Monthly Archives: February 2015

The story that wants to be written

There is a story within me that needs to be written. This is a phrase I’ve heard a lot of times before, and have understood at a superficial level to mean “I want to tell this story”, but recent reflections have given me a deeper understanding of it.

There is a story within me that I keep trying to write. The same story, in essentials. A relationship between two individuals. At the beginning of the story they are divided by a moral or ideological divide. At some point one is captured by the other, and both gain new perspectives about one another. A third entity comes to the fore whose ideals and morals are far more removed from either party than they are from one another, and who becomes the antagonist to both, though perhaps not to both at the same time. The character of the original two whose morality is greyer than the other’s may have worked for this antagonist at some point, knowingly or unknowingly, though certainly unknowing of the depths of the antagonist’s moral depravities. At some point, the earlier captor-captive relationship between my protagonists is reversed, and again both gain greater insight into the other. Subsequently, they unite against the antagonist, and use different skills, including those gained or honed as a direct result of their moral position at the start of the story, to defeat the antagonist.

Continue reading The story that wants to be written

A Year for More Reading: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis

It is quite a glaring omission that I, though a fantasy fan, have not read  The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe until now. I watched the film adaptations – the 1979 animated one as a child of maybe 6 or 7, at the house of an elderly neighbour who babysat us sometimes, and the live action one when it hit cinemas in 2005. So I was familiar with the overall story.

I wasn’t familiar with the writing though, nor how accurate the 2005 movie – or my slightly hazy memories of it – were. On this occasion, I opted for the audiobook, which is available for free on Youtube. I haven’t listened to audiobook since my parents stopped using the Just William series to keep myself and my siblings quiet in the back of the car on our way to our annual holidays. Given that The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is a children’s book, though, this seems appropriate (I shall have to make a point of listening to an audiobook for adults at some point).

One thing I particularly noted about the narrative style is how it wasn’t afraid of breaking the fourth wall. At one point, it refers to a previous action taken by a character as having happened “at the end of the last chapter”. This, coupled with the introduction addressing a particular girl for whom the story was written, and, perhaps, the fact that I listened to rather than read this story, made it feel quite intimate. It wasn’t immersion-breaking as I would have expected, but gave me a sense of sitting on my grandfather’s knee as he read the story to me. It’s comforting.

The simplicity of the language and of the plot is entirely what I’d expect from a children’s story. I knew in advance about the allusions to Christianity in the story and could recognise those easily when they cropped up.

There is often a question, in fantasy, whether stories should be used to preach, and in the course of my life my own beliefs have let me to side with one side of the argument or the other, but having actually listened to it I don’t feel that religion was preached to me through this story, but rather used as inspiration. And there’s nothing wrong with drawing themes and arcs from existing well known stories and myths, whether you believe in them or not. After all, Bridget Jones’s Diary is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice, altered to fit a different setting, just as this is a retelling of the end of Jesus’ life in the Bible, but set in a fantasy world. My lack of belief in the source material was not offended by it.

I think that’s the key thing I can take from this as a writer: that even using easily recognisable source material as a major inspiration for a story does not stop that story being unique, interesting and well-told. I have previously considered a writing a fantasy retelling of an event from the Peloponnesian War, the conflict between Corcyra and Corinth that started it all off; I think I need not be worried that this is unoriginal, if I can make it interesting.

Worldbuilding reflections: the ways the myths change

What really struck me when I researched my Phoenix article was the way the myth changed over time. When I started researching it I had a pretty good idea of what I expected to read – a physical description, plenty about burning into ashes and being reborn, maybe a story involving some mythical hero helping or being helped by it. So when I read first the Greek and then the Roman sources and found no reference to the bird actually being on fire at any point, and that these ideas only started to emerge in the later Roman and early Christian writers, it suddenly became a lot more interesting.

I think it’s hard to remember, when working on a world, that myths can and do change over time. They aren’t static. They change as the priorities of the society to which they belong change. To the Greeks and the early Empire Romans, the phoenix represented important aspects of their world: the cyclical nature of it, and the importance of deference to the gods and of carrying out appropriate funeral rites for one’s predecessors. It speaks of the stability of the world and the duties of its inhabitants.

But as the world changed and a new religion rose – a religion with resurrection at its very heart – and the Roman empire started to tear itself apart as emperor after emperor died violently after a short rule, that stability was no longer there, and filial piety was no longer at the heart of imperial rule as it had been during the Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties. Instead the key idea of the phoenix became transformation from something decrepit to something young and strong and full of hope – a motif that was perhaps very necessary in such uncertain times. At the same time the pagan elements – the central position of the sun god and his temple – were set aside to keep this pre-Christian pagan myth in line with church doctrine, and enable the church to use that message of hope borne from destruction without invoking pagan gods at the same time.

Then this motif of hope from the ashes of destruction was carried forward and embraced by those to whom it most resonated, who in turn added to the myth with complementary imagery and ideals.

In a fantasy world, each culture should have its own myths and beliefs, and while in a fantasy world a phoenix could well be real – or a dragon, or fairies, centaurs, gryphons and so on – that doesn’t mean that what people believe about those magical creatures, and the way a society views them, isn’t going to be informed by the society’s beliefs, its priorities and its core conflicts. And there’s not necessarily an “end point” to that – a point at which the myth can no longer change. It might seem today as though the core essence of the phoenix is fixed – widely embraced within our global society, so deeply embedded in our society it couldn’t change. But after some five hundred years of there being one singular image of what a phoenix is and what it represents to people – maybe Pliny the Elder felt the same.

A Mystery Book from my local library

I popped into my local library this morning, and saw they had a Mystery Books shelf – books wrapped up in brown paper, their titles and covers obscured. This is an idea I’ve seen on the internet a few times, and I’m thrilled my local library has latched onto it – though they’ve gone even further than some of the versions I’ve seen, and have given no information at all, where other libraries have given the genre, the title, or one or two key points of what sorts of things to expect. So I picked up one of the books, and I plan on adding it to my A Year for More Reading list.

Before I unwrap it, I’ll describe it: it’s a hardback, maybe about the same size as most of my hardbacks, though not very thick. What I assume is the front (it’s got the sticker with the catalogue number on that side) has the cover jutting out further than the back, so it’s probably been well used. So let’s see what it is then.

I’ve unwrapped it to reveal The Bishop’s Tale by Margaret Frazer. On the cover is a picture of a wooden chalice and a walnut, standing on a surface covered with a green cloth; in the background is a wooden cross on a wall. Quotes on the back cover indicate it’s historical fiction, so it sounds like it might fit in nicely with the Cadfael books I was reading over Christmas and New Year.

Inside, the last dates it was borrowed are May 2013 and May 2012, so it’s not been a popular loan recently, though there are multiple loans for every year from 2006 to 2010, and the stamp suggests it’s mostly been housed in a different library in the county, in a town much smaller than my town. There’s a page listing books by the same author, twelve of them, so this isn’t the first in the series.

The blurb on the inside cover – mentioning death and mystery as investigated by a nun – suggest I might be right about it fitting right into the same vein as Cadfael.

Time to get reading.