Saturday, May 18, 2024

Blind Harry, The Wallace


Opening Passage:

Our antecessowris that we suld of reide
And hald in mynde thar nobille worthi deid,
We lat ourslide throw verray sleuthfulnes,
And castis us evir till uthir besynes.
Till honour ennymyis is our haile entent:
It has beyne seyne in thir tymys bywent.
Our ald ennemys cummyn of Saxonys blud,
That nevyr yeit to Scotland wald do gud
Bot evir on fors and contrar haile thar will,
Quhow gret kyndnes thar has beyne kyth thaim till.
It is weyle knawyne on mony divers syde
How thai haff wrocht into thar mychty pryde
To hald Scotlande at undyr evirmar,
Bot God abuff has maid thar mycht to par.
Yhit we suld thynk one our bearis befor;
Of thar parablys as now I say no mor.
We reide of ane rycht famous of renowne,
Of worthi blude that ryngis in this regioune,
And hensfurth I will my proces hald
Of Wilyham Wallas yhe haf hard beyne tald. (p. 1)

Summary: At Kinghorn in Fief, Alexander III, King of Scotland, is thrown from his horse, and his death plunges Scotland into confusion over the succession. The two major contenders for the throne are John Balliol and Robert Bruce. (This Bruce is the grandfather of The Bruce.) King Edward I of England is named mediator, and he gives the kingdom to Balliol. Edward was no doubt expecting him to be a puppet king, but Balliol had different ideas, and they soon fell to quarreling. Edward invades Scotland, sacking multiple towns, and seizes Balliol, taking him back to England and leaving Scotland kingless. The teenaged Wallace, meantime, gets into a fight with a young man who tries to take his knife; the other boy is killed, and Wallace becomes an outlaw, escaping the English dragnet by disguising himself as a pilgrim. After killing a few other Englishmen, he is eventually caught and imprisoned at Ayr. He escapes by faking his own death; the poet-prophet, Thomas the Rhymer, uncovers his ruse but predicts that before Wallace's true death, he will rescue Scotland three times.

In an act of vengeance, Wallace does battle at Loudon Hill with an Englishman who had previously killed his father and brother in battle, defeating a force more than three times the size of his own. The English have their own issues, and therefore make a peace treaty, but Wallace has difficulty keeping it, and he and the Southrons are soon at war again. During a lull in the fighting, he marries a woman, Miranda, but she is murdered when he is away again fighting the English, thus committing Wallace wholly to the fight. Meanwhile, Wallace has a dream in which he is visited by St. Andrew and the Virgin Mary, who tell him that the time draws near when he will avenge the wrongs that have been suffered by Scotland. (Later Protestant printings of The Wallace will sometimes tone down the Catholicism of this divine commission, by taking out St. Andrew's name, and sometimes implying that it is King Fergus, the legendary first king of Scotland rather than the patron saint of Scotland, and taking advantage of an ambiguity in expression to turn the Virgin Mary into the Lady Fortune.)

The war heats up severely, and Blind Harry does not stint when it comes to describing the violence on both sides. For instance, at one point, when a hundred or so Englishmen are sheltering in a church, Wallace simply orders the church burned down, on the ground that they are English and certainly not friends of Scotland. This seems to have given qualms of conscience to many of Wallace's Scots, who ask the local bishop for penance and absolution; but Wallace himself just shrugs it off as a venial sin, returning to the English one tiny part of what they have done to the Scots. It is possible, though, that the event leads Wallace to be more careful (for a while) at killing only potential fighters, letting women, children, and priests go free.

All of this comes to a head with the most important battle of Wallace's career, the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Blind Harry's willingness to embroider episodes is very much in view here, as the two opposing forces are described by him as being massive in magnitude -- a massiveness that is certainly more symbolic of the importance of the battle than a historical description. But it is also perhaps Blind Harry's most famous passage, since it has become the legend of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, due to the author's extraordinary capacity to describe battles vividly and memorably. The English cross the wooden bridge across the Firth of Forth, but Wallace has previously sabotaged the bridge, and once the bridge is full of English soldiers, collapses it under them, so that they wash away, destroying the huge English army. At the historical battle, the battle seems to have been won by much more pedestrian means, although still clever, using the bridge as a way to split English forces. But Blind Harry's extremely improbable but vividly told feat of cunning is too good not to remember.

