Tag Archives: classic literature

Book Review: Don Quixote

Book Name: Don Quixote
Author: Miguel de Cervantes
First Published:1605 (part one) 1615 (part two)

Miguel de Cervantes was born in 1547 in Alcalá de Henares, Spain. His father’s profession was that of a barbar-surgeon from Cordoba. He set bones, performed bloodlettings in addition to shaves and haircuts. Cervantes’ mother was the third child of a poor nobleman who sold his daughter into matrimony to pay his debts. Although their marriage was not a happy one, they still managed to produce seven children together. When Cervantes was a young man, he fell in love with a girl named Josefina, but because of his family’s poverty and Cervantes’ poor prospects, the girl’s father forbade her to see him.

Cervantes left Spain and enlisted with the Spanish Navy Marines in Naples in 1570. The following year, he sailed with the fleet of ships that defeated the Ottoman forces in the Battle of Lepanto. Cervantes had a fever during the battle but he chose to fight for his King and his God instead of hiding below decks. He was shot three times, which left his left arm immobile, but he considered his combat as a badge of honor.

In 1575, Cervantes sailed to Barcelona. His ship was attacked by Algerian pirates near the Catalan coast. It was a terrible battle in which the Captain and many of the crew were killed. The survivors were captured and taken to Algiers. Cervantes was enslaved for five years as a prisoner of war. He was returned to Madrid only after his parents paid his ransom. It was this period in his life that inspired much of the subject matter for several of his later literary works, The Captive’s Tale in Don Quixote and two plays that were set in Algiers, El Trato de Argel and Los Banos de Argel.

Cervantes life settled into middle-class normality after his return to Spain. Like many authors of his time, he was not able to support himself via his writings. Instead, he worked as a purchasing agent for the Spanish Navy. He also took the position of a tax collector, moving from town to town demanding the back taxes due the crown. Many of the characters and situations in Don Quixote were inspired by these “day jobs”. In his senior years, he managed to gain a sponsor and was able to turn to writing full-time.

In 1584, he married Catalina de Salazar y Palacios, whose uncle was accounted the basis for the character of Don Quixote. He remained poor until 1605, when his novel Don Quixote was released. The book was written as a satire of chivalric romance and the general public enjoyed Cervantes’ use of everyday speech in his writing. The book did not make him rich but it made him a popular writer internationally.

Cervantes died on April 22, 1616, a year after the second part of Don Quixote was published, of type II Diabetes. He was buried the next day in a convent in Madrid. Later his remains were lost due to construction work at the convent.

Coincidently, William Shakespeare also died on April 23, 1616. To honor the date when two of the greatest authors of all time died, UNESCO established this date at the International Day of the Book. What is not often acknowledged is that Spain had adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1582, but England was still using the Julian calendar. There is actually a eleven day difference in the date of these two author’s deaths. But why ruin a good holiday concept over a few dates?

“Too much sanity may be madness. And maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be.” -Miguel de Cervantes

Don Quixote the novel begins with Alonso Quixano, almost 50, lives in La Mancha with his niece and their housekeeper. He is rational for the most part but his obsession with books about chivalry has distorted his perception into believing that those books were real. Inspired by the stories, he decides to be a wandering knight and look for adventure. He wears an old suit of armor and renames himself “Don Quixote”, refers to his thin horse as Rocinante and recruits his illiterate neighbor Sancho Panza to be his squire.

He goes out and arrives at an inn, believing that it is a castle, and asks the innkeeper to make him a knight. The annoyed innkeeper agrees just to make him go away. It is at this inn where Don Quixote spies the barmaid Aldonza Lorenzo and re-imagines her as his lady love, Dulcinea del Toboso. Next, Don Quixote discovers a man who is beating a boy and the mad knight forces this man to swear that he will treat the boy well. The man, however, continues with the beating once Don Quixote is away. When an encounter with traders ends in a fight, after the men insult Dulcinea, Don Quixote is beaten. It is then that Sancho and a peasant return him to his home and worried family. While he is unconscious, his housekeeper and his niece, with help from other local residents, burn the man’s chivalric books and close his library. They hope this will halt the old man’s dreams of adventure and keep him sane.

When he recovers, Don Quixote and Sancho continue with their journey and meet different characters, with Don Quixote’s imagination turning these meetings into quests. The man’s tendency to intrude in other people’s affairs and to skip paying his debts results in injuries and embarrassments. He tilts at windmills with his lance, believing them to be vicious giants and he ambushes a group of friars traveling with a lady.

In the second part of Don Quixote, published 10 years after the first, the people that Don Quixote and Sancho meet already know about the duo. Some of these characters trick Don Quixote to entertain themselves, sending the pair to adventures that end in practical jokes. This tests the knight’s sense of chivalry and his professed love for Dulcinea. Even Sancho tricks him one time, bringing back three peasant girls and claiming that they are Dulcinea and her two ladies-in-waiting. Near the end of the story, an encounter forces Don Quixote to reluctantly go home and possibly cease his chivalrous acts.

Don Quixote Book CoverMy first exposure to this classic tale of madness, fantasy, and ideas of what is important as citizens of the world, was a live performance on Broadway of Man of La Mancha. It was my first time in New York City as a young woman and my cousin suggested that I pick this play because it was classic theater, and it was a little less expensive being a revival. I was traveling on the cheap, so it seemed a good idea to me at the time. As I sat in the darkened theater, I was carried away by the scenes of Cervantes in the Algerian prison, pleading for his life by playing the tales of Don Quixote to his fellow prisoners, amusing them enough to spare his life. The songs from this play haunt me still. Later, I read the book Don Quixote and was transported into a world very different from modern America, a story that would be considered the first modern European novel and is regarded among the greatest works of fiction ever written. Cervantes’ himself was dubbed El Principe de los Ingenious, ”The Prince of Wits”.

If you have not read Don Quixote, I urge you to place it in your to-read list. You can find a free download of this classic novel at Project Gutenberg. There is also a movie version of Man of La Mancha (1972), starring Peter O’Toole as Don Quixote, Sofia Loren as Dulcinea, and James Coco as Sancho Panza. If you would experience the beautiful music of the Broadway play, I can recommend the film as well.

Book Review: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

Book Name: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
Author: Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain)
First Published: 1889

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born in Missouri, two weeks after Halley’s Comet appeared in 1835. After his father died of pneumonia, young Clemens apprenticed at the age of 12 as a typesetter for his brother’s newspaper, the Hannibal Journal. It is there that he gained his first writing experiences by creating articles and funny sketches for the newspaper. Instead of attending school, he learned by reading at the public libraries. He claimed that he found more information at the library than he ever would at a traditional school.

When he was 18, he left Hannibal and went to work as a printer in New York City among other places. He joined the newly formed International Typographical Union. He moved around a great deal, traveling on the packet Keokuk in 1854 and lived in Muscatine during 1855. The Muscatine newspaper published eight of his travelogues.

During a journey to New Orleans down the Mississippi river, steamboat pilot Horace E. Bixby talked Clemens into becoming a pilot himself. Clemens studied for two years before he received his steamboat pilot license in 1859. A steamboat pilot eclipsed the prestige and authority of the captain of the vessel due to the extensive knowledge that was needed to guide the boat down the ever-changing river and knowing the hundreds of ports to access. A pilot also earned a rewarding salary for his efforts. It was during this time when Clemens developed the pen name of Mark Twain, taken from the cry “mark twain” for a measured river depth of two fathoms. He might have remained a riverboat pilot but for the start of the American Civil War. When war broke out in 1861, all traffic along the Mississippi was curtailed.

At the start of the war, Clemens enlisted briefly in the Confederate military, but soon left for Nevada to work for his brother Orion, the Secretary to James W. Nye, the Governor of Nevada Territory. Eventually, Clemens settled in Nevada as a miner on the Comstock Lode. He did not make a good living as a miner and soon returned to writing. He wrote under his new pen name, Mark Twain, for the first time at a Virginia City newspaper called The Territorial Enterprise. Later, his experiences on the American frontier would inspire his famous short story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County which was published in The Saturday Press, a New York weekly. Twain continued to write and travel all across American and even to the Hawaiian Islands, as a reporter for the Sacramento Union. His travelogues were popular and would become the basis for his future lecture series.

