The Princess and the Goblin

princess and the goblin

The Princess and the Goblin, kindle edition, by George MacDonald. Published in 1872. 134 print pages.

This book is available to read for free at Project Gutenberg.

I have never been a huge fan of fantasy novels. I’ve read two of the Narnia books, and one of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings installments. Despite their renown, the genre has never held enough appeal with me to inspire a desire to read more. It’s more about my personality than the books themselves, however, and I recognize this. So when my daughters were assigned George Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblin as part of their British literature study this semester, I saw a perfect opportunity for me to revisit the genre in a non-threatening way. By non-threatening I mean that this is a relatively quick read.

I’m very glad I decided to read it along with them, as it is quite a delightful story. So much so, that I am giving serious consideration to which of Macdonald’s books I want to read next. I’ll try to offer a brief overview without giving away too much of the plot.

Princess Irene lives in her father’s castle under the strict supervision of her nurse, Lootie. Lootie is to keep a watchful eye on Irene and take care to govern her under specific guidelines. Chief among them is that they are never to play outside after dark. What Lootie knows but Irene doesn’t, is that underground, below their kingdom, is another kingdom. It’s a kingdom of goblins who only come out at night, and they love to terrorize the “sun people” should they happen upon them.

Of course, Irene and Lootie inevitably find themselves outside on the wrong side of the sunset, but they are rescued and kept safe by Curdie, a brave young miner boy who is not afraid of the nocturnal, lurking goblins. He knows they’re weakness, and is adept at wielding the knowledge he possesses. During his brave nighttime exploration, he finds out the goblins are hatching a plot, that Princess Irene is at its center, and that he must warn the kingdom so that it can be thwarted. What Curdie doesn’t know is that Irene is under the protection of a powerful entity who can shield her from all of the nefarious happenings taking place in and around the kingdom.

This is a fast-paced story that simultaneously demands that the reader take the time to see the vivid imagery and overlapping activity taking place among the characters. It’s a children’s book, but a smartly written one. I found myself eagerly wondering what would happen from one chapter to the next. It’s a great read.

5 out of 5 stars.

Friday Faves: Reasons to Study Shakespeare

comedy of errors

This is a busy week. Our children are performing in a Shakespeare production, we’re all stretched thin, and my mind is on Shakespearean things. Or at least on the reasons why Shakespeare is valuable, since we’re all working 10 hour days on limited sleep. I thought we’d discuss the things to be gained from studying the ancient works of Shakespeare in this postmodern year of Our Lord, 2019.

~ That you may ruminate: If there is one thing Shakespeare provides, it’s the opportunity to consider the complexities of human nature and conduct. There really is, to quote King Solomon, nothing new under the sun, and it’s usually a straight line between someone we know, perhaps ourselves, and a Shakespearean character’s foibles.

~ One man in his time plays many parts: Is there a better description of the many ages and stages of a single life? In a world of two-dimensional characters and one-dimensional depictions of a good life, Shakespeare offers a rich and full examination of the stages of life as well as their advantages and drawbacks.

~ I have no other reason but a woman’s reason: I actually do have a reason, but I like this quote from The Two Gentlemen of Verona because it illuminates my next point. Shakespeare is politically incorrect and brutally honest. On most subjects, perhaps because he was a man of his time, Shakespeare unapologetically expresses things as they are, not the way we wish a mysterious alternate reality fairy might make them.

~ They have been at a great feast of languages and stol’n the scraps“: So much of our modern language, its idioms, and axioms, are borne of ideas first penned by William Shakespeare. From “break the ice” to “love is blind” and “as good luck would have it”, our modern language is peppered with mainstays we borrowed from Shakespeare’s 16th Century writings. In our flash-in-the-pan culture, I’d say that’s pretty amazing. Only the Bible has had as much or more impact on our use of language. And oh yes, I’m aware that the quote that I used here is not quite in context. I couldn’t think of one more fitting and so…I turned it into scraps.

~Mine eyes smell onions: Lastly, Shakespeare is funny, if you can get the joke. This very obvious quip is from All’s Well that End’s Well when the duke excuses his emotional reaction to a touching scene by complaining that his eyes smell onions. A lot of Shakespeare’s humor is what as known as “blue comedy”,  but even those jokes are insightful and tinged with truths about human nature.

Those are five of my favorite reasons why it’s worth the time and intellectual investment required to read some of the works of William Shakespeare.

Feel free to add your own observations to the list, and Happy Friday!

 

 

 

 

 

Classics Are Often Not about “Old” People

Briana offers a good exposition of the fact that classics are not ignored or pushed aside because their themes appeal to “old” people.

