Tommy Taylor: The Unwritten

Written by Mike Carey and illustrated by Peter Gross, “The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity” is the first episode in a graphic novel series first released in 2010.

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The novel tells three interweaving stories. The first tells of three kids Tommy, Peter and Sue, facing the wicked wizard Count Ambrosio. Tommy Taylor has dark hair and round glasses and has a wheel tattoo which aches when his nemesis is near. [Harry Potter much ?]

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Tommy speaks the words of a spell defeating Ambrosio but injuring himself in the process. Bruised and dying, Tommy cannot survive the encounter but his friends know the prophecy and taking Ambrosio’s trumpet, they sound the final note.

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The second tale is set in the present day, Tom Taylor is a celebrity doing the rounds of comic conventions. His father, Wilson Taylor authored the wildly successful comic book series about boy wonder “Tommy Taylor”.  His father’s sudden disappearance at the height of his fame, meant Tom unaccomplished in his own right, has been the face of his father’s work.

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During a comic convention Q&A, Tom is accused by journalist Lizzie Hexam to be an impostor. Evidence emerges that Tom’s childhood records have been fabricated.

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Fans begin to agitate for the truth about Tom’s identity. One fan, steeped in Tommy Taylor lore, claims that Tom is the “word made flesh” and is the incarnate form of the boy written into the comic books. This fan theory is dismissed as the bogus ramblings of a crazy man but Tom is shaken by it. Framed as an impostor, pursued by crazed fans thinking him to be the real Tommy Taylor made flesh, Tom flees to Europe to track down information about his deceased father.

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Here Tom is framed for murder by Pullman, a mysterious hitman.

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The third tale is a behind the scenes account of sinister characters seeking to rewrite public opinion and conceal the truth of Tom’s identity.  In an epilogue famous authors such as Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde and finally Wilson Taylor interact with mysterious suited gentlemen who offer literary fame in exchange for adherence to their agenda. The ascendency or decline of these authors is determined entirely by the whims and caprices of these mysterious men.

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The three stories begin to strangely intertwine as the narrative continues. The mysterious suited gentlemen  frame Tom as a murderer but while Tom is being arrested, the winged cat Mingus, his childhood companion from the comic series appears to him.

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Once in jail, Tom encounters Lizzie Hexam and another inmate Savoy, both reporters who have planted themselves in jail to shadow Tom. Together they plot an escape. Lizzie reveals she is still in touch with Wilson Taylor the author of Tommy Taylor and uses an magic door knob from the comic books to break out from jail. Tom, Lizzie and Savoy, now mirror the three young characters, Tommy, Peter and Sue, from the Tommy Taylor stories. The door knob carries the three into a series of parallel stories.

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It seems we are a party three layers of authorship. While it seems that Tom lives in the real world while Tommy Taylor exists in the scripted world of comic books. However, increasingly it is revealed there exists a higher world vying for control of Tom’s life indicating he is perhaps the one and the same Tommy Taylor written into different scenes, but one with moral agency and self-consciousness.

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The stories explore the interesting nexus between fiction and the human consciousness. Is Tom in fact also Tommy, and is he still the subject of Wilson Taylor’s fiction?

Who are the mysterious suited gentlemen and is Wilson Taylor writing Tom into “real life” in order to subvert their controls?

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Like Sophie’s World – the text explores the interaction of author with characters of their literary worlds. The characters are granted life by the author; at what point do they have moral agency or free will of their own?

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At what point do we question whether it is in fact us that are the characters within someone else’s story? Who controls the forces within our world, wars, revolutions, famous ideas, cultural change. To what extent are we truly free?

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Count Ambrosio the arch villain of the Tommy Taylor comics, who breaks into Tom’s world and seeks to execute him, articulates the main point best:

Stories are the only thing worth dying for.

Stories shape our world, powerful story tellers influence generations to think and feel in history shaping ways. Stories shape political and religious ideas and shape cultural identities. It is for stories and ideals that people go to war, begin revolutions, sacrifice wealth and change laws and social systems.

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Who would seek to control our stories? And as agents within a story, how can we use the devices of stories to escape the powers that would control us?

Tom and Lizzie

JRR Tolkien, philologist, linguist and lover of ancient narratives and myths, argued that:

Myths are not lies.

