Monday, November 17, 2014

Guest Post: Five Things I've Learned from a Hobbit

Today on the blog I have the delight of welcoming a fellow author, Jill Richardson, who will be encouraging us with some meditations on Hobbits and faith. You should definitely check out her book, Hobbits, You, and the Spiritual World of Middle-Earth. It's a fascinating devotional and study book that's grounded in the wonderful literature of the Hobbit and the even more wonderful Scriptures. So, without further ado, here is her blog post!

Bilbo's Journey and Me—Five Things I've Learned from a Hobbit

Have you enjoyed the last two winters of Bilbo Baggins' adventures on the big screen? I definitely have. (Although I've had to keep repeating to myself—This is not the book. This is not the book. Because it isn't, for those of us who love the book. Still . . . it's fun.) I even made last year my first ever midnight showing. (That was rough. I'm a little older than . . . many of you.)

Six movies and thirteen years later, Bilbo Baggins' cinematic sage is almost over. It started in 2001 with his birthday party (Fellowship of the Ring) and ends this winter, technically sixty years before that party. Yeah, a little timey-wimey thing going on there; it's complicated.

My love affair with all things Tolkien started late. It's not like my brother didn't try. He told me Lord of the Rings and Tolkien's other works were the best books ever written. He even gave them to me. But I never read them.

Then my husband started reading the books to our girls in preparation for seeing the movie, thirteen years ago. I went, and I sat in that dark theater in Bozeman, Montana, expecting not to like the action adventure film.

I fell irrevocably in love. Went home. Read all the books. Started studying them, and finally wrote a book about them. My fascination with character study and these particularly amazing characters flooded together in that book that combined Tolkien and Scripture (and trademark sarcasm).

So I thought perhaps today we could look at one of those characters. Specifically, the main one. You don't name an entire book (and three movies) The Hobbit if that hobbit is not somewhat important.

What makes Bilbo such a popular hero? What does he teach us about adventures, and heroism, and life?

1—Don't leave the path.

Gandalf's last words to the hobbit and dwarves before they go into the ominous forest are, “DON'T LEAVE THE PATH!” You know what's going to happen right there.

Directions we receive when life is all sunshine and rainbows are easy to remember. However, spend a while in the dark--lost, surrounded by frightening noises, and uncertain you'll ever find your way out--and . . . those simple instructions seem long ago and far away.

Maybe God didn't mean exactly what He said. Maybe I can take a short cut. I'll still end up in the right place, but I'll find an easier way. (Sounds just a little like Satan in the Garden of Eden hissing, “Did God really say that? Are you sure that's what he meant?”)

CS Lewis said that the devil was never in more danger than when a human could no longer feel God's presence but obeyed him anyway. When God seems silent, I try to remember Bilbo's insistence they remember what they last heard. Stay on the path. Even when scared and lost.

2—Never laugh at a live dragon.

Bilbo truly enjoyed matching wits with Smaug. He'd shown his mental quickness already with Gollum. Now, in the cave chatting with a dragon, it was taking all his abilities, and he got a little carried away. That intellectual adversary was a dragon. He didn't need a lot of incentive to create hobbit flambe. Bilbo was so into his own brilliance there for a while that he forgot he was dealing with something way beyond him. He started to underestimate the danger and overestimate his own capacity. 

I've done that. Getting so impressed with my own intelligence, or ability to handle temptation, or good judgment, that I start to think I can handle whatever the situation is. So sure of myself that I forget this battle is way beyond me. I forget that Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing.”

3—Be a Problem Solver.

Barrel scene—best ever. OK, so it wasn't the easiest route to freedom, but while the dwarves sat around complaining about how nothing was going to work, Bilbo came up with an idea that might.

There are people who let life happen to them, and there are people who take charge of life. Bilbo progresses throughout the book from being the first kind of person to the second. Life is full of obstacles to getting where you're supposed to be. A victim of life  wonders why nothing has worked out for him; a Bilbo looks for a way to deal with the things that aren't working. You may get wet, but you'll get where you wanted to be.

4—Trust the One Who Chose You.

Bilbo does not think he is a burglar. Nor a warrior, adventurer, or dragon slayer. He doesn't even think he can skip breakfast without serious consequences. Neither does anyone else--and they are right. He isn't.

Bilbo continues the journey because he was given a job and he is committed to getting it done. Even when no one believes in him. Along the way, while he keeps trusting that call, he finds his courage. He becomes the hero in a way that only he could.

There's a reason I sign my book with the verses: “Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful.” (1 Corinthians 1.26-27)

When God calls, he knows how capable or incapable I am. He knows where I'll need help. What he wants is my willingness to trust and keep going.

5—Be the Boss of Your Fears.

I love the paragraph in the book where it says that Bilbo fought his greatest battle not when he saw the dragon but in the tunnel beforehand. His greatest struggle was with his fear, not with the creature. Once he defeated the urge to turn back, he had already won.

Sometimes the biggest thing we fear is not the dragon but our own reaction to the dragon.

We're more afraid of how terrible we'll feel running back down the tunnel. We don't like feeling like failures. When Bilbo takes charge of his fear and makes himself keep waking, he shows us all how to face the things that frighten us.

And One Bonus Lesson—Stay away from large spiders. Really, why should anyone have to tell you this? It should be obvious.

Jill's somewhat unnatural love for hobbits and elves comes from her time as a literature teacher and as a lifelong reader of great stories. She also loves an epic challenge and a chance for grace wherever they exist. Jill is pastor of Discipleship at Resolution Church in Illinois. She is the author of Hobbits, You, and the Spiritual World.

Contact Jill by email at, check out her website, like her Facebook page, read her blog, follow her twitter… Yes, there are many ways of contacting her! Choose your favorite!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Advent is Coming

Advent is coming soon, and I've been reading a beautiful book called The Gospel of Christmas, by Patty Kirk.

Now, the book doesn't talk about fairies, monsters, dragons, or princes in disguise, but it does tell an even grander story: it describes the wonderful mystery of Christ's birth. By reading this book, I've seen the Advent of Christ in a whole new light.

For example, here's one quote that illustrates beautifully one small part of what I've learned from her book:
I got so caught up in the details of our shared existence--the schedule, the car, the children, the 10:50 church service--that I no longer paid much attention to the real events of my life, no longer pondered their meaning or treasured them up in my heart.
Did Mary feel the same way sometimes? I wonder now. Did she long for a quiet place in the tumult of giving birth and fleeing to Egypt and finding a cheap place to live and making friends among strangers and wanting to be home? … 
As she was raising up Jesus and soon his brothers and sisters, as she reviewed their activities in her head so she wouldn't forget one, as she washed clothes with the other women of the town and helped organize a niece's wedding, did she, like me, long to escape the commotion, the words spoken and not spoken, the noise and responsibility and turmoil of belonging, the "with-ness" of life, and just be alone? 
As you all head into that busy, noisy advent season, I hope you can find moments to treasure up the meaning of life in your heart, as Mary did. Take a few moments to be alone, in silence. Journal and reflect on God and what He has done in your writing and your life this year.

Treasure the stillness, the "Silent Night," the "Stille Nacht," whenever God gives you the chance.

What are your thoughts as we approach the season of Advent? Have you made time for stillness in your life and in your writing?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Best Gifts for Writers

I'm on holiday right now traveling through Europe, so I won't write out a whole post about ruined castles or ancient works of art just yet. Instead, I thought I might provide some links to a few delightful fantasy or writing-related objects I've found recently. These would make excellent birthday gifts or purchases for yourself. Enjoy!

Fandom Teas: Discover teas from Sherlock to Harry Potter to Doctor Who! They don't have tons of options, but still, I can't say no to sampling a few of these!

Trevillion Images: These are high quality professional images that are usually quite beautiful and atmospheric and would make perfect book cover elements. There are sections for historical fiction and fantasy that contain some amazing work. If you're looking to purchase images for a book cover, then look no further. This is really the best of the best. Do note that it has high prices to match the high quality!

10 of the Greatest Essays on Writing: For whenever you need a bit of motivation or wisdom. The article links to either the full text or excerpts from each of the essays. Wise words for a rainy afternoon or a lazy summer day.

Also you could always give beautiful journals -- writers will never refuse a lovely notebook, especially if it's leatherbound with gold leaf pages!

A fancy pen such as a fountain pen works well, too. Writers need good equipment.

And, of course, books of every shape and size. A gift card to a bookstore works well, but a trip to a used bookstore with shelves piled high with beautiful books is even better!

If you're short on change, consider giving them the gift of time. Offer to wash the dishes every evening for a week, or doing the household cleaning on Saturday mornings so the author can use that time to write.

One of the most meaningful gifts writers can receive is a special piece of original writing--a lovely poem with special meaning, or a notebook full of special things that the giver noticed about the receiver, or a list of blessings or prayers for the receiver. It's even better if it's illustrated!

Finally, you could give a magazine subscription to Writer's Digest or an inspiration-filled magazine such as National Geographic. To me, a magazine subscription represents prosperity and success. Receiving a magazine is like receiving a letter from the President. It's interesting to look at, read, even touch and smell. Definitely a wonderful gift idea! Plus, it's actually quite cheap--typically $20 for a year's subscription.

So there's a start of ideas for what to buy yourself or give to fellow writers! Now, tell me: what's the best writing-related gift you've ever received? Given? Or what would you like to get?

Photo by JD Hancock, Ever Present

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Book Review: Dealing with Dragons

I realized after my most recent blog post that, while I've mentioned Patricia C. Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles in glowing terms repeatedly over the lifetime of this blog, I've never properly reviewed them. And, since they are hilarious cliche-breaking books that I believe every fantasy writer should read, I'll go ahead and review them now.

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles are a four-book series, and although the last two are all right, the first two are the best. My favorite of all of them is definitely the first one, Dealing with Dragons, so that's the book that I'll review here.

Title: Dealing with Dragons
Author: Patricia C. Wrede

Page count: 240 pages

Stars: 5 stars, All-Time-Favorite
  • 5 = an amazing book that delivers a punch. Read this!  

Teaser: Cimorene is not a traditional princess. She's tall with black hair rather than dainty with golden tresses, she learns to fence instead of dance, she's bored sick at the castle, and she definitely doesn't want to marry a prince. Instead, she runs away to volunteer her services to a dragon. The rest of the story is a hilarious series of adventures and misadventures in which Cimorene deals with confused knights, stone princes, dangerous wizards, a cat-loving witch, quarrelsome dragons, and lots of soap.

Age level: Preteens and up (younger children would probably enjoy it, but they might not be able to appreciate the sarcasm and satiric humor)

  • 1 = mild injuries appropriate for all ages
  • 1 = a hint of romance (the second book contains slightly more romance, or a 2 rating on my scale)
  • 0 = none (there may have been some humorous exclamation at some point along the lines of "leaping lizards" but I don't recall exactly)

Christian worldview: There's no religious content, but it's written in the tradition of knights-in-shining-armor, that is, with chivalry and respect towards ladies. Definitely nothing anti-Christian, unless you're opposed to magic occurring in a fantasy world.

My thoughts: Have you ever wanted to read a book that took the conventions of fantasy stories--frog princes, princesses held captive by dragons, and knights in shining armor--and turned them on their head? Well, search no further: Dealing with Dragons is the best fantasy satire I've ever read. I love this book so much that I bought it for my younger sister for a birthday present years ago!

If you need convincing, just take a look at the chapter titles. "Chapter 2: In which Cimorene Discovers the Value of Classical Education and Has Some Visitors," "Chapter 5: In which Cimorene Receives a Formal Call from Her Companions in Dire Captivity," and "Chapter 14: In which [some bad guys] Try to Make Trouble, and Cimorene Does Something about It."

I'll leave you with this sorrowful monologue from a sad prince that Cimorene befriends: "It's been three years since I graduated, and everyone's still waiting for me to do something spectacular," the stone prince said, lengthening his stride. "The rest of my classmates are already making names for themselves. George started killing dragons right away, and Art went straight home and pulled some sort of magic sword out of a rock. Even the ones nobody expected to amount to much have done something. All Jack wanted to do was go back to his mother's farm and raise beans, and he ended up stealing a magic harp and killing a giant and all sorts of things. I'm the only one who hasn't succeeded."

So don't miss this book, really! It's a hilarious story that everyone should read and enjoy.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Few of my Favorite Fantasy Cliches

This is my 100th post! In celebration, I'd like to do something very cliche: write a post about my favorite fantasy cliches. (Cue applause.)

Also, please note that in my blog post, I've used male pronouns to refer to characters, since the majority of fantasy stories are still written about males. Hopefully someday the case will be different!

So, without further ado, I present:

My Favorite Cliches
To the tune of, "My Favorite Things"

Dark stormy nights and scales on dragons
Bright shining daggers and red glowing fire
Stacks of old parchment all tied up with strings--
These are a few of my favorite cliches.

