Ursula K. LeGuin on common assumptions people — including writers! — make about fantasy fiction:
Assumption: Fantasy Land is the middle ages. It isn’t. It’s an alternate world, outside our history, and its map isn’t on our map. It may resemble mediaeval Europe in being pre-industrial — but that doesn’t justify its having no economics and no social justice. Nor does it explain why nobody there ever feeds or waters their horses, which run all day and night just like a Prius. The best send-up of this fifth-hand Tennyson setting is Monty Python’s Holy Grail, where horse are replaced with coconuts. Whenever I find a fantasy that is set in a genuinely imagined society and culture instead of this lazy-minded, recycled hokum, I feel like setting off fireworks. — Ursula K. LeGuin, “Some Assumptions about Fantasy,” Cheek by Jowl, p. 5.
This astonishing gift of special seeing is quite common among children. To this extent perhaps most children are poets. As we grow up it is generally lost. I can remember so well, from earliest childhood, seeing something in the light on a hill, or in the shape of a flower, or in a human face (perhaps a very plain face) which seemed absolutely heavenly. It was so strong a feeling that I felt I must tell the world about it or burst. Ordinary description was no use; poetry it had to be. — Ruth Pitter.
In Matthew 9, Jesus tells the parable of the wineskin: You don’t put new wine in an old wineskin, he says, or the new wine (as it ferments) will burst the old wineskin. Rather, you put new wine in a new wine skin, and in that way *both* are preserved.
It’s pretty obvious what “both” means here: It has to mean the new wine and the new wineskin.
And yet more than one commentary seems to think that Jesus is saying that by putting new wine in the new wineskin, you’ll preserve both the new wineskin and the old wineskin, leading to conclusions about Jesus’ concern for the old systems, structures, practices, or whatever.
Davies & Allison, usually no slouches as commentators, are particularly confused and confusing on this point:
“In its broader context, which concerns fasting, this clause makes for a positive relation between an old practice (fasting) and the newness brought by Jesus. That is, even though the immediate subject of ‘and both will be preserved’ is the new wine and the new wineskins, the redactor was probably thinking of wineskins as symbols for something from the past, and of the need to preserve them.”
Huh? They acknowledge that “both” refers to (1) new wine and (2) new wineskins … but then they talk as if “wineskins” (new and old) refer to “something from the past,” and as if Jesus is concerned somehow — in spite of what they know “both” means — about preserving the old practices/system (i.e., the old wineskins).
It makes my head spin.
Somewhere about the house, curled up, maybe, in a nursery window, or hidden in a freezing attic, a child is poring over The Three Musketeers, lost to any consciousness of his surroundings, incapable of analyzing his emotions, breathless with mingled fear and exultation over his heroes’ varying fortunes, and drinking in a host of vivid impressions that are absolutely ineffaceable from his mind. We cannot read in that fashion any longer, but we only wish we could. — Agnes Repplier, “What Children Read,” in Books and Men (1888): 64-65.
Fast reading of a great novel will get us the plot. It will get us names, a shadowy idea of characters, a sketch of settings. It will not get us subtleties, small differentiations, depth of emotion and observation, multilayered human experience, the appreciation of simile and metaphor, any sense of context, any comparison with other novels, other writers.
Fast reading will not get us cadence and complexities of style and language. It will not get us anything that enters not just the conscious mind but the unconscious. It will not allow the book to burrow down into our memory and become part of ourselves, the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom and vicarious experience which helps to form us as complete human beings. It will not develop our awareness or add to the sum of our knowledge and intelligence.
Read parts of a newspaper quickly or an encyclopaedia entry, or a fast-food thriller, but do not insult yourself or a book which has been created with its author’s painstakingly acquired skill and effort by seeing how fast you can dispose of it. — Susan Hill, Howard’s End Is on the Landing, pp. 171-172.
The other day, I was sitting in a coffee shop and reviewing my exegetical notes on Matthew 8 and reading Gibbs’s commentary. Honest, I was. But I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation going on at another table, a man who looked ex-military rattling on and on about martial arts.
Well, not really. Martial arts, as taught in America, doesn’t use the real secret. This guy had studied under someone (in Tennessee, which, last I checked, seemed to be in America, but never mind that) who had revealed the secret to him.
Mind you, I was doing my own reading and I was some distance away, so I’m sure I missed a lot. But I gleaned that true power is not a matter of learning martial arts. It’s a matter of flipping the switch in our brains. We’re all animals and so this used to come naturally to us but now we have to learn how. But it’s not a matter of trying; it’s just natural … if we only can get our bodies to remember how. “It’s called ‘Mind over Matter,'” the man said.
It’s not punching; all you need is a touch. When you punch, you’re still trying. In fact, it’s not that your arm sends out your fist; rather, your fist pulls your arm. Everything is waves, and in fact if you do this right, you’re not breaking the board; the board is virtually tearing itself apart.
The whole thing is about speed: if you move at 60 miles an hour, then you have force. You’ve got to reach out and touch the wall and get your hand back before you’ve even touched it. That way, the guy said, and I quote, “I can hit you again before I hit you again before I hit you again.” And if a baseball, thrown at 100 miles an hour, were to hit the bat, the bat would shatter. That’s why the bat has to hit the ball instead.
There was a gnostic element to the whole thing, a secret knowledge that turned into seven secrets, of which the first were “Dilate your eyes” and “Empty your body of all air” (because that makes you move fast) and “Point your toes in the direction you want the energy to go” and “Yell” (this is a secret?) and, I think, “Practice one thing for a minute a day” …
And then I finished my work — really, I was working — and headed home, never to know the last secrets that, if I could but master them, would make me a martial arts expert — no! martial arts is about trying! — um … a dangerous animal, capable of having my fist pull my arm out at 60 miles an hour to touch someone and have him virtually tear himself apart because of my energy waves, as I hit him again before I hit him the first time.
It was tempting to stay, to finish the lesson — or was it a sales pitch? — but no. I remain a 98 pound (give or take a hundred or so) weakling, with a pretty good grasp on Matthew 8.
[Update: When I thought about it some more, this talk reminded me of the way some Christians talk about sanctification and our growth in godliness — as if you’re not suppose to be “trying,” as if it’s never right to tell anyone to “try harder,” as if it should all just flow naturally from grace without any effort on our part, as if our efforts are somehow in conflict with grace. Same sort of bushwa, different barrel.]
Most fiction for kids and young adults is reviewed as if it existed in order to deliver a useful little sermon — “Growing up is tough but you can make it.” “Popularity is not all it’s cracked up to be.” “Drugs are dangerous.” …
The notion that a story ‘has a message’ assumes that it can be reduced to a few abstract words, neatly summarized in a school or college examination paper or a brisk critical review. If that were true, why would writers go to the trouble of making up characters and relationships and plots and scenery and all that? Why not just deliver the message? Is the story a box to hide an idea in, a fancy dress to make a naked idea look pretty, a candy coating to make a bitter idea easier to swallow? Open your mouth, dear, it’s good for you. Is fiction decorate wordage concealing a rational thought, a message, which is its ultimate reality and reason for being?
A lot of teachers teach fiction, a lot of reviewers (particularly of children’s books) review it, and so a lot of people read it, in that belief. The trouble is, it’s wrong….
I wish children in school, instead of being taught to look for a message in a story, were taught to think as they open the book, “Here’s a door opening on a new world: what will I find there?” — Ursula K. LeGuin, “A Message About Messages,” Cheek by Jowl, pp. 126-127, 129.
I’ve heard sermons calling me to be bold about sharing the gospel. And sermons about being a missionary overseas because their need of the gospel over there is great. Sermons telling me I need to be a missionary here. And the all-Christians-are-missionaries-sermons I’ve heard preached could choke a horse….
And I’ve heard sermons about not worrying what other people think when I witness to them. And sermons, preached with wild eyes, calling us to a life of radical morality and missional living.
But I’ve never heard a sermon asking me to have a quiet life….
In 1 Thessalonians 4:11 (ESV), Paul urges his hearers “to aspire to live quietly.” And in 2 Thessalonians 3:12 he encourages them “in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly.” But I’ve never heard a sermon on what he means by “quiet” or “quietly.” Or what he means by “live” or “life.” I’ve heard many how-to sermons but none on how to live quietly, and what it might look like in our culture, which is so loud about everything….
Paul isn’t just suggesting this to the Thessalonians. He is urging them to live quietly. Wait a second — no, he wants these believers to aspire to live quietly. You could translate these words as “make it your ambition to live quietly.” This is no small thing. And this quiet living is important enough for him to include it in both letters to the Thessalonian Christians. And he wants Timothy to give the same instructions to his people (Matthew B. Redmond, The God of the Mundane, pp. 33-34).
C. S. Lewis points out that the creativity in medieval literature is not generally found in dreaming up something new but in reworkingolder sources and doing new things with them. In C. S. Lewis and the Middle Ages, Robert Boenig suggests that Lewis himself follows the medieval pattern: most of his fiction reacts to or builds upon earlier sources. Some are obvious; others are not. But it would be interesting, and doubtless profitable, to pair up a reading of Lewis’s novels with a reading of their primary source document(s).
Which sources does Boenig have in mind?
