Thursday, November 26, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: Knocking some stuffing out of Moorcock's "Epic Pooh"

According to Michael Moorcock, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has endured solely because it’s comfort food. So proclaimeth the author of the Elric stories in his seminal essay “Epic Pooh".

Well, I’m here to knock a little stuffing out of his puffed-up essay.

“Epic Pooh” criticizes The Lord of the Rings on the weakness of its prose style. It also attacks Tolkien’s underlying themes and ideas. It accuses him of failing to challenge the reader and offering artificial happy endings instead. According to Moorcock Tolkien is guilty of glorifying warfare, of failing to question authority, and for ignoring the problem of death. He makes other spirited attacks of the work (and the author) as well.[*]

The first argument is highly subjective, a matter of taste for which I have little argument. Moorcock is entitled to dislike Tolkien’s prose, and if he finds it too coddling, removed, or just plain sub-par, that’s fine. I happen to enjoy it very much, but different strokes for different folks and all that.

But once you get past its criticisms of style, “Epic Pooh” fails rather epically as a critique of Tolkien’s themes. Let me explain.

Moorcock takes Tolkien to task for many perceived crimes in “Epic Pooh,” but perhaps most of all for using The Lord of the Rings to tell “comforting lies” and coddle the reader. Says Moorcock:
There is no happy ending to the Romance of Robin Hood, however, whereas Tolkien, going against the grain of his subject matter, forces one on us – as a matter of policy.
I’ve heard this argument made elsewhere and always found it to be a gross misreading of Tolkien’s work. Presumably because The Lord of the Rings ends with the defeat of Sauron, and the restoration of order, it is therefore a simplistic, neat, bow-tied conclusion in which our heroes return home happy and whole, safe and sound.
On the contrary, I would argue that the victory over Sauron is only a temporary reprieve against the encroaching dark. This is the great sadness of The Lord of the Rings—there is home and hearth for some of the victors, but not all of them, and perhaps not even for most. When Frodo departs for the West it’s on a full ship: Gandalf, and Elrond, and Galadriel, and the main of Middle-Earth’s elves are sailing away, too. Magic has left the world. The great evil of the Third Age is defeated, but its void will be filled with other, more banal but equally sinister incarnations of evil. In the wake of the likes of the elves and of Gandalf (and even Saruman and the Balrog and the orcs) comes the vagaries of men, and with them their propensity for both great good and unspeakable evil.
Wounded soldiers return with traumas seen and unseen, and this is evident in Frodo, who bears wounds that are deep indeed. Some essential part of him has been left on a foreign field, and his wounds are too grave to allow him to enjoy the peace he has so dearly bought:
I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.
In summary, The Lord of the Rings has a complex, bittersweet, melancholy ending. Happy it is not.
Moorcock also derides Tolkien for contributing to the glorification of war and the death of young soldiers:
It was best-selling novelists, like Warwick Deeping (Sorrell and Son), who, after the First World War, adapted the sentimental myths (particularly the myth of Sacrifice) which had made war bearable (and helped ensure that we should be able to bear further wars), providing us with the wretched ethic of passive “decency” and self-sacrifice, by means of which we British were able to console ourselves in our moral apathy (even Buchan paused in his anti-Semitic diatribes to provide a few of these). Moderation was the rule and it is moderation which ruins Tolkien’s fantasy and causes it to fail as a genuine romance, let alone an epic.
This statement is also inaccurate. Nowhere does Tolkien claim that war is a good thing. Rather, the implication in The Lord of the Rings and elsewhere in Tolkien’s writings is that it is, at times, necessary. Lest we forget, Tolkien served in the trenches in the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War. He saw unspeakable carnage and death. But he also witnessed heroism of the highest order.
