Dickens’ ‘Christmas Carol’ Sings Of Truth and Timelessness

Somehow the story of “A Christmas Carol” isn’t often recognized for what it is: a clearly drawn work of speculative fiction, a fantasy. Dickens’ classic is a fantasy story that had somehow transcended the genre, and was ahead of its time — a century before Lewis and Tolkien.
| Jan 4, 2007 | No comments |

This Dec. 25 brought an especially pleasant surprise my family and I — a 1999 motion picture adaptation of the famous holiday novelette by Charles Dickens.

Among the dozens of movie versions, this one apparently isn’t as well-known, though it should be. Its script captures the book almost perfectly; the sets are great; visual effects are top-notch, especially considering the year and the made-for-TV medium; and acting, superb. And perhaps best of all, Patrick Stewart is in command of the bridge, playing with majestic drama the title role of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Somehow the story of A Christmas Carol isn’t often recognized for what it is: a clearly drawn work of speculative fiction, a fantasy. And this film, to me, seemed to draw that out all the more clearly.

A tale of mirth, mixed myths and morality

Will a reader or viewer of Christmas Carol find gnomes? Crossbows? Dragons? No. But, Ebenezer Scrooge during his three journeys with the Spirits of Christmases Past, Present and Future, does rather fantasy-like things like become invisible, travel through time and fly to locations throughout England. His ghost hosts are, respectively, an angel-like creature, a giant, and a wraithlike figure, cloaked in gray, who resembles the Grim Reaper. And though the story’s moral worldview is clearly Judeo-Christian, Dickens blended in the rather “pagan” elements of ghosts and somehow made it all work.

This is a fantasy story that had somehow transcended the genre, and was ahead of its time — a century before Lewis and Tolkien. Somehow it’s become ingrained in culture, almost too much. Dickens made Scrooge an adjective, fictitious ghost visitations widely imitated, and humbug a term so common that it even avoids spell-checker red-wavy-underlining in Microsoft Word.

The Patrick Stewart film’s visual effects (evidently the first Christmas Carol adaptation to use computer-generated imagery) makes the speculative elements even clearer. The ghost of Jacob Marley melts through Scrooge’s bedroom wall, and minutes later, his lips and jaw horrifically drops two feet when unfastened. Scrooge gazes through his window to the street outside and beholds the spirit world, full of floating, spectral figures. The glowing Spirit of Christmas Past fades in and out, his edges more transparent than the best of his body. And the Ghost of Christmas Present whisks Scrooge to witness Christmas celebrations elsewhere, flying across England within a dark, whirling funnel cloud.

Incidentally re-writing literature

Dickens somehow got away with an insane idea for its time — something that would likely not pass muster if submitted to a Christian publisher today.

The story’s theme, now proved timeless since its publication in 1843, was completely against the trends of the time. It seems the celebration of Christmas was actually becoming a has-been at the time in England. Dickens helped revitalize it. And his original goal was to pay off some bills — along with pushing a not-so-subtle propaganda.

A similar scene occurred one hundred years later, when multiple writers were trying to be the smartest person in Europe and talk about how people need to read Reality stories. Lewis and Tolkien said the heck with that, wrote up a few crazy novels about fantasy worlds and somehow got them published.

The world trembled. Readers loved it. And no one cares much for those smartest people in Europe now — except to set the cultural context for Lewis, Tolkien and their literary progeny.

Every trend has its day; sometimes, literally only a day. Then it’s over. All the movies with similar themes, pulp-paperbacks in one genre, pop-hunk heartthrob “artists” lip-syncing for dime-a-dozen songs, news reports about shark attacks, etc., will all go away. Might anyone remember “The Spice Girls”? (Not for too long, before it’s disgusting.) Might anyone remember how repugnantly prevalent they were in media? It is not so anymore, thank Heaven. Their 15 minutes of fame weren’t worth an atom of length even on the young-earth Creationist timeline of history.

Unfortunately the same occurs in Christ-honoring publishing. What’s the dominant genre now? Well, thrillers and mysteries are more prevalent, which is good. Yet still the dominant genre is the Romances, with all manner of adjective modifiers: contemporary, historical, comedic, cozy, prairie, city, country, Irish, Scottish, Australian, Albanian, Liechtensteinien, etc. Throw a rock in a Christian bookstore, and you’ll likely hit a woman and about three Secret Sisters buying pillowcase-loads of Cozy Romance paperbacks.

Now how long might this dominance last? Maybe only a few years longer. Maybe only until another Dickens, Lewis, Tolkien, or even a Peretti or Dekker comes along and writes something that seems especially insane at first but then catches on like wildfire.

Or maybe the Romances will seem to last long after people like us are trying to be the smartest people in the U.S. and claim that the Christian pulp-romance is due to be replaced by Speculative Fiction.

Ah, but we might back up this claim with Scripture.

Waiting for the Timeless

Yes, the Author of the Bible itself is quite clear on this point: that ultimately, almost all the really important stuff right now, whatever’s on the charts, whatever’s grossing the most at the box office or on the New York Times bestseller list, is doomed to go away. All the other creative works and timed trends will either be roasted or else become absorbed into the Timeless: the realm of Eternity.

Seeing as how Eternity itself is “speculative,” quite a few of those forms of books will fit in nicely when Christ returns and it finally gets here. But I would guess that “contemporary romance” might seem a lot stranger in the New Heavens and New Earth — at that point, it all becomes “historical.”

However, I’m willing to suppose A Christmas Carol would have a place in the Timeless. It’ll share shelf space in Heaven’s libraries along with The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, and multiple other novels that broke ground for new growth instead of following in the same tired, crusty furrows.

Dickens’s Christmas Carol broke ground. He revitalized old traditions and forged his own, worldwide, and almost by accident. The next great sci-fi or fantasy author, especially within Christendom, will likely stumble into the same role.

That can only happen if the author isn’t too trapped in modern “sensibilities” and trends to see the Timeless, to work and strive for its effects. Yet Christ-followers, especially, should have an edge over non-Christian writers, because we know and serve the One Who invented Timeless. Too often Christian artists try so hard to copy the pop tunes everyone’s playing now. But fantastic, courageous works, such as A Christmas Carol and stories like it, harmonize much better with the Composer’s greater Soundtrack.

Writing CoO: Part 1 – Inspiration

Where stories come from is one of the great mysteries of the writing world. Often the formative idea can come in a flash of inspiration where you see a face, a scene, a battle or even just hear a whisper. […]
| Dec 19, 2006 | No comments |

Where stories come from is one of the great mysteries of the writing world. Often the formative idea can come in a flash of inspiration where you see a face, a scene, a battle or even just hear a whisper. The idea never really need come from anything even related to what you’re doing at the moment, but rises from some creative well within. Sometimes it can be impossible for an author to totally track back to the moment of inception for what becomes their finished work, mostly because that finished work may not bear any sort of resemblance to the original inspiration. But for Chamber of Origins, I still remember the drop that was drawn from the well many years ago that first touched the seed that would grow into the story I’m working on now.

This story began with the killing of Grendel’s dog.

High School was a very fertile time for my creative mind, with my writing and drawing and world creating going strong and wild. Most of my efforts were focused on the world of Sauria, but every now and then I would be forced to branch out into different territory, such as the day in English class when we were assigned to re-write the story of Beowulf from a different point of view. Most of my classmates retold the tale from Grendel or his mother’s point of view. I took a slightly different slant.

My story focused on the story of a member of Beowulf’s band, a warrior whose deeds were always out of sight and out of mind, whose boasts were never believed. During the climactic battle with Grendel, this warrior found himself outside the keep face to face with Grendel’s dog, which he slew in a might battle. But the key point here is that Grendel’s dog was an anklyosaur (an armored dinosaur with a club on it’s tail).

