Thursday, October 25, 2012

Hornung Melling Tolkien

The Amateur Cracksman
by E. W. Hornung
Recommended Ages: 12+

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle encouraged his brother-in-law Ernest William Hornung (1866–1921) to publish a series of articles in the same Strand magazine in which the former's tales of Sherlock Holmes were also printed. Hornung went ahead and created the comic antithesis of Holmes: A. J. Raffles, a charming, athletic rogue who supports his playboy lifestyle by perpetrating a series of daring burglaries. Or perhaps it's the other way round, and Raffles uses his fame as a cricket player and gentleman's-club-haunting bon vivant as a cover for his true calling. For surely, no jewel thief ever brought a cooler head, a subtler artistry, or a keener enthusiasm to the crime.

As Holmes has Watson, Raffles has a half-hero-worshiping, half-resentful sidekick to narrate his escapades: an old public-school chum whom we know only by his pet name Bunny. (Later books in the series reveal that his full name is Harry Manders.) In this collection of the first eight Raffles stories, Bunny reveals how their first heist together diverted the bankrupt freelance writer from the plan to blow his brains out. Owing his life to Raffles, Bunny follows him from one caper to another, always a little at sea because of his friend's slowness to let him in on the plan. They come away from a close scrape empty-handed, pull success out of the jaws of failure, solve a murder they planned to commit(!!), help a prisoner escape, and all the while feel the haggis-scented breath of Scotland Yard's Inspector MacKenzie on the napes of their necks, as the law slowly but inevitably catches up with them.

If it seems, at the end of this book of whimsically naughty tales, that it's all over for Raffles and Bunny, take heart. This is only the first of three sets of stories featuring the rascals. The Black Mask (published in the U.S. as The Further Adventures of the Amateur Cracksman) depicts a later phase of their career, after Raffles' cricketer secret identity has been blown. A Thief in the Night includes additional stories from both phases of their career. And the series culminates in a full-length novel, Mr. Justice Raffles. If you're into the Holmes stories and you would like to see a contemporary representative on the other side of the law, this series may be for you. If you've ever noticed how often the name "Raffles" comes up as the answer to a crossword clue (gentleman thief, 7 letters), or wondered about it when a character in an English novel dropped his name by way of an pre-World War I pop-culture reference, here is your chance to experience at first hand the subversive humor, light suspense, mild surprises, and roguish sex appeal that made Hornung's hero a favorite in the 1890s and early 1900s.

Political Incorrectness Advisory: Just a caution to schoolteachers looking for books to share with their students: You might want to give this one a pass. The book makes several references to being a "fag" and "fagging"—which at the time meant something other than what today's young people will probably think—and, in describing one character's black servants, drops the "N" bomb as well as a "K" word that became a no-no during the controversy over South African Apartheid. A word to the wise, etc.

The Hunter's Moon
by O. R. Melling
Recommended Ages: 13+

Findabhair (pronounced Finn-uh-veer) is a teenager who believes in fairies. She's Irish, so I guess that's all right. But her American cousin Gwen believes in fairies too, and thereby hangs a lot of trouble. When the two girls get together for a summer holiday, they set out on a tour of the ancient sites of Irish folklore, especially those kissed by a memory of magic—starting with Tara, for two thousand years the spiritual heart of Ireland and (according to the author's note at the end of the book) soon to become a motorway. Even as modern Ireland sweeps away every trace of "old Ireland," however, the girls discover at least one place where the magic is still alive. And that's where the trouble begins. During a daring night camped out in an ancient monument, Findabhair is abducted by fairies and poor, plump, out-of-her-element Gwen must assume the role of heroine, setting out to rescue her.

Gwen's journey takes her from one end of Ireland to the other, and brings her together with a series of new-found friends who also buck modern trends and Believe in Faerie. She also runs into many dangers and fends off a variety of faerie tricks. She partakes of a magical fellowship, and tastes the magic of love. But at the end of her journey, she learns that she must lead a war party into the darkest place in all the worlds and fight a perhaps hopeless battle, only to save her cousin from being sacrificed to the embodiment of darkness, evil, and death. As the story climaxes, the reader will share Gwen's exultation, horror, thrill of battle, and agony of loss—as well as a wistfully hopeful ending that may leave you sniffling and saying to yourself, "Isn't that just Ireland all over!"

Being a lover of fantasy, I can't long avoid novels that imbibe Irish folklore. The problem is that I know just enough of the Irish language to be painfully aware that my best guess as to how each word should sound in my mind's ear is as far from the actual pronunciation as the White Gates of Morning from the Black Gates of Night. It's terribly vexing. So I owe O. R. Melling (pen name of Canadian-Irish author G. V. Whelan) a deep bow of thanks for kindly supplying a glossary with pronunciation aids for us hopeless anglophones. Her "Chronicles of Faerie" series continues with the titles The Summer King, The Light-Bearer's Daughter, and The Book of Dreams. Plus, her stand-alone novels, mostly for young-adult readers, include The Singing Stone, The Druid's Tune, My Blue Country, and Falling Out of Time.

The Silmarillion
by J. R. R. Tolkien
edited by Christopher Tolkien
Recommended Ages: 13+

When The Hobbit was a hit, Tolkien's publisher asked for a sequel and, so the story goes, an early draft of this book is what Tolkien first submitted. The publisher was so perplexed that he sent it back, and so Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings instead. In that staggeringly casual, "oh well, here goes" kind of way was written one of the great stories of our age, a modern-day myth that has shaped so many works of fiction since then, including most of the fantasy genre. But The Silmarillion remained unfinished when Tolkien died. It was left to his son Christopher to patch together J. R. R.'s unpublished writings and fill in the missing pieces of this book, with the help of other fantasy mavens such as Guy Gavriel Kay. And so The Silmarillion became the cornerstone of a vast amount of posthumously-published material collated by Tolkien heirs and scholars up to the present day, much of it having to do with the same fantasy world of Middle Earth where The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings took place.

This bit of background information may serve to explain why this book is so marvelously insane, or insanely marvelous. In it, essentially, Tolkien creates the entire mythology of the world in which his fantasy masterpieces find their setting. It's a marvelous insanity like that of Peter Jackson, who in filming The Lord of the Rings strove for such a depth of authentic detail that many touches, such as the miles of handmade chain mail worn by the extras in many a crowded battle scene, were hardly seen on screen at all. Likewise, Tolkien fleshes out the background behind the great doings of The Lord of the Rings with not only a sketchy story outline, or a few surplus details, but with a whole vast canvas of history going back to the creation of the world and spanning ages on a scale so huge that the entire Rings saga appears alongside as a brief, parenthetical afterthought. He peoples those eons with a hierarchy of immortal beings who make the elves of Frodo's time seem puny and contemptible by comparison. He imagines languages, peoples, eons of time, and the natural history of whole worldfuls of geography (one world after another, as wars and catastrophes continually reshape the land), titanic conflicts, and the individual melodramas of an immense cast of characters whose comings and goings, sayings and doings, seem fit to stand alongside any epic cycle, saga, myth, or legend in world culture. He creates a reality that seems to be the work of several lifetimes, and all of it to furnish one fully-realized work of art (LOTR) with a fittingly scaled and textured wall to hang on. It's insane. And it's wonderful.

Tolkien writes in brutal disregard of all conventional notions of what makes a book readable, but he does so with incredible lyricism. He writes of spans of time and space that are incomprehensible, while the reader's brain hums like a machine in high gear. He dismisses impossibly long stretches of time with a fraction of a sentence, then tells tales of glory and tragedy and love and fate and conflict between good and evil, in wealth of incident and depth of detail. He zooms in on the weaknesses of his most admirable characters, the fears of the most courageous, the doom of the most powerful, the bitter ironies and mournful mysteries of so many good things that have been turned to evil or destroyed or lost forever. And he persists in coloring his world in shades of nostalgia, in a view of the world as one that has continually, or incrementally, become weakened or diminished or broken, even while light lingered through its darkest times.

The Silmarillion is a novel in five parts of unequal proportions. The greater part of it unfolds the legends of the wars between the powers of the world that existed before mankind came into being. It is interesting to see man depicted as a late-coming race within the world, a race whose very mortality is the gift that ensured that man's dominion would grow as the immortal elves waned. One of the master touches of fantasy is the ability to see all of mankind from an outside point of view, and there are few books that accomplish this so well as The Silmarillion. But even when the elves have the world pretty much to themselves, there is plenty of folly and misunderstanding and conflict and horror. Their history is a long-unspooling thread of curses, vows, revenges, bitter fates, wars against a tirelessly plotting foe, and needless injuries between those who should have been friends and allies. The entire history of elvendom is a continuous movement out of Middle Earth and towards the undying lands of the west, delayed and set back by the ill chances of a world over which, for many ages, only the stars shone, and in which evil got an early foothold.

You can come to this book to find out where folks like Elrond and Sauron, or creatures like Shelob came from; to learn what sets the dwarves apart from the elves; to see the shining beginnings of places that are already in ruin by the time The Lord of the Rings takes place; to learn the stories that lie behind the ancient beings encountered, the names dropped, and songs quoted like clues to a reality beyond what the characters in that book directly experience. That reality is not merely suggested, but actually exists in this monument of one man's mythopoeic imagination. I was right to be afraid to read it for so many years. But now that I have read it, I realize that I was afraid for the wrong reasons. It isn't an occult book of secret Dungeons-&-Dragons lore to subvert the imagination of a pious youth. Nor is it an unreadably tedious tome of made-up lingo and pompous platitudes. It is a huge, noble, powerful, eventful story, or collection of stories, that will move your heart, spark your imagination, and perhaps exert a good influence over the way you think about courage, and pride, and responsibility, and honor. It is a book of phony history that could plant in your mind useful thoughts about the true nature of history. It is a book that could help you understand something about the world's sickness—and not only to grieve over it, but to hope for its healing.

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