Friday, February 28, 2014

Books Read in February 2014

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis

"Dawn Treader" is a very different book from the first two books in the Narnia series. In "Wardrobe" and Prince Caspian, Narnia is under control of an unlawful tyrant and must be set right by Aslan and the rightful heirs to the throne. In "Dawn Treader", Narnia is at peace and remains so for the entire book - a rare thing indeed for modern fantasy. There isn't even a villain. And yet,"Dawn Treader" may well be the most well written of the first three books. Instead of saving the world, the crew of the Dawn Treader is on a quest of honour to discover what became of the Seven Lost Lords of Narnia, and in the meanwhile drawing closer and closer to the World's End (the Narnian world is flat). Beyond the World's End is Aslan's Country (Aslan is Narnia's Christ-figure), a place Reepicheep the mouse has desperately longed to go to since he was in his cradle. This idea has always resonated deeply within me, because I've been haunted by a sense of longing for another place for about as long as I can remember (and apparently Lewis experienced similar longings for much of his life). The plot of Dawn Treader is episodic, each island resembling a short story, but each island also growing more and more mysterious as the ship nears the World's End. The last three chapters especially gave me a wonderful sense of numinous awe culminating in the revelation that Aslan is in our world too. In some ways "Dawn Treader" is like Paradiso for children (though of course, it would be doing "Dawn Treader" a major disservice to say that it is a book exclusively for children).

The Song of the Nibelungs (unknown author) translated by Frank G. Ryder

In all three of the 12th century epics I've read (The Songs of Roland, the Cid, and the Nibelungs), there has been an interesting interplay between past and present. Each of them portrayed events that occurred hundreds of years prior and interpreted them in light of what was then modern sensibilities (the interesting thing is that, although this fascinates me in medieval literature, modern stories "modernizing" the past is a big pet peeve of mine; I might have felt differently about these stories had I lived when they were written). "Roland" and "The Cid" were heavily influenced by the dawn of the Crusades in the late 11th-12th centuries, a foreign concept previously. "Nibelungs" tells a story that took place in ancient pre-Christian Germany but paints it with the chivalry, courtliness, and Christianity of the 12th century. The result is an interesting mix of brutality and elegance. The story itself feels more ancient than medieval. It reminded me of the Oresteia, a story of revenge and conflicting loyalty, but with medieval ideas like chivalry and vassalage. The characters and their actions were more morally ambiguous than in "Roland" and "The Cid". I had very mixed feelings on all of the main characters, liking some of their qualities but disliking others. This isn't a story of good guys and bad guys, but a realistic portrayal of humanity and the ending is very sad (I don't consider this a spoiler since the author constantly reminds you that things will end badly throughout the poem).

*SPOILER warning*

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

When I heard that this book was about a war between the ancient gods (e.g. Odin, Thoth, Anansi) and the modern "gods" (e.g. Media, Technology), I had high hopes for this book, but after reading it, I have to say it wasn't my cup of tea. I didn't care for the way the gods were portrayed. They were modernized, mundane versions of themselves and I questioned what it was about the gods, as Gaiman wrote them, that America so desperately needed. The qualities of myths that I find so interesting and unfortunately foreign to modern society were not present in Gaiman's gods. What exactly would these burned out fellows do for America if they gained more prominence in the American mind? Maybe I'm missing the point. After all, by the end, and even before then to an extent, the new gods aren't viewed as the bad guys any more than the old gods are viewed as the good guys, so it's not so much a polemic about the modern things that Americans revere, but the fickleness and lack of foundation of their reverence. I also had a hard time caring for the main character, Shadow. There have been emotionally dead, passive characters that I have really connected with in the past, but I had a hard time  connecting with Shadow. He stumbled passively through much of the story and his decisions and attitudes sometimes felt odd to me, so it was hard for me to care. Interestingly though, he reminded me quite a bit of a character I actually did like: Paul Schafer from The Fionavar Tapestry. And finally, I thought it was odd that the monotheistic God was never brought up, except in passing. Saying that America isn't religious is simply wrong (the ironic thing is that the "Old Country" is less religious than America these days), but Americans worship the Christian God, not pagan gods. It felt like a major puzzle piece was missing. The book also felt really long, like a movie that should have been an hour shorter. The last third was interesting, but I was bored through much of the first two thirds. Unfortunately, by the time I reached the last third, I was anxious to be done and didn't appreciate it as much as I could have.

2 comments:

  1. Oh no! I feel like I gave you a bum steer on American Gods! Sorry about that. To each their own, I guess.
    Dawn Treader is my favorite of the Narnia books but I haven't read them in a very long time. My kids are almost old enough to be interested in them, so I'm sure that will change.
    I too have felt that 'other place' longing before. The best that I've seen it considered is in this short story: http://www.online-literature.com/wellshg/5/
    I hope you enjoy it.

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  2. Don't worry. You've redeemed yourself for linking "The Door in the Wall". :)

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