Monday, September 28, 2015

Saint Joan

Saint Joan
© 1924 George Bernard Shaw
160 pages

In the darkest hour of the Hundred Years War, a teenage girl re-inspired both a defeated nation and a despondent king to fight again for what was theirs. She -- Joan of Arc -- would be captured by her enemies and condemned a heretic by the English, but later vindicated by the Church. In 1920, in fact, Joan was pronounced a saint. Shaw's play no doubt follows on the heels of the news of her canonization.  Scoffing at saintly romanticization of the Maid, Shaw chose to pay tribute to her in his own way, making her an apostle of Whiggism.  “Saint Joan” pays tribute to the Maid’s time in the historical sun, relegating unpleasant battle-and-execution bits  to the background and focusing instead on her conflicts with the silly men she is forced to enlighten. Considering that the title character is burned alive, the play is far funnier than it has a right to be, from the opening scene with a duke arguing with his page almost to the end, where the man Joan made king is visited by the shades of his past after her vindication.   Shaw fills the play with modern conceits; his characters seem to wish they were living in the 1920s instead of the rotten ol’ middle ages. They even invent words like Protestant and Nationalism to describe how Joan makes them feel. 

Shaw’s Joan is more ambiguous than this, however; he endeavors to save her from beatification and her enemies from damnation in the same stroke.  Joan as written is not ‘saintly’ she is cheeky. Assuming familiarity with lords of the realm and lords of the church alike, she gives as good as she gets when they argue her down with reason, or scold her for acting so presumptuously. The irreverent, tomboyish Joan may be the star of the play, but her opponents are no villains. They may be guilty of pious fraud at times, but their arguments seem perfectly sensible, and prompt a reader to wonder just where Shaw’s sympathies lie.  When the churchmen accuse Joan’s patriotic  zeal of threatening to divide Christendom into nations and in so doing, dethrone Christ and allow the world to perish in a welter of war,  the graveyards of the Great War do not seem far removed from Shaw’s mind.  They are less villains than men moved to horror through fear, and happily ere the conclusion is reached they experience the genuine crisis of remorse, repenting in turn.  Although Shaw is just as guilty as having the Maid carry his own standard as any of the old romanticists,  “Saint Joan” succeeds in granting both her and her enemies humanity and redemption.

Forward March

This past week I've made further progress on the 2015 reading challenge:

Book on Bottom of To-Read Shelf:  The Search for Ice Age Americans

As many times as I walk past this book in the library, I've never broken down to give it a try -- until now. The Search  is a history of American archaeology, focusing specifically on the origins of the Clovis people.   Much of the work has been done by amateurs, literal cowboys stumbling upon finds in the wild. The book is principally about the people searching for Clovis, with little information on the culture other than their diet and some social speculation.

Book with Magic: The Two Towers, J.R.R. Tolkien

I read The Two Towers back in high school, for reasons now lost to me. Why, I wonder, would someone disinterested in fantasy try the trilogy, and the middle part no less?   Last September I read The Fellowship of the Ring, however, and this time around the story made much more sense.   The Two Towers collects books "three and four" of the series,  where where the drama to come tremors the surface.  The fellowship of the first book is, like Gaul, divided into three parts: Frodo and Samwise are missing,  Merry and Pippin carted off by Orcs, and the non-hobbits desperately looking for their furry-footed friends.  The epic final battle between the forces of  good and evil is yet to come, but things are already in motion;  both parts of the fellowship move through war zones as orcs and men collide.  As the story unfolds, Tolkien's rich experience and creativity in philology are on display, treating readers with song and poetry from various cultures. One truly gets the sense when reading The Two Towers that another world is being stepped in to; one with a long, storied history that no character knows in full, but which everyone shares in part. This history makes itself known, a mountain of work casting a shadow across the landscape through which everyone moves, and to which their individual stories contribute.  I'm looking forward to the conclusion, which won't wait until next September.

What's next?  With October finally rolling around I can tackle Stephen King's Carrie, which will be a 'famous author's first book'; it seems like Halloween reading.  Before that I may try 'a book my mother loves'.   I'm going to be taking it easy with a 'trilogy' -- the two options I have in mind are both Star Trek series.  The big challenges ahead are the book with antonyms in the title, and a Pulitzer; so far, all the interesting winners I've found have been enormous.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Egyptians

The Egyptians
© 1997 Barbara Watterson
368 pages

"We stand where Caesar and Napoleon stood, and remember that fifty centuries look down upon us; where the Father of History came four hundred years before Caesar, and heard the tales that were to startle Pericles. A new perspective of time comes to us; two millenniums seem to fall out of the picture, and Caesar, Herodotus, and ourselves appear for a moment contemporary and modern before these tombs that were more ancient to them than the Greeks are to us. " (Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage

The Egyptians surveys the entire course of Egyptian history, from ancient settlements to the 1990s, in a mere 300 pages. Were this not ambitious enough, Watterson does not limit herself to mere politics, but includes separate sections on religion, architecture, law, and economy.  The approach is reminiscent of Will Durant's symphonic history. Pyramid-like, The Egyptians is bottom-heavy:   two-thirds of the book is devoted to the ancients, with the Roman, Christian, Islamic, and modern periods sharing the last third together. The scale is immense, as it has been Egypt's fortune or misfortune to be an combatant or an object of interest to nearly every great power around the Mediterranean. Egypt's longevity is such that she has been conquered by two wholly different Persias, an epoch apart.  In the beginning Egypt was star of her own story, an insular union of two kingdoms fixed on the Nile; after outside invasion by the Hyksos, Egypt overcame her conquerors and became an empire in her own right. The land of the Nile would go the way of all empires, however, falling to Persia, then the Macedonians and their successors -- Rome, Constantinople, the caliphate, and Turkey. Through history Egypt has also been the plaything of other empires, like the French and British. Even Hitler attempted conquest, while trying to rescue Italian pretensions of a resurrected Rome.  Aside from a brief interlude during the Islamic civil wars, Egypt had to wait until the 20th century to be ruled by her own people again. Despite the generations of new reigning powers and the trauma they inflicted --  Ptolemies are utterly horrifying in their abuse, what with one king marrying his sister, then his niece, then murdering his own child and sending the body to his sister--wife to taunt her --  Egypt endures. Given the chaos of Egypt in recent years, such resilience is a hopeful sign.  

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

One by one

In the past few days I’ve knocked out several categories for the 2015 Reading Challenge, including:

A Book Older than 100 YearsBeowulf,   the story of a hero from another land who conquers a monster,  his mother , and his own fear of death against a horde-guarding dragon.  I used Seamus Heaney’s translation, which seemed to be the best judging by reviews, and found it far shorter than I expected.

A Book You Were Supposed to Read in High School:  Grendel is a mid-20th century retelling of Beowulf through the eyes of the fearsome beast our doughty Geat  rendered ‘armless.  This was assigned to me in 12th grade English, though we never read it because the teacher was a Guardsman and we were taught by a series of substitutes.  I never gave away the book, though, because I paid $12 for it, and when a book is assigned to me reading it becomes a point of honor. Anyhoo, Grendel was a curious choice for my teacher. As it turns out the fearsome beast is a teenager:   clumsy, chronically mired in an existential crisis, and fairly miserable on the whole.  Aside from a few philosophical conversations with the dragon, Grendel spends the book crashing through the woods, spying on the Danes, feeling sorry for himself, and occasionally screaming at the heavens. Though I endured this in the hope that Beowulf would show up and put him out of his misery, I must say the ending line did make me feel…almost sorry for him. Almost.

A Book Based on a Television Show: Star Trek: Foul Deeds Will Rise,  based heavily on “The Conscience of the King” and touching on another though to name it would give away  the whodunit.

A Book By an Author Who You Love, But Which You Haven’t Read:   Zebra Derby, Max Shulman. Yes, despite saying “anything by Asimov or Wendell Berry” for months now,  last night I spotted my copy of Max Shulman’s Large Economy Size and realized – hey, I’m awfully fond of Shulman, and I haven’t read the third novel in that collection, so why not?  It’s a short bit of postwar satire in which a returning soldier struggles to find his place in the new world. Through his misadventures Shulman pokes fun at door-to-door salesmen, Communists,   psychologists, bureaucrats, and entrepreneurs . It’s not nearly as funny as the soldier’s previous misadventures (Barefoot Boy With Cheek), erring as it does on the side of randomness, but I still like Shulman. 

What's next? Probably either Book on the Bottom of Your To-Read List,  for which I have a nonfiction contender I've been meaning to read for several years now, but have never actually picked up, or A Book with Magic, as I'm  plodding through The Two Towers.   Sure, I could use a Narnia book for the magic, but scavenger hunts are no fun when there's no challenge.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Foul Deeds will Rise

Foul Deeds Will Rise
© 2014 Greg Cox
384 pages

            A galaxy can be a small world. When James T. Kirk attended a performance of The Tempest put on by volunteers nursing refugees in the middle of a war zone, he didn’t expect to encounter a woman  who tried to kill him. Admittedly, he has that effect on women, but  the last time he laid eyes on Lenore Karidian, she was being hauled off to an insane asylum after the killing blast she meant for Kirk dispatched her father instead.  It’s been over twenty years since, but there she is on the stage, immersed in Shakespeare once more.    But is it her only repeat performance?  Kirk has come to help mediate peace between two planets locked in a bitter war, and whatever fragile hope for bloodshed’s end is lost when the leading counselors for both sides find themselves murdered on Kirk’s own ship.  The murders are utter copies of Lenore’s past crimes, when in her youth she sought to kill anyone who could identify her disguised father as a war criminal.  Although Ambassador Kevin Riley – Kirk’s colleague and former crewman, previously poisoned by Lenore and saved only by Dr. McCoy’s swift action – is quick to believe the femme fatale is up to her old tricks, Kirk suspects there is more to the  story.  The stakes grow after both sides in the war somehow learn that Karidian had a criminal past, and explode into fury against the Federation they blame for harboring a known criminal. Even as two of his officers are arrested by an alien military,  a raging mob takes innocent aid workers hostage. Even worse,  Spock and Scotty – said arrestees – were on the brink of discovering a conspiracy that threatened not only the peace, but the lives of millions.  Foul Deeds will Rise is a classic Trek tale,  an action-mystery reminiscent of the shows themselves, complete with abundant references to Shakespeare.  Plotwise, Cox’s writing is perfectly entertaining, with action unfolding in three different locations at one point, all building together to the same finale, with the occasional fun bit of dialogue thrown in.  It does seem odd that a murder investigation on a starship would involve virtually no reference to security tapes being checked, but how nice it is to see a mystery solved by sleuthing instead of computers!

