Wednesday, August 29, 2018

'Under the Greenwood Tree' by Thomas Hardy

Under the Greenwood Tree is the story of the romantic entanglement between church musician, Dick Dewey, and the attractive new school mistress, Fancy Day. A pleasant romantic tale set in the Victorian era, Under the Greenwood Tree is one of Thomas Hardy's most gentle and pastoral novels.

This is my choice for the 'Classic with a colour in the title' category of the Back to the Classics challenge 2018. My main experience with Thomas Hardy consists of Tess and Jude, which both made me so upset, you'll never find reviews of them on this blog, because I refuse to re-read them. However, Far From the Madding Crowd wasn't so bad, and I'd heard people call this one more of an optimistic read too. I thought it might be a gentle slide back into Hardy, but on the whole, I was glad it was fairly short, since it didn't impress me much.

It's a simple plot with a complex way of being told, and I think I prefer stories to be the other way around. But I've deplored Hardy so often for his tragic tales, it makes me feel a bit mean for criticising him when he writes a more optimistic one :) However, this tale is so non-eventful, I'd challenge anyone to make it to the end without saying, 'Yeah, well, so what?' at least once.

It's all about the impact the arrival of one young woman has on several men within a town. Fancy Day is very pretty, but the most she ever seems to have on her mind is clothes, flirting, and wondering how she appears to by-standers. We know this for a fact because Hardy sometimes lets us glimpse her mental chatter. She reminds me of Dora from Dickens' David Copperfield, yet she's the school teacher! Am I the only one who thinks that's a bit of a worry?

Anyway, three men fall in love with her. So it's not even a lover's triangle, but more of a weird sort of square. There's Mr Shiner, a farmer and church warden in his thirties and Mr Maybold, the new young vicar. And then there's Dick Dewy, the modest son of the local tranter (delivery man) who's in his early twenties. He's obviously the hero we're meant to barrack for.

At the same time, the story follows the course of the male string choir, a proud and passionate group of musicians who have been playing together for many years. When Fancy arrives, they're told their services are no longer needed, all in the name of progress. The vicar and his warden have decided they'd prefer Fancy to play the organ. The poor chaps are forced to accept this, and decide to go out with dignity. I wondered why they couldn't just alternate the style of music from week to week, but I guess when we compare it to current church music, their modern counterparts also choose to move on, rather than cling to outdated forms for sentimental reasons. It's just a pity to see these men sacked from what they love, while their replacement is indifferent to taking on the job. We ask, 'So, is Hardy going to do anything for them?' The answer turns to be nope, it's just a tough call. Bad luck, guys. And as I say ... why is this story material?

It's a tedious read and not an easy one. The book throws us in the deep end of arcane British country dialect. It's not just in speech, but peppered all through the story, as if the narrator assumes all readers will be locals like himself. We need to keep flicking to the glossary at the back, because so many words aren't intuitive. For instance, a 'drong' is an alley or narrow path between walls and hedges. And a 'dumbledore' is a bumble bee. I'm sure the very impressive J.K. Rowling must have known that one when she started planning Harry Potter, so I'm left with a renewed sense of awe for her extensive knowledge base, if nothing else.

It all seems so ancient to us, yet characters often discuss old-fashioned times, as if they're coming from a completely modern standpoint. It gives a strange sort of feeling that our twenty-first century generation is just scraping the surface of history. It also makes me wonder how precise modern authors of historical fiction ought to be. I'm sure many of us don't know a fraction of the words Hardy spouts in this story. You just had to have been there to pull it off. Yet on the other hand, if you nail it too accurately, nobody will understand you. So perhaps in modern historical novels, it's not authenticity we're after as much as a good story.

The descriptions, always Hardy's strong point, are lovely, with all the cloud, light and chimney smoke. He has some good, humorous dialogue too. But I've got to be honest, my final thought was, 'Tough luck, Dick. I get to escape from Fancy now, but you don't.'


