Saturday, November 28, 2020



William Morris  (1843-1896)

This is the tale of three pre-medieval kinship groups and their adventures in fending off the cruel and predatory invaders of their country:  the Huns.  The Dusky People as they are entitled in the text have already taken over and despoiled two towns in the vicinity and are about to launch a major offensive to conquer the rest:  Burgdale is the name of the home of the largest group remaining unmolested and the House of the Face is the most important family in the valley which is hemmed in on three sides by mountains and has a river running through it.  Face of God is the name of the young 23 year old who is the principal figure in the novel even though he has an older brother, Hall-Face and a father, Iron-Face.  The "Face" derives from a large image of a grinning warrior located just above the front door.

One morning, FoG (as i decided to call him) decided to take a walk in the woods for several days.  He happens across a log cabin in the woods.  In addition to several hunters of the Woodland clan, he meets a lady named Friend (later known as Sun Beam) and falls in love with her even though he's supposed to be betrothed to a girl back in Burgdale named Bride.  When he gets back, some members of the Shepherd clan come to complain about a raid on Green Toft (one of their thorps) in which a shepherd was killed.  The perpetrators wore wolf skins.  Not much is done about it and soon Yuletide has arrived.  Slughorns blow (I think these are sort of like tubas) and oaths are taken on the Holy Boar(religious symbol).  Fog foretells he will wed the fairest of them all, then goes hunting.  Bride thinks he means her, but...  he meets Bow-May, a huntress from the Wolf clan while being attacked in the woods by Huns, and learns that Friend lives in Shadowy Vale, a hidden enclave of the Wolf clan, who are being threatened by the Huns who have recently overwhelmed Rosedale and Silverdale and turned the kindred(relatives of the Burgdalians) inhabitants into slaves (thralls).  Friend and FoG fall in love but agree to part until next year due to familial complications.  Upon his return,Bride intuits that FoG doesn't love her any more and asks him to give her his second born son when he marries someone else, namely Friend.  So, in the following year, FoG journeys to Shadowy Vale and meets Folk-Might, Friend's brother, and they agree on a plan to eliminate the Hun threat.  They arrange a mass gathering of the three clans, Burgdale, Green Toft, and the Wolf people.  All told, they accumulate about 1500 warriors, and make a plan to attack Silverdale when those citizens are holding their annual market festival.  They sneak through the woods successfully and surround the town on three sides and begin shooting arrows into the market which is jammed full of Huns from the town and also from Rosedale.  After several days of hand to hand combat the kindred emerge victorious and liberate their relatives who take back their town and kill off the few remaining Huns.  The victors return to Burgdale and celebrate.  FoG marries Sun Beam and Folk Might marries Bride.

The above is a very short synopsis of the plot.  The descriptive prose details the size, construction and appearance of the mountains and make clear the reference to the mountains roots, which is Morris's terms for the crests, moraines and ridges that decorate the sides of the mountains surrounding the action and form the main centers around which the adventures occur.  There are lots of creeks and rivers, rapids, lakes, ponds, and cascades, all located in dense forests of fir and pine interspersed with meadows and bushes.  Above the snow line, cliffs and scarps of granite and dolomite predominate, with mountain goats and sheep bounding between the crags.  It's quite a lovely and untouched wilderness:  wonderfully soothing to the reader's imagination.  

I woke up last night wondering about the language used in the book.  It was interlarded with Chaucerian words and sentence structure.  It seemed like Morris was trying to reproduce in some way the phraseology of the Eddas and Sagas he'd recently been studying.  He took a trip at a fairly young age to Iceland where he became enthusiastic about Norse and Icelandic myths and stories about gods and their activities, so it makes sense that when he began this book he might try to imitate the type of literature that had so blown him away on his trip.  And then i thought about mass hypnosis.  And how so much of historical literature bears almost no resemblance to what must have been the actual living conditions of those early times.  Living then must have been pretty miserable for most people, with poor food, primitive housing, lots of unknown diseases, and punitive landlords.  When we read stories about King Arthur, the French contes and the Italian epics about Orlando and others, the whole era seems like a lot of glory and arrogance, but the reality must have been very different for almost everyone.  But those who lived back then must have had their own stories and mythical tales about their own history.  So the conclusion seems to be that humans have never really tried to live in the real world, but have always overlaid it with their suppositions and legends, coloring their lives with blankets of magic and hope.

