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text 2018-07-08 16:46
The Sunday Post: Macbeth Country, well more of it... sort of.

Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more.

By Sinel’s death I know I am Thane of Glamis;

But how of Cawdor? The Thane of Cawdor lives,

A prosperous gentleman; and to be King

 Stands not within the prospect of belief,

No more than to be Cawdor. Say from whence

You owe this strange intelligence, or why

Upon this blasted heath you stop our way

With such prophetic greeting? Speak, I charge you.


- William Shakespeare - Macbeth (Act I, Scene III)


 “I wish the Bard had never written his damned play!

- John Campbell, 5th Earl Cawdor 

It's been a stressful and rather frustrating week at BT HQ last which started with some-Brexit induced admin nightmare, which needed me to seek out the an appointment at Glasgow City Council on Monday because none of the council offices closer to home, i.e. on the other side of the country, were able to offer the required services. This was pretty stressful in itself (had to take a day off work on short notice and nearly panicked when sitting down for getting paperwork checked etc. it looked like I might have misplaced a bit of it ... it did re-appear in a different pile ... but that was one long minute of near panic) but a few days after I received a call from the council officer whose only task in this whole process was to take copies: the copies had turned out blurry and could I "pop in" for another round?


Erm, ... no.


So, several calls with people on withheld numbers and the local Chief Registrar later, we got another plan of action.

As it turns out, if I had submitted my paperwork a few days later, there would have been no need to trek to Glasgow because my local council will start offering the same admin service on Monday. Monday as in from tomorrow. And by local I mean the council office that is is a 10 minute walk away. But of course this was not announced anywhere least of all on the relevant government websites... GAAAAAHH!!!!


Tuesday brought with it a minor surgery - nothing serious, but it needed to be done - which went very well apart from some slight discomfort and the weird experience of asking the consultant to stop telling me in detail what he was about to do. I'm not exaggerating when I tell people that I can't read gory horror stories or thrillers... The descriptions really make me queasy. And as I found out, being at the receiving end of even a minor surgical procedure while being told the descriptions and wherefores of incisions etc. does not make me feel any comfortable at all.

Apparently, my request that the consultant stop the narration and get on with the procedure was unusual and a lot of people want to know the details. Well, each to their own. I now know that I'd rather know the plan step-by-step beforehand but not during.


The rest of this week was a bit of a mess really, but not being one for moping about in fine weather (even if I wasn't allowed to play tennis - because sutures...), I figured it was a fine day for exploring a castle that I had not been to, yet.


Cawdor Castle, near Nairn in the north of Scotland had been on my list for a long, long time. As some of you may know, I have a bit of a thing for Macbeth - both Shakespeare's version and the historical figure - and one of my other favourite castles to spend time at is Glamis (near Forfar), but I just had not had a chance to make the trip to Cawdor (about 3 hours of leisurely driving in good weather). 


It was a fabulous decision. I mean just look at this beauty of a castle:


And the inside of it was just so ... let me show you because they had no problems with people taking plenty of photos of the amazing place:



Just look at them BOOKS! It's a lived in castle. The Dowager Countess does still live there and as one lady-in-a-hurry told me in passing, she does do most of the administration of the castle herself.


Also, there was a maze ... with a minotaur. :D



The castle was built in the late 14th, early 15th century. As the official guide book says:

"A new higher, harder site was chosen (traditionally by a donkey rather than by an architect - creatures with much in common), and as this rocky position was water-bearing yet firm, it could provide both a drinking-well and a strong foundation.

The tall, plain rectangular tower-house consisted of four storeys and a garret, served by a turnpike stair, and with one entrance to the outside world set at upper first floor level: the perfect design to keep out tourists."

So, what's the connection with Shakespeare? 


Well, Macbeth (1005 - 1057) was real, but he was not a Thane of Cawdor (nor of Glamis btw.). King Duncan was killed, but he was killed in outright battle by Macbeth's troops, not in his sleep while being a guest under Macbeth's roof. 


And as for the roof itself: The play was written in 1606 but not printed until 1632, i.e. after Shakespeare's death. However, the places described in the play were apparently added quite late in the play's publication history. So, can we really know whether the locations in the published versions are the ones Shakespeare intended? 


