Borges’ Utopia

Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) was especially known for his collections of short fictions such as The Aleph and Ficciones, where he generally dealt with metaphysical ideas about time and identity.  Furthermore, to a certain extent, his work evidences the series of political and ideological transformations he went throughout the course of his life.

In his late teens, circa 1918, while he was living in Europe, he identified with the communist ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution, an experience that encouraged him to pen the poem called Red Rythms, a poem that in his old age he was only too happy to have lost and forgotten.  In the early twenties, when he finally returned to Buenos Aires, he went through a period of nationalistic fervor to the extent of supporting the populist caudillo, Hipólito Yrigoyen, whom many consider as a forerunner of the famed authoritarian demagogue, Juan Domino Perón.  Many of his poems and essays celebrate everything Argentine, from the mythological stature of the gauchos to the slang of the suburbs of Buenos Aires.



Reading for Writing – Story Trumps Structure

the pawhThe Pawn by Steven James

Having read 50+ books on writing I feel this book is the third most useful I have read, after only Scriptshadow Secrets by Carson Reeves and Story by Robert McKee. It examines even basic material in a memorable way which makes you more likely to use the ideas in your work. I highly recommend it. The following ideas are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the insights the book contains.

What I learned, Part 1 – An example of Mr. James’s memorable phrasing is: “the ceiling fan principle.” Obviously any story needs to have tension, but the author posits that “things going wrong” is the prime mover of narrative. He uses as an example the common children’s assignment of “what did you do last summer?” Most children’s lists are mind-numbingly boring, because they are just that, lists. But one student in the author’s class said that “me and by cousins were having a contest jumping off my bunk bed to see who could get farthest. And there was this ceiling fan…” So if any scene you are writing feels flat, find the ceiling fan and you’ll be well on your way to improving it.



Literature You Should Know: The Bible

Charlton-Heston-as-Moses-The-Ten-Commandments-1956-ParamountIt’s the #1 best-seller of all time, translated in whole or in part into over two thousand languages.  It’s been banned and burned but never totally destroyed; in fact, despite Diocletian’s best efforts, it’s the best-attested book that survives from antiquity, with Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars a distant second.  It contains practically every genre you can think of—comedy, tragedy, archetypal narrative, lyric poetry, wisdom literature, dream-vision and allegory, family drama, courtroom drama, political thriller, history, genealogy, epistle, biography and autobiography.  An anthology of sixty-six books written over thousands of years in three different languages by kings, priests, prophets, shepherds, and fishermen, it nonetheless tells a single metanarrative story of redemption:  the history of the people of Israel, the coming of Jesus of Nazareth, and the way a simple Jewish carpenter changed the world.  And nearly two thousand years after the last words were penned, authors and filmmakers continue to grapple with its content, with mixed success.  Exodus: Gods and Kings is just the latest example proving that the Book is always better than the movie.


lockwood co

Reading for Writing – Lockwood and Co. – Book 1

lockwood copyLockwood and Co. by Jonathan Stroud

In a Great Britain beset by a plague of deadly ghosts only fully visible to psychically-attuned children, Lucy and her two other teenaged co-workers at Lockwood and Co. struggle to keep their exorcism business, and themselves, alive after they inadvertently burn down a client’s house.

What I learned, Part 1 – Resonance. I found this concept in the writing tips of David Farland (who has an excellent newsletter). The idea boils down to this: don’t be afraid of actively placing your influences into your writing, chances are that someone who likes the same things you do will enjoy your story all the more. Additionally, it can be an effective shortcut to making the reader experience your exact tone. Lockwood and Co. is an outstanding book, and from the first paragraph I felt it resonating with Sherlock Holmes. Lockwood and Sherlock, obviously have a connection, but beyond that, the list of failed “cases” from that opening text sound like they easily could be taken from Doyle’s writing. This dovetails perfectly with the fact that though the protagonists usually would be simply fighting the dead with silver, iron and salt, they end up embroiled in a 50 year old mystery.



Reading for Writing – The Neddiad

51iEr0WWlDLThe Neddiad by Daniel Pinkwater

In the late 1940’s, a boy and his quirk-tacular family take the train from Chicago to Hollywood. Along the way the boy, Ned, is entrusted with a sacred turtle and the fate of the world. Only “the guy with the turtle” can stop the machinations of a demon, present location the La Brea Tar Pits, who seeks to reverse time and bring back the age of the dinosaurs.

What I learned Part 1: It is possible to write a successful book with a passive protagonist and without tension; but brevity, wit and charm become paramount. From the get-go every line of the book lets you know that it will end well (as does the subtitle), still each moment feels so alive with fresh, weird details that it keeps you reading. An example, the family’s entire move from Chicago to Los Angeles is predicated on Ned and his father’s desire to eat regularly in “a restaurant shaped like a hat.” I would highly recommend this book as a case study of an author breaking core storytelling rules and getting away with it.



Reading for Writing – The Sacrifice

the-sacrifaceThe Sacrifice by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

A fantasy novel about the invasion of a peaceful island kingdom by a magical race, the Fey, well on their way to conquering the world. But a bloody stalemate ensues when the islanders discover that their holy water can disintegrate the Fey on contact.

What I learned, Part 1 – If you think you may want to publish traditionally please examine the cover of this book. This is a cover that the author fought against tooth and nail to no avail (this original cover makes the story appear to be about crudely drawn elves in love). I am the target audience for the novel (magic, battles, political intrigue), but I never in a million years would have picked this off the shelf. The only reason I bought it was because I am a fan of the author’s blog, she writes especially insightful things about the business of publishing.



MPI Founder and Robert A. Heinlein

MoonisharshThor Halvorssen, founder of Moving Picture Institute (MPI), has just been named as a producer for Twentieth Century Fox production of Robert A. Heilein’s novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  Bryan Singer (Usual Suspects, X-Men) is attached to direct as well.  Halvorssen’s work on human rights by airdropping films and educational materials into heavily censored North Korea, through his Human Rights Foundation have made headlines in world wide news outlets.

Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) was the recipient of the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel in 1967 and is often cited as one the best novels to promote individual liberty and a free society. An early democrat activist who worked for Upton Sinclair’s Democratic bid for California Governor in 1934, Heinlein later considered himself a libertarian with a strong belief in the importance of self-reliance and human freedom.


iron ring

Reading for Writing – Because Every Story Has Something to Teach

The Iron Ring1305: by Lloyd Alexander

This mythic tale is set in India, following a young king who loses a bet to a tyrant from a far off land and is forced to become his slave.  When the tyrant mysteriously disappears the next morning the hero feels obligated by his word to journey to the tyrant’s homeland to meet his fate (which may be death).

What I learned Part 1: The power of the open question to drive you through a story.  Lee Chi, the hero, isn’t certain whether the tyrant was real or a dream, and the dread of what he will face at the end of his journey keeps you reading.

What I learned Part 2: The power of myth.  This book introduces a great number of allies for the main character and side-tracks in the plot. It also follows the Hero’s Journey story beats very closely. But it feels very much like true Indian folklore (which it may or may not be), and this mood combined with the open question carries the book through.


Literature You Should Know: Lewis’ The Four Loves

For some years now, I’ve been wishing I could smack American culture as a whole upside the head with this week’s book.  Fifty Shades of Twilight is only the latest iteration of the problem’s symptoms.  James T. Kirk, James Bond, Jim West, Robert Hogan—I could go on and on listing examples of the notion that a hero will have girls throwing themselves at his feet every week, with manhood defined not by virtue but by virility.  But the problem is even older and deeper than that.  Romeo and Juliet, Abelard and Heloise, Tristan and Isolde, Lancelot and Guinevere… they all imply that romantic love is the highest and best form of love, that such a feeling is worth sacrificing even Camelot for the sake of the beloved, and that life bereft of such love is not worth living.  Now society’s reached a point where it seems a large number of people can’t conceive of any form of love that isn’t inherently sexual.

And it’s all a thrice-accurséd lie.



Psychological Attack!


I’m making my way through the Vampire Hunter D series of novels by Hideyuki Kikuchi.  This series is as pulpy as it comes, replete with an invulnerable hero, who is by the way devastatingly handsome and experiences the misfortune of having a different busty seventeen year old girl fall in love with him in each novel.  Perhaps the English translation is the cause of the Stilton-like essence emanating from the prose, but I kind of doubt it.  That hasn’t stopped my  enjoyment of the series either, which I find to be imaginative and action-packed.  One of the key elements that I love about it as an inspired piece of vampire literature is something it shares with the most awesome vampire story of all time, Hellsing, and that something is my favorite vampire attack: the psychological attack!  The exclamation point is needed because often the psychological attack is the last thing you’d expect, though what you should have expected all along.  What I love most about this attack is that ultimately, its kind of real.


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Super Comics: Amazing Spider-Man #121 & 122 (1973)

Amazing-Spider-Man-121-CoverSpoilers for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ahead!

Don’t read if you’re still planning on seeing it! Avert your eyes!

The Silver Age of comic books arguably ended with a two-part Spider-Man storyline from 1973 titled “The Night Gwen Stacy Died.”

Written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Gil Kane, the story delivers exactly what the title says—though, to Marvel’s credit, they didn’t reveal the title until the end of the first part. Unlike in today’s spoiler-filled world, Gwen Stacy’s death came as a shock to ‘70s readers.

In the comics, Gwen was Peter Parker’s first love, first appearing way back in The Amazing Spider-Man #31 in 1965. Mary Jane Watson, whom Peter would eventually marry, was introduced as a romantic rival in #42. But Mary Jane wound up being the livelier character—a vivacious young woman who initially came across as shallow and flighty but was simply masking her true heart. Gwen, on the other hand, was just a nice girl.

So, to prevent Peter Parker from marrying a one-dimensional woman, the folks at Marvel decided to kill off Gwen.

It was one of, if not the first time the hero failed to save the girl—and not just Spider-Man, but super-heroes in general. Sure, they’d screw up from time to time, especially the Marvel ones, but outside of their origin stories, they seldom or never experienced irrevocable failure.


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Trailer Tuesday: “Still Alice”

still-alice-posterWell, as I sat here on my Monday night, perusing the broad (and I mean broad) variety of trailers that assaulted my vision, only one really stuck out. So just like this trailer, I’m going to get down right dramatic.
Kidding. But this trailer is seriously good!

This film has been getting some buzz for a while now, so I probably should have written about it a month ago, but I must’ve forgotten. Ha! That’s a pun that will make sense in a second.  The film stars Julianne Moore as Alice, a mother, wife and linguistics professor whom is diagnosed with early on-set Alzheimer’s disease.  Pun retroactively, and shamelessly, intended.  Okay, I digress.

The shiny happy family includes Alice, her husband John (Alec Baldwin), and threesome of grown children, of which the most prominent character is unfortunately Kristen Stewart‘s Lydia.  As we get a touching glimpse into Alice’s life as a mother and teacher, we see that she is has a wonderful life and career, among which she is very well-respected for her work as a linguist.  In the middle of a presentation, Alice suddenly finds herself struggling to come up with words.  Cut to Alice going for a leisurely run.  This leads her to the middle of a metropolitan area with an utterly discombobulated look on her face, conveying that she has no idea how or why she ended up there.  Julianne Moore’s facial expressions alone are enough to evoke immediate sympathy for this character.  As she later sits her family down to announce that she has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, we get a montage of Alice spiraling down into a frighteningly realistic look at what it’s like to live with this disease.  Naturally, we have an uplifting endingkstew-still-alice with Alice choosing to overcome her challenges and saying that all she can do is “live in the moment.”  It’s a message we’ve heard all too often with these kinds of dramas, but this film looks great.

The trailer is fast-paced, to the point and highlights some of Julianne Moore’s best work, in my humble opinion.  I’ve never had a problem with her as an actress, but I have never considered myself a fan of hers, until now. This trailer alone made me a fan of Julianne Moore.  I can’t imagine the emotional range and capacity it must take to portray a character with this kind of depth, but she seems to pull it off very well…and has been garnering the buzz to prove it.

It’s already out, so why are you still reading this?! Go see “Still Alice,” before you forget! Okay, I’m done.

Photo Credit: Tim Sackton

Literature You Should Know: Tolkien’s The Hobbit

At semester’s end, professors and teachers everywhere face one of their least favorite tasks: grading exams.  Seriously, it’s hardly ever fun for anyone.  J. R. R. Tolkien was no exception.  In fact, one day, he got so bored that on a page that a student had left blank, he wrote what surely seemed like an inconsequential and fairly silly line: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

Little could he know then that he’d just written what was to become one of the best-loved first lines in all of literature.

hobbit coverLike a number of his other books, including Letters from Father Christmas, Roverandom, and Mr. Bliss, The Hobbit started out as a story Tolkien wrote purely for the enjoyment of his children.  But at the encouragement of C. S. Lewis, Tolkien revised it enough to pursue publication, and it was accepted by Allen & Unwin at the recommendation of the editor’s ten-year-old son, Rayner Unwin, who grew up to become Tolkien’s chief publisher.  In announcing the book’s publication in 1937, Allen & Unwin hailed it as “the children’s book of the year,” and C. S. Lewis’ first review states, “Prediction is dangerous; but The Hobbit may well prove a classic.”  Yet apparently, almost no one was quite prepared for how successful The Hobbit would be or what would follow when readers clamored for a sequel—least of all Tolkien himself.


