Sunday, December 25, 2011


“He who attains his ideal by that very fact transcends it.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris

I’m pretty sure I picked this one up at one the library’s semi-annual book sale. That means I paid only 50 cents for it or it was in a box of books that cost me only a dollar total. Here’s the opening paragraph:

There are one hundred and ninety-three living species of monkeys and apes. One hundred and ninety-two of them are covered with hair. The exception is a naked ape self-named Homo sapiens. This unusual and highly successful species spends a great deal of time examining his higher motives and an equal amount of time studiously ignoring his fundamental ones. He is proud that he has the biggest brain of all the primates, but attempts to conceal the fact that he also has the biggest penis, preferring to accord this honour falsely to the mighty gorilla. He is an intensely vocal, acutely exploratory, over-crowded ape, and it is high time we examined his basic behavior.

And I think, cool, we’re off to a good start. Morris is going to write from the perspective of a zoologist, studying an unusual species with the clinical detachment he would bring to any other species, primate or otherwise. But that quickly fades. In the next few paragraphs he introduces himself as a fellow human, as a member of this strange and unique species he’s going to critically examine. And when the “it” becomes a “we”, Morris fails in doing the revolutionary thing he sets out to do.

Otherwise the book is a mixed bag. Some things seem like deep and previously-unrecognized revelations—the 40+ years since his publication in these cases helping to prove Morris had flashes of extraordinary insight.

His analysis of the human evolutionary story as the primate turned predator has tremendous explanatory power—and indeed, Morris attributes a lot to it. At a minimum, it helps to explain why human society is so different from chimpanzee society and gorilla society, and why humans seem to struggle so much with the societal pressures that are placed upon them.

If we accept the history of our evolution as it has been outlined here, then one fact stands out clearly: namely, that we have arisen essentially as primate predators. Amongst existing monkeys and apes, this makes us unique … The point is that a major switch of this sort produces an animal with a split personality. Once over the threshold, it plunges into its new role with great evolutionary energy—so much so that it carries with it many of its old traits. Insufficient time has passed for it to throw off all its old characteristics while it is hurriedly donning the new ones. When the ancient fishes first conquered dry land, their new terrestrial qualities raced ahead while they continued to drag their old watery ones with them. It takes millions of years to perfect a dramatically new animal model, and the pioneer forms are usually very odd mixtures indeed. The naked ape is such a mixture. His whole body, his way of life, was geared to a forest existence, and then suddenly (suddenly in evolutionary terms) he was jettisoned into a world where he could survive only if he began to live like a brainy, weapon-toting wolf. We must examine now exactly how this affected not only his body, but especially his behavior, and in what form we experience the influence of this legacy at the present day.

Other things seem laughably wrong and contrived. Allow me to paraphrase a few prime examples (and no, I am not making these up):

• The female orgasm developed, in part, because of the female’s need to stay horizontal after the sexual act. If she were to get up and walk away, like other apes do, the seminal fluid would leak out of her vertically aligned vaginal passage and she would never conceive. The violent response of the female orgasm, leaving her sexually satiated and exhausted, has the effect of keeping her horizontal for the appropriate amount of time for insemination to occur.

• Weak and effeminate fathers raise lesbian daughters and strong and masculine mothers raise gay sons. Children or either gender, exposed to a behaviorally “inappropriate” parent, will seek those behaviors in a mate when they come of age, and may only find them in people of their same gender.

• Humans intentionally imbue commercial products and brands with a resemblance to our “threat-faces.” Car designers arrange headlights, metal grilles, and hoods so that they take on the appearance of an aggressive human face because roads have become increasingly crowded and driving has become an increasingly belligerent activity.

• The corporal punishment used in some schools, especially the spanking and paddling, are a cultural holdover from our evolutionary predisposition for male sexual dominance over females. The schoolboy assumes a classic submissive feminine posture of rump-presentation, and the teacher has replaced the repetitive pelvic thrusts of the dominant male with the rhythmic whipping of the switch.

• Girls think spiders are icky because their long legs remind them of the hair that sprouts on their bodies during puberty, and body hair is essentially a male characteristic, and therefore grotesque from a young girl’s point of view.

But the clincher for me was the following. It’s not so much wrong anachronistically but morally. It is a book that goes out of its way to treat and describe human beings as another species of primate, different in type but not in kind from gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees; and in doing so, often compares and contrasts behaviors of the different species. Here, Morris is talking about juvenile isolation and its effect on development and socialization.

Experiments with monkeys have revealed that not only does isolation in infancy produce a socially withdrawn adult, but it also creates an anti-sexual and anti-parental individual. Monkeys that were reared in isolation from other youngsters failed to participate in play-group activities when exposed to them later, as older juveniles. Although the isolates were physically healthy and had grown well in their solitary states, they were quite incapable of joining in the general rough and tumble. Instead they crouched, immobile, in the corner of the playroom, usually clasping their bodies tightly with their arms, or covering their eyes. When they matured, again as physically healthy specimens, they showed no interest in sexual partners. If forcibly mated, female isolates produced offspring in the normal way, but they proceeded to treat them as though they were huge parasites crawling on their bodies. They attacked them, drove them away, and either killed them or ignored them.

Something about that paragraph unsettled my stomach, and when I read the next sentence I knew what it was.

Similar experiments with young chimpanzees showed that, in this species, with prolonged rehabilitation and special care it was possible to undo, to some extent, this behavioral damage, but, even so, its dangers cannot be over-estimated.

Similar experiments? You mean experiments, like the ones described being performed on monkeys, where infants were taken away from their mothers, raised in complete isolation, and then forcibly mated, only to have the researchers watch with clinical fascination the way they attacked the parasitical infants that eventually came out of their wombs? That was done to chimpanzees? Who? Who did that? Aren’t chimpanzees sentient? Wouldn’t such actions be utterly immoral?

Sadly, none of these questions are ever answered in Morris’ text. I had to go to Google for that. See Project R&R. Morris just goes on with his critical analysis of the naked ape, speculating on how these experimental results are probably transferrable to that species as well.

Maybe asking for a completely detached treatment of the human species isn’t such a good idea after all.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Race for Relevance by Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers

I posted an opinion piece about this book one of my other blogs, which focuses, among other things, on issues related to association leadership. In the post, I make the case that the book’s five supposedly radical ideas for remaking associations aren’t radical at all—or shouldn’t be in the 21st century. But the actions the book suggests association leaders take based on those ideas are radical, in the extreme, especially to organizations still saddled with 50-person boards of directors and 100+ committees. To the staff leaders of those organizations, for whom the suggested actions seem impossible, my suggestion was to use Race for Relevance as a negotiating position with their boards. Go here to read that post in full.

There are a few other points from the book that didn’t make it into that post. They are things I think are very well stated and have helped me frame issues I sometimes find myself struggling to wrap my arms around. Things like, believe it or not, generational change in association membership.

The generational issue is causing a sea change in join rates, volunteer engagement, and the value associations place on programs and services. Vince Sandusky, chief executive officer of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA), summarizes the situation well: “SMACNA is a strong association, but the next generation of contractors has different definitions of value, different ways of accessing information, different learning processes, and different ways of socializing. SMACNA’s traditional structure and processes are not aligned with changing contractor preferences, and the rate of change is accelerating.”

I should send Vince a note of thanks. That one sentence helps me justify (at least to myself) the continued exploration I’m doing with social media for my association—even though there are very few current members who play in those spaces.

Another area in which this book has helped me gain clarity is the use and value of committees, but probably not in the way the authors intended. Here’s, in part, what they say about this staple of association organization and function:

The system is almost always considered to be the source of future board members and officers. It is the farm team, the talent bank, the opportunity for members to demonstrate their abilities and for the association to monitor their performance. We have to ask: How can the traditional committee structure and dysfunction possibly produce the next generation of competent leaders? We believe that the majority of committees do not produce, do not capitalize on the volunteer resource at their disposal, do not result in a positive experience for the member, and in fact, drive off more members than they cultivate. And in many instances, the volunteers who survive are not always the best and the brightest. Though not always, they sometimes are groupies and wannabes who like the travel, hang with the big dogs, hobnob with peers, and feed their egos.

I can’t argue with any of this. The brightest future leaders won’t develop from dysfunctional committee structures like the ones the authors describe. And one of their remedies for the situation—to allow all committees and task forces to be chaired by association staff professionals—has a certain trailblazing appeal to it. After all, who better to keep a committee procedurally on track and provide more space for association members to stay focused on the volunteer contribution of their industry knowledge and wisdom than a competent staff person? But then I read this justification for putting staff members in charge:

Managing volunteer committees or task forces takes skills that not everyone possesses. You must understand how to manage a project. You must understand how to communicate, build consensus, and deal with conflict. You have to know how to schedule and manage meetings. You must know how to make a recommendation and write a report and how to navigate the association’s bureaucracy and work within its policies.

And I think they’re right. These are not skills that everyone possesses. Communication, building consensus, dealing with conflict, managing meetings, navigating bureaucracy, working within policies—these are all leadership skills, and not everyone is a leader.

But isn’t the opportunity to develop these skills leading an association committee part of the value proposition an association can offer its members? Committees can serve many purposes within an association, and if one of those purposes is to be leadership development, then let’s position committee service as more than just a rite of passage. In addition to doing productive work on behalf of the association’s mission, it’s an opportunity to hone your communication skills, to practice building consensus and dealing with conflict—all in an environment that contains some professional risk, but not nearly as much as practicing those skills on a project critical to your employer’s success.

Committees that produce valuable benefits for an association’s members while developing the leadership capacity of the association and the industry it represents are an essential facet of a successful association’s value proposition and, importantly, the traditional association business model. For all the dysfunction that surrounds many associations’ use of committees and task forces, they can still represent a unique benefit for professional development and industry advancement.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Chapter Seventeen


Speculative Fiction
Approximately 46,000 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1990. All rights reserved.

