The Wanderer & other Old-English Poems

My latest limited edition book from The Folio Society is The Wanderer illustrated and signed by Alan Lee. An artist best known for his decades long association with works by Tolkien, both in illustrating his books and his many years in New Zealand working on the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies.

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The text is largely from a 1966 Penguin Classic ‘The Earliest English Poems’, translated by Michael Alexander, which also included four pages of Beowulf. Over the years this has been revised until the 2008 edition which provides the entire text for this book, with some amendments, which by then was entitled ‘The First Poems in English’. Lee was approached by The Folio Society to see if he would like to illustrate something for them and between them chose this work as it takes him back to the source materials that so inspired Tolkien in his writings. This is by no means a typical way round, the society would normally choose a book that they wanted to publish and then approach an artist to illustrate it; but what it has produced is a book where you can see the love the artist has for the material and I suspect they eventually had to stop him from creating any more artwork so that the book could actually get published. As it is each poem has its own distinctive decorative borders along with the beautiful tipped in colour paintings and on page printed black and white illustrations.

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The poems and riddles themselves come from a very short window in time, between the reign of King Alfred the Great over the Anglo Saxons (886 to 899AD) where he started the process of moving the written word from Latin to Old-English and the Norman invasion of 1066 when all that was swept away with the imposition of Norman French. In truth there were probably just thirty or forty years where Old-English hit its peak before becoming almost extinct. The greatest source material for the work of this period is The Exeter Book which was regarded as largely worthless for centuries before becoming recognised as the treasure trove that it is.  The poems are much more powerful than might be expected from their great age, they clearly come from an oral tradition as they are directed at the reader as though being read to them, I am reminded of the Icelandic sagas in concept if not in size. Indeed as Bernard O’Donoghue writes in his especially commissioned foreword

There’s a vitality to these poems, written as they were at a time when life was so much more embattled, more desperate and fragile

Along with the general introduction and note on translation each poem has its own introduction setting the scene for the following work and providing mush needed context. The works are over a thousand years old and the people who wrote and read them were very different to ourselves.

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The original Penguin book its variants and companion volumes have sold over a million copies in the fifty years since they came out and the quality of the work shows exactly why Michael Alexander is such a respected translator and this edition makes reading them so much more of a joy than the original paperbacks. The text is presented with the original on the left hand side and the translation on the right as can be seen in one of my favourite works included the fragment of ‘The Battle of Maldon’ from the section of Heroic Poems. I suspect I like these more than the somewhat more introspective other poems is my fondness for the sagas and these have more of a feel of those. However this is an account of a real battle that can be also seen in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to such a level of detail that there is also an accompanying map included with the text so the reader can easily see how the fight progresses, which frankly is not well for the English side and a lot better for the attacking Vikings.

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The riddles are great fun and at the back are a set of proposed solutions, however the one that I have shown as an example also has drawings by Alan Lee which somewhat give away the answer. All the riddles are from The Exeter Book where presumably there are a lot more as these start at number seven and there are lots of numeric gaps.

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The answer is of course mead.

As only 750 copies were printed at £395 each and these are all sold out from the Folio Society it would be difficult to get a copy of this fine edition, but if I have whetted your appetite for Old-English poetry and riddles then the Penguin paperback is still in print and considerably cheaper.

There is a short video showing the book from the Folio Society

and a longer video of an interview with Alan Lee.

 

The Happy Prince – Oscar Wilde

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This book has as its full title The Happy Prince and Other Stories as there are three more short tales by Oscar Wilde included although easily the most famous is The Happy Prince. As I read this story it seemed familiar although I’m quite certain that I haven’t read it before I must obviously have maybe heard it or read a summary at some point. All of the stories carry a moral so lets look at the four stories individually, they are short so not giving away the ending in a review is tricky but I think I have managed it…

The Happy Prince

The prince in the story is actually a statue on a high pedestal looking out over the city, the statue is covered in gold leaf, has emeralds for eyes and a ruby set in the pommel of his sword and he is far from happy. The young prince he is modelled on however led a ‘happy’ and sheltered privileged life not seeing anything outside the luxurious palace grounds and not knowing anything of the poverty that surrounded his domain, so the statue became known as The Happy Prince. Up here on his column however he can see the poor all around him and wishes he could do something to help them. He is visited by a swallow seeking shelter for the night on his delayed migration to Egypt which is why he is flying alone after the rest of his kind. When the statue tells the bird of how he wants to help the people he comes up with a plan to donate the riches that he has on his body to the needy and enlists the help of the swallow to distribute what he can. The story is heartwarming but ultimately tragic and I really enjoyed it.

The Young King

This concerns another happy prince within his gilded cage although this time he is about to become king and he has not always lived this life of privilege. This one however is enamoured with the riches that surround him, lost in wonder in front of great art and fine fabrics and jewels. The coronation is coming the robe, sceptre and crown are prepared when the night before the ceremony the young king to be has three strange dreams. In them he is confronted with the reality of how his ceremonial raiment has been made, the grinding poverty of the weavers, the death of a pearl fisherman, the deprivation of the mines needed for the fine jewels. The next morning he explains his dreams to the courtiers come to dress him for the ceremony and refuses to wear the outfit prepared, preferring a more lowly guise of the goat-herder he had been before being recognised as the heir apparent. At this point I was sure I knew where the story was heading but I’m glad to say I was wrong.

The Devoted Friend

My least favourite of the four stories, perhaps because it just repeatedly bangs the reader round the head with the moral, where the devoted friend turns out to really be the one who doesn’t consider himself the title character. I confess that I got irritated by the story as Wilde kept pushing his point

The Model Millionaire

The shortest of the stories also includes my favourite quote from the selection with Wilde employing the barbed wit for which he is famous. The story concerns an impecunious young man who whilst visiting an artist friend finds him painting a portrait of a beggar. Now the young man is in love, but the father of his beloved has made it clear that as he has little money and no prospects of getting any he is not considered an appropriate suitor for his daughter. Despite this he hands the beggar most of the money he has on him only to find his generosity repaid handsomely. What is the quote I liked so much, well it makes much of a fine distinction.

Trevor was a painter, indeed few people escape that nowadays. But he was also an artist, and artists are rather rare.

The cover of the book is a detail from a painting by James Pryde and is perfect to represent The Happy Prince on his column. The book is part of the Penguin 60’s series, published in 1995 to mark 60 years of Penguin Books. I bought all of them at the time and I’m ashamed to say still have a lot of them to read twenty five years later.

Ringworld – Larry Niven

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What must be Larry Niven’s best known book was originally published fifty years ago and remains a classic of Science Fiction and for the most part the scientific basis of the potential futures and situations depicted is largely founded in reality. This is more than can be said for the image used on the cover of my copy, see above, where the artist has fundamentally misunderstood the concept of the Ringworld, we should be seeing the world from above in the lit squares not from the side.

The main protagonist, Louis Wu, is celebrating his 200th birthday as the novel starts and has decided to prolong the experience by using ubiquitous matter transmitters in the non-specified future that the book occurs in to skip to a city in a time zone one hour earlier just before midnight wherever he is. This makes the book unique in science fiction as far as I am aware by starting in Beirut, even if by the end of the first page we are already in Budapest. It is during one of these hops from city to city that he is diverted, something that apparently should be impossible, and the novel which initially appears to be dealing with future Earth takes a leap that would ultimately lead us to Ringworld.

