Smoke on the Water

Chilling in between the sun and the shadows

Relatively free of weight

A light synth beat in my head

Broken angel wings strewn across the bed

Shining with dew and fairy dust.

Open curtains at the windows

Letting in late summer light

Autumn on the horizon with its scent of death

Carried on ghostly fingers like a lover’s breath

Trembling with the fragility of time.

The Vampire Elf Queen

Her name is Queen Ivory, and I love her because she is different from the one I knew before.

She is the elf queen of the Emerald Palace. She has long golden locks, bright blue eyes, and skin white as milk.

She tells me she loves me. “Human women,” she says, “they are so fickle. One moment they express interest, the next moment they have flitted away – pssh – after some colorful butterfly.”

“Ah, yes,” I say groggily, having become drunk on her darkenberry wine.

“They cannot sate you the way I can,” she goes on to say, locking my eyes with her ice-blue gaze.

“Perhaps not,” I whisper, the world swimming before my eyes. “But still – I loved her.”

“Did you?” she inquires. “You humans cannot even comprehend the meaning of love. ‘I love you, I love you,’ you are always blathering the words – but what the fuck do you think they mean?”

I shake my head, spilling my wine over the front of my shirt. Tears are pouring down my face.

“I suppose I don’t know,” I murmur lifelessly.

She comes forward to take my glass, then dashes it down against the stones. Broken glass skitters everywhere.

“Do you trust me?” she asks.

“Yes,” I whisper, looking dumbly into her ice-blue eyes.

She kisses me, sucking with her lungs, drawing the entirety of my soul from my body. Then she lowers her mouth to my neck, more vampire than elf, and drains the blood from my veins.

“You silly humans,” she whispers, patting my cheek with her warm hand. “You do not know what love is.”

My last sight is of her bright white dress, slithering away from me, as I fall down to the cold, bloody stones.

Fun Fact: Woodpeckers in Roman Myth

Woodpeckers were sacred to the Romans. After the great-uncle of Romulus and Remus threw his nephews into the river, and after they grew old enough to leave their wolf-mother, they were fed by woodpeckers. This, of course, was long before they met their grandfather Numitor, slew their great-uncle, and set off to found their own city.

They stood upon a hill, Romulus upon the Palantine and Remus upon the Aventine, awaiting a sign from the gods as to who would be king of the new city. Remus saw six vultures above his hill; but Romulus saw twelve above his own hill, and the contest was over. Romulus founded the city of Rome, and when Remus leapt over its boundary in defiance, Romulus slew him.

This, of course, is pure mythology. No one really knows the exact origins of the Roman Empire. Be that as it may, there wasn’t an ancient Roman alive who didn’t know this story.

My Notes on Gorky’s “Reminiscences of Chekhov”

Chekhov was an interesting man, a deep man with very complex thoughts. He wasn’t adventurous, like some artists, but he did love to travel, and he believed in “traveling third-class” whenever he could. Apparently, one heard a lot of interesting conversations that way.

Later on, during his illness, he was forced mostly to stay at home. But he continually urged his friends and acquaintances, especially other writers, to travel as often as they were able. There was something he especially loved about Australia.

Though he spent so much time at home in his later life, he had no shortage of visitors. Everyone thought incredibly well of him, and people called on him all afternoon.

He rose early, especially in the summer. He didn’t approve of lazy habits, like dressing gowns or slippers, and nine o’clock in the morning always found him fresh and impeccably dressed. He had dinner at one (at which he seldom ate much, and hardly ever sat down, preferring to pace back and forth). He frequently had guests for dinner, and afterwards, the visitors really began pouring in.

There were all sorts of people: other authors, military men, clergymen, journalists, teachers and students. He had a habit (perhaps a bad one) of helping students in any way he could, often in ways which were beyond his modest financial means. He was also immoderately kind to young writers. Once, when a writer complained that he was lodging with a noisy Greek family, and could get hardly any work done, Chekhov offered to let him come and work at his own cottage. “You work downstairs,” he said. “I’ll work upstairs.”

