Read the transcription below.
Darkly Bright Press: Akboritha is a tantalizing glimpse into a secret, secondary world. What literary, historical or spiritual figures have formed your imagination and inspired your desire to create a secondary world?
Richard W. Rohlin: This is a big question. Of course, my debt to Tolkien is incalculable—but in perhaps a slightly unusual way. I’ve always tried to tell stories and I’ve always played with language, as long as I can remember, but the true birth of Mythopoeia in my life came when I read the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings at about the age of ten. In the Appendices (I think it is in Appendix F) there is a note about the name of the river Baranduin, which Tolkien “translates” as “Brandywine.” When I first read this passage, it hit me like a thunderclap as I realized: you could name a river. Since that time my private motto, which my sister actually painted onto a landscape and framed for me, has been: “Write, so that you can name a river.”
Over the years there are several other authors who have influenced my imagination in different but equally vital ways: Dante (to whom much of my interior life, but also my sense of horror-writing, is indebted), Lord Dunsany, E. R. Eddison, and Andrew Lang’s The Coloured Fairy Books. I am a somewhat unusual person in that I read these important authors only after I had already read many medieval works as a young man – The Song of Roland, The Lay of the Cid, The Volsunga Saga, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Sir Orfeo – and so I found in them not only beauty and wonder, but also a blueprint for how to make use of medieval sources in ways that were different than how Tolkien had done it.
Finally, I am more or less a naturalized citizen of Narnia. I don’t recall a time in my life when I wasn’t reading at least one Narnia book, and I consider the Narniad to be the spiritual successor of the whole medieval tradition.
DBP: I’d like to linger on the topic of secondary worlds. (Personally, I contend there exists a great triumvirate of such “literary paracosms”: Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Herbert’s Dune and Adams’s Watership Down.) In your opinion, why are we attracted to these complex creations? What vital purpose do they serve to a reader at the personal level and what balm may they offer to a society in crisis?
RR: I more or less agree with that triumvirate, and find Watership Down in particular to be one of the most delightful secondary worlds I’ve ever encountered. As I often tell people (perhaps only half-joking), it has the most accurate depiction of “rabbit religion” that I’ve ever encountered anywhere!
If I had to venture a guess as to why we are attracted to such creations, I would say that it is because we need them. But I think that authors and readers need them in different ways. It would be easy to make an appeal to Tolkien here (his theory of subcreation and the case he lays out in On Fairy Stories) but since I already have a podcast for doing that, I will do something a little risky and try to share my own, personal philosophy about these things.
Writers (or at least, writers like me) build these worlds out of an almost existential necessity, something on the order of the need for basic human goods like food and shelter. Storytelling, which is the most profound kind of sense-making, is also a basic human good. For the subcreator or constructor of a “paracosm,” the act of writing is one of discovery—the attempt to discover what is true about your own world. It’s a way of sorting through two different and equally vexing problems: the fact that reality is too complex for us to easily understand (which requires us to create narratives which help us understand it), and the fact that without sufficient depth a narrative will have no ability to satisfy the deep-seated human need for verisimilitude (and therefore these paracosms must possess a non-trivial degree of depth).
By “depth,” I mean the sense that the story or the world “means” more than one thing—that, for instance, it would not be unreasonable to apply something like the medieval “four-fold sense” to reading it. This (I think) is something like Machen’s idea of “hieroglyphs” in literature.
The way I would express it is this: all of the really beautiful, lasting cultural artefacts—Sacred Scripture, liturgy, art, folk songs, traditional dance, and so on—are able to mean something both for the community which they hold together and which preserves them as well as for the individual who participates in them, and these meanings are overlapping but not quite the same. The highest things (Scripture and liturgy) are also capable of connecting us to a dimension which is beyond all time, and can make something which happened 2,000 years ago closer to us than what happened yesterday. The implicit hierarchy of these things makes it possible for what is lower to participate in what is higher, and so healthy human culture is a web of referents and relationships which make sense of the world’s complexity without dissecting it or destroying its beauty.
I believe that the person who creates a “paracosm” or secondary world often does so because, in their heart of hearts, they feel that this web has somehow become unraveled. When I was a young boy, I grew up in a sort of “beige” fundamentalist culture whose soft iconoclasm meant that we had few enduring cultural artefacts or a sense of what it meant to be ourselves. But I also lived proximate to a vivid East Asian culture which had a very strong sense of identity, of beauty, heart, honor, shame, and family responsibility. I adopted many of those values as my own, but I was always conscious of being an outsider. I turned to subcreation as an unconscious means of answering the questions, “What makes a culture?” and “What would it mean to belong to one?”