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A Squire must serve at least three years under a Knight before he can be considered for the knighthood himself. However, a man must also be twenty-one to become a Knight. These laws were set down at the beginning of the Order and are unbreachable. As a result of this, Gildegarde Brisbane II was forced to serve five years as the Squire of Sir Reginald Ironshield. As soon as he became eligible, Ironshield stood before the old King and announced that through faithful and exemplary service to him, Gildegarde Brisbane II had earned the right to become a Knight of Farchrist. The ceremony was held in the King’s own chambers. It was an exclusive affair with only the King, Ironshield, Brisbane, his mother Madeline, and dwarf named Nog Shortwhiskers in attendance. When King Gregorovich Farchrist II brought his father’s sword, the sword of the Peasant King, down on the shoulders of my father and proclaimed him a Knight, the only sound in the chamber had been that of Madeline’s quiet tears.

+ + +

As it turned out, things were much better in the morning. Brisbane awoke feeling somewhat refreshed and, when he emerged from the tent, the first thing he saw was Stargazer sitting on the ground with her legs crossed, her eyes closed and her hands folded in her lap.

Brisbane quietly went down to the river to relieve himself and, when he returned, Stargazer was standing there waiting for him. There seemed to be no one else around.

“Gil,” she said. “I would like to speak with you.”

“I’m sorry, Allie,” Brisbane blurted out. “Please, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”

Stargazer smiled. As soon as Brisbane saw that he knew everything was going to be all right.

“I know you are,” Stargazer said. “But it is I who should be apologetic. I have thought a lot about what you said and, although your words did hurt me, I realize there was no real malice in them. You are, of course, right in the matter of Roundtower and your sword, Angelika. He could no more become a Knight with it than Roystnof could with his spells.”

Brisbane did not like the nature of her analogy, but he accepted it and kept his mouth shut. Stargazer was doing her best to deal with the situation.

“I have perhaps lived apart from the world for too long,” Stargazer went on. “Many things have passed me by. The humans have made many advances in the administration of their religion. I am perhaps a fossil in their midst.”

Brisbane also did not like to hear Stargazer speaking so, no matter how true he thought the statements to be. “Allie, please. You’re being too hard on yourself.”

“No, Gil,” she said. “As you are so fond of doing, I am just saying how things are. But, don’t you see, all of this only further resolves me to stay apart from the organized religion I deserted years ago. They, the priests and patriarchs of Grecolus, they have in effect banished him from the earth. They control his worshippers and they have denied his works. They claim all magic is the tool of Damaleous, but they don’t know that Grecolus has a magic of his own. How could he perform creation without it?”

The logic made sense to Brisbane. “But how is one to tell the difference?”

Stargazer smiled. “That is the problem the priests had. For them, it got to the point where magic was so intricate that they threw the whole lot away and tagged it as evil. But there still is a difference.” She put her hand over her heart. “The difference is here.”

“I don’t understand,” Brisbane said, but he thought maybe he did.

Stargazer’s took Brisbane’s hand and placed it against her chest. Brisbane tried to pull away when he felt her heart thump but Stargazer held him firmly.

“Don’t you see?” she said. “People have such a hard time distinguishing good magic from evil magic because only the person who uses the magic really knows which her body is being used for. I know in my heart I am serving Grecolus and so my healing power is good magic. You know you are serving Grecolus, so Angelika is good magic, too.”

She was beginning to go beyond Brisbane’s understanding of things. “But what about Roystnof?” he asked.

“What about him?”

“He is serving neither Grecolus nor Damaleous,” Brisbane said. “Where does his magic fall?”

Stargazer paused. “Now, Gil,” she said slowly. “I don’t want to hurt your feelings either, but I am going to tell you how things are.”

“Go ahead,” Brisbane said, mentally cringing at what she might say.

“If Roystnof is not serving Grecolus, whether or not he actively worships Damaleous, his magic is evil and he is being used by the Evil One. Magic power comes from one or the other. It does not come from man.”

Brisbane wanted to explode but he refused to react as Stargazer had the day before. He was going to see this through calmly, rationally.

“So you’re saying Roy could be misguided, but you couldn’t be. Is that it?”

“What do you mean?” Stargazer said, dropping his hand from her chest.

“If Roy is serving Damaleous without realizing it, then how do you know you’re not serving him, too?”

“Gil, I serve Grecolus. My powers are his.”

“That’s what you believe,” Brisbane said, his voice rising. “But what if the priests are right? What if all magic, even yours, is the tool of Damaleous? What if he has only duped you into thinking your magic is good? He is supposed to be the Father of Lies, you know.”

Stargazer shook her head. “No. This cannot be.”

“But how can you know?” Brisbane asked. “How can anyone know?”

“I have faith,” Stargazer said. “Don’t you?”

A flap on one of the tents was suddenly pulled back and Roystnof stepped out into the campsite. He greeted both Brisbane and Stargazer with a cheerful good morning and then made his way down to the river. Brisbane’s eyes followed his friend.

“Well,” Stargazer said guardedly, drawing Brisbane’s attention back to her. “They’ll all be up soon. I just wanted you to know I forgive you for your callousness and that I’m not mad at you.”

Brisbane heard Shortwhiskers cough from inside one of the tents. “Yes,” he said, trying to forget all the questions and ideas their little talk had brought to his mind. “Well, I’m glad for that. I never meant to offend you, Allie. It’s just that life is confusing, more so when you try to make sense out of it.”

Stargazer kissed him on the cheek. It was a part of their relationship he was really beginning to enjoy. “You’re young, yet,” she said. “Wait. It gets worse.”

He tried to grab her for that but she playfully drew away and he soon found himself chasing her around the campsite as if they were two schoolchildren.

Roystnof returned and soon the whole camp was up and about, fixing breakfast and discussing plans for the day. In actuality, Stargazer was the only one who truly wanted to go into the garden and explore the shrine, but whereas Roystnof, Shortwhiskers, and Brisbane didn’t mind the delay on their journey up the river, Dantrius showed he was dead set against the foray. He argued there was nothing to see there anyway, four of them had already been there and had seen nothing but rock—after the death of the demon, of course—and he didn’t see why they should waste their time on the whims of only one of their number. But his complaining was largely ignored as the others saw it as no bother and they knew Dantrius was not about to journey on alone.

A surprising amount of time, however, went into deciding just who would go into the garden. Roystnof suggested they all go to preserve party unity, but again Dantrius dissented. He declared he would not again set foot in such a place and said anyone who would was nuts. There could, after all, be any number of basilisks still wandering around in there and he wasn’t going to take that risk for no good reason.

Brisbane could see some sense in Dantrius’ argument, especially after what the mage had been through with the basilisk he had met those many years—and Brisbane still didn’t know just how many years—ago. But as Shortwhiskers had felt when he witnessed Dantrius arguing against sending the expedition to Dragon’s Peak, Brisbane now sensed Dantrius was arguing for all the wrong reasons. He was hiding something, and Brisbane suspected it had something to do with the demon they had destroyed.

Shortwhiskers finally said, fine, let Dantrius sit outside by himself, but Roystnof refused to let that be the end of it. He said no one should be left alone out here in the hills, and at least one of them should stay with Dantrius. As there were no volunteers, and as it had been Roystnof’s idea, he agreed to stay with Dantrius while Shortwhiskers and Brisbane went with Stargazer into the garden.

Brisbane did not like the idea of going in without the magical protection of one of the wizards, but there seemed to be no other way around it. Roystnof assured Brisbane basilisks were extremely rare creatures and that he very much doubted there would be any more waiting for them.

So Brisbane reluctantly entered the garden from the southern side with Stargazer and Shortwhiskers. It occurred to Brisbane that because of the placement of their camp, they would have to walk through unfamiliar territory in order to get to the shrine at the center of the garden. He mentioned this to Shortwhiskers but the dwarf did not seem worried about it. Brisbane tried to put it out of his mind.

This part of the oasis looked about the same as the part they had already seen and, as he walked, Brisbane began to experience the same worries about a basilisk surprising them as he had the last time. He was at the back of the line with Stargazer between him and Shortwhiskers, but this position did nothing to allay his fears. As he remembered, the basilisk they had encountered before had crept up on them from behind.

The trees and the underbrush thickened as they continued on until it seemed they were walking through a small forest. The whole garden seemed to be set up like that, with the clearing where the shrine stood in the very center, surrounded by a forest of trees that thinned as they radiated outward.

Brisbane walked with Angelika drawn in his right hand and his undecorated shield in his left. It seemed like hours, but the sun had barely moved when the trio found the clearing and cautiously stepped into it.

It was almost unnaturally quiet. There seemed to be no life anywhere around them. The circle of trees defined the limits if their vision and in its very center stood the cube of stone Stargazer had come to see.

“That’s it?” Stargazer asked Shortwhiskers.

The dwarf silently nodded his head.

She began to walk towards the structure, Brisbane and Shortwhiskers following closely behind her. They approached the back of the shrine without incident and began to circle around to the front. When they got there, they found the portal, and Stargazer began examining the strange writings that outlined it.

“Roundtower was right,” she said aloud. “These are ancient runes used in the worship of Grecolus. Here is the one meaning peace and safe passage.” She pointed to the glyph directly over the portal.

“Can you read the rest of them?” Brisbane asked. “Ignatius couldn’t.”

“Oh yes,” Stargazer said. “And it is a good thing I can.”

Shortwhiskers came forward. “Why is that?”

