Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Information

Goodreads: Brideshead Revisited
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1945

Official Summary

(Back Bay Books edition)

The wellsprings of desire and the impediments to love come brilliantly into focus in Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece — a novel that immerses us in the glittering and seductive world of English aristocracy in the waning days of the empire.

Through the story of Charles Ryder’s entanglement with the Flytes, a great Catholic family, Evelyn Waugh charts the passing of the privileged world he knew in his own youth and vividly recalls the sensuous pleasures denied him by wartime austerities.

At once romantic, sensuous, comic, and somber, Brideshead Revisited transcends Waugh’s early satiric explorations and reveals him to be an elegiac, lyrical novelist of the utmost feeling and lucidity.

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Review

Brideshead Revisited is one of those books where the publisher’s summary has come to be about themes rather than plot. According to my copy, the book is about “the passing of the privileged world” before and during WWII. Personally, I find there IS a lot thematically to unpack. I can imagine writing several academic papers about it in a college class. As a casual read I intend to read just once and move on from, however, I was underwhelmed.

If there is a plot, it is how protagonist Charles Ryder befriends Sebastian Flyte at Oxford and subsequently becomes entangled with the entire Flyte family, which is exactly what Sebastian had feared. Because the start of the book is so focused on Charles and Sebastian, I had thought it was going the route of A Separate Peace, exploring an obsessive male friendship with dark undertones, and I was somewhat disappointed to find that was not the case. The book eventually becomes focused on the character I would consider the least interesting of the Flyte family, which makes the book lose some of its momentum.

Besides the themes of decaying decadence, I did notice the book’s obsession with Catholicism, unusual for most of the English classics I have read. We see the religion largely through Charles’s eyes, who is agnostic but seems politely disinterested until he realizes religion might lead the Flytes to do things he doesn’t wish them to do. We also see ot through several of the Flytes’s eyes, whose opinions and devotion vary. Overall, I quite enjoyed the depiction of a family who is somewhat set apart for having the “wrong” religion for the elite but continue on anyway. even if others don’t understand.

I am happy I read the book, and I think it has it’s moments, but i wouldn’t call it gripping or even particularly insightful in many instances.

Briana
3 Stars

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

Information

Goodreads: The Phantom of the Opera
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Source: Purchased
Published:

Official Summary

First published in French as a serial in 1909, “The Phantom of the Opera” is a riveting story that revolves around the young, Swedish Christine Daaé. Her father, a famous musician, dies, and she is raised in the Paris Opera House with his dying promise of a protective angel of music to guide her. After a time at the opera house, she begins hearing a voice, who eventually teaches her how to sing beautifully. All goes well until Christine’s childhood friend Raoul comes to visit his parents, who are patrons of the opera, and he sees Christine when she begins successfully singing on the stage. The voice, who is the deformed, murderous ‘ghost’ of the opera house named Erik, however, grows violent in his terrible jealousy, until Christine suddenly disappears. The phantom is in love, but it can only spell disaster. Leroux’s work, with characters ranging from the spoiled prima donna Carlotta to the mysterious Persian from Erik’s past, has been immortalized by memorable adaptations. Despite this, it remains a remarkable piece of Gothic horror literature in and of itself, deeper and darker than any version that follows. 

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Review

I’m not sure why I never read The Phantom of the Opera earlier in my life. I think I had the vague idea the book isn’t as good as the movie and that it’s an epistolary novel–neither of which are true. In fact, the novel is a riveting account of how a single warped yet genius man brings an entire Opera House to its knees, yet still earns the pity of one of its most talented singers.

The story is enthralling. Even if I thought the action lagged a bit here and there, it always picked up again, and I kept turning the pages. The Opera Ghost is a mastermind in this version, not a romantic hero, and the machinations he dreams up to win Christine and thwart the men trying to save her are creative and cruel. I was truly scared reading a couple of the scenes.

Christine isn’t necessarily lovable as a character. She’s a bit naïve for my taste. Though her love for her father is charming, and her willingness to see the good in others around her. I didn’t feel a let of chemistry between her and Raoul, but it’s not really the point of the story. I was intrigued that their class differences are such a big part of the novel, and their ending is not 100% happy because of them.

