Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane: The Platypus Reads Part CCLII

I needed a break from A Treasury of Modern Fantasy (too many authors and too many styles coming in too fast) so I decided to turn back to an author whose work I've enjoyed exploring: Robert E. Howard.  This time, however, I decided to skip over Howard's famous Conan yarns and instead take a look at one of his earlier creations, Solomon Kane.  The idea of a puritan occult detective was too intriguing to pass up.  I have the whole collection of Kane's tales and I do intend to blog them all.  Right now, my little literary detour has only encompassed the first two short stories so I'm going to record my thoughts on them right away and get back to the rest as I have time.

Skulls in the Stars

Solomon Kane makes his debut with this classic bit of English Gothic including a haunted moor, a vengeful ghost, and a solitary miser.  Howard's Kane fits the portrait of the archetypal puritan: grim, principled, metaphysical, with an iron sense of right and wrong.  I have a feeling Cotton Mather might have liked to see himself portrayed this way in a graphic novel.  What the author adds to the mix is his own adoration of courage and brute strength that while rightfully absent in his character is explicitly present in his narrator.  This creates an odd, ironic gap between the main character and the teller of the tale that allows the audience to cheer Kane on without feeling encouraged to adopt his worldview.  If that tone persists, it may be one of the keys to the likability of this early Howard creation.

The Right Hand of Doom

The title looks like a nod to Milton and seems to have received a nod from Mike Mignola in return (Hellboy Volume V is titled The Right Hand of Doom).  This short-short makes novel use of the standard puritan trope: the witch hanging.  Howard is careful to preserve the feel of the 16th-17th century in this piece while also including the pacing and action that a modern audience expects.  His knowledge of folklore works hand-in-glove with both the features to bring the whole story home in a way that is worthy of a Hellboy weird tale.  As in the prior story, Kane shows a firm sense of right and wrong which is still subtle enough to be at odds with the breezy moralist.  This helps the stern character earn our respect and if Howard keeps it up it will pay large dividends as the series continues.

So there you have it: The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane.  It's not as polished as Howard's latter works, but it still has all of his raw energy and brilliant knack for spinning a rippin' good yarn.

Monday, December 23, 2013

A Treasury of Modern Fantasy (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCLI

Wow, it's hard to read anthologies at anything other than a slow crawl.  The change from author to author and style to style is exhausting.  Slowing down is a good thing, though, if it makes time for reflection.  That seems like one good reason to create an anthology: to force readers to slow down and reflect.

With that as a preamble, let's move on to today's selections.

The Black Ferris by Ray Badbury

I didn't expect to see this Sci-Fi heavy hitter in a Fantasy collection, but there you go.  I've tried to get into Bradbury once or twice and failed.  His Martian Chronicles, in particular, resisted all my best efforts.  This short story, however, worked like a charm.  The sense of atmosphere in particular is masterfully done (a sort of Tom Sawyer strays into Edgar Allan Poe).  My only complaint is that there isn't more of it, but apparently Bradbury already fixed that by expanding the story into Something Wicked This Way Comes.

This raises a good point.  Bradbury lived long enough to reap the harvest so many Sci-Fi and Fantasy greats planted: he was able to eventually publish his books on his terms.  The rules of the market through mid-century where that Fantasy and Science Fiction were for magazines and comic books and that they were to be read by kids and teens.  The first rule began to change in the 1960s, but U.S. publishers were still unsure if works of speculative fiction could be sold to a mass adult audience.  Fantasy proved it  could draw a mass audience in 1977 with the publication and record success of Terry Brooks' Sword of Shannara, but that book and its immediate successors were all aimed at pre-teens and teens.  That would mean (if my calculations are right) that mass-market Sci-Fi and Fantasy novels for an adult audience are primarily a thing of the 80s and 90s.  Except for Bradbury, all of the great Fantasists so far reviewed were dead by the 90s (again, if my calculations are correct).  Practically speaking, this means that many of these writers were forced to work under very narrow constraints that inhibited real literary flourishing.  Bradbury's long life ensured that he eventually got out from under these restrictions and made a name for himself as a writer that endures after so many others have been forgotten.

Displaced Person by Eric Frank Russell

Genius.  This is a work of ironic genius.  Maybe a little melodramatic, but pure genius.  Especially if you're a U.S. citizen, this short-short is worth spending a few minutes to read and ponder.  If this one hasn't made at least a few middle and high school literature textbooks, I'd be surprised.  Unfortunately, like so many short stories, this one relies on not knowing the plot or ending to achieve its effect, so I can't really say to much more about it.  If you've read this one or track it down, feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section.

Our Fair City by Robert Heinlein

Speaking of authors I didn't expect to see in this collection, here's the Dean of Science Fiction.  This Fantasy Short has all the flair of the best Heinlein pieces but I'd never have recognized it as one of his unless it had been pointed out to me.  That's one sign of a great writer: the ability to work excellently in a variety of fields.  Speaking of variety, this is also one of the few pieces in the collection so far that isn't a horror story.  Our Fair City is a bit of urban fantasy that's actually pretty witty.  After all the heavier fair, this story comes as a welcome change.

In brief, Our Fair City takes place in the contemporary world of 1948 as a parking lot attendant, a sly journalist, and a magical whirl wind attempt to clean up a corrupt city government.  In Heinlein's capable hands, the story skirts absurdity and integrates the realistic and fantastic elements into a believable whole - a feat that minimalist urban fantasy doesn't always succeed at.  As a plus, there's none of the dirty old uncles or sexually frank "modern" women that usually people Heinlein's novels, especially his later works (guess he lived long enough to be allowed to take the kid gloves off too).   