Even if so, Cawdor was not one of them. The play notes Macbeth's castle near Inverness, but this could just as well have meant the original Inverness Castle or another castle in the area - there are several - or it could have just all been invented. After all, it's a play! 


Most of all, of course, the possibility of the Cawdor Castle being the location of that gruesome midnight murder that lost King Duncan his life, Macbeth his sleep, and Lady Macbeth her mind, blows up in a puff of smoke when you look at the dates: the castle wasn't built until the 1400s and the previous castle near Nairn (about 5 miles away) was also built over a hundred years after Kind Duncan's death.  


So, I get that the Campbells, the owners of the castle, get a bit touchy every time some fan of the play takes Shakespeare's play as historical fact. There should be space enough in people's heads to hold both versions and people should have the critical thinking skills to be able to make the distinction between fact and fiction. Otherwise, we are letting entertainment and propaganda form our opinions and write our history books. 


Oh, hang on, ... that's already happened, ... and is still happening.

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review 2018-06-16 21:42
All the old feels, and why this is in my personal canon
King Of The Wind - The Story Of Godolphin Arabian - Marguerite Henry

When my copy arrived from Thrift Books yesterday and it was EXACTLY what I had been looking for, I burst into tears.  I haven't completely stopped crying yet.  It's so beautiful!


As I went through it later last night, I did find a few small pencil marks which I think I can safely remove.  And as I went through it later last night, I also went through several more tissues.  Yeah, it's that kind of story.


How much of the Godolphin Arabian's story as told by Marguerite Henry is true and how much is story, I don't know.  At least part is true, of course, because he was a real horse and the history of his descendants is well known and documented.  But all the stuff before that, from his birth in Morocco through his trials in Paris and London, who knows?


Like most little girls, I was fascinated by horses.  When my grandparents moved from Edison Park, IL, to Roselle, where they had a couple of acres of land "out in the country," all I could think of was having a horse out there.



Of course, that never happened.  Once in a while when we visited I'd see a horse that someone else in the neighborhood owned, but I never got one.  The drive from our house to theirs, however, wound through the stable area of Arlington Park Racetrack, and when we went there during the summer I would literally hang my head out the window of our '53 Chevy to smell the horses.  If by some chance I actually happened to see one, well, that was even more terrific.


Oddly, even though we lived barely a mile from the track, I don't think I went there more than a dozen times in fifteen years.


I never became a huge racing aficionado, filling my head with pedigrees and times of various horses who became famous in those growing-up years of the 1950s and '60s.  A few stuck in my imagination, though, and none more than Round Table, the "little brown horse" who was so famous he warranted a visit from Queen Elizabeth. 


Not long after I moved to Arizona, I struck up a friendship with a woman whose husband was very much a horse racing fan.  I was at their home one day in the summer of 1987 when I happened to flip through one of his racing magazines and learned that Round Table had recently died, and I burst into tears.  Yeah, the feels, for a horse I never knew.


Round Table was a turf horse, claimed to be the greatest ever, and for 40 years or so even had a race at Arlington named after him.


King of the Wind begins with Man O' War, who was descended from the Godolphin Arabian, as are most Thoroughbreds.  I learned from Marguerite Henry's Album of Horses that there were three foundational sires of the breed: the Byerley Turk, the Darley Arabian, and the Godolphin Arabian.  From other reading - I devoured books about horses, too - I knew that Man O' War's dam (mother) was Mahubah, described as "a Rock Sand mare." 


Man O' War, like Secretariat, was a big red horse, not at all like Round Table.  But the little brown horse was also descended from Rock Sand, and through him the line goes back to the Godolphin Arabian.


All. The. Feels.


And all this was in my mind even before the book arrived yesterday.  As I read it last night, yes, there were details that I had forgotten, because after all it's been close to half a century since I last saw it.  But one thing struck me more than anything else, and it had nothing to do with all the feels about Sham the horse and Agba the stableboy and Grimalkin the cat and Lady Roxana the mare and the other things I did remember. In fact, it wasn't even really a detail about the story itself.


