Tag Archives: Madeleine L’Engle

The Bulwer-Lyttons: It’s STILL a dark and stormy night

They’re back: the annual Bulwer-Lytton Awards, the cream of the crop of bad writing.
Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, painted by Henry William Pickersgill. Wikimedia Commons

Except in this case it’s deliberately bad writing, short parody passages in emulation of the florid style of Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton, PC, the 19th century British playwright, novelist and politician immortalized for his creation of the line “It was a dark and stormy night.”

The annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, first perpetrated in 1982 by English professor Scott Rice of San Jose State University, is a veritable treasure chest of purple prose, a perverse celebration of overstatement and strangely linked ideas.

Find the 2009 winners here, and weep for joy.

This year’s grand prize winner is David McKenzie of Federal Way, Wash., for this dark and stormy sentence:

“Folks say that if you listen real close at the height of the full moon, when the wind is blowin’ off Nantucket Sound from the nor’east and the dogs are howlin’ for no earthly reason, you can hear the awful screams of the Ellie May, a sturdy whaler Captained by John McTavish: for it was on just such a night when the rum was flowin’ and, Davey Jones be damned, big John brought his men on deck for the first of several screaming contests.”

Bulwer-Lytton was a man to be reckoned with. A quick cruise through the Web reveals that, while his style may be painfully out of fashion, he could turn a phrase. The great unwashed and pursuit of the almighty dollar are his, and in his 1839 play Richelieu he created the pen is mightier than the sword.

Take a look at that famous dark and stormy sentence in full, the opening of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

OK, the man didn’t know where to stop. But the thing about Bulwer-Lytton is that he knew how to stick a phrase in your mind so it stays. Madeleine l’Engle, Wikipedia reminds us, used “It was a dark and stormy night” to begin her wonderful, Newbery Medal-winning children’s adventure A Wrinkle in Time, which she wrote in 1962, a full 20 years before the Bulwer-Lytton Awards began. If it’s a good enough beginning for Meg and Calvin and Charles Wallace as they whisk through space and time, it’s good enough for us.

Still, when it comes to a good parody, what’s fairness got to do with it? Thank you, Lord Bulwer-Lytton, for providing the fodder. Let us close this chapter of the Art Scatter annals with these words from the winner of this year’s Bulwer-Lytton Vile Puns category, Greg Homer of Placerville, California:

Using her flint knife to gut the two amphibians, Kreega the Neanderthal woman created the first pair of open-toad sandals.

A trip to the moon on ‘Gossamer’ wings

Gossamer has lost weight since its robust Middle English youth. These days we think of gossamer as light, airy, elusive, delicate, evanescent. Yet in its original form it was a simple compound of the terms for goose and summer. A sturdy word, with physical impact. The squawk and peck and heft of a barnyard bird. The good green moss and fern by the banks of a summer stream. Things you hear and feel and smell and touch.

Yet all that is solid fades away, and in that disappearance is the essence of gossamer. Gossamer flits in and out of physical reality. Now you see it. Now you don’t. A memory, a tickle, a promise, a hint. A window between worlds, whispered.

Tuesday morning, in the faded light of a perfect autumn day, I drove into downtown Portland to the Dolores Winningstad Theatre to take in the premiere of Gossamer, Newbery Award winner Lois Lowry‘s stage adaptation of her own children’s novel, with a crowd of fifth through seventh graders. Yes, Oregon Children’s Theatre‘s production has its shimmery moments — it’s about dreams and the benevolent, more- and less- than human race that creates them — but director Stan Foote keeps things grounded in the physical. These supposed creatures of the ether, with their impetuous curiosity and sturdy country ways, seem like yeomen and women of the goose-summer days. They’re like characters from Piers Ploughman.

Little wonder. Lowry’s dream makers, who aren’t quite sure themselves exactly who and what they are, exist in the imagination — and in this formulation, “exist” and “imagination” carry equal weight.
They are caretakers of humans (and animals, too), and therefore linked to corporeality, even if they are only fleetingly embodied themselves. Like so many good stories for children — Mary Norton‘s The Borrowers, William Mayne‘s Hob and the Goblins — they give concrete form and personality to unexplainable things. And like the Christian transcendentalists of children’s lit, Madeleine L’Engle and C.S. Lewis (you could add Tolkien, but in spite of his grand-scale moral dualism he seems so much more thoroughly earthen to me), Lowry creates a world in which an unseen battle between good and evil, knowledge and ignorance, love and anger is just offstage of the human characters’ lives, determining the actions and reactions of what they see.

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