Saturday, June 29, 2013

First King of Shannara (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCXXII

This post will discuss chapters X and XI of Terry Brooks' First King of Shannara.  Those who have not read the book yet and wish to remain spoiler free should not read on.

*Plot Points and Perils Ahead (spoilers)*

Chapter X gets us to the action, specifically a night raid by those gnomes Tay sensed a few chapters ago.  Recycling a trope from The Elfstones of Shannara, the gnomes and a creepy skull bearer break into the castle and kill or fatally wound almost the entire royal family.  As usual, Brooks goes for violence and gore (within limits) over terror and subtly as Tay and Jerle discover what's happening and try to intervene.  This is pulp fiction and, I think, the kind of thing Terry Brooks enjoys writing most.  He's always wanting to throw us right in to the heart of the action.  The best line from the chapter is one that has stuck with me though.  It describes the skull bearer in its death-throes: "Even then, it took a long time to die."  Chilling stuff.  In all the pulp, however, we miss an important chance to develop Tay: if he saw this hunting party a few days ago and chose not to confront or follow it, shouldn't he feel responsible for the death of all those people?

Chapter XI informs us that we'll be cutting away from the political fall-out of the assassination of the elven royal family to follow the "more exciting" quest for the Black Elfstone.  Brooks likes pulp and it's with pulpy action that he's going to stay.  First, though, we get another break in the action to form yet another company with two new named characters, the Locat Vree Erreden, additional tracker (man, Brooks thinks these guys are essential for everything) Retten Kip, and a host of elven red-shirts also reminiscent of The Elfstones of Shannara.  (Note to self: there will be blood.)  Of course we need some time to explain what a locat is (someone who uses magic to find things) and introduce us to this new member of the ensemble.  Once that's done, it's off on the adventure with some suitable travel log to help us switch gears.  We also get a scene to help further develop the love-triangle between Tay, Preia, and Jerle.  In The Elfstones of Shannara, which Brooks seems to drawing from in this section, a love-triangle meant that someone was going to have to die.  We know it can't be Jerle, so that leaves Tay and Preia.  That's pretty much what romance is for in Brooks' works: to heighten the narrative tension.  It always comes off as too stilted to have any other interest.  As if to prove this point, the chapter ends with the evident capture of Preia by a troop of gnome hunters (Brooks has learned the art of how to end a chapter in the right place!).

When all else fails, plot mechanics save the day.  We'll see how Brooks keeps his readers reading in the pages to come!

Friday, June 28, 2013

First King of Shannara(Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCXXI

Today's post will cover chapters VIII and IX of Terry Brook's First King of Shannara.  Readers who wish to remain spoiler free should not read on.


Chapter VIII effectively re-launches the narrative as we begin Tay's quest to find the Black Elfstone.  This makes for a clunk in the story machinery that has ramped up with the assault on Paranor and the attempt to recover the Eilt Druin.  Brooks attempts to smooth over this sudden change of pace by letting us get to know Tay a little better.  This chapter also serves as the great reveal of our titular character, Jerle Shannara.  Shannara is a butch "I'm the hero here ladies" so of guy.  Disappointing -except that we know there must be more, because if we've read The Sword of Shannara then we know that at the critical moment this elven beefcake will fail ... and that, that is interesting.

Chapter IX complicates our emerging ensemble and thus attempts to deepen the reader's stake in seeing these characters come through.  We learn that Jerle Shannara has a thing for Tay's sister and that she passed him over for a mere leather merchant.  We also learn pretty quickly that Arborlon is no longer Tay's home after fifteen years with the druids.  Now that Paranor has been sacked and all the druids there slain, that means that Tay doesn't really have a home in the world.  The quest for the Black Elfstone will henceforth be not just a quest for a magic rock but for Tay's place in the world.  Of course, in Brooks' universe that means that there's a strong chance the plucky elf won't make it.  Further fleshing out Tay Trefenwyd is his relationship with Preia.  Poor Tay, the girl he's carried a torch for all these years has a death-crush on his best friend, Jerle.  Preia also presents us with one of Brooks' (how shall we call them?)"strong women."  These feisty femmes are a stock and trade for Brooks since Eretria made her debut in The Elfstones of Shannara.  They always strike me as one-dimensional, but we'll see how Brooks does this time around.  At least she's not a moody teenager.

On the mission end of things, Brooks keeps the narrative surprisingly short.  The king seems more like an old uncle than royalty (Brooks always was too much of a West-Coast American to really write High Fantasy), but Brooks' skill a quick and likable character-sketches keeps things from falling into the ridiculous.  I'm surprised that we don't get a scene with the Elven council, but perhaps it would bog down the narrative at this point and we do really need to get going.

And on that note... so do I.... 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Italian Reflections (Cont.): The Platypus Travels Part XIX

The Bridge of Sighs leading from the Doge's palace to the prisons in Venice.

Venice is a strange place.  Perhaps it always has been.  A bunch of farmers make wood and clay pylons out in the ocean to build a city that will be impervious to the invading Lombards?  It sound like something from the BioShock series.  This little outpost of the Byzantine Empire became and empire in its own right with the local Roman Dux elevated to Doxe, or Doge as leader of an independent republic.  They even stole Saint Mark's corpse from Egypt so that they could have a suitable talisman to ensure divine protection and increase of profits ("the spice must flow" anyone?).  At the height of their power, the Venetians even dared to sack Constantinople and put their own emperor on the throne.  It took Napoleon to take these guys down.

Anyhow, the city seems to retain much of that strangeness today -at least to this outsider.  There was a feeling of closeness, of a place turned inward upon itself that I didn't necessarily sense in the rest of Italy.  Maybe it was just the rain, maybe we were all tired -I don't know.  The city was beautiful, strange, and impenetrable, and I'm happy with very few of the pictures I took in this place.   

First King of Shannara (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCXX

Today's post will cover chapters VI and VII of Terry Brooks' First King of Shannara.  Those who wish to remain spoiler free should not read on.

*Begin Spoilers (on a 19 year old book)*

Noticed something yet?  The book is called First King of Shannara and we don't begin with Jerle Shannara, first king of that line.  In fact, Chapter VII marks the end of the first fifth of the book, The Fall of Paranor, and we still haven't caught more than a prophetic glimpse of the titular character.  There's a distinct similarity here with Star Wars: Episode I, which was just entering pre-production as this novel was being released.  In fact, Terry Brooks wrote the novelization of The Phantom Menace.  But I digress...  What might be reason for Brooks' decision not to begin with his titular character?  Familiarity foes breed contempt, so perhaps Brooks wants to keep Jerle Shannara far enough removed from the audience to keep him a tad bit legendary?  You would figure that he'd make that choice with the storied Bremen.  First King of Shannara does have a bit of a "tell all" feel to it though that would mitigate against such a choice.  Maybe the book isn't meant to focus on Jerle Shannara as a person so much as the events and characters that lead to the ascent of the first Shannaran king and the legends surrounding him.  In that case, Jerle Shannara himself might be a more minor character, dwarfed by the events that created him.  Since the next section is titled The Search for the Black Elfstone, I think we'll have some answers to the whole Shannara question coming up soon.

Chapter VI finally gives us some action and seems to be a sop to the fans.  It's a cutaway from the main plot that details the final minutes of the druid community at Paranor as the Warlock Lord overruns the keep.  Since we haven't met very many druids and aren't really disposed to like them, any pathos in the chapter has to come from Caerid Lock and Khale Rese, the two sympathetic characters that we've already been introduced to.  Here also we get to return to Brooks' love of monsters as the Warlock Lord brings a force of undead horrors to lead the assault.  A little bit of graphic violence at key places in the chapter seems meant to increase the drama of the scene (since the Warlock Lord and his minions are not really that scary).  It's unclear what this chapter does from a plot perspective.  We wast a few pages on characters that we have little sympathy for when that extra space is needed to beef up the ensemble.  As I said earlier, I think it's a sop to the fans who want to "see" the fabled fall of Paranor and the Warlock Lord in action.  It also infuses a little of the high adventure that the series is known for and that so far has been lacking.

Chapter VII loses a little bit of its punch due to the fact that we already know what's happened at Paranor and what kind of ambush lays in wait for Bremen from chapter VI.  The fact that Caerid Lock survives for a few precious seconds to give Bremen a warning is cliche, but it does extend his character into another chapter and thus helps to strengthen the unity of the first section.  Brooks is also careful to employ all three members of his team (Bremen, Kinson, and Mareth) so that the ensemble as a whole continues to develop.  The fight scene is well narrated in the style that we have come to expect from Mr. Brooks.  Between this chapter and the last, we are now firmly into the world of high adventure and ready to move on to the next section, The Search for the Black Elfstone.  I worry about the narrative consequences of abandoning the most interesting character in book so far, Bremen, for the less-than-three-dimensional Tay, but we'll see what Brooks can do with him.

That's all for now.  Stay tuned for the next installment!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Italian Reflections (Cont.): The Platypus Travels Part XVIII

Gifts of the Mediterranean.

Another picture from the villa.  In Italy, we saw many rose bushes growing side by side with grape vines.  Since the roses are such sensitive plants, they serve as "canaries" warning the viticulturist of impending threats to the grapes.  Since there are laws strictly regulating the number of vines that may be planted on a given plot of land, many vineyards are surrounded by olive groves that allow the farmers to produce another crop.  The overall effect is quite beautiful.

First King of Shannara (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCXIX

This post will cover chapters IV and V of Terry Brooks' First King of Shannara.  Those who wish to remain spoiler free should not read on.


77 pages and no monster battles.  That's quite an achievement for Terry Brooks.  In the past, fights, horrors, and daring do have been his stock-in-trade for keeping the reader reading.  Perhaps that seems like a backhanded way to start, but I think it works out to a genuine compliment.  First King of Shannara is shaping up to be Brooks' most polished book out of the eight I have read.  That's been Brooks' M.O. throughout: always moving his craft foreword.  That said, let's cut over to a plot summary and a few more observations.

Chapter IV introduces us to the new character Mareth, a druid apprentice who wishes to study directly under Bremen.  She also appears to be the token female on this adventure.  The hemming and hawing about taking her along is pretty flat, but once the company (Tay-elf-shooter, Risca-dwarf-tank, Mareth-human-healer-possible love interest, Kinson-human-ranger-possible stud muffin, and Bremen-Gandalf-GM stick) gets going, her character begins to work.  They way Brooks manages it is by focusing on the tension between her seeming vulnerability and stern druidic presence.  This particular angle obeys the unities inherent in the story and has the chance of creating at least a credible character (one who Bremen wouldn't be crazy to take along and who plays a believable role within the group).  While not exactly great literature, this is an improvement over earlier supporting ladies Maddie Roh and Damson Rhee.

Chapter V features the inevitable visit to the Hadeshorn to collect information.  Brooks takes advantage of the fact that this is the "first" visit to the Hadeshorn to imbue the trope with an added interest that makes for a compelling and decidedly non-cliched scene.  We gain a little more insight into what exactly goes on when one summons the shades of the ancient druids.  Bremen continues to be a much more approachable figure than Allanon, and so it seems quite natural for him to reveal information that has hitherto been hidden from the readership.  Furthermore, Brooks deftly uses the scene to continue to impress upon us that Bremen is willing to do anything to stop the Warlock Lord.  Already, we begin to understand at a deeper level why Bremen will eventually chain his spirit to the Hadeshorn for hundreds of years and why Allanon is the man who continues to grab for "all or nothing."  These kinds of insights are the bread and butter of prequels, the kind of thing that was often lacking in Episodes I-III of Star Wars.  Finally, the author makes an interesting decision in splitting his newly formed company in three.  Given the relative flatness of Tay and Risca so far, this may be a good thing for their character development.  It also creates the diversity of plot threads needed for an epic-scale fantasy novel.  On the downside, unlike Scions of Shannara, we haven't spent enough time with any of the characters besides Bremen and Kinson for their individual stories to be of any real interest to us.  We want to know about the Black Elfstone, not Tay's specific fate.  We want to know about the battle between the dwarfs and the trolls, not anything in particular that Risca will contribute to it.

So, there you have it.  The book is only just starting, so we'll see where Brooks goes with it and if he ends up capitalizing on his early successes and mitigates his mis-steps or flubs it when the plot really gets under way.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

First Thoughts on First King of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CCXVIII

With Umberto Eco safely out of the way, we can descend from the heights of the middle-brow and return to the world of pulp.  This will mark the third "Summer of Shannara" here at The Platypus of Truth.  The First "Summer of Shannara" explored the world of the Trilogy, skipping the The Lord of the Rings knock-off that opened the series and engaging with Brooks' original work in The Elfstones of Shannara.  From there, it was on to The Wishsong of Shannara and closing thoughts on Brooks' initial foray into the world of Fantasy.  Last summer was devoted to the Heritage Series which significantly expanded the world of the Four Lands in space and time.  It also represented a real step forward in Brooks' development as a writer.  This summer, I plan to take a look at the odd chronological back-flip Brooks preformed before continuing his narrative with the Voyage of the Jerle Shannara Series.  That odd chronological back flip is the prequel to the original trilogy, First King of Shannara.

As in the past, I will be blogging my thoughts on Terry Brooks' First King of Shannara as I finish each reading session (barring travel and illness with may have me afk for more than one reading session).  The goal of this format is to provide a look at the work as it progresses in "real time."  I will also include a "Final Thoughts" post at the end of the series giving my take on the work as a whole.

To finish off this long forward to the project, I would like to add that First King of Shannara is the only book in the series that I have posted on so far that I did not read all the way through in high school.  I remember being roughly a quarter to half of the way when my reading was interupted and I haven't picked it up since.  This means that I don't have the great wells of nostalgia attached to this book that I do for the prior seven.  On the other hand, perhaps that presents an opportunity for a more "objective" view of Brooks' writing.  We'll see.

*Spoilers Ahead*

This post will cover chapters 1-3 of First King of Shannara by Terry Brooks.

We begin our story with Kinson Ravenlock, a tracker and citizen of the boarderlands of Callahorn.  Right from the get-go we are already on familiar turf.  Brooks begins his narrative from a human perspective square within the middle of Four Lands.  The first character we are introduced to is a tracker, a perpetual obsession with Brooks.  Kinson, however, represents a more mature and developed individual than the comical Slanter of The Wishsong and less of a walking stereo-type than Honer Dee of The Druid.  We get the sense that he is more of an individual than an icon -perhaps because the book begin with his p.o.v.

Kinson, it turns out, is waiting for the famous druid Bremen, whose shade we have caught glimpses of in the original trilogy.  The Shannara series has been short on Druids so far, with the dark and tormented Allanon presenting the archetype of the enigmatic order.  As the only other official druid (Cogline was a wash-out) we have met in the prior series, Walker Boh, is literally re-made in Allanon's image, we are set up to expect something of the same sort.  In the person of Bremen, then, Brooks surprises us.  Bremen is not the dark giant tormented by inner demons that we find in Allanon and Walker.  Instead, he is kind and grand-fatherly old man; closer to Obi Wan Kenobi than an ostensibly benevolent Darth Vader.  Bremen is a figure that we can immediately like and sympathize with and that's good, because this is the first Shannara book that doesn't start us off with a gaggle of psuedo-hobbit teenage valemen.  Maybe they come in later, I don't know, but Brooks' break with this foundational trope seems to signal that he is trying to write a maturer novel for a maturer audience.

Speaking of audiences, Brooks seems to trust his more than in the past.  In the opening three chapers, not much happens.  There are no horendous fighs with terrible monsters or desperate midnight flights from same.  We see one skull bearer far off in the distance, but Bremen and Kinson quickly elude it and it serves only to add the faintest tint of tension to what follows.  Instead, we get a narrative of Bremen's journey deep into the heart of the Skull Kingdom along with the revelation that the Warlock Lord has returned followed by his futile attempt to convince the other druids of this reality.  It's not shocking or gripping fair, but if you've read the seven prior books you have as much an idea of what all these events mean (maybe more) than the characters do and Brooks banks on this fact to carry his readers through until the action can properly start.  The dominant sensastion in the first three chapters is thus one of intrigue: "where is this going next?".

Catching a glimpse of Paranor in all its glory is a bit of a treat, but one that Brooks' plot (wisely or unwisely) does not allow the reader to really capitalize on.  I am intrigued by Brooks' choice to show us so little of the place.  Maybe making the druids utterly familiar, as introducing us to supporting characters Risca and Tay runs the risk of, would lessen their mistique?  Maybe there isn't much at this point of the story to show as order seems to have fallen into a dillentantish decandence under the rule of High Druid Athabasca's rule?  I don't know.  What I do know is that with Athabasca and the council's refusal to believe Bremen's claim that the Warlock Lord has returned, we now have the beginning of the "desparate quest achieved by the rag-tag band" trope that made Brooks his post Lord of the Rings fame.  Bremen (Druid), Kinson (Ranger), Risca (Dwarf), and Tay (Elf) contra mundum.  Now all we need are a man of the south and four hobbits (d'oh!).

Well that's it for today -just the set up.  It may not be a very gripping start to a Shannara book, but it shows promise of a more mature and balanced story overall.  I'm curious to see how it will turn out!      

Monday, June 24, 2013

Italian Reflections (Cont.): The Platypus Travels Part XVII

From Florence, we traveled into the surrounding countryside.  I think this is what many people in the 'States think of when the hear "Italy".  It's what the gentleman viticuluturists of SoCal envision when they cash out their retirement fund.

Of course the trip wouldn't have been complete without a visit to one of these enchanting little villas.  This particular one, recently refurbished, has been in the family for about a thousand years.  I spent the morning lounging around the place and had a wonderful little brunch when the rest of the group arrived -one of the better mornings I've spent in years.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Foucault's Pendulum: The Platypus Reads Part CCXVII

Ketr unknown
Light shon
Hokhmah it fills to shine
Binah to make its sign
A Schism
Hesed is so fine

Emotion knows it
Gevurah breaks what we ill lit
Et Bonum Veritas est en Netzach
Hod ek
To Yesod and ends Malkuth

Italian Reflections (Cont.): The Platypus Travels Part XVI

Inside, the duomo is a more subdued affair.  My students uniformly approved of the interior.  The outward extravagance paired with the inward austerity is a sort of reverse of the Hagia Sophia.  What it says about the minds behind the church's construction (a multi-generational effort), I don't know.   

Friday, June 21, 2013

Italian Reflections (Cont.): The Platypus Travels Part XV

The Duomo of Florence.  A debate developed among my students as to whether this is an ugly building.  As most of them are realist (as opposed to mannerists), the debate went beyond the level of "well I just think..." and "in my own personal opinion."  It was fascinating to talk with them as they tried to work out their own theories of aesthetics.

The poor pictures I was able to take don't really do the question justice, but what do you think: is this an ugly building?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Italian Reflections (Cont.): The Platypus Travels Part XIV

I don't like being a tourist.  Tourists gawk and point and talk too loud.  Tourists rush everywhere with their cameras snapping pictures of things they don't really understand because they haven't taken the time to see.  Understanding, appreciating, requires taking time to see.  I saw many things in Italy, but I only had time to see a select few.  We only had an hour at the Trevi Fountain, but that was enough time to begin to see.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Italian Reflections (Cont.): The Platypus Travels Part XIII

It's really a laser designed to combat Rosicrucian vampires from the renewed Byzatine Empire.  Shhh...

Conspiracy theories aside, it is rather hard to know what to do with the Vatican.  The crowds are so enormous that it's difficult to get any good pictures, let alone see the marvelous things that literally cover the walls, ceilings, and floors.  The above tapestry, for instance, was done by Raphael with real thread-of-gold that glistens when you shine a light on it.  There's a long hallway full of these.  You're on a time-crunch and swimming amidst a vast human sea; which ones do you look at?  Which ones can you look at.  Then there's this thing called a "camera" strapped to your wrist.  You know that you're supposed to be photo-recording this trip, but that takes time and effort away from actually looking at the art, let alone keeping the students corralled.  See what I mean?

On the other hand, YOU'RE IN THE VATICAN.  A few brief glimpses of this and that and a minute to stare at the Pieta is more than most people ever get.  The crowds as well are part of the experience, part of seeing the vast cultural-religious-political entity that is the Vatican.  After all, what did you go out to Italy to see, a reed swayed by the wind?

In the end, I was quite content with my trip to the Vatican -I just don't have much of it to show to you.

These fragments have I shored against my ruins

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Italian Reflections (Cont.): The Platypus Travels Part XII

Chillin' in the Vatican with the big dude.  Let the conspiracy theories begin.
What does it mean?
A coded message hidden right beneath our feet?  62-7+32/8.....

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Fall of Arthur: The Platypus Reads Part CCXVI

The well of Tolkien's unpublished writings seems never to run dry.  This May, Christopher brought the bucket up once more with a short but game-changing fragment.  That fragment is a poem in alliterative verse called The Fall of Arthur.

The Fall of Arthur, abandoned some time around 1937, runs some forty pages detailing Arthur's campaigns against the Germanic tribes, Mordred's treachery, Lancelot's remorse, Guinever's pride, and the intial assault on the beaches as Arthur returns to reclaim his crown.  The overall effect is breath-taking and I whole-heartedly agree with Christopher that this is one of the few scripta minora whose unfinished state is a real loss.  What there is is excellent and the supplementary essays provided by Christopher only increased my appreciation of the work.

So what's game-changing about this new piece.  After reading the fragment and Tolkien's further notes on its planned development, we can now safely say that Tolkien did not reject the Arthur legends as "too French" for his mythology.  Indeed, knowing that he was already weaving the matter of Britain into the greater fabric of the Silmarillion should cause us to re-evaluate the apparent Arthurian resonances in The Lord of the Rings with renewed critical vigor.  Frodo does pass to Avalon.  Aragorn is Lancelot, Lancelot as he should have been, come back to Middle Earth at the turning of the tide.  Am I not making sense?  Tolle lege!

Italian Reflections (Cont.): The Platypus Travels Part XI

I have no idea where this door leads.  It looks perfect for a book cover.  There were lots of doors like this all over Italy.  Each one opens on its own world, mundane or marvelous.  There were a few I saw opened -only a very few.  I wish we had more doors like this.  The grass is always greener.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Italian Reflections (Cont.): The Platypus Travels Part X

Beauty: what Man does with great effort Nature does effortlessly.  Yet Man knows and appreciates when what he has made is beautiful.  The flowers of the field wither and return each year, but Rome has had its day and fallen.  Mind knows what Flesh knows, but Mind knows it knows.  Spirit knows what Mind knows, but Spirit knows it knows.  Et en Arcadia ego.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Italian Reflections (Cont.): The Platypus Travels Part IX

A wilderness of stone.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, artists and architects would come to Rome to sketch the ruins.  From those sketches came profusions of paintings, engravings, books, and new feats of design.  Ruins were picturesque.  In the 21st century, they are still picturesque.  What creative inspiration now flows from them?  A million snapshots and the occasional blog post.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Italian Reflections (Cont.): The Platypus Travels Part VIII

This little mound of earth is as close as we can get to the final resting place of Julius Caesar.  It's the mound upon which his corpse was cremated.  Whatever survived the burning was scattered when barbarians sacked the temple.  Lamentable, but sic transit gloria mundi.  If ancients paid his corpse divine honors, we moderns have kept up the custom as best we can.  It's what he would have wanted.  We may not believe in the genius of his house, but we believe in the genius of his will-to-power.  The gods change, but the worth-ship remains.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Italian Reflections: The Platypus Travels Part VII

The Gardens of the Temple of Vesta with Je ne sais qua behind them.

The chief memories I have of the Roman Forum are of old stone and wild flowers.  The citizens of Rome strip-mined the Empire's political center and by the early Modern Era it was a trash dump.  Nineteenth and twentieth century archeologists are responsible for excavating the site and its appearance today.  Sadly, there wasn't much of the old grandeur to recover -a few isolated columns and heaps of broken stone.  Nature, however, has added her own adornment to the ruined capital.  Wildflowers cover the site making it one of the pleasanter places we visited.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Italian Reflections (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part VI

Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away: 
O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe, 
Should patch a wall to expel the winter flaw!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Italian Reflections: The Platypus Travels Part V

When your empire controlled one quarter of the world's population, even your sports arenas are interesting.

Of course this was not a sports arena in the modern sense.  Humans and animals died here in droves as an entertaining object lesson in "Romaness" for all levels of society. The image they created in stone and blood was so powerful that we line up by the hundreds every day just to see its remains.  -and what remains!

When all these things are washed away, Old Father Tiber will keep flowing, and what will be left of us -miles of broken asphalt and a million lost golf balls?  Will our oppressions be less because less will remain of them to be seen?

The Colosseum in ruins is a sign, a cypher.  The Roman masonry is still heavy enough to bare the weight of meaning.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Italian Reflections (Cont.): The Platypus Travels Part IV

Re-Purposed: 1 Triumphal Arch

When Constantine wanted to advertise his greatness to Rome he chose to appropriate pieces of the monuments of the so called "good emperors."  It may have been because he wished to be identified with these benevolent and beloved monarchs -it may have been because he was short on stone.  Whatever the case, Constantine made sure to erect the finished construction right outside the Colosseum (Flavian Amphitheater) where "Romaness" was put on show for the masses several times a year.  I wonder if the masses got the message.

Constantine, the first openly Christian emperor, re-purposed Rome.  He changed the capital, the dominant religion, and the political organization of the empire.  Diocletian began the process and Constantine's heirs would continue it, but by the end of Constantine's reign, how much of the "Roman Empire" would Augustus recognize?

Even with Constantine's changes, the Empire eventually dissolved in the west and continued to evolve in the east.  The heirs of Constantine's empire eventually stripped most of its monuments as a source of ready-shaped stone.  Many that did survive were worked into new structures or allowed to fall into ruin through disuse.  Since the nineteenth century, the Italians and other European powers have been digging these cast-offs out and finding new use for them as archeological evidence and tourist attractions.

We saw they tourist attraction.  We were impressed.  In the end, isn't that what Constantine wanted?   

Friday, June 07, 2013

Italian Reflections (Cont.): The Platypus Travels Part III

Sometimes it's not re-purposing, sometimes it's stealing.

See that Egyptian obelisk?  Someone liked it enough to loot it and whack it on to a nifty fountain.  Forcibly stripped from its original meaning and context, it now serves merely as a curio -perhaps, with a little effort, a reminder of the former puissance of the European powers.  Did the Egyptians want it?  Were they doing anything with it at the time?  I'm sure Dr. Zahi Hawass has an opinion.

Of course Italy itself has experienced theft and exploitation at the hands of foreign conquerors.  Napoleon took his share of mementos as did the Nazis, and even American foot-soldiers.  Sometimes, works are restored, sometimes they're left abroad to prevent war and conquest from wiping out entire collections in one fell swoop.

So here's the rub: I saw pieces of churches on sale in a street market in Venice.  No one had a use for them anymore: there were pictures, a laver, lamps, a displaced angel.  I could have found a use for them.  Forget the weight limit on international baggage for a moment.  If I could have gotten them back to the United States, what would I have done? 

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Italian Reflections (Cont.): The Platypus Travels Part II

The eye is the lamp of the body ... but if the light within you is darkness, how great is the darkness?

Re-purposing.  It's not as common in the 'States, but in Italy it's unavoidable.  The Pantheon began as a pagan temple, became a Christian Church, then a tourist attraction, then the tomb of the Italian kings.  Some of my students were unnerved by this.  Was it fair to the pagans to turn their temple into a church?  Even if nobody was using it, shouldn't it be preserved out of respect?  I know that I found it sad to see a church in Venice converted into a museum with all its lamps out and its altars stripped.

What does it mean to re-purpose?  Do buildings have fixed meanings?  Is their any such thing as respecting architect's intent?  The Christians who took over the Pantheon understood architect's intent -they simply disagreed with the intent of this particular architect for this particular building and retro-fitted it to suit their own convictions.  Do moderns, who either deny that there is such a thing as architect's intent or deny that it matters, do the same thing when they turn a church into a museum?  Are bricks just bricks?  Do we have a right to them because we're living and their makers are dead?

If anyone asks you what you are doing, tell them that the Lord has need of it.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Italian Reflections: The Platypus Travels

It's an eye.

God looks down at man, but man, unlike any of the beasts of the field, looks back up to God.  The ancients believed that there was a principle of light within the human eye that met light reflected from objects and mingled with it thus powering the sense of sight.  The eye of heaven shines down upon the Pantheon and the fire from the altar of sacrifice rushes up to meet it.  Heaven and Earth meet, Man sees as he is seen.

*Photo taken by the author.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

2013 Summer Reading (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCXV

I'm back from Italy and ready to get into the swing of this year's summer reading list.  As a very fitting start, I have chosen Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum as the first novel of the year.  After roaming up and down the boot, the Italian setting of the novel flashes and glimmers in a way that I otherwise would have missed.  I've already read Eco's The Name of the Rose and while Foucault's Pendulum seems to play with the same basic themes I'm interested to see where he'll go with them in this particular setting (this is the book the Da Vinci Code wished it could be).  I've never seen a writer who has such relish for talking highly intellectual piffle for five-hundred pages.

In other news, Stratford Caldecott's Tbe Power of the Ring (formerly published as The Secret Fire) is finished.  As I hoped, The Power of the Ring proved to be an excellent exposition on the specifically Catholic character of Tolkien's work.  As a non-Catholic, I found it particularly helpful and I would highly recommend it to anyone looking to understand Middle Earth as the creation of a devout Roman Catholic.

Summer is just getting started and I have all sorts of plans.  With the travel out of the way (for now) it's time for some serious reading!