Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, well… It’s not your typical novel, which is why it’s no surprise that it led to an atypical film from some atypical directing siblings.

Written as a series of 6 stories nestled within each other, Matryoshka doll style, Mitchell starts us out in 1849 in the South Pacific reading the first half of Adam Ewing’s journal; introduces us to the talented young composer Robert Frobisher in 1936; follows tenacious reporter Luisa Rey around 1973 San Francisco; recounts the 2012 captivity of publisher Timothy Cavendish in an old folks home; builds the fascinating Neo Seoul of 2144, in which a genetically cloned fabricant Sonmi-451 leaves the safety of her fast food home for the world of the purebloods; and takes us all the way to 2321, where, in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, we encounter the tribesman, Zachary. And then, once Mitchell takes us to the peak of this roller coaster, giving us the entire serving of Zachary’s journey with the Prescient, he sends us shooting back down, revisiting each story again in reverse chronological order, picking up from where he left off. Each story opens and reaches a midpoint and then is abruptly interrupted by the next story. The only plot told in one full serving is that of Zachary and the Prescient he leads up the mountain, as this is the point of view the entire book is being told from. At the conclusion of Zachary’s tale the other stories are closed out in the opposite sequence they were opened in, as we come crashing down the pyramid of stories we climbed.

Mitchell’s enormous task is a wonder to behold simply as a mammoth writing exercise – as he shifts his tone from 19th century naval diary to swooning epistolary meditation to taught conspiracy thriller to cheeky prison farce to dystopian adventure and finally to the post-apocalyptic journey of two people who speak in a futuristic dialect (and, good god, as he walks it all back). The diversity of Mitchell’s writing is astounding and, yes, endlessly entertaining. There’s something for everyone here.

It is, admittedly, not the simplest story to follow, even piece by piece, let alone as a whole, but it ties together rewardingly. The shifts in genre undergird an overall interconnectedness that is stunning. In each story, one of our characters is reading about or interacting with someone from the previous tale. Robert Frobisher is reading Ewing’s journal, Frobisher’s lover Rufus Sixsmith, now quite aged, meets Luisa Rey, and on and on. All the protagonists share a specific shooting star-like birthmark that is seen in all six stories. It appears as if a single soul is being born again and again, traveling throughout time. Even as Mitchell gives each of those times an exceedingly different voice, they all focus in on similar themes of how the oppressed struggle and fight for what they believe is right no matter how futile the situation seems. In each story, our birth marked soul must make the choice to be different from the thing they are expected to be, struggling against the norm, to achieve some personal goal, to prove themselves, or just to be free from enslavement because the station at which they were born.

It’s a lot to process. It’s cacophonous chaos or deeply resonant chaos, a beautiful masterpiece or a dysfunctional mess. I tend to come down in the former camp, admiring Cloud Atlas for its ambition and the message that ambition serves. Three other admirers in my camp, the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer, focused their ambition into a big screen spectacle, released in 2012. Their vision of Mitchell’s universe is easily one of my favorites films (being one of the few I actually own). If you’re going to take on Mitchell’s possibly insane literary high wire act, you’ve got to engage in some backflips of your own, and the directors don’t disappoint. Actors were cast not for a single role for multiple roles that spanned each of the film’s six timeframes. It takes the books notion of reincarnation to the next level, making it feel like not just one soul traverses time but that every soul is reborn and again and again.

As an adherent of Mitchell’s overall vision, I personally couldn’t have asked for a better adaptation. However, for those not familiar with the stories going into the film, there is the potential (okay, the near certainty) for confusion. While it begins going up the pyramid of stories like the book, it quickly does diverges from this linear pattern, skipping around so that all the stories are being told at once. They dance in and out of each other based not on timestamp, like in the book, but feeling and thematic connection, and together, all six climax feverishly and resolve simultaneously. Occasionally, some of the logic gets lost in the transitions, but it makes for a much more exciting cinematic experience than what a literal translation would need to do: cycle through six long conclusions one after another, as a series of episodes.

The Wachowskis’ and Tykver’s vision is, from where I’m sitting, a humanist masterpiece of an interpretation; know this: Cloud Atlas the novel is absolutely worth its time commitment as well. Yes, its format may be a bit frustrating, especially when the story you’ve been following is abruptly interrupted for hundreds of pages. In mid-sentence to boot! Put that frustration aside, or better yet, embrace it as part of the artistic experience. David Mitchell’s skill and range as an artist are vast, and one of the tools he’s leveraging is the crash of one story giving way suddenly to another and the tingle of anticipation as you approach that long abandoned story thread once again. If you fall in love with Ewing or Frobisher or Cavendish, the distance makes the heart grow fonder, especially when the distance points to them being but one player in a centuries spanning epic. As Ewing says at the conclusion of 1849 journal, even though he is the only character who knows nothing of any of his other selves: “My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”
Cloud Atlas makes you fall in love with the drops, but it also makes you reckon with the multitude.

The Maze Runner by James Dashner

Thomas has no idea where he is or how he got there. All he can remember is his name. Blinking in the sunlight, he sees a group of boys, a motley crew who live in a strange glade surround by a stone maze.

A very flustered Thomas just became the newest Glader; he doesn’t know what that means yet, and while the other boys preach patience, the new Glader quickly decides he wants to be a runner; he can feel that this dangerous job is his destiny even though the kids around him see it as an impossibility. Runner is the toughest job by far – they run into the maze when the doors open in the morning and map the ever-changing walls, being careful to return before nightfall when they would be trapped in the maze overnight with the Grievers. That poor soul caught in the Maze at night is as good as dead. The Gladers don’t know who would put them in such a dangerous situation or why, and they’re really baffled when, in a twist from regular deliveries, the box appears again the next day to reveal a girl. A girl who knows who Thomas is. With this unprecedented turn of events, the story barrels into action as the boys begin to realize they must get out now.

Much like Thomas, the reader has no clue what is going on initially. We are just as confused about why he just showed up in a box in a glade with no memories as he is. Maybe it has something to do with signs that say W.I.C.K.E.D. all over the maze? Signs Thomas becomes aware of only because he breaks the glades number one rule; never go into the Maze. Thomas, on top of being one of the older boys in the Glade, is a fast thinker, very observant, using every advantage he has to keep up the fight, take on the Grievers, and help his companions. Oh, and he’s a little reckless..

It is amazing how these young boys, probably 12-16 years of age, band together to create a society that has stood for years. They understood that wallowing in self pity would get them nowhere besides dead, so they devised jobs to keep everyone contributing. Each job has a Keeper and when an important decision must be reached the Keepers gather and vote to find an answer. The governing hierarchy seems to work rather well; newer Gladers respect decisions of their elders. The boys have built shelter, a graveyard, a medical facility, a prison, a governing and judicial system, and a whole culture out of only the supplies provided them from the mysterious box.

The Maze Runner has a strong science fiction element, giving it the a futuristic feel even though much of the story takes place in wooden shacks in a forest. This comes from the bigger picture, floating over the boys’ existence: the whole Maze and the Glade inside it were constructed by W.I.C.K.E.D, whoever they are. They not only built the stage, they filled it with monsters too. The Grievers themselves are a mix of mechanical and organic beings that roll with a mechanized grace and maintain a squishy needle filled body. Thomas’s brain has been altered in some way to allow him to communicate with Teresa, the new girl, telepathically. Neither knows why only they can do it, but they use this gift to their advantage as they work together to decode the Maze and escape the Grievers’ wrath.

By the end of this story, I felt both satisfied by the thrilling yarn that had been spun and yet extremely unsatisfied with how much I had learned about the Maze and why it existed. What are they using it for? Are they good or bad? The epilogue gave some hint into the thoughts behind the Maze, but nothing that scratched that itch to know the truth. It is actually quite impressive the way Dashner managed to write a compelling standalone story but keep so much of the mythology behind it a secret. I, of course, needed to read the rest of the trilogy and the prequel to get my questions answered.

The Maze Runner can now be seen as a major motion picture in a theater near you. On it’s own, the movie is exciting and fun to watch, though I wouldn’t expect it to be exactly the same as the book. There are some major changes in the transition from the page to the big screen, some of which are understandable, others leaving me perplexed. The movie, which hints a little more at the purpose behind the Maze without spoiling the sequels, is enjoyable, and I was satisfactorily disgusted by the Grievers. As for the book, it is definitely worth the read, but beware you probably won’t be able to put it, or it’s companion stories down!

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

Welcome to the special DragonCon edition of Amber’s Book Club! Every year at DragonCon the Young Adult literature track chooses a book and gives readers a chance to meet up and discuss it not only with other con-goers but the with the author herself!

Shadow and Bone is the first book in a Young Adult fantasy trilogy by author Leigh Bardugo. We follow a young girl, Alina Starkov, through her rise to power. Orphaned as a child and raised at Kermazin, the orphanage, Alina (along with her childhood friend Mal) are drafted into the King’s First Army once they come of age – Alina as a cartographer and Mal as a tracker. We first meet Alina as her regiment is preparing to cross the shadowfold, or Unsea, a giant rift in the country of Ravka, a huge expanse of darkness full of monsters that separates the mainland from its shore and trade routes. Surrounded by enemy nations to the north and south, Ravka is in serious need of a hero. While its king dines in luxury in Os Alta, the country is ruled by the Darkling and his Second Army of powerful Grisha. Of these Grisha, the Darkling is the most powerful, with the ability to summon darkness. His plan is to cross the Unsea as well.

A volcra attack during the crossing means that, despite the protection of the Grisha, survival looks bleak… until the volcra grabs Alina and everything is bathed in a bright sunlight as Alina succumbs. Next thing she knows, Alina has an audience with the Darkling himself, and he tells her that she is a Sun Summoner and the only hope for destroying the shadowfold and restoring Ravka.

Like any good fantasy novel,this book has an intriguing take on magic and its various applications. The Grisha are people capable of performing the small science. The Corporalki have power over the living and dead. The Materialki are an order of fabrikators, and the Etherealki, summoners. The magic is based on principles of molecular chemistry. The Grisha cannot actually create or destroy; they can only manipulate what is already there. The Inferni order of fire summoners must carry a flint to create a spark in order to manipulate flame. The more powerful a Grisha becomes, the smaller the molecular scale they can work on, allowing them to have a wider effect.

