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... 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

More Elf Queen of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CLXXVII

This post will cover chapters two and three of Terry Brooks' Elf Queen of Shannara.

*Spoiler Warning*

When you grow up in the North East and rarely travel outside it, there are things you're going to miss.  I don't know what I imagined the Blue Divide to look like back in Jr. High, but it's now obvious to me (having lived there) that the coastline he's describing is that of Southern California.  This doesn't disappoint me, rather it helps to establish a richer picture of the setting.  I haven't been to Hawaii, so maybe my vision of Morrowindle will be correspondingly impoverished.

In other news, I find it hard to make the switch from The Druid of Shannara to The Elf Queen of Shannara.  The sudden change in tone -getting dropped back into serial adventure land- jars after the more complex world of the previous book.  The writing is still smooth and the characters are lively, but there's a feeling that something missing, that we've passed back into the mundane.  When the entity that had been stalking them through the two previous books revealed itself as another monster shadowen I was frankly disappointed.  Here we go, typical pulp serial fair again.  I hope that doesn't remain my experience of the book (I remember liking this one as a kid).  It does, however, underline the oddity of The Druid of Shannara in the series.

Falling flat as well was the reveal of the elfstones.  Having read Brooks' other books we know that all purported magic is real and that it will eventually reveal itself to be devastatingly powerful under pressure of a horrible monster attack.  Now, here's an interesting point: when I first read The Elf Queen of Shannara, I hadn't read the prior series and everything was a bit more of a surprise.  This is why, unless someone's really committed to the project, I would recommend skipping the original Shannara Series and jumping strait into the Heritage Series.  The prior three books really do serve better as prequels, or interesting background reading (since they're frankly not as good).

Now, what does Brooks get right?  So far, the writing is nice and smooth.  Wren remains an interesting character (Brooks has had trouble in the past writing female characters so she represents a real achievement) and her relationship with Garth is welcome and compelling.  The landscape of SoCal is faithfully described and made a fitting setting for fantasy adventure.  Finally, the discovery of the Roc Caves, complete with Roc, was exciting and well handled.  That's good material that can be built on, so we'll see where this book goes.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Article on Christian Historiography

Interesting article here composed of three short essays by three Christian Historians reflecting on the nature of the historical discipline. 

Meditations on the Shield of Achilles: The Platypus Reads Part CLXXVI

The shield of Achilles, I believe, gives us the Homeric worldview in microcosm.  The shield is first an image of the Homeric cosmos with its round plate symbolizing the earth bounded by the ocean (the waters below) and the stars (the waters above).  Upon this miniature cosmos, the drama of human life plays out in a series of ordered and unordered conflicts: man against man, and man against nature.  In the scene with the law court, we see ordered conflict of man against man, with due process and restraining an argument that might otherwise turn murderous.  Notice also that the struggle is not just between the two bringing the suit, but also between the judges who strive to win the prize for the "straightest" judgement.  The final image of the dancers also has the aura of a competition as only the most beautiful are allowed to compete and the men dance with daggers at their sides.  The companion image is of men in unordered conflict as shown by the image of the city at war.  Note that even the attackers are in conflict with each other as they try to decide whether to take the city by storm or to exact protection money.  In the world of nature, we see the king presiding over the conquest of the earth in the form of plowing.  Here, their is good order and man reaps the fruit of the earth with which to make feast and offer sacrifice to the gods.  In the companion scene, a lion devastates a heard of cattle, throwing the herders into disorder and reasserting the power of nature in the conflict between man and his surroundings.  All these struggles play out upon a shield, itself a fundamental article of human conflict.  This shield, Achilles bears upon his shoulders Atlas-like in image of a world held and borne up by conflict.  This is the core of the Homeric worldview: that the cosmos is predicated on strife and competition and men make the best of it for the short time that they live and breathe upon the earth.

*Photo Credit Wikipedia

Monday, July 23, 2012

First Thoughts on The Elf Queen of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CLXXV

This post will begin a series of reflections on The Elf Queen of Shannara by Terry Brooks.  Each reflection post will follow a reading session and attempt to record my thoughts and feelings on what I have just read.  I hope that this will allow me to give greater attention to detail in reviewing the book as well as producing a record of the effects of certain passages "as read" without time for further knowledge of the plot (where possible, I did read these back in Jr. High) to interfere.  I have thus far pursued this tactic with The Elfstones of Shannara, The Wishsong of Shannara, The Scions of Shannara, and The Druid of Shannara.  The overall goals of this project are to gain insight into the process of authorial growth and hone my skills as a literary critic by studying a simple and popular set of books by a bestselling author with a long publishing history.  I claim nothing more than amateur status in either of these pursuits.

*Spoiler Material Ahead*

All you get today is Chapter 1, but there's plenty of food for thought right there.

Terry Brooks has developed an interesting habit in the Heritage Series, namely, beginning each book with a short vignette featuring a character(s) that is essential to the main characters' quest rather than begin with the main character.  He began The Scions of Shannara with Cogline, The Druid of Shannara with The King of the Silver River, and now begins The Elf Queen of Shannara with Ellenroh Elessidil.  I suppose that these scenes are meant to serve as narrative hooks that give the story an initial "punch" that will help them get through the slow establishing material that follows.  If it backfires, however, the reader is left thinking "hey, where did that cool book from the first chapter go".  The tactic seems risky.  I'd love to hear anyone else's thoughts on this especially if you've seen it done with other authors.

