Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Canterbury Tales



If you've ever glanced at my Classics Club list, you'll see Canterbury Tales sitting there, and I've regarded it as one of the tougher ones on my list -- in the same tier as the Russians,  April is the ideal month for reading the Tales, in part because it's set during April ("Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote ..."),  but mostly because April is a month I've dedicated to England for the past several years.  With its girth in mind, I began early, on March 1st.   (That marked the first day of Lent, and I was amused by the thought of reading about a pilgrimage during a time inspired by pilgrimage.)

I will note from the beginning that I did not read the tales in Chaucer's original English. My library, happily, has a 900+ page volume that presents a column of Chaucer alongside one of 'modern' English, and it was the modern English which I largely read. I often compared the two columns, reading as much as I could of Chaucer before having to take a peek at the meaning of words, and I saw enough to realize -- based on the fact that certain words were suppose to rhyme - -that Chaucerian English really did sound much different from ours.

I assume most people are aware of the general premise of The Canterbury Tales, but just in case: a large group of people on pilgrimage to Canterbury (intent on honoring Thomas a Becket) converge on an inn. Since they're all headed the same way, they decide to engage in a little friendly competition: each person will spin a couple of tales there and back again, and when they all return to the inn they will decide who gave the best story, and all pitch in to give that person a free meal.  Such is the General Prologue,  after which various personalities step forward to give a story. The stories vary in length and in mood, as do the storytellers; some are noblemen, like Knights; others are commoners,  some are women, some are members of religious orders.  Some of the stories are noble, some tragic, some sad, and some very silly.

Rather than reviewing Chaucer (rather like reviewing Homer!), I want to share a couple of general comments and then recap some of the more memorable stories from the first half of the Tales, when I was still taking notes.  I was surprised by the varied settings of the stories; some are set as far afield as Russia, Syria, and Greece. As with The Merrie Adventures of Robin Hood, there are grievances aplenty against the landed nobility, including the church.  Lastly, while I've heard much about the medieval cult of courtly love, I never appreciated how fantastically silly medievals were for romance until I read through some of this preposterous goings-on.

And now, recaps of a few more memorable tales, complete with a moral:

Knight's Tale:  Two cousins imprisoned together fall in love with the same woman, and are violently jealous even though they're in a tower and there is zero chance of them courting her.    Naturally one escapes and the other is pardoned, and upon pursuing the girl they meet in a field and start fighting. Who should discover them but the king who imprisoned them in the first place, who -- persuaded by the girl, who turns out to be his sister -- allows them to meet one year hence, with their respective armies, and enter into trial by combat to see who shall win her hand.

The moral:   Finders keepers.

The Miller's Tale:  One woman is pursued by two men while still married to a third. The story involves two occasions of rear ends being kissed by mistake.

The moral: Wait until daylight to kiss people.

The Clerk's Tale:  A King is pressed by his people to marry and decides to marry a beautiful and virtuous peasant.  Despite her character, wisdom, and beauty, the King is constantly suspicious of her and inflicts a series of Job-like tests upon her which amount to (1) making her believe he's killed her children,  (2) making her believe he's going to annul their union and marry someone less controversial, and (3) having her PLAN THE NEW WIFE'S WEDDING.   When the wedding guests arrive, and lo! The "bride" is actually her long-lost daughter, with long-lost son in tow,  everyone enjoys a happily-ever-after moment. (Instead of "What the heck, Dad? moment.)

The moral:   What seems like psychopathic behavior may, in twenty years, turn out to be  a convoluted plan with a happy ending.  So uh, have patience.

The Wife of Bath: After entirely too much information about her five husbands, the Wife of Bath tells the story of a Knight who raped a woman and was brought on trial to the King's court, whereupon the Queen gave him one year to  solve the question: What do women want?   Having queried high and low to no avail, the Knight resignedly begins returning to the court to meet his death, only to chance upon a horribly disfigured old woman who will give him the answer if he promises to anything she wants.   He gives the answer to the Queen and is promptly confronted by the old woman, who bids him marry her.   He resists by recounting her faults (poverty, age, etc);  she rebuts them by praising poverty, age, etc, and finally he relents to marrying her.  She then asks him:  would he rather she be old and faithful, or young and tempting to others?   He leaves the matter to her, and  she -- happy that he has ceded his judgement to hers -- decides to become both young and faithful. (Oh,  and the answer to 'what do women want?' is 'to be in charge'.)  Hurrah for...resignation...?

The moral:   Rape is evil, but if you find a witch who wants a husband, you might get away with it.

Middle English prologue read at 1:14

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.)

Wednesday, April 12, 2017


© 2006 Stephen Lawhead
496 pages

Beyond the borders of Norman-controlled England lies free Britain, and between them the March -- a thick band of forest whose depths may conceal outlaws and monsters.  Hood reimagines Robin Hood as an exiled British prince, who narrowly escaped a slaughter that claimed the life of his father the king and most of their fellow countrymen.  Nearly dead, the young prince is nursed back to health by an old woman who steeps him in the lore of the ancient Britons, and inspires him with the story of a mysterious and powerful Raven King.  Assuming the mantle of the king -- the raven and his father -- Bran wages a psychological war against the occupying Normans, hoping to use supplies stolen from their convoys to feed his people and somehow effect their freedom.

Hood has two veins of interest;   first it's the novel of a useless prince who  is suddenly ennobled when he realizes someone has to defend what's left of his people, and the responsibility is on him as the only link to their old country.  That he becomes some sort of British Batman, using the aura of a monster to frighten the Normans, is an unexpected and fun angle that uses the medieval awe of nature's mysteries well enough.  The second vein, of course, is seeing Robin Hood in the story; there is a lass named Merian, who is torn between loyalty to old Elfael and the attraction to power and status in the form of a Norman marriage;   a survivor from the warband who is named Iwan, and a potbellied and mischievous friar, the latter three of whom become members of Rhi Bran's band. "Hood", or Hud,  is used as a pun - -referring to both a British phantom and Bran's hooded Batsuit.

The author adds in an ending note that the Robin Hood tales were collected through songs over the centuries, and that the earliest of them name not Richard nor John, or even Henry as in Pyle's collection, but "comely king Edward".  The author believes the Hood legend is truly ancient, and may be rooted in the British resistance to the Normans, specifically that fought in the Welsh marches with longbows.  While I'm skeptical on that front, I enjoyed the story here completely.  One of the Normans is so villainous that one of his far more subtle (but no less ambitious) neighbors is baffled at the obviousness of it, but I imagine the Machiavellian will be the serious threat in the books that follow.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood
© 1883 Howard Pyle
648 pages,  Duke Classics Edition.
(Other editions seem to have anywhere from 200 to 400 pages, which is odd.)

You who so plod amid serious things that you feel it shame to give yourselves up even for a few short moments to mirth and joyousness in the land of Fancy; you who think that life hath nought to do with innocent laughter than can arm no one; these pages are not for you. Clap to the leaves and go no farther than this, for I tell you plainly that if you go farther you will be scandalized by seeing good, sober folks of real history so frisk and caper in gay colors and motley that you would not know them but for the names tagged to them!

Rarely have I found a book more fun to read aloud than this, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood.  We used to have a copy in the local public library, but despite  a childhood fondness for the scamp of Sherwood Forest, I've never read the stories of him.    That's been remedied this last week, as through this collection of stories gleaned from ballads and folk tales, I learned how Robin Hood became an outlaw, gathered his band, and lived a merry life in the woods while giving the corrupt and powerful some serious pain.  The first few hundred pages here count the beginnings of Robin's band, and thereafter address the various adventures the Merry Men had while resisting the Sheriff of Nottingham's agents.   The entire book brims over with singing,  non-lethal fighting,  and gloriously absurd speeches.  I say glorious because the pseudo-medieval speech patterns are put on, but are more funny than jarring. The characters delight in having fun with one another,  their conversations fully of whimsy and ending in 'lusty' laughs.

