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!