28 February 2021

Historical mysteries, adventure tales, and books inspired by them

She (She, #1)She by H. Rider Haggard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book twice when I was at school, and thought it the best book by H. Rider Haggard that I had read. Reading it again as an adult I could remember little but the horrible end of the eponymous "She", but as I read through it I wondered how it was that I remembered it with such fondness, because there were long passages of religious and quasi-philosophical reflection that must surely have been boring to a child. The actual adventure is mainly in the last 50 pages or so.

Part of the appeal, for me at least, lies in the setting, the meta-story, as it were, which involves a historical mystery. Horace Holly, a Cambridge don, is asked by a dying friend to be guardian of his young son, Leo Vincey, and is given a box to be opened on Leo's 25th birthday. The box contains the story of Leo's descent from an ancient Egyptian priest, and a love triangle that results in his death at the hands of a mysterious woman living somewhere in central Africa.

As a result Holly and Leo Vincey travel to central Africa in the hope of solving the historical mystery, using clues scrawled on an ancient potsherd in ancient Greek. I suppose that it was enjoying such stories as a child that gave me a taste for history and historical research, so that I still enjoy solving the puzzles one encounters in family history and other historical research, where each mystery solved leads to a fresh mystery that seems to defy solution. And I suppose that is why I still enjoyed this book several decades later.

And such stories of ancient mysteries leading to modern adventures still seem to appeal to later tastes, as the series of Indiana Jones films produced about a century later shows.

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But, as many books do, this one sparked off thoughts that go beyond a mere review. In this case it led me to wonder whether C.S. Lewis had read She, and whether it had given him some inspiration in writing The Magician's Nephew, which is now next on my re-reading list.

The bit about The Magician's Nephew was sparked off by reading this passage, in which She proposes to marry Leo (whom she confuses with his remote ancestor Kallikrates), go with him back to England, and make him king and herself queen: 

“But we have a queen already," broke in Leo, hastily. “It is naught, it is naught,” said Ayesha ; "she can be overthrown."

At this we both broke out into an exclamation of dismay, and explained that we should as soon think of overthrowing ourselves.

“But here is a strange thing,” said Ayesha, in astonishment -- "а
queen whom her people love! Surely the world must have changed since I dwelt in Kôr."

Again we explained that it was the character of monarchs that had changed, and that the one under whom we lived was venerated and beloved by all right-thinking people in her vast realms. Also, we told her that real power in our country rested in the hands of the people, and that we were in fact ruled by the votes of the lower and least educated classes of the community.

“Ah,” she said, "a democracy -- then surely there is a tyrant, for I have long since seen that democracies, having no clear will of their own, in the end set up a tyrant, and worship him.

“Yes,” I said, " we have our tyrants.

“Well," she answered resignedly, we can at any rate destroy these tyrants, and Kallikrates shall rule the land.”

I instantly informed Ayesha that in England "blasting" was not an amusement that could be indulged in with impunity, and that any such attempt would meet with the consideration of the law and probably end upon a scaffold.

"The law," she laughed with scorn -- "the law! Canst thou not understand, O Holly, that I am above the law, and so shall Kallikrates be also ? All human law will be to us as the north wind to a mountain. Does the wind bend the mountain, or the mountain the wind ?

This appears very similar to the attitude of Jadis, the former Queen of the dead world Charn, when she comes to England, and later to Narnia.

And I suppose I was inspired by reading books like this as a child to incorporate the trope of ancient mysteries inspiring or contributing to modern adventures into my own story The Year of the Dragon, where I used the legend of Lobengula's treasure in a similar way. 

In this case, the real life event was a story found in the archives about John Jacobs. In 1908 Jacobs persuaded Susman, a Jewish trader at Lialui, and later of Livingstone, Northern Rhodesia, to search for Lobengula's treasure in Portuguese territory. Susman said after travelling for 3 months, Jacobs became more and more hazy about their goal. Eventually Susman flogged Jacobs, and was fined in court. Jacobs was deported from Northern Rhodesia in 1909. Then Jacobs persuaded Samuel Brander (the founder of the Ethiopian Catholic Church in Zion) to go on a similar treasure hunt, and they travelled there in 1917, but left without finding any treasure. On the way back Jacobs was arrested in Southern Rhodesia and charged under the immigration laws This story is found in a Memorandum from the Secretary for Native Affairs in Livingstone, dated 5 Aug 1917, in the Tshwane Archives Depot at NTS 1420 5/214.