This story, combined with my theory that dinosaurs were the spawn of dragon legends and were killed off by medieval man, got me thinking about a new story. The story of a dragon slayer who’s life was consumed by the hunt and slaying of seven “dragons” that had slain his family. But eventually, as always, Sauria eventually came back in and ruled my creative thoughts, leaving this story to grow and mature in the fields at the back of my mind.

Nine or ten years would pass, before the idea would find itself ripening, blooming from single thought and concept to fully fledged world.

But that tale is for next time.

Speaking of which, I won’t be here for next week, as many of us will be taking the week of Christmas off. Look for my next post and the continuation of this story to be on January 2nd.

I hope you all have a very merry Christmas and a rockin’ New Year!

Interview With Harvest House Editor Nick Harrison

Harvest House Publishers, producing more than 160 new books each year and offering a strong backlist of more than 700 titles, has risen into the top five among American publishers of Christian literature. After years printing self-help, Bible materials, and […]
| Dec 18, 2006 | No comments |

Harvest House Publishers, producing more than 160 new books each year and offering a strong backlist of more than 700 titles, has risen into the top five among American publishers of Christian literature. After years printing self-help, Bible materials, and gift books, HHP has made a strong movement into fiction. Senior Editor Nick Harrison joins us here at Speculative Faith for an interview to introduce one of their newest ventures—a Christian fantasy.

RLM: Last year at Mt. Hermon you were excited about a fantasy trilogy you had just acquired. What can you tell us about it?

NH: The Trophy Chase Trilogy is by George Bryan Polivka. The first book, The Legend of the Firefish releases March 1. The second book, The Hand that Bears the Sword, releases July 1. The final book, as yet untitled, releases January 1, 2008. Naturally, we hope that fantasy readers will love the books, but I hope the interest goes even beyond that. I think that it will appeal to both young and old readers.

RLM: So I take it, The Trophy Chase Trilogy does not target only readers who already love fantasy.

NH: I really think the public at large will love the series. To be honest, fantasy is not a genre that I read extensively in. But from the first page, this story captivated me. All the elements are here: wonderful characters (not just the protagonist, Packer Throme, but minor characters as well), a quest, danger, many twists and turns, a bit of a love story, and a very satisfying ending.

RLM: I’m happy to hear that the books aren’t aimed at a niche audience. Every indication, as we look at the culture at large, seems to suggest that fantasy appeals to a broad base of people. Does The Trophy Chase Trilogy remind you of any other fantasy on the market or is it something completely original?

NH: It’s quite original. The Kingdom of Nearing Vast (where much of the story takes place) is a fantasy world….and yet it’s one where the Bible is very much a part of the culture.

RLM: That’s a unique element for a fantasy world. Besides the setting, what, in your opinion, will readers enjoy the most, the characters or the story?

NH: Well, I’ve always said that, as an editor, I prefer character-driven stories to message- or plot-driven stories. And in the character of our hero, Packer Throme, we find a young man whom we are eager to follow into battle. Packer is very human and makes mistakes along the way, but he is such a well-drawn character that we easily understand why he does what he does. When I finished reading, I found myself thinking like Packer Throme thinks. But beyond the great characters, there is a strong plot and a wonderful message. It’s a page-turner, but also character-driven, AND with a strong message. I would not call it message-driven though.

I can’t say enough about Bryan’s characters. I challenge any reader to NOT care what happens to Packer and Panna….or to any of the wonderful supporting characters: Cap and Hen Hillis, Will Seline, Sam Delany,

Marcus Pile, Dog Blestoe…and in the second book: Bran Mooring, Prince Ward, and even a couple of the ill-fated bad guys. Truly a magnificent job of creating living, breathing characters.

One other great achievement here is that in addition to the high drama involving the hero, Packer Throme, Bryan has given Packer’s love interest, Panna Seline a major adventure of her own. Thus there are two major players in the book: Packer and Panna. I’m really pleased that this trilogy has not just a strong male figure, but also a very strong and compelling female character as well.

And if that weren’t enough, Bryan gives us a very keen insight into one of the story’s antagonists, Talon, a female Drammune warrior. And if THAT weren’t enough, Bryan also takes us into the mind of the title creature, the Firefish, a large and fierce sea-creature that figures into a major part of the story.

Bryan’s ability to handle the point of view shifts necessary to pull off this feat is awesome—and unique. Not many authors handle point of view as well as Bryan does. I consider Bryan’s use of point of view a huge asset to the book—even though I know that all the writing books warn against such shifts. I think they do this because few authors can handle those shifts well. Bryan is a master at it, in my opinion.

RLM: I know one of the things I learned from you at Mount Hermon was the importance of creating characters readers care about, so I’m not surprised by what you’re saying. But back to the elephant in the room—Harvest House is publishing FANTASY. Recently someone told me they thought yours would be the last publisher to pick up a fantasy. Was that an accurate statement and if so, what changed?

NH: Our mission statement at Harvest House Publishers is “to glorify God by providing high-quality books and products that affirm biblical values, help people grow spiritually strong, and proclaim Jesus Christ as the answer to every human need.” We try to do that with all the books we publish—fiction and non-fiction. In the past, it’s true we’ve not done much in this genre….but we like to think we’re always open to books that “fit” Harvest House and our mission statement, even if they’re in a genre that’s untested for us. Of course, a book in a new genre may have a higher hurdle to clear….and I think that’s what happened here. We feel the series is THAT good. It cleared a huge hurdle. We are willing to step out and publish something new that meets the criteria of our mission statement AND is a very satisfying story.

RLM: Makes sense. So, how did you find George Bryan Polivka?

NH: I love the way this happened too. It offers hope to unpublished authors. Every week (well, just about every week), I check the two major on-line manuscript-listing services: the one hosted by ECPA and Writer’s Edge. In all my years of checking those services, I’ve asked to see maybe 30 or 40 proposals….and in those 30 or 40, I think we’ve published maybe half a dozen. And I found Bryan Polivka on Writer’s Edge.

RLM: Wow! I know some people in the publishing business who didn’t think those services benefit writers. This is encouraging! But back to fantasy, do you have any plans to look for other speculative works and if so are there any particular elements you desire?

NH: Having taken the plunge with The Trophy Chase Trilogy, we may, at this point, want to wait and see how it does. But honestly, if I found a second series or a stand-alone that I felt was as good as Bryan’s books, I’d pitch it hard to our publishing committee.

RLM: Are there particular elements, like talking animals or magic wands, that you would avoid?

NH: I doubt we’d want wands or overt “magic.” We do not allow crude language or overt sensuality, and of course, the story has to be consistent with our mission statement.

RLM: How would you categorize the “faith element” in The Trophy Chase Trilogy? Is it allegorical? Present as the worldview of one of the characters? Symbolized? Or something else altogether?

NH: It’s overt Christianity. Packer Throme is a believer in trusting the God of the Bible and in Jesus Christ. That may sound strange to fantasy fans…but it really works. The world is a fantasy world—it’s called The Kingdom of Nearing Vast. And yet it is clearly set on earth. And yet the time is not modern times, but not ancient either. Bryan has done a marvelous job of making a fantasy kingdom that is very believable.

RLM: In your opinion what is the strength of the fantasy—the special elements a secular story might term “magic,” the other world, the other characters? Why is this element particularly engaging?

NH: Bryan has created a highly believable kingdom and compelling characters who inhabit that kingdom. He has also given them some enormous challenges that they truly can’t meet without a lot of courage and a strong faith in God. I think, then, for me, the strength of this fantasy is that one really believes in the Kingdom of Nearing Vast, much like one “believes” in Narnia.

RLM: What a ringing endorsement!

Nick, thanks so much for your time. You are a wonderful advocate for George Bryan Polivka and The Trophy Chase Trilogy. He is blessed to have you in his corner! After what you’ve said, I’m excited to read the first book, especially since you promised me a sneak-peek.

I also have to say, it is heartening that another publishing house has stepped into the fantasy arena.

You’ll be interested to know that last week during Kathryn Mackel’s Trackers CSFF Blog Tour, Technorati’s top four books on the Most Popular list were all fantasies, with Trackers coming in at number two. I think the future of Christian fantasy is looking brighter, in part because Harvest House has stepped up to meet the culture where it is at.

Part VII Of How To Bring Myths & Fairy Tales Back From The Dead & Into The Light: Lewis’ TILL WE HAVE FACES

So, Orual changes Psyche’s life and her own by forcing her sister, by threat of killing Psyche and herself rather than let Psyche continue living under a delusion (as Orual sees it), to light a lamp and see who her […]
| Dec 15, 2006 | No comments |

So, Orual changes Psyche’s life and her own by forcing her sister, by threat of killing Psyche and herself rather than let Psyche continue living under a delusion (as Orual sees it), to light a lamp and see who her husband really is.

As in the fairy tale, this changes everything. Psyche is forced to wander, and Orual loses her sister most decisively. The lovely valley of the god is gone.

Orual becomes Queen. She is actually brave and wise and actually rules quite well. She assures a successor (whom she marries to Redival) and brings peace and prosperity to Glome. She grows to old age, her face continually veiled, her faithful Bardia helping her in her queenly duties. Her beloved counselor, the Fox, dies, and a restlessness and haunted dissatisfaction weighs on Psyche. She decides to travel. In doing so, she happens upon the temple of the goddess Istra. The statue of the goddess has a black veil about the head.

Istra is Psyche’s birth name.

Orual hears from the priest the tale of the goddess, and realizes it’s her and Psyche’s story, but as told in the myths as we’re familiar with them. To Orual, it’s an offensive lie. It paints her a jealous of Psyche, and her destroyer.

This is the catalyst for Orual’s writing down her narrative, her proof that the gods are cruel, deceptive, malicious, and unjust.

But the narrative itself—the writing down of her story—is the catalyst for Orual discovering her true face…and the truth. The first part of the narrative ends with Orual’s complaint to the gods and her documenting that she received no answer from them.

She concluded this too hastily.

The gods do, in fact, answer. Quite remarkably and vividly, though not in appearing themselves and not in words.

The second part, an absolutely amazing bit of characterization, a moving bit of self-discovery, and a fiction writing tour de force, shows the way the gods deal with Orual. It’s grace. It’s divine intervention. They bring into her path people who touched her life, witnesses to who she really was and is, and she begins to glimpse what her real life story really was—not the life story concocted by a self-deceived Orual.

And what does she find?

  • • She was cruel to Redival, whom she first loved, then loved less, then loved not at all, transferring her attention and affection to the Fox, and then Psyche.
  • • She was a “devourer” and destroyer —like Ungit—of those she claimed to love: the Fox, Bardia, Psyche.
  • • She expected total loyalty and self-sacrifice, like Ungit, and she had the power of life and death as queen, like a god.

And then the gods send Orual visions.

The visions. Lewis uses them to depict the trials of Psyche from the original myth—the sorting of the grains, the obtainment of golden fleece, etc. But he transmutes them. Here, they are Orual’s trials in visionary form. It is Orual suffering and laboring. And it is Orual who is defined as “Ungit”, for she sees herself in a mirror looking like the fearful stone image. Ultimately, she is called to the courtroom, where the gods will answer her complaint against them.

In a marvelously constructed and dread-inducing scene, Orual reads her true self in her true voice into the courtroom assembly. And, without the gods answering one single word, she has her answer. The answer was in knowing herself, speaking in her real voice what her real desires and motivations had been. The story of Istra as the priest told it turns out, ironically, to have truth: Her jealousy led to Psyche’s terrible loss and testing. She is the destroyer. The devourer. Ungit. And there, where she sees the faces of Bardia and The Fox, she asks for forgiveness.

The Fox now becomes her guide in the underworld (think of Dante and Virgil), but it is time for more truth and more grace. We learn that Psyche is now a goddess, yes, and Orual has taken Psyche’s suffering upon herself in the visions, lessening her sister’s ordeal.

Orual receives the beauty—of soul—that she sought from Istra/Psyche. Later, she dies understanding the truth of herself and the gods. Understanding that the Lord is himself the answer. Job learned this, too, centuries before Orual’s time.

And there you have it, a myth brought to new life, and a retelling that can lead a soul to seek new life. Yes, it’s that powerful. And it’s that powerful because of the voice, the insights into human behavior, and changing the crucial elements of a well-known tale so that it retains the tale, yes, but is a thing wholly new as well. And better than the original.

I would add that any writer seeking to write on spiritual issues needs to read this novel. I would add that for a Christian speculative fiction writer, this novel is part of the canon: It’s essential reading. I cannot express in my own words the power of it, especially the second part. And why should I, when Lewis got it right. Read his words.

What saddens me is that a Christian (i.e. “CBA”) publisher wouldn’t have published this. It doesn’t speak specifically of Christ. It speaks of gods. It depicts an underworld suitable for a Homerian saga. I doubt they would get beyond those. And yet, the spiritual truth here is so evident and luminous and profound, coupled as it is with the marvelous characterization of Orual, that we see a conversion journey that is not clichéd, that isn’t even Christian while being indisputably Christian. It’s brilliant.

Any Christian publisher who would have turned this book down because of mythic content is a myopic publisher. And any Christian reader who bypasses a book set in a pagan setting without any Christian characters as not being Christian and being “heathen”, is not just myopic, but an idiot.

God speaks in this book, to Orual and to us.

And that’s what I want to do. Write stories that have power and that contains the voice of God, and that have the wonder and magic of the speculative genre, and that are not just Bible verses stuffed in the mouths of simplistic characters who don’t have the convoluted depths of real people struggling against their own worst and toward better inclinations.

I have been Orual in part one. Parts of that still linger in me. And I’m Orual in part two. And I want to die scribbling, like her, that the Lord is all the answer I need.

I’m off the next two weeks here at Speculative Faith. Holidays and all.

If you’ve got a burning desire to write a two or three parter on any subject that suits this blog, drop me a line. I’d be happy to feature something interesting on my Friday spot.

Merry Christmas. May God bless you all and all your loved ones this holiday season. Remember to thank the Father through the Spirit for the gift of the Son. He is the only reason for any season, not just this one.

See you in 2007.

Holidays and The Speculative, Part 2

Last week we looked at the historical background of the Jewish observance of Hanukkah, an extra-Biblical holiday with, as we’ll see today, a most interesting connection with the Christian festival of Christmas. Is the miracle of the holy oil burning […]
| Dec 14, 2006 | No comments |

Last week we looked at the historical background of the Jewish observance of Hanukkah, an extra-Biblical holiday with, as we’ll see today, a most interesting connection with the Christian festival of Christmas.

Is the miracle of the holy oil burning for eight days truth or fiction? As one reader suggested, it might depend upon whether you believe in the apocryphal book Maccabees. Well … my present beliefs are not such that I take those writings as inspired Scripture, but I’m not going to rule out the possibility of God working such a miracle.

