Monday, August 31, 2015

The Lord of the Rings and Plot Structure, Part 2

So, last week I explained how I mapped KM Weiland's 3-act plot structure onto the plot of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings with some interesting results. This week I want to look at what I learned through mapping the same plot structure onto each of the 6 smaller books into which LOTR is divided. Again, before I start, a disclaimer: some of this may be all wrong, since I am working from memory, and haven't actually read the novel in a number of years, so that some of it is fuzzy in my mind. That said, here are my diagrams: (Spoiler warnings apply!)

Book 1:

Hook: Bilbo is eleventy-one! But he feels "scraped thin."
    First Act: Frodo learns about the power of the Ring and decides to leave the Shire.
        First Plot Point: Frodo leaves the Shire?
            Second Act A: The Old Forest, Tom Bombadil and the Barrow-Downs
--                   Midpoint: Meeting with Strider?
            Second Act B: The journey to Weathertop
        Third Plot Point: Frodo is stabbed by a Ringwraith on Weathertop
    Climax: The confrontation at the Ford
Resolution/impetus into next book: The Council of Elrond: Frodo is appointed Ringbearer. (Strictly speaking, this comes at the beginning of Book 2, but Book 1 finishes on a cliffhanger

Book 2:

Hook: The Fellowship is setting off with a duty laid upon them
    First Act/: Travel south and attempt on Caradhras
        First Plot Point: Decision to travel by Moria
            Second Act A: Epicness in Moria
--                   Midpoint: Gandalf falls
            Second Act B: Idyll in Lorien
        Third Plot Point: Starting down the River Anduin
    Climax: Boromir falls
Resolution/impetus into next book: Merry and Pippin taken captive; Frodo and Sam set off alone

Book 3:

Hook: The hobbits have been captured! But first, a funeral.
    First Act: Journeying through Rohan
        First Plot Point: Gandalf's back!
            Second Act A: Edoras/Fangorn
--                   Midpoint: Theoden is awoken/March of the Ents?
            Second Act B: Helm's Deep
        Third Plot Point: Gandalf's back again! Victory at Helm's Deep!
    Climax: Confrontation with Saruman at Isengard
Resolution/impetus into next book: Pippin looks into the Palantir and sees Mordor move against Minas Tirith.

Book 4:

Hook: Gollum's back!
    First Act: Frodo and Sam travel to Mordor
        First Plot Point: The Black Gate Is Shut
            Second Act A: Journey through Ithilien
--                   Midpoint: Faramir rejects the Ring
            Second Act B: Journey to Cirith Ungol
        Third Plot Point: Gollum almost-but-doesn't repent
    Climax: Shelob's Lair
Resolution/impetus into next book: Frodo is alive but taken by the Enemy.

Book 5:

    First Act: Gandalf and Pippin travel to Minas Tirith and meet with Denethor.
        First Plot Point: Aragorn takes the Paths of the Dead
            Second Act A: The siege of Minas Tirith
--                   Midpoint: PELENNOR FIELDS
            Second Act B: The Houses of Healing
        Third Plot Point: Aragorn determines to go to the Black Gate
    Climax: The Black Gate Opens
Resolution/impetus into next book: The Eagles are coming!

Book 6:

Hook: Frodo's captive!
    First Act: "...there's a big Elf or hero running around..."
        First Plot Point: Rescue of Frodo
            Second Act A: Struggle through Mordor
--                   Midpoint: MOUNT DOOM
            Second Act B: Resolution in Gondor and Rohan
        Third Plot Point: The hobbits return a lot of orc-rules and nothing to smoke or drink.
    Climax: The Scouring of the Shire and the death of Saruman
Resolution: "I will not say, Do not weep..." *everyone bursts into tears*

Again, I'm not positive I have everything mapped out correctly here. However, the first thing that struck me about these smaller "micro-plot" structures is how differently they're structured to how I expected. True, each of them begins with a slow build to a more thrilling later section. Each of them, except for the last, ends on a progressively more exciting cliffhanger. But here's the thing that stunned me:

The real climax of each Book does NOT occur in Act 3.

But wait! Didn't I specifically label part of each third act - the Scouring of the Shire, for instance, or Shelob's Lair - as a climax? Well, yeah. I'm just mapping 3-act structure onto what Tolkien's got. But what Tolkien's got here doesn't match up perfectly with what KM Weiland's got. If you define a story's climax as the most thrilling, gripping, and memorable segment of a plot - a classic setpiece, like the journey through Moria, or the Battle of the Pelennor Fields - then the truth is that with few exceptions, the climax of each of Tolkien's micro-plots occurs squarely at the midpoint of each Book.

Ooohh, I thought. Now where have I seen that before?

And it struck me: this is five-act structure.

And I began to get excited, because I'd never before been really sure how five-act structure was meant to work. And now suddenly it was happening before my eyes.

Three-act structure is the structure we're most familiar with these days. To recap, reduced to its most simple components, the first act of a three-act structure sets the scene, introduces the characters, and defines the conflict that they will have to overcome for the rest of the book. The second act, taking up roughly 50% of the runtime or wordcount, introduces plot complications which the characters must overcome as they work toward a resolution of the conflict. This second act usually sets up a catastrophic reverse (if the story is meant to end happily) or a victory (if the story is meant to end sadly). Last, the third act showcases a final climactic struggle and a brief resolution.

KM Weiland's three-act structure is a somewhat fleshed-out version of this. But I'd also heard  of five-act structure. I knew Shakespeare used it. I had an inkling it was a somewhat more classical approach (it was based on Roman playwrights like Seneca), so I immediately suspected Tolkien was using it here.

Five-act structure is enjoying a bit of a resurgence right now, especially championed by internet pundits who think it represents a revolutionary new/old approach to plotting, but I'm not so convinced. Five-act structure actually maps pretty well on top of three-act structure. The five acts of this structure are commonly labelled Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution, as you see in the diagram above. Exposition corresponds to the First Act of three-act structure; Resolution or Denouement corresponds to the Third Act; and the other three--Rising Action, Climax, and Falling Action--all describe stages of the Second Act, with the Climax mapping onto the Midpoint.

So if five-act structure and three-act structure are simply different ways of describing the same thing, what's the difference? Well...I think there can be a difference of emphasis. If you think in terms of three-act structure, I think you'll wind up expecting to save all your thunder for the third act. Say you have a climactic battle to include in your story, in three-act structure you'll tend to postpone it till the third act. Whereas if you think in terms of five-act structure, the natural place to slot it in will be at the midpoint, and you won't stay up late at night  trying to come up with some even more climactic final confrontation. In practical terms, five-act structure means that I no longer have to fit an epic battle scene into the last act, the last 25% of the plot, and then somehow provide a satisfying denouement on top of that. Instead, like Tolkien, I can showcase the battle at the centre and then spend the rest of the plot tying up loose ends, dealing with fallout, fleshing out the resolution, and so on. A final climactic scene - technically known as the Catastrophe - or an ultimate resolution of the conflict, such as the Scouring of the Shire, or the deaths at the end of a Shakespeare tragedy, may occur, but the writer is freed from the obligation of saving the very best for last.

One reason five-act structure is such a benefit in LOTR is that it enables Tolkien to spend plenty of time working through falling action. In Book 3, for instance, the climactic Battle of Helm's Deep occurs, as usual, at the midpoint of the Book. Obviously, before our heroes can rush off to war in Gondor in their next instalment, they're going to have to take some time to consolidate their victory, including travelling to Isengard, confronting Saruman, and collecting the hobbits say nothing of sitting down to have a pipe and a chat with the hobbits in the ruins of Isengard. Basically, there are a lot of loose ends to tie up before the plot can move ahead, and five-act structure gives this all the time it needs.

But what would this plot look like in the hands of a storyteller wedded to three-act structure? The answer is pretty simple actually - you just have to watch the Peter Jackson movie version of the same book. Because audiences don't expect the climactic battle to finish a bit over halfway through, Jackson pruned Tolkien's five acts into three for The Two Towers, padding the storyline leading up to Helm's Deep and cutting much of the Isengard material after. The result works just fine and is among the least of Jackson's cinematic sins, but it does mean that Saruman's storyline is barely resolved.

Now oddly enough, although the micro-plots of LOTR seem to fit best into a five-act structure, the macro-plot itself fits more naturally into what I'd call a three-act structure. The midpoint of the macro-plot, the Breaking of the Fellowship, is neither a set-piece nor a turning-point on the same scale as the Mount Doom chapter. Definitely the climax occurs near the end. This makes sense - in a book this long, you need to save the most compelling thing for last. Five-act structure, on the other hand, is a terrific way to structure the smaller internal plots which make up the plot elements of the bigger story.

So that's how The Lord of the Rings combines three-act and five-act structure to build tension in steady waves to its thrilling finish. It's a wonderfully elegant structure, for all its complexity, and having picked apart why it works, I feel excited and confident about using what I've learned on my own project!

Disclaimer: I have not, by a long shot, explained everything there is to know about five-act plotting in this short post. After having my interest whetted through analysing the LOTR microplots, I actually sat down and spent a whole day analysing four Shakespeare plays and trying to figure out how he used five-act plotting. Not only was it a fair bit different to how Tolkien used it, I discovered all sorts of fascinating nuances. Perhaps another blog series is warranted...!

Friday, August 28, 2015

From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple

Today I'm once more failing to review a vintage novel, but there's no way I can let this book go without saying something about it. I stumbled across William Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain a couple of months back on the bookshelves of my grandparents, who have really good taste in reading matter, obviously.

From the Holy Mountain is travel non-fiction, and I've never read travel non-fiction before in my life. Still, it's about the author's trip through the Levant--Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt--on the trail of a sixth-century monk, John Moschos, who himself wrote a popular account of his own travels among the hermits and mystics of the Christian, pre-Islamic Middle East in the Byzantine classic The Spiritual Meadow. And since Byzantium and the Levant have been my imaginative home for much of the last year, I was keen to acquaint myself with details of geography, climate, and vegetation.

Was I in for a surprise!

Sure, From the Holy Mountain contains plenty of those details. I expected olive groves and ancient cities, but this book takes you on a journey through a Middle East I'd never imagined existed. From the mountains of Anatolia to the green valleys of Lebanon, from the dead cities of Syria to the stark expanses of the Sahara, from shiny Israeli malls to ancient cliff-built monasteries in the Judaean wilderness, this book will amaze and delight you with the sheer richness and diversity of the Levantine landscape.

I expected wit and humour, but to my surprise, Dalrymple kept me chuckling aloud as he meets a host of picturesque characters, from Syrian taxi drivers and Lebanese warlords to crusty Greek Orthodox monks.
What was I, Orthodox or heretic?
"I'm a Catholic," I replied.
"My God," said the monk. "I'm so sorry."
I expected a scholarly familiarity with the region's history, but Dalrymple is formidably learned, and his vast, wide-ranging knowledge enriches the whole thing considerably. You only have to glance at his bibliography to get a whole course of Middle Eastern Studies going. Perhaps the most fascinating theory Dalrymple advances is the influence of Byzantine art on early Celtic Christian art, of all things.

I expected to be shown around some Byzantine ruins and some ancient monasteries still hosting dwindling monastic brethren, but I never expected to find the history of the past so vibrant and so present. In a Judaean monastery, Dalrymple asks when a massacre of the monks by the Persians happened, and is told, "Not long ago...Around 614 AD." In a remote Lebanese valley, he discovers an honest-to-goodness hermit. In a monastery on Mount Athos, he sees a silk coat woven with dragons and phoenixes hanging in the library:
"What is that?" I whispered.
"It's John Tzimiskes's coat."
"The Emperor John Tzimiskes? But he lived in the tenth century."
Christophoros shrugged his shoulders.
"You can't just leave something like that hanging up there," I said.
"Well," said Christophoros irritably, "where else would you put it?"
I expected to be introduced to some of the religious topography of the region, but I never expected such a quirky, fascinating mixture--for example, the Syrian convent of Saidnaya, where we hear of Muslims coming to pay their respects to the the Virgin Mary, even to sacrifice goats to her. Dalrymple, though a professing Catholic, seems a fairly standard modernist humanist skeptic, and he takes every opportunity to skewer the locals' more unsophisticated beliefs in miracles, saints, ghosts or djinn. He also provides some fascinating details on elements of early Christian practice which were co-opted by Islam. While I can't draw the same conclusions Dalrymple does (ie, Islam is so closely related to Christianity that the religions ought to be able to get on better...), he depicts a side both to Christianity and to Islam which is rarely presented and highly valuable.

Before I finish, I want to highlight a couple of the things that struck me most in this book.

In which I express some unpopular views

First, there was Dalrymple's treatment of Israel. This is a tricky one, and I don't want to offend people here, so let me begin by saying that like most modern-day evangelical Christians, I've grown up in a very pro-Israel environment. In fact my mother spent several months living on an Israeli kibbutz in the early 80s, where she fell in love with Israeli culture, and has been pretty vocal in support of the country ever since. Meanwhile, I'd always sort of accepted at face value the view current in evangelical Christendom that the Jews have a special right to the Land, based on the fact that the Lord did give it to Abraham's descendants at the beginning of recorded history. And who else wants it, anyway? ISIS and the PLO and thugs of that ilk?

But then I began studying the history in a bit more depth. I think the first really confronting moment came when I read a contemporary Christian romance novel set during the Third Crusade. In that book, the author seemed to argue quite passionately that the reason the Crusades were so wrong was that they aimed to make Palestine a Christian place when the Lord gave it to the Jews. Suddenly, I couldn't agree with her. I knew the Crusader view was that Christ had been crowned with thorns in Jerusalem and was therefore its very literal sovereign. And to be quite honest, I think their theology on this point was far sounder than that contemporary novelist's. Palestine, like every other place in the world, belongs to Christ, the true heir of David, the real son of Abraham, and to no one else.

The hillside monastery of Mar Saba
All very nice and theoretical. But then I read From the Holy Mountain, and suddenly it's not theoretical anymore. Suddenly Dalrymple is introducing me to Armenian Christians who have lived in Jerusalem for thousands of years but are now finally being bullied into leaving by Jewish antipathy and discrimination; to Palestinian Christian refugees who lost their ancestral homes in the upheavals of Jewish settlement and are now trapped in refugee camps in Lebanon; to Christian villages in the West Bank being exploited by the occupying forces; to ancient Christian shrines and churches being neglected or even vandalised; to lonely hermits murdered in the hills by extremist Jews. Dalrymple is frankly indignant (but not irate) about this in his book, and it was catching. Sure, I know the Jews have been treated badly for much of their history, and I'm sympathetic to their need for their own sovereign state where they can have the chance to defend themselves, but where do they get off, treating the church like that? Why have I never before heard of the plight of Christians in Israel? Why is the Western church praying for and supporting and sending money to Israel when the true people of Christ are being oppressed like this? It seems flatly impossible to me that Christ could have a covenant people who deny His authority and persecute Him in His Church.

OK. I am calm again :).

The other amazing thing in this book was the incredible tale of the World War I resistance of the hill fortress of Ein Wardo in Turkey. During the Armenian genocides of the 1910s at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, a group of Greek Christians in the eastern mountains of Anatolia realised that they would be the next to be killed. Unlike many others, they determined to resist. They fortified a tiny village high in the mountains, reinforcing its walls. The village of Ein Wardo had actually already been prepared for such an eventuality: because Christians were not permitted to build defensive structures, they had built a church in that village which was capable of functioning as a citadel! When the Ottomans and Kurds attacked, the local Christians--perhaps as many as 3,000 families--retreated to Ein Wardo. The imperial army--modern, well-equipped, well-fed--settled down to besiege the tiny fortress. The Christians were outnumbered and outgunned. After six centuries living under Islamic rule, they had no realistic hope of help or reinforcements from other villages or from Western powers. For the next three years, they held off the Turks and starved. Finally, in 1918 the Ottomans realised they would never take the village, and negotiated a peace. The Christians were free to return to their homes. Eighty years later, after hearing the story from one of the last survivors of the siege, Dalrymple pays a visit to the fortress church at Ein Wardo and notices that someone has been at work repairing the walls...

Of course I loved this story. What an amazing example of the power of faith and hope. Even in the darkest possible situation, by the grace of God, these people snatched life from the jaws of death. This kind of story always warms the cockles of my little postmillenial heart. Ordinary people can change the world for the better, because God is on their side. Things may look bad, but anyone who reads the right kind of story knows that cliffhangers are part of the fun.


That aside, this book was spectacular, a tour of some of the oldest and yet some of the most overlooked and lonely Christian communities in the world, with all their quirks, with all their hardships, with all their courage, with all their staggering treasure-hoard of living history. Very highly recommended.

Find From the Holy Mountain on Amazon or The Book Depository.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Lord of the Rings and Plot Structure, Part 1

It's time for another writing update! So, I've dropped hints about being in the planning stage for a new full-length novel...which is going to be a Doorstopper, a Tome, an Epic. I've been feeling absolutely dwarfed by the challenge of plotting the thing. So of course, I did what I do best.

I decided to shamelessly pirate someone else's work.

I took Tolkien's Lord of the Rings as my model, of course, as being the closest plot structure to what I had in mind. I crunched it through the three-act plot structure KM Weiland uses and teaches...and what I discovered blew my mind.

It also solved all my plotting woes.

The Doorstopper project is something I've been working on fairly intensely since the beginning of July. It's an ambitious project, I know:

- It's going to cover a 200-year timespan.
- It's going to feature three plots woven together.
- It's going to be heavily woven into real-world history which must all be researched and evaluated.
- I anticipate it running to around 300,000-400,000 words.

Part of the problem with working with something of this scope is the sheer amount of choices that must be made. I like having my options limited; now suddenly I could go in any one of a thousand directions. How to use this wealth of raw material to structure three compelling plots, then weave them into one overarching plot?

I began researching plot structure, desperate for ideas. Though I commonly try to avoid writing advice, I read KM Weiland's Plot Structure blog series, in which she sets up story structure like this:
    First Act
------First Plot Point----------------25%
            Second Act A
            Second Act B
------Third Plot Point----------------75%          
According to this, a plot is structured in three acts, of which the first lasts for approximately 25% of the wordcount. A plot point, defined as an irrevocable turning-point, then leads into the second act, which runs for approximately 50% of the book and features another plot point midway through. After this, a final plot point leads into a climactic third act, finishing with a resolution.

At first, this scheme only confused me. If a Midpoint is supposed to happen in each of my three plotlines, how do I deliver three Midpoints in the middle of my novel? One right after another? Wouldn't that upset the pacing of the novel? Or do I space them out? Is it OK if a midpoint occurs significantly earlier or significantly later than the 50% mark?

Finally I read a blog post from a different author suggesting that novelists wanting to tackle complex plots should start out by analysing the plot of a book which does something similar to their own project. Unfortunately, I haven't read a lot of multi-stranded megabooks. So I decided to analyse The Lord of the Rings, as being the closest thing to what I had in mind. Today I'm going to focus on the overall plot of the book.

Spoilers ahead! If you haven't already read the book, what are you waiting for?

(Note: I'm doing all this from memory, and I haven't read the book for about 9 years. So I might have broken this down wrong. Would love to hear other plotters' thoughts on this!)

Hook: The Shadow of the Past: Bilbo's Ring is the Dark Lord's. And he wants it back.
    First Act: Book 1: The journey to Rivendell.
        First Plot Point: "I will take the Ring to Mordor, though I do not know the way."
            Second Act A: Book 2: The journey down the Anduin.
                   Midpoint: The Breaking of the Fellowship
            Second Act B: Book 3: War against Isengard/Book 4: Journey to Cirith Ungol.  
        Third Plot Point: Sauron besieges Minas Tirith/Frodo and Sam enter Mordor
    Climax: The Black Gate Opens/Mount Doom
Resolution: The Field of Cormallen ff.

The first thing that blew me away about LOTR's plot structure was the fact that the midpoint of the plot actually occurs not in the middle of The Two Towers, where we'd expect it, but at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, just over a third of the way into the wordcount. Now Tolkien does give us a major plot point at the midway point: Sauron marches on Gondor, as revealed when Pippin looks into the palantir after the fall of Isengard. However, though the invasion has a huge impact on the plot, it primarily affects the Gandalf/Aragorn plotline in Rohan and Gondor. While it makes Frodo and Sam's mission more urgent, it doesn't complicate that mission. The true Midpoint, the big game-changer, the irrevocable moment, happens when the Fellowship breaks. Even Gandalf comes back from the dead, but the Fellowship never gets unbroken.

So why does the Midpoint occur so early on? Well, after the Midpoint, we have two plotlines to follow. When taken in isolation, each plotline balances out the first "half" of the book. Naturally, it takes twice as long to follow both plots. And Tolkien feels no obligation to condense the parallel second halves of his plot to match the first half.

Nor does he feel the obligation to switch back and forth between viewpoints with every chapter, or even every other chapter. Instead, Tolkien alternates between plotlines in much bigger chunks, spending a Book on one, then a Book on the other. In addition, he makes sure to give each of his Books a plot structure of its own. Telling the story in alternating Books rather than alternating chapters allows those plot structures to emerge, and provides a very natural rising and falling rhythm throughout the book. Most writers today, even of very big books, try to eliminate quiet spots in the narrative by switching viewpoints every chapter or so. However, a big part of LOTR's epic scope and feel is that Tolkien isn't scared to slow his rhythm down a bit to match the scope of the book.

One side effect of this is that Tolkien's big plot points, especially in the second half of the plot, are given plenty of room to breathe. The Third Plot Point in the Gandalf/Aragorn plot occurs long before the Third Plot Point in the Frodo/Sam plot; the catastrophe at the climax of the Gandalf/Aragorn plot in "The Black Gate Opens" is left hanging several chapters until "Mount Doom" partway through the next Book. Tolkien isn't afraid to back off a bit, to release tension, to let the high points in the plot make more of a statement. And because this is a hefty epic and not light airport reading, the long staggers work.

By the same token, Tolkien's slower rhythm means that he builds tension as slowly as he releases it. He spends plenty of time on thrilling battles like Helm's Deep and the Pelennor Fields. And it's this masterful balance between recovery time and tension-building that gives the book its truly epic feel. I've often noted that the legendarily lengthy resolution, which takes up a good half of the last book, is one we deeply need. We need to be returned gently from the staggering grandeur of this story, not shot out of it all in a heap. We need to wind down.

But Tolkien is just as careful in winding us up to and down from smaller climaxes throughout the book. We move slowly before the Pelennor Fields, riding through Rohan to the Paths of the Dead. Then we stop after the Pelennor Fields to recuperate in the Houses of Healing. Tolkien doesn't rush us. But he never, not once, not ever, lowers the stakes--and that's how he keeps us reading.

Next week, I'm going to go on and analyse the plot structures of the six smaller books into which The Lord of the Rings is divided. It was this analysis that really blew my mind and helped resolve a ton of my plotting woes. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Rafen by YK Willemse

Today is an exciting day, folks. Today, I introduce you to a new novelist and her debut novel—always an exciting thing to do—but this time, I feel an additional thrill.

Maybe I need to give some backstory. A writer myself, I’ve regularly had friends approach me with the request to read and critique their work, not realising that I have very high expectations for my reading matter and tend to get a little wild-eyed when it doesn’t measure up.

YK Willemse, known to her chums as Yvette, is one of these friends. I think it must have been nearly ten years ago that we traded manuscripts. She got what would later become Pendragon’s Heir and was then admittedly a mess. I got what would later become Rafen, and...well, I was not particularly impressed either. And yet, in the providence of God, fast forward to 2015, and not only do we get a wonderful, though brief opportunity to reconnect in person when I travel through her country, but both of us publish both of those novels.

Reading Rafen in its new form, after so many years, gave me a thrill I never expected. My friend has grown wonderfully as a writer. Her book has grown wonderfully as a story. And today, she introduces the world to a new and intriguing fantasy novel...

Rafen is the story of a boy growing up far from the light of day, in the brutal and grinding helplessness of a slave in the mines of King Talmon of Tarhia. Rafen is different from the other slaves though. For one thing, he has a name. For another, he has drawn the attention of the ghastly Lashki Mirah, the being of extraordinary power and corruption whom King Talmon serves. And for another, there is the dream of the Phoenix and its feather...

When King Talmon kidnaps the princess of a far-away kingdom on the Lashki’s orders, Rafen’s only friend Phillippe urges him to help her escape in the hope of getting away to the outside world and finding refuge far from Tarhia. But Rafen is beset by doubt. Would his cruel masters ever allow him even the slightest chance of escape?

And if he did, would the outside world be any better than the horrors he already knows?

My Thoughts

Rafen is the first of a multi-book series, and I have to say that after this first one, I’m intrigued about where YK Willemse will take her story next. In some ways, the book runs along familiar lines: scruffy down-and-outer rescues kidnapped princess, and they fight (fantastic) baddies. In other ways, the story surprises and startles. Rafen starts out as a slave, maltreated in various horrible and age-inappropriate ways (the main characters are aged 12 and 11, but don't let that fool you--Rafen is intended for an older audience), so that reading the first half of this novel was a bit like reading Unbroken—you understand and appreciate the realism, you just wish it would let up for a bit.

I found plenty to like. Willemse's best characters are wonderful. They don't stand on their dignity; even the noblest ones have flaws, while even the some of the worst  earn our sympathy. There are also some interesting philosophical quirks inherent in the story. I can't recall the last time a novel reminded me so forcefully of Plato's Cave. And as the plot develops, a thread of allegory weaves into the story, suggesting some very interesting future developments.

I had a few criticisms. Though most of the time it flowed nicely, I can see some room for improvement in the writing style. While most of the characters were sympathetic and well-developed, I found a couple of the supporting characters, towards the end, rather flat. Names like Arlene and Bambi were a little distracting next to names like Rafen and Talmon. I found the drama leaning over into melodrama for the first half—and I have never appreciated protagonists who yell at people who are trying to help them in italicised capslock.

(Which are all complaints I had about the Harry Potter books. So Yvette's in good company).

So I wasn’t swept away by this novel. But I did find it a solid effort, and I am intrigued about watching YK Willemse as she continues to mature as an author. Most of all, I was delighted by Yvette's writerly boldness. She pulls no punches, whether it's the often very realistic abuse and trauma suffered by her main character, or the joy and gusto she shows in constructing her larger-than-life characters. True, not all her punches connect, but every so often, she hits home, and one is able to stop and bask in a wonderful bit of nobility, hope, or pathos. YK Willemse has thrown herself into this book unreservedly...and perhaps the best description of it is the one she gives on her own website: in Rafen, "outrageously busy fantasy fiction wallops you in the eye." And the result, though somewhat scattershot, is nothing if not engaging and lovable.

Rafen releases today in ebook form and paperback. Find it on Amazon or (for readers down under) on Wheelers, Fishpond, or

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope

Those of you who've been following Vintage Novels for a while know that since a friend introduced me to the under-appreciated Victorian author Anthony Trollope several years ago, I've been reading him with slow relish at the rate of one per year. It seems like every year, my appreciation of his work grows, and this year is no different.

My Trollope for 2015 was The Small House at Allington.

In this novel, we meet a very diverse cast of characters. The central character is Lily Dale, who lives at the Small House at Allington with her sister Bell and their mother, right next door to the Large House, where her uncle, the crusty but kind-hearted squire, lives. When the story begins, Lily and Bell's cousin Bernard Dale, heir of the Large House, brings his friend Mr Crosbie to stay, and within a short time the worldly and urbane Mr Crosbie astonishes everyone by falling in love with Lily and asking her to marry him--much to the anguish of John Eames, a callow and naive young man from a neighbouring town, who has been in love with Lily for years. Meanwhile, Bernard languidly pursues Bell, the dreadful Amelia Roper pursues John, and--bad news for Lily Dale--Lady Alexandrina de Courcy determines to find out if Mr Crosbie, be he ever so affianced, is really impervious to the lure of blue blood and a title...

As always when I read Trollope, I didn't get through this book very quickly. Not because it's a slow read, but because he seems both to demand and to merit it. Trollope's dry humour kept me chuckling out loud. And when it comes to the temptations, bad decisions, and sins his characters struggle with, Trollope has the gift of treating such things so seriously, so realistically, so that we not only see ourselves in the erring characters, but also fully understand the danger and destruction of such temptations and sins. Like Jane Austen, he keeps us in genuine suspense over the dangers of such things as lies and backbiting and petty ambitions.

I found myself becoming reacquainted with other things that strike me as being particularly Trollopian. The temptation of Crosbie is a temptation of ambition much like that in Framley Parsonage, though with a slightly different slant--and in his Autobiography, which I have not read in full, Trollope explains that the sins of ambition were the ones he was most concerned to preach against, if I may use that term, in his books. Then, as always in Trollope, the characters are wonderful. All of them are a complex mixture of good and bad--though he goes easy on his heroines--and some of them absolutely steal your heart.

There's the Earl de Guest, who despite never marrying himself gives all sorts of hilarious and not-quite-right advice to John Eames on how to win his lady.

There's the loathsome De Courcy clan, who are every bit as horrible as they were in Doctor Thorne, and yet we cannot but feel sorry for Lady Alexandrina in the end--though her unhappiness is of her own making.

There's Mr Crosbie, who suffers so much with such poetic justice for his villainous behaviour, and yet we cheer for him in his plucky efforts to revenge himself on his tormentors.

There's the curiously restrained amours of the ultra-phlegmatic Plantagenet Palliser and Lady Dumbello, whose flirtation consists of occasionally exchanging views on the weather, but nevertheless set the whole of London society chattering in scandalised outrage. I don't know which is funnier--the fact that the pair of them are so undemonstrative that one or two exchanges of small talk constitute a flirtation--or the fact that everyone immediately understands what's happening.

And there's my very favourite character of all, Christopher Dale the squire of Allington, who is a legitimately unpleasant old fellow to be around...but whose harsh and uncompromising exterior we see behind by the end of the story, to the sensitive and loving person underneath. Oh, that sounds so corny. In fact, I had better admit to a sneaking hope that he would wind up having a whirlwind romance with Mrs Dale or someone, though I suppose I should be grateful that Anthony Trollope is much too sensible and subtle a writer to do any such thing. Suffice it to say that this bit of characterisation, in addition to yanking the heartstrings, impressed me with its depth and maturity.

The ending of The Small House at Allington surprised me--it's by far the most ambiguous, even unhappy ending, that I've yet read in a Trollope novel. Two characters in particular find a resolution which, while poetically just, seemed the most horrible and dreary fate in the world. They thoroughly deserved it, and yet it seemed hard.

Looked at from another perspective, though, I really appreciated this ending--for these characters. A common refrain in the novel concerns another of the characters wishing that these could be more thoroughly punished for wrong-doing. And yet Trollope shows us that they are being thoroughly punished for wrong-doing. To outer appearances, they are doing well; to walk in their shoes, however, is to understand how thoroughly their lives have been destroyed. You could see it as a rather fascinating meditation on Psalm 73: "For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked...They are not in trouble as other men; neither are they plagued like other men." And yet, you should see their in-laws!

To sum up, The Small House at Allington is another splendid Trollope novel. If you've never read Anthony Trollope before, I'd highly recommend dipping in with The Warden and Barchester Towers, which are the first two books in the Chronicles of Barset, of which The Small House at Allington is the fifth. You'll love them.

Or, if you want to skip directly to the Small House at Allington, find it at Amazon, the Book Depository, Librivox or Project Gutenberg.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Poem: Tarantella by Hilaire Belloc

Here's a poem I simply have to share! I first discovered it in some anthology or another, years ago, and fell in love with it. Then the anthology vanished somehow, and I completely forgot this poem until just yesterday afternoon, at a concert I was playing in, when someone mentioned that Funiculi Funicula was based on the rhythm of tarantella music. And all of a sudden the words slipped into my mind--Do you remember an inn, Miranda? I looked it up as soon as I got home, and was astonished to see who wrote it--Hilaire Belloc.

Well, imagine that.

Here it is--even better than I remember:

Do you remember an Inn,
Do you remember an Inn?
And the tedding and the spreading
Of the straw for a bedding,
And the fleas that tease in the High Pyrenees,
And the wine that tasted of tar?
And the cheers and the jeers of the young muleteers
(Under the vine of the dark veranda)?
Do you remember an Inn, Miranda,
Do you remember an Inn?
And the cheers and the jeers of the young muleteers
Who hadn't got a penny,
And who weren't paying any,
And the hammer at the doors and the din?
And the hip! hop! hap!
Of the clap
Of the hands to the swirl and the twirl
Of the girl gone chancing,
Backing and advancing,
Snapping of the clapper to the spin
Out and in--
And the ting, tong, tang of the guitar!
Do you remember an Inn,
Do you remember an Inn?

Never more;
Never more.
Only the high peaks hoar;
And Aragon a torrent at the door.
No sound
In the walls of the halls where falls
The tread
Of the feet of the dead to the ground,
No sound:
But the boom
Of the far waterfall like doom. 
Isn't that an amazing poem? Here are some explanatory notes I found on the Internet:
The Miranda of Hilaire Belloc's "Tarantella" is Miranda Mackintosh whom Belloc met at an inn in the Pyrenean hamlet of Canranc on the River Aragon in 1909. The poem, written twenty years later, was a New Year's present to the Scottish Miranda. The holograph copy is inscribed: "For Miranda: New Year's 1929."
The tarantella is a dance (for two) that is supposed to be brought on by the intoxication induced by the sting of the tarantula, which is similar to that induced by falling in love.
Between this poem and Belloc's wonderfully evocative Joan of Arc, I'm thinking I should keep an eye out for more of his work. The man could write.

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster

I have to apologise for the dearth of book reviews here on Vintage Novels lately--life has been busy, I've been working through some longer books, and rural internet services here in Australia are unreliable, to say the least!

Today, though, I'd like to review a play I've often heard of but never, till a few days ago, read.

John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, loosely based on a true story, was written somewhere around 1612-13 in England. Like most plays written around this time, it's set in Renaissance Italy, where the young widowed Duchess of Malfi must navigate the treacherous and decadent waters of her own court. Her brothers, the unhinged and aggressive Ferdinand Duke of Calabria and the more hypocritical, self-controlled, and deadly Cardinal threaten her not to remarry, as they intend to inherit her lands after her death. But the Duchess not only intends to remarry, she's already in love with a man below her station: Antonio Bologna, the honest and upright steward of her palace. The Duchess and Antonio marry in secret, but surrounded as they are by spies and sycophants, will their secret last for long?

It's hard to review a play like this after reading it only once; I should like to see it performed, and I'm sure the lines come off better when they're heard. But let me do my best.

First of all, the reader who's already familiar with Shakespeare's tragedies--Hamlet for preference, but also perhaps Othello--will find The Duchess of Malfi strangely familiar. The claustrophobic court setting, seething ominously with corruption. The doomed lovers. The mad scene. The poisonings. The conflicted killer. The people hiding behind tapestries. The characters helpfully informing their attackers, "You have hurt me." The macabre scene in the graveyard. The half-strangled-to-death heroine reviving briefly to deliver some pithy last words before keeling over for good. The Duchess of Malfi has it all and then some.

Which is not surprising. Welcome to an odd little genre which you may (or may not) have heard about: the Jacobean revenge tragedy, arguably inagurated in 1580 with Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, and which enjoyed its heyday during James I's reign. These plays, influenced by the works of the Roman philosopher Seneca, share a few things in common: revenge sought, often for the death of a loved one, against a powerful figure representing the corruption, villainy, and decadence of Renaissance court life, which ultimately spirals into bizarre violence which leaves the stage strewn with bodies, including that of the protagonist. Far and away the best-known example of this genre is Shakespeare's Hamlet; but Hamlet is a bit hipster for a revenge tragedy: it subverts half the tropes of the genre. A later, less subtle example is the Revenger's Tragedy often attributed to Tourneur, a gaudy melodrama seemingly obsessed with sex and violence, which, despite its moral outrage, demonstrates pretty clearly to the thoughtful reader what it might have been that the Puritans objected to when they shut up the playhouses.

The Duchess of Malfi is more representative of the genre's tone than Hamlet, I think, without degenerating quite so far into decadence as The Revenger's Tragedy does. And yet in all the revenge tragedies I've read, with the possible exception of Hamlet, there is an uncomfortable tension between outrage at the courtly corruption befouling justice on the one hand, and the audience's vicarious thrill at watching the melodramatic events play out while the anti-heroic protagonist gets payback on the other. Shakespeare delivers in Hamlet such a subtle and equivocal story about such complex and confusing characters that the revenge plot is almost forgotten before the sheer mental task of trying to understand the characters. In The Duchess of Malfi, John Webster defies the tropes of the genre in another way: neither the Duchess nor Antonio, injured as they are by the Duchess's wicked brothers, seek revenge for their wrongs; in fact Antonio is at the climax seeking reconciliation. They end with their integrity uncompromised, having escaped both corruption and the temptation to revenge themselves. The revenge itself seems to be taken on by the play's most complex character, Daniel de Bosola, an antiheroic figure who initially acts as the villains' spy and henchman. And yet this approach presents its own moral problem: when the hitman turns to revenge, we are relieved that the hapless Duchess has found a champion at last--never mind how ruthlessly he prosecutes his feud. Webster solves this by not flinching away from the destructiveness of Bosola's chosen path: by the final scene, bodies litter the stage, some of them deprived of life quite pointlessly--which is indeed the point.

I don't know that I'd call The Duchess of Malfi a great play. It has some wonderful lines, and does interesting things with the revenge tragedy genre. It's also charmingly batty in a melodramatic late-Elizabethan manner, what with the poisoned Bible the Cardinal keeps around just for killing off unwanted friends, Bosola's mildly frustrated "Oh, she's gone again!" at the death of another character, and the guy who thinks he's a dog. I tend to think of revenge tragedy as Shakespeare with all the challenging and thought-provoking bits taken out, and at first, The Duchess of Malfi certainly appeared to conform to that image. But on mature thought, The Duchess of Malfi has more substance than that.

I just have one question for all you bookworms:

Can anyone recommend a filmed version?

Find The Duchess of Malfi on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...