Author Archives: MJH

About MJH

I have a PhD in Church History & Classical Studies with a research interest in Late Antique Christian Latin -- specifically Pope Leo I -- and an MA in Classics and an MTh in Church History. I live in British Columbia after 8 years in the UK.

Books ‘normal’ people read

I am on parental leave following the birth of my second son just now. It is leave from my paid work, but it is work! Between the PhD and then four academic jobs in four years, all the while hunting for more academic work, my mind is a bit tired. So, while I’m on parental leave, I’ve decided to read books ‘normal’ people read.

This definition of my current reading has, however, been challenged! After reviewing Anne of Windy Poplars, I was told by one friend on Facebook that her sister read all the Anne books, and no one in that family could be considered normal (fair enough). I was also told that no normal people read the later Anne books.

I did a bit of research on this second challenge, asking Canadian females on Facebook how many of Montgomery’s Anne novels they had read. I received 21 responses from Canadians, 14 of whom had read them all, and of whom only 2 had read zero. One had read only one, one was unsure, and two didn’t specify how many. Somehow that only adds up to 20. Anyway, it seems that Canadian females with whom I am Facebook friends have read the later Anne books, by and large.

I polled the men and got five responses, of which three were zero (one was ‘A hard zero’), one had read them all, and a fifth had read the first. Canadian men read less L M Montgomery than the women.

But are my Facebook friends normal? This is harder to say. This is a band of people that includes my relatives, after all. And academics and artists and a vlogger and other people who would be proud of not being ‘normal’.

Besides having read two Anne novels (look for a review of Anne’s House of Dreams soon!), I’ve also read the first two Earthsea books — A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan — besides an entertaining, short novel by Red Deer novelist Sigmund Brouwer called The Leper. Do normal people read these books?

I don’t know.

I suspect that ‘normal’ people read novels by Danielle Steele, Nicholas Sparks, Jeffrey Archer, John Grisham, or self-improvement books and parenting books and books about how to make money. I have read some parenting books, myself, at least.

So what do I mean why I say that I am reading books ‘normal’ people read?

I mean I am not reading ancient books, medieval books, academic books about ancient or medieval topics, or academic theology. That part of my brain, which never necessarily turns off, needs a bit of a rest, and I have the chance to give it one, hoping for more verve when I’m back in the office in mid-July.

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K Le Guin

The Tombs of Atuan (Earthsea Cycle, #2)The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is the sequel to A Wizard of Earthsea, and it is di fferent in some important respects. First, it is about a female — Le Guin says, in the Afterword to the edition I read, that this was her third novel, and she hadn’t written a female protagonist yet. Second, it has a stable setting. In the former, Sparrowhawk goes through much of Earthsea, giving a sort of ‘Quest’ narrative that also establishes the world. In this book, the girl once named Tenar stays in one place almost the entire story. Third, the Kargites amongst whom the narrative mostly takes place are suspicious of magic, whereas the people of Sparrowhawk’s culture are regular users.

Like its predecessor, this is a story of becoming, of ‘coming of age’ as they say. It is about the high priestess of the Nameless Ones — ancient, malevolent Powers whose cultural heyday is past but who are very real nonetheless. This priestess herself is nameless, having had her name eaten in a ceremony at six years of age. Here we see the violent, scarred edge of religion. It is a potent force of existence throughout the novel.

This priestess has her world of women and eunuchs and the Powers challenged by the appearance of a man, a sorcerer, a wizard, in the vast labyrinth of dread beneath the temple precinct. She had thought the Nameless Ones would have destroyed him. He had come seeking an object of power left by another wizard long ago. Her duty as priestess is to kill him, but she cannot bring herself to do it.

In the end, priestess and wizard rely on each other to survive. Here is a great lesson. Le Guin notes that some criticised her, saying that the lesson of the novel is that women cannot do anything without men. That is not the lesson, for Sparrowhawk needs Tenar as much as she needs him. The lesson is that both sexes need each other.

Myself, I did not think on gender dynamics at all. Obviously, Sparrowhawk relies on Tenar for his survival. But my view of his relationship to her where she relies on him as well struck me more as that of wise sage and young person on the cusp of personal discovery, in quest of true wisdom. Obi-Wan Kenobi, I guess?

Anyway, this is possibly too vague a review because I’m trying not to give away too much of the plot. Trust me, though. This is a good sequel. I have put The Farthest Shore on hold at the library.

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A review of Anne of Windy Poplars

Anne of Windy Poplars (Anne of Green Gables, #4)Anne of Windy Poplars by L.M. Montgomery
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the last-written Anne book, from 1936. Montgomery has gone back and filled in some missing time between Anne of the Island and Anne’s House of Dreams. Cynically, one imagines this either to be a money grab or a result of ongoing demand for Anne books despite Montgomery’s preference for writing other things. Anyway, the book is entertaining.

A lot of things happen. Anne seems to somehow be the confidante of a multitude of young women, each of whom tends to only appear for one episode in which something interesting, amusing, what-have-you occurs. This is not Avonlea, where there was at least consistency amongst Anne’s circle. Beyond the women with whom she lives and little Elizabeth, very few characters stay for more than one episode. Of those who do, Katherine Brooke is potentially the most interesting. Indeed, one could wish simply for her to have her own book with added depth of character rather than being one of many side interests in an Anne book.

There is no main plot, either — there is one arc that comes to a satisfactory closing less than a third of the way in, and then there are the subplots of little Elizabeth and Katherine Brooke.

Despite its plotlessness, this book is entertaining, which is what most people come to Anne books for. I enjoyed it, and I am not its main audience (I am a 36-year-old man with no daughters). Anne is the same as she ever was. There are many references to the Romantics as well as, of course, Romantic imaginings stepping through the prosaic via symbol into the beauty of mystery — high and mighty, one wishes to invoke Coleridge, but there is nothing so stark as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in Anne novels.

The most important theme tying together these many young women as well as the subplots of little Elizabeth and Katherine, not to mention the widows as well as the affection that binds Anne to Gilbert, is the power of friendship. Having a Friend can soften the hard exterior. Friendship can awaken the imagination to greater possibilities. These are themes worth anyone’s time, whether 12-year-old girls (whom I imagine to be the main Anne audience) or 36-year-old men.

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A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin (a quick review)

A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle, #1)A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book drew me in early on and then gripped and seized me until I was done. It follows the early life of the wizard Sparrowhawk (one does not utter a wizard’s true name lightly), briefly recounting his childhood and then more time on his training, and then the dire quest that sets him forth through much of the Archipelago of Earthsea. This quest is his alone, for he himself unleashed a darkness that he alone can vanquish. Unlike so much high fantasy, this darkness will not destroy the earth. If Sparrowhawk fails, there will be terrible consequences, but the world will not be consumed in fire or flood. Part of what makes the quest aspect of the second half appealing is the fact that Sparrowhawk does not necessarily know where he is meant to go.

So much for an unrevealing plot synopsis. I like the book too much to spoil the plot for the curious!

I am enamoured of Le Guin’s style in this book. From the first it reads like a folktale. You feel like you are sitting around a fire listening to someone tell you the story. It is beguiling.

I also like the way magic works here. It requires power on the part of the mage, but also knowledge of the true name of something. Names bear power in Earthsea.

You also get a sense of there being different cultures throughout the Archipelago as well as ethnicities. Moreover, I think this is a technologically bronze age fantasy. Pretty rare. Most are thoroughly faux-mediaeval.

I look forward to The Tombs of Atuan.

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Review: The Greek Tragedies, Vol. 1 (3rd ed.)

Greek Tragedies 1: Aeschylus: Agamemnon, Prometheus Bound; Sophocles: Oedipus the King, Antigone; Euripides: HippolytusGreek Tragedies 1: Aeschylus: Agamemnon, Prometheus Bound; Sophocles: Oedipus the King, Antigone; Euripides: Hippolytus by David Grene
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(This review is of the third edition.) I assigned this anthology for students in my Greek and Roman mythology class. My review will be in three parts: 1. The translation and paratextual apparatus. 2. The selection of texts. 3. The plays themselves.

1. The translation and paratextual apparatus

Like the series from which these translations come, The Complete Greek Tragedies, these are readable, poetic renderings by translator-poets. The original editors of the volume, David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, translated four out of the five themselves (Grene: Prometheus Bound, Oedipus the King, and Hippolytus; Lattimore: Agamemnon) and Elizabeth Wyckoff translated the fifth play, Sophocles’ Antigone. These translations are both poetic and smooth, and they avoid the awkwardness of, for example, Fagles putting ‘Aieee!’ into people’s mouths to translate ‘Aiai!‘.

My one concern is that in this third edition, the new editors, Mark Griffith and Glenn W. Most, have taken it upon themselves not only to update the introductions and notes, but the translations as well. They claim that they have made the translations more accurate. I do not have time to sit down with the second and third editions and the Greek texts, but I am skeptical about this claim, solely on the grounds that poetic meaning and poetic diction are not always properly separable, and one Greek word or phrase may have multiple English renderings (of which I’m sure Griffith and Most are aware). I fear that this is more of the humanities slipping towards a false certainty of ‘accuracy’ derived from the sciences.

Paratextually, I am not fond of endnotes in the first place. Endnotes that are marked by a symbol in the main text that requires you to hunt and hunt I like less. This, however, is the name of the game for popular level translations of the classics, as seen in Penguin and Oxford World’s Classics as well. I found the introductions just what an undergrad needs — basic information, quick, snappy not too long. Finally, I am not so fond of rendering the sung parts of the plays in italics. A fourth edition should think of something else, although I think the rubrics should be enough.

2. The selection of texts

This is a good volume for someone who wants to try out Greek tragedies or for a class like mine that is giving a taster of classical literature — Aeschylus’ and Sophocles’ most famous plays are here, Agamemnon and Prometheus Bound for the former, and Oedipus the King and Antigone for the latter. I would have expected Medea or Bacchae from Euripides rather than Hippolytus. In fact, one weakness of the selection is the fact that we get only five plays; two from each playwright would have made sense. Euripides, who exists in larger quantity, gets short shrift. The only problem with selection is endemic to anthologies — we get Agamemnon but not the rest of the Oresteia, for example; but at least that’s the best play of the three.

3. The plays themselves

Agamemnon by Aeschylus begins the volume. Here you meet straight up the fact that all the action happens off-stage in a Greek tragedy. This is the story of the homecoming of the Greek general from Troy to an unjoyous reunion with his wife, Clytemnestra, and his cousin, Aegisthus. Machinations are afoot, and vengeance is found. Clytemnestra has the reputation of being the most evil woman in Greek literature, but if your husband sacrificed your daughter to a goddess before going off to war for ten years, then came home with a concubine, I think you’d be a bit ticked off as well. Hubris and inescapable necessity (anangke) are the themes here.

Then Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. This play opens with Prometheus getting chained to a rock and then having conversations with passersby, explaining why he was chained there and what it will take to unchain him. The main theme is the power of Zeus. The confrontation between Prometheus and Zeus, it must be remembered, is between two gods. So, unlike the Romantics’ reading of the play, there is no railing against divine (in)justice here. Rather, since we are beholding ontological equals in conflict, the question of ancient Greek tyranny is much more germane than whether Olympian Zeus was a tyrant in relation to humans. Along the way, the myth of Io is also told; I’d hate to see a film version of this with a CG cow delivering Io’s lines.

Oedipus the King is Sophocles’ famous rendering of the myth of Oedipus, a story known to most of us because of Sigmund Freud. The play is a masterpiece, as demonstrated by Aristotle’s Poetics. The confrontations with Oedipus from the beginning of the play to when he blinds himself demonstrate his own unwillingness to acknowledge the limits of his knowledge. Relentlessly, he pursues the truth, drawing the circle around himself as the murderer of Laius tighter and tighter until the moment of recognition (anagnorisis) comes, bringing the main character’s fall.

After the events of Oedipus, there is a civil war between his sons (recounted in its own way in Aeschylus’ play Seven Against Thebes, which is in Aeschylus II). When the civil war is over, the brothers Eteocles and Polyneices lie dead on the battlefield before Thebes. Creon, their uncle and Oedipus’ brother-in-law/uncle, is now king. He decrees that Polynieces is not to be buried since he waged war against his own fatherland.