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Classics Club

For the past year or so I've been aware of a book/blogging community known as the Classics Club, whose members have pledge to read a list of fifty or so "classics" within five years, and share their thoughts about them with other members of the group. Although that sort of thing seems right up my alley, I've not joined in yet because I didn't too much like having to choose the books in advance.  On reflection, however,  I realized that I'm going to be reading classics, anyway: I might as well have company in doing it.  So, here's my official throwing-in announcement: below is the list of titles I expect to read before September 22nd, 2020.

These move generally from western civ classics to American literature, including southern literature.
  1. The Epic of Gilgamesh, trans. Danny Jackson
  2. The Aenid, Virgil
  3. The Histories, Herodotus
  4. The Conquest of Gaul, Julius Caesar
  5. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. I, Edward Gibbon
  6. One Thousand and One Nights, trans. Husain Haddawy
  7. The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas
  8. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo
  9. The Prince, Machiavelli 
  10. Inferno, Dante
  11. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoeyesky
  12. The Seven-Storey Mountain,  Thomas Merton
  13. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
  14. The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn
  15. The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom
  16. Dracula, Bram Stoker
  17. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
  18. The Swiss Family Robinson, Robert Louis Stevenson
  19. Canterbury Tales, Chaucer
  20. Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
  21. Emma, Jane Austen
  22. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
  23. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
  24. The Vicar of Wakefield, Oliver Goldsmith
  25. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
  26. Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens
  27. The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan
  28. Lord of the Flies, William Golding
  29. Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell
  30. The Federalist Papers, various
  31. The Education of Henry Adams, Henry Adams
  32. .Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain 
  33. Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington
  34. The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane
  35. Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather
  36. O Pioneers!  Willa Cather
  37. White Fang, Jack London
  38. Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
  39. The Jungle, Upton Sinclair
  40. A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
  41. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
  42. East of Eden, John Steinbeck
  43. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
  44. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
  45. The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury
  46. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
  47. The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
  48. Love Among the Ruins, Walker Percy
  49. The Moviegoer, Walker Percy
  50. 2001: A Space Odyessey, Arthur C. Clarke

Sunday, September 20, 2015

A Week in Narnia

On last Friday I enjoyed The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, reading it for the first time since the O.J. Simpson trial. I never liked fantasy as a child; it took Redwall and Harry Potter to coax me into not holding my nose any time I came near a work with dragons and magic in it (not that Redwall has any of the latter, just a bunch of mice with crossbows and monks’ habits). I enjoyed it then tolerably well enough, just not enough to pursue the series. I’ve remained familiar with Narnia, however, because so many other people love it and through them I receive constant reminders about the book’s plot and meaning. (It helps that most of the basics are right there in the title.)    The Christian allegory was a lot more obvious this time around, but what I didn’t remember is Lewis’ general charm. My favorite part of the book, in fact, was its dedication:

My Dear Lucy,  I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand a word you say, but I shall always be
 your affectionate Godfather, C.S. Lewis 

I don’t think I’ve ever read a dedication I liked more. I technically read this as part of the 2015 reading challenge (a book from my childhood), something that does not require reading through the entire series.  Like the Pevensie children, however, that first visit through the wardrobe was not to be my last, and I've spent the entire last week reading through the series. I've found it delightful for many reasons, not because I'm a sucker for stories  about redemption. I mentioned in my comments on the books themselves the graceful way Lewis connected Christian and European themes together, using symbols from Greek mythology and creatures plucked from various bestiaries to tell an essentially Christian story. It's most salient in the first and last books, of course, what with the sacrifice of Aslan to redeem a traitor and destroy the Witch's hold on Narnia, and then the Apocalypse -- but present in more subtle ways throughout the series.  Lewis' writing is commendable; terribly funny at times, and sweet in others. I roared when he referred to an inept headmaster being put into Parliament so she would stop getting in the way of things, and thought some of his characters utterly delightful, especially the mouse Reepicheep -- his bravado was matched only by Aslan's, and Aslan had REASON to be fearless. Speaking of which, I thought Lewis handled him better as a character than could be imagined. Other fiction featuring Jesus tends to be respectful to the point of static (Jesus just quotes himself from the New Testament), or irreverent to the point of being unrecognizable (done hilariously in Lamb).  Lewis' Aslan, despite being Jesus in another world,  is neither a copycat nor a fraud; he acts in his own way in a fictional world, but he acts in ways that accord with a revered character; Aslan is revered in his own right, for his own reasons. His appearances are vanishingly brief, but regular enough that Narnians and the reader live in expectation of him; when he arrives he acts decisively. His appearance at a pivotal moment is a warning, or routs evil when his followers have done all they can do;  even when he does not make a personal appearance he is revealed to have been working in the background.  He is stern to the good, merciful to those who stumble, and swift to  strike the obstinately malevolent.  Aslan never lingers around enough to become mundane, nor absents himself so long that he becomes a mere memory. He is Aslan, always watching and waiting for the right moment to bound into the story and change lives.

