Review: The Fantasy Literature of England

The Fantasy Literature of England, Colin Manlove. Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, 2020 (first published in 1999).

Summary: A study focusing on and surveying the fantasy literature of England, distinguishing it from that of other countries, identifying six types, and discussing a tremendous variety of writers.

For most of us, when we hear of English fantasy, we think of J.R.R. Tolkien, or C.S. Lewis, or Charles Williams. If we think further, we might include Lewis Carroll, A.A. Milne and George MacDonald (actually Scottish). Also, we tend not to think of English fantasy having a particular character. This book opens up our bibliography of English authors far beyond the few I’ve mentioned. And the author maintains that there is a particular character to English fantasy distinguishing it from other countries.

To begin, Manlove defines fantasy as “a fiction involving the supernatural or impossible,” fitting what he sees as an English preoccupation with the supernatural. Beyond this simple definition, Manlove identifies six types that define the structure of the book, one chapter on each. First of all, there is second world fantasy, the outstanding example of which is The Lord of the Rings. Metaphysical fantasy involves the presence of the supernatural. Charles Williams novels are a good example. The third type is emotive fantasy is characterized as works that evoke feelings from wonder to horror, from Kenneth Grahame to M.R. James (who wrote ghost stories). Comic fantasy involves “parody, satire, nonsense or play. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels is a recent example. The fifth follows, subversive fantasy, reflects the rise of postmodernism and the fixities of reason, morality, or reality. Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor is an example of this type. Children’s fantasy is his last type. Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll or Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.

For each type, Manlove surveys the literature from its earliest examples to the most contemporary (in his case, the late 1990’s). He explores both themes under each type and offers brief descriptions of a number of the works. With many authors, there is overlap, and they will turn up in the discussion of several types. This can be dizzying at times, keeping track of the various authors and themes. I was unfamiliar with many of the works, which I think would help in following the discussion.

Manlove draws together the threads of these different types and summarizes the distinctives of English fantasy. His first conclusion is the sheer diversity of material, a fact not appreciated by many readers including this one. There is an expansiveness to this literature, an emphasis on the social circle (the fellowship of the ring), a general inclination away from ambiguity, the conquest of chaos by order, and an ultimately conservative character.

There are several things I wish the author would have done. Some subheadings in chapters might have made following the thread of his discussion easier amid the avalanche of authors discussed. While authors are listed in the text and index, a bibliography of authors, perhaps by the types would be very useful to readers. Finally, the book could no doubt use an updating, for Harry Potter alone!

Nevertheless, I came away with a number of new ideas for authors to explore. I appreciated the distinctions of type, and Manlove opened my eyes to the national character of fantasy literature. This is a good resource both for scholars and readers of fantasy literature wanting to go deeper in reading the literature of England.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Last Unicorn

the last unicorn

The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle. New York: Roc, 1968.

Summary: A quest in which the last unicorn embarks on a quest to find her lost kin, eventually join by Schmendrick the Magician, and Molly Grue, a quest involving a confrontation with the Red Bull, and a grim king.

I was never much for unicorns, but then read a recommendation of this book. Peter Beagle takes us on a classic quest that introduced me to unicorn lore, and transformed a second-rate magician and a serving woman.

The unicorn has not heard of any of its kind for a long time, an absence that makes the joys of her forest inadequate. She embarks on a quest for her kin but is captured by Mommy Fortuna’s Midnight Carnival. Traveling with the Carnival was a second rate magician, who’d failed his training and could do little more than parlor tricks and sleight of hand, though he had learned all the spells, if he could but remember them. Schmendrick recognizes that the unicorn is no illusion and helps her get free, not by spells but by a little pick-pocketing of keys, and joins her quest.

In the next phase of the journey, they are fallen upon by would-be Robin Hoods, led by Captain Cully. The unicorn escapes, eventually Schmendrick gets free, in part by summoning the real Robin Hood, the first indication he is capable of real magic. He finds Molly Grue standing before the unicorn, both enrapt, and infuriated that it had taken this long for the unicorn to show up in her life. That’s Molly–unfiltered!

