Made-Up Worlds and Their Citizenry


Made-Up Worlds and Their Citizenry,

or, Tolkien and Lewis as Mythmakers, or The Impressive Ability to Overthink Fairytales

(Disclaimer: I thought about digging up quotes from both authors, but that seemed like work rather than fun. Much of what I discuss here is axiomatic as well as legendary. “It’s common knowledge that...” or “It’s thought...” could be inserted at any point in this piece. Anyone who cares to can conduct an internet search and find many essays and discussions on this debate, regarding these two men. For my part, I mean to speculate and ramble).

There’s a funny schism between my favorite authors. Tolkien, the god of Middle-earth, and Lewis, the god of Narnia. Lewis adored Tolkien’s Hobbit stories, encouraging his friend for over a decade to keep working on his story about evil rings and invented languages, and for the first edition of The Fellowship of the Ring, his own review was printed on the back of the book. Lewis at the time (the 1950s) commanded wider recognition and respect on the world’s stage. His endorsement was helpful, and sincere. Tolkien would soon outpace him; even to this day there are likely more fans or even people with casual knowledge of Middle-earth, where Narnia diminishes. Some might say this is due to the success of the Rings movie trilogy, which certainly had a hand in adding to the story’s acclaim, but it should not be forgotten how popular the books were on their own, from the 60s to the early aughts when the Peter Jackson films were released. In any case, that’s not what I want to write about. I mentioned a schism. Lewis really did love Middle-earth. Tolkien shared early versions of The Lord of the Rings with Lewis and friends during its formation; some reacted with, “Not another elf story!” while Lewis urged Tolkien to tell more, read more, to keep sharing his creation. Lewis found it fascinating and entertaining. Tolkien, with respect to Narnia, did not think much of it. This isn’t to paint one man in a bad light and the other in a good; there is no law that says one must like his friend’s writing, or at least say he likes it. There were several reasons Tolkien thought little of Narnia. They’re too allegorical, they’re too simple. But only one reason intrigues me. Narnia was too mixed, too mythically mongrelized. Grecian creatures such as fauns and centaurs populating the same landscape as European dwarves? Why, that could never happen! Fantasy should be pure. All the races native to Middle-earth were of the same real world stock. Norse mythology was some of Tolkien’s favorite sort (Lewis was equally fond of it), so the elves and dwarves of his land worked cohesively together. You’d never find a dryad in Lake Helevorn. You wouldn’t meet a minotaur in Arda, no matter how far into the land of the Easterlings you might travel.

I don’t intend to tear down one world and build up the other; Middle-earth and Narnia are equally dear to me. I’ve read biographies and books of personal letters from both authors simply because I like them, not just their work. I am resentful that I was born thirty and twenty years after their deaths. I do, however, puzzle over the question of world-building. As a fantasy writer, I often think about cohesion and myth-making. Tolkien had every right not to really enjoy the Chronicles of Narnia all that much, or at all. He certainly didn’t owe Lewis anything except for gratitude for his years of support and encouragement. Still, I can’t help but think there’s a fair amount of double-standards here. Where does Tom Bombadil fit in the purity of Middle-earth? The character is curious and entertaining, yet surely sticks out like a sore thumb to most readers. It’s not surprising he was completely dropped from the films. Or better yet, let’s briefly look at the tonal progression of the trilogy itself. The attitude and style of the hobbits, leaping straight from Edwardian England, with their fireworks and tea-times and pastoral diction. And over time, as the story progresses, we are transported into wonderful realms of Celtic horsemasters and stone cities of Gondor. The way Aragorn speaks compared to Bilbo Baggins is different by a thousand years, an ancient king of noble tongue and a pleasant chap more like a grocer than a burglar, existing in the same space. There’s nothing wrong with this. I greatly enjoy the range of Tolkien’s ability to create characters and moods. I study after it. But there are wrinkles all over Middle-earth. They aren’t bad wrinkles. They’re the twisted warpings in a tree trunk that make it beautiful. Where does one go too far, I wonder? Again, you have river gods and naiads in Narnia. But what of Ulmo the sea god in Middle-earth? He’s essentially Poseidon. He’s effectively Neptune. What is the analog for balrogs in Norse myth? Surtr? The comparisons are faint. On some level, Tolkien made up what he wanted to. Perhaps he could direct you to each and every counterpart in real mythology from where and whom he draws, but he’s still creating his own world. Hang on, where do Hobbits come from? Fortunately, we know, and it has nothing to do with ancient myth. One day while grading papers (and understandably bored), Professor Tolkien scribbled down, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” He made them up.

Of course, no one creates ex nihilo. Writers steal; we call it “inspiration.” The more obvious the stealing, the more likely one is to be declared a hack and probably run into legal troubles of some kind. The writer with integrity and a genuine interest in creativity will admit that it’s not possible to make up something from nothing, but it is possible to add a new spin or iteration. Tolkien’s elves are taken straight from European fairy tales and Viking lore. They are called the Fair Folk, just as they have been for centuries in the real world. And Tolkien always intended that his books be read as a sort of forgotten history that took place long ago. But Tolkien’s elves are not impish. They are not akin to Shakespeare’s Puck. They are beautiful and ethereal, more like the elves in Norse mythology. They are a warrior race. They are wise and solemn, magical and timeless. He pushed the concept of elves in a new direction. Not wholly his own idea, but he developed them into having a lengthy history that solidified them as a race essential to earth’s condition. The attitude and look of Middle-earth elves is supremely appropriate; they feel right. It is a credit to Tolkien’s genius in how he rendered them. Most fantasy writers since have ripped him off. But let’s return to Lewis and Narnia. Yes, he mixed myths from multiple cultures. Again, I don’t see the problem with it. Narnia is uniquely Lewisian. His fauns are humble and merry, not really anything like the lechers of Greek literature. For them to co-exist with the dwarfs of Narnia, in a fairy world far smaller and less storied than Middle-earth, what of it? I return to dryads—tree spirits, are they any different than Ents? Certainly. Are they wildly different? Are the elementally different? They are tree guardians, creatures that are not trees themselves but are the essence of trees, in a manner of speaking. The truth is that of all Earthly cultures throughout time and geography, there’s a great deal of overlap in what we cooked up.

