Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Swallows and the Amazons

A map of their Adventures
When I was seven years old, my sister deemed I was finally Old Enough for Some Things. One of them was the Seven-Year-Old Wonder Book, which she started reading to me the night of my seventh birthday, the other was Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome.
Growing up homeschooled in a place that doesn’t really approve of homeschooling, can often be lonely. Some years we didn’t have any friends at all; they, or their parents would make short work of the relationship. So often times, we had to make do with ourselves…and various characters in books. There were weeks on end when my sister was Sir Percy Blakeney and I was Sir Andrew and we were rescuing people from prison during the French Revolution. Genres even crossed sometimes, with the successful rescue of Sidney Carton from under the noses of the French. We rewrote War and Peace with a happy ending, amended The Chronicles of Narnia so it could be played out with two children instead of four, and went off to wander the slopes of Wales with Taran and Eilonwy in The Prydain Chronicles.
Coniston Water in what is now Cumbria,
one of the cheif influences behind the books
Photograph by Paul Mcgreevy on Flickr
So we really weren’t as lonely as might be expected. We had each other, and we had books and along with The Chronicles of Narnia, Away Goes Sally by Elizabeth Coatsworth, and The Good Master and Singing Tree by Kate Seredy, there was the Swallows and Amazon series.
It’s perhaps my favourite series of all time. Though it’s hard to say, because there are others that finish very close to it. I can say, however, that it is the most engrossing and deceptively simple series I have ever read. Not only are the plots ingenious and unexpected, but each book is completely different from the last. 
Horning, Norfolk, setting for two of the books
Photograph by Rob Fairweather on Flickr
Starting in 1929, the series follows a group of children as they grow up in England in the years just before the war. There is no frivolous description, no romance to muck things up, they are strictly stories of childhood…and what stories they are. Many people are attracted to the books because of the things the children get to do; they camp on islands, are allowed to use matches, go gold prospecting, sail across the North Sea by themselves in a gale…among other things. The books are also packed with masses of practical knowledge about wind and tides and fishing, and include other professions that are almost dead, like charcoal burning and wooden boat building.
More breathtaking scenery form the Lakes District
Photograph by Andy Rothwell on Flickr
But the thing that shines the brightest is how real they are. Somehow they make ordinary things seem exciting; getting lost in the fog becomes an epic adventure, and other things that might easily become boring, like camping in a garden, aren’t. It’s hard to believe that these children and this lake and those sailboats could have come from the imagination of anyone…and to be fair, they didn’t. Arthur Ransome, the author (he was a good friend of J. R. R. Tolkien, by the way), based it on his own childhood, and on the adventures of children he knew.
A first edition of Pigeon Post, the first book
ever to win the Carnegie Medal
Consequently, the characters in the stories are some of the most vivid I have ever read about. They are so alive, that, despite their author, they begin to grow up as the years pass. Almost imperceptibly they change through the series, their roles shift, they become wise from their mistakes; some of them make plans for the future…and quite suddenly, Arthur Ransome realized that his beloved children had grown up on him and he stopped writing.
For some unknown reason, because they are written for children, about children, the Swallows and Amazons series is dismissed by most people as silly little children’s’ stories. In reality, there is nothing silly about them. They are more serious and thought-provoking than many ‘adult’ stories and painstakingly paint a picture of a world that once was and never will be again: a world of river wherries and tall ships going down Channel, a world of exploration without restriction, a world where children are capable and can be trusted without lifejackets.
Shotley in Essex, one of the starting off points for
We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea, our favorite book in the series
Photograph by David Parker on Flickr

I would recommend Arthur Ransome’s books to anyone, but somehow I doubt an adult could ever understand what it was like to be first introduced to them at seven years old, and to be able to grow up with them and watch them change just the way you yourself were changing in the meantime. Perhaps, as an adult, if you grasp the novel idea that children’s thoughts are just as important, and their feelings just as sophisticated, as those of grownups, you may be able to appreciate these books. Life isn’t all about who falls in love with whom, or gangsters in dark cities, or going off to a war. There are the times in between, as well.
The Nancy Blackett, Ransome's own boat, and the inspiration
for Goblin

