Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Editor of the Legendarium: Christopher Tolkien (1924-2020)

Imagine being a child, listening with your siblings to bedtime stories about Bilbo Baggins, or being enchanted at Christmas-time as your father read the latest installment in the Father Christmas letters, featuring the antics of Polar Bear. Then imagine being that child at five years old and grasping enough to point out inconsistencies in your father’s stories. Or being a young man in your 20s, and joining the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and others for a weekly pint at the pub – participating in one of the most famous literary discussion groups of the 20th century,

Perhaps it’s no wonder that J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) eventually chose his youngest son Christopher Tolkien (1924-2020) as his literary executor. An academic and writer in his own right, Christopher would preserve and extend his father’s legacy for nearly 50 years after the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings died. It is because of Christopher’s dedication to this task that we have The SilmarillionThe Fall of ArthurThe Fall of GondolinBeren and LuthienThe Children of HurinThe Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, and many other stories and tales. 

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

Monday, January 20, 2020

"Heroes of the Fourth Turning" by Will Arbery

It’s almost too much to imagine: a play with five characters, four former students returning to their college in Wyoming to celebrate the appointment of their mentor as college president. All five characters are some shade of conservative, as is the college they attended. They come together, and they clash, each articulating a perspective and wanting to convince the others of the rightness of what they believe, or at least be understood.

What’s hard to imagine is that this play, Heroes of the Fourth Turning by Will Arbery, was successfully staged in New York City and received positive reviews by the New YorkerThe New York TimesCatholic HeraldTime Out, and Vulture, among others. And the characters are not treated as caricatures, as conservatives often are in contemporary culture, but as real people with hearts, minds and passions.  

Justin is the older student, in his late 30s, playing a kind of caretaker role and always trying to help. Teresa lives in Brooklyn, surrounded by progressives, and she is on a crusade to save America from progressive destruction. Emily is ailing and physically frail, or thinks she is, and wants everyone to see all sides of everything. Kevin is the almost hostile skeptic, deciding he’s lost his faith, or perhaps not. And Gina, the new college president, is the pragmatic Never Trumper conservative. This five come together, and soon the fireworks begin.

The title of the play is taken from a book published in 1997, The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy: What Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny by William Strauss and Neil Lowe. They hypothesized four recurring cycles in American history: a period of confidence, followed by a period of rebellion, then an unraveling, and finally the crisis of the “fourth turning,” a rebirth of a new order. Teresa argues that the crisis of the fourth turning is upon America, and it’s time to fight for what they believe. No one else agrees, especially Gina, the college president.

What is bared is that the characters are indeed facing a crisis, but it’s more personal than a rebirth of the existing social and political order.

Will Arbery
Arbery received a B.A. degree in English and drama from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from Northwestern University. A playwright and filmmaker, he’s written five plays: Heroes of the Fourth TurningPlanoEvanston Salt Costs ClimbingWheelchair, and You Hateful Things. He’s currently under commission from Playwrights Horizons and Shadowcatcher Entertainment.

Heroes of the Fourth Turning is a fascinating play to read. Conservatives might be surprised to see some of themselves in each of the five characters. (I was.) Non-conservatives might be surprised to find conservative characters depicted as living, breathing, intelligent people, instead of the usual cartoons presented by the news media. More important are the ideas and often challenging discussion around empathy, academia, and what many perceive as the collapse of the social order.

(Note: The play is not available at any of the usual outlets, including Amazon, but can be found at Playwrights Horizon.)

Top photograph: A scene from the recent production of Heroes of the Fourth Turning in New York.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

More than bread

After Matthew 6:11

Bread is basic
but more is required
to live a day, one day,
daily. Bread is
sustenance, it is
health, it is provision,
it is love, it is life,
it is work, it is all
the things we need
to live a day, not
the things we want.
And to ask for it is
also a a metaphor.
a symbol of dependence
upon the source who
provides the bread,

Photograph by Helena Yankovska via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Saturday Good Reads

The study of literature at American universities is in trouble. And it's not only because of declining enrollments in degree programs. The Chronicle of Higher Education published a rather lengthy series of essays about what’s been happening, and it starts by saying that the academic study of literature is no longer on the verge of collapse – the collapse is already well underway. The catastrophe is happening before our eyes. Read “Endgame: Can literary studies survive?

Sir Roger Scruton dies this past week. The prolific writer, essayist, novelist was called the last conservative intellectual in Great Britain. He also got himself arrested by the Czechoslovak communist regime back in the 1960s. At The Imaginative Conservative, Paul Krause wrote a memorial of the man. And the publication posted a transcript of his last speech, “A Thing Called Civilization.”

In the last few months, I’ve been following a blog called “A London Inheritance.” The unnamed author focuses on a particular area or feature of London and then takes a deep, often historical, dive. This past week, for example, the focus was the Hungerford stairs on the Thames, and comparing what it looked like in 1985 with 2020. Then the author took a winter walk along the Thames from Tower Bridge to Westminster. I’ve done that walk along the South Bank many times. 

More Good Reads

Writing and Literature

Rupi Kaur is the Writer of the Decade – Rumaan Alam at The New Republic.

Flannery O'Connor: Prophet in Her Own Land – Sean Johnson at Forma Journal

Vive Maigret! – Adam Kirsch at Airmail Weekly,


New Year, New Fears – Eleazar Maduka. 

Significant Lights – Rebecca Martin at The Rabbit Room.

Life and Culture

Education and Men without Work – Nicholas Eberstadt at National Affairs.

Marxism Died in the East Because It Realized Itself in the West – Augusto Del Noce at Church Life Journal (Notre Dame). 

British Stuff

A Walk Through Dickens’ London – Spitalfields Life.


Norther – Daniel Leach at The Chained Muse.

An American in Rome: Five Sonnets – Peter Bridges at Society of Classical Poets.

Desk Clerk – R.S. Gwynn at E-Verse Radio.

Art and Architecture

Mondrian Before Abstraction – Tim Keane at Hyperallergic.

American Stuff

A Portrait of John Cuppy – Gabriel Neville at Emerging Revolutionary War Era.

Life of the Civil War Soldier in the Army – Sharon Denmark at American Battlefield Trust.

Be a Mr. Jensen – Clint Pulver

Painting: Woman reading a book, oil on canvas by William Oliver (1884)

Friday, January 17, 2020


After Matthew 6:11

It’s not a reference
to rolls or brioche
or a French baguette
or Italian or sliced,
or whole wheat or rye
or corn or any other
variety or variation;
instead, it’s a symbol,
a metaphor, standing in
for what provides
sustenance and life
each day. And
each day, we are
to pray for it.

Photograph by Miti via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

"Flotsam & Jetsam" by Keith Moray

When you live by the seashore or on an island, a lot of things tend to wash up on the shore: driftwood, the debris from shipwrecks, the proverbial bottles with their messages, perhaps a dead body, a collie tied with ropes to wooden planks. 

Wait, what? A collie?

Inspector Torquil McKinnon of the West Uist police in the Orkney Islands finds the dog, barely alive. Dogs seem to be disappearing, but no one has come across this kind of barbaric behavior. There’s also a rash of burglaries happening, a television program is broadcasting from the island for a week, and some shifty-looking businessmen are hosting a Scottish football star. All kinds of things are washing up on McKinnon’s island.

And then there’s a murder, or two.

Keith Moray
The appropriately named Flotsam & Jetsam is the fourth mystery in the Torquil McKinnon series by British writer Keith Moray. Like its title implies, it meanders in a number of directions, until the bodies begin to turn up. Then it turns into a tightly written police procedural – with always a bit of Scottish humor thrown in (usually courtesy of Torquil’s priestly uncle).

Moray has published six Inspector MacKinnon novels. He’s also published three historical novels, The Pardoner’s CrimeThe Fool’s Folly, and The Curse of the Body Snatchers; non-fiction books (under the pen name Keith Souter); and several westerns as Clay Moore. When he’s not writing, he practices medicine as a part-time doctor and medical journalist (he studied medicine at the University of Dundee). He lives in Yorkshire in England.

Flotsam & Jetsam is another solid entry in the series, with well-drawn characters, considerable games afoot, and long-buried secrets finally seeing the light of day.


Wednesday, January 15, 2020

“The Prison Meditations” by Father Alfred Delp

Alfred Delp (1907-1945) was born in Manheim, Germany (on the Rhine River near Heidelberg) of a mixed marriage – a Catholic mother and a Protestant father. His schooling was primarily Lutheran, until a falling out with the local pastor. He joined the Catholic Church, where his priest saw his promise and guided him in his education. In 1926, Delp became a Jesuit. He was a teacher, first in Austria and later in Germany. 

The ascent of Hitler changed everything for Delp. He began to develop along Catholic humanist lines. Frustrated in his attempt to study for a Ph.D., he began working for a Jesuit journal from 1939 to 1941, until the Nazi government shut it down. He joined the staff of a church, and quietly began helping Jews escape to Austria.

Delp’s legacy is two-fold. First, He became a leading figure in the Catholic resistance to Hitler. And second, when he was falsely accused of participation in the 1944 to assassinate Hitler, he was imprisoned in Berlin, and began to write. He wrote letters, reflections, meditations, and a few essays, all of which were (somehow) smuggled out and given to friends for safekeeping.

The prosecutor dropped the assassination plot charge, essentially trying Delp for his resistance activities, his being a member of the Jesuits, and his beliefs and philosophy. In the dying days of Nazi Germany, the charges were sufficient to result in the death penalty. Delp was executed by hanging on Feb. 2, 1945. His body, and those of the other prisoners executed at the same time, were ordered to be cremated.

His writings from prison have been collected and published a number of times. This particular edition is the ebook version of the collection, entitled The Prison Meditations of Father Alfred Delp. First published in 1962, it includes extracts from his diary, an introduction by Thomas Merton, worth reading by itself alone, and a number of representative writings. The diary entries provide an insight into Delp’s mind while he was imprisoned, showing doubt, fear, acceptance, resignation, and hope. He remained hopeful until shortly before his official trial that he would be found innocent and released. But a day or so before he started, he realizes what really lies ahead.

His meditations and reflections include a number of discussions about Advent, Christmas, epiphany, humanism, a wonderful series on the Lord’s Prayer, and the Holy Spirit. There is nothing in these writings to suggest that the man is writing them in prison; they are a rather quietly joyful discussion. 

At the end, however, back in the diary, we read his final thoughts. The trial is over, and the sentence handed down, and now he has but to wait. The pre-trial tension that was building is gone, replaced by acceptance and a strong resolution. 

Father Alfred Delp
“It is so easy,” he writes, “to get used to existence again that one has to keep reminding oneself that death is round the corner. Condemned to death. The thought refuses to penetrate; it almost needs force to drive it home. The thing that makes this kind of death so singular is that one feels so vibrantly alive with the will to live unbroken and every nerve tingling with life.” He knows that, at any time, the door will open and the jailer will tell him to pack up, for the transfer to the hanging.

And he goes on to question his actions, his life, his motives, and God. He finally knows that the one thing he has to do is surrender himself completely. And then he writes a letter to his fellow Jesuits.

In recent years, broad interest has grown in the stories of prisoners of conscience during the Third Reich. We’ll never know how many, or how few, there really were. But the examples of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Franz Jagerstatter (the Austrian farmer who refused to fight for the Nazis and whose story is told in the movie A Hidden Life), and Alfred Delp bear witness to those who know that, sometimes, conscience must be followed, even when it leads to death.