Archive for the Books and Literature Category

For my second journey into the mind of Charles Williams, I chose his Arthurian poetry cycle, which includes Taliessin through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars. Williams worked hard on these poems. All accounts say that he viewed them as his greatest achievement. Turning out novels and other books for some profit was always getting in the way of his accomplishing this task. In fact, death put a stop to it before he could finish the cycle with a third volume.

And so, I started to read. It was slow going. I only understood about 10% of what was going on. I almost quit…

Then, I discovered The Figure of Arthur, a concise history of Arthurian legend, written by Williams and published (in part) after his death by C.S. Lewis. This was immensely helpful, for now many of the names and places mentioned in his verse took on a history. The book also includes extensive notes and literary criticism from C.S. Lewis on the poems themselves. He admits that in some ways, they aren’t very good. But he praises them for other qualities that I hadn’t considered (perhaps more on that later). With Lewis to guide me through the cycle, it suddenly became much more interesting. The words on the page transformed right before my eyes! That is to say, suddenly the poem didn’t suck anymore.

Lewis explains that a lot of the best writing out there has prerequisites to reading it with understanding. That is why studying the classics is so valuable. However, you have to draw the line somewhere:

[concerning T.S. Elliot’s The Waste Land], if you have never read Dante or Shakespeare certain things in that poem will be obscure to you. But then, frankly, we ought to have rad Dante and Shakespeare; or at lest the poet has a right to address only those who have done so. And if the only result of a first reading of The Waste Land were to send you to Dante and Shakespeare, your time and money have been very well spent. Similarly in Williams. He assumes that you know the Bible, Malory, and Wordsworth pretty well, and that you have t least some knowledge of Milton, Dante, Gibbon, the Mabinogion, and Church history. Difficulties of this sort are wholly legitimate. But there are border-line cases.

When Mr. Eliot assumes that you know Miss Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, or Williams that you know Heracleitus as quoted by W.B. Yeats – or still more when the one assumes a knowledge of the Tarot pack and the other of the Sephirotic Tree – the difficulties are becoming less obviously legitamate. We have not indeed, reached the frontiers of vicious Privatism. The things referred to are accessible: the poet may be innocently mistaken about the extent to which they are – still more about the extent to which they ought to be – matters of common knowledge among educated people.

-C.S. Lewis, Williams and the Arthuriad, Conclusions p. 189

So I read something, and found it boring and confusing. But I wasn’t conviced is was the author’s fault. It had a hint of something more there, if only I could put my finger on it. So I spent a few days studying the background, then returned to it. What a difference!

The entire cycle really is pretty slow going. I don’t think I’ll end up carefully reading through the whole thing right now. There are other things I’d rather explore. Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised to find the extra effort worth it!

I’ve found Charles Williams “The Figure of Arthur” to be much more interesting (and readable) than his own stab at Arthurian verse (Taliessin through Logres). It seems to be a thorough, yet concise history of how the legend evolved over the years. It was reimagined by different poets, other myths were mixed in with it, and so forth.

At one point, he explains how courtly love was a formalized exaggeration of real romance. Nevertheless, it is founded in reality.

The extreme ideals of courtly love our demonstrated in the poem Lancelot by Chretien de Troyes:

The most famous incident of his career, after that manner and in this poem, is that of the cart. Lancelot lost his horse, apparently in a battle with Meleagaunt, and presently overtook a cart driven by a dwarf. Now at the time a cart was a rare thing, and evil. There was only one in each town, and it was used to expose and carry to execution, thieves, murderers, traitors, and other criminals. Anyone who had been carried in a cart lost all reputation and legal right; he was dead in law, and could no more show himself in courts or towns. Anyone wo met a cart crossed himself and said a prayer.

Lancelot asked the dwarf for news of the queen [(his love, who had been kidnapped)]; the dwarf answered that if the knight would mount the cart, he should presently hear of her. For a couple of steps Lancelot hesitated. Reason and Love dispute, for that time, within him. Reason loses; Love triumphs; he climbs in. Presently, when he had undergone many adventures, and crossed the sword bridge, and overcome Meleagaunt, he was brought by Bagdemagus to the queen, whom he now liberated. But she had herd of his hesitation. She threw him a cold look and would not speak to him.

Lancelot, ‘feeling very helpless’ (how one’s heart leaps at that phrase! how one recognizes the chily glance, the silent mouth!), decided that his fault must be in having ridden the cart at all. This of course, is exactly what a man would think, and might even sometimes be quite right in thinking; one never quite knows which was the admirable feminine mind will spring. He was wrong; his fault lay only in his delay. Presently, after an alarm of death on both sides, she softened. He dared to ask her how he had offended her. She answered: ‘You must remember that you were not at all in a hurry to gen in that cart; you went two good steps before you did.’ Lancelot absed himself profoundly. ‘For God’s sake lady, take my amends, and tell me if you can forgive me.’ The queen said: ‘Willingly; I forgive you entirely.’

William’s continues:

No doubt this is an extreme example of courtly love. But no doubt also it is based on general human experience. The delay in action may, to a woman, mean more than the action itself. ‘I’m not convinced by proofs but signs’ says Patmore’s young woman; and all masculine heroism without feminine tact is apt to go wrong. Where one expected gratitude (not that Lancelot did) one finds austerity. Oh perhaps the Provencals [the cultural founder of courtly love] manipulated love too much, but undoubtedly they knew what they were manipulating!

-Charles Williams, The Figure of Arthur, p.?

I found this whole story to be ammusing.

Lancelot: “For cryin’ out loud lady, I just went to great lengths to rescue you, just about got myself killed 100 times, and you totally give me the cold shoulder! What did I do? It must have been that I allowed myself to be humiliated to complete the journey. You’re ashamed of me for laying down my honor.”

Queen: “No, it’s just that you got here a bit late because you mind had wondered from me for a moment. I’m so offended. (Makes a frumpy face). Oh, OK. I forgive you.

Well, several people have told me recently that I should read some Charles Williams. He was after all the third major Inkling. So I picked up a copy of The Greater Trumps from the library.

Nearly all of Williams novels have some kind of supernatural plot device. Despite being a Christian, he had a lifelong fascination with the occult. Black magic of various sorts works it’s way into many of his stories. Apparently, Tolkien, for all the magic that appears in The Lord of the Rings, actually held to the traditional view that sorcery really was sourced in demonic powers and an abomination to God. He was always somewhat annoyed at how lightly Williams spoke of it.

This particular novel centers around tarot cards. I must admit, I found the subject somewhat intriguing. Growing up, tarot cards were in the piled in with Ouiga boards and other contraband. I knew very little about these sorts of things as they were forbidden. William’s novel both gives them some legitimacy while at the same time revealing Christ at work in their midst (through the card with the image of The Fool), making a mockery of the card’s mysteries and showing himself to be Lord of the past, present, and future.

This is not unlike theories I’ve heard about how the Zodiac cycle used by astrologers actually tells the story of the redemption of mankind.

A few interesting facts about tarot cards:

  • Tarot cards were first created in the early 1300’s, with the oldest surviving set being from 1442.
  • The cards were apparently not used for divination or any kind of occult practices until the mid 1700s! They were just for playing games until then.
  • Tarot cards are popular in Europe (especially France and Italy) for various card games. Their use in divination really only shows up in English speaking countries like Britain and the U.S.
  • Tarot divination is loosely based on medieval alchemy and the Kabbalah of Jewish mysticism. That Kabbalah stuff seems to show up all over the occult. It includes, free of charge, all kinds of nifty diagrams to represent super-secret stuff.

William’s novel starts out interestingly enough, but about halfway through it takes a nosedive into dream-sequence mushiness. What a shame. Nothing disappoints like a bad ending.

I still haven’t written Williams off yet though. I’ve begun reading what HE thought to be his greatest work, his Arthurian cycle Taliessin through Logres, The Region of the Summer Stars.

I’ve also heard that The Decent into Hell is his best novel. After that maybe I’ll have a more informed opinion.

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Rolling stone announced today they are changing the physical format of their magazine from it’s large tabloid size to that or all other glossy magazines.

Let’s see. The last issue’s covered was trashing McCain. The new cover is praising Obama. In fact, the interview reveals this is the third time in seven months that Obama has graced the cover. And you thought it was about music. Uh huh.

“Switching the format to attract more readers is a logical decision that will continue Rolling Stone’s tradition of revolutionizing society’s way of thinking,” Barbu [an avid reader] said.

A tradition of revolution? Sounds like the same old shtick to me.

Lest they risk (at the worst) blasphemy, or (at the least) stepping on someone theological toes, throughout the ages people have been hesitant to try and guess what what actually going through Jesus’ head. Any approach that imagines him to only be thinking high mystical ideals is effectively denying his manhood. This is gnosticism. Anything that skims over the fact that he had the full measure of the Holy Spirit (at least from age 30 on) and never entertained sinful thoughts is denying his divinity. Tricky business!

Anne Rice (of fictional vampire fame) has recently taken a serious swing at it in her Christ the Lord novels. These are narrated by Jesus in the first person. I haven’t read them but they are, from all accounts, carefully researched and fairly convincing. The first chapter of the narrative begins:

I was seven years old. What do you know when you’re seven years old?

An excellent question!

The wise Bishop of Durham also can’t resist exploring this a bit in his apologetics:

I do not thing that Jesus “knew he was divine” in the same way that we know we are cold or hot, happy or sad, male or female. It was more like the kind of “knowledge” we associate with vocation, where people know, in the very depths of their being, that they are called to be an artist, a mechanic, a philosopher.

-N.T. Wright, Simply Christian, p.119

I’ve been reading God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee, a pretty recent book by Michaele Weissman. It’s a travelogue and history of the most recent (2000 – present) rise in the specialty coffee industry. She spends a lot of time interviewing the roasters and barristas at ultra-hip joints such as Stumptown, Intelligentsia, and Counter Culture. She also spends quite a bit of time following them around in Central American and Africa as they visit the poor coffee growers face to face. It’s been a good read, though a little slow at times.

Anyway, these specialty folks really want to get their hands on better coffee. They have invested a lot of time and money into training the farmers in modern pruning, picking, and drying techniques to achieve a better product. Another way they’ve promoted quality is by holding contests in the countries of origin. A farmer whose beans place high are rewarded a premium at the following auction. This encourages competition and is an incentive to do a better job in the fields.

The largest of these yearly contest is called the Cup of Excellence. Remember, these farmers and their families live in tiny huts and make just a few cents an hour. They are some of the poorest folks in the world. The author had this to say about some of the contest winners:

It’s hard to imagine what $20,000 or $60,000 can mean to a impoverished coffee farmer. One year the top winner in Honduras was so poor that he couldn’t afford a bus ticket. He had to hitch a ride to the auction is Cup of Excellence earnings enabled him to get out of debt, purchase another small plot of land, and buy drying racks to prevent his coffee from rotting on the ground. In 2005 one of the top winners in Nicaragua, a small, spirited woman, used half her earnings to build a guest house; now her coffee plantation is an ecotourism destination, and she has diversified revenue stream. Not all the growers “get it,” of course. One bought a Hummer. Another gave all her winnings to her church. (p.49)

There is the heart of secular capitalism right there. The lady who gave all the money to her church just doesn’t “get it”.

And He sat down opposite the treasury, and began observing how the people were putting money into the treasury; and many rich people were putting in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which amount to a cent. Calling His disciples to Him, He said to them, “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury; for they all put in out of their surplus, but she, out of her poverty, put in all she owned, all she had to live on.”

– Mark 12:41-44

Now I applaud the farmers who got out of debt and invested in their future. That was a very wise thing to do with the money. That’s probably what I would have done! By upgrading his farm, he might now make thousands of dollars a year instead of a few hundred.

Oh, and a guest house for ecotourism. What a great idea! (Says the white Prius-driving, Berkley-educated English prof.) I’m booking a stay this summer!

The guy who bought the Hummer is obviously an idiot. It will take 3-months wages to fill it up with gas. Oops.

But the lady who gave all the money to her church just doesn’t get it. No she doesn’t. But she may “get it” more than anyone can imagine. The world is not worthy of her.

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Early Christians often cited the myth of the phoenix as a powerful representation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This magnificent bird self-destructs in a ball of flame, but from the ashes it rises again, immortal. Here is a picture of one from Aberdeen Bestiary, an illuminated manuscript from the 12 century.

It’s a very old legend of Greek origin. How did it every get applied to Christ? It kind of works, but maybe there is more to it then that:

In some early Christian circles the analogy was thought to be sanctioned by the LXX of Ps. 92:12, where, in the phrase ‘the righteous shall flourish like a palm-tree’, the word for ‘palm-tree’ is ‘phoinix’, the same as the Greek for the legendary bird.

-N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, footnotes on p. 482

So when the writers of the Greek Septuagint (the LXX), were doing their translations of the Hebrew old testament in 2nd century BC, “palm-tree” got translated as “phoenix”. See, the Phoenix myth is actually about Jesus! It’s right there in the Bible! Well, sort of. There are some obvious parallels even without the scripture reference, but it’s hard to imagine people taking the analogy as seriously throughout the years if it were not there.

Who can resist the fascination of a labyringth of books? Piles of ancient tomes on either side. Treasures and mysteries to be uncovered behind every bin. Some of the best bookstores and libraries are messy ones with dim light, cramped ceilings and cryptic sorting. Or soaring shelves with ladders and vast collections. I’ve read three books recently that all feature this very environment at the center of their plots. Be careful with the volumes you pick up out of these joints. They might be bad news. Barnes and Noble would be a safer bet.

(more…)

It has been calculated that each copy of the Gutenburg Bible required the skins of 300 sheep.

– from an article on printing

Nearly 600 years ago in 1439, Johannes Gutenberg unvieled his movable-type printing press and revolutionized the western world. In those days, though, they still used parchment made from animal hide. It was still a while before paper technology caught up. Billy Collin’s reflects on this in his poem Flock:

I can see them squeezed into the holding pen
behind the stone building
where the printing press is housed

all of them squirming around
to find a little room
and looking so much alike

it would be nearly impossible
to count them,
and there is no telling

which one will carry the news
that the Lord is a shepherd,
one of the few things they already know.

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There is a question, sometimes posed as a lament, in many of the writings I’ve come across lately. I could write down quite a list, but I don’t actually remember all the places. Another one came at me today though. It is the idea that there used to still be adventures to be had, unexplored places to chart, great feats to accomplish, but that for the most part, they are all gone. I remember reading as a child about the mysterious jungle of the Congo and how there was still things in there that no man had ever seen and lived to write about. That was an exciting prospect. But now, we have GPS, and I can pull up Google maps and grab the satellite imagery of my own car parked in the lot of my office building. Then I can swing it over a few degrees and peer deep into Africa and see right where that dangerous path by the waterfall leads. What’s the point in going there now?

Thomas Merton, in his book Mystics and Zen Masters, (which is about 90% straight-up history and reads like a graduate dissertation), discusses the story of St. Brendan‘s expeditions and how he found an island paradise somewhere beyond the Atlantic. Nobody could ever find it again though, but tales like this fueled exploration and also deeper desires inside of us. Christopher Columbus would have been well aware of this particular (myth?) when he set out to the new world. Merton (writing in the 1960’s) discusses how the complete mapping of the earth has changed the face of spiritual pilgrimage and wandering. Searching for that special place has forever lost some of it’s potency. Nevertheless, we will pilgrim on because the thing that drives us inside of has not diminished one bit. We are still looking for our creator.

The protagonist in Arturo Perez-Reverte’s novel The Nautical Chart wrestles with this same deep issue:

Because after so many novels, so many films, and so many songs, there weren’t even innocent drunks anymore. And Coy asked himself, envying him, what the first man felt the first time he went out to hunt a whale, a treasure, or a woman, without having read about it I a book.