Literature You Should Know: Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse

Civilization is under attack.  An army masses to destroy Christians and their hated book learning, to plunder their wealth and ravish their women.  Unless these savages are stopped, the lights may go out for good… but the Christian forces are few and scattered.  Hope for victory seems dim.

c6352This plot sounds like it’s ripped from the headlines, and it could have been—twelve centuries ago.  The rampaging enemy in this case is the Viking horde, and the story itself is The Ballad of the White Horse, G. K. Chesterton’s fictionalized account of the Battle of Ethandune (read here by Malcolm Guite).  The title refers to the White Horse of Uffington, which now-discounted legend held to commemorate Alfred the Great’s victory at Ethandune.  Published in 1911, this poetic mixture of fact, legend, and fantasy inspired English troops through two world wars and can still bring encouragement to those of us who feel our way of life is under assault.

Book I opens with the state of Alfred’s England, moving from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Danish onslaught against the Saxons.  The barbarians beat back Alfred to Athelney, “and no help came at all” until Alfred receives a vision of the Virgin Mary.  But she has no soothing platitudes for him:

“I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.

“Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?”

G.K. Chesterton

Our reaction would probably be, “Oh, THANKS!”  But not only does Alfred understand what Mary’s saying, Book II declares he does have “the joy of giants, / The joy without a cause.”  His three allies also respond favorably to Mary’s message, agreeing to fight a battle that they seem certain to lose.  Even the White Horse, grey and overgrown from neglect, presents a discouraging sight at the beginning of Book III.  Yet Alfred dares to walk unarmed toward the Danish king’s camp and, once captured, to play his harp and sing of English victory.  The Danish earls mock him and praise destruction and nihilism, since even their gods will die, but Alfred answers, “You are more tired of victory, / Than we are tired of shame…. / We have more lust again to lose / Than you to win again.”  The Danes can only laugh.

This exchange of taunts doubles as a scouting mission, however, and Alfred studies the Danish camp’s layout as he leaves at the beginning of Book IV.  After an interlude where Alfred agrees to watch a peasant woman’s fire, muses too long on the plight of the poor, and gets slapped for accidentally letting one of her cakes burn, his allies arrive to find him laughing at himself.  “This blow that I return not,” he declares, “Ten times will I return / On kings and earls of all degree,” and with that, he leads his army into battle.

The White Horse

The fight that follows in the next three books showcases Chesterton’s love of paradox.  First blood is struck by Colan the Celt, who throws his rusty sword to kill Earl Harold and to whom Alfred in turn offers his own sword.  The English take their toll on the Danes, but the Danes drive them back, kill Alfred’s captains, and think the battle is over.  At last, however, Alfred rallies the Saxons with a horn blast and a victory-or-death speech, has another vision of Mary, and leads the final charge against the Danes with the cry, “The high tide and the turn!”  Between the Saxons’ sudden onslaught and a surprise rear attack from the Celts, the Danes are utterly defeated.

But the story doesn’t end there.  In peacetime, Alfred still has to deal with courtiers who want him to drive the Danes out of Britain entirely rather than allowing them to keep the Danelaw, and the White Horse still has to be scoured regularly to keep it white and free of weeds.  And when the Danes again raid the south of England, the aged Alfred warns that barbarians will always attack free peoples and the worst are the ones who come not with swords but with books.  Chesterton closes Book VII with a juxtaposition of descriptions, weeds trying once more to overwhelm the White Horse while Alfred retakes London.

Freedom isn’t free.  Do we have “the joy without a cause” to defend it even when all seems lost?

Tree and Leaf: For Fiction and Non-Fiction

In my last post for Smash Cut Culture, I wrote about the importance of suspension of disbelief and the necessity of internal logic within a fictional narrative universe.

Picking up where I left off, Elizabeth Wolfe wrote another wonderful article, “Literature You Should Know: Tolkien’s Tree and Leaf” elaborating on that idea with quotes and examples from J.R.R. Tolkien. While thinking about that piece, it occurred to me that everything that is true of great fiction story-telling is also true in non-fiction.

Consider my condensed view of Elizabeth’s piece on Tolkien.