Just to wet your appetite, here’s an excerpt from Secret Water one of the last books in the series, which I think sums up what the books are like:
“I say,” said Titty. “We ought to count days, like Robinson Crusoe.”
John bent down and cut a notch in the flagstaff. “That’s for today,” he said. “Every day we’ll cut another notch until the Goblin comes back…”
“And then when we lie exhausted on the sand…” said Titty.
“Jolly wet mud,” said Roger.
“We’ll see a sail far away. And it’ll come nearer and nearer. And the captain will say, ‘Clap your eye to a spyglass, Mister Mate.’ And the mate (that’s Mother) will say, ‘There’s something moving on the shore. They’re still alive.’ And we will wave and try to shout, but our parched throats won’t let us. And they’ll sail in, and we’ll hear the anchor chain go rattling out. And then we’ll all sail away together and see the island disappear into the sunset.”
“It may be morning,” said Roger.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

War Chocolate

We know why the First World War was fought. It was fought for the same reason as the Second World War…and the Napoleonic Wars and all the revolutions in Prussia. Many people protest and say it was complicated…they don’t understand; young men died for no reason. They were charging out of trenches every five minutes, only to be mown down by machine-gun fire.
The reason why the war was being fought is pretty simple: A couple of countries were trying to take over the world, a few other countries didn’t like this idea and were trying to stop them. It’s no more complicated than that; after all, it’s a story that has repeated over and over again through history. Was it worth fighting? Well…it depends on whether you prefer English to German, I suppose.
Horses had gas-masks, too

I recently came across an advertisement done by Sainsbury's; it’s a beautiful ad, artfully done with film-class cinematography and acting. No corners were cut in the making of it. Trench warfare was just plain boring. Most of the First World War was spent doing absolutely nothing and the troops got ancy. The advertisement takes place during the Christmas Truce of 1914, when both sides came out of the trenches and ‘fraternized’ for some time before their commanding officers ordered them back. The officers were so concerned that on the French side a cat seen fraternizing with the enemy was convicted and shot for its crimes. Despite it all, the message was clear: even in the darkest of times, even when things are at their worst, the spirit of Christmas still shines.
Comparison of soldiers' height from the late 1800s
It hadn't changed by World War One
I remember how the Christmas Truce was described in The Singing Tree by Kate Seredy, when across the black and silent trenches and twisted wire of No Man’s Land, candles glittered on both sides as enemies sang ‘Silent Night’ in harmony. The advertisement somehow manages to capture this episode in three minutes without feeling too short or too cramped. The chocolate bar featured in the ad is for sale in stores, with all profits going to the British veterans and their families.
But there are a lot of people who don’t like it. They’re up in arms, digging in and holding their ground. They don’t think ads like this should be allowed; Sainsbury is trying to line their pockets, they say. Instead of showing the war as it was…full of trenchfoot and frostbite and who knows what else, it advertises chocolate. It’s disrespectful, it’s crude, it sugar-coats the First World War. It stamps the Christmas Truce of 1914 with the word ‘Sainsbury's’.
A still from War Horse
All I can say to them is this: wasn’t Steven Spielberg lining his pockets when he made War Horse? Instead of making a three minute ad and sticking their name at the end, Disney made a two and a half hour one and stuck their name at the beginning. They even ran shorter ads in movie theatres and on television and called them trailers…what’s the difference? It all has the same end. Sainsbury's wants you to buy chocolate, and Disney wants you to buy theatre tickets and DVDs and whatever other paraphernalia they can come up with.
In the end, Sainsbury’s three minutes were more worthwhile than Disney’s two and a half hours. War Horse was surgery, soppy, and historically inaccurate. It didn’t even come close to showing what the war was really like for the various animals that were involved in it. If I was a rabid animal lover I could report them for horse abuse. Nobody in that movie knew how to ride; they were flopping about like sacks of potatoes. Their seats were appalling. 
So I’ll leave you with this…would Disney have bothered making War Horse if they hadn’t expected to make money off of it? Of course not. They marked it with their stamp and raked in $177.6 million dollars in the box office alone. Sainsbury's won’t make anywhere near that much off their commercial.
Go watch Gallipoli, or the Lost Battalion; both fall short of the mark, but they’re far better than War Horse…and neither comes anywhere near the Sainsbury's commercial. 

And, just for a laugh, here's a spoof on War Horse the BBC did recently. For the record, glow worms were actually used quite extensively in the war for reading maps in war zones. Apologies ahead for the profanity. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Fact or Fiction?

