cura librorum

LOTR: Fellowship of the Ring
June 2, 2010, 22:41
Filed under: Children's & YA, Thoughts | Tags: , ,

Focus on Gimli here today.

In Tolkien’s books, Gimli is a dwarf of few syllables and even less emotion. He is, however, fiercely loyal and feels the power of his ancestry deep within himself. In The Fellowship of the Ring, the glorious past and his dwarf ancestors are the only things that can cause him to become eloquent and passionate, when he is often stoic:

“I need no map,” said Gimli, who had come up with Legolas, and was gazing out before him with a strange light in his deep eyes. “There is the land where our fathers worked of old, and we have wrought the image of those mountains into many works of metal and of stone, and into many songs and tales. They stand tall in our dreas: Baraz, Zirak. Shathur.

“Only once before have I seen them from afar in waking life, but I know them and their names, for under them lies Khazad-dum, the Dwarrowdelf, that is now called the Black Pit, Moria in the Elvish tongue…

Tolkien doesn’t mention Gimli for the next fifty pages or so, emphasizing his state of silent grief. He finds himself in the company of eight now, with Gandalf, their trusty guide, gone, and their way lost. He is mistreated and mistrusted by the elves even though he has just witnessed the destruction of all that he once held dear. But this silent, stony grief is the reason why Galadriel, the Lady of Lothlorien, is able to penetrate his heart the way that she does once he arrives in the Wood. His pride is wounded and his sorrow held in resolutely as elves dismiss his homeland. But Galadriel understands:

‘Alas!’ said Celeborn. ‘We long have feared that under Caradhras a terror slept. But had I known that the Dwarves had stirred up this evil in Moria again, I would have forbidden you to pass the northern broders, you and all that went with you. And if it were possible, one would say that at the last Gandalf fell from wisdom into follow, going needlessly into the net of Moria.’

(Galadriel says) ‘Do not repent of your welcome to the Dwarf. If our folk had been exiled long and far from Lothlorien, who of the Galadhrim, even Celeborn the Wise, would pass nigh and would not wish to look upon their ancient home, though it had become an abode of dragons?

‘Dark is the water of Kheled-zaram, and cold are the springs of Kibil-nala, and fair were the many-pillared halls of Khazad-dum in the Elder Days before the fall of might kings beneath the stone.’ She looked upon Gimli, who sat glowering and sad, and she smiled. And the Dwarf, hearing the names given in his own ancient tongue, looked up and met her eyes; and it seemed to him that he looked suddenly into the heart of an enemy and saw there love and understanding. Wonder came into his face, and then he smiled in answer.

He rose clumsily and bowed in dwarf-fashion, saying: ‘Yet more fair is the living land in Lorien, and the Lady Galadriel is above all the jewels that lie beneath the earth!’

If a dwarf seeks beauty beneath the earth, in the form of jewels and precious metals, then Gimli seems to have found a far higher beauty that lives and loves. It changes him henceforth, even bringing him into friendship with the elves and a more open humility with the fellowship:

Gimli wept openly. ‘I have looked the last upon that which was fairest,’ he said to Legolas his companion. ‘Henceforward I will call nothing fair, unless it be her gift.’ He put his hand to his breast.

‘Tell me, Legolas,’ why did I come on this Quest? Little did I know where the chief peril lay! Truly Elrond spoke, saying that we could not foresee what we might meet upon our road. Torment in the dark was the danger that I feared, and it did not hold me back. But I would not have come, had I known the danger of light and joy. Now I have taken my worst wound in this parting, even if I were to go this night straight to the Dark Lord. Alas for Gimli son of Gloin!’

I love this, because it is light, honesty, and vulnerability that breaks Gimli. He is a gruff and unfriendly character, but a bit of understanding practically melts him. I love this transformation of Gimli that spans the whole book, but lasts throughout the rest of the series and is only really touched on in the movies.


An Old Fashioned Girl (Louisa May Alcott)
October 2, 2009, 17:21
Filed under: Book Reviews, Children's & YA | Tags:

(I couldn’t find a cover) This slim volume is about Polly, a girl from the country who goes to visit her cousins in the city. Having grown up with a poor but happy family, she is shocked by the ennui that characterizes her cousins’ lives, and in her own honest way, she is able to bring some happy changes to their family, even if it’s for a brief time. The book then stops and resumes six years later, with an older and more mature Polly, who comes to the city this time to make her own living as a piano teacher. At times she looks longingly on the easy and glamorous life, but comes to take heart in satisfaction of a simple life.

As a young college girl who doesn’t know her vocation yet (in the most Milton-y sense of the word, of course), I often read Louisa May Alcott and sigh a sigh of relief along with Polly. Alcott’s books are little bits of encouragement to those trying, day by day, to struggle with their character in the midst of growing up. Though we’re a century removed from them, their struggles to make their own honest way in the world really resonates. Who hasn’t sighed wistfully when things got hard or when we had to take the shoes off of our wear feet at the end of the day, wondering when it will get easier or when we can be more carefree?

Polly is really about this, then: surrendering a heart that desires an easy and comfortable life for the duress of hard work and discipline required to make a strong woman. It’s interesting to see how the standards of womanhood have changed. If somebody wrote this book now it probably wouldn’t be published. It would be criticized as antiquated, antifeminist, moralizing, restrictive, overly didactic… yet there’s something in it that speaks. In the title, there’s a nostalgia not just for childhood, but for a simpler time and a clearer purpose.

A Hole is to Dig… ?
September 13, 2009, 22:09
Filed under: Book Reviews, Children's & YA
Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak

A Hole is to Dig.

A Hole is to Dig
(New York, HarperCollins, 1989, 48 pp., paperback, $6.95)

‘A Hole is to Dig,’ you say? Ruth Krauss – author of ‘Harold and the Purple Crayon’ and ‘The Carrot Seed.’ Maurice Sendak, author and illustrator of children’s classics such as ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ ‘Chicken Soup With Rice,’ and ‘In the Night Kitchen.’ Such a pairing surely cannot fail to delight!

This 48 pager is pure genius – 48 pages of wordplay, giggles, chuckles, adorable sketches of children, animals, and whimsical imaginings. This is early reader’s literature at its absolute best. Although, I’m not sure how much I would have understood it when I was young – it’s the kind of wordplay that I love and chuckle at now, purely because I am older and I can dissociate words’ usual from their unexpected meanings. It’s the force of playful irony that makes it all work; the delight at the wit of a few words. How can you resist this:

Rugs are so you don’t get splinters in you
A floor is so you don’t fall in the hole your house is in
Hunh! Rugs are so dogs have napkins
A hole is for a mouse to live in

Or this:

Yes, indeed. I am so glad that I was charmed enough to buy this, now it sits on the shelf of my apartment, ready and willing to delight any visitor who might stop by and wish to be entertained.

Scottish people are cool
September 7, 2009, 09:12
Filed under: Children's & YA, Thoughts

George Macdonald is Scottish. I’ll write a post on him sometime later.

Andrew Lang, the folklorist who compiled the Color Fairy Books, is from Scotland. AA Milne of Winnie the Pooh, Robert Louis Stevenson, JM Barrie of Peter Pan. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. Kenneth Grahame, Wind in the Willows.

AND, JK Rowling lives in Scotland.

aw yeah. And who can blame them.

Children’s Literature (Seth Lerer)
September 7, 2009, 09:00
Filed under: Book Reviews, Children's & YA

Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter
(Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2008, 385 pp., hardback, $30.00)

Let me just say that certain passages of this book brought tears to my eyes, because reading it affirmed what I may have known all along: the fact that being a medievalist makes you particularly prone to the symbolism and meaning to be found in the beautiful simplicity of good children’s literature. Did you know, Lerer is an authoritative Chaucer scholar! He edited one of the books I’m using in my graduate course! But I get ahead of myself.

Seth Lerer has undertaken an ambitious and sprawling project, literally from Aesop to Harry Potter. His goal in the end is not so much to focus on ‘a history of children’s literature’ as history through the lens of children’s literature, in terms of intent, purpose, and innovation of thought. Very big difference, because his book doesn’t read like a history as much as a musing on first the relationship between adults and children as shown through the literature created by adults for children.

Each chapter reads like a compactly self-contained essay, the effective caliber of which I could never dream of. Though I’m not sure I agree with the choices he made about certain groupings of literature sharing and their relative importance, he lays out his argument winsomely and well. Here’s  a sample of some of the topics that he touched on: ‘From Alphabet to Elegy: The Puritan Impact on Children’s Literature,’ ‘Canoes and Cannibals: Robinson Crusoe and Its Legacies'(here he relates Robinson Crusoe, Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh!) ‘Straw into Gold: Fairy Tale Philology’ ‘Theaters of Girlhood: Domesticity, Desire, and Performance in Female Fiction’…

Here’s a quote from ‘From Alphabet to Elegy’:

The story of the girls’ book is the story of a writer and the friend. Such books teach many things (social decorum, personal care, moral virtue); but what they teach most of all is cultivation of the imagination. Gardens, like books, may stand as places of absorption, places where the girl may lose herself in reading, in writing, or in reminiscence. Or they may be places of the theater, stage sets to be prepared for the entrance of the winning actress or actor. Hermione straddles both places, learning from the library but also directing the theater of the boys. Whether inspiring Harry to seek a new plan to win a contest or cheering him on at Quidditch, she is a mistress of the house. At times, Harry seems as much Hermione’s creation as Harry’s, and we know that she is the cleverest witch of her age.’

Now isn’t that perfectly thrilling?  Seth Lerer, who has just begun a five-year professorship/deanship at UCSD seems to me the luckiest man in the world – a man who is able to read children’s books and write about them as his profession? Apparently, he also won the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism for this book, putting him in the ranks of E.B. White and co. I think it deserves it, because though he did edit the Yale Companion to Chaucer, he maintains a level of readability in this book that almost elevates the reader by inviting them into this friendly exploration. He manages to analyse without sucking the reverence for age-old honorable traditions of measured didacticism with aesthetic beauty and wonder, even nonsense and glee.

I’ll be returning back to this book whenever I need inspiration for my thesis! After all, if child is but man in small letter, than what better aim than to nurture the small letter to grow well and prosper?

The King’s Equal (Katherine Paterson)
August 20, 2009, 21:20
Filed under: Book Reviews, Children's & YA

The King’s Equal
(New York, Harper Collins, 1992, 64 pp., hardback, $24.50)

At first, ‘The King’s Equal’ seems like just another fairy tale adaptation from some classic about a prince who must fulfill his good father’s dying wish before he can ascend to the throne. We’ve heard it before. Some quest, beautiful maiden, father’s blessing, lovely and prosperous kingdom.

But instead of a fantastic quest, Paterson’s King asks this of his son:

‘…You will not wear my crown until the day you marry a woman who is your equal in beauty and intelligence and wealth.’

If Prince Raphael had been a humbler man, he might have found this request relieving. But he is angry, and calls it a

‘…curse! Where shall I find a princess who is equal to me in every way?’

He puts the request out of his mind and proceeds to ruin the kingdom and its subjects for his own personal gain. However, he may not have the crown until he finds the ‘King’s Equal.’ Yet to his frustration, he cannot find a wife who satisfies him in every way, and bodies of officials and women alike pile up in jail because of it. One day, a beautiful stranger named Rosamond appears. She strikes the prince with her beauty, intelligence, and wealth. She quoth:

‘Perhaps you are poorer than I, for there is nothing I desire that I do not already possess.’

Rosamond is actually the daughter of a poor mountain woodsman, who has been aided and encouraged through the kindness of a safe and magical Wolf. Even though Raphael accepts her as his ‘equal,’ she declares that he may not marry her unless he spends a year in that same cottage where she resided, in the company of three goats and the Wolf. He spends the year working and is slowly humbled, to the point where he begins to think himself quite unworthy of Rosamond, but returns within the year as promised. But now he walks away, dejected, but she calls him back, smiling. She takes his hand, and needless to say, they wed, and the kingdom is restored.

KP’s points of departure in this story are so important! They are what make the story special! First, the King does not ask for a show of glory, but a show of humility. In order to be raised up to the heights, he must descend. He does this socially, as a goatherder, and very much in terms of his view of himself, from pride to disgust at his shameful character. But the process of hard work, and seeing himself truly, puts him through finally makes him fit to be a King. So the story is titled the King’s Equal in a double sense – Rosamund as a ‘king’s’ literal equal, and Raphael, finally worthy to call himself the equal of an ideal King. Rosamund is far from vapid and Raphael far, far from glorious.

Katherine Paterson is one of those storytellers who makes me marvel and how she can create a character in so few words and sentences, and still make them intensely personal. She takes a story and makes it unavoidable, she has a special touch of resolving a story so that there’s that feeling in your chest that everything is satisfying and deep and right… do you know what I mean?

‘Future of the Book’ ?
August 13, 2009, 02:20
Filed under: Children's & YA, Thoughts

Stumbled across a wonderful and thoughtful blog tonight. I particularly liked the article that actually addresses the objection to the sweeping trend of ‘steamy & pulpy books’ for young adults. I posted a comment but I’ll have to retrieve it later. Read here at ‘If:Book’ The Future of the Book: The Almighty Word

The article itself is a bit more nuanced than I let on about the differences between the written word or the image as a vehicle for communicating and building intelligence and curiosity in children, but it ends up at this conclusion:

What kids actually need, what we all need, are higher standards across the board. Not more books but better books; not fewer movies or comics or pop songs, but fewer bad ones. This worthier goal won’t be achieved by blandly extolling the virtues of one medium or lambasting another, but by developing a stronger, richer, more vibrant culture all around.

Indeed. If a book is nothing but a reflection of the television culture, then what’s the point of reading in the first place? If it teaches us nothing, then what is it? In the end it depends on your view of what the point of literature is.  The other day I picked up a beautiful $5.98 copy of Harold Bloom’s ‘Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages’ at beloved Half-Price Books. Here’s what the esteemed literary scholar of Shakespeare has to say regarding the distinction between the published and portrayed:

‘I am old-fashioned and romantic enough to believe that many children, given the right circumstances, are natural readers until this instinct is destroyed by media. The tyranny of the screen threatens any order in which literary value or human wisdom can be preferred to the steady flow of information.’

He seems to be saying that the measure of ‘literary value’ is wisdom, a wisdom that can be learned and explored instead individually. A ‘steady flow’ of information he calls ‘tyranny’ – perhaps the tyranny of thought and feeling and judgment? Manipulation of the brute senses as opposed to engagement of the mind and heart? That certainly does seem like tyranny to me.

Harold Bloom.

Harold Bloom.