Book review: Charles Dickens – Great Expectations

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , , , on November 22, 2014 by Mistlake

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Little Philip Pirrip, better known as Pip, is being brought up ”by hand” by his mean-spirited sister and her kindly blacksmith husband Joe, when a chance encounter with an escaped convict and an odd request by the tragically eccentric Miss Havisham change his life, investing it with ”great expectations” far beyond those of being an apprentice at Joe’s forge.

I was never much of a Dickens fan: I liked A Christmas Carol, but Oliver Twist left me cold, and I was content to leave well enough alone. But recently I got it into my head to give Dickens another chance, and I’m happy I did. Great Expectations is indeed great, and in my case probably all the better for my going into it with no expectations.

The folksy Dickensian humour is present through much of the book, and that’s one aspect of his writing I could take or leave, which also goes for that “boohoohoo” Victorian sentimentality that made it so hard for me to stomach Oliver Twist, but both the comedy and the pathetic pathos take background roles in Great Expectations. Here Dickens serves up a much darker brew starring a deliciously convoluted story, a great many surprises and a level of elegant writing that simply isn’t seen in modern fiction.

The darkness is strangely pervasive for an author mostly known for his warmth, humour and social conscience. Miss Havisham’s eerie existence in a dilapidated mansion is positively Gothic, as is her monomaniacal rearing of little girl Estella into a fine young psychopath. The life of convict Magwitch is no picnic either, and then there’s the really nasty stuff, including domestic abuse in various flavours and an uncommonly disagreeable suicide by conflagration. Perhaps above all, there’s a dark streak permeating Pip himself, who is also the narrator: he is not a nice boy or – subsequently – man, nor is he intended to be. This gritty side of Dickens is very welcome to these eyes, and makes the novel feel more like adult fiction than did those of his books that I had previously read.

Another Dickens trademark is of course the colourful characters, with which Great Expectations is brimming. Miss Havisham is probably the most famous one, but I’d like to give a shout-out to lawyer Jaggers, among whose many strange habits can be found his conviction that one should always behave as if one is in court and never admit to anything, no matter how trivial. Equally fascinating and entertaining is Jaggers’ head clerk Wemmick, a dry and boring man who turns out to lead a charmingly whimsical life in his free time.

The story brings Pip through many changes in fortune and state of mind, and Dickens lives up to his credo “let them laugh, let them cry and let them wait”: many of the novel’s mysteries are tantalizingly dangled before the reader time and time again before at long last being expertly resolved. That’s a good way to write a page-turner, which is what Great Expectations is: exciting, pleasurably frustrating and always with fresh means of entertainment up its sleeve.

What may, for some readers, cause the pages to turn somewhat more slowly, is Dickens’ literary style, which is of a kind we – as I mentioned earlier – are unaccustomed to these days. I find it glorious in its paradoxical florid dryness. It’s a verbose stream that combines melodramatic emotions with a beautiful matter-of-fact precision which I’d wager is unique to the English temperament of the 19th Century. Nowadays most fiction is written in a colloquial style, and I don’t mind that, but personally I prefer the exquisite phrasings of Dickens and his contemporaries.

Dramatic revelations, cliffhanging suspense, angry (though highly civilised – Dickens was English, after all) criticism of the British judicial system, and enough eye-popping characters and Gothic chills to fill half a dozen lesser novels – these are a few of the delights that make Great Expectations such an outstanding reading experience. But at the heart of it all are prime examples of what all novels should have, but too many do not: a captivating story and great prose.

Rating: 9 of 10.

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A somewhat different interpretation of the story.

A somewhat different interpretation of the story.

Book review: Christopher Lee – Lord of Misrule

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 10, 2014 by Mistlake

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The autobiography of character actor and – although he’s ambivalent about the term – cult movie star Sir Christopher Lee.

Originally published in shorter form as Tall, Dark and Gruesome in 1977, Lord of Misrule is a considerably expanded and revised version which brings us up to and including the time of the Lord of the Rings films.

It’s not too much to say that in interviews, Christopher Lee often seems smug and at times overbearing, which makes his autobiography all the more of a revelation. Here we meet a man who admits to often being a bundle of nerves, and who grew up self-conscious about his uncommon height and his “foreignness” (on his mother’s side he’s a member of the illustrious Italian noble family of Carandini). Through a mixture of grit, talent and luck (his mother knew a lot of useful people) he succeeded in becoming an actor, and a star at that, but he remains humble about it – which appears oddly out of character for him – and often amused at the long and winding road he’s travelled, and the many potholes in that road.