Charles Dickens is probably more notorious than Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s plays can each
Charlie in youth
be read in two hours. Dickens takes weeks.
Dickens’ work is a tumultuous gathering of characters; of darkness and despair, of love, of humour…half satire, half reality. Ebenezer Scrooge is a miser of misers; the likes of Miss Havisham, or Mrs Clennam seem too bizarre to be real. Old, old people locked up in houses tottering on unsteady foundations…wedding cakes cloaked in cobwebs, things never changing, only growing older and dustier in a changing world.
But, Dickens was writing for all of us. The things that happen in his books happened to us, sometimes not in our memories, but sometimes in the hand-built past of our ancestors.
Miss Havisham and Pip
I know a house that came straight out of Dickens. It was even built during his time. At first glance it seems ordinary, even boring, with chipping lead paint and old glinting windows. There’s a musty smell when the door is opened, the stink of a gas stove. In the darkened living room, scattered with things so old they were made before your grandmother was born, sit my grandparents…old, grey, with hearts locked away, never to be picked.
The Dickens characters may seem bordering on impossible, but I’m confident that he met every one of them, because I have. The Dickens’ plots may seem too elaborate, too bizarre, but sometimes my family’s past was even weirder.
Scrooge meeting the ghost of Christmas Present
Under the layer of dust that coats everything in that house lay secrets, secrets straight out of a Dickens’ novel: murder, tragic deaths, love, happiness, selfishness. They are the ordinary sorts of people, the people who sapped off others, the people only thought of themselves, who neglected their children and impounded selfishness and ignorance. They were mad eccentrics who made brilliant things, but never cared about their families; they were social climbers and various kinds of murderer. They may be dead now, but there are faded photographs, old newspapers blackened with obituaries, handwritten letters more than a hundred years old that tell their stories.
Sometimes it’s depressing to read about them; after all, most of them are like that…these are the people Dickens met in the dark London streets, or in the blacking factory he worked in as a boy…but fortunately they weren’t the only people he wrote about, nor the only people my family can claim. In my grandparents’ house there are the few records of people who gave their own lives to save others, of two uncles who gave their fortunes away to other people without so much as a thanks or a kind word in reply. These characters are hardest to find in real life, the truly kind and good ones, people like Arthur Clennam, and Pip’s brother-in-law, Joe Gargery, and of course, Bob Cratchit.
And sometimes when my life does intersect with someone like that, I feel like the tiny woman who treasured a shadow, in the story Amy Dorrit told Maggie, because no one so kind or good as the man who had cast it had ever, or would ever, pass that way again.

apologize for not writing blog posts more often. Because of my illness, posts will probably peter off during the winter and return in strength in the summer. Each post takes some time to write and research and often times I don't have enough energy to do either. I hope you will bare with me and continue to visit anyway. Thank you! ~Psyche


Monday, October 13, 2014

Medieval Architecture

Warwick Castle, by Extra Medium on Flickr
There are more than a thousand relics, ruins and remnants of the great stone castles that once dominated England. It’s easy to think, after seeing pictures of the likes of Warwick Cast, or the Tower of London, that the all the people of Medieval England either lived in gigantic castles, or mud huts which have since disappeared. Neither is really true. There were enough people groups and building styles it’s like to drive you mad, but I will attempt to tell a little of what I’ve found out.


Maiden Castle
The Bronze and Iron Age Celts constructed ring forts (in Ireland) and hill forts all over the British Isles. The distinctive circles can be seen under the turf especially well at Maiden Castle in Dorset, the largest of the Iron Age hill forts. For the most part, these hill forts were small towns, surrounded by concentric rings of earthworks and palisades with very little stonework. In Ireland, on the other hand, the ringforts were built of stone.

The Grianan of Aileach, an Irish ringfort in Ulster,
was rebuilt in the 1870s by a group
of overenthusiastic archaeologists

The great builders of stone, however, were the Romans, who showed up in AD 43 and, over the next four hundred years, completely remodelled the face of Britain. The Romans had a particularly efficient way of laying roads and walls, as was demonstrated by the building of Hadrian’s Wall along the Scottish border in just six years. Distinctive Roman walled cities sprang up in places like London, Chester and York and because of the relatively gentle British climate, the Romans and Romanized Britons were able to build Italian style villas, which were envied by even the aristocrats in Rome. Probably the most famous Roman site in Britain is the city of Bath in Somerset with its partly rebuilt, but still functioning bathhouse.

