Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien

I tried to immerse myself in this tome of pseudo lore after reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy for the first time nearly thirty years ago. Fantasy fiction was my genre of choice back then. Still, I couldn't do it. Middle-earth's creation story, which kicks off the book, felt as dry as a Texas summer drought, and by chapter two my thoughts had wandered off to swimming holes and cold beers. I set the book aside for stories featuring plots and protagonists, intending to one day return to this unfinished, posthumous, literary geekfest when my constitution could endure the myriad cameos and daunting pronunciations of foreign place names.

Years elapsed. In the interim, I was exposed to the likes of Twain, Nabokov, Steinbeck, Greene, and Davies. Over time, my concerns shifted; I developed an appreciation for style. Craft superseded genre. Plot was reduced to its essential ingredient, like flour or stock, but no longer the dish's draw. In short, what happened in a story became secondary to how what happened was conveyed.

A film major once directed my attention to select camera angles and lighting effects and how these shots were used to induce attitudes in the audience. We were exploring the mechanics of movie making, occasionally to the detriment of the dialogue. How the clock worked became more engaging than what time it was.

Whether this shift in concern is a good thing is debatable. Learning the mechanics of story – how to create memorable characters, evoke emotions, and sustain tension – can certainly benefit the aspiring writer. But it can spoil the reader, just as I suspect a flower's bloom to a botanist isn't quite as pronounced as to a mom on Mother's Day.

This clinical approach to reading has in many ways hardened me. I'm more demanding, more selective, than I once was. As a result, I rarely read fantasy fiction anymore. Most of it is elevated comics, of little or no redeeming value.

However, two hundred thousand words into my own magnum opus involving knights and knavery drew me back to the more contemporary authors of the genre if only to appraise the market. And since most of it (without naming names) ranges from mediocre to poor, I decided to return to the master.

Revisiting The Silmarillion while focusing on style alone dramatically improved my experience. The book's lack of structure – its numerous, sometimes disjointed, accounts of elves and oaths and betrayals and battles – was no longer a distraction. Instead, the words, though a vehicle for such things, became the primary character, much like Middle-earth itself is arguably the primary character of The Lord of the Rings.

Few contemporary fantasy fiction writers have Tolkien's ear for that diction we associate with a bygone era. Stephen R. Donaldson is the only other writer I know who has achieved a similar authenticity. A philologist as well as a lover of epic poems and ancient lore, Tolkien convincingly reproduces the archaic speech patterns we associate with the nobility of yesteryear.

“And among these I hold trees dear. Long in the growing, swift shall they be in the felling, and unless they pay toll with fruit upon bough little mourned in their passing. So I see in my thought. Would that the trees might speak on behalf of all things that have roots, and punish those that wrong them!”

A grandeur abounds in the narrative as well, often inspired, and reminiscent of Homer's Iliad.

But at the last the might of Valinor came up out of the West, and the challenge of the trumpets of Eönwë filled the sky; and Beleriand was ablaze with the glory of their arms, for the host of the Valar were arrayed in forms young and fair and terrible, and the mountains rang beneath their feet.

With the help of J.R.R.'s son Christopher Tolkien, The Silmarillion summarizes the creation and the early history of Middle-earth, namely the First and Second Ages, which are, for those keeping score at home, the events prior to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. This isn't a novel. Nor is it a book of short stories. Though a book of short stories comes closer to the mark. Historic events and the key figures involved are given chapters. A few figures reappear in later chapters. Most don't. 

Still, the book has several superb passages. After establishing Melian as a Maia (a sort of demigoddess) whose singing draws the nightingales to flock and follow her, we're introduced to Elwë, later known as Thingol, one of the three chieftains of the original elves, who stumbles upon Melian singing in her garden.

… being filled with love Elwë came to her and took her hand, and straightway a spell was laid on him, so that they stood thus while long years were measured by the wheeling stars above them; and the trees of Nan Elmoth grew tall and dark before they spoke any word.

For those who rejoice in good style and find themselves disappointed by many of the more contemporary fantasy fiction writers, this work won't fail to delight, despite its hodgepodge construction. Recommended for the connoisseur of good prose; not for the gourmand of plot. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë

Books written in the elevated prose of 19th century English literature have a certain charm. If you can get past the tuberculosis, syphilis, dysentery, kissing (and marrying) cousins, the writing, with its somewhat stilted syntax, has a certain seductive quality. Its graceful grammar, even the vocabulary, appeals to me in ways I can't really define or defend.

Partially due to my age, partially due to my love of language, I have a tendency to sound like a stuffed shirt when I should don the prose equivalent of the casual pullover. I'm inclined to receive when I should get, speak instead of talk. In casual conversation, I still distinguish can (what is possible) from may (what is allowed). And don't get me started on will and shall. Incidentally, this might explain, in part anyway, why I love reading Wodehouse and watching British comedies. Or maybe it's the other way round; spoiled on the stirring elocution of poets, I dread the brute with the bullhorn.

For whatever reason, the snob in me balks at the attitudinal contrast from yes to yeah; pardon? to huh?; perhaps to pfft; maybe to meh. And it's this difference, this speaking with authority versus sleepwalking, that stirs something within me to reject the limp tongue for the limpid. Call it indigestion. Blame my mother for blaring vinyls of Mozart and Beethoven to a babe confined to his crib, but this literary fetish, for good or ill, is real, and I'm happiest when well fed.

Wuthering Heights was published in 1847, so it's steeped in the prim prose of that era. Planted in the Yorkshire moors, northern England, the story recounts the stark and tragic lives of two generations of families, related by way of a literary gimmick. You've probably seen it before. A protagonist walks into an inn and is treated to a fireside chat; or a wounded, bedridden soldier or sailor recuperates in either a private or military hospital and spins a yarn for his physical therapist; or an officer with too much free time tells a tale the patient patiently dictates. Whatever the relationship, whether Donaldon's “Ser Visal's Tale” or Conrad's Lord Jim, such stories depend upon both the impeccable memory of the narrator and the formidable stamina of the author who must inevitably postpone trips to the loo and often fast for the duration.

I celebrate artistic license. I'm a great practitioner of suspending disbelief. But in Heights, we see this gimmick in almost exaggerated form. Detailed exposition, as well as reams of dialogue no one could possibly recount with such precision decades after the events have unfolded, are conveyed by the housekeeper as if she were reading directly from her diary. This tests both the patience and the credulity of the reader.

For those who consider this novel a love story, I would ask them to disavow this notion and remember love's lesser, though more seductive, siblings: infatuation, lust, and obsession. A critic expressed a similar sentiment about Lolita, claiming it was perhaps the most convincing love story ever written. Lest we forget, love isn't abusive or callous. Those are corruptions of love. At its heart, love is a virtue, not a vice. The feelings or emotions that accompany love are not love itself but rather reflections of it, like the sun's light illuminating the moon or the flavor of food rather than the nourishment itself. Love is commitment, devotion. It inspires oaths. We sacrifice what we want for the needs of those we love. Neither Lolita nor Wuthering Heights would recognize love in its pure form. Instead, those books describe relationships depraved and detrimental to the parties involved.

Despite my praise of the prose, this is (spoiler alert) a tragedy. If you enjoy soaps – stories in which the villains suffer no more than their victims throughout – then you might enjoy this drama. If, on the other hand, you lament the absence of goodness or justice in fiction, you should give this classic a pass. Recommended but with reservations. 

Why We’re Catholic, Our Reasons for Faith, Hope, and Love, by Trent Horn (2017)

Trent Horn regularly appears as a guest on Catholic Answers , a radio program I frequently enjoy, fielding questions from callers and ...