World Building

Good writers, whether they set their stories in 19th century London or in a Galaxy Far Far Away, grip their audiences by drawing them into a rich and real fictional world.

‘Real’ and ‘fictional’ seem opposed and almost oxymoronic in their juxtaposition, and yet together articulate one of the most powerful and necessary features of good story telling. Audiences need to be able to enter and believe in the world of the narrative for the story to work.

‘World building’ is a most notable skill in science fiction and fantasy, since the writer must create a fictional world from the ground up. The more realistic and convincing these alternative worlds are, the more immersive the experience.

The master of world building is of course J.R.R. Tolkien whose life’s work, multiple stories, myths, legends, poems and songs, existed within an entirely fictional world of Middle Earth. The depth to which he created his world entailed the construction of several languages with their own script, grammar and lexicons, lengthy histories and prehistories of lineages of kings, as well as mythical and magical religions, creatures and talismans of power. Tolkien’s work almost singlehandedly created a whole sub culture of fantasy and science fiction world building which continues to this day.

Why is world building so vital to good story telling?

As a child enters a game enthusiastically and will object when the rules of the game are contradicted or broken, so too audiences rebel from authors who betray the integrity of the world they have constructed.

The analogy of ‘play’ is powerful, affirmed by the naming of live theatre a ‘play’. The audience must not only suspend belief watching those on stage ‘play acting’ but they must effectively engage in the ‘play’ with their imagination themselves.

No greater illustration of this is given in Shakespeare’s prologue to Henry V.

The chorus enters and addresses the audience directly with these questions:

can this cockpit hold

The vasty fields of France? or may we cram

Within this wooden O the very casques

That did affright the air at Agincourt?

The chorus continues requesting the audience to enter the play with their minds, to convert the small theatre into battle fields, to populate it with thousands of soldiers and horses and allow the short hours of the play to cover years of history:

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;

Into a thousand parts divide one man,

And make imaginary puissance;

Think when we talk of horses, that you see them

Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;

For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,

Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,

Turning the accomplishment of many years

Into an hour-glass:

Audiences will feel betrayed if elements of narrative history are forgotten or rules of a fictional universe are contradicted. The world of immersive ‘play’ is jarred, and the narrative experience interrupted. The reader returns to the real world disappointed with the story, leaving it often never to return.

However, one does not need to climb through a wardrobe or up a beanstalk to enter a magical world since every single narrative is ‘painted’ through words and its scenes, characters and plot.

Charles Dickens set most of his novels in the England of his own time and recent past, however he managed to colour his world and bring it alive by giving his characters peculiar names and particular ways of speaking. His novels are full of such character names as Bumble, Cruncher, Datchery, Fezzywig, Magwitch, Noggs, Pardiggle, Pecksniff, Peggotty, Podsnap, Pumblechook, Snodgrass, Sweedlepipe, Stiltstalking, Tappertit, Toodle, Turveydrop and Wopsle; the list goes on.

Filling his characters mouths with unique turns of phrase and mannerism Dickens further coloured his narrative world. Uriah Heep [David Copperfield] is frequently heard to say while wringing his hands ―’I am much too Umble’ and Mr Sleary [Hard Times] is depicted with a lisp: …’ith fourteen month ago. Thquire, thinthe we wath at chethter.’

Lastly, Dickens set his stories against the very real social, class, cultural and economic challenges of his era including the French Revolution, racism against Jews and other foreigners, the workhouses and the plight of the poor, the marginalisation of women and the ignorance and injustices of the class system.

With every added nuance and layer of detail, Dickens builds a world so convincing and inviting that readers return time and time and again to his works. Their willingness to surrender to the immersive experience of the narrative world he created is testament to his mastery as a great story teller.

The Stranger Things of Story

There is perhaps no more striking representation of the battle between good and evil than in Stranger Things, the Netflix series which released its second season in late October 2017. This battle is seen through the eyes of children in a normal town of Hawkins Indiana.

