Posts Tagged ‘The Lord of the Rings’

More Paintings

December 28, 2010

Well, here we go. As Christmas presents for some friends here this year, I decided to get out the brushes and canvases again and attempt to create one-of-a-kind, personalized gifts. (Notice that I didn’t say “great artwork” anywhere in there!) It has been relaxing and therapeutic to paint after the big push to finish The Star Shard on time. (Not that I was particularly tired of writing — but deadlines help, and the swift approach of Christmas with its need for presents was another great motivator.)

I have to apologize in advance for the quality of what you’re about to see. For one thing, these three paintings would be better if an actual artist had painted them. For another, it’s much harder than you might think to get painted images into an electronic format and post them onto a blog! When I asked about professional scanning at a couple different places, there was a lot of inhaling through teeth (which means, “You’re asking something difficult; I really wish you weren’t asking me that”). The pros were worried about shadows created by irregularities in the painted surfaces, etc. The upshot was that it may or may not be possible, but it would certainly involve sending the paintings away to the lab; it would take a long time; and it would be very expensive. [I’d gone into the first place with the merry idea of having them scan the paintings while I waited and then ordering cheap posters for all my friends . . . um, no. Live and learn!]

I tried using my own flatbed scanner — which, of course, is not nearly big enough for the canvases. They are A3 size, and it can only handle A4. But I thought I might scan the paintings a quadrant at a time and have good, digital images of the details. Again, not. For some reason, even when I played with the brightness control and weighted down the scanner lid with a stack of books, the scanned images came out very dim. Hmm.

So I resorted to taking digital photos of the paintings with my camera. Again, Murphy’s Law was strictly enforced. For one thing, it is winter in the northern hemisphere. That means that the sun over Niigata will next show its face in . . . maybe May? If we’re blessed. So I had to use the gray daylight on the edge of my tiny verandah. As I was jockeying into position, icy rainwater dripping off the edge of the roof hit the back of my coat and neatly splashed over the canvas. Grrr! (No damage, since the paintings are protected by nice finishing varnish.) I took gray daylight shots, and then I tried another series indoors by electric lighting. You’ll see a combination of both.

Problem #2: My preference for varnish is high-gloss. Not just “gloss,” but “high-gloss.” It’s beautiful to look at, but a nightmare to photograph. It’s like pointing your camera at a mirror. FLASHHH! That’s why you’ll see these images at all sorts of odd angles. I’m standing on my head with the camera, trying everything I can think of to avoid reflections.

Okay, I think that’s my full battery of excuses. I’m not an artist, I’m not a photographer, I’m poor, I have no patience, I live in a perpetually-cloudy region, and I like high-gloss varnish. May all that serve to predispose you to look kindly and mercifully on these humble paintings!

"What a Lot of Things You Use 'Good Morning' For!"

So here’s Gandalf talking with Bilbo at the beginning of The Hobbit. (I’m clearly not in any danger of being commissioned to do a Tolkien calendar anytime soon!) Sorry about the framing — because of the odd angle, I had to crop like mad, so you can’t see to the edges of the canvas. [This is precisely why Marquee Movies will tell you: always go with letterbox format in your movie rentals and purchases — never settle for the “pan-and-scan,” full-screen versions. Unfortunately, these are pan-and-scan versions of my paintings.]

I do like the expressions on the faces of these two. And the Shire looks sort of inviting. (It looks MUCH more so on the actual canvas, where the colors are brighter and everything looks 40% prettier.)

I like Bilbo’s fat stomach! The influence of the Peter Jackson films is quite evident in the hairstyle, huh? For that teacup, I used a color called “English Lace,” and I didn’t even have to mix it. I like the moss effect on the stone porch-thing. See my signature there in the corner? I always do it in gold, an “F” and a “D” together.

This was the outdoor shot, with a big glare on the canvas. (I took several, and believe it or not, this was the best. Sigh!) No, I don’t think that’s the Party Tree in the background. It’s just a tree. I like the purplish stuff in the hedgerow, and I hope that on your computer it looks better than it does on mine. It’s nice in the original, as is the sunlight on the grassy slopes.

The Eternal Now

This is a picture of me and my two closest friends on this side of the Pacific. (Can you tell which one is me?) It represents both Heaven and those “moments of Heaven” we experience at times in this life.

This is by electric lighting. Of course in Heaven it will be midsummer all the time (heh, heh — Mr. Snowflake is away, so I can say anything I want!) — but maybe the cherry trees in Heaven bloom in the midsummer. The sakura blossoms themselves were easy to paint: I used a large, soft brush like the tuft on a lion’s tail, and when I had the paint mixed to the precise color I wanted (white with the tiniest touch of crimson), I just puffed the brush all over, above every trunk I’d painstakingly drawn first. I like how the most distant trees seem almost a mist. (Those trunks took forever!)

What’s “Heavenly” about this image is that there aren’t crowds of people. There’s the picnic, and then just trees, trees, and trees, as far as the eye can see — and friendly blue hills in the distance. There are no responsibilities. There is only a picnic, and close friends, and good books, and a baseball and ball gloves, and time that does not pass: the Eternal Now. A golden moment unending.

This picture allows you to see the two bicycles in the foreground. The thing about cherry trees is that they bloom for a very short time. It’s like about a week at the most — and if there’s rain or wind during that time, the petals can fall prematurely. For the sakura to look beautiful, a blue sky is required. So in most places, people are very fortunate if they have one or two good viewing days during cherry blossom season. That is a large part of their allure, I suppose. Like a human life, they are here for one shining moment, and then they are gone. A breath. A day and a night, and then Eternity.

The peak of the blooming is called mankai, when every blossom is open, and the boughs look positively heavy with flowers, and every tree is poised in that one breathless instant before the pink rain of falling petals begins. If you get a blue sky on the day of mankai, you have received a wonderful gift. For this painting, I chose the moment when the first few petals are falling — the threshold between the perfect beauty of mankai and the perfect beauty of the pink rain.

The Eternal Now

And now we return to Middle-earth:

The Bridge of Khazad-dum

The classic confrontation between Gandalf and the Balrog is a favorite of artists. But I have yet to see a rendition of this scene that doesn’t ignore Tolkien’s description that the Balrog’s limbs have the coiling property of serpents. Have you seen anyone else tackle that? I’ve attempted to show that here, and I think my design is plausible.

Flame of Udun

The Balrog should be a combination of shadow and flame. See my little orcs streaming down the stairways in the background?

The Balrog

You can pretty much tell that what I love the most about this scene is Moria itself. Moria is the place in Middle-earth that I’d most like to visit. I mean Khazad-dum in its heyday, of course, before it was full of orcs. The folk of Durin! The great city of Dwarrowdelf! (Is it an accident that there’s only one letter difference between “Durin” and “Durbin”?)

Fleeing Companions

Frodo doesn’t want to leave Gandalf. Sam isn’t about to leave Frodo. Aragorn is trying to get them both out of harm’s way. We see Legolas and Gimli here, and I guess the blond hobbit must be Pippin. (Merry wouldn’t be blond.)

In the actual, I love these colors of the stonework.

Nice chasm, huh? ūüôā

And there you have it. Once again: if your computer works anything like mine does, if you click on any painting, you can view a magnified version of it. Click again, and you zoom in further. I haven’t figured out how to “click back out” without shutting down the whole window, though . . .

In the previous post, I introduced a quotation from Tolstoy in War and Peace and invited reactions. Thank you to those who offered your thoughts! Here’s the quote once again, and then my two cents:

“Everything I know, I know because I love.”

To love is to step forth, to reach out, to emerge from one’s isolation. It is to sense and savor the world around us. It is to embrace the joy that comes from places, from objects, from activities, and especially from other people. To love is to take a risk — for only when we love do we have something to lose. When we love we are involved; we are invested. Triumph, awkwardness, anxiety, exultation, fear, anger, joy . . . all these emotions that mark us as human beings — are they not all traceable to our loves?

In the movie The Name of the Rose, Sean Connery’s character William of Baskerville says to his novice, “How simple life would be without love, Adsol — how safe, how tranquil . . . and how dull.”

“Everything I know, I know because I love.”

I think Tolstoy was right.

Where the Ceiling Is

January 23, 2010

A good friend, being complimentary of my writing, once said, “In your stories I always know where the ceiling is.” We were discussing settings and descriptions of place in the books we loved, and she meant (and I agree) that in my stuff,¬†a firm grounding in the physical surroundings is essential. I’ve said it before on this blog (probably dozens of times now, in various ways), but I am truly a writer of place.

Almost invariably, my story ideas start with places I’ve been to . . . or places I’ve read about . . . or places I imagine. I’m often inspired by pictures — ones seen recently or remembered from childhood — photos, illustrations in books. Some settings just beg to have stories to take place in them.