The Pilgrim’s Regress is, among many other things, his take on John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Perelandra is his retelling of Milton’s Paradise Lost, composed after he heard Charles Williams’ 1940 Oxford lectures on Milton and penned his own critical work, A Preface to Paradise Lost. Till We Have Faces retells the myth of Cupid and Psyche from Apuleius’s The Golden Ass.
One can argue that the Arthurian romance The Quest of the Holy Grail, with some side glances at Sir John Mandeville’s Travels, is the major source for The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The Silver Chair is, among other things, an homage to George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie. That Hideous Strength is his homage to the fiction of Charles Williams (79-80, paragraph break mine).
Boenig’s discussion goes on to focus on five books and their sources:
Out of the Silent Planet critiques H. G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon.
Prince Caspian engages with William Morris’s Child Christopher and Goldilind the Fair (which, in turn, had appropriated the thirteenth-century anonymous Middle English romance Havelok the Dane), wresting the story away from the sensuality Lewis perceived in Morris as both an attraction and a danger.
The Great Divorce redirects the medieval dream vision best exemplified in The Romance of the Rose, which Lewis had explicated so forcefully in The Allegory of Love, away from human love toward the love of God.
That Hideous Strength juggles criticism of T. H. White [The Sword in the Stone, but also the rest of The Once and Future King] with celebration of Charles Williams.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe becomes a vehicle for Lewis to suggest an important theological statement; the prior text to which he is reacting is the famous 1931 book Christus Victor by the Swedish theologian Gustav Aulén (80, paragraph breaks mine).
There are seven evenings in Matthew’s Gospel (8:16; 14:15, 23; 16:2; 20:8; 26:20; 27:57).
Not every instance of “it was evening” begins a new section — 16:2 and 20:8 certainly don’t! — but the number of evenings does interest me, suggesting as it does that the reference to evening ends a day or (as in Gen 1) begins a new day.
In turn, and that would suggest that there may be eight “days” in Matthew, the eighth being the day of resurrection, beginning with 27:57, which certainly seems fitting.
Nevertheless, as I mentioned above, 16:2 and 20:8 don’t seem to fit into any sort of seven- or eight-day pattern. Still, if you happen to see some such pattern or know of an essay where someone works this out, I’d be glad to see it.
[Update, March 15, 2016: It turns out that Peter Leithart has an essay on exactly this topic!]
In Matthew 15, when the Canaanite woman asks Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter, Jesus is initially reluctant: “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
But earlier, in Matthew 8, when the centurion — clearly a Gentile — asks Jesus to heal his servant, Jesus seems willing: “I myself will come and heal him” (8:7).
Some suggest that his words should be translated as a question: “Shall I come and heal him?” And some (e.g., Davies and Allison) even insert what they think is the implication: “Shall I — a Jew — come and heal him?” The effect is to make it seem as if in this story, as in Matthew 15, Jesus is reluctant to heal a Gentile at first, but then, in response to the Gentile’s faith, goes ahead and does it.
But even if this is a question — and there’s no reason it has to be taken that way — it really doesn’t imply much reluctance. At most, it elicits a further response from the centurion. Jesus is willing to heal the centurion’s servant.
What, then, accounts for the difference, for Jesus’ willingness to heal the Gentile centurion’s servant but his reluctance (at first) to help the Canaanite woman’s daughter precisely because she’s a Gentile?
I’m not sure we can know for sure.
One factor may have been that in the case of the centurion, as Luke tells us (but Matthew doesn’t), he was already a God-fearer, who had built a synagogue and who was highly regarded by the Jewish elders, who served, in fact, as his mediators to bring his request to Jesus.
But it strikes me that it’s possible that, while the centurion himself was a Gentile, the servant may not have been. The servant may in fact have been a Jew, and so, while the request for healing comes from a Gentile (mediated by the Jewish elders), it is still a request for healing a Jew, someone “of the house of Israel.”
Matthew tells us that the crowds were astonished because Jesus taught with authority, not like their scribes (Matt 7:29).
I’ve sometimes heard people condemn the scribes for this lack of authority, as if there was some problem with the way they taught. “All they did,” people say, “was quote one rabbi after another. But Jesus didn’t quote people” — and the implication sometimes seems to be that preachers today should somehow be more like Jesus than like those scribes, drawing on other people’s commentaries.
Well, that’s not really what Matthew means. Jeffrey Gibbs (if I may draw from another person’s commentary) puts it well:
None of their scribes taught with such conviction. Nor should they have. Any authority that a scribe might possess in his teaching would be completely derived from the authority of the Scriptures. Any other teacher in Israel would need to substantiate what he proclaimed by citing from God’s Word. Jesus, however, teaches God’s Word from out of himself, with unfettered power and divine authority, and the crowds were astonished at this (400).