Given the placement and number of times the word is mentioned in the first chapter, I'm guessing that "fire" will be a significant symbol in this book.  I wonder if it's in any way meant to parallel the Bloodfire in The Elfstones of Shannara, the other book in the series that focuses on the elves.  In addition to fire, the sea should be important as well since most of this book will take place on an island.  Brooks also seems to be setting some limits to the world of the Four Lands in this series as the prior volume took us to shores of the sea in the Northeast and this volume will take us again to the shores of the sea in the Southwest.  Practically speaking, this means that the Stone King lives in New York and the elves have fled from California to Hawaii while the evil Texas (with the aid of demons) have pushed up from the south to cover all the lands between.  The rock trolls are pretty organic, and I guess that fits well for the Pacific Northwest.  But I digress...

Finally, I wonder how Brooks will develop the elves in this volume.  I think I remember this book with the most clarity from my prior reading, but I don't remember elven culture being worked out in any greater detail.  If so, that's too bad.  Terry Brooks' elves up to this point have just been humans with pointy ears, a real creative tragedy in my opinion.  Revisiting them now after his abilities as an author have grown should give him the opportunity to enrich this particular part of his created world.  We'll see if my memory is faulty. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Final Thoughts on The Druid of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CLXXIV

Today's post will sum up my read-through of Terry Brooks' The Druid of Shannara.  As this is the "final thoughts" post, I will try to focus on the merit of the work as a whole rather than simply evaluate the last portion of the story.

*Massive Spoiler Effect*

At the time of its writing, I believe The Druid of Shannara was the most complex and polished book in the series.  It is the first novel in which we get a sense that the Four Lands has its own cosmology and created order.  It is also the first novel to feature a cast of older and more mature characters.  Finally, The Druid of Shannara makes the leap from pacing driven novel to one driven by tone.

Terry Brooks never set out to create a "thick" world full of Tolkienesque depth and detail.  Nevertheless, since 1977 his sheer output has forced him to create one.  The novels of the Heritage Series come with almost two-thousand pages of pre-made history by way of the original Shannara Trilogy.  Brooks builds off this foundation in The Druid of Shannara by beginning to hint at a fuller cosmology wherein angelic, or demi-urge-like creatures carry out the original creation mandate of the Word (at this point an unspecified Absolute).  While Brooks does not work out the implications of this cosmology within the novel beyond a pop-New-Age level it does invest the rather simple quest narrative with a sense of grander stakes mythological pathos than we've come to expect from a Shannara book.

The older and more seasoned cast of The Druid of Shannara allows the work to explore deeper territory than in the teenager-dominated novels of the past.  The one teenager in the work, Morgan Leah, is forced to grow up in order to keep pace with his fellow cast members.  Morgan's journey is significant in that it's the first time in a Shannara novel that we've been allowed to watch a character mature.  Prior Ohmsfords and Leahs have been relatively static as characters until they appear as adults in the next novel.  Walker grows too, of course, as this is his novel, and much of what we experience is his process of becoming Allanon.  The maturity of the characters allows this transformation to occur in a more subtle and subjective manner than would have been possible in prior novels.  As if to underscore the theme of growth, the characters that refuse to grow, Pe Ell and Carisman, end up dead. 

The real development in the writing of the book that allows for the others is the switch from using pacing to drive the work to tone.  By allowing the strange and reflective tone amplified by the moods of the various scenes and locations to hold the audience's interest, Brooks opens up more space in the narrative for things other than action.  Think how little action actually take place in The Druid of Shannara as opposed to prior works.  There's not much plot here, a fact that left me with virtually no memories from my prior reading in Jr. High.  Most of the novel is taken up with the subjective experiences of the various characters as the consider actions that are occurring or have occurred.

There are some problems with The Druid of Shannara, but they are far fewer than in previous works.  Quickening's symbolic value as a Christ-figure ebbs and flows throughout the work.  Often, she seems little more than a walking McGuffin; a benevolent, talking Ring of Power.  The cosmic angle, while present, is also underdeveloped and drains the ending of the "punch" it might have had otherwise.  We are left wondering what Quickening has actually accomplished and whether the themes and tropes conjured up by the author are incongruous with it.  There's a bit of a mythological retrogression here: Christ turned back into a mere corn-king.  Since Quickening is an uncertain and rather flat character, her relationship with Morgan Leah is clunky and unproductive.  More might have been accomplished if that relationship remained one-sided.  The story also suffers from divorcing so much of the quest from Walker's call to bring back Paranor and revive the druids.  When he finally returns with the Black Elfstone and uses it, we feel as if we've strayed into another novel.  The original work ended some twenty pages prior.

The Druid of Shannara represents another leap forward in Terry Brooks' development as a writer.  The added cosmology, older characters, and reliance on tone all contribute to create a more mature and considered work than prior books set in the Shannara universe.  The book does suffer from several defects, but none of them are fatal and they are significantly less so than in past novels.  With this example of authorial growth in mind, I look forward to moving on to the next book in the series, The Elf Queen of Shannara.           

