Organic Knowledge and the Fantasy Novelist

Me wearing a blanket roll and a couple of packs.
I ought to try it with a wool blanket, but the choir
books certainly made an effective burden.
I do not, however, know why I didn't think to try
hanging the packs from the opposite shoulder.
Duh. Guess I'll try that next.
Blanket roll instructions courtesy of David.
Thanks, David!
As I write this, I've had a government document open on military dermatology for a week. Also this week, I've spilled hot wax all over my thumb while figuring out how much light is cast by a small flame, gotten lost in a blog-hop on the subject of codes and ciphers, and tried my first blanket roll on for size.

Technically, I ought to be wearing a sarong dress in this picture.

I mention this because Lars Walker's article on the problems with fantasy, especially Christian fantasy, is... well, fantastic:
Look at the masters. Tolkien and Lewis weren’t only fanboys (though they certainly were that by the standards of their time). They were scholars, and scholars at the top level. Tolkien’s work was the fruit of decades, not only of storytelling, but of mastering his source material. All those rich passages in The Lord of the Rings, and in the collateral works, spring from his profound knowledge of European languages, a subject he may have known better than anyone who ever lived.... Trying to write “like Tolkien” without some degree of his scholarship is a project doomed to fail.
(Link courtesy of George. Thanks, George!) And later, more immediately germane to the thoughts I started this piece with:
The second thing missing in most fantasy today is . . . what will I call it? Organic knowledge. My field is mostly historical fantasy, concentrating on the Viking Age. I’ve been researching that period for more than fifty years. More recently I’ve become a reenactor, which gives me the opportunity to get more hands-on experience. I’ve drunk mead in a Viking hall, slept in a Viking tent, and helped row a Viking boat. I know how the clothes feel and what Vikings smelled like (smoke—the houses were full of it).
So yeah, when I say I think it would be fun to join the Society for Creative Anachronism, no, I'm not joking. Though my fantasy tends not to be historically based, which makes the SCA's character studies less obviously relevant.

Walker's emphasis on the importance of knowledge is both frightening and exciting. Frightening, because I don't have a doctorate in anything, and I'm not going to get one. Exciting, because organic knowledge has never been easier to lay hands on. What you can't come up with in life experience—and I consider myself lucky to have some homesteading background, outdoor adventure training, and horse care and management experience, all of which have proven helpful in fantasy-writing—you can often find described by a blogger with a knack for sensory detail, or aptly depicted in a few jpegs or a YouTube video.

I agree wholeheartedly with Walker's point that making crap up does not amount to art, even in fantasy—that there's a standard out there, raised like the Great Wall of China between the individual writer and successful artistry. My own interaction with that standard is one of mingled awe and reckoning. Lips pursed, arms crossed, eyes focused on potential footholds, the lot. Resting on the easy side of the wall is not an option.

Walker didn't mention it, but there's one point of organic knowledge that I consider imperative above all others. More than anything else, frequent failures in this regard are the reason I almost never read Christian fiction and am picky about fantasy despite its being my favorite genre. The one knowledge an author cannot do without is thorough understanding of differing human minds and hearts, or empathy.

I'm not relying on my own ideas for estimation of its importance. Here's movie critic Steve Greydanus talking about the late Roger Ebert's value for this virtue:
There is a generosity and empathy to many of [Ebert's] reviews, and in many of the films he appreciated. One of the qualities he most celebrated in a film was its ability to “take us outside our personal box of time and space and invite us to empathize with those of other times, places, races, creeds, classes and prospects. I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.” (If his celebration of empathy sounds over the top, consider that St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) arguably goes further: Empathy, she maintained in On the Problem of Empathy and other writings, is foundational to personhood and community, to knowledge even of the self, as well as others.)—Steven D. Greydanus, "How I Believe in Roger Ebert"
This is what makes Orson Scott Card a great writer (though he's a pretty impressive linguist and tactician, too, as best as I can tell) and my literary hero, and it's a more serious aspiration to me even than achieving authenticity in my worldbuilding details. Artistic portrayal of character can be done in myriad styles, from Rowling's caricatures to Waugh's methodical detailing, but the choices made by fictional people must be soundly human and believable, and authors should show generosity toward their characters' motivations. Without that generosity, they risk making their tales into bad sermons. (Good sermons are an art form. Bad novels are disqualified from the outset, on charges of submitting to the wrong category.)

Knowledge of universal human dignity and complexity is harder to come by than knowledge of the unmistakable scent of a tack shed or the feel of a raft's ferrying motion across the laminar currents in a river. Not because it's less available, but because the study of it works against our self-interest. To write with true empathy, we have to be able to see the merit in feelings antagonistic to the ideals we hold dear, even to those we hold sacred.

There's no shortcut to this. Read rants by someone you disagree with politically or religiously, and look for underlying truth beneath faulty logic. There nearly always is some; there are keen truths carrying both sides of even moral debates presented as black-and-white, like those over abortion and gay marriage. Forgive someone who hurt you in ways that can never be mended or repaid—understand their brokenness, search out their goodness, and forgive. Read Thérèse of Lisieux and try to live her Little Way. If it's not one of the hardest things you've ever done, you're either a more fundamentally decent soul than I am, or you're doing it wrong.

This is the standard I hold myself to, and I make no claims about how much I've achieved or will achieve. In the end, that's probably for others to say anyway, not me. I can only—I was going to say try, but trying's not good enough for Yoda. I can only fight my own human imperfections and self-blindness and, as best I can by the light I possess, do.


  1. Blanket rolls visual! I wondered how you knew to write about them, and in the back of my mind, there was an idea of you making them yourself and standing in front of a mirror to get the accurate adjectives to describe it.