The movie Braveheart draws heavily from The Wallace for its overall structure, although it often adapts the episodes in an action-movie direction. (Blind Harry would hardly be in a position to complain about that.) But the Battle of Stirling Bridge is one of its great failures, since it does not actually give the story of the bridge, apparently because the difficulties of filming in the area around Stirling Bridge were too great. This is an immense pity. Blind Harry's vivid, detailed descriptions are already almost cinematic in their own right, and in his depiction of the Battle of Stirling Bridge he outdoes himself. If there is any scene in epic that is worthy of a close movie adaptation capturing the excitement and visual interest of the original, this is it, and unfortunately we still don't have it. The 'Battle of Stirling Bridge' in Braveheart is not too bad, although it's quite clearly a modified version of the Battle of Bannockburn rather than what it claims to be, but it just is not in the same league even as an epic action piece.

The Scots have won the day -- for a while. The English are certainly returning and Wallace as Guardian of Scotland is holding the kingdom in another's place. Historically, Wallace as a partisan of Balliol and was holding the kingdom for him and his heirs; but, of course, history is inconvenient here, because it is Robert the Bruce who will actually restore the independence of Scotland, not Balliol or anyone in his party. So Blind Harry, with the impenitent impudence that is one of his most charming features as a poet, corrects the historical record with the way things should have been: William Wallace recognized Robert the Bruce as the rightful king, but The Bruce's sworn obligations to King Edward have put him on the wrong side of the war. This usefully ties into one of Blind Harry's themes, that the woes of Scotland are often linked to the failure of Scots to take a bold enough stand against the Southrons; Robert the Bruce himself commits this mistake, and has to be corrected by William Wallace. Robert the Bruce comes to an agreement with Wallace that he will fulfill his oath to King Edward to the letter, and when it is completed, he will join Wallace.

Wallace has many minor side adventures interweaving through and coming after these events. One of my favorites is in Book IX, when William Wallace tangles with a pirate known as The Red Reiver (The Rede Reffayr), whose ships have red sails, and whose shield is red, green, and blue -- red for blood, green for courage, and blue for Christianity! Wallace with good Scots humor drily remarks that Christian or not, piracy is not a godly deed, and he and his men seize The Red Reiver's ships and The Red Reiver himself. The Red Reiver begs mercy, and is given it when he swears to give up piracy. His name is Thomas of Longueville (Longaweill). He is a Frenchman who became outlaw due to the accidental shedding of blood (remember Wallace's own start), and so he seized an English ship and has been wreaking havoc on the English in the hope of eventually winning pardon from the King of France. With a biography like that, William Wallace could hardly fail to become good friends with him, and as he met The Red Reiver on his way to France at the request of the King of France, Wallace uses his connection and audience with the King to get The Red Reiver pardoned, and the Frenchman and his men join Wallace's army.

I read the work in the original. In many ways I am glad I did so, since Blind Harry's vigorous language is enjoyable in and of itself. Any modernization is likely to blunt the "do or de" (do or die) quality of much of the description, and there is something especially fitting about getting the Guardian of Scotland in Middle Scots, driven by "ire of wrang" (ire against wrong) and "pitte" (compassion). But it was also a rough slog; it's like reading Chaucer (who is one of Blind Harry's major poetic influences), but Middle Scots is farther from modern English than Chaucer's Middle English is. I found the best way to do it was to read by sound rather than spelling, since a lot of the lines made perfect sense if you read them aloud Chaucer-ishly, but it's still the case that I would get going on a good stretch and then hit a tangled bit of poetic syntax or a passage thick with Middle Scots words that could only, even with notes, be worked through bit by bit. Looking around, there doesn't seem to be a particularly good modernization, which is unfortunate; the nineteenth century ones regularly change small details and, as Blind Harry is not as famous as Chaucer, and has only more recently begun to be really appreciated as a poet, we still are waiting, as we are for that properly cinematic adaptation of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, for a modernization making The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace (The Acts and Deeds of the Illustrious and Valiant Champion, Sir William Wallace) accessible to a wider modern audience.

