Cyrus the Persian by Sherman A. Nagel

“The city of Babylon, ‘the beauty of the Chaldees’ excellency,’ ‘the lady of kingdoms,’ lay quiet under the silvery splendor of an oriental moon.”

I just finished reading Herodotus’ The Histories, where the story of Cyrus figures prominently, so when Amanda at Simpler Pastimes Children’s Classic Literature Event appeared for April, I thought what better time to read a children’s book about the same historical figure?

Nagel sets the story of Cyrus in the time of the Jews captivity in Babylon, and their story runs parallel to that of Cyrus before the two intersect.  One hundred years before Cyrus’ birth, the prophet Isaiah named him as the man who would permit the Jews of Babylon to return to their homeland to rebuild Jerusalem and the story allows us to be a part of events leading up to the fulfillment of this prophecy.

King Astyages sending Harpagus to kill young Cyrus
Jean Charles Nicaise Perrin
source Wikipedia

The grandfather of Cyrus, Astyages king of the Medes, is visited by a disturbing dream and his magi tell him that he must destroy the child of his daughter, Mandane, if the child she bears is a boy.  At Mandane’s marriage to the Persian king, Cambyses, Astyages extracts a promise that she will return to him before she gives birth to her firstborn and the promise is fulfilled as Cyrus is born in the kingdom of the Medes.  In fact, so crafty is Astyages that he persuades the parents of Cyrus to leave him with his grandfather, and then sends for his trusted servant Harpagus, commanding him to kill the child.  At the notification of the baby’s death, his parents are grief-stricken but unknown to them and Astyages as well, as Harpagus gives the child over to his chief shepherd, Mitradates, to dispose of the will of God is stronger than all. Upon returning home, Mitradates is distressed to learn of the death of his own child and, on a whim, his wife and he substitute the corpse for Cyrus and pass off his death without a hitch.  Raised as a shepherd boy until, through unexpected circumstances, he comes to the palace an adolescent, he is ultimately recognized as a possible heir to the throne.  With Cyrus back in Persia and Astyages becoming more nervous of his grandson’s power, a force is gathered by Astyages to invade Persia but Harpagus turns loyal to Cyrus based on the king’s cruelty and arranges with Darius, Cyrus’ uncle, that half the army will fight for Cyrus.  At the completion of the battle, Cyrus is victorious. Eventually he will become king of both the Persians and Medes.

At this time as well, Jewish discontent is fomenting due to their religious persecution and captivity by the Babylonians, which the reader experiences through a raid on Rabbi Hermon’s house during a weekly meeting, as the Jews impatiently wait for their prophesied coming deliverer.  We also encounter Jewish history through the activities of Azariah, better known by his Babylonian name of Abednego from Biblical tradition, and his relationship with a Babylonian woman, Iris.  History weaves into story, battles into harmony, and captivity into freedom.  It’s an enduring story that Nagel has obviously thoroughly researched with his attention to historical detail and the relationships he so subtly crafts.  Themes of loyalty, betrayal, persecution, love, friendship, death and perseverance, one can hardly put it down.

Cyrus hunting the great Boar
source Wikimedia Commons

Isaiah 45: 1-3

Thus says the Lord to His anointed,
To Cyrus, whose right hand I have held—
To subdue nations before him
And loose the armor of kings,
To open before him the double doors,
So that the gates will not be shut:
I will go before you
And make the crooked places straight;
I will break in pieces the gates of bronze
And cut the bars of iron.
I will give you the treasures of darkness
And hidden riches of secret places,
That you may know that I, the Lord,
Who call you by your name ……..


This book contained a number of wonderful quotes of which I’ll share.  There are many but every one is worth reading!


“When one is full of himself, he is empty.”

“Love is a very rare quality.  So many emotions are mistaken for love.  Of all the counterfeits, lust has always been love’s strongest opponent.  Nothing is so wonderful, so conducive to happiness, so health-producing, as the heart union of two lives, where true love reigns and lust has no power.”

“If there is one thing heaven hates in man it is pride.  Not self-respect, but that quality of pride which causes a man to think more highly of himself than he ought.”

“Unholy ambition has brought ruin to many a man who has followed her unhallowed footsteps.  Multitudes of the human family have suffered and died because of the ambition of one.  He that loses his conscience has nothing left that is worth keeping.”

