February in Review

I am a Biology and French double major and visited a graduate school in February. This is my excuse for having read only two books in the past month. I don’t feel too bad though because Ivanhoe was a long novel.

Here are the books I read in February:

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott – 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

The Gospel and the Catholic Church by Michael Ramsey  – 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Here is a list of the books I plan to read in March:

Candide by Voltaire – I am leading a read-along of this work.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Sacred Violence by Jill N. Claster

The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong – doubt I will get to this book in March

Review of Ivanhoe

Early last week, I finished reading Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott.

What is it about?

Below is a Goodreads summary of the book:

Set in England just after the Third Crusade, Ivanhoe is the tale of Wilfrid, a young Saxon knight, and his love for the royal princess Rowena. With his father against their union, Wilfrid embarks on a series of adventures to prove his worth, finding himself in conflict against the Normans and the Templars, and allied with such larger-than-life figures as Robin Hood and Richard the Lion-Hearted. A timeless story of courage, chivalry, and courtly love, Ivanhoe is a grand epic, and its place in classical literature is assured.

What did I think about it?

Ivanhoe is widely credited for having inspired people to learn more about Medieval England and the Crusades. Scott’s novel takes place in the midst of the Saxon-Norman conflicts in England and at the end of the Third Crusade. In his preface to the novel, Scott attributes the Norman invasion and the subsequent conflicts for the birth of the English language.

“[T]he necessary intercourse between the lords of the soil [The Normans], and those oppressed inferior beings by whom that soil was cultivated [The Saxons], occasioned the gradual formation of a dialect, compounded betwixt the French and the Anglo-Saxon, in which they could render themselves mutually intelligible to each other; and from this necessity arose by degrees the structure of our present English language, in which the speech of the victors and the vanquished have been so happily blended together; and which has been so richly improved by importations from the classical languages, and from those spoken by the southern nations of Europe.”

This explanation for the birth of a standard language is very insightful. Power is often behind the birth of a language. In many countries, the dominant language became dominant because of the type of people who spoke it. In France, the language Oïl (la langue d’ oïl) became standard French because this was the language spoken by those in power. Oïl and Oc were the terms for “yes” in Northern and Southern France respectively. Because Oïl was the language of the royalty and the aristocracy, Oïl was adopted while Oc almost completely disappeared. Notice that Oïl ≈ Oui. Scott argues, however, that the  birth of the English language was influenced by both the Anglo-Saxon and Norman (or French) languages.

In addition to exploring the nature of the Norman-Saxon conflict, Scott offers a pretty sympathetic, albeit stereotypical, view of the Jewish experience in medieval England. Rebecca is a strong woman who endures a lot of abuse from both Saxons and Normans. While many of the characters were very one-dimensional, Rebecca is a complex character. She is a woman whom I admire. Rebecca cares for Ivanhoe even though he barely acknowledges her. Yet, she is no one’s carpet mat. She defends her faith and her independence even in the face of death.  The Jews are still presented as lovers of money, but the author deplores their unjust treatment at the hands of certain Catholics.

The stereotypes in the book are its greatest weakness. The Jews worship money and the Catholic clergy are lovers of women and booze. The lack of character development renders the story boring at times. But because I am a sucker for medieval literature, including contemporary fiction set in the Middle Ages, I enjoyed reading Ivanhoe.

I would like to learn more about the reign of King Richard I. Scott presents him as a very irresponsible king. Because I don’t want to spoil this book for those who haven’t read Ivanhoe, I will not reveal much more about this character. Suffice it to say, that King Richard’s qualities are not always those of a good king.

Favorite quote:

“Glory?” continued Rebecca; “alas, is the rusted mail which hangs as a hatchment over the champion’s dim and mouldering tomb – is the defaced sculpture of the inscription which the ignorant monk can hardly read to the enquiring pilgrim – are these sufficient rewards for the sacrifice of every kindly affection, for a life spent miserably  that ye may make others miserable? Or is there such virtue in the rude rhymes of a wandering bard, that domestic love, kindly affection, peace and happiness, are so wildly bartered, to become the hero of those ballads which vagabond minstrels sing to drunken churls over their evening ale?”

I recommend Ivanhoe to anyone interested in medieval English history.

Madame Bovary Read-Along – April Event


Juliana at Cedar Station and C.J. at ebookclassics are both hosting a Madame Bovary read-along in April. I will be joining them and will be reading Madame Bovary in French 🙂 The posting schedule is below:

Part One – April 10, 2014

Part Two – April 20, 2014

Part Three – April 30, 2014

Since Madame Bovary is on my Classics Club book list, I am excited to join in the read-along.

Review of The Gospel and the Catholic Church

the-gospel-and-the-catholic-churchThe Gospel and the Catholic Church by Michael Ramsey is an early 20th century ecumenical essay written by an Anglican bishop who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury. The author’s thesis is that the Catholic Church (the universal church, not necessarily the Roman Catholic Church) is the Body of Christ not because Christians are united over this or that issue but because the Church is united in the death and resurrection of Christ.

“For the Church exists for something deeper than philanthropy and reform, namely to teach men to die to self and to trust in a resurrection to a new life that, because it spans both this world and another world, can never be wholly understood here, and must always puzzle the world’s idealists.”

It is in this context that Ramsey attempts to analyze the ecclesial structures and theologies of the major Christian traditions. He argues for a Church model that is structured with presbyters and bishops but does not view the organization of the Church as an end in itself. Rather, all ecclesial functions are centered in Christ. To follow Christ is to die to self. This applies to the Church as well. “The death to the self qua self, first in Christ and then in the disciples, is the ground and essence of the Church.” Tradition and the apostles play an important role in the Church.

I think that this work is a great early contribution to the ecumenical movement. In particular, I am glad that the author does not trivialize the divisions in Christianity; he doesn’t argue that Christians can be united through social justice or love. The divisions are taken seriously. I am also glad that the author does not ignore Eastern Christianity. He engages with all the major Christian traditions. However, as a Roman Catholic, I felt that at times he misunderstood my tradition. He cannot see beyond the legalism of the Church, and thinks falsely that the Catholic view of the Eucharist separates the sacrament from the passion of Christ. Catholic teaching is that the Eucharist celebrated at Mass is one and the same Eucharist shared in the Upper Room. The Eucharist, being the mystical body and blood of Christ, is a sharing in the one death and resurrection of Christ. Basically, the fruits of the Passion of Christ are not limited to the last week of Jesus’ earthly life.

Being Anglican, the author naturally thinks that the Anglican model has the most potential. Being Catholic, I think the Roman Catholic model has the most potential. In other words, his argument for the Anglican Church weakens somewhat the thesis of his essay. While the Roman Catholic Church has had a rocky history, the Anglican Church, started by King Henry VIII, has not always been a beacon of unity either. Still, I feel that the overarching theme of the book is one that can help redirect the ecumenical movement. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Christian ecumenism.

Reading Candide – March Event

Hello everyone, just a reminder that I will be hosting a Candide read-along in March. Details are below:

The event will be from March 1-31.

I will be reading the work in the original language, but all posts will be in English. Here is the posting schedule:

Monday, March 10 : chapters 1-8

Monday, March 17: chapters 9-16

Monday, March 24: chapters 17-24

Monday, March 31: chapters 25-30 (last post)

After I post about a series of chapters, you have a whole week to comment on those chapters.

Please spread the word. I look forward to our discussions.

Review of Le Roman de Tristan (The Romance of Tristan and Yseut)

Portrayal of Tristan and Yseut by Herbert Draper

Portrayal of Tristan and Yseut by Herbert Draper

Last month, I finished reading the Thomas version of the story of Tristan and Yseut. Le Roman de Tristan is a medieval courtly love poem written en octasyllabes (each line has eight syllables and the poem has an AABB rhyme scheme). Because I have great difficulty reading old French, I read a modern French version of it. There are quite a few Medieval versions of this story, but I read the Thomas version. For all you French speakers out there, there is also a popular condensed version of this story, called Tristan et Iseut by Joseph Bédier.

What was it about?

Tristan, an Arthurian knight, is in love with Yseut, the wife of King Marc. Tristan also happens to be Marc’s nephew. This is a classic courtly love poem because a noble (a knight) falls in love with one who is nobler than him (a queen). King Marc asks Tristan to bring Yseut to his kingdom so that he can marry her. But on the boat, Tristan and Yseut drink a love potion, and they instantly fall in love for each other. Of course, such a love is forbidden in the kingdom, so after tricking King Marc into sleeping with his wife’s maidservant so that Tristan can sleep with Yseut, Tristan leaves the kingdom and marries another woman named Yseut. He marries this Yseut aux Blanches Mains (Yseut of the white hands), because she has the same name as the queen and is beautiful. Tristan, assuming that the queen is enjoying her life with the king, marries this other Yseut because he wants to understand marital love. However after the marriage, he refuses to have sexual intercourse with his wife because he suddenly feels guilty for having cheated on his lover. Therefore, as a sacrifice for the queen, he sleeps next to Yseut aux Blanches Mains but doesn’t touch her. Dissatisfied with his present life, Tristan returns to Marc’s kingdom, in hopes of finding the queen.

What did I think about it?

I think we can all agree that Le Roman de Tristan has a pretty weird plot. The values of loyalty and sacrifice are turned on their heads. Tristan’s loyalty to a married woman prevents him from fulfilling his marital duties, and Thomas doesn’t seem to think that this is wrong.  In fact, Thomas intervenes frequently in defense of this illicit affair. Because passages have been lost in history, the story jumps around, and it is difficult to keep straight the two Yseuts and the two Tristans (yes, there are two Tristans as well). You really have to suspend all judgment when you read this poem because deus ex machina is the call of the day. While I think that there were better courtly love poems written in the Middle Ages such as Le Chevalier de la Charette by Chrétien de Troyes, I enjoyed reading this poem because of the characters of Yseut aux Blanches Mains and the maidservant Brangien. Both women, though neglected and/or used by their superiors, find ways to challenge the oppressive systems in which they find themselves.