Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year!

Well, strictly speaking, it's not the New Year until tomorrow, but now is as good a time as any to start celebrating.

First, I'm sorry I left you all without holiday reading recs over the last two weeks. I will be getting back down to business sometime next week with a review of Ariosto's famous Italian epic poem Orlando Furioso, so stick around!

In addition to being a new year, January is also time for another Feature Week! One week solid of fun and daily posting! So make sure you come back around the third week of January for some of that--topic still undecided, so let's call it a Mystery Feature Week! Otherwise, I do plan to cut back on the volume of posts--we're up and running smoothly now, and I have some other projects to work on. This does mean fewer Friday Poems as well, but to be honest I was beginning to run short of poems not written by GK Chesterton.

As far as retrospectives go...2010 was a dramatic year, full of unexpected plot twists and nail-biting moments. And I wouldn't have missed any of it, not for the world.

I read a lot of good books this year; some of the best, like The Napoleon of Notting Hill, The Man Who Was Thursday, Lorna Doone and The Pilgrim's Progress were re-reads. Of the books I read for the first time this year, my ten favourites were:

1. Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of CS Lewis by Michael Ward--This book cannot be recommended enough--it shows how and why Lewis embodied medieval cosmology in the Chronicles of Narnia, and then kept it secret all his life. Absolutely amazing.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Dear friends, things have got a little busy (as usual) around this time of the year, so I shan't be posting much for the next week or two.

It has been roughly three months since I began this little blog and I have been quite amazed by its warm reception. To all who have visited and commented, I wish a very Merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year, ad soli Deo gloria!

I have some exciting plans for more feature weeks in the New Year, so check back in January for more reviews, more poems, and another Feature Week!

In honour of Our Lord's coming, I'm posting my favourite rendition of one of my favourite Christmas carols, arranged and sung by Tasmanian harpist Christina Baehr (nee Sonnemann).

(Visit her website or find her enchanting music at CD Baby.)

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Saturday Poem: The Cultivation of Christmas Trees by TS Eliot

This week's Friday Poem is a) late and b) pinched from the blog of Sweet Kate (thanks for bringing this poem to my attention, Kate!).

The Cultivation of Christmas Trees
by TS Eliot

There are several attitudes towards Christmas,
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight),
And the childish -- which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.
The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext;
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree,
So that the surprises, delight in new possessions
(Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell),
The expectation of the goose or turkey
And the expected awe on its appearance,
So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure,
Or in the piety of the convert
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to the children
(And here I remember also with gratitude
St. Lucy, her carol, and her crown of fire):
So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By 'eightieth' meaning whichever is the last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Brethren by H Rider Haggard

Edit: When I wrote this review I was unaware that I had read an edited version of this book. This is a review of the Christian Liberty Press The Brethren only. A review of the original is coming soon.

Haggard's stories are sometimes more and sometimes less worthwhile, but always terrific fun. Of them all, this must be my favourite.

It tells the tale of Godwin and Wulf, brothers and knights in England just before the Third Crusade. Their uncle, Sir Andrew D'Arcy has been in the Holy Land; and he brought back with him a bride of royal Saracen blood: the sister of Saladin himself! Rosamund D'Arcy, the daughter of this union, lives happily with her father and cousins, beloved by all but especially by the brethren...until Saladin, conceiving a superstition that his niece may save him from a great downfall, sends a band of men to snatch her back to the Holy Land.

When they find her gone and her father dead, Godwin and Wulf swear to put aside their rivalry for her affections and travel to the Holy Land to find her. Their way is fraught with peril and adventure (naturally) and they find it necessary to take a guide—the widow Masouda, who leads them through secret fortresses, single combat, and underground passages to find again their cousin Rosamund. But Saladin isn't about to give her up easily, and untold perils still lie ahead...

I don't suppose it will surprise you to hear that one of the things I most love about this book is the melodrama, piled on with a master's hand. Which of the brethren will Rosamund choose? Will Saladin really behead her rather than see her marry one of them? What is Masouda's mysterious past, that “woman with the secret face and eyes that have looked on fear”? Why did she risk her life for our heroes? Will Godwin ever get a clue? These questions and the gripping plot will have you glued to the page.

I also love the characters. Godwin and Wulf are the classic cool/hot pair: Godwin is the intellectual, more devout man and Wulf is the stronger warrior. Both are tested during the story: Godwin's high-minded austerity is softened, while Wulf is forced to rise above an easy-going levity.
As for the girls, Rosamund is no pushover, but the Widow Masouda is magnificent. As fearless as she is beautiful, she always has something up her sleeve, whether it's a knife or a brilliant-yet-simple escape plan.

It's been a while since I read this book, but the thing that struck me when I first read it is that although the main characters fight and battle nobly throughout, it is through suffering and self-sacrifice that all four of them triumph, not through strength of arms. The result is a book that is both powerful and right.

I don't want to give you the impression that The Brethren pretends to be anything more than fun; it doesn't. But as far as I can tell, it's fun of the very highest standard, fun that does what fun should do: shows us what obedient and fearless virtue looks like. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Movie Review: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

What? Yes, of course Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a vintage novel! Hence the movie review!

The Narnia books were my favourites for the first ten years of my life, until I discovered The Lord of the Rings, and I still love them. They kickstarted a fascination with the medieval, and shaped much of how I view life.
I was excited and pleased about the recent movies, and after a hate affair with the LOTR films, I thought that, because I loved Narnia less, it would be easier to like the movies. Well, I soon discovered what a rabid Narnia fan I was...The first movie, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, was fine; flawed, but overall faithful. The second, Prince Caspian, was terrible: none of the characters were themselves, too much was taken out and too much was put in. Peter's experience as the High King of Narnia seemed to have made him less noble, not more; Trumpkin and Reepicheep, two of the best characters in the books, were reduced to limp sarcasm; and when there was a chance for the scriptwriters to massively bungle something, they happily did it.
The producers realised that something had gone wrong in Prince Caspian, and bless 'em, they have done their best to fix it in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It doesn't quite make the grade of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—but it is a massive improvement on Prince Caspian. It was worth making, and it's worth seeing, and if this standard can be kept up it's worth making all the other books into movies. Which they won't do unless it makes a ton more know, I can live with that either way, but personally I'd be more disappointed if they didn't get to make more movies.
So now I'm going into details, and you may wish to avert your eyes if you haven't seen it yet and want to.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Was Jane Austen a Christian? and Other Thoughts

There is an attitude that annoys me, one that seems closely akin to the same mistake, to quote Douglas Wilson, that assumes the True Church was begun in a revival tent in Alabama sometime in the 1870s. Like that attitude, this specific mistake fails to give the long ages of previous Christians their due. For 1,500 years the Church has transformed whole countries, resulting in centuries during which every last person in a given country was baptised and (nominally, at least) Christian. During those times when everyone said they were Christian, no doubt there were also times of great hypocrisy and formalism and all the other evils we read about in The Pilgrim's Progress. But how many times have you heard that Constantine converted (ahem, “converted”) to Christianity for political reasons? And what about the lovely Christian lady I spent fifteen minutes trying to convince that Jane Austen was a Christian? “She was a vicar's daughter!” “That doesn't prove anything!” “Some of her best characters are clergymen!” “That doesn't prove anything either!”
It's the same when you want to talk about Shakespeare. Or the Brontes, or even Edmund Spenser. And it drives me a little crazy.
When a person says he is a Christian, when he worships with the Bride of Christ, defends her in argument, extols her in story, obeys her laws, is baptised and married under the shadow of her steeple, and is finally buried by his family in the hope of resurrection, I think we should believe him.
Yes, only God knows the heart. Maybe your minister is secretly a hypocrite too, but you will of course be inclined to doubt this, given the sound Biblical teaching dished out every Sunday from his pulpit. I feel the same way about many of these old authors, from Charlotte Bronte to the Beowulf poet. And here is why I believe we should take these people at their word:

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Greybeards at Play by GK Chesterton

This is a very slim volume of funny poetry, illustrated adorably by the author.

The Dedication is to Edmund Clerihew Bentley, to whom The Man Who Was Thursday was also dedicated, and it begins delightfully with the lines:
He was, through boyhood's storm and shower,
My best, my nearest friend;
We wore one hat, smoked one cigar,
One standing at each end.
The first poem is called “The Oneness of the Philosopher With Nature,” which might best be described as a celebration of God's creation. I especially like this verse:--
I know the strange tale of the Slug;
The Early Sin—the Fall—
The Sleep—the Vision—and the Vow—
The Quest—the Crown—the Call.
--which gives you a fresh perspective on the verse, “What is man, that you are mindful of him?”

The second poem, “On the Dangers Attending Altruism on the High Seas” is a fun little rhyme. The third and last, “On the Disastrous Spread of Aestheticism in All Classes” brings the collection to a rousing finish. Chesterton imagines a world in which Modern Art wins:
The stars were weary of routine:
The trees in the plantation
Were growing every fruit at once,
In search of a sensation.
--a frightening, chaotic world. Chesterton, always keenly aware of the romance of the scheduled, stated:
The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it. We feel it is epical when a man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street or to Bagdad.--The Man Who Was Thursday
That's right: this is a short collection of whimsical, entertaining poetry stuffed with heavy philosophical themes. Did I mention the gorgeous illustrations?

Project Gutenberg etext (with, may I say, wonderful illustrations)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Jonathan Harker is a young solicitor's clerk who travels to Transylvania to meet Count Dracula, who wants to rent a house in England. If he was just a little bit smarter, Jonathan would realise that this is a really bad idea. After all, the man's called Dracula. He may or may not be capable of turning into a wolf. All the local peasantry are terrified of the castle and its owner. He insists on Harker coming in of his own free will...and there are no servants in the dark and creepy old castle...and the Count doesn't appear in Harker's shaving mirror...and he seems to be awfully enthusiastic on the subject of blood...and he can crawl down walls...
Harker barely escapes this sinister castle, but by then the Count has signed the papers and set off for England, where Harker's lovely and talented fiancee Mina Murray begins to notice, with concern, that her best friend Lucy Westenra is suffering some strange ailment. Neighbouring doctor-for-the-insane Dr Seward sends for his old mentor, Van Helsing, who diagnoses Lucy at last with a serious case of vampire visitation. Unfortunately this news comes too late to save Lucy; broken-hearted, Mina, Jonathan, Dr Seward, Van Helsing, visiting American Quincey Morris and Lucy's fiance Arthur Holmwood determine to stop the evil Count once and for all.
I read Dracula, like so many other books, unthinkingly—in the hope that it would be an entertaining story. It was. I particularly liked the characters' reaction to the horrible revelation that an obscene monster had come to terrorise them, which was, “Let's kill it! Amen!”
In fact, I still like that attitude. After all, GK Chesterton says that, “A book with no bad characters is a bad book.” Evil exists; demons exist; and “the gates of Hell will not prevail against the church.” Dracula is a vampire story, yes, but look at the vampire! He's demonic and disgusting and the characters call on the help of God before setting about his destruction:
“For so surely as we live, that scar shall pass away when God sees right to lift the burden that is hard upon us. Till then we bear our Cross, as His Son did in obedience to His Will. It may be that we are chosen instruments of His good pleasure, and that we ascend to His bidding as that other through stripes and shame. Through tears and blood. Through doubts and fear, and all that makes the difference between God and man.”
This is not Twilight, where the blood-sucking fiend is the romantic twinkly boyfriend, and losing your soul is preferable to losing him. In Dracula, evil is clearly evil, and must be fought, not dallied with.
Even though I enjoyed the let's-go-out-and-kill-the-bad-guy attitude, there's more to Dracula than meets the eye. Undeniably the novel is one of the traditional playing-grounds of psychoanalysts and postmodern literary critics, all sniffing eagerly after some guilty secret the book seems to be concealing. I did an arts course recently—it was called “Narrative and Genre” and I thought—ha, ha!--I thought I would learn something about narrative structure and the tropes of genres and how to successfully use them. Ah well...But the topic was Dracula one week and you would, I guarantee, be quite surprised at the things they managed to read into the book. The topic on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory tried to show how a silly children's book contained classism, racism, capitalism, colonialism, and sexism; so, for example, in Dracula, Stoker was supposed to be suppressing his anxiety about independent women.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Refugees by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Oh, I love this book.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is known everywhere as the author of Sherlock Holmes, still the world's most famous detective. With Holmes he tried to show how mysteries could be solved purely through an infallible human reason. In later years he fell into spiritualism.
Not an inspiring theological record by any means. It puzzles me how he could have turned out a book as nearly right as this one.
Paris, 1685. Amory de Catinat, one of King Louis XIV's trusted guardsmen, feels that life is good. As a guardsman, he occupies a good position, but not one good enough to be envied and taken from him by jealous courtiers. As a Huguenot, he has no problem keeping quiet about his faith, but even from his enemies he is protected by the Edict of Nantes, which for the last hundred years has allowed Huguenots freedom of conscience. And finally, there's his lovely fiancee, his cousin Adele, who is both good and well-off.
De Catinat's future seems secure and easy...
King Louis XIV faces a crisis of conscience. All his life he's luxuriated in the attentions of a string of mistresses who each lavished care on him, bore his children, glittered in his court, and obeyed his every whim. His unfaithfulness to his now-dead wife never bothered his conscience before, but now he has a reason to reform: he has fallen in love with his children's nanny, the gentle, intelligent, and good Madame de Maintenon—and she refuses to become his next mistress.
Her employer, the king's current mistress Madame de Montespan—the fabulous, the enchanting, the wily Madame de Montespan—is outraged. Has she not been the king's mistress for the last twenty years? How could it happen that this quiet, nun-taught nanny could supplant her? De Montespan determines to leave no stone unturned to win back the king's affections.
But she has rallied too late: Louis is lost to her. Pity the guardsman who must tell de Montespan that the King has forbidden her to visit him, and then bars her way when she insists! So de Catinat earns her fury and and her malice. But it is not the wicked and unprincipled de Montespan who is destined to endanger his life and the lives of thousands of others, who will send them all fleeing from their beloved France in poverty and in danger, everywhere they go, of death and imprisonment.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Friday Poem: Verses upon the Burning of our House

Anne Bradstreet was the first woman poet of the New World. So why haven't you heard of her?

"Misunderstanding the Puritans is a popular indoor sport for many amateur historians and not a few professionals . . . Anne Bradstreet was a representative figure, but she is frequently presented as a Puritan anomaly. She had such a winsome personality, and, since everyone knows that the Puritans were cranks, she is treated as something of a genetic fluke among the Puritans. You see, she was nice" (Beyond Stateliest Marble by Douglas Wilson, p. 25).

She was a Puritan? Ah, that explains it.

To tell the truth, I haven't read a lot of Anne Bradstreet's poetry. But this one keeps coming back to me, full of melancholy conquered by sweet faith:

Verses upon the Burning of our House
by Anne Bradstreet

In silent night when rest I took,
For sorrow near I did not look,
I waken'd was with thund'ring noise
And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice.
That fearful sound of "fire" and "fire,"
Let no man know is my Desire.
I starting up, the light did spy,
And to my God my heart did cry
To straighten me in my Distress
And not to leave me succourless.
Then coming out, behold a space
The flame consume my dwelling place.
And when I could no longer look,
I blest his grace that gave and took,
That laid my goods now in the dust.
Yea, so it was, and so 'twas just.
It was his own; it was not mine.
Far be it that I should repine,
He might of all justly bereft
But yet sufficient for us left.
When by the Ruins oft I past
My sorrowing eyes aside did cast
And here and there the places spy
Where oft I sate and long did lie.
Here stood that Trunk, and there that chest,
There lay that store I counted best,
My pleasant things in ashes lie
And them behold no more shall I.
Under the roof no guest shall sit,
Nor at thy Table eat a bit.
No pleasant talk shall 'ere be told
Nor things recounted done of old.
No Candle 'ere shall shine in Thee,
Nor bridegroom's voice ere heard shall bee.
In silence ever shalt thou lie.
Adieu, Adieu, All's Vanity.
Then straight I 'gin my heart to chide:
And did thy wealth on earth abide,
Didst fix thy hope on mouldring dust,
The arm of flesh didst make thy trust?
Raise up thy thoughts above the sky
That dunghill mists away may fly.
Thou hast a house on high erect
Fram'd by that mighty Architect,
With glory richly furnished
Stands permanent, though this be fled.
It's purchased and paid for too
By him who hath enough to do.
A price so vast as is unknown,
Yet by his gift is made thine own.
There's wealth enough; I need no more.
Farewell, my pelf; farewell, my store.
The world no longer let me love;
My hope and Treasure lies above.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Dove in the Eagle's Nest by Charlotte Yonge

I have already reviewed Miss Yonge's The Heir of Redclyffe, and did not really appreciate it, despite its role in Victorian medievalism and the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Fortunately that was the second book of hers that I read; if I had read it first, I might not have been able to bring myself to read The Dove in the Eagle's Nest, and would consequently have missed out on a very pleasant read.
The story is set during the reign of Maximilian I of the Holy Roman Empire, in the later 1400s. Young Christina Sorel lives with her uncle and aunt in Ulm under the shadow of the Swabian Alps, safe in that abode of prosperous and upright burghers from the noblemen of the mountains, which are half outlaws, half rebels, and absolute monarchs each of their own valley.
Christina's father, on the other hand, fits in quite well in the mountains. A ruffian and sword for hire, he left Christina to the loving care of her uncle and aunt when she was just a baby and went off to Adlerstein Castle to serve in the guard of the Freiherr Eberhard. Perched high in the mountains in his unassailable castle, the Freiherr finds it unnecessary to swear allegiance to anyone.
One day Christina's father returns to Ulm in search of his daughter. The baron's daughter Ermentrude appears to be in a slow decline, and as there are no gentle women in the castle to care for her, Hugh Sorel has decided to volunteer his own daughter for the job.
Although her aunt and uncle are horrified to think of Christina going alone among the wolves of Adlerstein, Christina herself sees it as her duty to her father and to a poor sick girl who needs her. But when she gets to the castle, she finds it even more unpleasant than she expected: the baron is a bandit, his son is a lout, his wife is a battleaxe, and his daughter is ignorant, shy, and neglected as well as ill.
This story spans years and many changes in fortune, so I will leave off there, and say only that Christina stays much longer than she intended at Castle Adlerstein, and that her faith, gentleness, and civilising influence gradually transform it into a far pleasanter place to live. It's a gentle, bittersweet story of love and loss over many years, often tear-jerking, and exquisitely well-researched: to read it is to get a fascinating picture of the political forces shaping the mountain nobility at that time.
True, the story's sentimental, but I can live with that.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

And Now For Something From Me

It's the first of December, and being struck by a substantial helping of the Christmas spirit, I sat down to compose a carol. It got out of hand, but seeing as the last successful poem I wrote was "I Wish I Was A Smuggler" from two years ago, I call this a step in the right direction.


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