The questers learn that whatever happened to the unicorns has to do with the Red Bull, who lives at the base of King Haggard’s castle and periodically roams to round up any remaining unicorns. And so it comes for the last unicorn. The unicorn neither dies nor finds the others. There is yet more story involving a transformation into a woman, a journey through Hagstown, that sad village beneath the castle, a stay in the castle, and a love affair with a prince. But the bull awaits, and only the last unicorn in her true form has any chance of liberating the other unicorns.

The unicorn represents what is really real, and for those who truly see her, they become real as well. The magician discovers what it is to yield to the true magic rather than summon it with spells. Molly departs the would-be “merry men” for a real quest. The prince becomes a hero in his quest for the heart of Amalthea, the unicorn in human form.

But for all this there is the seemingly unconquerable Red Bull and the question of whatever became of the other unicorns. If you haven’t read the story, you will need to go on your own quest! One distinction of Beagle’s writing: you won’t be wandering for a thousand pages. This one finishes in under 300.

Review: The Poppy War

the poppy war

The Poppy WarR. F. Kuang. New York: Harper Collins, 2018.

Summary: First of a fantasy trilogy, focuses on an orphan woman, Rin, who escapes from her village by testing into a military academy, overcomes prejudice, only to discover disturbing powers that reveal her true identity, thrusting her into life-changing choices as war breaks out between Nikan and the Federation.

Rin is an orphan in a remote village of the country of Nikan, facing an undesirable marriage match. She determines to take and pass the test to win a place at Sinegard, the country’s military academy. She ends up achieving the highest place, only to find she is an outsider among the children of the country’s warlords and other elite families. Nezha, son of a warlord, despises her, even as she becomes his principal rival. Prevented from training in martial arts, she finds a mentor, Jiang, who trains her in older ways. In an annual match, she defeats Nezha, but awakens a fire within that only with the help of Jiang she comes to understand.

She becomes his only apprentice in Lore, learning to commune with the sixty four gods of their pantheon. She learns her “fire” is connected with the god of fire, the Phoenix, but Jiang discourages her from seeking the power, which he believes will destroy her. Her training ends when war breaks out anew between Nikan and the Federation. When the Federation is on the verge of taking Sinegard, and Nezha, who has become a friend, is severely wounded, Rin summons the fire, destroying her enemies and barely avoiding destroying everything.

When other surviving students of Sinegard are assigned to different divisions, Rin is assigned to a different group, the Cike, a group of crazy, powerful misfits, all able to summon the power of a different god, led by Altan, an incredible fighter Rin had admired and felt drawn to. Altan is, so it is thought, the one remaining Speerly, of a race obliterated in the Second Poppy War when betrayed into the hands of the Federation.

As she works with Altan, and is frustrated in her ability to summon her power, she comes more and more to face the question of whether to fully surrender to the god, which likely would lead to the destruction of her personality. As the war goes badly, descending into genocide and betrayals, Rin comes to understand her own identity, to the choice she must make, and the terrible consequences that could follow.

The fantasy world created by R.F. Kuang, a doctoral student in Modern Chinese studies creates a world similar to a Chinese, east Asian context, with threatening island nations and another power, Hesperia, that sounds like the U.S. It is also a world of shamans, of opium and psychedelic use, sometimes to attain transcendence, more often to feed and fail to satisfy addiction. There is brutality–rape, genocide, and gruesome deaths. Prospective readers will need to consider whether such content is appropriate for them.

Even with her petulance, we are drawn to the fierce resolve of Rin, her journey of self-discovery, and the choices she must make, a choice between the wisdom of Jiang, and the quest for power of Altan. As conditions worsen, we wonder whether Rin and her people will be able to stop the relentless Federation, perhaps aided by the apparent betrayals and flight of the Nikan Empress. The intensity of the book continues to grow from the rivalries of the academy to the desperation of the fight. It was one of those books you wanted to read whenever you had the chance.