The Anglo-Saxons

The Greensted Church in Essex is the oldest wooden church
 in the world and is considered by some to be the oldest
wooden structure in Europe. The Anglo-Saxon frame has
been covered over by later additions, but it still remains,
along with curious original elements like leaper holes in the walls.
The Romans left Britain in AD 410 and the Angles and Saxons took their place. For many years, archaeologists declared that since they couldn’t find anything really conclusive, the early Anglo-Saxons had no distinctive building style and never built anything of note. Which, of course, isn’t true.
It now appears that Viking and Norman eradication of everything Saxon, coupled with the Anglo-Saxon habit of building with wood, pretty much wiped out any remnants of Anglo-Saxon architecture. Yet, in some nooks and crannies of England, there are still some bits and pieces that the Normans forgot and the elements haven’t rotted away.
The Exeter City walls show layers of history; Roman on the
bottom, Anglo-Saxon in the middle, Norman on the top
It seems that the Anglo-Saxons took their inspiration from Roman architecture, incorporating columns and arches into their buildings. The Saxons didn’t have the expertise of the Romans, but they made every effort to repair or replace crumbling Roman buildings and walls. Through the Dark Ages, the Anglo-Saxons didn’t build great stone castles, but they did build small wood and stone churches. Their houses were probably very much like our vision of an English cottage of timber and daub and a great thatched roof. Their castles or Burhs (the root of the word and concept ‘borough’), like the Celtic hill forts of old, were made of earth and wood.
The Anglo-Saxon tower on Trinity Church in Colchester

by Nic McPhee on Flickr
Under Alfred, England really became England and for some reason, around that time, the Anglo-Saxons caught the Cathedral fever and started to build big. I'm not sure why they felt the need to build massive cathedrals rather than massive castles; perhaps it was because prosperity abounded and, in a unified kingdom, everyone felt more secure, even though the truce with the Danes was quite shaky. Either way, they probably would have been wise to build castles instead of cathedrals, considering what came over the sea in 1066.

The Normans

The White Tower, built by William the Conquerer,
was probably the first significant Norman structure in England
The ornamental domes are not original to the building
by Stewart Morris on Flickr
The Normans were master castle builders. They were so prolific, they built them all over the British Isles, all over France, all over Italy and all over the Holy Land. They even imported stone from France to build structures like the Tower of London and remodel Canterbury Cathedral. They were trying to make a statement with their massive, stark designs and used castle building as the chief means of taking over territory. In order to build a castle, a noble had to ask the King specially, and even then, the noble was limited to the number and style. Only the Marcher Earls of the boarder and interior of Wales and Ireland could build castles as they chose. Even now, Wales has more castles per square mile than anywhere else in the world.   
The Jew's House by David on Flickr
But the Normans weren’t all about castles. After they leveled the Anglo-Saxons, took out the Danes and made inroads into Wales, Ireland and Scotland, they remodeled or rebuilt all of the Saxon Cathedrals and added some of their own. They built great new monasteries on Saxon foundations and added new layers of stone over Saxon repairs of Roman walls.  But I think the most fascinating and intimate structures are the few remaining examples of Norman houses.
Saltford Manor House
Probably the oldest remaining town house in England is the Jew’s House in Lincoln. It was built sometime in the mid-1100s and it looks like a very tiny Norman castle with four walls and windows. On the same street is the aptly named Norman House, which is dated between 1170 and 1180 and probably also belonged to a Jew before the Jews were expelled from England.
An even older example of Norman architecture is the Saltford Manor House in Somerset, which is considered to be the oldest continually occupied private house in England. It was built before 1150 by William Fitz Robert, 2nd Earl of Gloucester for the Bishop of Coutances.


Bodiam Castle in East Sussex, is much smaller than it appears
by Brian Snelson on Flickr
Norman Architecture spanned the 11th and 12th centuries. By the High and Late Middle Ages, castles were becoming less menacing and more showy; Bodiam Castle, for example was built to look grander than it really was and Henry III build a beautiful Palace in the middle of the stoic Windsor Castle.

People were starting to become interested in windows and Motehouses like Markenfield Hall and Ightham Mote were built with the aim of balancing comfort and defense. After a while, defense was forgotten, the Middle Ages were left behind and the Tudor period began. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Past Isn't Very Far Away

A lock of Napoleon Bonaparte's hair
My grandmother was born in 1917. That’s three years after the start of World War One, five years after the Titanic sank, fourteen years after the first powered flight. She was probably walking when the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1918 and ninety-seven years later, she’s still alive.
Conrad Heyer, photographed in 1852 when he was 103.
He was the earliest born american to be photographed
and the only person to be photographed who crossed
the Delaware with George Washington
People tend to think of the past as something that happened a long time ago, but my grandmother would be the first to tell you that those years that she has lived flew by like a freight train. My great-grandmother, whom my father knew well, was held up by a bandit in Yellowstone National Park in 1908…those sorts of things seem like foggy memories from the deep past, when, in reality, what happened one hundred years ago, two hundred years ago, or three hundred years ago, only happened three lifetimes ago, if everyone lived as long as my grandmother.

