Friday, December 18, 2009

The Platypus Lives to Fight Another Day

Nothing pacifies your students like an extended World history test last period the last day before vacation. Winter break has begun and I'm safe and sound without any rebellions to put down. Sure, the kids were a little bitter about not being allowed to have five hours of unbroken partying, but they've got two weeks to forget about it. Score one for education. Score one for my kids' ability to be mature.

22 Bucks, Popcorn, and a Platypus

Sherlock Holmes, Alice in Wonderland, Clash of the Titans. Should I be excited?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Culinary Platypus

Homemade ginger beer go BOOM!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Platypus and a Proton Torpedo

Almost there... Almost there.... just six more days of class. Hope I don't get blown out of the sky.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

In A Perfect World: The Platypus Reads Part LIII

My tenth graders are reading C.S. Lewis' "Perelandra" this month. The class has been getting into it, and I had the privilege to hear as several of them were walking down the stairs: "Class is too short. I wish we had more than an hour every day to discuss this stuff. We need to make class longer."

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Webbed Comics? The Platypus Reads Part LII

I re-read Bill Waterson's "Calvin and Hobbes 10th Anniversary Edition" a little while back. In it, Waterson lays out his comic author's manifesto. Looking at the funny papers today, it seems as if his push for greater creative freedom in that sphere has gone totally unheeded, and the doom Waterson prophesied is about to be fulfilled. Fifteen years ago, however, he was shrugged off as an idealistic crank. This sense of being treated like the "Cassandra of comics" seems to have played a part in Waterson's decision to retire early. Then it seemed as if a lone voice of dissent had been snuffed, but the world would go on. As we know today, Waterson's predictions were on target, and far from being a crank, he was prophetic and ahead of his time. Just as the rise of the internet is quickly making newspapers obsolete, the chance for artistic freedom offered by the internet is making the newsprint comic obsolete. In the rise of the web comic, we see an answer to the call Bill Waterson raised almost two decades ago. Web comic artists are free from the exploitative licencing agreements that wrenched comics away from their creators. Without the format restrictions imposed by print media, web comic authors are free to design their own layouts and take up as much or as little space as they want. Finally, without syndicates and editors, authors are able to create whatever they want and go direct to the public with it. The world Waterson's manifesto laid out has come.

Friday, November 27, 2009

A Cult of My Own: The Platypus Reads Part LI

Over the past few eeks, we've been re-reading Charles' Williams' "Descent Into Hell" in preparation for a high table meeting. I believe this is my third time through the book and a few new things are beginning to pop out at me. What I noticed most, however, was the absence of overt references to Christ. Though his presence and oblique references to Jesus fill the work, He is mentioned by name only once, and only in the context of saying that Pauline needn't bring him into it.

Now don't worry; I'm not trying to take on the big guy. Tolkien's references to Christ in "The Lord of the Rings" are even more indirect, and yet the presence of Jesus can be felt on every page. Instead, the presence of this immanent yet hidden Christ in "Descent Into Hell" makes me ask: "what is Charles Williams doing?"

I've heard the overall impact of William's novels described as making one feel what Christianity would look like if it were an obscure cult. Reflecting on that reminded me that there was quite a large amount of time when Christianity was just an obscure cult popular among the urban lower classes of the Roman empire. Then, Christians were careful about how they publicly mentioned or portrayed Jesus for fear of persecution. In urban England in the 1930s, Christianity was a well-known religion and its adherents faces a far less physical form of persecution.

All this set me to wondering if the hidden Christ of "Descent Into Hell" is an intentional attempt by Williams to get around his readers' negative biases and talk the realities of Christian doctrine and living. Given how Lewis and Tolkien's writings show a similar impulse, this seems to satisfy the question on at least a basic level. Knowing Williams, there's probably a deeper meaning behind his choice as well; though I'm not sure what it is.

What does Stanhope mean when he tells Pauline that she needn't bring Christ into it? Perhaps that Christ is already there if Pauline will see Him.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Tree of My Own: The Platypus Reads Part L

This post marks a full fifty literary musings here at "The Platypus of Truth." Since this all started with a wave of nostalgia, it seems apropriate to turn to a book that I read in tenth grade and just finished teaching to my tenth graders: "A Separate Peace."

I attended a New England prep-School, though nothing near as fancy as Philips-Exeter. When I first read this book, it resonated with me on a deep level. I read it once, and never had a chance to pick it up again. It was with a mix of eagerness and trepidation that I put it on this year's reading list for my students. I was worried that the magic would be gone. It wasn't.

I don't particularly agree with Knowles' conclusions about the nature of life, but there are just too many gems in "A Separate Peace" for it to lose its power. Furthermore, it had a marked affect on my students; even though the world of a New England prep-school is as far off from them as Mars. Being from that part of the country myself, I did everything I could to make it work for them, and it did.

If even for a moment, that makes me feel just a little less lonely.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Platypus Goes to Church

If you're ever out in Redlands, you need to visit First Congregational on the corner of Olive and Cajon. It has a real Tiffany stain glass window as well as a "grail chapel" complete with quotes from Tennyson.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

My High Withered: The Platypus Reads Part XLIX

Sadly, my heavy teaching load this year is not conducive to much else in my life. This has meant that many of my literary musings have not been expressed in as detailed a form as I would have liked. With that apology, let me attempt to fulfill my promise to weigh in on "Wuthering Heights."

To begin with, I think that "Wuthering Heights" suffers from the "Milton Problem;" that it does such a good job of picturing evil that readers are tempted to think that it is an apologetic for vice. I don't mind being in the company of John Milton (who, btw. there is plenty of reason to acquit of the charge of Arianism) but, sadly, I don't think I'd want to be in company of Byron and Blake as far as literary opinions go. Put simply, when someone with strong religious principles writes a book, I have a hard time believing that there is really some sort of satanic "back-masking." They may have made some errors, as do we all, or they may have miscalculated the effect the work would have on their audience, but I have a hard time believing that devout and intelligent writers (shy of hypocrisy) could be "of the devil's party without knowing it." In that light, I have a hard time believing that "Wuthering Heights" is meant to glorify the relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine.

Re-reading the book, the above interpretation also seems to jar with the actual work. I just can't find any evidence in the text that the author means for their affair to be anything other than wicked and disastrous both to the couple and everyone around them. Even the suggestion that Heathcliff and Catherine's ghosts haunt the moors doesn't strike me so much as a reconciliation as an echo of Dante's inferno where the lustful are eternally blown upon the winds. It seems more like a curse than a vindication.

So what is the book about? I don't have a definitive answer, but I think I can discern two themes.

The first is that "Wuthering Heights" plays with the idea of the "insider." Ellen Dean is always trying to work her way to the "inside" of events. Catherine's ghost is trying to get inside the house. Heathcliff and Catherine view the lavish but flawed lifestyle of the Lintons through a window. Lockwood is brought into the the events of the story by his visit to the Heights and by chats with Ellen Dean. In each case, the one trying to get "inside" is punished for the intrusion. Ellen Dean suffers all manner of hardships for her prying. Catherine's ghost has its fingers crushed by Lockwood and is forcibly kept out. When Heathcliff and Catherine have a peep at the Lintons, Heathcliff is thrown out and Catherine is mauled by a dog. Lockwood is attacked by dogs, treated with the height of bad manners, and finally catches a months-long illness as his reward for prying. All this seems to amount to a warning against the desire to be an "insider," or, as Lewis would say, to belong to an "inner ring."

