Beale v Sandifer

Here is a transcript of am unexpectedly polite mutual interview between my publisher Mr Beale, whom the Elves name Vox Day, and the orcs of the Dull-Eyed Land call Morgothrond the Voxinator, and a satanist named Mr Sandifer.

They each agreed to discuss one book the other finds terrible. I am curious whether anyone aside from myself agrees the debate has a clear winner, and who that was.

I note particularly each instance where Mr Sandifer will read directly from the text of ‘One Bright Star to Guide Them’ and then offer an interpretation directly and diametrically opposed to what the text says.

Again, I noted when Mr Sandifer’s criticism applied to plot elements, characterization, or craft (nearly none) as opposed to his personal allergic reaction to Christianity, which is nowhere explicitly advocated, or even mentioned, in the tale (nearly the whole).

He particularly dwells for an undue time on a monologue by the villain Richard, under the claim that real occultists do not actually perform the make believe rituals made up for my make believe story. Since the monologue is merely elements taken from Shaw and Nietzsche thrown together with the sacraments of the modern Democrat Party, namely, aborticide and fornication, I suspect Mr Sandifer’s offense comes mainly from the clarity of the looking glass: He is Richard.

I note also that he lambasts the tale for its Christian apologetic message, apparently without knowing that this story, in its first and short form, was written by an atheist. I penned it about the same time as LAST GUARDIAN OF EVERNESS, and it has the same theme; I did not erenow think the theme was hidden or indirect. Indeed, I recall fretting over how unsubtle I was.

But each reader reads a different tale, and the wise writer knows least of all men what his story means. Readers see the face of the story; writers see the mask from the concave side, and sees the joints and wires which makes the lips and eyelids of the mask to move.

Below are the opening remarks, enough to give the alert reader a taste of the difference in the mental caliber of the two men.

The full transcript is here:

The original audio is here:

Phil Sandifer: Hi, I’m Phil Sandifer and I’ve got with me today the man at the center of the whole Hugo Awards controversy, Vox Day. Hello, Vox.

Vox Day: Hey, Phil. How are you?

Sandifer: I’m doing alright. So, the idea behind this interview is that Vox and I mutually agreed upon two works, one that he thinks is a great story and that I think is terrible, and one vice versa. The first is going to be John C. Wright’s One Bright Star to Guide Them, which is one of Vox’s Rabid Puppies, it’s up for a best novella Hugo this year, and the other is going to be the late great Iain Banks’s 1984 debut novel The Wasp Factory. We’re going to start with One Bright Star to Guide Them, by John C. Wright, who you’ve called a contender for the greatest living science fiction writer. The book’s promotional text describes it like so:

As children, long ago, Tommy Robertson and his three friends, Penny, Sally, and Richard, passed through a secret gate in a ruined garden and found themselves in an elfin land, where they aided a brave prince against the evil forces of the Winter King. Decades later, successful, stout, and settled in his ways, Tommy is long parted from his childhood friends, and their magical adventures are but a half-buried memory.

But on the very eve of his promotion to London, a silver key and a coal-black cat appear from the past, and Tommy finds himself summoned to serve as England’s champion against the invincible Knight of Ghosts and Shadows. The terror and wonder of Faerie has broken into the Green and Pleasant Land, and he alone has been given the eyes to see it, to gather his companions and their relics is his quest. But age and time have changed them too. Like Tommy, they are more worldly-wise, and more fearful. And evil things from childhood stories grow older and darker and more frightening with the passing of the years.

One Bright Star to Guide Them begins where other fairy tales end. Brilliant and bittersweet, the novella hearkens back to the greatest and best-loved classics of childhood fantasy. John C. Wright’s beautiful fairy tale is not a subversion of these classics, but a loving and nostalgic homage to them, and reminds the reader that although Ever After may not always be happy, the road of life goes ever on and evil must be defeated anew by each and every generation.”

Now, this is obviously the one of the two books that I think is awful, but I do want to say before we start, I really do love the premise. I really love the idea of going back to a sort of Narnia-esque children’s fiction world from the perspective of adulthood. There’s obviously a lot of stories in the “return to a children’s story in adulthood” style – I should point out for listeners who are coming to this through my work that the first two chapters are actually almost beat for beat the first two stories of Alan Moore’s Marvelman in terms of the plot – but I really can’t think of one in this sub-genre that’s played with Narnia in particular. There’s a very short story by Neil Gaiman called “The Problem of Susan,” but that’s about it. So I do want to admit up front, I do love the premise if nothing else. But you obviously love a lot more than just the premise here, so my first question is simple, Vox: why is this story great?

Day: Well, before I explain why I think it’s a great story, I think that it’s probably important for the purpose of full disclosure to point out that, number one, I was the editor who was responsible for publishing this story, and also I wrote that particular description that you just read.

Sandifer: Okay.