Here begins Sophocles’ Antigone. I have a soft spot for this play, since it was the first piece of classical literature I read, back in high school (the second, in the summer before Grade 12, was the translation of Homer’s Odyssey by Robert Fagles). Here we see the conflict between natural/divine law on the one hand and man-made law on the other. Even though the play was written before Oedipus, Sophocles is consistent in his characterisation of Creon — a man who did not want to become king because of the worries it would create. In this play, he grows in paranoia until he breaks and relents too late to stop a triple suicide. Powerful in its portrayal of female confrontation with authority.

The volume closes with Euripides’ Hippolytus. Here the theme is love, and love gone wrong. Hippolytus rejects Aphrodite, so she makes his step-mother, Phaedra, fall in love with him. Contrary to the positive portrayal of romantic love in pop songs and Hollywood, Euripides presents us with an elemental, amoral, at times immoral force that brings destruction all around it.

All five plays are masterpieces of Greek literature.

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Can you spot a persecution when you see one?

Ignatius of Antioch, from the Menologion of Basil II (c. 1000)

Reading the introduction to Robin Whelan’s Being Christian in Vandal Africa: The Politics of Orthodoxy in the Post-Imperial West, I was reminded of a joke a friend once told.

A man dies and goes to heaven. While he’s there, he meets one of the ancient Christian martyrs (I like to imagine the Apostolic Father Ignatius of Antioch, myself). Ignatius asks our modern fellow what life is like for Christians in the 21st century.

“Well,” he says, “let me tell you. If you say grace before a meal in public, people look at you as though you have three heads. And at work, people made fun of me for being a churchgoer. Christians are the butt of so many jokes! Christians get tirades launched against them whenever they speak about the faith in public. They really throw us to the lions!”

Responds Ignatius, “Ah, they still use lions?”

In the introduction to Being Christian in Vandal North Africa, Whelan says that the term “persecution” is problematic. Certainly in the context of the above joke it is. There is a huge difference between being made to feel socially awkward and what the Sri Lankan martyrs suffered on Easter Sunday this year. In a late antique context, there is also a big difference between the Emperor Julian banning Christians from teaching rhetoric and the Emperor Diocletian killing Christians.

However, the reason given for persecution being problematic in the context of the book is that it is used by groups who think of themselves as the exclusive, true, catholic, real Christian church when they meet with sanctions against them by the secular government. I don’t see how this fact has any bearing at all on whether a person is being persecuted.

Now, we can question whether the activities carried out by the Vandal kings were or were not on religious grounds, or whether they targeted religious people, or whether they were as bad as Victor of Vita says in the History of the Vandal Persecutions, or whether there was quite as much as he says, or that it was unremitting as he makes it seem. All well and good. But Whelan acknowledges the legal sanctions against Nicene Christians and those who were sent into exile. Even if the Vandals did not persecute all Nicenes all the time, by any definition of persecution that I know, they seem to have persecuted some of them some of the time.

That is to say, the orthodoxy or otherwise of the persecuted party is immaterial when the question of whether or not they are being persecuted. Late antique persecution of (to use labels everyone knows) Donatists or ‘Arians’ or Manichaeans or pagans does not cease to be persecution if the persecutor is ‘catholic’ or ‘orthodox’, nor does the persecution of ‘catholic’ and ‘orthodox’ Christians by ‘heretics’ cease to be persecution because the catholics succeed at being catholic in the long run.

But this brings me into other, related territory — the contested space of ‘orthodox’ and ‘heretic’ in Late Antiquity, on which, more anon.

Notre Dame and ‘Western Civilization’

My first view of Notre Dame, 2012

In the days following the fire that consumed Notre-Dame de Paris’s roof and a certain amount of the cathedral’s west end, people have been making commentary, some of which, I understand, is to the effect that Notre Dame is a symbol of ‘western civilization’. Some of these people, I am given to understand by the outraged on Twitter, are right-wing, racist fanatics. I seem to miss the fanatics themselves but only see the outrage, so I sometimes wonder if the outrage is worth it?

Anyway, some of this outrage is fuelled not simply against racist leveraging of ‘western civilization’ but of the idea itself. Before I get rolling, I’d like to say up front that, although I believe that ‘western civilization’ is a Thing, I do not think it superior other civilizations or cultures. All civilizations and cultures are flawed and fallen, mixing good and bad.

One argument against Notre Dame as a symbol for ‘western civilization’ that I observed was that Gothic architecture owes much to Islamic architecture. Whether or not pointy arches were a moment of independent genius on the part of Suger’s architects and of the Islamic world I cannot say. Nonetheless, for the purposes of my ensuing argument, I will take it as given that pointy arches were first noted by Europeans in Spain when folk were going on pilgrimages and then adopted by architects in northern France.

This, and any other piece of detail, engineering, mathematics, etc., that was borrowed from the Islamic world does not suddenly nullify the fact that Gothic architecture is a thing from western Europe, and pretty much everywhere else it has gone, western Europeans or their descendants brought it with them, such as Gothic Cyprus.

In fact, if we accept the argument that the pointed arch is a direct borrowing into Gothic architecture from Islamic architecture, this in no way impinges on the idea of western civilization. I suspect that many people who object to ‘western civilization’ these days are more worried about Gibbon and the Enlightenment than what came before. If we acknowledge what came before, we see that Latin Christendom is a Thing.

When I say that Latin Christendom is a Thing, I mean that loosely connected group of polities that includes bishoprics that acknowledge the Bishop of Rome as their supreme head, use the Latin language in liturgy, law, theology, philosophy, sometimes poetry, and who think of themselves as somehow being part of the Same Thing, a Thing that is not the Greek-speaking Roman Thing to the East or the Arabic-speaking Islamic Thing to the South.

An example of the fact that Latin Christendom, internally, is a Thing can be found in the careers of two Archbishops of Canterbury. Lanfranc was born in Pavia. He went on to be schoolmaster at Bec, in Normandy, then prior, then abbot at Caen. In 1070, he became Archbishop of Canterbury. The next Archbishop was Anselm, from Aosta before becoming a monk of Bec, then prior, then abbot of Bec, then Archbishop of Canterbury, who spent a considerable portion of his episcopate in exile in Italy. These men crossed boundaries in an age before passports because there was a common cultural framework that united Pavia, Aosta, Bec, and Canterbury.

Through evangelization and conquest, Latin Christendom expanded itself in various directions.

But whatever Latin Christendom was — and the western European world that was to succeed it in the age of the nation-state — it was not hermetically sealed. Part of what makes Latin Christendom itself is its interaction with the non-Latin civilizations that surround it. Scholastic Aristotelianism needs Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes); the study of Aristotle needs, chronologically first, the translations out of Arabic and then out of Greek; Palermo’s glorious art and architecture are clearly indebted to east Roman (‘Byzantine’) and Islamic influences; an early medieval Archbishop of Canterbury was from Syria; the Latin liturgy in Rome was forever changed by Syrian and Palestinian refugees in the seventh century; I suspect Maximus the Confessor, himself a Palestinian, had a greater impact on Latin thought than often suspected; ‘western’ medicine relies heavily on Arabic learning; various strands of math come to the West out of the House of Islam.

It could go on.

This, of course, focusses Latin Christendom, but only because Latin Christendom provides us with the boundaries usually imagined by those who discuss it. Nonetheless, the world of the Byzantine commonwealth would also be an interesting starting place as well.

Whatever is meant by western civilization, when I talk about it, I do not imagine it to be either superior or hermetically sealed. In my field, many people are wary of suggesting you should study the Classics because they are the foundation of western civilization. Nevertheless, in saying that, I don’t think anyone imagines that Homer imagined himself part of a culture that included Britain. And it certainly not true that the inheritance of Rome is found only in ‘western civilization’ — a colleague who studies Islamic law says that there is new research arguing for the importance of Roman law in Islamic law. And the Great Mosque of Damascus is essentially a Roman basilica. We could go on — the interchanges and inheritances between cultures are numerous.

All of this to say — if Notre Dame is somehow a symbol, or even a triumph, of western civilization (the house is on fire!), this doesn’t mean that there is no cultural exchange that brings into play the greatness of others, nor does it mean that other cultures have no triumphs of their own (consider the Al-Aqsa Mosque) and are inferior. This is certainly never how I have viewed the world, and I believe that western civilization is a Thing.