Aegypt: The Solitudes by John Crowley

aegypt

Hermes Trismegistus
Hermes Trismegistus

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Why do we think gypsies can tell fortunes?

This question, and the  ideas that stem from it, form the backbone of what might be called the definitive historical fantasy novel.

Pierce Moffet wants to find a compelling book idea for a nonfiction history book.  He discovers that the reason we think gypsies can tell fortunes is not because they came from Egypt (or even India for that matter), but because our ancestors thought gypsies came from Aegypt, a dream-Egypt sprung from the European imagination. In the Renaissance, before hieroglyphs were interpreted, Egypt was Aegypt to the Greeks, and the inscriptions on the temples of that far-off country were suspected of hiding all manner of ancient magical incantations and occult lore given by the Father of Magic, Hermes Trismegistus.

In one sense, Aegypt: The Solitudes is literary fiction, with the bulk of the action happening among the fictitious Faraway Hills region of rural Kentucky in the 1970s. Yet, it is also a historical novel with elements of fantasy. A couple of scenes happen in Renaissance Italy, Elizabethan England, and it even has a Goethian “Prologue in Heaven.” Except for one scene, in which a minor character named Beau imagines (with the help of drugs?) that he soars through the heavenly spheres, each of these “historical” scenes are chapters written by the fictitious historical novelist Fellowes Kraft, John Crowley’s alter ego. The result is an alchemy that gives “real” modern, American life a glowing significance in light of the “fictitious” historical past.

Winning the Life Achievement Award at the World Fantasy Convention in 2006, Crowley has made quite the contribution to American letters. His style feels casual and genuine, a smooth voice that puts you at ease in the pastoral setting of the Faraways.

The Rolling Hills of Kentucky
The Rolling Hills of Kentucky

After a fateful bus trip away from an anonymous life in the city, Pierce finds himself in the rural region, near the town of Blackbury Jams. We learn he is the sort of man who spends an inordinate amount of time coming up with thorough, even scientific answers to fanciful questions, such as what he would do if a djini granted him three wishes. But one question in particular begins to tantalize him: why do we think gypsies can tell fortunes? Little does he suspect that his scientific historicism and fascination with fairy tales will come together to form an intellectual synthesis.

Meanwhile, Rosie Rasmussen is trying to finalize her divorce with her husband Mike Mucho, and look over her three-year-old daughter Sam. She has trouble understanding her own lack of a desire to love Mike any more, wondering what she will do with her life as she consults with her divorce lawyer. Her escape during these emotionally troubling times is to read Bitten Apples by Kraft, a novel about a young William Shakespeare written in a realistic style. Crowley makes us read scenes from Kraft “over her shoulder,” writing certain scenes from Bitten Apples as scenes in The Solitudes. The historical-fictitious world of Kraft’s novels thus run parallel to the main, twentieth-century narrative. The result is that we inevitably compare the main plot to Kraft’s plots, noticing parallels between the past and present.

John Dee http://wp.me/p32Kr4-aF
John Dee
http://wp.me/p32Kr4-aF

The disaffected, modern characters who search for meaning in rural Kentucky contrasts with the Renaissance setting of Kraft’s novels, subtly suggesting that the characters repeat mythic patterns in their day-to-day thoughts and actions. The way Crowley weaves these parallels seems almost accidental, but given Crowley’s sophistication as a writer, it is clear he intends readers to pick up on these “accidents.” Whether they have deeper significance is up to the reader to decide.

Since the novel is about Rosie and Pierce’s relationship to Fellowes Kraft, an author who they’ve never met, and his oeuvre, it becomes significant for past and present when, in Bitten Apples, a young William Shakespeare enters the house of Doctor John Dee on an errand. (To read more on what I wrote on Dee, click here and here.)

During his visit to the old Doctor, Will gets a primitive photograph taken of himself from the camera obscura in Dee’s garden. He is then invited inside his home where he comes face-to-face with Dee’s famous “crystal ball,” a smoky quartz stone the colour of moleskin. Dee uses it to scry for spirits. Will says he sees something in the smoke, a portent warning of fateful visit from a stranger—but whether he really saw anything, or only wanted Dee to think he saw something, remains ambiguous.

An innocent enough reply, Will’s “prediction” comes true when Dee makes the acquaintance of Talbot, or Edward Kelley, a con man who claims to be able to communicate with angels. While he deceives Doctor Dee on his desperate quest for spiritual meaning, Pierce and Rosie, in the twentieth century, ponder their own searches for significance and love.