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Factory I Didn't Know Was There: Strange Platypus(es)

These fragments I have shored against my ruins.
-T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

There was once a Tiffany Glass factory in the town where I grew up.  I didn't know that.  It's in ruins now, but apparently you can still pick up handfuls of brightly colored glass if you know where to look.

Brightly colored glass.

From pieces of brightly colored glass came all the amazing works of the Tiffany studio.  I've seen them in Boston, Ohio, and even Redlands California.  Wherever I have seen them, Tiffany windows are remarkable for their beauty -and my home town played a part in the making of that beauty.  Much of the downtown is in ruins now and those ruins are slowly being cleared away in a decades-long process of urban renewal.  Whatever once flanked the downtown has been covered by the woods and is now a state park.  I don't know what will happen to the old glass works.  Maybe they've already been cleared away.  What is certain is that those pieces of glass will disappear back into the soil taking their beauty with them.  In the long run, so what: they're just broken glass?  But from those pieces of glass came light and glory that still graces palaces and cathedrals.  What will replace them?

Towns are like that.  One layer of human settlement builds upon the buried remains of another.  The Puritans built upon the old Indian fort.  The Victorians built upon the Puritan township.  The Moderns reorganized what was left when the mills faded into a quaint little suburb.  The suburb stagnated until it found its equilibrium by cutting taxes and luring in a little light industry.  Each generation shores up the ruins of its ancestors; from the fragments a history is made.

I was a little piece of glass picked off the pile and brought far away.

Be mindful of these bones,
Be mindful of these bones.
Wash them, cradle them,lay them in the earth
Till they lie as thick as glacial rock,
In the twinkling of an eye
They will be changed.   

Volsungsaga Rap: Academic Platypus (sortof)

I'll drink up all the mead that you got on your shelf
But first let me introduce myself
My name is Sin-Fee-Oat-Lee
I like my poisons topical most-lee
But if any a you want to go rounds with me
I'll bust out my sword and make you Dee-Ee-Dee.

A Treasury of Modern Fantasy (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCL

Our next two authors are husband and wife team Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore.  This serves as a reminder that the American Fantasy Market did not stay a boys club for long.  Exactly how hard women had to work to bust up "the smoke filled room," I don't know, but the fact is that they did and its been a co-ed party ever since.

Call Him Demon by Henry Kuttner

We continue our trek through the history of American fantasy with yet another piece in the horror genre laced with Sci-Fi and Fantasy elements.  Kuttner, unlike Boucher, takes up Henry James' cue in A Turn of the Screw that horror is always worse when encountered by children.  James gave us two children in his classic as a way of "uping the ante."  Kuttner gives us four.  While I don't know that that increases the horror, it does allow him to play with the line between children's games and their experience of reality.  Throughout the work, we are always free to doubt the nature of the children's experiences and that filter is what creates the tension in Call Him Demon.  Even at the end, we cannot be entirely sure what has happened.  As with They Bite, this uncertainty is what produces the horrific effect.  The monster is always scariest when you can't quite see him.

Daemon by C.L. Moore

Daemon, by C.L. Moore brings us firmly back into the realm of fantasy.  It also returns us to the first person which we haven't seen employed since The Rats in the Walls.  Like The Rats in the Walls, Daemon taps into the world of Victorian occult pseudo-history (again, an element that has been missing since the Lovecraft piece).  Here, however, the effect of the pseudo-historical element is not to produce terror, but a sense of wonder and loss.  Adding to the sense of wonder is another feature we've seen in Lovecraft and Kuttner: the unreliable narrator.  Luiz o bobo, the character through whose eyes we experience Daemon, is a simpleton and may therefore be a holy fool or simply the victim of hallucinations.

Moving from storytelling technique into message, this is the first piece to introduce the tired Romantic/Victorian trope that Christianity destroyed the artistic beauty of the Classical World: "thou hast triumphed, O pale Galilean, and the world has grown grey with thy breath."  A brief acquaintance with Medieval literature (may I recommend Chaucer's The Knight's Tale and Dante's Divine Comedy) should be enough to blow that out of the water.  The mainstream of Christian thought embraced the Classical World with tact and energy and wove it into Medieval Europe and the Renaissance.  If anything, it is Modernity that has breathed upon the World and religion and made them grey with its breath.  Still, this is an important trope in Fantasy Literature and I'm sure it's not the last time it will come up in this collection.  There is a distinct anti-Christian bias in American Science Fiction and Fantasy that continues (for many reasons) right down to this day.  To clarify: I wouldn't call C.L. Moore's Daemon anti-Christian, but it is peddling traditionally anti-Christian ideas -and she has a right to do that- I simply observe them and dispute their accuracy.  It's one more piece of the puzzle that is 20th century American Fantasy.   

Monday, December 16, 2013

A Treasury of Modern Fantasy (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCXLIX

Yesterday Was Monday by Theodore Sturgeon

I've already reviewed Theodore Sturgeon's Yesterday Was Monday, so I'll post the link to those thoughts here.

They Bite by Anthony Boucher

Every now and then I come across a story that really scares me.  This was one of those stories.  What starts out as a spy thriller takes a turn towards folk lore, then urban legend, and finally into outright horror.  The pace is slow and leisurely, allowing the horror to grow without alerting the reader to its presence at any given point.  Then the end comes and wallops you in a literary master-stroke that leaves no room for mercy.  The authorial restraint such a move takes must be phenomenal.  If you have an interest in literary horror, this is one to pick up.  If you have any interest in writing horror, pay close attention to how Boucher manages the ending.  If you scare easily, take a pass.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Treasury of Modern Fantasy (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCXLVIII

We continue our journey through A Treasury of Modern Fantasy edited by Terry Carr and Martin Harry Greenberg with tales by C.M. Kornbluth and Clark Ashton Smith.

