classic Literature

Cristopher Tolkien Makes an Appearance

I’m always a bit leery but also drawn in when a famous writer’s offspring attempts to ride a progenitor’s coattails to fame, fortune and probably an enlarged bank account.

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Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson expand Frank Herbert’s Dune Universe.

Brian Herbert’s attempts to expand his father’s Dune universe are a typical case in point.  They are interesting science fiction books in a familiar universe but… but they break no new ground.  This is probably the biggest attack on his father’s legacy that was committed here because the original Dune books were beloved precisely because they were new and fresh. Core fans will read them, of course, bit I doubt they’ll be considered part of the canon anytime soon (at least not by me).

But Herbert’s books (with an assist from Anderson, clearly) aren’t bad.  If it wasn’t for the legacy, we’d all have liked them without further comment.  Much worse was the disastrous attempt at authoring an epic Fantasy by Nicolai Tolstoy (grandson of Leo), which resulted in the only time I have ever voluntarily abandoned a book in the middle of it in the last 30 years.

So it was with mixed feelings that I picked up the Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle Earth series some years ago.  That first book was a difficult read, but I was fascinated by the textual history that Tolkien Jr had managed to piece together from his fathers papers.  It is a stunning piece of academic research taken on by probably the only person with both the access and motivation to succeed in it.

I’ve since read the six books that followed which brings us all the way through the history of the writing of the tales that eventually became the Silmarillion to the text of the Lord of the Rings.  The book which prompted this post, and which I’ll be concentrating on here, is the seventh, The Treason of Isengard.

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The Treason of Isengard, Book 7 of the History of Middle Earth and Book 2 of the History of the Lord of the Rings

Like its predecessors, this volume presents older drafts of the material with commentary on when changes were likely made, and when names evolved into the current versions that everyone knows and loves.

As a writer, I find JRR Tolkien’s process mesmerizing and terrifying.  Mesmerizing because watching text evolve so methodically is an education in and of itself and Terrifying because the man spent his entire adult life continuously tweaking his text.  Were it not for editorial pressure and deadlines, he probably would have kept toying with the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings until the day he died, much like he did with Silmarillion.

The reason to read this series isn’t because it will bring you a new appreciation of LotR – we all know it and love it (or despise it) for our own reasons, and this won’t change it, but it will bring you a type of writing process that will feel very alien to nearly every one of us.

If I wrote my books like that, I’d simply go insane, but it’s undeniably effective.  The layers of myth upon myth back through the ages that shine through in the Lord of the Rings are there because Tolkien actually wrote them, and rewrote them and wrote them yet again as he composed the Silmarillion and the associated poems.

In this particular case, I don’t begrudge the son a single cent, and actually prefer that his series exists instead of having original writing from Christopher.

 

The Synchronicity of Birds

It seems like this was destined to be a Hitchcock-themed week, even though we didn’t plan it this way.  Our Tuesday post and this one were planned completely separately, but there is no denying that Daphne du Maurier and Alfred Hitchcock are inextricably linked, so it’s a happy coincidence for those who are fans of both! –Ed.

Daphne Du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier

Most writers would probably kill to write a string of popular best-selling books spanning four decades and be created a Commander of the British Empire for their efforts, but it’s arguable that, in Daphne du Maurier’s case, she might have been better off having written just two books.

du Maurier will always be linked to one of the great novels of the 20th century, the brilliant Rebecca.  Despite modern covers that attempt to fool readers into thinking that the book is aimed at the 50 Shades audience, or possibly the crowd that prefers tamer romances, this one is not a piece of entertaining fluff.  It’s a mature, unflinching look at adults who are less than perfect, but who do what they must and deal with the consequences as best they can.

Rebecca also contains one of the most memorable (some people say the best) opening lines in literature:  “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”… a haunting preview of what is to come and perfect for the novel.

It’s a bit sad that, while attempting to recapture the magic of her first hit, du Maurier focused on the romantic elements of the novel and produced a string of books that has since been completely dismissed by the establishment – with some justification – as mere time-passers not worthy of a second look.

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The Birds Film Still

The true tragedy is that the dismissal of her work often extends to Rebecca itself (which is both ignorant and unforgivable) and to her other noteworthy book: The Birds and Other Stories.

That du Maurier was a master of suspense is clearly evident from the fact that Alfred Hitchcock decided to film no less than three of her tales:  The Birds, Jamaica Inn and Rebecca – and it’s arguable that The Birds is Hitchcock’s most famous film (although, admittedly, he has so many that it could be quite an argument!).  Nevertheless, that’s not the way she’s remembered, and most people wouldn’t be able to connect The Birds with her at all.

It’s their loss.

Originally published as The Apple Tree, the title was changed and the book was reissued as a companion to the film in 1963… and it’s well worth reading.

It’s a book that clearly shows that du Maurier was wasting her time with romance.  While love interests were fine to sustain the plot, what she really, truly did well was a kind of weird suspense, a mix of slightly surreal elements that never let the reader understand whether events are caused by natural or supernatural forces, or even if, perhaps, the characters are imagining it all.

It’s a slim book, and has six stories in it, but, with a deft touch, explores everything from adultery to cults with much the same effect as Rebecca, but in bite-sized chunks.  Anyone wanting to learn how to write a modern suspense tale – or wishing to consume one, need look no further.  Even though they are well over a half-century old, they feel perfectly modern (if one overlooks technology, of course).  The prose is that good.

And the title story feels very different from the film… so even if you think you know the tale, you don’t (also interesting to read the original material as Hitchcock did, to see what inspired him about it).

Of course, this review is being written for Classically Educated, so we’d be truly remiss if we failed to mention that a beautiful edition of this one was Published by Easton Press, although we don’t know if it’s currently available (ebay should help if not…).

All in all, we strongly recommend you pop into the local bookstore, buy these two du Maurier books and make a comment to the clerk about how sad it was that she never wrote anything else.  It would be a small white lie, and who knows – you might possibly be starting the restoration of her reputation.

A Novel Point of View

You know what a novel is, right?

Of course you do.  It’s any one of those fat books on the shelves at Barnes & Noble that isn’t divided into short stories or something.  What a silly question.

Well…

Most people use a working definition of the word “novel” which is pretty similar to the one above, but scholars most certainly do not.  In fact a good way to amuse oneself if one were to be trapped in a college of literary pretensions during a hurricane would be to ask a random professor to define the term for you in the presence of other professors.  It is very important to be prepared for the little disagreements this will generate: bandages, iodine, and possibly a fully-equipped trauma ward would be good things to have handy.

The Theory of the Novel Edited by Philip Stevick

Just as an example of how hard the novel is to pin down, the book that started the mental process towards this article, (Philip Stevick’s The Theory of the Novel) is divided into sections that analyze the novel from different angles (Generic Identity; Narrative Technique; Point of View; Plot; Structure and Proportion; Style; Character; Time and Place; Symbol; and Life and Art), each filled with essays written by such luminaries as Conrad or Cervantes.

It’s quite an impressive piece of name dropping–and an extremely interesting, albeit somewhat dry read–but it would be hard-pressed to fit with the popular perception of what a novel is.

So let’s put that popular perception into words quickly, in order to have a rough working definition moving forward:

Novel: Any work of prose fiction longer than about a hundred and fifty pages or so that tells a story, and which has a beginning, middle, and end.

This clearly isn’t an academic definition, but it gives us the gist – the novel is longer than a short story or a novella, it tells one story, as opposed to being a collection of shorter works, and at the end of the thing, the reader knows how it turns out for the people involved – even if what happens next may be a bit open-ended as in more modern work.  Most people would agree with this definition.

Most scholars would probably move to have anyone proposing such tripe burned at the stake.  Even Wikipedia, that supposedly democratic collection of worldly wisdom has a long, rambling article about novels that touches on every possible inclusion and ancestor, and even has a handy little chart on reading habits in England in the 18th century (and a bonus discussion on Dan Brown discussing whether The Da Vinci Code is an anti-Christian novel.  Don’t believe that? See for yourself).

This is one of those cases where a rigorous definition of the subject matter, and the obsession of academics of going beyond popular knowledge is counter-productive.  Sadly, however, it is clear that, other than Sociology, there are few branches of study quite as dominated by obsessive people who wouldn’t be able to survive in any other discipline than literary criticism.  Anyone who has ever heard of critical race theory and is aware that some people consider it a valid approach to literary criticism should be enough to convince you of the unfortunate state of literary criticism.  If that doesn’t convince you, simply pick up or browse your chosen newspaper – you will see that books are not judged based on their literary or artistic merit, but by the politics of their authors (try it, it’s fun – The Guardian is particularly unsubtle about it, which is sad because their cultural section is otherwise among the world’s best).

But if none of the above convinces you, here’s XKCD.  XKCD cannot be argued with.

XKCD impostor

(As always, you can see the original – with the mouse-over, at their site.  Plus, buy their t-shirts and stuff – anyone producing material of that quality and not charging others to use it deserves to be supported.)

But if you really want to start a fight, ask one of your captive professors what the first novel was.  You won’t even need the trauma room, as survivors are unlikely.

Tarzan of the Apes – Revisited as a Reader

Tarzan of the Apes book cover

Over the past ten or twenty years – and earlier, many novels that had been considered unarguable classics have suffered the indignity of revisionism.  Perhaps the clearest example of this is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which is an obvious target for this behavior, because it is one of (if not THE) greatest pieces of prose ever written, but treads in places and attitudes that not even the bravest twenty-first century writer would approach, for fear of being crucified by special interest groups.

It is a work that, despite the efforts of well-meaning but intellectually misguided revisionists can only be truly analyzed and understood within the context of a) its time and b) human nature itself.

Edgar Rice Burroughs

Another book that, despite not being quite in the same literary league, generates a similar response, is Tarzan of the Apes – one of Edgar Rice Burroughs three supremely successful fantasy milieus (the others being Barsoom and the Earth’s Core).  Though enormously influential in popular culture, the novel itself is seeing a backlash due to its supposedly problematical treatment of non-whites and women.

Now, it’s clear that a book written in 1912 will contain many attitudes that will leave modern readers scratching their heads, but that is part of what makes reading classics a worthwhile.

It’s hard for people to imagine just how much of modern society was created out of whole cloth and necessity in the years of WWI.  Everything from women’s expanded role in industry to the breakdown of class barriers got a huge boost by the harsh realities of a Europe that lost an enormous percentage of its young men to the conflict.  Reading books from the era immediately before it helps understand both what was gained and what was lost.

Tarzan falls into most of the traps the revisionists dislike, but, at the same time, it is truly an unflinching – if somewhat fantastic – view of what the wilderness would have been like, and is therefore valuable to modern readers.  To the revisionists, this is of no moment: they feel that anything which expresses certain attitudes needs to be suppressed – or at least not encouraged.  The prevailing attitude seems to be: watch the Disney version if you must, but avoid the novel.

And yet…

And yet, the novel, despite being a little bloodier and a little less pink-lensed than what a modern equivalent would be, is still FUN.  The archaic attitudes don’t really distract in the least from the adventure story unless you really, really make an effort to be offended.  The good guys and the bad guys are clearly defined, and one can immediately tell what is right and what is wrong.

So this is one that we at Classically Educated recommend with no qualms whatsoever.  Our readers – cosmopolitan, open-minded and educated – will be able to accept the anachronisms and enjoy what, 100 years later, is still a cracking good book.  If you haven’t already, get your hands on a copy!

As for the revisionists, perhaps we can just all agree to take the classics in the spirit in which they were written and be offended at something else*?  Please?

*We propose being offended at the discriminatory practice of painting all bulldozers yellow.  Surely that is sinister and hides a racist message of some sort that most people haven’t yet been able decipher.  Also, it is an important thing that people care deeply about – we’re not just trying to get you to go away.  Honest.