Giordano Bruno
Giordano Bruno

But what changes the game for Dee—and Pierce—is the (re)appearance of Giordano Bruno. Bruno was a heretic Dominican monk in Renaissance Italy who develops a theory about an infinite universe while challenging the Ptolemaic world system. The heretic’s story is one that Pierce was familiar with since childhood. But never has Kraft delved into Bruno’s life in quite the way he does in the unfinished, untitled manuscript Pierce finds in the abandoned house of the late author of Bitten Apples

Pierce discovers that his whole life has been preparing him to read this one manuscript, a book that uncannily echoes his own intellectual journey to write a nonfiction book on the history of histories. The manuscript opens as follows:

Once the world was not as it has since become.

It once worked in a different way than it does now; it had a different history and a different future. Its very flesh and bones, the physical laws that governed it, were other than the ones we know.”

As Pierce reacts to this stimulating subject material, Dee sees Bruno sailing for England in an attempt to flee religious persecution. Aegypt: The Solitudes leaves us off with the sense that the meeting between Dee and Bruno will be an epic meeting that could change the fabric of history itself. The first book of the Aegypt Cycle ends, as does Bitten Apples, with “THE BEGINNING.”

My personal reaction to Aegypt was not unlike Pierce reading Kraft’s manuscript: I felt as if all my research into historical fantasy, Guy Gavriel Kay, and even my novel, had finally prepared me to read John Crowley. I first heard of Aegypt researching the historical fantasy genre. The personal research I conducted for my novel Intelligence—research into Giordano Bruno, John Dee, hermeticism, and the Elizabethan era, for example—also found echoes in Aegypt: The Solitudes. It was rather like looking in a strange mirror, seeing myself reflected in Pierce and Kraft’s endeavours. While I cannot say with certainty that Aegypt will form the subject of my MA thesis, I believe I must reckon with it if I wish to continue studying historical fantasy.

The worst praise I could give for Aegypt: The Solitudes is that it is like reading a classier, finer, more intellectual DaVinci Code, if you leave out the thriller elements. Comparing Crowley to Dan Brown is unfair for a number of reasons, but if you like Brown’s thrillers of hidden histories and secret societies, you will have a natural affinity to Crowley, who is undoubtedly the better artist.

For those of you who love literary fiction and are thinking about dipping into historical fantasy, but are afraid you might not enjoy it, reading Aegypt will familiarize you with the ideas behind the best historical fantasy, while not obligating you to leave the confines of literary fiction. For those of you who love fantasy or historical fiction, then Aegypt‘s blend of history and fantasy offers a rewarding literary reading experience.

John Crowley
John Crowley

 

Image Credits:

John Crowley: http://www.momaps1.org/expo1/event/kim-stanley-robinson-in-conversation-with-john-crowley/

Aegypt: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Greaves_Pyramidographia_1646_Front.gif

Giordano Bruno: http://johns-spot112948.blogspot.ca/2013/02/giordano-bruno.html

John Dee:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Dee

Kentucky: https://www.flickr.com/photos/anneh632/2691048983/

The Gunslinger: The Dark Tower I, by Stephen King

gunslinger coverGunslinger.

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What do you get when you combine Tolkien and the Western? Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.

Meet Roland, the last gunslinger. He’s Aragorn meets John Wayne. A solitary man “wandering but not lost,” he carries two six-shooters that were once his father’s pistols. His single quest, which he pursues with an instinctual audacity, is summarized in the iconic first line of the novel. The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

Aragorn is a lonely wanderer like Roland, but "not all who wander are lost; the crownless again shall be king."
Aragorn is a lonely wanderer like Roland, but, as the prophecy says, “not all who wander are lost; the crownless again shall be king.”
John Wayne is a famous actor in classic Westerns, another archetype for Roland.
John Wayne is a famous actor in classic Westerns, another archetype for Roland.

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Every single sentence seeps with the brooding, gritty mood of the Western genre and with the unforgiving cadence of a landscape that has, we are continually reminded, “moved on.” The desert is the “apotheosis of all deserts,” a world reminiscent of the American Southwest. In fact, it takes place in the future, a post-apocalyptic world that shares certain features with King’s other epics, such as The Stand, Salem’s Lot, and It.

Gunslinger desert3We follow Roland as he runs among the ruins of a technologically advanced civilization identical to the twentieth-century USA. Most gadgets have ceased to work and people have fallen into a semi-feudal, semi-frontier society of small settlements. Petroleum, for example, is so valuable that one man becomes a Delphic oracle by inhaling fumes at a gas station.