Some sources say there was no miracle, that the celebration became eight days because the original rededication of the Temple was a delayed (early winter rather than late summer) celebration of the seven-day Feast of Tabernacles along with the “Eighth Day of the Assemblies.” But either way, it’s curious that not only is the holiday still celebrated today, but it merited a mention in the Gospel of John.

Now it was the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple, in Solomon’s porch. … (John 10:22-23)

What’s this all about? I noticed while looking for this Scripture that John often used the feast times as time markers for different parts of his account: “it was Passover … the Feast of Tabernacles …” etc. But here, he adds all this detail, as if to leave some unspoken clue. Not just “it was the Feast of Dedication,” but “and it was winter.” And the description of Yeshua (I like calling Him by the proper Hebrew form of His name) walking through Solomon’s porch in the Temple, during this holiday, which centers around speculation of a miracle.

Well … Christmas is rife with legend and speculation, as well. The story of an actual historic figure, Nicholas, a bishop renowned for his good works, grew into the myth of “Santa Claus.” Even the idea that the Messiah’s birth actually occurred on December 25 is rooted in myth and speculation. Scholars generally agree that Yeshua’s birth was likely sometime during the fall feasts, likely the Feast of Tabernacles. Our first clue to rule out December is the fact that Luke tells us the shepherds were in the fields with their flocks, and the weather in that part of the Middle East is too inclement during December for that. Our second clue is the fact that until after Constantine, when the Roman Catholic Church was established and the Jewish expressions of faith done away with, there was no … Christmas. The “Christ-mass” was fixed on December 25 as a replacement for a pagan midwinter celebration that roots at least back to Egyptian times, with the “rebirth” of the god Osiris.

In addition, there really is no Biblical command to celebrate the Birth of the Messiah—in fact, the Biblical records of birthday celebrations in general are limited to those in which someone died (Pharaoh, in Genesis, executing his traitorous baker, and Herod, granting the head of John the Baptist to Salome). But if we insist on fixing the date of Yeshua’s birth, then in keeping with the theme of Messianic events corresponding to Old Covenant feasts, it would be reasonable to assume that His birth did indeed take place sometime during the Feast of Tabernacles, which scholars agree is symbolic or a foreshadowing of when God will “tabernacle” or dwell with His people. Other Messianic events: Yeshua was crucified on Passover, rose again on the Feast of Fruits—as the first of those to enjoy total victory over death—and the Holy Spirit was given on Pentecost, another feast day celebrating—surprise!—the early harvest. Scholars also suggest that He will return during the Feast of Trumpets (remember how the trumpet sounding is linked to the Second Coming?), and so it seems to make sense that His Incarnation—when God came down to tabernacle in a human body for our redemption—could have taken place during the Feast of Tabernacles.

So, in thinking through all that, an interesting thought occurred to me.  If Jesus was born during the Feast of Tabernacles—Septemberish—then that would put His conception right around the time of … Hanukkah.  The Feast of Dedication … or Festival of Lights. Perhaps, the Kindling of the One called Light of the World, Himself?

“And it was the Feast of Dedication … and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple …”

Hmm … mere coincidence, or truly a clue, since the term “temple” often refers to the human body as God’s dwelling place?

But it’s all speculation, of course.

Nine Marks Of Widescreen Stories, Part 7

Last week I viewed probably one of the best Christian films produced in a while — and by Christian, I mean specifically Christian, with representations of real-world Christians and real-world church and society situations. It wasn’t widescreen fiction; it wasn’t […]
| Dec 13, 2006 | No comments |

Last week I viewed probably one of the best Christian films produced in a while — and by Christian, I mean specifically Christian, with representations of real-world Christians and real-world church and society situations.

It wasn’t widescreen fiction; it wasn’t speculative as in fantasy / sci-fi speculative. And yet I still think the film has much from which Christ-honoring storytellers can learn.

7. Carefully written, realistic representations of life

The film was The Second Chance, a somewhat vaguely titled release starring singer/songwriter Michael W. Smith and directed by Steve Taylor — the ‘80s provocative Christian-rock musician, who among other things, wrote the song “I Manipulate,” mocking legalist leaders, and “I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good,” scathing abortion-clinic bombers.

That somewhat abrasive style makes its way into Chance, whose story asks how Christians confront problems such as inner-city poverty and violence in our own cities. Do we withdraw into our own churchy comfort zones and toss money into others’ ministries from a distance? Or do we head into the fray ourselves, bringing some element of risk and discomfort in order to be “doers of the Word and not hearers only”?

Previous columns in this Nine Marks of Widescreen Fiction series, including last week’s sixth installment about love and romantic elements, have included this suggestion: that maybe our stories should be less “comfortable” and slightly more risky, sweat-intensive, even adrenaline-inducing.

The speculative genre often covers that territory automatically — and, I submit, that could mean some “undesirable” story elements may also seem necessary.

A realistic picture worth some four-letter words?

Some readers will think me a heretic in a moment.

While viewing the Second Chance and its rather gritty portrayals of inner-city life and ministry, I kept thinking (… three … two … one …) Hey. They have cursing in this movie. Cool.

Maybe it’s my overexposure to “fundamentalist” Christian factions that makes me want to head the other way. Maybe it’s a realization that not taking the Lord’s Name in vain is one of the Ten Commandments and swearing is only condemned by Christ later — yet some Christian authors, even Frank Peretti, have dared to let their characters misuse the term “God” but oddly still avoid “swear words.” Maybe I’m considering C.S. Lewis and other less-scrupulous types, who let Bad Words into their stories and they never seem frivolous — instead, often humorous.

Or maybe it’s a subplot from the movie, in which Tony, one of the church volunteers who’s somewhat slow of speech, had changed his mind on the issue. A youth, trying to help another young man escape a gang, had been beaten horribly for his efforts, and the older man asked him, “Doing okay?” (possible paraphrase) The youth responded, “It hurts like Hell” — to which Tony innocently informed him that people shouldn’t swear. But later Tony is in tears, telling the younger man, “I was more worried about you sayin’ Hell than how you felt.”

During my own writing, I’ve often come across several places in story-time in which I know a character swore — directly, in-print, and not a “he swore” swear, but an actual word right there. That’s certainly what you would do, anyway, if you’re already a temper-intensive type of person who is trapped in a 2121-era cathedral with your fellow believers and surrounded by armed men who give absolutely no indication of why they’ve just taken you hostage.

I think I gave in at that point. The man thought, but didn’t say aloud, a bad word. It slipped into print. It may have to slip back out, of course.

But already I’ve found that loophole for sci-fi anyway. Many bad words are different, newer, and nastier by then, and have no negative connotation whatsoever now. There’s the rub: these terms are in no way evil of themselves, but they represent evil thoughts, visualizations, desires. And those elements are already in Christian speculative fiction anyway.

Should we then not, somewhat inconsistently, shy away from bad words as well? and perhaps use them in small doses?

That might depend on the reader, most of all. Some people are prone to swearing, and including the words won’t help them break the habit at all. And yet others are prone to violence, or so we hear from those commissioned studies about video games — and that doesn’t result in a Christian genre that’s free of shots, knife-slicing and things like that.

V is for violence

Author Penelope Stokes in Writing and Selling the Christian Novel wonders in chapter 15 why editors and readers aren’t more bothered about violence in fiction.

I agree with her that no reason exists to detail graphic interactions as if we’re Mel Gibson outlining just exactly what bodily substance or organ spills where for his latest uber-slasher flick. However, at this point we are somewhat trapped in a disgusting world too.

If all Christians tried to avoid violence, we’d have no inner-city pastors, no soldiers, no police officers; no Christian wardens, Secret Service members, SWAT teams or even politicians. Similarly, in our workplaces, in public, and in many of the movies most of it like, we have Bad Words aplenty. We can’t avoid that — though some Christians have tried and as a result withdraw from the very world that needs their presence.

