Russell Kirk on Fantasy

Russell Kirk

Russell Kirk was a literary critic, historian, and political theorist. He passionately believed that literature was an essential part of one’s education, since it exposes students to “splendor and tragedy of the human condition, to constant moral insights, to the spectacle of human history, to love of community and country, to the achievements of right reason.”

Here are his reasons for reading and teaching fantasy, along with a few recommendations. From The Intellectual Conservative:

If young people are to begin to understand themselves, and to understand other people, and to know the laws which govern our nature, they ought to be encouraged to read allegory, fable, myth, and parable. All things begin and end in mystery. Out of tales of wonder comes awe—and the beginnings of philosophy. The images of fantasy move us lifelong. Sir Osbert Sitwell, when asked what lines of poetry had most moved him in all his life, replied candidly, “Froggie would a-wooing go, whether his mother would let him or no.”

So here are my fantastic recommendations—

John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678-84)

William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1596-96)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables (1851) or (perhaps preferably) The Marble Faun (1860)

Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped (1886) or one of his volumes of short stories

Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962) or Dandelion Wine (1957) (Bradbury is something far better than an accomplished “science fiction writer;” he is a man of remarkable ethical insights and great power of style.)

Walter Scott, Old Mortality (1816) or The Heart of Midlothian (1818), (These are much more important romances than is Ivanhoe (1819), so commonly taught).

Select poems of Spenser, Burns, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, Tennyson, Whittier, Longfellow, Chesterton, Kipling, Masefield, Yeats, Frost, and others—selected with and eye to the marvelous and the mysterious.


Apollo 11


Where were you when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon?

I remember that night well. I was in my second week working at my first job as a projectionist at WGHP-TV in High Point, North Carolina. Since we were on network feed all night, all I had to do was load our station ID slides and run a few commercials. In addition to me, there was the director and an engineer. That was the skeleton crew, and we were pretty well psyched all night. Nothing could have torn me away from the video monitor when Neil Armstrong stepped out of the lunar lander. The three of us stood motionless in that cramped control room full of racks of electronics and stared in total awe.

So — when’s the next bold adventure in space?

The Scots-Irish Rascals Who Made America


Here’s my review of Karen McCarthy’s The Other Irish, one of the books I read while researching my latest book. Who are “The Other Irish”? As McCarthy writes:

“They settled the frontier, intermarried with other migrants, imbued the national character with their own nature and values, and, arguably, became the most patriotic of all Americans. They provided American icons like Davy Crockett, literary giants from Mark Twain to Stephen King, American warriors from Sam Houston to George Patton. They invented NASCAR — the biggest spectator sport in America — and provided more than twenty presidents.”

My review is featured today at the Abbeville Institute.

Best Fiction and Writing Blogs


The best fiction and writing blog posts from around the ‘net, all guaranteed to make you a literary adventurer. Compiled by ernie.

Jacqueline SeewaldTips On Adding Symbolism In Fiction
Lori RensinkJust Words And Just Music
Gary GautierThe Architecture of Narrative
Assia ShahinUffizi Galore
Jay Dee ArcherAuthors Answer 33 – The Writing Process
Timothy Pike“Doing interesting stuff” inspires this tireless writer
Nihar PradhanGreat Bloggers Are Great Thinkers

And as an extra bonus: Ancient Origins. This webzine is updated daily with fascinating articles about Science and Space, History and Archaeology, Evolution, and Strange Phenomena. A gold mine of writing ideas!

The Power of Body Language


Are you frustrated with your characters? Are they slowing down what should be a gripping, page-turning story? Maybe it’s time you got them off their rear ends and put them to work.

In my re-writes, I search the text for characters who THINK rather than ACT. When I spot a cerebral, lackluster character, I start re-staging the scene like a director, deciding how the characters should approach and look at one another. When I’ve done my job, every character will be in motion. His tone of voice, eye movements, expressions, and stance will reflect and amplify his emotions and attitudes. THEN each character can tell a compelling story.

Body language is one of the most powerful tools a writer can use. When we express our characters’ emotions and thoughts in concrete, physical terms, we pull the reader deeper into the story.

In my sci-fi short story Aquarius, the protag, Joni Lingg, leads a shadowy organization within NASA through intimidation and the power of her personality. But why TELL when it’s more fun and intriguing to SHOW:

I once saw her chew out an Air Force major. I was in the next room, and could hear nothing, but could see them clearly through a window. Joni, a short brunette with the face of a child, was enraged, jabbing her finger and thrusting her tiny chin at the major, her blue eyes blazing in fury. The major took it like a confused, whipped puppy.

In Aztec Midnight, I could have had the first-person narrator just say he hits his low point when he’s thrown into a Mexican jail and feels like giving up. But this is more emotionally engaging:

In the dark, drunks with slouching shoulders gave way to grim-faced men with dead eyes and scarred forearms. I found myself being swept along with the drunks. The lone bench in the back was filled with Cuernavaca’s meanest residents, and I didn’t feel like another fight. I leaned against the unyielding bars and shut my eyes. The pressure of the cold metal against my throbbing head and back barely registered. There was no fight left in me, no strength. I had no idea of the time or what I could do next.

Hazy minutes passed by while I propped myself up against the bars. There was no clock. I guessed I’d been in the hole at least two hours. My eyes burned when I shut them.

The reason body language is so evocative is because we are social beings. Long before the invention of language, our physical reactions communicated to others vital information about what we were experiencing. Facial expressions, gestures, and posture came long before the invention of language. The ability to “read” body language is more fundamental, and therefore more moving, than reading written language. So the more physical we can make the story, the more real it is to the reader.

Recent research in neuroscience tells us that when we think about an action, we activate the motor area of the mind that controls that action. Magnetic resonance imaging scanners show that when a subject reads about kicking, for example, the area of the brain that controls kicking “lights up.” There’s an exciting new theory of language called “Embodied Cognition,” which can be summed up as, “We understand language by simulating in our minds what it would be like to experience the things that the language describes.”

That’s why other researchers have found that the brains of those who read powerful stories are changed by those stories. Indeed, reading vivid stories actually creates “muscle memory” in the brain as if the reader had actually lived the events in the story.

No wonder my feet hurt after reading Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. That was quite a trek.

Psychology Today offers a useful introduction to body language. If you want to rev up your stories, learn the basics of body language and, like a stage director, guide your characters’ movements so they reinforce what your characters feel and think.

The Future of Dystopian Literature


One of the writer’s vital functions is to advise readers about the possible dangers of certain actions and beliefs, just as doctors warn their patients about unhealthy behaviors and attitudes.

In that spirit, Dr. Bradley Birzer argues in The Imaginative Conservative that the current interest in dystopian science fiction is not a sign of degeneracy, but a cause for hope. As he puts it, “At their best, dystopias allow us—through the faculty of imagination—to see not only inhumanity, but the motives behind inhumanity.”

I believe such warnings are necessary and apropos. Modern life is characterized by radical transformations that are being imposed without consideration for basic human needs. Charlene Spretnak summarizes the worldview behind those transformations in her classic, The Resurgence of the Real:

In the modern worldview, a salvational sense of progress places economic expansion and technological innovation at the center of importance. Modern government, whether socialist or capitalist, is charged with safeguarding and furthering that expansion because social and cultural development is believed to follow in its wake. Thanks to modern advances, traditional concerns stemming from the human condition have been largely conquered, managed, or replaced altogether: Modern life promised freedom from the vagaries of the body, the limits of nature, and the provincial ties to place. The body came to be seen as a biological machine, the natural world as a mere externality in modern economies, and the sense of place as a primitive precursor to cosmopolitan sophistication.

In my mind, such an agenda guarantees an anti-human dystopia. So, as Birzer says, let the short stories, novels, and graphic novels that depict dystopia go forth and spread their warnings. We need them.

“Tuggle ably captures the spirit of Dan Brown novels and Indiana Jones–style adventure stories.” Kirkus Reviews

%d bloggers like this: