June 30, 2004

And so it begins again . . .

"Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince," huh?

Onward to book 6!


And that's not all that begins again and continues onward . . .

I love this site.

Posted by Jared at 12:14 PM | TrackBack

June 24, 2004

The Case for the Defense: Harry Potter as Wholesome, Valuable Christian Fantasy

The Harry Potter topic has by now, of course, grown quite out of control to the point where I couldn't hope to cover it all in a simple blogpost, or even in a book of any modest length.

I mean, it's not as if I would only have to contend with the five books in the series that have been published thus far, (and the combined total is already approaching 3,000 pages of material). There is also the matter of the 15+ (and still counting) books about Harry Potter. Some of these books discuss The Issue, some attempt literary criticism and analysis, and some delve into the background and origins of the unique blend of mythoi that Rowling has drawn from to create her own world. And besides all of that, there is the legion of articles that have been published in periodicals of every size, type, and description, plus the weighing in of opinion from famous figures of all types, both major and minor, and organizations who have this to mention or that to mention (all available on the Internet) . . . The sheer quantities of ink and human thought (or the lack of it) involved in this thing are as dizzying as a Sicilian's intellect.

Well . . . I don't even want to read all of that stuff, let alone comment on it. I just have one point to make in this post (Deep breath . . . prepare for a run-on sentence) . . . It is my intent to prove, (or at the very least assert and provide compelling evidence to support my thesis), that not only is Harry Potter neither evil or satanic in nature, but on the contrary, when properly read through the critical lens of Christian interpretation (if that's your thing and you've never heard of reading for the purposes of fun and entertainment . . . you poor dear) the Harry Potter series turns out to encompass a worldview which is inherently in concordance with the ideology of any well-educated, theologically grounded, and reasonably enlightened individual who happens to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and (if you so desire) can be used as a valuable tool from which to draw worthwhile and interesting life (and even spiritual) lessons for the instruction of developing minds, both young and old.

Anyway, I'll be chunking all the pro-Harry Potter ammo I've got at you, and I'll try to be as orderly as I can in my arguments . . . But you all know how I write, and worse, how I think.

Eat your heart out . . .

When it comes to the opinions of people that I know, (and I've asked a lot of people what they think during the three or so years that I've been more or less actively engaged in investigating this question), the statistical response to the question "Is Harry Potter evil or harmful?" is overwhelming.

-100% of people that I have asked personally who have actually read the Harry Potter series have responded "No." I haven't spoken with a single, solitary reader of the series who has responded in the affirmative. Perhaps someday I will . . . It won't change my opinion any, but I will no longer be able to rely on that impressive "one" followed by its two zeroes.

-100% of people that I have asked personally who responded "Yes" had not actually read the series or seen the movies. As I say . . . maybe someday, but for now the statistics are on my side. (I should note, for the record, that there are certainly a number of people with whom I have spoken who said either "Maybe" or "I don't know." None of them had read the books either, although some had seen one or more of the movies.)

That is what I know from talking to people. It is what I knew before I ever picked up the first book, and in the two years since that happened, nothing has changed yet. So:

I shall begin by contending that the Harry Potter series is written, from both a literary and a spiritual perspective, in the classic Inklings vein (books by said authors having long been accepted without question by all but the most foolish Christians worldwide).

If asked what my favorite class has been thus far here at LeTourneau, I would have to say it was last fall's Inklings class, (with only the slightest hesitation while I consider Watson classes and Social Backgrounds). It was truly an excellent class, and it helped me to see with particular clarity how even fantasy that is not strictly allegorical can appeal to the more spiritual aspects of our nature, and can present a very Christian worldview via symbolism and the various workings of plot, characters, and dialogue which promote any number of ideals, virtues and truths.

Last semester, as I was taking that class, I started to apply some of those principles to various things, and we even briefly discussed Harry Potter a couple of times in class (once as a result of a fascinating essay of sorts that I found, which I'll be linking to shortly). Meanwhile, I was frequenting a very small discussion board that had about 12 members at the time. Besides my roommate, Bryan, I was the oldest member, and when a Harry Potter discussion got started, I dove into it fairly quickly.

The following is an excerpt from a post I made near the beginning of the Inklings class:

I attended a class last night which was truly excellent and highly relevant to this discussion. Much of it was a discussion of myth and what it is and what it means to humanity. Essentially we have two very distinct spheres in existence in our universe: that of the Human and that of Heaven. Throughout history there have been instances were the heavenly intrudes in upon the human and it is in and from these points of intersection that myths are born. Myths are the human attempt to form a window through which they may view that which is divine, and in all of them we can catch glimpses and reflections of the hereafter. The Bible of course, is a True Myth, the one composed from the other side of the spectrum rather than by humans and it gives us a true, complete picture.

This, then, is what gives so many of us our love of fantasy, etc. It is a subject that C. S. Lewis was always talking about: That of the longing we all feel for something more beyond the material world that we see, and fantasy, (because of what it is, what it means, and where it comes from), partially satisfies that longing. Harry Potter is one example of a modern-day myth, and as such it contains any number of connections to the supernatural which are fascinating to observe. A large part of the structure of the thing is a crude model of the two spheres I described above, although here it is the wizard world that is intrusive upon the human.

That specific element is what a lot of kids love about it . . . This idea of another world out there, one which is grander, more exciting, more colorful than our own. And, more importantly, one which is accessible only to a select few. Sound familiar? It should . . . Especially if we have any die-hard Calvinists out there.

Even aside from this, the series raises some very serious questions about the nature of good and evil, and the implications of a struggle between the two. What is right? What is wrong? How can you decide between them? It's deep stuff (as you will find that all good children's literature is).

I'm not quite sure why I thought it would be a good idea to drop Calvinists into the mix . . . so nevermind that. No one knew what I was talking about anyway, I'm afraid. Anyway, the following excerpt is from a post I made once the class was over, after a few people had expressed confusion regarding my earlier post.

While it is certainly true that fantasy is appealing because it provides an escape from the humdrum of everyday life, I was trying to get at something beyond even that. Think of two circles, side by side, but separate. One is the natural, one is the supernatural. At one time, those two circles were one, and then the Fall happened. Now we are separated from God and the supernatural in everyday life because of sin . . . But we still catch glimpses of the beyond.

There are still intrusions of the supernatural on the natural, the circles still have a slight overlap. We see it through miracles, God working in people's lives, etc. And this what true fantasy is all about: A window into worlds and situations where those circles are still very much a part of each other.

The next part isn't the easiest to get across. If you're a big fantasy fan, you'll know what I'm talking about. There is a certain indefinable something to the genre, I have learned to refer to it as an "otherness" simply because it is not anything that we can truly know, or understand, or experience in this life except in fleeting glimpses. In both The Last Battle, and the movie version of Return of the King, I think it is explained a bit.

The last chapter of The Last Battle concerns the "Shadowlands," (the world we live in), which is a dim reflection of what lies beyond, "further up and further in," waiting for us after death. In the movie, Gandalf says something to Pippin concerning death that really struck me, something to the effect of: "The gray rain curtain of this world rolls back, and all changes to silver glass, and then you see it . . . White shores, and beyond . . . a far green country under a swift sunrise."

So it's right there: This other world. But our eyes are closed to it until after we die . . . and then the dull, grungy curtain is pulled away and we realize that even the most beautiful things we know in this life are but dim reflections of something greater and more beautiful and more wonderful by far than anything we have or could have experienced while we lived on earth, and in the midst of that is God, defying description. And to me, this is what fantasy provides a glimpse of. This is what it's all about. It's even there a good bit in Harry Potter . . . the otherness, the something more.

I think a lot of times, Christians (and especially adults) have a hard time separating reality from would-be fantasy. They don't quite understand the concept of fiction that contains truth . . . it may sound like an oxymoron, but it isn't. And they especially don't understand that in fiction, the rules can be different without changing the fundamentals.

I cannot use what we mere mortals think of as genuine "magic," apart from demonic activity, in this world. But fantasy is not set in the world that we know . . . that's why it's fantasy. In the same way that Peter Pan can fly by thinking happy thoughts, (a physical impossibility in our world), Harry Potter can cast spells with a magic wand and not be a Satanist, (a spiritual impossibility in our world).

As far as measurable effects of this perceived danger, I would guess that roughly the same number of children have jumped out of windows with huge smiles on their faces after reading Peter Pan as have made contact with demons via spells they learned from Harry Potter.

Anyway, my point is that fantasy, far from being Satan's foothold in your life, is actually a window into a world of spritual truth and light. You just have to know what you're looking for . . .

That's basically what I got out of Inklings, in a nutshell. I mean . . . there was a lot of really cool stuff, but this new (to me) concept of fantasy and myth was my favorite bit, probably because I was sick of fighting this battle without any really compelling arguments to rely on, and equally sick of being vaguely uncertain from time to time that I was on the right side. So much for that.

So long as I've made a passing mention of Harry Potter being specifically targeted when other books are left alone, let me go a bit deeper into that. I found this piece from the Censorship News during my online wanderings and, while I realize that Christians taking a hardline will dismiss this as irrelevant, coming from a non-Christian as it does, I think it raises some important points. It was written by Judy Blume (another author whose books have often been banned), and this is the quote I'd like to focus on:

I knew this was coming. The only surprise is that it took so long -- as long as it took for the zealots who claim they're protecting children from evil (and evil can be found lurking everywhere these days) to discover that children actually like these books. If children are excited about a book, it must be suspect.

I'm not exactly unfamiliar with this line of thinking, having had various books of mine banned from schools over the last 20 years. In my books, it's reality that's seen as corrupting. With Harry Potter, the perceived danger is fantasy. After all, Harry and his classmates attend the celebrated Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. According to certain adults, these stories teach witchcraft, sorcery and satanism. But hey, if it's not one "ism," it's another. I mean Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time" has been targeted by censors for promoting New Ageism, and Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" for promoting racism. Gee, where does that leave the kids?

The question is not whether these books, or any books for that matter, are potentially harmful to children. Heck, eating out at fast food restaurants and driving your kids to school through heavy traffic are potentially harmful . . . The question is whether or not you can and will teach them to think critically about whatever it is that they are choosing to read rather than snatching away every book they seem to be enjoying a little too much and force-feeding them the latest dumbed-down Christian alternative.

In other words, there are two basic choices:

1) You can bulldoze stumbling blocks (real or perceived) out of their way as they grow up, until they leave the nest and not only can you no longer remove said blocks, but the kids don't see them because they don't know what blocks look like.

2) You can teach your children what stumbling blocks look like and show them how to step over said blocks.

Don't misunderstand me, I don't believe that the Harry Potter series actually is a stumbling block . . . but it is certainly something that children who know how to evaluate and analyze and think critically about what they are reading will be able to appreciate more. The uses of said skills clearly extend beyond the realm of stumbling block recognition and avoidance.

From this article (which I was quite pleased to find) we see an excellent explanation of where Harry Potter fantasy-magic diverges completely from Satanic "magic" and witchcraft (to the point where the two genuinely have absolutely nothing to do with each other). As such, and for other interesting bits of information and further discussion of Rowling's resemblance to the Inklings (and Tolkien specifically), I highly recommend that you read it in its entirety. It is excellent. The selection that I would like to highlight, however, is one that draws attention to one of the sterling "life lessons" that I mentioned earlier:

The clarity with which Rowling sees the need to choose between good and evil is admirable, but still more admirable, to my mind, is her refusal to allow a simple division of parties into the Good and the Evil. Harry Potter is unquestionably a good boy, but, as I have suggested, a key component of his virtue arises from his recognition that he is not inevitably good. When first–year students arrive at Hogwarts, they come to an assembly of the entire school, students and faculty. Each of them sits on a stool in the midst of the assembly and puts on a large, battered, old hat—the Sorting Hat, which decides which of the four houses the student will enter. After unusually long reflection, the Sorting Hat, to Harry’s great relief, puts him in Gryffindor, but not before telling him that he could achieve real greatness in Slytherin. This comment haunts Harry: he often wonders if Slytherin is where he truly belongs, among the pragmatists, the careerists, the manipulators and deceivers, the power–hungry, and the just plain nasty. Near the end of the second book, after a terrifying encounter with Voldemort . . . he confesses his doubts to Dumbledore.

"So I should be in Slytherin," Harry said, looking desperately into Dumbledore’s face. "The Sorting Hat could see Slytherin’s power in me, and it—"

"Put you in Gryffindor," said Dumbledore calmly. "Listen to me, Harry. You happen to have many qualities Salazar Slytherin prized in his hand–picked students. Resourcefulness . . . determination . . . a certain disregard for rules," he added, his moustache quivering again. "Yet the Sorting Hat placed you in Gryffindor. You know why that was. Think."

"It only put me in Gryffindor," said Harry in a defeated voice, "Because I asked not to go in Slytherin. . . ."

"Exactly," said Dumbledore, beaming once more. "Which makes you very different from [Voldemort]. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." Harry sat motionless in his chair, stunned.

Harry is stunned because he realizes for the first time that his confusion has been wrongheaded from the start: he has been asking the question "Who am I at heart?" when he needed to be asking the question "What must I do in order to become what I should be?" His character is not a fixed preexistent thing, but something that he has the responsibility for making: that’s why the Greeks called it character, "that which is engraved." It’s also what the Germans mean when they speak of Bildung, and the Harry Potter books are of course a multivolume Bildungsroman—a story of "education," that is to say, of character formation.

In addition to the many virtues demonstrated over and over again by the characters (great stuff like loyalty, friendship, tolerance, compassion, wisdom, courage, generosity, tenacity, trust, perseverance, humility . . . and I could go on . . .), the series repeatedly and reliably addresses the larger issues and questions of right and wrong, good and evil, life and death, appearance and reality, and coming of age.

But my original assertion hangs on more than a simple illustration of the possible teaching opportunities available in the Harry Potter series. This is the piece that I found while I was in the Inklings class. It is an excerpt from the book "The Hidden Key to Harry Potter: Understanding the Meaning, Genius, and Popularity of Joanne Rowling's Harry Potter Novels" which I found to be quite a fascinating read (I am currently trying to acquire the book in its entirety on inter-library loan). Again, the entire bit is quite a good read (although I don't necessarily think he's 100% correct . . . the important thing is that he can draw those conclusions), but there is a particular portion that I would like to quote:

Chamber as Morality Play

Christian morality plays were the first theater in Western Europe. They were almost without exception either portrayals of Bible stories or 'Everyman' allegories of the soul's journey to salvation through thick and thin. Imagine medieval street dramas at public markets and fairs by itinerant players putting on variations of Pilgrim's Progress and the Passion Play. The finish to Chamber of Secrets, as morality play, is the clearest Christian allegory of salvation history since Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Let's look at it in detail.

Harry, our 'Every Man', enters the Chamber of Secrets to find and rescue Ginny Weasley. He finds her but she is unconscious and Harry cannot revive her. He meets Tom Riddle. He had thought Riddle was a friend and asks for his help in restoring Ginny. No deal.

He learns then that Riddle is anything but his friend; Tom Riddle is the young Lord Voldemort, Satan's 'stand in' in the Harry Potter books, the Dark Lord or Evil One. Far from helping him revive Ginny, Riddle has been the cause of her near death. Harry boldly confesses his loyalty to Albus Dumbledore and his belief that Dumbledore's power is greater than Voldemort's.

The Chamber is filled with Phoenix song at this point, heralding the arrival of Fawkes, Dumbledore's Phoenix, who brings Harry the Sorting Hat of Godric Gryffyndor. The Dark Lord laughs at "what Dumbledore sends his defender" (page 316) and offers to teach Harry a "little lesson". "Let's match the powers of Lord Voldemort, Heir of Salazar Slytherin, against famous Harry Potter, and the best weapons Dumbledore can give him"(page 317). He releases the giant Basilisk from his reservoir and the battle is joined.

The look of the Basilisk is death so Harry, eyes closed, runs from it. The Phoenix attacks the charging Basilisk and punctures its deadly eyes. Harry cries for help to "someone - anyone -" (page 319) as the Phoenix and blind Basilisk continue to battle; he is given the Sorting Hat- by a sweep of the Basilisk's tail. The Harry throws himself to the ground, rams the hat over his head, and begs for help again. A "gleaming silver sword" comes through the hat (page 320).

The Evil One directs the blind Basilisk to leave the Phoenix and attack the boy. It does. Harry drives the sword "to the hilt into the roof of the serpent's mouth" when it lunges for him - but one poisonous fang enters Harry's arm as the Basilisk falls to its death. Harry, mortally wounded, falls beside it. Phoenix weeps into Harry's wound as Riddle laughs at Harry's death.

Too late, Riddle remembers the healing powers of Phoenix tears and chases away the Phoenix. He then confronts the prostrate Harry and raises Harry's wand to murder him. The Phoenix gives Harry the diary and Harry drives the splintered Basilisk fang into it. Riddle dies and disappears as ink pours from the diary. Ginny revives and they escape. Holding the tail feathers of the Phoenix, they fly from the cavern "miles beneath Hogwarts" to safety and freedom above. Harry celebrates with Dumbledore.

