Monday, February 28, 2011

15. The Belgariad Volume One: Pawn of Prophecy, Queen of Sorcery, and Magician's Gambit by David Eddings

I've been reading this for a while, interspersed with all my school books. It's actually three books in one, but each book is only a couple hundred pages, so I'll count this as one book. I plan on returning this to the library and immediately checking out Volume Two!

I've been raving about The Belgariad to anyone I know who likes or might like fantasy. This is classic high fantasy with some of the best writing I've seen in the genre. Eddings himself in his introduction admits that this is a straightforward quest for a sacred object with all the stock characters; our underdog hero, our wizard-guardian, a female protector-sorceress (anima), several animuses, and a love interest.

Eddings excels in crisp, evocative language and an intricate blend of legends and cultures. He creates seven different Gods with seven different peoples, but some of the peoples have split into more groups over the centuries, and a mysterious eighth God and his people are added in in the third book. The cultures bear interesting resemblances to historical and contemporary Terran cultures, like a warrior clan reminiscent of Beowulf-style Germanic tribes, another group that acts and speaks like the knights of King Arthur, and another that shows influences of ancient Egypt and hippie drug culture, just to name a few. One of my favorite aspects is the sign language that is used by a nation of spies. And I cannot fail to mention Eddings' inspired invention of several dread beasts, like the troll-like Algroths and snakes that form mud-men.

His characters are sympathetic and interesting, there's our boy Garion and our wizard Belgarath, but also Belgarath's daughter Polgara, Garion's fierce and smothering mother-figure, Durnik the good smith, and Ce'Nedra, our part-Dryad princess. All in all, I'm excited to read more, even though I know "our guys will win in the end." This fantasy epic isn't about where it's going, but how it gets there, and that makes this most generic plot into a genuine work of literature.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Moor, the Villain, and Chastity Slandered

14. Othello by William Shakespeare

As I mentioned in my review of Titus Andronicus, reading that play has deepened my understanding of this one. Aaron the Moor is split in two here, into the noble Christian Moor Othello and the manipulative, evil atheist Iago. As I mentioned, Aaron's race provides him with a motive for his evildoing, either the racist implication that the 'Other' operates outside of the moral realm, or his own resentful, psychological response to this racial construction. Neither of these reasons can justify Iago's villainy, but they can play a role in Othello's self-image and willingness to believe that Desdemona is unfaithful to such as him.

I found Iago's various motivations to add to the psychological complexity of the character; my professor seems to suggest that his actions stem from a spurned homosocial affinity for Othello, while I see where that's coming from in the text, I still have a more traditional idea of Iago as someone who manipulates for manipulation's sake, a psychopath if you will. He messes with every single other character in the play, whether or not it is relevant to his revenge on Othello. Although he professes feelings for Desdemona, he's willing to sacrifice her life for the sake of his machinations, and a closer bond with Othello, but I think Iago could have foreseen Othello's regret and suicide. We know that even before the play begins, Iago has been playing matchmaker for both Roderigo and Othello, and probably planning to reveal Desdemona's elopement with Othello to her father the whole time. He shows how a single malicious person can ruin many lives, a horrifying thought if there ever was one.

Desdemona in the play is the Lucrece-esque victim, the representative of Chastity, whose honor is not physically assaulted, but violated through slander. This seems to be a theme to a greater or lesser degree in every early modern work I've been reading, and an idea I've been struggling with. The threat against Chastity seemed to invade from every angle and in order to be a heroine, a woman had to embody Chastity. Yet why are women's relationships with their would-be rapists, in this case literal murderer, painted as romantic love stories?

This is an age-old theme, battered women who stay with their tormentors are unfortunately still too common today, my friend was explaining that women think these men will "change" for them, they want to be the special one he changes for. I have never subscribed to this fairy tale and besides finding it appalling, don't fully comprehend the motivations behind it. A self-esteem boost, a challenge, a feeling of moral superiority...I used to love Beauty and the Beast, but I'm the last woman who would ever try to tame him. I'm sure that was part of Desdemona's attraction to Othello though.