But he was also on the receiving end of gifts, and he was always too kind to turn them down. Once, an old lady gave him a yard-high statue of a vicious-looking pug-dog, which he kept at the bottom of the stairs. He admitted to a friend that the expression of the fierce statue rather terrified him, but he wouldn’t take it down, for fear of hurting the old lady’s feelings.

Speaking of dogs (and this may be why the old lady gave him the statue in the first place), Chekhov was awfully fond of them. (Though he despised cats.) At his cottage in Yalta, he had two dogs which he kept in the garden. He professed that one of them, named Kashtan, was incredibly stupid; but still, when the poor creature got its leg caught beneath a carriage wheel, cutting the flesh almost to the bone, Chekhov tended the wound with his tender physician’s fingers. “You silly,” he admonished the dog gently. “How did you do it? It’s all right, silly. You’ll be better soon.”

Chekhov had a lovely little garden. It was not by any means magnificent, but he was proud of it, and he tended his roses affectionately. There was a wooden bench out in the garden, a prop from a production of “Uncle Vanya” which the theater put on for Chekhov when he was ill and couldn’t leave home. He was especially fond of this prop, and of the kind interest that the theater had paid him on this occasion. What author wouldn’t be proud of such an honor?

The Importance of Plays

Plays are an important part of every writer’s TBR list. Not only do they constitute an enormously popular art form, but they can also be incredibly helpful for novelists who are trying to shape their new works.

Plays, in essence, must be simple. (Except maybe for Shaw’s, with the many paragraphs of exposition.) For the most part, though, there’s simply dialogue, along with basic stage directions.

juggler-1938714_1920

I think the author who shifts most seamlessly between his stories and plays is Anton Chekhov. He believed that simplicity was everything; that nothing should be too complicated. As a result, his stories and plays are effortless. It almost seems like he just breathed them onto the page.

In novels and stories, detail is important — but too many details are overwhelming. That’s why some people don’t like Dickens anymore. (And trust me — as someone who used to try to mimic his style, I’ve gotten some harsh criticism.)

Nowadays, and even back in the old day, people just liked things SIMPLE. Good, but simple. Hence the popularity of Chekhov. Alas, it never helped him to become anything but a poor country doctor — but people did love his work.

astrov_in_uncle_vanya_1899_stanislavski
Konstantin Stanislavski as Astrov in 1899 Moscow production of Uncle Vanya

Reading plays can help writers to understand how to get to the heart of the matter — how to get to the core of a scene, without boring your audience. They’re the perfect example of the combination of wit and brevity.

 

lady_windermeres_fan_1916_-_ad_1
When we say “wit” — who can we be thinking of but Oscar Wilde?

 

 

In a word, plays are a massively useful tool for both practiced and amateur authors. Think of them as a method by which to streamline your mode of thought.

 

20140701061552
I think Caligula is my favorite play. What’s yours?

 

Oscar Wilde and the Concept of Literary Criticism

Oscar Wilde Was a Strange and Brilliant Man.

Whenever someone mentions Oscar Wilde, people usually think of one thing. He was gay. He was actually arrested for homosexual acts back in 1895 (yeah, they could arrest you for that back then). He was imprisoned for two years, and after his release, he only ever produced one significant piece of work: his poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

 

oscar_wilde_prison_cell_reading_2016
Wilde’s cell in Reading Gaol (as it appears today)

 

It’s hard to say whether the abrupt ruination of his career was what made him stop writing. Maybe it was depression, or maybe it was just the fact that he had no more public to create masterpieces for. He was always adamant about the fact that he didn’t write to “please” the public. It’s my opinion that he wrote in an attempt to show them what his idea of a masterpiece was, and to try and get them to agree. He believed that the modern critics of the time should be “educated” – that they didn’t do their work properly, and that they missed the whole point of literary criticism.

“The moment criticism exercises any influence,” Wilde said in an interview with Gilbert Burgess (a contributor to The Sketch, a British illustrated newspaper), “it ceases to be criticism.”

 

cartoon-1297067_1280
“What do you think, Herbert?” — “Well, Charles, I think people should just buy my damned book and recognize it for the masterpiece it truly is.”

Modern critics could take a few pointers from Wilde. Criticism nowadays is usually just a scathing crap-slinging fest, with no real intuitive observation involved.