Stargazer indicated the two columns of markings, one on each side of the doorway. “Well, first of all, this line verifies the temple at the source of the Mystic, the one we seek, does indeed exist and that it is devoted to the ancient worship of Grecolus.”

Shortwhiskers’ ears seemed to perk up. “Does it say anything about how much treasure there is?”

Stargazer laughed. “No, Nog. But this second line tells me something much more important.”

“What’s that?” Brisbane asked.

“It says the entrance to the temple is trapped. Only the faithful can enter.”

Shortwhiskers wrinkled his nose. “Trapped? Does it say how the entrance is trapped?”

Stargazer checked again. “No.”

“Well, what good is that?!” Shortwhiskers said. “Only the faithful can enter? Is that supposed to be a clue or something?”

Brisbane thought about it. It made no practical sense to him.

“It probably means,” Stargazer said, “the ancient worshippers knew a secret way in to avoid the trap. A secret that has probably been forgotten long before even you were born, Nog.”

“Swell,” Shortwhiskers said.

Brisbane examined the markings around the portal with renewed interest. “Allie,” he asked. “Do they say anything else?”

Stargazer shrugged her shoulders. “Nothing special. Those two lines on the sides are really the only two that say anything definitive. The rest just convey ideas like the marking representing safe passage. The one next to it is the symbol for hope. That kind of thing.”

With nothing else to see on the outside of the shrine, the trio entered the structure. It was just as Brisbane had remembered it. The staircase, the kneeling benches, the cobwebs, and the mural. He and Shortwhiskers stood off to one side as Stargazer went about, taking great interest in everything she saw. Brisbane was amazed to see that the place still glowed with the light spell Roystnof had cast months ago. Stargazer didn’t notice or just didn’t comment on the unusual light source.

As Stargazer went about the room, examining every little detail, Brisbane tried to take the faded, rotted place and, in his mind, restore it to what must have been its original splendor. He pictured the kneeling benches freshly carved and varnished and the mural of the parting hands still wet with the paint that defined it. He saw small groups of simply-dressed people shuffle into the shrine, take their places on the benches, and offer their silent prayers up to their deity. With this image fresh in his mind, it saddened him to see the place in such ill repair. Who knew how many other places like this were scattered across the land, forgotten by the people who now longer needed them? It started him thinking about history, about the scores of people who had lived before him and of whom he would never know anything. For how many years had there been people on earth? Brisbane didn’t know. The scriptures said Grecolus had created everything “in the beginning,” but they didn’t say when that beginning was. And if the ways of religion could change so drastically in the few centuries since this shrine was a living part of society, how much could things change over the course of human history? How many gods had lived and died before Grecolus came into being?

Stargazer said she was done looking things over and was ready to proceed downstairs. Shortwhiskers took the lead and they went down the stairs in the same order they had walked through the garden. Brisbane tightened his grip on Angelika as the place he had battled the demon came into his view.

The place was as barren as it had been before, an empty twenty square feet of stone still lighted by Roystnof’s magic. The far wall had a large, smeary red stain upon it an innocent-looking pile of ashes lay in the center of the floor.

“So this is where it happened,” Stargazer said quietly as she went up and poked the end of her staff through the ashes.

“This is where it happened,” Shortwhiskers confirmed as he came up to look at the black remains.

Brisbane stayed at the foot of the stairs.

“It must have been huge,” Stargazer said. “There are a lot of ashes here.”

“It was at least nine feet tall,” Shortwhiskers said. “Its muscles made Gil’s look like empty flour sacks.”

Stargazer turned to Brisbane. “And with Angelika you were able to defeat such a monster?”

Brisbane looked at his sword. “Without Roy’s slow spell,” he said purposefully, “even Angelika would not have been enough to defeat it.” He met Stargazer’s eyes and she did not seem pleased with his statement.

No, Angelika said to him. It was you and me. Together there is no evil we cannot defeat.

Stargazer went over to the stain on the far wall and ran her hand down the crusty remains of blood that had once formed the magical pentagram.

“Who could have done this?” she said, more to herself than to her companions. “Who could have done such an evil thing in such a reverent place? It is the highest sacrilege.”

“Ignatius felt the same way,” Shortwhiskers said.

Stargazer seemed to whirl on the dwarf. “Was it Dantrius, Nog? Did he do this?”

“He says no,” Shortwhiskers said. “We have no proof against him. We found him as a stone statue outside the shrine. He could have been coming or going.”

“Which way was he facing?” Stargazer asked.

“As if he was arriving,” Shortwhiskers said. “But a basilisk had turned him to stone. He could have turned any which way in the melee.”

Stargazer looked at the remains on the wall and then back to the ashes on the floor. “Why did you let Roystnof restore that man to…” she said, trailing off and searching for the right words. “…to his fleshy form,” she said eventually with some distaste.

Shortwhiskers shrugged. “I did not recognize him. We took a party vote. They thought they would be helping an unfortunate victim.”

Stargazer shook her head. “They were wrong.”

“We all are, at times.”

Stargazer looked upon the dwarf with caring eyes. She placed a soft hand on his shoulder. Shortwhiskers patted it with his own and they passed a moment in silent communication.

“I am ready,” Stargazer said. “Let us leave this place.”

Shortwhiskers and Stargazer rejoined Brisbane at the foot of the stairs, widely skirting the ashes of the fallen demon, and together they left the shrine. They quickly and quietly made their way out of the clearing and back into the trees. Apprehension tried to overcome Brisbane as they walked through the garden for the last time, but he was able to hold it in check. Soon they were back at the low stone wall and soon after that they were in the campsite.

Roystnof and Dantrius were sitting outside waiting for their return and they all immediately found themselves in a discussion about what the three of them had seen on their little trip. Stargazer told the two wizards what the ancient runes on the shrine had told her about the temple they were seeking and Roystnof, intrigued by the information, began drilling her on all she could remember. Roystnof, however, could make no more use out of it than Shortwhiskers had. Still, there was a moment in the discussion where Shortwhiskers made it clear to Dantrius the delay of their intended journey had been more than justified by the knowledge they had received.

The decision then had to be made about what to do with Stargazer. She had originally intended just to see the shrine and then turn back for Queensburg, but now that she knew the nature of the temple at the source of the Mystic, she wanted to tag along the rest of the way. Again, this probably would not have been a problem if it had not been for Dantrius, who was dead set against the idea. Everyone else felt Stargazer’s presence could only be an asset to their expedition, but Dantrius was defiant. The argument went on for some time but eventually Roystnof stepped in and said unless Dantrius could come up with a valid reason why Stargazer could not accompany them, she would be allowed to continue with them. Dantrius was unable to come up with a proper restriction and the matter was finally settled.

Little of the day had been used up with these proceedings and all decided to use the rest of the day to make more progress up the river. They packed up the camp onto the mules and were off before noon. They stayed as close to the river as they could to avoid the orks which Roystnof and Shortwhiskers said lived in the hills to the east. The farther south they went, they warned, the more hostile the area was likely to become. As they neared the Crimson Mountains, they would have to be prepared for sudden attacks, not just from orks, but from other creatures that made the area their home.

But the rest of their second day from Queensburg passed uneventfully. The day seemed to go quickly for Brisbane, who spent most of his time chatting with Stargazer and Shortwhiskers. Their main topic of discussion seemed to be Illzeezad Dantrius and how much of a pain he had been on the journey so far.

They camped at sunset and this time Brisbane drew the first watch. After the evening meal had been devoured, everyone went quietly to bed as Brisbane sat outside, keeping the fire low and his ears open.

It was a terrifying night for him, and although their camp was unmolested in the three hours he had to sit up, he was all too glad to wake Dantrius and tell him it was time to relieve him. It was dark out, darker than Brisbane thought it could get. Grecolum was up, but it was waning and the red moon, Damaleum, was growing conversely larger every night. Brisbane remembered the Festival of Whiteshine, when Grecolum had been full and Damaleum new, and he had seen Stargazer for the first time. It was a happy memory for him but it did little to calm his nerves that night. He couldn’t keep his mind off the waxing Damaleum, and every little sound he heard in the night he knew was surely an approaching evil creature, ready to celebrate the festival of its moon a little early with the spilling of Brisbane’s blood.

Finally, Brisbane’s shift was over and he went over to Dantrius’ sleeping form and shook him awake.

“What?” Dantrius mumbled, his voice groggy and his eyes shut.

“It’s your turn to stand watch,” Brisbane said. “Get up.”

Dantrius turned and looked at Brisbane. “Go watch yourself,” He said and snuggled back down into his sleeping bag.

Brisbane looked at Dantrius’ shadowy form in the dim firelight. He considered yelling at Dantrius but decided arguing with the mage usually did little good. He reached over and carefully withdrew a burning log from the campfire. He held the lit end, slowly smoking and glowing orange, up to his face and smiled. He deliberately pressed the hot end of the log against Dantrius’ sleeping bag, approximately where he judged the mage’s hind end to be. Brisbane held it there for perhaps two seconds.

Dantrius leapt clear of his sleeping bag with a yelp of pain. He stood on the bare ground, rubbing his backside and giving Brisbane a venomous look.

“Now that you’re up,” Brisbane said calmly, “you can stand your watch.” He handed Dantrius an hourglass. “In three hours, you can wake Roystnof to relieve you. Good night.”

Brisbane abruptly turned away from Dantrius and crawled into one of the tents. When he was inside, he heard Dantrius’ voice through the tent fabric.

“This is not over, Brisbane,” the mage said. “Laugh all you want now, but there will come a day when you will regret what you just did to me. There will come a day.”

Brisbane looked over at Shortwhiskers who was still sleeping in the tent. His snores were soft and consistent. It was quite a while before he fell asleep himself.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Tragic Legacy by Glenn Greenwald

The subtitle here is “How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency,” and it’s an apt framework for analyzing how America’s 43rd president went from one of the most popular (in late 2001) to one of the least popular (by late 2006).

It’s a downfall that’s quite remarkable in the annals of American history. To illustrate the point, Greenwald begins his first chapter with a series of numbers (86, 66, 59, 48, 39, 32), which represent the percentage of Americans who approved of Bush’s performance in late 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006, respectively. I have my own political opinions, and I probably won’t be able to keep them from peeking through in this post, but by any measurement, that is a record that demonstrates how much of the American public turned against Bush and the policies he supported. Greenwald’s book was published in 2007, so he couldn’t add the 25% Bush’s approval rating sank to in 2008, but we can, and in doing so we can marvel at how far he fell.

Does anyone remember the George W. Bush of late 2001? The president who, after 9/11 and its sad but not unexpected backlash against American Muslims, said things like:

I ask you to uphold the values of America, and remember why so many have come here. We are in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them. No one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith.

This was a man we were proud to call our president. But now, after so many betrayals of the principles he spoke so highly of, one has to wonder whether he changed, or if he never really understood what those principles were and why they were worth fighting for.

There are still factions in our society who want to perpetuate the myth that he was one of our most popular presidents, and that the American public was behind him and his policies from start to finish. But he wasn’t and they weren’t. In one telling example, Greenwald’s assessment of the 2004 presidential election shows just how unpopular Bush had become even by then.

Incumbent American presidents rarely lose under any circumstances. But Americans have never voted a president out of office during wartime, having comfortably re-elected all four previous wartime presidents who ran again (Madison, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Nixon).

Beyond those towering inherent advantages, Bush barely squeaked by despite running against John Kerry, one of the most politically ungifted major party nominees in several decades; despite Kerry’s running an inept and passive presidential campaign, leading former DNC chair Terry McAuliffe to call the campaign’s failure to attack Bush’s record “one of the biggest acts of political malpractice in the history of American politics”; and despite a significant financial advantage. Even with all of those formidable advantages, facing a weak opponent and an unskillful campaign, the War President, after four years of governing, won only two states in 2004 that he did not take in 2000 (Iowa and New Mexico) and even lost New Hampshire for a net gain of only one state.

This fascinates me. Ask a Bush devotee, and you’ll hear how much the country was behind Bush. The facts are he squeaked into office in 2004—just as he had in 2000.

One of the things that fascinates me most about Bush’s presidency is my own belief that, despite all his own rhetoric and that of his political supporters, Bush was not a conservative—at least not in the sense that I understand that term. Here’s how Greenwald defines it. Conservatism is…

… defined by a belief in (a) restrained federal government power, (b) minimal federal taxes and responsible and limited spending, (c) a generalized distrust of the federal government and its attempts to intervene into the private lives of citizens, (d) reliance on the private sector rather than the federal government to achieve “Good” ends, (e) a preference for state and local autonomy over federalized and centralized control, (f) trusting in individuals rather than government officials to make decisions, and (g) an overarching belief in the supremacy of the rule of law.

That sounds like something Barry Goldwater would’ve written. Indeed, Greenwald makes several comparisons between that former senator from Arizona and President Bush.

Despite the continuous and enthusiastic embrace of Bush by the vast bulk of political conservatives, it has long been vividly clear that the president (just as was true for Ronald Reagan) simply does not govern in accordance with the claimed principles of political conservatism as the exist in their “pure,” abstract form. George Bush has presided over massive increases in domestic spending, the conversion of a multibillion dollar surplus into an even larger deficit, the creation of vast new bureaucratic fiefdoms, an unprecedented expansion of the power of the federal government, governmental intrusions into multiple areas previously preserved for the states or off-limits altogether, and a wanton disregard for the rule of law. Whatever political philosophy has propelled George Bush’s governance, it is not the abstract tenets of Goldwater /small-government conservatism.

Greenwald’s book reminded me that there was an interesting time during Bush’s second term when, in fact, his own conservative base seemed to turn against him. They were for a time seemingly bent on dismantling all he was trying to put into place.

The president’s campaign to overhaul Social Security—his flamboyantly touted second-term “legacy” program—flopped from the start, his proposals pushed away even by his own party…

The failed Supreme Court nomination of his loyal aide Harriet Miers was fueled almost entirely by his own supporters…

The fiasco over his attempt to turn over America’s port operations to a company owned by the United Arab Emirates even raised questions about whether he was sufficiently committed to protecting the country against the threat of Islamic terrorism…

I remember the conservative pundits going apoplectic at the time for each of these items. I specifically remember the triumph they proclaimed when they were able to get Bush to withdraw Miers’ name from consideration. I think it was then that the true conservatives—the Goldwater libertarian wing of the party—began to realize that Bush, despite his constant use of the word conservative and their unfailing support of him for the previous four years, was not, in fact a conservative. Not a Goldwater conservative, at least.

But by that time the term “conservative” had been hijacked so much that those who honored the tradition that invented it were seen as the lunatic fringe by the powerful establishment who had redefined it to allow them to publicly act in opposition to every one of its original principles.

Greenwald is writing in 2006 or 2007, before the rise of the Tea Party. He is very critical of the neo-conservatives, whom he lambasts for praising, supporting and re-electing Bush in 2001-04 as a conservative hero, and then throwing him under the bus in 2005-06 as an arch anti-conservative. He writes as if these neo-cons are the conservative base of the Republican Party, but of course they are not. Bush and his neo-con supporters are cut from the same cloth. Election cycle after election cycle since Goldwater’s defeat, they have been changing the definition of conservatism from small government libertarianism to big government empire building.

That is because “conservatism”—while definable on a theoretical plane—has come to have no practical meaning in this country other than a quest for ever-expanding government power for its own sake. When George Bush enabled those ends, he was the Great Conservative. Now that he impedes them due to his unprecedented unpopularity, he is the Judas of the conservative movement.

The truth is that the “conservative movement” that Bush and now Obama leads is not rooted in the Republican Party, the way Goldwater conservatism was. It’s a new kind of conservatism—and it’s not compassionate as Bush tried to brand it. It transcends political party. Under this new “conservative” banner we see Republicans acting as bigger spenders than historical Democrats and Democrats acting as bigger warmongers than historical Republicans. They can each get away with their non-traditional excesses because neither one truly has the opposition they once had from the other party to hold them in check.

The political doctrine that drives this “neo-conservatism” is not conservative. Greenwald claims it is evangelical. That is, it is committed to the use of government power as a force to promote a particular conception of God’s will. And there is very little that is more anti-Goldwater conservatism than evangelicalism. As the Senator himself said:

Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them…

There is no position on which people are so immovable as their religious beliefs. There is no more powerful ally one can claim in a debate than Jesus Christ, or God, or Allah, or whatever one calls this supreme being. But like any powerful weapon, the use of God’s name on one’s behalf should be used sparingly.

Which is as good as any segue back to Greenwald’s subtitle: “How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency.”

…what lies at the heart of the Bush presidency is an absolutist worldview capable of understanding all issues and challenges only in the moralistic, overly simplistic, and often inapplicable terms of “Good vs. Evil.” The president is driven by his core conviction that he had found the Good, that he is a crusader for it, that anything is justified in pursuit of it, and that anything which impedes his decision-making is, by definition, a deliberate or unwitting ally of Evil. This mentality has single-handedly prevented him from governing, changing course, and even engaging realities that deviate from those convictions. The president’s description of himself as “the Decider” is accurate. His mind-set had dominated the American political landscape throughout his presidency, and virtually all significant events of the Bush Era are a by-product of his core Manichean mentality.

Manichean is a reference to a religion founded in the third century by the Persian prophet Manes, in which the world was cleanly divided into two opposing spheres—Good and Evil; God and theDevil—and in which they fought a dualistic battle both in heaven and on Earth. It was a new word for me. One I was glad to learn. And it was Bush’s Manichean morality, Greenwald argues, that rendered inevitable…

…some of the most amoral and ethically monstrous policies, justified as necessary as a means to achieve a morally imperative end. The Bush presidency, awash in moralistic rhetoric, has ushered in some of the most extremist, previously unthinkable and profoundly un-American practices—from indefinite, lawless detentions, to the use of torture, to bloody preventive wars of choice, to the abduction of innocent people literally off the street or from their homes, to radical new theories designed to vest in the president the power to break the law.

These measures were pursued not despite the moralistic roots of the president’s agenda, but because of them. Those who believe that they are on the path of righteousness, who are crusaders for the objective Good, will frequently become convinced that there can be no limitations on the weapons used to achieve their ends. The moral imperative of their agenda justifies—even requires—all steps undertaken to fulfill it. As the president ceaselessly proclaimed the Goodness at the heart of America’s destiny and its role in the world, his actions have resulted in an almost full-scale destruction of America’s moral credibility in almost every country and on every continent. The same president who has insisted that core moralism drive him has brought America to its lowest moral standing in history.

A lot of this, a lot of the embrace of Evil in order to do Good, is given room to flourish because of the neo-conservative theory that there are different truths for different kinds of people. As Greenwald quotes the neo-conservative spokesperson, Bill Kristol:

There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn’t work.

Of course, the self-designated “highly educated adults” take responsibility for hiding their truths from the ignorant masses, worried that too much of their truth in the wrong hands will lead to political unrest. Here, Bill’s father, Irving Kristol, lauds the perspective of political philosopher Leo Strauss:

What made [Strauss] so controversial within the academic community was his disbelief in the Enlightenment dogma that “the truth will make men free.” … Strauss was an intellectual aristocrat who thought that “the truth could make some minds free,” but he was convinced that there was an inherent conflict between philosophic truth and political order, and that the popularization and vulgarization of these truths might import unease, turmoil and the release of popular passions hitherto held in check by tradition and religion with utterly unpredictable, but mostly negative, consequences.

Let me take a quick aside here. I know that whole books have been written about these ideas, and I don’t have the scholarship to speak to it authoritatively, but still…how do people delude themselves into thinking these things could possibly be true? Obscuring “truth” from the masses may help you achieve certain objectives—but human happiness isn’t one of them.

But my point in going down this particular neo-conservative rabbit hole is to say, whatever your political or philosophical position may be, it’s much easier to claim your wholesome ends justify your nefarious means if you also subscribe to the idea that there are certain bits of knowledge that your political underclass needn’t worry themselves about. Knowledge, say, of your nefarious means. It’s much harder to justify Evil, in other words, if you don’t get to perpetrate it under the cover of night.

This all would be one thing if we could ascribe this political philosophy to one man—to President Bush, who’s now gone and no longer able to affect United States policy. But that, sadly, is not the case. Greenwald’s criticism of Bush and his view are less about Bush as an individual and more about the political movement that embraced him.

George W. Bush is a single individual, who will permanently leave the American political stage on January 20, 2009. But the political movement that transformed Bush into an icon—and which loyally supported, glorified, and sustained him—is not going anywhere. Bush is but a by-product and a perfect reflection of that movement, one which has been weakened and diminished by Bush’s staggering unpopularity but is far from dead. It intends to rejuvenate itself by finding a new leader, one who appears cosmetically different from the deeply unpopular Bush, but who, in reality, shares Bush’s fundamental beliefs about the world (which are the core beliefs of that movement) and who intends to follow the same disastrous course Bush has chosen for this country.

To understand Bush and his presidency, then, is not merely a matter of historical interest. Examining the dynamic driving his presidency is also vital for understanding the right-wing political movement that has dominated our political landscape since the mid-1990s—a movement that calls itself “conservative” but which, as many traditional conservatives have themselves complained, has no actual allegiance to the political principles for which conservatism claims to stand. That is the movement that George Bush has come to embody, and the attitude of the Bush presidency, the ones which have spawned such a tragic legacy for our country, are the same attributes driving the movement that created, supported, and sustained that presidency.

Greenwald calls this movement evangelical, and I think he means that in more of a political context than a religious one. But religious belief is a big part of what drives it. And those religious beliefs have what I think could be frightening consequences for our world.

That faction is driven by the general theological belief that God’s will is for Jews to occupy all of “Greater Israel,” which will occur only once the enemies of Israel are defeated. There is no question—because many of their key leaders have said so themselves—that evangelicals, who compose a substantial part of President Bush’s most loyal following, have become fanatically “pro-Israel” in their foreign policy views because they believe that strengthening Israel is a necessary prerequisite for Rapture to occur—for the world to be ruled by Christianity upon Jesus’ apocalyptic return to Earth—and they believe that can occur only once “Greater Israel” is unified under Jewish control.

I don’t wish to offend. But, when I read things like that—that there are people who with the earnestness that is necessary to drive a nation’s foreign policy believe that strengthening Israel is a prerequisite for Rapture to occur—I can’t help but wonder if they are grown-ups. Adults in the same sense that I understand that term. If they believe that, I wonder, what other myths from Sunday School do they still believe? Not unexpectedly, Greenwald provides a kind of answer on the very next page.

After President Bush’s 2000 election but before his 2004 re-election, General [William G.] Boykin [the Bush administration’s deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence] appeared in full military uniform before evangelical congregations and insisted that President Bush was installed in the White House by God:

“Ask yourself this: why is this man in the White House? The majority of Americans did not vote for him. Why is he there? … I tell you this morning he’s in the White House because God put him there for such a time as this. God put him there to lead not only this nation but to lead the world, in such a time as this.”

As [Gary] Wills reports [in a November 2006 New York Review of Books article], Boykin, in part of his stump speech in churches, would typically present a slide show with photographs of individuals such as Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and various Taliban leaders while asking if each was “the enemy.” He “gave a resounding no to each question,” and then explained:

“The battle this nation is in is a spiritual battle, it’s a battle for our soul. And the enemy is a guy called Satan. … Satan wants to destroy this nation. He wants to destroy us as a nation, and he wants to destroy us as a Christian army.”

This is what frightens me about evangelicals in positions of political power. If they honestly believe this stuff, which I have to assume they do, then what kind of decisions would they be willing to make with regard to our nation’s foreign policy, armed forces, and nuclear arsenal? There’s likely to be no limit. I think that’s the key point that Greenwald wants to make with this book, and which he summarizes so well in his concluding paragraph.

The Manichean warrior recognizes no limits on the weapons he uses to annihilate the Evil enemies. Those who begin with the premise that they are intrinsically and by divine entitlement on the side of objectives Good view any weapons they use as, by definition, just and necessary. Thus, the president who vowed to the world that he would demonstrate the values that have made this country great, thereafter systematically violated those very values to the point where our country is no longer defined by them. The epic challenge in the aftermath of the Bush presidency is the restoration of those national values, a rehabilitation of our national character, so that American morality and credibility are, once again, more than empty slogans in presidential Manichean war speeches. This is the tragic legacy George W. Bush leaves behind for America.


Greenwald is a writer, like Huxley and Harris, that I could quote at tremendous length (as I have in this post) and be hard pressed to find anything of substance to add. One thing I really enjoy about him (and about Huxley and Harris) is the way he speaks very plainly in his writing, offering a clear perspective on what others obscure by design or by incompetence. Here are just a two examples that struck me:

Not only American political discourse but also American Culture generally are suffused with an endless parade of fear-inducing images, of constant warnings of latent dangers—the terrorist “sleeper cells” lurking in every community, the sex predators living covertly on one’s own street, drug gangs and violent criminals and online pedophiles, radical tyrants seeking nuclear weapons. Basic human nature dictates that a world that seems frightening and hopelessly complex always engenders a need for both protection and clarity.

Religion—a belief in an all-powerful, protective deity and a clear, absolute, and eternal moral code—powerfully satisfies those cravings. True faith in an all-powerful, benevolent God alleviates both fear and anxiety and produces an otherwise unattainable tranquility and feeling of safety. Identically, a political movement built on a strong, powerful, protective leader—one who claims that the world in morally unambiguous, who insists that it can be cleanly divided into Good and Evil, and who promises “protection” from the lurking dangers of Evil—fulfills the same needs. Those who lead the group—the Protectors—will inspire great personal loyalty, while those who oppose it will be viewed as mortal enemies.

+ + +

The Bush presidency has fundamentally transformed the way we speak about our country and its responsibilities, entitlements, and role in the world. In reviewing the pre-Iraq War “debate” this country had both on television and in print, one of the most striking aspects in retrospect is the casual and even breezy tone with which American collectively discusses and thinks about war as a foreign policy option, standing inconspicuously next to all of the other options. There is really no strong resistance to it, little anguish over it, no sense that it is a supremely horrible and tragic course to undertake—and particularly to start. Gone almost completely from our mainstream political discourse is horror over war. The most one hears is some cursory and transparently insincere—almost bored—lip service to its being a “last resort.”

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Human Understanding

“When the natural weakness and imperfection of human understanding is considered, with the unavoidable influences of education, custom, books and company, upon our ways of thinking, I imagine a man must have a good deal of vanity who believes, and a good deal of boldness who affirms, that all the doctrines he holds, are true, and all he rejects, are false.”
Benjamin Franklin

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


“In an instant’s compass, great hearts sometimes condense to one deep pang, the sum total of those shallow pains kindly diffused through feebler men’s whole lives.”
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Chapter Sixteen


Speculative Fiction
Approximately 46,000 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1990. All rights reserved.

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In the time that Gildegarde Brisbane II spent as the Squire of Sir Reginald Ironshield, he learned more about what it was to be a Knight of Farchrist than in all the time he had spent in the King’s School for Boys. In no man since the death of his father had the young Brisbane found the proper guidance and authority he needed to grow and mature into something akin to what his father had been. Under Ironshield’s tutelage, Brisbane learned about such difficult concepts as honor, faith, and charity, not through lessons and lectures as they had tried to do at the King’s School, but through action and observation. For Ironshield was a Knight of Farchrist, and there was no better teacher for a maturing young man than such a figure.

+ + +

The day had finally come. Roystnof woke Brisbane before sunrise and told him to get ready quickly. It was a needless reminder, for Brisbane had prepared everything he needed the night before. In less than an hour, as the sun rose out of the Darkmarine, he and a small group of friends would be marching southward in search of a legend.

He began to wash up at his dressing table, just washing his face and smoothing his hair, really. He had taken a luxurious bath the night before, figuring it would be the last one he was to have for quite some time. He tried to contain his excitement about setting off on this new adventure, but he had a hard time doing it. He had only two regrets about the upcoming journey. One, he wished Roundtower was coming along and, two, he wished Dantrius wasn’t.

Roystnof had gathered everyone together the night before and had informed them that, by his invitation, Dantrius would be accompanying them on their trek. No one seemed happy about it, Stargazer especially, but no one put up a major fight about it and the matter was settled.

Stargazer. She had spent the night in the guest room to facilitate their early departure this morning. Brisbane still thought about what had happened in the Shadowhorn, the meeting of Ellahannah and the way he and Stargazer had shared the tent that night. Nothing physical had happened then, but emotionally, Brisbane had reached the point of no return. He was in love with Stargazer, he knew that and he had no trouble admitting it to himself, but he was still fearful to reveal it to Stargazer or to anyone else. He hoped there would be plenty of time in the upcoming journey they could spend together, and in all that time, maybe he would work up enough courage to tell her how he felt.

