Saturday, June 30, 2012

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

Around the World in Eighty Days has become perhaps Jules Verne's most well-known title. And yet more people are familiar with the cultural accretions than with the story itself. Witness the hot-air balloons that appear so frequently on the covers of the book, of which the only comment within them is a quick dismissal: it "would have been highly risky and, in any case, impossible."

Yes, Around the World in Eighty Days is the kind of book that everyone knows about and no one has read. But it is well worth reading. Phileas Fogg, the quintessential British gentleman, is wealthy, stuffy, phlegmatic, and punctual beyond all reason. His servant, Passepartout, is excitable, emotional, extremely loyal, and quintessentially French. When some cool remarks on the possibilities of modern travel excites slight agitation in the hallowed halls of the inaptly-named Reform Club, Phileas Fogg causes a sensation by wagering that he can circumnavigate the glove in eighty days. Before Passepartout can object, he finds himself whisked away from the comfortable Fogg residence, far away on a whirlwind tour of the globe which will be filled with danger, excitement, and suspense. And that's even without the detective Fix, Fogg's nemesis, who follows him in the unshakeable belief that Fogg is the bank robber he's after...

One of the really classic adventure yarns, a brisk there-and-back-again story, Around the World in Eighty Days is heaps of fun. Verne's pure storytelling powers are perhaps best displayed here, in a straight adventure story. The plot is extremely simple, yet extremely well constructed. The characters look like stereotypes--but conceal hidden depths: Passepartout rises to all occasions, Phileas Fogg does have a heart, and Aouda, the Indian widow they collect while disrupting her husband's funeral pyre, is not bad with a revolver.

Unlike most of Verne's books, this is the one with apparently the fewest science fiction elements. And yet, by a strict definition, it is science fiction. The book is entirely based upon the cutting-edge technology of the 1870s: steam train and boat. In an age when anyone with the money can book a plane fare and be on the other side of the world in a few hours or at most, days, the idea of being able to book train and boat journeys all the way around the world, in relative comfort and with only slight disruption from wild Indians (brown and red), does not seem as strange and wonderful as it did to the people of Verne's day.

But at that time this was new and wonderful. Could a man really circumnavigate the world in a brief eighty days? Step back a handful of decades to a time when the world was bigger and stranger, and look for some high adventure with Phileas Fogg and his faithful servant.

Gutenberg etext
Librivox recording

I've seen two movie adaptations of this book. The 1958 version roughly follows the plot of the book, only adding in as many stereotypical national spectacles and famous-actor-cameos as possible. The 2004 we forget, no matter how much we love Jackie Chan. Neither, of course, really does the book justice.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Choosing Stories with Discernment

Some friends recently asked what my criteria are for choosing movies. As I discussed with them the ins and outs of the question, I realised that much of what we were discussing also applied to books. In no particular order, here is my answer:

Thursday, June 21, 2012

On the Incarnation by St Athanasius

Sometime in the 290s was born a child whose stature in the annals of history would far outstrip his physical stature. In the politically incorrect language of the day, he was known as The Black Dwarf, and to the heretic Arius, his lifelong nemesis, probably something even less sensitive. St Athanasius of Alexandria is known most famously, of course, for standing contra mundum (against the world)--for standing up for the right thing when the whole world was wrong. He opposed the Arian heresy--which stated that Christ is not truly God, not of the same substance, but rather a creation (since a pure spiritual being like God could not possibly, according to Arius, take on diseased flesh). It was, as CS Lewis points out in his introduction to On the Incarnation, "one of those 'sensible,' synthetic religions which are so strongly recommended today." It was a religion that agreed with all the best scientific and philosophical minds of the day.

But it was wrong, and Athanasius dedicated his life to fighting it. Even after the victory at the Council of Nicaea, Arianism died hard and Athanasius continued to be periodically exiled from his home, persecuted, hunted, and assaulted for his unpopular stand. He never gave in. He fought the good fight till his death, sometime in his 70s.

But before all this happened, an earnest, devout, and irrepressibly optimistic teenager wrote a book-length letter to his friend Macarius explaining the Christian faith. That book became a theological classic and one of the great books of Western Civilisation.

Unlike many of the great books of Western Civilisation, On the Incarnation is quite short and pithy, explaining the whys behind many of the doctrines of Christianity, but most importantly, why Christ had to come in the flesh, truly God, truly Man, to die and rise again. It explains exactly why this was the only thing that could have worked: this was the only sacrifice that would both pay for our sins and redeem us from Hell. In addition the book discusses other aspects of redemption, and contains quite a bit of apologetic material.
For it is a fact that the more unbelievers pour scorn on Him, so much the more does He make His Godhead evident. The things which they, as men, rule out as impossible, He plainly shows to be possible; that which they deride as unfitting, His goodness makes most fit; and things which these wiseacres laugh at as "human" He by His inherent might declares divine. Thus by what seems His utter poverty and weakness on the cross He overturns the pomp and parade of idols, and quietly and hiddenly wins over the mockers and unbelievers to recognize Him as God.

On the Incarnation differs from other great books in another important way. The author's youthfulness, high spirits, and vim come off the page at you. Athanasius lived during exciting times, when in just over two brief centuries the Christian faith had swept the Roman world. Just a few years later, the new emperor Constantine himself was to convert to Christianity and decriminalise it for the first time, meaning that you no longer faced death and dismemberment just for being a Christian (Christianity was not made the official religion of the Empire for several more years, by Theodosius of the Eastern Empire).

The young Athanasius's enthusiasm reflects the high spirits of the exciting first two centuries of Christendom.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Children's Homer by Padraic Colum

Children, I think, should be raised to read fearlessly. I mean that they should never feel that any book is above their level. Perhaps they may be told that a book has some things in it that they should not be dealing with at their age, but they should never be encouraged to think that a book is too dull, or too hard, or too clever for them.

The first key to raising children who think like this is simply not to tell them that, for example, Shakespeare is too difficult to read. Keep this a deadly secret, even if it is (momentarily) true.  (Actually, given the kind of humour Shakespeare liked, it might be better to read him sooner rather than later, while they don't understand half the jokes).

The second key can be to provide them with children's versions of great literature. This does not help if they see the children's book as a substitute for the great literature--but it can form an excellent introduction to the story. Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare--to continue to the Shakespeare theme--was a great help when I wanted to read the real thing.

The Children's Homer containing The Adventures of Odysseus and the Tale of Troy was my introduction to the Iliad and the Odyssey--two of the oldest stories on Earth. Paris of Troy has abducted Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world and wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta. When Troy refuses to return Helen to the Greeks, they invade under the leadership of Agammemnon, king of Mycenae, with a great force of heroes including the boisterous Ajax, the wily Odysseus, and the greatest hero of them all, Achilles. Led by Hector, Paris's brother, the city of Troy holds out against the Greeks, and even the gods take sides. After ten years, Odysseus finally hits upon a plan that might work--but even after the war is over, it takes him ten more years to get home, ten years of adventure, mishap, and monsters. Here you will read about the Trojan Horse, the isles of Calypso and of Circe, the lotus-fruit, the Cyclops, the heel of Achilles, the face that launched a thousand ships, the wisdom of Mentor, and the terrible Scylla and Charybdis.

Padraic Colum's wonderful retelling is lucid, clear, and beautiful. Unlike Homer's originals, this version explains much of the backstory to the main myths, and sets the Tale of Troy--the Iliad--within the framing device of Telemachus's search for his father: Menelaus recounts the story. This is a straight retelling of the original Iliad and Odyssey, omitting or glossing over many of the child-unfriendly bits in the original (just how many, I was surprised to discover when I read it).

We have the edition illustrated by Willy Pogany, and the pictures are well worth comment. They are exquisitely simple black line drawings in the Greek style--simple, elegant, and effective, and complementing the book perfectly. They are also somewhat Greek in worldview: male characters are often depicted partially or entirely nude, with idealised bodies. I say "somewhat" Greek in worldview, because in stark contrast to original Greek art, Pogany's nudes are always carefully posed or draped.

Overall, I highly recommend this version of Homer's stories. Our culture is full of references to them; even today, in our illiterate society, it is still possible to tell someone he or she has been working like a Trojan, or to allude to the siren song of something irresistible, or to be caught between Scylla and Charybdis, as between a rock and a hard place. And even computer viruses know about the Trojan Horse. It is good to know what these things mean, and so I recommend The Children's Homer to you.

Gutenberg etext
Librivox recording

A Pogany illustration under the cut:

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

As I begin this review, I am reminded of GK Chesterton's defence of pulp fiction--or as he called it, the "penny dreadful":
The vast mass of humanity, with their vast mass of idle books and idle words, have never doubted and never will doubt that courage is splendid, that fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies spared. There are a large number of cultivated persons who doubt these maxims of daily life, just as there are a large number of persons who believe they are the Prince of Wales; and I am told that both classes of people are entertaining conversationalists.
It is in this vein that I invite you to contemplate the writings of Edgar Rice Burroughs, that prince among hacks. And when I say "hack", I mean it in the most complimentary of terms, as referring to a man who, despite catering to the most unsophisticated desires in humanity to go chopping up enemy hordes into little pieces, does it all while lauding the very basic and very Christian virtues of courage, fidelity, chivalry, and mercy.

Welcome to A Princess of Mars: John Carter, fighting man of Virginia, finds himself drawn through the trackless wastes of space with the speed of thought to the planet of his vocation. On Mars--or Barsoom as its inhabitants call it--he quickly wins the respect of the four-armed, warlike Tharks with his courage and incredible strength (fresh from Earth's more weighty gravity). The Tharks know neither love nor mercy, and when an airship falls from the heavens and the sole survivor is captured--a beautiful red princess, the incomparable Dejah Thoris of Helium--John Carter knows that his duty is clear. The princess must be rescued and returned to her family in Helium. And so begins an incredible adventure across Martian deserts, through duels to the death, gladiatorial arenas, and corrupt courts...

In some ways this book was just as I remembered it--a penny dreadful if ever there was one, complete with monsters, buckets of gore, not a lot of clothing, and The Love of All Time between John Carter (Warlord of Mars) and the incomparable Dejah Thoris (Space Princess).

And yet...and yet it wasn't that bad. Let's begin with ERB's philosophy. The man was not a believer by any stretch, and (in this book at least) substitutes romantic love for the glory of the Lord and God of creation as the chief end of man. John Carter for one is quite clear on the fact that his chief end is to serve Dejah Thoris and slaughter her enemies forever. So far, so bad.

But ERB was writing during a time that was still imbued with the morals of Christendom, and he himself retained her standards. And thus, although the action takes place on a strange planet, filled with war from one end to another, John Carter begins to transform the society of Mars with his remarkable practices of kindness, gentleness, and mercy. And although the action takes place on an exotic planet, in the cities and wastes of Barsoom, the hero dutifully rescues and preserves the Space Princess from all perils until they can be duly and correctly married.

John Carter is, in fact, rather like an old knight of Christendom--savage to his enemies, meek to those under his protection. And ERB, though he denies the source of this ideal, still wishes to preserve the ideal itself. Thus princesses are rescued, friends are stood by in battle, beasts maddened with ill-treatment are soothed with kindness, and four-armed eight-foot-tall tusked green alien women are referred to as "my fair companion."

Additionally, A Princess of Mars is genuine science fiction--that is, it is genuinely concerned with what life on Mars might have been like going on the best scientific theories available at the time of writing. And so in addition to all the adventuring, the story is also deeply concerned with science and cultures. The Tharkian society is one with no private property, and a ruthless eugenics program in which the young are raised by harsh foster-mothers: in the words of Dejah Thoris,
A people without written language, without art, without homes, without love; the victim of eons of the horrible community idea. Owning everything in common, even to your women and children, has resulted in your owning nothing in common. You hate each other as you hate all else except yourselves.
Flawed as it is, Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princess of Mars remains an imaginative tour-de-force and a strong influence on subsequent science fiction. I enjoyed it this second time around, and consider it one of the best penny dreadfuls.

Gutenberg etext

Librivox recording (which I have heard and can recommend)

A movie based on this book, titled John Carter of Mars, was released in 2012. John C Wright, Space Princess aficionado, science fiction writer, and classical scholar has written an excellent review of it. The short version: "If you have not read, or do not particularly adore, the source material, the movie is a fine, if unexceptional, entry into the Space Princess genre of space opera. There is action, humor, spectacle, swordfights, gunfights, flying machines, mystery, romance, monsters, and everything a Space Princess story should have, including a space princess. The only thing it lacked was John Carter." I completely agree with him. The long version goes into more detail on both book and movie and is well worth reading.

Monday, June 11, 2012

A Gentleman of France by Stanley J Weyman

This is the second Stanley Weyman book I've read, and it was a most pleasant surprise. The first, Count Hannibal, had been a sensational and self-indulgent romantic adventure story without a great deal of depth. I had low expectations of this one too, and might never have read it if it hadn't already been sitting there on my shelf.

As I said, this one was a surprise.

Gaston, Sieur de Marsac, is a Huguenot gentleman who has impoverished himself in the wars of the sixteenth century in France between the Huguenots and the Catholics. By 1588 when this story begins, the battles of Jarnac and Montoncourt, together with the awful massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve (a slice of history you can read about in GA Henty's book Saint Bartholomew's Eve) are past. Now, under the rival leadership of King Henry of Navarre and the Vicomte de Turenne, the Huguenot faction has gained some stability and even some political power. With King Henry of France desperate for support against the Catholic League that holds Paris, his power toppling, his mother Catherine de Medici dying, the knives of his assassins red with the blood of that powerful Catholic nobleman the Duke of Guise--the question is not whether he will make peace with the Huguenots, but with which of their factions he will ally himself: that led by Henry of Navarre, his next heir to the throne of France, or that led by the powerful and ambitious Vicomte de Turenne.

The Sieur de Marsac asks the King of Navarre for some small command in his army--but the King is already stretched beyond his means, and cannot grant his request. Instead he entrusts him with a dangerous mission. In the house of the Vicomte de Turenne is a lady held captive. She is a witness to the Vicomte's treachery against Navarre and against France; and it is de Marsac's mission to kidnap her from the Vicomte's house, convey her across hostile territory to the King of France's court at Blois, and secure the alliance of France and Navarre by telling her story to the King of France.

Danger, adventure, and courtly intrigue, naturally, ensue. In the roiling political dangers of 1580s France, disavowed by his master the King of Navarre, the Sieur de Marsac might be fortunate to escape with his life--much less fortune, favour, and the hand of an heiress.

There is much to enjoy in A Gentleman of France. The other book I'd read by Weyman, as well as the cover of this one, made me think it would be a fluffy melodrama. Instead it's a well-conceived adventure story fully engaged with the politics and historic personalities of the time. I enjoyed getting to know some of the background of the Huguenot Wars in Saint Bartholomew's Eve last year and this was almost as good a primer on the events that led to Henry of Navarre becoming King of France.

Little as my knowledge is of the actual historical events, I thought they were pictured with reasonable accuracy. Henry of Navarre, particularly, is portrayed as I have known him elsewhere: as a great captain and leader who was a brave protector for the Huguenots, even though he was personally ambitious and worldly.
The treatment of the Huguenots themselves is reasonable. In an age where religion was undeniably linked to politics, it can't be unusual to find men on both sides who have followed political ambition rather than faith. So in this book, which follows one Huguenot faction's attempt to get ahead of another Huguenot faction, the villain of the piece as well as the hero is a Huguenot. As usual in the so-called Wars of Religion, there are Catholics and Protestants all over the map fraternising, fighting on one side or the other, and so on. Still, despite the confused state of French politics at the time, the Huguenots remain the good guys, and recognisably themselves, giving praise and glory to God for their deliverances, and never losing sight of the threat that the Catholic League poses to their peace and safety. I much preferred this treatment of the Huguenots to that in Count Hannibal.

Otherwise the story is good. The plot keeps moving briskly through history, politics, and intrigue. The romance was a mite tiresome (I kept waiting for someone, anyone, to give the heroine the spanking she deserved) but for most of the time was kept sidelined by the main stuff of the story, which was good solid adventuring. 

Although I liked this book, I didn't love it. The plot was good, but not inspired, and it never really swept me up. I'll be keeping this one--more for the history than the plot--and trying some other Stanley Weyman books when the chance comes.

Gutenberg etext

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini

This is one of the Sabatini books that aren't available online for free, so I was keen to read it when I recently got the chance.

Miss Priscilla Harradine is travelling back to England from the Caribbean after her father's death, attended by the pompous Major Sands, when their ship is attacked and captured by the fearsome pirate Tom Leach in his ship the Black Swan. The only man who can save them is Charles de Bernis, the fascinating French adventurer who joined their ship just before the attack--a former buccaneer himself, a lieutenant of Henry Morgan, and an excellent swordsman. Surrounded by pirates of the foulest complexion, with two people relying on him and a secret plot of his own to carry out--M. de Bernis is going to need all his wits to get out of this one.

This is marshmallow literature, light on character, theme, and even plot. While Sabatini wrote a few good books (Captain Blood, for example), this is not one of them. Although the book never really dragged, the plot is so insubstantial that I felt it could have been half the length--and indeed, it's as I suspected: it started life as the short story, The Duel on the Beach, before Sabatini expanded it into novel form. 

I begin to think that Sabatini was one of those mediocre writers--the type that has one or two good books in him, but then writes twenty.

Eine Kleine Housekeeping

I finally have time to write another review, and that's coming up in a moment, but first three tidbits of news:

1. Following on from my article on home education in Quadrant magazine, I was interviewed for ABC Radio National's Counterpoint program. That will go to air on Monday at 4pm, and will be available at their website.

2. While in New Zealand I helped a young friend set up her own book review blog--check out Books and Poems.

3. Finally, something I have been waiting a long time for--my dear friend Christina, who plays a mean harp, has finally begun posting in her own book review blog, Baehrly Reading. Buy her music on CDBaby, and pop over to enjoy her blog.

And now for the review.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Education Outside the Box

I am just back from New Zealand, and I have some very exciting news for my Australian readers.

An article of mine, titled Home Schooling: Education Outside the Box has just been published in the June 2012 edition of Quadrant magazine.
Liberty and the War for Independence resulted from an educational model overseen by parents. A different kind of war resulted from the Prussian system, which quickly became the model for state schooling worldwide during the nineteenth century. Erich Remarque blamed the First World War, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer the Second, on Prussian schools--"the inevitable product of good schooling", Bonhoeffer said of Nazi Germany.
 This is the first time I've been in print! If you are interested in the whys and wherefores of home education, I recommend this article to you. Quadrant magazine is "the leading general intellectual journal of ideas, literature, poetry and historical and political debate published in Australia" and should be available at your local newsagency or library.


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