The Comfort of Repentance: A Brief Introduction to the Life of Saint Cyprian

St. Cyprian’s Feast day is today, September 13th.

The year 250 AD was a dark moment for Christians living under the Emperor Decius. He declared that Christians must sacrifice to pagan gods, and demanded that they sign a statement affirming this worship, or face execution. Many Christians were killed, but many committed idolatry to ensure their own safety. When Saint Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, exhorted his Christian brethren to formally repent of this public sin, many refused, and thus Cyprian had to shepherd a flock both persecuted and heretical. Pastoral duties have not gotten easier since the time of Saint Cyprian, whether the challenge is simply getting Christians to come to air-conditioned worship in the relative safety of the western world, or the devastating persecution happening in the Middle East. Saint Cyprian is a reminder that the challenges we face now are the same ones the Church has always faced, and by the grace of God has always overcome.

Cyprian was well prepared for his duties as priest and bishop of Carthage. Before converting to Christianity, he was trained in law and oratory and taught rhetoric, and after his baptism at the age of 35 he immediately gave a significant portion of his wealth away. Until Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome, Cyprian was known as the most eloquent and practical of the church fathers, using his training in rhetoric and scripture to craft beautiful homilies and epistles targeted to address the real concerns of his flock.

Almost a decade after the persecution lead by Emperor Decius, Emperor Valerian led a new, even more bloodthirsty persecution, and Cyprian was ordered to cease leading worship and performing his priestly duties. He refused, and for his crimes of celebrating Holy Communion, worshiping with and ministering to his Christian brothers and sisters, he was executed. When the Roman official pronounced his death sentence, Saint Cyprian replied only, “Thanks be to God.”

Saint Cyprian reminds us of the urgent need to earnestly repent of our sins for our spiritual health, and of the mystical union of Christ’s church as the refuge where we seek God’s grace. I close with words that he wrote to his friend Donatus:

“When I was still lying in darkness and gloomy night, I used to regard it as extremely difficult and demanding to do what God’s mercy was suggesting to me… I myself was held in bonds by the innumerable errors of my previous life, from which I did not believe I could possibly be delivered….

“But after that, by the help of the water of new birth, the stain of my former life was washed away, and a light from above, serene and pure, was infused into my reconciled heart… a second birth restored me to a new man. Then, in a wondrous manner every doubt began to fade…. I clearly understood that what had first lived within me, enslaved by the vices of the flesh, was earthly and that what, instead, the Holy Spirit had wrought within me was divine and heavenly.”

The Collect for the Feast day of St. Cyprian

ALMIGHTY God, who didst give thy servant Cyprian boldness to confess the Name of our Saviour Jesus Christ before the rulers of this world, and courage to die for this faith: Grant that we likewise may ever be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us, and to suffer gladly for his sake; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Seeking in Faith: A Brief Introduction to Saint Augustine

Saint Augustine’s feast day is observed on August 28th in western Christianity. This brief introduction was read in part at St. Stephen’s Anglican Church on August 30th, as a reminder of the church father’s exemplary intellectual contributions to the literature of our faith. We share this synopsis with woeful recognition of the difficulty of summarizing the life and works of such an inspiring example of Christian intellectualism, but with the hope that it will encourage reading of some of Augustine’s key works.

Augustine converted to Christianity from Roman paganism (specifically Manicheanism), and was a bishop in North Africa. He founded a monastery and composed for it a monastic rule of life, and wrote about 93 books and 400 sermons. Augustine was a forefather of the medieval scholasticism that culminated in figures such as Thomas Aquinas and a profound influence on Protestant Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. He has therefore relevance to all Christian believers, and is an edifying figure for Anglicans in particular to study because of our “via media” perspective of the catholicity of the Christian faith. The widespread impact of Augustine on the Christian tradition in general, and upon Anglicanism in specific, can hardly be overstated. Among well-known Anglican writers who admired Augustine are C.S. Lewis, George Berkeley, T.S. Eliot, Dorothy Sayers, and William Wordsworth.

Throughout his life, Augustine rigorously dedicated his intellectual abilities to seek in Scripture, tradition, and reason the meaning of Christ’s Incarnation for human history. He once wrote, “We are presently seeking in faith what we shall then share joyfully in vision.” Concerning the first commandment to love God with our whole heart, soul, and mind, Augustine sets a powerful example for the Christian life of the mind, but has much to edify the heart and soul as well.Four books from Augustine’s extensive writings can be especially fruitful for the modern Christian, each summarized briefly here.

First, Augustine’s intensely personal Confessions provides an amazing autobiographical look into the life of this church father. We are given a window into the heartfelt struggles Augustine experienced with sin, including stealing, adultery and fornication. All Christians can benefit from recognizing that one of the best known figures of our faith struggled as earnestly as we do, and can profit as well from the way Augustine shows his readers that reading and interpreting Scripture should become a part of each Christian’s biography. C.S. Lewis’s own autobiography, Surprised by Joy, is an example of the influence of the model for Christian testimony provided by this work.

The sequel to the Confessions is The City of God, a long book in which Augustine powerfully presents the uniqueness, rationality, and soundness of the Scriptural portrayal of God, as opposed to pagan ideas about Him. It also deals with topics such as the proper affiliation between a Christian church and secular state, the relationship between predestination and free will, and the perennial problem of why an all-powerful, all good, all-loving God allows evil, or, simply, why bad things happen to good people. Anglican apologetic writings, such as Berkeley’s Alciphron, or the Minute Philosopher and C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, have been greatly influenced by this grand example of theological discourse.

Third, in On Christian Education Augustine discusses the importance of church tradition in arriving at reliable interpretation of Scripture and the rigorous programs of education necessary to become a teacher of God’s truth. Augustine’s faith that the final authority of the Bible is compatible with regard for the life of the mind, and the traditions of the Church Militant, provides an excellent resource for Anglicanism. Augustine’s discussion in the final section of this book, that eloquence should match the subject of discourse, can help Christians who value liturgical worship to understand and to articulate the value we see in the reverential language found, for example, in The Book of Common Prayer.

