Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Platypus Reviews 2012

With the year wrapping up, it's time to take stock again and see what's been going on here at the quiet end of "Lake Internet."

Daring to peer above the surface...

It looks like it was a good year for Tolkien and the Inklings:
Hearing the Inklings
Pilgrim's Regress Versus Firefly
Seeing Beowulf Through Tolkien
Tolkien's Dark Tower
The Platypus and Even More Secondary Sources

One of my Personal Favorites:

Out in the Rain or Platypus Weather

Jane Eyre Makes a Deserved Come-Back:

Something, Dear Reader, Besides Shannara

Thinking About An Ancient Christian Hymn and What it Tells Us About Their World-Picture:

St. Patrick's Breastplate

And While We're on the Topic of the Supernatural:

Reviewing "The Storm and the Fury"

Hellboy in Mexico and Christological Echoes

Theological Localism Helps Me Understand the Golden State:

California's Strange Gods
The Platypus and Theological Localism

The Summer of Shannara Returns:

The Return of the Summer of Shannara

And Other Attempts to Justify My Childhood:

SNES as Money Well-Spent

Well, there you have it.  These are the posts that seemed to stir up the most interest.  It's always interesting to see which ones interest me the most in retrospect and which ones attracted the most attention.  Often the coincide, but not always.  Anyhow, that's the game.  Thanks for joining us for another year of good-natured fun and remember: the Platypus speaks Truth.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Exploring Corey Olsen's Hobbit Book: The Platypus Reads Part CCIV

Books on The Lord of the Rings are getting to be a dime a dozen these days, but books on J.R.R. Tolkien's first published masterpiece, The Hobbit, are still rare as, well, a hobbit.  Imagine my delight, then, when I found out that Washington College's self-styled "Tolkien Professor" was publishing an entire volume exclusively on The Hobbit.  The book is called Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, and it very much lived up to my expectations.

I was in fifth grade when I first read The Hobbit.  I had no idea what the book was about.  The only impression I had to go on was the cover, an old Balantine Books edition with an image of Bilbo in Gollum's cave, and the rather impressive sounding name of the author.  I can't admit to having been a very great reader at that point by any stretch of the imagination.  The Hobbit hooked me, and I've been reading ever since.  As I've gotten older, however, I've been a little saddened by the short shrift the book seems to get from Tolkien scholarship.  Mostly, it's treated as a first draft for The Lord of the Rings.  I found The Hobbit utterly enchanting as a child and adulthood has only increased my admiration for the book.  This brings me to the first great virtue of Professor Olsen's work: it treats The Hobbit seriously as a work in its own right.

The first of Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit's virtues is that it disassociates the book from material that came later.  Olsen sets out to help us understand The Hobbit as The Hobbit, not as source material for The Lord of the Rings.  References to other Tolkien works are few and far between, included only when they are vital to making a point about The Hobbit, and not the larger corpus of works on Middle Earth.  This has the effect of allowing Bilbo's adventure with the dwarves to stand in its own right and be appreciated for its own merits.

The second great virtue of Olsen's work is that takes the form of a critical appreciation.  There is a sort of literary criticism which destroys, even when it sets out to praise.  This is the sort of piece that feels the "scientistic" need to cut its subject into ever smaller pieces in the belief that the whole will be revealed as the sum of the parts.  There may be a use for such things, but thinking that they will tell us what a thing is is to leave the path of wisdom.  Olsen refuses this sort of minute dissection, and instead acts more as a tour guide to Bilbo's world, pointing out with an expert's eye the most interesting spots along the way.  Oslen seeks to increase both our understanding and our enjoyment of The Hobbit.  I believe that this approach works, and that I came away from Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's the Hobbit with a greater sense of the story's depth and coherence without any feeling of "having seen the man behind the curtain" that might detract from the pleasure of future Hobbit readings.  This leads into the third virtue of the book.

The third virtue is that Olsen sets out to find, and indeed does discover, the sort of deep interconnectedness in The Hobbit that marks The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.  Following several themes such as "The Desolation of the Dragon," and "Took Versus Baggins," Oslen reveals the incredible complexity that holds the narrative together.  He also draws our attention to how Tolkien uses humor and misdirection to make what is in theme and content a very adult work safe and palatable for a young audience.  Professor Olsen's particular masterstroke, however, is to take the seemingly most ornamental and dispensable part of the story, the songs, and show how they are intricately woven into the fabric of the tale as vehicles for character delineation and theme.

The final virtue of Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's the Hobbit admittedly owes more to the publishers at Houghton Mifflin than to the good professor.  The hardcover version is one of the most aesthetic texts I have seen in years.  The parchment like dust jacket with its Anglo-Saxon like ornaments is a treat, as is the heavy weight paper and robust canvass that forms the book.  The actual binding is pleasant with its sharp contrast of white and red.  Everything about the actual artifact proclaimed that someone at the publishing house expects to make some real money off this volume.  -and I hope they do!

So, should you hunt down a copy of this work?  If you love The Hobbit, yes.  Is it accessible to the general public, yes.  Is it still worth it for the more scholarly crowd, yes.  Will it enhance my appreciation and enjoyment of J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved work?  Most definitely yes.  So what are you waiting for?  After Christmas sales are raging and its the perfect time to go "fill in the corners" as the hobbits say.  Know someone who's already got one?  Yank it away (as soon as they've finished).  Check your local library too.  All in all, Corey Olsen's Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's the Hobbit is an engaging read, you aren't likely to be disappointed. 


Saturday, December 22, 2012

In Memoriam: Frank Pastore

Strong Son of God, Immortal Love
Who we, who have not seen Thy face,
By Faith, and Faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Frank Pastore was a man who took issue with the divide the Enlightenment placed between Faith and Reason.  Though precipitated by personal tragedy, his conversion to Evangelical Christianity was primarily intellectual.  He set out to prove his Christian friends wrong and ended up arguing himself into the belief that Yeshua bar Yosef, the minor itinerant preacher from first century Nazareth, was in fact the Logos incarnate; the primordial Wisdom behind the kosmos become a living, breathing person.  To be less literary, he came to believe that Jesus was God and, in Evangelical-speak, accepted Christ as his Lord and Savior.  The fruit of that was an academic quest to learn all he could about the proofs for Christianity and eight years of sharing them on the air-waves of LA.  That's where I encountered Frank Pastore.  He was offering an apologetics class at a local church and my friend and I decided to attend. We carpooled each week down to that class, books, notebooks, and pencils in hand and listened to Mr. Pastore share what he'd learned.  During that time, he often spoke highly of a University he was affiliated with, Biola.  As an east-coaster, I'd never heard of the place, but I was applying for colleges at the time and decided to check it out.  Frank Pastore led me to Biola and Biola changed my life forever.

That's the story.  Dad called me on the phone this week to tell me that Frank Pastore had passed away from injuries sustained during a motorcycle accident on the 210.  Dad listened to his radio show on his commute through the LA area for years.  So what do I say?  Thanks Frank.  We miss you.  God be with your family and friends.  May He who raised up Moses raise up a Joshua in your place.  

Friday, December 14, 2012

An Unexpected Outing

Today I spent the morning with my students and colleges viewing the first part of Peter Jackson's film interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.  Whatever you may think of the movie as an adaptation or as film proper, it was a lovely experience to be surrounded by an entire community enjoying themselves.  The fact that we're in the Christmas season just made it that much better, adding an extra level of gaiety to both mood and dress.  I, of course, was in the row with the Inklings club.

The best part was that for the students the whole thing came as a complete surprise.  Gandalf simply showed up in the middle of their first period classes and ushered them out the door on an unexpected journey.  The look on the students' faces as what was happening slowly dawned on them was priceless.

Bilbo liked surprises (so long as they were happening to other people) and he came to like adventures.  Today, we had a happy adventure.  ...and yes, it did make us all late for dinner. 

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Hearing the Inklings: The Platypus Reads Part CCIII

Reading about the Inklings, the informal literary circle that gathered around C.S. Lewis in the thirties and forties, gradually begins to feel like adjusting the focus on a camera lens.  You start with a single figure in hazy focus, say J.R.R. Tolkien.  Picking up Humphrey Carpenter's biography draws the professor in a few stark lines.  A person, a personality begins to emerge.  To begin to see Tolkien, however, is for others figures to become perceptible on the edges of your vision.  C.S. Lewis enters into the picture, and Charles Williams hovers, indistinct around the edges.  Seeking to know the relationship between the three men better, you may pick up Carpenter's second work, The Inklings.  Suddenly, Lewis and Williams jump sharply into view as characters and Tolkien continues to take on life and weight.  New personages flit through the frame: Hugo Dyson, Humphrey Havard, Dorothy L. Sayers, T.S. Eliot, Warnie Lewis.  Carpenter's Lewis doesn't seem quite like the friendly author of Narnia, and so the quest begins to get to know "Jack."  Plenty of people who knew him are still alive and kicking.  Suddenly, to know Jack is to know Douglas Gresham and to learn all about Joy Davidman.  Mrs. Moore leaps into view and suddenly there's a war of perceptions between Gresham and Carpenter and new figures, like George Sayer.  Carpenter says Lewis is a bully.  No he isn't!  Says Sayers, Lewis' former pupil.  But Mrs. Moore wasn't all that bad, nor was Lewis' father, and his brother was a lazy drunk.  Now Gresham has to raise his objection and argue the point.  Warnie was a good man with a real problem that was not properly recognized and treated in his day.  As for Mrs. Moore, couldn't it be possible that she showed one face to guests and another to her family?  The logical next step is to find out what others who knew them say.  Suddenly, Walter Hooper is enlisted and Sheldon Vanauken (which may lead you to even odder places like Biola University or Houston Texas).  Offhand remarks by Kingsley Amis are sought out which drag G.K. Chesterton into the mix again.  Finding out that Lewis and Sayers corresponded brings her back into the mix along with Williams (with whom she also corresponded) who we find when consulting Glyer points out that Warnie claimed to understand better than any of the other Inklings.  Along the way, we are forced to learn about the development of Oxford, English Public school life, the history of the World Wars (John Garth comes into the mix here), the history of the Church of England, the origins and evolution of the fantasy novel.  Ridder Haggard gets thrown about and suddenly we find that Lewis was corresponding with Arthur C. Clark and that Tolkien liked Robert E. Howard's Conan books.  If you're watching at this point, you might even find some offhand remarks from Lewis that sound particularly Lovecraftian.  If High-brow is where you're at, then you may note where Tennyson, Auden, and Eliot's poetry are vital along with Richard Wagner and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  In short, a whole world opens up before your eyes that lived and moved and had its being with all the reality of broken water pipes and trips to the grocery store.  Victorian novelists and a communist screen writer join hands with Tasmanian adventurers and a morbid new England shut-it.  Texans share tamales with Irish revolutionaries while Gandhi asks for the vegetarian option.  Names and places roll by with the force of a freight-train or the charge of Alfred's men at Ethandune.  All things rise up and exclaim: rejoice with me for I too am the center!     