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Tolkien detested heaved handed moralism of fables such as Pilgrims Progress, opting instead to created internally consistent worlds with characters each with their own place within history and mythology. So serious was he about story, that he argued with CS Lewis, then a staunch atheist, that life was in fact a grand narrative into which the great mythical archetypes had intersected.

As a Catholic, to him the Christ narrative was the event in which myth…

…has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation.

For Tolkien and later Lewis who later wrote much on the matter, the ground and truth of the Christ narrative was that in it the Word became flesh.  The intervention of voice and hand of the author into history transformed history from a random collocation of events into a grand narrative imbued with profound meaning.

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To them both, this miraculous juncture gave ground to the struggle for meaning in their lives. In it, the author meets them and exonerates their quest for agency.

 

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J.K. Rowling is the world’s most influential person

Psychologist Adam Grant wrote one of my favourite books “Give and Take”, a book which examines the merits and power of being someone who “gives more than they get.”

In this article, published in Tech Insider this week, he posits that children’s author JK Rowling has been incredibly influential in shaping the values of a whole generation of young people.

Here at Bear Skin, we say “Hear hear!!” The sentiment that good writing shapes empathy and broadens perspectives, in turn shaping behaviour is a Bear Skin mantra.

Please enjoy.

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J.K. Rowling is the world’s most influential person, says top psychologist — and the reasons why are stunningly convincing

by Chris Weller

If we define someone’s influence as how much they can shape people’s thoughts and goals, Adam Grant says J.K. Rowling is in a league of her own. Thanks to her “Harry Potter” books, millions of young readers have been trained in social and emotional skills that policymakers are only starting to get behind.

Grant, a professor at Wharton Business School and author of Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, recently bestowed the title of “most influential” on Rowling in a Q&A on the open forum site Parlio.

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Not counting the Bible,

“Harry Potter has reached more people than any other book series in history,”

Grant points out.

“Never mind the movies, merchandising, and other sources of contact.”

Worldwide, “Harry Potter” books have sold more than 450 million copies.

The next highest series is “Lord of the Rings,” by J.R.R. Tolkien, at a comparably paltry 150 million copies.

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But Rowling isn’t just the most influential because she moves a lot of paper, Grant argues. It’s how her books affect kids, both in the moment and for life.

“It affects them when they’re young and impressionable — and has inspired an entire generation to read, opening the door to many other avenues for education,”

he says.

Some adults certainly read novels as a form of escape, but great novels suck you in. Science backs it up.

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Psychological research suggests that, by stepping inside the mind of a main character, reading makes us more empathetic. We consider alternative points of view and see the rationale behind choices that we may never face firsthand.

More than that, “Harry Potter” has been found to be especially helpful in reducing kids’ latent biases: Perspective-taking, wrote researchers of a 2014 study, “emerged as the process allowing attitude improvement” toward immigrants, homosexuals, and refugees when people sided with Harry over Voldemort.

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The stories may take place in fantastical worlds, but its relatable themes get kids thinking positively about the Earth they inhabit.

“Ms. Rowling,”

Grant says, addressing the author,

“the world would be a better place if you kept writing ‘Harry Potter’ books.”

You can read the full article from Tech Insider here.

A New Hope

As early trailers for Star Wars Episode VII ‘The Force Awakens’ are released, fever rises amongst fans worldwide.

It is the “originals” that most of us consider to be the greater films, Episode IV, V and VI, released in 70s and early 80s, for many of us, films of our childhood.

Will the new films meet our expectations?

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So significant were these films that they have marked a generation. The first release, Episode IV was entitled “A New Hope” and ever since then the galaxy long, long ago and far, far away has been a second home for many.

And a source of hope.

Why so significant? Why do these films, along with the recent success of Harry Potter books and films, and the enduring greatness of Tolkein’s books and films, rank so highly in the charts for commercial success?

Why have they imprinted themselves so profoundly on the popular psyche?

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Surely entertainment value alone cannot account for such significance!?

Joseph Campbell building on the work of Carl Jung, examined myth and narrative in the context of psychological theory. The ‘hero journey’ he defined, common to epic narratives, aligned with the human subconscious or dream journey, taking the voyeur through trials, to wholeness and health.

Unlike his contemporary, Bertrand Russell, Campbell praised the work of narrative to inspire hope.

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Bertrand Russell, however, renowned  20th century philosopher and staunch atheist wrote in his paper, A Free Man’s Worship :

That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins–all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

Only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair …………

In Russell’s philosophical view, facing the reality of our insignificance is the healthiest and most real human endeavour, one more developed than any submission to gods of natural forces or ideals. To him any other belief was self-deluding fancy.