The diversion was organised by a member of the alien Puppeteer race which should also have been impossible as they had left ‘known space’ centuries earlier so what was one doing on Earth? It turns out that he is looking for a very specific crew for an expedition to investigate an artefact that he won’t talk about and for their fee he will provide blueprints and a working version of a new type of starship that can travel at speeds thousands of times faster than any other ship…  So much has happened and we are still only four pages into a novel that runs to 283 pages in the 1977 paperback from Sphere (ironic publishing house considering the subject matter) that I have. A definite page turner…

As we get to understand the various races brought together for this journey we discover that all of them are struggling with the issues caused by overpopulation and the exploitation beyond sustainable limits of the various planetary resources that they have all faced. This is a novel concerned with ecology well before it was fashionable and the different races have come up with very different solutions to the problem. Puppeteers are forbidden sex without difficult to obtain permission so have gone the all so difficult abstinence route. Another crew member is a Kzin (basically a race of intelligent and warlike eight foot cats) and they fight amongst themselves if food gets difficult to obtain, however they have also fought several wars against mankind which they have lost fairly convincingly which have also heavily reduced their numbers of potential breeding males.

The humans of Earth have introduced strict limits to the number of children that a person can have although they have largely avoided the problems China had years after this book came out by having specific exclusions from the limit including paying a large sum of money on the basis that being able to afford the fee suggests a certain ability that is worth preserving (it also removes the temptations of bribery). More importantly for the plot of the book there is also a lottery for the right to reproduce and Teela who joins the crew is from the fifth generation of people who all won the lottery. Are humans breeding for luck? It certainly seems so and so she was selected as a lucky talisman for the expedition despite having no other skills that would make her an obvious candidate but the Puppeteer spent a long time trying to find the hundred or so people that fit the category.

Ringworld, when they finally get there is potentially the ultimate solution to population problems being cylindrical in form and a million miles wide from side to side, with a radius of almost ninety million miles, surrounding a sun whilst rotating at 770 miles per second to replicate an almost Earth like gravity by utilising centripetal forces. There are also great plates in an orbit of the sun inside than that of the ring which provide for day/night periodicity.  Niven states that the surface area is equivalent to three million Earths, it’s actually more like 2.87 million assuming the maximum values for radius and width that he gives but it does at least mean that he worked it out. But who built this enormous object and why, and also why does it have Earth like gravity and day/night sequences? Those are the main questions of the book and what Louis, Teela, Neesa the Puppeteer and Speaker to Animals the Kzin apparently have to answer. Along the way we will also discover why the Kzin kept losing their battles with Earth and also just what, or who, was behind the birthright lotteries.

The book is very well written as befits a Hugo and Nebula awards winner but I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the ending. Like the wire that becomes so critical to the solution there are too many loose ends that don’t get sorted out with the way they leave the Ringworld.

The Trial of Charles I

As I start reading this book it is 371 years to the day (January 30th 1649) since the execution of King Charles I and the events that led up to initially the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland later that year and then by 1653 the Protectorate under the control of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. The republic he founded turned out to be somewhat less of a democratic state than its founders hoped, relying on military force to control the country rather than popular support. The appointment of Cromwell’s third son, Richard, as Lord Protector on the death of Oliver in 1658 and thus replacing one hereditary leader with another did little to suggest that getting rid of the monarchy had led to significant change and eventually led to the Restoration in 1660 with King Charles II taking his place on the throne. It’s a fascinating period of British history so I’m looking forward to tackling this slim volume published by the Folio Society in 1959 and bound to resemble a book from Charles I’s own library.

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The book is split into six sections, the first is a really good summary of the reign of Charles I and the issues that led to the Civil War and the subsequent trial after Charles lost the conflict. This twenty six page introduction is written by noted historian C V Wedgewood and she succeeds admirably in setting the scene for the remainder of the book which is made up from contemporary sources.  These take us from 13th November 1647 when Charles fled to the Isle of Wight hoping to avoid parliamentary forces and maybe get across the channel to France right through to his funeral in February 1649. The texts come from two sources and are interleaved as they cover the time period. Initially we come to Sir Thomas Herbert who was Groom of the Bedchamber throughout the book and was therefore in constant contact with the King right up until his death, the second source is John Rushworth who was a lawyer and collected information about any court cases that interested him and therefore is the best non-partisan recorder of the trial and its aftermath.