Which brings me to modern politics and the peculiar fact that so many voters seemingly want a government that impoverishes them and makes their lives more difficult.  And the answer must have something to do with the apparently innate need of humanity to fantasize what they experience in their everyday existences.  Maybe it has to do with our perception of time and it's cruel and irresistible flow;  maybe it's just too harsh to live in.  Or maybe it's the opposite;  that ordinary living is so boring and unexciting that minds grab the mythical covers that decorate their imaginative faculties and pull them over their heads, ignoring the reality.  Or possibly it's just that we never mature to the point that we can face the realities around us and the need to take care of our environment.  Or maybe we are all just not smart enough to do the necessary things to keep our house (the planet) from falling around our ears.  I think tribalism might have something to do with it: leaders and followers are historically the most common jobs, and maybe there's a genetic pull of some sort that predestines us to behave in predictable ways.  I don't know about any of the above, i just speculate, particularly in the middle of the midnight dark when no one in watching, haha...

Saturday, November 21, 2020



 Hugh Lofting (1886-1947)

Mr. Lofting was hunkering down on the front lines in WW1 and trying to write a letter to his family.  He couldn't very well say what was actually happening, as it would have been too shocking, so he decided to tell them a story instead.  And after that letter, another on the same topic soon arrived in England, and...  Upon returning home he collected the letters and wrote the first book about Dr. Doolittle entitled, "The Story of Dr. Doolittle".

Having graduated from medical school, the good doctor was trying unsuccessfully to make a living in the little seaside village of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh.  His sister Sarah is living with him and taking care of the house-hold chores, but she's not happy about all the animals inhabiting the cottage.  The Dr. has lots of pets, from white mice to a 186 year-old parrot, Polynesia.  His medicinal practice is declining rapidly and money is becoming scarce, so on the suggestion of the cat food vendor, he decides to specialize in the care and healing of animals.  In pursuit of this decision, he begins to study animal languages.  It's not long until he can communicate with most species and it becomes apparent that he has a natural gift for understanding most sorts, including birds, rabbits, dogs, parrots, and many others.  It doesn't take him long to learn crocodile when a member of that species shows up on his doorstep one day.  Money continues to be scarce, though, and soon Sarah leaves to get married (unwilling to clean up after a crocodile) and he's left alone with his menagerie.  A message arrives one day in the person of a monkey, Chee Chee, who says that Doolittle's skills are badly needed in Africa, as there's a raging epidemic among the population of monkeys on that continent.  Having nothing to keep him in Puddleby, he decides to go there and borrows a ship from a friend and buys a lot groceries, telling the grocer he'd pay him when he got back.  Many animals go along and when they arrive in Africa they induct Chee Chee as guide and he leads them through the jungle to the land of the monkeys.  Except they happen to travel through the territory of Jolliginki whose king hates white people, so he captures them and throws them in jail.  Polynesia convinces the King to release his prisoners by hiding under his bed and pretending to be the Dr. (Parrots can imitate almost anything).  But the King soon discovers he's been tricked and chases the beleaguered party to the edge of a canyon.  Chee Chee gets some of his friends to join hands and to form a bridge to cross the gulf;  a monkey bridge, as it were.  So they all escape and reach the land of the sick monkeys.  The doctor cures them after about three weeks and in appreciation they give him the only known example of a pushmi pulyu, an animal with a head on each end of its body.  Returning the way they came, they are taken by the King's forces again, but the King's son, Bumpo, helps them escape and they arrive at the ship.

Sailing homeward, they are chased by Barbary pirates and are about to be overtaken, when Polynesia enlists the help of a lot of seabirds to pull the ship out of the reach of the buccaneers.  They anchor in the bay of a nearby island but discover to their horror that the ship is sinking and that the pursuers are about to board them.  So when the pirates are otherwise occupied, they sneak aboard that vessel while the pirates are busy looking for loot on the their original ship.  It sinks and the Dr. and friends sail away to safety.  After a few more adventures, they return to Puddleby and the Dr. tours around the vicinity for a while, showing off his pushmi pulyu for which he earns a lot of money to support his expanding animal practice.

The second book is chronologically the second in the series, but was written out of sequence, several years later.  The doctor has been busy taking care of the local animal population.  He's come to know a hermit, Luke, that lives in a shack on the beach.  He's a sort of morose man who eschews company of any sort except that of his bulldog Bob.  One day, Tom Stubbins, the doctor's apprentice, informs the doctor that Luke has been arrested for murder.  Convinced of the man's innocence, the Doolittle talks to Bob and finds out the truth.  He demonstrates his ability to speak dog in the court room and, through the testimony of Bob on the witness stand, he's able to convince the judge and jury that the prisoner in guiltless.  

Later, the doctor receives notice that an old friend, Long Arrow, perhaps one of the most skilled naturalists in the world, has vanished in South America.  Doolitle decides to sail to his rescue and acquires a ship and crew and sets sail for the southern Atlantic.  It's not long before they find several stowaways.  The extra passengers are not wanted, so they stop at the Cape Verde islands to drop them off.  The doctor finds out about a bull fight scheduled the next day and, in order to make a lot of money, he bets the principal matador that he can produce a better show than the professional bull fighter.  He does, of course, after talking to the bulls, and ends up having five bulls in the ring at the same time and demonstrates his total control by having them dance a pavane in the sand.  Doolittle is the hero of the hour and gets a lot of money. Setting sail once more, they are caught in a hurricane and the vessel breaks into two pieces in the storm.  Tom Stubbins wakes up tied to the stub of a mast, still attached to  the deck that was torn from the ship.  He unties himself and Miranda, a Bird of Paradise -a friend of the Dr.and who has just flown over from the continent-tells him the rest of his friends are on another ship fragment and he rejoins them.  With the help of Polynesia and Miranda, they enlist the aid of porpoises to shove them in the direction of Spidermonkey island, where Miranda has learned that Long Arrow was last seen.  Spidermonkey is a floating island, so its exact position is a matter of speculation.  They find the island, however, and the Dr. captures an extremely rare beetle and finds a message wrapped around one of its legs, apparently written by Long Arrow, saying that he and his fellow Indians are trapped in a cave on one of the mountains.  They investigate and discover that a monstrously large sheet of granite has fallen over the entrance to the cave, trapping the spelunkers inside.  So the doctor with the help of the crew undermine the soft base that the stone is resting on, causing it to slide a sufficient distance to allow the trapped sufferers to escape.  

The augmented group comes in contact with the Popsipetel tribe, indigenous residents of the island, and become instant friends.  They are a small tribe, several hundred, and are being bullied by a much larger tribe, the Bag-jagderags.  After some unsatisfactory inter-tribal exchanges, the latter attack the former and Long Arrow is wounded, but the conflict is resolved by Polynesia communicating with a flock of about a million black parrots who attack the Bag-jagderags, landing on their heads and pecking slices out of their ears, resulting in instant panic on the part of the aggressors.  Thus the war is won, and through the gentle offices of the doctor, the two tribes become friendly and cease hostilities.  Exploring the island further, the small party of animals and naturalists circle the island by boat and climb a latent volcano.  They find a giant slab of rock balanced on the edge of the caldera, and realize that it could fall in with a very slight tremor of the surrounding formation.  This leads to some speculation on why the temperature seems to have been decreasing ever since they arrived on the island, and they come to the conclusion that the island is floating south and will soon be in the land of the icebergs.  So Dr. D gets some porpoises to search for a pod of whales to push the island back into the tropic zone.  

After moving North for a while, the doctor is elected chief of the island and during a celebration ceremony, a loud cheer arises from the united tribes consisting of thousands of islanders.  The resulting vibrations cause the slab of rock teetering on the edge of the volcanic crater to fall in and soon afterwards the people hear a loud whooshing sound and the island begins to sink.  Dr. Doolittle theorizes that the island was only floating because it was originally part of a continental shelf that broke off all in one piece and trapped a huge bubble of air underneath it as it sank.  So when the slab of rock hit the bottom of the crater it allowed all the air to escape and the island started descending.  But fortunately they were close enough to the South American mainland that it settled on the ocean bottom before being swallowed by the sea.

The doctor spends two years organizing and building a civilization for the united tribes, but begins to feel homesick.  Polynesia  plots to get him away and enlists the porpoises to find the Great Glass Sea-Snail, the only one of its kind in the world.  If they can convince the Snail to give them a ride home, they'll be able to leave the island.  So the plan is put into operation and the doctor, being reminded of the comforts of home, with hot cocoa and a fireplace, agrees to go home.  The giant Snail lifts up the edge of its shell, the travelers enter with suitable amounts of supplies, and they find themselves crawling along the bottom of the ocean, headed for Puddleby.  Since the Snail's shell is transparent, they can observe the vast deserts, mountains, caverns, and creatures along the way, and a fine time is had until their ultimate arrival at the Doctor's house.  Where they sit down in front of a cozy fire, drink cocoa and reminisce.

The first book was written to appeal to children:  rather simply, with easily comprehended descriptions and actions, but the second one was very much like any adventure tale of that era.  I read all these books when i was very young, about ten i think, and they eased my life and inspired my imagination in significant ways.  So, since i'n entering my second childhood anyway, i thought i'd reread the first couple of them and share....  They're excellent fodder for housebound children and adults alike and i hope they may be new to some and a pleasant reread for others...

Saturday, November 14, 2020


Lewis Carroll (1832-1898)

Note:  lots of spoilers in this article

Mr. Tibbets had just arrived home after a hard day's toil.  Entering his library, he relaxed into his favorite chair and reached for a book.  There was something in his way.  A filmy sort of half-seen and rather formless miasma was apparently standing next to his chair.  When he noticed it, it spoke to him, explaining that he was a ghost, a phantom actually, and he'd come to do a bit of haunting.  He'd been assigned this house because it had been recently vacated by the former occupant due its poor quality wine and paltry offerings in the way of sustenance.  And he went on to explain the five rules of etiquette that applied to basic houses and simple forms of ghost.  Pulling off sheets in the middle of the night was done from the center, not the ends;  illumination by red or blue light only;  no contradicting ghostly victim;  no trespassing on other spirits territory;  and hosts shall be addressed as "Sir".  As said, he was actually a phantom, but there were many other types of spirit, including spectres, goblins, kobolds, elves, sprites, etc.  Transportation was a difficult subject:  some forms were permitted to fly, but phantoms had to walk.  Speaking of which, Tibbet's phantom made a subtle reference to his weariness and mentioned that food and drink were not rejected by any sort of phantasm.  Mr. Tibbets, prodded into hospitality, suggested a bit of duck and a mild wine, which presently arrived.  The duck apparently satisfied, but the wine didn't.  The bottle flew through the air, impacting Tibbets on the nose.  Quietly whining to itself, the ghost grumbled about former discomforts, about sitting on fence posts and eating buttered toast, and began to reveal some of his history.

His father was a brownie and his mother was a fairy.  He had had many siblings to compete with, a troll, a pixie and others and he was made to practice squeaking and gibbering  at a very early age.  His career began at the age of six, learning about sheets, chain clanking, light flickering and the other arcane mysteries associated with haunting.  Learning how to "trim" a house required a lot of study:  how to loosen door hinges so they creaked, where to place small holes in the walls to enable cold drafts, sitting on sleeping victims to make them choke, and a myriad other tricks and ploys to create panic and alarm.

Mr. Tibbets and his ghost got along along fairly well after a while.  They took a little time out to contemplate Sam Johnson's famous words:  "in union is strength but onions are a weakness".  In order to formalize their relationship, the ghost asked Mr. Tibbets his name, which not been previously alluded to.  Upon hearing "Tibbets", the ghost turned white and became irate, suddenly realizing he had entered the wrong house.  He'd been looking for the residence of Mr. Tibbs, not Tibbets.  He started raving about a four mile walk in the rain and the mud all for nothing and it was all Tibbets' fault.  After raging for a short while, the ghost apologized to "old turnip-top" and walked off through the wall.  Mr. Tibbets wondered who Tibbs might be, while taking a fortifying draft.  He sang a solemn Coronach and mused that he was too old for a parallelepiped and fell asleep.

This was a poem, of course, and it was the first installment of a number of others in the same volume:  "Phantasmagoria and Other Poems", as it was first published.  Some of the others were humorous also, like the Melancholetta about whale blubber, the "Three Voices", Atalanta in Camden (spoofing Swinburne), Four Riddles (complicated), Tema Con Variazione, etc.  Reading these verses i couldn't help but think of other humorists, Lear, Wilde, Swift, Moliere and its hard to believe that they all didn't read and interact with each other, taking bits and pieces from one source or another and reshaping them, using different sorts of plaster before cementing them into their own works...  At any rate, Lewis shows his true genius in these poems;  he had a truly original mind...

Tuesday, November 10, 2020



John Buchan, Baron Tweedsmuir (1875-1940)

Adam Melfort was accused of forgery and is on trial in London.  He had covered for his wife Camilla, who, in her mindless quest for more money, altered the amount on a check and then cashed it.  Adam said he made her do it.  He received a two year sentence and Camilla divorced him.  While in jail, he dreamed a lot about his son who died at five years of age, and of an island they had vacationed on, Eilean Ban, just off the coast of Scotland.  Visions of himself and his son pacing over the flower and grass covered meadows while listening to the eternal rustle of the nearby sea occupied some of his waking moments and permeated his dreams while sleeping.  These imaginings were a sort of refuge for him, and he also resorted to them at tense periods in his later life.  Meanwhile, he learned languages because he was interested in them and suspected they might come in handy after he became free.  Adam was an expert in military affairs and the economic and social forces that led to war.

Upon his release, he was contacted by the British Intelligence service (this all took place several years before the first world war) and hired as a double agent and spy behind the lines during the war.  He was stationed in Belgium at first, disguised as a dense farm laborer who traveled around in his spare time, observing train schedules and troop movements.  Later he was stationed in Germany proper where he had a cover as a traveling salesman from Denmark.  He had some close calls but managed to make it through the war relatively unharmed.  Back in England, he waffled around a bit until he was hired as a leader of an exploration team that was intent on reaching the north shore of Greenland.  Traveling by dogsled, he and a companion made their way north over the glacial terrain.  One purpose of their trek was to search for a man, Falconet, who had disappeared while attempting the same journey the year before.  After accidents and fighting starvation, they arrived at their destination and discovered Falconet on the verge of death from the cold and lack of food.  They nursed him back to a degree of health and started on their return.  Adam's partner stole some food while the other two were sleeping and left them to starve, but they ate some dogs and, proceeding on foot, eventually caught up with him but he was dead.  On the verge of extinction themselves, they were rescued at the last minute by a fishing smack that picked them up and returned them to civilization.

In England, Adam became interested in three friends, members of the aristocracy, who seemed in positions of power sufficient to influence the future development of British policies.  Adam now viewed his role in life as a sort of tutor or assistant whose purpose was to manipulate the forces of labor, finance, and religion to achieve a more democratic and egalitarian society.  Over a period of years, he watches the careers of his friends, guiding their ambitions and successes, until all three more or less quit doing what he wants them to and, unpredictably, hare off in directions of their own.  Adam is a bit depressed by all this, but he resorts to dreaming about Eilean Ban and his son Nigel, until he meets another major player, Loeffl, who also happened to have been an officer in the German army who interviewed him in the last war.  The two of them talk about future events and they realize that much of what will or might happen in the world is in the hands of the richest man in the world, Creevey.  So they evolve a plot to get Creevey by himself so they can bend his ear about what they think he should be doing to save mankind.

After some initial finagling, they arrange to have Creevey kidnapped and flown to a deserted valley in the Italian Alps instead of to England, which he has been told is the airplane's destination.  The pilot of the plane pretends that there's some engine trouble and he has to land to repair it, but when his passenger leaves the plane to visit a local hotel, he revs up the engine and takes off, leaving Creevey all by himself in the abandoned hotel.  Meanwhile, a gang of thugs from Germany (Nazi types), interested in preventing Adam from talking to the kidnapee, are racing toward the valley, hoping to murder or abduct Creevey before Adam can arrive.  Adam drives the long way around, parking north of the valley, and sets out on foot to reach the hotel.  He climbs up a pass and descends 4,000 feet  and gets there just in time to rescue the intended victim.  He not only finds Creevey at the hotel, but his girl friend (Adam's) as well;  she'd driven there to surprise Adam.  The three know that the bad guys are about to arrive, so they retrace Adam's route.  The Nazis are just behind them, firing machine guns occasionally and, since they are tough, they are just about to overhaul the three, when Adam (spoiler) rolls a huge boulder over the trail, blocking the escape route.  Unfortunately, he's on the wrong side of the boulder while the other two are on the right side, and the book ends with the sound of gunfire.

This was a long tome, extended mainly by a large portion of it being devoted to a description of Adam's three friends and their attempts to make good in English society:  the parties, dances, political dealings, excursions and vacations.  Unlike the other Buchan books i've read, this one seemed a bit more autobiographical, dealing a lot with governmental policies and parliamentarianism as well as with adventures on the ice and in the Alps.  It was a later book than some of the others, and reflected, i think, some of Buchan's involvement with politics and long range administrative  planning.  Buchan was governor-general of Canada, after all, and the possessor of a trunk full of decorations and medals, so his interests stemmed from and were related to his aspirations and activities in the governmental sense.  Also, he seemed (and it was more evident in this book than in others) to like the idea of great geniuses determining the future, saving the dumb human race from itself by manipulating world markets and economies.  I have opinions about all this, but, unlike Buchan, am trying to keep them to myself.  So, as it might appear above, i didn't think a whole lot of this book;  his earlier ones are a lot better, imo, of course...