Sunday, January 29, 2012

Beatrix Redux

There is something delicious about writing the first words of 
a story. You never quite know where they'll take you.” – 
Beatrix Potter, in the movie Miss Potter

I remember my mother reading The Tale of Peter Rabbit to me when I was a small child. How tragic that Peter’s father had been made into a pie! How happy I was when Peter escaped from Farmer McGregor and his evil garden hoe. But I felt sorry for naughty Peter because he didn’t get to have blackberries and camomile tea with his saintly siblings, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail. 

Unfair! Didn’t his mother understand that he had nearly met his doom? Besides, any dolt could see that Peter was the interesting character, taking risks and having adventures, while those good little bunnies were boring. At that age, I relished the delights of the story, but it probably never entered my mind that every picture has an artist, every story has an author. . . .

Beatrix as a child
Helen Beatrix Potter—author, artist, and naturalist—was best known for her children’s stories about animals: Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, Squirrel Nutkin, Jemima Puddle-Duck—a whole managerie of characters with names that are fun to say out loud. 

As a child, she spent endless hours observing and drawing animals. She had private art lessons but preferred to develop her own style. Perhaps even then she made up stories about the animals she drew. 

Norman Warne with his nephew
Although she was born into a well-to-do family, success didn’t come to Beatrix gift-wrapped and tied with a bow. As a young woman in post-Victorian England, she fought hard to get a hearing in a business world dominated by men. 

In 1901, she privately printed The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which was published by Warne and Co. the following year. Peter Rabbit was followed by The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and a long string of other enchanting titles. Her friendship with publisher Norman Warne blossomed into romance, and in 1905, they became engaged—unofficially. (Her parents disapproved.) But tragically, Norman died only a month later of leukemia.

Hilltop Farm
That same year Beatrix purchased Hilltop Farm, in Near Sawry in the Lake District. Perhaps as a remedy for grief, she immersed herself in country living, touring neighboring farms to learn more about fell farming and raising livestock. She kept the tenant farmers on at Hilltop to preserve it as a working farm. 

In the following years, she bought additional farms in the area in order to keep the landscape from being ravaged by greedy developers. In this endeavor, she often sought advice from the law firm of W. H. Heelis & Son in Hawkshead. That professional relationship also turned to romance, and William Heelis proposed.

Beatrix and William
In 1913, Beatrix and William were married--without the approval of her parents, who were deeply entrenched in ideas about social class. Nonetheless, the couple were happily married for thirty years, continuing their work in conservation of the land and sheep breeding. Beatrix had no children of her own, but she was actively involved in the life of William's nephews and nieces and with the Girl Guides, a sister organization of the Girl Scouts.

Another view of Hilltop Farm
Beatrix Potter Heelis died in 1943, at the age of 77, leaving a lasting legacy of over 23 children's books and other writings. Most of her estate was left to the National Trust, to preserve the Lake District. William died 18 months later.

Yes, there is “something delicious about writing the first words of a story.” It’s a leap of faith that Madeleine L’Engle likened to walking on water. For Beatrix Potter, those first words took her far, to a place of beauty and serenity at Hilltop Farm and to immortality as a children's writer.

The Stark Raving Mythopath recommends Miss Potter, a 2006 movie version of the life of Beatrix Potter, starring Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor. And of course, I recommend all the charming stories written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter. 

And if you'd like to know more about how The Tale of Peter Rabbit came to be written, click here. It all began with a letter to a sick little boy. . . .

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Three Guys Walk into a Bar

Three guys walk into a bar.

No, really. 

But not just any guys, not just any bar.

This bar is an English pub, the Eagle and Child in Oxford.

And the guys? None other than J. R. R. Tolkien and the Lewis brothers, Jack and Warnie. They are soon joined by Hugo Dyson and Owen Barfield. Oh, and here comes Charles Williams, late again.

Jack and Warnie Lewis
Pints are ordered, pipes lit, and another meeting of the Inklings literary discussion group is in session.

The barkeep hears only scattered snippets of their conversation.

"So. . .who’s reading today?"

"Well, Jack could read from his Chronicles."

"Oh yes—fauns and talking beasties and Father Christmas. A bit of a mythological mishmash, isn’t it?"

"Actually, I think it’s Tollers’ turn to read."

J. R. R. Tolkien, aka "Tollers"
"Please, no more flippin' elves! How about we hear from Warnie?  Some nice history about real blokes in a real world."