Finally, Augustine’s treatise “On the Trinity,” remains today one of the greatest explanations of the biblical revelation of the Triune God ever written. It has provided a model and touchstone for many expositions of the doctrine, including Dorothy Sayers’ essay, “Idea, Energy, Power,” in The Mind of the Maker.

Augustine’s restless seeking for God in Scripture, reason, and tradition, in worship, and in his life makes him an example for our own pursuit of God through the powers of the mind that the Lord gave to all of us. In prayer and in exhortation, Augustine wrote in The Confessions, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

By Anthony G. Cirilla, October 29th, 2015

Review: Ravenwood: A Morningstar Series Anthology

The Prodigal is crewed by bounty hunters, led by Talon McLeod, a gruff, Captain Malcom Reynolds meets JK Simmons figure, who are trying to bring in just enough bounty to keep their space faring vessel in the sky. Devon Chase, a trusted member of McLeod’s crew, convinces McLeod to consider Kale Ravenwood for a new crew member, but the head of the bounty hunters finds himself unsure as to whether hiring the man was a good idea when he can’t seem to stop himself from killing the bounty. In three short stories, A.C. Williams puts her full craft on display as a master of dialogic imagination by creating three distinct voices and perspectives on the enigma that is Kale Ravenwood.

This past Spring semester, I taught a course on the British novel, and I had my students read Bakhtin’s essay, The Discourse in the Novel. Bakhtin’s central thesis is that the value of the novel is its capacity to help readers develop our dialogic imagination: to become aware that the language we speak inhabits many different communities of language, that we have a family language, a friend language, an on the job language, a religious language, an at school language, etc etc, and the feeling that through all of this we speak only one language (English or whatever) is only grammatically true. The reality of the multiplicity of languages we inhabit runs much more deeply, and this manifests itself when we try to talk with our family about, for example, the value of our career choices. Language is shot through with values, assumptions, intuitions, and basic components of personality in ways that require us to have a dialogic imagination not only with others but with the many identities which we inhabit as well. As I tell my students, we are less like characters in novels and more like novels ourselves. That’s why great novels are challenging to read: so are we.

Bringing to life in deft prose the challenges of communication, Ravenwood: A Morningstar Series Anthology is a series of short stories which introduces characters in A.C. Williams’s series of novels, the Destiny Trilogy. I have not read the Destiny Trilogy yet, but after reading Ravenwood, I fully intend to do so now. Williams’s writing style puts on full display the power of well-crafted prose to bring to life the dialogic imagination of truly different characters. Ashes, Rise, and Burn each present a vision of Kale Ravenwood as well as the tenor of the Prodigal crew as a team. What’s impressive is that each story is delivered in an overall unified style, the hard-boiled, tough-as-nails mentality necessary to survive the bounty hunter life shared by all of the characters, and yet each narrator speaks with a voice authentic to his or her own identity. As Bakhtin believed narrative prose was best suited to do, the short stories in the anthology beautifully represent how complicated actual communication between people is when they think they are speaking the same language, but really aren’t.

With dialogue worthy of Joss Whedon himself, Ravenwood reads like a creative fusion of Cowboy Bebop and Firefly (and maybe a hint of Riddick via Kale Ravenwood), introducing a science fiction world of space travel and artificially produced atmospheres that is artfully rendered without the barest hint of info-dumping. The action is vividly portrayed and the characters are so compelling that you can easily miss how naturally Williams derives plot from personality rather than the other way around. The use of the present tense, a tactic used by other science fiction writers (including Terry Brooks in Street Freaks) contributes to the concentrated immediacy of the stories. Once you get through Ravenwood, you’ll want to get your hands on the Destiny trilogy immediately. That’s what I am doing!

Gems of Hope: Poems and Devotionals for those who have Suffered Personal Loss: A Review

Whatever one’s worldview, whether Christian or otherwise, the problem of evil is a reality every individual must face. Sometimes, Christians can be so eager to assure each other and themselves of their hope in Christ, that they forget to express the human sympathy for the grief of loss that Jesus himself showed when he wept before he rose Lazarus from the dead.

Gems of Hope: Poems and Devotionals for those who have Suffered Loss strikes a biblical balance in the comfort it offers for grieving Christians. Rather than ignoring or dismissing the suffering with easy platitudes, Gems of Hope acknowledges through Camarie’s personal story the tragedies which people face and the comfort which the Gospel yields in the midst of those tragedies.

The style of Gems of Hope is unique in a modern context: poetry on the left-hand page is accompanied by devotionals with Scripture verses on the right-hand page. This combination of two genres is mirrored as well in the larger plan of the anthology as a whole, with the first half offering general comfort for Christians regardless of their particular circumstances, and the second offering insight into the particular circumstances which led Camarie to seek comfort by writing poetry and devotionals in response to her heartbreaking trials.

The poems are elegant and vivid, reminiscent of the Psalms and the poetry of George Herbert and the imagination of John Bunyan. The prose of the devotionals is written in a straightforward and earnest manner, delivering their prayerful reflections in a fashion that remind me of Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest. Camarie’s vocabulary is rich and expressive in both genres, and share God’s eternal truths from Scripture with a fresh and sincere faith.

The combination of prose and poetry in a single text is, although perhaps unusual to us now, a common ancient genre called the prosimetrum, and in fact one we see in Scripture. The Bible as a whole is prosimetric, mirroring the commands of God in prose with the corresponding beauty to which those commands point: “Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy” in the Ten Commandments is mirrored by “This is the day which the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it” in Psalm 118. But many books of the Bible have a prosimetric style: First Samuel has the Song of Hannah in chapter 2, Deuteronomy has the Song of Moses in chapter 32, and the Book of Hebrews is periodically prosimetric in its reference to the Psalms. Camarie’s Gems of Hope brings this Scriptural pattern to life in her own writing. For example, Camarie’s poem “Your Light” reads, “Lord, fill my pathway with your light; Make it to shine unto the perfect day. Until Your Victory ends the fight, Illumine every step with a guiding ray.” She admits in the corresponding devotional, based on 1 John 1:5, Psalm 89:15 and Proverbs 4:18, that “we cannot make sense of our circumstances and may feel skeptical about what God might be doing in our lives because we are relying on our own vision,” but if we know “that God is light and has called us to walk in His Light,” we can find peace which passes understanding.

