Frederick Marryat: Undeservedly Ignored

Right now, I’m listening to another audiobook narrated by the inestimable Adrian Praetzellis: Mr. Midshipman Easy by Frederick Marryat.  I had never heard of this old author until under one year ago.  I confess that it was Ulysses S. Grant’s mention of reading this author that made me pick him up, and one can see how Marryat’s frequent use of proverbs and quotations must have been an influence on Grant’s style.  Marryat’s feels very similar to Robert Louis Stevenson, except that his prose is more fast paced and a little less archaic.  He was originally a Navy captain, which gives his works about the Navy a great touch of realism.

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Marryat also has a wonderful understanding of human nature.  I do not remember the last time I read about such diverse character types.  In particular, I would have to declare Mesty, who is the midshipmen’s cook, former African prince, and former slave, to be the greatest African character in all literature.  Though, all his characters are great and highly unique.  He has a remarkable sense of humor, which in itself induces the reader to keep reading.

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The plot of this work concerns the history of a young man, John Easy, who is raised by an eccentric philosopher, Nicodemus Easy.  Nicodemus created a philosophy taking liberty, the rights of man, and equality to mad extremes.  It leads to him rather spoiling John, who must be taken to a boarding school where caning is the method of punishment.  After certain mishaps involving Easy’s application of his father’s philosophy, i.e. the results of stealing fish and then stealing apples, Easy decided to go to sea at the age of 15 to test his philosophy in His Majesty’s Navy.  The captain is quite sure that he can disabuse Easy of this foolish philosophy and bring him down to reality.

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After I complete this work, I want to get my hands on further volumes of Marryat.  If they’re all as good as this one, he’ll easily be placed on my top ten list–at least below G. K. Chesterton if not higher!

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Medieval Otaku’s #8: Jules Verne

Dear readers, rather than declaim the superiority of Jules Verne over Tolkien, I must rather deplore the fact that Tolkien is not higher on my friend’s list.  Please feel free to refer to it for the following remarks.  Of those authors in the next three places higher, I have placed H. G. Wells in a personal Index Librorum Prohibitorum–likely due to the influence of author placed on the top of Thomp’s list, G. K. Chesterton.  (I should write a book in the future: All I Needed to Know about H. G. Wells and Bernard Shaw I Learned from Chesterton.)  Concerning Clarke and Grahame, I heartily acknowledge their contributions to the Great Conversation, but I am unsure whether they understood it as well as Tolkien.  Tolkien’s incredible depth of knowledge concerning the Middle Ages, philology, Catholic theology, and immense repertoire of foreign and classical languages made him a very unique vehicle for carrying the moral imagination of prior ages into the modern age.  From C. S. Lewis and above, Tolkien receives a stiff challenge, and it would require a post of at least 1,000 words to discuss–but what a fun discussion that would be!

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But now onto Jules Verne.  This post is supposed to be about him after all!  Certain achievements immediately justify his choice for my list: 1) he’s the Father of Science Fiction; 2) his works have been translated into more languages than Shakespeare and is second only to Agatha Christie in this regard; and 3) His vibrant Catholic faith, in the manner of all the French Romantics, shines through his novels.  This faith seems to shine most brightly as the situations into which his characters fall become more dire, and they are always sure to give thanks to an ever watchful Providence.

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His works also interest me by their lack of prejudice, interesting and swashbuckling characters, and the endless facility of invention displayed by the heroes.  Verne’s characters cover the globe and he delights in people of every culture: Phileas Fogg of Around the World in Eighty Days is British, Germans and one Icelander are the main characters of Journey to the Center of the Earth, Captain Nemo is an Indian, and the heroes of The Mysterious Island Americans.  Despite his perspicacious grasp of other cultures, his French mind does often lend Gallic airs to his characters–particularly in the case of the Americans in The Mysterious Island.  But, Verne had a special place in his heart for America, which may have been due to a perceived similarity between the two cultures as much as an admiration of our audacity and inventiveness.

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Yet, the character type for which Verne deserves greatest praise is his portrayal of the scientist.  Unlike the modern portrayal of scientists as atheists and brainy intellectuals, Verne’s scientists tend to be men of courage and faith.  I have yet to discover an atheistic scientist in a Verne novel, whether it be Dr. Clawbonny of The Adventures of Captain  Hatteras, Professor Lidenbrock of Journey to the Center of the Earth, or the engineering officer of The Mysterious Island.  The idea behind this is that the whole universe is of God’s making, which therefore reveals God Himself.  So, the more one understands the world God created, the more one can also both understand the Creator and know that Divine Intelligence made the world.  These same persons are also the ones who refuse to throw in the towel during the most trying circumstances and constantly seek for ways out of their difficulties.  Would that all scientists displayed that marriage of fides et scientia!

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All Verne’s novels display high adventure, except perhaps Five Weeks in a Balloon.  My friend told me this was boring, and I confess that I was unable to finish it, though I want to go back to it.  Therefore, my recommendation to people new to Verne is Around the World in Eighty Days.  The work is short and exciting.  Its only drawback may be that the adventure leaves little space for science, which makes it diverge sharply from Verne’s other works.  Those of you well immersed in Verne may give The Adventures of Captain Hatteras a try.  Every fan of Verne whom I’ve met says that they have never heard of this novel, which is a shame.  The work keeps the reader turning pages, and it displays remarkable knowledge of polar expeditions and the unique phenomena of the Arctic.

#8 Tolkien

Tolkien: I dont think anyone reading this would dispute the placement of Tolkien in the top ten. I know that M. Otaku will likely argue against his placement below the likes of Clarke and Wells. I believe that he is so adamant that Tolkien be higher because he agrees with Tolkien. M. Otaku agrees with Tolkien’s worldview, with Tolkien’s Christianity, and especially with his Catholicism. But I believe that while all the best novelists wrote in English 😉 M. Otaku seems to believe that all the best novelist must agree with him. I personally find that (unfortunately) some excellent novelists are not Christian, not even in mindset. But that does not rob them of their ability nor weaken the strength of their canon of novels. So, I will defend Wells and Clarke later, for now I will write briefly to explain why Tolkien is in the top ten, which novels are the real gems, and why he doesn’t rank higher for all the excellent philosophy and important conversations his characters have.

OK, I lied, I wont take much time to explain why he fits the top ten category. Anyone who writes such incredible novels as the lord of the rings, that even after being tortured and somewhat disfigured by a screenwriter comes out to be such incredible movies that everyone reading this has seen, undoubtedly has a place in any top ten list.

But, that said, his best novels are not the ones that he wrote to invent worlds to accompany the languages he made up. Not the ones that everyone know. Actually, his best are the ones that have nothing to do with middle-earth. There is a simple beauty to ‘Smith of Wooton Major’ that is, not absent, but dimmer in the LOTR trilogy proper. That and there is a high tragedy about the Silmarillion that falters in LOTR. In fact, even ‘The Hobbit’ does better on this score.

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Yes, I am complaining about the fact that every major character lives in LOTR, even though they should, by rights, die. (No, I am not really counting Boromir, Denethor, Theoden, or Saruman…) I believe that this happens because Tolkien loved them too much and kept them around. To me, this is almost like keeping them around as undead. Also, having Frodo and Sam being rescued by Gandalf lowers Gandalf to a Deus ex Machina. No great battles were ever fought where everyone lives, something that Tolkien knew horribly well. In this he has done an injustice to his characters that he does not do in The Hobbit or the Silmarillion. Doing this minimizes the sacrifices of the people who actually did die (now I sound like all this really happened…) and makes all the individuals feel a bit like expendable riff-raff in retrospect.

The other reason I have put Tolkien so low was that, without the three LOTR, which he wanted to be one book, you have to scrounge for more novels that might elevate Tolkien further up. The Sillmarillion? Well, not really a novel, more like a collection of loosely related short stories… The Hobbit, yes. Smith of Wooton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham, though fantastic, both fit into a book the size of ‘The Dawn Treader’ so yes, the other part of my argument  is the scarcity of novels.

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Now, if we consider ‘The Lay of the Children of Húrin’ ‘ The Lay of Leithian’ (both unfinished) and all the assorted poetry in all his writings, I believe we could put Tolkien in the top 5 English poets. (Donne, Chesterton and (duh) Shakespeare would beat him, but Chesterton only by a hair.)

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(Lastly, I think Tolkien would be horrified to hear of his novels being mutilated into straight up allegory… sorry M. Otaku when we make it through the list, we need to start in on these disagreements we have, they could be lots of fun…)

Chapter Two of The Fellowship of the Ring as LOTR’s Thematic Hub

It has been very famously said by Tolkien that The Lord of the Rings was a Catholic fairy tale: first unconsciously, then consciously so in the revision.  Reading Lord of the Rings for the fourth time now, the Catholicity of the work sticks out like a sore thumb to me.  In particular, the conversation between Gandalf and Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring contains brilliant use of Catholic imagery and spirituality, which lays out the recurrent themes of the work.

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First, I should like to point out that the Ring symbolizes sin, perhaps venial sin in particular.  Gandalf speaks of how lucky Bilbo was to cast off the ring when he did; otherwise, he might have been ensnared by the powers of darkness: “Alas! Mordor draws all wicked things…” (72)  Even venial sin, though not taking away the life of grace within the soul, draws it to hell and repeated venial sins–despite the fact that many venial sins, no matter how many times they are repeated, cannot add up to a mortal sin–often lead to the commission of a grave sin, which is damning.  *Huge Spoiler Alert to the end of this paragraph* Indeed, Gollum, who had been completely possessed by the Ring, falls into Mt. Doom at the end, and Frodo narrowly escapes.  This is reminiscent of the first letter of St. Peter 4:18: “And if the righteous is scarcely saved, where shall the ungodly and sinner appear?”

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People can become absorbed by sin.  They become a preoccupation either in the penitent or impenitent.  This is symbolized by the obsession produced in Gollum, Bilbo, Frodo, and those covetous of the ring.  This absorption leads to people becoming irritable when admonished by others–plain in the case of Bilbo in chapter one and Frodo by the end of the work.  Even if the sinner acknowledges his fault, he cannot overcome his fault without help:

Frodo drew the ring out of his pocket again and looked at it…It was an admirable thing and altogether precious.  When he took it out he had intended to fling it from him into the very hottest part of the fire.  But he found now that he could not do so, not without a great struggle…and then with an effort of will he made a movement, as if to cast it away–but he found that he had put it back in his pocket.

Frodo later protests that he really wants to destroy it, but grace acting upon nature, the formation of will power through developing good habits–is necessary for overcoming sin.  And so, we have the concept of a long journey, which symbolizes a life of resisting temptation and striving to do the right.  As a matter of fact, Bilbo’s very, very long life symbolizes God’s mercy: even though Bilbo cannot cast away the ring, he is given a very long time to do so, which results in the eventual triumph of grace.

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But, the Ring’s ability to make one invisible symbolizes how sin destroys charity and weakens faith.  We see from Gollum’s back story that his use of the ring led to people distrusting him and eventually exiling him.  Also, since all sin indicates deficiency of faith, the sinner, while he sins, might imagine himself invisible to God.  Instead, God still sees the sinner, and, worse yet, the sinner becomes more apparent to his enemies and more easily disturbed by them, which is excellently displayed in Peter Jackson’s movies.

Then again, the theme of spiritual acedia and sinners preferring darkness to light (John 3:19) is apparent in Gollum’s story and what happens to the ring-bearers.  After all, all ring bearers start to feel “thin” and generally become weary of life.  This is due to hiding from Life Illimitable by continuing in sin–even if apparently trifling.  Gollum even hates the presence of the sun and hides himself in caves!  Then, sinners lie rather than face the truth, as Gollum does, and so further enter the darkness encircling them.  Darkness itself promises “great secrets” (p. 68), but Satan “is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44); therefore, all his promises are empty.  The reward for sinning is nothing but guilt and pain: nothingness itself.

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But, there is always hope, and there is always a part of the sinner reaching for the Light, as Gandalf avers.  This is the case even when the case is most desperate–as with Gollum.  On the other hand, Tolkien sets out hope for sinners in the form of Charity: “Pity?  It was Pity that stayed [Bilbo’s] hand.  Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need.  And he had been well rewarded, Frodo.  Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so.  With Pity” (p. 73).  This echoes Luke 7:47: “For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.”  As much as any sin breaks the laws of God, which are based on charity and derive from Charity Himself, charity covers many sins.  Gandalf’s further remarks on the pity Bilbo showed Gollum show the idea that God can save anyone.

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Tolkien also has the understanding that God’s will is always accomplished, as is revealed by Gandalf’s words:

Only to be picked up by the most unlikely person imaginable: Bilbo from the Shire!

Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker.  I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the ring, and not by its maker.  In which case, you were also meant to have it.  And that may be an encouraging thought.

God’s presence may not always be felt, but we can trust that He is always there and will give us the strength to carry out his will.  God can even turn good out of evil for His glory.  This passage also reveals another attribute of God: He uses the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  “When I am weak, then truly I am strong” (2 Corinthians 21:10).  It is also symbolic of David and Goliath.

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Three other Catholic symbols I have picked up on from this conversation were the Cain and Abel imagery between Gollum and the friend he murders, Deagol, the Men of Westernesse as the Jews, and therefore, Aragorn of the kingly line of the Westernesse, as the Son of David, whose return symbolizes the Second Coming.  Lastly, the juxtaposition of Bilbo and Gollum reminds one of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, whose greatest difference is that the former showed charity to their fellow men while the latter did not.  But, there is so much to the Lord of the Rings that it could fill many pages of commentary.  A truly remarkable work!

Medieval Otaku’s #9: Rudyard Kipling

To tell you the truth, it has passed my mind to doubt my choice of Rudyard Kipling for the ninth position.  After all, my friend’s choice of Andrew Klavan reflects that Klavan has taken a salient interest in the great religious question of our day.  In that regard, he may be called a modern day C. S. Lewis.  I have not read any of Klavan’s works myself–and my recent attempt to find his novels in a two story Barnes and Nobles failed to discover any of his novels.

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Anyway, why give prominence to Rudyard Kipling–not taking into consideration B&N’s disinclination to stock Klavan’s works?  I place Kipling above Klavan on the basis of machismo: Kipling knows more of what it takes to be a man than Klavan.  It may be more important to be spiritual, but true spirituality relies upon the manly attributes of fortitude and responsibility.  The highest degrees of spirituality are the most masculine, as reflected by God the Father, principium Trinitatis, whose Masculinity renders all other masculinity femininity in comparison, as C. S. Lewis avers.  After all, when one asks the Trappists what their former career was, one is very likely to hear that they were in the Marines–a fitting response for the toughest of the monastics!

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And it is significant that today’s age sees a decline in masculinity.  There seems to be more difficulty than ever for a man to be a man–as shown by the increased presence of homosexuals and the difficulty young men have in finding their place in a world leery of masculine aggressiveness and effeminized by excessive mercantilism and the softness of modern life.

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For such an age, Rudyard Kipling assumes more importance or at least as much as a Klavan, especially since his greatest stories geared toward male adolescents.  They are brimful of courage, respect, and obedience, which is the foundation of all manly virtue, as General Robert E. Lee wrote.  Young men deserve to be religiously exposed to The Jungle Books, Captains Courageous, the Just So Stories, and especially short stories like Riki-tiki-tavi and The White Seal, which I believe are contained in The Jungle Books.  Perhaps the best thing about these tales of courage is that they contain a mythological vibe, which is especially thrilling to the youth and no doubt results from Kipling’s poetic sense.  (A skill yet absent from Klavan.)  At the same time, the ethos of Kipling’s tales are of a more modern and Christian sort, hence more applicable to present times.

The best introduction to Kipling would have to be The Jungle Books themselves.  If one wants to concentrate on a short work, I recommend Riki-tiki-tavi.  I cannot but imagine that young men are severely deprived who exit adolescence without having read Kipling.

#9 Andrew Klavan

Here is an author that has every chance to move up the list, since he is still alive, writing, and producing novels like ‘A Killer in the Wind’ and ‘Agnes Mallory’ as well as his past contributions to the true crime genre such as ‘The Scarred Man’ and his excellent thriller-type novels Dynamite Road, Shotgun Alley and Damnation Street . These novels fit very well into my criteria for good and great novels. The language flows, he doesn’t write down to the reader. The plots are powerful. I think good book plots should be like a feast of steak and garlic and olives, maybe some cumin: strong flavors and bright colors. Leave out the drab everydayness of most authors.

All the ingredients of a good novel (From Wiki Commons)

All the ingredients of a good novel (From Wiki Commons)

Now, Kipling, the other #9 in discussion and much praised by Medieval Otaku, is certainly an author of note. As you read that post, keep in mind that the author, praising Kipling so much, has not even touched a book by Klavan. Now I grant that the two story Barns and Noble is impressive, but the fact that they are missing Klavan is not.  There is a reason that big bookstore chains are going out of business… They only provide bad copies of old authors and massive numbers of copies of the standard pulp writers that they feel safe with. Klavan is a controversial author to most publishers and booksellers (and libraries) because he is unabashedly conservative and Christian (and almost entirely politically incorrect. Before I move on and briefly mention two books by Klavan that I thought were great, I do want to mention that of the two of us, Medieval Otaku and I, I am the only one who has read both Kipling and Klavan. Kipling is often a lot like oatmeal, healthy, strong and filling, but bland. Try to read any of his little known stories like ‘The Light that Failed’ and you will see why Kipling does not rank on my list. His only really common story that people know is The Jungle Book, and they know a mutilated Disney version… Klavan, on the other hand, generally serves powerfully flavored foods that are also healthy. Some of his books are certainly dessert, but none are gruel.