During a trip to the Holy Land, Clemens met Charles Langdon and the man happened to show Clemens the picture of his sister. Later, Clemens would admit that he had fallen in love with Olivia Langdon that day solely on viewing her image. He later met and pursued Olivia until she agreed to be his wife. They moved to Hartfort, Connecticut and lived there for almost two decades. It is at the home in Hartford where Clemens wrote most of his popular novels including: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. His novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, features a time traveler from his contemporary American, using the knowledge of science to introduce modern technology to Arthurian England. This type of storyline would later become a common feature of the science fiction sub-genre, alternate history. It also reads as a good fantasy novel.

Clemens grew wealthy from his writing, but due to several poor investments, such as the Paige typesetting machine and by buying into a publishing house that picked poor performers, his gains all but disappeared. In 1895, Clemens organized a world tour with the help of his friend, Henry Rogers, where he gave lectures about his travels and of his famous stories. It was a five year journey, but would prove to be a hit. He was able to repay his debts and to continue to support his family.

Disaster struck the Clemens’ household in 1910, a decade after his successful world tour. One by one, his wife, two of their daughters and his friend Rogers all died within a short time span. This put the author into a spiral of depression that he never quite recovered from. All his life he had told of having visions of the future. Clemens predicted that he would die on the return of Halley’s Comet and he was right – he died on April 21, 1910, a day after the comet reappeared.

My kind of loyalty was loyalty to one’s country, not to its institutions or its officeholders. The country is the real thing, the substantial thing, the eternal thing; it is the thing to watch over, and care for, and be loyal to; institutions are extraneous, they are its mere clothing, and clothing can wear out, become ragged, cease to be comfortable, cease to protect the body from winter, disease, and death. – Mark Twain

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court begins with Hank Morgan, a 19th century gunsmith from Connecticut, gets hit on the head during a fight and wakes up in Camelot. He thinks that he should run things since he is the most advanced man in the world, but instead he is ridiculed for his odd appearance and is sentenced to be burned at the stake. Hank knows from his study of history that his execution date coincides with a famous solar eclipse. He threatens the king that he will make the sun disappear if he executes him. When the eclipse occurs, the people are convinced of Hank’s power and the King appoints him as chief minister.

Hank observes the medieval ways of the people and sees the rampant ignorance and suffering of the poor. He clashes with Merlin, the king’s previous chief adviser and top sorcerer in the land. In a fit of jealousy, Merlin spreads rumors that Hank is a fraud. To combat this, Hank rigs Merlin’s tower with explosives and a lightning rod, causing a fire that Merlin fails to prevent with his magic. In another incident, Merlin declares that a fountain has dried up and will never work again because of a demon haunting it. Hank fixes the leak and gets the fountain flowing again.

Hank also uses his knowledge and his authority as the king’s minister to modernize the country and contradict medieval teachings. Assisted by a young boy named Clarence, he sets up secret schools and factories of tools. Hank only allows his hand-picked open-minded people to enter. He goes on to construct modern infrastructure and goes on an adventure with a girl named Sandy. One day, Hank and King Arthur disguise themselves as peasants in order to see how the poor people really live. They get arrested and sold to slavery, and are about to be hanged. Sir Lancelot and the other knights rescue them but the king, horrified by his experience, promises to abolish slavery, which delights Hank.

Sir Sagramore, challenges Hank to a duel to the death upon his return from his Holy Grail quest. Hank wins the day by enlisting the help of a dozen other knights, a lasso, and a revolver. He then reveals the modern infrastructure he has created. He later marries Sandy and they have a child together.

Strangely enough, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is the first Mark Twain novel that I ever read. I was inspired to pick up the book after seeing the movie by the same name starring Bing Crosby. Later, due to prodding from English teachers, I would go on to read his more famous works, but this novel has always stuck with me. The satire about the politics of his day reminded me of other classic authors such as Lewis Carrol, Charles Dickens and others of that time period. It is an early novel of alternate history and a true child of the speculative fiction genre. I fully believe that by reading the classics in a genre, you learn the conventions and gain a stronger understanding of it as a writer. That is why I would recommend this novel to be on a must-read list, in addition to his other more well known titles.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court Book CoverMark Twain was more than an author, he was an inventor, an adventurer, a steamboat pilot and more. His writing and wit inspires me as an author, but his life inspires me as well. Samuel Clemens did not succeed at everything he attempted, but he never gave up and continued to search for what worked for him. Now he is remembered for being one of the best American authors in history.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is available for free download at Project Gutenberg.

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)