In “The Lord of the Rings,” trilogy a young hobbit named Frodo, is picked to go on a journey to destroy an all powerful ring. These rings were created to give unearthly power to whoever possessed them. One was created to rule over all of them. Frodo was picked because his heart was pure and wouldn’t be so easily corrupted by its power.
(Spoilers below? Oh yeah.)
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!
Remember that “hopeless lute player” I mentioned last time?*
Did you know he had a direct effect on the composition of The Lord of the Rings?
In “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien gives Macbeth as an example of the incompatibility between fantasy and staged drama and argues that it’s “a work by a playwright who ought, at least on this occasion, to have written a story, if he had the skill or patience for that art.” He specifically mentions the Weird Sisters there, but he confesses in a letter to W. H. Auden that he felt “bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of ‘Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill,’” and though he never says so that I’ve found, I suspect he also felt let down by the use of the idea that “no man of woman born” could harm Macbeth. (SPOILER: MacDuff, who was delivered by C-section, orders his men to hide in Birnam Wood and disguise themselves as trees before attacking Dunsinane.) Thus, in The Two Towers, Tolkien shows Fangorn Forest—the trees themselves—marching on Isengard, and though it’s said that no living man can kill the Witch-king of Angmar, he meets his fate in The Return of the King at the hands of Merry and Éowyn.
Love him or hate him, you need to know Shakespeare’s works simply because their influence on the English language and on Western culture as a whole is incalculable. For example, no less a playwright than Friedrich Schiller adapted Macbeth for the German stage, and Hamlet and Much Ado about Nothing have even been translated into Klingon. Cinematic and television versions abound; IMDb lists over a thousand, ranging from an 1898 short of Macbeth to Joss Whedon’s version of Much Ado, with dozens more in various stages of development and production, and that’s not counting loose adaptations like The Lion King, Kiss Me, Kate, and McLintock! (My current favorite is the recent Royal Shakespeare Company rendition of Hamlet with David Tennant and Sir Patrick Stewart.) And then there are commonplace phrases that originate from Shakespeare’s plays. “To be or not to be” is obvious, of course, but “sound and fury signifying nothing,” “all the world’s a stage,” “brave new world,” and many, many more show up in everyday conversation without our even realizing where they came from.
Then there are the sonnets, a form Shakespeare made uniquely his own. Many of these have also become commonplaces—“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments,” “That time of year thou mayest in me behold,” and more—but they’ve also served as a model for sonneteers ever since. There’s even a Tumblr account dedicated to recasting pop songs as Shakespearean sonnets!
Not too bad for a 450-year-old “upstart crow,” eh?
* The Bill Facebook team tells me a preview should be out sometime around Christmas.
I’m taking a brief break this week from the Literature You Should Know posts to share some reflections on a topic that came up as I prepared to teach a poetry-writing class. Most of us found this blog through Taliesin Nexus and want to talk about culture because we’re content creators of a conservatarian bent. But whether you’re a poet, novelist, screenwriter, filmmaker, TV producer, songwriter, or blogger, I want to ask you one simple question:
Who’s your audience?
No matter what we write, we write for an audience, even if it’s only an audience of one. It doesn’t matter whether you immediately close the document without saving or burn the paper you’ve just written on—you wouldn’t put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard unless you wanted to say something to someone else. And audience awareness becomes all the more critical when you publish, regardless of medium.
Granted, the question need not arise at the outset. Sometimes you have to get the idea written before you figure out who you’re writing it to. And sometimes the audience you have in mind when you start writing and the audience who’ll appreciate what you have at the end of your first draft are vastly different, in which case you have to decide whether to keep going, revise heavily, or start over from scratch. Sooner or later, though, you’re going to need to figure out who your audience is, if only to make sure the marketing campaign takes the right path.
For example, when it came time to hash out a cover design for my novella Look Behind You, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted because the story mixes so many genres at once. Is it fantasy? Alt-history? World War II? Western? Trying to cram them all in would make for a terrible mess, but what should appear and what shouldn’t? I knew what the local market would find most interesting, but my cover artist knew that a broader market would be most interested in another aspect entirely! Fortunately, my rambling about where I plan to take the rest of the series helped her prompt me to look for other covers I liked in the historical fantasy field, and that got us on the same page at last.
Audience awareness doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be afraid to say something. It does mean you have to figure out the best way to say it and be willing to defend your choices if and when you receive any backlash. I know, for example, that some people in my hometown will pick up Look Behind You simply because I wrote it and be Shocked! at the fantasy elements (especially a Christian writing about Nazi necromancers!!!), generally because they’re unaware of the history I’ve incorporated. So I try to give fair warning when I talk to people, and I’ve written a blog post explaining that no, I’ve not gone off the deep end… and I’m leaving it at that. Caveat lector. Conversely, I’m sure there are people who’ll read the book for the Nazi necromancers and find other elements too Christian! And, well, caveat lector again… I went to Baylor, after all.
There are limits, though, to which caveat lector applies. One is the point at which it runs up against “show, don’t tell.” A long-winded digression on why people can’t just do the right thing isn’t going to be nearly as effective as Merry challenging the Ents to take action against Saruman in movie-verse The Two Towers or a group of cowboys conversing over a meal and a beer, expressing their dismay over the townspeople’s unwillingness to risk their own lives to help a neighbor. (I used the latter scene in Loyal Valley: Bystanders, if you want to see how it works.) Another limit is the point at which the message becomes more important than the story. A conservative/libertarian message isn’t any more attractive in this regard than a liberal one. If you’re writing only to people who already agree with you, it might not matter so much. If you’re trying to reach a liberal audience, though, it’s more important that the story be good—if you want to make a point about the ticking time bomb dilemma, for instance, write something like 24. Get the liberals sucked into an engaging adventure and then watch them squirm as they grapple with its implications.
You can’t reason people out of a position they weren’t reasoned into. But you can make them question their assumptions with a well-told story. And it’s easiest to craft the right story in the right way if you know your audience.
I was already planning to write on J. R. R. Tolkien’s collection Tree and Leaf this week before I read Sean Malone’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.
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?