Archive for the ‘Books I’ve Read’ Category

Flowers for Algernon

August 27, 2015

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes is one of those books which every literate person in America should be familiar with, at least to the extent of knowing the basic plot. It has been taught in schools, and has been challenged for being inappropriate. Flowers for Algernon has won awards and been adapted for the television, radio, and film. There aren’t many science fiction novels which have had the kind of influence that Flowers for Algernon has had.

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The plot is straightforward enough. Charlie Gordon is a thirty-two year old retarded man who works in a bakery. All his life, he has desperately wanted to be smart. He gets his chance when he is selected to be the first human subject for an experimental technique for raising intelligence. This new procedure has already proved to be effective on a mouse named Algernon and the scientists have good reason to believe that it will be just as effective on a human being. The procedure is successful and soon Charlie is as far above average in IQ as he was below. Charlie discovers, however, that high intelligence is not without its own problems. He becomes bitter and anti-social when he learns that his “friends” at the bakery only liked him because they laughed at him and took advantage at him. The scientists he believed were geniuses turn out to be knowledgeable only in narrow fields. Charlie is as much as outsider with a genius level IQ as he was when he was retarded and this time he knows it. Worst of all, Charlie’s own research reveals that the success of the procedure is only temporary. He will lose his intelligence as quickly as he gained it. In the end, Charlie is back to the level he was at the start of the book, except perhaps a little wiser than he was even at his height. He can no longer understand the contribution he made to science but he at least regained the humanity he came near to losing, and he understands what it is to be smart a little better.

Daniel Keyes did a wonderful job conveying Charlie Gordon’s growth and decline through the medium of Charlie’s journals or progress reports that he is required to write as part of the experiment. The earliest entries show a naïve and simple Charlie with misspellings and grammatical mistakes. Charlie really doesn’t understand what is going on around him, yet he wants to be liked. People do like him, even his friends who laugh at him, because of his determination to learn as much as he can despite his limited intelligence. As Charlie gains in intelligence, his spelling and punctuation become more correct and he begins to use a more advanced vocabulary. He also begins to be less likable and more arrogant. As Charlie begins to revert to his earlier state, the language he uses in writing the progress reports also deteriorates. This last section of the book is heartbreaking and more than a little terrifying. There are few things that most people dread more than losing their minds. Even death is seen as preferable and fear of death is often really fear of oblivion or mindlessness. Keyes is very good at expressing Charlie’s dread and fear as he sinks back into subnormal intelligence.

Flowers for Algernon, then, is a book well worth rereading, or reading for the first time if you have somehow managed to avoid it all these years. The novel was published in 1966 and was an expansion of a short story Keyes wrote in 1958 so it may be somewhat dated. One hopes that people like Charlie Gordon are somewhat better treated today, though substitution intellectually challenged for retarded is not really an improvement if the people saying intellectually challenged still regard them as subhuman. These dated parts do not detract in the enjoyment of the book and are scarcely noticeable in a book surely to become a classic.

 

The Life and Death of Lenin

August 24, 2015

I am a fan of Isaac Asimov‘s science fiction stories, particularly of his Foundation series. In this series of books, a mathematician named Hari Seldon invents a way to predict the future through the mathematics of probability, which he calls Psychohistory.  It is not possible to predict the future actions of an individual person or even small groups of people. Psychohistory only works which large populations, entire worlds and nations. By using psychohistory Seldon learns  that the Galactic Empire, which has existed for thousands of years, is falling and the galaxy will enter into a dark age lasting for many millennia if nothing is done. It is too late to avert the fall of the Empire, but Seldon hopes to shorten the interregnum between the First and Second Galactic Empires to merely a thousand years by setting up two Foundations at opposite ends of the galaxy that will preserve the scientific knowledge that would otherwise be lost and to lead the way to the reunification of the galaxy.

Could there really be such a method of calculating the future as Isaac Asimov’s psychohistory? In order for something like that to work, history would have to be determined by great economic and social forces and the choices of individuals, even great generals and kings, would have to be inconsequential. Carlyle’s Great Man Theory would have to give way to Spencer’s theory that even great men are mere products of their environment.

For my part, I do not believe that psychohistory could really be possible. I think that great men, and women, really do alter the course of history. There are just so many ways in which history could have turned out very differently, if the personalities of the persons involved has been different. Imagine the American Revolution without George Washington or Germany after the First World War without a Hitler. Then too, there ware the completely unpredictable workings of nature. Climate change has had a greater effect on the rise and fall of empires than is generally recognized. Diseases like the Black Death can appear due to chance mutations of a virus or bacteria and kill half the population of a continent with little warning.

