Scandalous Gospel: Reader’s Response

I’m reading The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s so Good About the Good News? these days.  Peter J. Gomes died recently; I had never heard of him–not that I know of, anyway–but his passing was mentioned by a couple of bloggers I have come to take seriously.  I won’t bore you by pretending to know anything substantial about him, except to note what might be the most important fact about him in this context.  He was a believing Christian.

I’m not far into it, but that’s what I do.  Read a bit, begin to respond, read a bit more and so on until I’m finished.  And then, when I’m not finished any more, come back and repeat the cycle.  So anyway, Gomes is a believer, and I’m the guy who talks so much.

Gomes’s belief, while certainly more complex than I’m going to get into, is that the good news is radical.  One is tempted to add superlatives, but they aren’t necessary.  The upheaval of the world proclaimed by the gospel of Jesus is total, as Gomes presents it.  In this Gomes sounds quite a lot like John Dominic Crossian.  Who knows how either of them might feel about that.  I like to think ‘probably ok’ since neither of them, in their writing, seems awfully concerned about stuff like that.

In any case the good news is a hard thing for for the conventional. Gomes quotes from Luke, Chapter Six:

How terrible for you who laugh now; you will mourn and weep!

How terrible when all men speak well of you, because their ancestors said the very same things to the false prophets.

Not much comfort there.

Three Hearts and Three Lions: Reader Response

I just finished Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson. I’m not totally sure how I came across this title, but Wikipedia claims that it influenced the first edition of D&D in its conception of alignment and trolls. Not that it’s an especially D&D-like novel. Not that I would really know; I don’t think I’ve ever read a D&D novel. Anyway.

Here’s what it is like. It’s like watching someone go from one place to another, dealing with various monsters from the menu of European fairy tales. Then, at the end of the journey, the hero discovers his strength and defeats the bad guys. And it’s great.

Our hero is a guy, Holger Carlsen, Dane who half-emigrated to the USA in the years before WWII. He’s a pretty smart guy, a pretty strong guy, who, when WWII breaks out, discovers that he didn’t really mean to emigrate. He returns to Denmark to fight Nazis in the underground. In the heat of a particularly important secret mission, he gets knocked out and wakes up in Ye Olde Europe.

From there the questing, and the romance, and the fighting, and the discovering his true identity takes place. He uses his modern knowledge in some circumstances, gets lucky in others, and in some his friends help him make it through. His friends are mainly a dwarf and a swan may.

Each chapter is, essentially, one encounter loosely connected to the next. About a third of the way through the book, things shift, and what appeared to be one type of fantasy story—the type where the unwitting hero moves rapidly into circles of power and through his native wisdom, strength, and grace wins the day—turns into a different type of story. This is the type of where the hero doesn’t really understand much of anything, accidentally does the right thing a few times, and finds he’s leading the good guys against the forces of Chaos, and it’s not going so well at pretty much every step.

Here’s what I mean by that. In each encounter, Holger prevails by and large unscathed. He comes out of each one with a tiny bit more knowledge about who he is, and how he fits into this world where he finds himself. However, though he defeats his opponents, his material position slowly weakens. This is of little consequence in the middle third of the story, when Holger and his friends are wandering in the wilderness. It begins to matter rapidly and increasingly rapidly through the final third, so that by the final encounter, he’s barely able to stand before he attains his goal.

And then he gets what he’s after, the veil falls, and… and the novel ends. There’s a coda, but we readers only get the final climactic battle retrospectively.

This is a very good book. It seems nothing much happens, but it’s very well written, and the pace of it makes more sense on review than perhaps it does at the time. The characters are clearly drawn, and fun to journey with.

Also great is to see how Anderson links this character to The Matter of France. It’s not just a name, or a character history; Anderson allows the Christianity of the source material to come through. While the novel isn’t Christian as such, the characters all assume the power of Christ and God, the good guys rely on the Holy Name to give them strength, and the bad guys are weakened by encounters with those how believe and use these talismans. Upon returning to the mundane world, Holger joins the Church in an effort to return to the heroic realm where The Matter is history and not just legendary literature. This is some literature which I didn’t know about before, and which I’m now looking forward to reading.

