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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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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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“To Ireland in the Coming Times” by William Butler Yeats

Know, that I would accounted be
True brother of a company
That sang, to sweeten Ireland’s wrong,
Ballad and story, rann and song;
Nor be I any less of them,
Because the red-rose-bordered hem
Of her, whose history began
Before God made the angelic clan,
Trails all about the written page.
When Time began to rant and rage
The measure of her flying feet
Made Ireland’s heart begin to beat;
And Time bade all his candles flare
To light a measure here and there;
And may the thoughts of Ireland brood
Upon a measured quietude.

Nor may I less be counted one
With Davis, Mangan, Ferguson,
Because, to him who ponders well,
My rhymes more than their rhyming tell
Of things discovered in the deep,
Where only body’s laid asleep.
For the elemental creatures go
About my table to and fro,
That hurry from unmeasured mind
To rant and rage in flood and wind;
Yet he who treads in measured ways
May surely barter gaze for gaze.
Man ever journeys on with them
After the red-rose-bordered hem.
Ah, faeries, dancing under the moon,
A Druid land, a Druid tune!

While still I may, I write for you
The love I lived, the dream I knew.
From our birthday, until we die,
Is but the winking of an eye;
And we, our singing and our love,
What measurer Time has lit above,
And all benighted things that go
About my table to and fro,
Are passing on to where may be,
In truth’s consuming ecstasy,
No place for love and dream at all;
For God goes by with white footfall.
I cast my heart into my rhymes,
That you, in the dim coming times,
May know how my heart went with them
After the red-rose-bordered hem.

This is one of Yeats’ Irish nationalist poems, where he envisions an Ireland free from English rule. He aligns himself with three other Irish nationalist poets: Thomas Osborne Davis, James Clarence Mangan, and Sir Samuel Ferguson. Yeats believes that Irish poetry and art, which extol Irish heritage (symbolized by faeries and Druids), will inspire the Irish people and usher in the Irish Renaissance.

A metaphor which is repeated in each stanza is the “red-rose-bordered hem.” I thought about this image quite a bit, trying to figure out what exactly Yeats was trying to represent here. My thought is that Yeats was making a reference to Lady Liberty, as expressed in Delacroix’s famous revolutionary painting (see below). The implication here is that the hem of Liberty’s dress may have to get stained with the blood of revolutionaries before Ireland can become a free nation. The sad truth is that revolutions are rarely bloodless.

Eugène Delacroix

While I personally prefer Yeats’ mystical poetry, I can appreciate his nationalistic works as well. Artistic expression is almost always influenced to some extent by the socio-political climate at the time the artist is working. I confess, I am curious to see what works of art arise from our current social and political climate.

Thanks for stopping by, and feel free to share any thoughts in the comment section below.

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Thoughts on “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorn

My friend Sonia recommended this short story to me as something I might want to consider as part of my Halloween reading list. I love Hawthorn and it has been a while since I read any of his works, so I took her suggestion.

The story is a somewhat eerie tale about a young man who falls in love with a young woman who has a strange attachment to her father’s garden, and in particular one plant that is highly poisonous. It is discovered that the father, a scientist, had been giving her doses of the plant’s poison to make her immune and also instill her with a kind of built in defense against unwanted male advances.

Having read this right after finishing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I was very aware of Hawthorn’s criticism of the tendency of scientific men to want to usurp the power that was traditionally assigned to the divine. And it almost seems like Hawthorn predicted the age of genetically modified organisms that have become the norm in our world of factory farming.

The aspect of one and all of them dissatisfied him; their gorgeousness seemed fierce, passionate, and even unnatural. There was hardly an individual shrub which a wanderer, straying by himself through a forest, would not have been startled to find growing wild, as if an unearthly face had glared at him out of the thicket. Several, also, would have shocked a delicate instinct by an appearance of artificialness, indicating that there had been such commixture, and, as it were, adultery of various vegetable species, that the production was no longer of God’s making, but the monstrous offspring of man’s depraved fancy, glowing with only an evil mockery of beauty. They were probably the result of experiment, which, in one or two cases, had succeeded in mingling plants individually lovely into a compound possessing the questionable and ominous character that distinguished the whole growth of the garden.

What I respect about Hawthorn is that he is critical in all areas. Often, people who are critical of science embrace religion, but Hawthorn is just as critical in this tale about religion as he is science. When Baglioni points out that Rappaccini offered his daughter as a sacrifice to science, it also symbolically parallels Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac to God. Hawthorn is equally appalled at the sacrifice of humanity for any of our gods, whether they be religion or science.