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Iliad and Memory: The Platypus Reads Part CLXXIII

Throughout the Iliad, Homer invokes the aid of the muses to help him to recall and tell all the splendid deeds of Trojans and Achaians before the walls of wind-swept Troy.  The most moving of these comes early on where the bard declares: And now, O Muses, dwellers in the mansions of Olympus, tell me- for you are goddesses and are in all places so that you see all things, while we know nothing but the report... (Book II Samuel Butler Trans.).  The sense of loss and futility is almost palpable.  Here we are reminded that the Greeks constituted themselves as a culture of forgetting; that memory is something that belongs to the gods while mere rumor belongs to men.  Elsewhere, Glaukos tells Diomedes that his genealogy is irrelevant since the generations of the sons of men are no more than leaves blown away by an Autumn wind.  The great fear that Achilles wrestles with is one of memory: is it worth a life of pain and an early death in order to be remembered?

This crisis of memory did not end with Homer.  In the classical era, Plato's Timaeus has an Egyptian priest tell Solon, wisest of the sages of Greece, that Greeks are ever children since they have no memory, a disaster always comes and wipes away the knowledge of former times.  That disaster for both Homer and Plato is the collapse of the Mycenaean world.  With the near total collapse of Mycenaean society and the attendant loss of writing, the Greeks lost access to their own history in a way that made them unique among the "civilized" people of the Eastern Mediterranean.  The Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Jews all appeared to the Greeks to have weathered the chaos of the late Bronze Age and come through with written records and traditions intact.  This wealth of ancient wisdom posed a crisis of confidence for the Greeks as they rebuilt their culture out of the ashes.  How could they be assured without the benefit of tradition and long experience that their ways (nomoi) were right a proper?  Herodotus inquired and Plato sought for timeless Forms.

This difference of approach gives a distinct flavor to Homer that is intentionally absent in writings of the Classical Era even as they inherit, unquestioned, the Homeric problem.  The great minds of Athens and Ionia believed that human ingenuity could solve the issues caused by the loss of memory.  Philosophy and ethnography could supply what was missing and assure the Greeks that they could build a Just city in more than words (see how Plato combines philosophy, ethnography, and the "noble lie" in his Republic, Timaeus, and Critias).  Homer revels in the cunning (metis) of the human intellect, but distrusts it as well.  After all, what rational basis did the Ancient Greeks have for believing that the mind could accurately grasp reality?  How much of Plato's work is under-girded by "noble lies" that cover over the dark pits of nihilism so that the philosophical project can go on undisturbed?  Homer confronts this problem head-on and appeals to the gods, since they were there, to grant him miraculous access to the past, knowing full well that the gods lie.  The backwash of futility and ambiguity from this state of affairs floods into every crack and corner of the poem.  That distinct flavor of the Iliad can ironically be summed up in the words of the magi in Daniel: only the gods can grant what the king asks, and they do not dwell among men.

*Prior Iliad musing from this read-through can be found here.  Francois Hartog's Memories of Odysseus has also been influential in bringing the issues of memory and otherness as facets of Greek thought to mind, especially chapter two, Egyptian Voyages.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Return of the Iliadic Platypus: The Platypus Reads Part CLXXII

Having finished Jane Eyre and watched to 2011 film, my wife and I have moved on to Homer's Iliad.  We're using the Fitzgerald translation this time (sorry Fagles) and are about half way through the book.  My wife hasn't read the Iliad since college and I haven't read it in three years so the story feels nice and fresh.  Homer was also meant to be spoken, so we're also enjoying the chance to experience the story as an oral performance.  We haven't put together any graduate thesis abstracts yet, but we did come across a couple things that I thought I'd share:

1. Diomedes is the foil for Achilles.  Watch Diomedes closely the next time you read through.  He performs prodigies, but always backs away when the gods put their foot down.  He's scrupulous in obeying the immortals and knows how to take and give flack to his superiors, particularly Agamemnon.  You'll also find him actively seeking out and learning from the older men, particularly Odysseus and Nestor.  The result of all this is that he's generally beloved, still kicks major butt on the battlefield, and will make it back from the war to settle happily in Italy.  Because Diomedes knows his place, he gets everything Achilles loses (glory, prizes, friendship, the safety of his comrades, favor of the gods), including his return home.  A final little note to push this point: Paris shoots Diomedes in the heel and Diomedes survives.

2. All of these characters have wonderfully drawn personalities.  The more I read Homer, the more his characters stand out as recognizable individuals.  There are perfect little moments that each character gets that gives you the person in a snapshot: Odysseus talking to himself as he's surrounded by foes, Diomedes getting dressed down by Agamemnon and telling his friend to shut it when he attempts to back-talk the commander, Nestor getting lost in the glory days in the middle of trying to get Patroklos to to pressure Achilles, Ajax plowing into chariots and knocking them over in a frantic effort to save his retreating friends, Agamemnon's brotherly exchange with Menelaos before the night raid and his efforts to give his brother the credit when Nestor gripes about him.