The second theme seems to focus on our response to pain. The harsh treatment that Heathcliff receives fuels his bitter and resentful spirit. Catherine responds to pain by attempting to control everything about her suroundings. When this control is denied her, she goes insane. Linton responds to pain by becoming trecherous and sadistic, while Cathy settles for withdrawing into imperious disdane. Hareton lives in a state of denial. Ellen seems to keep a good cheer, and so comes through. Lockwood simply runs away. Edgar Linton seems to be improved by pain. Marrying Catherine seems to beat the spoiled softness out of him and by the time he meets his end, he seems to be something like a real, if deeply grieved, man. In addition, Lockwood's intervention allows Cathy and Hareton to turn away from focusing on their individual grievances and draw together to thwart Heathcliff's plans and find true happiness. The moral seems to be that the way we respond to pain shapes our characters. We can either use our pain as an excuse for moral corruption, or we can allow it to purify us of our faults and so begin to develop real virtue.

Given that C. Bronte, an intelligent and deeply moral writer, endorsed "Wuthering Heights" as strongly as she did, I find it hard to see the work as a justification of "doing anything for love." Moreover, a careful read of the book seems to militate against this view. Instead, what we find is a condemnation of the desire to be an "insider," and an admonition to allow our pains to sanctify us and not to use them as a justification for vice. That's about as anti-Byronic as it gets.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Platypus Closes the Generation Gap

As technology advances at a dizzying pace, popular culture follows suit. The fast pace of change in the modern world leads to a widening of what we call the "generation gap;" that difficulty members of separate generations have in communicating with each other because of differing sets of culturally conditioned formative experiences.

This year marked my ten-year highschool reunion. That's enough to put me in a completely different world from the generation I now teach. Speaking bluntly, I can remember a time before the internet: they can't. That being the case, I am always glad when I can find common ground with my students.

Square-Enix's habit of re-releasing all their great games from the 90's has been a huge windfall in working with my 10th graders. Right now, they're in the midst of discovering "Chrono Trigger" and the Final Fantasy series. This means that when they're geeking out, or trying to share something they're enthusiastic about, I can relate. It's a small thing, but that ability and willingness to relate earns untold capital in the classroom.

Why talk about video games in an educational context? Aren't they just a waste of time? There are actually several good answers to these questions, but I will only address one in this post. In order for students to learn, they have to establish a bond of trust with their teacher. I run into this barrier time and again; students simply do not trust adults in authority positions. The best way to overcome that barrier of distrust is to show that you're willing to hear students' concerns and interests (I usually do this during lunch or passing period so that class can be devoted to the material at hand). If the teacher doesn't show at least a willingness to listen to what the student cares about, no matter how trivial it may seem, then the student sees no need to reciprocate. The goal, of course, is not to leave them in their small hobbies and interests, but once their trust is earned to show them the excitement and interest of the larger world. Study the classics, and you will see just this pattern of pedagogy. Socrates must go down to meet his students before he can attempt to draw them up. In the gospel of John, Christ must first descend through the incarnation before he can be lifted up and "draw all men to (Him)."

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Platypus Likes PIxar

Thought for the day:

With the exception of Pixar, why is anime so much better than American animation?

Ok, so that question needs a lot of clarifying, but it's something I've been tossing around this past week.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Withering Highs: The Platypus Reads Part XLVIII

The next book in the queue for the year is Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein." However, while I'm gearing up to teach that, I have begun reading the next selection, "Wuthering Heights."

"Wuthering Heights" is not exactly a relaxing novel. In the main, it makes you want to shout or commit some act of violence. How Heathcliff survives as long as he does without getting shot in the face is a testament to the overall placidity of the English character and the fervent dedication of the author to her work. In spite of its stress-inducing tendencies, however, "Wuthering Heights" is a favourite high school reading.

Prior to this read through, I only had vague impressions of the novel left over from college. Then, I believe I had to polish the book off in something like a week or two and then discuss it for six evidently less than memorable hours. I don't remember disliking it at all, but the book only left a smattering of impressions. Taking a little more time this time, "Wuthering Heights" is beginning to sink in. I'm still in the middle of the novel, so it will take some time before I can finish it and completely gather my thoughts, but it's definitely turning out to be another one for the list of "High School Book Worth Re-Reading."

Monday, October 19, 2009

Use the Platypus, Luke!

George Lucas has spent the last decade revisiting and completing his prior work. For the most part, these attempts have been ill-received. While he's on a roll, however, there is one film that I wouldn't mind him revisiting: "Willow."

What can I say? I like "Willow." The film was never as big as Star Wars or Indiana Jones, but it was a decent bit of imaginitive fantasy. "Willow" uses all sorts of fantasy cliches without feeling like a mere re-imagining of "The Lord of the Rings." That, in itself, is something. Sure, there's halflings and trolls, but that's about it. The rest is Lucas' typical mish-mash of myth, pulp, and Americana. There's nothing very deep, but it was a fun movie. That's Lucas at his best -fun.

Given the past decade, I'm not sure how much we can expect from the creator of Star Wars. If Lucas did revist the world of "Willow" we could probably anticipate something in the vein of "The Phantom Menace." Just the same, I think I'd like to see him give it a try.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Platypus Pastimes

Thoughts from a weekend of art and entertaiment:

1. What are Mike Mignola's religious views? Del Torro's ex-Catholicism has been highly fruitful for his movie-making career, and he dumps a lot of it into the "Hellboy" movies. Mignola's work contains some strong Catholic undercurrents and I know that he helped out Christian comic book author Doug Tenaple (sp?). I can't wait until we get to see where he's going when volume 9 comes out.

2. Everything Pixar does seems to be some sort of commentary on the Imago Dei or, at the very least, what it means to be human.

3. The endings of Hayao Miyazaki's movies are often a tad confusing to an American audience, but man are they worth it if you take the time to do an extra viewing or two. I wish Disney could divest themselves of their California-American worldview and do some stuff that was as deep and meaningful as the movies that come out of studio Ghibli.

4. Sci-fi is alive and well, but the space program is on the verge of mothball-dom. Why is that?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Here and Everywhere? The Platypus Reads Part XLVII

Once you accept Hamlet as the archetypal modern hero (or anti-hero), you begin seeing him everywhere. Case in point, my wife and I were watching "Phantom of the Opera" the other night. There's a line toward the end of the movie where the Phantom sings: "Down once more to the dungeon of my dark despair; down once more to the prison of my mind." All I could think of was Hamlet's line to Guildenstern and Rosencranz: "I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space, were it not that I had bad dreams." Here, once more, was the star-crossed prince, slighted and overlooked, falling back within his own mind to recreate the world as a play, with himself as the main character, and wreck his revenge. Of course Christine is no Ophelia, and that alters the whole course of the story.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

The Platypus in a Nutshell: The Platypus Reads Part XLVI

Thought for the day: Hamlet is the great modern hero because he lives almost entirely in the nutshell of his own head.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Platypus Got "Dance Magic"

Over the past few years, my wife an I have been sharing books, movies, and music that meant a lot to us when we were growing up. On my wife's end, that means "Anne of Green Gables" and anything by E. Nesbit. For me, that means cult classic eighties and early nineties fantasy movies. A few of my favorites that we've viewed so far:

"The Dark Crystal"
"The Princess Bride" (a shared favorite)

Still on the list is "The Neverending Story." If there's anything we're missing, feel free to chime in.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Who's There? The Platypus Reads Part XLV

My students have passed on from Beowulf to the wonderful world of Shakespeare. This year's offering from the bard features the mad prince of Denmark, Hamlet. As an axis of analysis for the text, I've chosen the opening line "Who's there." I remember hearing that this was significant, but not an explaination of why. Reading the play through with the students has driven home to me that this is really the central question of the play.

