March 26th, 2004
On this day thirteen years ago my life changed forever.
That sounds a little dramatic, but it’s true. For the previous 35 years – in another life – I had been a primary (elementary) school teacher. Eight of those years I enjoyed being a teacher librarian; I loved buying books and using the school’s money and not mine. I loved the relationship I had with the students in my classes over the years. I still keep contact with many of them, either on Facebook or in the town where I live. It’s great to see them developing as adults and to see their own children growing up.
What happened to change my life?
On that momentous day in March 2004, I clearly remember hearing a voice inside my head saying, ‘You’ve left your classroom for the last time.’ Now, I must clarify that I am a Christian and believe that God ‘speaks’ to us in many ways, but my experience of His audible voice has been very infrequent. I can really only recall one other occasion. During the first few months of 2004, I had been seriously struggling with illness. Teaching became an almost impossible struggle. On this day, March 26th, I had endured a meeting arranged for me with a counsellor. It was not easy acknowledging that I needed some serious help.
The voice was right. That was my last day of teaching in a primary school. I was granted some sick-leave by my doctor – I had plenty in reserve – and took several months off while I recovered. The process was long and emotional; I won’t bore you with the details. I didn’t want to give up a calling to teach, something I loved doing but a task which had become so hard in the face of my illness.
As my health improved, I was able to consult my financial planner. She looked at my situation with great compassion and understanding, just as my doctor and counsellor had done. She asked whether I would rather teach for a few more years to build up my superannuation, or cut loose and get better. ‘Do you want the extra money, or do you want your health?’
It was a no-brainer, really. especially when she told me that to teach for several more years as I had planned would only increase my super payout by a few dollars per week – $15 was the figure, I think.
I resigned forthwith.
And that’s when my life changed forever.
Life after teaching
For many months I struggled with coming to terms with my sudden retirement. It took me a long time to adjust to not fronting up at school every morning. It took me a while to get over my illness. One thing is certain: during the winter months that year, when the rain was pouring down outside, and the wind was howling around our home, and I was reading a good book in front of our fire, I did NOT miss venturing out to supervise the children during after-school bus duty. I didn’t miss it at all.
Over the subsequent years, I have experienced many wonderful times. Some of this has related to travel. I have been free to enjoy the delights of Thailand, Nepal (see the photo above of Ama Dablam, just a few miles from Everest), enigmatic Ethiopia, mesmerising Morocco and scintillating Spain. My wife and I have also travelled extensively in Australia in that time. We are planning more travel in the coming years. I have written about many of my adventures on my travel site called Trevor’s Travels.
After I had recovered sufficiently from my ill-health, I set about establishing my second career as a writer. I had always been a writer, but my writing was confined to weekends and school holiday periods. In the 1990s I actually published six books; two teacher curriculum books with four accompanying student workbooks, all of them sadly now out of print.
On my son’s encouragement, I started writing three blogs, this one you are now reading, plus Trevor’s Birding and Trevor’s Travels. I would love it if you visited them and left some comments. Both sites feature hundreds of photos of Australian birds and scenery shots of places we have visited. In total, with these three sites and two other sites I write for, I have published nearly 5000 articles since retiring. I feel tired just typing that!
During my retirement, I have also written several – as yet unpublished – novels and picture book texts, along with dozens of articles, short stories and poems. (Click on the sidebar to read some of my poems and stories.) Nearly 100 of these stories and poems have been published in a range of newspapers, journals and magazines.
Not content with just writing all of these blog posts, novels, stories and poems, a few years ago I also completed my degree. I now have a Master of Arts in Creative Writing. You can read about that process here. This has led to some lecturing and speaking at conferences. What I learned during this course has equipped me to tackle some earlier novels I wrote back in the 1990s. I am now in the process of rewriting them. Stayed tuned; I hope to publish these very soon.
On occasions, people ask me if I ever miss teaching. It’s a very valid question, especially in the light of a lifetime – 35 years – in the classroom. The short answer is ‘no’. I do not miss the long hours of preparation, marking and professional reading required. I do not miss the unending staff meetings and the politics of the staff-room. I do not miss the parents who make life hard for teachers to do their job; thankfully I experienced very few of them.
I do miss the children. I do miss seeing children develop their skills, especially children like Jennifer. She astounded me with the progress she made under my care and guidance.
I do miss building relationships with children and seeing them go on successfully in life. I actually keep a list of successful former students, following their careers.
And above all, I miss the fact that they all used to laugh at my ‘dad jokes’. Now my longsuffering wife is generally my only audience, though my 8-year-old grandson thinks I am hilarious.
It’s time to roll out a list of what I hope to do in the coming years:
- Many more blog posts here on this site, and the other sites I mentioned above.
- Continue on a wide-ranging reading programme, something all writers should do.
- Rewrite and publish as eBooks my novels, collections of stories and poems.
- Publish as eBooks several non-fiction books as spin-offs from my blogs.
- Write more novels; I have ideas for at least six more. Coming up with ideas is easy; writing the books is hard.
- Continue to travel here in Australia as health and finances allow.
Mmm… looks like I have a busy time ahead.
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Yes. I know that this is a few days late. Over the Christmas weekend I decided to take it easy and not do too much writing. It is good to have a little break from writing every now and then. Instead, I focussed on relaxing and reading. Over recent months I have read some very interesting books, and I will review the best of them here on this site as time permits next year.
This Christmas was unusual in our household. Usually it is a time of gathering the family together for a meal or two (or more) and a time of catching up with relatives we do not get to see very often. This year it was just my wife and me, so our celebrations were very quiet. Our son and his family live in Sydney and that is two days’ drive away, so it is not practical just to ‘pop in’ for a meal. Our daughter is usually home at this time of the year too, but she is teaching in Ethiopia at present. It’s not the easiest to ‘pop in’ from Ethiopia, either. She has escaped for several days with colleagues, enjoying a break at the beach at Mombasa in Kenya.
Late on Christmas Day we had a lovely phone call from our grandchildren in Sydney. They were in a local park trying out their Christmas presents – new scooters. I have many fond memories of Christmas as a child. The celebrations began a few weeks before Christmas with the school concert in the local hall. Here the children in the small town in the South Australian mallee rehearsed and then performed plays, musical items, and gymnastics displays on the small stage.
All the parents came along to this concert, the highlight of the school year. We proudly showed off our best school work for the year on tables and display boards set up around the walls of the hall. At one of these events, I can still remember nervously playing several musical pieces on the piano, my only public musical performance ever. The supper at the end was worth all the hard work in preparation.
Another event I always looked forward to at Christmas time was at the small, local Lutheran church where my family worshipped every week. For the weeks leading up to Christmas we would rehearse the carols and readings to be included in the Christmas Eve service. The Sunday School children would all be seated out the front of the church in front of the large decorated tree in the corner. This was always a native pine from somewhere in the district. It was probably a Callitris preissii, common in the region. It was decorated in the traditional way with tinsel and baubles. It also had little bags of lollies hanging all around, and the children were able to take one each after the service. The tree also had many candle holders with real candles in them. I was always terrified that the whole tree would catch on fire! It never did.
The programme on Christmas Eve always told the story of the first Christmas. This retelling year after year was always something amazing to me. As I grew older the special nature of the story of the Christ-child remained precious to me. We had readings from the well-known accounts of that coming of Jesus, plus soul-stirring renditions of the old familiar hymns and carols. The evening ended with the giving of prizes to every child in the Sunday School. I always looked forward to adding another book to my growing collection.
After the service the adults would gather outside the church in the cool of an Australian summer night. Many of the men gathered here had just a few hours earlier come in from paddocks and the hot, dusty work of reaping wheat or barley crops. They always enjoyed a yarn and telling each other the joys or frustrations of the latest crop, depending on what kind of season they had endured – or enjoyed. While I waited quietly – but always impatiently – for my father and older brothers to be ready to go home, I remember gazing into that great expanse of sky above, star-bright against the black depth of the universe.
Star of wonder, star of night,
Star of Royal Beauty bright.
(See here for all the words to this carol)
I was always impatient to get home after the Christmas Eve service. we had a tradition in our family that presents were to be opened on Christmas Eve after the church service. We changed that to Christmas morning with our own children, and the same applies to our grandchildren.
I would eagerly unwrap my presents, hoping all the time for even more books to add to my library. The next few days were blissful; heaps of delicious food, family visiting often and plenty of time to read, read, read.
May you have a happy and blessed Christmas and a wonderful New Year.
George MacDonald’s classic fantasy novel as retold by Mark Worthing.
Stone Table Books, 2016.
Some of my readers may well ask, “George who?” Fortunately, I was aware of who George MacDonald was before I was handed a copy of this book for review. MacDonald’s works usually do not appear on any of those “Best Books of the Week/Month/Year/Century.” His works were first published in the mid-1800s, so there is no surprise to realise that they are not on everyone’s To Read list.
Mark Worthing, the author of this retelling, gives a short introduction to George MacDonald at the beginning of the book. I will give an even shorter introduction. MacDonald’s novel Phantastes was first published in 1858 and is widely regarded as the first modern fantasy novel to be written in English. MacDonald was a Congregational minister, but he did not last long in this role because his theology was at odds with those who employed him. Although he continued in occasional preaching, his main income was derived from his many writings, though he was never really well off.
MacDonald’s contribution to fantasy
Readers should not be put off by MacDonald’s work, especially this title. Many great writers of fantasy have paid tribute to MacDonald for inspiring them to also write fantasy. These include J.R.R Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, Ursula LeGuin, Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens, among others. “Madeleine L’Engle, the matriarch of modern Christian fantasy, literature, candidly admits that ‘George MacDonald is the grandfather of us all – all of us who struggle to come to terms with truth through fantasy.’” (Worthing, Narnia, Middle-Earth and the Kingdom of God, p.26)
The full title of the novel is Phantastes, a Faerie Romance for Men and Women. This retelling of the original is just called Phantastes. In order to review this reworking of the novel, I felt I should at least attempt to read a part of the original story.
I came with a little trepidation to the original, mindful of the irony of reading it on an eReader – a work first published nearly 160 years ago. I should not have worried. I took to it easily and read right through over only several days. While I found the language somewhat stilted and archaic to my modern ears, I found it relatively easy to read and follow the plot. I had a similar experience several years ago when I read right through Milton’s epic Paradise Lost. The many unfamiliar words MacDonald uses were easily located directly from the inbuilt dictionary in eReader. This made understanding the novel so much easier.
Worthing’s modern-day retelling was next on my reading list. Already being familiar with the general gist of the story I breezed through this new work. It is a very enjoyable story which will reward the reader on many levels. At its most basic, one could regard it as a simple quest story. The protagonist, Anodos, is also the narrator of the tale. It is his search for adventure, beauty and love which drives him to explore the Land of Faerie. Many of the classic characters we come to expect in fairy tales are encountered along the journey; fairies of course, goblins, ogres, monsters, dragons, giants, witches, kings, knights, princesses and many more.
Anodos faces many hardships, adventures, narrow escapes and puzzles in his quest to meet the Faerie Queen. Along the way he not only discovers that he has part fairy blood, he also explores what true love is, the many forms of beauty, the power of song and music, and what it takes to be truly brave and sacrificially selfless. Worthing has added a satisfying and romantic ending to the original tale, an ending which is implied but not stated in the MacDonald version.
Before commencing to write this retelling of Phantastes, Worthing realised that many present-day readers struggle with reading MacDonald’s version. He says in the introduction, “When I taught a tertiary level course some years ago on the history of fantasy literature, MacDonald and his novel Phantastes featured prominently. I managed to persuade several students over successive offerings of the course to attempt to read the book. Invariably they came back to me some weeks or months later, admitting defeat.” (p.8) It was this difficulty that was the inspiration for this retelling. The author was determined to keep true to the voice and style of the original, while modernising the language used. I believe that he has been very successful in this aim. The retelling is an easy read, while still capturing the voice of MacDonald. I am familiar with Worthing’s unique style and voice, and he has managed to suppress this in a retelling which beautifully reflects the intentions of the original.
MacDonald included many beautiful passages of poetry which are called songs in the original, some of them many pages long. Some of these can be difficult to read and follow, mainly due to the archaic language used. Worthing has incorporated many of them, many in edited form and some in a much-shortened form. I think he has retained the essence of the original songs, while allowing greater enjoyment and understanding by making the language far more accessible. I should add that this is a general first impression, not as a result of a line by line analysis.
Stories within the novel
MacDonald included a number of short stories within the novel. Chapter 13 includes the story of Cosmo and this is the longest of them. While at first glance this appears to have little bearing on the main plot, an understanding of this tale is essential to the story arc. It is a vital turning point of the story and the concentric nature of the whole work. Worthing has retained a shortened version of Cosmo’s story, and in one of the appendices he has explained the importance of this to the structure of the novel (p. 168 – 171).
There is ample evidence for the outstanding contribution of George MacDonald to the genre we know as fantasy today. His legacy is immense, but his works have largely been ignored by contemporary readers. This is a shame, for he evidently has much to offer, as this retelling bears testimony.
I thoroughly recommend this new version.
Details of the launch, and where to buy this book, can be found here.