I frequently linger and gaze into some lonely ditch where water gurgles from a culvert as if from the mouth of a cave — or where weeds stand thick in the tepid mire, a jungle in miniature laid out there just beside some ordinary road. I stop in mid-stride to peer into a thicket on the university campus (Niigata’s is wilder and woodier than most). The shade is deep under certain trees, with light shimmering somewhere beyond, as if somewhere among the tangles, a door into Faery has been left standing ajar. I know I’ve written before of the staggered line of potted pine trees on the traditional Japanese Noh stage — the differences in distance from the viewer meant to suggest passage into another world. These trees border the covered walkway by which certain characters enter and exit. If a ghost passes the trees, it is coming into this world from the realm of spirits. And that leads me to think about how so many writers throughout history have made use of forests as the avenues of passage into a supernatural dimension. Shakespeare, Hawthorne . . . I’m sure you can come up with a better list than I can.

And for what forests can’t handle, we’ve got caverns! And then there are rivers, the sea, and mountains. Do you follow me? My point is that, with the natural world on his/her palette, the painter of fantasy can do anything!

But coming back to “I always know where the ceiling is”: it’s not enough simply to evoke a setting and tip the hat to it only occasionally. I believe it has to be an inseparable part of the story’s fabric. The setting is always there from beginning to end, influencing — often determining — the things that happen. We can’t forget it any more than we can deny the real spaces we occupy¬†in our lives. Oh, we can get lost in conversations or ideas, for sure, and that’s good to do. A story isn’t a real estate brochure, and if you stop with the setting alone, you don’t have a story yet. But if we forget where the ceiling is, we’ll bump our heads sooner or later. And we daren’t forget the yawning stairway.

Whoever does not fully appreciate the crucial importance of setting to story would do well to read Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” and “The Wendigo,” or most of Lovecraft’s stories, or watch Lawrence of Arabia or Field of Dreams. . . . Again, I’m sure you can make a more intelligent list than I can.

What I find quite often is that a vital consciousness of the setting helps to generate story ideas every bit as much as the actions and personalities of characters do. Having a map — and thinking about all that it was telling me — helped me immensely with the writing of Agondria. So did having my cousin’s graphite sketches, which spoke volumes about the characters’ surroundings.

I recently came up with this advice when another good friend and I were talking about writer’s block: I’m sure this isn’t original with me, but I suggested gathering some pictures that the writer found intriguing or inspirational — magazine photos, pictures from the Internet, whatever — and pretending that they were illustrations for the story under construction. There’s something delightfully satisfying about such a technique, isn’t there? It’s like making a mold of some object, then pouring some substance into the mold, then breaking the mold when the substance has hardened. We’ve made use of the intermediary vehicle — the visual images — to create something else, something of our own.

During the year¬†that “The Star Shard” was being serialized in Cricket, I had the delightful privilege of answering questions from young readers on the magazine’s website; and a good many readers of Cricket are themselves aspiring writers. One question I was asked over and over again was, “How do you keep a story going? How do you know what to write once you’ve started?” My advice is that a stalled story can quite often become unstalled by the writer’s imagining him/herself to be in the story, a part of that described world. Look around, and pay careful attention to the details. Chances are good that, within minutes, you’ll know what has to happen next for your characters — and what has to happen after that, and after that. . . . I’ve noticed that, at times when the writing is going badly or I don’t know where the story should go next, it’s quite often because I’ve lost a sense of being in the setting — I’ve begun writing from some outside point. If the story becomes an abstraction, it suffers — at least in my writing.

“Where the ceiling is” makes me think of two other titles that put “Where” to good use: Where the Wild Things Are, which I’m planning to go see about 90 minutes from now. (It was one of my mom’s pet peeves when she’d ask schoolkids if they knew [she’d say the title of some wonderful book], and the kids would say, “Oh, yeah! I saw that!” — It bothered Mom that they knew the story only from its movie or TV incarnation, and had no idea that it was a book at all. Of course she didn’t take her irk out on the kids, but you can be sure she made them aware.)

For the record, I have read Where the Wild Things Are, so I’m allowed to see the movie. Yes, I’ve read the whole book! Yes, cover to cover. More than once!

And the other “Where” is Where the Sidewalk Ends, by Shel Silverstein. Isn’t that a perfect title for a book of fanciful poems for children? That title alone should win prizes. It evokes the little grassy areas where kids play, where order and adult-determined pathways end. We all have such places somewhere near our homes when we’re kids — those pebble-strewn verges where dreams begin. The ground is always uneven there, isn’t it? It’s never level, and the grass doesn’t grow uniformly. There are taller clumps, there are old stumps, there are places worn bald by stones or by our feet, there are squishy places when it rains, and there are bright places that the sun bakes. I remember coming upon one such place in Niigata years ago, when a friend and I were making a bicycle odyssey to follow the entire perimeter of what’s called “Niigata Island” in a complete circle, heedless of typical routes. There was a place, on a windy ridge facing the sea, where the paved sidewalk just . . . stopped. The wind blew, and the grass riffled, and the sun sparkled on the waves — and there was simply no more pavement. It was pretty cool, and I thought at once of Shel Silverstein.

In all this issue of settings, I was thinking again of The Lord of the Rings. (How often our discussions of great stories lead us back there!) It’s been said by more than one scholar that The Lord of the Rings isn’t primarily a character story; it isn’t even really a plot story at heart. It’s a milieu story, and that means that we re-read and re-read it because what we love is Middle-earth. We want to go again to those wonderful places and hear the poetry and steep ourselves in the legends and histories and interconnectedness of it all. Tolkien knew where his ceilings were . . . and where the mountains were . . . and what was beyond them . . . and what the other names for everything were . . . and why. . . .

And I’ll go you one step further. (Is that even a legitimate expression?!) Much of what we’re enjoying in Tolkien’s¬†settings isn’t something fantastic, exotic, or overtly magical. It’s an echoing stone chasm, a¬†mighty waterfall, a mountain range, light slanting through quiet forest spaces, or landscapes rolling away under shifting clouds. Tolkien recognized that what is most numinous about the world is right here in our own world, and he knew it intimately. Tolkien, too, was a gazer-into-woody-corners. (I wonder if the Oxford of his day had any brushy nooks between buildings?) The story is told of how, when Tolkien and C.S. Lewis would take walks in the countryside together, Lewis preferred to stride along at a good clip, but he was forever having to stop and wait as Tolkien gawked at a tree or crouched to study some leafy shoot or patch of moss.

I’m going to quote here from Ted Nasmith, in his remarks prefacing this year’s extraordinary Tolkien calendar, which Nasmith illustrated:

“Other authors have well-developed descriptions of the lands their characters move through, both real and invented worlds alike, but somehow the combination of Faerie Tale structure wedded to a distinct delight in the minutiae and moods of nature has raised Tolkien’s sub-creation to a level few authors achieve. Some have even commented that Tolkien’s landscape constitutes a character of sorts, and this may be partly due to the tendency of the author — in fine faerie tradition — to blur the lines between his characters and creatures and their environment. . . .

“Clearly nature and animals interact with ‘people’ repeatedly as a central motif in Tolkien’s invented world, and since nature has long been a universal source of artistic and creative inspiration, visual artwork inspired by Tolkien’s works would not be satisfactory without making sure that illustrations also integrate the characters with the settings.”

What other writers do this well? This would be a good time to tell us, dear readers, about the authors and books you love. What are some other tales in which you always know where the ceilings are? Examples are quite welcome, too!

Trees

May 23, 2009

I’ve been thinking about trees. That’s probably because they figure largely into the story I’m working on now. The more I reflect, the more I become convinced that trees may well be our single most significant (natural) connection to the numinous. I say “natural,” because our other connection is books–or, more accurately, stories–which is a link we humans have made. But trees are there all around us, shading us and whispering to us, breathing out oxygen to make our air sweeter, and beautifying our landscape . . . and perhaps their gifts to us only begin there. Walk with me, if you will, as I¬†expound my theory.

I’m going to quote from Hope Mirrlees in Lud-in-the-Mist. She’s talking about a “pleached alley” here, which is a path between two rows of trees, with the trees all intertwined and roofing the road over, so that you have a shady tunnel. Here’s the quote:

“There was also a pleached alley of hornbeams.

“To the imaginative, it is always something of an adventure to walk down a pleached alley. You enter boldly enough, but soon you find yourself wishing you had stayed outside — it is not air that you are breathing, but silence, the almost palpable silence of trees. And is the only exit that small round hole in the distance? Why, you will never be able to squeeze through that! You must turn back . . . too late! The spacious portal by which you entered has in its turn shrunk to a small round hole.”