Monday, November 19, 2012

Pilgrim's Regress vs Firefly: The Platypus Reads Part CCII

Recently, I've been re-reading one of the stranger works of C.S. Lewis, Pilgrim's RegressPilgrim's Regress was Lewis' first attempt at trying to explain his new-found faith in literary form.  Following the lead of Puritan writer, John Bunyan, Lewis decided to recast his own Christian journey as a work of allegorical fiction.  Lewis and his friends promptly decided that the work was a failure, but that didn't keep him from other imaginative forays into the world of literature.

Looking back on the work, Lewis decided that its major fault was two-fold: obscurity and a lack of charity.  As to a lack of charity, Lewis knew better than I do -I can't detect anything particularly spiteful.  As to obscurity, that hits nearer the mark.  However, if you are familiar with the intellectual climate of first third of the 20th century, then the book is actually quite a romp.  Even if that's not the case, there are still many elements of Lewis' spiritual journey that are far more familiar than he thought.  How many of us have struggled with the meaning of desire, beauty, and transcendence in a world that continually insists that such things are mere illusions?  How many of us have been terribly thirsty only to be told, or rather have it insinuated, that there is no water to drink?

I was thinking about this the other day while watching an episode of Joss Wedon's Firefly.  In the episode Jane's Town, we see each of the characters struggling with the issue of belief.  This belief is ultimately understood from a Sartian (as in Jean Paul Sartre) perspective: it doesn't matter what you believe so long as you believe in something and that gives meaning to your life.  The show ends on a pessimistic note with Jane distraught over a young man who gave his life to save Jane in the mistaken belief that the hooligan was a hero.  The only comfort Captain Mal can give is to tell him that people just need something to believe in and that any guy who ever earned the title hero was some form of scoundrel or other.  In other words, we all need to believe, but there is no ultimate basis for belief.  Belief is a lie we tell ourselves to keep going in a world that is without objective meaning or purpose.  There is thirst, and ways of pretending to drink, but no water.

Now this is simply a philosophical bias.  Why believe that to be the case?  We could equally choose to be Platonic about the whole thing and say that Jane, unknowingly, was partaking in some ultimate Form of heroic-ness and anything that participates even a little in that Form encourages belief.  That would be a philosophical bias too, but that isn't the issue.  The issue is why we moderns and post-moderns continually believe that the uglier a thing is the truer it must be.  Why?  That question bothered the young atheist C.S. Lewis.  Pilgrim's Regress, for all its faults, reminds us that this question should bother us too.   

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Returning to Exalted (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCI

My reading through the Exalted core book continued this week bringing me all the way up to "Character Creation."  Surely, I thought, the book must bog down once it gets to the rules.

Now, by way of preface, the rules are always my least favorite part of an RPG.  I can never seem to master all those numbers and sequences just by looking at them in a book.  The only way I ever learned to play Exalted, D&D, Warhammer, or even Munchkin was by playing the game and having an experienced player talk me through the process.  I was surprised, then, at what a great job the writers of Exalted did in presenting the rules.

The basic rules are laid out as if were following two characters through and actual scene.  As Smith and Koi encounter each new obstacle in their quest to find and translate a coded message we get to see how the various rules would be applied, what would be the result of a hypothetical role, and how player and story-teller would narrate the event.  I found the section fun and easy to follow (though some of that probably owes to a good memory).  More importantly from an aesthetic standpoint, the way the game mechanics are presented preserves the overall tone of the book.  I don't feel as though the "world" of Exalted has been put on hold so that we can run the numbers.

In RPGs, whether pen and paper or computer game, there is always a question of story vs. mechanics.  A game with too much story can make the players feel as though they have no real place in the game.  Conversely, a game with too many rules and procedures can bog down the story and make the whole thing feel writing a grocery list while playing Yatzee.  Looking back through the first edition of Exalted, I think the game designers at White Wolf nailed it.  That's not an opinion shared by all as the increase in rules in the second edition testifies.  Still, whether it's the golden mean or a nice try, I really do have to take my hat off to the creative team for an amazing piece of work. 

N.B. As with all books, games, and films reviewed on this blog, mention and even praise does not mean approval of the entire contents.  Exalted does have some mature elements, as the manual itself warns, so use your own two cents if you're thinking about picking it up.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Returning to Exalted: The Platypus Reads Part CC

Well, we're now up to 200 literary meditations here at The Platypus of Truth.  It's been a much quicker trip through the second hundred than the first hundred.  I think much of that can be blamed on the last two "Summers of Shannara," but hopefully there's been an increase in more intellectual fair as well.  Whatever fair you're here for, Great Books or pulp fiction, I hope you'll be able to find plenty more of in the next 100 editions of "The Platypus Reads."

Self-congratulations aside, let's move on to today's book: ExaltedExalted is the core rulebook for Whitewolf publishing's "Age of Sorrows" line.  I used to play this back in grad school when everything Whitewolf put out was eagerly gobbled up by those jaded with dungeon crawls and D&D.  In contrast to other systems, the Storytelling System was much more fluid and dependent on those playing the game than on the rules.  Not everyone likes that, but I loved it.  Anyhow, it's been over six years since I last picked up Exalted, though it's crossed my mind a few times.  This past week, I was visiting our local used bookstore with a friend and found a copy of the core rulebook for $5.99.  I had a 15% off coupon so I thought "why not."  I've been working my way slowly through the book over the last few days and have been thoroughly impressed.  The world of Exalted is varied, intriguing, and richly detailed.  I did my grad work in both Ancient Greece and late Qing China, so the game's eclectic mixture of East and West has a special appeal for me.  The book itself is a small masterpiece of the role-playing genre deftly combining art, flavor text, references, and rules in a way that brings "The Age of Sorrows" to life.  I think that was the great draw, even more than the fluidity of its system.  Exlated is a beautifully realized imaginary world.  It's not another sub-par Tolkien knock-off or a quick sketch designed just to get you into the game.  When you've finished reading, a new world exists in your mind with the promise of new vistas to take in and new territory to explore.  I don't have any plans to start gaming again (too busy and too tired), but if another volume of "The Age of Sorrows" happens to appear in our used bookstore I wouldn't be adverse to picking it up.   

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Creative Platypus Endevour

Some time ago, my friend Josh came to me with an idea for a web comic.  It never really got off the ground, but he's posting the three pages that we collaborated on over here.  Sometimes things work out, and sometimes things don't, but creating new stuff is something we humans are bound to do.  To paraphrase Tolkien: we make because we are made.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Seeing Beowulf Through Tolkien: The Platypus Reads Part CXCIX

After spending a few weeks wrestling with Tolkien's interpretation of Beowulf, I found myself sitting down and reading Seamus Heaney's translation of the text during a spare moment.  I came to the place where Beowulf presents Hrothgar with the hilt of the ancient sword that slew Grendel's mother.  Hrothgar looks down at the hilt with its ancient runes and carvings depicting the war between the giants and God and meditates on the fortunes of men.  In a flash of insight, I thought: this is the whole poem!

Let me explain.  Tolkien believed that the genuine contribution of the Northern peoples to European culture was the theory of courage.  The Northern heroes, at their best, were men who fought for order against chaos -a battle they knew they were doomed to lose.  If they were true heroes, their souls would join the gods and aid them in the final battle against darkness and its monsters and again go down fighting, spitting in the face of the meaninglessness that would ultimately consume even the gods.  Tolkien said of them that they did not consider defeat a refutation.  The gods were still in the right even if they would lose in the end.  Tolkien believed that the Christian poet of Beowulf sensed the value of this theory of courage and sought to preserve it in his work.  If ancient pagans could die for order and light knowing that those things would lose out in the end, how much more should Christians die heroically (this was a great age of mission and martyrdom for the Anglo-Saxon church) when they know that Good and Truth will win out in the end.

Move back to the wondrous hilt.  The golden hilt, with its untranslated runes and depictions of the war between order and chaos is the old body of pagan poetry that the Christian poet so admired.  It has richness, beauty, and power, but the blade itself had only power to kill and then perish in the blood of Grendel's Mother.  Without that blade, the hilt is useless, a mere artifact of remembrance.  We're never told that Hrothgar has a new blade fitted to the hilt.  Symbolically, he can't: the old paganism may give a man power to die well, but once the old gods have failed, Hrothgar has nothing definite with which to replace them.  The Christian poet of Beowulf, however, sees use for the old tales.  The tales, with their theory of courage, are the hilt into which the unbreaking blade of Christianity is to be set.  The poem, if you will, is an answer to Alcuin's what hath Christ to do with Ingeld?  If Tolkien is right, then the Beowulf poet might say that Ingeld, properly understood, prepares us to serve Christ the better by reminding us just how far a man can go without hope.  If he, without ultimate hope, can still walk as a hero under heaven, how much more so they who believe in the triumph of the risen Christ?