The second book, The Dragon Republic will be out in the summer of 2019. I’ll be looking for it.


Review: The Eye of the World

the eye of the world

The Eye of the World (The Wheel of Time #1), Robert Jordan. New York: TOR Books, 1990.

Summary: Following an attack of trollocs and a Myrdraal on Emonds Field, Rand and two friends, joined by several others, flee when they realize that they are the object of the attack, and somehow at the center of a web of destiny that may either thwart or aid the rise of the Dark Power.

Rand and his two friends Mat and Perrin, along with Egwene, the innkeeper’s daughter seem ordinary youth in a remote village, Emonds Field. Egwene is apprenticed to Nynaeve, the Wisdom (a kind of healer) of the village. The greatest excitement comes at Bel Tine, a feast at which Thom Merrilin, a gleeman or storyteller arrives. All this changes when it turns out that a strange, dark figure (Myrdraal) each of the boys sees leads a fist of trollocs to invade the village. Tam, Rand’s father is nearly killed and bequeaths his heron-mark blade sword to Rand. A regal woman, Moiraine heals Tam, and then helps the young men see that they were the object of the attack, and one or all are at the center of a web of destiny in a battle against good and evil. To save Emonds Field from further attack, they must flee and make their way to Tar Valon, where Moiraine is part of an order of Aes Sedai, women who have been trained to channel the One Power to resist the Dark Power as well as to “gentle” men who cannot wield the power without becoming insane.

This results in a desperate flight by the boys and Egwene, Thom, Moiraine, and her warder Lanb, pursued physically and even in dreams by the powers of evil. Nynaeve, concerned for her villagers, tracks them and joins the company. Mat is compromised and nearly lost when he steals a dagger from a hoard in an abandoned city. The party is separated, and except for Thom eventually make it to Caemlyn, where they are reunited. Thom, who was with Mat and Rand, sacrifices himself so they can escape, although there is a question of whether he really died. It is here that Moiraine understands the true threat of evil to the Eye of the World, a pool thus far untouched by evil, and Rand understands that he is at “the heart of it all” a ta’veren or a person around which the Wheel of Time weaves surrounding life threads, forming a Web of Destiny. The company, joined by Loial, an Ogier, pursue desperate ways through the Blight to confront evil, and for Rand, to confront his destiny.

Jordan’s work has been likened to The Lord of the Rings. Except in sheer length of the fourteen volume series, I do not think he surpasses him, and there are elements that are at least parallel to, if not derivative of, Tolkien–a remote people, ordinary figures caught up in a great conflict, a company, dark riders, a desperate flight and quest against the rising of a Dark Power who threatens the world.

That said, Jordan has also created a richly textured world with a history, a unique vision of time, and a seemingly different way of thinking about power that seems more eastern than western. Light and dark seem two sides of the same coin. It turns out that only women who have been trained can wield the One Power as a force of Light. Men are turned insane by it or to instruments of the Dark Power, something that will become an issue for Rand. Time symbolized by the Wheel with an intertwined snake swallowing its own tail brings past, present and future together and weaves a fate for individuals. Instead of “God works in mysterious ways” it is “The wheel weaves as the wheel wills,” which is repeated near to the point of becoming tedious. As in real life, forces of good often are at cross purposes–different orders of Aes Sedai, the Children of Light, and the various kingdoms, all at some point becoming threats to the quest as much as the Dark Power.

Jordan creates strong female characters. Aes Sedai Moraine leads the party and wields great power. Nynaeve the Wisdom and even Egwene have their own power, Moiraine seeing them as Aes Sedai in training. Caemlyn is ruled by a strong queen, Morgase, to be succeeded one day by her daughter Elayne. I can’t think of an evil female character in this volume. Not so with the men, such as Padan Fain, the evil peddler and Dark Friend. Yet there are both strong and delightful male characters from some of the innkeepers to Thom, the gleeman, who lays down his life and most of all Lan, the warder, descended from kings (one thinks often of Aragorn).

