Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Bulfinch's Mythology by Thomas Bulfinch

First, a quick public service announcement. Y'all know that Plenilune is available for purchase on Kindle right now and in paperback in a few days, right? The book I've been raving about since I got an advance review copy? Excellent. On to the review.

An odd thing happens when you begin to read enormous quantities of classic literature. You begin to realise that all these people are quoting or alluding other people, and if you have an ounce of curiosity, you want to know exactly what all those allusions mean. (This, by the way, is how I got into Shakespeare. My mother was reading us Huck Finn, and I had no idea about Romeo and Juliet, so I dug right on in.)

If this is so--if you haven't a clue about Pyramus and Thisbe, but want to know what all the fuss in A Midsummer Night's Dream was about, or if ND Wilson's Arachne has you stumped, or if you have questions about anyone from Baucis and Philemon to Vertumnus and Pomona--then Bulfinch's Mythology is your one-stop handy reference book.

Thomas Bulfinch's magnumopus is a nigh-comprehensive summary of the myths and legends of Western Civ. Part 1, The Age of Fable, is a summary of Greek and Roman myth. Part 2, The Age of Chivalry, covers the Arthurian legends and the Mabinogion. Part 3, The Legends of Charlemagne, is a neat summary of Boiardo's Orlando Innamorato and Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. Originally written in the 1850s to familiarise the ordinary reader with basic classical allusions, the Mythology is a fun mix of stories, commentary, and quotations from great English authors (Dryden, Milton, and Tennyson all make appearances). There are snippets of poetry, and selections from old English folk ballads. It's all very readable and very charming.

Now to be honest, Bulfinch is usually not my first stop when it comes to reading up on myth. If I'm too lazy to dig out the actual Iliad or Mabinogion, or if I want something a little more child-friendly, I would be more likely to try Padraic Colum's The Children's Homer or Roger Lancelyn Green's King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, both of which I highly recommend. However, Bulfinch is a good deal more comprehensive than either of these or any similar books. He's an excellent stand-by to have on one's shelf to fill in gaps. (I never could find out what a cockatrice was until I read Bulfinch!)

Another of the things I really appreciate about Bulfinch is the fact that despite the comprehensive nature of his book, he manages to keep things pretty clean. This is a great book to let children loose in. The downside to this, of course, is that when I went to read the originals as an adult--particularly when I read the Orlando Furioso--I was quite unexpectedly struck by all the shenanigans, which would have made Shakespeare blush.

And yet, let me tell you the main reason why you should have this book on your shelf. Part 3, The Legends of Charlemagne, is fantastic. It condenses and retells the wildly weaving story begun by Boiardo and finished by Ariosto, without including any of the aforesaid shenanigans. This is a good thing because the Matter of France is terrific fun. When I first stumbled across Part 3 of Bulfinch, I was absolutely gripped.

Bulfinch's Mythology is an excellent reference book, fun to dip into on the long winter evenings, featuring a rare and valuable condensation of the Orlando Furioso. I recommend it.

Find Bulfinch's Mythology on Amazon, The Book Depository, Librivox, or Project Gutenberg.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The World's Desire by H Rider Haggard and Andrew Lang

There is an ancient story, a sort of tributary branch to the great story told by Homer in The Iliad and The Odyssey, which suggests that the famous Helen never went to Troy at all. As the playwright Euripides told it, Paris brought Helen to Egypt on his way to Troy, but the gods fashioned an eidolon or image of Helen which Paris, being deceived, took to Troy while the true Helen remained in Egypt. According to Herodotus, who claimed to have gone to Egypt to interview the priests, there was no eidolon; instead the King of Egypt, horrified by the crime committed by Paris, sent him packing without her and maintained Helen as the goddess Aphrodite in Egypt until after the Trojan War, when Helen's husband Menelaus--who refused to believe that the Trojans did not have his wife in their city--returned to Egypt to claim her.

I heard this version of the story once long ago from a book which I have forgotten. Perhaps it was Herodotus himself. As a child, I thought it was an extremely happy twist on the story--hooray, Helen never ran off with that nasty Paris and she got to live happily ever after with Menelaus. Reacquainting myself with the roots of the myth for this review, I see an even more striking tragedy in the story: the Trojan War, all ten years of it, and the sack of Troy, for a phantom--or even worse, for something that was never there at all.

At any rate, it's a fascinating twist on the familiar story, and when I heard--years ago--that H Rider Haggard, the author of such thrilling and preposterous adventure stories as Nada the Lily, Heart of the World, She and King Solomon's Mines had collaborated with no less a luminary than Andrew Lang--the preeminent Victorian translator of Homer and the collector of many fairy tales, among other things--on The World's Desire, a novel based on the Helen-in-Egypt myth, I knew I just had to find and read it someday.

This, thanks to Project Gutenberg and my trusty e-reader, I have now done.

We find the Wanderer returning to his island home from a second, un-sung journey. This time, instead of clamouring suitors and faithful old retainers, Odysseus is greeted by death and destruction: a pestilence has taken from him his wife, his son, and all his people. Grieving in the temple of Aphrodite, he is given a vision of Helen, whom he loved for an hour in their youth. According to the goddess, the Wanderer will soon set out on another journey to find the ageless Helen and the love of his youth, whom he will find if he trusts to the sign of the star, and not to that of the snake.

