Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl – Harriet Ann Jacobs

“Northerners know nothing at all about Slavery.  They think it is a perpetual bondage only.  They have no conception of the depth of degradation involved in that word, SLAVERY; if they had, they would never cease their efforts until so horrible a system was overthrown.”

Being Canadian, and unlike my U.S. counterparts, I have little knowledge of the details and intricacies of the history of slavery in the United States, so I was pleased to note that my The Well-Educated Mind Biographies Project has a few books that cover this important, yet disturbing, period.  Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is the first book of this ilk on the list.  A book written in the tradition of the slave narrative and the sentimental novel, Jacobs strives to give a voice to the thousands of black men and women, who suffered abuse, injustice and the theft of their true identities under the yoke of slavery.

Jacobs (in the book calling herself Linda Brent), chronicles her story, beginning with her idyllic life within her family who are well-off slaves of a kind owner.  At her mother’s death when Linda is six, she is sent to reside with her mistress who teaches her to read and write, but at the death of her owner, she is sold to the Flint family and her suffering begins.  Dr. Flint is harsh and cruel, developing a desire for Linda, and she is continually tormented by his sexual advances.  Thinking to save herself and her virtue, she begins a relationship with another white man and has two children with him in hopes Dr. Flint will cease his attentions.  Instead he is enraged and sends her and her children to do hard labour on one of his plantations.  The book further relates of her escape, her continuous concern about the fate of her children, seven years of her life in an attic so she is not discovered, and her final journey to the north and a relative freedom, although her expectations of her life there are perhaps somewhat disappointed.

Reward for notice for the return of
Harriet Jacobs by James Norcome (Dr. Flint)
source Wikipedia

Jacobs tells a touching and unique story from a woman’s point-of-view, highlighting not only all the brutality and abuse the negro people suffered at the hands of some of their masters, but also the degradation to their spirits. Yet although Jacobs shows her people in their suffering, she also is able to emphasis their greatness of spirit:

“Truly, the colored race are the most cheerful and forgiving peole on the face of the earth.  That their masters sleep in safety is owing to their superabundance of heart; and yet they look upon their sufferings with less pity than they would bestow on those of a horse or dog.”

While the book is full of horrid examples, Jacobs also strives to mention the white men and woman she met or observed in her life that showed kindness or compassion, and says of her benefactress, Mrs. Bruce:

“The noble heart!  The brave heart!  The tears are in my eyes while I write of her.  May the God of the helpless reward her for her sympathy with my persecuted people!”

Harriet Ann Jacobs
source Wikipedia

While most of this book is at once both heartbreaking and wonderfully illuminating, there was an aspect of it that bothered me.  Jacobs was very clear and concise, and rightly so, with her denunciation of slavery and its assault on human dignity and the human spirit, but whenever a slave committed something from as small as a lack of good judgement to something as large as a crime, Jacobs excused their actions based on the treatment they had suffered under their masters.  For example, with regard to her decision to enter into a relationship and have children with Mr. Sands, she says:

“I feel that the slave woman ought to not to be judged by the same standards as others.”

Later she states:

“I like a straightforward course, and am always reluctant to resort to subterfuges.  So far as my ways have been crooked, I charge them all upon slavery.”

When she encounters a slave who has stolen money from his dead master, she declares:

“This is a fair specimen of how the moral sense is educated by slavery.  When a man has his wages stolen from him, year after year, and the laws sanction and enforce the theft, how can he be expected to have more regard to honesty than has the man who robs him?  I have become somewhat enlightened, but I confess that I agree with poor, ignorant, much-abused Luke, in thinking he had a right to that money, as a portion of his unpaid wages.”

I don’t disagree with Jacobs’ premise that slavery can drive people to excesses, but I do disagree about excusing wrong behaviour with it.  Because someone has committed a wrong against you, does that give one the right to return the same in kind?  Couldn’t this startling reasoning be as dangerous as the reasoning employed to bring the black people into slavery?  It reminded me of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s words, words from a man who had been both a commander and a persecuted soul, effectively both a master and a slave, and who finally learned that: “If only it were all so simple!  If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.  But the line dividing good and evils cuts through the heart of every human being.  And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”  The seeds that began slavery and other atrocities are within us all, it’s important that man or woman, slave or free, persecuted or persecutor, that we are all aware of that piece and the danger it can do to ourselves and others.

In any case, it was a blemish on an otherwise excellent narrative.  Jacobs hatred of slavery in all its forms shows through as well as her overwhelming love and understanding for her fellow man.

Richard II by William Shakespeare

” For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings ….”

Why do they call this play a “history”?  It was an absolutely tragedy …. gut-wrenchingly tragic, and I still feel depressed about the outcome.  Dare I say this is my favourite Shakespearean play so far?  Isn’t that weird?  An historical play about a king of whom I knew little about ……..  Yet Shakespeare’s verse is astonishingly beautiful.  The words flow around you like a bubbling river, conveying the anguish, terror, loss, loyalty, courage, deception, abandonment and hopelessness.  Not only is the play alive, but the story is alive and the words have a life of their own.

Richard II, King of England
portrait at Westminster Abbey (mid-1390s)
source Wikipedia

The play begins with a dispute between Henry Bullingbrook (Bolingbroke), cousin to King Richard, and Thomas Mowbray, Bullingbrook accusing Mowbray of misappropriating money and claiming that he was part of the murder of the Duke of Gloucester (which was probably orchestrated by Richard), yet before either can accomplish a duel, King Richard decides to banish both, Bullingbrook for 6 years and Mowbray for the term of his life.  John of Gaunt, is broken hearted at the exile of his son, Bullingbrook, and soon becomes sick with grief.  Upon Gaunt’s death, Richard decides to expropriate his estates and money, thereby defrauding Bullingbrook of his inheritance.  As Richard leaves to deal with the wars in Ireland, Bullingbrook gathers supporters and lands in England for the purpose, it appears, of regaining what is rightfully his.  Because Richard has taxed his subjects without remiss, and has fined the nobility for errors of their ancestors, most of the nobles rise up against him.

John of Gaunt
father of Henry IV
source Wikipedia

When Richard returns to England he is left with a small contingent of supporters including his cousin Aumerle, the Duke of York’s son, and lords Salisbury and Berkeley and other retainers.  Upon meeting with Bullingbrook, Richard relinquishes the throne to him, and Bullingbrook wastes no time in appointing himself King Henry IV.  Immediately, Richard is placed in prison.  When an uprising by Aumerle is discovered by his father and vehemently exposed, Aumerle is graciously pardoned by Henry IV, yet with dire threats towards the other conspirators.  In prison, Richard attacks his warden in frustration and is killed by Exton; when Henry hears about the murder, he is distressed and the play ends with his sad lament.

When I finished this play, I was so anguished by Richard’s sad end and how he’d been treated, yet reading some pre-history would have perhaps measured my emotions, as the good king was not entirely as innocent as he is made out.  Richard inherited the title of king when he was 10 years old and spent many years of his reign under the control of counsellors and advisors.  It wasn’t until later on, that he appeared to throw off their power and come into his own.  However, the fact that he taxed the populous to such extreme extents to finance his wars and royal coffers, contributed to the fact that he was not well loved or respected.  He was a king who ruled by impulse and without a justness that would have connected him to the people.  In fact, in the play, when he is walked through the streets, people dump garbage on his head, not a very fitting display for a monarch who truly believed that he was anointed by God.

Richard being taken into custody
by the Earl of Northumberland
source Wikipedia

Another consideration is that Shakespeare is writing drama.  He is known for taking the framework of history and then chopping and changing and perhaps, speculating for dramatic and political effect.   It is interesting that at the end of the play, Richard is seen as a pitiful figure who has voluntarily given up his kingship, and Bullingbrook condemns his murder, leaving the new king innocent of the crime and helpless to stop its culmination.  A very safe and uncontroversial tact on both sides for our playwright!

My favourite speech of Richard’s pulses with foresight, nostalgia and lament:

“For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground 
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been deposed, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed.
All murdered.  For within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be feared and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnible.  And humoured thus,
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle walls, and farewell king!”

As Richard begins to realize the possible outcome of the circumstances and tries to reconcile them with his belief that a king is sanctioned by God, we see his syntax begin to break down, with his pronouns of “we”, being reduced to “I”.  It is truly pitiful.

