. Alas, not me: December 2016

30 December 2016

Goodbye, David. Goodbye, Carrie.

I first became aware of David Bowie when I was a fourteen year old in high school, in those endless battles we had across lunchroom tables over which band was great and which band, frankly, sucked. We were teenagers. We didn't know from shades of grey. To us, so incandescently young and so very cloistered by years and years of Catholic School, Catholic Nuns, and Catholic Mothers of WWII vintage (God bless them), and only beginning to realize there was something called FM, where they played whole album sides at a time, almost nothing in the Top 40, and talked about Rock and Roll like it was life itself, David Bowie was quite a shock. With his Diamond Dogs look of androgyny cultivated like pearls, he seemed a bit of a freak, and often got called far worse by children like us who scarcely knew the meaning of the insults we hurled at him because he didn't seem to fit in any of the categories we knew.

So a freak he seemed. And yet his blazing talent forced my eyes open, and compelled me to look into the heart of the sun that was his music. Whatever he looked like, whatever he played at, he could not be denied. One stunning, powerful performance after another, one masterful song after another flung into my uncomprehending, awestruck schoolboy face. Songs of beauty, works of art, anthems of raving youth. And they never stopped coming until last January.

So a freak he seemed. So what. He was Bowie. And in the end he was no more a freak than the rest of us. Much less so in fact. 

Everybody knows how they first saw Carrie Fisher. In the first scene she is ensuring that the all important plans to the Death Star escape her doomed ship, in the second she is shooting it out with the bad guys, in the third she stands fearlessly up to someone who could break her body like a twig. So, clever and determined, putting first things first, unflinching and intrepid, not just a pretty face (as pretty as she was). This was no window-dressing damsel in distress. This was no one's Disney Princess. 

Her own life was full of far more upheaval and turmoil than her most famous character's, though given her struggles with addiction and bipolar disorder, there were surely days when it felt like someone had blown up her whole planet.  But her performance as Leia evidently drew on strengths she didn't know she had yet, and she fought her way through to the other side of her troubles. For the many in this world -- and of course there were thousands of Star Wars fans among them -- who shared the same troubles, Carrie Fisher was a success and a model. And if we looked at her from far away, paying attention in after years perhaps only because she had been that Princess, still we smiled and nodded and were glad. We took comfort in her winning through. For women she clearly meant far more than I could ever grasp. I wouldn't even dare try to express it. But I don't have to. Their voices are loud and clear enough. If you can't hear them, you're not listening. 

I am not sure if what I've written here explains, even to myself, why I will miss David Bowie and Carrie Fisher more than so many of the others.  He enabled me to see music differently, and see that differences of appearance, whether parts of the act or parts of the person, are essentially meaningless. She did not so much make me see women differently as she made me see that I was right to see them differently. I was already a bit of an oddity on that score: I was a teenage boy who actually wanted to talk to girls and hear what they had to say. 

There's a photo on my dresser of someone from those days. Every day when I sit down on the edge of my bed to take off my shoes, I look at it and sigh and miss her. That's the way I'm thinking of David Bowie and Carrie Fisher as this year goes down into shadow.  

They were heroes. 

28 December 2016

The Uncouth Name of Shire

At the Council of Elrond Gandalf recounts his meeting with Radagast near Bree:

'Gandalf!' [Radagast] cried. 'I was seeking you. But I am a stranger in these parts. All I knew was that you might be found in a wild region with the uncouth name of Shire.'
'Your information was correct,' I said. 'But do not put it that way, if you meet any of the inhabitants. You are near the borders of the Shire now.'
'I have been told that wherever they go the Riders ask for news of a land called Shire.'
'The Shire,' I said.... 
FR 2.ii.256-57, emphasis original)
Why is the name 'Shire' uncouth?  The OED shows nothing in the history of the word to suggest the least whiff of disapproval.  Even setting aside all thoughts of The Hobbit films, Radagast lives in Rhosgobel near southern Mirkwood, which hardly seems likely to be a hub of urbanity.  Be that as it may, it is the name Shire the wizard is commenting on. To be sure, Radagast also calls it a 'wild region,' but again he lives in the Wilderland, himself.  Gandalf does not seem to be offended by the description, and indeed he calls it correct, but cautions Radagast about the reaction hobbits might have to hearing the Shire called uncouth.  For, as the narrator (Frodo) tells us elsewhere '[t]he Shire-hobbits referred to those of Bree, and to any others that lived beyond the borders, as Outsiders, and took very little interest in them, considering them dull and uncouth' (FR 1.ix.150). Ironically, given that Buttebur calls Frodo and company 'Outsiders -- travellers from the Shire' and instantly apologizes for doing so, the Breelanders clearly have the same opinion of Shire hobbits as Shire hobbits have of everyone else (FR 1.ix.154)

Tolkien is here again having a bit of fun with words, as we've seen him do before.  Our word 'uncouth' descends from the Old English 'uncúþ', which literally means 'unknown', and therefore 'strange.'  The Shire being unknown to Radagast and the Black Riders, they omit the definite article, because the definite article is used for things that are known.  Gandalf of course knows The Shire very well, as do its inhabitants, and so they include the article. To them indeed it is the one and only.

