One Bright Star’s Forgotten Forebearers

Doris Sutherland has a surprisingly balanced and fair description of the events surrounding the Sad Puppies kerfuffle and the Hugo award, followed by several articles where she reviews all the nominees in the categories.

http://womenwriteaboutcomics.com/2016/02/03/2014-hugos-versus-2015-sad-puppies-novellas/

Since my readers did me the honor of nominating a historically high number of my works into the categories, there are more reviews of my work gathered there than you are likely to find in any other place. And, again, the criticisms are surprisingly balanced and fair.

Not entirely fair, mind you.

But a writer who forgets to be awed and grateful that any reader whatever is reading his works, especially one reading with a close enough attention to make trenchant comments about them, should forget about being a writer. I trust my remarks will be taken in the spirit they are intended, not as a criticism of a critic, which is not my place, but as a gentle reminder of forgotten books or forgotten facts which, if called to mind, would allow the candid critic to avoid unintentional unfairness.

When speaking of One Bright Star to Guide Them, Miss Sutherland has this to say:

I rather suspect that it [One Bright Star] was intended as a response to the criticism made by Philip Pullman and others that the Narnia books, particularly The Last Battle, push an infantilised worldview by equating the afterlife with childhood make-believe.

The critic here is wise enough to label her speculations as such. In fact, the original short story was written circa 1985, long before Philip Pullman gained enough fame for yours truly to be aware of him or any of his criticisms.

I first heard of Mr. Pullman’s work in 1995, and never heard of this particular criticism of The Last Battle before reading this article.

That said, it is worth noting that Wright was an atheist when he wrote the original, shorter version of the story, published in 2009. With that in mind, One Bright Star can be seen not as a case of an author preaching, but of an author grappling with his own personal doubts.

While it can be seen that way, it ought not to be, since that is also simply not the case.  I had no doubts with which I was wrestling, or even thumb-wrestling, in the 1980’s about these matters. At that time, I was a confirmed atheist, and my mind was settled and sure as the mind of a philosopher can be on any topic.

I also note that the critic mentions my personal beliefs that are, frankly, none of her business. If her judgment of craftsmanship of the tale depends on her prior knowledge of my personal convictions, then she is not criticizing my work (which she has read) but my heart (which she had not read).

The result may be unsubtle in pushing a certain worldview, but in this way it is entirely consistent with The Last Battle.

Again, this is false. There is no pushing, subtle or not, of any worldview here, Christian or otherwise.  The critic goes on to say:

It is, perhaps, a trifle unfair to fault a book for being faithful to its source material.

Perhaps a trifle, yes, especially where the point of the story is exactly as Miss Sutherland herself correctly identifies earlier:

In Wright’s interpretation, stories such as Narnia actually reflect an eternal, Platonic ideal in a manner that can be appreciated by children.

This is exactly right. How the same critic can be aware of the point and purpose of a story in one sentence, and be unaware in the next, is a mystery of the art of book reviewing I cannot fathom.

For those not grasping Miss Sutherland’s insight into the work, allow me to repeat it in my own words: in my humble opinion, One Bright Star is an apologia for children’s fairy stories, a nostalgic homage, and poses a question as to the relation of children’s stories to the grown-up world.

The irony of the opening quote, where the saint says he puts childish things away, should be lost on no one. This story asks what in childhood stories is actually childish, and is put away, and what in childhood stories is apprenticeship leading to later mastery?

The scandalous answer proposed by the story is that childrens’ fairy stories tell you more about the world than you suspect. At the root they are more realistic than realism, and prepare you better.

When several of the sacred cows of those who have no love of fairytales, such as abortion, public schooling, socialism and sexual liberation, are portrayed in One Bright Star as being akin to their nearest fairy story equivalent of witchcraft, enchanted sleep, vampirism, and so on, critics of the mundane bent are properly scandalized, and make the expected sputtering noises.

I have no objection: my intent was to disquiet their assumptions, to show what filth is routinely swallowed by those whose palates are trained to abhor the taste of the bread of elfland. If Gollum does not spit it out, I have not baked it properly.

But One Bright Star makes no comment, either in the short story version I wrote when I was an atheist, nor in the expanded novella version I wrote when I was a Christian, as to whether the eternal, Platonic ideals reflected in children’s stories were true or false.