Does that mean we should keep including violence in our speculative, sci-fi and suspense novels? I would maintain the answer as yes, a bit more strongly than I would the notion that some more bad words might help present a more realistic picture of our flawed human characters.

Violence-aversion seems a thing of the past for Christian thriller novelists anyway. Peretti, Dekker and the rest actually do sometimes detail graphic interactions. And Stephen Lawhead’s portrayal of a demonic horde in The Paradise War is one of the most disgusting and cringe-inducing descriptions you could ever see for a gaggle of bad guys. Lawhead has bad words, too — and in these books, in a Christian bookstore, just a letter away from those of Karen Kingsbury.

Exceptions and conclusions

Even if most readers may be able to tolerate in-print inclusions of swearing, beheading and the like, I may speak frankly, at least for the honest guys here, about what the TV ratings system abbreviates SC — sexual content.

Perhaps someday I’ll encounter people who sincerely claim opposite, but thus far I can insist that if you as a guy claim the SC doesn’t bother you even a little then you’re either lying or, shall we say, wired a bit different.

Ergo, I see no reason to lower the current seeming censorship of disgusting SC in Christ-honoring stories. Meanwhile, Stokes maintains probably the best way to handle legitimate SC in a Christ-honoring story:

[W]hereas “good Christian characters” don’t (or perhaps shouldn’t) swear, good Christian characters do have legitimate sexual desires and acceptable ways to fulfill those desires. The key for the Christian writer is to allow characters to be human without demeaning or exploiting the holiness of sexual union.

That sounds slightly difficult — hinting toward those elements without exploiting anything. But perhaps it can be done. Consider this: the Christian moviemakers have an even tougher job with this one. Not once in The Second Chance did Smith’s character and his fiancée kiss or hold hands, and despite all the inner-city ugliness, you barely saw any SC. Only that seemed a bit unrealistic for the movie.

Yes, Christian storytelling is a form of escape. But that depends on what the reader hopes to escape from. Is it the nastiness of everyday life, or the artificial comfort-zone and even monotony Christians often undergo? A place exists for both types of escapists on our shelves. And well-written realism in speculative fiction can only continue to help monotony “escapists” enjoy their time spent in the fortress of imagination — and then inspire them to get back out there and fight in the real-world war.

CSFF Blog Tour Day 2: Trackers Chapter 1

Heya, I know I was going to start talkin’ about my writing journey for Chamber of Origins this week, however it has gotten pre-empted by Blog tour responsibilities, and what you get is much sweeter. Below is the entire first […]
| Dec 12, 2006 | No comments |

Heya, I know I was going to start talkin’ about my writing journey for Chamber of Origins this week, however it has gotten pre-empted by Blog tour responsibilities, and what you get is much sweeter.

Below is the entire first chapter of Trackers by Kathryn Mackel. So grab some cocoa and settle in for a fun read. And once you’re done be sure to see Becky’s post from yesterday with the links to all the other participants.



Timothy crouched in the grass, his heart hammering as he crept toward the Wall of Traxx. His attention was fixed on danger, but his heart was intent on Dawnray, the lovely village girl on the other side of the wall—held captive in the royal palace. He was ready with a plan and had almost accumulated what he needed to make it all happen.

One thing stood in Timothy’s way, and it wasn’t the deadly wall of thorns that surrounded the stronghold. The voice of his camp leader, Brady, who was off somewhere with fellow outrider Niki, nevertheless nagged at him in his head.

What most annoyed Timothy was not that the outrider’s voice was imaginary, but that it told the truth.

What’re you doing, mate? Can’t go off on your own like this.

Timothy argued in his mind. But Alrod’s holding her prisoner, and he intends her for his own use. You know what that use is, Brady. She needs help.

We can’t rescue everyone, Tim.

But we save some. That’s part of why we’re here. You’ve led countless rescues, and you’ve taught me how to do it.

Why this girl and not some other? Is it because she’s lovelier than the serving lass in Alrod’s kitchen?

“It’s because I love her,” Timothy whispered, more to assure himself than to convince the voice in his head. Easier to sneak through a wall thought impassable than to deal with a leader who wasn’t even here.

A patrol of Alrod’s strong-arms approached, and Timothy ducked out of sight, though the strong-arms never looked his way. Two of these patrols guarded the wall, riding its perimeter from opposite sides, but Timothy knew they spend more time trading barbs and spiced rum than searching out intruders. They assumed that no intruder would dare try to breach the dreaded Wall of Traxx. But Timothy knew the wall wasn’t impassable. He’d been through it several times just this past week.

Twenty paces high and a hundred deep, the Wall of Traxx ringed the stronghold with a vast stretch of flowers and thorns. The flowers bloomed on the outside—tiny but profuse blooms of roses, lilies, sunflowers, daffodils, and flowers even an experienced tracker like Timothy couldn’t name, all infused with intoxicating fragrance. But beyond the blooms lay a maze of thorns the size of a strong-arm’s lance and briar thickets that a mogged rhinoceros couldn’t pass through. Many men—indeed, full armies—had been fooled by the wall’s enticing exterior, only to be impaled by the thorns and die tangled in the briars.

Timothy waited until the patrol was out of sight, then ran up to the wall and began to sing.

Can you hear the distant thunder?
Can you feel the tremble of the earth?

In response, a bent-over creature shuffled out of the flowers, black eyes staring out of a leathery face. Timothy’s heart ached for the little fellow—born as a man, but transmogrified by the sorcerer’s potions into a turtlelike slung, destined to spend his life inside this wall. Like his many brothers, he feared open spaces and had only one love—music.

“Bask! Thanks for coming.” Timothy sang the words, and the little creature’s eyes narrowed with pleasure at the sound. “May I enter?”

The slung’s answer was to turn and push into the flowers. Grabbing the back of Bask’s rock-hard shell, Timothy followed him, singing the whole time. To stop singing was to be abandoned among the thorns.

To be abandoned here was to die.

Within three paces, the flowers gave way to woody growth. With ease, the slung broke thorns twice his size and flattened tangles of bramble that could kill any invader foolish enough to try to breach this wall. Timothy ducked low and followed closely, feeling new thorns and brambles already growing in behind him, lingering occasionally to fill his bag with globs of sticky resin that dripped from the thorn vines. The slung didn’t seem to mind, just pressed on steadily. Timothy followed through malodorous muck that sucked at his boots and offended his sensitive tracker’s nose—it was always a challenge to keep singing but not gag at the smell. All day and all night, the slungs lugged in buckets of manure and moldy vegetables to feed the living wall—and it was said that Baron Alrod fed this wall with the guts of his enemies as well.

Sheltering behind the slug and longing for the moment he broke through into the fresh air and sunlight, Timothy sang to survive.

But when he finally reached Dawnray’s window, Timothy would sing his love . . . and more.


Dark thoughts. A place where of the master sorcerer of Traxx was quite at ease.

But today a void haunted Ghedo’s mind—a dream he could not achieve, an accomplishment beyond his grasp. Anyone could wreak death. All it took was a sword, a knife, a rock, even a hard fist or an iron skillet. Slash, jab, slam, whack, and death had its way.

Death was simple.

But how long would the secrets of life elude him?

As he trailed after his warlord employer, Baron Alrod, even this glorious day mocked him. The plains of Traxx were with lush with summer grasses and blooming wildflowers. A profusion of life that came in its course whether Ghedo willed it or not.