On the Dragon*Con Book Club panel, Leigh stressed the importance of not only having an order of power in a novel, but also having a sense of place. Shadow and Bone is based on Russian culture, which Leigh spent two months studying – everything from textiles to art to hymnals. This research influences the detailing in the book, giving it a cohesive background. After all, you can tell right from the names on the map that you are heading to Russi… I mean Ravka!

Alina is a wonderfully crafted creation within this quasi-Russian world. At the outset, she is very nervous as she frets about entering the shadowfold and pouts about all the other girls looking at Mal. Throughout the novel, she comes into her own and embraces her power and her own self-worth. As she begins to accept her newfound powers, she also accepts who she is, something she must do as she attempts to become the hero everyone wants an needs her to be. She is a patriot who wants to save Ravka, but at what cost? She wrestles with right and wrong as she struggles to figure out what is actually the best course of action for her country and who might be lying to her. All the characters, except perhaps the pampered king, exhibit many dimensions, not fitting into a single box, instead showing a moral ambiguity that is true to life. Even though characters drastically disagree on what is right and wrong, each one believes they are acting in the best interest of Ravka. It’s no surprise, then, that, when asked how she relates to her characters, Leigh responded that she sees a little bit of her self in all of them, but not too much of herself in any single character.

Overall Shadow and Bone is a fantastic read, quick not just because I had a deadline (had to crunch those pages before the panel!), but because it is a thoroughly enveloping story. I immediately bought and read the sequels, in spite of a lack of panels or discussions or deadlines, and finished them while at DragonCon. Which is impressive, because, I mean, come on, there are plenty of distractions at DragonCon. But that was the experience I was thirsting for after the a pleasure of being able to sit down with Leigh and ask her about her inspirations. Even without that context (and for it, you should totally go to cons like Dragon*Con, they’re great!). I would highly recommend picking this YA novel up!

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Hey, let’s take a break from the reading of young adult dystopian fiction. Just for a moment. It’ll be worth it.

On one of my rather habitual trips to Barnes & Noble I picked up The Fault In Our Stars at the recommendation of a friend. Alright, you’ve heard of it, good, let’s talk about it. I sat down in one of the big comfy chairs in the bookstore and I read John Green’s bestseller. All of it. (Sorry commerce.)

The Fault In Our Stars features as its focus one Hazel Grace Lancaster, a sixteen-year-old diagnosed with stage four thyroid cancer that has colonized her lungs. While a miracle drug has helped extend her life, Hazel’s diagnosis is terminal. She is depressed and mainly keeps to herself, watching America’s Next Top Model marathons and rereading her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction.

Her parents are trying to help; in doing so, they force her to go to cancer support group. Enter Augustus Waters. He is there to support his friend Isaac, who will soon lose both eyes to cancer. Augustus won a battle with osteosarcoma and came out only one leg lighter. Hazel and Augustus click immediately. He won’t stop staring at her and, y’know what, she actually kind of likes it. Their romance unfolds in pretty typical teenage cancer-boy-meets-cancer-girl fashion. They watch movies and swap favorite books. Everything feels pretty normal right down to being forced to watch V for Vendetta in the living room instead of Augustus’s bedroom. They become enveloped in An Imperial Affliction, which speaks to both of them. This passion leads them to wonderful new places and experiences they never imagined were possible. And then everything changes.

From the moment I picked the book up, heck even before that, I knew it was going to be a sad story. It’s about kids with cancer that fall in love, an obvious recipe for cathartic tragedy. I’m not sure if it’s just me but the tragedy I expected and tragedy I got were vastly different, so color me surprised. Not just surprised, but angry. Really and truly pissed off.

When I finished the book and put it back on it’s shelf (what?), I immediately left Barnes & Noble to hide all those inconvenient emotions. Upon entering the car it hit me just how good the book really was. Green is incredibly deft when it comes to mixing humor in the face of death with passages that pull hard on heartstrings. Hard enough that other author’s might break those heartstrings. But Green’s book isn’t so overwhelmingly tragic that it’s completely impossible to read in a public place without having a breakdown. (Well, experiences may vary.) There are some truly amusing scenes, most provided by Augustus and his unending sarcasm and wit. Considering his circumstances, he, as a character, would normally need to be provided a comic sidekick, what Issac could be – but no, Augustus provides his own comic relief, undermining his tragedy.

Green portrays the flowering of first love and the cold darkness of heartbreak with aplomb. Hazel first realizes she is flirting with Augustus while texting him about An Imperial Affliction; we realize it as she does, but we also see her surprise that she likes it even though it’s all very new and perhaps unwise. Why pick wise? Hazel really likes this boy, she has fun and stimulating conversation with him and he takes her on silly but awesome dates. With him, she lives, rather than waits to die.

The most extreme instance of this: Augustus cashes in his Wish so Hazel can visit the author of her favorite book. She is conflicted. Hazel knows the pain she causes her parents and the people around her who love her and she doesn’t want to burden Augustus by leading him into inevitable heartbreak, because she is terminal. A trip of the magnitude could sorely affect her health, and her and Augustus’s mental well-being. She thinks she may be able to keep him from getting hurt by not letting him love her. Augustus responds by saying “You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world…but you do have some say in who hurts you”. Despite her insistence that they are just friends, they do fall in love. Their love story, as expected, ends in pain and loss. Not in the pain and loss one might expect.

The Fault In Our Stars is now a major motion picture starring Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort. The movie adaptation does a pretty god job of keeping to what’s effective in the book, leaving out only minor details and adding scenes that really bring Hazel to life. However, I will leave the discussion of the movie’s merits to Charles, and simply say that I liked it very much and would recommend you seeing. But, of course, the book is better, and I more highly recommend. Go read it. Maybe not in public. If you do, bring tissues, just in case.

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

In his wonderful debut novel published just this year, Pierce Brown introduces us to the world of young Darrow, a resident of Mars. I know! We’re off to good start, and all I said was “Mars.”

Darrow is a Helldiver, the most dangerous job a helium-3 miner can have. How’d our hero draw the short straw? He is a Red, the lowest caste in the color-coded society of his futuristic world; it’s the Red’s job to toil in the mines for the helium-3 necessary to terraform Mars for future colonization on the planet’s surface.

At 16, Darrow is married to his beloved wife Eo. They live under the surface of Mars doing harrowing work, making barely enough to survive. The Golds, the highest caste, control the rations, allocating them based on how much helium-3 is produced. They also allocate justice, if it can be called that: when a Red breaks the Gold’s laws, like Darrow’s father did when he sang the forbidden song, they are hanged. Heartbreakingly, the gravity on Mars is not strong enough to break the neck during hanging, so the Gold’s allow a loved one to pull on the feet of the victim to make death come quicker.

This is the world Darrow knows. He believes his cause, toiling away, is a noble one. Once the planet is livable it will he inhabited by the rest of civilization, and it will have been worth the turmoil to make that happen. So he strives to be the best at what he does and win the Laurel’s bestowed by the Gold’s to the best group of miners. Outside of this ambition, he lives for his wife and nothing but her.

This creates conflict, since his beloved disagrees with his enthusiastic acquiescence. Eo tries to convince her husband to fight for her dream, the same dream that got his father killed: overthrowing the Society and destroying the Golds. Darrow is unwavering, but when Eo makes the decision for him, making a tragic choice, well… his life will never be the same.

Red Rising is, as you can gather from my description of the engrossing particulars, a very exciting read; I was reluctant to put it down until it had told me every last detail about Darrow and his Martian Society. One reason could be Darrow’s exceptional character arc. At first Darrow does not fit the trope of the typical dystopian novel protagonist. We are quite used to seeing young adults who are fed up with the controlling power and who are more than willing to seek a way to change the world while adults hold them back. But Darrow has Eo to care for and a job he’s good at and he makes just enough to scrape by; in general he’s content with his life, hard as it is, and really, he hasn’t a revolutionary inkling in him. It takes a shove from his wife to force his development from naïve boy to resolute man, filled, as he is, with unceasing rage. This man quickly accepts his new goal and does not resist his role in the rebellion. There is personal struggle aplenty, but when that struggle forces him to make hard decisions, the hardened Darrow does not falter. His ambition and intelligence, redirected towards different goals, help him countless times to get out of hot water. Always a driven individual, the rage he feels towards the Golds because of the pain they have caused him drives him forward.

Darrow is a very untrusting fellow, but a few friends – Cassius and Mustang – slip under his hard shell. Still, he doesn’t wholly put his faith in any of them. He keeps a huge secret from his classmates at the Institute and switches loyalties when it’s necessary. Even Mustang, whom he goes out of his way to nurse back to health, proves too easy to ditrust; certain she will betray him, he meets her for the final time prepared to destroy her. The most important thing for Darrow is winning, as it was when he was a simple miner seeking awards; he has to be the best and he has to topple the Golds and the Society. It’s not just revenge for his friends and family that drives him, it’s extremely personal, an internal fire within him which keeps him focused and, truthfully, really pissed off.

So who’s he so darn pissed at? The Golds of Luna rebelled against the tyranny of Earth and freed themselves from the constraints of Democracy and the ‘Noble Lie’ that all men are created equal. Thus began the Society, a system of castes where some men rule while others serve and each person is defined by their color. The highest ranked among the Golds are the Peerless Scarred, those who have gone through the Institute and come out on top of their class. At one point, we hear the Arch Governor Augustus talk about the Society, describing it s having “three stages: Savagery, Ascendance, and Decadence.” The Golds took their freedom with savagery, they ruled in ascension, and now they are doing everything in their power to avoid falling into decadence. In this, we can easily see the arc of some of history’s great (read; fallen) empires: Brown does not just ignore history; instead he weaves it intricately into his tale. The ruling class is very aware of why Empires like Rome fell and uses that history as propaganda meant to prevent a similar fall brought on by comfort. The irony is that, in the society create, anything is decadent compared to the life of a red; the lives of the ruling class passing down edicts on comfort most of all.

