All posts by Phil W

Is the Novel on Life-Support?

We hardly lack for prose in this online age. Digital entertainments aside, English- language genre fiction has blossomed into a startling new maturity. Popular biography conveys lessons the novel once delivered — as do popularly presented sociology and ‘New Journalism’, which uses techniques of novel-writing for essay-length reporting. Still, the novel is moribund. Its failure signals an end of confidence about the past values and future goals of what conceived itself as Western culture. The signs of a weakened, diffident and timid culture are written in the dust on the unread books of our library shelves.

Joseph Bottum writes about the decline of the novel in a book by the same name, excerpted in this month’s Spectator. He doesn’t appear to go in the direction you may expect, so read the whole thing. As I read it, I kept wondering if his point is simply a bit beyond my grasp as an ignorant student or is he measuring by a standard I don’t value as much. (via Prufrock)

Ragnarok: Where It All Begins

Movie poster for Netflix series Ragnarok (2020).

Erik (teacher): Why is it of particular interest to talk about the old Norse gods? Especially right here in Edda? Gry?

Gry: Because was Edda was the last town in Norway to become Christian. Ah, and to give up faith in the Norse gods.

Erik: Yes, that is correct. One could say it all happened right here. Ragnarok. The end of the world. The final clash between the gods and the giants.

If I had seen the promotional tagline you see on the poster above, “This is where it all begins,” I might have watched Ragnarok, Netflix’s new six-episode series, in anticipation of an open, unfinished story — a part one. The series does have good character arcs and bring things together at the end, but it doesn’t wrap them up nearly as I was expecting. I kept thinking our hero would have to really lower the hammer in the next episode, but the final showdown isn’t, you know, the end of the world.

Norse myth fans will easily recognize names and characters as they appear: Odin and Frigg, Thor and Loki are represented in the old man with an eyepatch with the oddly serene, oddly prophetic wife, the mischievous brother, and the kind, justice-minded son. And the villain is named Vidar (Lars can tell us what that means).

Ragnarok is set in Edda, another nod to the myths, but it moves as methodically as any high-school superhero origin story might. Magne arrives with his family in this new town, which is his hometown but they had moved away after his father’s death several years ago; his mother’s new job at the undefined industry that supports Edda has brought them back. He befriends the “greenpeace” girl, Isolde, and learns that official accounts of the pristine nature of their town and country don’t fit the evidence they draw from the river.

Continue reading Ragnarok: Where It All Begins

Sir Novelty Fashion Turned Poet Laureate

Colley Cibber (1671-1757) was an actor, playwright, and theater manager who made a name for himself initially as a comic actor in his own play, Love’s Last Shift, playing Sir Novelty Fashion.

Hilliaria: Oh! For Heav’n’s sake! no more of this Galantry, Sir Novelty: for I know you say the fame of every Woman you see.

Novelty: Every one that sees you, Madam, must say the fame. Your Beauty, like the Rack, forces every Beholder to confess his Crime–of daring to adore you.

He also reworked Shakespeare’s Richard III and Moliere’s Tartuffe. It was for crimes such as these that he was made Britain’s poet Laureate in 1730, drawing ire from contemporary poet Alexander Pope and his friends. They mocked him aggressively in print, some perhaps in good fun, some perhaps with malice.

Benham’s Book of Quotations gives sixteen pages to Pope’s words and to Cibber’s one column, and lest they die their appointed death too soon, I’ll repeat some Cibber lines here.

“Poverty, the reward of honest fools.”

“The aspiring youth that fired the Ephesian dome
Outlives in fame the pious fool that raised it.”

“Ambition is the only power that combats love.”

“Dumb’s a sly dog.”

Continue reading Sir Novelty Fashion Turned Poet Laureate

The Green Ember, by S.D. Smith

Artwork from cover of The Green Ember

“How many weapons do I have?” Helmer asked. Picket took a quick inventory, though he thought Helmer might be concealing some.

“Two. Your knife and the sword,” Picket said.

Helmer responded with an immediate attack. He hit Picket, kicked him, took off his jacket and struck him with it over and over, then threw rocks at him. Picket scrambled around, trying to dodge rocks, block blows, and escape the whirlwind of whipping coat. . . .

“Lesson. Number. One,” Helmer said evenly. “Everything is a weapon.”

The Green Ember is the first of several fantasies by S.D. Smith, in which brave rabbits with swords and bows fight the hoard of wolves and raptors that has overwhelmed their land. Youngsters Heather and Pickett begin the novel playing in the fields near their country home. They have loving parents, a baby brother, and a happy, innocent life.

But this isn’t Little House on the Prairie.

Soon, enemies they hadn’t known are charging at them with torches, bows, and spears. They escape by the skin of their teeth with a bit of help, but Pickett won’t take up living to fight another. His mistakes and lack of strength during their escape weigh him to the ground. Plus, some hero rabbit, who looked about as old as Pickett, displays incredible skill, strength, and general swagger in their escape, all of which Pickett hates. He has no reason to be jealous of him, so, of course, he is.

