Book Ten: The Old Man and the Sea

The tenth book might be the shortest one I’ve read yet, but it didn’t lack in power or depth. Of course I’m talking about Ernest Hemingway’s short novel The Old Man and the Sea. This story of an old man Santiago and his battle with a 1,500 pound marlin has annoyed high school readers and sparked a continued interest in Hemingway works all at the same time. It’s a bit ironic that a story of a man’s great loss would lead to its author’s greatest personal accolade but in 1954 The Old Man and the Sea was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, only the fifth American to have won it.

The story’s origins can be traced back to a 1936 issue of Esquire magazine which contained an article titled: “On the Blue Water: A Gulf Stream Letter,” written by the magazine’s featured contributer Ernest Hemmingway. This Hemmingway piece in Esquire rambles on about big game fishing and off shore hunting, but one story he told was his most cherished. It was a story told to him by his Cuban friend Carlos about a giant marlin which was hooked on a hand line but a Cuban fisherman. It took two fill days and nights to get the fish close to the boat and all the while the fish was dragging the little skiff further out to sea, but in the end the fisherman pulled the fish close to the boat. After harpooning the giant fish and lashing him to the boat he began to sail the Gulf Stream back to Cuba, but along the way his prize was hit by sharks which he beat back with clubs and his knife. After the second day a fishing vessel found the fisherman and pulled him aboard with his prize fish half eaten by sharks but still weighing over 800 pounds. This was Hemingway’s inspiration for the classic tale we know today.

Three years later in 1939 Hemmingway was asked by his editor to write a book of short stories, one of which he planned to be the story of the fisherman and the marlin, however he began to write a story of the Civil War fist, a more popular subject at the time. Fifteen thousand words later the book of short stories was abandoned and we were given a work that would later bear the title For Whom the Bell Tolls. It wasn’t until 1951 that Hemingway finally began to write “The Santiago Story” as he first called it. He originally intended to publish the work as a short story but was given a unique offer to have it published in its entirety in Life Magazine which he accepted. The book was published soon afterwards. As mentioned before the story won the 1954 Nobel Prize and is credited with a resurgence of Hemingway’s works that is still felt today.

The story begins with an old Cuban man and a local boy. The boy used to fish with the man but his father required him to change boats because the old man was having poor luck fishing. Despite the boat change the boy looked up to the old man, and looked after him when he could, and the old man obviously loved him for it. It has been 84 days since the old man’s last catch, but the old man harnesses the spirit of his hero: American baseball legend Joe DiMaggio and is persistent. He is so encouraged that he tells the boy, Manolin that he will sail out further than any boat the next morning and will have good luck.

The next morning the old man, Santiago does as he promised and sailed out further than he has ever into the Gulf Stream and drops his lines at various depths. At noon that day he hooks a very large fish that he suspects is a marlin but he cannot pull it in with his hand line. Instead the fish begins to run taking the slack line that Santiago has set up in hopes the fish will tire out. Santiago is fearful to tie the line off to the boat because if the fish decides to run it could snap the taut line and get away. So instead the old man bears the line on his weathered shoulders, back and hands feeling the burn of the rope and strain of the fish. Santiago often calls the fish his brother and empathizes with it, but has an iron resolve that he will fight the fish to the end, just hopeful it is the fish’s end and not his own. The old man often compares himself to DiMaggio, and his injuries to a bone spur DiMaggio had in his heel he read about recently, but he always told himself that DiMaggio would keep fishing so he did just that. Many times the old man wishes he had the boy there to help him, but chastises himself because he knows the boy is back home.

After two full days of running this magnificent fish finally tires and Santiago is able to pull him close to the boat. While along side the boat Santiago sees he is the biggest fish he has ever seen let alone caught, then thrusts a harpoon through his heart and lashes him to the side of his skiff. The old man raises his sail half delirious from the battle and begins his sail home in the Gulf Stream. The marlin being dragged on the side of the little boat leaves a trail of blood that is soon picked up by a large mako shark who attempts to eat Santiago’s catch. The old man is able to ward off the shark with a harpoon but as the dead shark sinks to the bottom of the ocean he take’s the old man’s harpoon with him.

The old man lament’s “coming out too far” and wishes that this prized fish was never caught and subjected to such an unfortunate death. As the day progresses more sharks come and Santiago fights them off first with a crude spear made with his knife lashed to the butt of an oar, and when that broke the arm to his tiller. All through the day and into the night the old man fought off the scavengers until there was nothing left but the white backbone, head and tail of the fish. Santiago further laments that he went out too far and cannot feed anybody with his catch, making it a waste of such a formidable foe. When he arrives back to his town he leaves the fish lashed to his boat and wearily stumbles to his house where he falls into a deep sleep.

The next morning, while Santiago slept a crowd of fisherman gathered around the marlin carcass amazed at its size. Tourists mistaken it for a great shark, but the fisherman know better. Manolin is moved to tears when he sees the old man back at home because he was so worried when he didn’t return the first night. He gathers the old man some coffee and the newspapers from the days he was out at sea so he can read the baseball scores. The two agree that the should fish again, that the boy could learn a great deal from the old man who wasn’t unlucky any more and the old man drifts back to sleep. He dreamt his usual dream of lions on an African beach playing and was very happy despite the loss of his great fish.

Many believe that the old man represents Hemingway himself as he approached the end of a masterful career as an author and the bloodthirsty and graceless sharks represented the literary critics that sought to bring him down or the effects of nature that would ultimately win out in his struggle for life. However there is one enigma that stands out, the lions at play on the beach. This is one piece to the story that just doesn’t fit to one image. Hemingway mentions them three separate times in the novella without tethering them to a single idea except that they are a source of comfort to Santiago. It’s curious to me how there is clear imagery for all other parts of the story except this one that is mentioned so often.

I also enjoyed how Hemingway turned the old man’s greatest weakness into his greatest strength. Like all heros the old man is tragically flawed, he is prideful. So much so that after 84 days of futility he sails further than anybody has ever and lands a fish larger than ever. Santiago realizes that he let his pride get the better of him while battling the fish saying “I went out too far.” But rather than making Santiago’s pride a fatal flaw, Hemmingway turns it to be one of his greatest strengths as well. Hemmingway demonstrates that pride can motivate men to do great things, because if it weren’t for pride the old man would not have gone out too far, would not have hooked a 1,500 pound marlin and would not have won the battle that ensued because he would have cut the line and his losses before succeeding. The old man meets every challenge, be it catching the marlin, fighting off the sharks, or getting back to Cuba safely with the resilient determination he will bring this fish home or die in the process. Even though he only returned with a carcass the old man is content with himself because he knew that he had seen the struggle to the end, and that the the true achievement of glory.

I never got a chance in high school to read The Old Man and the Sea and I can understand why it frustrated some readers then. The sentence structure is very different and at times it rambles which would annoy a high school me, but now I can really appreciate the story being told. I really enjoyed the old man’s love for baseball especially because I’m a Yankee fan and Santiago’s idol is the great Joe DiMaggio. I could really appreciate the imagery in the book and I liked the really simple story line. It was nice to just read and appreciate the story and the message that Hemingway was trying to get across. I think if I were younger I would have enjoyed this book much less but now that I’m older it was a great read. This is definitely a must read for everybody at some point in their lives.

Categories: Literature | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Book Nine: Jurassic Park

The ninth book on my list takes me to one of the greatest movies of the 90’s: Jurassic Park. When you think classic literature you don’t always go to a Michael Crichton technothriller but this is Chrichton’s magnum opus and that’s saying something. But in this book compared to his others the science is more scientific, the monsters are more badass, and everything is just cooler. I couldn’t believe it’s taken me until now to read the book that inspired a movie that I have seen hundreds of times and I was pleasantly surprised to see how well the movie held up to the book, but we all know books are always better than movies. The version of Jurassic Park I got was different than most of the books I’ve read previously, before this I’ve read books from the Easton Press collection of books, but this was a Barns and Noble leather-bound classic and it came with The Lost World as well so it was a two for one deal.

Jurassic Park the book starts off with a part that unfortunately hit the cutting room floor until The Lost World movie was made with a family on vacation in Costa Rica. They are on a beach when their daughter who was playing next to some mangrove trees noticed a small green lizard come out of the bushes. She wants to observe the unfamiliar animal so she stays as still as she could until the lizard walked right up to her so she put her hand out for it to climb up. The lizard then scrambled for her face biting her. Her parents rushed her to the hospital where a reptilian expert was able to cure her from the infection from the bite but had no idea what it was from. The expert went back to the attack site and found a piece of the lizard in a monkey’s mouth. He tranquilized the monkey and was able to get a sample which made its way to our hero Dr. Allen Grant who identified it as a Procompsognathus, or Compy… a dinosaur.

