Wednesday 1 December 2010

Vivien Leigh said, “It’s much easier to make people cry than to make them laugh.” But Vivien Leigh was an actress, not a writer.

Cinema and theater feature living human faces expressing emotion, to which we are intensely attuned. In plays and movies the action can halt for the space of a dramatic moment, giving the audience time to absorb its full weight. And in movies especially we have all the tricks of somber lighting, the sound of rain, slow pans from face to stricken face, and—the ultimate in mood enhancers—a soul-​stirring soundtrack featuring lots of strings.

That’s not to say that screenwriters, directors, and actors have it easy. But I do believe that when it comes to literature, Vivien Leigh has it backwards. I don’t know about you, but I have giggled and even laughed out loud countless times while reading, whereas I wouldn’t need more than my two hands to count the times a book has made me cry real tears.

It’s much harder to make readers cry

I have often been profoundly moved, of course, but it’s hard to make people cry with nothing more than words on a page. The medium is not as immediate or visceral. The reader can see and hear nothing but what the writer evokes in her mind; and she reads relentlessly onwards to find out what happens next, so there’s less time for a slowly growing emotion like sadness to develop. And of course there are no soundtracks, no strings striking up at just the right moment.

With this story I have a slight advantage over a text-​only novel in an ordinary book. I can certainly do somber lighting. If my Sims are acting well and not going off into gawky, eyebrows-​popping-​off-​the-​head gesticulations, I can sometimes convey some very human emotions with no words at all.

But it’s still very hard, and that’s why I consider it one of the highest compliments I can be paid when someone tells me that they cried over a chapter of mine—even allowing for some kindly exaggeration or for some extremely sensitive readers. That’s why I wanted this to be the subject of my first Top 10 list.

About the list

I myself have cried over a few of my chapters. I don’t know whether that should be obvious, since I am so attached to my characters, or instead surprising, since I know in advance what’s going to happen to them. Those chapters will appear at the top of my list.

The other chapters in the top ten certainly moved me, but I also gave weight to chapters which had numerous comments to the effect that readers cried as well. Unlike some of the upcoming lists, in which I will be making my own favorite picks, I let your reactions guide me a little on this one.

Get your Kleenexes ready if you’re going to click through, for these are the ten most tear-​jerking chapters of Lothere. (In reverse order, because suspense is fun!)

10. “Pol touches his daughter”

Published: December 18, 2006
Chapter Date: February 12, 1084
Synopsis: Iylaine’s elven father Pol returns her infant son to her, after the baby was kidnapped by elves to be named according to their rites.

'Pol and Iylaine in 'Pol touches his daughter''

This chapter is a reminder that Iylaine and Vash were not the only victims of their society’s obedience to divine command. Pol sacrificed his daughter twelve years before, and in doing so he also lost the laughing, merry wife he had once had. Lira was able to express her grief, but Pol silently endured.

We saw hints of his anguish from Egelric’s pitiless point of view in “Egelric meets a real elf,” but it is in “Pol touches his daughter,” told from his own point of view, that we see the depths of his heartache. He has waited twelve years to meet his daughter again—for nothing more than a close-​up look at her face and an accidental brushing of her hand against his—and he lives the moment to its fullest.

Then, dignified as ever, he leaves without a fuss, knowing Iylaine has not even recognized him as her father, knowing he will never touch his daughter again.

'Pol and Iylaine in 'Pol touches his daughter''

9. “Alred lends Dunstan a book”

Published: September 20, 2006
Chapter Date: December 6, 1081
Synopsis: Nearly two years after Matilda’s death, and a year before he asks for Hetty’s hand, Alred is acutely lonely. He opens up to 13-​year-​old Dunstan and warns him against allowing a fear of looking foolish to prevent him from showing a woman how much he loves her. As evidence he lends him the Psalter that Matilda showed him in “Matilda sends for Alred,” in which she had secretly copied the “foolish” poems he sent her when he was courting her.

'Alred and Dunstan in 'Alred lends Dunstan a book''

This is by no means a sentimental, sigh-​inducing chapter. Alred is very low, and Dunstan—from whose point of view the chapter is told—is confused, frightened, and helpless before his father’s ongoing grief. The tears of this chapter come from both Alred’s recollections of “What might have been” if only he had dared say certain things to Matilda before it was too late, and our own grief over how low Alred has sunk without her.

