March Magics: The Lives of Christopher Chant

Did I ever tell you that The Lives of Christopher Chant was the first Diana Wynne Jones novel I ever loved? And did I ever tell you that when the seventh Harry Potter came out and I was feeling disappointed in Dumbledore, I went back and read The Lives of Christopher Chant and Charmed Life and Witch Week and Conrad’s Fate to experience a non-disappointing omniscient wizard man?

March Magics is upon us, hosted by the wonderful Kristen at We Be Reading, and I am celebrating this week with a reread of the book that made me certain (at age, like, twelve) that Diana Wynne Jones was going to become one of my favorite authors.

The Lives of Christopher Chant is not the book you’re supposed to read first in the Chrestomanci series, but it’s possibly the one I would recommend you to read first. It’s this or Witch Week, for sure. Our hero, Christopher, who will one day grow up to be the Chrestomanci of maddening vagueness and extravagant dressing gowns, is a little kid who walks through the multiverse in his dreams. When his Uncle Ralph discovers this, he enlists Christopher to do some experiments for him, and Christopher — who worships Uncle Ralph — agrees.

The Lives of Christopher Chant

The Lives of Christopher Chant does this narrative trick to which Diana Wynne Jones is very prone, where the child protagonist fundamentally misunderstands important things about himself, the world around him, and the choices he’s making. Some of these things are clear to the reader: If it weren’t immediately obvious that Uncle Ralph is a bad person who is taking advantage of Christopher’s unique skills, we could figure it out from Tacroy, who guides Christopher on his journeys through the dream world / multiverse. But other revelations were as much of a surprise to my young self as they were to Christopher, and a reminder — Diana Wynne Jones excels at these — that the world we see isn’t the only world there is.

Also, if you are the sort of person who cares about this, The Lives of Christopher Chant features probably my favorite of the Diana Wynne Jones cat. His name is Throgmorton.

Deep Secret, Diana Wynne Jones

Note: I received this — and here comes some important information, so pay attention — NEWLY REISSUED EDITION OF DEEP SECRET from the publisher for review consideration.

I led with the most important information, but I’ll mention it again, just in case: The speculative fiction publisher Tor has put Deep Secret back in print for the first time in years! And for the first time in even longer, we have an American edition of this book that doesn’t take out all the swear words! Huzzah! If you are one of the (gloriously many!) people who has asked me what Diana Wynne Jones book you should read next, this one’s not a bad bet. Plus who knows how long it’ll stay in print this time?

Deep Secret is the Diana Wynne Jones book that is set at a con (the kind you attend when you are a geek, not the kind you pull when you are a crook). The book starts off in typical Diana Wynne Jones fashion, with unabashed weirdness and more made-up words and concepts than I would accept in the first chapter of a novel by absolutely any other author. Rupert Venables is a Magid who works in a Naywards world and now he’s traveling off to the Koryfonic Empire to adjudicate a trial — and look, when you are at this bit and feeling annoyed, just remember that your pal Jenny urged you to keep moving forward. Pretty quickly you will know what all the words mean; and more importantly, pretty quickly all the characters will be at a con at Hotel Babylon in Wantchester.

Having never (yet!) been to a con myself, I can’t speak to the accuracy of Diana Wynne Jones’s depiction of what it is like to be at one. But it sounds completely delightful. Over the course of the novel, a number of truly magical things take place at the con, including but not limited to one magic-worker defeating another; hotel corridors with more right angles than would be geometrically possible; several attempted assassinations; and the spectacularly dramatic entrance of a centaur from another world. The charm of this novel (to me–some of the characters feel differently) is how plausible it seems for the convention-goers to take all of these matters in stride.

Thurless was not placated. In the end, Rick hurried him outside and the door banged on Thurless shouting, “I don’t care! I insist on a taxi!”

 

“That was Mervin Thurless,” said the blond, glossy man gravely.

 

The audience, to my surprise, clapped and cheered. A lot of people laughed. They were like that, the people at this convention — surprisingly good-humoured and in a holiday mood: as if they had come to enjoy themselves as much as listen to writers talk about books. . . . I know what really struck me: the hall was full of people I’d like to get to know. An unusual feeling for sulky, solitary me.

Their response to seeing real magic is exactly like their response to Mervin Thurless acting like a prat in the middle of a panel: a default, good-natured acceptance of everything that comes their way. In a sense, this is the half of the book that belongs to the book’s second narrator, Maree Mallory, whom Rupert’s mentor has identified as one of five possible students for Rupert to take on. Maree is broke, miserable, and crossed in love, and it’s the convention that reminds her that there are places in this world where she belongs and is valued.