Favorite Passage: Blind Harry is mostly focused on narrative description, but occasionally he gets more meditative, in Chaucerian fashion, as with this Boethian reflection (from Book VI) after the death of Wallace's wife that plays on the similarity in sound between 'live' and 'leave':

Now leiff thi myrth, now leiff thi haill plesance,
Now leiff thi blis, now leiff thi childis age,
Now leiff thi youth, now folow thi hard chance,
Now leyff thi lust, now leiff thi mariage,
Now leiff thi luff, for thow sall los a gage
Quhilk nevir in erd sall be redemyt agayne.
Folow Fortoun and all hir fers owtrage.
Go leiff in wer, go leiff in cruell payne. 

Fy on Fortoun, fy on thi frevall quheyll,
Fy on thi traist, for her it has no lest;
Thow transfigowryt Wallace out of his weill
Quhen he traistyt for till haiff lestyt best.
His plesance her till him was bot a gest;
Throw thi fers cours that has na hap to ho,
Him thow ourthrew out of his likand rest.
Fra gret plesance in wer, travaill and wo. 

Quhat is Fortoune? Quha dryffis the dett so fast?
We wait thar is bathe weill and wykit chance,
Bot this fals warld with mony doubill cast,
In it is nocht bot verray variance;
It is nothing till hevynly governance.
Than pray we all to the Makar abov,
Quhilk has in hand of justry the ballance,
That he us grant of his der lestand love. (pp. 112-113)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.


Blind Harry, The Wallace, McKim, ed., Canongate (Edinburgh: 2003).

Friday, May 17, 2024

The Fire-Flies Come Stagg'ring Down the Dark

 A Summer's Night
by Paul Laurence Dunbar 

 The night is dewy as a maiden's mouth,
The skies are bright as are a maiden's eyes,
Soft as a maiden's breath, the wind that flies
Up from the perfumed bosom of the South. 

 Like sentinels, the pines stand in the park;
And hither hastening like rakes that roam,
With lamps to light their wayward footsteps home,
The fire-flies come stagg'ring down the dark.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Wallingford on Embryos

 John Wallingford in "Aeon" has an article, Building Embryos, which unfortunately involves a number of historical fictions and philosophical confusions about the subject. Wallingford says:

In the modern debate over abortion, the doctrine that ‘life begins at conception’ is now so constantly repeated that it’s often assumed to have an ancient, perhaps even scriptural origin. It does not. 

 In fact, in Catholic canon law, the doctrine dates precisely to 12 October 1869, when Pope Pius IX declared excommunication as the penalty for anyone involved in obtaining any abortion. For the nearly 2,000 years that had gone before, however, many Christian thinkers held the embryo to acquire its humanity only gradually. This concept, linked to the ‘animation’ or ‘ensoulment’ of the embryo, arose in laws first set down more than 3,000 years ago that imposed increasingly harsher penalties for causing the loss of a pregnancy as it progressed.

This is entirely muddled. It has never been controversial to claim that 'life begins at conception', because 'conception' has always been the term for the generation of a living thing. What Wallingford is doing is confusing multiple different things. One strand in the tangle is the debate between preformation and epigenesis (which is the immediate context of this passage in the article); another is the contrast between two different accounts of conception, the ancient one in which conception is seen as a sort of cooking process extending through time and the modern one in which conception is seen as the (for practical purposes) near-instantaneous fertilization of egg by sperm; a third is the legal question of when in the calendar one should set the cut-off for murder as opposed to other kinds of homicide and homicide-related crimes. All three of these are completely different matters, and they are jumbled here as if they were the same issue. 

Pius IX also did not, contrary to what is claimed, make some massive change in Church doctrine; he removed the dividing line between treating abortion as deserving lesser penalties or greater penalties in canon law. This did not affect any matter of "doctrine"; it was a purely legal decision. It's sometimes thought that one of the motivations in the decision was that biological discoveries in the previous century had made the sharp dividing line previously used look too arbitrary and unsupported, but the point would have been practical, not doctrinal. It is certainly not the case -- which Wallingford seems to imply -- that there was any denial that there is a progressive development in embryos; indeed, it was likely the reverse -- the fact that there was a progressive development made less defensible any sharp line (a point Wallingford himself makes). It also didn't suddenly "reverse" (as Wallingford later claims) any doctrinal point. As far back as we can manage to trace the point one way or another, we can find prohibitions against using any means of abortion at any time in the process; this is what we find in the Didache, in the Church Fathers, in the penitential handbooks, and the like. Whenever theologians talk about the matter at all, they are quite consistent on this particular point. What has changed over time are various penalties under canon law, civil law, criminal law, etc., and the legal classifications that are used to assign those penalties. 