Whereupon follows a tale of scheming villainesses, epic battles, purple prose, and high adventure.

According to Wikipedia, the collaboration between Haggard and Lang on this novel--the men had been friends for years--involved Lang writing all of the first four chapters and then advising, and making certain revisions, on the rest of the story. And to be perfectly honest, Lang's chapters were by far the best. I thought it was rather bad form for him to kill off poor Penelope to make way for an epic romance between Odysseus and Helen (had Helen not enough attention?--it was always one of the nicer things about the Odyssey that its heroine was the quiet and domestic Penelope), but Lang was a more restrained, more direct writer than Haggard and was familiar enough with Homer's originals to produce a wonderful suggestion of the original flavour. The return of the Wanderer to his abandoned kingdom, and the fight on the Sidonian ship, have a crisp vividness that Haggard's more melodramatic writing lacks.

Not that Haggard is anyone to patronise, but a lot of his usual offences do crop up. There is a powerful and passionate villainess who effortlessly outshines the meek heroine (at his best, Haggard combined the two characters into one, as in Heart of the World). The theme of the book, drawing as it does upon both the Christian myth of Eden and some Eastern mysticism about reincarnation, is the usual brand of Haggard romanticism. And the ending will not satisfy those who prefer happily-ever-afters (romances written by men so rarely do). Otherwise, the book is stocked to the rafters with melodrama. The closing battle is perfectly ripping. And Haggard almost gets away with using the Exodus of the children of Israel, with attendant plagues, as little more than window-dressing, almost  a subplot.

In the end I was a little disappointed by The World's Desire. If I had to summarise the thing, I would call it a second-rate Haggard novel with some excellent contributions from Lang. It wasn't bad, but it was nothing I hadn't seen already.

There is a rather obscure volume of unfinished and short stories by CS Lewis, sold under the title of The Dark Tower and Other Stories. The last of these stories, told from Menelaus's point of view, opens in the Trojan Horse on the night of the sack of Troy as the king of Sparta meditates on just what, if anything, he would do with his erring wife once she is recovered. He's horrified to discover that Helen has, in her ten years in Troy, mellowed into a plain middle-aged woman. But then in Egypt on the way home, he is confronted with an unspoiled, unaging Helen whom the King of Egypt swears is the real Helen, the original. There the fragment ends... I go back and read it every now and then. I still hope that when I read the New Jerusalem, Lewis will have finished it.

Unfortunately, The World's Desire was not that book. But ah, it was pretty fun.

Find The World's Desire on Amazon, the Book Depository, or Project Gutenberg.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Castle Gay by John Buchan

John Buchan, for those of you who are new here, is one of my favourite authors. Among other things, he came up with a plan to avert World War II (Neville Chamberlain didn't listen), he became an honorary Indian chief (see photo, below) and he almost singlehandedly invented the modern spy thriller while working in intelligence during World War I. You can find reviews of many other Buchan novels here on Vintage Novels under the John Buchan tag, and I do wholeheartedly recommend them to you.

My latest Buchan re-read is Castle Gay, the second in the three Dickson McCunn novels which began with Huntingtower. Six years after the end of Huntingtower, the Gorbals Die-Hards--the gang of street boys adopted by the hobbit-like Dickson at the end of the last book--have grown up to make their way in the world. When Jaikie, on holiday from Cambridge after a hard-fought rugby battle with the Australians, and Dougal, with a pocket full of press clippings and a head full of radical political notions, set out together on a walking holiday in the Scottish countryside, the last thing they expect to stumble upon is a kidnapped newpaper magnate (who also happens to be Dougal's boss) and a sinister Eastern European conspiracy. Dougal and Jaikie join forces with a snooping journalist, an aristocratic widow, the girl next door, an exiled prince, two beagles, a terrier, and everyone's favourite grocer, Dickson McCunn, to foil the baddies and save the newspaper magnate's reputation.

And in the process, they may just end up saving his soul.

Even when he's not at the top of his form--and much as I love Buchan, I have to admit that Castle Gay is not the top of his form--Buchan is good fun to read. Castle Gay has a fitful and meandering plot, a good deal of dry humour, character sketches of the Trollopian style, and lots of gentle satire. Like all the Dickson McCunn books, it starts out with a walking-holiday and goes on to feature a mysterious house at the centre of international intrigue, complete with much praise of the merits of conventional middle-class Christendom against the initially well-meaning and quirky but ultimately sinister spectre of modernism and Marxism.

How does this play out in Castle Gay? Not particularly coherently, but very charmingly. You have Thomas Carlyle Craw, the fussy and old-maidish media mogul whose Valley of Humiliation comes in the shape of an unsympathetic young man marching him across pretty bits of the Scottish countryside and lodging him in wayside hotels where the only fare seems to be ham and eggs--an updated version of Davie Balfour and Alan Breck's moss-trooping. It's hardly Dante's Inferno, but it's a privilege to follow Mr Craw through repentance unto a salvation that enables him to see the world more honestly, less as a background for himself and his own comfort, and more as a challenge to taken up.