The Green Ember is written for young readers, not very young, but this isn’t YA either. Smith assumes his readers will need a little help to understand. When characters use sarcasm, the narrator explains it clearly. It’s a fun adventure, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of them. My kids have loved them for years, and my youngest just reread all of the books in anticipation of the fourth one, Ember’s End, coming in March.

How Many Filaments Did Edison Test for His Lightbulb?

People know America’s great inventor Thomas Edison went through multitudes of material to find a good filament for his little light bulb hobby. He tested everything he could get his hands on and thought could work. Some even claim he made a large bulb in order to test the illumination of a charged cat.*

The Edison Museum states his team tested over 6,000 plant materials, many of them carbonized. The Franklin Institute makes the same claim, possibly taking it from the same source though that source isn’t clearly cited.

Rutgers Edison Papers says no one, not even the inventor himself, kept count of how many times they tried this or that. They quote an 1890 interview in which Edison says they tried 3,000 different theories in working out a functional and affordable light bulb, and many more experiments were conducted after they had a patent and a production factory. Edison was awarded that patent on January 27, 1880.

The number of filament experiment may be lost to history, as well as whether he actually said one of his famous quotations:

Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.

– Thomas Edison or Harper’s Monthly?

Ralph Keyes, in his book The Quote Verifier, notes this quote and its variations can be attributed to Edison, but the earliest version of this can be found in an 1898 Ladies Home Journal. (Check to see if you still have this edition on your TBR pile.) The magazine claims Edison offered two percent inspiration and ninety-eight percent perspiration as a formula for genius. In the years that followed, it seemed magazine writers, not the inventor, were repeating this line in different ways, but by 1932 Edison claimed it as his own.

Update: The 1932 Harper’s Monthly interview referred to above may have been a contemporary interview, an obituary, or a tribute, because the inventor died in 1931. Harper’s doesn’t make it’s archives available online for free, but I have found a citation it, saying it was the September issue of Harper’s and that Edison was thought to have said this in 1903.

Photo by Rahul from Pexels

* no one claims this.

Tolkien’s Long Procrastination in the Same Direction

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote essays and myths for years before the publication of The Hobbit in 1937. Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics is also published this year. The Lord of the Rings is published in three volumes during 1954-55. And through all of this time, the author may have been thinking he should possibly find time to write something deep on Chaucer.

His research student V.A. Kolve said, “He confessed to me once that some were disappointed by how little he had done in the academic way, but that he had chosen instead to explore his own vision of things.”

Tolkien himself said, “I have always been incapable of doing the job at hand.”

John M. Bowers has written a book on the long academic project Tolkien intended to return to. He reports,

[Tolkien] confided to his publisher in 1937 that Oxford would merely add The Hobbit to his “long list of never-never procrastinations” (Letters, 18). Fiction-writing simply did not count in terms of academic production, especially after Tolkien had idled away his two-year Leverhulme Research Fellowship. “The authorities of the university,” he would lament when The Lord of the Rings was in press, “might well consider it an aberration of an elderly professor of philology to write and publish fairy stories and romances” (Letters, 219). He explained to his American publisher this widespread view of his failings: “Most of my philological colleagues are shocked (cert. behind my back, sometimes to my face) at the fall of a philological into ‘Trivial literature’; and anyway the cry is: ‘now we know how you have been wasting your time for 20 years’” (Letters, 238).

Is Ghostwriting Ever Right?

Several hours ago on Twitter, a young writer rejoiced over getting a ghostwriting gig, calling it an important step in her freelance career. For a writer wanting to work (and get this, receive money for that work as if he were a plumber or politician), an offer to write a book under someone else’s name can sound par for the course. It’s similar to other ways someone with a fistful of dollars can shove it toward a writer to ask for words in return: blogs, speeches, marketing, and corporate copy.

A friend of Orwell’s said, “There is only one way to make money at writing, and that is to marry a publisher’s daughter.” But the freelance writer hopes to forge another path.

In the current issue of World magazine, Jenny Rough quotes differing opinions on ghostwriting. Some writers would say they couldn’t compose their books alone; they needed to work with a subject expert. Some athletes, actors, and speakers recognize they don’t have the skills to tell their story on paper, so they need a writer to communicate for them; readers will likely buy a book by that actor they love before they buy one about him. Perhaps it feels more personal.

Is it a problem for readers to believe the celebrity whose name is on the cover actually wrote the words on the page, scribbled notes to himself during dull meetings, pounded his own keyboard, cried over an editor’s red ink, and procrastinated until being overtaken by the threat of an existential deadline?

In most cases, it is.

