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Archive for January, 2012

Saul, John Ralston.  The Unconscious Civilization.  Toronto: House of Ansansi Press, Inc., 1995.

I’m not a believer in totalizing theories of human experience. They are necessarily reductive, framing history as determined by a set of specific elements, and assuming that humanity’s problems have a single specific solution. I’m interested in how complex the world is, and ideologies of all sorts seem almost childishly simple when framed against the sweep of human history. Unfortunately, ideologies can also be appallingly destructive.

John Ralston Saul’s The Unconscious Civilization centres on the rise of ideologies along with modernity. A few months have passed since I first listened to the 1995 Massey Lectures, not much longer since I read the book. Saul raises a great deal of questions about western civilization in a volume that barely scratches 200 pages. Though the lectures date back to 1995, Saul’s arguments have only become more timely.

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Despite the claims on the cover, the following short story anthology contains absolutely nothing by Neil Gaiman or Gene Wolfe:

I was not only disappointed, but rather angry as well.

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Black Powder Fantasy

I’m a bit miffed by the lack of early modern settings in fantasy. Since most of the “medieval” tropes in your standard western fantasy series actually come from the Renaissance, you would expect gunpowder and other technological innovations to follow. Yet while shipbuilding technology tends to go the opposite direction, jumping far ahead, we’re often left with a noticeable absence of guns. For those, you’d best look to steampunk or gaslight romance; secondary-world fantasy often remains pre-modern in character in at least one aspect, an inability to discover gunpowder, even if early modern in others.

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Crusading without a Cross

“Revisionist” theories of the crusades go a long way to secularize the whole affair; but at this point, the revisionist explanations for the origin of the First Crusade (or any Crusade, really) have become the dominant discourse in the western world.  What was once taught as noble now reduced to social and economic factors with religion as only the catalyst or enabler for a movement with far different aims.  Later movements: colonialism, Imperialism, racial discourse and so forth get reflected back in time.  While we can see the dim origin of the mechanisms for these later movements lying in the Crusades, these sorts of reductionist narratives necessarily deny the complexity of the crusading movement.

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Slavic Fairy Tales

One reason I haven’t bought an e-reader is my fascination with the book as a physical object. That, and because I buy nearly all my books used. Each one has a story separate from what’s contained within its pages. A book by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with a note from 1915 inked on the inside cover. A 1919 edition of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. My copy of Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (probably the single most important book in my life) has pencilled scribbles in the early chapters—my dad’s Polish translations of various words from back when he was learning English; he remembered the Polish translation of the novel so well he thought it would carry over. He still has his Polish copy somewhere.

I’ve kept Klechdy Domowe (Domestic Fairy Tales) on my shelf, a collection of Polish fairy tales and legends. The book was a present for my sister in 1989, though I’m the one who ended up with it. Most notable are Zbigniew Rychlicki’s handsome illustrations, which have an oddly Slavic air about them.

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While The Lord of the Rings is a more complex and serious work, I’ve found Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain more personally affecting.  A recent re-read of The High King reinforced my love for Alexander’s vision (and I was delighted to find that my map holds true!).  Plenty of “traditional” fantasy lies caught in concepts of noble birth: the farm boy is nearly always of a far more august lineage than once assumed.  We can chalk this to medieval romances, since tales of hidden ancestry were common enough.  Worth was tied almost exclusively to ancestry within feudal societies.

Lloyd Alexander’s message was quite different.

(The following discussion necessarily involves spoilers, so consider yourself warned.)

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