Some argue Jane Austen writes “fluff” and others argue she belongs in the canon because she writes witty social commentary. Do you think Austen belongs in the canon? Why or why not?
Some people are bozos whose literary ears are clogged with the fluff of snobbishness (as opposed to the stuff of flobbishness, which I thought I made up for this pun but can actually mean something about the nature of spit. Google “to flob.”). Jane Austen isn’t quite a personal favorite yet but she is indisputably a worthy member of the world’s literary canon. Continue reading “Classic Remarks 2: Does Jane Austen belong in the literary canon?”→
Alas, ’tis upon me! Obscenely late, but here nonetheless — the end of the 2012 Book Meme! ‘Twas scheduled for but ten weeks…but it never specified which ten! I just…spread them a bit apart, is all. Nonetheless, I bring my participation here to a close. May next year’s Meme be as fruitful, but more timely!
Topic: Which books would you bring if the world was destroyed and we had to restart civilization? (i.e. the basis of human knowledge, thought, and civilization)
I take the premise of this topic to be the utter destruction of human society wherever it exists, survived only by small and incomplete groups of people who, lacking any clear leadership and way forward, must join together to reform themselves into a healthy society that can not only self-perpetuate, but grow, and provide for the welfare and happiness—physical, emotional, intellectual, artistic, and spiritual—of its members. Had they but a very few (we’ll say in the single digits) books recovered from our current civilization, which ones might be the most helpful for the rebuilding of society? Which ones would advise them best against the pitfalls that could scuttle their endeavor, show them how to avoid various tyrannies and injustices, and reveal the best way, the ideal, that they should strive for?
To proffer an answer to such a question, we must know what is the purpose of human society, of all human relationships, and indeed of our very existence.
I reject offhand all philosophies and worldviews that claim there is no purpose or meaning to human existence. To build a successful society, one must have a goal that one is working towards, and these—whether relativisms, existentialisms, Postmodernisms, or other intellectually bankrupt ismatic forms—offer none.
Now, there are many other philosophies that do indeed offer an answer, and I reject all but the one I know by experience and revelation to be true. The Westminster Catechism may say it best:
Question 1: What is the chief and highest end of man?
Answer: Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.
Ergo, the purpose of human society and civilization is to enable all people to glorify God and fully enjoy Him forever. This is the real standard by which a civilization can be deemed more or less successful.
Thus, the only book that would be truly necessary in the Post-Apocalypse is the one book that has, completely and perfectly, as its great theme the glorification of God and the communication of Him to humanity:
So there you go.
However, the topic question is in the plural. While the Holy Bible is the only necessary and all-sufficient book, and indeed contains in it all the principles by which mankind must ever need to live, it is not the only book which can be useful to us. God has gifted us the ability and desire to communicate and to share our communications, even across the age; the gift of Literature, that we would be foolish not to take advantage of while we can, but never, of course, forgetting that the chief end of Literature is also the enabling of mankind to glorify God and fully enjoy Him forever.
So, acknowledging the embarrassing deficiencies of my personal education (including the fact that I simply don’t read much literature of a political or even philosophical nature, not as much as I should), I’ll suggest another book that could, if read intelligently, discussed wisely, and applied humbly, aid in the building of “a more perfect union.” There are many others, but it’s painful to think of choosing so few books at the exclusion of others, and this meme has been delayed long enough, so I’ll stick with this one “honorable mention” for now.
Man, when perfected, is the best of animals; but if he be isolated from law and justice he is the worst of all.
I choose the Politics over Plato’s Republic mainly because it’s been absolutely ages since I read Plato, and then only a few selections, and frankly it hasn’t stuck well in my memory. Aristotle, in contrast, I studied fairly rigorously over an entire course, reading his Politics, Poetics, and Nicomachean Ethics, and then comparing them to the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas. That was still a few years ago, so I have to rely on my margin notes and underlined passages of the book, but I still think the Politics is one of the best texts for inciting useful debates about the most important aspects of human society.
Just as for Christians everything comes back to glorifying God through Christ and His act of redemption, for Aristotle everything comes back to eudaimonia, or a life consisting of the best and truest happiness. Aristotle’s wisdom comes from his attempts to reconcile the ideal with the practical. He knows that there is a perfect, moral absolute by which mankind can be judged, but he also knows that we can’t completely live up to it.
The ideal form of government, in his opinion, will be the one which best fulfills the highest purpose of a government; that is, the common interest. Since the common interest is what is best for all citizens, and since what is best for individual citizens is virtue, then the best government will be that which can foster the most virtuous citizens (presumably both in quality and quantity), as well as maintain “a perfect and self-sufficing existence” for them (III.9.1280b33). “The good life,” Aristotle says, “is the chief end, both for the community as a whole and for each of us individually” (III.6.1278b23).
He talks about who should make the laws (ideally, only the most morally upright men no matter what rank of society they come from), how the economy should be structured, how and when wars should or should not be conducted, how to avoid a culture of petty jealousies and political squabbling, and why it is imperative that they not just settle for a mediocre society, but actively strive for the best one possible. And should these survivors of the apocalypse ever become existential and suicidal, they might remember this:
But people also come together, and form and maintain political associations, merely for the sake of life; for perhaps there is some element of good even in the simple fact of living, so long as the evils of existence do not preponderate too heavily. It is an evident fact that most people cling hard enough to life to be willing to endure a good deal of suffering, which implies that life has in it a sort of healthy happiness and a natural quality of pleasure.
The group of post-apocalyptic survivors would find much to debate in Politics, and if they are wise, they will learn from his logical and methodical processes while still being able to critique him, hopefully from a biblical viewpoint. Many of his views, such as the ones on slavery, they should not adopt, although I think Aristotle was rather progressive for his time for insisting that not all who were physically slaves should have been, and that some who physically were among the elite deserved to be slaves! But he understands the interconnectedness of society: the importance of individual virtue and self-regulation, of families maintaining healthy relationships, of neighbors caring for each others’ welfare, and of a people that respects its government because its government is composed of morally upright and wise men who try their best to serve the people humbly and selflessly. That’s the ideal. We’ll never quite get there on this earth, and we’ll probably stay very far away, but Aristotle knows this and still insists we must strive for this ideal. In post-apocalyptic stories, we usually see the survivors dissolving into petty power-struggles and jealous squabbles, but if they had Aristotle’s Politics, they’d learn a bit about how to deal with some of the specific problems they come across.
In the end, what it comes down to is this: a government’s “intrinsic strength should be derived from the fact, not that a majority are in favor of its continuance (that might well be the case even with a poor constitution), but rather that no section at all in the city would favor a change to a different constitution” (IV.9.1294b13).
Of course, if the survivors had only Politics and not the Bible, while they might succeed in recreating something similar to a decent Greek city-state, they would not fare nearly as well as if they were pursuing Christ. God blessed Aristotle with perhaps the best of worldly wisdom, but even that cannot compare to the penetrating truth of the gospel, which lays bare all men’s hearts .
N.B. Ideally, this would be paired with the Nichomachean Ethics and the Poetics, for they all are designed to complement and explain each other. You’ll understand Politics much better if you know all the internal debates Aristotle goes through to understand eudaimonia in the Ethics, and Art in the Poetics.
 Taking the form of an “-ism,” that is, of theories and schools of thought that try to squeeze the grandness of the universe into their narrow field of vision, without success. To my knowledge, I have coined the word. There is probably a better one out there, but I’m too lazy to look it up.
Beyond that? Well, hard to say. It’ll all depend on which books develop a particular significance to our relationship. Some version of the story of Beren and Lúthien by Tolkien would make for excellent evening reading, as would some of his poetry. Speaking of poetry, verses by Shakespeare and John Donne seem almost obligatory. And since I’m a nut for early medieval stuff, I’ll probably have found something romantic in Anglo-Saxon to read by then. Or, failing something romantic, Beowulf. That’s good honeymoon reading, right?
In addition to a few “serious” romantic things to read, we’ll probably bring some books that are just a lot of fun, that we can laugh with, cheer with, gasp with. What specific books these will be, I don’t know yet. Some Lewis, some George MacDonald. The Bell at Sealey Head. I love many such books, and am open to suggestions (or, uh, demands, if it comes to that) from my future beloved. It might also be nice to reread some of the love letters we’ll have been sending to each other during the courtship.
But there is another suggestion I can put forth.
A blank notebook.
Should we both be writers, we could co-write a story together, or at least brainstorm one. Perhaps each night one of us could write another chapter to it, and then read it aloud. My wife would, of course, on her night to read open the book to find little love notes and poems in the margins, which I would’ve managed to write in the quiet moments when I could tear my eyes from her face.
Or maybe it’s a silly, overly sappy idea. I dunno. But isn’t a honeymoon rather the right time for sappiness? I think so. We could write all sorts of things in a blank notebook, together or individually, and then read them aloud to each other. Whatever we felt like. Silly things, even; it needn’t be serious. Things we’ve observed on the trip. Notes for later. Plans for later. Promises and hopes and dreams. And maybe even some gloriously bad puns!
I can’t decide between one of those beautiful leather-bound books you find at Renaissance Faires or a simple spiral bound. The former is prettier (but still very manly), but so much so that you almost don’t want to sully them with anything less than beautifully-formed masterpieces. The latter would be mundane and unassuming, but much more accommodating to the spur-of-the-moment jots and giddy brainstorms that the honeyed wine of love fulfilled is likely to inspire.
[Middle-earth technically refers just to one half of a continent in which most of Tolkien’s stories take place, but the term for his entire invented world is Arda.]
I am tempted to leave it at that. It’s obvious, sure. It’s unsurprising. But it’s true. By any interpretation I give to the question of which literary setting is the best, the answer for me will always be J.R.R. Tolkien’s Arda. Many books feature great and delightful settings, excellently fitted to their stories and wonderful in their design, but none as resplendent in grandeur, as piercing in emotion, or as deep in all things mortal and immortal as this. Not Narnia and its allegories, not Prydain and its Welsh mythologies, not Mossflower and its animal heroes, not Fantastica and its wish-worlds.
I judge this by the fact that Middle-earth is the one literary world that I never, ever tire of. From The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to The Silmarillion, to Unfinished Tales, to the Books of Lost Tales and the appendices and the atlases and the maps and the scrawled notes and the personal letters describing worldbuilding concepts and the long, tragic lives of elves, men, and angels…I read them with endless fascination, and have since my youth. I don’t see that changing.
Tolkien created a world of grand mythology and heroism with such attention to detail and internal consistency that, for all the elves and goblins and dragons and enchanted weapons and treasures, it feels real. The emotions are real. Continuity binds together the genealogies of families, the rise and fall of kingdoms, the conflicts both local and cosmic. Every story he tells in Middle-earth gains weight and power because of the world that it exists in, because of what came before, and what’s going on simultaneously. Everything has been shaped for a reason. The tale of Beren and Luthien is great on its own, but gains so much more from its connection to the tale of Turin, and the Fall of Doriath, and Gondolin, and…and everything. Tolkien didn’t just write a bunch of neat stories and stitch them together into the same setting. Reading his personal letters and notes, you see how carefully he crafted every element of his mythology so it fits a unified whole.
But it’s more than just that. Other authors have developed sprawlingly detailed, and sometimes reasonably logical, histories for their fantasy and science fiction worlds; some have even poured much effort into invented languages. What sets Tolkien apart, I think, is the terrible beauty of his creations. All his effort seems to have been concentrated on capturing the elements of the real world that he thought most beautiful, and giving them his own expression as a way of praising God.
The Beauties of Creation and Music
Then Ilúvatar [God] said to them [the Ainur, or angels]: ‘Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.’ Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void.
~ “Ainulindalë.” The Silmarillion. 3-4.
The Beauties of Light, Water, and Mountain Interplaying
And after a great while, as it seemed to him, when he was weary and yet unwilling to rest in the black tunnel, he saw far before him a light; and hastening on he came to a tall and narrow cleft, and followed the noisy stream between its leaning walls out into a golden evening. For he was come into a deep ravine with tall sheer sides, and it ran straight towards the West; and before him the setting sun, going down through a clear sky, shone into the ravine and kindled its walls with yellow fire, and the waters of the river glittered like gold as they broke and foamed upon many gleaming stones… …Thus Tuor journeyed slowly for three days, drinking the cold water but desiring no food, though there were many fish that shone as gold and silver, or gleamed with colours like to the rainbows in the spray above. And on the fourth day the channel grew wider, and its walls lower and less sheer; but the river ran deeper and more strongly, for high hills now marched on either side, and fresh waters spilled from them into Cirith Ninniach over shimmering falls. There long while Tuor sat, watching the swirling of the stream and listening to its endless voice, until night came again and stars shone cold and white in the dark lane of sky above him. Then he lifted up his voice, and plucked the strings of his harp, and above the noise of the water the sound of his song and the sweet thrilling of the harp were echoed in the stone and multiplied, and went forth and rang in the night-clad hills, until all the empty land was filled with music beneath the stars. For though he knew it not, Tuor was now come to the Echoing Mountains of Lammoth about the Firth of Drengist. There once long ago Fëanor had landed from the sea, and the voices of his host were swelled to a mighty clamour upon the coasts of the North ere the rising of the Moon.
~ “Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin.” Unfinished Tales. 25-26.
The Terrible Beauties of Tragedy and Catharsis
[N.B. In the first passage, there are two groups being referenced, and both are Eldar, elves in the Western Lands: the Gnomes (later renamed Noldor by Tolkien) led by Fëanor out of Valinor in rebellion, and the Solosimpi, the Shoreland Pipers, who peacefully maintain harbors on the coast of Valinor.]
Behold, the counsel of Fëanor is that by no means can that host hope to win swiftly along the coast save by the aid of ships: ‘and these,’ said he, ‘an the shore-elves will not give them, we must take’. Wherefore going down to the harbour they essayed to go upon those ships that there lay, but the Solosimpi said them nay, yet for the great host of the Gnome-folk they did not as yet resist; but a new wrath awoke there between Eldar and Eldar. So did the Noldoli embark all their womenfolk and children and a great host beside upon those ships, and casting them loose they oared them with a great multitude of oars towards the seas. Then did a great anger blaze in the hearts of the Shoreland Pipers, seeing the theft of those vessels that their cunning and long labours had fashioned, and some there were that the Gods had made of old on Tol Eressëa as has been recounted, wondrous and magic boats, the first that ever were. So sprang up suddenly a voice among them. ‘Never shall these thieves leave the Haven in our ships’, and all those of the Solosimpi that were there ran swiftly atop of the cliff-wall to where the archway was wherethrough that fleet must pass, and standing there they shouted to the Gnomes to return; but these heeded them not and held ever on their course, and the Solosimpi threatened them with rocks and strung their elfin bows. Seeing this and believing war already to be kindled came now those of the Gnomes who might not fare aboard the ships but whose part it was to march along the shores, and they sped behind the Solosimpi, until coming suddenly upon them nigh the Haven’s gate they slew them bitterly or cast them in the sea; and so first perished the Eldar neath the weapons of their own kin, and that was a deed of horror. …At length however it is done, and all those ships have passed out to the wide seas, and the Noldoli fared far away, but the little lamps are broken and the Haven is dark and very still, save for the faint sound of tears. Of like kind were all the works of Melko in this world.
~ “The Flight of the Noldoli.” The Book of Lost Tales 1. 183-184.
But Túrin sped far before them, and came to Cabed-en-Aras, and stood still; and he heard the roaring of the water [where his sister had just committed suicide], and saw that all the trees near and far were withered and their sere leaves fell mournfully, as though winter had come in the first days of summer. ‘Cabed-en-Aras, Cabed Naeramath!’ he cried. ‘I will not defile your waters where Níniel was washed. For all my deeds have been ill, and the latest the worst.’ Then he drew forth his sword, and said: ‘Hail Gurthang, iron of death, thou alone now remainest! But what lord or loyalty dost thou know, save the hand that wieldeth thee? From no blood wilt thou shrink! Wilt thou take Túrin Turambar? Wilt thou slay me swiftly?’ And from the blade rang a cold voice in answer: ‘Yea, I will drink thy blood, that I may forget the blood of Beleg my master, and the blood of Brandir slain unjustly. I will slay thee swiftly.’ Then Túrin set the hilts upon the ground, and cast himself upon the point of Gurthang, and the black blade took his life.
~ ‘Narn I Hîn Húrin.” Unfinished Tales. 152.
The Beauty of the Punishment of Evil
But Morgoth himself the Valar thrust through the Door of Night beyond the Walls of the World, into the Timeless Void; and a guard is set forever on those walls, and Eärendil [the Mariner, the elf who became a wandering star] keeps watch upon the ramparts of the sky.
~ “Of the Voyage of Eärendil.” The Silmarillion. 315.
The Beauty of the Sunrise in a Holy Land
…Manwë bade cast the ropes that held her, and straightway the Ship of the Morning arose above Taniquetil and the bosom of the air received it. Ever as it rose it burned the brighter and the purer till all Valinor was filled with radiance, and the vales of Erúmáni and the Shadowy Seas were bathed in light, and sunshine was spilled on the dark plain of Arvalin, save only where Ungweliantë’s clinging webs and darkest fumes still lay too thick for any radiance to filter through. Then all looking up saw that heaven was blue, and very bright and beautiful, but the stars fled as that great dawn came upon the world; and a gentle wind blew from the cold lands to meet the vessel and filled its gleaming sails, and white vapours mounted from off the misty seas below, that her prow seemed to cleave a white and airy foam. Yet did she waver not, for the Mánir that fared about her drew her by golden cords, and higher and higher the Sun’s great galleon rose, until even to the sight of Manwë it was but a disc of fire wreathed in veils of splendour that slowly and majestically wandered from the West. Never ever as it drew further away so grew the light in Valinor more mellow, and the shadows of the houses of the Gods grew long, slanting away towards the waters of the Outer Seas, but Taniquetil threw a great westering shadow that waxed ever longer and deeper, and it was afternoon in Valinor.
~ “The Tale of the Sun and Moon.” The Book of Lost Tales 1. 211-211.
…and many more possible examples…
Fantasy and science fiction are both at their greatest when, in showing us new wonders, they show us further the glories of God, His creations, and His Truths that underlie His creations. This, I believe, is the highest calling of art, and is what fantastical stories are ultimately supposed to do. And Tolkien has done this the best of any author I have ever encountered. In short, I think that of all the worlds invented by humans in our stories, Tolkien’s Arda is the greatest Art.
Which passages from Tolkien speak most beautifully to you?
Topic: Which literary references would win your heart?
This is a difficult meme topic for me because I don’t tend to conceive of literary references in this way. I worry about how to woo, not how I might be wooed. There are some references that I dream of using in wooing a woman, and many that a woman could use while capturing my heart, but the effectiveness of any of these would be determined entirely by the context of the relationship and the situation. There is no literary reference a woman could make that, on its own, would cause me to fall in love with her. Some could impress me, perhaps. Perk my interest at the possibility of a kindred spirit, even. Make me want to know more about her. But that hardly means my heart is pounding, my mind’s eye full of her beautiful face, and my mind concocting grand shows of virtue by which I hope to win her admiration.
But maybe that’s it, then. Not allusion as a love potion, but as a revealer of character. What sort of literary reference could an eligible young lady make that would open my eyes to her amazingness and make me desire her for my lifelong lover and companion?
…I think I have it.
The Song of Solomon in the Bible, containing poems of dialogue between King Solomon and his wife.
…for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave, It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away. If one were to give All the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned.
The Bible is not typically thought of as a romantic book, nor as one that celebrates passionate, sensual love. And for good reason – most of God’s instructions on the subjects of love and sex are warnings against how not to do it. It makes sense, when you consider what powerful emotions they involve. It also makes sense when you realize that God values them so highly that He designed them for the most intimate of human relationships, marriage, in which two people become as one, and which is the foundation of the family. Romantic love is intended to complement a holy marriage, not to be taken lightly. God goes to great lengths to show us how to avoid screwing it up.
But He also shows us pictures of how it should look when done right. Nowhere is this picture of holy romantic love so prominent – and so unbelievably sensual – as in The Song of Solomon.
There are so many things I love about this book:
1. How Solomon and his wife are best friends as well as lovers.
This is my lover, this is my friend.
Like a lily among the thorns is my darling among the maidens.
2. How they are so comfortable with each other that they can quite frankly praise each others’ God-given bodies, in such a way that becomes an act of praise to God as well as of each other…
How beautiful you are, my darling! Oh, how beautiful! Your eyes behind your veil are doves. Your hair is like a flock of goats descending from the hills of Gilead. Your teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn, coming up from the washing. Each has its twin; not one of them is alone. Your lips are like a scarlet ribbon; your mouth is lovely. Your temples behind your veil are like the halves of a pomegranate. Your neck is like the tower of David, built with courses of stone[a]; on it hang a thousand shields, all of them shields of warriors. Your breasts are like two fawns, like twin fawns of a gazelle that browse among the lilies. Until the day breaks and the shadows flee, I will go to the mountain of myrrh and to the hill of incense. You are altogether beautiful, my darling; there is no flaw in you.
Listen! My lover! Look! Here he comes, leaping across the mountains, bounding over the hills. My lover is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look! There he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, peering through the lattice. My lover spoke and said to me, ‘Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me.’
3. …even when they don’t match the fashions of the day.
Dark am I, yet lovely, O daughters of Jerusalem, dark like the tents of Kedar, like the tent curtains of Solomon. Do not stare at me because I am dark, because I am darkened by the sun. My mother’s sons were angry with me and made me take care of the vineyards; my own vineyard have I neglected. Tell me, you whom I love, where you graze your flock and where you rest your sheep at midday. Why should I be like a veiled woman beside the flocks of your friends?
4. How they rest comfortably in each others’ arms.
Strengthen me with raisins, refresh me with apples, for I am faint with love. His left arm is under my head, and his right arm embraces me.
~Ch. 2: 5-6
5. How they bring peace to each other, describing the effect each has on the other with metaphors of beautiful gardens, gentle deer, dependable towers, pure doves, and shading fruit trees. (skip to any verse at random and you’ll see some such imagery)
6. How they don’t neglect their friends, but their friends are active supporters of their love.
Where has your lover gone, most beautiful of women? Which way did your lover turn, that we may look for him with you?
7. How they sometimes seem hopelessly idealistic with their dramatic declarations of love…
You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride; you have stolen my heart with one glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace.
~Ch. 4:9 [N.B. No, it’s not incest. “Sister” here is used to emphasize how utterly close in spirit the lovers are—they aren’t just romantic “partners,” but are actual family.]
8. …while still being wise.
Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you by the gazelles and by the does of the field: Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires.
~Ch. 2:7 and 3:5, both times said by the woman
It’s this last point which impresses me so much. Here are these two lovers – throughout the poem often in each others’ arms and in various states of undress – pausing to tell we readers not to force love, nor to seek it out, nor even to make it an unduly important part of your life. They know well how reckless our passions are. When you fall in love, your logic and good sense may as well just shut up because your heart sure isn’t going to want to listen to them. Which at times can be good, of course – human reason is faulty and often cannot understand what a heart led by God can sense. But likewise our hearts are faulty, and reason led by God can become wisdom, which is not at all the enemy of romance, but rather its protector, and hopefully its cultivator.
God doesn’t just want romance for us – He wants the best romance for us. The kind that leads to a lifelong companionship, a union of lovers who glorify Him and are thus free to glory in each other. God doesn’t give us easy, clear-cut steps, because He knows that each individual is different. But He does give us Himself, and the principles on which He designed life and love. I’m still struggling to understand this kind of wise romance, this God-led approach to love, courtship, and marriage. I want it badly. And I want a woman who wants to struggle to understand it alongside me.
After all these deep, soul-searching topics the Meme has presented recently, it’s refreshing to have one that is simple math. Just count up the volumes, compare final tallies, and include a few thoughts on the why and wherefore.
Smiling to myself, I sidled over to my bookshelves, confident that a narrow victory would be found among three of my favorite authors.
Tick, tally, tick, tally, etcetera and so on…that’s ten for Tolkien! Good show, Professor.
Uno, due, tre, quattro, etcetera and so forth…why, exactly ten for ol’ Brian Jacques! And only one of those unread. A tie, so far, but the game isn’t up yet.
Eins, zwo, drei, vier…aha-ha! Twelve for jolly C.S. Lewis. Excellent form, good master, excellent form. And that’s not even counting his Space Trilogy, which technically belongs to my church library and not to me (though I am the church librarian…).
So easy! Yet before I could step away with my triumphant (if rather predictable) answer to this topic, my eyes dropped to a lower shelf that I don’t frequent as often as I once did.
Oh, wow. This changes things. Terribly sorry to have forgotten about you guys. It’s been awhile, you see? Yes, yes, of course I’ll tally you, even though your victory is evident.
Twenty books from The Hardy Boys series by Franklin W. Dixon.
Now it’s true that Franklin W. Dixon is a pen name first used by Leslie McFarlane and later applied to many such ghoswriters under the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Edward Stratemeyer created Frank and Joe Hardy and developed many of their basic storylines, and then farmed them out to the ghostwriters, who would fill in the smaller details and put everything in actual prose. They had strict guidelines, with little wiggle-room for personal style or artistic flair. These books are designed to be reasonably exciting mysteries aimed at young boys, but they are very “safe.” The heroes are morally upright, unusually bright and resourceful. They have a list of character traits to distinguish themselves from each other, but not much personality otherwise. The plots range from clichéd and simplistic to clichéd and fun. And to be fair, as an elementary and middle-schooler, this was the first exposure I had to many of the classic mystery tropes.
And I loved them. I probably haven’t read one in ten years, but when I was the target age, I lapped these books up, and twenty of them still sit patiently on my shelf.
See, while these books weren’t written to be art, to be challenging, to break new ground, or to introduce you to new worlds or fascinating characters—in short, they didn’t try to do most of the things I now look for in a book—they had a certain innocent appeal, a comfortable familiarity that kept me coming back.
This is mostly because of Frank and Joe, who are best friends as well as brothers. They’re good, decent boys, essentially kind-hearted, conservative in their values, and desirous of helping others. Brave, honest, and gentlemanly, while still down-to-earth, they are almost symbols of home-made American masculine youth. Their flaws—often getting in over their head, hot-headedness in Joe, some pride in Frank—are ticked off a list to make them a bit more relatable, but never really get in the way of their lives or happiness. It’s not enough to make them profound or truly delightful characters, but enough to make them likable. You’d like Frank and Joe in real life. While some might call them goody-two-shoes, they’re not afraid to get their hands dirty, and they relish adventure. In this way, they are a kind of wish-fulfillment for the young boys reading their mysteries. My best childhood friend and I would sometimes call each other Frank and Joe, and try to take up amateur sleuthing in our neighborhood (neighbors didn’t always like this). And you know what? It’s not so bad to have characters like Frank and Joe as role models. They taught me to always carry a heavy metal tool, preferably a crowbar, in the trunk of your vehicle, and to always take a flashlight when you travel. They introduced me to the world of competitive fencing, to the Iditarod sled race in Alaska, to the rare beauty of snow leopards (and the heinous crime of stealing one from a zoo!), and to Secret Sinister Clues to the Mysterious Twisted Marks on the Treasure Towers in Viking Skull Pirate Mountain At Midnight and other such descriptor-filled titles that practically shouted Thrills! Suspense! Mystery! Ah, the good ol’ days!
Actually, the original series, as I remember most of it, had mostly the same, safe formulas. The crimes were usually theft, forgery, intimidation, kidnapping, etcetera – no one ever got seriously hurt, and no one died. I suppose readers got tired of that after awhile. So, sometime in the 1980s, they started the Hardy Boys’ Casefiles, which finally featured more serious topics like murder and international espionage. I remember being shocked when the first Casefiles book killed off Joe’s long-time girlfriend in a car bomb. But even though the spinoff series lost some of the franchise’s innocence, Frank and Joe were still essentially the same solid, decent guys you could trust in and root for. So I read the Casefiles, too, and enjoyed the more varied plots.
There are hundreds of Hardy Boys books, all under the pen name of Franklin W. Dixon. Of the twenty I own, maybe four I never got around to reading. I don’t know if I ever will. But I’ll keep the books around. My nephews have some of the series, and Matthew is just getting to the age where he can start to follow a simple novel, if he works at it. When I have children of my own, I’ll probably read them some of the Hardy Boys.
The other participants in this meme have all written at length about the various difficulties this topic presents, so I will eschew an in-depth discussion in favor of a few caveats.
Firstly, in honor of what seems to be the spirit of the topic, I am limiting myself to the names of fictional characters in literature that I am familiar with. Which means that…
…secondly, these choices are not necessarily my first or most practical name-choices for what my as-yet-unborn children will actually have to bear. If you’re interested, at this stage, I really want to name a son Daniel, after the Biblical prophet and administrator, but as he is historical and I cannot think of a fictional Daniel of equal appeal off the top of my head, I am excluding this name from my meme options.
Thirdly, even in light of my second caveat, I am still trying to consider practical matters in these choices. I don’t think it would be very nice for me to name a daughter Lúthien, however pretty it sounds, because a child should not have to grow up in the real world with the burden of a made-up name. Even the name Ambrosius, which is Latin and survives in various forms in modern Romance languages – and I think sounds pretty cool, in part because it belongs to one of my favorite literary characters (from Sutcliff’s Lantern Bearers) – may not be the wisest to give a boy in an English-speaking culture, where it may be seen as too archaic or stuffy.
So, my choices!
For a “literary” daughter, I really like the name Mariel.
The namesake is the heroine from Brian Jacques’ Mariel of Redwall. She’s a mouse, but I’m willing to look beyond that. Once my children grow up with the stories, I think they will, too. It’s been many years since I’ve read the book, but I remember Mariel being one of Jacques’ strongest and most interesting heroines. She undergoes quite a bit of hardship; her father, Joseph the Bellmaker, was captured by the evil pirate-rat Gabool the Wild, and in the ensuing battle she was thrown overboard and lost her memory. A tough one, she improvises a weapon from a long knotted rope – hardened by sea water or something – which she names Gullwhacker, and eventually allies with some of the members of Redwall Abbey before seeking out Gabool to challenge him and rescue her father. She starts the story rather prickly in personality, but warms to the gentleness and hospitality of the Abbey-beasts. She’s smart, capable, and independent, but I don’t recall her being annoying in that faux-feminist, affirmative-action kind of way. I dunno, maybe Rose Red Prince can refresh my memory. I don’t think I’ve read the book since junior high school, but it was one that I do remember being one of Jacques’ better books. Mariel should make a good role-model, just so long as my daughter doesn’t go around whacking gulls (or her brother[s]) with a knotted rope.
As to the name itself, I just think it’s really pretty. It’s a diminutive of Mary, but is nicer to my ear than the similar Muriel. It’s fairly unique, but still real. It’s got a touch of modesty in its shortness, but that little –el suggests a hint of elvenness, at least to my geeky mind.
For a “literary” son, I’m going with Alan.
The namesake is the magnificent Alan Breck Stewart of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. The archetypal swashbuckling post-medieval Highlander, he nonetheless proves himself a man of great passion, intelligence, and even humility – that is, a humility that recognizes his tendency towards arrogance. Loosely based on the historical Ailean Breac Stiùbhart, he’s a deadly soldier, cunning spy, loyal friend, silver-tongued brawler, wise judge of character, and God-fearing Man (capital letter noted). His laugh is hearty and his glare withering. He loathes King George II of England and has dedicated his life to the Jacobite cause; that is, the lifting of English oppression from the Highlands, and returning to power the House of James VII of Scotland and II of England. This pretty near makes him a patron saint of lost causes.
This all puts him at odds with the book’s protagonist, David Balfour, who is a middle-class Lowlander with a formal education, English sympathies, gentle manners, a belief in law over the sword and practical matters over romanticism, and who prefers moderation to the red-faced Highland life. Their friendship and brotherhood is one of literature’s most compelling. I love how they learn to respect and love each other, despite having different cultures and politics. Alan criticizes David for supporting the king who overtaxes the Highlands, sanctions brutal attacks and mock trials to execute dissidents, and outlaws bagpipes and kilts in an attempt to wipe out Highland culture and break their spirits. David criticizes Alan for prolonging a lost cause to the continued suffering of his people, for lionizing a king-in-exile who is inept, uncaring, and likely unable to ever return, and for letting his passions get the better of him. But even in their conflicts, they come to see each other more clearly, and they love each other like brothers nonetheless.
In fact, one thing I admire about Alan is how much he admires David, despite David not being nearly as impressive or heroic on the surface. Alan envies David’s level-headedness, his education and love of books, and his quiet determination to see justice done. Everyone else idolizes Alan, but Alan knows his own faults, and he wants to be better. His moral code is absolute, and when he fails to live up to it, he holds himself accountable. He is a Man.
Now, I should admit up front that my memory and interpretation of the character comes largely from the excellent 1995 TV film produced by Francis Ford Coppola, where the New York-born Italian-American Armand Assante played the role so amazingly well you never once thought “Hey, this guy doesn’t really look that Scottish…” I have read Stevenson’s novel, but – I feel a bit guilty admitting this – the movie had already completely own the story in my mind. However, I don’t recall the book’s Alan being substantially different from the movie version.
Alan Breck Stewart is one of my favorite swashbucklers of all of swashbuckledom. He is unquestionably my favorite Scotsman. The meaning of the name is uncertain, though it appears most commonly in France and the British Isles. Best approximations suggest “little rock” or “handsome,” both of which are complimentary (remember that Peter also means “rock,” as the Lord Jesus pointed out to His apostle). To me, it’s a name that suggests solidness and honesty, with a flair of romance and boldness.
Now all those cool-sounding names that are nonetheless unfit for human children? Those are for your pets!
Even acknowledging the great diversity of ways a villain can be a good character, and the difficulty of finding a paragon of one such Way that can be judged higher than those of other Ways, the shortlist for this topic was easy to compile. The reason is simple: the best villains embody something that we instinctively realize as something we are Against, and thus the most powerfully-written or conceptualized baddies will become reference points for other evils we encounter, both in literature and real life. They are Memorable.
But different kinds of villain are Memorable for different reasons. The Golden Bookwyrm lays out three main criteria: slimeballness, cunning, and malicious intent. For Jubilare and Terpsichore, the best villains are the ones that are preeminently effective; perhaps so much that even after their defeat they retain a nightmarish power to influence people and invade a readers’ dreams. For Thalia and EmilyKazakh, the villain may not even think of himself or herself as evil, and may even masquerade as a member of the “good guy” team. For Urania, the best villain must be uniquely integral to the story’s plot and atmosphere; if you replaced him with another personality, the story would be fundamentally altered.
All these are common and excellent factors for making a villain great, but I think the most important is the one Urania mentioned – it must be impossible to imagine the story without them!
That doesn’t narrow my shortlist at all, though. I initially thought of Emperor Brandin, from Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, who is magnificently complex and terrifying, precisely because his evil does not prevent him from being wise and genuinely caring for his people. One of the scariest parts of the story is when our heroes realize that the conquered citizenry are beginning to love the brutal tyrant, and may not support a heroic rebellion, instead letting Brandin get away with a grievous psychological war crime. His charisma, both in the book and as it extends to the reader, is considerable. But he is not quite archetypal enough for this post.
Then I thought of Long John Silver from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (a review of which has been in the works for a few months now…*guilty cough*), whose literary greatness is proven by his continued popularity, but whose main weakness in this category is that he ends the story rather humiliated and ineffective, and wouldn’t stand much of a chance against any of the other villainous candidates. Not enough to stop him from being near the top of my list, but enough to give me an excuse for passing him over just now.
In fact, I nearly had to just copy Urania’s post, for when she chose Captain Hook, it seemed so blindingly obvious that for awhile I could contemplate no other choice. Dastardly villainous and always entertaining, Hook truly is an archetypal figure from children’s nightmares, who is perfectly suited to his story. After all, what would the world be like without Captain Hook?
Indeed, my final choice is one I consider to be Captain Hook’s equal in Magnificent Villainy. She haunts you and the protagonists long after her initial defeat, she can use subtle manipulation and brute force equally well, and she nearly wins by charisma alone. Yet what wins her this topic for me is how well she represents the nature and end of Sin.
She’s the White Witch from Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.
What else can I say about the White Witch, the self-proclaimed Queen of Narnia? She’ll wrap you in furs, serve you hot chocolate, and persuade you to betray your family to their deaths. She’ll nearly turn you to stone if you forget to call her “Your Majesty,” unless you have something she wants and don’t yet suspect her, whence she will abruptly act in a convincing manner both motherly and seductive – a disturbing combination when you realize it, but the danger is that many, like poor Edmund, don’t realize it until it’s too late. She even drove Father Christmas out of the world! Now that’s evil for you, folks.
Oh, and she also destroyed her entire homeworld by the uttering of a Deplorable Word, out of mere hatred for her sister. She would rather be queen of a murdered planet than live without power over others.
Her archetypal power comes from how well she embodies the nature of sin. Not only is it corrosive, hateful, and greedy, but it’s lonely, conniving, and desirous of appearing good. The White Witch looks attractive: her face is beautiful, her clothes stylish, her manner sometimes quite flattering and understanding. Her determination and strong charisma can be deceptively appealing even while you’re aware that she’s cold and cruel to her core. Yet one would be a fool to take her at her word, or to let themselves near her at all. She loves nothing, not even herself. She tries to salve her hatred with rebellion against everything good, against everything Aslan created. She wants to possess what she herself could not create.
Yet for all her rebellion and power, she is still bound by heavenly laws. She takes Aslan’s life in exchange for Edmund’s, but cannot prevent this from leading to Edmund’s salvation and Aslan’s resurrection. For all evil is but a cringing, pathetic thing in the light of the holy God. The White Witch, for however “cool” she seems when we read the books or watch the exciting movie adaptations, is really a desperate, dying, disgusting creature, incapable of anything good. She has lost from the beginning. It was written in the Deeper Magic by Emperor-Over-the-Sea Himself.
Seeing as The Egotist’s Club and Jubilare have settled on a variety of choices for this topic, I shall take the same liberty. After all, it’s not an easy task. It’s true I do often hear some kind of soundtrack when I’m reading a book, but it’s usually one my mind makes up on the spot. And when listening to songs I often see in my mind’s eye a story to fit it. But finding a single song that encapsulates the heart of an entire existing story or character becomes surprisingly difficult.
Here are a few I was able to come up with.
1. Mannheim Steamroller’s “Red Wine” has always struck me as an extraordinarily dignified song that nonetheless exudes warmth and beauty. It’s reminiscent of “Greensleeves” in that regard; in ¾ time, its harpsichord melody gives it the stateliness of a waltz. But the emotional cries of the flute give it a quality that is also earthy and natural. This isn’t a song for a cathedral of stone, but a cathedral of trees, which we visit in our dreams.
And so it is that I match “Red Wine” with George MacDonald’s Phantastes. This book is almost beyond description; to know what it feels like, you simply must read it yourself. In it, a young man named Anodos finds himself transported to the Fairy World, perhaps through dream or perhaps through magic. He travels through a vast and bewildering forest filled with various fairies, trolls, knights, princesses, and other creatures, some of which embody holiness, and others which embody various evils.
It’s a dreamlike story, one you can imagine watching through the flickering flames in a campfire. There is a stateliness to it; MacDonald’s Victorian prose is dignified and eloquent, his themes involve the journey of man to become holy, and the climax takes place in what might well be called a woodland cathedral. Yet it is full of emotional and spiritual yearnings. Joy, terror, and melancholy all meet in this story, and while Mannheim Steamroller’s “Red Wine” may not have much terror to it, I hear in it much of the other two.
2. In researching this topic, I came across another interesting match. One of the most soulful, heartwrenching songs I have heard in recent years has been “The Hill” by Marketa Irglova, from the movie Once. The song is directed to her absent husband, whom she desperately wants to please but hasn’t apparently been able to. Their marriage is troubled, and they have temporarily separated, but in one powerful scene, Marketa’s character (called only The Girl) walks home at night singing this song to herself, pouring her heart out to the dark streets and expressing all her sorrow, her longing for love, and her accusations: namely, that he never seems to acknowledge her feelings, her struggles, or her thoughts.
And this reminded me of Ness in The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff. There are some key differences: The Girl clearly loves her husband and desires his affection, whereas Ness hasn’t yet found herself able to love Aquila for most of the book. Yet Ness has some of the same accusations against Aquila that The Girl has against her husband. Aquila isn’t cruel, not intentionally; he just doesn’t spare hardly any thoughts for Ness’ own struggles and emotions until it’s too late, and when he does realize them he doesn’t know what to do, so he does nothing. I could imagine Ness singing this song, especially later in the book when she and Aquila do become a little closer together, but still don’t quite understand each other and still hurt each other emotionally. And, gladly, both women find reconciliation and love by the end.
3. When I listened to Celtic Woman’s cover of Nightwish’s “Walking in the Air” recently, I suddenly remembered one of my favorite children’s books. Moonhorse by Mary Pope Osborne is an absolutely magical poem with gentle, cool illustrations about a girl who is taken on a beautiful, cosmic journey by a flying horse…a moonhorse. Technically, she’s riding in the air instead of walking, but the song’s soaring poetry and mysticism fits well a journey that takes the girl and her Pegasus past living constellations, across the hunting paths of sky wolves, to where they lasso the moon and pull it across the sky.
We’re walking in the air
We’re dancing in the midnight sky
And everyone who sees us greets us as we fly.
And indeed, as they fly gracefully past planets, stars, and comets, all the creatures of space greet them as they go.
Lastly, David “Fathead” Newman’s “The Thirteenth Floor” is a song I am waiting to find the story for. It’s filled with great jazz flute riffs, jingling cymbal beats and drum rhythms, and it makes me think of an acrobatic duel in a city alley involving hip urban elves. That mix of breathy flutes and cool jazz is just infectious! But I don’t know of any existing book that it fits, so I’ll probably have to write that one myself.
Unfortunately this YouTube video is only part of the song. The full song, which can be found on iTunes under David Newman’s CD “Bigger & Better,” includes a short gap of silence after the YouTube video ends, and then it builds slowly to an exciting, action-packed conclusion.
Topic: What female character(s) have I had crushes on?
Hm. Tricky topic. I can admit to, in junior high especially, feeling pangs of longing for certain girls in the books I was reading, but these didn’t really last beyond the pages of the book. It was less that I thought they would be a great girlfriend for me in real life and more that I thought they were paired well with the book’s hero, and I wanted the romantic couple to be together at story’s end. Still, this was often because there were real qualities I liked in the girl, and I suppose that when my young self imagined what my perfect future girlfriend would be, some of the qualities of these literary girls may have found their way in to that image.
So I reflect now and try to think of the ones who attracted me most, and who I was most loathe to leave upon reaching the book’s end. One in particular stands out from the reading of my youth. I was surprised, because I often forget about this character. She’s not Eilonwy, from The Chronicles of Prydain, who, though possessing the inestimably attractive qualities of being a cute redhead, passionately affectionate, and stubbornly loyal, is nonetheless a bit too flighty and prone to too drastic mood swings for me. Nor is she a lofty Lúthien, too beautiful and ethereal a creature to ever notice a common boy like me.
But she is a princess. In her wisdom, wit, conscientiousness, and utter, wild beauty of spirit, she is as dazzling a princess and as firm a friend as any boy in any realm, real or imaginative, could hope for. To my fifth grade self, she was something akin to The Perfect Girl.
She was Leslie Burke, from Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson.
[SPOILERS for Bridge to Terabithia follow.]
Leslie is an Adventure Companion, one of the best a boy can hope for, especially a lonely, introverted boy. It is she who sees Jesse for who he is and determines to befriend him. It is she who pulls him into Terabithia, an imaginary kingdom of monsters and people to protect from monsters, that is both an escape from the troubles of the world and a training ground for how to deal with them. Even though she takes the lead in most of their adventures, she doesn’t lord over Jesse or boss him around. She encourages his artistic talent and is delighted to combine his drawing skills with her storytelling ability.
This is a girl who can do just about anything as good as a boy, and often better, but never brags, never lords it over him, never humiliates. She has her head in the clouds, but her eyes squarely on the people around her; as immersed as she is in Terabithia, the world of her imagination, she never forgets them. She loves justice, and justice means helping people in need.
Oh, and she loves The Chronicles of Narnia.
I only read this special book once, but I can remember the sickening feeling in my gut when I realized, slowly, and along with Jesse that Leslie had really died in that accident. It was hard to accept. When Jesse went into denial, I was right there with him—she had to come back, right? She was just too wonderful to be gone for good! But not this time. Jesse and I had to accept this, and move on. And we are able to, because of the strength Leslie gave us.
Just imperfect enough to be obtainable and relatable, just perfect enough to be absolutely wonderful, Leslie Burke was a girl who would stick with a boy and have the best adventures with him, and would be his perfectly-matched companion as they both mature into adulthood.
So that’s my childhood crush. The tragedy, of course, is that Leslie never gets to live into adulthood. So, thinking of a literary girl I might have a crush on now, if she were real, I set quickly upon a very recent acquaintance: Gwyneth from The Bell at Sealey Head by Patricia McKillip.
Gwyneth is a reader and a writer, and she instinctively comes to these activities with a passion and thoughtfulness that immediately kindled in me the recognition of a kindred spirit. She is sensitive, kind, creative and yet practical, elegant in spirit yet still very down-to-earth, and she likes humble and chivalrous men. She also is strong and mature enough not to let her aunt and friends’ silly class obsession be a real obstacle to her love for Judd. If I couldn’t be in love with her, I’d at least want her as a close friend.