The critic here apparently assumes that if a writer uses Christian background motifs or themes in a fairytale, it is either because he is evangelizing Christianity, or wrestling with his doubts about Christianity.

Oddly enough, I have never heard a critic assert that an Arabian Night’s Tales pastiche cannot be written unless the author is evangelizing Islam or wrestling with doubts about it; nor have a I heard a critic say that a Percy Jackson book or Marvel Comics is evangelizing classical paganism or Thor worship, or wrestling with doubts about it.

On the other hand, I have heard it said by my coreligionists of the more zealous and Puritanical sort that Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings, or the Wizard of Oz evangelizes witchcraft by portraying magic as beneficial.

I fear I have no sympathy for such objections either when made by critics allergic to any sympathetic portrayal of fairytale witchcraft, or critics allergic to any sympathetic portrayal of fairytale Christianity.

Both are Puritans, let me add, but with the enormous difference that the Christian Puritans serve heaven, and the Antichristian Puritans serve hell. If a Christian Puritans upbraids me for glamorizing witchcraft, I cannot in good conscience dismiss the remark without a hearing, even if I may think his zeal too pure. If an antichristian puritan upbraids me for glamorizing Christ, to the devil with him. I cannot in good conscience grant the remark a hearing.

But all this to one side. The main lack I have seen, not merely in this reviewer’s criticism of the story, but in all of them, is that I simply had not expected my audience not to recognize what I was doing.

Sadly, while I put a story in the background of a large number of ‘Children in Fairyland’ type novels I read as a child, only Narnia has apparently been read by anyone else who has commented on the story.

At least, no comment I have encountered so far on that particular story of mine has remarked on the parallels between One Bright Star and Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner, or Carbonel by Barbara Sleigh, or The Book of Three  by Lloyd Alexander, or The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper or Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, or Red Moon and Black Mountain by Joy Chant.

Good heavens, I even called out Carbonel by name in the text. Tybalt is his son and takes after his personality. But no one has an allergic reaction to Barbara Sleigh, whereas an allergic reaction to C.S. Lewis is commonplace among modern critics.

To the best of my recollection, only Red Moon and Black Mountain takes place in an explicitly Christian fairytale background, but the others do not. Wrinkle in Time is expressly syncretic in its spiritualism, as is Dark is Rising. I do not recall any Christian themes, explicit or implicit, in the Prydain series, for example, or in Alderley Edge.

Certainly a parallel to Narnia is present, and intentional, but so are parallels to all these others. Being aware of the other parallels would prevent the candid from seeing parallels where none exist.

Because the story has a Narnia flavor does not imply that, for example, the author added “an Edmund character” who forgot the fairyland, unless one considers three of the four to be this: they all forgot, including the protagonist, except the one whose grave he visits. (And, for the record, it is not Edmund who forgets fairyland upon growing up, it is Susan.)

What all the books have in common is that the main characters, either schoolchildren from England or natives of the more peaceful and mundane districts of Fairyland, are prepared by their childhood adventures to face grown-up moral ordeals.

Or actually, it is not that odd, but rather to be expected. Narnia is practically the only work that is still remembered and lauded, and because it is explicitly Christian, it provokes hostility, even from critics otherwise balanced and fair, and even about stories that are only nostalgic homages not just to Narnia but to a whole throng of books, now sadly neglected.

——————————————

Let me again say I am grateful to have any reviewers, favorable or not, who do me the honor of reading my work. What prompts this article is not my usually egomaniacal argumentativeness, but, instead, an rather unusual melancholy which overcomes me.

Had I been aware when I wrote it, in the 1980’s, that it would be read in the 2010’s by readers who had heard of few or none of these other books in this genre, I could have taken steps to bring these other elements to the fore, and minimize the chance of a misreading.

But when I wrote it, everyone I knew who read Narnia had read these other books as well.

And since I, in my youth, read books published two or four decades before my birth routinely every trip I made to the library, I had no warning that the rate at which successive generations of readers would neglect, misplace or forget their forbears was accelerating.

This story was about my love of a certain type of children’s story, and was meant for others who shared that love, or, at least, shared the same background knowledge of the genre and its elements.

This story is my favorite of anything I have ever written, and is, frankly, the only thing I have written I thought worthy of an award. That this story was received by those who have forgotten, or never read, the various beloved tales to which One Bright Star pays homage means that it has never been read as it was meant. The gem placed in the wrong setting loses luster.

Please read and support my work on Patreon!