Now, the first entry in the Chronicles of Narnia is, admittedly, the motliest. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe not only contains fauns, centaurs, minotaurs, dryads, naiads, and the rest—Father Christmas himself makes an important appearance. A rather unassuming appearance, in my opinion; this story was written by a nostalgic Irishman in the late 1940s, remember, so there aren’t any ho ho ho’s to suffer through. Rather, Father Christmas comes as a symbol of the broken power of the enemy, and a grandfatherly giver of gifts. He heralds the coming of Aslan, the Christ of Narnia, just as the coming of Christ is celebrated at Christmastime. Still, he jars some readers, which I understand. Narnia was meant to be the place where myths were true, a theme prevalent in Lewis’ life. There are other oddities, like Mr. Beaver making reference to Lilith, “Adam’s first wife,” from Jewish folklore. But if we’re picking nits, how does one defend Gandalf’s anecdote on the invention of golf in The Hobbit. Or the troll’s talking purse. I don’t mind either references in either book; I find them all charming. Tolkien didn’t. In 1960, he attempted to rewrite The Hobbit, which had already put his name on the map as an imaginative, refreshing storyteller. But, in working out The Lord of the Rings and the rest of his legendarium, The Hobbit irked Tolkien as juvenile. I daresay it was juvenile, Professor. It was written for children. For the sake of cohesion and purity in his world, he wished to revise the personality out of an already beloved book, and thank Eru he gave up on the task, and The Hobbit survived its own creator’s scrutiny.

There are still many curiosities in Middle-earth. Ghostly, gangly Gollum. Old Tom Bombadil, the perpetual example, yellow-booted and singing songs more suitable for nurseries than the halls of Gondolin. Talking animals, same as Narnia: Eagles, dragons, wolves, spiders, a particularly random fox in The Fellowship of the Ring. Yet I know of no significant sect that cries blasphemy or impurity when examining these quirks. Most shrug and smile, saying it’s a fantasy world. I suppose the philosophical, literary rebuttal is that all these elements still fit into a consistent Norse/Gothic/European backdrop. There are no Mediterranean intrusions. Fine, though I suppose we can ignore Numenor, the ancient country which sank into the sea, just like Atlantis, as Tolkien was fond of comparing it to. Atlantis, of course, that famous Viking myth. And although he pays homage to the polytheism of the Scandinavians of yore with his Valars, the Holy Ones of Middle-earth, lesser gods—in all reality these are angels; Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and Arda has one God. Eru Iluvatar, literally “the one,” who created all life. Monotheism and polytheism, cleverly the cake and the eating of the cake, yet even so, not exactly consistent with real world mythology. Tolkien did his fair share of mix-matching.

This is probably a personal opinion (really this entire document is), but as amazing as Tolkien’s larger world-building is, it’s also some of his most unreadable. Unreadable is too strong a word, but The Silmarillion is not exactly a page-turner. It’s a history book. I’m not saying it shouldn’t exist. But there’s a lot more personality and range in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, at least in terms of style. Tolkien’s Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and so on all read roughly the same way. While I enjoy the high, archaic language of these stories, the characters blur, the names blur, a lot of it’s redundant and forgettable. Again, some people eat this background information up. For me, it’s good enough to have a working knowledge of all the cities and empires that rise and fall in Middle-earth. I might enjoy reading about them, but they themselves are not enjoyable to read. These histories are well-calculated and serious, yet dry and lacking in color or tension.

Don’t misunderstand me. My goal is not to paint Tolkien as a hypocrite and a bore. If anything, I believe he was simply an obsessive perfectionist, plagued and blessed by his frenzied aspirations to create a complete history of an invented epoch. He wrote so much that they’re still finding ways to publish his unfinished leftovers. Perhaps he was too harsh a critic on others, but as I said, there’s no law that said he had to like Narnia. In further defense of Lewis, he became much more inventive as the Chronicles progressed. Creating creatures like marsh-wiggles, tall froggy humanoids who live in wigwams in the fens and wear pointy hats. Puddleglum, a marsh-wiggle in The Silver Chair, is probably the best character of all the Narnia tales. That’s my opinion, of course, but it’s correct. There are gnomes, dying worlds, worlds at the earth’s core, teleportation, sea voyages, enchantments of all kinds. Narnia’s simply a different beast. I find it endlessly interesting. Tolkien’s Middle-earth is without a doubt more complete, more consistent, more “pure” if that really is the right word. It’s more fully realized. But Narnia is not a collage of various cultural clippings. It makes its own myths and history.

Really, at the risk of being reductive, the schism appears to me like two children playing with their own toys side-by-side, where one mutters to himself about the other, “He’s not playing his game right. He’s not playing by my rules.” Sadly, although the two men were close friends for a long period of their adult life, over time they drifted apart. I wonder how much this plays into the conversation. Furthermore, both had strong opinions about a great many things, and it’s not at all strange that they should butt heads.

Tolkien took the whole thing too seriously, I think. He wrote a lengthy essay On Fairy-Stories defending the fantasy genre at large. It is both a very clever and overly long argument. I understand why he felt the need to write it; at the time, there were popular theories that modern children had evolved beyond ridiculous fairy stories, and both Tolkien and Lewis battled against this notion. Tolkien was a highly intelligent, well-educated man, as was Lewis, who also wrote essays arguing for the purpose of the genre. As a bit of a philistine and a rube myself, I don’t think any of their academic or logical arguments mattered. They both won the debate by telling good stories.

