For your Spectation

My latest essay for The American Spectator Online is here.

In fact, the real question — the actual historical anomaly — is why, after everybody else had got the question wrong from the beginning of time, the Christians suddenly figured the answer out, and abolished slavery. Nobody else did that. Not the Egyptians. Not the Chinese. Not the Aztecs or the ancient Greeks. I understand the Greek Epicureans rejected slavery, but one of the distinctions of the Epicureans is that they never tried to build a civilization.

And building a civilization is the precise nub of the historical problem.

Tolkien Styled His Dwarfs After Jews

In 1971, Tolkien said it was obvious that his dwarfs represented the Jewish people. In a letter, he said, “I do think of the ‘Dwarves’ like Jews: at once native and alien in their habitations, speaking the languages of the country, but with an accent due to their own private tongue.”


Among the members of Gandalf’s group (known as the “Fellowship of the Ring”) are a dwarf named Gimli and an elf named Legolas. Dwarfs and elves, Tolkien informs us, had never gotten along. When Gimli and Legolas first meet, each blames this historical ill will on the other’s people. Gandalf, in turn, calls for a truce. “I beg you two, Legolas and Gimli, at least to be friends, and to help me,” he says. “I need you both.” Coaxed by Gandalf, the two ultimately become the best of friends, fighting side by side and risking their lives to defeat the Dark Lord and his evil legions. This dwarf-elf alliance may well be a paradigm of a Jewish-Christian friendship. Interestingly, as Saks and others have noted, Tolkien’s correspondence during World War II reveals that he himself fell into an unplanned interfaith friendship.

Rabbi Meir Soloveichik offers his reaction to this revelation. (via Prufrock News)

Elegy for a tree

[If you’ve been trying to access Brandywine Books, or waiting for updates, we apologize. We suffered a malicious denial of service attack. The problem has been addressed, at least for now.

This piece was meant to be posted Thursday evening. lw]

The most impressive thing about my property is now gone. Fortunately I’m not talking about my house.

I had a great big tree, a pine or some kind of fir, at the back of my lot, in a space between my garage, my neighbor’s fence, and my retaining wall. It was very tall and wide. It was even older than I am. My neighbor on the downhill side told me the previous owner had planted it just after World War II, when he got back from the service.

Unfortunately, it had utility lines running through it, and that same neighbor asked me, as a personal favor, to get it taken out. So I found a guy who’d do it for a reasonable price, and his crew finally made it here late this morning, and set to work with chain saws, climbing gear, and a chipper.

It took them several hours, but they finally left some time after 5:00 p.m. I didn’t actually realize they were gone. I thought they’d knock on the door and give me a bill when they’d finished, but they just made like a tree and leaved (the owner called later to make arrangements for me to pay him. Trusting fellow). I stepped out onto the back porch, and nobody was there. Except there was a pile of mulch about the size of a Volkswagen piled in my uphill neighbors’ driveway.

I had a moment of panic there, but the neighbors, when I went over to inquire, told me they’d asked the tree guys to leave it for them. Free mulch for their gardening endeavors. Blocking their garage, at the moment.

So my great tree’s story is told. It is gone like the summers of my youth, leaving a lonesome place against the sky (points for anyone who can identify that reference).

Jonathan Edwards Wanted Nice, Expensive Editions

Jonathan Yeager tells Thomas Kidd about the great puritan preacher’s desires for the appearance of his work in print. No doubt, he would have loved today’s world of easy publishing.

Edwards was a meticulous author, and wanted his books to look a certain way. He was not the best judge on how his books should be printed, if the purpose was for them to sell well. Edwards wanted his books to have wide margins, generous line spacing, and to be printed on fine paper, with good type, and priced affordably. The model for Edwards was his book Misrepresentations Corrected, published in 1752. Ironically, Misrepresentations Corrected was his worst-selling book! A key reason, I believe, was that it was not economically printed. If a printer allows the use of wide margins and generous line spacing, it follows that it would require more pages, and therefore would be more costly.

Edwards vocalized his disgust with the way that his book Religious Affections was published in 1746, probably because it was concisely printed, with tightly cropped margins and line spacing. Despite his complaints, the printer for this book feared that he had not printed enough copies to meet public demand. In an advertisement at the end of the book, the Boston printer Samuel Kneeland remarked that some 1,300 subscriptions had been taken for Religious Affections, at a time when a colonial author would have rejoiced if 500 copies of a book sold.