The bullet that killed Nelson in 1805
Unfortunately, this is the best picture I can find
as the bullet is on display in Windsor Castle
and photography isn't allowed
Shakespeare is still funny; we relate to Jane Austen so much that countless movies have been made of her books; even Aesop, an ancient Greek philosopher is read to children at bedtime. The Romans, who we humorously like to refer to as ancient, lived lives that would have seemed perfectly understandable to us. They talked politics at dinner, they had glass in their windows, they even had fountains in their gardens…and in the streets of Rome, urchins were busy painting graffiti on the walls of buildings.
People are still as much people today as they were a thousand years ago. They still like desert, good drama and nice clothes. Taste and fashion may have changed over the years, but the intent is the same. The various forces that motivate people to do things are the same; we haven’t become any wiser, smarter or stronger over our years of existence.

This tile, recently found in Leicester, England, was rolled out
2,000 years ago and a puppy walked on it before it was quite dry
We need to think about the past correctly, not as dates and dry paragraphs in a history book, but as something that is still happening to us. The world we live in today was shaped by the past, bound by decisions made many, many years ago. What I’m trying to say is that the past isn’t very far away; the remains of it are all around us, and if you’ll take the time to look for it, it will meet you half way. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

E. Nesbit

The authoress, herself
I couldn’t help noting, after recently revisiting her books, how much influence Edith Nesbit had on later fantasy writers.
She was born in 1858 in Surrey, and, because her sister had poor health, saw a good bit of the world before she finally married a rake (she didn’t know he was a rake until after she married him, but she remained married to him, despite discovering and adopting several children of his that did not belong to her). She was a great friend and fellow Fabian of author William Morris (who deeply influenced J.R.R. Tolkien with his various writings, especially The Well at the World’s End). Edith, herself, wrote various poems and books for adults, but it wasn’t until the publication of The Treasure Seekers in 1898, that she became really beloved.
And she’s still beloved. I believe her most famous book is The Five Children and It, where five children (you guessed it) meet ‘It’, which happens to be a Psammead (which is pronounced ‘Sammy-ad’). I won’t describe It, because everybody knows what a Psammead is (and if you don’t, you should). Read the book. Don’t watch the recent movie. It isn’t worth it.
A still from the movie....looks familiar, doesn't it?
Edith Nesbit captured the wide-eyed innocence of childhood; despite her political leanings, she manages to paint an unspoiled and beautiful world where children always have tea on time and things always work out just as they should (which is not parallel to her own unhappy life).
In my opinion, her strength was her uncanny skill with fantasy. Her imagination was nearly boundless…there’s nothing formulaic about her work. Sometimes her characters build cities on the nursery floor which come to life, other times, they meet unlikely friends like a phoenix and a magic carpet (which behave in a curiously ordinary and believable way).
And she always had twists and turns which are completely hilarious and utterly unpredictable…like wishing for milk to feed nine hundred cats (don’t ask where they came from) and getting a whole cow (which I probably needn’t tell you is inconvenient in a nursery).
George MacDonald - a rather shaggy, but very interesting
character, who I might talk about some other time
I think she, along with George MacDonald, laid the foundations of modern fantasy. C. S. Lewis was especially inspired by her. Her light-hearted style must have resonated with him, because his is similar. His Grecian, psudo-medieval world of Narnia could almost have stepped out of one of her books…and some other things really did, like statues that come alive, children that find a magic, seemingly abandoned castle in the woods, or a little girl named Lucy who steps through a door into a magical world.

I’m not trying to say C. S. Lewis stole her ideas, or that his books are inferior (anyone who knows me knows that isn’t true)…but I am trying to say that Edith Nesbit isn’t as well-known as she should be. If you haven’t, you should read her books. They can be found for free everywhere from Amazon to Project Gutenberg, and if you’d rather not have a digital edition, go to a used book store. You’ll probably find them tucked away somewhere in a corner, waiting for you to come along. As Oswald Bastable would say, “They’re absolutely A1!”   


Monday, September 15, 2014

Civil Disobedience

“I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors.” ~Henry Thoreau from Civil Disobedience
Henry David Thoreau died in 1862, forty-four years after he was born. He was remarkably ugly in appearance, as noted by Nathanial Hawthorne, “[Thoreau] is as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and rustic, though courteous manners, corresponding very well with such an exterior. But his ugliness is of an honest and agreeable fashion, and becomes him much better than beauty.”