Thirteen O'Clock by C.M. Kornbluth

The rise of modern Fantasy has been closely linked with that of Science Fiction.  In some pieces, it's hard to tell them apart.  Thirteen O'Clock by C.M. Kornbluth is one of those pieces.  I'm not sure whether we're in a bad parody of Phantastes or an episode of Buck Rogers; possibly, we're just in a seeder part of Oz.  I think this confusion may be intentional.  Thirteen O'Clock has all the hallmarks of a story meant to sell: genre mixing, thin characters, fast-pacing, a little sex, and lots of surprises.  This isn't a work of carefully crafted epic fantasy, but a quick yarn meant to bring home the bacon in a crunched publishing market.  In that respect, Thirteen O'Clock reminds us that American Fantasy grew up in a very different climate from the English one that produced Eddison, Dunsany, Tolkien, and Lewis.  Where these Englishmen were respectable authors writing novels for an established publishing world, Americans like Lovecraft, Smith, Howard, and Kornbluth made a living trying to sell short stories to magazines that came and went like mayflies.  It's hard to imagine anything like The Lord of the Rings getting published in such a "down and dirty" atmosphere.  That atmosphere has left its mark on American Fantasy and Science Fiction in a way that even the titanic success of the English authors cannot erase.

The Coming of the White Worm by Clark Ashton Smith

I encountered Clark Ashton Smith a while back during my read through The Mammoth Book of Fantasy.  It was a pleasure to return to his writing: a refined and perfected mix of his two friends', H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, styles.  This particular story had all the best elements of At the Mountains of Madness set in a Hyborian world that was oddly reminiscent of Ursula K. LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea.  In brief, it tells the story of the Wizard Evagh and the great castle of ice that comes to him bearing the White Worm.  Evagh is transported to this strange palace to serve the alien being Rlim Shaikorth along with a number of picked acolytes.  Together, these few men pay homage to the vast worm as he travels the globe destroying coastal towns with the chill of the outer void.  Rlim Shaikorth promises Evagh and the others knowledge and power if they will serve him and the promise seems fulfilled as one after another of the acolytes disappears -supposedly into a higher state of being.  I won't spoil the ending, but you can imagine that Evagh begins to have his doubts.  Like Abraham Merritt's The Woman of the Wood and H.P. Lovecraft's The Rats in the Walls, this is one of the pieces that I truly enjoyed.  I don't know how many more stories in the collection will be written in this vein, but I hope to find a few more gems along the way.

Next up, we have a break from the serious with Theodore Sturgeon's Yesterday Was Monday, and then a return to horror with Anthony Boucher's The Bite.       

Friday, December 06, 2013

A Treasury of Modern Fantasy (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCXLVII

The next short story up for review is Abraham Merritt's The Woman in the Wood.  I read Merritt's The Moon Pearl several years ago and highly enjoyed it.  The Woman in the Wood was a welcome return to Merritt's weird world of pagan peril.  The central image, a shell-shocked World War I vet who finds healing in a chivalric grove of sentient trees is worthy of Tolkien (indeed, I wonder if he read it -the time period would be right).  The eerie tone, however, is all Merritt's own as is the unnerving moral ambiguity of the ending.  Tolkien wouldn't have put much stock in such trees, even if the men who opposed them were as orc-like as those of The Woman in the Wood.  I won't say too much more in case you want to go out and read this one.  Sufficient to say that Abraham Merritt now has my attention and I will look forward to my next encounter with any work that comes from his pen.

After the creepiness of the first two selections, a little levity is in order and that is exactly what the editors give us in Trouble With Water by H.L. Gold.  Trouble With Water reminds me very much of another story in this collection, Yesterday Was Monday by Theodore Sturgeon.  Both stories have that strange and surreal whimsy that one finds in particularly ridiculous bad dreams.  Trouble With Water takes a particularly vexed and harried New York concession stand operator and punishes him ruthlessly for his one callous and cruel outburst.  Specifically, Mr. Greenberg is cursed with an inability to touch water.  That most necessary element runs from him and anything belonging to him for seventeen hilarious pages.  There isn't any deep meaning to the story, but if you think you might enjoy the irksome (but ultimately resolved) torments of a proto-Homer Simpson then Trouble With Water by H.L. Gold is definitely worth your time.

That's it for now.  Up next is C.M. Kornbluth's pulp sci-fi-fantasy mash-up Thirteen O'Clock.    

Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Treasury of Modern Fantasy: The Platypus Reads Part CCXLVI

After finishing up Marion Starkey's The Devil in Massachusetts, I've decided to add a little lighter reading to my list.  Interspersed with my academic reading will be A Treasury of Modern Fantasy, a collection of the best magazine fantasy short stories up to 1980 compiled and edited by Terry Carr and Martin Harry Greenberg.  It should be a nice complement to The Mammoth Book of Fantasy which I read several summers ago.  First up on the list of stories is an old favorite by H.P. Lovecraft: The Rats in the Walls.

The Rats in the Walls is one of Lovecraft's best short stories.  Lovecraft's normally over-articulate prose is paired down and his mythos is deployed in a careful, subtle manner that avoids any of the usual C'thulhu gooberishness.  As always, Lovecraft is careful to link the story back to his beloved New England, but the setting in old England adds a sense of the classically gothic that strengthens the tale's atmosphere.  We also get to see Lovecraft deploy his typical tropes of reversion and forbidden knowledge with a deft sense that is often lacking in his more experimental work.  What cinches the deal, ultimately,  is the pacing.  The best Lovecraft tales all feature a sort of creeping dread learned from the progenitor of the art in its short story form, Edgar Allen Poe.  Lovecraft is careful to seed The Rats in the Walls with subtle hints of the horror he intends to unveil that slip beneath the first time reader's radar but create a growing sense of unease.  The end, when it comes, feels completely natural and completely unexpected bringing about a true sense of horror and revulsion.  This isn't a mere one trick horse, either.  On a second read, knowing the ending only increases the horror as all the subtle clues Lovecraft has left for the reader stand out in all their ghastly significance against the calm naivete of the narrator.

So there you have it: The Rats in the Walls by H.P. Lovecraft.  Next up is a piece by another master fantasist, Abraham Merritt, The Woman of the Wood.  I read and enjoyed Merrit's The Moon Pearl several years ago, so I'm looking forward to this next piece.  I'll let you know what I think as soon as I finish.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Long Road: Creative Platypus

So, at long last I'm getting set to wrap up the first draft of my second novel, "The Place of the Skull."  I should have the conclusion and epilogue done by the end of the week.  Then it's forward to editing and back to applying a few things I've learned to draft four of the earlier work in the series, "The Corpse House."  Once that's done (I move on a glacial time-scale), it will be on to plotting the third book tentatively titled "Our Lady of the Wastes."  I may also take a break to mess around with a short story that will go into "Casebook: Volume I" just to get a bead on some of the characters' further trajectories.  Anyhow, it's been lots of fun and I look forward to being able to tie this one up with a big, black bow.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Conference Platypus

Houston has been a bustling place this fall with a host of conferences, lectures, and debates.  For as many as we've made, there have been two or three that we missed.  Of particular note for us was the Providence Classical School Colloquy which turned out to be an even bigger success than the one two years ago.  All the plenary and breakout sessions are now posted online at the school's website.  We've also enjoyed the seasonal round of Lanier lectures, but of particular interest was the HBU debate on the existence of God between Reynolds and Barker (now on Youtube).  Our seniors attended the lecture along with an assortment of teachers and family making for a particularly fun and informative evening.

All of this, of course, is really an elaborate apology for the lack of content on my blog this month but it's also an update to let you know some of the things we've been doing (it also consoles me just a little for missing all the amazing things that have been going on at Biola and the Gettys -no, seriously, every time I get the Getty newsletter I want to bang my head against the desk.).  There's also been the usual round of reading and teaching too which will hopefully produce its share of blog posts in due time.  All that to say: as soon as I get a minute to process all this stuff I'll be sharing it with you.  Until then, the Platypus still speaks Truth.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Sigurd and Fafnir: Whiteboard Platypus

This picture of Sigurd and Fafnir is loosely based on the Hylestad Door.  It's my attempt to honor our transition from Beowulf to The Volsungsaga.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Intimations of the Eschaton: Strange Platypus(es)

Who can catch a forest of falling leaves?

I think every New Englander is born hearing the drumbeats of Armageddon.  Those drumbeats are always there with them: a sound in the back of their minds.  The sound rolls on, soft but steady, without a stop; always heard and so never heard.  Every New Englander is a Puritan in the end: Protestant, Catholic, Agnostic -even Atheist...  Sometimes those drumbeats rise to the fore, and then the quiet hills and meadows erupt.  Ask Sasacus, Philip, Gage, Lee...

I think all of us have some intimation of the Eschaton.  It comes to us when we're not ready: the sudden crack of starry banners caught in a celestial wind.  Then we remember that we are in occupied territory; that we were meant to be more than what we are.  It comes most clearly in our dreams: the first time we fly among the clouds, the sword fight on the tips of the bamboo, the morning we drank from the Firefall and danced.  Look at our dreams, our legends, our deepest longings.  They don't all point back, some of them point forward.

Lord, we know what we are, but not what we may be.  

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Scribling Through Beowulf: Whiteboard Platypus


Trying to help the students envision what the monsters might look like.  Prior efforts can be found here.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Fall Comes to the Platypus: Fragments

It's another hot and green October in the American Southwest.  In Northern lands, the air is cooling and the leaves are changing while pumpkins ripen and cider mulls.  I caught a glimpse this summer of the old pumpkin patch.  Pumpkin picking was always fun -not to mention looking at all the weird and gnarly gourds.  If you could find the right place to stick those, they would dry and keep.  I never did find quite the right place.  Pumpkins occasionally got smashed.  More often they rotted and had to be unceremoniously chucked into the nearest patch of woods.  Still, their decaying bulk added that extra bit of color to that most colorful season.

How much do I really remember, and how much is pictures and endless re-tellings of the same tired old stories?  Augustine thought that memory was a sign of the soul's distention in time.  How far can the members of one soul stretch?  How do I re-member?

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Creative Platypus: Fragment

There was a time when I stood at the top of my drive way on a boulder (it was the highest point I could find) and looked out across the valley all the way to Monroe.  It was Autumn, and the leaves were turning so that all the miles beneath me looked like a bowl of Halloween candy or a fire in a painting hanging on the wall.  That's a trite way of putting it.  Could you have been there, and felt what I felt you would know it for what it was: what Moses saw in the cleft of the rock, or Isaiah in the Temple: the oblique angle of the eschaton, the hem of the garment of the LORD.  But how does one catch hold of falling leaves?  It's not the passing garment of a Jewish rabbi.  If I can but touch the hem of his garment I will be clean.  How do I touch the hem of his garment? 

The Ballad of William Goffe: Creative Platypus



The Ballad of William Goffe

I

Raise the cry in Narragansett
Sachem Philip treads the warpath
Come to drive out all the English
Burn their villages and townships.
Who has heard of old Sassacus
And the terrors of the Pequots
Knows but Philip’s little finger;
Like the bite of whips to scorpions
Are those sachems to his chieftains.
They will come with brands of fire
To the men who burned down Mystic.
Who of them shall bide his coming
In the hour of God’s judgment?

These the words that came to Hadley
With the fear of Philip’s legions,
Of the natives loosed upon them,
By the anger of Jehovah
At their arrogant presumption.
Now from feast they turn to fasting,
Turn from revelry to sorrow,
To beseech the Lord Almighty
That He turn from them his anger,
Spare them from the wrath of Philip,
From his sagamores and chieftains.

II

When the leaves first fell in autumn,
Came the rumor down to Hadley:
Now the natives are against you:
Mount the guards and stand your watches
For the Sachem Philip cometh
And his wrath is hot against ye.
So the men of Hadley labored
Night and day against his coming
Felled the trees and raised the fences
As a guard against his anger.
Thus the autumn turned to winter
And the winter into springtime
But the battle came no closer
And the citizens of Hadley
Now forsook their worthy labor
Left the guard and watchmen sleeping
All through April with her showers;
May and June came with the planting.
Then the call went down from Boston
To the councilmen of Hartford:
Send what men you have to aid us
For the native’s fury waxes
And his power is the greater.
May the Lord avert his coming
By the help that you may send us.
So the men of Hartford hastened
While the sun shone bright on Hadley
And the cornfields grew and ripened
Near the shadows of the forest.

III

Where, oh where now is the watchman?
Where the sentin’l on his marches;
Of his brother’s blood the keeper?
See him dozing by the corn-land
See him lying in the pasture?
Who, oh who with gentle prodding
Thus will venture to awake him?
Not the cries of all the mighty
From his slumber now will move him
Till the sound of golden trumpet
Comes upon him at the judgment.
There he lies with limbs akimbo
And his brains upon the verdure
Where the heathen ax hath dashed them
Like the blood of righteous Abel.
Raise the cry, oh men of Hadley
For King Philip is upon you
Come to slaughter all your children
Burn your village and its houses.

“Bring me fire,” cries the sachem.
And with vault of forest panther
Lights upon a sloping rooftop
Of a humble habitation
First that ever white-man built there
First to feel king Philip’s anger.
Now the town of Hadley blazes,
Now the people know their danger:
Grab the muskets, grab the water
All rush to the town’s defenses.
So the preacher in the chapel
Gathers to him all the children.
“Pray, oh pray now little children,
That the Lord above may hear thee,
Turn aside his awful anger
At the sins and fornications
Of His people who forgot him
’Midst the splendor of His bounty.
For perhaps He will relent Him
And for us raise up a Champion
Even in this dreadful hour
Bring the rescuer to Hadley.
So they pray now in a circle
With the women round about them
While outside the fire rages
And the men lie dead and bleeding.

IV

See them now across the river;
There they march, the men of Hartford,
With the gleam upon their iron
Shining like the stars at evening
‘Gainst the darkness of their raiment.
So they march in ordered silence
And the captains and the sergeants
Issue forth their clear commandments
With the sureness of Archangels
On the battlements of heaven.
“Who can tell us,” calls the captain,
“Whither now the town of Hadley?”
“Look no further,” cries the Chaplain
With his finger raised to eastward,
“Yonder burning is its landmark.
Haste, oh haste we now to help them
‘Fore the slaughter is accomplished.”
“Haste, oh haste” –a salutation
With the sound of distant thunder
Echoes back the preacher’s urgings
Down the valley of the river
And the men all stand in wonder
At its strange reverberations.
“Hear this voice, oh men of Hartford?”
Calleth out their brave commander.
“Throw from off yourselves this stupor.
Gird your loins and let us hasten,
‘Tis a sign from Lord Jehovah,
Let us not be slow to answer.”

V

Now the men of Hartford hasten
From their place across the river
While the town of Hadley burneth
‘Midst the slaughter and the pillage
Of her frantic sons and daughters.
Hear the banging on the church door
Of the tomahawks and hatchets.
“Get behind me,” cries the preacher
To his flock of ewes and lambkins.
Throws himself against the barrier
With his own weight blocks the portal.
Even now the heathen axes
With their dull reverberations
Strike and splinter all the timbers--
Throw them down: the preacher stumbles.
To the ground the natives dash him
Raise the tomahawk and hatchet
See, oh see the natives stand there,
Like a painting or a statue
’Midst the incense and the tapers
In the chapels of the papists
All of gold and ivory blazoned
So they stand now in their wonder
For behold the murky figure
Of an agéd apparition
Stands between them and the pastor
Dressed in weeds of antique sable
With his saber drawn before him.
All their eyes are now upon him,
Eyes of Christian and of heathen.
“Stand ye back, by God Almighty,
Who shall dare to touch His servant
Set upon the Lord’s anointed,
By this hand, myself will slay him.”
For one moment do they waver,
In their heathen hearts take measure:
Living man or apparition
Is this one who stands before them?
Then as one they turn to fleeing,
With the stranger striding after
And his voice the voice of thunder
Raging over many waters:
“Come to me oh men of Hadley,
Reck ye not of Sachem Philip,
He who took the head from Charles
Will not flinch from native chieftain.
In the scales of great Jehovah
Lies the balance of the battle.
Forward now at this new Marston;
See another tyrant toppled.”
At his voice the men make rally
As the Levites did with Moses
When he called them to the slaughter
’Round the gold abomination
fashioned by the hands of Aaron.
So they set upon the natives
on the sachems of King Philip.
In the front ranks fights the stranger
Where no weapon seems to harm him.
Blow of hatchet and of bullet
Are to him as straws and pebbles
In the hands of village children.
Still the natives’ strength is greater,
And the men of Hadley slacken,
As the numbers weigh against them
And the tide of battle turneth.
“Fight ye still, oh men of Hadley.
Fight ye still, your God will aid you.”
Cries the stranger midst the tumult.
“Hearken to him,” cries the pastor,
“For he seems the Lord’s own angel,
Sent to stride the fields of battle
In the hour of God’s judgment.”
One more push with all their straining
Make they now against the heathen
When from out the forest timbers
Come with cry the men of Hartford,
With their banner borne before them:
“He who transplants yet sustaineth,”
’Neath the grapevines reads the motto.
At the sight, the natives panic,
At the sight all courage leaves them,
Sends them back across the river
All in flight and with much slaughter.
And the word in Narragansett
From the few who lived to speak it
Told how Hadley was protected
By a grey and awesome spirit
With a voice that spoke the thunder
And a sword that flashed as lightning.

VI

Who can name for us that hero,
Tell for us his habitation?
When the townsfolk all came looking
Nothing sure could they discover.
And the year moved in its courses
And the strength of Philip wanéd
Till at last his people faltered
And the sachem found his ending
In the marshes of Rhode Island.
Then the tale was told in Boston
To the magistrates’ amazement,
How a hero came to Hadley
In the moment of her crisis.
And the Men of Boston wondered
At their curious deliv’rance.
But a lowly servant swore him
Till the day of his departing   
That his own eye saw the smile
On the lips of Increase Mather.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Ocarina of Time: Preliminary Findings: Platypus Nostalgia

About a month back, I wrote about a conversation I had with one of my students about the perfect video game.  That conversation sent me back to the old SNES and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.  Feeling it only fair to consider its equally monumental successor, The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, I've been working my way through that N64 classic over the past few months.  Since I'm busy and in no particular hurry to finish, progress remains slow.  Still, I think I've made it far enough to begin making some some preliminary comments.

Ocarina of Time is giant leap ahead of A Link to the Past in graphics, game play, expansiveness of the world, and story.  The attention to beauty and creating a sense of wonder was noted by gamers almost immediately.  It was a big deal back then to be able watch a sunrise over an imagined world.  The technology was not quite up to snuff with the designers' artistic vision, however, and there are distinct points where the creative effect suffers (the flatness of details such as the bones in the cemetery and the objects in the scientist's hut).  The only true creative failure are the three Great Fairies (who inexplicably appear in Majora's Mask).  Everything else is suffused with an imaginative wonder that excites exploration for the mere pleasure of experiencing each of the environments.  My personal vote for the most successful of these are the Forest Temple, the battle with Shadow Link in the Water Temple, and Gerudo Valley.

In terms of gameplay, the move into a three dimensional environment enhances the immersiveness of the experience.  It also allows for more complex puzzles and challenges.  The downside is that it presents more opportunities for artistic failure as all objects had to be made from simple painted polygons.  Unrealistic collisions and overlapping of interacting elements and characters also tend to throw the player out of the world of the game on a regular, though infrequent basis.

The sheer expansiveness of the world is a welcome improvement over A Link to the Past.  Hyrule has always been a world in miniature, but that often leaves the player wishing that their was a little more of it.  The expansiveness of Ocarina of Time and its successors does come at a price.  With more world to cover comes the need of more content to fill it.  This leads rapidly to the proliferation of side quests.  Some players like this, some players don't.  I've heard people split over the number and difficulty of side quests in Ocarina of Time.  I've only heard negative comments about the same aspect of Majora's Mask.

Finally, there's the question of story.  The fuller world of Ocarina of Time allows for a greater amount of story telling.  Quantity doesn't always equal quality, though, and there is always the question of how much "story" a light, all-ages, entertainment like The Legend of Zelda can bare.  Since I haven't finished my re-play of the game, I'll hold off commenting further on this aspect right now.

So where does that leave us?  The jury's still out to lunch I'm afraid.  Ocarina of Time dares more than A Link to the Past, but I'm still not sure if it delivers on all its promises.  We'll see how it goes.  I'll be sure to let you know what I think once I finish.           

Friday, September 13, 2013

Platypus Treasure: Strange Platypus(es)

Do you remember being a child?  Do you remember making some new discovery and rushing with it to the nearest adult you could find?  You tried to make them see how absolutely astounding it was but the words wouldn't come.  Maybe they smiled at you.  Maybe you got a pat on the head.  Maybe you were just ignored.  It happens again as you get older.  Think of your teenage self: a whirlwind of confusion.  Expectations are everywhere; desires, longings.  Once again, you try to tell someone but the words won't come.  You're laughed at -ignored.  The moment passes.  The thing slips away and is lost.  Perhaps you experienced this in college.  You had a better command of words now, it was just a matter of finding the right ones and putting them into the right form.  Words slipped, caught, and broke, falling through your fingers and with them the thought, the discovery.  Then career came with the whirl of adult responsibilities.  Discoveries were limited to one's field and had to be articulated in clear, company prose or they became worthless, outdated, overhead, waste.  The words got the better of you and slipped away.

I found something once, and I didn't have the words for it.  I tried to show it to others but they laughed, grew bored, and turned it into a cliche.  It was my fault.  I couldn't find the right way to say it.  I didn't have the words to help them see.  So I keep searching, keep looking, keep struggling, to find just the right turn of phrase, the right form.  It's been years, but I don't doubt my discovery.  I doubt myself.  

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Homer and the Hobbit: The Platypus Reads Part CCXLV

I've been reading The Hobbit since I was in fifth grade and it's the first book that really sparked my life-long interest in reading.  Along the way, I've also developed a love of Ancient Greek literature and I am currently in the middle of a book on Homer's Odyssey.  With the upcoming installment of  Peter Jackson's Hobbit on the horizon, I also decided to go back and read The Hobbit.  This brought about and interesting intersection of my two literary loves, Greece and Middle Earth, and I have started seeing The Hobbit with new eyes.