Agba is a stableboy in the vast complex of the Sultan of Morocco (even though the horse is believed to have actually come from Yemen). Unable to speak, Agba nonetheless is devoted to the horses in his charge, especially a pregnant broodmare.  It is the holy month of Ramadan, and the Sultan has decreed that the horses shall abstain from food from sunrise to sunset along with their human caretakers.  Agba is able to ignore the temptations of food all around him, but he is very conscious of the strain this puts on the pregnant mare. 


I don't know if Agba ever existed or not.  Maybe there are notes in the life of the Earl of Godolphin, who acquired the stallion, that tell of the boy who could not speak.  I don't know.  But what I do know is that I learned two things from the fictional character: that Ramadan was a holy month of a respected religion and that a person with what most people think of as a handicap can still be a hero.


My maternal grandmother's family is Jewish, so even though I grew up in a nice, white, christian suburb, I knew about prejudice, and I knew about the Holocaust when few of my schoolmates did. I didn't know, at the age I got my copy of King of the Wind, about anti-Islam bigotry, though it wouldn't be much longer. But what Marguerite Henry did, even if she did it unintentionally, was to give this one reader a portrait of someone very different from myself yet who I could see as a kind of role model.


That's a pretty powerful thing. To this day, I tend to judge people on the basis of what they do, not on the basis of what they are.


When I worked at the public library and when I was a grocery store cashier, we had two customers no one wanted to wait on.  At the library she was a quiet woman who almost never spoke, but came in frequently and checked out lots of books.  One of my fellow librarians called her "creepy" because she was always staring at people.  It didn't take me long to figure out this patron was severely hearing impaired.  She stared because she was trying to read our lips.  Most of the librarians turned away from her, making the experience even worse for her.  I spoke directly to her, and we got along fine.  I never did learn ASL, and she still spoke very little, but she smiled.


The same with the man at the grocery store.  He tried to teach me to sign, but it's hard when there's a whole line of impatient people behind you.  He learned to look for me when he came into the store so he would have a better experience checking out.


Had I learned that from Agba?  From Marguerite Henry?  Maybe.  Maybe from Sham, the Sultan's horse who endured so much and never gave up. 


King of the Wind is a beautiful book.  I'm glad I posted here about my frustration with the first order that ended up being a flimsy paperback, and I'm doubly, triply glad that Chris found this copy at Thrift Books.  It seems like $7 shouldn't be a strain on a budget, but at the moment it really is for me, but I'll do without something else along the way because this was definitely a book I needed.


The paperback will be donated somewhere, and I still have another copy on order from Better World.  I'll probably donate that one, too.  But this one, with its slightly tattered corner, is a keeper.


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text 2018-06-15 21:49
THANK YOU, CHRIS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

This arrived from Thrift Books today.  I was hoping, hoping, for the dust jacket but it was still a bonus.  I don't think there's a single mark inside.




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text 2018-05-30 00:35
Comfort Reads in Uncomfortable Times
King Of The Wind - The Story Of Godolphin Arabian - Marguerite Henry

The book came up in a Twitter discussion a week or so ago, and it hit me hard that I didn't have my copy of the book I'd read more times than any other as a young reader.


My budget is horribly strained.  I'm literally watching every penny, usually watching them fly out of my purse and bank account.  And when I saw that copies were selling for $25 and more on Amazon, my heart ached.  I wanted that book.


Fortunately, Judith Tarr recommended Abe Books as an alternative source, and there I found it for under $4.  It's in transit now.  I don't have it yet, but I will . . . . soon.


I had several of the Marguerite Henry books when I was a kid.  Somehow I managed to hang onto my Album of Horses, but all the others vanished.  Brighty of the Grand Canyon, Gaudenzia Pride of the Palio, and King of the Wind.  I never owned Born to Trot, and the Misty series wasn't one of my favorites.  The absolute favorite was King of the Wind.


Where did they go?  The same place so many of my possessions went: my mother's garage sales.  After I left home, almost everything I had owned went out with the junk.  (Some things didn't; I know where they went and I can't talk about it.)  The books were the worst of the losses; she knew how much I loved my books, but . . . she didn't care.


I got my love of books from my dad and his side of the family, not my mother's, and I think she resented that to a certain extent.  He's been gone since 2008, and she's now fading.  So I feel bad, I feel guilty for my own resentment, but it's there.  I miss those favorite books.


As I've mentioned here in some previous, personal posts, I've tried over the years to replace some of those books.  It's not an attempt to reclaim a lost childhood, but it is an attempt to reclaim lost comfort. 


I don't have a support system here.  I feel awkward even writing that much, and I won't go much further.  But my books, my rocks, my online engagements, these are what I rely on.  My kids have busy lives on either sides of the continent thousands of miles away.  I'm not a social butterfly.  I'm essentially estranged from all my family, who are in the Midwest.


Two weeks ago my already precarious budget got a gut punch with the forced purchase of a new water heater and water softener.  I gathered my resources and figured out a way to manage.  It wasn't easy, but it was doable.  Today I got hit with a big fat auto repair bill.  I've known it was coming, and I've tried to prepare both mentally and financially, but it was bigger than anticipated.  Replacing the car is not an option, at least not now.  BF says it's not worth pouring more money into this vehicle, but I really don't have any choice.


King of the Wind is about the little horse that could, but no one knew it.  It's a feel good story, about overcoming seemingly impossible odds.  For a young reader it was exciting and dramatic and suspenseful.  For an adult facing real-life challenges -- some of them pretty darn scary -- it's a comfort read.  It's gorgeous pictures.  It's horses, horses, horses.


I'll let you know when it gets here.



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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-05-26 17:44
The long, long, long road to the Well at the World's End . . . and back
The Well At The World's End: Volume II - Lin Carter,William Morris

Prior updates:









Some spoilers ahead.


According to Lin Carter's Foreword to the 1970 Ballantine paperback edition, The Well at the World's End is William Morris's 228,000-word masterpiece of heroic fantasy.  Carter goes on to state that both he and his friend and fellow author L. Sprague de Camp consider Morris the founder of the heroic fantasy genre because although there were fantasies written before the 1895 publication of Morris's other fantasy novel, The Wood Beyond the World, Morris told his tales as if they were real, as if the places where the action happened were real places in a world we just somehow didn't know about.  John Moreton Drax Plunkett, known to the world as Lord Dunsany, would call this location "beyond the fields we know," but not beyond existence.


This is all an important commentary on The Well at the World's End, because there is much about the actual setting of the tale that has to be reconciled.


In almost any fantasy, and maybe especially in those that blend over into other genres such as romance and mystery, the characters have to be reasonably identifiable as human, in thought and action and psychology if not species.  The trappings of imaginary worlds and magical powers can't make up for characters the human reader can't identify with.


The cast of characters in The Well are all very human.  The hero Ralph of Upmeads is a perfectly ordinary young knight of medieval Earth tradition.  His father is King Peter of the small kingdom.  His brothers are Blaise and Hugh and Gregory.  Though many of the characters in the novel don't have given names, those who do are both familiar and commonly spelled: Katherine, Clement, Ursula, Walter, Richard, Roger, Stephen, even Joyce and Agatha.


Likewise, the places have a distinctly English ring to their names: Hampton under Scaur, Whitwall, Utterness, the Wood Perilous, Wulstead, the Burg of the Four Friths, Valley of the Sweet Chestnuts, the Wall of the World.  Towns and villages have churches and abbeys; there are enough references to saints to recognize that this world is Christian even before Morris states it. 


And though these folks whereunto we shall come, are, some of them, Christian men by name, and have amongst them priests and religious; yet are they wild men of manners, and many heathen customs abide amongst them; as swearing on the altars of devils, and eating horse-flesh at the High-tides, and spell-raising more than enough, and such like things, even to the reddening of the doom-rings with the blood of men and of women, yea, and of babes: from such things their priests cannot withhold them.

Morris, William. The Well at the World's End: a tale (p. 131).  . Kindle Edition.


At one point Ralph comes into possession of a Turkish bow, and one particular place on his journey is likened to a Roman theater.


so that the said valley was like to one of those theatres of the ancient Roman Folk, whereof are some to be seen in certain lands.

Morris, William. The Well at the World's End: a tale (p. 233).  . Kindle Edition.


