Category Archives: Science Fiction and Fantasy

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 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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Looking back at books of 2018

In 2018, I finished reading 56 books that were not picture/story books or board books. I do not know how many picture/story books and board books I read. My son owns 49 board books; I have read all of them multiple times this year. Of the non-board book picture/story books, I read 36, but we have more that I did not read. And there are the library books, books at other people’s houses, books at churches that I read along the way.

As usual, a book that I completed means that I finished the entirety of that which is bound between two covers. Some are books that I started before 2018. And many texts and books were read that were not read in toto. For example, none of Leo the Great’s letters are here because I did not read any of them bound together as a single volume. And many articles, poems, and other non-books were read.

The first book I completed was The Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire, Vol. 1 by R. C. Blockley. This is the introductory volume, not the texts with translation.

The final book I completed was volume one of the Loeb Classical Library edition of Claudian, ed. and trans. Maurice Platnauer.

Of the 56 books of 2018, here are the stats by category/genre:

  • Ancient texts in translation: 11, of which 3 were ‘patristic’
  • Ancient texts in the original: 1 — Horace, Epistles, Book 1, with commentary by Roland Mayer
  • Medieval texts in translation: 3, unless we count Pseudo-Dionysius and Justinian as medieval, then subtract two from ‘ancient’ and ‘patristic’, then add them to medieval.
  • Scholarly works about ancient subjects: 5
  • Scholarly works about medieval subjects: 6
  • Other history: 2 (The Mammoth Book of Pirates and Brand Luther by Andrew Pettegree)
  • Works about Christian theology/spirituality not already counted: 9
  • Memoirs: 1 (Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy MacLean)
  • Novels: 10 (this includes The Silmarillion to make life easier)
  • Young-adult novels (already counted in the 10): 3
  • Historical Fiction: 1 adult (Vindolanda by Adrian Goldsworthy), 2 YA
  • Books of non-ancient, non-medieval poetry: 1 (Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti)
  • Graphic Novels: 1 (Infinity War by Jim Starlin)
  • Souvenir guide books: 3 (+ a book about the Mildenhall Treasure already classed as ‘scholarly works about ancient subjects)
  • Books in German: 1 (Patzold, Steffen. 2015. Gefälschtes Recht aus dem Frühmittelalter: Untersuchungen zur Herstellung und Überlieferung der pseudoisidorischen Dekretalen. Heidelberg.)
  • Plays: 2 (Euripides’ Bacchae and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child)
  • Books that defy my classifications; 1 (Pieces from a Broken Land by Victoria Fifield; memoir? art? both.)
  • Books written by friends: 4 (including the above, 2 books by another friend, one of which is not yet in print, the other of which is Dayspring MacLeod, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel, and Aaron Pelttari, The Space that Remains: Reading Latin Poetry in Late Antiquity)

I turned 35 this year. The 35th book I finished was Mayer’s commentary on Horace, Epistles, Book I.

There are fifty-two weeks in a year. The fifty-second book I finished was The World of Medieval Monasticism by Gert Melville. I read another history of monasticism, The Story of Monasticism by Greg Peters. Melville’s is better in my opinion, but Peters’ is probably better for normal people.

Half of 56 is 28. The 28th book was Seamus Heaney’s translation of Aeneid, Book VI — I really, really liked it.

The rereads were The Lord of the Rings, read as three volumes (so counted as three books) and A. D. Melville’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I also reread the Aeneid, but this was my first time reading Frederick Ahl’s translation and Seamus Heaney’s translation of Book VI.

The most-read author was J. R. R. Tolkien (4) followed by Andrew Louth (2) and Dayspring MacLeod (2).

This was the year I finally read The Silmarillion and Pride and Prejudice.

Tonight I finished The Silmarillion

First-edition cover, George Allen & Unwin, art by Tolkien (a heraldic device for Lúthien). Click the image for copyright info.

Having put our son to bed, my wife and I were preparing to have Grendel’s favourite snack* with a cup of tea, and discussing our relaxation plans for the evening. I said I wanted a cup of tea because I was almost done The Silmarillion. She said she was impressed. It’s not that impressive that I’ve read all those other boring because I had to read them. But she tried The Silmarillion and didn’t finish.

So did I. Twice.

Or was that three times?

I have to say, it takes a particular kind of Tolkien fan to like this more than The Lord of the Rings or to be really, really excited about re-reading this book. The Silmarillion is a hard book to get into, especially if (as on my first try) you mistakenly think it is a novel. It is not. It is less of a novel than The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien denies that LotR is a novel, FYI).

This is big mythology written in faux-archaic English from the creation of the world to the end of The Lord of the Rings. (By far, the best faux-archaic English I’ve read yet.) It was edited by Christopher Tolkien (with help from Guy Gavriel Kay) out of the various versions and notes of his father. The elder Tolkien had intended to get this published, but when he brought it to his publisher, he was told to do something more hobbity instead (so we got The Lord of the Rings, praise Ilúvatar!). That is to say — however difficult this book is, unlike some (most? much? all?) of the other posthumous disiecti membra doctoris Christopher has inundated us with over the years, some version of this was meant to see the light of day.

Anyway, this probably makes me seem like I’m down on The Silmarillion, and all the people who do ‘philosophy and fantasy’ or ‘theology and fantasy’ or ‘Tolkien and Northernism’ or what-have-you are preparing to troll me. I’m not.

I really, really like the first few pages. After that, there is a certain amount of slogging to get through to bits that I liked. Interesting stories — like making the trees of light in Valinor, or Melkor riding Ungoliant to undo what the Valar do, or the creation of the Dwarves, or the departing of the Noldor for Middle Earth, or the fight that one guy with a forgettable name had with Morgoth and cut off his foot, or Beren and Lúthien, or the fifth battle against Morgoth, or parts of the extraordinarily long and depressing tale of Túrin, or Earendil, or what-have-you — simmer in the midst of a barrage of names and long non-descriptions of imaginary places that are mostly names of rivers and mountain ranges and the points of the compass with no maps to help.

The interesting stories and parts of stories are really interesting, though. Don’t get me wrong. I even get the depressing ones. In fact, you can see the unsurprising interweaving of Tolkien’s Catholicism and his Anglo-Saxon/Norse philology in some of the depressing parts (which is to say, they have interest!). In The Silmarillion, even the evil, even the discordant notes, works as part of the harmony of the whole — somehow. What Melkor/Morgoth intends for evil, Ilúvatar will have turn out for good in the end.

That is Catholic. Augustinian, even.

But all joy is tinged with sorrow. Happiness has a cutting edge of grief. The elves are fair and wondrous, but also sad. This sort of sorrow runs through a lot of Anglo-Saxon literature.

All of this to say — I enjoyed The Silmarillion overall, whether I can pronounce the titles of its different sections or not.

In the end, I do have mixed feelings about The Silmarillion.

Basically, I feel as though, if I’m going to put this much effort into a book, I’d rather it be actual ancient mythology, and not a philologist’s dream-child. I like it, but I feel that the reward may not be worth the effort of a second reading — for me, at least. Those of you who revel in this book and drool over your print-fresh copies of The Fall of Gondolin — have at it.

*Danishes.

Cultural references and making class relevant

Q, a highly evolved being who does not, strictly speaking, have a body

I recently shared on Facebook about how I — without planning to — worked Star Trek into a lecture on Ovid, Metamorphoses 1. The context was a discussion of the ‘divine spark’ in human persons, and how this idea is part of many ancient philosophies and religions, and in some cases ties into the idea that we need to release this divine spark through ascetic discipline, setting it free from the confines of the material world. This led to the statement that many philosophies accordingly believed that the material, physical world was bad, and the metaphysical was good.

‘This belief,’ I said, ‘can even be seen in Star Trek.’

Student: Which Star Trek?

Me: Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Student: Good.

Me: [Something about how every time we meet a highly evolved race in Star Trek: The Next Generation, they have shed or are about to shed their physical bodies.]

Student: Like the Q.

Me: Yes, like Q, who is there at the beginning and there at the end.

