Monday, November 28, 2011

Happy Birthday, C. S. Lewis!

A man is walking through the English countryside at sunset. It’s six more miles to the next town, and the sky ahead is slate gray.  Bound by a rash promise he made to a woman he just met, he wrangles through the thick hedge of a foreboding farmhouse. He musters his courage and rings the bell. 

No answer. He rings again. Hearing the sounds of a struggle, he runs around to the back and finds a young man trying to get free from two older chaps. After dubious explanations, the traveler is invited inside. 

Then the real story begins. The man—named Elwin Ransom—is drugged and abducted. What began as a journey of a few miles becomes a journey of millions—yes, millions—of miles. What began as a trip to a neighboring town becomes a trip through the vastness of space to new worlds. Ransom will meet life forms both alien and supernatural. He will meet himself and discover his true destiny.

So begins Out of the Silent Planet, by C. S. Lewis—volume one in his acclaimed “Space Trilogy.” Ramson, a Cambridge don and a philologist who happens to love long walks in the country, is a lot like Lewis himself. Professor Lewis also loved walking tours, covering 20 miles a day in good weather, and he knew what it was like to be in the predicament of not being able to find a place to stay for the night. Perhaps such an experience sparked the creation of this story.

C. S. Lewis

And like Ransom, Lewis visited other worlds—if only in his fertile imagination. One day an image popped into his head--a faun wrestling with packages in the snow. Sound familiar? That was the beginning of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche  was the inspiration for Till We Have Faces, set in the mythical kingdom of Glome. Lewis even ventured to Heaven and Hell--in The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters.

As a young man, Lewis was an atheist, but through the influence of J. R. R. Tolkien and other friends, he became first a theist and then a Christian. In Surprised by Joy, he describes himself coming to faith-- "kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance to escape." Yet, despite this shaky beginning, he became one of the greatest Christian apologists of the twentieth century. 

November 29th is C. S. Lewis’s birthday. I celebrate all the things he was—a broadcaster, an apologist, a scholar, an original thinker. But most of all, I celebrate the legacy of fantasy works he left behind--including Out of the Silent Planet, a book I can happily reread every few years and always find something new. 

Happy birthday, C. S. Lewis!

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Boy Who Loved Puppets

Stark Raving Mythopath salutes master storyteller and puppeteer, Jim Hensen.

When Jim was a boy in Greenville, Mississippi, his family didn’t have a tv. Or a computer. No iPod. No Game Boy. No Wii. But after all, it was the early 1940’s, and nobody had those things.

So how did Jim and his brother Paul entertain themselves? By splashing in the creek. Or climbing trees. By watching fireflies and catching frogs. By telling stories. Jim wrote poems and drew pictures. He played ping pong and board games with his best friend, Kermit. With so many fun things to do on a summer’s day, who needs tv?

Jim loved to entertain his family by putting on shows in the back yard. He also worked in school plays—both on the stage and behind the scenes.

Jim and Paul built a crystal radio set. After school, they listened to radio shows like The Green Hornet. They loved to hear Edgar Bergen talking to his dummy, Charlie McCarthy. On Saturday afternoons, they went to the movies. The first movie Jim saw was The Wizard of Oz, and that story always remained his favorite.

Jim’s dad worked for the Department of Agriculture,  and he wanted Jim to study science. But Jim was more interested in puppets. He took books out of the library to learn how to make them. By this time, his family had moved to Maryland. At sixteen years of age, Jim and his friend got a job doing puppets on a local tv station.

Jim thought that puppets should be able to smile. So instead of making them from wood, he made them from cloth. Instead of moving their arms with strings, he used rods. One day he cut up his mother’s old green cloth coat to make a frog character. He cut a ping pong ball in half to make the eyes. And so was born one of the most famous puppets of all time—Kermit the Frog! Jim and his friend called their creations “Muppets,” a combination of marionettes and puppets.

At the University of Maryland, College Park, Jim got his college degree in—of all things—home economics! That way he could study crafts and fabrics to help him make puppets. After college, he went to Europe to learn from famous puppeteers. When he returned to America, he used his Muppets to make  tv commercials.

One day, when he was 33 years old, Jim got a phone call from a tv producer with public television. They were piloting a new children’s show called Sesame Street. They wanted to hire Jim—and his puppets!  Jim wasn’t sure what to say. He didn’t want people to think that puppets were just for children. But in the end, he decided to give it a try.

The Muppet Display at the Museum of American History

That was a very good decision! Sesame Street was launched on November 10, 1969. The show became the longest running children’s program in history and won many awards. Not bad for a kid who grew up without tv! Jim Henson went on to produce other shows and movies with Kermit, Miss Piggy, Oscar the Grouch, and the Muppets. He worked on puppets for other projects as well—like the Jedi Master Yoda in Star Wars.

Jim showed the world that puppets aren’t just for children. When he passed away in 1990, at the age of 53, a jazz band played at the memorial service. Everyone waved butterfly puppets as a fitting tribute to the boy who loved puppets.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Ivan Tsarevich and the Firebird

Ivan plucks a feather from the Firebird.

We should all live in a Russian folk tale. Why? Read on.

Once upon a time, in a kingdom far away, there lived a man who had three sons.

Now in a European fairy tale, that would be enough, but this is a Russian tale—and so the three sons have names: Peter Tsarevich, Vasily Tsarevich, and Ivan Tsarevich.

The man was Tsar Demyan, and he had a garden with many trees. But the most beautiful was an apple tree that bore golden apples.

Alas, Tsar Demyan had a problem. Someone was stealing the golden apples. Every morning, Tsar Demyan would count his apples and find another apple was missing. "...Nine...Ten...Eleven...Dang!"

The sons took turns guarding the tree, but only Ivan stayed awake and discovered that the thief was the Firebird, although he could grasp but one golden feather.

Brave Ivan on his quest
Peter and Vasily set out to find the bird and reclaim the apples. But it was Ivan who—with the help of Grey Wolf—completed the long and perilous quest and returned with the Firebird and his diamond-studded cage, a horse and his golden bridle—and, oh yes, a girl, Elyena the Beautiful.

Ivan and Elyena were nearly home, when Peter and Vasily found them sleeping. (And then I'm afraid it gets sort of yucky.) The older brothers cut off Ivan’s head and took the booty and the bride for themselves. Poor Elyena had to buck up and adjust to a change in plans.

Sad story. Boo-hoo. The End.

No, not quite. Thank God, this is a Russian tale. The Grey Wolf gave Ivan the water of life, and Ivan returned home just as Peter was about to wed Elyena. Tsar Demyan banished the two bad boys, and Ivan and Elyena lived happily for many years. And that’s how the story really ends.

You see, in Russian folk tales, the dead have trouble staying that way! Stories like this challenge our ideas about life and death. Is death really the end? Can it be undone? Is there a force stronger than death?

The Grey Wolf

Absurd, says Entropy.  

Ridiculous, says Experience.

But something deep inside me knows that death is a fake, a masquerade. Death is not the end of my personality, my memory, my quirky sense of humor. 

Jesus spoke these words at the graveside of a friend: "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies." And then he spoke some other death-defying words: "Lazarus, come forth."

Ivan's story doesn't end at the grave, and neither does mine. There's something more.

With faith, life trumps death. And that's no fairy tale.

EPILOGUE: The Stark Raving Mythopath recommends Russian folk tales to my readers--especially if you can find a collection illustrated by the artist Ivan I. Bilibin. Wonderful stories. Luscious art. A lovely way to spend a winter's afternoon by the fireplace. Note to self: get a fireplace.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A Mythocabulary

J. R. R. Tolkien, the man who gave us the greatest mythic tale since medieval times, also gave us some useful words for talking about stories—a mythocabulary, if you will.

J. R. R. Tolkien, 1916
“If God is mythopoeic,” said a young Tolkien to a young C. S. Lewis, “man must become mythopathic.”

Tolkien coined the word mythopoeic to describe the art of myth-making—the kind of myth-making he did in creating The Lord of the Rings trilogy. You know--the kind where you create a complete world with languages and literature and cultures--aka high fantasy. Tolkien felt that human myth-makers are sub-creators, under the master storyteller—God.  

In this worldview, God is telling an epic story through the history of man. If you happen to be a story-maker, then you already know that your characters need to have free will. They must act and speak from their own personalities and POV, and not be puppets jerked around by an author omniscient. And yet you, as author, have a say in how-it-all-turns-out. Our story-making is an imperfect parable of God’s great story, now in progress and starring you as a main character.

The Misty Mountains, by J. R. R. Tolkien

Let’s face it. Not everyone is mythopoeic—especially not at the genius level like Mr. Tolkien. But we can all be mythopathic—receptive to myth, receiving nourishment and understanding from stories. For the most part, it isn’t even a conscious process. We hear/read/watch a story, and the story imparts  a hidden wisdom. 

One of the annoying “rules” of fiction writing today is that a story shouldn’t be didactic. It shouldn't try to make a point or teach you something. (Apparently we already know everything.) But in fact, stories by their very nature are teachers. The best stories will teach us without beating us over the head, often when we are not even aware. Sneaky, huh?

Tolkien, the quadraped--not the author
Thank you, Professor Tolkien, for giving us some really cool-sounding words for talking about stories.  However, I fear you may have missed one.

Mythopathological–-so myth-crazed that you feel compelled to blog about it—perhaps even to name your cat Tolkien. Such a hapless individual may at last become a Stark Raving Mythopath.

Welcome to my world.