August in Review

Smileys For BlogThis has been a very different reading month from the ones preceding it. Most of the books and essays I read were by one author: J.R.R. Tolkien. Although I read The Lord of the Rings a few years ago, I have only just discovered his genius. I love how Tolkien wove medieval myths and legends into his fantasy works. His research as a professor appeals to me because my research interest as an undergraduate was medieval French hagiography, particularly miracle and passion plays. I also did an internship with a couple professors who were studying the lives of Saints Barlaam and Josaphat. The story of Saint Josaphat was a Christian version of the story of the Buddha. I became fascinated by the proliferation of certain parables and myths during the Middle Ages. For example, there is a parable in the Barlaam and Josaphat stories that was well-known throughout the 13th and 14th centuries and was included in plenty of different stories. I often hear people say that Tolkien’s fantasy works were completely original, and later fantasy writers just copied him. They say this because they are ignorant of the older myths that influenced The Lord of the Rings. I don’t think good fantasy is ever completely original. That, I believe, is it’s strength. In the coming week I will explain further what I mean. Suffice it to say that Tolkien’s writing has captured my intellect and imagination. He was a myth-maker, and I won’t quit until I have read everything he wrote about Middle-Earth and the history of the Númenóreans. There may be quite a few posts about J.R.R. Tolkien’s essays and stories in the coming months.

Here is a list of the books I read in August.

On Fairy Stories by J.R.R. Tolkien – 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis (A rating of this book is not appropriate.)

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie – 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt  – 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics by J.R.R. Tolkien – 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien (LOTR Vol. 2)  – 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien (LOTR Vol. 3) – 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 (I didn’t want The Lord of the Rings to end)

Note: I will review The Lord of the Rings in one post but I may also make smaller reflection posts about the characters and themes in the trilogy, so stay tuned…

 

Books I Plan to Read in September

La Fortune des Rougon by Emile Zola (I gave up on Five Weeks in a Balloon by Jules Verne because it was boring and way too racist for my liking.)

The Silmarillion by J.R.R Tolkien (I’ve been told that this book is super dense, so I will have to read it very carefully.)

Trinity by Leon Uris (Not a classic. I borrowed this book from my father, and I’ve wanted to read it for the last few years.)

The Epic of Gilgamesh 

 

Literary Miscellanea: Samwise Gamgee On The Greatest Stories

This conversation between Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee comes from Two Towers (the second book of The Lord of the Rings). An abridged and paraphrased version of the dialogue was included in the film adaptation, and you can watch it here.

‘I don’t like anything here at all,’ said Frodo, ‘step or stone, breath or bone. Earth, air and water all seem accursed. But so our path is laid. ‘

‘Yes, that’s so,’ said Sam. ‘And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were the things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have just been landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about these as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same – like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?’

‘I wonder,’ said Frodo. ‘But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.’

 

Top 4 Under-Read/Out-Of-Print Favorites

Yesterday, during the long car ride to university, I was reminiscing about my favorite childhood books. Like other children, I loved Harry Potter, Beezus and Ramona, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But there were also other books that I loved as a child that are either under-read or out-of-print. My top 4 under-read/out-of-print favorites are listed below:

1) Richard Brown and the Dragon by Robert Bright

7144503-LI did not know this as a child, but Richard Brown and the Dragon is a retelling of a story by Mark Twain from A Tramp Abroad. Unfortunately, Richard Brown and the Dragon is out-of-print. Both the illustrations and the story are delightful. Richard Brown is a bucket-maker who is making a secret invention to destroy the dragon that killed Princess Rossile’s suitor and continues to terrorize Richard’s village.  This clever invention adds a humorous twist to the ol’ dragon adventure. You can purchase a used copy from an Amazon bookseller for 3-5 dollars.

2) Bearskin by Howard Pyle

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Like Richard Brown and the Dragon, I did not know that Bearskin belonged to an anthology of Howard Pyle fairy-tales called The Wonder Clock. It is also a more child-appropriate retelling of a Grimms’ tale of the same name. The edition that my mother bought me contains illustrations by the Caldecott Medal winner Trina Schart Hyman (a sample is above). Bearskin is about a miller’s son who is raised by a bear and therefore has the necessary courage to fight a three-headed dragon. But he needs more than just his strength to defeat the monster and win the hand of a princess.

