Posts Tagged ‘Rosemary Sutcliff’

A few children’s books: gods and fairies

May 5, 2016

Some brief notes about children’s books I’ve read over the past few months:

colum-golden-fleeceThe Golden Fleece and the Heroes who Lived before Achilles
Padraic Colum
(Aladdin, 2004) [1921]
320 p.

The story of the quest of Jason and the Argonauts to find the Golden Fleece is one of the best known episodes of Greek mythology. Padraic Colum re-tells the tale in a way suitable for children. The bulk of the story, as one would expect, is devoted to the voyage of the Argo and adventures encountered on the way. After the successful return of the Argonauts, Colum tells stories about some of Jason’s companions: Theseus, Heracles, Admetus, Peleus, and Orpheus, and he finishes up with the story of Jason and Medea (though not including, oddly, the particular story dramatized by Euripides in his Medea).

Colum also wrote a number of similar books, including one on episodes from the annals of the Trojan War and one on Norse mythology. I had hoped to read them, or suggest that my children read them, but now I am not so sure. I found Colum’s writing dull and lifeless. There is little stylistic colour, and the prose plods along. But perhaps my judgment is faulty or eccentric: this volume on the Golden Fleece was a Newbery Honor book when first published.

jacobs-english-fairy-talesEnglish Fairy Tales
Joseph Jacobs
(Everyman, 1993) [1890]
428 p.

A splendid collection of fairy tales collected from England during the nineteenth century. Well-written, occasionally gruesome, and almost always enjoyable. A classic.

hawthorne-wonder-bookA Wonder Book for Girls and Boys
Nathaniel Hawthorne
(Dover, 2003) [1851]
176 p.

For years now I’d been curious about this book, and its companion volume Tanglewood Tales. It was written, I believe, shortly after Hawthorne’s triumph with The Scarlet Letter, and was quite popular in its day. It is a re-telling of a half-dozen tales from Greek mythology: Perseus and Medusa, King Midas, Pandora’s box, Heracles and the Golden Apples, Baucis and Philemon, and Bellerophon and Pegasus. The tales are presented within a framing story in which a group of children, called by unfortunate fairy nicknames throughout (Cowslip, Squash-Blossom, Milkweed, and so on), are told stories by a young man to while away the time on a summer afternoon or before a cozy evening fire.

I could have done without the frame, which pops up not only at the beginning and end, but also between each of the stories; after a few episodes I began skipping it. The tales themselves, however, I enjoyed quite a bit. They are told in a down-to-earth manner, though perhaps with slightly too much informality for my tastes. I read the story of Pegasus (in which he helps Bellerophon fight the dreadful Chimaera) to my kids and they really enjoyed it; my own favourite was probably the story of King Midas.

Having said that, I wasn’t as taken with the book as I expected to be, and while I will probably leave a copy of Tanglewood Tales lying around for the kids in a few years, I’m not sure that I’ll read it myself.

black-ships-before-troyBlack Ships Before Troy
The Wanderings of Odysseus
Rosemary Sutcliff
(Laurel Leaf, 2005) [1993, 1995]
151 p. + 144 p.

I enjoyed Rosemary Sutcliff’s paraphrase of the Arthurian legends so much that I decided to try these re-tellings of The Iliad and The Odyssey, both intended for older children. I was not disappointed, exactly. The tales are extremely well told, but I did find that they moved a little too briskly for my taste. Whereas her Arthurian tales I think could justly be described as “novelized”, such a description would be a stretch here. Moreover, it seems to me that Homer’s poems are quite accessible in themselves (what with so many fine translations available), and as I read Sutcliff’s stories I wondered, more than once, whether I ought to put it down and just read Homer again. But certainly if a child conceives an interest in Homer and finds the poetry daunting, these volumes could be recommended with confidence.

Favourites of 2015: Books

December 28, 2015

Today I kick off my annual “favourites of” series of posts, in which I’ll be writing about the best books, music, and movies that I had the good fortune to read, hear, and see this year. These are not “Favourites of 2015” lists in the usual sense, because most of what I’ll be discussing is not of recent vintage. The theme for today is books.

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shakespeare-234x300At the beginning of the year I set myself a modest personal challenge: to read one Shakespeare play each month. I had noticed that years were slipping by in which I hadn’t read even one, and it didn’t seem right. I’m happy to say that I met the challenge, and then some. I treated myself to a few of my favourite plays (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest), dipped into the historical plays (Richard II through Henry V), read a couple of the great tragedies (Macbeth and Hamlet), and also enjoyed several of the less well-known plays (The Winter’s Tale, Troilus and Cressida, and Coriolanus, for example). The experiment was such a success that I’m going to continue it in 2016. At this rate, it will only take about 4 years for me to read all the plays. I am also, inspired by this book, going to make an effort to memorize at least a few Shakespearian passages this year.

I know a place where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
All overcanopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet muskroses, and with eglantine.

Not bad for a start. We’ll see how it goes.

This was also a year in which I made a few tentative steps into the world of e-books. I had noticed, with some dismay, that much, or even most, of my reading time was in the dark. I made the most of it, but my flashlight was waking up the baby and annoying my wife. And so I loaded a few books onto my phone (I use the Marvin reading app); in night mode it seems not to bother anyone, and in consequence I have been able to read more, and sleep less, than I did formerly. I’ve been raiding Gutenberg for free books. I read a lot of Chesterton this year in this format, and some classic novels too.

Speaking of novels, I’m sort of surprised to find that I read only a handful this year: Dostoyevsky (The Adolescent), Tolstoy (Anna Karenina), Dickens (Dombey and Son), a few of the Aubrey-Maturin novels, and … I think that’s it, leaving aside books for children. The novel I got for Christmas last year, Nabokov’s Pnin, I see is still sitting there. Soon, soon.

sutcliff-arthurI did read a lot of children’s books this year. Untold numbers with the children themselves as bedtime reading, but I also enjoyed a fair number on my own. In my mind, I am “scouting ahead” so as to be in a position to put good books in their paths as they grow up, but to tell the truth I’ve enjoyed these books on their own merits, quite apart from the satisfaction of being a good parent (or my best imitation of one). My focus this year was on medieval- and classical-themed books for kids, and I read Rosemary Sutcliff’s Arthurian trilogy along with her novelizations of Homer, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tales from Greek mythology in A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys, other Greek and Roman myths rendered by Padraic Colum and Charles Kingsley, legendary tales about saints from William Canton, and a few collections of fairy tales too, including the Grimm one. It was good stuff, for the most part, and I hope to write in more detail about it in the near future.

Before leaving the topic of children’s books, let me praise the picture books my kids loved most this year: Aaron Becker’s Journey and Quest. They are wordless picture books, so the children take an active role in telling the story, rather than just listening. We’ve read other wordless picture books in the past, but none of them matched — indeed, none of them came close to matching — the incredible enthusiasm that Becker’s books produced in our kids. The stories are about two children transported to another world in which they must … well, just what they must do is one of the things the readers have to puzzle out. Each child is in possession of a magical pen; the things they draw with the pens become real. There are kings, soldiers, mountains, castles, undersea cities, mysterious maps, and all the ingredients of a great adventure. Becker’s watercolour illustrations are enchanting: full of interesting detail, beautiful to look at, and subtly composed to further the story bit by bit. Journey and Quest are the first parts of a projected trilogy, so we are eagerly awaiting the conclusion.

becker-journey

This year the kids also sank their teeth into Super Shark Encyclopedia and Super Nature Encyclopedia. For months on end these were our exclusive bedtime reading, and (mercifully) the books are very well done.

chestertonOn the non-fiction side, I read (as I said above) a lot of Chesterton, going more or less in chronological order, hitting some of the lesser-known books and discovering in most cases that they are lesser-known for a reason. Still, even when Chesterton is not at his peak he’s still pretty good. I think I’ve gleaned enough quotations to keep The Hebdomadal Chesterton going for another couple of years, at least. Inspired by my pop music odyssey I read a few books about Bob Dylan (by Clinton Heylin and Mr. Zimmermann himself) and Van Morrison (Hymns to the Silence, by Peter Mills).