Rango and running on and on…

I wasn’t sure I was gong to have anything to say about Rango. Turns out I did, in a comment to this blog post (Note: broken link as of Jan. 7, 2018. -SM) discussing the (possibly) racist shading in the movie. I’m putting it here, too.

(lightly edited) I don’t agree that the movie is racist. That’s a pretty heavy charge to lay on a movie. Comedy deals in types, and in the dissonance between what’s expected and what happens. My perspective on this is informed by my time founding a student humor magazine. When I first saw Wounded Bird, I thought something along the lines of, “eesh, another Magical Native American.” But with dialog like this:

Rango: (as Wounded Bird scatters feathers into the wind) I see you’re communicating with the great spirits.
Wounded Bird: No. I’m molting. It means I’m ready to mate.

…it’s difficult for me to see the character as a stereotype. The other characters, particularly Rango (who’s pretty unaware about most things, except after the fact), tend to see Wounded Bird in terms of the stereotype, but the movie itself presents him as something more. At least as much as such a thing is possible for a second- or third-tier character.

The Mayor, as a tortoise, is presented as the only one who was there before there was even a town. He’s older than Dirt, you see. (Of course you do.) He’s both very old, and he’s in a wheel chair. It’s unclear to me why these facts about the character have to be an –ism of any stripe. Neither his age nor the fact he’s in a wheel chair prevent him from pursuing (and nearly attaining) his goals. Why is he in a wheel chair? We don’t know, since there’s no in-story explanation. My suspicion is the movie put him in a wheel chair, at least in part, to short circuit any easy jokes about slow-moving tortoises. (And I think Tom in a comment above makes a good point about Mr. Potter.)

It’s a movie that takes place in the American southwest, right? There’s a mariachi band and an armadillo, and they speak with Mexican accents. Is there more to the stereotype in the presentation than the way they speak? Is the failing that these characters aren’t major players in the story? The owls are a chorus, and the armadillo is an animal guide/wisdom elder ala Campbell. But you know these things. In this case, you’re seeing stereotypes where I see archetypes.

Throughout the movie, the owls are telling us that it’s Rango’s story. When Rango leaves town and finds the Man With No Name, er… The Sprit of the West, he learns the lesson: nobody can leave his (her) own story. As you point out, it takes heroism on the part of lots of characters, and no less from the women in the story than from the men. But it’s Rango’s story, and his journey—an incomplete one as he’s still pretty much as unaware at the end as he his at the beginning—is the story we’re dealing with. This is a parody of the Man With No Name movies (perhaps most directly High Plains Drifter, with overtones of Chinatown), not a parody of The Magnificent Seven (or of The Seven Samurai).

Rango ends the story pretty self-absorbed, but he also ends the story with a dawning understanding that if you put yourself out there and people come to rely on you, then you have to be willing to see it through. Again we viewers are confronted with a situation where Rango has one view of things and we viewers have the rest of the movie telling us that there’s more going on. Indeed, Wounded Bird actually has the line: after the plan of the moment goes wrong, Wounded Bird says something along the lines of what a bad idea it was. Of course he’s the one who actually gets shot, so that actually plays into the stereotype…

Could the movie done better with its types, or challenged its premise or the viewer more? Probably. But I’m not arguing that it’s not as good as it could be, I’m arguing that it’s not racist. Of course you could have been saying that the character Rango (rather than the movie with that title) is racist. In which case, I’ll just say he’s stupid.

(Update 3/9/2011) See also this post from Big Media Vandalism.

When the Tar Baby sequence started, I got nervous. But when I saw what the Tar Baby looked like, I said “OH COME ON, PEOPLE!” Here I was, expecting it to look like Wesley or Miles Davis, and the damn thing doesn’t even look like a person, let alone a Black person. The Disney animators make it react as if it were actually made out of tar. Its movement, and subsequent destruction, become a surreal image that, at least for me, did not evoke anything human.

That’s probably enough.