The story follows Roland as he encounters a dweller in the wilderness named Brown and his talking raven Zoltan. Forming a brief but tense friendship, he tells them both the story of his journey to Tull, where he falls in love with a woman named Allie and has an adventure with the fire-and-brimstone preacher Sylvia Pittson. But the man in black has passed through town and his spells have laid a trap. As Roland tells his story, you find out that he is an ambiguous figure with a capacity for both heroism and merciless violence.

His real challenge comes later, when he meets Jake, a boy from New York. He takes Jake as his own ward as he pursues the man in black over the mountains at the end of the desert. In the end, however, his bond with the boy will come in conflict with his destiny, pushing Roland’s moral endurance to the limit.

This novel has entranced me ever since I read a Gunslinger novella years ago “The Little Sisters of Eluria.” I had no context to the narrative, but I immediately took to the crazy, gritty story of zombies and cannibal nuns. It further drew me on after I learned where King got the title for his series: a song from Shakespeare’s King Lear sung by Edgar, who is posing as a madman at the time.

Child Rowland to the dark tower came,
His word was still ‘Fie, foh, and fum
I smell the blood of a British man.”

Gunslinger 2Just as the “child” Rowland (“child” or “childe” refers to a squire who has yet to be knighted) pursues the Dark Tower, so does the last gunslinger. But he isn’t British: he’s definitely American. And he is no longer a “child,” but a man. In fact, Roland at one point recalls his own rite of passage ceremony, in which he duels Cort, his training master in Gilead, Roland’s now-vanished hometown. Another work of literature featuring Roland is Robert Browning’s poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” Stephen King’s series, however, remains the longest sustained treatment of Roland’s quest. (Of course, he is not a gunslinger in Browning, but a knight errant.)

A third factor that drew me to read The Gunslinger was how it was inspired by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Sergio Leone’s movie The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. In his understated introduction to the expanded edition, Stephen King describes how he knew he was going to get Norse mythology wrong if he wrote an epic too similar to Tolkien. So he borrowed from a genre with similar epic potential, a genre that forms the central mythos of American identity: the Western.

Stephen King, author of The Gunslinger
Stephen King, author of The Gunslinger

I would have to agree that King wrote a more honest Tolkienesque epic fantasy novel using the Western. Books like The Sword of Shannara slave too closely to the plots of the “father of modern fantasy” so as to seem derivative or worse: a simple copy. Tolkien borrowed from Norse and Celtic mythology because that was the mythology of his homeland, Great Britain. King borrowed from the Western mythology of his own country, the United States.

I once wrote a website (with bad links) that presented an academic argument proposing that the genre of modern fantasy was born of an Americanization of British myths into the framework of the “American monomyth.” Essentially, this monomyth is like the stereotypical Western plot: an paradisaical community is threatened by an outside force, the ordinary law can do nothing to stop it, then a hero emerges from within the community, or occasionally from the outside, and stops evil in a final battle or shootout. The story ends with him riding into the sunset. I would not say that King follows this formula precisely, but the way in which The Gunslinger was conceived reminded me of my old observations of the fantasy genre.

Shining through the baggage I brought to it, The Gunslinger left me thirsty for more. The most powerful, resonating aspect of this story is how the mood almost seems to dictate the plot. The world has moved on is the novel’s refrain and the story moves on too. Things are always going to get worse, but Roland’s resolve to encounter the man in black remains a force of constant momentum. A fair word of warning: this novel ends only at the beginning of the series, with a revelation as to the true shape of Roland’s quest, which he at first pursues rather blindly. These facts about the Dark Tower he discovers only at a terrible cost to himself and those few whom he loves.

Gunslingerdesert

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Photo Credits:

Stephen King: http://thescribblerblog.wordpress.com/2009/02/05/stephen-king-denounces-stephanie-meyer-other-writers/

Cover: http://thoroughlyrussellcrowe.com/news/2013/12/russell-crowe-book-club-2-the-gunslinger/

Gunslinger 1: http://craighallam.wordpress.com/2012/06/02/book-review-the-wind-through-the-keyhole-by-stephen-king/

Gunslinger desert 1: http://www.thedarktower.org/palaver/showwiki.php?title=Towerpedia:Mohaine+Desert

Gunslinger 2:: http://www.giantitp.com/forums/showthread.php?p=11719683

John Wayne: http://www.doctormacro.com/movie%20star%20pages/Wayne,%20John-Annex.htm

Aragorn: http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/lord-of-the-rings/images/31401318/title/aragorn-photo

13 Things I Learned Writing My First Novel: Battles of Rofp

I hope you all had a merry Christmas. Now, while you’re still warm with Christmas feeling (perhaps you are snug by the fire with a cup of hot cocoa, or a drink of rum and eggnog, experiencing a similar but not altogether identical feeling of warmth) let me take you down to Memory Lane to see the Ghost of Matthew Rettino Past. I have finished my undergraduate degree now, sporting a valiant BA in Honours English, and have become an expert on Guy Gavriel Kay. Suffice it so say, I have grown as a writer since I finished my first serious novel in Summer 2010.  How much you say? Well, lad, let me tell you.

