And the legend continues...to be not heard about, by anyone

There’s a bit in some Sherlock Holmes story where Watson discovers that Holmes doesn’t know that the earth orbits the sun. “How can you not know that?” says Watson (only that’s not exactly what he says because I'm paraphrasing). “Everybody knows that!” And then Holmes qualifies what he said by explaining that he probably once knew it but he’s forgotten it because it’s not important to what he does. Memorizing the color and consistency of all the different dirts surrounding London is important to what he does. But the fact that the earth orbits the sun is irrelevant.

I just read a book that I would like to forget for the same reason: it is irrelevant. It’s called The Alchemist and it’s what we’ll be discussing during the May meeting of the RS book group. When the book was announced, one of the members said, “Don’t let it shake your faith.” That statement kind of intrigued me, but it also annoyed me. How could a mere book shake my faith?

I must report that, after reading the book, the only thing about me that was shaken was my head, back and forth in disbelief that the claptrap I was reading was another bestseller. It shouldn’t surprise me, though. I’ve had enough experience with reading to know that a book being on the bestseller list usually means nothing more than that an awful lot of people have really bad taste.

The Alchemist is the story of a young Spanish shepherd named Santiago who, while keeping his flock for the night in the ruins of an old church with a sycamore tree in or near it, has a dream about going to Egypt and finding a treasure. He is told by a gypsy and an old man who says he is Melchizedek (the king of Salem) that he has to follow the dream (or what the author insists on calling one’s Personal Legend) to the pyramids of Egypt to get his treasure. The old man also gives Santiago two stones, a black one and a white one, that he says are called Urim and Thummim. They will help him make decisions because the white one means “yes” and the black one means “no.” Or the black one means “yes” and the white one means “no”. I forget.

When I told this to Gary, he says the old man should’ve just given him a Magic 8-ball. I agree. Not only would it take up less room in Santiago’s pack because it’s 2-in-1, but he’d also get more options, like “better not tell you now” and “don’t count on it” that provide scope for conflict and plot development.

So anyway, Santiago sells his flock and uses part of the money to cross the Strait of Gibraltar to Tangiers or someplace like that where he gets robbed, so he goes to work in a crystal shop to earn money and then he joins a caravan and crosses northern Africa to an oasis where he meets a lovely girl named Fatima. He also meets an alchemist who teaches him how to follow his dream and some other silly stuff, and then the boy goes to the pyramids and digs in the sand until some thieves come and want to know what he’s up to and they beat Santiago almost senseless. Then he tells them he’s digging for treasure, so they think he’s nuts (so do I, but for other reasons) and decide he doesn’t have anything else worth stealing, and one of the thieves says “Oh, you’re a fool. It’s just like a dream I had of going to some ruined church in Spain with a sycamore tree and finding a buried treasure. How stupid is that.” So the boy goes back to Spain and finds the treasure buried at the church where he started out. The end. Oh, except he’s going to go back to Africa to find Fatima at the oasis. The end.

The first question I had upon reading this book was why didn’t Santiago just buy passage to Alexandria and then take a quick camel ride to Giza? He could have saved himself a lot of trouble.

The second question I had upon reading this book is, who the heck cares? I know, I know. This is supposed to be a book about following your dream and not letting anyone or anything dissuade you from achieving your goal, or Personal Legend. The author tells us that in the introduction. So why not just stop with the introduction? Why waste paper and ink and people’s time with the rest of it?

As I read the book, I started marking pages with blue slips of paper with the intent of later going back and quoting passages that I found particularly inane or meaningless. By the time I finished, however, there was a forest of blue slips sticking up from the book. It would take too long and probably be some kind of copyright violation to quote them all. So I’ll just stick to a couple. (Quotes from the book are in red.)

The alchemist’s words echoed out like a curse. He reached over and picked up a shell from the ground.

“This desert was once a sea,” he said.

“I noticed that,” the boy answered.

The alchemist told the boy to place the shell over his ear. He had done that many times when he was a child, and had heard the sound of the sea.

“The sea has lived on in this shell, because that’s its Personal Legend. And it will never cease doing so until the desert is once again covered by water.”

