Jan 17 2020

Arcadia and Middle-Earth: Prose Plus Poetry in Sidney and Tolkien

After finishing C. S. Lewis’s (1898–1963) English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama) (1954) last autumn, I was curious to then read Sir. Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1580): a strange work of mostly prose, but interspersed with much poetry. I’d read Sidney’s Apology (1580) several times and mostly understood it, but the Arcadia was more ambiguous. When reading it, sometimes (at least the older version) felt like a medieval romance (like the first part of the Roman de la Rose [c. 1230]). At other times, the Arcadia felt like an ancient epic (the Argonautica (c. 200 BC) comes to mind). Either way, Arcadia is definitely not a novel, though it is a fantasy.

And it also reminded me much of J. R. R. Tolkien’s (1892–1973) works—another fantasy world told mostly in prose but containing much poetry. Both authors take these old literary forms and add something fresh to them by mixing them together. They are “fun,” even when their tones turn toward things serious. In this regard, they have mirth.

This freshness of song and speech also reminded somewhat of Miguel Cervantes (1547–1616) Don Quijote (1605, 1616), which contains a few handfuls of sonnets, and along these lines we might add Johanna Spyri’s (1827–1901) Heidi’s Lehr- und Wanderjahre (Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning) (1880) and Heidi Kann Brauchen, was es Gelernt Hat (How Heidi Used What She Learned) (1881) as well as John Bunyan’s (1628–1688) The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) with their Protestant hymns and songs intermixed with prose tales.

But the going-back-and-forthness between prose and poetry in Sidney’s Arcadia and Tolkien’s Middle-Earth mostly reminded me of classic Hollywood musicals. (I’m a South Pacific (1958) and My Fair Lady (1964) kind of guy.)

Post Scriptum

Finally, with feelings more of somberness than sadness do we wish Christopher Tolkien (1924–2020) and his kin the best as he now journeys westward toward the Grey Havens. His task as steward to his father’s work is now complete. And I expect the father to soon say to all around him, “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.”

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First edition…. RIP Christopher Tolkien

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May 8 2019

Pruning the Paragraphs

Pruning the Paragraphs

Here is a paragraph I had to prune from an essay I’m finishing up but that I think still has some worthwhile comparisons:

One also wonders whether some reactions spawned by Jussie Smollett’s alleged attack, qualify for “religiofication,” which is what American philosopher and longshoreman Eric Hoffer once defined as “the art of turning practical purposes into holy causes.”* If Smollett staged such an attack, he would be not unlike the innkeeper at the beginning of the Quixote (I, iii). For the innkeeper is someone who, being something of a knight in his younger days, is willing to placate his meddlesome guest Alonso Quijano. Quijano went mad by reading too many books of chivalry, and now wishes to be ordained into knighthood under the name Don Quixote. The innkeeper believes that by pretending (or acting) to be a knight, and going through the motions of ordination, he will send this madman on his way, and away from the inn where he causes mischief. In doing so, the innkeeper almost plays Don Quixote’s game-of-pretend better than the Don himself, for the innkeeper has inverted Hoffer’s formula and turned the Don’s holy cause into a practical purpose.

*Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951), (New York: Harper & Row, 1966) § 1, p. 15.

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Cedar waxwings eating nandina

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Feb 7 2019

On Writing: How to Avoid Materials

Western book stack

Currently I’m working on the first of a series of essays that deal with the idea of tolerating the intolerant. For the first one, I’ll be using some old family stories. I’ve also picked out some recent headlines and current events for it. I plan to weave them in and make it all freshly relevant. Some literary comparisons from Camus and Cervantes will also be used.

And even though Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung) (1915) can be read in ways quite relevant to the topic of tolerating the intolerant, I don’t want to use it for this project, and I have refrained from rereading it.

Yes, Kafka’s story is in most English language short story anthologies. It’s often the first story by Kafka that students in the United States are exposed to. Yes, as the story progresses Gregor Samsa’s family grows less and less tolerant as their son changes into an insect. They grow so intolerant that, by the end, they celebrate Gregor’s demise by having a picnic. Yes, Kafka had a tremendous influence on Camus,[1] and Kafka took Cervantes very seriously, yes, yes, yes….

So Kafka’s tale might seem relevant to use.

But I don’t want to. In this particular story–or at least my multiple memories of reading it–Kafka exhausts me in a way Camus and Cervantes do not.

Maybe it’s that drab Prague apartment … and that dry humor … dry like the crust and crunch of salt crystals. Abrasive….

Restoration versus reservation: Perhaps if one leaves Kafka’s story in mental reserve for a while, its relevance will one day be restored and written about.  Or perhaps the tale is musty–like an old rug that’s been in the family for generations. Perhaps Kafka’s story needs to be taken to the yard and beaten with a broomstick until it is properly aired out.

Yet I don’t feel like the one to do the butler’s duties.

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[1] Le Mythe de Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus) (1942), trans. Justin O’Brien, (New York: Vintage Books, 1959) pp. 127, 130, 138; LÉtranger (The Stranger) (1942), trans. Stuart Gilbert, (New York: Vintage, 1954) pp. 11, 21, 99–100.



Sep 2 2016

Cryptic Ramblings on Rebuilding Community

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Cryptic Ramblings on Rebuilding Community

“We become so reductive when we pluck examples out of context.”

–Walter Jackson Bate[1]

Who says all post-industrial towns need saving? Is it all darkness on the edge of their city limits, the borders of lamp-forbidden hermit kingdoms, and Springsteen’s Badlands? Are these towns stuck in a new dark age, “betwixt the world destroyed and world restored?”[2] But how could those ages have been dark, full of “dim sadness,”[3] when gold is the only color named in Beowulf?

To revitalize these communities, and their apparent crumbling churches, why not three-dimensionally print new Notre Dames for them? Yet that would only devalue the original cathedral, commodify the creation. Can replicas ever evoke revival?

Agriculture once dominated some of these post-industrial towns. I once asked the Danes for wisdom. They told me Beowulf was not a farmer but a fisherman. (Perhaps he farmed the seas.) Boethius observed that all farmers are wed to Fortune, yoked to Fate, thrown by weather like Beowulf and his shipmates.[4]

Bureaucrat Boethius was “prompted to sing,”[5] while squire Sancho declared: “I can only tell a story the way I learned it in my country,”[6] because “we see not all letters in single words, nor all places in particular discourses.”[7]

The mercenary Beowulf was hired to provoke Grendel and interrupt his trolling,[8] while the martyr Boethius came to disrupt the wicked,[9] so let us moderns “try adventurous work,”[10] and cause mischief upon all that has gone wrong already. Let’s stir the shit (and troll the trolls)—to quake and quicken the stagnant cesspools where the mothers of monsters lurk. All governments are inherently obscure, because that is what they seek, which is why Beowulf and Boethius came to churn the murky waters clear. So should we.[11]

Yet it may not matter for the moderns that the ancients provoked Grendel, for while vagrants are forever among us, monsters have ceased to be news.[12] Yes, Grendel was a kind of vagrant, but all laws against vagrancy accomplish nothing.[13]

Lord Bacon warned of readers who tend to turn authors into dictators,[14] and certainly dictators masquerading as governors are much more dangerous than monsters in the guise of trolls.

NOTES

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[1] The Burden of the Past and the English Poet. MA: Harvard UP. 1970. p. 130.

[2] Milton, Paradise Lost, XII, 1–5.

[3] Milton, Paradise Lost, X, 23.

[4] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy II, i, prose.

[5] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, I, iv, prose.

[6] Cervantes, Don Quixote, I, xx.

[7] Jonson, Timber: or Discoveries.

[8] Beowulf, 99–117.

[9] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, I, iii, prose.

[10] Milton, Paradise Lost, X, 254–55.

[11] Bacon, Francis. Advancement of Learning, II, xxiii, 47.

[12] More, Utopia, I.

[13] More, Utopia, I.

[14] Bacon, Advancement of Learning, I, iv, 5.


Aug 14 2015

Requiem for Chivalry

bookbread pencil shavings

Chivalry didn’t die in France–like Burke bemoaned–because chivalry had been dead for well over a hundred years prior to the Revolution. If chivalry hadn’t died, Cervantes could not have written Don Quixote (1605). But hundreds of years after Cervantes and Burke, people are still chasing windmills. Over at The American Conservative, Gracey Olmsted writes:

This is what the “spirit of the gentleman” used to provide: a reasoned, courteous atmosphere in which public discourse could take place—where opinions could be stated without savagery, and received without rancor. The problem is that gentlemen are out of popularity on left and right—for reasons [Mark] Mitchell makes clear in another FPR post.

The gentleman is unpopular with the left and “PC” crowd because, in Mitchell’s words, he “is one who is willing and able to judge well. He is discriminating in his judgments and does not shy away from making hard distinctions even when they cause him discomfort and even when he is forced to stand alone [emphasis added].” Such discriminatory value judgments will not be honored on the modern university campus, nor even in the larger political world.

I suppose a rather ungentlemanly act would be to point at that last line from Olmsted–“Such discriminatory value judgments will not be honored on the modern university campus, nor even in the larger political world“–and say, yes, that may be true, but that is also a very narrow and reductive Weltanschauung. There is plenty more to life than universities and politics, particularly if you’re too poor and/or live under a gerrymandered regime.

Plenty of Americans live their day-to-day lives in a brave new world beyond the constraints of chivalry and bureaucracy.