Thursday, May 31, 2012

Castles #1

1. Some Miles From Castle Inter Lucus

            Ora Wooddaughter worked as hard as her brother; Father always said so.  But in recent months, as Aethulwulf grew as only boys-becoming-men can grow, Attor Woodman had begun favoring Aethulwulf with heavier work.  Today, for the first time, the thirteen-year-old man-child had taken his father’s place in the bottom of the sawpit.  The more experienced father could thus guide the ripsaw as he and Aethulwulf cut a plank from a pine log.  Aethulwulf strained to push the great saw from below, and he coughed often to clear his throat of wood dust.  The three long braids of his black hair swung to a fro as he worked.  As often as he could, he wiped sweat and dust from his face with the back of his forearm. Yet he made no complaint.  To the contrary: Ora could read pride in Aethulwulf Woodson’s fierce long face.  He was doing a man’s work.  Soon men would name him Woodman as they named his father.
            Ora would never be asked to work the bottom of the sawpit, because her size limited her strength.  Though two years older than Aethulwulf, she was a foot shorter and much lighter than her brother—half-brother, to be accurate.  Maybe that explained things, Ora thought.  Eacnung was an uncommonly large woman, whereas her own mother, Darelle, had been slight.  At least, that’s what everyone said.  Ora had no memory of Darelle.
            When Attor took his turn on bottom, Ora guided the saw from above.  She wasn’t as practiced as her father, but she was better than Aethulwulf at hewing to the line drawn on the timber.  Turn and turn-about, brother or sister would stand by the old brown horse, Bley, while the other sawed with Attor.  The Woodman worked steadily through the day, proclaiming himself satisfied to escape the downside of the pit half the time.  In the late afternoon, sunlight slanted over the western lake, signaling the end of the workday. Ora hitched Bley to Attor’s lumber wagon while father and son finished the last cut.  All that remained was to stack the green lumber in the drying shed two miles away. 
            Attor wiped his brow, a bit theatrically.  “How’s a swim, Da?”  His eyes motioned to the shimmering water of the western lake.
            “As you like.”  Attor tugged Bley’s lead to urge the horse into motion.  “Just don’t make me load alone.”
            “We’ll make the shed ’fore old Bley does,” promised Aethulwulf.           
            “We?  Who are you speaking for, little brother?”  Ora meant it kindly.
            Aethulwulf frowned.  “Me, then.  Been workin’ hard, I have.  Ya don’t gotta swim if ya don’t want.”
            Ora hesitated as Attor and Bley plodded one way and Aethulwulf walked the short cut path to the lake.  Lake water on a hot day . . . she followed Aethulwulf.
            Fishing boats from Down’s End often crossed the lake; sometimes they even tied up at the little dock built by Attor’s father a generation before, Woodman’s Dock.  Ora paused on the little hill to survey the horizon before descending to the lake.  The nearest boats were far away, in the shadows of the western shore.  Ora wasn’t surprised; she knew the Down’s End fishermen liked to cast nets early in the day or in the cool of evening.
            The bit of shoreline for a hundred yards north of Woodman’s Dock was a sandy beach with clear, shallow water.  Ora and Aethulwulf had built summer sand forts and swam here for as long as she could remember.  She picked her way along the winding path through elderberry brush and emerged on the beach.  Aethulwulf’s woolen tunic and linen under tunic were both hanging on elderberry limbs; his leather boots sat next to a log where he had sat to take them off.  When she looked at the water, Aethulwulf was nowhere to be seen, but then his head exploded out of the water ten yards away.  He shook his head and pushed his hair out of his face with both hands, sweeping the long black braids behind his head.  Seeing Ora, he smiled widely and stood up tall.  The water reached to his belly.  He splashed with a cupped hand, throwing water onto his chest.
            “Gods!  It’s great.  Come on!”
            Ora put her boots next to his and hung her work tunic over a branch, but she waded into the water still dressed in her under tunic.  The days when brother and sister could properly swim naked were long past, she judged.  Her linen underclothes were due to be washed on the morrow anyway.
            When the water reached her waist, Ora collapsed into it and let buoyancy take hold.  She ducked under the surface and came up with her head tilted back, letting water run off her face and hair.  It was deliciously cool.
            “I am the great kraken of the deep!”  Aethulwulf waved his arms and dived into the water, coming up inches from Ora.  She could feel the heat of his body.
            “In the stories I’ve heard, the krakens all have eight or ten arms,” Ora said.  “Did the sailors of castle Tutum Partum chop off most of yours?  And since when did krakens swim in sweet water lakes?”
            Aethulwulf threw his arms up and back, twisting to one side to splash into the water.  His body was thin, but Ora could imagine how in the years to come it would fill out with muscles and—if he prospered—fat.  For now, he was a man-child, all bones and sinews.
            Ora swam a few strokes into deeper water.  Reaching down with her toes, she couldn’t touch the bottom.  Still the water was so clear that she could see sparkles in the sand six feet below.  The lake had been the right decision.
            Something touched her leg, Aethulwulf’s hand.  He was playing kraken again, swimming underwater.  She brushed the hand aside and he came up for air.  He put his hand behind her neck and pulled her close.  His mouth covered hers.
            Ora pushed him away.  Aethulwulf frowned for a moment, but then swam away, powerful strokes to the shore.  He turned around and crouched in shallow water.  Ora eyed him for several seconds; he just waited.
            “Da will want you at the drying shed.”
            “Aye.  Ya gotta come with, so’s ya don’t walk alone.”
            “I can walk alone perfectly well, thank you.”
            Aethulwulf made no reply.  Ora realized he might wait long.  After all, what protest would Attor make if they came late?  Aethulwulf could bear his father’s displeasure.  And Eacnung never punished her eldest son, whatever he did.
            Ora swam toward the beach, angling a bit south.  It was easy for Aethulwulf to sidle sideways and stay between Ora and the shore.  She swam until her hands touched the sandy lake bottom and stood up.  She was momentarily aware of her under tunic pressing itself to her breasts and hips, but immediately Aethulwulf, completely naked, wrapped her in his arms.  His erection felt hot even through her wet clothes.
            “No!  I’m your sister!”  Ora wrenched away, turning to her left, and for a moment she broke free.  After two steps he tackled her from behind.  He was on top of her, his arm forcing her face into the sand and water.  They lay that way, his weight and strength holding her in the shallows, for several seconds.  Ora was going to die.  Even worse, she would die helpless because of a boy’s lust.
            Aethulwulf pulled Ora from the water and turned her over.  She was coughing and retching, but it didn’t stop him.