Now, all that being said, I wonder where the line is. In regards to world-building, I mean. Tolkien made up some rules that not even he totally abided, and wrote magical books. Lewis too. But how should one approach world-building? I wonder this as a writer of fantasy. In this genre one can get away with quite a lot of nonsense. Lewis did, Tolkien did. I always thought that was kind of the point. We’re making worlds that are both familiar and foreign, where exciting and bizarre things happen. There might be a bridge too far. The practical side of me thinks only readers can tell you this, that your story was too weird, too incomprehensible. But then, we live in the age where even the worst of films and books have cult followings. For my part, I mean to never write a story about elves. I have no interest in them. They’ve been turned into ridiculous cliches nowadays. The spirit behind them is likely in some of my books; I write about all kinds of ‘forest folk’ who are a bit magic and a bit alien to mankind, but they do not belong to a monolithic ethnic group, nor are they usually very beautiful. Faye, but not Fair. Dwarfs have occasionally popped up in my stories, but they aren’t unified in a race of industrious brawlers; usually they’re little sad fellows who don’t affect the plot much. I really get a kick out of making up entirely new beings. One of my books, The Beast-King, has representatives from at least twenty different “races” in it. It’s fantasy, isn’t it? Each book is the chance to expand the myth. And it’s my myth.

When I write a fairy tale or a fantasy story, I’m chasing after fun. I don’t believe in rules. The only judges involved are myself, as author, and anyone who reads my books. I do believe in basic plot structure and dramatic tension. I think characters should stand distinct from one another. Otherwise, if I feel like a giant creature made of grass needs to make an appearance in a book populated by knights and castles, so be it. Maybe it’ll work, maybe not. Tom Bombadil enters The Fellowship for no real narrative reason, certainly out of place with Sindarin Elves and descendants of Isildur. Bombadil is there for no other reason than Tolkien wanted him to be. Lewis wrote a story about a faun carrying parcels in a snowy wood because that image had been in his mind since he was a teenager, put there by God or a fever or what have you, and he wanted to make good on that image. We can talk about sub-creation, Norse origins, Platonic ideals, and ransom atonement doctrines till the world ends. There’s always some deeper meaning or inspiration to written works, but in my experience the only compelling reason we create is because we’re chasing fun. We enjoy it. It excites us. I have my own secrets and symbols in Trixie & Roy or The Sassafras Three, but they’re not there out of obligatory duty to some cosmic law of how one ought to make up a world. It’s perfectly fine that there are people who like to know the deeper meanings behind all these stories. If the author wants to write endless letters or backstories explaining it all, more power to him. But, I’ve noticed, these questions and answers only exist because someone read the story first, and liked it.

As a final note on Tolkien (Lord love him), he was adamant for years that The Silmarillion be published with The Lord of the Rings. He didn’t think anyone would understand the story without all the history attached to it. He even cut ties with his publishers, Allen and Unwin, at the flimsy prospect of another publisher releasing all the stories together. This did not happen. Paper supply was low in England in the days after WWII, and ultimately Tolkien went back to A & U, and they published The Lord of the Rings into three books, promising to release The Silmarillion on its own, when Tolkien had finished it. If the genius had had his way (and I do mean that, the man was a genius), I cast heaps of doubt that Middle-earth would find success among readers. Perhaps some, but in niche quantities, rather than the household status it enjoys today. In the end, Tolkien did not finish The Silmarillion before his death, not as he wanted it. But he got to see thousands of people love The Lord of the Rings, he got to explain all about the deeper lore to those who asked. Good on him. Hoorah for hobbits, hoorah for marsh-wiggles.

For further reading:

Trixie & Roy

The Sassafras Three

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams

J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography


Shepherd Near the Sea - A Very Short Story

Shepherd Near the Sea


There stood a man on the top of a hill. He overlooked the sea. Behind him grazed his flock of sheep, though it was night. It was night, and the sun’s power could be felt even yet, in the moon’s imitation of the day’s rays, pouring across space and piercing earth’s sky to reveal some comfort for those who did not sleep. All was not dark. Only in caves. All was not lost, only in hearts. The shepherd’s cloak was of shaggy oxen pelt. Still, he felt cold, from ribs to his feet. The sheep supped behind him. He heard the clicking of their jaws. The breaking of the grass. His back was to them, and only the passive painful bleat of a lamb would cause him to turn. If a jackal or panther came along, and had its teeth in a young one, would he take notice. Until then, he watched the ocean. He studied what he could of the waves, those that were graced with moongleam.

    The wind walked through him and his ox-coat. His lips tasted no different than the salted draft all about. He held his crook and watched the waves. In time, the moon shone brighter still. He saw what he had hoped to see. The green, long back of a swimmer. Some beast was coiling along the surface of the night’s ocean. It was freckled with yellow marks. Some welted scales on its hide.

    The shepherd only glimpsed its back in the dim light, and the waves rolled continuously over what could be glimpsed. He did not know which end led to its head, and which to its tail, if it had one. The beast dallied. It seemed not to be hunting or even passing by. Nor did it commune with any other creature. But it was alive. It twisted and pulled against the strength of the top waters. And the shepherd watched from his crag. He dreamed one day that he should stand on a deck, no sheep behind him. No earth under his boots. Only sails and rattling wheel to hearken, and the warnings of the albatross. The whole ocean of beasts to spy, adrift in its immortal bath.

Sea doodle.png

Man - A Short Story


“Do you know who you are?”

