Saturday, August 24, 2013

Ronald Knox

Ronald Knox died on August 24, 1957. He was an Anglo-Catholic who converted to Catholicism (it was a serious enough matter that he had to quit his job and his father disinherited him) and began writing detective fiction. He was one of the founding members of the Detection Club, along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Baroness Emma Orczy, and G. K. Chesterton, among others. This club was the core of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, and its code of authorial ethics was written up by Knox as a Decalogue:

1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.
8. The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
9. The "sidekick" of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

Members of the club generally adhered to the rules of the game, although some (like Chesterton) liked to experiment in how to bend or break them. The reason for the rules was that members of the Detection Club saw themselves as participants in a great game, and the game was one whose primary point (as Knox pointed out) was to lay out and unravel a mystery; to be a proper mystery, elements have to be added clearly and early that are suitable for arousing curiosity, and the mystery actually has to be unraveled. In "Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes," Knox was also the inventor of the Great Game, in which one takes the Sherlock Holmes stories and treats them as historical documents.

In addition to detective fiction, Knox translated the Vulgate, the Imitation of Christ, and Therese de Lisieux's Autobiography of a Soul; he also wrote a number of excellent works of Catholic apologetics. Knox's approach is very similar to Chesterton's, although more measured; Knox became Catholic because of things Chesterton had written while still Anglican, and Knox's Catholic writings influenced Chesterton when Chesterton became Catholic. Knox delivered the homily at Chesterton's funeral.

He died of cancer. Evelyn Waugh was his literary executor and first biographer.

You can get something of what Knox was like by saying that he was something like each of his three brothers. Dilwyn Knox was a classics scholar who was one of Britain's foremost cryptanalysts; Edmund Knox was a satirist who was editor of Punch; and Wilfred Knox was a New Testament scholar and (Anglican) monk.

Some Knox works online:
The Belief of Catholics
"Reunion All Round" from Essays in Satire
"Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes" from Essays in Satire

Music on My Mind

This Fall term is already kicking me ten different ways till sundown, and it hasn't even started yet. From this it follows that there is really only one possible theme song for this term.

Manowar, "Die with Honor"

Posting will probably continue to be light at least until Wednesday of next week, but there are a few things already in the pipeline that will probably come out.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Untombed, Dishonored, and Unchapleted

Bar Kochba
by Emma Lazarus

Weep, Israel! your tardy meed outpour
Of grateful homage on his fallen head,
That never coronal of triumph wore,
Untombed, dishonored, and unchapleted.
If Victory makes the hero, raw Success
The stamp of virtue, unremembered
Be then the desperate strife, the storm and stress
Of the last Warrior Jew. But if the man
Who dies for freedom, loving all things less,
Against world-legions, mustering his poor clan;
The weak, the wronged, the miserable, to send
Their death-cry's protest through the ages' span-
If such an one be worthy, ye shall lend
Eternal thanks to him, eternal praise.
Nobler the conquered than the conqueror's end!

Simon bar Kochba (or bar Kokhba) led a massive revolt against the Roman Empire in the second century. After some initial success, everything went wrong; the Romans under Emperor Hadrian mowed over bar Kochba's independent principality of Israel in a matter of years, massacring his armies, banning Jews from Jerusalem, and attempting to stamp out Judaism in the area. According to legend, the senior members of the Great Sanhedrin were put brutally to death, and whether this is true or not, it is an appropriate symbol for the consequences of the revolt. The end of the revolt is often seen as the beginning of the Jewish diaspora. However, the period under Rome had seen Jewish life become much more flexible, and it had already by this point more-or-less developed the highly flexible rabbinical approach that we associate with Judaism today, and in the aftermath of the revolt begins the slow development of the Talmud as a written way to preserve Oral Law and halakhic decisions.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Flower Stolen, and Coarse Weed Left

The Faery Chasm
by William Wordsworth

No fiction was it of the antique age:
A sky-blue stone, within this sunless cleft,
Is of the very footmarks unbereft
Which tiny Elves impressed;--on that smooth stage
Dancing with all their brilliant equipage
In secret revels--haply after theft
Of some sweet Babe--Flower stolen, and coarse Weed left
For the distracted Mother to assuage
Her grief with, as she might!--But, where, oh! where
Is traceable a vestige of the notes
That ruled those dances wild in character?--
Deep underground? Or in the upper air,
On the shrill wind of midnight? or where floats
O'er twilight fields the autumnal gossamer?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Mellifluous Teacher

Today is the feast of Bernard of Clairvaux, Doctor of the Church. From Sermon 45 on the Song of Songs:

When the Word therefore tells the soul, "You are beautiful,” and calls it friend, he infuses into it the power to love, and to know it is loved in return. And when the soul addresses him as beloved and praises his beauty, she is filled with admiration for his goodness and attributes to him without subterfuge or deceit the grace by which she loves and is loved. The Bridegroom's beauty is his love of the bride, all the greater in that it existed before hers. Realizing then that he was her lover before he was her beloved, she cries out with strength and ardor that she must love him with her whole heart and with words expressing deepest affection. The speech of the Word is an infusion of grace, the soul's response is wonder and thanksgiving. The more she feels surpassed in her loving the more she gives in love; and her wonder grows when he still exceeds her. Hence, not satisfied to tell him once that he is beautiful, she repeats the word, to signify by that repetition the pre-eminence of his beauty.