Having read this, I realize now that Disney's Robin Hood and Mel Brooks Men in Tights led me wrong. Now, I realize it may come as a blow that Mel Brooks took liberties with the stories, but stay with me.   Both of these Robin Hood interpretations share a common backstory in which Robin Hood is an enemy of King John principally because John is the usurper of his brother Richard's throne.   In this book, however,  Henry and Eleanor reign;  John and Richard only appear at the end and there's no drama associated with the succession question between John and Richard.   Robin Hood's status as an outlaw originates almost by accident: while strolling through the forest on his way to an archery contest, singing merrily, he encounters a group of men who make fun of his archery pretensions. He challenges them to a contest, but dismisses their wooden targets in favor of a deer which is much further away.  The men turn out to be foresters, or game wardens, and attempt to kill Robin -- and so he runs away.

What follows is a great many stories about Robin meeting various people, fighting with them, and then -- whether he win or lose, for he does lose at times -- being so impressed by their merry spirit, their quick wit, and their skills at fighting that he asks them to join his band.    All who are asked do, because the Merry Men have a fine old time drinking beer,  having contests, and eating as much deer as they like.  Whenever they run low on provisions, they watch the road and accost fat nobles and corrupt clergy,  treating them to a meal and then taking the victim-guest's entire purse as payment.  Part of the booty is retained for the Merry Men; the rest is given back to the poor, for that money was taken in taxes from them. Long live Robin Hood,  terror of the taxman!   Because Robin never bothers the poor or honest, he is looked to as a champion of the oppressed and goes on a few adventures to save people from the plots of the Sheriff of Nottingham or the Bishop of Hereford, the recurring villains here.   Eventually Robin Hood defeats the wicked pair, earns the favor of King Richard, and is made an Earl....but will drift back into Sherwood Forest for a reunion and a last attack by the Sheriff.

Merry Adventures is utterly fun to read.

Friday, April 7, 2017

London at War

London at War
© 1995 Phillip Ziegler
372 pages

"London doesn't look down at the ruins of its houses, at the remains of its churches and houses; London looks upwards, towards the Dawn,  and faces the new day with calmness and confidence." 

On April 9th, 1940,  Hitler’s Germany launched its great assault on the west, and by June had taken possession of  Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, and France. England stood alone, as she had centuries prior when another jumped-up corporal seized control of Europe, and in that summer all of Hitler’s mechanical wrath and the hopes of the world were both centered on London.  London was then the largest and greatest city in the world, capital of not just the United Kingdom, but of a global Empire.  Peter Ziegler here uses the stories of Londoners who  stuck it out in the City through the war to deliver the story of the home front, as London experienced it.

London’s most famous association with World War 2, of course, is the Blitz. Though Hitler’s air strategy initially focused on destroying the RAF, after an errant bomb fell on Berlin he switched to bombing English cities instead.   While  the population at large wasn’t surprised by the idea of the Blitz,  concrete preparations left much to be desired. The ‘air raid trenches’ dug into the city’s parks had been excavated months prior, and were by then partially eroded and filled with water. Small wonder the Underground system was used instead, and so frequently that people began staying in the Underground even after the threat of bombing was past:  as late as April 1945, when the Nazi goose was well and truly cooked (and the Berlin wishbone about to be torn in two by the Allies and Soviets), some people still insisted on spending the nights with their regular shelter-mates.  Sleeping in the subway bunks had become an unexpected source of civic solidarity.

Although supplies would steadily dwindle throughout the years of the war,   Kriegel demonstrates that much of normality was preserved. The theaters, cinema, and even ballet stayed open most of time, even though the war’s absorption of most of the men --  the troupes were harvested for the troops --   disrupted    staffing considerably. Opera was less able to cope.   Holidays like Christmas were pursued with their usual enthusiasm, even as trade from the Continent largely disappeared. Not until the Christmas of 1944 were the shelves really destitute, judging by this.