A man sits on his rump, scratching at the grit in his fingernails, bent over and wearing only a pair of pants. His belly is round. The rest of him is stiffened, even if he is at ease, his arms and chest and legs all glassblown and shaped as any wild ape, long muscles, tight bearing. The man is naked, even though his thighs are wrapped in old pants, the man sits as if naked. He crouches as if naked. He looks up as if naked. His skin has been refined by the sun. Years in the sun, and he a bulk of meat set on a rock to dry. The man’s beard is deep. It is a winding, fervent beard. His mouth and neck and clavicles all are absent in the place of the beard.

“Do you know where you are?”

“Look at him, gone feral and he’s still preening over his nails.” This is said in a whisper.

The man scratches the dirt in his fingernails with a twig. He sits on a rock. His guests are well-dressed. They are well-meaning. They are very curious men. Very. They sit outside of his home. This man has worn the same pair of pants for years. He sleeps inside a cave. Outside the cave, he has welcomed the visitors. There is an order to his yard. He has a collection, or rather a pile, of sharpened rocks just outside his door, off to the side so that he does not step in them. Surely there are more inside, but the guests are not allowed in there at this time. An outrageous set of knives, all ready for the taking, all outside the door. The door, the door being the mouth of a cave.

On the man’s head, there is a scar. A brutal scar, the kind that is noticed before anything else on the person can be. A scar on his brow.

In his yard, he has arranged the stones. He sits on the smoothest, the most comfortable. His guests sit on stones. Between the tips of their boots and the claws on his feet is a pit. A pit of ash, for there is no need for fire now. And yet, how many fires had he burned there? The round hole, round as man ever would dig it, educated or primitive: round. Two inches deep of ash, he has not cleaned it recently. How many thousands of fire have burned in this pit?

There are animal skins laid on the rocks where they all sit. Brown cushions as thin as parchment. There is a wooden cross facing the west. One staff of lumber planted in the ground; a crossbar of driftwood lashed to it. Is that where he prays?

“Is that where you pray?”

He picks at his nails, he looks down at his steel fingertips with a slanting mouth. The first look of dignity and scrutiny on his divoted mouth. His beard rises as he moves to his other hand.

“Is—have you buried a loved one there?”

The man looks at his guests. His eyes are unlike eyes. The pupils had overtaken the irises. In doing so they had shrunk, swallowing and waning, so that his eyes were full of white and only faintly had black blots in each center. “No.”

He had spoken. One word, but it was the first—the first the guests had heard. They knew he was capable of speech, they had been guided to him with the understanding that he would give an interview. Those who had made first contact led them to his home and left. It was a strange circumstance, they’d said. Strange? Try fascinating, the interviewers replied.

So they sit on the skins on the rocks. He sits on the best rock, near the cave, near the pile of savage knives. His belly is fat but his arms and legs and neck are battle-ready.

There is sand and soil all around. Some bones; ribs stacked neatly against one of the rocks.
“If you like, we’ll come back some other time. Our boat will be offshore for a week. And there’s more to the island to look at.”

The man finishes his second hand. His nails are clean and he looks up.

“I will talk today. Tomorrow I must gather roots.”

“What have you lived on? Here on the island? We’ve seen some fruit, nuts, some roots.”

The man nods. “Fruit. Nuts.”

“And the roots?”

The man smiles and grunts, looking at the ashpile. It was a stupid question.

“There are sheep and goats on the island,” says one of the guests. “You don’t eat the animals?”

The man shakes his head. “I’m not able.”

“What do you mean?”

But the man will not answer.

“The party that first found you said you refused to go with them. You’ve refused new clothing, fresh water, to take shelter with them, or to return with them to the mainland. Why is this?”

The man holds up his arms, spreading them. “This is home.”

“Surely it is now. But you were not born here, correct? You told the first people who found you you came here years ago. True?”

“Maybe seven.”

“Do you know where you came from before? Do you remember who you are?”

The man leans forward. His wrists slide up his thighs, perching on his kneecaps. He withdraws and stretches backward, throwing his arms in the air again. “In seven years, I have become a little crazy. A little.” He nods for himself. “I am, I know. I have friends you can’t see. I talk to them, they tell me what they know.”

“That’s all right, no one here is judging you.”

“That’s right. We’ve all had imaginary friends when we were kids. It’s all right to want some company.”

“Mhm, mhmm.” He seems warmer now. His limbs relax. He fidgets less and seems to smile. “There is—my friend Evelyn, a giraffe. But, small as a goat. A little giraffe.”

“Evelyn? How nice.” Pencils are scribbling.

“A little giraffe.” One of the guests laughs. “Who else? Who else are your friends here on the island?”

“Adam. He is another man. But he isn’t real. He tells me each day what the weather will be.”

“Good, good. Who else?”

“Lucy, who is a dinosaur.”

“A dinosaur? Really? How colorful. This is the place for a dinosaur, isn’t it? What does Lucy do?”

“Lucy bites.”

“Yes? Does Lucy bite you?”

“Lucy bites everyone, Evelyn, me, Adam.”

“Is that where got your scar?”

One of the guests frowns at the one who asked the question. He says in a quiet voice, “Are you stupid? Why would you ask that? The dinosaur isn’t real.”

“Real to him,” says the other.

“And that—”

But the man interrupts. “My head was hurt. Yes.”

“How—I’m sorry my partner asked you so suddenly, but how did you hurt your head? If we may ask?”


“Who were you fighting?”

The man devolves before their eyes. He becomes a single-cell organism. His head and beard sink into his chest, his hands are clasped together. His feet meet and bury into the sand.

“Was—you put that cross there, right?”

“Mhm,” the man nods. Nod. Nod. “Yes, I did. Adam said I should. Evelyn helped me make it.”

“And what did Lucy do?”

“Lucy cried. Yelled. Lucy bit all of us, but that’s what Lucy does.”

“So, what is the cross for?”