I enjoyed this classic read much more than I had anticipated, and it’s definitely a good choice for reading in autumn to get some spooky vibes.

Briana

Why Anne of Green Gables Speaks to Contemporary Readers (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks

WHAT IS CLASSIC REMARKS?

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

HOW CAN I PARTICIPATE?

Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)

THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:

Why do you think Anne of Green Gables still speaks to contemporary readers?

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Although L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables is set in the late 1800s on Prince Edward Island, I believe it speaks to readers today, readers from around the world and all walks of life, because many of the themes and Anne’s life experiences are, at their core, universal. While readers may never be an orphan or live on a farm or attend a one-room school or do half the things Anne does, her childhood struggles to make sense of world, fit in with others, and navigate relationships with others are things that readers can continue to understand and empathize with.

I’ve always thought Montgomery as a writer has a keen understanding of how it feels to be a child, and that understanding is what helps her characters come alive. One of the earlier scenes in Anne of Green Gables, for instance, involves Mrs. Rachel Lynde looking at Anne and calling her, straight to her face, homely. Mrs. Lynde hits on a particularly touchy point when she mentions Anne’s red hair, which Anne has never liked (and who can’t relate to having something about one’s appearance that one wishes to change?), but the heart of the matter — which Anne points out — is that these are cruel things Mrs. Lynde would never have said to another adult. Adults are worthy of respect; one might comment on a lady’s ugliness behind closed doors, but would never walk up to and tell her point blank that she isn’t pretty. Because Anne is a child, however, Mrs. Lynde, and initially Marilla, think they can say and do what they like to her; she’s not human enough to deserve the kindness and tact that adults do. THESE are the kinds of scenes that I think continue to speak to readers today, as readers can reflect on the times they were treated as less than simply because they were child and not adults.

Montgomery also skillfully conveys “little” issues that loom large to children. For instance, Anne has always hankered after the “puffed sleeves” that are in fashion in her day, but Marilla insists in dressing her in plain, sensible clothes. Anne is fairly good-natured about this and mostly limits herself to wistfully wishing for a more fashionable dress, but the feeling of wanting trendier clothing that one’s family can’t afford or one’s parents simply will not buy is relatable. (And Montgomery takes the theme even farther in Emily of New Moon, when Emily’s aunts force her to wear out-of-date and overly formal clothing to school, which makes her stand out and get mocked, prompting her to attempt to switch out the garments for something else on the way to school. I don’t know about other people, but I have vivid memories of being forced to wear ridiculous clothing by my parents because they thought it was the correct thing for the occasion, when it certainly was NOT. I can never read this scene without having flashbacks to some of the horrid, ridicule-inviting things I was forced to wear.)

These are the moments I think speak to readers today, Anne’s experience as a child and how that’s filled with innocence and wonder and possibility but also mistakes and punishments and bullying and disdain from some adults. I always say the book isn’t really about anything; it’s just about Anne’s life. But that’s what makes it inviting and timeless, what lets us see the little moments of our own lives in the little moments of Anne’s.

Briana

Recommend a Diverse Classic: Their Eyes Were Watching God

Classic Remarks

WHAT IS CLASSIC REMARKS?

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

HOW CAN I PARTICIPATE?

Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)

THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:

Recommend a Diverse Classic

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Zora Neale Hurston was both an author and a folklorist, whose research influenced many of her writings. Her best known novel is perhaps Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), which centers on Janie Crawford and her three marriages. Janie’s tale recounts how she initially was married off to an older man for protection, only to find that he doesn’t love her. She then runs off with another man, who only wants to use her. Finally, she marries for love, but again finds her relationship with her husband to be unstable. Through her three marriages, Janie (and Hurston) explore the gender roles and the expectations society places on women.