To speak birds into flight and to call men back from the dead was surely not out of the reach of the greatest sorcerer who had ever lived. But how could he grasp the goal when the baron kept wasting his best efforts?

On these plains, for example, Ghedo’s greatest achievement now rotted for all to see. He had finally succeeded in transmogrifying cobblers and farmers and fishwives into great, hulking gargants—an unstoppable army of giants. Just a few weeks ago, he’d presented his gargant troops to Alrod, who quickly turned what should have been an amazing triumph into a military debacle.

The gargant corpses now lay scattered for leagues, their limbs almost picked clean by buzzards and their bones bleached white by a blinding sun, a ghastly memorial to Ghedo’s prowess and Alrod’s folly. And Alrod, ever resourceful, had used the massive ribcages as gallows, stringing their ribs with his own failed strong-arms as easily as a woman might adorn her ears with dangling jewels. Rather than hanging them from their necks, the baron had ordered them bound tightly around the chest. They would bake in the hot sun for days until death finally came.

Cloaked and veiled, Ghedo was forced to stand with Alrod and watch the hangings. In his thirst for vicious revenge, the baron had not grasped this irony: by executing what was left of his army by hanging them inside the remains of a greater army, he was advertising his monumental defeat for all to see.

After the last strong-arm had been strung up, Alrod walked briskly to the command tent, a good league away from the killing fields. Ghedo followed, breathless with the exertion. He preferred his underground lair to the open sky. His gifts were not of a physical nature.

The baron was the warrior. His lean frame was muscular, his jaw hard, his eyes hungry. That his hand rested on his sword told Ghedo that the execution had not slaked his thirst for revenge.

Alrod’s valet Sado met them with mugs of mulled cider. An holdover from Alrod’s grandfather, the ancient retainer was bent and gnarled, with a constant moist wheeze that set Ghedo’s nerves on edge. As with a beloved dog, Alrod would not put him out of his misery.

“I need meat, Sado,” Alrod said. “Spiced and roasted, but with the juices still running.”

The servant shuffled out. Ghedo locked the door behind him. He slipped off his cloak and veil so he could breathe freely. Only Alrod had ever seen him without the cloak—or had even seen his face. Ghedo avoided the entanglements of the flesh that the baron thrived on, even women. Celibacy had its virtues—a clear mind among them. And the cloak was a key to his power—almost as important as his cache of transmogrifying potions.

The purple cloak was the most feared—and thus revered—symbol in the stronghold. When Alrod ascended the throne, Ghedo had seized the cloak of the master sorcerer from his father. It was now embroidered with entwined snakes, fangs ready to strike. One symbolized his late grandfather, the other his deceased father.

There would never be a third snake—another memorial to a deposed father by an upstart son. Ghedo had no sons, no need for the kind of immortality men seek by fathering children. He had successfully transmogrified the wall of thorns so that it could regenerate itself immediately, and he had recently achieved similar results with a worm. Surely the regeneration of human life—even his own self—was within reach.

If he could keep his energy up. Ghedo was bitterly tired of cleaning up after a man who could not control his fury. “Alrod.”

The baron slumped onto a stool and tugged off his boots. “What.”

“The army is running thin. We need every strong-arm that still breathes just to protect our borders. I’m speaking to you as a friend—perhaps you could cut those men down after a couple of days and restore them to the army. Your anger is understandable, but perhaps you would be wise to vent your frustration on the commoners.”

Alrod was on him in a flash, the tip of his dagger against Ghedo’s throat. “Perhaps I could spare the commoners and vent my wrath on the friend who betrayed me.”

Ghedo held himself motionless. “How have I betrayed you?”

“By your incompetence.”

“I would die for you.”

“Perhaps you should.”

“After all these years? All I’ve done for you? After all we’ve done together?”

“If you continue to disappoint me, what choice will I have?” Alrod’s voice cracked as he lowered the dagger. “I need a sorcerer with the skill to match my ambition.”

“I am that sorcerer, as I always have been. You know that.”

“Do I, Ghedo? Do I really?”

The bell clanged. Ghedo shrugged on his cloak and pulled his veil into place before he freed the latches to let Sado in.

A sudden burst of light exploded behind the servant, followed by a blast of frigid air that sucked the door shut. Before Alrod could grab his sword, Ghedo had flung his knife into the intruder’s heart.

The man didn’t even flinch.

Ghedo grappled for his sword, but Alrod stayed his hand. “Were our visitor a threat, we’d both be dead by now.”

The intruder bowed, a strangely formal gesture given the knife in his chest. Cloaked in a shimmer of gray and gold, he too hid his face behind a veil. Beside him, Sado stood as a statue, tray in hand and mouth open. The valet’s chest did not rise, and yet he did not fall over dead. Had he been struck with a fast-acting potion that turned him to stone?

“I am honored to be counted worthy as an adversary. But I come as a friend.” The intruder’s voice was deep but not harsh, with an odd accent that lowered in tone at the end of each phrase.

“Friends do not come masked,” Alrod said. “Show yourself.”

The intruder unlatched his veil and dropped his hood. Ghedo swallowed back shock at seeing his own face on the intruder. “A trick,” he muttered. “Some sort of mog.”

“Baron Alrod has suffered a very costly defeat,” the intruder said. “To emphasize this point, I wear the face of the genius who engineered the debacles.”

Cold snaked through Ghedo’s ribs. “Very clever. You must be very popular in many courts. The baron, however, has plenty of jokers at his.”

“Are you sure you know your master’s mind, sorcerer?”

“That is my privilege and my joy.”

“Then surely you must know what is uppermost in Alrod’s mind?”

“To raise another army,” Ghedo said.

The intruder leaned close, his breath so sweet to be nauseating. “To find another master sorcerer.”

Ghedo spun to face Alrod. “Is that true?”

“I . . .” Uncharacteristically, the baron was at a loss for words.

“Would you replace me? The genius behind your hoornars, the master who gave you gargants, who created the wall of thorns that protects your stronghold? No sorcerer in the world has a craft superior to mine.”

The intruder laughed. “Your superior craft results in stupendous failures, Ghedo.”

Alrod’s brow creased. “It’s true. You haven’t advanced my stronghold one league. In fact, Traxx is in mortal danger—”

“—from your diminished army and loss of the hoornars,” the intruder said. “Not to mention the humiliation by those peasants with plain swords and sparkling armor.”

Alrod would normally have killed any man or woman who dared interrupt him as he spoke. But now he simply turned back to the intruder. “Who are you?”

“I would invite you to know me as Simon.”

“And where do you come from?”

As Simon smiled, his chin squared and his eyes darkened to violet, dissolving any imitation of Ghedo. “Here and there.”

“A sorcerer without a kingdom?” Ghedo sniffed back the derision in his tone. He wouldn’t be able to break head first through whatever spell the stranger cast on Alrod. Best to step back and evaluate the threat.

“I roam at will, practicing my craft the same way.”

“Cunning words but empty,” Ghedo said. “What can you do that I can’t?”

Simon looked to Alrod. “May I demonstrate, high and mighty?”

Alrod shrugged. “Why not? We could use a spot of amusement.”

Simon grabbed Sado’s jaw. Breath returned to the old man, and he struggled to get away. “Don’t fight it,” Simon said . “I can do nothing without your permission,”

“Sado, relax,” Alrod said.

“What if I could make it so that your back was strong and your eyes sharp, your hands quick and your feet swift? What would you give for the privilege of being young again so you could serve Alrod as heartily as you served his father and grandfather?”

“Anything,” Sado croaked.

Simon jerked Sado’s jaw, breaking it with a loud crack. Sado’s short scream was cut off by a loss of consciousness.

“I will have your head if you don’t restore him,” Alrod said.