 

It was Wilde’s belief that the aim of criticism shouldn’t be the attempt to get someone to change their work. It should simply be an evaluation of the work that already exists – the feelings it inspired, the smells it made you smell, the colors it made you see.

 

shisha-1869750_1920
“Yeah, man — this is how reading that last book made me feel.”

 

What do you think? Do you think criticism (i.e., book, film and music reviews) should be made with the objective of making a work more perfect? Any time you point out a work’s shortcomings, you’re giving people the idea that you think something about the work should be changed. Is this constructive criticism – or is it subjective influence? Was Wilde’s idea of criticism too mild? Do you think he just didn’t like to be criticized?

It’s a topic with the potential for heated debate. Sort of like politics.

 

capitol-32309_1280
No caption required.

 

I Guess Authors Don’t Always Love Their Books’ Movies :(

THE NEVERENDING STORY was one of my favorite movies when I was a kid. To be honest, I still love it. I even have it on DVD.

Turns out, though, the movie wasn’t a fave of the book’s author, Michael Ende. (The book was originally written in German in 1979, and was called Die unendliche Geschichte. An English translation by Ralph Manheim was published four years later.)

TheNeverendingStory1997Edition
1997 Dutton edition cover

I didn’t know this before, because honestly I’ve never read the book, but I guess the original film directed by Wolfgang Petersen only covered about the first half of the story. Apparently, Ende was not pleased, and he demanded to have his name removed from the film’s credits.

220px-Neverendingstoryposter
THE NEVERENDING STORY original movie poster

Personally, I thought the movie was extremely well-made. The special effects (considering it was 1984) were great. I’ll never forget the Rock Biter, sitting all alone in the desolate expanse when the Nothing comes to destroy the small bit of Fantasia that’s left. He’s just sitting there, looking lost — when Atreyu passes by him, and he says to Atreyu: “I couldn’t hold onto them. [Referring to his lost friends.] The Nothing just whisked them away. Look at my hands — they look like big, strong hands, don’t they?”

Atreyu nods wordlessly, and continues on his mission, not knowing what to say. Who would?

download (1)
Atreyu with Falkor the luckdragon (2016 Google Doodle)

The most heartbreaking moment of the movie, of course, was when Artax got sucked into the Swamp of Sadness. I cry every time.

But oh, well. I guess Ende had a specific vision in mind for his masterpiece (just as all us authors do), and Petersen’s film didn’t live up to his expectations. For my own part, though, I’ll always love THE NEVERENDING STORY. I’m so excited that Google decided to honor the book’s 37th anniversary today with a special series of Doodles!

download (2)
The Palace of the Childlike Empress (2016 Google Doodle)

Book Review: A SOCIAL HISTORY OF GREECE & ROME

Let’s start off by saying that I enjoyed this book immensely. Michael Grant is one of those writers who words history in a very palatable way, making it fun and exciting.

 

One of my favorite things about this little volume was its prolific reference to classical literature, with the dual purpose of making the text more interesting, and offering the reader a nice background of published work in the time period. Literature, too, is obviously a huge outlet for social information. The literary minds of the time recorded their own views of the social hierarchy, whether it was in commentary like Plato’s or fiction like Homer’s. Now, those views have been handed down to us, to shed a better light on what life was like in the classical world.

The book was organized in this way. Women were detailed first: Greek women, then Roman women. Then came men: Rich men and poor men. Obviously, the greater difference between men would have existed due to rank and station; not nationality. Whether Greek or Roman, men enjoyed the same privileges.

The last, and meatiest, section, deals with “The Unfree and the Freed,” seeing as there were so many unfree people in the classical world. There are chapters about serfs (very different from slaves, but hardly better); Greek slaves; Roman slaves; and finally, freedmen and freedwomen. The freeing of slaves was very popular, for a time, in ancient Rome in particular. Slaveholders dangled the opportunity of freedom in front of slaves, to produce better effort from them. Sometimes, freedmen rose to very high rank and station, even becoming members of government.

If you’re looking for a quick read on classical history from a social, rather than a political, perspective, take a look at Grant’s volume. He’s written many books on the classical world, perhaps the most prominent of which are The Founders of the Western World and The Fall of the Roman Empire, both of which I’m perusing at the moment.