To pass into the trees is to enter the realm of magic, mystery, and things beyond us. Is it any wonder that trees are so prominently placed in the cosmologies of so many peoples throughout history? Norse mythology tells of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, which supports and is itself the pathway among all the realms of gods, giants, monsters, and men. The Ragnarok, the end of the Universe, happens when Yggdrasil is eaten through by its enemies and comes crashing down.

Judaism and Christianity look back to Eden: the one time when the world was perfect was when the first man and woman lived in a Garden, and at the Garden’s very center were two trees. Trees sustained the lives of Adam and Eve by providing fruit for their food.

For a cultural anthropology class in college, we read a book about the Grand Valley Dani of New Guinea. A belief of the Dani people that I’ve never forgotten is that the human race was made from trees that were brought to life — trees given animation,¬†eyes, and hands.

It’s often said by Christian scholars that all peoples throughout history have arrived at parts of the Truth; if you live in this world and look around and think, it’s nearly impossible to avoid figuring out some of it, even without divine revelation. And one thing that almost everyone “gets” is that trees are extremely sacred.

Then I began to think about trees and fantasy fiction . . . particularly, how trees relate to the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. There’s so much to be explored there that I wondered this evening if any scholarly research has been done on the subject. Seriously — someone should write a thesis or dissertation on Tolkien’s Trees. [Nicholas? Has it been done?]

In one real sense, I believe it was trees that drew me first to read Tolkien’s books. I remember illustrations in fairy tale books from when I was very young — enchanting pictures of the deep, dark forests in which various protagonists were either lost or out cutting wood. And when I saw the Ballantine editions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings — those marvelous paperbacks whose covers bore illustrations by Tolkien himself — I knew I had to read them. It was the very same stuff from those childhood pictures that had captured my imagination.¬†The Hobbit‘s cover was Bilbo riding his barrel down the River Running, gliding beneath those gorgeous, fantastic trees. The Two Towers had that picture which is probably my favorite of all Tolkien’s artwork, because it’s all trees, nothing but trees! Yes, it has two tiny figures down in the corner . . . figures who are, depending on which of Tolkien’s notes you believe, either Merry and Pippin in Fangorn Forest or Beleg and Gwindor in Taur-na-Fuin. (Tolkien adamantly resisted drawing clear or up-close pictures of his characters, because he wanted to leave them to the reader’s imagination: but he had no compunction about drawing his trees in every loving detail!)

So, then: Tolkien’s books, I say, are a journey from tree to tree to tree! That’s what drew me in, because I already knew as a child that trees were the real things: trees were the door-posts of Faerie. My favorite part in The Hobbit is the journey through Mirkwood. There are times even now when I think about Mirkwood and can still get that shivery, watery sense of delight in my lower chest that we feel all the time as kids but so rarely do in later years. You know the feeling I mean, right? Mirkwood and Fangorn and the Old Forest can still do that for me.

The Lord of the Rings — what is more beautiful and tree-filled than the descriptions of Lothlorien? But let’s go deeper still: the story begins and ends with a tree. Right? Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday party takes place beneath the Party Tree, the symbol of all that is good and wholesome and stolid and warm and homey and peaceful and comfortable about the Shire. And at the end of the book, the terrible cutting down of that Party Tree is the last straw: that’s the signal that the world is irrevocably changed, that the wounds sustained in this vale of tears will not be healed on this side. It’s the sight of that tree cut down that brings Sam to tears.

The Silmarillion, with its Two Trees of Valinor: like Eden, that was the one time when the world was perfect and right, when those Two Trees gave their mingled light. It’s their light, mind you — the light of trees — that’s in the silmarils.

Back to LOTR: Gondor has its White Tree. When it withers, the realm is in deepest trouble.

What shows us that Mordor is the land of evil? What’s the one thing that Mordor has none of? Yup. No trees.

What does Saruman do when he goes bad? He takes down the trees. Then the trees take him down, when Birnham Wood comes to Dunsinane, or . . . something like that.

And that brings us to the Ents. The Ents are “Earth-born, old as mountains,” second in antiquity only to the Elves. Treebeard refers to “young Master Gandalf” and “young Saruman down at Isengard.” [I love how Celeborn addresses Fangorn as “Eldest.” Man, that gives me goosebumps!] Ents are the shepherds of trees — tree-herders. Think of the implications of that. The function of these ancient¬†sentient creatures in Tolkien’s world is to look out for the trees. It’s as if Tolkien meant the Ents to be representatives of the Earth itself.

My favorite Dr. Seuss book is The Lorax (and not just because of the Onceler). It’s for all sorts of reasons that tug at the dreamer’s heart: the fact that there’s a crumbling platform out at the end of town, overgrown by grass, which is all that remains to show where the Lorax stood, and from where he was “taken away” (by lifting himself into the sky by the seat of his pants) . . . but most of all, the fact that the Lorax “speak[s] for the trees.”

So, then, here are some of my tree memories:

I grew up on Old Oak Road, right, named for its abundance of ancient oak trees? I think I’ve told this story on this blog before, but near as we can figure from a perusal of very old maps, Abraham Lincoln himself may well have passed within sight of where my house now stands, as he rode along on his 8th Judicial Circuit route from Allenton (now vanished) to the up-and-coming little hamlet of Taylorville. And if he did, then it’s likely he looked right at the two trees that shaded my front yard when I was a kid. They would have been younger in Lincoln’s day, but they would have been there: oaks live a long time and grow slowly. Perhaps the lanky young lawyer even rested beneath one and drank from his bottle of Gatorade.

What impressed me about those oaks as a kid was how they harbored a whole other world up in their crowns, 20, 30, 40 feet above the ground — a world of limbs and leaves that I could glimpse from afar, but could never reach. (Isn’t it that precise longing for the misty realm on the horizon that has always fueled our romances? Avalon . . . Lyonesse . . . Mu . . . Lemuria . . . Shangri-La . . . Atlantis. . . .) The world was always there, always visible at the top of my tire swing’s chain. I climbed up that chain more than once — all the way up, scraping my bare feet, painting them orange with rust — I climbed up and clung for a moment to the earth-most giant limb of that world of squirrels and birds. But even I had the sense to go no farther, for it would likely have been the death of me.

There was a hole at the base of that oak tree, one of those little caves that often form in old trees. I imagined wee folk who lived inside the trunk in many-storied mansions. I used to go out with a lantern and look for them on Midsummer’s Eve. (You think I’m kidding, but I’m not.)

There was a willow tree in our north yard that my nextdoor neighbor and I used to climb. It had a friendly array of branches that were like a basket for holding little kids who wanted to play above the yard. That tree was like a Phoenix: its trunk snapped completely off at ground level during an ice storm, and my parents thought that was the end of it. But the whole tree grew again from the stump.

I had a reading grove in the northwest corner of the front yard. I’d sit in a lawn chair and put my feet in the fork of a young oak tree that is not so young now. I remember writing a lot of The Threshold of Twilight there and reading a lot of Stephen R. Donaldson. My good dog Hooper is also buried in that grove.

I remember gazing always at that great wall of oaks to the south of our property (see the aerial photo in the previous posting). It was a mighty, rolling green cliff, full of twilight caverns signifying mystery. That, to me as a boy, was the rampart of Mirkwood.

To the south of our place along the road there was a gigantic oak that I always called the Silhouette Tree. Apparently “silhouette” was a word I learned early on and especially loved, and I’d point to that tree at sunset and use the word. (That tree has just been cut down in the past year–I noticed it gone the last time I was there.)

In the middle of the field between my neighbor’s house and mine was another old, gigantic tree. We used to play there, building secret little clubhouses around its base. It was especially nice when the field was in corn, and we had to pass through the whispering stalks to get there, its towering height guiding us as a landmark as we navigated toward it, and the field shutting out all the world. My dad always cautioned us to be careful, that a lone tree in a field could¬†indicate the site of a long-vanished homestead, and thus that there might be an abandoned well somewhere in its shadow, perhaps covered by a now-rotted layer of boards. (My dad was among the greatest worriers in human history.) That always added to the charm for us, that at any moment the ground might collapse beneath our feet. We used to prod and search and hope for that long-lost well, but with no success.

Mom had a grape arbor, and the vines quested out and climbed a maple tree at the back corner of the tin shed. In the arbor’s heyday, the tree itself was full of grapes. It was a grape tree. My nextdoor neighbor and I used to sit up there, high above the world, and eat them.

And here’s a story for you: at my grandma’s house in town, there was a birch tree. During a storm, the trunk shattered, and the tree was left leaning over the street and sidewalk. The trunk was completely severed, so it had to be cut down. Grandma enlisted me and all the neighborhood kids to do the job. That will forever remain as a “photograph of the heart”: there we all were, a scruffy, barefoot kid on just about every limb, each equipped with a saw, a hatchet, or a pair of clippers. Many of us were vigorously sawing through the limbs between ourselves and the bole. Every so often a kid would plummet earthward with a shriek. And down on the ground, there was the biggest boy in the neighorhood, methodically sawing through the trunk with the biggest saw. We all lived, and none of us were hurt.