Before Tolkien studied Anglo-Saxon, he was a Classics scholar.  The official change came about during his sophomore year of college.  Early influences are, however, hard to shake, and I believe that there may be quite a bit of to hellenon hiding out under the anglo-nordic surface of Tolkien's first great tale.  Let's take a brief look at some of the key scenes of The Hobbit and see how they match up with Greek myth.

First, there's those three pesky trolls.  Trolls are quite properly nordic, but look at the episode they appear in.  The dwarves are weary and miserable and seeing evidence of a fire they send Bilbo ahead in hopes of gaining shelter and provisions.  When Bilbo is discovered and caught, the rest of Thorin's followers go looking for him and are each taken captive in turn.  It then falls to Thorin to save his companions from being eaten and he pulls a great log out of the fire and puts out one of the troll's eyes.  Of course, the other two then tackle him and it is only the clever intervention of Gandalf that saves the day.  Can you see the underlying episode yet?  It's Odysseus' encounter with the Cyclops.  Lost and weary, Odysseus and his men come to a strange coast where they can see smoke rising from fires.  Hoping for a gift of food and provisions, Odysseus and a search party set ashore.  They are captured by Polyphemus, who makes a supper of some of the men.  Odysseus retaliates by blinding the Cyclops and then uses a clever ruse to orchestrate his men's escape.  Tolkien has modified the original by adding two more flesh-eating giants, thus nullifying Thorin's Odyssian eye-jab and requiring the intervention of the wizard to save the day.

Interested yet?  Notice that Smaug's cave repeats the Cyclopes motif with greater concurrence and divergence.  Bibo encounters the dragon with Odyssian riddling being careful, like Odysseus, to guard his true name under a pseudonym.  After the enraged dragon pummels the mountain, the dwarves are trapped in the "cave" this time with stones blocking the entrance that they cannot move.  In the original draft of The Hobbit, Bilbo was supposed to stab the dragon himself (Corey Olsen points out that this is still vestigially present in Smaug's dream) as a sort of Sigurd-Odysseus figure.  Wisely going for something a bit more plausible, Tolkien changed the encounter in the final draft and gives the victory to Bard, allowing the dwarves to simply walk out of the cave by the intact front door.  There is still a little Homeric nod in Bilbo and the dwarves final resolution to leave the dark tunnel so that they may at least die in the light mirroring Aias' request in The Iliad that Zeus let the light shine on them before they die -one of Lewis' favorite quotes.

Looking elsewhere at the original draft discovers another echo of Greek myth.  Bilbo describes himself to Smaug as the "clue-finder" which Corey Olson points out is a reference to the first draft of the book where Bilbo follows a "clue" of spider thread to the Spider's lair.  Our use of the word "clue" goes back to the legend of Theseus and the Labyrinth where the hero must use a clue, or ball of thread, to find his way out after killing the minotaur.

As a final icing on the cake, after his Odyssian adventures Bilbo returns to reclaim his home from a host of neighbors who are in the process of pillaging it.  Bilbo is too bourgeois and too English to engage in an Odyssian killing spree, but he does have a bit of doing to reclaim his house.  In the parallel scene in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, however, there is a violent struggle to reclaim the shire from the ruffians who have occupied and despoiled it.

So there you have it: Greek echoes in Tolkien's The Hobbit.  I'm convinced that more can be found on examining The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.  For instance, has anyone looked at Elendil as and Aeneas figure?  However, I'll save those parallels for another time.  For now, its sufficient to remember that Tolkien was a truly learned man with wide-ranging interests.  These interests seem, by author's intent or the leaf-mold of the mind, to have each found their place in Tolkien's legendarium.  Much attention has been payed to the obvious Anglo-Saxon, Gothic, and Nordic elements.  Maybe it's time for a more careful consideration of the Classical elements as well.

Monday, September 02, 2013

The Rocketeer: Film Platypus

Do you remember this one?  It had Timothy Dalton and Jennifer Connelly -you know, the guy who used to play Bond in the '80s and that girl from Labyrinth?  Disney released it in 1991 and it didn't do so well but a lot of people liked it.  So I went back and watched it...

The Rocketeer was worth seeing again.  There was so much more going on there than I realized when I was a kid.  There's all the classic pulp material: clean-cut heroes, a Commander Cody rocket pack, Nazis, mobsters, G Men, air planes (and an air ship!) along with that wonderful, un-ironic spirit that soars above so much of today's pop entertainment.  Then there's the little historical tidbits: Howard Hughes, the Spruce Goose, Carey Grant, an Erol Flynn knock-off, and W.C. Fields (not to mention the Copeland-esque soundtrack).  Above all, it's an homage to the state of California and the free-wheeling, independent spirit that made it the fifth largest economy in the world in just a half-century.  The Land is a character in and of itself from the opening airstrip right down to the sepia and orange field finish.

That's just a short blurb -nothing too detailed.  But if it peeks your interest, why not consider adding The Rocketeer to your Netflix que?  The Golden State's not doing so well these days and its good to have a reminder of everything it could still be.   

Friday, August 30, 2013

Summer 2013: The Platypus Travels Part XL

Our travels now are ended.  These our pictures,
As I foretold you, were all pixels and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this blog-p'st,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.  We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
 






Summer travels 2013: Italy and New England 
 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

New England Reflections (Cont.): The Platypus Travels Part XXXIX

Where did it all go?  I grew up on a lake.  I'd show it to you, but the developer has walled it off with houses and let the trees and scrub grow so tall it's hard to see.  Maybe that was wise of him.  People did go down there and make trouble.  Besides, land that isn't developed doesn't turn a profit.  It's a reality of this world that loving something doesn't make it yours, especially in one of the wealthiest states in the unionBut perhaps there's a world with a different reality where love is the very coin of the realm.  In that world, I will walk the hills and vales of Naugatuk in Autumn when the leaves burn like fire in the presence of the LORD.






When these things are washed away
The River will keep flowing
Wei la lei
And the daughters of the River God
Will sing
Qui Transtulit Sustinet

Monday, August 26, 2013

New England Reflections (Cont.): The Platypus Travels Part XXXVIII

The Green.  At the heart of any New England village was the "common" or "village green."  Flanking the green would be a Congregational church at one end and an Episcopal church at the other.  Then there would be a burial ground and the most important homes and buildings.  This is my green, or simply The Green.  We drove past this little patch of grass multiple times each day.  I still don't know why it has a statue of an amazon smiting a lion, but I don't have to.  Humans lived for millennia without knowing why the sun rose.  Finding out would only add to the wonder.
 The Congregational church, right where it should be.  My apologies for the power lines.  There are still places in the U.S. where modernity is tacked on as an afterthought.
The Episcopal church sporting its new dome.  The original was gray from a fire that started when the sexton decided to shoot pigeons off the roof and his rifle wadding ignited cupola.
 And the burial ground.
 A fit place for a ghost to go and a place where I felt at home.  We're both waiting for the eschaton.
 A reminder that child mortality was high even among the wealthy a little more than a century ago.
Two of the older stones in the cemetery.  The Beardslies are still on their farm.
Graveyards are gardens, and like gardens they all have their little treasures.  I never thought to find this little bit of masonic opulence.
 I walked among the graves at night,
Disconsolate
And felt them all about me,
Strangers, friends
And the somber father laid
His arm about my shoulder
And the weak maid placed a
Hand upon my arm
About my legs, a cloud of
Little fingers pressed
And all whispered:

Courage sir!  For today we light a fire that will not soon be put out.

And all their faces were:

Burning, burning, burning.
God help me, I cannot burn!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

New England Reflections (Cont.): The Platypus Travels Part XXXVII

Church.

We're all formed by the places we grew up in.  There's greater continuity between past and present in New England.  It's like Jackson's vision of Tolkien's Shire: things are made to endure ... passing down from one generation to the next.  I'd like to say that there's always been a Baggins at Bag End and there always will be...  Moving back to the idea of continuity, the church is like the library: a Victorian original with a modern edition discretely added in a way that doesn't detract from the beauty of the older structure.  As with the building, so with the worship and theology.  Places form people and this place and this people formed me.


It was a Thursday.  The pews were empty, but I knew the place and the place knew me.  On our way out, my wife spied a curious thing: a tiny clump of red leaves on a green tree.  I miss you too...

Burning, burning, burning
Tell me, are the leaves still burning;
Can they teach me how to burn? 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

2013 Seven Heavens of Summer Reading: The Platypus Reads Part CCXLIV

The summer is coming to a close (though the weather down here will be in the 80s and 90s until November).  That means it's time again for the Seven Heavens of Summer Reading awards.  These awards were created in honor of Michael Wards' groundbreaking book Planet Narnia which asserts that Lewis ordered his famous children's series around the seven planets of medieval cosmology.  Following this idea, I award seven books from my summer reading list that best exemplify the virtues of the seven planets.  Following the "summer reading" label at the bottom of this post will link you the lists of prior award winners.  Without further ado, let's get to it.

Moon: This year's winner for the planet of change and madness has to be Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco.  Following the adventures of three board editors to create the ultimate conspiracy theory is enough to blur the boundaries of reality for anyone.

Mercury: For the wordsmith's heaven, the award must go to The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary by Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner.  It's got Tolkien and the OED.  Need I say more?

Venus: We have a two-time winner for the planet of love and creation: The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Hawthorne took the award for Luna in 2008 when I was caught by the interplay of immutable stone and all too mutable human character.  This year, I've been struck by Hawthorne's meditations on the biblical account of Man's creation and fall and the way he juxtaposes the two couples to explore whether a felix culpa was necessary for human maturation.

Sun: The planet of scholars always seems to go to an Inkling or someone writing about an Inkling.  Happily, there's no need this year for two award winners as C.S. Lewis' An Experiment in Criticism pretty clearly sweeps the field.  This late-career attempt to reconcile subjective literary experience with an objective understanding of aesthetics is a must read for anyone seeking a deeper appreciation of the written word.

Mars: For unleashing the dogs of war, this award goes to Jim Lacey's reconstruction of the battle of Marathon in First Clash.  This book is not just about an ancient battle, however, it also seeks to reignite the conflict over the history and nature of Western military supremacy begun by Victor Davis Hanson.

Jupiter: There's an unusually strong field this year for the planet of kings.  Past winner, The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian is back in the lists again along with Terry Brooks' aptly named First King of Shannara.  Never to be ignored is the tale of the return of the King-Under-the-Mountain in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.  The field has to make way, however, before a contender that can claim a double kingship.  The Fall of Arthur gives us a picture of the Once and Future King as only the King of epic fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien could deliver it.

Saturn: The planet of endings assumes its place at the end of the list.  This bleak sphere fits well with The Fall of Arthur or the Pyrrhic victory of First King of Shannara.  This year's award goes to a work that is only really ominous when seen in context, Agatha Christie's penultimate Poirot novel Elephants Can Remember.

There you have it: 2013 Seven Heavens of Summer Reading Awards.  Runners up include The Power of the Ring, Spartan Reflections, C.S. Lewis: A Life, Worldly Saints, The Hobbit, The Phoenix and the Carpet, First King of Shannara, and The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian.  We'll see you next summer with another round of carefree seasonal reading!