Copyright © 2012 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.
Castles: the ground rules

     Today I will post the first chapter of a novel I'm writing.  I've never serialized a story before, and I would guess you haven't read one.  Or maybe you have; I don't know.
    When I told Ron of my plans to "publish" my new story this way, he immediately cut to the heart of the experiment.  "You'll be posting a draft."  That's exactly right, so I think some ground rules are in order.
    The Heart of the Sea and Buying the Bangkok Girl both benefited from helpful criticisms from friends: Ron, Jen, Paula, Debbie H., Debbie S., and others I'm forgetting.  Karen most of all.  I am very grateful for people who like my stories enough to suggest improvements.  The proof of my gratitude is that I often accept their suggestions.  Therefore, I am explicitly asking readers to make comments, ask questions, and tell me what should be changed.  What you read here is a draft.  The final version of Castles will only emerge over time.
    Castles is a working title.  I expect something better will come along; maybe one of you will invent the eventual, final title.  That's how raw this experiment will be.  Everything is up for grabs.
    Well, not really.  I'm the author; I get to say what goes in or comes out, although my experience has been that stories take on a life of their own.  Once I get to know a character, I can't just do whatever I like with her.
    I intend to post a new chapter every week.  Since the chapters will all be stored here at Story and Meaning, you can always go back to read the earlier ones.  If and when I make an emendation, I'll post an announcement to that effect, especially if the change affects the plot significantly.
    One more ground rule: I am the author of Castles; by publishing it here I assert copywrite ownership, both to the draft version and the eventual final version.  I welcome, even solicit, reader input, but at the same time I expect readers to respect my rights as author.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Privilege of Writing

    The 107th Psalm--part of my scripture reading for today--says four times: "Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and for his wonderful deeds for men." (Vv. 8, 15, 21, 31)
    So I pause a minute to record some of God's blessings.  I have food to eat, classes to teach, time to write, and freedom to think, speak, and love.  Naturally, life is not all home run trots and high fives.  God has sustained Karen and me as we fought through some thorny patches in life, and we may expect other hard things: aging and death.  But hard things in my life are vastly outweighed by good things.  Yes--I give thanks "for his wonderful deeds for men."
    Notice the connection with this blog.  Significant among the "wonderful deeds" of God for me is the privilege of thinking and writing.  I actually get paid money to teach philosophy!  Today I received a check for doing a series of philosophy and theology talks at a local church, a thing that I could easily do just for the delight of it.
   And writing . . . well, the truth is I would have starved long ago if I had to live off my books.  But that humbling truth doesn't detract from the privilege at all: I get to write stories!  Some people even like them, probably the people who read this blog.  I thank God for the gift of time and freedom that is reflected in these words.
    I've started a new novel, and I've decided to publish it myself.  Without waiting to finish it!  Approximately once a week, for at least a year, I will post chapters of my new story on this blog.  I haven't invented the title yet, so we'll have to make do with the label on the folder on my desktop, Castles.  I'll post the first chapter later this week.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

