Tuesday, May 20, 2008

god and tolkien

From: Caite (

OK, let me get the obligatory...but totally sincere....praise out of the way.

I first read The Blue Place some years ago, and for some now unknown reason, do not remember liking it a great deal. I seem to remember feeling it was cold and bleak and violent and sad.

And maybe it was to a degree, but who is to say that is a bad thing. Anyhoo, I happened upon a copy of Stay in the library a couple of months ago and thought “that author's name sounds familiar” so I took the book out.

Needless to say, I have now read...and loved...all your books.

I know it is selfish, but I wish you were a faster writer. Finishing the last one made be very sad....

...but I will wait patiently. Since what else can I do?

One more comment before my question. I read somewhere, perhaps in an interview or in an answer to a question here, that there would be no more Aud books. And while I love Aud, I must say that I am happy if that is true. I fear Aud becoming...perhaps... too soft. In someway losing an essential characteristic of Aud-ness.

But if you change your mind, that is totally OK too.

Finally, at last, the question.

Again, I read somewhere or heard in an interview (what did we do before Google searches?), that you are a great fan of Tolkien. That quoting lines from Lord of the Rings was a first bonding experience between you and Kelley. And I agree, considering LotR a classic, a riproaringly good read and excellent book. Up there on my top ten list.

I also read that, if I am correct, you consider yourself an atheist.

So the question is, do you experience any sort of conflict between admiring an author and disagreeing with his or her basic world view, their view of reality? Because I think that Tolkien's work and especially LotR, is an extremely religious book, with a very Christian, in fact Catholic, sense. As he himself stated at one point.

And then your latest...and greatly anticipated by your fans, myself included...project on Hild of Whitby. Whatever else might be true of her culture, I think it would be impossible to really understand her without acknowledging how her Christianity shaped her and her entire world. To see her with too secular eyes I fear will create a Hild other than the true one.

Not that I still won't read it.

I have mentioned that I loved your books, right? Lol

Thank you. to be able to write and give others so many hours of enjoyment must be grand!

I've found that many really good books--the particular ones, the ones you can't mistake for anything else--are sometimes hard to get into if you pick them up at the wrong time. My brother-in-law bought me Dune for Christmas when I was fourteen. I struggled through the first twenty pages and thought, oh fuck that. He nagged me. I picked it up again and ploughed doggedly through the first fifty pages. Seriously, I thought, fuck that. And then a few months later I was really bored, and flicked idly through the first chapters, and just fell into it. I don't know if it's because I'd changed in that time, or whether the initial 20- and 50-page reads had primed the Dune pump, but the third time, wow, it was as though we were made for each other. (I reread it periodically, and there are times it makes me impatient, times I learn something new and marvel, and times when its like a conversation with an old friend.)

When books come strongly recommended, I attempt them at least twice. I did that with Gormenghast (Mervyn Peake), the most recent try being two years ago. I won't be trying again. Me and mannerpunk just don't get on. (With the exception of Ellen Kushner's books.) Other highly recommended books I've failed to connect with enough times that I won't be trying again include Moby Dick (Melville), Sister Carrie (Dreiser), all of China Mieville's books, and, well, the list is very nearly endless.

Some books, of course, are so badly written or so offensive that it's simply not worth continuing past the first paragraph. (Yes, Virginia, you can tell that soon.) Anyway, I'm glad you gave Aud a second chance.

A really good book is like a really good wine--different as the reader ages, different depending on context: wine with old friends on a summer evening will taste utterly different to the same wine drunk from a plastic cup at a harshly-lit art opening. A truly great book, and one that fits us, can stand up to endless rereading. I'll probably read LotR another two dozen times before I die. (Unless, y'know, I get hit by a comet on the way to the mailbox.)

Aud is losing her Audness? Getting too soft? I'll agree that she's changing. She's certainly getting more complex, which means she thinks more about what she does. But the old Aud is still there under the increasingly dense veneer of civilisation. In fact, I have two more books outlined, and one day I might even write #5 because it would rock the thunderdome: Aud goes into total destroyer mode; the dial goes all the way to eleven. But if they ever get written, it won't be for a while.