    Also, SCA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Ahem. More later, just had to get that out. c;

    1. Well, now I want to hear your "more later." :)

      Lou, when he read this post: "Please don't join the SCA."

      Me, grinning: "Why not? Can't take all the nerdiness?"

      Lou: "I will not go LARPing with you. LARPing is where I draw the line."

      Yeah, I pretty much can't see him in fake armor, waving a plastic sword around. But I think I would find it AWESOME. :D

    2. Technically the SCA isn't LARPing, it's re-enacting. Like Civil War re-enacters, for example. ;)

    3. Technically, you're right. But apparently it's close enough for discomfort. ;)

  2. Ha! I was just thinking about that exchange a week or so ago, and was wondering if you'd ever done anything with it. Glad it worked out.

    1. It took me way too long to get around to actually making that... and then only a few minutes to actually do it. Your instructions were perfect.

  3. So..there's a SCA party up here every summer..;) Just letting you know..When you get sick of wandering around with guys in swords and bellydancers, you can come see us!

  4. Jenna, I feel this is the most impressive, thoughtful, compassionate thing you've written (that I've read here). If you understand these things at 35, you, as a person and author, have made important inroads into a wisdom many never find.

    "To write with true empathy, we have to be able to see the merit in feelings antagonistic to the ideals we hold dear, even to those we hold sacred." To feelings I would add "and behaviors." Because, of course, feelings lead to behaviors that are often baffling or cringeworthy, but our understanding and empathy must also stretch to those, or we have piously cut off the whole person, and the point of redemption or lack thereof. I've always felt the most comforting sentence in the world is a truthful and empathetic, "I know how it is." Second is, "I don't know how it is, but I'm here for you."

    "Christian fiction" fails in that it too often sets up characters whose worth lies in their ability to be neatly "fixed" according to the genre conventions (their whole purpose from page one is to be fixed, and their fixers often are pretty ham-handed...yet successful in a way not congruent with reality). No matter how messy, complicated, ugly, or hurt/damaged their lives are, the solutions are simple, tidy, immediate, and efficient. But this is a condescending attitude to pain and goes against human nature and reality.

    And, yes, this: "Read rants by someone you disagree with politically or religiously, and look for underlying truth beneath faulty logic. There nearly always is some; there are keen truths carrying both sides of even black-and-white moral debates like those over abortion and gay marriage." This cannot be practiced enough!

    Finding empathy for and forgiving the brokenness of others, when it has caused brokenness within ourselves is truly one of the hardest things to do. It's most often an ongoing practice. In this case, Yoda is wrong. "Try" leads, over time, to "do," in it's time.

    Thanks for this great essay...and love the pic!


    1. Thank you for the kind words. :)

      You're right about behaviors, and I should've mentioned that specifically; I was thinking of feelings as the root of the behaviors. But it's usually the behaviors that we see first, so it's an important point.

      And yes, empathy absolutely is an ongoing practice, and one that often starts with trying before it leads to successful doing.

      Fiction designed within the pop-Christian category seems generally written to be safe entertainment--a motive I thoroughly understand. But when you shoot that low, you're not going to strike higher. You might provide comfort to those who share your opinions, but you're not going to offer a truly enriching experience to the reader. And yeah, ham-handed character fixing and unlikely behavioral patterns are waaaaaaaaaayy too common.

      Safe entertainment is one thing, but I feel like a Christian aspiring to art needs to be showing a deeper, purer empathy than everyone else, not so much because of anything the world thinks of Christians as because the very nature of the religion demands it. It is incumbent on the Christian to forgive. How many people who aren't religious think of forgiveness as a duty? It is incumbent on the Christian to follow the example of Christ in showing kindness and friendship to others, especially suffering others. It is something the saints have often done well, but the rest of us regularly fail at. And I am preaching first at my shy, fearful, sometimes angry self.


    2. Yes, good fiction takes us out of our comfort zone rather than enforce it. This doesn't mean that we must read stuff we don't like. But there should be some element in even the most "comfortable" book that puts us in another's shoes (enfleshing "do unto others") and brings self-examination. This is, after all, how reading opens up the world to us, both in exterior and interior realms.

      As you say, aim low and you'll get there. Easily. Too easily.

      Jesus is our model of empathy and forgiveness and we are held to higher standards. I don't believe the saints have been "better at it"; they've just gotten attention as their lives have been publicly examined. Those of us considered "lesser" also wrestle with and work through the difficulties of forgiveness, offering it in the most taxing circumstances, often unknown to others. I don't think it's easy for anyone.


    3. Re-checking what I said... so I shouldn't have said "the rest of us" as if it's an either-or phenomenon. I just meant that most of us don't live up to Mother Teresa. :)

      And as you say, I don't think it's easy for anyone.

  5. What a wonderful piece. That article seems to be spot on (though I think that some fantasy authors are fully capable of writing really good Tolkien-esque-without-being-Tolkien novels).
    And SCA, yes! I just started taking a german long-sword class with my dad whose been doing it for about 6 months. I think no matter what your level, physically embracing something of the past really helps you mentally embrace it as well. :)

    1. German long-sword--awesome! Taking any kind of old-fashioned weaponry class would be fun. And yeah, I do agree about the worth of physically embracing something of the past.

      And I'd probably agree with you about there being good Tolkienesque novels. I've yet to read one that actually felt like a Tolkien ripoff... don't know if I'm missing some criteria (having only read LotR and The Hobbit twice and most of The Silmarillion once) or if I'm reading the wrong books, or if it's just that I like retellings so much. :)


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