Indecisive

Several years ago, I wrote a critique of a book styling itself The Mammoth Book of the World’s Greatest Chess Games – one supposes there are other “Mammoth Books” of various other things out there – in which I mainly criticized it for its selection – or perhaps presentation – of games that turned on one or two brilliant moves (or inaccuracies). I also found the notation off-putting, and the game notes uneven, but the lack of variety seemed its greatest drawback.

I am working through the volume again – the games, after all, are certainly among the best played, though other authors might make other choices – and would now mute that criticism somewhat. It’s still true that the notes tend to find a single “turning point” in most games, and true that the notes will often claim a certain key error, and then spend most analysis on another move instead. But what I noticed this time was a lack of clarity of purpose about the book.

Each game is followed by summary “Lessons from this game”, and if one supposes the work was conceived, choosing games exemplifying one or two key principles each – easily identified in a critical move or mistake – makes sense. There are certain stylistic problems that remain: many of the “lessons” are facile (the authors religiously adhered to at least three per game, leading to the inclusion of observations such as “Capablanca was a genius!” where other points are not easily found), while others are overly technical.

The “one key move” focus, though, could be somewhat excused as a teaching technique; but to make this case I am assuming the book was repackaged in some way for actual publication, which is not actually evident from any of the introductory material. And the second problem, that plagues discussion of many competitive events, is whether “greatness” in competition is most accurately found in a convincing display or superiority, or in an evenly contested struggle. These authors seem to lean towards the former – possibly influenced by looking for “teaching moments” – in this volume, despite claiming to seek “quality and brilliance of play by both contestants”.

Whether the selection is quite justified or not, the presentation, even on a modified view, does not quite live up to the task the authors set themselves: my explanation is a multiplicity of purposes not well represented to the reader.

Similarly plagued by a lack of single purpose is Dr. Gordon H. Clark’s small volume titled Logic, published in the 1980s. Though published by the author, it reads much like the hypothesis sometimes made to account for our versions of certain texts of Aristotle, which is that what we really have amounts to lecture notes. Clark attempts in some 130 pages to do no fewer than four things, which are: to defend the study of logic from a Christian point of view and against Christian critics (one supposes, Biblicists); to teach the Aristotelian or syllogistic system of logic; to introduce his own new system of logical notation; and to defend the the Aristotelian system, at least for ordinary use, against the intrusion of the logic of propositional calculus (especially as represented by the works of Bertrand Russell).

It is perhaps unsurprising that the work founders, as a whole. The first goal is largely accomplished in a short introduction. The didactic part of the work is contained in the first eighty pages, and is a reasonable outline of a textbook for a semester’s study, but not actually such a text itself. The next thirty pages or so are devoted to historical notes; miscellaneous logical topics not strictly Aristotelian; and a defense, possibly sufficient but not entirely clearly stated, of Clark’s own system against Russell’s approach – or at least, an approach to logic for which Clark is content to single out Russell as a key figure to blame. (Russell’s own lack of humility may have made him the target of choice, I would guess.) The final pages return to theological considerations, adding proof texts but otherwise nothing significant that was not stated more succinctly in the introduction.

The book – as might be guessed from this summary – drifts in tone. The introduction and preliminary instructional material seem written for high school or even middle school students; by the end, he is engaged in collegiate or even seminary wrangling. One supposes – as he was a college professor – that the latter represents the true intended purpose of the work; but the beginning makes me suspect his students may have found him patronizing. I also wonder whether those students – to say nothing of the additional audience gained by publishing the book – were quite as familiar with Latin as he assumes throughout: not that he uses much if any of that language, but he makes fairly frequent reference to its study.

The greatest weakness is clarity in the final third of the book. On the Aristotelian matter, Clark is clear enough, if leaving quite a a bit to work out “as an exercise for the reader”, as the books say. But his own notation is not entirely accessible, and gets muddled up for the reader as he tries to defend it, partly through his contention that Russell and others did not actually develop their own propositional notation correctly. It becomes hard to untangle what Clark intends to promote from his attempts to demonstrate the unsatisfactory results of others by correcting their systems and then demonstrating the error. I think, incidentally, that Clark has a point here! But I don’t think his system quite works out either, and in any case you don’t get much of anywhere by constantly jumping back and forth between topics.

But the first two thirds really would be worth somebody’s reworking them into a teachable text.

Democracy

Several months ago, an acquaintance complained that the problem with conservatives is that we don’t believe in democracy. In fact he might have said “Republicans” instead of “conservatives”; either way he seemed frustrated not only with the antics of a few Congressional bigwigs, but with the fact that they continue to receive, if not whole-hearted support, at least votes. It’s hardly a defense, and more reveals the depth of the problem, to point out that the same charges can be leveled at the Democratic party’s political managers and those who continue to vote for them. Actually I thought the statement quite a perceptive one, if not quite as damning as intended.