Acknowledgment: special thanks to author Mark Worthing for supplying a review copy of his book.
Narnia, Middle-Earth and the Kingdom of God:
A History of Fantasy Literature and the Christian Tradition
Mark Worthing, Stone Table Books, 2016
Mark Worthing’s latest book appears, at first glance, to be a relatively slim volume, but it certainly packs a solid punch. His in-depth knowledge of and passion for fantasy is quite apparent throughout, and he argues a solid case for the role of the Christian world-view, not only in the development of the genre, but also on its continuing place in literature.
While the sub-title says that this volume is a History of Fantasy in the Christian Tradition, it is far more than just a bland historical recount or a mere apologetic for the Christian traditions within the genre. It is a rigorous examination of the genre, and how many writers have expressed their Christian faith through their writing.
Victorian England fantasy
In the early chapters he considers the origins of modern fantasy as they appeared before, and during, Victorian England, from writers like Hans Christian Andersen, George MacDonald, Lewis Carroll, and Edith Nesbit, among others. Worthing devotes a short chapter to the writings of Hans Christian Andersen and his influence on the Victorian era readers and writers.
This is followed by an in-depth chapter on the writings of George MacDonald, whom he considers to be the major influence upon early fantasy writing. Indeed, Worthing quotes from the writings of C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle, both of whom owe a great debt to MacDonald. “Madeleine L’Engle, the matriarch of modern Christian fantasy, literature, candidly admits that ‘George MacDonald is the grandfather of us all – all of us who struggle to come to terms with truth through fantasy.’” (p.26) MacDonald’s writing also heavily influenced other prominent fantasy writers, including Chesterton, Tolkien, Nesbit and even Dickens. He was also a major influence upon another great fantasy writer, Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll).
Tolkien and Lewis
Worthing, after setting the scene by considering some of the early fantasy writers, continues by devoting three chapters each to the lives, faith and works of arguably the two greatest fantasy writers, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Their prominence in the genre continues to grow, with their influence and popularity magnified by recent cinematic versions.
Interestingly, the author also gives a serious consideration to what he calls “the atheist response” by considering the contributions to the genre of the likes of Pullman and Pratchett. Another chapter is devoted to the fantasy writers who focus on “earth spirituality”, writers like LeGuin, Bradley and Forsyth. From there he moves to the modern publishing phenomenon of “the Harry Potter debate”. He deftly negotiates the minefield of Christian criticism – and praise – of this series. He concludes that, because of some of the inherent themes of the Potter books, they could be considered within fantasy literature which deals with some major precepts of Christianity.
Christians and Creativity
Worthing concludes his book by considering some recent trends in the fantasy genre, along with a Christian defence of fantasy. One of his final statements has serious implications for creative artists who are also Christians: “Sadly, it is difficult, if not impossible, to argue with those who steadfastly hold to the view that imagination itself is not part of God’s creation, but something bad and quite dangerous.” (p.151) Sad, indeed, for these attitudes often close the potential dialogue between creatives who express their faith through their creativity, and Christians with closed and clouded minds unwilling to consider a valid alternative.
One of the interesting aspects of this work happens to be the footnotes. Normally, I find footnotes to be irritating at best, and highly annoying most of the time; they invariably interrupt my train of thought. Nearly every page of this book has a footnote, some of them very long and detailed, with the occasional note flowing over to the following page. My advice is: read them. There is much interesting, valuable and even crucial information contained in them. Many could easily have been included in the actual text.
I found that the lack of any index something of an oversight. I am sure I am not alone in wanting to be able to quickly use this work when looking for references to authors and titles mentioned in the text. I found that the author included references to many writers and titles I would like to explore further.
On the positive side, I found this work to be truly inspiring. Many of the titles mentioned I was already familiar with, but haven’t read in years – in some cases, decades. After reading this book I have decided that I need to revisit the works of Tolkien, Lewis, L’Engle, and LeGuin, and I even concede that I might even need to put aside my initial reservations and fully explore the world of Hogwarts (I have only read the first in the Harry Potter series, and didn’t like it.) What is more, the author has mentioned many other writers I am quite unfamiliar with, or I have only read one or two of their works.
In conclusion, this volume is a valuable contribution to the academic discussion on fantasy in general, and its relationship with Christian traditions in particular. It is easy to read but thorough in its coverage. Highly recommended.
Details of the launch, and where to buy this book, can be found here.
Acknowledgment: special thanks to author Mark Worthing for supplying a review copy of his book.