Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Neo-Platonism and The Legend of Zelda: Platypus Nostalgia

I mentioned reading a passage from J.R.R. Tolkien's "Leaf by Niggle" several days ago and immediately thinking of "The Legend of Zelda."  Now "Leaf by Niggle" is heavily platonic in its conception of the afterlife; advancing toward the divine through an ever more real series of images.  We see this also in C.S. Lewis' Narnia where at the end of the ages the cast are invited "further up and further in."  Now there's something in this idea of advancing through stages or levels towards a fulfillment or consummation that put me in mind of video games.  The player works his way through a series of worlds, or as Miyamoto calls them "gardens," toward some desired object, the goal of the quest and the end of the game.  In the Legend of Zelda series, this goal is often the mystic Triforce, a tripartite object representing the balance between wisdom, courage, and power.  To master this object, the one who seeks to win it must bring all three forces into balance within himself.  If you know your Zelda mythology, the events of the Zelda series are set in motion by Ganondorf's attempt to posses the Triforce when his own soul is disordered.  The mystic object responds by shattering and leaving the thief with the third that represents power: Ganondorf's mastering passion.  In effect, Ganondorf cannot achieve the blessedness the Triforce offers because he is Plato's tyrannical man, mastered by his passions.  To win the Triforce requires a platonic equilibrium within the tripartite soul bringing wisdom (rational), courage (emotional), and power (appetative) together.  Thus, Link's quest is really the platonic ascent of the ordered soul allegorized into a quest and commodified as a video game.    

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christmas Culture Platypus

This Christmas, we've taken advantage of being at home to sample a bit of what Houston has to offer on the cultural scene.  This meant a trip to the MFAH to see their King Tut exhibit and to the Worthen Center for the Houston Ballet's production of The Nutcracker.

The cost of seeing the King Tut exhibit was bankrolled by my grandmother this year.  For what it cost, however, the exhibit was absolutely worth it.  It think we spent three to three and a half hours carefully working our way through the cases.  The core of the gallery was a stylized recreation of King Tutankhamen's tomb with key pieces from each of the chambers.  This was contextualized by several rooms worth of Egyptian art that included everything from megalithic statues, to a death mask, to a toilet seat from Amarna.  There was an audio guide that went with the exhibit as well narrated by Harrison Ford that was worth the extra price.  Included for free were a series of videos that explained in further depth the importance, or the discovery, or the fabrication of different objects.

Scratch that off the bucket list.    

The Nutcracker seems to me a fantasy in the old sense of the word.  It is an excuse to create things that don't exist in our world.  As is typical of most pre-Tolkien fantasy, the imagined world of the ballet exists/is reached in a dream.  Like all fantasy, however, The Nutcracker re-enchants our our own world by refreshing things that have become mundane: Christmas, midnight, sweets, and dreams.

I appreciated this particular production of The Nutcracker for the literalness of its interpretation.  I know next to nothing about ballet, and the concreteness of the performance made it much easier to understand the story and general project of the piece.  The ballerina who played Clara did a good job of helping to connect the audience with the wonder of the different plot elements. 

Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Haul:The Platypus Reads Part CXXXVI

Thanks to a generous family at our school, this year's Christmas haul has a decidedly Greek twist to it.  New titles added to the "independent study" list:

The Best of the Achaeans by Gregory Nagy
The Cambridge Companion to Homer ed. Robert Fowler
Epic Bards and Oral Singers by A.B. Lord
Blackwell's Companion to Ancient Epic ed. Miles Foley

Now I can go back and re-write my Master's Thesis.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Remember, Remember Buy Scrooge and Santa this December

There's a nice little interview here about THE BEST HOLIDAY COMIC EVER.  Seriously, if you haven't picked up a copy of Scrooge and Santa yet you need to now.

Back to the Books: The Platypus Reads Part CXXXV

There's something about turning 30 that seems to send people back to the books.  It's as if the 4+ year trauma of college wounds the intellect so deeply that it takes years to fully recover.  By about 30, though, it seems to be back in working order and ready to go.  I take as evidence of this the large number of friends that I have that are auditing courses, taking classes, considering going back for a masters, learning a new language, or just taking on a challenging course of study.  The bug hit me last summer and I spent a good portion of my bonus on amassing a small library of books on Ancient Greece.  Though I don't teach them, the Ancient Greeks are my first academic love and I thought it was high time I returned to them.  So...  Here's what I'm working on:

Alexander by Robin Lane Fox
Traveling Heroes in the Epic Age of Homer by Robin Lane Fox
Early Greece by Oswyn Murry
The Spartacus War by Barry Strauss
The War that Killed Achilles by Caroline Alexander
Early Cyprus by Vassos Karageorghis
Games and Sanctuaries In Ancient Greece by Panos Valavanis
Greek Tragedy and Political Theory ed. J. Peter Euben
Economic and Social History of Ancient Greece by Pierre Vidal-Naquet et al. 

and with Christmas here, more titles may be forthcoming.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Favorite Movies: Film Platypus

I roomed with film majors in college and in grad school and picked up a few things along the way.  That aside, however, I only have mild pretensions to being a film aesthete.  All comments about film on this blog should be taken in that spirit.  With that out of the way, we can move on.

I had a truly enjoyable evening last night with my wife and a couple of friends eating expensive cheese, drinking Martinelli's, discussing Charles Williams, and watching Terrence Malik's "Tree of Life."  Now I have loved Malik's work since I saw the "The Thin Red Line" between the end of high school and the beginning of college.  It was the first movie that really opened me up to the potential film has as a vehicle for discourse.  I don't think "The Thin Red Line" did that just for me either.  Many of the young aesthetes intellectuals Freshman year had had their cinematic awakening after watching Malik's masterpiece.  College is a time for affectations and fads (has Evelyn Waugh taught us nothing!) and not everything I thought was cool or important back then has worn well.  In that light, I'm glad to find that I'm still enjoying Terrence Malik's work after twelve years.

Where am I going with this?  Several years ago, I posted a list of my three favourite books.  I love reading and have no qualms about giving my opinion on almost any book under the sun.  In the matter of film, however, I'm far less of an expert and I've often, though certainly not always, hung back when it comes to commenting on that field of artistic endeavour.  Malik has inspired me now, and I think it's finally time I take a stab at listing my favourite films.  So, without further ado, here it goes:

  The Thin Red Line: Terrence Malik uses the battle of Guadalcanal as a backdrop for reflections on the nature of good and evil.  Malik often has his characters ask questions in the dialog that he then answers symbolically in the visuals.  One of the things I like about Malik is that he really has taken to heart that film is primarily about showing, not saying.  He lets the film speak for itself without using dialog to lead the audience by the nose.  The score by Hans Zimmer is absolutely haunting and I love the pieces done by the Melanesian Choir. I always find talking about Malik's films a bit difficult.  They remind me very much of George MacDonald's fantasies in that you can't really reason through them, you have to experience them and allow them to do their work in a way that transcends linear reasoning.

Princess Mononoke: If "The Thin Red Line" opened up to me the possibilities of film in general, then "Princess Mononoke" showed me what could be done with animated film.  "Princess Mononoke" feels like a Greek tragedy.  It has all the resonance and power of a modern myth.  Everything that Hayao Miyazaki does is filled with mythopoeic power; even the children's stories.  In a naturalist world, he seems like a man who still remembers the gods.  I've still never seen anything in film that can compare with his theophanes.  If someone was going to adapt C.S. Lewis' "Till We Have Faces," I'd want it to be Miyazaki.  Like Terrence Malik, I pretty much love everything this guy does.

I think I'll leave it there for now.  I might want to add "Labyrinth" or "The Dark Crystal."  "Gladiator" has been a favorite since college and I do think something ought to be said for the original Star Wars series and "Raiders of the Lost Ark."  Then again, what about "Band of Brothers" or "The Seven Samurai."  They're all worthy choices, but I think I'll still stick with the two above.  I may not watch these films very often, but they're the ones I keep returning to.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Christmas Gaming (Cont.): Platypus Nostalgia

I was working my way through "J.R.R. Tolkien Artist and Illustrator" when I found this passage from "Leaf by Niggle":

You could go on and on, and have a whole country in a garden, or in a picture (if you preferred to call it that).  You could go on and on, but not perhaps for ever.  There were the Mountains in the background.  They did get nearer, very slowly.  They did not seem to belong to the picture, or only as a link to something else, a glimpse through the trees of something different, a further stage: another picture.

