Category Archives: Reading

A peg-legged legend

Long John Silver

It be our fashion to honor “Talk Like a Pirate Day” here at Brandywine Books, and I’d be a Dutchman if I failed in my bounden duties in that regard. So here’s a tale for ye, mateys, from a book called The Pirates, by Douglas Botting, published in 1978 by Time-Life Books:

The lead-up: In August 1720, an East Indiaman called the Cassandra (an ill-fated name if ever I heard one) was set upon by two pirate vessels commanded by Edward England and John Taylor, off the island of Johanna near Madagascar. The Cassandra’s skipper was James Macrae. Macrae ran his ship aground to escape the attackers, and after ten days in hiding returned to try to negotiate with the freebooters. The pirates were divided in their opinions as to whether to kill the captain or to spare him on account of his bravery.

At a critical moment a fierce-looking, heavily whiskered pirate seaman, with a wooden leg and a belt stuffed with pistols, stomped up the deck swearing like a parrot; taking Macrae by the hand he swore that he knew the captain, he had sailed with him once, and was very glad to see him. “Shew me the man that offers to hurt Captain Macrae,” he roared, “and I’ll stand to him, for an honester fellow I never sailed with.” This unnamed member of Taylor’s crew was to gain immortality many years later as the inspiration for Treasure Island’s Long John Silver.

The pirates allowed Macrae to go free….

Captain Macrae’s savior, however, was not the sole inspiration for “Barbecue” Silver (who used a crutch, not a wooden leg). Author Robert Louis Stevenson told the poet and editor William Ernest Henley, author of “Invictus” (who had one leg), that he was the original.

Shippey on Vikings

My friend Dale Nelson suggested I read Tom Shippey’s Laughing Shall I Die, a book on the Viking Age focusing on its warrior ethos. This isn’t a review, because I’m still reading the book. It’s quite long. But I’m finding it immensely congenial, a book that reinforces my prejudices – and who doesn’t enjoy that? Broadly speaking, it’s a sort of a backlash book against the prevailing consensus in Viking studies, the one that says, “The Vikings were really pretty much like everybody else. They just got bad press because their enemies wrote the history books.” I must admit I’ve said the same sort of thing, especially at reenactment events, but I’ve always held secret reservations.

Shippey (a Tolkien biographer and “the Professor’s” successor at Oxford) says phooey to all that. The Vikings, he says, were masters of violence and of psychological warfare. They won by intimidation, and through belief in something like a death cult. Here’s what he says about the political upheavals that wracked Scandinavia in the time of Beowulf:

Using modern terms, the story is one of centralizing power, professionalization of the military, disappearance of local groups and tribal names, and wars – so Hedeager suggests – to control strategic resources including land and access to bog iron.

The last is a modern view, by a modern scholar who characteristically prefers sensible economic motives for war. Our ancient texts, like Beowulf and Hrolf’s saga, suggest just as plausibly that the wars were undertaken for glory, for revenge, to expand power.

Reading report: ‘Rogalendinger i den Amerikanske Borgerkrigen’

Hans C. Heg
Col. Hans Christian Heg

The Norwegian soldiers had a reputation for never retreating in battle, and their courage resulted in their regiment being among those regiments suffering the greatest losses in the American Civil War. (Translation mine.)

When I’m manning a bookselling table for hours on end at a Sons of Norway convention, my greatest concern is generally to have sufficient reading material. Although I do almost all my reading on my Kindle Fire nowadays, one has to consider battery life. Also, I have a few “dead tree” books I’ve been accumulating. The convention seemed a good opportunity to read one of those. And if it’s in Norwegian, it has the advantage of allowing me to show off, and who knows, maybe somebody will walk past looking for a translator.

So I chose a book called Rogalendinger i den Amerikanske Borgerkrigen (Rogalanders in the American Civil War. Rogaland is a county in Norway, from which my dad’s father’s family came). It was written by Arne Halvorsen and Mari Anne Næsheim Hall. Mari Anne is a friend of mine – she was the person who first put me in touch with Prof. Titlestad, author of Viking Legacy. She sent me a copy, and I was keen to read it.