On the Concept Hnau

    Have you read Out of the Silent Planet, by C.S. Lewis?  When Dr. Ransom, a Cambridge philologist, is kidnapped and taken to Mars, he meets three different intelligent species: the hrossi, the seroni, and the pfifltriggi.  The seroni and pfifltriggi have their own languages which have been adapted from the older language of the hrossi, and in all these languages Ransom finds the word hnau.  The hrossi, seroni, and pfifltriggi all recognize each other as hnau, and they agree that human beings are also hnau, though the only humans they have met are Dr. Ransom and the two men who kidnapped him, Weston and Devine.  The other creatures of Malacandra (the hrossi word for Mars) are not hnau.
    A useful word!  But what is hnau?
    Let's step outside Silent Planet.  I think we can identify other hnau in other stories.  For instance, in Lewis's Narnia stories many creatures would be hnau: Tumnus the fawn, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, Reepicheep the mouse, Puddleglum the marshwiggle, and many others.  But before we conclude that in Narnia all animals are hnau, remember the distinction made in The Silver Chair between an ordinary stag and a talking stag; Eustace, Jill, and Puddleglum are horrified that they might have eaten a talking stag.  To eat a talking stag is to eat hnau, which would be cannibalism.  But to eat an ordinary stag, or a fish (in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), is unremarkable.
   I'm confident that hnau does not simply mean "uses speech."  Rather, the ability to speak is an indicator of a deeper notion.  All races of hnau are intelligent; speech is a readily noticeable mark of intelligence.  But it is not the only mark.  Just as there are people who cannot speak, we can imagine hnau of other worlds that might not speak.  So does hnau simply mean "member of an intelligent species"?
    Maybe.  I think the best meaning for hnau is "created in the image of God."  The Western philosophical tradition has often pointed to human rationality as that feature of human nature by which we are said to be made imago Dei, in the "image of God."  Lewis may well have been endorsing this very familiar idea, and in that case we would have identities: image of God = rationality = hnau.
    But imago Dei may be a richer notion than rationality.  God is a ruler, a creator, and a lover--not just a reasoner.  Dorothy Sayers, who knew Lewis, argued that in context Genesis 1:26-28 might be read as saying that human beings are like God when they make things; after all, Genesis 1 is a story of creation.
    On Malacandra, the hrossi made the poems, the seroni made the scientific discoveries, and the pfifltriggi made mines and artworks.  Each kind of knau recognized and appreciated the strengths of the others.  The image of God is not the same in each person; since we know only one race of hnau in our world, we see and praise differences in individuals.  No one race or person can exhaust the possibilities of imago Dei.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

How do good things happen?

    Very often, good things come about slowly.  I'm not announcing a metaphysical rule with no exceptions.  Maybe there is such a thing as love at first sight.  If so, then there is at least one good thing that happens quickly.
    But if you consider many important good things in life, you find they take time, cooperation, hard work, long-range thinking, and investment.  When a man plants a tree, it is an act of hope and faith, because he knows that the good results of the tree may not appear in his lifetime.  When a wife and husband beget a child, they hope for a lifetime of good.
    A church opens a preschool; the congregation struggles to heat the building, find teachers, shovel snow, serve nutritious lunches, etc.  After a generation, perhaps the preschool is closed--but along the way much good happened.
    An order of nuns founds a hospital.  The sisters raise money, build buildings, recruit board members, hire doctors, and do a million other things, with the result that dying people receive comfort and sick people return to health.  God willing, the hospital continues to produce such goods for centuries.
    A merchant starts a business which makes a useful product or provides a helpful service.  Those are good things.  If the business succeeds, the merchant makes a profit, and her enterprise provides more of the useful product or helpful service.
    And so it goes.  Very often, good things come about slowly.  That's the real world, the world of non-fiction.  For writers of fiction, it can be a real headache.  Stories, as we learned in our high school English class, need conflict.  The protagonist faces a challenge, an enemy, a danger, an obstacle, a worry, something that drives the story.  In complicated stories there may be multiple protagonists with multiple antagonists; in a short story it might be one person trying to solve one problem--what can I give my husband for Christmas when we have no money?
    Conflict usually builds to denouement.  Tension mounts, followed by resolution.  Every year at Hogwarts, Harry Potter faces some new challenge, which is at least partially resolved before summer.  The overall conflict with Lord Voldemort builds over many years, but each volume in the series needs and has some resolution.
    And there is the problem.  Fiction must have conflict and resolution, but in the real world good things come about slowly.  How does one write a good story without falsifying goodness?  Here's one way: our heroes defend a peaceful, free life from those who would take it away.  The goodness of the Shire is won by generations of boring hobbits who grow food, dig holes, plant trees, brew beer, and never have adventures.  Frodo and his companions fight to save the Shire from Sauron; their war is exciting, but ordinary hobbits aren't.  You can find the same basic theme in crime stories and war stories; the good guys are defending the slow ordinariness of good things.
    What happens when an author crafts a huge story, a long story, with lots of conflict?  I'm thinking of George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire.  The story is engaging, but gradually the reader detects an unreality to it.  I don't mean the fantasy setting.  The characters of the story, and there are dozens and dozens of important characters in this sprawling tale, fight and scheme and murder and betray for thousands of pages.  With all this destruction, where do the good things come from?  Martin himself seems aware of the problem; he describes the despair and hopelessness of the peasantry as the slaughter goes on.  Nevertheless the soap opera-like battles of the rich and powerful go on and on; Westeros never runs out of good things.  That seems weird.


