Friday, January 31, 2014

The Cosmic Trilogy 2: Perelandra by CS Lewis

As I read Perelandra for the manyeth time earlier this week, I was struck with its similarity to some of GK Chesterton's novels. For this is not primarily a story of plot or character, although both of those are fully present--and are tightly and even brilliantly written. But the most memorable thing is the setting and theme. Philosophical and religious argument forms most of the action of the book. And yet, such is Lewis's skill, at no point in the story does the book lose its anchoring in the physical world and float free into the boundless aether of intellect. No, the book keeps a fierce, almost a too-fierce grip on matter, worlds, bodies, and physical struggle. I cannot at this moment think of another book so simultaneously sensuous (I use the word according to its strict dictionary definition, meaning "relating to or affecting the senses") and intellectual. And science fiction--the imagining of some new world in space--doesn't get much more wildly inventive and staggeringly beautiful than this. Each book of the Space Trilogy is more ambitious in scope than the one before: Perelandra will stun you.

(Note: if you haven't read Book 1 of the Cosmic Trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, be warned that this review may spoil some of the plot of the first book.)

In Perelandra, middle-aged academic Elwin Ransom returns to space, or Deep Heaven. Not as the unwilling guinea-pig of mad Darwinian scientist Dr Weston this time, but sent on a mission by the eldila, the intangible intelligences that inhabit and rule Deep Heaven and serve the even more powerful Being they call Maleldil. The planet known in Deep Heaven as Perelandra, and on Earth as Venus, is different to anything Ransom has seen before: a world of vast oceans under a golden roof, roamed by floating islands of exquisite beauty and lush fertility, inhabited by a menagerie of strange and lovely animals. And ruled over by an innocent, yet majestic figure: the Green Lady of Perelandra.

Ransom soon realises that he has met the unfallen Eve of a newly created world, separated at the present by an accident of wind and wave from her Adam. He is awed by her, but quickly realises how fragile her blissful and unfallen state might be. Maleldil has warned the King and Lady of Perelandra not to sleep on the Fixed Land, the few islands on the planet which are true land and do not float. This poses no hardship to the Lady--but then, plummeting out of Deep Heaven, another creature enters Perelandra. Dr Weston returns, but this time he talks about macrocosmic spirits and finishes by inviting what he calls "The Force" into him. When Weston awakes, he is no longer Weston. And, with sickened horror, Ransom finds himself witnessing a new temptation quickly ripening into a new Fall.

This was the first of the Cosmic Trilogy I read. Until then, I'd only read Lewis's Narnia books, and this book took some getting used to. (Granted, it's not as strange as The Dark Tower, another sequel to Out of the Silent Planet which Lewis began and quickly abandoned; that involved time travel, and I may review it another time.)

Perelandra, like Out of the Silent Planet, is another exercise in the science-fiction imagination. And like the previous book, this one includes theological with its scientific speculation. What would it be like to meet someone entirely unfallen? What would the fact of the Incarnation on Earth mean for new life on other planets?

There's a huge amount I could say about Perelandra, because the book is so dense. The setting, for example, is gloriously imagined and expressed, both in its strangeness and in its beauty. Read the description of the taste of the fruit on Perelandra, or the iridescent flying frogs, or the transparent caves that look like ice. As happened throughout the Space Trilogy, Lewis borrowed heavily from medieval-cosmological imagery in building his view of the planets, and this being the planet Venus is concerned with pleasure--of a pure and Edenic nature. And Lewis imagines it as no one else could have.

Then there is the intellectual side of the story. Needless to say, it is full of insights. Again, the reservations I noted in Out of the Silent Planet apply here. But these pale besides the good the book has to say. There are three things in particular I want to focus on--and that will mean practically ignoring half the book. But then, all I can do is gesture helplessly in its general direction.

First, there is a wonderful, wonderful chapter where Ransom begins to understand what he has been sent to Perelandra to do. I'll try not to spoil things too much: let me just say that it is horrible, and dangerous, and in some ways all his worst dreams come true. After pages of resistance, Ransom finally capitulates:
...[T]here had arisen before him, with perfect certitude, the knowledge that 'about this time tomorrow you will have done the impossible'. The same thing had happened now...The thing was neither more nor less dreadful than it had been before. The only difference was that he knew--almost as a historical proposition--that it was going to be done. He might beg, weep, or rebel--might curse or adore--sing like a martyr or blaspheme like a devil. It made not the slightest difference. ...You might say, if you liked, that the power of choice had been simply set aside and an inflexible destiny substituted for it. On the other hand, you might say that he had been delivered from the rhetoric of his passions and had emerged into unassailable freedom. Ransom could not, for the life of him, see any difference between these two statements. Predestination and freedom were apparently identical.
At which, of course, I gave a loud and hearty Calvinist "Amen!" For this explains it perfectly.