Then there's Mrs Brisbane-Brown, the repository of history and guardian of traditions, an aristocratic lady who expects the men--and even the women--around her to be dauntless and hardy and firm in their minds. The last guardian of a fading world, "Aunt Harriet" stands in stark contrast to the soft and spineless Mr Craw. In the pages of Castle Gay, Buchan issues a challenge not just to his own characters but to the rising middle-class modernism of his times. Have they the humility, the courage, the honour, and the just reverence for the legacy of Christendom, to justify their inheritance of wealth and power?

If Dickson McCunn, the stout-hearted, hobbit-natured grocer is any indication, the answer is yes--with repentance.

Find Castle Gay on Amazon, The Book Depository, or Project Gutenberg.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Plenilune by Jennifer Freitag - Review and Cover Reveal

It's here--the smashing cover art for Jennifer Freitag's epic planetary fantasy Plenilune, coming October 20th.

Having been lucky enough to read the book, I can tell you right now that it is every bit as epic as this cover, and then some.

And today, I get to tell you just how much I loved this book.

Margaret Coventry is already on the train that will carry her away from family disgrace and England, to Naples and her last hopes for a respectable match, when she is kidnapped by Rupert de la Mare, the Overlord-in-waiting to Plenilune, who is under instructions from the lord electors of Plenilune to demonstrate a capacity for humanity by winning a wife...

Trapped on a strange planet in a house of secrets by a man she can neither thwart nor escape, the three chief weapons of Margaret Coventry, pawn, are these: the memory of a burned book, a fox, and a map.

In the great game for the fate of Plenilune, Margaret Coventry is about to become a queen.

So, here’s the thing about recent books: I just don’t know how they will stand up to history. One can guess, of course, whether a book published last week contains a spark of the divine fire or not. But whether a book is really a classic is something that can only be decided by humanity as a whole. So I can’t tell you whether Jennifer Freitag’s Plenilune is a great book. All I can tell you is that I liked it better than any other book I can remember having read for quite a number of years, that there were passages where I more or less forgot to breathe, and that one day I hope to be able to create something like the literary fireworks Jennifer Freitag sets off in every other line of her writing.

Plenilune isn’t perfect, of course. I can see faults, and there are times when I wonder if they’re glaring faults, and I’m sure there are people out there who, unlike me, will find those faults a little too much. In response, all I can say (somewhat helplessly) is that I am equally certain of there being people like me, for whom Plenilune will be one long experience of delight and revels.

And so: the first thing that will strike you about Plenilune is the writing, lush and dense and full of ornament. “The first blaze of rage had died out into a low firedrake smoulder.” “She had the feeling of being disconnected from herself by a sharp blade of terror.” “Candid-coloured skirts.” “The gown in the cold of her room, flood-lit in firelight and the backlash of jewel-glitter.” It’s glorious, and it’s like that all the way through.

The second thing might be the suspense. In the new world in which she finds herself, Margaret Coventry observes every detail of action and interaction among the gracious and glittering lords and ladies of Plenilune with the hyper-awareness of a very reserved personality falling in love, for the first time, with a whole new land and people. When I interviewed Jennifer Freitag on her debut novel The Shadow Things, she told me that from her favourite authors she had learned “the poignancy of and the emotional importance in detail.” There is a lot of detail in Plenilune, all of it positively staggering under the weight of emotional importance. The melodrama, for want of a better word, never lets up.
Why did all the silences of this place sound like the silence before a scream? Why did the stillness of this house feel like the stillness before a storm? 
All to the good if you love dense melodrama as much as I do. All the same, I can imagine it being said (as Toby Sumpter said of the Les Miserables movie) that “by about half way through the story, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to care, it was that I couldn’t. All my cares were used up.”

So I would caution you not to make the mistake I made (plebeian that I am), and gulp down Plenilune in a handful of sittings. I felt greedy and surfeited, as though scarfing a ten-pound fruitcake all at once, and yet Jennifer has such an amazing gift with words that I could not bring myself to wish the novel pruned by a paragraph.

In other ways, Plenilune surprised me. I’m trying not to give away much of the plot here, but there was a goodish stretch at the beginning of the novel when I suspected that the book was shaping up in the image of a Mary Stewart or a Charlotte Bronte gothic romance novel: a lushly written antagonistic love affair between a plucky heroine and a darkly brooding man. I was wrong. How wrong I was. Jennifer Freitag takes the well-known Jane Eyre cast and subverts them up, down, left, right and inside-out. There was, actually, a moment further on in the plot when I paused to ask myself if I was, after all, simply reading the tale of a number of ridiculously attractive men all wrangling over the heroine’s affections. But if this is so, it must be admitted that this is the best ever story of a number of ridiculously attractive men wrangling over the heroine’s affections. And there is much more to the story:  the epic war waged for the future of a planet, a woman finding her courage, necks getting snapped...Plenilune has everything.