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Yet in the midst of such modern and post-modern thought, fantasy and science fiction narratives [arguably modern myths and legends]  continually call us to believe.

Deeply philosophical and spiritual in nature, these stories have us asking such questions of our existence as:

  1. Why is there something, rather than nothing?
  2. How can I know the world?
  3. Do humans have intrinsic worth?
  4. What is the significance of human suffering?
  5. Do we have anything to hope in beyond this life?

Narrative calls the viewer/ observer into a journey with the protagonist or hero, a journey which bestows upon the hero great worth and responsibility.

This worth, whether via royal or supernatural endowment, enables the hero to triumph over difficult and dark trials, with a promise of hope of restoration beyond.

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Joseph Campbell concurs with Carl Jung and others, that such a journey which restores the protagonist to “hope” is in fact the healthiest course for the human psyche.

But is this simply a case of “the benefits of religions for the atheist” as Alain de Botton would say?

Is it simply that, while “hope” is good for the soul so to speak, one cannot simply surrender a scientific or rationalist framework and so simply admire “hope” from afar?

Anaïs Nin recorded in her diary in 1943:

Stories are the only enchantment possible, for when we begin to see our suffering as a story, we are saved.

Believing we are, like the characters we love, simply part of a grand narrative – is ultimately redemptive.

But, one simply cannot BELIEVE in cosmic hope against all evidence or simply because it is of temporary benefit to emotional health!

Can we?

To Russell, hope beyond death is a false hope and so truth and freedom, he concludes, can be found in stark acceptance of this finite existence:

Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned to-day to lose his dearest, to-morrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of Fate, to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power.

Unless one finds an ounce of empirical evidence for the breaking in of dream into history, and of narrative into real life!

Scholars consider the Christian narrative to make such audacious claims through the historical birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

An earlier post attempted to excavate some of the historical evidences for the validity of this claim by first century eyewitnesses. For the sake of brevity, we will not here seek to repeat.

Nevertheless, in the Christian narrative, as C. S. Lewis writes, “myth meets history”. No longer a theoretical hope, nice-to-believe but incongruent with lived experience, “myth broke through into time and space” endowing humanity with intrinsic worth and showing ultimate reality, God to suffer with us. This process, turned back death and sorrow and restored life.

This truly is A New Hope! 

Fiction cannot be False

The power of art is to speak the truth. In fact, it is of utmost importance that artists treat their work and their subjects as real places with living beings. Audiences detect fakes – even within fantasy worlds. How curious, right? Ethan Gilsdorf affirms my views in his latest review of  “The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies” in Wired this week. He scathingly decries Jackson’s prequels as “losing the plot” – literally. He writes:

J.R.R. Tolkien once said that “believable fairy-stories must be intensely practical. You must have a map, no matter how rough.” But in Peter Jackson’s new and final Hobbit film, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, which opened Wednesday, there is no map. There’s not even a plan. We veer far not just from Middle-earth, but from all plausibility.

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Gilsdorf continues to list sequence after sequence of mind bending CGI chases and escapes. He lists among them, rabbit-drawn sleds, physics-bending chases along wooden catwalks and bridges within the Goblin caves, fights sequences which resort to three-stooges antics and pratfalls, river barrel rides resembling a theme park ride, and a silly elf-dwarf romance planted surely to appeal to teenage girl audiences  – and many others which undermine the credibility of the films.

You can’t fault Jackson for his physical world-building. The attention to detail—every set, every special effect, every prop and suit of armor and ruined town, every last smouldering candlestick and dragon scale—is unparalleled. Middle-earth feels real. But in these Hobbit movies, the more important thing to get right is situational realism: How the plot turns, what the characters do, if they move through space in a believable way. All this is thrown out the door. The sincerity of Thorin and Bilbo’s struggles is completely undermined by the story’s blanket disregard for physics, logic, and credibility. Gone into the ether is Tolkien’s gentle, thoughtful, and more plausible children’s tale.

The new Battle of Five Armies, stoops to even lower lows in Gilsdorf’s mind, to reach new levels of computer generated “kinetic fury”, more like “Mortal Combat” than an epic masterpiece of literature or film.