As I stated elsewhere in a review of John Garth’s Tolkien and The Great War, unlike many of the famous WWI combat veterans whose experience resulted in poems and stories of disillusionment and disenchantment (Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms), Tolkien refused to believe that the sacrifice of brave young men was a waste. Says Garth: “In contrast, Tolkien’s protagonists are heroes not because of their successes, which are often limited, but because of their courage and tenacity in trying. By implication, worth cannot be measured by results alone, but is intrinsic.” This is Frodo’s lot: Thrust into a larger war beyond his control, his selfless heroism in carrying the ring to Mount Doom is but a tiny, insignificant role in the great sweep of combat at Minas Tirith and elsewhere. But it mirrors the great acts of unrecorded bravery on the battlefields of World War I.
The sacrifice of Frodo and Sam is not sentimentalizing, it is Tolkien expressing an honest respect and admiration for the soldiers who suffered through horrific, unbearable circumstances. Tolkien said that the character of Sam was inspired by the British rank-and-file soldiers who served and fought and often gave their lives without fanfare in the blood-filled trenches of World War I, expecting nothing and possessing only the hope of home at the end of it all. Said Tolkien, “My ‘Sam Gamgee’ is indeed a reflexion of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself.”
Moorcock states that the hobbits represent a “petit bourgeoisie, the honest artisans and peasants, as the bulwark against Chaos. These people are always sentimentalized in such fiction because traditionally, they are always the last to complain about any deficiencies in the social status quo.”
I would counter with: What is so sentimental and consolatory about Sam’s endurance and will to go on, hoping only to return to home and hearth? I suspect that Moorcock has a problem with the social organization of the Shire to which the hobbits return, not necessarily their bravery in defending it.
Here’s another misguided Moorcock-ianism from “Epic Pooh”:
I don’t think these books are ‘fascist’, but they certainly don’t exactly argue with the 18th century enlightened Toryism with which the English comfort themselves so frequently in these upsetting times. They don’t ask any questions of white men in grey clothing who somehow have a handle on what’s best for us.
This statement makes you wonder whether Moorcock missed the scene from LOTR in which Sam looks upon the slain Southron and questions the very nature of war, including its participants and causes, laying it bare in all its futility. From The Two Towers:
It was Sam’s first battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil at heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.
Tolkien believed that war is terrible and of last resort, and slain foes are, in the end, just men–and therefore to be pitied. War is necessary when “destroyers” like Sauron or Hitler would impose their will on the free peoples of the world, but it is a duty to be carried out, not glorified. In his famous forward to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote:
One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.
Here’s another telling quote (from Faramir, again from The Two Towers) that tells you all you need to know about Tolkien’s views on war:
War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.
Moorcock also attacks The Lord of the Rings for fostering an attitude of selfish self-protection and insularity:
The little hills and woods of that Surrey of the mind, the Shire, are “safe”, but the wild landscapes everywhere beyond the Shire are “dangerous”. Experience of life itself is dangerous. The Lord of the Rings is a pernicious confirmation of the values of a declining nation with a morally bankrupt class whose cowardly self-protection is primarily responsible for the problems England answered with the ruthless logic of Thatcherism. Humanity was derided and marginalised. Sentimentality became the acceptable subsitute. So few people seem to be able to tell the difference.
While the woods beyond the Shire are certainly wild and dangerous, Moorcock’s statement is far too simplistic. Experience of life (i.e., that encountered beyond the borders of the Shire) can be dangerous, and often is, but as Tolkien demonstrates, it’s more dangerous to engage in isolationism, to stick one’s head in the sand and do nothing. War is coming to the Shire, and the hobbits must venture beyond its borders to save it. Self-protection and complacency is not a viable option. I note that Sam, Merry, and Pippin return as stronger hobbits, enriched from their experience. Is this experience dangerous? Yes. Is it necessary, and in the end, a good thing? Yes.
Yet the above statements are not Moorcock’s most egregious misreading of The Lord of the Rings. I reserve that for the following:
The great epics dignified death, but they did not ignore it, and it is one of the reasons why they are superior to the artificial romances of which Lord of the Rings is merely one of the most recent.
This statement completely falls apart when viewed against the entirety of Tolkien’s works, which confront the problem of death head-on. Take The Children of Hurin, for example, which is an expansion of a story Moorcock would have read in The Silmarillion.[*]Here Morgoth is a dark demi-god, and a symbol of all that is twisted in mankind’s soul, all that of which we despair in the dark of night, rolled into a being of unspeakable malice. When he lays his curse upon Hurin and Turin, they are truly doomed. Morgoth evokes the ultimate fear of all mankind: that death is the end, and that nothing—literal, uppercase Nothing—awaits us in the grave. Says Hurin:
“Beyond the Circles of the World you shall not pursue those who refuse you.”
“Beyond the Circles of the World I will not pursue them,” said Morgoth. “For beyond the Circles of the World there is Nothing. But within them they shall not escape me, until they enter into Nothing.”
The Children of Hurin begins and ends with death. The Silmarillion contains far more darkness than light, and carnage (and much defeat for the forces of good) on the scale of some of the worst battlefields of World War I. Even The Hobbit, begun as a children’s tale (though morphed in the writing to something quite different), touches on mortality: Following his epic journey and the costly Battle of Five Armies, Bilbo emerges a very different character, far less insulated and more appreciative of the fragile peace of the Shire, with “eyes that fire and sword have seen, and horror in the halls of stone.”
And as for The Lord of the Rings, its entirety can be viewed a metaphor for death. Where do you think the gray ship bore Frodo? He was dying, man.
In short, Tolkien’s works actively grapple with the terrible reality and uncertainty of our mortality. Demonstrably, they do not ignore it.
In fairness, I do agree with some of “Epic Pooh’s” points. Moorcock laments the ignorance of the reading public when it comes to writers like Fritz Leiber, who are often overlooked in favor of lesser fantasy authors that have achieved more popularity simply because they’re an easy, safe read (agreed). I also think that second-rate Tolkien clones—many of which I enjoyed as a youth—have muddied the waters of fantasy literature and contributed to dragging the genre down in the eyes of critics. However, I don’t think they should be actively avoided as Moorcock suggests, just recognized as derivative.
It’s undeniable that Tolkien was nostalgic. He hated seeing the English countryside disappear, to be replaced by factories and fabricated housing. The polluting mill that appears in “The Scouring of the Shire” was based off of an incident that occurred during Tolkien’s lifetime.
In “Epic Pooh,” Moorcock chides Tolkien for not being able to take pleasure from the realities of urban industrial life. But can you blame Tolkien for feeling embittered at the dwindling of the rural countryside? I cannot.
In conclusion, I’ve returned to The Lord of the Rings time and time again over my lifetime. I enjoy slipping into Middle Earth and meeting up with characters that now feel like old friends. I do take comfort in these aspects of the work.
But each time I do, additional unique and challenging facets of this one of a kind work are revealed. It gets better as I grow older, which tells of its surprising depth and multitude of meanings. The Lord of the Rings is not a comforting lie, but a living, breathing book that changes with each re-reading. The more one reads of Tolkien’s legendarium in The Silmarillion, The Children of Hurin, and The History of Middle Earth, the more suffused in darkness and uncertainty works like The Lord of the Rings (and even The Hobbit) become.
So Mr. Moorcock, pardon me while I return to the table for another helping of this one of a kind “comfort” food, prepared by the finest chef ever produced by the culinary arts school of fantasy fiction. You can take “Epic Pooh” and stuff it.
*A third strand of Moorcock’s dislike for Tolkien also emerges in “Epic Pooh,” that being his antipathy for Tolkien’s Toryism and conservatism. Moorcock takes Tolkien and C.S. Lewis to task for their politics and, to a lesser degree, their religion. It’s noteworthy that Moorcock in a post-publication author’s note lavishes praise on Phillip Pullman, a lesser literary light than Tolkien by any measurable standard, but a writer whose politics fall into lockstep with his own. But while I suspect that political disagreement is the true genesis of “Epic Pooh,” I’d prefer to leave this debate out of The Cimmerian.
* I was prepared to cut Moorcock some slack on the basis that he may not have read The Silmarillion before writing “Epic Pooh.” Puzzlingly, Moorcock has read it, and actually cites it in the essay. Therefore, I feel perfectly justified in using it and The Children of Hurin in Tolkien’s defense.

–Artwork by Ted Nasmith

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Burning Land set to reignite the Saxon Stories

The cover blurbs on Bernard Cornwell’s books read “Perhaps the greatest writer of historical adventure novels today,” and frankly, you’ll get no arguments from me. I've come to love Cornwell, who is in every sense a Man's writer. There's no romance in his books and no literary pretension, so if you're looking for those elements, try something else. On the other hand, if you like bloody battles, cowardice and heroism, grim suffering and cruel murder, oath-making and breaking, hard drinking and mirth, and, most importantly, darned good storytelling, Cornwell's your man. His greatest strength is probably his ability to spin a compelling, fun tale, and he does it with a keen eye for historic accuracy.

Cornwell's ongoing series The Saxon Stories features vikings, shield walls, axes, dark ages combat, hall-burnings, and general mayhem. If this stuff sounds appealing (and if you're a reader of The Cimmerian or this blog, how could it not?), you owe it to yourself to pick up the first book in the series, The Last Kingdom, and get started.

The Saxon Stories is an ongoing historical fiction series about the reign of Alfred the Great and the clash of Danes and Saxons in 9th century Britain. The stories are told through the viewpoint of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a warrior who was born a Saxon and fights for their cause, but was raised among the Danes, and so has an iron-plated boot in each camp. Uhtred is a fun character, as he's torn between hereditary love for his ancestral homeland and a passion for the Danes. Although they're murderous raiders, the Danes drink deep of life, scorn Christian "virtues" of humility and pity, and worship the pagan gods of Thor and Odin. These qualities appeal strongly to Uhtred, who grew to love the Danes during his capture and upbringing under Earl Ragnar.

I read the first four books in the Saxon Stories with gusto (these include The Last Kingdom (2004), The Pale Horseman (2005), The Lords of the North (2006), and Sword Song, published in 2007), and eagerly anticipated the next book in the series, so much so that Cornwell's decision to interrupt Uhtred's saga with Agincourt was a bit of a let-down, even though I wound up enjoying the heck out of it.

But I was very pleased to find out that the fifth book, The Burning Land, has been released in the UK and will be available in the United States in January 2010, according to Bernard Cornwell's official Web site.

Looks like 2010 will be off to a fine, blood-soaked start.

(Cross posted from The Cimmerian ).

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

My top 5 Stephen King novels

While surfing the internet recently I encountered something quite surprising: A post from a well-read genre fan who had just experienced Stephen King for the first time. In a reply to this post, someone wrote that they had also only recently read King, and through a few of his newer works (On Writing, Cell, and Lisey’s Story).

Having grown up on King, and at one point believing that the publishing sun rose and set on his novels, I’m still a little stunned when I see exchanges like this: I have the habit of assuming that everyone has read everything King ever wrote.

For a long time, I did just that. Starting in the mid-80s and running through the early 90’s, I was immersed in King’s world, enthralled with its big terrors lurking in small Maine towns, tractor-trailers and laundry machines come to horrifying life, and Walking Dudes. My first encounter with King was The Shining, which I plucked off my grandfather’s bookshelf as a curious kid, and proceeded to scare myself half to death (while loving every second of it). From there I diligently read his entire backlist, starting with his debut novel Carrie (1974) up through Cycle of the Werewolf (1985) or thereabouts.

When I was done with everything King had written, I proceeded to read each new King novel as fast as he wrote them. For a while King was pumping them out every year, or even quicker, but I ate up titles like Misery, The Eyes of the Dragon, The Tommyknockers, and The Dark Half with insatiable gusto.

But eventually, King fatigue set in. My tastes changed and broadened. The king of horror eventually lost his grip on me.

While I still read King from time to time, I’m no longer obsessed with him, and have skipped some of his newer stuff entirely. I can no longer lay claim to having read every Stephen King title (Hearts in Atlantis, Under the Dome—has anyone read these? Any good?), but I still count him among my favorite authors, for the simple fact that he’s given me more pleasure than just about any other author I’ve read. And, his prose has always been so damned readable.

But the aforementioned internet exchange got me to thinking: Maybe King’s shadow is starting to wane. I know that he’s still very widely read today, but he doesn’t seem to be quite the unstoppable juggernaut who once had a stranglehold on the bestseller lists. For a 10 or 12-year window—I’d place it at 1977-89—King was the undisputed King of Horror. Maybe now he’s a mere Emperor of Terror, or a (Dark) Lord, perhaps—still with an enormous clout and following, but a step below the popularity and penetration of writers like J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer. Also, newer readers are coming into the fold that may very well be oblivious to King, or at least disinterested in what they perceive to be the voice of an older generation (like I used to think of writers like Norman Mailer or Herman Wouk).

So for those coming to King for the first time, or for those who can’t get enough of King (I still adore his older stuff, and readily sing its praises) I thought I’d put together my top five list of favorite King works. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. The Stand (Complete and Uncut, 1991). At 1,140 pages in paperback, The Stand is King’s post-apocalyptic version of The Lord of the Rings. A killer plague wipes out 99.4% of the world’s population. The survivors band together and are eventually drawn into opposing camps by two spiritual leaders—the forces of good under Abigail Trotts in Boulder, Colorado, and the forces of evil under Randall Flagg, aka. the walking dude, in Las Vegas. My favorite parts of the book are the early stages, in which King describes the spread of the plague and the terrible chaos following the collapse of society. The terror is palpable as the breakdown gets really bad, and barbarism and end-of-the-world excess are rampant. The Stand is also noteworthy as a tour-de-force of diverse characters. Flagg is a terrifying figure and a recurring villain of later King novels, and the book is peppered with a host of likeable and memorable personalities, including the deaf-mute Nick Andros, the mentally handicapped Tom Cullen, the fatally flawed Harold Lauder, and the raving, likeable lunatic Trashcan Man, among many others.

2. Night Shift (1978). I’ve long maintained that King might be a better short-story writer than a novelist. Night Shift is his first collection and is not only studded with a number of terrifying gems, but it demonstrates his versatility and range as a storyteller. There’s certainly terror in spades here: “The Boogeyman” makes you never want to sleep with your closet door open, not even a crack, while “Children of the Corn” is a story of a couple who drive into an isolated Nebraska town corrupted by an ancient fertility god, its children driven to sacrifice and murder. “Trucks” and “The Mangler” are fun tales of mayhem in which heartless, murdering machines rise up against mankind. But there’s also surprising depth here, such as “The Woman in the Room,” King’s heart-felt examination of aging and death, and “The Last Rung on the Ladder,” a well-written tale of friendship, faith, and loss.

3. Different Seasons (1982). If pressed to name my favorite work by King, short story, novel, non-fiction or otherwise, I would probably settle on Different Seasons. It consists of four novellas, one of which, I think, is rather a dud (“The Breathing Method”). The other three, however, are pure gold: “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” “Apt Pupil,” and “The Body.” All three were made into well-done films (“The Body” was re-titled as “Stand by Me”). Some of King’s finest writing can be found here. “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” is a profound affirmation of faith and hope, and “The Body” never fails to bring me back to my childhood. Both stories are really about the bonds of friendship: Andy Dufresne and Red are the pumping heart of hope in “The Shawshank Redemption,” while Chris and Gordie’s fall from innocence binds them closer together in “The Body.” The same theme of friendship (albeit black and twisted) continues in “Apt Pupil,” the story of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, all-American boy corrupted by a Nazi war criminal, whom he blackmails into telling the worst stories of the concentration camps. The story is all the more disturbing because Todd Bowden and Arthur Dussander share an uncomfortable amount in common with each other.

4. Pet Sematary (1983). For my money this is King’s scariest story. It’s also among his most uncomfortable to read. Louis Creed lands a job as Head of Medical Services for the University of Maine and relocates with his wife and two children. Behind their home and hidden in the Maine woods is a Pet Cemetery, and beyond that an old Indian burial ground, the soil of which is rumored to have the property of restoring the buried dead to life. The moral of Pet Sematary is that some things are worse than death, and that death is a mystery and should be kept that way. Of course that doesn’t stop Louis from raising the coffin lid and mucking around in the afterlife anyway. Like a slowly unfolding tragedy, you can see the train wreck coming, but we—like Louis—are helpless to stop, or to turn away. And when the horror comes home to roost for Louis, even though we know what’s going to happen, King’s execution is letter perfect and terrifying. King is not known for his great endings, and some of his otherwise brilliant novels land with a disappointing thud, but “Darling,” it said, still fills me with unspeakable horror and dread.

5. It (1986). “They float,” it growled. “They float, George, and when you’re down here with me you’ll float too—.”

It is wonderful book, containing arguably King’s scariest villain (Pennywise the Clown), an epic storyline spanning decades, and a memorable cast of characters. From the opening chapter in which a boy disappears down a sewer, grabbed by something sinister, It seizes you and never lets go, despite its length (1,090 pages, paperback). It tells the story of eight children who unite to stop a horrible monster terrorizing the town of Derry, Maine. Thirty years later, they return as grown men and women to destroy It for good, summoned by a spiritual call to right a monstrous wrong. By the grace of some power which King never fully explains, the adults have forgotten their childhood encounter with It. But when Pennywise is reawakened, the same force brings them to back together again, and terribly, their memories of the monster return as well. Though he commonly takes the shape of a monstrous clown, Pennywise can transform into your worst fear, rendering him all the more terrible. The town of Derry is so rich and detailed in its landscape and history that it becomes another character, right alongside memorable King-ian personalities like stuttering Bill Denbrough, asthmatic Eddie Kaspbrak, tough and resourceful Beverly Marsh, and the overweight, thoughtful Ben Hanscom. King explores the themes of growing up in It, and the importance of turning the page on your childhood in order to move on. This novel marked the end of a phase for King, one in which he moved away from traditional horror and into more psychological fare. Although he’s written some excellent novels since, I’ve always felt that King’s decline began post-It.

Honorable mentions: The Dead Zone, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: Best battle-speeches

I’m no war-monger, nor do I make light of real battles and their terrible cost. But there’s no doubt that mass-combats make for great cinematic drama, especially in their build-up and occasionally in their denouement. Here on the day after Veterans Day, I’m marking the occasion by taking a look back at a film that every battle-aficionado should watch at least once: Henry V.

Many fantasy fans lament the lack of good movies in the genre, myself included. But I will say that you’re missing out if you haven’t given Henry V a chance (I speak here of the Kenneth Branagh 1989 film. I haven’t yet seen the 1944 version with Laurence Olivier). While it’s obviously not fantasy, Henry V has a lot of the trappings of the genre (armored knights, archers, kings, castles, etc.). It’s also got some surprisingly good combat sequences, as well as a few of the most rousing battle-related speeches/sequences ever put to film.

Despite its excellent reputation, I held off watching Henry V for a long time. My reasoning: How good could a Shakespeare film be? Impenetrable? Likely. Boring? Most certainly. Or so I thought.

I admit it; I was wrong.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian web site.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Thanks to the vets

I came across a great video today, courtesy of History Channel: colorized footage of just-restored footage from Okinawa, originally shot in 1945. Here's another one of Iwo Jima. Both are highly recommended (you may have to wade through a commercial first).

I love the old black-and-white combat footage, but it sometimes adds another layer of separation and unreality from what was a very bloody, violent, and not-so-distant conflict. While I'm not wild about the idea of colorizing old movies, when it comes to actual footage of real events, I'm all in favor.

To all of our war veterans, past and present, thank you for your service.

To old friend and World War II veteran Ed Cassidy, laid to rest this past weekend in Andover, NH, God speed.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: The Book of Merlyn and its Howardian connection

A good man’s example always does instruct the ignorant and lessens their rage, little by little through the ages, until the spirit of the waters is content: and so, strong courage to Your Majesty, and a tranquil heart.

—T.H. White,
The Book of Merlyn

The King Arthur myth has been told, re-told, and re-imagined countless times. I’ve read many interpretations, though far from all, from authors as diverse as Bernard Cornwell (The Warlord Trilogy) to Mary Stewart (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, et. al.). But of all these, The Once and Future King and its separately published conclusion, The Book of Merlyn, is probably the most approachable version of the Arthur myth I’ve ever encountered. And it’s certainly my favorite.

For obvious reasons, I often feel a need to draw parallels between Robert E. Howard and other authors when writing blog posts over at The Cimmerian. But in this case, I didn’t have to look far, nor make any dubious, tenuous connections. At their core, White and Howard share the same pessimistic view of humanity. For Howard, barbarism was the natural state of mankind. White believed that mankind’s natural state was Homo Ferox, or “Ferocious man.” There is no leap required; these two men of different nationalities and stations in life drew the same bleak conclusions about mankind.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Of used book fairs and old King Arthur

I love used book fairs. I find them irresistible, like a dish of peanut M&Ms placed on my desk while I’m trying to work. A local library recently hosted one in which you could fill up a brown paper supermarket bag for the princely sum of $2. Needless to say I walked out of there with a laden sack, nigh to splitting.

Book fairs require you to sift through a lot of junk. Cookbooks, outdated science textbooks, encyclopedia sets (remember those?), V.C. Andrews novels, etc. always seem to dominate. But that’s part of their allure, of course. You have to sift through the silt to find gold.

Less appealing is the frenzied behavior of people grabbing great handfuls of books, seemingly at random, and shoving them in bags. I’ve seen this phenomenon many times and don’t get it. Why do people lose their sense of discrimination when the items in question are cheap, or free? I shouldn't be judgmental--perhaps they were donating them to charity, though my cynical side tells me they'll probably end up for sale on the internet.

This particular fair had a surprising number of decent books worth getting jostled over (I threw a few elbows myself, admittedly). Most notably, I managed to liberate a hardcover copy of The Book of Merlyn by T.H. White.

The Once and Future King happens to be one of my favorite books of all time, achieving a rare five-star “perfect” rating in my pseudo-scientific, highly subjective book rankings. While The Book of Merlyn—the previously unpublished conclusion to The Once and Future King—is not as good as its predecessor when compared as a standalone work, it was never intended to be a sequel, but a part of the whole, the final chapter of a wonderful story. It’s definitely worth owning. So although I already own the softcover, I snatched it up and stuffed it into my sack.

The hardcover of The Book of Merlyn has the advantage over the paperback of large print, glossy, sturdy pages, and wonderful, full-page, black and white illustrations (tangent—does anyone else appreciate the beauty of a good hardcover book? I used to be a paperback junkie, but I’ve since converted. The heft and stateliness of a good hardcover have won out over utility and portability).

Once I had The Book of Merlyn at home I was overcome by the urge to read it again. Just as I remembered, it remains a wonderful book. Some of the grabby boors at the book fair would do well to read it and let its lesson sink in--being, of course, that Might does not equal Right.

I’ll be posting a full review on Thursday.

In the meantime, here is a summary of my finds at the fair:

The Sea-Wolf and Selected Stories, Jack London (great writer--'nuff said)

Secret Weapons of World War II, Gerald Pawle (as a WWII buff, I was delighted to find this)

The Black Death, Philip Ziegler (Not surprisingly I'm a fan of medieval times, and I've never read a full accounting of the Black Death)

Hamlet (Norton Critical Edition), William Shakespeare (I own a copy of Hamlet, but the Norton Critical Editions are must-owns for the additional essays/criticism, and notes).

The Shining, Stephen King (hardcover--I own the paperback)

The Book of Merlyn, T.H. White (hardcover, illustrated)

The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper (hardcover, entire five book series collected and unabridged--a great find!)

Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond (I've heard a lot of good things about this one)

Let's Roll, Lisa Beamer (a story of the heroes of United Flight 93)

Assorted books for my children