Thursday, August 23, 2018

Characters who contemplate murder

The main thing these characters have in common is that they carefully contemplate committing murder, and plan how it'll take place. There's no flying off the handle and losing it in heated moments for these guys. Most of them carry it through to the letter, although a couple decide not to. But in each case we get insight into all their deliberation and forethought. We seem to lap up the opportunity as readers, because there's one more surprising fact about my selection. Even though these are murderers or wannabes, every guy on this list receives plenty of empathy, admiration and even outright love from fans. I'll rattle them off, and you can try to help me figure out why. 

I'll start with the Bible and Shakespeare.

King David
The ruler of Israel plans it all out to cover his own tracks. He'd slept with the wife of a loyal soldier and made her pregnant. The man, Uriah, won't succumb to the enticing offer of a night at home with his wife before a big campaign. So David feels he has no choice but to bump him off. He orders Uriah to be placed at the front of the army in battle, where he'll surely be killed. It was something only a king could arrange, but David's act isn't the discreet manoeuvre he intended. Ironically, what he planned to be secret is known by everyone familiar with the Bible.

The famous Thane of Cawdor can't forget a witches' prophecy that he'll be King of Scotland. He and his wife hatch up a sneaky plot to kill Duncan, the current king, while he visits their castle. Macbeth has many reservations, but caves in to her pressure. Instead of being a trustworthy host, he carries out the plan to intoxicate and frame the guards, and stab Duncan in his sleep. Macbeth learns the hard way that promoting yourself by evil and violence is no way to thrive.

The young prince of Denmark is out for revenge. He suspects that his uncle, King Claudius, murdered his father to become ruler. Hamlet has it straight from the mouth of a spooky figure who claims to be his father's ghost. He puts it to the test by staging a play in which a murder takes place just as the ghost describes, to observe Claudius' reaction. The result is a green light for Hamlet, but his own murder attempts turn pear shaped, starting from the moment he kills the wrong man behind the curtain. It's one of those snowball tragedies in which not many characters are left standing at the end.

The next pair may represent the shortest and longest examples of planning.

The first mate of the Pequod contemplates a moral murder in a flash, when he sees an opportunity set before him. It's common knowledge that Captain Ahab is a maniac who'll probably kill all his crew in a mad attempt to chase the whale Moby Dick. Starbuck notices his sleeping captain's weapon lying unattended, and knows it could be the perfect moment to finish him off and avert disaster. But a lot rolls through his head in those few seconds, including the ethical dilemma of murdering a superior officer, even to save others. Readers are no doubt torn over whether he decided right in the end. (Here's my review of Moby Dick)

This might be the most patient example of contemplating a murder. When Heathcliff was a boy, his (sort of) adopted brother Hindley treated him horribly. Young Heathcliff vows to get him one day. That day comes after they've both grown up. Driving a grieving widower to drink, then winning all his property in card games, then quietly doing him in, is proof that biding your time pays off. It takes a bit of reading between the lines in this example, but Emily Bronte gives her readers broad hints that this is exactly what happened. (Here's my review of Wuthering Heights)

The final trio are among my favourite examples.

Frankenstein's Monster
The lonesome beast is devastated that even his scientist creator rejects him. He relieves his grief by planning to murder everyone dear to Victor Frankenstein, including his brother and best friend. After Victor refuses to make him a female companion, he scares him with the threat, 'I'll be there on your wedding night.' So while Victor's busy arming himself with all sorts of weapons, the monster silently carries out his scheme, and murders Frankenstein's new wife, Elizabeth, with his favourite method, strangling. In a way, he's proven that he has a more crafty mind than the guy who created him.

Draco Malfoy
1The young Slytherin student has a nasty ultimatum from Lord Voldemort. Kill Albus Dumbledore or watch your family die. So Draco drives himself to the verge of illness figuring out how to do it. Voldy doesn't believe he'll succeed, and plans to use Draco's failure to crush the Malfoys. But we readers know not to underestimate Hogwarts school boys, especially desperate ones. After a few failed attempts with a charmed necklace and poisoned bottle, Draco opens a secret passage for the dark side and stands on the astronomy tower with the unarmed headmaster helpless before him. Only then does he realise what Dumbledore knew all along. He's not the sort of person who can commit cold-blooded murder. At the crucial moment, he doesn't have it in him. It's a heartless reader who doesn't feel sorry for Draco all through The Half Blood Prince.