Thoreau was peculiar from birth, and when he met Ralph Waldo Emerson, he became an avid student of his doctrine of self-deity and oneness with nature. Each thought that no one else in the world appreciated nature as much as he did, and Thoreau had little use for anything outside of the great outdoors. Of newspapers he said, “If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident…we never need read of another…if you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications?

Thoreau must have taken Emerson’s Self-Reliance to heart. Thoreau built himself a hut on Emerson’s property by squatters rights – a hut so small, a friend called it a ‘sentry box’– and lived there for two years, growing his own food and wandering the woods for more than half the day. He wrote Walden, telling of his experiences and outlining his success in using a very small amount of money during the time he lived there. He forgot to add that he didn’t have to pay taxes on the land, because of squatter’s rights…not to mention his poll tax.

During the time Thoreau was living in his hut and communing with nature, he went to town to pick up his shoe at the cobbler’s. He was confronted by the town sheriff, Sam Staples, who asked him why he hadn’t paid his poll tax for six years and added that he would pay it himself if Thoreau didn’t have the money. Thoreau did have the money, he just wasn’t paying it. He was against the Mexican War he explained and the Sheriff unhappily locked him up. The next morning he was released; somebody had paid the tax. Thoreau had made his protest against the war, so he got his shoe and went home to his sentry box.

As was his way, Thoreau later wrote up his jail experiences into a book entitled Civil Disobedience.
He started it with the line, “I heartily accept the motto, ‘that government is best which governs least,” but added that he really believed, “that government is best which governs not at all.” He explained that he had no respect for the state, but rather pitied it. Since, as a transcendentalist he believed that he was divine, he thought it strange that the state could lock him up as mere flesh and blood. “I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through before they could get to be as free as I was…They plainly did not know how to treat me, but behaved like persons who are underbred.” 

In Walden Thoreau wrote, “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior.”  His view of right and wrong clearly mirrors Emerson’s in Self¬-Reliance when he said, “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong what is against it.

Transcendentalism, Emerson’s doctrine, was a belief of self-deity; a dismissal of any higher Being or Law. It taught that anything goes and 'good' and 'evil' simply don't exist. Both Emerson and Thoreau failed to realize that without values, the world would be run by everyone's personal whims, which would result in chaos. In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau said of the government, “It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished…” in some ways, this is correct, but Thoreau did not realize that the 'inherent character' of the American people and his own ‘good behavior’ were not inherit at all, but were the remnants of the biblical values of his ancestors.

Sunday, August 24, 2014


There's only one God, ma'am. And I'm pretty sure he doesn't dress like that.
~ Captain America, The Avengers