It is quite true that conservatives, on the whole, do not “believe in” democracy. First, quite a few are, by habit if not conviction, religious and specifically Christian; and in that vocabulary one “believes in” an ultimate good or goal, which earthly governance, since there are immortal souls to care for, is not. Even in earthly affairs, Rome and Westminster have both claimed the state should support the church; and “Christendom” has not truly lost its appeal. This is not an argument for or against such a position; it is a statement of fact about habits of mind. Further, Christian imagery – to say nothing of human history – tends to the hierarchical. If some have concluded – Milton and Lewis, Congregationalists and Presbyterians – that a democratic order tends to restrain tyranny of men over men; that only democratic principles capture the equal share of the dignity of Adam we all possess; well, they may have thought so, but others have not.

Second, conservative theorists on the whole do not “believe in” the good sense of demos – the people. This is neither unreasonable nor a surprise. Progressive theorists do not believe it either – all their programs must be, at first, imposed by force in theory; and in practice, maintained by such. The history of governance – if we can call it that – by greatest numbers (or loudest voices) is not entirely encouraging, and apart from innovation, it would be difficult to point to a specific benefit gained as our governments across the world have become – at least in theory – more democratic. Of course the democratic idealist can point to all variety of mitigating factors: a legacy of monarchy; colonies abroad even while democracy took root at home; perpetuation of national jealousies; unwillingness to actually extend democratic rights to all; and so on. On the other hand, the critic can counter that no “democratic” society has fully and ideally established itself, and could suggest that the dominance of democracy today as an ideal, so that all but the most dictatorial of regimes at least pay it lip-service, could turn out to be just a historical curiosity when seen from the distance of another five hundred years.

It is next necessary to examine the idea of “democracy”. And here again we see a quite accurate assessment hidden in my friend’s complaint. “Democracy” to a conservative refers mainly to a system of government. The government is taken to be set up by the people – or at least, for it to continue, it must be acknowledged to a great enough extent to ensure stability. (These are not exactly the same idea; but are close enough for my purpose today.) But other than this axiomatic sort of democracy, it is not of particular consequence to most conservatives exactly what form the government takes. It is of course plausible that democratic forms will be most stable, but if a monarchy or oligarchy or other form yet to be devised should better secure personal freedom, a free society, and good living – the conservative would have no objection.

I want to dwell on this for a minute, because this seems to me a foundational divide in how we talk about self-government. In the conservative ideal, this means the man governs – or behaves – himself; the family governs itself; the town, the state, the nation – each likewise; and power should be exerted “downwards” only to the extent these lesser authorities are unable to govern themselves. “Democratic” government is here conceived of in the sense that the citizen, the man who belongs to a city, has a say in what his own city does; but the city, if it belongs to a state or a nation, considered as a union of cities and other communities, has a say in what the nation does. A man can know his own neighborhood, and enough else that he may wisely enough govern a city, or choose someone to do so; unless he spends his days himself in the effort, he is unlikely to really know what the city itself requires from a more far-reaching government.

This principle is hardly recognized any more, and barely articulated, even by intellectual conservatives; and practically speaking even the States, for decades now, no longer decide themselves how to choose their senators to send to Congress. Instead, another sense of “democracy” has taken hold: where the individual is a member, to the same extent and in the same way, of every level of society and government that might affect him. It is, when you realize this, unsurprising that we now end up trying to raise all the same issues in almost every election of every official. The most widely-extending government is seen as the first and best; smaller units being mainly convenient for official purposes. In fact most Americans practically take this for granted; but progressive politics tends to make it part of the program, while conservatives are still trying to fight it.

If one were to look for a cause for its appeal, I have one to suggest: that in the conservative sense of democracy, the responsibility of each entity for its own self-government can be – has been – taken so far as to actually preclude government acting “for the people” generally. The starkest example, possibly in all history, is the American colonies declaring their independence, proclaiming the liberty of man – and keeping their slaves. But worst examples are easy to identify. What is more common is for the well-meaning to lose sight of less fortunate realities. Chesterton would hardly have considered himself a conservative, yet in the modern American sense, by virtue of being religious and a traditionalist, he could scarcely be identified as anything else; so I take the liberty of using him for an example. He relates in his autobiography how, at a certain labor meeting, a speaker produced bafflement if not resentment by seriously underestimating the degree to which his listeners might have run into trouble with the police. That which has been is that which will be; and there is nothing new under the sun.

This, I think, is what my friend was really getting at, and the point that in my observation frustrates progressives most about support for conservative politicians. Even if progressive policies may be at fault for, say, the state of various cities; well, the conservatives make mistakes too, and at least – thinks the progressive – we’re trying. Why isn’t that more popular?