X Men 172

Super Comics: Uncanny X-Men #172 and 173 (1983)

Uncanny_X-Men_Vol_1_172 Let’s go back to the early days of the super-hero movie trend, to the first X-Men movie from 2000. (Spoilers ahead, but it’s been nearly 15 years.)

That movie featured Wolverine and Rogue as our viewpoints characters, and it built a friendship between, which culminated in Wolverine—at great risk to his own health—allowing Rogue to borrow his healing ability so she could recover from life-threatening injuries. I can’t find that scene on YouTube, but this is the music that plays during the moment.

I’m guessing that scene was inspired by the events of Uncanny X-Men #172 and 173 from 1983, which were written by main X-architect Chris Claremont and drawn by Paul Smith. This pair of issues serves a double purpose—to follow up the excellent Wolverine miniseries Claremont had just completed with artist Frank Miller, and to establish Rogue as a bona fide X-Woman. By the way, that Wolverine miniseries influenced aspects of The Wolverine movie from 2013, but that’d be a whole other article.



Literature You Should Know: Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

e30802d90755e019fd179e3452475a6bae0676c9We’ve all had our share of hard winters, and with the latest polar vortex causing record lows as far south as Hawaii, we may be in for another doozy this year.  And even when the weather isn’t cold, shorter days and overcast skies can still take their toll on a person’s spirits, even with holiday cheer to provide light in the darkness.  Imagine, though, a winter so severe that it lasts a full century—and a government so evil as to forbid holidays altogether, on pain of a fate worse than death.  That’s the nightmarish situation in the land of Narnia when Lucy Pevensie stumbles into it from war-ravaged England through a magic wardrobe in C. S. Lewis’ classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Jadis, the White Witch, has usurped the Narnian throne and plunged the country into a magical ice age, in which it’s “always winter, but never Christmas.”  And preventing Father Christmas himself from entering the country isn’t enough.  While Lewis doesn’t reveal much about the laws Jadis has passed (wisely, considering that it’s a children’s book), she does maintain a vast network of spies that includes even trees, and her reaction to stumbling upon a celebration is telling:

“What is the meaning of this?” asked the Witch Queen.  Nobody answered.

“Speak, vermin!” she said again.  “Or do you want my dwarf to find you a tongue with his whip?  What is the meaning of all this gluttony, this waste, this self-indulgence?  Where did you get all these things?”

“Please, your Majesty,” said the Fox, “we were given them.  And if I might make so bold as to drink your Majesty’s very good health—”

“Who gave them to you?” said the Witch.

“F-F-F-Father Christmas,” stammered the Fox.

After a squirrel corroborates the story, the Witch turns the entire party into stone.

But the return of Father Christmas has already proven the prophesied arrival of Lucy and her siblings to be enough to begin destroying the Witch’s power.  And it also heralds the arrival of another visitor long absent from Narnia:  the great Lion, Aslan, Son of the Emperor-over-Sea and King of all Narnia’s creatures.  The Hundred Years of Winter ends with a dramatic shift toward spring as three of the four Pevensie children make their way to the Stone Table to meet Aslan and take their rightful place as the joint human rulers of Narnia.

Still, the end of winter doesn’t mean the end of the Witch.  And she already has a hostage:  Lucy’s brother Edmund, who now regrets having betrayed his siblings to the Witch.  Repentance alone isn’t enough to save him, though, because the Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time, which underlies the very fabric of Narnia, requires that every traitor be slain.  If Edmund goes free, the Deep Magic, like a self-destruct mechanism, will trigger a cataclysm that will completely destroy Narnia.  Yet if Edmund dies, the prophecies regarding the Witch’s death can’t be fulfilled—and the threat of eternal winter and renewed oppression becomes very real.

UnknownNow, if The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has any emphasis aside from the Pevensies’ adventures and growth as characters, it’s on the spiritual elements.  Lewis’ supposal about Aslan’s identity, on which the book and the whole Chronicles of Narnia series hinge, has been both loved and reviled since the book’s publication in 1950.  (Aslan’s not a Christ figure, as would be the case in allegory; he answers the question of what incarnate form Christ would take in a world full of mythical creatures and talking beasts.)  But given the state in which we currently find our society, with hysteria over global warming and efforts to eject Christianity from the public sphere, it’s not hard to imagine certain groups on the Left taking “always winter, never Christmas” as their creed.  Maybe this Christmas is a good time for us to step through the wardrobe ourselves… and take heart at the idea that even when we can’t see spring’s approach, Aslan’s still on the move.

Literature You Should Know: Tolkien’s Father Christmas Letters

tolkien4Writing to Santa is a time-honored tradition among English and American families who celebrate Christmas.  But did Santa ever write you back?  If so, I hope his letters were as entertaining as the correspondence “Father Christmas” carried on for over twenty years with J. R. R. Tolkien’s children, preserved with as much love as shone through their writing and published after Tolkien’s death as The Father Christmas Letters (later revised as Letters from Father Christmas).  Tolkien’s humor, inventiveness, and artistic talent made these letters a wonderful family tradition well worth sharing.

Beginning in 1920, when Tolkien’s eldest son John was only three years old, Tolkien wrote his children a letter from Father Christmas at least once a year—more often in later years, acknowledging receipt of the children’s messages and promising a longer letter at Christmas.  Each letter is itself a work of art, written in a shaky hand to indicate Father Christmas’ great age and usually decorated somewhat in the style of medieval manuscripts.  But more often than not the letter is also accompanied by a drawing or watercolor that illustrated Father Christmas’ adventures at the North Pole, which are described in greater detail in the letters.

7331And such adventures Father Christmas has!  Most involve his friend and helper Karhu, the Great North Polar Bear, who causes all manner of mischief and often adds marginal peanut-gallery comments in a runic-looking hand, with spelling errors that would be completely at home on I Can Has Cheezburger.  Later letters also include continuations by Ilbereth, the Red Elf who becomes Father Christmas’ secretary, and the cast of characters grows to include Snowpeople, other Elves, and the Cave Bear, along with Cave Bear and Polar Bear’s nephews and distant relations.  Usually, the stories are pure slapstick comedy, like Polar Bear falling through the roof or down the stairs or testing the tap for the Rory Bory Aylis and setting off two years’ worth of Northern Lights all at once.  And then there are instances of the characters snarking at each other in the margins, such as when Ilbereth has been talking smack about what Polar Bear eats and Polar Bear calls him “you thinuous elf.

“He means fatuous,” Ilbereth remarks.

No I don’t,” Polar Bear returns, “you are not fat, but thin and silly.

tolkien-letterOccasionally, however, Father Christmas has to deal with a more serious threat:  goblins who live in caves under the North Pole and steal presents.  Cave Bear, Polar Bear, and Father Christmas stumble upon a nest in 1932 quite by accident, and though they drive the goblins out that time, other years see the goblins return in force to try to conquer the North Pole.  One attempt, not coincidentally, comes during 1941; Father Christmas tells Tolkien’s daughter Priscilla, “I expect the Goblins thought that with so much war going on this was a fine chance to recapture the North.”  Other real-life concerns intrude during the Depression and the war, with Father Christmas explaining a shortage of presents several times by saying that he needs more room in his sleigh to deliver food and clothes to families that have none.  On a lighter note, however, after Oxford’s hosting of a flood of evacuees during the Battle of Britain in 1940, Father Christmas writes that the North Pole has also had evacuees—penguins!

These letters provide a fun glimpse at the state of the Tolkien household through the years—changes of address, new additions to the family, children going off to school and considering themselves too old to hang up stockings.  There’s even a brief reference to The Hobbit in 1937!  But more than that, they showcase just how much Tolkien loved his children and used his talents to bring them joy, especially around the holidays.  The smiles they bring the rest of us are merely an added bonus.

Super Comics: Flash #73-79 (1993)

Barry Allen, like many comic book characters, used to be dead. But unlike most others, he stayed dead for over twenty years. Oh, he’s alive and well now—more so than ever, thanks to The Flash television series on the CW. Nevertheless, DC Comics once killed him off, giving him a heroic death in 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths miniseries, and he didn’t return until 2009’s Flash: Rebirth.

unnamed-15During that time, Wally West, the former sidekick Kid Flash, took over as the Flash. Wally was introduced in the late 1950s as the young nephew of Barry’s girlfriend Iris. (Unlike their TV counterparts, Barry and Iris were together from the Flash’s first appearance, and they did not grow up together.) When Barry and Iris eventually married, Barry became not only Wally’s mentor and idol, but his uncle as well.

Wally’s series ran for about 250 issues from 1987 to 2009, and his time as the Flash can be read as a coming-of-age story. He progressed from a self-centered, twenty-year-old kid to a family man and stalwart member of the Justice League of America.

A pivotal chapter in his growth occurred in a storyline called “The Return of Barry Allen” in 1993, which spanned issues #73 to #79 written by Mark Waid and drawn by Greg La Rocque. The story isn’t some good vs. evil struggle, but one with very personal stakes. It’s about the balance between idolizing your hero and becoming your own person, the importance of protecting a legacy, and the dreaded possibility that your role model might not live up to your expectations.

unnamed-2Just as Wally is starting to feel comfortable as the Flash, the man he always saw as “the” Flash seemingly returns from the dead. Barry Allen shows up on his doorstep, alive and well, if a bit disoriented. At first, Wally loves having his uncle back. Sure, he starts to feel a little redundant as the Flash, but that’s a small price to pay. But then Barry’s behavior becomes…erratic. He soon snaps, leaves Wally to die in a hi-tech trap set by a new criminal organization, and announces himself as the one, true Flash. Wally escapes, of course, but he has to process the fact that the man he’s dedicated his life to has turned out to be anything but heroic.

Barry’s super-speed rampage brings him into conflict with former allies. The storyline crosses over into Green Lantern #40 for a Flash vs. GL battle royale. (Whereas the TV series show a friendship between Flash and Arrow, in the comics, Barry had become best friends with a different green super-hero, the Hal Jordan incarnation of Green Lantern—yes, the one we saw in that terrible movie, but Hal’s a much better character in the comics.)

Wally eventually learns it’s not Barry, but an old foe who has gone to extraordinary lengths to emulate him—even convincing himself he was Barry for a time. And now this villain is determined to ruin Barry Allen’s heroic reputation for all time, and only Wally can stop him—provided the younger Flash can get over his subconscious fear of replacing his mentor.

unnamed-16It’s great stuff, one of the best comic book storylines of the early 1990s (which, admittedly, is not saying a lot. Those were dark, dark times for comic readers.)

For fans of the TV show, “The Return of Barry Allen” shows of a glimpse of the hero Barry Allen is destined to become—someone who’s willing to sacrifice himself to save lives, and someone capable of inspiring others to greatness. The “real” Barry may not actually appear in these issues, but his heroic nature defines the story.

Also of note, this storyline features DC Comics’ first Flash in a prominent supporting role. No, Barry wasn’t the first—he’s just the most famous incarnation. Back in 1940, Jay Garrick inhaled some vapors and gained super-speed. He’s an old man in this story, though in excellent shape for his age, and he’s just recently returned to duty. So in one story, you get three generations of Flashes.

Literature You Should Know: Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses”

It’s November, and all writers know what that means:  National Novel Writers Month!  For those not in the know, NaNoWriMo is an informal competition in which people commit to write 50,000 words of a novel over the course of the month.  The end result doesn’t have to be polished in any way—in fact, only word counts are checked to verify a “win”—but the goal is to prompt would-be novelists to stop making excuses and get that first draft done.  (If November’s too busy for you, as it usually is for me, there are other options like Camp NaNo throughout the year.)

James Fenimore Cooper

Aspiring novelists naturally seek out writing advice, and there’s no shortage of advice-giving authors, from Elmore Leonard to Stephen King to Anne Lamott.  Some advice is helpful; some is decidedly not; and for some, your mileage may vary.  Most writing books contain lists of dos and don’ts.  But writers can benefit from detailed analysis of books that fail, or that are wildly popular and/or critically acclaimed despite being objectively bad, just as they can from books that succeed.  While amateur reviews like Mark Reads Twilight can give authors a sense of what the average reader expects from a book, it’s hard to beat the analysis of another author.  And that’s exactly what Mark Twain provides by skewering James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales in his 1895 essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”

Now, in discussing a book written in an earlier era, a reviewer has to be careful not to judge by present-day standards that didn’t apply at the time.  That’s not what Twain does here, aside from one remark about dialogue style.  Rather, he begins with eighteen rules for good writing, from “a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere” to “Use the right word, not its second cousin,” and then shows

Mark Twain
Mark Twain

with specific examples how these rules are violated.  Given his experience as a Mississippi riverboat pilot, for example, Twain points out ways in which Cooper’s descriptions of a river in The Deerslayer defy logic and the number of ridiculous coincidences and improbabilities in the behavior of Indians attempting to attack a barge on said river that strain credulity to the breaking point.  Six men hiding in a sapling is only the beginning of the mess.