Simon shoved his hand down the servant’s throat, suddenly tall enough to straighten his arm from above. Sado’s neck popped like a swift blast of thunder. More pops followed as the hump in Sado’s back straightened.

Simon would leave the old man as a bag of bones, fit only for the dogs in the street. “Stop this, Alrod,” Ghedo said.

“No,” Alrod said. “Too late now to do anything but stay this course.”

Simon was up to his armpit in Sado’s mouth now, eyes intent as if searching for something. The old man’s heart, Ghedo realized. And sure enough, Sado’s eyes filled with blood. Simon slowly pulled his arm out of Sado’s throat, his free hand caressing the old man’s face as a mother might her child’s. The wrinkles relaxed into smoothness. Simon threaded his fingers over Sado’s speckled scalp and brown hair sprouted, lustrous and thick. The valet blinked as consciousness returned, then blinked again as he became aware of his transformation.

In only mere minutes, the servant’s youth had been restored. Sado stood tall and straight, his shoulders broad and his muscles taut. The only evidence of Simon’s violent ministrations was the red surrounding Sado’s eyeballs. What of his heart? Had Simon crushed and restored it? Or had he replaced it with something hidden, something surging with new life?

Ghedo’s mind roiled with questions he would never ask. To ask was to be beholden. In his own time and his own way, he would discover the secret of Simon’s power and seize it from him.

Alrod circled his valet, his eyes sparkling with delight. “What have you to say, Sado?”

The servant bowed deeply. “I am thrilled to be serve you more ably.”

“As am I, high and mighty,” Simon said. “In any capacity you’ll have me.”

Alrod looked meaningfully at Ghedo, his intentions clear.

“No,” the sorcerer whispered.

“Give Simon your cloak.”

“Alrod, be reasonable. This is some trick. You don’t know this man.”

Alrod curled his lip at Simon. “My sorcerer says this is a trick. What do you say?”

Simon stared at Ghedo. “I say that Ghedo of Traxx will neither discover such power on his own nor seize it from me.” He turned, smiling at Alrod. “I will not beg, nor will I impose. My offer stands: I will serve you in any capacity you wish.”

Alrod snapped his fingers, a gesture meant for drudges and not for friends. “Now, Ghedo. I won’t ask again.”

Ghedo’s mind spun. Surely there must be some way to oppose—

Go quietly, Ghedo. Or become the third snake in your cloak.

Simon’s voice had bypassed his ears, gone straight for the inside of his eyes. How—

It’s a shame to waste your admirable longing, but with no throne, you are of little use to me. Still, you have served me well, so I will let you live.

I’ve never served you, Ghedo answered in his mind. I don’t even know you.

But oh, how I know you. You have served me and will continue to do so, for this is my will for you.

I will oppose you with everything in my power.

Should you do that, I will reveal your deepest secret.


And under that secret, your deepest longing. Would Alrod be delighted by such a longing? Shall I ask him now?

Ghedo clutched his head. “Stop it. Stop it!”

“Give Simon your cloak, or I’ll cut it off you,” Alrod said.

“That won’t be necessary.” With a sweep of his hand, Simon’s own cloak deepened to purple, an exact replica of Ghedo’s, even down to the detail of the entwined snakes. But these snakes were truly alive, continually twisting around each other and snapping their jaws.

Panicked, Ghedo wanted to flee, but his feet were fixed to the ground. His cloak began to fade, and he feared he would fade with it.

I have use for you, Ghedo. Don’t fight me. Honor me, and your secrets are safe.

Ghedo’s cloak shimmered, no longer the glorious hue of a master sorcerer, but a radiant, fine-spun gold.

“Ghedo has worked hard for you, high and mighty. He’s due some time off to relax and restore. Time in his lair, to work his potions,” Simon said. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Ghedo?”

Ghedo nodded, his bitter frustration warring with a soaring awe. Hadn’t it always been like this for him? Mountains and rivers and plains, hawks and horses and men, wind and rain and snow. All objects of his lust, yet so far beyond his own making that he hated whatever power flung the mountains into the sky and drove horses to thunder the plains.

Simon put his hands possessively on Alrod’s shoulders. Men had been killed for such familiarity, but the baron smiled. “Shall we get to raising your army, high and mighty?” Simon continued. “Since you’ve exhausted the near-lying villages, we shall need to make a trip south to find some fresh material.”

“Indeed. But first I have something to do,” Alrod said. “Something I’ve put off far too long.”

“Indeed,” Simon echoed. “Go plant your heir in that lolly of yours. And then we’ll be off.”

CSFF Blog Tour—Trackers

The term “speculative fiction” might fit Kathryn Mackel’s Birthright Project better than any other series. Certainly Trackers, this month’s CSFF Blog Tour feature, lives up to that name. If you visit Mackel’s site, the Birthright Project page opens with the […]
| Dec 11, 2006 | No comments |

The term “speculative fiction” might fit Kathryn Mackel’s Birthright Project better than any other series. Certainly Trackers, this month’s CSFF Blog Tour feature, lives up to that name.

If you visit Mackel’s site, the Birthright Project page opens with the question, “What if we finally went too far?” This is quickly followed by another “what if.” Those questions are the perfect groundwork for this science fantasy with a spiritual warfare twist.

“Science” because the story is set in this world at some future time when society has ravaged nature through endless war and through hybrid experimentation. By the way, with the advent of cloning, the kind of experimentation Mackel imagines does not seem so very far-fetched.

“Fantasy” because the endless wars have stripped the world of technology that makes life easier or comfortable, plunging civilization back into a primative Dark Ages and giving the story a medieval feel.

“Spiritual warfare” because the experimentations with nature have opened up the world to more overt demonic involvement, and this spiritual force is the one that must ultimately be confronted.

On Wednesday, I’ll be doing a complete review of Trackers at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. For now, suffice it to say, I enjoyed the book so much, I will eagerly look for Outriders, the first in the series, and would encourage others to start there as well. This recommentaion from someone not drawn to science fiction nor to spiritual warfare stories. Mackel simply lured me in, captivated me by her interesting world and intriguing characters.

If you’re interested in learning more about Mackel and her writing, I suggest you stop by Beth Goddard’s blog to read her interview with the author.

Other bloggers participating in the tour include

  • Jim Black
  • Jackie Castle
  • Valerie Comer
  • Frank Creed
  • Gene Curtis
  • Chris Deanne
  • Janey DeMeo
  • April Erwin
  • Beth Goddard
  • Mark Goodyear
  • Todd Michael Greene
  • Karen Hancock
  • Elliot Hanowski
  • Katie Hart
  • Sherrie Hibbs
  • Sharon Hinck
  • Joleen Howell
  • Jason Joyner
  • Karen and at Karen’s myspace
  • Oliver King
  • Tina Kulesa
  • Lost Genre Guild
  • Kevin Lucia and The Bookshelf Reviews 2.0 – The Compendium
  • Terri Main
  • Rachel Marks
  • Shannon McNear
  • Rebecca LuElla Miller
  • Caleb Newell
  • Eve Nielsen
  • John Otte
  • Cheryl Russel
  • Hannah Sandvig
  • Mirtika Schultz
  • James Somers
  • Stuart Stockton
  • Steve Trower
  • Chris Walley
  • Daniel I. Weaver
  • Part VI Of How To Bring Myths & Fairy Tales Back From The Dead & Into The Light: Lewis’ TILL WE HAVE FACES

    Do we always know why we do things? Generally, in fairy tales and myths, yes, characters are driven by simple motives that are right there, up front. In TILL WE HAVE FACES, unknown motives (at least unknown to the protagonist) […]
    | Dec 8, 2006 | No comments |

    Do we always know why we do things?