“How often we doubt because we cannot know all that is going on which we cannot see. Faith is believing in God.  It is taking Him at His word.  It is evidence when there is no evidence in sight.  It is ‘the substance of things hoped for.’  Belief is accepting a map; faith is taking the journey.”

“Patience is a pearl oft produced by petty irritations.  The human heart cannot be whole until it is broken.  Care becomes its own cure when it drives us to prayer.  To our prayers God gives answers, but in His love, makes ways and times His own.  Their leaders wisely taught the people not to worry about the future, but to be optimistic.  Nature hates to disappoint the man who is always looking for the worst to happen.  We only live a day at a time.”

“The average man is like a match; if he gets lit up, he loses his head.”

“And Astyages talked boastfully on, like a man who may think he is eloquent when he is only evaporating.”

“Those who throw themselves away usually do not like the place where they land.”

“Best character is developed amid storm clouds and tempests.”

“Conscience is not like a bore; if you snub it a few times, after that it won’t bother you.”

“When one was asked the secret of his happy life, he replied: ‘I have a friend.’  True friends are to be cherished for they are precious.  One should keep a little cemetery in which to bury the failings of one’s friends.  The man who never puts in an honest day’s work on friendship’s railroad, has no reason to expect a sidetrack to his door.  Selfish people may have acquaintances but not friends.  With some people you invest an evening, with others you spend it.”

“Cyrus was naturally of a very affectionate disposition.  He had a great deal of sentiment.  No man is worth much without it but to have too much is suicidal.”

“God has not promised to do for us that which we can do for ourselves.”

“Some of the unhappy folk in our world today are men and women with more money than they know what to do with.”

“It has been said that happiness is made of so many pieces that there is always one missing.  Happiness is never found by searching for it.  Like boys chasing butterflies, happiness is always just out of reach.  It does not consist in a fine house, fine furniture, a sixteen-cylinder car or alot of money.  In many places dwell unhappy hearts.  All of the things enumerated may conduce to happiness but the poor man has access to happiness as well as the rich.

Happiness consists in contentment, in having a clear conscience.  It will be found in acting in an unselfish manner towards others.  You cannot pour the perfume of happiness upon others without getting a few drops on yourself.  Victor Hugo has well written: ‘The supreme happiness of life is the conviction of being loved for yourself, or more correctly, being loved in spite of yourself.'”

Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson

“One grey morning the first snow began to fall in the Valley of the Moomins.”

While this book is numbered three in the Moomin series, it’s the first Moomin book I read when I was around nine years old, and the Moomin family has lived in my imagination ever since.  Portrayed as cuddly white hippo-like creatures, they are actually a type of troll, but sweet trolls with a lazy relaxed demeanour in spite of their penchant for finding themselves embroiled in adventures.  With the creature, Sniff, adopted into their family, the traveller Snufkin, the Snork Maiden and her brother the Snork, the Hemulen and the gruff philosopher Muskrat, Jansson created a world that has been rivalled by few others.

In Finn Family Moomintroll, when the Moomin family arise after a long winter’s hibernation, they look forward to the awakening of spring.  But Moomintroll, Sniff and Snufkin find a lone black tophat on the peak of a hill, which appears to be the catalyst to a number of strange happenings: fluffy white clouds that can be ridden like horses chase each other, a jungle grows in Moominhouse and there is a terrifying transformation of the Muskrat’s dentures.  Meanwhile, the Hemulen is sad that his stamp collection is complete and at the behest of the Snork, takes up botany.  A sailing trip to an island brings a rather startling encounter with the Hattifatteners, whose ghostly bodies and deaf and dumb demeanor is rather disturbing as they live only to journey.  Thingumy and Bob arrive with their unique spoonerisms and unknowingly bring the cold and chilling atmosphere of the Groke to Moominvalley, as she searches for her missing treasure.  Nothing appears quite as it seems and the Moomins, with their natural aplomb and pragmatism, manage to extricate themselves from exploits and dangers, while at the same time welcoming the adventures as they come, enjoying the undulations of life in their Moomin-world.

It’s rare that I recommend a book without reserve, but honestly, if you die without reading this book your life in this world will have been a little less rich.  But I warn you that once you visit the Moomins and their friends, you might never want to leave their vibrant and delightfully unpredictable world where you never really know what is going to happen next.  However, one can always be assured that if it gets too intense, Moominmamma will pat you on the head, sit you down and give some tea and cookies to soothe your nerves.  In this Moomin-world, life is always an adventure and one must be prepared!

This is my second book read for Amanda at Simpler Pastimes Children’s Classic Literature Event.  Now if only I can get my review up for the first one!

This book also counts for my Deal Me In Challenge:

Week 10 – Deal Me In Challenge – Five of Hearts

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

“It was dusk —- winter dusk.”

I’d been waiting to read this book for almost my whole life — no exaggeration — so I was pleased when I drew it for this week’s Deal Me In challenge.  Wolves …… children left under the care of a ominous governess and imprisioned …. escape …..  What could be more suspenseful and exciting?  Or so I thought ………

Bonnie lives with her parents, Lord and Lady Willoughby, in a grand house called Willoughby Chase which is surrounded by woods populated by wolves.  One must take care in travelling at night as the risk of attack is quite real. As the story begins, Bonnie’s parents are preparing to leave on a trip because of her mother’s ill health, and her small cousin, Sylvia, arrives to keep her company in their absence.  Sylvia lives with Aunt Agatha, Lord Willoughby’s sister, who is really too old to properly care for her anymore, so she journeys by train to her new home.  On her way, she encounters a strange man, Josiah Grimlock, who attempts to befriend her, although his manner makes Sylvia uncomfortable.  When they arrive at the station and a suitcase knocks her companion over the head, stunning him, the man is taken with her to Willoughby Chase for his convalescence.  To the house also comes Mrs. Slighcarp, who is a distant relative and governess arrived to look after the girls. Neither child is taken with Mrs. Slighcarp, who immediately appears harsh, dictatorial and mysteriously assertive.  When Bonnie’s parents leave, enigmatic conferences begin between Slighcarp and Grimlock, and while all the servants except James the coachman and Pattern the maid are dismissed, the two girls are put to work as servants.

Bradley Manor, Devon (1830)
source ArtUK

However, Bonnie’s spirit, at least, is not in the least daunted and she attempts to get a message to the local doctor pleading for assistance.  The message intercepted, the girls are moved to an industrial village nearby to inhabit a school for orphans run under the watchful eye of a Mrs. Brisket.  When Slighcarp informs Bonnie that her parents have perished during their voyage at sea, all seems bleak and hopeless.  How could the help of a boy gooseherd and a sickly old woman be of assistance in their desperate plight?  One must read the novel to imagine how the fabulously implausible and unexpected are brought into order again.

Fighting Off the Wolves
Piotr Stojanov
source ArtUK

I’m sorry …… I tried to like this novel, I really did.  As a plot, it has some interesting characteristics, but while at times suspenseful, the writing held together about as firmly as stringy taffy.  Actions were related with a tone of practicality, yet sometimes those actions were highly improbable.  From a complete stranger being engaged to run your estate and watch your beloved daughter for months on end without any investigation or anyone to check on her while you’re away (even if she is a long lost relative — hello!  Warning bells!), to leaving your elderly sister completely alone again without anyone to check on her, to an area that produces blue geraniums.  Not to mention there were certain characters that appeared to simply be thrown into the story willy-nilly, without any true connection to the plot. Then to top it off, the wolves themselves were sprinkled here and there without much effect other than a slight bit of tension now and then.  Okay, I do understand the wordplay in that the wolves could be referring to the actual wolves or the human “wolves” of Willoughby Chase, but the intermeshing of the two was still rather sloppy.  Yet in spite of all my issues with the novel, I suspect your average reader would like this story a little bit more than I did.  I’m a connoisseur of children’s novels and have read some truly excellent ones.  In comparison, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase pales beside them, but overall it wasn’t a terrible novel.  It does deserve to be read once.

Wow, I have two children’s classics already finished for the year!  A short story is on schedule for the next Deal Me In choice, The Life You Save Might Be Your Own by Flannery O’Connor.

Week 6 – Deal Me In Challenge – Seven of Hearts

The Tanglewoods’ Secret by Patricia St. John

“Philip and I lived with our Aunt Margaret in a white house on the side of a hill.”

Philip and Ruth reside with their aunt and uncle while their parents are away.  While Philip is a responsible and thoughtful eleven year old, Ruth, at nine, is impulsive, adventurous and sports a fiery temper.  Her relationship with her aunt is tenuously cordial and often she is disciplined due to some tantrum or neglected chore.  On one of the children’s daily rambles, they meet a poor boy named Terry who knows everything about their favourite pastime, birdwatching, and the three spend some lovely days together.

A chance meeting with Mr. Tandy, a shepherd looking for his lost lamb, gives Ruth a glimpse of the Good Shepherd.  Slowly her perceptions change and she begins to see not only her behaviour in a new light, but those around her.  A new-found grace and understanding pervades her soul, yet Ruth carefully guards this precious secret.  Yet when tragedy strikes and Ruth wonders why the Good Shepherd can’t put things aright if he truly does love them, she finds that her secret is one that needs to be shared.

The Good Shepherd
Frederick James Shields
source ArtUK

This was a lovely, simple little book that demonstrates how the grace of God can change even the most selfish of hearts, and how disinterested selflessness can alter those around us, enacting a tangible transformation within community.

Apparently, the edition of the book I read is a sanitized version that was printed to simplify the language for modern readers.  Blah!  I’d now like to get my hands on the original text.  I’d imagine that the story would be more rich and meaningful without being dumbed down for today’s audience.

Curiously, next week, I’ll be reading George Orwell’s essay, Politics and the English Language, which will address the dumbing down of the English language. Stay tuned!

Week 4 – Deal Me In Challenge – Six of Hearts

Big John’s Secret by Eleanore Jewett

This was one of my children’s books that I had scheduled for my Deal Me In Challenge, and I was planning to review it only on my children’s blog, yet it was such a wonderfully uplifting story that I decided to share it here too!

The book is initially set in England during the reign of King John. The main character, John, is a twelve year old boy, yet big for his age, who works on the manor of Sir Eustace as a villein. Old Marm, is an old woman who acts as his guardian, and through her we learn of John’s noble connections, of how she saved him from an attack on his father’s castle when he was a mere babe.  With his father either dead, or missing, John’s heartfelt desire is to find him and wreak vengeance on the baron who attacked his family estate when his father fell afoul of the king.

One day, John’s gentleness with the animals is noticed by a visiting lord, who takes John with him in his company to work as a page.  The position means leaving Old Marm, but it allows John to work towards his dreams of reunification and revenge.  He is given to Sir Alwynn, a Knight of St. John and a participant in the upcoming Fifth Crusade.  Through various circumstances and adventures, John learns that his father was perhaps seen in the Holy Land, and is ecstatic to be sailing with Sir Alwynn to Acre.  In battle there, John, through giving mercy to a Muslim boy and allowing him to live, is taken by the Muslim commander and finds himself in Jerusalem.  Grateful for John’s actions of mercy, the boy’s father, Sultan Nur-Aslan, treats John as a guest and he becomes friends with the son, Yusuf.  An encounter with a monk called Francis, leads John to follow the monk to visit the ruler, Muslim Sultan Melek-al-Kamel; John is in search of his father, Francis a new convert.  In a situation of danger and uncertainty, bravery and grace are their only weapons.  Will the visit bring only more conflict and strife, or something entirely different?

This book was such an inspiring read, especially as the reader witnesses John’s desire for revenge come in conflict with his naturally compassionate and charitable nature.  As we observe John’s struggles and experience the positive effects that multiply with his acts of goodness, acts that can sometimes seem to be done against his own will, we realize that the world can give us perceptions that are often false, and we must look to higher standards to govern ourselves.

St. Francis before Sultan Al-Kamil of Egypt
Giotto (wall fresco)
source Wikipedia

The visit of Saint Francis of Assisi to Melek-al-Kamel is documented history.  After failing to stop the Crusades by meeting with his own religious leaders, Francis set out with Brother Illuminatus to visit the Kamel, the nephew of Saladin, in an attempt to spread the Gospel, but while the sultan received the monk graciously, his visit left him unaffected and Francis was returned safely to the Crusader camp.  Also, the battle at Acre on December 24, 1217 to capture the fort on Mt. Tabor actually happened and Lord Ranulf, Earl of Chester was an historical figure who participated in the Fifth Crusades.

While Jewett manages to weave a story full of adventure and intrigue, the emphasis on understanding and forgiveness is most compelling.  She reminds us that Christians and Muslims were able to live in harmony, and show tolerance, mercy and compassion towards each other, even in the midst of the tumultuous times of the Crusades.  What John encounters through his experiences and with Saint Francis, shows him that mercy, instead of weakness, is strength; differences are only a big as we make them; and that forgiveness can be the most powerful action of all.

Deal Me In Challenge #5