FooteVols1-3I read some history, and among the chief triumphs of my year in reading was the completion of Shelby Foote’s massive The Civil War: A Narrative. I actually started reading this back when the Civil War began — sorry, when the sesquicentennial of the war began, in 2011 — and kept pace with the events of the war as they unfolded, finishing up just in time to mark the sesquicentennial of the end of the war. This was a great way to read this history, and I would recommend it to everyone if it weren’t too late to do so. Foote’s history focuses principally on the military side of the war experience, with occasional forays into politics, and very occasional glances at civilian life during the war. He digs into the tactical details, really putting the reader on the ground and explaining how battles unfolded. Foote is broadly sympathetic to the Confederate side of the war — not to slavery, but to other aspects of Southern life and culture that were destroyed by the war. The fact that Foote is often showing us the war from the Southern perspective helps to complicate an over-simple picture. Anyway, it’s a great book. Sometimes history is written not by the victors, but by the best historians.

boswell-johnsonlifeWhat else? I dipped in and out of Plutarch’s Lives. I relished James Boswell’s Life of Johnson (which actually took two years to read). I read a few long-ish format poems, by Goldsmith, Newman, and Dryden. I burrowed into a handful of books on politics and culture (by James Kalb, Richard Weaver, and, by proxy, Charles Taylor); I’ll write more about those at some point. It appears that the only philosophy I read this year was the Gorgias, plus Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances, if that counts as philosophy. It was a particularly dismal year for theological reading; only Julian of Norwich qualifies, if she qualifies. Oh, and Edmund Campion at year’s end, if he qualifies. Oh, and The Cloud of Unknowing, if that qualifies.

If you could see the list of books I set for myself at the beginning of the year, you’d be forced to conclude that 2015 was a calamitous failure, reading-wise. But I’m not going to show you that list. All in all, it was a pretty decent year of reading.

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Favourite fiction: Anna Karenina

Favourite non-fiction: The Civil War (Foote)

Favourite biography: Life of Johnson

Favourite play: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Books published in 2015 and read by me: 0

Most gruesome children’s book: Jack the Giant-Killer, by Richard Doyle

Most books by a single author: William Shakespeare (14), G.K. Chesterton (12), Rosemary Sutcliff (5), Patrick O’Brian (4).

Least favourite fiction: The Club of Queer Trades (Chesterton)

Least favourite non-fiction: The Appetite of Tyranny (Chesterton)

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Given that I was reading quite a few Gutenberg books this year, all of which are rather old, it’s interesting for me to see if I’ve been able to shift the center of gravity of my reading out of the twentieth century. Here is a histogram of the original publication dates of the books I read this year:

books2015

No. The coverage of the last 500 years isn’t too bad, but still the 20th century emerges triumphant. I did very badly indeed in my classical and medieval reading. (I’ve also been having trouble with my graphics drivers since I upgraded to Matlab 2015b; hence the diagonal lines in each bin of the histogram.) Here’s a closer look at the books published since 1800:

books2015only19th20thc

This looks more promising. There are actually more books in the period from 1840-1940 than in the 75 years from 1940 to the present. I’m going to bend the rules a little and declare this a victory.

I think we’ll look at my 2015 in popular music next time. In the meantime: Tolle, lege, and may many good books come your way in 2016.

Books for children: history, folk-tale, and legend

May 13, 2015

Over the past few months I’ve read several good books for children on historical and legendary subjects, and I pass on a few notes:

crossbowsCrossbows & Crucifixes
Henry Garnett
(Sophia Institute, 2008) [1962]
187 p.