Here are 13 things I learned while writing Battles of Rofp. I’m sure many fantasy authors have a Battles of Rofp somewhere in their past. For me, it was a 470-page secondary-world epic fantasy that took a rough understanding of J.R.R.Tolkien as my starting point, though I borrowed liberally from Weis and Hickman’s Dragonlance series, which I devoured in High School, and Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle (you’ll remember Eragon).

I had not written all the short stories that authors advise you should write before tackling a massive-sized novel. I just dove straight in, not knowing where I was going. It was the equivalent of learning wilderness survival without a guide, learning how to hunt the beasts and build shelter helter-skelter, by instinct. I began in Sec 1 when I was 13 and I ended just about three years ago now. My literary influences have diversified since then and I have simply become a better writer. I look back upon these years as an example of the primal literature of angst-ridden adolescence, a somewhat “barbaric” age in my career. Nevertheless, I believe I have derived a series of lessons from the experience, which I believe I can offer my devoted followers.

These are not rules. They are not even guidelines. They are simply lessons learned the hard way. If you find them helpful, do not feel constrained by them.

The front cover to my self-published novel Battles of Rofp. I drew the dragon and the swords, but not the horse and rider.
The front cover to my novel Battles of Rofp. The novel was not self-published exactly, simply printed and sent to family and friends. I drew the dragon and the swords, but not the horse and rider. My father helped with the colouration and layout.

1. Choose names that people can pronounce.

Yes, include a pronunciation guide as back matter to your self-published novel. But that still won’t help your relatives from mispronouncing the title of your book. Do you think you know how to pronounce “Rofp?” Think again. You wouldn’t be able move your tongue the right way. It’s the “fp” that gets everyone. Somehow, people tend to roll it out into an “l”: “Rolfph.” This is not even the worse example of complicated pronunciation in fantasy. For example, anything that looks Welsh or has apostrophes is bound to be hard to read. But these challenges can be overcome.

2. Keep mechanics simple

I’m talking about your usual fantasy fare: secret keys, prophecies, hidden manuscripts, sacred stones, holy swords and the like–whatever clues or unique talismans your hero needs to defeat the archvillain. I had a prophecy, a clay tablet, four sacred swords, and a curse in my story, which took a rather long time to sort through. Oh yeah, and my villain Volkon, who is an immortal skeleton demon with his rib cage on fire, could only be harmed by one sword, owned by an undead king. This sword could only be used by that king’s present-day heir, and only if he collected the four aforementioned swords in a holy shrine to summon the dead to life. But if I had kept only the one sword, things might have been simpler.

The Grand Library of Aledria: the location of the clay tablet that reveals the destiny of the Heir
The Grand Library of Aledria: the location of the clay tablet that reveals the destiny of the Heir.

3. A band of companions must have good reasons to stick together.

Three men, two dwarves, and an elf formed my group of companions. Roy is a squire aspiring to the knighthood when Gramrige, saves him from a goblin massacre in his hometown of Ebrook. On the way to Thull, the underground dwarven city, they encounter the homesick stonemason Gourd. The other members were Prince Adrugun, the angst-ridden heir to a great kingdom, Vileros, the Grand Master of the knightly order of the Riders of Rofp, and Guillonius, a dwarven fireball bent on revenge.

How are they connected? Somehow.

It is a hard trick to keep a diverse group motivated to risk their lives fighting dragons. If your characters were friends from an earlier time in the book, however, you have rapport and history between your characters. The companions will care about each other. That can serve as glue.

4. Do not be afraid to rewrite scenes.

We rarely get it right the first time. Are you a writer or not? If so, then you cannot be afraid to rebuild. On the novel I’m working on now, I have a rough draft, but I’m going over each scene, sometimes rewriting whole scenes (though not necessarily re-imagining them entirely). Rewrites let you add depth, to hit all the notes you wanted to hit on your first pass.

5. Do not jump straight into line editing.

NEVER waste time line editing after a first draft. That stuff’s raw and straight out of your unconscious. Chances are the story itself needs work, if not a complete overhaul. Line editing comes at least after draft #2. When the story itself is as it should be and all the scenes are in place, consistencies smoothed out, then you can get out the red pen and go line-by-line. For example, I will aim to cut 10-15% of my word count for my present novel.

Do not make your manuscript a battle on a wall battlement with a troll. Do not line edit your initial draft!
Would you jump straight into a fray with a troll on a battlement catwalk? No? Then don’t line edit your initial draft either!

6. Exposition is used best when the hero is in conflict.

I realized this early on. When writing fantasy, it’s probably one of the first things you learn. Roy initially thought goblins and shapeshifters were myths, despite Gramrige’s warning that they were going to attack his city. Then he had to fight through mobs of the creatures during a wholesale massacre of his city’ inhabitants. Between the physical conflict of the attack and the personal conflict between Roy’s disbelief and Gramrige’s urgency, I managed to slip it quite a bit of backstory. Lace all exposition with tension and you can smooth it right over.

Gramrige and Roy at the Horsehead Tavern at Ebrook
Gramrige and Roy at the Horsehead Tavern at Ebrook. Image has been colourized from b+w original.

7. Ensure your protagonist has a distinct personality.

It’s easy to make protagonists have slight flaws, but be heroic enough to conquer his or her foes. It’s probably because we would like to be our protagonists. But flaws should be harder, sharper. They are really what makes character. I thought Roy had a distinct personality, but it was difficult for me to bring out his own idiosyncratic reactions to events in the book, to see that personality on the page. I always vouched for him to perform the “heroic” feat, if given a moral dilemma. He was not really flesh to me, more like an ideal.

8. Be careful that secondary characters do not steal the show.

Adrugun, the angst-ridden Prince of Theomina,  becomes engaged in a romantic partnership with a elven woman named Virida. This happened at that soggy point in the middle of the book, where the plot starts to run out of steam. Brilliant move in one respect: adding interest at the low point of the novel. However, I was leaving Roy abandoned by the reader’s interest. The story became more and more about Virida and Adrugun and less about Roy. If your tale revolves heavily around one character, it is best to keep readers primarily interested in that character, instead of upstaging them. Other characters can have their time in the spotlight, but for Battles of Rofp, I felt as though Roy needed to be more central.

9. Diction may be the most important part of writing “epic fantasy.”

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a wonderful essay called “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” which explains this point amply enough. Tolkien’s characters speak nobly, like Shakespeare without the Elizabethan conceits. Bad epic fantasy sounds like CSI:Miami or even The West Wing: whether you believe these are good or bad American TV shows, elves do not talk like twenty-first century Americans! Keep the diction measured and formal–but don’t overdo it, otherwise you have impenetrable over-stylized prose, another whole problem. (Oh, and neither do elves speak like twenty-first century Canadians–eh?)

Crice the Diviner, a seeress who lives in Shife. She is immortal and performed the prophecy of the Heir long ago.
Crice the Diviner, a seeress who lives in Shife. She is immortal and performed the prophecy of the Heir long ago.

10. In writing any story, there comes a point where you can’t go back.

If I could go back and rewrite Battles of Rofp, I would not. This is not because I am overconfident in my abilities as a writer–perhaps you can tell from all this self-criticism that I am not–but because I want to move on. At a certain point with every story, you put in a certain number of hours and pass the “never return” point. The story is what it is and all the labour in the world can’t fix it without you having to completely rewrite it. And if you do that, why not just write a new story instead of trying to reformulate a story that’s already failed? Some story ideas are so simple that they cannot sustain even a short story. Battles of Rofp was more complicated, but it was conceived by a thirteen-year-old me, so when I turned 20, I knew it had to end. There were other worlds to explore.

11. You will have a hard time framing a cliched pitch even if, in the book, you take great strides to evade it.

Battles of Rofp‘s plot was the cliche of epic fantasy, although I will maintain it to the death that it was more original than The Sword of Shannara. A squire’s hometown is attacked by goblins. Then he discovers he is the heir to an ancient warrior of a famous knightly order, destined one day to fight the greatest evil of the age. So he goes hunting dragons across the land, collecting the four sacred swords that will be able to summon a power to defeat this evil. It had Legend of Zelda, Eragon, and The Lord of the Rings written all over it.

Yet, on the micro-level, I tried to be unconventional. Dwarves had names inspired by the Russian language. The kingdom of Theomina was divided into names that sounded Roman and names that sounded Semitic. The Phoenix Tribe, lone defenders of Theomina, were the only civilization in Rofp to use gunpowder. The Tongues of Shadow stretched from the sky like darkened tentacles wherever evil strikes, scooping up the souls of the dead in order to devour them.

