Friday, August 25, 2017

Books that Shaped me, Part 3: Diadem book 1; The Book of Names, by John Peel

The last two installments of this series have been about titans of the genre, books that have had an abiding impact on huge numbers of fantasy readers over the decades. Today we’re going to talk about a forgettable Scholastic paperback, a book I wouldn’t pull out from the shelves of a used bookstore for a closer look today, but which means as much to me as anything I’ve read. There is nothing at all that should be life-changing about the content of Diadem #1, but it changed my life as much as any other piece of writing ever has. It was the first proper book, the first book with only words and no pictures, that I read myself without help from anyone.

I have a copy of the same edition I read, which tells me that it was first published by Scholastic in August of 1997. I would have been almost exactly eight years old when I read it.

I have loved books from the time of my earliest memories, and being read to was my favorite activity when I had a parent’s full attention for any length of time, but reading on my own came only with difficulty and frustration. It is probably not true that I was struggling to finish a Dr. Seuss a few weeks before I read Diadem #1 and demanded the sequel, but I have no memories remaining of a gap between the two. I remember reading to myself instead of listening as a chore, where I was forced to push through my inadequacies for a watching parent. I remember reading The Diadem, and I remember devouring every genre book I could get my hands on. This one little paperback is the bridge in my memory between reading nothing and reading everything.

After I read it, I was off. I remember this book being hard. I may have started it two or three times before I finished, but I read the sequel in two or three days once it arrived. It was the beginning of a voracious consumption of fantasy and science fiction that had never stopped, and only slowed a little for college. I read six Diadem books, and similar things from the scholastic catalog. I read the classic science fiction on my parents’ bookshelves. I read The Hobbit and Narnia and The Lord of the Rings for myself. I read book after book from the shelves of a suburban library with a particularly large young adult section, where my mother would take me every few weeks to collect more books.

The contents of Diadem #1 are  scarcely important. It is pretty ordinary scholastic fare. Three teens, one from earth, one from a medieval world, one from a technologically advanced utopia/dystopia are drawn through onion-layers of reality toward the center from which magic emanates. There is magic, variously systematized. There is low comedy. There is an abundance of riddles for the characters and the reader to solve. The children overcome their prejudices to work together. Neither the prose nor the plot are noteworthy.

I think it was and remains important, that the book was fantasy. From the beginning, I have done the vast majority of my reading in genre fiction, only occasionally dipping a toe into historical fiction, spy novels, or mystery. Something in the wonder, in the visions of a different world made those books so much more interesting than anything set in the real world. Part of it is surely that I was homeschooled until I was thirteen. Contemporarily set books targeted at my age group sketched a set of experiences and social problems I never experienced, much better to read about far futures or magical otherworlds and have an interesting alien place to decode, instead of a boring one.

The Diadem is not a great book. It has been long enough since I read it that I am not sure if it is even good. But that’s not the point. I can a draw straight line from mastering that book, from finally forcing the words to parade in order through my eyes and sound inside my head in the September or October of 1997 to now, twenty years later, writing books that would go on the same shelves, and perhaps be read by the same children, who would have picked up The Diadem when it was new. I have spent most of my life reading fantasy, and the last three years striving to write it professionally, and The Diadem was one of the first steps on that road. I never will forget it.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Books that Shaped me, Part 2: The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien

There is no work of fantasy I admire more than The Lord of the Rings, no book or series that has had a deeper effect on me. I re-read it about once a year. I realize this is not a terribly original opinion, but I am going to talk about it anyway, for the sake of completeness in this ongoing portrait of my influences. The Lord of the Rings are some of the finest books, the finest fantasies every written. They are not for everyone, perhaps, and if they’re not for you, follow your joy somewhere else, but if you tell me they are not wonderful and beautifully crafted books, I will fight you.

It’s likely I heard parts of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe before I first had The Lord of the Rings read to me, but I can’t really tell which memories are older at this point. I loved LotR from the first reading, and demanded many repetitions, and my love of the lore and deep history got The Silmarillion introduced to our house and read to me as well. (I was a very particular sort of child.) When I first tried to read it myself, it was more difficult. I bogged down in the sad half of The Two Towers once or twice before I was able to finish on my own. I don’t like reading about privation; hunger, thirst, poverty and the uncomfortablenesses that come with it are much harder for me to push through than pain, fear, or violence.

The Lord of the Rings are the only books that can consistently make me tear up. I don’t quite cry, but my eyes water, and the pressure is there in my throat. It happens particularly in Theoden’s speech before the ride of the Rohirrim. I am deeply affected by the epic, the poetic, the stories of grand heroes. The films captured the power of moments like that only in the most imperfect fragments, because they were forced to cast ordinary humans in those roles, who could never measure up the icons our minds create when we read Tolkien’s words for ourselves.

It was that mythic scope that first burned LotR into my brain, but what keeps me returning is that each part of the books is perfectly itself, somehow assembled into a harmonious whole despite the distances of size and tone that separate the pieces. The shire is pastoral and parochial and inescapably English. Bree is like the shire, but somehow different, more isolated and more open, balanced on the edge of the wide, terrible world outside the pastoral retreat. Tom Bombadil and the old forest are a fairy story that nestles comfortably in the high-fantasy landscape without sacrificing a jot of whimsy or strangeness to fit in. Their loss from the films was one of my great sadnesses, because Tom’s disconnection from the grand adventure of the ring was a beautiful perspective. Even in an epic story, it is worth showing that the whole world doesn’t bend itself toward the heroes’ plot with single-minded focus. The other great loss, the scouring of the shire, is another small perfection, the return of the heroes where they find themselves and their home changed, but where they still fit, and where their changes let them heal instead of isolating them where they once belonged. The little perfections are what make me love LotR as a work of craft, a mosaic where each tessera is perfect.