Richard II
Anonymous impress from the 16th century
source Wikipedia

On a political note, this play was used to stir up populous support for Robert, earl of Essex, Queen Elizabeth I’s one-time favourite, during his rebellion against her.  On the eve of the uprising, his supporters paid for the play, Richard II, to be performed at the Globe Theatre, but Essex’s attempt to raise a coup against her failed. Retaliation was swift, however.  On February 25, 1601, Essex faced his execution and was beheaded on the Tower Green.  His was the last beheading at the Tower of London.

This was another wonderful experience with one of Shakespeare’s historical plays.  I had expected to like them least in the canon, but they are certainly quickly becoming by far my favourites!

Watched:  The Hollow Crown:  Richard II

The Epic of Gilgamesh

“The one who saw the abyss I will make the land know;
of him who knew all, let me tell the whole story
 ………… in the same way …….
[as] the lord of wisdom, he who knew everything, Gilgamesh,
who saw things secret, opened the place hidden,
and carried back word of the time before the Flood —
he travelled the road, exhausted, in pain,
and cut his works into a stone tablet.”

Gilgamesh, king of Uruk.  Two-thirds god and one-third man, he built the walls of Uruk, the palace Eanna, and is powerful and commanding.  There is no king like him anywhere.  Yet in spite of having many of the qualities that could make him an honoured king, Gilgamesh oppresses his people and they cry out for relief.  The gods create a wild man, Enkidu is his name. They fight and become fast friends, relieving the people of Gilgamesh’s despotism. Many adventures they have together, and many discoveries they make. Together they behead Humbaba who lives in the cedar forest and they also manage to kill The Bull of Heaven.  Yet one of them must pay for this transgression and Enkidu falls ill, dying even as he laments.  A heart-torn Gilgamesh, determined to find Utnapishtim and find the secret of everlasting life, travels through a number of trials to his journey’s end.  “Surely, Gilgamesh,” Utnapishtim tells him, “you can stay awake for just a week, if you are expecting to have eternal life.”  But Gilgamesh fails the test.  In spite of his near godly status, our hero cannot escape the mortality common to all men.

“My friend Enkidu, whom I loved so dear, who with me went through every danger, the goom of mortals overtook him. 

Six days I wept for him and seven nights: I did not surrender his body for burial until a maggot dropped from his nostril.  Then I was afraid that I, too, would die.  I grew fearful of death, so I wandered the wild. 

…. How can I keep silent?  How can I stay quiet?  My friend, whom I loved, has turned to clay.  My friend Enkidu, whom I loved, has turned to clay.  Shall I not be like him and also lie down, never to rise again, through all eternity?”

Gilgamesh
from the Chaldean
account of Genesis
source Wikipedia

I found many paradoxes in this poem: Gilgamesh is a strong leader, yet he also abuses his power; Gilgamesh is two-thirds god, yet he is also doomed to die; Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight in order to bring peace to Uruk; women are portrayed as vehicles for pleasure, yet are also shown as being wise and having foresight; Enkidu is initially a wild-man, yet he is the one who “tames” Gilgamesh; and in spite of often not sleeping throughout most of the poem, Gilgamesh sleeps at the end, which prevents him from attaining immortality.

Yet in spite of the contradictions, the poet is clear that strength over reason is valueless. Gilgamesh learns that it is trust and integrity in the end that bring acclaim: valuing a friend’s life over his own, discovering the wisdom of accepting death as a part of life, and that being a true leader is about good character and responsibility to his subjects, rather than exercising tyranny, oppression and conquest over them.

And in spite of its ancient roots, the poem still resonates with us today.  Here is a video of Captain Picard from Star Trek the Next Generation giving a short summary of Gilgamesh, in the episode “Darmok” (my favourite episode, BTW!) 🙂

About the translation:  The Sîn-Leqi Unninni Gilgamesh story, found in the library of Ashurbanipal, is the most recent Akkadian version (circa 1200 BC), and is considered the “standard” version.  The editors used it as their fragment of choice and because it contained a number of books that had only a few recoverable words, they had to resort to notes and the Old Babylonian version, in order for the reader to get the gist of the story.  For my first read, in hindsight, I may have chosen a more fluid version, but this version was certainly adequate and scholarly enough that you got the full context of the poem.