The wild creatures Ralph encounters are also quite normal, albeit often called by archaic names: hart and hind, neat, bears, lions, rabbits and coneys.


The effect of all this familiarity is to make the world of The Well less important than the story.  Little needs to be explained; most readers will know the difference between a forest of oak trees and one of pine trees.


So to say that Morris succeeded in setting his tale in an imagined world that was still recognizable to his contemporary readers is pretty obvious.


The problem is that he spent so very much time describing Ralph's travels through this landscape, each hill and valley, each ridge and down, and far too little on the things in that landscape that made it fantastic, that set it apart from the fields we know.


Unlike Tolkien, Morris didn't provide a map of his world.  I found that, as I read each stage of Ralph's journey, I tried to impose the geography on a map of Middle Earth as I remembered it from The Lord of the Rings and of course that's not possible.  At the beginning, when Ralph and his three brothers set out from Upmeads, each heads in a different direction.  After Hugh and Gregory and Blaise have gone north, south, and west (not necessarily respectively), Ralph is left with going east.  Though there are references to his following various streams or rivers heading in that direction, I never got a clear sense of where he was going in relation to where he had been.


In other words, what's the geographic relationship between the various towns?  Which is east or west or north or south of the other?  How far is Utterbol from the Plain of Abundance?  What's the difference between the Wood Perilous and the Wood Debateable?  Where did the Wheat-wearer people live? Where was Swevenham in relation to Whiteness?


I think anyone who has read The Lord of the Rings knows roughly where the main theatres of the Fellowship's adventures are.  The Shire is a real place in the imagination, as are Rohan and Mirkwood and Weathertop and Mordor. The reader gets a real sense of what Rivendell is like, and Lorien, and Shelob's Lair, the mountains, and so on.  Tolkien built on Morris's foundation, a foundation that was solid but dull and boring.


Morris established a world that the reader could believe was real, that the reader could fall into and mentally see because that world was all around her.  Tolkien and the others who came after Morris embellished that reality and allowed the reader to believe in the unbelievable.


The only thing that's unbelievable in The Well at the World's End is the well itself.  It's the only magical thing in the story; all the rest is ordinary and almost boring.  Sometimes there's no "almost" about it.


The story begins with Ralph and his three brothers deciding that they are tired of little Upmeads and they want adventure.  They draw straws, with the shortest being forced to stay home and take care of the parents.  Hugh, Blaise, and Gregory get to go adventuring, while young Ralph gets left behind.  The very next day, he runs away to have his own adventures.


Nothing forces him to do this.  There's no real opening motivation other than boredom.  Nothing happens.  If you look at most novels written in the past 300 or so years, something outside the main characters forces them to act.  The suddenly orphaned Regency heroine is facing her third Season with no prospects and if she doesn't find a suitable spouse, she will be forced to marry her odious Cousin Chermondey or be on the streets.  The successful stock broker heroine is caught up in a web of financial chicanery and her only hope of avoiding life in prison is to team up with a government investigator who thinks she's guilty as hell.  In other words, the situation the protagonist finds her/himself in is NOT of their own making.


But Ralph's adventures are of his own making.  There is no outside event that forces him to act, and this seriously reduces the dramatic tension throughout the novel.  And that makes for a very long 228,000 words.


There is also no defined antagonist in The Well.  Ralph goes on his quest and he meets with some bad guys, and sometimes he just makes stupid decisions that get him in temporary trouble, but there's no real over-arching villain.


Consider the standard forms of conflict in fiction:

1. Character against nature/supernature

2. Character against character

3. Character against self

4. Character against society

5. Character against technology


Ralph is never pitted against any of these in terms of the whole book.  He has occasional skirmishes against other characters -- conflict #2 -- but for the most part he just plods along on his search for the Well.


Again, to compare this to LOTR, the Fellowship has a clear cut mission in its quest to destroy the One Ring.  And they have a distinct adversary in Sauron.  Along the way there are other conflicts, whether confrontations with the Nazgul or the debacle in Moria or the battle against the Orcs at Helm's Deep; but all these separate obstacles are related to and structurally supportive of the underlying quest to destroy the ring.  All of that is missing from The Well at the World's End.


Ralph's journey is long.  He crosses many plains and a couple of deserts.  He rides through a lot of woods.  He climbs a lot of mountains.  He eats and sleeps and gets up.  He hunts for game and puts on his armor.  And to be honest, that's what most of the book is about.


The actual quest for the Well occupies about fifteen percent of those 228,000 words.  And even that part isn't particularly exciting.  Ralph -- now accompanied by Ursula -- encounters no major obstacles to reaching the Well.  He's been advised ahead of time how to watch for the signs that he's on the right path.  He has a (more or less, kind of, sort of) magic talisman to get him there.  No horrible beast is guarding it.  Reaching the Well has absolutely none of the drama of Frodo and Sam's climb up Mount Doom.


Ralph and Ursula reach the Well, find the special gold cup, and drink the water, and it's all accomplished in three or four pages. . . with a full quarter of the book yet to go!


And nothing happens.


Ralph and Ursula are somewhat changed, made somewhat superior to normal humans, but the world doesn't change.  And they now have to go back to Upmeads by the same road, the same boring road.  Across the deserts and the plains, up and down the mountains, through the woods.  As they make their return journey, they fight a few foes to bring peace and plenty to all the little villages and towns and pseudo-countries they previously passed through.  There are some reunions and some revenges.  On the whole, however, it's boring.  There's just not enough conflict and tension.


And of course they arrive at Upmeads to find all in turmoil and villains about to take over the little kingdom and do bad things.  Ralph assembles an army that defeats the bad guys -- with virtually no loss of life to the good guys -- and his father King Peter relinquishes the crown to him.  And they all lived happily ever after.


Now, given all the weaknesses I've already pointed out, you might be wondering why I still list it at 4.5 stars and place it in my personal canon.


Because what Morris did accomplish was pretty amazing.


The plot, as I've already described, is rather weak by today's standards.  The style is outrageously overweighted with telling instead of showing.  Backstory is often given via one character literally sitting up all night with another to tell the tale of whatever.  Sometimes the "whatever" has little to no relevance to the basic plot, but it's just there anyway.  Description is weak, as if Morris deliberately made the countryside so familiar that it didn't need much description, even though that left out so much that later writers would add.


But Morris made it real.  He didn't rely on "it was all a dream" or any other device to explain his world.  Everything belonged. He didn't call it Middle Earth, and if there was any magic at all it was minimal to the point of well, maybe it was magic and maybe not.


He used archaic, pseudo-medieval language throughout, and yes, it takes a bit of getting used to.  It's one thing to have the characters speak in a distinct patois, but Morris takes the device to the narrative as well.  This pulls the reader further into that imaginary world.  Even when, at the end, he writes the contrivance of having Ralph tell one of the local priests the whole story of the adventure and the priest writes it all down to form the basis of the novel, the style remains the same.


I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time in about 1966/67, when Ballantine came out with the authorized paperback edition.  The two-volume Ballantine edition of The Well at the World's End was published in 1970, and from what I can tell, that's about when I acquired my copies.  I also bought some of the other Ballantine editions, but most disappeared over the years; I've replaced a few with either used copies or digital editions.  LOTR remains dramatically far superior to The Well, but the evidence of connections between the two are obvious.


For that reason, I do recommend The Well at the World's End to anyone who takes a serious interest in the genre of heroic fantasy as something more than mere entertainment.  This is the root that leads to the branches.  More important, however, is the value of this book to the writer of heroic adventure, not as a plot template but as an example of immersion in style and creation of a world-ness, not just a world.  Morris establishes that this is a fictional, fantastical medieval landscape, and he never deviates from that.  Via language and syntax and even punctuation, he creates the atmosphere and sticks with it.


I wish he had had an editor who could have punched up the drama and conflict.  Perhaps as a movie this would have been improved the way the film version of Practical Magic improved on the book.  Yes, it was a bit of a slog to get through all 228,000 words.  I still don't know where the town/village of Swevenham was or why the Sage thereof ended up where he did.  I still don't know exactly how Ursula got her beads, or what they meant.  I still don't know what happened to Falcon or Gregory.  And I'm not going to go back and reread to find out!


But I am glad I made the journey again.



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