Wallingford is also confused about words like 'progressive' and 'gradualist' in the context of talking about 'becoming human', which he confuses with the notion of progressive and gradualism in which there are stages leading up to becoming human. For instance, he calls 'progressive' and 'gradualist' views that actually are not progressive or gradualist about becoming human (which would require that there be a movement from human-ish to less perfectly human to more perfectly human) but instead hold that the embryo or fetus or infant becomes human suddenly, not gradually, after a process. This is, I think, related to his confusion of matters concerned with the preformation/epigenesis controversy with matters concerned with one's account of conception.

What is perhaps most disturbing is that Wallingford doesn't grasp that the most immediate ethical issues are not associated with any of these things he has discussed but with how to treat things that are human or closely linked to humans, in such a way as to uphold human dignity; he seems to have the notion that ethical worries on the subject are all tied to purely arbitrary religious decisions, when in reality they would obviously arise anyway because human embryos are closely linked to human beings by various continuities, even on the gerrymandering assumption that they should not be considered themselves 'human'.  That assumption might change assessments of seriousness or urgency, but it does not in fact eliminate most of the ethical questions, because there is no way to deal with embryos that does not at least imply things about the moral value of human beings.

Links of Note

 * Aslam Farouk-Alli reviews Ahmed Vall Dine's novel, Danishmand, at "New Lines Magazine".

* Michael Dickson, Musical Notation

* Brad East, Mother of the Unborn God, at "Commonweal"

* Nathan Rockwood, Two (Failed) Versions of Hume's Argument Against Miracles (PDF)

* Robert Keim, A Reader's Guide to the Mystical Writings of Julian of Norwich, at "New Liturgical Movement"

* Cruz Davis, Non-Spatial Matters: On the Possibility of Non-Spatial Material Objects (PDF)

* Clifton Stringer, Apologia Pro Fido: Rationalist Platonism in and for Herbert McCabe's Proof of God, at "Eclectic Orthodoxy"

* Alberto Oya, Unamuno’s Religious Faith in San Manuel Bueno, mártir (PDF)

* Céline Leboeuf interviews Colin Chamberlain at "Why Philosophy?"

* Francesca Bellazzi, The Gene as a Natural Kind (PDF)

* Dan Williams, Debunking Disinformation Myths, Part 1: This is not the "disinformation age", and Debunking Disinformation Myths, Part 2: The Politics of Big Disinfo

* Alexandre Guay and Quentin Ruyant, Lagrangian possibilities (PDF)

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Good Prose and Good Poetry

 The definition of good prose is—proper words in their proper places;—of good verse—the most proper words in their proper places. The propriety is in either case relative. The words in prose ought to express the intended meaning, and no more; if they attract attention to themselves, it is, in general, a fault. In the very best styles, as Southey's, you read page after page, understanding the author perfectly, without once taking notice of the medium of communication;—it is as if he had been speaking to you all the while. But in verse you must do more;—there the words, the media, must be beautiful, and ought to attract your notice—yet not so much and so perpetually as to destroy the unity which ought to result from the whole poem. This is the general rule, but, of course, subject to some modifications, according to the different kinds of prose or verse. Some prose may approach towards verse, as oratory, and therefore a more studied exhibition of the media may be proper; and some verse may border more on mere narrative, and there the style should be simpler. But the great thing in poetry is, quocunque modo, to effect a unity of impression upon the whole; and a too great fulness and profusion of point in the parts will prevent this.

[Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Table Talk, July 3, 1833.]

Tuesday, May 14, 2024


Today is the feast of St. Matthias, Apostle. He's one of the more intriguing apostles. Below is a revised post from 2022 for the day.