For me, this week spent in Narnia was a wholly unexpected pleasure. I never intended to be hooked, and I'm glad I was!  This next week I'll continue working on the reading challenge, with two or three possible entries lined up, while in the distance looms a series I want to do on the ancient near east, with books on Sumer, Babylon, Persia, and Egypt lined up.

Some quotations...

"For in Calormen, story-telling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a thing you're taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays."

"It isn't Narnia, you know," sobbed Lucy. "It's you. We shan't meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?"
"But you shall meet me, dear one," said Aslan.
"Are -are you there too, Sir?" said Edmund.
"I am," said Aslan. "But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”

"We've got to start by finding a ruined city of giants," said Jill. "Aslan said so."
"Got to start by finding it, have we?" answered Puddleglum. "Not allowed to start by looking for it, I suppose?"

"I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we're leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that's a small loss if the world's as dull a place as you say.”

"This is my password," said the King as he drew his sword. "The light is dawning, the lie broken. Now guard thee, miscreant, for I am Tirian of Narnia."

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Last Battle

The Last Battle
© 1956 C.S. Lewis
184 pages

"This is my password," said the King as he drew his sword. "The light is dawning, the lie broken. Now guard thee, miscreant, for I am Tirian of Narnia."

In The Magician's Nephew, the great lion Aslan sang Narnia into existence and commissioned a human boy to plant a special tree to protect it against evil. But now the Tree has fallen, and a  Lie reigns.  The story begins with a malevolent ape and his witless donkey companion discovering the skin of a lion. Shift, the ape, has an idea:  skin the lion, dress the donkey in it, and use this guise to awe the woodland folk into doing his bidding!  Hundreds of years have passed since anyone saw the great Lion, Aslan himself,  and the lie succeeds -- to the destruction of Narnia.Consumed by avarice, Shift begins ordering the destruction of Narnia's enchanted forests in the name of "Aslan", selling it piecemeal to the dreaded Calormen and even inviting their soldiers into Narnia. The king Tirian, captured early after falling for the deceit himself, is in no place to prevent his people being massacred and his cities destroyed. At this hour of greatest crisis, Jill and Eustace are called into Narnia to take up the Lion's banner one more time. For this is the last battle, the great battle, and one where Narnia's foe is not a mere witch presuming power, or a greedy horde of warlords, but a winged beast that smells of death and devours everything in its path. Although Narnia's enemies have always cloaked themselves in deceit -- the Witch as a Queen, most consistently -- here lie is compounded upon lie. No sooner do our party of heroes  (Eustace, Jill, the rescued Tirian, and a unicorn to begin with) unravel part of the diabolical plot than does the Ape add another. Yet the Ape is being controlled by another party, and they still by another.  Some Narnians are frightened by all this, and run away; some decide the battle isn't worth bothering with, and retreat into their own narrow issues (like the dwarves, who become nasty little chauvinists). Our heroes know only one thing: they are between the paws of Aslan, and they would rather perish fighting the Ape and his death-god than betray the lion.  So it goes, and such is this literary version of  the Book of Revelation, with its antichrist, astronomic fireworks, and all-consuming finale.   Virtually all of the major characters throughout the series make appearances, making it a glorious reunion of sorts, The Last Battle is darker and more intense than the other books, however, and if I read it as a child I probably would have had nightmares about it.  The witch of previous books was evil, but in a Disney villain way;  the baddies here are positively revolting, between the Ape perverting good to evil and the death-thing invoked by the Calormen.  While I can imagine future re-reads of various Chronicles books, The Last Battle  is a little too rapturous.

Look for a Narnia wrapup tomorrow!

The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis
Lord of All, Robert Hugh Benson

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Silver Chair

The Silver Chair
© 1953 C.S. Lewis
217 pages

Escaping from bullies in their oppressively modern boarding school, Eustace Scubbs and his friend Jill Pole opened a door and promptly fell into Narnia. Visits to Narnia always come unexpectedly, and never without purpose.  Though only a year has passed since Eustance's sea voyage with Caspian, Lucy, Edmund, and their Narnian comrades, a lifetime has passed for the friends left behind. Young Caspian is now an aged, bearded king driven to despair over his son, ten years missing. According to story, he was last seen in the company of a beautiful woman, dressed in green, while hunting for a serpent which killed his mother. A dozen of Narnian lords have ventured into the northern wastes where the Prince was last seen in the hopes of finding him, to no avail: they never come back. Now it's time to send in the A-Team:   Aslan, and the heroes he has chosen.  Armed with four signs and a very pessimistic frog-thing,  Eustace and Jill journey into the land of the giants and discover the truth of the prince's captivity.  If only they listened more;  they might have known that the lady in green who greeted them in the giant lands, and referred them to a Giantish city ("they'd love to have you for the August feast") was up to no good.  Previous Narnian adventures have seen innocents in distress rescued, mysterious objects returned to their rightful owners, beasts dispatched, spells broken   -- but now the heroes, like Odysseus, must descend into the Underworld, fighting their own fears along the way. Jill, like the other children thrown into Narnia's animal-dramas, proves resilient. Despite missing clue after clue, they continue to rise to the occasion -- as they do when the Witch, having captured them deep within the bowels of the Earth, attempts to enchant them into believing her realm is the summation of reality, and that their memories of Aslan and the skies above are mere dreams. Pleasant dreams, to be sure, but dreams nontheless.   Some dreams, however, have more weight than reality, and so they fight on.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
© 1952 C.S. Lewis
223 pages

            There are unwanted gifts, and then there are unwanted gifts that pull your only son into a fantasy world of dangerous creatures, powerful enchantments, and the odd supernatural beging.  These last are usually called books, but a certain portrait of a ship at sea can do the same thing. At any rate, that’s what happened to Edmund and Lucy Pevensie, along with their obnoxious cousin Eustace.  One moment they were sitting in a guest bedroom, staring at it, and the next they were on the ship with the boy-prince whose throne they’d help win.  With his country at peace, regal Caspian decided to set out to find some lost countrymen, and perhaps discover the End of the World. So begins The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,  a tale of Narnian adventures at sea.  There’s no enormous stakes here, just the call of the open ocean, a thirst for adventure slaked only by salt spray as a ship of merry friends sails into the unknown.  They have a serious mission in discovering the fate of several nobles who were sent on fools’ errands by the wicked regent who attempted to kill Prince Caspian. The forlorn peers have met various fates; some, eaten by dragons; others turned to gold; still others captivated by spells.  The character of  Eustace makes for a particularly entertaining tale, not because he’s a delight because he’s such a boor. He’s a very modern boy, Eustace, raised by parents who know better than everyone else, and whose head is filled with practical things like the workings of watermills, and no cranial capacity given over to dragons.  It’s a pity, for when he was turned into a dragon it might have helped to know what such a thing was!  The humorless Eustace is completely out of place in this magical world, although he takes the existence of talking, combative mice in stride.  The mishaps and adventures aren’t mere amusement;  each carries with it some moral import. This is most obvious on the isle of Deadwater, where the party encounters a pool of water that turns anything immersed in it into gold; the wealth is tantalizing and deadly. Aslan makes infrequent appearances, offering mercy or a warning to those who err.  Lewis’ interweaving of Christian themes and European myths continues,  with an ending that makes plain Aslan’s significance. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Horse and his Boy

The Horse and his Boy
© 1954 C.S. Lewis
199 pages

"For in Calormen, story-telling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a thing you're taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays." 
p. 35

Far below the green hills of Narnia lays a vast desert, and just south of it, the mysterious land of Calorman.  Here a shipwrecked baby was rescued by a fisherman, one not unkind but not terribly loving, either -- a man who called the boy his son, but was willing to sell him as a slave to the first rich warlord ambling by his house.  Informed of the warlord's cruelty by the lord's talking horse, the boy and said horse decide to run away together -- to go north, beyond the desert to the legendary land of Narnia. In The Horse and his Boy we find a Narnia tale where it is merely a dreamt-of destination to the extreme north, where Edmund and his sister appear as visitors from afar, paying their respects to another king.  The visit of Susan stirs part of the plot, as her beauty drives the Calorman prince insane with lust and he decides to invade Narnia to take her by force after his first lock-her-up-and-marry-her plan didn't work. Shasta's dream of trekking north, surviving the desert wastes, takes on new importance; having learned of the wicked prince's secret plan, he must somehow warn Narnia of the invasion-in-the-making.  Calorman, with its deserts and turbaned warriors wielding scimitars, brings to mind "The Orient" -- perhaps inspired by the Ottoman Empire, a chronic threat to southern Europe. Through the story we moved from the 'exotic' to the more familiar, complete with Aslan's presence. He is neither named nor known until the conclusion of the story, where exhausted characters on the brink of lost spirit learn that he has been there all long, and will see them through to the end.  Of the Narnia books I've read so far, The Horse and his Boy is the most traditionally plotted;  the characters start one place, they end up another, and along the journey they grow up-- not physically, but they transcend fear and vanity to act decisively and nobly.  (Even the horse, who was already grown but needed some emotional maturity.)