Now let's translate this Morality Play. First, the cast of characters, the dramatis personae:

Harry is 'Every Man'

Ginny is 'Virgin Innocence, Purity'

Riddle/Voldemort is 'Satan, the Deceiver'

The Basilisk is 'Sin'

Dumbledore is 'God the Father'

Fawkes the Phoenix is 'Christ'

Phoenix Song is 'Holy Spirit'

Gryffyndor's Sword is 'the Sword of Faith/Spirit' (Ephesians 6:17)

The Chamber is 'the World' and

Hogwarts is 'Heaven'

The action of the drama, then, goes like this: man, alone and afraid in the World, loses his innocence. He tries to regain it but is prevented by Satan, who feeds on his fallen, lost innocence. Man confesses and calls on God the Father before Satan and is graced immediately by the Holy Spirit and the protective presence of Christ.

Satan confronts man with the greatness of his sins but Christ battles on Man's side for Man's salvation from his sins. God sends Man the Sword of Faith which he 'works' to slay his Christ-weakened enemy. His sins are absolved but the weight of them still mean Man's death. Satan rejoices.

But, wait, the voluntary suffering of Christ heals Man! Man rises from the dead, and, with Christ's help, Man destroys Satan. Man's innocence is restored and he leaves the World for Heaven by means of the Ascension of Christ. Man, risen with Christ, lives with God the Father in joyful thanksgiving.

If I look closely, I can imagine where different types of Christians might disagree with this thumbnail sketch of Everyman's salvation drama in emphasis and specific doctrines. It would be a very odd Christian indeed, though, who could not understand what the story was about and would not admire the artistry of the allegory. Using only traditional symbols, from the 'Ancient of Days' figure as God the Father to the satanic serpent and Christ-like phoenix ('the Resurrection Bird'), the drama takes us from the fall to eternal life without a hitch. Nothing philosophical or esoteric here (can you say 'no alchemy'?).

Rowling illustrates here that her books are Christian and in bold opposition to the spiritually dangerous books our children are often given. Chamber of Secrets is an example in the genre of an engaging, enlightening, and edifying reading experience for children - and a powerful rebuke and wake-up call to her Christian critics.

What is Chamber of Secrets about? Rowling, perhaps in response to the absence of intelligent discussion of Stone's meaning, in her second book clearly reveals to the discerning reader that she is writing Inkling fiction, i.e., stories that will prepare children for Christian spiritual life and combat with evil. Talk about baptizing the imagination with Christian symbols and doctrine!

I really don't know whether you can actually contend that Rowling did that on purpose, but it is undeniably there to be found. And this isn't an isolated incident within the series, either. Consider the first book for a moment. Again we have Harry himself as the "Every Man" character. Think of the entire opening portion as a metaphor for a spiritual journey.

Harry spends the first part of his life in darkness, surrounded by people who are blind to the truth around them. It is not until his 11th birthday that he discovers he is not of this world at all, and a whole new world opens up right before his eyes, where a wholly new and different life awaits him. And in this new world, he is the focal point of a battle between good and evil. Although he had received the mark of Voldemort at a very young age, and Voldemort still makes every effort to get at him, he is safe so long as he stays near Dumbledore (the only wizard that Voldemort fears).

And, at the climax, even when Dumbledore seems to have disappeared, leaving Harry to try and take care of things himself, we discover that there is more protecting him than we knew about all along.

"Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn't realize that love as powerful as your mother's for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign . . . to have been loved so deeply . . . will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin. Quirrell, full of hatred, greed, and ambition, sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch you for this reason. It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good."
-Dumbledore, (page 299)

I'm sure that someone like Granger could explain it more neatly . . . I probably could as well, but I don't think I need to spend anymore time on it as it should be very clear. Things like this don't just sneak in by accident, and the Harry Potter series is literally riddled with similair allegorical/symbolical scenarios, just waiting to be discovered.

Before I bring this post to a close, let's review the facts one last time:

1) The Harry Potter books fall directly into the classic classification of fantasy/myth/faerie as outlined by Tolkien and Lewis. As such, they serve as symbols of spiritual truth on the deepest, most subconscious level that can appeal to the human psyche and clearly identify Rowling as a mythopoeic subcreator of the highest caliber.

2) The Harry Potter books are perfect for teaching children valuable skills related to discernment, critical thinking, and literary analysis and evaluation . . . not to mention the pure enjoyment of reading and healthy dose of cultural literacy that can be acquired.

3) The Harry Potter books are a veritable gold mine of excellent lessons just waiting to be taught and pressing issues just waiting to be discussed concerning any number of subjects, virtues, and important questions.

4) The Harry Potter books are crammed to the very rafters with imagery that is blatantly Christian and obvious symbolism which is easily linked to many, if not most, (if not all) important Christian ideals and doctrines. This makes them excellent witnessing tools as they have already come crashing into mainstream culture in a big way that we would be remiss to ignore or denounce.

5) The Harry Potter books are a genuinely good read.

The Defense rests . . .

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

June 23, 2004

Family Values

Well, I was going to spend more time tonight working on the Harry Potter post, but as you can see on the right, a fourth movie has rated as high as a movie can rate on my list.

Brilliantly filmed, poignantly acted, and masterfully compiled and edited into an eye-opening, thought-provoking look at the Drug War on any number of levels . . . Well, let's just say that I am quite convinced that this movie deserves its rating.

It is time (as always these days, it seems) for me to go to bed, but I just wanted to comment briefly on a single aspect of Traffic's message that struck me.

I thought, as I watched the movie, that it had a very defeatist tone concerning the current state of affairs with narcotics (and rightly so). The Drug War, the way it is being fought, is both unwinnable and counter-productive. The movie brings this home time and time again until the involved viewer almost begins to despair . . . And then, in the next to last scene, I realized what the movie was actually trying to say:

Judge Wakefield resigns his position as the man in charge of running the United States' War on Drugs, and returns to his home to support and care for his teenage daughter as she tries to break her own various addictions.

This is not a war that our government can win for us. This is a war that we have to win for ourselves, on the level of the family unit. How many problems in America, right now, are a result of the widespread breakdown of traditional families and households that has been taking place for the past four decades? What would be the impact on the country right now if as many children grew up in the care of loving, responsible guardians who are actually present as did 60 years ago?

Anyway, I'd love to wax a little more eloquent about this movie, but I'm having a hard time concentrating on anything besides my bed (a mere three and a half feet away!). So . . . I will go to bed now.

And, when I get up tomorrow, I will keep watching good movies, thinking idealistic thoughts, and writing whatever I can manage about them late at night (i.e. the usual muddled, sappy sort of stuff I've been turning out lately . . . *sigh*).

Posted by Jared at 11:08 PM | TrackBack

June 22, 2004

AFI = Consumer Whoredom

Well, I just watched the TV event of the summer . . . The American Film Institute's top 100 movie songs countdown. I have previously seen the top 100 most heart-pounding movies, the top 100 heroes and villains, and a portion of the top 100 most passionate movies (before I got sick of that one).

I am most displeased . . . but I don't know where to begin, so I'll just register a few complaints:

-"As Time Goes By" is clearly the #1 song, but they had "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" instead. What is that?! I can't stand that song! I mean, even in spite of my dislike, I'll grant it its spot in the top 3 . . . but only as #3.

-"Rocky?!" "Eight Mile?!" The theme from "Shaft?!" "Stayin' Alive?!" "MY HEART WILL GO ON?!" What the f . . . fffff . . . freak . . .?! I wouldn't be nearly this bitter, but there wasn't a single song from "Fiddler on the Roof" in there! That is just flat out criminal. No questions asked. Someone needs to be in the hotseat over that one . . .

-On a slightly less urgent note, I was disappointed not to see "Man of Constant Sorrow" or "Twist and Shout" (as performed in Ferris Bueller) in the listing, as well.

-A disturbing chunk of the movies on the list came out of the pop culture of the two decades that I would have advised them to run screaming from in the selection of a top 100. I am speaking, of course, of the 'seventies and the 'eighties. What were they thinking?

-I got waaay sick of hearing the opinions of (most notably) Celine Dion, Hilary Duff, and Clay Aiken. Ick. The couldn't find anyone better . . .?

-On a more positive note, I was very pleased to see, (among others), such songs as "I Could Have Danced All Night," "My Favorite Things," "Buttons and Bows," "Swinging on a Star," "All That Jazz," "Mrs. Robinson," "Shall We Dance," "Que Sera, Sera" etc. The complete list can be found here.

I think their biggest problem was in choosing good songs from bad movies. I don't care how good the song is (well . . . okay . . . within reason) if the movie sucks, then it isn't a good . . . selection. There were good songs from good movies that didn't make the cut, and should have.

Now . . . Back to real life, I guess.


Posted by Jared at 10:43 PM | TrackBack

June 18, 2004

Grace and Forgiveness! Arg!

Tonight I watched the most graphic and moving film on the Holocaust I have ever seen. A mere 32 minutes long, it is a French documentary that was filmed in 1955.

It was very difficult to watch. The only comforting factor is that I have proved to myself that I am still not desensitized to a point where I can no longer be distraught by the power of on-screen images.

The documentary did an excellent job on various levels. One of these was in bringing home the fact that, no matter how much of this we take in, we don't know what it was like and we can't know what it was like. We weren't there, and just seeing it on your TV while you're settled on a soft couch surrounded by good friends in a free country can't put us there. I'm rather glad of that, of course . . .

Another thing that struck me with particular (i.e. more than usual) force was the fact that the Nazis were a bunch of Goddamned, bloody bastards. We turn them into cartoon villains, and laugh about their salutes and their "Sieg heils" and their silly goosestepping. It isn't really that funny. They aren't funny at all. And people should also think twice before they accuse other people of being like the Nazis. That's a pretty serious matter, and it gets tossed around in an awfully flippant manner these days.

In a recent post I quoted someone as saying, "The world is a tragedy to those who feel, and a comedy to those who think," (or something along those lines). I generally prefer to spend my time thinking because I think everything comes off better that way, but it doesn't hurt to feel every now and again.

So, yeah, I was seething on the inside as I watched this . . . Shocked, horrified, and disgusted yet again by what took place, and I had decided to post something along the lines of the first sentence from two paragraphs ago, and simply leave it at that. I am terribly distressed that I can't . . . because I started thinking again.

Without God's grace I am every bit as guilty and evil and damned as Himmler or Eichmann. I hate having to quantify like that, and admit that we're all in the same league when it comes to sin, but it has to be done . . . (John 8:7 says so). There is no 9th Hell for the uber-sinners, they all go to the same place. And we all deserve it. Equally.

Anyway, condemnation isn't really my specialty, and self-condemnation even less so. Reflection of this nature isn't really my thing either. But, as I said, as much as I wanted to just climb on here and remind you all that Nazi-hating is still a really good idea, I felt that it wouldn't carry any significant weight, in the end, even if no one else noticed.

I remembered the account of Corrie Ten Boom's encounter with a former guard at Ravensbruck from the end of "The Hiding Place." That is still the most powerful story of human forgiveness that I have come across, and I still have a long way to go towards understanding what it takes to make that possible . . . not to mention beginning to practice it myself.

I guess this is all a bit disjointed, and no wonder. It's late, I'm tired, and I'm writing on emotion. What I'm really getting at is this:

Take all evil (past, present and future) seriously.

Remember that "There but for the grace of God . . ." You've got nothing to feel superior about.

Consider that if you think forgiveness is easy, you've probably just never been wronged badly enough. Be prepared for when you are.

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

Not recommended

My last three days have been spent with Scholl scraping approximately 120 square feet of carpet glue off of a flat, gray wall, serenaded by the banging of hammers and the grinding and squealing of various cutting and sharpening tools, and choking on the noxious fumes of paint thinner and PVC pipe cement.

And now it is the weekend.

I am a happy camper.

Posted by Jared at 05:27 PM | TrackBack

June 16, 2004

Shredding Shadowmancer

I'm really wrestling with myself here . . . I'm too smart to shoot myself in the foot on this one, but at the same time there are issues that someone is going to want to address.

First things first: I finished Shadowmancer, and it got a 36% from me. Throughout the book, I was trying to compose at least a few thoughts for some kind of coherent review, but the thing itself was so scattered that I found it quite difficult to even begin to know what to address.

Should I go after the quality of the book? It is most certainly an issue, and a big one . . . but I wasn't certain that it was the issue.

Should I address theological issues instead? Could I address theological issues without sounding like I had a double standard, and I was ignoring similair issues with Harry Potter? The fact is that I sort of do have a double standard . . . I believe that if you are going to try and do Christian fantasy (or Christian anything, be it books, movies, music, or art) you have to be held to a higher spiritual standard . . . and at least an equal standard of quality (I'm certainly not going to let you get away with writing drivel just because you're a Christian). Lest I be misinterpreted however, I don't find Harry Potter to be spiritually murky at all. I'm not letting it slip by under any lower standard.

I could pull a high quality Sunday school lesson out of any Harry Potter book in five minutes. I could also (were I so inclined) plug Satanism convincingly using only quotes from Shadowmancer. When it comes to literature (or "literature" if you prefer), almost everything is perspective.

While I tried to put my thoughts in order (and avoid flaming the thing in a review that was just me blowing off my accumulated steam) I decided to wander the internet a bit. I wanted to see what sort of information on the author and the message I could nose up, and also check out what other people thought. This book (and I'm still utterly baffled by this) was #2 on the bestseller list in England last summer, right under you-know-what (The-Book-That-Must-Not-Be-Named).

What I found shocked and surprised me, and for a few hours I even started to doubt my faith (in the existence of any intelligent human beings on this planet). I came across these three interviews with the illustrious author: G. P. Taylor, himself. You are free to read them all yourself, of course, but some of the material is redundant, and all of the important material will be quoted below.

First of all, let's take a look at Taylor's qualifications as an author (i.e. Why did this guy think he could write?):

You name Eminem as inspiring you to write. Please comment

Marshall Mathers is a very good poet - even though I don't like his cussing, I admire his use of language and his ability to communicate with so many people. As a teenager I was heavily influenced by David Bowie and know of the effect it had on my life - dyed hair - strange clothes and some odd looking girlfriends. He is still a hero and his music is a great influence on my writing especially his latest album. It was Marshall Mathers and One Shot from Eight Mile that really made me want to get the book to a larger audience - you only get one shot . . .

Now wait just one cotton-pickin' minute . . . I'm expecting him to cite C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams as his inspiration . . . perhaps Tolkien and MacDonald as well. Instead I see . . . Eminem and David Bowie?! I'm just going to keep going before I have another seizure . . .

You have said that you think that villains in children’s books are not scary enough. Do you really believe that?

Voldermort is a wimp! Lord Asriel wouldn't get out of first grade. But when it comes to wicked then even Snoop Dog better sit up and check Obadiah Demurral out - he is a mean dude and a villain with attitude.

I wanted to make my villains scary, frightening, horrible and realistic – something that would really frighten the crap of out the kids!

I'm more than slightly disturbed by this British vicar's apparent obsession with American rap "artists," but that aside . . . Just who does he think he is? Is he being serious, stupid, or deliberately inflammatory? Allow me to quote a review that I found:

"The villain, Demurral, is especially implausible because he is so utterly evil that he is almost cartoonish -- much like the Dursleys . . . in the Harry Potter books."

Let me lend the weight of personal experience to that sentiment . . . Vernon Dursley is precisely the example that comes to mind when trying to find a villain "type" to compare the sad, sorry Demurral with.

Oh, yeah . . . and that whole thing about scaring the kiddies . . . isn't that a beautiful sentiment? I mean, not that he's capable, but still . . .

Do you feel that Shadowmancer owes a debt to Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis, and historical adventures by J. Meade Falkner, Russle Thorndike,and Leon Garfield?

If I knew who they were I would say yes, but I didn't start to read until I was sixteen and got into George Orwell. Girls were reading books, so I started reading the books that they were reading to not appear thick. I started with Lord of the Flies, then 1984 and Animal Farm, then Ted Hughes poetry and Sylvia Plath. I was really flattered when one reviewer called Shadowmancer a cross between Roald Dahl and Charles Dickens

I read a couple of chapters of Tolkein but that was it. My influences come from films especially seventies American cult films like Taxi Driver and Dirty Harry.

Turns out, he really hasn't read anything . . . just enough to try and impress the ladies.

Literate? Barely. Literary? Don't make me laugh . . .

Again, I was expecting to see him referencing Narnia, Middle Earth, All Hallow's Eve . . . Maybe even stuff like Treasure Island, but . . . Dirty Harry?! I think it was at this point that tears came to my eyes.

You have been called a Christian answer to J.K. Rowling and Phillip Pullman. How do you respond?

Shadowmancer is not a Christian book, it is a book about good and evil and appeals to Jews and Muslims as well as atheists. I was ordained after youthful experiments with punk rock, druidism, the occult, and transcendental meditation. I read the Qu’ran before reading the Bible and I am just as happy to talk about the Talmud. My writing is informed as much by Judaism and Islam as it the by the Christian tradition. It is the account of an eternal truth.

I think the story resonates at a deep level, but my character Raphah is never named as Jesus, so to Jews he could be the coming Yeshua, to Christians he could be Jesus, to Muslims he could be the Prophet and to pagans he is in some ways an avenging angel.

Do you think that people feel that Shadowmancer is a Christian story?

Certainly not. I get letters from people of all faiths claiming it is about their particular way of belief. It's amazing...everyone is claiming it as their own.

It's a story which deals with issues of life, death, faith and hope in a "non-Goddy" way . . . and then people can draw their own conclusions.

Just wait . . . it gets better. Oh, and as to that last statement, I cry "Bull!" "Heavy-handed" doesn't even begin to describe it. The story "subtly suggests" religious themes like a blackjack to the back of the head subtly suggests that you fall over unconscious.

Can Jesus survive the Church?

He has survived it for 2,000 years. He works much more outside the church than within the church. I see Jesus on the street with youth workers and helping kids with AIDS, amongst prostitutes, hookers, in the police force and in schools. Of course he can survive the Church, I think he is better off without the Church.

Okay, there are certainly some worthwhile sentiments in there, I guess . . . but this guy is, after all, a vicar. What's with that last phrase? Since when is it a good idea for Church leadership to start publicly writing off the Church?

And it keeps getting better . . .

Was Jesus religious?

Was he hell! Definitely not. Anyone who tells the archbishop of the day that he is a whitewashed toilet full of dead bodies . . . that is about as unreligious as you get. Jesus was a guy who laughed, joked, fooled around, enjoyed life . . . what a wonderful man to follow.

No, Jesus was not "religious." But that is hardly the way for a vicar to go about answering that question . . . And I really hope that "fooled around" means something else in Britain.

Anyway, moving forward, here's a tidbit that certainly explained a lot to me.

It's one of those fairy stories that we occasionally hear about. Having paid an agency to critique his novel, only to be told it was the worst writing they had ever seen, [Taylor] self published the book, which due to the demands of large book chains effectively cost him 10p a copy. Through a magical chain of events, it ended up in the hands of a major publisher and now his original editions are selling for £1000 on the internet.

No comment.

When I tell him that I was amazed that Faber and the press would be so interested in what is an overtly Christian book, I am thoroughly admonished. "Its not a Christian book, I refuse to have it called that. Yes I've quoted from the Old Testament, but the Old Testament is the book of the Jew and the Muslim as well."

To further prove his point, Taylor tells me that "It has not been accepted well by Christians, I have faced blockages in the Christian press, where it certain Christian papers have refused to carry articles on it." It reminded me of Pilgrims Progress, I counter. "I'm a philistine, I've never read Pilgrims Progress."

"I know that God is alive and as a Christian and a minister he's an interesting part of my life."

A philistine indeed . . .

God is . . . "interesting?" Not "important?" "Vital?" "Quintessential?" Oooookay.

One would assume that such a successful first time novelist would have had a grand plan for the book but apparently not. "I didn't - honestly. I started to type and just finished it; I just sat down and wrote and wrote and wrote. I had no plot; it was chapter one and then off with the words and that was were we went.

It sure was! My goodness! That, at least, was expected.

"It is also written in coded language for occultists, any witch reading this would think I'm a witch, it's in there at the beginning of the book and they read it and go 'wow we know what this means, we know where this writer's coming from.'"

Really, now? Uncountable hours scouring the Internet and I've never found Rowling's much-hyped confession of being involved in genuine witchcraft and deliberately using actual spells, etc. in her books. Five minutes after I start researching Taylor, and this is what I turn up. Ohhhh, my.

"I think that the 1700s are the most important time in history, especially with Wesley and Whitfield. I think God actually had them birthed in that time for a particular reason. I think that we are coming to a time when the problems of the 1700s are resurfacing; a new enlightenment where people are now playing God, whereas in the previous enlightenment people thought that God was of no use.

"Everybody's trying to get rid of God and sanitize God out of the environment. We are in the new enlightenment and I think there will be men and women raised up to stop God being marginalized. I personally think it will be the Islamic faith who have a go, as they they're not going to take this sort of enlightenment lying down."

Wait, hold the phone . . . God had a plan for certain people during a certain time in history?! Stop the presses!

So, Judaism had its day pre-Christ, and Christianity has been dominant for, what? . . . Let's call it 1600+ years. And now, Taylor tells us, it's Islam's turn to be raised up by God and bring revival.

Ohhhh, boy.

I was having even more trouble collecting my thoughts after reading all of this stuff, so I wandered a bit in search of reviews. Mostly, I just needed to know that someone agreed with me . . . and it would be nice if they also sounded intelligent. I found a pretty nice assortment of people who were thinking exactly what I was thinking, and I was quite pleased.

It is grossly unfair to compare this author's work with Rowling and Tolkien. The aforementioned authors are geniuses, with Rowling raising the bar on "children's" books (indeed, we've seen some wonderfully written children's books that challenge children since the publication of The Sorcerer's Stone), and Tolkien single-handedly created a genre and wrote one of the great classics of the 20th century. Shadowmancer *barely* works, and only by the thinnest of margins. It has the distinct feel of a rough draft, with misplaced metaphors on virtually every page. In any fantasy, whether it is aimed at children or adults, everything within it must be credible. Emotional reactions, the good magic, the bad magic - everything. In here, there is very little that is credible, even though the author is using Christianity as the focus, differentiating only by giving the various deities and angels different names. I say that the book *barely* works because there is at least a hint of inventiveness, but even that hint of inventiveness disappears due to a distinct lack of credibility. I should care immensely for Kate and Thomas - and I don't. With the "cliffhanger", I should be excited at reading the next book in the series. Personally, I can't believe there's going to be a second book.

The "cliffhanger" that is referenced here consists of Taylor literally ceasing to write in the middle of a sentence (and practically in the middle of a thought). I had known all along that the book was 275 pages long, but I couldn't believe that it was actually over . . . I turned the page expecting to find a closing quote, or a Bible verse, or an epilogue . . . Nothing but a blank page. It was at that point that I chucked it at the most distant wall and went to lie down on the couch for a few minutes.

Take a cup full of "Harry Potter." Add a teaspoon of hokey religious thrillers, a sprinkling of Tolkien ripoffs, and a dash of the fantastical. Mix thoroughly, and heat to lukewarm. That's basically the recipe for vicar/author G.P. Taylor's debut novel "Shadowmancer," a lame and limp semi-spiritual fantasy.

Like many a fantasy villain, Obadiah Demurral wants to play God, and the corrupt vicar does so by trafficking with evil powers -- all-out sorcery and devil-worship. Enter Raphah, a mysterious man from Africa who is after a mystery amulet that will be incredibly destructive if evil people get their hands on it. (Wow, that's original)

Are our heroes going to let Demurral and the forces of evil win? Of course not. Troubled teen Thomas Barrick (who has quasi-religious visions) and his pal Kate team up with Raphah to somehow keep Demurral from becoming king of the universe with the help of that amulet. But can our heroes win out against Pyratheon (read: the devil)?

No way is religious fantasy a bad thing in itself -- after all, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien rooted their stories partly in religion. But Taylor's brand of Christianity is very watered-down, very generic, very politically-correct and VERY preachy. He lays this bland religious goo on so thickly that it's hard to read without feeling twitchy and uncomfortable.

"Riathamus [God] stands at the door of your life and knocks. If you hear his call and answer him he will share your life and live with you always," Raphah announces. It's like he's reading from a pamphlet.

Nor can you expect much in the way of character development; everyone is a symbol rather than a person. Demurral is a cackling, mustache-twirling devil-worshiper. Saintly Raphah is as dull as the proverbial ditchwater, and so are the plucky kids who accompany him. There are no shades of grey here. A flawed person either is evil, or he's just waiting to be redeemed.

One-dimensional isn't the half of it . . . I normally hate it when people say that because it's so over-used, but in this case . . . Characters do not get more flat than this.

The supposed good guy, Raphah, has mysterious powers that are very occult-like, and he turns out to be one of the "objects," but in the flesh, that the evil Demurral wants for his sorcery.

So is he an angel, a boy, a statue come to life, or what? Identities are very confusing in the story and we are never sure who several mysterious figures really are. The story is more frustrating than anything.

This particularly confused me . . . The artifact that everyone chases is never described . . . you just know that it's gold. And pretty. It is heavily implied on numerous occasions that it is the Ark of the Covenant . . . but you can carry it around in one hand. Very confusing.

There are also numerous magical objects that the characters (both good and bad) make use of when fighting each other. Some of them are good, and some of them are evil, but . . . Since when does God arm us with magic crystals for fighting off demons?

There are also several quotes from the Bible but they are given in ways that make them mean something different than they do in the Bible. Also, some of the quotes are changed from the original words or mixed with other quotes that don't go together.

This really bothered me, let me tell you. The Bible was "quoted" almost constantly . . . standing in for a good 50% of the dialogue. But it was done in very chopped and confused ways, and words were often changed. It sounds sorta Christian, but it isn't.

Example, from the random Christ figure that pops in at one point: "I will be with you always, even to the end of the time."

What the hell does that mean?! The more I think about it, the more asinine it sounds . . .

Most disturbing are several warnings and hints that Demurral could actually fight Riathamus (God) and get his power. Raphah tells Thomas and Kate that if Demurral gets the Keruvim, he could control the world and even the power of Riathamus. Later, Thomas tells Kate that Raphah told him that Demurral has a power that can call up the dead and control the wind and sea.

I mentioned this before, but it bears repeating.

I finished the book because I read some of the other reviews and thought that maybe I was missing something, maybe the author somehow pulls this off in the last 100 pages, 50 pages, even the last 10 pages, but when I closed the book, I knew I had been tricked just like all the other good people had been in the story. The evil ones lost, the good guys won and I was out the money I spent on this book. I've read in reviews (from Newsweek of all places) that this book may be the next Harry Potter - please. Harry -relax, you've got nothing to worry about.



I really did (foolishly) keep expecting him to pull something out of his hat as the book progressed that would make me understand all of the crazy hype I saw. No such luck.

Creaking plot, cardboard characters, overt evangalism, overused Bible quotes and tired cliches in the place of dialogue - Shadowmancer has nothing to recommend it, unless you're looking for a cynical laugh at the author's heavy-handed attempt at fundamentalist anti-occult propaganda.

("KIDS! Magic is DANGEROUS! Don't try this at home!!!") The sound of one or two characters - the obligatory feisty girl sidekick/token female character, for example - struggling to develop personalities is drowned out by the clanking of the plot and the chorus of hallelujahs.

If you're raising kids in the Christian faith and want good fantasy fiction for them, for goodness' sake stick to CS Lewis or even Pilgrim's Progress. Don't touch this book with a bargepole - it'll put them off for life, not to mention the dangers that the sloppy writing poses to their English grammar.

In all honesty: recommended only for punctuation-impaired fundamentalists.

I love this reviewer.

Random aside: I would like a bargepole.

For every hit there are bound to be misses. I should have known from the rather non-indicative reviews on the back of 'Shadowmancer' that this was not a book to be trusted. Two quotes do nothing but describe the book as an event. Another is a simple description of what the book is about. In fact the latter - "a magical tale of vicars and witches" - is the title of an interview with Taylor - not a review at all. One of the other quotes leaves off half way through - a very cynical maneuver - the full quote being: "The adventure unfolds at a vivid and breathless pace, but the religious symbolism is rather too fundamental and proscriptive for comfort."

Anyway, when I wrote my "midway review" of this . . . *thing* . . . a few days ago, I was fully prepared to a) be pleasantly surprised, or b) give Christian fantasy and Christian fiction and the general Christian culture that responds to them the going-over they so richly deserve. Not only does the book turn out to be not worth the effort . . . It turns out to not even be Christian!

Yeah, yeah . . . You can read it that way, and if it floats your boat, more power to you. After all, I read Harry Potter with a Christian's perspective (that's kinda what I do). But the author seems very anxious (for whatever reason) that people not mistake this for a Christian book, and I'm perfectly willing to oblige him. Trust me, my fellow believers . . . We don't want it!

Stay tuned for a long-overdue, Christian look at the Harry Potter series, coming soon.

Posted by Jared at 10:03 PM | TrackBack

June 13, 2004

I Don't Get It

Dilbert-Liberal  Arts major.gif

Martinez was kind enough to supply me with this little gem. I'm not quite sure what it all means, or if he's trying to tell me something, but . . .

Go Liberal Arts Majors! Yeah!

Posted by Jared at 09:45 PM | TrackBack

The Epiphany

What do you do when you wake up one morning and suddenly realize that a bottomless ideological chasm has opened up between you and a large number of people that you care about?

What about when you discover that these people are not interested in the possibility of joining you on your side, or of opening up a line of communication across the gap . . . but only in dragging you forcibly back across to their side in order to save you from the nonexistent dangers that they think they perceive?

How do you deal with the sound of a human mind slamming shut right in front of your face? The disappointed looks? The horrified, hushed tones?

Would you rather be hated, or hate yourself? Deal with their disgust with you, or your own?

Is it better to be yourself all the time, no apologies, or cram yourself into a fake, repellent persona in the interest of maintaining goodwill?

Thank God for enlightened, tolerant friends.

Posted by Jared at 06:07 PM | TrackBack

June 11, 2004

What I Did During Summer Vacation . . . (Yeah, I Wish!)


The cartoon Me enjoys his summer vacation in tropical paradise. Ahhhh . . .

Posted by Jared at 04:37 PM | TrackBack

June 08, 2004

Jared's Salute to Saki

After a ride from Gilbert Hall to Phys. Plant in the back of a pickup . . . in the pouring rain . . . after a long day of dabbing paint in corners and along edges . . . I am clearly ready for a blogpost. Clearly.

I promised a post on Saki and his Complete Works, and this is about the best I can do in just a few hours. Watson's copy of The Complete Works is nearly 950 pages long, and I certainly can't do that justice in terms of sheer quantity (to say nothing of the high quality). Hopefully, however, I can convey at least a sense of what I gleaned of the man who wrote it. As to his work, I highly recommend that you read some of it yourself.

I'll try and hit a few of the high points insofar as I judge they are important to understanding Hector Hugh Munro (aka Saki), but I encourage you to drop by Project Gutenburg and read some of his earlier short stories for yourself (unless you either already have, or you've heard those which I have read aloud from time to time).

Anyway, without further ado, we shall dive right in:

On this particular morning the sight of Lady Bastable enthroned among her papers gave Clovis the hint towards which his mind had been groping all breakfast time. His mother had gone upstairs to supervise packing operations, and he was alone on the ground-floor with his hostess--and the servants. The latter were the key to the situation. Bursting wildly into the kitchen quarters, Clovis screamed a frantic though strictly non-committal summons: "Poor Lady Bastable! In the morning-room! Oh, quick!" The next moment the butler, cook, page-boy, two or three maids, and a gardener who had happened to be in one of the outer kitchens were following in a hot scurry after Clovis as he headed back for the morning-room. Lady Bastable was roused from the world of newspaper lore by hearing a Japanese screen in the hall go down with a crash. Then the door leading from the hall flew open and her young guest tore madly through the room, shrieked at her in passing, "The jacquerie! They're on us!" and dashed like an escaping hawk out through the French window. The scared mob of servants burst in on his heels, the gardener still clutching the sickle with which he had been trimming hedges, and the impetus of their headlong haste carried them, slipping and sliding, over the smooth parquet flooring towards the chair where their mistress sat in panic- stricken amazement. If she had had a moment granted her for reflection she would have behaved, as she afterwards explained, with considerable dignity. It was probably the sickle which decided her, but anyway she followed the lead that Clovis had given her through the French window, and ran well and far across the lawn before the eyes of her astonished retainers.

That brief passage offers just a taste of the hilarity that awaits anyone who is fortunate enough to discover the adventures of Reginald and Clovis. It pretty much sums up everything I've loved about reading Saki . . . most of his stories are about that funny (of course, that particular story, "The Stampeding of Lady Bastable," has some good build-up and concluding remarks, but you get the gist . . .). But there's more to Saki and his writing than just the really funny stuff, as I hope to show in the rest of this post.

Now, a coupla weeks back I had just finished reading "When William Came" by Saki. Published early in 1914, it is basically a rather searing, pro-war indictment of England's general state of being. It is set in the not-too-distant future (as of publication date, of course) and it is an account of what happens after Germany has successfully defeated the British Navy and invaded and occupied England. Very interesting, being pre-WWI and all that . . .

I had my eye on a particular passage, near the end of the book, that I wanted to be sure and quote here. The main character is riding a train out into the country and he is joined by a Hungarian. The character (Yeovil, an Englishman) pretends to be from Russia in order to hear the Hungarian speak his mind on what he thinks of the current state of affairs.

A few excerpts:

In religion they had come to look on the Christ as a sort of amiable elder Brother, whose letters from abroad were worth reading. Then, when they had emptied all the divine mystery and wonder out of their faith naturally they grew tired of it . . . but they were not virile enough to become real Pagans; their dancing fauns were good young men who tripped Morris dances and ate health foods and believed in a sort of Socialism which made for the greatest dullness of the greatest number . . .

They grew soft in their political ideas. For the old insular belief that all foreigners were devils and rogues they substituted another belief, equally grounded on insular lack of knowledge, that most foreigners were amiable, good fellows, who only needed to be talked to and patted on the back to become your friends and benefactors . . . Ah, the British lion was in a hurry to inaugurate the Millennium and to lie down gracefully with the lamb. He made two mistakes, only two, but they were very bad ones; the Millennium hadn't arrived, and it was not a lamb that he was lying down with.

The Hungarian gets off at the next station and he is replaced by an Englishman who is glad to hear that our hero is also English. He doesn't like travelling with foreigners. They begin to discuss the current state of affairs, and the new arrival expresses nothing but mindless optimism . . . He is certain that England can rebuild their army and navy and get Germany out of the country.

This is nonsense, of course, and Yeovil tells him so. As much as Yeovil would like for this to be true, he sees the depressing reality of the situation, and he expresses this in no uncertain terms to the other man.

"Here's my station and I'm not sorry," said the fisherman, gathering his tackle together and rising to depart; "I've listened to you long enough. You and me wouldn't agree, not if we was to talk all day. Fact is, I'm an out-and-out patriot and you're only a half-hearted one. That's what you are, half-hearted."

And with that parting shot he left the carriage and lounged heavily down the platform, a patriot who had never handled a rifle or mounted a horse or pulled an oar, but who had never flinched from demolishing his country's enemies with his tongue.

"England has never had any lack of patriots of that type," thought Yeovil sadly; "So many patriots and so little patriotism."

I feel like this from time to time . . . and I suspect that if I was more vocal about what I thought sometimes, I'd feel even more beat-down by all the blasted, rabid patriots running about with stars (and stripes) in their eyes.

Anyway, I've quoted Saki on occasion during the course of my reading of his complete works. He picked up the mantle of dry, witty social commentary dropped by Oscar Wilde (publishing his first collection of short stories in 1902).

When WWI started, although he was overage, he joined the army . . . For some reason, he turned down a commission, enlisting as an ordinary soldier. He was killed in France, by a sniper, in late 1916.

Dreadful waste.

At least, however, we had Wodehouse on hand to step into the role . . . and he proceeded to fill it for the next three decades or so. No single volume collections of his complete works, let me tell you this. But I'll be readin' 'em as I happen upon 'em.

Anyway, back to Saki . . . I think that the difference between him and Wilde or Wodehouse is the razor-sharp edge that he seems to have developed over the course of his writing. His earliest collections of short stories show a kind of good-natured tolerance of the quirky existence led by the upper-crust of society. However, as time goes on, the stories get a good bit darker, and a great deal more vindictive.

His foolish characters are quite likely, at any given moment, to be devoured by wolves or to drown after falling through a patch of thin ice (for instance). One hapless woman is savaged to death in her own shed by a mad weasel. Another particularly amusing (though gruesome) episode has "Suffragetae" of Ancient Rome being torn apart by an arena full of dozens of ravenous wild beasts. His protagonists gradually shift from dryly dropping cute, witty one-liners (of the Wilde variety) while nibbling at muffins to staring seriously off into space and delivering solemn (albeit unconventional) speeches on the meaning of life and death. His antagonists go from being offended to being offed.

His novel, "The Unbearable Bassington," (1912) shows this shift in microcosm. The entire beginning is fairly light-hearted and includes all of the usual elements. Comus Bassington is Saki's typical Clovis/Reginald character, hopping in and out of amusing scrapes with sickening ease and generally causing his mother and uncle grief within their snooty social circle. But he has to get himself a rich wife, because he is one of those leeches who will never really be able to support himself and he hasn't got a large family fortune holding him up . . . but when he blows that, his mother (Francesca) exiles him to a colonial post in deepest darkest Africa.

His going-away party is one of the most dreary scenes I've ever read, full of dark foreshadowing omens hinting that he will never return from Africa alive. In the very next scene, we find him there, grimly contemplating his fate:

It was almost a relief to turn back to that other outlook and watch the village life that was now beginning to wake in earnest. The procession of water-fetchers had formed itself in a long chattering line that stretched river-wards. Comus wondered how many tens of thousands of times that procession had been formed since first the village came into existence. They had been doing it while he was playing in the cricket-fields at school, while he was spending Christmas holidays in Paris, while he was going his careless round of theatres, dances, suppers and card-parties, just as they were doing it now; they would be doing it when there was no one alive who remembered Comus Bassington. This thought recurred again and again with painful persistence, a morbid growth arising in part from his loneliness.

Staring dumbly out at the toiling sweltering human ant-hill Comus marvelled how missionary enthusiasts could labour hopefully at the work of transplanting their religion, with its homegrown accretions of fatherly parochial benevolence, in this heat-blistered, fever-scourged wilderness, where men lived like groundbait and died like flies. Demons one might believe in, if one did not hold one's imagination in healthy check, but a kindly all-managing God, never. Somewhere in the west country of England Comus had an uncle who lived in a rose-smothered rectory and taught a wholesome gentle-hearted creed that expressed itself in the spirit of "Little lamb, who made thee?" and faithfully reflected the beautiful homely Christ-child sentiment of Saxon Europe. What a far away, unreal fairy story it all seemed here in this West African land, where the bodies of men were of as little account as the bubbles that floated on the oily froth of the great flowing river, and where it required a stretch of wild profitless imagination to credit them with undying souls. In the life he had come from Comus had been accustomed to think of individuals as definite masterful
personalities, making their several marks on the circumstances that revolved around them; they did well or ill, or in most cases indifferently, and were criticised, praised, blamed, thwarted or tolerated, or given way to. In any case, humdrum or outstanding, they had their spheres of importance, little or big. They dominated a breakfast table or harassed a Government, according to
their capabilities or opportunities, or perhaps they merely had irritating mannerisms. At any rate it seemed highly probable that they had souls. Here a man simply made a unit in an unnumbered population, an inconsequent dot in a loosely-compiled deathroll. Even his own position as a white man exalted conspicuously above a horde of black natives did not save Comus from the depressing sense of nothingness which his first experience of fever had thrown over him. He was a lost, soulless body in this great uncaring land; if he died another would take his place, his few effects would be inventoried and sent down to the coast, someone else would finish off any tea or whisky that he left behind--that would be all.

He sees some African children playing outside . . .

Those wild young human kittens represented the joy of life, he was the outsider, the lonely alien, watching something in which he could not join, a happiness in which he had no part or lot. He would pass presently out of the village and his bearers' feet would leave their indentations in the dust; that would be his most permanent memorial in this little oasis of teeming life. And that other life, in which he once moved with such confident sense of his own necessary participation in it, how completely he had passed out of it. Amid all its laughing throngs, its card parties and race-meetings and country-house gatherings, he was just a mere name, remembered or forgotten, Comus Bassington, the boy who went away. He had loved himself very well and never troubled greatly whether anyone else really loved him, and now he realised what he had made of his life. And at the same time he knew that if his chance were to come again he would throw it away just as surely, just as perversely. Fate played with him with loaded dice; he would lose always.

One person in the whole world had cared for him [his mother], for longer than he could remember, cared for him perhaps more than he knew, cared for him perhaps now. But a wall of ice had mounted up between him and her, and across it there blew that cold-breath that chills or kills affection.

The words of a well-known old song, the wistful cry of a lost cause, rang with insistent mockery through his brain:

"Better loved you canna be,
Will ye ne'er come back again?"

If it was love that was to bring him back he must be an exile for ever. His epitaph in the mouths of those that remembered him would be, Comus Bassington, the boy who never came back.

And in his unutterable loneliness he bowed his head on his arms, that he might not see the joyous scrambling frolic on yonder hillside.

The next chapter is the last chapter and his mother receives a telegram which she knows will inform her of his death. She puts off opening it, hoping to delay the news a little while longer (he is still alive so long as she does not know he is dead). Her brother comes in to deliver some bad news of a relatively trivial nature and mistakes her anguished expression, prattling on and on in an attempt to cheer her up.

Francesca sat in stricken silence, crushing the folded morsel of paper tightly in her hand and wondering if the thin, cheerful voice with its pitiless, ghastly mockery of consolation would never stop.

And that's the end of the book. Dismal stuff.

From what I can gather after reading all of his writings, I would say this: Saki was a fairly cynical individual, but he was also an idealist and his intellect was offended more and more by what he saw of both the social and the political atmosphere of England as he got older. He knew that the world was changing very drastically and he was frustrated by two large segments of the population: 1) Those who were stagnating in the past, refusing to let go of the old ways even though the results of holding on were potentially disastrous. 2) Those who were stupidly happy about a forthcoming "modern age" and were ready to welcome it in for all the wrong reasons and banish the past entirely without learning anything from it. As you can imagine, this accounted for a rather large percentage of the population . . .

There's a deeper sense of melancholia buried in there somewhere as well, and I don't know where it comes from. I suspect that he . . . well:

"The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think."
-Horace Walpole

That about sums it up, really. Anyway . . .

Here's to a great author who died before his time . . .

*raises glass of Japanese rice wine*

Posted by Jared at 05:35 PM | TrackBack

June 07, 2004

The "Me" Weekly

I think my blog is trying to tell me something . . . What can I say? The little bugger has a mind of its own. Well, it has a point you know. I guess I have been a bit remiss lately . . . for no good reason in particular that I know of.

Scholl and I continue to watch at least one movie every day and my list is now up to a healthy thirty-one (we haven't watched tonight's movie yet). The List in terms of meaningless statistics:

-The average year of release for the movies we've watched is 1982. Release years on the list range from 1915 to 2004.

-The average movie length is 120.484 minutes for a total of 62.25 hours spent in front of a screen. The longest thus far is Schindler's List with a runtime of 194 minutes, and the shortest is High Noon with 85.

-The average objective rating is 39.19354839 out of 50 and the average subjective rating is 40.19354839 out of 50. The Replacements is the lowest rated movie at a total of 14%, while three movies have received perfect scores of 100% (Schindler's List, The Seventh Seal, and Rear Window).

I love gratuitous statistics. And spreadsheets are so awesome.

Anyway, as you can see, we've watched some pretty good stuff lately, on the whole. Went to see Harry Potter 3 on Saturday night with Anna, Ardith, Scholl, and Taylor and had a generally good time. Taylor was the only one of us who hadn't read the books.

I was generally caught up in the magic of the whole thing and my personal opinion was that the change in directors has definitely improved the production quality. Scholl and Anna were both a bit bothered by certain deficiencies in comparison to the book. I see their point, but PoA has (I would say) the best and most intricate plot of the five thus far and the movie's chief problem was that it was just too short to fully convey this (clocking in at a "mere" 142 minutes . . . twenty minutes shorter than the second movie, even though the book is longer by 100 pages).

Anyway, I think that production quality is up and screenwriting quality is down from the last installment. I have the first two winging their merry way in this direction from Netflix, to be watched over the weekend (in all probability). I'll let you know if I discover anything of further interest on the subject at that time . . .

As far as reading goes . . . Well, that quiz ate most of my weekend reading time when I wasn't looking. I chastised it severely, of course, but I wasn't about to go digging through quiz excrement looking for loose fragments of my . . .

No. The analogy does not carry through very well. Nevermind.

I did have time to finish Black Wolf yesterday, and I was quite pleased. Fourth in a loosely-connected series (each book by a different author, starring a different character from a noble family), it was a quality bit of escapism set in the Forgotten Realms universe (one of the main D&D campaign settings). I consider the overall quality of this series to be a cut above Salvatore's stuff set in the same universe. For one thing, I have yet to encounter an author in this series who has a pathological fear of killing off main characters (this tends to heighten the tension, making for a generally more enjoyable and less predictable plot). Of course, Salvatore wouldn't have that problem either if he hadn't made all of his characters FRIGGING OMNIPOTENT!!!

Anyway, I have (as you will see on the right) moved on to the fifth book in the series, which looks very promising thus far. Meanwhile, while I continue to read the other books, I am making special efforts to complete Shadowmancer asap. I won't lie . . . some few passages of it are really quite decent. Overall, however, I remain mystified as to how this book has done as well as it has. The chief problem . . . *thinks* . . . Well, okay, one of the chief problems I have with it (aside from his poor plotting, bad characterization, largely hackneyed writing, and pathetic attempts to scare me with a villain who behaves like a half-wit monkey child most of the time) is the blurring of the line between magic and miracle.

From a spiritual standpoint (since this book was written as an alternative to the undisguised occultism [sic] of Harry Potter and the aggressive atheism [not sic] of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy) I would say that this is pretty much unforgivable. In spite of the mad ravings of the fundies, I am not spiritually confused by reading a Harry Potter book. For one thing, I know exactly what real world witchcraft truly is. Far more important than this, however, I realize that Harry Potter does not portray real world witchcraft . . . duh!

Shadowmancer, on the other hand, makes it very hard to keep track of precisely what the author thinks along these lines. He has set his book (supposedly a fantasy) in an actual location of the real world (albeit during a long-gone time period), which was his first mistake. By doing this, he has tied himself to real-world mechanics, and if you do that and you want to maintain a consistent Christian worldview in order to convey a message . . . well, you'd better at least stick to some form of conventional Christian thought regarding the supernatural (but don't make me go there, I beg you).

Taylor fails to do this on multiple counts. First, the pathetic bad guy I referred to earlier (Vicar and Magistrate Obadiah Demurral), often casts spells which are clearly demonic in nature . . . since he summons actual demons and sends them to possess and control his minions . . . and his methodology is classic, stereotypical, literary Satanism (he employs everything from pentagrams to blood sacrifices). However, much of the magic he makes use of is . . . well, it's weird. He summons random creatures from Celtic folklore as well as a number of pathetic Ringwraith rip-offs called "Varrigal." Seriously . . . the description of the things is straight out of Tolkien, with a bit of the "Frodo Ring-Vision" appearance (from Weathertop in the first movie) thrown in for good measure. The difference is, you can take these puny buggers out with a flintlock pistol or a rusty cutlass . . . Now, what kind of Satanically-summoned creature can be shot? Really . . .

Even worse to my mind, however, is the "good guy magic." This is chiefly wielded by the African boy, Raphah, the only true Christian to appear thus far in the story. He runs around slinging magic miracles like a D&D cleric . . . What am I supposed to make of this?

Message = "Become a Christian! We gots heap-big magicks!"

I'll need to see how it all turns out, but there is one of two possibilities here . . . Either Demurral's plan for world domination is legit, and God's omnipotent authority (yes, THE GOD) is actually under threat from this slimy little peon with his stupid magic artifacts and needs to be preserved by the lackluster efforts of three teenage basket cases, or nobody was ever under threat from anybody else and our heroes' frantic attempts to save the world were not required (thanks anyway, kids). While I will be more than a little pissed off at the waste of my time if the latter is the case, I sincerely hope that it is . . . If it ain't, we got bigger problems.

One final (for now) shot: If I pick up one more juvenile historical fiction book set anywhere between 1300-1800 and starring a grubby young teenage boy and girl who have been orphaned or otherwise come from broken homes and difficult circumstances, I am going to . . . Probably read it anyway. But I will be very upset. I swear . . . was this the only demographic doing anything during this period of history?! I think not!

Well, this post has now reached critical mass . . . I guess. In any case, I don't have anything further that I wish to discuss, rave about, or review at the present time, and I do have a number of books to finish. I will proceed to do that now.

Posted by Jared at 08:45 PM | TrackBack

"Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!"

-King Lear, Act III, Sc. 2

It was about 11:15 last night, and I was lying in bed. It was a dark night, of course, but not a stormy one.


I was bravely plugging away at Shadowmancer, and drifting steadily in and out of sleep. In the story, the hero is confronting a demon-possessed man at the top of a cliff over the sea, and a storm is blowing in. Drifting in and out as I was, I almost imagined that I could hear the fierce wind whipping about them in full cry when I happened to look up and lock eyes with Scholl (sitting at his computer).

"Wooow," he says, and I realize that I am actually hearing that much wind.

And that was the beginning of two very lovely stormy nights.

I only got to watch the storm a little bit on that first night because it got here a little late and I needed my sleep. It was a beauty, though . . . Winds gusting violently and spraying those on the porch with a fine mist of rain . . . Blinding, spectacular flashes of lightning followed closesly by the two best kinds of thunder (long, deep rumbling like ten-ton boulders rolling down a far-off hill and sharp cracking like the splintering of a thousand wooden doors) . . .






Posted by Jared at 04:15 PM | TrackBack

June 06, 2004

Finally, a quiz that really has me nailed!

You're Jared!

Which Member of the Shadow Council Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

Well, here it is. The quiz you've all been waiting for . . . or maybe not. I dunno. The idea came to me as most of my ideas do (in the form of an idle whim), and I proceeded to dive directly into the quiz-making process. We'll see how it works . . .

Posted by Jared at 04:04 PM | TrackBack

June 04, 2004

Jared the Legendary

You are a siren.

What legend are you? Take the Legendary Being Quiz by Paradox
Mermaids, similar to Centaurs, have a torso of a
human and the body of a fish. You are curious
yet reserved in your actions. You like to have
fun but never at the expense of others and you
never roughouse. You love water and the
creature in it and feel it is your job to make
sure they stay safe.

What Mythological Creature Are You (Many Results and Beautiful Pics)
brought to you by Quizilla

So, the alternate title for this post would be something like "Shocked and Disturbed Silence" . . . Dunno if anyone can explain this one, but I'd be grateful if you wouldn't take a crack at it. I pretty much discounted the first result . . . and then the second one turned up.

I don't wanna be a freaking mermaid!!! I mean, really . . . What the heck?

The irony of the whole thing comes sliding in when I decided (so long as I was classified thusly) to go ahead and take this quiz:

You are a Fairy. Wait a minute, a fairy? Well you
are not a mermaid at all. But you enjoy all
things and love all. You blossom every morning
and enjoy the simple pleasures of life. There
are so many fairies, I can not count them all.
Will you rate my quiz since you enjoy all?

What kind of mermaid are you?
brought to you by Quizilla

Now, just for kicks, here's a bonus quiz . . . one that finally didn't disturb me:

speak and spell
You're a Speak & Spell!! You nerd, you. Just
because you were disguised as a toy doesn't
mean you weren't educational, you sneaky

What childhood toy from the 80s are you?
brought to you by Quizilla

I'm actually working on a genuine post, but . . . Well, painting saps time and energy, that's all. Not to mention reading and watching movies during my happy seven hours of non-work and non-sleep.

Posted by Jared at 05:06 PM | TrackBack