Friday, June 23, 2006

Tolkien and Lewis: Moses in Narnia?

Here's something from my notes a year ago when I was writing Talking of Dragons. This is also in the book itself.

Recently, it occurred to me that there is a Bible story told in miniature in The Last Battle. This is nothing unusual: Lewis' writings are filled with this sort of imaginative re-telling (the story of the Garden of Eden in Perelandra; the Tower of Babel in That Hideous Strength; the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), usually with a creative twist, but this is one I've not noticed before.It involves Tirian, last king of Narnia in The Last Battle. Notice some key facts about his story:

1. He is of the royal house in a great country.

2. His people have become enslaved by a foreign power.

3. He sees one of the slave-drivers beating one of his countrymen.

4. He flies into a rage and kills the slave-driver.

5. He flees for his life.

6. This act causes him to lose his noble and royal position.

7. He returns to lead his people to freedom.

Sound familiar? It should, for it mirrors the story of Moses as recounted in the book of Exodus. But remember: Lewis usually adds a twist when incorporating these Biblical narratives into his fiction. In this case, it involves the entrance into the 'Promised Land': Aslan's Country. Moses is forbidden (at least for the time being) to enter the Land, but Tirian, in this apocalyptic reversal, does enter the Land. Of course, the Land he enters is the True Narnia, of which the Narnia of Tirian's world (and the Caanan of Moses's world) is but a type and a shadow. Through Aslan (Christ, the greater New Covenant counterpart to Moses), we have been guaranteed entrance into that Country by faith alone. When we do get there, we shall surely find, like Tirian, that, 'the term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.' (The Complete Chronicles of Narnia, 524)

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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Polycarp: The Crown of Fire

Here is information on my first book, Polycarp: The Crown of Fire.
Praise for Polycarp: The Crown of Fire

'A stirring read for young people.'
Reformation Heritage Books.

'...very well researched and blends fact with fiction to make an exciting adventure story for seven to 12-year-olds, set in the days of the persecution of the early church by the Roman Empire.'
Wendy Mason, Evangelicals Now

'Let yourself be transported to a world far different than our own through the writings of Newsom. It is a very insightful lesson.'
Trisha Bleau,

This was my first book, a children's historical novel (though it is a book, I trust, that adults can enjoy as well) on the life of one of the most famous martyrs in church history. It is the third in the Torchbearers series (novels on the lives of Christian martyrs) published by Christian Focus in Scotland. Click the linked title above above to buy the book at the CBD (Christian Book Distributors) website, where they also have a summary and an excerpt from the book. You can also buy or order it through local bookstores.


Polycarp: The Crown of Fire

So few people understand what happened in early Christian history. They have never even heard of names like Polycarp. They need to read books like this one in the TorchBearers series, which is amazing, so that they can meet these great figures in Christian history. These people, like Polycarp, have amazing stories to tell, if only we are given the chance to learn them and read. Author William Newsom has given us that chance now. He has shared his research and learning, as well as his creative imagination, as he has put together this story on Polycarp. Readers are introduced to the early church during the time of the Roman occupation and the extreme persecution that drove the Christians underground in to the catacombs. Let yourself be transported to a world far different than our own through the writings of Newsom. It is a very insightful lesson.

Trisha Bleau,

Faithful to deathPolycarp was the bishop of Smyrna and a disciple of the apostle John. It was to Polycarp’s church that John wrote in the book of Revelation: ‘Do not fear what you are about to suffer... Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.’ And suffer he did, choosing martyrdom in his old age rather than denying Christ.

The book is very well researched and blends fact with fiction to make an exciting adventure story for seven to 12-year-olds, set in the days of the persecution of the early church by the Roman Empire.

To help separate fact from fiction in the telling of the story, there is a time line at the back of the book of actual historical events, and a synopsis of the lives of some of the characters who appear in the story.

I have a little gripe about the presentation of the book. The print is very small and the cover uninspiring, but these things are reflected in the price. I also wonder if the author has tried to cover too much ground for young readers by addressing some of the conflicts faced by the early church, interesting to adults but perhaps detracting at times from the excitement of the story.
Nevertheless, we all, young and old alike, need to be reminded of early church history and of those who laid down their lives for the gospel that the legacy of truth might be passed on to future generations.

Wendy Mason, Park Evangelical Church, Stoke on Trent

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

G.K. Chesterton

I recently listened to a great lecture on G. K. Chesterton by the inimitable George Grant. Having heard it, I rushed, as any sensible person would, to read some Chesterton. I re-read his novel (actually he says it's a nightmare, not a novel) The Man Who Was Thursday. I got more out of it the second time around, as you might expect. Since then, I have read The Flying Inn, Four Faultless Felons, and The Everlasting Man. Chesterton wrote everything: literary criticism, social and political commentary, theology, epic poetry, novels, detective stories (The Father Brown stories, which no mystery lover should deprive himself of), and much more. He is unique in the world, and there is no excuse for a Christian (especially) who, in the Providence of God, lives after the time of Chesterton, not to read this remarkable writer. Besides, he is immensely entertaining. You can also read him without spending money, for much of his work is now in the public domain and available online (click here for a list of his online works, though I hasten to add that a bookshelf or home library without Chesterton is rather like Christmas without gifts and good food). I am also a big fan of his epic poem, The Ballad of the White Horse, about King Alred the Great, which you can also find at the website I just mentioned. And a fine site for an introduction to the man and his work is the American Chesterton Society, for which click here.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Talking of Dragons

Here's some information on my most recent book: Talking of Dragons: The Children's Books of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

Praise for Talking of Dragons

'This readable book is excellent for parents who wish to have a deep quality of communication with their children. It will also be very useful for librarians and primary school teachers, and those in churches who have responsibilities with children. The author has a firm grasp of the books of Tolkien and Lewis for children, and why they are such powerful examples of Christian writing for today’s world. William Chad Newsom reminds us to savour and treasure the work of two great storytellers who were masters of incarnating Christian meaning in powerful and enduring symbols..'

Colin Duriez, author of The C.S. Lewis Encyclopedia, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Story of a Friendship, Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings, A Field Guide to Narnia, and The C.S. Lewis Chronicles.

‘William Chad Newsom has accomplished some very important work with this book. Many modern Christian parents do not grasp the importance of story to their children's spiritual and moral health. But not just any story will do. Using the stories of two of the twentieth century's most gifted and important story-tellers, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, Newsom provides very shrewd and practical help to parents who want to grow in their love of story, along with their children.’

Douglas Wilson, minister of Christ Church, Moscow, Idaho, author of Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning: An Approach to Distinctively Christian Education, Reforming Marriage, and the CD study series, What I Learned in Narnia.

‘Mr. Newsom offers us many excellent insights into the minds of Tolkien and Lewis. Most importantly, Newsom understands the meaning of story for a Christian…Stories—along with words—contain immense power, and we should use that power, aided by Grace, wisely. When we do so, Newsom reminds us, we pursue the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. And, the words we read—for good or ill—have power…Therefore, we must always be vigilant—as parents, teachers, and Christians—about the books we read, the books our children read, and the books our friends read. As long as we rely on the Grace of the Logos, we will do well and good, and the whole of western and Christian civilization may very well be renewed, refreshed, and reformed. Armed with imagination and devout dedication to Christ, Tolkien, Lewis, and Newsom are leading the way. Swords drawn, let us follow…and slay dragons.’

From the foreword by Bradley J. Birzer, author of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth

Christian Focus Publications released Talking of Dragons, my second book, in November, 2005 (U.K.) and December in the U.S., just in time for the release of the much-anticipated film version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. This book is a family-centered introduction to the children's writings of two great authors: J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Included are chapters on The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia, but the book also looks at lesser known children's writings, such as Tolkien's Roverandom, Mr Bliss, and The Father Christmas Letters, as well as Lewis' Letters to Children, and Boxen. Other chapters explore the friendship between Lewis and Tolkien, their storytelling methods, a Biblical view of Fairy Tales, and more. My publisher retained the services of famed Lewis and Tolkien scholar, Colin Duriez, to edit the book. Duriez is the author of many books on Lewis and Tolkien, including The C.S. Lewis Encyclopedia, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, A Field Guide to Narnia, and The Inklings Handbook. He also appears on the behind the scenes features of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings DVDs. Mr Duriez was most helpful and also very graciously provided an endorsement, which is on the cover of the book (and is also printed above). Click the linked title to buy the book at Below is the publisher's summary of Talking of Dragons, which appears on the back cover of the book. Following that is an excerpt from the book.

How good are your story-telling skills?

The record-breaking success of the films of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and the recent release of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has meant that parents, perhaps unfamiliar with these stories, have found themselves in a culture awash with references to ‘Middle Earth’ and ‘Narnia’.

This book is for those who want to know more about the stories of these great authors. Those already acquainted with the writings of Tolkien and Lewis will find it a fascinating insight into their friendship and subject matter but what William Chad Newsom seeks to do is introduce these books to new readers, with a particular emphasis on the role of parents as storytellers.

Each chapter contains advice on how to get the most from each book when parents read them to, or together with, their children.

Lewis once wrote a snippet of poetry to Tolkien in which he refers to the importance of ‘talking of dragons’: of capturing the imagination of young minds. This delightful book explains that if parents want their children to grow up trusting in God then they, too, must ‘talk of dragons’: stretching their children’s imagination outside the materialistic world into a spiritual one.

Full of suggestions and insights Talking of Dragons will prove a joy to your family as you discover the wonderful tales of Lewis and Tolkien.

Chapter Four
Starting at Home: The Children's Writings of J. R. R. Tolkien

It is true that the age of childhood-sentiment has produced some delightful books (especially charming, however, to adults) of the fairy kind or near to it; but it has also produced a dreadful undergrowth of stories written or adapted to what was or is conceived to be the measure of children's minds and needs.
J. R. R. Tolkien

It seems strange to imagine, but the very idea of children's books is a recent historical invention. The late Kathryn Lindskoog, who wrote many books on the writings of C. S. Lewis, notes that, for most of history, "...there was no such thing as a children's book. There were no children's writers at all. People told stories to children, but no one wrote a storybook for them to enjoy until 250 years ago. Books for children came along like an afterthought in the book world."

There has not always been a "market" for such books, and for a very good reason: storytelling was once primarily the domain of the family. Fathers and Mothers told stories to their children, who in turn told them to their children. Stories were a major part of the culture that was passed down from generation to generation.
This notion of a storytelling culture, handed down from father to son, from mother to daughter, may seem strange to those of us raised in the modern world. After all, our diversions and amusements come packaged according to highly specific demographic categories: Dad reads his mystery thriller, Mom her paperback romance, brother his Harry Potter, and sister her Sweet Valley High book. Each member of the family has his or her own music, movies, clothing styles, magazines, schedule, and life. We are no longer families, with unique family identities; we are merely loosely connected groups of individuals who happen to live under the same roof.

It was not always so. Families once read together, enjoying the same stories, songs, and foods. They were themselves a part of a larger culture that supported them in this, but each family was itself a little culture, developing its own traditions, rituals, and memories. Today, Mom and Dad have no stories that were handed down to them (except maybe their memories of Disney films), and so they have nothing to pass on to their little ones. Today, many children's books are written by "specialists," who may or may not have children of their own. Child psychologists write books that are the product of much research, ensuring that each reader will have age-appropriate storylines, themes, characters, and vocabularies. Never mind that the stories are often as thin as the paper they are printed on: the scientific age has declared its findings, and one discovery is that parents are no longer capable, apart from professional assistance, of telling stories to their children.
One of the goals of this book is to encourage a culture of storytelling in families, and a good way to do this is by highlighting those authors who wrote, not only for "children" as a class, but for specific children, whose names and faces the author knew (usually because they belonged to his own children). This was once more common than now: A. A. Milne wrote his famous Pooh stories for his son, Christopher Robin. George MacDonald, the famous nineteenth century Scottish novelist and fairy-tale writer, read to his children, and his stories, in addition to their wider publication, were handed down through his family as well. His granddaughter remembered, 'My love for my grandfather's Fairy Tales was started at an early age - about five, I think - because my father (Bernard MacDonald) read them to me at night as bedtime stories. As I grew older, the children's books...became very familiar to me and my small friends.'

One of the best examples of a children's writer who wrote primarily for his own children is none other than J. R. R. Tolkien. All of Tolkien's published children's writings were, in their origin, stories he made up for his own children. Indeed, several were not published until after his death, when demand for his writings had increased dramatically. Tolkien made up stories for his children in a variety of situations: when his eldest son, John, could not sleep, he told him stories about Carrots, 'a boy with red hair who climbed into a cuckoo clock and went off on a series of strange adventures.' Every year, as Christmas neared, he would compose a letter from Father Christmas, addressed to the Tolkien children. These letters were posthumously collected and published as The Father Christmas Letters. The Tolkien family's purchase of their first automobile sparked the tale of Mr Bliss, who has a series of misadventures related to his car. When his son, Michael, lost a favourite toy dog on the beach, Tolkien spun a tale about just such a dog who, having been turned into a toy by a wizard, is lost by a little boy on a beach, and then embarks on a variety of adventures on the moon and under the sea. This story was published in 1998, twenty-five years after Tolkien's death, as Roverandom. And of course, the most famous of Tolkien's children's books is the story of Bilbo Baggins, and his adventure recapturing the treasure of the Dwarves from Smaug, the Dragon--a story known to the world as The Hobbit, and which later led to the creation of his master work, The Lord of the Rings.

It is worth noting that Tolkien had no desire to be a 'children's author' as we usually define it, once stating that he had no particular interest in writing for children. Yet, as we have seen, he did have an interest in four children, in particular: John, Michael, Christopher, and Priscilla Tolkien. To them, not to children considered as a target readership, he gave his ever-expanding gift for tale-spinning. But his views on writing for children did change over the years. When he wrote The Hobbit, for example, he was still under what he saw as a modern fallacy - the idea that fairy tales are especially, or perhaps uniquely, for children. In his famous essay, 'On Fairy-Stories'Tolkien attacked that notion, and his more mature reflection resulted in the fairy-story known as The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien's approach turns modern wisdom on its head: his children's writings would probably be judged, to some extent, as 'over the heads' of most children (sadly, there may some hint of truth in this) because of the vocabulary and perhaps even the themes. On the other hand, The Lord of the Rings, certainly much more of an adult book than its predecessor, and, by the author's own admission, not written for children in particular at all, seems, nevertheless, to hold an appeal for children. Tolkien once wrote that he had heard of even young children reading or listening to The Lord of the Rings, and expressed his hope that it would help build their vocabularies. As a life-long reader of Tolkien, I can testify to both the appeal to children, and the aid to vocabulary. I had read The Hobbit (far and away the favourite book of my youth) some nine times by the time I was twelve, at which tender age I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time.

The worthiness of Tolkien's children's stories is in part a result of the covenantal context that led to their creation - again, writing for the children of one's own blood rather than attempting to break into the market of kid's books. But writing stories for one's own children is counter-intuitive in the Age of Specialists. Whereas modern child psychologists argue, in a sense, from universals to particulars ('this is what children, as a class, want and need; therefore, individual children, whoever they are, will like it'), Tolkien worked from particulars--his own children--to universals--children in general. That is, the stories were a success with John, Michael, Christopher, and Priscilla, who, as normal, typical children, turned out to be very good indicators of what millions of other children would like. Not, of course, that Tolkien told the stories as some kind of advance market research; he just wanted to delight his children. And because this was his aim, he was able to write stories that delighted many others as well.

The Red Crosse Knight

The knight of the Redcrosse when him he spide,
Spurring so hote with rage dispiteous...

Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, Book 1, Canto 2.

Here's William, the Knight of the Red Crosse (or, mayhap, the Red Eye).

Me and the Boys

Another favourite from Nathanael's birthday. My Two Sons (sounds almost good enough for a sitcom title) and I at the hospital. William Alfred Alexander Newsom greets his little brother, Nathanael Cædmon Charles Newsom.


'He married a fat widow and had a passel of kids on the Blanco river. And you might as well have done the same since you don't want to chase buffalo.' (Augustus McCrae in the film version of Lonesome Dove.

My brother Chris and I have debated the exact boundaries of a 'passel' (Merriam-Webster simply has 'a large number or amount') but he insists that with three kids I'm closing in fast. Here's a picture from Nathanael's birthday last month: first time reading Holy Scripture to our new little one.

Media: Connection Article

By day, I am a mild-mannered customer service trainer for an insurance company. They're a good bunch of folks to work with, not least because they seem to take a real interest in one's life outside the workday. As an example, when my colleagues heard that I had published a couple of books, they showed support in several ways, including setting up a couple of in-house book signings, and by publishing the article below in The Connection, our customer service newsletter. So, in the bio category, here it is (thanks to Liz Plummer for a fine article and for permission to reprint):

Spotlight on William Chad Newsom, Author

We’re all familiar with New Year’s resolutions and the process of setting personal and professional goals. Some goals are perennial favorites – lose weight, exercise more; others are a bit more unusual. William Chad Newsom, a Customer Service Training Specialist, set a personal goal five years ago, to work on getting a book published. And he’s succeeded – twice, so far.

Chad has always had a strong interest in storytelling, and has been writing poetry, songs, short stories, and novels since childhood. After completing some projects and submitting manuscripts for consideration, he researched a publishing website and noticed that they were looking for authors to complete a series of youth books on Christian martyrs. He submitted a proposal for a book on the life of Polycarp. The publisher asked for a few chapters, liked what they saw, and sent him a contract to complete the book. The result is Polycarp: The Crown of Fire.

Next, Chad ventured into Narnia and The Shire:

“I had an idea to write a book on C.S. Lewis and his friend J.R.R. Tolkien. Originally it was an idea for a biography, and that idea ended up changing a lot. I’ve been a fan of both writers since I was a kid, and I enjoyed The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings and some of their other writings – they both wrote in a pretty wide range of categories.” Chad wrote an entire manuscript called Talking of Dragons: The Children’s Books of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and submitted it to the publisher for review. This non-fiction book explores The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, as well as some lesser-known works by both authors. Chad also discusses the authors’ personal friendship and the Christian themes that wind through their collective works.

“I’ve described it as a family book, in the belief that one of the best ways to teach our children is through good stories, and therefore that we ought to try to create a culture of storytelling in our homes. This book takes the children’s writings of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and uses them as a starting place. They’re a great place to start; these authors lived only a few decades ago and are pretty accessible to modern readers. And they’re a good starting place to go from there to get into some other great tales and make that a great feature of family life. The book takes these stories and introduces them to families. At the end of every chapter we have some family activities, suggestions for ways to take these stories and let them spark creativity in the home, to get kids interested in writing their own stories or creating other works of art, doing things with the family.”

Some writers spend their entire adult lives trying, without success, to sell a manuscript. How did Chad manage to get 32 articles and two books published? Apparently, it’s not as easy as he makes it seem: “It’s a process of much rejection and a little bit of success. You have to do a lot of homework, you have to dig into what’s out there, which publishers publish what kind of book, what their requirements are for submission of a manuscript. You have to know what kind of book you’re writing, who publishes it, and you just have to be fairly diligent in sending out manuscripts. I remember reading about one writer who sent a book to 26 different publishers and got rejected every time, and the 27th sent him a contract.”

Chad recently completed a contribution to Omnibus, a series of books that Chad describes as “a classical school literature curriculum.” Veritas Press will publish Omnibus III, including Chad’s contribution, later this year. In addition, he’s also working on a series of “board books” – those short, colorful cardboard books for toddlers. “Even little kids can understand stories and the flow of a narrative – people don’t give them enough credit. I’m writing a series of board books on the great legends, everything from Robin Hood to St. George and the Dragon, told on a very simple level, just as an introduction, and then maybe in a few more years, they can graduate to a more thorough rendering of the story.” And Chad is working, along with his father, on his first adult novel, which is in the very early planning stages.

Chad has also found time to create his own website, called Logres Hall ( This site features a variety of articles and interviews, including an interview with John Granger, author of Looking for God in Harry Potter, which explores Christian themes in J.K. Rowling’s series of Harry Potter books.
-- Liz Plummer

Grace and William

Thought I'd post the occasional picture. Here's my two oldest (of three), Victoria Grace and William Alfred Alexander, in the chapel of our church this past Easter. This was just a few weeks before the birth of their baby brother, Nathanael Cædmon Charles. Pics of him soon...

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Chris Newsom Music I

My brother Chris's web site is linked off to the right. The picture is of myself (bass guitar, far left), my other brother Sean on guitar, Chris in the middle on lead vocals and guitar, and our friend Kerry Lewis (whose blog is also linked on the right) on guitar, performing year before last, I think (it's not us playing on the demos, though). You can hear Chris's music by visiting his website. Enjoy the music.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Harry Potter III Commentary on the John Granger Interview

First, thanks again to John for taking time to engage in this conversation. Here are some additional thoughts inspired by John’s answers. I have told John I would print anything he might like to say in response to these thoughts. John’s words are in bold print, and my answers are in normal type.

Ms. Rowling is a Postmodern writer, and, as such, she not only combines genres with remarkable flair (there are at least 10 working simultaneously in the books)…A good question for future consideration (by all involved) is whether Rowling is Postmodern in any other ways. I say this because I believe that Postmodernism is, on the whole, a bad thing (for an interesting online discussion of this issue, I would encourage you to click here and start reading from the bottom of the page). ...she certainly doesn’t give a rip about conventional mental categories or ‘metanarratives,’ something like ‘evil’ to her and the bulk of her readers. I assume John is talking about the traditional use of witches as a ‘metanarrative’ of evil, rather than the concept of evil itself. ‘Good witch,’ consequently, is not the ‘square circle’ it is to those readers trying their bearings exclusively from the Levitical texts (and applying them selectively…). While he has a point here, it’s worth noting that I was appealing, not to the Levitical texts, but to literary history (i.e., George MacDonald).

Symbols work or they don’t. Inverting them is nonsensical, at least in the examples you suggest. A symbol of the resurrection like a stag’s antlers regenerating or a phoenix’s rebirth doesn’t transfer to a psychic, fallen reality but to a spiritual and contranatural one.’ I would agree that inverting symbols is often ‘nonsensical’, which is why I am troubled by Rowling’s inversion of the witch-symbol. As I have noted elsewhere, I don’t think this is enough to condemn the Potter stories, but I think the question is at least worth pursuing a little further.

I’m a little slow but you’ve lost me here. There are Potions that are involved but far and away most of the magic is done by mechanical voice command in spells and charms. This is incantational, ‘harmonizing’ magic with the fabric of the created world (i.e., with the Creative Word) – nothing laborious or scientific about it. If anything it is a contrast with technology and science. In general, I agree, though Rowling does seem to expend a lot of her creativity on things like ear-wax flavoured jelly beans and appearance-altering potions. And the Potions were my primary example of the ‘scientific’ sort of magic. But I do think that there are clues in HBP that seem to suggest that the cauldrons and wands are only for beginners, which may be a good sign.

Ms. Rowling is simultaneously laughing at New Age divination types and allowing that there is more to the world (including understanding of time and space) than is dreamt of in worldly philosophies, Horatio. Even risible characters like Trelawney have their moments and the story is wonderfully nuanced this way; again, qua Postmodern, she is fighting any sort of pigeon holing and easy categorization and dismissal. Actually, this is as good an answer as I have heard to this question, though I begin to get edgy at Rowling’s Postmodern refusal to be categorised. Why this fear of forms? Sure, take the form and be creative, original with it, but there’s nothing wrong with conventions: a murder mystery with no one being killed is not a murder mystery, however creative it may seem at the time. But the answer to the divination question is sound enough, though I still think it inadvisable to use such a loaded term as divination when there are so many other ways to go. Tolkien, the anti-modernist, used the word ‘magic’ only with a great deal of reluctance, and only because he knew no other term to use, and he went to a great deal of trouble to qualify the word. Rowling, the postmodernist, seems to use words like ‘divination’ almost cavalierly, even with readily available alternatives (Prophecy? Foresight? Revelation?) and with, seemingly, no attempt at qualification.

I’d differ with you first on ‘many moments of true beauty and high nobility;’ that’s a bit of a stretch. More to the point of your question, though, I wonder if the reason Ms. Rowling’s books enjoy the success they do, isn’t because their heroic, magical characters – sacrificial, faithful, and loving – are not so much like their readers are. Tolkien is magisterial, but he isn’t especially accessible, is he, except in the Jackson screen translation? I wrote back to John, explaining that by ‘beauty and nobility’, I was talking about things like the Patronus charm, Harry's mother's sacrificial love as a protective shield, and the times when Harry or others (Dumbledore in HBP) put their lives on the line for the sake of friends. While not as high and lofty as, say, Sam Gamgee, or St George, these are glimpses of beauty and nobility. At the same time, I am willing to admit I probably over-inflated the language a bit. On reflection, I would probably simply say, ‘there are examples of beauty and nobility’ in the books. As to attributing Rowling’s success to how similar her characters are to her readers (and the implication that such is not the case in Tolkien), I can only say that John is undoubtedly correct. But I hasten to add that this is the very reason I like Tolkien so much better. Frankly, a book where the characters were just like me would be rather boring. Give me the unstained nobility of Aragorn or Faramir (which means skipping Jackson’s vacillating versions) any day. Is it so much for us to believe that such lives are possible? Then we have forgotten Athanasius, Luther, Lee, and TR. But I hesitate even to mention this, because I actually think some of this sort of valour is evident in the Potter stories—it is worth emulating, and Rowling is to be commended for it.

Rowling is renovating a slew of literary genres from alchemical drama to morals and manners fiction a la Austen for a postmodern audience and criticizing aspects of postmodernity (much as the modernist writers in the Inklings did the same for their period). I do hope this is so, for Postmodernism has a face just waiting to be slapped around. She is more inviting and more in touch with readers today than Oxford dons from the trenches of WWI. Should we be surprised at this? Perhaps not. It is understandable, in a way, that someone from our own time would be more ‘in touch’ with contemporary readers. Perhaps Lewis was thinking of his own posthumous self (nah) when he wrote that ‘It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.’ Why is this? All of us, Lewis wrote, ‘need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.’ In fact, Lewis went so far as to write, ‘if [a reader] must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light.’ Huh. I wonder how many Harry Potter fans read anything old while waiting for Rowling’s latest? By the way, these are just thoughts and observations, not an answer to anything John wrote. As a teacher of the great books himself, John is one of those out there encouraging the reading of old books. But as I look around at the Harry Potter world, I wonder how many will be encouraged to go on from there to read Spenser or Malory. Or even Tolkien and Lewis. Perhaps some will—Rowling certainly includes elements of an older world, a world that is certainly at war with the modern world in many ways—and yet I wonder if the very elements that make Rowling so accessible to the Postmoderns will only increase her readers’ immunity to the glories of the old books. As John himself noted (see below), many Potter fans are only interested in questions of ‘shipping’ (the dating/romantic relationships between the various characters: Harry and Hermione? Or Ron and Hermione? Harry and Ginny?), and who have thus reduced the books to a sort of mythopoeic soap opera (an unwarranted reduction, I’ll admit). Still, it’s worth remembering Lewis’s words, especially in light of the fact that the Harry Potter books have not had time to ‘be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and [to have] all its hidden implications…brought to light.’ In fact, even Lewis and Tolkien are too contemporary by this standard, though we do have a little historical space in which to evaluate them. But even these great authors need the correction of older books, as Lewis himself admitted: ‘Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself. Now this seems to me topsy-turvy.’

John and I engaged in a bit of email banter on the question of 'accessibility'. Here is that brief exchange:

Chad: As to your question about whether Tolkien is accessible beyond Jackson's movies, 100 million readers would seem to say yes, would they not?

John: 100 million divided by 3 divided by 50 is JRRT's per year of sale rate (I doubt he was anywhere near 100 million, too, before the movies). Go ahead and compare that to Ms. Rowling's figures similarly calculated and that none of her books have been used in classrooms or have multiple critical editions(300 million divided by 6 divided by 7) and I think you have an accessibility quotient. Tolkien is to Rowling as Sophocles is to Shakespeare - there's very little for the groundlings in Tolkien.

Chad: No argument on the sales: everyone knows that Rowling is a record-breaking author. The reasons for that are complex, and you have hit on some of them, I believe. My only point is that Tolkien has also survived as one of the most widely-read authors in history, and that this would probably not have happened had there been 'very little for the groundlings'. We've all heard the 'Author of the Century' accolades piled on this Anglo-Saxon professor, and I can testify to having first read The Lord of the Rings (and gotten a lot out of it) as a child. Tolkien, in his Letters, wrote that he had heard of children reading The Lord of the Rings, or having it read to them, and that he hoped it would increase their vocabularies. This raises an additional point: Tolkien is more complex, and therefore harder to read (though not objectively hard, I would say) than Rowling. But, as someone once said, raking leaves is easier than digging for diamonds, though you only end up with leaves - which is not to say that Rowling only offers leaves, but that there is more to be gained from reading Tolkien. This should be self-evident, given the extent of Tolkien's sub-creative efforts with Middle-earth. However, Rowling has certainly engaged in a good bit of sub-creation as well, though not to the same extent, and I think this aspect of her work is one that Tolkien certainly would have appreciated. So, accessibility is an important, but not the most important, factor - Britney Spears is much more accessible than Bach! (Again, not to say that Rowling is like Britney Spears.)

I also am terrible with ‘shipping’ questions; unfortunately, this robs me of any authority with a large part of Fandom which equates ‘shipping’ profundity and focus with genius and right understanding. If Lewis is right that books may be judged, in part, by the type of readers who read them (see An Experiment in Criticism), then John’s answer here bodes ill for the Potter stories. However, this is not an absolute: one thinks of the drug-hazed flower children that embraced The Lord of the Rings as a sort of hippie-Bible. The difference, I would say, is that Potter, in some ways, invites the ‘shippers’ to indulge in their vicarious romantic entanglements, while the hippies’ love of Tolkien was based on a misunderstanding of the nature of those books. Still, those who care about nothing but whether Hermione ends up with Ron or Harry have missed a good deal of what the Harry Potter stories are all about.

The only purpose the movies serve, in my bookish position, is that they seem to create more interest in the books both among current readers and new readers. Certainly the movies more than any argument I made are more responsible for the quieting of Christian objections to the stories. Christians went to or rented the movies – and found the stories to be edifying or at least anything but the advent of the anti-Christ. This is undoubtedly true, particularly, I think, in the case of the first two movies.

And don’t neglect The Children's Homer : The Adventures of Odysseus and the Tale of Troy by Padraic Colum, Willy Pogany (Illustrator). Our family’s favorite… As I said earlier, John encourages children to read the older books. Though they are newer versions, books like this are a good way to introduce children to classic stories, better preparing them to read the older versions some day.

I’m working on a book called Harry Meets Hamlet and Scrooge: The Serious Reader’s Guide to Harry Potter in which I tour the ten genres Ms. Rowling ‘rowls’ together in her books seamlessly. I hope to put together a short book on Half-Blood Prince with what I think happened just off-screen in this book (which we mis because of the author’s masterful use of narrative misdirection). I’m also working on a Bible memory text book for longer passages of scripture, a ‘trot’ for the Latin translation of HP1, and a cookbook for a sacramental idea of food and eating. Looking forward to these, John, especially Harry Meets Hamlet and Scrooge, the book on Bible memory, and the cookbook. Thanks for all your work, and for taking time to engage in this conversation.

Harry Potter II An Interview with John Granger

Here's more from the Logres Hall site:

John Granger, author of Looking for God in Harry Potter, engaged in an email conversation with me on the Harry Potter stories. Thanks, John! For a wonderful array of articles on the Harry Potter books, please visit John's website: I also highly recommend his book, Looking for God in Harry Potter. As I told John beforehand, I am, to some extent, playing Devil's Advocate with these questions, though I am genuinely curious.

Chad: You have made what I consider an excellent case for the distinction between incantational and invocational magic in Looking for God in Harry Potter, and for the fact that the good characters in the Potter books make use of the former, not the latter. But is there another distinction to be made? Symbols of good and symbols of evil? What of the use of the witch—a traditional fairy-tale symbol for evil— as a symbol of good? Certainly Hermione is not the White Witch and Harry is not Faustus: Rowling has taken care to recast traditional witches in a better light. But older writers seemed to take the traditional symbolism for granted. George MacDonald, for example, wrote the following: ‘For the power of the fairies they have by nature; whereas a witch gets her power by wickedness’ (At the Back of the North Wind); also, this: ‘In some countries she would have been called a witch, but that would have been a mistake, for she never did anything wicked, and had more power than any witch could have (The Wise Woman, emphasis mine). Or one thinks of Lewis’s Peter asking, ‘Aren’t they [Robins] on the right side in all the stories?’ Are Rowling’s good witches a confusion of symbols? Even if we can say that Rowling has taken enough care to make the contrasts obvious, is it not at least a misstep on her part, especially given your argument that she is ultimately writing Christian fiction?

John: Ms. Rowling is a Postmodern writer, and, as such, she not only combines genres with remarkable flair (there are at least 10 working simultaneously in the books), she certainly doesn’t give a rip about conventional mental categories or ‘metanarratives,’ something like ‘evil’ to her and the bulk of her readers. ‘Good witch,’ consequently, is not the ‘square circle’ it is to those readers trying their bearings exclusively from the Levitical texts (and applying them selectively…).

Chad: A follow-up: if the inversion of symbols in this instance is acceptable, is there anywhere we should draw the line in terms of preserving the symbolic norms of traditional fairy stories? Is it OK to use a traditional Christ-symbol (a stag or a phoenix) as a symbol for Satan? Can a demon be used as a good character?

John: Symbols work or they don’t. Inverting them is nonsensical, at least in the examples you suggest. A symbol of the resurrection like a stag’s antlers regenerating or a phoenix’s rebirth doesn’t transfer to a psychic, fallen reality but to a spiritual and contranatural one.

Chad: Tolkien described with disdain ‘the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific magician’. One also thinks of a quote from the Harry Potter series: ‘Many witches and wizards, talented though they are in the area of loud bangs and smells and sudden disappearings, are yet unable to penetrate the veiled mysteries of the future.’ Much of the Potter magic seems to be the ‘laborious, scientific’ sort: ‘loud bangs and smells’, though there seem to be recent indicators that a deeper sort of magic (sans potions and wands) exists. Given this, and given your assertion that Rowling is writing in the tradition of Tolkien, Lewis, and the other Inklings, what do you think Tolkien would have made of the Potter stories? And why does Rowling focus so much on the cauldron-brewing, spell-casting, ‘scientific’ kind of magic?

John: I’m a little slow but you’ve lost me here. There are Potions that are involved but far and away most of the magic is done by mechanical voice command in spells and charms. This is incantational, ‘harmonizing’ magic with the fabric of the created world (i.e., with the Creative Word) – nothing laborious or scientific about it. If anything it is a contrast with technology and science.

Chad: Even given the incantational/invocational distinction, how do you reconcile the use of Divination with the Bible’s flat prohibition of it by name (Deuteronomy 18:9-12)? Are there incantational and invocational types of Divination? Or does the answer lie in the scepticism of some of the major Potter characters (i.e., Hermione, Dumbledore) towards Divination? If so, how can we reconcile this with the fact that Professor Trelawney does seem to possess something of a prophetic gift? Should she be considered a sort of Balaam-character: a true prophet, but one with serious flaws and problems?

John: Ms. Rowling is simultaneously laughing at New Age divination types and allowing that there is more to the world (including understanding of time and space) than is dreamt of in worldly philosophies, Horatio. Even risible characters like Trelawney have their moments and the story is wonderfully nuanced this way; again, qua Postmodern, she is fighting any sort of pigeon holing and easy categorization and dismissal.

Chad: While there are many moments of true beauty and high nobility in the Potter stories, one notices that even Rowling’s good kids bear a remarkable resemblance to the hip, pop-culture-saturated teenagers of modern/post-modern society. Crass humour, dating dilemmas, swearing, obsession with celebrities—the Hogwarts kids are not immune to these temptations to a sub-Christian lifestyle/worldview. In personal correspondence, Brad Birzer, author of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, told me that he likes the Potter books, but believes they are not for children. You have said these are great books for teaching virtue to children. Is there any danger in children having what older generations might have labelled ‘worldly’ kids as their heroes?

John: I’d differ with you first on ‘many moments of true beauty and high nobility;’ that’s a bit of a stretch. More to the point of your question, though, I wonder if the reason Ms. Rowling’s books enjoy the success they do, isn’t because their heroic, magical characters – sacrificial, faithful, and loving – are not so much like their readers are. Tolkien is magisterial, but he isn’t especially accessible, is he, except in the Jackson screen translation?

Chad: On the same issue: is it somehow inauthentic or unrealistic to have truly noble characters in stories—characters (though admittedly imperfect) without glaring moral flaws? Characters who don’t fall in with the goose-stepping individualism of pop-culture? Harry and his friends are certainly noble with respect to virtues like loyalty and courage, though it could be argued that they are a lot like the MTV generation in other ways. Are characters like Peter Pevensie, or MacDonald’s Diamond or Curdie, hopelessly out of touch with the lives of today’s jaded, cynical youth?

John: Story orders lives, especially disordered lives, something like what Liturgy does, as a friend pointed out to me recently. My children like Lewis, Tolkien, and MacDonald; they love Harry Potter – and they are not a cynical, MTV crowd. Nobody farts or tells Uranus jokes in Narnia or Middle Earth, which because they are renovations of Fairie and Myth, respectively, for moderns (not postmoderns), makes sense. Rowling is renovating a slew of literary genres from alchemical drama to morals and manners fiction a la Austen for a postmodern audience and criticizing aspects of postmodernity (much as the modernist writers in the Inklings did the same for their period). She is more inviting and more in touch with readers today than Oxford dons from the trenches of WWI. Should we be surprised at this?

Chad: You have played the role of Hogwarts futurist over the course of the last several books. What has been your best prediction, and, on the other side of the coin, what has been your biggest surprise?

John: Calling the death of Dumbledore as the climax of the ‘white stage’ of the alchemical drama was my best call (and detailing everything from the weather to the color of Luna’s dress in the last book). Assuming the white book was due in HP5, which turned out to be the Black book featuring the death of Sirius Black was my greatest blunder. I also am terrible with ‘shipping’ questions; unfortunately, this robs me of any authority with a large part of Fandom which equates ‘shipping’ profundity and focus with genius and right understanding.

Chad: Have the Harry Potter movies remained sufficiently faithful to the books? Are there any major errors of omission or addition that you would like to address?

John: The only purpose the movies serve, in my bookish position, is that they seem to create more interest in the books both among current readers and new readers. Certainly the movies more than any argument I made are more responsible for the quieting of Christian objections to the stories. Christians went to or rented the movies – and found the stories to be edifying or at least anything but the advent of the anti-Christ.

Chad: Besides Harry Potter, what are some other contemporary examples of great children’s literature (or, at least, literature that children would do well to read)?

John: My three youngest children have an insatiable appetite for Brian Jacques’ Redwall stories. They’re really violent in spots for talking animal stories, at least (this ain’t The Wind in the Willows) and many of the characters seem to move from book to book – a Foremole, a heroic mouse or squirrel, etc. But this man can tell a great yarn and tell variations of it again and again and never put you to sleep. We love them.

I like Ralph Moody’s Little Britches novels, too, if they are anything but ‘fantastic’ in being fantasy tales. They are the tales of a boy growing up at the turn of the last century in the West and in the Eastern parts of the US. Engaging, challenging, fun. Little House books for boys with a lot more variety in scenery and occupations.

And don’t neglect The Children's Homer: The Adventures of Odysseus and the Tale of Troy by Padraic Colum, Willy Pogany (Illustrator). Our family’s favorite…

Chad: What are your future writing plans?

John: I’m working on a book called Harry Meets Hamlet and Scrooge: The Serious Reader’s Guide to Harry Potter in which I tour the ten genres Ms. Rowling 'rowls' together in her books seamlessly. I hope to put together a short book on Half-Blood Prince with what I think happened just off-screen in this book (which we miss because of the author’s masterful use of narrative misdirection). I’m also working on a Bible memory text book for longer passages of scripture, a 'trot' for the Latin translation of HP1, and a cookbook for a sacramental idea of food and eating

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Media: News and Record Article

As I continue to bring over the Logres Hall material, here is an article from our local paper, The Greensboro News and Record, for which I was interviewed. The article came out just before the film version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe hit theatres, and the reporter asked me many questions regarding the Christian theology behind the Narnian tales. It was a great opportunity to talk about things often left un-discussed, particularly in a secular publication. Joe Killian, a reporter for the Life section of the newspaper, interviewed me regarding my book Talking of Dragons, the upcoming Narnia movie, teaching Christian doctrine to children through fairy tales, the Harry Potter stories, and more. This article was run on 6 December as the centrepiece of the paper's Life section. For the original article at the News and Record site, click here. The entire text of the article is included below, with one correction: the copy editor at the paper confounded the terms 'incantational' and 'invocational' and I have altered that here.

Article published Dec 6, 2005

Narnia's message to young people
By Joe Killian Staff Writer

GREENSBORO -- When is a children's story more than a children's story? When it's "The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe."

This week, the film version of C.S. Lewis' book will premiere in Greensboro, and excitement over the movie -- a fantasy epic on the level of the Academy Award-winning "Lord of the Rings" films -- has sparked renewed interest in the original books.

There's plenty of anticipation (and some controversy) in the Christian community, where the books are often praised as religious allegories. But in a new book, one Triad author explains why the Narnia books, like most great children's literature, are more than heavy-handed morality tales."

There's no denying these are Christian works," said William Chad Newsom, author of "Talking of Dragons: The Children's Books of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis."

"Lewis was very clear on that. But they're also enormously popular books and have been for years. I think it's true that a non-Christian moviegoing audience will get something out of this, too. The idea of facing danger with courage, of overcoming sorrow with love and compassion -- these are universal things."

Newsom's book takes a look at the way in which Tolkien and Lewis -- fantasy authors who were also good friends -- used elements of traditional fairy tales to breathe new life into biblical stories. Although Newsom said the books are first and foremost great stories, he said they're also good tools to help parents talk with their children about spirituality.

The book, the first in Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia" series, is the story of a group of English children who travel through a magical wardrobe into the land of Narnia. The children join forces with Aslan, a magical lion, to defeat the evil White Witch and save Narnia. Lewis intended the story to be a thinly veiled retelling of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, complete with references to God, Jesus, Judas and St. Peter.

"Lewis' friend, (the author) Dorothy L. Sayers, always said that the problem with teaching children the gospels and the story of Jesus is that we have, over the years, made the most exciting story of all time the most boring," said Newsom.

"Lewis thought that if he could take Christian stories and strip them of their stained glass and Sunday school associations, he could get children to understand the emotions they were supposed to take from the Christ story."

Throughout Lewis' life he exchanged letters with fans -- many of them children. Once, said Newsom, Lewis got a letter from a mother who wrote that her son was distraught. After reading Lewis' books, she said, her son worried he loved Aslan more than Jesus. Lewis wrote back that her son should not worry -- if he understood his love for Aslan, he understood the way he should love Jesus.

It is, according to some parents, a phenomenon that's still happening now."We have read all the Narnia books with our oldest children, and we're doing it again with our youngest," said Margaret Hanes, a Greensboro mother of three. "You'd be amazed how quickly they pick up on the spirituality in the books without any help from an adult. It makes it easier and a lot more fun to talk to them about God and Jesus than giving them a lecture on what they should believe. It helps them understand that on their own, through a story they enjoy."

Hanes was just one of many Narnia fans at a Greensboro Barnes & Noble where handsome reissues of all the Narnia books are on display in advance of the movie.

"With the movie coming out, I believe they're going to be hot Christmas items," said Susan Carroll, a bookseller at the store. "We do have people coming in asking for them, and we're selling a number of different Lewis titles, including all the Narnia books in one volume."

There has been some controversy over recent movies based on children's books, such as "The Hobbit" and the Harry Potter series, that use magic, witches and wizards to teach moral lessons to children. Ironically, explicitly Christian works, such as the Narnia series, are sometimes lumped into lists of books with "occult" messages. But, said Newsom, fairy tales historically have used veiled Christian symbols and morals to teach children right from wrong.

"I think part of the problem some Christians have with magic in stories like these is in differentiating between magics," Newsom said. "There's a very good book called 'Looking for God in Harry Potter' in which (Christian writer) John Granger explains the difference between 'invocational magic' and 'incantational magic.' When someone in a story is doing invocational magic they are calling upon dark spirits in a Faustian deal to gain powers through magic. Incantational magic comes from within a person and is often a gift from God. Many prophets and other characters in the Bible are given this sort of magical power.

"That's the sort of magic you'll see from heroic characters in the works of Tolkien and Lewis, and there's always that distinction," said Newsom.

Newsom, who lives in Liberty and works in Greensboro at Jefferson Pilot Financial, also has written his own children's book, "Polycarp: The Crown of Fire," which uses fairy-tale elements to teach children about Christian history. He is reading the Narnia books to his 5-year-old daughter who, he said, already understands and loves the tales.

"One of the themes of my book is that one of the best ways to instill these lessons is to turn the home into a storytelling culture," said Newsom. "Filling the home with great literature and fairy tales -- the great stories of the world -- can help our children understand what it means to be a good Christian and a good person. The best children's stories are fun to read but they also incarnate truth."

Contact Joe Killian at 373-7023 or

Monday, June 05, 2006

Veggie Fables

I'm going to start posting some material from the Logres Hall website, for those who may only be readers of this blog. Here's the first such post, one on the ever-popular Veggie Tales.
The heart of Logres Hall is the desire to build a culture of storytelling in the Christian family. Built on the foundation of the Bible, this culture would be a like a small cathedral - carefully crafted to embody goodness, truth, and beauty in its very architecture. I have posted some original short stories and poetry (some attempts at bringing the storytelling culture to life), but I also want to offer some thoughts and observations on the work of building. Besides the goodness, truth, and beauty, the purpose of such a culture is to build character in the lives of our children. There is no better way to do it. But we want to think biblically about the various attempts at storytelling around us, and the article below is one attempt at doing just that. The idea is to provide reviews of children's books and films (contemporary as well as older works) and articles on the art of storytelling. These are merely conversational catalysts, not authoratative pronouncements, and I welcome any comments.

Veggie Fables

'We pursue great art because we are convinced that great art - combined with great storytelling - can change the world.' Phil Vischer, founder of Big Idea Productions

Few Christian success stories can rival that of the meteoric rise of Big Idea Productions, and their centerpiece work, Veggie Tales. Starting small, they still managed to beat everyone else, including Disney and Pixar, in releasing the first fully computer-animated video (Where's God When I'm S-Scared) in history. Millions of videos, t-shirts, lunchboxes, coloring books, and dollars later, they are at the top of the children's entertainment world, both Christian and secular. Even recent news that the company has filed for bankruptcy has not diminished the wild popularity of Veggie Tales.

Obviously, all successes have their detractors, and Veggie Tales are no exception. Nathan Wilson, whose well-known pop Douglas Wilson founded the edgy Reformed journal Credenda Agenda, found no kind words to say about the biggest Veggie project to date: Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie, calling it 'The only movie more pagan than The Matrix: Reloaded that I have seen recently.' Wilson explains: 'Where Matrix merely blasphemes through false and twisted allusion, Jonah claims friendship to the faith, and then spits on the Ark of the Covenant for laughs.' Since some may not have got the point, he adds this for emphasis: 'While I'm sure they're out there, I can't think of a movie more disrespectful toward Scripture since Life of Brian from Monty Python.' Jonah, he writes, is little more than 'smiling evangelical goop.'

Other writers have leveled criticism, without as much fist-shaking as Wilson. Gary DeMar, perhaps best known for critiquing the theology of Tim LaHaye's Left Behind, wrote an article for his own magazine, Biblical Worldview, in which he suggests that, while the Veggie videos are clever and well-produced, they ought to lay off the Bible stories. The Veggie Tales Biblical adaptations, he says, 'present the Bible as a compilation of morality tales and obscure its redemptive message by presenting morality as the Bible's end-message.'

If you want to enjoy Veggie Tales,' DeMar adds, 'stick to Silly Songs and moral lessons, and leave the telling of Bible stories to someone else.'

I don't wish to challenge either Wilson or DeMar, for I think they both make good points, if somewhat open to challenge here and there. Rather, I want to suggest a paradigm for defining Veggie Tales at its best, and what I am proposing is that the Veggie Tales stories represent a contemporary, albeit pop culture version, of the classic beast fable.

If it needs to be said, let me say it: of course they are vegetables, not beasts, but I am arguing that Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber function in much the same way as Brer Rabbit, the Three Little Pigs, Rat, Mole, Toad, and Badger from The Wind in the Willows, or Chanticleer the Rooster from Chaucer's The Nun's Priest's Tale. And whether they are as good as those classic stories is not the point. Britannica defines a beast fable as 'a prose or verse fable or short story that usually has a moral.' I could almost stop here, letting the definition alone make the point. Usually prose, sometimes in verse ('Silly Songs with Larry' comes to mind), Veggie Tales certainly qualify as short stories with morals. In many ways, that is the whole point of their existence.

Indeed, a friend of mine has wondered whether they don't lapse into mere moralism at times. But while thinking Christians rightly reject moralism (the reduction of the Christian faith to mere ethical norms), we heartily embrace morality, and the idea of objective good and evil. Unless we are looking to Veggie Tales for theological guidance (and of course we should not), we ought not accuse them of moralism when they are merely performing the function of classic morality tales, such as the beast fables.

But the beast fable is not merely a morality tale, and theological truth need not be absent - would anyone suggest that there is no theology in The Wind in the Willows? And of course it's true that if Veggie Tales serves up theology through trivialized retellings of Bible stories, then they likely will end up with the narratives of Scripture coming off as just so many Chinese proverbs. But theological truth can become incarnate in a story, and the Veggie Tales characters occasionally manifest such truth, as we will see.

Britannica adds this to its definition: 'In beast fables animal characters are represented as acting with human feelings and motives.' Tolkien, in his famous essay 'On Fairy Stories,' goes farther, noting that beast fables are 'stories in which no human being is concerned; or in which the animals are the heroes and heroines, and men and women, if they appear, are mere adjuncts; and above all those in which the animal form is only a mask upon a human face, a device of the satirist or the preacher....'

Of course the good satirist or preacher wants to delight and entertain as well. And this is precisely what Veggie Tales videos do: entertain while satirizing and teaching. Again, we might debate how well they do this, and I am not suggesting that the Veggie videos are on the same artistic level as Aesop or Chaucer, but I am saying that, as stories, they belong in the same category. If this is the case, then it is wrong to attack them for a lack of theology, for this is not their function, and in fact would probably be out of place.

Though, for the record, it is not impossible to find theological statements in Veggie Tales. One example comes from the video The Star of Christmas, in my opinion the best Veggie production so far. After Bob and Larry wreak havoc trying to produce a play that will teach Victorian-era London 'how to love,' an imprisoned thief gives his opinion of the matter: 'if you ask me, you can't teach a man how to love. It's not in his nature.' Simple, yes, and not particularly profound, but it is a theological statement (file under 'H' for "Hamartiology") and it is accurate, as far as it goes. Further, it is far better than the syrupy 'everyone is basically good' drivel that one finds in so many other Christmas programs for children.

Another example is in the recent Sumo of the Opera, in which a new segment, 'Lutfi's Fanciful Flannelgraph,' in the course of telling the story of St Patrick, actually teaches children the doctrine of the Trinity in perfectly orthodox language ('He is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. One God, Three Persons.').

But again, doctrinal instruction is not the function of a beast fable. Entertainment via satire and moral highlighting is. And few would deny that Veggie Tales do both.

Consider a few examples: the Veggie story Madame Blueberry hilariously lampoons both greed and consumerism, making moderation and contentment look attractive in the process. Lyle, the Kindly Viking thrusts a spear through theft, the worship of power, even piracy (sort of), while highlighting the virtues of love, courage, and mercy. And the various Larry Boy stories have taken on such evils as gossip and lying while lifting the standard of truth-speaking for all Bumblyburg to see.

Notice that in each example, a moral dialectic is employed, portraying an antithesis between good and evil. Not content merely to scold, these fables present the alternative virtues as not only right, but good and lovely. And - I must add - it's hard not to love anyone who takes such a great shot at the perverted joke Disney has become: in the aforementioned Sumo, again during the story of St Patrick, the Druids are described as those who 'did not know about God. They practiced a religion known as 'Paganism...instead of praying to God, Pagans prayed to things like twigs ("Oh, mighty Twig, you are powerful and twig-like") and pond scum ("Oh mighty Pond Scum, you are powerful and, uh, scummy") and they painted with all the colors of the wind." (Emphasis added. If you don't get it, watch Disney's Pocohantas - but not with your kids.)

Veggie Tales are certainly open to legitimate criticism, largely for their oft-hapless attempts at adapting Bible stories (the narrative of David's lust for Bathsheba, for example, is recast as King George's lust for rubber duckies), as DeMar points out so well. And certainly, kids can live and grow up without them. Beowulf, Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight, Aesop, The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Princess and the Goblin- these are indispensable in our children's cultural lives, unlike Veggie Tales and other pop fare. But if we recognize them as pop-culture variations of the beast fable, and if our children's literary canon extends beyond, say, Left Behind: the Kids, then I daresay an occasional serving of raw cucumbers and tomatoes won't hurt them.

So if Mom and Dad enjoy the sophisticated humor and eye-catching animation of Veggie Tales, but feel guilty about it, perhaps an understanding of the literary place of the Veggie stories - as contemporary beast fables - will encourage them not to write these videos off as mere kiddie fare, nor to expect them to be the Saturday morning equivalent of the Shorter Catechism.

But maybe Mom and Dad should be the ones to teach the children about Jonah.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Why Logres Hall?

Below is an introduction to my work here in Logres Hall. If you wonder what it's all about, this is a good place to start.

Ronan Coghlan's fine reference work The Encyclopaedia of Arthurian Legends describes Logres as 'The name of England in Arthurian Romance.' In C.S. Lewis's masterful novel, That Hideous Strength, we are given a little more, as one of the characters reveals that the great conflict in which they are engaged (for which, read the book) actually began 'when we discovered that the Arthurian story is mostly true history. There was a moment in the Sixth Century when something that is always trying to break through into this country nearly succeeded. Logres was our name for it - it will do as well as another. And then gradually we began to see all English history in a new way. We discovered the haunting. . . . Something we may call Britain is always haunted by something we may call Logres.' Lewis took part of his concept of Logres from his friend Charles Williams's great work Taliessin Through Logres, in which Logres is sort of compared with the work of the Logos, the Son of God (John 1). For Lewis's purposes, Logres became true England, the real England, the faithful sons of England huddled together, back to back, ready for battle, while the inhabitants of 'England,' or the corruption that it has become (in the novel, at least) surrounds them on every side.

In a certain sense, then, Logres is parallel to the Old English concept of Middengeard, or Middle-earth, which Tolkien incorporated so brilliantly in The Lord of the Rings. 'Middle-earth' has been decribed by one writer, reaching back to the Old English word for 'earth' or 'yard,' as 'a cultivated portion of land surrounded by wilderness. The wilderness is modernity, full of monsters, and the yard is a small and pleasant shire. While our children are little, we want to imitate our medieval forefathers and tell our children the truths in fairy tales that will keep them out of the woods. When they are grown, they will be able to fight the monsters and expand the fences of middle earth.' (Douglas Jones, from Douglas Jones and Douglas Wilson, Angels in the Architecture: A Protestant Vision for Middle Earth).

Logres, then, is Middle-earth: the Church of Christ, surrounded by the wilderness of modern unbelief, holding a torch of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty against the darkness of Error, Evil, and Ugliness. As Jones notes, we are to be 'expand[ing] the fences of middle earth.' One day Logres, the remnant of the faithful, will fill all the world with Light, but this expansion of the kingdom of God (for that is what we have been talking about) works slowly, like the growth of a mustard seed, or like yeast working through three measures of meale (Matthew 13). So we work patiently, waiting for the Lord of the Harvest to bring about the increase. We do kingdom work: laughing and feasting, preaching and praying, telling our children stories, writing poetry, chanting Psalms, developing new technology, farming and carving and painting and changing diapers and singing and worshipping and fixing cars and writing and talking and...expanding the fences of middle-earth.

Logres Hall exists as a resource, a starting point for those who wish to expand those fences, to keep out the modern wilderness, and to protect and prepare their families for such work. In the belief that one of the best ways to do this is by creating a storytelling culture in the home, wherein the stories both of Holy Scripture and great literature shape the life and character of the home, Logres Hall is committed to focusing on this aspect, in particular, of the work of middle-earth.

Welcome to Logres Hall.

A Classic Role Revisited: A Review of the animated Ben Hur

My family recently re-watched the new, animated version of Ben Hur, and it reminded me of this previously unpublished review I wrote of the film several years ago when it first came out. My kids give the DVD five stars, which ought to go at least as far as anything I could say. For further reading and entertainment, try the new, four disc edition of the 1959, Oscar-winning version of Ben Hur, as well as Charlton Heston's autobiography, In The Arena, which is an absorbing, well-written account of the great actor's life and work. Favourite Heston quote: (speaking of Robert DeNiro): 'It's ridiculous for an actor that good to keep playing Las Vegas hoods.'

In 1959, legendary actor Charlton Heston delivered the definitive portrayal of Judah Ben-Hur, the hero of General Lew Wallace’s nineteenth century blockbuster novel, Ben Hur, A Tale of the Christ. Heston won the Best Actor Academy Award for Ben Hur, one of a record eleven Oscars (1997's Titanic finally matched the record without surpassing it, as did 2003's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). Recently, the American Film Institute voted Ben Hur one of the 100 best films of all time, and the movie’s stunning chariot race is widely regarded as perhaps the best action sequence ever filmed.

Now, 44 years later, Charlton Heston reprises his most famous role in the new, animated version of Ben Hur (Agamemnon Films/Good Times Entertainment), a production that brings the classic story to a new and younger audience. For those unfamiliar with the story, Ben Hur, A Tale of the Christ, follows the life of Judah Ben-Hur, a young Hebrew prince, and his childhood friend, Messala. After five years in the army, Messala returns to Jerusalem as a Roman centurion, and Judah realizes that the closeness he once shared with his old friend has withered in the heat of Messala’s radical devotion to Rome. When Judah refuses to betray his people by acting as a spy among them, Messala falsely accuses him of trying to assassinate the Roman procurator. Judah’s mother and sister are thrown in prison, and Judah himself is enslaved, consigned to the galleys of a Roman war ship. More than five years pass before Judah escapes from the ship in dramatic fashion, and begins his long journey home; a journey marked by an epic sea battle, a heart-stopping chariot race, and an enduring faith in God.

The context for the story is the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Indeed, the story begins with the search of the Magi for the Christ child, and continues thirty years later with Balthazar (one of the Magi) searching again for the child who had become a man. And in some ways, Christ is a more prominent character in this adaptation: unlike William Wyler’s 1959 version, for instance, the face of Jesus is shown throughout. Dying of thirst on his way to the galleys, Judah is helped by a kind carpenter who gives him water. Later, Judah meets that same carpenter again, hears his teaching, and determines to follow him. Though Judah triumphs over Messala in the chariot race, it is a bitter victory, immediately followed by the news that his mother and sister are alive, but have become lepers and outcasts. Judah determines to bring them to Jesus, and on learning of Christ’s arrest, tries—unsuccessfully—to raise an army to free him. As Judah stands on Golgotha and witnesses the crucifixion of Christ, he realizes that the salvation offered by the carpenter from Nazareth is not merely political liberation or military victory, but something far greater. Ben Hur movingly tells a story that undoubtedly happened time and again, in various ways, in the lives of those who met Jesus.