I could give many examples, but the one that I would like to consider is the life and death of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the founder of the Bolshevik Party and the first leader of the USSR. Before the Russian Revolutions of 1917, there were many socialist factions seeking reform or revolution in Russia, some Marxist, some not. Among all these parties, Lenin’s party, the Bolsheviks were the most radically Marxist and the most given to violence and terrorism. Lenin and his lieutenants had no use for the kind of parliamentary reforms that more moderate groups wanted to bring to Russia, nor did he care for reforms to improve the conditions of the masses. Lenin and the Bolsheviks wanted revolution.When the Czar was overthrown in February, 1917 and a republican Provisional  Government set up, the Bolsheviks played almost no role in the great affairs. Lenin was still in exile and wanted his party to have no part in bourgeoisie elections. The party would seize power in a Communist revolution.

It is important to understand that this decision to seize power was entirely Lenin’s. None of the other leading Bolsheviks thought it was a good idea and properly speaking, as good Marxists, the Bolsheviks ought not to have led a revolution at all. Marx has very definite ideas on how Communism was supposed to come about. He believed that every society moved through stages, from the primitive socialism of savages to the great slave states of the ancient world, to feudalism,  capitalism, socialism, and finally communism. Since Russia was still emerging from feudalism into capitalism, Lenin ought to have waited until capitalism was fully developed in Russia before leading the revolution. Lenin, however, realized that the Bolsheviks would never have a better chance for power than while the Russian government and economy were in a state of collapse.

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Lenin

Lenin’s rule as the first leader of the Soviet Union was a disaster for the Russian people. All of the totalitarian aspects of the communist regime that are usually attributed to Joseph Stalin’s tyranny had their beginnings with Lenin. Lenin was the one who setup the Checka, the secret police and it was Lenin who established the Gulags and the use of terror to subdue the population. Yet, despotic as Lenin was, Stalin was far worse and it was doubly unfortunate for the Russian people that Lenin’s premature death in 1924 led to the assumption of power by Stalin.

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In the year before his death, Lenin was increasingly uneasy over events in the Soviet Union. The great revolution did not seem to be leading to a communist utopia but had exchanged the tyranny of the Czar with the tyranny of the commissar. Lenin began to consider ways of making the Soviet state more representative of the workers it purported to serve. Lenin was also becoming aware that Stalin, while a good man to have around in a revolution, was wholly unsuited to wielding power after the revolution. Lenin decided that Stalin had to be relieved of his powerful position of Party General Secretary. If Lenin had lived a normal lifespan, it is likely that he would have succeeded in unseating Stalin.  It is less likely that he would have made the Soviet regime in any sense democratic. Lenin’s own autocratic personality prevented him from ever really seeing that the cause of the increasingly oppressive regime was his own reluctance to allow anyone outside the Communist Party from gaining any real independence from the rule of the Party. Still, if Lenin had not died, the rule of the Communist Party, while still despotic, would not have reached the insane level of repression as it did under Stalin. The history of the twentieth century might have been very different, depending on whether Lenin lived or died.

Lenin was only 53 when he died following a series of strokes over the previous year which progressively weakened him. After his death, an autopsy showed that he had advanced arteriosclerosis in his brain with some blood vessels completely calcified. The arteriosclerosis was far worse than might be expected in a man of Lenin’s age, especially as he had none of the risk factors that might be associated with the disease. Lenin did not smoke, was moderate in his diet, and exercised regularly. He was under a considerable amount of stress as leader of a nation in a civil war and which had to be rebuilt almost from the ground up. Still, such an advanced case of arteriosclerosis at Lenin’s age is unusual, particularly considering that the worst buildup of plaque was in the blood vessels of his brain. The blood vessels in the rest of Lenin’s body were no more afflicted by the disease than might be expected by a man of his age and habits. Something strange was going on.

Recently, researchers have discovered that a mutation in a single gene can cause a selective buildup of the plaque that causes arteriosclerosis in the legs. Could Lenin have suffered from a similar genetic disorder that caused such a buildup in the brain? Lenin’s father also suffered from cardiovascular disease, dying of heart disease at the age of 54. While it is not yet confirmed that Lenin himself suffered from a genetic defect that specifically targeted the blood vessels of the brain, it is clear that there was some sort of hereditary predisposition for cardiovascular disease.

