How many of you know where that albatross is from?
That’s right! Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. In that great poem (the first long poem I read in ballad stanza form, which inspired me to make a stab at ballad stanza writing myself . . . an ambitious stab, not altogether unsuccessful. If you ever see it in print, think of Coleridge!), the albatross is a symbol of Christ, leading the sailors through stormy seas. But one of the sailors, the Ancient Mariner, kills the bird in a moment of vicious thoughtlessness.
After the Mariner has done this foolish thing, he and his shipmates are lost in calm waters, trapped, starving, parched. At long last, when they have almost given up hope, they see a sail on the horizon. Are they saved?
But no. Coleridge describes the approaching vessel like this:
Are those her ribs through which the Sun
Did peer, as through a grate?
And is that Woman all her crew?
Is that a DEATH? and are there two?
Is DEATH that Woman’s mate?
Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was white as leprosy,
The Night-mare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man’s blood with cold.
In the following stanza, we see Death and Life-in-Death cast dice for the life of the Ancient Mariner. Life-in-Death wins, crying, “The game is done! I’ve won! I’ve won!” Thus, the Mariner does not die for his sin. Instead, he is made to live . . . a fate far worse.
I’ll never forget the first time I read that passage. It was for my English Lit. II class, one of the college courses I took while still in high school. The image was chilling and has always been one of my favorite creepy-literature moments. I took down a note right there in my notebook, off to the margins: “Life-in-Death . . . the Night-Mare . . . the Lady of Dreams.”
Some of you, who have read my debut novel, Heartless, will perhaps recognize this woman. I give her a slightly different look, but she does, in fact, appear in an early scene of Heartless, within Una’s nightmare. She is the Lady of Dreams Realized, the Life-in-Death. She and her brother, the Dragon, cast a dice for Una’s life . . . the Dragon wins, and goes on to claim Una as his prize.
But what if Life-in-Death should win one of their games? Well, you’ll have to go on and read Veiled Rose to see what that might look like . . . .
But this post is not about Life-in-Death or Veiled Rose. It’s about something much bigger, much more important. It’s about building the great Tower.
C.S. Lewis understood, as a literary scholar, how great literature is formed. It is not something that stems from pure, unadulterated originality. This is impossible. We human beings are individual for certain, but we are also merely human. We cannot have a thought or an idea that is completely original. The more we strive after this in our writing, the more frustrated we shall become.
And yet, who would accuse Lewis of being clichéd? Surely he was an original thinker if there ever was one! Who can read his Space Trilogy and not be boggled by the breadth of his imagination? Who picks up the Chronicles of Narnia and is untouched by the beautiful simplicity of his tales?
Lewis knew what literature is. It’s not “originality” as such. It is a universal effort.
Writing fiction is like building an enormous tower. Each author brings his own block or stack of blocks to the construction site. These blocks are cut and chipped by individuals, but they must fit together in order to build the overall structure. Some will be better suited to certain parts of the tower than others . . . some will fit together more naturally.
Consider Lewis, writing the symbol of the albatross as a type of Christ, slipping his literary block right in next to Coleridge. He took Coleridge’s symbol, but he made it his own in the context of the Narnia stories. His representation of Christ through the character of Aslan is much fuller than Coleridge’s albatross . . . so by using Coleridge’s albatross, he not only honors and acknowledges Coleridge, but also builds upon the foundation that Coleridge began.
In my own, much humbler way, I am trying to do the same. No albatrosses in Goldstone Wood yet! Yet you can see the connection, you can see where my block might possibly nestle beside Lewis’s and Coleridge’s by the symbols I choose. My Lady Life-in-Death is an outgrowth of Coleridge’s work, linking me, not only to Coleridge, but also to C.S. Lewis.
This is literature! This is why people take English Lit. classes . . . to study ALL the ways that writers link themselves together through time and history, sometimes in the most unexpected places! How many, many, many novels use symbols and archetypes found in Shakespeare? Yet Shakespeare himself built atop other writers’ works! And he is but one example of the thousands upon thousands of men and women who contributed to the Tower of Literature.
Writing fiction both is and is not a solitary endeavor. We are all building on the Tower in some way. We bring our individual blocks, but they are only small parts of the whole. And isn’t it wonderful to read the novelists who realize this? Who carve their blocks in subtle ways to stack atop those greats who went before? Think of Neil Gaiman’s Newberry Award-winning, The Graveyard Book. Read it and notice all the amazing connections he purposely wrote, fitting it to Rudyard Kipling’s, The Jungle Book. See how he builds upon the work of Kipling, but expands upon it, makes it his own. His originality is clear, but so is his dependence on the work of Kipling.
It makes me sad how many writers don’t realize the importance of all those little symbols and connections. They either struggle so vehemently for something “original,” or never think about it at all. But this leaves you with a resource of only yourself. And when you limit yourself to yourself (in all areas of life), the result is a very small world indeed.
I find myself doing this often . . . Before writing Heartless, I got myself into a deep, writerly hole out of the simple desire to think up something original! It was such a relief to realize that originality wasn’t the issue . . . the only new thing I had to bring to the table was me. Not my ideas. Just my perspective and my way with words. So I tackled a story with as many classic archetypes as I could find (some people even say stereotypes). I worked to connect it to those great authors I admire. It is by no means a perfect result . . . but it’s a beginning!
So next time you read Lewis, or Tolkien, George MacDonald, Peter S. Beagle, Diana Wynne Jones . . . any of your favorite novelists . . . watch for those connections. Look for those symbols that link them to others who went before, the poets and novelists and playwrights who placed those founding blocks beneath them. And when you pick up the pen to write, consider how you too can contribute to the Tower.