He puts his hands together, clapping lightly. He looks down at his hands, clapping them. He touches the scar on his head and shivers. Then his hands meet again, and he hunches over. He is clapping softly. He is nervous.

One of the guests asks him, “I know I’ve asked before. But I want you to know we aren’t here to judge you for anything that happened, or that you did to survive. Truth be told, there’s no record of any ships or planes or anything passing this way seven years ago, or even seventy-seven. But, I’ll ask again, is a loved one buried under that cross? Rather, anyone at all buried under there?”

The clapping stops. The man looks up. His hands find their way into his beard, hiding in a nest. He removes them and touches his scar, touches his eyes. His eyes, white and small, are wet.

“Okay, okay,” he says. He is nodding. “Okay.” Nod. “There are bones in the ground.”

The guests all lean forward from their seats. They lean forward on the skins on the stones, pencils ready.



“Sir, do you know who you are?”

The man smiles. He is afraid. His mouth opens, “There were two of us here. Me. Him. I killed my brother.”

But they are not there. They are not really there. His guests sit on the rocks, but aren’t there. And Lucy stands between. And Adam and Evelyn aren’t there. The bones are in the ground.



Viewing the Month, from a Porch

There is a whicker-whacking overhead. Some bird of the night with which I am not acquainted, so I presume, as it is dark and I only know of the creature’s presence by its noise and not its form. It makes some kind of snipping sound as it flies past, and then it is gone. Sometimes, sitting on my porch, these birds pass by, or stray cats, black-and-white. They pass by with no sense of congeniality. They are on their business, and I would not stop them. Birds are fine enough to observe. Cats are deeply uninteresting to me. Unless they are hunting. If they are hunting, I do not mind playing audience. Otherwise, it is the wind that is a companion while I sit on my porch. Not a constant companion, not a friend who sits idly with you and makes conversation. Rather, a flutterbudget of a neighbor. Comes by, delighting you with energetic conversation and soft flatteries, then runs off elsewhere full of nerves. But you cannot be envious, for you know the breeze shall return to you soon. Soon, with some thought it had forgotten to impart, or some other pleasantry it meant to pay you. Back and forth, blessing all nearby, for it is merely a humble breeze, indeed; not a harsh, scolding gust. A humble breeze of humble means, dithering in its existence, dying sometime in the night when we are all asleep. 

And some child goes walking by singing about Christmas. She sings of Christmas though it is nearly halfway past January. I suppose I hate January of all months. It is the great anticlimax of the year. Strange, I think, that it should also begin our calendar. December is too powerful, too strong in its meaning and joy. You are spoiled by her march. When she is all said and done, you wake on January First and find that winter days still lie ahead, yet there will be no more parties, no more songs, no more gifts. 

You could argue that December is the delicious dream and January is the awakening to real life. That’s how it works for the student, right down to the timing of Winter holidays. December you are free, January you are doomed back to schoolwork. 

You could see it that way, if you squint. In my own effort to survive January, I’d rather reverse the temporal roles. December is what real life should resemble, while January is the dull, meaningless dream I experience each night. I would not be like the little girl who just walked by singing of Christmas. No doubt she only has a song stuck in her head. But I think there is a slow poison in remaining in the past. Half of what Nostalgia represents is pain (álgos). It is wallowing, and wallowing leads to sulking, and sulking leads to writing one’s thoughts on the bleak blankness of January.

Book-to-Film: Hobbits, Rabbits


I had not read the book since I was eleven. Picking it up and putting it down within a couple weeks, I had reread it. It is a story about the exodus of a band of common folk; one of the members of the group has prophetic visions of doom and blood coming to their home. Thus, they set out. Along their journey to a safer land, they face many dangers: raging waters, wild animals, a death cult, miles of dangerous countryside, a totalitarian regime that governs its citizens like slaves, a warlord that comes to conquer their way of life. Throughout the book the heroes are shot, hung, mauled, and imprisoned. It is a tale of danger, hope, and vision. It is also a tale about rabbits. 

Watership Down: a book that has been famous for many decades already. It is in no need of my endorsement, and you readers have surely heard of it. I hope you’ve even read it. It was a deep pleasure to discover as a boy, and upon my return to it I was entertained as profoundly as before. Watership Down is truly an odd little book, which is why I think it’s easily enjoyed by adults and children. In fact, it was its transcendence of age that caused the author, Richard Adams, some trouble when first submitting it to publishers. In the introduction to Watership’s 2005 paperback edition, Adams recountswhy the manuscript was repeatedly refused, on the grounds that, “Older children wouldn’t like it because it is about rabbits, which they consider babyish; and younger children wouldn’t like it because it is written in an adult style.” Like most successful authors, Adams stayed true to his tale and kept going, adding, “I refused to alter the draft in any way, and went on knocking on doors.”

It's okay. He's the bad rabbit.

It's okay. He's the bad rabbit.

The book went on to great fame and acclaim, and was adapted as an animated film in 1978. Some deem the cartoon a cult classic, others aren’t aware of its existence. I’m not particularly fond of it myself; as a story it feels uneven and unfocused, but I write this article to address more recent information. Last night I learned that Watership Down will be adapted yet again to film, produced by Netflix and the BBC. As with any ensuing cinematic rendering of a book I hold dear, I have mixed feelings about the announcement. Before I continue, I would clarify my belief that terrible movies do nothing to damage the source material, as some people protest. If a book is good, it remains good. I’m not worried about that, and there are more than enough examples of this occurrence; the Narnia films are hardly classics (and hardly Narnian), and I still adore the seven chronicles by C. S. Lewis. Worse still, years before the 2005 Disney version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, there was a script floating around where the Pevensie children were Americans, and Edmund wanted the White Witch to conjure up a hamburger for him, rather than Turkish delight, all because someone in the writing process had said, “Kids won’t get it. We need to make it relatable to them.” Clearly, this is the logic of true creators. Relatability, appealing to the lowest common denominator. Older kids think rabbits are babyish, younger kids won’t understand it, so Richard Adams compromised and wrote whatever the publishers told him to, as did Faulkner before him, and Twain, and Melville, and Milton. Except not.