Reviews: ‘Gisli’s Saga:’ Book and movie

Outlaw: The Saga of Gisli

I’d been meaning to check out the 1981 Icelandic film, Outlaw: The Saga of Gisli, for some time. Not a great film by any means, it has genuine pleasures and rewards for the saga enthusiast.

Gisli Sursson’s Saga is one of the best sagas, and offers interesting distinctions when compared to others. It’s a tragedy of fate, like all good sagas, but in this case the legal and ethical rules by which the Norsemen lived create unintended (and insoluble) problems for a decent man. If your blood brother and your kinsman get into a fight, whom do you support?

Gisli has sworn blood brotherhood with his friend Vesteinn. But Vesteinn is murdered by Gisli’s brother-in-law. Gisli feels obligated to avenge him, thus keeping his honor (as he sees it) but turning almost the whole world against him. He is outlawed, which in Iceland meant that any man could kill him without penalty, and no one was permitted to assist him.

There are a few people who help him, though, notably his faithful wife. And with their help he manages to survive as an outlaw — without fleeing the country – longer than any other man, except one (Grettir, who also has a saga). Continue reading Reviews: ‘Gisli’s Saga:’ Book and movie

The End of Democracy?

Twenty-five years ago, Francis Fukuyama argued that liberal democracy was the only viable political structure of our world and all nations would eventually adopt it out of their own interests. Some disagreed with Fukuyama, saying “the Western traditions of rights and limited government, which themselves had evolved out of Christian tradition, particularly Western Christian tradition,” were in no way universally adaptable. Democracy needs fertile ground in which to grow. Now, two political scientists are arguing that our rising generation is far less committed to democratic principles than any previous generation, even willing to accept authoritarianism in various forms. (via Prufrock News)

Stranger thoughts

I’m taking a vacation week this week. It wasn’t supposed to be a stay-cation, but it turned out that way. I had planned (along with the other Vikings) on being at the Tall Ships Festival in Duluth, as part of the penumbra surrounding the visit of the Draken Harald Fairhair replica Viking ship. But the Norns had other plans. So I’m hanging around the house, catching up with maintenance stuff, working (in a preliminary way) on my next novel, reading, and watching Stranger Things on Netflix.

I was reluctant to try Stranger Things. It’s basically horror, a genre that does not entertain me (I was a traumatized child. There’s no thrill for me in fear). But descriptions made it sound interesting. I gave it a shot. So far, so good. There are plot weaknesses, but the characters are good and the writers keep it interesting.

It got me thinking about the whole phenomenon of the Evil Government Conspiracy in fiction and entertainment. It seems to me strange that so many Hollywood productions, created by confirmed liberals who theoretically love government, are based on the idea that the government is secretly running massive projects aimed at enslaving us all and destroying the very fabric of the universe, unleashing unspeakable horrors. Offhand, you’d think that people who believe government can never be too big or too powerful would be incapable of imagining such a thing.

Part of it might be an impoverishment of the imagination. The liberal writer looks for some great force that might be capable of doing really cosmic evil. And the only great force he/she can imagine is the government, because he/she believes in nothing higher.

But perhaps it’s also a question of comfort. The liberal writer imagines a huge government conspiracy because he/she considers the very idea fantasy. Everyone knows the government is good, so an evil government is pure fantasy. Willing suspension of disbelief. There’s no existential dread for them in the mix.

I, on the other hand, consider big government a very real threat in the world. For that reason such a conspiracy is threatening to me. I prefer not to think about it. And so I avoid such stories most of the time.

These are preliminary thoughts. And probably wrong in large part.

‘Conflict of Interest,’ by Scott Pratt

Conflict of Interest

Another Joe Dillard legal thriller from Scott Pratt. I’m going through them pretty fast, and growing fond of the regular cast of characters. This one, I thought, was the best I’d read so far.

In Conflict of Interest, Joe (who is back in private practice) is retained as an attorney by a couple whose young daughter has been kidnapped. They tell him the police have been treating them as suspects in the crime, and they want someone to look after their interests. Joe explains that working for both of them could cause an eventual conflict of interest for him, but they assure him they’re in this together and it won’t be a problem. Little do they know.

Joe ends up acting as the bag man, carrying the ransom money (raised by the mother’s wealthy father) to the drop site. A plan by the grandfather’s security people to catch the kidnappers fails, and Joe comes under suspicion. But the greatest suspicion falls on the father, who is arrested, and Joe gets thrown off the case. But he has a passion for the truth, and he goes after the kidnappers himself. Joe is not a man to underestimate.

Conflict of Interest is an excellent entry in a great series. I particularly liked that this one spent a little less time on derring-do than the previous book, and concentrated more on legal maneuvers and relationships. Again, Joe’s wife’s battle with cancer forms one of the subplots.

Recommended. Cautions for language and adult themes.

‘Reasonable Fear,’ by Scott Pratt

Reasonable Fear

I’m still reading Scott Pratt’s Joe Dillard books, and so far he hasn’t hit me with the ideological pies in the face I feared at the beginning. I’m finding the books highly enjoyable, though this one gave me moments of genuine distress.

In Reasonable Fear, Joe Dillard, District Attorney General in northeastern Tennessee, takes an interest in the discovery of the bodies of three young women, found drowned in a lake. Evidence points to a real estate tycoon, who turns out to be much more than that. The man is a drug smuggler, closely tied to the Colombian cartels. He feels himself invulnerable, because if someone displeases him he can call on a notorious, merciless assassin to solve his problem. Right now his problem is Joe Dillard. Unless Dillard can come up with a way to stop him, he and his family, already facing cancer, alcoholism, and an unplanned pregnancy, face a horrible fate.

Reasonable Fear was fast and gripping. I enjoyed it. Cautions for the usual. Not for the faint of heart.

To Work at the Strand

You have to complete a literary quiz. New York City’s Strand Book Store wants their employees to know something about books, so they ask job applicants who out of ten names wrote Infinite Jest or The Sound and the Fury.

Fred Bass, who with his daughter, Nancy Bass Wyden, owns the Strand, called the quiz “a very good way to find good employees,” regardless of their duties.

“Without good people,” Mr. Bass said, “you don’t have anything going.”

See if you have what it takes.

Road day

I spent the day mostly on the road, to and from a meeting of the Georg Sverdrup Society Board in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. James Lileks would have taken Highway 10 and commented on the quaint charms of small towns along the way. I took Highway 94, so I have very little to tell you.

So here’s an article about Viking horses, featuring the Icelandic horses I got acquainted with this spring.

Most likely the first gaited horses appeared in medieval England and were then transported to Iceland by the Vikings. Horses have existed in Iceland since 870 BC. In contrast, no European (Scandinavia included) or Asian horse of the same period carrying the mutation for the alternative gaits was found.

‘Injustice for All,’ by Scott Pratt

Injustice for all

I’m powering my way through Scott Pratt’s Joe Dillard series of legal thrillers. Book number 3, Injustice for All, is exactly what the title advertises. The world is full of injustices, and Joe, now District Attorney General in his corner of northeastern Tennessee, is doing everything he can to try to protect a few of the innocent.

There’s a man on death row, a former client of Joe’s, who’s scheduled for execution soon. New DNA evidence could free him, but Joe can’t get a judge to look at it.

There’s one of Joe’s oldest friends, a fellow lawyer, who angers a petty and narcissistic judge. Soon he finds himself with his license suspended and headed for jail. And that’s just the beginning of his troubles.

There’s a lovely young woman, liked by everyone, who hides secrets of past victimhood. More victimhood lies in store for her.

It’s a tribute to author Pratt’s skill as a novelist that a story with this much tragedy and unfairness in it isn’t a complete downer. But he manages it. I’m impressed.

Recommended. Cautions for the things you’d expect. It can get pretty intense.

‘In Good Faith,’ by Scott Pratt

In Good Faith

This is the second novel in Scott Pratt’s Joe Dillard series. In In Good Faith, Tennessee lawyer Joe Dillard, disillusioned with criminal defense law, joins the district attorney’s office. Right out of the chute, he draws a horrific crime – the murder of a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses at a rest stop. Soon after that a retired high school principal and his wife are murdered. All the killings include a signature mark – a shooting or stabbing wound to the right eye.

This book skirts the edges of supernatural horror – the concepts of mental telepathy and telekinesis are part of the story and taken seriously. At the center of the crimes is a beautiful young black witch. And as an ally against her power, Joe discovers a psychically gifted young woman who has a strange link to the witch.

The question of religion is particularly strong in this book. Joe’s troubled sister is living with a “Christian” man, a pillar of the church, who turns out to be a violent addict (hint to all women thinking of getting involved with a “Christian” man. If he wants to shack up, he’s a hypocrite). “Black” and “white” witchcraft are central to the story, which is problematic for the Christian reader. Joe, a lifelong atheist, has a breakthrough of some kind of faith, but it’s not clear exactly what he believes in.

But still, a harder line could have been taken against Christianity if that were the author’s purpose, so I can’t criticize the book much on that score.

In Good Faith was exciting and well written, and I cared about the characters. Recommended, with cautions about the supernatural stuff. Also, language and adult themes.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture