Book Meme Day 17: My Favorite Quote From Some of My Favorite Books

Memetic modification is the order again. I neither want to spoil the “surprise” of my final choice for favorite book (which of course will not be “final” and could in fact end up being multiple books), nor limit myself to the impossible task of one favorite passage. Some of my favorite books, like The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, are simply too large and wonderful for me to hone in on any single passage.

So instead I have chosen two passages from two books which speak to me in very different ways.

As through the hard rock go the branching silver veins; as into the solid land run the creeks and gulfs from the unresting sea; as the lights and influences of the upper worlds sink silently through the earth’s atmosphere; so doth Faerie invade the world of men…

That’s George MacDonald in Phantastes, a truly beautiful and dreamlike book. In describing the ways in which magic relates to the world of the book, he is also saying something about the way the spiritual world relates to our real world. And…(my brain is kind of dead right now, so I’ll point you to these posts to get an idea of what I mean by that.)

The next is from The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff. It comes from the end of the book, is beautiful, and benefits from context which I cannot give you. +) The pages following it are equally beautiful, but you must earn them by reading the book itself.

Aquila reached for his best cloak, where it lay in a tumble, dark as spilled wine, across the foot of the low couch, and flung it round him, hastily settling the shoulderfolds. He was late, for there had been some trouble down at the horse-lines over the new Cymric steeds that he must see to, and the feast would have begun by now; this crowning feast for a new High King, who was the hope of Britain. He stabbed home the pin of the great bronze-and-silver shoulder brooch, and when he looked up again, there seemed to be all at once more warmth in the room, and more colour, for Ness stood in the inner doorway in a gown of thick, soft wool the colour of the apple flames. Roman in so many things nowadays, she had never taken to the pale colours that Roman ladies wore, and suddenly he was glad of that.

“I feel as though I could warm my hands at you, in that gown,” he said.

She laughed; something of the old mockery in her laughter still, but the sting gone from it. “My lord learns to say pretty things in his old age!” She came forward into the inner circle of warmth and light about the brazier…

…He half-turned towards the colonnade doorway, then back again, realizing he would probably not see Ness until after [the feast for] Ambrosius. “You look so pretty in that gown. I wish this wasn’t an all-male banquet.”

“I am sure that the Princes of the Dumnonii and the Lords of Glevum and the Cymru would be outraged if they found themselves expected to follow the Roman fashion and sit down to feast in the same hall with women, on such a state occasion as this!”

“Your people,” Aquila said, and was struck by a sudden thought. “Ness, do you see that it has come full circle? The Princes of the Cymru feast with their High King. Tonight Ambrosius will confirm Pascent as lord of his father’s lands and his father’s people. Tonight your people and mine are come together again!”

“Yes, I do see,” Ness said. “After twelve, nearly thirteen years.”

Aquila felt that he had been stupid in pointing that out to her as though it were a thing that she might not have noticed, when it must be so much nearer to her than it was to him. He wondered whether she had regretted the choice that she had made, almost thirteen years ago, but could not find the words to ask her.

And then Ness came and put her thin brown hands on his shoulders and said, as though she knew what he was thinking, “Have you regretted it?”

“Why should I regret it?” Aquila said, and put his hands over hers.

“I’m not beautiful like Rhyanidd—”

“You never were, but it was you I chose, in my rather odd way.”

“And maybe I’ve grown dull. Contented women do grow dull; I’ve seen it happen.” She began to laugh again, and this time with no mockery at all. “But at least I haven’t grown fat, as some contented women do.” She gave him a little push and dropped her hands. “Go now to this splendid all-male banquet of yours, before you are later than you are already.”

The meaning, the striking emotion, of this passage is gathered from all that came before it. Aquila’s long years of suffering, the heartbreaking way he and Ness married against both their wills, their years of bickering and misunderstanding. So much pain. But then, finally, to see them like this, where they have comfort with each other and both are surprised to realize that they do not wish to leave each others’ presence, even for an evening…oh my friends, all I can say is that this is the only passage of a novel to have wrung even a few tears of joy from my stubborn eyes. I love it. I reread it often on its own, and its power remains. It encourages me, sobers me, and causes me to praise God for His grace in allowing even flawed beaten creatures such as we to experience the joys of forgiveness, mercy, healing, and love.

Book Meme Day 15: My Favorite Male Character

The difficulty has been deciding whether my favorite male character is defined as the most admirable, or as the one in whom I am most interested as a person. I must go with the latter. He is not the most admirable, nor is he a model for how to live one’s life. His flaws are aggravating and his spiritual wounds are deep. He has few friends, and fewer that truly know and understand him.

But no other character’s situation has moved me so much, nor in the end given me such long-sought joy, as that of Aquila from The Lantern Bearers.

Make no mistake, Aquila is a hard man to like, both for those around him and for readers. He is cold and distant. He will not speak of the grief he has suffered in the past, nor does he speak of his feelings or inner thoughts. He spends years bottling up his pain and giving himself no relief, no closure, no peace. His manner is hard, his face usually inexpressive. His friends are few, and his respect is hard to win, although no man will gainsay his honor, courage, or the surety of his word and sword. When he does speak, his words are usually businesslike, or bitter. No one, it often seems, can understand him, least of all himself.

The loss of his family, especially his beloved sister Flavia, to the Saxons hurts so much that he cannot bear to tell of it to anyone else, even the few people he trusts. Further indignities he suffers as a Saxon thrall, and then another great dream dashed when he finds Flavia again but is unable to rescue her from her new life. He meets Brother Ninnias and refuses the monk’s warnings against vengeance, but does learn of how he can focus his energies and anger to a more productive end; that is, joining Ambrosius Aurelianus, Prince of Arfon, in the fight against the Saxons. Of all men he comes to trust Ambrosius the most, partly because the prince always respects him by never asking about his past, and also because he proves uncanny at knowing the kind of friends Aquila needs. But Aquila’s marriage to Ness, the daughter of a Celtic chieftain, at the request of Ambrosius, only serves to bring more pain and confusion. The two neither get along nor understand each other; Ness has her own heartbreaks and indignities she has suffered, and is quick to fling bitter barbs at her husband, barbs which he pretends to ignore, trying to believe they do not hurt. At one point Ness finally exclaims:

“It is never the things that you do, but the way you do them…You took me from my father’s hearth as you might have taken a dog—no, not a dog; I have seen you playing with Cabal’s ears and gentling him under the chin—as you might have taken a kist or a cooking-pot that you did not much value.” (167)

But Aquila, importantly, does not know this about himself; or at least, not until Ness tells him in that passage. He knows he is a difficult man, but he has never tried to be so, nor ever truly desired to hurt anyone. Ness’ confession surprises him, because he has never thought that he was important enough to have such an effect on someone else’s life. It’s almost as if he just doesn’t know how to be sensitive. And this is why he is such a sympathetic main character. We follow Aquila from just before his troubles start, when he was happy and loved and healthy in spirit, all through the events that batter him and shape him.

Sutcliff manages the difficult task of tracing the essential development of a man over twenty-some years in just under three hundred pages, and she does so without wasting a page or missing a defining moment. Aquila is one of the most complex and believable characters I have read, and I like him despite his faults because I feel I understand him so well.

The most beautiful part, the reason he is my favorite male character, is the slow and tender way he softens, grows, and begins to heal. This change does not come in clear, dramatic moments, as they usually do in book and most especially in movies, but in quieter events that demand a shift of attitude from him. Naming his only son after his father marks the first time Aquila has admitted to anyone any detail of his past; in this case, Ness learns that he had a father, and that he loved him.

A strong and cunning warrior, he is responsible for turning Ambrosius’ bands of horsemen into a highly trained cavalry force, and thus might be considered the grandfather of the English knight (considering how in Sword at Sunset Artos, the historical King Arthur, builds on Aquila’s foundation to increase the importance and effectiveness of the cavalry). All men respect him. He is a legitimate authority, a man who in his outward life is pragmatic and rational, purposeful and not to be trifled with.

The final chapters of the book are what solidify him as my favorite male character. I dare not say much for fear of spoiling it, but Sutcliff brings all the strands of her story together into a single event that is startlingly unassuming despite the its importance to his life. Aquila is confronted by the fruit of what caused his pain, and finds himself with a choice: enacting his anger or coldness of heart is supposedly what he has wanted, but enacting mercy (and even, in a way, love) would entail forgiving himself and coming to terms with his past. He chooses the latter, and what follows is a short series of moments that are painful in the way that the cleansing of a wound is painful. He makes the choice to heal. And it is a brave choice, a hardy one that takes more courage than any battle charge he has been part of. For this, he is my favorite character.

I fear I have given too much detail, and veered too closely to a book review. Forgive me for that. It is difficult to describe my affection for a character who on the surface should be unlikable. The magic is in Sutcliff’s handling of him. For the record, The Lantern Bearers is the only book at the end of which I have shed tears.

Author Pantheon: Rosemary Sutcliff, A Summary of Her Greatness

My favorite of the different covers for this book.

Anthony Lawton, of the Rosemary Sutcliff blog, asked his readers to write in about why they like her books so much, which is their favorite book, which is their favorite character, and why. This is my response. It is also the first in what might be a “series” of posts for me, called the “Author Pantheon.” These posts will be my thoughts on the writers that I, personally, think are the greatest. Mostly fantasy authors, though in the case of Sutcliff this includes historical fiction. The posts differ from my “Features” in that they are all my thoughts and ideas, whereas “Features” are mostly the works of others that I find inspiring and relevant.

Now, can I summarize why I love Rosemary Sutcliff’s writing so much? Ah, that is hard. To figure out the nuances of why her writing style seems to affect me more than almost any other. Hm. I have used the phrase “textured grace” to describe it before, though that is more a poetic phrase that only scrapes the surface.

She is able to paint beautiful pictures in my mind without over-reaching into “purple” prose. Her settings and characters feel real, down-to-earth, even when they become mysterious (as in the Little Dark People and the distant Scottish hills they live in), magnificently epic (Ambrosius, particularly in Sword at Sunset), deeply dramatic (Aquila’s meeting of his sister at Hengest’s camp in The Lantern Bearers, or the end scenes of the same book), or rousingly adventurous (as in the chase scenes of Eagle of the Ninth or the intrigue of The Silver Branch).

But other authors of the highest caliber have managed that kind of beautiful balance as well. I haven’t found the words yet to communicate what is truly so unique about Sutcliff’s writing in comparison to the other greats of English literature. She writes strong male characters with solid moral centers, in a believable and complex fashion — that’s part of it. Many excellent writers fail at at least one aspect of that (usually with the solid moral sense or the complexity). But others manage such characters too. About Sutcliff, I can only attest to the affect she has on me. Beginning a book of hers, whether a new one or an old one, is something like returning to a dear friend after a journey. Reading a new book of Sutcliff’s is like catching up on your friend’s life, while rereading one is like reminiscing about good old times.

I guess that says one more specific thing about her: she’s invested in her stories. Some authors, even great ones, feel slightly distant from their stories. Not her — she’s telling them directly to you, the reader, and she wants you to listen. I like that.

My favorite book of hers is The Lantern Bearers, and the character that moved me the most is Aquila. It was amazing how clearly she saw how Aquila saw himself and how others saw him. To see him struggle for so much of his life against himself, against the bitterness that he held and the hardness he built up in himself, and to finally find peace so late in his life…well, it’s just beautiful. His relationship with Ness is also fascinating, since they both have to learn, gradually, to forgive and love each other. It’s not quite a romance, I don’t think (and part of me wishes it was), but I do think it becomes love. I don’t know if I’ve read another novel so tender and mature at the same time.

That this all comes in the midst of great adventure and intrigue helps too!