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

The Next Big Thing

I was quite honored to be tagged by Jackie Hames at The Spidereen Frigate for a blog chain called “The Next Big Thing,” which gives readers a snapshot of your own work-in-progress.

I’ll give it my best shot. Hope you enjoy!

What is the Working Title of Your Book?

The Wolfglen Legacy: Revived

Where Did Your Idea for the Book Come From?

I started drawing maps in 2004 of a fantasy world I wanted to create, and that eventually morphed into a couple of projects, including The Wolfglen Legacy. After watching a lot of movies like the Star Wars prequels, Lord of the Rings, and Pirates of the Caribbean, I wanted to tell a big, adventurous, save-the-world kind of story. Plus, I wanted to try giving new(ish) versions of various fantasy cliches like elves, dragons, wizards, dark lords, and see if I could set them up in a somewhat original framework.

What Genre Does Your Book Fall Under?

Primarily epic fantasy, with some tones of dark fantasy, adventure fantasy, and a dash of science fiction.

If Your Book Became a Movie, Which Actors Would You Pick?

I have a large cast in mind for this

Ben Barnes (Prince Caspian) as Morent Wolfglen. He’d do a good job of looking ferocious and desperate, playing the conflicted wizard who is trying to save his family while keeping his conscience intact.

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Jennifer Lawrence would be terrific to play Princess Sathra Wolfglen. She excelled as Mystique and Katniss Everdeen, and I’d like to see her play the role of a vulnerable young woman who learns how to become stronger and more in control.

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Andrew Garfield really impressed me with his interpretation of Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man, so I wouldn’t mind seeing him in the role of Josh Kingston, a young man from another time who is awakened from stasis into a distant future ruled by magic and wars, and is catapulted into one of the most dangerous conflicts Earth has ever faced, all while trying to learn his new surroundings and run from mistakes and tragedy in his past.

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Those are the three main characters. But I did have a couple of others in mind. I tend to dream big.

Christian Bale as King Rishtal Wolfglen, brother to Morent and father to Sathra.

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Rachel Weisz as Empress Kilfira Lundill, an ally of the Wolfglen family.

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Sam Neill as General Streynel Halthrin, and David Tennant as Myrickin Schtahl, both of them people who have different goals than everyone thinks they do.

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Okay, I could go on, but I think that’s enough of my pipe dream. For now. 🙂

What is Your Book’s One-Sentence Synopsis?

A young man outrunning his past, a princess trying to go on after her mother’s death, and a wizard desperate to save his family all find themselves caught up in a secret war against their country, driven by an ancient supernatural enemy.

Will Your Book be Self-Published or Represented By an Agency?

I’m definitely going to try traditional publishing first. More than that, I want to see how high I can go with this series. If Random House or Tor or HarperCollins picks it up, terrific! If not, that’s perfectly okay. I still want to try it because I don’t want to spend my days wondering how far up the publishing ladder it could have gone.

How Long Did it Take You to Write the First Draft?

After writing off and on while trying to balance school and work with my writing goals, it took me about five years to finally have a complete first draft. Now that I’m graduated, though, it won’t take nearly as long to write the series’s next book (there will be four Wolfglen books in total).

What Other Books in Your Genre Would You Compare Your Novel To?

Hmm. Kind of stumped on this one. Maybe it would be a good fit for readers of Brandon Sanderson (Elantris, Mistborn, the latest Wheel of Time books), James Gurney (Dinotopia), Christopher Paolini (The Inheritance Cycle), George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones), and Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game).

Who or What Inspired You To Write This Book?

In December 2003, as I left the theater after watching Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, I was blown away by the story I had just witnessed. Given the staggering quality of Peter Jackson’s trilogy and how it affected my emotions and imagination, I knew one thing for certain stepping out of that theater: I wanted to be a fantasy writer.

From there I pieced together bits of worldbuilding, character development, and the clockwork of a plot, and the most developed result is The Wolfglen Legacy.

What Else Might Pique a Reader’s Interest in Your Book?

Possibly the ways I have revamped given fantasy cliches (elves with flintlocks instead of bows, a villain driven by his conscience instead of evil for its own sake, etc.).

Moral complexity is one of the big goals I have in mind for this series. I am striving to get a good balance between the black-and-white conflict in Harry Potter, and the frustrating ambiguity in Game of Thrones.

Dinosaurs join the book’s dragons to give my world plenty of big scaly beasties. When was the last time you saw a Triceratops in a fantasy novel? Seriously, they could instantly improve a lot of books.

And I am working hard to make the story satisfying on all fronts, not only attractive for its worldbuilding or characters or descriptions.

Tagging

To keep this chain going, I’d like to tag four of the coolest writers I know: Janden Daniel HaleRob “The Brain Hamster” Killam, Aaron Ritchey, and Courtney Schafer. All are terrific storytellers, and I recommend you check them out right away.

Regarding Intentions

Photo courtesy of psychicdonut.com

One of the classic but seldom mentioned quirks of human nature is that we can’t read the intentions or thoughts of others, yet expect those same people to perfectly understand every nuance and twist of whatever we mean to say or do. I am probably ten times more guilty of this than you are, but it affects everyone to one degree or another. We expect to be understood, then make up our minds about someone regarding their words and deeds.