That's it for now.  If something else strikes us that seems novel or worth repeating, I'll post it.  meanwhile, prior thoughts on the Iliad can be found here.

Monday, July 16, 2012

More Druid of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CLXXI

Well folks, we're nearing the end of the book and today's post carries us all the way to chapter 26.  I don't know what that will mean for the rest of the Heritage Series.  There should be time for at least one more volume.  Once the school year starts up again, I may have to abbreviate my review of The Talismans of Shannara into a post or two.  Congratulations to all of you who have stuck with this odyssey thus far.  Remember, if the day to day report gets to be too much, you can always skip to the "Final Thoughts On ..." post to get the gist of my take on the book.  Without further ado, then, let's dive in.

*Spoiler Reminder*

Let's begin with the Wren episode.  With the brief return of Garth and Wren, we get a little more fast paced intrigue and action.  I think Brooks did include this chapter here to give a tonal and emotional break from Eldwist on the chance that it might be burning his audience out.  That seems like a gamble as the sharp change could throw readers out of the story or simply frustrate them and thus reduce the Wren thread to a mere distraction to be gotten over. I'm not sure what my own feelings are.  The chapter didn't bother me, but I'm not sure whether cutting it out would help or hurt the book as a whole.

Moving on, we have some good-old-fashion supporting character killing.  Those supporting characters are just wonderful.  They're usually on screen long enough for the audience to get attached to them so that killing them off has some real emotional and narrative capital, but they aren't strictly necessary to the plot.  This brings us to the death of Carisman.  This poor guy was doomed from the start, but I'd forgotten how he died.  A lesser talent would have used this red shirt to advertise the deadliness of the Koden, or the Rake, or the Maw Grint, or even Uhl Belk himself.  By having the Urdas come back and kill Carisman, off screen, when he tries to save them from the dangers of the city is much more satisfying and the mark or a mature writer.  I say the mark of a "mature writer" because of the economy it shows: it weaves the Urdas into the world of the story by making them more than a random encounter, it also provides Carisman with a complete story by giving meaning to his death.  Nothing introduced is wasted here.  All the elements weave back into the story and infuse the main narrative with greater pathos since Eldwist has claimed the one character who seemed somehow resistant to its cheerless gloom.  Even the fact that Carisman dies offscreen contributes to the tone by denying us any sharp and violent action that would cut against the growing sense of solidification and despair.

Walker finally get some screen time here as the title character of the book.  I argue that he's really taken up his role as Druid of Shannara when he faces the Koden, but Walker doesn't understand yet what he's done.  Now, he gets to wrestle with choosing the choice he has already made.  Some readers find Walker a bit of a whiner, but his particular flavor of angst doesn't bother me.  Twenty and thirty year-olds have these kinds of issues as they try to square who they've become with who they thought they were supposed to be.  Maybe it will bug me when I'm fifty.

Uhl Belk is pretty darn cool, I do have to say.  This is the atypical Brooks book in that the final baddy isn't some sort of horrible, faceless monster.  I love his choice of "The Thinker" as the form in which Belk chooses to appear.  As the original statue is the capstone for the doors of Hell, so belk sits and ponders in the Hell of his own making.  Like Dante's shades, he too can think, but has lost the good if intellect.  The whole conversation with Belk is wonderfully and hauntingly done.  I did notice the return of the strange magical eroticism that we see in Brin's confrontation with the Maelmord in The Wishsong of Shannara.  This time, it reminded me a bit of The Moon Pearl.  I'm not sure what Brooks is doing here.  Maybe he's just trying to make us feel discomfited?  It worked for Alien.

Chapter 27 will return us to Pe Ell.  I'm looking forward to polishing this thing off, so we'll see how far I've gotten next time.  Best wishes until then! 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Link to Cool Zombie Thoughts

Jess over at Homemaking Through the Church Year has some interesting thoughts on the U.S.'s current zombie fad from a Christian perspective.  I hope she will follow this post up with more of the same!  If that peaks your interest, follow the link here.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

More Druid of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CLXX

Another brief post today bringing us up to the beginning of chapter 22.


Much of novel writing is the art of taking characters and putting them in situations that push them to the breaking point.  When the cast is an ensemble, this also means pushing the company to its limits as well.  The Fellowship of the Ring ends with "The Breaking of the Fellowship."  In the stone city of Eldwist, Terry Brooks pushes his own "little company" to its limits leading to a lesser "breaking of the fellowship."  Having sundered his company into three groups (Pe Ell, Morgan/Dees, Quickening/Walker/Carisman), Brooks then makes the interesting decision to break away from his sundered fellowship and take up the story of Wren Ohmsford.

Wren is the odd man out through the first two books getting (I think) only four chapters to herself.  It's ok, she's an interesting and easy-going enough character to put on the back burner for a while.  The threat, however, is that when we finally take up her thread it will feel as if we've wandered into a different story.  Coll and Par are already slipping away from us, having to go through another barely-connected saga may put them beyond our reach even when they come back for the finale in book four.  Maybe that wouldn't be a problem if the two brothers weren't such "light" characters when compared with the rest of the cast.  They seem to belong far more to the world of the original trilogy than the new world that Terry Brooks has opened up for us.

That said, I wonder if Wren needed to come in at this point.  Brooks makes a deliberate decision to turn our attention elsewhere right after his main group reach their breaking point.  Is this intended to give the reader an emotional break?  Is it a ploy to keep us from getting board now that the "little company" has hit a wall?  Either might be a valid reason to turn aside to look at Wren for a chapter -if the distraction really works.  We'll see if it does as I continue reading.

That's all for now.  Enjoy the weekend!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

More Druid of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CLXIX

This will be a brief note today, but I've had some break-throughs in my thinking about Terry Brook's The Druid of Shannara, and I wanted to commit them to writing.  Today's post will only cover up to the end of book 19.


Tone.  It all comes down to tone.  In prior Brooks novels, it is the pacing that drives the book.  Mistakes can be forgiven because episode follows episode in such a flood of action and intrigue that the reader doesn't have time to set the book down.  This is the old way of it, and masters of the pulp genre like Burroughs, Moorcock, and Zelazny, all used it to great effect (though they certainly knew the necessity of tone as well!).  With The Druid of Shannara, however, Brooks makes the break-through of holding the reader's attention by virtue of tone.  There's a delicious rainy-day melancholy to The Druid of Shannara that keeps you reading even though there's very little action compared to the earlier works.  The image of the lonely Maw Grint towering over the stone city of Eldwist (New York?) is worthy of Mike Mignola and the prowlings of the Rake seem like the Matrix eight years too early.  These same creatures in a prior Brooks novel would never have that piquant twist of melancholy that elevates them into higher ranks of the middle brow.  They would have been another set of monsters to be fought in flashy style and then promptly dispensed with.  In the same way, compare Quickening with earlier leading ladies such as the feisty Amberle, or look at how Horner Dees compares with Slanter, or Pe Ell with Garret Jax.  Walker and Morgan are certainly and improvement over Brin and Rone.  Even the villain, Uhl Belk, has a mysterious majesty that is far more subtle and intriguing than the Mord Wraiths or the Warlock Lord.  In each case, Brooks has added some touch of melancholy, something "oblique" that keeps them from falling into the simple stereotypes that dominate his earlier work and adds a sense of maturity, complexity, interior space, that prior novels simply didn't have time for.  That's my current take at least.  See what you think.  

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Out in the Rain or Platypus Weather

There's something transfiguring about rain.  It changes all the colors, mutes the sounds, slows our pace, turns our reflections inward.  Rain shows us things we've missed before: they were there all the time, but the light wasn't right for seeing them.

I went for a walk with my wife this morning in the public gardens.  Since it was wet and drizzly, we saw almost no one.  Those few we did see didn't linger.  They passed us and were gone.  By ourselves, then, we wandered as we pleased; watched a crawfish, followed butterflies, searched for lizards, looked out over the lake from the safety of a Japanese Tea House.  With the grey sky, all the colors were deep and rich.  The greens were almost iridescent.

My grandfather was a gardener.  He worked with Gallic stubbornness in the rocky New England soil until he made it fruitful.  I remember when he visited us in California and stopped dumb-struck at the size of the neighbor's roses.  With all the fervor of a seasoned expert he accosted the man in his thick Massachusetts accent expecting to wring from him the Hermetic secret of the giant rose blossoms.  Our neighbor was dumbfounded in turn and told him that "they just grow like that."  It was a crushing blow and brings to my mind images of Wiley Coyote plunging to his doom off yet another cliff.  It doesn't rain much in California, but the soil is some of the most fertile in the world.  Rain is plentiful in Southern New England, but the glacial soil is so rocky that it's only with great effort that anything not native to that land will grow.

In New England, it rains, snows, sleets, and occasionally hails for a good portion of the year.  It's true as well that the soil is poor.  But there are colors that can only be seen when it rains, and flowers that you only notice when you care for them.   

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

More Druid of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CLXVIII

Those of us who were book worms growing up know what it is to have literary role models.  I'm not talking about every geek who wants to be the next Tolkien (something I was fervently guilty of as a kid).  Instead, I mean that those who love to read as children often find themselves selecting characters that they wish they could be like; characters that show them one possible image of themselves.  The Magus Zoroaster, my dead child, / Met his own image walking in the garden. / That apparition, sole of men, he saw.  So, when I was in Jr. High, I always wished I could be like Walker Boh.  He was introverted, learned, intuitive, got to dress in black, loved nature, and was respected as a natural leader.  In short, he was a kind of cool that very awkward and uncool Jr. High me could envision being one day.  Nowadays, I dress in black, have a beard and both my arms.  Make of that what you will.

Onto the review.  We're covering up through about half of Chapter 17.  Don't continue reading if you don't want to know what happens.

Actually, since there isn't that much happening in terms of action, there's not much to spoil.  Having enlisted the help of Tracker Horner Dees, the little company push north over the mountains and down towards Eldwist and the Tiderace.  While traveling in the mountains they meet Carisman, a troubadour who has been made king the Urpas.  He negotiates their escape from Urpa territory so long as they take him along.  This makes Pe Ell increasingly testy.  During the escape, Morgan and Quickening are washed over a cliff and inexplicably have Mad Wild Tree Sex on an islet.  Rejoining the group the next day, Quickening and Morgan continue to journey to Eldwist casting amorous glances all the way.  That is until they come to the Koden, a creature which guards the gates to Uhl Belk's realm.  Now Walker Boh gets to show his stuff and communes with the Koden, convincing them to let the group pass.  And... that's where I had to leave off reading and go to bed...

Scattered thoughts:

1. I love the episode with the Koden.  This is the first time Brooks has given us a monster and done something different with it.  The whole scene has a wonderful sense of tension tempered with sorrow that sets a wonderful emotional tone for the stone city of Eldwist.  This is also our first chance in the novel to see Walker acting as Allanon.  Here, and not at Paranor, is really where he claims the mantel of "Druid of Shannara."  I think it's also important that his career begins with an act of empathy and compassion.

2. For all that this is Walker's book, we see remarkably little of the guy.  I think Brooks is doing this intentionally.  As with Quickening, our sense of awe and wonder with Walker will decrease the more we get into his thoughts -indeed the more time he's on screen.  If Walker Boh is going to become Allanon, he needs to become as distant and inscrutable as Allanon.  Again, Brooks' choice to begin this distancing in the novel dedicated to Walker is interesting a daring; another sign of real authorial growth.

3. I wonder if any of this was influenced by a game or six of Dungeons and Dragons.  By the time the PCs reach Eldwist, we've got a classic group: tracker, rogue/assassin, barbarian, druid, bard, and NPC McGuffin.  Even the way the episodes are constructed reminds me of a good GM trying to make sure that there's something special for each character to do during the session.  Eldwist itself reminds me of a dungeon in The Legend of Zelda or Final Fantasy.  If these books are ever adapted into films, the design team are going to have a field day with Eldwist.

4. Mad Wild Tree Sex is forced and dumb.

5. I was surprised at how likable Carisman is as a character.  I'd completely forgotten about him.  When he first arrived on scene, I thought he'd be another annoying whimsy of Brooks' rather omnivorous authorial tastes, but even his constant Bombadil-like poetry is somehow fitting.

So there you have it: one part nostalgia, one part literary review.  Meantime, the Platypus continues to speak Truth.  

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Great Tolkien Musings

More great Tolkien musings from Herch over here.  This time, the subject is "mingling."  Follow the tag on the post for additional worthy musings on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien from Herch as well.

Friday, July 06, 2012

More Druid of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CLXVII

I'm thirteen years old, sitting in a car parked near a little cemetery in western Massachusetts.  It's Summer, and the trees are waving in the breeze, splashing light and shadow like water.  A man with peppery-gray hair and wiry frame, a seasoned, old-time Methodist lay-preacher (the kind that sang songs like they meant them and gave altar calls) taps on the window.  He's a guest speaker at the Methodist Summer Camp I've just been attending and he's heard that one of the rougher boys had given me a hard time.  As a teacher now, I know what that means from the adult side of the equation.  Back then, I'm just a kid with his nose stuck in a book.  I step out of the car and hear his apologies and answer his questions.  As a polite note, he asks what I'm reading.  I tell him it's The Scions of Shannara by Terry Brooks.  He nods and saunters off to speak with my mother.  I get back in the car and keep reading.  The leaves continue to spill light and shadow.  I heard that old Methodist lay-preacher preach several summers in a row.  He was a great old man.  His religion was simple, and he meant it.  The only name I know him by is "Coach."  When I pick up a Shannara book, I don't remember much of the plot, but I do remember Coach, the cemetery, and the light on the leaves.

This post covers chapters 12 and 13 of Terry Brooks' The Druid of Shannara, book two in the Heritage of Shannara Series.

*Plot Points Below*

 As you know if you've been reading this series of posts, I haven't read The Druid of Shannara since Jr. High and I remember very little of it.  One reason for that may be that much of the book is spent relating the characters' various subjective responses to Quickening.  If Alcibides is the Erotic Man, then Quickening is a sort of Erotic Woman.  She is mastered by her need to fulfill her father's mandate and her great powers of attraction foster a blind need in her followers to serve her.  Since her followers, however, are to varying degrees rational men, much of the book is spent watching them reason (or rationalize) about their need to follow Quickening.  It's an interesting idea for a fantasy novel, this subjective turn.  The conceit in itself is worthy of the most scathing feminist critique I can think of (she's is a walking sex object), but that subjective turn is still interesting.

On a more banal note, Honer Dees returns us to Terry Brooks' fascination with trackers and pioneers.  I've made a point of griping about this in both The Elfstones of Shannara and The Wishsong of Shannara as an element unsuited to medieval fantasy.  However, the world of Shannara is a post-apocalyptic one, though it masquerades as medieval, and I concede Brooks' fundamental right to people his future North America as he chooses.  I object to the choice on aesthetic grounds as these American Western touches abruptly change the "flavor" of the story whenever they appear.

The final note is a quibble that relates back to the first note, and that is that it would be better if Brooks could find a way of showing Quickening's powers of fascination rather than continually telling us how fascinating she is.  However, his choice to continue to keep her distant is a wise one given what she is and how she functions as a plot device.  I understand that the choice makes it difficult to "show" when the whole point is not to "show" her so much that she becomes familiar.  I still think it can be done, but that probably marks the line between "good" writer and "great."

That's all I have for now.  Thanks for putting up with my nostalgia (longing for a homecoming). 
Somewhere, those leaves are still dancing in light...

Thursday, July 05, 2012

One Pay-Off of Studying History: The Platypus Reads Part CLXVI

The discipline of History, in the United States, fought for some time and with some vigor to be considered one of the sciences.  In the end, sociology got the coveted slot with its studies and quantifiable data and history was shoved firmly in the Humanities (stuff that isn't real and that we don't know why people get paid to study it since it's really just an elitist private hobby).  I'm told that in Germany, however, History has been firmly considered a "craft" in the "Humanities" since time immemorial.  Following the idea of history being a "craft" led me to think of the arts.  In music, the point is not to learn all the notes and thunk out endless renditions of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," but to be able to sit down and enjoy hearing Bach rolling out from your fingers.  Or take learning a language.  Is the purpose of learning Greek really to be able to rattle off declensions and puzzle through some Aesop, or to be able to be able to hear the strange music of Homer in his own tongue (or as close as we can get to it)?  What, then, is the "payoff" of learning the "craft" of History?

Ignoring the usual social utility that high school teachers preach and guild historians deplore, let's follow up the analogy of playing Bach or reading Homer.  There are works of history that thrill with the power of Bach and move with music of the Iliad.  These are works by historians for historians; works of art and not mere educational tools.  There's a pleasure that comes when after all the hours spent mastering the intricacies of historical method and theory you can sit down with a book written by a true practitioner of the art and enjoy.  Yes, their are volumes of history out there that are like fine wine to the epicure or a German Steinway to a Piano snob. 

Are you still with me?  Let me head down into the stacks then and I'll reveal what vintages I recommend.  Ah, here!  Let me recommend The Death of Woman Wang, by Jonathan D. Spence.  As a delicate and moving micro-history, it stands at the highpoint of the current American Art.  Would you like something of less recent vintage?  Try Mont Saint-Michel et Chartres by the old master, Henry Adams.  Maybe it's something farther afield that you desire?  A taste of the continent?  Here we have Memories of Odysseus by Francois Hartog.  A wonderful and winding discourse worthy of its title with just the right tang of structuralism/post-structuralism to loosen that top collar button a bit.  There you have it.  But, be warned my friend, these are fine vintages, not some common vin de table.  To truly appreciate them requires a refined and subtle taste.

History may be many things, but it is not less than an art.  Like an art, there is an aesthetic payoff for years of hard study and practice.  Of course, the real mastery is not merely to read and enjoy, but to enjoy and write.  To your health!

N.B.- I've discussed, briefly, my breakdown of secondary sources and the order in which I think they should be employed here.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

More Druid of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CLXV

We were visiting with the Game Guru and Co. for a few days so there hasn't been much time for reading.  However, I think I've gotten through enough material for another post.  This review, then, should take us from chapter 8 up through the beginning of chapter 12.

*Stuff You Might Not Want To Know If You Haven't Read The Book*

Let's carry the plot forward then.

We've learned a little more about the fate of the two Ohmsford brothers.  Coll is a prisoner in Southwatch.  Rimmer Dall tells him this is for his protection as Par is a Shadowen and could hurt Coll if he doesn't learn to control his powers.  Coll, of course, plots his escape.  Par, meantime, eventually gets over his bought of insanity brought on by the belief that he killed his brother.  Damson does lots of reassuring and the Mole keeps things suitably Gothic.  Once Par comes back to his senses, he begins exploring the mysteries of the Sword of Shannara, but he can't figure out how to activate the blade's power.  Federation soldiers, predictably, begin searching the sewers and Par and Damson are forced to flee.

Skipping over little Wren, who hasn't figured into this story much so far, we move back to Walker and Co.  Walker, sick and dying, goes back to hearthstone with Cogline and tries to find a cure for the poison of the Asphinx.  Time runs out when Rimmer Dall shows up with a horde of degenerate Shadowen and orders them to kill Cogline.  The old man puts up quite a fight before grabbing the Druid histories (as Allanon had instructed) and disapearing in a blaze of glory.  Walker is trapped under the burning house and Rimmer Dall, thinking his work complete, leaves.  Quickening shows up after a couple days with her two disciples and frees Walker.  After recruiting him, she reveals to the three men that they are going to get the Black Elfstone from the grasp of Uhl Belk, the Stone King.  More importantly, Quickening will not be able to use her magic to help them.  The three heroes must rely on the magic they posses to accomplish the quest.

With that out of the way, let's examine things a bit.

Coll, like Morgan Leah, is growing into an interesting character.  He has some sense, and is able to rise to the occasion.  Par, on the other hand, in spite of some earth-shattering events, is till the same character we met in the beginning.  If Brooks doesn't allow him to grow, he'll soon be outpaced by the other characters.  The only thing that saves the Par and Damson sections right now is the tight writing.  Brooks has simply refined his craft to the point where he can use plot, pacing, and scenery to cover for weak characters.  That's quite an accomplishment, but it can only hold up for so long.  The fact is that the rest of the story is supporting Par's dead weight right now.  Par is the key character in these books, and if Brooks allows this situation to continue, it could really cripple (though not kill) the whole series.  As a side note, I am just glad that nothing horrible has happened to the Mole yet.  In a well-run RPG, he'd die in some truly awful way just to get the PCs really riled up and ready to rip the villain to pieces.

Why Do we keep skipping over Wren?  She's really the cast-off of the whole series at this point.  I know she gets book III all to herself, but she needs more build-up if the series is feel like an integrated whole.  Oh well, maybe Brooks has that one covered.  Moving on, Quickening seems to settle into the plot better the more she acts like Frodo and the less she acts like Christ.  The Shannara books can't really carry the weight of Christ-event, but they can carry the weight of an elemental sent to accomplish a task for a faerie lord that will encompass her death.  Brooks does a good job of preserving Quickening's alterity so far, though that will remain the constant challenge of this book.  Thee three men, oddly enough, seem to be welding well into a team.  Now that Morgan Leah can carry a bit more weight, as Walker acknowledges, we can move the quest into a little more mature territory (from teens to twenty and thirty somethings).  This will, of course, put strain on the Par and Coll narratives if they can't mature enough to keep pace.  On a different note, now that we know a bit more about the quest, I'm still not sure if it was wise of Terry Brooks to insert another villain.  Uhl Belk still seems to feel both like an insertion and a distraction.  We'll see if he can be weaved back into the main story, but I remain skeptical.

There you go: The Druid of Shannra, chapters 8 through 12.  Happy Fourth everyone!           

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Looking at Types of Secondary Sources: The Platypus Reads Part CLXIV

Chugging along in my efforts to keep up wit my degree (M.A. History), I've been working my way through a pile of books on Ancient Greece for over a year now.  Some of them are old favorites (Francois Hartog's Memories of Odysseus, The Cambridge Companion to Homer), some have been new works by favorite authors (Robin Lane Fox's Travelling Heroes in the Epic Age of Homer), and some have been completely new (Vassos Karageorghis' Early Cyprus).  Then there's also that matter of learning to read Greek (we'll see how that goes).  Anyhow, all this study has opened my eyes to things I ought to have picked up earlier, or that maybe I had but was too busy to put into words.  Very few people are born researchers.   It usually takes decades to produce a real historian, and there's no reason to suppose that I'm any different.  In fact, the one admonition I received at Oxford that always stuck with me was "you need to take more time to think."  So here's me thinking.

I've realized (probably a day late and a dollar short) that secondary sources, at least in the field of history, can be broken down into several categories:

1. Books About Books: These are works that seek to grapple with the primary sources (those writers writing closest to the event).  In general, these works seek to extrapolate and organize information (both that which the author intended and that which he (or rarely, she) left unwittingly) and bring it to bear either on a historical question or on the question of how we ought to read the given text.  For examples see: The Cambridge Companion to Homer.

2. Books About Cultures, People, and Events: While these books will make use of primary sources, their goal is broader than the work of any one ancient author.  These are the books we generally think of when we think "History."  Drawing from many different sources, and often relying heavily on archeology, they seek to tell us what past peoples, places, battles, etc. might have been like (the past as it essentially was, not as it actually was) or to grapple with issues raised by said reconstructions.  For examples see: Early Greece by Oswyn Murray, or Salamis by Barry Strauss.

3. Books About Systems and Mentalities: Some works in the field of history aren't about any one particular person, battle, or culture, but are focused on a particular issue raised by the study of several different people, places, or cultures.  These works often bring to bear the fruits of sociological, linguistic, and psychological studies to examine broader questions about the past.  Often, they seek to reconstruct the mental world of a culture, or a group of cultures.  They may seek to refine or correct work done by books in categories 1 and 2 (and thus I've given them their own number though we might elide them with 2).  For examples see: Memories of Odysseus by Francois Hartog, or Traveling Heroes in the Epic Age of Homer by Robin Lane Fox. 

4. Books About the Field of History: Books in this category focus on theory and method.  They aren't focused on what happened in the past so much as how we are or ought to be going about our study of the past.  Sometimes, these books are written for the instruction of new initiates into the field.  Other times, they are written in response to some scholarly controversy or to advocate a new method or model.  For examples see: Who Killed Homer? by Victor Davis Hanson, or Decoding Ancient History by Thomas and Wick.  

Generally, in a course of study 2 should proceed 3.  4 and 1 can go together quite nicely as well as 1 and 3 (see Peter Hunt's Slaves, Warfare, and Ideology). Often, I think, 2 should proceed 1, and 1 should only be attempted after reading the primary source in question.  Of course, I'm always going to push for the primacy of the primary sources, but I will confess that reading a type 2 book before plunging in to the primary sources can enrich your understanding of them and make the journey more fruitful by supplying a little context for what's seen along the way. 

Well that's what I have so far.  Let me know if you think I ought to add another category or abolish one for simplicity's sake, etc.