Writing in Good Company

Why is Tolkien Scholarship Stronger than Lewis Scholarship? Part 2:  Literary Breadth and Depth | A Pilgrim in Narnia

J.R.R. Tolkien (left) and C.S. Lewis (right)

If there’s one thing that anyone who wants to be a writer ought to do, it’s read. A lot. Every day. Don’t stop.

As I race the calendar to finish writing The Witch Box, I find Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to be just the company I need. I’ve grown out of consciously trying to imitate him or anybody else (imitating C.S. Lewis really is a fool’s errand); but what helps me in my own journey is the tone of Tolkien’s epic fantasy.

There are books that I love but dare not read while I’m working on a book of my own. That’s because a little bit of those books will inevitably trickle into mine. I can’t help it. I don’t read Thomas Malory, for instance, because it will tempt me to say things like “Now turn we unto Helki…” It just happens, “if you take my meaning” (as Sam Gamgee, the hobbit, likes to say). I can’t stop it, so I have to find a way to use it.

Reading Tolkien as I write my book–or Eiji Yoshikawa, for another: they’re more like each other than you’d think–helps me to have a clearer vision of the scenes I’m trying to write. He reminds me to add details like trees, animals, weather, you name it, that will help me to make the scene come alive for my readers. And one of the great things about Tolkien’s style is, he never loads the reader down with too much detail–which leaves ample scope to the reader’s own imagination. I admire that, and strive to do the same.

This is what seeps into my own writing, done in my own way. And a bit of seasoning always comes in by way of other favorite books. Welsh folklore from The Mabinogion, for instance, plays its part in spicing up my writing. And in juggling the various subplots that go into any novel, who could guide me better than Edgar Rice Burroughs–or Charles Dickens? Sir Walter Scott also springs to mind.

So what I have going for me here is a whole platoon of writers whose work shows me, reminds me, and tutors me in what good writing ought to be. They are my backup, my supply line, my companions on the journey. I couldn’t do without them–

And I’m not about to try.

Why Won’t Kids Read?

Amazon.com: Mabinogion (Everyman's Library) (9780460872973): Jones, Gwyn,  Jones, Thomas: Books

This is a huge topic, but I’m going to confine myself to a single anecdote.

One day, substitute teaching for a third-grade class, I found the regular teacher had left me a bit short of lesson plans. I would have to fill the time somehow. So I told the class, “If you can pay attention, I’ll tell you some stories you haven’t heard before–stories of knights, and King Arthur, and monsters, and other worlds–everything that once made life so interesting. And I think you’ll like them.”

I told them stories from The Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh legends compiled some 800 years ago, although the stories themselves are surely older than that. All right, I edited out the saucier parts. But I kept the adventure, the humor, and the marvels–and next thing we knew, the day was all but done. The children loved those stories!

The point is, the most powerful motivation for reading is a lively desire to find out something. To know the story. To learn how to do something. For amusement, escape, comfort, enlightenment. It’s all written down–in books. Stuff you never dreamed existed. Things to set your imagination on fire. Any kind of story that you want to hear, any kind of information that you need to acquire. It’s all in books.

If you like reading, you’ll read. And the more you read, the easier it is.

They throw a lot of boring books at you in school; I’ve been there, I know. I plodded through those, but on my own time, sought out the books I really wanted to read, and read them.

Too many children have never experienced the pleasure, the fun of reading. And I think that’s what they have to get hooked on.

That’s where to begin. Read aloud to little kids, and they’ll eventually want to read themselves. But you do have to begin at home, well before they go to school.

Don’t leave them at the mercy of the social media.

‘My Enhanced Bio’ (2015)

See the source image

You name it, I’ve been there

I’ve been saving this post for a time when something just has to be done to pump up this blog’s readership; and that time is now.

My Enhanced Bio

You may think that this is all of my biography. You’d be wrong! I can invent more as needed. If certain presidential candidates can do it, then why not me?

I’d just like to think I do it better.

Beware the Gifts of Liars

Image result for images of gwydion the enchanter

I am reminded of an ancient Welsh tale from The Mabinogion.

The hero Pryderi, for services rendered, received a wonderful gift from the king of Underworld–pigs. At that time, those were the only domestic pigs in Britain. All the other chieftains were jealous.

For reasons too shameful to relate here, Prince Gwydion, trickster and magician, schemed to get the pigs away from Pryderi. He tried to earn them as a reward, but Pryderi had already promised the king of Underworld not to sell the pigs or give them away.

So Gwydion said, “I know a way you can let me have the pigs without breaking your promise: neither sell them nor give them to me, but trade them to me in return for something better.”