Jared Wilson has written many times on pastors who desire to write. Being known for their words in the pulpit, pastors will be expected to write their own books. If they don’t, they’ll be expected to acknowledge who did.

Author Angela Hunt told World she “realized it wouldn’t cost authors anything to reveal they had help. ‘It doesn’t belittle them to admit they’re not professional writers. Many secular writers refuse to ghostwrite for the same reason we Christian writers do—it’s not honest, and it disparages the work of the writer who has worked hard to learn the craft.'”

For January and February 2020, you can get two months of World magazine for free by referring yourself or someone you know.

Photo by JC Gellidon on Unsplash.

Remembering Roger Scruton

Many people under the influence of science, and particularly neuro-nonsense, will say the sacred is an old concept, it’s just a hangover, but you can easily see that’s not so, because everyone has a sense of desecration: there are things everybody values which, when they are spoiled, are not just moved or destroyed, they are desecrated. Something that is vital not just to you but the world. People have this sense when they see their towns pulled apart and concrete blocks put in the middle of them. You only have to look at Aberdeen to see what happens to a beautiful place when the desecrators get their hands on it.

Roger Scruton, The Soul of the World

Conservative author Roger Scruton died last week. He is being remembered by many as a generous, thoughtful man who said stuff.

Politician Daniel Hannan said, “Roger Scruton changed the course of my life. He addressed my school’s philosophy society when I was 16, speaking so compellingly about Wittgenstein and language that, when he finished, no one wanted to ask the first question. So, more to fill an awkward silence than anything else, I stuck my hand up and asked him what he saw as the role of a conservative thinker. ‘The role of a conservative thinker,’ he replied, in his charmingly diffident manner, ‘is to reassure the people that their prejudices are true.’

“That beautiful aperçu never left me.”

A Threat to Justice Everywhere

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

from King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

Justin Taylor offers context and organization to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which he wrote in the margins of the newspaper that published the open letter calling for “’an appeal for law and order and common sense,’ in dealing with racial problems in Alabama.”

If Your Eye Causes You to Sin, here’s a Knife.

I read an article the other day criticizing a renewed push by some U.S. House conservatives as well as some writers to ban pornography in America. The writer took no moral stance for or against it, but defended it as a point of individual rights. But what is freedom if it is not moral freedom? What is law if not moral law?

I almost linked to this First Things article arguing for ways we could regulate and restrict it, but I feared it was misguided. And maybe I feared other things.

It’s hard to ignore the implicit cries for help seen on Twitter by survivors of sexual abuse who say a parent groomed them with dirty images or that criminals are fueled by it. But being only one person, what can you do?

One of our favorite authors, Jared Wilson, points out the shock factor in Jesus’s words in Matthew 18:8-9, “And if your eye causes you to fall away, gouge it out.”

He says, “It’s not the temptation that leads you away—it’s your ‘foot.’ It’s not the sinful vision that leads you away—it’s your ‘eye.'” And the stakes for continuing in sin are far higher than you want to admit.

In a Perfect World, We Would Ruin Everything

Here’s a thought for the new year: Take away all your trouble, all the hardship in your life, and you’d invent new trouble on your own.

Eden was a perfect garden. It lacked no plant that was “pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen. 2:9), and then man came along to ruin it.

When Abram told Lot they should separate their clans, Lot looked at the well hydrated Jordan Valley, “like the garden of the Lord,” and took his people into it (Gen 13:10). In that beautiful valley nestled Sodom and Gomorrah.

If you’re inclined to blame your environment over the coming year for your indiscretion, peevishness, overaction, or pride, remember the environment in which sin first entered the world and remember you brought it with you when you came in.

Photo by Emiel Molenaar on Unsplash

Common Temptations, Demonic Influence at College

This is a timely word from Dr. Hans Madueme, Associate Professor of Theological Studies at Covenant College, delivered in chapel last November. He says some leaders are worried their college (perhaps all Christian colleges) are helping students speak Christianly while continuing to think and act in a worldly manner. The devil has been working his craft for a very long time; he knows how to leverage his influence over us.

Keep Him Distracted or Sentimental

I came to this lost letter between two tempters late this season. Justin Wainscott found it somewhere and offers it to us for the useful instruction it has. The senior tempter advises his pupil not to try to turn his charge against Christmas all together, but to weakness his reflection on any of the details.

Keep him distracted as much as possible. “Keep him overly committed to all sorts of things (yes, even good things). Make sure he goes to every party and feels obligated to go out and purchase a gift for each one. Make sure he attends concerts and dinners and charity events. If his calendar isn’t full, you’ve failed.”

Failing that, keep him sentimental. “By all means, let him sing and be merry. Hell knows we have made good use of those kinds of things just as much as we have misery and gloom.”

Failing that, he has one more suggestion, all of which make for good advice for the coming year.

Photo by Jeswin Thomas from Pexels