Getting back to psychohistory, I do not see how any method of predicting the future could account for the life and death of Lenin. It would not be difficult to predict the fall of the Czar many years before it happened. It may not have been too difficult to predict that the most radical faction of the revolutionaries seeking the overthrow of the Czar would end up in control. Other revolutions have seen similar outcomes. But how could anyone predict that a small splinter faction would end up seizing power in a coup? Remember that Lenin was the only Bolshevik who thought such a coup had any chance of success. If Lenin had still been in exile, the October Revolution wouldn’t have happened and either some other Marxist faction would have gained power, or the Provisional Government would have had time to get things settled down enough to establish a more permanent government. Even if it were possible to account for the rise of the Bolsheviks, how could anyone predict in advance that their leader suffered from a genetic defect that would kill him prematurely and pave the way for a psychopath like Stalin to gain power?

I think that it is clear that it is individuals who make history, either by the decisions of the great ones, or the actions of millions of lesser people. The social and economic forces that historians like Spencer believe that drive the course of history are nothing more than the trillions of actions made by billions of people over time with considerable influence brought on by unpredictable natural events. Psychohistory will probably have to stay in the realm of fiction.

The Return of the King

August 6, 2015

By the end of the Return of the King, the quest of the Ring Bearer is completed. The One Ring is destroyed and the Realm of Sauron and all his works are destroyed. The King returns to the Reunited Kingdom of Arnor and Gondor and his rule is established throughout the West of Middle Earth. Good is victorious, yet the victory is bittersweet, for with the passing of Sauron, the end of the Third Age has come and the beginning of the Fourth Age and the dominion of Man. The Eldar, High Elves, have lost all interest in remaining in Middle Earth and will pass back into their home in the West. For a time the Hobbits will prosper in the Shire. The Dwarves will found a new colony in the caverns of Helm’s Deep and perhaps will reconquer their old home, Moria. The lesser wood Elves will remain in Mirkwood and Legolas will bring some of his people to the woods of Ithilien. But it will not last. The Hobbits and Dwarves will diminish in stature and numbers. The Elves will fade away to be forgotten to pass into the West. Even the works of Men may not last. While walking the streets of Minas Tirith, Legolas predicts that the works of men will outlast those of the Elves and Dwarves. To that, Gimli replies that they may come to nothing but might-have-beens. To that, according to Legolas, even the Elves know not the answer, and if the Elves do not know it, presumably no one does.

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The Return of the King, then, returns to the theme of loss, found in the first two volumes of the Lord of the Rings. Even in victory, the world will never return to what it was before the coming of Sauron and much that was fair and worthy in Middle Earth must forever pass away. Even the Hobbits are not unmarked by their experiences. Frodo is wounded and will not find healing in Middle Earth. The other Hobbits are not so unfortunate, but they have grown to become worthy of sitting with the mightiest heroes of Middle Earth. They are no longer the light-hearted, carefree Hobbits who set out with Frodo at the beginning of the quest.

Speaking of the Hobbits, once again, Tolkien shows that the small and the humble can do what the proud and the strong cannot. The armies of Rohan and Gondor can do no more than knock on the gates of Mordor while Frodo and Sam can creep through the defenses of Mordor undetected. The Dark Lord’s greatest captain, the Witch-King and Lord of the Nazgul cannot be defeated by the hand of man and even Gandalf feared encountering him, yet he was slain by a Hobbit and a woman who was little more than a girl. The proud Denethor and Saruman dare to look into the palantirs, knowing that Sauron dominates them with the palantir he has captured and Saruman is corrupted into serving Sauron while Denethor is driven mad with despair. Aragorn also dares to look into the palantir. As the heir of Elendil he has the right to use what belonged to Elendil, yet he acknowledges that he barely had the strength to wrest control from Sauron. Aragorn is among the powerful, yet he shows himself to be humble enough to understand his limits. The humble Faramir also understands his limits in a way his proud brother Boromir and his father Denethor do not. Faramir, at least, is not so proud that he imagines he can master the Ring and so he does not fall into the temptation that Boromir fell into.

Don't look into it!

Don’t look into it!

It is the weakest character of all that plays the pivotal role in the quest, through he could hardly be described as humble. He is Smeagol or Gollum. Smeagol is a pathetic figure throughout the Lord of the Rings. Sly, treacherous and murderous, he is completely dominated by the Ring. Smeagol is weak and wretched. He does not have a sword or any weapon but can only attack from behind and attempt to strangle his enemies. He cannot bear the light of the Sun or Moon or anything made by Elves. Yet without Smeagol’s guidance, the quest would have failed as soon as Frodo and Sam left the Fellowship. Smeagol guides them through the Dead Marshes to the Black Gate and then to Ithilen and Cirith Ungol. After he betrays Frodo and Sam, he makes his way through Mordor, following them without supplies. In the end, it is Smeagol who manages to destroy the Ring, albeit unintentionally and at the cost of his own life. In Smeagol, we see a character who intends evil, but ends up doing good.

