“…Little Is That I’ve Not Been.”

Fredrick Barbarossa awakens! Photo by author, mural in the Kaisarpfalz in Goslar, Germany.


I was listening to a very modern setting of part of the “Battle of the Trees,” the Cad Goddeu. The poem, or at least the parts we have of it, is long and strange, and includes a declaration by Taliesin of all the various shapes he has worn over the aeons.  The list includes:

I have been a sword, narrow, variegated,
I will believe when it is apparent.
I have been a tear in the air,
I have been the dullest of stars.
I have been a word among letters,
I have been a book in the origin.
I have been the light of lanterns,
A year and a half.
I have been a continuing bridge,
Over three score Abers.2
I have been a course, I have been an eagle.
I have been a coracle in the seas:
I have been compliant in the banquet.

From: Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collection “The Battle of the Trees.

So, what does this poem have to do with writing, other than being seriously cool inspiration for something if you are not careful? Not a lot. But it seems to have a great deal to say about reading.

One of the most wonderful things reading can do is transform the reader into someone or something else. Yes, it can inform and teach, it can recount the minutia of governmental processes (like two books on my desk about making laws), it can explain. But fiction takes readers out of their normal world and into something different. It might just be a different relationship—like all the novels in the “mommy-lit” sub-sub-genre that NYC was pushing ten years or so ago. It might be about a guy with medical problems and his, ahem, inabilities (Portnoy’s Complaint.) Or it might be about a dragon trying to unmake his world just for the h-ll of it so it can be remade into something better.

Something the activist-publishers and their supporters seem to be forgetting, or at least willfully ignoring, is that people read to get away and to be someone different. A middle-aged tech-support guy with mild hypertension and two dogs probably wants to read about more than just the trials and tribulations of a middle-aged tech-support guy with a dog. Unless the dog is a greater sidhe who has been exiled to Overhill and who is trying to persuade the man to try some coding experiments to see if they will open a gate into Underhill. [Idea free to good home]. Maybe he wants to read about the adventures of arctic explorers? Or a woman who ticks off the god Apollo and is punished by always speaking the truth but not having anyone believe her? Or he wants to read about Taliesin and Gwidion’s adventures in a Wales that might have been.

I know that most mystery readers don’t go through the stores looking for books about people of color by people of color. They look for great stories, and if Gideon Oliver or Smokey Dalton happen to be black, hey so what? Granted, in the Smokey Dalton stories it is important because of when and where they are set, but the books are great mystery stories about guys investigating things. It does not matter at all that a middle-aged white woman writes Smokey Dalton’s stories. It didn’t really matter that a white guy wrote the Fu Manchu stories – they are still neat tales of deceit, honor, adventure, and exotic places.

Readers read to go away, to become someone else for the duration of the story. It is not fair for us as writers to insist that only X can write about X, and that only X should read about X. Yes, I have seen some people go that far and insist that they will only read, or their children will only read, about people who look just like them and come from their culture. And then they complain because not enough X people are writing books. *sinal salute* So it must be Someone’s Fault.

Most readers love stories. They love reading books by people who can put them into someone else’s shoes, or hoofprints, or pug marks, or whatever. Robotic tanks that have personalities? Sure, why not. If we writers lose sight of that critical fact, we are going to go broke, and readers become former readers. Or they re-read the classics and wonder what happened to the genres they loved back then.

The human experience is the core of stories. What was it like for a woman in Shang Dynasty China? What would a recovering druggie do when a lemur hops onto her table at lunch and starts talking to her? What is it like to be a shape-shifting dragon, or a creature on a high-gravity world who accepts a contract to rescue a piece of equipment that humans can’t reach (Hal Clements “A Mission of Gravity”)? Our job as writers is to find a way to do that, to entertain readers and to convince them that they are – at least for a few pages – El Cid’s wife, or a sapient elephant, or a black private investigator in the upper South in the 1960s.