Pryderi’s eyes dazzled. In return for the pigs, Gwydion was offering him a dozen thoroughbred horses and a dozen pure-bred greyhounds, and both horses and hounds came fully equipped with trappings and accessories in finest gold and silver. Unable to resist such a wonderful offer, Pryderi let Gwydion have the pigs.

And Gwydion said to his servants, “We’ll have to drive these pigs off in a hurry, boys. The magic will only be good until the morning.”

And in the morning Pryderi’s steeds and greyhounds, and all the gold and silver, turned back into dead leaves, broken twigs, and toadstools: for they had never been anything but an illusion conjured up by Gwydion.

This was free stuff before free stuff was invented! This was a man who should have known better parting with something of real value in return for empty, glittering promises. Pryderi wound up losing his life, too: Gwydion killed him when he tried to recover his pigs.

Beware Gwydion’s gifts. If he were alive today, he’d be giving you Social Justice in return for your freedom. And whatever he gave you would turn into crap in the morning.

My Enhanced Bio

Here are a couple of my friends at Arthur’s court. They let you take pictures now.

I read somewhere that an author can sell more books if he’s had an interesting life. I have decided that makes sense. Herewith is my enhanced biography, full of stuff you never knew about me.

I was born at an undisclosed location, and it was not until recently that I learned my true origins, which I am not at liberty to disclose. To know that I walked the earth would be a mortal disappointment to a certain powerful government.

I was a Navy Seal when they were still known as Walruses. You could look it up. In 1968 we kidnapped Mao Tse-tung, but the White House made us give him back. This incident made me cynical, so I quit government service and went on to visit countries that are not supposed to exist, but do.

For two years I advised the Steward of Gondor, and if he’d taken my advice, they would’ve all saved themselves a lot of trouble.  I have been a vacuum cleaner salesman in Narnia, not one of my more lucrative enterprises, and an estate manager for Lord Greystoke, aka Tarzan of the Apes, in the country just north of Opar–places you won’t find on any map.

I have learned the name of him who comes when you whistle for him, O my lad, and I have visited most of the royal courts mentioned in The Mabinogion. At the court of Arthur, Kay threatened to expose me as a mountebank. Unwilling to change history by damaging Sir Kay, I wandered until I drifted into the country of Obann. There I heard the Bell of King Ozias sound from the summit of Bell Mountain. I return to Obann as often as I can.

I haven’t mentioned any of this stuff in interviews. John Carter says he’ll feed me to the Green Martians if I do.

A Wild and Crazy Book: ‘The Mabinogion’

What kind of kook comes up with a title like The Mabinogion? Well, strictly speaking, this book doesn’t have a title. It’s just some ancient stories that wound up in a collection in the Middle Ages, and later on the woman who translated them from Welsh into English decided to call it The Mabinogion because the first four stories end with lines like “With that this Branch of the Mabinogi ends.” Nobody knows what a Mabinogi is supposed to be. It may be a 19th-century editorial error.

Some of these stories were already terribly old when they were copied down 800 years ago. So old, in fact, that by the Middle Ages no one understood them anymore. We don’t know who first told these tales, or when, or whether anything in the stories is a reflection or a messed-up memory of something that really happened. All we know is that they’re really cool stories that people have been enjoying for a very long time.

My favorite is Math Son of Mathonwy, which is the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, whatever that means. It tells the story of Gwydion the Magician, who couldn’t find a wife for his son and so wound up making a flower-maiden–yes, that means a girl made out of flowers–to be the young man’s bride. Or is it Branwen Daughter of Llyr, in which the gigantic Bran the Blessed wades across the Irish Sea to rescue his sister Branwen from a cruel mis-marriage?

Back in the 20th century, Evangeline Walton rewrote the Four Branches of the Mabinogi into coherent fantasy novels, which were reprinted in paperback circa 1970, when the success of The Lord of the Rings created a nearly insatiable market for fantasy. Walton’s series, starting with The Island of the Mighty is really quite good. I enjoyed those books, and still have them.

But the original (if we may call any translation an original) is much wackier, and tantalizing. I keep asking myself, what are these stories really all about? I love to delve into the roots of things, but I don’t think anyone has yet dug all the way down to the roots of The Mabinogion.

These ancient tales, whose meaning has been dissolved by time, have provided much inspiration for my own Bell Mountain series. Not that I would dare rip off such startling scenes as “the cauldron of rebirth”–if one of your warriors is slain in battle, toss him into this big pot and he’ll come out a virtually indestructible monster–but I don’t mind borrowing a proper name or two.

Just dipping into The Mabinogion from time to time revs up my imagination. I think it might work some magic on you, too. Give it a chance.