Monday, January 25, 2016

Balder the Beautiful

         I heard a voice that cried,
       Balder the beautiful
       Is dead, dead.  

One day in childhood, C. S. Lewis was searching through his father's extensive library, and he stumbled across these words in a poem by Longfellow.

Although young Jack had no idea who this Balder might be, the words stirred something in him--"an extraordinary feeling, a notion of great cold expanses of northern sky"--according to The Inklings, by Humphrey Carpenter.

Balder (or Baldr), in Norse mythology, is the second son of Odin and brother of Thor and Vali. He had a twin brother named Hoor, who was blind. 

Balder is always described in "glowing" terms:

The second son of Odin is Baldur, and good things are to be said of him. He is best, and all praise him; he is so fair of feature, and so bright, that light shines from him.    
                     -- from the Prose Edda

Balder had a dream of his own death, and the dream frightened him. To make matters worse, his mother Frigg had the same dream. In an effort to protect her son, Frigg made every object in the realm swear never to harm Balder. Every object save one made this promise.

Stones promised. Trees promised. Daggers and weapons of every sort promised. Everything promised except for just one thing--the mistletoe. Did Frigg overlook this humble branch with pointed leaves, thinking it too small? Or was the mistletoe too young to swear an oath?

When the gods heard that everything had promised never to harm Balder, they made a new sport. They would toss things at Balder--both harmless and dangerous things--just to watch them all miss or fall away without hurting him.

But Loki, the mischief maker, heard about the dream and the promise Frigg had asked every object to make. He also heard about the mistletoe.

Loki was tired of everyone always singing the praises of Balder, and so he devised an evil plan. He fashioned a spear out of mistletoe and handed it to Balder's blind twin Hoor to toss at Balder. Some say that when the spear left Hoor's hand, Loki guided its path.

Alas, the enchanted arrow found its mark, and Balder the Beautiful fell dead. The sound of weeping was heard throughout Asgard.

Balder's body was ceremonially burned on his ship, Hringhorni--largest of all ships. As he was carried to the ship, Odin whispered something in his ear, but no-one knows what he said. Then Hyrrokin, a giantess, set the ship sailing on the open sea.

To punish Hoor for slaying Balder, Odin and Frigg conceived another son--a son who grew up in a single day and slayed Hoor.

Hel, keeper of the underworld, promised to release Balder back to earth if everyone dead and alive would weep for him. Everyone did--everyone except one giantess, believed to be Loki in disguise. Thus, Balder was forced to remain in the underworld until the day of Ragnarok, an apocalyptic time foretold when Balder and Hoor would be reunited and would rule the new world together.

As for Loki, after many more malicious, arrogant deeds, he comes to no good end, bound to a rock, beneath a poisonous snake that drips venom down on the prisoner. Loki writhes with such violence that the earth first experiences what we now call earthquakes.

Many comparisons have been made between Balder and Christ. Jesus, the bright and shining Son of God, was betrayed by the fallen angel Lucifer and put to death. And prophets tell of a time when Jesus will rule a new Heaven and a new earth, and Lucifer will be bound for a thousand years. Balder was "a dying god."

But there comparisons must end. For Jesus, unlike Balder, walked out of his tomb, very much alive--"that through death he might destroy him who had the power, that is, the devil."

I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.      Rev. 1:18  KJV

The myth-makers told some great stories, and the story of Balder is one of them. But only one story can rightly claim to be "The Greatest Story Ever Told"--the true story of the Christ, the Risen Redeemer.

Photo Credits:
    "Odin's last words to Baldr," by W. G. Collingwood
     Iceland, by Roger McLassus
    "Each arrow overshot his head," by Elmer Boyd Smith
    Mistletoe berries, by Alexbrn
    Balder killed by Hoor and Loki, from an 18th century Icelandic manuscript
    "Odin's last words to Baldr," detail
    "The Punishment of Loki," by Louis Huard 
    The Empty Tomb, by Mary Kasting

Monday, January 18, 2016

Lessons from Firefly


                                 Burn the land
                                 and boil the sea,
                                 You can't take the sky from me. . . .

Set in the year 2517, after humans have depleted Earth and migrated to a new star system, Firefly follows the lives of nine mates of the Starship (Firefly Class) Serenity. Creator Joss Whedon pitched this show as "nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things." 

But though these shipmates may have different dreams and aspirations, the dangers of deep space also unite them in a common goal. Survival.

So, what do the crew members see out there in "the blackness"?

The Captain--Malcolm Reynolds, played by a young Nathan Fillion--sees freedom, a way to avoid the Alliance oppressors and to be his own man. The Resistance army may have lost the war to the Alliance, but on his own ship, Mal is still a free man.

First Mate Zoe Washburne, who fought side by side with Mal in the war, sees the black as a place to be useful to the Resistance and to keep serving her beloved commander.