They mounted their horses, and rode out in the direction of the Pyramids of Egypt.

The sea has lived on in this shell? The sea has lived on in this shell?? What the boy hears is enhanced environmental noise, not the sea. The sea is busy living on elsewhere, like at the actual sea.

All right, then there’s this part where the alchemist and the boy get captured by some Tusken Raiders or something who are going to kill the alchemist and the boy. So the alchemist tells the raiders that the boy can turn himself into the wind. If I’d been the boy, I would have said “Turn yourself into the wind.” But instead, the boy goes and talks to the desert, the wind, and the sun. The conversations he has with these three characters are stupid, stupid, and stupid.

“What do you want here today?” the desert asked him. “Didn’t you spend enough time looking at me yesterday?”

Pardon my interruption, but I think the desert is being just a bit touchy here.

“Somewhere you are holding the person I love,” the boy said, “So, when I look out over your sands, I am also looking at her. I want to return to her, and I need your help so that I can turn myself into the wind.”

Okay, right here, if I were the desert, I would have said, “Turn yourself into the wind?! Are you insane?” But instead, this is the desert’s response:

“What is love?” the desert asked.

Then the boy goes on about falcons and eating game, and the desert says:

“So is that what love is?”

“Yes, that’s what love is. It’s what makes the game become the falcon, the falcon become man, and man, in his turn, the desert. It’s what turns lead into gold, and makes the gold return to the earth.”

“I don’t understand what you’re talking about,” the desert said.

Yeah, no kidding.

So then the boy starts talking to the wind and the wind says the boy can’t be the wind, and the boy goes on about Personal Legends and love, and he says:

“When you are loved, you can do anything in creation. When you are loved, there’s no need at all to understand what’s happening, because everything happens within you, and even men can turn themselves into the wind. As long as the wind helps, of course.”

The wind was a proud being, and it was becoming irritated with what the boy was saying.

I'm not that proud, but I was also becoming irritated with what the boy was saying. There’s more, though. Somehow the sun gets dragged into this scheme, and the boy says to it:

“You are wise, because you observe everything from a distance,” the boy said. “But you don’t know about love. If there hadn’t been a sixth day, man would not exist; copper would always be just copper, and lead just lead. It’s true that everything has its Personal Legend, but one day that Personal Legend will be realized. So each thing has to transform itself into something better, and to acquire a new Personal Legend, until, someday, the Soul of the World becomes one thing only.”

The sun thought about that, and decided to shine more brightly.

Well that’s just lame.


Nevertheless, we will show you how to put a large cake into oblivion!

There are two words that, spoken to anyone who has been through the secondary educational system in California, will cause a shudder in the soul comparable to that felt when one is forced to eat sauerkraut cold from a can. Those two words are (prepare yourself!): “Great Expectations”.

Okay, sometimes those two words aren’t all that scary, mostly because people have suppressed certain unpleasant memories. But if I add two more words, then you’ll probably really be frightened, because it will all come flooding back on a wave of shock, like a shock wave. And those two words are . . . “Charles Dickens”. Or maybe “High School”. Either one ought to do the trick.

Yes, that’s right. Great Expectations is a title guaranteed to produce fear, or at least deep consternation and pretty surely loathing, in just about anyone who was made to read Dickens’ Great Expectations in high school.

I bring up this particular book because last week, during the RS reading group, we were supposed to be discussing Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers – a book I had chosen and was going to lead the discussion on – only nobody had finished reading it, mostly because it was a rather long book and we were supposed to have had two months from November to January to read it but our schedule got a little messed up and it turned out we had only three weeks in February and March, and partly because it was written in the 1850s so it’s not going to be easy and breezy to the point of inanity like so much of the drivel that is published nowadays. Yes, it would actually require some effort.

Well, we had a pretty good discussion anyhow, mostly about the hierarchy of the Church of England, which half of us knew nothing about and the other half knew just enough to confuse the first half. Aside from that and a bit of synopsizing on my part, there was not a little whining about the length of the book, which I had expected, so I tried to explain to the group members why I like Anthony Trollope’s books so much, and Barchester Towers in particular (it being my favorite of his that I’ve read and the only one I’ve read more than once). To back myself up, I quoted to them a remark by P D James that I had looked up just before our meeting: “No Victorian novelist – I would dare to say, no other writer of any age – has portrayed his women characters with more sympathy, more understanding, more delicacy, more truth to life.”