And this, I think, comes down to the nub of exactly what it is that makes Plenilune, and other good books, so very good. The books I like, classics or not, are full of blood and thunder—epic battles, tormented love stories, green-skinned space women, prophesied deliverer-kings, huge gothic mansions, or outlaw queens tossing their captives off a cliff into the loch—just the same as the pulps, but dignified by good writing and mature thinking. After all, nobody likes a cold cup of tea, and stories in which nothing much happens are a relatively recent phenomenon. We do not love slack and safe and mediocre things—and Plenilune is nothing if not a love letter to unabashed romance and adventure:
What did she want? she asked herself with a sudden unkind fierceness. To tidy the place like a nursery, free of any sharp objects that might hurt someone, to be sure of a happy outcome like a little girl reading a fairytale? But that was not what had at first repulsed her from these people, and what had eventually drawn her. With their thin skins, quick to take offence and to defend their bantam plumage, these were men who lived among danger and swords and blood and put a great price on honour. They had not turned their world into a nursery. They loved their world fiercely and their world loved them still more fiercely back.
Part of this delight in the outrageously melodramatic comes out in the author's focus on man as the image of God. Man is fallen, but from a dizzying height. Even in sin, he bears the image of God, and as Margaret observes,
“Half of us is legend,” she said, “and the rest is pain.”
With too great an emphasis on the brokenness of sin we can forget that man justly wields dominion power over creation. As in all good fantasies, Plenilune uses magic as a symbol of that dominion power. In the author's words:
The “magic” of Plenilune (and, indeed, of any of my fantasies) is based off of an appreciation for the uniqueness, authority, and power of man. Due to the corruption of sin, most of us no longer exercise any kind of visible authority over creation, but within my novels some people still can. It may look like magic if interpreted in the modern fantasy sense, but it is in fact a exhibition of an innate authority borne by man... There is an element of demonic interaction (although I have permitted it to be very subtle) in Plenilune, but only because this is a thing which people sometimes do and I never for a moment suppose it to be a good thing, or even explore it in the novel.
Another aspect that I loved about this book was the main character's characterisation as a feminine woman who learns to exercise authority in her own right. Eventually our heroine becomes a powerful and even a martial figure (as you can tell from the cover), without deserting her created feminine role. We live in a day when both Christians and heathens find it difficult to imagine a woman who is both feminine and capable,  and I loved the fact that the more time the heroine spends in the company of strong and Christlike men, the more plucky and fierce and “terrible as an army with banners” she becomes. And, for fear of spoilers, I will stop there.

Finally, I should give a brief advisory. Plenilune wasn’t written for young or immature readers and so I wouldn’t recommend it to them on account of violence, occasional implied sexual misbehaviour and one line that gets a little explicit. Otherwise, I was a little disappointed by the main character’s bitter attitude toward her family, which never seems to resolve. (Perhaps the author's unpublished novel Adamantine, which is about Margaret’s scandalous cousin, fleshes out some of the backstory for this.) 

Plenilune was wonderful: a love-letter to all the things for which we yearn: to goodness and grace, to mystery and melodrama, to battle and boldness, to legend and pain. As I sat down to polish off the final few chapters, one thing seemed fitting.

I said grace.

I thoroughly and delightedly recommend Plenilune to everyone who loves melodramatic epic novels of love and war. BATTEN DOWN, PEOPLE. THE DE LA MARES ARE COMING.

by Jennifer Freitag
October 20th

The fate of Plenilune hangs on the election of the Overlord, for which Rupert de la Mare and his brother are the only contenders, but when Rupert’s unwilling bride-to-be uncovers his plot to murder his brother, the conflict explodes into civil war.

To assure the minds of the lord-electors of Plenilune that he has some capacity for humanity, Rupert de la Mare has been asked to woo and win a lady before he can become the Overlord, and he will do it—even if he has to kidnap her.

En route to Naples to catch a suitor, Margaret Coventry was not expecting a suitor to catch her.

JENNIFER FREITAG lives with her husband in a house they call Clickitting, with their two cats Minnow and Aquila, and their own fox kit due to be born in early December.  Jennifer writes in no particular genre because she never learned how, she is make of sparks like Boys of Blur, and if she could grasp the elements, she would bend them like lightning.  Until then, she sets words on fire.
Living with her must be excruciating. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Plenilune - Author Interview

Since I've been making excited noises about it ever since I got the chance to read the book a few months ago, Plenilune should need little introduction at this point. The short story: this is a thrilling, lush, and romantic planetary fantasy from Jennifer Freitag, who if this book and her debut novel The Shadow Things is any indication, will be an author to watch.

With less than three weeks until Plenilune officially releases on October 20th, the release fun is beginning! On Monday 6th comes the cover release, which you'll be able to see here or at Jennifer Freitag's blog, The Penslayer. I'll also be posting my own review here at Vintage Novels, to the accompaniment of much readerly squeeing. And last but not least, an author interview, posted herewith, in which I get the opportunity to ask Jennifer to reveal all her writing secrets...

Jennifer, hello and a warm welcome back to Vintage Novels. As you know, I loved every minute of Plenilune. Where did the first seeds of the idea for this novel come from? 

The necessity for this story—I call it a necessity—came when I mentioned, perfectly innocently, at the end of my first draft of Adamantine, that the main character’s cousin (Margaret) seemed to have undergone a change in more or less a twelvemonth. At the time it was a dumbish piece of writing: I suppose I didn’t want to resurrect the raw, haggard cousin which had occupied the early pages of Adamantine’s manuscript, I wanted someone easier to work with in the limited time that I had. But then I began to wonder: if something did happen to Margaret, what was it?

Other than horses (because, let’s face it, I’m a girl), I have undergone an obsession over two things: Rome, and the English Civil War. While the atmosphere of Plenilune is decidedly Teutonic (for no reason I can determine, other than that it came that way), aspects of both these youthful obsessions definitely impacted my novel. You will come across casual cameos of both to varying degrees, and I am not sorry at all.

If you want to know where the actual plot of Plenilune came from, I must warn you to always ask me at the outset of a novel: by the time I have finished writing a story, it has been so long and so much water has gone under the bridge, I cannot for the life of me remember the early seeds of my plots. It is a sad but recurring fact. I can’t tell you how I came up with Plenilune. I can simply no longer remember.

I’ve noticed a few other advance readers comparing Plenilune to CS Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy. Obviously both books are similar in genre (planetary fantasy) but are there other commonalities or influences going on here? Some touches of allegory, for instance?

Unfortunately, people must relate Plenilune and Lewis’ Trilogy because there are so few planetary fantasies in popular circulation, but really they are very unlike in tone. Readers of Plenilune might find more connection between my novel and something like Lewis’ excellent non-fiction work The Discarded Image, which explores the medieval view of the universe. The Trilogy is not divorced from this hierarchy of the universe as posed by ancient and medieval philosophers, but it is definitely more of an accepted and influential concept among Plenilunar thought than it is in the Trilogy.

Now for a writer-workshop question: When I interviewed you for The Shadow Things, you mentioned “the poignancy of and the emotional importance in detail”. This is something you do amazingly well in Plenilune. How does detail intensify emotional reactions? Can you give examples of what kind of detail you might specifically try to include in different scenes? 

I have difficulty putting this concept into words, so I will borrow someone else’s line. “The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying in the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and you work off the resonance.”

That last part, working off the resonance, is where the poignancy comes in. You cannot take in the scope of terror or joy, it is simply too much to write down, and often it is simply more than we can contain when we experience them. So you hone in on one small aspect, something that holds a wealth of meaning, such as the child’s socks in the road. You take in that one small thing, but you are immediately hit with the importance of it, like waves of sound trembling through a gong—only, in this case, the hammer is a sequence and the sound is emotion.

It would be hard to give examples of my use of this without picking up lines of text from my manuscripts and plopping them in here. I don’t invent these circumstances outside of their organic stories. The trick is somehow knowing which details, noticed in the moment by the character, will equally convey emotion and empathy to the reader. Sometimes these connections are intuitively obvious, sometimes you have to almost write the reader as much as you write the character.

Note: (I apologize, this is a long answer.) Between Rosemary Sutcliff, who really taught me how to write, and the opening battle sequence in the film “Gladiator,” I learned the significance of practically arresting the movement of reality, of slowing it until things seem both numb and terribly clear. I have experienced this sort of thing, but I was taught it mentally and visually through Sutcliff’s literature and Ridley Scott’s cinematography.

Besides the lush writing and thrilling melodrama, my favourite thing about Plenilune was Margaret and her character arc, from someone who is very powerless to someone who is “terrible as an army with banners”. It can be so hard to write a female character who is feminine without being useless, and courageous without being annoying. Can you share some thoughts on how to get this balance right? 

I think the balance lies in knowing what people are like. Margaret is someone who is struggling hard to be something more in life, something better, but discovers when push comes to shove that she hasn’t actually got the skills required to stand on her own. The desire remains, and through the mutual nurturing of necessity and the school of hard knocks, and actually seeing a strength worth emulating, she grows into her ideals. “Strong women” is also not an issue that ever needed arguing in Plenilune: it is tacitly understood that a great woman is one who is both powerful in genius and tender in temperament.

There is also a need to recognize that these balances will look different in different women, and may not always rub others the right way. My “strong female character” of an upcoming Plenilunar installment can be so “terrible as an army with banners” that it can grate for other characters, and come across as almost more masculine than a woman ought to be, but she is a woman, and the reader is not left without a picture of the fragile side of the weaker vessel.

“Balance, Daniel-san!”

Who was your favourite character? What did you like most about writing him or her? 

I think, in reading the book, my favourite character will probably be apparent. I won’t say outright who it is, so that nothing is spoiled for the reader, but I think it was the constant wheeling harmony of paradoxes in the character which I particularly loved. The sensation of motion, like rings around a planet, was never still, it was always humming, and there was always a sense of a thunderstorm building and waiting to let loose. The complete absence of any compartmentalization in the character’s brain allowed for a more cohesive picture of Plenilune and life than the main character and reader might have got from a more orthodox individual. The sense I got from Chesterton that “here we have battle and blazing eyes, and chance and honour and high surprise” was never lacking in this character, and I loved it.

I loved (and thoroughly agreed with) your explanation for the use of magic in Plenilune, but I wasn’t expecting the friendly dragon. I guess I’m most accustomed to the idea of dragons being the enemy, as they often (but not exclusively, eg Ps 148:7) are in Scripture. What imagery did you draw upon for your dragon? 

This aspect of Plenilune is less Teutonic and more Eastern. The being in question is not an actual dragon (whatever dragons were, I do believe they existed as physical creatures): what you see is only the formal projection of it upon the five human senses on which we rely so heavily. (In this, you will meet a concept shared by Lewis’ Trilogy.) But because I did not want to rely only on the five basic sensations of the physical body, I chose a more Eastern picture, which is a little less reptile and a little more mystery, often seeming to defy the laws of the natural universe as if they were beneath it. In giving the reader a visual picture of the character, I wanted also to convey to the sixth sense that something was not quite right about the picture, the picture was not all there was. As for why I chose a dragon at all, by now the reason is swamped under years of working on this project. But perhaps the answer lies somewhere in my highschool Beowulf...

I was fascinated by the existence of formal Christianity on Plenilune, plus classic Thulcandran works like the Divine Comedy, and that quote from Hugh Latimer. It all raises the question of how Earth has influenced Plenilune’s culture in the past. Are we going to see some of that backstory in future books, or can you give us some hints now? 

The fact that you recognized that quote by Latimer makes you ten times more awesome than before.

Ours is a mutual appreciation.

I was afraid someone would ask me this question—when Skander pulls The Tempest off a bookshelf, where did that come from?—because I have yet to discover the answer. My best answer for you is that, in light of the medieval structure of the universe, Earth, while not at the top, is still the most important world and everything looks toward it. How that communication is kept up, I don’t yet know, but I know that it vitally shapes the philosophical backdrop of Plenilune.

Would you tell us about your plans to write more Plenilune books? And I beg your pardon if the question is a little cruel, but have you any kind of ETA on the next book? Plenilune comes out on October 20th, and I imagine people will start begging for the next book on October 21st... 

My plans include at least nine other titles. My current work in progress, Talldogs, is the third installment in the series. Ethandune, which is number two, will not be coming out next year for certain, as a good deal of it needs expanding and tweaking (I wrote the first draft in two months!), and I will probably not get to that until after I finish my Talldogs draft. I am sorry that it takes me so long to finish and turn these titles around, but you will thank me when the finished product is not too shabby by half!

Thanks so much for talking to us, Jennifer! I, for one, loved Plenilune and can’t wait to discuss it with everyone else once it lands on October 20th. All the best! 

Thank you, Suzannah! It has been a pleasure wrestling with these fantastic questions.

Jennifer Freitag blogs at The Penslayer. Plenilune releases on October 20th, but you can add it on Goodreads and read other advance reader reviews right now--which I urge you to do!

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Bookshelf Challenge

So, late is better than never, right? I was nominated for the Bookshelf Challenge by Meagan Briggs of The Empty Inkwell.

The Rules for the Bookshelf Tag: 

Answer the following questions about books, and then tag five other bloggers. You can answer the questions any way you want, whether it’s on your blog, in a video, or a combination of the two. Then remember to let whoever tagged you know when your post is up so they can read it.

1) Is there a book that you really want to read but haven’t because you know that it’ll make you cry?

I expect to cry over John J Dwyer's Robert E Lee, and after tearfully chewing through his War Between the States and Stonewall, I was definitely ready to take a break, but the main reason books get put off for me is because I am crazy busy.

2) Pick one book that helped introduce you to a new genre. 

John C Wright's The Golden Age introduced me to super-super-space-opera. It twisted my mind into pretzels and was highly enjoyable. Advisory: John C Wright is only recommended to mature readers.

3) Find a book that you want to reread. 

Just one? Persuasion by Jane Austen. From memory, one of my favourite Austens.

4) Is there a book series you read but wish that you hadn’t?

There are a number, actually, but today I'll just admit to Francine Rivers's Mark of the Lion trilogy. To be fair, Mrs Rivers writes a gripping story with oodles of melodrama, fun historical detail, and an evident desire to please the Lord. All that aside, the books are about the most pressure-cooker-y romance novels I've ever read. While recently I've been coming to firmer convictions on what kind of romance is appropriate (hint: you can have my copy of Much Ado About Nothing when you pry it from my cold dead hands), there's still a line between appropriate and inappropriate. The Mark of the Lion is a sanctified bodice ripper. There, I said it.

5) If your house were burning down and all of your family and pets were safe, which book would you go back inside to save? 

Pendragon's Heir, because losing ten years' work would be horrible. If I had any more time, I'd add my Kobo and my treasured copy of Charles Williams's Taliessin Through Logres/The Region of the Summer Stars, because replacing it would be so difficult.

6) Is there one book on your bookshelf that brings back fond memories?

Perelandra. I have a lot of memories, good and bad, of reading that book.

7) Find a book that has inspired you the most. 

Angels in the Architecture, Douglas Wilson and Douglas Jones. It more or less explains me.

8) Do you have any autographed books?

Rural Australia doesn't grant the opportunity to meet famous authors all that much. Given that, I'm kind of surprised how many I have. Signed first editions of the 100 Cupboards series by ND Wilson, if you're counting authors I haven't met. Otherwise, George Grant kindly autographed a copy of The Micah Mandate for a very star-struck Australian traveller last year, and Anna Sofia and Elizabeth Botkin signed a copy of It's (Not That) Complicated for me around the same time. More recently, I became the proud owner of an autographed copy of Tasmanian author-illustrators Steve and Marion Isham's latest picture book Where The Platypus Sleeps.

9) Find the book that you have owned the longest.

Oh. Wow. I wouldn't have a clue. There are books on my shelf that my parents have given me from the library we had growing up, and books that came from my grandparents' shelves, so maybe the absolutely-fallen-apart Pilgrim's Progress?

10) Is there a book by an author that you never imagined you would read or enjoy?

Bleak House, by Charles Dickens. After being traumatised at an early age by Oliver Twist, I was surprised to enjoy that one.

The bloggers I now nominate are:

Schuyler M of My Lady Bibliophile
Elisabeth Grace Foley of The Second Sentence
Joy C of Fulness of Joy

and anyone else who wants to join in. Let me know if you do! Cheers!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Comus by John Milton

It may surprise you to know that I've never been a great fan of John Milton's. I've tried, and failed, twice, to get all the way through Paradise Lost, and was rather put off to discover that Milton embraced the Arian heresy, seeing Christ as the first-created being rather than the eternal God Himself. However, a spot of heresy doesn't usually prevent me from enjoying a legitimately good book, and when I recently decided on a whim to read Comus, I was astonished how much I enjoyed the thing.

Comus is a masque, maybe the first I've read. The masque was a presentation quite similar to a play, popular through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when Comus was written. One of the differences between a masque and a play was that a masque was a very courtly form of entertainment in which it was not unheard-of (as it would have been in the playhouses) for noblemen and noblewomen to take roles or participate in the songs and dances.

Into the Wood

Comus is the story of a young Lady and her two brothers lost in "the blind mazes of [a] tangled wood." I have to admit that it was this specific line which induced me to read the masque. Why? I'll go somewhat off-topic and explain. If that line makes you think of Mirkwood, Narnia, or perhaps As You Like It's Forest of Arden or any King Arthur story at all, then congratulations--you are aware of a venerable literary trope with deep roots in the chivalric/romantic tradition. As Charles Williams observed in The Figure of Beatrice,
The image of a wood has appeared often enough in English verse. It has indeed appeared so often that it has gathered a good deal of verse into itself; so that it has become a great forest where, with long leagues of changing green between them, strange episodes of poetry have taken place. Thus in one part there are lovers of a midsummer night, or by day a duke and his followers, and in another men behind branches so that the wood seems moving, and in another a girl separated from her two lordly young brothers, and in another a poet listening to a nightingale but rather dreaming richly of the grand art than there exploring it, and there are other inhabitants, belonging even more closely to the wood, dryads, fairies, an enchanter's rout. The forest itself has different names in different tongues--Westermain, Arden, Birnam, Broceliande; and in places there are separate trees named, such as that on the outskirts against which a young Northern poet saw a spectral wanderer leaning, or, in the unexplored centre of which only rumours reach even poetry, Igdrasil of one myth, or the Trees of Knowledge and Life of another. So that indeed the whole earth seems to become this one enormous forest, and our longest and most stable civilisations are only clearings in the midst of it.
And that puts it in a nutshell, complete with a reference to Comus itself. To continue, the Lady is separated from her brothers and in looking for them, is captured by the enchanter Comus, who as the story goes, is the son of Bacchus and Circe from Greek myth, a minor deity of wine and lust. Comus attempts to talk the Lady into forsaking her morals, and the Lady, though unable to escape and waiting for rescue, continues to refute all of Comus's arguments.

Although the play is quite a short one, it's so jam-packed with thought-provoking goodness that I could spend a long time discussing it. There are a few very fun aspects of this story that I'd love to bring to your attention...

Pagan Imagery in a Christian Story

First, given the time period, it should come as no surprise to us that we find a good bit of imagery lifted from pagan myth here in this story by a man who, despite being a heretic, was a Christian heretic writing for a Christian audience in a Christian tradition. I've written before about how Milton, Spenser, CS Lewis, and other authors in this tradition justified such borrowing--short story, it's all in Augustine and The City of God--but it was fun to see Milton's take on the same kind of story. At one point, his pagan god argues to the Lady:
If all the world  
Should, in a pet of temperance, feed on pulse,
Drink the clear stream, and nothing wear but frieze,  
The All-giver would be unthanked, would be unpraised,  
Not half his riches known, and yet despised.
The milieu, in other words, does include gods and river-nymphs with powers of their own, but these creatures are imagined no less as subjects (whether obedient or rebellious) of the same God.

I'm not sure if I'd write a story the same way, but when reading classic Christian literature like Comus, it can be helpful to remember that the presence of a few lowercase pagan-derived gods should not be taken as evidence of impiety on the author's part. As we see from this passage, even though it comes from the mouth of the villain, a clear distinction is drawn between God Himself and the created "gods" which, although they may have delegated power, take it for granted that all worship and glory belong to the High God.

Reason and Temperance

As you might infer from the fact that the villain is a god of wine and lust, the whole theme of the poem revolves around the virtue of temperance, which as I mentioned in my review of Book II of The Faerie Queene, was defined at this period in history as right behaviour in the physical world (analogous to and of course inseparable from holiness, which is right spiritual conduct). The war is waged in learned debate; anyone who hasn't been living under a rock his whole life will be unsurprised to find how little the arguments of people like Comus have changed in the last 380 years. Still, all the things he says are hollow sophistry; the Lady's counterarguments, by contrast, are both rational and devastating.
Were it a draught for Juno when she banquets,  
I would not taste thy treasonous offer. None
But such as are good men can give good things;  
And that which is not good is not delicious  
To a well-governed and wise appetite.
One thing we might have a little more difficulty recognising is the poem's emphasis on the trained palate. After 250 years of Enlightenment humanism worshipping at the altar of the sweet innate goodness of humanity, all of us have the "follow your heart" mantra in our bones. To Milton, however, the natural appetites tend toward evil, making training, self-government, and discipline both necessary and beneficial. This is what CS Lewis talked about in The Abolition of Man--well-trained affections.

Another of the benefits of a well-governed character: discipline in the face of danger, fear, or apprehension.
Peace, brother: be not over-exquisite  
To cast the fashion of uncertain evils;  
For, grant they be so, while they rest unknown,  
What need a man forestall his date of grief,  
And run to meet what he would most avoid?  
Or, if they be but false alarms of fear,  
How bitter is such self-delusion!

Feminine Authority

This was one of my favourite things about this poem--as you'll be unsurprised to hear. I found the Lady an incredibly inspiring role model. She has complete calm and unassailable logic under pressure, combined with a total lack of feminist girl-power nonsense. 

To begin with, when her brothers discover that the Lady has been kidnapped by someone who's up to no good, one comforts the other like this:
I do not think my sister so to seek,
Or so unprincipled in virtue’s book,  
And the sweet peace that goodness bosoms ever,  
As that the single want of light and noise
(Not being in danger, as I trust she is not)
Could stir the constant mood of her calm thoughts,
And put them into misbecoming plight.
Modern feminists will try to persuade you, surprisingly often, that women of previous years were regarded as little better than infants, expected to scream and faint at the least sign of danger. But the Lady's Brothers, though understandably concerned for her safety, are sure that she has the strength of mind to meet dangers with courage. As the plot demonstrates, they're quite right.

Despite her courage, however, the Lady is quite in earnest a prisoner of Comus, unable to free herself; she is no omnicompetent action girl. On the other hand, the fact that the Lady is in dire need of a rescuer does not mean that she is without freewill or moral agency. Although physically she is in Comus's power, she is mentally and spiritually capable of resisting him: she is neither hoodwinked by his sophistries, nor enticed by his blandishments.

In other words, Comus's Lady doesn't take the easy way out--she doesn't use duress and coercion as an excuse for wrongdoing. I really think this is a huge error made by a lot of our contemporaries: to assume that every woman in a difficult situation, under any kind of pressure or abuse, is somehow a spotless victim, robbed of all moral agency, and helpless to exercise her own reason, will, and responsibilities. I don't debate that this must be difficult to do; but sometimes it just is difficult to do the right thing. We have to do it anyway. And I don't know about you, but I find that requirement far more empowering than the notion that I could have no moral agency in a moment of coercion or duress.

In Praise of Sensational Plots

Lately I have come to meditate on the fact that the difference between a great book and a terrible book does not lie in how interesting, or sensational, or preposterous, the plot is. Down with the idea that a book, to be truly great, must be as dull as dishwater. Even a potboiler full of romance, war, and melodrama is capable of greatness if written with discipline and virtue--and give me that any day, rather than a book which never dares to be either profound or preposterous. In Comus, Milton couches serious philosophy in a melodramatic tale of villainy versus chastity, and it's delightful. Compare that with the spy story I read recently about a genius art restorer superspy wending his respectable bourgeois way across Europe looking for stolen art. I think at one point he even drove a Volvo. And he didn't face the prospect of losing his immortal soul, not once. Pshaw, even Jane Austen wrote plots with higher stakes than that.

Empty-Vaulted Night

Comus was, to conclude, delightful all the way through. I can't finish without saying something about the writing. This may come as news, but Milton could turn a pretty phrase. Here, luxuriate in this:

Can any mortal mixture of earth’s mould
Breathe such divine enchanting ravishment?  
Sure something holy lodges in that breast,  
And with these raptures moves the vocal air
To testify his hidden residence.  
How sweetly did they float upon the wings
Of silence, through the empty-vaulted night,  

At every fall smoothing the raven down  
Of darkness till it smiled!

Find Comus on Amazon, The Book Depository, or Project Gutenberg.


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