Loyalty doesn't motivate crewman Jayne Cobb--except loyalty to Jayne. He's a good man in a fight, Jayne--unless, of course, he knifes you in the back to make a profit. With Jayne, you never know.

Then there's the beautiful "Companion" Inara Serra, who rents one of the escape pods of Serenity. In this society, trained prostitutes form an elite class, and Inara lends a bit of ironic respectability to Serenity

Every resident of the Serenity has a story and a dream. I think that the Serenity crew and passengers see the black of space as a symbol of independence from the Alliance, an escape from the past, and a new beginning. Out there in the black, you have no choice but to face your deepest fears and discover your true self.

The cast of Firefly, L to R, Top to Bottom,
Ron Glass (Book)Summer Glau (River)
Alan Tudyk (Wash)Sean Maher (Simon)
Adam Baldwin (Jayne)Jewel Staite (Kaylee)
Morena Baccarin (Inara)
and Nathan Fillion (Mal)
--missing: Zoe (Gina Torres)

Cancelled by the network after only nine of the original 14 episodes had aired, Firefly is the poster child for all promising television series that are cancelled too soon. DVD sales for the defunct show skyrocketed, and the fan base remains to this day loyal, outspoken, and still expanding.

It was a great show and a great story that had just begun to unfold. It's really a shame, but it is what it is. Not only was the show cancelled, but Joss Whedon followed the series with a movie--Serenity--in which he killed a couple of characters, more or less nailing the coffin shut on the story of these nine intrepid travelers in space. 

Maybe someday Firefly will be revived. and the Browncoats will ride again. Maybe not. But storytellers across the galaxy can still draw on this story for instruction and inspiration.

  • Nothing is too out there or fringe if you have a passion for the story.
  • Every character has his own story. Although he interacts with others, he has his own history, philosophy of life, his own dreams, his own character flaws. Nobody was born into this world to be part of the supporting cast. Everybody lives in his own world.
  • Backstory should never intrude, but it can richly inform the present situation and the characters.

  • Setting can also enrich a story, even serving as a character at times. You could place these characters into a different setting, and it would be a completely different story.
  • Sci-fi and fantasy are still the best places to explore moral issues in story form.
And the greatest lesson we can learn from Firefly?
  • Don't quit too soon. Okay, so technically it was the network that quit on Firefly, a show that many with hindsight think would have gone on to be a huge success. But it's a caution for all writers. Don't quit on your story too soon. And sometimes quitting is simply filing it away in a desk drawer until a better time.
There may never be a better time.

Photo Credits:
    Firefly, Firefly logo
    Nathan Fillion, Flickr user RavenU] |P
    Gina Torres, source--Genevieve
    Adam Baldwin, Flickr upload bot (talk | contribs)
    Morena Baccarin, Flickr user RavenU
    Cast of Firefly, Flickr user RavenU
    Joss Whedon,  photo by Dominick D
    Mal, Zoe & horse, posted under fair use 
    Firefly 4-disc set, product shot

Sunday, January 10, 2016

A Theory of Nothing

Most family portraits of the Solar System look something like this:

You can just imagine a photographer rounding up all the planets so that they'll fit in the picture. 

"Mars, a little to the left, please. Hey, Pretty Girl, pull in those rings. Everybody say 'moon cheese.' "

In these pictures, we look like one big happy family--even the little lovechild Pluto. We look like Norman Rockwell hoboes huddled around the trash-can fire of the sun to warm our hands. Picturesque and cozy and quaint.

And wrong. 

Like a lot of family portraits, this one is really misleading. For a more realistic picture, drawn to scale, you can visit a website called "If the Moon Were Only 1 Pixel," by Josh Worth.

Josh has created a scale model of the solar system online, with earth's moon scaled to just one pixel. At this resolution, the asteroids don't even appear. Josh's model is conveniently laid out in a straight line, but that's probably the only way to make it work.

You start at the sun and scroll to the right to visit the different planets. You scroll and scroll and scroll, because the planets are such teensy little specks, and the spaces between are so vast.

This journey is mind-blowing and terrifying. Because most of space is just that. Zilch. Nada. Space crickets!

And that's just inside our little neighborhood. The spaces between stars or between galaxies are greater still. Unimaginable. Overwhelming. Pee-your-pants scary.

And when we zip on down to the microcosmic level, we find even more nothing. About  99.9999999999996% of a hydrogen atom is empty space.  Proportionately, there is less something and more nothing within your atoms than out there in Star Trek land.

I guess I'm thinking that what we could really use, instead of a Theory of Everything, is a Theory of Nothing. Why are all the particles and planets so far apart?

Maybe it's just God's feng shui for the universe. God used all this nothing to make the something look better and work better.

I got sick over Christmas, and I'm still taking drugs and breathing treatments to keep recovering. The first couple of weeks of 2016 are a motion blur to me.

