This isn’t one of my normal book reviews, because this is not a work of fiction per se, but rather a translation of Old Norse myths and legends. So, it cannot be subjected to the same standards of literary criticism I would normally use.
But then, to paraphrase Bernie Kopell’s character from Get Smart: “Zis is Ruined Chapel by Moonlight! Ve don’t ‘normal’ here!”
There are two distinct sagas, but they both tell similar tales of bold warriors and beautiful women. In fact, the majority of women were described as “the most beautiful of all women.” I guess ancient Scandinavia was like Lake Woebegon.
There is, of course, lots of back-stabbing and sex and murder and revenge and incest and never-ending wars of conquest. I never actually read or watched the Game of Thrones series, but based on these tales, it seems to just be following in a long mythological tradition.
Oh, and of course there are familiar mythological elements such as dragon-slaying and a rather interesting story early on in which Odin sticks a sword into a tree trunk and says only the most powerful of men shall be able to remove it; which seems like an obvious relative of Excalibur from Arthurian legend.
At times, the whole thing can get a bit confusing, and I sometimes get the sense that the bards who recounted these legends didn’t pay attention to things like time and continuity. For instance, there is one story in which a woman keeps having children, only to discover, one by one, around the age of 10 or so, that they are unworthy for the quest that fate has ordained for them. I mean… was there really time to wait around and go through that process repeatedly?
The story feels as though it’s being told rather than written—which is very much a credit to Dr. Crawford’s translation, as I would assume most of these kinds of tales were initially passed down as an oral tradition, and only subsequently written down. Reading it, I felt like I was sitting around a camp-fire in a dense forest of snow-covered evergreens, listening to a mysterious one-eyed old man spinning off-the-cuff yarns: “Now there was one time when it is told that Svanhild…”
As I said, you can’t subject an ancient work like this to the standards of modern criticism. It’s a convoluted intergenerational epic, full of confusing family bloodlines, prophecies that people ignore or misinterpret at great cost to themselves, and bizarre and inexplicable plot developments.
Wait, hold on… sorry, I was just reading Twitter, which at the moment is full of people talking about the latest Star Wars movie…
You know, now that I think about it, you can see how people would have been fascinated by these myths. So many of the common tropes of ancient mythology still persist in storytelling to this day. Perhaps these ancient tales of great wars, betrayals, and revenges, are more than just interesting pieces of history. They speak to some deeply-rooted impulse in human nature—a desire to imagine the exploits of larger-than-life characters and their impossible deeds. Thanks to these very accessible translations, modern readers such as myself, even with almost zero prior knowledge of Norse mythology, can do just that.
(Post-script: I came across Dr. Crawford’s works via my friend and fellow author, Noah Goats. Thank you, Noah!)
First, a disclaimer: I’ve said this before, but it’s necessary to reiterate every time I talk about him: H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t a very good person. He was a racist. He was an elitist. He was a Nazi sympathizer. (To be fair, he died in 1936; before the worst of their crimes would have been known to the world.) Anytime Lovecraft gets praised for anything, it has to be qualified by mentioning these facts.
When I was in college, I used to go to the library in between classes and hang around reading collections of Lovecraft’s letters. And while this meant having to suffer through his frequent bigoted rants, it also exposed me to another side of Lovecraft: the man who assembled a group of like-minded authors, and offered friendly advice, criticism, and encouragement.
Because despite his general fear of other people, Lovecraft was famous for the circle of friends he amassed—mostly fellow writers who were all trying to publish offbeat stories like the ones he wrote. He corresponded with many of the authors who wrote for the aptly-named pulp magazine Weird Tales. The most famous example of this is probably his letters to the teenaged Robert Bloch, who would go on to fame as the author of the extremely un-Lovecraftian horror tale Psycho.