It has – if I may be so bold as to suggest I can offer enlightenment – it has to do with how you are trying. The final reason conservatives “don’t believe in democracy” is that “democracy”, when the progressive makes this complaint, rarely refers to government “by the people”. He may, for the sake of argument, have gotten “for the people” down as a goal better than the conservatives do; but the actual democratic element has been lost somewhere. Not only is it national instead of local, top-down instead of popular; progressive “democracy” usually refers to the modern system of government, managed by bureaucrats appointed by “representatives” chosen from candidates selected by parties whose existence is more or less codified and secured by law. The situation is most pronounced in the United States, but hardly different elsewhere, whatever the claimed advantages of “parliamentary” government. The preferred form of this management – one can hardly call it government any more – is to enact mandate after mandate and let the bureaucrats or the judges – also rarely elected – sort it out.

But lest you doubt the repugnance of the procedure, consider: even a schooling mandate is, in a sense, anti-democratic. If we really believed in the good sense of all men, why favor the one who can read, right, and cypher? And if this is so of any such mandate in theory, national requirements are even more so. I am not disputing the benefits of schooling – though I find the years we require dubious – but trying to make a point about the nature of even a policy few would be so bold as to call detrimental. The progressive, no less than the conservative, does not simply believe in democracy. The difference, if there is one, is that the progressive’s vision proceeds from the highest level downwards, and makes exceptions – to be recorded, and registered on the newest version of the required form – only under duress.

In one sense, I am dealing in “no true Scotsman” terms here. If you reply that you find very few Republicans – or even Libertarians – actively trying to curtail and repeal the unwieldy national bureaucratic structure that barely asks for popular input, I can hardly prove otherwise. I wind up concluding that the Republican party is not particularly conservative in any meaningful sense; and then I can answer the progressive wondering why Republicans keep getting votes only by pointing out that the Democrats transgress further still upon conservative principles. Whatever their theories beforehand, progressives in power seem to regard national management by regulation and edict as a positive good, and have no regard for local custom or dissent.

The situation is, as I intimated at the beginning, somewhat dire; virtually anyone who showed actual intent to dismantle our top-heavy edifice before it topples over would receive my political interest. If you point out that there are progressives doing the hard work of engaging with and rebuilding their neighborhoods, while conservatives move further away – I will reply that, supposing this stereotype to be accurate, even Gentiles do the works of the law. It is in any case hardly an argument against conservative principles (although an indictment of conservative self-righteousness) to say the progressives are actually being more conservative. Meanwhile, I have yet to find any progressives really interested in redistributing the political power that puts us all in danger from the whims of the men at the top. Almost every Republican politician, if pressed, will admit the primacy of local self-government as an ideal; most Democratic ones, as far as I can tell, would be confused by the question.

Even the presidency of Donald Trump failed to awaken most progressives to the principle at stake – that the threat of immense power in the wrong hands is too great to trust to always keeping it in the right hands, but must be relieved by reducing the power available to wield. No: the progressive always has one more right or preference or policy or program that in his conception is so important it must be achieved by national – or wider – imposition. But an actual democrat would know that men must be left free to govern themselves, not merely to choose their dictators.

Miscellaneous

I’ve got less time to write with school starting up, but here are short reviews on a few things leftover from the summer.

Humankind

It’s a game mimicking Civilization-style gameplay. Two major differences are the inclusion of a “hunter-gatherer” phase before you’re allowed/able to actually found a city, and the ability to establish “outposts” without committing to a whole city. It’s also much easier to incorporate the neutral tribes (analogous to more recent Civ releases city-states) into your empire. In fact I haven’t finished a game yet but judging by game status I’m really not sure how you’d lose on normal difficulty.

I quite like the artwork, but it’s a little harder to follow the terrain – in part because there are multiple levels navigable. The interface doesn’t make it very obvious how to implement your different options or take advantage of resources/features, either. (I started with tips set to the level supposedly appropriate for having played games like this before; I wonder if extra tips would have helped? But in that case those tips aren’t very well calibrated.)

The computer’s combat AI is much, much better than I’ve seen from Civ games. I haven’t tried the “manual tactics” mode to see if it makes a difference, but computer forces are very good at targeting units they’ll defeat. I don’t mind the way the “retreat” mechanic works but I think it’s bugged – your units will automatically back away until some kind of condition is met in the programming, but this can end up with them halfway across the continent – distances that ought to take 7 or 8 turns. You’re also basically forced to keep up skirmishes in order to maintain your “war support” meters, which annoys me.

Overall, it’s got some neat features, and is a little more transparent in places than especially recent Civilization releases, but I don’t think it’s unseating the titan any time soon.

Moby-Dick

He just kept talking in one long incredibly unbroken sentence moving from topic to topic… quite hypnotic. Of course Melville doesn’t actually confine himself to a single sentence, but it really is a little bit like listening to somebody who just won’t shut up – and you don’t quite want him to.

