Category Archive: Literature
The point about every single book that I re-read in order to laugh is that every one is so much more than funny because the authors write so well. Wodehouse uses the English language to perfection, Durrell evokes scenes so wonderfully, Nancy Mitford’s prose is so elegant, so arch. One could learn to write from any of them and I wish more people would. No matter what the genre, good writing always tells. Crime novels? Look at Raymond Chandler, master of style. Spy novels? How many do you know who write as well as le Carre? Style wins every, every time. — Susan Hill, Howard’s End Is on the Landing.
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.
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.
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.
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).
In his entertaining book on writing fiction — not great literature, but fiction that will hook the reader and give him enjoyment — H. Bedford-Jones, “The King of the Pulps,” reveals what he considers to be the “deadly sin” that fiction writers often commit.
It’s not the lack of plot. Bedford-Jones himself was sometimes accused by editors of writing stories that didn’t have plots, novels that consisted of one episode after another, without one overarching plot that linked everything together. He argues that that sort of plot really isn’t crucial for a story, that there are great stories that lack that sort of overarching plot, though every paragraph of the story should be critical and no paragraph should be extraneous.
But what is the deadly sin? It’s the “lack of perception as to what must be emphasized, played up strong!” (46). It is the “lack of proportion in telling the story” (50). It’s … well, it’s what you’ve experienced from time to time when you’ve read a story:
You read a story, get interested in the characters, find the plot absorbing and good, entertaining. When you come to the climax, do you want to be told that the hero “knocked the skipper into the scuppers, overawed the crew, and took command of the ship?” Not much. You want the details of the knocking and overawing. You want to be on the inside, learn how the thing was done! In other words, you want to follow the emotions of the hero in detail.
Never forget that the reader, in general, identifies himself with the chief character of a story. He desires to see things through the eyes of that character. When the reader arrives at some crucial point in the tale and finds it glossed over in a couple of sentences, he is bitterly disappointed….
The amateur writer seems bound to commit this sin. He seldom realizes what points in his story he should lay most emphasis upon, and what points are least vital to his tale. It is a question of seeing the story in his own mind, of visualizing it, in its proper proportions. This perception of values, however, is something that he must come to learn unless he is to fail utterly. It is, undoubtedly, the great essential of fiction writing (This Fiction Business, 46-47, 48).
One of Lewis’s female friends (and yes, he did have some!) was the poet Ruth Pitter. Largely unknown today, Pitter was the first woman to win the Queen’s Medal for Poetry. She and Lewis met on occasion and exchanged a number of letters. I expect that she found it rather tiresome, after Lewis’s death, to have quoted to her and to be asked about what Lewis allegedly said to his friend Hugo Dyson: “I am not a man for marriage; but if I were, I would ask R.P.”
She writes about one meeting with Lewis and his brother, Major “Warnie” Lewis. Pitter had asked if she “might query him about the first of his children’s books,” and Lewis consented. She reports that the conversation went like this (Ruth Pitter, “Poet to Poet,” in In Search of C. S. Lewis, ed. Stephen Schofield, 113):
PITTER: In the land of Narnia, the witch makes it always winter and never Christmas?
PITTER: Does she allow any foreign trade?
LEWIS: She does not.
PITTER: Am I allowed to postulate on the lines of Santa Claus with the tea tray?
LEWIS: You are not.
PITTER: Then where did all the materials for the good dinner the beavers gave came from?
LEWIS: The beavers caught fish through holes in the ice.
PITTER: Yes, the potatoes to go with them, the flour and sugar and oranges and milk for the children?
LEWIS: I must refer you to a further study of the text.
MAJOR LEWIS: Nonsense, Jack! You’re stumped. And you know it.
A couple of weeks ago, I summarized Jean-Pierre Vernant’s thoughts on the “hope” (elpis: anticipation, expectation) left in Pandora’s jar when all the evils flew out. While some have presented the safekeeping of elpis in the jar as if it means that, in spite of all the evils in the world, man still has hope, Vernant sees the elpis as something closely associated with the emergence of the evils, something ambiguous. As he explains in his essay “The Myth of Prometheus in Hesiod” (in Myth and Society in Ancient Greece):
If in the Golden Age, human life held nothing but good things, if all the evils were still far away, shut up inside the jar (Works, 115-16), there would be no grounds to hope for anything different from what one has. If life was delivered up entirely and irremediably to evil and misfortune (Works, 200-1), there would be no place even for Elpis. But since the evils are henceforth inextricably intermingled with the good things (Theog., 603-10; Works, 178, to be compared with Works, 102) and it is impossible for us to foresee exactly how tomorrow will turn out for us, we are always hoping for the best. If men possessed the infallible foreknowledge of Zeus, they would have no use for Elpis. And if their lives were confined to the present with no knowledge or concern at all regarding the future, they would equally know nothing of Elpis. However, caught between the lucid forethought of Prometheus and the thoughtless blindness of Epimetheus, oscillating between the two without ever being able to separate them, they know in advance that suffering, sickness, and death is bound to be their lot, and, being ignorant of the form their misfortune will take, they only recognize it too late when it has already struck them.
