Screwtape on Fantasy: A Response to Todd Friel

Todd Friel of the ministry called “Wretched” and others have come out against fantasy fiction having any place in the life of a Christian. You can find his video on Youtube, concerning “wizard fiction.”

In response, I wrote my idea of a possible “Screwtape Letter.” I do hope it does no dishonor to C.S. Lewis.

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My dear Wormwood,

I am writing to address your inquiry in your most recent letter, regarding the use of the fantastic in the Patient’s reading habits.

In truth, the subject in and of itself is of little use to Our Father Below, and I expected better even from the likes of you. I must once again indulge the holding of your hand through this matter.

When fiction is the reader’s chosen subject, he ventures into a cinema or into the pages of a book, knowing full well the story’s author is not presenting a documentary or a statement of belief. It is what one might call a neutered lie. All the sinister pleasures of deception have been defanged, because almost all Patients will not take the story as descriptive of reality. Since our goal is to cast illusions and phantoms across the face of real life, attempts to harness fiction to our Father’s cause are severely hampered before we’re even out of the gate.

It is true that a human’s worldview influences their process of artistic creation, and therefore influences those who partake in it. But the medium itself, as a neutered lie, in most cases can only impart a watered-down influence. Even here, however, there can be some meager potential, which I shall explain in a moment.

The human art of pretend storytelling (including the more fantastical varieties) is comparable to any of their other artistic endeavors. Art is not a den of sin by nature. Whatever use fiction has against the Enemy, it cannot give of itself, any more than a bucket can provide water of its own accord. It has to be filled with whatever you wish to provide.

But even then, the best use we have for fiction is not to drag them to our Father’s house, but to reinforce a dragging that is already underway. For instance, Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy does carry a note of delicious subversion, and has in a tiny handful of cases been helpful in bringing humans before our Father’s leering grin. The key is that it is helpful, not foundational. Pullman needed to be guided and coaxed before he could instill his anti-Enemy worldview into a single paragraph. And as with the author, so with the reader. You will notice that a large majority of his devoted admirers already held the Enemy in healthy contempt, or were well on their way to doing so.

Thus, we can see fiction for what it is: a sort of “working out” of a Patient’s heart, with an influence that has to supplement whatever is already present. It is spice, not entree.

Of course, you were mainly interested in fantastic fiction, particularly with magical figures in the story, who commune with spirits and turn into animals, and the like. I am afraid that even these are of use that is as limited as it is dependent.

It might be a different story if High Command did not have the standing order to (in your Patient’s culture, at least) conceal our presence unless otherwise necessary. Magicians are much more charismatic when they are taken seriously, not laughed off as charlatans or fringe lunatics. Rank materialism is closer now to being hybridized with belief in the supernatural than it was a century ago, but for now most of the links are still tenuous. The best of both worlds is still just beyond our grasp, and we must give it time to mature.

Therefore, as always, your Patient’s particular vulnerabilities will decide the angle of attack. If he is one of the precious few in his culture who regard real Magicians as commanding authentic power, you might be able to work some favorable influence. With the right kind of fiction, that is.

Fiction that subverts the Enemy’s declarations – whether overtly or with subtlety – can sometimes make all the difference. You can often see our own whispers into an author’s mind, filtering through the pages. In that case, I reiterate that this fiction has value, but only as a means of reinforcing whatever else we have encouraged and cultivated. Otherwise, a novel that has reinforced one soul’s journey to Hell might disastrously be used by the Enemy to wake another Patient to that same journey, whereupon the human is in great danger of reversing course and wandering into the Enemy’s embrace.

That explosion can be ignited by a thousand short fuses. Perhaps the Patient is awakened to the need for a transcendent reality and, unless promptly guided to one of the many decoy religions we have established, will be on a fast track to Heaven. Or the beauty and gravity of the fictional world might rekindle a hunger that will have him asking all the wrong sorts of questions, which of course the Enemy will be delighted to barge in and answer.

As for fiction that is not subversive of the Enemy, those varieties of fantastic fiction and characters hardly ever were of use for our Father’s cause, except perhaps as idle entertainment that distracts instead of edifies. Be sure your Patient avoids any and all fiction that the Enemy has encouraged in humans. He is crafty, and you stand to only make half-hearted and ham-fisted attempts of subversion against a foundation He has already laid.

As always, if you find yourself in the enemy’s camp, see if you can exploit the legalism inherent in a pharisaical teacher, who commands or coaxes other believers to regard every variety of fantastic fiction as an encouragement to the Occult.

Such humans are eminently amusing, spreading strife where it need not occur, and souring the seeds of the Enemy’s will for many a budding storyteller, all because they lack (or have not exercised) the insight, or craftiness, or creativity of the very God they endlessly claim to speak for. Alexandria never lost so many books to fire as we have successfully suppressed in Christians who were convinced by such teachers to withhold their stories from the world.

Your affectionate uncle,

Screwtape

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Concept Art for “The Wolfglen Legacy”

I’ve been catching myself doing more art involved with The Wolfglen Legacy than actually writing it. I’m going to make myself write more than draw, but at least I can share what’s been done so far.

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Writing Process Blog Tour

Yesterday, author Robert Mullin kindly tagged me in a blog tour going by the name of The Writing Process. I got to know him over Facebook, and he has become a close friend of mine. A writer and adventurer, he is the author of Bid the Gods Arise, an excellent novel that deftly blends science fiction and fantasy. I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m very enthusiastic to read more of his work.

So, here are the tour’s questions:

What am I working on?

My writing projects are currently twofold.

One, of course, is The Wolfglen Legacy, the epic fantasy series I’ve been working on for the better part of a decade. I’ve pitched it, edited it, had friends read parts of it…but then I realized it hadn’t matured quite enough. I need to finally write books 2, 3, and 4 (pieces of each do exist already), so I’ll see if I can finish the first book by summer this year.

My second project is the serialized science fiction thriller Arrivers. The first three installments are on Amazon Kindle for a buck each, and a fourth entry is underway. I’d love to see where this story goes and get a chance to spend more time with Sergeant Tobias, Reverend Rousseau, and the strange woman who calls herself Jezebel.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Apart from games like World of Warcraft and Dungeons and Dragons, I don’t know of any epic fantasy that includes dinosaurs. Or elves who wield flintlock pistols, and treat them with the same deep honor and reverence as Samurai treat the katana. Or a villain who appoints himself as rescuer of mankind, who feels going to war is a necessary step to rescuing us from our own flaws and mistakes.

More than that, however, many new fantasy novels wade in moral ambiguity, Game of Thrones style. It makes for frustrating tales that don’t really celebrate or condemn anything. I want to tell stories that have moral complexity. There’s still a difference between right and wrong, even if they can tie knots around each other.

When it came to the Arrivers stories, I grew weary from seeing one science fiction story after another that was overtly materialistic. You know, the stories told by the likes of Ben Bova and Isaac Asimov, that go out of their way to say religious people are morons, science eradicates miracles, and God no longer has a place in the cosmos. So I wanted to write a science fiction story that wasn’t “religious,” but still admitted there’s more to the universe than particles and natural laws.

Why do I write what I do?

If someone tells me I take my writing too seriously, I’ll take it as a complement. 🙂 My goal is to make someone feel like they are peeking through an interdimensional portal, witnessing events in a universe just as real as ours. Neither characters, nor story, nor world will be ready until it seems they’re entirely real. It’s not quite enough for me to try telling “a good story.” That’s the house’s foundation, so to speak.

How does my writing process work?

A few things help the writing process. Coffee with hazelnut creamer, concept art from movies, reading other novels, peace and quiet, and successfully resisting the siren call of Facebook. Still working on that last one….