Through prayer and poetry, Camarie has let her gifts be used by God to turn her wounds into scars, as she contemplates in her poem “Every Scar.” She closes the accompanying devotional with the profound thought that when “we see our scars in light of God’s purpose, we can embrace those scars rather than resent them.” If you are hoping to turn your wounds into scars and your scars into a reminder that God is, as Camarie puts it in her poem, “the Lord of your past,” whatever you are going through, I hope you will get a copy of Gems of Hope and take comfort in her words.

I should note, by the way, that I had no idea that Camarie would be my wife when I met her as Camarie Colbert in 2017 and read her book which she gave to me on our second date. It seemed like a very strange coincidence that I, a Boethius scholar who studied Boethius’s influence through his book called The Consolation of Philosophy (a devotional narrative interspersed with poetry) on the prosimetric tradition of consolatory Christian writing, would meet a Christian who had written a prosimetric consolation in the form of poetry and devotions. Camarie wrote a poem in this collection entitled “I see it now,” in her words, “to express my joy in being able to recognize some of God’s providential workings that I was unable to see beforehand.” No kidding.

If you’re interested, you can get a copy off of Amazon or the Barnes and Noble website below:

Stop Having Not Read Oath of the Outcast: A Review

Rhys MacDuffy, even after seven years of banishment and memories of a cruel, unfair trial, can’t shake the ties between him and his brother Sean, his former Clan’s Seer. So when Sean is captured by the pretender Lord Adam, against his better judgment Rhys sets out to free his brother. He insists he’s the Mountain Baron, a hardened magnate overseeing his fellow outcasts – but he accepts the mission to save his “former” brother, doesn’t he?

If Katherine Kurtz and J. Ardian Lee teamed up to write a Terry Brooks-style fantasy novel, the result would be something like C.M. Banschbach’s debut installment of The Dragon Keep Chronicles, Oath of the Outcast. The book’s evocative cover art, with the cloaked silhouette of a man staring across the unforgiving rocks of a sloping mountainside at a mist-draped fortress, and its terse plot description delivers every promise it makes – a case where you should definitely judge a book by its cover. Like Terry Brooks, Banschbach has a Tolkienesque craft at detailed worldbuilding without clogging the on-the-ground prose with any more detail than is necessary to get you swept up into the motivations of the characters and the world in which they live. But the world is not the Anglo-Saxon-style Germanic culture of Middle Earth or Shannara’s Four Lands; instead it draws its inspiration from the Scottish tradition of fantasy – not historical as with Ardian Lee, but instead creating for the reader a rich medieval Scottish culture that intertwines itself with intimate ramifications in the lives of the characters. This, in fact, is why I invoke Katherine Kurtz – as the mistress of politically themed high fantasy, Kurtz came to mind as I began to get glimpses of the political engines that drive the lives of characters in Banschbach’s world.

Of course, I make no pretension to identifying sources for Banschbach’s inspirations – she is every sentence and every paragraph her own writer. The rugged, almost Hemingwayesque prose runs lean, giving only the exposition necessary to help the reader appreciate the gravity of the drama, without seeming vague or elusive. The prose is, like the cover art, relentlessly concrete and tersely in keeping with the emotional clamps choking at the protagonist’s voice (along with the literal scar that makes his voice raspy and deep). Impressively, too, the narrative provokes difficult philosophical, political, existential and even religious questions without an iota of baggy or pontifical prose.

It was in fact my abiding love for Scottish themed fantasy – from Joanna Baillie’s Ghost of Fadon to J. Ardian Lee’s historical fantasy to Highlander – that motivated my desire to read the book. And that William Wallace sense of stubborn, futile, heroically frustrating resistance to the powers around him marks the personality of Rhys MacDuffy deeply. And that desire was fully satisfied by the book to the point where I actually felt a sickening sense of anxiety where I realized I would have to wait a year before I could know how things would play out.

It’s that suck-you-in-and-won’t-let-go force of the plot, relentless action entwined around urgently real characters and a beautifully crafted world, that reminds me of Terry Brooks, but that’s where the comparison stops. Well, there are druids in Alsaya, the world of Oath of the Outcast, but these are not Terry’s benevolent (if sometimes slightly Machiavellian) undogmatic priests of learning and harmony. No, these are druids with the smell of the old sacrificial blood about them – like the religion of Ungit in Til We Have Faces if it was practiced by N.I.C.E. from That Hideous Strength. These druids are more like Brona and his Skullbearers, but in their cruel, cutthroat, and downright creepy fanaticism, Banschbach’s druids remain unsettlingly human in their evil (whatever Deronis, their twisted ‘god,’ may be) every step of the way.

As a scholar of consolation literature (insert requisite reference to Boethius here), I can’t help but mention the delicious literary device at work in Outcast: a son banished by his Clan goes to rescue his brother imprisoned by a maliciously ambitious politician. In The Consolation of Philosophy, Lady Philosophy uses Boethius’s actual imprisonment at the hands of a tyrannical king as a philosophical metaphor for the imprisonment of the soul’s inappropriate attachment to worldly goods. She uses, likewise, the metaphor of banishment to explain the idea of the true home: that there is an upright and fitting state of mind that will provide the truly wise man with the consolation of home regardless of where he is. Insofar as one has been “banished” from that true home of the mind, one can always return to it, and so break the soul free from its imprisonment to those worldly goods. Rhys “The Mountain Baron” MacDuffy is likewise faced with the question of whether he has a true home, and his internalized status as outcast leaves his decision to rescue his brother shot through with an existential angst that is as legitimate as it is painful. Meanwhile, the poetic contrast of Sean as a Seer who is unlimited by Time in his ability to See with his imprisonment provides a bitter irony in the face of the wicked druids’ desire to twist Sean’s powers to their use. And the Seer’s abilities lend a Boethian flavor of potential fatalism to the narrative: if it’s possible for a Seer to look ahead in time, then how much can the characters involved really change the outcome of anything?

Oath of the Outcast comes highly recommended, and I guarantee that when you get to the final page, you’ll be hungry for next year’s sequel, Blood of the Seer. So, as I wrote in my title, I suggest that you stop having not read Oath of the Outcast forthwith.