Originally published in the early 1960s as A Trumpet Sounds, this book tells the story of Nicholas Thorpe, a fifteen-year old Catholic boy in Elizabethan England who joins the underground effort to provide safe passage and hiding places for priests. Set mostly in rural locations, it follows Nicholas’ introduction to the recusant communities and his growing identification with their aims. It is a nicely imagined story that lets a good deal of real history in around the edges. The story does meander a little, and the book as a whole would have been stronger if it had a more clearly defined structure. Still, it’s a good story that introduces a young (age 10?) reader to a group of brave people struggling to save the good that they have known. Incidentally, I think the author’s name must be a pseudonym.

kingsley-heroesThe Heroes
Greek Fairy Tales for my Children
Charles Kingsley
(William Clowes, 1932) [1856]
200 p.

Charles Kingsley is most well-known today for his (rather strange, I am told) book The Water-Babies, but I have enjoyed this realization of three classic Greek tales: the story of Perseus, focusing on his quest to slay Medusa; the story of Jason and the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece; and the life of Theseus, including the account of his adventure with Ariadne’s thread in the labyrinth of the Minotaur. Kingsley tells the stories with a certain archness that I found distracting only at first. I like that he emphasizes the courage, virtue, and greatness of his heroes; there is no trace of a reflexive egalitarianism here. He lets his heroes be heroes. Naturally there is a considerable amount of violence in these stories; Kingsley doesn’t underline it, but he doesn’t avoid it either. The elevated tone of the prose might make it challenging for an inexperienced reader. The prologue and epilogue are unequivocally Christian, despite the pagan origins of the tales sandwiched between. I’m happy to have read it, and will encourage my children to read it when the time comes. I found this old copy at a second-hand booksale.

perrault-fairy-talesFairy Tales
Charles Perrault
(Dover, 1969) [1697]
117 p.

A superb collection of fairy tales, including those about Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Tom Thumb, and Puss in Boots — but not for children, not young children anyway. Often violent, with feints at incest and cannibalism, they are a bridge too far for this father. But considered as stories for more mature readers, they are excellent. Classics are classics for a reason.

canton-saintsA Child’s Book of Saints
William Canton
(St. Augustine Academy, 2013) [1898]
268 p.

This is a find. It was apparently out of print until St. Augustine Academy Press brought it back a few years ago in a high-quality reproduction of the original 1898 printing. Canton has written a series of elegant stories about saints, drawing heavily but not exclusively on legendary material. Although I have not checked it, I expect that some of these stories are from The Golden Legend or similar sources, but others (“The King Orgulous”) sound as though they could be part of the same folk-tale tradition that the Brothers Grimm explored.

Almost without exception they are superb little stories, with a gentle spirit and an eye for grace and beauty. Even if they are not stories about actual people, they are imaginative explorations of the allure of goodness, and that is no small thing. My enthusiasm is dampened only by the affected antiquarian tone that seeps in here and there. It is there, I know, to elevate the stories into a realm beyond the ordinary, and normally I appreciate that, but Canton’s ear is not perfect, and the prose sometimes sounds overripe. That aside, I intend to read these stories to my kids when they’re a little older.

sutcliff-arthurianThe Sword and the Circle
The Light Beyond the Forest
The Road to Camlann
Rosemary Sutcliff
(Puffin, 1994) [1979-81]
272 + 144 + 144 p.

This marvellous trilogy covers the full span of Arthurian lore, from the rise of Uther Pendragon and Merlin to the death of Arthur and final collapse of the company of the Knights of the Round Table. The stories are drawn mostly from Malory’s Arthurian corpus, with the addition of a few tales such as those of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the tragedy of Tristan and Iseult. The first volume tells of the formation of the Knights of the Round Table and their adventures in the first flowerings of their chivalric enterprise. The second volume is about the quest for the Holy Grail, and the way in which the quest began to fragment the company of knights. In the final volume the fault lines widen and war breaks out between Arthur and Lancelot, leading to the final end of Arthur’s reign.

