Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Autobiography by John G Paton

In 1858, a young Scotsman left his beloved family and thriving city mission to travel with his bride to the other side of the world. The cannibal islands of the New Hebrides, known today as Vanuatu, were among the most dangerous missionary destinations in the world: just twenty years prior, in 1839, two missionaries landed on the island of Erromanga had been clubbed to death, cooked, and eaten as soon as they reached the shore. Warned that he would be eaten by cannibals, Paton--with the calm audacity that characterised him--responded that his interlocuter would undoubtedly be one day eaten by worms, and what difference did it make?

The Patons settled on the island of Tanna. Within the first few months, Mrs Paton and their newborn child had died of fever. By the end of four years, the natives had determined to kill their missionary and drive the worship of Jehovah out of their land, blaming Paton for bad weather and illness. On Erromanga, a missionary couple were murdered and natives from that island travelled to Tanna to stir up the natives there to similar deeds. After a year of constant vigilance and many close shaves, Paton finally escaped with his life, in the company of two other missionaries whose health was so ruined by their experiences that they died within months. Paton, however, went to Australia and Scotland to raise support and money for a mission ship, the Dayspring. In 1866, Paton returned to the New Hebrides with his second wife and settled on the smaller island of Aniwa, where in a few years he led the entire population to profess Christianity. They also began to wear clothes, observe the Lord's Day, and entirely cease from killing, strangling, and eating one another.

The Paton grave in Boroondara Cemetary
The name of John G Paton is not often remembered or recognised. Christians who grew up on short popular biographies of David Livingstone, or Mary Slessor, or Hudson Taylor, or occasionally even George Muller or Adoniram Judson, have often never heard of Paton. In recent years, since the reprinting of his once-famous Autobiography by Vision Forum under the title Missionary Patriarch: The True Story of John G Paton, some Americans have made his acquaintance. I, however, heard of him as a young teen when my parents joined the Presbyterian Church of Victoria, of which he was a member for much of his life, and which still keeps an echo of his legacy alive. The PCV Sunday School mission periodical, for instance, was called Dayspringers in his honour, and many years ago I read a child’s biography of Paton, King of the Cannibals, by a local minister, Jim Cromarty.

My interest in Paton was revived when I was involved in organising the Australian Building a God-Centered Family conferences with Scott Brown and Kevin Swanson. We were keen to show these men around some notable historical sights in Melbourne, especially from a Christian perspective. Being a young country, however, Australia has precious few John Knoxes or Alfred the Greats to honour, and we racked our minds in vain. Then I remembered--wasn't John G Paton buried in Melbourne? Sure enough, his grave is in Kew, in the Boroondara cemetary (corner of High Street and Park Hill Road).

Our guests were even more thrilled than we expected, and you can watch their excited speeches at Scott Brown's website here. Suffice it to say that after having witnessed their excitement, and listened to John Piper's excellent talk, You Will Be Eaten By Cannibals! Lessons From the Life of John G Paton I decided I really should buy the autobiography.

It is a magnificent book. Paton writes engagingly and well. His hair-raising adventures--both in the New Hebrides and in the more "civilised" lands of Scotland and Australia--drag you in, often with white-knuckle tension. His later account of the evangelisation and transformation of the Aniwan cannibals is thrilling in a different, more uplifting way. Meanwhile his personality shines through saintly and kind, but uncompromisingly, tenaciously courageous with an added helping of what can only be called cheek. From his short way dealing with bullies as a young schoolmaster to the many occasions on which, having just foiled an attack on his life in the Cannibal Islands, he lay down and enjoyed the sound sleep of the righteous, Paton shows a delightful pluck, or moxie, as John Piper calls it!

John G Paton and family
The book is interesting on many fronts. It is interesting as a yarn of danger and adventure in the South Seas. It is interesting as the life story of a remarkable saint. It is interesting as a snapshot of Christian missions in the mid-1800s. It is interesting because he records his travels through my own country, including studying Aboriginal religious customs, and falling into a bog not far from the home of a friend of mine! Especially in the section dealing with the conversion of Aniwa, it is full of fun and laughter. Still, for many Paton fans, it is the story of his family life as a young man that is most inspiring. John Piper says:
The tribute Paton pays to his godly father is worth the price of the Autobiography, even if you don't read anything else. Maybe it's because I have a daughter and four sons, but I wept as I read this section, it filled me with such longing to be a father like this. 
While this is not the major focus of the book, Paton also left an impressive family legacy behind him. By the end of the Autobiography he mentions a "Mr Frank H L Paton" settled in mission work on Tanna; too modest, perhaps, to mention that this was his third son. Paton had ten children and many grandchildren, most of whom settled in Australia. Among his children and grandchildren are numbered 7 ministers, 4 ministers' wives, 1 Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria, missionaries into the second and third generations, 1 or 2 medical doctors, a Vice-Chancellor of Melbourne University, and an influence reaching from my little rural home town to Canada and Korea.

In the Publisher's Introduction to my beautiful Vision Forum hardcover edition of John G Paton's Autobiography, it is called "the greatest missionary story ever written." I could not say whether this is true. But it's the best I have ever read.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Asterix the Gaul by Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo

Book 1
Last year I reviewed the cartoon adventures of Tintin. Back in the day, when no trip to the library was complete without raiding the comic book section, it was not just Tintin books that we were after. It was always Tintin and Asterix, and the two are still oddly inseparable to my memory.

Back then, this was probably an accident of shelving. It was not so much the comic-book section: it was the Tintin-and-Asterix section, or, on odd-numbered days of the month, the Asterix-and-Tintin section. With the passing of years, I began to notice other similarities. Both series were originally written in French (one by a Belgian and the other by Frenchmen), for example. Both series featured the global adventures of a diminutive, yet invincible hero with his larger and more boisterous companion, and were accompanied by a little white dog.

On the other hand, what about the differences? I could mention the more caricatured artistic style, or the outrageous puns (which Tintin's author, Hergé, famously sniffed at), or the setting, but I'd rather discuss Asterix on his own merits. Withour further ado, then...
THE YEAR IS 50 BC. Gaul is entirely occupied by the Romans. Well, not entirely...One small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders. And life is not easy for the Roman legionaries who garrison the fortified camps of Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum, and Compendium...
Asterix the Gaul is so many, many things. Let me try to stab at it.

First, it's the thrilling adventures of Asterix, the smallest and by far the cleverest and sanest (with the possible exception of Getafix the Druid) of "the little village we know so well"--or, as the Romans call it with a shudder, "that village of madmen." The village, full of colourful characters (from Cacofonix, the village bard who sings so badly that he has occasionally been used as a weapon, to the perpetually squabbling Fulliautomatix [blacksmith] and Unhygienix [fishmonger]) remains free from the Roman yoke only through the cunning and daring of Asterix, and the magic potion brewed by the druid Getafix, which makes the drinker invincible.

On his many missions to the world outside the village, Asterix takes along a gourd of magic potion, and also his huge and lovable friend Obelix, a menhir delivery man who fell into the cauldron of magic potion when he was a baby and consequently was permanently affected, along with Obelix's tiny pet, Dogmatix. Asterix's wit and Obelix's strength make them the village's most honoured warriors, all dangerous missions being entrusted to them. No matter how far they travel, or what thrilling adventures they encounter, however, Asterix and Obelix always make it back to the village for the traditional celebration banquet, complete with roast wild boar and a gagged bard...
Note bard, upper right.

On the technical side, Asterix the Gaul is a series of approximately 35 comic books, give or take a few, depending on where you draw the line. The first book in the series was published in 1961, written by Rene Goscinny with drawings by Albert Uderzo. Sadly, Goscinny died in 1977 in the middle of volume 24, Asterix in Belgium. From then on, Uderzo continued to write and illustrate new Asterix albums until 2011, when he passed the baton to a new writer and illustrator: their first album, Asterix and the Picts, is due for publication in October this year. Though an excellent illustrator, Uderzo's stories never attained the sheer brilliance of Goscinny's; they became increasingly far-fetched, and I found his last two or three albums particularly bad. Will the new author/illustrator team, Ferri and Conrad, take Asterix back to his roots? Yet to be seen...

In English, Asterix the Gaul is one of the most remarkable translations the world has ever known, right up there with the Authorised Version of the Bible. The sublime Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge had the unenviable task of translating around 50 pages per album from French into English--pages packed with every kind of pun, many with visual cues in the pictures. Faced with this task, Bell and Hockridge simply decided to count up the number of jokes and puns on the page and try to make sure the translation included the same number, not necessarily present in the original (indeed, many were entirely untranslatable). For just one small example, the name of the village bard in the original version is "Assurancetourix", a pun on Assurances tous risques, all-risk insurance. In English, it's Cacofonix, even more apropos to the bard's ghastly music.

Asterix in Britain reveals the true reason for the Roman conquest of Britain...
Finally, Asterix comes packed full of information, satire, and jokes. I like to say that I learned half of what I know from Asterix (the other half, I learned from PG Wodehouse). The volume I have sitting on my desk, for instance, Asterix the Legionary, follows Asterix and Obelix to Africa during Julius Caesar's campaign against Scipio (real historical background). We get a look at Roman military tactics ("Hey, isn't this Caesar's tortoise?"). There's a hilarious parody of Gericault's painting The Raft of the Medusa on page 35 ("We've been framed, by Jericho!"). There's fun with national stereotypes (a Briton who loves terrible cooking, a Belgian with a suspiciously Tintinesque hairdo, an Egyptian who speaks only in hieroglyphics). There's satire of bureaucracy and the military ("Where do I find the information bureau, please?" - "No idea. Apply to the information bureau. They'll inform you.") There's a Gaulish spy, Vitriolix, codenamed H2SO4. And there are tons of Latin tags ("Alea jacta est, as I always say"). And that's just one volume.

Just five of the my favourite Asterix albums are listed below:
Cleopatra, on a typical day.
  • Asterix and Cleopatra is undoubtedly one of the greatest Asterix books of them all. Stung by Caesar's comment that the Egyptians have become decadent, Cleopatra bets Caesar she can build him a magnificent palace within three months. This is not good news for Edifis the architect, who will be fed to the crocodiles if he fails. Fortunately, he's an old friend of Getafix the druid, who decides to travel to Egypt with Asterix and Obelix to help.
  • Asterix and the Normans: Just as Vitalstatistix's cowardly teenage nephew Justforkix arrives in his super sports chariot for some much-needed character training, a gang of ferocious Vikings led by Chief Olaf Timandahaf and his right-hand-man Nescaf drop anchor on the beach near the village, determined to learn the meaning of fear from the local Gauls. Unfortunately for Jusforkix, the Normans scare him senseless, so they decide he's an expert and kidnap him...
  • Asterix the Legionary: Obelix falls in love with Panacea, a local girl just returned from studying at Condatum--but is heartbroken to discover that she has a fiance recently drafted into Caesar's army and sent to Africa. Obelix and Asterix vow to bring Tragicomix back, and join the Roman army in order to do so. I'm not sure why this is one of my favourite Asterix books of them all; I came to it late, and it knocked me into stitches for a week.
  • Asterix and the Cauldron: A tightfisted neighbour chieftain comes up with the perfect way to pay his taxes--and Asterix is dishonoured and exiled from his village as a consequence, until he can make enough money to repay the debt he owes. A slightly more serious adventure than most, some have argued that this is the most complex, profound, and well-written Asterix book of them all. It is certainly unique, as well as touching on the economic principles which come into play in...
  • Obelix and Co. The Romans, constantly trying to come up with ways to conquer the Gauls, decide to try the most lethal weapon yet: capitalism. Roman economist Preposterus starts buying Obelix's menhirs at ever-inflating prices, causing the other Gauls in the village to go into competition with him. Preposterus and Caesar manipulate the Roman economy, and the menhir bubble floats for a while. This 1976 book is a fantastic economics lesson, and, believe it or not, a critique of Jacques Chirac, a recent president of France, who served as the model for Preposterus.
There are plenty of things to love about Asterix. I still find the books as hilarious as I did as a child. These days, I particularly enjoy what the books capture about small village life and the way even the best friends can get on one's nerves occasionally.

I've always loved the punning names in Asterix. All the Gauls have names ending in -ix, the Britons in -ax ("Selectivemploymentax, I say, what!"), the Romans in -us (from Nefarius Purpus to Crismus Bonus), the Egyptians in -is or -et (Edifis, Artifis, and Ptenisnet), and the women in -a (Impedimenta, Bicarbonateofsoda).

This said, there is a certain drawback to all this fun. A friend of mine, reading the book Asterix appears to be loosely based upon--Caesar's Gallic Wars--decided it would be fun to read it to his family. Unfortunately his mother, a lifelong Asterix fan, lost her composure entirely at the first-paragraph mention of the historical Gaulish chieftain Vercingetorix. And that was it for the Gallic Wars. But if you ask us, much better to stick with Asterix.

It's hard to believe, but the French love Asterix the Gaul so much that they have made a number of films based on the books, both live-action and animated. The live-action films even star Gerard Depardieu as Obelix. I've seen one or two, but don't remember any of them being as good as the books...

Friday, July 12, 2013

Farmer Giles of Ham by JRR Tolkien

JRR Tolkien, having shot into well-deserved fame for his Lord of the Rings and even, by now, The Hobbit, continues to baffle publishers. On the one hand, it is their benevolent and entrepreneurial duty to introduce as much of the reading public to as many of this great man's works as possible. On the other hand, how does one drum up a perfect fever of PR excitement over, shall we say, an unfinished Anglo-Saxon-style alliterative-verse retelling of an almost entirely forgotten legend? (It's true, if somewhat beside the point, that the Vintage Novels blogger is in thrilled about getting a copy of this work someday). Or what about a slim, jolly children's book featuring a rotund farmer, a wily (but easily-tamed) dragon, a handful of sly scholarly jokes, and charming illustrations by Miss Baynes...with not a Hobbit nor an Elf nor an epic and cinematic battle scene in sight?

Oh, all right. To those who know of his existence, Farmer Giles is irresistible.

Long ago, and not too far away--in the Thames valley, to be precise--lives a comfortable hard-headed farmer rejoicing in the name of Aegidius Ahenobarbus Julius Agricola de Hammo...or, in the vulgar tongue, Farmer Giles of Ham. When an accidental midnight encounter with a giant who has lost his way makes Giles a local hero, the King of that country sends him by way of recognition an ancient and unfashionable sword from his armoury which nobody remembers the use of. Until, that is, the fearsome dragon, Chrysophylax Dives, hears of the rich and easily plunderable lowland country where Giles lives, and arrives in a blaze of fire. While the King and his knights discuss points of etiquette and postpone their involvement until after Christmas, Giles discovers that his sword is the legendary Caudimordax (or, in the vulgar tongue, Tailbiter), which will not remain sheathed if there is a dragon within five miles. And the village of Ham begins to think that if the King won't help, Farmer Giles might...

This little story is, of course, wonderful. Giles himself is the type which hobbits were invented to evoke: comfortable, a homebody, unlearned, but with a certain native wit and entrepreneurial know-how. Chrysophylax the dragon is a less terrifying cousin of Smaug, and Tailbiter has a lot in common with Anduril, Sting, Glamdring, and Orcrist (the last even nicknamed Biter). Then there is all the fun had with an almost forgotten high-toned language (Latin) as contrasted to the common (or 'vulgar') language of the day. But this is as Lord of the Rings-ish as the story gets. Far from being an epic, it's a rollicking tale in the lowest vein of humour of which Tolkien was capable. From Garm, Giles's dog, by turns cowardly and boastful, to the farmer's grey mare which has a claim to being the smartest character in the book, the farmer's wife Agatha, around whom there was no getting--"or at least it was a long walk" and his cow Galathea, squashed as flat as a black-beetle, Farmer Giles of Ham demonstrates wit, satire, and low punning...

Meanwhile the story comes lavishly illustrated by Pauline Baynes, perhaps best known for her iconic Narnia illustrations. Her Farmer Giles work, however, is quite unique: smooth, flowing line drawings in the style of medieval manuscripts, beautiful in themselves, but brimming with impish humour and adding substantially to the wit and satire of the story (in fact Tolkien famously remarked that they had "reduced [his] text to a commentary on her drawings").

I look forward to the day when an annotated Farmer Giles is published, with explanations of all the jokes. Meanwhile, for your enlightenment, here are a few:
  • Tolkien's tongue-in-cheek Foreword parodies his fellow scholars by waffling on about the historical significance of the Farmer Giles of Ham manuscript, and then adding as an afterthought that some readers might enjoy the story on its own account. Tolkien's famous essay on Beowulf, "The Monsters and the Critics", argued that scholars should stop mining that poem for historical significance and just enjoy it as the corking good story it is.
  • In explaining what a blunderbuss is, the author of Farmer Giles refers to the Four Wise Clerks of Oxenford for a suspiciously dictionary-type definition. This is a double joke: it refers not only to Geoffrey Chaucer's Clerk of Oxenford, but also to the four editors of the venerable Oxford English Dictionary. 
  • The parson of Ham, a learned man, is called "a grammarian, [who] could doubtless see further into the future than others." Tolkien-lovers agree that grammar is a pun on the related words glamour and grimoire, both of which referred to magic in medieval times. The parson also serves for a sly joke at the expense of linguists like Tolkien himself: faced with language he can't read, the parson breaks out into professional-sounding polysyllabics to stall for time.
  • When Chrysophylax strikes a bargain with the village of Ham to return at the feast of St Hilarius and St Felix, the village's pessimistic smith grumps, "Ominous names! ... I don't like the sound of them." Hilarius means happy and Felix means lucky.
  • Many of the characters' names have some hidden or punning meaning. Chrysophylax Dives means "Gold-watcher the Rich" and refers to the traditional name of the rich man in the parable of Lazarus. Aegidius Ahenobarbus Julius Agricola, our hero, literally translates as "Giles Red-Beard Julius Farmer". The pessimistic blacksmith, Fabricius Cunctator aka "Sunny Sam", is a parody of a famous Roman general, Fabius, surnamed Cunctator ("the delayer") for his brilliant cat-and-mouse guerilla tactics used fighting Hannibal and the Carthaginians. Fabricius, though, means "blacksmith"; the smith's name roughly translates as "slowpoke smith". Meanwhile, the lengthy signature of the King of Farmer Giles's country can be translated as:
"Augustus [common name of Roman emperors] Bonifacius [common name of Popes] Ambrosius [well-lettered saint, Tolkien probably liked him] Aurelianus Antoninus Pius et Manificus [A few more Roman emperors’ names run together and a ’hotshot" tacked onto the end for good measure] king, king, king, and [yet another Greek word for] king [just in case you didn’t get the idea] of the Midlands." (source)
Naturally, I highly recommend Farmer Giles of Ham to just about anyone. Children will love the story and humour; adults will relish the wit; linguists and Latinists will whoop at the word-play; while Tolkien fans will enjoy the distinctive flavour. Enjoy!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Poem: Uphill by Christina Rossetti

To be honest, I haven't been reading an awful lot of vintage novels lately, which might account for the actual sparseness of vintage novel reviews around here. The fact is that when I want to relax and read something that requires little effort these days, I usually turn to non-fiction. More and more, I put off reading fiction until I'm wide awake and ready to work at reading it.

And no, I didn't accidentally get that the wrong way around. I'm hesitant to say it based on my own experience, but I'm inclined to believe that if you're reading fiction to relax, you might not be getting your money's worth out of it. I love what Clayton Hamilton says in his A Manual of the Art of Fiction:
The purpose of fiction is to embody certain truths of human life in a series of imagined facts. The importance of this purpose is scarcely ever appreciated by the casual careless reader of the novels of a season. Although it is commonly believed that such a reader overestimates the weight of works of fiction, the opposite is true––he underestimates it.
All this aside, I shall certainly be digging into some more vintage books in the upcoming weeks, both non-fiction and fiction. Meanwhile, it occurred to me that I haven't posted a poem in a little while.

Christina Rossetti is one of my favourites, and her poem Uphill is one of my favourites among her poems. Although it is short, simple, and easy to understand, it has the deep sort of simplicity you get in haiku. Without further ado:
Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you standing at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.


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