Thomas Herbert provides a lot of interesting background to the incarceration of Charles in the Isle of Wight and thence Windsor and ultimately St James in London for the trial itself. Although by inclination a Parliamentarian he provides a fair and balanced account of the Kings actions during this time and the publication of his account helped considerably with the improvement of the regard Charles was held in when it revealed the calm and dignified way he acted at all times compared to the treatment he received from his captors. Rushworth’s account of the trial itself, relying as it does on transcripts paints a clear picture of what would now be regarded as a kangaroo court where the decision of guilt had already been made before they started, the only question was if Cromwell could persuade enough judges to pass the death sentence. Charles is brought before the court and legitimately challenges the legality of the process. In fact there was no actual basis in law for Parliament to sit as a court and they were well aware of this as his repeated challenges simply result in adjournments to the next day whilst they try to come up with a legal argument. In the end Parliament simply ends up with the effective position that this is a legal court because we say it is and will not allow dissent from this statement. Unsurprisingly, after a couple of days of ‘evidence’ where Charles was not allowed to attend let alone challenge anything given against him they decided on the death sentence that Cromwell had wanted from the first.

We then switch back to Herbert’s account of Charles’s last few days, which are spent in prayer and in trying to do what he can for his children. Rushworth is used again for a description of the execution before we return to Herbert to cover the funeral. These three sections are a lot shorter than the first two but again show the King in a favourable light. What is particularly interesting is the use of these two contemporary sources, I learnt about the Civil War at school and we probably covered the entire period of this book in one lesson being more concerned with the start of the conflict and the battles rather than the capture and trial of King Charles I. This book is an extremely interesting addition to my knowledge of this part of British history, for instance I didn’t know that the Scottish parliament had written to the English one complaining about the way they were handling the situation as Charles was also their King and they certainly didn’t want him executed.

There are four brief appendices, the most interesting of which concerns the death warrant itself and the changes made to it which suggest that it was written earlier and then had to be amended to fit the ultimate date along with two names that have been written over ones subsequently removed. It appears that the decision of the judges was more fluid than the Parliamentarians would have liked.

Valley of Hunted Men – Paul Evan Lehman

There is an entire genre of fiction that I have never read any example from and that is the American Western. Well I’ve recently bought a copy of Valley of Hunted Men so time to find out if I should have explored the category years ago…

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First impressions were mixed, right from the first page we have a train robbery, six men holding up the express causing death and destruction before riding out of town with $20,000 in gold coins, a classic trope of the genre. So yes I was intrigued where this was going but I was already caught up in the issues of the language used in the novel, the slang and unusual spelling would be familiar with regular readers of this style but I found it off putting whilst recognising that it was a necessary part of the writing structure. One word in particular struck me as anomalous, which was the constant reference to the stolen loot as specie. Now I know this is the correct word for gold (and sometimes silver) coins rather than paper currency but I’d only ever come across the term in books written or set in Victorian London so it seemed odd to it was being used here, in fact I found it so jarring that it kept pushing me off the narrative and every few pages I’d put the book down and not pick it up again for a couple of days, I just couldn’t get into the story.

The tropes just kept coming though, a wounded mystery man falls off his horse at the feet of the pretty daughter of the man running the valley so she takes him home and nurses him back to health where he gives his name as Kirk Dane but refuses to say anything about how he came to be there. But the pretty daughter falls in love with him anyway. There are outlaws in them thar hills surrounding the ranch, and talking of the ranch there’s a grumpy old roustabout with a heart of gold to almost complete the set and then the biggest stereotype of them all rides into the mix…

“Stranger” muttered Butch to his companion, “Ain’t he a dude though

The man was of medium build with smooth olive skin, dark expressive eyes and perfectly moulded lips shaded by a small waxed black moustache. He was attired in a black frock coat, a white silk shirt and a stetson which must have cost fifty dollars at the least. Under the table Kirk had a glimpse of dark trousers and handmade boots of black Spanish leather.

And then finally I got it, I remembered the Spaghetti Westerns I had seen as a child. The wounded cowboy lounging on the porch smoking as he recuperates, the ultra smart man in black, we have Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef all that was needed was a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone and I was back almost fifty years. I could at last picture what I was reading and the second half was read in one sitting after fighting for two weeks with the first. It’s quite clear that Kirk is after the men who did the train robbery but why? Who else is on the same quest? Which of the various possibilities is the lawman on a mission, Kirk is too obvious and when about fifty pages in some of the outlaws decide he is the marshal after them it’s quite clear that he isn’t going to be. There were lots of characters to keep track of, although that does get easier as the book progresses as they start getting killed off. Of course it has a happy ending, well apart from those that don’t make it to the end anyway, I guess that is normal for the genre.

In the end I quite enjoyed the book but the first half was a real struggle until I finally managed to settle down with the plot flow. Will I read another Western? Probably not, it took me over fifty years to get round to reading this one and if that’s my rate of getting to them then I may not get there. Lehman appears to have been a successful writer in the genre with plenty of books to his name but no I don’t have the need to read another.

Darwin in Malibu – Crispin Whittall

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This play by Crispin Whittell was premiered by The Birmingham Repertory theatre in Birmingham, England in May 2003, it opened on the 9th May and finished its scheduled run on the 31st, I attended the performance on the 21st. The copy of the book I possess was bought at the theatre and includes several pages relating to the performance including biographical details of the performers along with details regarding the theatre company and the theatre itself. Presumably these pages are not present in later versions of the book as it is replacing the need for a programme at this particular performance and is not relevant to any later production.

The entire play takes plays on the deck of a beach house in Malibu, California and is viewed as though the audience are sitting on the beach looking towards the house with the sea behind them. It is clearly the present day from the attire of the young woman who appears on the stage as the play opens. Already seated on the deck is an old man with a white beard wearing a Hawaiian shirt and reading a book, which turns out to be Malibu by Pat Booth. Already I was intrigued by the set-up, as presumably this was Charles Darwin, and nobody had said anything yet. Sarah and Darwin chat aimlessly for a while, she is clearly a little ditsy and missing her boyfriend whilst Darwin appears to have discovered a rather unlikely liking for horoscopes.

The two are joined by Thomas Huxley who was Darwin’s friend and public champion of his theory when it was published in 1859 whilst Darwin himself had stayed at his home in Kent most noticeably at an acrimonious  debate at the British Association’s Oxford meeting in 1860. It soon becomes clear that both men are well aware that over a century has passed and that they are both dead. They are also puzzled as to why in that case they are sitting in a beach house in Malibu and also why they are joined by Sarah who is clearly not a Victorian ghost. Nevertheless they chat about the Oxford debate and also technological discoveries since such as DNA which shows how Natural Selection (as Darwin called it) works.

Then suddenly from along the beach the bishop of Oxford from that same debate, Samuel Wilberforce, arrives. It was with the bishop that Huxley famously, and possibly apocryphally, disagreed most. Apparently back in 1860 Wilberforce facetiously asked Huxley whether his ape ancestors were on his grandfather or grandmother’s side. Huxley replied that he would rather have an ape for a grandfather than a man with an impressive brain and considerable influence who chose to employ those facilities in the ridicule of science. The three of them attempt to continue the debate on stage and although it is now 143 years later it is clear there will be no meeting of minds, just as we also slowly find out who Sarah is and why she is there.

Now if that all sounds a little dry and overly intellectual for an evenings entertainment I have to say that nothing could be further from the truth. Whilst not a laugh a minute it is very funny when it wants to be and poignant when appropriate. I still have the flyer for the show I saw which is tucked into the book as a bookmark and the quote from Darwin’s lines in the play printed on it sums up the effect of California on the great thinker. The play is seldom performed although it has had a few revivals not just in the UK but America as well, if it ever on near you I recommend it.