So I'm pushing the reset button on the New Year. I woke up this morning to snow. A fresh, uncluttered landscape. A blank page.

And I'm thinking that in my life, maybe there's not enough empty space. Maybe events and commitments and newsbites and postings and chats and tv shows are all crammed a little too close together. 

I'm thinking I need less stuff and more nothing in my office, in my closet, in my filing cabinet, on my dinner plate, on my calendar,  in my mental and spiritual life. More empty space for thinking. Praying. Writing. Napping. For face to face with friends. 

Less time doing. More time being. Less noise. More silence. Less school. More snow days. Less grown-up. More child. Less planning. More possibility.

A little less something and a lot more nothing.

Photo Credits:
    Solar System, by NASA, public domain
    Solar System, author--Omnidoom 999
    NGC 2683 Spiral galaxy, by NASA, public domain
    Rutherford model of atom, by Cburnett
    Snow on twig, (C)opyright / 
    Little girl, (C)opyright nastia19893

Sunday, January 3, 2016

10 Best Inventions for Writers

Some are simple. Some are complex. But these modern inventions get my vote as the top ten inventions of importance to writers. Leave a comment, and let me know your nominations!

THE ELECTRIC CROCKPOT - You throw stuff in the pot in the morning. At night, voila! You have dinner. In between, you write your brains out. How cool is that!

THE SMART PHONE -- That most portable of computers--for email, chat, gps, research--even the occasional phone call--on the go. 


LUGGAGE ON WHEELS - Traveling for research or writing conferences is a lot easier -- thanks to the genius who discovered the real purpose of wheels. For moving luggage, of course. Whether that luggage is clothes and make-up or your computer and peripherals or books for the book table. How did writers survive before these?

CALLER ID - No more annoying interruptions from solicitors, in-laws, and other people you don't want to talk to--not now, not later. What a huge time savings. 


THE INTERNET - Look at all this idea has done for writers. Research at the click of a mouse. Online shopping. Online sales and promotion for writers. Social media. Cloud storage. The greatest thing since sliced bread. In fact, if you need sliced bread, you can get it on the internet. 

So why isn't the internet listed as Number 1 or 2? I'm punishing it for its ambivalence. For all that it does for writers, it's also our number one distraction, keeping us from getting our work done. That evil internet. For example, you're reading this blog instead of writing. Aren't you? A mixed blessing!


STAPLES (and other office supply stores) -- All those beautiful folders, binders, pens, sticky notes, magnetic sheets, and paper clips in one enchanted writer's fairyland. Ink. Envelops. Hundreds of kinds of paper. Comfy office chairs. Nirvana.


COFFEE SHOPS -- A place to escape from the distractions of home, get jacked up on caffeine, and write your magnum opus. Or a place to meet with other writers for collaborations, shop talk, or an informal crit group. And a great place to get a mocha frappuccino with whipped cream. Drooling now!


TYPEWRITER -- Even though mostly replaced by computers these days, typewriters gave us a way to mimic printing with the help of a machine. Typewriters taught us to use a keyboard. Who could have predicted that the two years of typing I took in high school would be practically the most important part of my education, the classes that best prepared me for the future!


DESKTOP PUBLISHING / POD - Hey, Hatchette Book Group, bite me! 

With indie and self-pub available to just about everybody, I'm no longer sitting by my mailbox waiting to be rejected by you. I can publish my books my way myself. Power to the people, Baby.

The photo above illustrates all the books I could indie publish if I would quit spending all my time on this blog.


WORD PROCESSING - I'm going to go all retro and single out word processing as the most important aspect of the new technology for writers. The ability to edit extensively and then push the print button? Priceless. To spill coffee on the manuscript and then reprint? Priceless. 

Sure, we've come a long way from the vintage model pictured above, but for anyone who used to make copies with streaky carbon paper and corrections with crumbly erasers and smelly white-out, surely you will agree that the word processing function of our computers deserves the top honor. If you grew up with fancy-pants computers, you may not understand. Don't worry. Your children won't understand you either.

All of these choices are completely subjective and a bit whimsical. What would you like to include in the list of the top ten modern devices/inventions that help writers?

Photo Credits:
     10 - Crockpot - (C)opyright CanStockPhoto / sumners
       9 - Smart Phone - public domain
       8 - Luggage - (C)opyright CanStockPhoto / happyalex
       7 - Caller ID - (C)opyright CanStockPhoto / kenhurst
       6 - Internet - (C)opyright CanStockPhoto / marcelmooij
       5 - Staples - public domain
       4 - Coffee shops - photo posted to Flickr by ElvertBarnes
       3 - Typewriter - public domain
       2 - Desktop Publishing - Bookcase - photo by Piotrus
       1 - Word Processing - photo by Anthony J. Bentley