Heroes of Old: Alexander the Great

You may recall how I thought one of the more exciting parts of The Habitation of the Blessed—Catherynne Valente’s reworking of the legends of Prester John’s magical kingdom deep in central Asia—was how she worked in a legend regarding Alexander the Great building a massive wall to imprison the evil giants Gog and Magog. As it happens, she was adapting part of the Romance of Alexander, a series of tales passed down since at least Roman times that were greatly expanded in the Middle Ages. Two selections from a loose translation of these tales, retold by Richard Steele in 1894, is available in The Tolkien Fan’s Medieval Reader.

I recently read them, and was delighted. These are rousing adventure tales, reveling in the new, the exotic, and the bold. The presence of magic is generous. Curiosity is the virtue extolled here, and courage in exploration, and there is a palpable joy at the prospects of all that God’s great world might hold (though the deity Alexander seems most to honor is Bacchus, who also was reputed to travel widely into India).

The titles of these passages are: How Alexander Passed through the Land of Darkness and Slew the Basilisk and How Alexander Came to the Trees of the Sun and the Moon.

I love these titles.

The History

 A wonderful thing about Alexander the Great’s conquests, from a storytelling perspective, is how far he ventured into the sprawling regions of the East, filled, to the Greek mind, with every rumor and elusive dream that ancient lore could tell of. Beyond Babylon he marched, beyond Persia, and through Afghanistan (subduing it as no modern army has managed thus far) even into India and the Himalayas. He conquered, he colonized, and he explored. It took him something less than ten years, and he never saw defeat on the field of battle. He was driven to always keep moving, onward to the next city over the horizon, to see every wonder the world had to offer and to claim it as his own. He died in Babylon, aged 32, either by poison or some kind of illness, and reportedly wept that he had not conquered all the regions of the world.

Whoa.

These wide travels provide great fodder for legendary material. For all that ancient writers told about Alexander, much remains undocumented and open to speculation of both the serious and the fanciful kinds. Naturally, I am more interested in the fanciful kinds.

The Source

According to Turgon, the editor and compiler of The Tolkien Fan’s Medieval Reader (and a founding member of TheOneRing.Net), most of the Alexander romances remain untranslated. These passages are from a retelling by Richard Steele; I have not yet found any other information about them from a scholarly source, and have thus resorted to Wikipedia. In summary, the various sources range from Roman-era Greeks like Arrian, Diodorus, and Plutarch to anonymous authors throughout the ages, extending into the late Renaissance. They appear in many languages, including Russian, Hebrew, and Arabic. Even the Koran records myths relating to the king of Macedon. And, at least for the European sources, it doesn’t seem that we know who wrote them.

The Stories

 How Alexander Passed Through the Land of Darkness and Slew the Basilisk

 Now the trees of this land were fruitful and bore all manner of food for man, and amongst them were apples and almonds, vines and pomegranates, and plums and damsons; and it was in this land that the Greeks first ate of damsons, for they did eat of them three days while they were in the forest. (Turgon 154)

 The story begins after the last of Alexander’s historical conquests, in India. He leads a combined army of Greeks and Indians into “a plain full of fair flowers and trees,” rich exotic fruits and spices, and peopled only by a race of cowardly giants who are easily routed. They venture further and discover more wonders, including a vast desert with a central region on which the sun never rises.

In the Land of Darkness, Alexander searches for the Well of Life with the aid of the magic stone Elmas, which shines brighter the nearer it is to the Well. Now the Well of Life is said to disappear once a man has bathed in it, and it does not reappear for another year. Alexander sends out search parties in every direction with instructions not to touch the water of the Well if they find it, but to return immediately to him. Because the land is still perpetually in night, trumpeters sound their instruments every hour so the searchers can always find their way back to camp. When one searcher, Philotus, returns with his hair wet, Alexander knows the man has found the Well and bathed in it, thus gaining immortal life. The king has Philotus take him to the spot, but the Well is gone.

Then the wrath of the King burst out, for he knew that he should see the Well no more for a year if he remained in that place, and that all the gray of his expedition was spent for nought but to make this Indian immortal, and he bade men bring great stones, and build them in a pillar round the Indian and close it at the top, and they did so, and he was left alive inside the pillar, for indeed the Greeks could not slay him. (157)

Alexander continues up into the eastern mountains, recalling a prophecy that said he would learn of his fate in the East. When his men start dropping dead in the mountain passes, he climbs to a high peak and spies a Basilisk—a great snakelike creature who slays merely by its glance—hiding among the rocks. He defeats the Basilisk in the time-honored way of Greek heroes, by use of a mirror, and collects precious ingredients from the monster’s remains.

Returning to a mountain temple he had previously passed, Alexander is told by the priests about a Northward Way that leads to the Trees of the Sun and the Moon, which can speak the future in human languages and read human minds.