7144Rodion Raskolnikov
This gloomy Russian Uni student believes he's concocted the perfect moral murder. Alyona, a mean old pawn broker, lives a worthless life in his opinion. If he kills her, then uses her wealth to help the poor, it should cancel out the crime, right? Hmm, the grey areas are pretty black, but we're stuck in Rodion's head while he figures out exactly how he'll do it, by distracting her with a false pledge and smashing her head in with an axe. At first he changes his mind a lot, opting out of the deed several times. But we know he'll go ahead with it eventually, and when he does, all we can do is tag along and witness the gruesome scene as we turn the pages. (My review of Crime and Punishment is here.)

So there we have them. It's a strange collection. (Who would expect to find King David and Frankenstein's monster on the same list?) Why do they get all the love, especially considering a huge chunk of their victims are decent and harmless people? I  personally love some from my list more than others, yet I can understand why each of them has earned himself a bit of a following. Maybe it speaks as much good about us readers as it does about these murderous men. On the whole, we must be a pretty understanding and forgiving bunch, especially when we get a glimpse into what makes a person tick. Perhaps it's to our credit, and the way we're designed for our hearts to reach out to others. (Or do you think it's because several of them are just so dashing or cute.)

Are any of your favourites on my list? Or are there others you might add?

Monday, August 20, 2018

'These Happy Golden Years' by Laura Ingalls Wilder

This year, I'm hosting a read-along of all of the Little House on the Prairie Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which you'll find here. We'd love you to read along and share your thoughts, if you feel so inclined.

Fifteen-year-old Laura lives apart from her family for the first time, teaching school in a claim shanty twelve miles from home. She is very homesick, but keeps at it so that she can help pay for her sister Mary's tuition at the college for the blind. During school vacations Laura has fun with her singing lessons, going on sleigh rides, and best of all, helping Almanzo Wilder drive his new buggy. Friendship soon turns to love for Laura and Almanzo in the romantic conclusion of this Little House book.

There's a sense that Laura intended this to be the last in her classic kids' series about her youth. It begins as she's off to fulfill her first teaching contract, boarding with strangers far from home, and ends on the evening of her wedding day. Of course there's plenty in between.

But it starts with the dysfunctional family she stays with. Ah, poor Mrs Brewster. As a kid I considered her the villain of the book, and agreed with Laura's verdict that she was 'just a selfish, mean woman.' But this time around, I felt like I was reading between lines Laura might have been unaware she was writing. Mrs B seems to show classic symptoms of deep clinical depression, but it was unidentified as a medical condition back then, so she had no outlet or source of support. What a miserable life she led.

In our times, her antisocial behaviour might be recognised as clues of what it really was. Apathy with her demanding toddler, a tendency to let the housework lapse, and sitting and brooding with unkempt hair, because she simply couldn't muster enough energy or enthusiasm to care anymore. She knew that the next day would be just the same as the last. Being polite to a house guest she didn't even invite was too big a stretch. And at the end of her tether, she couldn't hold back violent outbursts of sadness and resentment. Maybe she even suffered from post natal depression, intensified by being stuck out in a bleak, inhospitable place with no form of entertainment. Sometimes a disagreeable exterior covers lots going on beneath. Mrs Brewster had good memories of her past back in the east, but no relief from her new life whatsoever.

I can't help feeling really sorry for her. Laura was deeply homesick beneath their roof, but it only lasted for eight weeks until her teaching contract was finished. But Mrs Brewster's homesickness presumably dragged on indefinitely, even after her threat to do something desperate, which I see as a cry for help. She had good memories of her past back in the east, but no relief from the monotony of her new life whatsoever. Instead of a villain, she's now a victim in my way of thinking. I wonder whatever became of her.

Another person whose life I'd love to trace was Clarence Brewster, that smart-alec stirrer who could've caused serious trouble in Laura's little school, but decided not to. His character appealed to me, the way it was written. Wouldn't any teenage boy hate submitting to a 5-foot tall girl younger than himself? He seemed to show a good heart in restraining himself and deciding to jump through the hoops after all, especially when he apologised to Laura on the last day. I would've liked to think he ended up doing something great with his life, but a search through Google and other biographies seems to indicate that he was convicted of murder charges later in life. How sad! Another casualty of the harsh lifestyle perhaps, because Clarence never struck me as murderer material, but a young man with great potential.

These new faces are all tied up with Laura's stint at teaching. It's so amazing to modern readers that kids as young as 15 can be sent out as qualified teachers, but we get it when we read the book. The job of teaching seemed far more straightforward than now, in many ways. There were standard text books set by whoever was head of education, full of successive lessons, and that was it. There seemed no need for much creative input from teachers. No curriculum planning, no craft or drama, no marking of long essays or assigning individual projects, no challenge to use their own imaginations. They come across more like glorified baby-sitters, there just to keep discipline and offer a helping hand if anyone couldn't understand the concepts in the books.

It appears the face of education really has changed a lot in the last 150 years or so, even when we think the basic model has stayed the same. Current teachers feel compelled to make lessons fun for their students, but it wasn't the emphasis in the nineteenth century. Students were expected to do the work. They weren't expected to enjoy it. It was simply a bonus when bright sparks like Laura enjoyed it anyway.

The story of Laura's budding relationship with Almanzo is beautiful, from the moment he surprises her by picking her up from the Brewsters' at the end of her first week there. This is among my favourite romances, even though it isn't labelled as one. It's a novel for kids, and Laura comes across too restrained to use the word anyway. The closest she comes to admitting she's fallen in love with him is when she tells Mary, 'We just seem to belong together.' The pair of them seem perfectly suited in many ways, including their affection for horses and dare-devil streaks. Almanzo was a bit of a multi-tasker, who'd combine breaking in frisky horses with seeing his girlfriend. But she was up for it, and it makes a fun read. (This pair is on my list of awkward literary marriage proposals) Laura was quite witty in her reply to his round-about way of popping the question.

Through it all, she shows the same traits we always love about her. Mary pays her sister a beautiful compliment when she says, 'I never see things so well with anyone else.'

But I think the bit of dialogue, to best sum up the series, is when Laura and Almanzo are planning their future, and the home he's building. He says, 'It'll have to be a little house. Do you mind?' And she replies, 'I have always lived in little houses. I like them.' I think she meant this to be the end, but we know it's not quite.


Next up will be The First Four Years. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

'Moby Dick' by Herman Melville

"It is the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships' cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, and birds of prey hover over it."

So Melville wrote of his masterpiece, one of the greatest works of imagination in literary history. In part, Moby-Dick is the story of an eerily compelling madman pursuing an unholy war against a creature as vast and dangerous and unknowable as the sea itself. But more than just a novel of adventure, more than an encyclopaedia of whaling lore and legend, the book can be seen as part of its author's lifelong meditation on America. Written with wonderfully redemptive humour, Moby-Dick is also a profound inquiry into character, faith, and the nature of perception.

This is my selection for the Classic that Scares You category of the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge, the reason being it's so dense and the thought of  spending 700+ pages with the crew of a whaling boat left me a bit cold. My potential boredom antennae were twitching, but since it's said by many to be the greatest American classic of all time, I thought this challenge was a good enough reason to dive in.

The main narrator famously invites us to call him Ishmael. Then we are off on his adventure. He's a young school teacher whose remedy for jadedness is to run off to sea. He prefers to go as a sailor rather than a passenger, so that instead of having to pay he will be paid instead. Ishmael hooks up with Queequeg, a south sea Islander who's great with the harpoon. Together they decide to apply for jobs on a whaling ship, and randomly select the Pequod.