The other half of the book, set in the disastrously regimented Koryfonic Empire a few worlds away from earth, belongs to Rupert Venables. If Maree is not at her best due to misery, Rupert is not at his best due to stress. He’s simultaneously working to identify the student who’s to become the second Magid of Earth, and fighting to prevent the Koryfonic Empire from imploding in a violent mess of a succession crisis; and he’s thwarted in both of these goals at every possible turn.

All of this madness–the people at the con, the Empire’s succession crisis, Maree’s bad dreams, the hunt for a new Magic, the horrible decorations on Nick’s mother’s sweaters–comes together in a series of mad climaxes such as you get in British books that deal with the supremely British topic of Everything Going Utterly to Hell. Deep Secret is Diana Wynne Jones’s funniest book, and now that it’s back in print, there’s no reason for you not to be reading it.

Revisiting Harry Potter: Defending Sirius, Part 2

I will acknowledge the following up front: Sirius is a little pissy in this book. At one point, he is pissy to Harry, and it hurts Harry’s feelings. My thesis is that you would be too so dial down the judgment.

I’m going to take this to a slightly personal place right now. Bear with me. 2012 was an awful awful year, and the quality of its awfulness to my family was lots and lots and lots of unrelenting Life Stress. The quality of its awfulness to me, since I live far away, was lots and lots and lots of seeing people I cared about feel crappy, knowing that I possess qualities and resources that could help them feel a little less crappy, and not being able to employ those qualities and resources in pursuit of that end. Because I live thousands of miles away. Of course it was worse for them. They were the ones with all the shit going on. But it was not fun for me either. It made me cranky and sad and guilty.

Are you judging me for those feelings? Probably not, right? You are probably thinking of a time that you were not in a position to help your loved ones when they needed help, and how crappy it made you feel.

So now let’s imagine that instead of being a lazy layabout who is perfectly happy to lie on the couch and read for days at a time, I am Miniature Roommate, who after about three hours of a hurricane goes mad with cabin fever and starts flinging herself wrathfully about the apartment issuing jeremiads against the storm. And imagine that instead of being trapped in a pleasant-if-small New York apartment for a few days, it is a house where I was loathed my entire childhood by my screaming hateful parents, a house that still features some of the same people who made my life miserable as a kid, and those people are every day providing a large helping of the exact same verbal abuse I managed to escape from twenty years ago; and also there is no prospect of my being permitted to leave it, ever. And instead of all my favorite people facing regular life stress (albeit a disproportionate amount of it at one time), they are all out fighting evil. And not just fighting evil but also trying to conceal from the government that they are fighting evil because if the government finds out about the evil-fighting it will most likely chuck them into Depression Prison on trumped-up charges.

Do you suppose that under these circumstances I would show to best advantage? Do you think that you would? Or do you think that you’d probably be crazy stressed and likely to snap at people and get into arguments about stupid things and make a stand on even stupider things because you just really, really needed to feel like you were doing something for once?

And I agree. Sirius is not perfect in this book. He is not his best self. He’s sort of grumpy with Harry at times, and he shouldn’t have gone to the rotten train station (although, dog hug!, awwww), and there are moments at which he talks to Harry a little bit too much like an adult. I agree with you about that. However, I do not agree with anyone who would argue that Mrs. Weasley and Dumbledore are right to keep Harry in the dark (nobody in this readalong is arguing that, so hooray), and I strenuously disagree with anyone who is cross about Sirius urging Harry to form the D.A. Forming the D.A. is a genius idea that saves lives and turns Neville into the insane badass we all love so much. Way to go Hermione! Way to employ some judicious rule-breaking in pursuit of an important goal.

Here’s why you’re mad, friends. Sirius asks Harry if he can come to Hogsmeade to visit him next time they have a Hogsmeade weekend, and Harry says no, and Sirius’s feelings are hurt.

“You’re less like your father than I thought,” he said finally, a definite coolness in his voice. “The risk would’ve been what made it turn for James.”

“Look–”

“Well, I’d better get going, I can hear Kreacher coming down the stairs,” said Sirius, but Harry was sure he was lying. “I’ll write to tell you a time I can make it back into the fire, then, shall I? If you can stand to risk it?”

And yes, this is mean. That was a mean thing to say. Not the kind of thing a parent should say to a kid. But let’s maintain a normal amount of perspective. He snaps at Harry ONE. TIME. Do you know how many times I snapped at Mumsy and Social Sister last year? Like infinity! And parents snap at their kids all the time! Even the best parents in the world (mine) said unfairly critical things to us sometimes that totally hurt our feelings, and they were not under quite the same pressures that Sirius is under. And there is also this:

“I want you to take this,” he said quietly, thrusting a badly wrapped package roughly the size of a paperback book into Harry’s hands.