It was also very likely Lovecraft’s correspondence with other writers that saved his work for future generations. August Derleth, another of Lovecraft’s pen-pals, was key to getting many of Lovecraft’s stories published after the author’s death. Lovecraft himself showed next to no interest in the commercial side of writing. I think he considered it beneath his dignity. But Derleth preserved and published the stories for a wider audience, to the point that now Lovecraft has an entire sub-genre named after him.
The ironic thing about Lovecraft is that, for me, most of his stories aren’t particularly scary. With a few exceptions, most of them are fairly obvious and sometimes downright tedious. He had good concepts, but only so-so ability to actually execute them.
But the reason Lovecraft is such an important figure is not his fiction, but that he was a conduit. As his famous essay Supernatural Horror in Literature demonstrated, he had a vast knowledge of the work of his predecessors, and kept alive the memory of masters like M.R. James and Robert W. Chambers to pass on to a new generation of horror writers. And in turn, the new generation that Lovecraft introduced popularized his writings, and his style.
Lovecraft wasn’t a great writer, but he had an ability to find people who were. He was like a beacon, assembling people who wanted to write a certain kind of horror, and introducing them to other authors who had tried similar concepts in the past.
(Side-note for Lovecraft fans: I’ve speculated that Lovecraft must have felt some sympathy for Joseph Curwen, the unnaturally long-lived sorcerer in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward who, through necromancy, confers with great minds of the distant past.)
For all his flaws—and there were many—this was the thing Lovecraft got exactly right. To me, nothing illustrates this better than Victor LaValle’s novella The Ballad of Black Tom. LaValle is an African-American author who enjoyed reading Lovecraft at an early age, even despite all of Lovecraft’s disgusting racist sentiments. LaValle wrote a splendid weird tale both inspired by and in rebuke to Lovecraft. Someone Lovecraft himself would have looked down on was able to build on the foundation of his tales, and make something better than the original.
Another one of those old dead snobs that I used to read in my youth was an author named Albert Jay Nock. Nock, like Lovecraft, was an autodidact, and also a self-described misanthrope. He was an early proponent of libertarian thought, although I have to believe he would find modern libertarianism entirely too crass. Nock, as we’ll see, had a pretty high opinion of himself.
Nock wrote an essay called Isaiah’s Job, about the Biblical prophet charged with warning the people about God’s wrath. While Isaiah is at first discouraged that so few believe him, God explains that His message is for what Nock called “the Remnant”: a select subset of the population who will understand it.
Nock obviously, and with characteristic arrogance, saw himself as a figure similar to Isaiah. His message was meant for a small group of people, people whom the messenger himself may never even personally meet, but who will nonetheless receive it and take appropriate action. Or as Nock put it: “Two things you do know, and no more: First, that they exist; second, that they will find you. Except for these two certainties, working for the Remnant means working in impenetrable darkness.”
Lovecraft’s function in the world of horror was similar: he put out the message about weird fiction, and became a kind of touchstone for everyone interested in it. Sherlock Holmes famously said to Watson, “You are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light.” Lovecraft was a conductor of darkness—dark fiction, to those interested in the genre. His own stories are almost superfluous to his real contribution: he united people who otherwise would have remained apart.
I returned to the old cemetery that I posted pictures of a couple years ago, this time to make a video. Still doesn’t do it justice, but it’s nice to have it recorded. I wish I’d done this earlier, before so many stones crumbled.
I’m reading Gordon Corrigan’s history of the Hundred Years’ War, A Great and Glorious Adventure. I enjoyed his history of the battle of Waterloo and this book is more of the same–lots of historical details, plenty of witty footnotes, (this being the best) and a gleefully pro-English bias.
But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I want to talk about the book’s cover:
From a design perspective, it’s perfectly fine. I might have gone for an older-looking font for the title and author’s name, but that’s not a big deal.
But let’s look closer at that painting on the cover:
According to Wikipedia, this is a painting by Charles de Steuben, entitled Bataille de Poitiers en octobre 732. (“The Battle of Poitiers in October 732.”) It depicts the victory of Charles Martel and the Franks over the Umayyad Caliphate.