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Resources for Tolkien on Beowulf: The Platypus Reads Part CXCVIII

I first encountered the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf in my senior year of high school.  Being the dutiful little Tolkien fan that I was, I promptly checked out The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays from the local library.  The Monsters and the Critics set my feet on the right path and I've loved Beowulf ever since.

Flash forward.  This is the fourth year I've taught Beowulf.  Over the past summer, I was beginning to worry that my understanding of Tolkien's argument had gotten a little rusty.  I'd studied the poem as part of a larger course of study in Anglo-Saxon history during college and all sorts of things had crept in from other authors -not to mention my own meager thoughts on the poem.  With the help of the extended kinship network, I got my hands on a copy of The Monsters and the Critics, but some family friends were also able to track down Beowulf and the Critics for me.

Beowulf and the Critics is a scholarly edition edited by Michael D.C. Drout of two unpublished essays that served as material for the much-condensed The Monsters and the Critics.  Delving into this volume unearths the original arguments, nuanced and expanded, that are sketched (albeit with firm, definite lines) in the published work.  It's a great chance to watch Tolkien name names, interact with portions of his opponents' texts, and express the limits of his own theories and conjectures.  The explanatory essays by Drout are also useful for situating Tolkien's work amidst the broader scope of Beowulf criticism.  For fans of Tolkien's fiction, a little reading between the lines of the essays helps to draw out Tolkien's own creative proclivities and sheds light on the greater Tolkienian "project" in works like The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings.

A final word of caution: Drout's critical edition should not be your first stop for understanding Beowulf, nor is it meant for the casual Tolkien fan.  It is a critical edition of unpublished scholarly material and meant first and foremost for academics.  That said, Drout does happily acknowledge that the volume will draw the interest of fans of J.R.R. Tolkien, and has not left them out of the reckoning in producing the volume.     

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Final Thoughts on "The Talismans of Shannara:" The Platypus Reads Part CXCVII

And so we come to the end.  It's appropriate that this final post on the first seven books of Terry Brook's Shannara series should come in October.  That's about the time I finished my first read through the The Talismans of Shannara all those years ago.  Without further comment, then, let's get down to the finale of the Heritage Series.

*Spoilers and such*

We last left our heroes back at chapter XXV out of a total of XXXVII.  That's a lot of ground to cover.  Coll has to be recovered and his role among the scions of Shannara made clear.  Wren has to face her betrayer and triumph.  Par must succeed in taming the Wishsong and resisting the advances of First Seeker Rimmer Dall.  Walker has broken the siege of Paranor, but his final objective still must be made clear.  Minor characters like Damson, Morgan, Padishar, and Matty Roh still have their stories to tell.  Over all this still looms the question of how the Shadowen can be defeated.  How do you sum that all up?

Let me try.  The climax of The Talismans of Shannara plays out like a well-run campaign of Dungeons and Dragons.  Each character has their moment of glory and their special skill to contribute in defeating Rimmer Dall and his Shadowen hordes.  These "moments of glory" are nicely parceled out in a series of stock scenes: the chase (Morgan eludes the Seekers), the assault on the convoy (Morgan rescues Wren), the assault on the stronghold (Damson and Matty rescue Coll, and Walker, Morgan, Matty, and Damson rescue Par), the boss fight (against Gloon and against Rimmer Dall), and creative problem solving (destroying the Creepers).  These scenes are well-narrated and linked together with enough plausibility to keep us reading.  When it's all done, there's a nice debrief among our troop of PCs where the GM Stick, Walker Boh, helps answer any nagging questions.  It's nice, but only that.

The Talismans of Shannara can be a bit of a disappointment after the authorial break-outs achieved in The Druid of Shannara and the second half of The Elf Queen of Shannara.  That's true, but it shouldn't blind us to the overall achievement.  Even the Talismans moves the level of Brooks' craft well beyond that achieved in The Wishsong of Shannara, and the world of The Four Lands has only grown richer and more complex by the end of the Heritage Series.  Moreover, this enriching occurs without ever giving us the sense that the world of the first three volumes has simply been "relaunched" or worse, completely overhauled in the process.  When the company finally drifts its separate ways and Walker lies down to sleep the Druid sleep, we are left with a feeling of deep continuity, a sense that the story has been completed and all is as it should be.

That's how I ultimately feel after spending two summers with these books.  Sure, there were more worthy books I could have read, but that wasn't my aim.  My aim was to tie up some of the loose threads from my boyhood, to lay some unfinished business to rest.  Life goes on in the Four Lands of North America, and though in my mind the Shannara Series may be sleeping the Druid sleep, I do look forward to the day it will awake again with old friends and new adventures.   

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Some Excellent Events in the Houston Area (Busy Platypus)

There have been some interesting goings-on in the greater Houston area this past month that are worthy of note.

First, the Lanier Theological Library is back in full swing with a new season of lectures.  If you can make it out to this wonderful little replica of the Duke Humphrey, it's well worth your time.  Can't get to North Houston?  The lectures are posted on the website here.  The library is also offering a Hebrew reading course with their visiting scholar, Dr. Tov.

Second, Wheastone Ministries, Dr. John-Mark Reynolds of Houston Baptist University, and Providence Classical School partnered up on Friday to host an amazing event for parents who are seeking to classically educate their children.

Houston is one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S., and it will be interesting to watch what happens over the next decade as more institutions and individuals from other areas are drawn there to connect and collaborate.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Le Guin's Lavinia Meets Blackwell's Companion: The Platypus Reads Part CXCVI

So, I've been working my way piecemeal through Blackwell's A Companion to Ancient Epic and noticed that Michael C. J. Putnam's take on the Aeneid seems to match fairly well with Ursula K. Le Guin's in her novel LaviniaBoth seem to see the Aeneid as a tragic work with it's titular hero failing (perhaps inevitably) to fulfill Anchises mandate to war down the proud but pardon the defeated.  I already enjoyed Le Guin's take on the classic work, but seeing Putnam spell out the case for a more pessimistic Aeneid definitely increases my appreciation for her approach (deconstruct that as you will).  Both works are contributing to my appreciation of Virgil's masterpiece as my wife and I read through Fagles' enchanting translation this Fall (I've read Hatto and Mendlebaum prior to this).  I've never been as enthusiastic about Virgil as I have about Homer, so new insights on how to approach the man from Mantua are always welcome.  

Sunday, September 16, 2012

More Talismans of Shannara: The Platypus Reads CXCV

This post will cover chapters XXIII, XXIV, and XXV of Terry Brooks' Talismans of Shannara.

*Spoilers ahead*

With Padishar Creel found, Morgan and Co. are now free to track down Par Ohmsford (and maybe Coll, poor fellow).  Being the odd assortment of dysfunctional adolescents that they are, this leads to lots of moody bickering.  One might expect Morgan's experiences up North to have matured him.  One might expect Matty and Damson's long history with the Freeborn to have hardened them into disciplined fighters, wise beyond their years.  No.  Instead, we watch Matty poke Morgan's ego, Morgan bluster, and both women sue the poor highlander for Radical Emotional Intimacy.  This might work if they were all in college...  The problem is they're not.

This all brings up the question of audience.  Who is the intended audience for this novel?  When I was 13, this stuff worked just fine.  Being a teenager was almost as mysterious as being an adult.  What did I know?  Now I do know -and find it grating.  The Heritage Series always feels a bit like two series that have been chopped up and mixed together: one for adults and one for "young adults."  I'd love to know what pressures Brooks was under when he wrote it.  Earlier Sci-fi and Fantasy writers like Robert Heinlein struggled with the desire to write adult fiction when the publishers only saw a "young adult" market for that sort of stuff (for instance, he was required to re-write the entire ending to Podkayne of Mars because his publishers thought it too severe for young readers).  Was there pressure from Del Rey in the early nineties for Brooks to "dumb it down" for a younger audience?  Anyone who knows, feel free to jump in here.

Whatever the case may be, my interest revives again when I hit chapter XXIV.  Coll has always been a bastion of pragmatism among the Ohmsfords, but he hasn't gotten much screen time so far.  Seeing things from his perspective, and learning that he's the real hero of the book (seeing some Frodo and Sam influence here) is a refreshing return to maturity.  Sadly, Coll's nascent hero's journey is cut short by the need for an interesting way for him to link up with our aforementioned trio.  Getting kidnapped by slavers is the sort of thing Edgar Rice Burroughs would pull with a wink at the camera.  Brooks can't afford to wink, however, as his world is too serious for him to ever admit that he knows he's straining credibility.  His only hope is too keep the action coming so that the audience doesn't have time to cry "foul."  Poor Coll, another victim of narrative debt.  Them's the breaks: a good character moment, or a nice piece of writing can't carry the weight of a story on its own.  Brooks has committed himself to plot and pacing: that means that under the bus is where Coll needs to go if the larger work is to hold together.

Chapter XXV leads us right where we need to go: Par.  Keeping the tension high, Brooks opts to open this chapter with a nightmare.  Sure, we all know the cliche that's coming, that Par is really running from himself.  It's hackneyed, but it still works.  What counts now is increasing the sense of peril and impending doom as we have less than 150 pages to go.  The tension doesn't let up when Par awakes as he is immediately forced into a conversation with Rimmer Dall.  By now we, the audience, know that the First Seeker is evil right down to the core.  His "milk and cookie" approach isn't meant to take us in so much as to keep us in suspense about whether Par will be taken in.  We're also meant to be wondering at this point what exactly it is that Dall wants.  Keeping us guessing on these two questions is what keeps us turning pages.  One wonders what the effect on the reader would be if Brooks had labored to keep Rimmer Dall's alignment truly ambiguous.  Would there be any more "punch" to the narrative if we were guessing about whether Dall was telling the truth or not ourselves?

So there you have it, The Talismans of Shannara, chapters XXIII, XXIV, and XXV.  In the next chapter, we shift back to Wren and the Elven army.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

More Talismans of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CXCIV

Today's post will cover chapters XVIII through XXIII of Terry Brooks' The Talismans of Shannara, part four of the Heritage Series.

*Thar be spoilerz ahead me hearties!*

This section brings us further conflict between the Elves and the Federation.  We also see Walker Boh defeat the Four Horsemen at the cost of Cogline's life.  With the last of his connections to his old life stripped away, Walker's transformation into "the druid of Shannara" is complete.  The rest of these chapters is spent with the Freeborn and their quest to bust Padishar out of the clink.  This they succeed in doing with fine fighting flair leaving Damson and Morgan (and Matty) free to pursue Par Ohmsford.  The big question we're still left with is "what has become of Par and Coll?"

With many of the original supporting characters killed off if the first three volumes (and now Cogline too), Brooks is obliged to bring in a cast of relative light-weights and second-stringers to help carry the story.  To compensate for this, as we've seen before, Brooks falls back on plotting, using rich locations, and tone.  The Talismans of Shannara is an excellent example of how a popular writer can escape the corner he's painted himself into and pay off his narrative debts if he knows what keeps an audience turning pages.

I've discussed plotting in the last post, so I'd like to turn here to a brief consideration of location.  Brooks has always understood that setting is key to a fantasy novel.  The fun of reading fantasy is the ability to explore an imagined world.  If that world is weakly described, or poorly imagined in the first place, it puts a heavy strain on the other facets of the book.  By the seventh volume of his Shannara series, Terry Brooks has built up a host of interesting locations invested with a real sense of history and familiarity.  He has also grown skilled at matching these locations with the right characters and action to exploit their narrative potential.  When the story turns to Paranor, Tyrsis, or the Westland I see them quite clearly in my mind's eye.  The abiding atmosphere of late summer in North America is palpable and we are reminded of it at just the right times to lend flavor and reality to the scenes.  As I said earlier, Brooks' use of rich locations is one of the main elements holding The Talismans of Shannara together.

Moving on from location to tone, I think the words that come to mind are "desperate struggle" and "high adventure."  The Talismans of Shannara has a much more pulpy (in a good sense) tone than its two immediate predecessors.  We get the sense that epic deeds and world-changes are afoot and that the quests of scions of Shannara are about to reach a rousing finish.  That finish, however, will be reached at great cost, and we can be sure that evil will put forth all its power to prevent it.  Use of this particular tone comes at a price and Terry Brooks is both willing and able to pay it to make his novel work.  The price of epic tone is epic pacing and that fast pace with its tight, short, interlinking plot threads is what Brooks has been excelling at for the last 266 pages. 

So there you have it: a few thoughts on The Talismans of Shannara chapters XVIII through XXIII.  The end is in sight, but there's still plenty of pages left go!

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Getting Started With the Greeks: The Platypus Reads Part CXCIII

My academic background is in Greek history and literature.  Even though my duties often require me to spend time elsewhere, I make sure to devote as much time as I can each day to keeping up with my field.  That means I tend to be the go-to guy at work for questions about all things Greek (We have a couple others that fill that role as well).  When I'm reading, then, I try to keep an eye out for things that would be helpful to a beginning student of the Ancient Greeks.  Below are some books I've found helpful over the years as first steps in beginning to understand the Greeks and their literature.

For a basic history of Ancient Greece, I recommend starting with Thomas R. Martin's Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times. Ancient Greece walks you through the development of Ancient Greek culture in chronological order and alerts first-time students to the major points of interest.  Martin's book should be supplemented with The Oxford Illustrated History of Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World by John Boardman et al.  This work covers the same time periods using a topical (as opposed to narrative/chronological) approach that serves as a starting point for understanding the key issues in Ancient Greek and Hellenistic history.  As a useful and basic introduction to Ancient Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman thought, particularly philosophic thought, I recommend When Athens Met Jerusalem by John-Mark Reynolds.

When moving into the literature of the Ancient Greeks, I like to begin with the Cambridge Companion series.  The Cambridge Companions are topical and meant to serve as starting points for the major areas of academic interest in a work or set of works.  The areas dealt with will differ slightly from work (or group of works) to work, but usually include: author(s), composition, language, narrative, background, social issues, and reception.  Also helpful, are the Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World.  Like the Cambridge Companions, they are topical, but the Blackwell Companions often (though not always) survey larger topics such as "Ancient Epic" or "Greek and Roman Historiography."  They can also be helpful in surveying the key issues of a particular historical period or society (ie. "Sparta," or "Late Antiquity").  The suggested readings and bibliography sections in these works are particularly useful for putting together a plan for more in-depth study on a particular topic.

Buying even just a few of these volumes can become an expensive endeavor, so I do recommend making full use of Inter-library loan before you buy.  Remember, many libraries, particularly in large cities or university towns, allow patrons to apply for a special card that grants limited access to university and state college libraries.  One important resource that students of the Ancient World should be aware of is the Loeb Classical Library of Greek and Roman texts many (though not all) of which have recently come into the public domain.  

Saturday, September 01, 2012

More Talsimans of Shannara: The Platypus Reads CXCII

Well, we have a bit of an inevitable slowdown with the commencement of the academic year but things will march on at The Platypus of Truth.  So, bobbing up to the surface again to peer about, here's what up.  My reading of The Talismans of Shannara is stopped at chapter XVIII.  That brings us almost half way through the book.  Without further ado, let's get on to the review.


Chapter 10 narrates Walker's decision to try and break the siege of Paranor.  Predictably, this first plan fails.  The scene is well-narrated in a way that compensates for its predictability and the assurance at the end that Walker has learned something from the episode keeps up our interest.

Jumping locations, the next chapter features Morgan's plan for breaking Padishar out of the slammer (yet again).  Damson seeks to force herself into Morgan's confidence in order to speed up the rescue process and force a little emotional healing on him in time for the still young and dashing highlander to notice Matty Roh (dude really is a lady).  The rescue attempt itself is pretty desperate and we end the chapter on a cliffhanger outside the walls of Tyrsis (which somehow has become conflated with Narshe and the Returners in my poor little psyche) discovering that Padishar Creel is to executed the next day.

Moving back to Wren, we find her out and about spying on a Federation army that is coming north to obliterate the elves.  With typical panache, Wren wrestles her divided council into launching a counter attack and manages to get herself where all great fictional captains, commander, admirals, generals, etc. manage to get themselves: fighting right on the front line.  Fighting front line commanders may be bad tactics since the end of the Phalanx, but it still makes great story whether it's the Iliad or Babylon 5.  To be fair, Brooks does relegate Wren to the roll of "dangerously close observer" during the actual fighting in some form of nod to modern tactical sensibilities.

Back to Walker now for chapter XIII (do you notice what Brooks is doing yet?).  Here we have the second attempt to break out of Paranor and rejoin the other scions of Shannara.  Walker again fails and is forced to flee.  The question is: can the audience figure out how the Four Horseman can be defeated before Walker?  We have a puzzle here and that, more than well-described battle scenes, is what's really meant to hold our interest.

Chapters XIV and XV turns us back to Par and Coll and represent a significant upturn in their story.  the mere fact that they get two chapters back to back should tell us something.  The conflict between the two brothers as the each seeks to gain possession of the Sword of Shannara is excellent and its culmination in the confrontation between Rimmer Dall and The King of the Silver River boarders on the mythic ("Rimmer Dall's voice was the grate of iron on stone" definitely got lodged in my mind at somepoint; unless he's borrowed something from Tolkien there that I'm not remembering.).  In fact, this is again one of the places where Brook's world becomes "thicker" with the return of an implied cosmology.  There are definite Johanian echoes: "In the beginning was the word ... the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it."

To finish up, chapter XVI and XVII belong to Wren again, giving us the necessary time to rest and process after the stunning climax of the Par/Coll thread.  The night raid here is pretty standard Fantasy fair, but it keeps the story moving and introduces a more hopeful note after all Walker and the Ohmsford brothers' failures.  Tib Arne serves as a nice foil for Matty Roh.  It was not obvious to me as a young teenager that he was a shadowen.  Now, I don't know how I missed it.

The main thought that stands out to me after looking at this section, aside from the awesomeness of the final Ohmsford sequence, is that much of this story is carried by a simple trick of structuring.  Have you spotted it yet?  Briefly, Terry Brooks keeps breaking up the plot by ending chapters before a conflict has been fully resolved and constantly jumping from subplot to subplot before our curiosity can be fully satisfied.  Looking at any of the subplots on their own, there really isn't much story there.  Artfully jump from subplot to subplot, however, and connections begin to emerge that form a larger narrative.  Brooks' goal, of course, will be to bring the subplots together in a satisfactory fashion for a final and suitably epic conclusion to the novel.  This should be evident to us from the first chapter where Brooks tells us the major plot conflict through the character of Rimmer Dall: the four scions of Shannara must be kept apart from each other and their friends so that they cannot unite their magics to overthrow the Shadowen.  Just so, Brooks breaks up the subplots because the minute they resolve and converge the story has to end.  It's a nice little trick, and also a good reminder that much of our interest in story comes from plot.

So there you have it folks.  We're almost half-way through the final book of the Heritage Series.  I'll keep trying to crank away at it and let you know what I think a.s.a.p.  Thanks for reading!


Saturday, August 25, 2012

Link to Cool Thoughts on Jackson's Upcoming Hobbit Movies

The Herch shares his thoughts about a possible breakdown for the Hobbit Trilogy here.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Painting Miniatures and the Imagined World of Warhammer

Painting miniatures has been my hobby ever since Jr. High.  One of my friends discovered the wonderful world of Games Workshop somewhere in seventh or eighth grade and I've always had an especial appreciation for the quality and imagination evinced in their Citadel line.  It was a childhood dream come true when the company acquired the rights to produce miniatures based on Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.  I don't have near the time to paint that I once did, so my ability to keep in step with the doings over at GW has greatly decreased.  Still, even if I'm behind the times, I'm always excited to see what their newest creations.

Citadel's Finecast range of resin miniatures has been out for several years now, but I haven't had an opportunity to sit down and work with one until last week.  A very obliging friend sent me Korhil, Captain of the White Lions for Christmas.  I can't tell you how impressed I was.  The level of detail was staggering.  My first thought was: how am I going to get this thing out of the sprue without breaking it?  My next was: how am I ever going to paint this in a way that will do it justice?  Well I did get it out of the sprue without breaking it (It turns out resin is more forgiving than plastic).  As for the paint job, if I had a working camera I'd let you be the judge.  As it is, I'm pleased enough for now.  There's always time for touch-ups...

Hobby details aside, the real pleasure of working with Games Workshop's products is being able to interact creatively with a richly imagined world.  In assembling, modifying, and painting Citadel miniatures, a hobbyist can participate, in however miniscule a fashion, in expanding the world of Warhammer.  This can be done with online games as well, but I appreciate the uniquely tactile quality of working with miniatures.  When you're done, there's an incarnate bit of an imaginary universe sitting there in front of you.  It can be picked up, handled, admired, or dropped (accidentally, we hope).  This cooperative process of adding art to story is something Tolkien hoped for when he set out to create a mythology for England.  I don't know what he would have thought about painting little miniatures, but not all of us can compose operas or direct films.  Painting little men is something I can do and, for what it's worth, I'm grateful that I can still find some time in the business of life to do it.

As an addendum, you may have noticed that this post is going where so many of my posts tend to go.  If you have, or even if you haven't, let me try to explain.  All this is to say that I stand for the right to imagination, the right to fill in the spandrels of creation, to make by that law in which we're made.  If humanity has a Creator, then we are more like that Creator when we create.  As contingent beings, consumption is necessary for our being, but we spend too much time in modern culture merely consuming.  So I do celebrate when, even in little ways, people make the choice to no longer consume but to also create.    

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Return of the Seven Heavens of Summer Reading: The Platypus Reads Part CXCI

Well folks, the end of the summer is upon us and that means it's time for the annual "Seven Heavens of Summer Reading Awards."  For those who don't know or don't remember, the SHSRA were started right here in 2008 in honor of Michael Ward's groundbreaking Planet Narnia.  In this work, Ward asserts that Lewis ordered his seven Narnia books around seven planets of Medieval cosmology.  Thus, when the end of summer draws near, I pick the top seven reads of the summer that best match with the characteristics of the seven Medieval planets.  Without further ado, then, let's get on to the awards!

Moon: For the planet of madness, change and flux we have Terry Brooks' The Druid of Shannara.  This meditation on mutability has a city turned to stone along with its godlike keeper, a woman changed into the earth, an elemental changed into a monster, a wandering minstrel into king, and finally a reluctant recluse into the first of a new order of Druids.

Mercury: For the planet of language and travel, only one book this summer will do: Memories of Odysseus by Francois Hartog.  Hartog devotes this masterpiece of the historians craft to the way the ancient Greeks, and by extension ourselves, understand the interplay between language, boundaries, and identity.

Venus: For the planet that knows the two sides of Love, divine and infernal, only Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte will do.  In her quest for Love, Jane learns to discern between the two sides of this powerful sphere and learns why God tempers his justice with Sorrow as well as Mercy.

Sun: The heaven of scholars in these awards has traditional belonged to the Inklings and their interpreters.  In keeping with this spirit, I have two awards to give in this category, one for an Inkling and one for a piece of Inklings scholarship.  For the Inklings the prize goes to Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics and other Essays by J.R.R. Tolkien.  For Inklings scholarship, the award goes to The Company They Keep by Diana Pavlac Glyer.

Mars: Infortuna Minor was viewed by ancients and medievals alike as one of those "necessary evils" which befall men upon middle earth.  This year's award goes to a work that struggles to keep in view both the good and the bad of the martial spirit: G.K. Chesterton's The Ballad of the White Horse.

Jupiter: The award for the planet of kings goes to that prince of comic characters Hellboy and Mike Mignola's Hellboy: The Storm and the Fury.  I'd tell you more, but that would risk spoilers...

Saturn: For the planet of endings, this summer's final award goes to The Iliad by Homer.  The Iliad presents us with a world that, like the shield of Achilles, is full of scenes of ceaseless conflict and in the end born up by the war that is at the heart of the cosmos itself.  Homer, that prince of poets, looks into the void of chaos and mother night and seeks a way to live.

So there you have it folks, 2012's Seven Heavens of Summer Reading.  It's been quite a trip, but well worth it.  So how about you?  What are your "Seven heavens" this summer?

*Runners up: Comus by Milton, Poetic Diction by Owen Barfield, Posthomerica by Quintus of Smyrna, The Borrowers by Mary Norton, Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers, David Elginbrod by George MacDonald, Lewis Agonistes by Louis Markos, The Cambridge Companion to Homer, and The Elf Queen of Shannara

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

More Talismans of Shannara: The Platypus Reads CXC

Reading The Talismans of Shannara, encountering its particular tone again after so many years, brings with it a constant succession of images.  For some reason, Tyrsis and Varfleet are linked in my mind with the wintry world of Narshe in Final Fantasy III/VI (the book predates the game by two years).  I suppose there's also a Resistance in the game and several attempts to enter and escape an occupied city.  Still, I'm not quite sure how these things became connected in my mind.  Other disjointed memories come floating in: eating bread and cheese in the basement before going out to shoot with the bow and practice knife throwing, listening to the BBC's production of The Hobbit, playing a Tolkien ccg in the vaulted family room during a thunder storm.  Was I reading the book when these things happened?  Why these images and not others?  I don't know.

One thing I do know: we did because we read.  Our world was interesting because it was wrapped in story.  Hiking, fishing, archery, knife-throwing, wilderness lore, canoeing, camping, weren't mere pastimes, they were doing the sort of things our literary heroes did.  The woods were more interesting because they were elven.  Because there was Eldwist, all abandoned buildings were transfigured.  There were no Shadowen in the woods, but the woods became different once we knew that they were the sort of woods where Shadowen might live.

Those are my thoughts.  It's odd to have them connected to a piece of light fiction that I wouldn't have bothered to pick off the shelf for summer reading if I hadn't had a reason for it.  Maybe that's Terry Brooks' ultimate triumph: creating images, however poorly, that sink into the leaf mold of the brain and wind themselves into the way we see our world.

*Begin Plot-Relevant Material*

Today's post brings us up to the mid-point of chapter nine.

Too many prison breakouts.  The Tyrsis prisons will have to install revolving doors, ours heroes go in and out of them so fast.  So now we have Damson in prison and Padishar and Par organizing a jail break.  This, of course, goes awry and leaves Padishar in jail with Par and Damson free to organize his rescue (which, after some initial resistance, they don't seem in much of a rush to do).  The scene does keep the plot moving, however, and gets rid of Padishar long enough for Par to begin developing a little heroic spine.  Par's choice to drag Damson out of the prisons and abandon Padishar moves him out of the passive role that he's had for quite some time now.  Indeed, Brooks was obliged to find some way to get Padishar out of the way from the moment he appeared on scene just to give his major character enough room to grow (an thus catch up with Wren and Walker).  The capture scene is at least and efficient way of doing that that flows logically from the plot and characters.  Plot a tone are really all that are saving the novel at this point.

As Padishar and Damson escape, Brooks wisely begins uniting the different threads of his master-narrative with the discovery of Paranor and the return of Coll.  Paranor offers some hope for our hitherto much thwarted main character, and Coll gives Brooks the perfect excuse to pry him away from his chief prop: Damson.  This is the pattern of character growth that has worked so well for Walker and Wren: take the character, remove everything that supports and defines them and see what they do.  The episode with Coll also gives Par the further assurance that the Sword of Shannara is real: another powerful win that should give him the courage and determination he needs for some darin' do.

Finally, we shift the story back to a more developed character: Morgan.  Morgan's become fairly cool since his journey north and now he's actually a fit hero to follow.  Morgan has been wailed on for most of the time he's been on screen and I'm guessing that much of his time in this final episode will be spent rebuilding and healing.  We get a little picture of this in the flashback to his illness after coming down into the Rabb.  The main venue of this healing shows up almost immediately in the form of Matty Roh.  Lose one girl, get new girl.  Not very imaginative, but it will keep the story moving.

That's as far as I've gotten.  There's lots of adventure, but little substance so far.  We'll see what happens once the novel kicks into high gear.

Monday, August 20, 2012

First Thoughts on The Talismans of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CLXXXIX

In my end is my beginning -T.S. Eliot

So, dear reader, I end where I began.  The first Shannara book I read was The Talismans of Shannara.  I don't quite remember how I came to pick up the last book of the Heritage Series first.  Somewhere along the line I suppose I got the impression that they were serial novels.  Anyhow, I was experiencing severe withdrawal after having come to end of all the Tolkien I could get my hands on.  Back then, when a young teenage boy asked what he could read next, the Shannara books were where everyone sent him.  So, just an author's name in hand, I shuttled off in my mom's Taurus wagon to the library (a wonderful, old Victorian edifice).  There among the stacks I grabbed the first volume by Terry Brooks (who I assumed at the time must be a woman since I didn't know any Terrences) that came to hand.  I remember sitting at the table in the breakfast nook and looking out the window at the forest where the trees made their endless dance of silver and green.  There, I opened the book and began reading about a man named Rimmer Dall.

It's been a long road from Connecticut to Texas.  Picking up The Talismans of Shannara, even just looking at its cover, opens up a doorway in my mind to those lost summers.  Scents, sights, voices, odd sensations, a different state of mind all come flooding back as if the intervening years mean nothing.  There's the garrison colonial at the bottom of the hill with its grey walls, white trim, black shutters, and the big red door.  -or the sound of Canada geese lifting off the lake in the morning.  I remember living in the finished room in the cellar, and trips with the quiz team to Pennsylvania.  All the lost years are there, wedged into the pages of a paperback book.

*Begin Spoilers and Other Relevant Stuff*  

This post will cover up to the beginning of Chapter 5.  Herein we learn how Rimmer Dall plans to deal with the scions of Shannara, how Padishar Creel discovers Par and Damison in Tyrsis, how Damison is then captured by the odious Federation and with the aid of the Mole her escape is attempted, and how Walker Boh finishes his druidical transformation and is besieged together with Cogline and Rumor by the Four Horsemen.

The Talismans of Shannara resumes with the same tone as The Scions of Shannara.  This means that there is (again) a slight jerk in the mental gears as we shift from the previous novel.  Stringing out three plots over four books puts a definite strain on the series, but it is not terminal.

Moving on, it is interesting that the novel begins with Rimmer Dall.  This is a good move on Brooks' part as he gives us a scene that immediately raises the tension and creates a sense of anticipation.  By letting us in on Dall's "evil genius" planning session, we instantly know what problems our heroes will face and begin wondering how they will get out of it.  That curiosity will carry us through the next few chapters as Brooks then takes time to establish said challenges or at least produce adventurous interludes that keep readers turning pages.

Once Rimmer Dall is out of the way, we return to the hero who began it all three books ago, Par Ohmsford.  Par is the weakest character in the ensemble, but by now there's enough material to at least make him a character that can hold readers' attention if there's a suitable amount of action.  Brooks is wise to keep the story rolling at a fast pace whenever we turn to Par, and the reappearance of Padishar Creel with the subsequent capture of Damson Rhee do the job.  Brooks does incur some authorial debt by having Damison captured, however, as the "prison break" motif is already overused in the series.  Again, the pace of the adventure, the increase in stakes due to the growing unpredictability of the Wishsong, and the rich setting of Tyrsis all work to mitigate some of this debt.

Walker Boh is a little bit more robust of a character, so when we turn to him the narrative can slow down a little.  Walker is just finishing his transformation into the new druid when we meet him, and it's interesting that the process of becoming has been spread out over all four books, rather than confined, like Wren's, to a single volume.  With Cogline and Rumor still alive, it seems that the final stripping has yet to take place before he can truly be divested of his old identity and reconstituted as the new Allanon.  Stringing the process out like this means that The Druid of Shannara lacks the same "punch" as The Elf Queen of Shannara, but it also serves as plot thread that unites the four works together.  This leads me to wonder: if the first series is really about Allanon, is the Heritage Series really about Walker?

Those are my thoughts for now.  The school year is getting started around here, so future posts may be less frequent and more abbreviated.  We'll see.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Final Thoughts on The Elf Queen of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CLXXXVIII

I've been on a trip and that's kept me away from the keyboard for the past week.  It hasn't kept me away from the books, however, and I ended up finishing The Elf Queen of Shannara.  Rather than try to break that huge chunk of pages down into several posts, I'm going to attempt to summarize here my thoughts on the work as a whole with a brief summary of the events since chapter 18 to help jog any faulty memories.

*Spoiler Alert*

When we last left our heroes, Wren had taken up her role as Queen of the elves.  Now, we have remaining in the company of the Loden only Wren+animal friends, Garth, Eowen, Gavilan, Triss, and Dal.  With Ellenroh's death, Eowen decides to tell Wren the secret behind the demons and the renewal of elven magic.  Quite simply, the elves are both the demons and the Shadowen, or least some of them are.  The elves delved too deep and too greedily and awakened that from which they fled...  Oops, wrong book.  This revealed, Eowen predicts her own death and is promptly captured and killed by the Drakuls (name give any hint?) who use her as bait to get at Wren.  Wren blows them all away with super-awesome pyrotechnics and finally begins to overcome her reticence about using the magic.  Upon returning, Wren, Garth, Triss, and the happy forest creatures discover that Gavilan has nutted up and knocked Dal's brains out, running off with the Loden.  There's a wonderful chase through the jungle terminating in that wonderful little Checkov's Gun, the Wistron.  Gavilan's been gutted like a fish and Wren has to use more super-awesome pyrotechnics to destroy the Wistron and reclaim the Loden.  Garth is poisoned over the course of the fight and commits suicide (with Wren's help) after revealing that he knew Wren's parents and had been training her to one day be the savior of the elves.  Wren has angst.  Triss and the fuzzy friends make it to the beach after smoking hordes of demons and Tiger Ty returns just in time to save the day.  After that, Wren puts the elves back in their proper place and we end with a cut-away to Walker Boh restoring Paranor and becoming the first of a new line of Druids.

That's the summary, now comes my thoughts.  This is the most tightly plotted of any of the books thus far.  There's reason for this as The Elf Queen of Shannara stands or falls on the tightness of its plot.  The whole work is straight action-adventure fair without any complexities to help carry it.  Compare this with The Druid of Shannara which actually manages to survive with most of its conclusion shoved into another novel(tEQoS).  Brooks, finally nailing it this time, sets himself a fairly simple goal: make Wren Ohmsford into the Queen of the Elves.  Everything in this work, even the cut-aways to other plot lines (which give us space to breath, contemplate, and raise the stakes of Wren's quest), is subservient to this one end.  How Brooks accomplishes this end is rather simple: use the death-trap of Morrowindl to strip his leading lady of everything that made her former identity and then use it to force her to accept a new identity as Queen of the Elves or die.  That's the whole book -and it works.

The only larger take-away I can find here is that I think I've forgotten just how much story is dependent upon plot.  I like Wren as a character, but in the end I was turning pages to find out what happened next (even when I sometimes remembered from prior readings!).  It was the tightness of the plot that held me.  Right now, I don't know what I think about that, but if I do I'll be sure to tell you.

Until next time dear reader.  We're three books down and one more to go!

Thursday, August 09, 2012

More Elf Queen of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CLXXXVII

This morning's post will take us all the way up to the beginning of chapter 18.  We're more than half-way there folks.

*Spoiler Stuffs*

The minute the company leaves Arborlon the body count begins to rise.  Tolkien hated character killing, but Brooks has always been willing to spill blood.  Early on, he did this with armies of red-shirted-ensigns.  With The Elf Queen of Shannara even the ensemble are no longer safe.  In a matter of a few chapters we lose both the Owl and the Queen.  From a plot standpoint, this is necessary to allow Wren to assume leadership of the company and thus become "the Elf Queen of Shannara."  Killing them off also raises the stakes forcing the reader to acknowledge that no one in this book is safe as well as investing the audience more deeply in the work via the pathos created by the death of a beloved character.

Brooks' writing, from a plot standpoint, is at its best in this portion of the work.  Everything that happens is logically connected and subordinated to the ultimate goal of making Wren queen.  Using the Loden weakens Ellenroh allowing her to contract a fever that leads to her death.  That fever is contracted in the swamp that they become lost in due to the disappearance of Stressa after the raft is attacked.  They might have been able to get out of the swamp, but the Owl is killed by a darter, a poisonous plant that Brooks has been careful to nonchalantly introduce earlier in the work.  The loss of Stressa and the Owl doom Ellenroh to death.  The maddening conditions of the jungle and the loss of his aunt act to unhinge Gavilan and thus cement Ellenroh's decision to make Wren her heir.  The urgency of the Queen's illness, the loss of their guides, and Garth's inability to track in dense jungle terrain all force Wren to use the elfstones and thus become the group's de facto leader.  Stressa does return, but too late to keep Wren from using the magic or being able to provide the root he used to help assuage Wren's fever (which Stressa has assured Wren did nothing to actually cure her anyhow).  Stressa's return, however, adds just enough lightness to help the audience bare the death of Ellenroh and accept Wren's sudden boost of determination to take charge and fulfill her grandmother's dying request.

To sum up, Brooks' story mechanics are firing on all cylinders here.  This is finally the stuff that I remember being so riveting and enjoyable as a kid.  It's also a reminder for writers of the increase in power that comes from paying careful attention to plot.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Tolkien's Dark Tower: The Platypus Reads Part CLXXXVI

Tom Shippey points out in his Road to Middle Earth that the germ of Barad Dur, Sauron's Stronghold, comes from a scrap of Chaucer where the poet makes an offhand reference to a knight and his approach to "the dark tower."  Chaucer expected that everyone knew that story, but somehow in the intervening centuries it has become lost.  Using his imagination, Tolkien tried to delve back into the mine of story and imagine what this Dark Tower might have been.  We see several tries at this image, or several "accounts" in Tolkien's corpus.  The first is Thangorodrim, Morgoth's "dark tower," where he sits "on hate enthroned."  The second, and like unto it, is Sauron's original keep at Tol Sirion.  This is the dark tower before which Luthien, in all her frailty, stands and lays the deepest pits bare with her song (an image oddly reminiscent of protestant poets like Spenser, Bunyan, and Wesley).  Building on these two images, Tolkien constructs his final Dark Tower, Barad Dur, the body-fortress of Sauron.  This is the only dark tower that was known to the public in Tolkien's lifetime.  The other two would have been lost in the mines of story had not Christopher Tolkien gone dug into his father's papers and brought them to light in the published Silmarillion.  Interestingly, however, after all that work to bring the elusive "dark tower" to light, Tolkien deliberately begins the process of mythologizing it at the end of his Return of the King.  At Aragorn's coronation we find Ioreth telling her kinswoman that a halfling and his squire went deep into the enemy's territory and set fire to his tower.  Right after the events have happened they are already being obscured and passing into legend.  The Dark Tower begins to fade at the very moment of its recovery.

In a literal sense, this is true.  Tolkien's recovery of The Dark Tower as a mythopoeic image has led to the obscuring of his particular recovered image in popular culture.  In 1977, Terry Brooks gave his Warlock Lord his own re-imagined "dark tower."  Stephen King has his "Dark Tower" as well.  In how many other ways has this symbol been reworked and re-imagined since Tolkien brought it to light in the 1950s?  Even the films by Peter Jackson, due to the unique requirements of story-telling via film, have exerted a subtle distorting effect on Tolkien's original Barad Dur.

What does all this mean?  It might mean that symbols and stories are more powerful than the people who create them.  It might mean that the most powerful images are not actually created so much as "unearthed," or "reforged."  That, of course, begs the question of where such images come from if not ultimately from the mind of a human creator.  We could also ask if anyone has the "right" to fix an image, to create the definitive "dark tower."  After reading the Iliad, the relationship between recovery and loss, memory and forgetting stands out strongly in my mind.  G.K. Chesterton says that human beings are like Robinson Crusoe, survivors of some unaccountable shipwreck.  We are forced to work with the fragments that surround us and somehow shore ourselves together.  What caused the shipwreck is unknown, but all art and poetry, according to Chesterton, means that for a moment we remember that we have forgotten.  

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Favorite Shannara Characters: The Platypus Reads Part CLXXXV

So I've been doing a lot of gabbing here about the Shannara books and their relative merits as light adventure fiction.  Thus far, there's been plenty of analysis, but very little geek out of pausing to simply enjoy the books as fun stories.  In that spirit, then, I'm going to take a shot at naming my favorite characters from the first seven books and invite you to do the same.  Who are your favorite Shannara characters?  Here are mine (in chronological order?):

1. Allanon:  Tall, bearded, dresses in black, learned, mysterious past, and packing more firepower than half the star fleet.  For me, at least, he is the most interesting character in the first three books.  The little glimpses we get into his thought, history, and struggles blow everyone else away.  I also enjoy watching him age and change from the angry-young-Gandalf of The Sword of Shannara, to the more grandfatherly and sad figure in The Wishsong of Shannara.  We really get to explore what it means to have the world (or at least the Four Lands) on your shoulders with all the limits of an exalted, yet finite being.

2. Garret Jax: Hardcore.  How can you not like a guy who looks like he just walked out of an Akira Kurosawa film?  I love the mystery that surrounds this wandering duelist and there's some real pathos to his death.  This is a pulp character in the great tradition of Haggard and Burroughs. 

3. Walker Boh: Walker is basically a younger version of Allanon who keeps his angst in different places.  I like Walker.  Sure, he can be whiny, but no more so than most late-twenties-early-thirty-somethings.  At that age there's always going to be tension between who you are and where you're at and who you thought you were supposed to be and where you actually are.  Having Cogline as a mentor also helps.

4. Rimmer Dal: The classic evil genius villain -but also a hard-core fighter in his own right.  I think he was the first of this sort of villain that I came across.  Sure, the Operative in Serenity is more sophisticated and Sauron is more mythopoeic, but I just like Rimmer Dal.  He's a great anti-Allanon. and definitely ups the ante in the world of the Four Lands.

5. Wren Ohmsford: She's the first one of Brooks' "tough girls" to come off as a believable and likable character in her own right.  Wren preserves a sense of adventure and wonder at the fantastic world that Brooks has created without seeming sappy or unduly naive.  Her more level-headed drive, and understanding that even the greatest heroes need to rely on their friends puts her cousin Par to absolute shame. 

Alright, so there we go.  If you have a dog in this fight, feel free to jump in!  I'd love to hear who your own favorite characters are from the first seven books.

Monday, August 06, 2012

More Elf Queen of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CLXXXIV

This morning's post will cover up to the beginning of chapter 14.

*Begin Spoilers*

After viewing the city and learning a little more about the history of the elves on Morrowindl, Wren is summoned to the council hall.  Here, we have Brooks try his hand at political writing as he imagines the elven high council arguing with the Queen over the fate of the island.  Ellenroh pushes for them to use the Loden, an elfstone set in the Rukh staff that the queen carries, to magically enfold the city so that it can be transported back to the Four Lands.  After initial objections the council, of course, agrees, and plans are made to begin the journey back to the beach the following day.  We then get a magnificent description of the invocation of the Loden's magic and the drawing up of the city into the Loden.  Just as things are getting interesting, however, Brooks cuts back to Walker Boh and Cogline at Paranor.


1. I appreciate Brooks' attempt at political intrigue.  This is new territory for him, at least in the Shannara books, and his initial sally is well handled.  We come away with a definite picture of how Ellenroh uses weight of personality and magical mystique to manipulate the council.  The various other players, though they don't get a lot of screen time, are given real objections and personalities.  To add spice to the mix, we are allowed to see how Gavilan hides behind his boyish charm to advance his own agenda, though what it is at this point remains unclear.  Wren's combination of teenage insistence on transparency, Rover street-smarts, and political naivete is quite believable and helps us negotiate the political situation while preserving a sense of "otherness" and mystery.

2. Did you notice that the company of the Loden shall be nine?  Little homage to Tolkien there.  Ok, so we are going to get the company of the ring here, but the trope is deployed in a more sophisticated way that it has in previous Brooks novels.  They're actually running away from Mount Doom rather than towards it with something to save rather than something to destroy.  Wren isn't exactly a hobbit, though she is still a teenager (teenagers=hobbits in Brooks' world), but she's far more savvy than any of the previous Ohmsfords with the exception of older and more magical Walker.  Without Allanon, we might also add that there's no obvious Gandalf analog.  Very interesting.  It's as if the fellowship of the ring have been thrown into Michael Chriton's Congo.

3. Has Brooks really hamstrung himself by having to constantly insert chapters that follow the other three plots?  I don't know.  It seems like they become random intrusions that disrupt the integrity of the individual novels, but I don't mind them.  They also have the advantage of keeping the other characters fresh in the audience's mind.  Still, the do disrupt the flow of the  larger narrative into which they are inserted.  It's an interesting technical choice, but I don't know what I think about it.

4. Wren's cool, but I still think Walker Boh is my favorite character in these books.  Make of that what you will.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

More Elf Queen of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CLXXXIII

A quick post today just to finish off chapter 11.

*Begin stuff-that-you-might-not-want-to-read-if-you-haven't-read-the-book*

Chapter 11 really is the most interesting chapter (for me) in the book thus far.  Brooks keeps the pacing fast even though most of the chapter is taken up with conversation.  All the character's uneasiness and Brooks' stinginess in handing out information keeps up a good sense of tension that rolls right on to the next chapter.  Even though the space is brief, Brooks' is able to give us strong and swift portraits of the key players: Ellenroh, the Owl, Gavilan, Phaeton, and Eowen (shame on you Mr. Brooks!).  The frantic battle scene that ends the chapter with its display of the raw power the elves have rediscovered is quintessential Shannara.  These last two points, strong, swift character portraits and lavishly drawn battle scenes, are the hallmarks of the Shannara series; sometimes the only thing they have going for them.  With the return of these elements, it seems like Brooks is back on his game.

This does make me wonder about the risks involved in trying something new as a published author.  As I've said before, I'm convinced that Brooks is trying some deliberately different techniques in the middle books of the Heritage Series.  There seems to be a greater attempt at working cross-genre and a willingness to discard earlier tropes (where is the "fellowship of the ring" in the novel thus far?).  Some of these novel techniques seem to have worked and some seem to have fallen flat.  To be honest, if I hadn't made a deal with myself, I'd probably have ditched The Elf Queen of Shannara by now (and missed the good stuff!).  All that to say it seems like an author needs some considerable rapport with the publisher and the audience before it's safe to experiment.  The copy of The Elf Queen of Shannara I have is a well-bound hardcover with thick and lovely faux old-fashioned paper.  I think it originally retailed at somewhere around thirty dollars.  Lavishing that sort of production cost on a pulp novel says something about the publisher's confidence that it will sell, and sell big.  I guess if every book you've put out is a New York Times bestseller, you can get a little freedom to experiment.  But what if you're not?  I think of the kind of herculean patience Allen and Unwin had with J.R.R. Tolkien.  He had one fairly decent selling book and the publisher was willing to wait twelve years for a very different and very expensive to produce sequel.  Who would have published The Lord of the Rings if they had lost their nerve?  Then I think of the creative eclecticism of C.S. Lewis.  What publisher today would allow for all the genre crossing and experimentation that marks Lewis' distinctive canon?  Brooks' experimentation is small beans compared with these old titans and yet they got away with it before they were famous.

To finish up these semi-cohate musings: I wonder what role publishers play in helping or hindering authorial development.  How free was Brooks to experiment in this series?  He's certainly grown as an author over the course of writing them.  Would greater freedom have produced better work or frittered it away chasing snipes?  What budding Tolkiens or Lewis out there have been cut off by the financial realities of the publishing industry.  Those aren't rhetorical questions.  I simply don't know.

Friday, August 03, 2012

More Elf Queen of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CLXXXII

Today's post will take us up to the middle of Chapter 11, or roughly half way through the book.

*Spoiler Material*

Wren, Garth, and the happy forest friends arrive a a besieged Arborlon after being chased around the island by various nondescript "demons."  Wondering what in the world they're going to do now, they run into Link the Owl who offers to escort them into the fortified city.  More nondescript monsters attack and Wren is "forced" to use the elfstones again to annihilate a city block's worth of baddies.

That's about what it felt like to read things up to that point.  I wasn't able to really engage with the story and it all fell a little flat.  Even the monsters, which are usually Brook's favorite part, seemed pasteboard.  Upon entering Arborlon, however, the story finally begin to pick up some steam.

Now we find out that the Rover girl is really the long lost elven princess.  Her return has been prophesied for years and she will now somehow save her people.  But there are problems, and for now, at least, no one will admit to Wren what they are or that they exist.  Predictable, perhaps, but now we're getting somewhere.  Characters (Ellenroh, Eowen, Galavin, the Owl, Triss) come pouring in and ask us to make quick judgements on their characters and motives.  The nature of the demons remains elusive as well as how exactly the elves managed to transport their entire city to Hawaii Morrowindl.  There's even the question of how the evac will take place, though it's clear that the elfstones will play some role.

Like I said, now we're cooking with propane.

So, that said, what was the problem with the first third of the novel?  Looking back, I think I can take a few guesses:

1. Problems of subcreation.  The one elf we meet in the first third of the book doesn't "feel" elfin in any noticeable way.  In fact, Tiger Ty's archetype, the cranky pulp pilot, is decisively modern and belongs in the rather un-elfin world of motors and machines.  In Brooks' world, magic and machinery don't go together so even if he's flying a Roc and not a bi-plane there's still a clash between the inherently modern character and the magical race he's supposed to represent.  There are ways to work the logic here, but the literary "flavor" is still disrupted.

2. Wavering between a concrete threat that lacks any depth and creeping dread.  The demons that form the main antagonists in the first third of the work just aren't that scary or interesting.  Brooks usually revels in creating horrific monsters, but the denizens of Morrowindl lack any verve or vigor.  If they were just shadows and nameless fears, that could really work, but Brooks has to have them come out and chase our heroes around the island, and by then the game's up.

3.Happy Forest friends that break the tone of the work.  Though they are the products of experimental mayhem, ala The Island of Doctor Moreau, Stressa and Faun are just a little too cutesie for the setting.  Perhaps Stressa could be gotten away with, but Faun (thought I have nothing particular against him as a character) is just a little too "happy forest creature" for an island that's supposed to be a death-trap.

None of these three points is fatal on its own, but put them all together and they drain much of the interest out of the plot.  Perhaps this could be compensated for with deep psychological yum-yums, but they're just not there.

Anyhow, all of that said, I'll look forward to seeing how the work progresses from here on out.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Quick Note on Jane Eyre: The Platypus Reads Part CLXXXI

My wife and I noticed while watching a BBC production of Jane Eyre from the 1970s that Rochester consistantly calls Miss Ingram "Dona Biancha."  Now, this makes sense since her name is Blanche and the French "blanche" in English is "white."  So transposed into Italian we get "Dona Biancha" or "Lady White."  However, in English folklore a "white lady:" is a common ghost in old castles or mansions.  Thornfield does in fact boast a "white lady," though Mrs. Fairfax tells Jane that she's never heard of the house being haunted.  That "white lady" is the very tangible Bertha Mason.  This point highlights a close resemblance between Blanche and Bertha.  Both are haughty, imperious, locally renowned for their beauty, olive-skinned, and drawn to Rochester.  We might say that in choosing Blanche to make Jane jealous, Rochester is also acting out for her a rejection of his first wife as she was in her prime.  It seems to be his twisted way of saying (to himself? to her a year after their wedding?) that even were his wife sane and still a beauty, he would infinitly prefer Jane to her.

Posthomerica: The Platypus Reads Part CLXXX

Poor Quintus of Smyrna
Is a scripta minora
Because all he wrote
Is only a footnote
(To Homer)

 After finishing The Iliad, my wife and I weren't quite ready to quite the plains of windswept Troy.  The problem, of course, is that Homer is only interested in narrating a small section of the ten-year conflict.  Granted, much that came before and much that comes after the few days he narrates is included in the poem, but there is a still greater amount of material that Homer either excludes as not pertinent to his story or simply assumes that the audience knows and so only alludes to in the text.  Enter Quintus of Smyrna and his Posthomerica.

The Posthomerica is a late and minor work that attempts to arrange in narrative form material covering the resumption of the conflict after Hector's burial to the homecomings (nostoi) of which The Odyssey is the most memorable.  As I said, it is a minor work of considerably less skill and power than The Iliad.  However, it isn't bad for light reading and it does get you up to speed on all the things (as the Barnes and Noble edition informs us) that Homer didn't tell.  The worthy, but time-consuming, alternative would be to read much of the corpus of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and then a few sections of Ovid's Metamorphoses and The Aeneid.

So there you have it: Quintus of Smyrna's Posthomerica.  It's a useful, albeit simple, tool to help fill in the gaps between The Iliad and The Odyssey.  Otherwise, it's only a datafarm of details for a few specialists.  Read it or not: the choice is yours.

Monday, July 30, 2012

More Elf Queen of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CLXXIX

This post will cover chapters 6 and 7 of The Elf Queen of Shannara by Terry Brooks.

*Begin Spoilers*

Our adventure continues with our intrepid heroes slashing their way into the heart of the mysterious jungle of Morrowindl.  Beset on all sides by strange beasts, fever-ridden swamps, and pursued by the horrific Wistron, Wren struggles to unlock the terrifying mystery of the elven island in secret hope that it will also unravel the enigma of her own origins.  However, such an undertaking seems beyond even the prodigious skills of Wren and her faithful retainer Garth, Rovers though they be.  Surely, they would have succumb to the danger of the In Ju swamp had not a fortuitous meeting with a splinterscat named Stressa given them a much needed guide.  This prickly product of magical mayhem offers to guide them through to the elven castle on the condition that our heroes return with the mysterious creature to the Four Lands.

And that's about the shape of it.  To King Solomon's Mines and The Moon Pearl, we add a little bit of The Island of Doctor Moreau.  No wonder I liked this when I was in Jr. High.  After the odd experimentalism of The Druid of Shannara, it must have come as a nice pulpy relief.  This does, however get us into the question of mixing genres.  As I've noted earlier, the mixing of genres seems about par for the course in the later period of American Fantasy writing.  It's what seems to happen when the initial territory has been explored and expanded on and no new promising territory can be seen on the horizon.  Crossovers open up new possibilities for a time simply by virtue of combination (see Tanith Lee's A Hero at the Gates for a perfect example).  While writing High Fantasy, it should be noted that Terry Brooks has been a genre crosser from the beginning: the Four Lands are a post-apocalyptic North America.  The premise for the Shannara books is drawn not from Fantasy but from Science Fiction.  Thus, if The Elf Queen of Shannara is really a turn-of-the-century adventure novel with a veneer of High Fantasy thrown over it, we ought not to be surprised.

But I am surprised.  Now why is that?  I guess it's because before the non-High Fantasy elements have felt like intrusions, brief or long, into Brooks' world.  Take, for instance, his love of trackers and pioneers which bothers my Tolkienesque sensibilities whenever they arise.  In The Elf Queen of Shannara, however, the alien elements are not intrusions, but the entire plot structure and tone of the work.  As with The Druid of Shannara, Brooks seems to be experimenting here, very consciously attempting something different.  About a third of the way through, I don't know what I think so far of the result.    

Friday, July 27, 2012

More Elf Queen of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CLXXVIII

Today's post will cover chapters 4 and 5 of Terry Brooks' The Elf Queen of Shannara.

*Spoiler Stuff*

Five chapters in, and I think I know what genre Brooks is channeling this time.  From the odd blend of High Fantasy and Science Fiction that is The Druid of Shannara, we've now landed in the world of Turn-of-the-Century Pulp.  Wren is the dazzling young heiress with her mysterious legacy, Garth her taciturn and faithful retainer, and Tyger Ty (I do have to confess that the name makes me wince whenever I read it) the gruff old flying ace who gets them there.  I'm seeing shades of H.R. Haggard all over this stuff.  We've even got the mysterious jungle island where prior adventurers have disappeared.  Now that I've got a better feel for what Brooks is doing, I hope I can get more into sympathy with the work.  We've also made it to the beach of Morrowindl now, so the main plot ought to start picking up.  Maybe the next fifty pages will be a bit more engaging.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Secret World of Arriety: Film Platypus

Last night, my wife and I were able to sit down and watch Studio Ghibli's The Secret World of Arrietty, a film based on the Borrowers series by English writer Mary Norton.  I've never read the books (miseducated, I know), so I can't say how faithful an adaptation it is, but the film more than stands on its own merits.  Like all Studio Ghibli films, The Secret World of Arrietty combines strong, simple storytelling with incredibly lush and imaginative animation (there are moments when the color and detail in the film are almost painful).  The animation is worth the price of a rental (or a netflix slot) alone, but the story also is well worth the time being enchanting, heart-felt, and delightfully free of the irony and self-consciousness that permeates American film.  Speaking of culture, The Secret World of Arrietty does a wonderful job of synthesizing the British world of the book with the Japanese world of Studio Ghibli.  The story, the visuals, and the soundtrack are all a delightful and elegant fusion of East and West.  If you aren't used to Japanese cinema, there may be a few cultural quirks to navigate, like the penchant for speaking in monotone, but it's worth putting in the effort to reap the rewards of a truly beautiful film.  Just the way they paint the light on the leaves, or the way wood peals on an old screen door...