I’ll often start with an idea and a paragraph or two, and build it up from there. Normally half of my edits happen as I’m writing the “first draft”. Supposedly this is a big no-no for writers, but it’s ended up helping me more and more with my own work.

Tagging Other Authors

For passing along this blog tour, I’d like to tag “Zombie Rob” Killam, another close friend of mine with an incredible talent for humor and witty dialogue. His upcoming zombie novel is called Apocalypse Springs.

The second writer I wanted to tag is my friend Joe Dorris, starring on the show Prospectors on the Weather Channel and fellow novelist who just released Salmon River Kid. He even paints his own cover art! How cool is that?

And here’s a third: mother, duchess and epic sci-fi author Ashley Hodges Bazer. I’m grinning at the prospect of reading her tales that encompass many worlds and have the kind of big-scale stories that deserve a movie or TV series. Here’s to much success, Ashley!

The Joy of Writing: Robbed and Regained

Like many fantasy writers, I get a ton of inspiration from J.R.R. Tolkien. The more I read his work, the more quotable he becomes. He has left quite an impression on my work and imagination, even in the reasons I write stories.

This will just be a brief instance of that procrastination known as “writing about writing,” before I finally return to the long-neglected bliss of rewriting that fantasy novel and bringing out what I pray will be the story it was meant to tell.

When people began trying to equate his stories of Middle Earth with contemporary events or themes or hot button topics, Tolkien bristled at the notion that he was writing commentary. He was fine with applicability, but current events were not the point. Tolkien had what he described as a cordial dislike for allegory. “I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers.”

That’s largely my perspective as well. He weaved together this world of Elves and Hobbits and noble Men, and made his stories about the characters and their situations. Not about “the dangers of power” or “relationships” or “self-sacrifice” or the other themes some writers will obsess over. Fiction loses something important when it angsts more about theme/meaning than what its particular characters go through. You can’t quite escape from this world when that happens. Fiction loses its intended illusion of reality.

Perhaps I’m too sensitive, but the fact is my jaw sets, and my enthusiasm and imagination begin to shrivel, when fellow readers and writers spend more time discussing the “themes” or “meaning” of a story than they do discussing the tale itself. I had far too much of that in college, where nearly every professor read ideologies into the text, coldly dissecting it and scrutinizing it like a crowd of microbes in a petri dish.

And then I fell into the creative deathtrap again with too much time on my hands after graduation, taking to the blogosphere and reading deconstructions of movies that only served to rob my enjoyment of the movies themselves. I got fixated on the themes and elements and meanings and cinematography techniques when I wanted to focus on the story. Maybe it’s a side effect of ADD. I don’t know.

Thank God this doesn’t happen to everyone, however! One of my friends told me about how this same practice of dissection and examination can enrich his enjoyment of a story. And more power to him for that!

Being a writer, I still have the responsibility to study the craft of storytelling, and knowing how to tell good tales in satisfying ways. For some reason I enjoy that part of the process.

When I’m learning how to improve my own stories, and when my reading of fiction is done not to scrutinize but to enjoy, I get inspired rather than frustrated. That diminished capacity for joy begins to regain its life and color, and its roots plunge deeper. That frame of mind reminds me how much I love creating new worlds and characters.

Don’t ignore the components of a great story, though. If you are a writer, don’t skimp on technique or think that inspiration is all you need. That’s not what I mean to convey. I only mean to say this: Don’t forget the joy of escaping into another world and making new friends through the pages of a book.

Climb

Another weekend, another painting done. “Climb.” Acrylics on watercolor paper, 4 x 6 inches.

This one took about 6 hours to make.

This one took about 6 hours to make.

The two figures at bottom right are Kedil Ahmlen (left) and Sathra Wolfglen (right), two characters from my books. I might find a place to put this scene.