The story about Matthias in Acts 1, which is the only Biblical information we have about him, is interesting in a number of ways. It occurs between the Ascension and Pentecost; Jesus has given his disciples their mission and ascended into heaven, but they have not yet received the full measure of the Holy Spirit. Because of this, it often gets skipped over. But we learn a number of things from it. The disciples are meeting regularly in fairly large groups. Of the leaders, the eleven Apostles left are explicitly mentioned, as are Mary the Mother of Jesus, the Women, and the Brothers of the Lord. (The Women are mentioned not as if they were just a generic bunch of women but as if they were a well-defined and perhaps even formally defined group; they seem clearly to be part of the leadership. This fits with a number of things said in the Gospel of Luke, which suggests that they supported the other disciples materially and financially, e.g., Luke 8:1-3, Luke 23:54-56; cp. also Mark 15:40-41. This is something we find done by the virgins and the widows a bit later, so it's likely that they were the origin or model of those groups.) The gathering that chooses Matthias has about 120 disciples all told (which number may have only included the men, since Peter may have only addressed the men).

Peter is quite clearly the leader here; he tells them that Scripture says that Judas Iscariot needs to be replaced (the word he uses is dei, i.e., 'It is required') and they do it. In fact, while it is never explicitly said, the whole thing is structured as if Peter had called the meeting specifically in order to do what they end up doing. Peter clearly takes the replacement of an Apostle to be something requiring a more-than-ordinary justification; it's not a mere modification of church order, but something requiring divine support. Peter's reason is based on an interpretation of Scriptural prophecy; he quotes Psalm 69 and Psalm 109. The latter is straightforward in its application ("May another take his place of leadership"), although the word for 'place of leadership' is actually 'supervision', episkopen. The other one reads a bit oddly in English: "May his place be deserted; let there be no one dwelling in it." It seems a little odd to quote a passage that no one should dwell in his place in an argument that you should fill his place. But read in context, the verses both come from very similar passages: they are from the psalms that tend to embarrass people today, the ones in which the enemies of the psalmist are cursed. The verses in Acts 1:18-19, about what happened to Judas, are often read as parenthetical, but the thought of Peter's argument follows directly from them, not from Acts 1:17. The line of thought is: The Scripture had to be fulfilled which spoke of Judas (v. 16); Judas was one of their ministry (diakonias) (v. 17); with the payment for his injustice (adikias), he bought a field and died (v. 18); everybody in Jerusalem heard about it, so called it the Field of Blood (v. 19); because Scripture says, "May his place be deserted...." and "May another take his supervision...." Thus Peter is reading the cursing passages of the Psalms as being about Judas. What it says about Judas in Psalm 69 is fulfilled by his death; so what it says about him in Psalm 109 must be fulfilled as well. 

I also find it interesting that they don't replace him until it is known that he is dead; the word for 'dwell' here (katoikon) suggests permanent settlement, so the curse on Judas is for his apostleship not to be permanent. This at least suggests very strongly, I think, why the Twelve did not keep replacing themselves as they died; they seem to have regarded the position as something distinctly attaching to each, each permanently 'dwelling' in it. (And this would fit with Jesus' comments about the twelve thrones of judgment, for instance.) Thus I think it's important to emphasize that Judas cannot be replaced except under divine authority. The quotations are not rhetorical decorations, in other words; they are divine warrant for an action that Peter thinks would normally not be allowable. Acts shows us other people with apostolic ministry; but none of them ever becomes one of the Twelve. Paul clearly regards his divine commission as giving him apostolic authority; but he is not one of the Twelve, and never claims to be.

In any case, what Peter says is necessary is to make "one of these", i.e., the Twelve, from the men who accompanied the Lord Jesus the whole time from his Baptism to his Ascension. This is interesting for indicating what Peter thinks of the Twelve, namely, that one of their major functions is specifically to be familiar with Christ's ministry so as to witness properly to the Resurrection. It also indicates why Luke begins by retelling the Ascension; it establishes the link to what immediately follows. The men in the assembly pick two -- Joseph Barsabbas, also called Justus, and Matthias. 

Peter's requirement ends up being the entire backstory we know about Matthias: he was with Jesus the whole time from the Baptism to the Ascension. Later in Acts there is a figure named Judas Barsabbas, who is probably Joseph's brother; later tradition suggests Joseph was one of the Seventy in Luke 10 and afterward became bishop of Eleutheropolis, but as with Matthias, all we certainly know is that he was with Jesus the whole time from the Baptism to the Ascension.

But two is not "one of these". So what the disciples do then is pray to God, knower of the hearts of all, that He will point out which one of the these two that He has chosen to take the place for this service (diakonias) and apostleship (aposteles) from which Judas traveled (the word could also mean 'die') "to his own place" (which obviously is an allusion to the 'place' mentioned in the Psalms mentioned by Peter). Then they cast lots. Casting lots was, of course, common for making decisions, as it is even now. Perhaps more likely on general grounds, lots were the standard way in which Temple duties were assigned. It is also possible, given the comment about Judas going to his own place, that they had Leviticus 16:8 in the background. In the atonement offering, the high priest makes an atonement before the Lord with the sacrifice of a bull and two goats. The goats are split, one for the Lord and one "for azazel" (in the Hebrew; we don't know for sure what the word meant) or "sent away" (in the Septuagint), by lot, and the one "for azazel" is then sent into the wilderness.  Regardless, when the lots were cast, Matthias became one of the Twelve Apostles.

And that's the last we hear about him in Scripture. According to the most popular tradition, after preaching in Jerusalem a while he went down into "Ethiopia" (by which is likely not meant Ethiopia but Colchis in the Caucasus, in modern-day Georgia; Herodotus claimed that the Colchians were descended from the Ethiopians). For his death, the traditions are all over the place; he was martyred by crucifixion in Sebastopolis (in modern-day Turkey), or by stoning and beheading in Jerusalem, or by stoning in Colchis, or he simply died of old age in Jerusalem. 

Monday, May 13, 2024

Romance and Pride and Passion Pass

 A Second Childhood
by G. K. Chesterton 

When all my days are ending
 And I have no song to sing,
 I think I shall not be too old
 To stare at everything;
 As I stared once at a nursery door
 Or a tall tree and a swing. 

 Wherein God's ponderous mercy hangs
 On all my sins and me,
 Because He does not take away
 The terror from the tree
 And stones still shine along the road
 That are and cannot be. 

 Men grow too old for love, my love,
 Men grow too old for wine,
 But I shall not grow too old to see
 Unearthly daylight shine,
 Changing my chamber's dust to snow
 Till I doubt if it be mine. 

 Behold, the crowning mercies melt,
 The first surprises stay;
 And in my dross is dropped a gift
 For which I dare not pray:
 That a man grow used to grief and joy
 But not to night and day. 

 Men grow too old for love, my love,
 Men grow too old for lies;
 But I shall not grow too old to see
 Enormous night arise,
 A cloud that is larger than the world
 And a monster made of eyes. 

 Nor am I worthy to unloose
 The latchet of my shoe;
 Or shake the dust from off my feet
 Or the staff that bears me through
 On ground that is too good to last,
 Too solid to be true. 

 Men grow too old to woo, my love,
 Men grow too old to wed:
 But I shall not grow too old to see
 Hung crazily overhead
 Incredible rafters when I wake
 And find I am not dead. 

 A thrill of thunder in my hair:
 Though blackening clouds be plain,
 Still I am stung and startled
 By the first drop of the rain:
 Romance and pride and passion pass
 And these are what remain. 

 Strange crawling carpets of the grass,
 Wide windows of the sky:
 So in this perilous grace of God
 With all my sins go I:
 And things grow new though I grow old,
 Though I grow old and die.

The 'cloud that is larger than the world' is, of course, the Milky Way. 

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Evening Note for Sunday, May 12

 Thought for the Evening: Frieren: Beyond Journey's End

Last year and into this year, there had been a lot of buzz about the first season of Frieren: Beyond Journey's End, as an unusually good anime series. I recently had the chance to watch it and I can confirm that it is extremely good. It adapts the popular manga, Sōsō no Furīren ('Funerary Frieren'), up into about volume six of the current run, which is at present a little over thirteen volumes. Part of the reason for the quality is that it has an extremely good first episode, which introduces us very quickly and very well to a set of characters. But it's also a series that puts a great deal of thought into characterization and theme and mood, and gives plenty of occasion for thought.

