Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Smoky-House by Elizabeth Goudge

This is the first Elizabeth Goudge book I've read. I'd been told to read a book of hers, without passing “Go” or collecting $200, and by good hap I had picked this one up a few months ago.
Smoky-House was written for children, so I don't know how well it represents the body of Goudge's work. Personally, I found it adorable and so did my little sister.
The little West Country village of Faraway is a happy place where nobody is ever truly angry or wicked. At Smoky-House, the village inn, lives John Treguddick and his five children: Jessamine, who keeps house for them all; Genefer, who is shy and plain; Tristram and Michael, who long to see the Good People; and little Jane, who is dreadfully naughty. They are ably cared for by their sagacious dogs Spot and Sausage and Jane's bad-tempered donkey Mathilda.
All the children are dreadfully afraid of The-Man-With-The-Red-Handkerchief, the most notorious highway-robber and smuggler in that part of the world. But even he may not be as bad as the stranger who comes to stay at Smoky-House Inn at the beginning of this story: a Fiddler who plays the most beautiful music the people of Faraway have ever heard, but who smells of cruelty and unhappiness. When the Fiddler's schemes threaten the happiness of Faraway, it's up to the children, the dogs, and the Good People to save the day.
I thought Smoky-House was an unusual book. It is set in the milieu of red-coats, French brandy and lace, young love, and danger so familiar and beloved to all those of us who enjoy a good West-Country smuggling yarn. The Highwayman, Jamaica Inn, and even a dash of Treasure Island or Puck of Pook's Hill is recognisable here. What makes Smoky-House different is a streak of fancifulness: all the characters are 100% lovable, and angels, mer-people, talking animals, and fairies intervene to make sure nothing bad happens.
I might find this objectionable. After all, even with Divine Providence caring for us (and one of the clearest themes of this book is that God cares for and helps all His creatures) life will not always be as happy and idyllic as life in Faraway. “And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also; knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope.” Romans 5:3-4.
Now I said I might find this objectionable...but I don't. It's just something to be aware of and I believe that the very strong fancifulness in the rest of the book (the mer-people, the sentient animals that save the day, &c) is strong enough to make it apparent that this is a fantasy world unlike the real world where things do go wrong regularly.
As for the world of Smoky-House, it is a sweet confection of a story which would be almost unbearable if it wasn't for the writer's gentle wit, and the inclusion of some hilarious characters, especially the naughty Jane:
Jessamine,” said Tristram, “may I pray to God for a white mouse?”
Jessamine hesitated. “I don't really like mice about the house,” she said.
But I'd keep it in control,” said Tristram. “I'd keep it in my pocket always. It wouldn't get about the house.”
Very well,” said Jessamine.
Dear God,” prayed Tristram, “please may I have a white mouse. Amen.”
I would like a doll from France,” said Jane, and without waiting for permission from Jessamine she prayed, “God, I'll have a doll from France,” and gave Michael another kick.
While little girls might get the most fun out of this delightful story, I loved it too, and I'll definitely be looking for more Goudge books—in the libraries and op shops of Melbourne, since they are still within copyright.

Elizabeth Goudge on Wikipedia
The Elizabeth Goudge Society

Friday, November 26, 2010

Friday Poem: Johnson's Antidote by AB "Banjo" Paterson

Banjo Paterson (christened Andrew Barton, but who wouldn't rather be called 'Banjo'?) is the great Australian poet. Some people prefer Henry Lawson; but I find Lawson something harsh and bitter. Paterson is kinder.

Paterson was a prolific poet, also writing many short stories and essays, often of a humorous slant (his essay on "The Merino Sheep" is hilarious, and I have already linked to the wonderful short story "The Cast-Iron Canvasser"). He also wrote two novels. And he was a journalist (covering the Second Boer War), ambulance driver and later soldier in the First World War, lawyer, jockey, and farmer. His works range from the Australian Outback to South Africa and beyond. I have always admired his style; the prose especially reminds me of John Buchan.

When I was little, this was my favourite of his poems:

Johnson's Antidote
by Banjo Paterson

Down along the Snakebite River, where the overlanders camp,
Where the serpents are in millions, all of the most deadly stamp;
Where the station-cook in terror, nearly every time he bakes,
Mixes up among the doughboys half-a-dozen poison-snakes:
Where the wily free-selector walks in armour-plated pants,
And defies the stings of scorpions, and the bites of bull-dog ants:
Where the adder and the viper tear each other by the throat,—
There it was that William Johnson sought his snake-bite antidote.
Johnson was a free-selector, and his brain went rather queer,
For the constant sight of serpents filled him with a deadly fear;
So he tramped his free-selection, morning, afternoon, and night,
Seeking for some great specific that would cure the serpent’s bite.
Till King Billy, of the Mooki, chieftain of the flour-bag head,
Told him, “Spos’n snake bite pfeller, pfeller mostly drop down dead;
Spos’n snake bite old goanna, then you watch a while you see,
Old goanna cure himself with eating little pfeller tree.”
“That’s the cure,” said William Johnson, “point me out this plant sublime,”
But King Billy, feeling lazy, said he’d go another time.
Thus it came to pass that Johnson, having got the tale by rote,
Followed every stray goanna, seeking for the antidote.

