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Iceland’s Real Elves

January 21, 2014 — 21 Comments

warrior elvesI’ve always wanted to visit Iceland.

Not simply because it’s the most sparsely populated country in Europe . . . even though I’m not big on crowds.

Not simply because of its spectacular glaciers and volcanic activity . . . even though these natural wonders inspire genuine awe.

Not simply because it is home to the world’s most ancient parliamentary democracy . . . even though I believe representative democracy is the best sort of government available.

Not simply because they colonized Greenland, from which the Norse were the first Europeans to discover the Americas . . . even though Leif Erikson deserves the accolades rendered to others.

Not simply because 40,000 of my fellow citizens are of Icelandic descent . . . even though I’m pleased they have contributed to our national “melting pot.”

Not simply because Iceland’s tenth largest city is called Fjarðabyggð . . . even though that vivid name is sure to capture the imagination of any writer.

Not simply because the Icelandic alphabet actually includes a runic letter (Þ, þ) named thorn . . . even though this too makes the nation of Iceland unique.

And, not simply because J.R.R. Tolkien and his friend C.S. Lewis established a group called Kolbitar which was devoted to reading Icelandic and Norse sagas. The word itself means “coal biter” and refers to those in a harsh environment drawing so close to the fire’s warmth they can almost bite the coals.

When the Lord of the Rings (as a work in progress) was being in read at meetings of the Inklings, one of the groups members at some point blurted out, “Oh no, not another –– elf!” [I only mention this here because that impetuous comment is often incorrectly attributed to Lewis—a genuine fan of Tolkien’s masterpiece. It was actually voiced by Hugo Dyson, another WWI veteran who taught English at Merton College.]

In the past, all of these reasons have contributed to my curiosity about the Land of Ice, but now I have added one more reason to someday visit.

It turns out that some Icelanders believe that elves, called by them Huldufólk (hidden folk), are real!

The elves have a large enough human constituency, that they are able to block highway construction due to the impact on the local Huldufólk!

Technically, the preservation of the elvish solitude is only the secondary concern in the lawsuits, the first being protection of one of Iceland’s numerous lava fields. Iceland’s Supreme Court has vacillated on the case, which can only raise the ire of any elves that may reside there.

elf houseIf the proponents of the reality of the Huldufólk are right, there remains one shortcoming to the Icelandic elves. Apparently, if the elf homes that dot the countryside are any indication, the northern island breed are a diminutive race. As in tiny, what Americans would think of more as a gnome or perhaps even a fairy.

My problem is that I’ve been spoiled by J.R.R. Tolkien’s version of the elvish races. I see them a tall, noble, and wise. The kind of folk you’d want for a friend, if you could get past the aloofness that is apparently characteristic of beings who live centuries rather than decades.

I fear that these Icelandic elves are (pardon me, any Huldufólk who may be reading this) a rather inferior lot. More like leprechauns than warriors. If you live in Iceland and can correct my errors about the hidden folk there, please contact me. Even better if you happen to know some elves personally.

cliche bookAvoiding clichés in one’s writing is such oft-repeated advice it’s nearly become a cliché itself.

Many do not make much sense to people approaching a language from a literal perspective. For example, those new to American English may require a bit of explanation to understand that “hit the books” refers to studying rather than literary pugilism.

Some clichés are easily deciphered, especially when read in context. As an admonition to stop obstructing a view, we can understand why someone would say, “You make a better door than a window.”

“Don’t rain on my parade” adequately warns the hearer to avoid dampening the speaker’s special plans or activities.

Folksy adages are common where clichés are concerned. Take “The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree.” We all know it references a child who shares numerous traits with a parent.

And we have interchangeable versions of the same notion, in case a lazy writer wishes to alternate your redundancies. He/she is a “chip off the old block” means essentially the same thing. And there’s always the classic “like father, like son,” and its corollary “like mother, like daughter.”

“As snug as a bug in a rug” used to be a favorite of my mother, ever applicable as she tucked little ones into their beds. Today, however, with bedbugs plaguing humanity in epidemic proportions, that cuddly image may have lost a touch of its appeal.

Some clichés have clearly outlived any usefulness they may once have possessed. “Too many chiefs, and not enough Indians,” clearly refers to a situation in which everyone is in charge and there no one is able or willing to actually carry out the project. However, few writers would tempt incurring the wrath of readers by using such a dated and rather prejudiced saying.

A cliché, of course, is a typically trite phrase that has lost its element of ingenuity due to overuse. It is something serious writers strive to avoid at all costs. But the final phrase in my previous sentence reveals how difficult it can be to purge these worn out words from our writing. Whenever used, they should be included consciously; writers might utilize them to establish, for example, a comic tone.

Even the gifted C.S. Lewis recognized the threat of clichés worming their way into one’s work. In a 1922 entry in his diary he wrote:

Tried to work at Dymer [his narrative poem] and covered some paper: but I am very dispirited about my work at present—especially as I find it impossible to invent a new opening for the Wild Hunt. The old one is full of clichés and will never do. I have learned too much on the idea of being able to write poetry and if this is a frost I shall be rather stranded . . .

The word cliché itself originated in France, where it was a printing plate or stereotype cast from an original composed of movable type. (The casting freed the movable type for new projects while maintaining the lettering for possible future printings.) The word came to be applied to ready-made phrases. However, the casting of printing plates is one thing. Recycling exhausted phrases ad nauseum is quite another.

Clichés are generally limited to a particular country or culture. Some are restricted to given regions. When outsiders hear or read these phrases, they often make little sense.

Some gain international esteem. More than a century ago Lord Acton described a universal truth of politics that resonates across boundaries. We have all witnessed the truth that “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” but those wise words are not something we should typically parrot in our own writings.

Not knowing the original source of a cliché is common. It is rather tragic, though, when it comes to texts that should be familiar to writers. For example:

“All’s well that ends well” is one of Shakespeare’s best loved maxims. If most Americans were asked whether it came from the pen of the Bard or Benjamin Franklin, we might be sadly disappointed with the results.

“The writing is on the wall” infers the outcome is already determined. But too few recognize this as a reference to a miracle recorded in the Book of Daniel. (If you’re not familiar with it, you can read the story here.)

Some clichés that relate to the art of writing would include the following [with my modest illustrations attached]:

“You can’t judge a book by its cover.”

     Appearances may be misleading.

Someone who appears wonderful when you first meet them may be just like an ebook with a professionally designed cover that contains a poorly scanned reprint replete with typos.

“It’s nothing to write home about.”

     Something that’s boring and not worth retelling.

While the freedom of POD technology has created democracy within the publishing industry, it’s also led to millions of meandering “books” that should “never have seen the light of day.”

A person is “an open book.”

     Someone who readily reveals their personality through word and action.

The type of character skilled authors will wish to introduce in limited quantities, especially if they are writing mysteries.

“Throw the book at him.”

     Give him the maximum possible judicial punishment.

The well-deserved fate of best-selling authors who rest on their laurels and start “phoning in” their sequels.

We turn now to a non-literary but colorful example of an American colloquialism that has spread far from its origins in the swine-breeding communities where it undoubtedly originated. It’s one of my favorite clichés, and it just may have a few good uses left in it, so feel free to include it in your next column or book . . . and no need to cite me as your source:

“You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”

     A task is impossible, given what you have to work with.

The echoing refrain of editors whose clients expect them to transform a few dusty lumps of coal into diamonds.

Possible Valid Uses for Clichés

While it’s safest for writers to avoid them altogether, there are a handful of occasions where they are not utterly inappropriate.

One suitable place for “chesnuts” like these to appear is in dialogue—especially when it’s written for a character a writer desires to portray as rather shallow-thinking.

It’s incorrect to suggest good writers never use clichés in conversation or composition. They do. The difference is that when they do include such tired phrases in their normally witty banter, they do it with a sense of irony.

C.S. Lewis, master of wordplay that he was, illustrated how we can creatively re-imagine or reword a cliché to reinvigorate it. Only the very best minds are up to this task. Yet, when it’s successfully accomplished, it can prove quite entertaining. The following comes from an informal conversation that was recorded before his retirement, preserved in the collection On Stories. Lewis refers in passing to an overly detailed passage in literature that nearly obscured the storyline.

The only trouble is that Golding writes so well. In one of his other novels, The Inheritors, the detail of every sensuous impression, the light on the leaves and so on, was so good that you couldn’t find out what was happening. I’d say it was almost too well done. All these little details you only notice in real life if you’ve got a high temperature. You couldn’t see the wood for the leaves.

autographThe advent of the internet instigated some confusion about what it means to “be published.” That accolade is, of course, the dream of most women and men who write.

To be published—historically speaking—has meant that your words have been:

  1. Deemed worthy of being placed in print (at least, by one editor’s subjective determination).
  2.  Made available in some number of copies to millions, thousands, hundreds, scores, or perhaps dozens of eager readers.

Writing “online” was initially dismissed by the publishing industry (and many writers themselves). “It’s not the same,” they would say. Of course not. Yet they accomplish the same purpose, making writers’ heartfelt messages available for others. And, in short time we have witnessed a publishing revolution in which many of the most vibrant and thought-provoking “periodicals” are primarily (or exclusively) online entities.

So, it is quite appropriate to consider oneself published, I believe, if our work has been included in an online publication.

The arrival of print-on-demand technology (and ebooks) magnified the confusion. Now, it costs very little to become your very own Publishing House, and anyone with a few dollars can see their word in literal print. This has had two major consequences.

  1. Freed from the arbitrary whim of editorial bottlenecks, first-class literary works have been published. Works that formerly would have been returned to their creators with form letters expressing the editors’ regret that they cannot find a place in their exclusive booklist for them.
  2. Material that should would have greatly benefited from thorough editing and rewrites now look for all intents, just like real books that merit reading. Works the afore-insulted editors would formerly have protected the world from.

So, it is quite appropriate to consider oneself published, I believe, even when we have self-published our work—assuming, of course, that our book falls into the first category described above.

And today we have blog boom. Millions of posts and columns. Some creative sprouts withered before they had a chance to bloom. But many exquisite writers sowed rich gardens of wisdom and fancy that continue to be pruned and expanded.

All writers hope to become published. And most would like to one day see their words appreciated by as large an audience as possible. When we have an article or book we’ve written accepted by a recognized periodical or publisher, we experience the joy of anticipation. As we look forward to receiving a copy of the final product, our eagerness is tempered by a bit of anxiety. I mean, anything could happen, right? The publication could even go out of business—and that’s actually happened to me.

C.S. Lewis shared this same sort of expectation as his work neared the presses. And, being C.S. Lewis, he was able to reflect on his own thoughts in a brilliant manner. In 1918, as his first book, a collection of poetry, was being published, he wrote his close friend, Arthur Greeves:

So at last dreams come to pass and I have sat in the sanctum of a publisher discussing my own book (Notice the hideous vulgarity of success already growing in me). Yet—though it is very pleasant—you will understand me when I say that it has not the utter romance which the promise of it had a year ago. Once a dream has become a fact I suppose it loses something. This isn’t affectation: we long & long for a thing and when it comes it turns out to be just a pleasant incident, very much like others.

Like Lewis, most of us find the accomplishment of publishing our work “very pleasant.” Still, it’s seldom if ever the mountaintop experience it flirts at being. Literary Sirens sing “once you are published all your dreams will be realized . . . all who meet you will bow in respect at your wondrous achievement.”

Reality is different. Becoming a “published writer” is something about which we can justifiably be proud. But it doesn’t make us better than anyone else. After all, is not a mechanic who can make an engine purr just as talented as a wordsmith who composes music out of prose?

Avoiding Fantasy Clichés

November 12, 2012 — 41 Comments

We’re all familiar with that classic paradigm of suspenseful introductions: “It was a dark and stormy night.” While this is not intrinsically poor writing, it has been parroted and ridiculed for so long as a lightweight cliché, that the author’s name has become a byword for writing “purple prose.”

In the same way, there are certain plotlines or story devices that are overused, particularly in genre literature. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien’s genius in creating Middle Earth cannot be exaggerated. Yet, since his epic, dwarves, elves and orcs innumerable have been written about in chronicles ad nauseum by lesser poets. Many of Tolkien’s inventions seem rather tired when repeated by contemporary writers for the hundredth time. (Hundred thousandth time, if you count fan fiction.)

This literary dilemma has led to the creation of “The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam,” designed to be taken by aspiring authors before submitting their manuscripts for publication. (The link for the exam will be found below.)

The purpose of the test is to determine how derivative your storytelling is. If you use too many of the listed elements, you are in danger of composing a parody rather than a masterpiece. Some of the questions posed in the exam are astute, many are glib, and most are humorous. Here’s a sampling, with my responses (speculative, of course, since I haven’t written any fantasy proper).

Is your main character the heir to the throne but doesn’t know it?

How about an anonymous member of minor nobility?

Do inns in your book exist solely so your main characters can have brawl?

I never visit bars, but isn’t hosting altercations a primary purpose of all drinking establishments?

Do you think you know how feudalism worked but really don’t?

Ah, a conundrum. If I know I don’t really know . . .

Do any of your female characters exist solely to be captured and rescued?

You mean they have another role they can perform? (Wait, I’m just joking!)

Do you think that “mead” is just a fancy name for “beer?”

My Viking ancestors would never forgive me if I did!

Do you think horses can gallop all day long without rest?

I wasn’t raised on a ranch, but I’m not that stupid.

Is this the first book in a planned trilogy?

Whoops.

As you see, the questions are fun to read, but there’s one that bothered me a bit. Well, not the question itself. It’s innocent enough. But it alludes to a particular scene in The Lord of the Rings films which I find stunning—in the original sense of the word. It strikes me viscerally, almost leaving me breathless.

Do you really think it frequently takes more than one arrow in the chest to kill a man?

Generally, no . . . but if that hero is Boromir, most certainly!

The Death of Boromir

One of the most moving scenes in The Lord of the Rings involves the death of Boromir as he sacrifices his life in a futile battle to allow the hobbits time to escape the Uruk-hai. It’s impact is magnified by the fact that it immediately follows Boromir’s near-betrayal, under the corrupting influence of the Ring.

The irony is that this spectacular scene is not described in detail in Tolkien’s book. It is a tribute to director Peter Jackson’s cinematic brilliance. This is the original telling:

Even as [Aragorn] gazed his quick ears caught sounds in the woodlands below, on the west side of the River. He stiffened. There were cries, and among them, to his horror, he could distinguish the harsh voices of Orcs. Then suddenly with a deep-throated call a great horn blew, and the blasts of it smote the hills and echoed in the hollows, rising in a mighty shout above the roaring of the falls.

“The horn of Boromir!” he cried. “He is in need!” He sprang down the steps and away, leaping down the path. “Alas! An ill fate is on me this day, and all that I do goes amiss. Where is Sam?”

As he ran the cries came louder, but fainter now and desperately the horn was blowing. Fierce and shrill rose the yells of the Orcs, and suddenly the horn-calls ceased. Aragorn raced down the last slope, but before he could reach the hill’s foot, the sounds died away; and as he turned to the left and ran towards them they retreated, until at last he could hear them no more. Drawing his bright sword and crying Elendil! Elendil! he crashed through the trees.

A mile, maybe, from Parth Galen in a little glade not far from the lake he found Boromir. He was sitting with his back to a great tree, as if he was resting. But Aragorn saw that he was pierced with many black-feathered arrows; his sword was still in his hand, but it was broken near the hilt; his horn cloven in two was at his side. Many Orcs lay slain, piled all about him and at his feet.

Aragorn knelt beside him. Boromir opened his eyes and strove to speak. At last slow words came. “I tried to take the Ring from Frodo” he said. “I am sorry. I have paid.” His glance strayed to his fallen enemies; twenty at least lay there. “They have gone: the Halflings: the Orcs have taken them. I think they are not dead. Orcs bound them.” He paused and his eyes closed wearily. After a moment he spoke again. “Farewell, Aragorn! Go to Minas Tirith and save my people! I have failed.”

“No!” said Aragorn, taking his hand and kissing his brow. “You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace! Minas Tirith shall not fall!” Boromir smiled.

“Which way did they go? Was Frodo there?” said Aragorn.

But Boromir did not speak again.

“Alas!” said Aragorn. “Thus passes the heir of Denethor, Lord of the Tower of Guard! This is a bitter end. Now the Company is all in ruin. It is I that have failed. Vain was Gandalf’s trust in me. What shall I do now? Boromir has laid it on me to go to Minas Tirith, and my heart desires it; but where are the Ring and the Bearer? How shall I find them and save the Quest from disaster?”

He knelt for a while, bent with weeping, still clasping Boromir’s hand. So it was that Legolas and Gimli found him. (Lord of the Rings, Book III Chapter 1).

So, we understand that while a single arrow might slay a common warrior, it could well take a quiver full to lay low a champion such as this.

___

If you would like to review “The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam,” simply follow this link.

Your Writing Style

July 16, 2012 — 28 Comments

Each of us writes in a unique manner.

You can study writing patterns in various ways, by considering vocabulary, changes in sentence lengths, repeated phrases, and various other measurable elements.

Then there are more subjective aspects of our writing, but these too are recognizable. They would include tone and more abstract things like pacing.

When you add them all together, you arrive at an amorphous quality called the writer’s “voice.” And, as I said above, each of our “voices” are different.

It may be that we dabble in a variety of forms and genres. For example, in addition to these casual blog posts, I also write about theology and military ministry from a much more “professional” perspective. And, shockingly (to my own writing identity) I’ve recently received encouragement related to poetry with which I’ve been experimenting.

Even when we write in various literary forms, and they clearly differ from one another in their voice, the truth is that for each of these documents we develop a personal, inimitable voice.

Now, after emphasizing our literary uniqueness, I want to switch perspectives and consider that our various styles and voice resemble those of others. Occasionally, when reading someone’s work it strikes you as familiar. You may even recall the author that the work reminds you of. (I’m not referring to plagiarism, of course, although the internet has apparently made that particular plague even more common now than in the past.)

It would be vanity to claim that our own writing voice resembles that of no one else. Yes, some voices are so peculiar that they are clearly “rarities,” but others have shared even those odd personalities in the past. I suspect that’s even true for the senseless ramblings with which some self-styled “artists” assail the public. (Even insanities can resemble one another.)

In any case, if you ponder this subject it’s natural to wonder: who do I write like?

Today, through the amazing processing abilities of the computer, you may be able to get an answer to that very question. It’s not a definitive answer, because as I said above, our writing voice possesses both material (words and syntax) and spiritual (ephemeral and aesthetic) dimensions. And, while a computer may be without peer in comparing the former, I believe it to be quite deficient in discerning the latter.

Nevertheless, a rudimentary program is available online to compare your writing with that of a number of writers of varying reputation. The program has a number of limitations, but I think there may be something to it. It requires an extensive section of your writing (several paragraphs, at least). I assume more would be better, in terms of promoting accuracy.

As I just mentioned, it includes a limited number of authors currently entered into the database, and I suspect that the gifted C.S. Lewis is not among them. (I say this not because I expected to be aligned with him, but because of some of the included authors I am aware of. In addition, the program’s creator is actually Russian, so I would be curious to learn how the represented English authors were selected.)

It would limit the program’s value, for example, if I only input data on three writers and you were matched with the one you resembled most closely. Would you prefer, for example, to be told you write like Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Georgette Heyer, or Fabius Planciades Fulgentius?

Even with a significant number of writers included, the program’s accuracy will be affected by the quantity (and specific choice) of what is included to represent each. For example, the programmer properly included Stephen King. How valuable would that be, however, if he had only used King’s poetry and excluded his prose works? (Yes, the horror master has also penned poetry—now, that’s a scary thought!)

Well, despite the limitations of the “I Write Like” program, it is fun to try out. And it sounds impressive, in that it relies upon a naive Bayesian classifier. (Well, the “naive” part doesn’t sound especially remarkable, but the formula looks pretty imposing to someone who never took calculus.

You can use take the “test” at this site.

Make sure you include lengthy selections from your work. Also, testing the program with different genres (assuming you write in different styles) will actually give you new matches. (That is, of course, as it should be.)

If you do decide to experiment with it, a comment below about your results would be interesting for others. And now, for the moment that you have been awaiting . . . with whose writing did the program match mine?

I tried a number of times (no—not fishing for results I wanted, but using a variety of types of my writing) and here were the repeated results:

For my blog posts: H.P. Lovecraft or J.R.R. Tolkien

For my more formal essays: J.R.R. Tolkien or Jonathan Swift

(It’s Swift’s picture, you’ll note, that begins this post.) Actually, the majority of the results linked to Swift, whose work I don’t recall ever reading in full, not even Gulliver’s Travels. However, our shared emphasis on wit, advocacy and satire account for what I deem a genuinely accurate assessment. And it does not hurt that Swift was Anglo-Irish, like my favorite author!

So, until Dmitry Chestnykh adds C.S. Lewis to the writers included in the “classifier,” I’m quite content to rest on my matches. Because even if I don’t share Lovecraft’s worldview, I can still respect his literary skill. And being identified with the other gentlemen, is a grand compliment.

[Special thanks to Julie Catherine who introduced me to the site via her post on the subject.]

I edit a free online journal for military chaplains. Articles have been contributed by clergy from most of the world’s continents, sharing their experiences and opinions. Much of the material will be of interest to anyone interested in the nature of ministry within the armed forces.

The current issue was “published” at the end of June, and includes one article that may be of particular interest to the readers of Mere Inkling.

On page fifty-seven you’ll find the preface to a series of six letters. They are collected under the same title as this post, “Screwtape Goes to War.” It is available via this link: Curtana: Sword of Mercy.

Those familiar with C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece of diabolical correspondence will require no introduction. Here’s an excerpt from one of the six epistles gathered in this modest collection. Remember, it is from the pen of a senior demon advising a junior Tempter on how to corrupt his “patient” (in this case a chaplain).

While preaching can in theory be used by the Enemy to draw his servants closer to himself, it’s equally possible to use the pulpit to drive a wedge between the Enemy and those ordained to serve him. In fact, there is something uniquely satisfying about using a chaplain’s own preaching to immunize him to the disgusting message of hope and forgiveness.

There are so many tactics to undermining the effectiveness of your chaplain’s sermons . . . where to begin? I have found the following methods to be most useful.

1. Encourage him to subscribe to all sorts of periodicals and keep him as far away from the Enemy’s book as possible. Tell him that by this means he “will remain in touch with the culture” to which he is preaching. We do not want him opening the Scriptures. It’s not too challenging persuading many clergy today that they’ll bore and alienate their audience by citing passages from that archaic text. Let him explore all sorts of publications so he discovers ones he honestly enjoys. That will make the choice easier when he looks on his desk at a tempting contemporary publication lying next to that black book.

Not all journals are created equal, of course. Some actually contribute to the knowledge and comprehension of the Enemy’s book. Avoid these. Secular publications are usually safe, the more so when they celebrate selfishness, man’s favorite religion. The most precious, however, are those published by “religious” presses. You know those to which I refer. The ones penned by our allies who where wear the garb of the Enemy but live with either themselves or some other idol on the throne of their souls. Those who may praise him with their lips but deny him access to their hearts. Mind you, these documents need to be chosen with great care. But if you can find some which appeal to him, it will aid you immeasurably in bringing about his demise. . . .

Curtana discusses both historical matters and contemporary issues. It is interfaith and international in scope. The website includes a “subscription” form for those who wish to be notified whenever a new issue of the journal is published.

Don’t be confused when you see the date on the current issue. Like many minimally-staffed, free publications, we’ve fallen slightly “behind schedule.” Thus, the current issue is dated Fall & Winter 2011. (I promise this is due not merely to procrastination, but also to the editor’s chronic propensity for terribly over-extending himself.) At any rate, Curtana 3.1 is indeed the issue which includes the afore-described article.