Away message

Having adventures. Will be back eventually.

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Susan, left behind

Tulsa: toadstools on a foggy morning

Lev Grossman, The Magicians (2009), The Magician King (2011), The Magician’s Land (2014)

CS Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia (7 books, 1950-1956)

Warning: If you haven’t read The Chronicles of Narnia, some critical plot elements are revealed here.

For about an hour after finishing the final book in Lewis’s Narnia series, I wanted to call this post “I see dead people” because of the final page of The Last Battle. Lewis’s version of Revelations ties everything up with, SPOILER ALERT, Narnia closing shop for good and Aslan deciding who gets to go “further up and further in”, and who is sent back to the Shadowlands (the real world). Turns out, ANOTHER SPOILER ALERT, there was a train crash and everybody had been dead all along but just needed to work their way to Lewis’s idea of heaven — which is Narnia without the baddies!

Except for poor Susan, left behind because she no longer believed in Narnia (despite Aslan having told the Pevensies and the reader in a previous novel that when the children got too old, they’d no longer return to Narnia because they had to “learn to know Aslan by another name” — an obvious reference to Christ, but also, I think, a suggestion that everyone grows up and leaves childish things like Narnia behind). Susan betrayed, inhabitants of Shadowlands betrayed, reader betrayed.

There’s been lengthy discussion of why Lewis chose to exclude Susan from his happy ending (see this for a Christian take, and the opposite view from Philip Pullman here), but to be honest, I wasn’t thinking about her at all when I closed the last book. I was just plain mad that Lewis had killed off every hero and heroine and sent them to an adventure-free Narnia. What kind of ending is that?

I was re-reading Lewis for the first time in a few decades because I had just finished Grossman’s trilogy that is so clearly inspired by the Narnia books. You don’t need to know the Narnia books to appreciate Grossman’s tale, but reading the two together makes it impossible to ignore the strengths of one and weaknesses of the other.

Let’s start with Grossman’s premise: Quentin is a huge fan of a fantasy series by Christopher Plover, in which children from the Chatwin family travel through a grandfather clock to the magical land of Fillory and become its rulers. So far, so neatly parallel. Readers will find lots of other parallels: sea voyages, doughty swordsmen, talking animals, mysterious islands, terrifying monsters, a varied geography and diverse cultures.

Nova Scotia

But Grossman’s sidetracks are what make his series a better one. First, imagine learning as an adult that the Chatwins actually existed and Plover’s stories of their Fillorian adventures were based on fact. And you can go there yourself! Even rule the land with your best friends!

Hands up, anyone who wishes you could live in Middle Earth or Earthsea or Camelot or Diagon Alley or any other of the great mythical worlds, not just by immersing yourself in books and wikis and films, but by actually going there (theme parks don’t count). Well, Quentin is among you, and his wish comes true: Fillory takes him in and makes him one of its kings. Adventures ensue, but (and here’s another place where the two series diverge) Quentin and his earthborn cohorts are also magicians, which usually comes in handy when they meet evil.

Another difference is Fillory’s equivalent to Aslan, Lewis’s deus ex leo who always steps in when his protagonists meet a truly dangerous challenge. All a Pevensie needs to do is call for the lion’s help, and they’re saved (with just a few cuts and bruises to show for their effort). In Fillory, however, two enigmatic and unreliable rams, Ember and Umber, set quests for Quentin et al., and then pretty much leave them on their own. Some of the best die on these quests, and others are horribly maimed. A couple just fall off the map. Literally.

About half-way through The Magician’s Land, Quentin points out something I’m sure we’ve all felt:

“I used to think about [what magic is for] a lot …. I mean, it’s not obvious like it is in books. It’s trickier. In books there’s always somebody standing by ready to say hey, the world’s in danger, evil’s on the rise, but if you’re really quick and take the ring and put it in that volcano over there everything will be fine.

“But in real life that guy never turns up. He’s never there. He’s busy handing out advice in the next universe over. In our world no one ever knows what do do, and everyone’s just as clueless and full of crap as everyone else, and you have to figure it all out by yourself. And even after you’ve figured it out and done it, you’ll never know whether you were right or wrong. You’ll never know if you put the ring in the right volcano, or if things might have gone better if you hadn’t. There’s no answers in the back of the book.”

That’s it. That’s what drew me into The Magicians and what makes Narnia so easy to dismiss. Quentin’s world, despite its fantastic and magical elements, is one that seems real to me, just as Earthsea and Middle Earth and even Hogwarts feel real, because life in each is an incomprehensible mess. I have to compare Aslan’s promising an easy quest to Jill Pole, in The Silver Chair, if she follows his instructions, with Galadriel’s lament that she and Celeborn have “fought the long defeat.” There is no long defeat in Lewis’s world, what with “further up and further in” and Narnia 2.0 rewarding everyone, just like a stop at a DQ on the way home from church. Lewis’s plot resolutions are contrived, simplistic, unsatisfying, because he’s committed to sticking with his religious themes. Aslan HAS to save the children each time, because they must learn to leave everything in His hands.

This brings me back to Susan Pevensie, condemned to the Shadowlands because she has come to doubt Narnia’s existence. In Grossman’s world, there’s an equivalent character who denies her trips to Fillory: Fiona, the eldest Chatwin daughter. But Fiona isn’t punished. She simply gets on with her life, despite the disappearance of two siblings (both end up living in Fillory). But Susan loses her entire family because she’s more interested in “nylons and lipstick and invitations”. So, because she’s a shallow teenager, she’s left behind? Seems a bit harsh to me. Yet, I’d choose Susan’s fate over what the rest of her family receive from Lewis’s pen — Susan gets a life.

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A series of series

dsc02063I’ve been back in NYC for 3 weeks now and am just about recovered from my travels — in time to start planning my next sojourn (more on which later).

Lengthy travels make me long for homely comforts — my own food, bed, and favorite books. So when I returned, I made some mac-n-cheese and, with a stack of books next to my bed, indulged myself.

First I took myself off to Earthsea, thinking magical stories set in the Archipelago would be sufficient distraction from current political realities. But as hundreds of thousands of women were preparing to march worldwide, LeGuin’s feminist U-turn in her created world only underscored what is now at risk.

The first 3 Earthsea books were published 1968-1973 and set in a male-only world of wizardry, where the saying Weak as women’s magic, wicked as women’s magic was frequently repeated (note: only by wizards). There are hints of the Old Powers (connected to women), but Ged, with a woman’s help, escapes them. Then, LeGuin has a rethink and, beginning in 1990, she goes back to Earthsea to try to figure out why men fear women.

Why men fear women. Of course not all men and of course not all women. Earthsea holds wizards who welcome women as sources of magical power and try to learn from them; there are also women who are happy to leave magic in the hands of men — yet they’re still subject to the whims of men, whether wizard or not. But that question of fear is critical: The wizards fear death so much that they change it into a prison rather than a release. They fear women so much that they ban them from their lives, convinced that loving relationships will sap their powers and defile their sacred groves.

I leavened the mental challenges of diving into Earthsea with a quick run through Laura Ingalls Wilder’s semi-autobiographical Little House books. My favorites in this series are By the Shores of Silver Lake and The Long Winter, which cover her family’s first two years in Dakota Territory, including a horrifying winter of non-stop blizzards during which her family nearly starves. My companion for this series is Pioneer Girl (Wilder’s autobiography), annotated and illustrated with photos, maps, and other resources that show how Wilder, with assistance from her daughter, turned a lively but brief set of memories into 7 carefully crafted novels.

And then, since I haven’t yet read the third novel in Lev Grossman’s The Magicians series, I started that set (I’m now about 70% done with the first book).

Which sparked the idea for this year’s reading theme: series, for both children and adults. This gives me the excuse to wallow in the comfort of the familiar (here I come, EF Benson and Arthur Ransome, possibly even JRRT), and the push to finally open unread installments in other series (including The Brotherhood of the Conch, set in India).

Because I’m still working on my own writing, I can’t promise to post much about the books I read, but I’ll come back now and then to let you know how I progress. As for my next sojourn: a lengthy trip in spring and summer will take me back to the UK and Scandinavia, and then on into Eastern Europe. Trains and boats and planes!

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Winding down, revving up

British Museum, Imdugud, about 2500 BC

British Museum, Imdugud, about 2500 BC

Episode 5 from my Writer’s Studio in the Woods series.

I’m sitting in front of my penultimate fire at the Guild’s central room. It seems to have caught — at last! — so I can take this moment to put 2016 to bed and wake up 2017.

Yesterday was the official end of my artist’s residency, although I don’t actually leave until the 3rd. Last night I was asked if I’d written as much as I’d wanted — No, but I wrote much more than I’d expected, so that’s an accomplishment. After the mad and enervating dash of NaNoWriMo, I didn’t think I’d have the energy to wrestle the raw draft into something others could read. But I did — and I now have about 150 pages’ worth of decent story. I didn’t get to the end, but I know now how it will end, and I’m nearly there.

For 2017, my goals are simple: read more, write more. This year’s wish-list includes finding an agent and/or publisher for my MG fantasy, but I know that won’t just land in my lap. Ergo, “write more” means queries as well as fiction.

The writing tasks I have ahead of me will, I must confess, make it easier for me to neglect this blog. I’m not going away, just stepping back for a while. Of course, if anything exciting happens, it’ll find its way here.