Brisbane had also thought a lot about Stargazer’s belief that she was a medium through which Grecolus acted. Frankly, he didn’t believe it because, frankly, he didn’t believe in Grecolus. He thought it was a genuine magic power that she had, much like Roystnof’s, and because of her theological beliefs, she had rationalized it into something more acceptable. The only thing that bothered him was how she came to have this power. If it was magic like Roystnof’s, someone had to have taught her how to do it. But according to Stargazer, this was not the case. The first time she had healed someone, she claimed she had simply prayed really hard to Grecolus and the healing had just happened. Brisbane didn’t know. Maybe it had something to do with her elven blood.

Brisbane quickly changed out of his nightclothes and dressed himself for hiking. He was lacing his boots when there was a knock on his door. He sat up and told whoever it was to come in.

It was Shortwhiskers. The dwarf was already dressed for travel and he was lugging with him a heavy burlap sack. “Morning, Gil,” he said and he plopped the sack on the floor.

“Morning, Nog,” Brisbane said. “What’s in the sack?”

“A present,” the dwarf said. “Open it.”

Brisbane looked at Shortwhiskers suspiciously and moved over to the sack. He opened it and saw the gleam of metal inside. He turned the sack upside down and a quantity of chainmail fell to the floor. Brisbane picked it up and found it to be a poncho of sorts, meant to be placed on the shoulders and hang down to the thighs. There was even a belt to cinch it at the waist.

“Try it on,” Shortwhiskers said.

Brisbane placed his head through the hole and settled it onto his shoulders. It was heavier than his leather jerkin had been, but not burdenly so. As he was tying the belt, Shortwhiskers left the room and shortly returned with a helmet and an undecorated shield. He gave them to Brisbane and Brisbane strapped them on. Shortwhiskers took a step back and surveyed him.

“Now,” Shortwhiskers said, “you look like a warrior. Except that you’re too clean.”

Brisbane laughed and thanked Shortwhiskers for all the gifts. Shortwhiskers said it was no problem and told Brisbane to come down and meet everybody out front. He then left Brisbane alone.

Brisbane looked at himself in the mirror for a moment and he decided that he did look more the part of a warrior, but one essential piece of equipment was still missing. He went over to his bed and drew Angelika out from her hiding place. He unwrapped her from the cloth and strapped her to his side. When secure, he drew her slowly from her scabbard. He returned to the mirror and examined himself again, this time holding Angelika in a threatening manner.

Better, he thought. He sheathed Angelika and went downstairs.

Everybody was already gathered out front. Roystnof stood in his red and black traveling clothes, a large black hat placed on his head, shielding his face from the sunlight. Dantrius stood next to him, dressed plainly in earthy colors, his clothes hanging on his thin frame like tent fabric. He wore no hat and his black hair flapped around his sunken face like a tattered flag. He had a line of daggers tucked into his belt. Shortwhiskers stood between two laden pack mules, strapping pieces of his chainmail to his body, and Stargazer stood by him, dressed in warm hunting clothes and shouldering a heavy pack. Like Roystnof, she held a long oaken staff in her hand, but hers was topped with a metal holy symbol, the hand of Grecolus.

They were all rather quiet in the still morning air. Brisbane exchanged looks with each one of them in turn and then settled back to see who would make the first move. It was not going to be him.

It was Roystnof. “Well,” the wizard said. “It seems the time has come. We are off chasing a rumor. Nog says all he knows about the temple we are searching for is that it is reputed to be full of treasure and that it stands at the source of the Mystic River. Both are fine with me and I hope that both of them are true. Our way is obvious, we’ll just follow the Mystic into the Crimson Mountains, but that way will not be easy. The Windcrest Hills lie before the mountains and it is said the Hills are the home for countless orks. No doubt we will bump into a few along the way.”

“Orks are no problem,” Shortwhiskers said as he tied a heavy battle axe to one of the mules. “We should be more worried about the mountains. The southern branch is largely unexplored territory.”

“Quite true,” Roystnof said. “There’s no telling what we will encounter there. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Today, I think we should set our sights on the walled garden in which we found Dantrius last fall. I would like to make our first camp on its southern side. Agreed?”

Everyone readily agreed.

“Fine,” Roystnof said. “Then let us be off.”

And then they were. They quietly left the sleeping town of Queensburg in the wee hours of the morning and started on their journey south by following the shoreline of the Sea of Darkmarine to the mouth of the Mystic River. It was the same route they had taken months ago when they had gone off in search of Ignatius Roundtower, except now they had Illzeezad Dantrius and Allison Stargazer with them.

With the sun rising out of the Darkmarine, they left Queensburg entirely behind them and struck out into open country. As they all settled into the pace that would regulate the long day’s march, Brisbane reflected on their situation.

First and foremost, he was not at all happy that Dantrius had weaseled his way into this expedition. He had never liked the way Roystnof had gotten along with the mage, but he had put up with it through the long winter because he thought it was to be a temporary situation. Roystnof had assured him they were only together to see what they could teach each other and then they would more than likely part ways. So why was Dantrius tagging along now? Admittedly, Brisbane had not followed them closely over the winter so he wasn’t really sure what kind of relationship had developed between the two men. Brisbane feared that Dantrius was becoming a permanent wedge between himself and Roystnof.

But as much as he hated to have Dantrius with them, he was that glad to have Stargazer along. He looked at her now and she gave him a smile. Brisbane was sure she was even more beautiful now than when he had first met her.

“Well now,” she said to Brisbane, eyeing his new armor. “Don’t you look menacing. Isn’t all that heavy?”

Brisbane looked at his chainmail. He shrugged. “Not really. Ask me in a couple of hours. Maybe the answer will be different.”

Shortwhiskers came up behind them. “That’s right, Gil. It sure doesn’t get any lighter.”

The conversation throughout the day remained mostly in the same vein, as all were in good spirits about the prospects of their adventure. Brisbane purposely avoided Dantrius during the march and, unfortunately, that meant he had to avoid Roystnof as well, as the two wizards were practically inseparable. Brisbane again wondered what Roystnof saw in Dantrius that was worthwhile and discreetly kept his distance.

Around noon they stopped for lunch and Shortwhiskers told Brisbane that they were feasting upon the same hill on which his battle with the ogre had taken place.

“How can you tell?” Brisbane asked. The hill looked like any other to him. There weren’t even any remains left of the ogre he had killed.

Shortwhiskers tapped his nose with a stubby finger. “I can smell it,” he said mysteriously and went back to his meal.

Stargazer was very interested to hear the story of this battle and Brisbane sat quietly by while Shortwhiskers recanted the events as he remembered them. When the dwarf was finished, Stargazer came over and sat next to Brisbane.

“That was very brave of you,” she said. “Taking on that ogre alone like that.”

Brisbane shrugged it off. “It had to be done. It was either me or no one.”

“It was still brave,” she said. She put a hand on Angelika’s scabbard. “That must have been before you got this.”

Brisbane pulled away from Stargazer to get her hand off his sword. The action was too severe and he was immediately sorry he had done it. Stargazer looked hurt and Brisbane quickly apologized, saying he didn’t know what had come over him. And he didn’t. It was irrational, but something inside of him did not want Stargazer touching Angelika. But he overrode the irrationality and drew Angelika from her scabbard to show her to Stargazer.

“It is a lovely weapon,” Stargazer said, admiring the large emerald and the intricate carvings on the pommel. “Did you say it used to be Roundtower’s?”

“Yes,” Brisbane said. “He, uh…he gave it up when he left for Farchrist Castle.”

“Why would he leave behind such a wondrous blade?”

Brisbane met Stargazer’s eyes.

Careful, young Brisbane. She may not want to hear the truth.

It was Angelika’s voice, echoing eerily in his head. It was the first time she had said something to him in many weeks.

But Brisbane decided not to lie. “She is a magic weapon. A Knight would not carry her.”

Once again Brisbane was struck by the irony of the situation. No Knight would carry Angelika because she was magical, a trapping of Damaleous. But, if what Roundtower had said was true, then Angelika bore the enchantment of Grecolus. Like Stargazer’s healing power, Angelika was supposed to be some kind of good magic.

“She?” Stargazer asked, not understanding Brisbane’s use of the word. “Her?”

Brisbane nodded. “Her name is Angelika.”

Stargazer gave him an uncomfortable look. “How do you know ‘she’ is magical?”

“She told me,” Brisbane said, hating how ridiculous it sounded. “She can talk to me. Ignatius says she has the enchantment of Grecolus.”

“Grecolus?” Stargazer said, seeming astounded. “Gil, don’t tease me.”

“No, Allie, seriously. That’s what Ignatius said.”

“I have heard of such swords,” Stargazer said. “Ancient legends speak of three of them. They were supposed to have been crafted by ancient clerics of Grecolus for use against the forces of evil. Are you trying to tell me this is one of those swords?”

Brisbane had never heard of these legends. “Allie, I don’t know anything about it. All I know is that Angelika talks to me inside my head. After I killed that demon in the shrine she—”

“Wait a minute!” Stargazer interrupted. “I just remembered. Those ancient legends describe the three swords, and each has a gem set into its pommel. One has a ruby, another a sapphire, and the third an emerald. Gil! This is one of those swords.”

Stargazer suddenly took Angelika from Brisbane and held the weapon up in front of her. For just a moment, as Stargazer took the sword from him, Brisbane had an almost overwhelming desire to hit her.

“Gil,” Stargazer said as her eyes bulged in awe. “Roundtower should not have given this sword to you. He should have taken it with him. With a sword like this at his side, he could rise to be Captain of the Knights. No evil could face him!”

Brisbane became suddenly aware of the eyes of Roystnof, Dantrius, and Shortwhiskers upon them. He stood up, took Angelika roughly away from Stargazer, and sheathed her. Stargazer looked up at him with hurt eyes, still kneeling on the ground.

“It wasn’t up to Ignatius,” Brisbane said. “There was no way they would let him become a Knight with a magic sword.”

“A holy sword,” Stargazer corrected.

“No one would see it that way,” Brisbane said, all of his frustration suddenly coming to the surface. “All magic comes from Damaleous, that’s what theologians say today. They would take one look at Angelika and say she was a tool of the Evil One, disguised as a relic of Grecolus, and all who use her are his servants. Why do you think people at the Temple in Raveltown sent you to Dragon’s Peak? You say your healing power comes from Grecolus, but they must have thought you were a sorcerer of dark magic, and they saw the quest against Dalanmire as a good way to get rid of you.”

There was absolutely no noise on that hilltop for perhaps as many as ten seconds. Stargazer stood up in front of Brisbane, her bottom lip trembling and her eyes brimming over with tears. Brisbane realized he had said too much and he opened his mouth to apologize, but nothing came out. Stargazer suddenly turned away from him and ran down the hill to the Mystic.

“Allie, wait,” Brisbane said, starting to go after her, but there was a strong tug on his arm that held him back.

It was Shortwhiskers. “Let her go, Gil. You’ve said enough.”

Brisbane turned to the dwarf. “I didn’t mean to hurt her, Nog. She just started talking about Ignatius and Angelika and I just…I mean, the way she was talking was so…I just…”

“You just told her the way things are,” Shortwhiskers finished for him, “and the way things used to be. You weren’t very gentle about it, but that’s all you did. I think she’ll see that, eventually. Give her some time alone.”

Brisbane turned away from Shortwhiskers and saw Stargazer kneeling down by the river bank. He had not meant to hurt her. That was the last thing he ever wanted to do. It’s just that she was kidding herself if she thought Roundtower could have taken Angelika to Farchrist Castle. They’d have burned him at the stake. Times had changed. No longer did Grecolus and Damaleous fight their battles on earth, each with their own champions and wizardry. Religion had changed. It had become more cerebral and idealistic, and the magic Grecolus might have once worked had been abandoned by the pious as disadvantageous to their position.

But Stargazer would not change with the system. She maintained the religion of Grecolus according to the ancient legends, and ran away from the changing mindset of the day. In her own way, Brisbane knew Stargazer saw herself as justified in her insistence on the old traditions. In her mind, her healing power, Ellahannah, and even Angelika supported her position. To her, they were proof that things hadn’t changed, that Grecolus still had his own kind of magic that would one day drive Damaleous to his doom.

And suddenly, seeing the situation through Stargazer’s eyes, Brisbane realized that perhaps it wasn’t Grecolus who had changed after all. He had always been taught that the holy creator was infinite, immortal, and unchanging. If this was true, then why do the ancient legends no longer apply? Why do the priests and clerics of today consider all forms of magic an evil warping of Mother Nature when, centuries ago, the counterparts to these priests and clerics worked healing spells and forged enchanted weapons in the name of Grecolus? It was not the immortal who had changed, perhaps it was only the mortals running his religion.

Brisbane felt a hand drop on his shoulder. He spun around to meet Roystnof’s eyes. Over the wizard’s shoulder, several paces back and seemingly out of earshot, Dantrius stood with his thin arms folded across his chest.

“Nog is right, Gil,” Roystnof said. “She will see you meant no harm.”

“I don’t know, Roy,” Brisbane said. “I just don’t know. There’s something about her. It’s like she’s living in another time. She doesn’t understand how most people see magic. Any kind of magic. It scares them.”

“She’s a relic of another time, Gil. Perhaps the last of a dead race.”

“But she’s more than that,” Brisbane said.

“Yes,” Roystnof said with obvious second meaning. “She is much more than that.”

“What do you mean?”

“You are in love with her,” Roystnof said. “That is plain for all to see.”

Brisbane took the defensive. Later, he was not sure why. “Is there something wrong with that?”

Roystnof laughed. “Of course not, Gil. Love catches us all eventually. I am actually happy for you. She is quite lovely.”

“Yes,” Brisbane said, looking back at Stargazer by the river. “Yes, she is. Did you know that she is sixty-seven years old?”

Roystnof nodded. “Her elven blood. I understand she will live much longer than that.”

“Do you see anything wrong with that?” Brisbane asked. “I mean, I’ll be dead and buried and she won’t look much older than she does now.”

“Love is for the moment,” Roystnof told him. “Never forget that. If you have love for the moment, hold it tight and treasure it as much as you can. The day you start expecting and planning to have your love always there is the day you will lose it.”

Brisbane was looking at his feet. That sounded awfully pessimistic and cruel to him, but then he realized that life could be pessimistic and cruel. Was it any wonder that love could be, too?

“Come on,” Roystnof said, clapping Brisbane on the shoulder. “It’s time we got going.”

They packed up their supplies and got ready to continue their march. Shortwhiskers went down to the Mystic to tell Stargazer they were leaving. Brisbane had wanted to do it, but both his conscience and the dwarf thought better of it. Shortwhiskers came back and reported that Stargazer needed some time alone and, when they left, she would follow at a discreet distance.

Brisbane felt miserable about the whole affair. As they continued on their journey and Stargazer continued to stay ten to fifteen paces behind the group, his stomach began to churn more and more uncomfortably. Why did she have to take so much offense to what he had said? Why did he have to have said it all? Roystnof and Shortwhiskers had said she would eventually see that he meant no harm by his statements, but Brisbane wasn’t so sure. He wondered if he and Stargazer would ever be as close as they had been.

Forget her, Angelika’s voice rang in his head, dark and sultry. She will only get in the way of your true crusade.

Brisbane mentally told the weapon to shut up and that she was the cause of the whole problem. Angelika did not talk to him again that day.

They arrived within sight of the walled oasis and still Stargazer had not rejoined their group. Roystnof stopped the march and called everyone together for discussion. Stargazer remained apart.

“We should strike camp on the other side of the garden,” Roystnof said. “In the morning Miss Stargazer can go in and explore what she wants, and then we can be on our way again.”

Dantrius looked at Stargazer. “Maybe we should send someone out to the princess to see if that’s all right with her,” he sneered. “Perhaps the Ambassador,” he said, turning to look at Shortwhiskers, “can say something to her so she won’t become even more estranged.”

Shortwhiskers curtly told Dantrius to shut his trap.

“I’m only concerned for the girl’s welfare,” Dantrius pleaded innocently. “If harsh remarks can cripple her so, I would hate to see her reaction when others start making decisions for her.”

Shortwhiskers took a menacing step towards the thin man but Roystnof interceded. Brisbane watched the whole scene like a distant observer.

“That’s enough,” Roystnof said to Dantrius. “It’s been a long day. Let’s just go make camp.”

They marched around the walled garden, with Stargazer silently following behind, and struck camp when they reached the southern side. While they were all busy constructing the tents and securing the mules, Stargazer quietly came in and set about preparing a meal. Brisbane thought about going over to talk to her but quickly thrust the idea aside. He had no idea what to say.

When all the work was done and the sun had set, Stargazer dished out plates of stew for them from the kettle hanging over the campfire. When Brisbane came to take his from her, he softly said he was sorry and then quickly moved away to eat his meal. Stargazer showed no reaction.

They drew lots for guard duty. Brisbane lucked out and was given the chance for a night of undisturbed sleep. It took him some time to fall asleep, however, even though he was exhausted from the day’s march. He was worried about what Stargazer thought of him now, and he could only hope things would be better in the morning. When he finally did fall asleep, it was with this thought heavy on his mind.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Hemingway’s Chair by Michael Palin

Clearly picked this one up because of who the author is. I’ve always been a big Python fan, and Palin is one of my favorites. So I thought, how bad could his novel be?


It wasn’t horrible. I’ve certainly read worst, but it also was not very good. The main character, Martin Sproale, is the assistant manager of a post office and a huge Ernest Hemingway fan. This is, perhaps, all we need to know about him, but it is, in fact, all that we really do know about him. We don’t spend enough time with him in the course of the story, bouncing from one character’s point of view to another in a way that is neither calculated nor effective.

There’s a plot about the post office being taken over and privatized by some interloper who steals Martin’s girlfriend, and there’s a new love interest for Martin who is an American Literature professor who is writing a new book on the women in Hemingway’s wife, but none of that really held my interest.

The best bit is the part about Hemingway’s chair—an old, padded thing taken from off a fishing charter Hemingway had once used that Ruth—the professor and love interest—helps Martin secure from collector. It becomes something of an obsession for Martin, and affects him in strange ways.

When she came out of the kitchen, Martin was no longer there. In his place was a hunched, wary figure wearing a white tennis cap, grey sweatshirt and a light brown cotton jacket with a pattern of tiny check. He wore plain white Bermuda-length cotton shorts. His calves were bare and he sat, leaning forward, as if waiting. Ruth approached cautiously. The figure in the chair was concentrating on something in the middle distance. His face wore an ironic, self-mocking smile. She held out a glass of whisky.

‘You want a drink?’

For a moment nothing moved, but when the figure slowly lifted his head, Ruth experienced once again the uncanny sensation of being with a stranger she knew well.

‘I guess I look ridiculous,’ came a voice that was slow and heavy and yet in which the smile remained. She said nothing.

‘I don’t look like a decent fellow should look, huh?’

He took the whisky from her and drank it back in one. Then he held the glass out again and watched her refill it.

He drank again, more slowly. This one was neat and he gasped at the after-taste. Then all of a sudden he looked up and breathed deep and beamed around him.

‘Well, I look like this because this is the way I like to look most of the time. I look like this because, come tomorrow, I shall be in Havana and I shall be drinking cold beers with Mrs Mason on the deck of the HMS Anita.’

Ruth caught all the allusions. In 1933 Ernest left Pauline behind in Key West and took a two-month fishing holiday in Havana. He met up with the beautiful, willful, twenty-three-year-old Jane Mason, whose husband was working and couldn’t go with her, and they fished together off a boat called Anita, which belonged to Joe Russell, one of Hemingway’s Key West cronies. It was an episode of his life she and most Hemingway scholars had always wanted to know more about. A rare extramarital affair, known to have taken place, but still steeped in mystery.

Ruth poured herself another drink and sat down opposite him, one side of her face caught by the lamplight. ‘Why are you going away so soon?’

‘Because I worked goddamn hard at that book and I need to get it out of my system.’

‘I worked hard to get this house ready for you,’ she said quietly. ‘You know how much money I spent?’

His face clouded. ‘That’s the only way you see these things. Through the end of a bank balance. So your father bought this house. Great. So you put in nice furniture, big curtains. Paint everything. Great. I do no more fucking writing because I have to sit around choosing curtains when I could be out on a boat chasing marlin with my real friends.’

‘You call those bums you hang out with your friends?’

‘They’re simple guys. They drink and they gamble and they live off the sea. But I love them. Okay?’

‘You love them more than me?’

‘Maybe I do. Maybe they don’t keep wanting to hang onto me and tidy me up and put me on display.’

‘I just want to have you here in the house with me. I don’t care if you wear nothing but a pair of sneakers and a leopard-skin loincloth, I’d rather I looked after you than Mrs Mason. I’m your wife, dammit. What happened? What did I do wrong?’

‘You did too much. You tried too hard.’

‘You loved me once. You loved me so much and I loved you and we went everywhere together and we made each other very happy.’

‘If you say so.’

‘You don’t know?’

‘I do know, for Chrissake, I do know.’

‘You knew for a day. You knew for a week. Then someone more interesting comes along and I have to go along with that. I have to wait while you make your plans and then I do what you want me to do. Isn’t that right?’

‘No…no… It’s not right.’

‘You do what you want to do and I’m just supposed to fit in, right?’

‘No, no!’

‘I’m the wife who has to stay home till the master returns.’


‘My writing is not worth shit.’


‘All you want is a body to be there when it suits you.’


Ruth saw the sweat break out on his brow, but she couldn’t stop now.

‘Well, I’ll tell you. You ain’t as hot as you think you are.’

‘Quit, will you?’ His head swung angrily.

‘Don’t want to hear the truth, huh?’

‘I said quit.’

‘I tell you I could walk out that door right now and find a dozen guys who’d give me a better time!’

‘I said quit!’

A cut glass ashtray flew towards Ruth’s head. She ducked and heard it smash against the wall and fall in pieces to the floor behind her.

She straightened up.

Martin stood staring helplessly. ‘Are you all right?’

This little role play, where Martin becomes Hemingway and Ruth adopts the role of his wife, Pauline, had real potential, but it comes too late in the novel to save it from all that has already happened, or to be anything more than an interesting scene. Something more magical, where Martin actually becomes Hemingway, possessed by the spirit still inhabiting the chair—that would have been a fun read. But Martin always remains Martin, and I’m not sure I ever feel like I should be pulling for him.

The ending is equally disappointing. Martin pulls off some colossal collapse of his nemesis’ plan, literally pulling down a communications tower meant to modernize the little town they all live in with a high-speed yacht adorned with Hemingway’s chair, and supposedly dies in some fiery crash with another boat. There’s that, and then a transition, and then we’re with Ruth a few days later, while she’s putting the finishing touches on her manuscript. She’s interrupted by the postman delivering a letter and, wouldn’t you know it, it’s Martin, writing to her under an assumed name from Cuba.

Prior to receiving this letter, though, Ruth is reflecting on how to sum up her paper.

She hated conclusions. They sat there like sirens, luring the scholar onto the rocks of pomposity and complacency. Now let’s have the solution, they seemed to say. Now tell us what it’s all about so we won’t have to read the whole book.

I can only assume that Palin feels the same way.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

I’d never heard of Philip Pullman or His Dark Materials until they started making a movie out of The Golden Compass a few years ago, and then all the hubbub started about how, although it was written as a book for children, it wasn’t the kind of book any self-respecting religious person would let their children read.

From an email archived on The Golden Compass entry on

There will be a new Children’s movie out in December called THE GOLDEN COMPASS. It is written by Phillip (sic) Pullman, a proud atheist who belongs to secular humanist societies. He hates C. S. Lewis’s Chronical’s (sic) of Narnia and has written a trilogy to show the other side. The movie had been dumbed down to fool kids and their parents in the hope that they will buy his trilogy where in the end the children kill God and everyone can do as they please. Nicole Kidman stars in the movie so it will probably be advertised a lot. This is just a friendly warning that you sure won’t hear on the regular TV.

With that kind of publicity, is it any wonder I wanted to read the book? Supposedly, the slam against God and the Catholic Church gets heavier and more transparent in the second and third books, and that may be, but in this first one, I’d have to say the claims that this volume will put your child’s faith in God in jeopardy are tenuous at best. Sure, the Magisterium is there, and it is equated with the Church (the Church of this mythical land we find ourselves in, in which people are connected to living animals spirits and in which bears talk and wear armor), and the main villain, Mrs. Coulter, is the head of something called The General Oblation Board which is somehow affiliated with it—but other than that, there isn’t much to start waving the sacrilegious stick at.

Much of the novel is confusing in fact—confusing in a good way, I think, because the reader is shown everything through the eyes of the young protagonist—eleven-year-old Lyra Belacqua—and Lyra is still very much a child and doesn’t understand much about what’s going on around her. As she tries to figure things out, so do we, and Pullman shows some skill in keeping us engaged and guessing. Indeed, it wasn’t until the very end of the novel where I felt firm in my conviction that Mrs. Coulter was, in fact, the villain and Lord Asriel wasn’t—rather than the reverse.

Lyra’s childlike thoughts and manner are refreshing in many ways, because they are largely honest and true to someone of her age. There are other fantasy novels featuring young heroes whose actions are anything but that of a child, but Lyra is one through and through.

Lyra turned her back and closed her eyes. But what Pantalaimon said was true. She had been feeling confined and cramped by this polite life, however luxurious it was. She would have given anything for a day with Roger and her Oxford ragamuffin friends, with a battle in the claybeds and a race along the canal. The one thing that kept her polite and attention to Mrs. Coulter was that tantalizing hope of going north. Perhaps they would meet Lord Asriel. Perhaps he and Mrs. Coulter would fall in love, and they would get married and adopt Lyra, and go and rescue Roger from the Gobblers.

These are typical thoughts she has throughout the novel. Childish thoughts. And I dog-eared this one pretty much at random. Little did I know at the time how prophetic this particular passage would be, for, as Lyra and the reader discovers much later, Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel were once married, and Lyra is, in fact, their daughter.

But at the same time I liked the way Pullman was presenting Lyra as a true child with a childlike view of the world, I was also uncertain if I was going to like Lyra herself. Indeed, for much of the first half of the novel, I would say that I did not. And especially when I came to the prophecy that surrounded her:

“The witches have talked about this child for centuries past,” said the counsel. “Because they live so close to the place where the veil between the worlds is thin, they hear immortal whispers from time to time, in the voices of those beings who pass between the worlds. And they have spoken of a child such as this, who has a great destiny that can only be fulfilled elsewhere—not in this world, but far beyond. Without this child, we shall all die. So the witches say. But she must fulfill this destiny in ignorance of what she is doing, because only in her ignorance can we be saved. Do you understand that, Farder Coram?”

“No,” said Farder Coram, “I’m unable to say that I do.”

“What it means is that she must be free to make mistakes. We must hope that she does not, but we can’t guide her. I am glad to have seen this child before I die.”

I thought, oh no, not another one of those. A destiny that must be fulfilled, but only by a person unaware of it. We’ve encountered that trope multiple times before, and I usually find it tedious and anticlimactic from a storytelling perspective. The protagonist would be much more interesting and dynamic, I think, if they knew the consequences of what they have been called to do—and they actively pursue it anyway. And more importantly, those ultimate and hidden consequences of their actions might be a lot more ultimate if they were a lot less hidden. At least we wouldn’t be let down when we finally find out what all the fuss has been about.

But in the context of Pullman’s supposed subtext—that of a child who, in her ignorance of religion has the freedom to act irrespective of its dictates and thereby neuters it—this typical trope takes on an atypically interesting spin. She must be free to make mistakes. In other words, there must be no consequences for acts in opposition to the dogmas of religion. Only in her ignorance can we be saved. A world where no one has been conditioned to follow dogma, everyone is free from its imprisoning effects.

+ + + + + + +

Maybe I should start another blog, this one only for passages in books that on the surface are about something related to the story, but underneath are the author saying something about writing.

With every second that went past, with every sentence she spoke, she felt a little strength flowing back. And now that she was doing something difficult and familiar and never quite predictable, namely lying, she felt a sort of mastery again, the same sense of complexity and control that the alethiometer gave her. She had to be careful not to say anything obviously impossible; she had to be vague in some places and invent plausible details in others; she had to be an artist, in short.

What should I call such passages? They are little like a boom microphone accidently hanging down into a shot during a movie, or the tip of a hidden handkerchief hanging out of the magician’s pocket. They are the building blocks out of which the complete illusion is made, and the reader is not supposed to notice them. But they seem to jump out at me. Always interested in the craft behind the art, I can’t help but think of the author with the pen pressed against the page, even during the most gripping of narratives. It keeps me from getting completely lost in the story, but it allows me to see things in ways others do not.