'Alred in 'Alred lends Dunstan a book''

8. “Pinknose makes his Papa laugh”

Published: February 21, 2008
Chapter Date: December 8, 1085
Synopsis: From the point of view of Eirik and Sigrid’s three-​year-​old son Harald “Pinknose,” we see Eirik returning home without Sigrid. Pinknose bravely suppresses his disappointment that Mama will be staying with Aunt Synne for a while, but he is more deeply worried by his Papa’s painful cough.

'Eirik and Pinknose in 'Pinknose makes his Papa laugh''

This chapter makes one teary-​eyed on two levels. From Pinknose’s innocent perspective we see him missing his Mama:

Just as when he had lost Bunny Bluenose for an entire night, he had not known how much he needed Mama until Mama was gone. Papa often came and went and came again, but Mama was home through every storm and season. Mama did not go away in ships – except this one time, when she had.

and then, worse, we sense that he is all too aware of the meaning of a cough like his Papa’s. He tries to comfort himself and his Papa by telling him how Mama would make him her special chicken soup “all by herself” if she were there.

But of course this is what makes the chapter doubly painful. Throughout Pinknose’s babbling, we know that Eirik has just left Sigrid behind in Ireland, uncertain whether he will ever see her again in this life. There’s an entire tragic second chapter to be read here, on Eirik’s face and between the lines.

'Eirik and Pinknose in 'Pinknose makes his Papa laugh''

7. “Ethelwyn sees a summer fire”

Published: January 11, 2007
Chapter Date: August 6, 1084
Synopsis: A few weeks after his recovery from the bite of a mad dog, Ethelwyn—now suffering from near total amnesia—pays a visit to Mouse in the hope that seeing her and her house will jog his memory. At Lady Gwynn’s suggestion they even kiss, but that too fails to break the spell, and Ethelwyn goes away a stranger.

'Mouse and Ethelwyn in 'Ethelwyn sees a summer fire''

What could be more excruciating than such a visit? Mouse’s love has just returned from the almost-​dead, and now she must suppress any gestures of familiarity with him and receive him like a stranger. And Ethelwyn is pure, refined Ethelwyn, worse even than the short-​tempered fellow who could not bear the sight of her red boots. Now he is all cold courtesy and polite questions.

There is every reason to hope, for he recognizes her “summer fire” when he come in, and Mouse is her dear self, full of sympathy and understanding, to the point that he breaks down and admits that he’s afraid. And of course there is the kiss. To the very end of the chapter we’re trembling for the breakthrough to come—and yet it never does.

At the time I felt I had just dug myself a deeper hole than ever, since I had no idea how I was going to “fix” that storyline and give them the happily-​ever-​after I thought they deserved. But I know now that I did the right thing. Mouse and Ethelwyn couldn’t have a fairy tale “kiss of the handsome prince” type of ending. They needed something absurd. Now that I know how they end up together, I can fully appreciate the poignancy of this chapter.

'Mouse in 'Ethelwyn sees a summer fire''

6. “Ethelwyn is touched by the ghost of a man”

Published: June 17, 2009
Chapter Date: December 21, 1085
Synopsis: The Royal Reeve arrives to arrest Egelric for a daunting list of crimes, and Ethelwyn defends him valiantly and a little desperately until Egelric tells him it’s time for him to go.

'Ethelwyn and Egelric in 'Ethelwyn is touched by the ghost of a man''

You wouldn’t think that such a prig as Ethelwyn… wait, that might be one of the reasons why his relationship with Egelric is so touching. He can be insufferable at times, and any glimpse we get into his head is seldom flattering to him, but his love for and loyalty to Egelric redeems him.

As usual, Ethelwyn is high-​handed and a little absurd when speaking to the reeve, but he shows impressive determination. And his desire to protect Egelric even extends to covering up one of the ring-​shaped wine-​stains on the table with the parchment, to hide the extent of Egelric’s drinking from the reeve.

But it is his interaction with Egelric that gets me in this chapter. Egelric puts up no fight at all, and when Ethelwyn—by now in tears—pleads with him, Egelric tells him:

“I want you and Mouse to raise my boys. I know you’ll make good men of them. You’re the closest thing they have to an uncle.”

That’s the closest Egelric has ever come to telling a man, “You’re the closest thing I have to a brother,” and Ethelwyn is overcome. Not even Alred occupies that place in Egelric’s heart.

Later, when Egelric’s wrists are already bound and Ethelwyn is pleading with him still, Egelric silences him with this line:

“The peace of God on you, brother. It’s time for me to go.”

It is, as we and Ethelwyn know, the most solemn, the most heartfelt farewell Egelric can make. It is also Egelric’s last moment of dignity and nobility for… well, we’re still waiting for the next one.

It’s an affecting scene, whether you’re reading for the first time and finish this chapter fearing the worst, or whether you’re all caught up and already know that the worst is on its way. And it’s beautiful in spite of the tragedy behind it, because of the glimpse it gives us of the love that exists between these two unlikely friends.

'Ethelwyn and Egelric in 'Ethelwyn is touched by the ghost of a man''

5. “Sigefrith tells the plain truth”

Published: January 1, 2007
Chapter Date: May 20, 1084
Synopsis: Ten-​year-​old Cubby, in Lothere on a visit, asks Sigefrith for permission to remain in Lothere when his godfather returns home to Scotland. Sigefrith realizes it’s time for the truth about Cubby’s paternity to be brought into the open.

'Sigefrith and Cubby in 'Sigefrith tells the plain truth''

Sigefrith is at his best in this chapter—plain-speaking, pragmatic, honorable, and full of love for his children and even this boy who is not his own. And Cubby is patient and trusting as we have never seen him with his true father, in a testament to what Sigefrith has always been for him.

It’s difficult to choose a tear-​worthy quote from this chapter, because Sigefrith’s whole speech is so quotable. And, this being Sigefrith, it isn’t maudlin in the least—it is precisely Sigefrith’s spare, matter-​of-​fact, absolutely masterful treatment of this painful subject that brings a lump to my throat.

And it’s Cubby who brings the tears to my eyes at the end.

He rubbed his face against Sigefrith’s shoulder like a big cat, or perhaps, though Sigefrith would never know, only like a little boy rubbing away tears. “I shall call him Father, but you are my only Papa. Forever.”

'Sigefrith and Cubby in 'Sigefrith tells the plain truth''

4. “Baldwin says a few things he regrets”

Published: May 20, 2006
Chapter Date: February 10, 1078
Synopsis: Three-​year-​old Baldwin attempts to play quietly on the floor of his father’s study while his father is working, but when his block tower collapses he lets slip a naughty word. To his surprise, he is rewarded by his father coming to sit on the floor with him and talk with him. Unfortunately, he then lets slip a comment about his dead mother, and awakens a grief in his father that he does not understand and cannot bear.

'Baldwin in 'Baldwin says a few things he regrets''

It is the child’s point of view in this chapter that makes it so touching. Poor Baldwin is so afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing, but it seems he never knows a thing is wrong until it’s done or said. He is also a silent but not insensible witness to his father’s grief on occasion, which would doubtlessly horrify his father if he knew. Worse than being spanked, it seems, is seeing his father cry.

What kills me is Baldwin’s three-year-old’s attempts at understanding heartache in terms he knows:

Whenever he saw his Papa cry, he would feel a pain in his throat, like when he swallowed a big piece of meat without chewing it enough. But the pain was not in his throat, it was in his heart.

'Cenwulf and Baldwin in 'Baldwin says a few things he regrets''

3. “Dunstan copies two letters and a reply”

Published: July 20, 2006
Chapter Date: January 19, 1080
Synopsis: Dunstan attempts to write a poem in honor of his mother, who died that morning. His father asks him to copy a letter, and it proves to be the note that his father sent to Leofric that morning, informing him of the Duchess’s death and asking for a name for the newborn baby.

'Dunstan in 'Dunstan copies two letters and a reply''

It’s not the scenes of Matilda’s death that affect us so much as it is this scene: a snapshot of the raw anguish of the three men who loved her most in the hours after her death.

Failing to find inspiration for a poem, Dunstan simply writes “I love you, Mother,” in every language he can think of, over and over.

His father, who had sobbed so long that he lost his voice, asks him to write the news of his mother’s death and the baby’s birth into the great journal of the years—the first time Dunstan is permitted to write in the book—because he says, quite simply, he cannot do it himself.

And when Dunstan looks at the letter, we have a glimpse of Leofric’s grief as well, though neither Dunstan nor Alred knew it at the time. “Wielding his quill like a knife” Leofric had written a single word—Peleia—naming his daughter with the Greek form of the name he gave her mother: Dove.

The chapter is short and simple and full of suffering, and it’s here that we realize Matilda is truly gone.

'Alred and Dunstan in 'Dunstan copies two letters and a reply''

2. “Sigrid hears a call”

Published: February 15, 2008
Chapter Date: December 7, 1085
Synopsis: Eirik is getting ready to leave Ireland, entrusting Sigrid to Murchad’s care. Neither know when they will meet again, and Sigrid is alarmed by Eirik taking the unusual step of telling her whom she can trust if something happens to him. Then, when Sigrid is about to get up to dress and join him at breakfast, she sees that she is bleeding badly, apparently suffering another miscarriage. She stays in bed and tries to convince Eirik that nothing is wrong, knowing that he will be in all the more danger if his mind is occupied in worrying about her and the baby.

'Sigrid in 'Sigrid hears a call''

You can say what you like about Eirik on his own, but the romance between these two is something special. Both of them are putting on a brave face and hiding how much they’re suffering, in an attempt to help the other. It’s both touching and tragic and perhaps a little foolish. They joke and tease and argue, and it’s only towards the end that they really express their love for each other—timidly, since that’s the way they are in love, and in nothing else:

He sniffed and kissed her contritely. “But you love me anyway?” he whimpered.

'Eirik and Sigrid in 'Sigrid hears a call''

A sob of her own fluttered over her, almost breaking free. They two were still too shy to often say the words, and never on such mornings as these. Eirik always departed with some carefree remark or reminder and went away whistling, and Sigrid left to the likes of Guthrun storms of tears.

They two had always found the words a little grim. Nevertheless she said, “I love you. Anyway.”

Later Eirik goes off whistling to hide his heartbreak, and Sigrid lies back against the headboard hoping Synne will come up before she bleeds to death—and yet it’s that shy little love scene on the bed, followed by Eirik conking his head yet again when he stands: “God damn!”—that is so very Sigrid-​and-​Pig-​Dog. That is what makes me cry.

'Eirik in 'Sigrid hears a call''

1. “Alred sees no poetry”

Published: October 11, 2007
Chapter Date: November 17, 1085
Synopsis: Close to death after a suicide attempt, Alred has an out-​of-​body experience in which he meets the ghost of Matilda. She begs, scolds, wheedles, and finally manhandles him into getting back into his body and fighting for his life.

'Alred and Matilda in 'Alred sees no poetry''

What I love about this chapter is captured in the title, and more explicitly in this excerpt:

He had imagined their reunion at least once a day for six years of days, and he had often moved himself to tears, but there was no poetry in this.

There was much Matilda in it, however.

'Matilda in 'Alred sees no poetry''

“Hurry!” she cried. “You’re dying, you stupid ass!”

In a sense this episode was a slap in the face to Alred—showing him how futile all his morbidly romantic fantasies are, showing him how foolish he is to repine and not take advantage of the wonderful gift he has in being alive and on earth with his children. There is no poetry in a deathbed, Alred. Gwynn’s not the only person who needed that lesson.

I don’t know how other people feel about this chapter, but the part that brings tears to my eyes is that one line—“There was much Matilda in it, however.” Oh, Alred! Taken alone that line says nothing. Taken in the context of several years of storytelling, to those of us who know and love Alred and Matilda, it says it all.

I jokingly called November 1085 “National Kleenex Month” and this chapter fully justified it. I cried when I took the pictures for that chapter, I cried when I wrote it, and to this day I can still cry when I read it again.

'Matilda in 'Alred sees no poetry''

Recap of the Top 10

  1. “Alred sees no poetry”
  2. “Sigrid hears a call”
  3. “Dunstan copies two letters and a reply”
  4. “Baldwin says a few things he regrets”
  5. “Sigefrith tells the plain truth”
  6. “Ethelwyn is touched by the ghost of a man”
  7. “Ethelwyn sees a summer fire”
  8. “Pinknose makes his Papa laugh”
  9. “Alred lends Dunstan a book”
  10. “Pol touches his daughter”

Some runners-​up

This was an especially difficult list to narrow down to ten. Here are some of the chapters I considered but which didn’t make the cut, in no particular order.

What about you? Are there some chapters I missed? What would be on your Top 10 Tear-​jerkers list?

And, if you like, can you tell me: have you really cried real tears when reading this story? :-) Have other books made you cry?