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Posts Tagged ‘J. R. R. Tolkien’

Today (22 November 2013) is the fiftieth anniversary of deaths of three famous persons:

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Aldous Huxley

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John F. Kennedy

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and C. S. Lewis.

The irony of that day is that Kennedy–a star on the rise, but not yet fulfilled–is the one whose death got the attention. Of course, he was the president of the United States, and someone that visibly powerful tends to draw the eye more than those whose influence plays out over centuries. Kennedy was glamorous and youthful, and while his education showed itself in his speeches and policies, his intellect didn’t challenge people in uncomfortable ways.

By contrast, Huxley warned us of the dangers of cheerful tyranny in A Brave New World. More importantly, he reminded us of transcendence, what he referred to as the perennial philosophy. His writings convinced me that science is not the only way to see the world. I have come to think of this as the theology of narratives. We comprehend the world on multiple levels, but storytelling is our primary mode of thought.

Lewis’s influence on me is broader. He was a vigorous debater, a teacher of the classics, and a fine literary critic. His stories were of varying quality from the heavy-handed Space Trilogy to the fun of his best known Chronicles of Narnia, but some of his narratives were profound. The Screwtape Letters works, whether we see the demons as fallen angels or as marketing executives. Till We Have Faces is a study of jealousy and of how human beings interact with the divine. And, of course, as a writer myself, it’s gratifying to see a scholar who comes to public attention as he reaches middle age.

But what of Kennedy? As I said above, he was potential without fulfillment. We love to play the game of counterfactuals, speculating about the Vietnam War or civil rights. Certainly, Kennedy was more cautious than Johnson and may have preferred the free market to the Great Society. We just don’t know. Like the lovers on the Grecian Urn, we are, with Kennedy, left in anticipation. His life was a story unfinished, and so we can only spin out the ending according to what our imaginations can conceive.

And that is the point. All our lives are stories, stories that we write for ourselves and tell to each other. The meaning that we find is in the narrative. If I may play with the ideas of “The Music of the Ainur,” written by Lewis’s friend, J. R. R. Tolkien, it is the duty and life of each of us to sing our theme in the cosmic fugue (thanks be to Carl Sagan) and our worthiness to use that theme to add to the total music.

Crossposted on Greg Camp’s Weblog.

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As a teacher of college composition and literature, a writer, and an editor–and as a person–I care a great deal about this wonderful English language. That being the case, when I find a word used in a wrong way, that grates on my nerves. Yesterday, for example, I ran across an article on The Huffington Post on the subject of the scientific meaning of the word, theory. In common usage, the word is treated as a synonym for guess or conjecture, but in science, it means an explanation of data that has been confirmed by observation or experiment.

But some of the readers who commented on the article insisted that because their dictionaries tell them that theory also means guess, there’s nothing wrong with using it in that sloppy manner. This reveals a fundamental problem with how people understand what their dictionaries do. Dictionaries can be prescriptive or descriptive.

1. Prescriptive

This is the kind of dictionary that tells us what a word is supposed to mean. It aims at teaching best practice in language. Noah Webster used his to reshape American English into something different from that found in British writing. This is why Americans typically write honor and color, rather than honour and colour.

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2. Descriptive

By contrast, the descriptive approach seeks to compile the way a word is used or has been used. One famous example of this is the Oxford English Dictionay.

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The O.E.D. asks readers to send in examples of words that they find in published material, and the editors compile these into a sampling of those words’ history. J.R.R. Tolkien spent a couple of years after the First World War working on the entries for W, something that surprises no one who knows much about his interests. (That sentence brought to you by the letter W.)

But just because many people use a word in a particular way doesn’t mean that this is the best usage. Consider some examples. Many think that the word, issue, is a synonym for problem. But issue must always involve something being sent out. When I hear that a person has issues, I have to wonder what the person’s sores are giving to the world. As a figure of speech, issue is acceptable as a word to describe a topic of debate, such as the issue of gun control, since that topic is being sent back and forth between sides of the argument. Or take impact. Today, we hear it used in place of effect all too often. Impact means a blow, which makes talking about the impact of healthcare reform a disturbing subject of discussion–an issue, perhaps? Then there’s nauseous. How often has someone said to you, “I feel nauseous”? The word means a quality that causes illness, thus such a person is claiming to make others sick.

Now if your characters are speaking, feel free to make them misuse words in whatever way is appropriate to who they are. But in your own expression, you ought to be better than errors such as what I illustrated above. I know, I know, people at this point will say that Shakespeare or Chaucer or Milton or so on and so forth and such like used words in the way that today’s lazy person wishes to use them. Fine. If you’re Shakespeare or the like, feel free to do as you choose. But if you’re still working on getting to that exalted state, pay attention to best usage.

Crossposted on Oghma Creative Media.

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I’m a writer. This means, of course, that I hope soon to be making my living primarily by writing. I scribble in a variety of genres. Some of what I write I call literary, while much of my works are westerns and science fiction, with a smattering of beats-the-hell-out-of-me. I do tend toward what used to be called romances. Understand that the term once meant stories about ancient Rome–in other words, tales of long ago and far away.

Today, we call those speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction, and so forth. Tolkien referred to them as faerie stories. But whatever name you care to give them, they all involve a narrative that pulls the reader out of the mundane and into magic. (Recall that Arthur C. Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology would look like magic.) But how can you know if this particular genre is what you ought to be writing?

Here’s a sentence that will answer the question:

The empire in the west had fallen, but remnants survived in the east.

What does that sentence do inside you?

If it calls to mind the Roman Empire, you have a good grasp of history.

If thoughts of the Mongols or the Chinese come to mind, you’re a multiculturalist. (Unless you’re reading me in Asia, then apply this to the first reaction.)

If your reaction is one of boredom or revulsion, I can’t help you.

But if you read that sentence and feel a wave of fascination about distant lands, shifting powers, the possibilities of kingdoms won and lost, maidens (or fine swains, depending on your interests) seduced, and mysteries to be opened and beheld in awe, then you stand in good chance of being a bard of Faerie.

The rest is the discipline of the craft.

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