For the reader who enjoys such work, I expect there are similar but somewhat different motivations. Tolkien’s continuum (and it is important that we see it as a continuum) of Escape > Recovery > Consolation is beautifully expressed in On Fairy Stories and I will not rehash it here. I have also noticed that many of my friends enjoy reading for reasons that seem to be very different from my own. But if I had to sum up my intuition about why people enjoy reading these things and what “balm” they offer at the personal level, it would be this: a story set in a vivid secondary world offers not only a means of repairing that “web” which has come unraveled, but it also offers you communion with other people who have shared your “experience” as fellow readers and travelers through that world. This is why, at their best and at their worst, the great fandoms of genre literature tend to resemble religions.
For the lonely boy or girl languishing in suburbia, reading The Lord of the Rings won’t just give you Middle-earth—it’ll give you back your back yard.
DBP: What I find most intriguing about your work is the approach. You often avoid common narrative forms by pushing to the foreground elements and techniques that many authors would consider backstory. Please discuss your goals in constructing the book in this manner.
RR: Let’s go back to that idea of the “web” of relationships and referents for a moment: everything that is written in the English language is in some degree in a “conversation” with everything else written in English – or at least with a few key texts. Actually, these texts extend beyond things originally composed in English to include the great works of what is sometimes called the “western canon” – the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Bible, Arthuriana, the Aeneid, Shakespeare, and so on.
When people talk, write, make movies, tell stories, etc. they are drawing on this well (Tolkien called it the “Cauldron of Story”) so that our stories are littered with what you might call “hyperlinks” – if you know the older work that is being referenced or quoted, it enhances and enriches your enjoyment of the new work. For instance, nearly every classic Star Trek episode is a riff on some classical or medieval story. Knowing this makes them more enjoyable to watch.
That older work is in turn also “hyperlinked” to a bunch of things older than it, and so on, all the way back to the very first story, which philologists have speculated to be something like, “HERO SLAYS SERPENT.” What this means is that the more you study stories, the more all of them mean. You become immersed in not just one culture, but many cultures – and you become enriched as a result. C.S. Lewis called this “seeing with many eyes.”
Usually, fantasy and sci-fi authors try to create this effect for a world artificially, by creating a reference to another work, legend, text, or song that doesn’t actually “exist.” A good example of this is Frank Herbert’s Dune. The heading of each chapter includes a short epigraph from a work of history written by the Princess Irulan. But these books written by the Princess Irulan do not exist anywhere except in those references. It’s a neat trick, a kind of sleight of hand that makes the world feel like it’s got depth and history and tradition to it, a kind of window-dressing that serves the more important purposes of the story – the novel that Herbert is actually writing.
It makes sense, right? He wants to convey this sense of dimensionality, of depth and breadth, to his writers. But if he really made himself write the “Manual of Muad’Dib”, “Muad’Dib, Family Commentaries”, “A Child’s History of Muad’Dib”, “Dictionary of Muad’Dib”, “Analysis: The Arrakeen Crisis” (written for Bene Gesserit Circulation only), “The Humanity of Muad’Dib”, “History of the Butlerian Jihad”, “Collected Sayings of Muad’Dib”, “In My Father’s House”, “Songs of Muad’Dib”, “Conversations With Muad’Dib”, “Arrakis Awakening”, and so on, then he’d never finish his novel.
Well, I’m kind of weird. I’d rather read all of those books that exist in the Dune universe but which I can’t read than read the novel Dune, partly because I’m more interested to know what people who live in the world of Dune have to say about it than I am what Frank Herbert has to say about it. Tolkien expressed this concept by saying that there is “no tale without the teller”—that, in other words, every story is told by someone, and that someone is part of, participates in, the tale they are telling.
Well, all of this is a round-about way of describing my project, which is basically this: What if every text that was referenced by every other text really existed? In short, that’s what I’ve been doing for the last twenty years. And that means that in a way that there’s no good place to start – but on the other hand, anywhere is a good place to start.
DBP: Akboritha is comprised of both prose and song. How do these forms interact to construct myth?
RR: I suspect most of us who are into this kind of literature have already read Albert Lord’s The Singer of Tales. If you haven’t, you should stop reading this interview right now and go and seek it out. Lord’s work concerns the way that oral cultures develop into literary cultures, and it was for me what Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces was for a lot of fantasy and science-fiction writers. Although much of Lord’s research and many of his conclusions are now considered outdated, it is a riveting and utterly convincing read.
My basic belief, which comes from Lord but also from having grown up with a discipline (which I still attempt to maintain as a grown man, although so much else has changed) of reading and praying the Psalms daily, is that poetry is debased song and prose is debased poetry. Human cultures preserve what is vital and sacred to them first through song, and only much later through written prose. Poetry written self-consciously as poetry is an imitative (but not wholly honest) attempt to create a literary artefact using an oral mode.
My modus operandi for creating secondary worlds is what I have sometimes called “poetry-first worldbuilding.” Whenever I want to answer the question “what happened in such-and-such a place at such-and-such a time?” I try to situate myself in the role of someone recording an older oral tradition preserved in song. Once I have written that song in one or more versions, I will usually let the question lie, sometimes for many years. When I return to it, I will try to take my “oral” versions and construct from them a prose narrative. Sometimes I will then rewrite that prose narrative multiple times, always preserving the previous versions, so as to create the sense of a whole textual tradition. The final stage is the composition of new poetry, in more “advanced” metrical forms than the early “oral” work, which represents the efforts of high culture to reappropriate their old myths and legends for themselves. Along the way, new links to other cultural artefacts which were developed in the meantime are constantly being created and forgotten, producing a sense of “messiness” that real historical traditions (such as Arthuriana) have.
By the way, this kind of process is a great way to ensure that you never finish anything.
DBP: Alongside writers such as Nicholas Kotar, you are a Christian who creates in the fantasy genre. What can fantasy achieve for the Christian reader? What are the potential pitfalls that you see?
RR: You mention Nicholas Kotar, who is of course a deacon in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia and also a friend of mine. I am also, as most people know, an Orthodox Christian. It seems to me that Orthodox Christianity bears an important witness to the symbolic, mystical, and iconic potential of the created order that is in desperate need of rediscovery in the West. Eastern Christianity faced two extremely violent bouts of iconoclasm in the eighth and ninth centuries AD. As a result, the Fathers of the Church in the East—notably St. John of Damascus and St. Theodore the Studite—carefully articulated the Christian stance on the image, on human artistic endeavor, and the stuff of the created world—bread and wine, oil and water—and its potential to communicate the grace of God.
The position of the Eastern fathers was that, because God the Word had taken matter irrevocably to Himself, matter itself could not be considered evil or unworthy of bearing the image of God. Among other things, this means that is possible to know God with our bodies as well as with our minds. In an eerie prediction of much modern Christian worship, St. John of Damascus says:
If you say that God ought only to be apprehended spiritually, then take away everything bodily, the lights, the fragrant incense, even vocal prayer, the divine mysteries themselves that are celebrated with matter, the bread, the wine, the oil of chrismation, the form of the cross.
Heather Ward has something similar in mind when she describes Christian fantasy writing as “the outcome of an imagination that works in sacramental terms, seeing the material world as participant in, and mediator of, the divine.” This, I think, is the important link between fantasy writing and traditional, liturgical Christianity. Tolkien argues that fantasy is made “out of the Primary World, but a good craftsman loves his material, and has a knowledge and a feeling for clay, stone and wood which only the art of making can give.” In our post-industrial suburban dystopia, reclaiming this love for the goodness of the material world—while still keeping the material properly ordered in relation to that which is higher—is absolutely vital to healing what seem to me to be one of our deepest wounds: a kind of Gnosticism which has crept in and convinced us that whatever we do with our bodies is not really “spiritual” and so not genuine, and then further convinced us that our brains are not really part of our bodies.
For the Christian of catholic tradition, fantasy literature serves to orient us towards the sacramental and incarnational nature of our faith. In other words, it orients us towards the altar. For Christians coming from Reformed or Evangelical backgrounds, who may not have this available to them, fantasy literature can be an absolute lifeline. It certainly was for me during the first twenty years of my life.
I see the potential pitfalls of fantasy as twofold: First, there is always the danger (for both writer and reader) of becoming lost in these imaginary worlds to some greater or lesser degree. The fear of this is behind so much worrying about “escapism” in fantasy literature, and while often such criticisms are poorly thought-out or expressed, there are a relatively small number of people for whom this is a danger. I would say that those who are most in danger in this regard are those deeply wounded individuals who have nothing beautiful in their own lives which fantasy can help them “recover.” But even here, the danger is not mainly from fantasy literature. The bad sort of escapism is to be found today mainly in our mobile phones, in video games, TV shows, and in the brobdingnagian consumerism of our age.