I have nothing but good things to say. I have read a fair bit in the Arthurian tradition, from Malory to Tennyson, but I’ve not enjoyed anything more than I enjoyed this. The books are billed as being for children, and, it is true, they would be suitable for children, but there is nothing in them to deter an adult’s enjoyment as well. For the first time I feel that I have a good understanding of the overall shape of the Arthurian stories; rather than just being a conglomeration of tales, they follow an arc. Sutcliff’s writing is rich and often striking, bringing out memorable details and pausing to dwell on moments that Malory, for instance, passes over quickly. She follows her sources closely, but brings something of the novelist’s art to her rendering. The language respects the intelligence of the reader.

As in the medieval sources, there is a strong Catholic undercurrent in these stories. I was glad that Sutcliff didn’t strip it out. Did you know that in later life, after his career as the flower of Christian chivalry had run its course, Lancelot became a priest? I didn’t.

Children’s books, briefly noted

April 24, 2014

Over the past few months I’ve read a number of children’s books set in medieval Europe. Here are brief notes on several of them:

paterson-parzifalParzival
The Quest of the Grail Knight
Katherine Paterson
(Puffin, 1998) 127 p.

This is a brief re-telling, based on Wolfram von Eschenbach, of the story of Parsifal (Parzival) and his adventures in quest of the Holy Grail. I’ve not read von Eschenbach’s version, but I did note numerous differences from Chretien de Troyes’ earlier version of the story. Paterson’s tale moves quickly, and it told clearly but a little dryly in this unillustrated edition. There is a firm moral center to the story, and a strong Christian element. Suitable for young listeners aged 6 and up, and for somewhat older young readers. 3.5 stars.

Dragon Slayersutcliff-dragonslayer
Rosemary Sutcliff
(Penguin, 1961) 107 p.

A prose re-telling of the Beowulf story. All of the essential plot points are included, and atmospheric touches are added. The writing is strong, with a pleasing directness and raw vigour. Some violence, obviously, but the virtues of loyalty and courage are stressed. The grammar would be challenging for an early reader. Age 8-12? 4.5 stars.

good-mastersGood Masters! Sweet Ladies!
Voices from a Medieval Village
Laura Amy Schlitz
Illustrated by Robert Byrd
(Candlewick, 2007) 85 p.

An interesting premise for a book: a series of loosely connected dramatic monologues intended for performance, each in the voice of a child from a medieval English village circa 1225. The monologues (plus two inventive dialogues) run about 2-4 pages each, and were originally written for the author’s own students. The language is solid, and doesn’t avoid obsolete words. There is an earthy quality to the whole. The historical accuracy is reasonable, although I do quarrel with a few of the marginal notes. (Villeins were not quite the same as slaves.) Age 10-16? 4 stars.

The Door in the Wallangeli-door
Marguerite de Angeli
(Yearling, 1949) 128 p.

This Newbery Medal winning book was recommended to me by a friend, and a good recommendation it was. Young Robin falls ill and becomes lame, but is befriended by a monk and taught a trade. Eventually, by a series of courageous and resourceful actions, he is able to save his friends from peril during a seige. The book paints an attractive picture of the Middle Ages. Age 8-12. 4 stars.

gray-adamAdam of the Road
Elizabeth Janet Gray
Illustrated by Robert Lawson
(Viking, 1943) 320 p.

This is a superb adventure story set in thirteenth-century England. Adam is an 11-year old boy, the son of a distinguished minstrel, who aspires to practice the same art. Adam’s beloved dog is stolen and he sets out on a quest to retrieve him, becoming separated from his father in the process. Adam must rely on his own resourcefulness, courage, and wit — and the kindness of strangers — to find his dog and re-unite with his father. The medieval world portrayed here is one of gaiety and gallantry, and the religious character of that society is woven naturally into the story. A splendid book for boys, especially. Winner of the Newbery Medal in the year of its publication.  Age 8-12? 4 stars.

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I’ve just now noticed that all of these books were written by women.