Amusement is also something the reader is bound to experience, for Lee writes in a mostly lighthearted and exceptionally witty style that speaks much of his intelligence and general classiness. However, his class doesn’t get in the way of some tastefully lewd recollections and a few instances of humorously coarse language (even though the latter only occurs when he is quoting someone else). In the quiet of his study he evidently felt relaxed enough to let go of the sternly magisterial persona he adopts in public, and shows us a softer and more candid side that’s instantly likeable, with a strain of self-deprecating humour and sense of his own shortcomings that is as entertaining as it is unexpected. At the same time he shows justified pride in his greatest accomplishments, from his service in World War II to his performances in fine films like The Wicker Man, Jinnah, Rasputin and The Man With the Golden Gun, and onwards to his surprise singing career starting in his seventies. And yes, towards the end of the book he does speak at some length about Dracula.

The only real drawback to this extremely engrossing autobiography has to do with the balancing of certain elements. While Lee writes in depth about some of his films, including the ones mentioned above as well as for example Airport ’77 and of course Lord of the Rings (and some of his less satisfying movies too), others get short shrift, the space that should have been allotted to them instead taken up by … golfing anecdotes. Sir Christopher loves his golf to the extent that if the law were suddenly to accept bigamy, he would probably take his bag of golf clubs as his second wife. There is nothing wrong with golf, I suppose, and some of the stories are funny and interesting enough, but there are several whole chapters devoted to the game, and it does get to be a bit much after a while if you don’t share his passion.

More stories about movies would have been welcome, and although there’s quite a bit in Lord of Misrule about actors closely associated with Lee through friendship and careers, like Boris Karloff, Vincent Price and of course Peter Cushing, there could have been more of that too.

But I’m not about to protest against being regaled with grand stories from a life tremendously well lived, and one so rich in experience. It feels like one gets to know the man in a way I would have previously thought highly unlikely, and despite toning down a few of his taller tales (he tends to exaggerate in interviews), you can only marvel at the people he has met, the work he has done, the things he has experienced, and the peculiar hobbies he has indulged in – such as bicycling round the Swedish countryside, joining local amateur singing societies as an impromptu extra member.

Lord of Misrule, for all its odd omissions and all its golf courses, is one of the more fascinating autobiographies I’ve read, and it’s about a most intriguing person of a kind they simply don’t make anymore.

Rating: 8 of 10.

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Book review: Homer – The Odyssey

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 4, 2014 by Mistlake

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It’s been ten years since the end of the Trojan War, and king Odysseus has still not returned to his island of Ithaca. Assuming that he’s dead, scores of suitors have assembled at his home in order to win the hand and vast riches of Odysseus’ queen Penelope. In the process they’re consuming all the food and wine the estate can muster, and in general behaving like arrogant swine. What they don’t know is that Odysseus is very much alive, but has been seriously delayed by many an adventure. He is not pleased with the news that reaches him from Ithaca, and plans on dusting off his old mass murder skills.

Most of what I have to say about Greek epics as such is contained in my rambling overview of The Iliad, so here I’ll just focus on The Odyssey and its points of comparison with The Iliad. This review contains a spoiler or two.

At first glance, The Odyssey seems of a piece with The Iliad, but it’s actually quite different. It’s a proper continuation of the story, yes, but where The Iliad is insanely intense with brief interludes of mellowness, The Odyssey is quite the other way around. People eat and drink and give each other disproportionate riches at the drop of a hat, when they’re not telling meandering stories about their heritage and the experiences of their youth.

Every now and then there’s violence and horror, like when Odysseus tells the most famous story in the book, the one about the man-eating Cyclops Polyphemus, or when Odysseus and his son Telemachos roll up their sleeves and set to work on the suitors. There are other thrilling sequences, such as the expertly suspenseful one where our hero loses his ship in a raging storm, but on the whole, The Odyssey is curiously relaxed for a heroic epic. We get far more of Ancient Greek-style courtly manners, friendly chats and gossip (“Oh, did you hear that king Agamemnon was murdered by his bitch of a wife?”) than of heavy duty javelin-flinging and decapitations.

