The Failure of the Soap Opera Romance in Manga and Other Mediums

I mention in an earlier post that it helps a shōjo manga if the characters have jobs. I've decided that, at least for me, it also helps if there are actual difficulties for the romance characters to overcome.

In Library Wars, Kasahara has to give
up her memory of the perfect guy
and deal with (grouchy) Dojo as he is.
She learns to do this as they work together.
This criterion creates an instant conundrum because I despise the soap opera romance, where the difficulties explode across every page to the utter disbelief of even the most accepting of readers.

So romance ("luv") by itself shouldn't run the story but neither should the crazy events (she had his baby, then he lost his mind, then his long-lost sister with whom he has an incestuous relationship returned after which the heroine was kidnapped by a wealthy motel owner . . .)

On the OTHER hand, I find Tail of the Moon--with its constant adventures--immensely charming. In fact, most manga series rely on continual external problems for their middle books. (And some manga writers are so good at continual problems, their series' endings fall a little flat.)

So, what's the difference (and I maintain there is one) between the romance run by a good problem and the soap opera romance run by (rolling my eyes) complications?

I think the difference is a direct heir of the "characters needing jobs" motif. The soap opera romance is run by whether or not the couple will fall into bed this time and is less effective (in my eyes) than the romance which is run by how the characters get along as they tackle a specific problem.

I've said it before. I'll say it again: no one did "romance
while a story is going on" better than Mulder and Scully.
We'll have to see if they can pull it off again.
The falling into bed may happen in the better type of romance/manga, and it may even be the point, but it will take place within a context that allows the characters to bond and grow, not simply shriek, "You never told me that your long-lost father is my uncle!" Castle rightly determined that simply keeping the relationship unconsummated by increasingly manufactured interferences was rather pointless, especially since the consummated relationship offered far more story potential.

Now the unconsummated romance of Darcy and Elizabeth IS the point of Pride & Prejudice but the issue on the table is not whether or not Darcy and Elizabeth will be kept apart forever (oh no, Lady Catherine de Bourgh just burnt down the Bennetts' house!). To an extent, their union is a given. The question is HOW Darcy and Elizabeth will come to understand each other as they tackle balls and errant sisters.

Increasingly bizarre and wild complications that separate a couple are far less satisfying than increasing understanding between two characters who face a single obstacle together. Such an approach also convinces the reader that the characters will survive as a couple. All the soap opera approach does is convince one, "Man, that relationship is doomed."

Supernatural and Philosophies of Interference: Sam, Dean, and Castiel

Dean, Castiel, and Sam
Supernatural seasons all deal more or less with the same issue: will one or the other brother's sacrifice save or hurt the other?

And yet every season is distinct because the answer to that question is informed by each brother's previous experience as well as the experiences and opinions of those who know them best.

Over the past 9 seasons (I am currently waiting for 10 to come available through my library), each brother--and Castiel--have formed a personal philosophy about life and people: when to get involved, when to stay removed. The philosophy of each morphs with time yet remains true to that character's personality.

Sam, Death, and Dean (Gadreel)
Sam's merciful approach to hunting--we should find out more before we whack someone (I'm rewatching from Season 1)--is intensified into a near libertarian philosophy by season 9. His approach of non-interference/live-and-let-live is obviously helped along, to a huge extent, by, well, causing the Apocalypse, which would send anyone into his personal crawl space. His seemingly inexplicable decision to not look for Dean (between Seasons 7 and 8) is due to an unfortunately linked self-belief: Whatever I DO will make things worse.

This is not exactly libertarianism which claims, correctly, that sometimes inaction is a positive act. Sam's point of view is far more subjective; consider, for example, the heartbreaking request he makes of Death at the beginning of Season 9: if he dies, it will be permanent and "no one will get hurt" by bringing him back.

To a large degree, Castiel--who has also burnt a number of bridges in his pursuit of the right course--agrees with Sam: it's better not to get involved. Castiel, however, is run by a slightly different set of desires, which continually pull him back into the action.

Sam and Castiel (Benny in the background) in Purgatory.
Castiel loves humanity, mortality, Dean, God*, and his fellow angels. The order varies, but Dean is almost always at the top of the list. This would be maudlin except it revolves around a core truth.

Arguing with Castiel, Metatron (played by the marvelous Curtis Armstrong) proclaims:
And the angel tablet--arguably the most powerful instrument in the history of the universe--is in pieces again and for what? Oh, that's right-- to save Dean Winchester. That was your goal, right? I mean, you draped yourself in the flag of heaven, but ultimately, it was all about saving one human, right?
From a military or economic point of view (both legitimate points of view, by the way), Metratron is right--giving up everything for one man might sound noble; from the above mentioned points of view, it is rather stupid.

From the point of view of heaven, however, it is utterly perfect, even Aslan-esque, hence the undisguised wonder in Metatron's voice. He is flummoxed yet impressed, disgusted yet awed. The preservation of one man is worth everything to Castiel. The individual matters!

Dean's philosophy might be best summed up as "sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." Dean is a romantic pragmatist who deals with whatever is in front of him at the moment. Unlike Sam and Castiel, he doesn't dwell on possible future ramifications as much as problems in the now. Interestingly enough, as C.S. Lewis would argue, this puts Dean closer to eternity than any of the other characters; C.S. Lewis argued that since the past is gone and the future is largely imaginary, the place where real action, affection, and faith occur is in the present.

Dean is run by a constructive desire--to keep his "family" intact. Out of all Supernatural's core characters from John Winchester to Sam to Castiel to Crowley, Dean managed the best to build a functional home-life (Season 6). And he left only when pushed to extremes.

Dean's disappointment in Castiel.
Who constitutes family in Dean's eyes is based, quite frankly, on who Dean decides should qualify. Once that person qualifies, he or she is in forever (his dad, Sam, Bobby, Kevin, Charlie). So, Castiel--who qualifies--is forgiven just about everything precisely because he belongs. (He is  not excused, however; one of Dean and Castiel's best scenes occurs at the end of Season 6 when Castiel tries to explain his betrayal to a furiously hurt Dean. In Dean's eyes, a family member can mess up but that member also has to shape up.) Blood is not automatically a factor: Sam qualifies but Samuel Campbell, Sam and Dean's grandfather, doesn't.

In sum, Sam wants to lead a life that doesn't cause others harm; Castiel wants to save the individual, and Dean wants to keep his home intact, which entails sometimes siding with Sam and sometimes with Castiel (or, rather, entails non-action or action as needed). All three positions have equal merit and the tension between these positions, which develop and expand with each season, create good drama.

*See Dean--I have my own theory about the missing God and Dean's true identity; see above notes regarding Dean's philosophy.

Thoughts on Gettysburg

A tender moment in the book and movie: Armistead
reminisces about Hancock, with whom he served.
Killer Angels by Michael Shaara: I read this book recently after my brother Dan praised it. It is a remarkable book due in most part to Shaara's generosity.