The ship is out at sea for a few weeks before the man in charge, the mysterious Captain Ahab, decides to show his face. He turns out to be a scary looking old fanatic with a wooden leg, intent on hunting one whale in particular; the formidable Moby Dick. He's the beast who bit off Ahab's leg, so it's a pure revenge mission. Ahab fires up his crew by promising a huge reward to anyone who manages to kill the legendary brute. Moby Dick has a sinister reputation for bringing disaster on anyone who pursues him, but Ahab will not be deterred.

He blames Moby Dick for all his grief, including the fact that he's too keyed up to relax and enjoy a beautiful sunset.  We are told, 'He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race, from Adam down.' To anyone who reasons that it was nothing personal on the part of the dumb brute, Ahab has an answer. He will wreak his vengeance whether or not Moby Dick is the principle cause of his mutilation or the mask of the divine.

It's a monster of a book! I've read several thicker, but this one seems to have a way of getting no closer to the end no matter how many pages you turn. If you decide to tackle it, get ready to learn far more about whales than you probably bargained for. You're in for massive chunks of history, folklore, biology, chemistry, export industries, hunting methods, tool structure, blubber aroma and anything else you can imagine. There's even a whole chapter about why Moby Dick's shade of white is such a menacing colour. If you falter, the book will defeat you. It's the Moby Dick of books, and I was often on the verge of giving up. But it got to a point where I was so far in, I decided to muster some of Captain Ahab's own grim determination and vow it wouldn't defeat me! So was it worth it? Rather than admitting I wasted hours of my time (especially given the abrupt ending) I'll think of some reasons to say yes.

There's Ishmael himself. I started off grumbling that he's so long-winded, then gradually realised that he has a real enviable frame of mind. Ishmael's the type of person who can entertain himself no matter what life delivers. Throw him any fact and he'll come up with some beautiful and apt analogy. For example, a whale's layer of blubber protects it from icy Arctic conditions and equatorial heat alike. Ishmael instantly reflects how man should learn from the whale and aim to maintain his own stable temperature no matter what's going on around him. Well, if anyone has mastered that knack, Ishmael has. Stick him up a pole or set him squeezing lumps out of a vat of whale slime and he's supremely happy. By the end, I knew his philosophical remarks were what I'd miss most about the book.

I was thinking of adding Ishmael and Queequeg to my list of best literary bromances, but I'm not convinced this pair didn't take it to the next level and knock off the letter b. You'll soon see what I mean if you do get stuck into it, but their relationship is just a side issue to the main story.

There's Starbuck, the devoutly superstitious first mate, who directs his men in intense whispers. Starbuck's big moment on stage comes when he has a split second to decide which would be most moral. Defying the leader to save everyone else, or submitting to authority, even when it's clearly insane? I would have preferred more about Starbuck's ethical dilemma, and less about the physical features of whales. Even though he thinks his final decision was really the only option, I'm not convinced it wasn't gross negligence. How far should a first mate's obedience to the captain extend, when there are 30 valuable lives under their care? Anyway, the famous coffee chain is named after this guy. That's not just a coincidence, as I'd thought, but a fact you'll find on their website. They really liked his name, and it's probably the sort of trivia that'll stick in my head most. I think Starbuck would have been flattered, but a bit bemused.

What a multi-cultural floating tub the Pequod turns out to be. The three harpooners alone give us some indication. Queequeg is an ex-cannibal south sea Islander, Tashtego a stately Native American Indian, and Daggoo a full-blood Negro picked up from the coast of Africa. And then there's all the others. It makes me wonder if Melville purposely chose the crew's diversity to make the Pequod a symbol of the whole world. (And if so, what hope for all of us?)

We get some wry comedy every so often, just to reward our senses of humour for persevering. Captain Ahab and his first, second and third mates have a strict pecking order when dinner time comes. It's protocol gone crazy. Then there's the time second mate Stubbs orders the cook, Fleece, to tell the sharks to keep quiet. And a ship stinking to high heaven with whale carcasses floats past, bearing the ironic name, 'The Rose Bud.' And I like how the gruff ship owners respond at the start when Ishmael says he wants to see the world. It's something like, 'Look overboard then. That's the only sight of the world you'll see for the next three years.'