The most renowned “Norwegian” regiment during the Civil War was the 15th Wisconsin, commanded by Col. Hans C. Heg, who was killed at Chickamauga. Wisconsin was more or less the center of Norwegian-American settlement at that point in time, but a number of other soldiers came from Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, and (in lesser numbers) from other places, serving in various units. The reasons for signing up varied – many simply needed the enlistment bonuses. But many also felt honor-bound to demonstrate their loyalty to their new country – a loyalty sometimes doubted by their neighbors. And Norwegians in general were sincerely appalled by the institution of slavery (though there were some Norwegians on the other side – especially from the Norwegian settlements in Texas). Continue reading Reading report: ‘Rogalendinger i den Amerikanske Borgerkrigen’

Reading report: ‘En Herse, Tre Konger,’ by Edvard Eikill

En herse tre konger

What was I reading while I spent the week in Decorah, Iowa doing back-to-the soil, Mother Jones craft stuff? No doubt you’ve been wondering. Obviously it would have to be something pretentious, to show off my erudition to other participants, to compensate for my abysmal artisanal skills. And so it was.

I was reading a Norwegian novel sent to me by the author: En Herse, Tre Konger, (One Hersir, Three Kings) by Edvard Eikill. Mr. Eikill is a retired dentist who has turned his energies to fiction and translation. He’s the translator of the massive, elegant Norwegian translation of the Icelandic Flatøybok that I’ve written about here before. We’re friends on Facebook, and he asked me if I’d read his novel about Erling Skjalgsson. I didn’t know anyone else had ever written fiction about Erling, so I was interested to read the book, which he kindly sent me.

Edvard Eikill is a rather different kind of novelist than I am (though he is a Christian). He spends less time with details and setting scenes. His book surveys Erling’s life more or less at the 30,000 foot level, moving fast through Erling’s life, hitting the highlights. Oddly (to me), far more time is spent on Olav Trygvasson’s five-year reign than Olav Haraldsson’s reign of about twelve years.

But it had to be useful to me to read a book about Erling by someone who lives in Erling’s area (though I did catch what I believe to be one historical error – Mr. Eikill thinks they harvested grain with scythes in Jaeder in the Viking Age, but my research indicates they only ever used sickles). There were historical details and relationships that had sailed over my head. I’ll probably clarify some things in my Work In Progress based on this book.

Also, Erling’s priest was an interesting contrast. Here, Erling’s priest is an Englishman named Alvgeir (which seems to be the name written on Erling’s memorial cross). Eikill imagines him as a slave, taken by Erling on a raid, and freed by him after his conversion by Olav Trygvasson.

Thanks to Mr. Eikill for sending En Herse, Tre Konger to me. It was enjoyable and illuminating.

Go Read, Young Man

Barnabas Piper recommends reading stories more than guidebooks, saying, “If men read fewer books on manhood and more really good stories they’d be much better for it.” He offers six reasons for this, one of them is on expressing emotions.

Men are often (not always) inhibited in our expressions of emotion. We can struggle to know when and how to give voice to our passions, both positive and negative. Stories give both example and lessons in how to do this. They show the benefit to being open and the harm that comes from locking feelings and passions away. But they do so in a palatable way by showing it in the lives of others.

Many of us define productivity in a way that rules out stories. We think reviewing a line of argument or series of purported facts accomplishes more than simply entertaining ourselves with a story, but as Piper says, we change, we influence ourselves, by the environment in which we live. Stories are part of that environment just as dinners with friends, serving our community, and riding horses may be.

If life is about learning, what do we learn from our environment? Who loves us and how do we know? Is it because they’ve said so or because we’ve understood their love from being around them, their actions, tones, and expressions? We know all manner of things without direct expression, not necessarily in the absence of such expression but more through living in the light of them. The Lord tells us repeatedly of his faithfulness, but how do we really know he is faithful? It’s when we see it in our lives–in our own story.

Reading fiction and non-fiction stories from others helps us understand ourselves and how other people think. If we ever ask, “How could anyone think that way?” stories will help answer that question. I remember a friend saying he thought a character in Lewis’s Great Divorce was unrealistic because he’d never known someone like him. The man didn’t want to know the truth; he only wanted to talk about issues and offer his opinion. Settling on an established truth meant the conversation and his contribution to it would be over. My friend thought this was ridiculous until he met someone who actually thought this way. His understanding of human nature was stretched before he knew it was possible.

But life isn’t about learning, is it? That’s only a part of it. Perhaps I’ll write about that another time, though it would be better to write a story about it.

Lost Quotations and Proverbs

I’m looking over some lost quotations and proverbs tonight, lost because they are collected in W. Gurney Benham’s A Book of Quotations: Proverbs and Household Words, published in 1907, an ugly volume I plan to throw out because I’ve wasted twenty years of my life with it sitting on my shelf.

Great Scot! The Interwebs have revealed their Mastery of All The Things by producing a copy of Benham’s book in its archives, so I guess it isn’t lost after all — if buried under 305 billion pages of Interweb means it is not lost.

But what was I saying? I’ve kept this book because of its curious collection. After the typical Bartlett’s stuff, it has a section of “waifs and strays,” “naturalised phrases,” and toasts, followed by Greek and Latin quotations, French and Spanish quotations, and then a long list of English proverbs. It’s the non-English language quotations that seemed most valuable to me. Where else would I find a curated list of pearls and miscellany from the past?

Quid enim salvis infamia nummis?
What indeed is infamy as long as our money is safe?

Going to ruin is silent work.

Omnis homo mendax.
Every man is a liar.

C’est l’imagination qui gouverne le genre humain.
It is imagination which rules the human race.

Quid Romae faciam? mentiri nescio.
What can I do at Rome? I do not know how to lie.

Vulnus alit venis et caeco carpitur igni.
She cherishes the wound in her veins and is consumed by an unseen fire.

But whether we have less or more,
Alway thank we God therefor.

“Let bookworms gnaw his entrails…”

Are you troubled by “friends” who borrow your books and never return them? Or return them soiled and dog-eared? Atlas Obscura reports on a book that describes the drastic measures medieval librarians employed — placing curses on the heads of book thieves and mutilators.

“These curses were the only things that protected the books,” says Marc Drogin, author of Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses. “Luckily, it was in a time where people believed in them. If you ripped out a page, you were going to die in agony. You didn’t want to take the chance.”

Read it all here.

Reading ’12 Rules’

12 Rules for Life

I’m still reading through Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. Here’s a nice excerpt:

Absolute equality would therefore require the sacrifice of value itself—and then there would be nothing worth living for. We might instead note with gratitude that a complex, sophisticated culture allows for many games and many successful players, and that a well-structured culture allows the individuals that compose it to play and to win, in many different fashions.

That Maddening Book

That Hideous Strength

At that moment the door opened and a voice from behind it said, “Well, go in then, if you’re going.” Thus admonished, a very fine jackdaw hopped into the room, followed firstly by Mr. Bultitude and secondly by Arthur Denniston.

“I’ve told you before, Arthur,” said Ivy Maggs, “not to bring that bear in here when we’re cooking the dinner.” While she was speaking Mr. Bultitude, who was apparently himself uncertain of his welcome, walked across the room in what he believed (erroneously) to be an unobtrusive manner and sat down behind Mrs. Dimble’s chair.

Some people have been discussing C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength lately on Facebook, and I thought I’d make a few comments on the blog tonight – though I’m relatively sure I’ve said these things here before.

That Hideous Strength may be my favorite of all C. S. Lewis’s works – though the competition is fierce. And yet the book has maddening weaknesses – which nevertheless contribute in their way to the ultimate success of the work.

The commenter on Facebook had exactly my experience reading it. First of all, it’s a much longer book than the previous entries in the Ransom trilogy. It’s also a very different kind of book, not at all what the fan of Out of the Silent Planet or Perelandra is probably expecting. Instead of mystical space opera, we’re confronted with an earth-bound, genre-bending urban fantasy, consciously modeled after Charles Williams’s novels.

And here’s the killing thing – the first few chapters are undeniably dull. The first time I read them, it was plain work to slog my way through. Many, many readers, I’m sure, have just given it up. Continue reading That Maddening Book

Reading report: ’12 Rules for Life,’ by Jordan B. Peterson

12 Rules for Life

If society is corrupt, but not the individuals within it, then where did the corruption originate? How is it propagated? It’s a one-sided, deeply ideological theory….

Our society faces the increasing call to deconstruct its stabilizing traditions to include smaller and smaller numbers of people who do not or will not fit into categories upon which even our perceptions are based. This is not a good thing….

I’m reading Jordan B. Peterson’s bestselling juggernaut, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. It’s a book remarkable for restating the obvious – which is a revolutionary act in the 21st Century West. I’m not ready to review it yet, but it’s so interesting I thought I’d share a couple thoughts.

The book contains elements that make me want to stand up and cheer, and elements that trouble me – particularly in its treatment of Christianity. To be sure, there’s no denigration of Christianity here – in fact, Christian doctrine and morality come in for a lot of praise. But the book is written from a naturalist, Darwinian perspective that would make me furious if the same statements came from, say, the leader of a liberal church.

But of course, the source is what makes the difference. I’ve noted before that a man walking toward me may be farther from me than a man walking away from me. But the man walking toward me may reach me in time, while the man walking away will get further and further away. Peterson has, by his own account, gone from Christian faith to atheism in the past. Then he started thinking his way through the great questions, and gradually began to see the simple, practical wisdom of Christianity (and other great religions, to be sure), which he sees as the beneficial fruit of evolutionary processes.

I hope and pray that Jordan B. Peterson will come to faith in Jesus Christ in time. But it seems to me that his current agnosticism places him, for the moment, in the ideal place to do an important work. If he were a believer, his book would be cordoned off in the “Christian Literature” section, and nobody would notice it. His skepticism gives him credibility.

Blogging through LOTR: Of rings and taters

The Lord of the Rings

Behold, I have completed yet another journey through The Lord of the Rings. It offered the usual fears and joys and tears and thrills, along with the occasional stretch of tedium (it does have them, you know; adds to the verisimilitude).

By some odd function of my aging mind, the passage that stays with me most this time around is this one at the end, where Gaffer Gamgee greets Frodo on his return from the Crack of Doom and the end of the Age:

‘Good evening, Mr. Baggins!’ he said. ‘Glad indeed am I to see you safe back. But I’ve a bone to pick with you, in a manner o’ speaking, if I may make so bold. You didn’t never ought to have a’ sold Bag End, as I always said. That’s what started all the mischief. And while you’ve been trapassing in foreign parts, chasing Black Men up mountains from what my Sam says, though what for he don’t make clear, they’ve been and dug up Bagshot Row and ruined my taters!’

That’s an exquisite moment. I’ve never been a veteran, but I’ll bet any man who’s been in combat has had moments like that.

It’s annoying that the old folks at home don’t understand what you’ve done or what you’ve been through.

But there must also be a sense that it’s good that this is so. That they don’t understand means you’ve done your job. This provincial ignorance is one of the things you risked all to protect.

Addendum: I just had a thought. They strove in The Hobbit movies to make the characters more “diverse.” They should have cast some east Asians as elves. They’d have made great elves.

Blogging through LOTR: The Return of the King

The Return of the King

I’ve finished the narrative of The Return of the King (I’m going on to the appendices now, because, hey, they’re there). Here are a few things that struck me.

‘There is no real going back,’ [said Frodo]. ‘Though I may come to the Shire it will not seem the same, for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?’

There’s one of the clearest examples of the effect of the “Great War” on Tolkien’s narrative. Surely something like that was the experience of every combat soldier going home – the strangeness of returning to a familiar place, but finding you somehow don’t fit anymore. The average veteran accustoms himself to it after a while, but (as I am told) the wounds never entirely heal. One always feels something of an outsider, the carrier of a dark secret. Continue reading Blogging through LOTR: The Return of the King

Blogging through LOTR: Eucatastrophe

The Fellowship of the Ring

I’m nearing the end of The Return of the King, and I’m kind of overwhelmed. I’m not sure how many times I’ve read the trilogy – no less than six, I’m sure. But I’d forgotten how good it is, especially as the threads come together toward the climax.

I’d remembered Frodo’s and Sam’s trek from Cirith Ungol to the Crack of Doom as taking up more pages than it does. In memory it’s a long narrative, but in the book it actually constitutes a fairly short section. I mean that as praise to Tolkien’s skill – he leaves a strong impression of weary and hopeless trudging that looms large in memory.

As I read the climactic passages describing the defeat of Sauron, sobs shook my diaphragm and tears welled up in my eyes (which was a little embarrassing because I was on a reclining table giving blood at the time). Lewis called LOTR “Good beyond hope,” and I wonder if anything as good of its kind has ever been written before – or ever will be again. Can I myself ever hope to come close?

I thought of the many children of this world who love these books. How can they bear it? How can they experience that joy – Tolkien’s eucatastrophe – and then return to the mundane world, believing that the promise of Middle Earth is just a cheat? That there will never be a true happy ending like that for them? That real life is only a descent through pain and disappointment to death, with a few bright moments which are in themselves just false promises of a happiness that can never be?

Ah well. I suppose they deal with it as best they can. The Lord of the Rings is really about not cutting down trees, after all, they believe.

Books behind bars

In the two years Hart spent at the facility, the library’s inventory grew from 600 books to more than 15,000. When prisoners weren’t after books on deboning animals, they sought out titles on crocheting, affordable living in tiny homes, and what Hart calls “street lit,” a genre of memoirs from reformed criminals. The Japanese graphic novel Naruto was popular; so was the Christian-driven Left Behind series, about the people who remain following the Rapture.

The prison library is a set commonly seen in movies. It offers a lot of opportunities for secret conversations, the transfer of contraband items, and sending messages in code. If you’re curious what it’s like to serve the information needs of real-world incarcerated offenders, here’s an article on the subject from Atlas Obscura.

It’s interesting that they bring up the subject of “banned books.” I expect the American Library Association is working hard to get prisoners access to bomb-making manuals. You can’t deny people their constitutional rights, just because they’ve forfeited their constitutional rights, after all. Stop discriminating against the morally creative!

Blogging through LOTR: War stories

The Two Towers

‘I wonder,’ said Frodo. ‘But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.’

Much has been written in Tolkien scholarship about the influence World War I had on the composition of The Lord of the Rings. That influence is certainly discernable in The Two Towers, which I recently completed re-reading. It’s been a few days since I finished it, so I’ve probably forgotten some of what I thought while reading, but I’ll try to offer a few crumbs from the feast for your perusal.

When I first read of the World War I connection, I had some trouble understanding it. The corpses in the Dead Marshes, people said, were reminiscent of the corpses in No Man’s Land, between the trenches. The journey was like trench warfare… somehow.

I understood it a little better, I think, in this reading. Frodo’s and Sam’s journey is in some psychological ways like the experience of a long war. Sam is a perfect epitome of the “common” soldier whom so many men of Tolkien’s class learned to appreciate, as never before, in the shared experience of combat. C. S. Lewis writes affectingly of his experience with his own sergeant, technically his subordinate, who taught him enough war-craft to stay alive in the early stages, and finally gave his own life (inadvertently) for Lewis through standing between him and the exploding shell that would have killed him. Continue reading Blogging through LOTR: War stories