Michael Shaara has his own opinions about why the Confederates lost the battle. (In the afterword, Shaara states quite clearly that Longstreet's defensive strategies were ahead of their time.) What he avoids doing in Killer Angels (thankfully) is parceling out praise and blame. Characters praise and blame each other and themselves. Yet the author's tone is remarkably free of the kind of finger-pointing found in other books on the Civil War.

I don't know if the battle of Gettysburg is unique here but evidently soldiers, politicians, and authors both after the war and now have spent a great deal of time dismantling every moment of every hour and minute of Gettysburg for the purpose of arguing that if only X had done Y, Z would have happened.

In his book on Civil War battlefields, Jeff Shaara, Michael Shaara's son, acknowledges these arguments before he gently points out, in a similar spirit of generosity to his father's, that they are largely besides the point.

The point being (I am less generous): even if the Confederates had broken the Union line (which some people argue happened), where on earth would the Confederate army--what remained of it--have gone next? Does anyone really believe that they could have made it to Washington at that point and accomplished anything of purpose? The historians who make these arguments treat the battle rather like a Red Sox game--"If only so-and-so had just caught that ball in the third inning!"--ignoring everything except remote outside possibilities that could only have occurred if certain disparate events had managed to collide. (They also tend to ignore things like, "Um, the soldiers have been fighting all day. They literally can't walk another step," and, as my brother Joe has pointed out, supply lines. These aren't chess pieces; these are people.)

Michael Shaara, on the other hand, is concerned more with what happened and what the people involved possibly thought than in discussing "if onlys."

Joshua Chamberlain: Apparently, the Gettysburg National Military Park attendants are tired of people asking only about Chamberlain (because of the book and its movie, Gettysburg). Other things did happen that day! In comparison, I feel a surge of adopted state pride: Go, Maine! (Maybe history is all a ballgame, after all.)

What impresses me about Chamberlain isn't so much the swinging fence bayonet charge (another part of the war that disgruntled historians like to debate), which is admittedly impressive, but what he did before it (the movie helped here with visualization). Hours into the day, to stretch the line, he sent one set of men from the front to the back followed by another set of men rather than sending men at the furthest end out further, so the line would stretch but never be broken.

Regarding the bayonet charge, the argument is that Chamberlain didn't suggest it first, nobody could hear Chamberlain's instructions over the noise, and many other people helped it happen. True! But Chamberlain is like Paul Revere to me--first he is mythologized, then he is demonized, then everybody realizes that the mythology was closer to the truth all along.  

Manga and Austen: Types of Romance Heroes and Heroines

Thanks to my niece Kezia for this
graphic novel.
Eugene's post about Kimi Ni Todoke got me thinking. Many manga series present a strong, silent hero (Sano from Hana-Kimi, for instance) who is wooed and falls heavily for the somewhat more extroverted heroine (Mizuki).

Ah, Darcy and Elizabeth!

So, I pondered, to what Austen couple would a comparatively extroverted (but still introverted) hero like Shota and a far more introverted heroine like Sawako equate?  

Captain Wentworth and Anne, of course!

That takes care of Pride & Prejudice and Persuasion. What about the rest?

Dr. Umeda
Northanger Abbey: an impressionable, imaginative young woman and a slightly older, slightly awkward guy who uses clever quips to get through social situations?

Usagi from Tail in the Moon and Mizuki from Hana-Kimi qualify for the heroine role while the vulnerable young man who uses quips to hide his insecurity is best captured by Yoh of High School Debut.

A number of supporting characters also use snarky quips to hide insecurity, such as Dr. Umeda (Hana-Kimi), Juta (Otomen) and, flipping genders, Asako in Library Wars.

Emma: a bossy, interfering chick and an exasperated, older hero?

High School Debut
This is difficult because NOBODY in Japanese literature compares to Emma. Emma is a woman who imagines what is best for people and then goes and tries to make it happen from behind-the-scenes without checking her facts. Most manga heroes and heroines spend far more time mulling over whether or not to even get involved.

In High School Debut, for example, the madcap heroine is more concerned about living up to what she thinks a girlfriend is supposed to be like than trying to boss other people around while in Hana-Kimi, Mizuki--who always wants to help--frets for several issues over whether or not to speak to Sano about his father.

Library Wars (Dojo scowls a lot :)
Library Wars possibly works since the heroine, Kasahara, is quite impulsive, and the hero, Dojo, gets exasperated while remaining fascinated. And Kasahara does take action. Still, she isn't a behind-the-scenes type.

Neither (switching genders) is Ran of Flower in a Storm, a cute manga (in the over-the-top, too-much-sugar sense of "cute"). Despite being too direct, Ran's unrepentant interference makes him a decent Emma while exasperated Riko makes a good Mr. Knightly.

Usagi in Tail in the Moon comes the closest although her trouble is more too-much imagination (see above) and "rushing in where angels fear to tread" than a deliberate desire to force events to a certain end. Still,  like Emma, her "rushings in" cause more problems than solutions. And patient, lecturing Hanzo does qualify for the part of Emma's hero, Mr. Knightly

Mansfield Park: a heroine who lives-in-her-head while observing others and a hero who hasn't a clue what he wants until the very, very, very end.

I failed here. Most manga heroes know what they want by the 2nd volume, even if, as Eugene states, "he's not going to broach the subject with someone he knows isn't going to broach it either. As I mentioned, this can get annoying fast."

Kira of Mars makes a great Fanny (heroine of Mansfield)--she has that core toughness--but Rei is far too aggressive to make a believable Edmund (hero). In general--I'm inappropriately speaking for all women here--a novel where the guy frets over another woman for most chapters isn't terribly romantic. But then, hey, I'm the kind of woman who thinks Eponine of Les Miserables should let Cosette have Marius and focus on someone with more backbone.

Perhaps (flipping genders) . . . Asako and Tezuka (Library Wars) . . . 

Impressive novel! Less fun romance. 

Q is for Quintessence (Including the Quixotic)

No comments:
Ellery Queen: Jim Hutton with the marvelous John Hillerman
Quattlebaum, Mary: I completely and totally and utterly forgot that I read Quattlebaum for the first A-Z list--which makes me wonder, How many more authors have I forgotten!?

Queen, Ellery: I enjoy the short stories; I enjoy the television series with Jim Hutton even more!

Quick Amanda: I started reading an Amanda Quick simply so I could expand this list! She writes romance fiction of the Georgette Heyer variety. Not quite as funny but decently delivered.

Quindlen, Anna: I tried reading Quindlen for the same reason as Quick. Unfortunately, Quindlen writes the kind of stuff that I never read. It's all about terribly-unsettling-things-happening-to-people. I do read realistic fiction, such as the marvelous The Art of Racing in the Rain and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and I've been trying to parse out what the difference is--I think it comes down to a basic idea: I expect drama to have a sense of the ridiculous.