How Alexander Came to the Trees of the Sun and the Moon

Ever the ambitious man, Alexander leaves his army and embarks upon the Northward Way with a small entourage. He finds “a great cliff, shining in the setting sun from thousands of brilliant points like diamonds, and from chains of red gold leading from step to step up the face of he rock, high up beyond the ken of men” (159).

Who has cut these steps—two thousand and five hundred of them!—into the mountainside? We don’t know, but Alexander climbs them anyway, and finds at the top a wide golden plain, full of trees bearing varied spices and fruits, and villages of friendly Indians wearing tiger skins, and far off a shining palace. The land is so beautiful and fertile that it seems only Paradise could excel it.

A gray Elder waits in the palace and impresses Alexander by knowing his name without being told. The Greeks ask for the Trees, and are led into a garden, where a colorful Phoenix is casually pointed out as it roosts in a hundred-foot high tree. Then they come to the Tree of the Sun, which is gold and male, and the Tree of the Moon, which is silver and female.

I interject merely to note that Tolkien reportedly cited this story as an inspiration for the Trees of Valinor, which were gold, silver, and sacred.

From the Trees Alexander learns the answers to his two most pressing questions: that he will never return home to his mother in Macedon, and that his death will come by poison at the hand of one of his most trusted friends. Hearing this, he is deeply grieved, and briefly considers whether by slaying all his friends he might save himself. But wisdom prevails, for he cannot bear the thought of the suspicion and dishonor that would bring him to the end of his days. And so he leaves the marvelous land, rejoins his army, lies about the Trees’ prophecies in order to lift the spirits of his men, and begins his journey home, joyous in outlook, but wary in spirit.

Pictured: Alexander doing something epic. In a boat with other dudes.

The Hero

Alexander is a hero in the classic sense; a man who accomplishes amazing feats the rest of us could only dream of. For him to have this quality we should, I think, be able to find some moral value in his deeds, if not his heart.

My favorite moment in these stories comes just before he reaches the land of the Trees of the Sun and the Moon:

“Early in the morning he arose, and when he had called to him his twelve tried princes, he began to ascend the steps on the side of the mountain, and as he went up it seemed to him that he was going into the clouds, and when he looked down, the path by which he had come seemed as a silver ribbon among the hills, and the men of his host seemed smaller than bees, and nothing that might happen seemed strange to him, for his joy and lightness of heart” (159).

This, to me, is the great virtue of Alexander as a hero: his delight in exploration, in seeing overwhelming natural wonders for the first time. I have felt a lesser version of it, once when I stood at the top of a Scottish munro, wrapped up to my nose from the chill and howling winds, gazing in rapture into the wide silver mists that obscured most of the wet, heather-filled world from view. Other ancient heroes desire fame, honor, and success in war. While Alexander undoubtedly wants to conquer and rule, he is also driven by this desire to see all great things the world has to offer.

This curiosity breeds a certain generosity and tolerance in him. The Greeks and Persians famously hated each other due to decades of bloody wars, but Alexander envisioned an empire-wide culture that fused Greek, Persian, Egyptian, and Indian elements. Indian King Porus is his second-in-command, and he makes sacrifices at every alter he comes across, regardless of religion. Tellingly, he displays no desire to conquer the land of the Trees, though it is undoubtedly the richest and most wonderful land he has come across. He treats it with caution and respect, as if recognizing that its mere existence suggests the work of a deity greater than the kind he claims ancestry from.

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Ruminations on “Beowulf”, Treasure, and Generosity

My OE prof was personal friends with Irish poet Seamus Heaney, and told him to his face that she hated his translation. It is, naturally, the only translation I've read all the way through.

Hwæt!

Today, I feel like talking about Beowulf.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Beowulf is that it is essentially a pagan heroic epic, yet it was written by a Christian for a Christian audience.  Naturally, there is an unmistakable contrast between the pagan themes inherent in the story and the Christian themes that are worked into the grain by the poet.  The theme of wealth, in particular, is one which both Beowulf and other Christian theological texts of the time period speak frequently about.

Christianity, by its very nature, focuses attention on the afterlife.  What we do on earth is important insomuch as it pleases God, works His will, and prepares our souls for Heaven. Especially in medieval Christianity, the presence of wealth was often seen as a distraction from spiritual things and a promoter of greed.  The monastic orders forsook all but the basic necessities of life in order to focus their minds and hearts on God, and the Protestant Reformers would later note how the luxuries of the papacy had perverted the office to something that was spiritual only in name.  Material wealth is of little use, said the Christians, for it cannot accompany you after death and is troublesome in life.  As Boethius pointed out,

“Money has no inherent property such as to stop it being taken away from those who possess it, against their will.”