Powers and Personalities: A Review of Stan Hawthorne & the Broken Sword, by A.C. Williams

Stan Hawthorne is the youngest member of a team of five warriors who bear ancient armor that endows them with magical powers. While Stan nervously attempts to navigate the tensions of his friends who are supposed to be on the same side, he also struggles to keep the team’s number one rule: don’t fight alone. When he’s tempted to break this rule, he ends up finding a world of trouble awaiting the samurai heroes.

As a rule, I do not read Young Adult fiction. It’s not because I don’t like the genre, but because it usually isn’t written that well. In On Fairy-Stories, Tolkien critiques the idea of making fairy stories only for children because that approach tends to treat children as another form of human than the kind we meet in adults. If a story is good for children, in Tolkien’s conception, it should be good the same way a well-prepared meal should provide nutrients to both. Sure, an adult may have a more sophisticated palate than children’s entertainment, but children’s entertainment should simply be adult entertainment pared down to what a child can consume. So much YA I have encountered talks down to its readers that it’s hard for me to generally sustain the effort of reading it. I’m delighted to say I’ve found in Stan Hawthorne a recent example of YA that delightfully defies the expectations I have for YA.

I picked up Stan Hawthorne at the 2019 Realm Makers conference. My decision was nostalgia powered: I detected that the story was an homage to Ronin Warriors, an old anime that I loved as a kid. And if you show up for the nostalgia factor, you won’t be disappointed. Creatively, Williams has designed a thorough-going homage to the show, beautifully balancing the effort of crafting her own characters while making each of them a nod to the beloved characters and drama from the show. If you don’t know Ronin Warriors, perhaps you know Saint Seiya, the Gundam series, or even the more recent depiction of the Power Rangers where they derive powers from their suits. If you’re familiar with properties like these, even if you don’t know Ronin Warriors directly, you’ll feel the tug of anime-esque nostalgia right from the beginning.

But Stan Hawthorne & the Broken Sword does not run on nostalgia power alone (as magnificently as it brings that to bear like a sharp-edged, narrative katana). The characters are believable and interesting, the jokes are appropriately calibrated to the age and intelligence of the characters (and range from entertainingly obnoxious to laugh out loud funny), and the action is laid out with efficient, tidy prose that turns the scene into a movie you can clearly picture in your head. There’s no fat on the prose, but it’s never skeletal either – every scene, every character interaction hits the spot. And what’s nice is, Williams pulls this off without marching us through the Marvel type origin story: the characters are already part of a group and already have their conflicts in place, yet Williams gets you invested in the young team’s interpersonal drama as they try to battle robot soldiers and discover new, more difficult enemies that test the status quo of heroics they have grown comfortable with before the narrative starts.

What’s most fascinating about the story for me is the dynamic between the samurai and their magical armors. Without giving too much away, there’s a crucial manner in which the personality of each character, including Stan himself, affects his ability to use his armor. Given that the magical armor is what equips the warriors to be able to take on the foot soldiers of an evil, dimension-crossing invasion force, being able to actually use the armor’s powers is pretty important. But the more out of touch each samurai is with his armor, the less effective he is on the battle suit.

Stan is unique in the intuitive connection he has with his armor, which transforms him into the waterway-attuned Reishosan called Kagami. This dynamic reminds me of the notion discussed by the psychologist John Rowan in his book Subpersonalities, where he discusses how a person’s personality is really not one personality, but networks of personality patterns. Having multiple personality patterns is not unique to personality disorder: everyone has multiple personality patterns. The more in touch we are with those multiple personality patterns, the more healthily we can function as a whole. Although he’s not perfect, Stan is able to integrate with his powers as Kagami more effectively because he is more in tune with his own psychological complexity – which other characters, even his elders on the team, struggle to manage. If you’re into personality tests like the Meyers-Briggs, Enneagram, or Big Five, then this aspect of the story will hold special fascination for you.

Stan Hawthorne & the Broken Sword put a smile on my face as soon as I saw it and realized that it was a creative, engaging homage to one of the greatest forgotten animes of its time, and kept that smile on my face from the first to the last page. But even if you don’t know the source of inspiration, the character of Stan Hawthorne will provide a great introduction to a narrative of complicated personalities struggling to navigate each other as well as their elemental samurai powers. Come on, it’s magically powered American samurai fighting evil robots and their demonic masters – you know this is going to be a blast. Pick it up.

The Creativity of Compelling Imitation: Reflections on The Sword of Shannara

With the third installment of Terry Brooks’s concluding Shannara sub-series having seen publication more than a month ago and the fourth and final to come out next year, his devoted fans are treated to a narrative reflection on the grand tapestry of an imagined, fantastic future in which our imaginations have dwelt since the publication of The Sword of Shannara in 1977. Four decades later, Brooks has written 23 books and a graphic novel in the Shannara world, plus the masterful Word and Void trilogy and its linking material, 5 pre-Shannara novels. One more Shannara novel will conclude the timeline (and Brooks has already written it), so there are 33 books which all inhabit the same mythic world of adventures born from the pen of one writer of true stories about Elves. There are, besides, short stories and a novella as well. This is a staggering legacy, and one I have appreciated since an early age. Indeed, I committed to reading every Brooks book that saw publication long ago, and intend to continue doing so. But as we reach the end of the Shannara saga, I have decided that I would do with Shannara what I did with Lord of the Rings: I want to reread each book and blog about the value of its narrative for developing the craft of imagination.