Set one year after the events of Season 1, it is Halloween October 1984, and we are treated once again to pop culture references of ’80s movies including Aliens, Ghost Busters, Strange Encounters of the Third Kind, Dungeons and Dragons and arcade games such as pac-man and space invaders.

stranger things

In the first season of ‘Stranger Things’, we met Eleven, a girl with telekinetic powers who has been caged and tormented in a research lab, and who opens the door way to ‘the upside down‘. This nightmarish world is a dark shadow of our own, a literal ‘upside down’ version of reality where dark things lurk and various innocents such as Will and Barb are drawn and even lost.

In Season 2, we see the characters each dealing with the after effects of their adventures in season 1. Will, still connected to the upside down, is seeing visions of the evil menace over Hawkins and he warns his friends. They believe he is simply experiencing post traumatic stress flashbacks however soon he becomes affected by the “shadow monster” as though possessed by a demonic power.

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Can Eleven and the gang stop the forces of evil again before it consumes their friend Will, their town Hawkins and maybe their entire world?

As mentioned in earlier Bear Skin posts, many stories have a doorway metaphor allowing protagonists to pass into a magical or mythical world of adventure.  Indeed, classics such as “Alice in Wonderland” or ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’, contain a literal door through which children pass into a magical land. Here a a battle of good and evil occurs, or at least a discovery of true self and courage. Other classics such as “Harry Potter” tell of parallel worlds [the worlds of muggles and of Witchcraft and Wizardry] which live in close relationship. Only the few special characters are able to navigate both and it is there the true battles of life and death are fought and won.

This metaphor duality of our world, of scientific objectivity on the one hand and the world of narrative and myth on the other, represents the division between the conscious and the subconscious, the natural and the supernatural. These stories and the journey of protagonists between worlds, through the doorway or portal, takes the reader or viewer on a journey into their own dream-state, to do battle with the evil which lurks there.

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‘Stranger Things’ and other doorway stories, shows how unexamined rationalism, or worlds without myth and legend, impoverish the mind and spirit. The ordinary world that denies the magical or mythical world does so to its own detriment. It seems that those who deny the chaos and disorder of the subconscious will eventually be ruled by it; 19th century humanist rationalism, ever optimistic about the greater and greater advancements of human knowledge, gave rise to the cruelty and chaotic destruction of the early 20th century regimes of Stalin, Hitler and Lenin.

And so what is the solution to our dilemma?

It is the hero who must bridge the two worlds, crossing between and doing battle with the forces or chaos within the subconscious. The hero-journey, so prevalent in narrative, myth and legend is the descent into the psyche as though into another world to encounter the monsters of chaos therein. The hero will face the beast he or she fears the most and there through acts of courage and often great sacrifice, vanquish them or contain them.

In returning, the hero can then seal up the fractured psyche, restoring the integrity of the soul. What magical force does this hero use? Well, the most powerful a mystical force available to humans – the force of love.

A New Hope

As early trailers for Star Wars Episode VII ‘The Force Awakens’ are released, fever rises amongst fans worldwide.

It is the “originals” that most of us consider to be the greater films, Episode IV, V and VI, released in 70s and early 80s, for many of us, films of our childhood.

Will the new films meet our expectations?

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So significant were these films that they have marked a generation. The first release, Episode IV was entitled “A New Hope” and ever since then the galaxy long, long ago and far, far away has been a second home for many.

And a source of hope.

Why so significant? Why do these films, along with the recent success of Harry Potter books and films, and the enduring greatness of Tolkein’s books and films, rank so highly in the charts for commercial success?

Why have they imprinted themselves so profoundly on the popular psyche?

star wars

Surely entertainment value alone cannot account for such significance!?

Joseph Campbell building on the work of Carl Jung, examined myth and narrative in the context of psychological theory. The ‘hero journey’ he defined, common to epic narratives, aligned with the human subconscious or dream journey, taking the voyeur through trials, to wholeness and health.

Unlike his contemporary, Bertrand Russell, Campbell praised the work of narrative to inspire hope.

star wars IV

Bertrand Russell, however, renowned  20th century philosopher and staunch atheist wrote in his paper, A Free Man’s Worship :

That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins–all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

Only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair …………

In Russell’s philosophical view, facing the reality of our insignificance is the healthiest and most real human endeavour, one more developed than any submission to gods of natural forces or ideals. To him any other belief was self-deluding fancy.

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Yet in the midst of such modern and post-modern thought, fantasy and science fiction narratives [arguably modern myths and legends]  continually call us to believe.

Deeply philosophical and spiritual in nature, these stories have us asking such questions of our existence as:

  1. Why is there something, rather than nothing?
  2. How can I know the world?
  3. Do humans have intrinsic worth?
  4. What is the significance of human suffering?
  5. Do we have anything to hope in beyond this life?

Narrative calls the viewer/ observer into a journey with the protagonist or hero, a journey which bestows upon the hero great worth and responsibility.

This worth, whether via royal or supernatural endowment, enables the hero to triumph over difficult and dark trials, with a promise of hope of restoration beyond.

star wars V

Joseph Campbell concurs with Carl Jung and others, that such a journey which restores the protagonist to “hope” is in fact the healthiest course for the human psyche.

But is this simply a case of “the benefits of religions for the atheist” as Alain de Botton would say?

Is it simply that, while “hope” is good for the soul so to speak, one cannot simply surrender a scientific or rationalist framework and so simply admire “hope” from afar?

Anaïs Nin recorded in her diary in 1943:

Stories are the only enchantment possible, for when we begin to see our suffering as a story, we are saved.

Believing we are, like the characters we love, simply part of a grand narrative – is ultimately redemptive.

But, one simply cannot BELIEVE in cosmic hope against all evidence or simply because it is of temporary benefit to emotional health!

Can we?

To Russell, hope beyond death is a false hope and so truth and freedom, he concludes, can be found in stark acceptance of this finite existence:

Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned to-day to lose his dearest, to-morrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of Fate, to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power.

Unless one finds an ounce of empirical evidence for the breaking in of dream into history, and of narrative into real life!

Scholars consider the Christian narrative to make such audacious claims through the historical birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

An earlier post attempted to excavate some of the historical evidences for the validity of this claim by first century eyewitnesses. For the sake of brevity, we will not here seek to repeat.

Nevertheless, in the Christian narrative, as C. S. Lewis writes, “myth meets history”. No longer a theoretical hope, nice-to-believe but incongruent with lived experience, “myth broke through into time and space” endowing humanity with intrinsic worth and showing ultimate reality, God to suffer with us. This process, turned back death and sorrow and restored life.

This truly is A New Hope! 

Ode to a Nightingale

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pain
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
 –//–
 ode 5
 –//–
So starts John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale.” Published in 1819 it is another of the great works of the Romantic era. It is full of Romantic adoration of nature, along with nostalgia, melancholy about the transience of life, mortality and loss.
 ode 6
Above all these, Keats elevated the artist’s vision of Beauty coining what is known as “negative capability” – the ability of one to exist without truly knowing.
 –//–
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
–//–

 

ode 3

The songbird is a happy nightingale, a voice that compels the narrator to join with in and forget the sorrows of the world. However,  Keats had recently suffered the loss of his brother. The song’s conclusion represents the result of trying to escape into the realm of fantasy.

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.
–//–

 

ode 4
Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
–//–

The nightingale described within the poem experiences a type of death but does not actually die. Instead, the songbird is capable of living through its song, which is a fate that humans cannot expect.

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.

 –//–

ode 1

 

Keats imagines the loss of the physical world and sees himself dead—as a “sod” over which the nightingale sings. The contrast between the immortal nightingale and mortal man, sitting in his garden, is made all the more acute by his imagination.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
–//–

ode 7

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?
–//–
ode 8

The poem ends with an acceptance that pleasure cannot last and that death is an inevitable part of life. To Keats there is something eternal in the contemplation of Beauty alone.

The poem celebrates what Keats described in a letter to his brothers as “negative capability.

….that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason ……… with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.