When it comes to adaptations, we readers often feel both excited and discouraged by the prospect of the book coming to life on screen. Even when our tastes overlap, we humans experience everything to a unique degree; when we read, we imagine what we are reading, and we see the characters and scenery the way only our minds can see it. Films override that; they make the visuals of the book an absolute. There, Aragorn looks like Viggo Mortensen in a wig, he doesn’t appear how you imagined him. This too is something I hardly care about, if the depiction is close enough to the author’s descriptions. I care, most deeply, about the book being presented on screen. I am as close to a purist as they come, depending on the source material. My reasoning is this: studios are willing to spend millions of dollars to create films about (rabbits, elves, dragons, etc.) because the author has given them the idea to do so. The author has come up with something brilliant, endearing, exciting, all by himself. He has attracted a following due to the quality of his own ingenuity, so successfully that a studio takes notice, and says, “Let’s shoot it. Get the rights.” So when I read a book, I am imagining it in my own way, my own colors in my mind, but I am imagining the events contained within. The story is what I watch in my head. I do not add a thing. There are many books (like Watership Down) which are easy to visualize cinematically, and this again speaks to the skill of Richard Adams. I watch rabbits trek across a field; I do not supplement a monstrous cow stampeding in their path for the sake of excitement. I’m already captivated by what I’m reading, as are thousands of other readers when they open the book.

a modern-day genius

a modern-day genius

Yet time and again, the studio brings in screenwriters, and the screenwriters examine the book; they pick it up, they read it (sometimes I don’t think they make it this far), and then they begin to write their script; somewhere in all of this, these screenwriters say to themselves, “You know, this book is cute and all, but I’m going to make it even better. So-and-so may be a beloved author with a timeless story that is enjoyed all over the world, but wait till they see my ideas.” It’s arrogance, or maybe more innocently, it’s resignation. Hollywood writers are fond of explaining that books are books and movies are movies, and the changes are inevitable. In some cases I think they’re correct, some books are too long or too complicated to adapt to the letter, but this same attitude tends to give lesser talents the defeatist license to go ahead and pull machete from sheath and have at the crummy book, integrity be damned. Rarely do such adaptations prove successful, or if they do, it’s because the book’s audience is fairly faded, or the book is so old that people have already seen a dozen different renditions and don’t mind a fresh take on it. 

I’m not a complete purist. Not every single line and moment and breath of the story should be put to film. Certain events may need some moving around to tighten the pacing. Game of Thrones is a near perfect example; the books are brilliant but chaotically digressive tales, growing more unfocused with every new plotline, and in watching the HBO series I find myself agreeing with nine out of ten changes the showrunners make. Films are films, books are books, I don’t deny that. But some films are purely films, written to be films. If we’re to make a movie of a book, let’s honor the book, not give an excuse for every far-cry alteration.


"I'm thinkin' a giant molten-gold dwarf statue sequence. Cool right? Let's make it happen."

"I'm thinkin' a giant molten-gold dwarf statue sequence. Cool right? Let's make it happen."

As one final tragic example, I remember watching the first part of the recent Hobbit trilogy back in 2012. Again, I’d been anticipating it for years, my childhood friend had come to town so we could see it together, I’d reread The Hobbit the previous summer and written a fantasy novel as a result of its inspiration—and the movie began. I remember afterwards describing my experience, “It was as though I had read The Hobbit in one night, and fallen asleep, and had a dream where my brain was trying to report what I’d read, and whenever the dream became too accurate, a kangaroo would suddenly appear, and I would only want to wake up.”

Sometime in the near future I hope to discuss the Watership Down adaptation further, but this is enough for now. The BBC and Netflix have an overall decent track record, the series is said to be 4 hours long (which should allow for a complete telling of the tale), and the cast looks passable. Here’s to hope and disappointment. And the simple fact that no matter who tries to retell a story and how abysmally it is told, the book remains. 



"Owl" drawn by my wife, Alyssa.

"Owl" drawn by my wife, Alyssa.


We had an ostrich egg in our school room. We kept it next to the bumpy crocodile skull with the missing teeth. The ostrich egg, as big as the glass around a lightbulb on our ceiling fan, with one hole in its top, or bottom, depending on how you wanted to hold it. One hole. It was square shaped, but with more sides to it, a scattered connection of straight-edged fractures which let me look inside to the same beige stiff egg-material.
     I am unable to explain my fascination with birds. I don’t have any ornithological ambition. I don’t own binoculars or wide-brimmed hats. I couldn’t sit and identify the birds of Texas with you, or anywhere else. My memories, though, prevail to remind me of bird-experiences.
    There was one day with a baby sparrow trying to learn to fly. I took our video camera out; I was nine years old. In Midland, it was all sparrows and doves and grackles. You’d think it’d be roadrunners and buzzards and hawks. I didn’t meet those old assassins till we moved to the Hill Country. So I took our video camera out and filmed this fat, ugly baby sparrow bobbing around and pretending it had the gift of flight. It flew as well as I could, and I had tried many times to fly. I had so many dreams of flying as a child, so in real life, I would leap into the air as high as I could, in the house or outside, eyes shut, feeling for that one gigantic second that I was flying…that I was about to fly. I came so close every time. I filmed the baby sparrow, crouching and walking along after it as it cased the little brick walls around our driveway. My little brother tried to pick it up and we yelled at him.

 Filming. Yes, I watched the film of the baby sparrow several times. But I suppose I used the camera as binoculars on a later occasion. We were in the salty wind of Gulf Shores. We were trotting down our pier to tug up the crab nets and add to our stock in the freezer for our annual boil. But I saw a heron or crane (I told you I don’t know much about birds) standing on a neighboring pier. I had to. I had to run back to the beach-house and get the camera. I zoomed in on the tall bird, filming it as it stood unmoving. It was a terrible film, shaking in the elbows of a skinny child, pixelated in the strained digital zoom of a home video camera built in the 90’s. My siblings still make fun of me when we remember the ten minutes of tape I wasted on that bird. And I make fun of myself. But I loved that bird. Every year we’d see him and his brothers. They were hilarious if you paid attention. When we’d fish on the beach, with our wide blue bucket with crabs or fish in it. We’d stand out there and you’d see the heroncrane, stalking slowly up and down the beach. Like a stately connoisseur strolling along a wine-tasting, tall and proud as if he belonged there, surveying the contents of the fishermen’s buckets. Plodding evenly, nodding at his fellow man, though he was a bird, and hoping desperately to become a thief.
    I drew and draw birds. They’re easy to doodle. They’re silly. They’re strident and noble. A beak can be anything; a toothpick, a hooked nose, a triangular outcrop of outrage, the shape of anything. Sketching their legs is next best. Such strange, stilty devices. Grooved with ringlets from flank to talon as whittled into existence by God on His day off. 

A Bether. Something like a bird.

A Bether. Something like a bird.

    Indeed, a bird’s legs. A bird’s beak. Their wings are difficult, they’re never quite right. I think I’ve always been far more interested in birds when they are on the ground. Perhaps that’s why I don’t care to improve at drawing their wings. Isn’t that the point of a bird though? They fly. They are what we’ve always imitated in our quest to fly. I won’t mention the losers of the bird world, the penguin and emu sort. They are dear to me because they do not fly. A flying bird soon becomes a wilted V in the sky, leaving for good.
    I don’t care about the mechanics of flight. I don’t care. I don’t care how incredible it is that a Peregrine falcon can dive up to 400 miles per hour (that’s not true). I want to see the bird. See it hop along, or dawdle, or meander, or sit still in a tree watching my thoughts. We saw baby barnyard owls in Laredo. They were huddled in an old hunting blind. Three horrific ghosts blinking at us. Scraping the rotted wood they had hatched in. Scrambling to stay forever in that plywood box where they could hide from the sunlight that explains why they feel ugly, why they are ugly. Why their alien eyes and pimpled skin should never be seen. Do you understand? That’s what birds are. They’re everything. They are beauty, like swans and cardinals. They are disgust, like vultures eating the maggots and mealy flesh from a raccoon’s corpse’s throat. They are curiosity, like the dodo who died regrettably before I could see one alive. I wish I could see a real dodo. Pattering up to me. I wouldn’t kill it as the sailors and cats did. 


    Birds are fear. My fear. I don’t mean phobia. I told you I love birds. I mean that feeling that leads and keeps you at bay in the same breath. My friend and I explored the spread skeleton of an amusement park in the Hill Country. It was twilight and we walked down old stone steps and past broken metal rides. We wandered among trees and faded swirling patterns painted underneath rust. We found an old barn, or something. Who knows. It was a concrete slab with no walls. Except on one edge there was a shack with walls. A quiet, brown shack. We walked near it and heard…hisses, bodies drawing themselves back and forth inside the shack. But they weren’t what you think a hiss is. We heard, that night, in that shack, the sound of a ceaseless rampant wind caught in a tempest of teeth and death. We thought it was some mythic cat trapped in the ruins of a failed theme park. Some jagged-hackled beast who would rather scare us than kill us. My friend and I retreated, finding sticks to use as clubs, and returned to the darkness and the monster. 
    And then: a turkey-buzzard burst out of the shack from an opening we had not seen. It flew away, and we peered into the shadows inside. Babies. Young babies fated to eat the dead. I never imagined turkey-buzzards could hiss like that. Could concoct thoughts of lions. And that’s fear, I think. We are pulled to our source of fear, unprepared, only useless mock-swords in our hands. To find young, harmless baby birds. Ugly. Afraid. As we fear. As we are ugly. And so, what is it that I fear? It’s never what I expect it to be. I’m rarely afraid when I choose to look finally into the shadows of the shack and see what imaginary lions are really like.
    Birds are not anything you want them to be. They are what they already are. Fragility, comicality, morbid fatality. Every bird, any bird, is the polychrome of feeling. That’s what they are. They are the softest of pleasures and the sharpest of dooms.

    I have both deep reverence and deep laughter for birdkind. 

    I would like to hear a loon on a lake. At night. I’ve heard audio recordings, but the real thing would be real. Those are the three dimensions; hearsay, hearing, and the real thing. A loon on a lake. Loons cry out in the night, they make that married sound of marvelous eerie. And they make it for themselves. They don’t exist simply for me to make them into a poetic metaphor or a manifest piece of my soul. The loon is crying for himself. 


If you're lazy or simply like the dull timbre of my voice, you can listen to an audio recording of the above-essay. Click play and enjoy.


Introductory: Who and What I am

On Books

Hello, I'm S. Forrester Lybrand. This website, simply put, is a place for me to share my books, thoughts, poetry, doodles, and snapshots of my life. Like just about every site these days, it has a blog. If you’re into that kind of thing, read away. Comment away. Let’s share, let’s argue, let’s agree, come what may. But I’m not looking to start debates or comment on topical topics for the sake of going viral or whatever. I aim to share real thoughts I have about what I’m reading or creating or learning or seeing; I hope for your feedback too. I won’t be writing about a dress-color debate, or why the latest episode of a TV show was “problematic.” There are a million other people trying to make their voices heard on such fleeting, flimsy events.

Above all, however, I’m a writer of books.