There are two novels that stand out in my mind, the first partly because it was the first book by Klavan I ever read (The Uncanny) and the second he mentioned as one of his favorites. Despite the fact that most authors are really crappy about picking their best works, Agnes Mallory definitely is one of his best. I won’t say the best, because I always hope for better. I want to move him up the list sometime.

The Uncanny: Other than being a wild and uncanny ride, it is difficult to write something engrossing and valuable at the same time, and yet, in this novel Klavan succeeds. (He does it in Agnes Mallory as well.) I will copy something I wrote for The Dusty Thanes about the Uncanny. One of the characters has a medieval document who’s author writes about damnation and salvation.

This character [the author from above] writes … very poignantly about damnation. In his writing, essentially his last words, he reveals his knowledge that he is damned, and also his knowledge that with repentance, Christ’s sacrifice and love would redeem him despite his horrible crimes (and believe me, they are vile) and he rejects salvation through pride and fear and loathing of God, and willfully chooses damnation. This scene shakes the reader, makes the reader tremble with the awfulness of damnation, and effortlessly shows the orthodox Christian understanding that humans damn themselves.

Agnes Mallory: The only story that dealt with madness anywhere nearly as well was Stephen Kings ‘N’. However, Agnes Mallory has a serious advantage. One of Andrew Klavan’s consistent themes is the importance of people’s past, and culture’s past, to their present and their futures.  King’s constant theme is the futility of human action, and the difference is clear.

The last point I would like to make for Klavan is that he is one of the few good Christian novelists currently working. Klavan is fighting the cultural fight that so desperately needs fought. A common mistake that Christians make is to excuse their lack of excellence in something by saying ‘well, its for God, so the heart is what matters.’ This is absolutely not the case with Klavan, perhaps because he was an author before he was a Christian: and that is a sad assessment of the state of Christian authorship.

In any case, I am greatly looking forward to ‘Nightmare City’ out soon…

Christian Mihai: A New Joseph Conrad?

Those of you who follow Cristian Mihai’s blog, know that he recently made his work Jazz free for download.  This counts as his breakout novel.  Without anything to lose, I decided that I would give a current author a try.  (Looking at my reading list reveals how hesitant I am to read the works of the living.)  From reading Mihai’s blog, I expected a work of quality.  My disenchantment with contemporary literature made that the limit of my expectations.

As it turned out, I was blown away by this stunningly complex and wonderfully written piece.  The writing felt as if some inimitable combination of Fitzgerald and Hemingway.  The novel’s vision seemed to combine a Scholastic focus on happiness with a Conradian or Dostoyevskian knowledge of the fallen nature of humanity despite a drive for nobility.  One felt as if one were reading about real people, yet on an elevated level and vividly alive.  Yes, you’ve read this passage correctly: we have here an utterly unique young novelist, who’s well worth reading.

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Jazz follows a young man named Chris, who has had the misfortune of having Cupid incite love in him for a girl named Amber.  Formerly, this girl was the fiancée of Chris’s cousin Jay; but, following a rather squalid dissolution of this relationship, she flees New York City for Paris.  Chris follows her hither to discover that he has taken up with a new boyfriend called Jacques.  This beginning leads to a riveting psychological tale written in beautiful style.  Many native English novelists have less exciting prose style than this Romanian–hence my calling him a new Joseph Conrad.

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I could not put the book down for the first six chapters, at which point errands called me away before I could finish it in a second sitting.  The mesmerizing quality of Jazz is especially due to the fast-paced and vivid style of Mihai.  It pays special attention to the characters’ expressions and actions–rather like what one finds in Hemingway.  But, the action is always fleshed out by the narrator’s thoughts and interior struggles á la Fitzgerald.  The effect is most compelling, and Jazz can easily withstand several readings.

My only hope is that Mihai continues to fascinate his present readers and manages to reach an ever wider audience.  I now find myself eager to shell out money for his other works!

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