“What is it?” Harry asked.

“A way of letting me know if Snape’s giving you a hard time. No, don’t open it in here!” said Sirius, with a wary look at Mrs. Weasley, who was trying to persuade the twins to wear hand-knitted mittens. “I doubt Molly would approve — but I want you to use it if you need me, okay?”

I can’t even with this. It is totally merciless to write off Sirius completely for flaws he has in this book, and I say that as someone who used to love Lupin the best of all the characters and stopped completely because of that thing in the seventh book OH YOU KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT. Sirius hurts my heart with how much he wants to do for Harry and how little he actually can do. If they launched an It Gets Better campaign for good children of dark wizards, the videos would be like, “Nothing gets better. It gets so much much worse. You will be in a torturous hell for the bulk of your adult life; your efforts in the fight against evil will regularly go for naught; and (spoilers) your eventual death will be a trauma and a ruin to the kid you love more than anything.”

Appendix A: A conversation I had with Social Sister when I was writing this post.

Jenny: I am writing up my Second Defense of Sirius Black right now
Social Sister: Haha, for Mom?
Jenny: NO.
Jenny: …yes.
Jenny: but for the blog, I mean.
Social Sister: It’s okay. We all know.

Touche, Social Sister.

Appendix B: Sirius and Lupin give Harry a fancy set of books about defensive magic. Real talk: Lupin cannot afford presents. Sirius bought those books himself and put both their names on, right? This is not part of my defense of Sirius. It’s just what I think probably happened. It must suck to be Lupin and always accepting money from Sirius and James because he can’t get a job. Also, is Snape still making Lupin the potion to make him safe when he transforms? I hope so! That would be a nice thing for Snape to do.

Revisiting Harry Potter: I have nothing to say about Grawp

I’m not going to do a big post defending Harry because nobody on this readalong is saying Harry doesn’t deserve to get angry. Everyone who minds this book just says that reading about Harry yelling at everyone all the time is not fun. Which, fair enough. I do not mind it but I can see why a person would.

Isn’t it kind of heartbreaking, by the way, to see who Harry does and doesn’t lose his temper with in this book? He stomps all over Ron and Hermione because he doesn’t consider them an emotional flight risk. But he hardly says a single angry word to any of the adults in his life — not Mrs. Weasley, not Dumbledore until the very end, not Sirius, not Lupin, not Hagrid. That gives me sad feelings for Harry, y’all. Adult love and protection should not feel so fragile to him.

Anyway, sorry to have missed last week but here I am now to feel feelings and say things. This book. This one here. It grieves my heart to see everyone so unhappy, yet I do love the moral complexity that starts getting shaded in as soon as this pervasive evil and fear settles over the wizarding community. Nice people do not-nice things, like Seamus Finnigan not believing Harry, and Mrs. Weasley basically taunting Sirius for being falsely imprisoned for most of his life, and oh my God, Percy writing that letter to Ron. That’s the shittiest letter ever, and like Hermione I felt an upsurge of affection for Ron when he tore it all up. I just like this book a lot because good people do bad things without bad intentions, and later they will have to figure out how to fix their mistakes, and that is a thing I enjoy reading about.

So here’s a fun debate for us to have: Who is worse, Umbridge or Voldemort? Captain Hammer says Umbridge! I say, eh, they’re both pretty bad, but at least Voldemort doesn’t pretend like he’s doing you a favor by torturing you. Umbridge’s blood-quill writing lines punishment is maybe the creepiest thing to me in this entire series. It’s at least in my top five, up there with that thing that happens to the Muggle Studies professor in the seventh book. I think they’re just as bad as each other, and I hope Umbridge got put on trial for war crimes or whatever at some point. I don’t care if it’s in a kangaroo court! She deserves a kangaroo court!

(Grumble grumble grumble. I don’t really want Umbridge tried in a kangaroo court. I want her to have a fair trial. I believe in a proper justice system, dammit, even for people who are genuinely terrible. (I’m looking at you, Charles Taylor.))

If I weren’t going to love the fifth book for any other reason, I would love it for Dumbledore’s Army. That is my favorite Hermione idea in all of history (I mean, that one plus the jinxing thing). This?

“Don’t sit there grinning like you know better than I do, I was there, wasn’t I?” he said heatedly. “I know what went on, all right? And I didn’t get through any of that because I was brilliant at Defense Against the Dark Arts, I got through it all because — because help came at the right time, or because I guessed right — but I just blundered through it all…You think it’s just memorizing a bunch of spells and throwing them at him, like you’re in class or something? The whole time you know there’s nothing between you and dying except your own — your own brain or guts or whatever — like you can think straight when you know you’re about a second from being murdered, or tortured, or watching your friends die — they’ve never taught us that in their classes, what it’s like to deal with things like that — and you two sit there acting like I’m a clever little boy to be standing here, alive, like Diggory was stupid, like he messed up–“

I love Harry for saying all this. He’s spent most of the book so far feeling only put upon, thinking so much about what he’s done and earned and deserved (which is true), and it’s great to have him acknowledge that yes, it’s accurate that he did all those things; but yes, it’s also accurate that a lot of his survival is owed to circumstance and not skill. I just love this scene — and Hermione, she’s the best and responds to this tirade perfectly — for letting those two things sit side by side.

Dumbledore’s Army is a great idea because it’s a great idea, and it’s a great idea because it grows Harry up a lot in a hurry. The founding of the D.A. doesn’t mark the end of Harry being shouty in this book, but it does force him to realize that helping other people and building them up makes him feel better than screaming at them. And also, just, it’s nice seeing Harry be a leader a little bit. That’s not really his thing, but he does an awesome job. HARRY. I like for him to live that thing Dumbledore said about the wizarding world being only as strong as they are united. True facts, Dumbledore.

Next week: I defend Sirius with some personal anecdotes from my own life.

The Dalemark Quartet, Part 2

Dalemark! Onward! As you will recall, the country is split by North and South, the South full of angry earls who do not like to hear talk of free speech, and the North full of angry earls who do not mind it so much. There are gods, called the Undying, who continue to take a lively if unpredictable interest in the doings of Dalemark and its occupants.

The Spellcoats jumps us back several thousand years into Dalemark’s past. Our narrator Tanaqui and her four siblings are forced out of their own village in a time of war, as they do not look like the other villagers and are believed to be Heathens or witches or both. As they travel, they gradually come to realize that the true enemy is not the Heathen but an enchanter called Kankedrin, who seeks to control the land and its gods and its people.

In The Crown of Dalemark, we are back with Mitt, who feels lost and lonely in the North, and still more so when an Earl orders him to assassinate a girl called Noreth who appears to be preparing a claim to the long-defunct throne of Dalemark. Two hundred years into Mitt’s future, a girl called Maewen is asked to go and take Noreth’s place as history unfolds; and without much ceremony, she is thrown into the middle of the political turmoil of Noreth’s life. Trying to do her best to masquerade as Noreth, she travels through Dalemark firming up her claim to the throne, accompanied by both Mitt and Moril.

The Spellcoats is about a group of really, really different siblings working together on something while growing into the adults they’re going to be, which I love. I cannot imagine why I didn’t care for it before! It’s done so beautifully! Tanaqui’s brother Hern is the same person all through the book, but the commander-of-armies Hern as the book nears its end has changed tremendously from the Hern who prayed to the Undying to be able to go fight the Heathen with his father at the beginning. It is one of Diana Wynne Jones’s best tricks, this true, natural growing up of her characters.

By contrast, the characters in The Crown of Dalemark seem to have done most of their growing up already. We see little out of Mitt that we haven’t seen before: his circumstances change (dramatically!), but we don’t really see the outcome of that change on him. The same is true of Maewen: her life changes and she stays the same. There is little of that growing self-awareness and its attendant strength that characterizes nearly all of Diana Wynne Jones’s protagonists. Not to say that the plot of the book isn’t interesting (it is! and it brings together dangling threads from all three previous books!), just that the characters do not get to grow as dramatically as I would like them to.

In my memory, The Spellcoats was easily the weakest of the Dalemark books, and The Crown of Dalemark easily the strongest. Not at all what I found reading through them again. I think I must be wanting different things out of books now than I was when I read these last.

I feel like I read somewhere that Diana Wynne Jones said she couldn’t write a sequel to Crown of Dalemark until she figured out what happens with Tanaqui at the end of The Spellcoats. I wish she would. I want her to do her growing-up trick to Mitt and Moril. They have had many bad things in their lives, and I am curious what they are like as grown-ups. This really speaks to Diana Wynne Jones’s skill at characterization–you truly feel they have a life beyond the story, and you wish you were in on it.

(I love Diana Wynne Jones and) I am so pleased I reread these books. It was a completely new reading experience to what I remember, and that was grand.

