"Dost Think We Are Here in Dreamland?"

Blogging appears to be very often a conversation tossed back and forth between blogs.  Bree posted a list of books which she not only loves, but which really changed her.  Brain cogs started turning: which books really changed me?  And I don't mean books like The Chronicles of Narnia, which are the types of books which shape you rather than change you.  I mean articles which flung me off course and changed the way I view things.  Which were those books?

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff
I was young when I read this book, but old enough to have had my brain firmly set in Narnia and Redwall, that sort of thing.  The Eagle of the Ninth blew me out of the water.  Historical fiction was amazing: it was alive!  These people, this prose, they took my little frame and shook it.  I had never looked at the world the way Sutcliff (in a way reminiscent of Kipling, but I did not know that then) made me look.  She made you see and feel and understand things deeply - and that is perhaps why my writing now conjures such vivid responses from people.  This is where I first experienced that skill.

The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers
This was a little less of a wild flinging off course and more of a sudden melting in the crucible the raw materials of my philosophy.  When I talk about creativity and God and man, a lot of what I mean can be found summed up within the pages of The Mind of the Maker.  Using the pervasively creating aspect of man, Sayers brilliantly makes a case for the three-fold nature of man built upon the same pattern of the three-fold nature of God. 
That the eyes of all workers should behold the integrity of the work is the sole means to make that work good in itself and so good for mankind.  This is only another way of saying that the work must be measured by the standard of eternity; or that it must be done for God first and foremost; or that the Energy must faithfully manifest forth the Idea; or, theologically, that the Son does the will of the Father.
The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison
Here it comes.  I got this book because it was said that it really influenced Tolkien.  Sounds like a good place to start, hmm?  I had no idea what I was in for.
There was a man named Lessingham dwelt in an old low house in Wastdale, set in a gray old garden where yew-trees flourished that had seen Vikings in Copeland in their seedling time.
Of course, it helped that I had read Sutcliff's The Shield Ring some months earlier and knew the Vikings of Copeland and all that - so that opening line of Eddison's novel wrenched my heart out of place at once.  And I think it helped that I read it at age twenty and not, say, seventeen: it is an odd style of plot, not at all traditional, which fact might throw some people off.  And yet the book is so rich and so good that you forgive it that - actually, you forget that.  You get caught up in "many-mountained Demonland" and the malicious grace of King Gorice XII, the beauty of Lady Mevrian and Brandoch Daha, the heady thrill of the Battle of Krothering Side...  It seemed all the rich emotions of love and hatred, virtue and vice which are found in people like Tolkien and Lewis were almost unbearably condensed in The Worm Ouroboros.  I fell in love with it, and I fell hard.
"Don't!" said he.  "Oh, Lewis, you don't understand.  Take me back to Malacandra?  If only he would! I'd give anything I possess..."
The Discarded Image by C.S. Lewis
Not your usual C.S. Lewis book.  I might have mentioned The Screwtape Letters, but Bree already summed up my feelings on that book.  The Discarded Image was given to me by my sister for my birthday, and bore the inscription "For Your Birthday, 2011 - Hope It Proves Interesting!"  In reply, having finished it, I scrawled underneath, "It Sure Did!"  This was his last book, based upon a series of lectures he gave at Oxford, unpacking and explaining the medieval synthesis of the ancients' world views.  In his typically engaging way, C.S. Lewis makes sense out of the bulk of medieval literature, as well as Tolkien's Roverandom, E.R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros, and his own Space Trilogy - although, he does that incidentally: he does not actually mention any of those works in his lectures.  There is a great deal of history, philosophy, theology, romanticism, and practicality between the covers of this book.  I highly recommend it.
This I believe to be a stroke of calculated and wholly successful art.  We are made to feel as if we have seen a heap of common materials so completely burnt up that there remains neither ash nor smoke nor even flame, only a quivering of invisible heat.
What are the books that have changed you?

6 ripostes:

  1. Well dear me and humph. You and Bree always twitch the reins and dictate my course of blogging. I think I shall have to throw my cap into the conversation and touch on this subject. ;)

  2. I feel as though our writing community thrives on all new ideas being tossed from blog to blog until everyone's got a long look at them, and another one comes around. ;)
    Ugh. I still haven't gotten to The Eagle of The Ninth, and since The Light Beyond The Forest wasn't exactly a favorite of mine, I'm finding it hard to want to pick it up. But at your wish, I shall give it a try!
    I'm waiting on Elizabeth for The Mind of The Maker. And since it's her book, Sisterly Law requires me not to read it until she's finished. *looks at watch*
    We've already got a deal with TWO. I don't think much more needs to be said. ^.^
    I believe The Discarded Image is on my Goodreads to-read list (goodness, how helpful those things are!) so like the others, I will eventually get around to it. Only I wish I had the time now, as it looks tauntingly good...

