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Posts Tagged ‘J.R.R Tolkien’

call-of-the-wild-and-white-fang-by-jack-londonThe Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Other Stories, Jack London (Penguin American Library 1981)

The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906) were two of the most powerful books I ever read as a child. I had strong memories of the suffering of the sled-dogs and the cruelty and callousness of the men in the former, of the ruthlessness and viciousness of the dogs in the latter. And I had strong memories of the savage cold and snow of Canada in both.

Re-reading them as an adult, I’ve discovered that Jack London is like J.R.R. Tolkien: his literary talent didn’t match his literary ambition. Mark Twain said that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds. You could say that London’s and Tolkien’s books are better than they read. Their ideas are interesting, their themes massive, but their prose lets them down. Otherwise they might have been among the greatest writers, rather than just among the greatest story-tellers.

The Call of the Wild and White Fang are certainly good stories. They’re complementary, the first telling the story of a tame dog that has to learn to be savage, the other the story of a savage dog that has to learn to be tame. In the first, Buck is a powerful, thick-pelted family pet living “in a big house in the sun-kissed Santa Clara valley”. He doesn’t know that his power and his pelt have suddenly become very valuable:

Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tide-water dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego. Because men, groping in the Arctic darkness, had found a yellow metal, and because steamship and transportation companies were booming the find, thousands of men were rushing into the Northland. These men wanted dogs, and the dogs they wanted were heavy dogs, with strong muscles by which to toil, and furry coats to protect them from the frost. (The Call of the Wild)

And so Buck is dog-napped, treated cruelly for the first time in his life, and transported to the far north, where he learns “The Law of Club and Fang” as he works pulling a sled. White Fang, the hero of the second book, knows the Law of the Fang from the beginning, because he’s born in the wild, part dog, but mostly wolf:

The aim of life was meat. Life itself was meat. Life lived on life. There were the eaters and the eaten. The law was: EAT OR BE EATEN. (ch. V, “The Law Of Meat”)

Later, when he’s captured by Indians, he learns the Law of the Club. He also learns about cruelty, sadism and hate. Finally, he learns about love, when he acquires a good master and is tamed by kindness.

But he always knew about another kind of love: the kind explored in the short story “Love of Life” (1906), which is also included here. It’s about an injured gold-miner abandoned in the Canadian wilderness who drives himself through “frightful days of snow and rain” to the coast in search of rescue. He nearly starves, he’s nearly killed by a wolf, and his feet become “shapeless lumps of raw meat”, but he’s sustained by “Love of Life”.

The dog Bâtard, in the story of the same name (1904), is sustained by hate and his desire for revenge over his cruel master. Dogs aren’t really dogs in Jack London’s stories: they’re furry humans on four legs, vehicles for London’s Nietzschean ideas about combat, cunning and will. Richard Adams is much more successful at putting himself into the lives of animals, or keeping himself out, but I’m pretty sure that London’s stories were an inspiration for Watership Down (1972).

I’m even surer that they were an inspiration for Conan the Barbarian. I was reminded of Conan a lot as I read and Robert E. Howard was fascinated by the same things: violence, fighting, cruelty, the struggle for survival, and the relation between civilization and savagery. White Fang might have howled in agreement at this, from the Conan story “Beyond the Black River” (1935):

The woodsman sighed and stared at his calloused hand, worn from contact with ax-haft and sword-hilt. Conan reached his long arm for the wine-jug. The forester stared at him, comparing him with the men about them, the men who had died along the lost river, comparing him with those other wild men over that river. Conan did not seem aware of his gaze.

“Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,” the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. “Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.”

Howard was a better writer than London, but I’m not sure that he was as complex and interesting a thinker. He certainly didn’t live as interesting a life. Part of the power of London’s writing comes from the knowledge that he had experienced what he wrote about: life-and-death struggles between man and the elements, between man and man, between man and beast. He was influenced by Nietzsche and may have influenced fascism in his turn. He certainly had racial and social ideas that horrify many people today.

Those ideas aren’t prominent in The Call of the Wild and White Fang, which helps explain why these are now by far his most famous books. That they are animal stories helps even more: they appeal to children and children don’t notice the clumsiness of his prose. But he was a prolific writer, despite dying in 1916 at only the age of forty, and I want to try more of his work.

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The Collected Stories of Arthur C. ClarkeThe Collected Stories, Arthur C. Clarke (Victor Gollancz 2000)

Do you want to know the difference between ingenuity and imagination? Between literary competence and literary genius? Then compare Arthur C. Clarke’s short stories with J.G. Ballard’s short stories. Reading Ballard is like exploring a jungle; reading Clarke is like touring a greenhouse. Ballard is haunting and head-expanding in a way that Clarke isn’t, much as he might have wanted to be.