I believe this happens because reading classic literature is often work; work that requires we labor with more formal, complex expressions of the English language. Most people, including many teachers, don’t want to be bothered to that degree. Many are also ignorantly dismissing timeless values for what is more “relevant”.

When I am reading a book and need a dictionary, or am compelled to think of transcendent ideas, it is then that I know I am really reading!

Read the post here.

Animal Farm

animal farm

Animal Farm, by George Orwell. Originally published in 1945. Paperback 140 pages.

I read the book online for free at this link.

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others ~Animal Farm

This is a book that hardly needs an introduction. Our language has erected an entire lexicon around ideas we describe as Orwellian. Of course, we most often hear that particular term, Orwellian, used in reference to circumstances that resemble the narrative Orwell unfolded in his famous novel 1984. Although the allegorical Animal Farm paints a different, equally somber picture of human corruption, cultural manipulation, political malfeasance, his use of animals universalized its presentation.

In fact, the reason I re-read this book over the weekend, several decades since I first encountered it in high school, is that our children are currently reading it as a literature class assignment. I am really looking forward to hearing how they process this story. In the highly unlikely chance that someone may not be familiar with the story of Animal Farm, we’ll start with a brief synopsis.

On Manor Farm, the animals live the way farm animals live. They fulfill their work to produce income for the farm’s owner, Mr. Jones, and they are fed food appropriate to their needs and species. Life is neither misery nor bliss. It simply is what it is: farm life.

Brewing inside the heart of Old Major, the oldest boar on the farm however, was a dream that one day, animals would throw off the yoke of oppression which humans used to bind them.

“Now, comrades, what is the nature of this life of ours? Let us face it: our lives are miserable, laborious, and short. We are born, we are given just so much food as will keep the breath in our bodies, and those of us who are capable of it are forced to work to the last atom of our strength; and the very instant that our usefulness has come to an end we are slaughtered with hideous cruelty. No animal in England knows the meaning of happiness or leisure after he is a year old. No animal in England is free. The life of an animal is misery and slavery: that is the plain truth.

“But is this simply part of the order of nature? Is it because this land of ours is so poor that it cannot afford a decent life to those who dwell upon it? No, comrades, a thousand times no! The soil of England is fertile, its climate is good, it is capable of affording food in abundance to an enormously greater number of animals than now inhabit it. This single farm of ours would support a dozen horses, twenty cows, hundreds of sheep–and all of them living in a comfort and a dignity that are now almost beyond our imagining. Why then do we continue in this miserable condition? Because nearly the whole of the produce of our labour is stolen from us by human beings. There, comrades, is the answer to all our problems. It is summed up in a single word–Man. Man is the only real enemy we have. Remove Man from the scene, and the root cause of hunger and overwork is abolished forever.

He didn’t expect to live to see or participate in the animal rebellion, and he didn’t. But before he died, he made a rousing speech complete with an animal national anthem, and the animals he left behind began to plan for the revolution which would one day come. In that day, all animals would be equal comrades, wealth would be shared equally, no animals would kill other animals, and Utopia will be realized.

When the opportunity presented itself the animals revolted, fought hard, and won their freedom. It wasn’t long however before their stated principles gave way to reality, unlike anything the more gullible animals had expected after their “freedom” was secured. The pigs, descendants of Old Major, were the cleverest of all the animals and it wasn’t long before the camaraderie gave way to hierarchy, with everything this implies.

Seeing as I read this entire book in roughly 2 hours, I’d say it’s worth your time to reacquaint yourself with this modern classic. It’s particularly relevant in our current cultural and political environment.

Orwell really was a masterful writer, and Animal Farm is a wonderful book.

5 out of 5 stars.

Brave New World Revisited

brave new world ps

Brave New World Revisited by Aldous Huxley. Originally published n 1958. 144 pages.

When his classic novel,  Brave New World, was published in 1931, Aldous Huxley’s imaginary world was one he foresaw unfolding many years into the future. It was set in the 26th century, in fact. By 1958 however, the world he saw emerging little more than a quarter of a century after his book was published seemed to be hurtling toward his very grim, sterile vision. And so, he penned a postscript: Brave New World Revisited. To offer some context, let’s do a short recap on the plot of Brave New World.

Brave New World, set in a futuristic age,  largely revolves around the World State city of London, 2540 AF (After Ford). In this well, brave new world, war has been eradicated, biological human reproduction has been replaced by hatcheries, the sexual revolution has come to full fruition with the destruction of the family, and the masses are kept happy through hedonistic indulgences and addiction to a drug known as soma. Life without struggle has been achieved.

