25 February 2011

The M-Game.

While this is by no means a complete look at the universe that constituted the M-Game, I was reminded of it by this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, discussing the value of imaginative play. The article begins with two children, six and seven years of age, giving the author a guided tour of the box house they have made. These two children, hailing from New York City, New York, have outfitted their house with a flat-screen TV (in the form of a piece of black cloth) and a skylight, made the skylights usually are (which is to say, they ripped a hole in the roof and called it a skylight). They are not pleased by the author's interruption, because they have to clean the place up. I think they just moved in or something.

Regardless, I wonder what they'd come up with if they had been given the bountiful natural resources afforded by a childhood in rural south-central PA, which was my stomping ground when the M-Game came about. I was about eleven, maybe a little older, and all around me were the Appalachian mountains -- which looked, I noticed, a lot like the mountainous terrain that characterized the fantasy novels I was just beginning to read at the time.

I have two younger sisters, both of whom are, without doubt, more creative and interesting than I am. We were close friends with another set of sisters, who lived nearby. The two of them, plus the three of us, created the most interesting role-playing system I've ever encountered, in one of the best settings for it.

Okay, it should be noted here that we were all pretty distracted:  The Lord of the Rings:  The fellowship of the Ring was fresh in our minds; the edited versions of Yu Yu Hakusho and Rurouni Kenshin were playing on Cartoon Network; Chloe (the older of the two sisters we were friends with) and I were quite deeply engaged in Tamora Pierce; the five of us were Harry Potter fans of the the kind of rabidity that can only exist in the preadolescent. Also, Chloe and her sister tended to be allowed to watch more movies than my sisters and I:  The Matrix was right up there with all the other stuff.

So one day, in Chloe's backyard, the M-Game -- or, more properly, the Medieval Journey Game -- began. It's difficult to say exactly how it happened, but suddenly, there's Chloe sitting on her front stoop, asking if you wanted the blue bean or the red bean. She had stepped out of character (usually, she was Cassandra, a witch) for a little encounter, and I, the witch Thidriel, was there with my hobbit pal (usually Cassandra's sidekick and, outside the M-Game, my youngest sister) and two elves named Thor and Loki (Chloe's little sister and my younger sister). Also, beans? Cinnamon mints from my mom's purse.

The game spiralled on for a long, long, long afternoon, until it was 5pm, we had to go, and Loki, it was revealed, was actually a ridiculously powerful evil... thing. It's a bit hazy, but I know what I was talking to Chloe about on the phone for the next two years:  The Medieval Journey Game.

We put a lot of time into that game, a lot of time, a lot of thought, and a lot of energy. The game was, to a certain extent, another facet of our friendship. Sure, we were pals, and our letters (because the game began just before my interminable peregrinations to Europe did) were full of random jokes about monkeys and what was happening in the Dark Tournament. But we wrote them with dip pens on paper printed to look like parchment, and sealed them with sealing wax in ridiculous colors. We invested in nuts and bolts of various sizes to use as coinage; capes and boots became prized thrift store finds.

One summer day, we even took it on the road:  Instead of Chloe's backyard in the rural suburbs, we played the game on my family's farm. Along a one-mile track that led over fields and hills, we rambled and chattered and looked for streams to ford, for encounters to... encounter. The hobbit took off her shoes; Cassandra and I found long sticks to mark our rank. (Witches are as strong as wizards, and by God, they have staves, too.) The elves carried bottles of flat 7-Up and pieces of lembas (potato bread, I think).

It was a beautiful place to be on a hot summer day. We rolled up our trousers and put our feet in the stream, and that was enough:  By the time we were there, Chloe and I had slaked our desire for stick-fights, the elves had shared their 7-Up, and we were covered in sweat. The stream was, truly, something from the fantasy world we were in:  Cool water, flowing over slightly silty stones in the hollow between two hills, surrounded by trees and bushes, black-raspberries bushes not yet in fruit, but soon, soon...

Later, we tried to do more formal roleplaying -- you know, with the dice and stuff -- but it never stacked up. Always, when we spend time together, we end up in some semi-formal playacting:  Last time, it was an all-night game of Murder, in which the nature of the detectives and the characters was so heavily imbued with characters not our own (I, who have never even been properly drunk, was a twitching junky from North Carolina named Jake; Chloe was a hooker from New Jersey who pretended she was English) that the entire night might almost have been a film.

So, what does this mean? Well, it means that I'm still happy to sit up all night playacting, either with other people or all alone (witness the writerliness). It means, also, that with proper encouragement, the kind of imaginative play heralded as so important in the early years of a child's development can also be fostered in children beyond elementary-school age, which may explain the continuing popularity of speculative fiction for children, even now that Harry Potter is four years' done (as noted in Strange Horizons). But beyond that...

Beyond that is the stream between the hills, where fantasy and reality not only blend but cease entirely to matter.

19 February 2011

Aprons and Tattoos.

So, in the last week-ish, I have read two books. They were gripping and amazing, and both were read for entirely the wrong reasons. They were The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff and The Tain, Thomas Kinsella's version -- and, according to Kim McCone (Irish philologist) one of the finest translations for the common reader. (That said, I'm totally hitting the Cecile O'Rahilly version of recension 1, to which I have access and which access will be duly abused.)

The Eagle of the Ninth is, theoretically, a children's book, though how far it is specifically a children's book is debatable:  The main character is of the age of majority, and most of his actions are as intense as they would be in a "mainstream" novel, albeit without much of a sexual component. The novel relates the story of Marcus Aquila, a young centurion in the roman army circa. 125AD-ish. He has been sent to Britain, where he is to take over command of a small frontier outpost. The takeover goes smoothly enough -- but within the first three chapters, the outpost has suffered a raid by marauding Dumnonii (I think), and, although the outpost is still held by the Romans, Marcus himself has had to leave the military. In the raid, he suffered a severe injury to his leg, which leaves him more or less crippled throughout the remainder of the book -- which, incidentally, goes on for a further 18 chapters. We hear about the leg.

Marcus' adventures really only begin, however, when he moves in with his uncle, a retired military man who now calls Britain his home. There, he encounters a young gladiator, Esca, who is a captured native Briton. He buys Esca as a slave -- and then volunteers to go on a mission into the wild north, to recapture the eagle mascot of his father's legion.

Oh yes, Marcus has his backstory:  His father disappeared when he was very young, vanished in the wilds north of Hadrian's wall. The eagle of his legion -- without which the legion cannot be re-formed -- was lost there, too. Marcus dreams of being able to re-create his father's legion, and of retrieving the eagle and his father's honor. What follows is the tale of Marcus' travels north of the wall, trying to find the eagle. Along the way, he uncovers the truth about the end of the Ninth Hispana, and learns to live with life as it now is for him -- although Marcus is a young man, the book elegantly explores the idea that this is the last adventure of this kind he may ever have, his last opportunity to be a man of action in this particular way.

The setting was beautifully realized, too:  The strangeness of the British natives was well-developed, and the reader easily caught the sense that she was reading about a completely different culture, one that has nothing to do with England and Englishness as it now exists. The author's love of history comes through in geeky detail (because I know my kind when I encounter it), such as her precise description of a British-style chariot, and the British characters' obsession with horses and their breeding. The relationship between the main character and Esca, the Briton who is helping him in his quest, is also well-handled. In fact, the only odd note in the book is the fact that the main character, who must be in his early twenties, is shown to be falling in love with a girl who has scarcely entered her teens. While this may have been acceptable in the time of the Romans (and there's some debate about how young they really did marry back then), it seems odd and kind of creepy to a modern reader.

However, the book easily transcends the young adult literature ghetto into which it has been shunted, and I recommend it highly. Of course, as I said, my reasons for reading it are all wrong, and are, in fact, singular:  The release of the film of the book, combined with the book's ready availability around the school where I work, prompted me to read it. It am very glad I did; it was an excellent guide to how to write historical fiction.

Then I got on to The Tain.

The Eagle of the Ninth is a book that is said to be for children, mostly, I suspect, because it doesn't contain overt, gratuitous or graphic violence or sexuality. The Tain has all of those things, plus cussing pregnant women, bizarre shonen-animesque fight scenes, and casual references to bodily functions that we now build small, tiled rooms to hide. Did I mention the violence? And the homosexually-charged shonen-animesque fight scenes? Those were there, too.

Anyway, The Tain is Thomas Kinsella's version of Táin Bó Cúailnge, or, in English, The Cattle Raid of Cooley. This is an Irish myth cycle, which exists in three versions, two of which are more or less complete, though dating from long after the story was originally conceived, told, written or however you'd like to put it. The plot centers around Ailill and Mebd, the king and queen of Connacht, going on a cattle raid into neighboring Cooley (names here Anglicized to protect people who have tongues) to steal Dunn Cúailnge, the Brown Bull of Cooley.

The death toll is astronomical.

Because Mebd and Ailill didn't realize that they would be up against Cúchulainn, the seventeen-year-old war prodigy who can, apparently, turn himself inside out to further his success in battle (which transformations are, in the sole misstep of the book, translated as "warp-spasms" by Kinsella). He was also, the reader realizes with discomfort, wooing women, making babies and killing people by the age of five or so. At the beginning of the book, he pledges himself to Emer, but this is, apparently, forgotten fairly soon, because he has a child with another woman (which he kills by accident, because the kid looked at him wrong or something). He tends to run around in a silk apron, which is all kinds of wrong. He also has seven fingers on each hand and seven toes on each foot and seven pupils in each eye -- and is also, apparently, good-looking enough that the women following the Connacht army climb onto the shoulders of their men to have a look at him.

The comparisons to shonen anime are intentional, mind you, and serve a deeper purpose here:  Like the best of that genre of popular culture, The Tain is both more than faintly ridiculous ("[He cast the gae bolgas] from the fork of his foot, and sent it casting toward Ferdia [...] and [it] went coursing through the highways and byways of his body so that every single joint was filled with barbs." I'm not kidding. Pages 196-7, OUP paperback 1970, if you don't believe me. And that's without the "millstone" that is apparently under Ferdia's... apron.) and intensely moving:  Just after the parenthetically-quoted scene, Cúchulainn movingly mourns the loss of Ferdia, who was his foster brother (when he was training with the mother of his baby). This is after the seventeen-year-old has been the only man guarding the borders while all the other men of Ulster are down with the sickness (which was set on them by one of the aforementioned cussing pregnant women). Cúchulainn's desperation is as moving as Hector's mother weeping on the walls of Troy, and having to fight his foster brother to the death is the last straw. Fortunately, that's about when the Ulstermen finally get their act together and start kicking some Connacht ass.

Kinsella's retelling does a fantastic job of remaining true to the style of mythology, keeping in many of the long lists of names of people who never again appear in the story and the topographical digressions that would make Hardy blush (never have directions for getting from point A to point B been so slaveringly detailed as here). However, he never loses sight of the characterization: Cúchulainn, for all his ridiculous skill, is still seventeen, desperately trying to defend his home turf when no one else can; Fergus, the exiled Ulsterman who helps Ailill and Mebd on their stupid, vain raid, is convincingly conflicted about his role in the conflict. It is Mebd, however, who emerges at the most hilarious and unprecendented times. Her character is so modern, so fresh and funny and foul-mouthed, she might have walked off of the set of a modern action movie. From the pillow talk at the beginning, which sets the whole idiot-ball rolling, to the climactic battle scene (for the sake of delicacy, we'll say that her femininity sure can pick a time to show itself), she is both the reason for the plot -- it was her pride that set the Connachtmen on the cattle-raiding path -- and a great mover thereof. Besides that, we are told that she can hold her own in battle, and wields a big damn sword while riding around in her chariot. (And suggesting that three thousand men be killed because, as a unit within her army, they're too good at everything and will piss everyone else off. She does that, too -- quite early on, in fact).

In this case, I have one marginally valid reason for reading:  I've had an idea in the back of my mind, which has so far manifested as about a thousand words of word-processor document, for a retelling of Táin Bó Cúailnge among the... hill people of the Appalachian mountains. (In mine, Donn Cúailnge is a mechanical bull heisted from a local bar when it went belly-up. And Cúchulainn is renamed Koocherlain -- or Koo for short.) This will, however, require further research, and many more giggles about millstones and the general bizarrerie of the thing.

