Saturday, April 29, 2017

From Narnia to a Space Odyssey

From Narnia to a Space Odyssey: The War of Ideas between Arthur C. Clarke and C.S. Lewis
ed. Ryder Miller © 2003
175 pages



First of all, reader, understand that the title of this book is overstated. It is not a series of letters, a debate held in your hands. The first quarter of the book follows the exchange between Lewis and Clarke -- one pensive, one optimistic -- about mankind's seemingly imminent conquest of space, but this is then followed by essays and SF short stories by both Lewis and Clarke. Both men were interested in science fiction as a genre, having witnessed it erupt from obscurity within their own lifetimes. Although Lewis is remembered more as a medieval literature scholar and a Christian apologist. his letters to Clarke evidence a deep familiarity with the SF of the day, from serious novels to pulp trash.

The spirit of the letters is intended to serve as a theme for the stories and essays that follow, though frankly I found it a collection of miscellany. The correspondence begins when Clarke reads Perelandra and takes offense that the scientists are portrayed as grasping imperialists, wanting to subject the whole of the poor solar system to mankind's vices and ambition. He protests to Lewis that the proponents of rocket societies, both laymen and scientists, are among the most pacifistic and philanthropic people in society. Lewis' response is that while there may be no "Westons" (his technocratic imperialist character) in the rocket clubs as of yet, they will quickly follow once idealistic explorers have broken the 'quarantine of space'. The two then chatter about science fiction.

The bulk of the book consists of odd stories and essays by Lewis and Clarke, ostensibly related to the argument. The only real trace I saw of that was in Clarke's stories, though: in one, "Meeting with Medusa", an airship probing Jupiter's oceans of cloud discovers a new kind of life. While not sure it is intelligent, the characters immediately put into effect the "prime directive", protocols regarding the circumspect treatment of intelligent life -- specifically, do no harm. The term prime directive brings Star Trek to mind immediately, and so does Clarke's optimism that man will learn from his mistakes. In one of the last pieces of the book, Clarke rebuts an enthusiastic essay from an American military personality that the United States should lay claim to the Moon in its entirety, and Clarke appears so disturbed at the naked avarice and nationalistic aggression that he muses that perhaps it would be better for the galaxy if man were kept inside Lewis' quarantine of space for a while longer.

I'm the odd bird who enjoys both Lewis and Clarke, whose own mind is divided between the hope of Star Trek and the sad wisdom of history, and so I found this collection odd but fun. If nothing else it is an example of two men who -- to borrow from Lewis -- can argue without quarreling.

Friday, April 28, 2017

1066: A New History

1066: A New History
© 2009 Peter Rex


The list of English kings begins with William the Conqueror, but such a list is really a thing of propaganda; although England's patchwork of ancient kingdoms were slow to be united against threats like the Vikings, there was a line of English kings, and an England, that existed before the Normans. In 1066, Saxon historian Peter Rex labors to illustrate how long it took the Normans to truly effect their conquest. After a history of the battle itself, Rex then chronicles the many rebellions which erupted against the 'bastard Duke's' rule. The battles of 1066 (there were three) and the rebellions had the effect of wiping out the English nobility, and allowing for their total replacement by the Normans. Rex notes that the English state's efficient structure allowed William to quickly effect his will even at the shire level. After ten years of intermittent rebellions, England was finally quietened, but the English would have the last laugh: the Normans would, quickly enough, lose first Normandy, and then their French.

Casual readers should note that this is a short but dense book, with more names than the Domesday telephone book.  Parts of it were familiar to me from The English Resistance

Monday, April 24, 2017

Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility
© 1811 Jane Austen
409 pages


Sense and Sensibility is the story of two sisters, Marianne and Elinor,  who are left to live on a fixed income after their father perished and the law forced him to leave all of his money to their stepbrother – with the promise that said stepbrother would support the sisters. Unfortunately for the ladies, said stepbrother has  all the moral backbone  of a worm, and his “support” – after taking over their home – was the promise to send fish or game when they were in season.      The sisters and their mother, made to feel like outsiders in their own home, take up residence in the country for a long spell of talking, playing music,  talking, dancing, painting, talking, walking,  and worrying.   Far from their old home they find new friends, each with their own promise and limitations – and this being an Austen novel, romance is in the air.  Both Marianne and Elinor have beaus who prove or seem inconstant, but the two women respond to their social anxiety in very different ways.  Marianne is a leaf from the Romantic  era,  full of intense passion, surging hither and yon like tides crashing on a beach;  Elinor is more reserved, more pragmatic. She feels quite intensely, but she is the image of the expression that still waters run deep –  the picture of self-government, It is she, not her mother or sister, who truly manages the house, and who cares for her sister then things go off the deep end.  Another opposing pair are Edward Ferrars and John Willoughby; one is rooted in honor, the other in self-love.