So the question is, will I go on? I can say that I will not be binge-reading the series. Yet the writing held my attention, and I find myself caring about what will happen to Rand and the others. I wonder if the Dark Power will be defeated and I’m curious why it takes fourteen books. It is clear that Jordan’s plots take many twists and turns, only some of which resolved in this book. I wonder how patient I would be with this over such an extended series.

Some friends have told me that the middle books do seem to get bogged down at times. I’d be curious what others think. Was it a slog, or did you not want it to end? Did you read straight through or read another volume periodically? Did you finish the series or give up? As you can tell, I haven’t made up my mind. This was a great summer read. Maybe that’s what I’ll do, except that this would take until 2031. Wheel of Time fans, I need some encouragement here…

Robert Jordan, A Tolkien Successor?


Robert Jordan, by Jeanne Collins, [CC BY 3.0] via Wikipedia

I fell in love with the Lord of the Rings trilogy of J.R.R. Tolkien as a college student and have read it several times since. I have always wondered, could this ever be matched? Recently, I’ve begun reading Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, the first of a fourteen part series known as The Wheel of Time. (The last three volumes of this series were completed posthumously from Jordan’s notes and his completed first and last scenes.) The series is on the Great American Reads list of 100 great books or series, which is how I learned of it. I’m only 120 pages into the first book so I cannot yet compare the two works, except to say that Jordan has also created a world, an epic conflict between good and evil with a Dark Lord, a boy-hero, a woman counterpart to Gandalf, Moiraine, and the equivalent of orcs, trollocs. I don’t know whether I will make it through–each book is over 600 pages, 3 million words in all.

All this made me curious about who Robert Jordan was. It turns out that “Robert Jordan” was the pen name of James Oliver Rigney, Jr. He used several pen names for different works, all playing off his initials (note J and R, and J.O.R. of Jordan). He was born in Charleston, South Carolina October 17, 1948. He served as a helicopter gunner in Vietnam, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bronze Star. After serving, he completed a B.S. in physics and worked as a nuclear engineer. A blood clot from a fall that was nearly fatal turned him toward a career as a writer when he reportedly threw a book across the room he was reading in the hospital, shouting, “I can do better.”

Writing as Reagan O’Neal, he completed a series of historical fiction novels centered around the Fallon Family in the early 1980’s, at a time when similar novels by John Jakes were popular. He tried his hand at a western, Cheyenne Raiders, under the name Jackson O’Reilly. It was at this time that Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian was turned into an Arnold Schwarzenegger blockbuster. Writing for the first time as Robert Jordan, he wrote seven more Conan books beginning with Conan the Invincible.

Following this, he turned his hand to creating The Wheel of Time series, which he originally envisioned as six books. The first, which I am reading, he published in 1990. Ten more volumes were written by 2005. Michael Livingston, in a article, compares Tolkien and Jordan, considering their war experiences, as well as the fantasy worlds the two men created and reaches this verdict:

“James Rigney was not the first heir to the Tolkien legacy—and by no means will he be the last to follow him—but he might just be the most complete interpreter of that legacy. Rooted in mythology and history, founded in philosophy and spirituality, forged of war and the American experience, his Wheel of Time has easily earned its place alongside the British master fantasist. Even more, given the academic status Tolkien’s work has managed to achieve, the work of Robert Jordan has earned its place on any list of turn-of-the-millennium literature, whether the majority of critics like it or not.”

All of his books were edited by his wife Harriet, an editor with Tor Books. In early 2006 he announced his illness, amyloidosis, on his blog. It is a rare blood disease that causes a thickening of the heart walls, weakening the heart. He was optimistic about beating it, undergoing a form of chemotherapy. He wrote:

“Don’t get too upset, guys. Worse comes to worst, I will finish A Memory of Light, so the main story arc, at least, will be completed. And frankly, as I said, I intend to beat this thing. Anything can be beaten with the right attitude, and my attitude is, I have too many books to write yet for me to just lie down. Don’t have time for it. Besides, I promised Harriet I’d be around for our 50th, and that means another 25 years from this month right there. Can’t break a promise to Harriet, now can I?”

He hoped to finish what he saw as his final volume. He was able to write the beginning and end and outline and compile notes for the book. A Tor video recounts the decision during his last weeks to entrust the completion of the series to fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson. As it turned out, the final volume turned into three more books, the last of which was completed in 2013.

James O. Rigney, Jr. died on September 16, 2007. The post on his blog site the next day reads:

“It is with great sadness that I tell you that the Dragon is gone. RJ left us today at 2:45 PM. He fought a valiant fight against this most horrid disease. In the end, he left peacefully and in no pain. In the years he had fought this, he taught me much about living and about facing death. He never waivered in his faith, nor questioned our God’s timing. I could not possibly be more proud of anyone. I am eternally grateful for the time that I had with him on this earth and look forward to our reunion, though as I told him this afternoon, not yet. I love you bubba.

Our beloved Harriet was at his side through the entire fight and to the end. The last words from his mouth were to tell her that he loved her.

Thank each and everyone of you for your prayers and support through this ordeal. He knew you were there. Harriet reminded him today that she was very proud of the many lives he had touched through his work. We’ve all felt the love that you’ve been sending my brother/cousin. Please keep it coming as our Harriet could use the support.”

Rigney described himself as a “high church Episcopalian” and his funeral service took place at St James Church in Goosecreek, South Carolina. He is buried in the churchyard. It is interesting that his work combines both Christian and eastern religious influences–a view of time that is cyclical and yet a universe of good and evil (Shai’tan=Satan).

Obviously, I’m not in a position to make the comparison with Tolkien yet. What is apparent is that Jordan created a powerful epic fantasy world. At very least, it is the best selling fantasy series since Lord of the Rings, selling over 80 million copies. Sony Pictures is adapting it for television. I have at least two friends who have completed the series, so there is hope. I’ll keep you posted. For now, I’m enjoying getting immersed in his world.

Review: The Greater Trumps

The Greater Trumps

The Greater TrumpsCharles Williams. New York: Open Road Media, 2015 (originally published in 1932).

Summary: An legacy of a singular pack of tarot cards that correspond to images of the Greater Trumps arranged in a dance on a platform of gold in the retreat of a gypsy master drives his grandson to risk love and life to uncover the powers of the cards.

Charles Williams is known as one of the members of the Inklings who wrote supernatural fantasy thrillers. Lesser known was his interest in the occult arts, particularly through the influence of A. E. Waite and his Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. This work reflects some of those interests, centered around the Tarot.

Lothair Coningsby, an English civil servant of undistinguished refinement, inherits a small legacy from a friend including various packs of cards. Among them is a most unusual early set of Tarot cards representing the Greater Trumps, a suit of twenty-two cards. As it happens, his daughter Nancy is deeply in love with Henry Lee, a descendant of Gypsies, whose grandfather, Aaron is a master who has devoted his life to the studies of occult mysteries. In his home is an inner sanctum with a gold table on which the figures of the Greater Trumps are arranged in the dance. When Henry sees the cards he realizes that they are the exact visual counterparts of the statues on his grandfather’s table. To bring the cards together with the statues would be to unleash great power, and great insights into the mysteries of the universe.

Henry explains their powers to Nancy:

“It’s said that the shuffling of the cards is the earth, and the pattering of the cards is the rain, and the beating of the cards is the wind, and the pointing of the cards is the fire. That’s of the four suits. But the Greater Trumps, it’s said, are the meaning of all process and the measure of the everlasting dance.”

There is only one problem. Coningsby will not part with the cards. So Henry and his grandfather invite the Coningsbys to spend the Christmas holidays. This includes not only Lothair and Nancy, but also Sybil, the most spiritually centered, who seems to have a mystical communion with the world about her, and brother Ralph, a young man who lives in a common-sense, practical world. Coningsby reluctantly brings the cards and permits them to be tested in the presence of the figures, which come to life in a glorious dance. When Coningsby continues to withhold the cards, Henry determines to “borrow” the cards, and use them to whip up a super cyclonic snow storm to strand Lothair, out for his Christmas walk, and bring about his death.

He succeeds in whipping up the storm, but Nancy catches him in the act, disrupting his efforts, but also the power to end the storm. Lothair is saved when Sybil braves the storm, and with the help of Henry’s half-crazed Aunt Joanna, brings him back to the house. But this is only a temporary respite as the unleashed powers behind the snow storm threaten the destruction of the house, and all those in it.

Is there a power greater than that unleashed by the cards? When arcane knowledge cannot save, is there anything else that can? Nancy, Sybil, and even Lothair and Henry choose in different ways to lay down their lives. Will they succeed, and what will happen to them in the process? What will happen to crazed Joanna, and will she find the lost child?

Like William’s other works, seemingly unremarkable people in an ordinary English village and manor house become caught up supernatural events reflecting unleashed spiritual powers in a sequence of fantastic and sometimes bizarre events (like the gold cloud). Christians who have reservations reading about the “occult” may decide this work is not for them. Yet what Williams portrays is both the perils of the pursuit of spiritual power and hidden knowledge, and the greater power of love.

Review: The Book of the Dun Cow

Dun CowThe Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, Jr. San Francisco, Harper Collins, 2003 (25th Anniversary Edition).

Summary: This modern animal fable portrays a conflict between the beasts of the Earth with Wyrm of the underworld and his evil surrogates, and the heroism of a rooster, a dog, and the other beasts.

“Marooooned”. This modern-day animal fable (first published in 1978) begins with this mournful and persisting cry from Mundo Cani Dog who, against the will of Lord of the Coop Chauntecleer, finds refuge with the hens of the coop and an array of other beasts from Ebenezer Rat to Lord Russell the Fox to John Wesley Weasel and the mysterious Dun Cow who appears at crucial turns in the fable. Chauntecleer brings order to this world, crowing the hours summoning the beasts to work and blessing them at night.

Gradually the character of this lordly rooster emerges as he takes on the Rat who is eating the hens’ eggs, and later as he rescues the children of Wee Widow Mouse and finds and rescues the Beautiful Pertolote, a mysterious refugee hen of sorts. Love blooms between these two, and marriage and chicks, even though she refuses to speak of the terror from which she has fled.

What the beasts of the earth do not realize is that they are also the Lord’s keepers, who keep the evil Wyrm from escaping the underworld to reek havoc on the cosmos. But Wyrm finds a vehicle for its evil intent in an old impotent rooster of another brood, Senex, who against nature lays an egg which hatches into the wicked Cockatrice who kills his father and breeds hordes of basilisks, venomous serpents who devastate the land.

In the spring, the horror comes south to the land of Chantecleer, who mobilizes the beasts (including the ants) to meet the horde of basilisks, who crows them to battle, and comes face to face with the Cockatrice and then the deeper evil of Wyrm. The climax of the story involves Chauntecleer, the mysterious Dun Cow, and the surprising Mundo Cani Dog.

The tale explores the question of how a seemingly ordinary figure rises to extraordinary heroism answering a call that seems to come from both within and above.We also see a tale of the conflict of good and evil, in which the beasts, who are in fact the keepers of the earth, must forsake the ordinary loves of daily life for extraordinary peril to preserve the order of the universe. It is a tale that has been told in various forms from early English Beowulf to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The genius of Wangerin is to create a kind of “animal farm” without humans where the animals are characterized by foibles, nobility and self-sacrifice, unlike Orwell’s brutal world.

Despite the fact that this book was a National Book Award winner, I passed it up for many years until one of the students I work with recommended it (thanks Katherine!). This is one of those books I wish I had read sooner, and might well read again because of the depths in this seemingly simple story that need more than one reading to explore. Like the stories of C.S. Lewis or Tolkien, children and youth may enjoy this story as well as adults. Only time will tell but this is one of those books that could become a timeless classic. The only question in our highly urbanized, technological society, is whether children (or adults) will understand a story with roosters, dogs, weasels, and a mysterious dun cow. One can only hope…

The Month in Reviews: November 2014

November marked my first foray into the world of graphic novels, another volume in Morris’s biography of Theodore Roosevelt, a George MacDonald fantasy and a thought-provoking book on Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” There were a number of good theological books in this month’s list as well including an excellent book on dogmatic aesthetics from a young theologian, an extremely helpful book on spiritual direction, a concise book reflecting the latest scholarship on the life of Paul and a provocative book on death before the Fall. So here’s the list:

1. Birmingham RevolutionEdward Gilbreath. Gilbreath briefly sketches the outlines of King’s life but focuses on the events at Birmingham, including the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, that led to the writing of “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

2. Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris. This is the second volume of Morris’s three volume biography covering Roosevelt’s years as President, from the assassination of McKinley, to the Panama Canal, to setting aside millions of acres of National Parks and Monuments.

KingTheodore RexAestheticsLiving Paul


3. Dogmatic Aesthetics, Stephen John Wright. Wright, a young scholar, proposes a framework in Christian theology for aesthetics ground in our doctrine of Christ. Throughout, he dialogues with the theology of Robert Jenson.

4. The Living Paul, Anthony C. Thiselton. This is a concise treatment of the life of Paul reflecting recent scholarship and dealing with questions of Paul in relation to Jesus as well as Paul’s view of women.

5. Spiritual Direction, Gordon T. Smith. A thoughtful yet practical introduction to spiritual director that looks at the roles of both director and directee.

Life of mindSeasons of MistSpiritual direction

6. Season of MistsNeil Gaiman. Volume 4 of his “Sandman” series and my introduction to graphic novels with this story of Lord Morpheus descending into hell to rescue a former lover he had consigned to Lucifer’s domain.


7. The Life of the Mind, Clifford Williams. This is another concise book that makes a good case for the intrinsic worth of thinking well, how one begins to cultivate the mind and tensions for Christians in the life of the mind.

8. Beginning with the Word, Roger Lundin. Lundin, an English professor, explores the radical doubt of modern literary theory and how a Christian framework might provide a basis for meaning and belief.


9. The Princess and Curdie, George MacDonald. This is the sequel to the Princess and the Goblin in which Curdie is given a special gift and employs it to attempt to rescue Princess Irene, her father the King, and his kingdom from a conspiracy of councilors and servants with malicious intent.

10. Death Before the Fall, Ronald E. Osborn. An impassioned and well-written argument dealing with both biblical literalism and a theodicy of animal predation, suffering and death, for those not accepting “young earth” creationism. The author spends the first two-thirds of the book on the issue of literalism, only the last third on the title them itself.

Looking over the list for the month, I’m reminded again of the idea that with so many good books, I just don’t have time for bad ones. I hope these reviews are helpful to you in finding something good or maybe a good gift for Christmas!

Review: The Princess and Curdie

The Princess and Curdie
The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It all begins when Curdie, on his walk home from another day at the mines, kills a pigeon. He then realizes that pigeons were associated with the mysterious and wonderful great-great grandmother of Princess Irene. So he takes the dying bird to her, but what is restored is not merely the dying bird but the dying spark in Curdie’s life, that is being slowly quenched by coarseness and beastliness. He is bid to thrust his hands into a fire of rose petals through which the beastliness is cleansed and he is given a special capacity to discern those growing in their humanity from those descending into beastliness as he grasps their hands.