The hero of the story

The hero of the story

In some ways, the Lord of the Rings is a pessimistic story because of the theme of loss found throughout the plot, especially towards the end. Yet it really isn’t. Certainly some things must be lost but the good is victorious in the end, even though a price must be paid for the victory. One of the greatest lessons of the Lord of the Rings is that we must not lose hope, even against odds that seem insurmountable. The Dark Lord’s victory seems inevitable and many of the men of Minas Tirith are certain that the fall of the city is at hand. For me, one of the most poignant scenes of the Return of the King is when Frodo and Sam are wandering about the fences of Mordor. While Frodo sleeps, Sam looks up into the sky and sees that through the smokes and clouds of Mordor, a single star can be seen. Sam realizes that no matter how powerful the Shadow might seem, in the end it is only small and passing thing. There is light and beauty forever beyond its reach. This is something to remember in our own dark days.

Don’t Let the Hippies Shower

July 11, 2015

It used to be that the hippies were easy to identify and avoid. Covered with mud and behaving like drugged animals, it was easy to see that their hippie ideas were very bad ones that could not possibly work in the real world. As long as that was the case, the hippie was a harmless beast, useful as examples to the young on what bad decisions and lack of responsibility could lead to. But then the hippies started to shower. Once they were cleaned up, they discovered that they could infiltrate normal society and spread their hippie ideas on an unsuspecting population. They became educators in order to indoctrinate our children with hippie ideas like sports where everybody gets a trophy, or their parents are destroying the Earth by using plastic bags.

This is the premise of Stephen Kruiser’s Don’t Let the Hippies Shower. Under the cover of humor, Kruiser writes about real problems afflicting our culture based on ideas from the seemingly harmless like the EGAT principle in sports mentioned above and the contemporary campaign against bullying, to the annoying and unworkable like much environmentalist nuttery and the strange idea held by too many young people that they are entitled to whatever they want, paid for by the evil rich, to the malignant totalitarianism increasingly found on college campuses and in the culture at large. Don’t Let the Hippies Shower is that rare book that makes you think, while you are laughing out loud. I recommend you give it to all your conservative friends to encourage them to fight back against the Invaders in the only way that is really effective, by laughing at them. You should also give copies to your liberal friends, and watch them gaze with incomprehension as they try to make sense of such foreign concepts as facts, logic  and humor.  And if you happen to know any hippies, for goodness sake, keep them out of the shower.

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Conquest: The English Kingdom of France

July 10, 2015

The Hundred Year’s War is not really an accurate name for the medieval war between England and France. The war actually lasted one hundred sixteen years, from 1337-1453, and was not a continuous war but a series of conflicts, with off and on fighting depending on the belligerence of kings and the course of the plague. The war began when the last son of Philip IV of France died without issue. As the mother of the English King Edward III was Phillip’s daughter, Edward claimed the French throne, as well as his own. The French refused his claim, citing the Salic Law which prohibited royal inheritance by a female descendant of the king and gave the crown to a nephew of Philip IV, Philip VI. Naturally there was war.

After the death of Edward III in 1377, the fighting died down somewhat as both realms were more concerned with internal matters. Henry V renewed the fighting in 1415, taking advantage of  political unrest between branches of the French royal family, particularly the feud between the Armagnac or Orleans faction and the Burgundians. After his decisive victory at Agincourt, Henry V was able to compel the French King Charles VI to disinherit his own son, the Dauphin, later known as Charles VII, and declare Henry his heir. Henry V died in 1522 leaving an infant son Henry VI who became king of France upon the death of Charles VI later that year. Thus France had an English king from 1420 to 1450, at least in theory.

This English kingdom of France is the subject of Juliet Barker‘s Conquest: The English Kingdom of France, which covers the last part of the Hundred Year’s War. It is a fascinating story of a France almost completely defeated rising again to expel the invader, of a disinherited prince with no hope of gaining his throne turning the tide with the help of Joan of Arc, and of an infant king  with a faction ridden council of regents and a land worn out by fighting, growing up into a weak king willing to make peace at any price. It is a story of battles and sieges, of brave knights and treacherous mercenaries and family squabbles that affect the course of nations.