Unitarian Universalism. What the hey? pt 1

We’ve been attending a small Unitarian Universalist congregation off-and-on (increasingly on) for the last year or so. One of the strange parts about UU is that it’s non-creedal. It’s like a habitat for spiritual discovery. Or something.

There are principles, and there are sources. I think I’ll post additional entries on these. But for the moment, this is about the most succinct statement of the religion aspect of UUism. (Note, the link originally here, to a UU congregation’s site, no longer connected as of Jan. 7, 2018. Here’s a link to the UUA’s site instead. -SM)

The Last Ring-bearer: Reader’s Response, finale

I promised some commentary on Mordor, as presented in The Last Ring-bearer. Mordor is a strange place. Stranger, in some ways, in this book than in The Lord of the Rings. Here’s what’s strange about it: even as the ostensible victim of Gondorian/Wizard aggression, it doesn’t actually sound like all that great a place.

It cannot grow its own food because it screwed up its irrigation system. The narrator excuses this as an understandable mistake on their part. There is, after all, no way of knowing–the first time attempting such large-scale irrigation–that the method they chose is a good way of salinating one’s best farmland. Nevertheless, that’s what the Mordorians did. So now they have to trade for their food. It is a diplomatic report by a Gondorian spy pointing this out, and filed deep in the archives of Minis Tirith decades ago that gives Gandalf the idea of how to win the War of the Ring, that–indeed–gives him the impetus to begin the war in a Wizard’s Council where Saruman decides to go off on his own and attempt to arrange a separate peace between Mordor and Gondor (still ruled by the Stewards).

Anyway. Mordor. Salt flats, swamps, that big frikkin volcano, deserts, and cities of learning. Even these don’t sound like fun. They get things right, and are home to smarty-pants science types, but they sound dark, overcast, smoggy, industrial, and generally blah. And this is in the memory of people who liked it. Very little time is spent in Mordor. A lot of time–a whole lot of time–is spent in the great harbor town of Umbar. Umbar is a great long frikkin way away from Gondor, Mordor, and just about anywhere else you might want to be. And it’s a great harbor town. This town sounds pretty interesting, actually, and I wouldn’t mind reading some more stories set here. On the other hand, I might do just as well to read the Thieves’ World books, since I felt like that’s what I was doing, anyway.

So that’s most of the book: descriptions of places you wouldn’t want to be anyway, and a lot–a lot–of running around on the margins of Middle Earth. I didn’t understand why all that business was going on in Umbar. Then, about three-fourths the way through it I remembered that there was a palantir that needed to be placed in the kingdom of Lorien. Obviously, if you’re an agent of the recently-fallen Mordor, and you need to get object A really, really close to object B, the thing to do is take object A just about as far from object B as possible, then finagle a meeting with your enemy’s top spy by–well… It’s not so much a spoiler alert as an unwillingness on my part to reconstruct the whole thing in my head to type up. There’s the Elvish underground who is the goal of all the finagling. There’s the Umbar police force, the Umbar secret police, the Gondorian secret service, the Gondorian diplomatic corps, and the Elvish underground’s stooges, as well as the Umbarian black market, the Umbarian grey market, and the just run-of-the-mill Umbarian unsavorienss to be navigated. It actually made sense to me that the palantir had to be all sneakily taken to Lorien by tricking the Elves to do it themselves. That I was OK with.

What seems strange, though, is that to make sure the palantir was next to Galadriel’s mirror, was to, essentially, blackmail an Elf by kidnapping someone and arrainging to transmit the ransom demands at a certain time on a certain day, but only if the agents of Mordor could see the mirror through the palantir. So why all the running around in Umbar? I don’t know. Don’t try to rehash the plot to explain it to me, either. My point is if the agents of Mordor could both kidnap (or make it convincingly appear they could kidnap) an Elf, and they could get to the Elf to set up the second contact about the ransom, then there shouldn’t have been a need to run half-way around the world in order to trick the Elves into taking the palantir back to Lorien. They should have been able to say, “we got the kid, here’s a rock we’re gonna call you on in ten days, make sure it’s next to the mirror so we know you’re not on our tail, and we’ll tell you what’s what.”