Day: So, it’s fair to point out that I am absolutely, utterly and completely biased in this regard, less because I have a pecuniary interest in the novella selling well – anyone who knows anything about publishing realizes that novellas are not the way that you make a lot of money in the publishing business – but I am very, very biased towards John Wright in particular as a writer, and One Bright Star to Guide Them is one of my three favorite things that he’s ever written. So I think very highly of him as a writer; the other writers that I think very highly of in the science fiction field are China Miéville and, until his most recent novel, Neal Stephenson.

Now, what is particularly great about Wright, and something that a lot of people don’t necessarily realize, is that he’s not a writer who puts a lot of what I would call “craft” into it, by which I mean we’re not dealing with works that are written and re-written and re-written and re-written, for the most part. Now, in this particular case, he did write it as a short story, and then turned it into a novella later, but in general, what you see is what you get. It’s actually somewhat depressing to edit the man, because the stuff that he turns in just having dashed it off is much better than most of the stuff you see from other people.

Now, in the case of One Bright Star, like you said, the premise is fantastic. The idea that you’re beginning with these children who have been through this wonderful, incredible, fantastic experience, and then suddenly visiting, catching up with them thirty-some years later, is original in itself.

Sandifer: Right, I mean, there is, as I said, a large sub-genre of this. It’s hardly the only story, I think even from last year – I know a lot of people have compared it to Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which came out around the same time. [2]

Day: Sure, but there’s… You know, I’ve read The Ocean at the End of the Lane, it’s good, but what’s different about One Bright Star to Guide Them is that it is much more clearly written as an homage, not just to Narnia, but there’s actually elements of a great deal of other children’s fantasies that are much beloved.

Sandifer: Right, there’s a line that very closely hues to Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising that I noticed, for instance.

Day: Right. There’s also a fair amount of The Chronicles of Prydain. A lot of the fictitional events that are referred to are much more out of Prydain than out of either The Dark is Rising or Narnia. And then there’s also a couple other ones, references to less well-known works. There’s certainly a call-out to George McDonald in there, the original fantasy writer, and so there’s a fair amount of depth there for those of us who were into that type of literature.

Sandifer: I think one of the reasons, though, people go for Narnia in particular – because, I mean, if you look at the reviews on Amazon, Narnia does seem to be the one that everyone goes to first when talking about the sort of influences on this, and I’m going to hazard a guess, no small part of that is because both Narnia and this are pretty explicitly Christian allegories. Do you think that’s a fair statement to say about this book?

Day: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think that that’s both part of why One Bright Star to Guide Them generates such powerful reactions in people who love it and in the much smaller number of people who dislike it, because I think in many cases, people’s reactions are being colored by their own personal feelings about Christianity, both for better and for worse.

Sandifer: Sure. Now then, do you want to just explain quickly the broad strokes of the allegory? In particular, the talking cat character, Tybalt. Who does he represent, and in particular, there’s this climactic scene where Tommy has to kill this magical cat in order to lose his fear and become able to wield the magical sword that’s necessary to defeat the villain. So, can you just explain how that allegory works, quickly?

Day: Well, Tybalt represents two things. Number one, he’s obviously the Jesus Christ figure, because he has to die in order for the sacred fire to be lit, and then of course he comes back after his death, so he’s the Aslan, he’s the Jesus Christ. He’s also, however – in that he’s a black cat who has to be killed – he’s also representational of the sin in Tommy’s life, and it’s the same reason that Mel Gibson, when he was filming…

Sandifer: Passion of the Christ, using his own hands to actually be the one to hammer the nails into Jesus’s hands, right?

Day: Exactly, because the killing of Tybalt – If you don’t follow the theological implications, the need to kill Tybalt himself seems a little bit strange. But it’s actually relatively sophisticated, because, if you notice the killing [AUDIO CUTS OUT BRIEFLY] [3] fire, that turns into the weapon, and what that fire represents is of course the Holy Spirit – which, by the way, is the same fire that Tolkien refers to when Gandalf meets the Balrog and talks about being a servant of the secret fire. And so throughout the novella, there are these theological elements. Often Catholic, because of course, although I’m an Evangelical Christian, John happens to be a Catholic, like Tolkien, and so the theology of the story tends to be actually more Tolkien-esque rather than C.S. Lewis, but, you know, that’s just details.

And so from a purely literary point of view, I can see where the Tybalt thing can be a little confusing, but again, if you’re aware of the theological elements, than you immediately recognize the sin aspect, the Jesus Christ aspect, and the Holy Spirit aspect as well, which, I think the third one is sometimes missed.

Sandifer: It’s not hard for me to imagine a similar story with the same basic plot, but where instead of being an overt Christian allegory, the forces of magic allude to, say, a pre-Christian Celtic mythology. You could do it with, obviously, any number of mythologies or religions. Do you think such a story could be as great as this one is, or is it very specifically, to your mind, the Christian nature of the allegory that makes this a great story?

