I have learned a great secret. It was hard won, after a struggling month of NaNoWriMo interspersed with much reading of diverse materials—but it is a great discovery.
First, the background. With a bit more diligence and some creative energies, I fought my way to 32,233 words this year in my quest for a 50,000 word novel. This is more than twice as far as I made it last year. And, like last year, those thousands of words were an experience well worth the effort. I sharpened my fiction writing skills, especially around description and character development, two areas in which I need a lot of work. And speaking of characters, I had that experience some writers have claimed—having a character burst in on you through your own writing, coming as if from no where and introducing himself fully formed. Actually, four characters did that to me. I’m happy to say they are all well-met.
But more important than all these moments in the month of NaNo has also to do with what I have been reading. Having abandoned hope for the finding of decent fantasy written after 1980, I went far the other direction. I picked up a few works of George MacDonald, the primary influence on C. S. Lewis and his Chronicles of Narnia series. The books I've been reading consist of a collection of his (mostly short) fairy tales and one of his novel-length fairy tales for adults called Lilith. (His best work, in my opinion, is the short story "The Golden Key.") It is clear why MacDonald had such a profound influence on C. S. Lewis—his writings are filled with poetic imagery and subtly woven moments in which the reader catches fleeting glimpses of the Other World. It is this world which captivated the attention of C. S. Lewis, compelling him to explore it through his Chronicles of Narnia. It is this World which is seen like sunlight falling through trees in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. It is into this World we stumble along with Alveric in Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter. And it is about This World that I want to write.
What is the great secret that I have learned? After many years of frustrated searching and thinking, I’ve finally discovered what it is that draws the line between the fantasy writing which I love and that which I end up putting down (or selling back) after a hundred pages. Allow me to use an analogy which some friends helped me to put into words after much discussion. In your usual real time strategy game (such as Age of Empires, Warcraft, or Command and Conquer), the player begins in a small stretch of “known space” in which he can see the terrain around him. Beyond that is blackness, waiting to be explored in the search for resources and competing players. As the game progresses, more and more of the map is revealed until the player uncovers the lay of the land and discovers what he must do to seize victory.
This is a good picture of what happens in most fantasy stories—we are put down in a strange world with a conventional character with whom we can identify and relate. He sees dimly around him a fantasy world we do not know, where anything is possible. As the story progresses, more and more of the world is revealed, and we discover friends and enemies along the way to a great conflict with the darkness of evil. It is as if the “map” begins black and we piece it together as we explore around toward some final goal.
The secret I have discovered is the Other World, the reason to bother in the first place with the journey of exploration. With a great many authors, the “map” that is uncovered is merely an exercise of the author’s imagination, a carefully thought out world populated with thoughtful magic systems, clever political systems subtly commenting on our own world, and colorful flora and fauna with which the characters can, well, usually fight.
But with some authors the world uncovered in the journey is not so much woven from the author’s clever imagination but from his own spiritual journey. When an author has experienced glimpses of Truth, Goodness, Beauty in the real world—glimpses of Another World close to this one and breaking in upon certain moments—and that author takes those experiences as the raw stuff from which his fantasy journey is told: that is when the author has transcended cleverness and stolen through to the divine.
I must say that this discovery came as quite a revelation to me. I confess that I have been approaching much of my thinking around fantasy writing as an exercise in world building much as I would approach the building of a world for a role-playing game adventure. The DM (i.e., the author) knows everything from the beginning, arranges a twisting and exciting series of episodes through which the players (i.e., readers) move toward an exciting and rewarding culmination. This is merely an exercise in cleverness, of marshalling the well-known fantasy tropes into an entertaining yarn.
If I am to follow in the footsteps, however feebly, of those heroes of literature I mentioned before, then I have chosen a different and more difficult path. I cannot hope to know everything from the beginning, for who can hold the divine in the palm of his hand? How can I plot out a series of moments in which the divine breaks through from Somewhere Beyond into the world of the reader, catching his breath and causing in him a momentary recognition of the One for whom he was made?
Yet it is possible, for some have gone on to do so. Perhaps not to plan for such occasions or to pretend to cause them to happen, but to keep writing, exploring that world through words and symbols until such a moment occurs, until that which is divine in our own experience and broken vision appears. This is quite a different project than the one to which I first set my pen.
Now I take a moment’s breath after a long month of writing and consider. I read after my betters: Tolkein’s On Fairy-Stories and MacDonald’s The Fantastic Imagination. I seek those moments which Tolkien calls the “good catastrophe”:
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well…In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur…giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief…It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears….
And above all, I continue on the journey for which I was made—that journey after the One who broke through from That World into our ours, and with an outstretched hand, beckons me forward and upward.