My latest example of this double standard involves another writer, who has published a series of novels. He is understandably frustrated that a number of reviewers are calling the series “Christian fiction,” even though he wanted it to be accessible to non-religious people. Given how it’s normally just Christians who read books with that label, this would be a legitimate gripe…if he hadn’t let it get published under the “Christian” section of a large publishing house. In his dissertation-length explanation to someone else who pointed out the reason why his books are being called religious, his best excuse is that he and the publisher intended to give readers a book that all people, Christian and otherwise, could appreciate. But we all know what the road to Hell is paved with.

Obviously there is that whole “splinter in your neighbor’s eye, a plank in your own” situation to look out for. I fell into the same trap when I developed a harsh and glowering attitude toward him, thinking Well, maybe he should realize that others won’t care about his intentions if the label turns them away from his books! What an idiot. Why didn’t he just go with another publisher? Of course, this isn’t a very charitable thought to have about another human being. And I should realize more often that I can’t read minds, and I never know the whole situation. Maybe something else happened that I didn’t know of — his agent zealously recommending he go with that publisher, a close friend he had in the publishing house wanting to print his work, or an affection he might have had toward the company. Since I don’t know, I should shut up and give this writer the benefit of the doubt.

There isn’t much advice or wisdom I can offer to you here. I still have to learn to (1 not read too much into someone else’s situation, and (2 not get too frustrated when someone misinterprets something I did or said. If they misunderstood me, I can answer them graciously and humbly, or I can shrug it off entirely and keep going. A harsh/lengthy/scathing response is unwarranted, in any case. The best I can do on my side of the fence is try to say and do exactly what I intend the first time, and hope that not too many people will draw the wrong conclusion. And if they do, it’s not the end of the world. Normally you’ll have an easier time becoming a millionaire than you will convincingly explaining “what you really intended” after-the-fact.

Writer’s Workshops: To Critique or Not Critique?

Written text with red ink. It is to some writers what crucifixes are to vampires.

Picture, if you will, two writing workshops. One of them coalesces each Thursday at the local Barnes and Noble, and often draws aspiring writers who need some encouragement to continue in the craft. Many of these less-experienced storytellers have not yet developed a thick skin for unflinching critique, or for rejection letters. As a rule, the workshop outlaws critique of someone’s writing during the time they read it to the group. Some members are more than happy to critique if it’s requested, but you can only give and receive positive comments during the workshop.

The other group is led twice a month at a nearby library, mostly drawing middle schoolers and high schoolers. After a few years of fun, open minded, just-get-it-on-the-page writing exercises, the longstanding group decides to go ahead with allowing critiques of each other’s work (written outside of the workshops, and brought to the group for the express purpose of putting its feet to the fire). The fun, raw creativity of writing exercises still goes on, but now critique sessions will be part of the experience.

I attend both of these workshops, and have led the latter for five years. Both have blessed my life with writer colleagues, and with resources for growing as a storyteller. I plan to keep going to both for as long as possible. The first one may not get many opportunities for its members to be direct with the weaknesses in someone’s writing, but I appreciate its attempts to accommodate new writers who are still shy and may simply need encouragement and a positive environment. The latter will help its attendees, I’m sure, with constructive criticism and iron sharpening iron, and I’m excited that the group is moving in a new direction. Still, the presence of criticism might, just possibly, turn off newcomers who are not yet ready to hear negative things about their writing, no matter how well-intentioned.

There are trade-offs, is what I’m saying. What you’re looking for and what you need as a writer will help you find out if a particular workshop is ideal for you. Some questions I have for writers out there, out of curiosity:

Which writer’s workshop would you rather attend, if you could only pick one?

What do you want from a workshop? What do you need? They’re not necessarily the same thing.

Do you prefer writer’s workshops that have no critiquing, or ones that make time for both critiques and fun exercises? Or do you want a solid critiquing session, where each member runs a gauntlet of highlighted typos, suggestions, and potentially devastating criticism of their words?

When it comes to workshops, how do you think new writers should enter the fray? What kind of group do you think stands to benefit them the most?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, and get a discussion going. Thanks for your time, everyone! Catch you on Thursday.

Books and Storytelling

Just about everyone loves a good book. Writers love them, of course, or else they wouldn’t be dedicating so much time, blood, and sweat to creating them. Readers love them because of the chance to find escape, or romance, or comfort, or bravery, or beauty. Whether you love stacks of dusty tomes or the efficiency of a Kindle, royal biographies or serial mysteries, books that are like hundred meter dashes or like long winding trails through a primeval forest, books and the stories they tell are so beloved because there are so many ways they can appeal to us.

We all recognize the import of a great story, even if we can’t quite understand why something so intangible could be so vital. Even if we don’t read them or understand them, stories as varied as Beowulf or The Grapes of Wrath, from The War of the Worlds to Pride and Prejudice, carry something that we sense humans want to create, and need to create.

The stories that will last are labors of love, combined with excellent craft and the sharpest of wit. A storyteller raises his tale like a child, ages it like wine, and sculpts it like art. He will work at that story, his heart straining with its emotions and his mind tinkering with its components, until it becomes a living thing that will shine and sing. Stories can be cranked out quickly, their pages splattered with ideas and interesting angles, but thankfully there are still many authors who will take the time to give their work a soul.

And the strangest quality of a soul is its immortality. Orson Scott Card has said that the greatest books stand the test of time. I am quite certain that every author should strive to place such books into their readers’ hands, books that will not only be enjoyed but cherished. The world still needs imagination and passion in its stories. That need has never lessened with time, even though it can be ignored or pushed to the sidelines once in a while.

To every writer and reader who reads this: I pray for the very best for you tonight. May your stories be timeless, may your minds and hearts always be ready to create, and may you never lose touch with the power of books and storytelling.