3) The Secret Language by Ursula Nordstrom

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The Secret Language got me through many sleepless nights as a child. The story is about a girl named Victoria North who goes to boarding school for the first time and experiences home-sickness. But her miseries come to an end when she meets Martha Sherman. Martha and Victoria soon become friends and invent a secret language to communicate with one another. We all need a good friend to get us through the sad and frightening moments in our lives. Once again, The Secret Language is out-of-print, but used copies are available.

4) My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett

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Elmer Elevator runs away from home and climbs aboard a ship with the express purpose of saving a baby dragon he heard about in a story. This one also got me through sleepless nights. My Father’s Dragon won the Newbery Honor in 1949, and is available in the public domain. It is also the first book of a trilogy. Book 2 is Elmer and the Dragon and Book 3 is The Dragons of Blueland. I believe I have read all three books. Here is a sample of the illustrations from My Father’s Dragon (the illustrator is Ruth Chrisman Gannett):

 

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Reflections on Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics by J.R.R. Tolkien

TolkienSome weeks ago, I posted a reflection for Literary Flashback on Tolkien’s essay On Fairy Stories. Today’s reflection on Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics will be similar in structure, but it will not be used for tomorrow’s Literary Flashback.

Early this year, I read and reviewed Michael Alexander’s translation of Beowulf. There seems to be a consensus among bloggers that Seamus Heaney was the best translator of this poem. Before reading his translation, I wanted to learn more about the scholarship surrounding the text. As I am currently re-reading The Lord of the Rings and as Christopher Tolkien recently published his father’s translation of Beowulf, this essay piqued my interest.

J.R.R. Tolkien begins his essay by criticizing common approaches to the study of the tenth century Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf. The scholars of the early twentieth century (whom Tolkien addresses in his essay) valued the text more for its historical significance than for the story itself. “Beowulf has been used as a quarry of fact and fancy far more assiduously than it has been studied as a work of art” (p. 103). Instead of exploring Beowulf through a purely historical or archaeological lens, Tolkien believes that scholars should approach “a poem as a poem” (Ibid). The critics focused so much on the history that they overlooked the form of the story. They thought that Beowulf is a weak epic poem because the history is placed on the outskirts while the spotlight is on a man fighting monsters. Critics were so interested in the details of the story that they had a tendency to miss the overall goal of the poem. The story of Beowulf was well-known to the poet and to his audience. The references to royal families, battles, and betrayals serve to situate the story in antiquity, in a period that had become legendary. “As the poet looks into the past, surveying the history of kings and warriors in the old traditions, he sees that all glory (or as we might say ‘culture’ or ‘civilization’) ends in night” (p. 119).

The writer of Beowulf composed a poem that paid homage to myths and legends of the past. New Christian and Old Norse religious elements are present in the text. It is “a fusion that has occurred at a given point of contact between old and new, a product of thought and deep emotion” (p.117). Once again, Tolkien warns scholars of trying to dissect the poem so as to understand the mythical origins of the story. Similarities between Beowulf and other stories may be accidental (note the “story-telling soup” analogy in On Fairy Stories). There is this tendency in academia to read everything as an allegory, but according to Tolkien, Beowulf is neither an allegory nor an epic poem. It is an elegy. It is a poem written about a hero who has died. Beowulf‘s defeat by the dragon is just as significant as his earlier victories. It is ultimately a commentary on the inevitability of death; “the wages of heroism is death” (p. 122). Tolkien blames the backhanded approach critics take to Beowulf on their prejudice against monsters in literature. The dragons are viewed as silly, childish creatures that have no place in a “serious” poem. But Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon are described in great detail because the monsters play a very important role in the story. Beowulf has more than a historical significance; it has a universal significance. In the battle of good vs. evil, victory often comes at a cost. “The placing of the dragon is inevitable: a man can but die upon his death-day” (p.128). 

Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics covers much more ground than I can summarize here. I urge you to read the essay for yourself. Reading Tolkien’s scholarly work has helped me better appreciate his fiction. It is incredible how much The Lord of the Rings was influenced by Beowulf and the Eddaic poems of Old Icelandic literature (ex. The Saga of the Völsungs)!

I will leave you with the last lines of the essay:

“There is not much poetry in the world like this; and though Beowulf may not be among the very greatest poems of our western world and its traditions, it has its own individual character, and peculiar solemnity; it would still have power had it been written in some time or place unknown and without posterity, if it contained no name that could now be recognized or identified by research. Yet it is in fact written in a language that after many centuries has still essential kinship with our own, it was made in this land, and moves in our northern world beneath our northern sky, and for those who are native to that tongue and land, it must ever call with a profound appeal – until the dragon comes” (p. 129-130).

Here is the essay. 

 

Literary Miscellanea: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Dedicates The Little Prince to His Friend

It is no secret that Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) is my favorite book of all time. It has also been one of the most influential books in my life as it made me fall in love with the French language. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote a heart-warming dedication to his friend Léon Werth. He clearly had a great respect and love for children.

Below is the original dedication followed by my translation.

A LÉON WERTH

Je demande pardon aux enfants d’avoir dédié ce livre à une grande personne. J’ai une excuse sérieuse: cette grande personne est le meilleur ami que j’ai au monde. J’ai une autre excuse: cette grande personne peut tout comprendre, même les livres pour les enfants. J’ai une troisième excuse: cette grande personne habite la France où elle a faim et froid. Elle a bien besoin d’être consolée. Si toutes ces excuses ne suffisent pas, je veux bien dédier ce livre à l’enfant qu’a été autrefois cette grande personne. Toutes les grandes personnes ont d’abord été des enfants. (Mais peu d’entre elles s’en souviennent.) Je corrige donc ma dédicace :

A LÉON WERTH

QUAND IL ÉTAIT PETIT GARÇON

_____________________________________________________________________________________

TO LÉON WERTH

I ask children to forgive me for having dedicated this book to a grown-up. I have a serious excuse: this grown-up is the best friend that I have in the world. I have another excuse: this grown-up can understand everything, even books for children. I have a third excuse: this grown-up lives in France where he is hungry and cold. He is in great need of consolation. If all of these excuses do no suffice, I would like to dedicate this book to the child whom this grown-up once was. All grown-ups were once children. (But only a few of them remember it.) I, therefore, correct my dedication:

TO LÉON WERTH

WHEN HE WAS A LITTLE BOY

Review of A Man For All Seasons

What was it about?

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A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt is a play about the life of Saint Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII who was later executed for refusing to acknowledge the king as the supreme ruler of the Church of England. In addition to being venerated as a Catholic saint, Thomas More is known in the West as the scholar who wrote Utopia. Although an Agnostic, Robert Bolt admired Thomas More for being true to himself and for striving after an ideal. In his preface to the play, Robert Bolt wrote, “[W]e no longer have, as past societies have had, any picture of individual Man (Stoic Philosopher, Christian Religious, Rational Gentleman) by which to recognize ourselves and against which to measure ourselves; we are anything. But if anything, then nothing, and it is not everyone who can live with that, though it is our true present position. Hence our willingness to locate ourselves from something that is certainly larger than ourselves, the society that contains us.” 

Thomas More had an identity that was not determined by the swiftly-changing values of his society. A Man for All Seasons portrays More as a brilliant statesman who loved life and law, but when push came to shove, defended what he believed.

What did I think of it?

This is the second contemporary play I have read about a Medieval saint ( I read Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw in June). Both plays offer a refreshing portrayal of the heroes. No longer are More and Joan of Arc depicted as stock saints – perfect individuals who have no fear of death. In A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More respects the law and turns to it for guidance. Although he is a staunch Catholic, More admits that he doesn’t always know what God wants of him.

Like Bishop Cauchon in Saint Joan, Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons is not a purely evil man. He has understandable objections to the Pope’s conduct. Pope Leo X supported sins when they were convenient (Henry VIII’s incestuous marriage to Catherine of Aragon appeased the Spanish) but denounced them when they weren’t in his favor. The Pope was politically motivated like Henry VIII. A Man for All Seasons underlines the Church-State tension.

The most interesting character in the play is The Common Man. The Common Man introduces each scene but takes on such roles as a servant, a boatman, a spy, and eventually as Thomas More’s executioner. As the play goes along, the Common Man assumes more unpleasant and controversial roles in the kingdom. Money and fame are temptations. Unlike Thomas More, the Common Man has no integrity of character. He will do anything to climb the social ladder.

I laughed at More’s sarcastic jokes, sympathized with his personal struggles, and was inspired by his final words to his accusers. Thomas More is diplomatic throughout the play. Even before his family, he does not insult the king. A Man for All Seasons is an excellent portrayal of a man whom I’ve admired for years.

Favorite Quotes

[The 1520 quote from Robert Whittington that inspired the title of the play]: “More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.”

[Thomas More to his daughter Margaret]: “When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. (He cups his hands) And if he opens his fingers then – he needn’t hope to find himself again. Some aren’t capable of this, but I’d be loathe to think your father one of them.”