October 24, 2007

Book 56: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Translated by Neil D. Isaacs

At first I was berating myself for not finishing a book in so long, but considering that it was only a ten-day lapse, I don't think I did too badly after all. This book is really more of a novella, but books can come in all shapes and sizes and Sir Gawain is particularly valuable to us as a relic of the Middle English period and an important marker of the cultural context of that time. What is perhaps most valuable and surprising about this book is its deviance from modern traditional visions of the Arthurian legend. Most everyone will know the legend behind this story, but in the modern era we tend to include the Round Table, that great marker of equality. The Middle English version is likely much closer to the actual events as it depicts a fairly typical high table and even a strict heirarchy within that table. This is especially valuable because it allows us to consider why we have retroactively introduced the Round Table. Little discrepencies such as this make me want to dig up some literature about the development of the Arthur legends, so stay tuned for that.

But back to Gawain. The book itself isn't too heavy on action per se, consciously leaving out a lot of dragon fighting and (presumably) maiden rescuing in lieu of long descriptions of Gawain's shield and its pentangle. Even here, however, we have an interesting lens through which to view medieval religion and notions of chivalry; the long descriptions do not hinder the reading of the text but instead enrich its historical perspective. The plot itself is sufficiently entertaining, if not groundbreaking, and contains a nice twist at the end which would be surprising if the story were not so grounded in the canon of English language folk literature. Some of the poetry of the original Middle English (which was presented side-by-side with this particular translation) is naturally lost, but some of its basic tendencies remain, the most prominent of which is the interaction between the last four lines of each stanza and the lines that precede them.

Overall, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is quite an entertaining and quick read, particularly for those interested in its historical context or the broader developments of Arthurian literature in English. Its plot developments happen often enough to engage the modern reader and the moral quandaries it poses regarding hospitality, courtesy, and honor still resonate somewhat today, though in ways the author couldn't have imagined. The story itself is strong enough to hold up over time and takes on new meaning because of its setting, only strengthening its claims to respectability. This classic tale of one of Arthur's most beloved knights is well worth the time.

Grade: A

October 14, 2007

Book 55: The Island of Dr. Moreau

The Island of Dr. Moreau
H.G. Wells

Written in a time before DNA and genetic engineering were the least bit fathomable, Wells definitely hit the spot regarding the next big ethical dilemma facing scientists in the wake of evolution. Where could the human race go next, and how exactly did humans emerge from animals in the first place? Wells indirectly tackles these issues and more basic scientific ethical questions with gusto, presenting the unrepetant mad scientist and the not-so-innocent outside observer with narrative flair that adds significant characterization but retains enough stock qualities to make metaphorical sense.

Wells juxtaposes the increasing humanity of Moreau's creations and the decreasing humanity of the scientist and Prendick, the accidental narrator, to create an interesting montage of the book's central dilemma and the question of humanity. Dr. Moreau's lack of mercy is paralleled by the monsters he creates, but only as they descend back into their primal selves, mostly after his disappearance. Wells seems to suggest that humans are just as capable of violent and selfish qualities as the animals we typically associate them with, but does so in an underhanded manner that requires thought and rumination on behalf of the reader, who is also forced to question those forms of being that may exist above humanity. The book is certainly not without its criticisms of and comparisons with God, which are extra potent given the plot's relationship to colonialism and its attendant idea of the heirarchy of the great chain of being.

Wells moves his prose along well, occasionally drifting into lulls and bits of unnecessary inaction, but the book reads quickly and has a certain depth surprising for a novel so short. The novel not only translates well in its own context of the expanding English colonial empire and the ramifications of evolutionary theory and the rise of science, but its warnings resonate with modern audiences facing a fair less painful method of creating animal crossbreeds. This book is intended to provoke discussion as much as it is a simple narrative, and though the narrative has its own strengths and weaknesses, the problems it presents are relevant and deserve fictional and intellectual treatment. Wells has laid the groundwork for a great conversation on the ethics of science.

Grade: A-

October 5, 2007

Book 54: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There
Lewis Carroll

There is a reason that this book has become revered in the canon of classic children's literature, and as one might expect this has a lot to do with Alice's timeless appeal to adults. Carroll is an absolute master of English and though the books lack a coherent plot, the thematic rules of Wonderland create a powerful commentary on the importance of proper language and the sheer fun that can come from manipulating English. On a most basic level, Wonderland is a world where things make much more sense than in our own, where the denizens assume that one says what one means, exactly, and that words should mean what they say. It is no wonder that the (ironically) unimaginative Alice cannot function in this world, and that she learns her lessons far too late.

Alice is ever pretentious and all-knowing, which strangely doesn't fly in her fantasy world. Instead of being in charge, she is thrust into a world whose oddly logical wackiness cannot be reconciled with her prim and proper manners and desire to become an adult. In trying to make sense of the world, she is losing the rich fantasy she is imagining. Of course, by the time Alice has matured enough to appreciate the fleeting fancies of her youth, she makes a fool out of herself. The narrator makes no bones about this, and his slight contempt for Alice makes for hilarity that transcends condescension.

Lest his book be all fancy, Carroll is not to be outdone in his critiques of children's literature, the school system, and the judiciary. Alice's constant necessity to recite poetry, which always comes out hilariously incorrect, is a commentary on the usefulness (or uselessness) of rote memorization in education, a practice common in Carroll's time. The Duchess's constant moralizing asks a very valid question, pondering whether or not literature can exist for its own sake, simply to enchant and simply to entertain. The ridiculous trials in Wonderland make an excellent case for Bill of Rights protections (both English and American) and even resonate into our own time, when far too many are presumed guilty rather than innocent.

Carroll's talent may lie mainly in wordplay and the joys of language, which are both more than amply supplied in the Alice books, but much of the wisdom of the books lies in their more adult themes, which are hidden in plain sight and which may not pass sharp young readers completely by. It would be truly fabulous to read this book with those in the younger set, as their views on Wonderland would be refreshing and would lend a new view to the books. Here, then, is the true power of Alice and her magical world: Wonderland can enchant readers of all ages with its underlying humor and its continuous hints of deeper meaning hidden amongst deft strokes of the pen. Those who complain about the lack of coherent plot (ahem, present company included) are simply missing the point and the joy of a world where anything can happen so long as it is the truth.

Grade: A