The poet of Beowulf might consider Boethius’ statement a point well taken, as the poem is filled with battles in which the loser’s treasures invariably go to the one who defeated him.  Prowess in war is the most prized virtue, and it is assumed that the stronger man has earned the right to take whatever his strength allows him if the battle was justified for any reason.  Yet wealth serves another, vastly more important role in the society and Beowulf – it enables generosity.  Noble kings and thanes are often called ring-givers, because aside from valor in war, their honor and reputation is built on the hospitality they show to others and the ways they reward their loyal followers.  When Beowulf saves the hall of Heorot from Grendel, King Hrothgar not only lets him loot Grendel’s lair, but also heaps numerous other treasures on him and his soldiers to show the magnitude of his thankfulness and the greatness of his soul.  The poet remarks consistently how this giving of gifts marks the greatness of Hrothgar’s honor.  Beowulf then proceeds to reward his faithful followers with more gifts, not even neglecting the man who stayed on the coastline to watch their ship the whole time and was not present at any of the fights.  And when he arrives home in Geatland, Beowulf shows his appreciation to his king at home by giving him some of the treasure as well.  By such generosity, as well as fighting prowess, are men considered great in this world.

Wealth is seen as something to be used, not hoarded, and, I think, as a sort of vindication that the battle was worth it after all.  If the victor does not reward those who have helped him, he will reveal his arrogance and end up with enemies.  Those who do hoard wealth in this world inevitably lose it – in a curious affirmation of Beothius’ rule.  Grendel and Grendel’s mother have apparently raided and looted human settlements for centuries, and they lose all to Beowulf.  The dragon, too, has a hoard of treasure that does not belong to him, and so he too loses it to Beowulf.

Yet neither can Beowulf keep his winnings in the afterlife. Dying from the dragon’s wound, he commands his servant Wiglaf to find the monster’s treasure hoard for him, saying, “My going will be easier for having seen the treasure, a less troubled letting-go of the life and lordship I have long maintained” (Heaney, 185). Why? Not for himself, but for his people. His wealth is only good so long as it strengthens the people of his kingdom, and the hero recognizes that it is to his honor to leave his loved ones better off after his passing.

Book Review: “Lilith” by George MacDonald

An entrancing and utterly unique, unpredictable story, full of the beauty, the gravitas, and possibly the underlying reality of dreams.Rarely has the fantasy genre been so amazingly used to communicate the gospel.

Lilith is equal if not superior to the best of Poe.
~W.H. Auden

If we define Literature as an art whose medium is words, then certainly MacDonald has no place in its first rank—perhaps not even in its second. There are indeed passages where the wisdom and (I would dare to call it) the holiness that are in him triumph over and even burn away the baser elements in his style: the expression becomes precise, weighty, economic; acquires a cutting edge. But he does not maintain this level for long. The texture of his writing as a whole is undistinguished, at times fumbling…But this does not quite dispose of him even for the literary critic. What he does best is fantasy—fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic. And this, in my opinion, he does better than any man…Myth does not essentially exist in words at all.
~C.S. Lewis, 1946

Title: Lilith
Author: George MacDonald
Pages: 252
Published: 1895 (making this a piece of Victorian literature)
Spoiler-free Synopsis: In his large and mostly empty home, young gentleman Mr. Vane is led by a strange old librarian, Mr. Raven, to a mirror that transports him to an otherworld, where he is confronted with the truth of his own soul and with the very mystery of evil itself.
Reason for Beginning: After reading MacDonald’s own Phantastes, I determined to read any work of his that I could get my hands on. Lilith was the next I could get my hands on.
Reason for Finishing: An entrancing and utterly unique, unpredictable story, full of the beauty, the gravitas, and possibly the underlying reality of dreams.
Story Re-readability: It may not be the easiest reread, due to MacDonald’s peculiar style, but it probably should be in order to better understand its underlying meanings. As Lewis says in the quote above, there is a wisdom in MacDonald that comes out in his writings, and I don’t think we’re likely to fully understand his wisdom after only one reading of it. Fortunately, each chapter is fairly short and usually comprises a single major incident, such that you can easily track your progress through the book.
Author Re-readability: This is my second MacDonald novel, and I loved it and will seek out his other books as well. The value in rereading him comes not so much from his writing style (though there are times when he manages a wonderful turn of phrase), but in the deep content of his books and the values that infuse them. He can preach boldly without being preachy because his sermons are woven into the fabric of his stories. Take the sermon out of the story, and you lose the story.
Recommendation: I would be pleased if everyone read this book, as it is so unique and has so much of real value, both aesthetically and spiritually, to offer. Yet I think that many people may have difficulty getting beyond the book’s strangeness, as sublime as I find it. Knowledge of Christianity is extremely helpful in understanding this book, as MacDonald references theology quite often without explaining his references very well; nonetheless, such knowledge is not necessary. In fact, MacDonald himself would probably have preferred readers to merely read and soak in his story without trying to understand every little bit as they go. When reading Lilith, focus on the emotions of the characters and of the scenes, and then use the theology to guide your understanding of those emotions.

