One Hundred Fiftieth

April 12, 2011

Today is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Sumter, which began the American Civil War. And I’ve already seen several items noting the anniversary and a few offering explanations as to why the South was wrong.

I’m not going to say that the South was right, because in the most obvious respect, they weren’t–slavery was, and is, wrong, and the South was in large part fighting to keep it’s “peculiar institution.” But I do think it’s important to understand that the South understood itself to be fighting not primarily for slavery, but for (and this is my formulation) state’s rights, community, and tradition, as set against nationalization, legalization, and modernization. Though the South was tainted by slavery, these ideals are not themselves evil. Neither are they unequivocally good, but there is much to be said for them, and much to be said against their opposites.

There are many directions I could go with this–secession, Southern culture, how the War was prosecuted, Reconstruction, etc–but I don’t think it’s all that necessary to do so. I’m certainly not the most intelligent Civil War commentator out there. I think what’s most important to realize is how bad it was–600,000 Americans died at a time when the U.S. was much smaller than it is now–and to contemplate whether those deaths were necessary or unnecessary. People have described it both ways. I find that fascinating.


Promethean Fire, Promethean Clay

July 17, 2009

So Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is subtitled, “The Modern Prometheus”.

Every essay I’ve ever read about Frankenstein that talks about that subtitle says it is a reference to the myth of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and giving it to mankind. The implication of the subtitle becomes, Prometheus transgressed against the gods by stealing fire (=science), and Frankenstein did the same thing. The question becomes, did Prometheus really deserve to be punished, or was he a tragic hero punished unjustly by Zeus?

But there’s another aspect to the mytical Prometheus that I haven’t ever seen connected to Frankenstein, but that seems almost more apt for a Frankenstein subtitle: Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus created mankind out of clay, on the orders of the other gods. If we consider the subtitle in light of this myth, the comparison is not between a transgressive Prometheus and a transgressive Frankenstein; the comparison is between a Prometheus who created life under the orders of the gods, and a Frankenstein who created life illicitly.

I don’t know why this second interpretation is never used. It has slightly different implications, and seems more appropriate, since it draws a parallel between Prometheus’s actions and Frankenstein’s actions, rather than just a parallel between their attitudes towards authority. It also makes the subtitle a judgment of Frankenstein’s character, rather than a judgement of Prometheus’s character, which seems more reasonable, since the book is about Frankenstein not Prometheus.

The Goddess

November 21, 2008

We recently read Shakespeare’s play Othello in class. Now, I had already heard something about the play, and knew the basic plot, but I did not really expect to find the play as powerful as it was… and, strangely, it was not the character of Iago (who is considered the most interesting part of the play) that caught my attention, but rather the character of Desdemona. So I’m going to try to explain why this is.

Now, Desdemona is essentially a Virtue figure, in contrast with Iago the Vice figure (the entire play being based structurally on medieval morality plays, with Othello in the middle of these two forces). But, this is not a morality play. All of the characters in it are human, not allegories, I should hope – otherwise, why the hell are we even reading this play rather than just reading Mankind? And indeed, Desdemona is not purely virtuous – she definitely screwed up in eloping with Othello, for example.

But what’s interesting about Desdemona is how all of the men in the play interact with her (except Iago, who is a different story altogether). Even if she is human, none of them view her as such – they all see her basically as a goddess, someone to be worshiped because she is amazingly virtuous, beautiful, etc etc. And of course all the guys in the play seem to be in love with her because of this (Roderigo, Michael Cassio, Othello obviously…). And Othello is finally brought to kill Desdemona by Iago suggesting that she is not, actually, perfect, and is actually cheating on him.

So, we have an extremely virtuous woman, who is nonetheless human. How do we know she is human, not a goddess? Because we examined her faults and concluded she had them. Othello was under the delusion that she was a goddess as well, and was finally disabused of that notion – and brought to hate her – by examining her faults and concluding she had them. Drawing a loose connection between these two, it seems to me that, Othello is suggesting something like this: “When you are in love with someone in this disorderly worshipful way, the only way to stop worshiping them is to decide that they are not perfect – which will result in you not loving them at all”.

That’s a kind of disturbing thought. It means there is, really, no connection at all between true love and the kind of infatuation Othello is engaged in…

Book Review: Martin the Warrior

March 17, 2008

Over Spring Break (15th till the 25th), among other things, I plan to read several books – Phantastes (by George MacDonald), the Poetic Eddas (a collection of Old Norse poetry – translated, of course, I don’t know Old Norse), and (yet another) book about Tolkien. This in addition to my assigned reading for school of two books of Paradise Lost and one book of the Nicomachean Ethics, and to all of the other stuff I plan on accomplishing this week. I should be rather busy.

So, of course, as soon as I got home Friday night I immediately decided to pick up another book. It was Martin the Warrior, by Brian Jacques – one of the Redwall series. A children’s book, but one of my favorite, and I had been talking a few weeks ago about Redwall with some people, so I decided to re-read it. It only took five hours or so, if that.

