Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Tales of the First Age: “Beren and Luthien” by J.R.R. Tolkien

Christopher Tolkien, the youngest of J.R.R. Tolkien’s three sons, will be 93 this year. He is his father’s literary executor, and he has spent the years since his father’s death in 1973 poring over papers and files, considering an array of various texts, different versions of stories and poems, staying true to his father’s vision and helping publish a considerable number of books that represent both wonderful stories and insights into The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It is because of Christopher that we have The Silmarillion, The Children of Hurin, many of the lost tales, the elder Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf, and many other works.

Christopher Tolkien
The latest, and possibly the last, is Beren and Luthien, a love story between Beren, a mortal man in exile after his father and clanare killed, and Luthien, an Elf princess (the idea of which was carried over into The Lord of the Rings). Luthien is also called Tinuviel by Beren, and it is by that name we see her part in the story. Beren sees Luthien dancing in the woods and falls in love with her. Her father isn’t exactly pleased, and he agrees to the marriage only if Beren can steal a Silmaril, a jewel in the crown of Melkor, the Black Enemy, also known as Morgoth – and a forerunner of Sauron in the trilogy. He’s captured and enslaved in the kitchen, and Luthien travels to his rescue. With the help of a giant dog (who tricks an evil cat), she succeeds in Beren, and then more adventures happen.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Monday, June 26, 2017

“The American Spirit” by David McCullough

David McCullough has spent his professional lifetime exploring the people and events that form a goodly part of what we call American history. He’s fascinated by the history of the United States, but it’s a fascination that doesn’t preclude understanding of or excuse things that need to be criticized. His reach and interest are as broad as they is deep.

McCullough – editor, teacher, lecturer, television host – is the author of numerous works of history and biography, including The Path Between the Seas (1978); Mornings on Horseback (1982); The Johnstown Flood (1987); Brave Companions: Portraits in History (1992); Truman (1993); John Adams (2002); 1776 (2005); and The Wright Brothers (2015); among several others. He’s won two National Book Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes, and two Francis Parkman Awards.

In other words, he’s an eminence in American historical letters.

He gives speeches, and when he does, it’s worthwhile to listen and ponder. He’s assembled 15 of those speeches, stretching from 1989 to 2016, in The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For.  The volume is a gem of understanding, and of American history, the words and insights spoken by one of our pre-eminent American historians.

He’s a master of the telling detail, such as that of Simon Willard’s clock, which sits within a statue in Congress and has been there since 1837. “Its inner workings ticked off the minutes and hours through debate on the Gag Rule, the annexation of Texas, the Mexican War, tariffs, postal service, the establishment of the Naval Academy, statehood for Arkansas, Michigan, Wisconsin, matters related to immigration, the Gold Rush, Statehood for California, the fateful Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the final hours of John Quincy Adams,” he writes. These were events and actions not only important for the United States but indeed the world.

And we read the story of John Quincy Adams, who returned as a congressman from Massachusetts after he served as our 6th President. Adams, the educated and experienced son of John Adams, would die in Congress, stricken while in the House of Representatives and carried to the speaker’s office, where he died two days later. Henry Clay held his hand as he died.

David McCullough
In these speeches, McCullough talks of buildings and commemorations, historical figures known and not-so-known, and events that we’ve heard so often they seem trite but in his hands become living things.

One of the common themes is education – why it’s important and why it needs to be a lifelong pursuit; it’s not a monopoly of the institutional classroom. Here his speeches show a shift, however. From 2005 on, McCullough begins to note what he sees happening in the classroom – that we are not teaching American history as it has been taught or even at all. And citizens, and the country, are both poorer for it.

During a time like now, when divisiveness, rage, and outrage are the political order (or disorder) of the day, The American Spirit is a potent reminder of what we have had, what we’re risking, and what we might need to do to recover.

Top photograph by Frank McKenna via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

At first I didn't notice

After Isaiah 24

At first I didn’t notice
the differences, the changes
slight, a lightening of color,
a mall cooling, but as
I watched the stage
the scenery began to melt,
sliding and flowing around
the actors’ feet and cascading
downward at the edge of the stage.
The actors began to forget
their lines and soon made no sense,
desperate words bleeding into
one another like stones soon dulled.
The music faltered then stopped,
collapsing into a cacophony
of jarring sounds, like musicians
and instruments sliding as the Titanic tilted
and prepared to break apart. People
are shouting at the actors who turn
to the audience and say nothing.
The theater trembles and breaks apart.
The lights fail, only darkness and explosions
of noise remain, the only constants.

Photograph by Kondo Yukihiro via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.