Bernard is also known as the Doctor Mellifluus and the Last of the Church Fathers. He was one of the pre-eminent theologians of the twelfth century, and quite active despite constant illness. He was a supporter of the Knights Templar. And Dante selected him to be the final guide in the Divine Comedy, replacing Beatrice as Beatrice had replaced Virgil.

Esprit d'Escalier

By way of Mike Flynn, I came across this list of 25 handy words that English doesn't have. A few aren't technically words (perhaps we should say 'terms' instead). There are also some oddities; Schadenfreude is a word in English, although still showing signs of being a borrowed word. I'm also surprised sodade, from Portuguese is not on the list. I was pleased, however, that esprit d'escalier was on the list, since I find it one of the handiest phrases, being very much a victim of it. L'esprit d'escalier is what you have when someone says something to you at the top of the staircase, and you think of an awesome response to it only after you've gone done the stairs, so that you would have to go up the stairs again to give it, awkwardly, thus ruining the awesomeness of the response -- or any situation similar to that.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Fortnightly Book, August 18

I've been going back and forth about what book to do for this busy next two weeks as Fall term begins. I've finally settled on another short work, which I haven't read at all: Booth Tarkington's Monsieur Beaucaire. Tarkington was an Indiana author who, with Faulkner and Updike, is one of only three authors to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction more than once. His most famous works are The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams.

Monsieur Beaucaire was nearly left unpublished; it was turned down by a magazine editor, but Tarkington's sister, Hauté, literally went to New York and forced Sidney McClure of McClure's Magazine to read it -- would not take No for an answer. It was published as a two-part serial in 1899 and 1900, and soon afterward as a book. While rarely considered Tarkington's greatest works, it has been a longtime favorite, being adapted into a play, an operetta, and at least two films. It is set in Bath, England, in the early eighteenth century.

I will be reading it in the Heritage Press edition (the book at the link is actually a Limited Editions Club version, so my cover is different, but other than that it is essentially the same book, since Heritage Press often did slightly less fancy versions of Limited Editions books). It is designed and illustrated by T. M. Cleland, with a beautiful double-spread title page and eight water-color illustrations. The typesetting is somewhat unusual, using 14-point Caslon, giving the page a sort of baroque look. The cover is mulberry linen with gold-leaf decorative stamping. I do like Heritage Press editions; they make reading much more interesting.

J. R. R. Tolkien, Roverandom


Opening Passage

Once upon a time there was a little dog, and his name was Rover. He was very small, and very young, or he would have known better; and he was very happy playing in the garden in the sunshine with a yellow ball, or he would never have done what he did.

Summary: The mistake Rover makes is going for the trouser-leg of a wizard, Artaxerxes. This gets him turned into a little toy dog, who gets sold in a shop to a little boy. He doesn't really have anything against the little boy, but, being angry at having turned into a toy (which, you must admit, you would be, too), he insists on running away as soon as he can. He quickly runs into one of the two greatest magicians in all the world: Psamathos Psamathides, who insists, like the ancient Greeks, on the P being pronounced. Psamathos finds, to his annoyance, that he cannot reverse Artaxerxes's spell, and thus sends him to the other of the two greatest magicians in all the world: the Man in the Moon. There he meets the moon-dog, who is also called Rover, and who thus insists that Rover instead be called Roverandom to distinguish the two, and they have all sorts of adventures, including being chased by the great White Dragon of Welsh myth. Eventually, the Man in the Moon has to send Roverandom to Artaxerxes, who has become the official magician of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, a position he got by marrying one of the mer-king's daughters. In the ocean he meets a mer-dog who, as it happens, is also called Rover, and they have all sorts of adventures as well, including meeting Uin, oldest of all right whales, and a great Sea Serpent who, it turns out, is no less than Jörmungandr of the Norse myths. Artaxerxes, in a position well above his abilities, is far too busy to help Rover until some tangling with the latter costs Artaxerxes his job; but eventually all is made right in the end.

This is an extraordinarily rich story for one so short. One of the things I think is interesting is that Roverandom's tale is always threatening to blow up into mythic proportions: he is, in effect, roving randomly through a wide variety of mythologies. There are allusions to Welsh myths, to Norse and Icelandic myths, to Greek myths, to the world (as MrsD pointed out to me) of Five Children and It (since Psamathos is obviously a psammead), and even to Tolkien's own mythology, since Rover sees from a distance Elvenhome in the West and Uin himself is found in the early versions of Middle Earth. But the myth never entirely takes over, and the doggish nature of the adventure remains throughout.

There are lots of excellent little character moments, as well. I particularly like how all the dogs start the process of making friends by acting tough and barking insults at each other. There are also some truly beautiful descriptions, particularly of the forests of the Moon and of the sea.

Favorite Passage

... He went into the workshops and collected all his paraphernalia, insignia, symbols, memoranda, books of recipes, arcana, apparatus, and bags and bottles of miscellaneous spells. He burned all that would burn in his waterproof forge; and the rest he tipped into the back garden. Extraordinary things took place there afterward: all the flowers went mad, and the vegetables were monstrous, and the fishes that ate them were turned into sea-worms, sea-cats, sea-cows, sea-lions, sea-tigers, sea-devils, porpoises, dugongs, cephalopods, manatees, and calamities, or merely poisoned; and phantasms, visions, bewilderments, illusions, and hallucinations sprouted so thick that nobody had any peace in the palace at all, and they were obliged to move....

Recommendation: This has all the makings of a children's classic. Highly Recommended.