I started reading this years ago on a college visit and was fascinated by the first fifty pages or so I read. I’ve kept meaning to come back to it. I’ve finally gotten around to it, but admittedly still haven’t finished it. I will; but so far I find it hard to believe I’ll ever re-read it afterwards.

It reads a bit as though it was published serially, although I don’t believe it was; my thought, honestly, is that Melville was a short story writer with delusions of novelistic grandeur.

Creatures of Light and Darkness

Like a couple other Zelazny novels, this one seems to have been cobbled together from previously-written short stories, possibly not intended to be related. The plot tying them together deserves, I thought, a little more reverence and pathos than Zelazny actually give it. The writing is that of the author at his most elliptical except for certain obscene details; I read it, and then immediately read it again just to figure out what actually happened. It is, in short, not to my mind a success as a book, whatever the effect of certain scenes.

The universe of the book, incidentally and anachronistically, reminds me of nothing so much as the work of Iain Banks; apart from certain unmistakable stylistic elements that mark it as Zelazny’s work, one could easily believe it a juvenile effort of Banks, before he mastered his own distinctive style – which is effective through realism: Banks leaves you convinced that the absurd and despicable might really exist side by side. But Zelazny’s style highlights the incongruities in the story compared to our expectations, and the end result here is highly unsatisfying.

Starliner

A stand-alone novel by David Drake, best known for his military science fiction, it might be one of his better efforts. The dedication calls it “a book I wanted to write”, and I can only speculate as to the reasons. Oh, there are fist fights and gun fights and mercenaries floating around – there’s a certain resemblance to the early Hornblower books – but on the other hand, there’s not that much sci-fi floating around out there glorifying customer service. I’m inclined to think Drake wrote it just to prove he could do something different.

But then there are the twists – and break-neck pace – of the last couple chapters, which leave you rather wrung out and wondering if the book was more serious after all. Watch carefully when the question of duty is raised – and Drake gives an answer, but he seems to me to be positively inviting criticism and discussion.

Review: The Book of the Dun Cow

After about 70 pages, I almost didn’t finish this one. The middle half is better, and probably made it worth reading, once, but I’m not even quite sure about that. The story owes something to Chaucer, and something to Milton, references various European legends, and possibly authors I didn’t pick up on. The plot is fine; it’s the style that breaks down.

The end paper informs me that Rev. Walter Wangerin, Jr. mostly wrote children’s books, and that this was his first novel. The problem with the first part of the book is that he can’t decide whether he’s writing tongue-in-cheek or not. The effect is rather like a story-teller who keeps winking at the audience but never gets to a punchline; possibly never actually meant to tell a joke at all.

The language – throughout, but especially in the first part – has the angularity I associate with Lutheran hymn tunes: where other denominations tend to subtly alter rhythms to suit English better, the Lutherans have, as best I can tell, kept the original German rhythms despite translating the words. The effect is a bit odd when you grew up with the other, and this book produces the same effect – as if English, at least in its most common American incarnation, isn’t quite the author’s native dialect. Of course Wangerin was actually a Lutheran, but I didn’t know that when I started reading or came up with the comparison – I don’t ever read the end papers first.

The final problem is that the story just isn’t consistent. The characters – talking animals all – don’t develop, they just change as necessary. The rules that seem clearly laid out – Wangerin spends whole chapters on them – are subverted without sufficient explanation. And there’s a sort of Book of Judges problem in that the characters are, for the most part, not actually likeable. I think Wangerin meant the book to be deadly serious; but he keeps slipping into – or never quite gets out of – a narrative tone that leads the reader to expect something much lighter. On the other hand, he keeps giving hints that the story is supposed to be, if not allegorical, at least some way religious in meaning; but the moral is never spelled out, and if it’s just a parable about the Providence of God I would rather go re-read Job. Or “The Wanderer”.

Review: Black Sun

I picked up Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun looking for something by an author I hadn’t read before, and something that wasn’t a series. Apparently I didn’t manage the latter: the cover may just say “a novel” but inside you will find “Between Earth and Sky: Book One”, which I hadn’t bothered to look for until I’d bought it.

Anyway.

It is a fairly good fantasy novel, in a setting recognizably based on Mesoamerican civilizations. This is mainly cosmetic: the author’s interests and morality are as anachronistic as in most fantasy. However, the character Serapio is a startlingly unique creation – how much is due to American myths and how much to the author’s imagination I can’t say, but for his arc the book was worth reading if nothing else.

Roanhorse exhibits a gift for portraying character types in very short descriptions: this has the unfortunate effect in places of making minor characters seem more intriguing than some of the major ones who are portrayed in details but whose own motivations and actions end up rather flat. The action runs as tightly to a time-table as any mystery novel, which has the unfortunate effect of inducing one howling plot hole where an impossible timing is forced through without comment – oh, I can think of two or three different ways to at least hint at a justification within the story, but I can’t tell from the book as actually written whether Roanhorse missed the problem or intentionally elected to leave it to the reader’s imagination.

