Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Name:
Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!

17.5.05

What I've been reading

I have a lot on my mind. I really like blogging, because you must read my sick, twisted thoughts! And I have a lot of them right now!

Anyway, I've just finished TWO books, so this will be a double feature. Can you stand the excitement!?!?!?

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
My copy is 425 pages, and this sucker was published in, what, 1817?

I had never read Ivanhoe before this, because "classic" literature usually acts as a soporific on me, and this is almost 200 years old, so it counts as "classic." Actually, I've always wanted to catch up on my "classic" reading, and this is a nice place to go if you're in the mood for rousing adventure yarns. Basically, it's a Robin Hood story, although Mr. Hood is in no way the main character. He's just there to keep the feeling of a Robin Hood story, as is the wayward monarch Richard Couer-de-Lion, who spends most of the book in disguise, Prince John, who shows up early on but doesn't stay (he apparently had people elsewhere in England to tyrannize), and Friar Tuck (who's a HUGE dick in this book) and Allan-a-Dale. All the familiars are there, but they remain on the fringes. The book uses them to frame the adventure, but it's not about them.

So what is the book about? Well, let me tell you, it ain't about Ivanhoe (or Wilfrid, to give his real name - Ivanhoe is where he's from). I was amazed that he does so little throughout this book, even though his name's on the cover. It's like calling Star Wars (I refuse to call it A New Hope, damnit!) The Adventures of Biggs. It just doesn't make any sense! Sure, Ivanhoe fights in the tournament organized by John. Sure, he wins. But in the process he gets injured and spends most of the rest of the book recovering, missing out on the big assault on Front-de-Boeuf's castle. At the very end, he rescues Rebecca (more on her in a minute), but it's not like he wins a great battle - the Templar Brian de Bois-Guilbert simply dies! Ivanhoe is one of the most ineffectual heroes in literature!

I can't even tell you who the main character is, unless it's Elizabeth Taylor (I mean Rebecca). Even that's pushing it. In fact, the main character may be Brian de Bois-Guilbert, and he's a villain! Scott is very careful to give all the many characters a lot of page time, and it makes it difficult to know exactly who the hero of the piece is. I don't really care, but it's interesting to read something, especially from a time period when we think of literature as demanding a hero, and not get one. It makes the book a much more mature work of literature and far more fascinating to read.

All the high chivalric adventure is only window-dressing, however, for the two main points about the book, which are, in many ways, connected. The first conflict Scott brings up in the book is the conflict between Saxon and Norman. This was very relevant in English history for centuries after the Norman invasion of 1066, and Scott uses it nicely to point out the rifts in English society. He gets his timeline screwed up in a few places, as the book takes place in 1194 and therefore well over a century has passed since the Normans took over, but certain characters refer to it as if it happened only a few decades before. I'll let that go, however, because the basic conflict is still pertinent. England in the 12th century was a conquered nation, and its people were still upset about it. The Norman aristocracy made very little effort to assimilate into Saxon society, and as the Saxons outnumbered the Normans and thought that they had lost at Hastings simply out of bad luck, this was a precarious position for the Normans to be in. Their hold on the crown was legal only through force of arms, and the resentment against their rule simmered just under the surface of Saxon society. As in most medieval societies, when the king was strong and just tensions eased, but when the king was weak, everything came to a boil. This is evident from English history, as the weak king Stephen presided over a horrible civil war in the 1130s and '40s before he finally allowed the Angevins beginning with Henry II to take over, and it's evident in Scott's book, because the "rightful" king Richard has been in Palestine fighting in the Crusades and then locked away in the Duke of Austria's dungeon. Prince John, one of the poorer kings in English history, is running the country as regent and plotting to take over. In this atmosphere, the Saxons saw their chance to restore the line of Edward the Confessor (who died in 1066 prior to the Norman invasion and may have promised the crown to two different people, which led to the invasion), a line embodied in Athelstane, a Saxon noble. Cedric the Saxon, another principal character, sees his chance to marry his ward, Rowena, to Athelstane and unite the two greatest Saxon families. Rowena has the hots for Cedric's son, Ivanhoe, which is the main cause of conflict between father and son. The political machinations of Cedric are some of the most interesting sections of the book, especially when he finds out that Richard has returned. Initially, he refuses to swear allegiance to the king, until Athelstane (who in the course of the book has an almost comic-book-like return from the dead) rejects Rowena and Cedric's plans turn to crap. This tension between the natives of England and their overlords is unlike what we see in normal adventure stories, and adds heft to it. As Scott points out, eventually the two cultures merged to form what we call "English," but it took a while - I believe Richard II (1377-1399) was the first monarch since the Conquest who spoke only English.

Another major plot point and the most interesting part of the book is Scott's examination of Jews in England. Rebecca and her father Isaac are major players in the book, and their plight forms the bulk of the narrative as well as the bulk of the social commentary Scott makes about the period. I have no idea if Scott was Jewish, but his sympathies clearly lie with them, even if he doesn't always portray the Jews (well, Isaac - Rebecca is a saint) positively. Jews in the Middle Ages were of course treated poorly, despite (or more likely because of) the fact that they were vital to the kings and nobility because of their lending abilities. The Catholic Church, in one of the dumber decisions it made, decreed that Christians could not lend money at interest. The only people who could, then, were Jews, since Jews were effectively banned from any other business. Since nobody likes a moneylender (when was the last time you sent a Christmas card to your credit card company?), everybody hated Jews. Since Jews had no rights, the debt could be cancelled whenever the king was in a bad mood. Since Jews obviously practiced witchcraft and feasted on human babies, Rebecca could be condemned to death because Brian de Bois-Guilbert abducted her with the intention of having crazy monkey sex with her. He's obviously bewitched, people! What's fascinating is that Scott does not make the heroes of the book any more enlightened than they would be in 1194. Ivanhoe rescues Rebecca, sure, but there's no chance he ditches the pretty and somewhat vacuous Rowena for the pretty and obviously brilliant Rebecca, which would be a much better match. Friar Tuck hates Isaac, Richard treats him with some contempt, and the other characters mock him, sometimes gently, sometimes not. Despite that, we understand that these characters are trying to treat Isaac like a human being, but they can't completely escape their programming. It's a very interesting take on what being a hero means. When we read more simplistic tales of Robin Hood, the author either ignores the Jewish question or makes Robin Hood a sensitive, 20th-century liberal kind of guy (I'm looking at you, Kevin Costner). I understand that some people are having the same problem with Kingdom of Heaven - Legolas goes all ultra-sensitive with the Muslims (that's a different story, however, and one I really don't have too much of an issue with, something I will address if I see the movie this weekend as planned). Where was I? Oh yes - the Christians in the story don't overcome their prejudices, but you see them struggling with them, and that makes them more real. Isaac himself struggles with his prejudices, and Scott makes him, occasionally, a stereotypical Jew - concerned only with money. But it's clear that this is the only option left to him sometimes, and despite his love for his daughter, he has to think of the future as well. It's surprisingly touching and completely believable. Unlike many adventure tales, these are three-dimensional characters, and not everything they do works or works the way they think it will.

Ivanhoe is a genuinely interesting book about more than swords and knights and the return of kings. By setting his book in the past, Scott can comment on the society without incurring the wrath of his contemporaries. However, one gets the feeling he is commenting on English society in the Georgian Age. Certainly Jews were better treated in the 19th century than the 12th, but there was still a prejudice, to the extent that Benjamin Disraeli, later on in the century, suppressed his Judaism for the sake of the country (I think - I could be wrong, but I seem to remember reading about it). The centuries-old tension between British and French had not cooled by the 19th century, and Scott's veiled nationalistic tone is a balm for the English in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. So Scott is writing a Robin Hood story with societal and religious undertones that criticizes English society in two different time periods but also uplifts the English spirit in the face of adversity. What do you know about that? It's a fun book - you could do a lot worse than seek it out and read it.

I finished Ivanhoe on Saturday. I dove right into my next book, for which I went out of alphabetical turn! Oh, that crazy Greg! Actually, I went out of turn for a simple reason: the next book was short, and it took me about an hour to read, and it was a gift from one of the two cool people involved with it (and the other said it would have been a gift from her except the first was too quick). So thanks, Larry! (Of course, I fear to give it a bad review, since both Larry and Danielle are cool people and, more to the point, could kick my ass individually or teamed up. I will do my best to be honest, though.)

Tales from Fish Camp by Danielle Henderson
128 pages, 2004, AiT/Planet Lar

The lovely and talented Danielle Henderson decided (foolishly, I think) to work at a fish camp in deepest, darkest Alaska one day. An impetuous decision turned into comic gold for the rest of us, because she dashed off this quick read and illuminated all of the rest of us who either thought about going to Alaska for the summer or knew someone who did (I never thought about, because I knew others who did and feared for my pampered, spoiled life). Sorry, Danielle, as much as you loved it, this is really a funny horror story. Ms. Henderson blazes through a few months of working 16-hour shifts, drinking all night, sleeping for three hours, waking up still drunk, and doing it all over again. It's manic and crazy and very funny, although not always in a laugh-out-loud kind of way (there's that, too - see Danielle freak out in the presence of bears!). The strength of the book is in the observations of how these people live their lives - it's an alien way of life to most of us, yet Danielle, in a few well-timed observances and a few well-turned phrases, makes us care about a good-sized cast of characters and also gives us great insight into their personalities. I actually wanted the book to be longer - there's great potential here for a comic masterpiece with touches of Steinbeck and real social commentary thrown in - I'm totally serious about that. The biggest problem I had with the book is the lack of complete emotional involvement in the characters or the work - yes, they're real people, but real people who live on the edge and do a lot of drinking, which is fun to read about, but leaves me feeling a bit empty. I know, from reading Danielle's blog, that she's funny and a keen observer of the human condition and can write with penetrating insight, and it would have been nice to see that here. It's a minor complaint, since the book is, after all, a quick shot about the craziness of fish camp and the kind of people it attracts, but like I said, it would have been interesting to see more.

This is a fun book. It's 10 dollars, people, which is less than I just paid for volume 1 of the Fantastic Four Essentials! There's no reason for you not to buy it and find out about a weird little sector of the American work force that you never hear about. I command it!

3 Comments:

Blogger N said...

you might like robert louis stevenson's The Black Arrow better than Ivanhoe.

18/5/05 8:10 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

I liked Ivanhoe a lot, sir. I just couldn't figure out what the heck he was doing as the "star." I'll have to check out your recommendation. The only Stevenson I've ever read is "Kidnapped," and I really liked it. Yeah, that's what I need - more things to read.

18/5/05 8:19 PM  
Blogger Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

I loved Tales From Fish Camp! The only problem I had with it was that it was short on content and ridiculously padded. In some cases, two page "chapters" are separated by 5 blank pages!?!? Crazy. You'd think Young would've sprung for some illustrations, or had Danielle dig a little deeper into the material. Or cut out the padding and release it @ $5.99. Definitely looking forward to her next book, though.

19/5/05 7:46 AM  

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