Friday, October 29, 2010

Friday Poem: Cold Iron by Rudyard Kipling

While I enjoy some of his works, I have never been a huge fan of Kipling. There is something hard and cynical in him. This poem, however, is wonderful.

Cold Iron
by Rudyard Kipling

Gold is for the mistress -- silver for the maid --

Copper for the craftsman cunning at his trade.
"Good!" said the Baron, sitting in his hall,
"But Iron -- Cold Iron -- is master of them all."

So he made rebellion 'gainst the King his liege,
Camped before his citadel and summoned it to siege.
"Nay!" said the cannoneer on the castle wall,
"But Iron -- Cold Iron -- shall be master of you all!"

Woe for the Baron and his knights so strong,
When the cruel cannon-balls laid 'em all along;
He was taken prisoner, he was cast in thrall,
And Iron -- Cold Iron -- was master of it all!

Yet his King spake kindly (ah, how kind a Lord!)
"What if I release thee now and give thee back thy sword?"
"Nay!" said the Baron, "mock not at my fall,
For Iron -- Cold Iron -- is master of men all."

Tears are for the craven, prayers are for the clown --
Halters for the silly neck that cannot keep a crown.
"As my loss is grievous, so my hope is small,
For Iron -- Cold Iron -- must be master of men all!"

Yet his King made answer (few such Kings there be!)
"Here is Bread and here is Wine -- sit and sup with me.
Eat and drink in Mary's Name, the whiles I do recall
How Iron -- Cold Iron -- can be master of men all!"

He took the Wine and blessed it. He blessed and brake the Bread,
With His own Hands He served Them, and presently He said:
"See! These Hands they pierced with nails, outside My city wall,
Show Iron -- Cold Iron -- to be master of men all."

"Wounds are for the desperate, blows are for the strong.
Balm and oil for weary hearts all cut and bruised with wrong.
I forgive thy treason -- I redeem thy fall --
For Iron -- Cold Iron -- must be master of men all!"

Crowns are for the valiant -- sceptres for the bold!
Thrones and powers for mighty men who dare to take and hold.
"Nay!" said the Baron, kneeling in his hall,
"But Iron -- Cold Iron -- is master of men all!
Iron out of Calvary is master of men all!"

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Research Paper: The Christian Conscience of Equity

Research Paper: The Christian Conscience of Equity
Suzannah Rowntree
(If you have no prior legal knowledge you may find this definition of equity helpful.)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Spirits in Bondage by Clive Hamilton (CS Lewis)

One of the many slim volumes of poetry that emerged from WWI is of lasting interest to us, for it was written by CS Lewis under a pseudonym and was his first published work. It appeared in 1919, twelve years before his conversion, and is a fascinating glimpse at the mind of the man who would later capitulate to Tolkien and Dyson on that memorable night when they persuaded him to believe that there really was magic in the world.

For a long time I have known why Lewis converted from angry atheism to passionate Christianity. Although he was angry at God, he would read old myths and long with a fierce desire that they were true. His problem was that, as an atheist in a material universe, he could not believe that anything so wonderful could be true, and he desperately wanted it to be. Again and again in Spirits in Bondage, he cries out for those sweet, stirring old stories, only to recollect that they were lies:

Is it good to tell old tales of Troynovant
Or praises of dead heroes, tried and sage,
Or sing the queens of unforgotten age,
Brynhild and Maeve and virgin Bradamant?


All these were rosy visions of the night,
The loveliness and wisdom feigned of old.
But now we wake. The East is pale and cold,
No hope is in the dawn, and no delight.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

John Buchan Week: Envoi

This concludes John Buchan Week. Thanks for dropping by—if I have convinced you to try this underrated writer, do let me know what you think!

I have reviewed five, and alluded to many more Buchan books during the course of the week. Here's a quick guide to keep you straight:

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Mr Standfast by John Buchan

This, the third book of the Hannay quintet, deals with the final year of the War and comes to an unforgettable climax with the Spring Offensive of 1918 and the final turn of the tide against Germany. The one thing that never ceases to amaze me about this particular book is that it was written before the War even ended; and in fact when JB first began writing it, the climactic events of its final chapters hadn't even begun to happen! That the plot hangs together so well is a testament to the author's skill.

This is my favourite of the Hannay books, and my second-favourite book after The Lord of the Rings. On his latest secret mission, Brigadier Hannay is sent to a place that might well cause the stoutest man to blench: the artsy village of Biggleswick, where conscientious objectors go to waffle about Art and modern literature. One of these, however, has plans more dastardly than merely to cause Tommies to blow their heads off after an overdose of Leprous Souls, that critically-acclaimed Russian novel. If you hide a letter on a letter-rack, you hide a German spy among egg-head German sympathisers. And the Graf von Schwabing isn't just any German spy: he's a master of disguise, a virtuoso of murder and betrayal. On the run from the Cotswold hills to the Scots Highlands, from the Flanders trenches to the Swiss Alps, Hannay finds himself locked in a war of wits with his once and future nemesis. Along the way he's helped out by old friends Blenkiron and Peter Pienaar, and new friends like Archie Roylance (who is later to play a part in Huntingtower) and the smart and fearless Mary Lamington.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Friday Poem: The Shorter Catechism (Revised Version)

The Shorter Catechism (Revised Version)
by John Buchan

When I was young and herdit sheep
I read auld tales o' Wallace wight;
My heid was fou o' sangs and threip
O' folk that feared nae mortal might.
But noo I'm auld, and weel I ken
We're made alike o' gowd and mire;
There's saft bits in the stievest men,
The bairnliest's got a spunk o' fire.

Sae hearken to me, lads,
It's truth that I tell:
There's nae man a' courage--
I ken by mysel'.

I've been an elder forty year:
I've tried to keep the narrow way:
I've walked afore the Lord in fear:
I've never missed the kirk a day.
I've read the Bible in and oot,
(I ken the feck o't clean by hert).
But, still and on, I sair misdoot
I'm better noo than at the stert.

Sae hearken to me, lads,
It's truth I maintain:
Man's works are but rags, for
I ken by my ain.

I hae a name for decent trade:
I'll wager a' the countryside
Wad sweer nae trustier man was made,
The ford to soom, the bent to bide.
But when it comes to coupin' horse,
I'm just like a' that e'er was born;
I fling my heels and tak' my course;
I'd sell the minister the morn.

Sae hearken to me, lads,
It's truth that I tell:
There's nae man deid honest--
I ken by mysel'.

Huntingtower by John Buchan

If you only ever read one John Buchan book, it should be Huntingtower, which is a perfect introduction to Buchan's body of work: it's not too far out-there in terms of being a conventional story, but it also positively seethes with philosophical themes, and the trademark Buchan wit and joie-de-vivre.

Before I begin, I need to define a term. Romance in the old sense means something like adventure, and Buchan himself once defined it (in The Runagates Club) as “strangeness flowering from the commonplace”. While what we know today as romantic love is often a part of the Romance, so is adventure, drama, and courage in the face of overwhelming odds. Thus when GK Chesterton refers to “that useful trick of knife-throwing by which men murder each other in Stevenson's romances” he does not mean to say that Stevenson wrote for Mills & Boon. Rather, a hundred years ago “romance” was always used to refer to Treasure Island, and certainly never to Pride and Prejudice. Such is life! In order to help you differentiate between Mills & Boon and Stevenson, I intend to use both the upper-case-R Romance and the precise “Historical romance” to refer to the latter. And it is this kind of upper-case Romance with which Huntingtower has to do.

Huntingtower tells the story of Dickson McCunn, a solid, respectable Edinburgh grocer who does duty on a Sunday as an elder down at the Guthrie Memorial Kirk. Mr McCunn is a businessman and a Scot, but he is also a born romantic. He loves the novels of Sir Walter Scott particularly and has spent his whole life dreaming, in a gentle sort of way, of finding Romance and having some brilliant, thrilling role to play on the stage of the world.