 Sense and Sensibility defeated me the first time I attempted to read it (one year ago), in part because I only tried it because of its Classic status. The story didn’t interest me, but – having recently watched the film for my Read of England celebration --  I approached the novel this time with genuine appreciation and interest in the story, particularly my appreciation for several of the characters. One of the best moments of the novel is when Elinor expresses admiration for a fellow whose behavior seems to deny her happiness. As much as it pains her, she can look beyond it and see its virtue. Otherwise,  Marianne and her beaus steal the show completely, I think, as Book-Ferrars is largely absent and appears only to stand awkwardly in a corner, mumbling his apologies before he wanders off again.

Incidentally, this experience tested a theory of a friend of mine. He claims that if a person watches the movie first, then reads the book, he will enjoy them both; if he reads the movie, and then watches the movie, he will only complain about how much the movie left out or added.


1995 trailer, with actors such as Alan Rickman and Kate Winslet. Hugh Laurie also appears.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Shakespeare announcement



Bernard Cornwell chose this, the anniversary of William Shakespeare's death, to announce his next novel: Fools and Mortals. It will follow young Richard Shakespeare as he tries to make his way in the acting world, dominated by his estranged older brother.  Publication is set for mid-October in the U.K.

On that note, here's a little piece of fascination I found:


A linguist and a Shakespearean actor, father and son, here comment on how much of Shakespeare's wordplay is lost  on modern ears,  in part because pronunciation has shifted so much that puns and such are lost.   They take turns reading various passages from Shakespeare (dramas and plays) to demonstrate the difference between modern English (in the Received Pronunciation)  and 'Original Pronunciation'.   Worth listening to if you enjoy Shakespeare.

If you're interested in Shakespeare and comedy, a favorite disc of mine is the Reduced Shakespeare Company's Complete Works of Shakespeare. A trio attempts to do Shakespeare's entire corpus, including the sonnets, in one night. Below is their run-through of Romeo and Juliet, which will give you some idea as to the tenor of it. 







Today -- St. George's Day, incidentally -- starts the last week of Read of England, and it's gone fairly well, I believe.  Two books are waiting to be reviewed, one of which is from my Classics Club list, and another I've been sawing away at for weeks is nigh toppled.  Fifty pages to go!


Friday, April 21, 2017

The Armada

The Armada
© 1959 Garrett Mattingly
443 pages



In the late summer of 1588, all of Europe held its breath as an enormous Spanish fleet, consisting of a hundred and fifty vessels of varying sizes, set sail for the English channel. Their mission: to rendezvous with the elite troops of General Parma in the defeated Netherlands, and to transport them to England, there to revenge the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, and depose Anne Boleyn’s daughter .    That invasion never happened. As is famously known, the Armada met English fire and northern winds, and a third of its number was lost utterly on the shores of Britain and Ireland.  It was for Elizabeth, constantly confronting intrigue from Catholics and Puritans alike, a glorious moment:  here, before all of Europe,   the wind and waves declared that she was the Dread Sovereign of all England.  The Armada is a storied history not just of the Spanish fleet’s doomed voyage into the channel, but how Spain came to launch such an expensive and unwieldy endeavor.

Much of the weight of The Armada gives the background information for the “English Enterprise”.  Europe is in the throes of the reformation, and rebellions against princes carry with them the fervor of holy wars.   France, who might oppose the sudden envelopment of England into the Spanish empire,  is struggling with its own civil war, and every one of the three contenders is a Henry.  The Netherlands have risen against their Spanish lords, with the military and fiscal support of Elizabeth – who is presumably more interested in having enemies of Spain at her doorstep rather than Spain itself, given the two powers’ mutual hostility.     There is a very good chance that Phillip could get away with styling himself the English king:   he’d already enjoyed the title as Queen Mary’s husband,  and Elizabeth reigns over a divided nation. Many of her subjects maintain faith with the Catholic church,  secretly or openly,  and several rebellions and conspiracies intending to restore a Catholic monarch to the throne have already erupted.  If their former king landed and called them to rise against a woman already declared illegitimate by the Church,   how easy would it be for them to bury their fears about civil war and declare for Phillip?

Fortunately for England’s men in arms, and their mothers, it never came to that.  The English engaged in a running battle with the Armada as it made its way towards the Channel; there was no epic showdown, but a series of smaller skirmishes, two of which – when combined with the storms of the Channel – did serious damage to the fleet. By the time they  neared the rendezvous, in fact ,the admirals in command had to view their stores of rotten food, ailing men, and badly leaking ships in the cold light of reality.  The Armada was no longer capable of breaking the Dutch blockade that would allow the Spanish to take on their army and transport it to Spain. It might not even make it home, if it continued to be harassed.  Part of the problem was that the Armada was so enormous and unwieldy.  Its ships were gathered together from across Spain’s domain, and many were Mediterranean galleys built for ramming that were out of place in a battle that involved more artillery than swashbuckling shipboard raids. Even in the age of standardized equipment and radio communications, the Allies required months of planning and stockpiling to prepare for D-Day.  Spain had a similar challenge, but its every piece of equipment might vary from casting to casting, and its barrels of food spoiled as quickly as they could be found.   The Spanish sailed in the hopes of a miracle, but they found none.  When news reached Phillip II, he wrote to the his bishops and could express only thanks that -- in the light of the storms -- more men were not lost.

I knew virtually nothing of the Armada except that it sailed, met a storm, and failed. Although in retrospect a brief review of the history of the period would have served me well as a reader  (particularly in regards to France, whom I seem to ignore utterly between 1453 and 1789) , the author's delivery is indeed novel-like. The personalities of the period, like the swaggering Drake, add to the tale's liveliness.  Although the wars of the day seem far removed from us now, the author's epilogue couldn't be more current: he cautions the reader that wars of ideologies are always the hardest to win.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

In the Beginning

In the Beginning: the Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture 
© 2001 Alister McGrath
354 pages


In some circles of American Protestantism, the authority of the King James Bible is coequal with the authority of the Bible itself.   If other translations were mentioned in my childhood church, for instance,  it was only to declare how inadequate, pale, and flaccid they were. Long after I switched to the Revised Standard  for reference and reading, I still find myself comparing its passages with those of the KJV. Its words are the ones I was raised with, the ones I hear most often in culture, the ones written  into my memory.    In the Beginning gives a fulsome history of how the KJV came into being, and then follows this up with much smaller sections regarding its influence on the English language and Anglo-American culture in general.

McGrath begins with the the reformation, naturally,  which championed the translation of the Bible into the vernacular throughout Europe so that all people could read the scriptures and decide on what they meant , without any guidance from above.  English translations of the Bible were strictly forbidden until the reign of Henry VIII, who -- after rejecting the authority of Rome for reasons of state -- became marginally more friendly to other ideas of the reformation.   Sanctioned English translations began appearing, the most prominent being the Geneva Bible.  That bible was the result of Queen Mary's restoration of English Catholicism,  a six-year reign in which Protestant theologians fled to Switzerland, formed their own churches, and began to work on their own Bible.  When Mary perished and a more Protestant form of religion returned to England, the Geneva Bible would arrive and begin achieving prominence. One reason it was popular was that it came with an abundance of annotations, annotations which supported other ideas of the reformation and enlightenment-era zeitgeist: namely,  a criticism of the divine right of kings.   When King James assumed the throne, having long butted heads with Scottish Presbyterians, he determined not to brook any of that anarchic nonsense in England -- and so commissioned a translation that would exceed others and omit those anti-monarchical side comments.

There is more to the King James Bible than religion, however, and McGrath provides extensive historical context.  He gives, for instance, a brief history of the English language. Englishmen yearned for an English bible not simply because they believed people should read the scriptures for themselves, but because it was English.   Medieval Christendom was fading; the age of the armed and passionate Nation State was at hand.  For most of their history, when Englishers heard the Bible it was either in Latin or French -- and French, after the Hundred Years War, might as well be spoken in Hell, so odious was it.  Throughout the medieval period, English re-asserted itself: once the tongue of oppressed peasants,  it became the language of State, a source of pride and identity.  Indeed, McGrath argues that the King James Bible arrived at an absolutely pivotal time: by the age of Elizabeth and James, English was truly maturing as a Language instead of hodgepodge of dialects, and  the KJV was able to set an example throughout the entire island: this is what English is. The KJV's English provided the standard, rather like newspapers standardized German, French, and Italian later on.   When Englishmen traveled overseas and began creating a new life for themselves in North America, the KJV kept their roots planted in England --  and shaped the American language, so that it maintained many older words of English long after they'd been forgotten on the sceptered isle itself.

Although In the Beginning is largely a history of the KJV's inception and execution -- and only marginally about its effects on the Anglo-American language and culture --  this is a book to consider if one has any interest in the Bible at all.  McGrath covers not only the political and cultural genesis of the book, but explains the translation and printing process itself. Considering the sheer scope of the project -- Bibles are an enormous amount of text --  little wonder bibles used to be considered heirlooms, to be passed down from generation to generation.  There's also quite a few amusing stories in here, like variant editions that resulted from typesetting problems: the "Wicked Bible", for instance, which commanded readers to commit adultery,  and another edition that declared that Israel's enemies would vex Israel with their...wives. In general, I think this history will foment a greater appreciation for the KJV translation, especially given that it was intended to build on the best of preceding English volumes, and includes their successes along with its own.

Next up in Read of England.....a splash of Inklings,  followed by medieval lit or late-medieval history.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Sister Queens

Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of  Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castille
480 pages
© 2011 Julia Fox



Virtually any reader of Tudor fiction is familiar with the sad story of Queen Catherine,  the lawful wife of Henry VIII who was not merely abandoned, but cruelly cut off from her own daughter Mary, after she refused to partake in the murder of her marriage to Henry.   Less known is the equally sad story of Catherine’s family, and particularly her sister Juana -- who was likewise placed under house imprisonment and defamed as a lunatic.   Sister Queens is a joint biography of Katherine and Juana which aims to plumb their full characters, however, not just the one aspect (“tragic wife”/ “tragic mad widow”) that  plucks the heartstrings of readers the most.  At times it wears a little heavy with all the details of court life -- dresses,  draperies, that sort of thing -- but  for those who know little about  Queen Katherine and her family,  Sister Queens is most accessible, and is a book which offers a look at the most influential family in late medieval Europe.

Ferdinand and Isabella are known to American schoolchildren as the patrons of Christopher Columbus’s foolhardy but accomplished voyage across the Atlantic, but in Europe they were the Most Catholic Monarchs, the pair who united Spain and reclaimed it for Christendom against the armies of the caliphs. (And, tragically, by expelling Jewish subjects.)  Their marriage was fruitful, producing five children: Isabella,  Juan, Juana, Catalina, and Maria.  Royal marriages were then the stuff of diplomatic alliances, and all four of the daughters would be married abroad.  Tragedy would visit the family again and and again, claiming Isabella, Juan, and several children -- a theme that continued throughout Juana and Catherine's lives.

Most readers are aware of the general trajectory of Catherine's doomed marriage to the swine-king Henry, of the series of tragic child-deaths and miscarriages that convinced him that their marriage was cursed. Catherine was not merely the King's consort, however, hanging about in the royal chambers and waiting for babies. Catherine's diplomatic role didn't end in marrying into the English dynasty. She served as Spain's primary ambassador,   attempting to keep English preferences aligned against France  Her influence would wane sharply, however, after Henry began wondering if perhaps he shouldn't have married his brother's widow after all.  Even there, Catherine proves herself a wily adversary, sending secret messages, defending herself in trial, and twisting even the Holy Roman Emperor's elbow for aide. It helped that  Emperor Charles was her nephew, the son of Juana.  Fox is somewhat less successful with Queen Juana, though not for lacking of trying; there's just so little evidence to go on about her life once she became a captive resident of Tordesillas.  Fox argues that Juana's histrionics were a form of manipulation -- aimed first at her husband Phillip, and then at her captors --  in the hopes of  effecting her own will. Her captivity was less a matter of illness than control, for after her mother's death Juana was the legitimate heir of the Castilian throne -- and through her name, her father and husband sought to rule  Fox argues that the people who lived with Juana, namely her daughter Catalina, and those who visited her or exchanged letters with her never remarked on any instability.  Only those who tried to control her -- Phillip and Ferdinand, and their agents -- encountered the desperate Juana, who would lash out in tantrums against them.

Unfortunately, there's so little information about the imprisoned Juana that I don't know if this book does too much for her.  Having already developed an appreciation for Queen Catherine's character through other biographies and novels, I enjoyed Sister Queens most as  look into the joined Spanish-Hapsburg dynasty that would create that pivotal character of the reformation, Charles V. (For more information, read Will Durant's The Reformation.  Charles V holds a commanding position throughout.)