Thursday, January 26, 2012

A speech I once gave: On Lewis, Tolkien and Chesterton

I gave this speech in 2004, to the Mythopoeic Society. I thought it was already somewhere on this website, but it isn't, it's only up at the Mythopoeic Society website. I hope no-one there will mind if I put it up here (mostly for me, for ease of finding it later.)


Mythcon 35 Guest of Honour Speech

By Neil Gaiman

I thought I’d talk about authors, and about three authors in particular, and the circumstances in which I met them.
There are authors with whom one has a personal relationship and authors with whom one does not. There are the ones who change your life and the ones who don’t. That’s just the way of it.

I was six years old when I saw an episode of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe in black and white on television at my grandmother’s house in Portsmouth. I remember the beavers, and the first appearance of Aslan, an actor in an unconvincing lion costume, standing on his hind legs, from which I deduce that this was probably episode two or three. I went home to Sussex and saved my meagre pocket money until I was able to buy a copy of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe of my own. I read it, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the other book I could find, over and over, and when my seventh birthday arrived I had dropped enough hints that my birthday present was a boxed set of the complete Narnia books. And I remember what I did on my seventh birthday — I lay on my bed and I read the books all through, from the first to the last.

For the next four or five years I continued to read them. I would read other books, of course, but in my heart I knew that I read them only because there wasn’t an infinite number of Narnia books to read.
For good or ill the religious allegory, such as it was, went entirely over my head, and it was not until I was about twelve that I found myself realising that there were Certain Parallels. Most people get it at the Stone Table; I got it when it suddenly occurred to me that the story of the events that occurred to Saint Paul on the road to Damascus was the dragoning of Eustace Scrubb all over again. I was personally offended: I felt that an author, whom I had trusted, had had a hidden agenda. I had nothing against religion, or religion in fiction — I had bought (in the school bookshop) and loved The Screwtape Letters, and was already dedicated to G.K. Chesterton. My upset was, I think, that it made less of Narnia for me, it made it less interesting a thing, less interesting a place. Still, the lessons of Narnia sank deep. Aslan telling the Tash worshippers that the prayers he had given to Tash were actually prayers to Him was something I believed then, and ultimately still believe.
The Pauline Baynes map of Narnia poster stayed up on my bedroom wall through my teenage years.

I didn’t return to Narnia until I was a parent, first in 1988, then in 1999, each time reading all the books aloud to my children. I found that the things that I loved, I still loved — sometimes loved more — while the things that I had thought odd as a child (the awkwardness of the structure of Prince Caspian, and my dislike for most of The Last Battle, for example) had intensified; there were also some new things that made me really uncomfortable — for example the role of women in the Narnia books, culminating in the disposition of Susan. But what I found more interesting was how much of the Narnia books had crept inside me: as I would write there would be moment after moment of realising that I’d borrowed phrases, rhythms, the way that words were put together; for example, that I had a hedgehog and a hare, in The Books of Magic, speaking and agreeing with each other much as the Dufflepuds do.

C.S. Lewis was the first person to make me want to be a writer. He made me aware of the writer, that there was someone standing behind the words, that there was someone telling the story. I fell in love with the way he used parentheses — the auctorial asides that were both wise and chatty, and I rejoiced in using such brackets in my own essays and compositions through the rest of my childhood.
I think, perhaps, the genius of Lewis was that he made a world that was more real to me than the one I lived in; and if authors got to write the tales of Narnia, then I wanted to be an author.
Now, if there is a wrong way to find Tolkien, I found Tolkien entirely the wrong way. Someone had left a copy of a paperback called The Tolkien Reader in my house. It contained an essay — “Tolkien’s Magic Ring” by Peter S. Beagle — some poetry, Leaf By Niggle and Farmer Giles of Ham. In retrospect, I suspect I picked it up only because it was illustrated by Pauline Baynes. I would have been eight, maybe nine years old.
What was important to me, reading that book, was the poetry, and the promise of a story.
Now, when I was nine I changed schools, and I found, in the class library, a battered and extremely elderly copy of The Hobbit. I bought it from the school in a library sale for a penny, along with an ancient copy of the Plays of W.S. Gilbert, and I still have it.
It would be another year or so before I was to discover the first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings, in the main school library. I read them. I read them over and over: I would finish The Two Towers and start again at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. I never got to the end. This was not the hardship it may sound — I had already learned from the Peter S. Beagle essay in the Tolkien Reader that it would all come out more or less okay. Still, I really did want to read it for myself.
When I was thirteen I won the school English Prize, and was allowed to choose a book. I chose The Return of the King. I still own it. I only read it once, however — thrilled to find out how the story ended — because around the same time I also bought the one-volume paperback edition. It was the most expensive thing I had bought with my own money, and it was that which I now read and re-read.
I came to the conclusion that Lord of the Rings was, most probably, the best book that ever could be written, which put me in something of a quandary. I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. (That’s not true: I wanted to be a writer then.) And I wanted to write The Lord of the Rings. The problem was that it had already been written.

I gave the matter a great deal of thought, and eventually came to the conclusion that the best thing would be if, while holding a copy of The Lord of the Rings, I slipped into a parallel universe in which Professor Tolkien had not existed. And then I would get someone to retype the book — I knew that if I sent a publisher a book that had already been published, even in a parallel universe, they’d get suspicious, just as I knew my own thirteen-year old typing skills were not going to be up to the job of typing it. And once the book was published I would, in this parallel universe, be the author of Lord of the Rings, than which there can be no better thing. And I read Lord of the Rings until I no longer needed to read it any longer, because it was inside me. Years later, I dropped Christopher Tolkien a letter, explaining something that he found himself unable to footnote, and was profoundly gratified to find myself thanked in the Tolkien book The War of the Ring (for something I had learned from reading James Branch Cabell, no less).
It was in the same school library that had the two volumes of Lord of the Rings that I discovered Chesterton. The library was next door to the school matron’s office, and I learned that, when faced with lessons that I disliked from teachers who terrified me, I could always go up to the matron’s office and plead a headache. A bitter-tasting aspirin would be dissolved in a glass of water, I would drink it down, trying not to make a face, and then be sent to sit in the library while I waited for it to work. The library was also where I went on wet afternoons, and whenever else I could.

The first Chesterton book I found there was The Complete Father Brown Stories. There were hundreds of other authors I encountered in that library for the first time — Edgar Wallace and Baroness Orczy and Dennis Wheatley and the rest of them. But Chesterton was important — as important to me in his way as C.S. Lewis had been.
You see, while I loved Tolkien and while I wished to have written his book, I had no desire at all to write like him. Tolkien’s words and sentences seemed like natural things, like rock formations or waterfalls, and wanting to write like Tolkien would have been, for me, like wanting to blossom like a cherry tree or climb a tree like a squirrel or rain like a thunderstorm. Chesterton was the complete opposite. I was always aware, reading Chesterton, that there was someone writing this who rejoiced in words, who deployed them on the page as an artist deploys his paints upon his palette. Behind every Chesterton sentence there was someone painting with words, and it seemed to me that at the end of any particularly good sentence or any perfectly-put paradox, you could hear the author, somewhere behind the scenes, giggling with delight.
Father Brown, that prince of humanity and empathy, was a gateway drug into the harder stuff, this being a one-volume collection of three novels: The Napoleon of Notting Hill (my favourite piece of predictive 1984 fiction, and one that hugely informed my own novel Neverwhere), The Man Who Was Thursday (the prototype of all Twentieth Century spy stories, as well as being a Nightmare, and a theological delight), and lastly The Flying Inn (which had some excellent poetry in it, but which struck me, as an eleven-year old, as being oddly small-minded. I suspected that Father Brown would have found it so as well.) Then there were the poems and the essays and the art.
Chesterton and Tolkien and Lewis were, as I’ve said, not the only writers I read between the ages of six and thirteen, but they were the authors I read over and over again; each of them played a part in building me. Without them, I cannot imagine that I would have become a writer, and certainly not a writer of fantastic fiction. I would not have understood that the best way to show people true things is from a direction that they had not imagined the truth coming, nor that the majesty and the magic of belief and dreams could be a vital part of life and of writing.
And without those three writers, I would not be here today. And nor, of course, would any of you. I thank you.

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