The thing that keeps me returning, that hooks deep into my heart and makes me love the books more than anything, is the deep history and the vast story. The dusty years that lie in Moria and weather the graven gates of Argonath speak to a deep longing I have never lost. I have read The Silmarillion four times myself, not counting the times it was read to me before I ever took on chapter-books (as I said, I was a very particular kind of child.) Each time I read those old stories and remind myself how LotR places a capstone on the grand stories that have already become the mythology of Middle Earth by the time Bilbo and Frodo go on their adventures, I am dumbstruck with awe at the beauty and the scale and the titanic mastery of language and storytelling that went into Tolkien’s world.

Tolkien understood mythology. He studied stories that had lasted centuries and more before he ever wrote his own, and he saw what made them last. Tolkien gave us myths, stories that are huge and personal, iconic and idiosyncratic all at once; stories that take their own grandeur seriously and sincerely. The evil is evil and we are not offered a chance to understand its perspective, to see it justify the distinction as only shades of grey. The good is good, faithful and bold and true. It does not trip itself into intolerance or incompetence by its own goodness. It burns bright in a dark world. I think Tolkien’s work will last long past whenever fantasy falls out of fashion. He built from the bones of the oldest stories we told ourselves around the fire, and the bones are strong. I will return to The Lord of the Rings until something fundamental changes about me, and I think that something fundamental will need to change about people before these stories lose their power.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Books that Shaped me, Part 1: The Chronicles of Narnia, By C. S. Lewis

So, I’m starting another series on this blog. But don’t worry; this time I have a backlog built up, so I can actually keep to some kind of update schedule. This series is about the books I read, or in some cases had read to me, that opened up my mind to the fantastic, the ones that crawled inside my head and never left. This is about the books I can’t help thinking of, the ones that shaped my thinking and imagination long before I thought I might write something of my own one day.

I’m going to start with Narnia. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was probably not the first non-picture book read to me, but is the first one I can easily conjure memories of hearing from my mother. I’m not sure if any of those memories are of the first reading, when I was six or seven. All of those books, with the partial exception of The Last Battle, were read and re-read so many times at my demand that each repetition must be blurred into a dozen others in my mind. Our editions had some little illustrations in places, and I can bring up the tournament ring from Prince Caspian with perfect clarity as I type this, with the two fighters bent forward in improbable fencing stances, and the bear dozing and sucking his paws at his corner of the ropes. Fixed images of scenes litter my memory, and only a few are from the illustrations.

I never really cared about the Pevensies very much, or Eustace and Polly. The social dynamic of siblings so close in age, or children attending an English boarding school, were completely alien to me, and most of the time spent developing the children was on the bad ones’ failings so that they could be redeemed. I rarely identified with children in books as a child. I was there for the world and the magical creatures in it, for Tumnus and Mister Beaver, Prince Caspian and Reepicheep, Bree, and dear despondent Puddleglum. I was there for the expanse of green, the sharp mountains and the deep forests and swell of heat off a desert just wide enough to divide one world from another.

I remember that The Magician’s Nephew was always the most frightening, because it brought the villain into the real world. Jadis’ cruelty was much more shocking there on the streets of London, because it didn’t seem of a piece with the world. When she covered Narnia in eternal winter, that was only natural, an expected part of a place that had fauns and centaurs and great battles and chivalry and magic. In our world, just being cruel and strong and uncaring was enough to shock. Injury or death were real there, not like the distant dream through the wardrobe door.

In my mind, it is the journey books, Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair, that loom largest, with The Horse and His Boy next behind. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe is fundamental, but the visions of a wider world that those books showed me were the most affecting part of the series. They had grand battle and adventure and all the trappings of medieval fantasy, but they were also fables, with the real contests being won by wit and goodness, not fighting or even grace. I loved the slow dissolving of the prosaic into the utterly fantastical as the Dawn Treader sailed farther and farther west, I loved the brief vision of an even stranger land down deep under the earth at the climax of The Silver Chair, and I loved the stops along the way, the rapacious bureaucracy of Narrowhaven, the sailors caught in enchanted sleep, giants who felt the need to be polite and deceptive before devouring their tiny guests.

From all of Narnia, it is the wonder and the majesty that stays with me. The miracle of Aslan’s resurrection, the phoenix bringing berries from the sun, the place where brine turns to sweet water and God is waiting for the faithful. I was not bothered by the insinuation of Jesus into my beloved fantasy. I got the bible along with other stories as a child, and I can’t honestly remember a time when I didn’t understand that Aslan was a stand in for the Christian God.

Narnia has never left me, and when I try to analyze the core of what has stayed, I think of two things. First, the power of stories that have a sincere commitment to teach morality without being ruined by preachy insistence. Narnia is always committed to the idea of good and evil, and it demonstrates that commitment without dictating. Second is that portal fantasy must be about the visitor and not the other world. The question is not what the magic kingdom needs from a chosen hero, but what a child from the ordinary world needs in the land of fancy.