The story is about Frieren, an elf mage. Frieren at one point had joined a party of adventurers, consisting of Himmel the Hero, Heiter the Priest, and Eisen the Dwarf. (All of the names of characters and places, and some of the cultural elements, are German in inspiration.) They successfully defeated the Demon King after ten years. But the series is not that story; it begins after their success. Their little party disbands, and Frieren goes off journeying while each of the others does their own thing. But this is where the key point lies: Frieren, being an elf, is immortal. When she goes off wandering, she does for fifty years. For her, being over a thousand years old, that is nothing. But Himmel and Heiter are mortal men, and even a dwarf like Eisen, although much longer lived than a human being, is not immortal. Himmel dies not long after she returns, and Frieren finds herself profoundly affected without knowing why. Adventuring with someone for ten years was for her like knowing someone for a few weeks, but she finds herself wishing that she had put more effort into knowing Himmel, and eventually, after Heiter's own death, Heiter as well. She sets out to revisit a few of the sites of their old trials and successes, eventually joined by two young human orphans, Fern, a mage who had been adopted and trained by Heiter, and Stark, a warrior whom Eisen (himself still alive but getting too old for heavy adventuring) had trained. Part of the adventure is looking for the semi-mythical land of Aureole, the land where souls rest, just in case it exists and Frieren can talk to Himmel one last time. (Thus the 'Beyond Journey's End' in the English version of the title is cleverly ambiguous: the whole story takes place after the original journey to defeat the Demon King, but the journey they are on at present is itself colored by the possibility of what might happen after its end.) The whole series, then, is about death, but also about how people we know only briefly can still matter even when they are gone.

It is also about the importance of small, brief things; it could hardly be otherwise, since human lives are also small, brief things. One of the things Frieren has always done as she wanders around is collect spells. Many of these spells are simple or silly, like a spell to make grapes sour, although we often discover that some of the weirder and sillier ones have some deeper personal significance for Frieren. The most important of these, which keeps coming up, is the spell to make a field of flowers, a seemingly useless and ephemeral spell, particularly for a battle-mage who spends centuries fighting demons, that nonetheless turns out to have a surprisingly immense power to bring people together and unite them in personal connection. The spell parallels in some ways Himmel's tendency to do small acts of helping others. The story shows us that the memory even of heroes fades, and eventually vanishes, among human beings, but some of the strongest memories of Himmel and the rest of the party have very little to do with the Demon King and a lot to do with these small deeds in out of the way villages. Such small almsdeeds are themselves like the spell to make a field of flowers. All of civilization is woven out of spells to make a field of flowers.

The series also has a good depiction of evil, which is something that anime in particularly often struggles with. The demons are not, as they are in many fantasy stories today, just another race of monster; they are what we might call sociopathic psychopaths. They are cunning predators and we are their prey.  Because of this, the anime manages to depict one of the greatest moral dangers to human beings, the person who treats words as nothing but tools of manipulation. I would actually put the depiction here in the highest tier of treatments (a tier in which I would put Milton's Satan, Austen's Lady Susan, and Tolkien's Saruman); Frieren is particularly good at showing how dangerous this perversion of language can be even when you know that it's happening.

And the characterization is extraordinarily well done. Frieren herself could have seemed a rather blank character, but the series is very good at showing us how she is not, like the demons, devoid of real personal emotion; her emotions are just on a very different clock than ours, and many things that affect us very deeply are very light and glancing things in her millenium of life, the matter of a moment. Nor is she the only one; over and over we are introduced to characters in ways that immediately connect us to them.

In short, if you have a chance to see this quiet, melancholy, and very enjoyable series, I recommend it quite highly, and it joins Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood and Puella Magi Madoka Magica as one of the most thought-provoking anime series I have seen.

Various Links of Interest

* A. J. Barker, The Division of Sacred Scripture

* Gregory Salmieri, Aristotle on Selfishness: Understanding the Iconoclasm of Nicomachean Ethics ix.8 (PDF)

* William F. Vallicella, Four Kinds of Ontological Argument, at "Philosophy in Progress"

* Takuay Niikiwa, Consciousness is Sublime (PDF)

* A previously unknown poem by C. S. Lewis was recently discovered.

* Sergio Cremaschi, Descartes's Philosophical Novel and the Scottish Enlightenment (PDF)

* Freddie deBoer, The Modern Curse of Overoptimization

Currently Reading

Blind Harry, The Wallace
Eusebius, The Church History
Stanley L. Jaki, Neo-Arianism as Foreseen by Newman
C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century

In Audiobook

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion
Agatha Christie, The Seven Dials Mystery
C. S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet