Once I suspended my descriptions of ideal communities every couple of chapters to insert thoroughly bad goings on, I found the alternation from good to evil and evil to good created a satisfactory narrative rhythm. Rising suspense and an awful event followed by better times before the cycle repeated itself not only made for a better read but was also philosophically satisfying. That’s the way life goes, after all – the way it challenges our mettle.
My New York City school was fashioned along British lines, which was why every June, instead of closing the year with the national anthem or “America,” we stood on our feet to belt out William Blake’s “Jerusalem.” For us, anticipating the freedom of sunlight and grass and ocean and cool waters for what seemed like months and months of unmitigated relief from city heat and soot and grime (the “Big Apple” was yet to be dreamed of), Jerusalem had to do with the green and pleasant country where we fortunate children could escape the annual polio epidemic. “And was Jerusalem builded here” we sang, with enormous enthusiasm and total incomprehension, “among these dark Satanic mills?”
Blake, who was convinced that “without contraries there is no progression,” pitted the green Utopia he desired against the darksome threat of rising industrialism. Utopia underlies Dystopia and Dystopia underlies Utopia in a lot of British fiction — think of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a communitarian dream undermined by human style cruelty and greed; or the way C.S. Lewis, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, pits endless and evil winter against the ideal past of Narnia.
I knew all this when I was an English Professor teaching a course on Utopia and Dystopia, but it wasn’t (in spite of what you may think) at the top of my head when I sat down to write my own novels. As I got my alternation of good and evil episodes in motion, however, I remembered J.R.R. Tolkien’s description of catastrophe and eucatastrophe as his underlying narrative principle.
In “The Bridge of Khazad-Dûm,”a terrifically frightening chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring, the beloved leader Gandalf seems to perish in the abyss:
In the very next chapter Tolkien depicts succor of the grieving fellowship in the utopian (though threatened) Elven realm of Lothlórien:
Please don’t think that I am in any way comparing myself to these great writers, though they certainly suggest universal rules about plotting that I can learn from. As my characters confront fearsome worlds in their quest for a better world, achieving balance between good and evil episodes has proven a fine way of story telling
After all is said and done, when the world proves cruel and our pathway perilous, isn’t it Hobbiton that we all long for? See you there!