Of course, there’s always a wrinkle waiting to tear at the fabric of utopias, and World State London is no exception. There are pockets of the world where religion still exists, the struggles of life go on, reproduction still happens the old-fashioned way, and the messiness of family life continues as it always has. This bit of reality eventually invades World State London, and things get interesting.

However, it’s the state of things in 1958 that motivates Huxley to revisit his fantastical Brave New World prophecies. In Brave New World revisited, we note Huxley’s alarm at the exploding post-war population. He notes the difficulty inherent in trying to control the reproductive habits of humanity and he is concerned about the ability of the world’s resources to sustain this increasing population of humans. Wherever I may diverge from Huxley on that particular subject, he offers a lot of highly instructive commentary which is relevant to life in the 21st century. On the subject of the masses being overly entertained:

“A society, most of whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in the calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who would manipulate and control it.”

He touches on the banal danger of some of the most popular music of the times:

“Nonsense which it would be shameful for a reasonable being to write, speak or hear spoken can be sung or listened to by that same rational being with pleasure and even with a kind of intellectual conviction.”

On the subject of wresting  control of the masses via the carrot rather than the stick:

“In the light of what we have recently learned about animal behavior in general, and human behavior in particular, it has become clear that control through the punishment of undesirable behavior is less effective, in the long run, than control through the reinforcement of desirable behavior by rewards, and that government through terror works on the whole less well than government through the non-violent manipulation of the environment and of the thoughts and feelings of individual men, women and children.”

There were certainly areas of thought where I found Huxley’s arguments wanting, but none of that changed the fact that he made some excellent observations about the current state of his world and the ultimate trajectory of ours.

Revisiting Brave New World was a welcome opportunity to explore these ideas in a very short book, easily read over the course of a leisurely weekend. The real question lingers:

How close are we to Huxley’s Brave New World? Will we eventually live in a world so unfamiliar that even reproduction has been taken over by what Huxley refers to as the Power Elite?

As for the book, because it induces the opportunity to think about the world in which we live, I give it:

4 out of 5 stars

 

 

 

 

In His Steps

In His Steps, Kindle Edition, by Charles M. Sheldon. Originally published in 1896. 156 print pages.

In His Steps is the classic Christian novel by Charles M. Sheldon. It is, I think the first fictional work I’ve read in quite some time that ran counter to my usual experience of reading fiction much more quickly than nonfiction. In fact, I’ve spent a couple of extra weeks both reading this book and contemplating my review of it.

I know what I think of the book, and I know what I am supposed to think of this beloved and renowned work and its author, and my challenge is reconciling my two warring perspectives of the book. Last night, as I was falling asleep, it hit me. Dubois’ theory of double consciousness strikes at the heart of my wrestling with this book. In reality, this inner conflict is hardly isolated to the realm of race in America. I am increasingly able to see how, given our history of merging the political and the religious, the American Christian, sans vigilance, can be afflicted by this same phenomena of double consciousness. We’ll get back to that in bit.

Since I both liked and struggled with In His Steps, depending on the scene it which it was set, we’ll start with a brief synopsis of the plot of the story.

The Rev. Henry Maxwell, pastor of First Church of Raymond, experiences a crisis of faith after a homeless man enters his church and challenges him and his congregation concerning the veracity of their faith in action. A few days later Jack, the homeless man, dies. Maxwell grapples with everything the man said to his congregation that day, and begins to earnestly pray and reconsider his and his congregation’s comfortable, self-satisfied faith. Not only is it void of personal sacrifice, but it is more of a merit badge signaling class and decency than evidence true, Christian discipleship.

The next Sunday, Rev. Maxwell enters the pulpit a changed man, with a renewed passion for Christ and the gospel message. After shocking his congregation with a sermon and prayer lacking the rehearsed polish and poise they have become accustomed t, he ended the morning’s worship by challenging his congregants to embark with him on a new journey. Specifically, he has resolved to filter every life decision through prayer and the answer to the question, “What would Jesus do?”

So WWJD wasn’t just a 90s slogan that looks good on t-shirts and rubber bracelets!

Initially, about 50 of his congregants join him in prayer and resolve to do nothing without prayerfully and earnestly considering whether Jesus would do the thing in question. The results are remarkable, and many of the players involved encounter situations where their commitment to living as they believe Jesus would come at great personal sacrifice. Some lose jobs, some lose money, and others find that relationships are tested. However, having pledged wholeheartedly to embrace the Christian promise that every one that has forsaken houses, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundred times, and shall inherit everlasting life, they forge on in faith.

There were a few who fell away when difficulties arose, but overall, the town itself was reinvigorated with all that was taking place. I especially appreciated the way that the congregation of First Church of Raymond left their cushy, prosperous lives and donated time and energy to minister to the people in the roughest, most obviously sin-scarred parts of their town. It was a picture of revival that any Christian can’t help but be moved by.

In addition to the self-sacrifice and commitment to being the hands and feet of Jesus outside the four walls of their brick and mortar edifices, there were others who were committed to transforming their entire city for the glory of Christ. Commitments to be more active in promoting Christians in politics and shutting down saloons to curb liquor consumption was a theme that ran strong throughout the book. It’s also where my wrestling began until I recognized that this is not a new problem and that W.E.B. DuBois had expressed it well describing the freed slaves in America trying to reconcile their American citizenship with an oppressive culture constantly reminding them of their foreignness. Before I explain further, here’s a portion of DuBois’ original quote:

“One ever feels his twoness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Now I’ll rework it to show how it directly relates to the conundrum of the American Christian, particularly in light of our traditional intertwining of our faith and our governing principles:

One ever feels his twoness, — an American citizen, and a citizen of heaven; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one fleshly body, whose strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

As I read the portions of In His Steps from my current spiritual (and political) vantage point, I couldn’t help but fell a sense of wariness at the notion that Christians can somehow “Christianize” the dominant culture as many of the well-meaning actors attempt to do in Sheldon’s city of Raymond, and later as the book’s setting moved to Chicago. The whitewashing of external unpleasantness can make it easy to become complacent about our need for repentance. The temptation is strong to believe teetotalling, calf-length dresses, and sin locked away in the dark is evidence of our spiritual fitness. Michael Horton expands on this way of thinking in his piece on American captivity of the church.

Because of my tendency to inwardly squirm with discomfort at the idea, I had to remember that books are written relevant to the time and place in which they were written. Once I was able to remember that, I was able to relax and enjoy In His Steps a lot more and understand why it has remained a beloved book, touching the hearts of generations of Christians new and old for over 100 years. We would all do well to ask ourselves “what would Jesus do?” in our day to day living, and then act and love others accordingly. Against such things there is no law.

4 out of 5 stars

Friday Faves: Literary to Film Adaptations

When a new movie is released that is based on a renowned piece of literature, my usual approach is to not watch the movie until I have read the book. That hasn’t always been the case, and  plenty of times where I finally got around to reading the book years after having watched the film.

Today, I decided to share my favorite page to big screen adaptations, and to find out which ones are your favorites. In no particular order:

~The Godfather (1972): This movie, featuring Al Pacino in a masterful portrayal of mob boss Michael Corleone, is a great film and one of my favorites. Yes, it’s violent and all that other stuff, but the combination of wonderful performances and a gripping story is why it made my list.

I was slightly older than newborn when this movie was released, so it stands to reason that there was no way I could have read it before the film was released, but I still haven’t read it. I’ve decided that I will read it after the Advent season has passed, at the begiining of next year, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise. That there is your southern idiom lesson for the week. 🙂

~Sense and Sensibility (1995)– As I’m sure many of you might guess, I have read -several times over- the book from which this film was adapted. Jane Austen’s classic trope of lovely yet penniless young women seeking marriage and hopefully love is brought delightfully to life in this 1995 adaption. Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet, as sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood make this a worthy adapation.

~True Grit ( 1969 or 2010 take your pick!) – Whether we’re discussing the 1969 version starring John Wayne, or the 2010 version starring Jeff Bridges, both of these movies are really great adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel. I have a strong bias towards Jeff Bridges so my vote goes to the later version, but as I said, both are great.

~The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)– This adaptation strays far from James Thurber’s 1939 short story, but it’s a fun movie and it’s one of the few where the time and trouble to read the original and compare notes is easily accessible. The short story doesn’t wrap up with a happy ending gift wrapped and handed to reader with a bow on top the way the film does. But having experienced both, I did come away wondering if it were possible for the original Walter Mitty, even at his more advanced stage of life, to break out of the doldrums and live a happier life in the reality he was born into. We recently discussed Thurbers story right here.

Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)– Based on Roald Dahl’s 1964 novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a very fun film. Much more fun than the 2005 version which we didn’t like all that much. I wasn’t born yet when this movie was released, so again, I didn’t read it before it hit theaters. I was born a little later that same year, but I didn’t read the book until I was a married mother. It’s a great book.

The Help (2011)– I tend to weary of movies that depict slavery or the Jim Crow south, unless there is a very unique unheard angle worth exploring.  But this film (and the 2009 book) had so much humor woven through it and the performances were so well done that I got past it. Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, and Allison Janney (had to Google the cast members!) made me laugh so much that it was worth it to me to watch the film.

That’s my short, but certainly not exhaustive, list.

What are some of  your favorite book to film adaptations?