|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.
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.