I write for those who like to read, who do read, and even those who write. I write for myself, as I believe all passionate writers do first and foremost. The books I hold most dear to my heart involve friendship, a love of beauty, and moral goodness standing up against oppressive evil. All the books I’ve written so far reflect these values in some fashion, though that doesn’t mean they’re all the same tale or bear the same outcome. There’s a fourth characteristic in the books I cherish, one that finds its way into my own writings sometimes, and it’s hard to title or categorize. I believe this characteristic has something to do with oddness, or whimsy, or absurdity. Every human is a little strange in their own way, but some commit to peculiarity as a lifestyle; I don’t mean to make myself out as so many strange people I’ve known, who try to force their entire identity on the world with an attitude that shouts: “Look at me, I’m special because I don’t do what the majority of humanity does! And everything I do is meant to affirm my specialness.” No, I’m not special. And I rarely try to stand out. But the books that I cannot escape are those that contain a lovely, fantastical oddness, so to speak.

I mean books like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and what Alice Found There (both very misunderstood by the mainstream, yet still beloved for their weirdness by all who know of them). Lewis Carroll’s imagination notwithstanding, Sir John Tenniel’s wondrous illustrations must be credited for creating such a special, strange world to explore. The story and the drawings are symbiotic and should never be separated (as an aside: if any filmmaker truly wants to do those books justice one day, they would use Tenniel’s drawings as the only concept art, no exceptions. It was done right from the first, and too many lesser minds have tried to reinvent Wonderland). That old pen-and-ink Victorian style which presents grotesque and silly creatures, all bouncing off Alice’s unflappable wit and curiosity. Reading those books for the first time was like going on a conscious tour of a dream, and a powerful dream at that. It’s the imagery and the characters that made those stories stick with me, not any Gothic impositions or drug-related interpretations. I never read them as dark books, yet too many people mistake them as such. They are smart books, they are clever and rich. While they are not strictly childish, “dark” is inaccurate. Alice’s adventures are not morbid. Weird, of course. Not nightmarish. I think the haunting uniqueness of her travels was mistaken by much of her audience, being recrafted into something altogether unpleasant and untrue. One does not have to be haunted by nightmares and ghosts only, but by strange and pleasant landscapes, as I was. Intended, I believe, by Carroll and Tenniel. The author prefaced the first tale with a poem, in which he muses on its purpose. I find his words a better description of the stories’ appeal than what I’ve tried to convey,

“Alice! A childish story take,
And with a gentle hand,
Lay it where Childhood’s dreams are twined
In Memory’s mystic band”


Other books that I found a kindred joy in were such stories as The Wind in the Willows  and the Oz tales. Willows is full of beautiful scenery and adventure. It put a body and a history to all children’s love for animals, our wish to speak with animals, our first toys being animals and dear friends to the toddler and onward. Ratty, Mr. Toad, Mole, and the incorruptible Badger. Many chapters devoted to adventure and travel, or of simply longing to explore the world, wayfarers all. And, for a young child, it introduced me to the climactic battle-ending found so often in books, not the little nursery tales I was used to at that point in time. The retaking of Toad Hall, while not graphic, was a sudden violent venture motivated by putting everything to right before “The End” could interrupt the tale. I remember marveling at that chapter most of all when I first read the book. Toad, joined by his friends, taking up swords and sabers, sneaking into his old home at night to battle the weasels who took it. I loved that. Surely my book, The Beast-King, owes Kenneth Grahame his due credit.

And the Oz books, truly in my opinion more strange and ridiculous than Carroll’s inventions. Oz was a wild country continuously being expanded in each new story; L. Frank Baum added more cultures and creatures as he went. Its illustrations too were helpful for the imagination, not inhibiting but enabling it to understand all that Oz had to offer its reader. The zoology of that fairy country and its neighboring nations contained much more than cowardly lions and living scarecrows, what with the orks, the growleywogs, the nomes, the mangaboos, and on and on and on.

And of course I read The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings later. And of course I read The Chronicles of Narnia. And Narnia, with its strong moral themes and slowly unravelling world, was a favorite place of mine above the others. The chivalry, the creatures, the magic, the outstanding personalities (Puddleglum, Reepicheep, and Trumpkin, for example). In Narnia there was the weirdness of fantastical creatures in a magical land, but with a noble purpose unfound in Wonderland or Oz. They are books about justice and truth. And Middle-earth wears that purpose even more blatantly and gravely, but even old systematic Tolkien couldn’t avoid including outlandish races and peoples in his dramatic epic. Silly characters like Tom Bombadil and Treebeard populate a dark, intense story. The heroes are hobbits, laughable and simple. Yet heroes.

This whole ramble is an attempt to explain to you something of myself. These are only a few books/series/authors I love (I haven’t mentioned Kipling, or Bradbury, or Lawrence, or others), but I’m trying to tell you what I’ve read and what has influenced me. My books are not copies of these tales, but they follow the spirit of them all. My books are whimsical and strange, yet serious and sad. They tell of weak sinners trying to be good, and of noble archetypes from other worlds. They are inhabited by creatures, beasts, and monsters, by heroes and wickedness and horror. By beautiful landscapes and dark rooms.

Again, I am primarily a fantasy author, at least at the time of this writing, and I hope to tell many different kinds of stories before I’m gone. Wander takes place in the real world, in Texas, without magic or fate, and yet it isn’t discordant with the rest of my tales. It reflects on themes of the unknown, of the struggle to understand goodness, and it seeks to find beauty in the world it explores.

I, like any author, hope you will read all of my writings. I hope you will appreciate them and find joy in the adventures therein. And I hope above all to hear from you; please, share your experience of reading my books and others, as I have tried to do with you in this brief essay. Enjoy this website, enjoy what you find here, and enjoy all adventures, writ and lived.



S. Forrester Lybrand