Tag Archives: duty

“The Chimney Sweeper” by William Blake (from Songs of Innocence)

ChimneySweeperI’ve read this poem before and it never bothered me. I’d always viewed it as a social commentary against the horrific child labor practices in London. But having gone to the Holocaust Memorial in Washington DC this past week while on vacation, something about this poem struck me the wrong way, and while I am sure it is just my interpretation as seen through the lens of what I recently experienced, I still need to point out my issue with this poem.

Click here to read the poem online.

Most of the poem is pretty straight-forward. Innocent children are being exploited and one has a vision of an angel telling him that a better life awaits in the next realm. This vision provides hope for the child to continue with his life. It is the ending of the poem, though, that is problematic for me.

Tho’ the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm.
So if all do their duty, they need fear no harm.

This struck me as the same mentality that allowed the holocaust to occur, that quiet acquiescence in the face of abuse and human rights violations. On one hand, this is the same as the lie that “Arbeit macht frei” (Work makes you free) which appeared above the gates to Auschwitz. It is also likely that this is the same belief that caused many Germans to go along with the atrocities, the belief that they were only doing their duty. If you think about it, how many human rights violations are committed today as a result of “doing one’s duty.” Sometimes, doing what is right means refusing to do one’s duty.

I know that Blake was progressive and supported human rights, but we must be careful when we read and interpret literature. Ideas can be twisted and reinterpreted to express the exact opposite of what was originally intended. Just think about how many atrocities have been justified by an individual’s interpretation of a religious text. Words are powerful; therefore, we must be careful when we use them.

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“Game of Thrones” by George R. R. Martin

GameOfThronesI have to confess that I watched the HBO series before reading this book. I really enjoyed the series and had heard great things about Martin’s books, so I figured I should grab one and give it a read. I was not disappointed.

As far as fantasy books goes, this one is outstanding and deserves a place along with the best in the genre. There are several sub-plots going on at the same time and Martin employs a nice technique for managing these. Instead of numbering his chapters, he labels each chapter with the name of the key character whom the chapter focuses on. When I was nearing the end of the book, I couldn’t help thinking that it would be interesting to restructure the story and read just one character’s chapters sequentially. If I had more free time, I would do that and see how that works.

One of the recurring motifs in the book is that “winter is coming.” The realm has experienced a prolonged summer and people are expecting a long, dark winter to follow. Winter becomes a metaphor for death and desolation, as well as the end of the realm as it is known. There is also a dark magic associated with winter, embodied by the white walkers, bodies of the dead that rise and roam the frozen forests of the north. The image of winter creates a somber and fearful mood that permeates the story.

Politics plays a major role in the book and most of the political players are decidedly Machiavellian. For example, there is a part where the king’s council is discussing killing Daenerys and her unborn child. While Eddard Stark is vehemently opposed, most of the council supports the idea. Varys explains the political logic behind the decision:

“It is a terrible thing we contemplate, a vile thing. Yet we who presume to rule must do vile things for the good of the realm, however much it pains us.” (p. 295)

There is another great political quote later in the book: “why is it always the innocents who suffer most, when you high lords play your game of thrones?” (p. 531) As I read this, I couldn’t help thinking about our Congress. As I watch the political happenings in Washington, it is essentially the same. Political leaders are more concerned about re-election and about which party is gaining the most power. It’s become a game with the media providing play-by-play analysis. And who are the people left suffering? The working class, the children, the elderly. Again, it is the innocent people who suffer as a result of the political games.

There is one other aspect of the book I would like to talk about, and that is courage and bravery and their association with duty. This plays out in numerous scenarios throughout the book, where individuals are faced with difficult choices and how concepts of duty, honor, and bravery influence those decisions. There is one passage that I think sums up this inner conflict best:

A craven can be as brave as any man, when there is nothing to fear. And we all do our duty, when there is no cost to it. How easy it seems then, to walk the path of honor. Yet soon or late in every man’s life comes a day when it is not easy, a day when he must choose. (p. 553)

If you are a fan of fantasy and you have not read this book yet, I recommend that you do so. Also, if you have not yet seen the HBO series, I’d say it is worth watching. The story line is true to the text. Of course, the book goes into more detail, which makes it that much more interesting. Anyway, I will definitely be adding the second book to my reading list.

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