Another part that was in the book that was left out of the movie displays Crichton’s skill of dramatic irony and foreshadowing. Crichton will never be known as a great stylistic writer, his prose is often choppy and his chapters are brief (sometimes less than a page) but he is very skilled in suspense. The scene begins with a doctor who has to treat an InGen worker coming from a strange island off the coast that was injured by a bulldozer, however you begin to think she’s not getting the real reason her patient is injured. While treating him she notices some key factors that lead her to believe he was mauled by an animal and not in a construction accident. Before he dies the worker mentions a raptor then convulses and is gone. All the Costa Rican workers think he is talking about a Hupia, a demon who steals children in the night. Crichton expertly uses many points of view in different locations to make the reader think something is up with InGen, this island and all these attacks. Crichton also alludes to dinosaurs being related to birds, the proliferation of bioengineering and chaos theory which he goes into great detail throughout the book.

Before Grant and his research assistant Ellie Sattler can further examine the lizard specimen from Costa Rica, one of their major financial supporters John Hammond president of InGen a bioengineering firm requested the pair to give a consult for a park he had in Costa Rica. So the next day Grant and Sattler find themselves on a helicopter flying to a private island called Isla Nublar with John Hammond, his concerned lawyer Donald Gennero, mathematician/Chaos Theory expert Ian Malcolm, and Dennis Nedry the overweight computer programmer who has been paid off  by InGen’s chief competitor: the Biosyn Corporation. The helicopter lands on the misty island and Jeeps begin taking the group to their living quarters. This is where we glimpse the first dinosaurs on the island, like in the movie Grant and company spot brontosaurs and are amazed by them. Gennero is excited at the thought of getting rich off the island, and Hammond is pleased by everybody’s responses except Malcolm who predicts that everything is going to go to hell. Crichton continues his bird/dinosaur comparisons throughout this section of the book; Grant compares the Compys to chickens, the velociraptors are as “fine tuned as a bird,” and the myth that brontosaurs were too large and lumbering to exist on land and thus needed to stay submerged was debunked when the group saw a herd of them deftly moving on land.

The next section begins with Hammond’s grandchildren, 11 year old Timmy and 8 year old Lex arrive on the island which infuriates Gennero and Malcolm believes this adds another wrinkle to his belief that chaos on this island is inevitable. The movie for some reason reverses the ages of the grandchildren making Lex older, and in fact throughout the book Lex proves to be more of a nuisance and an annoying character whereas in the movie she (and not Timmy) is the computer whiz. Nevertheless Hammond is convinced everything is going to be fine and sends the six of them (Gennero, Malcolm, Grant, Satter, Timmy and Lex) on the tour of the facilities done by Ed Regis.Here we learn the science behind Hammond’s clones, and if you’ve seen the movie you probably remember the cool video that explained it. InGen used mosquitoes trapped in amber to exract dinosaur DNA, then spliced their genes with amphibian DNA to create full strands. They then used plastic eggs from a company they bought out to harbor the embryos until they hatched. Malcolm asked Dr. Wu, the chief researcher if he’s bread Compys (the dinosaur suspected to have bitten the girl on vacation) hoping to prove dinosaurs got off the island. Wu explains the dinosaurs are lysine deficient and would die in a day unless they were fed a regulated diet, and all the animals are female. Unassured Malcolm delivers a solid speech ending with “Life will find a way,” one of Crichton’s underlying themes throughout the book.

In one of my favorite parts of the book Dr. Wu confronts Hammond about creating a new version of the dinosaurs, Version 4.4 to make them a little slower. Wu points out that the animals are so fast it is difficult to take care and control them plus visitors would like to see slower animals. Hammond scoffs at the idea and shows his extremely flawed sense of reasoning that gets missed in the movie. Hammond says if they breed them to be slower they won’t be the real animals and people want to see the real thing. Despite Wu pointing out these are engineered animals with a lysine dependancy and all female and thus not the real thing to begin with Hammond has his way. Crichton begins to build the villain Hammond who is so wrapped up in his park and what he thinks people want he fails to see any problems with his creation. In the control room Malcolm is talking with John Arnold who shows how the dinos are tracked by video that can view 92% of the park. He also shows a chart of the Compy’s height which alarms Malcolm. The chart is a standard bell curve, normal for a natural biological ecology, but since this is anything but normal Malcolm states that height should be more uniform.

Finally the group makes their way to the electric powered Range Rovers for the tour of the island. Their first stop proves to be uneventful as the group is unable to see any dinosaurs through the foliage. When the tour reaches the tyrannosaur paddock Robert Maldoon, the game warden begins to worry about the dangers of the park, and expresses extreme concern about the velociraptors who have the ability to learn and are extremely adept escape artists and have killed two construction workers. This answers the question back at the beginning that it was a velociraptor and not a bulldozer that killed that worker. When the tour reaches a sick stegosaur Dr. Sattler finds they are eating a poisonous berry and while searching for more evidence Dr. Grant stumbles on some egg shells he believes are raptor eggs. Armed with this new information Malcolm advises Arnold to run a count of all the animals on the island, when the computer finishes there are more of a number of species including the raptors meaning the animals are breeding. Life is finding a way.

When the group, minus Dr. Sattler who stays behind to examine the sick stegosaur, returns to the Range Rovers Timmy finds some night vision goggles. While playing with them he notices some dinosaurs on a ship leaving the island, and with a closer look he identified them as velociraptors. When he tells Dr. Grant they try to radio the control room there’s no answer. Back in the control room, Dennis jammed the system cutting off all electricity so he can steal the dinosaur embryos for Byosin. Arnold realizes with the system down the Range Rovers are stuck, and when Maldoon goes to take a gas powered Jeep to get the group he notices one is missing. Meanwhile in the stuck Range Rovers Timmy uses his night vision goggles to look into the T-Rex paddock and sees the beast’s tiny forelimb clutching the electric fence. In a horror the group realizes the fences are down. Regis runs for cover leaving the children behind and the T-Rex attacks the car he left throwing it. Malcolm the flees the second car only to be caught by the rex and grievously wounded in the leg. The T-Rex then turns its sights on the second car destroying it and knocking it off the ledge sending Dr. Grant flying. At the same time this is happening Nedry gets lost, crashes his Jeep and while is trying to figure out where he is gets gruesomely killed by a dilophosaur.

Crichton continues to build Hammond’s villainous character when Hammond and Wu have dinner in Hammond’s bungalow. Over ginger ice cream Hammond discusses the opening of the park as if nothing was going wrong. Hammond tells Wu that no one can stop him from making as much money as he possibly can and refuses to acknowledge any need for change on the island. Hammond shows his true ambitions, when we first meet him he expresses a similar interest as in the movie, a park for all children to see dinosaurs, but in reality Hammond is only interested in targeting the richest kids in the world while completely ignoring ll the dangers. Meanwhile Maldoon and Gennaro take the second Jeep out to find the tour group. They find what’s left of Regis (his leg) and human footprints leading deeper into the island. The also find Malcolm badly injured and in order to save him they bring him back to Control.

After a nap Grant, Timmy and Lex awake in the shed they took shelter in and find a tranquilizer gun and an inflatable raft. When they take the raft to the lake they see the adult T-Rex sleeping next to a sauropod it killed. Grant inflates the raft but when they get to the middle of the lake Lex sneezes waking the T-Rex who chases after them. Swimming like a crocodile it appears to be certain doom for our hero and the kids but the juvenile T-Rex saved them when he tried to steal the sauropod carcass. The adult T-Rex abandoned the chase to protect his kill and Grant rowed the raft towards a building up ahead. The Building is the aviary and while Grant was looking for a motion detector a giant cearadactyl attacks forcing the group to flee to the raft and out of the aviary.

While Grant was in the aviary Maldoon recovered the rocket launcher from the Jeep Nedry took and took sights on the adult T-Rex. Maldoon fired two rocket propelled tranquilizer darts at the beast but they appeared to miss infuriating the dinosaur. Maldoon fled before he and Gennero were eaten. Grant and the kids, after escaping the aviary come across a waterfall and at the bottom is the adult T-Rex waiting for them. They go over the fall and narrowly miss the jaws of the T-Rex. Grant and Timmy make for the shore, Lex struggled a bit but eventually made it herself. While the T-Rex is distracted with the raft the three run behind the waterfall and hide. Grant finds a maintenance door and entered it. When it closed he realized it locked him in so Grant explored finding a flashlight, and electric golf cart and a baby male velociraptor. Meanwhile the T-Rex finds the kids behind the waterfall and starts dragging Timmy out with his tongue until he keels over, the tranquilizers finally took effect just in time.