As Roanhorse explains in her afterword, she deliberately set out to write “epic” in a setting not based on Europe, and this extends to defying social conventions as well. Actually by the standards of much fantasy characters’ personal sexual habits, as far as explored, are rather restrained and have unsurprising consequences, even if it’s clear the author thinks those might be unfair. One city’s clans are ruled by matriarchs – although this hardly relevant to the story, and thus what I referred to as a “cosmetic” detail earlier. The ruling priesthood is – this being modern fantasy – egalitarian, and the potential weaknesses there barely hinted at.

Most unconventionally, Roanhorse includes characters who refuse to call themselves men or women – only she does it, I have to say, in such a way as seems calculated to irritate the most possible readers. I have seen it alleged that this is an attribute assigned to certain priests or shamans in some cultures; however, Roanhorse makes no use of or reference to that here: the behavior portrayed is the modern one of defying one’s physical sex as a personal choice.

On the one hand, she treats this behavior as legitimate, and the pronominal bastardizations insisted on today read like a slap in the face. On the other hand, to carry this off at all she is forced to avoid descriptions that would be given to any other character – one of the few awkwardnesses in the writing – and she quietly implies such behavior is a choice, not an essence, in that the dead body of one is described according to its sex.

This is evidently the only sensible way to regard the phenomenon, whether one condones or condemns it – but it runs counter to the “orthodoxy” insisted on by those who allow or encourage it today. Thus my comment that Roanhorse is likely to have irritated as many people as possible this way: traditionalists by including such characters at all; and today’s progressives by implicitly refusing the putative dominance of self-identification over reality.

Roanhorse – at least in retrospect – does at least use this effectively within her plot. The actual effect is hidden in a first read, and dampened overall, by her inclination to push egalitarian themes rather than trying to really get into the head of characters living in what is, by many indications, fairly traditionally divided. The themes Roanhorse still manages to hint at could have been handled with much more regard to mythic significance if she weren’t, as you might say, at war with the conceptions of the majorities within her created world.

I allow that it’s possible that many of these themes hinted at in this first volume may be worked out in greater detail or power in the remainder of the books still to be written. Only, even having read the book, I’m inclined to think it should have been left to stand alone. The ending would have to be handled differently – two or three ways come to mind – to wrap up the loose ends of the plot (or in other words, to avoid sequel hooks). The difficulty I see is that any future plot must – it seems to me inevitably – succumb again to more conventional elements, leaving the setting merely cosmetic once again. While this book was worth a read, I don’t know that I’ll re-read it, and certainly not often; as for whatever comes next, I’m likely only to look up the plot some day.

Review: The Mists of Avalon

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Arthurian masterpiece is the sort of book that gets burned or banned by critics unable to refute and too timid either to try or to call in greater masters to do so, and unwilling to take the care that it find its way only into prepared hands. The unwary reader, if not repulsed, will certainly be drawn under its spell and left troubled; even the careful reader will have to careful sort through thoughts jarred loose.

What is this book? It has layers. From the title, anyone can deduce that it is a modern retelling of the Arthurian saga. The work, though, tells the story with the women around Arthur as the main characters; and for the most part devotees of – at least a literary version of – the Druidic religion, which is pointedly pagan and licentious.

And this is where the danger comes in: it seems to me that to a reader unfamiliar with other tales of Arthur, or without strong moral convications of his own, Bradley’s characters are so strongly drawn as to color the reader’s imagination ever after. The narrator’s opinion is that all religion is potentially a legitimate yearning for the supernatural Mysteries; the Druidic God and Goddess shade into pantheism; Christianity is not refuted and indeed triumphs – but the priests, mostly nameless, are the only persons routinely belittled, and for narrow-mindedness and ignorance even of their own faith. However, I suspect Bradley is most true to herself in the characters who are – openly or quietly – agnostic: they seem to me to be about the only likeable ones.

This is also an openly feminist work: the principle put forth by the Druidic priestesses is that men may be needed to fight and die for the land – and father children – but women should rule and guide, though perhaps never stated so succinctly. The wiser kings are made to consult with their wives; Morgause rules comfortably as Queen in her own right after King Lot dies; King Arthur in war is indispensible but in peace Gwenhwyfar comes more to the fore.

Yet this is not a perfectionist feminism: this is still a tragedy. I call it feminist because these women – mainly of Avalon – are made to bear the responsibility, while the warriors and courtiers do as they will. But this is still a tragedy: hubris is the name of the day and if at any point our various leading ladies had simply stopped meddling and let things go, a happy ending for all concerned would have been hard to avoid. But as a story-telling device, I must admit that providing motivations for the actions of all concerned is more satisfying, to my modern taste at least, than the older tales where a barge or boat or arm holding a sword or whatever shows up with no explanation or any reason beyond the necessity of the plot. On the other hand, Bradley does assume that the basic plot is known to the reader – however compelling the story she tells, some of her effect depends on the reader being expected to notice how the story is changed this time.

