Monthly Archives: May 2012

Book Eight: On the Origin of Species

The first non-fiction work I chose to tackle so far was Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking work On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (better know as The Origin of Species). The work is well known by most and sparks up a really heated debate between two theories: creationism or Darwinism. I’m not here to hash out the merits or lack there of in either belief, but regardless of where you stand on the issue it is hard to argue that The Origin of Species is one of the most influential works of nonfiction ever written and thus makes my list. Of the many scientific breakthroughs that have been published; Galileo who proved the heliocentricity of our solar system, Newton who formulated the laws of gravity, Freud who emphasized the importance of the unconscious among others, it really is Darwin’s work that bears the most impact to us today.

Darwin’s backstory is quite interesting because it was on his path to joining the ministry at Cambridge where he found his love for biology, which would later frustrate scores of church scholars. While at Cambridge he met John Stevens Henslow who gave him the opportunity to study aboard the H.M.S. Beagle between December 1831 and October 1836. Aboard he was able to study in locations such as the East Indies, South America, Australia, and New Zealand. In 1839 the 30 year old Darwin published his first work: Journal of Researches into Geology and Natural History of the Countries Visited by the H.M.S. Beagle. A second edition followed in 1845 but during the 15 years Darwin was formulating his conception of his masterpiece: The Origin of Species. For example in 1839 Darwin wrote for his forthcoming second edition to Journal: “This wonderful relationship on the same continent between the dead and the living will, I do not doubt, hereafter throw more light on the appearance of organic beings on our earth, and their disappearance from it, than any other class of facts.”

When The Origin of Species was published in 1859 it rocked the worlds of both scholars and the religious. Up until that time it was commonly believed that the earth was created in 4004 B.C. as published in the 17th Century by Bishop James Usher. However, if Darwin was correct that timeline would be impossible as it would not allow enough time for Darwinian evolution to take place. This lead to liberal clergymen in the Church of England to declare that evolution and natural selection were simply an instrument of God’s design, and in 1950 the Vatican stated its official position: evolution is not inconsistent with Catholic teaching. Despite that the debate still stands strong and evolution is not allowed in some schools throughout the country, which I think is a shame. Even if you firmly do not believe in Darwinian evolution and subscribe to the strict theological creationism I believe there is a value to seeing the other side of the coin if only to strengthen your beliefs by understanding your opposition.

In Darwin’s third chapter: “Struggle for Existence” he introduces readers to his key concept: natural selection, and in later editions Darwin adds: “But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer of the Survival of the Fittest, is more accurate and is sometimes more convenient.” In this chapter Darwin goes into great detail showing examples on how different species of plants and animals compete with each other for survival. He uses plants that compete to survive a drought, plants that compete to have birds eat their fruit and spread their seeds to propagate, and the struggle of population growth. Later in Chapter IV Darwin fleshes out the theory of an ecological niche, where animals vary to fit their distribution of resources and competitors.

The section I found most interesting were Chapters VI-IX where Darwin begins to take the counter argument and break it down piece by piece. Chapter VI begins with the argument, if all animals are constantly evolving why do we not see intermediate forms closely related to the species formed? Darwin explained that the competition between forms and the small number of intermediate forms brought extinction upon them. “If we look at each species as descended from some unknown form, both the parent and the transitional varieties will generally have been exterminated by the very process of the formation and perfection of the new form,” writes Darwin. Darwin however points out that animals do live with intermediate structures that remain functional. He points out that the flying squirrel and flying lemurs are examples of how bats could have evolved from non-flying creatures. He also states that the eye can be traced back to optic nerves covered with pigment and thus concluded that his theory would be debunked if you could not trace the formation of a complex organ through slight modifications, although at the time he wrote Origin he was unable to find any that would suggest that.

The rest of the book continued to use further evidence to support his evolution theory. He noted how species of plants and animals from one continent are more likely to be similar to other plants and animals of the same continent than to the same plants or animals in the same species of a different continent, even if they are from a similar climate. One observation that I found really amazing was that marine life on the Atlantic and Pacific sides of Central America shared little to no species. What makes this so amazing is that at points such as the Isthmus of Panama the distance between coasts is only a few miles. One very interesting point I found in the conclusion was when Darwin finally directly addresses the origin of humans. He stayed away from this point to avoid prejudices against his argument but states: “Light will be thrown on the origin of man.”