Second, it is boundlessly fascinating to see the line of attack the Tempter takes in subverting the Green Lady. There are many different aspects to it, but the main aspect is that of fiction and the imagination. The Tempter tells a long string of stories, all about women:
The heroines of the stories seemed all to have suffered a great deal--they had been oppressed by fathers, cast off by husbands, deserted by lovers. Their children had risen up against them and society had driven them out....At last it dawned upon him what all these stories were about. Each one of these women had stood forth alone and braved a terrible risk for her child, her lover, or her people. Each had been misunderstood, reviled, and persecuted: but each also magnificently vindicated by the event. The precise details were often not very easy to follow. Ransom had more than a suspicion that many of these noble pioneers had been what in ordinary terrestrial speech we call witches or perverts. But that was all in the background. What emerged from the stories was rather an image than an idea--the picture of the tall, slender form, unbowed though the world's weight rested upon its shoulders, stepping forth fearless and friendless into the dark to do for others what those others forbade it to do but needed to have done.
Meanwhile, a corresponding picture is built up of the other sex, "pitifully childish and complacently arrogant", "capable of being raised into full life only by the unthanked and rebellious virtue of their females." It is a wonderful depiction of the heresy of feminism.

But more than that, it is practically a handbook to how theme is embedded into story, and how it goes from story to imagination and from imagination to will. It demonstrates exactly how to interpret a feminist parable (of the kind that surrounds us on every side today) and shows the danger of it.
[The Green Lady] was still in her innocence. No evil intention had been formed in her mind. But if her will was uncorrupted, half her imagination was already filled with bright, poisonous shapes. 'This can't go on,' thought Ransom for the second time.
Any girl who loves to read would do well to read Perelandra carefully as a handbook to how to read stories and a cautionary tale against reading the wrong kind of story and making excuses for it. I'm sure it helped me.

Finally, I've already touched on the wonderful way Lewis keeps this story rooted in the physical. Again, I'm trying not to give too much away, because this is one of my favourite things about the climax of this book.
Hullo! What was this? He sat straight upright again, his heart beating wildly against his side. His thoughts had stumbled upon an idea from which they started back as a man starts back when he has touched a hot poker. But this time the idea was really too childish to entertain....It stood to reason that a struggle with the Devil meant a spiritual struggle.
The idea that has struck Ransom seems, at the moment he thinks of it, outrageous. "No such crude, materialistic struggle could possibly be what Maleldil really intended."

I love that this book understands the physical aspect of spiritual warfare. I love that it sees physical life as an aspect of spiritual life. I love that it affirms and promotes real things, done with real hands and feet and other physical things such as fruit or animals or (branching out beyond what Lewis includes in this book) hammers and computers and legal documents and two-by-fours and...yes, even rifles and fighter planes, at the last necessity...as tools of the Christian life. There is also a place in the book where Lewis mentions the sacred/secular, spirit/matter divide as something unnatural and present only in our world because of the evil of the Fall; something that can and should be overcome. Perelandra is, in a deep and implicit way, a book about incarnation: from The Incarnation, to incarnational living, to making Christ visible in our actions and Heaven visible on earth (although perhaps he does not go so far as this last one).

Two more quick things I love. One of the points of this book is to demolish the old romantic idea that the Devil is a gentleman, and it does that chillingly well. Another is that when Dr Weston arrives on Perelandra, his pseudo-scientific babble this time is not so much Darwinian as Joseph-Campbellian. It's one of the ironies of history that Weston speaks of a Star-Wars style, New-Agey Force which, when it is "with him", turns out to be pure evil. Yes--we had the answer to Star Wars in 1942. Thank you, CS Lewis.



Again, I must recommend John C Wright's review of Perelandra, which is written from the perspective of a science fiction author, though only if you've already read the book.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Cosmic Trilogy 1: Out of the Silent Planet by CS Lewis

The tellers of tales in our own world make us think that if there is any life beyond our own air, it is evil.
When a friend asked me my opinion of CS Lewis recently, I thought--not for the first time--that a review of Lewis's adult works was long overdue for Vintage Novels. Besides the obvious Chronicles of Narnia and Screwtape Letters, Lewis wrote a handful of other fiction and much non-fiction. Of the latter, some of it is apologetic, some of it is popular Christian philosophy, and some of it is scholarly discussion of old literature. Of these the most notable works include The Abolition of Man, his marvellously insightful work on education, and The Discarded Image, an introduction to the medieval worldview and cosmology. I've also found his Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature helpful in grappling with Malory, Spenser, and Tasso. Of the fiction, Till We Have Faces is perhaps the most profound, challenging, and bittersweet thing Lewis ever wrote--so complex and multi-layered that I hesitate to attempt a review. Also written for adults was the Cosmic Trilogy, more often called the Space Trilogy, although Out of the Silent Planet, the first book in the series makes it clear that "Space" would not have been Lewis's preferred term:
If we could even effect in one per cent of our readers a change-over from the conception of Space to the conception of Heaven, we should have made a beginning.
Meet Dr Elwin Ransom, linguist and academic on holiday. At a deserted country house he stumbles across two men, one a renowned physicist and the other a wealthy speculator whom Ransom knows slightly. They drug him.

When he wakes up, he is no longer on Earth. In a spherical space-ship he and his two kidnappers are hurtling towards a planet they refer to only as Malacandra. As Dr Weston explains to Ransom, before the natives of Malacandra will allow the Earthmen to continue exploring the planet, they demand one of them--as a hostage, or a sacrifice, or a meal. And Ransom is it.

