Of the many, many (many) conversations that J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis carried on concerning God, faith, and the human experience (not that I’ve read them all), there is one I find more intriguing than all the rest. At the height of their respective literary powers, the two men spent untold hours attempting to work out how the Christian story fits into the wider pantheon of myths around the world. Out of that discussion came this:
“The biblical story can also be called a myth; but it differs from pagan myths, say Lewis and Tolkien, by being written by God in ‘words’ that were the actual lives of real people in definite places and times, especially Jesus of Nazareth. The Christian myth, in other words, is not primarily the words written in Scripture. It is the lives and actions of persons. These lives and actions are God’s message; they tell what God is doing….The myth is written in God’s speech in flesh and blood. That, both Lewis and Tolkien believed, makes the Christian story a ‘fact’ of history, not a fictitious expression of human wisdom created by poetic priests and prophets.” (Edward Henderson, p. 36-7, in C.S. Lewis and Friends, which I wrote about here & here).
This concept fascinates me on several levels. As a writer, I am enthralled with the idea that Creation is an ongoing act. So often, when that word gets used, it is spoken of in the past tense, as something that happened only in Genesis and then stopped. What this theory implies, by saying that God’s story is told through people, is that His Creation is still underway. In the same way that these very words are appearing before me as I type, so all of us and all of the universe appears before God as he gets His story down on paper (as it were). In another life, I fancied myself a fiction writer and would sometimes wonder if my characters continued to exist when I wasn’t writing their next action. Were they out there somewhere, in the ether, living a life I knew nothing about, like actors making a movie? Or, conversely, did their reality freeze in place when I went to get a cup of coffee? Of course, the parallel between writing and God’s creation is a dim one at best. He is operating with an omniscence and complexity of characters which would make Tolstoy weep. Nevertheless, it is an exciting prospect, isn’t it? To be able to trace a line, through the Faith, from the people of Scripture on up to our own lives. Not only does it add meaning to our own lives, but it amplifies the meaning of Scripture itself. No longer are we left with a narrative that ends in Acts, sort of trails off into the Epistles, and exits through Revelation. Instead, we find ourselves in medias res at the moment of birth, with the whole of the Bible to give us context.
Most faiths derive their teaching from some sacred text, stories which organize and describe their worldview. For Lewis & Tolkien, every other myth cycle is at best a simple record of quasi-historical events and, at worst, merely words on a page. The Bible is more than a record of events, even supernatural events. It captures the very Word of God as it is expressed through human lives. The Gospel of John opens with “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Couple this with Isaiah 55: 8-9, and this idea starts to become clearer: ” ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, / neither are your ways my ways,’ /
declares the Lord. / ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, / so are my ways higher than your ways / and my thoughts than your thoughts.’ ” To think that God would limit His expression to ink and paper is ludicrous. With all of His creative and infinite power, it’s only natural that He would make use of a language beyond our ability to grasp. That said, if you stop to think about the good, admirable people you’ve known, maybe it’s not so hard after all.
This train of thought comes rattling out of my brain in the wake of a good friend’s death. He was a good man, and a kind one, generous beyond reason. His hands were constantly filled with leftover food, extra money, or a solid handshake; they never turned inward, but were always extended out to other people. He would never have called himself a theologian and would have laughed at the idea that he knew much about God. Nevertheless, he lived his life in a way that proved otherwise. He might not have been much inclined to write a great deal, but his life was a testament to obedient faith. He was a Word of God. Through him, God spoke to people of love and steadfastness and a quiet sort of service. His deeds might not have been recorded with pen and ink, but they have been written on the hearts and in the memories of those who knew him. In this he takes his place in the great story, the great myth, of Christianity.
It would be too simple to say that his life inspires me to be a better person. That overlooks the complexity of what was at work. Rather, I think it more fitting to say I have learned from his life. I have learned what a good life looks like, in spite of hardship, and I have learned what God can can accomplish through any of us when we live with open hands. It’s a lesson worthy, I think, of the man who taught it and a story worth repeating.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
There are some books which grab you with pace, some with situation, some with falling elephants (see under Terry Pratchett). Few do it with voice, and even fewer do it with the voice of a gorilla.
I’ve always found voice tricky to adequately explain. This may be because it is exactly what it sounds like. Just as you can recognize people by the sound of their voice, you can recognize a good writer or narrator by the tone, the feel, of their words. For this, if for no other reason, Katherine Applegate earned her Newbery Medal. Gorilla though he may be, within pages, there is no doubt that you are listening to a story told by Ivan (the one and only).
Ivan is a silverback gorilla who lives in the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, sharing this preposterous situation with an elephant or two, a stray dog named Bob, and a smattering of other animals. Where some people might expect a gorilla narrator to run something like “Me Ivan, you Jane,” Applegate’s primate is articulate and emotive and sounds for all the world like an ape raised by humans, which is exactly what he is. Ivan, I suppose, is the anti-Tarzan in that respect.
“I used to be a wild gorilla, and I still look the part.
I have a gorilla’s shy gaze, a gorilla’s sly smile. I wear a snowy saddle of fur, the uniform of a silverback. When the sun warms my back, I cast a gorilla’s majestic shadow.
In my size humans see a test of themselves. They hear fighting words on the wind, when all I’m thinking is how the late-day sun reminds me of a ripe nectarine.
I’m mightier than any human form, four hundred pounds of pure power. My body looks made for battle. My arms, outstretched, span taller than the tallest human.
My family tree spreads wide as well. I am a great ape, and you are a great ape, and so are chimpanzees and orangutans and bonobos, all of us distant and distrustful cousins.
I know this is troubling.
I too find it hard to believe there is a connection across time and space, linking me to a race of ill-mannered clowns.
Chimps. There’s no excuse for them.” (p. 4-5).
In passages like this, Applegate captures the peacefulness of a gorilla at rest, mixing in a humor that suits him well. There is a tension present, however, born of Ivan’s environment. At first, only the reader is aware of the dissonance, but gradually Ivan’s contentment is disturbed to the point of action. As he shakes off his lethargy, he attempts to grow into his hoary mantle and, to some extent, he succeeds. To really become a gorilla, though, and not just a sideshow attraction, will require a difficult cost.
The novel, with only momentary exception, is devoid of the bittersweet flavor which almost seems a requirement with an animal main character. The story doesn’t provide the happy-go-lucky conclusion you might wish for Ivan and company, but it is heartfelt and real and satisfying. Throughout, the book is artfully written, full of well-balanced character development, and sometimes downright hilarious. Don’t let the Newberry fool you; this one is well worth anyone’s time.
P.S. Don’t skip the “author’s note” at the end. It’ll blow your mind.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Neil Gaiman is a writer out of time. Intentionally or not, he speaks like someone from another, earlier age. Not only does he trade in stories which disregard the modern boundary between the fantastic and the real, but he fills his pages with a voice rich in ancient echoes. It is for precisely these reasons that, in years to come, we may consider this novel his quintessential work.
The central story is framed by the reminiscence of a middle-aged man who has returned home to Sussex, England for a funeral. After the service, he drives past his childhood home, to the bottom of the lane, to the farm and pond which stir his memory. Initially, I was a little put off by the structure, thinking the story strong enough to have stood on its own. Gaiman is not one to waste anything in his fiction, though, and uses his “Epilogue” to close the book with a sort of wistful hope. Indeed, the novel would lose a great deal of its poetry and magic if the adult story didn’t serve to contrast the childhood happenings.
The lyrical efficiency of Gaiman’s writing is ultimately what makes this book work. In the hands of another author, this easily could have become a Goonie-esque, kid-centered adventure. Don’t get me wrong, I love The Goonies (Hey, you guuuyyys!), but The Ocean at The End of the Lane has so much say about trust and healing and hope, much more than old One-Eyed Willie could ever handle.
“I was not scared, though, and I could not have told you why I was not scared. I trusted Lettie, just as I had trusted her when we had gone in search of the flapping thing beneath the orange sky. I believed in her, and that meant I would come to no harm while I was with her. I knew it in the way I knew that grass was green, that roses had sharp, woody thorns, that breakfast cereal was sweet.” (p. 115).
Gaiman’s narrator speaks with the wonderful certainty of childhood, but also with the desperate confusion of having that certainty removed. Even in the most ethereal parts of the story, there is something comforting in his tone. The captured emotions represent universal truths of childhood and these surpass the particulars of the plot.
“They were not shadows any longer, not here, not in this place. They were all-too-real, and they landed in the darkness, just beyond the golden glow of the ground. They landed in the air and in trees, and they shuffled forward, as close as they could get to the golden ground of the Hempstock’s farm. They were huge–each of them was much bigger than I was.
I would have been hard-pressed to describe their faces, though. I could see them, look at them, take in every feature, but the moment I looked away they were gone, and there was nothing in my mind where the hunger birds had been but tearing beaks and talons, or wriggling tentacles, or hairy, chitinous mandibles. I could not keep their true faces in my head. When I turned away the only knowledge I retained was that they had been looking directly at me, and that they were ravenous.” (p. 153).
The malevolent Ursula Monkton, who appears in the main character’s home and begins manipulating his family was of particular interest to me. Her supernatural origins aside, she represents the kind of outside force which can subtly unravel an otherwise peaceful (though not perfect) situation. Not only could I sympathize with the child narrator’s inability to understand her power, but I also saw myself in the adults’ simple-minded blindness. This book is magic and fantasy used to its greatest end. Because none of us have experienced these particular events, we can all relate to them. The sorcery at work becomes a palatable metaphor for our own lives without reducing either the novel or the reader to base pedantry.
This is a wonderful book, but make no mistake, it is dark in places. There were sections which I found difficult to read because of the brutality and callousness shown. They were not, however, without merit. As I said, Gaiman wastes nothing in his writing and these instances should not be mistaken for sensationalism. The Ocean at the End of the Lane represents a master of both fiction and storytelling (which are not the same thing) at the very height of his craft.