You could say that the difference between them is like the difference between wizardry and engineering or poetry and prose or madness and sanity. Clark Ashton Smith and J.R.R. Tolkien are different in the same way. Ballard and Smith could conjure dreams on paper; Clarke and Tolkien could create realistic worlds. I like all four writers, but I don’t place them at the same level. There is a great gulf fixed between the wizards and the engineers. I’m reminded of it every time I read Clarke and Tolkien, so part of the value of their work is that it teaches me to appreciate Ballard and Smith more. Or to marvel more.

All the same, the engineers could do things that the wizards couldn’t. Clarke and Tolkien were better educated than Ballard and Smith, and Clarke knew more about hard science than Ballard. There are some ideas and images in this book that take realism to its limits. The life-form that Clarke invented for “Castaway” (1947) has stayed with me ever since I read the story as a child. It was thrown off its home-world by a storm – or rather, thrown out of its home-world. That’s because it was a plasma-creature living inside the sun until it was ejected by a solar storm and blown on the solar wind to the Earth:

The tenuous outer fringes of the atmosphere checked his speed, and he fell slowly towards the invisible planet. Twice he felt a strange, tearing wrench as he passed through the ionosphere; then, no faster than a falling snowflake, he was drifting down the cold, dense gas of the lower air. The descent took many hours and his strength was waning when he came to rest on a surface hard beyond anything he had ever imagined.

The unimaginably hard surface is actually the Atlantic Ocean, where the plasma-creature is detected by the radar of an overflying jet-liner. It looks like a giant amoeba to the wondering humans who are watching the radar, but they can’t see anything at all when they look at the water. The story is a very clever exercise in shifts of perspective and Clarke returned to these ideas in “Out of the Sun” (1958), in which the same kind of creature is thrown out of the sun and lands on Mercury, where it freezes to death in “seas of molten metal”. More wondering humans have watched it fly through space on radar from a solar-observation base. As it dies, the humans feel a “soundless cry of anguish, a death pang that seeped into our minds without passing through the gateways of the senses.”

There’s also alien life and clever invention in “A Meeting with Medusa” (1971), which is about a solo expedition to Jupiter that discovers giants in the clouds: browsing herbivores that defend themselves from swooping predators with electrical discharges. The explorer is called Falcon and is part-robot after an air-ship crash on earth. That enables him to survive “peaks of thirty g’s” as his air-ship, called Kon-Tiki, descends to the “upper reaches of the Jovian atmosphere” and collects gas so that it can float there and observe. The story takes you to Jupiter and teaches you a lot about Jovian physics, chemistry and meteorology: it’s realism, not reverie, and Falcon’s discovery of life is entirely plausible.

The story was probably influenced by Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Horror of the Heights” (1913), a proto-Lovecraftian story in which an early aviator discovers similar predators high in the air above Wiltshire. Doyle’s contemporary H.G. Wells was certainly an influence on Clarke: there’s even a piece here (not a proper story) called “Herbert George Morley Roberts Wells, Esq.” (1967). Clarke also knew Lovecraft and wrote a short parody of At the Mountains of Madness (1931) called At the Mountains of Murkiness, but the parody isn’t collected here and Lovecraft’s influence isn’t very obvious. Clarke had a sunny and optimistic personality and wrote few dark or depressing stories. There is a definite Lovecraftian touch, however, in one of the mini-stories collected under the title “The Other Side of the Sky” (1957). In “Passer-By”, an astronaut describes seeing something as he travels between space-stations on a rocket scooter. First he spots it on radar, then watches as it flies past:

I suppose I had a clear view of it for perhaps half a second, and that half-second has haunted me all my life. […] Of course, it could have been a very large and oddly shaped meteor; I can never be sure that my eyes, straining to grasp the details of so swiftly moving an object, were not hopeless deceived. I may have imagined that I saw that broken, crumpled prow, and the cluster of dark spots like the sightless sockets of a skull. Of one thing only was I certain, even in that brief and fragmentary vision. If it was a ship, it was not one of ours. Its shape was utterly alien, and it was very, very old.

It’s Lovecraftian to compare the portholes of a space-ship to the eye-sockets of a skull. So is the idea of a “very, very old” wreck flying between the stars. The uncertainty and doubt are Lovecraftian too, but you could also say that they’re scientific. Clarke often emphasizes the fallibility of the senses and the uncertainty of inferences based on them. Science is a way of overcoming those sensory limitations. In Lovecraft, science is dangerous: that uncertainty would slowly give way to horror as the truth is revealed. Clarke’s protagonist experiences no horror and though he’s haunted for life by what he might have seen, he feels that way because he didn’t learn enough, not because he learnt too much.

That story may have been the seed for Rendezvous with Rama (1976), which could be seen as a more optimistic re-working of At the Mountains of Madness. Puny humans explore a titanic alien artefact in both stories, but Clarke’s humans aren’t punished for their curiosity and at the end of the novel they look forward to indulging more of it. Clarke is good at grandeur and invoking the hugeness of the universe. He wrote about galaxy-spanning empires, giant scientific discoveries and struggles to save the universe.

He wrote about the multiverse too and there’s a story that makes the multiverse seem big by portraying a very confined part of it. This is the opening paragraph of “The Wall of Darkness” (1949):

Many and strange are the universes that drift like bubbles in the foam upon the river of Time. Some – a very few – move against or athwart its current; and fewer still are those that lie forever beyond its reach, knowing nothing of the future or past. Shervane’s tiny cosmos was not one of these: its strangeness was of a different order. It held one world only – the planet of Shervane’s race – and a single star, the great sun Trilorne that brought it life and light.

Shervane is a young man who makes a very strange discovery when he tries to cross a giant wall that circles his home planet. What is on the other side? In a way, everything is. This is another story that has stayed with me from my first reading of it as a child. And it could almost have been written by Ballard: like Ballard’s “The Concentration City” (1957) or “Thirteen to Centaurus” (1962), it’s about trying to escape from confinement and making an unexpected or ironic discovery about the true nature of things. Unlike Ballard, Clarke didn’t spend the Second World War locked in a prison camp, but he could get big ideas from a wall and the limit it imposed.

Neither he nor Ballard always wrote about big and serious ideas, however. Many stories here are deliberately small and silly, or big in a ludicrous way. P.G. Wodehouse seems to be an influence on the stories that come under the heading of Tales from the White Hart, in which Harry Purvis spins fanciful yarns for an audience of scientists and science-fiction writers in a pub in London. One story has an exploding moonshine still, another a giant squid that’s angry about its brain being manipulated, another a fall of twenty feet during which an unfortunate scientist doesn’t merely break the sound-barrier, but travels so fast that he’s burnt alive by air-friction.

It’s a horizontal fall too, although the story is called “What Goes Up” (1956). Clarke was playing with science there; elsewhere, in stories like “Green Fingers”, part of “Venture to the Moon” (1956), he’s making serious suggestions. The story is about a botanist on the moon who is killed by his own ingenuity, but it’s not a gloomy, Lovecraftian doom. Risks are part of exploration and adventure and Clarke presented space-travel as a new form of sea-faring. He loved both the sea and the sky and his love shines brightly here. So do “The Shining Ones” (1962), the intelligent cephalopods who end the life of another of his protagonists.

The premature death of adventurous young men is a theme he shared with A.E. Housman, whose poetry he greatly admired, but Clarke could also write about the rescue of adventurous young men, as in “Hide-and-Seek” (1949), “Summertime on Icarus” (1960) and “Take a Deep Breath” (1957). And deaths in his work aren’t futile or proof that man is always ultimately defeated. If Clarke had written pessimistically like that, he wouldn’t have been so popular among working scientists or inspired so many children to enter science. But he could appeal to children partly because he never properly grew up himself. Unlike Ballard, he never married or had any children of his own and his decision to live on Sri Lanka was probably inspired in part by paederasty, not just by his interest in scuba-diving.

My final judgment would be that he was an important writer, not a great one. I’ve enjoyed re-reading the stories here – even the numerous typos were fun – but that’s partly because they’ve sharpened my appreciation of J.G. Ballard. Clarke had no spark of divine madness: he was Voltaire to Ballard’s Nietzsche. His work does sparkle with intellect and ideas, but he made more out of science than he ever did out of fiction.


Previously pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Clarke’s Arks – reviews of Imperial Earth (1976) and Rendezvous with Rama (1972)

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C.S. Lewis by Alister McGrathC.S. Lewis: A Life, Alister McGrath (Hodder & Staughton 2013)

I wasn’t expecting much from this book: Alister McGrath is a Christian who appears on the BBC, which means his theological opinions are bland and Guardian-friendly. So I assumed that C.S. Lewis: A Life would be badly written, smarmy and smug and that I wouldn’t manage to get very far into it. I was wrong. The prose could have been better, but it’s an easy and interesting read and McGrath does what he promises to do in the preface:

This biography sets out, not to praise Lewis or condemn him, but to understand him – above all, his ideas, and how these found expression in his writings. This task has been made easier by the publication of virtually all that is known of Lewis’s writings, as well as a significant body of scholarly literature dealing with his works and ideas. (pg. xiii)

And yes, readers will understand Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) better after reading this book, from his roots in Northern Ireland to his silence about the First World War, from his distaste for T.S. Eliot to his late romance with Joy Davidman. And there isn’t much lit-crit jargon en route. McGrath has the same Irish roots as Lewis and I think that gives him an advantage over previous biographers. He’s also good on Lewis’s books, both fiction and non-fiction. He doesn’t write about them to show how clever he himself is a critic, but to show how clever Lewis was as a writer. Or how clever Lewis wasn’t, as the case may be: McGrath’s assessments are objective, not hagiographic. The cover calls Lewis an “Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet”, but I think that’s publisher’s hyperbole and aimed at the American market.

McGrath also discusses a fascinating theory about astrological symbolism in the Narnia series. The Middle Ages recognized seven major heavenly bodies, there are seven books in the series and Lewis was a dedicated medievalist. So the Oxonian scholar Michael Ward suggested in 2008 that Lewis assigned each book to a particular heavenly body:

For example, Ward argues that Prince Caspian shows the thematic influence of Mars … the ancient god of war (Mars Gradivus). This immediately connects to the dominance of military language, imagery and issues in this novel. The four Pevensie children arrive in Narnia “in the middle of a war” – “the Great War of Deliverance”, as it is referred to later in the series, or the “Civil War” in Lewis’s own “Outline of Narnian History”. (ch. 12, “Narnia: Exploring an Imaginative World”, pg. 299)

Elsewhere, The Silver Chair is assigned to the Moon, The Horse and His Boy to Mercury, and so on. It’s an ingenious theory and it makes me think again about the Narnia books. I used to find them confused and incoherent. If Ward is right, I was missing a lot.

And McGrath has a theory of his own about the true date of Lewis’s return to Christianity as an adult. He proposes that Lewis finally accepted “the divinity of Christ” not in September 1931, as previous biographers have thought, but in June 1932. McGrath argues that the latter date better fits the description Lewis gives in his autobiography Surprised by Joy of the “final stages” of his conversion. Lewis mentions a trip to Whipsnade Zoo, “birds singing overhead and bluebells underfoot”. So birdlore and botany shed light on biography. McGrath says that the bird-song strongly suggests that the bluebells were the early-flowering English kind, not the late-flowering Scottish kind, “known as the ‘harebell’ in England” (ch. 6, “The Most Reluctant Convert: The Making of a Mere Christian 1930-1932”, pp. 152-6). This is careful scholarship: I like a literary biography that bandies names like Hyacinthoides non-scripta (the English bluebell) and Campanula rotundifolia (the Scottish).

Lewis would certainly have approved: like Landor, he loved both nature and art. But would Lewis have approved of all his modern admirers and spiritual protégés? I strongly doubt it. Christianity has degenerated since his day – or rather, has continued to degenerate. Whatever some of his supporters might claim, Lewis is an important figure in liberal, not conservative, theology. “Mere Christianity” would not have been accepted by the Middle Ages and though it might be useful for individuals, it’s not useful for institutions. This helps explain why Lewis became so popular in America, which has always been full of Christians but has never had a national church. And Lewis’s popularity in America helps explain his popularity in Britain – and his rejection by Ireland. McGrath notes that there is “no entry for ‘Lewis, C.S.’ in the 1,472 pages of the supposedly definitive Dictionary of Irish Literature (1996)” (ch. 1, “The Soft Hills of Down: An Irish Childhood 1898-1908”, pg. 13).

Why? McGrath explains that Lewis was “the wrong kind of Irishman”, an Ulster Protestant who rejected Catholic Dublin and Irish nationalism without ever losing his love of his birthplace in the north. Lewis became a friend and ally of the Catholic J.R.R. Tolkien, but that didn’t help his popularity in the south. Tolkien too was an important figure in liberal, not conservative, theology. Like Narnia, Middle-earth is syncretic and heavily influenced by pagan myth. Yes, as McGrath explains, Lewis thought Christianity was a myth that had the unique virtue of being true. But that again is not something that the Middle Ages would have accepted. And like Narnia, Middle-earth achieved most success in rootless, restless, multi-denominational America. McGrath discusses the flowering and fading of that friendship and sets it into the context of scholarship and university politics at Oxford, which was “late in recognizing the importance of English literature as a subject worthy of serious academic study” (ch. 4, “Deceptions and Discoveries: The Making of an Oxford Don 1919-1927”, pg. 98).

Good for Oxford. And when it did finally succumb to EngLit, it held off further rot by employing men like Tolkien and Lewis, who did not like literary theory, psychoanalysis or modernism. Lewis might have been the wrong kind of Irishman, but he was the right kind of scholar. Like his religion, his subject has degenerated sadly since his death. McGrath’s biography shows that the degeneration isn’t complete, but McGrath is more than simply an illuminating biographer. He’s a laudator temporis acti too, a praiser of times past, whether he intended to be or not. Either way, he’s done justice to an interesting and complex writer. If you want to understand C.S. Lewis better, this is a good place to start.

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