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!