    Generally, in fairy tales and myths, yes, characters are driven by simple motives that are right there, up front. In TILL WE HAVE FACES, unknown motives (at least unknown to the protagonist) is a central theme. Think of the metaphors of bare faces and veiled faces and different identities signified by names or the state of the face (bare vs covered). Istral is Psyche. The Brute is Cupid or Ungit, but perhaps, said Orual, he is a mere man, some robber or vile kidnapper. Ungit is Aphrodite, and both a black stone smeared in blood and a graceful statue in Greek form. Orual is curdface and Maia and Queen and, yes, Psyche and Ungit as well.

    So, here is one way to bring myths and fairy tales to life: Give people real human depth. We do not always admit to ourselves our true motives. We do not always know why we do what we do. We are often conflicted in our desires. We aren’t as easy to peg as a folk tale’s character.

    In the original story, the sisters are jealous of Psyche’s good fortune in marrying a god and living in a splendid palace of wonders. Psyche is gullible and merely follows their advice out of fear.

    Lewis will not have it.

    He breathes life, flawed and complex and humane, into his retelling. Here is Psyche, not gullible, but full of grace and purpose and mercy, even as she sees exactly what she does and why. Psyche is not a fool. Here is Orual: full of a self-devouring and other-devouring love, convinced she must do drastic things for the good of the beloved ones, and finding that she brings disaster instead. But does she really know what she does? No. Orual is the most interesting of all the characters, and justifiably the protagonist, because it is she who does not know who she is, doesn’t know her face, only knows what she wants. She wants to hold on to her sister. In trying to hold on to her, she loses her.

    It is a great tragedy, and when you read it, your heart breaks.

    So, we come back to where we left off: Chapter Seven. It is the night before Psyche is to be sacrificed to the brute, and in a chapter brimming with excellent characterization and dialogue, we find ourselves with the sisters in the prison chamber, alone. Orual is damaged physically by her father’s vicious beating. Psyche is isolated, but permitted by the guard’s mercy to have a moment with Orual.

    Psyche is composed and philosophical. Orual is distraught and angry and a turmoil of desperation and hurts. Orual still wants to be enveloped in Psyche’s love, but Psyche has prepared herself for leavetaking—perhaps death, perhaps a real and unbelievable joining with a god.

    An important line is uttered by Psyche (with reference to Redival, their shallow, lustful, betraying sister, whom Orual curses and Psyche pities): “She also does what she doesn’t know.”

    With that single, simple line imbedded in a strenuous conversation, Lewis takes us immediately to Calvary, to someone else sacrificed for the good of the people (as Psyche is about to be sacrificed), and we see the nobility in Psyche. Her ability to think of others, and not just herself in a time of great trouble. She is, in her own gentler way, preparing her sister for the separation, calling her “sister” and “friend” and referring to herself as “bride”. One could believe this is a real conversation between ancient sisters. Myth has come to life here by virtue of strong characterization.

    And for the Christian, here is how to infuse Biblical life into retellings. Not by repeated insertion of verses or theological spoutings (though some of this has its place in some stories, no doubt), but by the fitting allusion at the right time. Just like that, depth is added and truth springs free.

    Here is another example of truths (philosophical and theological) in Psyche’s dialogue, where she responds to Orual’s accusation that the gods are possibly real and” viler than the vilest men”:

    “Or else,” said Psyche, “they are real gods but don’t really do these things. Or even—mightn’t it be—they do these things and the things are not what they seem to be? How if I am indeed to wed a god?”

    We fly in mind to Job. We skip to Revelation. We understand that God, the real God, is misunderstood. And He does things to His own purposes, which men cannot fathom. And that one day we are to attend a marriage supper of the divine kind. From Calvary to the O.T. to the N.T., all in the span of a few pages, all from situation and dialogue and characterization.

    Props to Clive!

    Psyche is a Christ-figure, of course, and Redival is a Judas figure, but sadly, Orual will become a Judas figure, too. And Orual’s betrayal will be much worse.

    At the end of this intense chapter, Orual feels their last embraced has been spoiled. Her mind is not at ease. Her love is not satisfied. She accuses Psyche of never having truly loved her, which we know is a terrible accusation to one we know loves us.

    Psyche is sacrified. Orual mends from her wounds. And, as she says, she has “missed being Iphigenia” by taking her sister’s place in the sacrifice. So, she will be Antigone. So, she goes with Bardia to see if all that is left of her sister is bones, and if so, then bones she will honor with a proper burial.

    But Psyche is alive, glowing with joy and regained her flesh (she has been eating well), and delighted in her marriage. But, what marriage? Orual sees no palace, no wine cup, nothing that Psyche sees as her magnificent surrounding.

    And that is precisely where Lewis seriously altered the original tale to make this one work: The element of doubt that allows Orual to take the steps she will take and change all their lives forever.

    Only Psyche sees the palace. Orual sees nothing but Psyche in rags in the open air. The sisters inhabit two different realities. Now, now, we have our crux. Events will not transpire due to simple jealousy over fineries and good fortune. A greater tragedy will ensue than the original. And you will care.

    Exercise: Take any folk tale, fairy tale, or myth you wish, and tell me what crucial part of the structure would you knock out and replace to make the story new and complex and relevant?

    Question: What would you do if your sister was Psyche and you could not see her palace or clothes or fineries, only rags and grass and air, you could only see her overwhelming health and radiant joy? Would you take it away for her own good? Any Scriptures come into play in making this decision?

    Next Week: Part VII: Losing Face, Gaining a Throne, and Finding Truth

    Holidays and The Speculative

    The tyrannical king had just taken over the beloved city and was in the process of profaning the place of worship. Declaring the house of the One True God now a place of worship for a pagan god, the king […]
    | Dec 7, 2006 | No comments |

    The tyrannical king had just taken over the beloved city and was in the process of profaning the place of worship. Declaring the house of the One True God now a place of worship for a pagan god, the king sacrificed an abominable animal on the altar where only holy offerings had been made and desecrated the walls of the house of worship with pagan symbols and excrement. Some of the people, fearful for their lives and those of their families, bowed and worshiped the new god—after all, had their own God not betrayed them and allowed this to happen? But some who had been commanded at swordpoint to participate in the desecration, refused, and fighting back, escaped.

    Enraged by this insult not only to their people but to their God, a band of valiant warriors who styled themselves as “the Hammers” eventually won back not only their house of worship, but the city as well. After cleaning and repairing the house of worship, they wanted to relight the “Eternal Flame” that burned as a symbol of their God, but all they could find unprofaned of the special oil was one small flask—only a day’s worth—and the process of making the oil took eight days.

    They decided to fill the great, golden lamp with what they had—and start the oil making anyway. Incredibly, after they lit the lamp, the oil for only one day lasted for eight, until the fresh was ready.

    Recognize this story yet? The year was 165 BC, and the tyrannical king was Antiochus IV, the Greek who sacrificed a pig in the Temple and ordered an altar to be raised to Zeus. The valiant warriors were the Maccabees, who labored to restore their desecrated Temple in Jerusalem and set right once again their worship of the God Most High. The miracle of one day’s oil lasting for eight sparked a commemoration that spans the centuries and is known as the modern holiday of Hanukkah (or Chanukah), meaning “Rededication,” and also called the Festival of Lights.

    Speculative fiction, or truth?

    Roughly two hundred years later, an itinerant preacher from Nazareth in Judea pays the Temple a visit during this festival, and the event garners a tiny, but nevertheless intriguing, mention in the holy book of the Christian faith …

    To be continued next week …