"Hamlet" is awash in ambiguity. For every read you could give of a character or a situation, there are at least two or three others that are just as likely. A character's self-presentation often conflict with his or her actions, or what other characters in the play say about them. Unlike "Othello," the motives of the characters in "Hamlet" are increadably opaque. Even Hamlet, whose silioquies offer us the greatest window into the mental world of any of the characters is difficult to nail down. After all, his main interest seems to be acting, and he appeares to live much of life in the nutshell of his own head. The mad prince often presents himself as nothing so much as the main character in a drama of his own invention.

Even the end of the play is confused. Hamlet and the other characters take their motives with them to their graves. As the prince himself concludes: "the rest is silence." Horatio proports to be able to tell Fortinbras all that has occured, but just how much of the drama has he actually been privy to? Fortinbras, himself, is an enigma. Does he stumble onto the scene of murder to claim his crown, or does he enter at the head of an invasion force only to discover that his work has been done for him?

A final point of interst: "Hamlet" begins with a question and ends with a command. The Danish guard open with "who's there" and Fortinbras, also a soldier, ends with "go, bid the soldiers shoot." Whoever may be there throughout the play, one thing is sure in the end: the confusion has cost Denmark its autonomy, and the "strong-armed" Fortinbras takes control.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

First and Last Platypi:The Platypus Reads Part LXIV

A friend loaned me a copy of the 1931 sci-fi epic "First and Last Men," by British Philosopher Olaf Stapledon. I knew Lewis had read and disagreed with Stapledon so, naturally, I was intrigued. A look at the work, however, points me in the dirrection that Lewis not only disagreed with him, he wrote his Ransom Trilogy, in part, as a sort of refutation of Stapledon. Perhaps that's not news, but it makes a read of "First and Last Men" fascinating. If you've already read the Ransom Trilogy, then you can almost here Lewis dailoging with the author as you read the book.

As an odd end note, I attended a debate on bioethics last friday. Listening to the speakers, it seems as if, after almost eighty years, the debate hasn't changed.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Webbed Flippers and a Keyboard: The Platypus Writes

I just finished the first draft of my novel. It's been a long time since I've actually finished one.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Seven Heavens of Summer Reading: The Platypus Reads Part XLIII

Reading "This Discarded Image" this summer has deepened my respect for the Medieval model of the cosmos. So, to honor the imaginative achievements of my ancestors, I have decided to end off this summer by posting my awards for "The Seven Heavens of Summer Reading."

Sun: The heaven of scholars could be monopolized any summer by C.S. Lewis, but as he seemed to prefer the sphere of Jove, how about an author that uses C.S. Lewis for a character? For giving us a thoroughly believable Lewis, the Sphere of the Sun goes to Peter Kreefte for "Between Heaven and Hell."

Moon: For all its twists and turns, one book this summer deserves the honor of being paired with the Sphere of Luna; and it even shares her name: "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress," by Robert Heinlein.

Mars: Last year's martial book "A Princess of Mars," is a hard act to follow. I think this year's winner is up to the task, however. In the category of glorifying courage, valour, and feats of arms "The Worm Ouroboros," by E.R. Eddison, reigns supreme.

Venus: The choice for the planet of love was easy this year: "The Allegory of Love," by C.S. Lewis. After all, what better way to celebrate Venus than by reading a book on the development of literature and ritual adultery? Buhler? Anybody...?

Mercury: In the matter of words, there were some close contenders, but the "Prince of Paradox" still holds his throne. For sheer delightfulness in language, this year's Mercury award goes to that most mercurial author, G.K.C., and "The Ball and the Cross."

Jupiter: The planet that heralds the coming of kings can go to none other than Robert E. Howard and his "Coming of Conan the Cimerian."

Saturn: What better way to honor the planet of endings than by writing a book about the end of the world? For sheer pessimism and despair, Arthur C. Clark's "Childhood's End" carries the day.

Wherefore Art Thou Platypus?

This year, I am a literature teacher. The wheel keeps turning.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

If I Were a Platypus...

We were able to see "Fiddler on the Roof" featuring Topol this Tuesday with the Olsons. I had never seen the musical (or the movie) before, and it was a real treat to see a production that featured one of the most well known leads in the musical's history. Quite a fun way to end off the summer.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Edwardian Platypus: The Platypus Reads Part XLII

Trying to fill in some literary corners has led me to pick up Athony Hope's "Prisoner of Zenda" and Baroness Orczy's "The Scarlet Pimpernel." Both novels are from the turn of the last century and serve as a nice compliment to other early twentieth century reading from this summer such as "The Ball and the Cross," and "The Worm Ouruboros."

Hope and Orczy's books are both firmly in the adventure fiction genre. Like Edgar Rice-Burrows' "A Princess of Mars," they are first and foremost ripping good yarns intednded to dazzle and entertain. This is not to say that each novel doesn't make a moral point, however. The moral of each can be summed up rather quickly. For Hope it is: "duty before desire." For Orczy, it is "balance passion and reason." Both are good morals, but may seem more than a little quaint or threadbare to the modern reader -and that is precisely why we need to hear them.

C.S. Lewis sums up our need for reading old books best by reminding us that prior ages usually get right some virtue that we neglect while having vices that we, because of our culture and temperment, are unlikely to fall into. In our time, the imperial and aristocratic impulses are flatly out of favor in their traditional forms, but a sense of duty of balance is severly lacking. If you doubt the need for a sense of duty and a sense of balance, just look at the shinanigans that caused all the trouble on Wallstreet. As Hanson (and Lewis) points out, we mock things like duty and moderation at our univerisities and then are shocked when we find the best and brightest in our financial world putting personal gain above national safety.

"The Prisoner of Zenda" and "The Scarlet Pimpernel" are not Milton, nor were they ever meant to be. Their priamry purpose is to provide light entertainemnt. Hope's work has been all but forgotten by the general reader, and Orczy's rellegated to "high school reading." While these may, arguably, be their appropriate places, that doesn't mean that they have nothing to offer the contemporary reader. In our current age of "chronological snobbery" it is good to have the morals of a prior age presented to us plainly and winsomely from time to time.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Little Shop of Platypi?

We went with a co-worker and his wife to see "Little Shop of Horrors" last night. It was well done and we had great seats. The play was funny as I'll get out, but it does change your whole attitude towards working in the garden the next morning.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Platypus Changes Pills

So after two weeks of being treated for a possible stomach infection, there's been no change in my symptoms. My doctor is away right now, so I had to check in with another one to see if I needed another course of antibiotics (it can take up to a month to eliminate an H Pylori infection). The new doctor seemed to think that the stomach infection was a red herring and added another pill on to my course of normal hernia treatment. So now I get to take two omeprazole every morning and one zantac every night. I got a month's worth of free zantac, but I don't even want to know what it's going to cost to buy all those pills once I run out. Meantime, I made sure to contact my normal doctor's office and make sure they knew about the change in plan. We'll see what happens when the good old doctor comes back from vacation. Probably more tests leading up to surgery.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

When Athens Met the Platypus: The Platypus Reads Part XLI

"Oh the East is the East, and the West is the West,
and never the twain shall meet,
till earth and sky stand presently
at God's great judgment seat..."


My wife and I have finished reading John Mark Reynolds' "When Athens Met Jerusalem."
Let me start off with the virtues of the work. "When Athens Met Jerusalem" is an excellent introduction to Greek thought. The key concepts of Homeric religion, the pre-socratics, Plato, Aristotle, and the Hellenistic schools are presented in a clear and accessible manner. Anyone setting out to wrestle with the Ancient Greeks should begin by picking up this book; even if only as a refresher course.

The only downside is that it was hard to figure out the exact point of the work. The title is deceptive, as the book focuses almost entirely on Athens (the ancient Greek tradition) and has almost nothing to say about the development of Jerusalem (the Judeo-Christian tradition). However, the title may not be the author's fault (it could be the work of an IVP editor). "When Athens Met Jerusalem" seems to be more of an apologia for why contemporary Christians need to reconnect with the classical tradition. I kept envisioning the author's intended audience as a circle of skeptical homeschool moms wondering why they should send their kids to Torrey instead of a denominational Bible college. Even if the exact point and audience are hard to determine, however, "When Athens Met Jerusalem" is still well worth the read.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Return of Strange Platypus(es)

I was sitting in my office the other day in a rather downcast mood. With all the reading I had been doing lately, I’d amassed quite a list of duties that all seemed to jostle and push about for first place in my attentions. It ran something like this:

Read the Bible more
Pray more
Make sure to stay as active as possible in Church
Keep up on current world politics to be a good citizen
Follow current American political scene and develop positions on key issues
Continue research into global slavery and consumer products
Make more time for spiritual disciplines such as silence and fasting
Give Kreeft’s Catholic arguments in “Ecumenical Jihad” a fair hearing
Increase exercise and modify diet to deal with stomach trouble
Keep up on “hard” reading to stay sharp

Of course the list could have gone on longer, and my main feeling after I’d set it down was embarrassment at how short it was. Surely, I had no right to feel in the least perplexed or overwhelmed. After all, these things were just part of life in the modern world. “To whom much I given, much more will be demanded.” Somehow, this seemed only to increase my sense of guilt, and I was on the point of adding more to my list when the sudden smell of tobacco filled the room. I checked the window; it was closed. I was on the point of checking the others in the house when a stentorian voice boomed behind me: “I say, we’re right behind you, old boy.” I turned around and wondered if the new meds the doctor had put me on had strong side effects. Leaning against the far wall was a rather disheveled looking man of about middle age with black hair and a bald head. In my blue chair was another, rather leaner than the first, with hair that was sandy-blond.

Me: What the crap?

Lewis: There’s no need for vulgarity.

Tolkien: You know, Jack, I don’t think he believes in us. Rather unfair, don’t you think, considering we’re practically his patron saints.

Lewis: let’s keep this ecumenical, Ronald.

Tolkien: Have it your way, Jack.

Me: Ok. Ok. Am I dead?

Lewis: Most certainly not; though not alive as we are. Still, that can’t be helped.

Tolkien: At least not yet, at any rate.

Me: So, if I’m not dead, what are you two doing here?

Lewis: Excellent question. Let me turn it around. What are you doing here?

Me: Um, typing.

Lewis: No, no, that won’t do at all.

Me: Am I imagining this?

Lewis: Perhaps.

Me: So none of this is real.

Lewis: Why do you think that something occurring in the imagination isn’t real?

Me: That sounds like J.K. Rowling.

Tolkien: I can’t abide those books.

Lewis: They’re tolerably good.

Tolkien: That won’t do Jack. You know as well as I that they don’t follow the proper cannons of sub-creation.

Lewis: To be fair, I don’t think you always followed them yourself.

Tolkien: Really?

Lewis: That bit about the talking eagles?

Tolkien: Who says giant eagles can’t talk?

Me: Wow. As cool as this is, can we get back to the question of why you two are here?

Lewis: Quite, quite. It seems you have a problem of organization.

Me: Tell me about it.

Lewis: I can’t, it’s your problem.

Me: That was funny. Seriously, though, how am I supposed to get all these things done?

Lewis: Take your list, get out a calendar and a day planner and begin organizing. Is that really your question?

Me: Well, no. I know I’ve been working on all this stuff already, but it’s leaving me utterly exhausted.

Lewis: It sounds as though you’ve forgotten what our Lord said to Martha.

Me: Yeah, but it’s pretty hard to be Mary and get everything done.

Lewis: That’s because you’ve got it all the wrong way. You might say that you are putting the cart before the horse. There is no evidence is scripture that Mary’s contemplation of our Lord kept her from the active life. On the contrary, it seems to have given her the proper object for her efforts and from that object, Christ, flowed the energy to follow Him.

Me: Energy?

Lewis: Yes. Our Lord calls himself the vine and calls us his branches. You know enough gardening to know what happens when a branch is cut off.

Me: It withers.

Lewis: Correct. And why?

Me: Because it’s cut off from the water and nutrients brought up by the roots. So I need to read my Bible and pray more?

Lewis: No! That’s precisely the wrong way to look at it. You need to connect yourself to Christ. The sacred scriptures and prayer are a means to that end, not the end in itself. As is church attendance and even the receiving of the Blessed Sacrament. We don’t receive it to find favor with God, we receive it because there Christ vere latitat. They are means of getting the Christ life into us; brining us to Christ.

Me: So once I connect with Christ, then I’ll have energy to do the rest?

Lewis: We aren’t promised help with our own to-do lists, but grace to do what God commands: to take up our cross and follow him! Remember, that the Lord has prepared good works for us to do; we are not to go looking for our own. He is our captain, and we are to obey him. An officer obeys his superior, he doesn’t go to him with a checklist of things he’s done and then expect his superior to sign off on them. Remember your Milton!

Me: “He also serves who but stands and waits.”

Lewis: Good. Provided that when the orders come, he jumps to them.

Me: That’s great, but how do I do that.

Tolkien: You’re forgetting that he’s a Yank, Jack. Inaction doesn’t sit well with them. By the by, do I get a turn with him at some point, or are you still playing Socrates?

Lewis: How beastly of me! Jump right in, old man.

Tolkien: Finish your say first.

Lewis: Right then. Let’s take your prayer life. Have you remembered Christ there?

Me: Um, I ask for things in Jesus name?

Lewis: Be careful with that name. No, what I mean is, are you allowing Christ to supply you with the energy and guidance for that act?

Me: What do you mean?

Lewis: When you pray, you pray by means of Christ’s mediation. He is the one who makes your prayers acceptable to the Father. I think that’s what you American Evangelicals really mean when you tack “in Jesus’ name” on to all the ends of your prayers. Second, Christ is there in the room with you, helping you to know how to pray by means of the Holy Spirit. Are you being open to his guidance? Are you allowing him to teach you to pray?

Me: Isn’t that in one of your books.

Lewis: Why yes, forgive me for quoting myself, it’s a beastly habit.

