Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Moon

From the Grimm fairy tales, a little cosmogony:


Once there was a land where the night was always dark and the sky was spread over it like a black cloth, for the moon never rose there and no star winked in the darkness. At the creation of the world the light of night had been sufficient. From this land, four lads once went wandering and arrived in another realm, where in the evening, when the sun had vanished behind the mountains, a glowing sphere stood on an oak tree, pouring out a soft light far and near. People could see and tell apart everything very well in it, even though it was not as bright as the sun. The wanderers stood still and asked a farmer, who was driving past with his cart, what sort of light that was. "That is the moon," the man answered. "Our mayor bought it for three Talers and fixed it to the oak tree. He must pour oil to it daily and keep it clear, so it always burns brightly. For that, we give him a Taler every week."

When the farmer had driven away, one of them said, "We've a use for this lamp. At home we have an oak tree that is exactly as large; we can hang it on there. What a joy it will be not to tap around in the darkness at night!"

"Do you know," said the second, "we'll fetch a cart and horse and carry off the moon. These people here can buy themselves another one."

"I climb well," said the third, "I'll fetch it down proper."

The fourth fetched a cart with horses and the third climbed up the tree, drilled a hole into the moon, pulled a rope through it and lowered it down. When the shining sphere lay in the cart, they covered it in a cloth so that no one would notice the theft. They brought it happily to their land and set it onto a tall oak. Old and young were happy when the new lamp sent its light glowing over all the fields and filled the halls and chambers with it. The dwarves came out from their caves, and the little brownies danced rings on the meadows in their red frocks.

The four supplied the moon with oil, cleaned the wick and received their Taler every week. But they became old men, and when one of them sickened and foresaw his death, he commanded that the fourth part of the moon be given into the grave with him, as his property. When he had died, the mayor climbed into the tree and cut off a quarter with his hedge shears, and it was laid in the coffin. The light of the moon fell off, but not noticeably yet. When the second died, the second quarter was given with him, and the light diminished. It was even weaker after the death of the third, who equally took his part with him, and when the fourth entered the grave, the old darkness set in again. When people went out without a lantern of an evening, they bumped their heads together.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Wild Swans

NOW that I'm older and haven't read the stories in a while, I tend to find Hans Christian Andersen's tales rather psychotic, and however the great Danish writer was in real life, I am grateful that I am not ensnared in the mindset that evolved stories like the one about the Vikings and the toad and the decapitated Christian priest. When I was small I found them interesting, but felt that he had the endings wrong. "The Little Mermaid" is the obvious example. Lacking in common sense and full of the gloomy masochism which leads characters to lead disappointing and very unhelpful lives. It is not a very convincing proponent for religion, and since everyone will die and be sorted into something or other anyway, the question remains why one should not make the most of terrestrial life and, if someone else is in a gloomy situation, try to take them out of it so that they can experience some good. The underlying problem is probably the doctrine of predestination, and Andersen's tales show clearly that whatever its accuracy may be as a metaphysical tenet, it is singularly unhelpful in reality.



Friday, August 12, 2011

The Darkling Thrush

Picture: "Cottage at East Bergholt" (ca.1833)*
by John Constable (1776-1837)
Oil on canvas, 87.5 x 112cm in Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool

From Wikimedia Commons
* (Relevant since there are tiny bird-like specks, in the British countryside, and the rainbow is an emblem of hope. (c: )


One of my favourite poems.


Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)
English novelist and poet.

I leant upon a coppice-gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

Friday, August 05, 2011

The Lady of Shalott

Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

There was an earlier version of this poem, from 1833; this one is the one I've seen in anthologies and school textbooks. It tells the story of Elaine, who in Arthurian legend was in love with Sir Lancelot; since this affection was not requited she died and went floating in a barge down the river to Camelot, where the court of Arthur discovered her. The tale is screwed up — it's fairly sick to parade one's corpse in front of a love interest, and the likelihood that the barge would arrow neatly to its destination is physically doubtful as Anne of Green Gables would discover — but I like the setting and atmosphere very much and particularly Tennyson's power of singling out words that give strong and concise pictures of their real or imaginary originals.

Tennyson interprets the tale gently to symbolize the vagueness of an inward-looking or confined life, where one looks at life through the lens of art, books, or some other medium; and is better fitted by nature or nurture to go on daydreaming than to struggle with life or to bear a contact with harsh realities when and if it comes. Whether he meant it to refer to poets like himself, or other artists, or whether he was applying it to broader social isolation, is unclear to me.


Picture: This in my view garish (but it was in my English Literature textbook, so the associations are there) painting by William Holman Hunt is "The Lady of Shalott," in the medium of oil on canvas, painted in 1905. It is housed in the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Monday, August 01, 2011

General Prologue to the Hobbit

Purely commentary and no exposition:

This book is one which I read on my own a handful of times, a friend of the family read out loud to us once a week, and was taught to my class in Grade 7. In terms of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, I prefer The Hobbit. At school we watched the animated Hobbit from the 70s or so, and I was not much taken with it; the reason why the book comes to mind is that I recently watched the three production videos for the future film and felt that it looks very promising. As long as Gandalf, intermittently comedic dwarves (and New Zealand) and a doughty hobbit are in it, it will hopefully not wander too far astray.

My Canada-residing grandfather had a copy of The Hobbit (Unwin Books's 1966 edition in the book's "Twenty-first impression 1969") bought obligatorily since it was in fashion; though he is (rather was, but the present tense seems right) mild in his likes and dislikes, he was sometimes displeased about things and The Hobbit was one of them; he once said that he considered the book cribbed from Norse mythology and not worth reading. I'm still not sure precisely what irritated him about it, or if he was in fact irritated rather than detached in his criticism. Dwarves, dragons, and gold are in fact not foreign to the sagas, but whereas I find the sagas too pontifical, ponderous, and unhealthily unmoored from the world itself, The Hobbit is grounded in Britishness, parochialism, characters and scenes on a less ambitious scale than the Lord of the Rings, and I like it. Besides I haven't read so many sagas or even Saxon things; English literature staples like Beowulf (despite the dragon in its final scenes) and The Dream of the Rood and The Wanderer are obviously in a different vein. To phrase it in undergraduate essay terms, though, the hearth/ale/song/comrade and wilderness/isolation/pain dichotomy are common to them all.

The same friend of the family who regaled us with The Hobbit also read retellings of Wagner's operas with all their deathly sickly sentimentality, among them the Ring cycle. These were interesting insofar as we found them abhorrently preachy, etc. While the rest of us suffered from a severe case of loving-to-hate she endured them with great equanimity, until we reached a consensus over the hideously frivolous Meistersinger von N├╝rnberg that enough was as good as a feast. It deepened the impression that Norse sagas are not my cup of tea.