Michael Grant is a former Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and Professor of Humanity at Edinburgh University. He lives in Italy.

Lovely choice of residence for a Roman scholar!

Championing Milne (and Refuting Mr. Roger Sale’s Opinions About Winnie-the-Pooh)

Mr. Roger Sale, a very learned and respectable gentleman of the University of Washington, wrote a book in the 1970s entitled Fairy Tales and After, an ingenious collection of essays on children’s literature. He is very fond of Dr. Seuss’s two early novels for little ones, as well as the whole body of work otherwise known as the “Babar books.” I’m sure it’s all entirely delightful, for I was, indeed, very interested to read the many snippets Mr. Sale included from the pages of Seuss’s The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. Even as a young child, however, I was unfamiliar with the Babar books, so I can give no educated response in their favor.

My only real problem with Sale’s work is his stark disparagement of the Winne-the-Pooh books. If you are not aware, there are two: the first entitled, simply, Winnie-the-Pooh; and the second being known as The House at Pooh Corner. Pooh bear was first introduced to the world in a poem called “Teddy Bear,” completely wonderful, and included in Milne’s volume of children’s poetry called When We Were Very Young.

whinny-the-pooh-231312_1280

Sale admitted that his students often had trouble with his views on Milne’s work, seeing as they considered them to be such sweet and innocent books. My own arguments, however, are not based merely on the “slander of what is innocent.” I do not claim that the Pooh books are wholly innocent; or wholly sweet. Indeed, I did not come to them until much later in life, well after the age of twenty. What I now find so compelling about the books, I probably would not have noticed when I was a child. I was a smart-alecky and sarcastic child, surely – but still, I probably wouldn’t have noticed.

That comment, of course, will lead you directly to what I find so great about these books. To explain it better, I will include a quote from Sale’s book, and then set about refuting it.

Sale wrote: “Pooh is not, of course, a bear of very little brain, but Christopher Robin keeps putting him in situations where he will think he is . . .

“What I never saw as a child, but see in many places now, is that the Forest is becoming tainted . . . by the alien values of Christopher Robin’s and Milne’s world . . .

“Milne believes that if one learns how things are done, and named, and spelled, everything will turn out all right.”

Well, then. First, and most importantly, of all: Milne doesn’t believe that knowing how to spell things makes the world a perfect place. The whole point is that he’s mocking that notion. He’s making fun of adults who think that knowing more makes you a better individual. It’s a sarcastic remark on his part – not an autobiographical point of view.

baby-623417_1920

He never meant for the Forest to be seen as a Utopia. It’s a place like any other, with nice things, and not-so-nice things. The characters have good qualities and bad ones. The best part about the bad qualities, of course, is that they serve as the ammunition for Milne’s caustic humor. That, by far, is my favorite part of his books.

To prove these points, let’s take a look at the second story of the first book: “In Which Pooh Goes Visiting and Gets Into a Tight Place.”

Pooh bear goes to visit Rabbit, you see, and shares luncheon with him. But he eats too much, and then can’t get back out the door. He gets stuck in the door, and requires the assistance of his friends to get free.

Christopher Robin advises Pooh bear to stay in the door for a week, so as to get thinner, and then pop right back out again.

“‘A week!’ said Pooh gloomily. ‘What about meals?’

‘I’m afraid no meals,’ said Christopher Robin, ‘on account of getting thin quicker. But we will read to you.’”

Now – if Christopher Robin hadn’t reminded Pooh that he couldn’t eat while he was stuck in the door, Pooh never would have gotten out. So he is, all in all, a bear of rather little brain. But that doesn’t mean Christopher Robin goes to the trouble of trying to make him look foolish. It wasn’t as though he made him eat too much, and thereby get himself stuck in a doorway.

In fact, at the end of the story, after Pooh gets out of the doorway: ‘ . . . with a nod of thanks to his friends, he (Pooh bear) went on with his walk through the forest, humming proudly to himself. But Christopher Robin looked after him lovingly, and said to himself, ‘Silly old bear.’”

Pooh is a silly old bear, but still, Christopher Robin says it lovingly.

