Book Recommendation: The Princess and the Goblin

The Princess and the Goblin, by George MacDonald, is a decidedly peculiar book.

The children’s fantasy novel is Victorian through-and-through: it makes use of goblins, a good-natured monarchy, and a heroic working-class protagonist: Curdie, the miner.

It was published only seven years after Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and certainly a reader can easily draw comparisons between the two. Both appeal to the same demographic: middle-aged children who  find the miraculous amidst the tedium of every-day life. Both stories involve a heroine who is swept into serendipitous adventure. Neither girl was looking for said adventure.

As you progress through MacDonald’s story, however, you begin to notice some pronounced allusions to the spiritual world. Princess Irene stumbles upon her great-great (etc.) grandmother while exploring the labyrinthine passageways of her castle. Irene’s great grandmother seems to have a touch of the Divine–only some characters can see her, if they’re ready–but who or what she is exactly, remains undiscovered.

The Grandmother-figure gifts Princess Irene with a magic ring (fantasy readers may see parallels to the One Ring in Tolkien’s work) which is attached to a string that always leads Irene back to her Grandmother (and safety.)

What I love about MacDonald’s novel is that it is anything but heavy-handed. There are spiritual applications to be made, but he eschews allegory at every turn. Even for a book 147-years old, the tale took unpredictable twists.

Perhaps the best summation of George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin is told right from the get-go: “Every little girl is a princess,” he tells us, meaning that she’s a daughter of a King. He adds: “She’s always in danger of forgetting her rank.”

One can easily surmise that the string attached to Irene’s magical ring represents the spiritual life: sometimes it defies our understanding of the natural world. It is all but invisible. But if the wayfarer, and indeed the reader, walk by faith and not by sight, she’s sure to find her way.

Thank you, George MacDonald, for keeping us from forgetting our rank.

Inspiration from Hafiz: A Hole in a Flute

Sometime, Christ-honoring poetry can come from unexpected places. Consider, for instance, “A Hole in a Flute” by Hafiz, a Sufi poet from the 1300s:

A Hole in a Flute

I am a hole in a flute
that the Christ’s breath moves through.
Listen to this music.

I am the concert from the mouth of every creature
singing with the myriad chorus.

I am a hole in a flute
that the Christ’s breath moves through
Listen to this music.


 

Though it cannot be argued that Hafiz was a disciple of Christ, this poem speaks vividly of the Lord’s enlivening πνεῦμα (Greek “pneuma”–breath, or spirit.) The poem calls to mind the words of John the Baptist, when he said “He must become greater, I must become less.”

If we study closely, we can see clear evidence of the Image of God being reflected in His creation, whether the author of said words had a full understanding of Christ’s role in eternity or not.

 

Remembering Madeleine L’Engle

Today, 100-years-ago, Madeleine L’Engle was born

I wanted to take some time to recognize this date, because I feel indebted to L’Engle for her great impact on my life as a writer. My earliest brush with her corpus of work came in fourth grade, when I read A Wrinkle in Time. Her eloquently told tale of tesseracts and space travel sparked my imagination and filled me with wonder. It wasn’t long until I had finished the whole Wrinkle series.

As I aged, I grew to enjoy some of her more obscure works, such as her book of poetry, The Ordering of Love, and her meditations on writing entitled Walking on Water. Madeleine L’Engle opened for me the floodgates of imagination.

She was a mystic and a Christ-follower. She delved deep into science-fiction, fantasy, and philosophy and managed to craft something cohesive and compelling. Ever eschewing the “Children’s Author” label, she spun yarns in the image and literary-caliber of George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis,

If you’ve never had the good fortune of reading L’Engle’s books, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy today!

Errant Thoughts

My muse didn’t stop by my house today. She couldn’t work up the motivation, because her muse didn’t visit her. Turns out, my whole creative process is predicated on one muse inspiring another muse inspiring another muse, and now my lack of creative output makes sense.

Still, I have a responsibility to put some ink on the page, irrespective of quality. Because, as it were–

They do not serve who stand and wait, if those who stand could’ve served.

Mindfulness Meditation for Prewriting

“He said when things were really going well, we should be sure to notice it.”
-Kurt Vonnegut

Lately, I’ve been on a mindfulness meditation kick.

A simple 10-15-minute morning practice has refocused and grounded me, combating depression, alleviating anxiety, and allowing me to live in the moment. I’m absolutely sold on its manifest usefulness.

But in addition to its improvement to my mental health, I’ve found that it’s a powerful tool to wield for artists. In fact, I’d venture to say, it may even be our most powerful prewriting exercise.

Hear me out.

How many times have you sat down with your notebook or word-processor and instantaneously became distracted by the worries of the day?

How will a certain bill get paid? My lower back aches. I wonder if I remembered to lock my car door? That comment my boss made earlier in the day—what did he mean by that?

This inner chatter is what some mindfulness meditation experts call “monkey mind:” a constant dialogue in which your brain seeks to analyze and fix problems that don’t truly have the potential to be fixed, currently. To use a computer analogy, our brain has a few “windows” open in the background, and it’s constantly trying to work out problems subconsciously for you.

It’s no surprise that this invasive chatter fills our thoughts when we sit down to write. Today, people are so preoccupied throughout each minute that we rarely have time to sit quietly with ourselves. If the 30-minute block of time that you’ve scheduled for writing is your only alone time in your day, it’s likely that your brain will utilize it to attempt to solve those nagging problems that crop up throughout the day. It happens for the same reason that your brain keeps you up at night when you try to sleep: your brain wants to tie up all the little loose ends, bringing closure to the problems you encountered throughout your day.

The problem is that it’s easier to sit and worry for 30 minutes than it is to write. Soon enough, your timer goes off and you’re more frazzled than when you sat down. What’s worse: you’re still staring at a blank white page.

So how does mindfulness meditation help this problem?

If you want to write from a blank slate, you’ll need to quiet down your brain so you can focus on the task at hand. Meditation grounds your mind. It helps you to see your thoughts as transient ideas passing through your consciousness, and helps you to dissociate your thoughts from your consciousness itself.

We’ve bored our neural pathways deep. We need a blunt instrument to till the ground of our consciousness—to weed the garden of the passé, banal ideas. Only once we’ve weeded our consciousness can we begin to sow new thoughts and words.

I challenge you with this simple task: try mindfulness meditation for 10-15-minutes prior to writing. I think you’ll be astounded by the results.

Poetry as Translation; Translation as Poetry

Charles Baudelaire, Sei Shonagon, Dante Alighieri, Sunthorn Phu, Pablo Neruda…each of these names belong to an extraordinary poet whose reputation has stood the test of time. Each of the five poets mentioned wrote in a different language, none of which were English. How is it that their poetry can have such a profound effect on me–a native English speaker–who has never been fluent in another language?

The question, in short, is this: what makes a poem universal?

There are the obvious answers, of course. A poem that’s universal has to speak to an aspect of the human condition. The message has to transcend its particular era and geographic location in order to speak more broadly to a wide audience. 

 
The essence of the poem can’t be lost in translation.
 
I never truly understood the painstaking labor that goes into poetry translation until I took a class on Asian poetry in grad school. So much of the poetry we studied seemed at odds with the way the Western mind tends to approach literature. As such, the translators who worked to bring poetry to life for English readers found themselves tasked with an extremely difficult job. 
 
Our poetry professor, a skilled translator and poet himself, challenged us to try out various techniques to tease the meaning out of a poem in a different tongue than our own. These included the following:
 
1.)  Work out of “trots.” 
 
In translation work, trots are a literal word-for-word translation of a poem. Because the syntax in languages varies wildly, trots alone fall short of a satisfactory translation of a poem. They can, however, be used as a tool in tandem with the other items on this list to understand the meaning of a poem.
 
2.) Listen to the sonic structure of the poem.
 
Our professor challenged us to listen to someone read a poem in a foreign language on their own. By listening to the cadence and lilt of the words, we can often pick up on the prosody of the poem that we would otherwise miss. Does the poem have long, sing-song-y lines or are there short, staccato sentences? Is repetition used to make a pleasing, cyclical structure? Perhaps the sound of the poem doesn’t accentuate it at all. All these questions can help you to better understand the poem in its original language.
 
3.) Look at the poem in its original language on a physical page.
 
Is the poem sprawling with long lines that flow, one to the next? Or does the poem appear sparse on the page, with a minimalist approach? How is blank space used? Where are the line breaks, and what are the importance of them? Since some languages are read right to left, or top-to-bottom, it helps to have a basic knowledge of the language in which the original is written.
 
By combining these three techniques, you can approximate a decent understanding of what a poem means. But because a poem always means more than one thing, it’s easy for any one translation to fall short. In any case, these exercises can help you gain a greater appreciation for translated works as a reader. 
 
As a writer, experimenting with translation can vastly improve your own writing, and help combat writer’s block. Charles Bernstein, the famous Language Poet, encourages writers to try out “homophonic translation,” in which they listen to a poem in another language and write English equivalents, as if the words were cognates. (I.E. “blanc” from French would “translate” to “blank” in English.) This can be a fun writing prompt in and of itself.
 
If you are able to read and write in a different language, give poetry translation a try. If not, perhaps try transcribing one piece of writing into a different form or medium, (i.e. light verse poet Wendy Cope made limericks out of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”.) 
 
By experimenting with translation, one can begin to understand, both as a reader and a writer, what makes a poem universal.