  3. Ok, since I kind of incoherently lighted on it for a moment a few days ago, here's what I meant about Worm Ouroboros: Leave aside the fascinating, faux-olden spellings and the ornate, elegant world-language and the description that at times bogs down the otherwise incisive prose - this is a book about men of action. These are men for whom ideals are not abstract qualities or even moral paradigms but simply ways of life - they are incapable of acting outside of themselves. But more important is the philosophy represented by these men; the solipsistic, tail-swallowing, chicken-and-egg cycle in which cause and effect are interchangeable and less important in their relation to each other than in their singular selves. We see this beautifully illustrated throughout the book, in the regeneration of the kings of Carce, in the years-long chase of the three armies, and most prominently in the surprising but not unexpected denouement. This philosophy is endlessly appealing to fallen man because he can place his actions in any context he chooses, or leave it aside altogether; his triumphs become singular highs of intoxicating altitude, while his failures can be subsumed in the cleansing rush of the rising or falling tide - if there is no ultimate end then each discreet event is an end unto itself, causality becomes mere correlation (Hume, anyone?), and the universe might as well be infinitely, uninterestedly, inexorably exploding and collapsing into itself again (Second Law be damned) and Uncertainty its only certainty. This is why, for men of action, to do is the only thing and to have done is the silence of death.

    Not to belabor the point, but I think you see why I called this philosophy untenable. When faced with a God who has writ the finite course of time since before its beginning, and by whose decree each discreet event is only a means to the one perfect end ("to glorify God and enjoy Him forever"), whatever false nobility may be found in the yearning to do for the sake of doing crumbles away. Yet still that yearning persists, the yearning after a self-made immortality, the age-old Worm choking on his own tail.

    Switching gears, over the past few years I have read three books which stand, according to common consensus, as seminal markers of their respective movements, each of which is constructed with a unique technical precision that left me in awe, and each of which, though authored by a fallen man, readily shows forth, by way of negation, the fallacy of Babel and the yearning to be "as gods." I've mentioned them before, but since you asked: Ulysses, Gravity's Rainbow, and Infinite Jest.

  4. Chewie - You're absolutely right about the philosophy behind The Worm Ouroboros. It's completely untenable, and juxtaposed to the Teutonic sentiment of the characters, rings as remarkably Eastern in its cyclical pattern. This was obvious to me as a reader and will probably be obvious to those to whom I recommend the book (there is nothing with is not obviously pagan about the image of the Ouroboros, unless it is "Peace, Perfect Peace" with eight stanzas played in four-four time). In that sense, as someone like Lessingham, one gets a front-row view of a kind of eternal train-wreck that is weirdly fascinating to watch. However, there is a great deal of the precious to be extracted from the vile, and I took that in as though it were filling a vacuum in me.

    I think the language of the book is perhaps a matter of taste: I did not find that it bogged me down, although I will admit it made the prose "heavy." But, as you pointed out, ideals are not abstracts for these men: they are men of action, men with blood in their veins, which is a creature other men have always looked up to, and good men have emulated (this book's influence on Tolkien is readily apparent, and he coupled it with a better philosophy), and it is no secret that I have always loved this type of creature. These men are fantastic only because they are undiluted in the handful of virtues that they exhibit. I appreciated that to an incalculable deal and it has greatly influenced me as well.

    (Everypony - I generally keep my caveats about books to myself, unless they are of a sexual nature which discomforts a lot of people, and then I speak up, but there you go: I do have to say that The Worm Ouroboros is built upon an untenable philosophy. I have one other issue with the outcome of one character, which I thought was out of character in the way it was pulled off, but what can you do...?)

    Bree - Uh oh, more book caveats. I heartily recommend Sutcliff because a lot of her books are good, and when she writes well, she writes brilliantly. But I do admit that some of her books just aren't that great. I haven't finished either The Flowers of Adonis or Blood Feud for that reason. But her Aquila series, of which The Eagle of the Ninth is the first, are all excellent books, and then some of her odds and ends and stand-alones are brilliant as well. Sorry you started off on the wrong book! That does tend to give one a nasty flavour in one's mouth toward the author.

    Rachel - Pththbt. :P

  5. Such posts warm the cockles of my heart - well, Jenny, but I have to say that I admire the collection of books which of formed and changed you; of course, I happen to have read only one of the above mentioned books, Eagle of the Ninth, but as I am familiar with the other titles and long to read them one of these days, it matters not. Sutcliff IS amazing - she too 'changed' or shall I say rather opened a whole new world to me of the art of description and beauty in ancient days... I have only read two of her books so far but I am especially fond of The Silver Branch - dear me, that left a lump in my throat for quite a while afterwards!!

    Well, I hate having to say this all the time, but I positively must get my hands on The Mind of the Maker as soon as possible; it doesn't help that my local library doesn't own anything for Sayers and buying a copy on Amazon costs about $27 plus shipping to Aus, which needs some saving on my part ^_^.

    My memory brings me to mind to your commendation of The Worm Ouroboros the last time I questioned you about it, and it has since then given me the feeling that I would like to try it out. And now that you mention that the book influenced Tolkien in one way or another kind of makes it even more appealing *OF COURSE* :). But I am wondering, your mention of The Shield Ring has made me a little confused - is The Worm Ouroboros a fantasy tale, or a story of legend/history rather? I must say that last Christmas I cracked upon my copy of The Shield Ring and it wrangled my heart so within the first two chapters, that I felt it was just too beautifully heart-wrenching to cope with alongside my reading of The Silmarillion - but it was so painfully good, I really want to pick it up again once I have finished with my current reading list of Kidnapped, With Christ in the School of Prayer and North and South

    I shall have to look into Lewis' Discarded Image. I've only recently bought a box-set of C.S. Lewis' signature classics and long to dig my teeth into them, but actually it doesn't have this one...

  6. Ohoo, and I do believe that this post warrants a blog-return-post on my part one of these days with my own list of the books that have changed me!!