So go write. And don’t worry that you are not a Y, or an L. Tell your stories, entertain your readers, and let your imagination roam.

And speaking of roaming imaginations, I have two fantasy novels out, one with dragons, one without. You know, like country and western.

With Dragons.

  Dragon free fantasy (at least thus far).


    1. This is exactly the thing that we talked about this week, when my daughter and I did a classroom visit – part of the Word Wrangler Book Festival, in Giddings, Texas. We volunteered to talk to students, and wound up speaking to three sixth-grade classes at the middle school about writing, story-telling, and writing. The stories that we want to read, we said (and the kids agreed) are about a challenge, sometimes a series of smaller challenges, and what the characters do to overcome them.
      It was actually kind of reassuring; here were classrooms of twelve and thirteen year olds, at least half of whom liked to read, with a handful of kids who are passionate about it, and three or four who wanted to write and tell stories themselves. Hope we lit some intellectual fires there, or at least, fired up some more enthusiasm.

  1. “Yes, I have seen some people go that far and insist that they will only read, or their children will only read, about people who look just like them and come from their culture.”

    I think it is safe to assume those people are lying to get Virtue Points from their fellow SJWs. There’s a lot of that going around these days.

    You go to their house, their kid is reading Curious George just like every other kid.

      1. Some are just mistaken, in thinking that if their children don’t know about the glories of their ancestors – even probably fictional glories – then they won’t be able to do well later in life. Like the ones who sincerely believe that if girls don’t have female role models, they will never go into [field].

        1. My favorites are the Feminazi moms who give their little girls Hot Wheel cars, and then they’re surprised when the cars are all having little tea parties.

          Or they give the boys Barbies, and suddenly the dolls are running combat missions against the sugar bowl. BOOM! FOOSH-KAPOW!!!

          1. My mother wouldn’t let me have Barbies or My Little Ponies (the mid-80s) version, but I had a truly epic collection of model horses. Most of mine avoided tea parties and ganged up on predators while establishing frontier bases. 😀

          2. Not safe for work link, but this Sankaku Complex article on the whole Battlefield V roll hard left and die pretty much mirrored a convo we were having with a friend last night.

            Friend noted this particular set of ‘responses’ (not from the specific article I linked, but rather was describing them):

            EA has been forced to defend the historical debauchery of Battlefield V, with EA chief creative officer Patrick Soderlund (who is – of course – Swedish) supporting the game and its rewriting of the past by saying that consumers need to either “accept their cause or don’t buy the game,” a request which – if the Battlefront fiasco is anything to go by – they may be all too willing to oblige.

            Patrick Soderlund’s words regarding the backlash against their goals of “diversifying games”:

            “We stand up for the cause, because I think those people who don’t understand it, well, you have two choices: either accept it or don’t buy the game. I’m fine with either or.”

            He also called those claiming the inclusion of women in World War II to be historically inaccurate “uneducated”:

            “These are people who are uneducated — they don’t understand that this is a plausible scenario, and listen: this is a game.”

            General manager Oskar Gabrielson also fought back against the “notmybattlefield” hashtag with “#everyonesbattlefield” (which has essentially only been used by spambots):

            “The Battlefield sandbox has always been about playing the way you want. Like attempting to fit three players on a galloping horse, with flamethrowers. With BFV you also get the chance to play as who you want. This is #everyonesbattlefield.”

            Furthermore, Soderlund lamented having to try and explain to his young daughter why fans are angry at him for trying to alter history:

            “We felt like in today’s world — I have a 13-year-old daughter that when the trailer came out and she saw all the flak, she asked me, ‘Dad, why’s this happening? She plays Fortnite, and says, ‘I can be a girl in Fortnite. Why are people so upset about this?’ She looked at me and she couldn’t understand it. And I’m like, ok, as a parent, how the hell am I gonna respond to this, and I just said, ‘You know what? You’re right. This is not okay.’”

            To which I responded “What, he couldn’t tell his daughter that she’d have to play Russian if she wanted to play as women on the battlefield?” (Perhaps flying on a plane she’d have to somehow jump start midair at night?)

            Pretty much, they tanked a triple-A shooter game (and possibly the franchise) with a fairly large playerbase, because SJWism, putting in as their prominent trailer character a woman with a fully functioning from shoulder prosthetic in a WW2 simulation – and a black man with katana on the European side of the WW2 conflict – and because one fuckwit couldn’t man up and parent, and tell his daughter to read about unpleasant reality in a history book…

            …and maybe learned about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the 100th Infantry Battalion …after which she’d probably whine there were no female American-Japanese fighting on the frontlines. And if she learned about black Americans having had presence in the military and combat since the Revolution, she’d probably have an aneurysm discovering that free blacks existed!

            1. Is it bad that my reaction is “it’s a pity that you can’t both lose”?

              Because EA, as represented by Soderberg, and the guy who wrote that article, and definitely the commentariat, seem like a bunch of obnoxious twerps.

            2. “Because this game is based on actual history, so we made it the way things really were, back then. If you want to play the game, you will have to pretend you’re a boy.”

              There, see? Not hard at all. And if your daughter throws a fit, well, maybe if you stand up to her, she’s deal with the real world a bit better when she grows up.

            3. From the (amazingly NSFW!!!) link, we have Soderlund saying: “You know what? You’re right. This is not okay.”

              Leaving aside the bad parenting (that girl is going to get a shock when she gets her first job), this is as grand an example of “othering” as I’ve ever seen. Gamers are the people paying money to put food on this guy’s table, and their reaction to his mangling of history is “not okay.”

              If you are “uneducated” and prefer historical accuracy over feel-good SJW propaganda fantasies, you are “not okay.”

              My question is, how “not okay” are we talking here? Is this “get off my lawn, peasant” or something a little more Third Reich? Europeans do not have a good track record in this regard.

        2. I happen to have an ancestor who was a clipper ship captain and my family is very proud of him. An in-law commented once that yes, I had some really special ancestors including the captain. But the clipper ship captain began as a cabin boy who ran away from home, without a bunch of special ancestors. I think that’s the real key. I love knowing some of my history but I also love knowing that you can start from nowhere and become someone your children and grand-children are proud of. That is available to everyone!

    1. When I was young I read a lot out of a biography* of George Washington Carver. Who was a pacifist, a painter, and a chemist. I don’t paint, and I found out that my lab technique was never going to be good enough for real chemistry. That means I didn’t learn any lessons from it that could’ve lead to any of the successes I have had, right?

      Right now I should be working on something that I had never read about in any of the biographies of historical people that I grew up on.

      *This was riddled with all sorts of unfashionable pre-Marxist ideas of racial equality.

    2. a lot of them? no, the kid isn’t, in the rare event they actually have one. Curious George isn’t sufficiently ‘woke’. Teh evul white mens took the poor George from his home and keeps him captive.

  2. Well done, and yes, ‘most’ of us read to escape! The more we can inculcate the desire to read in the younger generation, the better our world will be. Reading broadens one’s horizons, gives them options to escape the daily grind of life, and maybe, just maybe, will allow them to tell their OWN stories!

  3. We have both kinds of fantasy: Sword and Sorcery!

    The Mission of Gravity character I identified with most was Dondragmer, instead of any of the humans.

    1. You’re welcome! I wish he’d included everything on the CD that ‘s on the tape, but half a loaf et cetera. And the Battle of the Trees is on the CD.

  4. “Unless the dog is a greater sidhe who has been exiled to Overhill and who is trying to persuade the man to try some coding experiments to see if they will open a gate into Underhill. [Idea free to good home]”

    It went in the file. I’m not sure if I’ll get around to using it, but I do at least have a world where it might work.

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