Faced with the ghostly, surreal sorns that inhabit the beautiful but weird planet of Malacandra, Ransom flees. Alone, hunted by the only two other humans, on the brink of insanity, Ransom begins his journey into a new and unexpected world.
We did not leave [the Bent One] so at large for long. There was great war, and we drove him back out of the heavens and bound him in the air of his own world as Maleldil taught us. There doubtless he lies to this hour, and we know no more of that planet: it is silent.
Despite how good the book is, it is still the least and the shortest of the Cosmic Trilogy. By this I mean that the characters and the philosophical questions of the book are painted with broad strokes. In this book Lewis was only creating and exploring the characters and the cosmos with which he would go on to do so much in the following books of the trilogy, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength. It is, of course, written in the superb, clear English of which Lewis was a master, and would be a pleasure to read for that alone.

Out of the Silent Planet is science fiction. This is a somewhat difficult genre to describe and define. Let sci-fi author John C Wright explain:
Science fiction is the genre which introduces its sense of the fantastic through wonders made plausible by reference to the scientific world view. In other words, science fiction has a setting, props, or characters of extraterrestrial or futuristic origins rather than magical or supernatural. A yarn set on Mars is science fiction, set in Oz is a fantasy; jetpack is science fiction, flying carpet is fantasy; a monster is fantasy, but a Morlock is science fiction.

Lowgrade science fiction, space opera (my own genre) or sciffy (like STAR WARS) use the props and settings but not the essential feature of the science fiction genre: The essential feature of science fiction is speculation from what is known to be scientifically plausible to what is implausible, to treat the unrealistic element in the tale realistically, so that the reader is taken as if by surprise: “Ah! Well, of course that is what it would be like!” (Link)
Out of the Silent Planet does attempt with some level of seriousness to speculate from the scientifically plausible to the implausible. Thus, what would the vegetation and inhabitants of a planet lighter than Earth look like? A big part of the book is involved in answering this and similar questions. There is much discussion of Malacandrian flora, fauna, geography, climate, culture, and of course--given Lewis's linguistic expertise--language. This, rather than plot or character, is the point of the story, and it is done astonishingly well.

It is not very "hard" sci-fi, having been written by a linguist in 1938. I have just enough scientific knowledge to appreciate the lovely descriptions of the perpendicular world of Malacandra, and enough poetry not to mind the obvious mistakes. John C Wright has a more in-depth review of the book, and is a better judge of the science: he says:
A science fiction writer of ordinary imagination might, as Lewis did, give his [Malacandrians] the great stature, thin legs and wide, birdlike chests to be expected of a world of less than earthly gravity; but it takes a particular cleverness of the science fictional imagination to describe the waves of water as being taller and thinner than Earthly eyes expect, or the dizzying narrowness of hills and mountains, and then to express these unearthly imaginings as hauntingly beautiful despite their strangeness. (Link)
While I can't pretend to evaluate the science in any depth, it doesn't really concern me. Speculative fiction may speculate about science and be proved wrong by tomorrow's new discoveries. But this is not the whole point of Out of the Silent Planet. Because the book does not speculate only, or primarily, about science.

Out of the Silent Planet speculates primarily about what Christian cosmology would mean for the possibility of alien life. Presupposing an omnipotent Creator, a fall of man, and the existence of angels, Lewis asks: if man did have the technology to travel to another planet, and if he found life there, what kind of life would he find? What would be the moral and spiritual nature of these creatures? Would they know God?

And what would be the ramifications of fallen men intruding upon a less-fallen world?

General reservations

Lewis's vision is so original, thought-provoking, and lovely that I hesitate to give any of it away. But although Lewis is one of my six all-time favourite authors I want to be very clear about where he goes wrong. There are three aspects of Lewis's vision that I'm going to take issue with--and these apply generally to the whole trilogy, not just Out of the Silent Planet.

First, Lewis was a child of his age, a theistic evolutionist. In his book The Second Mayflower, Kevin Swanson identifies the publication of Morris and Whitcomb's book The Genesis Flood in 1960, just three years before Lewis's death, as the first drop of what has in our day become a deluge of Christian worldview resources seeking to submit every area of life to the Word of God. Mr Swanson says,
For at least 100 years, there was little fear of God and respect for His Word in the university science classroom. Few professors would acknowledge the Bible as the absolute source of truth or held the fear of God to be the beginning of knowledge in the field of science. Therefore, since the days of higher criticism, the veracity of the Word of God was tested by the higher minds of the enlightened scientists of the nineteenth century. Even the Creation account was interpreted by Christian theologians through the lens of this flawed science that refused to fear God. However, with the publication of The Genesis Flood in 1960, Christians in lab coats set out to interpret science through the lens of God's Word (emphasis in original).
Mr Swanson's account of the state of affairs before 1960 helped me to a much better understanding of, and respect for, CS Lewis and men like him. In an age offering little or no encouragement to the man who wanted to begin his knowledge of the world with the Word of God, Lewis like many others bowed to the prevailing skepticism on matters such as six-day creation and the absolute inerrancy of Scripture.

Despite this, one of the best things in Out of the Silent Planet is Lewis's savagely funny dissection of Darwinism as a worldview. Dr Weston arrives in Malacandra telling the inhabitants that it is his right--nay, his duty--to exterminate them all for the sake of the progress of the human race. Waving coloured plastic beads at the sophisticated and intelligent inhabitants of the planet, Weston also serves as the butt of satire on colonial exploitation. For more Lewisian critique of Darwinism, may I recommend his Evolutionary Hymn which you can listen to in all its satirical glory over at Wordmp3.com.

Second, Lewis's conception of the Christian cosmos draws heavily on medieval, neo-Platonist-flavoured cosmology. I've discussed this in my reviews of Planet Narnia and The City of God. Briefly, the medievals believed that everything below the orbit of the Moon was fallen, but beyond that was not Space but the Heavens: full of light, full of life, full of angels and heavenly beauties. The seven planets--Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn--were each identified with some angelic or divine intelligence.

While this model of the universe was influenced by the neo-Platonists, it need not be identified as unavoidably neo-Platonist in nature. Augustine described and discussed it, finding (as he believed) Scriptural reason to believe it might be true. A better word for medieval cosmology might be, not neo-Platonist, but Augustinian.

Lewis found medieval cosmology unutterably beautiful: he used it as an inspiration for his conception of "Space", or Deep Heaven, in the Cosmic Trilogy and almost certainly also as an aesthetic framework for his Narnia Chronicles. I'm not sure how well it gels with the attempts at serious scientific description in these books. But I think it's a legitimate use, to challenge the Enlightenment materialist cosmology, which sees stars as nothing more than balls of flaming gas, and Space as truly dead and empty of life, reducible only to matter, with no benevolent Providence guiding its every action and reaction. That is something that plagues us far more virulently than a superstitious neo-Platonism. Lewis's trilogy is not meant to be a non-fiction account of the universe as it is, but a thought-provoking suggestion of the universe as it might be given a number of fictional assumptions, such as the presence of life on other planets.

Third and finally, CS Lewis was theologically premillenial, not believing that Satan had been bound at the Cross, nor that the all-powerful ruler of this world is the King Christ. The assumption, with Hal Lindsey, that the Devil is "alive and well on Planet Earth" is a major part of the background to Lewis's trilogy, and the biggest flaw I can point out. It is, however, not a major factor in the action of the stories nor a foundation for the most important lessons these books have to teach.

Why you should read it anyway

All this dealt with, what is left? For one thing, Out of the Silent Planet is the first book of the trilogy, an excellent read in its own right, but an introduction to two far more powerful, imaginative, and profound novels.

For another thing, Out of the Silent Planet was intended, and functions excellently, as a thought-provoking introduction to traditional Christian cosmology. It utterly rejects Enlightenment materialism, which has crippled our scientific and poetic imagination, to say nothing of our theology (as RC Sproul Jr loves to say, "We're Enlightenment geeks!"). It prompts us to think of the cosmos as a living place, full of kindness and swift obedience on the part of spirits and atoms--surely an image closer to Scripture, in which stars sing and flames of fire serve the Lord, than that of our sterile materialist, rationalist, post-Enlightenment modernism. A book to be read and delighted in.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Jerusalem Delivered by Torquato Tasso (trans. Edward Fairfax)

And it's time for the Annual Epic!

 This is something I do each year around this time: dig out a hefty epic poem and use the quiet spot after Christmas to take in some really old-fashioned literature. If you've never dipped into an epic poem, let me take a moment to explain. Before the invention of the novel in the 1700s or thereabouts, "poetry" was more or less synonymous with fiction. Poets, hoping for undying fame, would write some lavish fantasy spanning a gigantic cast of characters, usually mythologising the origin of a country or ruling family. Tasso's 1581 epic Jerusalem Delivered, a poem I'd heard many references to under the author's name without quite knowing what it was about, was something I knew I had to read when I realised it was about Godfrey of Bouillon and the liberation of Jerusalem in the First Crusade. An epic about the Crusades? How could I have missed this?

Reading Tasso I was struck by how similar epic poems are to the modern epic blockbuster movie. Think of the Ridley Scott-style oevre. You have blithe disregard for historical accuracy, unbelievable feats of arms, and completely apocryphal romance subplots, often starring hilariously waiflike action girls who mow down enemies by the score.

Believe it or not, when our forefathers sat down to write blockbuster poems, this was more or less the approach they took, and Tasso is as much fun as the rest of them. You will learn more about the medieval and Renaissance conception of the Crusades from this book than you will learn actual historical details: this is certainly the Hollywood blockbuster version of events. That said, one important distinction can be drawn between poems and films. The poets intended their stories to praise and preserve their cultural legacy. The producers today intend their stories to mock and deride their cultural legacy. Just compare Tasso's Jersualem Delivered, which commemorates the winning of the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, with Ridley Scott's infuriating Kingdom of Heaven, which dances gleefully on its ruins.