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Juliet Barker makes this story come alive with the skill of a novelist. She brings out the personalities of the principals involved in the war and politics of the two kingdoms and describes the events in a way that excites the interest of the reader. By the time I was halfway through the book, I found the narrative so fascinating that I had trouble putting it down. If you like the Game of Thrones, you’ll surely love this history of a real life game of thrones. The only complaint I have is that the maps really weren’t enough. It might have been nice to include one or two maps showing the course of the various campaigns. Other than that, this was an excellent history of a long ago war.

Smeagol

June 30, 2015

When I wrote my review of the Two Towers, I neglected to mention what I consider to be the best part the book. As Frodo and Sam make their way into Mirror they stop to rest and fall asleep while Gollum leaves them. Gollum returns and almost repents of his plan to betray them to Shelob.

Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee –but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing. But at that touch Frodo stirred and cried out softly in his sleep, and immediately Sam was wide awake. The first thing he saw was Gollum –‘pawing at master,’as he thought. ‘Hey you!’he said roughly. ‘What are you up to?’‘Nothing, nothing,’said Gollum softly. ‘Nice Master!’‘I daresay,’said Sam. ‘But where have you been to –sneaking off and sneaking back, you old villain?’

Gollum withdrew himself, and a green glint flickered under his heavy lids. Almost spider-like he looked now, crouched back on his bent limbs, with his protruding eyes. The fleeting moment had passed, beyond recall. ‘Sneaking, sneaking!’ he hissed. ‘Hobbits always so polite, yes. O nice hobbits! Sméagol brings them up secret ways that nobody else could find. Tired he is, thirsty he is, yes thirsty; and he guides them and he searches for paths, and they say sneak, sneak. Very nice friends, O yes my precious, very nice.”

If Sam had spoken kindly to Gollum when he awoke, Gollum’s good side, Smeagol, might have come out on top and the plot of the would have been very different. Smeagol might have warned the hobbits about Shelob and helped them to avoid her trap. Frodo wouldn’t have been captured by the enemy and the trip to Mount Doom would have been quicker and easier.

Gollum

 

 

I have been thinking of this over the past week with the Supreme Court decision regarding gay marriage. I am afraid that many Christians, myself included, have acted much like Sam in our relations with the Gay community. We have been more interested in condemning sin then in loving the sinner and perhaps have turned many of them away from from the love of God. Certainly Christians have, in the past, and all too often even now have acted in a way that has caused homosexuals to hate Christianity and Christians. We must remember that our mission is not to win debates or legislate morality but to bring souls to Heaven.

I do not mean, of course, that we should endorse the homosexual lifestyle or accept same-sex marriage. Christians must hold true to Biblical teachings concerning marriage and sexuality. Those churches which have hung up rainbow banners and celebrated the Supreme Court ruling may believe that they are doing the loving, compassionate thing, but they are making a mistake and putting themselves in grave danger of apostasy. Indeed, many of those more liberal denominations have become almost entirely apostate and can be regarded as Christians in name only. Churches which abandon the standards of scripture do not flourish. Rudderless, they sway back and forth with the wind in no set direction save momentary ideas of political correctness.

But, churches must support all the Biblical teachings regarding marriage and sexuality. A church that accepts pre-marital sex (fornication), secular ideas about divorce and remarriage, or adultery is in no position to lecture the homosexual about sexual morality. The same goes for Biblical teachings on other subjects. A church can be made up of the most upright prudes imaginable, but if they lack a spirit of love and compassion, they are no better than the pagans. Remember what Paul had to say about this.

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror;then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Cor 13:1-13)

Let us not, then, become clanging cymbals. We must preach the truth, but it must be done with love understanding. And we should keep in mind that sexual sins are not the only sins we can commit. There are worse sins, excessive pride and hatred are worse. Also, I think it would be helpful if more Christians understood why God’s rules about sex and marriage are what they are. These are not arbitrary rules from the Bronze Age. God wants us to be happy and to join Him in Heaven. He understands better than any of us that an excessive or misplaced devotion to sex, like an excessive or misplaced devotion to anything other than Him will not, ultimately, make us happy or bring us to him. God does not hate “fags”. He hates that which takes them, and us, away from Him.

The Two Towers

June 28, 2015

Although The Lord of the Rings is almost always referred to as a trilogy, that was not Tolkien’s intent. Tolkien meant for The Lord of the Rings to be a novel composed of a single volume divided into six books. The publisher’s decision to divide the The Lord of the Rings into three volumes, each comprising two of Tolkien’s books was dictated by the economics and shortages in post war Britain and once established, Tolkien’s work has remained a trilogy even when there is no particular why it shouldn’t be published as a single volume.

The trilogy concept works well enough for The Fellowship of the Ring and the The Return of the King. Books one and two are in strict chronological order and there is only slight overlap in books five and six. The Two Towers chronicle the adventures of the scattered members of the fellowship with book four focusing on Frodo and Sam while book three deals with the other hobbits and their companions. Placing two books covering the same period of time with no interaction between the main characters of the two sections gives the impression that The Two Towers is really two novels somewhat arbitrarily placed in one volume.

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This impression is mistaken, however. Books three and four actually complement one another. Book three begins small with just the hobbits Merry and Pippin led captive by orcs across the plain of Rohan with Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli following in a seemingly vain hope of catching up and rescuing them. Both the hobbits and their would be rescuers encounter other peoples and forces, the Ents and the Rohirrim, and get drawn into the larger world as part of the war against the traitor Saruman. In book four, the plots remains focused on Frodo and Sam. They take Gollum as their guide, they meet Faramir son of the Steward Denethor, and they see the Morgul army as it marches out to destroy Gondor, but throughout it is simply Frodo and Sam. The first part keeping growing into the wider world while the second part narrows to two hobbits.

Morgul1

The Two Towers shares the themes found throughout the Lord of the Rings. Once again it is the small and the humble who get things moving. The two hobbits rouse Treebeard and the Ents into marching against Saruman. The seemingly insignificant Gandalf in a tattered gray cloak is revealed as the mighty Gandalf the White. And of course, Frodo and Sam accomplish the nearly impossible by traveling into Mordor.

The sense of loss found in the Fellowship of the Ring is even greater in the Two Towers. In this book, Men and Orcs are the actors. Except for Legolas and Gimli there is not an Elf or Dwarf to be seen. Their time is passing and Middle Earth will become a world of Men, whichever side wins. King Theoden is amazed to learn that Ents still exist but laments that much that is unknown to him will be ended by the war. Faramir admires the Elves but does not seek them out. Men and Elves have become estranged and each walks further down their separate path. His own people, the Dunedain, have declined over the centuries and are now hardly better than other Men. The Ents have lost the Entwives so no new Entings can be born. The old world is passing into a newer, and lesser world.

 

The Fellowship of the Ring

May 28, 2015

The tale grew in the telling, as Tolkien put it. The Lord of the Rings began as a sequel to Tolkien’s successful children’s book, The Hobbit. The early drafts of the story were written in the same lighthearted manner as the Hobbit in a style quite different from the stories of the Elves, posthumously published as the Silmarilion, that Tolkien considered his real life’s work. Very soon, however, the tale took on a darker and grander tone. Tolkien’s two worlds that briefly touched in the Hobbit, came together to produce the epic tale of the War of the Ring and the end of the Elder Days of the Eldar.

The Hobbit is a children’s book that adults can enjoy. The Lord of the Rings is the book for those children who enjoyed the Hobbit who are now grown up. The Elves no longer sit in trees and sing silly songs. They are the Firstborn, ancient beings of great ability and nobility who have their own sorrows. The Dwarves become the noble Khazad, the Naugrim with a fierce loyalty to kin and friends and ever willing to fight for their rights. Gandalf grows from being a cantankerous conjurer to a mighty enemy of Sauron. Bilbo’s ring of invisibility, which he used to avoid unpleasant callers, becomes the One Ring, whose wearer can obtain absolute power, at the cost of his soul. The Hobbits also grow in the course of the story. Bilbo Baggins began as little more than baggage at the beginning of The Hobbit., but emerged as a great hero by the end. Frodo and company are less helpless in the beginning of the Fellowship of the Ring, but they still need rescuing. The Hobbits are decidedly minor members of the Company of the Ring, at least until the end of the first book. . By the end of the story, they have grown great enough to stand with the wizards and warriors, yet their humbler perspective continues to be essential in bringing the story to the level of the reader. The Lord of the Rings told from the viewpoint of Gandalf or Aragorn would be a different, and more remote story.

Fellowship-cover

Tolkien always disavowed any connection between the events in the Lord of the Rings and the real life events that occurred during its writing. I am not sure that I believe him. Tolkien did not consciously model the War of the Ring on World War II and Sauron was not based on Hitler, but I cannot imagine that a writer’s life experiences wouldn’t have great influence on his writings. In Tolkien’s case, there seem to be certain themes in the Lord of the Rings that must have been based on Tolkien’s own experiences in in both World Wars.