I’m not the first person to notice this, but his whole approach to writing was rather Biblical. First, he created the world: Middle Earth. Then he created the seas, and the mountains, the forests and the grasslands – he drew maps, and charted geographies. Then he created the flora and the fauna, and filled his world with life – dragons, trolls, Balrogs, Nazgul, and giant spiders; but also pigs, horses, bears, and birds. Finally, he created the people – human and non-human characters with free will and individual agency, histories, genealogies, and languages – and then he wrote epic stories about those people.

There are plenty of things that I think Tolkien did wrong as a writer, and there are many instances in which he clearly took unnecessary shortcuts (
cough-deux ex giant eagle-cough cough) in his books which stand in sharp contrast to realism of the world; but overall, I believe that his level of sophistication and care in building a believable world is what we should all strive for as story-tellers, regardless of the medium. Showcasing a rich, deep universe, filled with complex characters and interesting stories should not just be limited to fiction.

Recently, I also read an article at Slate describing the current time as a “golden age of documentaries”. As (primarily) a documentary producer myself, I have to agree.

Albert Maysles
Albert Maysles

There are more incredible stories being told through that medium than ever before, and thanks to a handful of our documentarian fore-bearers (Albert Maysles, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, D.A. Pennebaker, etc.) and some up and coming greats, I think we’re finally starting to learn how to tell true stories in as creative and sophisticated ways as film-makers have more frequently told the made-up ones. The only real difference is that instead of inventing a universe and characters from scratch, it is the documentary producer’s job to carve away at the shallow outer layers of the subject, and expose the complexities underneath – to piece together a clearly structured story, centered on the actions and emotions of interesting characters who inhabit a believable world.

Whether fiction or non-fiction, the story-telling principles are fundamentally the same. Non-fiction just means you can’t cheat (with magic eagles, for example). I only really came to understand this through producing my last few documentaries, No Vans Land & Locked Out.

Documentary editing is ridiculously difficult. When you’re staring at 60-70 hours worth of raw material and no no script, knowing that you need to cut it all down to a half an hour of clear, yet emotionally moving, cinema; it’s easy to get a bit overwhelmed. But if you treat a documentary the same as you’d treat a narrative film that you were writing from scratch, things get a little easier to manage (only a little, though).

When I get stuck, I often find myself referring back to the lessons I’ve learned from writers like Tolkien, along with stuff like Joseph Campbell’s view of The Hero’s Journey which describes broad story structures and character archetypes common across multiple story-telling traditions, and also about Emma Coates’ set of Pixar Story Rules.

Her whole set is great, but even just the first four are simple and valuable:

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

Most people writing about drama specifically have narrative fiction in mind, but increasingly, I find that they’re every bit as good when you’re trying to figure out how to craft a solid story out of disparate documentary footage.

All the important elements remain the same.


Literature You Should Know: Tolkien’s Tree and Leaf

I was already planning to write on J. R. R. Tolkien’s collection Tree and Leaf this week before I read Sean 394422da6bda916b75635832890205fdMalone’s review of Snowpiercer, but Sean’s discussion of internal logic only confirmed my choice.  If there’s one book every writer of science fiction and fantasy absolutely must read, it’s Tree and Leaf.  Several different editions have been released over the years, but all contain two vitally important works: On Fairy-Stories and Leaf by Niggle.

“On Fairy-Stories” began as a keynote address Tolkien delivered in 1937, around the same time he published The Hobbit and began writing The Lord of the Rings.  The first part of the essay addresses what fairy-stories are, though Tolkien gives no more precise definition than that they are stories about Faërie; misconceptions of the Fair Folk; the muddle critics make when discussing the origins of fairy tales; and the modern mistake of thinking that fairy tales are only for children.  Tolkien moves beyond mere criticism, however, when he turns to the topics of how fairy tales are written and why they are worthwhile.  He never cites Sidney’s Defense of Poesy, but his view of literary creativity is in a similar vein.

unnamedTolkien defines human creativity as sub-creation.  Only God can create something from nothing, and Tolkien calls the world God created the Primary World.  Yet humans, made in God’s image, have the right to use our sub-creative powers, defined as Art, to form Secondary Worlds from the material we find in the Primary World.  Here Tolkien quotes from his poem “Mythopoeia,” which appears in full in recent editions of Tree and Leaf.  Written for C. S. Lewis shortly after the famous conversation on Addison’s Walk in 1931, “Mythopoeia” attacks Lewis’ assertion at the time that myths are “lies breathed through silver.”  Tolkien counters not only that myth is a vehicle for truth but also that myth-making is a human right—“we make still by the law in which we’re made.”  And “Leaf by Niggle,” Tolkien’s only deliberate allegory, celebrates the idea that God may someday grant us the great gift of seeing our Secondary Worlds given primary reality.