 Another source of disruption to ordinary London life was the presence of so many refugees and soldiers.  Prior to the great invasion of 4 June 1944,  the whole of England was clogged with American airmen involved in the bombing of Festung Europa, and soldiers waiting for that singular moment of D-Day.   Although Kriegel records some conflict between the American warriors and the English,  stemming from romance and money, on the whole he concludes that relations were amicable.  (He takes the same stance regarding London stoicism and the Blitz;  yes, there was a little looting, but on the hole the city kept its head  in such a manner as to bewilder a few Polish visitors.)   One source of tension between Americans and the English was race, for the racial segregation of the United States was absent in England.  On the opposite  side, Americans cheerfully ignored the formal class striations of old England – distinctions that were also weakened by the communal life in the air raid shelters , for there was no upper class in the Underground.

In addition to experiences which England at large experienced, bombing and supply deprivation, Kriegel also shares stories particular to London.Although many government services were sent out of the city to preserve them in the event of a truly devastating Luftwaffe attack,  As the nation's capital,  London held the commanding spot in the United Kingdom's patriotism --  for there, despite the bombs of the Luftwaffe, the Royal Family had fixed their standard, and there the prime minister took to the streets amid bombings to remind people that they'd soon be on their feet again.   Open spaces formerly reserved to society's elite were opened up, their fencing taken to use in the war efforts. Building after building fell prey to the Nazi bombs, or the V-weapons, and people promised to use the war's destruction as an opportunity to create a better city -- one with fewer slums and more attractive housing to replace them. (Here the author adds a sad note that no,  what replaced the old buildings was not more attractive, and here London was failed.)

London at War's heavy use of civilian journals commends it as a look at the home front during WW2, and a look at a proud city in a dark moment.

Related Video:  "London Can Take It", 9 minutes.  1940

Those are not Hollywood sound effects. That is the music heard every night -- the Symphony of War


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Eagle and the Wolves

The Eagle and the Wolves
© 2003 Simon Scarrow
452 pages

The Roman Empire's campaign in Britain may about to become a victim of its own success. While a great victory last summer established a stronghold in the heart of the island, the Britons haven't given up yet -- and  are finding in the Romans' lengthening supply lines an opportunity to bleed the Empire white. If more troops are pulled from the front lines to defend against Celtic raiders, the advance will stall -- but what if Rome creates a few cohorts out of the Celtic tribesmen themselves? Britain is riven with petty chiefdoms, some allied to Rome, some arrayed against it, and some shifting with the wind.  What if two centurions with experience on the island -- one an old hand at training, the other with a working knowledge of the Gaelic spoken here -- were to train to put some of the allies to work?  So begins The Eagles and the Wolves, in which Cato and Macro raise two auxiliaries (the Boars and Wolves) to defend their post.    Naturally things go south; the Romans are allied to an old king who is attacked by an assassin, and a few of the would-be successors to the king want to overturn the Roman alliance.  The Romans themselves are not united, as Cato and Macro are undermined by a weaselly politician who is manipulating everyone for his own advancement.  It comes down to a good old-fashioned last stand at the Alamo, with Cato and Macro holing themselves up in a supply depot while the Celts  serenade them with the sounds of their captured prisoners being tortured.  Buuut, as there are many more books in this series,  it doesn't quite end like the Alamo.

As with a Cornwell review, the usual strengths are here -- Romans swearing like Englishmen is funny,  the two main characters are solid, Cato is now wilier than his old mentor in some respects, and the action is gripping until the end.

Podcast of the Week: the British History Podcast

History is human. History is drama. History is our story, and it belongs to all of us.

Since I'm celebrating English literature and history this month, I'd like to share the British History Podcast with readers who may be interested. This is a long-running and reliable history podcast which updates at least every week,  and is so thorough that after 238 regular episodes (not counting pay-only specials), it has only now reached Alfred the Great.    The host doesn't just do politics; he often devotes special episodes to Anglo-Saxon economics, or Celtic religion, etc.   

