Tag Archives: classic literature

Book Review: The Sword in the Stone

Book Name: The Sword in the Stone
Author: T.H. White
First Published: 1938

T.H. White was born in Bombay, British India, to Garrick Hanbury White and Constance White. His parents separated when he was fourteen years of age and he returned to England to finish his schooling in Gloucestershire. He later studied at Queens’ College in Cambridge where he was tutored by scholar and author L.J. Potts. Potts would become his friend and correspondent throughout his life. White considered him to be “the great literary influence in my life.” It was at Queens’ College that White wrote a thesis on Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and was exposed to the legends of King Arthur.

After his graduation in 1928 he began teaching and to write. His first novels were science fiction. Earth Stopped in 1934 and its sequel Gone to Ground in 1935 concerned dystopian themes. Once they were completed, White was searching for a new subject to write about. He wrote to a friend in 1937, “I got desperate among my books and picked [Malory] up in lack of anything else. Then I was thrilled and astonished to find that (a) The thing was a perfect tragedy, with a beginning, a middle and an end implicit in the beginning and (b) the characters were real people with recognizable reactions which could be forecast[...] Anyway, I somehow started writing a book.”

This book was The Sword in the Stone, which White considered a preface to Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur that he had written his thesis upon. It would bring a child’s delight to the story of Arthur’s early days and was influenced by Freudian psychology and White’s love of natural history. The book became a Book of the Month Club selection in 1939.

In 1939 White moved to Ireland where he remained during the second world war as a conscientious objector. During his time there, he wrote the sequels to The Sword in the Stone, The Witch in the Wood and the Ill-Made Knight.

White died of heart failure in 1964 while aboard a ship en route from Piraeus, Greece after a lecture tour in the United States. He is buried in Athens and his papers are held by the University of Texas at Austin, USA. White had no children and was never married.

Whoso Pulleth Out This Sword of this Stone and Anvil, is Rightwise King Born of all England.

The Sword in the Stone began as a single novel, but later became the first tome of the classic series The Once and Future King. Of all five books, it is the most lighthearted and could be considered a young adult novel. The rest of the series is darker and clearly for adult readers. The Sword in the Stone follows the story of a young orphan boy who is nicknamed “Wart”. He lives with Sir Ector, a knight of the King and works as a page in medieval Great Britain. One day, while retrieving one of Sir Ector’s birds, which his foster brother Kay has lost, he meets Merlin, a wise wizard who lives his life backwards, growing young as the years go by. Merlin knows Wart’s true heritage and has come to tutor the boy. He becomes both Wart’s and Kay’s teacher.

Merlin and Wart go on a series of learning adventures, each one designed to teach Wart the skills necessary to become a great and wise ruler. Wart rescues people with Robin Hood and Maid Marian, goes on a quest with King Pellinore for a beast, and turns into a wide variety of animals to experience the world in new and more interesting perspectives. In the end, he gains enough knowledge and wisdom to fulfill his destiny, to pull Excalibur from the anvil and be proclaimed the rightful King of England. For Wart is actually King Arthur of Camelot and he will become the stuff of legends.

The Once and Future King is a reworking of Sir Thomas Malory’s 15th Century romance, Le Morte d’Arthur. In fact T.H. White wrote in a cameo appearance for Malory as one of the historical figures that populate the tales. While the first book is light-hearted and has a boy protagonist, White follows the entire life of King Arthur including many of the darker aspects of his life in the later books. This is not a series for children, although The Sword in the Stone can be thought of as a young adult novel. The books are full of medieval references that could be confusing to those that are not familiar with common terms of the time period, yet the writing style is quite readable and as the story continues, the darker side of man is revealed.

The Sword in the Stone was made into a famous cartoon by Walt Disney in 1963. The movie features a famous battle between Merlin and the Sorceress Madam Mim. This battle was removed from later editions of the novel by the author and usually is not found in the later collections of the series. Lerner and Loewe’s 1960 musical “Camelot” is based on the last two books of The Once and Future King series and later this musical was turned into a movie of the same name in 1967.

You’ll find references to these stories woven into our pop culture from the Broadway musical and the movie, to its being an inspiration to author J.K. Rowling as she wrote her Harry Potter series and to Neil Gaimann’s character of Tim Hunter. If you enjoy the legends of King Arthur or stories about the middle ages and have some familiarity with the time period, you will find this series of books to be enjoyable.

