Category Archives: Literature

Monstress: Issue 20

Since yesterday was International Women’s Day, it seemed apropos to read the latest issue of Monstress this morning. I’ve been reading this comic since its inception, and it is one of my all-time favorite graphic stories. Written and illustrated by two women—Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, respectively—the comic recently won an impressive five Eisner Awards, including Best Writer for Liu, the first time this award has gone to a woman.

I cannot sing the praises of this comic enough. The artwork is visually stunning, and the writing evocative and thought-provoking. If you are even slightly interested in the graphic novel genre, I highly recommend reading these books.

The cover artwork for this installment, and a couple quotes from the issue, should suffice to support my claims regarding the magnificence of this work.

“When two people are one in their innermost hearts, they shatter even the strength of iron. When two people ally with each other in their innermost hearts, their vows are stronger than poems.”

 

“Short-lived beings… and their inventions. I will never understand that desire… to defy and overcome… the limits of flesh. Such a primitive need for power.”

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Thoughts on “The Magician’s Land” by Lev Grossman

This is the final book of Grossman’s trilogy, and he manages to maintain the power and intensity of the previous books. While part of me wishes the saga would continue, this really is the right place to stop.

I took a couple pages of notes while reading, so I could ramble on about this, but since brevity is the soul of wit, I’ll keep this post short and focused. I’ll focus on how the book corresponds to the biblical books of Genesis and Revelation.

So there are two big themes in this book: the creation of a world, and the destruction of a world. These are also the themes that are the focuses of Genesis and Revelation, respectively. In addition, Grossman also weaves in the symbolism of the death and rebirth of a god, which connects the two central themes and hearkens to Frazer’s work, The Golden Bough.

Quentin comes into possession of an ancient spell, and it takes him a while to decipher it. But once he does, he realizes it is a spell to create a small world, essentially speaking a world into being. This is the magick of God in Genesis, but on a smaller scale. Yet even though this is on a smaller scale, Quentin is taking a step toward becoming godlike through his ability to create.

This was a spell that created something. It was a spell for making a land.

He actually laughed out loud when he thought of it. It was too funny—too insane. But now that he saw it he couldn’t un-see it. He could follow it like a story that wound crookedly through the various sections and paragraphs and subclauses of the spell like a thread of DNA. This thing was intended to make a little world.

(p. 249)

Contrasting Quentin’s creation of a new world, we see the apocalyptic end to another world, with imagery and direct references to Revelation.

The chaos itself was momentarily, unfairly beautiful. The thrashing sun, the spinning, looping moon. Fillory half light and half shadow, dotted with flashes of fire, lava and flame and magical strikes from magical beings. Ignorant armies clashing by night.

It’s like Revelation, she thought. It’s Revelation, and I’m the Scarlet Woman.

(p. 339)

But the deeper mysticism here is that dying worlds can be reborn, but this cosmic rebirth requires the ultimate sacrifice: the death of a god. This is the mythology that Frazer explores in his masterwork, and Grossman makes reference to this mythology as the world of Fillory is about to die.

It was the oldest story there was, the deepest of all the deeper magicks. Fillory didn’t have to die, it could be renewed and live again, but there was a price, and the price was holy blood. It was the same in all mythologies: for a dying land to be reborn, its god must die for it. There was power in that divine paradox, the death of an immortal, enough power to restart the stopped heart of a world.

(pp. 377 – 378)

And with the death of the old god, the world is renewed, ushering in the new age.

“… Things are different now. It’s a new age.”

(p. 394)

These books have definitely earned their place in the upper echelon of the fantasy genre. I suspect that I may read them again someday, hence they now have a prominent spot on my bookshelf. In the meantime, I’ll indulge myself by watching the TV adaptation of the trilogy.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading cool stuff!

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“Song of Saul Before His Last Battle” by Lord Byron

“Suicide of Saul” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Warriors and chiefs! should the shaft or the sword
Pierce me in leading the host of the Lord,
Heed not the corse, though a king’s in your path:
Bury your steel in the bosoms of Gath!

Thou who art bearing my buckler and bow,
Should the soldiers of Saul look away from the foe,
Stretch me that moment in blood at thy feet!
Mine be the doom which they dared not to meet.

Farewell to others, but never we part,
Heir to my royalty, son of my heart!
Bright is the diadem, boundless the sway,
Or kingly the death, which awaits us today!

To understand this poem, you should be familiar with the biblical story of the death of Saul, as told in I Samuel 31. Saul is leading a battle against the Philistines, and things do not go well for the Israelites. Saul’s sons are slain, and the warriors flee. So Saul decides to take his own life, rather than be abused and killed by the “uncircumcised.”

Byron sees this as the ultimate heroic act, to sacrifice yourself rather than compromise your ideals. There is nothing weak about Saul’s decision to take his own life. It is totally an act of courage and bravery.

So why would this be so important to Byron? There are a couple possibilities. He could be expressing his unwavering commitment to a romantic love, vowing to die rather than allow another to pierce his heart. But I think a more plausible interpretation is that Byron is asserting his staunch adherence to his artistic ideals. Byron has a clear vision of his poetry and what he wishes to convey through his works. He would rather die than compromise his artistic integrity and create baser works intended for the Philistine masses.

I confess I looked online to see what others thought about this poem, and really did not find any out there, so these are just my personal thoughts on the poem. Feel free to let me know if you have a different impression of what Byron was trying to express. I would love to hear your thoughts. Cheers!

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 50” by Lao Tzu

When one is out of Life, one is in Death. The companions of life are thirteen; the companions of Death are thirteen; and, when a living person moves into the Realm of Death, his companions are also thirteen. How is this? Because he draws upon the resources of Life too heavily.

It is said that he who knows well how to live meets no tigers or wild buffaloes on his road, and comes out from the battle-ground untouched by the weapons of war. For, in him, a buffalo would find no butt for his horns, a tiger nothing to lay his claws upon, and a weapon of war no place to admit its point. How is this? Because there is no room for Death in him.

So this passage completely baffles me. In addition, there seems to be differences in translation. When I tried to find some information online about this passage, I noticed that other translators did not use “thirteen,” but instead translated the text as “three out of ten,” or “three in ten.” Anyway, some of these sites interpret this passage as a guideline on how to live, that 3 out of 10 follow the path of life to old age, 3 out of 10 die right after birth, and 3 out of 10 rush through life toward death. This leaves only 1 in 10 who follow the true path of the Tao.

I’m not sure I buy this interpretation, but I have nothing better to offer. I guess it makes sense, but not from the Wu translation, which I am reading.

Anyway, if anyone has any insight into this passage, I’d love to hear from you. Thanks for stopping by.

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Thoughts on “Don Juan in Hell” by Charles Baudelaire

Painting by Carlos Schwabe

The night Don Juan came to pay his fees
To Charon, by the caverned water’s shore,
A beggar, proud-eyed as Antisthenes,
Stretched out his knotted fingers on the oar.

Mournful, with drooping breasts and robes unsewn
The shapes of women swayed in ebon skies,
Trailing behind him with a restless moan
Like cattle herded for a sacrifice.

Here, grinning for his wage, stood Sganarelle,
And here Don Luis pointed, bent and dim,
To show the dead who lined the holes of Hell,
This was that impious son who mocked at him.

The hollow-eyed, the chaste Elvira came,
Trembling and veiled, to view her traitor spouse.
Was it one last bright smile she thought to claim,
Such as made sweet the morning of his vows?

A great stone man rose like a tower on board,
Stood at the helm and cleft the flood profound:
But the calm hero, leaning on his sword,
Gazed back, and would not offer one look round.

(translation by James Elroy Flecker)

So I read this poem through a couple times, and had no sense on what Baudelaire was expressing. Mainly, because I did not understand all the references within the text. So I systematically went through and looked up all the references, and then the meaning became clear. So before I provide my interpretation of the poem as a whole, let me quickly share what I found regarding all the names mentioned in the text.

Charon was easy enough—the ferryman who brings the souls of the dead across the River Styx to the Underworld. Antisthenes, I discovered, was a pupil of Socrates and was known for being very ethical and “advocating an ascetic life lived in accordance with virtue.” (Source) Sganarelle is a one-act play by Moliere, also coined “The Imaginary Cuckold.” “The story deals with the consequences of jealously and hasty assumptions in a farcical series of quarrels and misunderstandings involving Sganarelle (the imagined cuckold of the title), his wife, and the young lovers, Célie and Lélie.” (Source) Don Luis had a bet with Don Juan to see who could “conquer more women and kill more men than the other,” a bet which Don Juan won. (Source) And finally, Elvira is a reference to Donna Elvira, a lady of Burgos abandoned by Don Giovanni in the Mozart opera. (Source)

So, now that all the references are cleared up, we can look at the poem as a whole.

Don Juan is the antithesis of Antisthenes. He is an unrepentant womanizer and someone ruled by his baser desires. On his journey into Hell, he looks around at the souls of those he destroyed and used, and feels no remorse whatsoever. In fact, one gets the sense that he almost feels a sense of pride in regard to his past exploits.

So how does Baudelaire feel about Don Juan? This is less clear. I suspect that Baudelaire wishes he could be more like Don Juan, trampling through life ruled solely by his passions and not caring about people who he may use and hurt along the way. But my impression is that Baudelaire is not as void of feelings for others as he may appear. While it may make things easier for him to not harbor emotions for others, he does, and even though he is prone to giving in to his desires, he feels remorse, unlike his anti-hero Don Juan.