It isn't that I expect drama to always be funny or unrelentingly sarcastic or, for that matter, chipper. I simply expect the author to indicate through tone or worldview or word choice that not everything, even the author's terribly serious worldview, is as serious as the author thinks it is, at least not in the long-run. In LOTR: The Return of the King, Tolkien has Sam reflect on the temporary nature of his and Frodo's suffering while they are still in the middle of Mordor. Sam decides, in essence, There's more to life than our quest. He doesn't think, This too shall pass; I'll look back on my trials as nothing, which would belittle what he and Frodo are going through. He thinks, rather, The universe will keep rolling no matter what, which is far more comforting.

There's more to life than my petty worries. Jesus stated, "It is like unto children sitting in the markets, and calling unto their fellows. And saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented." In other words, stop trying to get people all freaked out by your oh-so-important-concerns (you, radio pundits).

Okay, I added the radio pundit part. But I expect good writers, no matter how serious in the moment, to feel this way in their heart of hearts: I have something to share, and I think it matters, and I want you to take it seriously, but if I start screeching havoc, I'm probably going to feel a little silly.

If a writer doesn't understand this, it is hard for me to take that writer, well, seriously.

Quinn, Julia is a sweet & steamy romance writer. I quite like her Bridgerton series, especially Romancing Mr. Bridgerton, which I consider one of the best sweet & steamy novels I've ever read; the main characters are writers, and the novel includes one of the best discussions of how to write descriptively that I've ever read (see below). Her later books are more chick-lit than straight romance. The difference can be subtle but it is basically the difference between a novel that focuses on the main characters--hero and heroine--and a novel that gives you lots and lots of context. Chick-lit involves way more shoes. Quinn doesn't focus on shoes, but her later books do involve a lot of plot complications. Hey, if that's what the audience wants . . .!

Altogether, this list brings me to a point that often gets ignored: books aren't reality. They are, by necessity, edited versions of circumstances: the writer decides what to leave in and what to take out. And this by itself is a skill.

If you read summaries on IMDB, for example, you can almost always tell those that were written by professionals versus amateurs. Amateurs make the same mistakes in summarizing that freshmen college students make:
This happened, then this happened, then this, oh, and then this other thing happened earlier. 
Bob goes to see Gary and he wants to know why he sold him a bad car and while he is there, there is this flashback and we learn that Gary gave Bob a bad stock tip twenty years earlier and he also remembers . . .
Here is the professional summary:
Bob has to deal with Gary, who cheated him before.
The ability to do the latter rather than the former is an ability, a skill, a talent. Deciding what to share and when, then tailoring those decisions to a specific audience, is the critical thinking behind every piece of writing.

Quinn Excerpt

Give the Romantic Character a Job: Manga Does It Right

Library Wars
Like all literature, including supposedly avant garde literature, the pleasure of reading involves two elements: (1) encountering recognizable and recurring motifs; (2) encountering unique ideas, characters, and viewpoints. C.S. Lewis said it best when he described the human race as desiring new experiences at the same time as regular ritual. Go ahead and travel--but make it home for the holidays.

Go too far in either direction (sameness v. change) and something gets lost. In general, I write in favor of ritual and the familiar. Stock characters, universal motifs: I'll indulge myself in them over and over again and never complain!

Today, however, I'm issuing a slight complaint. SOME distinctions are important, especially in romance fiction.

Case in point: a paranormal romance series (one novel for each hero's story) in which the author created a hunky guy with mad computer skills and a sly sense of humor (think Reese and Finch combined). Throughout most of the series, this character retained his hacker abilities and sarcastic edge. When it came time for his own book, he lost it all! He became the generic warrior who fights demons--no computer skills, no hint of wryness.

Sano high-jumping.
It is hard to know how much of this is the writer and how much the audience. Obviously, the writer was capable of individuating the character in the first place! On the other hand, books in series tend to accumulate a fan base who love the books no matter what the author does (there really is nothing wrong with the audience wanting the same thing again; it's just disappointing to readers who thought a little difference might enter the mix).

The problem of providing genre romantic characters with a difference can often be solved by simply giving the main characters jobs, then remembering what those jobs are. 

Giving the hero and heroine jobs also prevents the after-the-novel-ends question: "Okay, so now they are married. What on  earth will they talk about for the rest of their lives if they can no longer talk about their growing romance?"

Manga writers are especially good at remembering to ground their characters in SOMETHING, perhaps because it is harder to ignore a character's lack of personal application in a visual medium. A list of shōjo manga heroines and heroes with jobs follow:


Mizuki doesn't have a job per se (although she ends up getting interested in photography) but her character is so willing to dive into anything from working at a resort to dressing up for a ball to modeling, the lack of a specific goal is immaterial.

Sano works at the high jump (and keeping Mizuki out of trouble).

Library Wars (can't wait for #14!)

Kasahara is a soldier.

Dojo is her lieutenant.


Kira is an artist.

Rei is a motorcycle racer.

In some ways, Kira is the ultra-quiet, ultra-feminine character who "tames" wild man Rei through her gentleness (although, interestingly enough, her gentleness occasionally causes problems). Black Bird character Misao falls into this category (see below). Kira's interest in art, however, gives her a distinct edge, especially since Rei admires her ability and even agrees to model for her (he almost always falls instantly asleep--to the point where one character says, "Kira, why are all your pictures of Rei sleeping?")

Kare First Love is similar to Mars in the sense that it follows the growing relationship between two people in a realistic, modern setting: Karin (student) and Kiriya (student and photographer). Karin's job as student is taken quite seriously (see Dengeki Daisy below).

Black Bird

Misao doesn't have a career. I present her as an exception to the usual rule since she is serious about being a companion/wife to Kyo in a way one rarely sees in American YA literature. Both American and Japanese literature tackle the supposedly female role of cooking, cleaning, raising children, looking after hubby. For understandable reasons, American authors are far less comfortable with a female character who decides, yes, that is the job I want--Is that really okay? Isn't it limiting?   

Although manga series will raise these questions (and regularly decide, yes, it is too limiting), the Japanese wife/mother character who does embrace that role is applauded with equal fervor. She is also, often, a force to be reckoned with. Misao has a similar personality to Kira (see above), being quiet and self-effacing; like Kira with Rei, she will call Kyo to account loudly and directly with no loss of face.

Kyo is the leader of his clan.

Tail of the Moon

. . . which has got to be one of the silliest, most adorable manga series I've ever read.

Usagi is a wannabe ninja and skilled healer who gets into trouble at the drop of a hat.

Hanzo is a ninja who spends most of  his time worrying about Usagi.

Dengeki Daisy

Teru is a very good student who wears herself out to get stellar grades; she is supported in this by her supposedly delinquent boyfriend. See, in Japan, even the delinquents take schooling seriously! (Okay, sorry, that was a total stereotype.)

Kurosaki is a custodian/hacker/computer programmer/supposed delinquent.

Give your characters something to do--it is always more interesting than letting them sit and around and get angsty!
Teru and Kurosaki work on school grounds.

Daughter of Time: Research & History, Claims 4-7: Don't Bother Arguing with Politicians

No comments:
Robert Shaw and Paul Scofield as Henry VIII
and Sir Thomas More from the excellent
1996 version of A Man for All Seasons
Source 5: The History of King Richard III by Sir Thomas More

Grant reads the "official" version of Richard III, The History of King Richard III by Sir Thomas More. He finds it less than helpful.

Claim 4: Sir Thomas More was not an eyewitness to Richard III's rise to power and subsequent death.

This is true.

Grant's revelatory moment regarding Sir Thomas More is worth quoting (mostly) in full:
Grant had switched off his bedside light that night, and was half asleep, when a voice in his mind said, "But Thomas More was Henry the Eighth." This brought him wide awake. He flicked the light on again. What the voice had meant, of course, was not that Thomas More and Henry the Eighth were one and the same person, but that, in that business of putting personalities into pigeon-holes according to reigns, Thomas More belonged to the reign of Henry the Eighth . . . How old was More when Richard succeeded? He was five . . . Everything in that history [by Sir Thomas More] was hearsay (emphasis added).
This is the kind of revelation that political students, not historians, get freaked out by: ohmygosh, all history is a lie! Grant is a detective, so he treats the matter like a detective:
And if there was one word that a policeman loathed more than another it was hearsay. Especially when applied to history. He was so disgusted that he flung the precious book on to the floor before he remembered that it was the property of a Public Library and his only by grace and for fourteen days.
Grant's insight leads him to Claim 5: More was biased in favor of the Tudors.

Grant does not actually use the word bias--thankfully. I personally dislike the word since it smacks of deliberate, conspiratorial deceit. "Bias" can be deliberate. Most of the time, however, the author simply has an invested interest, the term I use when teaching research. Tey points out that Thomas More was Henry VIII's Chancellor. Even though Henry VIII sent More to his death (eventually), More worked for Tudors, not Yorkists.

This title demonstrates the kind of
SHOCK I find irritating. See notes below*
When I teach research, I try to push my students to be skeptical without being cynical: to realize that every source has its own agenda or purpose but to not slide too far in the "ohmygosh, all history is lie!" direction (see caption to Loewen's book). There is nothing particularly notable about realizing that there is more to a story than the small bit one currently knows ("Ohmygosh, I was lied to in high school!") or that different eras emphasize different aspects of history. There is always more to learn, and there are always more sources to uncover. That doesn't make history "relative"--it simple makes historical research complicated.

Grant's disgust at Sir Thomas More doesn't lead him to conclude that the War of the Roses never happened. He leads him rather to Claim 6: The character of the writer does not automatically make his or her opinion accurate (likewise, someone's poor character doesn't make his or her opinion wrong). 

Grant reads The History of King Richard III because he was recommended the book by people who admire More as a man who died for his principles--therefore, anything he writes must be true.  Grant reflects:
The fact that Sir Thomas was a martyr and a Great Mind did not cut any ice at all with him, Alan Grant. He, Alan Grant, had known Great Minds so uncritical that they would believe a story that would make a con man blush for shame.
Grant and his soon-to-be-hired researcher will later argue Claim 7: Someone other than Sir Thomas wrote The History. I consider this final claim regarding More's book to be a mistake on Tey's part (although she isn't the originator of it). Claims 4, 5, and 6 are enough to bring The History into doubt (it is usually considered literature, not history, in any case; Tey's point is not that it isn't literature but that it shouldn't be used as history). Trying to protect More's reputation by putting the book at  someone else's door is unnecessary.

My position: Ignore This Kind of Thing
However, Tey's first three claims here are completely valid and they count on both sides of the equation. That is, Tey uses them to demolish intellectual hoity-toityness but they can be used to demolish popularity-based or politicized history and science as well. Whenever I'm sitting in a meeting where people start throwing their pet experts at each other to support their pet political positions, Tey is whom I think of--no matter what that position is from the evils of GMOs to the evils of gays to the evils of fundamentalists to the evils of the NRA (or not) to the evils of Healthcare reform (its messy and stupid, not evil) to the evils of the Tea Party to the evils of evolution to the evils of creationism, blah blah blah blah blah.

"My expert is really smart," one political advocate yells at the other, "and everybody agrees with my expert-- even the press says so--and we can totally see it happening in these selective news reports that I got from my favorite radio or television pundit--and if don't believe me, the world will fall apart tomorrow--I'm the ultimate Chicken Little, and the sky is falling. Listen to me!!"

Ignore them all. Grant and his soon-to-be-hired researcher will start over their research of Richard III with primary evidence (more posts to follow) because Tey is right: if you aren't sure which expert to trust, then figure out where the experts are coming from, don't leap on the bandwagon of the person with the loudest voice and weepiest cause.

*Loewen's title demonstrates the kind of SHOCK I find irritating. It would be more accurate to write, "Half-truths my teachers taught me because like all people, including me, they have their own opinions." Or "inaccurate and incomplete information my teacher passed on due to lack of time." The idea that high school teachers are either deliberately teaching untruths or too stupid to teach the truth is a logical fallacy and does not prepare students for the ordinary and normal (mis)uses of information that occur in a democratic society with a free press.

Learn to discern, not to blame.

Daughter of Time: Research & History, Claim 3

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Claim 3:
Source 3: A "Constitutional" History

This is the type of history book where "kings and queens were mentioned only incidentally . . . Constitutional History was concerned only with social progress and political evolution; with the Black Death, and the invention of printing, and the use of gunpowder, and the formation of the Trade Guilds, and so forth . . . [Grant] turned the pages and marvelled how dull information is deprived of personality."


'Nough said. 

Tey follows Source 3 with Source 4, an invented piece of fiction called The Rose of Raby by Evelyn Payne-Ellis. My theory is that Tey may originally have wished to write an historical novel about the War of the Roses but her detective fiction roots pulled her in another direction.

Henry V, portrayed here by the excellent
David Gwillim, fought wars at 16
He succeeded to the throne at 26.
Actors who play Henry are almost
always older than the man they portray.
It's a virtuoso role!
There are no large claims attached to Source 4 though Tey brings out the youth of the princes, kings, and kings-to-be of the time period. Edward, who became Edward IV, was fighting wars at the age of 18. He was crowned at 19. He died at 40. After Edward was briefly deposed in 1470, Richard helped him retrieve the throne. He was 18. Through Edward's reign, Richard operated chiefly in the north; in his 20s, he was leading soldiers in battles with Scotland.

Since the average life expectancy was about 40, 18 obviously meant something different than it does now although this is complicated by math. So many children died in childbirth, 40 is low almost by default. However, the fact remains that nobody took for granted the expectations of the modern age regarding life and death.

On the other hand, sources have pointed out that members of the merchant and peasant class did not treat 18 as adulthood in the sense that reaching 18 automatically meant ALL the accoutrements of adult life. Outside the upper classes, people in the Middle Ages actually did wait to get married until their mid-20s, mostly for financial reasons. As far as Shakespeare is concerned, Romeo and Juliet truly are as young as we think they are.