Here's one more bit of trivia I picked up. Ambergris is an expensive substance highly valued by the elite, and it's produced solely in the bodies of sick whales. It's used for perfumes, candles, hair powder and pomatum, and Ishmael reflects, 'Who would think such ladies and gentlemen should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale?' Maybe it's a more obscure example of the oyster and pearl principle, proving there's more to the world than we might imagine, and the value of suffering.

So overall, it was every bit as scary as I'd feared, stretching my attention level to its limit so often I lost count. Ranking it is a challenge, because there's so much that cancels other stuff out. It strictly deserves two stars based on my ranking criteria, because I really did want to give up several times, so that's what it gets, although I considered adding another one for the sake of Ishmael, who's a legend, although a bit of a bore. Hey, I'm not saying it isn't brilliant, and if I'd wanted an encyclopedia about whales, I might've given it five stars. There are descriptions of great beauty on the one hand, but on the other is its grinding slowness. There's great characterisation and humour, but also an abrupt ending, as if Melville just decided enough's enough. Any way I look at it, I think two stars is fair. And at least now I can add my opinion to any conversation about Moby Dick that might crop up, although I admit I've never been in that position before.


Thursday, August 9, 2018

Famous Comic Grouches

This post is dedicated to a handful of thorough grouches and pessimists. The company of human grouches wears thin pretty quickly if we're around them for too long, but have you noticed the abundance of lovable grouches in fiction? Curiously, they tend to be quite endearing as often as not. And even more curiously, so many of them aren't even human. Let's take a look at some. 

24532261) Oscar the Grouch
He can go first on the list, since he's probably the first of the bunch we ever meet as tiny kids. This green furry individual lives in a trash can on Sesame Street. His treasures consist of all sorts of stinky rubbish which gets tossed there. (Much like the stinky, rubbishy attitudes of his grumpy human counterparts perhaps.) Although 'grouch' describes his cynical and misanthropic attitude, it's also the name of his species. Oscar always looks forward to his annual Grouch Convention, which sounds like a grumble fest worth missing. His and his girlfriend Grundgetta have a rocky relationship, but no doubt they like it that way.

2) Grumpy
Like the other six dwarfs, his name sums up his character. I guess he was born with a pessimistic bent, further fueled by his lifestyle. If you're a bit dour to start with, it doesn't help when you have to put up with the same companions 24/7. Especially when they include a dope, a perpetual sneezer, a narcoleptic who keeps falling asleep on the job, and a shy dude who'll never speak up. But I suspect the friend who might have got on Grumpy's nerves the most was the ever-optimistic Happy. 

3) Eeyore
I hold with the theory that 100 Acre Wood residents represent different human medical and psychological conditions. Eeyore possibly suffers from clinical depression. At any rate, he feels overlooked, mopey, sad and sorry for himself. But Pooh, Piglet and Tigger learn an interesting lesson when they set out to cheer him up. The gloomy little donkey thanks them kindly but actually prefers his melancholy outlook. Their good intentions simply make him feel worse. He's a good indication that sometimes pessisism can be its own form of contentment. (I've written more here about the satisfying side of melancholia)

63240904) The Mock Turtle
He's a pitiful character with large, perpetually brimming eyes. When Alice asks what's the matter, the gryphon tells her, 'Nothing, it's all in his fancy. He hasn't got no sorrows, you know.' But when we dig deeper, we discover he's depressed because he's not a real turtle. That's when we realise we can't possibly take this guy seriously. Mock Turtle soup was a popular dish in Victorian times, made from the meat of other animals believed to taste like turtle. But in Wonderland, apparently there is an actual creature called a Mock Turtle! Wouldn't you be depressed, if you knew you existed just to be made into soup?

5) Kreacher
He's a dour and miserable old house elf who formerly worked for the infamous Black family. Kreacher's bitterness is compounded by having to serve Sirius, who's at the end of the family line and never makes life easy for him. Kreacher complains all day and lets the house deteriorate, just like his unkempt self. Eventually Sirius' gruff treatment, coupled with his own deep resentment, leads to tragedy. But later, when Harry Potter and his friends treat Kreacher kindly, he begins to warm to them. We last see him as a well-groomed, silky little house elf busy making them a steak and kidney pie. So there we have it, even grouchy pessimists with huge grudges may end up being nice to those who treat them decently.

And perhaps my favourite pessimist of all...

407548156) Puddleglum
The lanky, pasty-featured marshwiggles from Narnia are renowned for being a gloomy, pessimistic species, but still Eustace and Jill can hardly believe it when he tells them he's a relatively cheerful one. Especially since he always throws a damper on every optimistic word they say. Even his attempts at looking on the bright side fall far short. 'There's one good thing about being trapped down here. It'll save funeral expenses.' But Puddleglum turns out to be a true hero and legend. His general gloominess makes it all the more impacting when he's the one who refutes the evil Lady of the Green Kirtle in a famous speech of faith. (It goes along the lines of 'I'm all for Aslan, whether he exists or not, because he's better than anything you have to offer.')

Do you feel like shaking them, or more like hugging them? I think that part of their charm is that they appeal to the grouches buried deep inside each of us. Being always grouchy is no good for our health, and nor does it make us popular or socially acceptable. But sometimes it can help us defuse a bit, which is where these little guys come into the picture. Whether they're donkeys, turtles, house-elves, dwarfs, marshwiggles or even pure 'grouches', they strike the shadowy chords we don't want to admit. By sympathising, and even having a good laugh at them, we can shake off our own blues and get on with our day. While we may make an effort to keep a lid on it at all times, these characters don't have to. We're fond of them because they give us the subtle, comforting message that it really is a bit of a screwed up old world out there sometimes, but we're not alone. Is your favourite on this list?

Monday, August 6, 2018

'The Wonderful Wizard of Oz' by L. Frank Baum

This is my choice in the Classic Travel or Journey category of the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge. Most of the adventure takes place on the road, including fierce wolf-cats, gaping chasms, a deadly poppy field and tiny brittle folk made of china. The photos are from a sand sculpture exhibition we visited this year. (You might like to compare it to last year's, on Alice in Wonderland.)

Anyway, this plot is a legend of course. Dorothy and her dog Toto are alone in the house when it's sucked up by a cyclone, and after several hours, it touches down in a land which is cut off from the rest of the world. Dorothy sets off following the Yellow Brick Road to consult the Great Wizard, who appears to be her only chance to return to Kansas. She picks up a group of new friends along the way with needs of their own. The Scarecrow wants a brain, the Tin Woodman longs for a heart, and the Lion would give anything for a dash of courage. It's clear that it isn't really physical organs they're after, but the traits they represent.

 Maybe it seems like an unfair demand on the Wizard, to expect him to supply what ought to come from within, but this actually makes it easy for him to fudge his 'answers' later. We've all probably heard the theory that belief in ourselves has to come first, before results can be set in motion. No story exemplifies that more than The Wizard of Oz.

Dorothy is one of the luckiest characters you could come across. It's the flukey sort of luck similar to beginner card players. She is the source of two wicked witch deaths, both total accidents. She acquires a pair of golden slippers and a magical cap without having a clue of their immense power. And she gets a protective kiss from a person whose lips carry klout. Her three travel friends believe they owe their own good fortune to their chance encounters with her, which is probably true, because she's a luck charm on legs. But when you look at Dorothy's character, you can't begrudge her good fortune. She has no personal ambition whatsoever, but is famous for wanting her simple life to carry on just as it was. That's refreshing when so many people, including book characters, are after something. Could that be the spirit we all need to activate 'luck'? All she wants is to get home.

