A few years back there was a Lego movie. It’s name escapes me right now. Anyway, the Lego movie was thought to promote collectivism and criticize capitalism. The makers of the Lego movie (whatever it was called) denied an anti-business agenda BUT… the bad guy in the film was named “Lord Business.”
Well, a few years have passed and now we have The Lego Batman Movie on our hands. Perhaps to bring a Ra’s al Ghul-ish balance to the cinematic Lego-verse, this film asserts a strong critique of police policies largely revealed through the Barbara Gordon character. Her shedding of the commissioner’s uniform (Don’t get excited, it’s a PG film) in favor of her Batgirl costume formalizes her abandonment of supposedly enlightened law enforcement policies.
In the first reel Police Commissioner Jim Gordon finds himself in a crisis: The Joker has assembled a huge bomb to blow the literal floor out from under Gotham City. Gordon does what the G.C.P.D. does best: Call BATMAN!
At semester’s end, professors and teachers everywhere face one of their least favorite tasks: grading exams. Seriously, it’s hardly ever fun for anyone. J. R. R. Tolkien was no exception. In fact, one day, he got so bored that on a page that a student had left blank, he wrote what surely seemed like an inconsequential and fairly silly line: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
Little could he know then that he’d just written what was to become one of the best-loved first lines in all of literature.
Like a number of his other books, including Letters from Father Christmas, Roverandom, and Mr. Bliss, The Hobbit started out as a story Tolkien wrote purely for the enjoyment of his children. But at the encouragement of C. S. Lewis, Tolkien revised it enough to pursue publication, and it was accepted by Allen & Unwin at the recommendation of the editor’s ten-year-old son, Rayner Unwin, who grew up to become Tolkien’s chief publisher. In announcing the book’s publication in 1937, Allen & Unwin hailed it as “the children’s book of the year,” and C. S. Lewis’ first review states, “Prediction is dangerous; but The Hobbit may well prove a classic.” Yet apparently, almost no one was quite prepared for how successful The Hobbit would be or what would follow when readers clamored for a sequel—least of all Tolkien himself.
Writing to Santa is a time-honored tradition among English and American families who celebrate Christmas. But did Santa ever write you back? If so, I hope his letters were as entertaining as the correspondence “Father Christmas” carried on for over twenty years with J. R. R. Tolkien’s children, preserved with as much love as shone through their writing and published after Tolkien’s death as The Father Christmas Letters (later revised as Letters from Father Christmas). Tolkien’s humor, inventiveness, and artistic talent made these letters a wonderful family tradition well worth sharing.
Beginning in 1920, when Tolkien’s eldest son John was only three years old, Tolkien wrote his children a letter from Father Christmas at least once a year—more often in later years, acknowledging receipt of the children’s messages and promising a longer letter at Christmas. Each letter is itself a work of art, written in a shaky hand to indicate Father Christmas’ great age and usually decorated somewhat in the style of medieval manuscripts. But more often than not the letter is also accompanied by a drawing or watercolor that illustrated Father Christmas’ adventures at the North Pole, which are described in greater detail in the letters.
And such adventures Father Christmas has! Most involve his friend and helper Karhu, the Great North Polar Bear, who causes all manner of mischief and often adds marginal peanut-gallery comments in a runic-looking hand, with spelling errors that would be completely at home on I Can Has Cheezburger. Later letters also include continuations by Ilbereth, the Red Elf who becomes Father Christmas’ secretary, and the cast of characters grows to include Snowpeople, other Elves, and the Cave Bear, along with Cave Bear and Polar Bear’s nephews and distant relations. Usually, the stories are pure slapstick comedy, like Polar Bear falling through the roof or down the stairs or testing the tap for the Rory Bory Aylis and setting off two years’ worth of Northern Lights all at once. And then there are instances of the characters snarking at each other in the margins, such as when Ilbereth has been talking smack about what Polar Bear eats and Polar Bear calls him “you thinuous elf.”
“He means fatuous,” Ilbereth remarks.
“No I don’t,” Polar Bear returns, “you are not fat, but thin and silly.”
Occasionally, however, Father Christmas has to deal with a more serious threat: goblins who live in caves under the North Pole and steal presents. Cave Bear, Polar Bear, and Father Christmas stumble upon a nest in 1932 quite by accident, and though they drive the goblins out that time, other years see the goblins return in force to try to conquer the North Pole. One attempt, not coincidentally, comes during 1941; Father Christmas tells Tolkien’s daughter Priscilla, “I expect the Goblins thought that with so much war going on this was a fine chance to recapture the North.” Other real-life concerns intrude during the Depression and the war, with Father Christmas explaining a shortage of presents several times by saying that he needs more room in his sleigh to deliver food and clothes to families that have none. On a lighter note, however, after Oxford’s hosting of a flood of evacuees during the Battle of Britain in 1940, Father Christmas writes that the North Pole has also had evacuees—penguins!
These letters provide a fun glimpse at the state of the Tolkien household through the years—changes of address, new additions to the family, children going off to school and considering themselves too old to hang up stockings. There’s even a brief reference to The Hobbit in 1937! But more than that, they showcase just how much Tolkien loved his children and used his talents to bring them joy, especially around the holidays. The smiles they bring the rest of us are merely an added bonus.
People who think of C. S. Lewis only as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia or as a Christian apologist forget—if they ever knew—that he was a professor of English literature, first at Oxford, then at Cambridge. As such, he published a sizable number of critical essays and reviews and gave talks and interviews on the subject. Twenty of these appear in On Stories and Other Essays on Literature. Apart from specific reviews of and tributes to authors like J. R. R. Tolkien, H. Rider Haggard, and Dorothy L. Sayers, the collection examines what story is and what makes it work. It thus contains useful advice for any writer, regardless of religious or political persuasion, especially those who want to write works with any kind of message.
“On Stories” focuses on one of the most overlooked aspects of storytelling: why one would choose to tell (or read) one particular story and not another. Among his many examples, Lewis cites the 1937 adaptation of King Solomon’s Mines, in which he felt the screenwriter had ruined the story by replacing the original ending, involving the quiet horror of being trapped in a crypt, with an action-packed volcanic eruption and earthquake. He concedes that this ending might be more cinematic but argues, “There must be a pleasure in such stories distinct from mere excitement or I should not feel that I had been cheated in being given the earthquake instead of Haggard’s actual scene…. Different kinds of danger strike different chords from the imagination.” (Paging Peter Jackson!) By contrast, David Lindsey’s Voyage to Arcturus, which Lewis admits is lacking in style, nevertheless captures a spiritual element that most pulp “scientifiction” of the ’30s and ’40s missed. “On Science Fiction” similarly criticizes stories that are sci-fi only because they’re set in the future or in space but would otherwise fall into conventional genres like romance or thriller. Rather, Lewis argues, the futuristic setting “is a legitimate ‘machine’ if it enables the author to develop a story of real value which could not have been told (or not so economically) in any other way.”
The danger, as Lewis sees it in “On Stories,” is that the plot of any given story is a sequential series of events that has to serve as a net in which to catch some wholly non-sequential idea, and it’s very easy for the author to miss the target. Yet sometimes a given plot or genre is the only net that can catch a given idea. Lewis explores this point in more detail in “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” and “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said,” both of which cite Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories.” In “Sometimes,” drawing on Tasso, Lewis posits a distinction between two writing impulses, one arising from the author as author and one from the author as human or citizen. The Author cares only about the story material, which carries with it implications about form. The Man, however, is concerned about everything else, including the story’s message. Only when the two work together can a good story result. Here Lewis cites his experience in writing the Narnia books, which began with pictures that coalesced into a story that needed the form of a fairy tale. Only after the Author had gotten that far did the Man assert himself by looking at the potential for fantasy to present a moral message in ways the audience would accept. Had he tried to reverse the process and start with the moral, he would have failed.
“On Three Ways” contrasts this method, in which a fantasy for children was the only form the story could take, with an approach that views children as a generic target audience who all like the same juvenile things. Not only is the latter method condescending, its proponents are usually wrong about what kids like, and “a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story.” Finally, to the argument that fairy tales are too scary, Lewis answers, “Since it is so likely that [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage…. Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let the villains be soundly killed at the end of the book”—sound advice even when writing for adults!
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.
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.
“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.
Tolkien 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.
Fantasy 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?