This is a fascinating battle, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the Hundred Years’ War, which didn’t start until May of 1337. So what’s going on here?
I’m thinking what happened here is that somebody searched for an image for “Battle of Poitiers,” found this, and was impressed by how sharp it looks. I can’t blame them; how were they to know there were two Battles of Poitiers?
My dad has told me for years I have to read this book, along with another of Roberts’ novels, Oliver Wiswell. Well, Wiswell isn’t on Kindle, but Rabble in Arms is. So the choice of which to buy seemed obvious, although as it turned out, it might have been better to go with a physical copy–more on that later.
Rabble in Arms is set in the early years of the American Revolution, and is told from the perspective of Peter Merrill, an American patriot and merchant who joins the rebelling colonists.
Peter’s brother Nathaniel also joins, but is constantly distracted by Marie de Sabrevois, a beautiful but devious woman who is obviously (to everyone except Nathaniel) a spy for Britain. Peter himself falls in love with her niece, Ellen.
Repeatedly, Peter is thwarted in his efforts to court Ellen by the actions of de Sabrevois, and likewise his attempts to look after his brother are thwarted by the same. Well, that, and the war gets in the way too, as the Americans–represented by a colorful cast of supporting characters, highlighted by the one-dimensional-but-still-funny Doc Means–continually find themselves struggling against the mighty British Empire, thanks to a blundering, out-of-touch Congress and a number of incompetent, bureaucratic officers.
Patriot officers are depicted as a pretty worthless bunch in Rabble in Arms, with one significant exception: General Benedict Arnold. Indeed, it became pretty clear early on that Peter’s romance with Ellen, and Marie’s seduction of Nathaniel, and all the antics of Doc Means and the other supporting characters, are just filler sub-plots. What Roberts was really out to do with this book was rehabilitate General Arnold’s image. (Peter at one point tells the reader, “It has not been my purpose… to tell the story of Benedict Arnold.” But he’s lying.)
And frankly, it seems like Roberts has some legitimate points. How many people know that Arnold was wounded fighting for the Americans in the invasion of Quebec? For that matter, how many people know the Americans invaded Quebec? The aftermath of this invasion forms the first act of Rabble in Arms, and Arnold’s heroics are the highlight. The fact that the action was a defeat for the revolutionaries is laid at the feet of other officers.
Likewise, in the American retreat, Arnold is portrayed as a master strategist and brave warrior. Presumably, Roberts made his fictional narrator a ship captain so he could have a front row seat for Arnold’s feats of daring at the Battle of Valcour Island.
Roberts seems to be on firm factual ground here. Wikipedia (As my statistics teacher used to sarcastically call it, “the most valid source ever.”) summarizes: “The invasion of Quebec ended as a disaster for the Americans, but Arnold’s actions on the retreat from Quebec and his improvised navy on Lake Champlain were widely credited with delaying a full-scale British counter thrust until 1777.”
After Valcour Island, our heroes are captured by a tribe of Native Americans, who later turn them over to the British, who then turn them back over to the Native Americans again. If anyone is wondering how the Native Americans are portrayed, I guess I’d say, about like you’d expect from a book written in 1933.
All the characters who aren’t actual historical figures are basically stock caricatures. The only two female characters who say anything of substance are the pure, sweet, innocent Ellen and the evil, manipulative temptress Marie. The Madonna/Whore complex is strong with this one!
After more misadventures, one odd interlude with a captured Hessian soldier, and more problems caused by Marie, Peter makes it back in time to witness Arnold win the battles of Saratoga, despite being stripped of official authority by the bumbling General Gates.
Again, Roberts has the facts on his side here: Arnold indeed performed bravely at Saratoga, and was again wounded–shot in the same leg as in Quebec.