They still weren’t overly enthusiastic but one of them said, “I do want to finish the book,” and the others murmured in agreement. I realized then it was time to bring in the big ammunition, and that doesn’t mean the dessert, although I was kind of thinking along those lines for a minute because of something that had happened earlier that day.

I had originally planned to make a trifle for the dessert that our book group is pretty traditional about having after the discussion, but I couldn’t find a “lite” pound cake. I ended up buying a pre-fab cake which was very prettily decorated with cookies (it was a "cookies & cream" cake).

It came carefully encased in plastic, and I carried it carefully to the cashier. The cashier carefully scanned it and handed it to the bagger, who carefully put it in a grocery bag and handed it to me. I took it gently and carefully carried it out to the car, placing it on the passenger seat beside me. I thought about putting the seat belt on the cake, but decided that might do more harm than good if the child-lock feature was accidentally activated, so instead I drove home very carefully at about 17 miles an hour. In the driveway, I carefully picked up the bag with the cake in it, walked carefully up the stairs, carefully unlocked the front door while carefully holding the cake in my other hand, being careful not to bang it against the door while I utilized my key. Then, I entered the house, carefully closed the door, walked gently into the kitchen, carefully took the cake out of the grocery bag, and then, while carefully balancing the cake in one hand, I carefully opened the pantry and placed the grocery bag inside the bag that we keep extra grocery bags in until we have a chance to take them to the recycling bin. Then I carefully closed the pantry door and, turning toward the counter, prepared to carefully place the cake upon it.

The cake slid off my hand and fell on the floor.

Not only that, but somehow it did a little flip and turned as it fell so that it landed upside down. All those studies about buttered toast came to mind. (If only I’d taken the time to tie the cake to the back of a cat. Knowing my cats, however, they would have refused to attempt landing on their feet just to spite me.)

Horrified – almost as horrified as if someone had whispered “Great Expectations” in my ear – I picked up the cake and turned it over, expecting the worst. Now here’s the really scary part: it looked fine, except for a little dent along the top edge on one side. I don’t know which was worse, dropping the cake or finding out that it was undamaged. Even the cookies were still all in place. What was this cake made of, anyhow?

So, anyway, back to my attempts to introduce Barchester Towers to the RS book group. Finally, in a sort of despair and as a last resort, I mentioned that Trollope was nicer to women and a lot funnier than Charles Dickens. Someone started to say, “Oh, Dickens! I just love A Chris–” but I interrupted very quickly with “You know, the guy who wrote Great Expectations?”

The person who had been about to bring up Tiny Tim suddenly fell silent.

"High school," I whispered, nodding significantly.

Everyone shuddered. I think I made my point.

Why does the American educational system insist on inflicting Great Expectations on an unsuspecting teenage populace? It’s something I’ve never been able to grasp (sort of like that cake, I guess) and I believe it only serves to instill a distaste for Victorian Literature in unformed minds, a distaste which is allowed in the ensuing years to fossilize into an unnatural hatred that can affect one’s attitude toward any book written during or around the same time, and that most unfortunately means Anthony Trollope and even (I wish I didn’t have to say it, but it’s true) Jane Austen.

As I recall it, Great Expectations is a fairly dull story full of improbable coincidences in which Pip does little but admire a contemptible girl, and then he grows up and still admires her and all along he hasn’t learned a thing about how to be responsible for himself or his money. There are about four interesting parts in Great Expectations: 1) the beginning where Pip meets the escaped convict in the cemetery; 2) the description of Miss Havisham’s wedding cake with the cobwebs and spiders all over it (and I couldn’t help wondering what the results would be if her cake slipped and landed upside down); 3) the description of Miss Havisham’s death by fire; and 4) by the end, Pip’s mean sister has died and Joe gets to marry somebody nice, which he really should have done in the first place, if you ask me.

Why is Great Expectations considered Essential Reading for today’s youth? Why don’t schools make kids read something that’s just as well written but way more interesting? Like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island? Because pirates are really popular right now. And I think it’s more exciting to read about the Black Spot (which is just as effective as uttering “Great Expectations” for striking terror into someone’s heart), and Jim hiding in the apple barrel, and the attack of the pirates on the fort, etc, etc. I think Treasure Island tells a lot more about having to grow up suddenly, and being loyal to friends and family and being responsible for great amounts of money than Dickens’ book does, and Stevenson relates it in a more engaging manner. But for reasons I can’t fathom, Great Expectations has endured in the curriculum for decade after decade.

By the way, bits of the cake were eaten for dessert (everyone asked for “a small piece”, like they suspected something beforehand). I tried to get Ian to eat some, but he said it tasted funny. (Like floor, maybe? No, the plastic cover was still firmly on when the Mishap occurred.) I finally threw the rest of the cake into the garbage, whence it was dragged carelessly out to the trash, and then tossed ungently into the garbage truck, and then hauled to the landfill, where it will probably remain undecayed for at least as long as Great Expectations has lasted in the textbooks.


Hey, did you lose weight, or a limb?

Some time ago I read an article published in the UK newspaper the Guardian. Back in June 2000, several judges trying to decide which book should get the Whitbread prize (some prize for the Best Book handed out in Britain) were harangued by Anthony Holden, a British journalist and one of the judges. It so happened that the rules that year had been adjusted in such a way that a children’s book (one of the Harry Potter series) was up against adult literature, like Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. Why they were even in the same category is beyond me. I think it’s a great piece of foolishness, but there it is. Anyhow, here’s an excerpt from what Holden wrote in the Guardian:

“I was alarmed to hear two of the celebrity judges, Jerry Hall and Imogen Stubbs, testifying how much their children enjoyed being read Potter. Were their children, I snorted, to be allowed to choose the Book of the Year. ‘You should be reading them Beowulf,’ I snapped testily. ‘It’s much the same sort of stuff, heroes taking on dragons and all that, but the language is far more exciting.’ To their credit, Hall and Stubbs politely agreed with me, promised to read their children Heaney, and wound up helping him carry the day. Just.

“I did not, as reported, further argue that children’s books cannot be great literature. Of course they can, if they are well-written, stretch the reader’s imagination and open virgin minds to the magical powers of words.”

Another British writer (Robert Harris, if I recall correctly) later called Holden a ‘pompous prat’. I kind of have to agree. Not that I think Harry Potter books are the greatest literature on the face of the earth, although I think they're a lot more clever than Holden gives them credit for, or that Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf is the greatest translation of that epic poem ever, but if we go by Holden’s own criteria, the Harry Potter books get a 2.5 out of three: they stretch the reader’s imagination, they open virgin minds to the magical power of words, and (half a point) they are fairly well written. Anyway they’re a heck of a lot better written than a lot of children’s and adult literature that I’ve come across in the last 20 years. I don’t know if it can be counted how many kids have developed a love of reading because of the Harry Potter series. Lots, I guess. I'm not saying the Harry Potter book that was nominated that year deserved the prize, but I am saying that Anthony Holden gets at least a 1.5 out of two: he’s pompous, and (half a point) he’s fairly prat-like.

On the other hand, I do think children should be exposed to classics like Beowulf. But would I read them Heaney’s translation? I don’t know. It depends on the age, the level of linguistic advancement, and the attention span of the child. Of course, the greater the age, the greater the likelihood that the other two elements will be greater as well, as long as the child hasn’t been raised on video games.

I’ve read two translations of Beowulf in my life, and bits of a few others. My senior year in high school, our textbook had excerpts from the translation by J Duncan Spaeth. Okay, here’s the Spaeth translation of the section where we first meet Grendel, the villain of the piece (or one of three villains, actually):

"The demon grim was Grendel called,

Marsh stalker huge, the moors he roamed.

The joyless creature had kept long time

The lonely fen, the lairs of monsters,

Cast out from men, an exile accurst.

The killing of Abel, brother of Cain

Was justly avenged by the Judge Eternal."

When I was a Sophomore in college, we read Kevin Crossley-Holland’s translation. Here’s his take on the same section:

"This gruesome creature was called Grendel,

notorious prowler of the borderland, ranger of the moors,

the fen and the fastness; this cursed creature

lived in a monster’s lair for a time

after the Creator had condemned him

as one of the seed of Cain – the Everlasting Lord

avenged Abel’s murder."

And then, seven or eight years ago, I read Seamus Heaney’s translation (which I bought partly because it was a bilingual edition – not that I can read Old English, but I'm always wishing I could):

"Grendel was the name of this grim demon

haunting the marches, marauding round the heath

and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time

in misery among the banished monsters,

Cain’s clan, whom the Creator had outlawed

and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel

The Eternal Lord had exacted a price."

They’re all fairly similar and they’re all fairly advanced reading material – say 10th grade level, maybe. And that section is already 100 or so lines into the poem. It starts out with some lengthy history/genealogy about Scyld Scefing, who was like the great-grandfather of Hrothgar, who is the king of the Danes, the people that Grendel disturbs. To be sure there are a few interesting bits here and there describing Grendel tearing limbs and drinking blood, and the part where Beowulf kills Grendel is pretty exciting, but what child is going to sit entranced and listen to

"Hrothgar, protector of Shieldings, replied:

'I used to know him when he was a young boy.

His father before him was called Ecgtheow.

Hrethel the Geat gave Ecgtheow

his daughter in marriage. This man is their son,

here to follow up an old friendship.

A crew of seamen who sailed for me once

with a gift-cargo across to Geatland

returned with marvelous tales about him:

a thane, they declared, with the strength of thirty

in the grip of each hand. Now Holy God

has, in His goodness, guided him here

to the West-Danes, to defend us from Grendel.'"

And what parent is even going to know how to pronounce Ecgtheow?

Whenever a classic is too wordy or too vocabularily complex, many people resort to film versions or children’s books of said classic. There are not a few of these for Beowulf. And about 90% of the books for young readers came out in the last year or so, prompted no doubt by the 2007 film version. The problem with most of these book adaptations is that they don’t stick to the original story very closely. For instance, in Robert Nye’s 1982 retelling for young adult readers, Beowulf is not just a warrior, he’s also a beekeeper, and how he kills the dragon is by having a swarm of bees fly down the dragon’s throat and sting it to death from the inside. Couldn’t the dragon have just sneezed or burped or something and fried the bees to a crisp? And how many bees does it take to sting a dragon to death?

Anyway, many of the recent Beowulf books are merely graphic novelizations or other adaptations of the 2007 film. And the film versions . . . oh my goodness! Most of them I haven’t seen because they’re usually rated R, what with all the bone crunching and eye poking and blood drinking and arm ripping and stuff. The 1999 film of Beowulf is a futuristic sci-fi adaptation so I say it doesn’t count, and the 2007 tv version (called Grendel, even though it’s mostly about Beowulf) is really bad, so it doesn’t count. There is a 2005 film, an Icelandic production called Beowulf & Grendel that stars Gerard Butler as Beowulf (so it can’t be all bad, and some medievalists have praised it for the accuracy of the arms and armor, etc), but it has, in addition to the blood spurting and eye poking, some Old English four-letter words that don’t show up in the original manuscript.

As for the most recent film, the 2007 sort-of animated version, I refused to see it after reading about the changes that had been made to the original story. In this film, Hrothgar, king of the Danes, is actually Grendel’s father, having been seduced some time in the past by Grendel’s mom (portrayed as a temptress whose appearance sort of hints at serpent-ness and who has built-in high-heel-shaped feet).

When Beowulf confronts Grendel’s mom, she seduces him, too, with the promise that she will make him the greatest king ever if he will give her a son. So he takes her up on it! Then he lies about killing Grendel’s mom to Hrothgar!! Then Hrothgar throws himself off his castle wall!!! Then Beowulf marries Wealtheow (Hrothgar’s widow) and becomes king of Hrothgar’s people!!!! By this time, I'm so shocked while reading the synopsis that I should no longer be surprised by what comes next, but it’s so silly I can’t help it: at the end, when the dragon attacks, it turns out that the dragon is really Beowulf’s son with Grendel’s mom!!!!!