A friend on Facebook says that tying material into their own lives in this way is a good method for helping ideas stick in students’ minds. And I agree.

The problem for me is figuring out which cultural references actually work.

Later in that same lecture, I was talking about the sea, and how ancients did not like travelling by sea, because it was very dangerous, etc., etc. This concern about the sea is played out in A Merchant of Venice, for the play begins with Antonio losing his wealth because he had sunk it into merchant vessels. And I got blank looks.

So, Star Trek before Shakespeare, I suppose. But the lecture I gave where I brought in the debate about whether Battlestar Galactica is based on The Aeneid also go blank looks.

Thankfully, though, the Three Amigos works, sometimes even for those who’ve not seen it.

Student: Professor, how should we translate famosus?

Me: What do others think? (In Latin class, I like to ask the rest of the room first.)

Other student: Notorious.

Me: That’s right, fama in Latin often has a negative association, unlike the English word fame. So famosus can be more like infamous than famous, like the infamous El Guapo. ‘In-famous? What does in-famous mean?’ ‘It means this guy’s not just famous, he’s in-famous! He must be the biggest star in Mexico!’

Another student: *laughs*

Me: That’s The Three Amigos.

Student who laughed: Best movie ever.

Me: You should all go home and watch it. It’s on Netflix.

They will all now, hopefully, remember that famosus does not mean famous.

It is hard to know where to go with cultural references. Some of them creep out of me, and sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t. I’ve never been hip, but it seems that enough Classics students watch Star Trek that I can get away with a few references as part of my pedagogical practice.

What successes or failures have you ever had?

Quick thoughts on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2 by John Tiffany
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some brief, spoiler-filled thoughts.

This book is a couple of plays. It reads like plays, and it moves at the pace of plays. That is, plot development is not especially deep. That said, it seems like it would have been brilliant to watch live. It is highly entertaining. As a person who enjoys Harry Potter but not the Harry Potter phenomenon, and who thinks there are other, better children’s fantasy books, it gave me what I wanted.

But what, really, does this add to the Potterverse? Almost nothing. We see an outlandishly happy ending for all the good guys — they grow up to be influential bureaucrats and civil servants, which I think is supposed to be a good thing? And the play basically ends status quo ante bellum.

What does it provide us, then, besides a bit more fun and Voldemort’s daughter? It gives us what plays are good at. Plays — and, really, I only know Greek tragedy and comedy and Shakespeare besides Murder in the Cathedral — are more about characters and psychology than plot. Epics and novels and romances are for plot, films as well.

That’s what this play gets us — we see insight into what it means to be the man who was the Boy Who Lived, to be his son. We have fathers and sons. We have themes of friendship and loyalty and depth of love. We see Draco and Harry become friends because their sons are friends.

So, no, this book won’t really add an ‘eighth story’ like the first seven. But it adds something, some depth as well as glimpses of what life could have been.

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Empires: Old, New, Near, and Far, Far Away (May the Fourth Be with You)

I am in the midst of applying for academic jobs for next year. Although it is a tiring task, I have no doubt a job will come. (But the sooner the better!) I have had employment all three years since my Ph.D., after all. One part of the job application process is pitching to prospective departments fresh and exciting courses you could offer — although introductory Roman history courses seem to be the most well-attended in Classics, overall.

Then again, maybe my course on the reception of Classics in science fiction could change that statistic. Now, there are some obvious points of reception to consider when you turn your eye to sci-fi and the Classics — Battlestar Galactica and Virgil’s Aeneid, for example. Or time travel programmes that go to ancient Rome or Greece. Or any time there’s a gladiator fight.

Less obvious would be making them read Dan Simmons’ beautiful, gut-wrenching, space opera Hyperion, a multi-layered reception of classics, of theology, of theoretical physics, and of John Keats.

On the more obvious side are empires.

The most obvious empire, of course, is the evil Galactic Empire of Star Wars, with a dark magician Sith Lord as emperor. Here, empire is evil. In Rogue One, I finally felt the actual evil and oppression of the Empire. In Star Wars, we saw their brutality in the wanton murder of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. In The Empire Strikes Back, we saw how they used force and economics to manipulate Lando Calrissian to their own ends. In Return of the Jedi they killed Ewoks. The rest of any evil perpetrated by the Empire in the original trilogy was largely confined to battle. Is killing ‘good people’ in battle any more evil when done by an evil Empire or a Rebel Alliance?

Anyway, as I say: Rogue One. I felt that here we finally felt the arbitrariness of their oppressive system and the suffering of ordinary people who weren’t harbouring fugitives from the Sith or buying droids formerly in Rebel possession. Just people. Suffering at the hands of a largely faceless government. Also, I really felt that Darth Vader was a violent, evil threat in that final scene.

Back to Classics: pitted against this Empire is the Rebel Alliance who wish to bring back the Old Republic. The ideals of this republic are modern-Americanised versions of ancient republican ideals, of freedom for local societies and individuals to serve beneath the big government in a mutually self-serving way.

What is interesting here is the fact that both the Roman Republic, as a transnational Mediterranean state, and the Roman Empire as the same, combine elements of republicanism and evil imperialism. They oppress at times. They leave local cities to be essentially self-governing at others (save, of course, the levying of taxes). They might wage a devastating war against your city and almost obliterate it (Republic: Corinth and Carthage, 146 BCE; Empire: Jerusalem 70 CE).

Coruscant is not the only world-city capital of a galactic empire, of course. Before Coruscant in a galaxy far, far away, there was Trantor, here in our Galaxy, the seat of galactic empire in Isaac Asimov’s Empire and Foundation novels. The original Foundation trilogy — FoundationFoundation and Empire, and Second Foundation — won the Hugo for Best Series Ever, FYI. So go and read it.

Asimov’s galactic empire, by the time of Foundation, at least, is a Good Thing. Or at least a Thing. Largely neutral as far as being an empire is concerned, but able to bring good things to its citizens. However, it is not far from its own fall. And in the wake of the fall of the empire will come galaxy-wide de-stabilisation. There will be chaos and a fall into ruin and a setting back the clock to an earlier time. Kind of like how we can’t tell if some Welsh archaeology is Stone Age or Post-Roman. Or the inferior quality of some Anglo-Saxon pottery, famously used as an illustration of this fact by Bryan Ward-Perkins in The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization.

The Foundation of the title is the foundation of a new empire, with the goal of lessening the impact of decline and fall, with the goal of keeping chaos at bay and gently directing history towards a beneficial conclusion for all humanity. For Asimov, empire is not necessarily good — he is the son of immigrant Russian Jews, after all. But he is aware enough of nuance to envision an empire as a good.

Asimov, then, is also inspired by the Classics in his empire — by the Fall of Rome more than by the transfer of power from the Senate to the Augustus.

What about the Romulan Star Empire in Star Trek? Obviously, the names of their home planets — Romulus and Remus — are classical. And the terminology of their governmental apparatus is itself Roman, with prefects and all that jazz. But what else is Roman about them?

Perhaps — and this is a spur-of-the-moment speculation — they represent a Gibbon-esque Byzantine Empire. Romulans are famous for speaking out of both sides of their mouths. They are notorious for being untrustworthy. They have secrets buried in their secrets. They are also the same species as Vulcans, but their governments are now divided after all these years.

Just a thought that needs more reflection.

These are only a few ways in which science fiction has represented empires. One of the important questions in reception is how does the cultural moment of the piece you are considering affect its representation and use of the classics. In a post-colonial, post-imperial — indeed, anti-imperial — climate, it is no great surprise that Firefly‘s Alliance is the faceless, exploitative villain. And, in a pre-World War I USA, are we surprised at John Carter’s union of the city-states of Barsoom as what is essentially an empire under Helium in The Warlord of Mars?

I do wonder how Solo in a few weeks will portray the evil Galactic Empire, living in a post-truth, fake news era with Trump as President of the USA and Putin acting like the latest Tsar? How does this political moment affect our reading of ancient Rome and empire’s reception in fiction?