Though published in the 1930s, Their Eyes Were Watching God still feels incredibly relevant. The issues it grapples with, from domestic violence to the role of men and women in marriage are issues that society continues to grapple with. In many ways, the novel feels a bit ahead of its time, with Janie seeking love and self-fulfillment, while being open to her own sexuality, in the face of a disapproving society. The book, however, presents no easy answers. While Janie’s third marriage appears to be her happiest, because her husband Tea Cake sees her as more of an equal than her previous two husbands, the novel also suggests that Janie is not fully realized as an independent woman until after Tea Cake’s death. In this way, Their Eyes Were Watching God illustrates an intriguing tension that many readers may find relatable. Janie wants to find her identity in a happy marriage, but, if she cannot be seen as an equal to men, she may ultimately not be able to do so. She wants both love and respect, but can women truly have it all?

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a powerful novel by a talented author–one whose work was not always appreciated in her own time. If you have not read it yet, maybe now is the time to give it a try.

5 Classics from the Middle Ages I Recommend (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks

WHAT IS CLASSIC REMARKS?

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

HOW CAN I PARTICIPATE?

Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)

THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:

Recommend a classic from the Middle Ages.

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5 Classics from the Middle Ages

The Obvious

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. If you know very little about medieval literature, you’re probably familiar with The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, King Arthur, and Robin Hood. All of these I do, in fact, recommend, although I admit it took me a while personally to warm up to The Canterbury Tales and appreciate them, and I literally studied medieval literature in grad school. So they’re worth reading, but you don’t have to start there, and I wouldn’t sweat it if they’re not your thing. Also, there is the small problem that there isn’t really an original/definitive King Arthur OR Robin Hood tale. There are just a lot of stories from different authors and years during the Middle Ages, so if you’re interested in these things, you have a lot to choose from. Have at it. (The more obscure the stories are, however, the less likely there will be a modern English translation of it.)

For King Arthur (and his knights) stories, check out:

For Robin Hood stories, check out:

The Less Obvious

1

Silence

Silence French Romance

Silence is the story of a girl who is secretly raised as a boy because the king has decreed that women can no longer inherit, and her parents want her to have their estate after they die.  Silence wrestles with her identity throughout the story, knowing she has the body of a woman but recognizing that she acts like a man and enjoys playing a male role in society.  Nature and Nurture get into some heated arguments over what makes someone’s gender.

Read my full post: 5 Reasons to Read the French Romance Silence.

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The Lais of Marie de France by Marie de France

A collection of twelve short stories recorded by Marie de France and translated into prose.  The stories are classic lais Marie heard told during her lifetime, often featuring brave knights, lovely ladies, and a bit of magic.

Read my full review here.

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The Song of Roland

An 11th century epic poem that takes place during the reign of Charlemagne. It tells the story of Roland, who is guarding Charlemagne’s rear as the army departs Spain, how his stepfather betrays Charlemagne and the Franks, and how he pridefully refuses to call for aid as he and his party become overwhelmed by enemy forces.

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four

Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer

A classic love story that has been told and retold (Shakespeare wrote a play, too), featuring star-crossed lovers during the Siege of Troy. If you thought Chaucer only wrote The Canterbury Tales, you’ll be pleased and surprised by the nuance with which he tells the story of Troilus and Cressida and how they fall in love and experience tragedy.

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Amis and Amiloun

Amis and Amiloun cover

In this medieval romance, two knights (unrelated but very similar in appearance) swear a troth plight to be true to each other in wrong or right. The ethicalness of this oath comes into question when Amiloun agrees to fight as Amis in a trial by combat—where Amis is clearly in the wrong and deserves to lose. As a result of his decision, Amiloun is struck with leprosy, but is this a punishment from God or simply a trial he is willing to endure for his love of Amis? And is there anything Amis can do to repay him?

Read my full review of “Amis and Amiloun”.

Read the full text of “Amis and Amiloun” online (in Middle English).

Briana

A Classic I Just “Didn’t Get”: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks

WHAT IS CLASSIC REMARKS?

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

HOW CAN I PARTICIPATE?

Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)

THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:

Is there a classic book you just “didn’t get?”

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Madame Bovary A Classic I Didn't Get

Despite my love of classics, there are a number didn’t really “get” (at least until I went to a class discussion about them and could begin to see what other readers were getting out of the book!), but my mind really blanked at coming up with specific titles when I saw the prompt for this week.

In a stroke of genius, I decided to go to my Goodreads shelves and see what classics I had given low star ratings to. The only problem: many of these I read ten years ago or more, and I don’t think I remember enough about them to say why I didn’t like them or what I didn’t get about them! (Though I did actually write a review of The Turn of the Screw for the blog, and I think I “get” Brave New World; I just don’t like it.)

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With all that in mind, I’m officially going with:

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Unfortunately I don’t seem to have written a review of Madame Bovary, which would be helpful in refreshing my thoughts because I read it in 2013. However, personally I’m just not a fan of that genre of novel that (perhaps reductively) could be called: wealthy woman becomes unhappy in her marriage and starts taking lovers and…readers are supposed to be sympathetic to that? I’m not a big fan of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence or The Awakening by Kate Chopin for similar reasons.

I suppose there’s an argument that, in the past, women were stuck in unhappy marriages, if divorce was not an option, and that makes infidelity more forgivable than if they could leave their husbands and pursue new prospects that way. Even with that in mind, I’ve never been on board with books about adultery, especially in instances where the woman isn’t really being treated badly but has just never been truly in love with or excited by her husband.

Madame Bovary really focuses on that point, that Madame Bovary is experiencing ennui. This means 1) it’s hard to feel that she’s doing the “right” thing or “doesn’t have other options” when she cheats because she’s just bored! and 2) the book is kind of boring because it focuses on how boring the life of the protagonist is. I felt as if I were listlessly drifting through the whole book, not as if I were reading anything interesting.

Even if one argues we’re not supposed to sympathize with Madame Bovary, I don’t get the appeal of the book. So Flaubert is just portraying a bored immoral woman and asking us to ponder how bored and immoral she is? I’ll pass, thanks.

Have you read Madame Bovary? What did you think?

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Summary of the Dover version of Madame Bovary:

Bored and unhappy in a lifeless marriage, Emma Bovary yearns to escape from the dull circumstances of provincial life. Married to a simple-minded but indulgent country doctor, she takes one lover, then another, hastens her husband’s financial ruin with her extravagance…

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1888) was brought to trial by the French government on the grounds of the novel’s alleged immorality, but unlike his less fortunate contemporary, Baudelaire, he narrowly escaped conviction.

Falubert’s powerful and deeply moving examination of the moral degeneration of a middle-class Frenchwoman is universally regarded as one of the landmarks of 19th-century fiction. It is reproduced here, complete and unabridged, in the classic translation by Eleanor Marx-Aveling, daughter of Karl Marx.

Briana

Don’t Let School Shape Your Understanding of the Classics

Don't Let School Shape Your Understanding of the Classics

The classics cannot seem to catch a break these days. Some people argue that the classics are simply too old and boring for anyone to want to read, let alone a student. In fact, I once heard a librarian say that suggesting a child read a classic book would be to “traumatize” them because of the difficulty of the text! Others argue that having a list of “classic” books is naturally oppressive because the list has long included mostly “old, dead white men” and the books do not present an inclusive understanding of the world and humanity.

Such criticisms are valid. Many students in the U.S. are not reading on grade level, so suggesting they read a book with complex text might indeed be overwhelming for them–though I would argue that the problem here lies more with the educational system than with any particular book. And, for many years, society’s understanding of classics has indeed included predominantly old white men.

However, in the past decades, many scholars and other individuals have worked hard to expand our understanding of what a “classic” is. In many cases, this simply means an older work that has been determined to have some sort of literary value that means audiences still are interested in reading it and publishers want to keep it in print. This is a vague concept that could include any number of titles for any number of reasons such as: the book speaks to a specific historical moment, the book exemplifies a particular writing philosophy or movement, the book has beautiful prose, or the book raises interesting questions about the nature of humanity, society, love, or anything else. With such a broad definition, classic books can include titles written for children, genre fiction, prose, poetry, plays, and, yes, diversity!

