There is a modern mania about purity in foods, an obsession with weight, cholesterol,sodium, vitamins, exercise – all of them legitimate issues, to be sure. But while there is high energy spent on what goes into our mouths, where is the concern for what goes into our eyes and ears, for what feeds the spirit? There is so much that is lovely to see, hear, read, behold: why are we so often indifferent to the violence and ugliness that assault and diminish us, often in the name of news or entertainment? In the name of freedom, perhaps something of our humanity is chipped away when we claim so proudly that nothing offends us. A very great deal ought to.
- Donald Spoto, from “The Hidden Jesus: A New Life” (St. Martin’s Press, 1998)
Author Archives: Rob
I remember the day I went from being a book lover to an actual reader. No, I don’t remember the exact day or date, just the experience. It was on a weekend and I was at my grandparents’ house in Santa Ana, California. I was sitting in my grandfather’s big, comfy chair totally absorbed in a beautiful, hard bound edition of the complete Mary Poppins stories by P.L. Travers. I sat in that chair for hours and devoured page after page about that magical nanny. It was the first large hardback book I ever read all the way through and, being only 9 or 10 years old at the time, I was quite proud of myself.
I bring this up because the other day at my favorite thrift store I came across three Mary Poppins books, in paperback, conveniently banded together. I think I paid fifty cents for all three. It’s been over 40 years since I read Mary Poppins, and with the movie “Saving Mr. Banks” (you DO know who Mr. Banks is, don’t you?) out on DVD now, I’m really looking forward to revisiting these stories.
By the way, P.L. Travers wasn’t your run of the mill children’s writer. She was what you might call an intellectual adventuress (among other things). She had a fascination with the world’s mythologies and traveled extensively. Back in the 80’s she was a regular contributor to the quarterly publication Parabola, which explored various myths and legends and their effects on culture and religion. Though she is no longer with us, she definitely left her own mark on our culture.
Keep your eyes on the East Wind!
OK. I apologize for the above title. Really. It was the best I could come up with at the time. I needed to get your attention so you’d check out this post. I mean, this is important. We’ve all been mislead.
It seems that Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” was nothing but Western propaganda. Did you know that Gandalf was actually a bad guy out to destroy technology and science? And that the elves were out to rule the world? Further, Mordor was a progressive center of science and rationality, the very essence of enlightenment as compared to the pie-in-the-sky West. That is evidently the premise of a book newly available in English. “The Last Ringbearer,” by Kirill Yeskof, was originally published in Russia back in 1999, but an English translation has just become available (via a FREE download, no less!). It tells the story of the War of the Ring through the eyes of Mordor.
I haven’t read it yet, but Laura Miller over at Salon.com has and I’m linking to her review here so you can check it out. Viewing things from the bad side’s perspective isn’t exactly groundbreaking stuff, though it has become even more prevalent these days in books and in television. What strikes me about this book is that it seems to want not only to make the bad guys sympathetic, but to present the good guys as the ones who are evil. Is this taking things a step further?
I don’t know yet, but I’d be interested in hearing your opinions on this. Whatever your view, it looks like a fascinating read.
One of my weekly pleasures is reading the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal. It’s an excellent paper and one of the few left in the country that has a conservative opinion section. (There, I’ve outed myself.) But while the Journal may be a conservative publication, it is most definitely a secular one as well. Witness Alison Gopnik’s Mind & Matter column from this past weekend.
It seems that some scientists think that evolution, particularly the natural selection component, is too difficult for young children to understand. I’ve provided a link to the article above so I won’t go into all their reasoning for this seemingly obvious insight, however the upshot is that they recommend that children should be exposed to picture books that help them understand natural selection. As early as kindergarten. They’re afraid that these young minds may actually come to think that our earth and the life on it was created somehow by, gasp!, some transcendent, intelligent being.
These proposed natural selection “story books” are characterized in the article as “powerful intellectual tools.” I think it’s just a blatant attempt at indoctrination dressed-up in lab coats, clip boards and plastic pocket protectors.
What do you think?
At the end of “Little House on the Prairie,” the second of the classic nine-book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Laura and her family were setting out from their home for parts unknown. In “Farmer Boy,” the third book, we start out a long way from the prairie. We find ourselves in New York State at the very large farm of the Wilder family, home of Laura’s future husband, Almanzo. And again, as in the first two books, we are allowed an enthralling glimpse into American life in the late 19th century.
Instead of the adventurous wanderings of a pioneer family, this time we see the equally challenging existence of an American farm family. Trust me, it could be nearly as harrowing as life on the frontier. From cutting blocks of ice from the nearby “pond,” to hauling wood in sleds over treacherous, snowy roads, to a race to save a corn crop from freezing in the pre-dawn hours, farming was a physically taxing and emotionally stressful occupation which required a person’s complete commitment. Much like it is today, I would guess, except without all the technology.
Fortunately for Almanzo, and the reader, life on a large farm with a big family had many joys as well. For one thing, Mother’s cooking. That woman could cook! And could that Almanzo eat: “Almanzo ate four large helpings of apples’ n’ onions fried together. He ate roast beef and brown gravy, and mashed potatoes and creamed carrots and boiled turnips, and countless slices of buttered bread with crab-apple jelly.” Think he was done? After all that, Mother “put a thick slice of birds’-nest pudding on his bare plate, and handed him the pitcher of sweetened cream speckled with nutmeg . . . Almanzo took up his spoon and ate every bit.” Not a book to read while you’re hungry.
As in the previous books, there really isn’t a plot as such, more of an examination of life at that time and place in America. More important than a story line, though, are the virtues Laura Ingalls Wilder allows us to witness in these books. We see the love and loyalty of close families, the respect of children for their parents (though not always obedience!), as well as hard work, dedication, perseverance, courage, duty, honesty and kindness. These are the true building blocks of American civilization and we forget about them today at our nation’s peril.
That’s a pretty good reason to make sure today’s children are exposed to these books.
The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more trees. As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses. There were no roads.There were no people. There were only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them.
I love this opening. Ernest Hemingway would love this opening. Heck, Hemingway would love this book. For all I know he may have read it. If he did, I’m sure he smiled.
The above sentences introduce the reader to a series of true American classics, the “Little House” series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. That’s right, “Little House on the Prairie” was not a single book but the second in a series of nine books about growing up in the American pioneer days. More than just books for young people, these books are considered by many to be valuable records of an important time in our nation’s history.
I’ve wanted to read these books for many years but put off starting until I had all nine volumes. Then a couple of weeks or so back, while browsing around one of our favorite thrift stores, I came across the reason I frequent such places. Sitting on a shelf in the children’s book section was a brand new boxed set of all nine “Little House” books put out by Scholastic Inc. I mean the paperback spines weren’t even creased! The price: $3.99. After I put my eyes back in my skull, I grabbed the set and hugged it to my chest.
So far I’ve read the first two books: “Little House in the Big Woods” and “Little House on the Prairie.” In straightforward, efficient prose, Laura tells the story of what it was like growing up in the late 1800s with her Ma and Pa and sisters, Mary and Baby Carrie. These books aren’t about plotting and characterization but rather they are the treasured recollections of a young girl plainly told. The chapters are connected episodes explaining what living on the nation’s frontier was like, including descriptions of the many skills they possessed and the labors they performed to get through the seasons, especially the long winters.
And, yes, you do get to know the characters, but they are revealed by their actions and responses to the situations they find themselves in. Very much like the way one comes to know a person in everyday life. Pa is confident in his abilities, possesses a joy for life and a deep love of his family. And he’s pretty good with a fiddle too. Ma is more subdued, an excellent cook, gardener, seamstress, and calm as a rock in the face of trials and unexpected encounters with bears. Mary, the older sister, is the good little girl, never raising a fuss. Of course, Laura is the one who’s curious about everything and willing to challenge Ma and Pa’s boundaries to find out what’s going on. And Baby Carrie is . . . well, a baby.
Though the chapters are episodic, they aren’t disjointed. The thread of a frontier life remembered connects them to each other and to the reader in a way that mere fiction seldom accomplishes. As I read each chapter, the more I kept in mind that these were Laura’s actual memories the more affecting her descriptions became. Whether because of encounters with Indians, prairie fires racing toward the house, the dangers of digging a well or of dealing with wolves or bears, one comes to realize that each day was truly an adventure for these brave families who chose to move westward. Even something seemingly as simple as Pa going to town could be cause for anxiety:
Before dawn, Pa went away. When Laura and Mary woke, he was gone and everything was empty and lonely. It was not as though Pa had only gone hunting. He was going to town, and he would not be back for four long days.
The simplicity and directness of Laura’s words convey a sense of vulnerability that’s hard to match.
I’ll be starting the third book, “Farmer Boy,” soon and I’ll do a review of that and a few more as I read them. But do yourself a favor and get these books and read them. Read them for yourself and to your children. They are true American classics and remind us of how the American character was formed and what it is that makes this country and its people something special. It is so important that we keep these memories alive, both for ourselves and, even more so, for our young.
These questions are explored, in a circling manner, by Thomas Cahill in his book “Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus,” (Nan A. Talese/Anchor Books Edition, 2001). This is the third in his Hinges of History series, preceded by “How the Irish Saved Civilization,” and “The Gifts of the Jews,” both of which I’ve reviewed here.
Cahill is a marvelous historical writer, making the story of Western civilization and culture a fascinating one. But here he takes on a new task, that of interpreter of the basic writings of the New Testament, meaning the gospels and letters of St. Paul. While he does a good, workmanlike job of it, there are fewer of those sparkling “Aha!” moments than in his previous works.
He starts off well, setting the scene for the reader by a whirlwind review of the four hundred years or so before Jesus was born. Beginning with Alexander the Great and moving up to the Roman occupation of Judea, Cahill gives us a pretty clear picture of the world Jesus came into, including an important fact that we don’t often think about; in the ancient world, the warrior was the role model, the icon that the people looked up to and physical might, whether expressed individually or militarily, was the expected norm in world affairs.
It was into this worldview that the Prince of Peace came. The central part of the book explores the Jesus of the synoptic gospels, the Jesus of the apostle Paul and the Jesus of John’s gospel. While Cahill gives us some nifty wordplay here, his observations are not stunningly original and can be easily found in other sources. Honestly, based on the subtitle of the book, “The World Before and After Jesus,” I was expecting more of a survey of Western history after Jesus’ resurrection rather than a summary of the gospels and guesses about their authors.
But here’s my biggest disappointment with this book, and it’s a big one. The author never directly addresses the resurrection of Jesus. He briefly approaches the miracles, and in typical historian fashion leaves them alone with the statement that the witnesses certainly believed they happened. Yet the biggest, world-changing miracle of all he dances around, circling it warily lest he approach it directly and perhaps offend any scholars or skeptics in the audience. Cahill fails to play his biggest card in explaining why the world is a different place today. I’d even go as far as to say that without Jesus’ resurrection the subtitle of this book would be unnecessary.
What’s funny is that it seems fairly clear that Mr. Cahill is himself a believer. In the book’s final section he writes glowingly about how Christ’s true followers are making a difference in today’s world, focusing particularly on a little known Italian group called the Community of Sant’Egidio. Their efforts are truly worthy of the attention he pays them. Yet all the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul couldn’t have brought them into being without the resurrection.
If Thomas Cahill didn’t understand this right from the start, I don’t know why he wrote this book.
One doesn’t need any special degree to be a book junkie, just a love of books that borders on the manic. Of course, that love has to include the stories those books tell. And there are oh, so many! Now, when I say “stories” I’m referring mainly to fiction, although I fully understand that non-fiction books also tell stories in their own way. But for now, the stories I’m concerned with are the fictional ones. Even narrower than that, the important ones. The tales, poems, and legends that define who we are as human beings in the Western world. Some may call these stories the “classics” or the “canon.” Whatever one calls them, they are critical to who we are as humans.
Unfortunately, it seems fewer people, especially our young, are reading these stories and the number is going to be even fewer now since the Common Core Standards are being implemented in many states. That’s the reason I wanted to share with you the following essay by professor Anthony Esolen of Providence College. It’s titled “How Common Core Devalues Great Literature,” and it appeared about a week ago in Crisis Magazine. It’s not that long and it’s not filled with technical terms and educational lingo. It’s just a straight forward, passionate case for all us to read the good stuff. Read it and let me know what you think.
I just couldn’t leave this book alone. So, since I haven’t written much in the last month or so, I thought I’d share some other thoughts about “The Once and Future King” that didn’t make it into the primary review. Kind of like the deleted scenes they put on DVDs, only more worthwhile.
“The Once and Future King” was published in 1958, but White’s intended ending didn’t make it into the final book. The manuscript for “The Book of Merlyn,” the true final chapter, was discovered in the archives of the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin in 1975. How did it wind up in Texas, of all places? I have no clue, but they published it separately in 1977.
In it, we find an aged and tired King Arthur sitting in his tent on the eve of battle with his bastard son Mordred. He notices the flap of the tent move and there is Merlyn, his old tutor and friend. For White, this presents him with “the marvelous opportunity of bringing the wheel full circle, and ending on an animal note like the one I began on. This will turn my completed epic into a perfect fruit, ’rounded off and bright and done.’ “
Much is being made these days of books being written for the Young Adult market having much sex and dysfunction in them. While I can’t speak to that, I can say that there was plenty of dysfunction to go around in medieval times, especially in this tale; Arthur sleeping with his half-sister, Queen Morgause; Lancelot and Guenever having an affair right under the king’s nose and him letting it go on to keep things peaceful with his best friend and wife. I guess humans haven’t changed much over the centuries.
Speaking about books for young people, I can think of no better book for use in a classroom than “The Once and Future King.” I’m sure this novel could be easily read by any high school level class and it would serve their minds so much better than “Catcher in the Rye,” which I never thought much of anyway.
“The Once and Future King” would actually make them think about things. Things like the nature of man. politics and nationalism and ideologies, love, virtues, the lessons of history. On and on. Important things. This book could actually create some thoughtful human beings.
As I said in the review, White used the English language like a master painter. Evidently when he got in a writing “groove” he couldn’t write slowly. It was full steam ahead. I can only imagine the job of his editors! Anyway, let me close this post with White’s description of love in medieval times:
For in those days love was ruled by a different convention to ours. In those days it was chivalrous, adult, long, religious, almost platonic. It was not a matter about which you could make accusations lightly. It was not, as we take it to be nowadays, begun and ended in a long week-end.
The man could write indeed!
T. H. White’s “The Once and Future King,” is one of those novels. Actually, it is four books, each focusing on a different character and aspect of the Arthurian legend. And as the novel progresses we are treated to a wonderful mixture of fantasy, comedy, psychology, history, romance, philosophy and tragedy. We also meet the Arthurian characters we have heard about in so many tales from so many authors over the years, but in these pages they are not just icons going through the motions. Mr. White has truly breathed life into them, giving each a background and personal depth rarely found in stories often considered mere fantasy.
The first book in “The Once and Future King” is “The Sword in the Stone,” most well-known for being the basis of the wonderful Disney film of the same name. It starts the reader’s journey off in brightness and hope, introducing the young Arthur, known as “Wart,” and his teacher Merlyn. By changing the young king-to-be into a fish, an ant, and a goose, Merlyn attempts to teach his charge about life, the futility of war and the frustrating inability of humans to avoid it. This theme is carried on through the book, both in its social/political aspects and in the personal struggles that each human deals with in their own life.
The seeds of coming darkness are planted in the next book, “The Queen of Air and Darkness.” Many people don’t realize that the story of King Arthur is rightly considered a tragedy. As White wrote elsewhere, “The whole Arthurian story is a regular greek doom, comparable to that of Orestes.” He based this novel on his deep reading of Sir Thomas Malory’s “Morte d’ Arthur,” the classic work on Arthur. If anyone needs reminding, “morte” means death. The seed is planted by the young man Arthur himself by way of an unknowing night of passion with his half-sister, Queen Morgause of Lothian and Orkney. Not even his ignorance will save him from the consequences of this action because, as White expresses it later, “Women know, far better than men, that God’s laws are not mocked.”
In the third book, “The Ill-Made Knight,” we finally come to what many associate with the Arthurian legend, the story of Sir Lancelot and his affair with Arthur’s queen, Guenever. This is the longest of the four books and gives the reader an intimate look at the heart of medieval chivalry in the person of Lancelot. It’s the story of a young boy who dreamed of becoming the greatest of King Arthur’s knights, who loved holiness and honor and wanted desperately to perform a real miracle. A boy whose true beauty was all in his heart because his “face was as ugly as a monster’s in the King’s menagerie. He looked like an African ape.” I wasn’t expecting that one either, but it’s there for a reason and it works.
And, of course, there’s Guenever (I know, “Where’s the ‘e’ at the end?” I’m using White’s spelling here). I’ll let White describe her for you:
She was beautiful, sanguine, hot-tempered, demanding, impulsive, acquisitive, charming – she had all the proper qualities for a man-eater. But the rock on which these easy explanations founder, is that she was not promiscuous. There was never anybody in her life except Lancelot and Arthur. She never ate anybody except these. And even these she did not eat in the full sense of the word.
One explanation of Guenever, for what it is worth, is that she was what they used to call a “real” person. She was not the kind who can be fitted away safely under some label or other . . .
This description gives you two things. A living, breathing woman, and an example of White’s incredible prose. Believe me, this novel is packed with such gems. I could do a whole post composed of nothing but my favorite passages from this book. Someday I just might. But onward.
In the fourth book, “The Candle in the Wind,” we come to Mordred, Arthur’s son by Queen Morgause and his doom. Even when Mordred isn’t in a particular chapter or scene, his presence looms darkly over every page. This book is different from the other three in that it is primarily composed of the dialogue and thoughts of the characters we have come to know so well through White. And yet I found it to be the most absorbing of the four, as if I was being allowed inside the minds of legends. Amazing.
There are many different themes and sub-themes running through this monumental work, but the one theme White himself was focused on was the theme he took from Malory’s “Morte d’ Arthur,” a quest for the antidote to war. Whether by redirecting Might to a Right and just cause, or by channeling man’s natural aggressiveness into a quest, as for the Holy Grail, White seeks to find some solution to the horror of war through the thoughts and actions of the legendary figures he so wonderfully brings to life.
“The Once and Future King” was published in 1958. One reviewer at the time called it “A near masterpiece.” Wrong. This is as much a masterpiece as any book I’ve ever read.