The slope climbed up and up, bordered by steep ridges that protruded like harsh granite ribs around the mountain’s belly. Snow swept back and forth between the ridges in a white river. Nearer to them, the occasional pine tree poked up from the frozen plain. Perfect place to get caught in an avalanche, Sathra thought.

A blue guard tower that must have stood a hundred feet high rose against the nearest fold of rock, a lighthouse about to be toppled by a brutal wave. Every window was alight, and Sathra entertained the fantasy of stopping for the night. She shivered in her cloak, colder for tempting herself.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Kedil said, drawing her own cloak closed with a shaking hand. “We cannot stop. Tonight, we must climb.”

Copyright, of course, belongs to me.

Spiders, Dragons, and Hobbits, Oh My!

Yep. This is going to rock. And Cumberbatch has an absolutely perfect dragon voice. Thank you, Peter Jackson and crew. Thank you.

A Plea for Reason in Sci-Fi/Fantasy “Discrimination”

Edit: November 2, 2013: Don’t like what’s said on this post? Fine by me. But if you choose to mistake maturity for being “oblivious,” then there’s not much I can do to help you. I could go off on another rant, but I’ll defer to Brad Stine on this one.

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Lately I’ve been seeing quite a few accusations of discrimination being flung around the sci-fi/fantasy community. Mainly, it focuses on the fact that many of the writers are white males portraying white male protagonists.

Sorry, what? I must have forgotten to change my race and/or gender before I embarked on writing sci-fi and fantasy. My bad.

Forget about telling me that my “white privilege” is showing or I’m “mansplaining” things to you. I’m addressing you all as human beings, created as equals in the image of God — no more and no less. Look, can everyone quit the mud-slinging for five minutes and just admit this for what it is? If sci-fi and fantasy have somehow been overwhelmed by white, male protagonists/authors (and to a certain extent, that is true), that doesn’t mean it’s racist or sexist. It’s just boring. Well, it’s boring if skin color and gender of the protagonist(s) are a huge deal and determine the quality of a story.

I’m not arguing to keep things the way they are. By all means, let’s start increasing the variety of characters. But it’s nowhere near as important as crafting a good story and fascinating characters to drive it. Aren’t those the basics?

Honestly, I don’t care what the author or character’s race or sex is. I just want the story and the people it’s about to be interesting. In my experience, the only people who have cared a great deal about things the author and character cannot help, like their melanin content or chromosomes, belong to one of two types:

  • Those not-too-common actual racists or sexists — immature people who try to ruin others’ experience with science fiction and fantasy by belittling their race or gender (though I have hardly met any of them)
  • Equally immature people with notes from their classes in race studies or gender studies constantly on the brain, worrying about different types of humans and whether they are “represented” equally among authors or characters, and who think an under-representation of any group is a miscarriage of justice that MUST be addressed (I have met plenty of these, and would rather hope to not run into them again)

Last time I checked, writing classes and books didn’t have much to say on the subject of race or even gender, though that could easily change in the Age of Political Correctness. I don’t care one bit that Avatar: The Last Airbender or The Legend of Korra hardly have any “white” characters. I don’t care that Korra is a girl. I love both series, because the characters are well-developed, and the stories are amazing. And the fight scenes are mind-bogglingly awesome. That too.

But I also don’t care that many of the other stories I love, from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings to Jurassic Park, happen to have a lot of white, male characters driving the story. Because those are exactly the traits of human beings no one should be making a big deal about. What was that Martin Luther King, Jr. said, about people being judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin (or the arrangement of their chromosomes, for that matter)?

Female protagonists are supposed to have strength of one kind or another and be proactive, not because they’re female, but because they’re the protagonists. That’s why. There’s nothing in the chief character’s sex that robs him/her of the need to be decisive and proactive. No one except for the aforementioned groups is going to care how light or dark an author’s or character’s skin is. Most of us just want a great story, featuring interesting people and created by someone who knows what they’re doing.

Now can we please get back to having fun, writing the best fiction we can and sharing it with the world? Thanks for your time.