30 June 2016

writing update & some l'engle.

Image from Amazon.
Music: Songs from As You Like It, the RSC and Laura Marling / Sunny Spells & Scattered Showers, Solas.

Tea: Orange oolong with milk & honey. Questionable.

Word count: 5100.


So it's just typical that the same week I published the "life of Christ" roundup post I would read Madeleine L'Engle's The Sphinx at Dawn. If I'd found it just a few days earlier, it would have demanded a (high) place on the rankings.

Published in 1982, this is a set of two short stories for children, "Pakko's Camel" and "The Sphinx at Dawn." They're about a boy named Yos who's an immigrant living with his parents in Egypt. Yos is short for Yesoshuah. Yep! I've been reading a lot of short stories lately, and I think a good short story is a higher form than a good novel; the reduced length might seem that there's less room to go wrong, but in fact it only means that anything you do get wrong will stand out even more. These are really good short stories, the kind that get hardly anything wrong. I loved "Pakko's Camel," but my favorite was "The Sphinx at Dawn," which is about Yos having a riddle contest with the Sphinx. It's note-perfect, with deliberate shades of Tolkien.

I'll be up front with you: there's nothing much here in the way of incident, which appears to have frustrated reviewers. That's because they aren't about plot but about character and world. They're not allegories, either—indeed, I think the best thing about them is how straightforward they are, their willingness to be literal even (especially) about the supernatural.

So. Imagine, if you will, the gospel of Matthew as written by Lloyd Alexander. (In his Arkadians or Lukas-Kasha mode rather than his Prydain mode. Come talk to me about Lloyd Alexander!) Imagine the child Christ being friends with a talking camel and a time-traveling unicorn. (So actually not Alexander at all then, because in his hands the camel would be a cat.) Then imagine that but written with a subdued lyricism that feels wholly reverent without ever crossing the line into either stiffness or soppiness. Imagine a deep knowledge of Old Testament history combined with an awareness of Greek drama and mythology. L'Engle is subtle, funny, entirely magical.

These stories are about what it would mean for a child to be the sinless embodiment of love, but also a real kid. Yos is very obviously still growing and learning; he's confused and uncertain, he loves his parents and he's got a good sense of humor. We're always advised not to write about protagonists without flaws, and so a Christian writing fiction about Jesus is going to run into some fairly obvious problems. L'Engle succeeded I think because she agreed with one of my own deeply-held convictions, which is that good is a good deal more interesting—and evil a good deal duller—than is commonly supposed.

I miss Madeleine L'Engle. This book is shockingly unknown; I wish I'd read it younger, and I can't believe it's out of print. It's not for everyone, but if your sensibilities align at all with mine you'll probably like it. It's short, and you ought to read it if you can get your hands on it.

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