Book Meme 2012

Remembering the great fun that came of last year’s 30-Day Book Meme, the Ladies of The Egotist’s Club have started another one and invited me to join.

Except this one is a little different.

There are ten topics, and the idea is to write on one topic a week—thus, the project should take ten weeks, which is considerably longer than the 30-Day Meme, but produces fewer entries and at a more manageable rate (the everyday postings of the 30-Day was fun, but sometimes a bit hard to keep up with). The good news for we readers is that this still makes for four posts a week from The Egotists. However, it also means a measly one a week from me. Which I suppose might be good or bad, depending on your opinion of my writing.

Not that I will post nothing but the meme topics; I’m still working on a variety of other posts. But the Meme should be easier, quicker, and possibly even more interesting.

The topics:

Week 1: Book Crush(es)

Week 2: Books I’d give a theme song to

Week 3: Best villain

Week 4: Best love story

Week 5: Characters and literary figures I’d name my children after

Week 6: The author by whom you own the most books

Week 7: Favorite words and phrases, or lines and literary allusions that would win your heart.

Week 8: Best Story Settings

Week 9: Book(s) that you would bring on your honeymoon. (ie; so intrinsic to your life that it MUST be shared with your life partner as soon as possible. Or just fun to read together.)

Week 10: Books that I would bring if the world was going to be destroyed by aliens/cylons and we had to restart civilization as we know it. (ie: the basis of human knowledge and thought and civilization.)

As Melpomene noted, there is a bit of a romantic slant to these. At least half of them are overtly so. Which will prove an interesting challenge for I, a man, for though I consider myself a romantic and delight in a well-written romance in a novel, I don’t often find myself falling in love with a female character or judging a real woman by a fictional standard.

Not often-ish.

At any rate, there are some exciting topics here, and I can’t wait to dig in and share my answers with you. Meanwhile, the Egotists already have a pretty good start on it, so politely pay them a visit and join the already-blooming conversations.

And now, for good measure, a song about zombie ninjas from the maestros at SongsToWearPantsTo.

WARNING: Video contains copious amounts of really fake blood, slightly obnoxious rapping and rocking out, and zombie ninjas.

P.S. If zombie ninjas aren’t your thing, Andrew Huang also writes songs about The Legend of Zelda, Celtic Techno Burritos, and Robot Pirates.

P.S. Yes, his humor is always that random and surreal.

On Myth: “An Experience in Criticism” by C.S. Lewis, Chapter 5

Unfortunately, this will be my last post in Lewis’ book, at least for the time being. Why? The book is due back to the library tomorrow and I’ve already renewed it twice. But weep not, my friends! For this is one of the more important chapters for understanding what people like Lewis, Tolkien, and MacDonald (hereafter grouped together as the Great Trio) meant when they spoke of myths and fairy stories.

You see, it’s so dreadfully hard to define the word myth, in its deepest sense. Obviously we are not using the word to mean merely “an untrue story,” as you hear the Mythbusters use it. We are using it closer to the cultural sense: the Greek myths, the Egyptian myths, the Scandinavian myths, the Chinese myths, and etcetera. And yet, not completely in this sense. The Great Trio tend to accord the kind of story called myth a reverence and awe which I do not see in many of the stories I read in my classics and ancient history courses. The story of Ares and Aphrodite getting caught, mid-coitus, in Hephaestus’ net and exposed to all the deities of Olympus seems more akin to a medieval fabliau than Eros’ wooing of Psyche.

And indeed, Lewis himself admits this disconnect:

If we go steadily through all the myths of any people we shall be appalled by much of what we read. Most of them…are to us meaningless and shocking; shocking not only by their cruelty and obscenity but by their apparent silliness—almost what seems insanity. Out of this rank of squalid undergrowth the great myths—Orpheus, Demeter and Persephone, the Hesperides, Balder, Ragnarok, or Ilmarinen’s forging of the Sampo—rise like elms.

Those great myths—the ones we remember most strongly and poignantly—clearly have a different nature than their lesser cousins. They are retold in endless variations, they are alluded to in poetry and literature, they become reference points even in everyday speech, and they provide subjects for art all through the ages. The thing is, we can find similar kinds of stories that have been written even in recent times, by specific authors rather than anonymous cultural entities. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for one, and A Christmas Carol for another. We might call these stories “mythic,” because they share a certain nature with the great myths.

But what is this nature after all? While acknowledging the difficulty and even subjectivity of myth, Lewis puts forward five characteristics all its types have in common:

  1. They are “extra-literary.” Meaning, their power lies in the plot or the central idea, and not in the particular words used to tell the story. Those who encounter the myth of Eros and Psyche separately from Apuleius, Robert Graves, Thomas Bulfinch, and C.S. Lewis will nonetheless have a shared mythical experience; the power the story works on them will be much the same from these various sources, so long as the plot is preserved. But those who encounter the same story through Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and 1996’s Romeo + Juliet encounter only the same plot, not the same power, because the words of Shakespeare and the style of Baz Luhrman dominate the plot.
  2. They carry the weight of inevitability. Their power may be in their plot, but not in plot twists, suspense, or surprise…at least not in the conventional sense, where wondering how a story will turn out is most of the fun. But myths do not grow stale after you know the ending. They are meant to be contemplated, or meditated on. They are meant to work on you long afterwards. In fact, sometimes a myth is just an idea, not an actual plot at all. “The idea that the gods, and all good men, live under the shadow of Ragnarok is hardly a story. The Hesperides, with their apple-tree and dragon, are already a potent myth, without bringing in Herakles to steal the apples.”
  3. We don’t relate much to the characters. Not in the way we do when reading a novel or a play, certainly. We do not go into their heads, nor feel their innermost emotions. They are less specific people, and more universal representatives for the human race. Oh, they may have personality traits – they need not be blank slates. “The story of Orpheus makes us sad; but we are sorry for all men rather than vividly sympathetic with him, as we are, say, with Chaucer’s Troilus.”
  4. Myth always has a supernatural or magical element.
  5. The mythic experience is always grave and serious in some way. It may be joyful or sorrowful, warm or cold, but it is never comic.
  6. And not only grave, but numinous. It is awe-inspiring and awful in the original sense. It feels weighty and important, both in general and to us personally, and no allegorical explanation of it will fully satisfy us (or should not). A true myth reminds us of the spiritual realm, which is larger than us.

Looking at this list, Lewis and I both notice the same thread running through it: he is describing myth based on its effect on us. The application of the label myth to any particular story must then have some element of subjectivity to it. Imagine the tip of an iceberg. We know there is a great something floating beneath the arctic waves, and but we are not concerned with it. We are concerned with the tip itself as an object worthy of contemplation. Likewise there is much that can be said about the psychology behind mythical stories, why they affect us and how they have developed, and those studies are fine. But they are irrelevant here. We are concerned with how people read, and specifically with how they experience stories. And a lover of a myth loves the myth no matter how he receives it, even if it is through a bad storyteller.

But wait! Didn’t Lewis earlier accuse unliterary readers of attending exclusively to the plot and ignoring the words by which the story is told? Yes. But the lover of myth uses this “procedure” where it is appropriate, and only because the very nature of myth provokes it. Of course, a myth can be told through superlative literature. Frequently they are. And,

…[the lover of myth] will then delight in that literary work for its own sake. But this literary delight will be distinct from his appreciation of the myth; just as our pictorial enjoyment of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is distinct from our reactions, whatever they may be, to the myth it celebrates.

But an element of subjectivity remains. And here comes one of Lewis’ most important warnings:

We must never assume that we know exactly what is happening when anyone else reads a book.

Some books are more likely to produce excellent experiences than others, but two people may read the same book, and one enjoy it only as entertainment, while the other walks away deeply moved and forever changed.

Unliterary Readers: “An Experiment in Criticism” by C.S. Lewis, Chapter 4

Chapter 4

The Reading of the Unliterary

Each art is itself and not some other art.

Words mean things in a way that musical notes do not. So while the best appreciation of a symphony may be to attend to the intricacy of the notes themselves, even apart from the subjective meanings they suggest to the listeners, we cannot say the same of a book. We cannot just pass our eyes over the shapes of ink on a page and call that reading; we must attend to the meanings and connotations—both objective and subjective—of the words.

The first note of a symphony demands attention to nothing but itself. The first word of the Iliad directs our minds to anger; something we are acquainted with outside the poem and outside literature altogether.

Lewis makes an important side note about poetry at this point. The idea that “a poem should not mean but be” is ridiculous, he says, as I have always asserted. The words must mean if they are to have value. Lewis says this even applies to Nonsense poetry. The silly words of Lewis Carroll, in their context, suggest real creatures and noises and textures. Gertrude Stein’s “a rose is a rose is a rose” is not the same as “arose is arose is arose.”

Next, Lewis notes five primary characteristics he has observed in unliterary readers; that is, those who use books instead of receiving them.

  1. They read only for the Event, to find out “what happens next.” They only read narrative, and once read, they discard it. The worst are those who only care to read the news, desiring to read of events they think are real, but are not happening to anyone they know. (Note that Lewis is not criticizing the reading of narratives or the news – merely a certain attitude!)
  2. They have no literary ear. They are deaf to both the beauties and “cacophonies” of certain phrasings. This is especially horrible with academics, who are very well-read. “They will write of the relation between mechanisation and nationalisation’ without turning a hair” (29).
  3. More generally, “they are either quite unconscious of style, or even prefer books which we should think badly written” (29). The really good, unqiue writing demands too much of them. They prefer Flash Gordon to H.G. Wells. Or in modern terms, Twilight to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Eragon to The Lord of the Rings.
  4. They dislike much dialogue, preferring more pictures and action. Now, I think Lewis is too generalized with this point. It seems these days that the unliterary often prefer lots of dialogue—so long as it is bad, clichéd, and accompanied by wild action or slapstick comedy. Many good and great books favor prose over dialogue, just as many great films are also light on dialogue (and I’m not just thinking of silent films, though those are included). But his point still stands. The unliterary prefers not to think about what he is reading, and wants only to absorb and vegetate. Intelligent dialogue and prose make a claim on his energies that he is unwilling to grant.
  5. They demand swift-moving narrative” (30). Common condemnations of other works include “it’s too slow” or “it’s too complicated.” And I admit fully that I share Lewis’ disdain for such people. Their complaint is different from a considered critique that a book is too slowly paced or too boring in that it is an excuse to not really consider the book at all. They will resist enjoying a book solely because it doesn’t work hard enough (by their standards) to grip their wilted attention spans.

Point 3, about style, interests Lewis the most. It’s not that the unliterary reader enjoys bad writing because it is bad. He hardly even notices it. To be conscious of style means to take the words themselves seriously, but the unliterary reader cares only for the Event. Writing that really tries to describe specific things, people, and ideas demand more of his attention than he wants to give, but clichés absolve him of this obligation. He wants everything to be instantly and shallowly recognizable: “My blood ran cold” is the descriptor he prefers to fear over, say, a more complex observation by Dostoevsky, or even another metaphor that is still concise but so specific as to make the reader remember his own fears.

Unless we are fully attending both to sound and sense, unless we hold ourselves obediently ready to conceive, imagine, and feel as the words invite us, we shall not have these experiences. Unless you are really trying to look through the lens you cannot discover whether it is good or bad. We can never know that a piece of writing is bad unless we have begun by trying to read it as if it was very good and ended by discovering that we were paying the author an undeserved compliment.

See, good writing knows when to use many words and when to use few words, but an unliterary reader cannot tell this difference. So he may read a detailed landscape by D. H. Lawrence or John Steinbeck and find them too much to handle, but then think that Thomas Malory was being stingy with words when he wrote: “he arrived afore a castle which was rich and fair and there was a postern opened towards the sea, and was open without any keeping, save two lions kept the entry, and the moon shone clear.” The unliterary reader wants a degree of sensationalism so he can pretend he is imagining without doing the actual mental work.

They would rather be told that the castle was ‘bathed in a flood of silver moonlight’. This is partly because their attention to the words they read is so insufficient. Everything has to be stressed, or ‘written up’, or it will barely be noticed. But still more, they want the hieroglyph—something that will release their stereotyped reactions to moonlight (moonlight, of course, as something in books, songs, and films; I believe that memories of the real world are very feebly operative while they read).

As a writer, I can say this is a particularly important, but difficult, point that Lewis is making. The temptation is so strong to write stereotyped descriptions and characters: the hills always verdant and rolling, the clouds fluffy and white, the mountains jagged and majestic. These adjective are true, but they are generic, and do not describe the uniqueness of a this hill, these clouds, or that mountain. But to achieve the better writing means to imagine better. To understand just what is important about the thing I am describing; why is it here, why am I putting it in this place of the story, how does it affect the other things in the story, and what memories and emotions are attached to it?

The Few and the Many: “An Experiment in Criticism” by C.S. Lewis, Chapter 3

The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender.

 Chapter 3

How the Few and the Many Use Pictures and Music

By way of expanding the uses of his theory, and of providing more varied examples, Lewis begins noting how the “many” tend to approach visual arts and music in a way that prevents them from being really experienced.

His observation on art boils down to this: that most people like pictures and paintings primarily for the subject or scene rather than for the artistic expression. If the painting is of something they like – a pastoral scene, an energetic battle, an alluringly unclad woman, etc. – then they will like it better than a superior painting that is of a scene that does not inherently interest them – say, a still life, or a portrait like the Mona Lisa. So it is that Lewis himself, as a child, loved all the illustrations of Beatrix Potter because he loved anthropomorphised animals, but made no distinction between her good illustrations and her hasty, ill-drawn ones. Used this way, art is reduced to the value of a toy or a religious icon.

While you retain this attitude you treat the picture—or rather a hasty and unconscious selection of elements in the picture—as a self-starter for certain imaginative and emotional activities of your own. In other words, you ‘do things with it’. You don’t lay yourself open to what it, by being in its totality precisely the thing it is, can do to you.

His observation on music is similar: the many invariably go to music which either provokes a social response (dancing, humming, clapping) by an infectious rhythm or melody, or which incites strong emotional responses and daydreams. Or all of these, of course. Lewis believes that nearly all of us start in the many with regards to music, and only begin to appreciate it with time and some musical education. We listen to most music just for the tune or rhythm, usually failing to notice and appreciate all the wonderful choices in arrangement and performance. And the more we focus on the images and emotions that a song conjures up for us, the less we notice the actual music itself.

As regards one instrument (the bagpipes) I am still in this condition. I can’t tell one piece from another, nor a good piper from a bad. It is all just ‘pipes’, all equally intoxicating, heartrending, orgiastic.

Now, as Lewis has warned before, these popular uses of pictures and music are not inherently bad or wrong. Keats looked at the black figures on a piece of ancient pottery and was inspired to write “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and that was very good. “But admirable in its own way; not admirable as an appreciation of ceramic art” (18), if that was his only reaction to it. And to deny the “organic,” emotional responses to music would be not just foolish, but utterly insane!

To sing and dance round a fiddler at a fair (the organic and social response) is obviously a right-minded thing to do. To have ‘the salt tear harped out of your eye’ is not foolish or shameful. And neither response is peculiar to the unmusical. The conoscenti too can be caught humming or whistling…But they don’t hum or whistle while the music is going on; only in reminiscence, as we quote favourite lines of verse to ourselves. [emphasis mine]

I interject quickly to say that I don’t think Lewis is denying that musical people will ever hum and whistle a tune while listening to the song, but rather that they are always sure to take time to listen to songs with their full attention, in order to pick out all its notes and unique details. Their enjoyment becomes “impregnated with intelligence.” We could even say that it is informed enjoyment, and “far more sensuous than the popular use; more tied to the ear” (24).

With art and music, as with books, we should open ourselves fully to what the artist is doing with his particular art. We must try to rid ourselves of preconceptions and prejudices—not of all thought or opinions, certainly, but of our own demands for what we want the piece of art to be.

We must make room for Botticelli’s Mars and Venus…by emptying out or own [emotions and opinions regarding the mythological characters of these Roman deities]. After the negative effort, the positive. We must use our eyes. We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.) (19)

I studied classics at university, and I can tell you that I really don't like Mars or Venus, or their Greek counterparts Ares and Aphrodite. But this painting is beautiful.

But the good spectator–like the good reader–is not passive. He receives a work of art for what it is, in order to learn what its own terms are, so that he may see more accurately what it is. Once these terms are understood, he may decide that they are not worth his full employment.

So we draw a distinction between good and bad approaches to art. Good art can possibly be used for unworthy purposes, but it encourages a good, intelligent approach. On the other hand, “a bad picture cannot be enjoyed with that full and disciplined ‘reception’ which the few give to a good one.” Try gazing for a long period at a painting by da Vinci or Jacques Louis David; you will be drawn into it, marveling over little details, a line here, the colors there, the shape and composition of the whole. But try the same experiment with a poor painting or drawing, and you will find there is no real substance to concentrate on. You will likely even find that the more concentration you give it, the worse the picture appears, as all its artistic faults become apparent!

That is the heart of Lewis’ argument, and one of the most important passages in the book. Another easy example for us to consider is film. Most people go to the movies just so they can turn their brains off and have various emotions pricked and tickled while they watch attractive people doing things they find attractive. They actively resist movies that try to demand more of them as viewers, or that have elements that don’t conform to what they know they like. But if I had never sat down to watch Citizen Kane to humor my dad’s interest, I never would have discovered what a fantastically entertaining movie that is, in addition to it being a fantastically intelligent and insightful one. Had I never agreed, however reluctantly, as a kid, to watch a boring-sounding movie about a girl and some geese, I never would have experienced the beauty of Fly Away Home.

But back to books. I admit that I very rarely read a book that is not fantasy or history-related. Other books simply interest me less. I know my comfort zone (and pretend it’s some kind of expertise), “what I like.” And, ultimately, this is detrimental. Now, because I have known of this danger for years, I do try to mitigate its effects. Every so often I step aside to read a nonfiction book, maybe even one that has nothing to do with writing or history. And while I think all my literature classes from fifth grade through university could have used more great fantasy literature, I am also grateful that they forced me to read novels I never otherwise would have considered: To Kill a Mockingbird, Crime & Punishment, even The Scarlet Letter. Even the books I disliked gave me experiences I could not have had otherwise, and thus played some role in enriching me.

I leave you now with a good piece of music to Listen to and consider in enjoyment.

Can you think of a painting or piece of music which, by paying long and considerable attention to it purely for its own sake, you were able to enjoy it more fully?

“False Characterizations”: “An Experiment in Criticism” by C.S. Lewis, Chapter 2

Chapter 2

False Characterizations

Having used the terms “the many” and “the few” to refer to the two broad groups of readers – those who use books for some purpose and those who receive each book for what it is – Lewis immediately points out the many false connotations the terms may have. We must not think of “the many” as the uneducated common man, the “rabble” whose perceived illiteracy some critics think “must make them clumsy and insensitive in all the relations of life and render them a permanent danger to civilization” (5). Rather, these people may have in other aspects of their life – moral, psychological, or pertaining to knowledge, adaptability, great skill, or wisdom – an excellence and care that they simply do not extend to literature. And the literary (Lewis begins to use the term again), “include no small percentage of the ignorant, the caddish, the stunted, the warped, and the truculent” (6). To assume that any person who does not read a book in the best way is somehow inferior in other areas of their life is wholly wrong, and Lewis is right to condemn this prejudice.

In fact, many of the people we most expect to be authorities on literature may not be true bibliophiles – that is, lovers of books. Lewis expresses sympathy for professors who, to keep their jobs, must continually publish articles “which must say, or seem to say, something new about some literary work; or of overworked reviewers, getting through novel after novel as quickly as they can, like a schoolboy doing his ‘prep’. For such people reading often becomes mere work” (7). He tells an anecdote about a fellow colleague, a professor of literature, who, just after having given a tiring exam to his students, was annoyed that Lewis wanted to discuss one of the great poets who was a subject of the exam.

I must pause here to reflect on myself. Many of my classmates would be so sick of a certain book or author whom we’d had to study that they expressed shock or annoyance if I wanted to keep talking about it. It’s completely understandable, because literature courses tend to make reading books a chore and an obligation rather than a joy.

And to Lewis’ point about reviewers I can most certainly relate! It was amusing to read his remark, as I have had to take certain steps to guard myself against falling into this trap; that is, the trap of reading books primarily because I feel an obligation to review them for my blog. My goal with this blog is not to review every fantasy or sci-fi book I read or movie I watch. Sometimes I purposely don’t review a story, and for a variety of reasons: maybe I can’t think of anything worthwhile to say about it, maybe it’s too exhausting to think about, or, often, I’m happier just absorbing the experience of it without having to analyze it. About a week ago I watched (again) one of my favorite movies, The Secret of Roan Inish (1994). Each viewing is as wonderful as the last, excepting the peculiar magic that first viewings and first readings have. Yet I chose to savor the experience, let it work its own way with me, rather than immediately set down to dissect it. I love it so much that I’m sure I will review it eventually, but out of an overwhelming desire to share it, not out of obligation.

Lewis notes other reasons people read a lot yet are not literary in his sense of the word.

  1. There are, as above, those who are professional readers. Reading and analyzing books is their job, and they are in danger of viewing books merely as fodder for their essays and theories than as worthy objects in their own right.
  2. There are status seekers, who read only what is fashionable with a certain group in order to be accepted by them.
  3. There are the devotees of culture, who read in order to improve themselves. This is an interesting group, because such a person is, in a sense, trying to discover what treasures the books hold. However, he is still using the books for a purpose other than themselves. He is likely to stick only to the authors that he has been told are great, and “makes few experiments and has few favorites” (8). This man is not a fool, and he can get much good from reading the right books. But Lewis likens him to a man who plays sports only for the health benefits and not for any joy inherent in the act of playing.

There is nothing wrong with discussing books for one’s job, or with reading a book that is popular, or with seeking out books you think will do you good. Many of us do the latter all the time, and that can be fine and good. But if these are your main reasons for reading, if when you read a book you will only see these things you look for and nothing else, then you are missing something. In all these examples the reader is focused on himself rather than on the book.

One sad result of making English Literature a ‘subject’ at schools and universities is that the reading of great authors is, from early years, stamped upon the minds of conscientious and submissive young people as something meritorious.

For these reasons Lewis does not use the word serious to describe literary people. I’ve been tempted to use the word myself when describing An Experiment in Criticism to other people, but stopped myself for the same reasons Lewis has: the word has two meanings, and the one most commonly assumed is the last one we want.

It may mean, on the one hand, something like ‘grave’ or ‘solemn’; on the other, something more like ‘thoroughgoing, whole-hearted, energetic’…The serious man, far from being a serious student, may be a dabbler and a dilettante. The serious student may be as playful as Mercutio. A thing may be done seriously in the one sense and yet not in the other (11).

It is a terrible thing to approach all literature gravely and solemnly, yet any of us who remember English literature classes in school can relate to the examples he gives. Lewis remembers student essays which gave no indication of the comedy and joy in Jane Austen’s novels, or in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, or in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. This is one reason I majored in history instead of literature, even though stories have always been my chief love. I love reading and discussing the books assigned, but rarely did I enjoy writing essays where I was expected to analyze some theme or literary device. By studying history, I was able to read the literature and put it in the context of its time and culture, and to love it more for its own merits rather than for what it supposedly says about “the human condition.”

When I write my reviews, I do not ignore the themes and literary devices of the stories. But my goal is primarily to find out what the writer is saying, and to receive that as best I can. Some stories offer up their key themes as a gift to the reader and viewer. Other stories don’t, and for those I try not to force upon them themes that are not there.

I’m grateful for Lewis’ book. Though I have thought many of the same things many times before, it is helpful to have him clarify, offer examples, and occasionally challenge me. I fear that many of my past readings were unfair to the books, especially to those I read for school. How many authors have been wronged by my unreadiness to hear what they had to say? This is not to imply that every book I have disliked in the past was worthy of my attention. But, looking back, I think there were many that had much good that I did not see, because I was too wrapped up in my own preferences to listen to another mind, another heart, expressing itself.

“The Last Voyage of Eärendel” by J.R.R. Tolkien

Eärendil the Mariner, by Ted Nasmith
Eärendil the Mariner, by Ted Nasmith

This is the first poem written by Tolkien about the character of Eärendil, the famous voyager who in Middle-Earth mythology carried the morning star on his brow across the sky. Interestingly enough, the character’s name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word Éarendel, a name associated with the star Rigel in Orion, which is a wandering star and the brightest of that constellation. Subsequently, it is an extremely important star for navigation, and makes a fitting inspiration for the name of Tolkien’s great seafaring man. But even apart from these associations the poem is immensely beautiful, a wonderful example of mythopoeia.

The Last Voyage of Eärendel

J.R.R. Tolkien

Eärendel arose where the shadow flows
At Ocean’s silent brim;
Through the mouth of night as a ray of light
Where the shores are sheer and dim
He launched his bark like a silver spark
From the last and lonely sand;
Then on sunlit breath of the day’s fiery death
He sailed from Westerland.

He threaded his path o’er the aftermath
Of the splendour of the Sun,
And wandered far past many a star
In his gleaming galleon.
On the gathering tide of darkness ride
The argosies of the sky,
And spangle the night with their sails of light
As the streaming star goes by.

Unheeding he dips past these twinkling ships,
By his wayward spirit whirled
On an endless quest through the darkling West
O’er the margin of the world;
And he fares in haste o’er the jewelled waste
And the dusk from whence he came
With his heart afire with bright desire
And his face in silver flame.

The Ship of the Moon from the East comes soon
From the Haven of the Sun,
Whose white gates gleam in the coming beam
Of the mighty silver one.
Lo! with bellying clouds as his vessel’s shrouds
He weighs anchor down the dark,
And on shimmering oars leaves the blazing shores
In his argent-timbered bark.

Then Éarendel fled from that Shipman dread
Beyond the dark earth’s pale,
Back under the rim of the Ocean dim,
And behind the world set sail;
And he heard the mirth of the folk of earth
And the falling of their tears,
As the world dropped back in a cloudy wrack
On its journey down the years.

Then he glimmering passed to the starless vast
As an isléd lamp at sea,
And beyond the ken of mortal men
Set his lonely errantry,
Tracking the Sun in his galleon
Through the pathless firmament,
Till his light grew old in abysses cold
And his eager flame was spent.

The Book of Lost Tales 2, pages 271-3

"On an endless quest through the darkling West..."

Book Meme Day 2: Book I’ve Read More Than 3 Times

This was a difficult one because, although I am a frequent re-reader, I can’t be sure I’ve ever reread a book four times or more. Many books I have read three times, but I usually like to let some time pass before I return to the same story. However, there is one book from my childhood that was an absolute favorite. I am reasonably sure I read it at least three times, and likely more. And, surprisingly, it’s not fantasy!

Rather, it is Kävik the Wolf Dog, by Walt Morey.

This is one of those Alaskan canine survival books in the tradition of Jack London, written for boys with a taste for adventure and the cold bite of the North American wildernesses. I was probably between third and fifth grade when I first encountered it. The genre was my favorite at the time, bringing me such modest gems as Wolfling by Sterling North, Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner, and Hatchet by Brian Paulsen (which, sadly, lacked a wolf or dog hero). And of course Jack London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang, easily the most brutal of the books I read. But my favorite was always Kävik the Wolf Dog.

What did I love about these books? The wildness of nature in them, for one thing. Clean, crisp air, snowy mountains, thick forests with only the toughest humans and animals trekking through them. Freedom, too, because Alaska in these books feels like an untamed frontier. And the wolves. I love wolves. They’ve always been my favorite animal, because of their beauty, dignity, and danger. The fact that their pack is so important to them. Nobility, and sometimes even a kind of chivalry, existed in the natures of these perfect hunters, as depicted in the books I read.

The book has two heroes, really. Kävik is half wolf, half malamute, trained by a harsh master to be a lead sled dog strong enough to win the North American Sled Dog Derby at Fairbanks. He also is trained to violently keep his team in check, and kills a number of other dogs in vicious fights.

“To Kävik all humans were like Charlie One Eye. A truce existed between the man and the dog. Kävik recognized Charlie’s authority, but he was not broken or cowed by the man’s rough treatment.” (13)

After winning the race, Charlie One Eye sells him to a rich businessman, who then flies him back to his mansion in the States, hoping to make a house dog out of him and show him off to friends. The plane crashes in the snow, and the nearly-dead Kävik is found by young Andy Evans, the book’s other hero. Over a few months the wolf-dog recovers, and during that time Andy forms a friendship with him. The crash has mellowed Kävik’s killer instinct greatly – in fact, it knocked his courage right out of him. But eventually Kävik’s rightful owner comes back to claim him, and takes him 2000 miles away from the boy he loves.

That’s when the real story begins. Kävik escapes his plush new home and braves 2000 miles of tough country to get back to Andy, the only human to be kind to him. He fights lynxes and bobcats, wolves and dogs. He navigates strange towns, evades dogcatchers, and finds ways to cross bodies of water. And he recovers his wolflike courage and fighting spirit, while retaining the sense of gentleness and honor that Andy taught him.

Man, I’d forgotten how much I used to love this book! I think I’ll give it to my nephews, so they can grow up with it, too.