Day: Well, I think that because we are reading it in a Christian/post-Christian environment, it would be very, very difficult for any similar but differently-based story to resonate quite as strongly, either in a positive or a negative sense. If you react badly to Christianity, and I’ve certainly been someone who did in the past, you know, I can understand it getting your back up. And in the same way, it’s going to resonate powerfully with the same type of people who are emotionally affected by the Aslan death scene in Narnia. So I think that it’s theoretically possible, but I personally am not going to respond very strongly, emotionally, to something based on Shinto. Certainly there’s… I read Japanese fiction, I’m a huge fan of Murakami, and I have no doubt that there are definitely some Japanese spiritual aspects to some of his work that I miss, that don’t resonate with me because it’s foreign to me.

Sandifer: Alright. So just to clarify, when you say this story is “great,” are you saying this is one of your favorite stories – that’s sort of a personal claim – or are you making a more objective claim?

Day: I’m making an objective claim, because although I appreciate the story, I like the story, and although the theological elements resonate with me, what makes a story great is the ending, and John Wright has a real gift for endings, which, as you know, many writers these days don’t. And what’s so brilliant about the ending of One Bright Star to Guide Them is the way that Wright takes the trope of the wise old man and he brings the intellectual development, the spiritual development, and the maturation of the child character of Tommy full circle, and Tommy becomes the wise old man to the next stage in the story, which of course we don’t see, but it ties the whole… Yyou know, you mentioned The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and things like that. What separates One Bright Star to Guide Them from some of these other, similar stories is that Wright manages to plug his story into the circle of the wise old man, the children, and so forth; a cycle, rather than a simple, one-off story. [4] And so, that’s what I find so brilliant about it, is because it makes a statement that the story never ends. Not just the story, but the struggle never ends – the battle for good and evil, both in the individual soul, as well as in the worlds, the universes, etcetera, always continues, and to me, it’s well-executed, it’s original, and, you know, I frankly haven’t really seen anything that has done it in as such an adept manner in such a short literary work.

Sandifer: Okay. Well, I want to talk a little bit about the particular vision of Christianity that Wright’s expressing. You said that you think that a lot of the reaction to this story hinges on one’s investment in Christianity, but I think there’s some particular aspects of Wright’s Christianity and the vision of God that he expresses that some people would differ on. Certainly I think there’s…

Day: I differ on it!

Sandifer: Right, because you take an evangelical tact as opposed to his Catholic tact, but I have, I think, perhaps what might be called a broader aesthetic objection. I want to look at that climactic scene where Tommy has to kill Tybalt, and Tommy is protesting to Tybalt that he doesn’t understand and “cannot simply do as you tell me, I am not a child anymore.” To which Tybalt says, “it is not the stalwart soldiers of the sons of light who question orders, little Tommy, but willful children. Are you not a man?” And then the narrator says that Tommy “realized the cat was not asking him if he were brave or grown up, but if he knew where he stood in the great hierarchy of all creation. Beasts, even small and gentle ones, were placed under the dominion of man because man had the duty to be wiser and greater than a beast, to act for reasons higher than instinct. But the reasons of man were not the highest.”

There’s a couple of things that really strike me here. There’s this very militarized language, talking about soldiers and orders. And there’s the way in which what’s being demanded is this completely unquestioning obedience to God’s will. And I think this is a vision of Christianity that might surprise some people, in a way that goes beyond even specific subsets – whether you’re an evangelical or a Catholic or whatever. Even within the evangelical tradition, or the Catholic tradition, I think there’s real differing angles on how authoritarian a relationship humanity has with God. So can you talk a bit about this notion of just this complete submission to God? Because I find it ethically troubling, I have to admit.

Day: Well, first of all, this is not one of the differences that I would have with John.

Sandifer: I didn’t think it was.

Day: Because what you’re really talking about there is faith. You know, there’s a – one of the favorite stories for me in the Bible is when Jesus is accosted by the Roman officer, the centurion. And he says, you know, my son, or whoever it was, is sick, will you please heal him? And Jesus basically says, “Sure, I’ll come along and we’ll do that.” And the centurion says,  “Sir, don’t bother. I know you can heal him. Just please do it now and I’ll just go home and see him.” And, of course, Jesus is very surprised, and he points out to his followers that he’s never encountered faith like this. And that’s what John Wright is referring to there: he’s referring to that perfect faith in one’s superior that is necessary in a military – I mean, it’s something that they drill into them. And for Christians, it is the ideal. It’s not an often realized ideal, but it is the optimal form of perfect submission to God’s will, which is to not question. And, you know, C.S. Lewis also touches upon this, and it’s often summarized in the concept of “understanding is good, but obedience is better.”

Sandifer: Even beyond that, though, another word that jumps out in that whole explanation is the word “dominion.” Because it’s a word that carries some particular resonance within Christian discourse, and it does particularly evoke a movement I know you’ve identified with, the Christian Dominionist movement.