Black or white horses and elvish lembas bread
Watch bells and beacons and Gollum with worms
Creatures that fly with the Nazgul on their wings--
These are a few of my favorite cliches.

Shield maidens in white dresses with swords at their sashes,
Arrows that barely scratch my nose and eyelashes
Silver white beards of wise old men who soon die--
These are a few of my favorite cliches.

When the Dark Lord rises, when the prophecy rhymes, when the hero's an orphan,
I simply remember my favorite cliches, and then I don't feel so bad (about my own writing)!

And now for a proper list of my favorite fantasy cliches.

1. Stock characters

Almost every single fantasy story contains an old man/wizard/wise person who imparts crucial information to the young hero, usually an orphan. Said young hero discovers he has magic powers or is the "chosen one," a fact that no one has told him all his life, and that the villains have only just discovered. Add in a handful of warrior maidens and a dragon or two, and you've got a regular soup of cliches. If you really need any examples of this, just look to Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.

2. Prophecies or curses

Speaking of the "chosen one," any prophecy or curse of any size or shape definitely counts as cliche. Particularly if the hero is the only person that the prophecy could refer to. And if the stakes are "the end of the world as we know it." So if you're dying to make your story as cliche as possible, please, please, insert one of these. I promise it'll increase the cliche-factor by ten. Don't believe me? Ask the dishes! (Reference to Beauty and the Beast, which by the way contains a prophetic curse.)

3. Medieval setting

Despite the constant use of Medieval costumes and weapons in fantasy stories, the hygiene and medicine of fantasy stories seem to be pretty modern. Because, really, where's the plague? Furthermore, there's always a journey that takes days or weeks to get to the destination, usually by walking or riding the same horse for days on end. Honestly, how do characters in these stories manage to get anything done when they must be dead tired from traveling all the time? Walking kills your feet, kills the horses, and can't be done constantly. I'm looking at you, Lord of the Rings.

4. Good versus Evil

So your hero is battling a "Dark Lord" or the "forces of evil" or must go through the "Dark Forest" and battle an army of ugly evil orcs? Wow, how original. But let me ask a question: why should darkness be the enemy just because it's dark? Couldn't that be construed as a bit racist? And why should the whole race of elves (or dwarves, or men) be good and beautiful while orcs (or other villainous force) are always evil and ugly? The real world has good ugly humans and bad beautiful humans. Why should fantasy be any different?

5. Unrealistic fighting

Hero learns swordplay in about a week and is suddenly a master at weapons of any kind, able to confront expert enemies who've had years of training to perfect their technique. Also, arrows never, ever run out, armor is feather-light, and shields are hardly ever necessary. Oh, and while we're on the subject, all wounds seem to be either a minor scratch or life-threatening. Don't heroes ever get paralyzed, or suffer brain damage, or have to amputate their arms?

That said, of course, these particular cliches are only cliches because they've been used very effectively in some of the greatest fantasy stories of all time, from Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter and Beauty and the Beast. So should you really always avoid using cliches?

Well, on the one hand, if you purposefully try to avoid all cliches ever, you're just going to give yourself a horrible headache while you try to think of original plot devices and methods of transportation. On the other hand, you do want to think very carefully before inserting a cliche into your story.

If you do use a cliche, make it humorous and obvious, as Patricia C. Wrede does in her hilarious Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Or try turning it on its head, as Gail Carson Levine did in her amazing novel Ella Enchanted. Recognize the cliches in your writing--and run with them! Use them for your own benefit. It's the best way to write!

Have you read any books or seen any movies with cliches? Any cliche-breaking stories you'd love to share? What about in your own writing--love them? Hate them? Avoid them like the plague?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Book Review: The Phantom Tollbooth

For today's book review, I'm going to review a childhood favorite of mine: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. It's such a clever, witty book, along the lines of Alice in Wonderland. If you haven't read it yet, you really must!

Title: The Phantom Tollbooth
Author: Norton Juster

Page count: 272 pages

Stars: 5 stars, All-Time-Favorite
  • 5 = an amazing book that delivers a punch. Read this!  

This ingenious fantasy centers around Milo, a bored ten-year-old who comes home to find a large toy tollbooth sitting in his room. Joining forces with a watchdog named Tock, Milo drives through the tollbooth's gates and begins a memorable journey. He meets such characters as the foolish yet lovable Humbug, the Mathemagician, and the not-so-wicked "Which," Faintly Macabre, who gives Milo the "impossible" mission of rescuing the Princesses of Sweet Rhyme and Pure Reason. (Adapted from the description of the 50th Anniversary Edition)

Age level: All ages, although some of the puns and wordplay are subtle enough that it takes years to laugh at everything.

  • 1 = mild injuries appropriate for all ages
  • 0 = none
  • 0 = none

Christian worldview: While this isn't a "Christian" book, it certainly isn't anti-Christian in any way. Furthermore, I believe the messages against boredom and of seeing the possibilities in the world around us are important for anyone, Christian or non-Christian.

My thoughts: I don't think I can begin to describe how much I love this story. Perhaps it would be better if I simply let the book speak for itself. So, without further ado, here are just a few of the most hilarious or clever quotes from the book.

"When [Milo] was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. … Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d bothered. Nothing really interested him—least of all the things that should have."

"I'm the Whether Man, not the Weather Man, for after all it's more important to know whether there will be weather than what the weather will be."

"How are you going to make [the wagon] move? It doesn't have a—”
"Be very quiet," advised the duke, "for it goes without saying.”
And, sure enough, as soon as they were all quite still, it began to move quickly through the streets.

"Whether or not you find your own way, you're bound to find some way. If you happen to find my way, please return it, as it was lost years ago. I imagine by now it's quite rusty."

"Whatever we learn has a purpose and whatever we do affects everything and everyone else, if even in the tiniest way. Why, when a housefly flaps his wings, a breeze goes round the world; when a speck of dust falls to the ground, the entire planet weighs a little more; and when you stamp your foot, the earth moves slightly off its course. … And it's much the same thing with knowledge, for whenever you learn something new, the whole world becomes that much richer."

Friday, July 4, 2014

An Update

It's been a little less than a year since I last posted on this blog. Looking back, I find it rather ironic that the last post I wrote was about "when life gets in the way." Seems my life has been getting in the way of blogging quite a lot this past year.

To be honest, I've been afraid to start blogging again. I feel like I have nothing left to say. My writing projects haven't been focused on fantasy any more, and neither has my reading, so I'm afraid that if I blog about fantasy I'm betraying myself and my readers. I'm left wondering if this whole idea of "Faeire & Faith" is really what I want to be doing.

To put it another way, I am full of doubts about my writing, my self, and the place that Christian fantasy has in my life.

But let's look at it in another way: when are we not full of doubts? When can we ever say with perfect confidence, "This is my ultimate purpose in life and the reason I was placed on this earth; I will not depart from it"?

Life is about so much more than simple certainties. Life is composed of doubts strung together into a narrow, tenuous lifeline clinging to our one anchor: the Cross.

Whew. That felt good to say!

Let me give you a quick update on my current writing and reading projects.

I've written about 60k of a fantasy story about time travel, Vikings, and a magical Ireland. Unfortunately, what I've written so far is about a third to half of the whole story, at least in my imagination. Plus, I keep getting waylaid by fears that my story idea is ridiculous, cliché, unfaithful to Ireland... You know the feeling. More doubts.

So then I started another story, roughly-maybe fantasy, and abandoned it after only about 20k. Don't worry, it wasn't worth saving. I just wrote it to get out the frustrations about story #1 with a new story.

Then I got sick of fantasy, and I decided to write a contemporary romance story set in NYC about a twentysomething writer who gets fired from her job for criticizing her boss and the company. At the threat of a lawsuit, she's forced to do something rather desperate. Honestly, it's just fluff, but it's so entertaining to write that I can't really force myself to give it up! I think I have about 40k written right now.

As far as reading goes...I must admit, I've been sinking deeper and deeper into the world of Jane Austen. Did you know that there are fanfiction and variations for every possible minor Austen character, from Elizabeth Elliot in Persuasion to Charlotte Collins from Pride & Prejudice? Also, Georgette Heyer, another Regency writer, is an amazing author. Hilarious and so subtle! I have to say, some of these stories are so engrossing that it's hard to think about anything other than Regency dresses and chaperones and carriages and...  You get the picture.

So there's an update on my life. What about you? What have you been writing or reading? Has anyone published any books or stories? Also, has anyone struggled with any of these doubts?

Image courtesy of Creative Commons. "The Path" by GabPRR.

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