Tag Archives: fiction

The net of our days chasing the bird of our lives: relating stories to life

I’ve been trying to deepen my understanding of plot and storytelling. I’ve been reading ancient (Aristotle’s time-honored Poetics) and contemporary (Benjamin Percy’s amazing Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction).

So it seems like a good time to dust off an essay from which I have quoted here before, C.S. Lewis’s essay “On Stories” (which grew from a presentation in 1940 to a published essay in 1947). Like Lewis himself said, there’s more hope for someone who has never read a book than someone who has read it once and thinks he’s got it down. So re-reading him along with Aristotle and Percy, I hope, will help my fiction-writing-challenged brain better understand the basics and make new connections. (My graduate degree is in literary nonfiction.)

It’s been interesting to read Aristotle’s assumptions about real-world psychology as he dissects plot in general and tragedy in particular. (“Now character determines men’s qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse.”) Considering relationships between our real lives and fictional stories, here’s a segment from Lewis’s “On Stories” I think is especially interesting because it offers a useful metaphor.

“It must be admitted that the art of Story as I see it is a very difficult one. What its central difficulty is I have already hinted when I complained that in the War of the Worlds the idea that really matters becomes lost or blunted as the story gets under way. I must now add that there is a perpetual danger of this happening in all stories. To be stories at all they must be series of events: but it must be understood that this series—the plot, as we call it—is only really a net whereby to catch something else. The real theme may be, and perhaps usually is, something that has no sequence in it, something other than a process and much more like a state or quality. Giantship, otherness, the desolation of space, are examples that have crossed our path. The titles of some stories illustrate the point very well. The Well at the World’s End—can a man write a story to that title? Can he find a series of events following one another in time which will really catch and fix and bring home to us all that we grasp at on merely hearing the six words? Can a man write a story on Atlantis—or is it better to leave the word to work on its own? And I must confess that the net very seldom does succeed in catching the bird….

“It may be asked why anyone should be encouraged to write a form in which the means are apparently so often at war with the ends….

“Shall I be thought whimsical if, in conclusion, I suggest that this internal tension in the heart of every story between the theme and the plot constitutes, after all, its chief resemblance to life? If Story fails in that way does not life commit the same blunder? In real life, as in a story, something must happen. This is just the trouble. We grasp at a state and find only a succession of events in which the state is never quite embodied. The grand idea of finding Atlantis which stirs us in the first chapter of the adventure story is apt to be frittered away in mere excitement when the journey has once been begun. But so, in real life, the idea of adventure fades when the day-to-day details begin to happen. Nor is this merely because actual hardship and danger shoulder it aside. Other grand ideas—home-coming, reunion with a beloved—similarly elude our grasp. Suppose there is no disappointment; even so — well, you are here. But now, something must happen, and after that, something else. All that happens may be delightful: but can any such series quite embody the sheer state of being which was what we wanted? If the author’s plot is only a net, and usually an imperfect one, a net of time and event for catching what is not really a process at all, is life much more?… The bird has escaped us. But it was at least entangled in the net for several chapters. We saw it close and enjoyed the plumage. How many ‘real lives’ have nets that can do as much?

“In life and art both, as it seems to me, we are always trying to catch in our net of successive moments something that is not successive.”

I love the idea of seeking or reaching for something we kind of know, we almost see, we suspect is there, yet somehow evades us. With Lewis’s metaphor, the best aspirations of life could be the best accomplishments of stories. In life we want to achieve a qualitative state, and we hope to maintain it. (Most of us keep failing to catch it.) We go to the arts to experience a distilled version of a qualitative state. (Of any number of qualitative states.) We return to certain works of art because they do so well at allowing us to experience that distilled qualitative state again.

Of course, not everyone agreed with Lewis’s view of stories, including his former student turned friend John Wain, an acclaimed writer in his own right who would “frequent the Inklings.” Read Wain’s recollection of his differences with Lewis on the purpose of stories here.


Tolkien and the ‘Actualism of Story-Growing’

From a post at The Flame Imperishable:

“It wasn’t just that Tolkien’s tale grew in the telling, but the very concept, for example, of what a hobbit is was something that grew and developed as Tolkien told the story about him. We sometimes think of stories or fictional beings such as hobbits as having a Platonic form, whether in the mind of God or not, that the author or sub-creator simply ‘discovers.’ But this is not how the fictions of our minds work.” Read the entire post: Actualism of Story-Growing.

Please also see: 

Paul Holmer on how literature functions

Umberto Eco on theory and narrative

James K.A. Smith: ‘We were created for stories’

The tragicomic in daily life: internal blindness in Chekhov’s characters

‘Till We Have Faces’ by C.S. Lewis

I finally got through it. Starting it again recently, I got hooked and read in the evenings until I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold is an extraordinary book, more powerful to my mind than The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters combined. It’s a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth. (Somewhere along the way, I think I read or heard that Lewis’s wife, Joy Davidman, a poet, helped Lewis edit the book. I imagine she contributed to its strength.)

If you’re interested in mythology and the ancient world, you’ll probably enjoy Till We Have Faces, and you’ll certainly appreciate it.

Here’s the opening paragraph and excerpts from the second paragraph:

“I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods. I have no husband nor child, nor hardly a friend, through whom they can hurt me. My body, this lean carrion that still has to be washed and fed and have clothes hung about it daily with so many changes, they may kill as soon as they please. The succession is provided for. My crown passes to my nephew.

“Being, for all these reasons, free from fear, I will write in this book what no one who has happiness would dare to write. I will accuse the gods, especially the god who lives on the Grey Mountain…. I will write in Greek as my old master taught it to me. It may some day happen that a traveler from the Greeklands will again lodge in this palace and read the book. Then he will talk of it among the Greeks, where there is great freedom of speech even about the gods themselves….”

This narrator is Orual, Queen of the fictitious land of Glome, which shares a world with the Greece of ancient history. Writing in old age, Orual will tell the story of her life, and especially her relationship with her youngest sister, Psyche.

Glome’s goddess is Ungit, and she requires of her priests animal, and sometimes even human, sacrifices.

The “old master” mentioned above is called the Fox, a red-headed Greek brought to Glome as a slave. Working for the king (Orual’s father), he teaches Orual and her sisters when they are children. Fox is skeptical of the religious worldview of Glome, if not strictly skeptical of the existence of the gods. His Hellenistic philosophy seems to lean toward a rationalistic worldview, maybe similar to Stoicism.

But what Orual experiences throughout the book is a universe with rich metaphysical and religious realities woven into her adventures yet countered by her own skepticism.


(Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold was published in 1956 and since has appeared in several editions.)

‘the problem of Lewis the storyteller’ in Text Patterns at The New Atlantis

“I don’t think Lewis was by any means a natural storyteller, and all of his fiction suffers to one degree or another from his shortcomings in this regard,” sayeth literary critic and distinguished humanities professor Alan Jacobs. “Every time he sat down to write a story he was moving outside the sphere of his strongest writerly gifts.” To get Jacobs’ full view on the matter, as well as a few words about storytelling differences between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, read the entire post here: “the problem of Lewis the storyteller – Text Patterns – The New Atlantis”.

Paradoxes for Better Living, 8

“There is no simple, fixed line that divides realistic fiction from other kinds. Allegorical patterns which truly represent reality — like those in Thurber’s tale — may figure in complex realistic fiction as in the various sorts of fantasy. A gesture, a word, a mood attributed to a person who never literally existed may stand for a universal feature of human existence. In acknowledging the truth of a universal principle demonstrated by a fictitious act we have pragmatically resolved the paradox of coming to the truth by the route of make-believe.” — R.V. Cassill, Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, 3rd edition

Flash fiction Friday: ‘Appearance’

While my six-year-old son screamed, Christ appeared to my eyes. The Lord was behind my son, bare feet on the asphalt beside the jackknifed bicycle, staring down at the boy. God’s punctured skin pulsed like tidal rivulets. Now on my son’s broken forehead, little snakes of red slithered downward. My hand moved in small degrees, as if through heavy petroleum, to my son’s face. Christ vanished. The bicycle tire still spun at a racer’s pace.

© 2012 Colin Foote Burch

‘The Dark Knight Rises’ — The myth told within the myth

The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(No worries — no spoilers! Only the vaguest references to what happens.)

Like the last Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises has a central bad guy who matches or out-matches our hero. Director and co-screenwriter Christopher Nolan reveals the backstory of the bad guy, named Bane, in increments throughout the movie.

What I thought was remarkable about Bane’s backstory is its mythological nature. The characters in the backstory are archetypal. The characters face challenges that are universal, with both real-world and allegorical senses.

Something about this mythological element makes The Dark Knight Rises richer and more resonant. Any story that could be both factual and psychologically or spiritually allegorical will have stick with the reader.

This seems to have an immediate application to writers, whether they are writing stories or backgrounds within stories. Whether a writer begins with the realistic or the allegorical makes no difference. If the final product can bring both together, then the story will have immediacy and resonance — with a deep sense of meaning.