When I picked up On the Origin of Species I expected to be reading a textbook from Biology 101 in Old English, or something along those lines. Granted my initial expectations were quite dramatic and overblown, I was nonetheless extremely impressed by Darwin’s writing style. He was able to make difficult concepts clear to the reader even if they had little or no biological education. I’m not saying this is a light and easy read, but it was not the struggle to get through that I thought it would be. I thought Darwin did a commendable job livening up the dry subject matter of the book with life examples and painted each struggle for life so I could picture them in my mind’s eye. It took me a while to get through the book, I often found myself picking it up after catching reruns of Planet Earth on TV. If biology is an interest of yours reading this would help you not only understand a few major theories but also help further your interest in the subject.

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In Between: A Feast for Crows

Another break in the classics and yet another fantastic read delivered by George R.R. Martin. While many have complained about this installment to A Song of Ice and Fire, and some complaints have merit I really can’t complain. I take online critiques in forums with a grain of salt as most commenters rip apart books to make themselves sound as smart as possible, a theory I also apply to textbook writers who are usually entirely too verbose. Nonetheless I grazed over a few before beginning and they made me slightly apprehensive. After actually reading the book I can confidently say many of those who were so hateful were exaggerating.

A Feast for Crows picks up where a Storm of Swords left off (which wasn’t the original intent of Martin), but it does to the dismay of many pick up through the eyes of some new characters. Rather than following Tyrion or Daenerys your focus is on Kings Landing, the Iron Islands and more through Cersei, Jamie, and Brienne’s eyes among others. At the end Martin divulges that this was merely half the story and because he feared the book would be too large with it’s second half he split them. Here is where I find fault, these books are tomes to begin with stretching over 1,000 pages except for the first, what’s another 1,000 between friends and fans? The only issue I would have had with it being 2,000 pages would have been that it would have been difficult to hold while I was reading, but I would have found a way to manage.

Beyond my missing of the Imp, The Mother of Dragons, and the Bastard Snow (who played a role but never through his point of view) I enjoyed the stories. I saw A Feast for Crows more as the start of a new act, as if after A Storm of Swords there was an intermission and A Feast For Crows started over in a new place. I can understand the people who have been with the series before this installment came out, and who waited years upon years for it to finally be published that are disappointed though. As each passing month lead into a new year their expectations grew and grew so they fell much further with this book than I. I would most likely be sore with major characters that the story circled around never playing a part, but since I didn’t wait and all I have to wait is until A Dance With Dragons is printed in paperback (it must match the rest of my set) I’m not that angry, more interested in what comes next.

There are seven major locations for this book: Kings Landing, The Riverlands, The Eyrie, The Iron Islands, Dorne, Oldtown, and the East. Each location had its moments that kept me reading on. In Kings Landing you mainly follow Cersei and see that she is skilled in gaining power and completely inept in holding power or ruling a kingdom. The Queen Regent fancies herself the equal of her slain father but in reality surrounds herself with fools and her increasing mistrust in the Tyrells begins her downfall to what appears to be her demise. Her paranoia also brings back the Faith Militant who she believes she can control with her hand picked High Septon but things only spiral out of control.

Meanwhile Cersei sends Jamie, her brother and ex-lover to the Roverlands to settle the siege in Riverrun. Jamie and Cersei’s relation deteriorates as they disagree more and more about the Queen Regent’s courses of action and ascension of  unworthy men to the White Cloak. Jamie is able to settle the siege without any bloodshed after some slick negotiations. Jamie is also called upon by Cersei to defend her as she is being held by her reinstated Faith Militant, but Jamie tossed the plea in the fire. Meanwhile Brienne of Tarth was in search of Sansa Stark. Most of this story meandered and was what I thought detracted from the overall book. There were a few high points at the end where Brienne meets up with Gendry and is attacked by Biter. After she survives the attack we are reintroduced to Catelyn Stark now known as Stoneheart, who believes Brienne has joined the Lannisters and broken her oath to her and has her hanged. Just as the rope tightens around her neck and she is lifted off the ground she utters one word which is left unknown to us thus far.

The Eyrie is mainly uneventful as Littlefinger and Sansa/Alayne deal with the Vale after the death of Lady Lysa. Lord Petyr quickly becomes the Lord Protector of of the Vale until the sickly Lord Robin becomes old enough to take rule. However, Littlefinger devises a cunning plot that will allow Sansa to wed, take back her Stark name and take back Winterfell all in one stroke, as well as take control of her aunt’s former lands.