Baum's description does no favours for the Kansas tourism industry though. It's a flat, dry dust bowl that gradually infuses its colour (or lack of) through everything living in it, including Uncle Henry and Aunt Em. They are grey, sober people who match their environment. No wonder the old Judy Garland movie made the most of this, keeping those moments black and white and saving their full colour spectrum for Oz. I understand why other characters tell Dorothy in effect, 'We don't get why you'd want to go back, but we respect that you do.'

It's great fun to see her three travel companions each use the attributes they think they lack. The Scarecrow is the greatest problem solver, wriggling them out of sticky situations many times. The tin man is a big softie, who sobs even when he accidentally steps on ants. The Lion is always the front man in moments of danger, putting his life on the line. So it's clear this isn't a story about character development, but more about tapping into what we've had all along.

For that matter, I never remembered the Scarecrow and Tin Man being so kick-ass. Between them, they made short work of all the wicked witch's evil minions. The Tin Man massacres her savage wolf pack with his ax, and then the Scarecrow wrings the necks of a fierce murder of crows. I'll bet the farmer who originally stuck him on a pole hated to see the back of him. Finally, the Tin Man bears the brunt of a swarm of bees. Dorothy might have been their good luck charm, but meeting them was certainly in keeping with her trademark luck too! All this happened while she was sound asleep. That girl certainly knew how to chill out.

The mystique surrounding the great wizard sucks us in. But he turns out to be a fraud, or 'humbug' as they tell him. He's just a little bald-headed, wrinkled guy from South Dakota, who's mastered the art of smoke and mirrors, not to mention the placebo effect. Some readers might think that does qualify him to be ruler. His successful misrepresentation proves that he's even smarter than the Scarecrow, which is saying a lot.

But notice how much of the hearsay about him has connotations of deity. Here are just a few.

'He rules over the city wisely and well, but to those who are not honest, or approach him with curiosity, he is most terrible.'
'Few have ever dared ask to see his face.'
'If they don't wear the spectacles, the brightness and glory of the Emerald City will blind them' (which is a load of hogwash, by the way.)
And then there's his own line, 'I am everywhere, but to the eyes of common mortals, I am invisible.'

I think the extent to which he pushes his own deception crosses a line into very dodgy territory. This might be a light-hearted story for kids, but any guy who lets his subjects believe he's a god is going too far, and when it's happened in history, it's never ended well. He may call himself Oz the Great and Terrible, but I think Dorothy the Small and Meek is a far more noble and honest character. I'd go so far as to question the final consensus that he's a good man but a terrible wizard. We seem to be expected to swallow his goodness without a thought, but I'm not a big fan of his.

Perhaps people love him by default, just because his alternative, the Wicked Witch of the West, is worse. At least he's content to live and let live, but she's a public menace. She enslaves the poor Winkies and sends vicious attacks as soon as her one powerful eye detects strangers in her land. In all fairness, they are on their way to attempt to kill her, but they have good reason. Not only is she a cruel tyrant who pushes her subjects around like pawns, but she doesn't even bleed when she's bitten by Toto. We're told she's so wicked, the blood in her had dried up many years before. Whoa, that's one mean dame. Her final demise, with a bucket of water must be one of the more unusual deaths in literature, but we are in Oz and she is super nasty.

Overall, it's great vintage magical fantasy with its share of Steampunk vibes, shown in details like the hot air balloon. It's incredibly corny in spots. How about the spell that must be used to summon the winged monkeys? 'Ep-pe, Pep-pe, Kak-ke, Hil-lo, Hol-lo, Hel-lo.' Whoa, Harry Potter, eat your heart out! But I think the story's timeless reputation endures because it's so easy to put in an inspirational frame. Take for example the witch's, 'I can make her my slave because she doesn't understand her true power.' I can fit that into my Christian world view whenever I feel battered around by circumstances. As a little kid, I read the book on face value for the thrill of the story. As an adult, I found myself reading it more as one of those self-help fables that form a genre of their own. It's a pretty good, and fairly quick read, however you approach it.

I once saw a great bit of dialogue on social media, which I wish had made it into the real story. It went something like this.

Dorothy: You say you have no brains, yet you can talk.
Scarecrow: Oh, people with no brains talk all the time.