The Secret History, Donna Tartt

Yeah, I remember the rule. I remember the exception to the rule. It turns out Animal Farm is exactly what you get when you make rules that you know you want to break. I started jonesing so hard for The Secret History, and when I saw it at a book sale last week, I was all, Blah blah rationalization, this copy here is a trade paperback and my copy is only mass market, this and that, it’d be better to have this copy than my copy.

Once I got it home, I tried to kid myself that I wasn’t going to read it. I checked out five books from the university library that I’ve been wanting, and I started reading (and enjoying!) one of them. But you know how when you are craving one particular book with all of your being, that book suddenly becomes Plato’s book? And all the other books in the world, which were perfectly reasonable a few days ago, are suddenly just shadow-illusions on the cave walls? That’s what happened to me. After a while I gave in. I’m only human.

When I read this book the first time, on my study abroad year, I was enthralled. I skipped all my Friday classes (and I only had classes on Tuesday and Friday) because I couldn’t bear to stop reading long enough to talk about the symbolist imagination. However, I considered it possible in retrospect that this was a function of my state of mind at the time. I was very depressed (bad meds + far from home + constant massive fights with then-boyfriend), and I felt very, very intense about nearly everything I read. I sobbed over Emily of New Moon and thought about how it was all just a Symbol For My Life. I hated We Have Always Lived in the Castle and sobbed because I had no good books to read and that was just a Symbol For My Life. So as you can imagine, I have been doubting the remembered intensity of my The Secret History reading experience. I suspected it would all be much more chill this time around.

NOPE.

The Secret History is about a boy called Richard who goes to a small liberal-arts college in Vermont, joins a strange, exclusive Classics program, and makes friends with the strange, exclusive Classics students, of which there are five apart from him: patrician orphaned twins Charles and Camilla; louche, studious Henry; wealthy Francis with a house in the country; and the bigoted joker Bunny. Richard, who comes from a poorish California family, has made up a complicated mess of lies about his background and is anxious to be friends with all of these people. They become friends, and one thing leads to another, and they end up killing Bunny.

To me, there are few things more suspenseful than stories about people who have committed crimes and might get found out. The Scottish play has me practically screaming with tension every time I read it, and The Secret History is just the same. I was deeply resentful of every life intrusion (work, meals, sleep) that kept me from carrying on reading it straight through. I was even forced to the expedient of reading it while walking to and from work, an activity at which I am very skilled but in which I prefer not to engage, as it reminds me embarrassingly that Past Jenny (in her tween years) felt that reading while walking proved to everyone else that she was above the things of this world. Oh, Past Jenny.

The adjective I would use for this book, and please appreciate that this is a high compliment from me, is elegant. Tartt has a trick of having her characters reveal things casually that shock the narrator and the reader, and at the same time seem perfectly plausible, indeed inevitable. Her characterization is sharp and yet ambiguous enough that you are not sure, when the book ends, who has done what and for what reasons. As Richard wonders about the behavior of each of his friends, you wonder too; you flip back and reread certain passages, trying to tease out the motives of each of the characters in light of what you now know. It’s not showy, the way she does it. It’s elegant.

Plus, you know, as a classics geek, I love it that this book makes Latin students seem super dangerous and dark and edgy. This is not necessarily the typical portrayal of Latin students, but it appeals to me: Watch out for us classics people. We are loose cannons and might push you off a cliff if you cross us. Or we might not. YOU JUST DO NOT KNOW.

In sum, this book is just as gripping as I remembered, and I also think it is an incredibly good book, what with all the writing and the characterization and the making you sympathize with murderers and the LATIN STUDENTS CAN KILL YOU. Read it, please, if you haven’t already. I feel like I have been going around saying lukewarm things about it since reading it a few years ago, when really it deserved raves. If I said something lukewarm to you about this book, disregard it! Listen to me now when I say it is superb and you must read it tomorrow. I would like to turn around and read it all over again, except that would be pushing things a little far, when I have these Dodie Smith memoirs and these amusing Lissa Evans books and Juliet Gardiner’s The Thirties sitting on my couch.

When I lent this book to my sister, she said it was basically Special Topics in Calamity Physics with older, less sympathetic characters. This isn’t altogether fair, but there is a certain family resemblance. The Secret History is more tense, and more polished, and I tend to feel that the group of students is better characterized in it than in Special Topics. Special Topics has that raw, intriguing style of writing, and a more twisty and complex plot. I think if you enjoyed one, you’d be fairly likely to enjoy the other; but if you disliked one, it’s still perfectly plausible that you’d like the other.