The first thing that popped into my head when I read this was what Shigeru Miyamoto said about creating the Legend of Zelda series.  He said that he envisioned the games as a set of gardens in which players could wander and explore.  Thinking a little further, the defining feature that encloses the world of Hyrule in the first four games is a mountain range.  There was something magical about reaching the top of Death Mountain in A Link to the Past and seeing on the other side the faint suggestion of a forest spreading out into the unexplored world beyond: a further stage: another picture. 

Christmas Gaming: Platypus Nostalgia

Long wintry afternoons and evenings aren't just for books.  If you grew up in the 80s (or more recently), it's also a time for gaming.  If you're old school, this can mean getting out the pen and paper.  If you're teh uber, then it means more time on WoW.  I, striving for To Meson in all things, tend to prefer the old snes.  Once old Bessie is out of the mothballs, that begs the question of what game to play.

Picking a game at Christmas is a lot like picking a book: the question of atmosphere is paramount.  As with Christmas reading, then, I like a game that has a more mellow pace and tone.  The bright and tinny world of Super Mario Brothers is out then.  Also out are the cartoonish creatures of Secret of ManaThe Legend of Zelda series is welcome any time of the year, but I think I like it best in Summer or fall.  Metroid comes nearer the mark.  What's left?  This year, I think the answer to that question is Final Fantasy III (Japan VI).  With its quiet, melancholy mood and often wintry atmosphere, it's the perfect game for a cold night.

Agree?  Disagree?  Question the question?  It is a bit of a silly question after all.  Should we really choose video games the way we choose wine to complement a meal?  Maybe.  There seems to be value in living life intentionally.  I grew up in a land of sharp and distinct seasons, and seasonal rhythms have always been important to me.  They provide a sense of order and balance in what is so often a disordered and unbalanced world.  By setting times and seasons for our own activities, we increase the order in our world; logos reclaiming chaos.  Still not convinced?  That's ok.  Now how about you; what are your holiday traditions?  

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Christmas Reading: The Platypus Reads Part CXXXIV

The world is getting colder, the days are getting shorter, and work is winding down for the semester.  With the Christmas holiday coming, it's an ideal time for reading.  Now I always read, but Christmas seems to call for some change change in the line up to match the peculiar feel of the season.

Changing my reading list to fit the holiday mood does not mean Christmas books, though it can.  There's nothing wrong with curling up by the fire to read Dickens "A Christmas Carol" or work through Matthew and Luke's accounts of the Nativity.  However, I meant something beyond the obvious Christmas additions.  There are certain books that you plow through and there are certain books that you eat up.  Christmas, for me, calls for neither.  Instead, I prefer books with a narrow emotional register that absorb and enchant; the perfect companions for long, cold, quiet nights.

Last year's book of choice was the novella "The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath" by H.P. Lovecraft.  This season, I've decided to try Scull and Hammond's "J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator."  It's a slow and engaging read, and Tolkien's odd style of painting lends a sense of quiet enchantment to the whole.  I've encountered Tolkien's art before and enjoyed it.  In past Christmases, my wife and I have made a habit of reading Tolkien's "Father Christmas Letters" together.  The odd world of the North Polar Bear and Father Nicholas Christmas that Tolkien weaves for his children is a real delight.  I'm looking forward, then, to continuing to explore the artistic side of Tolkien's worlds in a more complete fashion.

So how about you?  What constitutes your ideal holiday reading? 

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Platypi Against Death: The Platypus Reads Part CXXXIII

This post comments on Fritz Leiber's "Swords Against Death."  If you wish to remain spoiler free, do not read on.

As noted earlier, Fritz Leiber begins his tales of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser with a heroic foursome; the two male leads and their ladies fair.  By the third tale, however, the foursome is reduced to a duo with the death by art magical of Lady Ivrian and the intrepid Vlana.  The result seems to be that our heroes can now never be whole and are thus doomed to wander the world in search of adventure and forgetfulness. 

This equation almost changes in the second volume with The Price of Pain-Ease where the wizards Sheelba of the Eyeless Face and Ningauble of the Seven Eyes promise to restore a lost love to one of the two men provided he can steal the mask of Death.  Tormented, literally, by the ghosts of their lost beloveds, Fafhrd and Mouser accept the quest even if it means slaying each other to get to the mask.  Along the way, they continue to be haunted by Vlana and Ivrian and each hero comes to realize that his particular heroine wasn't exactly the picture of perfection he'd remembered.  Since Leiber is unwilling to kill off one or both of his leading men, the evil duke Danius gets to the mask first and cuts it in half.  Death shows up just in time to finish of Danius and Fafhrd and Mouser each make off with a piece of the mask.  Predictably, this satisfies neither of the wizards but, true to their word, they keep half their promise for half the mask: each man is able to let go of his misery and move on.

It's a wry and cynical ending in a wry and cynical series of books.  We are left wondering if things ever really could have worked out for the formidable foursome had the two women lived.  Of course, the question arises as to whether any breakdown would be the fault of the two beaus as much as the fault of the two femmes.  Vlana calls Fafhrd her "beloved booby," and her "man-boy-lover."  Given the stories thus far, that's an accurate assessment of Fafhrd's character.  The Mouser doesn't fair much better.  In each of them, there is far too much of an over-indulged boy and too little of a real man.  It makes one wonder if the inference that should be drawn is that Leiber believes masculine friendship rests on some principle of prolonged adolescence.  If true, this is rather sad.  The adventures go on, and adventures are fun, but they can't go on forever.  In the end, even Odysseus, that consummate adventurer must come home and be a man: husband, father, son.  "The Odyssey" works because the adventures come to an end.  For Fafhrd and Mouser it seems as if the only end is weariness.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Pocketwatch Follow-Up: Strange Platypus(es)

John Mark Reynolds over at The Scriptorium Daily admits to experimenting with Victorian garb at the office in this article.  Kudos to Dr. Reynolds for pushing boundaries and reclaiming the older aesthetic.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

T.S. Platypus: Strange Platypus(es)

Prufrock tells us that he has "measured out my life with coffee spoons."  I have measured out my life with blog posts.

With December coming on, we will soon witness seven years of "The Platypus of Truth."  Looking at the post history, it seems like 57 or so posts a year has been average.  2007 was a particularly bad year for posting.  2010 and 2011 have been better.  This seems to fit as in 2007 I was struck down with a particularly nasty medical problem that left me in constant and drastic pain.  In 2010, I moved to a much less stressful position in a more laid-back area of the country an experienced a corresponding relaxation of my symptoms.  Since 2006, posts have mostly been about whatever I was reading, playing, or watching at the time.  There have been a few forays into poetry and literature as well.  Readership has been modest with a few spikes where a post was fortuitously linked to by a popular site.

What does all this add up to?  Are these posts only coffee spoons counting out the meaningless hours of a pointless existence?  I don't think so.  Drinking coffee is fun, but it is merely an act of consumption.  Blog posts, even bad ones, are an act of creation.  Animals consume, but people create.  The posts of the last seven years have been, however mangled, an attempt at creation, an attempt at speaking the creative word into the inchoate silence.  In that sense, they are an imitation of the Trinity, or as Tolkien put it: "we make still by that law in which we're made."

Soli Deo Gloria   

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Pocket Watches and Pushing Boundaries: Strange Platypus(es)

John Mark Reynolds over at Scriptorium Daily notes the death of the wristwatch and muses a bit about the role of conspicuous consumption and nostalgia for the beauties of a vanished age.  Perhaps I have read amiss, but I do note just the slightest tinge of fatalism in the good professor's voice.  It seems inevitable in late modernity that the old, functional, and beautiful should be replaced by the new, functional, and ugly.  Is this really so?  Well, no.  The professor does point out that wristwatches became a jewelry piece every bit as much as the pocket watch had been.  If this is true, then might there be hope that one day our cell-phones will become as aesthetic as a Rolex?  It's a good question, but I can think of another.  If the old item remains functional and beautiful, why can't we as a society choose to retain it?