The Sword in the Stone Book CoverThe Once and Future King

The Sword in the Stone (1938)
The Queen of Air and Darkness (1939, original version The Witch in the Wood)
The Ill-Made Knight (1940)
The Candle in the Wind (1958)
The Book of Merlyn (1977)

Book Review: Lord of the Rings

Book Name: The Lord of the Rings
Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
First Published: 1954-1955
International Fantasy Award – 1957
Prometheus Hall of Fame Award 2009

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was an English writer, poet, and university professor. He was born in South Africa of English parents, but moved back to England with his mother and brother when he was three years old. Soon after, his father died of rheumatic fever, leaving the family without income. His mother moved in with her parents and later moved around to live with various relatives. Young Ronald spend his formative years exploring Sarehole Mill and Moseley Bog and the Clent, Lickey and Malvern Hills, which would become inspiration for scenes in his future books, including his Aunt Jane’s farm of Bag End, the name of which he would one day use for the home of his protagonist, Bilbo Baggins. His mother Mabel taught her two children the basics of education and added in a healthy portion of the study of botany and of Latin. Mabel Tolkien converted to Catholicism in 1900 and was quickly cut off by her Baptist family. Four years later, she would die of diabetes at the age of 34. Ronald Tolkien was a boy of twelve and given into the guardianship of his mother’s close friend, Fr. Francis Xavier Morgan of the Birmingham Oratory, who was charged to bring Ronald and his brother Hilary up as good Catholics.

When Tolkien was 16, he met Edith Mary Bratt, a woman three years his senior, who lived in the boarding house where Ronald and his brother Hilary lived. They started out as friends, meeting at teashops and getting into mischief together. Both of them orphans, they found much in common, and soon were very much in love. Father Morgan was not pleased by the young romance. He felt that Edith was a distraction to Ronald’s studies and did not care for the fact that Edith was Protestant. Father Morgan made Ronald swear that he would not meet with, talk to or even so much as send Edith a letter until he was 21 years of age. If he did not obey, Morgan threatened to cut off Tolkien’s university career. Tolkien obeyed his guardian and threw himself into his studies at the university, but he could not erase Edith from his heart.

On Tolkien’s 21st birthday, he wrote to Edith, declared his love for her, and asked her to marry him. Edith wrote back that she had agreed to marry someone else because after all this time, she thought that he had forgotten her. After a meeting at a railway station where the pair renewed their feelings for each other, Edith cried off her engagement and announced that she would marry Ronald Tolkien.

The United Kingdom joined World War I a year after Tolkien had proposed to Edith. He did not immediately volunteer for service as the other young men of his age, instead he entered a program that allowed him to delay enlisting until he completed his degree and could enter the war as an officer. In 1915 he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers. After training as a signal officer, he was transferred to the 11th Battalion with the British Expeditionary Force, arriving in France in June of 1916. Tolkien served in several battles as a signal officer.. During the Battle of Somme, he lost several of his childhood friends in a single day. However, in the end, it was not the Germans that took Tolkien out of the war, but lice. Tolkien came down with trench fever which is carried by the vermin and was invalided back to England in 1916. Tolkien married Edith in 1916, three years after he had proposed to her.

Tolkien spent the remainder of World War I recovering in hospitals or doing garrison duty. It was during this time that he began to work on what he called The Book of Lost Tales, which was an early version of what would become The Silmarillion. One day, while he and his wife went walking in the woods, Edith began to dance for him in a clearing among the flowering hemlock trees. This moment was the inspiration for the meeting of the characters of Beren and Luthien of The Silmarillion. Tolkien remarked upon the incident years later stating:

“I never called Edith Luthien – but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief part of The Silmarillion. It was first conceived in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire (where I was for a brief time in command of an outpost of the Humber Garrison in 1917, and she was able to live with me for a while). In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing – and dance.”

After the war, Tolkien’s first civilian job was with the Oxford English Dictionary where he worked on the history of words of Germanic origin beginning with the letter W. By 1920, he had taken a post as Reader in Leeds and was the youngest professor at the university. In 1925 he returned to Oxford with a fellowship at Pembroke College. It was at Pembroke where Tolkien wrote The Hobbit and the first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings. In 1945, Tolkien took a post at Merton College and he became a professor of English Language and Literature. He fit in well at Oxford and in the ivy tower world of teaching and research.

Tolkien’s family life was normal enough where he and his family made their home in North Oxford. Edith bore the last of their four children in 1929. Tolkien would write the four children annual illustrated letters as if from Father Christmas in addition to his usual bedtime stories. A selection of these were published in 1976 as The Father Christmas Letters. In adulthood, his son John would enter the priesthood, sons Michael and Christopher would serve in the Royal Air Force and his daughter Priscilla would become a social worker.

It was during this time in Oxford when Tolkien became one of the founding members of a group of friends with similar interests in writing. They were known as The Inklings. Other members were Mr. Coghill, Mr. Dyson, Own Barfield, Charles Williams and his closest friend, C.S. Lewis. Tolkien was responsible for returning C.S. Lewis to Christianity, although he was disappointed that he could not convince the man to convert to Catholicism. The Inklings met for conversation, drink, and to read and critique their works-in-progress, much as a modern writing group meets in present day. It was during this time period that Tolkien completed The Lord of the Rings. The book would publish in 1954 under his author name of J.R.R. Tolkien.