I’ve always had a faint distrust of superheroes that has gradually increased over the years. In today’s era of increasingly better computer rendering, pretty much nothing is impossible. People fly through the air, buildings blow up, cities are levelled.
Superheroes seem to be in the business of regularly saving the world. Most of them grow up kissed by the gods and discover at some point that they have superhuman qualities; the rest are transformed into superheroes by doctors who dabble in science fiction.
(In case you couldn't guess)
Superheroes are too easy. Cities face destruction as evil villains rise up over cowering and innocent civilians. The superhero arrives just in time to save the world. Every time.
The thing most superhero stories and books overlook is that villains are created by the innocent people. Every arch enemy in history (Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mau, Napoleon...etc…) would have been powerless without the support of his people. The people created their own destruction. Yes, they were deceived, but they still facilitated it even when all the sign posts pointed to their folly, and afterwards, they wanted the superhero to bail them out with as little inconvenience to them as possible. It’s human nature, after all.
A tiny wayside flower...the Scarlet Pimpernel
Because of this quality of mankind, superheroes go way back. We’re all familiar with the greats like Superman, Batman, Spiderman and the rest, but few know the origin of these super people. One of the first to grace us with his presence was the Scarlet Pimpernel, an English chapo who played dumb in public, but, in his spare time, saved innocents from under the blade of the Guillotine during the French Revolution. Baroness Orczy, his creator, started writing after she thought she could do better than the authors of the dime novels popular in the late 1800s.
My favorite Zorro- Guy Williams
Sir Percy, The Scarlet Pimpernel, touched off a snowball of heroism. Real people, inspired by his fictional heroism, braved death to save lives. Pimpernel Smith was a modern day (as of 1941) adaption of the Scarlet Pimpernel, that inspired Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, to do some rescuing. He’s credited with saving more than 15,000 Jews. And he wasn’t the only one stimulated by Baroness Orcsy’s superhero.
The Scarlet Pimpernel also inspired another story about a “hero with a secret identity”. Zorro, the fox, was the first Dark Knight. Dressed completely in black and wearing a mask, Don Diego De La Vaga, rode out into the night to save people from the evil Spanish in 19th century California.
Errol Flynn
But we can go back a lot further than The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Curse of Capistrano to find the origin of the superhero. In fact, Achilles, the greatest Greek during the Trojan War, has all the accruements of a modern day superhero. He has superhuman strength, practical immortality, special armour, skills, and a custom made superhero chariot with two super horses. He even has an Achilles’ heel (no pun intended), like many superheroes. The only thing he lacks is the perceived goodness of today’s superheroes.
That’s the thing with superheroes. They aren’t real heroes. Many attempts now-a-days have been made to humanize them, but they all seem to be born with more than their fair share of bravery. They’re a bit like Scotland Yard detectives, Navy Seals and Errol Flynn, all rolled into the same package. Real heroes don’t have superhuman strength, good looks or unusual bravery. They’re people, just like you and me. They weren’t born to be great, they made it there on their own, and if you asked them about it, there’s a good chance they’d say they weren’t anything special.
Cincinnatus reporting for duty
Cincinnatus is a hero Rose and I are particularly fond of. To put it in a nutshell, he was working on his farm one day when an invasion happened. Cincinnatus dropped everything to save Rome, and later agreed to become dictator, but he resigned the office as soon as everything had been ironed out. Duration of his dictatorship? Two weeks.
Cincinnatus cannot be mentioned without a nod to George Washington, the United States’ own personal hero. George was a farmer at heart, but he left Mont Vernon behind to take command of the army. After he trounced the British, he presided over the drafting of the Constitution, then took the reins for two terms as president. This was all fine and dandy, but his true heroism (in my humble opinion) is not what he did, but what he didn’t do. The states eagerly offered to make him King George, but he flatly declined. We came that close to having a dynasty of Washingtons in the White House.

Couldn't tell a lie...but he could chop down the cherry tree
In the end, heroes, real heroes, are often overlooked and forgotten, mostly because they made light of what they did. They rarely are reworded and often aren’t lauded in their lifetimes (and sometimes are forgotten afterwards). They didn’t come with powers any greater than yours or mine…in fact often times the powers they did come with (tempers, strength…) had to be curbed before they could do anything useful.
The truth is, a superhero isn’t going to come sweeping in to fix your bumbled mess for you. Probably if you saw a weirdo wearing red, yellow and blue (with his underwear on the outside), you’d most likely call the police. I know I would.
Superheroes are super, but they ain’t heroes. Heroism is about giving up everything, not gaining powers. Heroism is about humility, not fancy suits. Heroism is about being completely terrified, but doing it anyway. Two thousand years ago, my superhero gave up everything, was whipped, tortured and finally left to die, nailed by his hands and feet to a wooden beam.

I don’t think even Superman could have done that. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

How the Middle Ages Weren't Backwards

Construction on Pisa Cathedral was started in the 11th century
the bell tower was begun in the 12th; it started leaning almost at once
It’s hard to say when the Dark Ages ended and the Middle Ages began. Some people even argue that the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages were the same thing. After all, they were both Dark weren’t they? Of course, if the Middle Ages and the Dark Ages were the same thing, then part of the Renaissance occurred in the Dark Ages...
Probably one of the biggest misconceptions about the Middle Ages is that people never washed. They might have a bath once a year at the most…oh, and they believed the earth was flat.
Medieval illustration of a spherical earth from
the 12th century book, Liber Divinorum Operum 
by Hildegard of Bingen

