man thurs

Literature You Should Know: Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday

We’ve been hearing for years–decades, really–that art must be transgressive, deliberately breaking rules and flaunting that defiance in the face of stuffy conventionalism. Of course, such transgressiveness must align with standard liberal notions of “tolerance”; one need look no further than the furore over Pamela Gellar’s Draw Mohammed art contest and the college student who dared to lecture Jerry Seinfeld* on the nature of humor to find out that even those who say there are no rules insist that everyone else follow the rules they impose (and keep changing… it’s rather like Calvinball). Conversely, as discussed here this spring, a number of conservative artists find such a view repulsive. So it might come as no surprise to encounter the following exchange between two poets:

“I tell you,” went on Syme with passion, “that every time a train comes in I feel that it has broken past batteries of besiegers, and that man has won a battle against chaos. You say contemptuously that when one has left Sloane Square one must come to Victoria. I say that one might do a thousand things instead, and that whenever I really come there I have the sense of hairbreadth escape. And when I hear the guard shout out the word ‘Victoria,’ it is not an unmeaning word. It is to me the cry of a herald announcing conquest. It is to me indeed ‘Victoria’; it is the victory of Adam.”

gkc2001largeGregory wagged his heavy, red head with a slow and sad smile.

“And even then,” he said, “we poets always ask the question, ‘And what is Victoria now that you have got there?’ You think Victoria is like the New Jerusalem. We know that the New Jerusalem will only be like Victoria. Yes, the poet will be discontented even in the streets of heaven. The poet is always in revolt.”

“There again,” said Syme irritably, “what is there poetical about being in revolt? You might as well say that it is poetical to be sea‑sick. Being sick is a revolt. Both being sick and being rebellious may be the wholesome thing on certain desperate occasions; but I’m hanged if I can see why they are poetical. Revolt in the abstract is—revolting. It’s mere vomiting. [. . .] It is things going right,” he cried, “that is poetical! Our digestions, for instance, going sacredly and silently right, that is the foundation of all poetry. Yes, the most poetical thing, more poetical than the flowers, more poetical than the stars—the most poetical thing in the world is not being sick.”

“Really,” said Gregory superciliously, “the examples you choose—”

“I beg your pardon,” said Syme grimly, “I forgot we had abolished all conventions.”

What may surprise you is that this exchange was written by G. K. Chesterton… in 1908.



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.


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.



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.

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.

Literature You Should Know: Take Me Out to the Ballgame!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, when jerseys and caps are the height of fashion, hot dogs haut cuisine, and peanuts and popcorn the staples of diet, when the crisp autumn air bears colorful leaves and the roar of the crowd as the umpire cries, “Play ball!”

Yes, my friends, it’s time once again for OCTOBER BASEBALL!

After clinching the NLDS yesterday, it remains to be seen whether my beloved Cardinals will get their chance for a twelfth World Series win this year.  But given an assertion made by one of my former creative writing professors that every American poet has at least one baseball poem, I figured it was time to take a quick look at some of my favorite celebrations of the Great American Pastime.

Don’t think ladies should be writing about baseball?  Let me introduce you to a venerable young lady by the name of Katie Casey:

And speaking of Caseys….

Finally, who could forget—well, I don’t know, but probably not; they’re both pretty reliable infielders—

So what are some of your favorites?

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.

Literature You Should Know: Frisch’s Biedermann und die Brandstifter

1132279How could free people willingly subject themselves to a monstrous tyranny?  That’s the question Swiss author Max Frisch tries to answer in his 1958 play Biedermann und die Brandstifter (translated variously as The Arsonists, The Firebugs, and The Fire Raisers).  A grotesque reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor’s novels, Biedermann bears the subtitle, “A Morality Play without a Moral.”  And in many respects, it does what it says on the box.  Frisch intended the story as an allegory of how the Nazis came to power in Germany, but it functions just as well on a literal level, and even the allegorical level has applications far beyond its post-war setting.

The play’s protagonist is Gottlieb Biedermann, a middle-aged CEO who could easily be described with The Kinks’ “A Well-Respected Man.”  He makes cynical business decisions, such as downsizing an impoverished scientist whose hair tonic (of dubious worth) his company manufactures, and talks tough about an ongoing wave of arson attacks.  Yet he and his wife Babette pride themselves on being modern, open-minded, and nice; Biedermann even insists to the maid that he’s not a monster, despite what the inventor’s ailing wife claims.

Max-FrischBiedermann’s bluster falls flat, however, when a homeless former heavyweight wrestler named Josef Schmitz politely forces his way into Biedermann’s house and asks permission to spend the night.  Even though Biedermann has just read a newspaper article stating that the arsonists’ MO always begins this way, he’s too terrified that Schmitz will hurt him—or worse, think ill of him—to throw Schmitz out or call the police.  Schmitz even gets material for emotional blackmail when the inventor asks to see Biedermann and Biedermann tells him either to sue or to kill himself.  Using a mixture of sentimentality, flattery, and appeal for trust, Schmitz manipulates Biedermann into letting him sleep in the attic and hiding the fact from Babette.

But Schmitz is one half of the firebug team, and his arrival isn’t simply a search for room and board.  It’s a scouting mission.

As the play continues, the Biedermanns repeatedly try to work up the courage to take back their lives, only to fail at the last moment and be pulled further into the machinations of Schmitz and his partner in crime, a sophisticated former head waiter named Wilhelm Eisenring.  In one scene, for example, Biedermann goes to the attic to complain about the ruckus Schmitz had made the night before but is shocked by Eisenring’s arrival and dumbfounded by the discovery that the pair has packed the attic to the rafters with drums of gasoline.  They even admit openly that they’re arsonists, but Biedermann can’t bring himself to believe that they’re telling the truth.  And when a policeman turns up to inform Biedermann that the inventor has indeed committed suicide, Biedermann loses his nerve and lies about who and what his attic holds.  As Eisenring tells him later, “A joke is the third best disguise. The second best: sentimentality…. But the best and safest disguise, I find, is always the utter, naked truth. It’s funny. Nobody believes that.”

8641098486_4b84b2846fThe local fire department serves throughout the play as a chorus, commenting on the action and even breaking with classical convention to speak directly to Biedermann and warn him of his danger. Despite the ominous tone of their contributions, however, their point is that the entirely foreseeable end of the play is also entirely evitable.  Even when Biedermann has to admit his suspicions to himself and to the audience, he clings to the desperate false hope that if he just stays on the firebugs’ good side, they’ll spare him. But then he turns the tables on the audience at the end of his soliloquy by asking, “What would you have done, dammitall, if you were in my place? And when?”

Biedermann’s willful blindness and frantic attempts at appeasement, while comical, also prove his undoing.  Yet by refusing to have the chorus state an explicit moral to the story, Frisch invites the audience to give Biedermann’s question serious thought and explore its applications.  On a personal level, are we too worried about being nice to protect ourselves against criminals?  In domestic politics and foreign policy, does fear of popular opinion keep us from doing the right thing?  But if we accept that, as Alfred says in The Dark Knight, “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” how do we stop them in a way that’s both just and merciful?  Frisch doesn’t offer any easy answers—but it’s a conversation every generation needs to have.

Literature You Should Know: Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov

4934An adequate summary of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is far beyond the scope of this post.  There are too many plots, subplots, side plots, twists, and turns, too many characters with a long list of nicknames, and even—I must confess—parts that I, as a 21st-century American and forensic science nerd, simply couldn’t get through.  (The fault is mine, not the book’s.)  Rather than giving an overview of the whole book, therefore, I want to focus on one of its many themes, presented in a single recurring quote:  “If there is no God, everything is permissible.”

Middle brother Ivan Karamazov, an intellectual cleric having a crisis of faith, wrestles with this idea throughout the novel.  He discusses his philosophical objections to belief in God and the afterlife with anyone who will listen, primarily with tender-hearted youngest brother Alyosha and the family’s epileptic cook Smerdyakov.  Alyosha’s only answer to Ivan is love, with the acknowledgment that some questions can’t be answered by anyone but Jesus.  Ivan counters that such a response doesn’t resolve his doubts.  And Alyosha, in turn, briefly experiences his own crisis of faith and runs away from his monastery when reality doesn’t meet his expectations—only to be shocked back to faith when he discovers he’s misjudged the town prostitute as well.

