Monday, March 29, 2010

Under the Moon: The Platypus Reads Part LXVI

My wife and I were discussing our favorite books from the Chronicles of Narnia on our way back from lunch.  My wife, true to her sunny personality, is a staunch fan of "The Voyage of the Dawntreader."  I can't argue with that choice but, when push comes to shove, "The Silver Chair" has always been my favorite.

I have a bit of a theory.  I think "The Voyage of the Dawntreader" is Lewis' grail legend.  If that's so, then I'd hazard a guess and say that "The Silver Chair" is his "Pilgrim's Progress." -just think about the shape of Puddleglum's hat and the fact that he lives in the Fen Country and you'll see what got me thinking down this line.

That brings me to why I like "The Silver Chair" so much.  When I was little, we had a children's version of "Pilgrim's Progress" that my mom used to read to me.  I lived in New England and the Christianity I was raised with had a heavy tinge of Calvinism and the Puritans.  Puddleglum spoke my language.  We New Englanders are cold and formal people, with more than a little well-relished pessimism.  As far as Christendom goes, there's a reason why we're exiled to the ecumenical fens (those of us who haven't gone Unitarian).  Still, at the uttermost, there's a vein of steel there that will stand true when all else has failed.  One of my favorite images from Narnia has to be Puddleglum, when all argument has been defeated and his friends have given up, defying the green lady and her empty world right before he thrusts his bare foot into the fire to stamp it out.

People don't really like the Puritans, but Lewis reminds us why they are there.  They keep going when the fair-weather Christian-hedonists have given up.  A marsh wiggle may not be the most pleasant companion, but when something sets itself up against the knowledge of God, no matter how high, then they will be there to defy the tyrant to the last.  Chesterton said that the sanity of Christendom was to assign a proper place for everyone.  Lewis' Narnia is an outworking of that idea.  So let's hear a cheer (but a very proper one) for the Puritans.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Why Don't You Come With Me, Little Girl, On a Magic Cannon Ride: Platypus Nostalgia

Why do we love to explore?

I've played Squaresoft's "Secret of Mana" through more times than I care to count.  As I've stated earlier, it has sentimental value to me.  In the final analysis, however, sentimental value only goes so far.  So why do I keep playing.

It's a fair question.  Look at the map.  You'll see that the world of "Secret of Mana" is no where near as complex as that of "Final Fantasy III."  In addition, the English dialog is simple to the point of being facile; though, from what I hear, that's not the translator's fault.  The whole look of the game is brightly colored and rather on the "cutesy" side.  The only place where it really measures up to the Final Fantasy series is in the soundtrack which is beautiful and moving, especially considering the primitive tools they had to work with.  All that said, I still love this game.

So what's so great about "Secret of Mana?"  In two words: cannon travel.  Yup, that's right, "cannon travel."  Your characters get stuffed into an over-sized cannon by cavemen and fired across the world.  Sure, you can hoof it to most places, and later in the game there's Flammie the dragon, but when push comes to shove, it's time to slide on down the barrel and spark it.  The novelty of being shot across an imaginary world highlights the real charm of the game: it's a whole WORLD to explore.  Unlike Link's Hyrule, the world of Mana is too large to be crossed on foot.  It's a whole lot more than seven or eight screens one way and five screens another way.  In "Secret of Mana," there are whole continents (one of them is even sunken).  Unlike the various islands of the Final Fantasy series, each continent in the world of Mana is radically distinct with it's own unique look and inhabitants.  Combine that with the fact that it's not possible to just go stomping wherever you want that makes the primary pleasure and challenge of the game exploration.  It's a reward to be able to get to a new place, not an entitlement, and it pays off in a beautiful sense of wonder.

This brings us back to the first question: why do we like to explore?  The first answer that comes to mind is the Genesis Mandate: "go, be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it."  As human beings, we're built for exploration.  It's part of our telos, our dirrective.  When we're kids, we role-play at the things we'll do when we're adults.  "Secret of Mana" reminds us that exploration is one of those things.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Not a Haggard Writer: The Platypus Reads Part LXV

Usually I wait until summer to devote myself to pulp, but a gift certificate from a student allowed me to get started early this year.  With my love of (most) things Victorian, and my interest in pulp, it was inevitable that I would turn to works of Rider Haggard and his celebrated creation, Allan Quatermain.  Having just finished "King Solomon's Mines" last night, I am ready to report.

