Thursday, March 29, 2012

Worrals of the WAAF by WE Johns

In the '90s you could find old Biggles books in the library, but WE Johns's other works were scarcer than hen's-teeth. It wasn't until we got access to the internet that I found out Johns had written other books, too. Among these were two other series, a little like Biggles spin-offs, launched when WWII made flying-aces and war stories popular again. The Gimlet books were about commandos wreaking havoc in occupied France. And Worrals, the distaff Biggles, was invented to give the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) a little positive publicity.

I found this book in a church library in Melbourne. Hawthorn Presbyterian: great sermons, WE Johns laid on. Where was I?

Flight Officer Joan Worralson and friend Betty Lovell—more commonly known as Worrals and Frecks—work with the WAAF flying airplanes from one place to another, a job Worrals is getting tired of. After her Spitfire-flying RAF friend Bill Ashton teaches her to fly a fighter plane, Worrals is asked to fly the plane over to another aerodrome where it is urgently needed. Along the way she spots a German aircraft and shoots it down, but not before picking up a few clues. German bombers have been hitting their targets pretty easily lately lately and all of a sudden Worrals thinks she knows how. Not even Bill will believe her, so Worrals and Frecks decide to investigate themselves—and stumble upon something far bigger than they imagined.

There was very little to distinguish this book from a Biggles book, save that Worrals is a lot less experienced and, being a girl, is not allowed to be a fighter pilot.
Think what propaganda the enemy would make of the incident if it were learned that—er--ladies were now manning British fighter aircraft.”
It might give them ideas in the same direction,” suggested Worrals. “The guns fired just as well for me as if a noble Wing Commander had pressed the button.”
This surprised me somewhat, because Johns usually keeps the girls out of harm's way in his books--understandably, since they are written for boys that don't want "beastly girls" getting in the way of the action. But unfortunately, that seems to be the only reason: Worrals is as good as a man, and from what I've heard of the sequels, doesn't seem to be afraid to mention it.

This, combined with the similarity of the writing style and plot to every Biggles book I've read, makes the book a little surreal. In moments of absent-mindedness, one forgets that the protagonists are women at all.

Worrals of the WAAF was a quick, fun read. I wouldn't necessarily avoid it because of the feminist slant—after all, books like Pollyanna and LM Alcott's Rose in Bloom are far more insidious—but I would be aware of it and discuss it with young readers.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Some News and a Poem

A day or two back, I set up a Facebook page for In Which I Read Vintage Novels.

If you are the Facebooking kind, may I request the pleasure of your company? And it's not just so that you can let your whole Facebook friendslist know about this blog. Well, it's partly that, but I want you to feel like you're getting some special benefits out of it too. "Like" the Facebook page and you'll not only get handy reminders every time I've posted something new--you'll also get some all-new, exclusive, Facebook-only content.

That's right--for most of the books I read, you'll get bite-sized mini-reviews. And unlike the blog, they'll be reviews of all kinds of books--not just the vintage novels. If this sounds appealing at all, pop over to the Facebook page and 'like' away! And thank you for joining!

I shall leave you with a poem by James McAuley. I'm particularly fond of this one, because it is set in an old stone church in Battery Point, Hobart, which just happens to have been built by an ancestor of mine.

The Convict and the Lady
An incident in St George's Church, Battery Point
by James McAuley

Voluntaries of Clarke and Boyce
Flow temperately sweet
With Gamba, Flute, and Clarabel,
And pedal Bourdon trampled well
By shapely kid-skinned feet.

An apparition from the tower
Suspends the diapason.--
Will she scream? No, courage wins,
And in that empty church begins
An interesting liason.

'Lady, I am a fugitive
That's taken refuge here.
Up into the tower I crept,
Two days and nights I've waked and slept,
But hunger masters fear.

Now fetch me food, or fetch the law,
For I am at your mercy.
Though forfeited in youthful spleen,
My birth and station were not mean,
My name is Eustace Percy.'

So every day she brings her lunch,
And practices the organ.
She finds him breeches, coat and vest,
And takes word to The Sailor's Rest,
To a man named Harry Morgan.

One Sunday, as the lady plays
'Recessional in A',
A stranger joins the genteel throng
That files out after Evensong;
Unmarked, he slips away.

In darkness a small boat rows out
Into the estuary.
The brig looms up upon the tide,
A shadow clambers up the side--
And Eustace Percy's free!

So ends the tale? No, three years passed;
From Hull a letter came:
'I thrive in my new way of life...'
The lady sailed to be his wife,
And shared a borrowed name.

Organist, for that lady's sake,
Select your stops and play
This postlude that I chose expressly,
By Samuel Sebastian Wesley,
'Recessional in A.'

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Zenda Revisited


A commenter on my previous review of The Prisoner of Zendaactually the first review ever posted on this site, and quite a short one by current standards—recently got me thinking by claiming that the bad guys, Black Michael and his henchmen, in The Prisonder of Zenda, are no different to the good guys, Rudolf Rassendyll, King Rudolf V, and their followers.

Let me explain a little.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Gates of Doom by Rafael Sabatini

In this fun but silly book, Sabatini weaves a melodramatic story of adventure, intrigue, romance, and not one but two cases of mistaken identity! Captain Harry Gaynor, a faithful Jacobite agent seeking to topple the Hanoverian monarchs of early eighteenth-century England, is known to the authorities only as “Captain Jenkyn,” a daring, bold, and cunning spy. Then Lord Pauncefort, one of the Jacobite conspirators, tries to save himself from bankruptcy and debtor's prison by betraying the plot, revealing the true identity of “Captain Jenkyn,” and blackmailing the heiress Miss Hollinstone into marrying him. Will Captain Gaynor escape the gallows? Will he be in time to save Miss Hollinstone from Lord Pauncefort's evil clutches?
This book—certainly one of Sabatini's lesser efforts, though not as bad as Fortune's Foolis a good example of all Sabatini's faults. Captain Gaynor's highest loyalty is to the Stuart monarchy—to the point where he tells the heroine that he would sacrifice himself for the Jacobite cause and, though he loves her desperately, wouldn't think twice about sacrificing her to it as well—and yet Sabatini uses the plot unashamedly as a MacGuffin, even telling us at one point that he doesn't intend to tell us anything about it. If you don't know anything about Jacobites when you start reading this book, you will certainly know no more about them when you've finished. This approach renders the book as history-free as possible, and also seriously impairs the hero's characterisation, since that cause is supposed to be his main motivation.
Instead of historical detail and a real investigation of the issues at stake in the Jacobite rebellions, Sabatini focuses on adventure and melodrama. Not that the adventure is very good, either. Lord Pauncefort, though the evillest, is also the cleverest person in this book. It would have been nice to see the characters engaged in a battle of wits, but until he has a bright idea late in the plot, Captain Gaynor is a pretty passive character. 
Which leads me into an interesting train of thought.
The alternative to Captain Gaynor's passiveness, and the antidote for the plot's faults, would be for the hero and villain to engage in a break-neck passage of wits as Captain Gaynor (instead of giving up) continues trying to salvage the Jacobite cause. That's what spy stories are for, after all, aren't they? Clandestine battles of wits waged beneath the calm surface of polite society—even Baroness Orczy got that right.
But Sabatini's worldview doesn't allow for any of this. Again, as in Fortune's Fool, the real motive force of the plot is not Captain Gaynor's vision for a restored Stuart monarchy; but simply Fate. Fate happens, and Captain Gaynor reacts. You can't wage a war of wits in a world ruled by Fate; all you can do is try to minimise the risks, cut your losses, move on. 
And here, hidden deep within the plots of two vintage novelists, is an odd little proof that Calvinism is not fatalism. Because in Buchan's books, which are ruled by Providence in the same way that Sabatini's novels are ruled by Fate, you do get complex battles of wit in exactly the same way that you don't in Sabatini. The characters even refer to it as “the game” in Buchan: a giant game of chess played between shadowy masters. 
And there is a very good reason for this difference between Sabatini and Buchan. Because the difference between Providence and Fate is that Providence is a Person, and can be trusted. Also, since Providence is a Person, He works primarily through ordinary human beings—which means that those who trust in Providence and do their duty, no matter how hopeless it seems, may indeed end up defying all the odds and triumphing in the end.
But this is an attitide Sabatini does not appear to hold. And that prevents his books having much depth, it seems.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Men of Iron by Howard Pyle

Myles Falworth was only a little boy when one night, he stumbled downstairs to the hall of his father's castle and witnessed a terrifying black knight murder his father's friend Sir John Dale and blind his father. Soon after, Myles's family fled their home in secret to start a new life in hiding—his father an outlaw, his name dishonoured, and his inheritance confiscated.

When Myles is old enough to begin training in arms, his father sends him to the Earl of Mackworth, a distant and powerful relative. Myles has many adventures on his way to becoming a knight—from his first hot-headed resistance to the tyranny of the older squires, culminating in pitched battle, to the day that he falls through a trellis to the ground at the feet of Lady Anne and Lady Alice, the Earl's daughter and niece. 

Initially resentful that the Earl has, until now, ignored the Falworth family's existence, Myles soon begins to realise that he is of special interest to the Earl—that he is being trained as the champion, not just of the Falworth family, but of many other powerful interests as well. On the day when he finally stands ready, will he be able to clear his father's name, restore the Falworth fortunes, and win Lady Alice's hand?

Men of Iron is a book that I have very early memories of, from when Mum first read it aloud to us. I found it then, as I find it now, extraordinarily vivid and exciting, with a real current of danger—wounds and death are a real possibility from Chapter 1, and there's no guarantee that Myles will survive the book in the end. Howard Pyle keeps the plot rolling—it's a wonderful mix of combat, intrigue, and historical detail. The archaic speech patterns are, as far as I can tell, convincing.

The dark and dangerous undercurrent of the plot, however, does not bog the book down. Pyle subcreates a hero you can cheer for, a boy who must learn honour and calm in the midst of war. There is nothing objectionable in this book, built as it is on a solid moral foundation.

If I have a quibble, it is the fact that Myles starts the book somewhat headstrong and foolish, but although these character flaws shape the plot of the first two-thirds, they disappear altogether at one point without a really serious catalyst—the Earl's first few warnings could have been used to foreshadow a more serious conflict in which Myles would have been forced to leave them behind forever. However that is only a slight fault in an otherwise excellent book.
As far as I can tell, Pyle set out to write this book with three major aims in view. First, to document what could have been the life of a young knight in medieval England, for the information of young readers. Second, to give boy readers an example worth emulating. And third, to write a rattling good yarn. He succeeded with all three aims. All the Howard Pyle books I've read have been exceptionally good, but this one remains my favourite: the story of a boy's journey to manhood in the first Christendom. Highly recommended.

Men of Iron was allegedly filmed as The Black Shield of Falworth in 1954. I haven't seen it and can't comment on it, more than to say it doesn't appear to bear a whole lot of resemblance to the original book. If you've seen it, share in the comments!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Njal's Saga

We've all heard of the Norse sagas. What comes to mind when we think of them? Roaming vikings? Burning mead-halls? Epic battles? Odinn, Thor, and Loki roaming the earth? Dragons with treasure-hoards?

Well, that's what I thought too.

As it turns out, a saga is quite different. In the Introduction to The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, Christopher Tolkien explains:
In Iceland, a Norwegian colony, there grew up the unique technique of the saga, the prose tale. This was chiefly a tale of everyday life; it was frequently the last word in sophisticated polish, and its natural field was not legend.
Today we get our idea of the saga from the Volsunga Saga, a very unusual saga that does involve viking, blazing halls, epic battles, gods roaming the earth, and a very memorable dragon. It's the most well-known saga of the last century, mainly owing to Richard Wagner's operatic adaptation of the story, the Ring cycle. But the Volsunga Saga, as scholars like Tolkien know, is highly romanticised and not at all typical.

The Saga of Burnt Njall, or Njal's Saga, is a typical Icelandic saga and perhaps the best, longest, and most highly developed example of the artform. It is set in the commonwealth of Iceland spanning the country's conversion to Christianity at the turn of the first millenium.

The story is long and involved—a saga, if you will. It's the story of a feud, or a series of interconnected feuds, around the family of Njal the lawyer; which begins when Njal aids his friend the warrior Gunnar to get justice over the unjustly retained dowry of a divorced woman. Gunnar complicates things when he decides to marry the niece of the man he's just won his legal victory against; his new wife holds a grude against Njal and, more particularly, Njal's wife Bergthora.

Cattle raids escalate suddenly into assassinations, and Gunnar and Njal, who just want to be friends despite the fact that their wives are killing off cadet branches of each other's families, find themselves unwillingly embroiled in a feud that won't stop until both they and their families are dead...

Unlike much of the ancient and medieval literature I've read, Njal's Saga reads surprisingly like a modern novel. It has few or no fantastic elements and is clearly intended to be a serious work of historical fiction set around real characters and events from Iceland's past.

For the student of Icelandic history and culture, it remains a major source; both in its depiction of the laws, customs, and government of Iceland and in its account of the conversion. I found the legal details fascinating. As John Eidsmoe has pointed out, we generally tend to think of Vikings and the Scandinavians as lawless, raging, pillaging types—and the fact that Iceland's government during this period was known as the Anarchy doesn't help much either.

The interesting fact is that the Icelandic Anarchy was anarchy in a very specific sense. There was no king of Iceland and the government was nebulous and decentralised. There was, however, one paramount authority: the law. At the annual assembly known as the Althing (still in existence today in a more parliamentary form), the peple of Iceland would assemble to settle disputes, hear the law recited, pass legislation, trade, chat, and get to know eligible young members of the opposite sex. From Njal's Saga we see that men like Njal who was an expert in the law—which was an oral tradition—were highly respected and trusted to settle all disputes with wise settlements. Since Njal and Gunnar spend a lage portion of the early part of the saga doggedly settling all their disputes at law long, long after most people would simply say, “Forget about it, pass me my battleaxe and let's get it over with,” we get a good look at just how much reverence these men had for the law.

Unfortunately, this law did not punish murder with death but with settlement and monetary payment—which allowed feuds to continue, obliterating whole families and weakening the society.

The conversion of Iceland to Christianity occurs somewhere around the half-way mark in the story, and is one of the most entertaining parts. Some of the characters, who have taken a trip to Norway, return with a man named Thangbrand who has been sent by the king of Norway—Iceland's nominal overlord and main trading partner—to convert Iceland to Christianity. Thangbrand does this by traveling around Iceland engaging in interfaith dialogue.
Thangbrand and his messmate fared right through the west country, and Steinvora, the mother of Ref the Skald, came against him; she preached the heathen faith to Thangbrand and made him a long speech. Thangbrand held his peace while she spoke, but made a long speech after her, and turned all that she had said the wrong way against her.
"Hast thou heard," she said, "how Thor challenged Christ to single combat, and how he did not dare to fight with Thor?"
"I have heard tell," says Thangbrand, "that Thor was naught but dust and ashes, if God had not willed that he should live."
However most of Thangbrand's debates are carried on with edged weapons, as the heathens challenge him to single combat for blaspheming the gods. Thangbrand, it turns out, is really good at this kind of debate. Many of the Icelanders find him so impressive that they immediately become Christians, and at the next Althing the decision is made to acknowledge this clearly much stronger and more impressive God as a nation.

And then everyone happily goes back home and starts feuding again.

These days, I often think of the conversion of Iceland. When the Althing took the decision to become Christian, they continued to permit certain heathen practices in private.
"This is the beginning of our laws," he said, "that all men shall be Christian here in the land, and believe in one God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, but leave off all idol-worship, not expose children to perish, and not eat horseflesh. It shall be outlawry if such things are proved openly against any man; but if these things are done by stealth, then it shall be blameless."
But all this heathendom was all done away with within a few years' space, so that those things were not allowed to be done either by stealth or openly.
The cultural transformation was slow in coming. But come it did. When the Gospel had taken firm root in Iceland, such practices were outlawed.

I'm as grieved as anyone by the half-baked Christianity that seems endemic today. Orthodoxy far outstrips orthopraxy. Worse, there are actually Christians who believe that killing children in the womb is OK, just like there were probably plenty of new Christians in Iceland who, contaminated by their culture, thought it was OK to leave their newborns out to die in the snow. There was hope for them—and there's hope for us.

Njal's Saga is a fascinating look at a fascinating and unique medieval culture. Although I didn't find the story itself as gripping as the historical details, I highly recommend it—you'll learn a lot, and who knows? You might find it far more exciting than I did.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Essential Non-Fiction

A friend of mine asked for my essential non-fiction book recommendations—the books I will be insisting my own (potential, future) children read—and at what age I would recommend them. I think reading books is more about maturity than age, which I'm sure my friend would agree with—so instead of providing age recommendations, I've simply divided my book recs into three categories. The first are books I would recommend for all ages, including as read-alouds for very young children. The second contains books with more challenging language and/or ideas, suitable for disciplined and eager 10-15-year-olds. The third bracket, for ages 15-adult, contains the most difficult books, often including the more putrid historical details.


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