Smerdyakov, on the other hand, readily agrees with everything Ivan has to say.  He’s not interested in philosophy as an intellectual exercise, however.  He sees far more practical applications for Ivan’s thesis.  The child of a mentally handicapped woman allegedly raped by patriarch Fyodor Karamazov, Smerdyakov is already notorious for torturing cats and similar bad behavior.  But then Ivan leaves town, and eldest brother Dmitri has a violent argument with Fyodor and strikes a servant with a pestle on his way out of the house.  Sensing an opportunity, Smerdyakov graduates to murder.  Not only does he batter drunken, abusive Fyodor to death, he does so with the pestle Dmitri has left behind and steals the money that was the subject of the argument, effectively framing Dmitri with circumstantial evidence.  When Ivan confronts him, Smerdyakov confesses his crimes but argues that Ivan shares the culpability, both for leaving the scene of a murder Ivan suspected might occur and for giving him the moral justification for the act:

If there is no God, everything is permissible.

Smerdyakov then kills himself, not out of remorse or fear of being apprehended as the real murderer, but because he can.  And thus the frame is complete.

c6a4468caefdff2ae99c2439b2932ee0Already fighting a fever and crippled with guilt over seeing the logical, practical consequences of his philosophy, Ivan suffers a major psychotic break.  Alyosha nurses him through the night, but when Ivan finally appears at Dmitri’s trial the next day, he’s so incoherent that even his revelations of the truth are dismissed out of hand.  Without another witness to confirm any of what Ivan says, the peasant jury convicts Dmitri, and the judge sentences him to twenty years in Siberia.  Ivan has already arranged for Dmitri to escape to America, and he tells Alyosha he could never kill himself; but his repentance has come too late and at the cost of his health and sanity.

In this storyline as in the rest of the novel, Dostoevsky is careful not to give any one character the last word or to present any one perspective as definitively right.  Even Ivan’s fate is left ambiguous in the epilogue.  Instead, by structuring the book as an interwoven group of dialogues, Dostoevsky leaves topics like this one open for the reader to ponder, allowing each of us to form our own opinions… and grapple with their ramifications.

Literature You Should Know: Browning’s The Ring and the Book

867406Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon is widely regarded as the quintessential cinematic study in perception.  But ninety years earlier, Robert Browning found fodder for a similar study in the records of a real-life Italian murder trial.  Knowing a good story when he saw one, Browning decided to turn it into a group of his famous dramatic monologues.  The result is The Ring and the Book, a twelve-book epic that explores not only questions of truth and subjectivity but also of human depravity and the mercy of unflinching justice.

Certain facts of the case were never in dispute.  In 1693, Guido Franceschini of Arezzo, an impoverished, middle-aged nobleman, married 13-year-old Pompilia Comparini, the only child and heir of an elderly upper-middle-class Roman couple.  Accusations of abuse abounded from the beginning, worsened by the behavior of Pompilia’s… alleged parents.  In truth, Violante Comparini had illegally adopted Pompilia, a prostitute’s daughter, and manufactured a miracle to trick her husband.  Now they renounced the fraud and tried to reclaim Pompilia’s dowry, and lawsuit after lawsuit followed.  Then, in 1697, Pompilia ran away with a young cleric, Giuseppe Caponsacchi.  Guido claimed they were having an affair; both Pompilia and 432px-Robert_Browning_by_Herbert_Rose_Barraud_c1888Caponsacchi denied it.  The court sent Pompilia to a convent in Rome until her health failed a few months later, then allowed her to return to the Comparinis’ house.  By December, however, the reason for Pompilia’s flight and breakdown became clear:  she was pregnant.  The Comparinis arranged for friends to hide the baby, fearing Guido’s reaction.  And on the night of January 2, 1698, Guido and three accomplices broke into the Comparini villa, killed the Comparinis, and fatally wounded Pompilia.  The attackers were arrested later that night, caught literally red-handed.

The story is thus less whodunit than whydunit.  Guido pled that he’d acted within his rights as a husband to kill his unfaithful wife.  But Caponsacchi still swore that Pompilia wasn’t unfaithful; she’d begged his help to escape her abusive marriage, he claimed, and Guido had framed them with forged love letters.  And Pompilia lingered for four days, ample time to give her own deposition confirming Caponsacchi’s.  The court therefore convicted Guido of capital murder.  Then Guido played his trump card:  he had taken minor clerical orders before his marriage and was entitled to appeal his case to the Pope.

Browning builds the story to this point in a series of monologues, each from a different perspective.  Book I gives an account of his finding the court documents and an overview of the case, in which he admits his own biases but promises to give all sides and let the reader decide among them.  Books II through IV showcase three schools of popular Roman opinion, one siding with Guido, one with Pompilia, and one attempting to stay neutral.  Book V portrays Guido’s deposition, Book VI Caponsacchi’s, and Book VII Pompilia’s, and Books VIII and IX present fictionalized writs filed by Guido’s and Pompilia’s lawyers.  With this circular structure, Browning highlights the idea that there is an objective truth to this matter, even if the he-said-she-said nature renders a straightforward approach impossible.

49153The climax of the poem is Book X, in which the Pope reviews the case.  He admits that none of these narrators are reliable, but their testimony has revealed enough about their character for him to discern the truth.  Thus, he acquits Pompilia of infidelity, praises Caponsacchi for his courage, and denounces everyone who failed to help Pompilia.  He then confirms Guido’s death sentence because he sees no other way for Guido to understand his soul’s peril and repent.  And in Book XI, once Guido’s alone with the friendly priests who’ve come to hear his last confession, his mask comes off, revealing the unrepentant sadistic psychopath beneath.  Not only does Guido renounce his faith and confess to having hated Pompilia all along, he even rages against the idea of his son supplanting him.

Book XII returns to Browning’s point of view and presents both fictional and factual accounts of Guido’s execution and the fate of Pompilia’s son and estate.  Among these, however, Browning includes a sermon on the Scripture verse “Let God be true and every man a liar.”  This lesson allows him to conclude with an even broader moral:  since no human narrator can be completely reliable, objective truth sometimes has to be told obliquely, especially through art.  Precisely what truths Browning wants the reader to discern beyond the mere facts of the case are nowhere stated, but there are more than enough of them present to make the book worth many re-readings.

Literature You Should Know: Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse

Civilization is under attack.  An army masses to destroy Christians and their hated book learning, to plunder their wealth and ravish their women.  Unless these savages are stopped, the lights may go out for good… but the Christian forces are few and scattered.  Hope for victory seems dim.

c6352This plot sounds like it’s ripped from the headlines, and it could have been—twelve centuries ago.  The rampaging enemy in this case is the Viking horde, and the story itself is The Ballad of the White Horse, G. K. Chesterton’s fictionalized account of the Battle of Ethandune (read here by Malcolm Guite).  The title refers to the White Horse of Uffington, which now-discounted legend held to commemorate Alfred the Great’s victory at Ethandune.  Published in 1911, this poetic mixture of fact, legend, and fantasy inspired English troops through two world wars and can still bring encouragement to those of us who feel our way of life is under assault.

Book I opens with the state of Alfred’s England, moving from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Danish onslaught against the Saxons.  The barbarians beat back Alfred to Athelney, “and no help came at all” until Alfred receives a vision of the Virgin Mary.  But she has no soothing platitudes for him:

“I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.

“Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?”

G.K. Chesterton

Our reaction would probably be, “Oh, THANKS!”  But not only does Alfred understand what Mary’s saying, Book II declares he does have “the joy of giants, / The joy without a cause.”  His three allies also respond favorably to Mary’s message, agreeing to fight a battle that they seem certain to lose.  Even the White Horse, grey and overgrown from neglect, presents a discouraging sight at the beginning of Book III.  Yet Alfred dares to walk unarmed toward the Danish king’s camp and, once captured, to play his harp and sing of English victory.  The Danish earls mock him and praise destruction and nihilism, since even their gods will die, but Alfred answers, “You are more tired of victory, / Than we are tired of shame…. / We have more lust again to lose / Than you to win again.”  The Danes can only laugh.

This exchange of taunts doubles as a scouting mission, however, and Alfred studies the Danish camp’s layout as he leaves at the beginning of Book IV.  After an interlude where Alfred agrees to watch a peasant woman’s fire, muses too long on the plight of the poor, and gets slapped for accidentally letting one of her cakes burn, his allies arrive to find him laughing at himself.  “This blow that I return not,” he declares, “Ten times will I return / On kings and earls of all degree,” and with that, he leads his army into battle.

The White Horse

The fight that follows in the next three books showcases Chesterton’s love of paradox.  First blood is struck by Colan the Celt, who throws his rusty sword to kill Earl Harold and to whom Alfred in turn offers his own sword.  The English take their toll on the Danes, but the Danes drive them back, kill Alfred’s captains, and think the battle is over.  At last, however, Alfred rallies the Saxons with a horn blast and a victory-or-death speech, has another vision of Mary, and leads the final charge against the Danes with the cry, “The high tide and the turn!”  Between the Saxons’ sudden onslaught and a surprise rear attack from the Celts, the Danes are utterly defeated.

But the story doesn’t end there.  In peacetime, Alfred still has to deal with courtiers who want him to drive the Danes out of Britain entirely rather than allowing them to keep the Danelaw, and the White Horse still has to be scoured regularly to keep it white and free of weeds.  And when the Danes again raid the south of England, the aged Alfred warns that barbarians will always attack free peoples and the worst are the ones who come not with swords but with books.  Chesterton closes Book VII with a juxtaposition of descriptions, weeds trying once more to overwhelm the White Horse while Alfred retakes London.

Freedom isn’t free.  Do we have “the joy without a cause” to defend it even when all seems lost?

Literature You Should Know: Tolkien’s Tree and Leaf

I was already planning to write on J. R. R. Tolkien’s collection Tree and Leaf this week before I read Sean 394422da6bda916b75635832890205fdMalone’s review of Snowpiercer, but Sean’s discussion of internal logic only confirmed my choice.  If there’s one book every writer of science fiction and fantasy absolutely must read, it’s Tree and Leaf.  Several different editions have been released over the years, but all contain two vitally important works: On Fairy-Stories and Leaf by Niggle.

“On Fairy-Stories” began as a keynote address Tolkien delivered in 1937, around the same time he published The Hobbit and began writing The Lord of the Rings.  The first part of the essay addresses what fairy-stories are, though Tolkien gives no more precise definition than that they are stories about Faërie; misconceptions of the Fair Folk; the muddle critics make when discussing the origins of fairy tales; and the modern mistake of thinking that fairy tales are only for children.  Tolkien moves beyond mere criticism, however, when he turns to the topics of how fairy tales are written and why they are worthwhile.  He never cites Sidney’s Defense of Poesy, but his view of literary creativity is in a similar vein.

unnamedTolkien defines human creativity as sub-creation.  Only God can create something from nothing, and Tolkien calls the world God created the Primary World.  Yet humans, made in God’s image, have the right to use our sub-creative powers, defined as Art, to form Secondary Worlds from the material we find in the Primary World.  Here Tolkien quotes from his poem “Mythopoeia,” which appears in full in recent editions of Tree and Leaf.  Written for C. S. Lewis shortly after the famous conversation on Addison’s Walk in 1931, “Mythopoeia” attacks Lewis’ assertion at the time that myths are “lies breathed through silver.”  Tolkien counters not only that myth is a vehicle for truth but also that myth-making is a human right—“we make still by the law in which we’re made.”  And “Leaf by Niggle,” Tolkien’s only deliberate allegory, celebrates the idea that God may someday grant us the great gift of seeing our Secondary Worlds given primary reality.

Yet Tolkien argues in “On Fairy-Stories” that the purpose of Art isn’t just the author’s own enjoyment.  A well-made Secondary World is one into which author and audience alike can enter.  The Secondary World therefore needs to have “the inner consistency of reality” that allows the audience to believe that what the author says is true within that world.  If disbelief has to be suspended, the art has failed.  Tolkien notes,

Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it.  But that is not enough…. To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft.  Few attempt such difficult tasks.   But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art:  indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.

Tolkien3_01Fantasy is the most difficult genre, in Tolkien’s view, because it’s characterized by “arresting strangeness” and is vastly different from the Primary World.  Yet that’s also what makes fantasy worthwhile and is a consolation in itself.  It carries with it Recovery, not just renewed perspective but renewed mental and spiritual health from “regaining a clear view… ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them.’”  Fantasy also allows Escape, not from reality as a whole, but from the elements that stifle our spiritual health and growth, and thus can offer the consolation of satisfied desire.  Best of all is the Consolation of the Happy Ending, the good turn Tolkien calls eucatastrophe:

In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace:  never to be counted on to recur.  It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure:  the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

Such elements, Tolkien argues, should not be scorned because they take us away from “real life”—for who is more hostile to escape than a jailer?