This is a superb and moving exploration, via the myth of Cupid and Psyche, of the kind of love that poses as the intense love of another, but is in reThis is a superb and moving exploration, via the myth of Cupid and Psyche, of the kind of love that poses as the intense love of another, but is in reality self-love. Orual, the ugly sister of the hauntingly beautiful Psyche, cannot bear the thought that Psyche might really find fulfillment in her marriage with the God of the Mountain. In fact, she is jealous that anyone could command Psyche's love more than herself.
Orual is partly misled because of her devotion to her childhood tutor, the Fox, whom Lewis portrays as a kind of blend of classical learning, a mixture of the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers. The Fox is not ill-intentioned--quite the opposite, in fact, and Lewis' portrayal of him is affectionate and compassionate. But pre-Christian philosophies simply cannot understand the intensity of true love, and the Fox fails.
Woven into the tale is the symbol of Orual's veil, which she starts wearing when she becomes queen. At first, she wears it to conceal her ugliness, but she finds that it actually enhances her mystique.
Orual believes she has a grievance against the gods, and it's only at the end, when she faces the gods and states her grievance, that she comes to the realization that her love of Psyche has not been honest. It has been a selfish love, symbolized by her ugly face; later, she had suppressed her love (her veil), and it's not until the end of the novel that she finally possesses the fce of the title.
In many ways, this novel is atypical of Lewis--the utterly pagan setting, reminiscent of the scapegoat-societies depicted by Rene Girard, the first-person narrative told from the perspective of a woman. But the themes--the concealment of true identity, the selfish love posing as something else--are all typical of C. S. Lewis. It's not as easy to enjoy as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or even That Hideous Strength, but it's a rich and rewarding reading experience....more
This is a great read, adding a lot to one's knowledge of Tolkien. The three best pieces in the book are "On Fairy Stories," "Leaf by Niggle" and "FarmThis is a great read, adding a lot to one's knowledge of Tolkien. The three best pieces in the book are "On Fairy Stories," "Leaf by Niggle" and "Farmer Giles of Ham."
"On Fairy Stories" deals with two important themes--subcreation and eucatastrophe.
Subcreation is the act of world-building in which all creators of stories participate. It’s not creation. The primary world, the physical and spiritual world in which we live, was created by God. The world in which the events of our stories take place is not the primary world, but a secondary world that has been subcreated by an author. The author stands in relation to his subcreated world as God stands to the primary world. There is, of course, one big difference: characters in the primary world have free will, whereas characters in the secondary world do not. Even here, you can be nit-picky. Every author will attest that, sometimes, characters take on lives of their own and assert a kind of freedom over events in the secondary world. Whatever the psychological origin of such a phenomenon, it happens, and really attests to the divine nature of subcreation.
The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once wrote that reading poetry involved the reader in “the willing suspense of disbelief.” The reader has to make a conscious agreement to believe in the secondary world created by the poet. Tolkien was a little harsher. If the author was doing a good job, he reasoned, the reader shouldn’t need to suspend his disbelief. He wouldn’t even realize that he was in a fictional world until he reached the end of the tale and had to close the book. Anyone who has read all afternoon and not noticed the passage of time knows exactly what Tolkien was talking about!
Tolkien was writing The Hobbit at the time, and clearly, his analysis of fairy story was at the same time an analysis of what he was doing in his own fairy story. The Hobbit isn’t a great deal like LOTR. The elves are not so much the figures of veneration as they are in LOTR—they’re more frivolous, more childlike. You can make what excuses you like—we’re only seeing an aspect of their nature in The Hobbit, perhaps—but the fact is that they’re written to satisfy the same mind that finds wonder in fairy story.
The eucatastrophe is the sudden and unexpected happy ending in a story. Against all expectations, things turn out right. The hero was thought to be dead, but is not. All is better than could really have been imagined before. The Resurrection is the prime historical example of eucatastrophe, of course, and there are numerous examples in literature, including most notably the destruction of the Ring of Power at the end of LOTR.
"Leaf by Niggle" is a short story--an allegory, no less. Tolkien claimed to dislike allegory, but here is an allegory he wrote. It's about a man called Niggle, who has an important journey to undertake, and good deeds to do, but he keeps getting distracted by the painting of a tree he is working on. It soon becomes pretty clear that the journey is death, and his allegorical journey by train to a land (obviously heaven) in which the tree from his painting is real is a beautiful rendition of the role of art in this life and beyond. The closing passage is a chilling reminder of how ill those left behind really deserve the art that is produced for them.
"Farmer Giles of Ham" is the tale of a reluctant hero who conquers a dragon--a delightful tale that gently spoofs chivalric romance and even, at one point, the Oxford English Dictionary! ...more
**spoiler alert** This is a fast-moving and intelligent novel for children. Jack and his sister Lucy get kidnapped by Vikings during the historic raid**spoiler alert** This is a fast-moving and intelligent novel for children. Jack and his sister Lucy get kidnapped by Vikings during the historic raid on Lindisfarne in 793. Arriving in Norway, Jack finds that he has to undertake a quest to find Mimir's Well in order to save his sister from the half-troll queen, Frith.
One negative aspect of this novel is the rather spare style, which doesn't enable you to really get into the story well. Things happen blindingly fast. It isn't difficult to follow--I just like to absorb myself a little more thoroughly, that's all. And Farmer keeps dropping modernisms into her prose: "Just say no to pillaging," for example. This one's very witty, of course, but they mount up, and are a bit distracting.
But there are many more positive aspects. There's a lot of very accurate Scandinavian mythology in the book--the tales of Odin, Loki, Mimir's Well, etc., are all accurately portrayed. And that's hardly surprising, since the bibliography Farmer provides at the end is enough for a graduate course!
Also, the characters are very appealing. Jack is a likable hero. (I'm not sure that Jack is a historically-accurate name, but that's nitpicking.) Thorgil, the boy who turns out to be a girl berserker, is also strangely appealing. But towering over them both is Olaf One-Brow, the Viking leader who remains a powerful presence and extremely likable, even while he's uncompromisingly violent in nature.
And that's yet another strength of the book. There's no simple answer to the problems Farmer sets up. The characters at the end don't just agree to stop fighting one another. The Jotuns (trolls) become very appealing in the middle section of the book, but they don't agree to stop eating people when Jack leaves their kingdoms. And it's very clear at the end of the book that the Vikings are going to continue raiding England, as they did historically for another two hundred years. Olaf One-Brow retains his violent tendencies, even in his most attractive moments.
A rich and complex book, very entertaining, and well worth spending the time on....more
This is an alternate history, in which magic, long a part of England's history but lately vanished, is restored by two magicians, the elderly and pedaThis is an alternate history, in which magic, long a part of England's history but lately vanished, is restored by two magicians, the elderly and pedantic Gilbert Norrell and the young, romantic, and somewhat reckless Jonathan Strange.
At first allies, the two grow apart when they disagree over the proper sources and uses of magic. They snipe at one another in scholarly journals, to acquaintances, and to political and military figures of the period (the early nineteenth century).
You wouldn't expect this to make a gripping novel. The strange thing about it (if you'll pardon the pun) is that it does. 846 pages fly past at breakneck speed. Clarke's style is oblique rather than direct, focusing on description rather than action (though she describes a good bit of action too), but somehow I kept on turning the pages. It's like eating candy . . . except that, unlike candy, it has substance. A work of fantasy, it also has serious concerns--friendship and rivalry, madness and sanity, order and chaos, goodness and evil. The conclusion is perfectly satisfying--I can't think of any loose ends, all the villains get what they deserve, and the heroes and heroines are returned to the kind of lives they enjoy. Well, almost--there's a kind of bittersweet moment in the last couple of pages. But I like that--I like the complexity of emotions such an ending produces (in me, at least).
Glancing over the reviews of this book on Goodreads and Amazon, I see two criticisms that I think are unfounded.
First, Mr. Norrell. One reviewer claimed not to understand his motives for "behaving like that." The reviewer clearly doesn't know many academics. Mr. Norrell is a very convincing portrait of an academic--the scene in which Clarke describes him in his study, unaware of the changing seasons because he is intent upon his studies, is masterly. He's reclusive because his studies mean everything to him. Clarke has taken something of a risk on this character: he's rather a bore. It's difficult to present a bore as your protagonist, because he's likely to be boring to the readers as well. But Norrell isn't. The characters find him boring, but the reader doesn't. In this sense, Norrell is very like Miss Bates in Jane Austen's Emma.
Second, the footnotes. First of all, these are often satirical--if you've read the footnotes in any edition of Shakespeare of a translation of a medieval work, you'll be able to spot the object of the satire easily. Second, though, they're not irrelevant. It's through the footnotes that Clarke builds her secondary world. Tolkien does this through physical description, and reams of unpublished work; the poet of Beowulf does it through lengthy digressions into historical and legendary matters; Clarke does it with mock pomposity through footnotes that send up the pedantic nature of the world she describes and of scholars like Mr. Norrell.
In one extremely clever moment, a character who is stuck in Faerie and England speaks in both worlds simultaneously; her words in Faerie are different from her words in England, owing to enchantment. Clarke relates her words in Faerie in her text, and her words in England in a footnote, thus giving the impression of simultaneous speech.
I don't think the footnotes are ever really unnecessary.
Mr. Norrell is also intensely egocentric. (This too fits with the profile of the academic, but enough of that for now.) Everything he does is designed to further his own comfort or glory. All academics want to be exalted for their studies; most people don't find their studies even interesting, let alone glorious. So Mr. Norrell's obsession with getting magic recognized and officially sanctioned, his jealous expulsion of all other magicians from England's major cities--this is part of a very convincing portrait of and satire upon academics.
I have to confess, though, that the book gets slightly less interesting when Jonathan Strange goes off to the Peninsular War. Having devoured Bernard Cornwell' Sharpe novels a couple of years ago, and being a longtime devotee of C S Forester's Hornblower books, I know how exciting the Napoleonic Wars can be in an historical novel. This is okay, but just a little lacklustre. And it's at this point that Clark's style ceases to remind me of Jane Austen.
But perhaps that's because Jane Austen never described warfare.
One other point. I very much like the idea that northern England is a place of magic, whereas southern England is a place of foppishness and villainy. Of course, I have a personal stake in this--I was born in the northern English county of Cheshire. But there is something magically melancholy, or even melancholically magical, about the Yorkshire Moors. People seem to be fond of comparing Clarke to Austen and Dickens; but I think there's also an element of Emily Bronte in her too....more