Wow! Too bad the plot of my story overall still read like THE cliche of all epic fantasy! I should have demonstrated my creativity by coming up with unique plot points first. Then my synopsis would have simply sounded better. Even if you want to rebel against the post-Tolkien epic fantasy genre, you cannot do so while working within a frame that replicates that cliche. At any rate, it is usually best to have one true idea that is yours and build a world around that.

12. Model yourself after authors that you think you can imitate, using them as springboards to pursue the higher laurels.

The poet Petrarch uses the laurel branch, sacred to Apollo, the Greek god of poetry, as a symbol for his poetic aspirations. He was referring with reverence to Ovid, who in his Metamorphoses describes how Apollo chases Daphne his beloved, who the gods turn into the laurel tree. Apollo then appropriates the laurel as his symbol. For centuries, new poets aspire to the laurels of old poets, new writers to the reputation of their forefathers.

One of the reasons I aspired to the laurels of Eragon was that it was imminently accessible: it was written by someone who was my age when he wrote it! I took Paolini as my model. Alas, there are many Paolini-haters on the web. I will defend him this far: he had to finish a series he started when he was quite young, his powers as an author limited by lack of experience. (The ending of Inheritance did not impress me, however.)

I claim it was important to take Paolini as a guide through the first primitive years of my writing career. It was important to have something to aspire to, someone accessible. If he could do this at his age, I thought, then I can do it at mine! I now take Guy Gavriel Kay, Neil Gaiman, and the great poets of the Canadian tradition–all mature, accomplished and duly lauded authors–as my new models.

These new models are sublime, to inspire me to reach the highest boughs of Apollo’s laurel tree. And if I miss, I shall land upon the stars!

13. If you set your mind to something, anything is possible.

At base, I am still proud of Battles of Rofp. Not because it will win me the Giller Prize, or a Hugo. It’s because I wrote a 470-page epic fantasy novel by the time I left high school. Who else can claim to have done that? If you set your mind on something, then it doesn’t matter what, or who, gets in your way. Social life, family time, breathing, sleeping: none of it matters, if you have the heart to pursue your dreams. But seriously folks, balance in life is crucial. If you can play the trick, stick to your dreams while supporting our livelihood, you will have battled a fierce dragon indeed.

Now because balance in life is important and I’m afraid I’ve written another monster post, I must retire. Fare thee well! See thee in the New Year MMXIV!

My map. Home drawn, taken Paolini's map of Alegaesia as technical inspiration. Actually, I first drew the land long before I read that book, back in 2003.
My map. Home drawn. For inspiration as to pencil technique, I looked closely at Paolini’s map from Eragon. I actually first drew the land in 2003, long before I read that book. Feel free to explore this secondary world!

Top 10 Things I Learned While Studying English Literature at McGill University

McGill University
McGill University

Is it even possible to canonize all the things I have learned in my three and a half years studying literature at Canada’s best university to 10 items? I believe my critics will be able to deconstruct the bejesus out of this list. They’d probably base their argument on how I privilege my subjectivity over those of the “other,” namely the other people in my classes. But authors must never write for their critics. Besides, to restate everything I learned would be a heresy of paraphrase.

Lit-crit puns aside, I thought that at this point in my academic career, a retrospective analysis of what I have learned is up to order. Alas, in writing down what I learn, there is so much I must omit. Writing is an erasure as much as an act of creation. An erasure of the blank page. An erasure of infinite possibility–a terrifying possibility we can’t help but whittle down to a finite reality.

Here we go.

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1. Writing is murder.

murder sceneWhen I first came across this pronouncement, I thought my Canadian poetry teacher was using a gruesome metaphor for shock value. But ask yourself, “What gets killed when I write?” Aside from the trees that were chopped down to make the paper you’re wasting, you silence voices when you write, even as you create one. Whose voices? Those of the spirits of the dead who call after you from the whiteness of the page.

Every time you write something down, you exclude so much more. This is true even of the structure of language itself: “warm” only means “warm” because it does not mean “cool.” When you write “warm,” you murder “cool.” Still think it’s a funny metaphor? Then think about this: “male” only means “male” because it doesn’t mean “female.” So what happens when you write “male,” or write from a male voice? You murder the female. Patriarchy explained.

2. Cadence comes before meaning.

Two things here. First, what is cadence? Please read Denis Lee’s essay “Cadence, Country, Silence,” a staple essay on Canadian literature and an existential reflection/confession on what it means to be a Canadian poet–and a writer in general. Cadence means the rhythm, the music, the beat that lives inside of you. It is a different sensation for everyone. You feel it in your gut, in the ticks you feel when writing at your desk. It also suffuses place. The cadence on your home street has a particular rhythm to it. In a similar way, words, if spoken in different places, have certain nuances to them that only cadence can describe. For example, “city” means something in the United States, but something quite different in Canada, and even more different in the U.K. or Turkey. Boston, Ottawa, London, or Istanbul? The trick is to write with your proper cadence–the music that is genuine to you.

Editors searching through the slush pile know within thirty seconds or even less whether an author is good. They know before they even understand the meaning of the words they are reading. This is important: cadence comes before meaning. If an editor feels that the cadence of a writer is genuine, then they already know they are good. The content itself is secondary. Being true to yourself comes before what you have to say.

3. Texts are physical and unstable.

books

Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus has two texts: an A-text and a B-text. Any critic might refer to either or both of them, but the play itself never exists absolutely as any one text. This makes Doctor Faustus an unstable text. But Lord Byron’s Don Juan, which is seventeen cantos long, went through infinitely more censorship and revisions over the course of its composition history. Wordsworth kept adding to and editing his Prelude over his lifetime, as he slid into the conservatism of his later years, producing multiple texts that chart the poem’s corresponding change. These poems are unstable. You cannot read one text and expect its absolute authority. Rather, you must read them in the knowledge that they have been chosen by textual editors.

One of the reasons for textual instability is textual materiality. Books are books. They are physical. They have hard covers against which you can hit your head in frustration as you cram for your final exam. They are burnable. They suffer water damage and texts get damaged–which is a real problem when dealing with rare medieval manuscripts. Different books make it easier or harder to read in certain ways. For example, a “perfect bind” airport paperback novel is meant to be read once and even thrown away (if you’re callous), whereas a hardcover, stitch-binding copy of Shakespeare’s collected works is meant to be read over and over again.

4. Form matters.

Poe's The Raven is inspired by a single obsessive image. Also, see his short stories The Black Cat and The Tell-Tale Heart
Poe’s “The Raven” is inspired by a single obsessive image. Also, see his short stories “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

Sonnets are not just 14-line poems in iambic pentameter that rhyme ababcdcdefefgg. They contain the whispers of Petrarchan love poetry within their lines, something that can be difficult to escape. For some poets and critics, sonnets symbolize a conservative tradition in poetry that revolves around the almighty iambic line, which must be rebelled against at all costs! Even a short story has a form. It is no accident that Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories–which are among the first examples of the form in literary history–revolve around an obsessive image: short stories, being short, cannot encompass more than one deeply symbolic image. (Not that this is the law today, but for nineteenth-century experimenters, it was true.) Form influences how you read literature. Form is tough. Form is political. Form is unavoidable.

5. Things happen and are done in texts.

Eternal Wanderer: a famous painting of the sublime alps, often a cover for editions of Frankenstein. Also an apt name for a literature student.
Eternal Wanderer: a famous painting of a gentleman hiker in the sublime Alps, often a cover for editions of Frankenstein. An apt name for a literature student.

When working on a paper for my Romantic literature class, I struggled to come up with a thesis about Frankenstein and the sublime. The course lecturer suggested, “It always helps to think in terms of what the sublime is doing in the story.” The way she phrased this sounded strange to my ears. Is there agency in texts apart from the author’s? Can the idea of the sublime itself be doing something in a story? The answer was, “Of course!” I ended up writing a fine paper about how Mary Shelley critiques the sublime as a female Romantic writer who has some distance from male Romantic aesthetic. I might have also said that the sublime was working in the story to critique conventional Romanticism. Ideas play in a text even if the author does not will it…

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6. Authorial intention can be irrelevant.

A common objection in High School English classrooms is, “What if Shakespeare didn’t really mean that?” Exasperated by the complexity of Billy Shakes’ lingo, they throw their hands up in the air and choose not to believe in complexity at all. But ANYONE who has tried to write a piece of creative work, if they have put any thought into writing at all, knows that Shakespeare intended to write what he wrote (censorship, his actors’ poor memory at recollecting the text, and contemporary editing aside). When you take the time to think enough about writing, crafting cobbe shakesyour language to an advanced level, you better believe you are intending every word that you write.

However, the High School student does hint at an important point. Sometimes, a professor or teacher will create a complex argument to argue something about Shakespeare and it will seem abstract. Even a seasoned English student will doubt that Shakespeare ever really intended his listeners to understand his plays in that way. But the student would be wise not to stumble into the intentional fallacy. The author may have intended one interpretation of his text, or sometimes none in particular. Does that mean a reader can’t make more out of the author’s work than even the author saw in it? Absolutely not! Critics can explore every range of possible meaning in a text.

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7. You can analyze anything.

Don’t just think because courses revolve around the “big names” of literature–the literary canon–that you cannot study the authors you love. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Pope, Wordsworth, Byron, Browning, James, Eliot … hopefully a literature class will teach you to appreciate the greats, the saints of the religion of English literature. But why not overturn the canon and speak of an non-canonical author? I wrote my Honours thesis on Guy Gavriel Kay, who I had discovered by accident years ago and began reading for pleasure long before I started at McGill. I have now read his completed works. In literary theory, no novel, short story, poem, or play is off bounds.

GGK
Guy Gavriel Kay

8. Topic sentences should be able to read as an independent “phantom” paragraph, or abstract.

I learned this in my first semester.

“I’ll just give you a few statistics,” President Barack Obama said in a speech Wednesday in Washington, D.C. One of the people watching Obama’s speech was Robert Putnam, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, who is intimately familiar with such studies. “The part about democracy is relevant,” Putnam said. “The data show that not only is there declining trust in government, there is declining trust in other people”; although it wasn’t exclusive to them, this shift was “concentrated among these poor kids, the kids who have been left out,” Putnam said. These young people […] were becoming “extremely alienated from democratic politics.”

The above paragraph is the first part of a New Yorker article–but it is a phantom. It does not exist as a unity. Rather, it is a composite, formed of the topic sentences of the first few paragraphs of the article “Economic Inequality: a Matter of Trust?” by Amy Davidson. If you are able to write a cohesive-sounding paragraph using the topic sentences of the paragraphs in your essay, then you have a well-structured essay.

9. English teaches you a skill more than knowledge.

When I began at McGill, I wanted to know more about literature. I wanted teachers to lecture on. But towards the later portion of my degree, I had fewer and fewer lectures. Students participated more in class; we all had our different ideas and were prepared to defend them. At a given point in my second or third year, teachers became supervisors and weren’t imparting knowledge of literature onto us so directly. We became independent researchers and thinkers. We learned the rules of the game of English literature and then were able to play that game on our own–even break the rules.

If a professor tells you what a poet means in his or her poem, then be aware that theirs is not the final word. They have a theory and it might be sound and true. But English teaches you how to criticize and think for yourself. In the end, the program taught me to be confident in my ability to read and think independently. That is a skill.

Not to mention, with instant web-based communication so available, errors and misspellings  emerge with frequency (some intentional, others not). English degrees can give you a skill much sought-after in the shrinking pool of people who actually know how to spell. There may yet be hope for the lot of us.

10. Reading poetry must affect you.

THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT POINT! Academia can be a vampire. Sucking the joy out of experiencing poetry and literature since the early twentieth century. Just because you exercise your faculty of critical thinking when reading poetry must NEVER prevent you from enjoying it in a visceral, existential, and sensuous way.

Mark Twain said a “classic” is a book we always wanted to have read, but never want to read. Now I actually want to read some of the classics: Byron and Marlowe in particular. Reconnecting to the fundamental experience of reading literature for enjoyment is the task they don’t–and can’t–tell you how to do in school.

Never stop loving it because you studied it. Unfortunately, this happens all too often in High Schools, where students are forced to write essays on books they should, above all, be enjoying. Only through enjoyment and pleasure can you commit a text to real memory, a memory that will follow you the rest of your life, a memory with personal value.

Poetry must affect you and it must continue to affect you. Frustrated with the insufficiency of our learning, we must, as does Goethe’s Faust, turn from the vanity of academia and reconnect to literature through fundamental experience.

Goethe's Faust
Goethe’s Faust

Photo Credits:

McGill: http://www.alumnilive365.mcgill.ca/2012/10/31/rankings-what-do-they-mean-to-students/

Murder: http://ogdenutahcriminaldefense.com/murder-and-manslaughter/

Books: http://mysynonym.com/2009/02/amazons-kindle-2/

Poe: http://americanliteraturedrescher2.wikispaces.com/D.+Edgar+Alan+Poe

Eternal Wanderer: http://eardstapa.wordpress.com/the-poem-the-wanderer/

Shakespeare: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cobbe_portrait

Guy Gavriel Kay: http://profunduslibrum.blogspot.ca/2012/10/guy-gavriel-kay-ysabel.html

Faust: http://www.hberlioz.com/paintings/BerliozWorks3b.html