What other people thought:

things mean a lot
the stacks my destination
Book Snob
reading is my superpower
Stella Matutina
Flight into Fantasy
Stephanie’s Confessions of a Book-A-Holic
Six Lit[erate] Chicks
The parenthesis and the footnote
Seriously Reading

Let me know if I missed yours!

Milton in May: Week 1

I did a class on Milton when I was at university.  The professor was this tiny, enthusiastic woman, clearly in love with Milton and excited for us to be in love with him, too.  She would charge up and down the classroom gesticulating wildly and drawing stick-figure pictures of important scenes on the chalkboard.  I have her in my head like a soundtrack when I read Paradise Lost.  It was the best class I took at university, and the single piece of literature I most enjoyed reading and learning about.  So hopefully I will not sound like an idiot when I write about it this month for Rebecca’s Milton in May reading project.

If there was one thing my tiny Milton professor was determined we students would all leave the class understanding, it was that Milton was not of the Devil’s party without knowing it.  But you can see why Blake would think so.  Paradise Lost is about stories, and Satan tells a compelling story, a seductive story, the story with himself as the proud, brave, warrior hero, down but not out, preparing himself to fight another day.

To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deifie his power,
Who from the terrour of this Arm so late
Doubted his Empire, that were low indeed,
That were an ignominy and shame beneath
This downfall….   Here at least
We shall be free; th’Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce,
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.

He’s Achilles, refusing to bend knee to Agamemnon!  He’s Aeneas, defeated in battle but setting out to found a new, greater kingdom!  When you come from the Iliad and the Aeneid, Satan’s rhetoric is pretty convincing.  He’s the first character we meet, the first voice we hear, and there’s something stirring and admirable (to me, anyway) about confronting impossible circumstances with an unflinching determination to manage them.  “The mind is its own place, and in it self / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n,” says Satan.

Except, of course, he’s lying.  And Milton’s not just paying lip service to the idea of Satan’s wickedness and deceit; he shows it to us over and over.  As soon as Satan gets in front of his troops, he’s singing a different tune.  “Who here / Will envy whom the highest place exposes / Formost to stand against the Thunders aim?” he asks them.  Not so much of this better to reign in Hell business now, eh?  Satan utterly lacks integrity; the stories he’s telling will change whenever he needs something new.

Like, check it out, this bit’s funny.  In Book 2, Satan’s volunteered to go scope out the new world God’s invented for Man, when he gets to the gates of Hell and finds them guarded by Sin and Death.  Sin, who is all covered in snakes and hellhounds, tells him how she was born out of his head when he first conceived of rebellion, and that they subsequently had sex and produced a gruesome son, Death, who promptly raped her to produce the hellhounds that are perpetually curling up in her womb and eating their way back out again.  It is a nasty piece of imagery.

Dear Daughter [says Satan], since thou claim’st me for thy Sire,
And my fair Son here showst me, the dear pledge
Of dalliance had with thee in Heav’n…
I come no enemie, but to set free
From out this dark and dismal house of pain,
Both him and thee.

Uh, sure, dude.  You’re her knight in shining armor.  We’ve seen these two, Sin and Death, they’re not dear or fair, and Satan was all set to bash them to bits five minutes ago.  It’s a sham!  If Sin were our friend we’d be telling her this guy’s bad news.  But she’s picking up what he’s putting down:

Thou art my Father, thou my Author, thou
My being gav’st me; whom should I obey
But thee, whom follow?  Thou wilt bring me soon
To that new world of light and bliss, among
The Gods who live at ease, where I shall reign
At thy right hand voluptuous, as beseems
Thy daughter and thy darling, without end.

(Ew.)

I have to say, I’m finding Satan far less appealing this time through.  Not sure if this is down to my tiny Milton professor, or the years that have gone by since I last read Paradise Lost, or the fact that I like God better now than I did then, or what.  I still feel sort of fond of Satan, if only for the swooping grandeur of his rhetoric and his trickster-god manipulation of the other denizens of Hell; but I am finding him fundamentally shabby, after all.  The best plan he can come up with is to annoy God by wreaking havoc on something lovely and innocent that God’s created; even framed as guerrilla warfare against a tyrant God, that’s not a terrible admirably aim.

The character of God, on the other hand, is coming off rather better than when I was in college.  At least part of the time: Milton’s always good on free will.

I made [Satan] just and right,
Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.
Such I created all th’Ethereal Powers
And Spirits, both them who stood and them who faild;
Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell.

Elegant antithesis there, eh, with God repeating stood and fell four times apiece in four lines?  The problem is that wholly good characters are boring, and God and Jesus are too good to be interesting.  Which they’d have to be, of course!  Milton believes in them!  I like them on the subject of freedom, but far less on the subject of their boundless mercy and goodness, and the ambrosial fragrance and new joy ineffable that fill’d all Heav’n every time they talk.  I’d rather read about hellhounds gnawing through Sin’s uterine walls.

Except when I wouldn’t – Milton can be very effective.  Here’s another good bit from the heaven scene.  We have already seen Satan ask his demons who will risk the danger of going up to check out Eden, and they all stand silent.  In a parallel scene, God tells the angels that when mankind sins, they have to die.  Dye hee, or Justice must, says God (good line, eh?), unless someone will pay the price, and die in man’s place.  The angels are as silent as the demons were, and then Jesus speaks up.  Is it just because of the Aslan echoes that I find this passage kind of moving (and wouldn’t CS Lewis be thrilled then)?

Behold mee then, mee for him, life for life
I offer, on mee let thine anger fall;
Account mee man; I for his sake will leave
Thy bosom, and this glorie next to thee
Freely put off, and for him lastly dye,
Well pleas’d, on me let Death wreck all his rage.

Milton is such a gorgeous writer.  Shame about all the crazy thoughts inside his 17th century head.

Reading along

I just barely squeaked in under the wire with this one.  I finished The Two Towers at 11:30 on the night of the 31st.  IT WAS EXCITING.  When, you know, when the gates closed?  And Sam?  And Frodo?  You know what I’m talking about?

Well, anyway.  Teresa is done hosting The Two Towers and Maree is taking over.  So here we go.

The last half of The Two Towers covers fewer characters than the first half. For some, this makes Book 4 slower than the rest of the book; others love the intense focus on Frodo, Gollum, and Sam. Where do you stand on this question?

I love all the Frodo, Mordor stuff.  Frodo is a far better character in the books than he is in the movie.  He’s stronger and cleverer, and rereading The Two Towers, I got a bit teary at how brave he was.  And Gollum is one of my favorite characters in all of literature.  I enjoy Gollum.  I think it’s touching when he manages to overcome his worst instincts, and sad of course when he cannot do that.

If you’re a first-time reader (or even a rereader), what surprised you most about this half of the book?

How good Frodo is!  Elijah Wood and his increasingly slow talking in the films made me forget that Frodo is actually not an annoying character.  He’s not quite as hobbity as Bilbo, in some ways (people keep referring to the fact that he looks and acts rather elflike), but he bears up surprisingly well under the weight of the Ring.

Are there any specific moments that stand out as favorites or least favorites in this section?

The moment when, oh, the moment when Gollum kneels down beside Frodo and reaches out to touch him.  And he looks almost like an old tired hobbit, and you know if Sam hadn’t woken up and fussed at him, things could have gone a different way for Frodo and Gollum.  Why did Sam have to fuss at him?  I mean I love Sam and I’d probably have fussed at Gollum if I were he, but that part is saaaaaad.

What are some themes or ideas in this book (or the trilogy as a whole so far) that stand out to you?

Mainly the idea of setting goodness against evil.  The evil in Mordor is incalculably bigger than Frodo and Sam, and yet they’re the only ones who can defeat it.  Sam’s devotion to Frodo, their mutual determination to see their quest through to the end as they promised, these are the things that keep them going and will eventually defeat Sauron.  We see the same thing in the friendship of Legolas and Gimli, how they grow beyond their prejudices and come to be very close friends.  I love it when Gandalf goes to confront Saruman.  We see the trust between Gandalf and Theoden, how it makes them strong, compared with the contempt and mistrust that Saruman and Wormtongue have for each other, which is of course self-defeating.

And the obligatory movie question: Many LOTR readers take the biggest issue with Jackson’s treatment of this part of the trilogy than with any other? Did the changes bother you? Are there any ways in which you think the movie was more effective?

Let’s talk about Faramir, shall we?  My sisters and my sister’s boyfriend and I just finished up with our long-anticipated Lord of the Rings Extended Edition Film Marathon (culminating in my little sister’s being struck down with food poisoning and having a food-poisoned birthday on the 31st), so the films are fresh in my mind.  I think the flashback scenes with Boromir and Denethor and Faramir are very good.  David Wenham and Sean Bean are so good in those parts, and I am a sucker for emotional manipulation through dysfunctional parent/child relationships.  But I DO NOT APPRECIATE all this foolishness of Faramir deciding to take the ring back to Gondor.  He did not behave in that manner!  He was stronger than Boromir.  His word was his bond.  Did Aragorn try to take the ring from Frodo in the films?  No!  So why should Faramir?  They know it would make them all evil, so they are tempted, but they do not take it.

I love that line about Faramir: A chance for Faramir, Captain of Gondor, to show his quality, and then, I would not take this thing, if it lay by the highway.  Not were Minas Tirith falling into ruin and I alone could save her, using the weapon of the Dark Lord for her good and my glory.  No, I do not wish for such triumphs.  Up the House of Húrin!  Why would they change that when it’s already perfect?

Have you read LOTR before? If so, what are you anticipating most re-reading in ROTK? (er … try to avoid spoilers, although I suppose that question makes that a bit tricky)

I am looking forward to Denethor.  Denethor, Denethor!  Because I cannot remember at all what Denethor is like in the books.  It was so sad in the movies when Denethor liked Boromir better, and Faramir was sad, and he lost his brother and his father didn’t like him….But, um, I don’t think that’s how it went in the books.  Did it?  No, right?

Who’s your favourite character in ROTK?  Favorite scene?

STILL FARAMIR.  LOVE FARAMIR.  The scenes I am afraid I do not remember so well.  It has been a while since I read Return of the King.  I was sad about, but nevertheless enjoyed, the Scouring of the Shire, and I of course love Eowyn’s shield maiden brilliance.

Have you seen the movies? Have they coloured your reading of ROTK?  Does reading the books make you want to watch the movies, or run screaming in the other direction?

Already watched ’em.  They were good.  However, by the time it gets to be the third movie, I am mainly watching for Aragorn.  The scenes with Frodo and Sam in Mordor do drag in the third film (mostly; I can neither confirm nor deny the presence of tears in my eyes when Sam says Don’t go where I can’t follow!), whereas Aragorn gets to be all sexy with his steely resolve and his reforged sword.

Onward, onward!  I promise not to leave Return of the King to the very last minute the way I did with The Two Towers and The Fellowship of the Ring.  Seriously.  I’m a reformed character.

King of Shadows, Susan Cooper

I read this for the Time Travel Challenge.  Yeah, I’m not adhering to my list.  TOO BAD.  I’m making King of Shadows part of a time travel mini-challenge that I call the Books I Like Because They Contain Time Travel and in Spite of Having Been Written by Authors I Do Not Like as Much as My Big Sister Does Challenge.  I shall include Time Cat in this mini-challenge too, because I can do that.

Nat Field, a twelve-year-old with a tragedy in his background, comes to London as part of a company of boys to perform at the newly constructed Globe Theatre.  One evening he feels slightly ill, goes to bed, and wakes up in 1599.  There he is recognized as actor Nathan Field, come from St. Paul’s to play Puck in a special production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream where Shakespeare plays Oberon; back in 1999, a young actor called Nathan Field is treated in a modern hospital for bubonic plague.

I never cared for Susan Cooper.  I didn’t like all that Dark Is Rising business, and I could have lived without The Boggart too.  But King of Shadows packs a hell of an emotional punch.  My eyes are filling up with tears right now, just thinking about it.  It’s difficult to tell why without giving away the whole plot of the book, but I will say that Susan Cooper writes the loveliest darling of a Shakespeare you ever encountered, and his relationship with Nat is genuinely touching.  She’s spoiled me for all productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I’m afraid.

This book may have faults, objectively speaking.  The plot may be predictable and the subplots insufficiently explored.  You read it, and let me know.  I can’t see any of those problems, because every time I read this book, it breaks my heart.  Read it!  If you do not love Shakespeare, this is still a good read; and if you do love Shakespeare, well, then, it’s like an extended edition of the best Shakespeare dream you’ve ever had.

Because it’s not just me, right?  Y’all dream about meeting Shakespeare too, right?

Other reviews:

Jen Robinson’s Book Page
Miss Erin
A Hoyden’s Look at Literature

Did I miss yours?

On another note, this is a video of three Supreme Court Justices in 1987 hearing evidence over whether Shakespeare wrote his own plays.  When I discovered that they had done this, it made me love John Paul Stevens even more than I used to, but then I discovered that he thinks the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays.  STEVENS THINKS THE EARL OF – I don’t even care if he resigns now!

(I do actually.  I love Stevens and want him to stay, and he’s the only Protestant on the Court right now.  If he goes, and Elena Kagan gets appointed, as she is favored to do, it’ll be all Jews and Catholics.  I mean I like Jews and Catholics, but I think we should have some representation of other faiths too.)