So, if the films are too ridiculous, poorly made, or inappropriate to show children, and the books are pretty much the same (although I haven’t checked out all the newer picture books that aren’t based on the 2007 film, so there may be something useful there), what’s a parent to do to keep the offspring from being stultified by mediocre children’s literature?

My solution is to tell children the story myself, with the use of visual aids. The idea came to me after I bought some of the action figures from the Lord of the Rings films. As I pondered the appearance of the Éomer action figure, it occurred to me that it would make a pretty good Beowulf.

Fine, but what about Grendel? I scoured the toy store shelves for a monstrous looking action figure that wasn’t dressed like a commando or a wrestler, and the closest thing I could come up with was one of the X-Men. I know, I know, Grendel shouldn’t be wearing a little black Speedo and a yellow belt with a red X on the buckle, but then Beowulf shouldn’t be siring monsters in exchange for power, so I'm not going to let this little variance from authenticity bother me too much.

Actually, after I got the X-Men character, I did see something that I thought might make a pretty good Grendel, but it was like 14 inches tall. I heard there was a smaller one, too, but I never found it in toy stores, so I never acquired it. It’s the werewolf character from the movie Van Helsing. And now I can't even find the 14-inch one. Oh, well.

Anyway, next I needed a Grendel’s mom. I thought trying to find an appropriate Grendel was difficult and time-consuming! I finally gave up on my search for Grendel’s mom. That is, until I read about and saw the pictures of her in the 2007 film. Built-in high-heeled feet? Who does that sound like?

Yes, I think a Barbie doll would make a very good Grendel’s mom, especially a vintage one, because she has such a sinister expression on her face.

But I don’t have any Barbie dolls hanging around at present, so when I tell the story to children (like my nieces, for instance), I have to kind of skip over that part. I'm thinking I’ll hit a few garage sales soon, though, and maybe pick up an evil-looking Barbie in preparation for the next time I'm asked to entertain the kids.

Finally, I also thought I’d never find a good looking dragon. They all seemed so transformer-like or Lego-ish. But one day I was lucky to find a beautifully horrible dragon in a discount bin at Target.

So, having most of my characters ready, I tell the story by skipping over the genealogy and going straight to a description of a mead hall. From recent archaeological finds, it has been determined that mead halls may have looked pretty much like this:

Well, if I had a Popsicle stick collection, I might be able to make a pretty good mead hall, but I don’t, so I'm forced to rely on Lincoln Logs.

So I explain how Grendel was terrorizing Hrothgar’s people because he didn’t like their loud partying. As you would expect, kids pretty much relish the part where Grendel tears the men apart and eats them. I don’t have any other dolls, however, so I have to substitute something that will give the children an equivalent sense of the horror of such an act. I’ve noticed in dealing with children that they are usually far more upset by outrages perpetrated on animals than they are about damage to humans. Ian likes giraffes, so Grendel’s first victim is a giraffe.

And what could be more innocent than a little kitty? Except I feel, frankly, that my three cats deserve anything Grendel could dish out to them.

If that isn’t horrifying enough, you could show Grendel doing something really heinous, like eating an endangered species or something.

Then Beowulf attacks Grendel the next time he comes to the mead hall. You’ll notice that Beowulf isn’t wearing his helmet, partly because it says in the story that he removed his helmet, sword, and armor (but not all his clothes like in the 2007 film) before lying down and pretending to go to sleep, and partly because Éomer’s helmet keeps falling off anyway.

After Grendel is dead (from bleeding to death after Beowulf rips his arm off, which I can’t show because that would ruin the X-Men doll), and after Grendel’s mom is killed with the magic sword, then I sort of gloss over (as the poem itself does) Beowulf’s long 50-year career as the just and good king of the Geats (not the Danes!) and get to the fight with the dragon, and Beowulf's sad death and subsequent funeral.

So yeah, that’s my solution to introducing young children to Beowulf, until they’re old enough to sit and listen to Kevin Crossley-Holland or Seamus Heaney or whomever. Sometimes I let the kids hold the dragon and do some fighting themselves. They seem to enjoy that. And sometimes I pretend that Grendel is Anthony Holden. They seem to enjoy that, too.