In the previous post, I mentioned some strangeness about the relationship between the magical elements and the materialist elements of the world as presented in The Last Ring-bearer. I gave it a bit of a hard time with respect to having a Nazgul set the story of destroying the mirror in motion. At the end of the story, Saruman attempts to talk the person out of destroying the mirror with an extended lecture about how we don’t really know the exact nature of how magic relates to the material world, how the Nazgul was speculating (much as Saruman admitted he was speculating), and that what the guy was doing by destroying the mirror was a radical experiment. As it turns out, the guy’s palantir fell into the volcano and the mirror was destroyed, and… not much changed, really.

Which brings me to the end, where I repeat myself again and again. I like the attempt to ground a story in a realistic sort of geologic, medical, political world. I think it sort of misses the point of The Lord of the Rings to do it in Middle Earth, but there’s no need to write more Middle Earth material as if one is Tolkien. So Yeskov did something interesting in an interesting environment, and deserves praise for largely succeeding. Myself, the spycraft stuff–alas, the bulk of the text–isn’t all that interesting, though the character who went through it pretty much is. I would probably have found it more interesting if all that same stuff hadn’t happened with a Middle-earth/War of the Ring backdrop, since I kept waiting for what what going on in front of me to intersect with what I already knew about. Finally, and this is a complaint I’ve made with Niven and Asimov, so Yeskov is in good company, I don’t like it when the author gives a lecture disguised as a Socratic dialog. I feel like I’m listening to a couple of stoners discuss the relative merits of alternate spellings for animal names of household pets.

The Last Ring-bearer: Reader’s Response, pt. 1

The Last Ring-bearer by Kirill Yeskov is a, oh, what it is? A novel, yes. It takes place in Middle-earth in the months after the end of the War of the Ring. Yes. It tells a tale of intrigue, double-dealing, and geopolitics on a scope which, while intimate, dwarfs the scale of Tolkien’s work.

Kinda sorta. After the war, some agents of Mordor are recruited to destroy a thingy. A mirror which shows the possible future of the one who gazes into it. That’s the general plot, at least so far, at least kind of. I’m about 170/270ths of the way through.

Let me back up a bit. Why, one might wonder, would someone do this? I mean, isn’t The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, plus all the additional volumes edited by Christopher Tolkien enough? One might think so, but one would be wrong, because, you see, Yeskov wanted something different from what Tolkien was doing.

Which is fine. You can read his intentions, so I’m not going to belabor them. Except to note that he, essentially, wanted a Middle-earth story that grounded the actions and outcomes in recognizably materialist human and geographical considerations. Some of the commentary about this book has cited Roger Zelazney as criticizing Tolkien for… oh, something or other that Zelanney allegedly didn’t like. Nobody who’s brought it up has bothered to run down the context of the alleged criticism, and I’m not going to try since whatever Zelazney said isn’t really relevent to what Yeskov wrote.

I happen to think that an effort to ground a Middle-earth story in realpolitik pretty well misses the point of what Tolkien was doing, and also misses the conception of Middle-earth as a place that’s sort of a precursor to our world (though not literally–the mistake the recent Battlestar Galactica makes), but which–while looking like our world–follows different physical laws. Middle-earth isn’t a planet, for instance.

But that’s a quibble, really. As Yeskov notes, if you don’t like this sort of thing, then it wasn’t written for you anyway, so don’t worry about it. So, with that in mind, how good is what Yeskov actually wrote?

It’s actually pretty OK. It’s a translation from Russian, so I’m not going to linger over some of the actual word choices. The word ‘guy’ shows up a lot, and there’s a certain… oh… high school-y casualness in some of the tone. It’s not a big deal for me, but if you want epic prose there’s nothing to see here, please move along.

The story moves at a brisk pace. There are a few passages where things flagged for me, in this book the elf song are the extended passages where characters go through the motions of stealthiness and hand-to-hand combat. So my eyes glaze over, I skip a page or two, and get back into things.

My major criticism is this: the story is about how this one guy (heh) is supposed to destroy this one thing. In a materialist story he’s supposed to do this, but it’s a magical item, his plan involves using other magical items, and he’s given the task by a magical being. I can be OK with that. Except Mordor is described in this book as a place where they don’t use magic, having chosen rationalism, science, literacy, modernity, and so on. But then a Nazgul is the one to give the job to this one guy, and the Nazgul aren’t actually fundamentally reinterpreted. They’re still, essentially, magical. Which is to say I’m finding the underlying motivations of the characters problematic. But I’m not finished yet, so I might be proven wrong on that point.

The other point where I’m troubled by what’s going on is this: so far, in about 170 pages of text, somewhere north of 100 pages of it have very little to do with the actual quest part of the story. There’s a bit about reinterpreting the established Middle-earth characters and politics. That’s pretty interesting from a Canon Defilement point-of-view. Aragorn and Gandalf come off as especially different characters by twisting their motivations while essentially preserving their core actions. Faramir and Eowyn come off pretty well, actually. Mordor, while not getting a make-over, does get… I think I’ll come back to Mordor in the second post on this book.

Most of the book, however, is taken up with a sort of spy novel with action set-pieces. And a large chunk of that is taken up with a lot of running around and spycraft. I’m pretty sure the object of this is to position a certain piece of hardware. The mirror is held by Elves, and our heroes are working for the ideals espoused by Mordor. So they aren’t going to be able to get close to the mirror. In order to destroy it, they essentially have to trick the Elves into putting the bomb next to it themselves. There’s about a hundred pages left, so that’s plenty of time to do that, and take care of the triggering mechanism for the bomb as well. But… while it’s pretty well written, and pretty well paced and all, I feel like two or three bits of spycraft would have been plenty. Instead we get scene after scene of the four parties involved. (These are the Mordor spy, Gondorian spies, Elvish spies, and Umbarian local authories.) They circle each other, and the Mordor spy does his thing, and–to be honest–I’m not 100% sure he’s actually doing it to place the hardware in the hands of the Elves.

Anyway. It’s pretty good, and worth reading, but so far it’s been most fun if I simply read it for what it is, there on the page, and don’t pay too much attention to the fact that it’s set in Middle-earth.

Elf Song

I’m reading The Last Ring Bearer. I’ll have a few things to say about it. Probably a couple of posts worth; you know, mid-way, and when I’m finished with it. But before I do, I want to discuss elf song.

I played D&D and AD&D (and several over games off-and-on) in late elementary school through high school and a bit beyond. It’s not that I grew out of it so much as time management made it impossible: to play with those friends, to find who among my new friends were gamers, and then to build the rapport with them to keep things lively.

So, though I had every reason to, I didn’t actually read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings until Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring was just about to get released. I can’t say I regret having waited something like twenty years almost to get around to it. I am glad I’ve read them, and I like them a lot, and I think they are worth revisiting every few years. I’ve even read The Silmarillion. Which, given what I’m about to say next, might be a surprise.

The big reason I didn’t read those books before is the elf song. In those books, elf song is–literally–songs by and about elves. In those books there are extended passages of untranslated poetry sung by and about elves. Usually, of course, the untranslated bits are at least glossed in the text, so you know what you missed. At the time, that is before the recent movies came out in a world where you can’t hardly turn around without some sort of semi-documentary promotional show smacking you in the face, it was more difficult to find out what Tolkien was up to with this than it is now. And, after all, I was a kid, so I probably wouldn’t have cared much anyway.

When I finally read those books, I took some advice from Laurie Anderson (about Moby Dick). If you get bogged down, skip ahead a bit. You’ll pick it up, and you can go back later and really dig in when you’re ready. That’s a paraphrase. So I skipped the elf song in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Now elf song is the term we use in our house for any extended bit of text which gets in the way of reading the book. It’s always going to be there, and if the book is actually worth coming back to, it’ll be enriched by digging into the elf song. If it’s not worth coming back to, the elf song isn’t what’s going to tip the scales.

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