And there is nowhere else better to start but the beginning, The Sword of Shannara. I want to begin here for many reasons, but the most pressing one is to correct what I think is a critical injustice that was done to Brooks concerning his literary achievement. Because Brooks was influenced by Tolkien, Sword was maligned. (Never mind that every fantasy writer was influenced by Tolkien and, I would argue, every writer, whether fantasy or not, ought to be – because every writer ought to be influenced by the classics.) In fact, Sword has been so maligned by critics for similarity to the plot of The Lord of the Rings that it was skipped over by the writers of The Shannara Chronicles. I don’t blame them for the decision, but The Sword of Shannara should not be skipped over, especially not because it imitates Tolkien. In fact, I shall argue that its imitation of Tolkien is precisely a reason why it should be read. But it is more than an imitation, and I will show that the differences between LotR & Sword are not incidental but profound, differences that actually stem from Brooks’s careful reading of Tolkien and pursuit of his own artistic intentions. And, finally, I will say a word about Brooks’s artistic intentions as he put them himself. These three streams will come together, I hope, to create a worthy homage to the legacy of Sword, which gave rise to the captivating world of the Four Lands and the drama of the Shannara narratives which have made it come alive. And more particularly, I hope to show that an authentic Tolkienesque philosophy of the value of fantasy literature can be deeply integrated with a love for The Sword of Shannara and its impressive legacy.

  1. Imitation: The Essence of Imagination

When John Batchelor wrote in his opinion piece “Tolkien Again” that Brooks “unabashedly copies” Tolkien in The Sword of Shannara, he was not paying a compliment. Much severer statements have been made, both by Batchelor and by others, and the subtitle of Batchelor’s article alludes to a common primary gripe that these imitators “infest a morbid but moneyed land.” Greedy swindlers they are, with their grasping hands, writing stories about elves and dragons just for the money. Indeed, commercialization always bothers the aesthetic community, and justifiably so, because commercialization can, and often does, lead to bastardization.

To be fair, Batchelor himself dismissed that it was the financial gain of the writers that generated his ire at their Tolkienesque imitation. And in truth, plenty of excellent writers go undeservedly ignored – even famous ones are under read. How many fantasy readers know their Homer, Virgil, and Dante, let alone their William Morris, George MacDonald, and Lord Dunsany? But here’s another question: okay, let’s say you wanted to write a novel just to make money. How many times, with that devious plot in mind, can you get yourself on the New York Times Bestseller list? How many times, out of sheer greed, could you get yourself to write a book a year? Can you really muster the intestinal fortitude to invest in writing a 500-page manuscript, with no certainty of whether it will be well received whatsoever, merely out of avarice? Even if the motivation of money is enough to sustain the effort, it cannot be enough to explain the effect. That is to say, being motivated by money doesn’t guarantee you’ll make any. So there must be something going on in Brooks that gets him the readers, and even if his novels aren’t your cup of tea, aren’t you interested in why? Writing it off as merely a desire for more stuff like Tolkien doesn’t really explain it – because why do we want more stuff like what we already have? Why does imitation capture the imagination so powerfully? And what makes Brooks’s efforts at imitations so incredibly wonderful? (A look at the epigraphs of the Landover series will let you know that Brooks has a delightfully wide palatte for lovely, creative imitations of a wide variety of fantasy writers. And of course the Landover Series is incredibly original even in the midst of its most clear parallels with precursors.)

Tolkien, as it turns out, had something to say about this. When writing advice to his son Christopher about how to approach difficulties in his life, Tolkien said, “I think if you could begin to write, and find your own mode, or even (for  start) imitate mine, you would find it a great relief” (66). Imitation in writing here provides both a start in one’s own writing projects as well as a means to escape difficult situations. Furthermore, he writes on the conception of Middle Earth in another place, “I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama” (145). Wielding, in other words, imitation. In On Fairy Stories, Tolkien muses over the difficulty of unravelling “the intricately knotted and ramified history of the branches on the Tree of Tales” (19), comparing this legacy to a vast “Cauldron, where so many potent things lie simmering agelong on the fire, among them Love-at-first-sight” (30). The Cauldron is the vast storage of beautiful material for imitation into which dip “the Cooks,” who “do not dip in the ladle quite blindly. Their selection is important” (31). This notion of earlier stories as recipe books makes imitation not adjunct to but essential to the process of imaginative creativity. Indeed, Brooks got his own engine of narrative going through imitation, but he pulled from many and disparate places within that Cauldron that include but also extend to many places other than Tolkien. That Tolkien’s Elves and other fantasy elements became a powerfully attractive ingredient list in the Cauldron is to the credit of that original Cook as well as to those Cooks with sufficient taste to realize that imitation of him can be rather pleasing.

CS Lewis, famously a close friend and of Tolkien who was deeply inspired in his own aesthetic theory and practice by the philologist, points out that our attitudes have greatly shifted on imitation in The Discarded Image. He writes,

“For the aim is not self­expression or ‘creation’; it is to hand on the ‘his to rial’ matter worthily;  not worthily of your own genius or of the poetic art but of the matter itsel£ I  doubt if they would have understood  our demand for originality or valued those works in their own age which were original any the more on that account. If you had asked La3amon or Chaucer ‘Why do you not make up a brand-new  story of your own?’ I think they might have replied (in effect) ‘Surely we are not yet reduced to that?’ Spin something out of one’s own head when the world teems with so many noble deeds, wholesome examples, pitiful tragedies, strange adventures, and merry jests which have never yet been set forth quite so well as they deserve?  The originality which we regard as a sign of wealth might have seemed to them a confession of poverty.” (211)

The iteration of imitation is how narrative brings out truth: it is a refining process that requires it. That imitation was the expected mode of extracting wisdom through narrative can be seen in any rudimentary list of the Great Books: Virgil imitated Homer, Dante imitated Virgil, the Arthurian romances imitated each other like a brood of irrepressible rabbits, and Robin Hood was born in quite the same way. In such acts of imitation, the imagination unabashedly copies precisely because it delights in the beautiful core elements of stories it sees and imitates not to flatter but to make clear that the beauty of the Idea of Story reaches beyond even the particularly beautiful story being read. Tolkien’s own world was born of that Arthurian romance wherein imitation was the lifeblood, and The Hobbit is nothing other than an imitation (and a wonderful one) of The Princess and the Goblin. Brooks’s imitation of Tolkien is reflective, meditative: it helps us to see the archetypes beyond the characters themselves. Imitation is not simply a high form of flattery: it is a form of interpretation, meditation, assimilation – imitation is how we extract meaning, and how we share it. Originality comes out of careful reflection upon the subject matter in the received story, and discovering notes and qualities of the story’s flavor that can be brought out and emphasized to refresh our palates concerning what caught our attention in the first place.