One theme repeated several times in the Fellowship is that it is the small and humble who do the real work of saving the world while the great have their minds on other things. While the elves, wizards and warriors fight desperately to save Middle Earth, it is the insignificant Hobbits whose acts of heroism save the day. The Hobbits do not want to be kings or win glory in battle. They do not really want to be the ones to save the world. All the Hobbits want to do is their part for Middle Earth and then go back to the Shire. As Sam might put it, they have a job to do. Surely, Tolkien based his Hobbits on the common British enlisted men who served under him in World War I. The generals and statesmen made great plans for reordering the world, but it was the courage of the ordinary soldiers who won the war.

Hobbits on their

There is also a deep sense of loss that pervades the Lord of the Rings. This is not so apparent in the Fellowship of the Ring, except in the chapters dealing with the elves, especially in Lothlorien. This feeling of loss, that much that is good in Middle Earth must pass away even if Sauron is defeated becomes especially poignant in The Return of the King so perhaps I should discuss it more in a review of that part of the trilogy. This feeling of loss, even in victory, must come from Tolkien’s own experiences. In both world wars, Britain was victorious over German aggression, the good guys won, but after both wars Britain and the world was forever changed. In some ways, this change was for the better, yet much that was good about the prewar world was gone forever. By the time the Lord of the Rings was published in the 1950’s, Tolkien might well have felt like one of his Eldar, living in a world that was no longer his.

Elves leaving Middle Earth

Elves leaving Middle Earth

The Fellowship of the Ring, then, is more than simply a fantasy, but a serious, though fun, story dealing with serious themes of plot and characterization. I am convinced that the Lord of the Rings will be one of the few books from the twentieth century still read centuries from now.

The Rolling Stones

May 5, 2015

The Rolling Stones Robert A Heinlein‘s story of the great American road trip updated for the space age. Like Heinlein’s other juvenile science fiction novels written in the 1950’s, The Rolling Stones is great fun to read and teaches the lessons in self-reliance, courage and rational thinking found in all of Heinlein’s books for young adults.

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The plot of the Rolling Stones is simple enough. Castor and Pollux Stone, two fifteen year old twins who are Loonies, lunar colonists, want to buy a used space ship so they can begin a career in interplanetary trade. They ask their father, former mayor Roger Stone, for their inheritance in advance, but he outright refuses, insisting that they need to complete their education. The other members of the family, his wife Dr. Edith Stone, older daughter Meade, younger son Lowell, or Buster, and Roger’s mother Hazel Meade Stone, a founding mother of the Lunar Free State, convince him to buy a larger space ship for the use of the whole family. Soon, the Stones are on a trip to Mars and then the Asteroid Belt. They encounter some problems, but are able to resolve them with careful thinking and ingenuity. At the end, the Stones are on their way to Saturn to see the rings.

This book was published in 1952, before any human being had gone to space and even before Sputnik, yet Heinlein was amazingly accurate in his descriptions of how space travel would actually work. Heinlein was an engineer and he clearly put a lot of thought and research into writing this book, perhaps more thought than many might bother with for a story aimed at young adults. The Stones do not just push a few buttons and head for Mars. They must  go through a take off procedure much like that of real space craft. They must carefully calculate the proper course and account for the orbits of the planets in order to get to their destination.

With all of that being said, it is interesting to note where Heinlein and other science fiction writers of his time got things wrong. In general it has proven far more expensive and difficult to establish a human presence beyond low earth orbit than anyone anticipated. Space is a more hostile environment than thought and the extended period of weightlessness experienced by the Stones on their trip would probably leave them crippled by the time they reached Mars, unless they managed to provide some sort of artificial gravity, perhaps by rotating their ship. The depictions of the planets in Heinlein’s juveniles is far out of date. Neither Mars nor Venus is habitable without extensive terraforming and there are no natives, alas. What is most remarkable for an engineer like Heinlein is the inability to predict the electronic and computer revolutions. The computers in Heinlein’s juveniles are still huge, room sized contraptions and the characters use slide rules to perform calculations. I imagine that when the time comes when families are able to take trips to other planets, there will be an app to calculate trajectories.

I said that The Rolling Stones was the story of a road trip, but it is also the story of the ever expanding frontier. Heinlein’s political and social views were often described as libertarian, but perhaps a more accurate label would be frontier. On the frontier, whether in the Old West or in space, people cannot wait for a distant government to solve their problems or take care of their needs. By the time the government even learns of their problems, they may be dead. The people on the frontier must learn to take care of themselves and once they have become used to taking care of themselves, it is hard for them to accept the idea that their betters in a distant capital are more capable of solving problems that they are. The frontier creates a political climate that emphasizes equality over hierarchy and individual freedom over regimentation. It may be that many of the problems America is currently facing, not least an ever more intrusive and lawless government and a ever shrinking personal sphere of individual freedoms, is precisely because we no longer have a frontier. If this is the case than the sooner we get up into space, the better.

Political musings aside, The Rolling Stones is an enjoyable story that can appeal to youngsters of any age.

Heinrich Himmler

April 17, 2015

Lately,  I  have been reading a biography of Nazi SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler and I am finding that reading about this man is a strange, somewhat unsettling experience. Himmler was a strange sort of man, even by the standards of the Nazi leadership who were generally an eccentric lot.  He was a mystic, a crank, and a fanatic on racial matters. He hated Christianity and tried to introduce a sort of Nordic neo-paganism in the SS. He was also the one individual who was most responsible for enacting Hitler’s Final Solution against the Jews and so oversaw the greatest crimes in history, yet he was not really an evil man by nature. This seems paradoxical yet it really isn’t. There were a great many men among the leaders of the Nazi Party who were corrupt, venial, cruel, or power mad. Himmler wasn’t one of them. He was not cruel by nature, though he could steel himself to appalling acts of cruelty in order to be tough. He did not seek to enrich himself through his leadership of the SS nor did he seem all that interested in pursuing power for its own sake. He didn’t even relish bloodshed, nor was he especially eager to kill millions of people.  How was it that he was responsible for the deaths of millions in the most cruel ways imaginable?

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The answer is simply that Heinrich Himmler was most concerned with doing what he believed was his duty to preserve the German people or volk. He sincerely believed the racist theories he propounded, that the Germans were the highest race and that the Jews were a threat to the Germans and the Slavs were an inferior race fit only for slave labor. He believed that it was necessary to exterminate millions of people for the greater good of the Aryan race. Such atrocities might be distasteful, yet they had to be done. Himmler was, in fact, greatly concerned that the acts of genocide his SS men were committing might coarsen and brutalize them and he warned them that they must do their duty despite any misgivings, but they must remain decent men. He envisaged his SS as a noble order of knights charged with an unpleasant, but utterly necessary duty. It was this impulse to serve his country, a virtue good in itself, that caused Himmler to commit his acts of greatest evil.

This illustrates a truism that the greatest crimes in history are not committed by bad or indecent people, but by decent people with indecent ideas in their heads, though I might hesitate to call Himmler decent. Still, he didn’t see himself as a a bad man.  Something similar might be said about his master, Adolf Hitler. Hitler was also not a decent person. Hitler really did believe the Jews to be a threat to Germany. If you discovered that a group of people were systematically undermining America, causing us to lose wars and controlling the American economy with the intention to enrich themselves and enslave every American, wouldn’t you think it necessary to exterminate such a dastardly group of people. At the very least, you might want them out of the country. Hitler’s desire to exterminate the Jews had a basic motive to save his people that might be considered good in itself.

If Hitler had only been interested in acquiring power, he would have done a good deal less damage to Germany and the world. He would still have been a vicious tyrant, but he wouldn’t have killed six millions Jews. He might have gone to war to expand German influence in Europe, but he would not have sought to enslave the Poles and the Russians. It was where Hitler sincerely believe that he was going good that he did his greatest evil. Perhaps something similar could be said about the other monsters who have destroyed the lives of millions in the countries they ruled. Joseph Stalin was a cruel, paranoid tyrant, but because he sincerely believed in Marxism he killed millions of Russian and Ukrainian peasants to force them into collective farms. Much the same might be said of rulers like Mao or Pol Pot.

Evil has no power in itself. It is always parasitic on good. It is not possible to commit great acts of evil unless one has the ability to commit great acts of good. Hitler had talents in oratory and practical politics that he could have used to become Germany’s greatest statesman. Himmler’s flair for bureaucratic organization could have uplift the lives of millions instead of destroying them. Lucifer was the greatest archangel until he became Satan. Evil is always more effective when it comes disguised as good. People will do terrible things in the name of their god or country or the general welfare that they wouldn’t even consider doing for selfish reasons. Perhaps this is the lesson that we must not forget. The trouble with the Nazis wasn’t that they were bad people, even though many were very bad indeed, but that even good people with bad ideas can become very, very bad.

There was a depressing number of neo-Nazi/anti-Semitic articles that turned up here. It is so easy to forget.


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