What strikes me in any overview of the Middle Ages is the sheer expediency of the ruling classes: the kid looks old enough to be married even though he hasn't hit puberty, hey, let's marry him to a princess. The young man can lift a sword, so give him an army.

Personally, I've never understood people who think it would be grand to live as royalty then or now. Me, I'll take a solid middle-class trades background in any time period.

Anti-War or Anti-People's Ideas About War? Reflections on The Dirty Dozen

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Where two of the tallest men in Hollywood and Telly
Savalas walked towards a tank.
I recently watched Kelly's Heroes. It came with The Dirty Dozen, so I watched that too.

Kelly's Heroes is a heist romp with tanks (there are few things in life as satisfying as watching tanks roll over stuff).

The Dirty Dozen left me nonplussed. I'm still trying to figure out what I think. I completely disagree, however, with the reviews that claim it is an anti-war movie. Despite being the most intensely iconoclastic film on record, its message (if it has one) seems more Kipling-esque than anything.

Kipling believed that  (1) the British Empire was worth saving; (2) it would only be saved by mavericks like Stalky, not Eton-breed boys who dressed up in uniforms and ran war according to accepted "rules." He foresaw--and sadly endured--the utter destruction of World War I that was largely caused by the Eton-breed, boy mentality (for an excellent movie on the stupid yet practically inevitable series of events that preceded WWI, check out 37 Days). In Kim, he created the ultimate maverick--just civilized enough to be trustworthy yet not enough to undermine his usefulness.

Wladislaw (Charles Bronson) becomes Reisman's 
second in command. Here they are infiltrating
a Nazi-occupied chateau.
Hence The Dirty Dozen with John Cassavetes (Franko) as the Kim figure. The convicts with the most military training, such as Wladislaw (played flawlessly by Charles Bronson), are the most trustworthy. Except all the convicts consider the U.S. Army to be their enemy as much, if not more, than the Germans (in fact, the convicts show more empathy for the enemy in the end sequence than does Reisman, all of them balking slightly at their final orders). Yet they are absolutely loyal (except for Maggott) to each other and, in the end, to Reisman (or is he absolutely loyal to them?). They also quickly adjust to change; their killings (except for Maggott's) are specific, localized, and reluctant. Although they are temperamentally hostile and anti-authoritarian, the violence of their criminal acts is essentially unlike the violence of soldiering (not better or worse, simply unlike). Everybody's violence is unlike Maggott's, and Posey's violence belongs in a separate category altogether (Reisman intelligently places him on demolition duty rather than in the house).

There is no X marks the spot. Out of all the movies I've seen in the last two years, The Dirty Dozen reminded me most of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. As I mention in the linked post, The Rocky Horror Picture Show presents its alternative culture completely indifferent to whether its audience approves or not. The Dirty Dozen feels like that. If there is a theme (and there probably isn't) it would be, "This is what war is. What, you think it's pretty? You think people don't do stuff like this?" To say this is "anti-war" doesn't seem to capture the narrative's detachment that lasts right up to Wladislaw's final indifferent response to the generals.

With less detachment and more joie de vivre, Kelly's Heroes carries a not totally dissimilar attitude. The most remarkable thing to me about Kelly's Heroes is the honest (and true) appraisal that as a motivator, money is more moral than ideology.

P is for Ponderances on Problem Novels

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As well as the Cadfael series,
Ellis Peters wrote the George Felse series.

"P" is full of prolific writers whom I think I've read (except I haven't) simply because they ARE so prolific: Patterson, Picoult, Plaidy, Pym.

As for the ones that I have read:

Pargeter, Edith is the given name for Ellis Peters (see below)

Paton, Alan wrote Cry, The Beloved Country, a fine novel.

Paton Walsh, Jill is best known now for her sequels to Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey-Harriet Vane novels. I quite like the first Thrones, Dominations. The others are okay. However, I strongly disagree with Paton Walsh's portrayal of Charles Parker in the The Attenbury Emeralds. Charles Parker is one of my favorite characters of all time.

Paton Walsh is a fan of Wimsey, and she has him take point on this, the first case of his career (or at least the first where he works with Scotland Yard). I consider this incorrect. From the history provided in other books, it is clear that when Charles and Wimsey first meet, Wimsey was (to borrow a modern term) a trifle spastic: hovering on the edge of a break-up and breakdown, at loose ends with his life. Charles supplied a stable point in Wimsey's post-War experience. He was the detective who showed Wimsey what the job of detective entails. He was not the hanger-on.

This is one problem with fan fiction: the main character, who attracts so much fan attention, is portrayed as perfect, untouchable, the same person at the beginning of the series as at the end. But even heroes have to grow!

I've read a number of Anne Perry's mysteries and occasionally pick up one of her Christmas mystery novels. I think she is a good writer in general with a powerful comprehension of the Victorian Era. I'm not a bigger fan for two reasons: (1) the confrontational endings. (2) Monk and Hester's marriage.

(1) The confrontational endings. Perry uses a type of ending common in many mysteries where the good guys not only expose the bad guys' crimes but the bad guys' sins. This is similar but subtly distinctive from Poirot or Miss Marple's end-of-case summaries. Poirot and Miss Marple use their psychological insights to explain the crime. Other mystery writers use psychological insights to create a confessional moment. I have a difficult time believing in the confessional moment, just as I have a hard time believing in criminals who confess on the stand.

The confessional ending is similar to the endings of
Matlock episodes. The difference--Matlock is pure
camp while confessional endings expect to
be taken seriously.
Confessional moments in literature remind me of Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead. Card is another skilled writer who nevertheless presents a rather improbable idea (in terms of human nature). A "speaker for the dead" presumably shows up and speaks THE TRUTH at a person's funeral. This SPEECH OF TRUTH supposedly cleanses the community.

Eh. I think it is more likely that 1/4 of the community would totally agree with the speaker's "truth" and take it to heart; 1/4 would agree, then promptly forget what the speaker said; 1/4 would completely disagree; and 1/4 would say, "Honey, I thought this was supposed to be a short service?"

The reality is that most criminals (people) will go right on believing they are justified, no matter how much confessional-inducing psychology is thrown at them. NCIS captures this quite well in "Caged." An inmate, who has accepted her guilt, says the following to McGee:
First few years here, I was angry at everybody. Blamed the world for my crappy childhood. Then I got in a Prison Program, training seeing-eye dogs. One day I'm training this puppy, and it hits me. I killed an innocent person who didn't do any harm. Now I can't wait until the day I die. So I can find that soul and apologize for the terrible thing I did. Look, I don't know if Celia did what they say. But if she did, I don't know what it'll take for her to face up to it.
A way more realistic speech than a dozen sobbed confessions provoked by outraged speechifying.

(2) The Monk-Hester marriage. 99.9999 percent of the time, I'm in favor of the hero-heroine's marriage. Unfortunately, I don't believe in the Monk-Hester union.

It isn't precisely the "two tough people in a marriage will have fireworks" problem. I completely accept the Wimsey-Vane relationship. I find the Devlin-Hero (C.S. Harris) marriage enchantingly believable.

The best audiobook reader
--bar none.
Monk and Hester, unfortunately, strike me as both too diffident, too remote, and too critical (of themselves and others) to successfully surmount the problems raised when two tough people with baggage decide to join forces. Monk is aloof. Hester is combative. Neither seems to have the fundamental, objective humor of Wimsey, Vane, Devlin, or Hero.

I do like them individually--and as friends. 

More mystery authors follow:

I discussed Peters, Elizabeth when I addressed "M"s.

Peters, Ellis: The excellent writer of the Cadfael series! I recommend her lesser known George Felse novels that begin in the aftermath of World War II. The first book is Fallen Into the Pit; the first Felse book I encountered, however, was Death and the Joyful Woman, read by the astonishing Simon Prebble. I loved it.

Poe, Edgar Allan is a true master. He deserves the homage by Richard Edgar Alexander Rogers Castle, whose "books" I have not yet read. I have read Edgar Allan Poe; his classic "The Tell-Tale Heart" is one of those short stories that gets assigned in literature courses--and it deserves to be!
Potok, Chaim is best known for The Chosen. However, my favorite book of his--lent to me by my college roommate--is My Name is Asher Lev.  I now own my own copy.

Daughter of Time: Research & History, Claim 2

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Thomas Stanley, 7th Earl of Derby,
"served three kings, namely Henry VI,
Edward IV, and Richard III" according to
Wikipedia. He was wiser than many of
his peers and died of old age, not the axe.
After perusing the chronological, story schoolbook, Grant turns to a the "School History proper." Rather than divided by story, the book is divided by reigns. After reading the synopsis of Richard, Grant then reflects on the War of the Roses.

The War of the Roses, short version: Henry IV (Lancaster) takes the throne from Richard II (York) and feels terribly, terribly bad about it (according to Shakespeare). Henry V succeeds and goes to fight wars in France. Nutty Henry VI succeeds and wafts about. Edward IV (York) takes the crown from Henry VI twice (the second time, Henry VI is disposed of rapidly, i.e. murdered); Edward IV is the father of the famous princes (who include, technically, Edward V). Richard III succeeds when Edward IV dies and the princes are declared illegitimate. Henry VII (Tudors) brings over troops from France, kills Richard in battle, and takes the throne. 

Grant argues that the War of the Roses was "more of a blood feud than a war . . . a small concentrated war, almost a private party . . . No one was persecuted for being a Lancastrian or a Yorkist."

Eh. No. Here is where Tey, through Grant, is mostly wrong (with a little bit of right). In a country where kings were still perceived as ruling by divine right--and who stayed a king was a matter of continental politics--the switcheroos of British monarchs had long-ranging
Jane Seymour, wife #3, died giving
birth to Henry VIII's heir. At Henry III's death,
one uncle become Edward VI's protector and
was later beheaded. The other wanted to marry
Elizabeth (Mary would actually succeed first)
and was beheaded. This all took place before
Edward even died (within six years of
Henry VIII's death).
economic  impact, especially since the soldiers of any battle were often comprised of peasants who worked for a lord who had decided to back a particular side (Shakespeare does a fairly brilliant job explaining this in Henry IV, Part II).

The little bit of right is that, as with Henry VIII's wives, while the messiness of brawling royal families hurt everyone from farmers to merchants (Tey needed to read the Cadfael mysteries), the short-term politics of the war had sudden and explosive ramifications for the aristocratic families involved--the ones who invested themselves in one dynasty or another by trying to marry their children into particular families or by backing a particular power-broker. 

Pick the wrong side in modern-day America, and you have to wait four more years to run. Pick the wrong side then and wave goodbye to your entire family. 

Unless, of course, you are the clever Stanley, who arrived at the Battle of Bosworth and did absolutely nothing until it was all over . . .

Death in Fiction and Why Doomsdaying is So Irritating

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Coulson to Loki: "You lack conviction."
I mention in an earlier post that too many writers use death as a cop-out. It is, unfortunately, easier for writers to claim profundity when they kill off a character than to acknowledge the truth: they didn't know how to pay off the character properly.

Does killing off a character ever work? I think it can (there are all those Shakespearean tragedies after all) but certain factors apply:

The Character Has to Matter

I used to think that the problem arose when the character didn't matter, but I lately changed my mind. The last season of The Mentalist kills off a character, Vega who is exclusive to that season--and the death was pointless (not in the nihilistic sense, which I will get to later, but in the pointless writing sense). Vega didn't matter enough to The Mentalist franchise to merit a death.

On the other hand, Agent Coulson in Marvel's Avengers did.

Without being a major character, he was important enough to the other characters, to the franchise, and to the narrative arc that his death was not simply shocking (look what we did! we can kill off whomever we want!). It had a narrative function.

The Character Has to Be More Interesting Dead than Alive

Vega, as Kim's protégé, was far, far, far more interesting alive.

I'm a huge fan of Coulson's character and was from Day 1; regarding the movie, however, he had nowhere else to go and nothing more to offer. His character had accomplished everything it needed to accomplish within that context. Likewise, in Buffy, Buffy's mom--although an excellent character--had nothing more to offer the series after Season 3; her death was useful in creating one of Whedon's strongest episodes, "The Body."

Much the same could be said, by the way, of Hamlet. And King Lear. The characters have done all they can do--'nuff said.

This isn't true of most characters. Generally speaking, writers kill because paying off a character in an interesting and constructive way is difficult.

Speaking of which . . .

The Death Should be Interesting and Constructive

Star Trek: TNG  brought back Tasha Yar after her first pointless death because having her die in Romulan captivity was about two billion times more interesting (and produced a number of excellent episodes).

Lord Jim dies nobly. Simba's dad dies trying to protect his son as does Nemo's mom. Joss in Person of Interest brings on her death through her inexorable sense of justice (the writers do a great job with her character; her "tragic flaw" is hinted out as early as Season 1). I hate to use the overused and hackneyed phrase "They made a difference" but, yeah, they did and so did their deaths.

Yes, yes, I know that death can happen for no reason, but . . .

Nihilism is Old Hat

Penny's death in Dr. Horrible accomplishes nothing but to point out the randomness of death and give Dr. Horrible something to wrap his adolescent mind around.

And so what?

The problem with pointing out that DEATH CAN STRIKE ANYONE! OH MY GOSH, IT'S SO DARK, AND, LIKE, YOU KNOW, LIKE, DEATH IS HARSH, YO! is that anyone who is even vaguely grown-up already knows it.

I was sad to lose her, but Joss's death provided
constructive pay-offs, especially for Elias.
Her death mattered.
About every fifty or so years, someone needs to point it out, just as about every fifty or so years, someone needs to write about the wretchedness of the human existence or make some point about the futility of trying to do the right thing or paint a bleak dystopian picture of the future, blah, blah, blah. Lord of the Flies was written in 1954. I guess we're due for one more classic along the same lines.

But that's it. After it's been said once (and well), it becomes a one trick pony. Killing a character for the sake of a nihilistic message is the same reason I DETEST doomsdaying (from politicians, religious people, pundits, economists: I'm an equal opportunity detester of doomsdaying).

People who love to doomsday will often try to argue that it is necessary to face the truth, see life as it is, deal with reality or whatever tripe they have convinced themselves to believe, yet all this supposed insight rarely produces anything constructive. There's a kind of religious attitude (in the sense of being entirely faith-based) embedded in doomsdaying (even when produced by non-religious people) that equates saying all the negative stuff with being in the right camp. Accept the nihilism--you too will be saved!

By all the people too busy to be nihilistic presumably.

Real real life--not overintellectualized real life--can be painful. It can also be joyous. In between is all the weird, dull, everyday, compelling, fun, delightful, thought-provoking stuff that doesn't get resolved by easy cop-outs. The struggle is the thing that carries us through a decent story, and the struggle is not automatically negative.

Stephen King says it best:
A tragedy is a tragedy, and at the bottom, all tragedies are stupid. Give me a choice and I'll take A Midsummer Night's Dream over Hamlet every time. Any fool with steady hands and a working set of lungs can build up a house of cards and then blow it down, but it takes a genius to make people laugh. 

O is for Occasional

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Anthony Andrews perfectly captures
Sir Percy Blakeney's unique blend of fop
and champion.
Apparently, I don't read enough Irish authors. As with "N", my list of "O" authors is not that long:

I have read Flannery O'Connor's well-written rather horrible story "A Good Man is Hard to Find." It is one of those "classic" stories that students have to read in Intro to Lit courses. I've never cared for it, but another tutor and I were able to use O'Connor's story to illustrate the principle of multi-interpretations when we debated the grandmother's last line to the Misfit: "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my children!"

Is she losing her mind? Has she had a revelation of mercy? Does she feel compassion for the Misfit? Does she recognize the similar mindset between her and the Misfit?

"You see," we told the students (who were hoping we would just tell them what the story "means"). "We both read the story and have differing viewpoints. We have to defend our interpretations with evidence from the text."

Ah, formalism at its best! 

Ogilvie, Elisabeth: I read one of her books for book club. She does saga writing, a genre I hardly ever read (although I am currently giving Outlander a try).

O. Henry. Marvelous writer. Best known for short stories like "Gift of the Magi." The enchanting Wishbone's Dog Days of the West is based on an O. Henry character (and is the best, most hilarious Wishbone movie of the series).

Orczy, Emma or Baroness Emma Magdolna Rozália Mária Jozefa Borbála "Emmuska" Orczy de Orci: I haven't just seen the movies; I've read The Scarlet Pimpernel! Speaking of . . . the movies, I highly recommend the Anthony Andrews' version.

Orwell, George: Animal Farm, naturally! Good book. Not the kind of thing I read more than once.

Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey: An Exploration of One Writer's Claims about Research

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One of my favorite books is Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time. In this fictionalized novel of scholarly detection, Tey's Scotland Yard character, Alan Grant, delves into the truth behind the Princes in the Tower: Were they killed by their uncle Richard III?

It is the ultimate Richardian defense. It has flaws--for one, it is more than likely that one of Richard's cohorts did dispose of the princes. Unfortunately, many Richard III scholars who disagree with the Richardians tend to belittle Tey's novel, to the point where they ignore some of her fundamental (and valid) points.

The latest Richard III book I tried to read made complimentary noises about Daughter of Time being a good read . . . for sweet little ladies. I'm not kidding about the last part. It was the most patronizing and appallingly stupid remark I'd read in a long time. And the guy called himself a scholar!

So I decided that it's time someone took Tey's claims about historical research seriously. Not her claims about Richard III necessarily. But her larger points about history, sources, and scholarship. If I taught a course on research, this is the book I'd have people read. Hopefully, an examination of Tey's claims will explain why:

The novel begins with Grant, bored. He broke his leg chasing a suspect, so he is stuck in the hospital for several weeks (Daughter of Time was written in 1951; nowadays, Grant would get stuck with a few pins and be sent home.)

Grant's long-term girlfriend Marta Hallard suggests that he entertain himself by investigating a historical mystery. To get him started, she brings him pictures of various historical personages. Richard III's portrait (see above) is amongst them. Grant is so struck by the man's face (he doesn't look like a monster!), he begins to investigate.

Claim 1
Source 1: A schoolbook. 

Grant gets two schoolbooks from a nurse. The first is the type of tertiary source where history is broken up into chronological stories: "all in clear large print and one-sentence paragraphs." Tey writes:
This, after all, was the history that every adult remembered. This was what remained in their minds when tonnage and poundage, and ship money, and Laud's Liturgy, and the Rye House Plot, and the Triennial Acts, and all the long muddle of schism and shindy, treaty and treason, had faded from their consciousness (p.25). 
So true! I love the fascinating intricacies of history, the complexity that one discovers by delving into a single moment of time. Things look smooth and non-complex from the outside. From the inside, they are series of causes, consequences, choices, and randomness: everything at once!

However, I am a big fan of teaching the simple, orderly history that actually gets remembered. In my American & New England Studies program, I encountered students who complained about this "high school" approach. People should know that the North also owned slaves! People should know that there were multiple reasons for the Civil War! Stepping back a hundred years, it's true that more people than Paul Revere headed out to warn colonists that the "British are coming!"

Not the Middle Ages. Plate 3 from Hogarth's
The Rake's Progress, 1732-1733.
Except it turns out that Paul Revere's message had greater impact and spread to more people than either Dr. Prescott's or William Dawes' (see Gladwell's The Tipping Point). Longfellow's choice of hero carries a core of truth!

Besides which, knowing history stories is far less upsetting (and problematic) than a lack of knowledge about history--as when well-educated adults confuse the Middle Ages with the 1700s (I'm not kidding). I don't expect every educated adult to understand that the King James Bible was largely influenced by Tyndale's Bible. I don't expect them to know that Europe in the Middle Ages endured more than one plague. I don't expect them to know that plague doctors did in fact improve their doctoring methods (although nothing to the equivalent of antibiotics). I don't even expect all of them to know that the Dark Ages (Rome falls) is not the same as the Middle Ages (people pick up the pieces).
I do expect the average educated adult to know the distinction between Classical Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. Things do get slightly more confusing after that. Still, the "modern era" belongs in a different category from the Middle Ages.

I have sympathy with those teachers and scholars who want to emphasize the complexity of history. I personally get quite irritated when people try to argue the one-way version of history ("Once upon a time, people were prim and proper about sex; they've gotten less prim and proper every decade until now when things are at their worst!"). The Regency era, for instance, was far more raunchy than the Victorian Era (which followed it) and even, in some ways, far less self-conscious about its raunchiness than us moderns are about ours.

Things don't always work to clear patterns. C.S. Lewis, for example, argued that the Renaissance was not a clean break with the Medieval Era. And he's right! (Tey will make a similar point later on.)

Still, knowing that the Renaissance represents a specific historical era is a place to start. The saddest aspect of history in school is that not teaching the simple, supposedly "bad" version of history doesn't give students any place to hang their hats. If they don't know the classic stories about the Revolutionary War, how will they understand the debates about the Revolutionary War? If they don't know when the American Civil War took place, how can they understand the attending complexities of the Civil War?

I recently had a student who didn't know what courting was; when he found out, he decided to write a paper about it (the sort of decision that makes teachers smile!). He got a long of things wrong (such as the assumption that every culture before "now" promoted arranged marriages). But at least he now knows that there was a "then"! Trying to explain the role of arranged marriages (and the semi-arranged marriages of Austen's time period) would be impossible if he didn't have a "then" in the first place.

Better simple, clear, chronological stories from history than a lot of different ideas about history with no context. 

Coming up . . . Source 2: The Other Schoolbook

25th Published Short Story!

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The latest issue of Space & Time, #123, includes my 25th published short story "Solvency."

In a futuristic economy with medieval overtones, Macworth must torture a corporate spy, also his wife. In a desperate attempt to avoid this duty, he enters into risky negotiations with an untrustworthy scientist.

This story is connected to a previous story, "Verbal Knowledge" published in Tales of the Unanticipated #29.

A full list of my published short stories can be found on my fiction page.

Published novellas can be found at Peaks Island Press.

The Extraordinary C.S. Lewis: Theology in Fiction

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The 1988 version is not as watchable as the
2005 version, but the actors do fine jobs,
including Jonathan R. Scott as Edmund.
Writing about religious individuals and their lives has been done effectively (I second Bless Me Father as an excellent British sit-com!), especially when the writers stick to character and story.

Writing religious motivations effectively is a much more difficult prospect for believers and non-believers--especially if those religious or theological motivations are part of the problem and need to be paid off in some way. As Eugene states, "[The bigger worldview] has to surface sometime, else the plot will end up chasing its own tail."

What makes C.S. Lewis so effective is that he wrote from within his religion and mindset and he knew how to ground abstract ideas in the everyday.

Edmund's choice to betray his brothers and sisters in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is horrific when contemplated abstractly. His literal sin is a violation of every chivalric, pagan, and religious code that Lewis took seriously. It requires  absolution or atonement beyond an "I'm sorry" and "I forgive you."

It's big.

Yet the extraordinary C.S. Lewis manages to make it small, concrete, real, and horrible all at the same time. Edmund is no Mr. Evil. His betrayal is grounded in petty jealousy, vanity, and greed (for Turkish Delight supposedly; for the power to boss people around, most definitely). Mixed in with Edmund's vices is also a feeling of "I'm going to get back at people" and an almost obscure need to stick to the path he is on ("The Queen isn't so bad; I didn't behave wrongly by telling her about Lucy's faun; I have to keep going even though I'm wet and cold.")

He is utterly and completely comprehensible, no mean feat when it comes to betrayal.

The lowest circle of Dante's hell is
ice, not fire.
He also utterly and completely betrays his family. This is necessary to the denouement of LW&W, Aslan's sacrifice on Edmund's behalf. In order to comprehend the need, the audience must comprehend the violation caused by Edmund's behavior. Despite being a child, Edmund hasn't stolen a candy bar or called someone a bad name or hit someone. He has effected what Dante considered the worst sin: Treachery. In the lowest point of Dante's Inferno, Satan--who turned his back on God (Supernatural is classically right to have the angels refer to each other as brothers)--chews on Brutus, Cassius, and Judas Iscariot, the ultimate betrayers.

And yet, unlike Dante, Lewis wants us to mourn for his traitor, Edmund, to wish for his restoration. Edmund is us yet himself, his own character. We want his salvation because we see ourselves in him and because we care for him.

Through Edmund, Lewis prepares us for a recounting of the theological event which wedded the ultimate abstraction with the ultimate reality: God made flesh; God on a cross. What makes this even more extraordinary is that Aslan is not supposed to be an allegory or mere symbol, an easy out for a writer. He functions in LW&W as an individual character performing the same ritual for a new world.

We see the ritual through Lucy and Susan's eyes. This is story, not a theological treatise (Lewis himself stated that the entire story began with the image of a lion), and story is important! Yet Aslan's motivation makes or breaks the scene's place in the narrative arc, and it is grounded in something bigger than Edmund's brothers and sisters feeling bad (although that is one facet of the decision). Rather, it is grounded in an underlying, consistent worldview.

Grounding it in "Edmund must be saved to save Narnia" works (clever Lewis grounded it in more than one thing). Ultimately, however, Lewis uses an abstract concept to defend Aslan's decision. Edmund's sin is represented as larger than the people he immediately harmed--in violation of an eternal law. Aslan sincerely wishes to save him, is capable of doing so, and has access to the power--the Deep Magic--that makes Edmund's salvation possible.

The entire novel lies on the knife-edge of getting us, the readers, to accept both character's behaviors as believable because their motivations are plausible. Their motivations are plausible because the underlying "rules" of Lewis's world are plausible (though wisely never fully delineated).

Without the novel's conceptual framework, Edmund becomes merely a problematic bad boy who went off the rails until a good parent came to the rescue. Not a terrible plot. Cute, sweet, Touched by an Angel-ish (hey, I've seen a couple of episodes!), it falls short of a timeless narrative, myth in the best meaning of that term. 

Many readers have felt that C.S. Lewis succeeded even without believing (or being aware of) the Christian context. The characters are real because what motivates them is real and vice versa.

Unfortunately for writers, doing what Lewis did is quite difficult--even in fiction with secular ideologies. Depending on the context, a writer may need to convey, "My characters believe in something bigger than themselves"--like the environment, for example--only to produce characters with vague motivations who vaguely want something that readers have to struggle to care about, despite there being a concrete threat or narrative arc.

Granted, environmentalism is pretty much a pit of vagueness but this issue is a recurring problem with characters that require substantial ideologies as backing for their singular, concrete acts, especially religious characters. Why do they care? What do they want? Why do they make such sacrifices and take such risks? For ideas? Just ideas? Is that enough? George Bernard Shaw tried but without a true (not crazy) belief in her visions, Joan of Arc doesn't make much sense.

In my fiction, I find it easier to stick to material and personal motivations--and I recommend that most writers do the same. If we're lucky, the bigger stuff creeps in. Much of it crept in with Lewis, but it takes a master to go straight-on at something so big ("a Stable once had something inside it that was bigger than the whole world") and humanly incomprehensible as the Christian Atonement, Passion, and Resurrection, make it work as a believable story yet not bog it down in saccharine, over-explanations, or coy platitudes.

The exceptions make the rule.