Monday, May 7, 2012

 Reality and Buying the Bangkok Girl

    I'm still trying to find a publisher for Buying the Bangkok Girl, a mystery/thriller.  Obviously, I want you to all buy it and read it someday.  But I am not waiting for that happy day to talk about it.
    No spoiler alert needed!  You won't learn the story line of Bangkok Girl here, and I'm certainly not going to give away the ending.  However, I will reveal this much.  The story involves poverty and prostitution--the international sex trade.  The bad guys in Bangkok Girl are figments of my imagination, but the real world is rife with plenty of modern slavers.
    I heartily recommend Half the Sky, by the Pulitzer award-winning team of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn.  Kristof and Wudunn, journalist husband and Wall Street investment banker wife, won their Pulitzer for writing about the democracy movement in China in the 1980s and 1990s.  Half the Sky came out in 2009 and pulls us into a different worldwide issue: poverty and women.
    Sex trafficking is only one symptom of women's poverty.  Kristof and Wudunn show how, in poor countries all around the world, poor girls suffer malnutrition, beatings, brothels, burnings, preventable medical conditions, and giving birth alone and without medical help.  But they also report how women around the world are able to improve their own conditions if they have even modest educational and economic opportunities.  Half the Sky is not a depressing book, though it is shocking.  It is greatly hopeful.
    Just to whet your appetite, here is a link to an interview with Nicholas Kristof.  (Thanks to Paula Hampton, who sent this to me.)
Willow Creek Community Church Media Player

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Gentleman's Man

    In the medieval world and in fantasy stories as recent as George R.R. Martin's Game of Swords, he is a squire to a knight.  In a modern world he is a valet, and his name is Reginald Jeeves (to Bertie Wooster in P.G. Wodehouse's stories), Mervyn Bunter (to Lord Peter Wimsey in Dorothy Sayers' mysteries), Alfred Pennyworth (to Batman in comic books and films), or Kato (to Inspector Clouseau of the Pink Panther movies).  There was even a Disney cartoon in 1941 in which Pluto served as Mickey Mouse's "man."
    Real world squires and valets exhibit the full range of human talent (or lack thereof) and virtue (and vice).  But in Jeeves and Bunter we find the "gentleman's gentleman": talented, reserved, loyal, mostly inconspicuous, and always present when needed. 
    Why do readers like the gentleman's man so much?  It's clear that we do, but why?  The relationship is fundamentally undemocratic; the gentleman's man serves the gentleman and addresses him as "sir" or "my lord" or "Doctor" or "Mister."  The gentleman orders his man to do this or that; the response is, "As you wish, my lord."  Yet American readers eat up gentlemen's men as delightedly as Brits.  Though we may not admit it, I think we love the gentleman's man for his loyalty.  The gentleman's man personifies a virtue, whether or not we use that word, and we admire it.
    The gentleman's man is such a familiar figure that authors can tweak the role to fit their purposes.  Consider Samwise Gamgee, in The Lord of the Rings.  He serves "Mr. Frodo" as devotedly as any valet possibly could, and he does what a gentleman's man does: he packs Frodo's clothes and food, he cooks meals, he defends Frodo, and so on.  But in Sam we see a new depth to the role of the gentleman's man, because at a crucial moment Frodo errs.  Deceived by Gollum, Frodo commands Sam to go home alone.  Sam, precisely because he is completely loyal, is torn.  He tries to obey Frodo's command while his heart tells him he should never leave his master.  In the end Sam follows his heart, and he berates himself for leaving Frodo for even a short while.
    In The Heart of the Sea, I too make use of the gentleman's man.  Denver Milton serves Prince Danys of Melotia.  His loyalty is never put to the test like Sam's, but he accompanies Danys in every part of the adventure.  At a crucial moment, it is Denver who conceives a plan to win the war, and in the end Denver's skill and persistence . . .
    Why should I complete that sentence?  The Heart of the Sea is available at