Monday, April 3, 2017


© 1943 C.S. Lewis
322 pages

In Out of the Silent Planet, Dr. Erwin Ransom was kidnapped by two malevolent technologists who thought to offer him as a sacrifice to the ruler of Mars, a planet they were interested in mining and otherwise exploiting. Their plan failed in part because they were dolts who didn't realize they were reckoning with powers beyond their ken --  not a creature like themselves, fixed on gain, but something else altogether,  a being Ransom later understood to be more like an angel or a Greek god.  The governor of Mars was a  creature of goodness, and  one who ruled not as sovereign but as the steward of Another--  Maledil, the Creator.   Now  Ransom has been dispatched by Maledil Himself to the planet Venus, where an Edenic paradise is about to be disrupted by the presence of one of those formerly vanquished scientists,  who is now the pawn of something malevolent.   When Ransom realizes what his former captor is up to --  playing the part of the serpent and attempting to seduce a new Eve into disobedience -- the doctor can only do his best to resist, debating the Devil and later giving him a good right hook to the jaw,  Resist the adversary and if he  will flee; if nothing else, fisticuffs will suffice.

Having now read all three books in the Space Trilogy, I'm struck by the progression of them.  Ransom begins Out of the Silent Planet as a fellow out for a walk, who literally stumbles into an abduction. (His captors were planning on taking a slow-witted youth, but Ransom foiled that by rescuing him.)  Here, his knowledge of the real nature of the Cosmos and his ability to speak the common tongue of creation allows him to interact with the new Eve,  and so act as a counter to the possessed corpse attempting to lure her into destruction.  By That Hideous Strength, he is the leader of the resistance, a King Arthur fighting a rearguard action against an evil conspiracy. The stakes, too, rise in every novel: in the first, Ransom is no real danger because he is in the realm of  goodly creatures; here the stakes are heightened, but the threat is to another world and to two people;  in the last, all of Earth' is imperiled.  The philosophical content also rises throughout, although I was not as conscience of the debate going on in That Hideous Strength when I read it.   This novel is taken up largely with conversations and debates between Ransom, the Eve figure, and the "Un-man", the animated corpse being used a puppet of another being. Their primary topic is will and obedience:  Maledil has given Eve and her husband (who is off exploring)  the entire planet to play in, and asks only one thing: don't sleep on one particular piece of land. They can visit it during the day, but must retire  elsewhere at night.   The corpse attempts to persuade Eve that Maledeil secretly wants her to rebel, because that would be heroic and soul-enlarging.  She would prove herself a creature with a will of her own, and that's what Maledil wants.  Of course, if she chooses to obey, she's also demonstrating a will of her own, but the Devil doesn't sleep and Ransom has to, which is why at one point he's so tired of arguing he decides to start grappling in the truest sense of the word.

While a retelling of the story of Adam and Eve, told largely through conversation and debate, make for an odd novel, I found that the pieces of Lewis' worldbuilding here are fitting together better now that I've seen more of their shape. I was baffled in the third book by his odd mix of Greek mythology,  Merlin, and SF dystopia, but as with any imaginatively-developed world, it makes more sense the more time you spend in it.  I found Lewis' Venus far easier to imagine and enjoy than I did his Mars, what with its golden sky, intensely pleasurable water and fruit, and island living.  Pity the real Venus would melt you before you ever so much as saw the surface..

Coming up in Read of England...either a bit of medieval literature, Victorian fiction about a medieval hero, or some history.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth

Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth:  Understanding Middle-Earth
© 2002 Brad Birzer
255 pages

How better to kick off Read of England than by visiting the world of Tolkien, who has enraptured readers for decade after decade now?  Tolkien is not merely an English writer; his Middle Earth was composed of English stuff,  its  languages inspired by ancient British tongues, its heroes English yeoman with furry feet.  In Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, Brad Birzer uses extensive reading of the Tolkien  corpus, in addition to letters and interviews, to understand the influences and imagination which created the world of Middle Earth.  The themes that Birzer shares in  chapters on topics like heroism and evil, are knit together in an argument that Tolkien’s intention was to reinvigorate the west with the memories  of what was best in it -- to remind it, via a new mythology, of ancient truths.

Birzer begins with a biographical sketch of Tolkien, who came of age in the trenches of the Great War – witnessing first hand Europe’s virtually successful attempt to destroy itself – and who spent much of his adulthood in the mire of the 20th century, observing both its progress and its regress with dismay.  Tolkien admired the arrival of automobiles (and the city spaces destroyed to make room for parking lots) about as much as he admired the German bombers that would destroy city blocks later on. They were Nazguls and Orcs to him – noisy, inhuman, unfeeling, and malignant. Tolkien was a man of Old England,  a man of the Shire about which he wrote so lovingly – an gentle and agrarian England composed of farmers and small shopkeepers, who minded their business and got together in crowds only for a good neighborly feast.

 Tolkien’s great dismay with the west was not its embrace of new modes of transportation, however, but with what it left behind. Man once knew his place in the Cosmos; he was part of a celestial story, and if he played his part well, there could be found meaning and joy.  Such was not to be found in the modern story of man,  one of an atomized individual seeking only his own pleasure, liberated from all that had once sought to direct individual energy towards bigger things, even a thing so small but so whole as the family. That ordered Cosmos is present in the world of Middle Earth, for there - -through the Silmarillion – we find an ordered creation disrupted by a rebellious angel (Morgoth), whose servants  work to destroy the good Earth and replace it with their machines and towers of domination.   The entire lore of Middle Earth contains many stories of imperiled fellowships enduring pain and deprivation to resist the schemes of Morgoth;  Frodo’s company is only one episode in a long drama that will only end when Illuvatar, the All-Father, decides to finish the symphony of creation  with a flourish.   Tolkien, as a Catholic, believed that humans on Earth were fighting the same ‘long defeat’ that would eventually end, but until then would demand perseverance.

In explaining the core of Tolkien's mythos -- the distinction he made between Creation and subcreation, the nature of evil and grace, the role of heroism in resisting evil and giving grace tools with which to work --   Birzer throws light on the bounty of Tolkien's imagination.  A reader can only stand in awe of Tolkien's imaginative work; his genius with language, deep appreciation of history, and  integration of pagan and Christian,  characters of fancy and fact.  Although Tolkien's larger world is rooted in a monotheistic order, much of England's pagan past is hailed and 'sanctified', rather like the epic of Beowulf was by whatever Christian monk preserved it for the ages.   Tolkien believed, like Chesterton and Lewis,  that the myths of the Greeks and Norse, among others, reflected parts of the Truth without being True in themselves.   In the Tolkien legendarium, the Good of earlier traditions is united with the Good of the Christian West. For the Tolkien fan, this sort of book should be enormously appealing, even if one is not comfortable with Tolkien's worldview.  (His anti-modernity, for instance, which  is what makes him most delightful to me, personally...) Here are celebrated and made greater, characters of the LOTR lore. We see Aragorn as an Arthur, Gandalf as a wandering Odin figure,  Galadriel as a Marian type. We see the Shire,  Rivendell, and Morder serving as reflections on different relationships between man and nature -- and appreciate Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, and Aragorn as differing types of heroism, from the self-sacrificial to the prophetic and martial.   Considering the actual book is only a little over 150 pages, there's an amazing amount of content here. For good reason was this a favorite last year, and no less fascinating when I re-read it this year.

Frodo's Journey; Bilbo's Journey, Joseph Pearce

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Read of England 2017


Dear readers, it is at long last April, and you know what means! READ OF ENGLAND 2017 is officially on, a month dedicated wholly to England -- English history, literature, culture, and personalities.  Why April?  April 23rd is both the feast day of St. George, patron saint of England, and the death anniversary of England's most lauded writer, William Shakespeare.   The usual suspects are likely: classics like Dickens or Austen, mysteries from Christie or Doyle, and historical fiction from Simon Scarrow.  There will also be a few surprises, however.   Never one to do things by half-measures, I'm also going to be enjoying the fourth season of Jeeves and Wooster and the third season of Vicar of Dibley this month.   I love Read of England.

(Speaking of surprises, did anyone else know that A Study in Scarlet is one-third western? )

The game's afoot! Follow your spirit, and upon this charge, cry God for Harry, England, and SAINT GEOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOORGE!