Which lends to us the glow we know as pow’r.
And yet when seasons change and months are done,
We wax and wane with ev’ry passing hour.
Beneath the pale and ever-shifting face,
The darkened side is ever on the lurk.
Pretending this is truly not the case
Becomes the end of all our earthly work.
For yet we make an idol of the moon,
Exalting her and self as the true light.
When we, lunatics, fade upon the noon
And only shine amidst the blackest night.
The moon and we, are mere reflections dim
Of all truth, beauty, goodness bright in Him.”
-Ryanne J. McLaren
Yes, my title is a hashtag. Sometimes I like to break the trend of ordinary prose. Sorry not sorry. Ironically, however, this post is based on writing standards set waaaaaaaay back in the days of Homer. In reading through The Odyssey for my university’s honors institute, I realized two things: First, listening to Chopin’s nocturnes whilst reading makes even the most boring of passages intensely moving. For real, I felt tears coming when Odysseus’ men were turned into pigs. Thanks, Chopin. Secondly, although Homer (whether of not you believe in him or think he was a group of poets or whatever new conspiracy is floating around in the literary community) does tend to be a bit- well- wordy in his accounts of first the Trojan War and then the homecoming journey of Odysseus, he is a master at his craft and the fact that philosophers and students alike have been studying his epics for thousands of years ought to be proof of that. Further evidence for this mastery is in his recognition of the key components of good writing/story-telling: truth, reason, and beauty.
He says in Book XI lines 363-369:
“‘Odysseus, we as we look upon you do not imagine
that you are a deceptive or thievish man, the sort that the black earth
breeds in great numbers, people who wander widely, making up
lying stories, from which no one could learn anything. You have
a grace upon your words, and there is sound sense within them,
and expertly, as a singer would do, you have told the story
of the dismal sorrows befallen yourself and all of the Argives.'”
In this instance, a king is praising the eloquence and clarity of Odysseus’ account of his journey, but more significantly, Homer is, through this character, identifying the essential components of writing worthy of enduring esteem. Such writing, first of all, must feature truth. When Odysseus concludes his tale, the first remark that the king makes is regarding the verity of Odysseus’ words; they are not fantasy, at least in the context of this epic, and thus deserving of serious consideration. But does all writing need to be true then in order to be great? The Harry Potter geek within me screams “NO!” in answer to this and, actually, the fangirl part of me is correct. C.S. Lewis believed strongly in fiction because of its seemingly paradoxical ability to convey truth. Take his most famous series, The Chronicles of Narnia, for instance. In any given library, these would be shelved with other works of fiction and probably even among children’s fiction. However, it is impossible to read these wonderful books without coming away having learned from them lessons of sacrifice, morality, family, forgiveness, and, consequently, truth. Good fiction always centers on truth. Whether this truth is found in the form of a universal theme such as what it means to be a man or even a real event such as the an ancient war, if you dig deep enough as a reader or write well enough as an author, some aspect of truth will always be found at the core of a truly great piece of literature.
Continuing on, the king praises the sensible nature of Odysseus’ words; he does not use more than necessary. Bored readers might argue that Homer is not exactly concise, but when one considers the vast amount of mythology, culture, character descriptions, interactions, geographical courses, and rituals that are woven together to create the intricate tapestry of this epic, it becomes a wonder that such a magnificent story could be consolidated into a mere twenty-four book poem. This often unappreciated conciseness is vital to truly great writing. Of course, as the saying goes, “even Homer nods”, and some passages, such as the listings of over 600 Achaian ships in The Iliad are arguably a bit much, but considering the wealth of information and the overall complexity, this is certainly excusable.
Finally, Odysseus’ (and Homer’s) words are revered as beautiful. Being originally poetry sung by roaming bards, it is probably a no-brainer that The Iliad and The Odyssey are considered among the most beautiful pieces of literature. In this passage, great writing is described as having “a grace” and being crafted “expertly, as a singer would do.” Both poetry and prose must have a flow, a grace like the one here described. In music performed by a singer, every note, every inflection of the voice, every tiny breathe and consonant must be purposefully employed in order to convey the message of the song. In the same manner, a great writer must choose his or her words with purpose; not a “jot or tittle” is thrown in carelessly in attempt to meet a word count or appear more intelligent to the ignorant reader, but rather, each phrase is composed like a line of music, thus appealing to the reader’s deepest sense of beauty. Of course, one might debate that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but regardless of personal opinions of individual readers, by combining intentionality with artistry, a level of universal beauty, such as that achieved by the enduring works of literature, can be achieved.
To summarize: Many truths. Very clear. Much beauty. (Sorry, breaking the flow of my prose again. At least it was not a hashtag this time.) This passage in The Odyssey was one of those passages that make me gasp “Ah-ha!” aloud in the middle of the library. It made me race to the nearest computer to jot down my thoughts and publish them to my blog in the unlikely case that one of my readers may find inspiration in them as I did. This passage made me take a step back and reevaluate myself as a writer, but it also gave me a renewed passion as it guided me toward the path of truly great writing, that which is truth-centered, focused, and beautiful.
I first picked up Middlemarch in a bookstore because the author’s name was unfamiliar and therefore intriguing. “George Eliot?” I wondered aloud. “I’ve never read anything by him before.”
“Her,” my mom corrected, listening into my thoughts. “George Eliot was a woman.”
Of course then I had to read it. Being a girl with a boy’s name (“Ryanne” is pronounced “Ryan”, which may shock some acquaintances who still cannot seem to remember that), I was excited to find an author who shared my unusual name situation. Turns out, upon checking out Middlemarch
and reading the introduction, Miss George’s name was actually MaryAnne, but she used a masculine name in order to escape discrimination as a female author with strong convictions and, in my opinion, wonderfully biting sarcasm.
Anyway, despite the rolling eyes of my friends and the puzzled expression on my teacher’s face, (apparently not many students choose 19th century British literature for light reading…weird) I dove undaunted into the provincial town of Middlemarch, where I met a character who I relate to so strongly that I confused my life with hers at times and was given an eye-opening look into the complexity of relationships, especially within marriages. I anticipate analyzing this topic and the themes associated with it later, but for now I just want to savor the story and the resonance of its beautifully-flawed characters.
So how do mashed bananas fit in with this? They don’t, but I’m going to exercise my rhetorical skills and tie them in anyway.
Whenever I find myself in the midst of a large project- for instance, finishing a 794-page novel that may or may not start with an “M” and be written by a woman with a man’s name – I tend to despair of ever finishing said task and feel the need to complete some smaller project as encouragement. I also feel the need to eat chocolate. As I was pondering how to satisfy both of these needs, I remembered the squishy bananas in the kitchen and figured that 9:00 at night was as good a time as any to make some banana bread, infused with chocolate of course, to fuel me through the final chapters of Middlemarch. It turned out delicious, although I mostly ate the batter.
So, here you are! Ryanne’s Unofficial-Middlemarch-Mashed-Banana-Coconut-Chocolate-Ooey-Gooey Banana Bread recipe, or, another yummy banana bread recipe with some extra yum. (Titles are not my strong suit.)
1/2 cup coconut oil
4 large, very ripe bananas
1 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
1/4 granulated sugar
1 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
Optional: 1 cup combined shredded coconut and chocolate chips/chunks (I used dark chocolate, but all chocolate is good)
Preheat oven to 375 and grease two loaf pans
In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the sugars, vanilla, eggs, bananas and coconut oil and beat until creamy and smooth.
Add flour and baking powder and beat at low speed for about a minute, until you have a creamy batter. Stir in your coconut.
Pour into greased loaf pan. Do not fill all the way to the top because the bread will raise slightly. (plus, then you have an excuse to save batter to eat raw)
Bake at 375 for 45 minutes to one hour. Insert a tooth pick into the center of the bread and if it comes out clean, your bread is done.
Enjoy with a good book! After all, C.S. Lewis said, ‘Eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably.’
What qualifies a book as a classic? This is the question my classmates and I were faced with in English today and I am probably way more emotionally invested in this subject than I should be, but my answer to this question has taken years to discover! And, after all, isn’t most literature in some way based on a quest for self-knowledge? Wouldn’t such a quest evoke passion in real life?
Anyway, I digress.
Basically, my answer to this question is that literature is not made; it grows and develops as humanity does. That is what makes books such as Jane Eyre, Les Miserables, Vanity Fair, and Dracula classics. These enduring masterpieces do not rise to fame and fade away like many of those novels on the current New York Times Bestseller list because they are more than just entertainment; they are reflections of humanity, despite their dramatic plots or fanciful characters. They remain stocked on bookstore and library shelves while other tales come and go and are read and forgotten by fickle readers. Why do they endure? Because their themes remain applicable to human life, their conflicts observable in the modern world, and their characters relatable in spite of their age differences with current readers.
That was my answer, but I had to wonder, do all classics have to be deep, wordy, and- let’s face it- rather dull? Or could some pieces of literary genius be- dare I wonder?- simple? Innocent? Entertaining even?
C.S. Lewis says yes.
Actually, what he really says is, “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally- and often far more- worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”
Wait. He’s talking about children’s books, not the brick-like jungles of symbols and allusions that we must machete our way through in our English courses, but children’s books! Suddenly a whole new world is opened to readers and we no longer have to feel like we cannot benefit from the wisdom of literature simply because we do not care for ten-syllable words and tragic endings! The wardrobe has been opened again to all readers and we can return to the “Narnias” and “Secret Gardens” we left behind.
It seems that often people ignore the relevancy of children’s books to their adult lives, but perhaps it would do us good to return to their simple wisdom and beauty. It is likely- no, it is definite- that upon rereading a children’s book that you read as a child, you will find meaning where once you saw only a story. For instance, I reread The Secret Garden to give my brain a vacation, but where I expected to find the familiar story I read as a young girl, I found a tale of friendship, determination, overcoming, forgiveness, and even redemption. These were certainly not themes that I detected as a beginning reader, but upon revisiting this childhood garden, I discovered that morals and symbols had bloomed like flowers since my first visit.
My English teachers always insisted that I bring my arguments full-circle (probably just as well, since I do tend to ramble), so to conclude, classic literature endures because it continues to be relevant and applicable, not, as a classmate of mine said- because the authors are long-winded and professors like to look smart by explaining vocabulary. If my answer is correct and C.S. Lewis is to be believed (which he should be, seeing as he had some experience with literature himself…you know, being an author and all that…) , many children’s books fall into this category; Charlotte’s Web may sit beside Pride and Prejudice, Redwall can have adventures with The Lord of the Rings, Nancy Drew can share secrets with Sherlock Holmes.
So you see, children’s books are completely equal to, and perhaps above, many “adult” classics in their vast stores of wisdom and potential for application. They are not to be looked down upon for the youth of their intended audience, but may even set examples for what true literature ought to be.