You know, I've never called myself an atheist. I don't believe there are such things as gods or divine principles, but how can we know? Basically, I don't care, one way or the other, and actively refusing the possibility of god strikes me as a stance that is as impossible to prove as active belief. I'm not a believer in any way, shape, or form. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say I'm a nontheist, or agnostic, or perhaps simply apathetic.

As for The Lord of the Rings being a religious book, no, I have to disagree with you. Perhaps after writing the book Tolkien persuaded himself of its Catholicism, but to me the main influences are philology and mythology and his experience as an English person of the era. (By this I mean he got to feel in his bones the difference between small-scale, workshop-based village life, where those who made things took care not to ruin the land around them, and urban large-scale manufacturing where those who bought the goods didn't seen the devastation and pollution caused by their creation; and he went through trench warfare in WWI.) The mythology is Anglo-Saxon and Norse, mainly; the languages are various--lots of Finnish, I think. But it's the language itself that made his motor run; you can feel it, pouring through the chapters like a millstream.

Yes, there's lots of good versus evil, but that's the most ancient story of all. It's the story religion is based upon, not the other way around. And I can speak from experience when I say that most writers, when they discuss their themes and influences, are bullshitting. We have no clue where our stuff comes from. Once we've written it, we can make some excellent guesses, but really what we're doing when we explain our process is just telling another story.

LotR is essentially a two-stranded tale: the story of Frodo (and Sam) and of Aragorn (and Gandalf). Neither of these characters is Christlike, in my opinion. (Though if I felt like it, I could construct a nifty argument that Frodo-plus-Sam might equate to a such a figure. Aragorn, on the other hand, is a pretty classic philosopher/warrior king--and Gandalf is definitely a mythological wanderer god/priest.) So Tolkien might have said, Yep, I'm doing Catholic stuff here, but in my not so humble opinion he was fooling himself.

But it's an interesting question: does the author's personal stance influence my reading of their work? Yes. The first time I read the novelette, "Ender's Game," by Orson Scott Card, I was blown away. Then I read the novel of the same name and liked it less well. Then I started reading interviews of and opinion pieces by him, and realised he was a homophobic arsehole. Knowledge of his homophobia made me think about the person behind the fiction, made me read it differently, and that's when I understood that Card has a twisted view of children and/or experience of childhood. That window into his life creeped me out. I won't read another thing by him. A similar thing happened to me after meeting Amy Bloom. I had admired her short fiction tremendously, for its humanity and subtlety (A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You blew me away), but then I read her novel, Love Invents Us, and was much less impressed. Then I met her and was less impressed still. Now I can't read her fiction.

But I wonder: was I predisposed to not like these authors as people because I'd read novels by them and so seen their hearts laid bare? And did learning even more about them simply confirm that initial knowledge? I don't know. People, and books, and reading, are complicated.

As for Hild, yes, you're right. Her story is, to a degree, the story of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons in the seventh century. There are two things I will find tricky to navigate during the course of this book: the fact that Hild becomes an abbess, and that she gets married and has children.

That is, I thought they might be tricky until I found the most awesome workaround for the marriage thing, so I can write in my ambivalence about marrying a red-handed warlord and having his babies. (Yes, she does get married; yes, she has kids, but she feels awful about everything, for a really good reason. The whole thing is, as my sweetie might say, pretty squicky.) So then there's the knotty problem of her presumed god-fearing religiousness. I haven't got to the part yet (Hild was baptised when she was about 13, but didn't take the veil until she was 33; I've got years to go before I have to make real decisions), but her religion is going to be more about a sense of wonder, a need for order, and a humane urge to care for 'her people' than any sense of godliness as we understand it. I think it'll work. After all, half the priest I've ever met didn't actually believe in god. And the wonder she feels will, hopefully, be piercing.

Of course (and please bear in mind my 'bullshit' comment, above) this could all change. I never really make up my mind until I'm writing the words.

But however it turns out, my main aim is been to overwhelm the reader with the sense that, yes, this happened, yes, this is exactly how it was. I want you to be swept away, unable to even wonder if it could be just a tiny bit made up. I want you to believe--to know--when you've finished reading, that this is absolutely who Hild was: the story of her life, the tale of a pivotal moment in English history.

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