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.