“Her father,” continued Baglioni, “was not restrained by natural affection from offering up his child, in this horrible manner, as the victim of his insane zeal for science. For — let us do him justice — he is as true a man of science as ever distilled his own heart in an alembic. What, then, will be your fate? Beyond a doubt, you are selected as the material of some new experiment. Perhaps the result is to be death — perhaps a fate more awful still! Rappaccini, with what he calls the interest of science before his eyes, will hesitate at nothing.”

There is a lot of other cool symbolism woven into this tale, and I encourage you to read it if you have not yet done so. It’s a great tale with a nice twist at the end. Creepy enough for an evening Halloween season read, but also a thought-provoking parable that forces us to examine our human tendencies toward fanaticism and the desire to manipulate and control Nature.

Thanks for stopping by, and enjoy your reading!

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Scarlet Witch: Issue #02

ScarletWitch_02

Wow! I’m completely sucked into this story. I’m totally impressed with the way the creative team has woven occult symbolism and mythology together.

In this issue, set on the Greek island of Santorini, Wanda converses with the goddess Hakate and is tasked with facing the Minotaur, who roams the dark labyrinthine streets.

The first thing that struck me about this issue was the artwork. The panels are structured in a circular fashion, divided in a way that represents the labyrinth. The curvature of the story’s graphic structure starts out subtle (the outer area of the maze) and gets tighter and more intense as the tale progresses, just as a labyrinth’s turns get closer and tighter as you near the center. The reader must focus, figure out where to turn next when reading, and follow the pathways. It works really well and fosters the sense of confusion as the reader navigates the tale.

As Wanda and Hekate talk, Hekate says something interesting.

“Of course, we of the Pantheon never stay dead for long.”

Gods and myths are recurring all the time. Gods die and are reborn in a continuous cycle. This is essentially expressing what Frazier asserts in The Golden Bough, albeit in a much shorter way.

As the witch and the goddess continue their discussion, Hekate offers another pearl of wisdom.

“The people’s faith in a god—this one or that—often that belief is what makes the god strong. It’s been many summers since I’ve smelled the kiss of iron in the air from a blood sacrifice in my name. Oh, there’s blood in the air, all right, but not for me.”

This made me think about our current global violence, where people of one faith are killing others in the name of their god. But it is not just religious fundamentalism that is adding to the blood in the air; it is also the blood from people who worship material things—money, oil, property, power—the modern gods of our industrial and technological society. There is always a sacrifice required in order to gain those things we covet.

So far, I am very impressed with this graphic series. I encourage you to check it out.

Cheers!

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Analysis of “Easter 1916” by W. B. Yeats

Easter1916

Easter Uprising: Image Source – British Literature Wiki

Since today is Easter, I decided to reread Yeats’ great poem regarding the Irish uprising against England on Easter in 1916. It is fairly long, so I am not going to include the entire text, but here is a link to the poem online should you want to read it in its entirety.

Easter 1916

I will include the fourth and final stanza of the poem, since that is what I will focus my analysis upon.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmer name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse–
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

The stanza begins with references to sacrifice and stone. The leaders of the uprising sacrificed themselves for Irish independence, and there is a symbolic connection to the sacrifice made by Jesus in leading his followers to spiritual freedom. I see the reference to “a stone of the heart” as having multiple meanings. On one hand, the English government has hardened its stance against the Irish rebels; additionally, the Irish have become hardened in their stance against English rule. But also, since Christ was buried in a cave blocked by a stone, the stone becomes a symbol for the heart of the Christian faith and the promise of resurrection. Hence, although the rebel leaders are executed (like Christ was executed), the cause will continue in spirit and their martyrdom will be the rock or foundation of the revolution.

Yeats then continues by emphasizing the importance of murmering “name upon name” in order to keep the memory of the executed leaders alive. One gets the sense that Yeats is implying the need for a national invocation, where by chanting the names of the fallen leaders, their ideals and their spirit will become part of the collective consciousness.

Next, Yeats expresses how the rebels died for a cause, or a dream, and he ponders whether it was a “needless death” or whether their sacrifice was worth it. “England may keep faith” implies that Parliament will not change its stance against Irish independence and that likely a longer and bloodier struggle will ensue. It is also worth noting that 1916 was the middle of World War I, so I cannot help but wonder if Yeats viewed the struggle for Irish independence as a microcosmic symbol of the larger conflict that was ravaging Europe at the time.