Brown does not leave his references to the Roman empire vague. The Roman gods play a large part throughout the novel. Darrow is assigned a persona aligned with the god Mars, the embodiment of masculine aggression and the force that drives war. All of this is very suiting for rage-filled Darrow. Several times in the novel, Darrow is compared to a flame that burns too brightly and burns out quickly. He knows that his mission is a long trek and he must, in spite of his nature, sustain his flame with all the ability he has. Some other prominent gods utilized are Minerva, Pluto, Jupiter, and Ceres. Each other character is assigned one of these gods, giving more insight into that character’s persona. It’s a familiar device, an Olympian sorting hat, if you will. (Each house even has a proctor that acts as the embodiment of that god, and they can bestow gifts or punishment as they see fit.) This sorting helps Darrow understand the other teams and develop strategies that could work to defeat them.

As far as dystopian novels go, this has easily one of my favorites in my favored genre. It is reminiscent of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, but I’d venture to say I enjoyed my time with Darrow more than,my corresponding time with Katniss. That at first he just abides by the rules set up for him, and that he makes a bunch of mistakes along the way but uses these foibles to become something completely different by the end of the novel, these traits make him an extraordinarily realistic protagonist. It matters not that his adventures take place on far away Mars; he is able to accept circumstances that are terrible over and over again and remain focused on his ultimate goals, and that sort of determination will always hit close to home. Overall, we are looking at a great first book by someone who appears to be, from the look of Red Rising, an extremely promising young author. I anxiously await January 2015, which is when the second book in this trilogy, Golden Son, will be released.

The Queen of Air and Darkness

Just like my prior sermon on The Sword in the Stone, I’m going to begin this one on The Queen of Air and Darkness with a cruel, vital critique.

The title character doesn’t speak a single line!

… and…

… er… that turns out to be a very effective strut in T.H. White’s storytelling structure.

Look, I don’t have a good, general, hard-hitting criticism to open with. And maybe I don’t even have any stern pronouncements to sustain my disapproval through to a cold, rueful conclusion. Maybe someday I’ll grow up to be big and strong like the adult book critics, but not today. Today, I just like this book too damn much.

Act One

In 1939, The Witch in the Wood was published as the second book in T.H. White’s Arthurian series following The Sword in the Stone. It would later be substantially rewritten and renamed The Queen of Air and Darkness for the 1958 series compilation, The Once and Future King.

Why, you ask, does that heading up there say Act One, when this is clearly book two? It’s because this book is tremendously different from book one. Through the modern lens of the three-act structure, this book appears to be laying the foundation, and it’s laying the foundation for something much different than The Sword in the Stone was preparing us for. It is true, the first book did establish themes we get a glimpse of in this one. Merlyn employed some unforgettable, unconventional teaching devices to teach the Wart—or to let him teach himself—the things Kings must know. The Wart learned about war, he learned about human struggle, and he learned about politics. And now that he is King Arthur, he does have an opportunity to channel those lessons.

But King Lot isn’t the real villain. He’s just a patsy. He’s just a pawn, or at most a knight, on this board.

So this is Act One. And it’s the Act One for a far different Act Two than the one that might have otherwise followed The Sword in the Stone.

Saxons, Normans, and Gaels, Oh My

The black cat lay on its side in the firelight as if it were dead. This was because its legs were tied together, like the legs of a roe deer which is to be carried home from the hunt. It had given up struggling and now lay gazing into the fire with slit eyes and heaving sides, curiously resigned.

The cat ends up in a boiling cauldron by the end of the scene, and that’s the side story of this chapter. The first chapter. This was quite the surprise coming off the indelibly cheery Sword in the Stone. Anyway, the main strand is upstairs, where Queen Morgause’s four children (Gareth, Gawaine, Agravaine, and Gaheris) whisper to each other about the Normans’ past wrongs to their family. And, alright, maybe I do have a complaint: I can’t keep these characters straight. They’re all redhead Gaelic kids with confused moral compasses, they’re never apart from each other, and, of course, their names all sound the same. I’m sure a very careful reading—with notes, and flowcharts—will reveal more about their characters and their individual differences. But aside from a very interesting scene involving a unicorn and their mother’s transient love, we’re going to need to wait until their arcs interact with Arthur’s to know what they stand for in this story. That’s disappointing, given the amount of pages dedicated to them in this book, but I have high hopes that it’ll pay off shortly.

My high hopes are mostly founded on the circumstances of their upbringing, as Gaels and as family enemies to the Pendragons.

You see, Arthur’s central conflict in this book is with their father, King Lot. As the children recite to each other the story of their family’s bad blood with the Pendragons (Uther the Conqueror slew their grandfather and took their widowed grandmother as wife), King Lot marches to war. “Revenge!” exclaims Gawaine. But Merlyn takes a different view. The point he drives at with Arthur is that King Lot seeks no redress for any particular wrongs, nor is he raising his banner for any moral or legal cause. Lot and his league of Celtic lords are marching on England because they can. The throne appears weak to them, inherited by a boy king with an unusual legal basis for his claim. The risk to their persons is minimal, because the chivalric code of the High Middle Ages demands it, above all else1. All that’s left is to stir the passions of their subjects by condemning Norman oppression and the Pendragon legacy.

This conflict foments so many cool things.

First, Merlyn’s purpose in the story comes into sharp focus. Sure, we know that he’s Arthur’s mentor. But now we know why Arthur’s mentor had to be a crazy old coot from the future. Arthur needs someone capable of telling him about the evils of war, and there is nobody better for that than someone who has lived through World War II. Arthur needs someone who can study the long arc of history like we can, knows a flimsy casus belli when he sees one, and knows how “racial histories” can be at once meaningless and critically important. Arthur needs someone who knows that King Lot is not truly a superior man to the peasants he commands. A man born and raised in the High Middle Ages is unlikely to share our (the audience’s) perspective on such matters, but a man born and raised in the 20th century just might. This is cool enough for me to forgive (but not entirely forget) much of the silliness of the first book.

Arthur also comes to the foreground and begins earnest development as a man and as a King. I’m not necessarily upset that he was an innocent sponge for the incredible world around him in The Sword in the Stone, but this is far more interesting. I have three favorite Arthur scenes throughout the story. The first is atop the battlements:

Arthur, who had been playing with a loose stone which he had dislodged from one of the machicolations, got tired of thinking and leaned over with the stone in his hand.
“How small Curselaine looks.”
“He is tiny.”
“I wonder what would happen if I dropped this stone on his head?”
Merlyn measured the distance.
“At thirty-two feet per second,” he said, “I think it would kill him dead. Four hundred g is enough to shatter the skull.”
“I have never killed anybody like that,” said the boy, in an inquisitive tone.
Merlyn was watching.
“You are the King,” he said.
Then he added, “Nobody can say anything to you if you try.”
Arthur stayed motionless, leaning out with the stone in his hand. Then, without his body moving, his eyes slid sideways to meet his tutor’s.
The stone knocked Merlyn’s hat off as clean as a whistle, and the old gentleman chased him featly down the stairs, waving his wand of lignum vitae.
And he was happy.

This scene is so laden with both characterization and metaphor it’s impossible not to completely love. The obvious focus is Arthur’s refusal to exercise his absolute sovereignty as King in such a manner. But also: Arthur regards the workman from such height and distance, and yet he knows his name! Meanwhile, allow me to gush over the line: “Merlyn was watching.” It’s a beautiful sort of understatement, where White conveys the crushing gravity of the situation by refusing to employ any sort of adjective or adverb. Instead, he drains all detail from the scene except for Arthur and his stone, and takes three words to tell us that Merlyn finds those two objects the most important things in the world in this moment.

Arthur not only passes the test, he makes us wonder if we should ever have been worried in the first place.

Later in the story, Arthur comes of age in the full view of his war council. He delivers a speech to Kay, Merlyn, and the assembled nobility that beings hesitantly and haltingly, but gathers steam as his future comes into vision. Merlyn continues to employ his finest technique: refusing to help Arthur pass the most important tests of his youth, so that he may be truly ready to face those later in his life. The speech itself contains Arthur’s central thesis in this story, and presumably his thesis in the two stories to come: Might does not make right. His adversary, King Lot, may believe that his power entitles him to make war like it’s a grand afternoon fox hunt (a potent simile White returns to again and again), but Arthur sees how wrong that is for the conscripts sent to the war, the villages burned, and the people terrorized. King Arthur proposes a new order of chivalry, one built around truer notions of fairness and kindness to all people—not just the “noble” ones.

But to bring this new chivalry to life, Arthur needs to take some lessons from his father2.

At Bedegraine, Arthur begins the battle by falling upon Lot’s camps in the darkness of the night, explicitly ignoring the knightly convention of pitching the battle in the morning after breakfast. Not only that, but he orders his cavalry to run down nobleman and conscript alike—even ordering his knights to avoid the commoners, as the lords are the true perpetrators of the rebellion. And when Lot’s retinue is in dire straits, French cavalry spring from hiding in the forest to deal the last crushing blow of the first day. So as to show his opponents—and his allies—what it meant to be at war, Arthur had intended that “they were to press the war home to its real lords—until they themselves were ready to restrain from warfare, being confronted with its reality.” That line may be somewhat reserved, but put into the context of the actual battle—described vividly with the sounds of thundering hoofbeats of the warhorses, the quaking of the earth beneath them, and the immense shattering of arms—I think it’s pretty clear that what Arthur is doing is crushing a rebellion. Ruthlessly. Daddy would be proud.

The second day of battle ends with King Arthur accepting Lot’s surrender. King Arthur’s ferocity wins the day, but as for its real goal—showing the barons and dukes real war, so that they may refrain from making a hobby of it—its success has yet to be proven.

Questing

The book isn’t without its levity.

King Pellinore, Sir Grummore Grummursum, and Sir Palomides (a newly-introduced Saracen knight) are out questing, and they deliver to us some truly weird scenes. Including their very first scene, where they arrive by barge in the Orkney Isles (Scotland), humorously unaware that their political affiliations place them technically at war with the locals. The locals draw up in a circle, astounded by the wealth on display in the knights’ armor, and then “in the minds of both women and men, irrespective of age or circumstance, there began to grow, almost visibly, almost tangibly, the enormous, the incalculable miasma which is the leading feature of the Gaelic brain.”

Huh.

So far, The Once and Future King has done some strange things with “racial” concepts. It must be said that ethnic groupings in the middle ages were important. Identifying with one’s “nation” didn’t become exceedingly important until the 18th century, so if you were going to identify with anything on that scale, it would be with the people whose language you spoke. In high medieval England, the Anglo-Saxons spoke the west Germanic language that, by this time, would probably be called English. The Scots (often “Gaels” in this tale) would have mostly spoken Scottish Gaelic, the Irish had their own brand of Gaelic, and the Normans spoke French. There are accounts of Anglo-Saxons displeased with the Norman ruling class, and there are accounts of hostility between the Scots as a people and England as a ruling entity. So a certain enmity between peoples seems like an appropriate thing to include in medieval fantasy, and indeed, it’s an important part of Arthur’s place in the world (even if nowadays serious anthropologists avoid the word “race” because it makes all sorts of crude and flat-out incorrect implications). White takes care to distance Arthur from this enmity in some ways: at Bedegraine, Arthur sends his peasant levies to engage and occupy Lot’s levies, and part of Arthur’s justification for it is that the peasants’ “racial struggle” had a “certain reality even if it was a wicked one.” So while Arthur is willing to let his subjects settle their differences, it seems he does not see those differences to be worth fighting over, if he even sees the differences at all. But then you get scenes like the knights’ landing in Orkney, where White makes frustratingly vague declarations about the Gaelic people, and he tends to cast Scots and Irishmen as all of his drunks and cheats and wicked children. I’m inclined to be charitable given that he gave Arthur’s character a feeling of brotherhood for men of all cultures and tongues, but I have my eye on you, White.

Anyway, the knights go on to (continue to) produce some enjoyable, if a little confused, satire of knightly romance. King Pellinore pines for an unattainable lady in a tower—though really, in the end, it was just that their letters to each other weren’t getting delivered—while Sir Grummursum and Sir Palomides fuss over his cessation of the hunt for Glatisant, the Questing Beast. By the end of the story, they stitch together and dress in a tandem beast costume to try to reignite Pellinore’s passion for the hunt, and for their troubles they only succeed in kindling a different sort of passion in Glatisant herself. It reads quite a bit like a Bugs Bunny cartoon acted by the Monty Python crew. And as satire, it functions a little bit like that, too: it’s worth some giggles, but maybe it’s taking the absurdism a little further than my unsophisticated American sense of humor can put in context.

The three knights serve another purpose in that they’re geographically close to Queen Morgause and her children, so there are a handful of opportunities to juxtapose the Norman (and Saracen) knights with the Gaelic nobility. Queen Morgause makes a pass at the knights, for reasons we are unsure of. The attempt is implied to be unsuccessful, and I wager it’s because of the knights’ delightful obliviousness. The Unicorn hunt, where the four children rope a frightened scullery maid into being the bait so that they may ultimately slay a graceful and peaceful creature, might be some sort of horrible inversion on the pointless but completely charming hunt for the Questing Beast. The children are filled with the fecklessness and occasionally wicked impulses of youth, where the knights seem to be youthfully earnest and innocent. I do so ever hope that this is meant to be characterization for the coming stories, because it could be very cool to see these characters all grown up—and even sitting at the same Round Table, judging by some of their names.

Air and Darkness

The book ends with the King and Queen Pellinore’s wedding. Given the characters involved, we’re not terribly surprised to find it delightful and a little bit silly. But the very last page of the book casts a tremendous shadow over the entire story: Arthur, alone in his throne room, is visited by Queen Morgause. She’s still chasing Normans, it seems, but this time, she brought a Spancel—a long tape of human skin, taken from the silhouette of a dead man—and used it as part of a foul spell to enchant and seduce Arthur.

In this book, as in many tellings of the Arthurian legends, Morgause is Arthur’s half-sister: born of Arthur’s mother (Igraine) and the Earl of Cornwall. The narrator has this to say3:

It is why Sir Thomas Malory called his very long book the Death of Arthur. Although nine tenths of the story seems to be about knights jousting and quests for the holy grail and things of that sort, the narrative is a whole, and it deals with the reasons why the young man came to grief at the end. It is the tragedy, the Aristotelian and comprehensive tragedy, of sin coming home to roost.

And it seems The Once and Future King, too, is destined to end in tragedy.

The Queen of Air and Darkness is a wonderful story, peppered with humor and horror. I’d say it’s got just the right amounts of both, though the humor was a bit silly for my taste. But, like The Sword in the Stone, its greatest achievements are the ones it promises to set up for future stories. Arthur’s next task is going to be, presumably, to establish his Round Table and to get the knights of the realm to actually sit at it. He’s going to have lots of different backgrounds and personalities to grapple with as well as a leaden political climate, and they’re going to test his nascent leadership capabilities.

Hopefully, some of those personalities include the redhead children. I’ll be a little angry if I spent chapters puzzling at the purpose of their ambiguously racist antics for nothing.


  1. And their social standing means that they’re worth far more captured alive and ransomed than they are if killed. 
  2. Remember how excited I was to learn about Uther Pendragon’s legacy? We get glimpses of it throughout the story, and it makes me hunger for more. The most memorable moment is Arthur’s first scene in the book, where he wears a velvet robe that Uther had commissioned to be trimmed with the beards of his vanquished foes. Whoa. 
  3. This is an explicit nod to an old chivalric romance, Le Morte d’Arthur, written by Sir Thomas Malory during the War of the Roses. It’s considered something of a canonical telling of the legends and was apparently White’s source for much of this story. 

Little Brother by Cory Doctrow

In the ever-popular genre of Young Adult dystopian societies, there exists the story of Marcus Yallow, 17-year-old San Francisco high school student. Marcus is your typical paranoid-hacker-tech-savant who uses the school laptop for chatting and who tricks the gait tracking cameras so he can sneak out of school and play Harajuku Fun Madness, the best game ever. Marcus is playing hookie with his scavenger hunt teammates Darryl, Vanessa and Jolu in the Tenderloin District when the explosions start.

The whole world is trembling and the four kids scramble for the safety of the nearest BART station only to become overwhelmed by bodies pushing them, people being trampled underfoot. They desperately try to escape the horde, risking it topside; in the scramble, Darryl is stabbed. Marcus, brilliantly, attempts to wave down a passing emergency vehicle, though he unfortunately draws the attention of the Department of Homeland Security instead. His head is soon in a black bag, his wrists strung up behind him as he is thrown into some kind of truck, a prisoner of the DHS.

Literally, this book starts off with a bang. Within its first few chapters, terrorists have blown up the Bay Bridge in San Francisco and the Department of Homeland Security has been brought in to clean up the mess. However, in attempting this, they ruthlessly begin stripping Americans of their rights, interrogating and torturing children in the name of national security.

The torture and intimidation in this book really strikes close to home. We are not reading about some distant future populated with arenas or factions. Other books in this genre, such as Suzzane Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy and Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, play with those same themes of fear, government oppression, and paranoia, but they always feel more like fiction than fact. This book occurs in the near future in a world that is exactly like ours. Our government, torturing our youth, and society can do nothing about it. Not only is this book frighteningly possible, this scale of terrorist event has already happened! I would be remiss to discuss this novel with no mention of the attacks on 9/11. I would like to believe that none of the awful actions enacted by the U.S. government came close to occurring in reality in the years since 2001, and I hope that they never will.

To wit: Marcus, Van and Jolu are released after a week of dehumanizing interrogation and told that they are “marked;” if they mention being jailed they will be “removed.” Darryl is nowhere to be found. They do not even know if their friend is alive. After being released from the truck, Marcus feels someone wrap their arms around him and immediately reels away from the threat, terrified of taken again, only to realize it is his friend Van hugging him and crying.

Little Brother is told from the point of view of Marcus and it portrays his his struggle as a painful ordeal. One thing we learn very quickly about Marcus is that he is in fact paranoid. what starts as just an attempt to go online without being watched by the DHS turns into an all-out rebellion against the government. Marcus’ homemade laptop has been bugged so he turns to other technology. He pulls out his Xbox Universal that Microsoft gave away for free to everyone years ago and figures out how to run Paranoid Xbox to get him online. Everyone has an Xbox so he makes Paranoid Xbox CDs for his friends with the promise that they will make them for their friends and so on until the Xnet is born.

One of the reasons this book feels so real is that usage of familiar modern day technology. Even someone as tech-illiterate as myself recognizes the products Doctorow uses in the book. Who doesn’t know who Microsoft is? Doctorow takes this even further by going into tangents that explain how the technology Marcus is using is useful and why it works, such as an explanation of cryptos using extremely large prime numbers to encrypt data.

Marcus is paranoid about his government, but does what he does for what that government supposedly stands for. Marcus is a patriot. He can and does quote the Bill of Rights several times. He is not going to take this injustice lying down.

And yet he is also just a 17-year-old boy. He meets a girl, Ange, and she is totally into him. Marcus and Ange become partners in crime, a duo using the Internet to topple the government. They must do this while dealing with raging hormones and curfews. Doctorow does not push the sexual tension to the background, letting it happen in ways that may be too mature for some younger readers. We get to know what Marcus thinks of the many firsts he encounters with Ange in terms nowhere near as graphic as those used in George R.R. Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire, but in terms the reader can not ignore. The all too realistic experience of Marcus falling in love for the first time helps ground the realism of Doctorow’s narrative, enforcing that this could totally happen tomorrow.

Of all of the dystopian novels I have read (and let’s be honest that is a long list, as you will find out), Little Brother scares me most. At the conclusion of the book, I immediately started its sequel, Homeland, because I really needed to know what happens to Marcus and Ange next. Doctorow’s book is a quick read, weighing in at 380 pages and sucking you in to frenzied page-turning. I was so worried about Marcus’ plans to mess with the DHS that I had to keep reading to make sure they didn’t have him in another black bag. Little Brother will leave you feeling wary of the American government but also hopeful for the American people’s ability to fight for what they believe in. Any story, fact or fiction, that can produce such an honest emotional reaction deserves to be read.

The Sword in the Stone

Spoilers for The Sword in the Stone ahead. Eventually.

Take a gander at the movie poster for Inglorious Basterds. Go on, it won’t take you long. Watch the full-length trailer if you’ve got the chance.

If you’ve seen the movie, something about this should strike you as odd. What about Shosanna? What about the German soldier boy, Zoller? Those weren’t exactly bit parts, you know. And, more subtly, what about the character of the movie? The trailer cuts to black as Donny Donowitz, the Bear Jew, swings his bat at the sergeant’s head, but in the movie we see every gory detail. We see the Basterds laughing while Donowitz strikes the sergeant’s convulsing body, again and again, until it finally goes limp. I think it should be obvious that a movie that cuts away from that impact (to a shot of Brad Pitt and his jolly band of misfits wincing, perhaps) is very different from the one that lingers and forces us to watch. If not… you’ll have to take my word for it, because really, the point is that I went in to the theater expecting to see one thing, and I got something almost entirely different.

I may have gotten a little carried away in making that point. But, all that said, I’m here to tell you that the folks in marketing have been doing the same thing for decades. In books, even!

The World’s Greatest Fantasy Classic

Yes, this is literally a case of judging a book by its cover and the dangers thereof. Regardless of the conventional wisdom on the matter, you don’t put “THE WORLD’S GREATEST FANTASY CLASSIC! CAMELOT AND ROMANCE AND WIZARDRY AND WAR” on the front of a book unless you’re hoping to foster a certain set of expectations. Specifically:

  • Chivalric Romance
  • Epic scope
  • Great pride in the fantasy genre, possibly to the point of self-seriousness
  • Wonders, mystery, majesty

With those expectations in mind, let’s have a passage:

It was almost too hot to think about this, but the Wart stared down into the cool amber depths where a school of small perch were aimlessly hanging about.
“I think I should like to be a perch,” he said. They are braver than the silly roach, and not quite so slaughterous as the pike are.”
Merlyn took off his hat, raising his staff of lignum vitae politely in the air, and said slowly, “Snylrem stnemilpmoc ot enutpen dna lliw eh yldnik tpecca siht yob sa a hsif?”
Immediately there was a loud blowing of sea-shells, conches and so forth, and a stout, jolly-looking gentleman appeared seated on a well-blown-up cloud above the battlements. He had an anchor tattooed on his stomach and a handsome mermaid with Mabel written under her on his chest. He ejected a quid of tobacco, nodded affably to Merlyn and pointed his trident at the Wart. The Wart found he had no clothes on. He found that he had tumbled off the drawbridge, landing with a smack on his side in the water. He found that the moat and the bridge had grown hundreds of times bigger. He knew that he was turning into a fish.

So much for Wizardry in the World’s Greatest Fantasy Classic.

Alright, with that out of the way, let me introduce the book.

The Once and Future King is T.H. White’s novelization of the Arthurian legends, published in 1958. It is composed of four books: The Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle in the Wind, of which the first three had been previously published individually (though The Queen of Air and Darkness was originally The Witch in the Wood, a longer novel with, reportedly, substantial differences). To place this in the history of fantasy literature, The Lord of the Rings had just been published in 1955, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in 1950. But White had been writing and publishing the individual pieces since 1938—we certainly can’t expect a whole lot of influence from that first round of postwar fantasy novels.

I’ve read The Sword in the Stone. It seems reasonable to stop there and write about it before continuing, seeing as it originally stood alone, and I’ve got a lot to write about. Admittedly, it was not then billed as The World’s Greatest Fantasy Classic. So let’s set that complaint aside for a bit and get into it.

Living Backward

White wastes no time introducing and characterizing the story’s main characters. The very first paragraph gives us the Wart (whose name is derived from Art, which is further derived from his full name, which at this point is no mystery1), the batty governess that takes out her frustrations by rapping his knuckles, the firstborn and heir to the estate Kay, and his father and local authority figure Sir Ector. We lose the governess by the end of the paragraph, but at this point we’re only short one major character and a handful of minor ones, and we already feel for the poor Wart and can sense future tension between him and Kay, who is apparently above such unfortunate nicknames. All this I very much appreciate.

Things take a turn for the comedic before the first page is flipped over. The battiness of the governess is played for laughs, and once she’s dismissed, Sir Ector has a conversation with Sir Grummore Grummursum, local knight who happens to be questing in the neighborhood, over some wine and about the boys’ tutelage. Tough day questin’, asks Sir Ector? Yup, replies Sir Grummore. White is the one who’s playing with the word quest like this, not I. The two knights talk about questin’ a bit like that’s the word they use for their nine-to-five. And speaking of which, White introduces us to another one of his devices here. Sir Grummore suggests sending the kids to Eton. The narrator helpfully explains that Sir Grummore didn’t say exactly this, because Eton is understood to be the home of a boarding school that hadn’t been founded at that point—rather, the narrator is just trying to get you the feel for what was said. Same with the wine—they’re not drinking port, really, but it’s the same idea.

Huh.

The Wart eventually gets lost in the woods thanks to Kay’s careless falconry, where he meets the terrifically bumbling King Pellinore (whose title and very existence I can’t yet explain) and, later, Merlyn. Merlyn is an odd fellow who keeps a talking owl (Archimedes) and a whole host of more mundane animals for company, and he claims to live backward through time (and cleverly illustrates how this affects his daily endeavors by asking the Wart to draw a letter by looking at it through a mirror). Let’s be explicit about this: Merlyn is a walking anachronism. When his spells backfire, they do so in goofy ways, like accidentally conjuring the Morning Post or a bowler hat instead of his wizard’s cap. He rattles off anecdotes about Britain in the 1800s to a puzzled Wart.

Again: huh.

Throughout all of this, White’s prose is wonderful. He writes with that fantastical, contractionless storybook lilt that should sound familiar to anyone who remembers fairy tales with fondness. At the same time, he brings to bear a mighty vocabulary for the trappings of day-to-day life in medieval England: fieldwork, jousting, falconry, you name it. It wonderfully illuminates the differences between medieval life and ours. The exacting and subtle classifications of woodland mammals and birds, in particular, seem like they could only be at home in an era where the Forest Sauvage was your back yard and its wild denizens constant companions in your daily life.

I suppose White’s intention is to build and really immerse the reader into the lives of his subjects and then, by breaking up the narrative with some allusions to times closer to ours, contrast it sharply to our weary world. I really wish he hadn’t done this. I’d rather cannonball into the fantasy world and stay there, even if it is a bit of a silly place. I don’t need to be reminded that it’s 2014 (or 1938, whatever) to understand how different, mysterious, and fanciful it is.

And it is fanciful, indeed. The short list of the Wart’s exploits include being transformed into a fish, falcon, ant, goose, and badger (to learn lessons about might, nobility, war, unity, and humanity, respectively), finding Robin Hood, learning the art of woodsmanship from Maid Marian, infiltrating Morgan le Fey’s fey castle, and, of course, pulling a certain sword out of a certain stone.

These adventures are all, essentially, parables, told with an honest simplicity. Wart’s time as a falcon is spent amongst the other hooded falcons, and he must navigate their parliamentary procedures and rituals with his wits and his guts. The ants march to war, but amongst them the Wart only feels alienated and disturbed by their, frankly, alien and disturbing society, which in turn says things about our own. These are not especially profound revelations—the Heart of Darkness, this is not—but, again, they are simple and honest, and they show us the color of our main characters: the Wart, earnest and humble, who thinks himself trapped by circumstance and is mostly unaware of his own great potential and destiny; Merlyn, a wise old man who strives to communicate the Truth in its truest form, parable, and who has amusing quarrels with the local feudal authorities; and Kay, the haughty young nobleman with everything to his name, but who we’re pretty sure has a decent heart way beneath all of it2.

Of Alternate Histories

Oh, and different is another word for it.

Some background: the island of Great Britain was originally inhabited by a Celtic people known as the Britons. The Roman Empire founded a province called Brittania in 43 AD, which crumbled in few centuries but left its mark all the same. In the fifth and sixth centuries AD, a mix of Germanic tribes, the Anglo-Saxons, settled/migrated/conquered the island, displacing the Britons and founding, eventually, the Seven Kingdoms of England. Vikings periodically rolled in to make a mess of things. In 1066, William the Bastard (later, the Conqueror) of Normandy would claim the throne by defeating Anglo-Saxon King Harold II, who had hurriedly marched his army to Hastings from its victory over the Norwegian army at Stamford Bridge. This ushered in the era of Norman England, where French became the language of court and William the Conqueror set precedents for the English aristocracy that last to this day.

Historically, King Arthur is guessed to be a king in Sub-Roman England: that is, he was a Briton who ruled after the Roman Empire departed, but before (and during) the Anglo-Saxon invasions.

This did not suit T.H. White.

In chapter 22, King Pellinore delivers the news: King Uther Pendragon is dead. So far, nothing unusual about that; we know King Arthur needs to take the throne eventually. But then, Pellinore says this:

“It is solemn, isn’t it?” said King Pellinore, “what? Uther the Conqueror, 1066 to 1216.”

I had spent the greater part of the book wondering what kind of role King Arthur was going to play in the world, and, of course, what the historical/fantastical balance of the story was. This line resolved those questions so violently it made my head spin. The unmistakable implication is that, in this world, Uther Pendragon won the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and proceeded to rule for a century and a half3 (a fact buttressed by references to the Norman aristocracy and Anglo-Saxon “rebels”4 elsewhere in the story).

Maybe it doesn’t line up to the historians’ best guess at the situation, but it is really damn cool. T.H. White spends quite a bit of time establishing and foreshadowing future themes in the Wart’s education under Merlyn, like clashing cultures, propaganda, unity, and war. I can only imagine that the legacy of Uther Pendragon, a larger-than-life version of William the Conqueror5, is going to be loaded with these heady, weighty struggles for his young heir. That is most exciting.

Rightwise King Born of All England

I opened this essay with some acrid questions about what kind of great fantasy classic The Sword in the Stone was, and you may have noticed that I’ve pretty well backed off since then.

Normally, I might edit my introduction so that it would join better with the rest, and so all of my thoughts would flow gently toward some coherent, proper conclusion. But this isn’t high school, so I didn’t. This way better captures my opinion of the book, anyway. I started completely put off by White’s anachronistic style and irreverent play on high medieval romance. But the technique he employs and the flair with which he fulfills that vision are mightily impressive, and honestly, those self-absorbed knights could stand being knocked down a peg anyway. And beneath the satire and the trappings and the prose is a kind of pre-coming-of-age story with well-thought-out characters who are both mythical and so very human, and maybe it’s because they don’t need to fill those stuffy romantic archetypes. For that, I can’t hold a grudge.

All I can do now is be excited to see these characters launched into the meaty middle of the Arthurian legend.


  1. But it isn’t written out until the very last word of the book! That’s dedication. 
  2. Kay’s character seems, to me, very ambiguous and his development incomplete. Merlyn sends the Wart and Kay off to Robin Hood’s hideout, a quest which culminates in their successful infiltration of Morgan le Fey’s castle and their troublesome exfiltration, where Kay slays the griffin as it bears down on the Wart. A re-reading of the passage where the Wart asks why Merlyn never transforms Kay suggests that Merlyn is safeguarding Kay’s bravado: if Kay fails before his time, so too may his courage, and presumably that would cause some calamity. So Kay’s involvement on this quest may be part of Merlyn’s plan to bolster his reputation and ego—but to what end? And later, Kay claims that he pulled the sword from the stone, a bald lie that he recants immediately when pressed for honesty by his father. This puzzles me. Was it a lie of convenience that he backed down from when Sir Ector got him to consider the morality of what he was doing? This reading would demonstrate that Kay, underneath, really is a good guy and is destined to be a loyal knight, even with his hubris. But it seems unsatisfying. Maybe that’s just because it’s a situation I’m not used to seeing in literature, TV, or movies—more often, characters that lie will live and die by their falsehoods. 
  3. I wonder, too, if 1216 is significant. It is the same year King John died of illness on the march during the First Barons’ war, although it does not seem like King Uther was at war. Maybe it’s a hint that King Uther’s reign extended past what would have been the date of the signing of the Magna Carta (1215), and thus, that never happened in this history? 
  4. Robin Hood is apparently one of these. I am undecided as to whether I like this or not. It contravenes most Robin Hood legends and scholarship, which place him as a yeoman, earl, or thief rather than an Anglo-Saxon partisan, but White just did the same kind of thing with King Arthur, and I haven’t complained about that yet. Robin Hood remains an anti-authority figure and retains his band of merry men, but surely he loses the Sheriff of Nottingham in this transition. What is Robin Hood without his Sheriff? In this book, he’s a kindly guide to the Wart and Kay, and he’s friend enough to Sir Ector that they can look past the fact that they’re supposed to be political enemies, or something. Hopefully he steps up his outlaw game in the next few books. 
  5. William the Conqueror is one of the most important people in western history. Can you imagine a larger-than-life version of him? It’s like trying to imagine a bolder Julius Caesar or a more brilliant Isaac Newton. If Uther Pendragon is half of what I’m imagining him to be, he’ll still be a perfect emblem for the potential of the fantasy genre. 

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Welcome back to the Culture Conquistadors Book Club! We’re so glad that you decided to return for another helping of book love. 1 Last month, we discussed L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Unlike our commentary, that book was short and sweet, mostly because of its treasured place at the head of the Children’s Literature table. This month, for Spy Month, we’re cranking up the difficulty a notch or two as we read John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which celebrates its fiftieth birthday this year.2

Alec Leamas, our protagonist, is a former station chief for the British Secret Intelligence Service who has been recalled to headquarters – the Circus – by his director, Control. Even though his last assignment was less than successful (everyone died!), Leamas is surprised to find Control asking him to stay on for one last mission. The target: Hans-Dieter Mundt, the golden boy of the East German Abteilung, a former Nazi and renowned Jew hater. The mission: convince the Abteilung’s interrogator Fiedler that Mundt is a double agent. The catch: Leamas will have to be “turned,” which may involve the enemy using some less-than-savory tactics.

James: What a difference a month makes, huh? The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is about as far away from last month’s read as one could get. I have to admit, one of my fantasies as a kid was to be a field agent for the CIA. Obviously, I’ve come to the realization that I’d be far more useful as a data analyst, behind a desk. But we all know my penchant for the glamorous spy life, from dedicated Bond fandom to enjoying USA Network’s Covert Affairs with Piper Perabo.

Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a very different view of the spy life. There’s a lot more dirt and a lot more lies. Much like a spy in the field, as a reader you really don’t know who you can trust. So let’s lead with this, do you trust these characters? Do Le Carré’s characters seem more real? Could you see this being accidentally filed in the non-fiction section?

Charles: I think it’s fascinating that you lead with that question; it really gets to the crux of the matter here. You are an unabashed Bond lover, I concur, and we both know that one of the big pieces of Bond lore is that his creator, Ian Fleming, lived that life himself, at least to some extent. He based Bond on the people he met in the service, but we can both agree that he threw in some flourishes here and there – life in the field probably involved a few more sweaty surveillance-filled nights and a startling shortage of bikinis.

David Cornwell, who writes under the pen name John le Carré, also worked in Fleming’s world of operatives and agents – he was inspired to write The Spy Who Came in From the Cold while working as an MI6 agent in Berlin, where a wall he abhorred to his very core was being built. Accordingly, le Carré, willing to lay blame on both sides, is more than happy to wallow in every gray area and shadow that Fleming is all too happy to gloss over. I wouldn’t trust any character here as far as I could throw them, because le Carré imbues them all with such depth and complexity and tragedy. Now that doesn’t make le Carré’s more nuanced portrayal of spycraft any more “real” or “non-fictional” per sé: dude’s a skilled fiction writer who uses every tool in his arsenal – symbolism, foreshadowing, diversion – to tell a killer story. I will never confuse le Carré’s work for non-fiction or memoir.

Now if you’re asking if I prefer le Carré’s approach to mythologizing the Cold War over Fleming’s, the answer is hell yes to the nth degree. 3 The Spy Who Came in From the Cold floored me. It didn’t let me in easy, since it refuses to give the reader all the information needed from the outset, but as this book peels back layers, it beckons you further and further into its complex web, smattered with double crosses stacked upon double crosses. And then you’re all the way in, and it closes the door behind you, and you’ll never want to go back to Fleming again. Or at least I won’t. I’m not so sure about you. When (spoiler!) le Carre has his “Bond” and his “Bond girl” killed brutally in the final chapter, two people actually standing for something they believe in, I was so engrossed, so viscerally shocked at the audacity of it all, that I knew I’d never be able to look at the escapist fantasy of the immortal, unattached, philosophy-free Bond again. But what of you, Bond fanatic? Did le Carré change your worldview? Or were you neither shaken nor stirred?

James: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a great read. But it wasn’t worldview shaking, just ever so slightly stirring. I believe I’ve had a fairly clear and complete picture of spycraft, even though, yes, James Bond remains the primary influence on that picture.

That said, I would highly recommend le Carré’s work for anyone who hasn’t seen the “darker, grittier” side of spies. I think it would be rather enlightening. What we see is that Western intelligence agencies used methods that are not becoming of the ideology they were trying to advance to the greater public. In that way, this book reminds me very much of Zero Dark Thirty. The torture of prisoners is not exactly a pillar of democratic ideology and yet there it is, laid out bare for all to see. That contradiction shades every character. Nobody in this book is particularly likeable. Even the most innocent character, Liz Gold, has issues that would make me unable to be her friend for long. But unlikable as they are, they all contribute enormously to the development of the story and the picture le Carré paints for us.

Charles: Good points, all. And yet, I have to push back on one of the points you make: “Nobody in this book is particularly likeable.” And that is so close to the truth.

From Alec Leamas (a petulant, cranky homophobe) to Control (simultaneously menacing and ineffectual) to Liz (a naïve waif) to Mundt (a despicable human being), most of our cast here is, to be kind, off-putting – I agree that, while Leamas is a great protagonist, he’s not someone I’d want to swap stories with on a Friday night. He’s not a charmer like Bond.

But one character in this novel is; one character is written to be charming, likeable, smart, efficient, soulful, a seemingly great man. For this book to truly register, that compassion for that character has to register, because the minute it does, we, the Western audience, are supposed to find our minds opened to new possibilities.

Fiedler is the enemy, the lead interrogator for a nefarious organization we are built to hate. After all, we both know that, as an “interrogator,” his job is not limited to “asking questions,” is it? If Fiedler can follow through on his (very correct) hunch and finger Hans-Dieter Mundt as a traitor to communism, then he will set the British cause (ostensibly our cause) back five years, ten years, maybe more. This being the case, why does le Carré want me to like him so darn much? (And boy do I. I love Fiedler as a character so much. This book is, truthfully, dullsville before he shows up.) Why does he make Fiedler the only character with a heart, a philosophy he can articulate, a charming glint in his eye? 4 Why does the author leave this comparison from Liz Gold as the last word on Fiedler:

“How can you turn the world upside down? Fiedler was kind and decent; he was only doing his job, and now you’ve killed him. Mundt is a spy and a traitor and you protect him. Mundt is a Nazi, do you know that? He hates Jews… what side are you on?”

Leamas fights Liz’s assertion pretty hard in the car on the way to the Wall, saying it’s not about good or bad but about win or lose, but I think he ultimately has a pretty big change of heart. Do you think Liz’s defense of Fiedler’s humanity is ringing in Leamas’s ears when he jumps down on the wrong (or is it the right?) side of the Berlin Wall and dies right next to his beloved Liz Gold. Do you think this is his attempt to turn the world “rightside up” again?

James: I don’t think le Carré is purposefully making Fiedler more likable than the other characters. I certainly don’t like him more than any other character by any large stretch. But I do appreciate him. This little bit (in my case) of likability is just innate to his characterization because we appreciate that he stands firm in his beliefs and he’s above board with his actions. He’s smart and loyal, traits which we can all appreciate.

As for Leamas, I’m not sure his jump is his attempt to turn the world “rightside up” again. Maybe it is his realization that he doesn’t want to be a part of this world anymore. He’s tired of being a tool in somebody else’s belt and just had his last hope at a normal life gunned down. Is there really anything left to live for on the West German side? Hasn’t he just become a dulled instrument unable to see anything but grey?

Charles: I guess I don’t see why you don’t dig Fielder’s honest and intelligent charm more, but I have to give credit where it’s due, I think you’re reading of the ending of the book is perfect – Leamas tries mighty hard on that car ride to keep things black and white. There is a greater good, he argues, and while the death of Fiedler sucked because he was a solid dude, Control’s manipulation of people’s lives contributed to that good. I think he almost convinces himself too, turning himself into such a repulsively obedient speakerbox for Britain’s “at any cost” philosophy that Liz can barely stand to be in the same square mile as this man she once loved by the time they reach the wall. I think it might have stayed that way too, if Leamas had not witnessed Control’s last chess move – of course Liz, a walking liability, could not return home; she was always meant to die. Fiedler asked to be a soldier in this war, and so Leamas can rationalize his death; but as for Liz, his love… the only mistake she made, the only thing she volunteered to do, was to love a broken old spy like Alec Leamas. I think her death erases any sense or black or white Leamas could see. He is as much at fault as anyone else, as Mundt and Control and Smiley. They’re all wrong and they’re all right. As Leamas falls, all he can see is grey.

And with that note on the tone-perfect ending of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, let’s end this, the second installment of the Culture Conquistadors Book Club.


  1. This feature will hopefully continue to grow and mature and the format may adjust as we go through these growing pains. This month we’re tightening the discussion up a bit and making it a bit more rapid fire. Also, we’re opening up user accounts and comments! -J 
  2. So previously we promised two books for this month, that was an ambitious goal but one that we were unable to attain. So, in spite of my fondness for Mr. Bond, Ian Fleming’s On Her Majety’s Secret Service will have to wait for another time. -J5 
  3. One of the reasons we’re not reading On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is due to time constraints. Another is that I read the first few chapters and hated them with every fiber of my being. I strongly suspect that, if I were to continue, I would find that Fleming, prone to fits of using French words in almost context free situations and to writing page long screeds on the misery of having to eat foreign cuisine, is one of my least favorite authors of all-time. 
  4. I imagined Fiedler played warmly, with a glint in his eye, by two-time Oscar winner Cristoph Waltz in the imaginary 2014 movie adaptation of this novel that only exists in my mind. Fiedler is basically Hans Landa if Landa was a Jew instead of a Nazi, and inviting instead of scary-as-all-get-out. It would be brilliant. 
  5. Also the return of footnotes! -J 

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Charles: Full disclosure: I graduated with an English degree. Like a Bachelor’s in great literature and stuff. I had a high GPA, received great grades and glowing comments on most of my papers, and led many class discussions on many a book’s themes and characters.

And I rarely finished, sometimes didn’t even bother to start, the books I was assigned.

I recall being better in high school, a more honorable student. I recall genuinely putting in the effort on “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Lord of the Flies,” but then “Jane Eyre” came along and it broke me. Goodness did I not like that book, and when I realized I knew enough about what teachers wanted to hear in a discussion regarding themes and character development and the like, I put the book away for good.

And I insensitively ignored great syllabus after great syllabus for eight years after that. And got away with it!

I’m not saying this to brag. I’m more than a little bit ashamed of it. I’m happy I got through unscathed, for sure. I am not a fast reader at all and once I started to fall behind (which was always) it would become hard to catch up even when I wanted to very badly. So I’m glad I pulled off such dishonest behavior with flair and panache. But I do feel like I did all those books, from John dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer to Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island, a great disservice. This – the Culture Conquistadors Book Club – is my way of apologizing to them. Books, I’m sorry.

James, I’ll let you explain your reasons for spinning off our culture podcast into a book club when you respond in turn, but, so we all know, this olive branch to books is why I’m here. I want them to know I care and, now that I’m outside the rigid structure of syllabi and papers, I can show them I do care by, like, reading them. Novel idea, I know. Now I can build my own syllabi, write my own papers with my favorite partner in crime.

James: I’ve always enjoyed reading but assigned anything has been the bane of my academic existence. While I’ve devoured epic tomes like Cryptonomicon, A Game of Thrones, and The Silmarillion, I’ve basically failed at reading any high school required books except the Shakespeare plays. Being older and wiser, I’ve realized I did a great disservice to myself by skipping all those books. So, we’re going back to read a bunch of books I should’ve read a decade ago. At least they’ll probably be easier this time around.

Charles: So, favorite partner in crime, to start with, we picked up a book neither of us had ever read before – The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L.Frank Baum. We figured that since James Franco is in cinemas everywhere playing said wizard, it might be time to crack it open, see how the original compared to the vast cultural memory this book has accrued over the past century and change. Yeah, at just over 100 pages and with a narrative structure and vocabulary that are elementary school friendly at best, this was a bit of a soft pitch over the center of the plate. But I think starting off nice and easy before diving into the heavy stuff is good for us – it worked on the podcast, and it should work for this book club as well.

I’ll let you kick off discussion of the book and its relationship with its film adaptations in earnest, but I’ll leave you with a question I think might be very important to setting this book apart from its vast cultural legacy:
After the wizard has done his presentation of gifts (a scene that is a triumphant and elegiac climax to both the original movie and Oz the Great and Powerful, but that comes off as more than a little bit pathetic and anti-climactic in the novel, intentionally so since it comes only three-quarters of the way through) the three characters who have received gifts – Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Lion – walk around with puffed-up egos thinking they can conquer the world, when in fact they are no more competent then they were before. (Seriously, in the novel, before the gifts, these three are basically superheroes, slaying droves of animals… they just don’t know it.)

The difference is they have self-worth now, but they’re braggadocio isn’t necessarily endearing. Do you think we are we supposed to be laughing at them here? Pitying them? Or am I really misreading this, and Baum hopes we’ll be cheering them on in their newfound confidence, just like we do in the movie?

In essence, are we supposed to think the “wonderful” wizard’s gifts are empty gestures from an exposed liar, or are we supposed to be touched by them like we are when we see them doled out on the screen?

James: I re-watched the 1939 movie adaptation just before writing this post, and I have to say, like skipping all those books as a teenager, this movie does a great disservice to the book. The last time there was so much difference between a novel that I’ve read and its movie adaptation has to be Michael Crichton’s “The Lost World.” Characters and lots of the plot have been completely stripped out. Our main characters have been horribly reduced to shells of their written-word glory. So, before we continue, reader, pick up the book. It’s a quick, easy read and in my opinion, the book is so much better.

Now for discussing the actual book: I’m going to go a different direction and, regarding your question, I’m going to answer “neither.” Like most children’s books, there is a strong message presented throughout the book. All of the characters already have what they desire or need. They don’t quite realize it, but it’s all rather plain to the reader. And that’s why I say neither and why I’m so disappointed in the 1939 movie. As you said, the main characters are all heroes, filled with the virtues they think they lack. In the movie, they only have small flashes of those virtues.

In the book, Oz’s gestures are not completely empty because they are necessary for the individuals to believe. But it isn’t a particularly touching moment because of what we know – these characters already possess what they desire. In Baum’s novel, the Lion has courage to spare, the Tin Man has a heart of gold, the Scarecrow is a quick thinker, and Dorothy possesses the shoes that can take her home. I feel that they cut so much away from Dorothy’s companions in the movie that it makes the message of the story very difficult to see.

It’s like Glinda says in the movie; Dorothy had the power to go home all along, but even if Glinda had told Dorothy that, Dorothy wouldn’t have believed her until the conclusion of her journey. That is a major throughline in the book, for all the characters, and the movie just throws it all in there in one dues ex machina line from a character who can do anything she wants: but only when it’s narratively convenient.

The movie was obviously a technical marvel for its time period but, like any movie adaptation, they had to cut a lot. What did you miss most from the movie that was in the book?

Charles: Whoa! Whoa, whoa, whoa… Whoa.

Here we were having a fair-minded discussion on a century-old book and how it relates to a hallowed film I thought we were both approaching with this frame of mind: “Obvious classic. Duh.” And then, right off the bat, you had to go punching Judy Garland in the face with your criticism. It’s like you just kicked a puppy.

Obviously, to dismiss your claims about the movie’s inferiority outright, I had to make like you and pop in the old girl again, see how she holds up. And you know what? You’re kind of right about The Wizard of Oz… But only a little.

Upon further review, I have to admit that, to a surprising degree, the 1939 adaptation of Baum’s novel has many of the same problems that this most recent Oz film has, though it is critical to note, these problems are nowhere near as detrimental to my enjoyment of the former. Judy Garland’s Oz is still way better than James Franco’s Oz – the 1939 film’s merit as compared to the book may be in question here, but its merit as compared to this most recent Oz shouldn’t even be broached in polite company.

Yes, like Sam Raimi’s Oz, The Wizard of Oz starts both ploddingly slow and hysterically (not an easy combination), thanks in large part to Garland’s giant, wet eyes and ear-splitting hysterics (I am sympathetic to the hysterics, there are just so many of them…); it way overplays its hand on the whole double-casting gimmick (where actors play characters in both Kansas and Oz, get it, get it!); and all of its characters go only a few flakes of skin beyond skin-deep – reduce them to that thing which they lack and sing a song about it. Rinse, repeat.

But you can never underestimate the power of charm – you just know when a movie is charming your socks off and when it is making your skin crawl. James Franco and Zach Braff set my teeth on edge, while the hams in the Wizard of Oz cast stepping in sync down the Yellow Brick Road will always put me in a happy place. Lollipop Guild for life!

Which brings us to the book: your points on the book have merit, no question. I actually miss a lot of things from the book, things that I wish the movie had explored in more detail – or at all! Like the entire back third, especially the town made of china. (Side note: the china girl in Raimi’s Oz is a better-drawn, better-acted character than any of Dorothy’s companions in the 1939 film. Fact.)

Most glaring absence: I can see why the triumphant stand of Dorothy’s compatriots against hordes of wolves and birds and Winkies was never put on film – it would have been impossible to coordinate and film with 1939 technology, and, even with unlimited money and time, it would have been far too gruesome on the silver screen – but it’s the book’s best passage by far. It’s triumphant, almost god-like violence adds so many interesting layers to the story! But, come on… imagine Ray Bolger’s goofball Scarecrow twisting the neck of crow after crow while Judy Garland’s Dorothy beams proudly… Absurd.

Which brings us to what I suspect is actually your biggest problem with the movie – the movie’s campy tone neuters the characters Dorothy meets along the way to such a drastic extent that they barely feel like the same characters. Dorothy’s companions are transformed from uber-competant immortals with interesting and relatable confidence issues into bumbling comic relief – the Three Stooges in cosplay.

The Scarecrow actually comes through the adaptation ringer best. He is still Dorothy’s closest confidant (first friend is best) and those notes of complexity we noted, where the character who lacks something actually expresses it more than anyone else because they have to try so darn hard, are still present here. The Scarecrow laments his lack of a brain, which makes him a clumsy oaf for sure, but, from the get-go, he is the cleverest one in the bunch, using problem-solving tactics to get out of tight jams.

