Teaching History

I highly recommend James Oakes’ column in Catalyst, “What The 1619 Project Got Wrong”. Oakes makes and substantiates the obvious claim that the contributors to that project “erase the history of antislavery and distort the history of slavery”. Taking the column back to front, Oakes’ own conclusion is that American slavery – and antislavery – cannot be understood without going further back and examining the rise of “capitalism”. However, the largest part of his piece is dedicated to reviewing the available facts which the Project‘s authors ignored or minimized, particularly with regard to the Southern slave economy and its relationship to the North and to Europe; American abolitionism; and the history of teaching American history.

It is the last – or rather, in Oakes’ essay, the first – of these subjects that I want to comment on briefly, as teaching is the one subject treated which I actually know a fair bit about. Oakes’ review of changes in American textbooks is useful in understanding some of the divisions visible in American education today. However, I think he does not quite account for the realities of schooling, and ends up pushing his case a little further than the evidence actually allows.

In looking at history textbooks, Oakes reviews – and emphasizes that he is summarizing what is widely known – treatment of slavery from the late 19th century on. Textbooks after the Civil War naturally understood slavery to have been an issue of great importance. The early progressives – Oakes cites an 1896 book, then on through the first half of the 20th century – are the ones to whom we owe efforts to downplay both the severity of American slavery and its importance as a point of political and social debate. But the tide was already turning back toward honesty by the 1940s – at the latest – and from at least the 1970s on we have been “systematically introduced to marginalized groups – black people, women, immigrants, workers”.

Let me make my criticism first. Oakes does not really account for the role of teachers in teaching. I teach math, and hardly use my textbooks as more than a source for exercises. And this is so, even though the facts of mathematics are not seriously disputed, nor is there much call to “interpret” them. The study of history asks us to both examine our “facts” carefully and ask how we are to understand their connection and significance. Students learn interpretation from their teachers and the work teachers assign, and the simple fact is that I, with relatively little preparation and despite having my degree in mathematics, could teach “Manifest Destiny” nationalism to a history class out of today’s most misleadingly “inclusive” textbook, or “Critical Race Theory” using Beard’s textbooks that Oakes castigates.

All either of these reversals would require is a careful selection of original sources to present to students in contrast to the “oversimplified” narrative of the textbook. I would barely even have to imply the textbook’s author might have had an agenda – and this is assuming students actually read the textbook. Oakes might be surprised how many students simply don’t. So this is one weakness in his argument: whatever may be published is not necessarily the same as what is being taught.

Additionally, textbooks are hardly replaced promptly in most schools. The expense of textbooks is enormous today, but even a hundred years ago the outlay would still have been significant – and of course, the poorer the school, the more relatively off-putting the total. Judging by my experience, a book published in 1949 might not really have become a “standard” textbook until, say, 1960.

Now, if we return to the larger context, we can also see the basis of reactionism. The early progressives intentionally downplayed slavery. The later 20th century historians corrected this. So far, we have a picture of reform. But, as Oakes documents, even other academics found some of these new books “surprisingly dark” – focused on “conflict and violence, oppression and resistance” and – crucially – without a suggestion of progress. Oakes notes in passing conservative complaints about “multiculturalists”, citing Limbaugh and Krauthammer, and invoking Reagan – but only as evidence that, as far as the historical consensus was concerned, the progressive white-washing had failed. He might have considered these complaints in more detail, if only for the odd transition of progressive to conservative, though ideological history is admittedly tangential to his article.

It seems most likely that Reagan – and, if I’m right about the delay in purchase of new textbooks, Limbaugh and Krauthammer – would have gone to school with that early progressive version of things in their textbooks. And that’s an important question for conservative teachers to consider – especially as in virtually all cases the early 20th century progressives are considered largely responsible, in their disdain for written law, for many of the problems we see today. What dishonesties have been accidentally – or possibly intentionally – carried over into efforts to rebuild good schools?

But Oakes does not fully understand the motivations of the conservative push-back. I assume Oakes himself would hardly identify as a conservative, but he makes an appeal that virtually every conservative teacher would agree with verbatim: “Those of us who see in American history profound divisions over democracy, equality, racism, and slavery are not plumping for a myth.” But you can’t maintain stability on the basis of division. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” As Neil Postman notes in his 1996 book The End of Education, an education – especially a public education – that does not provide sources of unity does not, in the end, contribute to the community. We can accept a history of division, if we maintain a unity of vision. Conservative schooling believes itself based on maintaining that vision – if admittedly not always well-defined.

In contrast, the import of The 1619 Project and similar scholarship – even if Hannah-Jones maintains it is an argument merely for “reparations” – is essentially revolutionary. It attempts to demonstrate – often assumes – that the American vision is primarily “racist” – that is, prejudiced; that is, wicked. If the facts really bore that out, it would be, at a minimum – which some have in fact called for – reason for a new constitution. Only, the charge is not – as Oakes and others have demonstrated – actually much rooted in the facts. And there is no new vision. Even the critics demand – in theory – greater democratization – a greater establishment of self-governing liberty. Which is, evidently, the ideal claimed by America. And where American corruption has curtailed the American dream, the current Constitution does in fact allow for its own amendment.