There are, I think, two faults with the book as a work of art. First, the main narrative is periodically interrupted with reflections by Morgaine in the first person, and I struggle to find anything that they add. They suggest Bradley could have told the story quite well in the first person, but the perspective is not in any significant way different from the main narration, so that the shift mostly seems to me to disrupt the flow of the story.

Second, the conclusion is handled awfully hamfistedly. Since this is an Arthurian retelling, the events are not really in doubt, and any number of the intricate schemes set up through the book could have gone awry and prompted them. Instead we have Morgause – whom any number of people have considered ambitious, but without real cause – suddenly dabbling in blood magic; Mordred claiming – without any previous narrative justification, but with no need or plausible case for lying – that Morgause put him up to proving Gwenhwyfar’s infidelity; and no real reason – every other war we get more, and again enough provocations are suggested that even a hint could easily be given – why Mordred and Arthur should fight. Of course, the story is well-enough known that the prepared reader can be assumed to interpolate from other accounts: but this is the one place the book really fails if taken purely on its own terms.

Despite these few faults and the great number of cautions, I have no doubt that as a literary work this is a worthy addition to the collection of the tales of King Arthur.

Notes on Le Morte d’Arthur

Having made my way through two volumes containing one William Caxton’s 1485 edition – apparently the first published – of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, I am left with rather mixed impressions.

As to structure, in Caxton’s hands it has very little; according to John Lawler’s modern introduction, Malory devised a scheme of eight books reminiscent of ancient epic; how Caxton’s twenty “books” correspond is not easy to tell. One can make out a structure of roughly three parts: Arthur’s birth and establishment in the kingdom, with various wars including his invasion of France to fight with the Romans, following the British story found in Nennius, Geoffrey, etc.; then the story of Tristram; and finally the quest for the Holy Grail and the subsequent events leading to Mordred’s betrayal and Arthur’s death.

Interspersed through the first two parts – and bleeding into the last – are accounts of various quests and tournaments; the tournaments particular get a little repetitive and whatever their literary value I suspect they have more as a reflection of Lancastrian courtly expectations – or earlier French ones, depending how close Malory stayed to his sources. Some of the passages are quite well done – and the bit where several knights all end up on each other’s horses amused me – but the eyes glaze over a bit after the third or fourth virtually identical scene within thirty pages. Actual tournament ethics are baffling – at times our champions will avoid another knight doing well in order to help him to the prize, but at other times the best knight on the other side is the one to fight. It seems to have something to do with friendship or feud beforehand, but I can’t come up with a consistent rule.

When Malory is actually getting on with the story, he’s quite interesting. The individual quests are mostly well-done little vignettes; and the longer narratives – King Uther, Arthur’s discovery and early wars, the war with Rome, and the story of Sir Tristram (setting aside most of the interruptions for side-quests) all capture the imagination. (Apart from the odd decision – whether Malory’s or Caxton’s – not to actually finish the story of Tristram, whose sorry end is merely mentioned in passing later.) And the Grail and King Arthur’s death crown the book effectively.

The language does not require translation, and only a few words even require the glossary found in modern printings. A few things stood out. “W” is used instead of “g” in certain words, most commonly “wallop” for “gallop” and “wood” for “good”. “Wood” requires careful treatment, however. It is found as, of course, a noun meaning a collection of trees; as an alternate (in some passages more common) form for “good”; as an adjective with persons or behavior, glossed as “wild” (as in “mad” or even “berserk”, from context; it is tempting to suppose a derivation from “woad” and its martial connotations); it is, especially in the later tales, used adverbially, though “wildly” doesn’t always fit, and it seems to serve as an intensifier; and in certain places the only coherent reading is to take it as a contraction of “wounded”.

“Big” has its modern meaning sometimes but is primarily a synonym for “strong” although it’s used so loosely in places I’m almost inclined to suspect it of being fifteenth century slang. And finally, the verb “yede” (past tense “yode”) appears to mean “go quickly” or “hurried” but, since it seems to be used mostly of person given a specific message or mission, certain sentences result in which the very recent internet neologism “yeet” (meaning most closely, to throw or get rid of something in a hurry) would not be out of place instead at least as an analogy. As far as I know, there’s no actual derivation here, although it’s tempting to imagine one!