The Odyssey is certainly more varied than The Iliad, in which there’s more or less constant butchery from first to last, and contains much of beauty and more of sin. I wouldn’t call it an idyll, and even less so since most of the characters – including Odysseus, Penelope and Telemachos – are continually grieving and suffering, but there’s still a soft light hovering over many of the events and the strange, primitive but beautiful world in which they take place. I guess it’s as close to a pastoral romance as war-fixated Ancient Greece could get.

Apart from Pallas Athena, who must have a titanic crush on Odyssey given how much she helps him, the major gods are a far less prominent presence in The Odyssey than in The Iliad, but the former contains more of other fantasy components. There’s the Cyclops, other giants, Circe and her transformative magic, the Sirens and so on, and this no doubt contributes to the lofty fairy-tale nature of the poem, placing it firmly in an age that had a hazy mythical sparkle even in classical Greece. The islands are still there, some of the cities too, but there’s no denying that The Odyssey is set in a fairy tale land, and a beautiful and magical one at that.

Even so, the reader learns a lot about actual Bronze Age Greece, and these little details of everyday life are all the more captivating for being mentioned in passing, as if everyone is expected to take them for granted (as I suppose original audiences did). I found myself intrigued, for instance, by the description of Penelope unlocking a door, for the archaic but intricate locking mechanism is unlike anything we have today, and thus both brings home the antiquity of the tale and gives life to the fact that there were real people with real lives (and real locks) alive during that distant era, something which is usually quite difficult to fully take in.

There are human qualities to The Odyssey, then, and not only in the shape of day to day particulars. The Iliad is filled to the brim with characters, hundreds of them, and you have to be really obsessed to keep track of them all. The Odyssey, on the other hand, has far fewer characters and spends much more time with each one, from lowly swineherd Eumaios right up to Odysseus himself, and where the people populating The Iliad are largely archetypes, here we acquaint ourselves on more intimate terms with men and women who come towards us out of their “types”, emerging as engaging human beings. Penelope may be impossibly chaste and faithful (the perfect role model wife from an old Greek perspective), but she’s also pragmatic and clever, and has much of the cunning associated with Odysseus himself.

He, on his part, is of course the classic epic hero in many ways, but he’s weighed down by longing, remorse and worry, making us feel his age and the tribulations he’s been through even though he’s described physically as still being a prime specimen of manhood. Another fascinating trait of his is how easily he makes up stories off the top of his head – he is in fact an inveterate liar and has much of the trickster about him, to the point where I started wondering about the Cyclops, Sirens and so on – we only hear those stories from his own mouth while he’s, as it were, singing for his supper at king Alcinous’ court. Did any of those fantastical adventures ever really occur? At one single point later on in the story does Odysseus think to himself briefly about the Cyclops, but still one wonders.

The Odyssey is an odd mixture of high fantasy, rural idyll and Clint Eastwood revenge Western, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s a gorgeous work of art that sings from the page, and in all its frothy liveliness it’s still as fresh as a rose roughly 2,500 years after it was set down in writing.

I can’t even begin to scratch the surface of the immense influence The Odyssey has had on world literature and art, not least in the fantasy genre, but three people and books inspired by it should be mentioned: Virgil’s The Aeneid, Eyvind Johnson’s Return to Ithaca and of course James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Rating: 9 of 10.

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Film review: Service de Luxe (1938)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , on October 31, 2014 by Mistlake

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Director: Rowland V. Lee. Writers: Gertrude Purcell, Leonard Spigelglass, based on a story by Vera Caspary and Bruce Manning. Starring: Constance Bennett, Vincent Price, Charlie Ruggles, Mischa Auer, Helen Broderick, Joy Hodges.

Helen Murphy runs a luxury service which manages all aspects of people’s lives for them. When she runs across inventor Robert Wade (Price), she finds him an absolute dreamboat, but he’s been dominated by his aunts all his life and can’t stand “bossy women”, added to which he hates career women. So, like a good little girl Helen submerges the truth about herself and pretends to be just a regular ole gal, but that becomes a bit of a problem when Robert starts employing her firm’s services.