Meanwhile, best wishes to all for a new year that brings satisfaction in all arenas. And for anyone who’s keeping track, we’ve had at least 4 feet of snowfall in the month I’ve been here.

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Character development

snowmanEpisode 4 from my Writer’s Studio in the Woods series.

Creating interesting characters, ones that meet all the requirements for “roundness” — they must be layered, not wholly bad or good, with goals and challenges that fit the tone of the novel — I’ve been struggling with this on my current project.

I’m having fun with my characters, yet one has been giving me problems all along. It took a while, but I think I’ve finally figured him out. He’s a 13-year-old semi-bully, and I had to settle on a reason for his bad behavior, something that would fit a comic novel without being too trite or heavy-handed. This past week, I found it — but, sorry, I’ll reveal no details here; I’ll say only that it doesn’t involve a fatal illness, ADHD, child abuse or any other issue-of-the-week disorder.

As for my artist residency, I’m astonished to realize I have less than 2 weeks left. Each day begins with a trek through the previous night’s snowfall — enough to make walking a warming activity — to the kitchen for breakfast and tea. Then I shovel off the deck and stairs outside the main building and then head to my little hut. I can’t say I’ve done as much writing as I had hoped, but I know I’ve written more than if I had stayed in NYC.

Time now for second breakfast and then more writing. I’ll add one more post before I leave the Guild, so until then: Happy Christmas!

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Sleigh rides are cold adventures

Episode 3 from my Writer’s Studio in the Woods series.

bkfst-1bkfst-2K and I went for a sleigh ride today. Up at 7 for first breakfast — tea and cold cereal. Then we walked a mile to get to the lodge for second breakfast: a plateload of food featuring the chef’s fresh home made bread and his pepper-cured bacon.

It reminded me of Almanzo Wilder’s breakfasts in Farmer Boy, on those winter days in upstate New York that started at 5:00 am and seemed to go on forever.

sleighs

Each sleigh seats 18, not counting babes-in-arms, or the driver.

A group of over 30 people from Seattle, including nearly a dozen toddlers, joined us after breakfast, and we had enough passengers to fill two sleighs. Jack and Tiny were our horses, each weighing a bit over 2000 pounds (that’s a bit over a ton each). The horses do this route a few times every day through the winter, and they seem to know every downhill and climb along the way. We traveled through woods, on trails often shared with snowmobilers. The driver said the loud engines of trucks and snowmobiles don’t bother the horses, but a chipmunk in a tree can spook them. They’re wired to run from predators, who tend to be silent rather than noisy.

jack-and-tiny

Jack’s on the left, Tiny on the right.

K and I were at the front and learned from the driver that his great-great grandfather had settled in this area in the late 1890s, the nearest supply town a day’s ride by horse and wagon. But now the area is busy with tourists — winter and summer. In fact, as we drove by some hay bales stacked in a yard, the driver said those would be used the next day for an outdoor wedding: the guests would sit on them (although whether during the ceremony or during the celebration afterwards wasn’t clear). The ride took us through woods — pines looming on either side, hills deep in snow in the distance. Once we entered the woods, there was not a building in sight.

cauldronturkeysThe temperature was below 20º F (-7º C), so we were all grateful for a hot cider stop near the end of the ride, where we warmed our hands over a flaming cauldron. Nearby, wild turkeys feasted on grains tossed them by the drivers. The whole experience made me feel I was living in Breughel’s Hunters in the Snow.

I’m glad to be back at the Guild now, in front of the fire, about to head to my dorm and a good book before falling asleep.

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Roof avalanches and tree dumps

Episode 2 from my Writer’s Studio in the Woods series.

riverThe past few days, it’s mostly been about the snow. We glimpse the sun during the day, but then the clouds return and, with them, the snow. I’m used to city snow — dirty, slushy, salted and sanded, pushed aside to make way for vehicles and pedestrians. The Guild has a snowplow, but its impact is minimal, leaving wide swathes of snow. Whenever I start to feel sorry for myself, stuck in these snowy woods, I remind myself of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter and O. E. Rølvaag’s Giants in the Earth. I may experience a few moments of discomfort as I walk from my sleeping quarters to the kitchen to make my breakfast, but I’ll never have to risk freezing to death in a haystack as I try to shelter from a blizzard. And they didn’t have snow plows!

labyrinth

Labyrinth, almost invisible under snow. Time to walk it and recreate the path.

The writing progresses, albeit slowly. I’ve been having fun with some chapters about the 1960 presidential debates and election. Those debates took place in September and October, so I love that I can follow them up with some Halloween pranks. But it’s also time to introduce some new characters, and I’m thinking a couple of nutty aunts will be perfect.

It’s time now for second breakfast and then a few hours of steady writing.

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