"Oh, come on,  I find Ron’s little story quite engaging."

"Little? Ron's little story? He’s been writing it since the days of Beowulf." 

"I say, Ron--I hope you’re getting paid by the word. Or even by the pound!"

The barkeep motions to a girl to refill the gentlemen’s glasses. He thinks this group likable enough. Good-natured and, all in all, rather harmless. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt the lot of 'em if they had a bit of real work to do. But then again, this is bloomin' Oxford.

Perhaps a few of the onlookers and eavesdroppers longed to be admitted to that elite group of thinkers and writers—mostly because they seemed to be having a great deal of fun in each other’s company. 

And many people in years to come would feel that same sense of longing. Ah, to match verbal wits with those great thinkers, to drink in their wisdom. Perhaps their special brand of creative genius would rub off on us! 

Alas, only in our imaginations can we turn back the clock by half a century and pull up a chair with the Inklings at "The Bird and Baby."

But then again, we have so many opportunities for literary companionship that weren't available to the Inklings. Writers conferences. Online crit groups and communities. Web sites. Chats. Blogs. Facebook. Twitter. 

Still, there's nothing quite like writer friends getting together informally, in person. To talk shop. To share stories. To swap manuscripts. To encourage each other on the writing journey.

The Inklings were great men of destiny. Yet they needed the fellowship and consolation that come from hanging with friends. How much more do I--the not-so-great--need friends and crit partners and people to build me up?

Ask a writer friend to lunch this week. And by the way, my calendar is pretty open. How about Thursday, at our usual place?

Sunday, January 15, 2012


In a famous Greek myth, the fair maiden Persephone was gathering wildflowers one fine day--tra la, tra lee--when suddenly, the earth erupted with a thunderous blast. 

And what to her wondering eyes should appear but a miniature sleigh and. . .oops, wrong story.

Up from the deep sprang Hades, god of the underworld. He was driving a sleek chariot drawn by coal-black steeds. Before the maiden could run away, Hades snatched her and carried her off to his dark abode.

Demeter, Persephone’s mother, looked on helplessly as her daughter was taken away. The very earth seemed to grieve this loss, as cold winds blew and the earth turned barren and brown. 

Hades and Persephone in the Underworld

Demeter wandered the wide world searching for her child, but Persephone was nowhere to be found. At last the grieving mother climbed Mt. Olympus and pleaded with Zeus—king of the gods and, as it happened, father of Persephone.

Zeus sent his errand boy, Hermes, to bring the girl back to the Land of Light. But before Persephone left, Hades insisted that she eat something before the journey, and he held out a juicy red pomegranate.

Demeter greets Persephone
Everyone rejoiced when Hermes brought Persephone back to the outer world. Even the trees budded and the birds trilled. Her father and mother came running to greet her.

Demeter threw her arms around Persephone. “At last you are back where you belong, here in the sunlit fields, here with those who love you.”

But Zeus looked troubled. “No, something isn’t right. She has tasted the fruit of the underworld, and she belongs to that world now.” 

Persephone could taste the pomegranate on her lips. Hades had tricked her.

Demeter cried bitterly. “You can’t send her back.”

Finally, Zeus made a decision. For six months of the year Persephone would live above ground, and for six months, below with Hades. And so this tale is said to explain the seasons of the earth.


I used to start dreading winter sometime in August. when the afternoon sun turned the soybean fields to gold, in a prelude to autumn. But when winter came, it really wasn't so dreadful after all. There's nothing quite like sipping hot cocoa while a beautiful snow scene fills the picture window.


Those of us who live in a climate of four seasons can learn something from this mythological character. What happened to Persephone was unwanted and unfair. But Persephone, who went to the underworld a frightened child, returned as a confidant queen—a queen for all seasons.

Every season has its beauties and its blessings. As the psalmist Asaph sang,

It was you who set all the boundaries of the earth;
you made both summer and winter.  -- PS 74:17


And a great hymn proclaims, “Summer and winter, and springtime and harvest” all attest to the faithfulness, mercy, and love of our God. 

We--children of the High King of Heaven--were created to reign in every season of life.


Sunday, January 8, 2012

A Dirty Story

Brothers and sisters, I'm gonna tell you a story.

A dirty story!

Wipe that smirk off your face, Sister! Yes, a dirty story. . .because this is a story about. . . dirt.

You heard me. . .dirt. 

Good old garden-variety, under-your-fingernails, time-to-wash-the-car dirt!

You see, there once was a farmer who went out to plant his crops. Some of his seed fell along the path, where the ground was hard. And tragically. . .

Evil, seed-snatching bird!

Yes, tragically, the birds came and carried those poor little seeds away before they had a chance to sprout.

So that farmer, he went forth again, and again he scattered the good seed.

But this time the seed fell on rocky ground.

We're talking ROCKY ground.

And the little plants shot right up.   

But then the sun came out, and because those plants had shallow roots, the sun withered those plants and they died. Whew! Can you feel that hot sun?

Well, that farmer went forth again to scatter seed, and this time the seed fell on thorny ground. And those precious seeds sprang up into big, beautiful, drop-dead gorgeous plants.

But then the thorns and briers came up and choked those plants. Those thorns poked and they choked, and the plants on the thorny ground shriveled and died!

Evil seed-stabbing thorns!

Brothers and sisters, is anyone detecting a pattern here?

Anyway, you gotta give this boy points for persistence. The farmer went out to plant again. And this time the seed fell on good ground.

I said the GOOD GROUND!

And the seeds sprang up. . .and stayed up. . .and brought forth a great harvest. 

And the sun shone, the peasants rejoiced, and  the farmer was very happy.

Brothers and Sisters, in this story, the seed is the Word of God.

And the dirt? Well, that’s your heart and my heart.

What kind of garden is in our hearts?  When we hear the Word of God--even when it comes wrapped up in a simple story--we need to open our hearts and let the Word grow.

And that's the real dirt!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Saint Sylvester and the Dragon

A Saint's Tale Retold by Patty Kyrlach

In Italy, New Year’s Eve is called  La notte di San Silvestro,” the Night of Saint Sylvester. Many legends are told about this Catholic Saint, but perhaps the most impressive is the story of Saint Sylvester and the Dragon.

During the reign of Emperor Constantine, Rome was besieged by an evil dragon that lived in a large pit outside the city. The breath of the beast poisoned the air, and a thick cloud of fear and dread hung over domes and arches, baths and basilicas. For every day, the dragon slew more than 300 men with his breath. 

The citizens began to rail against the emperor, saying that it was because he had converted to Christianity that this terrible dragon had come to destroy them all.

Constantine called for St. Sylvester and asked what could be done to save the city. Sylvester was no warrior, no military strategist. He knew only one thing to do. He prayed, and St. Peter appeared to him and gave him a message.

St. Sylvester appears before Emperor Constantine

Carrying two lanterns and a length of thread, St. Sylvester descended the staircase into the pit—down, down, down into a darkness that grew deeper and a stench that grew stronger. Two enchanters followed Sylvester to see what would happen, but they were too afraid to follow him all the way to the bottom of the pit.

Yet down, down went Sylvester--down 150 treacherous steps to an almost certain doom.

In the darkness flickered only three pale lights--the two lanterns and the eye of the dragon. Swallowing hard and making fists to steel himself, Sylvester spoke the words that St. Peter had told him to say.

Our Lord Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary. 

At first his voice was low and quavery, but as he spoke, the words grew in strength and power.

He was crucified, buried and arose. He now sits at the right hand of the Father. 

Now Sylvester thundered with authority and dominion:

And it is He that shall one day judge the living and the dead. Therefore, I command you, Satan, to remain in this place until he comes.

Then Sylvester stepped right into the face of the dragon and bound its mouth shut with the thread.

St. Sylvester raises the dead.
Triumphant, Sylvester began the ascent out of the pit. The air was already beginning to clear. About halfway up, he found the two enchanters, who converted to Christianity on the spot. As they walked together back to the emperor’s palace, St. Sylvester raised many of the dead who had fallen prey to the dragon.

Thus Rome was saved from a double calamity—the dragon’s fiery breath and the curse of idolatry.

This story reminds me of the words of a hymn written by the great reformer, Martin Luther:

And though this world, with devils filled, 
should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God hath willed 

His truth to triumph through us:
the Prince of Darkness grim, 

we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure, 

for lo, his doom is sure.
One little word shall fell him.

Happy New Year to all from the Stark Raving Mythopath! Whatever dragons you may face this year, remember to speak the Word of God!