In fact, bath houses were a common sight in the Middle Ages. The Romans had put them in and really, they never went out of fashion. There are even records of people taking baths once a week. It was considered good manners to wash your hands before and after dinner (and you couldn’t rest your elbows on the table). There was even communal bathing where lords and ladies ate their dinner while sitting in a bath…somehow, I’d rather not revive that fashion.
And as for the earth being flat…well, that went out of fashion during the Greeks and it was never seriously considered since. There are Medieval depictions of a round earth and most scholars even had a general idea how far it was in circumference. The only reason we were told they thought it was flat, was because Washington Irving took some liberties in a history of Christopher Columbus.
Roadside picnic? Possibly 12th century
As far as I can tell, the Middle Ages weren't dark and dreary. There was a host of musical instruments, many the precursors to instruments we are familiar with today. Not all songs were written for the Church, like Sumer Is Icumen In which is about summer time. The modern depictions of peasants wearing un-hemmed gunny sacks (who wouldn't hem their gunny sack?!) don't match any of the illuminations from the time. Bright colors were in during the Middle Ages and though the common peasants probably couldn't afford the rich dye the nobles could, many less brilliant colors can be produced with moss, berries or other homegrown plants. Modern forensic evidence also reveals that cathedrals would have been a brilliant riot of colors inside and drab gray stone, there.   
13th century ivory statue of Mary
and Jesus, made in France
Women weren't repressed during the Middle Ages, either. It’s true that they were used as political footballs, but so were the men. There are several accounts of powerful ladies kidnapping perspective husbands and forcing them into marriage. Robert the Bruce’s mother found this method particularly Useful. Women had trades and ambitions just like men. Abbess Hildegard of Bingen was a polymath who wrote a book on medicine and was so respected that Popes and Kings asked for her advice (a polymath is a genius in multiple areas; Leonardo Da Vinci was one). A woman even wrote the first autobiography in the English language. Her name was Margery Kempe.

This interesting Medieval painting
shows a woman riding astride in a skirt
clearly doing some damage with a sword
There were advancements in Science, as well. A friar named Roger Bacon shined light through a sphere of water and discovered that white light is made up of colours. Sorry Isaac Newton. Inspired by the story of Daedalus, A monk named Eilmer of Malmesbury made an attempt at gliding flight in the 11th century. He soared a little ways before he fell and broke his legs. He was forbidden from trying again even though he’d figured out that he’d need a tail to stabilize himself.
There are accounts of sailors using compasses as early as the beginning of 13th century (through the Vikings probably had compasses when they sailed to the New World in the Dark Ages) and glass reading stones used for magnifying text. An abbot named Richard of Wallingford made an astronomical clock in the 14th century. Before that, everyone used water clocks; they were useful for telling time…and putting out occasional fires.
Installed in 1410, the Prague Astronomical Clock
 is the oldest working Astronomical Clock in the world

Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux c. 1325-1328
Even Medieval medicine was surprisingly complex. They knew how to tie off arteries and insert drains in wounds and even had a rudimentary understanding of herbs and plants that would slow infection. And hospitals weren't uncommon, especially in the 13th century. Of course, the Black Death swept through Europe in the 1300s, but it only arrived after it had finished with Asia. In fact, in the first half of the Middle Ages, people were about the same height as they are today, which means that they had good diets and were generally healthy.
Canterbury Cathedral, an early example of Gothic
 architecture, was built in the 11th century
and figured into Chaucer's Canterbury Tales
The Middle Ages, of course, were the days of feudalism, where lords owned vast tracts of land, while peasants had to rent, and serfs were practically slaves. But, the roots of the middle class lie in Medieval society, only they were called the freeholders in those days. The Yoemen, for example, owned land, not less than one hundred acres, and were sometimes more wealthy than the gentry. The serfs were at the dead bottom and required to work for their lords in return for justice and the ability to work land for themselves…but to tell the truth, serfs were required to work for fewer days in a year than modern full-time employees.
European Beaker from the 13th century
Corning glass museum
Now, did the Catholic Church stifle learning? If you look above, you’ll see that the scientists that I’ve mentioned were all friars, monks or abbots…and they weren’t the only ones. The Catholic Church might have coloured the facts or reinterpreted them to suit it, but it also didn’t keep the Bible to itself, either. Before the advent of the printing press (which was invented in the Middle Ages) Bibles were copied by hand so meticulously that if there was one typo, the whole page was destroyed and started over (I’d better stop what I’m writing right now). Bibles were clearly very rare and expensive, but Henry the VIII still commanded that there be one chained in building of his new Anglican Church (after he'd demolished a lot of them, but that's another story).
The exquisite Gloster Candlestick
made in England c. 1104 -1113 
To put it in a nutshell, the Renaissance never happened for the simple reason that it didn’t need to happen. The Middle Ages were doing very well on their own. They didn’t need a rebirth; enlightenment had been around for years. Yes, there was  flowering of the arts and science, but the flower could only bloom because the stem had been growing steadily all through the Dark Ages.
Advancement was slower than in earlier and later years, but when a gigantic empire collapses and no less than three powers attempt to take over the world (not to mention a plague that wiped out a third of the population) advancement gets put on the back burner. Learning was a small flame that continued to burn, it only needed economic stability to blow it into a bonfire.