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Prince Caspian

Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia
© 1951 C.S. Lewis
195 pages


  Once upon a time four children stumbled through an ordinary-looking wardrobe into another  world altogether, a place called Narnia where they became its kings and queens and fought great battles under the banner of a noble lion, its creator and champion.  Then they returned to their own ordinary lives, but not for long. A year after their return, the four siblings – Peter,  Lucy, Edmund, and Susan – found themselves snatched from a train station and deposited on a mysterious island.  They soon discovered that they had returned to Narnia, more than a millennium after their former reign. Their beloved talking animal friends had been slain or driven into hiding; their former favorite places were in ruins and surrendered to wilderness; their lord Aslan was absent, and cruel men ruled in their stead.   From a lone dwarf in the wild, the Penvensies learn what has happened since their departure, and decide to go to the aid of young Prince Caspian, the last human defender of Old Narnia.   Prince Caspian is a story in two parts; first, Caspian’s revolt against the evil kingdom he was technically heir to, the desperate war against his tyrannical uncle, and his grasping-at-straws move that called the four legends from the past to come to his aide.  The battle that follows has plenty of heroics, but most satisfying is the  character of Edmund; the once nasty boy who betrayed his family to the White Witch  is selfless here, the model of ‘nobility’.  It is a tale simple, fast, and sweet, with both gentle humor and adventure to stir the heart. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Magician's Nephew

The Magician's Nephew
© 1955 C.S. Lewis
183 pages


 Diggory and Polly were just two kids on vacation exploring a forbidding-looking attic. They didn’t intend to witnesss Creation, let alone accidently unleash evil into it. Like the more familiar Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe –   for which this serves as a prequel  -- The Magician’s Nephew retells a Christian story, this time of the Creation and Fall, incorporating creatures and symbols from other western traditions as well. The trouble begins when Diggory’s uncle, a man with a taste for the occult, discovers a way to send beings into another world. He’s tolerably sure he knows of a way to fetch them back, but not positive enough to test it on himself – that’s what nephews are for. Diggory and Polly, having discovered the warlock-wannabe’s lair, become his unwilling test subjects and are thrown into a mysterious netherworld that allows travel between different places like our own Earth and Narnia. One world proves a desperate landscape, lit by a dying sun and filled with lifelessness reigned over by a wax-still woman. A nearby bell teases visitors; ring it and heaven knows what will happen, but let it be still and the prospect of what might have been will agonize them forever. Over the warnings of the far more sensible Polly, Diggory rings the bell – and awakes a creature who will one day be known as the White Witch.   The meat of the story of Narnia fans happens halfway through, when the Witch, the children, and a few innocent bystanders fall into a world which is without form and void – until they hear singing. The dream-weaver is Aslan, the great lion, and his songs call life into being. The witch ruins things, but in the end the children are able to accomplish a mission for Aslan which sends her into retreat at least for a little while.  As with its predecessor, The Magician’s Nephew abounds in symbols, creatures, and objects from across the western imagination. A  forbidden tree in the midst of the garden, for instance, hangs low with not just any fruit, but silvery apples reminiscent of Eris’ Apple of Discord.   The garden appears long after the 'fall' of the novel; this is not a Chrstian story reold with different characters, but in a different way altogether; unlike  Lion, wherein Aslan did all the heavy lifting, here  he human characters, principally Diggory, to prove capable of growing beyond their mistakes through accomplishments more impressive than great physical deads.  Narnia continues to be a lovely, enchanting story.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Eagle's Conquest

The Eagle's Conquest
© 2002 Simon Scarrow
320 pages

In Under the Eagle,  Simon Scarrow introduced readers to two legionnaires:  Macro, a grizzled veteran, and Cato, a young bookish sort straight from Rome , a boy made an officer  because of his father’s influence. No one though Cato would make it as a soldier, let alone as a leader of men, but in Germania and the beginning of the invasion of Britain he proved himself. Now the Romans are moving further inland, where some scattered tribes are uniting under  the Catuvellauni banner, whose leader intends to crush the small but stubborn invasion force.  In The Eagle’s Conquest,  Rome struggles to make a decisive strike against the barbarian horde,  even as our two officers find evidence that points toward someone within Rome working to undermine the invasion. Worse yet, the Emperor is coming to take personal charge of the campaign, and Rome’s enemies may find the murky bogs and chaotic wilderness of Britain an ideal spot to induce a little regime change.  As the plot thickens, Rome’s forces crashes through thickets and wade through bogs, constantly fighting the natives and hovering on the verge of utter fatigue.   Rome’s goal is to crush the opposing army outright, as other as-yet neutral tribes may join if the legions falter; their opponent, however, stays on the run and likes to rest near terrain that puts paid to any ideas about maintaining any kind of troop cohesion.  Cato continues to mature as a man, taking command of his entire cohort during an especially frantic bit of fighting and  vying with a personal enemy within the ranks, one who costs him dearly. Humor abounds, more in the dialogue than with physical humor this time, and the author unintentionally adds to this by writing the invading Romans in his own vernacular. It’s “bloody hell” this, and “jolly good” that,   as our Roman chaps brave painted stinking hordes,   a landscape not kind to invading armies, and the fickleness of woman.  The book ends with one word – “Boudica” – that promises all kinds of fun to come.  

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Here be Dragons

Here be Dragons
© 1985 Sharon Penman
700 pages             

 Here Be Dragons takes readers to the Welsh Marches in 13th century England. King John, remembered for losing England’s ancestral holdings in France and being gelded by his own barons via the Great Charter , reigns. His struggles with the powers of Europe are not limited to the Continent, however, for restive Wales is far from defeated. The Welsh stand apart,  increasingly united under one very savvy and battle-hardened prince, and not even the marriage of John’s daughter to said prince will neutralize them.  Although this is first in a trilogy about the feuding brothers of the prince, Here be Dragons is wholly dominated by the relationship between King John,  Llewyln of Wales, and Joanna – the woman who stood between them.  John’s illegitimate daughter and Llewyln’s unpopular Norman wife, Joanna will spent decades trying to keep the peace between the two in a feud that becomes increasingly bitter. The appeal of the novel is the balancing act she plays between two more or less sympathetic men in opposition, though both have faults and John is far harder to redeem. (Such a feat is made possibly only by having a narrator who sees him as kindly father who rescues her from impoverished bastardy.)  After John’s demise, the similarly acrimonious relationship between Joanna, her eldest stepson Gruffydd, and her natural son Dafvdd,  rises to the top.  It’s a basic case of sibling rivalry, with Gruffydd loathing his half-Norman half-brother and fearing that the influence of  the “Norman witch” will lead young Dafydd to usurp him as the heir apparent.   The writing consists largely of characters talking or arguing, interspersed with bits of historic and cultural background information filling in gaps.  There’s more nonfictional narrative than fictional, but Joanna’s ordeal – and the spotlight on Wales’ powers --   help overcome that, at least for the first five hundred pages. (After that the arguments and mini-lectures on Welsh history grow wearisome, but happily there’s a late-game catastrophic failure of moral judgment to infuse some drama into the plot.)  For the reader who doesn’t mind a novel that’s half nonfiction, Here be Dragons offers a rare look at the Plantagenet from both inside and out.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Ornament of the World

Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain
© 2002 Maria Rose Menocal
315 pages


  Ornament of the World is the story of a unique civilization in medieval Europe, one which ultimately disintegrated but left a hopeful legacy. For hundreds of years, Europe hosted a distinctly Islamic polity: Andalusia, the last stand of the Umayyads. The inheritors of Muhammad’s empire, they were driven out by a palace coup and reestablished themselves across the Mediterranean, building a glorious realm of their own.  They brought the best of an ascendant civilization and combined it with the remnants of the classical world; theirs was a world of fusion which allowed not only Muslims, but Christians and Jews to flourish and contribute as well. Ornament covers a thousand years of Spanish history, mixing literature, art, and politics to deliver with flourish the story of a lost but golden age.  Though heavily romanticized, the author’s  lovestruck tone makes it an enticing introduction to medieval Spain.

 In subject and intent, Ornament is quite similar to A Vanished World, but much tidier. It begins, for instance,  with the rise of Islam, and from there moves forward in the time-honored chronological fashion. Following the death of Muhammad, leadership of the Islamic polity fell to a series of caliphs, one of whom – Ali – was especially consequential. Under his reign, the Umayyad caliphate,  Islam expanded in leaps and bounds. Success ever breeds resentment, however and Ali found himself murdered along with much of his family. A minor relation fled to Spain and there begins the story of Andalusia. Amid the first Muslim civil war, however, the princeling didn't come alone. He and his followers found Iberia ripe for the picking,  and in a matter of time had conquered most of the peninsula.  "Woe to the vanquished!" was not the case, however, as the resident Christian and Jewish populations found themselves officially protected by the new state- - for a small consideration, of course.  Al-andalusia and its capital of Cordoba would go so resplendent that a later successor would presume to claim himself the Caliph, the princeps of Islam..  Islamic politics would be their undoing however; another faction would rebel against the reigning Abassids and make their stronghold in Tunis, just a stone’s throw from Iberia.  When the Umayyads later sought help from the north African Muslims against the resurgent Christians, their allies found their Spanish brethren much too decadent and proceeded to wreck and take over the place, Fourth Crusade style.

The loss of unity following the Umayyads did not destroy the creative culture they established, however; instead, leading city-states competed to out-do the other to restore that glory, just as after the fall of Rome states like Venice, Genoa, and Florence competed against the other. While the Italians engaged in petty wars and magnificent frescoes, the Moors engaged in petty wars and mesmerizing poetry.  Menocal has done prior work on Arabic literature, so not surprisingly language, prose, and verse receive a lot of attention.  The emphasis on literature extends to the Christians and Jews;  Hebrew adopted elements of Arabic verse and flourished in its own right. This was a period of intercultural collaboration;  in Toledo, for instance, Arabic and Jewish scholars worked on translating Aristotelian texts, which then drifted into Europe, replete with commentaries. Just as Muslim mosques and fortresses in Iberia began with Roman bones -- so did resurgent Christian powers adopt elements of Arabic architecture, even in areas where the Umayyads and their successors never reigned.  Eventually the Castille-Aragon alliance would overwhelm the predominately Moorish south, effecting the Reconquest

Ornament compares well to its sister-rival, Vanished World;  for instance, the Muslim sack of Compostela,  which appeared rather randomly in Vanished, features here as part of the Umayyads’s  Iberian downfall.The same general who leads a military coup against them also attacked the Christian shrine. This same episode also accounts for the contrasting versions of St. James – one meek and mild, the other the Muslim-slayer.  After his shrine was desecrated and his pilgrims murdered, the peaceful James returned to have his revenge. Hell hath no fury like a saint scorned!  This covers nearly a thousand years of history in a mere three hundred pages, though, and a lot of that is taken up with swooning over literature and poetry;  this is utterly enjoyable, of course, but it does meant that the political sketch is an outline at best, so this is by no means a complete story. It is a loving tribute to the life of art and philosophy that found a home in Islamic Spain, however.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Quartet

The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783 - 1789
© 2015 Joseph Ellis
320 pages

How many men does it take to make a revolution? The American Revolution is usually taken to include the rising animus against the political authority of Great Britain,  a desire for independence, and the war against Britain itself. The revolution did not create an independent American nation, however; it created thirteen. United in common cause against the armies of Parliament, peacetime threatened to cause dissolution. The liabilities of the Articles of Confederation, and the threat of the American seaboard becoming some Italian-like quilt of squabbling chiefdoms,,   prompted some of the states’ leading lights to vie not only for stronger ties between  the states, but for the creation of a more cohesive nation.  In The Quartet,  veteran Revolution historian Joseph Ellis examines the role of four particular men in effecting a transformational shift in American politics, forging a new American nation out of thirteen. What they created was only the beginning of that union, but it was enough. Here delivered is a history of the Constitutional convention, told through the men who made it so.

Argue as we may over the question of where sovereignty ultimately lies – with the States, or with the national government --   prior to the Constitution no one doubted that the states were sovereign. The Articles of Confederation, written to facilitate the war effort between the colonies-turned-states, gave the central authority virtually no muscle.  Genuine authority lay in the States and their respective armies, which frustrated to no end those tasked with the confederation’s  responsibilities.  Roger Morrison, for instance, initially tasked with getting the fledgling republic’s financial house in order, found virtually no support. The States balked at the smallest contributions, either from short-sighted shrewdness or long-term paranoia.   The states’ refusal to help with national provisions,  even to pay the soldiers who carried the hope of the rebellion on their shoulders,  nearly lead to a militia coup. Only the charisma of George Washington prevented matters from taking a tragic turn;  it would not be the last time his shoulders bore the weight of the American enterprise. .John Jay was likewise frustrated trying to arrange treaties, as the States insisted on making their own. Europe gazed across the Atlantic and viewed the new project with derision,  almost taking bets on when the states would go their own way.

The Articles were failing to make the American project a go,  but this was an age of ambitious and remarkably intelligent men willingly to be bold with their and other people's fortunes. Having taken readers through the stresspoints of the Articles, Ellis shifts to the effort that Madison and Hamilton spearheaded to call a convention to amend the Articles, a convention that replace them altogether. This took some doing; many Americans were quite happy with an impotent central government. Virginians didn't want to be saddled with other states' debts, and Rhode Island didn't want New York and other large states pushing it around. Any effort to strengthen an outside authority -- a foreign power -- smacked of tyranny.  Hamilton, Jay, and company were looking ahead, however; they saw that the world's future lay in the  American frontier, and the states needed to work together if that was to be taken advantage of. At the first attempt in Annapolis to gather a convention, most of the states were no-shows.  But Washington himself supported the cause, and Madison came to the second convention prepared to argue the case for a Constitution. Washington was the trump card, the demigod who imbued the cause with moral authority; he even circulated the odd letter to lend active support. Madison stayed on the floor throughout the constitutional process, and afterwards he and Hamilton -- with a little help from John Jay -- took up the pen to argue for its ratification in New York. Washington remained vital to the constitutional cause even after it was written, signed, and ratified; if the nation's first president were anyone but -- if the electors faltered and put an anti-federalist anywhere near the executive seat -- all efforts might be forfeit.   Here Hamilton plays another part, influencing the election to ensure that John Adams didn't come close to threatening Washington's victory.  Eventually the Federalists would be routed in what Thomas Jefferson referred to as 'the second American revolution' -- his election -- by then the course of the nation was set. 

The Quartet is classic Ellis, seeing history as made by the actions of individual actors, not the inevitable outcome of enormous socio-economic reactions. Ellis' creates an intimate history, one ruled by personal relationships; one chapter called "The Courting" speaks of Washington's seduction and consummation by Jay and Madison into the nationalist cause.  While the four aren't as tightly-knitted together as the title suggests ("orchestrating" the revolution as if they were a conspiracy with an intricate plan),  their unity at an opportune moment caused a sea change in American political history.  Though favoring the Federalist cause, Ellis doesn't too much overplay his hand: he points out for instance that the Federalist Papers only have limited use, being the propaganda work of the nation's most avowed nationalists, and written for a particular New York audience.  His emphasis on relationships does prompt a misread of Madison's character:  while prior to the Revolution, Madison argued for the Federalists and a national union; afterwards he was the darling of the Democratic-Republican cause against Federalism. Ellis sees this as entirely the result of Jefferson returning to America and Madison abandoning his ideas to support his mentor, as if Madison wasn't capable of having nuanced political sensibilities that supported a golden mean between centralization and anarchy.  These are slight quibbles, however; Ellis has yet again produced an enthralling political drama, perfect for a quick dip into Revolutionary history. 

Madison and the Making of America, Kevin Gutzman, focusing entirely on this Constitutional Convention where Madison played center stage.
Founding Brothers,  Joseph Ellis.   Of all the Ellis I've read, this places the most emphasis on political relationships.