J. R. R. Tolkien
(The realm of Faërie is no frivolity, but a place of profound enchantment, offering glimpses into deep mysteries and addressing fundamental human desires.)
“Lies, though breathed through silver”. It was September 1931. Little could J. R. R. Tolkien have guessed that this insult of myth, from the mouth of his hard-headed friend C. S. Lewis, would spur him to a rebuttal that would blossom into the most sustained and thoughtful argument for the value of fiction in the history of literature. And, while we’re at it, little could Lewis have guessed that Tollers’ argument, as they walked in a park behind Magdalen College, Oxford, would plant a mustard seed that would eventually transform Lewis into a myth-maker himself, not to mention the most celebrated writer on God (that myth of all myths) in the twentieth century. What was that argument? What path could possibly carry a wayfarer from the valley where myths are childish propaganda, to the hilltop where they are powerful elicitors of fleeting joy and hint at truths beyond our comprehension?
H. G. Wells
(A man of precisely 37.5 years of age can’t seem to find success or happiness in life… perhaps he has to do something drastic.)
“HOLE!” said Mr. Polly, and then for a change, and with greatly increased emphasis: “ ‘Ole!” He paused, and then broke out with one of his private and peculiar idioms. “Oh! Beastly Silly Wheeze of a Hole!”
Thus begins an entertaining fictional biography of a man who really needs a whack upside the head– one of several greats in that odd subgenre– Tom Jones, Babbitt, and Updike’s Rabbit series, for examples. (H. G. Wells writing fictional biography? In a contemporary setting? This might surprise those of us, such as myself, who had equated him with science fiction and socialist nonfiction. But anyway…) Our protagonist is an endearing and vivid, if frustrating character, who hides his depression with funny one-liners and his poor education with deliberate mispronunciations. And, as with many colorful characters in real life, beneath the wit cowers a man who hasn’t a clue where he’s going. His path through life is that of a flat boat with untethered sails– he might as easily plummet to his death over a waterfall as drift into a homely port. Or, to use Alfred Polly’s own metaphor, he’s in a hole. And no amount of quaint phrasing and amusing epithet, no ability to make women giggle, and no success as a shopkeeper is going to hoist him out of it.
Arthur Conan Doyle
(The scientific minds of Holmes and Watson are tested by howls on the moor, the legend of a fiery hell-hound, and a giant pawprint next to a dead nobleman.)
A novel-length Sherlock Holmes mystery! The readers of the Strand Magazine must have been delighted. They must have vigorously discussed with each other the prospects of the case between installments. Releasing a detective story by degrees has got to be risky, since the readers have so much time to figure everything out. There are enough threads interwoven in this story, though, and enough minor details that must be incorporated into a solution, that I suspect almost everyone will be surprised at something in the denouement. Besides, we would need a healthy dose of luck to solve the riddle ourselves, for there are crucial elements about which we can only guess during the narration. These are revealed to us only after Holmes has discovered them and solved the case in his mind. In this way, Doyle all but ensures that competition with the sleuth is beyond our grasp.
Although the most haunting aspect of the typical Sherlock Holmes case is nothing more than the dense fog of pipe smoke around the detective’s chair, Doyle did have an interest in spiritualism, and wrote a few books on the subject. In The Hound of the Baskervilles he combines these two interests by infusing the tale with a strong atmosphere of macabre otherworldliness. Probably more than the facts of the case or its solution, the damp darkness and chilling moans of the moor are likely to remain with us long after we have finished reading the book.