Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Marriage Song by GK Chesterton
















A Marriage Song

by GK Chesterton

Why should we reck of hours that rend

While we two ride together?

The heavens rent from end to end

Would be but windy weather,

The strong stars shaken down in spate

Would be a shower of spring,

And we should list the trump of fate

And hear a linnet sing.

We break the line with stroke and luck,

The arrows run like rain,

If you be struck, or I be struck,

There's one to strike again.

If you befriend, or I befriend,

The strength is in us twain,

And good things end and bad things end,

And you and I remain.

Why should we reck of ill or well

While we two ride together?

The fires that over Sodom fell

Would be but sultry weather.

Beyond all ends to all men given

Our race is far and fell,

We shall but wash our feet in heaven,

And warm our hands in hell.

Battles unborn and vast shall view

Our faltered standards stream,

New friends shall come and frenzies new.

New troubles toil and teem;

New friends shall pass and still renew

One truth that does not seem,

That I am I, and you are you,

And Death a morning dream.

Why should we reck of scorn or praise

While we two ride together?

The icy air of godless days

Shall be but wintry weather.

If hell were highest, if the heaven

Were blue with devils blue,

I should have guessed that all was even,

If I had dreamed of you.

Little I reck of empty prides,

Of creeds more cold than clay;

To nobler ends and longer rides,

My lady rides to-day.

To swing our swords and take our sides

In that all-ending fray

When stars fall down and darkness hides,

When God shall turn to bay.

Why should we reck of grin and groan

While we two ride together?

The triple thunders of the throne

Would be but stormy weather.

For us the last great fight shall roar,

Upon the ultimate plains,

And we shall turn and tell once more

Our love in English lanes.

**

Congratulations to my dear friends Josh and Charmagne Downes! The wedding in New Zealand was an amazing day of love--not just the pure love of two faithful young Christians, but also the all-encompassing love of God and His Church in giving Charmagne and her family a joyful day of feasting, dancing, and celebration. More here.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Poem: Against the Dark by James McAuley

Today I go to New Zealand for two weeks! I do not know whether I will have time to post more reviews, so apologies to my faithful readers (...all two of you...).

One other thing I must mention is that In Which I Read Vintage Novels is now a year old, as of yesterday! Yes, it was back on the 7th of September, 2010 that I finally gave in and decided that it was so much trouble giving each of my friends the same lengthy set of book recommendations that I really must do something for the public in general.

It's been a fantastic year and to all my readers, thank you so much for your attention and particularly for your comments.

Today I want to post a poem by the marvellous Australian poet James McAuley. This is one of my favourites so far:

Against the Dark
Life to be understood turns into legend:
At last we recognise
The tales we always knew, of loss and finding:
I read them in your eyes.

The impossible task is finished before cockcrow,
The key turns in the door,
The withered garden flowers in the first springtime
That no-one could restore.

For what we are can only be imagined;
The story never lies:
It is our truthfulness in love it measures;
I read it in your eyes.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Jane Eyre (2011 film)

(Originally posted on Facebook.)
This is the third Jane Eyre I've seen, and the only one that is a movie, not a serial. Watching this one reminds me why, all these years later, Jane Eyre is enjoying such popularity. You've got the independent heroine making her way in an unfriendly world, beset by moodily magnificent men who want to marry her, with a constant backdrop of windy moors and possibly haunted mansions. If that sounds silly, it's because Jane Eyre is silly. It's a silly melodrama and the romantic lead is frankly unbelievable and a man of low moral fibre.
It took Charlotte Bronte a lot of work to make Jane Eyre, in spite of itself, a great book. The problem with adapting it to film is that you've got to shoehorn some poor man into tight breeches and ask him not to look too silly saying Rochester's lines. (TIMOTHY DALTON: Am I handsome, Jane? JANE: Not at all, sir. VIEWERS: Oooo-kay).
This Jane Eyre also has to work hard to be a Serious Drama...but not too hard, because then it might lose the steampunk vampire romance novel crowd (and this movie certainly has an eye fixed on them). The result is something not entirely faithful to the book—but a superbly-made movie.
There were a lot of things to like about this particular Jane Eyre. Obviously the theatrical-film format had to result in a lot of material being left out and streamlined, but this is handled very well by opening the movie with Jane's flight from Rochester and then showing brief flashbacks to her childhood before diving more thoroughly into her time at Thornfield. This keeps the plot moving along nicely, although certain things get left out—they don't explain how Jane lost her valise and her time at Lowood is left very sketchy, with none of the gradual improvement that in the book eventually made it a less grim place, no kind Miss Temple, and no explanation that Jane became a teacher there.
The movie is perfectly sumptuous to look at. Neither of the main characters could really be called plain (although they did try with Jane). The costuming is wonderful. From a clothing point of view, it's all about the bonnet at the end. The picture up on the screen is really lovely: the camera drinks in as much picturesque scenery as it can, including a wonderful red sky at one point and a beautiful sepia shot with Jane silhouetted against a window. You could freeze-frame a number of shots and hang them on your wall with no questions asked.
In the book, Jane unexpectedly finds some living relatives with whom to share her life. People have pointed out how unlikely this is, and funnily enough the movie leaves that out altogether—the characters still show up, but this time Jane adopts them as relatives, rather than recognising them as truly her cousins. Cute move on the scriptwriters' part!
The acting is good, especially Rochester. This is the third Jane Eyre I have seen and it is the first in which I did not have the urge to laugh at him. Dalton, for instance, was hilarious, while I just felt sorry for Stephens in the 2006 miniseries. Here, scriptwriters and the actor conspire to produce a Mr Rochester you don't want to send to bed without dessert for being sulky. I was amazed—I couldn't believe it could be done. And the rest of the acting is just as good.
The script is likewise extremely good. It can be hard to tell without a copy of the book by your side, but if I am correct much of the dialogue was rewritten to speed up the pace or flesh out the characters. Normally this is somewhat obvious, but with only one or two missteps the scriptwriters have smoothed over seams in the story with authentic-sounding dialogue. There is a speech of Jane's, not entirely from the book, probably inserted to make her seem like a proto-feminist heroine; but because it is couched in the right language, I could almost imagine Jane really saying it:
I wish a woman could have action in her life, like a man. It agitates me to pain that the skyline over there is ever our limit. I long sometimes for a power of vision that would overpass it. If I could behold all I imagine... I've never seen a city, never spoken with men and I fear my whole life will pass...
Other elements that have been invented and added include a speech given by little Adele on or near Jane's first day:
Sophie told me there is a woman who walks the halls of this house by night. I have never seen her, but people say she has hair black as ebony, white skin like the moon, and eyes like sapphires. She can also walk through walls. They say she comes to suck your blood. (slurp)
Yes, this is the up-to-date Jane Eyre, deftly modernised so that you would hardly notice it unless very familiar with the book. Just a touch more edgy. Just a touch more frightening and moody. And it works. It works. But is that a good thing?
Charlotte Bronte's book had something that made it worthwhile after all: a rock-solid moral foundation. In Jane Eyre there are good Christians, misguided Christians, and thorough-going hypocrites, but while the book castigiates hypocrisy and criticises denseness, it emphatically promotes true piety. It isn't perfect; Mr Rochester is too much of a cad and his repentance comes too late, after too much fun and games and burning passion (and houses) to make the book really positively edifying. However, in the book at least even Mr Rochester is required to deliver an edifying speech at the happy ending:
“Jane! you think me, I daresay, an irreligious dog: but my heart swells with gratitude to the beneficent God of this earth just now. He sees not as man sees, but far clearer: judges not as man judges, but far more wisely. I did wrong: I would have sullied my innocent flower—breathed guilt on its purity: the Omnipotent snatched it from me. I, in my stiff-necked rebellion, almost cursed the dispensation: instead of bending to the decree, I defied it. Divine justice pursued its course; disasters came thick on me: I was forced to pass through the valley of the shadow of death. His chastisements are mighty; and one smote me which has humbled me for ever. You know I was proud of my strength: but what is it now, when I must give it over to foreign guidance, as a child does its weakness? Of late, Jane—only—only of late—I began to see and acknowledge the hand of God in my doom. I began to experience remorse, repentance; the wish for reconcilement to my Maker. I began sometimes to pray: very brief prayers they were, but very sincere.”
I am sorry to say that none of this has ever made its way into any of the three Jane Eyre adaptations I've seen, including this one, which may be the least satisfactory, because the most abbreviated, of all. You see, unless Rochester repents, Jane actually doesn't gain anything from her flight. Everything may now become legal; but she is just a mistress with a ring, and Rochester is still a rank opportunist now taking advantage of the fact that Jane's morals now allow her to do what they forbade her doing before.
A lot of things were left out of this particular Jane Eyre: specifically, most of the moral fibre that drives Jane's actions-- “self-respect” is her stated reason for leaving Thornfield. Combined with the other things that are not explained—for example, the fact that Mr Borcklehurst of Lowood is shown up as the hypocrite he is and removed from office—the picture of Christianity in this Jane Eyre is sinister or anaemic. In the absence of true Christianity, Jane's religion appears to be some vague proto-hippie spiritualism—something not entirely absent in the novel, but firmly anchored there in context of the Faith.
To sum up, this Jane Eyre is quite a rarity—it's well-made, well-acted, entirely believable, beautifully-shot, deftly updated, and most enjoyable. It's all so well done, in fact, that it's hard to turn around and say, And yet wrong...I don't like it when people update stories, when strong feminine characters are given more feminist lines, when madwomen become, even in local legend, vampires. It's bad enough when it's jarring, but this new skill, this ability to mesh it in seamlessly with the original, seems worse. It doesn't belong in Jane Eyre, however well it is camouflaged.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Puck of Pook's Hill and Rewards and Fairies by Rudyard Kipling



One midsummer evening, Dan and Una are down by the river acting out scenes from A Midsummer Night's Dream when they meet "a small, brown, broad-shouldered, pointy-eared person" who introduces himself as Puck of Pook's Hill, the last of the People of the Hills--or elves.

The children get on well with Puck, and he starts telling them stories--or bringing people, strange people in old clothes with queer modes of speech, to tell them other stories. There's the one about Weland the Smith, who used to be a god before he was dethroned, and then had to go on making an honest living anyhow, and forged a mighty sword in thanks to the young novice that freed him. There are the ones about Hugh's adventures when England was conquered by the Normans, and later when he sailed to Africa and found treasure. There are the stories of Parnesius, the young Roman centurian manning the Wall of Hadrian against Pict attack, and the emperor Magnus Maximus. And of course there's the story of the moneylender whose secret mission takes him searching for the lost treasure of Pevensey.
That's Puck of Pook's Hill--a loose collection of short historical stories with an occasional fantasy tinge, tied together by the story of the Magna Carta. It was followed a few years later by a sequel, Rewards and Fairies, in much the same vein--short stories told by historical people from the autocratic lady known only as "Gloriana" to the dying girl who witnesses the invention of the stethoscope. Both volumes also contain copious amounts of poetry, including the famous If-- and one of my favourite Kipling poems, Cold Iron.

There's a peculiar charm to these books. To begin with, Rudyard Kipling was a talented writer, a wielder of words that could crash and glitter.
'Can you wonder that the People of the Hills don't care to be confused with that painty-winged, wand-waving, sugar-and-shake-your-head set of impostors? Butterfly wings, indeed! I've seen Sir Huon and a troop of his people setting off from Tintagel Castle for Hy-Brasil in the teeth of a sou'-westerly gale, with the spray flying all over the Castle, and the Horses of the Hills wild with fright. Out they'd go in a lull, screaming like gulls, and back they'd be driven five good miles inland before they could come head to wind again.'
The fantasy elements are used in just the right way, too: not to provide a getaway from reality, but to remind us that this green earth is "a mighty matter of legend," as Tolkien said. The stories are not in chronological order, especially in the second volume; they are more like a treasure-chest where everything is jumbled up and you hardly know what will come out next. The characters are so vividly drawn, too, with such broad, energetic strokes, that you really do feel as if you are meeting different people from different parts of history. Gloriana particularly is hilarious.
'Hm! Hm! Hm! Philip writes as ever most lovingly. He says his Gloriana is cold, for which reason he burns for her through a fair written page.' She turned it with a snap. 'What's here? Philip complains that certain of her gentlemen have fought against his generals in the Low Countries. He prays her to hang 'em when they re-enter her realms. (Hm, that's as may be.) Here's a list of burnt shipping slipped between two vows of burning adoration.'
When I think of these two books, I imagine a series of brilliant miniatures, almost like windows onto past times. Don't get me wrong: they are not brilliant, they are not vivid, because they are accurate. They are vivid because they are memorable--well-told, gripping. Now I don't believe historical accuracy is opposed to memorableness--I merely mean that probably Philip never sent Elizabeth I such a letter at all; but Kipling uses it to draw out a true picture of who she was and what difficulties she faced.

We live in a time when people have managed to kid themselves into thinking that religion isn't important. This can result in such silly things as books and movies set during the Reformation, or earlier in the medieval period, in which religion doesn't influence the characters' actions at all. Kipling thoroughly avoids this pitfall. However even as a child I found his theology a little worrying. For example--
They were a stiff-necked, extravagant set of idols, the Old Things. But what was the result? Men don't like being sacrificed at the best of times; they don't even like sacrificing their farm-horses. After a while, men simply left the Old Things alone, and the roofs of their temples fell in, and the Old Things had to scuttle out and pick up a living as they could. Some of them took to hanging about trees, and hiding in graves and groaning o' nights. If they groaned loud enough and long enough they might frighten a poor countryman into sacrificing a hen, or leaving a pound of butter for them. I remember one Goddess called Belisama. She became a common wet water-spirit somewhere in Lancashire. And there were hundreds of other friends of mine. First they were Gods. Then they were People of the Hills, and then they flitted to other places because they couldn't get on with the English for one reason or another.
I tend to think Kipling was a bit of a heathen himself. For example, in one story in Rewards and Fairies--"The Conversion of St Wilfrid," it's called, a pagan Saxon named Meon is converted and later addresses his people as follows:
"Listen, men! Two days ago I asked our Bishop whether it was fair for a man to desert his fathers' Gods in a time of danger. Our Bishop said it was not fair. You needn't shout like that, because you are all Christians now. My red war-boat's crew will remember how near we all were to death when Padda fetched them over to the Bishop's islet. You can tell your mates that even in that place, at that time, hanging on the wet, weedy edge of death, our Bishop, a Christian, counselled me, a heathen, to stand by my fathers' Gods. I tell you now that a faith which takes care that every man shall keep faith, even though he may save his soul by breaking faith, is the faith for a man to believe in. So I believe in the Christian God, and in Wilfrid His Bishop, and in the Church that Wilfrid rules. You have been baptized once by the King's orders. I shall not have you baptized again; but if I find any more old women being sent to Wotan, or any girls dancing on the sly before Balder, or any men talking about Thun or Lok or the rest, I will teach you with my own hands how to keep faith with the Christian God."
This is all very well and good, happy ending, important lesson about keeping faith...and no more. For Kipling, religion isn't about salvation, defeating evil, or cosmological warfare. It's more a code of ethics; it's more about manly conduct. And Kipling approves of Christianity, I feel, because of its good track record of manly conduct--not necessarily because it's truth and salvation.

Those concerns noted, I highly recommend these books.

Puck of Pook's Hill Gutenberg etext and Librivox recording
Rewards and Fairies Gutenberg etext and Librivox recording

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