And then, when “Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting and Nearly Catch a Woozle,” and follow their own footprints for rather a long time, it takes Christopher Robin stepping in, and helping them to realize there’s no woozle at all – but only their own footprints in the snow.

“‘I have been Foolish and Deluded,’ said Pooh, ‘and I am a Bear of No Brain At All.’

‘You’re the Best Bear in All the World,’ said Christopher Robin soothingly.”

So I say, in opposition to Sale’s comments (which are no doubt meant to improve the overall mental health of insecure modern children who might think that they themselves are brainless bears), that Pooh bear is indeed a bear of very little brain. But Christopher Robin loves, and supports him, anyway. The Forest is an imperfect place – just like every other place. But, just like every other place, it has its own special beauty.

teddy-bear-524251_1920

The Real Origins of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Middle-earth”

Most Old English poets were anonymous, and only a few are known by name. Cynewulf was one of them. The works definitively attributed to him are but four: Juliana; Elene; Fates of the Apostles; and The Ascension.

While the modern reader may need a little help to understand who Cynewulf was, I’m sure hardly anyone needs help with the name J.R.R. Tolkien. The great Mr. Tolkien: inventor of an entire world and language, father of the hobbit.

photo-tolkien

But here’s the interesting part. It could be argued that a line from Cynewulf’s The Ascension sparked the entire body of Tolkien’s work. The line reads:

“Hail Earandel brightest of angels

Above middle-earth sent unto men.”

Anyone even slightly familiar with Tolkien’s work – heck, even anyone who’s seen one of the Lord of the Rings movies – can jump right on that inference. I mean, come on. Middle-earth? I think we’re seeing the parallel here.

5d04a105-e66b-4d9b-b218-928c691eb83d

In Anglo-Saxon England, “Middle-Earth” (also known as “Midgard”) was the name for the world inhabited by, and known to humans. It was a remnant of early Germanic cosmology, and referred specifically to one of the Nine Worlds in Norse mythology.

After reading Cynewulf’s The Ascension, Tolkien said, “There was something very remote and strange and beautiful behind those words, if I could grasp it, far beyond ancient English.”

While studying at Oxford, Tolkien developed a language that is known now as “Quenya.” Below is an example of the word Quenya written in Tolkien’s script, Tengwar.

Quenya_tengwar

Tolkien thought that the language of Quenya needed an internal history: “one spoken by elves, whom his character Eärendil meets during his journeys.” The next step was the “Lay of Eärendil,” a work composed of several poems describing Eärendil, his voyages, and the manner in which his ship was turned into a star.

Around 1914, Tolkien wrote a poem called “The Voyage of Eärendil the Evening Star,” published in The Book of Lost Tales 2. “Eärendil” means “lover of the sea” in Quenya.

But Eärendil was destined to become more than just a poem. Eärendil the Mariner is depicted in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion as a child of Men and Elves: a great seafarer who, upon his brow, carried the morning star across the sky.

Here is an illustration of Eärendil the Mariner with his wife Elwing in the form of a bird, drawn by Jenny Dolfen.

Jenny_Dolfen_-_Earendil_the_Mariner

According to the index of The Silmarillion, Eärendil was:

“Called ‘Halfelven’, ‘the Blessed’, ‘the Bright’, and ‘the Mariner’; son of Tuor and Idril Turgon’s daughter; escaped from the sack of Gondolin and wedded Elwing daughter of Dior at the Mouths of Sirion; sailed with her to Aman and pleaded for help against Morgoth; set to sail the skies in his ship Vingilot bearing the Silmaril that Beren and Lúthien brought out of Angband.”

Humphrey Carpenter (an English biographer, writer, and radio broadcaster) remarked in his biography of Tolkien that Eärendil “was in fact the beginning of Tolkien’s own mythology.”

So: Cynewulf’s poem spurred the creation of Eärendil the Mariner, and also of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, the setting for his great works. The above line from The Ascension can be compared to a quote from Frodo Baggins’s in The Two Towers.

He says: “Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima!” (Which means): “Hail Eärendil, brightest of stars!” In this case, Frodo’s exclamation was in reference to the “star-glass” he carried, which had been given to him by Galadriel, and which contained the light of Eärendil’s star, the Silmaril.