Back in the Control Room Wu reads a printout that states the fences have been out for the last five hours and need to be booted up manually at the generator. Arnold is the first to attempt but a raptor gets to him and eats him. Maldoon and Gennero narrowly escape the raptor pack but Gennero is attacked when he tries to reach the generator. While this is going on Grant and the kids get back to the Control only to find Maldoon, Sattler, Malcolm, Hammond and Harding under siege by a pack of raptors. Timmy tries to start the electric fences but two raptors infiltrate the building forcing them to flee. They run into the nursery where Grant then injects eggs with poison and rolls them to the raptors who eat them and keel over poisoned. They head back to the Control Room where Timmy gets the electric fences back on line which will keep the remaining raptors out of the building and then phones the ship that had the two stowaway raptors and instructs them to turn away from the mainland. Relieved Hammond leaves to go to his bungalow, after Malcolm calls him an egomaniacal idiot, but he falls down a ditch breaks his leg and is eaten by Compys which os not seen in the movie because Hollywood decided Hammond should survive so he can be in the sequel.

While the group waits for the Coast Guard helicopter Grant takes a Ellie and Gennero to count the eggs in the raptor nest to make sure every one is accounted for. While there they notice strange behavior, the raptors line up single file and run from the cave their nest is in. The group follows them to the beach where they stand all facing southwest. Grant deducts that they want to migrate which further proves his theory that dinosaurs are bird-like. An approaching helicopter scares the raptors off and soldiers whisk the group into the aircraft where Maldoon and the kids are waiting. Maldoon informs them that Hammond and Malcolm are dead as they fly back to mainland Costa Rica. The Costa Rican government detains everybody and Grant is informed of strange animals eating a lysine rich diet making a straight line course from the coast into the jungle. The animals haven’t been seen in a while and haven’t been identified.

One of my favorite things about science fiction is the authors provide predictions about what the future will look like. Crichton in Jurassic Park, through extensive research with professionals has made some assumptions about dinosaur behavior especially in his emphasis in the theory that dinosaurs are directly related to birds. Crichton goes to great lengths to show the dangers of machination in industry. This is not an uncommon theme in science fiction (Asimov’s I-Robot comes to mind) but Crichton hammers this theme over and over again. Hammond insisted that the island be run with as few people as possible relying on an automated system that was designed by Nedry and run by Arnold which ultimately was the demise of the park . Malcolm’s chaos theory is not in the book to polish it scientifically but serves as a warning asking the reader what if every piece of machinery suddenly stopped working? The book was written in 1990 before the Y2K scare which asked the same question. Chaos Theory states that all complex systems cannot be predicted over a long period of time and Isla Nublar proves that theory.

In The Lost World, Crichton’s follow up to Jurassic Park (and a book I thoroughly enjoyed as well) Crichton made some more interesting observations. Malcolm, yes he actually survived Isla Nublar, compares complex ecological systems to crystals. When a crystal is formed it begins as a random group of molecules but forces over time arrange them into a geometrically perfect solid. Malcolm states that there are so many complex actions going on in the world that life just crystalize, things fall into place through evolution. But Malcolm warns that humans are changing the planet so rapidly and drastically that it could unbalance things. Evolution takes place as we saw in Darwin, in specialized small niches. Small groups in isolation evolve the fastest, but humans are beginning to make the world a less specialized and less isolated. Cyberspace is connecting people who otherwise wouldn’t be connected making the group larger and in theory slowing the evolution of people in terms of behavior. Malcolm predicts that “this means the end of innovation.” While I think this is a drastic and extreme prediction it is an interesting one, Crichton is telling us because of the internet connecting everybody together (and this was written pre Facebook, Twitter, etc.) there will be a freeze on intellectual diversity which is our most distinctive resource in the animal world.

In regards to classic literature science fiction is a very underrated genre. Most people would not classify Jurassic Park or many other science fiction works as “classic.” I believe that Crichton’s book is on the same level as Wells or Verne’s best works. I really believe Jurassic Park is a gem, it has a great story, great science, and villains that you really hate which kept me on the edge of my seat furiously reading to find out what will happen next. I don’t think there are any villains that are more terrifying than ones that are able to be successful in their endeavors and don’t realize they are villainous. Hammond believes he is creating a wonder for the world to see, but in reality he has played God and as Malcolm predicted, things went horribly wrong. The velociraptors are probably the scariest villains in the book. They’re six feet tall, can run as fast as a cheetah, hunt in stealthy packs, have a three inch razor sharp claw on each foot, can learn and target the children in the group; they’re the most efficient predator the world has seen. Because of these villains there are points in time when you don’t think Grant, Malcolm and the group will make it and that is the best part of these books.

My only wish for the book was that Lex be left out or eventually eaten by a dinosaur because she was an annoying character. She was more of a burden than anything, needing to be rescued and whining the whole time. The movie attempts to save her by making her the computer whiz and making her the older sibling but doesn’t completely abandon her book personality when she shines the flashlight at the T-Rex. The Lost world introduces new children to the readers but they are more capable and hold their own pretty well. Crichton just knew that putting children in these dangerous positions only ratcheted up the intensity. Beyond that I can’t say enough about these books, and I think anybody who still has some child-like wonder for dinosaurs and those who just enjoy science or a thriller would love them.

Categories: Literature | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Categories: Literature | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Categories: Literature | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Categories: Literature | Leave a comment

Book Six: The Odyssey

After finishing the Iliad it only makes sense to follow it with the other Homeric epic, The Odyssey. The Odyssey is the story of Odysseus’s nostos, or homeward journey from the Trojan War. All of the other great Greeks have made it home safely except Odysseus. Throughout the epic we learn of the often tragic, but not always stories of these great Greeks. The poem starts in medias res, or in the middle. Since almost every Greek would know the story of Odysseus’s journey when it was told, this engages the audience right from the start. This also allows for Homer to let Odysseus recount his journey later catching everybody up to the present. There is one theme which interested me while reading the Odyssey:  the idea of xenia. Xenia translated literally from Greek means stranger and treating guests kindly is a major philosophical point driven home in the Odyssey.

The Odyssey begins not with Odysseus but his son Telemachus. With the approval of Zeus (or Jove) Athena (Pallas) goes to Ithaca disguised as Odysseus’s good friend Mentes. She predicts to Telemachus that Odysseus will return soon and advises him to gather all of the suitors of his mother, Odysseus’s wife Penelope and banish them from their home. Telemachus agrees, suspecting that he might have been speaking to a god or goddess in disguise.

At the council the next day Telemachus is praised by Aegyptius for finally being more like his father. Telemachus takes the floor and delivers an impassioned speech reprimanding the elders of Ithaca – now Penelope’s suitors for disrespecting his family and slaughtering his fathers oxen. This is the first example of xenia in the Odyssey as Telemachus is giving the suitors good hospitality but in return is being eaten out of house and home. During the meeting Telemachus prays to the gods to punish the suitors for being so disrespectful and soon after spies two eagles battling in the sky. A prophet interoperates this as Odysseus will be returning soon and all the suitors will soon be slaughtered. The suitors do not believe this and the meeting ends at an impasse. Telemachus then begins to prepare for his trip to Pylos and Sparta that he and Athena agreed upon. Athena visits Telemachus disguised as another friend of Odysseus, Mentor and predicts the trip will be fruitful. She then goes to town disguised as Telemachus and gathers a loyal crew to sail with him.

In Pylos Telemachus and Mentor (Athena in disguise) meet with the wise King Nestor and ask him about Odysseus. Nestor had no news about him, but did recount the actions after the Trojan War. He said that there was a falling out between the brothers Agamemnon and Menelaus, the two who essentially began the war on the Greek side. Menelaus set sail for Sparta with Helen immediately while Agamemnon stayed behind in Troy to continue to make sacrifices. Nestor left with Menelaus while Odysseus stayed behind with Agamemnon. Here we also learn of Agamemnon’s fate. Upon his return to Greece he found Aeigisthus, a Greek who cowardly stayed behind while everyone went off to war had seduced and married his wife Clytemnestra. With her approval Aeigisthus killed Agamemnon and would have taken over as ruer of Agamemnon’s kingdom had his son Orestes not returned from exile in Athens to kill both Aeigisthus and Clytemnestra.