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Wind, Sand and Stars – Saint-Exupéry

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I think most people come across Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger de Saint-Exupéry, to give him his full name, via his massively popular novel The Little Prince which is one of the most translated books ever written, only beaten by The Bible and, depending on where you look, Pinocchio. Once you have heard of his work then quite often you discover that he was a French pioneer aviator, flying mail planes from 1926 and that he died in mysterious circumstances during WWII whilst on a reconnaissance flight looking for German troop movements in mid 1944. This lovely Folio Society edition concerns some of his flying experiences from a student through the 1930’s. He was to write another book covering his wartime flying called Flight to Arras and having finished this book I now need to get hold of a copy of that.

I’m not sure what I expected from this book, tales of daring do, a man against the elements in what was still very primitive machinery perhaps, what I had not allowed for was how much the philosopher and poet would shine through. Indeed near the beginning in the chapter called ‘The Elements’ which describes being caught in a storm in the Andes Saint-Exupéry makes it quite clear that my first thoughts are not to be realised

And so, in beginning my story of a revolt of the elements which I myself lived through I have no feeling that I shall write something which you will find dramatic.

In reality the story that follows is dramatic, but not because of excitable reportage which may have been the style selected by a lesser writer, but for the calm descriptions of each problem thrown at the pilot as the storm winds batter his plane around the sky. The various chapters whilst maintaining an internal consistent time-frame are not placed chronologically in the book. Chapter one does cover his days as a student pilot, or at least the preparations for his first flight as the pilot on a mail plane rather than his student days and as the book progresses you find him in South America and later the Sahara although in reality his three years as a desert pilot preceded his time across the Atlantic.

There is surprising little flying in the book at all, the longest chapter ‘Prisoner of the Sand’ starts out with a proposed flight from Paris to Saigon in December 1935 and does indeed have Saint-Exupéry and his mechanic in the air for several pages until the inevitable crash presaged by the chapter title has them down in an unknown part of the desert. The main part of the chapter concerns their attempts to attract rescue and treks away from the plane wreckage to seek water and nourishment almost all of which had been lost in the crash. But even here Saint-Exupéry deflates the tension pointing out early on that he is writing the story so they must have eventually found help, even  though it was at the last possible chance as they were almost dying from lack of water. This for me is the best chapter of the book, closely followed by ‘Men of the Desert’ which again is chiefly not concerned with flying but rather the people on the ground that he comes into contact with and almost half the chapter regards the freeing of a slave held by desert nomads and returning him to Marrakesh.

The final chapter, entitled ‘Barcelona and Madrid (1936)’ covers some of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. His involvement in this conflict was never as a participant unlike George Orwell whose time there led to his book Homage to Catalonia. In fact it is not clear exactly what he is doing there as he manages to be on both fronts and is vitriolic regarding the futility of the conflict.

There was not much to choose between Barcelona and its enemy, Saragossa; both were composed of the same swarm of communists, anarchists and fascists. The very men who collected on the same side were perhaps more different from one another than from their enemies. In civil war the enemy is inward; one as good as fights oneself. What else can explain the particular horror of this war in which firing-squads count for more that soldiers of the line?

and a little later

Here in Spain a man is simply stood up against a wall and he gives up his entrails to the stones of the courtyard. You have been captured. You are shot. Reason: your ideas were not our ideas.

Here again Saint-Exupéry is dealing with mankind as his subject, the title of the book is probably a little misleading, you expect Biggles but you get Descartes.

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On the 23rd July 1944 Saint-Exupéry’s most famous work The Little Prince was published for the first time. Eight days later he set off on a routine reconnaissance flight in a P-38 Lightning looking for German troops and was never seen again. Indeed no trace of his plane was to be found for over fifty years, first a bracelet was discovered in the nets of a Marseilles fisherman and that led to the discovery of a wrecked P-38 off the coast. Checking a recovered serial number proved the wreck to be his plane but there was no body. Near the end of The Little Prince the eponymous hero has to return to his own planet and amongst his last words are

I shall look as if I were dead; and that will not be true…

For over fifty years fans of Saint-Exupéry wanted that to be true of him also…