These are just my thoughts on the poem. If you have other thoughts or insights, I’d love to hear them. Feel free to share in the comments section. Cheers!

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Thoughts on “The Magician King” by Lev Grossman

As I am drafting this post on Grossman’s second installment in the trilogy, I am already well into the third and final book. These books are like crack for nerds who are into reading. I suspect that my thoughts on the third book will follow hot on the heels of this post.

This book is another version of the archetypal hero’s journey, but not at all hackneyed. It is full of current references to popular culture and it reads very well. Reading a page in this book is like eating one Dorito chip. You read it, and the next thing you know, a quarter of the book is gone.

“You wish to be a hero, but you do not know what a hero is. You think a hero is one who wins. But a hero must be prepared to lose, Quentin. Are you? Are you prepared to lose everything?”

(p. 179)

This quote really had a visceral effect on me. When I think back on the literature I’ve read regarding the hero myths, every hero loses something, and most of them lose a part of themselves. You cannot head out on a quest and expect to return the same person you were at the onset. Every hero must sacrifice in order to attain their goal. And even those who choose not to make the sacrifice after stepping on the path, they have still lost something, and likely that something is a more painful loss that that sacrifice which was asked for.

The hero’s quest is symbolic for a deep, often spiritual, transformation. And all transformations require the sloughing of the outer shell of the self to reveal the deeper aspects of the individual.

At one point in the book, Quentin discusses his quest with Ember, a god of the realm of Fillory. While it is a common trope in the hero myth for the hero to seek guidance from a divine being, what is interesting about this interaction is that the god Ember provides insight into the role of an individual on a quest, and how the quest ultimately transforms that person.

“I do not think you understand, my child. There are things a man must do, that a god may not. He who completes a quest does not merely find something. He becomes something.”

Quentin stopped, blowing, hands on hips. The horizon to the east was a solid band of orange now. The stars were going out.

“What’s that? What does he become?”

“A hero, Quentin.”

(p. 251)

Reading into what is implied here, the god is letting Quentin know that by pursuing the quest, something which he must do, that he will suffer a great loss. It is inevitable. No transformation can be complete unless the individual lets go of something important, whether by choice or by circumstance.

I’m intentionally keeping this post short, so as not to include any spoilers. I definitely recommend this book, and the entire trilogy.

Click here to read my review of the first book in the series: The Magicians.

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Thoughts on “Into the Twilight” by William Butler Yeats

Image Source: Wikipedia

Out-worn heart, in a time out-worn,
Come clear of the nets of wrong and right;
Laugh heart again in the gray twilight,
Sigh, heart, again in the dew of the morn.

Your mother Eire is always young,
Dew ever shining and twilight gray;
Though hope fall from you and love decay,
Burning in fires of a slanderous tongue.

Come, heart, where hill is heaped upon hill:
For there the mystical brotherhood
Of sun and moon and hollow and wood
And river and stream work out their will;

And God stands winding His lonely horn,
And time and the world are ever in flight;
And love is less kind than the gray twilight,
And hope is less dear than the dew of the morn.

This is a deeply mystical poem, in which Yeats envisions the world as being at the threshold of a new age of magic and mysticism. As with Yeats’ great works, there are layers and layers of meaning woven in to this short poem. In this post, I will highlight the general meaning of each stanza, and allow you to explore the deeper symbolism on your own.

The first stanza sets the overall tone of the poem. Twilight can either be the transition from night to day, or from day to night. The last line of this stanza lets the reader know that Yeats is using twilight as a symbol for dawn. What Yeats is conveying here is that humanity is currently in a state of darkness, which means that we have lost our connection to the divine light. But we are on the brink of moving back into a period of enlightenment, where humanity will again embrace the mystic.

In the second stanza, Yeats asserts that Ireland will be the source of this spiritual reawakening. He sees himself as being right in the midst of this paradigm shift, a shift in the collective consciousness, where all humanity will become aware of the divine essence sleeping within.

In the third stanza, Yeats builds upon the symbol of Ireland as the birthplace for the new spiritual renaissance by evoking images of the ancient Druids (the “mystical brotherhood”). The first line describes the Druid burial mounds in Ireland (see image). Yeats uses this to symbolize that the power and knowledge of the Druids is still buried within Ireland, waiting to be reborn. The last two lines describe Druid mystical ceremonies, practiced outside and calling upon the elements to help manifest their will. The importance of the will in magic and the occult is something Yeats would have been very familiar with.

In the fourth and final stanza, we are presented with an image of an old god, blowing a horn to call forth the mystical beings that have slipped into the mists of time. One gets the sense of Druids, faeries, and such, rising and gathering in the presence of the old god, reborn, to help return humanity to its original state of divine power.

Again, I am just scratching the surface of this beautiful and powerful poem. I encourage you to read and re-read this many times, since you will discover more each time you do.

Blessings!

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