Telemachus and Nestor’s son Pisistratus set sail from Pylos to Sparta to meet Menelaus and Helen who are each celebrating the two marriages of their son and daughter. They welcome the two travelers in graciously, again a good example of xenia accepting travelers during a wedding, and soon after Menelaus recognizes Telemachus due to his resemblance to his father. Helen and Menelaus begin recounting tales of Odysseus’s cunning including the story of how Odysseus thought up the infamous Trojan Horse. Menelaus then describes his journey back to Sparta including a detour in Egypt where he captured a prophet known as The Old Man of the Sea who informed him of the fates of Agamemnon and of Little Ajax who was shipwrecked on his return home. Ajax clung to a rock that Poseidon guided him to, but then took the credit for his survival so an angry Poseidon split the rock in two with his trident and Ajax was swallowed by the sea. The prophet also told Menelaus that Odysseus was the prisoner of Calypso on her island. Telemachus is joyed with the news his father is alive and returns to his ship to set sail for Ithaca, meanwhile the suitors being to scheme an ambush for him.

We return to Odysseus now, still the prisoner of Calypso. Zeus instructs Calypso that Odysseus’s fate is to return home and she must give him up. Calypso makes a great speech about the double standards of the male gods but in the end returns Odysseus and his men to their ships. While sailing homeward Poseidon returns to Olympus and is enraged to see Odysseus returning home. He conjures a storm and Odysseus is shipwrecked on the shore of Scheria, the island of the Phaeacians. There he is welcomed into their palace and is honored with a series of games. During these games Broadsea challenges Odysseus to a discus throw. Odysseus first declines but after being insulted beats him resoundingly. Afterwards Odysseus reveals his identity to his hosts.

Odysseus then recounts his journey from Troy to this point. Odysseus tells the story of being swept off course and plundering an island then being chased from it losing six men per ship. They then land on the island of the Lotus eaters, the lotus being an intoxicating flower. Odysseus wisely does not consume the flower and in order to escape he has to drag each crew member from the island and lock them in the ship. Then the men land on the island of the Cyclopses. They come across a cave filled with cheese and milk. In a rare move of foolishness Odysseus decides against his crew’s suggestion to take what they can and run and remains. The giant cyclops Polyhemus, inhabitant of the cave and son of Poseidon returns and imprisons the men, eating two of them for dinner. Odysseus knows he cannot kill Polyphemus right away because he has closed his cave with a massive boulder, so sage Odysseus constructs a plan. Calling himself Nobody Odysseus waits for Polyphemus to take his sheep out of the cave to graze. While the cyclops is gone Odysseus sharpens a point to staff that was in the cave and hardens it in the fire. Later that evening Polyphemus gets drunk off of Odysseus’s wine from his ship and eventually passes out. While asleep Odysseus and a few of his men drive the staff through the cyclops’s eye blinding him. When Polyphemus’s neighbors come to see what his howling is about he replies “Nobody’s killing me!” In the morning Odysseus and his men escape the cave on the underside of the giant’s sheep and lead the herd to their ships. Rather than sailing away unscathed Odysseus calls back to Polyphemus identifying himself. Polyphemus preys to his father to exact revenge, which leads to the rest of the Odyssey.

They then land on the island of Aeolus the ruler of the winds. He gifts odysseus a bag filled with the wind and conjures a favorable westerly wind to return the crew safely. After ten days Ithaca is in sight, but the crew is mistrustful of Odysseus. They believe that Aeolus has given him a great treasure that he will not share with anybody else and rip open the bag of wind. The wind drives them back to Aeolus’s island, who this time refuses to assist the Greeks. The Greeks are then forced to row their boats, eventually landing on an island of giants.  The giants eat two of Odysseus’s scouts and as the Greeks flee every ship but Odysseus’s is sunk by the giants who began hurling boulders. Odysseus then rows to the island of Aeaea home of the witch-goddess Circe. Circe turns Odysseus’s scouts into pigs on their arrival and Odysseus may have fared the same fate had Hermes not warned him. Hermes advised Odysseus to eat the herb moly and when Circe attacked him to lunge at her. Odysseus does this and overpowers her forcing her to turn his men back. Odysseus then becomes Circe’s lover and the men live with her for a year. Odysseus’s men finally persuade him they must leave and when he agrees Circe tells him the only way to get back is to see the prophet Tiresias in Hades. Just before leaving one of Odysseus’s crew members falls from the roof of Circe’s palace and dies.

In the underworld Odysseus meets his crew member who fell from Circe’s roof who begs him to return and give his body a proper burial. Odysseus then sees the prophet who tells Odysseus he is being punished for blinding Poseidon’s  son Polyphemus, but he will return home to Ithaca and reclaim his throne from the wretched suitors. He is also told to go to the island of the Sun to appease Poseidon.While there the Tiresias warns Odysseus not to touch the Suns herd of cattle or his entire crew will die leaving Odysseus the lone survivor. Before leaving the Underworld Odysseus speaks to Agamemnon who recounts his death again, Achilles, the hero of the Iliad who inquires about his son Neoptolemus, and then tried to speak to Great Ajax but is refused since it was Odysseus who won Achilles armor after he died. He sees Herecles, King Minos, Orion and others as well as witnessing the punishments of Sisyphus and Tantalus. After this he becomes afraid and retreats to his ship and sails away. Odysseus returns to Aeaea to bury his crew member and spend one last night with Circe. The next day she gives him council on how to pass the upcoming struggles, which he relays to his crew and they set sail.

As they pass the island of the Sirens Odysseus’s crew plugs their ears with beeswax as instructed by Circe and ties Odysseus to the mast so he alone can hear the Sirens enticing song, but as Odysseus pleas to be let free and go to the Sirens his crew only strengthens his bonds. After they pass the island the crew must navigate the treacherous straight of Scylla (the six headed monster that lives on the cliffs) and Charybdis (the vicious whirlpool that can swallow entire ships). Circe’s council is heeded again and Odysseus navigates close to the cliffs and each Scylla’s heads come down on the ship and devours one crew member, but the loss of six is better than all. Next is the Island of the Sun which Odysseus was warned he must go to but cannot touch any of the cattle. Odysseus wanted to avoid it completely but his exhausted crew convinces him to stop. A storm forces the crew to stay on the beach for a month and soon their provisions become low. The crew waits for Odysseus to fall asleep one afternoon and sneak off to kill a cow. The Sun finds out and is furious, he asks Zeus to punish them so when they leave Zeus whips up a storm that destroys the ship killing all but Odysseus who gets swept back almost into Charybdis and nearly dies himself. Odysseus floats to Ogygia the isle of Calypso which then catches the audience up to how Odysseus ended up with the Phaeacians.

The next day the Phaeacians bring Odysseus back to Ithaca. In Ithaca Athena visits Odysseus, tells him of Telemachus and recommends he go to his swineheard Eumeaus and then he can exact his revenge on the suitors. Athena disguises him as a vagabond and sends him on his way. Here is a great example of xenia because when Odysseus, the King of Ithaca but disguised as a vagabond arrives at his lowly swineheard’s hut he is welcomed with open arms. He is offered pork to eat and a bed to sleep in. The next morning Odysseus offers to leave hoping he will be invited to stay longer which he is and the two swap stories where Eumeaus tells the story of how he came to Ithaca. Telemachus then arrives at the hut, Eumeaus goes to the palace to tell Penelope that he has returned and Athena lifts Odysseus’s disguise. Rejoiced Telemachus and Odysseus create a plan for the suitors then Telemachus leaves Eumeaus’s hut to return to the palace. Eumeaus then takes Odysseus, back in his disguise to the palace where he is treated illy being kicked and having stools thrown at him. One even challenges him to a boxing match where aided by Athena Odysseus beats the man within an inch of his life.

Later that night when all the suitors are asleep Odysseus and Telemachus remove all the weapons in the house and put them out of reach. Penelope then arrives and recounts a dream she had foreshadowing the death of all the suitors. Penelope doesn’t believe it and tells the disguised Odysseus that she will marry the first man who can shoot an arrow through the holes of twelve  axe heads in a line. The next morning Penelope brings Odysseus’s bow and tells the suitors the first to string it and shoot an arrow through twelve axes will win her hand. Telemachus is first to try but fails to string the big bow, and so does each suitor who tries. Just before retiring for the day Odysseus as the vagabond asks for the bow. After much ridicule from the suitors Telemachus orders they hand him the bow. Odysseus strings the bow easily then loses an arrow through all twelve axes. Odysseus then turns and fires an arrow into a suitor’s throat. Taking the suitors by surprise Odysseus then reveals himself and terrifies the suitors by promising that none will survive. Telemachus runs to the arms cache they made and arms Eumeaus and himself but forgets to lock the room. One suitor arms some of his fellow suitors but is locked in the arms room on his second trip. A full out battle ensues where suitors are being slaughtered and Odysseus and company are only superficially wounded. Athena is there disguised at Mentor again but doesn’t initially take part.