Back to Othello, it turns out that Chastity is a matter of appearance just as much as black skin, and slanders against either are equally fatal to individuals and society. In the meantime, don't fall in love with the Beast, because his perception of his own inferiority will be taken out on you.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Fantastic Margaret Cavendish

13. Assaulted and Pursued Chastity by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle

I just finished reading this and I don't think I can convey how enthusiastic I am on so many levels. This is another one of my early modern women's books and I'm more and more stumped why we aren't reading these women along with Spenser, Shakespeare, Marlowe and the like. They're just as witty, clever, and thoughtful with characters as psychologically complex. While they may be new "discoveries" of the past couple decades, I think that's more than enough time to move them into the classroom.

In any case, the work of the "thrice Noble, Illustrious and Excellent Princess" Margaret Duchess of Newcastle is well deserving of its unconventional self-promotion. This work is also unconventional as it is admittedly a "feigned" story rather than a history, as many contemporary fictions were designated. And boy is this fiction. I see origins of fantasy novels here, a seafaring journey from island to island reminiscent of the Odyssey and More's Utopia, a Spenserian quality with symbolic names of countries like the Queen of Amity and King of Amour, even previews of Gulliver's Travels.

The hardest comparison to admit and to ignore are the similarities to Richardson's Pamela, but Cavendish's Miseria or Travelia, the primary monikers of the female protagonist, is way more awesome. she does wed her would-be ravisher in the end, but she still gets to shoot him, command an army, and continue ruling a country as the Queen of Amity's viceroy. We've got amazing descriptions of a fantastical land with purple commoners, orange royals, and bald priests. It reminds me of the Kress book I was just reading, as well as numerous Star Trek episodes, and there's even cannibalism and group marriage worthy of Heinlein. Cavendish was well ahead of her time, and I love that I can see both her influences and the many types of novels that she anticipates and yet I was still into her story, I still cared about the characters, I laughed aloud.

Cavendish includes a note to the reader at the end of the work, accusing the printer of misspelling and misrepresenting her work, asking others not to misquote her, and ending with a verse wishing that an age would come when her book would be admired. Her blaming the printer is a real break with the tradition of the humble author, especially humble female author, it's still a problem today with authors being misquoted and misrepresented, and I identify with wanting your book to outlive you and find an age where it would be relevant, if not your own. I think, with updated language, Cavendish's work might have been popular today. Of course, I love it as is.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Early Modern Hits and Misses

11. Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

I read Julius Caesar for the first time years ago, but my professor provided background information that was new to me and brought new perspectives to the text.

Shakespeare's source-text for his Roman plays, Plutarch's Lives, includes the rumor that Julius Caesar had an affair with Marcus Brutus' mother and Brutus may have been his illegitimate son. What I also found interesting is that the famous line "Et tu Brute?" is not what Caesar is reported to have said, rather some accounts (not Plutarch's), say he spoke to Brutus in Greek; "You too, my son?" Shakespeare's decision to put the quote in another language indicates that he was aware of this rumor, but decided not to focus on the "son" part, changing it to Brutus.

Previously, my interests in the play have been in Portia's role and the classic speech of Antony, but this time I looked at the characters psychologically, as I feel we're being encouraged to do for all the Shakespeare we're reading. The argument scene between Cassius and Brutus, I think, demonstrates the psychological reality best, these conspirators begin to turn against each other, doubting their cause in the face of battle and blaming each other. Their theatrical threats of murder and suicide are made more poignant when each dies by his own hand later in the play. Suicide is, of course, the final honorable refuge, but is also a comment on the paranoia and self-doubt that destroyed the Roman Republic.

This isn't my favorite Shakespeare play, but it does combine most of the elements of what makes Shakespeare so great-realistic inner turmoil, high external stakes, and language both amusing and precise.

12. If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobodie, or The Troubles of Queen Elizabeth by Thomas Heywood

This play, published in 1605, was of academic interest to me as, being written so soon after her death, it would help to form the legacy of Good Queen Bess. Issues of interest involved the surprisingly kind characterization of Philip II, the adaptation of earlier apocryphal and factual stories about the Princess Elizabeth's imprisonment under her sister, and the hagiographic implications that the Protestant Bible was Elizabeth's progeny and legacy to her nation. The English Prayer Book, developed under Elizabeth's brother Edward VI, would soon be supplanted by the King James Bible, an attempt at undermining or establishing himself as the heir to Elizabeth's legacy?

As a play, I found the dialogue weak, the plot bereft, and the characters, especially Elizabeth, symbols. Yet it is still interesting for a degree of historical accuracy and indication of the opinions of the time. The Queen is plainly regarded here as a heroine, even a saint, which coincides with the rise in her popularity postmortem.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The First Slasher Parody?

10. Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare

I cannot believe that this play exists. It is one of the few Shakespeare plays I had not yet read (including Cymbeline and Coriolanus, both of which will be remedied shortly), and although I had some idea of it from The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged), I HAD NO IDEA.

I'm just going to make a list of some wtf moments (I'm paraphrasing):

FIRST SCENE "Let's hew off all his limbs! Yeah, sounds like fun!"

"Here Lavinia, hold my hand in thy mouth"

"Don't kill that fly! Wait, it looks like Aaron the Moor? Die, die already dead fly!"

"I'm going to make a powder out of your bones and then make a paste of it with your blood!"

"Now I'm going to kill my daughter, who already was raped and had her hands cut off and her tongue cut out"

Yeah. It's just Too Much. I was fascinated with Aaron the Moor, the arch-villain(they're all kind of villains except poor Lavinia),the treatment of race in his speech and the dialogue about him is really interesting, especially in comparison with what Shakespeare did later with Othello. I'm not the type of person who reads or watches horror, so this definitely still had the power to shock me, which I guess is kind of cool. Maybe Aaron/Othello will become a paper, we'll see.

To those of you who haven't read this...don't unless you really love gore or would find it interesting from a scholarly perspective on Shakespeare.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Feminist Early Modern Verse

9. The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer: Salve Deus Ex Judaeorum Ed. Susanne Woods

My directed study professor introduced me to this book that I'm now very excited about. It may have been the first book of poetry ever published by an Englishwoman. It was printed in 1611. There were other famous women writers of the time, Queen Elizabeth I for one and Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, sister to Sir Philip. However, their work was privately circulated in manuscript.

Lanyer is one of the "new discoveries" of Renaissance women in the last couple decades. Her verse is in iambic pentameter, lyric poetry of the type Shakespeare was writing in Lucrece. She re-envisions the passion of the Christ, but with many reminders that men are to be condemned for this deed, not women, who committed a far less grave sin in eating from the tree of knowledge. She also extols the virtues of her patroness Margaret, Countess of Cumberland and suggests that she was born to chronicle the Passion of Christ in her honor. What is most interesting about her work, I thought, are its various dedications, which take up the same length as the work itself.

The dedications are different types of verse, and one, to the Countess of Cumberland, is prose. Every single dedication is to a woman, one is to "vertuous ladies in generall." There are several implications of this choice. The most obvious and mercenary is a bid for patronage, she writes to powerful, influential women, including Queen Anne and her daughter Elizabeth, known for supporting the literary arts. However, she also situates and establishes herself as a writer for women and at the beginning of a tradition of women writing for women. Furthermore, she emphasizes the power that women have gained in patronage, through omitting male patrons, she deems them unnecessary. Finally, she writes to them because these are the people who can see what she is doing and appreciate her religious and moral argument for women to be considered at least equal to men.

Aemilia Lanyer is the kind of woman I want to know more about, why she was so unique and so willing to argue women's case when women's place in society as chaste, silent, and obedient was generally accepted. Or was she really so unusual? The way Shakespeare's women talk, one might not think so. Perhaps our impressions of how Englishwomen in the Renaissance acted are incorrect, perhaps Elizabeth I herself was not as unique as we think. I would urge more people to read this, though fascinating as they are for me, perhaps they would not hold such appeal for the modern reader. Fortunately, we have plenty of women authors and poets to choose from.