Whoever is immortal, as the gods are, has no need of Elpis. Nor is there any Elpis for those who, like the beasts, are ignorant of their mortality. If man who is mortal like the beasts could foresee the whole future as the gods can, if he was altogether like Prometheus, he would no longer have the strength to go on living, for he could not bear to contemplate his own death directly. But, knowing himself to be mortal, though ignorant of when and how he will die, hope, which is a kind of foresight, although a blind one (Aeschylus, Prometheus, 250; cf. also Plato, Gorgias, 523d ae), and blessed illusion, both a good and a bad thing at one and the same time–hope alone makes it possible for him to live out this ambiguous, two-sided life. Henceforward, there is a reverse aspect to everything: Contact can only be made with the gods through sacrifice, which at the same time consecrates the impassable barrier between mortals and immortals; there can be no happiness without unhappiness, no birth without death, no abundance without toil, no Prometheus without Epimetheus–in a word, no Man without Pandora (200-201).
That’s Vernant’s view. Elpis is not a purely good thing; it is ambiguous, both the anticipation of good and the certain knowledge that–somehow, sometime–evil will come.
But what surprises me is that Vernant, at least in what I’ve read, doesn’t seem to see the elpis in Pandora’s jar in connection with the other parallels he so carefully works out in Hesiod’s accounts of Prometheus’s rivalry with Zeus:
* Prometheus tricks Zeus into accepting the worse part of the sacrifices and letting man have the best. He does so by taking the bones of the sacrifice and covering them up with lovely white fat. When Zeus sees them, he thinks they’re going to be especially delicious and so he chooses them as his portion, leaving man with the good meat, the better part, as his portion of the sacrifices.
* Zeus responds by refusing to let man have fire and by hiding man’s life (bios, here a reference to grain) in the ground so that now man has to work hard to get it. Bones hidden in fat correspond to bios hidden in the ground.
* Prometheus steals fire from Zeus and gives it to man.
* Zeus responds by making a “beautiful evil” (kalon kakon) for man that corresponds in some way to fire, namely, woman. In the Theogony, the woman isn’t named but is described as being the equivalent of drones who eat the honey the worker bees produce. A woman has a beautiful face and figure, but it hides a hungry stomach that gobbles up all a man’s earnings. In Works, Hesiod describes the woman, now called Pandora, as a beautiful woman who has a jar which, when opened, disperses evils among men. Once again, however, there is a correspondence: bones hidden in fat to look attractive to Zeus correspond, not only to grain hidden in the ground, but also now to an evil heart and a hungry stomach hidden inside a beautiful face and figure.
But right here I expected Vernant to say something about elpis. He notes that in the Theogony, “men are presented with a choice: either not to marry, and to enjoy a sufficiency of grain (since the female gaster [belly] does not take it from them) but not to have any children (since a female gaster is necessary to give birth) — the evil thus counterbalancing the good; or to marry and, even with a good wife, the evil again counterbalances the good” (Myth and Society 187). Elsewhere, Vernant puts it this way:
This is the dilemma now: If a man marries, his life will pretty certainly be hell, unless he happens on a very good wife, which is extremely rare. Conjugal life is thus an inferno–misery after misery. On the other hand, if a man does not marry, his life could be a happy one: He would have his fill of everything, he would never lack for anything–but at this death, who will get his accumulated wealth? It will be scattered, into the hands of relatives for whom he has no particular affection. If he marries it is a catastrophe, and if he doesn’t, it’s another kind of catastrophe.
Woman is two different things at once: She is the paunch, the belly devouring everything her husband has laboriously gathered at the cost of his effort, his toil, his fatigue; but that belly is also the only one that can produce the thing that extends a man’s life–a child (The Universe, the Gods, and Men 61-62).
Now we can put it together: It is only in Works that Hesiod tells us about Pandora’s jar; in Theogony, the “beautiful evil” is the woman herself. In fact, we could put it this way: woman herself is Pandora’s jar, a nice-looking vessel full of all kinds of evils. She is Zeus’s victory in his rivalry with Prometheus. She is the source of all evils in a man’s life, and in Works, she is the gift Prometheus warned Epimetheus not to accept from Zeus.
And yet, though the evils rush out from her, still elpis (hope, expectation, anticipation of the future) resides inside her. From the woman evils come into man’s life, but in the woman is the only hope the man has for the future, the hope of an heir–assuming that her all-devouring belly is also a fruitful belly and that the fruit it bears is a male child who lives and grows up to inherit a man’s property. And so the ambiguity of elpis that Vernant points out is maintained: a man gets married in the hope of an heir, and yet that hope is blind and uncertain (will she be fruitful? will she have a male heir?), so that elpis is both good and bad.
In the Greek myth of Pandora, she opens the jar and all the evils that were in it rush out into the world. By the time she gets the stopper back in, only one thing is left inside: elpis, which is often translated “hope.” And so, as the story is sometimes told, even though there are all kinds of evils and hardships in the world, we still always have hope. It’s kind of a positive ending to a sad story.
Or is it?
After all, what was this jar full of? Evils. Not evils and one good thing (hope). It was full of evils, full down to that last drop, elpis.
But how could hope be an evil?
In his essay “At Man’s Table,” Jean-Pierre Vernant takes a stab at an explanation. In Hesiod’s view, man has undergone a change from the way things used to be. Where men used to eat in fellowship with the gods, now there is sacrifice which not only provides some communion with the gods but also emphasizes the distance between them. Where food used to be free for the taking and the least effort could get you a year’s supply, now Zeus has hidden bios (life = grain) in the ground and you have to sweat to get it. Where there once were only men, now there are women (“beautiful evils,” as Hesiod describes them), who are like drones and dogs, gobbling up all that men produce and bring home. And where once everything was the same, day after day, now there is change.
And with change comes elpis: not hope (which for us is always positive) but, more broadly, expectation or anticipation. A man labors to plant his field and he cherishes the expectation (hope) of a good harvest. He labors during harvest in the expectation (hope) that he will have enough grain saved up that he and his family will be able to eat all winter and have enough to plant in the spring. His life is full of that sort of elpis, but he has that elpis only because he also knows that misfortune is coming. It’s not just that trouble might come: bad weather might destroy his crops; a fire might destroy his barn and all the grain he saved. Rather, it’s that he knows trouble is coming. Pandora let those evils out into the world and they’re roaming around, alighting on one person after another. You never know what’s coming. You never know when it’s going to be your turn. But you know one thing for certain: While things might go well for you for a while, trouble is coming. That’s elpis, and unlike those other evils that roam the world, striking here and there, elpis stays in the jar at home, because it’s something you have every day, all day long. It’s your constant but blind expectation: While you’re always hoping for good, evil will come and you never know when or how.
What did the ancient Greeks think about women?
Jean-Pierre Vernant, in a brilliant essay on Hesiod’s Theogony, explains. According to Hesiod, Zeus created the first woman to be a “beautiful evil” (kalon kakon) to afflict men. She would be a trap from which men could not escape. Though she appears beautiful on the outside, on the inside she has “the spirit of a bitch and the temperament of a thief” (kuneon te noon kai epiklopon ethos). You might be able to find a good wife, Hesiod admits, but even so, in and through her, “evil will come to balance out the good” (kakon esthloi antipherizei).
Women, according to Hesiod, are like drones: the men do all the work, and women sit at home and feed on the honey. Women are like flaming fire, burning and consuming but never satisfied. Women are stomachs, disguised by outward beauty, gulping down the food the man works so hard to provide. Women are like dogs, gobbling up the scraps.
That’s not just Hesiod. Vernant compares two passages in Homer’s Odyssey: “Is there anything more like a dog than the odious belly?” asks Odysseus, when he’s hungry. Elsewhere, Agamemnon says the same thing, but changes one word: “Is there anything more like a dog than a woman?”
Nevertheless, for the ancient Greeks, men are now stuck having to get married to women. On the one hand, they consume everything you’ve earned. On the other, you need them in order to have a (male) heir. They’re a trap, but one you can’t do without.
It is no wonder, then, that this first woman — whose name Hesiod gives in his Works and Days as Pandora — is the one who opens the jar that contains all the evils in the world and releases them on mankind (on males, that is).
What a difference there is when you turn from the ancient Greeks to the Bible, where the woman, far from being a “beautiful evil” is called “glory,” where the blame for the sin that brought death and misery into the world is attributed to Adam, even though Eve ate the forbidden fruit first, and where men are called, as co-heirs with them of glory, to show honor to their wives.