When the battle is done Odysseus has a faithful servant round up those that were disloyal to him when he was gone, he has them clear out the bodies, wash the blood from the walls and furniture then has them ushered from the hall to be executed. Penelope who has slept through the entire ordeal comes down to see Odysseus. She first believes it to be a god playing a trick so she asks a servant to move their bridal bed, in which Odysseus replied it is impossible since it was built from the olive tree the house was built around, verifying he was the real Odysseus. The last book shows the suiters being led into Hades by Hermes and we see Agamemnon and Achilles again. The suitors describe their downfall blaming Penelope, but Agamemnon stands up for her comparing her to his wife. The goddess Rumor spreads word of the massacre to all the families of the suitors who have an assembly to discuss what to do next. Athena disguised as Mentor again kills one father to stem the violence and then makes all the Ithacans forget the masacre thus restoring peace in Ithaca.

Homer shows the importance of xenia, or being a good host in the Odyssey by ultimately killing all of the suitors and bringing Odysseus home safely. Telemachus, and Odysseus by default continued to give to the suitors, they ate all of Odysseus’s oxen and food, drank his wine and then treated Telemachus and Odysseus very poorly. Also Homer makes mention of how well Odysseus and Telemachus were treated on their stops, especially Telemachus when he visits Pylos and Sparta on his mini odyssey in the first few books. Xenia is observed by the gods as well and it is said that Zeus himself began this tradition. Homer also shows the importance on the other side of the coin with the cyclops Polyphemus who ignores Odysseus’s requests and is subsequently punished.

There are three keys to xenia. The first is being a good host, providing food, drink and a bath if needed. It is customary that the host ask nothing of their guest until their guest has stated their intentions. This reminds me much of the tradition in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones world as it is a rule that once a person has eaten and drank under the roof of a host they cannot be harmed (though that isn’t followed in A Storm of Swords). The second key is being a good guest, always being polite and thankful and not to be a burden. The third key is for the host to present a gift to the guest to thank them for honoring them with their visit. We especially see this with Nestor and Menelaus on Telemachus’s journey.

I really love the Odyssey and it is very special to me since it was the first epic I have ever read. I read an abridged version in high school so I was familiar with the most of this story. I really like how Homer uses the idea of xenia and the use of a Greek hero. Odysseus is viewed as a hero to the Greeks but in our society he probably would not be so. The Odyssey is also a great followup to the Iliad because it studies the importance of inner glory while the Iliad is a story about glory from others through skill on the battlefield. Achilles reinforces this notion when he says: “By God I’d rather slave on earth for another man… than rule down here with the breathless dead,” alluding to the choice he made in the Iliad between a long life on earth or eternal glory and a short life.  I really recommend the Odyssey, it’s a bit easier than the Iliad to follow and is a really good way to break into epic poetry if you’ve never read one before.

Categories: Literature | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Between: A Song of Ice and Fire

When I wrote about the Hunger Games trilogy I noted my interest in books that come in series, and the cycle of novels in the Song of Ice and Fire series have really piqued my interest. I began reading them when I moved to Minnesota in August, but I’ve taken a bunch of breaks while reading them to read classic literature as well as other books and only recently got back into the series. I wouldn’t post about this series if I didn’t believe that it will go down as one of the best fantasy series ever. I don’t have a definition for “classic” per say, it’s more of I know it when I see it type thing and so far in this series I’m seeing it. I have just finished the third book in the series, A Storm of Swords and found myself diving headfirst into George R.R. Martin’s world nightly and unwillingly letting go to catch some sleep.

When I first started reading the books, admittedly getting into the series late per usual, I was highly skeptical. I’ve heard the comparisons to J.R.R. Tolkien and highly doubted Martin to compare favorably, but he does. The world of Westeros and beyond is so detailed and so well laid out that it really does compare to Middle Earth. Martin also has a list of characters that is dizzyingly long and introduces them on the fly much like Tolkien does in the Lord of the Rings, however where Martin differs to Tolkein is in his lack of attachment to characters. Everybody dies, if you’re a betting person the safest bet is to bet on any character to be killed at some point in the series. Martin kills characters with an abandon but it’s precise, far from reckless. At first I would read and be shocked, like after the first book I was completely confused how he was going to write the second book without main characters such as Eddard Stark who seemed like was being built up to be the main hero of the series. Instead Martin shows that no one characterwill be allowed to survive long enough to be bigger than the series itself.

I also love how Martin plays with your emotions about characters. When the Imp Tyrion is introduced there is little to like about him. He is a whoring, condescending, mean little creature but throughout all that happens to him I began to root less against him, then I started to pity him and then I began rooting for him, especially during his champion’s battle to determine his guilt as a kinslayer. I especially enjoy his witty quips and jests, and his reckless abandon to be looked upon as his brother Jamie is at times. One example would be when he lead the charge against Stannis’ forces in A Clash of Kings. Martin also twists the idea of good and evil so much that it mirrors reality much more than many stories. In the Lord of the Rings there are obvious villains (Sauron, Sauromon, Orcs) and obvious heros (Aragorn, Samwise, Gandalf) whereas in A Song of Ice and Fire there are very few characters that are as one demential.  More often than not there are people of differing ideas pitted against each other rather than one purely good force battling a purely evil force. There are many times when I find myself agreeing with the Starks but other times I find myself rooting for the Lannisters (although the least often), or Stannis, among others at different times. When Martin puts you in the mind of some of his characters he really makes you believe in their cause and it makes it very difficult to find a true pure villain which makes the story feel very real.

One of the more interesting elements of this series is the typical elements of fantasy do not play a major role in the series, at lest as of the end of A Storm of Swords. There are some instances however, such as the presence of The Others, reanimated corpses that are deathly cold and have glowing blue eyes. They cannot be killed by conventional weapons but can be killed with dragonglass or obsidian. They remind me of frozen Infiri from the Harry Potter series but a lot more dangerous. They make appearances at different times throughout the books and appear in a battle against some of the men of the Nights Watch but aren’t major players as of yet. There is also the Red Priestess Melisandre who births deadly shadows and can see the future in the fire thanks to the Lord of the Light. There are some more fantastical elements but this series has a more historical fiction feel than fantasy. There are no Orcs or elves (though there are dragons), there’s a limited amount of magic but I don’t need it here, the story really holds up without the typical fantasy elements.

Another thing really like is how political these books get. There’s the obvious fight for the throne that consumes many of the characters but by the covers of the books you would initially think that the majority of the action will be devoted to the battles for the Iron Throne and not so much behind the scenes. In fact the books are almost like a written medieval soap opera where the bulk of the action is in character development, depth and the plotting that goes on between characters in order to secure the throne. The power of vast armies are often undermined by a single character who may be a small child, a woman, a eunuch, or a dwarf. I’m interested to see how things go from book four on as Martin introduces new characters to throw a wrench in the warfor the throne.

The television series only adds to my enjoyment of the books. The second series based on A Clash of Kings is just getting started but the first season based on A Game of Thrones was really well done. I often fear when series get adapted to the screen, but with Martin helping with the adaption and it being an HBO series rather than a movie the adaptions hold pretty true to the books. There have been some tweaks so far but that’s to be expected especially when you’re converting 1000 pages of text to a series of one hour episodes. Also because it is an HBO series the adult nature of the books does not get lost in the series, where they would have to scale many things back for the silver screen or regular TV. They do go out of their way to HBO it up a little bit, unnecessarily include nudity or a sex scene that didn’t occur but the feel is the same from the book to the series. It’s very cool to see Martin’s world through his eyes and I’m really excited to see how they adapt the next books.

If you’re interested in the medieval time period or fantasy novel series than A Song of Ice and Fire is definitely something that you have to pick up. I know this blog is devoted to the “classics” but I don’t really have a strict definition of “classic.” In my mind part of making a book a classic it’s standing a test of time, which i know is pretty ambiguous. This first book in the series is not new (first published in 1996) but the subsequent books trickle off the press so it will be interesting to see how the series as a whole stands up after the initial hype has worn off.  I really believe that this series will go down as one of the quintessential series for fantasy readers and will be adored by many similar to the Lord of the Rings. With five books published two more promised we’ll have a while to see where A Song of Ice and Fire ultimately stands but I have high hopes.

Categories: Literature | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Book Five: The Iliad of Homer

The fifth book I read was Homer’s epic poem The Iliad. I have a soft spot for epic poems (two of the first five books I read were epics). It has something to do with their structure and my absolute fascination that someone would tell this story from memory just by evoking the muses, but epic poems might be one of my favorite styles of writing. When it comes to The Iliad many people mistake it for the story of Troy’s destruction when in reality The Iliad is the story of Achilles’ wrath, beginning with the insult from Agamemnon to his returning the body of Hector to Priam after he killed him and dragged him behind his chariot.. The story begins almost ten years into the Trojan War where we begin to meet our epic’s characters. I’d like to compare the Homer poem to one of my favorite, albeit maybe a little bit guiltily, movie: Troy. While the movie does follow the book in general there are some major differences, some for the sake of making the movie an appropriate length and hold the interest of the viewer and then there are some head-scratching differences.

The first major difference between the poem and the movie occurs right out of the gate. In the movie Troy Agamemnon (sometimes known as Atrides in the book) leads his army into Thessaly to build his army and conquer new land. This quest we later find out was part of unifying Greece, but history textbooks tell us nobody, not even Agamemnon unified Greece until Alexander the Great did so. Nonetheless in the movie the King of Kings and the King of Thessaly agree to decide the contest “in the old way,” a one on one contest between the two greatest fighters in each army. Thessaly sends forward the giant Boagrius while Agamemnon sends forth Achilles (after he needs to be gathered from his camp). Achilles kills Boagrius easily and asks the remainder of the Thessaly army “Is there no one else?” in a really awesome cinematic scene. However, this not only does not take place in the Iliad but would occur nearly ten years prior to the start of Homer’s epic poem. In reality (or what Homer gives us as reality) The Iliad begins nine plus years into the war. Furthermore Achilles is the leader of the Myrmaidons who, like Achilles himself hails from Thessaly and Achilles’ father Peleus was the King of Thessaly (except in the film).

After the great battle scene in the movie we meet some more major characters: Menelaus King of Sparta (And no it’s not Gerard Butler), Helen soon to be the Helen of Troy but at this moment is Queen of Sparta, Hector the eldest son of King Priam of Troy and the greatest warrior of Troy, and Paris (also known as Alexander) the soon to be catalyst of the Trojan War and also Prince of Troy. Menelaus toasts the two Trojan princes for completing a peace pact between Troy and Sparta, but soon after Paris sneaks off with Helen, has his way with her and convinces her to join him back to Troy. Obviously since The Iliad begins ten years into the war how Helen ended up in Troy is not part of the story but in other works on the subject we know that Helen ran off to Troy with Paris when Menelaus was away from Sparta and not from right under his nose. Also Hector never visited Sparta so the whole peace pact feast and celebration between the prince and king never took place. Also Helen had a daughter named Hermione by Menelaus before she ran off to Troy with Paris.

Now the Greeks have arrived in Troy and begin battling with the Trojans. We see in the big budget Hollywood film no mention of any divine intervention while the Homer epic is centered around it. The Gods in Homer have chosen sides and play a major role right from Book I. When the poem begins the Greeks have sacked a Trojan city and claimed two beautiful maids as prizes, Chryseis and Briseis. Agamemnon claims Chryseis as his prize and the great Achilles Breseis. Breseis’ name should be familiar to those who have seen the movie as she is portrayed as a Trojan priestess for the sun god Apollo and Hector’s cousin. She is neither in the poem. In the poem Chryseis’ father offers Agamemnon a huge ransom for his daughter’s return which is refused. After he and his daughter prey to Apollo, he sends a plague down on the Greeks forcing Agamemnon to return Chryseis. Well, the King of this army cannot let his prize go and watch a soldier keep his so Agamemnon claims Breseis for himself angering Achilles. This is similar to the movie only in the fact that Achilles fury is derived over the loss of his spoils from war. In both the movie and the poem Achilles sits out many of the beginning battles entering only when Hector kills Patroclus.

The death of Patroclus is a little different from the book to the movie. Firstly Patroclus is not Achilles’ younger cousin, he is not related to Achilles and is older than him but is a beloved friend. The scene in the movie shows what appears to be Achilles leading the Myrmaidon into battle ultimately squaring off against Hector who after slitting his throat is so distraught calls an end to the battle. In reality, or Homeric reality Patroclus dons Achilles’ armor at the request of Odysseus and Nestor and the approval or Achilles to only hold the Trojans from taking the shore. He was told not to pursue any Trojans, and to stay on the fringes of the battle. Patroclus is proving to be deadly in battle killing many Trojans including Zeus’ mortal son Sarpedon.  Patroclus then disobeys Achilles’ orders and chases after Hector all the way to the Trojan gates where Zeus then decides to seal Patroclus’ fate for killing his son. Apollo convinces Hector to charge Patroclus and the Greeks, but during that charge the driver of Hector’s chariot is killed by Patroclus. There is a huge fight over the driver’s armor and in the skirmish Apollo sneaks up on Patroclus and wounds him and Hector easily finishes Patroclus off. This shows how direct an action in the book the gods take and how in the movie the screenwriters chose to ignore the gods and how they got around a major scene in the book. Also after Patroclus’ death in the book Achilles killed twelve Trojans to burn with the body, so the short term peace that Hector requests over Patroclus’ body on the battlefield just didn’t happen.

There were more deaths that took place in the movie Troy that either didn’t happen in the Iliad or happened differently. For example Great Ajax (in the Iliad) simply Ajax in the movie as they didn’t include the second Ajax, was killed in an epic one on one battle with Hector. The movie did do a good job of portraying Great Ajax’s near godlike fighting ability and strength in this battle but he in fact was not killed by Hector or by anyone else. Ajax committed suicide in a fit of rage after he was not awarded Achilles’ armor following his death. It was commonplace for combatants at that time to fight for fallen men’s armor if it was better than their own regardless if they fought opposed or along side them. Hector also did not kill Menelaus either, in fact Menelaus survived the war, got Helen back and the couple was visited by Telemachus (Odysseus’ son) ten years after the completion of the Trojan War. Agamemnon also was not killed by Berseus as was portrayed in the film. Agamemnon survived the war only to return home and be killed by his unfaithful wife Clytemnestra almost immediately upon his return.

Another instance of divine intervention that was overlooked in the movie Troy was the one on one battle between Paris and Menelaus. This battle was supposed to end the war after ten long years of battle in the book, however the movie portrayed it as a way to avoid war and ultimately a catalyst to a major campaign. In the movie Paris is wounded and just before Menelaus delivers a death blow Paris cowardly crawls behind his brother Hector’s feet. Menelaus then attempts to deliver death’s blow with or without Hector standing in the way but in the process Hector drives a sword through his gut, infuriating Agamemnon to charge the Torjan walls and eventually retreating. In the Iliad Paris does challenge Menelaus but the battle goes a little differently. After not being able to kill each other with spears Menelaus breaks his sword over Paris’ helmet. While Menelaus is dragging Paris through the dirt the goddess Aphrodite breaks the strap to his helmet and the scoops him off of the battlefield and delivers him to his bed behind the walls and then summons Helen to join him. After Helen chastises Paris she lays in bed with him while back on the battlefield the Greeks believe they have won the battle thus ending the war and Menelaus earning Helen back but the Trojans disagree and neither side backs down.

The last major difference is the very end of the movie. The famous Trojan Horse did not contain Achilles like it did in the movie. He was killed by Paris before the idea of the horse was thought of, but his son Neoptolemos participated in the final sacking of Troy. The scene in the movie during the sacking where Paris gives the sword of troy to a boy named Aeneas to lead Hector’s wife Andromache, their son Astyanax, Helen and other Trojans through a secret passage to restart a Trojan civilization did happen, but the characters were much different. Aeneas was not a boy but in fact was a great warrior that battled Achilles during the war. Andromache was not in the escape since she was captured by the Greeks and enslaved. Astyanax was also not there because Odysseus bashed his head in and then tossed him off of the walls of the city. Paris did not give Aeneas the sword since he was killed during the sacking of Troy by an arrow. Helen obviously wasn’t there because as before mentioned she accompanied Menelaus back to Sparta but no before she took up with a different Trojan after Paris was killed. In reality Helen wasn’t that great of a person she was more trouble than she was worth and a little easy. The only real similarity between the ending was that Aeneas lead a group of Trojans out of Troy to eventually form Rome.

Despite these differences the movie Troy did hold to the general feel of the Iliad. They did kill off some characters in the war who died differently or at different times, and for the sake of continuity had the war begin and end in a short period of time. They also took the liberty of allowing Helen to be a “good guy” in some ways, allowing Paris to survive the war as well as Hector’s family since the real ending is a bit gruesome and not very Hollywood friendly. I also selected a handful of scenes in an hour and a half movie that deviate from the book so there are some similarities. I really suggest watching Troy since it is a fun movie and I think Brad Pitt plays a good Achilles. I also really suggest reading the Iliad in the Pope translation but be prepared from some viscous battle scenes and a story that picks up in the middle and doesn’t really give too much back story. The book also doesn’t end at the end of the war because remember the story is about the wrath of Achilles and not the Trojan War and Achilles wrath ends when he decides to return Hector’s body to his people. Also we know through heavy foreshadowing that Achilles will die very soon, even if we don’t get to read the exact account. All and all a fantastic read, a good movie but don’t expect the movie to really stand up to the book (they never really do though). 

Categories: Literature | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Book Four: Aesop’s Fables

After struggling through Dante’s Divine Comedies I picked out a much easier and shorter, but no less enjoyable book. Many of Aesops fables I knew of even if I wasn’t sure they were considered Aesop’s. There is The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg, known as The Man and His Goose, The Tortoise and the Hare, and The Boy Who Cried Wolf, known as The Shepherd’s Boy among others. There are 100 Fables that make up this version re-written by Munro Leaf and each were as morally delightful as the last. Aesops Fables are world renowned for teaching us quick moral lessons through short sometimes funny anecdotes, but nobody really knows who Aesop is, or if he was even a singular person. Ironically enough there is a Fable that goes along with Aesop’s Fables and it tells the story of how Aesop came to telling his stories.

In 600 B.C. in Greece there lived a man named Iadmon who owned a black slave. In those days not all slaves were black but those that were came from Ethiopia so this slave was simply know as Ethiop or Aesop. Aesop had an unfortunate knack for finding himself in trouble with his master; however he was smarter than most and was able to talk his way out of trouble by telling the sage tales that we have come to know in their collected works as the Fables of Aesop.

Many of Aesop’s tales were simple enough to decipher even though he used plants and animals mainly as his characters but his master Iadmon was a fool. Perhaps because of his foolishness he became very prideful of his storytelling slave and took him to the town to show him off. This continued until one day one of Iadmon’s friends offered to buy Aesop from him. Aesop was no physical specimen, he was unfit for hard labor had a squashed in face and was hunchbacked but the man paid Iadmon full price nonetheless (something I’m sure Iadmon regretted until his dying day).

By this time Aesop’s fables have been traveling from person to person, though nobody bothered to write them down. Sadly Aesop too had been traveling from person to person until he found himself in the ownership of the Emperor Croesus. The Emperor sought to use Aesop’s sage tongue to act as an ambassador to Delphi and to distribute sums of money to the Delphian. When they came to a disagreement one day Aesop decided he would distribute the money no more until an agreement was made. This angered the Delphian and since they could not come to an agreement they took to force. In one of the first ever recorded lynch mobs the Delphian pushed Aesop from a cliff and that was the end of Aesop. However, his fables had been passed from mouth to mouth for years and in the early third century A.D. were finally written down. They have been translated and updated to modern language countless times but the stories remain the same and Aesop’s sage wisdom was preserved from the same fate his earthly body was destined.

This version of Aesop’s Fables was updated by Munro Leaf, and if that name is familiar to you it is because he is the author of one of the most celebrated children’s works: Ferdinand the Bull. The story of Ferdinand is about a bull who would rather smell the flowers in pasture then go into the ring and fight with the bullfighters. Leaf brought a great modernization to the stories where they are easy for a child to follow and understand the message but you do not lose the fact that these are ancient stories. One of my favorites was The Ass in the Lion’s Skin. It went something like this:

“An Ass one day found a Lion’s skin and, being a stupid creature he put it on and ran through the woods and meadows scaring the life out of all the flocks and herds. There was so much excitement and terror that the Ass thought he was quite remarkable. Pretty soon he met his owner and thought, “Well, here’s where I scare him too.” But his master saw his long ears sticking out and recognized him. So the master picked up a good big stick and beat a lesson into the foolish head – that, Lion Skin or no Lion Skin, he was still just a stupid Ass. The point –> Don’t pretend to be something that you are not. Someone is sure to find out”

These stories are also a reinforcement of something I wholeheartedly believe and that is it is imperative to read to children. Not all things read to children are as blatantly moralistic as Aesop’s  Fables but children take a great deal from the stories they hear. I can remember my older cousin telling me stories about a key she wore around her neck and all the magical places she could go because that key opened the door. This story wasn’t so much of a lesson or a cautionary tale but it made me open my imagination and allowed me to flex my creative muscles at a young age that I believe really comes in handy later in life.

I know when I have children I will be reading them a great deal of stories and books weather it is before bed or just at random times during the day. I also know that eventually when they are somewhat mature enough to understand the messages (even though they will be reinforced before then) I will present Aesop’s Fables to them and hopefully they will be able to take some great things from them. This little book is full of moral lessons such as treat others as you wish to be treated, and don’t make promises you can’t keep, but has some that are a little darker such as some people aren’t worth helping, and people who seem too eager to be friendly should be watched the closest. The stories are quick and fun and each give a little tidbit worth remembering, there’s not much more of a fulfilling read than that.

Categories: Literature | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Book Three: The Divine Comedy

The third book I read was The Divine Comedies by Dante Alighieri translated by Melville Best Anderson. The first third of the poem, Infierno is probably the most famous of the three and was my favorite. The poem was a very difficult read and I needed a reading aid to go back and reinforce what I read. The poetic style of Terza Rima is practiced throughout the Comedies, which is a rhyming sequence of A-B-A/ B-C-B/ C-D-C/ etc. It is a recycling rhyming sequence so in theory it can continue forever. It is popular in Italian and other Latin based languages (as opposed to English which descended from medieval French, Anglo-Saxon, and Latin) because so many nouns and verbs rhyme and have the same structure.

The Divine Comedies begins with Dante (yes the author is also the main character) walking along a path in a wood. It is estimated through different clues in the text that the story begins on Good Friday in 1300, making Dante 35 years old. Dante gets lost and soon finds himself upon a hill with the sun shining down upon it representing the glory of God. As he begins to climb to the top a leopard, lion, and she-wolf block his path and he flees to the bottom of the hill. As Dante enters the wood again the ghost of Virgil, the Roman poet who famously penned the Aeneid appears. I first wondered why Virgil was chosen and not another poet like Homer, but after reading it made perfect sense with Dante’s pride of being Italian and Virgil wrote about the birth of Rome while Homer wrote about the sacking of Troy, the first Romans.

Virgil explains to Dante to get to the top of the hill where his true love Beatrice is and all the splendor of God’s grace he must first pass through the bowels of Hell, ascend through Purgatory, then complete the journey through Paradise. This makes Dante very fearful as he recounts that only two men have ever entered the afterlife and lived to tell the story were The Apostle Paul who ascended to the third circle of Heaven and Aeneas who travels through Hell in Virgil’s Aeneid. Virgil mocks Dante’s cowardice and assures him he will be his guide to Heaven. Beatrice, a Blessed in Heaven traveled to Hell to ask Virgil to be Dante’s guide through the afterlife to her.

Abandon All Hope, You Who Enter Here. Dante reads this on the gates to Hell and nearly faints. He then hears miserable moaning and wailing coming from inside and becomes even more fearful. This, Virgil explains is the Ante-Infierno where people who were rejected by both Heaven and Hell reside. People who couldn’t morally make a decision in life and lived in complete indifference are found here. Also the neutral angels are found here, those who took no side in the war between Heaven and Hell. The souls here are constantly bitten and stung by flies and wasps prodding them into action they couldn’t take in life and worms eat the tears and blood that is shed. Then Charon appears and refuses to take Dante to Hell because he is a living soul. Virgil tells Charon that, to steal a line from Elwood “Are on a mission from God.” Charon agrees and on their journey across the river there is an earthquake and Dante faints due to fear.

When Dante awakes he peers into a deep chasm that is the First Circle of Hell. This is called Limbo where souls who lead virtuous lives but were either born before the advent of Christianity and therefore could not honor the glory of God or who were not baptized reside. Dante feels pity for those in Limbo, a stance that will melt as he travels deeper into the city of Hell. This level of Hell has seen some people ascend to Heaven, such as Noah when Christ descended to Hell before his resurrection in a miracle known as the Harrowing of Hell. This is also the place in Hell that Virgil resides. It is interesting that the poet Dante most admires has been put into Hell but it also demonstrates Dante’s commitment to a strict Divine Justice.

As Dante approaches the Second Circle of Hell the monster Minos blocks his way. Minos is the beast who assigns all sinners their fate by listening to their sins then wrapping his tail around himself indicating what level they will be damned to. Minos is convinced by Virgil to allow Dante to pass and they travel into the Second Circle. The Second Circle is saved for the Lustful, those who committed sins of the flesh. The damned swirl in the ceaseless rain and wind. Some notable dwellers of the Second Circle are Helen of Troy and Cleopatra. Dante calls to the souls and is told a scandalous story of love and lust which makes him so distraught he faints again.When Dante awakens he is in the Third Circle of Hell. Here the three headed dog Cerberus stands in the duo’s way. Virgil throws a chink of earth distracting him and they slip by. Here the Gluttonous are damned and are forced to sit in the never ceasing rain filth and excrement that are mixed together.

Dante then progresses further into the city of Hell and enters the Fourth Circle. He gasps as he see it is a ring with several pits, and peering into the first he sees groups of souls pushing weights in a circle. As they collide with one group they turn and push the weight in the opposite direction only to collide again. Virgil explains this is where the Avaricious and Prodigal reside, those who hoarded and squandered money. Most of the Avaricious are corrupt clergymen and priests. While Dante continues to ponder the Fourth Circle he and Virgil come across the Fifth Circle along the banks of the mirky River Styx. Here the Wrathful reside in the mud of the river biting and lashing out at each other. Also here are the Sullen who reside beneath the muck of the Styx unseen by Dante. The irony of their punishment, which displays Dante’s skill is while the Sullen skulked in the light given by God in their natural lifet they choke and gurgle under the dark mud of Satan’s river. Virgil then has Phlegyas boat them across the river to Dis the entrance to Lower Hell. Here fallen angels demand to know why a living soul wishes to descend into Dis, Virgil tries his best Elwood but for the first time he is unsuccessful and the gates are slammed shut in his face. While they try to regroup three Furies appear (half woman half serpent) and call upon Medusa to turn Dante to stone. Virgil covers his eyes and then a messenger from Heaven appears scattering the fallen angels and demons demanding them to give Dante and Virgil entrance which is quickly obliged. The duo descend into the Sixth Circle kept for the Heretics, these souls are kept in a tomb scolding hot by flames.

The Seventh Circle of Hell is divided into three smaller Circles, the first of which is saved for those violent towards their neighbors and are boiling in a river of blood. A herd of centaurs armed with bows and arrows guard the shores shooting any soul who rises out of the boiling blood river to a level that does not coincide with the level of their punishment. Punished here are the likes of Alexander the Great, Dionysius, and Atilla the Hun. As the team travels into the Second Circle they come upon a forrest. The souls of those violent towards themselves have been turned to trees where harpies (half women half birds) peck away at the bark until their branches fall off giving the same pain as dismemberment. After leaving the forest Virgil and Dante come upon a desert of scalding hot sand with burning embers relentlessly raining down. So begins the Third Ring of the Seventh Circle of Hell permanent home to those violent against God. The first group are the Blasphemers who lie prone against the sand while the embers fall so they are burned on both sides. Also are the Sodomites, those who are are violent against nature who must continuously walk back and forth under the rain of fire. Next are those violent against art, the Usuerers, these sinners must sit under the rain of fire. Virgil and Dante then ride on Greyon’s (a serpent with lion’s paws and a human face) down to the Eighth Circle.

The Eighth Circle of Hell there are ten pouches which hold sinners who were Ponderers and  Seducers (Pouch One), Flatterers (Pouch Two), Simoniacs or those who bought or sold ecclesiastical pardons (Pouch Three), Magicians, Diviners, and Astrologers (Pouch Four), Barterers (Pouch Five), Hypocrites (Pouch Six), Thieves (Pouch Seven), False Councilors (Pouch Eight), Schismatics, these are the sowers of scandal and schism  (Pouch Nine), and the Falsifiers (Pouch Ten). Some notable souls here are Jason of the Argonauts (1) Odysseus (8) and the prophet Muhammad (9). While in the Eighth Circle Dante explains how we got “the confusion” of many different languages on Earth so we meet the giant Nimrod who build the tower of Babel. The giant stands with his navel at the level of Circle Eight and stands in the Ninth Circle. Virgil and Dante climb down the giant’s body into the Ninth Circle.

The Ninth Circle of Hell has a frozen lake, clear as glass called Cocytus. Here sinners who are traitors are frozen in the lake up to their necks. The First Ring is named Caina after Cain who slew his brother Able. The Second Ring is called Antenora reserved for those who betrayed their homeland. Again Dante shows his value of loyalty to his father country. The third ring, Ptolomea is reserved for those who betrayed their guests. Here the souls lie on their backs against the ice in a strong icy wind. The Fourth Ring named Judecca is where those who betrayed their benefactors and there they are burried sometimes feet deep in the ice.

Through the fog Dante sees the most horrific sight yet. He spies Satan with three heads facing all directions with wings sprouting from beneath each head. In the mouth of each head is the three greatest sinners in history, who are also traitors to their benefactor. In the left and right mouthes are Brutus and Cassius who conspired and murdered Julius Caesar and in the center mouth and in head first is Judas who betrayed Jesus. Satan continues to chew these sinners tearing their bodies, Judas getting the worst of it as his head is in the mouth. Virgil then grabs Dante and quickly climbs onto Lucifer climbing down his body under Cocytus, but which is really up towards Purgatory since they appear in the southern hemisphere traveling through the center of the earth.

Since I took so much time going through Dante’s Inferno (my favorite third of the Comedy) I will be much quicker with the last parts. Plus you should read the poem yourself anyway! Purgatory is a mountain ascending towards Paradise surrounded by an ocean with ten terraces. On each terrace is a group of souls purging themselves of lesser sins such as sloth, negligence, political intrigue among others. Upon entering Purgatory Virgil and Dante meet Cato who instructs Virgil to wash Dante’s face from the soot and grime of Hell and to wrap a reed around his waist symbolizing humility. Then an angel writes seven P’s on Dante’s forehead (the Italian word for sin is peccato) representing the seven deadly sins. I really thought that the seven deadly sins would each have a Circle in Hell, I was surprised to see them represented in Purgatory. Nonetheless Dante is instructed to “wash away” or purge himself of each “p” as he ascends towards Paradise and away from Hell. During Dante’s journey he sees Beatrice who mocks him for his sins, he confesses and now that he is purified he is allowed to ascend.

Paradise is a group of celestial bodies, planets, stars etc. and represents an earth centered galaxy rather than a sun centered. Even though everyone receives the full glory of God while in Paradise the level of goodness a soul has done while alive is represented in where they are placed in the galaxy. Dante and Beatrice rise to Heaven where there are some people who surprise Dante, Pagans who accepted the good of God before their death. Then St. Bernard appears and prays to Mary. When the prayer is answered Dante sees the light of God and it is so beautiful and he is so overwhelmed he does not remember even what he is seeing but receives ultimate salvation.

I really enjoyed Infierno because of Dante’s creative use of divine justice and his ironic punishment for those who sinned. You can see Dante’s political views throughout the poem. I really enjoyed the challenge in going through Dante’s epic and seeing the change in his view of those who sinned. When we first entered Limbo with Dante he was sympathetic towards the sinners, but by the time we reached the Ninth Circle Dante could be found kicking sinners and enjoying watching them torn to peaces by demons. It was interesting to see how Dante described Hell as a city. Some Circles reside on the outskirts of the city while some reside inside the gates of Dis. The mental image of a city created a very interesting and easy to follow structure for Dante’s Hell. I also enjoyed seeing Dante being able to reunite with the true love that passed on before him, thus making this whole journey worthwhile. There’s something to be said about the power of true love and Dante shows how amazing it is by bringing the two lovers into Heaven.

I highly recommend reading Dante if you’re up for the challenge. I was first inspired after watching the movie Seven and getting what I thought was a general idea what it was about. I can remember Morgan Freedman sitting in the library perusing through the poem, and Brad Pitt in his car with the Cliffnotes version becoming so frustrated he tosses them into the back seat exclaiming “Fucking Dante!” I was completely wrong thinking I had an idea about the poem but am so glad I was able to plow through it. It is certainly the most difficult read I’ve experienced, and I think can be enjoyed regardless of your religious beliefs. So if you’re looking for a challenge and some incredible imagery Dante’s Divine Comedies are definitely worth the read.

Categories: Literature | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Create a free website or blog at