. . . . .
Loafing once beside the river, while he thought his heart would break,
There he saw a big goanna fighting with a tiger-snake,
In and out they rolled and wriggled, bit each other, heart and soul,
Till the valiant old goanna swallowed his opponent whole.
Breathless, Johnson sat and watched him, saw him struggle up the bank,
Saw him nibbling at the branches of some bushes, green and rank;
Saw him, happy and contented, lick his lips, as off he crept,
While the bulging in his stomach showed where his opponent slept.
Then a cheer of exultation burst aloud from Johnson’s throat;
“Luck at last,” said he, “I’ve struck it! ’tis the famous antidote.

“Here it is, the Grand Elixir, greatest blessing ever known,—
Twenty thousand men in India die each year of snakes alone.
Think of all the foreign nations, negro, chow, and blackamoor,
Saved from sudden expiration, by my wondrous snakebite cure.
It will bring me fame and fortune! In the happy days to be,
Men of every clime and nation will be round to gaze on me—
Scientific men in thousands, men of mark and men of note,
Rushing down the Mooki River, after Johnson’s antidote.
It will cure delirium tremens, when the patient’s eyeballs stare
At imaginary spiders, snakes which really are not there.
When he thinks he sees them wriggle, when he thinks he sees them bloat,
It will cure him just to think of Johnson’s Snakebite Antidote.”

Then he rushed to the museum, found a scientific man—
“Trot me out a deadly serpent, just the deadliest you can;
I intend to let him bite me, all the risk I will endure,
Just to prove the sterling value of my wondrous snakebite cure.
Even though an adder bit me, back to life again I’d float;
Snakes are out of date, I tell you, since I’ve found the antidote.”
Said the scientific person, “If you really want to die,
Go ahead—but, if you’re doubtful, let your sheep-dog have a try.
Get a pair of dogs and try it, let the snake give both a nip;
Give your dog the snakebite mixture, let the other fellow rip;
If he dies and yours survives him, then it proves the thing is good.
Will you fetch your dog and try it?” Johnson rather thought he would.
So he went and fetched his canine, hauled him forward by the throat.
“Stump, old man,” says he, “we’ll show them we’ve the genwine antidote.”

Both the dogs were duly loaded with the poison-gland’s contents;
Johnson gave his dog the mixture, then sat down to wait events.
“Mark,” he said, “in twenty minutes Stump’ll be a-rushing round,
While the other wretched creature lies a corpse upon the ground.”
But, alas for William Johnson! ere they’d watched a half-hour’s spell
Stumpy was as dead as mutton, t’other dog was live and well.
And the scientific person hurried off with utmost speed,
Tested Johnson’s drug and found it was a deadly poison-weed;
Half a tumbler killed an emu, half a spoonful killed a goat,
All the snakes on earth were harmless to that awful antidote.

. . . . .
Down along the Mooki River, on the overlanders’ camp,
Where the serpents are in millions, all of the most deadly stamp,
Wanders, daily, William Johnson, down among those poisonous hordes,
Shooting every stray goanna, calls them “black and yaller frauds”.
And King Billy, of the Mooki, cadging for the cast-off coat,
Somehow seems to dodge the subject of the snake-bite antidote.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson

In this little blog I aim to promote the enjoyment rather than the revering of classic literature. People are too ready to discount a book as hard-to-read and unexciting just because it's old and well-respected.
Fortunately, when it comes to Stevenson's books for young people, no confusion can arise. The books are obviously meant to be enjoyed, possibly at night with a torch under the covers. And of the four great adventures that Stevenson wrote, my favourite would have to be The Black Arrow.
It is the year 1460. Young Richard Shelton has never questioned the authority of his guardian—his uncle Sir Daniel Brackley—but then as Sir Daniel sends orders to muster his men for the latest struggle in the Wars of the Roses, a black arrow fired from the heart of the greenwood alerts Richard to the fact that not all is as it should be--
I had four blak arrows under my belt,
Four for the greefs that I have felt,
Four for the nomber of ill menne
That have opressid me now and then.
One is gone; one is wele sped;
Old Apulyaird is ded.
One is for Maister Bennet Hatch,
That burned Grimstone, walls and thatch.
One for Sir Oliver Oates,
That cut Sir Harry Shelton’s throat.
Sir Daniel, ye shull have the fourt;
We shall think it fair sport.
Ye shull each have your own part,
A blak arrow in each blak heart.
Get ye to your knees for to pray:
Ye are ded theeves, by yea and nay!
Jon Amend-all
of the Green Wood,
And his jolly fellaweship.
Item, we have mo arrowes and goode hempen cord for otheres of your following.
Richard finds it hard to believe that Sir Daniel and his four most loyal retainers could have done such terrible things. But then Jack Matcham turns up—strange milksop Jack Matcham—who begs Richard's help to escape from...that same Sir Daniel, again! On the run through the greenwood from outlaws and assassins, Richard finds something new to fear: his uncle.
Famously, Stevenson actually disliked this book, calling it “tushery”. We've all written things we're ashamed of later, but I tend to think that if I could write something as good as The Black Arrow, I would die happy.
Because I love this book. The attempted medieval dialogue is fine, and far better than some I could name. The plot moves at a snappy pace—there are outlaws, secret passages, battles, hairs-breadth escapes, storms at sea, and more as Richard battles to regain his rightful inheritance—to say nothing of the girl he loves.
This is a great story; I really appreciate the depths concealed below all that surface glimmer, as well. Richard comes of age slowly and painfully, horrified to see others suffer the consequences of his own thoughtless actions. The characters, too, are plenty of fun: apart from the very amusing banter that runs through the book, Stevenson's characterisation of the future Richard III is unforgettable; Joanna's delightful young friend Alice babbles like a brook; and of course, there's the not-so-trusty sidekick Lawless...
If ye should drink the clary wine,
Fat Friar John, ye friend o’ mine—
If I should eat, and ye should drink,
Who shall sing the mass, d’ye think?

With great characters and a great story, don't worry if you're past the torch-under-the-covers age: The Black Arrow is for anyone who appreciates a good story, whatever their age.
Project Gutenberg etext (illustrated by NC Wyeth!)

Monday, November 22, 2010

In Defence of the Puritans

The Puritans were of course the English Calvinists, similar to the Scots Presbyterians and the French Huguenots. The Puritans had a lasting influence on history: they produced the Westminster Confession of Faith, which is still one of the great statements of the Reformed faith and one of the members of the Westminster Assembly was Samuel Rutherford, whose treatise Lex Rex did so much to dispel the idea of the divine right of kings. Even today, we owe many of our rights and liberties to the Puritans.
Were the Puritans really as dour, repressive, and awful as they are so often depicted? The short answer is no. Much of what we have been told about the Puritans comes from the people they annoyed, or from the twilight of Puritanism when cranks were a little more plentiful. But at the beginning, Puritans were the radical youth. You know the annoying hipsters at your university, the ones that wear skinny jeans, read Sartre on public transport, and ache after 'authenticity'? Well, in the 1500s all the insufferably cool kids were Calvinists. "Reading The Bondage of the Will in class again, the show-offs." As CS Lewis has said,
The fierce young don, the learned lady, the courtier with intellectual leanings, were likely to be Calvinists. When hard rocks of Predestination outcrop in the flowery of the Arcadia or the Faerie Queen, we are apt to think them anomalous, but we are wrong. The Calvinism is as modish as the shepherds and goddesses (C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the 16th Century, p. 43).
So here I shall attempt to answer some of the many specific charges put upon the Puritans in the hope of showing how, if their name has become a byword for “forbidding innocent pleasures in the name of temperance,” it has become so undeservedly.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Friday Poem: To Edmund Clerihew Bentley by GK Chesterton

Today's Friday Poem continues last Wednesday's Chestertonian theme! This is the prologue poem to The Man Who Was Thursday and is another favourite of mine, for Chesterton was an extremely gifted poet.

The poem and book are dedicated to Edmund Clerihew Bentley, a novelist and the inventor of the "clerihew" which is a short, funny, biographical poem:

It was a weakness of Voltaire's
To forget to say his prayers,
And one which to his shame
He never overcame.

(Yes, I slipped in a second Friday Poem. They were having a two-for-the-price-of-one sale over at Wikisource.)