  1. Creative Retexturing is Not Trivial

I do not mean to say, of course, that all that falls to the writing aspirant is to follow step by step a writerly predecessor and to avoid meanginful originality. Freshly crafted storytelling is always the admirable goal of serious writers. I simply mean to say that, as T.S. Eliot put it, often when we think of a writer being original, he is in fact simply authentically and skillfully participating in a tradition by retexturing what he has found to be stirring in his admired predecessors. What Terry Brooks did in The Sword of Shannara was not simply to retell Lord of the Rings, as has been sometimes asserted, but retextured it in profound ways. And when critics ignore these things, they skip over the essence of what makes any particular book itself to point out oftentimes the most banal of similarities.

Tom Shippey, in Tolkien: The Author of the Century, points out these similarities. He asserts that Brooks follows Tolkien “point for point,” even in characters: Allanon is a Gandalf, Shea and Flick are Frodo and Sam, and so on. Most of the parallels are there, I admit it, though some of them strike me as fairly thin (Menion and Aragorn hardly seem to be the same sort of figure – their role is loosely similar but only in that they are both reluctant royalty who assist vulnerable protagonists). But my goal is of course not to argue that Brooks did not imitate Tolkien’s character creation here: only that such imitation is not inherently bad nor nearly so slavish as Shippey contends. In order to make the parallels work, in many cases Shippey has to entirely ignore the characters’ personalities (Allanon is hardly like Gandalf in his self-representation), life circumstances (Frodo and Bilbo, in addition to being Hobbits rather than humans, are well to do, while Shea and Flick are blue collar working men), and motivations (Menion is bored and Aragorn wants to restore his honor). What he identifies are narratological functions the characters perform, though it is hard to write any quest story where one doesn’t unintentionally bump up against the archetypes Tolkien drew from. Tolkien himself, in fact, criticized this way of thinking in On Fairy-Stories, when he dismisses critics who like to say that “any two stories that are built round the same folklore motive, or are made up of a generally similar combination of such motives, are ‘the same stories’.” Now of course, unlike the stories Tolkien goes on to mention, we do know that there is a causal relationship between his writing of Lord of the Rings and Brooks’s writing of The Sword of Shannara. But the same move is applied: formal function obviates any individualizing aspects in Shippey’s reading of Sword, and Tolkien directly disagrees with this method of scholarship: “Statements of that kind may express (in undue abbreviation) some element of truth; but they are not true in a fairy-story sense, they are not true in art or literature. It is precisely the colouring, the atmosphere, the unclassifiable individual details of a story, and above all the general purport that informs with life the undissected bones of the plot, that really count” (19). Whether Tolkien would have approved of the coloring, atmosphere, and unclassifiable individual details of Sword I cannot say (Tolkien was rather severe about contemporary writing, including Lewis’s), but if one genuinely adopts this point as a way to approach imitations of Tolkien such as Sword, then Shippey’s cataloging of archetypal characters and plot trajectories really isn’t satisfactory for answering the question of whether The Sword of Shannara is good.

And in making that appraisal, the differences between the two are essential. It matters that Allanon is human and not a Maiar in disguise, and his personality is vastly different than Gandalf’s—and that the order of the Druids inhabits the Four Lands in a starkly different way from how the Istari do. The Druids are a political entity by design from the beginning, whereas the wizards become more political in proportion to how corrupt they are (Saruman being case in point). This is a radically different approach to the question of powerful magic users, and the atmosphere it generates is profoundly affective. It is also hardly trivial that Tolkien chose the past for the focus of his high fantasy and Terry Brooks chose the future – the rhetorical differences of those decisions are so obvious, yet complicated and fascinating, that one has to be rather dull to miss them. I could list more: for example, Frodo knew Gandalf, while Shea didn’t know Allanon, and the psychological drama between them is riveting in an entirely different way.

While critics of Brooks’s unabashed copying of The Lord of the Rings gloss over these rather important innovations, they miss subtler imitations that are really quite brilliant. My favorite example of this occurs in the second chapter of The Sword of Shannara where Allanon unfolds the history of the Four Lands to Shea to slowly walk him up to discover the maddening edge of his impending destiny. Probably those decrying Brooks for his overt imitation didn’t notice this more subtle imitation of a display of emotional manipulation in The Hobbit: instead of introducing the Dwarves a few at a time to slowly intrigue Bilbo about the nature of his upcoming adventure, Allanon sneaks Shea up to a leap of imagination by casting his mind a thousand years into the past and carefully laying the intellectual trap that will prevent him from being able to reject the Druid’s revelations outright. That isn’t flat imitation: it’s a creative transformation of a Tolkienesque trope into something completely original.

  1. The Atmospheric Innovation of The Sword of Shannara

In his foreward to The Sword of Shannara in the 25th anniversary omnibus of the original trilogoy, Brooks writes, “I was about fourteen when I discovered Sir Walter Scott, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Alexander Dumas, and all the other eighteenth and nineteenth-century European adventure-story writers. I was immediately hooked. What marvelous adventures!” I was rather pleasantly surprised to read this, because I loved those same stories at the same age, and had been distressed for some time when I read this in C.S. Lewis’s essay On Stories: “But the fact is that what is said to be the most ‘exciting’ novel in the world, The Three Musketeers, makes no appeal to me at all. The total lack of atmosphere repels me.” I felt as if I had somehow wronged the legacy of my admired Lewis, liking stories that left him cold. Now, I overall deeply appreciate Lewis’s point in On Stories, which is to make much the same point as what Tolkien said above: that it is the unfinalizable element of atmosphere which makes any given story interesting. But I realized then that perhaps this was the core issue which critics, who happen to prefer Tolkien, have against Brooks – Lewis, after all, developed On Stories to explicate that very theme of atmosphere he loved in Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories. Literary critics love atmosphere – and of course they should. And as a literary critic, as well as a reader, so do I. But of course, Lewis, Tolkien, Tom Shippey, and both those who love or don’t love Brooks’s writing love excitement – so do I. But when atmosphere becomes steeply privileged over excitement as an aesthetic criteria, naturally those narratives which put them on more equal footing might suffer in appraisal. But is this fair?

Brooks writes in that Foreword, “I had read The Lord of the Rings two years earlier. What if Tolkien’s magic and fairy creatures were made a part of the worlds of Walter Scott and Dumas?” (5). What if, in other words, the atmosphere of high fantasy was injected into the excitement of eighteenth-century romance? Here perhaps is what the dissatisfied critics have really missed, because the high fantasy and the adventure romance are difficult to tell apart, yet their distinguishing feature, perhaps, is this question of atmosphere versus excitement. It is telling that, almost begrudgingly, Batchelor writes in his 1977 review of Sword, “there’s something unavoidably exciting about bold volunteers setting their faces to the ominous wind from the north.” Indisputably, Tolkien is the absolute master of atmosphere, and many fantasy writers fail to create it because they are too busy trying to generate excitement. C.S. Lewis, I read somewhere, had to critique Tolkien for this love of atmosphere actually getting out of hand, saying something like, “It seems like you’re just content to let these Hobbits be Hobbits forever.” He needed a friendly push out of the door to turn atmosphere into excitement – which he does incredibly well, when he gets around to it.

But Brooks manages to turn excitement into atmosphere: he turns the ache to know what happens next into more than an exciting plot: it becomes part of what makes the magic of his tales so convincing. Perhaps this is why some people who love Tolkien are less impressed by Brooks (mistakenly, I think): his approach is more plot driven. But it’s also why I have stayed up until the birds started chirping the day I bought a new Brooks book, committed to finishing it before I could persuade myself to fall asleep.

Sword is probably more like a book the half-Elvish Valeman Shea would read and The Lord of the Rings more like that a Tookish Hobbit might read. It’s something of a fine-grained distinction: obviously passages in Tolkien are breakneck in their plot drive, and Terry’s incredible gift at description certainly paints a convincing atmosphere. But it matters that at its core, the success of Frodo was measured by his willingness to throw away the one ring, while the success of Shea was measured by his ability to take up a sword: both are fairy tale dilemmas in fantasy stories, but one is about struggling with escape from an oppressive atmosphere and the other is about accepting the energy of the plot as a force wielded by a character. You could say that Shea is a Frodo-like Aragorn, but really Shea is just a different kind of hero. He’s an adventure hero, while Frodo is a Faerie hero. Shea has to learn to believe in magic, Frodo has to learn to cast it away. Frodo had to bear the ring of lies, while Shea had to bear the sword of truth, and to fail to appreciate the profundity of that difference is not only to fail to appreciate what value Shea’s story has for us but Frodo’s as well. Brooks, in his later works, developed different models than the one he found in Tolkien, but his imitative ingenuity began with a keen awareness of how to make himself a worthy son of the father of modern fantasy. For its own value, for its impact on the entire Shannara series, and for the delight it brings to those who love variations on a compelling theme, The Sword of Shannara deserves its place in the history of fantasy literature.

The Ear Eaters

Ear eaters eating with their ears
Crunchings and munchings and
Clearing the ear of wax for the next meal
The bells ring and dinners bring
To the eating ears, eating with their ears.

Ears that eat and eating ears, it would appear,
Just might be the same thing.
Bright eyed the child tries to share
But her voice falters, she stops to stare
As her words are crunching and munching
Oozing, abusing, losing and bruising away
And the eyes go dark
Just another hopeless meal
To the ear eaters, eating with their ears,
The deafening, darkening, soul crushing sound
Of eating ears.

Crunch crunch crunch, munch munch munch,
Sitting in their pews and reading the news
Standing in rows and shopping for clothes
Making clippings of coupons and costumes
Blasting disasters and hating their masters
So deeply moved by the story I heard
And went back to bed without a word
And rhymes that don’t rhyme and winds that won’t chime
And deaf and dead and smiling and piling
Clips from the web and the news in their shoes
Shampoo left sitting in their hair
With no water in their faucets and no hands to turn the knobs,
Even if there was.

Why walk on the news or stand in the pews or blow a fuse
Or call it a ruse, having the blues?
Because you don’t want to listen, you’re just hungry
So you’re ear eaters, ears that are eating,
Eating the ears.

“Sorry, what did you say? I’m afraid I couldn’t hear you
Over the news. A senator bought shoes, and they’re
Killing the Jews, a modern Sherlock finding some clues,

and a broken swing set in the local park,
And a great new study about being afraid of the dark.
I’m afraid I don’t have time to listen, you see –
I’m watching the news right now on TV.”

Composed April 17th, 2011

And all these things will be added unto you.

Originally composed May 27th, 2012

Today, my priest’s sermon was about being filled with the Holy Spirit, of course a propos given where we are on the liturgical calendar (Pentecost Sunday). I had been discussing with my very gracious Sunday school class issues of epistemology as we overviewed what we have learned over the past year, specifically issues of faith-making propositions. Should we be rigorous analytics, or empiricists, or presuppositionalists, or what? These thoughts were still in my mind as Father Doug began his sermon, and as I watched him, by way of illustration, overfill a cup with water, a verse from Matthew 6 came to my mind: “But seek first His Kingdom and His Righteousness, and these things shall be added unto You.” I was thinking about the many debates of epistemology I have had, through college as I double majored in English and philosophy, debates with friends in my master’s program, and debates I have with friends here on Facebook and elsewhere, and for the first time, I thought about this verse not only in terms of being satisfied with your material situation, but your epistemological one as well. Here is the full context from Matthew 6:

30If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Jesus is not speaking here of confidence in theories of knowledge, but something much more practical – confidence that you will have enough. If you let yourself be filled with the Holy Spirit until you are overflowing with it, if the Creator of the universe deigns to let you live in His presence in this special way, then you need not be concerned that you will be provided for. Of course, this comes with all the usual caveats – we mustn’t act as if it is owed to us, as if it is because we are special or as if times won’t get really tough. They will. But you could, in a sense, map these concerns on to the concerns of the philosopher. Indulge me a little creative play here:

If that is how God gives ontology to the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more sustain your ontology, O you of little faith? So do not worry saying, “What shall we rationalize,” or “How shall we empirically research,” or “how will we presuppose?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Of course, the philosopher will say, but this seems to favor a philosophical position, doesn’t it? But that is to have missed the point here, I think. God isn’t telling us not to go out and work so we can have food, and he isn’t telling us not to think about all the various modes of epistemological inquiry. They all matter, and they will all be added unto us. I have observed that many thinkers tend to take a particular personality trait of their own that they admire and map it on to how they make knowledge – the person filled with mistrust becomes a skeptic, the person with confidence becomes a rationalist, the person who tends towards realism becomes an empiricist, etc. Speaking even only among Christians, I think we tend to take these personality traits of ours and secretly, or without even realizing it, think that this is the method which God loves best. Or, we are so scared to let go, that we cling to our method, like a person clinging to a piece of driftwood and refusing to let go when the rescue boat comes, because it is all we’ve had for so long. But God is not asking for us to give up our means of epistemology, any more than he is asking us to give up our means of putting food on the table. He is asking us to loosen our grip that creates the illusion of control, of self-sustainability that none of us have, especially not those of us interested in the life of the mind. I think that when we can relax, and let go of our synthetic judgment a priori and our sympathetic imagination and our common sense and our rationalism, our deconstructive tools and our structuralist defenses, our skepticism, and all our other hardnosed or soft-hearted means of trusting in ourselves and not in God, and instead surrender, and let the one who really knows run the show, then, I believe, all these other things will be added to us. To repose upon the gift of the Holy Spirit is not to abandon critical inquiry, but to give it up to a greater life than we could ever achieve in the defensive struggles of a little faith.

Things Visible and Invisible: Towards A Unitary Dualism

Originally written June 4, 2012

Each Sunday, we recite the following line from the Nicene Creed:

“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, and of all things visible and invisible.”

Well, I have a lot of ideas about what exactly “things visible and invisible” might be (yes, I have read my Plato), but here’s one idea: everything.

No no, I know “things visible and invisible” would be everything, that’s not what I mean. What I am saying is that every thing is a thing visible and invisible. Often in Christianity we hear people denouncing dualism, and rightly so – dualism can be very damaging, especially the Manichaean varity where the hierarchy of binaries is bound to create oppression and pain. It creeps into Christianity all the time – people are dualists about their Christian lives, reverent at Church and wicked at home, dualists about religion and politics or religion and work or whatever else. This kind of dualism is not good. But, given my commitment to the Boethian hermeneutic of charity, I must ask: in what way does this false dualism point to something true? Is there a legitimate sort of dualism?

Well, certainly not any hardnosed kind of dualism – maybe not even a literal dualism. We might call those types of dualisms naive dualism, or real dualism, heretical dualism, or whatever else. What I speak of instead is a dualism of emphasis, or an aspectual dualism, if you will. This is why I speak of everything in Creation as invisible and visible – it is one, and yet it has these aspects (minimally – certainly more). Of course, binaries are hopelessly inadequate to reality, but they help conversation get some traction at times, and that is what I hope it does here.

I am thinking especially about epistemological and interpretive approaches. There is what we see – the obvious, the empirical, the surface. And there is what we do not see – the imbedded logic, the superstructure, the episteme, the shadows and the things in the shadows. And there is everything in between – the glimpses we catch, the murmuring suggestion of something more, that keep us going. So of course, it is not really a dualism, but a spectrum, but positing the dualism allows the spectrum to be seen more clearly.

After all, if things are all visible and invisible to us, then all things inhere this dual reality, and thus this reality is really one. I see a water bottle on my desk – I see the light glancing off of it, the water inside, the Nestle Pure Life Wrapper, and the cap screwed on it. There are things about it that are visible, that I see, that are empirical. But without special tools, certain things about it are invisible – I cannot see what makes up the consistency of the plastic or the water molecules. Even if I had the tools to do that, I could not see the history of the water bottle – the person at the factory who was paid by helping to make it, the person who carried it onto the truck, the truck that carried the water bottle and its fellows to Walmart, or the life of the person who acted as my cashier as she sold me the water bottle. I cannot see, though I can guess, at its role – it is here to stop me from being thirsty and to keep me hydrated, but I do not know the precise moments and ways when and how it will be sustainig me after the initial imbibing. I do not know what actions precisely will be strengthened for performance by this sixteen ounces of fluid, though I do have some idea of how it will do so and that it will, generally speaking, provided that it is not poisoned. Here, on my desk, reflecting the rays of the iridescent lighting of the overhead units, sits a small, ordinary example of things visible and invisible.

I can both know the water bottle, and I cannot know it. I can speak of it enough to have just written the paragraph above, and probably more details. But the writing of it would also uncover more ways in which my knowledge is insufficient, ways in which I cannot know it. But I can only know this because I am able to know something of it, whatever precisely that may be. My apprehension of its visible reality gives me insight into the suggestion of things invisible, and my conjecture of its things invisible suggests other things visible, which in turn uncover more things invisible. The ontology of things, all things, escapes our human teleology, and yet it is our human teleology that allows us to grasp some of the ontology of things, and the ontology of things, being grasped by our epistemic motions of telos, that the ontology, being perceptible in part, is in whole beyond.

If there is any truth to this at all, then it must be with the greatest of care that we approach the Other, the Other Person, because unlike a water bottle, an Other Person is also striving to comprehend things visible and invisible. An Other Person’s mind is a wonderous thing, because it is a marvelous chance to speak with the invisible world in a way we cannot do otherwise. Our consciousness is the closest meeting point between the visible and the invisible we ever encounter, and this half-shadowed, fiery thing, with hopes and dreams and fears and fallacies and anger and sadness and love and hate and all manner of deep rivers of unknown glimpses of reality beneath the surface, is the only place we can come in this world where we meet Others who can acknowledge the incredible complexity of something as simple as a water bottle. We are a unified convergence of realities, the explicit voice implied in all the words of creation, and to say so is not to speak with pride, but to sound a note of caution when speaking with the Other.

But even greater must be the notes of joy.

“Much to cast down, much to build, much to restore;
Let the work not delay, time and the arm not waste;
Let the clay be dug from the pit, let the saw cut the stone,
Let the fire not be quenched in the forge.”
-T.S. Eliot, “Choruses from The Rock”