And it was just such stories that authors like Rider Haggard used as triggers for adventure. John Jacobs was doubtless a con man, but the fantasies of con men can lead to interesting adventure stories.

17 February 2021

Historical novel and fantasy subgenre

The Golden Horde (Tales of Old Russia #3)

The Golden Horde by Peter Morwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I bought this book cheap on a sale 21 years ago and never read it because when I got home I discovered that it was part of a series, and we did not have the first two parts. Then, with the library closed because of Covid, I took it off the shelf where it had sat all these years, and discovered that it is a mixture of two genres -- the historical novel and the fantasy/fairy story. As most of my attempts to write fiction have been in the same sub-genre, and the one I've been writing most recently has a similar setting, I thought it was time I read it if only to see how someone else handles that particular genre, and how they handle similar tropes. 

The Golden Horde is set in Russia in the 13th century, in the time of the Mongol invasions, and to begin with I did not like it very much and nearly abandoned it after the first couple of chapters, but then it seemed to improve. There are references to the preceding volumes in the series, which I still don't have, but it stands up quite well as a stand-alone story.

So much for my actual review of the book -- to say much more would reveal too much of the plot, so if you haven't read it and might want to, stop reading here.

I didn't much like the way Peter Morwood handled some of the historical figures mentioned, and some of the tropes. Perhaps that is prejudice on my part; for example, as an Orthodox Christian I was sorry that he had nothing good to say about St Alexander Nevsky. Now Alexander Nevsky is not my favourite saint, mainly because, as a pacifist, I am not drawn to soldier saints very much, or at least I am more drawn to the ones who, like St Martin of Tours, became conscientious objectors. But the Orthodox Church is not a "peace church" like the Quakers and the Mennonites. It has as both soldier saints and peacenik saints. And in the times in which St Alexander Nevsky lived, it was almost impossible for anyone in political leadership not to be drawn into wars. But Peter Morwood seems to think that sorcery is the better option, and his portrayal of St Alexander Nevsky is entirely negative.

In other tropes, however, there is a hint of the Inklings, especially the novels of Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis in his novel That Hideous Strength. Batu, Khan of the Golden Horde, collects the crowns of the Russian princes he conquers. Those who surrender hand over their crowns voluntarily, in acknowledgement that henceforth they rule at the Khan's pleasure. Those who do not surrender their crowns have them taken by force. And the accumulation of crowns represents a dangerous accumulation of power, which irrupts into the world in Charles Williams fashion when a group of Russian nobles decide to offer a sacrifice to Chernibog, an old Russian pagan god. 

To counter this, the Princess and sorceress Mar'ya Morevna uses her grimoire to summon Byelobog, the white god of ancient Russia. As Morwood describes it:

To the Tatars, that was Tangri the Eternal Blue Sky fighting Erlik Khan with his thunderbolt, though Ivan knew there was at least one old servant who had come with him down from Khorlov who would see Othinn or Thorr wielding spear or hammer against their old adversary Jorungandr  the Midgarth-serpent. To some of the Russians, it would be Byelobog struggling with Chernobog, but the rest would see the Archangel Mikhail come to do battle against the darkness and the old serpent, not for them alone, but for all thee wide white world.

... echoes of the scene in That Hideous Strength where the gods of the planets descended on Belbury, where all the evil in Thulcandra has gathered.

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06 February 2021

Enid Blyton and the "Famous Five"

Five Go to Demon's Rock (The Famous Five, #19)

Five Go to Demon's Rock by Enid Blyton
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book has all the usual Enid Blyton trade marks -- a superfluity of exclamation marks, stilted and unconvincing dialogue, and an adventure that doesn't begin until two-thirds of the way through the book. It also, however, has a weak and unconvincing plot.

So why did I buy it and read it?

We went to the library last Tuesday and it was closed -- a member of staff had tested positive for Covid-19, so all the rest of the staff were in quarantine. So we went to a second-hand bookshop to get something to read. I found  a few books, and then asked for their children's book section, but they only pointed me to a teenage books section. Then when I was paying for the other books, I saw this one in a pile on the counter, and picked it up. The woman in front of me in the queue said, "Ah, Enid Blyton, the Famous Five and the Secret Seven" and that started a conversation with a couple of staff members as well, who also recalled the Famous Five and the Secret Seven.

And I wondered about that. As a child, I read and enjoyed some books by Enid Blyton, but the Famous Five and the Secret Seven were not among them. I had read one or two Famous Five books and found them boring and unmemorable, and did not read any more. Now, as an adult, I bought this book mainly to see what the appeal was. And this one had all the faults of Enif Blyton's writing with none of the good points of her better children's adventure stories, like The Secret of Kilimooin and The Mountain of Adventure.

Arthur Ransome wrote some children's stories where the "adventure" was simply going and camping out on their own, so the adventure in this case, the children's encounter with some criminals, need not necessarily be the main part of the story, but even the camping part Arthur Ransome wrote so much better. He even, sometimes, included encounters with criminals, for example in The Big Six. But in this one the story was weak, and I didn't much like the characters either.

I bought this one, therefore, partly to see why I hadn't much liked the Famous Five as a child, and to see why the Famous Five were the first thing most people thought of if you mentioned Enid Blyton, or even children's adventure stories in general. And this one was a long way from being among the best of children's adventure stories, and also a long way from being among the best of Enid Blyton's ones.

The other reason for reading this one now is that I wrote a children's adventure story, which some reviewers compared with the Famous Five, and I rather hope that mine was a bit better than this one. 

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03 February 2021

The REAL Benedict option

In This House of BredeIn This House of Brede by Rumer Godden
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I started reading this book, I did not expect it to be so good. But when bookshops and libraries were closed during the Covid lockdown I began making a list of books on our shelves that I had not read. I don't even know how this one got there -- I think it may have been one I inherited when my mother died. Bit I had no hesitation in giving it five stars.

It's about a fictitious Benedictine monastery in England, and gives what seems to me a remarkably accurate picture of Christian monastic life. I knew some things about Benedictines. I knew a few people who had entered Benedictine monasteries, but found the monastic life wasn't for them. I have even visited the female Benedictine monastery at Inkamana near Vryheid in KZN, and a male one at Egmont in the Netherlands. I knew that male Benedictine monks were addressed as "Dom". But I did not know that professed female Benedictines were addressed as "Dame". nor that they had "claustral" sisters. That I learnt from this book.

In spite of its informativeness, however, it is not simply an "info dump" (that bane of would-be fiction writers), but it is a human story, and the characters stand out as real human beings.

It also brings out clearly how the monastic life, though more intense, is not essentially different from the Christian life in general. One scene that brought this out particularly strongly was when a novice nun receives letters from a man who had been in love with her for a long time. He addressed her by her secular name, pleading with her to leave the monastery, abandon the monastic life and marry him. She would not reply to his letters, saying she would only do so if he addressed her by her monastic name, thus acknowledging her decision and her right to make it. She asked the Abbess if that was not right. "It's right," said the Abbess, "but is it kind?"

That reminded me of the saying, quite commonly uttered in the time that the story is set (the 1950s and 1960s), that it is better to do wrong for the sake of love than to insist on doing right because of my lack of it.

There is sometimes a perception that it is easier to be a Christian in a monastery, because one is protected from the temptations of the world, but this book does nothing to promote that view. Orthodox monastics I have known have often spoken of the monastic life as "my repentance", and that is more its distinguishing feature. In the monastic life it is no easier than anywhere else to become perfect. It is, however, easier to become aware of one's imperfections.

Western monasticism, or perhaps one should rather say "religious life", differs from Orthodox monasticism in having many different forms. There are monks, sisters, canons regular, mendicant friars and a whole lot of others.

By contrast, Orthodox monasteries all work more or less on the same lines. Most, however, seem to agree that Benedictines are monks, and they seem to be the closest to Orthodox monasticism. It is therefore rather strange to see Orthodox Christians advocating something called the Benedict option when it is very un-Benedictine. If you are Orthodox, please read this book to understand what the Benedict option really means. And it might also give some insight5 into Orthodox monasticism too, though I would be interested in hearing the views of Orthodox monastics who have read this book.

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