This screwball comedy is hardly the finest of its type, but it does reward the viewer with a few laughs. It has a rather nifty idea to it, the all-encompassing services of Helen’s agency leading to some madcap situations, but the script built on the central premise is unfortunately rather tepid and feels even more contrived than in most examples of this subgenre. It’s also predictable in the extreme, and although you expect most of these things to end with a wedding or two, Service de Luxe even fails to produce many surprises on the way there.

Now, I like a good screwball comedy, even though it may not sound that way, but this one falls short on too many levels, for example by having people standing idle and quiet when there’s every opportunity for a witty line or a quick sight gag. As a result, many of the scenes that probably read funny in the script feel awkward and slow because one character is doing crazy stuff while the others look like they’re just waiting for him or her to be done. There’s a lack of energy, then, and I consider a kind of manic energy a vital component in this kind of film.

I think it’s safe to say that Rowland V. Lee was better suited for dramatic thrillers like his Tower of London (also with Price) and Son of Frankenstein, but that doesn’t mean Service de Luxe is a total loss. Mischa Auer is good fun as a bizarre Russian chef, and his interplay with his “pupil”, cooking-fixated engineering mogul Scott Robinson (Ruggles) is proper screwball fun and probably the comedic material that works the best.

Then there is the little matter of Vincent Price, whose film debut this was. It’s funny that both Price and Peter Cushing made their debuts in films made by directors famous for major Frankenstein films (Cushing got his start with James Whale), and another thing that can’t help bring a smile to the face of a Price aficionado is his rant in Service de Luxe about how insanity is hereditary and runs in his family – similar speeches, only not humorous in intent, was of course something he delivered in many a horror film later on in his career. But this is Price as far as you can get from his sinister future persona: he’s a nice, affable but strong willed and eccentric young man with an eye for the ladies. His part could have been played by James Stewart or Cary Grant, and to me it’s illuminating and refreshing to see him before typecasting got to him. Is he good? Well, yes, but I wouldn’t say that he’s as masterful as he would become, and he’s not really helped by an underwritten role. The famous voice is there in rudimentary form, but like his acting, it’s not quite as distinctive as one is used to. The best thing about his performance is most easily appreciated in view of his subsequent career: seeing him in a part that requires a charismatic young actor, not a “Vincent Price type”. Oh, and it turns out he had a rather nice singing voice in his youth.

Service de Luxe needn’t be on any screwball fan’s “must see” list, because it really isn’t all that funny, and it’s lacking in panache. Any serious Vincent Price fan, on the other hand, has to see it, if only to fully realise that once upon a time he was just another fresh faced stage actor wanting to make it in Hollywood.

Rating: 4 of 10. 5 of 10 if you’re a fan of Vincent Price.

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Book review: Beowulf

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , , , on October 26, 2014 by Mistlake

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The court of Danish Viking king Hrothgar is under nightly assault from the monster Grendel, who overpowers and eats his warriors. Enter foreign hero Beowulf, who promises to defeat the beast.

This overview/review contains a few spoilers. Also, I always like to point out that I’m no expert on this sort of thing, so don’t go and do anything stupid, like believing that I know what I’m talking about.

The events outlined above, and the subsequent appearance of Grendel’s charmer of a mother, are the famous parts of this Old English verse epic, but that constitutes only half the story. Later on there are wars, feuds and a heavy duty dragon. Beowulf actually details the titular hero’s entire life, some of it in chronological order, some of it in flashbacks, and some of it in his own words, giving us an almost complete picture, punctuated by some rather interesting gaps, like the question of whether he ever got married and why he didn’t have any children.

Beowulf is commonly said to be the oldest extant piece of English literature, but there are shorter poems that preceded it, and “English” is such a relative word. The poem is certainly old enough, the earliest preserved manuscript having been dated at about 1010 AD. It’s also of a size other Old English poems can’t begin to approach: it’s 110 pages in the edition I have, which – along with other characteristics, of course ­– makes it a proper epic, and in that sense it is the oldest of its kind in England.

But you wouldn’t think to look at it that it is English. I’ve read it in the Modern English verse translation by Michael Alexander, but once upon a time I read parts of it in the original Old English. Well, I say “read”. It looks as Scandinavian as it does English, and the only reason I could struggle through even a page or two is that I know both Swedish and English. It’s not as strange as it seems: after the various Viking invasions of England, a great many English people were of Scandinavian ancestry, which also serves to explain another oddity about Beowulf: it’s an English epic that takes place in Denmark and what was to become Sweden, and which doesn’t even mention England in passing. This is probably due to the fact that earlier, oral versions of the story originated in Scandinavia and far predate the written version, meaning that Viking influence in and knowledge of England weren’t a thing in the 6th or 7th Century, when the story is set. Furthermore, this means that the prevalent Christian rhetoric is anachronistic, since Denmark and Sweden weren’t converted that early on. The Christian sentiments must have been added later on, possibly by the very poet whose version we have today.