When Dickson retires from the grocery business and the good Mrs McCunn goes on holiday, he finally gets his chance to walk off in search of adventure and, supplied with a copy of The Compleat Angler, sets off across Scotland. His idyll is disturbed when he meets John Heritage, a Modern Poet. Heritage is a Realist and a Communist, and his newfangled cynicism raises all Dickson's hackles.

Then both characters are drawn to a little village on the coast, not far away from a deserted manor named Huntingtower. And villainry is afoot at Huntingtower! For locked inside it is a Russian Princess fleeing from Communists. You would be perfectly correct in guessing that she is waiting for her prince (Australian, with a motor-bike) to come and rescue her. Unfortunately, she was unable to give him clear directions, and now he is lost in the hinterlands as the bad guys close in on the Princess. Both the Realist and the Romantic must come to her rescue, ably assisted by Dickson's fake Aunt Phemy and by a gang of tough Edinburgh street boys, the Gorbals Die-Hards, who have been sent by a charity on holiday to the sea-shore for the improvement of their grubby souls. Hilarity, naturally, ensues.

This is a wonderful book, full of fun and adventure. I love the characters, and I love the chapter titles (“Of the Princess in the Tower”--”How a Middle-Aged Crusader Accepted a Challenge”--”How Mr McCunn Committed an Assault Upon an Ally”). But most of all I love what Buchan says about Romance. The Poet despises Romance, and the Grocer has been searching for it all his life. What happens when they finally discover it, in the form of a modern fairy-tale?

Fairy-tales have come under a lot of criticism these days from people who think that a damsel in distress must be a congenital idiot, that a happy ending is totally unrealistic, or that ideals are not worth dying for. Buchan tackles a lot of those objections both directly and obliquely in this book, and although the Poet learns better, so does the Grocer. Dickson, having longed for Romance all his life, is surprised to find her a capricious and terrifying goddess who can and will leave him knocked unconscious and tied to a tree to die. But for all that, Buchan argues, a life with Romance is a hundred times better than a life without, even if it's only in a book. Take that, Shrek!

Buchan followed Huntingtower with two similarly architecturally-titled sequels: Castle Gay and The House of the Four Winds, which I look forwards to reviewing in due course!

John Buchan trivia: In her book Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers has a character quote the recurring line from Huntingtower, “Ye'll nae fickle Thomas Yownie!” That's right: even Dorothy Sayers was a John Buchan fan!

Arthur's Classic Novels etext

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Greenmantle by John Buchan

Witch Wood
is often cited as Buchan's greatest work, but there's a vocal minority that prefers Greenmantle, the gripping sequel to The Thirty-Nine Steps. Hitchcock was a fan, of course, and sadly never got to make the Greenmantle movie he wished for. Interestingly, in more recent years Greenmantle has spearheaded Buchan's resurgence in popularity: dealing as it does with Islam as a global force, there are probably a dozen articles on the Internet right now talking about JB's uncanny prescience.

In Greenmantle, we once again meet Richard Hannay, now a major, convalescing after Loos. Hannay looks forward to getting back to active service, but then he's summoned to the War Office and given a secret mission: he must put together a small team with which to infiltrate Germany. Word has come of a mysterious secret weapon that might win Germany the war, and Hannay must find out what it is and stop it.

Hannay puts together his team: Sandy “of Arabia” Arbuthnot will travel in from the Middle East in disguise (when reading Buchan, never discount the possibility that the sinister one-eyed Chinese cult leader is actually Sandy in disguise), using his contacts in the Eastern underworld to find out what he can. John Scantlebury Blenkiron, benevolent neutral, will travel in state as an American diplomat. Hannay himself, together with old friend and mentor Peter Pienaar, will pose as dim and illiterate Boer deserters looking for a fight.

Alone and in danger, the pair of them work their way across wartime Germany, down the Danube to Constantinople, and into the heart of a sinister conspiracy to ignite a whole new arena of war. The trademark Buchan suspense, full of exhilaration as well as foreboding, is never more powerful than here in Greenmantle. Hannay walks a high-wire: if he ceases to think like a spy, he won't be able to do his vitally important job; but unless he thinks like a back-veldt Boer, he'll make a mistake that can't be glossed over, and he'll be caught.

Greenmantle is JB at his finest, and it casts The Thirty-Nine Steps in the shade. One of the many improvements is in the characters and characterisation. I particularly like the way JB develops Hannay's character: in order to get to Constantinople from Germany, he gets a job delivering munitions to the Turks, where he knows, he knows they will be used to mop up the ANZACs at Gallipolli. But when a corrupt official tries a little funny business with the accounts and tries to bribe him, Hannay hits the roof and insists on everything being fully paid for. The endearing thing is that later on, he realises how stupid this is—the more corruption, the better for the Allies.

Then there's the sympathetic characterisation of the German people Hannay meets on his way—including, surprisingly, Kaisar Wilhelm II himself. In fact, apart from the villains of the piece (“He was a man of remarkable qualities; which would have brought him to the highest distinction in the Stone Age,” Hannay snarks about one of them) the German people are all portrayed as nice, ordinary people with whom, in better times, it would be a privilege to be friends.

But the best character in this book is without a doubt Peter Pienaar (slight, soft-spoken, imperturbable) who makes the capable and tough Hannay look like a kindergartener. Whether it's escaping from a POW camp, knocking out someone with a tea-tray, crossing No-Man's-Land in the dark with a war on, or, oh yes, deciding on a whim to walk into wartime Germany with you as a spy, Peter is your man.

Greenmantle has been one of my favourite books since the first time I read it. But don't just take my word for it—get a copy and read it yourself!

Arthur's Classic Novels etext
Librivox recording

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Witch Wood by John Buchan

Apart from his Richard Hannay novels, Witch Wood must be Buchan's most famous work and is widely considered to be one of if not his all-time best. Greatly admired by CS Lewis, it is both a tale of political intrigue in Scotland during the Montrose Rebellion and a thoughtful discussion of Calvinist Christianity.

In the world of Witch Wood, there is no moral neutrality, but the lines of battle are hard to see. Christians may be hypocrites; the village atheist may find it hard to break free of faith. The main character is an idealistic young Presbyterian minister, David, who travels to a tiny valley in an overlooked corner of Scotland where his new congregation awaits him. At first, the village seems idyllic, but a dark Wood broods over it and bit by bit, David uncovers a terrible secret. A witch's coven meets at Beltane in the Wood, and it is entirely comprised of most of his congregation.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

In 1914, John Buchan came down with the stomach ulcer that was to plague him for the rest of his busy life and was forced to spend weeks in bed. During this time he briskly read through a collection of what he called “shilling shockers” and was inspired to try his own, as shocking and shilling-worthy as the rest: a romance “where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible.” No doubt he would have been considerably surprised (and perhaps disappointed) to learn that this would become the most famous and widely-read of his works, and the first great work of a whole new genre.

For The Thirty-Nine Steps is often quoted as the first work of modern spy fiction, though it had fore-runners in Erskine Childers's The Riddle of the Sands and Buchan's own more philosophical The Power-House. Although Steps, as much as it impacted his successors (such as Fleming, Maclean, and Hitchcock) has less to do with spies than it has to do with suspense, it contains most of the tropes of the genre: an ordinary man of great abilities, hunted by police and foreign spies through picturesque locations, must evade capture long enough to get news to the right people.

Monday, October 18, 2010

In Defence of Buchan

If you've known me for any length of time, you'll have heard me gush about Buchan's works. And chances are, if you've then picked up one of his books—say, The Thirty-Nine Steps—you've come away wondering what the fuss is about. Sure, he writes a fun book. But the dialogue is really dated, you might say, and the plot is completely unbelievable, relying on coincidence and sometimes fatal stupidity on the part of the villain. And what about that crack about the Jews on page ten?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

John Buchan (1875-1940)

Welcome to John Buchan Week! I'll begin things with a (not-so-quick) biography.

John Buchan, Scottish novelist, historian, politician, spymaster, governor-general of Canada, and ace publisher, is my second favourite writer, just between Tolkien and Chesterton. Buchan was the constant companion of my teenage years, and I still lend his books to everyone who will agree to read them.

Buchan was born in 1875 to a poor but respectable Free Church minister in Scotland. He went on to acquire a large family of adventurous younger siblings. With his sister Anna (who later went on to write novels under the pseudonym of O. Douglas, see photo at top of page!), of whom the neighbours said "They're all wild ones, but the lassie is the very devil", he led his brothers and sisters through a life full of mishap, adventure, and mischief. Later, in his autobiography, he said that he had a very lazy childhood--one shudders to think what constituted a busy one, since the list of things he read in that time is enormous, from Milton and Shakespeare to the old myths of the north and most classic English poetry. He was also arrested for poaching, and this tale was raked up amid a great deal of hilarity later, when he was running for Parliament.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

John Buchan Week

I'm thrilled to announce the first Feature Week here at Vintage Novels: in which I take a week to gush, at length, about one of my favourite authors in the world...and a man most people have never heard of.

John Buchan Week starts tomorrow! In the meantime, I've organised a few Buchan-related links for your attention:

John Buchan's Wikipedia page

The excellent John Buchan Society
70th Anniversary of John Buchan at
Supernatural Buchan, an overview of his remarkable supernatural and horror stories
Second Division, Not Second Rate, a recent article in The Australian
The Neglected Legacy of John Buchan (the title says it all)
and best of all, Peter J Leithart's brilliant discussion of Midwinter

Friday, October 15, 2010

Friday Poem: Said Hanrahan

In Australia, the seasons are changing from winter to summer through that brief transitional period we call 'spring', which usually alternates between pouring rain and a gentle yet persistent heat. It's probably the nicest time to be in rural Australia, when the grass is green, the calves are new, the hawthorn is in bloom, and everyone's making gloomy bushfire predictions. Which reminds me of one of the great Australian poems...

Said Hanrahan
by John O'Brien

"We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan,
In accents most forlorn,
Outside the church, ere Mass began,
One frosty Sunday morn.

The congregation stood about,
Coat-collars to the ears,
And talked of stock, and crops, and drought,
As it had done for years.

"It's looking crook," said Daniel Croke;
"Bedad, it's cruke, me lad,
For never since the banks went broke
Has seasons been so bad."

"It's dry, all right," said young O'Neil,
With which astute remark
He squatted down upon his heel
And chewed a piece of bark.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

Unlike most children, I grew up reading books rather than watching movies or TV, to the extent that at the age of twelve, I'd never seen My Fair Lady...but I was a big fan of Pygmalion! We had an English Literature textbook from a homeschool supplier that believed in big shiny pictures, with only portions of the actual texts. At the time, I thought it was a dirty trick to include only the first canto of the first book of the Faerie Queene, or only the first five chapters of Pride and Prejudice. In retrospect, I still wonder at their methods, but I have to admit I'd probably never have touched Pride and Prejudice till years later if it hadn't been for those five chapters.

In with those maddening, delicious fragments of literature I came across a scene from George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion--the one where Eliza comes to visit Higgins and Pickering to ask to be taught to speak like a lady. I thought it was hilarious. I spent years looking for a copy and eventually my brother and I found it on a CD-ROM of classic literature we'd been given and read the whole thing in ugly plaintext, together, shouting with laughter.

You know the plot, of course. Cockney flower-seller Eliza Doolittle wants to be a real lady in a florist's shop, but blustering speech expert Henry Higgins and his new friend Colonel Pickering make a bet that they can teach her to speak so well they can pass her off as a duchess at a high society ball.

Shaw's play is witty and entertaining, and you'll recognise much of the dialogue from the movie. There are various changes; for example, the movie left out the hilarious moment where Alfred Doolittle, meeting his clean and respectable daughter for the first time, mistakes her for a Japanese lady (THE JAPANESE LADY: Garn!) and of course, in the play Eliza's introduction to Polite Society occurs at Mrs Higgins's at-home day, not at Royal Ascot.

Otherwise the plots of the musical and the original play are quite similar—until the end. (Spoiler warning!) In My Fair Lady, Eliza changes her mind about marrying Freddy, and returns to Higgins. I was suffused with glee when I saw this change in the movie, as it seemed to subvert the entire point of the original play. In Pygmalion, as in the myth, the heroine comes to independent life. But in the play, she breaks from the one who made her and goes off to marry Freddy. This may be a stirring pronunciation of women's lib, and an affirmation of the message of Shaw's other famous play Man and Superman in which he set out to show that women are the ones who take initiative and force men to marry; but it makes for a rotten story. In the romanticised endings, instead of Eliza ending up forced to work her fingers to the bone for the useless Freddy, Higgins has a change of heart and Eliza relents. It's not just a pleasanter ending—it's also, narratively speaking, better.

Although I think the musical version is a better story, I still highly recommend the play. It's wittier, it's funnier, and it has some extremely interesting philosophical undertones.

Gutenberg etext
Librivox recording

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Lorna Doone by RD Blackmore

Lorna Doone is another of those old novels that were extremely famous in their time, but are rarely read these days. One of the great historical romances of the later nineteenth century, Lorna Doone is a long book with an epic scope, a great plot, and particularly strong characterisation; and it seized the imagination of a generation. Lorna Doone is the Lord of the Rings of historical romances (and by 'romance' I mean the old-fashioned sense, of adventure, and 'strangeness flowering from the commonplace') not just in its scope and influence but also for the ways in which it reinforces some tropes of its genre and skilfully avoids or subverts others.

For all these reasons you will probably never read it as part of a literature course. Too complex to be categorised into Marxist or feminist boxes.

So. In a hidden Exmoor valley live the Doones--a family of noble outlaws who made a living terrorising the surrounding farmers. Unluckily for them, one of these farmers is none other than the gigantic John Ridd, who as a boy stumbles into their valley and finds there the young Lorna Doone.

When he returns to the Doone-valley years later, John Ridd meets Lorna again and falls in love, despite that she is beautiful and refined and far above him—and despite that she is a Doone, for Doones killed John's father. The same man who did it wants Lorna for himself—and when John steals her away to safety, the feud begins!

That's the substance of the plot, but I haven't even hinted at the secret of Lorna's glass necklace, at John's cousin the highwayman Tom Faggus, at the fate that John narrowly avoids in the Monmouth Rebellion, or at Uncle Reuben Huckaback's machinations. It's a long story, with plenty of twists and turns in the plot. There are leisurely spots throughout the story, but to read it is to step into a sunnier time, where stories are allowed to unfold over years, and where the harvest and the winter are both worth commenting on.

Lorna Doone is unique in a lot of ways. It's one of the few historical romances that have a simple farmer as a hero—and even more surprisingly, he falls in love with Lorna, who is of extremely high birth. Instead of succumbing to cheap melodrama, however, Blackmore uses this to add real difficulty and emotion to the story. And because John is a farmer, the story of Lorna's wooing and rescue is punctuated with homely narratives of bringing the sheep home and making hay!

Although long, sometimes leisurely, and full of Exmoor dialect, Lorna Doone is well worth the challenge: romantic, exciting and homely by turns, with an unmistakeable atmosphere. The air of an older time stirs gently in it. I can't recommend it enough.

Gutenberg etext

Librivox recording

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Medieval Cosmology in the Chronicles of Narnia.

I've just discovered my university library offers Michael Ward's Planet Narnia as an ebook. So please enjoy this rambling discussion of the pagan Greek elements of the Narnia books (cross-posted from Facebook).
Pagan Creatures in Christian Narnia: Why, Lewis, Why?

CS Lewis's Narnia is unusual in that along with dwarfs, Talking Beasts and an allegorical representation of Jesus, one also finds fauns, centaurs, dryads, river-gods, and other creatures from Greek myth. Many people, even those who love Narnia, consider the inclusion of these unusual, daring, even transgressive. To me, it's a clear homage to one of the greatest Christian works of fantasy ever written.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Nada the Lily by Rider Haggard

Rider Haggard, who surely possessed one of the best names ever given to a child, was a man who could always be relied upon to produce a fun read. His books are either fabulous epic adventures, or fluffy trifles. Everyone's heard of the epics, like King Solomon's Mines or She. And practically nobody's heard of the silly ones, like Pearl Maiden, which I thought was one long hoot from start to finish.

Nada the Lily, you will be happy to hear, is one of his better efforts. Set in South Africa, it features only African characters—all of whom behave like barbarians, but barbarians like Conan or Achilles: never less than great. What ensues is a fantastic tale of passion, savagery, and war. Modern writers make up elaborate fantasy worlds with barbaric and gaudy cultures, and then set them to fight to the death. A hundred years ago, the world was bigger and stranger and Haggard got the same effect using peoples from distant lands untouched by civilisation...

Nada the Lily revolves around the life and death of Shaka, king of the Zulus (spelled Chaka in the book). I thought Haggard painted a pretty gaudy picture of Chaka, but he estimates that he caused 'over a million' deaths, while Wikipedia puts it at double that, so...perhaps not. At any rate, the narrator is a wily witch-doctor, Nada's father. Having gained Chaka's favour by an act of kindness done in his childhood, he must take care not to make a false step, unless like many others Chaka kills him—for hearing too much, misreading the king's mood, or crossing him in any way. Unfortunately for the witch-doctor, that fasle step is forced upon him when his sister—one of Chaka's wives—gives birth to a son and begs him to take the boy to safety. Chaka has decreed that all his sons, who might be a threat to his throne, shall be strangled at birth. With the rescue of tiny Umslopogaas, our narrator sets the first stones rolling of an avalanche that will sweep away Chaka's empire.

I shan't spoil the rest of the story. There is never a dull moment in this historical-cum-fantasy novel. Here, mighty warriors do great deeds, dare uncounted odds, tame wolves, win magical weapons, and win crowns by the force of their arm: storytelling simply doesn't get any better than this. There's detail, colour, and emotion. And Haggard makes a real effort to tell a story about real Zulus, not darkish people with European morals and sensibilities. All the male characters have multiple wives, put the weakest people in the front line to be slaughtered, and don't have a big problem with assassination or mass murder, as long as it's in a good cause. Unpraiseworthy as such behaviour is, it adds verisimilitude to the story.

All is well, in fact, until the eponymous heroine appears. Haggard was certainly capable of writing heroines with spines of chilled steel. This one is a bit of a milksop. Read the book for the rip-roaring adventure instead.

It's probable you've never heard of Nada the Lily before, but interestingly enough it has had a lasting impact on English literature: Rudyard Kipling read it and was so struck with the idea of a boy living among wolves that he ended up writing a whole series of stories about it, the collection we now know as The Jungle Book!

To conclude, what I liked most about this book was the writing style. Haggard writes with poetic ease and grace, in that distinctive nineteenth-century style. This book isn't a masterpiece, but it's an excellent example of everything I love about vintage novels.

Gutenberg etext

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

This was one of my favourite books when I was little. Lately, I've delved into MacDonald's more mature fantasy (I read Lilith a few months ago) and realised what I never realised before—he was not just deeply theologically profound, but also a Presbyterian of sorts! Early fantasy is a genre largely dominated by great and gigantic Catholics (Tolkien, for example, or Chesterton) and Anglicans (CS Lewis and the remarkable Charles Williams). But for Calvinist fantasy, you have to choose between The Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost, Pilgrim's Progress—and MacDonald. Well, I'm not complaining, but Pilgrim's Progress is an allegory, The Faerie Queene is nearly an allegory (and both are some of my favourite books) and as for John Milton he didn't believe in the full divinity of Christ!

Which leaves—MacDonald.

This is probably his most conventional fantasy work. It tells the story of Princess Irene, who is nine years old and lives with her nurse and household in a castle on a lonely mountain, far away from the distant capital city where her king-papa rules. The mountain itself is riddled with coal-mines, where the poor but brave miners work: far below the mines, a constant annoyance and menace (they don't mind eating humans), live the goblins.

One day, bored, Princess Irene runs out of her nursery to explore the upper reaches of the castle—and in the tallest tower of all she opens a door and sees a beautiful, queenly old lady spinning. Her white hair is so long that it trails on the floor; and she introduces herself as Irene's great-great-grandmother, who has been living in the castle watching over her from afar all Irene's life.

Soon after, Irene meets a miner-boy named Curdie, who knows the goblins well, and just how to deal with them. Lost in the mines one night, Curdie discovers that the goblins intend to capture Irene as a bride for their prince, and so with much difficulty and the help of Irene's mysterious grandmother—and Irene herself—he foils their plans and saves the whole mountain from destruction.

Looking back, I can appreciate how well-written this story is. Curdie in particular is a well-drawn character, and while Irene indulges in a bit of sappiness with primroses, she earns all my respect again in her adventure in the mines. But when I was little, the reason I read this book again and again was because of Irene's grandmother in the tower, whose luxurious little tower room is described in delightful detail, with her starry bath and fire of roses; who lives on pigeon-eggs; who uses the Moon as her lamp; who appears sometimes as an old lady and sometimes as a young girl and sometimes not at all.

Did I mention how much I loved this book when I was a little girl? And later, when I was ready to step into Tolkien and Chesterton, I recognised much of MacDonald's kindly philosophical spirit in their writings, with little pieces of wisdom like this one:

“I am very old indeed. It is so silly of people—I don't mean you, for you are such a tiny, and couldn't know better—but it is so silly of people to fancy that old age means crookedness and witheredness and feebleness and sticks and spectacles and rheumatism and forgetfulness! It is so silly! Old age has nothing whatever to do with all that. The right old age means strength and beauty and mirth and courage and clear eyes and strong painless limbs.”

That puzzled me a lot when I was Irene's age, but I understand now.

Gutenberg etext
Librivox recordings

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini

Captain Blood! Many of you may know of an Errol Flynn movie by this name. Those of you who have seen it will remember swashbuckling, romance, and adventure on the high seas, full of snappy banter and gorgeous headwear. These people will be thrilled to learn that it was based on a book by Rafael Sabatini, which is exactly the same only much more so: there's much more banter, the romantic tension is dialed up to 11, and there are many, many more sea battles.

As for the book: Somewhere in the south part of England—1685. The little town of Bridgewater. In the distance, a tumult—the battle between the brave Duke of Monmouth, hero of the Protestant faith, and that man of blood James, second of his name.

And pottering imperturbably about in the sun, Dr Peter Blood, watering his geraniums.

Blood, though still young, doesn't care to go adventuring again. Having fought in campaigns across Europe, he wishes only to settle down, practice medicine, and keep to himself. Then he makes the treasonous mistake of doctoring a fugitive of Monmouth's broken army, and for his pains Judge Jeffreys deports him as a slave to Jamaica, where he ends up being bought by the beautiful and charming Arabella Bishop (ooh, the indignity!) and put to work under her brute of an uncle. Slavery is a bit much for Blood to stomach, and at the first opportunity he escapes, steals a ship, and sails away with a crew of fellow escapees to try a little piracy—but not without leaving his resentful heart in Arabella's keeping.

Blood finds himself a natural at sowing despair in the Spanish Main, plundering towns, and escaping the snares of his enemies. But two superpowers, England and Spain, want him dead; piracy and the company of pirates presents him with tough moral dilemmas; and he can't get his mind off the woman who bought him, whom he believes he hates...

As you can imagine, it's a ripping, extremely dramatic yarn. Sabatini wrote many, many swashbuckling novels full of thrilling adventure, sword fighting, and (sometimes hilariously) overblown romance. Of all of them (and you have probably heard of one or two others, such as Scaramouche or The Sea-Hawk) I believe Captain Blood is the most well-written. The balance between adventure, romance, and history is deftly managed and the characters are vividly drawn. It's one of those pleasures you don't have to feel too guilty about!

Gutenberg/Arthur's Classic Novels etext
Librivox recording

Friday, October 1, 2010

Friday Poem: Two Perspectives from Dorothy Parker and Ogden Nash

I've been particularly busy this week, so I'm keeping the Friday poem(s) short and sweet this time:

Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses.

--Dorothy Parker

A girl who is bespectacled
She may not get her nectacled
But safety pins and bassinets
Await the girl who fassinets.

--Ogden Nash

So take that, Dorothy Parker!


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