Yeats decides to commit the story of the uprising to verse, and names the leaders who were executed:

I write it out in a verse–
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse

This has strong symbolic significance. For Yeats, committing something to verse is instilling it with deep spiritual power, almost like making it immortal. So by immortalizing the martyred leaders, he is ensuring their rebirth and resurrection, guaranteeing that their cause will live on.

The last words are somber, though. He acknowledges that the revolution is important and right, but suspects that it is also symbolic of the end, in the same way that the resurrection of Christ, while glorious and beautiful, signals the beginning of the apocalypse. Compare the ending of this poem to the ending of “The Second Coming,” Yeats’ famous apocalyptic vision:

“Easter 1916”

Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

“Second Coming”

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XXII – Death in the Great Hall

OdysseusSuitors

In this episode, Odysseus essentially cleans house (pun intended). With the help of Telemachus, Eumaeus, Philoetius, and the goddess Athena near the end, Odysseus kills all the suitors and spares only the minstrel and the herald, who were deemed innocents. Odysseus then has Telemachus put the disloyal maids to death.

I have a lot to say about this episode, which is clearly the climax of the epic. The first section I want to point out is when Athena appears. She acts quite differently from when she appears in other parts of the text. Throughout, she always offers assistance to Odysseus immediately, but not this time. Now, in his most dire hour, she withholds bestowing power upon him. Odysseus must now prove himself worthy of the goddess. It is as if this is Odysseus’ true test, almost like he is on trial and must demonstrate that he deserves to have divine power bestowed upon him.

For all her fighting words
she gave no overpowering aid—not yet;
father and son must prove their mettle still.
Into the smoky air under the roof
the goddess merely darted to perch on a blackened beam—
no figure to be seen now but a swallow.

(Fitzgerald Translation: pp. 416 – 417)

When Athena finally reveals herself and prepares to join the battle, the suitors are thrown into panic. The description of the scene draws on imagery of birds of prey swooping down on their victims, which echoes the imagery seen in the omens and visions presented throughout the text.

And the suitors mad with fear
at her great sign stampeded like stung cattle by a river
when the dread shimmering gadfly strikes in summer,
in the flowering season, in the long drawn days.
After them the attackers wheeled, as terrible as falcons
from eyries in the mountains veering over and diving down
with talons wide unsheathed on flights of birds,
who cower down the sky in chutes and bursts along the valley—
but the pouncing falcons grip their prey, no frantic wing avails,
and farmers love to watch those beaked hunters.
So these now fell upon the suitors in that hall,
turning, turning to strike and strike again,
while torn men moaned at death, and blood ran smoking
over the whole floor.

(ibid: pp. 418 – 419)

Homer uses the metaphor of cattle when describing the suitors. Throughout the text, cattle are generally offered as sacrifices to the gods. I cannot help but seeing the suitors as sacrificial beasts, slaughtered to appease the gods. Also, the falcons seem to symbolize divine justice. As I read this, I was reminded of W.B. Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming.”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

(Excerpt from “The Second Coming”)

One passage that I found particularly fascinating was the scene where the minstrel and the herald are spared. It is Telemachus, the son, who is the one who can bestow forgiveness.

Telemakhos in the elation of battle
heard him. He at once called to his father:

“Wait: that one is innocent: don’t hurt him.
And we should let our herald live—Medon;

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 420)

I see a connection here between Telemachus and Christ. Both are figures who can offer mercy and intervene on behalf of a person. Forgiveness can only be attained through the son.

The last section from this episode that I want to look at also contains imagery and symbolism that we find in the Christian Bible.

Odysseus answered:

“Let me have the fire.
The first thing is to purify this place.”

With no more chat Eurykleia obeyed
and fetched the fire and brimstone. Cleansing fumes
he sent through court and hall and storage chamber.

(ibid: p. 425)

Whenever I hear about fire and brimstone, I cannot help but envision the Christian hell. I had always viewed fire and brimstone as symbols for punishment, when actually, they are symbols of purification, as expressed here. This changes my interpretation of biblical hell. It is not a place of punishment as some would assert, but a symbolic cleansing of the soul, a purification of the spirit before it is reunited with the divine source.

This book is definitely the climax of the epic, and it works on many levels. The symbols, metaphors, and the pace of the text all work together to create the climactic sequence, which has been steadily building throughout the tale.

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