In terms of story and character, Beowulf shows similarities to the tales about Heracles and other ancient heroes, the main character being possessed of immense superhuman strength (and apparently the ability to hold his breath under water for indefinite periods of time) and having to perform a number of feats at the behest of a foreign ruler. Women are background features, men are men, and every named character seems to divide his time between giving and receiving lavish gifts, holding boastful speeches, drinking all night, and of course bashing people’s brains in. It’s all meaty and juicy fun, but it’s droll how they’re always drinking but never seem to eat anything; at least the Greeks knew to do their boozing on a full stomach.

Lighthearted partying aside, there’s much mood in Beowulf, where our hero has to go to the depths of the ocean and into grey, misty fens to accomplish his goals against dire odds. The sense of a harsh, primordial era is dominant throughout the poem’s most memorable sequences, which occur in a bleak, rough-hewn world where only the mead-halls are places of warmth and light – and in the case of king Hrothgar, even his opulent mead-hall Heorot is invaded by an elemental evil.

The verse is haunting and often lustrously beautiful in its sometimes unexpected composites and circumlocutions (my favourite being the coinage “sword-hate” for “warlike hostility”), which adds generously to the brooding atmosphere. Here and there we find a touch of the terseness of the Icelandic sagas (when Beowulf kills a foe, it is stated with succinct dryness that “He was glad at the deed”), but largely, Beowulf’s language is more flowing, and its monologues wordier and far more emotional, and thus more reminiscent of the Greek epics. It is in fact remarkable just how polished and elegant a work Beowulf is, especially compared to something like the French The Song of Roland, which was put down in writing about a century later and is nowhere near as accomplished.

The only flaw – and this is very much a personal opinion – is parts of the structure, where flashbacks and much needed back story are crowbarred into the unlikeliest places in the narrative. For instance, we suddenly learn that Beowulf has now been king for a long time, and then he goes hunting for the dragon, and in the midst of that bit of excitement we are suddenly treated to the story of his ascension and reign, before we can return to the monster-thumping business. Other complaints might include a lack of visual description of certain key characters and events. Grendel and his mother aren’t described nearly enough to give us a sense of what they look like, and Beowulf’s fights with them are, while thrilling, somewhat lacking in detail. Personally, I don’t mind that too much, though; a hinted-at monster is scarier than one in broad daylight.

Beowulf is still enormously popular, new well-selling editions and translations being released all the time, and it is indeed a fascinating work, and I can’t recommend Alexander’s gorgeous interpretation enough. Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney also did a translation, and J.R.R. Tolkien took a great interest in Beowulf, writing about it at length, not to mention cribbing some of the best bits as building blocks for Rohan, Smaug and – arguably – Gollum, since Grendel is in many ways Gollum on steroids. Beowulf stays relevant through movies, “reimagined” novels, comic book adaptations and prose versions, but the dour magic of the original remains unsurpassed.

Rating: 8 of 10.

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Book review: The Song of Roland

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2014 by Mistlake

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Due to treachery, Charlemagne’s nephew Count Roland finds himself and 20,000 other knights hopelessly outnumbered by pagan forces at the battle of Roncesvals in the year 778.

Most likely written sometime in the early 12th Century, The Song of Roland is the French national epic, much like the Greeks’ Iliad and Odyssey and the Romans’ Aeneid. It is not, in my tolerably humble opinion, quite on that level, but an interesting read nevertheless.

The story is pretty straightforward, although decorated with a couple of flourishes here and there, but it’s not the narrative of impossibly large armies chopping each other up that evokes the most interest. More striking, for better and worse, are the themes and the form. I don’t mean this in an over-analytical literary critic kind of way (those people bore me to death in no time flat), but in the way you can’t help noticing those aspects when reading.

Often deemed a work of propaganda, The Song of Roland points at least as many didactic fingers as any Greek tragedy or Christian sermon. And Christianity is a big thing here: trust in god and you shall be amply rewarded. You may get chopped to pieces by irate pagans, but hey, you’re in the running for a good seat at the table in Paradise. The whole source of the conflict, the whole reason why Charlemagne has invaded Muslim-controlled Spain in the first place, is that he feels a desperate itch to decapitate anyone who’s not a Christian. The pagans (nominally Muslims, but it’s laughably clear that the unknown author knew precisely not a thing about Islam) have pretty much the same urges towards anyone not sharing their faith. This, then, is the only piece of The Song of Roland that smacks of realism: the facts about Islam are all wrong, as are the historical facts of Charlemagne’s rule, and even the types of armour used in the 8th Century, but the one thing the poem gets right is just how elatedly fond religious people are of killing each other in droves.

Christianity isn’t the only thing lionized here, however. The other big constituent is the idea of “vassalage”, which evidently means a combination of lunatic courage and chivalry on the one hand, and unfailing servitude under one’s betters on the other. Roland himself is the very personification of these iffy virtues, his greatest terror being the risk of becoming the subject matter for denigrating songs. He absolutely refuses to sound his famous horn Oliphant to call for freely available reinforcements when it becomes obvious that the approaching pagan host is too much to handle; it would cut into his fame to choose not to die fighting impossible odds, so dying it is, then. He also lives solely for the glory of Charlemagne, obviously having no other ideas of a good time than conquering city after city for his emperor.

It’s all very crazy indeed to modern eyes, but one has to admit that there is a strange part of one’s brain that does find this demented mentality somehow magnificent. Well, in my case not the Christian nonsense, but the idea of going down in flames for a good cause. Not being hero material, I will of course put on a pair of slippers and have a nice cup of tea instead, but in concept there’s something in me that likes the idea.

Anyway, a great number of scholars have spent decades analyzing the themes and didactic purpose of The Song of Roland, as well as the medieval mindset in general, so I’ll foreshorten further discussion on the matter, since I am simply not qualified.

The same holds true of the poem’s form, but since it affects the reading experience, I’ll say a few words about it even so. The verse of The Song of Roland is, I’m told, ever so intricate and restricted by a number of rules. This in itself isn’t necessarily noticeable when you read the thing, because it can be just as easily read as prose, but like the Iliad’s hexameter, the meter affects the structure of the text. The Song of Roland is told in 291 short stanzas (the term for this type of stanza is evidently laisse), almost all of which are expressed in a curiously clipped, chopped and frankly wooden idiom that does little to elevate excitement levels. Considering that this is the story of men on horseback galloping towards each other with lances and swords, it feels remarkably static and unthrilling. The verse form limits the options for vivid description, and also invites laziness on the part of the author: once he managed to cobble together a fair bit of laisse, he sure liked reusing it, so that most of the knights are killed in one of two ways, lending little variety to the almost constant butchery. One of these types of deaths is a doozy, though: people are cloven from head to groin with a single sword stroke, with the blade finally splitting the spine of the horse the victim was riding on.

Instead of describing with colour and fervour just how vicious a battle is, the author prefers saying things like “the battle is very brutal, the knights fight very hard”, making parts of the poem sound amusingly like a history essay by a fifth grader. And maybe this isn’t so very far from true: if one compares The Song of Roland to The Iliad, there is no denying that the latter is a complex, highly polished work milling with the detail, richness and linguistic beauty of a refined culture, whereas The Song of Roland is a simple, creaky, thin work told in short, unpoetic sentences, being as it is a product of a rather primitive society that had yet to reach anything approaching the sophistication of – the admittedly savage – Ancient Greece.

The Song of Roland has a stirring story at its heart, and it is intensely interesting to see what people’s thinking was like in the 12th Century (or rather, what the authorities wanted people’s thinking to be like). Furthermore, Roland is one of the great legends that echo behind much of modern fiction, and it’s satisfying to have read the source material behind it. Tolkien must have taken quite a bit of inspiration from it, and Stephen King has stated outright that it was a huge influence on his Dark Tower series, so Roland lives on. He just might not be at his most inviting in his original form.

Rating: 4 of 10 as literature. 7 of 10 as a cultural document.

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Book review: Homer – The Iliad

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 18, 2014 by Mistlake

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During the Bronze Age, combined Greek forces under the command of King Agamemnon are entering their tenth year of laying siege to the city of Troy. The foremost Greek hero, Achilles, stops participating in the war when enraged by Agamemnon’s theft of a fair maiden won in battle by Achilles. Without him and his immense fighting prowess, the Greeks’ fortunes take a turn for the worse, and the Trojans are suddenly in with a chance of victory.

My observations below contain a few spoilers, which doesn’t really matter, since The Iliad itself is pretty good at spoiling its upcoming events. Also bear in mind that I’m no expert. On anything.

I was too young the first time I read The Iliad. My impression of it was an endless number of pages of two armies kicking each other’s asses back and forth across a plain while Zeus and the other gods behaved like playground bullies. I still find this description valid as far as it goes, but my younger self managed to miss all the things that make The Iliad a great work of literature and a singularly intriguing instrument for spying into a long-vanished mindset.

Troy did exist, and it was besieged more than once, longer ago than most human minds can readily comprehend – mine certainly can’t absorb the time span involved. These wars were ancient history even when the version of The Iliad which has come down to us was fixed in written form about 2,700 years ago. Between the actual events and “our” Iliad there were centuries of oral tradition retelling the tales, embellishing them, and adding mythical elements to them before they were assembled into a whole and were further refined into the magnificent epic of ancient fantasy that we know. This process is evidently known as “epic fermentation”, but that only makes me think of really strong beer, so let’s leave that to one side.

Considering this immensely long period of development, it’s no wonder that The Iliad has been polished like a stone in a stream until reaching a smoothness of near perfection. In the written version, much remains of the oral tradition that preceded it, like the standing epithets, standardized depictions of sacrifices and other actions, and the verbatim repetition of certain speeches and formalized events – all designed to provide mnemonic resting points and simplify memorization for the rhapsodes who had to learn it all by heart before the dawn of literacy. These linguistic artifacts are beautifully formulated and work almost like the refrains of a song … which to all intents and purposes is what The Iliad originally was.

There are many other stylistic peculiarities that stand out in the eyes of a modern reader, particularly the liberal use of the “epic simile”, in which it isn’t enough to state, for instance, that a warrior fights like a lion, but like a lion that shakes its mane in rage as it attacks a poorly herded flock of sheep in the wooded mountains while the shepherds and their dogs quiver in fear nearby, afraid to throw their javelins at the rampant beast that is hungry for blood and intestines. These elaborate digressions can, it must be admitted, be a damned nuisance when they interrupt a particularly exciting action scene, but in and of themselves they are gorgeous little mini poems, almost like haikus marbling the main text.

Another specific characteristic of the ancient epic, Iliad included, is of course the hexameter verse, with the strange syntax and circumlocution needed to fit the story into the meter. The hexameter furnishes much of The Iliad’s heavy, regally rolling atmosphere, since it even makes the act of washing one’s face or slicing a loaf of bread sound like events of thunderous importance. The translation I’ve read (a Swedish one from 1908) is rather archaically worded, but I rather like that, as I think it retains the dignity and grandeur of the poem; Plato’s and Socrates’ conversations, by contrast, are rather informal and can productively be rendered in a colloquial modern idiom, but The Iliad is a heroic epic and should – I firmly believe – sound like one.

The style is far from being the most remarkable and perhaps alien aspect, however. More striking, and perhaps alarming, is the mentality current with every single male character (and most of them are male): war and slaughter are beautiful things; it’s as honorable to butcher sleeping enemies as it is to meet them face to face; it’s unthinkable to do anybody a favour without being richly rewarded with loot for one’s trouble; fallen enemies should be robbed and preferably mutilated; women are merely commodities (although rather valuable ones, some being worth as much as four oxen); hundreds of cattle and sheep should regularly have their throats cut to appease the gods (who rarely care anyway); and if you see a grand city with spectacular towers and gleaming spires, your first thought should be to raze it to the ground for laughs. Yes, all this supposedly took place in times ancient even to the ancient Greeks who read or listened to The Iliad, and it’s all enacted by heroes and demigods of legend, but The Iliad was still considered a sound moral guideline in classical Greece. This is easy to tell if you read a few of the blood-soaked but didactically intended tragedies written in that period. We tend to regard the ancient Greeks as highly civilized and sophisticated, and in many ways they were, but there was also much of the primeval in them with their fondness for looting, slavery, randomly ordered executions and violent battles.

And oh my, are The Iliad’s battles ever violent. Much of the poem is in fact overwhelmingly violent, with the deaths of scores of warriors described in gleefully sadistic detail, severed heads, spraying blood and squirting brains and guts flying everywhere. These descriptions grow gorier the further you read, and a case could be made for The Iliad being the most brutal bit of “high culture” ever composed.

All the deaths of brothers in arms generate a fair amount of weeping on the part of our main heroes, but there aren’t very many characters who – at least to 21st Century sensibilities – come off as human. Most of the warriors sigh a bit before returning to their former enthusiasm for killing as many people as possible. The very motivation for the war itself, the famous abduction of the fair Helena by Trojan prince Paris, is unbelievable, and most of the characters’ reasoning follow the same bizarre lines: ostentatious but unrealistic, everyone apparently inspired solely by greed and a lust for blood-drenched glory.

A couple of characters stand out as partial exceptions, among them the greatest Trojan hero, Hector, in whom one can sense a touching desperation in his fervour to defend his home city. He is also a family man, with a beloved wife and a toddler son lending him a human dimension lacking in most of the other protagonists. Achilles, arguably The Iliad’s lead character, has personality to spare too, but it’s of an archetypal and not overly well-rounded kind. He’s insanely rancorous and implacable, and by his sulky inaction permits hundreds, perhaps thousands of his comrades to die. At the same time he’s paradoxically pining for as much glory in battle as he can get, since fate has decreed that he will not live long. Incidentally, there is no mention in The Iliad of his famed invulnerability, his arm actually getting lightly wounded at one point. And he’s certainly not emotionally invulnerable: when his special friend Patroklos dies (which is really Achilles’ fault), he goes absolutely ape in his grief. This does not please the Trojans, because Achilles is an immensely powerful force – him returning to the war effort is a lot like a fairly even fight where one side suddenly gets reinforced by the Incredible Hulk.

In all the testosterone-dripping psychosis that permeates The Iliad, it’s amusing to see how all the boasting and fighting spirit goes out of our heroes as soon as they sense that the gods are getting involved: “Oh, it could possibly be that Athena or Ares is helping them now, better run screaming like little children”. This complete prostration before the various deities is rather comical, as is the professed love and respect for them, given their cheap tricks, fickle minds (especially Zeus’) and incredibly bitchy attitudes; sometimes they literally slap the weapons out of the hands of someone they’ve decided should lose a fight. Strangely enough, not even Zeus is the highest authority, since most of the gods’ seemingly arbitrary decisions are mandated by what they term “fate”. If even the gods are only the servants of Fate, then what is the point of them? It all feels like they’re a bickering branch of redundant middle-management in a poorly organised bureaucracy.

I hope it’s obvious by now that The Iliad is weird and amazing, while also quite perplexing in many of its constituent parts. Just take the fact that the story begins in the final year of the siege and still doesn’t  tell us how the war ends. That whole Trojan Horse business and the predestined death of Achilles? Nowhere to be found in The Iliad. It’s just an excerpt from an even longer tale, a gruesome anecdote that’s really about the consequences of the “wrath of Achilles” and about his eventual catharsis.

It’s hard to read The Iliad without preconceptions and baggage: it is the oldest extant European work of literature, and one that formed much of the later Greek notions of duty, fealty, honour and war. Of course, the more you know about Greek mythology and history, the more you’ll get out of it, but it does stand splendidly on its own as a harsh and bleak fantasy epic. Its literary legacy is immeasurable. In ancient times it inspired countless tragedies, some of them (like Aeschylus’ Agamemnon) direct sequels, as well as the later Roman homage/ripoff The Aeneid (whose main character Aeneas appears in The Iliad). Comic book superheroes owe their debt to The Iliad, as do the metric tons of fantasy novels filling the shelves of book stores. It’s the European granddaddy of the genre, and it is also electrifying if slightly demented poetry of no small brilliance.

I won’t go into the Homeric Question (did Homer exist, and if so, who was he and blah blah blah?), but the other great epic attributed to him, The Odyssey, is just as essential reading as The Iliad. And please, don’t watch the stupendously bad movie Troy in the belief that it captures the essence of The Iliad.

Rating: 10 of 10.

Artist's representation of Homer.

Artist’s representation of Homer.

Iliad 4


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