Category Archives: Words

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.

View all my reviews

The Numinous

Poussin: Apollo and the Muses

Today I gave my final lecture of Greek and Roman Mythology, ‘Myth Today’. I spent a lot of it talking about the use of classical mythology in popular culture — Wonder WomanStar Trek, Eric Shanowar’s Age of Bronze, the work of Neil Gaiman — and how harnessing a mythological framework enables one to tell a story with wide consequences that broaden the audience’s vision and challenge their assumptions, much as science fiction and fantasy do.

Indeed, this is one of the reasons we keep going back to classical mythology, whether it’s the retelling and reshaping them for our own era (Hercules: The Legendary Journeys or Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey) or drawing inspiration from them (possibly Battlestar Galactica, T S Eliot, The Wasteland).

Towards the end of the lecture, I moved into different territory about why the classical myths continue to draw us in — myths are bigger than true, to quote my friend Emily. To quote Northrop Frye (whom I badly paraphrased in class):

my general critical position … revolves around the identity of myth, along with those of folk tale, legend, and related genres, continue to form the structures of literature.

….

every human society possesses a mythology which is inherited, transmitted, and diversified by literature. –Words with Power, xii, xiii

Classical mythology, to an anglophone who grew up reading literature and watching TV and film and reading comic books that are part of an artistic heritage that constantly negotiates that past, is, along with the Bible, the basic grammar of story in the West.

Frye, of course, is pushing us farther than this, pushing us up into the transcendent.

This is certainly where Joseph Campbell wants us to go with The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth. Certain classical myths, as noted by C S Lewis in An Experiment in Criticism, hold a power beyond the poetry that clothes them — stories like Orpheus and Eurydice. These stories are the kind that people like Campbell see recurring throughout world cultures…

According to Frye, then, all literature is mythological — so all language is, perhaps, mystical? Owen Barfield (so I’m told) lays out the argument in Poetic Diction that in the poetic mode words come laden with meaning, more than just the simple diction of that given moment but all of their meanings. This is polysemy. The polysemous nature of poetic language drives us to symbol, turning words — mere utterations of vocal noise or squiggles on a page — into windows into other worlds. (Thus Coleridge, whom both Frye and Barfield read.)

And so in poetry, and in mythology, we find ourselves drawn further up and further in to something different and bigger than a simple materialistic world where A always = A, but can also = alpha or even be transmuted into something completely different.

Is this, therefore, a means by which the very act of storytelling, or the labour of versification, is itself a means of communicating with the numinous?

The numinous is where I find myself at the end of my myth course. What did the Greeks and Romans get out of their common stock of stories, from Homer through Ovid to Nonnus of Panopolis and Fulgentius the Mythographer? What is it that is intrinsic to these stories that drives us to them again and again, compelling us to read them? Is it because they give us a brush with Something Bigger?

I had two minutes, so these were things that were left unsaid. But I do still want to push these boundaries.

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?

Fortune favours the bold (but does she?)

Wheel. Of. Fortuune! (Carmina Burana, page with ‘O Fortuna’; Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 4660, f. 1r)

One evening, my wife and I were walking with a friend who needed to catch a bus. As we waited to a cross a mildly busy street, we saw the bus on approach. I called out, ‘Fortune favours the bold!’ and ran across the street to hold the bus for them. This event stands out as one of my ‘loud in public and never to be forgotten moments’ (up there with ‘Gandalf is just a wizard’).

But I’m not sold on Fortune’s favour. The famous instance of someone making this proclamation is Pliny the Elder on his approach to Pompeii during Vesuvius’ eruption. He directs the ships towards the volcano:

‘Fortes’ inquit ‘fortuna iuvat.’

They evacuated some people (so maybe Fortune did favour him?), but, after strapping pillows to his head to keep the rocks from hurting him, Pliny the Elder stayed behind to observe this natural phenomenon. You can read about it in his nephew’s letters, Pliny the Younger, Letters, 6.16.

I will have the joy of teaching Vergil’s Aeneid at UBC this Autumn, and I’ve been rereading it preparation. Here we see, Book 10.284, Turnus:

‘audentis Fortuna iuuat.’

Unfortunately for Turnus, the fates are against him. He and the other Italians may do very well in the ensuing battle, but by the end of Book 10, Aeneas has essentially become a giant, an elemental force of destruction. And at the end of Book 12, Turnus will lose his life.

If Turnus had been prudent, had not slain Pallas, he may have lived long enough to gain some sort of reprieve, or a treaty, or something. Instead, his daring (Latin audeo means ‘to dare’) brings destruction on many of his people and ultimately his death. The Trojans win this war, ultimately, and make marriage alliances with the people of Ausonia.

How much easier it would have been for everyone without Turnus’ boldness.

Not, one hastens to add, that this exonerates Aeneas of his Incredible Hulk-style ragefest of slaughter.

Ultimately, Fortune favours … no one. This is a main theme in Beothius’ Consolation of Philosophy. Fortune smiled on him for a time — a good marriage, the joint consulship of his sons. That sort of thing. But now he’s rotting in prison, doomed to die. This is the way the Wheel of Fortune turns. One may be king, at the top, one day, and a peasant at the bottom the next.

Fortune is fickle. Fortune may favour the bold Turnus today, only to have him slaughtered at the hand of his enemy the next.

In order to attain a state of lasting felicity, one must fix one’s attention on things beyond the domain of Fortune, fixing one’s heart on things above. This is what philosophy is for, and this is what Boethius is taught in the Consolation.

Reading Vergil, and seeing forces driven by Fate or the gods, this is worth thinking about.

Men, persons, humans

Thor: A person who is not a human

Since the Old English use of man to mean ‘a human being’ has been largely co-opted at this stage in the history of English to mean ‘a male human being’, many people have rightly sought new, gender-neutral/inclusive nouns to refer to individual human persons.

The most common solution is person/persons (or people). However, this does not work in all cases, since in some domains, human beings are not the only persons potentially under discussion. The realms that come to mind in this regard are theology, mythology, and science fiction and fantasy. In the last dual category of genre fiction, Star Trek calls us earthlings humans (pronounced by Quark the Ferengi as ‘humahns’). Obviously, many non-humans in Star Trek are persons — Odo and Hu, just to mention those who’ve already made an appearance on this blog. But all humanoid species and many non-humanoid species in Trek are persons. Even Q, the space fairy.

I am actually less certain about fantasy, since I do not read a lot of new fantasy. In Tolkien, the human species is populated by Men with a capital ‘M’, reflecting both the archaic nature of the language and its cadence as used by Tolkien as well as Tolkien’s own era.

In mythology, one has a variety of non-human persons. The concern here arises for translators and philologists who want to discuss literature in the Classical tradition. How do you render anthropos and homo? It cannot be person, since by current English usage, gods, demi-gods, centaurs, et al., are also persons.

Similarly in theology. In Christian theology, God is a Trinity of Persons, so it is actually imprecise to use person where a few decades ago one would have used manMankind also runs into similar problems, often solved by humankind, a word I dislike; much better to say humanity, I think. One place where this is a difficulty is Genesis 1, where God speaks of making, in older translations, ‘man in our image’. Andrew Louth circumvented this danger in Introducing Eastern Orthoodox Theology by consistently rendering (from Greek, not Hebrew) anthropos as human kind until he had to bring the discussion to the singular.

Many current English translations of the Bible and ancient Christian literature seem to think person is a perfect synonym for anthropos. Or, in the case of new translations of the Nicene Creed, cut men out altogether, ‘who for us and for our salvation’. Loses some of the theological potency; us what?

One of the books that is consistent in using one solution to the problem is Greta Austin, Shaping Church Law Around the Year 1000: The Decretum of Burchard of Worms. She consistently always refers to human beings using the substantive humans. This works. It is not as common as it should be, although I see it every once in a while. The philological objection is, of course, that human is an adjective, not a noun. But adjectives are frequently nounified when necessary, and this maintains the linguistic precision of the Latin text under discussion as well as the theological context of Burchard.