The second pitfall is pride. Pride strikes at writers and artists for obvious reasons, but it may also manifest itself in readers in the tendency to want to display “mastery” within the context of a community of readers or viewers. So much of the ugly tug-of-war around the new Amazon Prime Rings of Power show within the Tolkien community seems to be born out of this kind of pride and possessiveness. Not only is this sort of pride (speaking as a Christian) soul-destroying, it runs the risk of negating any positive benefit you may have derived from the literature itself.
By the way, Nicholas Kotar and I are working on a project together, and I hope there will be an announcement about it soon.
DBP: Strikingly, the verse in Akboritha is not only heroic, but bears a liturgical nature. Why is this important to you? What function does liturgy provide for this secondary world?
RR: I mentioned earlier that one way to understand The World Under Starlight is as an attempt to create a culture and, in so doing, to understand what it is that holds people together and gives them an identity. I have become convinced, because of my own religious and “mystical” experiences, that no culture can really exist without a “sacred story” which people can not only learn or hear performed, but in which they themselves can participate, and so have their identity conferred upon them from above.
Pretty much all of the landmark fantasy literature up to the time of the Inklings was written by Christians who primarily encountered their faith in a liturgical context. Even when this is not the case, there was still enough liturgy “in the air” of Western Civilization that exposure to it was unavoidable. Authors like Tolkien can be said to be using a liturgical “framework” even if their work itself includes little or no liturgy.
Well, a lot has changed since then, and if we want to communicate this sense of recovery, communion, and community, I believe we will need to start being more deliberate about how we do it. On a “meta” level, there is also the fact that liturgy shapes patterns of thought and being and therefore many important works of world literature (from the Apocalypse of St. John to the Old English Andreas) may be said to be liturgically structured. If you want to create this effect in your own secondary world, you will first have to figure out what kind of liturgy has been shaping hearts and minds. But here, we cannot draw from an empty well—we will need to live rich and full liturgical lives of our own. I believe that Orthodox Christian writers, whose tradition has uniquely preserved a robust liturgical theology, are uniquely poised to offer something to the world in this regard.
Finally, through the creation of liturgical, devotional, and mystagogical texts, we are able to explore the question: “what would the interior and devotional life of someone who lives in this world be like?”—a question I find both profitable and interesting.
DBP: Finally, I am most attracted to literature which employs symbology to describe truth. I detect this quality in Akboritha. Without unveiling the mysteries, please discuss your thoughts on how you may communicate the deepest, unseen realities to the reader through story and song.
RR: As I said, you cannot draw from an empty well. The kind of writing which I have described in this interview, and in which I try to engage, is an ascetic act. It requires the rejection of a great many things—most of all, the desire to be read.
I will unveil a very small mystery: in the Amborian liturgical day (the Ambori are the culture with whom the Akboritha deals), the very first service of the day—we might liken it to Vespers, and it is held at a similar time—is called “The Opening of the Book.” In this ceremony, which is kept very secret and so is attended only by a few, certain hymns concerning love are sung, at the culmination of which a book—called The Queen’s Book—is raised from its resting place within a stone chamber, and its heavy covering of animal skins is removed. The book is opened, and remains open until the conclusion of that day’s prayers. This book is full of many mysterious things which only find their meaning through careful observance of and participation in the whole sacred story of the year.
The Book that is within the author should remain hidden—nurtured and growing—until it is drawn out of its hiding place by an act of love which is able to reveal it to its audience. This audience does not need to be the whole world—in fact, I have come to believe that most of us would be better off writing only for a very small number of people—but they must be those who “will not speak of Thy mysteries unto Thine enemies…” After this, mass publishing may or may not come. But when it comes, it will be very difficult to ever grow the Book beyond what it was when first it saw the light of day.
That period of incubation is the key. One of my favorite phrases from Lewis is from Till We Have Faces: “I am with book as a woman is with child.” While your story is still in that deep, silent, hidden, womb-like place, you must feed it on yourself—on your own interior life of prayer, on your suffering, on your joy—as a woman sustains her child. This will give your book form because man is a microcosm, and a book that contains a man contains the whole cosmos.
As I have said before, I learned the hard way that it is better not to share things like The World Under Starlight, except with a few friends. It was an act of love—in this case, Christopher Tompkins’ friendship—which drew this book out of its hiding place. Akboritha is only one small part of it, but I am excited to share it with Darkly Bright’s readers.