To Edmund Clerihew Bentley
by GK Chesterton

A cloud was on the mind of men, and wailing went the weather,
Yea, a sick cloud upon the soul when we were boys together.
Science announced nonentity and art admired decay;
The world was old and ended: but you and I were gay;
Round us in antic order their crippled vices came --
Lust that had lost its laughter, fear that had lost its shame.
Like the white lock of Whistler, that lit our aimless gloom,
Men showed their own white feather as proudly as a plume.
Life was a fly that faded, and death a drone that stung;
The world was very old indeed when you and I were young.
They twisted even decent sin to shapes not to be named:
Men were ashamed of honour; but we were not ashamed.
Weak if we were and foolish, not thus we failed, not thus;
When that black Baal blocked the heavens he had no hymns from us.
Children we were -- our forts of sand were even as weak as we,
High as they went we piled them up to break that bitter sea.
Fools as we were in motley, all jangling and absurd,
When all church bells were silent our cap and bells were heard.
Not all unhelped we held the fort, our tiny flags unfurled;
Some giants laboured in that cloud to lift it from the world.
I find again the book we found, I feel the hour that flings
Far out of fish-shaped Paumanok some cry of cleaner things;
And the Green Carnation withered, as in forest fires that pass,
Roared in the wind of all the world ten million leaves of grass;
Or sane and sweet and sudden as a bird sings in the rain --
Truth out of Tusitala spoke and pleasure out of pain.
Yea, cool and clear and sudden as a bird sings in the grey,
Dunedin to Samoa spoke, and darkness unto day.
But we were young; we lived to see God break their bitter charms.
God and the good Republic come riding back in arms:
We have seen the City of Mansoul, even as it rocked, relieved --
Blessed are they who did not see, but being blind, believed.
This is a tale of those old fears, even of those emptied hells,
And none but you shall understand the true thing that it tells --
Of what colossal gods of shame could cow men and yet crash,
Of what huge devils hid the stars, yet fell at a pistol flash.
The doubts that were so plain to chase, so dreadful to withstand --
Oh, who shall understand but you; yea, who shall understand?
The doubts that drove us through the night as we two talked amain,
And day had broken on the streets e'er it broke upon the brain.
Between us, by the peace of God, such truth can now be told;
Yea, there is strength in striking root and good in growing old.
We have found common things at last and marriage and a creed,
And I may safely write it now, and you may safely read.
G. K. C.
While you are recovering from the magnificence of that poem, I think I just spotted a reference up there with "the City of Mansoul" to John Bunyan's less well-known allegory The Holy War, which I have not yet read. In the same stanza are references to Walt Whitman, RL Stevenson, and the Oscar Wilde indecency trial. Fascinating!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by GK Chesterton

If you were only ever to read one GK Chesterton book, I would probably recommend that you read this one. I would have some misgivings about you missing out on Orthodoxy, but Orthodoxy is essays; this is a story.
Gabriel Syme is a man not quite like other men. Brought up by cranks and rebels, in an age of constant revolution, Syme revolts into the only thing left for him to revolt into: sanity. Syme believes in law and order in the same way that revolutionists and anarchists believe in the opposite: desperately, savagely, and unto death. His unusual character makes him the perfect recruit into a special branch of the police force dedicated to hunting philosopher-criminals, even though he protests that he has no experience:
I don’t know any profession of which mere willingness is the final test.”
“I do,’ said the other—‘martyrs. I am condeming you to death. Good day.”
When the book opens we find Syme undercover in an arty suburb of London as a Poet debating another anarchist Poet, Lucian Gregory. Incensed by Syme's assumption that he, Gregory, is not a serious anarchist, Gregory recklessly introduces Syme to his local anarchist cell--and Syme manages to have them elect him to the Central Anarchist's Council! Codenamed Thursday, Syme manages to infiltrate the sinister Council of seven men, all named after days of the week. But bringing them down may be more dangerous and a far stranger experience than even Syme is prepared for.
This is a fun adventure story of spies and anarchists and a profound meditation upon the nature of evil in God's created world and a passionate refutation of modernism (and postmodernism). Syme, our everyman hero, faces a great and gigantic evil which he knows it is his task to defeat. How he goes about it is one of the most fascinating things in the book. The magnitude of his task depresses him, but he clings to a passionate chivalry.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Martin Conisby's Vengeance by Jeffrey Farnol

This book picks up right where Black Bartlemy's Treasure left off—with Martin Conisby, our extraordinarily melodramatic hero, still trying to get revenge against the man who killed his father and sold him into slavery on a Spanish galley. Lady Joan Brandon, said villain's daughter and our hero's True Love, is out of the picture when Martin meets the other woman in his life: that wicked, unprincipled pirate lass, Captain Jo, who is Black Bartlemy's daughter. Captain Jo falls for Martin hard, but not all her scheming and machinations can make him forget Joan Brandon, however melodramatically she pouts and mocks and shoots parrots out-of-hand.
Said schemes and machinations might, however, cause death, destruction, sundered hearts, and consumption of even more scenery. How Martin survived his acquaintance with this dangerous woman, and finally found his enemy Sir Richard Brandon, makes up the rest of this tale.
I don't want to give too much away. The same shortcomings that plagued the first book also plague the sequel. When it comes down to it, I don't believe I've ever read anything more extremely melodramatic; even I found it too much, and I love melodrama. That said, of all the revenge stories I've ever read, this is also one of the most surpising and most satisfying. Why don't more revenge stories end like this?
Another thing that interests me in this book is the issue of legal vs more danico/common-law marriage: when you're cast away in the wild, and you badly want to get married, what do you do—especially when deliverance may come any day, or may never come at all? True, it's a question only likely to trouble the hero and heroine of a melodramatic pirate story, but I like what Farnol has to say about it.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Black Bartlemy's Treasure by Jeffrey Farnol

And now for the kind of review this blog was started for! There are many fun vintage bestsellers in existence and it would be hard to find something more typical than this: desperately obscure, slightly trashy, incredibly rare, and good fun from beginning to end. While reading Black Bartlemy's Treasure will not add points to your IQ, aid you in an understanding of great English literature, or enable you to brag to your liberal arts class, it will give you a few hours of good clean fun when you are too brain-dead to read anything else.
From the very first sentence of this book, I knew I was going to keenly enjoy it:
The Frenchman beside me had been dead since dawn. His scarred and shackled body swayed limply back and forth with every sweep of the great oar as we, his less fortunate bench-fellows, tugged and strained to keep time to the stroke.

That's right—our hero, Martin Conisby, has been betrayed and sold into galley-slavery by his ancient enemy. The Conisbys and the Brandons had been feuding for years when wicked Sir Richard Brandon succeeded in having Conisby elder thrown in jail for alleged treason, where he died, and getting rid of Martin to a galley. Kept alive by his mad thirst for revenge, Martin finally comes home after five years to wreak his vengeance. (Sounds familiar, doesn't it?) Unluckily for Martin, Sir Richard has disappeared to the West Indies, leaving behind only his massive fortune and his good and beautiful daughter, Lady Joan Brandon. She was Martin's childhood playmate, and to his great annoyance seems determined to remain friends with him even though he is now determined to hate her for her father's sake. Although she warns him repeatedly of the dangers of an obsession for revenge, he disregards her, continuing to chew up all the scenery in that part of England.
Meanwhile, there are strange doings afoot. A dagger shaped like a silver woman turns up, and men of low moral fibre all up and down the coast lower their voices and whisper when they speak of it, for it is the dagger of the famous and wicked pirate Black Bartlemy, whose fabulous treasure is still buried somewhere in the Caribbean. Martin and some of these men of low moral fibre plan to hijack a ship belonging to Lady Joan in order to go off looking for this treasure—and then, by good hap, Sir Richard. This plan is scuppered when Joan announces her intention to sail on the ship herself to look for her father.
Naturally, Martin and Joan get marooned together on a lonely island paradise, where their personalities start to shape each other in strange ways...

Friday, November 12, 2010

Friday Poem: Sonnet LXXIX by Edmund Spenser

Since I have been gushing a bit about Edmund Spenser today, let's have one of his sonnets. I've left it in the original spelling, so it might help if you read it out loud. Watch out for the 'U' used as a 'V' and uice uersa!

Sonnet LXXIX
by Edmund Spenser

Men call you fayre, and you doe credit it,
For that your selfe ye dayly such doe see:
but the trew fayre, that is the gentle wit,
and vertuous mind is much more praysd of me.
For all the rest, how euer fayre it be,
shall turne to nought and loose that glorious hew:
but onely that is permanent and free
from frayle corruption, that doth flesh ensew.
That is true beautie: that doth argue you
to be diuine and borne of heauenly seed:
deriu'd from that fayre Spirit, from whom all true
and perfect beauty did at first proceed.
He only fayre, and what he fayre hath made,
all other fayre lyke flowres vntymely fade.

Fierce Wars and Faithful Loves ed. Roy Maynard

Edmund Spenser was an English poet and civil servant living in Ireland during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. He was a Puritan, a fantasist, and one of the greatest poets the world has ever known. His unfinished magnum opus, The Faerie Queene, is both an epic fantasy poem and an allegory of the Reformation, and all six and a half Books of it are in the fiendishly difficult poetic form he invented himself, the Spenserian stanza.

It tells the interweaving stories of an assortment of brave knights, each of whom represents some virtue, who are sent by Gloriana the Faerie Queene on a variety of missions to seek out and destroy various evils, sorcerers, monsters, witches, &c. What with hundreds of characters, epic battles, chivalry by the bucketful, distressed damsels, lady knights, a young version of King Arthur, and layers upon layers of symbolism, it's a wonderful read. Spenser's faith shines through strongly as well: a friend of mine called it "The Bible--With Knights!" and I have no hesitation in shelving it with The Pilgrim's Progress or The Lord of the Rings as one of the greatest works of Christian fantasy ever written. Like all great Christian books, it carries the echoes of eternal Life, sweet and satisfying.

If there is a problem with The Faerie Queene when it comes to today's readers, it is that it is written in extremely archaic language (Spenser wrote in a style far more archaic than ever Shakespeare used) with profound levels of symbolism that it would take a relatively well-educated Elizabethan to understand. Accordingly, even if you can read archaic language without too much trouble, footnotes will always make the reading experience better.

This is where Roy Maynard's Fierce Wars and Faithful Loves comes in. This slim, nonthreatening book presents Book I of The Faerie Queene with some of the spelling modernised, definitions of some harder words (who knew 'caitiff' could mean 'jailer'?) and insightful footnotes that explain the text and are often unexpectedly funny (when Una meets a lion, the footnote exhorts her, "Quick, Una! Throw it that lamb you've been carting around!"). There are also brief essays interspersed throughout the text, explaining, for example, how it is that Spenser's great knight-Faeries are not tinkly little gossamer things.

Despite these modernisations and explanations, the text remains intact. Each of the six Cantos of The Faerie Queene tells about the adventures of a certain knight. Book I tells the story of the Redcrosse Knight, a simple plough-boy who is given an immense task by the Faerie Queene: he must travel with the Lady Una to her parents' kingdom, which is besieged by a horrible dragon, and slay it. Disaster strikes when on their journey the magician Archimago succeeds in convincing Redcrosse that Una is false. Full of indignation, he rides off by himself and immediately falls into the clutches of the witch Duessa, while Una is left to fend for herself in the wild. Without Redcrosse to fight her dangers, how will sweet Truth survive? Without her guidance, how will Redcrosse stay out of trouble for more than five minutes and develop the Holiness he is meant to be a symbol of? Will Una find him before it's too late? And how will the Quest ever be fulfilled?

And that's only Book I!

As you can see, it's not the typical epic. It is pretty thrilling, and with Maynard's unobtrusive commentary to make the writer's meaning clearer, you can enjoy this amazing story just as much as the Elizabethans would have. While the book was designed as a textbook for home and mundane schools, it works equally well as the perfect introduction for anyone to The Faerie Queene. I highly recommend it.

Fierce Wars and Faithful Loves ed. Roy Maynard
The Elfin Knight: Book II, coming soon!
Project Gutenberg etext of Book I of the Faerie Queene
Librivox recording of same

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the ChristBen-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is a very small genre that I love. Set during the late ancient times, it tends to be sensational, exciting, and full of moral fibre. That's right—I'm talking about that guilty pleasure of the Christian fiction world, the Tale of Early Christianity, the ultimate have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too book, in which people with shocking vices get saved and then (like as not) served to the lions in the Circus Maximus. Henryk Sienkiewicz won the Nobel Prize for Quo Vadis, perhaps the masterpiece of the genre in 1907, but it continues today with the Mark of the Lion novels by Francine Rivers and many others.

Ben-Hur, subtitled A Tale of the Christ, may have been the first notable work in this genre. And it's a really good one. When Judah Ben-Hur's estranged childhood friend, the Roman Messala, betrays him into a life as a galley-slave and leaves his mother and sister to rot in prison, Ben-Hur survives only by vowing revenge. The wheel of fortune eventually brings him wealth, power, and an incredibly well-developed physique, so he returns to Palestine hell-bent on exacting the kind of comeuppance that would make the Count of Monte Cristo raise his eyebrows and tut. Along the way he makes the acquaintance not only of Messiah claimant Jesus of Nazareth but also of the beautiful and scheming Iras the Egyptian.

There is, at one point, a chariot race, but that's only a fraction of the fun to be had. In case you didn't notice yet, this is one ripping tale of backstabbing, revenge, adventure, true love, and more melodrama than you could possibly imagine. Mixed in are some theological musings which I, when I first read it, found very profound, and still enjoy.

I had read the book perhaps five times when I got around to seeing the movie, and was consequently surprised to see the decidedly pale and husky Charlton Heston playing Ben-Hur, although gratified to see some of the storylines played with even more melodrama. Unfortunately, the movie did not include the character of Iras the Egyptian. This is a shame, because she might be the best character in the book. I was also a little disappointed by the omission of the scene at the Palace Idernee.

Before I finish—you, dear reader, may go off to read Ben-Hur and be disappointed to find it slightly more slowly moving than you expect. It does take a little time to get underway, though it gathers steam after the Prologue and kicks into high gear halfway through. It's a fantastic adventure story well worth being patient with.

Gutenberg etext

Monday, November 8, 2010

Right Ho, Jeeves by PG Wodehouse

Having recently moved to Melbourne, I've been forced to leave all my books behind...which means I don't have book review ideas staring me in the face! So for this post I'll stick with an old favourite.

PG Wodehouse is without a doubt the master of comic English literature. You will fully appreciate the regard in which he is universally held when I tell you that even literary critics, authors of postmodern literary novels, and the kind of snob that reads Sartre on public transport cannot help loving Wodehouse, together with all the stupid ordinary people who just like a bit of a laugh.

Right Ho, Jeeves may be the man's masterpiece. In the pantheon of personal Wodehouse favourites it runs a close second to Leave it to Psmith, and edges out The Code of the Woosters by a whisker. And the prize-giving speech at Market Snodsbury Grammar School is usually quoted as the funniest passage in the English language.

Now Right Ho, Jeeves is not exactly the first book featuring empty-headed but amiable upper-class-twit Bertie Wooster and his peerless gentleman's gentleman Reginald Jeeves, who always manages to extract his monocled employer from all scrapes, prison cells, and unwanted engagements said Wooster might accidentally accrue during the course of a chequered life. Bertram Wilberforce Wooster first drew breath in a collection of stories known today as The Inimitable Jeeves and continued to harry the public in subsequent collections and works such as Carry on, Jeeves and Thank you, Jeeves. But in Right Ho, Jeeves, Wodehouse kicked off a multi-novel storyline of ecstatic hilarity which remains perhaps the zenith of his career.

It all starts innocently enough. Bertie returns from holidays to find shrinking violet and old school chum, Gussie Fink-Nottle, cowering in his living-room dressed as Mephistopheles. Gradually all is revealed: Gussie has fallen in love with Madeleine Bassett (a blonde, wilting female who believes the stars are God's daisy chain) and has emerged from his deep seclusion studying newts in the country to woo the girl with Jeeves's help. Gussie, who has missed his chance to propose at a fancy-dress ball, despairs of getting to know Miss Bassett further because the very next day she is due to go stay with a Mrs Dahlia Travers in the country.

Fortunately, it just so happens that Mrs Dahlia Travers is Bertie's own dearly-loved Aunt Dahlia, who now expects Bertie to come down to give the prize-giving speech at the local grammar school. In a legendarily hilarious exchange of heated telegrams (some of which can be read here) Bertie manages to evade the task and slip it onto Gussie's shoulders, pushing him off to Aunt Dahlia's place instead.

But even with Gussie palely loitering around the premises, the course of his true love for Madeleine Bassett does not run smoothly. Pretty soon Bertie arrives himself to take charge. Disaster, naturally, ensues: Gussie can't get the words off his chest, Madeleine misunderstands Bertie when he arrives to plead Gussie's case, Aunt Dahlia is about to lose her peerless chef Anatole, Cousin Angela's engagement to Tuppy Glossop is on the rocks, and worst of all, Jeeves disapproves of Bertie's new white jacket. With sundered hearts and rebound relationships occurring left right and centre, one of the most outrageously complex imbroglios in English literature, and such gems as the gloriously funny argot of the French cook who learned English from an American chauffer, the book is one laugh from beginning to end.

Comic novels may come and comic novels may go, but the delirious good fun of Right Ho, Jeeves, will remain with you till long after your sides have ceased to ache.

Gutenberg etext

Librivox recording

Friday, November 5, 2010

Friday Poem: The Jumblies by Edward Lear

I must apologise for the lack of posting lately; post-semester tiredness has well and truly set in and I haven't the brain to compose witty and thoughtful reviews. I haven't forgotten you though, and will hopefully have something new to write about next week!

Meanwhile, another of my favourite poems follows. Edward Lear is better known for The Owl and the Pussy-Cat, but I like this one better.

The Jumblies
by Edward Lear


They went to sea in a Sieve, they did,
In a Sieve they went to sea:
In spite of all their friends could say,
On a winter's morn, on a stormy day,
In a Sieve they went to sea!
And when the Sieve turned round and round,
And every one cried, 'You'll all be drowned!'
They called aloud, 'Our Sieve ain't big,
But we don't care a button! we don't care a fig!
In a Sieve we'll go to sea!'
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.


They sailed away in a Sieve, they did,
In a Sieve they sailed so fast,
With only a beautiful pea-green veil
Tied with a riband by way of a sail,
To a small tobacco-pipe mast;
And every one said, who saw them go,
'O won't they be soon upset, you know!
For the sky is dark, and the voyage is long,
And happen what may, it's extremely wrong
In a Sieve to sail so fast!'
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.


The water it soon came in, it did,
The water it soon came in;
So to keep them dry, they wrapped their feet
In a pinky paper all folded neat,
And they fastened it down with a pin.
And they passed the night in a crockery-jar,
And each of them said, 'How wise we are!
Though the sky be dark, and the voyage be long,
Yet we never can think we were rash or wrong,
While round in our Sieve we spin!'
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.


And all night long they sailed away;
And when the sun went down,
They whistled and warbled a moony song
To the echoing sound of a coppery gong,
In the shade of the mountains brown.
'O Timballo! How happy we are,
When we live in a Sieve and a crockery-jar,
And all night long in the moonlight pale,
We sail away with a pea-green sail,
In the shade of the mountains brown!'
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.


They sailed to the Western Sea, they did,
To a land all covered with trees,
And they bought an Owl, and a useful Cart,
And a pound of Rice, and a Cranberry Tart,
And a hive of silvery Bees.
And they bought a Pig, and some green Jack-daws,
And a lovely Monkey with lollipop paws,
And forty bottles of Ring-Bo-Ree,
And no end of Stilton Cheese.
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.


And in twenty years they all came back,
In twenty years or more,
And every one said, 'How tall they've grown!
For they've been to the Lakes, and the Torrible Zone,
And the hills of the Chankly Bore!'
And they drank their health, and gave them a feast
Of dumplings made of beautiful yeast;
And every one said, 'If we only live,
We too will go to sea in a Sieve,---
To the hills of the Chankly Bore!'
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan

I just finished listening to this as a Librivox audiobook. Confession time: this may be only the second or third time I've read the Pilgrim's Progress proper, though when I was little I couldn't get enough of a children's version called The Little Pilgrim's Progress (in which the pilgrims were all children, and consequently swashbuckled around very pleasingly).
The Pilgrim's Progress is, of course, the great Puritan allegory of the Christian life. As an allegory, it liberally dispenses exposition of Scripture and great arguments of reformed theology in between the events of an often moving or exciting story. As for the story, you probably know it already, but for completeness's sake: it tells of a man, Christian, who flees the City of Destruction despite the sneers of family and neighbours, and sets out on his dangerous journey to the Celestial City. On the way he meets friends, enemies, and monsters, travels through scary places (such as the Valley of the Shadow of Death, which runs right by the mouth of Hell), fights demons and giants, and spends lots of time discussing theology. In Part II, Christian's wife Christiana decides to take her sons and follow Christian to the Celestial City, and by the time she gets there her collection of pilgrims both stout and weak have killed all the monsters left over from Christian's time, and discussed all the rest of the theology Christian didn't get around to talking about.
Allegories are really hard to do well. Besides the Pilgrim's Progress I can only think of two that have become classics: Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene and George Orwell's Animal Farm. This is because an allegory is not at all subtle in its message. The characters are often one-note anthropomorphic representations of things the author either likes or doesn't like, while the plot is usually made to serve the message.
The Pilgrim's Progress, nevertheless, works brilliantly on all levels:
The writing style, to begin with, is wonderful: poetically beautiful, classically elegant, lucid and enchanting. Nobody writes like this any more: nobody could. It's pure pleasure to read or listen to.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie is best known for her detective novels featuring Poirot and Miss Marple, but for my money, her pleasantest works are the frothy tales of excitement and adventure she wrote mainly during the 1920s. The Man in the Brown Suit is one of the best of these, and The Secret of Chimneys is another.
The opening chapter finds Mr Anthony Cade, that amiable young adventurer, working as a tour guide in Africa. A chance encounter with an old friend sends him off on a possibly fatal trip to England to deliver the shady Herzoslovakian Count Stylptich's memoirs to the publishers. The Count intends to Reveal All in this document, so Anthony must evade half the diplomats, secret societies, and professional criminals of Europe in his attempt to safely deliver them. Fearing that he might become bored, Anthony also volunteers to return the love letters of Mrs Virginia Revel to her so that she need no longer fear blackmail.
Upon arriving in London, Anthony becomes aware that not all is what it seems. Though correctly young, pretty, and widowed Mrs Revel is not at all the kind of person to fear blackmail. Pompous diplomat George Lomax will stop at nothing to inveigle Anthony up to Chimneys House for the weekend, where a fabulous treasure is rumoured to be hidden and a foreign prince dies suddenly of lead-poisoning. Detectives from three different countries haunt the grounds—and all of them think Anthony did it. Fortunately, Mr Cade has a trick or two up his own sleeve...
Nobody would call The Secret of Chimneys a grand classic of English literature. The Secret of Chimneys wouldn't care. It is light, charming, and extremely well-written with plenty of twists and surprises—excellent public-transport or holiday reading.


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