This is a key theme that runs through the book, that people are on one of two roads, growing more fully human or descending to the level of beasts. Yet even for the latter there is a hint of hope as some of the beasts we encounter in this story seem to be former humans on a journey of redemption–which strikes me as an odd note, a form of reincarnationalism, or a second chance for the condemned from a Christian author. Yet this is fantasy, and the note here perhaps is one that the power of redemption is greater than that of beastly evil.

Curdie is sent by the great-great grandmother to the king’s city of Gwyntystorm along with Lina, a fierce, ugly, dog-like creature who is intensely loyal to him. He is not told his mission but that it will become apparent as he obeys and properly uses his gift. It is apparent from the moment of their arrival that all is not right in the town as they are rudely treated, then imprisoned.

They make their escape and find their way into the king’s castle, and quickly learn that all is not right at the heart of the kingdom. The castle is in disrepair, the servants are rude, lazy and corrupt. Worse yet, the king’s councilors are conspiring and the king’s doctor is slowly poisoning him as he lies ill in tormented delirium. Princess Irene is at his side, using all her powers to comfort him, while not fully grasping the evil plots surrounding her and the king.

The remainder of the story unfolds how Curdie and Lina accompanied by a host of beasts and a few who remain faithful to the king attempt to save king, princess, and kingdom from the corruption that has crept into the heart of Gwyntystorm.

The image of Curdie as one sent on a mission the nature and end of which is not disclosed rings true for any who have taken up the life of discipleship. We do not always know into what the faithful use of gifts will lead us. Similarly, success is not a matter of compromise with evil or having the assurance that all will turn out well but the faithful pursuit of the right, leaving the results and consequences in the hands of Another.

Once again, one sees why these stories have had such an abiding place in the hearts of both children and adults and how fantasy may sometimes speak more truly of reality than the most “realistic” stories.

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Review: The Princess and the Goblin

The Princess and the Goblin
The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the book that G. K. Chesterton said “made a difference to my whole existence.” I am not sure that I can say the same but I did find myself impressed once again with George MacDonald’s writing and asking why I hadn’t read this sooner.

Princess Irene lives on the side of a beautiful mountain that harbors a dark secret in terms of a goblin kingdom, whose rulers are pursuing a nefarious purpose–nothing less than kidnapping the princess. She and her nurse are rescued from one nearly tragic venture into the wilds at night by the son of a miner, Curdie by name, who sings the goblins away with his verse and leads them to the castle.

Though chastised, the princess acquires a mysterious friend, a wise great grandmother, ageless it seems. Not all believe she exists or can see her, but Princess Irene can. Later, a strong silver thread that the grandmother has given her leads her to return the favor and rescue Curdie, when he falls captive to the goblins after repeated attempts to discover their nefarious purposes in digging under the mountain. Irene takes him to see the great grandmother, but he can see neither the thread nor the grandmother and leaves pettishly, despite his rescue.

From here events lead rapidly to the climax of a goblin invasion to seize Princess Irene. I will leave you discover what happens, particularly to the awful goblin queen with stone shoes to cover her six toed feet!

Like a good fairy tale or fantasy, the story works on multiple levels. We have the fear of things that go bump in the night and acts of courage and heroism and the thin line between these and foolhardiness. There is the question of what is belief–is it the delusion of believing something that doesn’t exist or the belief in something marvelous and yet the “substance of things not seen.” Both the Princess and Curdie are faced with this choice. Is there really a grandmother? Can I trust where the thread will lead me or that it is even there? How will I act when others don’t believe me? And there is the question of how one will conduct oneself in the absence of the king-papa as one awaits his return. How watchful will we be? Will Irene become who she is as the Princess and not simply a protected child?

This book came as a pleasant diversion from “weightier” books and yet not from “weightier” themes. And perhaps that is the value for adults of reading a story supposedly for “children”.

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