The less valid and more pressing reason, however, is my long-time love for the Epic Rocking EP brought to you by some bookish person from Portland. Yes, it's all Colin Meloy and his friends' fault. (Not that I'm complaining.)

At any rate, the book I'm reading now has a picture of a big bloody ax on the cover. Hello, half-0term break! Where have you been since I received my copy of this axe-fronted book several days before my American friends got it?

12 February 2011

Lustrous, or, An Appreciation of Ed Harcourt.

So, I am on a massive Ed Harcourt kick. Massive kick. As in, have listened to little else for the last month.

How can I do this? Well, for one thing, I have all his albums that were released on CD. (Oddly, for me, I haven't managed to pick up the download ones... Go figure, eh?) These are, for the curious, "Here Be Monsters" (2001), "From Every Sphere" (2003, and the first of his albums I listened to), "Strangers" (2004), "The Beautiful Lie" (2006) and, possibly my favorite of the lot, "Lustre," released last year.

Although I say that "Lustre" is, thus far, my favorite, it's kind of a moot point. Harcourt has maintained the level of freshness-of-vision found in his earliest records, while honing and maturing his sound. His material, too, has become more mature -- I'm listening to "Here Be Monsters" right now, and there's a lot of youthful self-image that, while leading to good songs, doesn't necessarily make sense with the creator himself:  "Beneath the Heart of Darkness" is an old man's song, incongruously performed by a young man. With its imagery of slow death and outward darkness to hide pain, it really just doesn't make sense for a man who was then barely into his twenties. (Not that he shouldn't have written the song, and not that such subject matter can't be dealt with by younger people.) There is a touch of the absurd to it, of a man trying on hats in the attic to see which family figure he will become.

This air carries over into "From Every Sphere," but that album had a more polished sound -- more Harry Nilsson than an audibly-vocal'd Pastels. However, "From Every Sphere" carried a different tone lyrically, as well, and included more musical experimentation:  "All of Your Days Will Be Blessed," for example, features a wheezy harmonium (which appealed to me greatly, since the house I lived in when the album came out also featured a wheezy harmonium, but I wasn't allowed to touch that one) and, although the mournful horns that appeared on "Here Be Monsters" also played a part in "From Every Sphere," there was more experimentation with a music-hall sound, and more inclusion of strings.

However, Harcourt's music-hall is a music-hall from an Angela Carter novel (I'm thinking, actually, of the puppet theatre in The Magic Toyshop). "Strangers" expanded on this, and branched out into other sounds:  The full-on wailing of violin, voice and piano in "Let Love Not Weigh Me Down" is, while not necessarily mature, a lot more mature in its sound and in its ambition than similar exercises (such as the aforementioned "Beneath the Heart of Darkness"). But "Strangers" was a difficult album, not least because of its much bleaker lyrical outlook. "Let Love Not Weigh Me Down" is (rather obviously) not a love song, and other tracks -- from "The Music Box," with its Pearls Before Swine-ish tale of war and destruction, to "The Trap Door" and the obviously-titled "Loneliness" -- display a grimness not previously seen in Harcourt's work, even in those attic-adventurings from "Here Be Monsters."

Harcourt followed that with "The Beautiful Lie," an album that was both a return to form, in terms of a more varied lyrical content, and an obviously better album than Harcourt's prior efforts. "The Beautiful Lie" shows a young man now on the other side of 25, one who now has some experience of the world. It's the difference between the character of the creator of Nicholas Nickleby in his eponymous novel and Richard Carstairs in Bleak House -- he is conscious of being the same person, but also different:  Capable of failure, capable of, indeed, become the guy in "Beneath the Heart of Darkness" if he's not careful.

"The Beautiful Lie" had guest appearances from people like The Magic Numbers, but these almost blend into the background:  It's Harcourt's album through and through. "Visit From the Dead Dog" is a good example of this. Although it displays the same poppy sensibility of Harcourt's early albums, the dichotomy between the lyrical subject and the rather cheerful music is well-handled and does not seem forced. The slower songs on the album are contrasted well with the manic moments. Look, for example, at the transition between "Scatterbraine" (which is as manically annoying as the additional "e" at the end of the word would hint) and "Rain on the Pretty Ones," which has more than a hint of Harcourt's earlier song, "The Wind Through the Trees." But while "The Wind Through the Trees" seemed a little dull after the exuberance of tracks like "The Apple of My Eye," "Rain on the Pretty Ones" seems fitting after the caper-film madness of the preceding song. Its sadness is the proper antidote to mania.

But of course, this leads us to "Lustre," Harcourt's most recent release. Previously, I stated that this was my favorite of Harcourt's albums. This is not a difficult claim to make, for me:  Essentially, on this album, Harcourt looks at the things he has played with in the past, the hat's he's tried on, so to speak, and reexamines them as an actual adult. The feral gothiness that characterized tracks like "Undertaker Strut" ("From Every Sphere") is present in "Heart of a Wolf," but this time, it makes sense -- it's addressed to someone, rather than just pulling up imagery. The poppy sensibility, yes:  "A Secret Society" and "Do As I Say Not As I Do" seem like "Shanghai" ("Here Be Monsters") and "Kids (Rise From the Ashes)" ("Strangers") but with a happiness, a pleasure in the creator's place in life, that was not present in earlier albums.

There is an explanation for this, of course:  In the making of his last album, Harcourt got married and, more recently, the couple had their first child. But that happiness, that lack of desperation, has been translated into an album that is profoundly enjoyable:  Harcourt's contentment is catching. Where other artists, on reaching familial bliss, often retire (especially artists in Harcourt's position -- caught, rather, between the underground and the bright lights of fame and fortune, and who can really busk on the subway stairs?) or make music that is kind of... boring, Harcourt has not done that. "Lustre" is a strong album, in more ways than one:  Sonically, of course, lyrically, yes, but also spiritually. There's a fortitude behind the "Lustre," and I hope that Harcourt continues to explore this rich but largely unmined vein of human emotion.

04 February 2011


So, the books are getting read.

I finished Tess of the D'Urbervilles the other day. Good stuff (obviously). I liked the way Hardy used plant life instead of eroticism, and essentially turned Tess into a metaphor for the despoiling of the English countryside in the early days of industrial farming (nice one, with the engine-powered hay baler while she's being tormented by Alec), but still managed to maintain her as an actual character. That was well done.

However, while I realize Hardy was writing in a very different time, I kept getting distracted by a certain thought, which was, "My God, she can really pick 'em!" I mean, the nice guy was a self-centered [male-specific expletive of choice] with absolutely no concept of any understanding outside of his own navel. Not only in terms of sexual mores -- which is understandable, I suppose, when viewed under the "different time" flag -- but in terms of... everything. Everything everyone else thought was wrong/stupid/misguided/easily explicable in the terminology of his self-centered Hellenistic mock-paganism. Although he did get over himself, and kind of dropped the "mock" part of the previously bestowed epithet (right around the time he and Tess slept in Stonehenge -- Hardy was not a subtle symbolist, it seems), it was kind of infuriating.

Funny, isn't it, how deep thoughts can be on trivial topics, but when it comes to serious works of Literature, all that surfaces is vapidity and flippancy? Vanity, vanity &c.

Regardless, I have since commenced Epictetus' Discourses. Very lovely. I read stoic philosophy the way I read books on the history of boogers -- for a quick larf. Example:

Pray, if you were sick yourself, should you be willing to have your relatives, and children themselves and your wife, so very affectionate as to leave you alone and desolate?

Don't complain to Epictetus.

Anyway, I've been feeling emotionally volatile and soul-nauseous lately, so I should not blog much longer. You do not want to see that pus, man.

Hopefully, I'll have more interesting things to say about Tess at a later date. Give me some thinking time, and we'll see how she goes.

By the way, have all y'all checked out Enchanted Conversation? They have interesting things to say about fairy tales. Have a look; I may be submitting there eventually.