So why do so many readers continue to associate classics with stuffy old white men with difficult prose (Dickens, Hawthorne, or Shakespeare, for example)? The problem is that many people tend to read classics in school, when they are assigned these books for homework, and never again. Their one encounter with the classics is defined by a handful of teachers who present to them a very small sample of books. And, in many cases, teachers are simply teaching what they themselves were taught. They have not caught up with the times, or realized themselves that the term “classic” is more expansive than the Western canon.

This does a disservice both to readers and to the classics. There are many worthy–and interesting–books out there that might appeal to student who have no idea they could like the classics, if they found the right one. So let’s explore some examples.

Classics include all age ranges.

When people think of “classics,” they often seem to conjure up an image of the Victorian novel or perhaps of the dreaded Shakespeare. However, teachers might be interested in assigning children’s books to students rather than works written for an adult audience. There are plenty of children’s classics that readers continue to enjoy today:

  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  • The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis
  • The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich
  • The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis
  • Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
  • Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
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Classics encompass all genres.

People tend to associate classics with literary fiction. However, there are plenty of genre classics that readers continue to enjoy today! Here are some examples, including some authors and titles we might now recognize as “modern classics”:

Fantasy Classics

  • The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
  • The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
  • Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  • A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce

Mystery Classics

  • Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton
  • Miss Marple series by Agatha Christie
  • Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene

Sci-Fi Classics

  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • Patternist series by Octavia E. Butler
  • The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
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Classics cover a wide range of time periods, writing styles, and forms.

Not all classics are Victorian novels like Middlemarch or Bleak House (though both are well worth a read). Readers who do not wish to read a novel might wish to pick up a short story, a novella, a play or even a graphic novel. Likewise, readers who do not enjoy lengthy prose sentences such as Dickens’ may desire to pick up a writer like Ernest Hemingway, who writes in simple, direct sentences. No matter one’s reading preference, someone, somewhere in history probably wrote something that will be appealing. Some examples:

  • “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin (short story)
  • The Awakening by Kate Chopin (novella)
  • Corduroy by Don Freeman (picture book)
  • “Recitatif” by Toni Morrison (short story)
  • Maus by Art Spiegelman (graphic novel)
  • Night by Elie Wiesel (memoir)
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Classics can be diverse!

Despite what school curricula might imply, there are plenty of amazing literary works out there that have been written by all kinds of people and that represent a myriad of experiences, expanding our understanding of “what it means to be human.” Here are some titles for your consideration, including some modern classics.

  • The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
  • Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
  • The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
  • Kindred by Octavia Butler
  • The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  • Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
  • Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • The Chosen by Chaim Potok
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker

What titles would you add to the list?

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Conclusion

Classics are so much more than Victorian novels, Shakespeare plays, and books by “old white men,” but, for many of us, high school, the one place where we will be asked to read a classic book, fails to demonstrate this. This does a disservice to readers, who graduate believing that the past has nothing to offer and that any book written more than five years ago must be old, boring, and outdated. So don’t rely only what you learned in a handful of English classes to judge all the classics. Why not pick up a few more and see for yourself?

My Favorite Character in The Lord of the Rings (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks

WHAT IS CLASSIC REMARKS?

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

HOW CAN I PARTICIPATE?

Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)

THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE CHARACTER IN THE LORD OF THE RINGS?

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I want to preface this by saying I’m not certain I have a favorite character from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. There are a number of characters I like, including Eowyn, Faramir, and Legolas, and a number of characters I think are fascinating even if they might not be “my favorite.” (For example, see Krysta’s post on reconsidering Boromir.) However, for the sake of this post, I want to talk about why Aragorn has always been one of my favorite characters.

A lot of Tolkien scholarship extols the presence of hobbits in The Lord of the Rings, comparing them to the Everyman and suggesting that Frodo and company are what make the story really “relatable.” Hobbits are the small people with no particular power or previous role in great world events, yet their decisions, their perseverance, and their commitment to doing what is right are what drive the novel and help free all of Middle Earth from the evil of Sauron and the Ring. As Elrond states:

“This is the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the Great. Who of all the Wise could have foreseen it? Or, if they are wise, why should they expect to know it, until the hour has struck?”

All this love for the importance of ordinary people means, however, that Aragorn often gets tossed to the side. Scholars–and general readers–sometimes think that Aragorn simply is not interesting: he’s a king, a skilled warrior, a leader, etc. Liking the “traditional hero” is just too obvious for them.

Well, I like traditional heroes.

I enjoy a good epic adventure, whether it’s an old story like Beowulf or a new fantasy like Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, and I love that Aragorn is a strong, admirable character who brings a sense of gravity to the novel. Sure, he’s not “relatable” because I will never be a monarch or a leader of an elite group of fighters or even a mysterious and forbidding character in a tavern, but the feeling that he’s a bit larger than life is what’s beautiful about him–and the book as a whole. He’s also something I think most of us would aspire to be: brave, confident, and wise. He’s willing to sacrifice everything to keep others safe, going so far as to lead what most think is a suicide mission to distract Sauron at the Black Gate so Frodo and Sam have a final chance to destroy the One Ring.

Dismissing Aragorn as some sort of run-of-the-mill hero type also does a disservice to the sadness that surrounds him. First, he has some personal sorrows. He is in exile from his own kingdom; though he does serve Gondor under a pseudonym, he spends years in the wild with the Rangers, protecting Middle Earth for little thanks. He’s also separated from the woman he loves, as Elrond will not give his blessing for Arwen and Aragorn to marry until Aragorn is king and “worthy.”

Second, he brings a sense of sorrow and things passing to the story as a whole. After Aragorn is crowned king (only after he is assured the people of Gondor desire his coronation), readers know he is essentially the last of his kind–the last truly great king of royal Númenórean descent. Although he has children, one gets the sense that Middle Earth has lost something awe-inspiring and beautiful when Aragorn dies. In another parallel with Beowulf, one can feel the passing of an age with the passing of a final great king.

Aragorn is a hero, yes, but labeling him one as if that explains everything about him and he is uninteresting as an individual character overlooks the complexity Tolkien weaves around him. Also, basically everyone in The Lord of the Rings ends up being a hero, and isn’t the exploration of heroism in many forms one of the things fans like about it?

Briana

Richard III by William Shakespeare

Richard III

Information

Goodreads: Richard III
Series: War of the Roses #8
Source: Gift
Published: 1593

Summary

Richard seeks to obtain the throne of England, even if it means murdering his own family.

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Review

With the caveat that Richard III probably would have made more sense to me if I had read the historical plays that precede it, I enjoyed this portrayal of a ruthless man willing to cut down everyone around him to attain power–and the effects his actions had on those around him, including his own family.

I did have a friend explain to me who the characters were and how they were related; otherwise, I probably would have needed to consult Wikipedia or a family tree in order to understand the text. (I was reading a Dover Thrift Edition, which has close to zero explanatory material.) Once I sorted that out, however, and the multiple people who had the same name (historical accuracy, not Shakespeare’s fault), I was in for an exciting time.

My friend did point out to me that a large number of people die in this play, which is true, but much of it happens off-stage, and I wasn’t emotionally invested in many of them. Personally, I thought the interest of the play was in the relationships between the characters and the emotional turmoil many experience because of the deaths and Richard’s path to grabbing power.

There is a strong cast of women in the play, and they have a lot to say. There are a number of brilliant speeches from them cursing Richard for his actions, and Shakespeare’s incredible writing really shines; I can’t think of another author who would write such creative and compelling monologues. One of the women in the play even asks another to teach her how to curse her enemies, since she does it so well! And I was very much invested in the drama and seeing Richard get chewed out the way he deserves.

However, the play also thoughtfully explores the grief of the women, who have lost husbands, sons, and brothers to Richard–and occasionally other murderers. And although the women have not always been on the same side in the struggle for power, they can appreciate what the others have lost and learn to wish each other well. They understand each other and how little power they have (even when they are queens) and effect much more sincere reconciliations than the men in the play, who are frequently just pretending.

My overall sense of the play was that “not much happened,” even though, yes, a large number of people died. I most appreciated the drama of people despising Richard and then the relationships between the characters who were trampled in his path. Ultimately, most of the characters seem to agree that power is not worth attaining at such a cost.

Briana
4 stars

Will Classics Cease to Exist?

Classic literature can be a contentious subject. Sometimes defined as the “best” that has been written, “timeless pieces” that “speak to the universal human experience,” classics have, for decades, attracted criticism that they do not speak “universally” at all, but instead are largely written by “dead white men” and speak to their experiences only. Some wish to expand our understanding of what classic literature is by rediscovering or simply bringing attention to classics written by more diverse voices. Others, however, argue that the concept of a “classic” does not exist at all. The very idea is oppressive and classics must–and will–cease to exist as a category.

I agree that classics are not really “timeless” pieces that have survived into modernity simply because they are so good. History shows us that books come into favor and fall out again. Writers like Harriet Martineau or Sir Walter Scott were wildly popular in their own day, before falling into obscurity. Some writers, like Nathaniel Hawthorne, were lauded during their lifetimes for qualities that are the different from the qualities we laud today. Or, like Shakespeare, they experienced fluctuating reputations over time. Other writers and works disappear for years, before being resurrected. Beowulf, for instance, was not widely accepted as “real” literature until J. R. R. Tolkien argued for the poem’s literary merits in a now-famous 1936 essay. In many cases, works are published, reviewed, assigned in schools, and resurrected for publishing because of economic factors, social values, or personal preference–not because they are inherently better than anything else written.

However, even though I think books do not necessarily become classics because of their inherent qualities, divorced from all other factors, I do not think classics will cease to exist as a category. On a very basic level, classics are just older books that continue to be reprinted by publishers. As long as publishers choose older books to keep in print–and I imagine they always will–we will probably have the concept of a classic–that book so good it has not yet faded into obscurity.

Older books are, of course, usually kept in print because they continue to sell well.  And why they are selling well might, again, have little to do with their inherent quality.   Older titles might sell because they are on school reading lists, because they are part of a successful franchise or brand (like Winnie the Pooh), because a new movie is coming out or popular culture otherwise brought renewed attention to a work (PBS’s Poldark series), or just because people continue to like to read and share the books (ex. Jane Eyre or the Harry Potter books). 

Some of these reasons might not be as effective at imparting “classic” status as others.   Books on school reading lists, for instance, are usually immediately assumed to be classics whereas an old favorite a mother hands to her daughter might simply be perceived as an old book.  And, once a book gets on a reading list, its new credibility helps it stay a classic as it remains in the public eye and new teachers use old syllabi and continue assigning and teaching the same works.  Books handed down in the family do not have the same widespread attention and so might have to work harder to achieve a “classic” label.  Still, there is something about just the fact that a book is still in print that is enough for many people to assume it must be a classic.

So what is the answer? Should all schools and universities stop assigning reading so no books gain more credibility and scholarly attention than others? Should we work hard to eradicate the “classic” label and simply refer to “older books” or “backlist titles” or maybe just “books?” Is this even possible?

I do not see a future where the concept of a “classic” ceases to exist.  Instead of trying to eradicate the label, I think we should expand our idea of what a classic book can be.  There are books out there written by diverse voices that are, in fact, very good.  They could easily fit into an interpretation of a book that “explores what it means to be human” and they could demonstrate all the ways the experience of being human can be affected by time, place, race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and more.   But these books have been largely overlooked by the people who could bring more widespread attention to them–teachers, academics, and publishers. 

In some cases, there are actually are classics written by diverse authors and they are recognized and sold as classics.  But a widespread audience seems not to be aware of them, because most people will ultimately only be familiar with the classics works that were assigned to them in school.  Unfortunately, diverse classics are often only assigned as part of special classes like “Women’s Literature” or assigned regionally in schools where the teachers think the student population can “relate” to the diverse protagonists.  That needs to change.

“Classic” literature will probably always exist as long as publishers keep older books in print and schools and universities assign or recommend reading. However, that does not mean our concept of what books can be considered classics needs to remain static. There are diverse classics out there, waiting for more people to read them.