Obtainability: I recommend reading a physical copy of Lilith so that you can underline passages and make notes in the margins. However, it is also available online, in the public domain, here.

Key Thoughts

You bewilder me!”
“That’s all right!”
~Lilith, pg. 30

If I could meet with just one dead author, it would be to sit down with George MacDonald and have him explain, page-by-page, what he meant in Lilith and Phantastes. These two novels have some of the most surreal and difficult plots I have encountered. It’s not that they are bizarre or meaningless in any postmodern way—through them runs a deep and sure current of absolute Truth that always leads to the Christian gospel. As C.S. Lewis noted, MacDonald has a tendency to preach his point even in his stories, only we do not mind as much as we might because he is a superb preacher. With this I agree. It is not MacDonald’s values or his message which seem obscure, but the details of every strange event which, while providing opportunity for commentary of a philosophical or theological nature, are nonetheless quite, well, strange.

The plot is closer to a dream narrative, and the question of why certain events happen is better answered by examining them from an allegorical or symbolic perspective rather than applying mundane logic. I think MacDonald’s powerful images are meant to awake in us recognition and acceptance of spiritual truths. Many of these are not very clear when we first encounter them in the book, but become clearer by the end. Take this excerpt near the beginning:

Then I saw, slowly walking over the light soil, the form of a woman. A white mist floated about her, now assuming, now losing to reassume the shape of a garment, as it gathered to her or was blown from her by a wind that dogged her steps.

She was beautiful, but with such a pride at once and misery on her countenance that I could hardly believe what yet I saw. Up and down she walked, vainly endeavoring to lay hold of the mist and wrap it around her. The eyes in the beautiful face were dead, and on her left side was a dark spot, against which she would now and then press her hand, as if to stifle pain or sickness. Her hair hung nearly to her feet, and sometimes the wind would so mix it with the mist that I could not distinguish the one from the other; but when it fell gathering together again, it shone a pale gold in the moonlight.

Suddenly, pressing both hands on her heart, she fell to the ground, and the mist rose from her and melted in the air. I ran to her. But she began to writhe in such torture that I stood aghast. A moment more and her legs, hurrying from her body, sped away serpents. From her shoulders fled her arms as in terror, serpents also. Then something flew up from her like a bat, and when I looked again, she was gone. The ground rose like the sea in a storm; terror laid hold upon me; I turned to the hills and ran. (50)

Is the ground rising literal or metaphorical? It could be either, I don’t know. Nor do I know what purpose it serves for the incident or the story at large. Our protagonist knows as little as we do at this point. And yet even now, having finished the book and knowing who the woman is and why she grasps her side in pain, and even knowing the source of her arrogance and misery…I still don’t know why she appeared at this early instance, why she fell to the ground now and not other times, and why her limbs sped away as serpents (when next we see her, her limbs are attached the way they are supposed to be). I can say, to some degree, what MacDonald means, but I have no idea why he chose to say it in this way!

When confronted with Mr. Raven, a person who seems to shift physically between an old man and a literal raven at the casual blink of an eye, and who speaks in seeming riddles and appears to inhabit an otherworld even as he stands in Mr. Vane’s library, Mr. Vane accepts the situation rather quickly and engages in philosophical argument. Not that he fails to question the weirdness of the situation; he does, but doesn’t dwell on it long. What I’m trying to say is that his reactions are not always what the reader’s would be or what the reader would expect. This isn’t a bad thing, really: it makes Mr. Vane a much more interesting protagonist. He engages philosophically with the dreamworld around him, trying to understand it and his place in it. Still, it is often hard to understand why he reacts in a certain way at a certain time, or why a particular thing happens.

Yet MacDonald is aware of the strangeness, and sometimes comments on it. There is an instance where Vane becomes enslaved to a group of evil, brutish people who are so stupid that he could easily either escape or even overcome them by his wits. Yet he continues in his slavery and only tries to escape in the most inconvenient and unnecessarily difficult ways. Much later, when he is wiser, he reflects on that incident with incredulity at his own foolishness.

“The lady stood a little way off, looking, even in the clumsy attire I had fashioned for her, at once grand and graceful.”