Yet Tolkien argues in “On Fairy-Stories” that the purpose of Art isn’t just the author’s own enjoyment.  A well-made Secondary World is one into which author and audience alike can enter.  The Secondary World therefore needs to have “the inner consistency of reality” that allows the audience to believe that what the author says is true within that world.  If disbelief has to be suspended, the art has failed.  Tolkien notes,

Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it.  But that is not enough…. To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft.  Few attempt such difficult tasks.   But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art:  indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.

Tolkien3_01Fantasy is the most difficult genre, in Tolkien’s view, because it’s characterized by “arresting strangeness” and is vastly different from the Primary World.  Yet that’s also what makes fantasy worthwhile and is a consolation in itself.  It carries with it Recovery, not just renewed perspective but renewed mental and spiritual health from “regaining a clear view… ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them.’”  Fantasy also allows Escape, not from reality as a whole, but from the elements that stifle our spiritual health and growth, and thus can offer the consolation of satisfied desire.  Best of all is the Consolation of the Happy Ending, the good turn Tolkien calls eucatastrophe:

In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace:  never to be counted on to recur.  It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure:  the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

Such elements, Tolkien argues, should not be scorned because they take us away from “real life”—for who is more hostile to escape than a jailer?

Literature You Should Know: Sidney’s Defense of Poesy

In the wake of the English Reformation, Puritan leaders began denouncing forms of entertainment they considered sinful, especially theater and poetry.  When one former playwright addressed an anti-theater treatise to Sir Philip Sidney, Sidney responded with An Apologie for Poetrie (later retitled A Defense of Poesy), the first work of its kind in English literature.  Sidney’s arguments about the purpose of poetry—by which he meant all forms of creative writing—still resonate for content creators who want to smash cut our postmodern culture toward a healthier direction.

Sir Phillip Sidney
Sir Phillip Sidney

Sidney applies the term poetry broadly because it derives from the Greek verb poiein, “to make.”  He points out that many poets don’t write verse, and many people who write verse don’t deserve to be called poets.  More modern forms of prose and scripted fiction would therefore also fall under the heading of poetry in Sidney’s view.  For him, creativity is the hallmark of poetry, far more than any given medium or genre.

Throughout the Defense, Sidney presents the thesis that poetry’s purpose is to teach and delight, and especially to teach by delighting.  Writing for a Renaissance audience, Sidney draws most heavily on classical literature, but he also hints at the Puritans’ hypocrisy with examples from Scripture.  When it comes to virtue, he argues, philosophy can present dry rules and history can furnish plain examples, but only poetry can combine the rule with the example in a way most people will enjoy.  And enjoyment is the key to convincing people to apply moral lessons to their own lives.  Sidney notes that even cultures that don’t have historians or philosophers still learn from their poets and storytellers.

Yet the message isn’t the only reason creative writing is worthwhile.  Sidney states that poetry’s the highest of the written arts because it’s the only one in which the author makes something new out of nature rather than recording what’s in nature.  As such, he argues, it’s also the highest expression of the imago Dei, the image of God in which all humans are made.  Because we’re created in the likeness of the Creator, the Author of history, what could be a more fitting human activity than making up our own stories?

Sidney then addresses the Puritan arguments against poetry, quickly dismissing those that are only mockery and agreeing to disagree with those who say that poetry’s a waste of time.  To the charge that poetry consists of lies, he points out that a lie affirms a falsehood to be true; scientists and historians can’t always avoid getting their facts wrong, but a poet never claims to be writing anything but fiction.  (And we all know how many documentaries and textbooks are riddled with errors and outright lies!)  Then there’s the objection that Plato banished poets from his republic, to which Sidney replies that Plato was really talking about poets who misused poetry to present harmful opinions of the gods.

apology-for-poetry-or-the-defence-of-poesy-sir-philip-sidneyThe one objection to which Sidney grants any credence is that poetry can be, and often is, abused to encourage the audience to embrace vice rather than rejecting it.   This debate continues today, whether we’re discussing the sexual content of television or music, railing against pro-statist movies, or arguing whether violent video games encourage violent behavior.  The problem, as Sidney sees it, is not “that poetry abuseth man’s wit, but that man’s wit abuseth poetry.”  He distinguishes between two types of poetic imitation:  eikastike, “figuring forth good things,” and phantastike, “which doth contrariwise infect the [imagination] with unworthy objects…. But what!” he adds, “shall the abuse of a thing make the right use odious?”  Even what we call fantasy—The Lord of the Rings comes to mind—can be eicastic in Sidney’s sense in that it encourages virtue.  Lines do need to be drawn; the trick is drawing them in the right places.