Other outrageous passages Twain cites are Natty Bumppo’s ability to trace a cannonball’s trajectory backward through dense fog to find a fort (“Isn’t it a daisy?” Twain snarks) and his ability in The Pathfinder to hit an unpainted nail with a flintlock rifle while standing the length of a football field away from it.  “Cooper seldom saw anything correctly,” says Twain. “He saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly.”  And then there are major inconsistencies in the characters’ diction, which stand out all the more for the overall melodramatic style, and a list of thirty-one word usage errors culled from a six-page section of The Deerslayer.  Clearly, in Twain’s estimation, Cooper needed a much better editor!  And to the critics who hailed The Deerslayer as a work of art, Twain replies in conclusion:

A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are – oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.

108195Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that.

Granted, any first-time author can fall into the same errors, especially those who follow models like Twilight.  But whether you apply it from the first draft or only in the revision stage, Twain’s advice is important.  What Tolkien later called “the inner consistency of reality,” crucial to keeping the reader engaged, depends not only on the plausibility of the setting and plot but also on the details like believable dialogue and correct word usage.  You have to learn the rules before you can break them—and some rules should never be broken.

Super Comics: The Avengers #19-22 (1999)

Welcome to Super Comics, where we take a look at the books that inspired the movies and TV shows. And where better to start than a great Avengers storyline featuring the titular villain of the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron film?

unnamed-11Avengers stories are at their best when the stakes are both huge and personal, and that’s what we get in the “Ultron Unlimited” storyline that ran in The Avengers (vol. 3) #19-22 in 1999, written by Kurt Busiek and drawn by George Perez—two top, veteran talents in the comics industry.

The cast includes a few Avengers moviegoers have already met—Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor—as well as some they’re about to meet—the Scarlet Witch and Vision—and even a couple whom they might meet versions of in the upcoming Ant-Man movie—Hank Pym and the Wasp. The Black Panther, who’s got a film in the works, rejoins the team for this adventure. And then there’s Wonder Man, who filmmakers will probably get around to eventually if the super-hero trend keeps up long enough; Firestar, who ‘80s kids might remember from the Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends cartoon; and Justice, who…well, they can’t all be in the pictures, can they?

In this storyline, Ultron is taking another shot at his usual goal of replacing organic life with robotic life. But this time includes some twists. He actually does destroy an entire small country as his opening salvo, which gives tremendous gravity to the proceedings. And he kidnaps his “family” so that he can use their brainwaves to generate unique personalities for the robotic life he wants to take over the world.

unnamed-12This story draws on the 35-plus years of Avengers continuity that comes before it, something the movies simply don’t have time to do. While it enriches the overall experience, it also bogs down some parts with exposition so the newer readers aren’t lost.

In the comics, Ultron was created by Hank Pym, who began his super-heroic career as Ant-Man, is most often identified as Giant-Man, and has even called himself Yellow Jacket at times. It looks like Tony Stark will create Ultron in the movie series, which is a logical revision. Pym’s scientific specialties were always biochemistry, insects, and size-changing. Creating artificial intelligence was a significant deviation.

In fact, in this storyline, Iron Man says, “Ultron always hits close to home for me, Firestar. He represents the dark side of technology, the soulless coldness of it—and even though it was Henry Pym who first built him, he always reminds me of the times my armor’s been used to kill others—and what a danger I can be.”

Then again, Pym has often been portrayed as an insecure, sometimes even unstable character trying to prove himself, so it’s not entirely out of left field in the grand scope of comics continuity. But writer/director Joss Whedon is correct not to be a purist in this instance.

unnamed-13Ultron, as he explicitly points out here, has always been something of a “family man,” and he is connected to an impressive family tree. In “Ultron Unlimited,” he kidnaps his “father,” Pym; his “mother,” the Wasp, who at this point is Pym’s ex-wife; his “son,” the Vision, whom he programmed with the brainwaves of the then-deceased Wonder Man, who’s alive again and also gets kidnapped; his “daughter-in-law,” the Scarlet Witch, who was married to the Vision for a while, though they’re long since divorced here; and the villainous Grim Reaper, the brother of Wonder Man.

That’s a family tree that took many years of comics to build. This story is even missing a couple of notable “relatives,” including Scarlet Witch’s brother Quicksilver, and the robotic Jocasta, whom Ultron created as a wife for himself by programming the Wasp’s brainwaves into her.

unnamed-14This storyline can be read by tracking down the individual issues or the out-of-print trade paperback Ultron Unlimited. Your best bet, however, is probably the Avengers Assemble vol. 2 trade paperback, which includes several other issues that come before (just make sure it’s written by Kurt Busiek. There’s another Avengers Assemble series by another writer, which I haven’t read). You can also subscribe to Marvel Unlimited’s digital library, which has this as well as most, if not all, of the earlier storylines it references.

Busiek’s entire run is full of good, solid super-heroic stories that balance character and action, and Perez’s art in the first couple of years is a treat. These guys are two of the best in the business, and it shows in “Ultron Unlimited.”

Literature You Should Know: Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus

Oscar_Taveras_2013As I write this morning, the baseball world is still in shock over the sudden death of 22-year-old Cardinals rookie Oscar Taveras and his 18-year-old girlfriend, Edilia Arvelo, due to a car accident in the Dominican Republic.  Such a loss would be heartbreaking enough even without the baseball connection; they were young, and their families must be devastated.  From all accounts, Taveras was a joyful, friendly guy, and the feature his teammates most recall about him was his smile.  But Taveras had been one of the Cardinals’ top prospects since he was 16 and had the potential to become one of the greats.  Of his four career home runs over eighty games, his first came in his second major-league at-bat, and the last was a game-tying pinch hit in Game 2 of the NLCS.  So it’s inevitable that there has been, and will continue to be, a lot of mourning over a career that might have been.

In some ways, such talk reminds me of Christopher Marlowe, whose career was likewise cut short when he was murdered in 1593 at the age of 29.  His youth and unconventional views make him a romantically tragic figure four centuries later (as Swinburne’s gushing biography from the 1910 Encyclopedia Britannica amply demonstrates).  And to this day, critics speculate that Marlowe could have become an even greater dramatist than Shakespeare and lament the works he never wrote.

marlowePerhaps it’s fitting, then, that Marlowe’s best known for his 1588 masterpiece, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, first printed in 1604.  The Faust legend had begun forming forty years earlier, loosely based on the exploits of a real German con artist, Johannes Faust, who had become infamous in the early decades of the 16th century.  Later writers, from Goethe to Dorothy Sayers, each put their own spin on the story, but Marlowe’s, coming only a year after the publication of the original prose version of the tale, is closest to that version both in details and in message.

The tragedy of Faustus is, in many ways, the exact opposite of the tragedy of Marlowe.  When the play opens, Faustus has already had a long and distinguished career, but after mastering all the arts, he’s bored and believes he has yet to reach his full potential.  So he conjures the demon Mephistopheles and eventually agrees to sell his soul to the Devil in exchange for twenty-four years of access to all types of arcane knowledge, power, wealth, and the services of Mephistopheles.  He has to sign the contract in his own blood, but his blood refuses to flow for such a purpose until Mephistopheles warms it with hellfire.  Off and on throughout the play, Faustus considers repenting, but appeals to his pride and greed invariably turn him back to his downward spiral, until at last his time runs out and the demons come to take him to Hell.

faustuswoodcutYet the displays of Faustus’ power that Marlowe shows on stage are hardly the stuff of nightmarish necromancy or of the grand dreams of empire that drive Faustus to embrace sorcery.  Rather, once the bargain is struck, Faustus seems more interested in feasting, carousing, and enjoying popularity with nobles and students alike.  He plays childish pranks on the Pope and various rubes who cross his will, conjures ghosts like Alexander the Great purely for the spectacle, takes Helen of Troy as his lover, and has Mephistopheles bring a pregnant duchess a plate of out-of-season fruit.  It doesn’t seem like the kind of life and power that would be worth selling your soul for—and that’s the point.  Whatever Marlowe himself thought on the matter, the story of Faustus has always hinged on one simple question:  “What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world but lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36).

The loss of young talents like Oscar Taveras is a terrible tragedy, especially when the death is a true accident, and we have every reason to mourn.  But sometimes high hopes are disappointed when a prospect’s potential is never quite achieved—and sometimes those hopes put pressure on young people that drives them into Faustian bargains of their own.  We can’t know what might have become of these lives cut too short.  And maybe, in the end, that’s a mercy.

Literature You Should Know: Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”

Jonathan Swift
Jonathan Swift

A young friend of mine got suckered by the National Report article claiming that a small Texas town had been quarantined due to Ebola (safe link to Snopes).  Over at Ace of Spades, Ace had just been bemoaning what he calls the Viral mentality, which seems to me to be a 21st-century hybrid of the rumor mill and mass hysteria.  Part of the problem, though, is the mistaken sense that “satire” means making up articles out of whole cloth with just enough detail to be plausible and thereby trigger the Viral mentality’s process.  Sometimes the intent is to scare, sometimes to defraud, and sometimes just to give the authors a reason to point and laugh at all the rubes falling for their hoax.  But as my friend’s dad pointed out, that’s not satire, and it’s about time we relearned the meaning of the word.

Enter Jonathan Swift, whom Alan Jacobs once proposed as a patron saint against stupidity.  Most people know his name from Gulliver’s Travels, which is both a classic and a brilliant satire and probably deserves a post of its own.  For a master class in how to write non-fiction satire, however, it’s hard to beat “A Modest Proposal.”

Now, it’s helpful to remember the standard form of a problem-solution essay that you should have learned either in high school or in college freshman comp:

  1. Identify a problem and define and describe it in enough detail to convince the reader that it is a problem that needs to be solved.

  2. Propose a solution, explaining what it is, how it addresses the problem, and why it will work.

  3. Present objections to the solution and answer them fairly.

5206937The problem Swift identifies in “A Modest Proposal” was very real.  At the time, the Irish were suffering heavily under English rule, and soul-crushing poverty was rampant in Ireland.  But knowing how often straightforward argument had already failed to convince the absentee English landlords to change their ways, Swift turns the form on its ear at the beginning of the solution section and makes a statement so outlandish, so outrageous, so over-the-top that only Hannibal Lecter could approve:

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.

Yes, that’s the modest proposal:  Eat the Irish.

Swift sets forth the merits of the idea in horrifyingly hilarious detail, with plenty of zingers thrown in for good measure.  For example, after suggesting probable weights for prime Irish child, he remarks, “I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.”  But the cumulative effect, for those who don’t catch the joke early on, is shock and horror and the growing sense that Swift can’t possibly be serious (can he?).

dorc3a9-a-modest-proposalAnd then, in the reply to objections, Swift springs his trap.  “Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients,” he says—and proceeds to list his real recommendations, ranging from taxes on absentee landlords to what William Wilberforce would later call “the reformation of manners.”  Swift then closes this section by repeating his admonition that no one should offer such options “till he hath at least some glimpse of hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them into practice.”  By pretending to dismiss these ideas as wishful thinking and renewing his recommendation of a more drastic and barbaric solution, Swift prompts the reader to reconsider how quickly the aristocracy had brushed aside truly ethical and humane reforms as folly.

Granted, as Swift surely knew and as Mark Twain would lament 150 years later, it’s nearly impossible to write a satire that someone won’t mistake as being serious.  On the one hand, when we first read this essay in high school, I was the only person in the class who laughed immediately instead of being scandalized.  On the other hand, I’m quite sure there are so-called progressives, including some who masquerade as ethicists, who would happily use the essay as an instruction manual.  Even so, “A Modest Proposal” can remind us that true satire isn’t just mockery or clickbaiting for its own sake.  A real satirist has a serious purpose in mind that informs the humor at every turn.

Literature You Should Know: Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde

It’s a mistake to call Geoffrey Chaucer a (proto-)feminist, if only because doing so would tend to align him with ideas about women’s role in society that would never have occurred to even the most liberal medieval writer.  But there’s no mistaking where his sympathies lie in Troilus and Criseyde, his retelling of a classical story that he explicitly dedicates to women who don’t have a voice.  While medieval chaucerhoccleveconvention prevents him from changing the most important points of the plot, Chaucer rejects the tendency of every other version—later including Shakespeare’s—to make Criseyde the villain of the piece.  Instead, he challenges readers to rethink their assumptions about an otherwise strong woman caught in a no-win situation with no power to decide her own fate.

Chaucer first introduces the reader to Criseyde, the most beautiful woman in Troy, and then to Troilus, son of King Priam and a jerk who constantly makes fun of lovers.  Finally, Eros gets mad and shoots Troilus just as he spies Criseyde at a public celebration.  She sees him staring at her and frowns, which sends him into paroxysms of lovesick silliness.

But Criseyde is a widow in a society with strict standards of decorum and in which women have no rights and few freedoms.  Worse, her father is a traitor recently banished from Troy for aiding the Greeks, and all his kin are sentenced to death; only her plea to Hector gains her clemency.  Though she cherishes what independence she has, her livelihood is entirely dependent on the protection of her uncle Pandarus, who is a member of the royal household.

Pandarus is also a master manipulator who will stop at nothing to stay on Troilus’ good side.  And if that means bullying Criseyde into an affair with the prince, he has zero qualms about doing so.

483-Troilus-and-Criseyde-II-In-May-picture-q75-500x375Chaucer hints at this ruthlessness toward the end of Book II, when Pandarus takes Criseyde a letter from Troilus.  She tries to refuse it, but he brushes off her objections and stuffs the letter down the front of her dress.  When she succumbs to his insistence that she reply, Troilus pressures Pandarus into pushing the courtship even further… until at last, one dark and stormy night, Pandarus all but throws them into bed together and sleeps outside the door to ensure the tryst is both secret and successful. Criseyde curses Pandarus the next morning for putting her in this position, but she has finally convinced herself that she’s in love with Troilus.

Then, during a prisoner exchange in Book IV, Criseyde’s father asks Agamemnon to trade Antenor for her.  Hector objects that Criseyde’s not a prisoner, but popular opinion persuades Priam to agree to the proposal.  Troilus is understandably distraught, but he rejects Pandarus’ advice to move on or to rape Criseyde, declaring (for once) that he won’t do anything against her wishes.  She likewise rejects any option other than going through with the exchange and escaping back to Troy as soon as she can.  Both lovers pledge to remain true to each other while they’re apart.

chaucercambridgeBut Criseyde’s father prevents her from leaving camp to meet Troilus, and Diomedes decides to win her love for himself, offering her friendship and service at first.  He doesn’t press when she tells him she can’t consider accepting a Greek lover, although he does continue to court her.  And while Chaucer argues that she’s never really in love with Diomedes, he has to concede that she does eventually begin to favor Diomedes with gifts that had belonged to Troilus.

Yet when Troilus learns of Criseyde’s apparent unfaithfulness and Pandarus disavows her, Chaucer states that he’s writing this poem “most for wommen that bitraysed be / Through false folk.”  And it’s not hard to see why.  Hector and Diomedes appear to be the only men in Criseyde’s life who have any desire to look after her best interests rather than their own, and Pandarus, in particular, betrays her trust to coerce her into a relationship based solely on a prince’s lust.  Even today, in the age of #NotAllMen and #YesAllWomen, Chaucer’s take on this story can prompt useful discussion about situations where true consent becomes impossible.

This Again? Defending Comics Against Censorship

Last week was the American Library Association’s annual “Banned Books Week”, which is always a good time to reflect on the state of literary censorship in America, but this year focused specifically on one of my favorite subjects: comic books.
unnamedReasonTV put out a great short interview with Charles Brownstein, the head of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund that they shot at the San Diego Comic Con. The whole interview is worth a look, but the key takeaway is that comic books are, today, just as they were in the early years of their existence, among the most censored and challenged forms of expression. Two comic book series, the bizarre and often hilarious fantasy “Bone” by Jeff Smith, and of all things, “Captain Underpants” by Dav Pilkey, which actually won a Disney Adventures Kid’s Choice award in 2006, are among theg the top 10 most challenged books.

To quote Mr. Brownstein, “The books kids are reading in their leisure hours are the objects of censorship.”
Sadly, this is hardly new.
Moralizing busybodies have been censoring expression and ruining everything good and fun in the world in the name of protecting “the children” for a long, long time. In America, all it took to shut down comic publishing was one lousy book by an unscrupulous psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham.
In the 1950s, superheroes weren’t what they are today, and the most popular comic books (and movies) were horror and crime titles that featured monsters and murder mystery detective stories. Wertham’s book, “Seduction of the Innocent,” published in 1954, claimed that the themes of violence, death, fantasy, and even (imagined) homosexuality in comic books were corrupting the good nature of America’s youth. In support of this theory, he trotted out evidence compiled from his own clinical research which was since found to have been likely falsified and misrepresented.
To quote the NY Times, following their write-up of the research paper that exposed Wertham’s deception:

“‘Seduction of the Innocent’ was released to a public already teeming with anti-comics sentiment, and Wertham was embraced by millions of citizens who feared for America’s moral sanctity; he even testified in televised hearings.

Yet according to Dr. [Carol L.] Tilley, he may have exaggerated the number of youths he worked with at the low-cost mental-health clinic he established in Harlem, who might have totaled in the hundreds instead of the ‘many thousands’ he claimed. Dr. Tilley said he misstated their ages, combined quotations taken from many children to appear as if they came from one speaker and attributed remarks said by a single speaker to larger groups.”

But, ironically perhaps, it was “Seduction of the Innocent” that had the truly profound impact on American culture, as it provided all the ammunition needed for petty tyrants and moral scolds who pushed the US Government to do something about all those pernicious comic books.
For the children, of course.
unnamed-1Facing a wave of attacks from the government, the comic book industry took a cue from the Motion Picture Association of America, and created its own preemptive censorship board known as the Comics Code Authority. The Comics Code established in 1954 laid out 19 criteria that comic books had to abide by. They include things like, “Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority,” and “Inclusion of stories dealing with evil shall be used or shall be published only where the intent is to illustrate a moral issue and in no case shall evil be presented alluringly, nor so as to injure the sensibilities of the reader.”
Naturally, this had a severe chilling effect on comic book publishing. Comic book sales plummeted. According to penciler/inker Joe Sinnott of Marvel Comics (Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, Inhumans, The Avengers) by 1958, the industry had suffered so much that rates for the writers and artists had been cut in half. The hugely successful horror and mystery genre comics were gone, and what remained endured a period of creative stagnation while publishers figured out how to work within the new rules. Eventually, some independent publishers began ignoring the Code and produced some darker stories, but without the Comics Code Authority seal of approval, those books would never see the light of day on store shelves.
It wasn’t until 2001 that Marvel Comics finally abandoned the code, and DC continued to abide by it until just 4 years ago in 2010.
unnamed-2It’s important to understand here that while it was technically the industry “self-censoring”, it did so purely as a result of repeated threats from a government which had by that point a well-established history of censoring “undesireable” speech in numerous forms – a government, it should be remembered, that is legally constrained by the 1st Amendment, which expressly prohibits the creation of laws abridging the freedom of individual speech, or of the press.
Censorship is clearly alive and well in America. Even today, the United States is ranked a shocking 46th place on Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, our public schools and libraries routinely ban books, and government-funded colleges severely limit speech on campus. Just a few years ago, we saw a hotly controversial Supreme Court case (“Citizens United”) to decide whether or not it was ok for the government to restrict the promotion and distribution of a documentary film simply because it was unfavorable to a prominent and powerful politician (Hillary Clinton) during an election year.
unnamed-3The restrictions on comic books, films, and other entertainment media are one small piece of a very scary picture where the government of the country which is supposed to be the beacon of freedom for the rest of the world is continually grabbing more and more authority to control what people say. A world where ideas and art cannot be shared if a vocal minority of nannies deems those ideas “unsuitable” is a world headed for collapse.
It’s good to know there are people like Charles Brownstein out there standing up for free speech.

Literature You Should Know: The Works of John Donne

I mentioned Shakespeare’s sonnets last time, but it’s impossible to discuss Renaissance poetry without touching on the Metaphysical Poets, chief of whom was John Donne.  Enlightenment figures like Samuel Johnson disdained Donne’s tendency to bring philosophical topics into love poetry, but Samuel Taylor johndColeridge and Charles Lamb revived his reputation among the Romantics.  Contemporary Thomas Carew went so far as to claim in an elegy that English poetry had died with Donne because no other poet would dare achieve the same level of originality and creativity.  Nor was Donne renowned only for his poetry.  After he was named a Royal Chaplain and later Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, he became known as one of the greatest preachers of his day.  And Meditation 17 from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (“No man is an island, entire of itself”) has inspired writers from Ernest Hemingway to Brad Bird.

No, really.  Watch The Incredibles with the subtitles on and pay attention to the name of Syndrome’s hideout.  You’ll laugh.

What’s startling about Donne, however, is sometimes where his works don’t show up when they are expected.  Take, for example, one of the best character introductions in television history, from the fifth season of Supernatural:

I cannot speak highly enough of Julian Richings’ portrayal of Death.  He’s regal.  He’s powerful.  He’s old.  He’s composed.  He doesn’t get angry, though he will get snarky.  He’s seen it all and has a taste for Chicago-style pizza and fried pickles.

And yet I keep waiting for someone like Sam Winchester to look him in the eye and say:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those, whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy picture be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou’rt slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

For Death is proud in Supernatural.  He claims that neither he nor God can remember which of them is older and that, once all other life has reached its natural end, he will eventually reap God.  Gnostic as it sounds, that may be true in that universe, given the number of other heresies that have made their way into the show’s underlying theology.  But so far, the viewer has only Death’s word for it—and in a universe as riddled with unreliable narrators as Supernatural’s is, one character’s word counts for very little.  Yet to date, not even Sam and Bobby, the show’s most scholarly characters, have thrown Holy Sonnet X at Death, and I’m not sure why.

Even so, whether a Donne quote turns up where you least expect it or doesn’t where you most expect it, his poetry and prose alike give us important ideas to ponder as well as examples of what a skilled author can do with the English language.  And whatever you think of Donne’s philosophy and theology, his writings may inspire you to try to prove Carew wrong.  English poetry was not done for with Donne’s death, any more than his soul was.

Literature You Should Know: The Works of William Shakespeare

Remember that “hopeless lute player” I mentioned last time?*

Did you know he had a direct effect on the composition of The Lord of the Rings?

Mathew Baynton and the cast of BILL

In “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien gives Macbeth as an example of the incompatibility between fantasy and staged drama and argues that it’s “a work by a playwright who ought, at least on this occasion, to have written a story, if he had the skill or patience for that art.”  He specifically mentions the Weird Sisters there, but he confesses in a letter to W. H. Auden that he felt “bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of ‘Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill,’” and though he never says so that I’ve found, I suspect he also felt let down by the use of the idea that “no man of woman born” could harm Macbeth.  (SPOILER: MacDuff, who was delivered by C-section, orders his men to hide in Birnam Wood and disguise themselves as trees before attacking Dunsinane.)  Thus, in The Two Towers, Tolkien shows Fangorn Forest—the trees themselves—marching on Isengard, and though it’s said that no living man can kill the Witch-king of Angmar, he meets his fate in The Return of the King at the hands of Merry and Éowyn.

The stars of BILL (L to R): Laurence Rickard, Simon Farnaby, Mathew Baynton as Bill Shakespeare, Martha Howe-Douglas as Anne Hathaway, Ben Willbond as King Philip II, Jim Howick


Love him or hate him, you need to know Shakespeare’s works simply because their influence on the English language and on Western culture as a whole is incalculable.  For example, no less a playwright than Friedrich Schiller adapted Macbeth for the German stage, and Hamlet and Much Ado about Nothing have even been translated into Klingon.  Cinematic and television versions abound; IMDb lists over a thousand, ranging from an 1898 short of Macbeth to Joss Whedon’s version of Much Ado, with dozens more in various stages of development and production, and that’s not counting loose adaptations like The Lion King, Kiss Me, Kate, and McLintock!  (My current favorite is the recent Royal Shakespeare Company rendition of Hamlet with David Tennant and Sir Patrick Stewart.)  And then there are commonplace phrases that originate from Shakespeare’s plays.  “To be or not to be” is obvious, of course, but “sound and fury signifying nothing,” “all the world’s a stage,” “brave new world,” and many, many more show up in everyday conversation without our even realizing where they came from.

Then there are the sonnets, a form Shakespeare made uniquely his own.  Many of these have also become commonplaces—“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments,” “That time of year thou mayest in me behold,” and more—but they’ve also served as a model for sonneteers ever since.  There’s even a Tumblr account dedicated to recasting pop songs as Shakespearean sonnets!

Not too bad for a 450-year-old “upstart crow,” eh?

* The Bill Facebook team tells me a preview should be out sometime around Christmas.