The chapters are short, and each one contains a very curious scene, most of which are so strange and powerful in their imagery that they will stay with you for some time: there is the house of Mr. Raven and his wife, with an endless dark room lined with couches on which people lie who wait for the resurrection of the dead—they have willingly died to themselves in order that they might live a new life;  the Evil Wood, in which skeletal armies massacre each other every night, but fade before the sun rises; the bountiful forest of the Little Lovers, children of innocence and beauty who spend their days alternately frolicking and hiding from the stupid adult brutes that live nearby; the hall of leaves and branches in which skeletons dance and curtsy like aristocrats; the massive dry riverbed that is plagued by monsters only at night; the House of Bitterness, whose kind but enigmatic mistress speaks to white leopards and always wears a veil over her face; a male and a female skeleton of recently-deceased aristocracy arguing comically about their broken carriage and the difficulty of walking without muscles on one’s knees; the great city of Bulika with its silent, fearful populace, its leopards and creepy Thin Man stalking the streets; and the final scenes, so magnificent and rapturous, of…ah, but that would be revealing too much!

I have listed these images in an attempt to prove a measure of what Lewis is saying in his quote above: that the power of MacDonald’s stories lie not in the words he uses, but in the events themselves. I could retell the entirety of Lilith in my own words, and as long as I am true to the content of the story, it would retain many of the same haunting qualities it has coming direct from him. This is the power of myth and fairy story, which belongs also to Fouqué’s Undine and which Tolkien discussed in “On Fairy Stories.” (I remember now that MacDonald himself called Undine the most beautiful of all fairy tales he knew.)

Theological stuff

As to the title, the book does involve the old Jewish myth of Lilith, Adam’s supposed first wife, who rebelled in arrogance and greed from God’s established plan and was cast out of the Garden to be replaced by Eve. The story is not in the Bible and is not true, but MacDonald uses it in his fantasy to convey his message of the sheer power of God’s grace. This book is all about salvation, and the necessity of letting go of sin, dying to one’s own self, and accepting the will of God to cleanse us and make us more like Him.

What I love about MacDonald is how powerful holiness is in his stories. Evil is shown truthfully to be weak, decrepit, a desperate sham, a pitiful and vindictive rebellion against God that only hurts the rebel, while only in holiness can people truly find themselves. We are made for Heaven; our struggle through this life is the result of our own sinful rebellion. Sin is part of human nature, but it was never meant to be; it is like a disease which attaches itself to the body, but was not originally part of it. And we cannot cure ourselves—the sick can never cure themselves! We must submit to the One who can cure us. This is always MacDonald’s message, I think: by submitting to Christ, we are cleansed of the evil that was not meant to be part of us, and we become truly ourselves.

There is another theological point, however, which MacDonald does not get right. Perhaps you have heard that he was a universalist? That is, that he did not believe that Hell is eternal, but that every created person, including the demons and Satan himself, will eventually be redeemed and join again with God. Well, it is true: this belief is expressed fairly clearly in Lilith. The Shadow, representative of Satan, is prophesied to eventually lay down his arms and submit to God, “the last to wake in the morning of the universe” (218). I have not read any of MacDonald’s sermons or essays on this subject, and so can only guess at his reasoning. My guess is that he thought that God’s grace and love are so all-consuming that it would be inconceivable for any evil to be able to resist it for ever, even Satan’s. It is a noble error, resting as it does on the sovereignty of Christ’s love and sacrifice, but an error nonetheless. MacDonald made the mistake of relying on his own reason and feelings in trying to understand the concept of Hell, and in doing so ignored the explicit nature of Scripture.

Firstly, if those who consistently and consciously reject the grace of Christ’s sacrifice unto their death do not have to pay an eternal price, but will be saved anyway, then the gospel is robbed of its meaning. Why should any person repent now, if they can sin as they please in this life and be cleansed—easily, without having to submit to anything themselves, they think—in the next? Secondly, the Scriptures clearly state that eternal punishment exists: Matthew chapters 7, 10, and 25:31-46, among others.

Does this serious error invalidate the spiritual value of MacDonald’s message and story? I think not. Christians must be aware of biblical theology and of where MacDonald trusted his own reasoning over God’s Word, but that does not mean he is no Christian, nor that his book cannot be termed a Christian book. His portrayal of the victory of God’s love over the most dedicated sinners is beautiful and moving. Rarely has the fantasy genre been so amazingly used to communicate the gospel.

And yet, for all that, the unique power of MacDonald’s story is very hard to communicate; you simply must read it for yourself.

None but God hates evil and understands it.”
~Lilith, page 206

Other Reviews
Andrew @ Till We Have Faces

Book Meme Day 30: Favorite Book of All Time

Well if you are going to deal in absolutes, then fine. The Holy Bible. Old and New Testaments. Not a word more nor a word less. Preferably the New American Standard translation, but as long as a translation is meticulously accurate, it counts as my favorite. You see, there really is no book nearly as important or wonderful or perfect as the Bible. It sheds Light on every aspect of human existence, and it is always invariably correct.

Oh, what’s that? Yes, I know I excluded the Bible from this meme at the beginning to prevent it from sweeping all the positive “awards.” But the phrasing of today’s topic—the final topic—left me no choice. Favorite book of all time? All time? If we are speaking about eternity, then all books will fade away but this one, because it is the Scripture bearing the gospel of the infinite God. It all seems quite simple to me—with the qualification “of all time,” literally no other book can even be considered a candidate, because all other books are the words of finite men trying, whether they realize it or not, to grasp at the mind of God.

In fact, it is the word “favorite” which is irrelevant in this topic. What has my opinion got to do with anything relating to eternity? The Bible is The Book of All Time, and it is my good fortune (and grace from God) that I wholeheartedly love it.

Are you not satisfied yet? What did you expect me to write about, my favorite novel? That’s not the meme topic, now is it? And besides, you already know my favorite series, my favorite story by the author of my favorite series, my favorite books by my favorite authors, my favorite “classic” book, my favorite male and female characters, two of my favorite quotes, my favorite romance in a book, my favorite childhood book, and my favorite book title.

It would be ungenerous of me to call these an overabundance of favorites, for the very concept seems ludicrous to me, especially concerning books, where each one may prove more dear than others to a person at different points in their lives, and it is very possible for multiple books to be on a shelf of favorites, as it were, all at the same time, with none taking particular precedence. When ranking such subjective things like books and movies, I prefer to think of them that way—a highest level of “great” stories that are among the best ever told and which are the most important to me personally, and then successive levels below. The number of stories which may occupy any given level is, theoretically, infinite.

By reading these month’s posts, you have already gained a pretty solid idea of my favorite stories. However, since I do love title-dropping, I’ll indulge in just a little more. If you want more information or discussion on any of the titles below, just ask. They make for great discussion!

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff (my review!)
Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff
The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff
Phantastes by George MacDonald
Mossflower by Brian Jacques
Watership Down by Richard Adams
The Odyssey by Homer
Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle
Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas
Mere Christianity by Lewis
Miracles by Lewis
Chronicles of Narnia by Lewis

(and so. many. more.)

Oh, and yes, this is the end of the meme. Unfortunately I shall not be updating every single day. However, I do have a few new reviews in the pipeline, so fear not, the month of June will not be an empty one!

Book Meme Day 29: A Book I Liked But Everyone Else Hated

I am somewhat puzzled as to how this differs from a book that is underrated, seeing as both involve a case where I value a book higher than an unspecified group of other people.

However, since I have neither the time nor the desire, at the moment, to redefine the meme, I shall merely redefine that unspecified group of people. The following book is one that I read in my senior year of high school for an AP English class, and most of my fellow classmates expressed some degree of dislike for it; mostly for its interminable length, the plethora of nearly unpronounceable names, the exhausting and confusing monologues of a philosophical nature, the mostly bleak story peopled with unsavory characters, and the occasional bizarre dream sequence. It was hard to blame them – in fact, I fully expected to hate the book myself.

But I didn’t. I was surprised, moved, and inspired. I really liked it.

The book is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

It took drive and dedication to get to the end, but doggone it, I read every word of Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece. Try these names out on your tongue: Raskolnikov, Svidrigailov, Marmeladov, Porfiry Petrovich, Rodion Romanovich, Dmitry Prokofich, Pulkheria (Pukey???) Aleksandrovna, and Andrei Semyonovich Lebezyatnikov (called Lebezyatnikov for short). Say them five times fast. By themselves they are rather fun to play around with, but surrounded by dozens of other such names in the middle of 600+ page novel that moves at the dripping speed of molasses, and a reader can get dizzy trying to keep track of them all. Especially since Dostoyevsky likes to delve into each one’s life history and motivation.

The story’s basic premise doesn’t help much. Troubled and destitute university student Raskolnikov messily murders the miserly old moneylender-lady, and spends the rest of the book tortured by his conscience and paranoid about being caught. Not exactly preferred summer reading.

But what drew me in and won me over is how Dostoyevsky handles this. It helps to have a basic idea of the philosophical ideas in vogue when the book was published in 1866. Russian nihilism was threatening society’s moral fabric by its violent rejection of all authorities and its reduction of mankind to chemical components. Nietzsche hadn’t yet written Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883) championing his idea of the Übermensch, but there already existed the idea of a “Napoleon complex”—that is, someone who believes themselves above the laws (legal and moral) of society because they are destined for greatness.

Dostoyevsky wrote Crime and Punishment to deconstruct and demolish this repugnant idea, and he does it very well. Raskolnikov convinces himself that he is one of these “supermen” who need not obey the law and that if only he could get the money belonging to the local moneylender, he would be able to fund his philosophical writings and change the world for the better. To steal her money, he must murder her, and that he does, but only after a long period of getting up his nerve. But as soon as the blood is on his axe and two women are dead, guilt and fear overwhelm him and drive him to flee. The police struggle for many months to figure out who the murderer is, and even though they never gain evidence against him, Rasknolnikov is convinced it is but a matter of time. His nihilistic philosophies are no comfort against the bare fact of his evil action, especially since his nature is normally to be generous and loving. His destitute condition worsens. He grows deathly ill. His neighbors and friends puzzle over him, though all but a couple are too engrossed in their own problems to help him. Day and night Rasknolnikov is tortured mercilessly by his conscience, and in anguish and cowardice he fights it.

For the most part, Dostoyevsky is not overtly religious, but his implications are clear to those with an eye. God does not abandon Rasknolnikov nor cause him to burn immediately. Rather, He provides two vital friends. Razhumikin, whose very name means “reason,” brings Rasknolnikov decency, common sense, and steady friendship. He does not suspect his good friend could be the murderer the police search for, but he tries his best to guide him away from paranoia and bitterness. The other friend is Sonya, the most innocent prostitute you will ever find in literature. Sonya sells her body only to keep her family from starving, but while Dostoyevsky clearly sympathizes with her, I don’t think he necessarily condones her decision. Sonya herself hates her profession, because she is a Christian. Is she hypocritical and wrong to be a prostitute, even though it is to save her family? Yes. It makes her wrong about that choice, but it does not preclude her from salvation. I think Dostoyevsky is perceptive in the way he treats her. Her faith in God’s ability to save everyone from sin, even herself and Rasknolnikov, is so great that she cannot help but share it. Even as she weeps for her own sin, she recognizes Christ’s love and transfers it to Rasknolnikov, whom she can see is clearly in need of it. She does not judge him, but cares for him. Eventually, she even begins to press on him the need for repentance.

Naturally, Raskolnikov scorns the Bible stories she tells him, thinking himself a modern free-thinker who is beyond such spiritual ideas. But his conscience just will not let up. In the end it is too much. He is brought to his breaking point, and broken, and then, seeing Sonya before him, pleading, he turns himself in.

It’s a remarkable little moment, but I’m glad Dostoyevsky doesn’t stop there. He provides us an all-important epilogue. Rasknolnikov is sent to prison in Siberia, where he spends years in quiet despair. Razhumikin visits him sometimes, but it is Sonya who actually moves to live nearby and visits him nearly every day. She no longer preaches—he knows the gospel message she has—she merely is constant, loving company. And slowly, very slowly, Rasknolnikov begins to soften.

And then, on the very last page and still in his cell, Rasknolnikov finds himself staring at a small New Testament under his pillow, and…

He himself had asked for it not long before he had fallen ill, and she [Sonya] had brought him her copy in silence. Until now, he had never opened it.

Even now he did not open it, but a certain thought flickered through his mind: “What if her convictions can now be mine, too? Her feelings, her strivings, at least…” (656)

The tide has turned. Exhausted and beaten by the broad path of destruction, he finally turns to the narrow little path that turns neither right nor left, and takes his first wobbly step down it. Dostoyevsky’s last words make gloriously, delicately clear that redemption has come. In the terms of another literary masterpiece, we leave Raskolnikov as he is heading towards the Wicket Gate that leads to the Celestial City.

That is why I like Crime and Punishment. But you see how important it is to read unto the very last page.

Book Meme Day 26: A Book That Changed Your Mind About Something

Sometimes it is hard to distinguish between a book that changed your opinion, a book that taught you something new, and a book that flat-out amazed you with its uniqueness. You must forgive me if I allow these definitions to blend.

Regardless of your thoughts, if any, on women authors and racial prejudices in early nineteenth century France, you will be surprised by Claire de Duras’ Ourika.

It was published by a woman, de Duras, in 1828, and tells the story of an African girl who is rescued from slavery by an aristocratic French family and raised as part of their family. She grows up unaware of any difference between her and the white society around her; her education is the best money can buy, her clothes and manners are aristocratic, and she is even given a débutante ball to introduce her to society. It is at this point that her problems begin, for only now do other people begin to remark on her exotic looks and consider her something apart. The revelation is devastating to her self-esteem and future plans. And in the midst of all this comes the French Revolution.

Is the fact that an aristocratic French woman in 1828 wrote a story with a black heroine exploring racial prejudice not surprising enough for you? How about the fact that the book is in first person? In snobby-sounding literary analytical terms, this book is “the first earnest attempt by a white author to situate herself within a different racial psyche.” Because Ourika narrates so emotionally and perceptively, we feel all her joy at being a débutante, her horror at the realization that others consider her different, and her heartbreak while coming to terms with the fact that the nice white man she loves is incapable of seeing her as more than a friend, in large part because of her skin color. As Ourika overhears one sympathetic-but-practical lady remark, “What kind of man would marry a negress?” The implication is that no high-born man would consider it appropriate to marry a black woman, and that Ourika is too well-educated and well-raised to marry a low-born man. It is a bizarre and cruel quandary.

The aristocratic Mme de B., who acts as an adopted mother to Ourika, tried very hard for years to hide this aspect of society from her, to preserve Ourika’s happiness and sense of normality. But as another aristocratic woman explains, their society believes that “Ourika has flouted her natural destiny. She has entered society without its permission. It will have its revenge.”

But actually, what surprised me most about this book was how little discrimination Ourika encounters, compared to what I thought would be the case in that place and time. It is nothing like the American South of the same time, which is described so graphically by Frederick Douglass in his autobiography. When Ourika is a child, there is little more than grumblings from outsiders, while most of the people she meets accept her well enough. She doesn’t “regret being black” because “there [is] nothing to warn [her] that the color of [her] skin might be a disadvantage.” She has white friends, and the young man Charles becomes her closest confidant. It is only when she falls in love with him that she realizes he is oblivious to the idea that she could have romantic feelings. Sometimes prejudice can be so subtle.

But what makes this book so affecting is Ourika’s personality. She is a wonderful, warm person, overflowing with generosity, gentleness, and intelligence. She bears her humiliations and heartbreaks with strength and dignity, and does not consider them an excuse for poor behavior on her part. Even more winningly, her faith in God is triumphant. I was sad that in the end she becomes a nun, because I had so hoped that she might find happiness and acceptance by marrying and having a family, which is what she had wanted, and yet I still must be at peace with her decision. In the end, Ourika has come to terms with the society that she lives in, and she understands that in the long run, it matters not what men think of her, because she is a daughter of God in Heaven, in Whose eyes all men and women are equal.

Does this choice of mine fit the meme topic? Maybe not, I don’t know. I do not believe I had read any early nineteenth century French literature before this. However, I had certain assumptions which would never have let me guess the existence of a novel like this. Did I say novel? It’s more like a novella, at under fifty pages. So much is accomplished in that small space, though. I was utterly astonished by this book, and in the end very much won over. Among other things, I guess you could say that it changed my mind about the reputedly callous nature of pre-Revolutionary French aristocracy, because the author, who was of that class, proves to be a singularly sensitive and wise person.

Update: Good news, folks! The University of Georgia has provided the entire story free in PDF format here. In this format it’s only 18 pages, a hefty short story, really. Read it yourself and see if what I said about it is true!

Book Meme Day 25: A Character To Whom You Can Relate

I nearly gave up on this post. The difficulty of finding an answer for this meme topic distressed me. For a bibliophile to be faced with an inability to choose a single literary character he very much relates to is a troubling concept, for is that not one of the highest purposes of stories, to learn more about ourselves by experiencing the lives of fictional characters? Yet I do not typically read a book and think “Wow, I really identified with that character.” Perhaps some people do, but it is just not the way I think. My approach is not, I think, to look for how a character is similar to me, but to simply try to understand him on their own terms. That is my general approach, I think – I cannot claim to be as objective as that sounds.

Still, after spending many hours wondering, I finally settled on a plausible answer.

Sir Gawain from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

By John Howe.

I relate to him spiritually. As Gawain eagerly loves and serves King Arthur, who is also his uncle, so do I love and serve God, my King, who has declared me (as all Christians) to be his adopted son. As Gawain is dedicated to maintaining his purity and honor, as a Knight of the Round Table and a Christian man, so do I, as a Christian man, seek to maintain my own of both.  And as Gawain is tempted so dangerously in these areas, so am I.

When the Lady of Castle Hautdesert tries to seduce Gawain, she does so with disarming grace and humor. Her intentions are clear, but her manner is not that of mere slut. Gawain is faced with a difficult quandary: how does he rebuff her and maintain his purity, while not offending her and possibly invoking her husband’s wrath? Now, as a Christian, it is clear to see what Gawain’s priorities should be; he should have fled from the Lady’s presence as soon as her intentions were apparent, and risked offending her. That would have been the best course of action. Gawain makes the mistake of trying to please the woman while still refusing her advances and maintaining his physical and spiritual purity. The danger is real: Gawain is deeply attracted to her beauty, intelligence, and grace, and is pleased by her flattery.

In my reading, I believe Gawain is truly, utterly sincere in his values. He knows that physical purity is not enough – God demands that he have pure thoughts as well as deeds. It is a difficult struggle, and one that every man can relate to, as we watch Gawain struggle over three days to figure out the right course of action. He is imperfect, and even though in the end he maintains his physical purity – which satisfies everyone else in the story – he knows that he did compromise his spiritual purity, and that bothers him. By human standards he did exceptionally well, morally, but Gawain knows that in God’s eyes he is still a sinner. His awareness is something I can relate to, even as I rejoice in the knowledge of God’s mercy and grace.