The Aslan, the warlock and the cupboard: more on One Bright Star: [Updated][Updated a bit more+]

miaow

[There is an interesting alternate view of Tybalt from a fan of Wright here]

[I’m putting some additional Tybalt opinions at the end]

It is a rule of blogging that a blog in search of hits must blog on the topics that have received hits. Such is the way of the blog.

The recent posts on the Sandifer-Day discussion received some nice slow-burn attention from directions other than File 770. Which was nice. So to break that winning streak I’m going to waffle on more about the Hugo puppy-nominated story “One Bright Star To Guide Them”. Specifically I am going to consider whether Tybalt the Talking Cat makes any allegorical sense whatsoever.

To recap “One Bright Star To Guide Them” is a story that looks at some characters in adulthood who, as children, went on a Narnia like adventure. The author is John C Wright and it was edited by Vox Day. It is one of several works by Wright that received a Hugo nomination this year (2015) because of the Rabid Puppy slate.

In the story the hero is Thomas and he has lived a somewhat successful,life since his childhood struggle against the forces of evil. His return to this supernatural struggle is heralded by the appearance of talking cat (yay!) called Tybalt. For most of the story Tybalt the Talking Cat guides Thomas through a series of conflicts and encounters with his former childhood companions.

Towards the end of the story Thomas is commanded by Tybalt to kill him (Tybalt). Understandably Thomas is reluctant to do so but Tybalt insists – essentially saying that as grown man Thomas should follow the orders he is given. Thomas kills Tybalt and by doing so can wield a magic sword against the main baddy of the story.

Later, as the story wraps up, a monstrous winged lion appears to Thomas and explains his future role as the wise-old-man of a future generation of heroes. The lion turns out to be Tybalt resurrected, who says:

Thomas, I have not died. Rejoice; I am risen. The Lord of the Fortunate Islands, the Emperor of the Summer Country, has banished death and dying from his kingdom, and only those who flee his kingdom will encounter them.

So that is Tybalt.
Now in the Sandifer-Day podcast the two of them spend some time discussing Tybalt as piece of Christian allegory. In Wright’s blog post on the topic he focuses on this exchange.

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 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.

In short John C Wright’s story has overt Narnia overtones, and includes a talking cat/lion who dies and is resurrected. Hence Tybalt is like Aslan and Aslan is like Jesus and hence by some law of transitivity, Tybalt is therefore a Jesus figure (plus other stuff).

Now there are certainly oddities there. In Wright’s story the hero kills Tybalt and also Tybalt is a lesser being than the god-figure of the fantasy realm (presumably The Lord of the Fortunate Islands, the Emperor of the Summer Country – a name with Arthurian suggestions, along with the Glastonbury setting of one chapter).

Wright, in a comment on his blog, rejects this reading of Tybalt and indeed sees the work as not being particularly Christian. Indeed he regards it as significant that he wrote it when he was an atheist (although it was published only recently).

Wright says of the allegorical elements of Tybalt:

The symbolism is perhaps heavy handed: The tale is about the growth from childhood to manhood. This is the moment when Thomas no longer relies unquestioning on his childhood beliefs.

The death of the beastlike non-reasoning part of his soul ignites the light of reason. However, he must break the weapon to that the light is everywhere, all around him.

This breaking is symbolic of analysis, questioning one’s own deepest unspoken assumptions. He breaks the weapon so that it can be reforged by his next student. The whole scene is a symbol of skeptical, of obedience turning into understanding.

Mr Sandofer takes it as a symbol of unquestioning obedience, as if Tybalt were Isaac being sacrificed by Abraham where Zadkiel is unexpectedly delayed.

Mr Beale takes Tybalt to be a symbol of redemptive sacrifice, as if Tybalt died for Tommy sins. There is nothing in the text to support this. I suppose all who died and return from death are Christ figures in the same way all women are Venus and all men are Mars, but, aside from that, Aslan is a Christ figure because he is king, and he dies to save Edmund, whose life is forfeit for his treason. Here, Tommy has committed no treason; he is the appointed champion and knight of the light. The black cat is much more like a familiar, a guiding spirit. And he is snide and proud and nothing like Aslan at all. The black cat returns in a larger and more glorious form because all childhood virtues, when they are reformed into adult strengths, turn into something greater: think of the loyalty and teamwork learned in Little League coming to fruition when a man joins the Army.

In short, according to Wright both Sandifer and Day get Tybalt completely wrong. Tybalt is symbolic of the childish “beastlike” non-reasoning part of the soul. Thomas has to kill his childishness o move forward.

As Wright points out Day’s reading can’t be correct because Tybalt differs from Aslan in key ways. Yet Wright also says that Day’s mistaken (which would be a big one if it was a mistake from the guy who edited the story) was less bad than Sandifer. Philip Sandifer looks at it in terms of obedience – which is a pretty reasonable take given that is how Tybalt present it in the text:

It is not the stalwart soldiers of the Sons of Light who question orders, Little Tommy, but wilful children. At the place of the Swordbearer, I bade you leap and you leaped not. Woe came of that, and capture, and Richard died, whom you were meant to save. Are you not a Man?

Tybalt repudiates Thomas for not following Tybalt’s advice and demands obedience from Thomas.

What are we to make of this? According to Wright, killing Tybalt is symbolic of the death of the unreasoning beast like part of his soul. Yet Tybalt has been acting as guide throughout and as an adviser and, as Tybalt points out, when Thomas has not listened to Tybalt things have gone awry. So is Tybalt reason or beast-like unreason? Wright’s second comment that killing Tybalt is like a kind of skepticism makes a bit more sense i.e. we use reason to attack our own reasoning to form new ideas. Hmmm – that is a bit to like Hegelian dialectics for my taste but maybe Wright is more fond of Hegel or maybe Marx (!)

Wright points to his previous atheism as an indication of the story lacking Christian allegory. Well we should trust the writer on what they did intentionally versus what they did unintentionally. A story whose most interesting aspects are accidental is not a great testament to the quality of the writer.

Consider:

  • Atheist or not Wright, in a story with nods to Narnia, includes a talking lion/cat who is killed and who is resurrected. If you bake Aslan shaped cookies people will say “these cookies look like Aslan”. The same is true of talking cats and Wright surely can’t have not noticed that his non-Aslan is quite a bit Aslan like.
  • Tybalt poses his death in terms of not just an apparently Christian sense of obedience (not only Sandifer but Day also pick up on this) but also in terms of courage. When Tybalt reappears he is in the form of a winged lion – Christian iconography from Revelations, often associated with the evangelist St Mark (and/or his gospel) and also a symbol of christian courage. Maybe Mr Wright was unschooled in such iconography when he wrote it but odd he missed it now. But sometimes a giant winged supernatural lion is just a giant winged supernatural lion.

What are we to conclude? The simplest answer is that Tybalt is an allegorical mess and the reason for that is Wright really didn’t know what he was doing. I’m happy to believe that Wright’s claims about what he intended are correct but all we can conclude from that is what was obvious from the beginning: One Bright Start To Guide Them is not well written nor well edited and the potentially interesting ideas are mainly happenstance.

Extra Tybalt Graphs from Simon Bucher Jones: http://www.simonbjones.blogspot.co.uk/2015/06/a-helpful-graphic-comparing-religious.html

Philip Sandifer’s open letter to JCW: http://www.philipsandifer.com/2015/06/an-open-letter-to-john-c-wright.html

Advertisements

19 thoughts on “The Aslan, the warlock and the cupboard: more on One Bright Star: [Updated][Updated a bit more+]

  1. Gah. Aslan isn’t a kitty cat. He’s a lion. In an homage to British children’s lit (Time Cat, Grimbold’s nIght world, Carbonel, Puss-in-frackin’ boots. etc. etc.) the black fairy tale cat IS IN FACT a fairy tale cat and not a Jesus-lion. The fact that none of you lot is as well read as Wright is not the problem of the story-teller.

    The obedience is the obedience of the soldier: he must first master it, in order to command others in his turn.

    It’s easy to make allegorical messes of non-existent allegories, but again, not the writer’s problem.

    Maybe if Mr. Wright dumbed his work down, it would be more “Hugo worthy.” For values of modern-day Hugos, of course.

    Like

  2. Thanks for dropping by.

    OGH: “Aslan isn’t a kitty cat. He’s a lion.”

    And Tybalt is also a lion (at the end) – but if Tybalt was a panther or even a puppy there would still be obvious parallels with Aslan – if you stick a talking animal into a story with obvious parallels to Narnia and it is killed and resurrected only a very ignorant writer wouldn’t think “that will remind people of Aslan”. I doubt you are going to be able to convince me that John C Wright is an ignorant writer, as all the evidence suggests he is quite well informed.

    OGH: “the black fairy tale cat IS IN FACT a fairy tale cat and not a Jesus-lion”

    Symbolic things can reference more than one thing. “Tybalt” is the name of the Prince of Cats from the medieval tales of Reynard the Fox – and of course referenced by Mercutio when addressing the non-cat character Tybalt (Juliet’s cousin) in Romeo and Juliet. I didn’t feel the need to spell out all the multiple levels of referencing that occur when you mention a talking cat called Tybalt.

    The thing is most talking cats do not die in a kind of magical ritual sacrifice and rise again. And in modern Western society, cat-or-not, death and resurrection references Jesus (no, not JUST Jesus and, yes it predates Christian culture).

    OGH: ” The fact that none of you lot is as well read as Wright is not the problem of the story-teller. ”

    I’m not sure who “you lot” is, as it seems to encompass a group that includes Philip Sandifer and Theodore Beale/Vox Day. As Wright might say – you may have to define your terms.

    OGH: “The obedience is the obedience of the soldier: he must first master it, in order to command others in his turn.”

    Sounds reasonable and Day seems to take it that way also. However according to John C Wright Tybalt represents “the beastlike non-reasoning part of his soul”. So you’d have this beastlike non-reasoning part of his soul exhorting Thomas to adopt the obedience of the soldier? And not this obedience is meant to be a good thing and yet the demand of it comes form the beastlike source of non-reasoning.

    And if we take this as story that is not engaging in Christian allegory, to what is Thomas being obedient to? Again Theodore Beale takes it as obedience to god.

    Wright contradicts you of course – this is actually NOT obedience but “obedience turning into understanding”. As a notion that would make sense if it remotely fitted in with Tybalt’s character at any other point in the story.

    OGH: “It’s easy to make allegorical messes of non-existent allegories, but again, not the writer’s problem.”

    Well it is the writer’s problem when the writer’s publisher and editor make the same confusion.

    OGH: “Maybe if Mr. Wright dumbed his work down”

    I think he needs to do the exact opposite. There is a good story there but currently it is a mess.

    Like

  3. The story is indeed a mess, and slovenly to boot. It’s supposedly set in Britain, yet we have sidewalks instead of pavements, automobiles instead of cars, and a protagonist called Thomas S. Robertson. (No Englishman uses his middle initial like that.)

    When is the story supposed to be taking place? We know from her gravestone that Penny was born in 1940 and died in 1987. We also know that Sally/Sarah is under forty, Tommy is a little over forty and Richard is presumably somewhere close in age. The four knew each other as children, and visited the Summer Country some thirty years ago. If the story’s present is late 1987, early 1988, that would make Penny seventeen at the time – hardly a child.

    Richard was expelled from school for getting a girl pregnant. The girl had an abortion on the NHS. (I’ll pass over the way in which that’s expressed.) This cannot have happened before 1968. At the very outside Richard might have been eighteen when he was expelled, so he was born in 1950 or later and is only thirty-seven at most. But the impression given is that he is at least Tommy’s age, if not more. Regardless, what on earth was the almost adult Penny doing playing with a bunch of ten year olds?

    Incidentally, does Wright realise Brighton is the gay capital of Britain? Is that why Tommy is middle-aged and unmarried?

    What really annoys me about this pretentious piece of crap is that there’s a good idea buried somewhere deep under the rubbish. A competent editor might have been able to tease it out, but unfortunately……

    Like

  4. Hmm, and if is set in the late 1980’s then possessed Lord Wodenhouse, cabinet minister “of the Admiralty” was appointed by, …dun, dun, derrrrr…., Margaret Thatcher!
    It is all secret stealth SJW message fiction! I wonder if Arthur Scargill had a talking cat?*

    [*I am joking]
    [** Ken Livingstone may have had a talking newt]

    Like

  5. Wright spent 6 months or so over in the UK and so he knows all about it. You can see it also in Pale Realms of Shade where he talks about street signs..

    Like

  6. I’m no fan of Wright, but I think there’s a more charitable reading here. Tybalt’s “beastlike, unreasoning” instincts and intuition can be a perfectly good guide, but Thomas can only start to become wise by breaking them down into axioms to reason from. Classic conservative-authoritarian moral philosophy, in other words.

    Like

    1. Hmm, that does start to make sense. That it is Tybalt who commands Thomas to slay him though, undermines that reading as it implies that it is our instinct to abandon our instinct. However I agree that Wright is trying to get at that idea but it gets all puddled.

      Here is a quote:
      Are you not a man? He 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.

      I think that quotes muddles up all three aspects – the obedience to a higher being, the Christian notions of dominion over the animals and the notion of higher reason than instinct (not that Tybalt is particularly instinctive)

      Like

      1. Or to put it more kindly once again, that it’s our instinctive understanding that we’re more than beasts that commands us to use our reason. Or in a Christian reading, that those instincts are an awareness of God, which is why they demand courage and obedience.

        I should confess here that I’ve not read the story and don’t particularly intend to, but I think I agree with you about the muddle. The fairy tale conflicts with the Narnian fantasy conflicts with the allegory of Reason conflicts with the retrofitted Christianity, kind of thing. (I may expand on that later, if I can get my thoughts in proper order.)

        Like

  7. One of Wright’s (many) problems is that he’s trying to shoehorn everything in, with all the subtlety of a brick.

    Tybalt’s origins lie in the animal helper of fairy tale. He gives advice, it’s ignored, and he then has to rescue the protagonist. He’s reminiscent of the fox helper in the Grimm Brothers’ The Golden Bird, who at the end asks the hero to kill him so that he can be restored as the long lost brother of the princess. Tybalt even first appears in a liminal place, near a doorway.

    At the same time Tybalt is a heavenly helper, a guardian angel figure, and while there’s nothing wrong with that – in the hands of a better writer it could work extremely well – Wright makes his transformation too reminiscent of Aslan. (I can picture Wright: “How can I make the reader see this isn’t a cheap rip off of Aslan? I know – I’ll give him WINGS!”

    It strikes me as being of a piece with the litany of names and events, which ought to be evocative and just becomes turgid. Or the need to reference as many books as possible, so we get Atlendor’s tarn-cape, the cavern with the sleeping knights – and just in case we missed it, we’re hit over the head with the school at Alderley Edge – all in the space of a few paragraphs. (I wonder if Wright has read Garner’s Boneland – I’d guess he’d hate it.)

    Bah! Must be off, I’m halfway through training my goldfish to talk so I can take over London.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. As an artist, the worst part is this:
    It was dim in the room, for no lights were switched on. Richard Sommerville’s office was large and square, carpeted in an acre of red, its walls hung with ugly modern paintings: rich frames filled with colored blobs and jagged scrawls, every picture without meaning or any skill of execution. It was November, and the days were short. Through the wide window behind Richard’s desk, a sunset in hues of cerise and purple drew a line between the shadows of the earth and the shadow of the darkening sky. It was a mournful sight.

    Like

  9. “every picture without meaning”

    Obviously if a picture doesn’t tell a story it can’t be Art. That’s how we know Richard’s gone bad.

    Let me quote from the blog of the master himself:

    “During a polite but wide disagreement with a reader, he referred to a painting by Picasso which he called ‘solid work’. Trustingly, and giving him the benefit of the doubt, I looked at the picture, and suffered the fate of many unhappy scholarly characters in an H.P. Lovecraft novel upon beholding an eldritch horror, but without the glamor or strangeness or sense of the unearthly which beholding non-euclidean shapes of a cruel cephalopod or malign mollusc might impart. It was merely banal ugliness, as one might see scrawled in poop by a lunatic on the walls of Bedlam by an inmate after his weekly beating by surly and uncaring guards.”

    Or as we say in the UK: “Bloody foreign rubbish!”

    Like

    1. The odd thing is he claims some sort of connection to the purity of reason and a sort of platonic philosophy. Yet he repeatedly finds abstract representation repellent ( well appears too – he expresses repugnance – it could all be a weird act). If you can’t appreciate abstract beauty, I can’t see how a person can believe also in objective beauty.

      Like

Comments are closed.