Tolkien: I’d like to interject here if I may?

Lewis: Go right ahead.

Tolkien: Thank you. While we’re on the topic of what you two called “connecting with Christ,” I have to ask you about the Eucharist.

Me: Well, I’m not a Catholic.

Tolkien: No one’s perfect.

Me: Well what would you say if I was a Catholic?

Tolkien: If you were, I would say to you that it is the most efficient means of grace given us. Don’t ever neglect it. In fact, the more you struggle, the more often you ought to receive it; every day if possible. Remember what our Lord said, that his body is real food and his blood real drink. If you eat poorly, then you will get fat in the stomach. If you eat proper food, then you will be healthy. The more we rely only on the food that God has given us, the more strength we will find to do the tasks set before us.

Me: I’m sure there’s someway I can Evangelicalize that…

Tolkien: Please don’t.

Me: Sorry. What you said reminds me a lot of the lembas in “Lord of the Rings.”

Tolkien: Heavens, not another allegorist! I have enough to do with Jack here.

Lewis: I don’t know, Tollers, your “Leaf by Niggle” was quite a pretty allegory.

Tolkien: So perhaps I don’t object to allegory wholly, I just believe it ought to be kept in its place. Before you interrupt me, Lewis, let me answer this fellow’s question. In answer to your question, yes, that is one applicable meaning of the lembas. That said, my question to you is, are you making use of all the means of grace available?

Lewis: Remember that Ronald had a family as well as an academic career. He knows far more about dealing with busyness than I.

Me: But I thought you had an adopted family?

Lewis: For a time, but you must remember that I could always stay in my rooms at the college if I needed to get work done. Which brings me to another point: what would your perfect day look like?

Me: Get up at about ten; shower and eat breakfast. Then work through till lunch. After lunch, devotions, then work again until eight or nine, and rest and relaxation with my wife or a few friends until around twelve. Bed at one or two?

Lewis: You sleep in far too late, but other than that, it has only one problem.

Me: It’s selfish, I know.

Lewis: Better watch out, Tollers, he’s read our works!

Tolkien: I know. I can see quite a few on the shelf over there. Dear me, these illustrations are ghastly.

Me: Don’t look at the DVD rack.

Tolkien: Aach! Those infernal movies. They might as well have let Disney get at it!

Lewis: They actually did a fair job with mine.

Tolkien: That wasn’t too hard.

Me: Could we get back to the point?

Tolkien: Sorry. Get on with it Jack, make your point.

Lewis: Yes, yes. So you know that it would be selfish. Have you ever considered, then, what God might be trying to do with all these interruptions, all these duties?
Me: Make me less selfish?

Lewis: In a word, yes, though you might amend selfish in this case to “self-focused.” Only by drawing us out of our shells, can Christ begin to fashion us into his likeness. Sometimes he woos us out by his beauty, other times he forces us out with a few kicks. Pain, after all, is God’s megaphone for speaking to a deaf world.

Tolkien: It’s a sort of purgatory if you like. We must all be taught through discipline to be less ourselves so that we can become more the selves that God intends us to be.

Me: But what abut my list?

Tolkien: Come on, Jack, I think you’ve beat his head around enough for one day.

Lewis: Think back about what we’ve said here, and I think it will answer your question.

At this point, Tolkien blew out a rather spectacular smoke ring and both men disappeared.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Platypus Biteth Not His Tale: The Platypus Reads Part XL

I've finally finished E.R. Eddison's epic fantasy "The Worm Ouroboros." I know of nothing comparable to it except "Dune" and "The Lord of the Rings." If you are a lover of epic and fantastic literature, you should read this book.

*Potential Mild Spoilers Ahead*

That said, let me move into a discussion of the work. The strength of "The Worm Ouroboros" lies primarily in its ability to enchant. The wealth of settings from bright halls to sorcerous chambers, ruined towers and woody bowers, edges of glaciers and fields of slaughter provide a rich set of backdrops that fire the imagination. Eddison also adopts a deliberately archaic style; a modified King James English. This, combined with the episodic and heroic style of the work, make the reader feel as if he is encountering something from Malory or Spenser. Heroic feats, shows of courtesy, and fierce combats abound. All this takes place in a stunningly constructed, though not perfectly, subcreated world. Lewis and Tolkien both gave "The Worm Ouroboros" their hard-earned praise on this count.

Having discussed the main strength of "The Worm Ouroboros," I will now turn to the weaknesses. The defects of the book are few, but make the work as a whole a grand and shimmering failure.

The first defect is that while all the characters are archetypal, the heroes, the lords of Demonland, never transcend their archetypes to become real. Lord Juss, Spitfire, and Goldry Bluzsco are so similar, in fact, as to be almost interchangeable. The Lord Brandoch Daha stands out among the heroic ensemble, but also never rises above the level of paste-board archetype. This might not be such a defect, except that the villains of the work, the Lords of Witchland, manifestly do become real and tangible characters. I must openly confess to liking them, horrible villains all, a great deal more than I like the heroes. The most touching moment of the work is when the Lords of Demonland wish to have their enemies returned from the dead so that they can have the joy of contending with them again. As the gods answer their prayers, they behold their enemies through a magic glass about their daily lives at castle Carce in scenes so lovingly drawn that I too wished to have them back again.

The first defect perhaps has its root in the second, that the worldview of the book is abominably Nietzschean. Tolkien was quick to spot this out and it seems to have formed the source of a quarrel between Eddison and Tolkien the one time that the authors met. The Lords of Demonland are supermen, incapable of defeat or resentment, but also incapable of any real human sentiment or striving. At no point during the work did I get any sense that, great as their tasks and trials might be, the outcome would be anything but an all-conquering victory for the demons. This might not have been a problem had the Demons displayed some real virtue or personality. Instead, they come off as nothing so much like a coterie of, two-dimensional, profligate, English aristocrats about town and seeking "a good time." By contrast, the Witches, as deplorable as their characters are, have real human emotions and struggles; in particular, and here I agree with Tolkien, the Lord Gro. Gro is easily the most compelling character in the work as his soaring intellect and feeble body make him utterly unfit for the heroic world in which he is forced to live. His suicidal death in battle rises to the level of Shakespearean tragedy. In the end, Eddison's "The Worm Ouroboros" demonstrates something that Nietzsche never quite caught on to: Supermen are boring, humans are interesting.

In the end, even these two mighty defects cannot completely overcome Eddison's achievement. As C.S. Lewis points out in his "Allegory of Love," their is no shame in soaring so high and failing. A monumental ruin is still grander than a well-built flat. However, with Tolkein, we may much enjoy visiting the ruin, but still prefer to live in the flat.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Dr. Platypus (Not a Tetris Knock-Off)

After going back over my test results, it looks like I may have a stomach infection. So now I'm on antibiotics. If my symptoms don't clear up, we go into aggressive treatment and probably surgery (though my doctor says it's very rare to treat a hernia like the one I have with surgery).

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Platypus Posts WIP

I've decided to begin posting material from my new WIP on a blog I've created for that purpose. If you're interested in reading it and giving some feedback, let me know and I'll email you an invite.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Platypus Milestone

Just reached 25,000 words, or half the size of a nanowrmo novel. Slow and steady wins the race.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Platypus Writes

What do Charles Williams, George MacDonald, H.P. Lovecraft, Hellboy, and Edgar Allan Poe have in common?

Lots of things, but most importantly for this post would be that they are all influences on my latest WIP.

No vampires, thules, or undead Aryan fishmen this time. I promise!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Platypus Progressing: The Platypus Reads Part XXXIX

Summer reading rarely goes as planned, and that's the fun of it. Sure, there may be some things you have to read for work or school, but if you have any vacation time, or even if you're just on a day or weekend trip, there's always a place where a good book can be sneaked in. What book? Who cares, so long as it's good!

So, down the winding trails of this summer's reading.

In order to balance out the chunk of Heinlein I started out summer with, I picked up some GKC and CSL. Heretics and The Four Loves are both re-reads, but The Ball and the Cross and The Allegory of Love were both new. B+C was delightful, as Chesterton always is, and A of L was a real mental workout. I'm not a medievalist, but I've read a fair cross-section of the books Lewis is dealing with, and it was good to be able to start forging them into a coherent and linear picture of the development of the courtly love tradition.

After freshening my mind up, I plunged back into the world of 50s sci-fi with Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End. That was a scattered and depressing book. Somehow I don't feel consoled by the idea that humanity will be destroyed in order to produce a hive-mind that seems very much less than human. Maybe that's Clark's point. Who knows. If I wanted pan-theistic metaphysics, I would have read Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus; both of whom I heartily enjoy. Anyhow, if his writing was spotty and his philosophy was third-rate, it was still fun to engage a coherent world picture in writing and that seems largely to have been the point; it's speculative fiction.

Keeping with the sci-fi theme, I moved on to Joss Weadon's Serenity: Volume 2. Not much to write home about, but it does feel just like the series. At a price of ten bucks from Amazon, it was worth it. Keep flying!

In the "unfinished" pile right now goes Reynolds' When Athens Met Jerusalem. It's a pretty good intro to Greek thought. I'll say more when my wife and I finish the work.

Meantime, enjoy the summer!

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Test Results (and another platypus)

Nothing out of the ordinary showed up on the barium test today. I have a moderate sliding hiatal hernia with very piddly reflux. The specialists are going to go over the images again just to make sure and then they'll pass them on to my doctor. I have a consultation to reassess the matter two weeks from now. Our thanks to all those who have been praying.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Barium Test (and a Platypus)

Barium and x-ray test is scheduled for 9:30 this Thursday. I'll have my follow-up visit on the 23rd. Meanwhile, I'm still playing with my diet and taking, at my doctor's instruction, a double dose of meds (neither seem to be working).

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Blood Tests (and a Platypus)

Well my blood work has come back negative. There's no evidence of a stomach infection or a hormonal imbalance. Next up is the barium and x-ray test. Depending on what that shows, the doctor will decide on my next round of tests. Meantime, I'm in daily discomfort and the change in meds doesn't seem to be working.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Coming of Platypus the Cimmerian: The Platypus Reads Part XXXVIII

I was in the bookstore today trying to beat the heat and picked up "The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian" for kicks. I only read through the first story before I had to go (and put the book back on the shelf), but it was as fun a bit of pulp as I've read since "A Princess of Mars." A great writer with an elevated style, Howard is most certainly not, but he can tell a ripping good yarn!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

C.S. Platypus: The Platypus Reads Part XXXVII

Summer reading is always eclectic. I start out with one set of readings in mind, and then circumstances rearrange it. Since my wife is already going to be reading "The Discarded Image" and "The Allegory of Love," I thought I would join her by taking a trek through the scholarly writings of C.S. Lewis ("The Discarded Image," "The Allegory of Love," and "Studies in Words.") So, this summer it's C.S. Lewis the literature scholar, not the fiction writer or lay theologian, who'll be dominating household reading. We'll see what comes out of it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Platypi Get Free Lunches: The Platypus Reads Part XXXVI

So I've gotten my hands on a copy of "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" by Robert A. Heinlein and worked my way through it. This marks the second Heinlein piece that I've read this year (the other being "Podkayne of Mars"). So far, Heinlein passes the sniff test. I enjoy reading him. I can see why he was called "the dean of science fiction" back in the day. Each of the books plays around with all sorts of ideas and "what ifs" that are perfect for dorm room debate; especially during finals. It's not as high-brow as Frank Herbert's "Dune," but it isn't meant to be. Heinlein doesn't seem to ever intend to give us a "magnum opus" that explains life, the universe, and everything. Instead, he throws out ideas and lets his reader chew on them a bit. "Podkayne of Mars" and "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" are much more thought experiements than manifestos. Some people claim that "Starship Troopers" is more like the latter than the former, but I'll have to suspend judgement on that until I can pick up a copy. I've still got a whole stack sitting on my coffee table, so we'll see how my thoughts develope over the summer.


Monday, June 15, 2009

Stomach Update (and a Platypus)

Well, my doctor isn't happy (nor am I) with the lack of progress my stomach condition is making. He's decided to order a whole range of tests to see why I'm not responding to the drugs. They'll be looking for everything from H Pylori and a hormone imbalance to cancer (extremely unlikely, but they have to check given my history). If nothing shows up, then I proceed to the next round of testing. In the meantime, they're upping the dosage of my medication. Please pray for us. We have enough problems this summer without having to add all this to it. Hopefully, they'll be able to find out what's wrong with me and fix it.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Lonely Calvinst Likes Long Walks on the Beach: The Platypus Reads Part XXXV

Like Robinson Crusoe, it's primitive as can be.

I read "Robinson Crusoe" when I was in ninth grade. We read it as the great English "Calvinist Allegory" and then compared it with "Pilgrim's Progress" as the great English "Arminianist Allegory." I enjoyed the book, but didn't think much of it until last year when the literature teacher had the 8th graders read it. Their absolute loathing for the book made me wonder if perhaps my memory were a bit fogy so I picked it up myself this past month.

If anything, I find the book even more interesting now than I did when I was a freshman. Aside from being a great adventure story, "Robinson Crusoe" has a strong devotional element to it. I find that I can read it for spiritual edification the same way I read Chesterton or Lewis' fiction. Has the hot Redlands' sun frazzled my brain? Maybe, but my second reading has conviced me that this definitely makes the list of "high school readings" worth picking back up.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Platypus Plays Chrono: Part III

No School like the old school. I miss old school video games. *insert cranky rant voice here* Back in my day, we didn't have any of this "first person shooter" nonsense. There was rules, and codes, and regulations! *end cranky rant voice* Ok, so there was Operation Wolf and Hogan's Ally. Video games have always struggled to come to grips with the boundary between entertainment and sadism via proxy. Still, about fifteen years back, a threshold was crossed in the area of how much violence is allowable in video games. My trip down memory lane drove this home to me.

All but two of the enemies in Chrono Trigger aren't human. Some of them, like the mystics and the reptites are sentient, but bear little outward resemblence to us. We are also encouraged to empathize with them and humans and mystics can be reconciled at the completion of one of the side quests. Beyond that, when enemies are killed, they disapear; no blood or guts. Of the two human opponents, players are encouraged to spare one of them, Magus, in an act of mercy that opens up the posability of his redemption. The second character, Queen Zeal, divests herself of her humnaity by giving her being over to the creature Lavos. Even after defeating her, it is pretty clear that she isn't "dead" in any traditional sense of the word. Compare this with Halo or Medal of Honor.

What does this mean? I'm not sure; but playing Chrono Trigger presents itself to me not so much as part of the "good old day," but as a sign post pointing down a path not taken. Halo was fun, but after San Andreas, maybe that line of development has hit its end, and to what point? We know what's down that road. What about the one we passed by?

Postscript: For what you can do with an even less violent video game, see the Myst series.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Platypus Plays Chrono: Part II

Following my previous post, I want to address an aspect of the "story" of Chrono Trigger that makes it so compelling: community. Like Edwardian pulp such as "A Princess of Mars," or fantasy epics such as "The Lord of the Rings," Chrono Trigger presents us with a community of characters that gather around the hero and without whom the hero could not succeed. This community aspect stands in stark contrast to the "go it alone" figures we see in other video games such as Halo, Resident Evil, or Metroid. Adventure games and first person shooters naturally lend themselves to the "lone hero," while RPGs thrive on a fellowship of protagonists.

Following this trend, Chrono Trigger presents us with a cast of vivd and eclectic characters that hold our interest throughout the game. Indeed, the title character, Crono, is rather flat and amorphous, inviting the player to project their own personality onto this "blank slate." With Crono as an avatar for the player, the other characters of the "fellowship" carry the weight of the story. We see the attachments they form with each other and with Crono through the story arcs and mini-quests that make up the plot of the game, and these attachments are chiefly what drive the plot. We want to know if Frog will revenge himself on Magus and return to being human. There is a sense of completion when Marle finally reconciles with her father. Any nerd who ever picked up a controller can empathize with Lucca, who finds robots easier to relate to than humans. Personally, I always wanted to know what became of Schala, and if Magus was ever able to rescue her (I guess there's always Chrono Cross...).

It's always fun to picture ourselves as the lone hero riding in to save the day, but experience tells us that it's far more realistic to make a difference if we're part of a team. In that way, Chrono Trigger serves as a metaphor for real life. We all are thrown into situations we didn't create and called on to rise and meet the challenges that come. The world of Crono and his friends reminds us that success and failure in meeting those challenges depends as much on who we choose to share our lives with as on our own efforts.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Platypus Plays Chrono

So I've played through two endings of Chrono Trigger for the first time since taking a 10 year sabbatical when my cartridge was hit by a sprinkler (don't ask...). The game is still as much fun as it ever was. Chrono Trigger is one of those rare games that makes you want to pick it right back up and play through it the moment you beat it. I've known a few movies like that; the Princess Bride, for instance. However, on to my question: whence this replay value?

There's a long answer and a short answer. I'll spare you the long answer. The short answer is "story." Chrono Trigger tells a compelling story. Sure, there's plenty of melodrama, it's a video game after-all, but somethings beneath all the cheese that makes it work. I think that thing is friendship. Chrono Trigger tells the story of a band of misfits that form a community that crosses all barriers of race, gender, culture, and even time. Hurtling through the ages, this group overcomes every obsticle in its path, even death.

Now where would someone get an idea like that?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

A Platypus of Earthsea: The Platypus Reads Part XXXIV

*Warning* Spoilers ahead if you haven't read "A Wizard of Earthsea" or "Phantasties" yet.

I've been reading the works of two master fantasists in tandem: George MacDonald's "Phantasties" and Ursula LeGuin's "A Wizard of Earthsea." LeGuin has called MacDonald the "grandfather" of all fantasy writers, so I should have suspected that she would draw from his work ages ago.* However, the link between Ged's quest to destroy his shadow and Anodos' quest to lose his shadow only just struck me this past week. The central plot of both books is the same: young man enters into a world of magic, loses his own shadow through arrogance, experiences the destruction caused by his shadow, tries to lose it, and in the end is forced to confront and accept his own death.

The question is: do both writers understand the shadow to be the same thing? LeGuin calls it the shadow of Ged's death. MacDonald seems to link Anodos' shadow to death in some way, but it is death that sets Anodos free from his shadow. Ged, on the other hand, merely has to accept his shadow as a part of himself in order to conquer it. There is another link in that both shadows represent the real or potential evil that each character has done or could do. They also rob both characters of any joy in the world and lose their potency in places of strong magical protection (ie. the Palace of the Fairy Queen, the Four Cornered Cottage, Roke, Ogion's Cottage). Whether these links mean that the two shadows have the same symbolic value is still unclear to me, but my interest is definately piqued.

*As a correction, this quote should actually be attributed to Madeleine L'Engle, not Ursula LeGuin.  That aside, the connection between the two shadows remains an interesting one.  

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Platypus Prepares For the End

Because school's out June 5th!

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The Platypus Returns to Pulp: The Platypus Reads Part XXXIII

It's May, and that means that it's time for my annual return to pulp. First on this Spring's list is "Podkayne of Mars" by Robert A. Heinlein. I'm told that Heinlein's work is inconsistent, and that I should probably start with "Starship Troopers" or "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress," but this is what I've got on hand. If it doesn't pass the sniff test, then I promise I won't hold it against Heinlein. I'm also considering some Howard, Leiber, and a return to Lovecraft. We'll see how far I get!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

What's So Great About Hawthorne: The Platypus Reads Part XXXII

"The Scarlet Letter" has always conjured up pictures in my mind of dull and trite high school "readings." I highly enjoyed literature class in high school, and there were very few books I didn't like, but there were a few that always left me scratching my head as to why they were included. I was always worried that somehow "The Scarlet Letter" would fall into that category. Unlike the rest of America, I missed out on this educational "rite of passage" due to a move in the middle of my junior year. So for years I was left wondering: what's so great about Hawthorne. After all, how interesting could a book about how mean and nasty the Puritans were and an affair be?

My interest was peaked, however, when I read "The Marble Faun" and "Young Goodman Brown" this past summer. I liked what I read. If this was Hawthorne, then I wanted more of it. That led to picking up "The Scarlet Letter" this past month.

I won't bother with details of the plot, since you probably already know. Instead, I'd like to say a few words about what I appreciated about the novel's style:

1. Hawthorne reads like Shakespeare. There's a heavy theatrical quality to "The Scarlet Letter" that I thoroughly enjoyed. Most of the scenes in the novel focus on extended dialogs between two of the characters and then passages of chorus-like exposition. I kept thinking how much fun it would be to adapt the work into a stage play.

2. Hawthorne is highly allegorical without writing allegory. Like Tolkien, I have a dislike of the genre and the "purposed domination" of its authors. Hawthorne packs his work with images that all carry a deep inner meaning without ever descending into the constraining one-to-one correspondences that are the halmark of allegory.

3. Hawthorne makes New England rich and interesting. America, as a young nation, does not have deep wells of experience to draw on and New Englanders are not noted as being particularly interesting or pleasant people. When they're known for anything at all its as kill-joys and skin-flints. In Hawthorne's work, New England becomes a rich land of mystery and depth suitable as a setting for high literary drama.

Maybe "The Scarlet Letter" wasn't the high-point of your high school experience, but if these three points catch your attention, then why not give it a second chance?

Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Platypus Reads: Part XXXI

Today's book is "Eifelheim," by Michael Flynn. Here's the down and dirty:

Aliens crash-land in 14th century Germany on the eve of the Black Death and are befriended by a reclusive scholastic.

What Flynn gets right:

The medieval worldview is presented in all its richness and Flynn renders Pastor Dietrich and his flock in a way that makes them feel three-dimensional and contemporary.

What Flynn misses:

Perhaps the sciences are a different story, but I kept thinking throughout the modern portions of the book that his academics don't speak or act like any of the academics I've known. I also have to confess a bias against Cliometrics. When I see a Cliometrician in a story, I have flashbacks to Jeff Goldbloom in Jurassic Park.

Closing thoughts:

If you like the middle ages or quirky sci-fi twists, this is your book. In spite of my dislike for the modern portions, I give it two thumbs up.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

What The Platypus Learned: The Platypus Reads Part XXX

This past Thursday, I gave my lecture on the development of Gothic literature. It had been almost a year in the making. Aside from the fact that there is ever so much more research I could have done, here are a few of the things I learned along the way.

1. Edgar Allan Poe was the first American writer to attempt to earn a living solely from his writings.

2. Charles Williams, Bram Stoker, Edith Nesbit, Aleister Crowley, and Arthur E. Waite all belonged to the same occult society: the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

3. Crowley's famous "do what thou wilt" is proceeded by the injunction to "do no harm."

4. H. P. Lovecraft isn't so much scary as he is disturbing.

5. Poe helped pioneer the genre of detective fiction.

6. Williams may in fact be invoking the sephiroth in his repeated statements: in the Omnipotence, under the Mercy, the City, under the Protection, etc.

I don't have any more lectures lined up as of yet, but this was certainly the most researched one I've given to date. As we swing around toward a new school year, we'll see what's ahead. Until then, the Platypus is taking a break from anything creepy for at least a week. Next up on the list are Eusebius and "Eifelheim."

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Platypus Remembers

At this time last year I was in the grip of a horrid stomach problem resulting from an injury. Four doctors and a year later and the situation is much more manageable, but I still live in daily discomfort. I can't remember anymore what it's like not to have a hyper-sensitive stomach that's perpetually full of gas. It's a constant reminder that fits in with the Lenten season. In the words of a church friend we remember: "that the one who's the lord of our joy is also the lord of our pain."

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

In the Apartment at Redlands the Platypus Waits Reading: The Platypus Reads Part XXIX

I'm giving a lecture in less than a month on the evolution of Gothic and Horror literature. I've gone through reams of Poe, some Hawthorne, and jumped the Atlantic to pick up some Charles Williams. As it comes down to the wire, I have finally launched into that master of horror, H. P. Lovecraft.

My initial brush with Lovecraft in the form of "Dagon" and "The Call of Cthulhu" left me surprised. I don't know quite what I expected, but my first thought was "this is just like Poe." Indeed, it seems like that was what Lovecraft was going for. After reading a little bit of the critical commentary by S.T. Joshi, I learned that Lovecraft was conscious of being Poe's inheritor and sought to further refine and develop the genre of the American Gothic short story, or "weird tale." On that level, I think he succeeds more than admirably.

Moving from Lovecraft's technique to his content, I find further similarities with Poe. Both authors bombard the reader with constant insinuations that if there is something behind the physical world than it is either weak, indifferent, or evil. As to the state of the world itself, Lovecraft and Poe again seem to agree: it is decaying. In both writers, mental degradation is a key motif. Lovecraft develops this in typical fin-de-siecle fashion by adding "racial" degradation. In the worlds of Poe and Lovecraft, everything is decaying; people, places, civilization, the world itself. Only the select few realize this, however, and have to heroically struggle against the madness and despair that follows. This is a battle that the protagonists seem to lose with unnerving frequency. In what may be a case of life imitating art, both authors died young.

In spite of their artistic pessimism, Lovecraft and Poe display a deep longing for creative beauty. In a way eerily reminiscent of Nietzsche's "The Birth of Tragedy," both authors seem to see the proper human response to the despair and hopelessness of the universe as acts of creation. The call of Cthulhu, after all, falls flat on the men of science and speaks most powerfully to the poets and dreamers. It is the human will to create something beautiful, however brief, that stands against the chaos and insanity of life. Whether this is heroic defiance, or opium dream, is left to the reader.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Platypus Prepared: The Platypus Reads Part XXVIII

Two and a half years ago, I was looking for the perfect groomsman gift to get the guys who had put up with so much just to see me get married. I thought of the usual gifts: cuff links (but they don't ever ware shirts that would require them), imported beer (but most don't drink), personalized beer mugs (see above), etc. Then I thought it might be nice for them to get something that they would actually use and enjoy. So for the guys who are supposed to be prepared for anything, I decided to go with "The Zombie Survival Guide" by Max Brooks. The book was a hit. Everywhere you looked during the course of the day, you would see a groomsman squirreled away into a shady spot reading the sage green book. There was only one problem: I didn't have enough money to get my own!

Just recently, my wife was kind enough to buy a copy of "The Zombie Survival Guide" for me. I read it through in one weekend and found it refreshingly witty. The main point, of course, is enjoying the dead-pan gallows humor, but I did detect an undercurrent of something more. Over and over again, the book stresses getting back to basics, voluntarily giving up luxury and reestablishing community. This is all ostensibly to prepare for the imminent onslaught of the undead, but it got me to thinking. I wonder if the real appeal of the book is that it allows us to fantasize about having an exciting excuse to do what we know we should be doing anyway.

Let me explain. People love the idea of growing their own food, but it's hard and monotonous work. We all recognize our need for community, but it's frustrating and time-consuming to establish it. Think how many times a week you hear people saying things like: "I need to exercise more," "I need to cut back on the coffee," "I'm trying to buy more organic foods." Maybe a few will try these things for a time, but very rarely do these desires motivate anyone to lasting change. After all, it's not as if the world will immediately end if we have another Starbucks. But what if the world was going to end on Tuesday and our abstinence would help turn the tide? Then our abstinence, typically undertaken in the service of some vague notion such as "health" or a sense of First-World guilt, becomes a heroic act.

The "Zombie Survival Guide" is obviously written tongue-in-cheek, and that's where its final appeal comes from. Because "World War Z" is a fiction, the reader can have all the fun of fantasizing about a life full of adventure and meaning without actually having to make lifestyle changes that are uncomfortable. The reader can dream about a life of romance and adventure without feeling pressed to take any steps to make it a reality.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Platypus Has a Breakthrough

As my last few posts may have already suggested, I have been having a bit of a breakthrough with my students. Though I still have frequent discipline issues to deal with and a lot of apathy and boredom to fight, I think I'm finally beginning to see the fruits of three years of hard work. When I say three years of hard work, I mean not just me but the students as well. I think that's where the breakthrough really comes; that moment when a sufficient number of students decides that they enjoy learning and that they're hard work really is beginning to pay off. Once that happens, they cease to be passive receivers of information and become true learners. A true learner is self-motivated and pursues knowledge in a variety of fields both inside and outside the classroom. Get enough students to become true-learners and it can change the tenor of a classroom and of an entire school. I don't know if that will happen, but I'm trying to encourage them as best I can.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Platypus Comes Full Circle

There's nothing like watching two of my students playing chess at lunch and talking about Chrono Trigger and "The Lord of the Rings."

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Platypus Payoff

There's nothing like watching two of your students truck around with copies of Dante's "Inferno" and C.S. Lewis' "Till We Have Faces." Not to mention that they seem to actually get what they're reading.