So for Radagast and the Black Riders 'uncouth' has its original sense; for the hobbits it has the more modern sense. Gandalf knows them both.



25 December 2016

I Hear the Tentacles Singing: Once More "A Wrinkle in Time" and "Babylon Five"

A Pak'ma'ra from Babylon 5

In chapter 11 of A Wrinkle in Time I came across what might be another link to Babylon 5. Having arrived on a new planet, Meg sees creatures like none she has ever seen before approaching her, her father, and Calvin:
They were the same dull gray color as the flowers. If they hadn't walked upright they would have seemed like animals. They moved directly toward the three human beings. They had four arms and far more than five fingers to each hand, and the fingers were not fingers, but long waving tentacles. They had heads, and they had faces. But where the faces of the creatures on Uriel had seemed far more than human faces, these seemed far less. Where the features would normally be there were several indentations, and in place of ears and hair were more tentacles. They were tall, Meg realized as they came closer, far taller than any man. They had no eyes. Just soft indentations. 
After Meg is healed by these beings, she quickly becomes quite attached to one whom she calls Aunt Beast:
"Please sing to me, Aunt Beast," said Meg. 
If it was impossible to describe sight to Aunt Beast, it would be even more impossible to describe the singing of Aunt Beast to a human being. It was a music even more glorious than the music of the singing creatures on Uriel. It was a music more tangible than form or sight. It had essence and structure. It supported Meg more firmly than the arms of Aunt Beast It seemed to travel with her, to sweep her aloft in the power of song, so that she was moving in glory among the stars, and for a moment she, too, felt that the words Darkness and Light had no meaning. and only this melody was real. 
The first passage made me think at first of the Ood from Doctor Who, and of course nothing prevents L'Engle's description from having an influence on Doctor Who, but I was also reminded of the Pak'ma'ra from Babylon 5. Both of these species have tentacles on their heads in front of their mouths. Now, admittedly this doesn't match the description of the unnamed beings in A Wrinkle in Time, creatures who also have tentacles instead of fingers. It is unclear to me whether their voice comes from the waving 'finger' tentacles or from the tentacles on their heads. 

But it was the astonishing and uplifting beauty of their singing that struck me, and made me think more of Babylon 5, in the last episode of which the main characters are conversing over a meal:
"You know, Londo never liked the Pak'ma'ra. I mean, they're stubborn, lazy, obnoxious, greedy--" said Vir.
"They kinda look like an octopus that got run over by a truck," said Garibaldi. 
"That too, but .. one day Londo and I were walking past their quarters .. and we heard them .. singing."  
"Singing? They can sing?" asked Sheridan. 
"There's nothing about that in the literature,"said Dr Franklin. 
"Apparently," Vir continued, "it's something they only do certain times of the year as part of their religious ceremonies. You may not believe this, but .. it was the most beautiful sound I've ever heard. I couldn't make out the words, but I knew it was full of sadness and .. hope and wonder and .. terrible .. sense of loss. I looked at Londo and -- this is the amazing part -- there was a .. tear running down his face. I said: 'Londo, we should leave.' And 'This is upsetting you.' He just stood there and .. listened. And when it was over he turned to me and he said: 'There are 49 gods in our pantheon, Vir. To tell you the truth I never believed in any of them. But if only one of them exists, .. then god sings with that voice.' "
The additional detail of the sadness and the terrible sense of loss with which the Pak'ma'ra sing may also point to the influence of Tolkien and the third theme of the Music of the Ainur, whose beauty comes from its sorrow. 

But it's not every day you can point to tentacles and singing in support of an argument. This may be axiomatic.

Madeleine L'Engle on Predestination, Free Will, and the Sonnet

In the last chapter of A Wrinkle in Time, Mrs. Whatsit (a supernatural being, if you don't know) and Calvin, a young boy, argue about knowing the future.

"I do not believe it. And the Happy Medium doesn't believe it, either."
"Can't she see what's going to happen?" Calvin asked. 
"Oh, not in this kind of thing." Mrs. Whatsit sounded surprised at his question. "If we knew ahead of time what was going to happen we'd be—we'd be like the people on Camazotz, with no lives of our own, with everything all planned and done for us. How can I explain it to you? Oh, I know. In your language you have a form of poetry called the sonnet." 
"Yes, yes," Calvin said impatiently. "What's that got to do with the Happy Medium?"
"Kindly pay me the courtesy of listening to me." Mrs. Whatsit's voice was stern, and for a moment Calvin stopped pawing the ground like a nervous colt. "It is a very strict form of poetry, is it not?"  
"There are fourteen lines, I believe, all in iambic pentameter. That's a very strict rhythm or meter, yes?" 
"Yes." Calvin nodded. "And each line has to end with a rigid rhyme pattern. And if the poet does not do it exactly this way, it is not a sonnet, is it?" 
"But within this strict form the poet has complete freedom to say whatever he wants, doesn't he?" 
"Yes." Calvin nodded again. 
"So," Mrs. Whatsit said.  
"So what?" 
"Oh, do not be stupid, boy!" Mrs. Whatsit scolded. "You know perfectly well what I am driving at!"  
"You mean you're comparing our lives to a sonnet? A strict form, but freedom within it?" 
"Yes." Mrs. Whatsit said. "You're given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you." 

In addition to being an amusing approach to examining the question of free will and predestination, there is the added bonus of one of the speakers being called Calvin.

21 December 2016

'Mary had a little lamb' from "A Wrinkle in Time" to "Babylon 5"

When I was a little boy, my aunt Sally (sit terra tibi levis) gave me A Wrinkle in Time for my birthday. At the time I was too grown up for children's books, and so I smiled, thanked her, and put it on the shelf, where it has always been ever since.  Being younger than that now, and having run across a series of quotes by Madeleine L'Engle that I found interesting, I decided to read it.

This morning, as I lay in bed reading chapter 7, I arrived at the following passage, in which the three children encounter a menacing stranger with red eyes who can communicate telepathically and who has, it seems, dominated the minds of the men, women, and children on this world. As he attempts to control the children's minds, too, Charles Wallace, the youngest, a preternaturally clever and creepy five year old, whom for the life of me I can only hear speaking in the voice of Stewie Griffin, resists.

'...For you, as well as for the rest of all the happy, useful people on this planet, I, in my own strength, am willing to assume all the pain, all the responsibility, all the burden of thought and decision.' 
'We will make our own decisions, thank you,' Charles Wallace said. 
'But of course. And our decisions will be one, yours and mine. Don't you see how much better, how much easier for you that is? Let me show you. Let us say the multiplication table together.' 
'No,' Charles Wallace said. 
'Once one is one. Once two is two. Once three is three.' 
'Mary had a little lamb!' Charles Wallace shouted. 'Its fleece was white as snow!'
'Once for is four. Once five is five. Once six is six.'
'And everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go.'

The instant I read this, I sat up in bed. I had seen it before. In J. Michael Straczynski's brilliant SF series Babylon 5, a group of human telepaths have run away from Psi Corps, which is about as evil as it sounds. ('The Corps is mother; the Corps is father.') Now in the episode, A Race through Dark Places, they find themselves hunted by a Psi Cop, Alfred Bester -- that's right, Alfred Bester, and played magnificently by Walter Koenig -- who is strong enough to read their minds whether they want him to or not. Since they refuse to go back, they fear he will kill them. And so they prepare to resist both physically and mentally. To keep him out of their minds, they, too, recite 'Mary had a little lamb' over and over. 

Alfred Bester,  SF Author
Given the context in each scene, as well as how allusive and literary Babylon 5 is, I have little doubt this allusion to Madeleine L'Engle is intentional.  Nicely done, JMS. Nicely done.

Allusions are one of the ways in which reading, or, in this case, reading and watching teach us that we are not all alone in the night. And A Wrinkle in Time and Babylon 5 are both rich in allusions to, and quotations from, literature and poetry. That's why I've worked several allusions of my own into this note: to a C. S. Lewis essay, to an apocryphal C. S. Lewis quote, to Bob Dylan, three times to Babylon 5. I didn't do so (merely) to be clever, or because, if you get them, then we'll both be clever, but because they will reveal a fellowship between us as reader and writer, between us as readers, and between us and the texts from which the allusions derive. Because it's this kind of connection that makes us human in a higher and better way that links us through past, present, and future.

Alfred Bester, SF Monster
The world's been looking pretty bleak in recent times. Whichever side of the issues that are dividing us each of us may be on, I don't think many of us are feeling too hopeful; and some of us are downright scared.  To compare small things with great, I just wrote a testimonial for Mythmoot, which aimed to convey just how wonderful it was to be with all those people who understood each other's allusions and got each other's jokes. Allusions let me in. They let us all in. That's why reading glitters with hope. For it tells me that the connections we need to make can be made. Not only that, but the irony of this allusion is so sweet: it connects two sets of people, a writer and readers, to two sets of characters who are using 'Mary had a little lamb' to prevent a connection from being made at all. Which in turn makes me laugh, a proof of intelligent life according to the Minbari. I think I like that. I think I like that a lot.

19 December 2016

The Price of Ilúvatar's Gift?

… fairy-stories are not in normal English usage stories about fairies or elves, but stories about Fairy, that is Faërie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being. Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.

(OFS, 32, ¶ 10, emphasis original)
As interesting and lovely as this section of On Fairy-stories is, we seldom note its implication that mortal men are the only parts of creation not by nature a part of the 'realm or state' of Faërie. Enchantment alone brings us within its borders. But when we recall another passage in Tolkien where mortal men are also singled out as unique, the two together become truly fascinating.
‘But to the Atani I will give a new gift’ [said Ilúvatar]. Therefore he willed that the hearts of Men should seek beyond the world and should find no rest therein; but they should have a virtue to shape their life, amid the powers and chances of the world, beyond the Music of the Ainur, which is as fate to all things else; and of their operation everything should be, in form and deed, completed, and the world fulfilled unto the last and smallest.

(S, 41-42, emphasis mine)
So without the benefit of enchantment Men cannot inhabit Faërie, but for all those things and creatures that do, the Music of the Ainur is 'as fate.'  There is thus a dimension to the existence of Arda and everything in it that Men do not ordinarily perceive and in which they have no part. The 'being' of Men is not in Faërie, just as the being of the Elves is not beyond it. The existence of each has an element which the other does not share. Faërie lies parallel to whatever awaits Men 'beyond the world,'

It will be interesting to see where this might lead.



17 December 2016

A. E. Housman, Fragment of a Greek Tragedy

A. E. Housman, by  Francis Dodd

If you're not familiar with Housman's parody of Greek Tragedy, you don't know what you been missing. If you've ever read Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides in the original, this will be an amazing treat.


by A. E. Housman

                CHORUS:  O suitably-attired-in-leather-boots
          Head of a traveller, wherefore seeking whom
          Whence by what way how purposed art thou come
          To this well-nightingaled vicinity?
          My object in inquiring is to know.
          But if you happen to be deaf and dumb
          And do not understand a word I say,
          Then wave your hand, to signify as much.

                ALCMAEON: I journeyed hither a Boetian road.
                CHORUS: Sailing on horseback, or with feet for oars?
                ALCMAEON: Plying with speed my partnership of legs.
                CHORUS: Beneath a shining or a rainy Zeus?
                ALCMAEON: Mud's sister, not himself, adorns my shoes.
                CHORUS: To learn your name would not displease me much.
                ALCMAEON: Not all that men desire do they obtain.
                CHORUS: Might I then hear at what thy presence shoots.
                ALCMAEON: A shepherd's questioned mouth informed me that--
                CHORUS: What? for I know not yet what you will say.
                ALCMAEON: Nor will you ever, if you interrupt.
                CHORUS: Proceed, and I will hold my speechless tongue.
                ALCMAEON: This house was Eriphyle's, no one else's.
                CHORUS: Nor did he shame his throat with shameful lies.
                ALCMAEON: May I then enter, passing through the door?
                CHORUS: Go chase into the house a lucky foot.
          And, O my son, be, on the one hand, good,
          And do not, on the other hand, be bad;
          For that is very much the safest plan.
                ALCMAEON: I go into the house with heels and speed.



          In speculation
          I would not willingly acquire a name
                For ill-digested thought;
                But after pondering much
          To this conclusion I at last have come:
                LIFE IS UNCERTAIN.
                This truth I have written deep
                In my reflective midriff
                On tablets not of wax,
          Nor with a pen did I inscribe it there,
          For many reasons:  LIFE, I say, IS NOT
          Not from the flight of omen-yelling fowls
                This fact did I discover,
          Nor did the Delphine tripod bark it out,
                Nor yet Dodona.
          Its native ingenuity sufficed
                My self-taught diaphragm.


                Why should I mention
          The Inachean daughter, loved of Zeus?
                Her whom of old the gods,
                More provident than kind,
          Provided with four hoofs, two horns, one tail,
                A gift not asked for,
                And sent her forth to learn
                The unfamiliar science
                Of how to chew the cud.
          She therefore, all about the Argive fields,
          Went cropping pale green grass and nettle-tops,
                Nor did they disagree with her.
          But yet, howe'er nutritious, such repasts
                I do not hanker after:
          Never may Cypris for her seat select
                My dappled liver!
          Why should I mention Io?  Why indeed?
                I have no notion why.


                But now does my boding heart,
                Unhired, unaccompanied, sing
                A strain not meet for the dance.
                Yes even the palace appears
                To my yoke of circular eyes
                (The right, nor omit I the left)
                Like a slaughterhouse, so to speak,
                Garnished with woolly deaths
                And many sphipwrecks of cows.
          I therefore in a Cissian strain lament:
                And to the rapid
                Loud, linen-tattering thumps upon my chest
                Resounds in concert
          The battering of my unlucky head.

                ERIPHYLE (within): O, I am smitten with a hatchet's jaw;
          And that in deed and not in word alone.
                CHORUS: I thought I heard a sound within the house
          Unlike the voice of one that jumps for joy.
                ERIPHYLE: He splits my skull, not in a friendly way,
          Once more: he purposes to kill me dead.
                CHORUS: I would not be reputed rash, but yet
          I doubt if all be gay within the house.
                ERIPHYLE: O! O! another stroke! that makes the third.
          He stabs me to the heart against my wish.
                CHORUS:  If that be so, thy state of health is poor;
          But thine arithmetic is quite correct.

07 December 2016

'And I'll bear no weapon, fair or foul' (RK 6.iii.937-38)

'There, I'll be an orc no more,' he cried, 'and I'll bear no weapon, fair or foul. Let them take me, if they will!' 
Sam did likewise, and put aside his orc-gear; and he took out all the things in his pack. Somehow each of them had become dear to him, if only because he had borne them so far with so much toil. Hardest of all it was to part with his cooking-gear. Tears welled in his eyes at the thought of casting it away.
With that he carried all the gear away to one of the many gaping fissures that scored the land and threw them in. The clatter of his precious pans as they fell down into the dark was like a death-knell to his heart.
(RK 6.iii.937-38)

Three quick remarks:

1) As Frodo utters these words, the most powerful weapon in the history of Middle-earth is hanging around his neck. He's heard it described as such by Boromir (FR 2.ii.267) and also, though unwittingly, by Faramir (TT 4.v.671). He has already used it himself to daunt and threaten Gollum (TT 4.i.618; iii.640; vi.687).

2) The words I have omitted contain Frodo's famous 'no taste of food, no feel of water' remarks in which he states that all else but the Ring is fading away for him. So he is keenly and painfully aware of it at all times.

3) Sam is the only one who can throw his precious into the pit, just as he was the only one who could give up the Ring with little or no hesitation (RK 6.i.911-12).

No irony in Tolkien?

02 December 2016

In the Realm of Useless Footnotes, Part Two

'I have had v. little time for general reading. I began Moby Dick [footnote] on the weekend when term ended, and thought, despite its obvious defects of rhetoric & un-dramatic dialogue, that I liked it: but somehow I feel no inclination to go on.'

C S Lewis

Letter of 3 April 1930

And yes, the footnote informs us that Moby Dick is indeed Moby Dick, and that its author is Herman Melville.

Is it conceivable that a reader inclined to read Lewis's correspondence would not know that Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick?

But wait. I live in the United States and we have just had a presidential election. The concept of the conceivable has been re-conceived.

Sudden Gleams of Fugitive Association

“No pupils on Monday morning. Spent the whole time till lunch answering letters and setting examination papers. A dull job, rewarded by those sudden gleams of fugitive association that have the habit of starting up only when the intellect is fully engaged on something else.”

C. S. Lewis

Letter of 17 October 1929

He would have a term for it. And it is the perfect term.

This happens to me a lot in the car. An idea comes, which I can only repeat over and over to myself until I get to a traffic light, where I can scrawl it hastily down in my notebook.

In the Realm of Useless Footnotes

On 10 October 1929 C. S. Lewis wrote in a letter to his brother:

"I also glanced through A. E. Houseman's 'Shropshire Lad' [footnote] for the hundredth time. What a terrible little book it is -- perfect and deadly, the beauty of the gorgon."

The footnote in his published letters reads: “A. E. Houseman, ‘A Shropshire Lad’ (1896).”

Oh, that A.E. Houseman’s ‘A Shropshire Lad.’

But isn’t Lewis’s characterization of the book brilliant? 'Perfect and deadly, the beauty of the gorgon.'