Now, the books undoubtedly have their flaws. As this xkcd strip points out, the morality is not particularly complex (bad guy bad! good guy good! why? uh…). The writing isn’t brilliant. As the series went on (it’s reached eighteen books now, I think), it got rather repetitive – the same plots recycled over and over. But Martin the Warrior was one of the better Redwall books – along with the original Redwall, Mossflower, Outcast of Redwall, and Mattimeo (or so I’ve heard – I’m not a big fan of Mattimeo, myself, but it’s certainly better than, say, The Long Patrol), and perhaps a few others.

There are a few reasons to like it. For one, it has (somewhat strong, as a friend of mine pointed out) echoes of the Iliad, especially with how Felldoh, mimicking Patroclus, goes out to fight Badrang, dies through treachery, and is avenged by Martin. I also like how the book raises the question of what it is to be a warrior, and whether it is good to be one. It actually does it in a surprisingly well-thought-out way. Finally, and related to both of these, I like how Jacques is (at least in this book) not afraid to let major characters die, in tragic ways.

First of all, Felldoh dies – perhaps slightly predictable, since Jacques often has the most bloodwrath-ful warriors (mostly badgers) perish in battle. But this time, his death is not in sacrifice to save the main character. Really, his death seriously harms the efforts of the good guys. He starts the battle too early by charging up and attacking Badrang alone, which forces his friends to chase after him and try to save them, but then they get caught by the much larger bad guy army. You can interpret him as being redeemed in the end by taking so many bad guys with him before he dies – but, in the end, is he really? I don’t know. Jacques doesn’t usually leave moral ambiguities like this unanswered. I thank him for leaving this one open.

Then, unexpectedly, Rose dies. The first time I read it, I didn’t realize immediately that she was dead – she is killed by Badrang almost in passing. He’s trying to escape, he sees the hedgehog, who is curled up in his way; he pokes at the hedgehog with the sword. Then he runs past him, sees the mole, who tries to hit him with a ladle; he pushes the mole out of the way. Then this mousemaid runs up and tries to stop him; he graps the mousemaid and throws her against a wall. Then the duel between him and Martin begins. Oh, and by the way, the mousemaid died from hitting her head like that. Martin doesn’t even notice until after he defeats Badrang, but the mousemaid he swore to protect – who he was in love with – was killed. He failed, and now his victory has been made bitter.

This was much more emotionally powerful, I thought and think, than any other death in the Redwall series. Warriors in the series often die in battle – but they die as heroes, taking down enemies, and their deaths accomplish something. Rose’s death just seems so pointless and wasteful. And the emotional connection between Rose and Martin actually seemed real, so it felt like Martin actually lost something when she died. Jacques has tried to do stuff like that in a few different books – The Bellmaker springs to mind, where one of the pair of buddies whose names I can’t remember dies and the other lives and ends up being the one telling the story – but it usually seems forced. Here it worked.

And it underscores something that I think is crucial to understanding good literature (literature about war – any kind of war, so long as it might involve death – especially). People have to die, and the reader has to care about their death. In all of my favorite books that involve some sort of armed struggle, major characters die, and those deaths are a large part of what make me like the books – even if the fact that, in the sub-created world, they are dead, deeply saddens me. Piccadilly from the Deptford Mice trilogy, Gollum and Frodo (who didn’t die, but suffered a truly horrible fate, which I think makes any catalog of tragic endings for individual characters in the midst of happy endings overall) from the Lord of the Rings, a whole host of characters from the Silmarillion… their deaths improve the books they are in. Even Dumbledore from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I have great problems with the Harry Potter series, but one thing J.K. Rowling did right was let Dumbledore die. (I wish she had had the guts to have someone important die in the seventh book – a few people died, sure, but none major. I suppose some people cared deeply about Lupin and Mad-Eye Moody, but I never did, really. Part of that, I’m sure, has to do with how the books completely failed to make any emotional connection with me. Anyway, this would be another essay entirely, so I’ll stop now.)

Imagine a Martin the Warrior without Rose dying, or a Lord of the Rings without Gollum dying or Frodo going off into the West, or a Romeo and Juliet with the couple living happily ever after. This may seem somewhat of a stretch, but I think they would be like a Resurrection without a Crucifixion. Don’t think this comparison blasphemous – the life of Christ is, as Tolkien said, the one true myth that other myths (and stories in general, I would add) all echo, to one degree or another.

I’ll end with a quote from the final chapter of the Silmarillion – after the Valar have returned, defeated Morgoth, and saved what was still left to be saved. In other words, after the happy ending. As happy as it could be, given the circumstances.

Here ends The Valaquenta. If it has passed from the high and beautiful to darkness and ruin, that was of old the fate of Arda Marred; and if any change shall come and the Marring be amended, Manwë and Varda may know; but they have not revealed it, and it is not declared in the dooms of Mandos.

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