Perhaps not a breakthrough or deep or illuminating, but it is important for us to keep in mind not only why we may wish to shift our lexicon away from something, but also to consider where we are turning. Precision and accuracy are important, and person is often too imprecise for accuracy in language.

An allusion to Leo the Great in Anselm of Canterbury

Anselm; image from Wikipedia

Today I found a convergence between my current reading and my Ph.D. (plus my 2016 article in Studia Patristica). Anselm of Canterbury, in his philosophical discussion of the ‘supreme essence’, and shortly before attempting to use logic to prove the Trinity (a dubious task at best), writes:

Videtur ergo consequi ex praecedentibus quod iste spiritus, qui sic suo quodam mirabiliter singulari et singulariter mirabili modo est, quadam ratione solus sit, alia vero quaecumque videntur esse, huic collata non sint. (Monologion 28)

Therefore, it seems to follow from the preceding that that spirit, who exists in a certain marvellously singular and singularly marvellous way, for some reason, exists alone; although everything else seems to exists, it does not exist compared to it [that is, the supreme essence].

The phrase that catches the eye is, ‘mirabiliter singulari et singulariter mirabili‘, which I have translatedm ‘marvellously singular and singularly marvellous.‘ Although in the ablative, this is a direct quotation of Leo’s Tome (Ep. 28):

singulariter mirabilis et mirabiliter singularis

It’s a nice turn of phrase, a happy little chiasmus. The context of the phrase is different in Leo; he is talking about the Incarnation, that Christ’s birth was ‘singularly marvellous and marvellously singular’. Singularis could also be translated as unique.

Is the allusion conscious? I do not know. It is clear, however, that Leo’s most famous dogmatic letter is part of Anselm’s reading list. One of the points made by Jean Leclercq’s classic work, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God is the fact that monastic writers tend to make allusions to and quote classical and patristic authors almost unconsciously. Their formation as monks, their study of grammatica, was filled with those authors considered to be the best stylists by the medieval monks, both pagan and Christian: Vergil, Ovid, Horace, Cicero, Augustine, Jerome, Gregory the Great. Beauty is an attribute of God; therefore, even Ovid is worth reading because he is beautiful.

Anselm was the principal teacher at the monastery of Bec, 1063-1078. In 1078 he was made abbot. The Monologion whence comes the Leonine allusion under consideration was his first major work, published, he says, at the insistence of his students. His Proslogion would follow as well as De Grammatico. All of these works show the imprint of the school room and the necessity to teach grammar and literature to students and young monks.

As a result of his textual immersion in the ancient pagans and church fathers, Anselm’s mind was formed by more than just logic. It was shaped by Latin, by the art of teaching grammar. These texts would be imprinted on his mind and heart by constant reference to them, time and again. The Tome of Leo, I am given to understand, has often been monastic reading at Christmastide. I wonder if such was the case at Bec in the 1060s?

Anyway, Anselm is trying to demonstrate the logic of belief in God using pure reason. It is an almost impossible task, especially when you start to spot the Platonist assumptions that lie behind some of his premisses. Nonetheless, this naked approach to discussing God was not always well met by his contemporaries. His teacher Lanfranc, having moved on to the Archbishopric of Canterbury (a position Anselm would hold himself), criticised the Monologion for not making reference to Augustine of Hippo.

Yet I have no doubt it does, in the sense of allusion. It alludes to Leo the Great. Augustine is a much bigger source for medieval thought than Leo, although Leo is important for setting the boundaries of belief held by catholic churchmen.

What does the allusion to Leo mean? Obviously the Tome is Anselm’s intertext. That is easy. And no doubt throughout, his bare logic is interwoven with other intertexts I have not seen. For Leo, it is (to borrow a phrase from G.K. Chesterton, The Thing) the ‘stereoscopic vision of the two natures of Christ’ that holds his vision and guides his meditation. Leo does not necessarily work from logic; indeed, the chief complaint from Leo’s posthumous adversary, Severus of Antioch, is that Leo does not use logic well enough and falls into heresy. Leo’s argument is driven by rhetoric, by an innate sense of western catholic thought, by scriptural authority.

Anselm, on the other hand, is driven by logic. Moreover, this meditatio that he has produced is a sustained reflection on the nature of divinity and deducible by logic. Leo and Augustine intrude not as conscious sources but as unconscious guides. By transplanting the Leo quotation from the context of the Incarnation to the context of the divine essence, to the realm of logic and pure theology, Anselm has elevated the phrase to the highest heights of the seventh heaven, beyond even the primum mobile. His mind is not bound by the original use of the phrase, and he takes what is a lovely rhetorical device and deploys it in the midst of an exercise in logic that tires the modern mind.

This allusion to Leo’s Tome sets out for us precisely what sets Anselm apart. He is so thoroughly steeped in the classical-Christian Latin tradition of Bec’s school room that when he engages in the philosophy of religion and seeks to use logic alone to prove the core dogmas of catholic thought, he cannot help bringing with him these monastic and classical and, indeed, dogmatic intertexts. He is a man of two worlds; not yet a scholastic but strongly contrasted with the poetic monastic discourses of Bernard of Clairvaux in a few decades.

Fireworks

Fireworks. Flashes. Fizzes. Screams. Whistles. Explosions. Lighting up the night sky. Delicate, large, timed to music. And us, the crowd standing below, thousands in the street, symphonically serenaded, delighted by the display of lights in the night sky above the castle.

A throng of us. Here are we two beforehand, waiting in the darkness. Our first ‘selfie’ on my new phone (my first phone with a camera designed for narcissism).

IMG_20160829_210336186Edinburgh’s Fireworks Concert is not the biggest display of fireworks you’ll meet. I was once told by an American that his hometown did a ‘better’ display. I arrogantly assume he confused the concepts of ‘bigger’ and ‘better’, for the Fireworks Concert that closes out the Edinburgh International Festival on the final Monday of each August is not about size.

It is about glory. About art. Finesse.

No fireworks in the shapes of eagles, flags, happy faces, here.

The fireworks — fizz, pop, bang — are instead timed to a live performance by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra down in Princes Street Gardens. A delightful, clever ploy to draw crowds to listen to classical music in the vapid age of Bieber, et al.

This year joined the international commemoration of the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. First, then, came Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, opening with the ‘Dance of the Knights’ or ‘Montagues and Capulets.’ Music that is itself an explosion and display.

If you don’t know this bit of Prokofiev, here’s someone’s video from Monday, a full thirty minutes and thirty-two seconds. The sound is poor — very tinny. But some idea of this beginning of things:

The recording I was raised on can be found on Spotify, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet, track 11.

Music has power. Although my world has shifted me onward into words, words, words, I am a clasically-trained clarinettist (not just a classically-trained philologist) who sang in youth choirs way back when. There is wordless power in music that my world of words, words, words appreciates.

This particular piece holds sway over me. Something stirs inside whenever I hear it. It is rousing. I don’t really have words for it, though. It is some sort of powerful, emotive res — thing. Feelings are difficult to describe, even when normal ones such as ‘anger’ or ‘love’ or ‘happiness’ — as Geordie Laforge discovered trying to explain anger to Data once, and as my friend who studies ‘joy’ in Augustine confronts every day.

But whatever this stirring, rousing thing in my chest is, it was certainly enhanced by fireworks.

The celebration of Shakespeare continued on to Bernstein’s Westside Story. (And so — more of a celebration of Romeo and Juliet, which is not my favourite Shakespeare play!) Different coloured fireworks had a rumble in the night sky above Edinburgh Castle, Jets and Sharks.

And, again, the power of music, visible in the in-one-place, happy, delighted dancing of my wife standing in front of me. Music lifting us out of ourselves, out of self-consciousness, out of inhibitions. Freedom from beauty. The power of (good) art.

And then a non-Shakespearean finale, Shostakovich’s Festival Overture. (I’d hoped for some Mendelssohn.)

Some finale fireworks photos (because a picture paints a thousand words, as they say):