A Tale of Two Writers

It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when I hated the very idea of analyzing literature. I thought it sucked all the joy out of reading, a cold analytical dissection that disregarded pure emotional enjoyment. This was probably encouraged, unintentionally, by the sort of books they had us reading in junior high. There’s always a difficulty in providing appropriate reading assignments for advanced readers, since the sort of material that matches their reading level usually doesn’t match their maturity level at all. Our seventh grade advanced reading class was given the rather appallingly pretentious title of “Literary Seminar” and much of the material was of a similar flavor; stories and novels that ruminate on Deep Themes like the futility of human existence. Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot of quality, thought-provoking literature that I’d probably enjoy reading now. (Not to mention it was a battle for my parents to even get me into that class, since my IQ score wasn’t quite high enough for entry into the gifted program in elementary school, and they usually only allowed gifted students to take honors classes. I certainly would have been far more miserable, bored out of my mind, in the mid-level reading track.)

But I was 12. I didn’t want to ruminate on the futility of human existence. When I read of bleak dystopian futures in Fahrenheit 451 and “Harrison Bergeron,” I just got annoyed and angry and wanted to throw the books across the room. I wasn’t ready for them. Being expected to read and understand books intended for grown-ups, at that age, soured my attitude toward the whole idea of high-brow literature.

Luckily, my perspective changed, which ultimately led to my becoming an English major in college as well as deepening my passion to be a writer myself. (Okay, some might argue the use of “luckily” in reference to a degree/career aspiration that has yet to bring in any money, but whatever; I like who I am.)  This change came about thanks to a number of enthusiastic English teachers and a handful of books that captured my interest in spite of the mortal sin of being considered highbrow. 😉 And the first one that sticks in my memory is A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

I was already familiar with A Christmas Carol, as it’s fairly impossible to get through a Christmas season without encountering some version of it. It was also one of the readings in seventh grade English that I unabashedly enjoyed. It’s arguably the least intimidating Dickens work; accessible, a blessedly short novella. A Tale of Two Cities was long, with scores of characters and meandering plotlines, and had no ghosts or fantastical journeys to the past and future. But I remember when we were assigned to read it, for some reason I made a conscious decision that I was going to enjoy this book, darn it! That deliberate positive attitude carried me forward quite a ways, but it still wouldn’t have been enough if the book had been a total slog. It wasn’t. By the end, as I sniffled over Sydney Carton’s ultimate sacrifice, I had come to genuinely love the book.

It was definitely the right Dickens novel to start with. Later I read Great Expectations and David Copperfield; entertaining but much more like fictionalized autobiographies, coming-of-age tales without a ton of plot. A Tale of Two Cities is thick with plot, filled with delicious depictions of bloodthirsty revolutionaries, tragic heroes and memorable villains. The prose wasn’t always easy to get through, but I persisted because I really wanted to know what happened next. I recognized that something old and revered could still be fun. And as I learned more about Dickens, I was amused to learn he had written in serial format, often paid by the word. Maybe, given enough time, someone who wrote pulp novels or comic books could be held in just as high regard as Dickens. Maybe Dickens would find it hilarious that his work was being studied as great art in the hallowed halls of academia. Basically, I was starting to see that the line between art that entertains the common masses and highbrow, serious art was totally arbitrary. It was very freeing.

For a while I read Dickens voraciously; Great Expectations and David Copperfield as I mentioned, as well as Oliver Twist and Hard Times and several re-reads of A Tale of Two Cities. I still have a tradition of reading A Christmas Carol every year on the day before Christmas. I confess I haven’t picked up many new-to-me Dickens novels recently. I read Nicholas Nickleby last year and was a bit dismayed to discover my Dickens reading skills had gone quite dull – it took me months to get through it, where I used to tear through a novel in just a few weeks. But I still enjoyed it well enough. I think more than getting me to appreciate Dickens in particular, what A Tale of Two Cities opened for me was the possibility of picking up classic novels voluntarily, outside of any school assignment, and reading them for sheer pleasure. Sure, I mostly read newer books, particularly speculative fiction, but sometimes just for the heck of it I’ll scan the library shelves for a classic I haven’t read yet and take a look at why it’s considered a classic. I don’t always agree with the literary establishment, but it’s worth considering. And then sometimes I write page after page dissecting it. I’ve come a long way since seventh grade.

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The Day I Found Prydain

I’ve decided to start a new series of posts here, each one focusing on a book that carries particular meaning for me. I think this will be valuable for me as a writer, since I wouldn’t be a writer at all if I weren’t first an avid reader. I’m currently reaching the climax of my latest work-in-progress, and it feels like I need some kind of extra push to get me through it. Reminding myself of the books that have shaped my tastes and my own writing should provide at least some of that push. (The rest will probably come if I can just have enough days to write at home by myself while the kids are at school, days that have been quite rare during this last over-wintry month.)

I’m going to start with the first book I can remember falling in love with so completely, I read it over and over and eventually attempted to read every book that author had written. I learned to read when I was four and always had a passion for books, but this was my first truly memorable favorite book. The Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander. It wasn’t actually the first book I’d read by that author; I’d found The Wizard in the Tree at a school book fair before then, bought it and liked it. But there was something about the first book of The Prydain Chronicles that was really special to me.

I was probably eleven years old. We were at a used book sale that a local organization used to hold at the mall every fall, and everyone in my family was wandering the aisles, looking for the sort of treasures you can always find among used books. There was a cover that caught my eye, with medievalish-looking characters, a young man confronted by a terrifying horned-skull figure on horseback. I decided to give it a try.

I always had an affinity for fantasy. My father read The Hobbit to us when we were younger, and my preferred book covers usually had some sort of indicator of an other-worldly setting. The Book of Three did not disappoint my expectations. It had humor, warmth, adventure, magic and thrilling battles. I loved the hero, Taran, a headstrong, inexperienced boy who longs to be great and chafes at being a mere Assistant Pig-Keeper. I loved Gurgi, the well-meaning, simple-minded creature who talks of “crunchings and munchings.” I loved Eilonwy, the wilful girl who never hesitates to say whatever she’s thinking. I was intrigued by the mazes of Spiral Castle and shuddered at the undead Cauldron-Born.

I still chuckle to remember that all through my first read, I mistook the meaning of Hen-Wen’s name and thought she was a chicken, right up until she says “Hwoinch!” in the last line of the book. I paged back through the story and realized how obvious it was. Who did I think Taran was Assistant Pig-Keeper of, for heaven’s sake? No matter. I loved it.

Imagine my delight when someone pointed out that the little “1” in the upper corner of the cover meant this was the first book of a series. As fast as I could (lots of begging to be driven to the bookstore – ah, the days before online book buying!) I got hold of the other four and read them in rapid succession. Watching my beloved characters grow and suffer and learn and finally reach the end of their tale was at once wonderful and heartbreaking. I wasn’t the least surprised that The Black Cauldron and The High King were given Newberry awards (honor and medal, respectively); I only wondered why they hadn’t given the medal to all five books. I became a Lloyd Alexander fanatic. I read everything he’d written that I could get my hands on. I loved every book. Most of them had male protagonists, but the female characters were always vibrant, well-rounded and strong in their own right. And the Vesper Holly books offered a heroine adventurer who, in my opinion, beats out Indiana Jones for sheer awesomeness. Along with reading everything new, I began a yearly tradition of re-reading The Prydain Chronicles every fall.

There’s something important, I think, about being able to say who your favorite writer is, the same as deciding what your favorite of anything is. It becomes a part of your identity, how you see yourself and how you know what you like. I recall being outraged when I read someone criticizing the books for just being a kiddie rip-off of The Lord of the Rings. ( I knew The Hobbit and had a decent familiarity with LOTR, though I only got around to reading the trilogy when I was in college. And, still being an ardent fan of Lloyd Alexander, I feel it’s my duty to assert that he didn’t rip anything off. They share a lot of fantasy elements, sure, as well as drawing on similar mythological tropes. It’s a function of the genre.) I couldn’t understand why everyone wasn’t constantly reading this incredible writer’s books.

As I went into high school and on into college, I knew that I’d passed the supposed target age for these books. And what I loved about Lloyd Alexander was, it didn’t matter. He used to write for adults, until he realized that writing children’s books was so much more freeing. His books never talk down to children. They respect the reader without being condescending or patronizing. And they’re so honest, acknowledging some really challenging things like death, suffering, selfishness, and the eternal clash of optimism and pessimism.

When I heard that that he had passed away in 2007, I was heartbroken. No new books from him, and worse, I’d never be able to meet him in person and tell him what a difference he’d made in my life. But his influence continues. I can still see how his style and writing aesthetic color the way I write, and I aspire to portray even of a portion of his humanity and warmth and humor in the characters and settings I create. To finish, here’s just a few of my favorite quotations from his books and from the writer himself:

“‘Do you believe evil itself to be so quickly overcome? Not so long as men still hate and slay each other, when greed and anger goad them. Against these even a flaming sword cannot prevail, but only that portion of good in all men’s hearts whose flame can never be quenched.'” – from The High King

“‘Not everyone who fights on the side of the angels is an angel.'” – from The Beggar Queen

“We learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself.”

“Using the device of an imaginary world allows me in some strange way to go to the central issues – it’s one of many ways to express feelings about real people, about real human relationships.”

“My concern is how we learn to be genuine human beings.”

Thank you, Lloyd Alexander.