Literary Miscellanea

Literary Miscellanea: Roald Dahl on Writing

author_dahlI can’t believe I almost forgot to celebrate Roald Dahl’s birthday! As I have written on many occasions, Dahl is my all-time favorite author. In eighth grade, I decided to learn more about the man behind Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, and Matilda, and that is how I came across the Roald Dahl website. In an interview with Todd McCormack, Roald Dahl described his writing process.

Here is a link to that interview.

If you scroll down to the middle of the page, you will see a giant “play” button. Different segments of the interview can be accessed by clicking on the “forward” and “back” arrows. Dahl was a very eccentric man; in his writing hut that resembled an airplane cockpit, he kept his old hip bone; the hip bone served as a  paper weight. More than any other author, Roald Dahl understood the mind of children and purposely wrote for them.

My personal motto comes from Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator: “A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.”

A relevant quote

“The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.”
― Roald Dahl (Matilda)


Literary Miscellanea, Tolkien, J.R.R.

Literary Miscellanea: Samwise Gamgee On The Greatest Stories

This conversation between Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee comes from Two Towers (the second book of The Lord of the Rings). An abridged and paraphrased version of the dialogue was included in the film adaptation, and you can watch it here.

‘I don’t like anything here at all,’ said Frodo, ‘step or stone, breath or bone. Earth, air and water all seem accursed. But so our path is laid. ‘

‘Yes, that’s so,’ said Sam. ‘And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were the things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have just been landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about these as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same – like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?’

‘I wonder,’ said Frodo. ‘But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.’


Literary Miscellanea

Literary Miscellanea: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Dedicates The Little Prince to His Friend

It is no secret that Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) is my favorite book of all time. It has also been one of the most influential books in my life as it made me fall in love with the French language. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote a heart-warming dedication to his friend Léon Werth. He clearly had a great respect and love for children.

Below is the original dedication followed by my translation.


Je demande pardon aux enfants d’avoir dédié ce livre à une grande personne. J’ai une excuse sérieuse: cette grande personne est le meilleur ami que j’ai au monde. J’ai une autre excuse: cette grande personne peut tout comprendre, même les livres pour les enfants. J’ai une troisième excuse: cette grande personne habite la France où elle a faim et froid. Elle a bien besoin d’être consolée. Si toutes ces excuses ne suffisent pas, je veux bien dédier ce livre à l’enfant qu’a été autrefois cette grande personne. Toutes les grandes personnes ont d’abord été des enfants. (Mais peu d’entre elles s’en souviennent.) Je corrige donc ma dédicace :





I ask children to forgive me for having dedicated this book to a grown-up. I have a serious excuse: this grown-up is the best friend that I have in the world. I have another excuse: this grown-up can understand everything, even books for children. I have a third excuse: this grown-up lives in France where he is hungry and cold. He is in great need of consolation. If all of these excuses do no suffice, I would like to dedicate this book to the child whom this grown-up once was. All grown-ups were once children. (But only a few of them remember it.) I, therefore, correct my dedication:



Literary Miscellanea

Literary Miscellanea: Edgar Allan Poe On Prose Tales

4624490Edgar Allan Poe was impressed by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tales. He tried on many occasions to defend Hawthorne’s storytelling in Graham’s Magazine. Although he wrote at least three articles for the journal, Poe was never given enough space to say what he wanted to say. Still, his reviews of Twice-Told Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne are valuable to us because in them he expounds briefly on poetry and short story writing. My reflections for this post are based on a review he wrote for Graham’s Magazine in May 1862. The parts of the review I would like to highlight begin with the line “But it is of his tales that we desire principally to speak” and ends (three paragraphs later) with “The true critic will but demand that the design intended be accomplished, to the fullest extent, by the means most advantageously applicable.” A link to the article is included at the end of this post. 

Edgar Allan Poe prefers short stories (or ‘tales’, as he calls them) to novels because the former can be read in one sitting while the latter must be read in multiple sittings. While reading a novel, the reader is frequently interrupted by other and more pressing duties. Good tales, like poems, are neither too long nor too short. They are long enough that the reader feels satisfied by the development and conclusion of the story but short enough that the reader is at all times fully engaged with the narrative. Poe doesn’t share my love for epic poems. He writes, “All high excitements are necessarily transient. Thus a long poem is a paradox. And, without unity of impression, the deepest effects cannot be brought about. Epics were the Spring of an imperfect sense of Art, and their reign is no more.” 