Malory’s combination of British and French sources results in some oddities. In the first parts, the causes and results of quarrels are often more reminiscent of the Icelandic sagas, while the later French stories are mostly issues of manners or love. In the British sources, the story knows nothing of knights as such and the story is more direct: Arthur’s war with Rome is interrupted by Morded’s treachery. Malory incorporates this but has him defeat Rome itself, and thus when he crosses to France a second time to fight Sir Launcelot after his adultery is discovered, this is only because Arthur was made to have installed various of his supporters as kings and lords over conquered Gaul.

Characterization of the knights – most notably Sir Kay – also seems to change with the source. In the British sources, Sir Kay and Sir Lucan are Arthur’s primary companions and among his most notable champions; in the quest stories, Sir Kay is full of himself and either a troublemaker or the butt of the story’s jokes, depending. Sir Gawaine’s position is ambiguous throughout. Once we get to the courtly narratives, Sir Launcelot and Sir Tristram are acknowledged near-equally as the best knights – along with Sir Lamorak, who seems to have dropped out of popular remembrance entirely. Sir Gawaine and Sir Palomides are sometimes considered their equals and sometimes not.

The story’s sexual morality is more or less non-existent. “Courtly love” in its decadence is in full effect, save for the Quest of the Grail, whose original author seems to have been trying to make a point. Otherwise the narrator is on the side of the knights in their affairs: even King Arthur remains more impressed by Sir Launcelot’s skill at arms than distressed by his betrayal, which is barely noted as such; and King Mark, whose maintainance of a long-running, often patched-up feud with Sir Tristram is about the only understandable reaction, is portrayed as a villain when not (variably) a coward.

More startling yet is King Pellinor’s rape of a woman (resulting, naturally for the genre, in a son who himself will be a knight) which is made to be practically excused by her husband, on the grounds that at least the child’s father was a king. In comparison, Arthur’s own affairs (two recorded – before his marriage, but one (unknowingly) with his sister – barely register. On the other hand – or perhaps as a result – bastardy is barely a concept: a knight’s own deeds define his worth.

There is, strangely, an element of monogamy retained: knights having declared one love are considered to be guilty, at least of bad manners, should they be caught in another affair or – by necessity or trickery – wind up married to some other lady. One suspects mediveal marriage for advantage at court – and possibly suspicion of marriage arising from over-valuing virginity – bears some blame for diminishing to honor of the wedded estate and allowing – demanding? – another code governing passions.

Overall Malory succeeds in combining his sources into a mostly coherent whole. If Caxton chose to call the work Le Morte d’Arthur – Malory’s intended title is uncertain – we can easily understand why, because the final third of the book contains the best writing.

Review: Uncompromising Honor

I’ve left spoilers out of this post. I’m debating another one with spoilers, but it would mostly just be listing all the things that annoyed me. The linked post from last year does have spoilers from War of Honor.

As series finales go, Uncompromising Honor is already the second one in David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, which by itself neatly sums up the difficulty of trying to judge the book fairly. It is not in any sense a stand-alone novel, and while I’m incapable of thinking myself into approaching in in that frame of mind at this point, I suspect the flaws would loom larger than the successes.

The successes, from a plot and series perspective, are considerable. Weber has neatly gathered up the loose ends due to his own foibles as a writer, together with the frayed ones where Eric Flint got a bit carried away with his spin-off series (technically co-authored with Weber, but as best I can tell this amounted to making sure the timeline didn’t get too impossible to sync with the main series), and tied them off neatly enough. Flint’s next book will – whatever the plot overlap – be, I suspect, essentially launching a new storyline, while I’m not sure what, if anything, Weber still intends to do with the Honorverse.

The failures are individually smaller, and in line with the same authorial bad habits I detailed a year ago when I called War of Honor “The Worst Honor Harrington Book”: Weber attempts to maintain realism and present all sides, but the coincidences work out too well, the good guys don’t make enough mistakes to make the bad guys’ howlers believeable while readying, and when it comes to political characters shades of gray are distinctly missing. In addition, this one shows up Weber’s tendency to utopian thinking a bit too strongly to be plausible at the climax.

Still, if as a book At All Costs – the first attempt at a series finale – was better, by then the side stories were spiraling out of control: this one actually manages to put a cap on things. It does leave plenty of questions unanswered – let’s call them plot hooks – and I suspect the forthcoming volume will have plenty of cans of worms to open up, but the main set of problems has been dealt with.

If you’ve read the series but not this one, you’ll probably want to. (If you haven’t read the series yet, but want to, it’s quite long, not to say outsize, at this point. The first three books – On Basilisk Station, The Honor of the Queen, and The Short Victorious War are probably the best. The first two actually can be read as stand-alone novels, but the third invokes long-term plot arcs so if you get that far and you’re a completionist on these things… well, you can probably imagine.)

Vacc to School

Although it seems like schools just let out for the Summer, we’re more than halfway through the break. I’ll be starting orientation activities in four weeks – and I really don’t want to have to put that mask back on, let alone deal with any attempted re-institution of all those social distancing rules and online (or even “hybrid”) schooling protocols.

And there’s really no reason I – and at least the vast majority of other teachers and students – should. Even with the new variants, the vaccines seem to be pretty good.

In point of fact, my best estimate is that at the school where I teach the measures would already be completely unnecessary: vaccines were made available very early on to staff, students last year were on the whole eager to take their turn, and the school population is overall quite healthy – but if concerns about the coronavirus persist, I’m also quite sure the school administration will take steps – whether to provide a sense of security and solidarity, or merely to fend off any potential legal quibbling, I couldn’t quite say.

But the fact is that those conditions which justify avoiding further abnormal precautions at my school don’t quite apply yet a lot of places, and returning to normal isn’t going to make a whole lot of sense unless we all take steps to get back to normal. And the obvious step is to get your COVID vaccine if you haven’t yet. There are plenty of ways to find out where: here’s one that allows you to look anywhere in the US.

Here’s a quick summary. I don’t really have single sources for these: it’s a matter of stayng informed and following a bunch of reporting. If you’re really curious I can dig up some of the recent stories.

  • Take this thing seriously. We’ve seen in Italy, in weeks-long “spikes” especially in metropolitan areas, and now horrifically in India what can happen when this virus goes uncontrolled, especially in a high population-density area. And schools are pretty high-density during the day.
  • There are very minor health risks – most seem to be related to heart conditions – but if you know that might be at risk you probably already have a doctor who can confirm one way or another.
  • There are some moral concerns about how vaccines are developed – most commonly whether particular research uses (or builds on) cells procured by abortion – but even Roman Catholic moralists I’ve read (who tend to be the most cautious) have largely approved at least the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.
  • With a large enough population, we’ve seen the vaccines aren’t perfect: but they clearly lower risk of infection, reduce the severity of illness if infection happens, and significantly reduces risk of further transmission. Yes, even with the variants.

I don’t even have a great idea who reads this thing any more, but I want to get this out there. A year and a half of these restrictions is enough when there’s no reason it should need to keep going: we’ve got the resources to stop it, but everybody has to take a part.

Vacation Reading

While on vacation, I tend to read other people’s books, rather than (or in addition to) the ones I actually brought with me. Some quick notes:

Modern Art and the Death of a Culture – Hans Rookmaker, 1970
Rookmaker examines the explicit messages and implicit worldviews conveyed by painting in different styles. He also explores connections between artists’ expressed philosophy and their work. The latter is the most successful theme in the work, although I suspect that by focusing on artists he overstates the degree to which modernist etc. ideas were minority and even “hidden” opinions before mass media. The power of his thesis is hampered by two things: first, although he recognizes the focuses created by iconography and devotional art his defense of them as a Protestant is at best half-hearted; and second, he seems to me to have little love for his own Dutch tradition, suspecting it of already transitioning towards the modernity he distrusts. As a result he does not quite appear to have a role to give to beauty.

The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century – Charles Haskins, 1927
Haskins’ work gives an overview of learning in the twelfth century. He details works made newly available in Europe through contact with the Byzantines, Arabs, and Moors, as well as outlining developments in education from monastery and cathedral schools and court establishments to the initial stages of the recognizeable university. Appears to be one of the earlier attempts to correct perceptions of the “backward” Middle Ages and extended “Dark Ages”.

Historians Fallacies: Towards a Logic of Historical Thought – David Fischer, 1970
Fisher theorizes that good arguments about history follow a logical structure, albeit one not (fully) captured by formal logics as developed for strictly verbal or mathematical proofs. This work attempts to discover those rules by illustrating failures of argument, organized around several themes. When it comes to stating theses, finding and analyzing data, and organizing formal arguments (as appropriate), it’s a very useful resourse. Fischer is a little hindered by his rejection of relativism while refusing to set a firm standard himself. He insists in introducing the work that he is interested in “fallacy” primarily in form and that the primary responsibility of a historian is to make his working premises clear – but later rejects several common and plausible sets of premises, mostly having to do with relating history to moral judgment, as themselves fallacious.

King Solomon’s Mines – H. Rider Haggard, 1885
Probably the best known of Haggard’s books, at least in part due to the number of film adaptations. Also looks to me like an inspiration for significant parts of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. A decent thriller marred for current reading by subservience to the racial theories of the day, it seems to me that its actual literary value will be difficult to judge without significantly more cultural distance from those particular errors. It’s worth noting that Haggard clearly felt something was wrong with the scheme, but also wasn’t going to challenge it: he uses “Negro” only a few times and explicitly rejects ruder forms, prefering descriptions of individuals to stereotypes (though ironically one suspects the success of this work set a few); and includes an African love interest for an English gentleman – though ultimately kills her (not him) off complete with a monologue about how it wouldn’t work out.