Walking sticks remained an essential part of any gentleman's wardrobe for centuries thought they served little practical use.  Cuff links remain in use today even though buttons do just as nicely and aren't as easy to lose.  Moving into the realm of technology, newer is not always better.  There have not been any serious modifications to the basic plan of a passenger plane since the 1960s.  We invented the Concord, which can travel a good deal faster, but it wasn't very practical and the old pattern still gets the job done just fine.  My point is, that modern society has not felt itself bound to always discard the old and functional for the new and functional.  Sometimes, as with the Concord, the new isn't all it's cracked up to be.  Other times, as with the walking stick and the cuff link, we retain an anachronism because it is aesthetic and not a particular hindrance to our daily life.

So what's my point.  I wear a pocket watch.  I wear a vest.  I wear hats.  With a bad right leg, I could really use an aesthetically pleasing stick.  More important than that, many young men I know do the same.  Why do we all do it?  It's simple really: the older items get the job done just as well and are more aesthetic and dignified than the new ones.  My pocket watch cost eleven dollars, looks great, and I can still keep my cell phone in my pocket.  An added plus is that when I want to tell the time I don't have to pull out my cell phone in front of my students and bluntly remind them that they are not allowed to use theirs (see Reynolds' reminder that nurses will still need to use wristwatches and ask yourself if you can't think of more, many more, situations that would justify retaining the older and more aesthetic device).  Reynolds wonders in his post if retaining these aesthetic items that have been "superseded" runs counter to the grain of Christianity.  While I can't say anything about personal conviction and household clutter, I would point back to the Genesis mandate.  As humans, we are to rule and subdue the earth.  We are given the job of being Earth's gardeners, that is those who shape the raw materials of the planet into an aesthetically pleasing whole.  Conspicuous consumption, that is buying and making things as a demonstration of personal power and status, does run against the grain of scripture, but making and owning things that are beautiful, all things being equal (and many times they aren't and that requires sacrifice on our part), seems to be a direct fulfillment of the mandate our species was given in the beginning.  This, of course, needs to be done with charity.  If our work standards forbid us from wearing Renaissance clothing, then donning the ugly company uniform is a matter of love-of-neighbor and humility.  However, given that men's fashion hasn't changed very much in the last hundred years, there are plenty of little ways (vests, pocket-watches, walking sticks, hats, cuff links, alternatively-shaped collars, slightly-differently cut coats) to re-aestheticize our wardrobes.  This applies to women's fashion as well, though it takes a bit more effort (and sometimes trips to the antique store).

A final word and then I'll end.  The goal of all this is not to become worldly or produce a set of Christian Aesthetes.  Poverty is beautiful; our Lord blessed it.  Better is the little portion where the Lord is present than to dwell in Herod's palace with all its splendor.  Our goal should not be to store up for ourselves treasures on earth.  The problem is that we often think that this means if we're living in an ugly palace, worshiping at an expensive but functionalist church, and wearing designer, but not ostentatious clothing, then we've somehow kept the Lord's commands.  This is not real poverty, this is conformity to late modern democratic, functionalist, culture.  In addition, poverty and careful husbandry of the Lord's resources should never be incompatible with aesthetics.  A peasant's cottage can often be a highly aesthetic space when the peasant is allowed to improve it with his or her own efforts.  Medieval monks took vows of poverty but produced amazing illuminated manuscripts, invented several varieties of top-class alcoholic beverages, created the strawberry, and generally beautified and enriched their living space and all the lands about it.  They were poor, but they remembered that they were still gardeners.  May we remember that ourselves.  God have mercy on us and make us wise.

N.B. -This argument presupposes that there is some real meaning, however difficult to deduce or agree upon, to the words "beautiful" and "ugly."  If these words merely mean "what I like" and "what I dislike," then we must concede that all of the above is pointless.  We might say the same for the words "good" and "evil," and "true" and "false."  If this is the case, then we should take a cue from the "Iliad" and realize that life, the universe, and everything are ultimately meaningless including this discussion.  Everything, in that case, really boils down to naked or covert displays of power.  If that is "true," than I can make no more effective reply than to deny whatever argument you make, accuse you of merely trying to assert yourself under the false pretense of rational argumentation, and assert my own preferences more loudly.  It may be "true" that there is no Truth, but we can hardly have an honest, rational discussion about it if even one of us starts with that as a premiss. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

On Whiteboard Art: Whiteboard Platypus

So, I like whiteboard art.  I use it in the classroom and post it on my blog.  I've been working on my craft for several years now, and thought it might be time to record a few thoughts.

Whiteboard art is a limited medium.  Expo markers, my preferred tools of the trade, only come in about twelve colors (at least that I can find.)  They don't admit of blending in the way that chalk or pastels do.  The fact that adding a new line to an existing line with an Expo marker can erase it also provides some unique challenges to drawing and shading.  Filling in solid objects is a real bear.

Given these constraints, whiteboard art lends itself to cartoons, pointillism, and impressionism.  Getting into the right mindset for the latter two techniques can be a little rough at first, and I recommend stepping back from your work frequently in order to get a sense of the overall effect.  Spending some time with a volume of impressionist paintings also helps.  As far as cartooning goes, I recommend getting into a web-comic or two.  They're free online, so there's no problem with accessibility or cost.  They also tend to be a little more realistic than what you find in the Sunday papers while rarely sporting the frustrating complexity of many modern comic books.

As a final note, the guys over at Wheatstone's The Examined Life are my real heroes when it comes to technique.  The videos they put together using time-lapse and whiteboard art are amazing.  Nothing gets the creative drive going like a little inspiration, so if you're going to attempt any whiteboard art, I recommend checking out what these guys are doing to get the creative juices flowing.

That's all I've got right now.  If anyone has anything to add, don't hesitate to jump in.

Monday, November 07, 2011

William's Europa: Whiteboard Platypus

 All Images Copyright James R. Harrington 2011

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Platypus Lectures: Academic Platypus

I was able to attend the annual Providence Classical School Pursuing Wisdom Colloquy this weekend.  This is the first Providence Colloquy I've attended.  As with all events that Providence hosts, the Gala in particular, I was thoroughly impressed.  Below are some of the things that impressed me in bullet point:

-The plenary speaker was Dr. Ronald Grosh, whom I've heard speak before.  Dr. Grosh is always a great catalyst for discourse, and this time was no exception.

-The coffee house and all the catering for the event was truly first-rate.  The Providence parents are smart, capable, professional, and run an extremely tight ship.  The speakers' dinner was also excellent in terms of food, location, service, and the extended amount of of time given to the speakers to socialize, re-energize, and network.

-Quite a number of Providence students were present working behind the scenes to make things happen.  They were well-dressed, polite, and efficient.  Beyond that, however, I was impressed by how many of them were willing to sit in on the break-out sessions and discuss with the speakers afterward.

-The quality of the attendees was abnormally high for a teacher's conference.  The conversation in the breakout sessions and throughout the weekend was professional, energetic, and intelligent.  It is a credit to Providence that it draws such people to its Colloquy both as presenters and attendees.

Those are my thoughts so far. If you're in primary or secondary education, or even just interested in it, may I heartily recommend next year's Providence Classical School Colloquy.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Picture of the Kingdom: Strange Platypus(es)

There's a marvelous place in North Houston, the Lanier Theological Library.  In the old days, we would have called it a "folly;" a rich man's capricious little building project.  This particular "folly" takes the form of a Oxford style library complete with paneled walls painted ceilings with a replica of a byzantine church a short walk away.  I should also mention the recreated Cotswold village and the peacocks.  Again, all this in the middle of nowhere North Houston.  Weird, I know.  In the true old tradition of nobelesse oblige, the library and church are open to the public.  Beyond that, Mr. Lanier has taken it upon himself to bring world class lecturers (Alistair McGrath, John Michael Talbot, Simon Conway-Morris, Edward Fudge, etc.) in to speak at the library and opening the lectures to the public free of charge.  There's also a free desert buffet in the library following each lecture.  It's an odd thing, and it draws an odd crowd.  At any given time you can stroll around with a cup of coffee and lemon tart and find John Michael Talbot in all his Gandalf look-alike glory squirreled away in an alcove talking to Texas farmer, or the local clergy hashing over anihilationism with Edward Fudge.  Elsewhere, they'll be a nun or two and a couple college students and some visiting intellectuals.  Turn the corner again, and there will be a rare codex on loan from the Vatican and John Mark Reynolds admiring the painted ceiling.  The library's a rambling, odd place.  The more time I spend there, the more I think of Jesus' words to his disciples: "in my father's house are many rooms."  Walking through the twists and turns of the Lanier is like a little piece of the Eschaton.  There's plenty of room, and plenty of food, and there's a place for everyone; great and honored hobnobbing equally with the poor and lowly.  The only thing that's wanting is the Master.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Swords and Platypi: The Platypus Reads Part CXXXII

This post will focus on Fritz Leiber's "Swords and Deviltry".  If you wish to remain spoiler free, don't read on.