I grew up with the Indiana Jones movies.  Late in college I was introduced to Allan Moore's (what ever shall we do with him?  He is the Alcibiades of the comic world.) "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen."  With these things under my belt, as it were, I must confess that I was worried that the source would not live up to my expectations.  Lesson number one, grasshopper, never doubt the Great Books (at least not in that way)!  "King's Solomon's Mine's" lives up to all the hype.  From the first page to the last, it was one straight-forward, rollicking adventure.  As an added bonus, Haggard's time as a colonial administrator makes the African setting of the novel ring true.  I spent a month living in Cameroon during grad school, and I kept reading passages to my wife, who lived there for two years, that could only be written by someone who had lived (not visited, lived) in Africa.

I'll spare you the details.  if you've already read it, you don't need them, and if you haven't read it, I don't want to spoil the experience for you.  It suffices to say that if you're looking for pulpy adventure, "King Solomon's Mines" won't disappoint.

Happy Platypus

I was pleased to note this past weekend that my post on "miniature worlds" made the "33 Things" list over at the Evangelical Outpost.  Huzzah!

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Reader's Guide to New England: The Platypus Reads Part LXIV

I was explaining regionalism to my students this morning and trying to get them to understand that authors from various regions of the country have a distinct "flavor" even though they're all Americans.  In an attempt to sell them on the artistic value of regionalism, I borrowed a little bit from Chesterton and told them that Shelton Connecticut is my Pimlaco.  It doesn't matter if anyone's ever heard of it, loving Shelton gives a rootedness to all I do.  I then proceeded to list for them a dew New England authors and attempted to sketch out what exactly the New England "flavor" is.

My List:

Herman Melville
Nathanael Hawthorne
Edgar Allan Poe
H.P. Lovecraft
John Knowles (as an outside-insider)

What do I notice as the hallmarks of New England literature?

First, there's a heavy emphasis on the spiritual side of life.  With the exception of "outsider" Knowles' "A Separate Peace," each author's work is unapologetically suffused with the supernatural.  Compare this with anything written by California's Steinbeck, and you'll see what I mean about a regional "flavor."  On the other hand, reading stories from Flannery O'Conner's "Christ-haunted South" one can discern a subtle difference between O'Conner's aristocratic Catholicism and the other author's blend of Puritanism, the occult, and Unitarianism.

Second, there's a certain, and almost indescribable, steel in New England writing.  Even in a Unitarian-Universalist, like Melville there's always just a tad of something that suggests the morning light on drawn swords and stern features of Oliver Cromwell.  Beneath the calm exterior, there is always lurking a bit of the cosmic patriot willing to smash every high and mighty thing that sets itself up against the true Good.

Third, there's a certain attitude towards nature, that's hard to describe.  It isn't the pantheism of a Wordsworth or a Coleridge, nor the Darwinian brutality of a Steinbeck.  Instead it's a sense that nature is an icon, or a metaphor for something more real that lies behind it.

These are just my thoughts, and I'm trying to grasp at something that is hard to pin down.  Nonetheless, I think it's a valuable endeavor.  What region are you from?  Can you spot something that smacks of it when you see it?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Platypialian Influences: The Platypus Reads Part LXIII

This string of posts began with a list of my three favorite books.  I'm not always up for lists of favorites, though I've created a few for this blog, but I was inspired after seeing this post to try and think through what books influenced my life the most.  It's also a fitting question since I just asked my students to write a one to two page paper on the topic of "whether a book can change someone's life."  Without further ado, then, here is my best guess at the books that changed my life.  Note: they are in no particular order.

1. The Gospels; especially Luke and John.  It was a close reading of the gospels during my first two years of high school that solidified my commitment to the Christian faith.

2. Job.  Having suffered from childhood cancer, the problem of pain has been at the core of my life.  Job helped create a context for beginning to wrestle with that question.

3. The Oresteia.  Aeschylus' handeling of the problem of pain, especially in the character of Cassandra, continued the meditations set in motion by Job.

4. The Lord of the Rings.  I read this before I read Job, and I think it has shaped my thinking more than any other work next to the Bible.  Again, you'll note that it deals with the probelm of suffering and death.

5. The Idylls of the King.  If the Bible is number one and The Lord of the Rings is number two, then The Idylls of the King is number three.  This book had a heavy impact on how I view social and political problems.  It also made me love Goodness.

6. The Iliad and the Odyssey.  Here, I found the only true alternative to the Christian world-view, but I found Jesus here too, staring right back at me.  The more I look, the more I become convinced that Christ is in all possible worlds.  He is the question and the answer.  Look wherever you will, and you will find Him.

7. The Geneology of Morals. Once I read Nietzsche, the twentieth century made sense.

8. Orthodoxy.  The perscription is not more cowbell, it's more Chesterton.  Like Philip Yancey, every time my Christianity needs refreshing, I turn to G.K.C.

9. Jane Eyre.  For years, this was my mother's favorite book.  It's another meditation on the problem of evil.  I don't know that I'm sold on Bronte's via media, but her strong emphasis on Providence and severe mercy has shaped my understanding of suffering.

10. The Abolition of Man.  I'm an educator, and I think I first really began to understand what eudcation is and what it's for when I read Lewis' essay.

11. The Scions of Shanara.  Somehow, ever since I read this quadrilogy in jr. high, this work has shape my image of the Church.  Weird, but that's the way the cookie crumbles.

12. The Lays of Beleriand.  This book cemented my interest in epic literature.  I wish Tolkien had finished the poems found in this collection.  It contains some of his best stuff.

13. Kingdom Triangle.  J.P. Moreland's masterwork opened up the wider possibilities of life in the Kingdom.  Much of the last few years has been spent wrestling with the ideas in this book.

14. The Hobbit.  I picked up a copy of this book on a whim when I was in fifth grade.  I created a love of reading in me practically ex nihilo.

15. Phantasties.  Don't know what it did, but it did something profound.  Tolkien baptized my imagination, but MacDonald may have chrismated it.

16. Democracy in America.  I got the twentieth-century when I read Nietzsche, I got America when I read De Tocqueville. 

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

And Dallies About the Mouth of Hell: The Platypus Reads Part LXII

MMy students and I have reached  "Balin and Balan" in our trek through Tennyson's "Idylls of the King."  In this idle we find a demon knight terrorizing a haunted wood and sallying forth from a cave called "the mouth of hell."  Great stuff for quest literature.  Over the course of the poem it is hinted at that the demon knight may King Pellam's disaffected son, Garlon.  The image and the name stuck in my head for some odd reason.  It was only after something totally unrelated set me to thinking about my childhood that I made the connection.  In the original Final Fantasy, the first quest that the Light Warriors face involves tracking a demon knight to a ruined, cave-like temple.  The knight's name?  Garland.  It's probably a coincidence, but the connection intrigued me; two little bits of my childhood linking up and making a whole.  Even stranger, several of my students have played that game in its re-release and would get the connection if I mentioned it.  Good things get passed on.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Passing of Frodo: The Platypus Reads Part LXI

Tolkien detested all things French.  Ok, so maybe Humphry Carpenter over-states Tolkien's sentiments just a bit on that count.  We're also assured by other Tolkien specialists that Tolkien found the Arthur legends too French to be a proper English mythology.  Still, every schoolboy of Tolkien's era would have had to know his Tennyson.  Oxford may have been designed to beat it out of you, but some of it must still have stuck.  In Charles Williams' case, a lot of it stuck (perhaps because he never went to Oxford).  Now maybe it's just coincidence, but I've been seeing some odd parallels between Tennyson's "Passing of Arthur" and Tolkien's "Return of the King."

Don't believe me?  Here we go.  Though neither Frodo nor Arthur are killed in battle, each receives wounds that cannot be healed in this world and have to pass over to an earthly paradise.  To reach this earthly paradise, they must travel by boat with supernatural attendants to see to them.  Before setting out, each must throw away something that has defined them; the Ring and Excalibur.  They each are seen off by their most devoted follower, Sam and Bedivere and are obliged to offer that companion comfort before leaving.  Each story ends with the boat passing beyond the horizon, Frodo toward the setting sun and Arthur toward the rising sun, with the companion forced to go back to normal life.  Coincidence?  Probably.  Still, one can wonder.

Platypus Troopers: The Platypus Reads Part LX

Some time ago, I set out to cover the major works of author Robert Heinlein.  Along with Isaac Azmov and Ray Bradbury, Heinlein set the standard for post-war science fiction.  I'm not big on sci-fi, but with a reputation like that, Heinlein's a "must-read."  Previously, I'd taken a look at "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" and "Podkayne of Mars."  "Stranger in a Strange Land" is still on the list.  I've just finished "Starship Troopers" and so it's prime time for a review.

I think I've enjoyed "Starship Troopers" even more than "Podkayne of Mars" and "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress."  The later is pretty hard to beat!  "Starship Troopers," however, seems to present Heinlein at his best: futuristic military fiction with a lot of arm-chair philosophy thrown in.  This, even more than the other works, cemented for me the title he earned during the sixties of "the dean of science fiction."

The main pleasure I derive from reading Heinlein is intellectual.  Sure, most of his philosophizing could be ripped to shreds by a Torrey junior, but it's still a pleasure to clash wits with "the dean."  Heinlein reminds me of nothing so much as an intellectual drill sergeant.  Mr. Dubois and his "History and Moral Philosophy" seems to be taken straight out of my freshman year of college.  The grizzled vertran that gets Ricco started down the path to the M.I. wouldn't be out of place heading up a Torrey discussion.  "You there, Mr. Jones, why should we give you the right to vote?"  Ah, good times...  The point is that Heinlein takes though seriously.  He really seems to believe that ideas have consiquences.  That's refreshing in this day and age; or in any day and age.

Well, daylight's burning and my thoughts seem a little broken, but there they are.  I'm sure there are more reasons to read Heinlein, but if what I've said has perked your interest, I would say that you won't regret it if you walk down to the bookstore and pick him up.  Alright you apes, on the bounce!   

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Miniature Worlds: Platypus Nostalgia

The kingdom of Hyrule has one castle, one village, one church, and a myriad of ruins left from an older civilization. Evidence suggests that the primary industries of Hyrule are logging and fishing. No evidence of large-scale agriculture exists and, as such, we must conclude that a large portion of the kingdom's foodstuffs are imported. Hyrule makes Lichtenstein look large. On the other hand, maybe asking where Link gets his rice balls is like asking where the Narnian factory is that supplies Mrs. Beaver with her sowing machine.

A friend of mine, staring at the map of Mordor that hung on the wall in our bachelor apartment, once asked how Sauron could feed all his orks. Another friend and I quickly pointed to the sea of Nurn and explained that there was an agricultural region on its banks and that additional foodstuffs could be imported from the tributary states in the south. It wasn't the answer he expected. The point is that Tolkien had an answer for just about everything. He wanted Middle Earth to feel as large and detailed as the real world. Dr. John Mark Reynolds points out in a lecture on "The Magician's Nephew" that this was the opposite of Lewis' intent in the "Chronicles of Narnia." While Tolkien threw his considerable creative genius into creating a "big" world, Lewis purposely created a "miniature" world. He was not trying to create an alternate reality for the imagination to run riot in, but a simplification of reality that would distill eternal truths in a way that the imagination could readily comprehend.

Take a look again at a map of Hyrule; or any of the old Squaresoft maps. Notice anything? It's all too simple to work. Where are suburbs to provide the workforce for Final Fantasy III's industrial state? Where are the grain-growing regions to keep Hyrule fed? The answer is that they're not there. They aren't important. As with Narnia, the worlds of Nintendo and Squaresoft's video games are "miniature worlds." They boil the world down, essentialize it, in order to give the player a clear picture of the truths they wish to portray: heroism, opposition to tyranny, the good of friendship, the power of a just cause.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Taking Time Out: Platypus Nostalgia

My brother and I were talking the other day and he mentioned that he'd gotten into playing Evony. He said the nice thing about it was that no matter what else was going on in his day, he could spend a few minutes in a world where everything is just for fun. No matter how many times you die or fail you can always get up and try again. That put me in mind of something a family friend said once. He was out on the mission filed at the time and said that the fun of playing a video game was that it offered you thirty minutes of control no matter how out-of-control the rest of your life was.

That got me thinking. What is the proper roll of control in our lives? Our impulse is often to say that seeking control is bad. However, there are types of control that are vital to daily living: self-control, control over vehicles, control over our budgets, control over the materials that we use to do our jobs. Psychologists tell us that when we lose control in one area of our lives, we often seek to make up for it by tightening our control of others. This can lead to the destructive side of control which we rightly castigate. However, can hobbies and pastimes be a way to channel this desire for control down a path where it becomes less harmful or even beneficial? If so, then the above examples hint that video games may not be a waste of time after all.