go with the tide ^^.
    The other topic I see in this post is the uncertainty many writers feel when they are trying to tell about something they haven’t experienced. I always think about this when I am writing an emotional or intense part of a story that I really know nothing about. Do I really have the right to hurt my beloved characters just because I can or even if it gets the story moving? Then I came to the conclusion that I do not make up much of my best stories. The most wonderful, the most terrifying, and the most emotional parts in my stories are not guided by me, but by the characters themselves in this world I created. They tell me what to do and I just listen. It’s a great skill to listen to a story, but it works every time :).

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Thank you, SwordLily! I’m glad you liked this post!

      You are so right about “listening to a story”! If you’ve discovered the value of that and have experienced it, you already know one of the most crucial things about writing. Some writers spend years learning that lesson, and some never learn it at all! I absolutely agree: the best stories happen when we stop forcing them to serve us — they happen when we sit back, listen, and do our best to just uncover them whole without breaking them.

  15. I believe providence guides/guards U.S.A. Says:

    In a direct response to Fred’s query: Cowslip’s warren was meant to stand for Vichy France, subservient to Hitler’s Germany.
    While Cowslip did not have anything to do with Efrafa, the point was that he allowed his people to be subjected by the “evil” of the farmer. Rather than continue to try and fight on for their existence, they “sold out” and took the easy road — in other words, their own freedom and liberty did not mean enough to them.
    I have also heard it said Cowslip’s warren is meant to stand in for Chamberlain’s England, which had the power to stop an evil but which was simply too comfortable to act.

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Thanks! I wondered what experts had said about it. I’m inclined to go with the Tolkien concept of applicability [see below] for Cowslip’s warren, too. What it is is a warren full of rabbits who have “sold out,” as you said. [Rather strikingly similar to King Cassiodorus in Dragonslayer, who supported the policy implemented by his father: instead of finding a way to defeat the dragon, they have made a pact with the beast; they supply it with one of their people’s virgin daughters twice each year. They lose a lot of girls, but the dragon stays quiet in its lair.] Cowslip’s “people” live in a fog of denial. They do not ask or answer questions. [“Try asking him. Say, ‘Cowslip, where. . . .?'”] Their warren goes on. In fact, it thrives with all the nice piles of vegetables conveniently and miraculously strewn around where all the rabbits can find them. But this peace comes with a price.
      Parallels could be drawn to many of the unhealthiest of human relationships.

  16. Elizabeth Says:

    Oh, dear, oh, dear — Watership Down as well? Allegory — allegory — like the vampire we cannot resist, smooth and sleek and ever so seductive. As writers, we walk into its willing arms far too often, our own stories like our life’s blood, burning within us. Before we know it, the stories have been drained away and we are hollow husks, bitter and bewildered, wondering where the stories have gone.

    Allegory and analogy are fine in their place (English classes, in my humble opinion, and no where else), but I always feel the story should come first. I try to remind myself of this, whenever my favorite stories are being discussed. Tell the story first; appreciate the story first.

    Certainly we can draw great allegories out of LOTR and Watership Down because they are well written and compelling stories which provide that level of detail (whether because the author intended for that analogy/allegory to be there or not). But let us not forget the joy of the story itself — stories exist to entertain us, to draw us into a world created by the author, to give us experiences we have not had and may never have outside of the printed page.

    Stories that are written specifically as allegories always seem dull and ashy in the mouth. They’re like the old Dick-and-Jane books, or the moral of the story at the end of the He-Man episode. Ok, I get the point — but you’ve wasted my time, instead of telling me a good story.

    That’s my little anti-allegory/analogy rant, I guess. I can hardly claim it as anything else. I’m sure the analogies you all have been discussing are accurate and worthy, but to me the Ring will always be the One Ring of terrible evil, which embodies the great power of Sauron; Cowslip’s warren will be an insidious place where the rabbits are sick with their own, chosen doom.

    • Chris Says:

      I love “hidden allegories” in stories. I often like to wonder if an
      author’s work is really symbolic for something else. I always assume an author who is telling me a good story is doing it for some reason and if I know what that “true” reason is, sometimes it gives me insight into the author.

      But, ironically, I seldom read fiction these days. I like a good non-fiction story because the plot lines are often much messier and difficult.

      One of the main reasons I dislike Hemmingway is that if he’s going to write a story using monosyllabic, minimum-word sentences there should at least be _SOMETHING_ worth getting from the “experience” of reading it. But I remember hearing that at least in terms of “The Old Man and the Sea” Hemmingway hadn’t started out with any symbolism in mind.

      But I do agree with Elizabeth (and interestingly Hemmingway as well) that poorly crafted stories in which the author STARTED OUT with a symbol he or she wanted to start with can be so painfully obvious and hit you on the head repeatedly.

      Perhaps the _TRUE_ craftsperson-writer starts with a symbol and crafts the story so well that you don’t realize the symbolism until after the fact. Well after the fact. If the story is good, you’ll continue to think about it for a long time and you’ll slowly dig up the symbols over time.

      I have one rule about artists: they should _never_ be allowed to “explain” their art to us (because artists often are simply too weird and non-linear to be able to do it without sounding insane…-Fred an obvious exception-), but an artist should always _have_ a meaning to their art. Even if that meaning is “it just makes someone ‘feel’ something.”

      (Oh, yeah, and Kudos to Elizabeth for working in a reference to He-Man. One of the most horrid of 1980’s cartoons!)

      • fsdthreshold Says:

        Chris, you summed up my own view of the issue pretty well when you wrote “If the story is good, you’ll continue to think about it for a long time and you’ll slowly dig up the symbols over time.” Except that I contend that’s true for the writer, too, not just for the reader. I’ve never been a fan of fiction in which the writer clearly had some motive other than telling a good story. That’s probably why I’m about the only person on this blog (or one of the few) who has never been able to make it through The Chronicles of Narnia. I respect Lewis all up and down, I’m glad he did what he did, but no matter how I try, I can’t ever seem to get very far in that series (I tried as a kid and again as an adult), because it’s so obvious to me on every page that the story is secondary to the author’s agenda of presenting a belief system. For me, Having an Agenda is the one unpardonable sin of fiction writing. The minute you go into it with that purpose, you’re not writing fiction. Sermons and treatises and essays and instruction manuals are wonderful things — necessary things — but they’re not works of fiction.

        So for me, as a writer, I tell the story. As it develops and comes out, I may well discover symbols and themes in it (this is basically inevitable, if it’s a good story), and I work to polish and highlight these in the later drafts. But I think it would be a big mistake for me to try to PUT them there to begin with.

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      By the way, yes, I completely agree with Elizabeth (above): the story has to come first.

      When people would bring their “allegory” theories to LOTR, Tolkien would counter them by speaking of “applicability.” A good story, such as LOTR, has all sorts of applicability to situations in the real world. If you’re living in the post-WWII years, you can see all sorts of truths about what happened in Europe reflected in those pages. If you’re a kid who’s scared to walk down a dark alley, you can find comfort and courage in remembering the dark journey Frodo and Sam faced on the borders of Mordor. A person you know may be “a lot like Boromir.” And on and on. Applicability abounds, but you’re applying a good and timeless story to these situations that you know, and that’s a perfectly legitimate thing to do with a good story — it’s one reason our species tells and writes them. But the story wasn’t written about those situations.

      In high-school and college classes, I frequently found myself wondering, “Did the author really intend what the teacher is saying s/he did, or was s/he just telling a good story?” You know, sometimes a cigar. . . .

  17. Catherine Says:

    Oh, finally! It’s actually almost a stereotype about how soldiers might go off to war all full of the glory of it and come back very bitter; but all I seem to get from regular pro-war civilians is that war is a wonderful thing, not a necessary evil. I was beginning to wonder if I was the only one who thought it to be rather tragic . . . (okay, ONLY is too strong of a word; I always have the pacifists I know . . .)

    I can think of another sad Irish song:
    “With their guns and drums and drums and guns the enemy nearly slew you,
    Oh, Johnny, I hardly knew you!

    “Where are your eyes that were so mild, that looked upon the world and smiled?
    Oh, why did you run from me and the child?
    Oh, Johnny, I hardly knew you!

    “You haven’t an arm, you haven’t a leg; you’re an eyeless, boneless, chickenless egg!
    You’ll have to be put with a bowl to beg.
    Oh, Johnny, I hardly knew you!”

    (This is just an excerpt. Though it’s hard to see how from my truncation, it’s sung to the exact same tune as “When Johny Comes Marching Home Again”. Eerie, but true.)

    And now for something rather silly. As a “young reader” of this blog, from a conservative home, it’s true that I’m in a rather bad-language free environment. (Unless certain members of the family are driving and running into red lights and bad drivers . . .) My mother told me always to come up with creative expletives if I was provoked, so my new favorite is “parking lot”. Only, in Spanish. “Estacionamiento” is a mouthful! 🙂

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      With the proper tone of voice and enough gesticulating, just about anything in Spanish can sound really angry! (I suppose that’s true of most any language, except maybe Elvish. . . .) I really like the sound of spoken Chinese, but a Japanese friend says Chinese always sounds to him as if the speaker is mocking the listener. 🙂

      I remember the song you quoted, but I never knew it was separate from “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again”! I thought it was all the same song, and I didn’t know it was Irish: I’d thought its origins were American, from the Civil War! So thanks for a very educational comment!

      • Catherine Says:

        I can say “don’t put those red hot peppers onto my soup, it’ll burn my tongue off and then I’ll be very unhappy” (actually, just “no put hot peppers”) in Chinese, but then I don’t sound angry; just very panicked.
        BU YAO LA JIAO!!!

  18. I believe providence guides/guards U.S.A. Says:

    Great post Catherine! War is never a glorious thing — how can glory (which, in the end, belongs entirely to God) be found in the slaughter of our fellow man?

    You might find this interesting: Many of us here love Watership Down. The author, Richard Adams, also wrote a novel called “Traveller.” Traveller was the real name of Robert E. Lee’s grey horse.

    The jist is this: Traveller has returned to his barn after the Civil War and is relating his experiences to the other farm animals. What he does not understand, he says, is why all the ‘blue men’ had to keep getting in Marsh Robert’s way, because all of his men were only wanting to “go to war” which Traveller understood to be a place of great joy, as all the men had been eager to go there. That the war was the slaughter happening all around him never entered the horse’s mind.

    A great read, especially for fans of that period of U.S. History (and I have been after Fred to read it for 15+ years!)

  19. Daylily Says:

    The principle of “listening to the story” also applies to the art of composing music. Thanks to Alice Parker’s Beginning Choral Writing course in 1982, I learned to listen to a new composition in my head, finding as much of it as possible, before writing anything down. I quote from Ms. Parker: “Do not push notes around on paper. First listen, then write. Write what you hear.” This principle of listening _first_ transformed my process of writing!

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      Very interesting! It seems to me that a difference is that, in fiction writing, the listening can happen as the writing is being done. It’s not so much “listening first” as “listening while.” But the listening is definitely a principle in common.

      I really like that about “Do not push notes around on paper.”

  20. Daylily Says:

    On Narnia: I must say that, as a child, I practically lived in Narnia for a while, I read the books so many times. What was the big draw? Not my parents handing them to me, saying, “Here, read this educational material.” 🙂 (Actually, my dad read the stories aloud to us children.) Not an agenda, hidden or otherwise. No, it was the stories themselves, the characters, the Talking Animals, the world of Narnia, and Aslan that drew me. For me, the stories have always lived.

    • fsdthreshold Says:

      First, three cheers for your dad!
      Second, thanks for this excellent counterpoint. It’s clear that for you and millions of other readers, the Narnia books really work — as stories, pure and straight: stories of enchantment and wonder. I’m not about to argue with that!

  21. Daylily Says:

    It was Pearl S. Buck in her story “The Woman Who Was Changed” who introduced me to the concept of listening while writing. The protagonist, a playwright, would watch and listen to her characters; it was as if they lived within her. When she developed writer’s block (temporarily), her characters stood around and looked at her! I definitely have to do some “listening while” as I work out the details of the music. When I hit a snag, I stop and listen.

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