In the Iron Islands Aeron Damphair, a man of the Drowned God and brother to recently deceased Balon Greyjoy calls for a kingsmoot to declare a new person to sit the Seastone Chair. Balon’s daughter Asha, her uncle Victarion and her other uncle Euron “Crow’s Eye” Greyjoy are amongst those contending. The Crow’s Eye wins the thrown by promising the Iron Islanders will take all of Westeros in the “Old Way” and begin by taking the Shield Islands. Euron sends Victarion to find Daenerys so he can marry her, as she has the best claim to the Iron Throne but Victarion decides he will find her to wed for himself.

Dorne was one of my favorite sub plot locations in the book. I enjoyed Prince Oberyn in the last book and it was interesting to hear about the harsh lands he came from. His bastard daughters known as the Sand Snakes, led by the eldest three demand revenge in separate ways but each a declaration of war. Oberyn’s brother and Prince Doran refuses and has all eight locked away to make sure they do not act on their rash decisions. However Doran’s daughter Arianne does just that, dreaming to crown Myrcella queen and bring Dorne to greater power she hatches a plot with Myrcella’s Kingsguard knight Sir Arys Oakheart. Their plot is foiled, Ser Arys is killed, Myrcella is maimed but alive, and Arienne imprisoned. After a long while she is brought before Doran and he tells her he has devised a plot of epic proportions to exact his revenge on the Lannisters for Oberyn’s death promising “Fire and Blood.”

Oldtown was the location of the prologue chapter and like all Song of Ice and Fire books follows a minor character. In the prologue we meet Pate who is training to be a Maester. He steals a key to a book depository for a stranger for a reward but passes out. We meet Pate again, or so we’re made to believe as Sam Tarley on Jon Snow’s behest is sent to begin training to be a Maester. On his journey the Wall’s Maester, Aemon Targaryen tells Sam of his past and of a prophesy which he believes Daenerys is fit to fulfill. His dying wish is for Sam to have a Maester sent to guide her back to Westeros and protect her. Sam delivers this message to an Archmaester who takes off to her aid.

In the East we spend much of the time in Braavos. Arya finds herself in the House of the Black and the White home to a group of assassins known as the Faceless Men. Arya becomes an apprentice there and struggles to detach herself from her old selves, Arya Stark, Cat, Arrey, etc. and become “nobody.” Arya meets Sam though she doesn’t know who he is and learns of another Black Brother who has broken his vows and married. She kills this brother who was the singer Dareon, and when she returns to the House of the Black and the White admits that it was Arya who killed the Brother. She was then sent to bed with a glass of milk and the next morning woke up blind.

A Feast For Crows has some high points that stand out from the negatives that many people dwell on. For example you really loathe Cersei more and more as the book progresses. I kept hoping to see Martin to do what he does best: kill characters just as their gathering a full head of steam, but alas that is one thing that seemed ever so close but didn’t take place. You also learn of Catelyn Stark being resurrected of sorts by the Lightning Lord and some dark magic. I wish she stayed dead, but in her short time in this book she was nothing like the Cat we knew before the Red Wedding as evidenced by her treatment of Brienne. And I am really interested to know what the one word that was called out was as Brienne was strung up. I thought the plot that Littlefinger concocted for Sansa or Alayne Stone was rather exciting, I pitied her while she was under the control of the Lannisters (in previous books) and even though Tyrion made an attempt to atone for some of her misfortune it was too little too late.

The book does wander, as it takes some time to introduce new characters, catch us up on the Iron Islands (which was necessary for all the trouble they cause towards the end) and the lack of use Jamie has become without his sword hand takes away the best part of his character, his lust for his sword. I often told myself the famous J.R.R. Tolkein line “Not all who wander are lost,” while reading and fully expect Martin to have a rhyme and reason for these wanderings. As I stated before I am a little more patient I think because I was able to pick up A Feast for Crows right after I finished A Storm of Swords (with a little Virgil in the middle). I fully expect martin to have a plan for the book being structured the way it was. Maybe it’s more wishful thinking but I see this book analogous to a volleyball set: Game of Thrones was a serve, A Clash of Kings and Storm of Swords was a bump, and A Feast for Crows was the set. Now we just have to wait to see if a Dance With Dragons is in the set category or is the spike and where Winds of Winter and a promised seventh volume will take us. However if Martin holds true to form it will be a long time coming before Winds of Winter let alone the supposed final volume will be published.

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Book Seven: The Aeneid of Virgil

The seventh book is really a culmination of a journey I began with Homer and now it ends with Virgil. The Aeneid completes what I call the trilogy of Troy, the Iliad introduced the characters and told us about the great Achilles, the Odyssey filled in the gaps of the end of the war and tells us what happened after on the Greek side hilighting Odysseus’s  struggles, and finally the Aeneid shows what happens to the remaining Trojans lead by Aeneas. There are a lot of similarities between Homer’s heros and Virgil’s hero and like in Homer’s epics the gods play a huge part in the success of Aeneas. I will take a look at the three main heros (because there are more) in the poems and how they are similar and different because as I will later note there are some interesting relationships between the three characters.

First though I’ll run through the Aeneid quickly before I look into the characters. The poem begins with Aeneas fleeing the city of Troy with a group of survivors while the Greeks sack the city destined for Italy to found the city of Rome. As they approach their destination a storm begins to rage, surprise here a storm delays an epic hero’s journey, and they land in Carthage home of Dido. Dido is the founder and queen of Carthage and welcomes Aeneas’ group and Aeneas recounts the end of the Trojan War to her. Aeneas tells Dido after ten years of siege the Greeks tricked the Trojans with the infamous Trojan Horse. The Trojans didn’t realize that there were Greek soldiers hidden in the hollow belly of the horse and took it into their city. Aeneas also goes into detail how he escaped the city with the group of survivors while the Greeks burned the city. Aeneas is guided to Italy by the gods who assure him of a glorious future in Italy as the founder of Rome. Twice Aeneas tries to build a new city elsewhere only to be chased away. Bad omens, plagues, harpies (half women half birds) cause Aeneas to fail, however he does come across some helpful natives as well. They also run into a bout of awful weather and with the death of Aeneas’ father Anchises, Aeneas packs up the second attempt and that’s when they landed in Carthage. Dido falls in love with Aeneas and makes him her lover for a while, but the gods remind him of his destiny and he decides to set sail again. Dido is devastated and kills herself, building a funeral pyre with Aeneas’ possessions, lighting it and then stabbing herself with his sword.

Aeneas takes off from Carthage for Italy, however another storm blows them to Sicily. In Sicily Aeneas holds funeral games for his father but the women in his group who are tired of the journey attempt to sabotage Aeneas by burning his ships however a downpour saves the ships. Aeneas’ father visits him in a dream and reinvigorated Aeneas sets sail again for Italy leaving a few members behind. As mentioned in Dante’s Inferno Aeneas descends into the Underworld once he reaches Italy to meet his father. Once there he is shown the future heros of Rome which gives Aeneas renewed motivation. Aeneas returns from the Underworld and sails further up Italy.

In Italy he meets a friendly king Latinus who believes Aeneas is the prophesied suitor of his daughter Lavinia. Latinius’ wife Amata had different ideas and has chosen Turnus for her daughter and begins to spin a web of enmity towards  Aeneas. After Aeneas’ son hunts a stag of a local herdsman a fight breaks out. Several people are killed and because of it a battle ensues with help from Tarnus. Aeneas is visited by the god Tiberinus who advises Aeneas to sail north to Tiber to seek the aid of neighboring tribes. Wile on his journey Aeneas’ mother Venus visits him to bring him new armor forged by the god Vulcan. This armor is very important because it also shows the future of Rome on the shield. While away Turnus attackes Aeneas’ men, and by the time Aeneas returns he finds his men entrenched in battle. During the battle Evander, son to Aeneas’ new ally is killed by Turnus sending Aeneas into a fury leading to many deaths.

The next day the two sides agree to a short truce to bury and honor their dead. The Latin generals meet and decide that no further bloodshed need occur. The propose to the Trojans a single combat to decide the conflict between the two groups champions: Aeneas and Tarnus which is agreed. The combat begins but shortly into the battle arguing between the two sides begins and a full scale battle ensues in which Aeneas is wounded in the thigh. As the tide of the battle swings in favor of the Trojans Tarnus rides out to meet Aeneas. Aeneas grievously wounds Tarnus and was about to spare his life but was reminded of Pallas’ death at the hands of Tarnus and that sealed a similar fate. Virgil does not tell the end of the story as we know it where Aeneas marries Lavinia and Rome is built. He ends in the style of Homer with death. Similar to the Iliad’s conclusion where Hector and Achilles are slain Tarnus’ death closes this poem. Also Virgil wanted his then audience, Romans, to believe they were the glorious conclusion to the poem and not Aeneas’ exploits.

After reading three consecutive epic poems that collectively tell the story of Troy and it’s surviving combatants on both sides including the founding of Rome, I wanted to compare the three epic heroes. Achilles, Odysseus and Aeneas represent all things that embody the hero at that time.

Achilles, the hero of the Iliad was one of only two mortals to be described as god-like (the other being Great Ajax) and was the only mortal to experience god-like rage and anger. He was engulfed by the idea of attaining glory enough so to knowingly sail to his death after his goddess mother foretold his possible futures. Achilles obsession with war, glory and his name lasting through the ages aided in his decision to sail to Troy and his death. Achilles anger is the main focal point of the Iliad and ultimately brings about his death. Achilles kills the Trojan Prince Hector in a great one on one combat at the foot of the Trojan wall, and while Achilles defaces Hectors body by dragging him behind his chariot an arrow from Paris pierces Achilles’ heel killing him and giving him the glorious death he desired. Later Achilles will wish he stayed behind from the war and lived a long life when Odysseus visits him in the Underworld. Achilles is remembered as a great warrior and fatally passionate but two traits highly regarded in Greek society at the time.

Odysseus is the hero of the Odyssey but is one of the major Greeks to be mentioned in the Iliad. He is deviously cunning yet is sometimes portrayed as overly cautious favoring retreat and regrouping when opposed by a more powerful army. Nonetheless it is Odysseus who dreams up the famed Trojan Horse and ultimately brings to an end a ten year war in favor of the Greeks. Odysseus was not a coward however, he offered to battle Hector in single combat and fought with courage and honor in many battles before the Trojan War. Odysseus was best known for his sage council as exampled by his suggestion to stone Cassandra’s rapist to death which quelled the anger of Athena saving many Greek lives. Odysseus wins Achilles’ armor by his quick wit and sharp tongue by outsmarting Ajax who later kills himself. Also Odysseus’ cleverness was on display when he  outsmarted Polyphemus the giant cyclops and son of Poseidon after he was imprisoned, blinding the giant and riding out of his cave on the underside of his herd of sheep. Odysseus represents the opposite side of the heroic coin that Achilles represents. Odysseus survives the war, but is celebrated for his wisdom and cleverness not his battlefield prowess. Odysseus is refined, thoughtful and  is regarded as a great leader different characteristics than Achilles but equally regarded by the Greeks.

Aeneas is a different type of hero in comparison to Homer’s. The Romans hold different values than the Greeks do in terms of their heroes. Aeneas is more dutiful and pious that either of the Homeric heroes as can be seen with his stay with Dido. It’s true he needed to be reminded of his destiny but  he makes the decision to sail on to Italy. He has a singular goal and goes to great lengths to achieve it, common to all epic heroes. Where Aeneas differs from Homer’s heroes is in glory. Homer’s heroes weather they attain glory on the battlefield or through cunning both achieve it for themselves personally. Aeneas’s glory is for future Romans and it is seen best on the shield Vulcan forges for him. The shield clearly depicts Romulus being nursed by the she-wolf, the victory over the Gauls, Caesar Augustus defeating Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actidum and more. Aeneas bears the future of Rome and all future Romans on his back not just the glory of his name. Aeneas is a great epic hero who holds the values most cherished by the Romans. Because the values differ does not make Aeneas less of a hero although it is sometimes questioned.

As we can see each person, Achilles, Odysseus and Aeneas had many things in common. They were beloved by their respective cultures and head the characteristics that were valued most by each. The Greeks valued glory weather it is attained on the battlefield or through leadership and both Achilles and Odysseus achieved such. The Romans

valued piety and selflessness and Aeneas was a representation of that. It is difficult to compare these heroes to what we believe is a hero in the 21st century because our values have evolved since, but these three were the quintessential heroes of their time.

I really enjoyed the Aenied as it completed the epic journey of the players in the Trojan War. It was really interesting to jump sides from the Greeks to the Trojans and to

see how the gods put the weight of Rome on the shoulders of one man. I really enjoyed the presentation of the new armor and the history (or future to Aeneas) of Rome on it. It was good to see not all of Troy was lost and the civilization was able to continue elsewhere, and the Aeneid proved to be a good close to the trilogy of epics. I really recommend the Aeneid but after the two Homeric epics are read. It’s an easier read after Homer and having the back story. It’s also a great way to see how different cultures saw what a hero is.

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