In 1959, Ronald Tolkien retired from Oxford. During his time in retirement the sales of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit steadily increased and gained him much public attention and literary fame. The fan attention grew intense and to escape it, Tolkien and his wife moved to Bournemouth, a seaside resort. There his status as a best-selling author gave he and Edith entry into polite society. Edith loved Bournemouth, but Ronald missed his old Inklings friends at Oxford. An old family friend wrote:

“Those friends who knew Ronald and Edith Tolkien over the years never doubted that there was deep affection between them. It was visible in the small things, the almost absurd degree in which each worried about the other’s health, and the care in which they chose and wrapped each other’s birthday presents’; and in the large matters, the way in which Ronald willingly abandoned such a large part of his life in retirement to give Edith the last years in Bournemouth that he felt she deserved, and the degree in which she showed pride in his fame as an author. A principal source of happiness to them was their shared love of their family. This bound them together until the end of their lives, and it was perhaps the strongest force in the marriage. They delighted to discuss and mull over every detail of the lives of their children, and later their grandchildren.”

Edith was the first to pass in 1971. She was 82 years of age. She would miss seeing Queen Elizabeth II appoint her husband a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and receive the insignia of the Order at Buckingham Palace later in 1972. That same year, Oxford University gave him an honorary Doctorate of Letters. Twenty one months after her death, Tolkien died at the age of 81. Tolkien had the name Luthien engraved under Edith’s name on their shared tombstone. He had the name Beren carved under his own name when he joined her.

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

The Lord of the Rings begins in the land of the Hobbits, known as The Shire. A land of verdant innocence, peopled by people that do not look beyond their borders. A young hobbit by the name of Frodo Baggins inherits the One Ring from his uncle, Bilbo Baggins when the elder hobbit disappears at his birthday party. Gandalf the Grey, a powerful human wizard, advises Frodo to remove the ring from the Shire. The young hobbit takes off with only his gardener, Samwise (Sam) Gamgee, but they are joined later by two of Frodo’s hobbit cousins Meridoc (Merry) Brandybuck and Peregrin (Pippin) Took.

The group travels on to the town of Bree where they meet a man named Strider. He becomes their guide and protector, and later is revealed to be Aragorn, Isildur’s heir. The evil Nazgul attack the hobbits several times, in the end wounding Frodo with a Morgul blade. Aragorn leads the group to the Elven refuge of Rivendell where Frodo might be healed by Elrond, the leader of the Rivendell elves. As Frodo recovers, the hobbits learn the history of the ring, of Sauron and about how Sauron had corrupted Gandalf’s friend and fellow wizard, Saruman. The elven council declares that the ring that Frodo carries must be destroyed, but that can only be done where it was forged, in the fires of Mount Doom in the land of Mordor. Frodo offers to bear the ring to the mountain and to destroy it. A fellowship of the ring is then formed to protect him. It consists of Merry, Pippin, Sam, Gandalf the Wizard, Aragorn, Gimli the Dwarf, Legolas the Elf, and the human Boromir, who is the son of the ruling steward of Gondor.

The Fellowship face many challenges on their way to Mordor. They fail to cross the Misty Mountains via the pass and are forced to take a more dangerous path through the dwarven Mines of Moria. There they face the Watcher in the water and later a monster known as a Balrog. Gandalf manages to defeat the Balrog, but in the struggle with the beast, both fall into a deep chasm. Gandalf is presumed dead. The rest of the Fellowship leave Moria and take refuge in the Elven forest of Lothlorien.

Frodo is counselled by Galadriel, one of the elder elves of Lothlorien, and the Fellowship are gifted with boats to take them down the River Anduin to the hills of Amon Hen. It is there that Boromir falls for the siren song of the One Ring and tries to steal it from Frodo. The attempt convinces Frodo that he should continue on his quest along. Only Sam guesses what is on Frodo’s mind and forces Frodo to take him along. The Fellowship of the Ring is now broken.

After Frodo leaves, a group of Orcs sent by Saruman and Sauron to capture Frodo, kill Boromir and kidnap Merry and Pippin. As the orcs travel though Rohan, a kingdom of horsemen, they are ambushed and killed by the Rohirrim. Merry and Pippin flee into Fangorn Forest where they befriend Treebeard, the oldest of the tree-like and powerful Ents. Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas track the hobbits to Fangorn, and it is there they discover the resurrected wizard of their fellowship, now known as Gandalf the White.

The Ents, stirred from their normally peaceful and slow ways by the two hobbits, are convinced to attack Isengard, Saruman’s stronghold and to trap the wizard. Gandalf and Rohirrim reinforcements arrive in time to scatter Saruman’s army. Gandalf faces Saruman and strips him of his wizard’s rank and powers.