The Cowardly Lion could not be more different; the movie blows up the book’s “noble and fearsome Aslan-predescesor with a relatable desire to quash even the pangs of fear a mighty lion feels,” and, from those ashes, it gives us the toothless ancestor of Snagglepuss. For shame? No. I like the Lion. He’s my favorite thing about the movie. What can I say? He’s so supercamp, his performance is so over-the-top bluster and song-and-dance and affectation, and, hey man, that’s what this movie wants to be, and I love it for that.

I won’t argue if you say that it is the Tin Man who suffers the most here. I cannot lie; that the movie forgoes Baum’s backstory for this character is indeed a crime. It takes the book’s most tragic and fascinating character – a mighty ax god who can only be stopped by his own tears, a man who did everything for love and will never feel it again thanks to the cruelty of the witch, a warrior who tries so hard to make up for his lack of heart by caring about every little thing extra hard and is accordingly the most compassionate character by leaps and bounds – and gives us a weepie softy, an also-ran. Notice how Tin Man’s Kansas counterpart gets basically no lines, how Tin Man gets the shortest good-bye. They gut this character and it’s a shame, no doubt.

So I’m with you, there are some shortcomings in the adaptation, but before you step up to the plate, I challenge you on two points:

1) Why does it matter that the adaptation is different? This movie gets to be its own thing, not beholden to every whim Baum had in 1900, every tonal and thematic notion he contemplated; all this per the rules of art (which I just made up). It’s the beauty of adaptation.

The film didn’t burn the book when it became a big success. The book is still there for people like us to discover anew. If anything it’s made sure thousands more people have gone back and read Baum. The movie even salutes the book’s story with its opening epigraph essentially calling it timeless. (Which it is.) How many movies do you know that give that many props to their source material?

If the movie wants to be the campy, song-and-dance version of Baum’s story, why you got to hate on that? If the book is good, and the movie is good in a different way, but still good, then that isn’t bad adaptation. It’s great adaptation. It takes something that was great, and, instead of imitating, it makes a different great something out of it. Brilliant. That is, if you think both are great…

2) You say the book is much better. Do you really believe that? Ultimately, why I can’t just cede my point and reward you the win here, even though I do have to admit the movie isn’t as perfect I thought it was, follows: the book is good I guess, but I didn’t like it very much. It is richer thematically than the movie by leaps and bounds, for sure, but I felt no emotional investment in it. Why?

Two reasons: Baum throws us into Oz way too soon, before we’ve had any time to invest in Dorothy as a character. If I overlay Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” Dorothy over Baum’s blank slate Dorothy, I feel more involved, but that’s cheating. It takes all the good feelings and investment Garland brings out in me (and she brings out a lot of my feels) and it puts them somewhere Baum never intended them to go. He didn’t write Dorothy that way, all melodrama and plaintively-sung desires and tearful farewells; he wrote her as determined, unemotional, and sensible. Very Kansan. Very pragmatic. Like every other character in his book.

Which brings me to my even bigger problem: Baum’s writing style lends none of his characters any distinct voice. Take away the narration (“said the Scarecrow…”), just give me the dialogue and I’d have no idea who’s saying what. The Scarecrow, Glinda, Dorothy, the Lion, the mice, the monkeys. They all have the same voice. It’s a bit of a monotonous reading experience if you ask me. Did you not find a similar lack of voice and character in Baum’s writing?

James: Let’s get down to what is sure to be a defining difference in taste going forward. I love movies but I prefer books. You like books but prefer movies. And I expect that these conflicting tastes will be a great source of debate now that we’ve added a book club to our cultural exploration.

So with that in mind, I veto your law of art and substitute my own: “If your derivative work isn’t at least equal to (though it should be strictly better) than the original, find a way to make it better, or start over (burn the previous attempt).”

I’ve already conceded the technical achievements of The Wizard of Oz. I’m ever so slightly disappointed that they changed the color of the slippers, but I understand it in context of the new medium. The movie is a testament to Technicolor.

Dorothy in the movie is a more defined character. I’m not sure that she’s better, but we at least get to know more about her and that is completely necessary as we change the medium of the story.

But that doesn’t mean you have to turn the rest of the characters in the movie into single-shtick suckers! “The Wizard of Oz” has its technical achievements, one beautiful song that was almost cut from the movie, and one better-defined character. But this comes at the cost of the message and the supporting cast and I’m just not sure I can condone that kind of butchery.

As far as the book, I don’t find any problems with the time it takes us to get to Oz. In Baum’s novel, there’s no need to setup much more than that we’re in boring old Kansas where everything is gray. The whole story is really about Dorothy and her companions going on an adventure and learning about themselves. We don’t need to know that Dorothy is a well-mannered, sheltered and naive little girl. We’ll find out all of that as we adventure through Oz.

I agree to an extent that Baum’s characters can at times sound the same when they talk. However, it’s often the case that you only need a few keywords to actually differentiate them. And yes, Dorothy is a relatively blank slate, but that’s expected. If a book is basically trying to impart a lesson upon a child, which this one is, it’s probably best for the child to be able to imagine themselves in place of the protagonist. So the less defined that protagonist is, the better.

I’m not sure we can really resolve our differences about the movie and the book. I found the book a good read and would probably share it with my children if I had any. As for the movie, it has its place in film history as a technical marvel. But I don’t really see many more areas of worthy of praise.

Charles: Alright, alright, I’m ready to get out of the cyclone of your discontent and land on firm ground. There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.

As I said, I am ready to concede that the film is not perfect. It 100% passes my “Show-It-To-The-Kids Test,” of course – I’ve already slotted it in for my imaginary child as essential viewing somewhere around the sixth or seventh birthday. But your skepticism forced me to evaluate the movie anew and I’m glad I did – I have a much better understanding of the film now, and you’re right… the seams show, the characters ache to be explored more deeply than what we get in this musical revue, and, ultimately, the high-pitched munchkin reverie can only hide so much of that shallowness.

But Garland, James. Judy Freakin’ Garland.

What I struggle with is your amendment to my hastily created rule of art. I do not second it. I can’t tell if your new rule is willfully ignorant or particularly mean-spirited or both and it irks me (and I know my rule is overly democratic, and that irks you just as much), but I also know that it is quintessentially “James” and that it is an honest reflection of your philosophy: “Makers of art, don’t waste my time.”

And I respect that philosophy. That is a perfectly valid way to measure the success of a piece of art. Was it worth the time you put into it? But if you answer no, you have to consider that the same might not be true for everybody.

Where you see a shallow muchkin hoe-down that ruins the themes of a great children’s classic, I see one of the greatest cinematic expressions of all time, a film that endures long after the wonder of Technicolor can draw in a new audience; and I see a book that, when read, added to the depth of my understanding of that movie and introduced me to some themes I had been previously unaware of. I like them both in different ways (the film isn’t perfect but it’s perfect for me and the book scratches some really interesting thematic itches but falls short of fully engaging me), and I’m happy to let them both be.

I’m sure we will discuss our differences re: adaptation many more times in this space, so I will begin to trail off here since I think I’ve said everything I want to say about the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (and the film that, love it or hate it, we had to spend a considerable amount of time discussing because it simply looms so large). I am going to sign out by leaving you (and me) with something to think about:

We are both very familiar with the world of comics. And the world of comics-to-movie adaptations.

I recognize that you have problems with the adaptation of a dark American fairy tale into a bright, munchkin hoe-down, but I rarely, if ever, see you take issue with comics’ adaptations. Even the really questionable ones.

I’m not going to go for a low blow here, I’ll go highbrow: consider Batman Begins. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins intentionally ignores huge swaths of what made Batman who he was, and very intentionally has its own characters, settings, tone and concerns. Heck a third of the movie takes place on a snowy Asian ninja mountain where Qui Gon Jin plays Mr. Miyagi. Not exactly faithful to what Bob Kane envisioned in 1940. However it is faithful to what Nolan envisioned when he decided the character was his. And we adore that vision. Thank goodness Nolan had a vision. And likewise, the 1939 “Wizard of Oz” is its own vision of Baum’s Oz – not just any vision, but the most enduring vision of all.

And I know, Batman Begins passes your qualifier that dictates the adaptation had best be an improvement or else, because, yes, Nolan does a great Batman… But someone might disagree with you and me. For them, Nolan’s adaptations may not pass your test. They might prize, above all other Batman adaptations, the 1966 television series starring Adam West, and think Nolan misses the point. And I am utterly serious. That show is a camp classic, and people take it very seriously.

Yes it reduces deep, dark characters to, as you say, “single-shtick suckers.” It may care more about cliffhangers, and POW!, and “Same bat-time, same bat-channel…” then the emotional heft Bob Kane might have envisioned for the dark avenger.

But it exists. It has merit. It deserves to be hailed as an enduring vision of a lasting character.

In my opinion, a different vision is not a waste of time because it is different; it is a waste of time if its difference is not interesting, engaging, or worthwhile. My opinion could be wrong, but for now, I will stand by it.

(And if you say comics aren’t the same because they are not literature, I will cry. That is all.)

Any last thoughts from you, you humbug? If not, you want to tell them what’s coming up next in the Culture Conquistadors Book Club?

Lollipop Guild: out.

James: I figured you’d lead us to comic books eventually, but I didn’t expect it to be in our first book club post. Yes, I generally have fewer problems with comic book adaptations. A big reason for that: we now know superheroes were made for the big screen. Yes, they started off bound in paper, and they’ve been beamed into our homes on television. But they belong on giant screens, in huge dark theaters with surround sound and stadium seating. Fact.

And, even outside of superheroes, I agree, different doesn’t default to bad. I don’t mind different. But I do worry about being different just to be different. I was worried when JJ Abrams, who had directed MI:3 (Tom Cruise?) and Cloverfield (shaky cam makes me want to vomit), was tabbed as the director of the rebooted Star Trek.

But he came in, brought Star Trek into the present and made it beautiful and exciting. If you’re going to use someone else’s creation, handle it with care, build atop it, improve it.

I’ve seen all the Transformers movies: the third movie was only okay and we won’t even mention the second movie (whoops). I was genuinely upset with Michael Bay when he ruined the character of Jazz.

Point being: Don’t be a Michael Bay. Don’t run around and kick over all the sand castles.

And that is what “difference” often feels like. Kicking over all the sand castles.

When we return for our April Book Club, we’re reading The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré, which came out 50 years ago. Let’s see how it holds up.