Thursday, December 24, 2015

Announcing the Song of Roland Read-Along!

Regular Vintage Novels readers will be aware of my Annual Epic tradition. I love epic poems, but I've found that they slip down more easily if you devour them in the shortest possible time. In previous years, I've taken a holiday right after Christmas to chew through such immense tales as the Orlando Furioso, Jerusalem Delivered, The Faerie Queene, and most recently The Kalevala. This has been huge fun to do on my own...but of course what I've always secretly wished for was to make it a party, potentially with in-jokes and fangirling.

That's why, this year, I've decided to make my Annual Epic a read-along! This year I want to get through a fairly short and easy epic, the seminal chanson de geste The Song of Roland.

The Song of Roland is a very influential text of the medieval imagination and the concept of chivalry. Charlemagne is considered by many the first king of the medieval age. His knights were considered the first knights of the feudal system. And the conflict depicted in The Song of Roland between Christian Franks and Muslim Saracens was in many ways the defining conflict of medievalism, a conflict that had begun before Charlemagne's time (his grandfather, Charles Martel, was the victor of the Battle of Tours in 732, when the Muslim invasion of Europe was finally turned back) and at the time the poem was written between 1040 and 1115, was entering a new stage in the Crusades. 

Like many epics, it's one I've already read, but this year as I chew through OUTREMER, I want a refresher course on chivalry as it was seen in the 1000s. And you're all invited to join in!

I plan to keep this pretty low-key, because January is my downtime and I know that like me, you probably don't want to be stressing out over deadlines this time of year. So:

Join the Party!

1. Get your hands on a translation of The Song of Roland. Everyone agrees the Dorothy Sayers version (available on Open Library) is best, but if you can't lay your hands on one of these quickly, John O'Hagan's is online at the Internet History Sourcebook, and CK Moncrieff's at Project Gutenberg.

2. (Optional) If you have the opportunity, listen to George Grant's lecture (available through the King's Meadow Study Centre) "The Chivalric Code: Quest for Honor and Virtue", which explains the background and impact of the poem on the medieval concept of chivalry.

3. Beginning Christmas Day or thereabouts, begin reading through The Song of Roland. You have all of January to do this, though I anticipate being able to knock it out in about a week.

4. Use the hashtag #readroland to tag your thoughts, reactions, enthusing, or to share articles/commentary on social media. 

5. When you're done, blog your thoughts and add the link to the linkup below by February 1st to go into a drawing to win a celebratory mp3 track of Alfred's War Song by Kemper Crabb!

EDIT: Congratulations to Emily of The Hero Singer for winning the mp3 of Alfred's War Song! If you didn't manage to add your thoughts to the linkup in time for the drawing, feel free to do so at your leisure; I'd still love to see them!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Robbery Under Arms by Rolf Boldrewood

Today I want to review a classic Australian novel, Rolf Boldrewood's Robbery Under Arms.

First, though, a couple of announcements. I omitted to mention it in my last post, but: For those of you champing at the bit for OUTREMER, I've been Tweeting one-and-two-liners most weeks. Click here to see them all!

Second: Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my Annual Epic tradition. I usually keep which epic I'm reading a bit of a surprise--but this year I'm announcing it up front, because some friends wanted to do a read-along! So: this year I'll be re-reading The Song of Roland in the Dorothy Sayers translation, and you're all invited to join me! Grab yourself a copy if you want to be in it (try Sayers, Moncrieff, or O'Hagan), and I'll be back with more details right before Christmas.

Onward to the review...

I've been putting off reading Robbery Under Arms for a shamefully long time. All my brothers read it growing up, some of them multiple times, and raved to me about it. I even picked it up and tried reading it once or twice, but wound up getting distracted. Earlier this year, however, I found myself recommending it to a fellow-writer who planned to set his next book in 19th-century Australia. At the same time I was planning to start a weekly read-aloud time with my sisters. Reminded that only half the family had read it, I chose this one to begin with.

Robbery Under Arms is the classic Australian novel of bushranging--bushranger being the Australian term for an outlaw. The story is narrated from jail on the eve of his execution by Dick Marston, a New South Wales bushman whose father enlists him, along with his brother Jim, to help him in a particularly daring theft of livestock. Taking charge of the heist is the mysterious but gentlemanly Captain Starlight. One misstep, arrest, sentencing, and jailbreak later, Dick and Starlight rejoin the gang spoiling for action and determined to earn the price already on their heads, by trying their hand at robbery under arms.

With every step deeper into crime, the Marston Gang knows they have less and less chance of escaping a life that has itself become a prison. Will any of them make it across the sea to America and the honest life they so desperately wish for?

This was a long, episodic, rambling story, full of escapades and adventures and so it was no surprise to discover that it was originally published as a magazine serial. It roams all over New South Wales and Victoria, providing a vivid picture of the gold rushes, horse-races, and country life of the mid-1800s. Since it was first published in the 1880s, I half-expected the book to be more English-colonial than Australian in tone, but I was surprised by how much hasn't changed in the last 130 years. I was, for instance, particularly amused to discover the word invite used as a noun meaning invitation--"Well, I'll come and dance at your wedding if you'll send me an invite"--(for authentic Strine, pronounce it with the accent on the first syllable: INvite).

Stylistically, I regret to inform you that this book's melodramatic tones of anguish and lament occasionally caused Heartless Laughter amongst self and siblings. The narrator pauses pretty regularly to bewail his lot; and I suppose it's necessary, since these are not Shining Heroes but actually rather heartless murdering rascals. Likewise, Boldrewood goes out of his way to depict them doing good things--rushing off to save a house of ladies from some more authentically villainous bushranging associates, for instance.

Never seen it, but it looks sensational, doesn't it?
Nevertheless, it wasn't the melodrama which bothered me so much as what eventually emerged as the book's repeated theme: that it's a shame society treats criminals so harshly (imprisonment, hanging) since that removes any incentive for them to change their ways and become pillars of society. I was mildly surprised to find this emerging as such a strong theme, given that the Boldrewood himself--or to use his real name, Thomas Alexander Browne--was himself a police magistrate and JP. And I was disappointed by the ending, which seemed less full of repentance than of remorse. Generally, therefore, I found the book's whole concept of justice and forgiveness confused. Justice--in terms of the state's scripturally-defined role as bearer of the sword--is about ensuring that evildoers suffer the consequences of their evil deeds; not (as many modern criminologists assume) rescuing or rehabilitating them from those consequences.This is not to say that a Biblically-constituted commonwealth would never pardon an evil-doer, if he showed evidence of repentance. But the care of souls is the province of the church, not the state.

Despite this reservation, my sisters and I thoroughly enjoyed this story. We already knew of it as one of the great novels of colonial Australia (the other, Marcus Clarke's For the Term of His Natural Life, is another I'm looking forward to reading soon). What I didn't know was that it's been argued that Robbery Under Arms--which made quite a hit in its native Australia--also had an influence on Owen Wister's seminal Western, The Virginian. Does that make the Australian "western" a precursor to, rather than an echo of, the American western? (C'mon, say yes, and we'll let the Kiwis have the pavlova. Deal?)

Find Robbery Under Arms at Amazon, The Book Despository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

Friday, December 11, 2015

#DesertIslandReads + Writing Update

So, it's probably time to pause the reviews and give a quick update. It's December, which means two things: National Novel Writing Month is done, and Christmas is coming! In Australia, of course, this also means the weather is heating up and people are beginning to sniff the air expectantly, scenting Christmas barbecues, January vacations, and sunburns on the beach.


I feel I've been in a bit of a slump lately--most of the books I've been reading have either been very well-written but soulless (Erin Morgenstern's Night Circus, for example), or sincere yet unimpressive. The exception is Thomas a Kempis's medieval devotional classic The Imitation of Christ, which is terrific. I'll look forward to reviewing this in more depth later, but for now I want to say that it's wonderful. Having been written over 600 years ago, it's like taking a giant step away from our all-encompassing culture of modernity, in order to view it and critique it through other eyes.

And it's also beautiful.


Elisabeth Foley recommended the 1959 flick North West Frontier earlier this year, and I was interested because it's got one of my favourite actresses, Lauren Bacall, in it. The real star of the whole show, however, turned out to be the steam-train engineer, Gupta, who has to be one of the most immediately lovable fictional characters I've come across.

Another noteworthy flick was Pixar's latest, Inside Out. As with Up, it's beautifully-conceived, beautifully-told, unconventional and yet gloriously well-crafted. I was thoroughly impressed by this poignant and family-affirming exploration of depression, empathy, and joy.


'Tis the season for Christmas music! Most recently I've been enjoying my friend Christina Baehr's haunting harp and voice arrangement of one of my favourite Christmas carols, Down in Yon Forest, newly released as a single. 

The same carol also features as the title track for Kemper Crabb's Downe in Yon Forrest. Subtitled "Christmas From the Middle Ages", this album is a sinewy mix of traditional tunes and instrumentation with a little avant-garde prog-rock styling. To say nothing of the sitars. Featuring lesser-known traditional hymns like Of the Father's Love Begotten and Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, as well as a truly epic rendition of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, this album has stood up to much repeated listening and continues to be a favourite.


Finally, the update you've all been waiting for! Outremer continues to unfold into a messy first draft. November was, of course, National Novel Writing Month, which didn't go quite according to plan. For one thing, I only had 13 writing days in the whole month. For another, I started the month with great enthusiasm, knocking out a number of 5,000-word days (and even one 6,000-word day), but after a week or two of that, began to feel slightly burnt out. As a result, as soon as I hit my wordcount goal of 50,000, I decided to stop and take a week off. I'm glad I did, because December has seen me back in form.

I think I'll be taking most of January off, though. It's been a big year.


Oh hey, and I was tagged at Fulness of Joy to list 8 "desert island reads". Here goes!

(I'm going to cheat and not include the Bible. That doesn't count, sort of like how underwear doesn't count when you're talking about packing outfits for a trip away from home. Nor am I going to include Basic Survival Handbook: Pacific Island Edition, or Thompson's Practical Guide to Shipbuilding, because GK Chesterton already thought of that joke.)

1. The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
Since I first read it, this has always been my favourite book. I actually haven't read it for nearly ten years now, because I felt if I went on reading it annually I was going to end up getting every word by heart. But I do mean to read it again sometime in the next couple of years, and if I'll be stuck on a desert island for the rest of my life, I want it there with me.
2. The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser
Another beloved fantasy tome, I felt the first time I read it that I was only scraping its surface. On my desert island, I suppose I would have the time--in between building treehouses and milking goats and what-not--to reread this four or five times, until I began to feel more familiar with it.
3. The Oxford Book of English Verse, edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
Even though I would still wake up in the morning and curse it for not including more John Donne or Christina Rossetti poetry, it's still the best single collection of poetry I have, and I'm not actually 100% sure how I managed to survive without it until this year.

4. The Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin
A desert island just might be the only way I'll ever find the time and pluck up the courage to tackle this magnumopus.
5. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
True, it's Mansfield Park and Persuasion that I love best. But I think if I was going to be face being stranded on a desert island for the rest of my life, I'd want something a bit more charming and bubbly to keep me going from time to time.

6. Till We Have Faces by CS Lewis
This would come because, like The Faerie Queene, it's a book with apparently limitless re-read value. Each time I've read it--three or four times by now--it's revealed new intricacies, new dimensions. It would definitely have to come.
7. Orthodoxy by GK Chesterton
And five minutes after I was shipwrecked I would be kicking myself for not bringing The Man Who Was Thursday instead. Still, I'd probably be able to make the best of the bad bargain...!
It is horrible, I haven't had room for John Buchan, or PG Wodehouse, or Angels in the Architecture, or any of my other favourites. And I'm assuming neither my Crusades reference library nor my wifi would be available--but still, I would be bringing along this WIP, and an endless supply of paper and pens (that doesn't count as a "book", right?!), and it should keep me quite happily occupied for years.

Consider yourself tagged, if you wish! What books would you want with you on a desert island?

Friday, December 4, 2015

Holiness by JC Ryle

But don't get the abridged version, folks.
I found this book in an op shop in New Zealand and picked it up almost as a matter of course. Even though I'd never read any of JC Ryle's work before, I knew this book was a devotional classic.

First published in 1877, Holiness is a collection of essays on a range of topics loosely centred around the topic of sanctification. It begins with chapters on sin and sanctification, and then goes on to discuss specific examples (such as Moses and Lot), the person of Christ, and the role of the Church.

A book this disparate is a little difficult to review. Let me begin by saying that Holiness justifies its reputation as a classic of Christian living. In some ways, it's a rather basic introduction to some foundational aspects of the Christian life. But in another way, that makes it a must-read for every Christian. Ryle's supreme virtue is his ability to define terms with crystal clarity. He is very careful and very distinct in his wording of various definitions and drawing of various distinctions.

This becomes clear pretty early on, as Ryle lays out the role of works in the Christian life. To most Protestants, the idea of works playing any role in the Christian life is basically crypto-Catholicism. But as Ryle insists, the role of works is an intensely important one--in our sanctification. Justification is the work of God from beginning to end, amen. But "In sanctification our own works are of vast importance, and God bids us fight, and watch, and pray, and strive, and take pains, and labour."

 Ryle's clarity in defining sanctification and showing how it differs to justification enables him then to wax refreshingly eloquent in praise of works, without risking the grace of the Gospel. In a day when the vast body of Christianity doesn't look any different to the world, it's imperative that we recover a high view of the role of works in sanctification.

That's where the book starts, but it then progresses through a lot of other topics, ranging quite widely. I want to mention a few highlights and criticisms.

I really enjoyed the chapters on the person of Christ, especially Ryle's emphasis on Christ's authority and on his sympathy with his people. The person of Christ, and his familiarity with our struggles, is what prevents the God of Christianity from being an impersonal and uncaring force like the pagan Fate or Kismet.

His chapters on the church were also thought-provoking and eye-opening. I appreciated Ryle's definition of evangelicalism, and the comparison he made with sacramentalism, in the chapter on the Visible Church. As always, his definitions were very crisp and clear, and allowed me to see where I think I might disagree with him. According to Ryle, evanglicalism puts the emphasis on the individual and his walk with Christ, while sacramentalism puts the emphasis on the corporate church and membership thereof as the mark of salvation. Ryle argues in favour of evanglicalism as the right way to go about it, but his crisp definition made me doubt for the first time in my life whether I am really an evangelical, since I believe that both the individual and the collective are equally important, the tension between them being resolved in the three unified persons of the Trinity.

This individualistic emphasis may be at the root of another difference I suspect I may have with JC Ryle. Throughout the book, I got the feeling that he was coming to his topic from an amillenial perspective. His emphasis is overwhelmingly upon personal salvation and personal sanctification, to the general exclusion of any consideration of the impact of the Gospel, and the necessity of works, in the salvation and sanctification of corporate entities: families, churches, nations. In that respect, the hope and comfort held out by Ryle's book is of limited use. He gives personal encouragement, chiefly focused upon how great things will be in the next life; and he gives little or no encouragement for the spread of Christ's kingdom in space and time. Salvation is the most precious gift of all, for sure. But I don't believe scripture limits salvation to a personal, otherworldly thing: I believe the effects of salvation have a visible impact upon the world. And so Ryle gives us the need for "working out our salvation", with very little encouragement that the works of our hands will actually be established in the arena of time and space.

While I was sorry not to come away with a vision for holiness that went beyond the personal and the individual to affect the whole of life and culture (I'd recommend George Grant's The Micah Mandate for this), there was still plenty of excellent material in this book. As previously mentioned, Ryle's careful definitions and unabashedly high view of sanctification were a pleasure to read. And the chapter on Lot--a very convicting and eye-opening example of the lure of worldliness--was in itself worth the price of admission. Believe the buzz: this book is a classic that will continue to stand the test of time.

Find Holiness on Amazon or The Book Depository.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Under the Red Robe by Stanley J Weyman

First of all: The Indie Christian Book Sale is still ongoing for a few more hours! Nip over to snag final deals on more than 70 indie Christian books, including Pendragon's Heir, The Rakshasa's Bride, and The Prince of Fishes!

And now for today's quick review, this time of Stanley Weyman's melodramatic vintage swashbuckler Under the Red Robe.

'If you have never robbed a man - or a woman - of honour! If you have never ruined boy or girl, Monsieur de Berault! If you have never pushed another into the pit and gone by it yourself! If - but, for murder?'... Thus the lovely Mademoiselle de CocheforĂȘt seeks to reach the heart of the ill-famed Gil de Berault, known throughout Paris as 'The Black Death'. And the hardened duellist sent to spy out and arrest her brother feels the first stirrings of shame. 'Her gentleness, her pity, her humility softened me, while they convicted me. My God, how, after this, could I do that which I had come to do?'
This swashbuckling story of love and hate, intrigue and adventure, in the reign of Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIII of France, has been a best-seller ever since its first appearance in 1894.

My review:

Under the Red RobeUnder the Red Robe by Stanley John Weyman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A fun and unassuming vintage swashbuckler, somewhat mediocre but full of fun melodrama on themes of honour.

I'm only giving this book two stars because, well, it wasn't that good. It was kind of derivative and very silly in parts. However, thinking about this novel reminds me what's good about silly melodramatic vintage swashbucklers.

Under the Red Robe is about a man still clinging to some shreds of honour despite being a gambler, a duelist, and a spy. When he finds himself forced to spy on a pair of noble but helpless women, however, he's gradually called back to a sense of right and wrong.

Books like this strike us as silly because of their excessive preoccupation with punctilious details of honour and manners, and their authors were very inventive about placing their characters in heart-rending situations where everything must be given up for the sake of honour. This is all very nice and melodramatic, but you'll get the most out of books like this if you pull back and de-romanticise everything a bit, and focus on the fact that these are books about people agonising over doing the right thing, people who take pride in doing the right thing - keeping their promises, serving their masters, being faithful to their loves, telling the truth. Too often there's also an emphasis on avenging their insults, but I loved that in this book the avenging of insults - the hero's identity as a duelist - is set at odds with his true, conscientious, sense of honour which might be defined as a consciousness of virtue.

A lot of modern fiction is far more concerned with doing the smart, the effective, or the pragmatic thing, above doing the right thing just because it is right and because one's personal sense of right and wrong demands it. I can't possibly recommend Under the Red Robe as great art, but it was a welcome reminder to me of what true honour is, how greatly it was once prized... and what terrific melodrama it makes.

View all my reviews


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