The penultimate chapter is a summary of why Peter will always defend Arnold, in spite of his subsequent treason. Indeed, Peter (who is clearly acting as a surrogate for Roberts here) even defends Arnold’s betrayal, arguing that Arnold came to view Congress as a greater threat to the United States than the British Empire.
While I was doing research for this review, I came across something interesting: Benedict Arnold’s open letter “to the Inhabitants of America.” That’s right; back in 1780, shortly after his betrayal, Arnold tried to explain himself to the people he’d just sold out. I recommend reading the whole thing. But here’s the key bit:
I anticipate your question, Was not the war a defensive one, until the French joined in the combination? I answer, that I thought so. You will add, Was it not afterwards necessary, till the separation of the British empire was complete? By no means; in contending for the welfare of my country, I am free to declare my opinion, that this end attained, all strife should have ceased…
…In the firm persuasion, therefore, that the private judgement of an individual citizen of this country is as free from all conventional restraints, since as before the insidious offers of France, I preferred those from Great Britain…
If we take Arnold at his word–which admittedly is a dangerous thing to do with the most infamous traitor in history–he was defecting because he didn’t like Congress making an alliance with France. That’s pretty ironic, considering it was the Arnold-led victory at Saratoga that persuaded the French to enter the war.
Throughout Rabble in Arms, Peter makes repeated reference to the Continental Congress giving undeserved military ranks to French officers, passing over more qualified Americans to do it. He doesn’t explicitly connect the dots between that and Arnold’s betrayal too closely, but the pieces fit.
(For what it’s worth, the most famous Frenchman to fight for the American colonies, the Marquis de Lafayette, went to France to secure military support for the Americans in January 1779. Arnold set the wheels of his betrayal in motion in May 1779. Make of it what you will.)
I’m not saying it’s accurate, but Roberts laid out a plausible case here: Arnold feels Congress is overlooking him. Congress is casting their lot with the French. Arnold doesn’t like Congress, and he doesn’t like the French. So, he thinks America is better off negotiating with the British. Arnold was perhaps the first (but not the last) American patriot who believed he had to fight the government in order to save the country!
Arnold wasn’t just betraying Congress. He was betraying the men who had fought with and for him, and the families of the men who died for him. He was betraying the trust Washington had shown in him by giving him command of West Point. (While Arnold was generally disliked and unpopular among his comrades, Washington seems to have been one of the few people who actually liked and respected him.)
This is where the “Arnold-had-to-betray-America-in-order-to-save-it” theory breaks down a bit, and other possible reasons for his betrayal start to loom large.
Despite his best efforts, Roberts’ novel comes up short in persuading me that Arnold’s treason was justified. Arnold was no doubt a brave soldier, and quite possibly a brilliant strategist. He may well have been badly treated by men not half as skilled as he was. But I just can’t buy the conclusion that Arnold did it, as the narrator claims, “to fight a greater threat than England.”
So, Rabble in Arms doesn’t fully succeed as pro-Arnold propaganda, but it makes a solid effort. Arnold gets all the best lines, and when he’s not around, I found myself longing for him to get back into the story. The rest of the book is pretty standard historical adventure type stuff, though it’s not without its charms. Roberts could make the occasional keen insight. For instance:
“The vainer a man is, the tighter he clings to his preconceived notions; he’s afraid of someone accusing him of changing his mind, which would show he hadn’t been the all-wise possessor of all knowledge from the moment of his birth.”
All in all, it’s a decent book if you like historical fiction and can stand a tale that takes a–well, let’s just say, a very old-fashioned approach to portraying its non-white and female characters. It’s actually pretty mild by the standards of its time, really. I’ve read other books from the period that just ooze racism and misogyny; this is more patronizing.
And now, a word of caution for those who buy it on Kindle, as I did. Whatever software they used to scan the pages of the physical copy to make the electronic version has some flaws. Quite often, a word was misinterpreted by the scanner, and an incorrect word inserted in its place. It was usually possible to figure out the correct word from the context–“lie,” for example, was throughout rendered as either “he” or “be”–but this got annoying after a while. I could never be sure if some characters’ names were really what they appeared to be. It would have actually made for an interesting meta-literary device had it been done intentionally and in another context–I was always second guessing what I read, like an unreliable narrator story.
I wouldn’t say this ruined the book for me, but it was irritating, and some readers may prefer to spring for the physical version and avoid the hassle of things like figuring out that when a character appears to say “TU he,” what he’s actually saying is “I’ll lie.”
If you got it immediately, congrats! This was the icon I used when this blog first began, back on Blogger. (The old url is written at the top, in barely-visible red.) I got the idea from the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, and then I made it yellow, because… I dunno; the King in Yellow, probably.
When I started this whole thing, I had no idea where it would lead. I was on break from college, and felt like I should be doing something at least vaguely productive. So, I started a blog, and posted about whatever random things struck my fancy.
I don’t know if I’ve ever written about this before, but I almost quit blogging in 2012. I came very close to it. I had my farewell post written and everything. But then I thought, nah, maybe a change of scenery is all I need. So I switched to WordPress, and here we are today.
I looked back at some of my old posts while I was writing this, and I noticed something: many of them–perhaps most of them–suck. I cringe while rereading them: Why did I ever write that? I ask myself.
But that’s okay. In fact, it’s a good thing–it means I’ve gotten better. Far worse would be if I looked back and wished I could write as well now as in the past.
I was able to pick out a few of my personal favorite posts, though:
My review of the movie Jackie. The least fun things to review are the ones you enjoy. It’s tough to write something interesting when the point is just “I liked it.” Writing reviews of things you hate is a bit more fun. But best of all for a reviewer are things that are just freaking weird.
My Halloween Special. I’ve wanted to make something like that for years. Finally getting to do it was awesome.
My page of indie book reviews. All right, that isn’t really something I did. It’s just a list of things that better writers have written. But read on to see why it’s included.
For a long time, at the top of the site, I had a motto: Quis leget haec? which is Latin for “Who will read this?” Originally, this was just a joke. But over time, I have received an answer to that question: writers will read this.
I’m incredibly lucky to have so many writers who read and comment on this blog. That’s the main reason I’ve improved: I’ve gotten to know all of you wonderful folks offering feedback, as well as serving as great examples with your own work. It’s been invaluable to me, as a writer of both fiction and non-fiction.
Thanks for reading. Thanks for commenting. And thanks for writing.
My dad and I love watching history documentaries. He sent me one the other day about Joseph Goebbels, the infamous Nazi propaganda minister.
I learned that, in addition to things like making newsreels and staging rallies and so on, Goebbels also served as a producer on German movies. Think Cecil B. DeMille but a Nazi, and you get a pretty good idea of his cinematic style.
The documentary showed a few clips from a film called Kolberg, an epic war film set in the early 1800s, depicting the German town of–you guessed it–Kolberg withstanding a siege laid by Napoleon’s forces.
I have to say, some of the clips I’ve seen from the film look surprisingly good, from a technical standpoint. Look at this:
The film was intended to boost German morale–it’s supposed to be an Alamo or Thermopylae-like story of a small group of fighters defying overwhelming odds. Goebbels apparently was so hell-bent on making it that he required tens of thousands of German soldiers to serve as extras.
That’s right: between 1943 and 1944, the Nazi-controlled film industry was using military assets to make epic war propaganda films. In case you needed any more evidence that these people were insane.
When the Kolberg was finally released in January 1945, it was a box office disappointment, owing possibly to the weather (winter ’44-’45 was extremely cold) or possibly to the fact that MOST OF THE MOVIE THEATERS HAD BEEN BLOWN UP BECAUSE GERMANY WAS IN THE PROCESS OF LOSING A WORLD WAR!
Anyway, Goebbels was apparently pleased with this thing. Supposedly he gushed after seeing it that the die-hard Nazis who fought to the end would be remembered like the city leaders of 19th-century Kolberg.
I assume a lot of Goebbels’s subordinates knew he was nuts, but just didn’t say anything.
Architecturally, their plan mostly failed since nearly all Nazi-era buildings were destroyed. But it bothers me sometimes how much Nazi iconography persists in modern media. Granted, it is inevitably used as a shorthand for evil, but I fear that sometimes the symbols trump the larger message. SS uniforms, for example, were designed to convey darkness and power, and those things are alluring to some people.
It’s no coincidence that lots of internet trolls use Nazi symbols as avatars, logos etc. Partly this is just because trolls like to be ham-handedly shocking in order to get attention–that’s almost the definition of a troll. But I think there’s also something inherent in the design that strikes a chord–and not a good chord either, but a chord of power and aggression.
I’d never heard of the story of Kolberg before, and, while I’m no expert, I’ve studied the Napoleonic wars more than most. There’s clearly good material here for a drama–indeed, a German writer named Paul Heyse wrote a play based on it in 1865. Heyse was apparently pretty well-respected in his time, because he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1910. The film is based on the play to a degree, although they didn’t give Heyse proper credit because he was Jewish.
I have a feeling I’d rather see Heyse’s version of the story than Goebbels’s. But this is exactly the problem I mean–the pages of History are filled with the words and deeds and icons of psychopaths who wanted to be remembered at any cost, not those of normal people who just tried to do good work.
Kolberg is available online, by the way, but I’m not going to link to it, because ownership of the rights is unclear, and I’m not sure if these are legal.
W.S. Gilbert is a major reason—possibly the major reason—I’m a writer. As a teenager, my mom introduced me to the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and I was fascinated by Gilbert’s lyrics, and then later, by his dialogues and his entire style of storytelling. He wrote stories that were clever and strange and witty, and that usually included some veiled social commentary. And as often as not, he did it in rhymes that were both intricate and yet easy to understand, thanks to his massive vocabulary.
And the really amazing thing is that so much of his commentary still seems relevant. Sometimes, I read about politics, and immediately what comes to my mind is some line of Gilbert’s, though he died more than a century ago. That’s a testament to the power of his words and his ideas.
At some point, probably around the age of 14 or 15 years old, I unconsciously began thinking, I want to be like that!
Strangely, I was always drawn more to Gilbert’s poems and his stage works than to his short stories. So when I saw that Andrew Crowther, the secretary of W.S. Gilbert Society, had released a collection of Gilbert’s short stories, I realized I needed to seize the opportunity to correct that.
Most of the stories contain Gilbert’s trademark sense of humor—the concept of introducing tropes of fairy tales and stage plays with practical, everyday life occurs frequently. I admit that the stories about pantomime and harlequinade baffle me to a degree. I read about pantomime, and I still don’t fully “get” it, and as a result, don’t totally get Gilbert’s stories riffing on them, either. It probably made sense to people who were familiar with pantomime. I’m not saying these stories are bad—far from it. “The Fairy’s Dilemma” in particular is quite good, it’s just hard for me to appreciate the Harlequin references.
Many of the stories in the collection were later adapted by Gilbert for the stage. Such is the case with “An Elixir of Love”,which he later turned into an operetta set by Sullivan, The Sorcerer.
I’ve always thought The Sorcerer was one of the weaker G&S operettas. But “An Elixir of Love” is absolutely hilarious. I laughed out loud multiple times reading it—the humorous idea of ordinary, sober businessmen who happen to deal in supernatural curses and love potions etc. is played to great effect here. (It’s in The Sorcerer too, but in my opinion, it just kind of gets lost amid all the demon-summoning.)
“Wide Awake”is an exercise in one of Gilbert’s other favorite motifs: people disguising their pure, black-hearted selfishness with a sop to politeness and decorum. Most of the characters are out for themselves, but they try to cloak it with manners and solicitude.
“A Tale of a Dry Plate” is short and very sweet.
“The Story of a Twelfth Cake” is extremely funny and clever. It is marred by one unfortunate thing that I’ll address shortly, but overall it might be the funniest story in the collection. It’s another that Gilbert later adapted for the stage.
“Lady Mildred’s Little Escapade” is a delightful tale—probably packed more of a punch in Victorian times than today, just because of changing social mores, but it’s still very clever.
“A Christian Frame of Mind” is downright shocking, for its time. A Swiftian satire, I would say.
There are more stories in this collection, and all of them are must-reads for Gilbert fans, and should-probably-reads for everyone else. And now, about that one little thing I have to address.
To a degree, everyone is a product of their time and place. Gilbert lived in Victorian England, and was a middle-class and later wealthy man. As you might expect, he held many of the typical attitudes of his time on such matters as race and sex. He was, by nature, a kind-hearted man, and so generally he seems well-disposed towards people, but that doesn’t stop him from writing things that modern readers will find shocking. The “n” word occurs in these pages, so be warned. Similarly, while Gilbert is no misogynist, and many of his female characters are actually quite interesting, there’s no doubt he could be patronizing towards them at times.
The book also includes Gilbert’s own illustrations to accompany his stories. These are a nice addition, although here again there is a problem with how Gilbert depicts non-white characters. (Interestingly, they are often depicted sympathetically in the stories.) Nevertheless, I do agree with the decision to present the stories and drawings uncensored, as Gilbert originally intended. The point of these things is, at least partly, their value as reflections of a bygone era, and it’s important for history’s sake to get an undistorted view of it, for good or ill.
Now, I know this book is a departure from what most people read. Indeed, Mr. Crowther had to work very hard to find a publisher for it. In this world of thrillers and horror and literary fiction, the modern reader may ask, “Why should I read this book of satirical Victorian fairy tales?”
Well, I’m going to make that case.
First of all, I have to address the fact that most of the modern books I read aren’t discernibly Gilbertian, unless you want to count Noah Goats’s comic novels, but he’s closer to a literary descendant of Wodehouse than Gilbert. Moreover, the books I’ve written aren’t especially Gilbertian. The influence that H.P. Lovecraft and Robert W. Chambers and various pulp and YA science-fiction authors had upon me is much more obvious. And yet, when you ask who got me into this writing business, there’s absolutely no question that the answer is Gilbert.
Precisely because Gilbert’s stories are mostly fairy tales and/or deal with superficially simple things like the stereotypical characters of low comedy, they are accessible as fiction. But because Gilbert was putting his own spin on them—playing with the conventions of fiction and of theater, they get at the most basic principles of telling a story. There’s always a lot more going on under the surface of a Gilbert story than you realize at first, and that’s what makes them interesting: they teach you how to think about fiction.
Short stories are better suited to experimentation than novels are. If you write a whole novel with an odd twist or a “meta” ending, there’s a huge risk you’ll leave the reader feeling like they’ve been shortchanged—like they invested in something that didn’t pan out. Whereas short stories encourage twists and unexpected endings. The goal of a short story is to surprise, to take a common trope and turn it on its head. This is what Gilbert excelled at.
As I was reading The Triumph of Vice, I realized Gilbert has a lot in common with my other unlikely storytelling hero, the great game-designer Chris Avellone. Both of them tell stories that upend the common conventions of their chosen medium. Gilbert wrote of honest burglars and incompetent demons, just as Avellone writes Dungeons-and-Dragons fantasy with chaste succubi and super-powerful rats.
This willingness to play with tropes, to subvert convention, is the sign of somebody who really knows their stuff. When you’re a master of the craft, you know which rules you can break, and you’re always testing the limits. Gilbert was a great stage director because he was always pushing the edge of what stage directors could do.
And that’s what I want you to take away from this: Gilbert was great at what he did, and reading his work offers you a chance to see a brilliant creative mind working in a time very different from our own, without the constraints of current fads and fashion. Somebody who wrote nearly a hundred and fifty years ago, and his work is still read today. That’s what every writer wants, isn’t it?
The title is a quote from the Roman politician Cicero, meaning something roughly like “Oh, the times! Oh, the customs!” He was bemoaning corruption in the Roman senate, and the refusal of the senators to punish an obvious criminal conspirator.
Fortunately, we have no problems like that in the modern-day United States. So this post isn’t about politics. It’s about a 1963 movie called Donovan’s Reef. A friend of mine lent it to me the other day. This isn’t going to be one of my movie review posts, though. I’m going to talk instead about what the movie says about culture.
Donovan’s Reef is a comedy about a sailor named Donovan, played by John Wayne, who has been living on a Polynesian island since World War II. Several other sailors live there as well, including one, William Dedham, who had several children with a native of the islands.
Dedham’s daughter Amelia arrives from Boston, seeking to prove that her long-lost father is not a “moral” man, which will allow her to claim his shares of the Dedham Shipping Company.
Donovan gets word of this plan and pretends that Dedham’s children are his own to deceive Amelia. Although the prim Boston lady and the rough sailor initially clash, they eventually–shocker!–fall in love. And Amelia ultimately finds out the truth, but although she fights with Donovan about it, in the end, they still get married.
There’s one hilarious scene where Donovan and Amelia race each other to the shore from Donovan’s boat. It’s mainly an excuse to show Amelia in a swimsuit, but what I found funny is that right before diving in, Donovan has to extinguish his cigarette–and yet it’s apparently supposed to be a surprise when a young, fit woman beats him to the shore?
The ending of the movie is bizarre: throughout there has been a running joke that Amelia and Donovan will fight about something, and then make peace by saying “pax”. The movie ends with them arguing about what they will name their son if they get married, and ultimately Donovan says “From now on, I wear the pax in this family!”, before grabbing Amelia, spanking her a few times, and then kissing her. She resists at first but then kisses back.
(Keep in mind that John Wayne was 22 years older than Elizabeth Allen, the actress playing Amelia, and honestly, I would have guessed he was more like 40 years older. That doesn’t help matters at all.)
There are also some racial slurs, some jokes directed at the Chinese and the Polynesians, and other stuff that would typically shock modern audiences. It’s not all mean-spirited; there’s even a rather sweet scene where the island’s inhabitants–of all different ethnicities and nationalities–celebrate Christmas together. But still, it wouldn’t pass muster today.
At this point, some readers are probably thinking, “Wow, we’ve come a long way since 1963.” (Well, maybe some readers are thinking, “Ah, for the good old days, when men were real men, and women were men’s propertyreal women!”)
I don’t mean to pick on Donovan’s Reef specifically here. I’m sure there are lots of old comedies with elements that people nowadays will find cringeworthy, or even downright offensive. But these were completely invisible to moviegoers in 1963. And there are probably things in modern movies that will strike subsequent audiences the same way.
I actually don’t think we’ve come a particularly long way since 1963. Human nature evolved over millennia and so is about the same as it was in 1963. (There are still plenty of people who were alive then, for one thing.) We just have different taboos. Audiences in 2073 will probably be watching our movies shaking their heads and thinking, “Wow, and they thought that was OK in 2018? We’ve come a long way.”
Who knows what it is the 2073 audiences will find unacceptable. Maybe it will be all the violence. Or maybe they will be neo-Victorians, and find the idea of seeing so much as an ankle to be too much nudity. Or maybe they will just wonder why people in 2018 had such a fondness for washed-out blue-grey color palettes.
Strange as this may sound after I’ve gone on an Ignatius J. Reilly-style rant about a 1960s comedy, this is why I enjoy watching old movies, and why I like history generally. It’s a way of getting perspective. The first part is the shock of discovering all the weird stuff people in the past did. The second part is the realization that people haven’t changed that much.