But although poems and tales are brief compositions, Poe prefers tales. The purpose of writing prose tales is often to explore the Truth. They can also explore passion and horror with greater poignancy than poetry.  “[W]hile the rhythm of [poetry] is an essential aid in the development of the poem’s highest idea – the idea of the Beautiful – the artificialities of this rhythm are an inseparable bar to the development of all points of thought or expression which have their basis in Truth.”

I have always wondered why Edgar Allan Poe only wrote one novel in his lifetime. Today’s article has given me an answer to my question. A few weeks ago, I shared with you an essay written by C.S. Lewis on children’s storytelling. In that essay, he explained that an author should write a children’s book if a children’s book is the best medium to tell the story. Poe mostly wrote prose tales because that medium suited the dark subject matter of his stories.

If you have read any of the Twice-Told Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne, you may want to read the rest of the review. Here it is.

Literary Miscellanea

Literary Miscellanea: On Fairy Stories by J.R.R. Tolkien

TolkienI learned about this essay by J.R.R. Tolkien from M. Landers, a blogger whose blog you should check out because it is excellent. M. Landers is also a cartoonist.

At 27 PDF pages, On Fairy Stories is a very long essay. Although I am generally not a slow reader, it took me 3 hours to read it! I will include a link to this essay at the end of the post so that you can read it in part or in its entirety if you wish. I don’t, however, want to burden you with a long essay on a Saturday. Instead of merely leaving a link to the essay, I will share my personal reflections with you, underlining the salient points.

A Summary + My Thoughts

J.R.R. Tolkien begins his essay by describing what fairy stories are not. Fairy stories are distinct from beast-fables (ex. Peter Rabbit), dreams (ex. Alice in Wonderland), and travelers tales (ex. Gulliver’s Travels). To Tolkien, fairy stories must not take place in a faraway region of the Primary World; that is, the world in which we exist. Rather, fairy stories should take place in a Secondary World created by the storyteller. There are many reasons why a fairy story may be written. Some of these include the desire “to survey the depths of space and time. Another is (as will be seen) to hold communion with other living things” (p. 5 of  the PDF). In short, fairy stories are written for “the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires” (Ibid). 

Instead of exploring the origins of fairy stories like anthropologists tend to do, Tolkien maintains that all fairy stories emerge from a primordial storytelling soup. This soup (more like a witch’s cauldron) contains the symbols and themes that embody all true fairy stories. King Arthur may have been an insignificant king in his lifetime but when King Arthur is thrown into the “soup”, he becomes a legendary hero. While I agree that heroes embody the values of the people who venerate them, it seems to me that as society changes, the storytelling soup can also change- even drastically. Does the soup from which Medieval epic poems emerged  resemble the soup from which Ancient Egyptian heroic stories emerged? Do the symbols mean the same things in both stories? These are some of the questions I asked myself while reading this section of the essay.

According to Tolkien, there are three facets to fairy stories: “the Mystical towards the Supernatural; the Magical toward Nature; and the Mirror of scorn and pity toward Man” (p.9). This essayist is not a fan of modern technology. He decries the ugliness of human inventions. Fairy stories (and fantasy stories in general) are valuable because they explore human desires and challenge the bad aspects of a society that tend to be taken for granted. As such, fantasy is very much like science fiction in intent. The difference between the two genres is that science fiction envisions a world that is extremely technologically-advanced while fantasy embraces the natural elements.

To me, the most valuable part of the essay is the section under the heading “Children”. Like Lewis, Tolkien has much to say to critics of fantasy stories. While these critics think fairy stories are only suitable for young children, Tolkien maintains that fantasy is the highest literary art form. Much of the criticism is based on a false understanding of the purpose behind fantasy (hence the reason why the first half of the essay deals with the origins of fairy stories) and of children. Children don’t hear fairy stories and think that ogres and dragons could live next door. Many adults think that children love fairy stories because they are naive enough to think that they are true. Tolkien admits that he came to love and appreciate fairy stories more as an adult. If children read and enjoy fairy stories it is because they are people (like adults) who have an innate desire for beauty and truth. “A real taste for fairy-stories was wakened by philology on the threshold of manhood, and quickened to full life by war” (p.14).

Fantasy stories are written because the creators are not satisfied with the so-called “real world” that critics so insist on praising. Certain scientists (I’m thinking of Richard Dawkins) cannot see humans as anything more than beasts. Critics blame fairy stories for blurring the line between humans and beasts, but are not scientists doing that now? While I accept the theory of evolution by natural selection (and hope to one day be a scientist) I could never conclude that humans are nothing more than flesh and bones. Without literature and religion I would go mad. Fantasy is escapist, and Tolkien thinks that is the genre’s greatest strength. How can railroads, bombs, and televisions be more real than the wind, sea, and sky? All technologies become obsolete. The “real world” is not as consistent or as real as critics claim. Good fantasy seeks to recover what is true and beautiful in history. It is not content with the way things are. There are ideals.

So many people think that the greatest fantasy stories have already been written, but Tolkien doesn’t agree. New and interesting fantasy can always be written, but he cautions against using more violence and darkness to spice up a story. Here is what he recommends instead:

“But the true road of escape from such weariness is not to be found in the wilfully awkward, clumsy, or misshapen, not making all things dark or unremittingly violent; nor in the mixing of colours on through subtlety to drabness, and the fantastical complication of shapes to the point of silliness and on towards delirium. Before we reach such states we need recovery. We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses – and wolves. This recovery fairy-stories help us to make. In that sense only a taste for them may make us, or keep us, childish” (p.19).  

Here is the essay in its entirety.


Literary Miscellanea

Literary Miscellanea: An Interview With Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie

Yesterday, I read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd more or less in one sitting. Although I unfortunately spoiled myself (accidentally of course) and knew who the murderer was before the end of the story, I still immensely enjoyed this novel. Definitely one of the greatest detective works of all time. I am convinced that Agatha Christie was the Shakespeare of the crime fiction genre. For today’s Literary Flashback, I leave you with a brief 1955 interview with the Queen of Crime. In the interview, Christie discusses her upbringing and approach to writing. Enjoy. 🙂

You can watch the interview on the BBC website.


Literary Miscellanea

Literary Miscellanea: The Pleasure of Writing by A.A. Milne

For this Saturday’s Literary Flashback, I would like to share with you an essay A.A. Milne wrote in 1920 concerning the writing process. In it, he discussed what inspired him to write. What I have gleaned from this essay is that while there are many individuals who were involved in the writing profession and who helped publish Milne’s works, the pleasure Milne got from writing did not have much to do with what others thought of his writing. A brand new nib was all he needed to write. In short, it was the process he enjoyed.

“For it was enough for me this morning just to write; with spring coming in through the open windows and my good Canadian quill in my hand, I could have copied out a directory. That is the real pleasure of writing.”

Here is the essay.


Literary Miscellanea

Literary Miscellanea: C.S. Lewis Praises Children’s Books and Fairy Tales


In 1946, C.S. Lewis wrote an essay called On Three Ways of Writing for Children in which he defended his career as both a children’s author and a fantasy writer. In the essay, he discussed two good approaches and one bad approach to writing for children. He had a lot to say to adult critics who routinely denigrated other adults for reading children’s books. Lewis also defended the inclusion of dark material in children’s fantasy books. This essay is as relevant today as it was in 1946. I have always valued children’s literature. In fact, I have had a life long dream/goal to write a children’s book . Recently, I went to my local public library and checked out a Newbery Award winning novel (Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi) and a picture book which I had been eyeing for months (The Almost Fearless Hamilton Squidlegger by Timothy Basil Ering). Every time I walk into the children’s section, I always feel a bit nervous because, other than the librarian, I’m the only childless adult in the room. But yesterday, as I browsed through the picture books, I realized that there is nothing to be nervous about. There is nothing wrong with reading children’s (or YA) books. I think it is important for all readers to read widely. Reading books that are written for different age groups is valuable. We live in a society, and society is made up of individuals of different age groups. If adults only ever do things (read books, watch films, play games) that are meant exclusively for adults, how will they be able to understand the children around them?

Lewis was convinced that literary critics who criticized other adults for reading children’s books were themselves childish:

“Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development.”

Here is the essay.


Literary Miscellanea

Literary Miscellanea: Italo Clavino Wrote For The New York Review of Books

Let me start by saying that I have never read anything by Italo Calvino. But I do know that he wrote a postmodern work called If on a winter’s night a traveler, which some bloggers recently read for a read-along. That being said, my blog is dedicated to reading the Classics, and Calvino wrote an article for The New York Review of Books in 1986, in defense of reading the Classics. The name of the article was “Why Read the Classics?” Today, Italo Calvino is considered a Classic author.

Here is the article:

If you are in the U.S., I hope you have a wonderful 4th of July weekend. If you are not in the U.S., have a great weekend just the same. I will be posting a review of The Fellowship of the Ring on Monday.