The animated Ben Hur is much shorter than its Oscar-winning predecessor, clocking in at less than an hour and a half. One reason for the shorter running time is the fact that the action sequences (particularly the sea battle and the chariot race), while expertly portrayed, are not given nearly as much screen time as in previous film versions. This is in keeping with Agamemnon’s stated mission of 'emphasizing story, structure and character over action or special effects.' Even the name, Agamemnon, hearkens back to the days of Greek drama, when Aristotle, in his Poetics, developed the six principles of drama: Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Song. Plot, that is, the agon, or dramatic development of the story, is more important than Spectacle, or what we today would call 'action scenes.' The new Ben Hur succeeds in this emphasis, and the Spectacle, when present, is always appropriate, and never gratuitously violent. As a side note, a film company, with stated goals like those of Agamemnon, is one that Christians should want to support, not merely because they sometimes produce films sympathetic with Christianity, but because they have the right perspective on art. And art, when it is well done, always points to the glory of God, whatever the thematic content.

And this is a fairly well-crafted piece of animated art. The 2D animation is not on the level of, say, the better Disney stuff, or Dreamworks's Prince of Egypt or Joseph: King of Dreams, but the interesting work is in the skillful blending of traditional and computer-generated animation. Character shots and close-ups are produced using traditional 2D animation (though enhanced by computer technology), while wider shots, battle scenes, crowd shots, etc., are 3D, CGI work. It's an interesting blend of techniques, though the obvious differences in appearance are sometimes jarring. The producers made a point of striving for historical accuracy, especially in recreations of the film’s various settings: Jerusalem, Rome, the galleys of a first century Roman war ship; all contributing to the movie’s overall effect of a good story, well-told.

The film is capably directed by William R. Kowalchuk, who provides an interesting Director’s Commentary on the DVD version, and Charlton Heston’s son, Fraser (co-founder with his father of Agamennon), serves as Executive Producer (movie trivia: shortly after he was born, Fraser played the part of Baby Moses in the classic movie, The Ten Commandments, in which his father, of course, played the part of the older Moses). Charlton Heston also narrates Ben Hur, and the DVD contains an interview with Mr. Heston, as well as the original trailer, and a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the movie.

The new script adaptation generally manages to avoid the dumbing-down that often accompanies the rendering of literature for youngsters. Screenwriter Jerome Gray crafted his script by returning to Wallace’s own novel, creating an entertaining version of the story, with some interesting departures from previous adaptations (the resolution of the Messala story-line, for instance), and while the revenge motif is somewhat down-played, it still looms large over the story, a temptation for Judah to overcome.

One of the delights of this version, and which in itself makes it a film worth seeing, is Charlton Heston’s reprisal of his famous role. Heston is a national treasure, certainly one of the greatest American actors, with an unequaled richness of voice that is a joy to hear. As many know, Mr Heston contracted Alzheimer’s disease a few years ago, and each new work by this legendary artist only increases in value. 'This wonderful story has been told many times in the last hundred years, once as a highly successful stage play and three times as a feature,' said Heston. 'Ben Hur is a classic tale of love, forgiveness and redemption, known throughout the world. I’m delighted to be able to bring it to family audiences in this marvelous new format.' And families everywhere will be delighted to see it, Mr Heston.

George Grant on Reading to Children

The post below was written by George Grant, who, although I don't know personally, I have met once; we are co-authors, after a fashion, having both contributed to the forthcoming Omnibus III, published by Veritas Press. George is a fantastic speaker and writer, and his writings are wide-ranging and prolific. I highly recommend his work to you, particularly his historical lectures, many of which can be found for free or minimal cost at Sermon Audio or Word MP3. The post below is a wonderful bit of thoughtfulness on the subject of reading to children. Anyone who has read my book, Talking of Dragons, knows this is a subject near and dear to my heart, and I would suggest reading George's good ideas on the subject.

Reading Aloud

"'Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?' Said the Piggy, 'I will.'
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon."
Edward Lear (1812-1888)

Silent reading is a fairly modern innovation. As late as the eighteenth century, it was thought that the best way to truly appreciate the classics was to read them aloud--all the better to relish the beauty of the words, the music of the composition, and the architecture of the ideas. Of course, the classics are not limited to great philosophical tomes by the likes of Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. In fact, some of the greatest classic works ever written are books for children--books that are at their very best when read aloud.

The best thing about reading aloud to children aside from developmental progress and all that good stuff, is onomatopoeia. “Clang, clang!” “Harrumph!” “Chugga-chugga” “Choo-Choo” “Splat” “Ring! Ring!” “Flutter, Flutter.” Wonderful children’s literature doesn’t just progress along the pages in staid font transferring information, it sings out from the very book at us! Be it Mike Mulligan’s steam shovel digging away furiously or Peter Rabbit hopping lippity, lippity through Mr. MacGregor’s dangerous garden patch, we are fully engaged from once-upon-a-time to everyone-lived-happily-ever-after. Ducks wear poke bonnets, trains wish desperately to make children happy, dreams come true, elephants and carpets fly, and small children affect the outcome of their worlds. Adults who wear business attire and behave perfectly appropriately in steel and glass towers day after monotonous day transform themselves into snakes, mean old hags, princesses with snooty accents, and sorrowful baby bears when a small child is snuggled on their lap with a good book. Is it any wonder that a happy child’s evening litany includes “Read one more book, please?”

Children’s classics are those books that can be read over and over and over again, with great anticipation and satisfaction. Character traits that would serve well both presidents and street sweepers are inculcated between the few pages, and good, while often tattered, does overcome evil in the end. Lost battles are still worth the fight. As in real life, the honor and import of the struggle count more than winning.

Do you miss it? Then rush out to a school in your own neighborhood and ask for the privilege to read to some children once a week. Better yet, ask for the greater privilege of teaching someone to read as a volunteer tutor in a local school. The rewards of macaroni necklaces, somewhat sticky hugs, long, extremely detailed stories of the day’s adventures, and glittery homemade cards are surprisingly as touching as gifts from your own loved ones, as well as the quiet inner assurance that you are making a difference in the world forever after.

Rather than purchasing huge quantities of books for your children, purchase quality copies of some great ones, and read these over and over again.

Reading quietly to a small child in the tub just after the dinner hour has a calming effect on the entire household.

Do you have one of those busy little people in your family who finds it very difficult to sit still? They really can concentrate better on the story you’re reading if they have a crayon and paper in front of them or a small car to hold in their hands as you read

.Keep wonderful books such as The Chronicles of Narnia or the G.A. Henty adventures or the Jan Karon Mitford novels in the car and read aloud to the entire family if you have a regular long commute together, or will be together on vacation.

Make sure each child has a bookshelf of their own or a space of their own on the family bookshelf. Books should never be kept in toyboxes where they will be destroyed. Treat them as if they are very valuable.

Your children must see you reading if they are to take reading seriously themselves.

Perhaps you missed out on many wonderful children’s classics as a child. Buy them, read them, then donate the books to area school libraries or create a small library at a shelter for kids in transitional housing. Any schoolteacher can provide you with the name of a young student who needs and would appreciate a book for Christmas.

If you have more than one child in your family, their reading skills will vary. Some children simply don’t read well; it is work for them, and not unadulterated joy. For these children especially, reading aloud to them for as many years as they will listen is especially important for their cultural understanding and development. Things as simple as the inflection in your voice when you read about an inappropriate action by a character will imprint upon your child’s moral character if read to often.

Some children simply aren’t as affectionate as others. They often get left out when it comes to reading time merely because it isn’t as sensuously enjoyable for everyone as with a snuggling sweetheart engaged in the story. These children need your patience and time even more than others, who will probably find ways to get their needs met in life through normal daily interaction. Do whatever it takes to keep their attention: feed them cookies, let them blow bubbles, and concentrate on rhyming, fast-moving stories and beautiful illustrations. You may be the only person in their entire life who will take the time to interest them in books. A lot of extra stimulation is not advised however for a child easily read to. Imagination develops in wonderful ways when pure listening skills are employed.

"There is a great deal of difference between the eager man who wants to read a book and the tired man who wants a book to read. A man reading a Le Quex mystery wants to get to the end of it. A man reading the Dickens novel wished that it might never end." George MacDonald (1824-1905)

"Mediocre minds usually dismiss anything which reaches beyond their own understanding." Duc de la Rochefoucauld (1613-1680)

"You can find all the new ideas in the old books; only there you will find them balanced, kept in their place, and sometimes contradicted and overcome by other and better ideas. The great writers did not neglect a fad because they had not thought of it, but because they had thought of it and of all the answers to it as well." G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

"The oldest books are still only just out to those who have not yet read them." Samuel Butler (1835-1902)