. Alas, not me: December 2017

29 December 2017

Review: The Wolf in the Attic

The Wolf in the Attic The Wolf in the Attic by Paul Kearney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An enjoyable read, which got steadily more interesting as it went along. It does a good job of maintaining a child's perspective, though it's not a children's book, and of suggesting that there's more out there in the dark, in the woods beyond the lights of Oxford, than most adults would be comfortable admitting. The characters range from a Dickensian evil landlord and a wastrel father to the Devil, werewolves, and (apparently) Cerunnos. Lewis and Tolkien also appear as peripheral characters, who are welcome and amusing, but may not be strictly necessary as themselves. On the other hand, there is no little irony in their seeming ignorance of the perilous realm that surrounds and even penetrates Oxford. And this may be the point of their presence, since their ignorance underlines the greater ignorance of the modern world.

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15 December 2017

But How Do You Really Feel, Mr Bliss?

Since I never read introductions first, I only just looked at the preface to Dunning and Bliss' edition of The Wanderer just last night, after reading the poem five or six times back to back. At the end of the first paragraph (vii) appears the following sentence:

If we appear to have singled out Dr. Leslie rather often for disagreement, this is because his [edition] is usually the most accessible, and often the most able, defence of interpretations which we find unacceptable.

Well alrighty then. That in turn made me think of this passage from another source:

This was unexpected and rather difficult. There was some scattered clapping, but most of them were trying to work it out and see if it came to a compliment. 
(FR 1.i.30)

The Wanderer, T. P Dunning & A. J. Bliss edd., Methuen 1969. 


Tolkien and Amazon

Amazon to Adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s Globally Renowned Fantasy Novels, The Lord of the Rings, for Television with a Multi Season Production Commitment 
Full Release Here
By now I doubt there's a Tolkien fan who has not heard this news. I have said very little about it, though I've been skeptical. Perhaps the smartest thing I've heard anyone say about it was when my friend Katherine Sas​ tossed a Tolkien quote into the middle of a heated discussion, and then vanished in a puff of logic. In the famous letter to Milton Waldman (Letters, no 131), Tolkien discussed the future he had once foreseen for the tales he was composing.
"I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd."

While an older Tolkien here dismisses his own youthful dreams, he underestimates the scope and power of his vision, still rippling outward a century on.  But in the days Tolkien first dreamt these dreams, he had just lost the boyhood friends, Rob Gilson and Geoffrey Bache Smith, who, together with Christopher Wiseman, imagined a great future for themselves:
'Really, you three, especially Rob, are heroes,' [Wiseman] wrote. 'Fortunately we are not entirely masters of our fate, so that what we do now will make us the better for uniting in the great work that is to come, whatever it may be.'
(quoted in Garth [2003] 137)
'The great work that is to come', and '[o]ther minds and other hands' are bitter counterpoints indeed to '[b]y 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead' (FR xxiv). Not that Tolkien meant Gilson, Smith, and Wiseman when he spoke of other hands, but it may be that the idea of a cooperative vision he shared with them continued here in a different form. This would be no surprise since one might to some degree characterize the development of his legendarium as an attempt to answer the question of G. B Smith, who had asked Tolkien what the first Eärendil poem was all about when he heard him read it in 1915. 'I don't know. I'll try to find out' (Carpenter, 75).

I would love it if someone made a series that was consistent with Tolkien's vision in the sense that it remained 'high fantasy'. We've already seen how very close to that mark Peter Jackson's films sometimes came, and yet how embarrassingly far off he was at other times. There were spectacular moments in them, both good and bad -- inventions, adaptations, disasters -- and I am sure that we could not all agree on what these bad and good parts were. One invented character I have spoken of before is Tauriel. She is an excellent case in point for me. I like the character -- she falls within the 'scope of other minds and hands' -- but she was shoddily and clumsily used in the service of an insipid subplot. Or so I believe. Many others, people whose opinions I respect, hate Tauriel root and branch. 

Today's tendency in stories with large amounts of 'action' is that each installment must be a new spectacle that outdoes what came before. It's hard to go back to The Hobbit after you've made The Lord of the Rings, and not try to remake it in the image of its more grown-up successor. By making The Lord of the Rings first, Peter Jackson filmed himself into a corner. But we can see this effect at work even where the books are concerned. The pull of The Lord of the Rings led Tolkien to try to rewrite The Hobbit completely in the early 60s. Master of Retcon that Tolkien was, he failed.

We can also see a similar phenomenon in the reaction of many to the long denouement of The Lord of the Rings, who believe that we could do without much of the Tale after the coronation and marriage of Aragorn. I am not here to argue this point, though I disagree. I will, however, gladly concede that the pace of the Tale certainly downshifts once the hobbits turn for home. Everything from the last words of Book IV -- "Frodo was alive but taken by the enemy -- the words that catapulted my eleven year old self out the door, onto my bike, and over to Ruth's Stationery on Main Avenue in the desperate hope that the third volume was still there, which, thank God, it was -- everything from those words on until the end of The Steward and the King passed in such breathless terror and joy that no one (except perhaps Tolkien) would have complained much if the book had ended with that chapter's final words:
And Aragorn the King Elessar wedded Arwen Undómiel in the City of the Kings upon the day of Midsummer, and the tale of their long waiting and labours was come to fulfilment.
(RK 6.v.974-75)
But while I am sure that in the long nights of his wandering Aragorn had meditated 'on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow', The Lord of the Rings is no Jane Austen novel. Its meditations don't stop there. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)  Aragorn's love of Arwen is an important, if underplayed, element of the story, as is Sam's for Rosie Cotton. But both Sam and Strider also see the world at times sub specie aeternitatis. The hobbit raises his eyes to the stars to glimpse the transcendent (RK 6.ii,922); the Man looks beyond the Circles of the World (RK App. A 1063). 

Is it an accident then, I wonder, that Sam's first (recorded) thoughts of Rosie come after he has recognized that 'in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing' (RK 6.ii. 922; iii.934, 939)? 

Such thoughts are more often than not lost in a two or three hour film. More often than not, though perhaps not always. Yet the small screen affords writers far more time to develop the subtle characterizations and character histories that make such moments work. I have seen shows like Babylon Five and the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, for example, blend action (and plenty of it) with plot and character so expertly over time that all of a sudden this viewer found himself on the verge of tears, both kinds. And I still do when I watch again.  Both of these series, moreover, are structured more like novels, B5 at least intentionally so, with very little that is merely episodic. I am sure that there are further examples that will spring to the mind of those better versed in recent television drama than I am.  And it is these series' adaptation of the approach to storytelling found in books that gives me hope that a television series might be the best place for telling stories of Middle-earth.  So Amazon may be the best place after all, provided the writers keep Middle-earth a world of high fantasy. 

12 December 2017

Buying Bagels, with Kramer

A couple of years back I stopped to buy some bagels, and had the following conversation with the man behind the counter:

He: What can I get you?  
Me: A dozen everything bagels, please.  
He: All of them everything?  
Me: Everything all of them.  
He: You got it. 

I suddenly felt like I was on Seinfeld.

03 December 2017

C. S. Lewis, the Little People, and the Wrong Shoe

Every now and then Lewis' Irish gets out, usually in the form of (for me) vexing remarks about 'Papists', but this story was more of a surprise, since it reminded me of my grandmother, also from Ulster (Cavan), though 10 years older than he and a Catholic. I don't remember her ever saying 'the Little People', but I do recall her speaking of fairies, and fairy mounds and lights and dancing. I only wish I remembered more of what she said, or that I had asked her to tell me the stories again when I was older than six or seven. I have no idea whether she believed them at all, but she had me convinced at the time. And she scared me quite a bit with her tales of banshees, which people she knew (so she said) had heard and even almost seen.

In any event, I discovered this story in a letter Lewis wrote to his brother, Warnie on 21 April 1940, decades after either of them had lived in Ireland:
I never told you a curious thing - I have meant to include it in several letters - wh[ich] provides a new instance of the malignity of the Little People. I was going into town one day and had got as far as the gate when I realised that I had odd shoes on, and one of them clean and the other dirty. There was no time to go back. As it was impossible to clean the dirty one, I decided that the only way of making myself look less ridiculous was to dirty the clean one. Now w[oul]d you have believed that this is an impossible operation? You can of course get some mud on it - but it remains obviously a clean shoe that has had an accident and won’t look in the least like a shoe that you have been for a walk in. One discovers new catches and snags in life every day.

As if one could foil the wrath of 'the Little Folk' by the simple expedient of dirtying a clean shoe. 

And just in case you think the fairies aren't still malicious to those who cross them, here's a more recent tale from Cavan, complete with a butcher playing the part of Ted Sandyman. 

I have often wondered how different it must be for those who believe in fairies to read fairy stories or hear them told.

02 December 2017

Review: The Great Code: The Bible and Literature

The Great Code: The Bible and Literature The Great Code: The Bible and Literature by Northrop Frye
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

'If we insist that the Bible is "more" than a work of literature, we ought at least to stick to the word "more," and try to see what if means.

'What I think it means is that we have to turn again to the traditional but still neglected theory of "polysemous" meaning. One of the commonest experiences of reading is the sense of further discoveries to be made within the same structure of words. The feeling is approximately "there is more to be got out of this," or we may say, of something we particularly admire, that every time we read it we get something new out of it. This "something new" is not necessarily something we have overlooked before, but may come rather from a new context in our experience. The implication is that when we start to read, some kind of dialectical process begins to unfold, so that any given understanding of what we read is one of a series of phases or stages of comprehension.'

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