So, dear readers — tell us your tree stories! Did you have a treehouse? Did you climb trees, maybe with a book in your pocket? Did you have a secret clubhouse sheltered by tree branches? If so, take us all there, so that those worlds may live again!

Books, Part 2: Fred’s Lists

May 15, 2009

It occurred to me this evening that I have now been a professional writer for ten years: a decade of selling fiction. So miracles do happen. For years and years, I seriously doubted I’d ever be published at all. But if you stay the course, things happen when they’re supposed to. If you’re a writer aspiring to make your first sale, don’t give up.

(How was that for a really short sermon?)

Anyway, more about books! For anyone who has not yet been there, I strongly encourage you to back up to the previous post and especially to read the reader comments beneath it. The readers of this blog have been answering the call to recommend favorite books. You’ll find wonderful titles there to keep you busy for a good long while. And everyone: you can keep right on recommending books in response to this post — or at any time. On this blog, good books are always on the subject!

The Book Center, May 1970. In the early 1980s, many a D&D meeting was held in this store's basement -- a D&D group that was also part book club. . . .

The Book Center, May 1970. In the early 1980s, many a D&D meeting was held in this store's basement -- a D&D group that was also part book club. . . .

[Aside: the phrasing of that last sentence is an echo from our years of playing Dungeons & Dragons back in junior high, high school, and college. To keep the game focused, we set up something called the Pun Fund. It was a can with a slot in the top. When it started out, as the name implies, if you made a pun, you had to pay a fine by dropping a coin into the slot. Quite soon, though, we expanded to a whole system of fines for anything that held up the game. If your character went on an “Ego Trip” (meaning he talked too much about himself or otherwise behaved like the center of the universe), that cost you a nickel. If you used “Logic,” you had to pay up. (A “Logic” violation meant that you stopped the game cold by arguing that a particular pit trap, for example, violated the laws of physics.) The catch-all offense was “Off the Subject.” That one’s self-explanatory. But in the interest of decency, we soon established the rule that certain things were always on the subject and could not be fined — most notably, food. Any mention of when we’d be taking a food break or what we’d be eating was always, always to the point and welcome. (And for reasons I never understood and never agreed to, Bugs Bunny was always on the subject. You could be in the middle of the most harrowing adventure ever, with the city about to go up in flames, and if you said something in a Bugs Bunny voice, you could not be fined! Go figure. . . .)]

My, do I digress! One more topic before I get to The Lists. . . .

My house from the air, July 1970: My house is just to the right of the road in the center of the picture, surrounded by the little ring of trees. Note that our pond wasn't dug yet, and the farm across the road was still standing. (Don't die of nostalgia, anyone!)

My house from the air, July 1970: My house is just to the right of the road in the center of the picture, surrounded by the little ring of trees. Note that our pond wasn't dug yet, and the farm across the road was still standing. (Don't die of nostalgia, anyone!)

I was happily surprised to discover some on-line reviews of Dragonfly I’d never seen on a site called “goodreads.” What made me even happier was that some of the reviews were quite recent! The book was first published in 1999 — a decade ago — and the mass-market Ace edition is out of print. (It’s still easy to acquire for pennies on Amazon. Yes, you can buy this book for about the price of a Pun or an Ego Trip!) But now and then, people are still finding it, and even better, they’re still liking it! Here are a few lines from some of my favorites, and notice the dates!

In April 2008, “Woodge” wrote: “I found this while browsing in a bookstore and I must admit that the arresting cover caught my eye. Upon a closer look, the cover would seem to appeal to a Young Adult audience but an even closer inspection revealed that to be misleading. (There’s a moral here somewhere.) . . . Well, it was as advertised. This imaginative, original story gets cracking from the very first pages. The imagery is lush and painted with a rich vocabulary. There’s nothing cutesy about the story . . . and it manages to include all sorts of beasties. Vampires, werewolves, gypsies, and other various ghouls all make an appearance in this unpredictable tale. And when the action is really moving it brings to mind thrills you might find in a summer blockbuster. Good times.”

In October 2007, “The other John” wrote: “(Had to re-read this one and get my fix of Midwest October…) Dragonfly is a great read. The premise is nothing new — a child has adventures in a mystical realm. But unlike Dorothy, Meg Murry or the Pevensie children, Bridget Anne (also known by the nickname Dragonfly) heads down to a dark realm — the essence of Hallowe’en. Not quite hell, but much closer than any other ‘faerieland’ of which I’ve read. But it’s not all blackness, either. There is love and hope and faith amidst the suffering and death. Mr. Durbin does a very good job of bringing the story to life, weaving together the plot and the characters. Nothing is wasted — details that I just thought of as embellishment suddenly turn out to be important to the plot. One of the folks who reviewed Dragonfly at Amazon.com said that the book reminded him of Ray Bradbury. Me, I was reminded of C.S. Lewis, partly because of the basic premise, partly because of the underlying Christianity of the heroes. . . . But despite Mr. Lewis’ skill in portraying good and evil characters, his fiction comes across as a weekend gardener — a tad dirty, but still very prim and proper. Dragonfly, to continue the metaphor, is more like a real farmer, for whom sweat and dust are a part of daily life. I really enjoyed reading this and I’m going to put it on my shelf so I can read it again. I suspect it will only get better the second time around.”

On January 1st of 2009, “Jaymi” said: “I remember picking this book up on a lark. It was the name and the cover that caught my eye. We were just about to leave the store when I saw it and knew I had to have it. I’m glad I got it. Imagine Neil Gaiman meets H.P. Lovecraft and this is one possible reality. Dragonfly is the story of a 10-year-old girl who foolishly adventures down into a horrible realm (much like Lovecraft’s Dreamlands). Dragonfly follows a strange ‘exterminator’ down into her basement. . . .”

This is probably my favorite: on April 25, 2009, “Crystal” wrote: “I find it hard to believe this book is not more popular. Far from being overwritten or too descriptive, the narrative is perfect. Death is not off limits, nor does the author try to dumb the story down. So far, it’s as d**n near to perfect as I have come across.”

Finally, on September 10, 2008, “Todd” said: “It is very dark and complex. . . . I really enjoyed the writing style. It is imaginary and literary, with lots of allusions to mythology, great books, and the Scriptures. But they are very very subtle. This is no Left Behind kind of cheap Christian novel. The author, a Lutheran, does a wondrous job of weaving elements of the Christian faith in . . . . I hope he writes more soon.”

There’s also a review in a language I can’t read and my computer can’t reproduce, so I won’t quote that one.

Groink! On to THE LISTS!

I’m going to give you three separate lists here (you’ll see why as we go along). Obviously, I’m not making any attempt to identify the greatest works of literature in the history of humankind. For that, I commend to you The New Lifetime Reading Plan, by Clifton Fadiman and John S. Major, though the authors aren’t as focused on fantasy and horror as most of us are. (The weirdos.) Heh, heh. What I’m going to list here are the books that, for whatever reasons, have meant the most to me, have influenced me the most, and/or that people who know me well have recommended to me. In general, the books appear in no particular order: if they make the list, they make the list. Without further adieu, then (lest the referee declare us Off the Subject, and we all have to fork over a nickel or a dime):

List #1: My Treasured Books (The Small Shelf):

1. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

2. Watership Down, by Richard Adams

3. The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

4. Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees

5. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

6. My Father’s Dragon, by Ruth Stiles Gannett (This is a children’s book, but its influence on me is immeasurable: it’s the very essence of mystery and exploration, penetrating the unknown, adventure in exotic places, friendship, and doing things for the right reasons. The illustrations and those wonderful maps are at least half of the enchantment.)

7. Collectively, the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. Where to begin? Among my favorites are The Dunwich Horror, A Shadow Over Innsmouth, At the Mountains of Madness, and “The Dreams in the Witch-House.” My absolute #1 favorite of his short stories is “The Shunned House.” And finally, his story that I believe supersedes genre and belongs in every college freshman English lit survey course textbook, right alongside “A Rose for Emily” et al., is “The Strange High House in the Mist.” I’m telling you, Lovecraft. . . . I grew up reading him, because the covers intrigued me in our family’s bookstore. As a kid, as a grownup, I read him perennially, and he’s one of the few authors whose stuff I’ve read most of. Even now, when spring comes around and the weather warms up, I itch to dig out a volume of Lovecraft, go outdoors, and read until the sun sets. Lovecraft in the dusk is the ultimate reading experience! If you don’t own any Lovecraft books yet and are wondering what to buy, I’d point you toward the annotated Lovecraft editions edited by S.T. Joshi, who is probably the world’s leading Lovecraft scholar. [I’ve personally met him — he shook my hand at the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs, and he gave Dragonfly a wonderful review in Weird Tales!]

Peter S. Beagle, signing books at the World Fantasy Convention in Texas, 2006.

Peter S. Beagle, signing books at the World Fantasy Convention in Texas, 2006.

8. The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle

9. The Book of Wonder, by Lord Dunsany (To protect the very guilty, I won’t tell you how I acquired my copy of this. But it’s worth acquiring, even if you have to venture into a Peruvian temple and outrun a gigantic rolling stone sphere and a tribe of angry Hovitos.)

10. Bertram’s Fabulous Animals, by Paul T. Gilbert (This is another children’s book, but it gave me endless hours of entertainment as a kid. In a nutshell, the protag, Bertram, is a kid who keeps finding out about various fantastic creatures, and he always wants to get one as a pet. His mama always kind of misunderstands what he’s talking about and says okay. He gets one, and pandemonium ensues. Finally, Bertram’s daddy comes home (he’s always in Omaha on business) and straightens things out and sends the destructive and/or selfish fantastic creature packing. It’s that delicious combination of funny and fascinating and terrifying that makes for the very best of children’s books. I remember almost having nightmares about one of the creatures . . . and laughing really hard many a time.)

11. Enchanted Night, by Steven Millhauser (This is my most recent discovery on this list. But it belongs here. I found the book in Tokyo, because of its beautiful cover. Now I read it almost every summer. But I implore you: read it only at night, during the very hottest season you can manage in your part of the world. It’s pure magic. The whole book [which is quite thin, an easy read] takes place during a single summer night; it follows the nightly adventures of a group of people linked by the fact that they are all residents of the same New England town. Wow, just thinking about it makes me want to take it down off my shelf right now. . . .)

12. The Thorn Birds, by Colleen McCullough

13. Jaws, by Peter Benchley (Go ahead and laugh, but everything I’ve written has been colored in some way by Jaws. I’ll never forget the happy hours spent on my Aunt Emmy’s back stairway, just off her kitchen, reading Jaws. Yes, this is a rare case in which the movie is better. But the movie wouldn’t exist without the book. The book was first.)

14. Beowulf, by the Beowulf poet

15. Andersen’s Fairy Tales, by Hans Christian Andersen (My mom would read these to me whenever I was really sick, so I will forever associate them with fevers and vomiting and delirium — but also with tenderness and love and the comforting presence of a mom . . . and release from all responsibility, because you’re sicker than a dog . . . and the hope of recovery, and the delight of water or ice cubes to a dehydrated mouth . . . and fantasy, and dreams. . . .)

16. October Dreams, edited by Richard Chizmar and Robert Morrish (This is a hefty collection of stories about Hallowe’en by many different writers, some famous, some you’ve never heard of. And what may be even better than the fiction is that between the stories are short recollections by the writers of their favorite Hallowe’en memories. I get this book out every October and read around in it.)

List #2: Honorable Mentions:

1. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury (His best book — and the single greatest influence on Dragonfly — there’s even a balloon.)

2. The Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin, Jr. (I’ve met him and heard him preach at the church he once served [he’s a Lutheran pastor] in Evansville, Indiana.)

3. Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White (I remember crying in Miss Logan’s first grade classroom as I finished this book. It’s the book that taught me that stories that make you hurt can be among the most effective — and that really good endings are what you should aim for as a writer.)

4. The Charwoman’s Shadow, by Lord Dunsany (My Cricket story “Ren and the Shadow Imps” is a tribute to this one.)

5. The Knife-Thrower and Other Stories, by Steven Millhauser (Wonderful, wonderful stuff — Millhauser finds the details that recapture all our childhood longings — longings, perhaps, as C.S. Lewis said, for things that do not even exist in this temporal life.)

6. It, by Stephen King (In my opinion, this is Stephen King’s best work: it doesn’t get any better than this. I read most of this book in the summer just before I left for Japan, and finished it up in Tokyo.)

7. ‘Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King (His second-best book. Vampires!)

8. The Harry Potter books, by J.K. Rowling (Ever heard of them? They’re kind of obscure, but you can probably find some somewhere. . . .)

9. I Heard the Owl Call My Name, by Margaret Craven

10. Annapurna, by Maurice Herzog (This book inspired my next-door neighbor and me to climb everything in sight: the barn, trees, buildings. . . . And to take grainy photos of ourselves at the summit.)

11. The Book of Lies, by Agota Kristof (Search for her name, not for this title: I don’t think the three short novels that make it up were released under this title in the States. This book is not for everyone — it’s very disturbing in places. But for virtuosity of technique and construction, it’s brilliant!)

12. Zothique, by Clark Ashton Smith (Happy memories of dusty crypts and sere mummies that creak as they walk. . . . I saw a new release on Amazon of some of Smith’s stories.)

13. The Lost World, by Arthur Conan Doyle (A South American plateau on which dinosaurs still live . . . for a pre-teen boy, Heaven.)

14. The Land That Time Forgot and its two sequels, The People That Time Forgot and Out of Time’s Abyss, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (Fun, fun, fun, fun!)

15. The Man-Eaters of Kumaon, by¬†Jim Corbett (He was a big-game hunter hired by the local governments of India’s Kumaon district whenever they had a problem with a big cat that turned maneater. It’s a factual account of his showdowns with various tigers and leopards. Not a “chick flick” at all, but I’ll bet some of you chicks would like it.¬†. . .)

16. The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer (Never would have read this if I hadn’t gone to college. Glad I did.)

17. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare (I saw this performed, too, outdoors on a summer night. Just as much fun as the play was seeing the cast milling about under the trees before and after the show — all these people dressed as fairies in the light of the moon, taking part in this magical experience that is a theater production, which happens briefly in life and then is gone forever, but never forgotten. . . .)

18. The Mothman Prophecies, by John Keel (If you’re going to read just one book on Fortean subjects/the paranormal, this should be the one.)

19. Shiokari Pass, by Ayako Miura (A story of what it means to be a Christian in Japan. I’ve been there — I’ve stood in the actual Shiokari Pass on Japan’s north island of Hokkaido. If you’ve seen the movie — I was there!)

20. Run, Melos! by Osamu Dazai (A collection of short stories by one of Japan’s darkest writers — when I was a young, tormented twentysomething, I loved it — “He understands!“)

21. Journey to the Center of the Earth, by Jules Verne (Um, yeah. Doesn’t take much to see the influence this has had on me.)

22. Kwaidan, by Lafcadio Hearn (The title means Weird Tales. Hearn was a westerner who moved to Japan and spent the end of his life there, documenting the ancient, strange folklore of Japan for English readers. In your readings of ghost stories from around the world, if there’s ever a Japanese ghost story, I guarantee you that it came to you via Lafcadio Hearn. This book’s shadow falls large across Dragonfly.)

23. The short stories of Algernon Blackwood and Ambrose Bierce (Particularly “The Willows” and “The Wendigo” by Blackwood and “The Damned Thing” by Bierce. I have delightful memories of reading these in the pine grove in my first years in Niigata.)

24. In Evil Hour, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

And finally:

List #3: Books Recommended to Me by Those Who Know Me and Whom I Greatly Respect:

1. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, by Fannie Flagg

2. Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

3. Zod Wallop, by William Browning Spencer

4. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman

5. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, by Victor Hugo

6. The House on the Borderland, by William Hope Hodgson

7. The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, by Nancy Farmer

8. Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

9. Montmorency, by Eleanor Updale

10. Inkheart and Inkspell, by Cornelia Funke

11. Cloud Atlas,  by David Mitchell

12. A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller

13. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

14. The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder

15. The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene

16. Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

17. The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Graham

18. Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones

19. Roverandom, by J.R.R. Tolkien

20. Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson

21. Stravaganza: City of Masks, City of Flowers, City of Stars, City of Secrets (4 books), by Mary Hoffman

22. Surprised by Joy and Till We Have Faces,  by C.S. Lewis

23. Phantastes, by George Macdonald

24. “The Golden Key,” The Light Princess, and The Princess and the Goblin, by George Macdonald

25. Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy

26. House of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski

27. “The Door in the Wall,” by H.G. Wells

28. The Garden of Forking Paths, by Jorge Luis Borges

29. The Great God Pan, by Arthur Machen

30. The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

31. “The Mezzotint,” by M.R. James (Actually, I think I may have read this one: was it reprinted in Mooreeffoc?)

32. Fingerprints of the Gods, by Graham Hancock

33. “The Lonesome Place,” by August Derleth

34. The Shadow Year, by Jeffrey Ford

35. No Clock in the Forest, by Paul Willis

36. Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons

37. Song of Albion, by Steven Lawhead

38. Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier

39. Unlundun, by China Mieville

40. The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

Think that’ll keep you busy for awhile? Happy reading!

Metamorphoses

February 9, 2009

I recall the first line of Ovid’s Metamorphoses as being “Now I will tell of things that change.” But I just looked it up, and in the first translation that Google offers, it’s “Of bodies chang’d to various forms, I sing.” Either way, the Roman poet Ovid saw all of classical mythology as being about change . . . the changing of one form into another.

Heh, heh — maybe it’s appropriate that I’m writing this posting on the night of the full moon. A friend back in my hometown also informs me that the almanac calls this one in particular the “Full Wolf Moon.” So go ahead, change into a wolf or whatever if you’re so inclined. I’ll just go on talking.

I’m thinking about how that element: change — underlies such a huge number of the stories we love. In Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, Max wears his wolf suit, and it’s his room that changes, with a forest growing up around his bed, and so begins his journey to the place of the Wild Things.

In my novel version of The Star Shard, I titled one chapter “Metamorphoses,” because I noticed how some lesser transformations in the¬†tale reflect the big transformation that’s the core of the story: namely, Cymbril getting older; Cymbril coming to a deeper understanding of who she is, to a state of greater strength and confidence, to an increased awareness of how she fits into the world — and of the beauty of the larger picture.

From that first moment in the theater here in Niigata, when I was watching the Peter Jackson version of The Fellowship of the Ring, I was absolutely captivated by the opening narration, the very first words we hear in the film:

“The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost; for none now live who remember it.”

[That’s an accurate quote: I just checked it.] From that first decision made by the filmmakers, I was hooked. I knew this was going to be something great. Peter Jackson and company understood that The Lord of the Rings, too, is a story of change. The Third Age of Middle-earth is passing; the Fourth Age is dawning. The time of the Elves is drawing to a close. The day of Men is at hand. And in such hours of transition, when all hangs in the balance, the deeds of the smallest persons can shape the fate of all.

One of the things that gives Tolkien’s story so much richness is the fact that Middle-earth doesn’t have the smell of new plastic about it, as if it were just unpacked from the box carried home from Best Buy. Middle-earth is an ancient place, a land of memories and scars, of wars and old wounds, ruins and marshes filled with the dead. “Much that once was is lost.” Alas, my memories of the book are foggy (it’s been about thirty years since I read it), but in the films, we’re constantly reminded of the declining of the world, of the loss of much that used to be better.

Elrond doubts that any hope can come from Men. “The blood of Numenor is almost spent” . . . and Elrond was there to witness personally the failure of Isildur to destroy the ring. Elrond doubts (at first) that Aragorn can rise to the challenge of being King, since “He turned from that path long ago.” Aragorn himself (in the movies) wonders if he’s up to the task.

And how about Theoden? The filmmakers take pains to show us his insecurities, that he feels himself to be a sorry latter-day scion of much greater forebears.

Tolkien’s Elves think of their whole history in Middle-earth as “The Long Defeat” — sometimes gaining little victories over evil, but steadily sliding downhill, the Shadow steadily growing. And isn’t that reflective of our real lives in this world, when everyone speaks of how bad it’s all getting?

Probably the saddest story I’ve ever written is “A Tale of Silences,” published in the January/February 2006 issue of Cicada. Set in a rural mountain village in Japan in 1970, it tells¬†of an old man named Jii. Early on, we learn that the building of a new dam is going to flood the area, and the village where Jii has lived his entire life will cease to exist. The¬†story chronicles¬†his last year in the village, as he moves into the winter of his life. Jii is a widower, and somewhat alienated from his son, who has left the village and embraced more modern values. Here’s a passage from the story describing Jii’s observation of his son, Masashi, who has come to visit:

“Masashi was one of only three in his high-school class who had survived the war. Now, at forty-two, Masashi had sunglasses hanging from his collar, one earpiece tucked into the front of his shirt. He looked out of place sitting in his city clothes on the worn tatami floor beside the dim wall panels, like a bright tennis ball that had bounced into an old garden. He was no longer the color of the village.”

As Jii interacts with various people in the community (including Mizusawa, who has come home emotionally crippled from the war in Manchuria; and Shimo, a strange, silent youth who is feared and disliked by most of the villagers for his habit of peering into their windows at night), he comes to a slow acceptance of time’s inevitable march and the beauty of life’s tapestry.

In the end, living with his son’s family in Tokyo, Jii finds a simple joy in his woodcarving and time spent with his grandson:

“Jii did not care for the noise and the hurry in the streets. He missed Iwano’s smoking and Mizusawa’s stories of privations in Manchuria, stories that seemed to keep back as much as they revealed. He would have preferred a stand of bamboo to the overgroomed park that he could see now outside his window, a place where trees were imprisoned like zoo animals and people crowded on weekends, gulping at the air,¬† faces turned optimistically toward the sun.

“Yet even here, amid the gentle kindness of Masashi and his wife — here, with Makoto tugging at Jii’s sleeve, so eager for his stories and his attention, Jii found the tale still unfolding, heard most plainly in silences. At times, he was sure he could smell something like mountain air wafting in, unexpected and welcome — the clean, moist exhalation of ferns, cedars, and the rich carpet of all things once alive — though perhaps it was a trick of the breeze in the park, brushing past some brave, fragrant, leafy thing.”

This story was written at a time when I was facing the mortality of my parents. They’d gotten old and sick, and I was realizing that before long, no matter how you did the math, I wouldn’t be the kid anymore, with parents to come home to on holidays. I remember one night when it especially came home to me; I was back from Japan for a summer visit, sleeping in my old bed. My room there was adjacent to the bathroom, and I remember that night being deeply affected by the difference in the sound of my dad’s urination when he got up to relieve himself in the dark hours. Dad had always peed like a pirate, his stream a resonant booming in the bowl, on and on, endless and reassuring. That night it was a paltry, halting trickle. It was as if dark years slid onto me from every corner of that aging house, years on years, stacked and compressed, and now weighing me down. I remember my parents coughing in the dark, coughing with chronic smokers’ hacks. I remember listening to the sounds of mice chewing and scrabbling in the closets. And I lay there in the dark, in my old familiar bed, at the bottom of a well of years. Hadn’t it just been days or weeks before that I’d been a teenager, worried about high-school classes and my girlfriend and whether or not I’d ever get published? Now my parents were old and frail, and the walls were full of mice.

“Change and decay in all around I see,” says the hymn “Abide With Me”: “Oh, Thou Who changest not, abide with me.”

Therein lies the comfort: if the underpinning is solid, the surface changes aren’t so bad. In fact, they can be beautiful. A common fault of beginning writers’ fiction manuscripts is that they don’t want their characters to have to experience change — not too much, anyway. Certainly nothing painful. But it’s change that makes a story.

A good friend of mine recently observed that we have to seize happiness and drag it out of the dark that surrounds us. Or, as Blake wrote, we have to “build a Heaven in Hell’s despite.” It’s doable, since we have an ultimate home beyond all change, won for us by Christ.

Ours is not to fear the changes, but to celebrate the hour. “The world is changed”: but to change is to be human. Observe the changes, and let them become stories.

Sail out in this full moon’s light through a year and day, wearing a wolf suit, to where the Wild Things are. Consider this final quote, particularly in the light of who said it:

“Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.”

¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† — Anne Frank

Frody Bagger and the Terrible Ring of You-Know-Whom

November 28, 2008

Lest this blog be accused of taking itself too seriously, the following posting is entirely silly.

The other day, some friends and I were toying with the utterly frivolous question of “What if H.P. Lovecraft had written Jaws?” (If you survive this posting, maybe I’ll subject you to my answer to that question next time around.) (This is the sort of thing writers do when they should be doing more responsible things like meeting the deadline on the chunk of the grammar dictionary they’re supposed to be editing.)

So gather ’round, Gentle Readers, and before you drop off to sleep tonight, I’ll read you a little story. The question before us is, What if J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling had been collaborators? What if, instead of the works they’re most famous for, they put their talents together and came up with the epic romance suggested by the title of this posting? [Writer’s note: in light of some of the responses I’ve been getting, I feel it’s necessary to say here that the following is a loving sendup of two writers whose work I greatly admire. It’s not intended as an attack on either one of them. I hope fans of either or both will find a lot they recognize here, perhaps with a twist or two that may induce laughter.]

Here we go, then — here’s what might have resulted. We pick it up in medias res:

Frody Bagger and the Terrible Ring of You-Know-Whom

When everyone had settled down after the excitement, Gandalf clinked his pipe on his water-bottle for silence.

“Hsst! Frody!” whispered Merry. “Have you heard the one about the traveling salesman from the Westfarthing?”

“Shush!” said Legolas, scowling as darkly as his fair countenance would allow. “Gandalf’s going to speak.”

Gandalf cleared his throat and looked solemn. “Before we begin the next phase of our journey — which I think, given the lateness of the hour, shall involve resting first — I regret to inform you that the doors of Moria are now firmly closed behind us, and we have no choice but to go forward into the dark.”

Groans passed throughout the Fellowship. Boromir caught Frody’s eye and shook his head. “I told you all we should have made for the Gap of Rohan, but noooo.”

“Shush!” said Legolas.

“I think we are all tired,” Gandalf finished, “so I shall conclude my remarks with the advice that we all get a good night’s sleep. Moria is not to be trifled with, and many of your parents are already concerned that this Quest is dangerous.”

“Parents? Concerned?” murmured Merry. “Mum thought this would be good for us. Whose parents have got their shorts in a knot?”

“Don’t look at me,” Frody hissed back. “My parents¬†drowned.”

He was still feeling peevish from his soaking in the pool outside the gate. While Sam spread the bedrolls, Frody wrung out his shirt. “Sam,” he said under his breath, “why d’you suppose that tentacly thing singled me out? D’you suppose it has something to do with this burden I bear?”

“Oh, go on there, Mr. Frody. Everybody turns fifty sooner or later. It’s not so bad. Why, look at Mr. Gandalf. . . .”

“I meant the ring, Sam.”

“Oh! That I wouldn’t know nothin’ about.”

Across the camp, Gimli scrunched his brows, appraising Legolas’s bow. “Well now, Leg’las,” he said, “How did yer know ter use arrows agains’ that Thing in the water?”

The elf rolled his eyes. “If you’d read the Quest Manual, you’d know there’s a whole section on ‘Attacking Enemies From a Distance.’ It tells all about the bow and arrow. Tsk! Honestly, do any of Durin’s folk ever crack a book?”

Gimli patted the head of his war axe. “We c’n crack purty much anythin’, Master Elf, if yer take my meanin’.” Gimli was a stout and formidable warrior — a Giant Dwarf, which made him exactly 5’10” in height: precisely as Ralph Bakshi had portrayed him.

Legolas threw up his hands and stalked away to his own space.

Frody and Sam sat awake for a short while in the Common Area of the camp, beside the fire.

“Here, then, Mr. Frody,” Sam said. “Have a cup of pumpkin juice and a bite o’ these conies and taters. Things’ll be better once we’re through this dark — you’ll see.”

“You’re a bonzer friend, Sam, and an amazing hobbit. Where would I be without you?”

“Oh, go on, Mr. Frody.”

“No, it’s true, Sam. When the pony was making all that fuss earlier, you knew he needed feeding.”

“You’re makin’ me embarrassed, Mr. Frody. You know that was just because I took that there seminar Master Elrond arranged for us — that there ‘Care of Ordinary Creatures.’ Sharp folks, them elves, if you ask me. Knowin’ just what — crikey, Mr. Frody, what’s that?

They sprang to their feet as a pair of luminous round eyes flashed in the dark. Frody checked his new sword, the Sting 2009, but it wasn’t glowing blue, as it did when goblins and such were about. It did, however, launch into the current time and temperature until he re-sheathed it.

“Oh, relax,” said Frody, taking a second look into the spooky shadows of Moria. “It’s just Golly.”

Whining and wringing his bony hands, Golly slinked into view and sidled up to the fire.

Sam growled, and Frody sighed heavily. “Hullo, Golly,” said Frody.

Golly rolled onto his back with an ecstatic shriek, kicking his gangly feet in the air. “Aaiiieee! Golly is tremendously honored that Mr. Frody Bagger deigns to speak to him! Oh, fortunate, fortunate Golly! But Golly is undeserving, Sir! Golly would prefer Mr. Frody Bagger’s fist against his jaw. Golly’s teeth should fly! Mr. Frody Bagger should hold Golly in the fire until he scorches, Sir!”

Golly had followed the Fellowship for many leagues. He had originally called himself a House Elf until Legolas had asked to see his Elf Card. Having none — nor pockets to carry a card in — Golly immediately declared himself a House Golem.

“Golly, please!” cried Frody. Golly had seized Frody’s ankle and was using Frody’s foot to kick himself in the stomach.

“Mr. Frody Bagger –” said Golly, between gasping retches as the boot pummeled him — “must not — go into the Wild. Must not — go anywhere — but to Cirith Ungol. Yes! Straight Stair, Winding Stair! He is safe there, is Mr. Frody Bagger. Panic room is there. Lead-lined vault, full of provisions. Pipe leaf, yes! DVD player! Hole up for the duration of nasty war! Keep the Precious safe! Golly comes to lead Mr. Frody Bagger there!”

Boromir’s horn sailed through the air and beaned Golly on the noggin.

“Ooooh!” squealed Golly. “Golly is thanking you, Sir!”

“If we can’t go to Gondor,” grumped Boromir, “we’re not going to your ‘Cirith Ungol,’ wherever that is.”

“Tsk!” called Legolas. “Some of us are trying to sleep!”

As¬†Golly carried on, returning the horn to Boromir and offering his head as a target, enthusiastically inviting a second shot, the hobbit twins sneaked up behind him. Laying hold of the sinewy creature, one lifted him bodily and dropped him into an open well at the chamber’s corner. Golly’s piteous scream faded into the depths. Somewhere far below, an ominous drum began to beat. Doom . . . doom . . . doom. . . .

“Fool of a Took!” snarled Gandalf. “Throw yourself in next time!” The wizard disentangled himself from his bedding, and as he stood, he seemed to grow taller and darker in his anger. (It was rumored that at meetings of the White Council, the Wise had “Get Momentarily Scary” contests. Gandalf and Galadriel generally traded off the trophy back and forth, year by year, throughout the Third Age.)

“Ah, ha, ha, ha!” laughed the other twin, slapping his knee. “He’s not Pippin! I’m Pippin!” But seeing the stormy shadow pass across Gandalf’s face, seeing the wizard’s eyes blaze with wrath, the hobbit changed his tune. “Just kidding. He’s Pippin.”

Slowly, the drum beats faded to silence.

“Likely they was just practicin’,” said Gimli. “Or horsin’ aroun’ wi’ an ol’ kettle drum. Our folk always carry aroun’ their music’l ins’ruments. Bass viols, an’ such. Bombur prolly left some percussion stuff set up down there.”

“Regardless,” said Legolas, “it was foolish, Master Took. Like that time you threw all our chocolate at the troll.”

“How was I to know,” said Pippin, “that chocolate only works against the Wraiths of the Land of Serious Black?”

“Right!” added Merry. “And chocolate sort of worked against that horrible thing with the one wheel — that wheelbarrow-wight.”

“At any rate,” said Legolas huffily, “we’re without chocolate until we get another package from your mum.”

Boromir was looking forlornly at his horn, which had broken in two after its impact with Golly’s head. It lay now in two neat halves, as if it had been cloven with a blade. “So much for that,” he said with a sigh, tossing¬†the pieces¬†into a sewer that drained into the Great River Anduin. “Hope my dad doesn’t find out.”

“Ahem!” said Gandalf. “Bed? More questing early tomorrow? Do I have to come over there?”

Everyone lay down again except Legolas, who sat reading the Quest Manual, and Frody and Sam, who returned to the fire.

“Gandalf?” called Pippin meekly in the dark. “How d’you figure on getting us out of these mines?”

“Not to worry,” said the wizard soothingly. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Now do try to sleep.”

Again, when all was quiet, Frody sighed. “I wish Aragorn were here. I have so many questions for him.”

Sam looked wistful. “Strider — your godfather, yes. He’s a good feller to have on your side in a scrape, an’ no mistake. Can’t say as I trusted him at our first meetin’, though.”

“Sam, I know he looks foul. But he can’t come in out of the Wild and wash his hair, because the Ministry of Stewardship is still after him. They don’t like this business of ‘Heir to the Throne.'”

“Why don’t you write him a letter, Mr. Frody?”

“Crikey, Sam! That’s brilliant! You’re a genius!”

“Oh, go on then, Mr. Frody. Don’t be makin’ fun.”

Smoothing out a piece of parchment, Frody uncapped his ink bottle, dipped his quill, and began to write.

Dear Aragorn,

Our Quest is going well. I miss you and wish you were here. Join us when you’re able. We are now at 35 degrees 7 minutes east longitude, 40 degrees 3 minutes south latitude, and doing our best to stay hidden. Secrecy is of the utmost importance, Gandalf says.

By the way, in case you’re worried, I still have It safe — you know, the Thing I’m carrying that You-Know-Who wants.

Hope to see you soon.

Frody

Sam read it over Frody’s shoulder. “That’s perfect, Mr. Frody, but how are you going to get it to Strider?”

“I think I can just throw it out that window,” said Frody, pointing to an aperture in the stone wall. “Aragorn’s all over the Wild. He’s the guy out there. If something’s in the Wild, he’ll find it.”

“Right!” agreed Sam.

Tiptoeing to the window so as not to wake the others, they peered out into the night beyond the walls of Moria. Frody¬†flung his letter into the breeze,¬†and it zigzagged toward the ground — until a huge, black, reptilian shape swooped out of the clouds, and a cowled figure on the monster’s back snatched the parchment in a skeletal hand.

“What d’you suppose that was, Mr. Frody?” asked Sam, sounding a little worried.

“A friend of Aragorn’s, I expect,” said Frody. “He’s got many friends.”

“And many names,” added Sam.

“He says that’s to stay ahead of the bill collectors.”

“He is so cool,” said Sam.

Their gazes drifted downward to the winding path leading up to Moria’s side entrance. A red carpet lay unrolled on it, and along this carpet trooped a host of shadowy figures — mythical creatures, all having come to make gratuitous cameo appearances in the story, so that an entire generation of readers might grow up believing they had appeared here first. Frody and Sam stared in wonder at centaurs, gargoyles, griffins, hippogriffs, Ki-Rin, fauns, platypi, talking beavers, Daleks, and mermaids flipping and thrashing, dragging themselves forward with their hands. There were owlbears, wyverns, sphinxes, a couple of Shoggoths, banthas, Jawas, Untowards, chupacabras, and¬†a Sasquatch.

All these fabulous beings were emerging from an endless line of arriving limousine carriages powered by invisible engines — or so one could only surmise. There were misty, empty spaces above the front wheels, where the motors and bonnets ought to be.

Paparazzi sprang now from the bushes — the fell paparazzi of the Misty Mountains, a strain of their vile kind that You-Know-Who had cross-bred with Men, that they might go about in daylight and march over great distance beneath the weight of camera bags. Their cameras flashed now, lighting the forest with an eerie radiance like a false dawn.

More mythical celebrities arrived on the carpet. Scylla and Charybdis had obviously tried to outdo each other with their off-the-shoulder evening gowns. Nosferatu sprang up end-ways out of his hearse-bed limo. Pan waved to the crowds, looking chic in his designer shades, a fur-draped chimaera on his arm. Her breath incinerated one of the paparazzi who got too close. Dr. Zaius, with distinguished silver highlights in his orange mane, was obviously playing the elder statesman.

“Mr. Frody! Is that . . . can it be. . . .?”

“Yes, Sam,” said Frody with a smile. “That’s Grendel.”

“Oh, I’ve always dearly wanted to see Grendel! But — but who’s that he’s with?” Sam’s face contorted in revulsion. “Oh, that would be gross, an’ no mistake!”

In the light of the moon and the flashes, they saw that Grendel was escorting Medusa. When she lifted her own shades to glare meaningfully at a cameraman, he promptly turned to stone, camera and all. She was wearing high-heeled feet, which were all the rage since Angelina had worn them in Beowulf.

“She’s put on quite a few pounds,” said Frody. “And can you believe that? — Botox for every one of her snakes.”

“And that dress, Mr. Frody. That’d be just wrong in my book, if you take my meanin’. ‘Mutton dressed as lamb,’ as my old Gaffer always says.”

 

When at last they pulled themselves away from the view of the bizarre menagerie, they discovered Gandalf sitting at the divergence of two corridors, one descending to the left, the other climbing away to the right. He was clearly confounded.

“Hmm,” he said broodingly. “If only I’d brought along the Hallway-Sorting Hat.”

Merry sat up, yawning. “Maybe you should try saying ‘Friend’ again.”

Pippin high-fived him from the adjacent bedroll.

“Tsk!” said Legolas.

“I have it!” cried Gandalf, bounding to his feet with a laugh. “Gandalf, you old fool! I have the solution to everything!”

“What is it?” they all cried, gathering close behind him.

“There are too many adults here!” He danced from foot to foot, rubbing his hands together in glee. “We’ll never advance the plot that way! These books always start to move when you young folks are left to your own devices. Hobbits, take the descending path.” He clutched Frody’s shoulder soberly¬†and patted the ring through Frody’s shirt. “Keep it secret. Keep it safe.” Then he brightened. “The rest of us will go this way, up this tunnel marked ‘EXIT.’ We’ll be back for the denouement — to thump you on the backs, make some pithy philosophical comments about life, devotion, and friendship,¬†and tell you ‘Well done, but now things are going to get darker.'”

“Sounds like a plan,” said Legolas.

“But –” Frody began.

“Gimli,” said Gandalf, “you’d better go with the kids.”

Gloin’s son blustered. “Yer hadn’t ought ter send me away, Mr. Gandalf!”

“Ooo,” said Legolas — “short-tempered, are we?”

“Now, now,” said the wizard, “enough talk. Everybody, do your thing. We’ll see you on the beach. Let’s do some good.”

THE END.

Famous Last Words

June 14, 2008

For me, the single most interesting part of a book is the very last sentence or two. The end of any unit of writing — be it a phrase, a sentence, a chapter, or an entire book — is said to be the “power position.” It’s what the reader is left with, the last word echoing in the reader’s ears as s/he walks away. I absolutely love last lines. I love to study them, to savor them, to collect them in my memory.

Much, much, much is said in discussions of writing technique about first lines and first chapters. We’ve heard again and again how we must grab the reader by the throat; we must yank the reader into our fictional world from page one. That’s all too true, and getting truer by the minute in the world of modern publishing. Gone are the leisurely eras when the public had an attention span for the printed word.

But in my experience, first lines are not that big a deal. I can’t think of any book I’ve ever read of which the first sentence was what sucked me in. Sometimes it’s the book’s cover (Steven Millhauser’s Enchanted Night and a lot of the Lovecraft covers when I was a kid); sometimes it’s the back cover’s blurb; sometimes it’s something I’ve heard or read about the book or some combination thereof. (I first picked up The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings partly because of the covers [illustrations by Tolkien himself], partly because of their perennial prominence in the small bookstore my parents owned, and partly because of what my dad told me about the stories — although he told me Tolkien was German; I think he had this “ring” story mixed up with the¬†one Wagner wrote his opera about. But that’s fine –whatever he said, it got me to read the books, although Dad hadn’t read them himself.) But anyway, first sentences rarely do anything to lure me in. They can’t lessen the weight of the enormous number of sentences that are coming after, numerous as the grains of sand on the beach, that must all be read if I’m ever to get through the book.

The pressure on a first sentence is too great, isn’t it? Some are memorable, to be sure: “Call me Ishmael.” “I am a cat.” “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, . . . .” “The night Max wore his wolf suit, . . . .” But a first sentence has nothing to build on. It might introduce a character, but we don’t know that character yet. It might introduce a place, but it’s not familiar yet. It might show us some action, but we’re not going to figure out what’s happening until we’ve read further. If they’re done right, first sentences become transparent, right? Their purpose is to make us get past them. They’re doorways.

But last sentences . . . last sentences are the inscriptions cut in marble. They’re what all the book has been leading us toward. Final sentences aren’t transparent. They’re the prima donnas. They’re the spoils of war, the souvenirs, the battle scars. They wuv us very much and cling to our leg as we go out to the car.

We’ve all got our favorites, right? Who can forget the way Watership Down ends? . . . or The Lord of the Rings, so humble and homely after all the grand adventures in far, perilous lands? . . . or The Great Gatsby? I think the last few sentences of A River Runs Through It are brilliant, but the author goes one sentence too far; if that very last sentence were lopped off, the ending would redouble in power. And there’s Charlotte’s Web, which not only makes us cry, but manages to salute writers everywhere.

I won’t ask anyone to pick one favorite last line — it’s likely impossible to choose just one. I’m going to offer¬†an example here, because I think it does its job so well. (It’s not my #1 favorite; it’s just one I respect a great deal.) Then I’ll open this up to anyone who cares to quote other concluding lines. I’m anxious to hear which are the ones that resonate with you, that echo on through the decades of your life, compelling and unforgettable, perhaps taking on new shades of meaning as you gain experience.

The only rule is this: please don’t quote something that will spoil a plot for anyone. Let’s not have anything like, “And so, though none of us would have guessed it in a million years, the murderer was really his brother Hal.” And yes, you’re not limited to one single sentence. Sometimes we need the last two or even three. My example uses two. And multiple submissions are okay if you really can’t decide among your four favorites.

Okay, here’s my example to prime the pump:

“But now I know that our world is no more permanent than a wave rising on the ocean. Whatever our struggles and triumphs, however we may suffer them, all too soon they bleed into a wash, just like watery ink on paper.” — Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha