Friday, August 18, 2017

Henry V by William Shakespeare

I'd never actually read Shakespeare's Henry V all the way through before. I'd read a couple of the scenes, for sure, and had seen the Kenneth Branagh film two or three times. So reading the whole play was rather an eye-opener.

Following the accession of hellraising Prince Hal to his father's throne as Henry V, he's shocked everyone by reforming himself into a competent, smart, and vigorous king. As his old companion Sir John Falstaff dies slowly of a broken heart, the new King Harry gets permission from church authorities to invade France, the crown of which he claims in right of his descent from the French princess Isabella. Once in France, however, the English find themselves dramatically outnumbered and outmaneuvered. Will they survive the looming battle at Agincourt? Of course they will, with the help of the most rousing speech ever given in the history of the world. Bask in the awesome:
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember├Ęd-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
By the time Shakespeare wrote Henry V, he'd already written most of his other history plays. He'd begun with one four-play cycle on the reigns of Henry VI and Richard III, and then went back through Richard II and Henry IV. Henry V is the last and probably the most beloved of these eight plays, and just as Richard III made a villain everyone already loved to hate, Henry V made a hero everyone already loved to love. This play is about a desperate foreign war, but it comes as a rather bright spot amidst a long and exhausting series about civil war. It's a bright, youthful, valiant play about a heroic young king on adventures in France.

Or is it?

Ambiguity is the word that has come to mind every single time I've sat down to write a review of these Shakespearean history plays, and lo, here it is again.

On the one hand, Shakespeare makes King Henry a thoroughly likeable character. Where Richard II was verbose, Henry V is simply inspiring. You wished Richard would shut up; you want Henry to go on. Richard had an over-inflated sense of his quasi-divine entitlement to the throne, Henry takes every opportunity to remind his men that he loves them and considers them his brothers. Richard treated his nobles like peasants, but Henry treats his peasants like nobles. Whether it's the rousing Harfleur or St Crispin's Day speeches, or whether it's Henry's conversations with his men in disguise the night before Agincourt where he argue's that "every man's soul's his own", or his soliliquy on how the only thing that makes a difference between himself and an ordinary person is ceremony, at times this play seems almost anachronistically democratic for Elizabethan tastes. Indeed, these English democratic ethics are implicitly contrasted with the French, who come around after the battle to bewail their dead knights and lords who are all jumbled up on the battlefield with peasants and commoners.

You like Henry in this play. How can you fail to like someone who treats his men so well, someone as adorably awkward around the French Princess Katharine as he is, someone who knows so well how to inspire others, someone who at times seems to act so nobly toward his enemies?

But you don't even have to look very closely to feel uncomfortable about Henry V.

One thing that began to bug me the second or third time I saw the film, and that became very clear as I read the play, was how constantly Henry shifts the blame for the war onto others. He clearly understands the cost in human lives, suffering, and resources that war exacts. In fact, he's constantly talking about it, sometimes in uncomfortably graphic terms. He warns the church officials not to sanction his invasion of France unless they're willing to bear the guilt for this. Later in the very same scene he blames the war on the Dauphin for insulting him. At Harfleur he intimidates the garrison into surrender by threatening a ghastly sack of the town, which he has the nerve to say will be their fault. Henry seems to be roughly on the same moral level as the schoolyard bully who (slap) wants you (slap) to stop hitting yourself (slap).

By the time of the night before Agincourt, when the king in disguise states, "I could not die anywhere so contented as in the king's company, - his cause being just and his quarrel honourable", and the soldier William responds, "That's more than we know", the line hits us between the eyes. It's more than we know, too. And we know much more than William does.

We know, for instance, that Henry IV's dying advice to his son in the previous play was to avoid civil war by busying his nobles with a foreign war. We know that corrupt church officials have offered Henry a huge bribe plus permission to go to war in France if he'll help them politically. We know that Henry is a foreign aggressor invading a peaceful country without any provocation whatsoever. We know that before Harfleur, Henry turns down the opportunity to make peace by taking Katharine's hand and a number of French dukedoms.

But this isn't the only dark side to Henry V. There's also a dark side to him personally. In my reviews of the Henry IV plays, I said that I thought Shakespeare didn't mean audiences to see Henry as treacherous for planning to abandon Sir John Falstaff and his other lowlife friends. I still think Shakespeare was trying to show that Henry needed to mature past Falstaff, but in this play he hints that Henry has treated Falstaff badly. The scene in Act 2, for instance, where Henry righteously unmasks and condemns three friends who have betrayed him to the French ("Thou that didst bear the key of all my counsels,/That knew'st the very bottom of my soul,/That almost mightst have coin'd me into gold") is bookended by scenes at Eastcheap in which Falstaff is dying: "the king has killed his heart." Henry has been betrayed, but he has also betrayed his own friends.

This is underlined, rather chiastically, in Act 4 when the Welsh Captain Fluellan compares Henry with Alexander "the Pig" (or the Great, misunderstood and comedically mispronounced). Fluellan gives us a list of completely irrelevant comparisons--both of them were born at places beginning with an M!--but finishes by saying that Alexander killed his best friend. Just like Henry turned away "the fat knight with the great pelly-doublet."

So in Henry V, is Shakespeare depicting a hero or a villain? I tend to suspect that he attempted, with surprising skill, to do both. Henry V is a genuinely charming character, with many genuinely heroic qualities, but he's also got a very decent helping of the villain in him. One feels keenly that he would not be half as taken by Princess Katharine if she didn't come with France thrown in, but one feels equally certain that having married her, he'll do his best to make her happy for the rest of his (perhaps deservedly) short life.

Henry V is a great play, containing some of the best things Shakespeare ever wrote, but it's not by any means a simple read.

I've seen two productions of Henry V. Kenneth Branagh's 1989 version is definitely the one to go for. Despite its rather low-budget production values, it's wonderfully hammy in all the right places, with Branagh himself, Emma Thompson, Judi Dench and Ian Holm all providing great performances. This version plays the story fairly straight, with Henry as a hero, although the ambiguity is well and truly still present in the dialogue.

The Hollow Crown production with Tom Hiddleston as Henry has a similarly low budget, but clearly tries to bring out a bit more of the ambiguity inherent in the play, although I fail to grasp the logic behind some of the directorial decisions (why include the slaughter of the French prisoners but not of the English baggage-train?). Hiddleston's performance is lower-key than Branagh's; he seems more self-aware, more doubtful of his own rhetoric. Which, actually, I don't think was the best decision for the play. Henry V can be portrayed as villainous or heroic and probably should be, but I feel that he only has power if he does believe what he's saying. I actually would have liked to see Hiddleston in full Loki mode as a charismatic tyrant; that might have been iconoclastic, but oh so much fun. Maybe someone else will do that one day...

Find Henry V on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

OUTREMER update!

Today, I'm really excited to bring you the latest news on OUTREMER!

As you know if you've been following me for a while, OUTREMER is the giant project that has been taking up the lion's share of my time for the last three years, an epic saga spanning the 200-year history of the medieval crusader states. Since committing to the project at the end of 2014, I've read more than 25 books on the history and geography involved, and written well over 400,000 words' worth of first-draft material.

I haven't given you an update on this project for nearly a year. A few weeks ago I realised that it's been nearly a year since I finished the OUTREMER first draft, and the realisation freaked me out a bit. Eleven months? What have I been doing?

But of course, I've been doing plenty. I've actually spent the majority of the last six months working on this baby of mine. It's been slow, and it's been the kind of planning, plotting, and sitting-still-and-thinking work that doesn't always look like work. In January and February, I undertook an evaluation of the characters and themes in the first draft. After a short break from research in the last few months of 2016, I returned to that and have burned my way through some very important research reads, including The Templar of Tyre, a primary source on the late thirteenth century which was worth every penny of its significant cost. In April I spent a lot of time thinking about the history itself, trying to crunch it through a Christian worldview to come up with some judgement calls for how I needed to handle various ethical questions. I then spent an exhausting month in May re-reading the first draft and doing some very intense brainstorming for new ideas, which included systematising the magic and coming up with some overarching symbols to express some of the themes I was seeing in the history. I took a couple of weeks in June to study each of my eighteen major characters, firming up their character arcs and motivations. Finally, in July, I found myself sorting through thousands of words' worth of notes, both handwritten and typed, in order to compile my decisions into a master plan for each level of the plot: the overall story, each protagonists' story, and finally, each book.

Yes, you heard that right: I have abandoned my fond and naive hope to tell this story within one volume. There's no way I can fit it into one book. That was a rather easy decision, but I had no idea whether to split the thing into two, three, or more books. At the beginning of this year, however, I was able to make this decision--a rather daunting one, but one which I'm confident is the right choice.

OUTREMER will be a series of nine books.

This is the most natural way to tell the story. As it is, the first draft was always structured in nine parts, as a sort of interwoven trilogy of trilogies following three different protagonists: John, Lukas, and Marta Bishara. So, nine books is really the easiest and most powerful way to tell this story.

Oh, and I've changed the protagonists' surname, for linguistic reasons that would be too tedious to explain here. Say goodbye to the Bisharas, and hello to the Bessarions!

Anyway, all this is really small beans compared to the big news I am here to share with you. Last month, I started work on the second draft of Book 1. My goal is to have that finished and hopefully ready for first-round beta reading by the end of this year, preparatory to publication, likely late in 2018. DV.

Book 1 is currently titled A Wind from the Wilderness, and it's set during the early stages of the First Crusade. It's coming along slowly, but steadily, and I'm already much happier with it than I was with the first draft.

Once that's finished, I also hope to move quickly on to Book 2, currently titled The Lady of Kingdoms.

Obviously I can't be more excited at how this story is coming together. The second draft--or second drafts, since I'll be writing each book separately--will bear surprisingly little resemblance to the first. I've barely even been consulting the first draft as I work on A Wind from the Wilderness. But I've gained an immense benefit in getting to know my characters, their history, the setting in which they interact, and the themes that will drive their plots. With all this planning under my belt, I couldn't be more excited to dig in and burn through this story. And I can't wait to share it with you!

Friday, August 4, 2017

Henry IV, Part 2 by William Shakespeare

This week I continued exploring Shakespeare's history plays with Henry IV, Part 2. In the third part of Shakespeare's English-History Theatrical Universe (I'm sorry, couldn't resist), King Henry IV's illness worsens as second son Prince John of Lancaster mops up the rebels from the previous play.

In any series, duology or trilogy there are usually instalments that lack the quality of the others, and it's hard not to see Henry IV Part 2 as the obligatory filler episode, necessary to bridge the gap between the two hits of Henry IV Part 1 and Henry V. Putting on my own author hat, I think the main reason this play feels so filler-ish is that the central character, Prince Hal, evidently has so little to do. In Part 1, Hal struggled with his father's disappointment in him, and addressed it by seeking glory on the Shrewsbury battlefield. He did indeed prove himself - but only to himself, because Sir John Falstaff took the credit for the victory (no doubt a sly symbol for how his association with Falstaff has tainted Hal's reputation in other ways as well). 

But in Part 2, although Henry IV remains doubtful about his son, Hal has no plans to prove himself, at least not during his father's lifetime. Part 2 is a waiting game as the king sickens, and the most active role in the plot belongs to Hal's younger brother John, who presents a different kind of foil to him than Hotspur in the previous play. Where Hotspur was hot and chivalrous, John is cold and cunning. Hotspur was an old-fashioned medieval knight; John is a more up-to-date renaissance prince, achieving his goals through ruthless realpolitik. While Hal clearly has a dose of cool calculation himself, while he avoids Hotspur's splenetic idealism, he's very much more warm-blooded than his brother, and perhaps Shakespeare is positioning Hal between the two extremes as a way to comment on the ideal king. 

Whether this is so or not, it's fun, in this play, to see John so effortlessly put down the rebellion. The play presents him young and extremely competent, trusted by his father and as anxious as anyone else about Hal's impending accession to the throne. With this in mind, I'm surprised that Shakespeare didn't take this character further, didn't more clearly position him as a threat to Hal, which might have loaned more urgency to the plot. Then again, perhaps Shakespeare is saving him up for some juicy antics in Henry VI. We'll see.

The fact remains that Hal has little to do here, and even Falstaff's antics can't quite save the play. Part 2 finds the fat knight in financial distress, dodging the Chief Justice and taking shameless bribes on a recruiting drive through Gloucestershire, including from two fellows named (I'm not kidding but Shakespeare is) Mouldy and Bullcalf. 

But the play's power, and its somewhat doom-laden tone, derives from the fact that for everyone, time is simply running out. Henry IV, crushed by guilt and disappointment, is dying. Hal's days as a carefree prince are coming to an end, and he has no choice but to go on playing the carefree prince because no one would believe him if he showed his genuine grief. His brothers and courtiers await his accession with dread. And Falstaff's days as a petty thief and general sponger cannot continue, no matter how strenuously he denies it: his only hope is that Hal will become king in time to pay his debts.

The play is, rather simply, the story of how time runs out, and what happens when it does. After so long waiting and wondering, it's actually pretty exciting to see Hal become king. When he does, strangely enough, one of the play's most moving scenes has to do with a highly symbolic character whom we only see in this play: the Lord Chief Justice. We're told that the Chief Justice is trying to corner Falstaff the petty criminal, and that in Falstaff's defence, Hal once socked the Justice's juridical nose. When Hal becomes king, the Chief Justice expects disgrace at best and death at worst, but Hal, it turns out, is more than ready to cast aside Falstaff, the symbolic Vice, and replace him with the equally symbolic Justice. This is easy to understand, but it suggests other possibilities as well: Henry IV, we all know, does not himself have an easy relationship with the blindfolded lady; is Shakespeare hinting that Henry IV had to die before Hal could openly embrace Justice?

At any rate, it was nice to see that when Hal becomes king, he does, in fact, give Falstaff and his other old friends a decent pension. I feel that gets forgotten often.

As before, I introduced myself to this play by watching the Hollow Crown production with Tom Hiddleston as Hal, Simon Russel Beale as Falstaff, and the always excellent Jeremy Irons as Henry IV. It's a great production, though as in Richard II, I thought some important scenes were omitted. 

Find Henry IV, Part 2 on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg and Librivox.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Henry IV, Part 1 by William Shakespeare

My adventures in Shakespeare's history plays continue with Henry IV Part 1, which (to be honest) is really about the misspent youth of Henry V, or "Hal" as he's known in this play.

Henry V was one of the two history plays I was reasonably familiar already. I'm not sure if I've read the whole thing, but I've definitely seen the movie. And of course, in that play, although there are references to his unpromising youth, Hal has become the Model King. And because I already knew how Henry turns out as king, it was fascinating to fill in some of the backstory here.

Henry IV, Part 1 takes place more or less a year after the end of Richard II (although Shakespeare uses a great deal of poetic licence with the chronology). Henry IV, still dogged with guilt after seizing the throne from Richard II, is beset with difficulties. The Scots and Welsh are both causing trouble; young Prince Hal, rather than helping, seems content to spend his life roistering and even thieving in the company of the disreputable and cowardly Sir John Falstaff; and a dispute over Scottish prisoners leads to young Henry "Hotspur" Percy, member of a powerful Northumberland family, starting his very own rebellion.

Henry IV, Part 1 seems to have been a hit during Shakespeare's day and ever since, and it's not hard to see why. Hal is the central figure of the play, but the supporting characters are colourful and sympathetic as well. To begin with, there's Henry IV himself, suffering the consequences of how he gained the throne: guilt and rebellion. Shakespeare is too good a playwright to make a villain of him, but there's a distinct sense of taint about Henry, and ironically, one of the most promising signs that Hal will prove a better king is his intentional distancing himself from his father. But that meaning is more in the subtext than the text of the play: in the text, Henry reproaches his son for irresponsibility, arguing (again, with an ironic twist of meaning) that Hal takes after Richard II rather than himself. He means, of course, that Hal imitates Richard's irresponsibility. But Shakespeare is really hinting that Hal has a better, because not usurped, title to the throne.

This is underlined when Henry compares Hotspur, another key supporting character, to himself. Like the young Henry IV, Hotspur has taken offence at a perceived wrong done him by the King, and is determined to topple the King. Unlike the young Henry IV, Hotspur has a much better argument to help him gain allies: the King is a usurper. Hotspur is another intensely likeable character, as hot-headed as his nickname suggests, and the only person in his rebellion who is doing it purely for honour's sake. Shakespeare likes him so much that he calls his wife Kate (a name he seems to have reserved for his favourite female characters) and provides them with a hilarious, yet tender, bickering romance. In reality, Hotspur was a couple of years older than Henry IV, but Shakespeare makes him younger so as to act as a better foil to Hal. While Hal slums it in London taverns, Hotspur is winning fame and glory as a knight. But as different as they are, we can't help liking both of them, and it's painful watching them forced into conflict as the story escalates.

If Hotspur primarily serves as a foil to Hal, someone King Henry can wish loudly had been his own son rather than Hal, then Sir John Falstaff serves as a foil to King Henry, Hal's other father figure. Falstaff is the dark horse in this play's ensemble, a character so enjoyable in his cunning cowardice that he has passed into literary legend. He's regularly compared to the Vices in a morality play, his main aim being to lead youth astray. And Shakespeare definitely encourages the audience to boo him. Whether pressing unsuitable men into military service, or trying to get undeserved credit after the battle of Shrewsbury, at least some of Falstaff's actions are intended to be sinister rather than comic.

But this play is about the making of a king, the future Henry V. Falstaff contributes to Hal's future in a number of ways: his quick-wittedness and silver tongue, his flashes of magnanimity, will all make an appearance, fully refined, in Henry V. Hal ends this play standing above the bodies of both Hotspur and Falstaff, but he lives the play, symbolically speaking, between them. Certain themes crop up in both Hotspur's and Falstaff's scenes: the most obvious one is honour. Hotspur puts honour above anything else; Falstaff has a lengthy speech deriding it. Neither of them is right, and rather than choosing between them, it's Hal's job to learn what he can from each and reject their faults.

This brings us to Hal himself, another very enjoyable character. In an early speech, Hal makes sure to inform the Elizabethan audience (probably as concerned as any father by his irresponsibility) that his fecklessness is a show, adopted to make everyone think all the better of him when he suddenly reforms upon becoming king. It's not hard to assume from this that Hal must be a fairly cold and conniving character, but I don't think this is what Shakespeare is trying to convey. Shakespeare often gives us heroic characters who plan their success in cold detail ahead of time, and it's almost always a sign of moral seriousness and strength of character. Just think of Petruchio, arriving in Padua with the avowed intention of marrying wealthily no matter how ugly or old the woman is. Deliberation is always a sign of strength of character in Shakespeare, and Hal is no exception. He intends to become king, and to do a good job of it, and as genuinely as he enjoys the low company he keeps, as much as he is learning about how to relate to and inspire the ordinary man, he knows that his place is not truly with them. One day, he will be forced to break with them, and it's going to be painful for everyone.

I wish I could have spent more time thinking this play through before reviewing it, but Shakespeare is difficult to get to the bottom of! If you've read a helpful article on Henry IV Part 1, drop a link in the comments!

I've seen the Hollow Crown production of this play, featuring some excellent acting work from Tom Hiddleston as Hal, Jeremy Irons as a crabby and compelling Henry IV, Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff and Joe Armstrong as Hotspur. For some reason the director thought it was important to include a bit of nudity, which, you know, back then they had guys playing the ladies anyway so they would have kept them all covered up so as to preserve the illusion, so don't pretend you need it for authenticity, gah. Parental discretion advised.

Find Henry IV Part 1 on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Poem: The Village Choir by Anonymous

I've been a little behindhand this week, so I will just edify you with this poem, which I came across years ago in a music anthology. Old Hundredth, of course, is the "All People That on Earth Do Dwell" setting of Psalm 100, which usually isn't rendered with such verve as on the memorable occasion of the Village Choir...

The Village Choir
(After the Charge of the Light Brigade)
by Anonymous

Half a bar, half a bar,
Half a bar onward!
Into an awful ditch
Choir and precentor hitch,
Into a mess of pitch,
They led the Old Hundred.
Trebles to right of them.
Tenors to left of them,
Basses in front of them,
Bellowed and thundered.
Oh, that precentor's look,
When the sopranos took
Their own time and hook,
From the Old Hundred!

Screeched all the trebles here,
Boggled the tenors there,
Raising the parson's hair,
While his mind wandered;
Theirs not to reason why
This psalm was pitched too high;
Theirs but to gasp and cry
Out the Old Hundred.
Trebles to right of them,
Tenors to left of them,
Basses in front of them,
Bellowed and thundered.
Stormed they with shout and yell,
Not wise they sang nor well,
Drowning the sexton's bell,
While all the church wondered.

Dire the precentor's glare,
Flashed his pitchfork in air,
Sounding fresh keys to bear
Out the Old Hundred.
Swiftly he turned his back,
Reached he his hat from rack,
Then from the screaming pack,
Himself he sundered.
Tenors to right of him,
Trebles to left of him,
Discords behind him,
Bellowed and thundered.
Oh, the wild howls they wrought:
Right to the end they fought!
Some tune they sang, but not,
Not the Old Hundred.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Ensign Carey by Ronald Welch

Ensign Carey, the eleventh (and second-last) in Ronald Welch's Carey Family Series, begins unconventionally with a burglary. In a gritty Victorian London setting, an impoverished young blueblood robs the house where he was a guest the week before, then murders an accomplice who seems a little too curious about his real identity.

It quickly turns out that this character is not, in fact, our protagonist and the latest Carey whose adventures we'll be following through some pivotal moment of history... but it's a brilliant opening to one of the more unconventional of the Carey series, an opening that manages to neatly foreshadow just about everything else.

Because William Carey, our actual protagonist, is not a particularly heroic figure either. Selfish to the point that he's never felt true sympathy for another human being, William Carey is an idle young man who prefers slumming in the London underworld to study or honest work. An encounter with a billiards sharp provides William with his first real ambition: to become a billiards sharp himself, and use his skill to line his pockets.

After a drunken horse race at Cambridge goes terribly wrong, William is sent down in disgrace and forced to enlist as an ensign in the extremely uncelebrated Bengal Army. William endures his purgatory in the heat and boredom of life in India in his usual way, but trouble is in the air: not just for him, but for all the English sahibs in Bengal.

I often feel that plotting is not Welch's strong point, and as with many of his other books, this one, while never dull, is not particularly tight. But it made up for this with some terrific characters, plus opening and closing chapters that form deliciously ironic bookends for the story.

Ronald Welch's heroes usually have a character flaw to overcome, but none of the ones I've read are so close to sociopathery. William is a genuinely repulsive character, but I was impressed by how well-written he was. Welch is always showing him doing understandable or even thoughtful or brave things, and then just as you think William has grown and learned, yank! out comes the carpet from under your feet, as you learn the truly selfish motivations William has for his actions. This is not to say that William doesn't grow or learn: by the end of the story, he's risen to the occasion in a number of ways, and managed to feel sorry for someone not himself. But I was fascinated and impressed by the deftness of the characterisation here, which never completely breaks your liking for this character, despite all his avarice, low cunning, and gutsy determination to live comfortably on the misfortunes of others.

It was huge fun to have a black-sheep protagonist for a change. After all, not all families turn out generations of unblemished military heroes. But my favourite thing about this book was what Welch did with this character in the end. I'm not going to tell you exactly what happens, but suffice it to say that William does not get away with the fruits of his misdeeds. I am a huge fan of morally compromised characters in fiction, as long as the author doesn't then attempt the belly-dance of moral relativism in an attempt to get me to approve of their wrongdoing. Ronald Welch is not, on the whole, that kind of author. He's the ruthless kind, and I loved it.

That said, it is nice to have a rather more heroic Carey in this book. The protagonist of the previous instalment, Nicholas Carey, turns up in this one to provide a foil for what William might have been if he was less selfish. Of course, Nicholas had his own character arc from apathy to sympathy in his own book, and it's interesting that in both the books Welch wrote in a Victorian setting, he was savagely critical of the vices of young Victorian men.

Another part of this critique of Victorianism crops up in the India passages. I know that the case against colonialism is often over-stated these days (at least one Indian intellectual has dedicated significant time to exploring the benefits of colonialism in India), but Welch has some thought-provoking things to say. He depicts, without overt judgement, a life of idle luxury which depends on armies of native servants to do the exhausting work of keeping the sahibs and memsahibs comfortable; and he blames the Sepoy rebellion, at least partly, on the fact that few of the British officers took the trouble to learn the names or language of their men. I don't know how historically accurate all this is (Welch's book Knight Crusader, while pretty fair considering how little scholarship had then been done on the history of the Crusader States, is not a miracle of historical accuracy), but as usual with Welch, it's even-handed and level-headed.

I particularly enjoyed this installation of the Carey Family Series. With a delightfully unpleasant protagonist, and an ending that is as ironically satisfying as anything I've every read, this book surprised me in all sorts of delightful ways.

After years out of print, Ronald Welch's Carey Family Series is briefly available in beautiful heirloom-quality limited editions from Slightly Foxed. Find Ensign Carey on their website, or better yet, check out the whole series. It's very good! Generally appropriate for middle grade and up, although this book and the next in the series, Tank Commander, include some PG-13 level swearing.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Richard II by William Shakespeare

Well, I'm back. Tasmania was, as always, wonderful, and at the Pilgrim Artists' Festival I was privileged to meet (or spend more time with) some amazing local artists: indie author WR Gingell, whose books you should definitely check out if you love fairytales, Georgette Heyer, or mysteries; acoustic guitarist Alan Gogoll; Steve and Marion Isham, who between them write poetry, produce children's books, and make amazing drawings and paintings.

During our stay, our lovely hostess Margaret (herself an award-winning oils painter, while we're on the topic) introduced us to The Hollow Crown, which somehow I'd missed seeing, or getting excited about. Splendidly-acted new Shakespeare films? True, I've never been all that interested in the history plays, but still: Shakespeare.

We only got the chance to see Richard II during our visit, but it was terrific, and having seen it, I knew I had to read the play in full.

For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd;
All murder'd: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court...

At first glance, you might not think Richard II a bad king. When two noblemen come before him with competing accusations of treason, Richard tries to make up the quarrel before allowing the trial by combat to go ahead. The Duke of Lancaster's son Henry Bolingbroke is convinced that the Duke of Norfolk is guilty of murdering the Duke of Gloucester, and is willing to fight him to prove it. But just as the combat starts, King Richard cancels the match and banishes both combatants to an arbitrary period of exile.

When the Duke of Lancaster, the wise and experienced John of Gaunt, dies, Richard shows his true colours, seizing the Lancaster property to finance a war in Ireland. Enraged that his rightful inheritance should be seized by the crown during his absence, Henry Bolingbroke returns to England determined to reclaim it, by force if necessary. Meanwhile, rumours about the Duke of Gloucester's death thicken: was the murder plotted by Norfolk, or did Norfolk only cover up for someone who must not be suspected?

I'm not sure I even realised that Shakespeare had written a history play about Richard II (my tastes have always run to his comedies), let alone whether it was considered one of his best or not, but Richard II was magnificent, and as usual with a well-regarded Shakespeare play, it surprised me with a few very famous speeches. For example, this is where the This sceptr'd isle, this seat of Mars, this other Eden, demi-paradise... this England speech comes from, as the dying John of Gaunt complains about Richard's rule.

This play, like much of Shakespeare, is full of spine-tinglingly magnificent lines. In addition, I was fascinated to note that the "sceptr'd isle" speech begins a motif repeated through the play, of England as a badly-tended garden, an Eden beset by curses. Another motif, drawn out and beaten to death in the Hollow Crown version, is Richard II's view of himself as a quasi-divine figure, a type of Christ, having a divine right to rule however he wants. Against this, Shakespeare pits the insistence of Richard's barons that right to rule depends not on birth or office, but on justice. Richard fails multiple times at the beginning of the play to do justice, and it's this that naturally deprives him of his crown.

But one of the things that struck me most deeply about this play was its ambiguity. The two dominating figures are the plain-spoken Henry Bolingbroke, and Richard himself. And what a character Richard is, by the way: wilful, emotional, and weak; always performing to an audience, saving himself from the worst of his humiliations simply by bravura monologuing; and yet weirdly charming, sympathetic, and even noble in the midst of his richly-deserved trials. Richard is no clear-cut villain (indeed, Victorian productions of the play apparently used to make a saint of him), but neither is Henry a clear-cut hero. He accuses Norfolk, rather broadly, of "all the treasons for these eighteen years", and legitimises his own claim to the throne in speeches that seem increasingly threadbare and desperate; by the end, he consolidates his grip on the crown with a series of executions, but puts on a show of remorse over Richard's coffin.

Which makes this play a fascinating character study. Overall, I believe it's a veiled critique of the idea of the diving right of kings (an evaluation shared by Elizabeth I, who was so offended by the play that it had to be heavily censored). There are two theories of kingship here: Richard's theory that kingship is substantiated by its existence, and Henry's (at first), that it is substantiated by justice. As the Duke of York warns Richard early on, a king who refuses to respect his subjects' rights is laying a dangerous precedent:

Take Hereford's rights away, and take from Time
His charters and his customary rights;
Let not to-morrow then ensue to-day;
Be not thyself; for how art thou a king
But by fair sequence and succession?

If Richard takes away Henry's patrimony, he ought not to be terribly surprised when Henry takes away Richard's patrimony. And yet that first act of injustice does not absolve Henry. By not being content to regain what he has lost, by taking more than he promised, Henry founds his own kingship on the same brand of injustice that Richard committed early in the play. Although Henry begins his rebellion on a platform of limited monarchy, he ends it with something very like absolutism because at this stage he can no longer rely on justice. By the end of the play, Richard dies; but by the end of the play, it seems, he has converted Henry to his way of thinking.

Richard II is an extraordinarily rich and subtle play which I'm sure I've only scratched the surface of. And now I'm excited to dive in and work my way through all of Shakespeare's historical plays, especially now that I know where to find some excellent filmed editions to form my introduction.

The Hollow Crown production of Richard II features Ben Whishaw in a truly excellent performance and some memorable supporting work from Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt and Rory Kinnear as Henry Bolingbroke. For some reason, it chooses to cut the Gloucester subplot entirely, an odd decision since that makes so much sense of many of the characters' actions, as well as the fun scene in Act IV where everyone is throwing down gauntlets and Aumerle has to ask someone to loan him a third. Oh well--this was otherwise very good, and you really must see Shakespeare performed to experience him properly.

Find Richard II on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Guy Mannering by Sir Walter Scott

John Buchan devotes six pages in his biography of Sir Walter Scott to a review of Guy Mannering, Scott's second novel: "Lovers of Scott will always dispute which is his best novel, but all will put Guy Mannering among the first three."

That was more or less my impression, as I read. Guy Mannering is a very successful work, showcasing Scott doing what he did best, and doing it at the height of his powers. As Buchan points out, Scott's first novel, Waverly, was the result of ten years' brooding - and as a novelist myself, I understand Buchan's opinion that getting Waverly out of his system liberated Scott as an artist, to invent with new gusto. There's an infectious high-spiritedness about this story - the author is enjoying himself, and so do the readers.

The story opens with a traveller going astray in the southwest of Scotland late at night, late in the eighteenth century. Young Guy Mannering arrives at Ellangowan, seat of the humble but very old Bertram family, on the same night as the birth of the new heir. Partly in fun, he takes the child's horoscope, which threatens danger to him at age five and twenty-one. And sure enough--five years later, the boy is kidnapped and vanishes without a trace.

Fifteen years after that, after a duel gone wrong, Colonel Mannering returns from India with his only child; the Ellangowan family is forced to sell their ancestral home for a song to their dishonest lawyer, the social-climbing Glossin, and young Captain Vanbeest Brown, determined to win Julia Mannering's hand despite her father's disapproval, follows the Mannerings into Scotland only to become hopelessly embroiled in Glossin's dealings with smugglers - to say nothing of the mysterious plans of Meg Merrilies, the titanic, and possibly insane, gipsy woman.

Not every single element in this book works. There are two perfunctory attempts at romantic subplots in which, together with the young ladies involved, the author evidently lost interest early on; a comic relief character who is reduced to a one-note gag, and some backstory set in India which is unconvincing, and rushed in the telling, especially compared to the quality of the main story. None of Walter Scott's admirers - and he counted John Buchan and GK Chesterton among them - would have suggested that Scott always hit his mark. "He was a chaotic and unequal writer," Chesterton observes, but, with equal truth: "We have learnt in our day to arrange our literary effects carefully, and the only point in which we fall short of Scott is in the incidental misfortune that we have nothing particular to arrange." Scott aims to shoot the moon. Of course, he doesn't always succeed. But when he does!

I think the thing I appreciate most about Guy Mannering is how it spans, and welds together, a number of different genres. This kind of thing is usually difficult to do well, but Scott makes it work. There's a wide streak of comedy-of-manners here, little different from the kind of thing you might expect to find in Anthony Trollope - the funeral scene in Edinburgh, for instance. Then there's a good bit of lightly fictionalised travel writing, the kind of thing Scott excelled at, since he spent much of his youth in the Border Country and knew its landscape, its people, and its pasttimes. And all this is used as the scaffolding for the romance of a lost heir, mysterious gipsies, dangerous smugglers, murder and robbery.

I'm a connoisseur of fine romance of this type, and in my youth I was frequently impatient with all the other stuff Scott insisted in mixing in with it. Today, I'm beginning to understand that you simply cannot be impatient when reading Scott. The power of those sudden gleams of romance ("They are coming," said she to Brown; "you are a dead man if ye had as mony lives as hairs") depend on the "slow bits" for their effect. They are like a bomb going off under the reader's feet. You never know when it's going to happen. You might have given up hoping that it might happen. And then, shazam. John Buchan defined romance on several occasions (including in his six pages on Guy Mannering) as being "strangeness flowering from the commonplace", and the commonplace is necessary to ground the strangeness: to make it believable, and to give it real emotional heft when it does happen. That's why the backstory in India (a hectic muddle featuring a duel, a raid, a capture, and a death of shock all on the same day) seems so unsatisfying: as romantic as it is, it seems completely unhinged from normality. It has nothing to ground it. But for the majority of the book, the romantic bits do seem thoroughly tethered to reality - and that's the main reason why the book works as well as it does.

Not that there aren't other reasons. There are plenty of characters to love. Meg Merrilies is unforgettable, Dandie Dinmont makes you want to cheer and feel that everything will be alright every time he appears, Gilbert Glossin is a terrific, sympathetic, yet oh-so-evil villain, and many of the others are excellent too.

Oh, and there's the hilarious moment that a quotation from Sheridan's The Critic turns up. It's an audacious, fourth-wall-breaking, tongue-in-cheek moment (which sadly only makes sense if you've actually read The Critic, which YOU SHOULD).

Needless to say, I thoroughly recommend Guy Mannering. It's a book that will definitely reward your patience.

Find Guy Mannering on Amazon, the Book Depository, or Project Gutenberg.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Poem: In the Huon Valley by James McAuley

At the moment, I don't have a vintage novel to review: I'm working my way through another Walter Scott, Guy Mannering. It's one I've never read before, but it's been fun so far. I have my suspicions about this Captain Brown character. I think we may have met him before *eyebrow waggle*.

Anyway, I look forward to reviewing that when I get the chance - hopefully next week! In the meantime, I want to share a poem - another of James McAuley's, since this year is his centenary.

James McAuley is perhaps most famous for the Ern Malley hoax, but he ended his life in Tasmania, as a professor at the University of Tasmania in Hobart. Southwest of Hobart is the beautiful Huon Valley, the centre of Tasmania's apple and cherry industry, a green rolling valley bordering the Huon River. I've spent many happy months in the Huon Valley, and later this month I'll be heading back to participate in the Pilgrim Artists' Festival, where I'll be giving a workshop on fiction writing.

As I'm looking forward to seeing old friends and familiar scenery, it might be a good time to share James McAuley's poem about this lovely place...

In the Huon Valley

by James McAuley

Propped boughs are heavy with apples,
Springtime quite forgotten.
Pears ripen yellow. The wasp
Knows where windfalls lie rotten.

Juices grow rich with sun.
These autumn days are still:
The glassy river reflects
Elm-gold up the hill,

And big white plumes of rushes.
Life is full of returns;
It isn't true that one never
Profits, never learns:

Something is gathered in,
Worth the lifting and stacking;
Apples roll through the graders,
The sheds are noisy with packing.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow by Allen French

After reading The Elder Edda, I wasn't quite ready to leave Iceland, and I decided the time was ripe for my long-intended re-read of Allen French's The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow, which I'd read, once, about ten years ago and remembered liking very much.

The story follows a young boy named Rolf, the son of the landowner Hiarandi the Unlucky. When an act of mercy by Hiarandi leads to his being made an outlaw, and ultimately killed by a greedy neighbour, Rolf vows to prove that his father's killing was unlawful. But when he meets the son of his father's killer, Rolf can't help liking him. Will Rolf and Grani find a way to see past their own grudges, and lay the feud to rest?

One of the things I particularly remembered about this book was that it was somewhat more than just another standard vintage adventure story for boys. Set in medieval Iceland shortly after its conversion to Christianity, The Story of Rolf is written in a rather good imitation of actual Icelandic sagas. And this goes further than thees, thous, and the occasional lapse into present tense. It also includes a tense, laconic writing style, a very arm's-length treatment of the characters' thoughts and emotions, characters bursting into the occasional skaldic verse, some crazy and unexpected (yet totally fun) fantasy elements, and a subject matter (the tension between blood-feuding and Christian forgiveness) that is also to the forefront of one of the few Icelandic sagas I've actually read, The Saga of Burnt Njal.

Looking back, I'm stunned by how well this style works for this story. The Story of Rolf  was first published in 1924, so it comes after the worst of the Victorian literary excesses, but I can't imagine that writing historical fiction in a style so spare and laconic must have seemed like an obvious decision. And to be honest, French isn't unaffected by the literary fashions of his time. Still, he was trying something pretty unprecedented in his day, and the result is a story that fuses the best of the delicious drama that characterises vintage lit, with the best of Icelandic terseness, adventure, and sheer epic awesome. There's a depth to the characters' emotions and motivations that can be somewhat lacking in the old sagas, and yet the very straightforward storytelling style strengthens what could be a shortcoming in vintage fiction.

And there are so many things to love about the book. The plot operates at a slow, tense simmer that takes you through many twists and turns, but it's always building toward a specific goal, which is how this blood feud is ultimately resolved. And I loved the resolution. One of the marks of a truly great story is a resolution that lifts it beyond itself into something higher, and The Story of Rolf has one of these. I won't spoil it, but I will say that it left me with a lump in my throat.

And also that I loved the theme. Since finishing the story, I've been chewing on one particular aspect of it--just a minor aspect--that I think this book gets wonderfully right when it comes to the concept of forgiveness. It's common to assume that forgiveness is something unconditional and unilateral. In fact, forgiveness cannot be accomplished without repentance on the side of the wrongdoer. It is the victim's duty to be ready to offer forgiveness if it is sought, and that means killing anger and bitterness and resentment; but this does not mean treating a professed enemy in every respect as if he is your friend. One must be ready to forgive, but there is no true forgiveness possible for an unrepentant enemy. I won't say more, but I will say that I was stunned and encouraged by how well (and beautifully) The Story of Rolf discusses this truth.

There were lots of other things I loved about this story. I loved the female characters--this is, of course, a solidly manly adventure story for boys and so the female characters are definitely in supporting roles--but what characters they are, fearless, determined, and wise. I loved Frodi, the peaceful smith, who winds up with a string of nicknames referring to his undeniable awesome. I loved that epic deeds are done, and narrated with such dry understatement. And I loved the characters cropping up out of old sagas.

The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow isn't a perfect book. I would have liked to see Rolf himself have a greater character arc, for instance, and one plot device near the end was a little unbelievable. But overall, I loved this story. A brilliant bit of vintage young adult fiction.

Find The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow on Amazon, the Book Depository, or Project Gutenberg.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Elder Edda (trans. Andy Orchard)

"Myths, gods and heroes from the Viking world", promises the subtitle to the new Penguin edition of The Elder Edda, and from the moment I discovered it in the library a few months ago I've been waiting for a good opportunity to tuck in. My acquaintance with Icelandic literature has been fairly limited - I've read  Njal's Saga, The Saga of the Volsungs, and of course Tolkien's The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun which doesn't really count, but I knew to expect gore, fatalism, and some of the sparest, barest, most economical writing I've ever come across.

The Elder Edda comes in two parts. The first section contains mythological poems dealing with the gods, goddesses and fates of Norse myth, while the second is a cycle of poems revolving around Sigurd the Dragonslayer and his ill-fated loves Brynhild and Gudrun. I was already familiar with the Sigurd cycle from The Saga of the Volsungs, and from Tolkien's Sigurd and Gudrun (with Christopher Tolkien's excellent commentary on the same). In the Edda, the story is told in a way that seems rather more fractured and fragmented. The poetry itself often elides events, lacunae plague the text, and the poems don't always follow a logical progression: they repeat and restate events, often with significant contradictions (is Brynhild the same figure as the valkyrie who teaches Sigurd runes? was Sigurd murdered at home or in the forest?). It's not surprising that most people would just read The Saga of the Volsungs instead, which tells the story in a much more straightforward fashion. But now that I've actually read the Edda, I think this is a crying shame. In poetic form, these stories gain far more power than they did in prose; they become a grand, operatic tale of fate, compulsion, obsession and loss.

(Epic poetry, and poetry that tells any kind of story, has been out of style for hundreds of years, and it's such a shame. There are just some things you can do in poetic storytelling that you can't do in prose.)

Part 1 of the Edda, the part that deals with myths of the gods, was the part that was mostly new to me. It was also the part I had the most mixed feelings about. My two favourite poems in the whole collection cropped up here. The Voluspa, the very first poem of all, is magnificent. It tells the legend of the creation of the world and then fast-forwards into a prophecy of Ragnarok, employing repeated lines and even stanzas to build up an incredible dramatic intensity - I would recommend trying to get a copy of this book just for the pleasure of reading this poem. And then there's the game of Spot the Inkling: Tolkien and Lewis both obviously loved this particular poem. Lewis lifted whole lines from it for his poem Cliche Came Out of Its Cage, and Tolkien got the names of Gandalf, Durin, Thorin Oakenshield and the other dwarves here. (Who knew that Bifur and Bofur translate as "Trembler" and "Grumbler", while "Bombur", of course, is "Tubby"? Seems like Disney wasn't so far out with the names of Snow White's dwarfs either). And I suspect that the image of the surviving gods after Ragnarok discovering their gold playing-pieces in the grass of the newly-remade world may have found its way into Prince Caspian.

Another favourite poem from this section was The Song of Volund. You hear legends of lame blacksmith gods all over Europe of course - there's the English Weyland (obviously related) and even the Greek Hephaestos, but the Norse Volund is an elf prince seeking revenge after a brutal attack. His revenge, when he takes it, is more brutal than the original wrong, because this is a pagan story of grisly and pointless violence, but there's high drama here too and a certain kind of harsh beauty. 

Many of these mythological poems, however, have less to do with storytelling and more to do with various contests between the gods: mostly contests of lore or insult. The latter have a strong gutter element that I didn't appreciate, but the lore-contests were fascinating for the way in which they presented the Norse cosmology and philosophy. The Havamal contains some of the most detailed discussion of pagan philosophy and conduct: to read it is to step into a world that has, thankfully vanished. Pagan piety is both recognisable and alien to us today, all of it predicated upon a fundamentally hostile universe in which anyone can only trust himself: don't drink too much, don't speak too much, give gifts in an attempt to make friends, don't trust your friends, don't trust your women, and don't be ambitious:
Middling-wise should each man be
never over-wise;
for he lives the fairest life of folks
who knows not over-much. 
Middling-wise should each man be
never over-wise;
for a wise-man's heart is seldom glad,
if he is truly wise. 
Middling-wise should each man be
never over-wise;
he never knows his fate before,
whose spirit is freest from sorrow.
The poems of the Elder Edda, a record of Icelandic paganism, were written down well after the conversion of Iceland to Christianity, evidently by Christian scribes. As usual, I'm left with little doubt in my mind that they did this to preserve in the remembrance of their people not just the cultural achievements of paganism, but also the cultural failings. Norse paganism was deeply characterised by suspicion, fatalism, and violence. We ought not to take our own culture for granted or pride ourselves on our superiority. There, but for the grace of God, go we.

Find The Elder Edda on Amazon or The Book Depository.

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Rose and the Ring by William Makepeace Thackeray

William Makepeace Thackeray is most famous for Vanity Fair, of course, but I actually have never read the book. After re-reading his hilarious children's story The Rose and the Ring last week, I'm thinking I probably should.

A satirical take on the traditional fairytale, The Rose and the Ring is the story of four princes and princesses, and the various adventures that befall them because of wicked uncles, conniving governesses, and the Fairy Blackstick whose magical gifts don't always provide what you expect.

The kingdom of Paflagonia, especially its charming young princess Angelica, is thrown into a fever of excitement by the news that the dashing young Prince Bulbo of Crim Tartary is about to pay a visit. This is bad news for Angelica's cousin Prince Giglio, who has been in love with Angelica for years, but things get really complicated when Angelica, in a fit of pique, throws away the ring Giglio gave her when they were children. Unbeknownst to Angelica, the ring is a magic one which makes the bearer irresistible, and when it's picked up first by Angelica's unscrupulous governess, the Countess Gruffanuff, and then given to Betsinda, the little foundling maid, the result is highly interesting times for both kingdoms...

I loved this book as a teenager, I love it as an adult, and as I was re-reading it recently I was thinking I should really find out how it would go down with children. I think they'd love it, too. There are plenty of jokes, of course, which only adults are likely to understand, but I think most children would get a kick out of the bold Count Kutasoff Hedzoff or Lord Chamberlain Squaretoso, and even the very young are likely to appreciate the King of Paflagonia being crushed by a warming-pan ("Even Though You Wear a Crown / Burning Love Will Knock You Down" the mock-sententious page headings proclaim). The whole thing is illustrated rather quirkily by the author, and it's all charming.

There seems to be a rather-tongue-in-cheek theme about keeping one's word at all expenses, although this threatens to send one of our heroes to the scaffold and marry another to the loathsome Gruffanuff regardless of other ethical considerations. Probably more meaningful is the contrast between those of our characters blessed by the Fairy Blackstick with "a little misfortune" as opposed to those blessed with unearned beauty and charm. Thackeray has a huge amount of fun spoofing fairytale conventions here, and while most people who set out to make fun of fairytales only wind up proving themselves crashing bores (and usually also boors), Thackeray clearly shows enough affection and respect for the story form to save him from either fate.

The Rose and the Ring is a fantastic read no matter your age, and a comic classic. I thoroughly recommend it.

Find The Rose and the Ring on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

Have you read Vanity Fair? Do you recommend it? I'm curious - let me know!

Friday, May 12, 2017

Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi

I can't believe it--Vintage Novels has been around for nearly seven years, and I've never reviewed Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio

Let's fix that.

When Master Cherry, the carpenter, discovers an apparently sentient piece of wood, he's a little creeped out--so instead of cutting it into a table leg, he instead gives it to his friend Gepetto to make into a puppet. No sooner is the puppet carved than he turns out to be a naughty prankster with a very short attention span, a truly impressive level of gullibility, and a nose that grows longer when he lies. The well-meaning but airheaded Pinocchio quickly gets embroiled in a series of dangerous adventures, and his longsuffering friends--his father Gepetto, the blue-haired Fairy who takes him under her wing, and others--suffer as many dangers trying to find him again. It's Pinocchio's wish to one day become a real boy and to make Gepetto and the Fairy proud of him, instead of grieving them by his many foolish antics. But how can a naughty little puppet ever change?

Like no doubt most of my readers, my first experience of this classic children's book was the classic Disney film. It was years ago and I don't remember it very well, but when I read the book as a teen I found it both far more moving and far funnier than I expected.

Pinocchio is a hilarious book. The plot is episodic and rather chaotic, and none of it makes a lick of sense. Pinocchio is a wooden puppet who acts and is treated like a little boy, and nobody finds this strange. Other puppets are treated like puppets, but seem to interact with humans as if human. Pinocchio is a complete blockhead (conceptual pun probably intended by the original author) prone to the kind of silly actions that even children can appreciate as silly, and the adult characters are also pretty outrageous. Mixed in with the surrealistic silliness is a good streak of satire and even some rather black humour--characters are constantly in danger of being eaten, burned alive, hanged, and so on. I don't know how I would have handled it as a child (possibly just fine), but as a teen and later, an adult, I found it completely irresistible.

But there was something more to the book as well, something that hit me unexpectedly hard when I read it as a teen. I suppose many readers today would find the story, like so much classic lit from the 1800s, fairly moralistic. Oh, and it is, and I'll get into why that's a bad thing in a moment. But as moralistic as the story is, it's also convicting. Pinocchio means well, in a ditzy sort of way, but he's enslaved by his impulses and has low sales resistance to any kind of temptation. This time, reading the book, I was struck by how vivid a depiction it is of Romans 7, in which Paul bewails how even the desire to do well and obey the law stirs him helplessly up to sin. Pinocchio's inability to resist temptation not only gets him into one peril after another, and but also causes untold danger and suffering to his parental figures, Gepetto and the Fairy, whom he honestly loves and longs to please. As the book continues, it becomes clear that the one desire of Pinocchio's heart, to become a real boy, will never become fulfilled until he has learned self-discipline.

These religious aspects of the story are certainly intentional. Gepetto, Pinocchio's father figure, is also his Maker. And the insistent description of the saintly Fairy's blue hair seems, even to a Protestant growing up in a secular culture like me, a fairly overt reference to the blue scarf associated with the Virgin Mary in traditional religious iconography. But I was disappointed that in the end, Pinocchio wins his goal simply by learning to turn over a new leaf, empowered by his own innate goodness.
"Well done, Pinocchio! To reward you for your good heart I will forgive you for all that is past. Boys who minister tenderly to their parents, and assist them in their misery and infirmities, are deserving of great praise and affection, even if they cannot be cited as examples of obedience and good behaviour. Try and do better in the future and you will be happy."
My inner theology nerd wants to parse out the story in terms of justification and sanctification. After all, while we can't earn our justification, sanctification is something that we can desire and work towards; so if Pinocchio is said already to have "a good heart", then perhaps this is a better picture of sanctification than justification? And to be sure it's as a tale of sanctification that the story has the most power. But having re-read the story, I'm left with the niggling dissatisfaction that no matter how you categorise it, Pinocchio earns his happy ending, on his own merits. That is moralism, in the sense of putting one's faith in good works.

Pinocchio is a messy but irresistible classic, full of things that you'll feel kind of terrible for laughing at. And while I didn't much care for the author's moralistic solution to his protagonist's predicament, I thought the depiction of impulsive sin and suffering was incredibly convicting, even as an adult. I don't know many stories that run the gamut of emotions this flamboyantly from sheer silliness to waterlogged remorse, but somehow, Carlo Collodi makes it work.

Find Pinocchio at Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg, or Librivox.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Nicholas Carey by Ronald Welch

I'm still gleefully working my way through my stack of gorgeous new Ronald Welch hardbacks. To recap, Ronald Welch was a historian and schoolteacher who wrote this awesome series of adventure/military history stories for boys, following the adventures throughout English history of a fictional noble family. Long out of print, the books have recently been reissued in beautiful heirloom-quality hardbacks, and you can get them from Slightly Foxed.

Nicholas Carey is the tenth book within the series's chronology. It's 1853, and Nicholas Carey, a younger son of a cadet branch of the noble Carey family, is lazing around Italy painting landscapes of dubious quality while enjoying leave from his regiment. Nicholas dislikes exertion or activity, but when his beloved firebrand of a cousin gets himself mixed up with Italian nationalists on the run from Austrian imperial forces, Nicholas joins the adventure to keep an eye on him. Europe is seething with anarchists, revolutionaries, and assassins--but it's on the battlefields of the Crimea that Nicholas will face the true test of his character.

Like all Ronald Welch's books, this was an exciting adventure story with a satisfying coming-of-age theme. On top of this, Nicholas Carey comes with a truly impressive wealth of historical detail. Welch always seems at home in various historical periods, but I'd guess that he's most at home here.

I did feel that the various parts of the plot had little to do with each other: the first two-thirds of the book focuses on revolutionary nationalism, while the final third deals with the Crimean War. I did, however, appreciate getting the context for the war: as we follow Nicholas on his various adventures across the map of Europe, we get a snapshot of much of the continent in the 1850s. And just as in Tank Commander, the depictions of the harshness of modern war were visceral, compelling, and never felt cheap.

As for the characters, Nicholas Carey was an enjoyably different hero. Nicholas is competent and well-meaning; he's just disinclined to exert himself. His elders shake their heads over his laziness, but the fact is that the other young men of his generation are not much more mature. Cousin Bernard, heir to the earldom, is a cavalry dandy with an outrageously affected accent, and cousin Andrew, who is constantly seeking out adventures and dragging Nicholas into them, does so because he's immature and a terrible judge of character. When the Crimean War begins, great numbers of fashionable young officers sell out their commissions so as to avoid the war. Throughout the course of this story, I enjoyed watching Nicholas mature into someone who, by contrast, is willing to put personal comfort and desires aside for the good of others.

A time that produced spoiled and selfish young men: it's an interesting perspective on the Victorian era, and I wonder if Ronald Welch intended to suggest that the hardships of war were necessary to restore a sense of masculine responsibility and self-sacrifice in the young men. It's interesting, however, that the Earl of Aubigny in this book, the most authoritative and exemplary character, is an explorer and philanthropist who left his army career early in order to live a productive peacetime life. Though not a soldier, the Earl sets a standard of peaceable manhood.

Nicholas Carey is another exciting historical adventure story for young people, providing a colourful and sometime grittily realistic picture of the nationalist upheavals and wartime hardships of the mid-nineteenth century. As usual, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

For a limited time, Nicholas Carey and the rest of the Carey Family Series is available from Slightly Foxed. Highly recommended to fans of GA Henty - get a copy while you still can!

Friday, April 28, 2017

April Updates

It's been a while since I posted one of my update posts, so I thought I would share a bit of what I've been up to...including an announcement about a new story that almost no one knows about. :-D


As usual, I keep a regular log of what I'm currently reading on Goodreads. Probably the book I'm most excited about at the moment is something I'm reading as part of this stage of work on OUTREMER: Healer of the Nations by Gary North. It's a brilliantly insightful book on international relations from a Christian perspective, and as I take a step back to look at the history I've been learning and try to evaluate the ins and outs, the rights and wrongs of it all, this specific book has been incredibly helpful. How ought Christian nations to relate to each other and to nations of other persuasions? Is there any truth in nationalism or internationalism, and what do Christians have to say about such things? These are questions that most Christians don't even think of asking, and this book, despite bearing the stamp of the times when it was written (before the collapse of the Soviet Union), has been extremely helpful to me in thinking through the issues involved in the history I've been learning.

It's available from the publisher as a free PDF here.


As part of the preparation for the second draft of Ten Thousand Thorns (more on that in a minute), I went back and watched on of my favourite wuxia films. Reign of Assassins isn't one of those serious arthouse wuxia films, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero. Instead, it's much closer to the wuxia books I read a while back: a preposterous, swashbuckling tale of ordinary people having extraordinary adventures. The always queenly Michelle Yeoh plays Drizzle, a deadly assassin who after accidentally killing the man she loves, seeks redemption in a quiet life as a street vendor in Nanjing. The Polearm Guy from Musa (Woo-sung Jeong) plays the goofy errand-runner who's sweet on her. Drizzle's former colleagues, in search for a powerful Buddhist relic that disappeared when she did, are determined to get their revenge for her defection. Will Drizzle ever be able to leave her life of violence behind her? Or is her newfound happiness about to meet an ugly end?

Although I found the ending of the film a little unsatisfying (one character gives up his revenge for no discernible reason), overall this is a charming story. I would, however, highly recommend pairing it with (ex Zen monk) Ellis Potter's book 3 Theories of Everything, which will explain the Buddhist worldview behind the film, and its preoccupation with domesticity, nature, and the small, quiet arts.


Last time I posted these updates I was listening to My Soul Among Lions, and right now I'm listening to them again, some more. Volume 2 of their ambitious project to record all 150 Psalms in a country/folk style, covering Psalms 11-20, was released just a few weeks ago and I've been listening to it over and over. As with the first album, some of the renditions are more successful than others (Psalm 18 is perhaps a little too long to fit into one track?) but overall, I'm enjoying this second album even more - particularly their Psalms 14 and 20.


So, here's the part you've been waiting for. *rubs hands*

This month I have been working on the second draft of Ten Thousand Thorns, my retelling of Sleeping Beauty as a homage to wuxia. It's coming together nicely, but looks like being the longest of my novellas so far. Because of the wordcount (potentially 35,000 words, give or take), I'm not sure how much longer I'll be finishing the second draft - but I'm looking forward to sending it to beta readers, hopefully early next month! No other story I've ever written has ever made me smile so hard, so it's been a real pleasure to work on.

The other project I'm working on this month is OUTREMER, you'll all be pleased to know. I've been fidgeting with it since the beginning of the year, and my task this month was to take a step back and do some evaluation of the ethical issues in the history. As an author, my job is, in part, to pass judgement on people's actions. Should I depict Balian of Ibelin and Maria Comnena's decision to force their daughter Isabella to divorce Hopeless Humphrey of Toron as a good or a bad thing, for instance? And what about the decision to march East on crusade at all? It's been a great time for me to challenge some of my existing assumptions, and to be a little more critical of some of what I've been reading in the history books--and a completely exciting time to think about the hand of Providence in these events. At this stage, my hope is to begin writing the second draft in the second half of this year.

And! Here's something you don't know: Last month I had a lot of fun writing the first draft of a whole new fairytale retelling. This one is titled The City Beyond the Glass, and it's a retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses in Renaissance Venice, in...well, its own style, really, though it did grow out of my fascination with Rosamund Hodge. I don't think I've ever written such overtly unpleasant characters as the ones in this story, so it was a terrific challenge. 

I didn't tell you about it at the time because of the Death Be Not Proud paperback release (did you get your copy yet? Schuyler of My Lady Bibliophile called it, and I quote, "to die for"). As always, if you've already read Death Be Not Proud and have not already done so, please do consider leaving a short review at Amazon.

And actually, I have another review request. I recently put together my four existing fairytale novellas in a boxset of their own. If you have read all my fairytale novellas, would you consider leaving a short review of that as well? It would be a very substantial help. And as always, if you haven't read the existing novellas, shoot me an email and I will be very happy to shower you with free review copies!


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