Meanwhile, Frodo and Sam capture Gollum, who was following them all the way from Moria. Gollum agrees to guide the hobbits through Mordor to Mount Doom, hoping to catch Frodo off guard and steal back the One Ring. The One Ring had once belonged to him before Frodo’s uncle, Bilbo Baggins, had taken it decades ago. Instead of leading the hobbits to Mount Doom as promised, Gollum leads the pair to the great spider Shelob in the tunnels in Mordor. Frodo falls to Shelob’s sting, but Sam manages to free himself from the giant spider. Frodo lies so still from the spider’s poison, that Sam believes his friend is dead. He takes the One Ring and takes on Frodo’s quest as his own. He continues on toward Mount Doom. However, when he is near a group of orcs, he overhears that Frodo was merely unconscious and the ever faithful servant and friend follows the orcs in the hope that he can rescue his friend.

Sauron and his army attack the Kingdom of Gondor. As the city is under siege, the Regent is fooled by Sauron and commits suicide, almost taking his last son Faramir (Boromir’s brother) with him. Aragorn feels that he has little options left. He and the rest of the fellowship go to raise and army of oath-breaker ghosts that had been bound by and ancient curse. In exchange for doing battle with Sauron, they will be freed of their curse and able to go to their rest. With the help of the ghost army, the forces of Gondor and Rohan do real damage to Sauron’s orc army. They push back the enemy forces and defeat them. With the end of the war of the ring, Aragorn is crowned Elessar, King of Arnor and Gondor. He marries his love interest, Arwen the daughter of Elrond, leader of the elves of Rivendell. Saruman escapes from Isengard and seeks to re-establish himself in a new land. He chooses to invade the hobbit homeland, The Shire.

During this time, Sam rescues Frodo, and they set out across Mordor. Reaching the lip of the fires of the volcano, Frodo is overwhelmed by the power of the One Ring and claims it for himself. It is at this moment that Gollum returns, and fights to reclaim the ring. Gollum bites off Frodo’s finger, ring and all. As their twisted guide celebrates his victory, he stumbles and falls into the lava, taking the One Ring with him. The destruction of the One Ring has removed Sauron’s power for good. The Nazgul die and Sauron’s army becomes easy prey for Aragorn’s forces at the Black Gate of Mordor.

Frodo and Sam are reunited with Merry and Pippin in Gondor. They long to return home to The Shire. To their horror, they find their home has been transformed by Saruman. Together, the four lead the hobbit people in rebellion against the former wizard, removing his threat from their homeland. Merry and Pippin are declared heroes for saving The Shire. Samwise spots a comely young hobbit lass and decides to get married. He uses his gifts from Galadriel the elf to help heal The Shire. Frodo never seems to recover from his wounds and from the burden of having to carry the One Ring for as long as he had. A few years later, he sails on to the western isles of the elves, in the hope to find peace for his soul at long last.

The Lord of the Rings was originally intended to be a two-volume set, the other volume to be The Silmarillion, but the author’s idea was dismissed by his publisher. Instead, he was asked for “more hobbit stories” due to the success of his first novel, The Hobbit. After 12 years of writing, Tolkien delivered The Lord of the Rings, a six part volume, which the publisher broke up into three parts. The first book is The Fellowship of the Ring, followed by The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. It can also be found as a single book. The Lord of the Rings is in the top five highest selling books of all time and has been translated into many languages. The story has been turned into the now famous trilogy of feature films created by Peter Jackson. Eventually, The Silmarillion would be published after the author’s death along with other assorted writings, the guiding force behind this action being one of Tolkien’s sons. At last, the volumes that Tolkien had originally envisioned are available to the world.

Like many people, I embarked on the journey of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings when I was fairly young and still in middle school. I remember being caught up in the adventure of the tale, but didn’t care for the poetry. I also did not understand many of the nuances that are part of this novel as I now do as an adult. It is subtle, but once you understand the depth of what the author has created, you simply feel amazed. There are shifts in the tone and style of the book that are deliberate echoes of the different mythic and language forms that the author used as a basis for the many cultures of Middle Earth and even for the pattern of naming his characters and locations. This is part of what makes the book special, the characters live in their own mythos, as intricate and complex as our own. There is also a shift in the voice of the novel, depending on the point of view. The chapters that focus on the hobbits have more dialogue and detail. The chapters showcasing the Rohirrim have a poetic rhythm echoing Middle English works. The elven chapters have a mystical quality that is hard to get a clear picture of, distant and beautiful as the elves that the author writes about. These shifts in style and tone are not the work of a novice writer, but are intentional characterizations of races and groups through language. Tolkien perhaps was not the greatest writer of dialogue, but he substitutes this lack for style and action.

Lord of the Rings is the founding corner stone of the high fantasy genre as we know it today. His ideas have been copied many times, but there is only one great original. Lord of the Rings will always have a place on my bookshelf and hopefully on yours as well. The novel has become the second best-selling novel ever written, with only A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens selling more. The Hobbit comes in as the fourth best-selling novel of all time. It is said that there are two different types of people in the world. One type has read The Lord of the Rings, the other is waiting to do so. Which are you?

The Lord of the Rings Book CoverThe Hobbit
The Fellowship of the Ring
The Two Towers
The Return of the King
The Silmarillion

Book Review: The Good Earth

Book Name: The Good Earth
Author: Pearl S. Buck
First Published: 1931
Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1932

Born in 1892, Pearl Sydenstricker was the fourth of seven children to Southern Presbyterian missionaries Absalom and Caroline Sydenstricker. Her birth was at the end of their furlough in the United States and when Pearl was three months old, the family returned to China and it was there that the author would spend the majority of the first forty years of her life. The family lived in Zhenjiang, in Jiangsu province, and then in a small city lying at the junction of the Yangtze River and the Grand Canal. Her father was away from home most of the time, in search of new Christian converts, and her mother spent her time raising her children and ministering to the local Chinese women in a small dispensary that she had established.

In her memoir, Pearl S Buck recalled that she lived in “several worlds,” one was the “small, white, clean Presbyterian world of my parents,” and this was surrounded by the “big, loving, merry, not-too-clean, Chinese world.” There was little connection between these two cultures as she grew up. Pearl was taught western customs and English by her mother, classic Chinese by a hired tutor, and learned the local dialect from her Chinese friends. A few years later, Pearl was enrolled in a local western school and was dismayed by the attitudes of her fellow students, who could not speak Chinese and did not view the Chinese people as equals. This dismay would stay with her and influence much of her writing in later years. She took a fancy to the novels of Charles Dickens, which her father disapproved of, and included a reading of his novels once a year in addition to the other books she read.

When Pearl S. Buck was of college age, she returned to the United States and enrolled in Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Virginia and graduated there in 1914. She had intended to remain in the United States, but was given word that her mother was ill and so returned to be with her in China. In 1915, Pearl met a young agricultural economist named John Lossing Buck and they married in 1917. The couple moved to an impoverished village in rural Anhui province. It was in this community that the author gathered the material that would later serve as the foundation research for her novel The Good Earth and other stories that she would write about Chinese culture.

Pearl and Lossing’s marriage was rocky from the start, but they remained together for eighteen years before divorcing. Their daughter Carol was born in 1921. The child was diagnosed with PKU and retarded. In addition, during Carol’s delivery, a uterine tumor was discovered in Pearl and she was forced to undergo a hysterectomy. Several years later, Pearl and Lossing would adopt a baby girl named Janice, but would continue to care for Carol as best they could.

From 1920 through 1933, Pearl and Lossing lived on the campus of Nanking University where both were teachers. When Pearl’s mother died, her father came to live with them. Tensions both inside their family and the outside world came to a head in 1927 during the “Nanking Incident” where a battle involving Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist troops, communist forces, assorted warlords and several westerners were murdered. The Buck family spent a chilling day in hiding until they were rescued by American gunboats. The Americans took them to Japan where they remained in safety until they were able to return to Nanking.

It was during this frenzied time that Pearl had begun to publish essays and short stories in magazines such as Nation, The Chinese Recorder, Asia, and Atlantic Monthly. In 1931, her second novel, The Good Earth, would be published by the John Day Company. It would become a best-selling novel, win the Pulitzer Prize and Howells Medal in 1935, be adapted as a major MGM film starring Paul Muni and Luise Rainer in 1937, and be instrumental in her gaining the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was the first American woman to claim that honor.

As Pearl’s first marriage crumbled and the circumstances in China deteriorated, she decided to return to the United States on a permanent basis. She was now married to Richard Walsh, the editor that handled her books at the John Day Company, and she wanted to be closer to him and to her daughter Carol, whom had been placed in an New Jersey institution. Pearl and Richard bought an old farmhouse called Green Hills Farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The couple adopted six children together. Pearl founded “Welcome House”, the first international, inter-racial adoption agency that helped Amerasian children who would otherwise not be eligible for adoption. She also established the Pearl S. Buck Foundation which helps children in Asian countries. Pearl S. Buck lived to be 81 years of age and is buried at Green Hills Farm.

The Good Earth begins when Chinese Farmer Wang Lung walks to the noble house of Hwang in a nearby town to procure the slave that his father has arranged to be his wife. He arrives with peaches as a wedding gift and buys a little pork for their meager wedding feast. O-Lan proves to be a supportive and hardworking wife, joining Wang Lung out in the fields, and providing him with sons and a daughter. While they are poor, the couple is content. They work hard on their farm and slowly, Wang Lung earns enough to be able to buy some of the land from the House of Hwang. The desire to own land is the one thing that sets Wang Lung apart from the other farmers. Part of this desire is from pride, but he also realizes that owning good farm land is key to his providing the necessary cushion to keep himself and his family from starvation during lean years. As a man, he loves working his crops and bringing them to harvest and this fierce love of the land is the one constant in his life.

A famine comes and wipes out everything that they have. Wang Lung and his family must flee to the south in order to find food. He sells everything that he has left except for his land and house. In the southern city, O-Lan and the children beg and Wang Lung pulls a rickshaw. While they do not stave, they remain in poverty, and have little hope of returning to their house and farm. Wang Lung also lives in fear of being conscripted into the army. During this time his eldest daughter becomes mentally handicapped as a result of severe malnutrition. Wang Lung calls her his “little fool”. Their second daughter is born and she is killed to spare her the misery of living in hardship. This allows the resources they have to help the others survive.

When food riots break out in the city, Wang Lung joins a mob that loots a rich man’s house. He confronts the owner of the home and the man offers him all his money in exchange for mercy. At the same time, O-lan finds jewels in another house and hides them on her person. The money that Wang Lung is given is enough to take his family back home to the farm. He is able to buy a new ox, farm tools and a few workers to help him on the land. Later, O-lan confesses to the possession of the jewels, and Wang Lung takes them from her, except for a pair of seed pearls that she coveted. With the money from the jewels, Wang Lung buys all of the land of the House of Hwang.

Wang Lung now is a prosperous man, but while his income is secure, inter-family problems begin to surface and take him away from his former work ethic and honesty. His sons, who he worked hard to send to school, now do not wish to work the land. Wang Lung himself suffers a mid-life crisis. He falls for a younger woman named Lotus and takes her on as a mistress. He ignores the wife that stood by him during the hard times, calling her plain. One day, he removes the pair of seed pearls that O-Lan had asked to keep and makes them into earrings for his mistress. This breaks his wife’s heart and she sickens with illness and eventually dies. Only when she is gone does Wang Lung realize what she means to him.

As an old man, Wang Lung seeks to find peace. His first and second sons are constantly arguing, and their wives do not get along. They talk about selling the land and do not have the same values as their father. Wang Lung’s third son runs away to join the army. There is no one left but his “little fool” and the land. The old man tries to warn his sons that to lose the land is to lose everything. They assure him that they will never sell the farm, but over his head they smile knowingly at each other.

The Good Earth works on many levels. It is a depiction of a culture that little was known of when the book was first published, showing how these people chose to live without making comments or passing judgment on their customs, such as selling girls into slavery or binding their feet which we would find horrifying today. Instead Buck portrays what happens as the way these people live and lets the facts speak for themselves. The story also works as a family drama with all the interpersonal relationships and the cyclic nature of their rags to riches story. Despite that the novel is set in a time and place that is foreign to many of us in the modern world, the characters are real and are easy to relate to, even with the cultural differences. Wang Lung is not all that different from any modern American farmer, except he walks to the local tea house to shoot the breeze instead of driving his truck to the local bar in Oklahoma. This classic novel is one of my personal favorites and I highly recommend adding it to your reading list.

The Good Earth Book CoverThe House of Earth Series:

The Good Earth (1931)
Sons (1932)
A House Divided (1935)

Book Review: The Red Badge of Courage

Book Name: The Red Badge of Courage
Author: Stephen Crane
First Published: 1895

Stephen Crane was born in 1871 and only lived a scant 28 years. His work was noted as being in the realist tradition and would prove to be some of the earlier examples of American Naturalism and Impressionism. It is said that had he lived longer, his reputation as an author of American literature might have rivaled Mark Twain.

His schooling began at Pennington Seminary, a ministry-focused boarding school not far from his home. His mother had taken ill and there had been several deaths in the family due to illness and accident. After two years, young Crane left the boarding school and was enrolled in a military school. Cadet Crane excelled at history and literature, but was considered fortunate if he managed to pass his exams in math or science. Later, Crane would say that the happiest years of his life took place at Claverack College. While he was known to skip class to play baseball, he rose rapidly through the ranks of his cadet battalion. Many of the men on staff were Civil War veterans and Crane became fascinated by their war anecdotes. It is thought that this is where he gained his first interest and initial research for his novel, The Red Badge of Courage.

Crane was interested in pursuing a military career, but his family persuaded him to consider obtaining a degree in mining engineering instead. He transferred to Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, but again proved to be an indifferent student. Instead of classwork, he joined the baseball team and the largest fraternity on campus along with two literary societies. After a semester at Lafayette, he transferred to Syracuse University where he changed his major to Liberal Arts and took a single class in English Literature.

By this time, Crane was putting most of his time into writing. He was constantly publishing in the college literature societies, but also in the New York Tribune. In 1891, Crane decided that college was a waste of time and decided to become a full-time writer and reporter.

Crane began to publish a series of news reports from a small and once prosperous area in Manhattan. The Bowery shops and mansions had given way to saloons, dance halls and brothels. Crane frequented these places, claiming that it was part of his research for writing. He found the slums to be “open and plain, with nothing hidden”. Along with the news reports, this area would become the setting for his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.

During this time, he began courting a married woman, Lily Brandon Munroe, who was estranged from her husband. He asked her to elope with him despite her family’s opposition. Crane lacked money and prospects, and Lily was forced to decline his offer. They continued to see each other on and off for several years, but while Crane did gain success via his writing, she still refused to marry him.

In 1895, Crane published his Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage. While he had never gone to war himself, the stories that he had gleaned from the veterans at Claverack College served as ample research for his book. It was met with critical acclaim and became a best seller. A reviewer for The New York Press wrote, “One should be forever slow in charging an author with genius, but it must be confessed that The Red Badge of Courage is open to the suspicion of having greater power and originality that can be girdled by the name of talent.” H.G. Wells, a friend of Crane’s remarked that his novel was greeted with “an orgy of praise”.

In 1896, Crane entered into a highly publicized scandal after bearing witness in the trial of a suspected prostitute, his friend Dora Clark. To remove himself from the scandal, Crane took a job as a war correspondent and departed for Cuba later that year. While on his journey, Crane’s ship sank off the coast of Florida. The time that he and others from the ship spent adrift in a lifeboat became the inspiration for a short story called The Open Boat.

The final years of his life, he continued to work as a war correspondent covering conflicts in Greece. He settled in England with Cora Taylor, a former madam of a Florida brothel. Suffering financial difficulties and physical fragility, eventually Crane died of tuberculosis at the age of 28.

The Red Badge of Courage tells the story of a young 19 year old named Henry Fleming. It is a simple coming of age story and about what a man faces when he goes off to war. Fleming enlists to fight in the Civil War, but runs during his first combat experience. He spends the next days of battle attempting to redeem himself for his act of cowardice. The plot is not what this book is remembered for. The book examines the young private’s state of mind, his motivations, his interactions with the fighting and with the other soldiers around him. The author uses a great amount of symbolism, based on nature and colors to help portray what the battle is like. The realism of what happens in the battle is intense and what made the novel original and memorable for its time.

I remember The Red Badge of Courage from my my high school days. It was a required reading assignment in one of my English Literature classes. I have never forgotten the book, although I did not count it as a favorite when I was young. While the story is centered around a nineteen year old boy, the concepts about war and its effect on this young man are very mature. I found the battle scenes to be extremely intense and Henry Fleming to be distant and unlikable to me as a young woman. Yet, it is hard to turn away from this book as it draws you into the conflict that these soldiers face. Now that I’ve reread it as an adult, I find that I appreciate the story and the writing style much better.

The novel has been made into a movie several times. Director John Huston created the first one, starring Medal of Honor Winner, Audie Murphy as Henry Fleming in 1951. In the mid-sevenities, a made-for-television movie starring actor Richard Thomas as Henry Fleming was released.

The Red Badge of Courage Book CoverThe Red Badge of Courage can be found for free download at Project Gutenberg.

Book Review: A Wizard of Earthsea

Book Name: A Wizard of Earthsea
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
First Published: 1968

Born in 1929 in Berkeley, California of an anthropologist father and writer mother, Ursula K. Le Guin was exposed at an early age to the life of academia, the art of writing and to the concepts of anthropology. Her father established a department of anthropology at UC Berkeley and her mother wrote her husband’s biography. Le Guin attended Berkeley High School and went on to gain her B.A. from Radcliffe College in 1951. She went on to receive her M.A. from Columbia University.

In 1953, Ursula Kroeber married historian Charles A. Le Guin. They had three children together and four grandchildren. Currently, they reside in Oregon.

Le Guin became interested in literature as a child. She submitted her first short story to Astounding Science Fiction at the tender age of eleven years. It was rejected, but this did not deter her desire to become a writer. She moved to a new genre, that of stories set in imaginary countries, but without the fantastic elements of her early attempts. In time, she grew tired of this genre and returned to her first interest in science fiction and fantasy.

In 1967, Herman Schein, the publisher of Parnassus Press and husband to Ruth Robbins, the woman who would later illustrate the book, asked Le Guin if she would consider writing a book “for older kids”, leaving the concept and subject free of her own choosing. A Wizard of Earthsea followed the next year and was published by Parnassus Press. Le Guin based the novel on a pair of short stories she had published in 1964, The Rule of Names and The Word of Unbinding. In these short stories, she explored the concept that wizards were always portrayed as old and wise figures in literature. The author wondered where the wizards might have learned their magic before they gained their wisdom. These two stories served as the groundwork for the Earthsea trilogy that would follow.

Locus has ranked A Wizard of Earthsea as the third choice among a list of thirty three titles as All-Time Best Fantasy Novels, based on a poll of their subscribers. The Earthsea Cycle has won many literary awards, including:

1968 Boston Globe-Horn Book award for A Wizard of Earthsea
1972 Newbery Silver Medal Award for The Tombs of Atuan
1972 National Book Award for Children’s Books for The Farthest Shore
1979 Lewis Carroll Shelf Award for A Wizard of Earthsea
2002 Locus Readers Awards: Tales from Earthsea, “The Finder”
2002 Locus Readers Awards: Tales from Earthsea, “The Bones of the Earth”
2003 Endeavor Award: Tales from Earthsea

Ursula K. Le Guin has won many more awards for her writing, and I do not doubt that more are due in her future. Her awards are simply too numerous to list in a simple blog post.

A Wizard of Earthsea is the first novel in the Earthsea Cycle series. It is a poetic fantasy that has the feeling of an epic, but is only around 200 pages in length. Earthsea is a series of island nations that exist on small archipelago islands in a vast ocean. The culture is agrarian and weapons are of the iron age, supplemented by the use of magic. Wizardry is the art of learning the true names of things and by knowing the name of a thing, you gain mastery over it. The people of Earthsea are careful to only reveal their true names to those that they can trust.

The novel follows the story of a young wizard, known as Ged. The boy is raised by a well meaning witch, who has recognized the magical power within him, and his father the blacksmith. When their island home is attacked by a marauding army, young Ged uses his limited training to control a mist to confound the army and saves his people. This action brings him to the attention of a powerful wizard named Ogion. The wizard tells Ged his true name, Sparrowhawk. He offers to apprentice the eager Ged in the arts of magic, but once they undertake the training, Ged is frustrated because Ogion is more concerned with teaching Ged wisdom instead of magic.

Ged is given the opportunity to attend the main wizard school on the island of Roke. Once Ged arrives, he learns quickly, but the young wizard is also arrogant and impatient, he gets into a pissing match with a rival young wizard named Jasper and thus makes the mistake of summoning the dead.

Thus begins a journey across Earthsea where Ged battles dragons, fights villagers and ultimately learns to switch from being the hunted to becoming the hunter. Just what is this shadow that he has unleashed? How can he learn its true name and gain control over it once and for all? For this young, impatient wizard, it is the ultimate challenge.

I have a great deal of nostalgia for the Earthsea Cycle. I was one of those kids that hung out at the public library instead of playing sports or joining in group activities. A Wizard of Earthsea was one of the books that I discovered in the YA section of the library. This novel was my first introduction to Ursula K. Le Guin as an author and I have gone on to read most of her novels. She has been an influence over me as an author.

Back then, there were only the first three books. Of the three, I believe that The Tombs of Atuan was my favorite of the original trilogy. To this day, I still can feel the character Tenar, a young priestess, exploring the underground tunnels of her people’s temple. It is a hidden place that only she is allow to go. She travels in the darkness, not aware of all the treasures that stud the tunnel walls because of her obedience to how the priestess’ taught her. It is only when Sparrowhawk bids her to question her existence that she sees all the wonder around her. He helps her find herself. Allegories like this is what makes Earthsea rich as a series.

Another aspect of the stories that I remember clearly is the moment when I figured out that Sparrowhawk was a young man of color, not a white man, as many heroes in fantasy novels are. As a teenager, I remember being flabbergasted by this fact, pausing to reread to make sure that what I saw on the page was actually there, and then I was delighted. This was not a common occurrence in fantasy books at the time. LeGuin was breaking new ground.

There seems to be a disconnect to Earthsea by the younger readers of today. Earthsea is not written as a novelized movie. It is not purely visual as we are growing used to in our novels today. It is a literary adventure with a depth of thought that requires the reader to ponder about the ethics of what the characters do and the price they pay for a moment of youthful folly. These are ideas that I feel are well worth exposing to young readers in our pop culture of instant gratification.

I hope you’ll give The Earthsea Cycle consideration in your reading list and that you check out Ursula K. LeGuin’s work in general. She is truly a national treasure.

A Wizard of Earthsea Book CoverThe Earthsea Cycle:

A Wizard of Earthsea, 1968 (named to the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award list in 1979)
The Tombs of Atuan, 1971 (Newbery runner-up)
The Farthest Shore, 1972 (National Book Award)
Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea, 1990 (Nebula Award and Locus Fantasy Award)
Tales from Earthsea, 2001 (short stories)
The Other Wind, 2001 (World Fantasy Award, 2002)