What I am increasingly afraid of – what I learned was a basic assumption among conservatives as I grew up, and what I see equally widespread among progressives today – is a fundamental disbelief in the powers and legitimacy of the institutions and officers of our nominally self-governing republic. A situation where every corrupt power “we” have is tightly embraced lest it fall into “their” hands, and where every popular movement for reform is distrusted as a “front” for some powerful interest – unless it’s a reform “we” are in favor of, in which case the campaign as well as the reform is supposed to be flawless.

The Constitution could probably use some changes: but that can hardly happen without open discussion. What we need to remind ourselves most urgently is that we have sources of unity – that we in fact hold certain truths to be self-evident; that we are committed to government by the people; that we, in fact, have a dream.

A Room With a (Re*)view

A Room With a View was not, apparently, E. M. Forester’s first novel, but it reads as though it might have been. Forester has a great gift for expressing character: the narration is pleasant to read where the characters are pleasant; awkward where they are awkward; unpleasant where they are unpleasant. For the most part a satisfying read, the unexpected force and direction of the ending reduce it to less than the expected sum of its parts.

The plot is an unremarkable romance – meeting, confusion, resolution, and marriage. The “meeting” occurs on an Italian vacation (thus the title); the honeymoon is a bit of a reprise. And in these episodes (despite the one being the first half of the book, and the other merely the final short chapters) Forester explores tensions between classes, between characters, and suggests (in the end, states) his demand that physical – or more than physical – attraction be given its just place in these arrangements.

The difficulty with calling this the theme of the book is that most of the middle is warmed – is simply delightful reading – due to a sort of upper middle class comfort I suspect Forester himself had much more sympathy, even love for, than his claimed philosophy admits. The loving family reality of the heroine Lucy’s mother and brother is evidently a much greater good – than the mere conventionality of the first confused engagement, of course, but also than the avant garde romanticism of the conclusion.

But also, given the characters portrayed – particularly that of Lucy’s mother – there really is no reason the designated couple – once past the formulaic mistaken engagement to somebody else, which is perhaps unique here in that the eventually-rejected fiancé learns something – shouldn’t court and marry, if not conventionally, at least without offense to convention. Yet Forester, to achieve the effect of rebellion, has put in a bit of a confused speech about What Love Really Is and All That Sort of Thing. And the rest of the cast behaves most oddly in order to let Lucy be lectured, to say nothing of the choice of lecturer. Forester has gotten from A to B, and B to C, and so on; but doesn’t quite seem to realize that getting from T to Z can be done quite normally – or at least, he doesn’t successfully justify skipping the steps he wants to in wrapping up his plot. The problem is the same as in Chesterton’s The Ball and the Cross or Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged – the mechanics of the ending are implausible: unbelievable unless you already believe in the principle subscribed to, and even then the artistry is dubious.

I’d happily reread the book any time; only I’m not sure whether the dissonant ending would seem more or less of a nuisance once you know it’s coming.

* I promise I didn’t read this book just to make this stupid joke.

Review: Eternals

I should note at the outset that I didn’t mean to see Eternals in the first place. I was looking for Dune, but whether it wasn’t in theaters yet, or wasn’t in that theater yet, or was out of theaters or that theater already, there wasn’t a Dune to be found. (In case you can’t tell, I don’t go to the movies that often – and anyway I was traveling and didn’t look things up in advance. And only decided where to stop about an hour before I did, too.)

Anyway, Eternals was about what I expected from comments I’d seen – a mediocre superhero film with certain themes included that were bound to excite the “queer” community. The film, just for context, accompanies a reboot of a perpetually short-run, multiply rebooted comics series. For this go-round, at least one character (Ajak) has been “updated” to female; another (Sprite) is strikingly androgynous (I believe supposed to be female here – unsure of the original); a third portrayed in a homosexual relationship (I forget the character’s name, and the thing is celebrated, if that’s the word, by appropriating the lovely Skeeter Davis number “The End of the World” – which misuse is a crime against nature).

All of which, of course, makes the film very much of part of its age (ours), but doesn’t necessarily compromise the art irretrievably. The Iliad, for instance, is not significantly marred by the fact that its action is spurred by a dispute over a couple of slave concubines (which status may be being polite); although it helps the Homeric case that the cause once explained is promptly forgotten for the majority of the epic, and The Iliad is in any case a tragedy.

Eternals probably would be more effective if it had more of the stylings of a tragedy. It certainly has the plot of one – at least nearly. Since we receive the information practically in the prologue, it’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that the “Eternals” are agents of a demigod, and that they end up rebelling. But it’s a superhero film, so they save the world in the process. And elements of the ending do make Eternals stand out for seriousness. The final action sequence is very well done; but perhaps more impressive, the reality of consequences is addressed here. Ikaris’s character arc concludes in devastating fashion, and there’s a hint of actual judgment to come in the sequel hook. Superhero films being what they are, it’s my best guess our heroes wangle their way out of that threat, but I don’t quite want to judge this film on that assumption.

The problem is that up to the ending the film does not live up to the emotional weight its plot suggests. The acting is largely by rote, and the lead actors are unfortunately the most wooden. The pacing and organization is interesting but unsatisfactory: individual scenes are done well – commendably un-rushed – but the movie as a whole feels incomplete like a scrapbook. The most egregious problem is that the character Druig – which I thought was the most compellingly acted – makes sense by himself but at least one scene must have been cut (and the film’s quite long even so) that explains acceptably how he ends up where he does at the end in relation to the team. There’s another character who is, I believe, supposed to be mute – for no explained reason and whose communication through sign language apparently never poses difficulties, where you’d think that would be an opportunity for exploration and/or a moral.

The events of the plot raise questions about – among other things – loyalty, technology, power, identity, and free will – but the mass of uncertainties doesn’t sit well with the fantastic trappings and direct resolutions of the film. (This is, incidentally, the same problem that cripples Jupiter Ascending and Guardians of the Galaxy 2.) I think many of the difficulties with the overall tone of the film could have been avoided by telling the story – granted the time-jumps over thousands of years – sequentially, rather than using flashbacks and making key plot points a surprise. “Ambitious but rubbish,” in the immortal words of Top Gear – although “rubbish” is certainly putting it too strongly and the ambition ought to be commended.

Review: Mary Stewart

On a friend’s recommendation, I read two of Mary Stewart’s books, This Rough Magic (which, incidentally, seems to be a favorite homage of adventure novelists everywhere) and Touch Not the Cat. While good enough in their way, I found they mostly reminded me of other things. Culturally and stylistically, to say nothing of chronologically, she’s midway between John Buchan and Timothy Zahn. The overt Shakespearean speculation reminded me of Josephine Tey’s (otherwise much different) The Daughter of Time. Touch Not the Cat, though it’s a darker book, reminded me forcefully of Elizabeth Marie Pope’s The Sherwood Ring. All of which mentioned books and authors are, incidentally, also quite worth reading.

I suspect her, on the basis of these two books, of being a bit of a formulaic writer, although you don’t notice it so much while reading. Her curious, active heroines I expect made her a favorite and had an influence on future writers. Her style is vaguely reminiscent of the Gothic novels she clearly appreciated, but trimmed down to a civilized or at least presentable exuberance. And the Shakespeare references abound. I don’t know that I’d go looking for her books, but I did quite appreciate the ones I read. (Also she apparently wrote an Arthurian series, which since it’s turned into a bit of a theme around here maybe I should go find sometime.)

Revelations

Watership Down

I don’t know whether Richard Adams wrote any other novels, or books of any other sort, for that matter, but this one is a masterpiece. If all you know is that it’s about rabbits, or even (as I’d vaguely assumed) something to do with the English countryside, the pathos of the storytelling will come as a surprise. These are particularly heroic rabbits!

The most curious thing about the novel is Adams’ careful attention to keeping his plot very nearly to the strictly plausible. There are of course fantastic elements – this is a “talking animals book” after all – but the critters are much less humanized than I’d have expected.

The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth, and Other Stories

Along with the opening story that give the volume its name, this collection of Roger Zelazny short stories features the other stunners “The Keys to December” and “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” – along with other quite good material that still comes off, by comparison, as so much filler.

This collection also served to crystallize an understanding of Zelazny’s work as a whole: he was simply fascinated by genius, supermen in a practically Nietzschean sense. Virtually all of his work that’s not purely comic – and some of that – features one or more. It’s taken a while for this to sink in, simply because of the range of variations he plays on the theme.

It’s an interesting – or amusing – contrast to his own workmanlike and carefully planned-out writing career. It did make me wonder what we might have gotten had Zelazny gotten a chance to write some actual Superman stories.

Rebecca

There are apparently a lot of books with this title. The one I read is the one by Daphne du Maurier. I don’t know that I can quite do it justice. I’ve not read another book that manages to quite capture the socially petrifying imagination – of scenes gone wrong; of scenes gone right but obviously impossible, and baffling even if possible – that characterizes her protagonist narrator’s self-image particularly in the first part of the book.

Weirdly – at least without spoilers – the best impression I can give of its tone is by comparison. It owes quite a deal to Jane Eyre; in fact, one can almost interpret it as Jane Eyre for a later generation. Which later generation I refer to can best be explained by saying that everybody being force to read The Great Gatsby ought to read this instead. (Except that du Maurier was not American, a qualification without which nobody would ever have to assign The Great Gatsby in the first place, but which also prevents Rebecca‘s entry into that lists.)

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.

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.