Kill all the women so the real story can start.

I like buddy stories.  There's a special place in my heart for "A Separate Peace" even though the whole pacifist thing is heavy-handed and unnecessary.  I had great friends growing up, I had great friends in college, and I had great friends in grad school.  One of the finest things in life, to me, is sitting around with the guys and cackling inanely over some good joke.  Strong, masculine friendship is seriously under-rated in today's culture; mostly because everyone worries about being called "gay."  Now, that said.  I don't enjoy male companionship to the exclusion or denigration of women.  If you asked me who my best friend was I would tell you its my wife, and that brings me to the meat of the matter (ok, not quite, but almost).

I've been wanting to read Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories ever since I picked up Mike Mignola's graphic novel adaptation.  My chance to do that came this past summer when I was strolling through my local used bookstore.  Evidently, someone had dumped almost the whole series in the old Ace edition and they were on sale for a couple of bucks each.  Having finally recovered from my trek through "The Mammoth Book of Fantasy," I picked up volume one and started reading.  "Swords and Deviltry" gives us the back story of Leiber's dynamic duo and records their first meeting in the legendary city of Lankhmar.  It also introduces us to their lady-loves, the cunning, vengeful, and forceful Vlana, and the meek, cultured, and faithful Ivrain.  Each of these characters has great potential in their own right and also as part of a budding foursome.  That is until Leiber promptly kills them off.

Now, I'm not averse to character killing, but this matter of fem-icide really does bother me a bit.  The purpose seems to be to free the men up for further adventures.  From what I've seen in Mignola's adaptation, there will women a-plenty for one-night stands, but no more abiding ladies-fair for Fafhrd and Grey Mouser.  Leiber seems to need them to lose the loves-of-their-lives at the beginning and never recover so that the infinite tales of adventure can go on.  That just doesn't seem right.  It reeks of the belief that marriage is a sort of "game over" for everything that makes the masculine life worth living; as if aimless adventuring and drunken reveling are what make a man a man.  While I would argue that those strong male friendships are still a masculine need after marriage, Leiber's exculsivist vision seems more like an endless adolescence than a frank acknowledgement that marriage can't (and wasn't meant to) satisfy ever need of the human soul.

So what am I getting at here.  I do understand that Leiber is trying to tell a particular kind of story and that requires him to shape the plot and cast in certain ways.  Still, I wish there was a chance to use the compelling characters he creates in Vlana and Ivrain to complement the men in a more extended fashion.  That said, I think there might be something else that Leiber is getting at (if I'll just be patient and stick with him).  Leiber comments that both his characters, Fafhrd and Mouser, are each only half a hero.  They stick together through thick and thin because each has something the other needs.  They balance each other out.  Thinking on this a bit, I wonder if the purpose of killing Vlana and Ivrain off is that they each complemented their beaus in ways that all four complete.  With them gone, the men can never really be whole, and thus their quest can never really have an end.  If so, then the adventures of Fafhrd and Mouser are not merely about the virtues of masculine friendship but a meditation on humanity's tragic brokenness.  We all need each other to be ourselves, but in a world of pain and death that isn't always possible.

We'll see...

Thursday, October 20, 2011

William's Europa: Whiteboard Platypus

More art inspired by Charles Williams' Talliesin Through Logres mixes with a lecture on Dark Age Europe.

All images compyright James R. Harrington 2011

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Iliadic Platypus: The Platypus Reads Part CXXXI

I'm in the middle of prepping a talk on the "Iliad" for a colloquy in November.  This means that I've gone back to my roots as a student of Ancient History.  While I've done some heavier reading on early Greece in the form of Robin Lane Fox's "Traveling Heroes in the Epic Age of Homer" and Oswyn Murray's "Early Greece," there's also been an opportunity to try more popular works like Caroline Alexander's "The War That Killed Achilles."  Though Alexander's book is not "The Best of the Achaeans" or "Nature and Culture in the Iliad: The Death of Hector," it's still been an enjoyable and thought provoking read.  Alexander's great virtue is that she doesn't treat the "Iliad" as a mere mine of data for other interests but rather seeks to engage the text on its own terms in an effort to gain real wisdom.

This approach reminds me quite a bit of J.R.R. Tolkien's treatment of "Beowulf" in "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics."  In that essay, Tolkien compares the Beowulf poet to a man who inherits a piece of land on which is sprawling complex of ruins.  The man gathers these ruins and adds to them in order to build a magnificent tower.  After the man dies, others come and complain that the building of the tower has destroyed the purity of the ruins and decide that it would be best to tear it down.  What they fail to realize, as Tolkien points out, is that the man built the tower because from its pinnacle he could catch a glimpse of the sea.  This parable applies equally well to the "Iliad."  So often scholars come to Homer only for what they can get out of him; a scrap of Mycenaean culture, a glimpse into Dark Age trade networks, a buried fragment of Hittite myth.  All of that is valid, but it misses the real point; for centuries, men and women have read the "Iliad" because it spoke to the profound truths of the human condition.  In Tolkien's metaphor, they read it because it showed them the sea.

I may not agree with everything Alexander says and "The War that Killed Achilles" is not on a scholarly level with the books above mentioned.  I wrote my thesis on Homeric tropes in Classical literature and as such I did my fair share of strip mining the blind bard and am prepared to defend my right to.  Nevertheless, I have to say that in the final analysis Alexander's work gets my resounding recommendation.  It is a reminder to all of us with scholarly agendas that while we are out quibbling over minutia Homer is trying to show us Life.    

Sunday, October 09, 2011

MirrorMask: Film Platypus

Think with me for a moment...

Last weekend I was privileged to watch MirrorMask, Niel Gaiman's first foray into the film industry.  While the story has elements that seem to presage later films like Coroline, Dave McKean's odd visual style give it a unique feel.  It's that unique feel, a sort of post-modern-industrial-goth-chic, that has stayed with me a week after viewing the film.  As a work done in collaboration with Jim Henson Studios, that's not surprising.  Other Henson productions such as The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth strike me as notable more for their production value than for their story lines.  Don't get me wrong.  They're not bad stories, just traditional and unremarkable.  They just get the job done so that the visuals are freed up to run away with the show.

All this makes me wonder how important story is to film.  Take Terrence Malik, for instance.  There isn't a lot of plot to The New World, but the visuals are so incredible and thought-provoking that they bear the weight that would traditional be assigned to the story.  To go with a different example, think of how Dino de Laurentis used the score of Conan the Barbarian to take the place of the sparse and rather traditional dialog.  It's the strong combination of visuals and music that drive that movie along.  Back to high-brow film, we might also look at the disconnected vignettes that make up Andrei Rubalev.  Perhaps none of those are really examples of visuals or music replacing plot, but simply alternate methods of story telling.

Anyhow, there's no hard and fast thesis to this post, more of just an "I wonder."  I wonder.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Williams (and Beowulf): Whiteboard Platypus

Pictures detail "The Headless Emperor" from Charles Williams The Kingdom of the Summer Stars and the lair of Grendel's Mother from Beowulf.  Copyright 2011 James R. Harrington.  All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Play: Strange Platypus(es)

Setting: A Higher Plane of Noetic Consciousness

John Piper, Pope Benedict XVI, and the Ecumenical Patriarch stand/hover/exist before three ornately carved podiums.

Enter Simon Peter with Fanfare and angels attendant bearing his keys.

Simon Peter: I am come now even from the Eternal Presence here to dispose a matter of great import.  Know you that in the Highest Heaven it is decreed that the Lady who has been twice wounded shall now be made most whole.  Therefore, gird yourself most manfully to make answer to the question I will now present, for upon your reply does rest the state of Christendom entire.  For be it known that whosoever of you givest that reply which in my Master's sight is most seemly and most true shall even so win for his party the keys wherewith all authority to loose and bind resides.

Benedict XVI: Most gracious Apostle and primary holder of that see in which now by Grace Divine I sit, we are most eager and most obedient to accept thy divine inquisition.

Ecumenical Patriarch: Aye, 'tis so.

John Piper: 'Tis so.

Simon Peter: Thy three-fold reply, yet one, doth agree most behoovingly with my charge.  Therefore, make your reply with such holy alacrity as is fitting to the divine query: "What is to be done with N.T. Wright?"

Benedict XVI: We must treat him with all charity as we would be treated.

John Piper: We must refute him in all love.

Ecumenical Patriarch: I'm sorry, who the heck is N.T. Wright?

N.T. Wright: (entering stage right) Grant him tenure!

Simon Peter: Right Tom.  Take the keys and off you go.

Exeunt Omnis

About Hell: Strange Platypus(es)

For with my own eyes I saw the Sibyl hanging in a bottle, and when the young boys asked her, 'Sibyl, what do you want?', she replied, 'I want to die' .

We went to a lecture this weekend on Annihilationism given by Edward Fudge.  Briefly stated, Annihilationism is the idea that souls in Hell are eventually destroyed and cease to exist.  Though Fudge cast his claims purely in the light of truth and falsity, I couldn't help getting the impression that Annihilationism is put forward as a sort of "nice" alternative to the endless conscious torment envisioned by the Traditional Doctrine of Hell.  Of course this begs the question of whether existence is a great enough good to be worth retaining in spite of any pain.  I have heard proponents of the Traditional Doctrine of Hell assert that it is "nicer" than Annihilationism because at least it allows the damned the good of existence.  There are other alternatives, however.  George MacDonald was influential in propagating a modified form of Maurice's Universalism in which Hell is temporary and primarily purgative.  This seems like a much "nicer" view than either Annihliationism or the Traditional Doctrine of Hell because in the end everyone will be saved.  However, after seeing the torture and violation of Free Will that MacDonald's view entails as he imagines it in his last novel, "Lilith," the purgative view of Hell seems downright monstrous.  It turns God into a cosmic torturer (for our good, of course).  If we find that unsavoury, we could posit that all souls go to Heaven without any stop-overs.  This might seem to be that than which no nicer can be thought until we imagine Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Sadam Hussein, or any of the other great tyrants of the past century entering immediately into eternal bliss.  It seems to make a mockery of any sense of ultimate justice.  Finally, we could scrap all of this Christian theology and claim that when we die that's it (whether that means the death of the soul or the mere death of a particular personality associated with the soul before it is reincarnated), but denying anyone a chance for Heaven seems the "meanest" view of all.

So what are we left with?  Well, perhaps we have to admit with Ecclesiastes and Homer that reality simply isn't "nice."  Fudge, with a sudden flair of Fundamentalism, was right in asserting at the beginning of his talk that the question isn't "What is nice?" but "What is True?" (I am paraphrasing here).  As Ajax exclaims at the moment when Zeus turns against the Achaeans "let the light shine on us and then let us die."  Reality is more like a war zone than a tea party (though it may be much more like something else when compared with a war zone) and there is something admirable in saying "well let's know the worst and then face it head on."  At any rate, it seems a whole lot more productive than quibbling about what's "nice."    

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Back to the Books:The Platypus Reads Part CXXX

Now that school's started, it's back to serious reading.  I've got a couple of books on Art History and culture going as well as "The War That Killed Achilles" by Caroline Alexander.  In addition, I've also just finished "The Spartacus War" by Barry Strauss (always a favorite).  There's still a little time for fun, however, and that's meant re-reading the Harry Potter series with the wife and "Leaf by Niggle" by J.R.R. Tolkien.  Right now, that makes my head hurt, but once things settle down a little I'll have to organize my thoughts and let you know what I'm thinking.  Meanwhile, the Platypus is sensing the return of all things pumpkin...

Sunday, September 04, 2011

More About Howl my Moving Castle Lost its Legs:The Platypus Reads part CXXIX

I started blogging about Diana Wynne Jones' "Howl's Moving Castle" while we were still only half way through.  Having finished the book I am pleased to say that my enthusiasm for it remains unabated.  True, there is a considerable amount of divergence with Studio Ghibli's adaptation, but that only means that some aspects of the ending, and several extra layers of plot remain unspoiled for the reader.  Both the book and the movie are strong enough works of art in their own right that they each can be enjoyed without detriment to the other. It should also be emphasized, however, that while there are places where the two works diverge, they still share many points in common.  The movie can be seen more as a simplification of the book than a departure from it.  Pick up the novel yourself and see what you think!

Saturday, September 03, 2011

2011 Seven Heavens of Summer Reading: The Platypus Reads Part CXXVIII

September is here and Summer has ended (even if it doesn't feel that way outside) and it's time for the 2011 Summer Reading Awards, or as I like to call them: "The Seven Heavens of Summer Reading."  The awards were established in honor of Michael Ward's "Planet Narnia," in which he claims that the seven books of The Chronicles of Narnia are ordered around the seven planets of medieval cosmology.  In that spirit, each award is given to honor an excellent book whose content is in keeping with the attributes of one of the "seven heavens."  With that bit of background, let's cut to this year's awards.

Moon: "Howl's Moving Castle" by Diana Wynne Jones  For the sphere of madness, flux, and change, there could be no better match than this story of magical transformations, mistaken identities, and mad Welshmen.

Mercury: "The Four Quartets" by T.S. Eliot  In the matter of manipulating language, T.S. Eliot's Nobel prize winning poems stand alone.

Venus: "Brideshead Revisited" by Evelyn Waugh  In the matters of Venus Infernal, Waugh is a knowing expert, but he also reminds us that when all's said and done real creative power cannot come from ourselves but only from our Creator.

Sun: "On Fairy Stories" by J.R.R. Tolkien  Though perhaps his bent was more Saturnine, J.R.R. Tolkien will always be welcome in the heaven of scholars (though I'm sure he has his eye on Mercury).  This essay was a ground-breaker in the field and remains the unchallenged master down to the present day.

Mars: "The Guns of August" by Barbara Tuchman  In the matter of recording the ringing strokes that opened the Great War, Mrs. Tuchman reigns supreme.

Jupiter: "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" by J.K. Rowling  For restoring a sense of wonder, joy, majesty, and the pleasures of the feast to children's literature, Ms. Rowling has earned the sphere of Jove.

Saturn: "Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson  There are no things certain upon Middle Earth save death and taxes.  In the matter of facing this reality head on, Robinson's story of a minister chronicling his own decline takes the prize.

Runners Up:

"World War I" by John Keegan
"The Graveyard Book" by Niel Gaimon
"Traveling Heroes in the Epic Age of Homer" by Robin Lane Fox
"Taliessin Through Logres" by Charles Williams
"At the Back of the North Wind" by George MacDonald

That's it for this year.  In the meantime, what are your "Seven Heavens of Summer Reading?" 

Friday, August 26, 2011

Charles Williams: A Caution

The repentant sadist chastens rude Caucasia with the blade of too Euclidean love
In that place where Simon Magus sits playing with his cards
Placing her under the unmerited obedience of the hazel rod
Which is
A ruler fit for bookstore clerks and men that play at being kings
Simon Magus
Simon Magus
Simon Magus in the mirror
The unicorn has lost her mate which found her when the wild hazel was young
But now it has all been turned to rods that are his horn
To rub between a maiden’s bosom
And she grieves for the wild hazel which was young in spring
Who knows the proper use of horns
Seeking him ever in the heaving breast of Gaul not knowing that he is gone to Logres
Simon Magus
Simon Magus
Simon Magus in the mirror
There at Pentecost saw Taliessin the young king Arthur crowned
And Bedivere rejoiced
And Balin swore
As rays of vert and rose and azure smote down upon the window and danced about the king
But Taliesin there in Arthur’s face upraised beheld, but brief, the image of himself
Until Percival was half turned and plain Sir Bors let fall a single snicker at
Simon Magus
Simon Magus
Simon Magus in the mirror
Mr. Eliot, lately of London, searched for a volume between repentant coffee spoons
To pass the time and as a means of general beneficence toward one so stately and so low
Offered for purchase
And other things to those who needed waking and those already asleep
As the deck was no longer cut and the hazel rod stood idle in the southern seat of Logres
For Taliessin had of late removed to a city more congenial and perhaps Peter was short on change and
Might have grown tired of fishing
Penny for the old guy?
Penny for the old guy?
Penny for the old guy?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Howl my Moving Castle Lost its Legs:The Platypus Reads part CXXVII

We're finishing out the summer here with a trek back through the films of Hayao Miyazaki and with that a little look at some of his source material.  In this case, that means a read through Diana Wynne Jones' "Howl's Moving Castle."  The film adaptation of this book is one of my favorite Studio Ghibli films and I've watched it numerous times over the past several years.  This is the first time, however, that I've turned to pick up the novel.

Stepping into Diana Wynne Jones's world of whiny wizards has been a treat.  There's a quirky fractured-fairy tale feel to the whole book that's actually subtle enough not to overwhelm the story with irony; what Tolkien calls "the author's wink at the other adults in the room."  The characters and settings function well both as archetypes and as individuals so that the fairy tale feel is preserved right along with all the trappings of a modern psychological novel.  For those who were introduced to the story with the film, it is pleasant to find that Miyazaki preserved enough of the original story to make it familiar and intelligible when turning to the novel and yet provided enough changes and omissions to keep the book fresh and interesting in its own right.  So far, my appreciation for neither the film nor the book has been diminished, and that's quite a rare thing.

We're only half-way through the book right now, so I'll have to stop there.  If the story continues the way it's going currently, however, they'll be nothing but good news to report once its finished.  Good luck in the meantime! 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Earthsea and Inception: Film Platypus

After the herculean task of blogging through "The Mammoth Book of Fantasy," it's been good to take a bit of a breather.  I'll have to ponder a bit more before I can definitely say what I learned from the experience.

Meanwhile, I have not been idle.  My wife and I have been working through some of the Tolkien Professor's lectures with all the accompanying reading that entails.  We've also started re-reading the Harry Potter books.  In addition to that, we've been making use of our Netflix account.  With that, we come to the real purpose of today's post.  This week, we've had the fun of watching two recent visually rich films; real treats for the eye.  The are studio Ghibli's "Tales From Earthsea" and Christopher Nolan's "Inception."

"Tales From Earthsea" is actually the directorial debut of Hayao Miyazaki's son Goro.  In that respect, the film is just a fun chance to see the next generation of studio Ghibli directors strut his stuff.  I also happen to love Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea books.  Put those together, and how could this not be a movie to watch the instant I became aware of it?  So, watch it we did.

Now, what do I think?  This is an adaptation of several Earthsea stories, so don't expect to see "The Wizard of Earthsea."  However, the screen play is done by Hayao himself and shows all the marks of his own peculiar genius for adaptation.  If you like the work Hayao Miyazaki has done with other adaptations like "Howl's Moving Castle," the adaptation itself should be right up your ally.  If you're an Earthsea purist, don't waste your time.  Questions of adaptation aside, Studio Ghibli does a wonderful job of bringing the world of Earthsea to life visually.  Every panel has that wonderfully rich touch we've come to expect.  The overall effect of the movie is somewhere on par with "Castle in the Sky" or "Naussicaa of the Valley of the Winds."  If you go in expecting to see "Spirited Away," or "Princess Mononoke" you'll be disappointed.  Of course, this only makes sense if you remember that those two movies are products of the elder Miyazaki at the height of his career.  This is still definitely a "first movie."  That said, Goro seems to have some real talent, and it will be worth watching his own style evolve over the years to come.

Moving on, we just finished watching "Inception" last night.  I have to say that it was worth watching this one at home if only so my wife and I could keep stopping the movie and dialog about what was going on and how we guessed it would turn out; sort of like reading a mystery novel together.  Nolan has a passion for playing around with cognition and it was nice to see him return again to his first love.  It was also enjoyable to watch Nolan take his talent for coming at a genre "sideways" and totally reinvigorate the "heist" movie.  The overall effect of the movie is so masterful that I'm sure this will be the new "Matrix" on college campuses for the next few years.

This, of course, brings us to the question of whether "Inception" is really just an action flick with fancy window dressing.  I'm not sure what I think about that question.  Christopher Nolan isn't Terrance Malik, nor does he claim to be.  However, his ideas seem to have more urgency and coherence than those of the Wichowski brothers.  If there is something that Nolan is toying with throughout the movie, I'm going to guess that it's the idea of "the thought that stops all thought," ala G.K. Chesterton's "Orthodoxy."  There's also the obvious idea that art can plant memes in people's minds, but I think this Chestertonian angle is actually the deeper thread.  I think that's all I'll weigh in with for now.  We'll see what I think after more time and reading a few reviews.    

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Finishing the Mammoth Book of Fantasy: The Platypus Reads Part CXXVI

The Edge of the World by Michael Swanwick

Well, it's been a long hall.  Shifting constantly from author to author, from genre to genre, can take a lot out more out of you, page for page, than just sticking to one.  Maybe that's why I've never liked fiction anthologies.  I usually just skip over that section in the bookstore.  Still, reading through this particular anthology was worth it.  It's expanded my knowledge of the genre and put new and interesting authors on my radar.  With that preface, let's turn to Michael Swanwick.

"The Edge of the World" is a fitting name for the last short story in this collection.  In a sense, we've come to the boarders of the genre.  Like Swanwick's protagonists, we've shifted from great and mighty heroes, to cynical adventurers, and withered into broken, whiny teenagers frantically hoping someone will notice them.  There no longer seems to be any purpose or meaning to existence, so why not cease to exist?  This ultimate expression of the will to nausea in fantasy literature seems to signal the final failure of the genre.  Our imaginations have soared passed the "Wall Around the World" and found instead of the promised faerie kingdom a vast nothing.  Perhaps more than the exhaustion of genres or modes, this is the question that haunts modern fantasy: is there any point to the imagination?  Tolkien believed that it could be used to imitate God, and help us turn our hearts toward the greater reality beyond this vale of tears.  If that's all rubbish, then we are left with the burning question of why bother.  Oh, we will still go on writing fantasies, of course, so long as we're unwilling to chuck in the towel and disappear, but that underlying purposelessness will always be there, like a worm, gnawing away the strength from all we do.

So here, at the shores of the sea, I must leave you.  I will not say 'do not weep,' for not all tears are evil.

Until next time, gentle reader. 

Friday, August 12, 2011

Mammoth Book of Fantasy (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CXXV

The Phantasma of Q--- by Lisa Goldstein

This piece has a bit of a steam-punk flair mixed with the "lost world" fantasy that we saw with A. Merritt's "The Moon Pool."  It also has a touch of the "turn-about" mystery we see in Tanith Lee's "A Hero at the Gates."  All of this is in keeping with the trend of the last few stories in the collection toward an increase mixing of genres and techniques.

It makes sense that fantasy writing becomes more complex the closer you get to the present.  Think about it.  When Dunsany created his unique voice, or when Robert E. Howard got Sword and Sorcery up and running, the novelty of their creation was enough to hold the audience's attention.  Once they had done their thing, however, there was only so much of a spin subsequent writers could put on it before everything in that genre or mode came to sound like a pastiche.  As genres and modes proliferated, so did the number of authors writing in them until all the major possibilities were explored.  The only option for aspiring new writers of fantasy then became mixing genres modes to create new permutations that sound fresh and original.

All this means, however, that the genre is running the risk of exhausting itself (or has already has).  This matches my own experience, where the more contemporary the fantasy gets, the less I find it enjoyable or well-crafted.  All this serves as an introduction to the second to last story in the collection.

Audience by Jack Womack

I can only call this a work of surrealist fantasy.  I might call it fantasy of the absurd, but the overall tone is too somber for that.  There are some works whose meaning can't be ferreted out by traditional means.  You either "get it," or you don't.  I don't get "Audience.

One more to go. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Mammoth Book of Fantasy (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CXXIV

Nets of Silver and Gold by James P. Blaylock

Blaylock gives us a piece that combines Harlon Ellison's minimalist fantasy with Theodore Sturgeon's "what if?" stories.  In so doing, it also fits in with Charles de Lint's penchant for writing fantasy in a pedestrian modern setting.  However, Blaylock adds a new twist in that he doesn't feel the need to explain the source or the meaning of the fantastic element.  It simply occurs, and we are left to guess its origin and import or else simply revel in the imaginative oddness of the tale.  I think the author would prefer that we do the latter over the former.  As del Torro reminds us when commenting on "Pan's Labyrinth," the old faerie stories never bother to explain the fantastic element; it's simply something that is.  G.K. Chesterton makes much of this in his essay The Ethics of Elfland, which serves as part of his larger autobiographical work "Orthodoxy," by saying that never really know the causal connection between any eventThus, it is nearer the mark to say that things happen by magic than that they happen by scientific law.  In this aspect, then, Blaylock's story recovers a bit of what the old fantasies do for us.  It reenchants the natural world around us by reminding us how little we grasp of the actual nature of things.  We don't know that there isn't a faerie world in the key hole, we bet on it, and betting means that occasionally we might be wrong. 

Next Up: The Phantasma of Q--- by Lisa Goldstein 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Mammoth Book of Fantasy (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CXXIII

The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule by Lucius Shepard  

Yes, I am slowing down.  Reading two short stories a day, or even one, is beginning to prove existentially exhausting.  I'm not sure if that's because I'm reading other things as well or not.  Perhaps this story hasn't interested me as much as some of the others?  I don't know.

"The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule" is about a young artist who proposes to kill an already half-dead dragon that dominates a town by painting him.  The idea is that the toxins in the paint will eventually build up in the dragons system and finish him off.  Being desperate to get rid of the beast, which still exerts a psychic influence over the town, the magistrates empower Meric Cattanay to carry out his massive plan.  The story continues, interspersing bits of biographical work about Meric and his painting with scenes from Meric's life as he labors to cover the dragon in paint.  We are allowed to see Meric's first exploration of Griaule, his brief and sad affair with the foreman's wife, and the finishing of the painting and the artist's death.

I can't say that I particularly like the character of Meric Cattanay.  He isn't virtuous, and he doesn't have any great passion or charm to redeem him.  Mostly, he just drifts through life.  Griaule is more of a presence than a character, so there's not much to cling to there either.  The side characters are interesting, but we don't get to see very much of them.  There is an ironic twist to the story's conclusion which I won't spoil for you.  Perhaps you can make something of it?  If there's a greater point to the story, that's where it will be found.

Next Up: Nets of Silver and Gold by James P. Blaylock

Monday, August 08, 2011

Visiting Pan's Labyrinth: Film Platypus

 I think teaching makes you late for a lot of things.  It makes me late for film.  Usually, I'm not missing much, but sometimes I am.  This is one of those times.

I liked "Pan's Labyrinth."  I liked the lighting.  I liked the costumes.  I liked the story and the leisurely way in which it unfolded.  Seldom have I seen anything so richly imagined on film.  Predictably, it wasn't done by Americans.  The New Zealanders, the Japanese, and the Spanish all have us beat.

Yes, there was violence in the film, but I was surprised at how little del Torro seemed to relish it.  This movie could have been packed with bloodshed if he'd wanted it to be.  What is there is in the service of fleshing out his world and helping him ask the questions about pain, fantasy, and transcendence that he wanted to ask.  Maybe he still guessed wrong on the amount needed, but I'm not skilled enough a critic to know.

One thing I can speak on is that fighting Fascists doesn't make you a hero (as Hellboy knows); especially if your side does all the same things.  Being on the losing side doesn't make your cause any more just than being on the winning side.  We'll just never know what evils you would have perpetrated had you won.  Still, I'm not a Spaniard, and del Torro's pain is not my pain, so I won't say any more on that head lest I ere.

All this is dancing around what the movie is actually about: "is hope for a better world just a child's dream?"  I'm sure del Torro has volumes to speak on that topic, but he's careful about what he says in the film.  At the end, it really is left open to interpretation.  That's ok.  Sometimes it's ok just to pose a question.  The nature of the answer we get directly corresponds to the nature of the question we ask.  Finding the right question and the right way to ask it is a worthy effort for a story teller, or any other person.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Be Your Own Traveling Hero in Homer's Greece: Platypus Nostalgia

My annual summer video game is now complete.  I have finished my first action rgp, Titan Quest.  All in all, it was a satisfying game.  The world was richly imagined, the learning curve was fair, and if you know what you're doing it can be beaten on the first go (contra Diablo?).  Of course I didn't know what I was doing, but it was possible to get back on track without playing the game over again.  My only only critique: I would have liked more cinematics and a little more development of the plot (which was rather interesting and written by Randall Wallace of Braveheart fame), but I understand that some fans of the genre feel that these things get in the way.  If you like video games and ancient history, this one is worth checking out (especially since you can get a package deal at Amazon for 8 bucks!).

Mammoth Book of Fantasy (Cont.):The Platypus Reads Part CXXII

The Moon Pool by A. Merritt

Evidently, A. Merritt was popular at the turn of the century and then promptly disappeared from the public mind.  However, one can see strong similarities between his work and more well known contemporaries H. Rider Haggard and H.P. Lovecraft.  There's quite a bit of similarity in tone and plot to Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness."  That said, Merritt's inclusion of women as major characters keeps him from simply being "Lovecraft before Lovecraft" and places him in with Haggard in terms of sensibilities.  All that to say that if you like either of the other two authors, it's worth giving Abraham Merritt a try.

The plot of "The Moon Pool" falls into the "lost world" genre, and narrates the quest of Dr. Throckmartin and company to uncover a lost Pacific civilization in the doctor's own words.  As a clever Platonic move, Dr. Throckmartin himself is not our narrator, but his friend Mr. Goodwin, thus placing us a two removes from the events of the story.  At the point at which Goodwin  begins his narration, Dr. Throckmartin has lost his fellows and is mentally disturbed.  The two friends meet on a boat traveling to Melbourne.  When Goodwin witnesses a mysterious being traveling by moonlight to trouble Dr. Throckmartin, Throckmartin decides to tell Goodwin his tale and plead for help.  As it turns out, Throckmartin claims to have discovered evidence of an incredibly ancient and incredibly advanced society having once lived in the far reaches of the Pacific ocean.  Predictably, the locals are all terrified of the ruins and it takes quite a bit of money to induce any to come and help in the excavations.  In the end, several of the natives agree on the condition that they be released from the dig every full moon.  The reason for this becomes clear at the full moo when mysterious music comes from the ruins and Thora, Dr. Throckmartin's wife's friend, has a fit of temporary insanity.  Convinced that the natives are behind the music and withholding some secret ritual or knowledge from the party, the explorers decide to hide out among the ruins at the next full moon.  When the time comes, the party finds a mysterious door charged with unexplainable energy.  When the full moon strikes it, the music begins and all but one who hear it are struck with sleep or immobility.  The one of the company who is not is carried away by mysterious lights.  One, by one, the company is carried off until only Throckmartin and his wife, Edith, remain.  Deciding to be proactive, the couple waits by the door and the doctor rushes in as the moonlight opens it.  He descends to a strange pool which seems to be the source of the light and music.  Out of its depths comes a strange apparition that Throckmartin attempts to combat.  The noise of the conflict brings Edith down from the door and she is caught and dragged into the water by the creature.  Throckmartin wanders mad for days until he is picked up by fishermen.  He tells Goodwin that he is now attempting to put together a rescue for his friends, who he believes to be kept alive by the creature, and enlists Goodwin.  Before they can carry out their plans, the light and music return and Dr. Throckmartin is carried off.

"The Moon Pearl" is a caution against scientific arrogance and the corresponding refusal to acknowledge the supernatural.  Throckmartin and his company all meet their end through a dogmatic unwillingness to acknowledge that there may be some things science cannot bend to the human will.  In this aspect, "The Moon Pearl" can also be seen as the ancestor of works like "Jurassic Park."  It also bear comparison to earlier works such as Bram Stoker's "Dracula" or Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein."  Cautions against scientific arrogance abound in Western literature, but they seem to serve more as outlets for our fears than actual breaks or checks on the scientific enterprise, but whether you're seeking a morality play or just a gripping read, A. Merritt's "The Moon Pool" is worth the read.

Nota bene: There is a novel length treatment of "The Moon Pool" which Mike Ashley warns readers against in his brief write up.  The version I have read and the version he puts forth in the collection is the original short story.

Next Up: The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule by Lucius Shepard

Friday, August 05, 2011

The Mammoth Book of Fantasy (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CXXI

Pixel Pixies by Charles de Lint

I have to confess that I've been interested in reading a little Charles de Lint ever since I saw John Howe's impressive covers in "Myth and Magic."  Of course, seeing a John Howe cover can make me want to pick up just about any book.  I made that mistake a while back with David Gemmel's "Legend."  Now I remember not to judge a book by its cover.  That said, I am pleased to report that in the case of Charles de Lint the picture matched the writing.  I haven't gotten as much delight out of any of the other stories in the collection as I have out of "Pixel Pixies."

Enough gushing, let me summarize.  "Pixel Pixies" tells the story of Bookstore owner Holly Rue and her resident Hobgoblin Dick.  Holly doesn't know Dick exists, but he helps keep her shop in order every night so long as he has free range of the books.  This nice little relationship is threatened when a gaggle of pixies begin running a muck on the store computer.  Their mischief is initially checked by the quick thinking of an artsy customer, but at night the pixies break out of the computer and begin wrecking havoc all over town.  Dick is able to save his mistress from being enchanted by the pixies, but is powerless to keep them from wrecking the shop.  Seeing the devastation, Holly gives her mysterious customer a call.  She arrives and promptly calls forth Dick, much to Holly's surprise.  Dick in turn reveals that the customer is a high born member of a faerie court.  Together, the three unlikely protagonists contrive a way to lure the pixies back to the store and then trap them in the computer.  Having been discovered, Dick contemplates relocating, but in the end decides to stay.      

"Pixel Pixies" is the sort of piece that makes you want to rush off to the computer and start writing yourself.  That, or grab a group of friends and start a "Scions" campaign.  It delights in subcreation, that filling in of the spandrels that God has purposely left in the universe so that his creatures can imitate their creator.  Seeing that de Lint may (I don't know for sure) bat from the neo-pagan side of things maybe he'd begrudge me that remark but I hope he'd allow it, if only for Tolkien's sake.  I mean it when I say "filling in the spandrels," because that is what de Lint has done: imagine a complete faerie world that fits nicely into the empty space of our own.  As nice as a hob in his hole.

Well, there's only one review today as "The Moon Pearl," by A. Merritt has turned out to be rather long.  As soon as it's finished, you can expect a review here.  Best wishes all!

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Mammoth Book of Fantasy (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CXX

Paladin of the Lost Hour by Harlan Ellison

A lonely Vietnam war vet saves an old man from hooligans at the cemetery and then takes him in when he finds that the old fellow has no place to go.  They're an odd couple, even being different races, but they form a powerful friendship that helps them deal with past events they could never have tackled on their own.  Sounds like it could be a great story.  And it is.  Then there's this other story about a Pope who hid an extra hour inside a watch and gave it to his most trusted servant to guard because should the watch ever open, it would mean the end of the universe.  This watch has been handed down through the generations and now it's last guardian is dying and must find a worthy successor.  Harlan Ellison's task is to somehow combine these two stories into one in "The Paladin of the Lost Hour."

"The Paladin of the Lost Hour" is a sort of minimalist fantasy.  That is the world of the story is as close to our own world as possible with only one key twist.  In this case, the story is just another "buddy story" with the key twist of the magical watch to make it a fantasy.  The question is whether that one fantastic element mars or makes the otherwise realistic narrative.  Deciding whether the technique works or not in "The Paladin of the Lost Hour" is a hard one for me.  Ellison is such an adept writer that his "buddy story" really stands on its own two feet as a beautiful piece of work.  The fantasy elements are equally well written, but seem like an unwelcome intrusion into the world that he was set up.  Ultimately, I think that the fantasy element may detract from the themes and ideas of the piece rather than enhancing them.  I'm not one-hundred percent sure yet, but even the fact that I'm split says something about the dangers in writing this kind of minimalist fantasy.

Yesterday Was Monday by Theodore Sturgeon

In "Yesterday Was Monday," we have a little different spin on the fantastic.  Instead of minimalist fantasy, or alternate world fantasy, or lost age fantasy, we have a great example of fantasy as "what if."  What if a man woke up and suddenly was able to behold the secret workings of the universe; angles set-dressing, and archangels haggling over production schedules?  That's the "what if" that Theodore Sturgeon seeks to imagine in "Yesterday Was Monday."  Our unlikely Dante, a car mechanic named Harry, goes to sleep on Monday and wakes up on Wednesday to find that "Wednesday" is not a day, but a set that is being furiously dressed by angels and their servants for the next act of the cosmic drama.  Harry stumbles about with comic ineptitude, and meets archangels, God, and what might be a demon.  Eventually learning the rules of the production house, he is able to manipulate its denizens and get back to his proper place and day.

This sort of thing is amusing and forms, perhaps along with fairy tales, the most accessible form of Fantasy.  Mike Ashley, the editor of the collection, notes that this sort of fantasy is the kind that commonly appears in mainstream venues like The Saturday Evening Post.  I can remember reading more than a few things in this vein in literature textbooks when I was growing up.  There isn't any real moral to the story, but it does scratch that very human itch of asking "what if."  After all, what is fantasy more than the human capacity to ask "what if" and then set to work trying to answer that question?

Up Next: Pixel Pixies by Charles de Lint and The Moon Pearl by A. Merritt 

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

The Mammoth Book of Fantasy (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CIX

Lady of the Skulls by Patricia A. McKillip

 As with Tanith Lee, Patricia A. McKillip represents a return to an emphasis on well-crafted language as opposed to break-neck pacing.  Indeed, like Lee, the pacing of the story is much more leisurely, and it also has more than a little of the detective story about it.  Unlike Lee's "A Hero at the Gates," however, "Lady of the Skulls" is not a detective story disguised as a fantasy.  It is instead a modernizing of a traditional fairy tale trope: the choice that exposes the hero's heart.

To summarize the action of "Lady of the Skulls," we are presented with the classic "maiden in an enchanted tower" trope.  The tower resides in the middle of a desert and is filled with all sort of amazing riches over which the lady serves as custodian.  A hero may spend twenty-four hours in the tower, but after that he must either leave or take what he believes to be the most valuable thing in the tower and leave.  If he guesses right and indeed takes the most valuable thing in the tower he will live and posses the whole tower.  if he guesses wrong, he will die the minute he steps outside the gate.  In a modern twist, the story is told with the maiden, not the hero, as the focal character.  We get to see what it might be like to be the custodian of an enchanted tower.  Of course, you can guess how the rest goes.  A gaggle of heroes comes and falls to deciding what treasure is the greatest.  One of them picks a "smart" answer, water, and dies.  The other are horrified except one who's nicer and smarter than the rest.  Can you guess what he chooses?  Yep, the lady.  Incidentally, the story ends before we find out if he's chosen right.  The real interest of the story comes when the knight learns how the lady was made custodian of the tower.  She used to be prostitute until she refused to service a wizard.  The wizard, seeing that a life of selling herself for money had forced the woman to erect a "tower" within herself, magically sets her as the undying guard over a real tower in the desert.  So for years, she has lived in the tower by herself with plants grown in the skulls of the tower's victims as her only solace (hence her name "lady of the skulls.")

"Lady of the Skulls" marks a departure with the last several tales in that it presents us with an explicit moral point.  The fact that we never find out if the knight did guess right may obscure it for a moment, but it is no more than a literary technique to get us to think more carefully about what we've just been told.  I'll take my stab at what I think the moral is, though if I'm wrong I won't drop dead the next time I step out the door.  I think the wizard has given the woman what she wants: a place where no man will abuse her again and those who do ignore her person-hood will pay the ultimate price.  The only way she can leave or be taken from this place of safety is if a man comes who values her more than all the treasure, or one she feels safe enough to confide her story to.  It may not be a fool-proof plan, but it's good enough for wizarding work.  Of course, the problem is that it takes years of waiting alone in the tower for Mr. right to come and that can get awful dispiriting in addition to having to watch so many people get hurt.  Putting that into the cogitator, I think the moral comes out thus: if we are vulnerable and open to relationship, people will take advantage of us and hurt us, but the emotional and psychological costs of removing ourselves from all relationships are too high not to risk it.
Sunlight on the Water by Louise Cooper

Cooper's tale is in a similar artistic vein to McKillip's.  The feel of the work also seems to bare a strong similarity to Ursula K. LeGuin.  As with Dunsany's "The Horde of the Gibbelins," this story really needs to be read through tabula rasa, so I'll leave it at that.  See what you think of the ending and the moral.  I'd be interested to hear other people's thoughts on this one.

Next Up: Paladin of the Lost Hour by Harlan Ellison and Yesterday Was Monday by Theodore Sturgeon