Later, Sidney notes that a large part of the problem with English poetry is that it’s badly written by classical standards, regardless of the content.  Nor is the quality problem limited to verse; he gives examples from plays and even sermons.  Conservatives, especially Christians, have been having this same discussion for years—since so much pop culture is dreck, is it enough to support good content, regardless of writing quality?  The solution, I think Sidney would argue, is to create better works, good writing that teaches a good message… or, as Mary Poppins put it, the “spoonful of sugar [that] makes the medicine go down in a most delightful way.”

Could an app be the future of publishing? A conversation with Connu Co-Founder

A new short-story publishing app is changing the way an entire industry does business

As of last count, I have 36 of apps on my Smartphone. Outside of Twitter, Yelp, and Uber, Connu is one of the most valuable. It’s been a particular life-saver during recent cross-country trips, and the audio version serves as a nice companion when I’m out for a walk.

Connu, an iOS and Android app, publishes (Monday through Friday) short stories written by up-and-coming writers who are recommended to the editors by already established writers.

connu photo main

Oh. And it pays them.

In a publishing landscape dominated by websites routinely asking writers–historically not well-known as being a financially stable lot—for free content, it is rare to have an outlet that doesn’t buy into the myth that “exposure” is an even trade for one’s work. (Probably the most recent, brazen example of this is Entertainment Weekly.)

But this is certainly not a 21st century problem. Years ago, Ernest Hemingway counseled friends who were about to launch a new literary journal thusly:

One of the most important things I believe is to get the very best work that people are doing so you do not make the mistake the Double Dealer and such magazine made of printing 2nd rate stuff by 1st rate writers. I see by your prospectus that you are paying for [manuscripts] on acceptance and think that is the absolute secret of getting the first rate stuff. It is not a question of competing with the big money advertizing magazines but of giving the artist a definite return for his work. 

First off, the Double Dealer sounds horrible. Good riddance. But secondly, it seems unfortunate that Hemingway’s advice, given almost a hundred years ago when publishing magnates still roamed the earth, is still relevant. Enter Connu—a new, digitally relevant source full of procured, purchased material. If that sounds more like a publishing company than an app, well…that’s because it is.

I recently spoke with Susannah Luthi, co-founder of Connu, who was kind enough to indulge me in a conversation about her experience as a classics major, journalist, and MFA-graduate-cum-techie who decided to schlep herself and her copies of The Aeneid to the San Francisco Bay Area in order to develop Connu. To date, Connu has received recommendations from writers such as Sam Lipsyte, Joyce Carol Oates, Aimee Bender, David Sedaris, Janet Fitch, Wells Tower, and Lauren Groff.


Take a look, it’s in an e-book / The Midwest loves Neil Gaiman

And there’s hard data to back it up.

Scribd, aka The Netflix of books that apparently 80 million of you already know about (I thought it was an app for people who like to doodle) has released the findings of who’s reading what in America. Some of the results may shock you. More after a word from our sponsors…

Just kidding. We don’t have sponsors.

So about that list. Illinois (American Gods) and Wisconsin (Neverwhere) can’t seem to get enough of English wordsmith Gaiman, while Tennessee and Arizona are basically fraternal twins separated by half a country, with the former checking out Tucker Max’s I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, and the later thumbing through the book based on the TV show based on the Twitter account, Sh*t My Dad Says. Stay classy, you two.

My personal favorite was Paulo Coelho’s allegorical novella / book most like to appeal to dreamers and/or wannabe tyrants (so I imagine–and I think The Universe might agree) The Alchemist striking a chord with Washington, D.C.’s literati. Alaska rounds out this curious sneak peak into our countrymen’s nightstands by choosing Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream and Dessert Book. Alaska. You are hardcore. Don’t you know there are cookbooks for soups? And charred meats? And pies? Basically all hot foods. Maybe check one of those out. There are no late fees.