Translated from the Sîn-Leqi Unninni version by John Gardiner and John Maier

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills”

Yes, I went out of my comfort zone!  The Big Sleep is not a book I would usually choose to read, but since it’s on my Guardian 1000 list and a group on Goodreads was reading it for June, I decided to take the plunge.  Initially, I was rather apprehensive because I had read The Maltese Falcon a few years ago and didn’t enjoy it.  Yet within a few pages, I was completely immersed in this story.

Philip Marlowe; private detective; wise guy.  L.A. in the late 1930s.  A millionaire with two wild, uncontrollable daughters.  A missing son-in-law. Can Marlowe navigate the perilous world of high-society, which takes him into the shady dens of gangsters, gambling and murder, to extract truth from a myriad of lies?

With Marlowe was born one of the first of the new detectives.  The description he gives of himself in the beginning of the novel is a dry, witty sketch:

“I’m thirty-three years old, went to college once and can still speak English if there’s a demand for it.  There isn’t much in my trade.  I worked for Mr. Wilde, the District Attorney, as an investigator once.  His chief investigator, a man named Bernie Ohls, called me and told me you wanted to see me.  I’m unmarried because I don’t like policemen’s wives …………. I was fired.  For insubordination.  I test very high on insubordination, General.”

Los Angeles City Hall (1931)
source Wikipedia

The Big Sleep euphemistically refers to death and there are more than a few murders in this tale.  Billed as Chandler’s first novel, it is actually two of his short stories combined:  The Curtain and Killer in the Rain.  In it, he sets the scene with a flourishing skill:

“The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom.  The glass walls and roof were heavily misted and big drops of moisture splashed down on the plants.  The light had an unreal greenish colour, like light filtered through an aquarium tank.  The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket.”

Curiously, while this is a mystery novel, Chandler often seems more concerned with the setting and characters than the minute details of the plot. Scenes are depicted with meticulous detail, and the characters each have personalities that radiate out, like the beacon of a lighthouse cutting through the mist.  Their charm, or helplessness, or audacity, or coquettishness is distinct and compelling.  In fact, the producer of the movie, The Big Sleep, contacted Chandler to remind him that in the novel, he had never revealed who had killed the chauffeur and asked for the identity of the murderer. Chandler replied that he had no idea.

 I really admired Philip Marlowe’s brash confidence, his raw sense of humour and his composure in dangerous situations.  Often impolitic and impertinent, nevertheless his understanding of human nature and the complexity of people’s personalities, made him a lively, compelling character.  With this work, Chandler managed to avoid the cliche 1930s male detective and invented a character and a book worth reading.  Very enjoyable!

The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton (Classic Club Spin #5)

“On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world.”

I had heard many stories about Thomas Merton, the “Buddhist Trappist monk” and I was interested in finding out the commonalities he discovered between Buddhism and Catholicism. However, as it turns out, The Seven Storey Mountain is an autobiography of Merton’s early life, before he converted to Catholicism, and covering a few of the years after he entered the Trappist monastery, so I’ll have to search further to read about the Buddhist-Catholic component.  Nevertheless, this book, which was featured in the National Review’s 100 Best Books of the Century, was charming, funny, heart-warming, spiritual, serious, emotional and intellectual.

Born in Prades, southern France on January 31, 1915, and during the First World War, Merton had a somewhat nomadic life as a child.  Perhaps gaining perspective and creativity from his artistic French father and a certain practicality from his American mother, he draws the reader into the book in the first chapter:

“On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world.  Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born.  That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God and yet hating Him; born to love Him, living instead in fear and hopeless self-contradictory hungers …… My father and mother were captives in that world, knowing they did not belong with it or in it, and yet unable to get away from it.  They were in the world and not of it —— not because they were saints, but in a different way: because they were artists.  The integrity of an artist lifts a man above the level of the world without delivering him from it ……… I inherited from my father his way of looking at things and some of his integrity and from my mother some of her dissatisfaction with the mess the world is in, and some of her versatility.  From both I got capacities for work and vision and enjoyment and expression that ought to have made me some kind of King, if the standards the world lives by were the real ones.  Not that we ever had any money; but any fool knows that you don’t need money to get enjoyment out of life.”  

From Merton’s early life in France, we move with him to America and then, after the death of his mother, his return to France with his father, while his brother, John Paul, is left behind with his grandparents.  When Merton is 13 years old, they move to England, but when his father dies of a brain tumour, he eventually moves to the U.S. again, and finds himself enrolled in Columbia University, on his way to a possible promising professorship.  Yet life intervenes and through various circumstances, Merton finds the church and from there, a personal relationship with God.

Merton was not a man who was searching for an escape from life. Fascinatingly, he did not find the monastery; the monastery found him. Initially, as a young man, his life consisted of university, friends, bars, girls and fun.  Calling himself a true child of the modern world, he was a mirror of its afflictions: selfishness, ambition, irreligion, materialism, etc.   His expectations were to graduate and find employment, as other young men in his situation.  Yet within the social activity and superficial amusements that he experienced as a typical American youth, he nevertheless felt an emptiness that came with an increasingly strong desire to be filled.  Perhaps Merton had tried it all and the only thing left was God.

Merton’s prose is delightful, both beautifully description and harmonious, yet he is also adept at injecting light humour into situations:

“‘France!’ I said, in astonishment.  Why should anybody want to go to France?  I thought: which shows that I was a very stupid and ignorant child.”

And an excerpt from a trip to Switzerland with his family when he was about 11 years old:

“The rest of the time was one long fight.  We fought on pleasure steamers, we fought on funicular railways, we fought on the tops of mountains and at the foot of mountains and by the shores of lakes and under the heavy branches of evergreens ……………. By the time we got to the Jungfrau koch, everybody was ready to fall down from nervous exhaustion, and the height made Bonnemaman faint, and Pop began to feel sick, and I had a big crisis of tears in the dining room, and then when Father and I and John Paul walked out into the blinding white-snow field without dark glasses we all got headaches; and so the day, as a whole, was completely horrible …………… John Paul humiliated the whole family by falling fully dressed into a pond full of gold-fish and running through the hotel dripping with water and green-weeds.”

Merton’s deep understanding of human nature is punctuated by intelligent comments throughout the book.

On school:  “But when a couple of hundred of these southern French boys were thrown together in the prison of that Lycée, a subtle change was operated in their spirit and mentality.  In fact, I noticed that when you were with them separately, outside of school, they were mild and peaceable and humane enough.  But when they were all together there seemed to be some diabolical spirit of cruelty and viciousness and obscenity and blasphemy and envy and hatred that banded them together against all goodness and against one another in mockery and fierce cruelty and in vociferous, uninhibited filthiness.”

On literature:  “A course in literature should never be a course in economics or philosophy or sociology or psychology …….. the material of literature and especially drama is chiefly human acts — that is, free acts, moral acts.  And, as a matter of fact, literature, drama, poetry, make certain statements about these acts that can be made in no other way.  That is precisely why you will miss all the deepest meaning of Shakespeare, Dante, and the rest if you reduce their vital and creative statements about life and men to the dry matter-of-fact terms of history, or ethics, or some other science.  They belong to a different order.”

On capitalism:  “It is true that the materialistic society, the so-called culture that has evolved under the tender mercies of capitalism, has produced what seems to be the ultimate limit of this worldliness.  And nowhere, except perhaps in the analogous society of pagan Rome has there ever been such a flowering of cheap and petty and disgusting lusts and vanities as in the world of capitalism, where there is no evil that is not fostered and encouraged for the sake of making money.  We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with the products of our factories and printing presses and movie studios and all the rest.”

courtesy of The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University   

Through his writing, Merton’s connection with the outside world was only enlivened and strengthened after he entered the Trappist monastery. Most of his most vibrant and inspirational work was produced while he was cloistered, as if being in the world made him understand it less, but by being removed from it, he gained a greater understanding.  While his post-monastery accomplishments were vast, he initially felt the vocation of a writer in conflict with his vows, but under the urging of his abbey superior, he became a prolific author, producing more than 70 books on spirituality, social justice and pacifism, and The Seven Storey Mountain gained him a world-wide reputation.  He became more interested in inter-faith dialogue and amassed a huge correspondence with a great number of influential people.  In 1968 he attended an inter-faith conference for Catholic and non-Christian monks in Thailand, and, after stepping out of the bathtub in his hotel room, Merton was accidentally electrocuted by touching an electrical fan. He was 53 years old.

Upon its publication, The Seven Storey Mountain won critical acclaim, appealing to a post World War II society looking for meaning and stability.  Grahame Greene had high praise for it, saying: “Is is a rare pleasure to read an autobiography with a pattern and meaning valid for us all.  The Seven Storey Mountain is a book one reads with a pencil so as to make it one’s own.”  By 1984 it had sold 3 million copies, and to-date is in continuous printing and is published in 15 different languages.

The value of a book such as this is that it takes you out of life as you see it from your own perspective.  Like it nor not, society influences our thoughts, our choices, our perceptions and our actions.  We often see situations from one vantage point and must struggle to get a different view.  Merton starts with the familiar, living the status quo, but then takes you out of the normal, the complacent, the mundane, and allows you to see life from a completely different aspect.  The door is open and you are free explore.

I’m looking forward to reading more of Merton’s work.  He examines so many fascinating ideas in so many different areas, and really gets me thinking.  And I actually finished my Classic Club Spin #5 so I’m going to celebrate!  Yay!

Paradise Lost by John Milton


                                                                           “Of Man’s first disobedience and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
 Brought death into the world and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb or of Sinai didst inspire
That shepherd who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos; or, if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flowed
Fast by the Oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above the Aonian mount, while it pursues
                                                                                Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.”

Samuel Johnson declared that Paradise Lost is “a poem …… which respect to design may claim the first place, and with respect to performance, the second, among the productions of the human mind …..”   It is a poem about the rebellion in Heaven and the ejection of the fallen Angels; it is about the Garden of Eden, the deception of the snake, and the fall of Man.  But it is much more than all these points, separately and as a whole. Just as Satan falls into the depths of the burning pit of Hell, Milton delves into the depths of the human Soul and conversely soars to the heights of the God of Heaven, weaving a tapestry of images and profundity that will leave the reader amazed and speechless.  Initially, the reader believes he is following Milton’s lead, not realizing until later that he is part of the tapestry itself and Milton’s words have become part of his soul.  

John Milton’s Cottage
courtesy of Old Skool Paul (sourced Flickr)
Creative Commons License

In this poem, Satan’s actions are especially shockingly compelling as we follow his fall from Heaven, his brash, swaggering leadership of the fallen angels, and then his quest to best God to get his spiteful, yet senseless, vengeance.  We think of Hell as a place, full of fire and brimstone, burning and torment, and while Milton gives Hell a location in this poem, it is much more than that.  Satan carries Hell inside him.  It torments him, not only with thoughts of rage and hate and revenge, but almost more effectively with thoughts of despair, regret and impossible hope.  Conflicting emotions scrape and tear at him incessantly.  For him, Hell is not external; it is an internal condition from which he cannot escape.

Milton’s superlative crafting of the character of Satan has led many people to believe he was perhaps too successful, making Satan the most exciting and heroic character of the poem.  William Blake stated that “the reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet, and of the devil’s party without knowing it”.  It is certainly true that Milton intimately understood “the devil’s party”.  Like us all, he experienced sin within himself and within others:  rage, treachery, deceit, the desire for power, etc.  And with his astonishing talent, he was able to craft a character that is perhaps the most Satan of all the Satans in the history of literature.  Milton’s Satan is capable of tricking not only Adam and Eve and angels, he is able to trick the reader of Paradise Lost as well, in such a subtle manner that certain readers admire his bravado, respect his machinations, and feel sorry for his plight.  While Milton’s brilliance in this area of the poem is breath-taking, it is also unsettling.  C.S. Lewis in his lectures on Paradise Lost, approaches this issue in a dexterous manner, saying that if the reader chooses to admire Satan, he must only realize what he is admiring:

“No one had in fact done anything to Satan; he was not hungry, nor over-tasked, nor removed from this place, nor shunned, nor hated —- he only thought himself impaired.  In the midst of a world of light and love, of song and feast and dance, he could find nothing to think of more interesting than his own prestige ….. 


……… Satan lies about every subject he mentions in Paradise Lost.  But I do not know whether we can distinguish his conscious lies from the blindness which he had almost willingly imposed on himself ……
 


…….  What we see in Satan is the horrible co-existence of a subtle and incessant intellectual activity with an incapacity to understand anything.  This doom he has brought upon himself; in order to avoid seeing one thing he has, almost voluntarily, incapacitated himself from seeing at all.  And thus, throughout the poem, all his torments come, in a sense, at this own bidding  …..
 


……. the design of ruining two creatures (Adam & Eve) who had never done him any harm, no longer in the serious hope of victory, but only to annoy the Enemy (God) whom he cannot directly attack ……
 


…….  From hero to general, from general to politician, from politician to secret service agent, and thence to a thing that peers in at bedroom or bathroom windows, and thence to a toad, and finally to a snake  ——-  such is the progress of Satan.  This progress, misunderstood, has given rise to the belief that Milton began by making Satan more glorious than he intended and then, too late, attempted to rectify the error.  But such an unerring picture of the ‘sense of injured merit’ in its actual operations upon character cannot have come about by blundering and accident.  We need not doubt that it was the poet’s intention to be fair to evil, to give it a run for its money —- to show it first at the height, with all its rants and melodrama and ‘Godlike imitated state’ about it, and then to trace what actually becomes of such self-intoxication when it encounters reality.”

Depiction of Satan
Gustave Doré (1866)
source Wikipedia

Yet in spite of the beautiful images painted amid the stark reality, Milton seems to rush the end of the poem, packing the whole Old Testament into the last two books and surprisingly uses a more direct narrative instead of showing the reader with his usual subtle yet beautiful verse.  Lewis remarks on the lack of genius in the last books in comparison to the earlier wonderful artistry of the poem:

“It (Paradise Lost) suffers from a grave structural flaw.  Milton, like Virgil, though telling a short story about the remote past, wishes our minds to be carried to the later results of that story.  But he does this less skillfully than Virgil.  Not content with following his master in the use of occasional prophecies, allusions, and reflections, he makes his two last books into a brief outline of sacred history from the Fall to the Last Day.  Such an untransmuted lump of futurity, coming in a position so momentous for the structural effect of the whole work, is inartistic.  And what makes it worse is that the actual writing in this passage is curiously bad.  There are fine moments, and a great recovery at the very end.  But again and again, as we read his account of Abraham or of the Exodus or of the Passion, we find ourselves saying, as Johnson said of the ballad, ‘the story cannot possibly be told in a manner that shall make less impression on the mind’.  ……….  If we stick to what we know we must be content to say that Milton’s talent temporarily failed him …….”

Yet even with its flaws, Paradise Lost is an epic that is at once majestic, beautiful, poignant, tragic and instructive.  It opens a window into the Biblical story of the fall, allowing the reader to live the experiences and emotions first-hand.  What a task Milton took on and how well he succeeded!  I predict this read be my favourite of the year.  My feeble summary only covers the surface of its significance; you will only have to read it yourself to discover its grandeur!

Further reading:
         A Preface to Paradise Lost – C.S. Lewis
         Charles Williams Selected Writings (contains an essay on Milton)
         

Once and Future King by T.H. White

“On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology.”

The Once and Future King encompasses five books written by author T.H. White about the legend of King Arthur.  In The Sword and the Stone, we meet Wart, a young boy who is the ward of Sir Ector and who lives with his guardian and his guardian’s son, Kay, near the Forest Sauvage.  By an unexpected set of circumstances, he encounters the wizard, Merlyn, who becomes his and Kay’s tutor, although we can see from the beginning that Merlyn favours Wart and there is obvious foreshadowing that we should expect something extraordinary from him later in the tale.  This book concludes with Wart unknowingly pulling the sword from the stone, a clear indication that he is England’s next king.  The book The Witch in the Wood (re-written as The Queen of Air and Darkness and apparently with little resemblance to the original) follows, chronicling the establishment of Arthur’s court under the political idea of right instead of might, and, of course, the love affair between Lancelot and Guinever receives the most attention.  The third book, The Ill-Made Knight, gives primary focus to Lancelot, his quests to purge his thoughts of Guinever, his relationship to Elaine who bears him a son, the development of a odd love-triangle, the quest for the Holy Grail, and Lancelot’s fight to defend Guinever’s honour.  A Candle in the Wind waxes philosophically about the metamorphosis of England into its present condition and the ideologies of war.  The height of tension appears in this book as Lancelot and Guinever’s relationship is revealed by a dastardly plot of Arthur’s Orkney clan, a war begins and the throne is seized by a usurper.  The death of Arthur and his son, Mordred are foreshadowed.   The Book of Merlyn, published posthumously, is added at the end and sets an aged Arthur amongst Merlyn and his animal friends from Book I, as they discuss the evils of war, why men want it, and how can it be avoided.

Photo courtesy of Moyan Brenn
(source Flickr)
Creative Commons License

I’m really stumped as to where to start with reviewing this book.  My idea of the Knights of the Round Table was woven with nobility, courage, daring, self-sacrifice, self-denial and chivalric actions.  While the Arthur of this tale professes to have started the Round Table with the idea that might does not equal right, White makes Arthur a rather weak character.  In his youth, he is quite simple; Merlyn plants the social and political ideas into his head and as a reader, I never got the feeling that Arthur intrinsically believed in them himself.  He knowingly allows Lancelot and Guinever to have an illicit relationship and is often paralyzed in moments when it is necessary for a king to show his strength and decisiveness.  He is a simple, loving old soul who calls everyone “my dear” but it is a hard task to imagine him as the legendary King Arthur.  Lancelot for a good part of the book is a brooding morass of insecurity and dark thoughts.

“The boy [Lancelot] thought that there was something wrong with him.  All throughout his life — even when he was a great man with the world at his feet — he was to feel this gap:  something at the bottom of his heart of which he was aware, and ashamed, but which he did not understand ….  We do not have to dabble in a place which he preferred to keep secret.”

 However after Lancelot’s quest for the Grail and his encounter with God, he at least develops into a man with a sense of what is important in life and an internal code of conduct that he believes is worth following.  Guinever is a moderately believable character, professing her loyalty and love to both men, but White puts her through a period of womanly jealously that is almost embarrassing to read and certainly not worthy of her.  With Arthur’s half-relatives from Orkney, the devious and twisted brothers who become not only knights of the Round Table but are the poison that festers inside Arthur’s kingdom, White does a satisfying job with crafting their personalities.  At times they can be quite appalling …… perfect villains to fit the story.  Also, King Pellinore and his Questing Beast should receive an appreciative nod, adding delightful humour to the first book.

Lancelot and Guinevere (1890s)
Herbert James Draper
source Wikimedia Commons

T.H. White was a rather tortured soul.  He was beset with fears of nearly everything, except, apparently, God.  After holding the position of head of the English Department at Stowe School, he retreated to a game-keeper’s cottage at Stowe Ridings on the Stowe Estate and, with hawks, owls and a setter bitch as his only companions, he began to write.  As war loomed over England in 1938, White’s fear almost choked him.  He declared himself a conscientious objector and in February 1939 found himself lodging in a farmhouse in Doolistown, Ireland, out of harm’s way.  He remained there for the next six and a half years.  In a December 1940 letter to L.J. Potts, a former tutor at Cambridge, he wrote: “….. [The Candle in the Wind] will end on the night before the last battle, with Arthur absolutely wretched.  I am going to add a new 5th volume in which Arthur rejoins Merlyn underground ….. and the animals come back again, mainly ants and wild geese.  Don’t squirm.  The inspiration is godsent.  You see, I have suddenly discovered that (1) the central theme of Morte d’Arthur is to find an antidote for war, (2) that the best way to examine the politics of man is to observe him, with Aristotle, as a political animal …….”

The above information perhaps explains White confusing re-crafting of the legend, and the plethora of social and political philosophical concepts that twist the characters into a means of furthering the development of these ideas.  Instead of White employing creativity to show the reader various themes in the novel, he simply tells us, which leaves a very weak effect.  As one of my reading buddies stated, instead of cleverly weaving his opinions into the story, White attempts to weave the story into his opinions.  The result is sloppy and, in effect, he actually strips these noble characters of the dignity they had been given by previous writers.

The Sword in the Stone, by itself is an appealing read, a nice story about the young Arthur and his upbringing.  By the second book, the story takes a turn for the worst.  I only have two words:  very disappointing.