“Without the cooperation of the Tolkien estate, there can’t be more films,” Jackson said at a press conference after The Battle of the Five Armies‘ world premiere in London. At the moment, Tolkien’s heirs don’t seem eager to sell the movie rights to any of his other works. Like the Elves who depart Middle-earth for Valinor, it seems that Jackson’s hold over Tolkien’s will someday fade.

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Not unlike George Lucas’ efforts to revive Star Wars,  Jackson it seems has largely messed it up for die-hard fans, with shallow characters and an over-reliance on CGI and effects. Modern fantasy has its roots in classical myth and legend, something Tolkein knew intimately. He respected ancient literature and language and sought to create a mythical saga that rivalled the greats.  The time he spent crafting languages, a depth of history, genealogies, sub cultures, geographic believability and a political and economic environment,  all created architecture for his characters to live and breath real lives.

When we read, watch or listen to a story – we inhabit the story. For many audience members, this inhabitation is not merely an escape for 2 hours on a holiday but a journey they will be willing to make again and again if the world is crafted carefully for them to be believable and the journey of the protagonists a journey that brings them self realisation, courage or peace.

May we have more fiction that tells the truth.

Reading the Bible as Literature

In an earlier post, I essayed about how meaning in the Book of Job can be excavated by understanding the genre as a form of late 2nd and 3rd century BC  satire. This literary understanding of Job should shake few orthodox believers since few scholars posit that Job has much historical merit. Even Calvin did not put any historical weight to Job rather stating that Job was a literary piece.

This begs the question, what can be gained by reading the Bible as literature? And what can be lost?

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Much of the bitter debates between science and faith stem from a scientific reading, or attempt thereof, of Genesis 1-3. Problems, arise from placing historical merit to genres such as apocalyptic [Daniel, Revelation]. Literary-critical readings of the ancient texts have attempted to excavate and construction process of each text, assembling fragments of early texts and detecting seam-lines between these and newer segments, seeking to map the hand of later editors or ‘redactors’.

Is there merit in assuming that for scripture to be credible, it must have poured in one sitting into the mind of the author and transcriber and onto a scroll, much like Muhammed’s reception of the Qu’ran in a cave centuries ago? Does the hand of editors, the assemblage of various genres and the combination of historical events with literary and theological meaning undermine the merit of scripture, infallibility, inerrancy and so forth? What are the implications of  genre [generic?] readings of scripture?

The heart of such questions comes down to this – do the above questions, undermine the truth of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, the cornerstone of Christian beliefs? If the earlier passages are various forms of methaphor, simile, parable, fable, legend and poetry – can we put any historical, scientific and factual weight into the existence of Jesus and the value of his teaching?

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C. S. Lewis wrote extensively about myth and the gospels, owning that the  crucifixion, while being a historical event [Cornelius Tacitus in his Annals, xv. 44: Christus … was executed at the hands of the procurator Pontious Pilate], this doesn’t preclude its subsequent mythologization. But neither does it negate its historicity. The accounts of Jesus life and deaths assert that  is that the ressurection was a specific historical event in which humanity finally gains a fulfillment of its ancient desire for eternity:

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens — at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.

Myth became fact, essay published in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, C. S. Lewis, Walter Hooper (Editor), Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Reprint edition (October 1994; original copyright 1970 by the Trustees of the Estate of C. S. Lewis). 

Lewis essentially surmises, that all the ancient poets, artistcs and mystics, dreamed of a solution to the human dilemma, and painted word pictures to express this resolution. When Christ lived and died, he simply fulfilled these predictions, in historical time. This is the truest case of characters walking out of dream into history, out of narrative and into time.

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JRR Tolkien says as much,  stating that  the difference between the ‘fairy-story’ (or for Lewis, ‘mythic’) elements of the Gospels and other fairy-stories,  is that the Christian story ‘has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfilment of Creation’ (‘On Fairy-stories’, 62). In a letter to Christopher his son,  he clarified:

Of course I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only a fairy-story; but I do mean very strongly that they do tell a fairy-story: the greatest. Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story. But since the author of it is the supreme Artist and the Author of Reality, this one was also made . . . to be true on the Primary Plane. (Letters, 100–101)

The glory of the gospel story therefore is that it is the ‘true’ myth, myth become fact, fairy-story incarnate in primary reality. As Tolkien concluded in his essay, ‘this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused’ (‘On Fairy-stories’, 63).

And so, with tender reading, the Bible yields much to the reader and love of both myth and history.