Writing an epic gained you membership in a select club of famous authors, so the genre became more and more inbred as time went on: open any Renaissance or Reformation-era epic and tick off the by then must-have tropes, characters, and scenes. Boiardo's Orlando Inamorato influenced Ariosto and his Orlando Furioso, and that in turn influenced Tasso, and all three of those influenced Spenser. This year we're reviewing Tasso, so suffice it to say that he, like everyone else, dutifully strikes all the familiar notes. The first lines of the poem proper, for instance, are a familiar call out to Virgil's Aeneid, which started more tersely with "Arms and the man I sing."
The sacred armies, and the godly knight,
That the great sepulchre of Christ did free,
I sing.
After reading Ariosto and Spenser, reading Tasso feels like slipping into a well-worn, comfortable pair of shoes. It's hardly surprising to stumble across a sequence in the obligatory rescue-the-Christian-champion-from-the-clutches-of-the-beautiful-yet-evil-sorceress scene which was more or less reproduced in Book II of Spenser's Faerie Queene.

Spotting all the references and in-jokes is great fun. I was even reading Jerusalem Delivered in a classic 1609 translation by Edward Fairfax, which rendered the original into Spenserian stanza--a poetic form with many fond memories for me. But it's the things that make Tasso unique that make him particularly enjoyable to read.

Edit, Fri 31 January 2014: Oops!  I assumed the translation is in Spenserian stanza. It's not--it's in the original ottava rima. Someone should revoke my license to read Renaissance poetry...

Plot and Characters

Godfrey of Bouillon, chosen by God and the election of the Christian army to lead the Crusade, marches on Jerusalem. Despite the aid of Heaven, enemies are not lacking: Hell sends help to the Saracens. Champion Rinaldo loses his temper and is expelled from the army; champion Tancred pines for the pagan warrior maiden Clorinda; sorceress Armida effortlessly beguiles and kidnaps a good half of the Christian knights; and while the short attention span of his army inhibits Godfrey's attempts to take Jerusalem, the king of Egypt summons all the armies of Africa and Asia to defend the city. How will they win now?

"I think he said 'Get your knee off my chest', ma'am."
As usual in any epic, there are loads of characters, and while the characters in Greek and Roman epics tend to seem a bit like cardboard cutouts, the characters in Italian-style Renaissance epics are charming, human, and a bit daffy. Special mention goes to the aged Raymond of Toulouse who, though not quite up to the same epic feats of arms as the younger Godfrey, Tancred, or Rinaldo, nevertheless rushes merrily into battle at the drop of a hat, occasionally with near-tragic consequences. Another fun character is the Princess of Antioch, Erminia--taken captive by Tancred at the conquest of that town, she falls madly in love with him and is terribly disappointed when he magnanimously sets her free. When she finds him lying bleeding in the woods, she goes off into a hilariously melodramatic speech:
Her springs of tears she looseth forth, and cries,
"Hither why bring'st thou me, ah, Fortune blind?
Where dead, for whom I lived, my comfort lies,
Where war for peace, travail for rest I find;
Tancred, I have thee, see thee, yet thine eyes
Looked not upon thy love and handmaid kind,
Undo their doors, their lids fast closed sever,
Alas, I find thee for to lose thee ever."
It goes on ad infinitum, and is only cut short when they discover that Tancred is still alive, and his squire makes a suggestion:
Quoth Vafrine, "Cure him first, and then complain."
A friend suggested that Jerusalem Delivered was Stoic in philosophy, and I failed to seize the opportunity to ask how. Certainly there are themes of conflict between love and duty, and characters who succumb to wild emotional excesses are quickly reproved by more practical characters--with an effect similar to that of "Basingstoke!" in Gilbert and Sullivan's Ruddigore. Those of you who've ever wished to reach inside a book to smack a hysterical character will find plenty to love in Jerusalem Delivered--from the comic passage cited above, to the place where Peter the Hermit rebukes a knight for excess emotion, in wonderfully scorching terms:
Oh wretch! Oh whither doth thy rage thee chase?
Refrain thy grief, bridle thy fond desire,
At hell's wide gate vain sorrow doth thee place.
Two characters take pride of place in this epic: Godfrey, the leader of the Christian army, and Rinaldo, its mightiest knight. Edmund Spenser points out, in his introductory letter to Sir Walter Raleigh on The Faerie Queene, that Tasso used Godfrey to depict the public virtues, and Rinaldo as an example of the private virtues.

Spenser's own Faerie Queene works through six of twelve private virtues--in his list, Holiness, Temperance, Chastity, Friendship, Justice, Courtesy, and Constancy. Tasso is delightful, but in one short epic poem he spends little time developing any of these through Rinaldo. Like Ariosto's Ruggiero and Spenser's Redcrosse, Rinaldo is kidnapped and enchanted by a villainous witch. Like Redcrosse, though not like Ruggiero, Rinaldo is called to repentance upon being rescued--and it's delightfully unique to Tasso that the witch is a three-dimensional character who genuinely loves her victim, and gets a very unusual ending to her story, which I'd hate to spoil. Unlike Spenser, too, the episode is treated with relative levity. Redcrosse's interlude with Duessa is life-threatening, horrifying, and tragic. Rinaldo's with Armida is little more than a hiccup in his career.

No: read Tasso for Godfrey. What a man! Godfrey is all hero: wise, temperate, just, and devout. Here he explains the Crusaders' purpose in travelling to the Holy Land:

"But not for this our homes we first forsook,
And from our native soil have marched so far:
Nor us to dangerous seas have we betook,
Exposed to hazard of so far sought war,
Of glory vain to gain an idle smook,
And lands possess that wild and barbarous are:
That for our conquests were too mean a prey,
To shed our bloods, to work our souls' decay.


"But this the scope was of our former thought,—
Of Sion's fort to scale the noble wall,
The Christian folk from bondage to have brought,
Wherein, alas, they long have lived thrall,
In Palestine an empire to have wrought,
Where godliness might reign perpetual,
And none be left, that pilgrims might denay
To see Christ's tomb, and promised vows to pay."

Don't ask me what a smook is; I'm not sure if it's a typo or not--my Project Gutenberg ebook was riddled with them, and I'm not just talking about the cute Elizabethan spelling. But you get the idea. In the same speech Godfrey goes on to say that they didn't come simply to conquer territory, but to raise a kingdom--a more glorious effort, he says, for the fact that whatever the Crusaders build here, surrounded by enemies, is most likely to end up being their tomb.

"Turks, Persians conquered, Antiochia won,
Be glorious acts, and full of glorious praise,
By Heaven's mere grace, not by our prowess done:
Those conquests were achieved by wondrous ways,
If now from that directed course we run
The God of Battles thus before us lays,
His loving kindness shall we lose, I doubt,
And be a byword to the lands about.

Godfrey is, in brief, wonderful. He gets up early every morning "for praise and virtue lie/In toil and travel, sin and shame in bed." He vows to assault Jerusalem, not from a safe distance in heavy armour as a commander, but lightly armoured as a foot soldier with the rest of his men. He withstands Armida's seductions easily because he has "fulness of delight" in virtue. He's a man of constant prayer. And in leading and commanding the men who have voluntarily put themselves under his rule, he explains his vision:

"But be mine empire, as it ought of right,
Sweet, easy, pleasant, gentle, meek and light."

There is a wonderful parallel here to Matthew 11:30. But there is more to this passage than that. When was the last time your rulers stated that government should be light, let alone all those other words? If Christ's yoke is easy, and His burden is light, but He claims pre-eminent status as king above all earthly rulers, then what right have our rulers to impose any harder yokes and heavier burdens upon us than our King Christ? Godfrey's refusal to extend his power beyond its just limits is an important element of his depiction of the ideal ruler--and a troubling indictment of governments throughout history.

Themes

CS Lewis once described the Jerusalem Delivered with the adjective "edifying". The perfect word, as you'll agree if you've stayed with me this far. It is so extremely edifying, in fact, that dissonance arises between the edifying bits and the blockbuster-adventure bits. One minute, we are deep in lofty ideals of kingship. The next, we are reading about the warrior maiden Clorinda hacking off arms and limbs, while Tancred, who has not exchanged two words with her, pines with ardour. There's something fundamentally ridiculous about this, which occasionally jars with the really good parts--although the dissonance does add substantially to the fun of the thing!

Another of Tasso's themes could be summarised as "Lady Knights in battle: Reality Ensues"
The Jerusalem Delivered was a pleasant surprise in a lot of ways, and the heights of edification which it reaches is one. My previous experience of Italian Renaissance epic poetry, Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, had me prepared for shallowness and bawdy passages to skip. As well as clocking in at half the length, Tasso's poem is far more theologically correct, far more edifying, and much more pleasant to read. CS Lewis mentions that the Jerusalem Delivered was a product of the Counter-Reformation in much the same way that The Faerie Queene was a product of the Reformation. Spenser is better, of course--richer in symbolism, simply a better artist. But it's helpful for us Protestants to remember that the Counter-Reformation also brought much-needed correction to the Roman church. Where Ariosto's poem is frivolous and lascivious, the Jerusalem Delivered is earnest, practical, and God-fearing. Self-control is a major theme, and the poem is imbued with Scripture: many passages seem more or less paraphrased, as for example: "so reaps/He that sows godly sorrow, joy by heaps."

In an essay in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, Lewis points out one interesting aspect of the Jerusalem Delivered's structure. At the time in which Tasso and Spenser wrote, Humanists argued that a story should show "unity"--there should be one major plot dominated by one major hero whose efforts secured victory. This approach scorned the earlier medieval model, in which a story sprawled across multiple plots and characters, picking up the thread of one adventure for a while before dropping it in favour of another. Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur is an excellent example. Spenser's Faerie Queene is another; critics said he should have stuck with just one hero, and his Prince Arthur--who appears in all the Books of the Faerie Queene--is a possible placating gesture to the Humanists. Tasso, like Spenser, stops short of an absolute unity in his plot; but he goes further than Spenser did, in reducing his story to just two heroes with a large supporting cast.

I mention this partly as an example of how art is influenced by philosophy, and how we inherit modes of storytelling that cause us to take for granted a story structure which we have inherited from thinkers we may not necessarily agree with. Who said that a story must follow a single plot concerning a single character, to which supporting characters and subplots are subordinated? Joseph Campbell, of course, has popularised his "Hero's Journey", which I consider a cheap New-Age imitation of Tolkien's story theory of mythopoeia--and everyone considers that to be the last word on how stories are made. It's a shame that more folks don't read older, pre-Renaissance storytelling for a broader perspective.

It would be interesting to do some deeper reading on the Stoic philosophy--or otherwise--behind the Jerusalem Delivered. But if the poem seems to have one unified theme, it might be this:
O happy zeal! who trusts in help divine
The world's afflictions thus can drive away,
Can storms appease, and times and seasons change,
And conquer fortune, fate, and destiny strange.

Translation

Wikipedia tells me that Edward Fairfax's translation of the Jerusalem Delivered "is considered a masterpiece, one of the comparatively few translations which in themselves are literature." I certainly enjoyed it, though it would be interesting to get a copy of Anthony Esolen's translation one day. Fairfax, like all the Elizabethans, can turn a phrase neatly, and I relished phrases like "carpet knight" and "sleeveless errands", which even taken out of context should explain themselves. What Fairfax can't do is ottava rima--at least not strictly by the rules. He translates with a blind and endearing disregard for the rules of spelling and grammar. Even by Elizabethan standards, he's pretty lax--transmuting, for one small instance, the word "defiled" to "defoiled" for the mere purpose of rhyming it with "spoiled"!

Other Neat Things

As I mentioned, Tasso occasionally reminds me of a Hollywood action movie. There's one very funny Indiana Jones-style passage where a terrifying enchanter emerges in menacing slo-mo onto the scene of battle flanked by two lackeys, begins calling up Hell, and is immediately squashed by a passing boulder hurled from a catapult. And then there's one scene where a Christian spying out the Egyptian camp oozes up to one of the local damsels whispering sweet nothings in an attempt to get information--spy fiction hasn't changed much in 500 years, it seems!

I also enjoyed one fascinating aside: two knights, being conveyed by a damsel across the Atlantic to rescue Rinaldo from Armida's clutches, hear of an undiscovered land far beyond the ocean:
"But will our gracious God," the knight replied,
"That with his blood all sinful men hath bought,
His truth forever and his gospel hide
From all those lands, as yet unknown, unsought?"
"Oh no," quoth she, "his name both far and wide
Shall there be known."
Who will discover these lands and open them to the Gospel? Columbus, of course. Interestingly, this was indeed one of Columbus's main motivations in crossing the Atlantic, though his intentions were to reach the East Indies, which he believed were much closer. Ultimately Columbus meant to evangelise Asia and open up a second front in the war on Islam, attacking in the East. George Grant's book on Columbus is titled, fittingly, The Last Crusader. I wonder if Tasso knew of Columbus's vision, and included him in this story of the First Crusade for that reason.

Another aside defended Tasso's use of fun epic poetry to teach doctrine--with the same reasoning used by Spenser and Bunyan, for just two examples.
O heavenly Muse, that not with fading bays
Deckest thy brow by the Heliconian spring,
But sittest crowned with stars' immortal rays
In Heaven, where legions of bright angels sing;
Inspire life in my wit, my thoughts upraise,
My verse ennoble, and forgive the thing,
If fictions light I mix with truth divine,
And fill these lines with other praise than thine.

Thither thou know'st the world is best inclined
Where luring Parnass most his sweet imparts,
And truth conveyed in verse of gentle kind
To read perhaps will move the dullest hearts.
Note, too, the identification of Tasso's Muse: he explicitly invokes the Holy Spirit to inspire his verse, not the nine sisters of Greek myth. I'd heard before that Christian artists of this period believed the Holy Spirit inspired their work in a Muse-like fashion, and this was fascinating confirmation of that claim.

To conclude, I enjoyed the Jerusalem Delivered a great deal. It's shorter than Ariosto or Spenser, full of edifying fun, with lots of historical insight. Highly recommended.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Bible, Authorised Version

I'm looking for a new Bible, and I'm not finding it easy! I've now scoured the second-hand stores, op shops, and antique sellers of two towns looking for exactly the kind I want, with no success. I only want a nice, durable, no-frills Authorised (a.k.a. King James) Version. I've already got a great study Bible--the New King James version Reformation Study Bible, which comes packed with-footnotes, cross-references, doctrinal notes on Baptism and Justification, and so on. It's lovely. But I want something I can scribble on. (My last AV, a scuffed hardback held together with duct tape, was sadly mislaid somewhere in Tennessee!)

The Authorised Version I'm looking for is the great English-language Bible translation, commissioned by James I and completed in 1611. With deep roots in Tyndale's 1525 translation, and still extremely influential today when it comes to new translations, the AV Bible may be one of the most influential books in history.

While I'm looking for another copy, I thought I should say a few words about why, exactly, I use the Authorised Version.

Textual Reasons

One of the biggest questions about choice of Bible translations has to do with which manuscript tradition is used. Currently there are two major manuscript types used in the translation of Scripture. The Textus Receptus of the New Testament, proponents claim, is the one which the church used until quite recently, being based upon a collection of ancient Byzantine manuscripts. On the other hand, the Modern Critical Text has been formulated with the help of a collection of Alexandrian manuscripts, more recently discovered, which contain a number of variations from the Byzantine manuscripts.

I won't get into all the ins and outs of the Textus Receptus versus Modern Critical Text debate--to begin with, I know so little. The salient facts are that the Receptus is what the Authorised Version is based upon, while the MCT has been used in more recent translations such as the English Standard Version and the New International Version. There is much debate over which text is preferable, and what use if any should be made of the more recently discovered manuscript families.

The position I'm most sympathetic towards prefers the Textus Receptus. This view takes the doctrine of the providential preservation of Scripture--that the Lord will preserve His word through all ages of the world, guarding it and making it available to his Church--to rule out the use of manuscript traditions that have not been widely available to the Church throughout her history. For two arguments in favour of this position, take a look at William Einwechter's English Bible Translations, downloadable as a .pdf, or Douglas Wilson's short discussion on CanonWired.

Another reason for the AV is that that I prefer the Authorised Verson's translation philosophy, "formal equivalence", which aims at a more equivalent word-for-word translation than the translation philosophy of the NIV, the Message, and others, known as "dynamic equivalence". The easy way to explain the differences between these two different philosophies is that formal equivalence will seek words in English that directly translate the original Greek or Hebrew words, while the dynamic equivalence approach will prefer to translate the overall sense behind the text. Of course, if you have studied languages, you'll know that in practice, the exercise of translation usually falls somewhere on a sliding scale between formal-equivalence word-for-word translation and dynamic equivalence sense-for-sense translation. However, there remains a difference in translation philosophy between the "formal equivalence" Authorised Version, English Standard Version, and so on as opposed to the "dynamic equivalence" New International Version, Living Bible, etc. Given the difference, I prefer a translation which takes the formal equivalence approach.

The Authorised Version, therefore, is one of the few available translations that uses both the Textus Receptus and a formal equivalence translation approach. That's one of the reasons I tend to prefer it, though as I've mentioned above, I know very little about the subject.

Cultural Reasons

For me, the clincher is that no matter what your opinions are on textual criticism and translation philosophy, the Authorised Version, first, is the richest and most aesthetically beautiful translation available in English, and second, has had an immense impact on our culture and literature.

This is important to me as a writer. To write well, I need to read good writing. Translated at the high-water-mark of English literature, in the age of Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton, the AV sings like no other translation. It is, in itself, a work of art.

This is important to me theologically, as well. Beauty is an aspect of God's character. No translation that clunks and groans is going to properly communicate the Lord's truth.

Culturally, the AV is the Bible of English literature. Like Shakespeare, it coined words and expressions that have found their way into everyday speech. We owe words like "peacemaker" and "long-suffering" to the AV, as well as phrases like "salt of the earth", "feet of clay" and "apple of his eye", and proverbs like "Physician, heal thyself". It's been said of the AV, as of Shakespeare, that no English-speaker can call himself educated until he has read and become familiar with it.

A few years ago, I realised that having grown up on the New King James Version and attended many churches that used the New International Version, I was nowhere near as familiar with the AV as I should be. That's why I've used up one Authorised Version already and am looking for another.

Wouldn't trust him as far as I can kick him.
AV Only?

I do think the AV is preferable given the competition, but I don't think it's the only possible choice. Besides its unsavoury connections to James I, the AV has one significant drawback: its English is no longer up to date.

This is partly a good thing. Since the AV, we've lost many useful words and concepts. The AV can help us recover an understanding of these, if we're willing to learn. However, languages develop over time and it may not be much longer before our language has morphed to the next stage, and the AV becomes largely unintelligible to the common man. This has already happened once before: St Jerome's Vulgate, once written in the common language of Western Europe, was enforced as the only acceptable translation long after Latin had transformed into local languages such as French, Italian, and Spanish.

In conclusion

I enjoy reading the AV--who doesn't love phrases like "superfluity of naughtiness" (James 1:21) or the casual references to men, for example in 2 Kings 9:8, as "him that pisseth against the wall"--which the NIV so coyly renders as "every last male"? Or, from the ridiculous to the sublime--and no one could flit between the two as quickly as the Elizabethans and Jacobeans--the glorious lyricism of the prophets. "Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?" "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts." "A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh." "And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever."

Naturally, if you haven't read the Bible, you should read it--in any competent translation. But do spare a thought for the AV--both the Word of God and a stunning human artistic achievement.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Children's Picture Books

Let's talk about picture books! A few months ago, two friends asked me if I could recommend any good picture books for children. They explained that it seemed many picture books today are either badly written, badly drawn, or both. I sat down and soon came up with this quick list--missing many classics, no doubt, but containing all our favourites, and some others I've heard recommended:

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Best of 2013

Well, another year has passed with the usual speed of lightning, and it's time to look back and sum up the Year in Books--something I look forward to doing each year.

Numbers are down a bit this year: over three very busy months in Tennessee, I read a grand total of four books! I did get through 71 books, though, down from 89 in 2012.

LinkWithin

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...